Steve Chapman

There are lots of reasons for excluding gays and lesbians from the military. But current supporters of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy insist that really, it all comes down to cohesion. Keep gays out, and soldiers will stick together through thick and thin. Let gays in, and every platoon will disintegrate like a sand castle in the surf.

John McCain sounded this theme at a Senate hearing the other day, arguing that the existing law rests on the belief "that the essence of military capability is good order and unit cohesion, and that any practice which puts those goals at unacceptable risk can be restricted." A group of retired military officers said the ban on gays serves "to protect unit cohesion and morale."

Maybe this concern is what really underlies the exclusion of gays and lesbians. But I'm not so sure. In 2007, Gen. Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about it, and he offered a different rationale. "I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts," he said. Could the opposition stem mostly from a simple aversion to gays and their ways?

It's not completely implausible that in a military environment, open homosexuality might wreak havoc on order and morale. But the striking thing about these claims is that they exist in a fact-free zone. From all the dire predictions, you would think a lifting of the ban would be an unprecedented leap into the dark, orchestrated by people who know nothing of the demands of military life.

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As it happens, we now have a wealth of experience on which to evaluate the policy. When you examine it, you discover the reason McCain and Co. make a point of never mentioning it.

A couple of dozen countries already allow gays in uniform -- including allies that have fought alongside our troops, such as Britain, Canada and Australia. Just as there is plenty of opposition in the U.S. ranks, there was plenty of opposition when they changed their policies.

In Canada, 45 percent of service members said they would not work with gay colleagues, and a majority of British soldiers and sailors rejected the idea. There were warnings that hordes of military personnel would quit and promising youngsters would refuse to enlist.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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