Bit by bit, support for the military's ban on openly gay service members is crumbling. In a recent and important op-ed in the New York Times, retired army general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997, John Shalikashvili, concludes that the anti-gay ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' policy should be phased out.
Shalikashvili's stand is especially significant because the Joint Chiefs, who comprise the nation's top officers in each branch and advise the president on military matters, were the most influential opponents of President Clinton's proposal to lift the ban on gays in the military back in 1993. In fact, their opposition to lifting the ban was the decisive factor in creating DADT as a ''compromise'' that would supposedly allow gay Americans to serve as long as they hid their sexual orientation.
In fact, DADT changed nothing in practice since it was always the case that service members whose homosexual orientation was unknown could serve. In some ways, DADT appears to have made things worse, perhaps by heightening awareness in the military about the presence of thousands of gays in the ranks. Discharges for homosexuality have risen almost every year since the policy became effective.
The basic reason Shalikashvili gives for his conversion is that the experience of the last 14 years has shown that allowing gays to serve openly would not undermine morale, harm recruitment, or hurt unit cohesion - - long the main claims of those who have opposed allowing gay Americans to serve.
He cites four factors as support for his new view. First, we can look to the experience of more than two dozen other countries -- including the world's most effective militaries, person-for-person, Britain and Israel -- that allow gays to serve openly. These military forces have not suffered the problems predicted by opponents of allowing gays to serve openly.
Second, attitudes in the military have softened considerably since 1993, when many service members strongly opposed letting gays serve. A recent Zogby poll of more than 500 military personnel returning from Afghanistan and Iraq showed that three quarters were comfortable interacting with gay people. Only a small percentage indicated they would have a serious problem serving with gays.
Third, Shalikashvili has interviewed gay service members and learned that gays are already serving openly and honorably in many units. His interviews included ''gay soldiers and marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq, and an openly gay senior sailor who was serving effectively as a member of a nuclear submarine crew.'' Back in 1993, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA) luridly took reporters on a tour of the cramped quarters in a submarine to demonstrate the inappropriateness of allowing gays to serve. Shalikashvili's interviews showed him ''just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers.''
Fourth, the country can no longer afford the luxury of discharging perfectly capable military personnel. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the larger war on terror, require an all-hands-on-deck approach to military recruitment and retention. ''Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job,'' concludes Shalikashvili.
The time has come for Congress to look seriously at lifting the ban. Other former military leaders and supporters of DADT have urged likewise. A study earlier this year showed that DADT has not only cost the country the service of thousands of personnel, but has also wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in lost training and expenses for investigations of soldiers' private lives. Polls show that a majority of Americans favor lifting the ban.
I'm guessing the new Democratic Congress will be reluctant to revisit the issue just now, however. Other issues -- like what to do about the mess in Iraq -- are far more pressing. The Democrats' Achilles Heel is the perception that they are hostile to the military and weak on defense, a perception that voting to lift the ban might unfairly reinforce. At least that is what they will fear.
Of course, in the unlikely event President Bush were to announce that he favors a reconsideration of DADT, that would give Congress the political cover it needs to move forward. Bush could paint such a move as an effort to strengthen the nation's defenses in time of war.
The change could proceed incrementally, perhaps beginning by allowing gays to serve openly in administrative and other positions where heterosexuals' privacy concerns are least implicated. Or the ban could be suspended for the duration of the Iraq war and then reviewed in, say, five years. Or Congress could simply repeal DADT as federal law, allowing the president to decide what policy to have, as presidents could do before 1993. This would enhance executive power, and when has the president not favored that?
Shalikashvili also wants to proceed slowly with the change, not take it up as the first issue in the new Congress. ''By taking a measured, prudent approach to change,'' he writes, ''political and military leaders can focus on solving the nation's most pressing problems while remaining genuinely open to the eventual and inevitable lifting of the ban. When that day comes, gay men and lesbians will no longer have to conceal who they are, and the military will no longer need to sacrifice those whose service it cannot afford to lose.''
Dale Carpenter is a law professor. He can be reached at OutRight@metroweekly.com.