As a practical matter, I think I'd be okay with don't-ask-don't-tell if I were a gay GI.

It could come in handy, I imagine, as an insurance policy against a fifth or sixth tour in some dusty, insect-infested, roadside-bomb-filled nightmare where the civilians hate you and bearded guys think blowing your legs off is a mission from God.

Just report to the commanding officer, say the magic words — "Listen, I should have mentioned, I have sex with guys" — and, bingo, off to civvy street.

OK, it's not funny. I'm just saying I personally might be doing a MASH-style Cpl. Klinger if I'd already seen years of bloody combat.

The point is, the U.S. remains just about the only Western nation that still officially denies what most of its allies consider a basic human right: The ability to serve as a gay or lesbian soldier.

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Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a conference on military health in January 2010. "It's about leadership." (Reuters)

Not that gays and lesbians don't serve. Tens of thousands do, and unknown numbers are fighting and dying in the aforementioned battlegrounds right now.

Let's be clear about this: Homosexual Americans are risking life and limb in the service of their country and their comrades, and no doubt have been since the United States declared independence.

The military command knows that, the political leadership here knows that and, really, so does any soldier with brains or elementary powers of observation.

As Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it this week, "I've been serving with homosexuals since 1968."

Double standard

But this is America, with its deep moralistic streak, so the policy, at least since Bill Clinton instituted it in 1993, has been to pretend gay soldiers don't exist.

The military doesn't ask, and as long as gay troopers don't admit to anything, everything's jake. Unless some third party rats one of them out.

In that case, regrettably, the offending GI must be discharged. Thousands have been: We honour your service, faggot. Now take a hike.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, gave voice to that double standard at a congressional hearing this week.

Just after going on about the "valiant" service of gay soldiers, Chambliss opined that "the presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would very likely create an unacceptable risk" to the high standards of the American military.

Nothing remarkable there. It's an old Republican line.

But what came next was remarkable indeed.

Mullen, America's top soldier, a warrior elevated to that post by George W. Bush no less, laid his big, thick admiral's sleeve bars on the witness table and cited "a sort of a fundamental principle with me, which is — everybody counts.

"It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," he said, as some in the audience gaped openly.

"No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."

That policy, he said, offends the integrity for which the military is supposed to stand.

Whew.

It's about leadership

What Mullen was articulating is the view of a commander who has seen men and women in combat, when nothing else counts but guts and dedication.

He was also, incidentally, mirroring the position of his commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama, not to mention most of the Democratic party, and, if polls are accurate, the majority of Americans.

Many Republicans, though, people like Chambliss and Sen. Jeff Sessions and Sen. John McCain, think they know better.

McCain reminded the military leaders sitting before him that the policy is Congress's prerogative, not the military's, hence this new round of congressional hearings.

So did Sessions, who accused the chairman of the joint chiefs of exercising "undue command influence."

"You shouldn't use your power to in any way influence a discussion or evaluation of the issue," he instructed Mullen.

To which Mullen retorted: "For me, this is not about command influence, this is about leadership, and I take that very seriously."

That was quite a moment. A career public servant, a military one at that, lashing back as a senior lawmaker stared, sourly.

Christian soldiers

John McCain, famous for his own service as a former prisoner of war, had already pronounced himself disappointed. He talked about the necessary intimacy of soldiers and the stress under which they are operating worldwide.

"This moment of immense hardship for our armed forces, when we are asking more of our military than at any time in recent memory" is no time to consider changing this policy, he said.

In other words, it's okay to ask young men and women to participate in some of the bloodiest mayhem imaginable, to risk coming home in a bag or on a gurney and to participate in horrors that have left many mentally wrecked.

But the prospect of having to expose their muscular heterosexual bums to an openly gay comrade in the shower is just too much.

Never mind that Western allies — Canada, Britain, Germany and Israel were all cited — have long since adopted open policies towards homosexuality, with, as Mullen conceded, no impact on combat effectiveness. This is America.

Or, as Defence Secretary Robert Gates put it rather delicately, every country "has its own culture."

That's the closest anyone came at the hearing to acknowledging what's really going on here, which is that America is a religious place.

Nearly one in three of Americans self-identifies as an evangelical Christian.

Evangelical Christians predominate in the so-called red states, mostly in the South, and since these red, rural and largely Republican states consistently provide the military with more recruits than others, it's reasonable to assume that there is a greater proportion of evangelicals in the military than in the population at large.

And evangelical Christians, in general, aren't too keen on gays. Richard Land, an influential senior official of the Southern Baptist Convention, once told me gay sex should simply be outlawed.

This is what Adm. Mullen is dealing with and this is why the military is embarking on a year-long review of don't-ask-don't-tell, consulting soldiers and their families before going any further.

Well, not all soldiers and their families. Mullen acknowledged that would be a bit tricky.

Any gay soldier who might want to participate now, while the existing policy is still in effect, would have to be kicked out, which would sort of defeat the purpose.

In the end, though, the Pentagon may end up redefining what it means by "a few good men."