DESPITE his campaign promises on the topic, President Obama has indicated he wants a deliberative process before possibly repealing the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy on gay and lesbian servicemembers.

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed those sentiments, calling any change "very difficult." He suggested that a new policy could take years, if it came at all. And one of the architects of the policy, Gen. Colin Powell, told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC that senior military officials need to be consulted, and "we have to be careful when we change this policy."

These sentiments are exactly on target. While gays and lesbians are clearly capable of heroic service in uniform, heroism is not enough to merit serving in the military - which is a privilege, not a right. The military has legitimate concerns about unit cohesion, morale, good order and discipline that it must explore thoroughly before introducing openly gay individuals as troops.

But there is another way. The military includes thousands and thousands of noncombat positions. I propose that Congress repeal "Don't ask, don't tell" for noncombat jobs immediately, and then consider extending the change to combat positions in five years, after the initial repeal has had a chance to work.

Eliminating gays and lesbians from noncombat positions has had a detrimental effect on the military mission. For example, since 1994 more than 60 Arabic and Farsi linguists have been dismissed from the armed forces for homosexuality. We need men and women in uniform who speak the languages of Iraq and Iran, and if there's no issue of unit cohesion (because they're not in combat), they should be allowed to serve.

Would it hurt the military mission if a uniformed secretary used the copy machine even though she's a lesbian? Who'd be hurt if a gay man were a drill sergeant at a Marine base in California? By letting members of the gay community sign up for noncombat positions in the military, they'll be able to serve their country and have access to military benefits, even before a decision to completely repeal "Don't ask."

Such a transition could find resonance among those who would otherwise oppose any change. Nathaniel Frank, author of "Unfriendly Fire," a new book which argues that the ban on open gays should be lifted, told me, "Many servicemembers who are reluctant to see the ban lifted are more open to the prospect of allowing noncombat troops to serve openly," although Frank, a senior research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California-Santa Barbara, cautioned that combat and non-combat roles have begun to overlap in recent years.

There is some precedent for gradual change. In World War I, black troops served in mostly noncombat positions. And segregation in the military didn't end with President Truman's executive order in 1948 - it became counterproductive during the Korean War, at which time it was dismantled.

The ultimate integration of the military was good for the black community, good for the military - and thus good for America.

Repealing "Don't ask" may be a similar success. But if it's not, especially in wartime, we need to find out as early as possible.

Do opponents of "Don't ask" think women should have been combatants in the American Revolution, and both slaves and free blacks integrated into the Union army during the Civil War?

It seems obvious that the country wasn't ready at those times, that winning those wars was more important than letting everyone serve equally. But I've spoken to gays and lesbians who say gays should have been welcome to serve openly in World War II, even if that meant we lost to Hitler.

INDEED, the push to repeal "Don't ask" is just one manifestation of what I like to call "equality mania," the attitude

by gays and lesbians that nothing is more important than complete and total equality - not the welfare of children, not religious freedom, not even national security.

But equality isn't everything.

There is literally nothing more important than a strong military.

While I'm sympathetic to gays and lesbians who want to serve their country, Obama, Gates and Powell are right that we have to be very careful before making a change that could perhaps hurt the only military mission - to fight and win wars. *

David Benkof blogs at He can be reached at