The firestorm over anti-gay remarks by the top U.S. military officer continues to reverberate around the country.

Statements to the Chicago Tribune earlier this month by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which he called homosexual conduct “immoral,” have been harshly criticized not just by gay rights and democracy advocates, but also by members of Congress, including Sen, John Warner, top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. Also voicing their dismay at Pace’s remarks are several retired generals, including Gen. John Shalikashvili, chair of the Joint Chiefs when the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was initiated in 1994, letting gays and lesbians serve if they did not discuss or act on their sexual orientation.

While expressing regret over his remarks, Pace has failed to apologize, and his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is sidestepping the issue.

While we believe the present size of the U.S. armed forces greatly outstrips any legitimate need, we think the right of gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military is a basic issue of democracy.

Not so many decades ago, African Americans were forced to serve in rigidly segregated units. It was claimed that other soldiers would be demoralized by their inclusion in the military mainstream. But when the order came to integrate the services, even white troops from the Deep South quickly adapted to the new situation.

Women, now, are also integrated into combat units.

In recent polls, most U.S. military personnel say they are comfortable interacting with gay coworkers.

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, some 65,000 gay people now serve in the military. Through 2005, nearly 10,000 service members were separated from the military for violating “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Real moral issues do exist which must be dealt with, among them the Iraq war, the torture of prisoners, and widespread rape of women soldiers, not a person’s sexual orientation.

It is time to drop “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as well as to radically reduce and restructure the U.S. armed forces to meet only legitimate needs for defense.