Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Nathaniel Frank: "Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America" (review)

Author: Nathaniel Frank.
Title: "Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America" (website).
Publication and description New York: St. Martins/Thomas Dunne, 2009. ISBN 0-313-37348-1. 341 pages, indexed, hardcover, with Introduction and Prologue of 21 pages, and eleven chapters. Amazon link.

Dr. Frank is a research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The Palm Center used to be known as the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, headed by Aaron Belkin, whom I visited there in February 2002. In 2003, Belkin and Geoffrey Bateman authored “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: Debating the Gay Ban in the Military,” published by Lynne Rienner (Boulder, CO) (ISBN: 1-58826-121-2).

But Nathaniel Frank’s new book is clearly the most comprehensive book on the military gay ban since Randy Shilts gave us “Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military" in 1993 with St. Martin’s Press. Although organized more conventionally than Shilts, Frank’s opus has the same focus on detail with many incidents and examples, and effectively reviews the history project started by Shilts and continues it on to the present day, especially covering all the problems since 9/11.

In reviewing the book, I need to point out one essential right now. Today, the “military gay ban” is essentially synonymous with the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, the supposed “honorable compromise” announced by President Clinton in July 1993, and codified into law by Congress in November 1993, with tighter language. The “old policy” had been instituted administratively in 1981, just before Reagan took office, and required “asking.” The “compromise” was to drop the mandatory “asking” which, as Frank points out, usually happens anyway, at least de facto. And because the 1993 debate after Clinton took office was so polarized, the policy in practice has made things worse. Before 1981, the services had their own separate exclusionary policies, which they often, at their convenience, took the liberty to ignore.

But rather than summarize the book, I’d like to compose an impromptu reaction, given that this whole issue has consumed my own life in the past years because of some very unusual circumstances in my own life. On my other web pages and in my own “Do Ask Do Tell” book I’ve detailed how my own involvement with the issue started, ironically, with my expulsion from a civilian college (William and Mary) in the fall of 1961 for admitted latent homosexuality, and yet my history, with the military, includes my two years of drafted service without incident, well, sort of.

In general society has changed because technology has, over decades, encouraged the development of individualism. In various ways, freedoms associated with technology-driven individualism tend to create dilemmas and moral contradictions and gray areas, leading to crazy rationalizations of policies in the political area. To me, it’s interesting that the 1993 Clinton-started debate took place just before the Internet and World Wide Web took off, which would challenge our ideas of privacy and pose ethical questions unimagined only a decade before. Much of the 1993 debate focused on “privacy” and “forced intimacy” in the barracks – producing rhetoric on both sides that Google would soon blow away. But looking back into history from 1993, as Daniel Solove has pointed out, we find that the modern idea of privacy and autonomy has only been accepted in modern times. Privacy and expressive freedom were essentially impossible for ordinary people in earlier societies. Everything focused on the survival of the family and the group. In that climate, the idea of limiting sexuality to heterosexual marriage seemed like a “natural” (if religiously driven) way to make sure that every man “does his part” in ensuring the long term viability of the family or group. Some men had privileges and wealth denied to others, but that was supposed to be predicated on their ability to protect and provide for women and children. That was certainly the focus in “morality” that I grew up with.

Frank traces how social changes (already outlined by William Eskridge’s book “Dishonorable Passions” (reviewed here May 2008) tracked with changes in military policy. Before WWII, the military tended to focus on homosexual acts in the ranks, but in time, it developed the idea that homosexual people were a threat and needed to be screened out prospectively. Other histories (“Coming Out Under Fire”) suggest that the military backed away somewhat as WWII progressed and it needed men – a trend that would be repeated in every war. Frank points out that even men with “feminine bodies” (such as, sometimes, less body hair) were incorrectly and irrationally “suspect” -- a practice that goes along with older notions (very noticeable to me as I grew up in the 1950s -- covered in Peter Wyden's notorious 1968 book "Growing Up Straight") that “masculinity” is an “accomplishment” and a moral virtue (for men) and that a “gender deficit” is a real moral “failing” (an idea common with ex-gay therapists today, such as with the Nicolosi book discussed here on Jan. 21).

Frank’s history of the 1993 debate is encyclopedic, and the most complete available. He covers all the “arguments” and shows how they were constructed from strings of thought, postulates about social mores that simply were changing more rapidly than elected politicians (or military leaders) could deal with. Some of the testimony in Nunn’s hearings turned out to be word salad. (I remember, “when you have stated your status, you have described your conduct!”) The hearings in Norfolk were a particular low point. Tracy Thorne was scolded for his lack of consideration for his fellow sailors and bunkmates when he “told”. Well, I was scolded by the College and later by psychiatrists for my self-centeredness in “telling” and “stepping on people’s toes.” I laughed when I came across the Thorne exchange (as well as Strom Thurmond’s “It isn’t natural…”) I also recall the low crawl on the submarine deck by Sam Nunn and John Warner – which I would repeat with my own submarine visit later in May 1993 (as I geared up for the possibility of my own entry into the debate). What has become striking to me in recent years is how much many people feel that their ability to function lifelong in traditional marriage is undermined not only by weaker social supports but by being expected to deal with knowledge of those whose sexual values are different. Indeed, in the barracks (as Andrew Sullivan once pointed out in TNR), some straight soldiers might fear being “scoped”, but it’s more that they’re afraid that someone will judge them unattractive and unworthy of a lineage than as potential sexual partners. (Clark Kent’s “Xray” vision in the Smallville series certainly suggests a potential amusing commentary on military “privacy”).

It’s important to note that some of the “debate” got to levels much baser than the “they don’t go home at night like you and I do” of Nunn’s. There was an undertone of talk that homosexuality (especially among men) is largely about self-promotion and over-individualism, a value contradictory to the “self-sacrifice” for the “needs of the group” required by the military. That’s an important notion in the civilian world (“paying your dues”) and when we consider that we used to have a draft and still could, as well as the fact that the military is an important career-starter for so many disadvantaged people, we see why the military gay ban is an important issue outside of the military (as my own life demonstrates with so much irony). Frank goes into a lot of discussion of the “unit cohesion” argument, and (like Rand’s commissioned 1993 report ["Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: Options and Assessment"], which Congress ignored) differentiates between task cohesion and social cohesion, and argues that even in the military, task cohesion prevails. (Rand also provided a concept called “propinquity”; Rand's study is probably now best remembered for it's idea that sexual orientation should be seen as "non germane" to military service). It’s also noteworthy that, although the public “moral” objections to homosexuality (and the religious right’s desire to use military values as a blueprint for society at large) focus on men, a disproportionate percentage of the discharges contested by legal aid group SLDN (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network) involve women soldiers and “lesbian baiting.”

Frank often points out the irony of anti-gay arguments, casting straight men as “prey” and traditional families as “victims”, apparently of people whose lives seemed to be based on getting out of things (but then why join the military?). It seems that libertarian ideas of individualized personal responsibility don’t work when talking about the “family” since much of its personal benefit to people is so communized.

He goes on to analyze the horrible results of the policy, since its adoption. Up to halfway through his book, he has more or less said the same things that I had said in Chapter 4 of my 1997 “Do Ask Do Tell” book, but less personally and with much new detail (and I thought my chapter on the ban, at 47000 words, was monumental).

The most interesting new material probably concerns the loss of critical skills, especially language translators. He discusses the difficulties for any Americans to learn Arabic, and starts one chapter with the NSA message received Sept. 10, 2001 and not translated in time. It’s reasonable to say that, had Clinton been able to fully lift the ban, we might not even have endured 9/11; at least we would have had a significantly better chance of intercepting it (although much of the issue here was the lack of communication between agencies). Alastair Gamble’s story is particularly interesting here. He also goes into many other terrible situations, involving the catch-22 situation that DADT presents for security clearances, and one tragic situation where a female officer was discharged after having to take care of a female partner with cancer (a situation that reminds one of the movie “Freeheld”).

Frank points out some really silly ideas that the Pentagon considered, as as a "gay bomb" of sci-fi channel aphrodisiacs to disorganize the enemy, prompting a political cartoonist to show Saddam Hussein running from a gay soldier.

Were I to have written this book, I would have given more attention to the potential effect of the Internet, social networking and blogging on the military (he does mention it with the AOL “McVeigh #2” case, which now is old.) The new repeal bills in Congress (Meehan and now Tauscher) will require detailed tracking in later updates of this material.

The Palm Center has always been known for its study of lifting the ban in foreign militaries, particularly Canada, Israel, and Britain. Israel makes an interesting comparison because its military forces are so essential to national survival, and, with a draft, it uses the military as an instrument of national socialization, an experience that was true for America’s “greatest generation” but that started to come apart during the Vietnam war.

The last sentence of the book is, “It is not gays and lesbians alone who are silenced by ‘don’t ask don’t tell’—it is all of us.” In much of my own life, only two years of which was in the military, I have had to fight this off. How right he is.

In the March 11, 2009 episode of Smallville, Clark says, "The world fears me as long as it knows who I am." Is that what the United States military comes to now?


Tom Hart, MSgt, USMC, Retired said...

As a member of Marine Barracks Long Beach back in the 70's I well remember SSgt LeBlanc and his efforts to remain in the Marine Corps despite the Marine Corps attempt to discharge him as a homosexual opn numerous occasions. To this date we remain good friends and have spent time volunteering with the USO in Palm Springs in support of the Marines stationed in 29 Palms. My wife and I consider him one of our close and loved friends. His sexuality; its no ones business today, just as it was no ones business in the 70's.....Tom Hart, MSgt, USMC, Retired

Bill Boushka said...

Please see March 10 posting on book by Le Blanc. The first comment, immediately above, had been intended for that posting. It follows this posting immediately on the blog.

Generally, a comment is posted only in one place on a blog.