Battling the Military Ban 

In a bracing new account, historian Nathaniel Frank shows how “don’t ask, don’t tell” has utterly failed. 

BY Sean Kennedy

February 02 2009 1:00 AM ET

“Self-expression is a natural instinct and it’s stifled at great cost,” Frank says. “ ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ doesn’t just repress gays and lesbians, it represses everyone. It perpetuates the idea that in order to be a stable society, we have to lie to ourselves.”

Framed in that way, Unfriendly Fire is not your typical dispassionate history. As a work of scholarship (Frank is also an adjunct professor of history at New York University), the book is a definitive addition to Allan Bérubé’s Coming Out Under Fire and Randy Shilts’s Conduct Unbecoming, which each focused on eras before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when gay soldiers were simply banned without any epistemological baggage. But Frank differs from his predecessors with his insistently critical tone and laser-like attention to the policy’s shortcomings, from its formulation to its implementation -- and its present incoherent state, when some gay soldiers serve openly in Iraq and Afghanistan, while others, like high-value language specialists, are discharged. (An occasional journalist, Frank broke the latter story in The New Republic in 2002, when the Army discharged seven gay Arabic linguists who had been studying at the Defense Language Institute.)

This polemical approach is nowhere more evident than in Frank’s resurrection of the one-year period from November 1992, when Clinton first endeavored to make good on his campaign promise to end the military’s ban, to November 1993, when the president signed “don’t ask, don’t tell” into law. It’s all here, in gripping detail: the fraught political maneuvering between Clinton, pressured by gay donors and activists, and the military brass, who refused to negotiate with their new commander-in-chief; the assiduous lobbying by the religious right, foreshadowing their subsequent efforts against marriage equality; the dramatic congressional hearings and press conferences held by Nunn, culminating deep inside the USS Baton Rouge submarine to show just how tight the quarters were. But the most amazing revelation? Even as they ignored a 500-page RAND Corp. report commissioned by the Pentagon showing that open service wouldn’t affect military readiness, generals watched a video circulated by a Christian producer that graphically described gay sexual practices.

Tags: Politics

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