In July 1993, when President Bill Clinton unveiled his “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in a speech at Washington D.C.’s National Defense University, Nathaniel Frank was in a tent in Wyoming. He’d graduated from Northwestern University that spring and was spending the summer road-tripping through the West in his parents’ minivan, camping by night, and current events weren’t at the top of his mind. He was also still wrestling with his sexual orientation. As the speech ended months of speculation about whether Clinton would end the military’s ban on gay soldiers, Frank was blissfully unaware.
That would soon change. As Frank started to come out, personally experiencing the same act of self-disclosure that could cost a soldier his job under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he became fascinated with the policy’s politics of knowledge. “We all know it’s tough to express yourself in a homophobic society, and here comes a law that bans it and punishes us for telling the truth,” says the 38-year-old Frank. “All serious people admitted that there were gays in the military. Why couldn’t we say it?”
It’s this question that animates his new book, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, released by St. Martin’s Press in March, just over 15 years after “don’t ask, don’t tell” went into effect. In it, Frank, a senior research fellow at the Palm Center, a think tank based at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shows how the policy was destined to fail from the outset, since it was created out of prejudice, not cause. Although he pays heed to other factors, such as the gamesmanship of players like then–Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (whom Clinton passed over for Defense secretary), Frank persuasively argues that military leaders were acutely afraid that open service by gays would tarnish their masculine ideals. And because of that fear, they battled to silence the voices of a minority.
“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.
“I like to think of it as a level-headed polemic,” Frank says of the book, kicking back in his restored 19th-century row house in Brooklyn. And while Unfriendly Fire is carefully rooted in research and evidence, it’s this constant calling out of the policy’s flaws that’s likely to have the greatest effect. “There’s a part of me that believes in the old Enlightenment ideal that if you continue to insist on uttering the truth, that’s what it takes to make a more just society,” Frank says.
Frank’s book could certainly help achieve that, at a time when both public and political support for “don’t ask, don’t tell” has never been lower and when more leading military figures than ever are disavowing the policy. Now it’s up to President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats to repeal the law.
“There’s a very good chance the ban could end in this Congress,” Frank says. “Obama has to approach this issue with the confidence that the research is on his side. It’s time to have a 21st-century military.”