Friday, April 17, 2009

Nathaniel Frank's "Unfriendly Fire"

Nathaniel Frank is a senior research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and teaches history on the adjunct faculty at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His publications on gays in the military and other topics have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Slate, Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Lingua Franca, and other venues.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, and reported the following:
This is more fun than I even expected! I don’t know if I just got lucky (I like to think every page of Unfriendly Fire is riveting) but my page 99 seems to have it all: sodomy, sailors, submarines, war, double standards, lies, secrecy, hypocrisy, senators, gays, showers, innuendo, gossip, pretense and dishonesty.

Unfriendly Fire argues that the ban on open gays in the military is unnecessary and far more harmful to the military and the nation than people realize. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been responsible for firing over 12,000 service members for something that everyone knows has nothing to do with military performance. It requires gays and lesbians to conceal their sexual orientation and to remain celibate at all times, just to serve their country.

But I argue that the damage done by the policy is far greater than just the impact on gays and lesbians in the military; it affects all members of the military by creating a climate of fear and suspicion, putting a magnifying glass to the sexuality and private lives of straights as well as gays, and encouraging hyper-masculine behavior (read: sexual harassment, homophobic abuse) as a way of proving to the world that you’re not gay.

More important, it’s not even just the military this policy affects, but the nation: this is a law that forces people to lie, and punishes people for telling the truth. It says about America that we are a nation that would rather stick our collective heads in the sand than face sometimes difficult truths.

My page 99 makes this case with a glimpse into the political drama of two senators—Sam Nunn and John Kerry—having it out over what it means to be gay, to be truthful, and to be patriotic in 21st-century America.

Excerpt--most of page 99:

And sodomy was far from the worst of it. “I mean,” continued Kerry, “there is not a marine or a sailor or anybody who went to the Philippines during the Vietnam War who cannot tell you a story about heterosexual behavior in public that was in violation of the Code of Military Justice. So let us be honest about this and not apply a double standard to it.”

Worse than the double standard of Nunn’s rationale for the gay ban was his own blindness to the reality of what he was supporting: a half-way measure, where, as he put it, “no one would ask questions about anyone’s sexual orientation and people could serve as long as they keep their private behavior private.” What would be wrong with this, Nunn wanted to know? The problem, Kerry answered, is that even if recruiters did not ask about sexual orientation, anyone else might. Nunn spoke of privacy as though, in his emerging “don’t ask, don’t tell” plan, it would be protected equally for gays and straights. But what he really meant was that when “private” behavior became public, it would mean discharge if you were gay, and would mean nothing if you were straight. “You are still going to have a policy of exclusion if you learn that somebody is gay,” explained Kerry. “Well,” replied Nunn, “you would not learn they were gay unless it was by their own admission, unless it was by conduct.”

Nunn’s ignorance was striking. There were countless ways that, well short of an “admission,” a person’s homosexuality could be quite clear—at least clear enough to worry anyone concerned about showering with gays. (Indeed some service members had said that “just the mere suspicion of homosexuality” could wreak havoc. In one case, according to one who testified at Nunn’s field hearings, sailors broke regulations by stealing the mail of a shipmate they suspected was gay.) No less a Nunn ally than John McCain once said that he knew he served with gay people in the Navy because of their “behavior and by attitudes.” But Nunn simply could not envision the daily reality of gay life in America. For all his professed concern about creating a policy that was free of lies and hypocrisy, for the scores of questions Nunn asked under the banner of formulating clear direction for the military leadership, what he would ultimately endorse was a law that couldn’t have been more confusing, more misunderstood or more predicated on concealment, innuendo, gossip, pretending and dishonesty.
Read an excerpt from Unfriendly Fire, and learn more about the book and author at the Unfriendly Fire website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue