DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; Brothers and Others in Arms; Le Blanc: A Marine’s Diary; Nathaniel Frank: Unfriendly Fire


Author (or Editor):  Belkin, Aaron and Bateman, Geoffrey (editors)

Title: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: Debating the Gay Ban in the Military

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher:  Lynne Rienner (Boulder, CO)

Date: 2003

ISBN: 1-58826-121-2

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound (available paperback) 199 ogs

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL:  Gays in the military

Review: Aaron Belkin is well known as the director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which I visited in early 2002. This book is the latest in academic publishing about the military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military as a national security and public policy issue.

One problem that comes to mind immediately is, of course, that the gay ban seems to many people to be a circumscribed problem that affects relatively few people. Books of this nature tend to emphasize the details of the debate of the issue for its own sake. But, early on, Belkin and Bateman do comment well on the significance of the issue in a larger context. The third paragraph on page 3 of the Introduction starts, “On one side of the issue, gay-rights advocates see access to the military as a metaphor for full citizenship rights.” The authors go on with a summary that almost seems to be a characterization of my intentions in writing Do Ask, Do Tell six years earlier. I could hardly be more succinct myself. Indeed, the ban provides a metaphor of many other issues where individual freedom and individual accountability are balanced against more communitarian views. It bears repeating that originally “don’t ask, don’t tell” was promoted as a way to “lift” the ban by legally allowing gays to serve covertly, but it quickly turned out to be a codification of the ban into law, in a world where commanders often ignore its procedural protections and never face accountability, and where the Internet and modern culture make openness about one’s identity (and “presumed” conduct) almost a given.

The book goes on with seven more sections, dealing with the history of the ban, the “privacy debate” started in 1993 by Nunn and Moskos, the “unit cohesion” arguments, foreign militaries that have lifted the ban (always a major topic for Belkin), the cost of the policy, and the future of the policy. Most of the chapters contain interviews with various panelists, in the style of a “Meet the Press” debate. Indeed, similar debates are found on the CSSMM website mentioned above. This could provide interesting material for, say, a PBS Point-of-View series or Frontline program, or even a campus-style independent film such as those sometimes shown by the University of Minnesota Film Society. (See the History Channel video review mentioned below).

The tone of most of the comments tends to be pragmatic, especially in discussing the “privacy” problem, which may be more important to male servicemembers than females. The underlying solutions seem to be common sense and leadership. Later there is discussion of the constitutional issues, where we have come to realize that the courts give so much deference to the military as to allow a “sub-rational” basis for compromise of the rights of servicemembers.

There is a short chapter on openly gay servicemembers, and here the story of Arizona Representative Steve May is presented for the first time, as far as I know, in book form. May, recall, was called up for reserve duty after “outing” himself in the Arizona legislature in discussing domestic partnerships. May’s story would indeed make a good screenplay adaptation.


Danny Kaplan. Brothers and Others in Arms: The Making of Love and War in Israeli Combat Units. Binghamton, Southern Tier/Harrington Park Press, 2003. ISBN 1-56023-365-6. 276 pgs, paper. This book – appropriately displaying on its cover a handsome soldier with opened up fatigue shirt revealing a real hairy chest -- examines the record of gays in the Israeli military, a subject of interest not only for American policy but because of the enormous problems in the Middle East. The book is in two parts. “The Soldiers’ Stories” gives eight personal accounts (one is by a Navy seal-like sailor Nimrod, the name of the creature in “Surface,” and another is a combat pilot reminding us of Tracy Thorne; some narratives speak of operations relevant now to anti terrorism), and the second part is “Walking on a tightrope—Analysis of Mascularity Culture.”

The official “policy” in Israel was established in 1993, the time of the American debate, and is essentially “no policy,” or “look the other way.”  The book, on p 236, states “Soldiers are not asked about their sexual orientation, and officially no discrimination is allowed in the placement of gay service men and women.” But the overriding point is the way the military is a major instrument of national socialization in Israel, with universal conscription, where men (contrary to popular belief) have longer commitments than do women. Men are compelled to run a gauntlet of duplicity in gender values and roles, where military homosocial referential values often come perilously close to duplicating gay ones. Some of the personal narratives reinforce that, with mild hazing rituals (as those reported by Nimrod) where anal intercourse is simulated mechanically. The Nunn-Moskos issue of “privacy in the barracks” seems to be handled by ignoring it.


Robert LeBlanc: A Marine’s Diary. (2009)  Draft PDF link online here.   Blogger review here.

 Nathaniel Frank. Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. New York: St. Martins/Thomas Dunne, 2009. ISBN 0-313-37348-1. 341 pages, indexed, hardcover, with Introduction and Prologue of 21 pages.

Frank is a senior research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

This is the most comprehensive book on the military gay ban since Randy Shilts's 1993 book, and starts by examining how the conduct/status dichotomy and "propensity" logic developed after WWI. 

On p 2 he gives one of the most cogent explanations of anti-homosexual sentiment in print:

"Any sex not geared toward reproduction was regarded as a barrier to the social and survival goals of increasing the population, dividing up labor, consolidating family wealth, and preserving the family lineage including lines of blood, race and religion."  

More is coming here, stay tuned.  Blogger.

Related: The Tom Swann Story; Shilts: Conduct Unbecoming

See also History Channel video “Gays in the Military”; film: Yossi & Jagger


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