Unfriendly Fire

Out in Print

by Terri Schlichenmeyer    
Published: May 16, 2009 in A&E / Life&Style, Out in Print

“Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America”
by Nathaniel Frank
c.2009, Thomas Dunne Books
$25.95 / $28.95 Canada
342 pages, includes notes and index

Sometimes, it occurs to you that purchasing stock in yellow ribbons might’ve been a smart move.
Drive down any street in America and you’ll notice ribbons on fences, trees, and doors. There are yellow-ribbon magnets on cars, buttons with the loop-de-loop yellow icons, T-shirts with yellow emblems, all in support of our troops.

But for many of the troops — those who were honest and “told” in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military — there won’t be any medals or commendations and no ribbons. In the new book “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America” by Nathaniel Frank, you’ll see how detrimental this policy is and how it’s affected our national security.

On March 1, 1994, despite protests against it, the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” policy went into effect. The policy sounded like it a way for the military to look the other way when it came to lesbians and gays in uniform, a sort of “we just won’t discuss it” edict. Instead, it meant that superiors weren’t allowed — by law — to ask about a soldier’s sexual orientation, and soldiers weren’t supposed to admit their gayness under penalty of being discharged.

The former wasn’t enforced. The latter happened all too frequently.

But, as Frank points out, gays and lesbians have a long history in the military, both historically and now. He says that “An estimated sixty-five thousand gay and lesbian Americans currently serve in uniform…” and without them, the military would be woefully inadequate in effectiveness.

Frank describes many cases of uniformed soldiers who have risen through the ranks, gotten high marks from their superiors, and become important assets to their departments, but were unceremoniously dumped from their positions when their homosexuality came to light. Unsurprisingly, because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he reports of dozens of gay men and lesbian women who were harassed, victimized, and who hastily left the military for their own safety. Top brass claimed it was banning gay behavior and not gays specifically, which Frank points out is double-talk. By banning gay behavior, they were explicitly, inherently banning gays.

But Frank also reports some emerging good news: openly gay military personnel increasingly report rules that are relaxing or being ignored altogether.

If nothing else, “Unfriendly Fire” is highly researched; a good 30 pages of this book is devoted to notes on the text, and author Nathaniel Frank is extremely explicit in his definition of terms.

But therein lies the problem: it’s too thorough. Much of this book consists of history, political minutiae, and decade-and-a-half-old Washington and Pentagon wrangling. That will tell you how this policy came to be and why it’s monumental, but it doesn’t give much information on how it affects troops now. Since I was more interested in what the sub-title promised, I was disappointed in most of this book.

If you’re a military historian or have had experience with the “gay ban,” you might like “Unfriendly Fire.” For casual and mildly curious readers, though, don’t burn up your time with it.