Saturday, July 19, 2014

Unfriendly Fire: A review of sorts

One of the struggles of reading a book about policy is that it may not be relevant for long after you have finished the book. This is especially true if you read a book about a policy that has already ended.  I like to read about subjects that I don't have much knowledge about, in order to learn something new.  In the same manner, I decided to read Unfriendly Fire.

The book is about the gay ban in the United States military, the creation of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and eventually the beginning of the end of the policy.  The only two-star review on Amazon calls the author pro-gay and then questions the accuracy of the book. Of course, this probably just comes from the Acknowledgments when the author thanks his partner for this help.  The book is incredibly well-written and well-researched, even if the author begins to lose steam near the last quarter of the book.  Nearly 3/4 of the book through, I was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that "don't ask, don't tell" was a spectacularly awful policy and should be repealed.  Over the last quarter of the book, there was more or less a rehashing of the arguments he already laid out in conjunction with stories of various service members.

The author lays out the history of the gay ban in the military, which I'll briefly summarize here. As most of you are aware, Friedrich von Steuben a gay Prussian captain helped the Americans win the Revolutionary War with his ability to train fellow soldiers and wrote a training manual called Regulaions for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States.  Years later, somewhat ironically, the argument against gays in the military was almost entirely based on the supposed order and discipline problems that they would bring to the military.  It was not until World War I that sodomy was explicitly banned in the military.  During World War II, the service branches of the United States tried to exclude gays, blacks, and women from the military.  Psychiatrists in the 1940s lectured people on the belief that homosexuality was a mental disorder.  Psychiatrists drew sweeping conclusions based on a small sample of homosexuals who were seeking psychiatric help.  Over the next several years, military officials based simply on gut feelings spread the belief that homosexuality was dangrerous and spread stories of the gay menace. In 1949, the Department of Defense instituted a policy banning homosexuals in the military.  In 1950, Congress created the Uniform Code of Military Justice criminalizing heterosexuals and homosexuals engaging in anal sex and oral sex.  It comes as no surprise which individuals were participating in these activities.  Trying to seek re-election in 1980, President Jimmy Carter proposed getting tough on gays. Prior to leaving office in 1981, he pushed through a servicewide ban on homosexuals.  Despite the ban, the military, much like the rest of America was more welcoming of homosexuals.  In 1990, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney acknowledged to Barney Frank that he was not a supporter of the ban but repealing it was not a priority.  Soldiers known to be gay were sent to combat in the Gulf War only to be discharged upon their return.  That's a very brief history leading to Bill Clinton running for President and the effect of the gay ban.  A much more detailed history can be found in the book with impeccable research.

This is where I'm going to diverge from the traditional book review format and talk about a few other things that I found interesting from the book.  The first thing is the author's conclusion about why the religious right became such strong supporters of national defense/security and by extension the Republican Party.  The argument he made is that the religious right and its leaders became convinced that they were to evangelize to the entire world and the only way to do so was through a strong military presence.  The idea is that the United States could invade non-Christian nations, if needed.  I'm not really sure I buy the argument.  The most popular explanation as to why protestant churches became Republican is because of abortion.  That explanation does not fully cover why, in my opinion.  The latest explanation is that it is about race.  Many small private Christian schools and universities wanted to stay segregated but they were forced to integrate.  Ronald Reagan famously announced while running for President in 1980 that the schools should be able to choose to remain segregated.  One of these universities, Bob Jones University, had a rule against interracial dating until 2000.  Nevertheless, the explanation as to why the religious right became obsessed with national security issues is certainly interesting.

 The most striking thing about the book is how it parallels the argument between allowing gays in the military and integrating the military.  Both were suspected of dramatically reducing morale.  In fact, many of the arguments against integrating the military was based on how whites in the rank and file in the military would react.  Many prominent LGBT activists actively made the argument that not allowing gays in the military is shockingly similar to not allowing blacks.  Colin Powell, among others, was not interested in the argument.  He made a point to say that he felt that there was no comparison between the two.  The argument he made was largely based on the discussion that homosexuality is a choice.  Of course, he rather famously, later, decided that a review of "don't ask, don't tell" would be required.  Among the comparisons that were made by military officials that were similar, they warned of an increase of STD's, sexual deviancy, privacy concerns, and forcing beliefs onto other people.  The integration of the military was largely successful, the author notes, because of the top-down structure of the military.

With a little imagination, "don't ask, don't tell" is analogous to President Obama's own quest to close Guantanamo Bay.  While running for President in 1992, Clinton met with many LGBT activists and was brought to tears on the subject of ending the gay ban.  He decided to make it a part of his campaign, that he would end the ban upon becoming President.  According to polls at the time, the nation was fairly split on the issue.  While campaigning, Clinton, as he often did, focused the argument on a meritocracy.  He suggested that some of the best American soldiers were getting kicked out and the only way to truly be a meritocracy like the ideal version of America is to end the gay ban.  Like almost everything Clinton did, this argument was based on polling data.  Support for ending the ban increased.  Clinton thought he could end the ban by simply signing an executive order and the ban would be ended.  Unfortunately, members of his own party, including the (somehow) influential Sam Nunn led the attacks from the other side.  By focusing on anecdotal evidence, false evidence, a parade of horribles, and bigotry for the LGBT community, Clinton was convinced his own party would not support his actions.  Meanwhile, the religious right mobilized their activists calling members of Congress, producing books and "policy" papers stating the military and by extension national security would dramatically suffer. Support for ending the ban flipped. A majority now opposed ending the ban.  What was originally going to be so simple forced Clinton into a compromise that had dire consequences.  When Barack Obama was first campaigning for the presidency for the 2008 election, he would make the claim that he was going to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center.  Much like ending the gay ban, public support was pretty much split. According to a CBS News poll taken in June of 2007, 46% of Americans thought we should continue to operate Guantanamo Bay while 45% thought we should close it.  Public opinion did not change overnight.  After President Obama signed an executive order stating he would close the facility within one year, in January of 2009, Fox News found that 47% of Americans thought the facility should be closed while 45% thought it should remain open. The Democratic Party in both the House and Senate did not give the administration the money needed to close the facility in 2009.  Republicans voiced their concerns with the plan to close the facility by offering their own questions.  By June of 2009, 60% of Americans thought we should not close the facility while 32% thought we should close the facility.  In January of 2010, after an attempted bombing of an airport, Republicans renewed their attacks on the Obama administration calling for him to abandon plans to close the facility.  55% of Americans agreed that Guantanamo should continue to operate.  After running in part, against the closing of Guantanamo Bay in 2010, Republicans took control of the House. In January of 2011, they passed a Defense Authorization bill preventing funds being used to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.  In 2012, I was told my multiple conservatives that Obama's failure to close Guantanamo Bay should convince me to vote for Mitt Romney.

The idea that the President has extraspecial power that he can exercise whenever he wants is a myth that surrounds politics in the United States.  Some political scientists refer to it as the "Green Lantern President."  This book about "don't ask, don't tell" provides a cautionary tale of how the president is still constrained not only by his own political party but by public opinion.  You should be cautious about the promises presidential candidates make but you should also be cautious of those who oppose everything that the president does.  If something matches your political viewpoint or agrees with you too much, your first question should be to ask what are you missing. But if you are looking to read a book about the policy of "don't ask, don't tell" and the effects of such a policy, I would definitely recommend it.


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