Friday, May 28, 2010

'Unfriendly Fire' and Repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell

MAN: Forget about the badge! When do we get the freakin' guns?!
WIGGUM: Hey, I told you, you don't get your gun until you tell me your name.
MAN: I've had it up to here with your "rules"!
The Simpsons, Chief Clancy Wiggum dealing with a new cadet who later filled an army position vacated by a soldier discharged for homosexual conduct.
Today when I read the news that congress plans, tentatively, to repeal Don't, Ask Don't Tell, I giddily did a skipping 1980s dance around my house to Sixpence None the Richer's 1990s hit, "Kiss Me." Not because I'm gay, mind you; this is just how I celebrate things.

But after flashing a couple thumbs-up at my computer screen, I suddenly felt bad for Nathaniel Frank. He's the author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America.Like all authors who seek to end an injustice, I imagine he's in the bind of seeing his purpose achieved and his book made obsolete. While this reflects a social good, it's a pity from a non-fiction standpoint, because Frank's book is a gem. It's well-researched, humane, funny, outrageous and eminently readable. It features the luxury of moral clarity walking hand in hand with science, overcoming enemies undermined with no great effort by their hypocrisy and boobery.

Unfortunately, the book may still be relevant for a few more months — or years.

It's important to understand a little history of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (hereafter, "DADT") to understand what's wrong with it and the arguments for it. There isn't space here for anything comprehensive, but suffice to say that DADT is the unpleasant compromise produced in 1993 by the conflicting aims of the Clinton administration, conservative groups and some parts of the U.S. military. Clinton intended to make good on promises to the gay community that supported him during the 1992 election. However, he declined to integrate the military by fiat as the Commander-in-Chief—as Truman had with blacks—and instead deferred to congress and a bipartisan approach.

While initial public opinion either supported integration or remained salutarily indifferent, the voices of the culture war ramped up their acrimony with the aim of manipulating public opinion against an inexperienced administration without a central narrative for the issue. Interestingly, while most branches of the military began drawing up plans to integrate, assuming the issue was a fait accompli, members of the Army Working Group began organizing in what's difficult to label as anything other than open insubordination. (This is acceptable, in Democratic administrations, because Democrats never win wars, apart from WWI and WWII.) They used the old canard that a civilian liberal could not possibly understand the military to issue dire and elaborately fantastical warnings about American military collapse. Meanwhile, conservatism's culture warriors exploited the he-said/she-said nature of daily journalism—and its inability to check claims and "facts" before going to print—to poison the discourse with demonizing non-science about homosexuals and military integrity.

The tactic worked. Scare quotes and false exemplars had great traction with the un-committed public, whose favor for integration plummeted. The cultural theater carried over to the Senate, where Sam Nunn's special investigative committee cherry-picked conservative segregationist voices, refused to hear testimony from supporters of homosexual integration (even including decorated veterans) and, with the Pentagon, worked to suppress or ignore data supporting integration—even when commissioned and collected by the military itself.

Stymied by a better managed opposition, the Clinton administration settled on DADT, a gutless policy that failed on the terms it established for itself. It claimed not to discriminate against gays, only military disruptive "gay conduct" — which is to say any gay conduct, which is what signifies whether a person is gay, which means the policy discriminated against gay people. Soldiers could be discharged via reports that they did something gay, while on leave, without any other soldiers around. Viewing pro-gay message boards online constituted conduct "gay enough" to merit discharge. Discrimination thus not only followed them into all parts of life even outside the military, it left them powerless within it. To report a charge of being persecuted, tormented or abused for one's homosexuality was to admit one's homosexuality, which violated the Code of Conduct, which got them discharged. Not only were gays discriminated against for being themselves—by a rule that claimed not to do just that—they also could seek no redress for discrimination or hateful acts against their person on the basis of sexual orientation without themselves being punished. Being gay was (and is) criminal. Being persecuted for being gay doubly so.

This is what DADT policy did. But how did we get there?

Made-Up Shit
Most people don't know even of its existence, but Frank focuses on a Rand Corporation study commissioned by the Pentagon in 1992. Rand used "seventy-five credentialed, multidisciplinary social scientists from its National Defense Research Institute across the globe," including "sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, historians, economists, doctors, lawyers and national security experts" who
exhaustively studied the scientific literatures on a broad range of related topics: group cohesion, the experiences of foreign militaries, the theory and history of institutional change, public and military opinion, patterns of sexual behavior in the United States, sexual harassment, leadership theory, public health concerns, the history of racial integration in the military, policies on sexuality in police and fire departments, and legal considerations regarding access to military service." (p. 114)
Rand concluded that "sexual orientation alone was ‘not germane' in determining who should serve" and urged the Pentagon to decriminalize sodomy and homosexual acts in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Naturally, this study was suppressed and ignored.

Instead, what made it into Sam Nunn's proceedings and the Congressional Record was a childish scrapbook of bogus science written by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lee Macginnis, who in 1990 had begun working for Focus on the Family's James Dobson as a consultant for his Family Research Council—essentially a "Sounds-Like-Facts!" mill for christian conservatives whose universal truths unfortunately kept abutting the unyielding bulwarks of objective reality and observable phenomena. Macginnis was already something of a crank by 1990's standards, having argued vigorously against having women serve anywhere near combat areas, but in 1993 he produced a masterpiece of anti-gay quackery called "The Homosexual Subculture." It was this, not the Rand study, that formed the lion's share of policy "facts" in the Record. Unfortunately, it has virtually zero.
Macginnis's strategy, now time-tested by the religious right, was to make quack statistics look credible by piling up footnotes, most of which cited the same small group of discredited anti-gay researchers. The fact that more credible scholars and journalists eventually published exposés of the fake evidence rarely made its way to the countless Americans who gobbled up the initial "studies" and leaned on them to confirm their own worldview.

"The Homosexual Subculture" cast the gay community as permanent rebels who scoffed at authority and could never conform to society. Gays use their "raw political power" to make a string of demands including "laws to prohibit discrimination," pro-gay sex education, the "decriminalization of private sex acts between consenting 'persons,'" and acceptance of military service.... According to Macginnis, studies showed that gay people "typically live a dangerously promiscuous lifestyle"; 43 percent had over five hundred sexual partners and 28 percent had over a thousand....

Macginnis described in graphic detail what the typical homosexual allegedly did in bathhouses, right down to the clothes-checking procedures. According to "medical literature," these environments were "contaminated with fecal droppings because many homosexuals can't control themselves due to a condition called 'gay bowel syndrome.' They've exhausted their anal sphincter muscles by repeated (93 percent) acts of sodomy, thus becoming incontinent." Many gays, wrote Macginnis, enjoyed fisting, which he also described in minute detail, as well as rimming, fellatio, scat, and golden showers. Their frequent sadomasochistic practices included the use of "Nazi like insignia and the use of whips" and gays "often model their actions after the Nazi party." (p. 38-9)
It goes on, depressingly graphically and maliciously, even trotting out the old lie that gays are more likely to molest children (in fact, straight people are overwhelmingly more likely to be sexual predators). The only really redeeming funny moment is the fact that some of the testimony read into or published in the Record relied on satirical content from gay publications, lampooning conservatives' apocalyptic and ludicrous paranoia about what gay people do. In effect, gay writers had put words into the mouths of straw-man conservatives, inventing completely deranged things that they might believe about homosexuals; then a group of deranged people willing to believe these things about homosexuals gladly put those words into their mouths and full-throatedly repeated them.

If at any point you start to feel some sympathy for those who crafted DADT, remember that they built a national policy regarding homosexuals that was scientifically as valid as basing our national biology curriculum regarding black people on a white paper drafted by Jimmy the Greek about "extra muscles." Then, to add insult to injury, they suggested that all gay people have broken asses and can't stop shitting AIDS poop all over each other.

"Unit Cohesion"
While "Permanent Gay Butt Death" is no longer part of the national discourse regarding gays in the military, "unit cohesion" is. The concept is fairly simple: the best fighting units are ones that can rely on one another, that feel a bond that makes them function as one, with absolute trust. While in 1993, some of the rhetoric about unit cohesion featured scary stories about foxholes being filled with AIDS-tainted gay anal blood, today the discrimination's ugliness is subtler. While it's unacceptable to voice a fear of gay people in other walks of life, it's taken as a given that it's natural or even expected that a straight soldier should fear a gay comrade. There are all those group showers, where the gays still stare with their piercing Rape Eyes.

This is fatal for unit cohesion, but only within the confines of how opponents to gay integration choose to address the concept. Simply and, for them, frighteningly put: they go about it ass backward. For them, the issue becomes one of social cohesion, not task cohesion. The former deals with the idea of seeing commonality between you and another soldier on the basis of beliefs, friendship, shared values. It's about liking the other person, not about effectiveness or respect. Frank points out how this social cohesion can actually be detrimental to unit effectiveness. A combat leader who's making decisions based on shared sympathies or liking someone else is a leader whose clinical evaluation of capabilities and outcomes is prejudiced. His vision clouds with friends, with people like him, instead of appreciating the unit as people who, first, accomplish things.

Task cohesion is a whole other matter. It measures how the group comes together to complete tasks; how they feel about each other when not trying to accomplish something is largely immaterial. It's about getting the job done. If this sounds to you like the ultimate goal of the military, it's because it is. As historian Paul Fussell notes, it should also be instantly familiar from dozens of Hollywood movies, where ideally
infantry units are all melting-pots, with the "universal platoon" comprising something like the following mixture:
One leader who dies
one inexperienced youth
one comic
one cynic (transformed before the end into a true believer)
one black or Hispanic, and
one person each from
Texas, and
the Middle West.
In this case, he refers to the WWII films of the 1940s, in which these ethnic prejudices amongst whites were more significant and intractable, where someone from Brooklyn would find a Texan completely anathema (and vice versa) in a profound cultural way. Efface many of those white cultural prejudices, throw a gay person and a woman into the formula, and it reflects the 21st century combat unit.

However, the point that Fussell means to highlight is one we learn from all those movies, which involves the primacy of task cohesion. At the beginning of the film, these people are all at odds. By the end, they're brothers in arms, a connection amongst them forged in combat. Whether they really like each other means nothing. The fact is that nobody likes being shot at, and the tendency to feel shame at letting other people down, combined with self-preservation, leads members of a unit to risk their lives and work as hard as possible to protect their fellow soldiers by getting shit done and then getting gone.

There's the old line about how there are no atheists in foxholes, but the line itself is less reflective of the transformative power of christianity and more reflective of the universal appeal of not dying whenever someone is shooting at you. Whether the Sarge is a guy who really likes other guys' naughty bits matters a whole hell of a lot less than whether he can lay down suppressing fire and bail your ass out of a dangerous position. Punching him in the arm and yelling, "Stop being gay!" is something you can only do to him later if you're both not dead. On the other hand, if he's helped you to be not dead, you probably really don't care so much anymore.

This is exactly why the unit cohesion argument is always defined by anti-gay campaigners in relation to social cohesion, whether everyone looks and thinks alike before or after combat. If we accept that combat is the great leveler, that danger and adversity can make brothers of almost anyone and reduce differences to insignificant silliness, then there's really no limit to who can serve in the military.*

* — This has been proved in the gay-integrated militaries of the UK, Australia and Canada, all of which have worked with the American military without incident this decade, and all of which are structurally and socially similar to our own. (It was even proved in Israel, which culturally had more antipathy to homosexuals than America.) In fact, a British "assessment team['s]" consultations with Canada, Australia and Israel regarding their experiences with abandoning gay military bans found "that gay service had not undermined military performance" and instead resulted in "reductions in harassment, less anxiety about sexual orientation in the ranks, greater openness in relations between gays and straights, and less restricted access to recruitment pools..." (p. 143-5). This last is key, in that when militaries stopped discriminating against gays, they were allowed to recruit on all college campuses, increasing access to more intelligent and gifted potential personnel.

This leveling factor frightens commanders and retirees for precisely the same reasons that gay people frighten them:
1. The older you are, the more likely you are to be prejudiced against alternative lifestyles, (that this is a prejudice that decreases demographically pretty much in accordance with age), because:
2. Gay people are icky.
That ick factor is a powerful thing. It can't ever rhetorically or logically be the reason, but there are no shortage of "framing" gambits that put icky things front and center. While the American military has no shortage of fundamentalism, and while religious and family-values concerns are powerful-sounding symbols, it's hard to transcend the power of thinking that the "other" is weird and gross. Those high-minded objections distill to the same "oh, gross" impulse. They're enduring enough that integration critics throw up two other related bits of rhetorical chaff to justify their sentiments.

Impotence in the Face of Opinion and Preservation of Prejudice
This first crutch should sound instantly familiar, because it's bolstered the recent weak case against gay integration. It goes a little something like this: "There are thousands of people in the military. Many of them probably don't like gays. We can't change their mind, so we have no choice but to keep the military segregated." It is, in short, horseshit. The military only magically turns into a democracy the moment military leaders don't want to do something.

The wandering and variant authoritarian structure of the military is something of a public policy bad habit. When soldiers do something foolish because of rigidly following orders, senior officers defend the act on the basis that each soldier has to defer to a commander. It's just the top-down structure at work. When regional commanders do something foolish on their own initiative, it's because the pyramidal structure is much looser than we expect, allowing a lot of lateral movement and individual creativity to solve problems unique on that part of ground. Spend enough time talking with an officer about command prerogatives, and you'll hear both arguments come out of opposite sides of his mouth.

The fact of the matter is that when the military wants or needs to be an authoritarian top-down pyramidal order, it becomes so with ease. This is how Truman racially integrated the military (over objections about units' social cohesion and the racial intolerance of the majority of servicemen) and how units work when deploying to field operations. They do so according to task cohesion. When commanders speak, soldiers listen. (This reality has been substantiated even under DADT, where Frank notes that commanders who displayed obvious biases against homosexuals saw greater instances of abuse and discrimination, whereas commanders who demonstrated a clear "I don't care if he's gay if he's a good soldier" policy saw greater openness, toleration and support among the ranks.) It only depends on what commanders want to say.

It's very clear, looking at the objections to gay integration in 1993 and today that what many commanders want to say is, "Icky." But because that's not a reasonable observation or a point sophisticated enough to even be sophomoric, the onus for not integrating gets pushed onto the troops. Thus commanders are just impotent do-nothings, pushing plastic RISK figures on maps, wishing to hell that people would actually do stuff when they tell them to. Their balking at implementing integration invalidates their own existence, denies the structure of their own military and makes a sudden democracy of "talky personal icky issues" that is inimical to American military history. They ignore the entire purpose of boot camp, which is to inhibit or destroy the selfish nature of the individual and reprogram him as a soldier dependent on his fellow soldiers for success, regardless of what type of people they might be.
The very leadership and training that turns a socially diverse population into a unified, cohesive fighting force centered around the task at hand is the same leadership and training that could be used to stigmatize and minimize anti-gay harassment. And it's not a one-way street, but a compromise. Starting in basic training, gays—like everybody else—learn they must not stand out; and at the same time, heterosexuals who might prefer not to serve with gays can learn that part of military service is enduring minimal privacy and even less choice over the people who live and work with them.

This, after all, is the purpose of basic training: to strip the prior identities of all recruits—Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Republicans, Democrats, and independents, urbanites and country folks, coastal ones and plains ones, older and younger, liberal and conservative, male and female, black, white, and other, and yes, gay and straight—and resocialize them by way of molding them into one effective fighting force. The point is to reduce individuals to nothing, break their identities, deprive them of sleep, frighten them, shatter them—until the only way they feel they can survive is to seek one another's help and support. Cadets quickly learn not to stand out; the only way to make it is to stand with others. (p. 187-8)
Ignoring these possibilities and failing to seize these initiatives only institutionalizes and protects hatred and discrimination. The very people whose concerns we give extra weight to are the people who preserve the same prejudices, not the people persecuted by them. DADT and any sort of gay segregation effectively tells gay people, "It's best that you don't come out of the closet, because that might make people who irrationally fear or loathe you uncomfortable."

By those lights, change is, like, really hard. Best not to even try. A lot of people objected to the end of slavery and Jim Crow, the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, Social Security and Medicare, which is why we have none of those things today. Visionary leaders looked opponents of those measures straight in the eye and said, "Well, I can't change your mind, so clearly forward progress ends here."

We infantilize the homophobes and swaddle the gay bashers in a protective cocoon of tolerance for their selfishness and intolerance. We look their injustice in the eye and decide that the worst thing that could happen is to confront the unjust with their folly or tell them that theirs are dead beliefs already floating forlornly and rightly away from the tide of history.

What Now?
It's a truism that enlistment in an all-volunteer army plummets in the event of war. For almost eight years, the United States has prosecuted two simultaneous wars, providing two simultaneous and highly effective arguments against enlistment. Yet, at the same time, it has steadily discharged gay soldiers—often disingenuously, only after they've completed their tours and returned home to the U.S. At this point, the discharge of gay Arabic experts is well known, but less well known is the swelling of criminals in the ranks, to generate enough recruited warm bodies to fulfill quotas.
In 2005, reports emerged of recruiters concealing police and medical records of recruits, doctoring paperwork, helping applicants cheat on tests, and cleaning up evidence of drug use, all in an effort to reach their goals and enlist enough bodies to fill the ranks. Recruiting agents also engaged in threats, coercion, and lies to attract people. According to the army, the number of "recruitment improprieties" shot up by over 50 percent from 2002 to 2004.

Between 2003 and 2006, thanks to the military's moral waivers program, 4,230 convicted felons, 43,977 individuals convicted of serious misdemeanors, including assault, and 58,561 illegal drug abusers were allowed to enlist. Between 2004 and 2007, the number of convicted felons nearly doubled, rising from 824 to 1,605. Allowable offenses under the program include murder, kidnapping and "making terroristic threats." (p. 241-2)
Indeed, in the same year that Private Steven Green, a high-school dropout, was admitted to the army on a moral waiver despite three misdemeanor convictions and a history of drug and alcohol abuse, the Pentagon discharged 742 gay troops on the basis of DADT. Green only served eleven months in the military, but in that time he was accused of shooting and killing two Iraqi parents and one daughter, then raping and murdering another teenage daughter before setting her body on fire. (p. 243-4) But, you know, at least it wasn't the son.

These problems persist and will persist as long as joining the American military is held out as a sentencing option that's less of a hassle than "having to jail." These problems will also be significantly worse if we maintain the pretense that it's better to be an alcoholic and chronic girlfriend beater than to be a guy who has a boyfriend. But as much as the developments of the last 24 hours give one encouragement, they also should give one pause. Repealing DADT is right, but it's by no means certain.

First, there's the issue of passing the senate. A DADT repeal may not be able to survive a filibuster. And, down the road, just because a repeal is passed now doesn't mean the DADT or a fully segregated policy can't be re-implemented, so say nothing of what a conservative Commander-in-Chief could do by fiat, citing exigent national-security circumstances. Moreover, if this report is to be believed, a repeal could be accompanied by language that doesn't mandate the enlistment of gays, but doesn't forbid it — essentially legalizing both recruitment and an ability to forbid their recruitment anyway. But most important is this little nugget:
The repeal would be allowed 60 days after a Pentagon report is completed on the ramifications of allowing openly gay service members, and military leaders certify that it would not be disruptive. The report is due by Dec. 1.
Commissioning a study is the standard callow heel-digging Washington response, but it's doubly offensive here, because the study is doubly inessential.

One, it seeks to calibrate the degree of disruption in the military. This goal merely reframes what's been established above: that it aims to discover how disturbed prejudiced people will be and caters to a discomfort they no longer have an excuse for failing to evolve past. There's no point in worrying about the disruption for gay people, since presumably this will only do for them what they would like done. Those whose lives and careers will be disrupted must needs be the sort of people who don't want to work with gays. In short, this study can have no point other than to amass data sympathetic to the unsympathetic, finding reasons to excuse injustice and nurture hatred. Such a study might have some validity in a democratic organization, but in a military command structure, it's either duplicity or theater. Whatever problems arise via disruption can be solved by ordering people to shut up and do their jobs because that's a fucking order.

Two, the study is inessential because it's already been conducted. The Rand Corporation's study has been sitting in Pentagon archives for nearly twenty years, gathering dust accumulated by biased wishful thinking and determined neglect. What this new study can tell us is what we already know from the one conducted by Rand, or studies conducted by the British government, or the Irish government, or the Canadian government, or the Australian government, or the Israeli government, or the German government. The only reason you commission another study to produce the same results similar studies have provided consistently for nearly two decades is if the opposition needs more time to gin up a pseudo-scientific challenge to conclusions they already know will be found and do not want.

DADT and homosexual segregation in the American military has been a joke for nearly 20 years, if not more so. It doesn't just ignore facts collected at the time of implementation, it ignores American history itself. It ignores history in general. According to conservative critique, Alexander never happened, and the Greeks and Romans were just myths. So too are a host of European militaries, Canada's, Australia's and Israel's. So too are facts we asked for and then filed away in discomfort. That every justification for DADT and segregation has been comically wrong for so long should be cause for encouragement, even laughter. So too should this latest news about a possible repeal. But all the comfort of data and the liberating power of laughter shouldn't ignore that this isn't over yet. Prejudice and discrimination's ability to wrest self-defeat and idiocy from empathy and competence shouldn't be underestimated. Even in an environment as practical as the military, there will always be ample room to diminish heroism and prefer risk, even in the midst of the profundity of exploding earth, for something profoundly immaterial to the exercise of life and death.

Rating: 4.5
Unfriendly Fire is a remarkably well-researched, funny, moving, galling and smart book. But a half a point off for its reliance on anonymity and also its potential lack of timelessness. On the first point, I understand what Frank had to work with. Many people still in the military literally couldn't speak on the record, but the anonymity of some retired or discharged soldiers seemed unnecessary. On the second, Frank has no control over events that follow his book's publication, but if a repeal happens, and happens justly, the impetus to read this book diminishes. It will still be a powerful indictment of a broken system, but as is the case with a book like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, we'll be able to read it with comfort, knowing that most of the ugliness has past. Hopefully.