August 17, 2012

Nora Bensahel Featured in Washington Post Book Review of The End of DADT

As an infantryman in the U.S. Army for just over seven years, I believe that I served with a number of gay soldiers — though I’ll likely never know. I served while “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was in force, and I adhered to the policy. At least once during my time in service, I distinctly remember the difficulty I had in sending an excellent soldier, who was widely perceived as being gay, to the promotions board. It was incredibly frustrating. Part of my job as a sergeant was to train my soldiers well enough that they would, in turn, become sergeants themselves. Time after time, I offered his name during promotions meetings, and he was rejected with only the briefest acknowledgement of his excellent record. It was readily apparent that the glass ceiling above him was like concrete.

“The End of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is a timely and necessary book that addresses issues like the one described above and goes far beyond to articulate and make fully human the toll of DADT on many military service members and their loved ones. The book suggests that, surely, if the militaries of Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain have integrated homosexual service members into their ranks — in some cases going as far back as the early 1970s — we can do the same, without degrading unit cohesion and battlefield effectiveness. The editors also suggest — and rightly so — that the empirical and anecdotal data gathered here constitute a fundamental addition to our knowledge of the changing cultural and psychological climate for our military as it learns to accept openly gay personnel.

The book is divided into two halves, with the first (“The Reports”)laying the historical and contemporary groundwork for the individual responses, and the second (“The Essays”) consisting of first-hand accounts by affected service members. It’s a logical progression, but one that burdens some sections with multiple prefaces, making the book seem as though it’s walking on academic eggshells.

An intriguing opening essay by Nora Bensahel (“After Repeal: Lessons From Foreign Militaries”) is followed by insightful ones on family readiness; an analysis of DADT and its implementation, supported by a wide-ranging series of survey tables; and a meditation on the warrior ethos (“It’s Time to Redefine the Marine Warrior,” by Maj. Alasdair B.G. Mackay). At times, however, the pieces in this first half bog down; I found myself wishing the editors had been more interventionist in their work. A few of the survey tables are based on a very limited number of respondents, and thus it’s difficult to gauge their value. And passages in Mackay’s essay seem overly simplistic (at one point, the reader is given the Merriam-Webster definition of the word “aggression”). That said, the first half of the book — including the Mackay essay — should prove useful to academics, chroniclers and anyone else wishing to understand the issues.

In contrast, the essays in the second half of the book read more like individual narratives, though the rhetorical arc of the book can be discerned here, too. Editor J. Ford Huffman offers a short and useful introduction, but a frustrating sense of timidity reasserts itself with retired Col. Michael F. Belcher’s preamble essay, “To Think Critically and Creatively, to Dare to Know” — Belcher greets the reader with what is by now an unnecessary request for open-mindedness. There are rough patches in some of the subsequent essays, and the editors could have been more aggressive in polishing them, although that lack of polish adds to a sense of authenticity.

A particular highlight is Seth Moulton’s “Joe’s Story Is the One I Tell Most Often.” Moulton writes: “In a place where honesty is valued above all else, [DADT] demanded dishonesty of my fellow gay service members. It’s hard to think of a more fundamental contradiction in policy in our modern military.” In “Buck Up and Serve Honorably,” Justin H. Johnson argues, “Although homosexuality may be ‘incompatible’ with a person’s moral code, it is not incompatible with military service.” This is one of the most crucial — and effective — points made in the book.

At a time when the first portside kiss in Virginia Beach for the U.S.S. Oak Hill was awarded to a gay couple (via a ship-wide raffle); when gay pride groups are beginning to appear at U.S. military academies; and when the Pentagon is hosting gay pride events, the editors of “The End of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” are to be commended. The book supplies an invaluable overview of a vital social and institutional issue. More important, the editors have developed an argument that leads, inexorably, to a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Certainly, it can be argued, if gay service members are willing to fight and die in the defense of their country, they deserve the full rights and privileges afforded to the heterosexual men and women who serve alongside them.

Brian Turner served seven years in the U.S. Army. He is the author of “Phantom Noise” and director of the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.