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To put it bluntly, members of today’s American military—whether on the home front or serving abroad—are quite literally living under the gun. They face persistent hostility, risking life and limb on a daily basis, and strive to do their job in spite of shrinking stateside public support. Yet in spite of the numerous dangers encountered by military personnel, conservative pundits, congresspersons from both sides of the aisle, and top military brass overwhelmingly maintain—without a trace of irony—that the most pressing and pervasive threat to the American military is the presence of homosexuals in the ranks, and they want to make absolutely sure that homosexuals are forever banned from performing military service.
Enter Nathaniel Frank’s Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, which admirably highlights the pernicious effects this gay ban has fostered in today’s military. Frank provides a devastating multi-frontal assault on the gay ban’s history and ideological underpinnings, amply illustrating the shaky ground upon which justifications for the gay ban were founded, promoted, and continually supported.
While Frank draws much of his inspiration (and not a small amount of righteously strident indignation) from two seminal books: Allan Berube’s historical study Coming Out Under Fire, originally published in 1990, and Randy Shilts’s pathbreaking 1993 work Conduct Unbecoming, which first charted the plight of gays and lesbians who serve in various branches of the military. Frank’s strident tone is understandable and serves him well, particularly in his potent dissection of foreign armies that stood with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. These armies suffered no moral collapse or failure of unit cohesion and, in fact, became more cohesive and accepting. Second, Frank demonstrates the fallaciousness of the argument by interviewing “boots on the ground” (soldiers currently serving in the military) and veterans alike who repeat the prevailing opinion that, in terms of military effectiveness, sexual orientation doesn’t matter. What matters more is job performance.
For persons interested in gays and lesbians in military history, or for those readers interested in gay and lesbian civil rights, there is much to recommend in Unfriendly Fire. Readers would be well warned, however, about the hectoring “preaching to the choir” tone Frank frequently employs throughout this work. This, though, is a minor criticism and certainly doesn’t detract from Unfriendly Fire’s important overarching message: that in order for the U.S. military to successfully grow its ranks in the 21st century, foster true and lasting unit cohesion, and boost morale of all service members regardless of sexual orientation, the gay ban should and must be abolished.