Charlie Moskos was proud of his contribution to the English language: coining the phrase “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It was fall of 1992, and the Northwestern University professor was knee-deep in the latest hot-button social issue to confront the U.S. military: whether it should finally let gays and lesbians serve. “The phrase and the policy just came to me one night at my house when I was at the watercooler,” he recalled in an interview in the year2000.  “Obviously, it was perking around in my subconscious.”  Professor Moskos, then considered the most influential military sociologist in the United States, was not engaged in idle speculation or academic posturing.  Over the last four decades, he had gained an international reputation as an academic expert on social issues in the military—racial integration, conscription, national service, women in combat—and had contributed ideas and policies that affected thousands of lives.

And now this: homosexuality. The presence of gay men and women in the military had long been a subject of sweeping pronouncements and endless compromises. It had been a persistent thorn in the Pentagon’s side since the Vietnam War era, but by 1992, as Bill Clinton geared up for the presidency and religious conservatives geared up to save America’s soul, the gay troops issue was becoming a public relations nightmare.

Moskos spent years building his credentials as a military sociologist. After graduating from Princeton in 1956, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and spent two years as a company clerk in Germany. Although he served there with the army’s combat engineers, he made a name for himself not as a soldier but as an academic. After earning a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, he became an expert field researcher on military personnel issues and soon took a job as a sociology professor at Northwestern University, developing a popular introductory course where, with a self-deprecating demeanor, he humbly presented his ideas and then finished with the words Churchill once used to describe democracy: “It’s the worst system possible,” he told the five hundred students in his 9:00 a.m. course, with a gradually widening grin. “Except for all the others.” It’s a maxim he would invoke with equal delight years later in describing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Since his eureka moment at the watercooler, Moskos’s phrase has evolved into “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue,” a law that helps determine how the military trains and treats its men and women. The military’s policy on gays and lesbians has been transformed from a residual hodgepodge of a bygone era to a carefully articulated modern legal morass that wreaks havoc with the lives of service members and with the capacity of our nation to defend itself—all courtesy of an administration that promised it would make things better. And Charles Moskos was among a small and powerful group of people who were largely responsible for this debacle.

Moskos had the ears of the highest military and civilian decision makers in part because he had spent his career analyzing a problem that many considered similar: racial integration of the armed forces. In 1957, while still serving in the army in Germany, he published his first article on the topic, striking a tolerant, optimistic tone. “In the final outcome,” he wrote, “the experience of the Army’s integration program offers to the international audience the true measure of America’s world leadership.” In later works, he wrote that the authoritarian structure of the military made it “uniquely suited” to implement and enforce policies that might not be immediately popular, such as desegregation.  Because of how the military was organized, with its focus on hierarchy and obedience, the institution was perfect for “mitigat[ing] tensions arising from individual or personal feelings.” He went on to write extensively about integration throughout the tumultuous decades of the Vietnam War. His scholarship was eventually translated into sixteen languages.

As a researcher on the workings of military forces around the world and a veteran academic policy wonk in key historic debates, Moskos was a natural candidate to take on the issue of gays in the military. But he was a less natural choice for the nation to enlist as an authority on sexuality. With a charming affability, he glibly recalled his military days, revealing in interviews an almost adolescent view about sex. “I had a gay commander once,” he quipped in 2000. “He didn’t hit on me much because I wasn’t good-looking enough.”  He chuckled and clarified his point: “Let’s just say he was always too close with the college-educated enlisted men.” Citing alarming statistics about sexual abuse among convicts, Moskos failed to grasp the most basic differences between sexual behavior among the incarcerated and among gays. He noted, for instance, that prison rapes are more common than all the male-female rapes in the country. “This does not speak well for gays,” he said, “when they are in a dominant position.” Never mind the subtleties of life behind bars; to Moskos, men who have sex with other men even while in jail were homosexuals all the same, never to be fully trusted. He regarded gay men as virtually interchangeable with women, explaining that the ban on openly gay soldiers is based, in part, on closely comparing the two: “We do separate men and women in the military in intimate living conditions. If you had open gays, you’d probably have the same harassment problems as you do among men and women.” That is, if women can be legitimately separated from men, gays can be, if not separated, at least denied recognition. The solution, then, was to pretend everyone was straight.

It is this pretending, or, to be more precise, the legal institutionalization of such pretending, that distinguishes the policy from its predecessor. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” which is both a Pentagon policy and, in somewhat different form, a federal law, requires the discharge of service members found to have engaged in homosexual conduct. It was cast—and is routinely reported—as a compromise that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military while regulating only their behavior, not their identity. That is, it is supposed to punish conduct, not status. But as we will see, the policy actually bans gay people, not just homosexual acts. This is because the policy prohibits conduct that gay people, by definition, engage in, while allowing straight men and women who engage in the same conduct to serve.

In fact, the law does not even require that a person engage in sexual conduct to prompt a discharge—it’s enough for two men to hold hands or engage in “any bodily contact” that a “reasonable person would understand to demonstrate a propensity” to satisfy sexual desires with someone of the same sex.  It’s even prohibited to make a “statement” that one is attracted to a member of the same sex. And statements don’t require spoken words—e-mails, letters, tapped phone calls, romantic photos, the possession of gay-themed videos, or anything the military’s “reasonable person” finds incriminating can be—and have been—considered admissible evidence of wrongdoing.

By defining conduct as including a statement of status, and defining a statement of status to include any indication that one may have a “propensity” to engage in homosexual conduct, the military was able to get around the legal objection that they were targeting people for who they were and thus violating the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians. And by insisting that the policy does not punish people for being homosexual, only for engaging in homosexual conduct, the government implies that anyone who is fired under the policy has willingly chosen to break the rules. In reality, the policy targets same-sex desire itself, and bans what gay people, by definition, do, while allowing straight people who engage in occasional gay fun to go right on serving. It is no more conduct-based than a rule that bars people from praying to Jesus—this is what Christians do, just as having sexual relationships with people of the same sex is what gays do. Is banning people who pray to Jesus any different from banning Christians? Is a restaurant that bars creatures that bark not a restaurant that bars dogs? Is a policy that bars people who engage in homosexual behavior not a policy that bars homosexuals?

The U.S. military has never quite known how to deal with sex, straight or gay. The Pentagon prides itself on cultivating a culture of discipline, command, and obedience. Sexuality, by its very nature, chafes against such strictures.  And so the Pentagon has floundered when forced to recognize and govern the animating passions of its rank and file. A crucial part of military culture has also been its self-definition as a realm of strong men. Resistance to allowing women in combat, reluctance to discipline sexual harassment, refusal to accept homosexuals into the service—it often seems that command leaders would rather not acknowledge the presence of anyone but straight males in their midst. For the military, the current policy on gay and lesbian soldiers was thus a triumph not because it protected combat performance but because it forced the issue of sexual desire—and the gays in the barracks— securely into the closet. At least, that’s what it was supposed to do.

But the truth cannot be hidden away so easily. And the true nature of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is increasingly coming to light.  The reality is that the United States no longer needs—if ever it did—a ban on openly gay troops.  But more important, our nation can no longer afford it; we can no longer afford to be stuck in the quagmire of “conduct” versus “status.” Quite simply, we need every last soldier who is willing to sacrifice for his or her country.

The U.S. military is in crisis. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a watershed moment in American history. The role of the U.S. military, like so much of American life, has been radically altered and our forces have been stretched dangerously thin. The U.S. Armed Forces have engaged in everything  from peacekeeping to monitoring elections to deadly combat missions on a scale not seen since Vietnam. What has not changed, however, is the situation of gays in the military.

Yet despite “don’t ask, don’t tell,” we now know that hundreds—and probablytens of thousands—of gays and lesbians have participated in battle not only discreetly but as openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. And so, at this crucial juncture, as the United States sinks its military resources into Iraq and Afghanistan and other trouble spots throughout the world, and as gays continue to serve, despite being told they are not wanted, we must ask: How has the presence of gays sapped the military? What has been the cost of openly gay service to military effectiveness? Answer: It hasn’t sapped the military, and the costs have been nil.

What has drained the military, what has cost hundreds of millions of dollars and wrecked careers and stained the lives of tens of thousands of gays and lesbians serving their country, is the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy itself. So we must ask: How did we get here? How did the most powerful nation on earth, a product of the Age of Enlightenment, with its celebration of freedom, science, knowledge, progress, and human rights, create a policy at the end of the twentieth century that brings these grand aspirations to a halt by legally mandating ignorance, denial, and repression? And how did this happen in the United States at the very moment when our major allies were ending the ban on gay and lesbian troops and finding that the move helped, rather than harmed, their militaries? Indeed, this and mountains of other evidence have been wholly ignored in the debate over gay service in the United States. Instead, in the hands of a vocal, anti-gay movement, the nation was presented with a false choice to support either gay rights or national security.

Yet it turns out that granting gay rights is good for national security. So we ask: How important have the needs of the military really been in the battle over gay service? Was “don’t ask, don’t tell” really the result of a reasoned discussion, based on available evidence, about what was best for the military? Or was it a result of the fears, emotions, moral qualms, and outright prejudice of military brass and political leaders who were more concerned about being “soft” on homosexuality than about ensuring that the best people were serving in the armed forces? What was the role of the American public, with their often ambivalent feelings about homosexuality? How fervently did ordinary individuals and particular interest groups campaign to prevent openly gay ser vice or acquiesce in the debate swirling around them?

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was the result of a bitter battle over the acceptability of homosexuality in the United States. Its final outcome was supposed to allow gays and lesbians to serve quietly, minimize troop loss, and protect the privacy of all service members so they would not be distracted from defending the nation. What has happened, however, is the exact opposite: It is the United States that needs to be defended from the inanity of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Expulsions swelled, privacy was compromised for gays and straights alike, and the trust and cohesion of fighting units were torn apart by forced dishonesty, suspicion, and unnecessary troop losses.

Over the past ten years I have conducted extensive academic and field research on gays in the military. As a scholar at the Palm Center, a research institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I visited U.S. bases and service academies; toured aircraft carriers; spent time with gay and straight service members working and socializing, on base and off; and met with foreign military members abroad. In total, I discussed the question of gay service with hundreds of people—officers and enlisted personnel, policy makers and scholars, government personnel and civilian advocates on both sides of the debate. And I reviewed thousands of pages of military, government, political, scholarly, journalistic, and personal documents pertaining to gays in the military.

In addition to exploring the origins of this policy and its impact on our armed forces, I conducted this research with another central question in mind: Is it possible to view “don’t ask, don’t tell” as the product of anything other than prejudice, defined as “blind intolerance”? Could military necessity truly have dictated that some form of gay exclusion rule must be retained in order to preserve unit cohesion and combat readiness? Could questions of privacy and modesty have made the gay ban reasonable, somehow justifying its discrimination as a proper bow to the cultural expectations of the majority? Is it possible this policy is somehow not “anti-gay”?

As a historian trained to do my best to “walk in the shoes” of my subjects, I have a commitment to fairness and intellectual honesty, even as I came to this issue as a gay man skeptical of the fairness and wisdom of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” My research has, indeed, borne out this skepticism. As hard as I have tried to appreciate the positions of those who had a hand in shaping this dishonorable policy, when you scratch at the surface of every last, roving rationale for the gay ban, and when you learn about the lives, thoughts, and behaviors of the bulk of individuals who insisted on gay exclusion, what you find at the bottom is prejudice.

This conclusion—that the gay ban is based on prejudice, not military necessity—isn’t exactly news. Many of my colleagues have been saying so for years. But I am hoping that the extensive and rigorous process by which I came to this conclusion and the story—together with the evidence and research—that I present in the following pages will help make that point even more persuasively for those who are not yet convinced.

In other words, this book does not simply assume that the policy is anti-gay because it discriminates against gays; it seeks to prove it. It is with the perhaps immodest assumption of my ultimate success in this effort that I refer to the policy, at times, as “anti- gay.” One way or the other, the policy is based on the view that homosexuality is bad—morally wrong, to be precise. When you study all the evidence, including the experiences of other nations, and when you consider that American troops have always served with gays, but that opponents of gay ser vice simply seem to not want to know about it, and when you examine the political drama and the cultural rhetoric surrounding the formulation of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” you will, I believe, come to the inescapable conclusion that this policy springs from either anti-gay animus or, at best, a deep-seated need to repress the reality of homosexuality—and hence is still, ultimately, anti-gay.

Yet it is important to note that not all opponents of gay service were malicious or bigoted, and I want it to be absolutely clear that I am not arguing they were. While many social conservatives have expressed venomous attitudes toward homosexuals, some of the most articulate military experts, both inside and outside the military, who spoke up against lifting the ban sincerely believed that doing so would undermine the armed forces or at least sufficiently feared the consequences that they felt compelled to oppose change. Many of these people wished gays no harm, and some may even have avoided the subtle, often unconscious anti-gay animus that is all too frequent in American life. The sincerity of their beliefs, however, does not mean the policy was based on good reasons that ought to have been heeded—even then. Opposing change based on unfounded fear or ignorance does not change the fact that support for “don’t ask, don’t tell” meant sanctioning prejudice and intolerance, and history must hold all these players accountable.

This is a work of nonfiction. Absolutely nothing has been made up, composited, switched around, or changed. It is based on extensive personal interviews and communications as well as published sources. Because of the strictures of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, there are occasions when I have been unable to give supporting details, ranging from names to dates to details of a story, because they describe active duty service members whose identification would put their jobs, careers, benefits, and families at risk. This reality can, unfortunately, sap the richness of the narrative in a few spots. The mild damage to my prose, however, pales in comparison to the impact this policy has had on the tens of thousands of gay and lesbian troops who served their country under its peculiar burden. This book is dedicated to them.

Excerpted from Unfriendly Fire by Nathaniel Frank.

Copyright © 2009 by Nathaniel Frank.

Published by St. Martin’s Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.