Word Games, War Games

In 1993, the country’s interest in the issue of military service by gay citizens escalated to a level that can only be described as a national obsession, and “obsession” is by no means too strong a term. The subject of gay servicemembers was debated within all three branches of government, all ranks of the military, and all walks of civilian life.1 The issue of military service by gay citizens became a line in the sand, a cultural standoff on issues as sensitive and disparate as sexuality, patriotism, civil rights, and civic obligation. Janet Halley2 returns to that time of obsession in Don’t: A Reader’s Guide to the Military’s Anti-Gay Policy. The title derives, of course, from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the popular name reflective of a somewhat simplified understanding of the military policy that eventually emerged from the debate. Halley’s work compiles a painstaking and meticulous “archaeology” (p. 14) of the layers of influence that progressively shaped the nature of the military’s policy on gay servicemembers, from the earliest days of President Clinton’s intention to lift the ban through the final statutory codification of what is still described, perhaps misleadingly, as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In explaining the process by which “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became the legacy of a failed attempt to end the exclusion of gay citizens from national service, Halley unearths its interpretive history “controversy by controversy, line by line, and at times even word by word” (p. 14).