Remember the great loyalty-oath crusade in Catch-22, with soldiers forced to affirm their patriotism in writing each time they visited the mess hall or requisitioned a new pair of socks? Well, for sheer militaristic folly, even Joseph Heller’s classic satire has nothing on Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military (St. Martin’s Press, $27.95), Randy Shilts’ brilliantly documented account of the Pentagon’s great homosexual purges of the ’70s and ’80s. But Shilts — whose earlier book, And the Band Played On, described the medical establishment’s halting response to the AIDS epidemic — isn’t playing for laughs, though readers may find themselves wishing that he were. Given the fierce opposition to President Clinton’s announced intent to end the gay ban in the military, Conduct Unbecoming could not have appeared at a more appropriate time.
Homosexuals have, as Shilts notes, served in military establishments around the world since time immemorial, often with distinction — from Baron von Steuben, the Prussian mercenary who drilled George Washington’s ragged troops into shape at Valley Forge, to Tom Dooley, the Navy doctor and author whose best-selling accounts of ministering to the poor of Southeast Asia made him a hero to Francis Cardinal Spellman and John F. Kennedy. Indeed, perhaps the bitterest irony in a book full of them is that while the shooting’s on, the question of who’s sleeping with whom tends to fade in importance. Under combat conditions, Shilts shows, all manner of curious relationships are apt to form. During the Vietnam War, for example, gay sailors aboard the USS Constellation openly referred to themselves as ”the Connie girls.” They responded to ”admonishments from more cautious gays,” Shilts writes, ”by chortling, ‘What are they going to do to us? Shave our heads, put us on a boat, and ship us off to Vietnam?”’
But coming out of the closet isn’t what Conduct Unbecoming is all about. Shilts’ real focus is on patriotic men and women who have served their country well, only to find themselves the targets of a shameful series of investigations, administrative hearings, and courts-martial. Readers who suspect exaggeration, particularly those who suspect it would be disastrous to tolerate gays in the military, owe it to themselves to give Shilts’ book a try. As with any persuasive muckraking work, it’s less the author’s rhetoric that convinces than the stories he tells — story after story in riveting detail of terrible indignities visited upon individuals of ”suspect” sexuality. Even when the insinuations are false, and regardless of how long, honorable, or even heroic their service.
If some form of male, heterosexual panic has broken out in the military, Shilts suggests that it’s partly in response to the appearance of women in unfamiliar command positions. One lesbian investigation at the Navy’s Newport, R.I., Officer Candidate School in 1977 ended up involving every single woman enrolled. The selfsame Naval Investigative Service that did its best to pin the deaths of 47 sailors in a 1989 explosion aboard the battleship Iowa on a gay lover’s suicide pact — the accused sailor being neither gay nor in any way to blame — routinely tails suspected homosexuals day and night, intercepts their mail, taps their telephones, bribes and coerces them to inform on others, and practices entrapment. Shilts even documents an instance in which Army investigators showed up at soccer practice to grill an enlisted woman’s kids about their mother’s sex life. Otherwise, see, they had no way of knowing. A