Monday, May 18, 2015

Conduct Unbecoming by Randy Shilts

Title: Conduct Unbecoming
Author: Randy Shilts
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Rating: WORTHY!

This, another success from the author of And the Band Played On is not a very original title. B&N lists over thirty books with this same title, but this is undoubtedly thee fattest of them all, weighing in at 969 pages in Bluefire Reader on the iPad. Ninety of these are notes, references, and so on, because this book is researched with the precision of the crease in Marine dress uniform pants, and like those pants, it stands out sharply despite being over twenty years old. The fear and retribution depicted in this book still goes on today, although not necessarily in the same places it went on in these stories.

The beautifully written story follows a host of different people, men and women, and the most outstanding thing that they have in common isn't the military or the fact that they are homosexuals, but the the fact that there was nothing short of a witch hunt arrayed against them - a witch hunt which was in many ways more terrifying than anything conducted by the church in the Middle Ages. It was terrifying most of all because this happened within the last forty years.

The Conduct Unbecoming of the title has nothing to do with the fact that there were gays and lesbians in the military. It's the fact of what the military did to these people who served their country and had exemplary records - exemplary that is, so the armed forces would have it, save for the fact that they loved someone of their own gender. The military is a boys' club. Always has been. Even today the stranglehold that MENtality has on it is fighting tunic and nail to maintain its death grip. These men who are trained to bond with other men and to fear nothing actually fear two things and two things only: other men who are not like them, and women, who are completely alien to their way of thinking.

Shilts walks us through a brief history of gays in the military, including dipping into stories from the revolutionary war, although he doesn't seem to have understood that the word 'intercourse' had an entirely different meaning in 1779 than it commonly bore in 1979!

That aside, the way these stories would, if you'll pardon the phrase, drag me in and hold my attention was remarkable. I'd tell myself I would just read a couple of pages before bedtime and an hour later I'd still be reading, wide awake, my eyes opened by what had been going on. I don't doubt that there are terrorists who have received better treatment than the gay and lesbian community in the military got during the seventies and eighties.

If everyone loves a parade, then these stories are a parade of one name after another who first stood up for their country and then were forced to stand up for their rights or have their lives ruined by yet another paranoid military pogrom where full-blown McCarthyism resurrected its ugly head and this time had nothing to do with any communist threat - or any threat at all for that matter. Some reviewers have argued that this book is way too long, but the truth is that it isn't long enough to do justice to these people. However, it will do for now. I recommend it.