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Fighting to Serve: Behind the Scenes in the War to Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

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2013 Over the Rainbow Project Nonfiction Winner Discharged in 2002 from the US Army under the provisions of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Alexander Nicholson was shocked to learn there was no group advocating DADT’s repeal that was reaching out to active military or veterans organizations. Nicholson believed the repeal effort needed spokespersons who understood military culture 2013 Over the Rainbow Project Nonfiction Winner Discharged in 2002 from the US Army under the provisions of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Alexander Nicholson was shocked to learn there was no group advocating DADT’s repeal that was reaching out to active military or veterans organizations. Nicholson believed the repeal effort needed spokespersons who understood military culture, who could talk about DADT’s impact on those who serve to those who serve and served. Someone like him. From this idea Servicemembers United, the largest organization for gay and lesbian servicemembers, was born. Nicholson and several others who had been discharged under DADT toured the United States, where they spoke at American Legion posts, on radio talk shows, and at press conferences across the South and on both coasts. Surprised at the mostly positive reception that the tour provoked, Nicholson and Servicemembers United were propelled to the forefront of the DADT repeal fight. In time Nicholson became the only named plaintiff in the successful lawsuit that ordered the policy overturned, forcing the US Congress to act. Fighting to Serve gives a no-holds-barred account of the backstage strategies and negotiations, revealing how various LGBT organizations, the Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House often worked at cross purposes. But in the end, it was the pressure brought by active veterans, a court ruling out of California, and a few courageous senators, representatives, and military leaders that brought the destructive policy to an end.


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2013 Over the Rainbow Project Nonfiction Winner Discharged in 2002 from the US Army under the provisions of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Alexander Nicholson was shocked to learn there was no group advocating DADT’s repeal that was reaching out to active military or veterans organizations. Nicholson believed the repeal effort needed spokespersons who understood military culture 2013 Over the Rainbow Project Nonfiction Winner Discharged in 2002 from the US Army under the provisions of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Alexander Nicholson was shocked to learn there was no group advocating DADT’s repeal that was reaching out to active military or veterans organizations. Nicholson believed the repeal effort needed spokespersons who understood military culture, who could talk about DADT’s impact on those who serve to those who serve and served. Someone like him. From this idea Servicemembers United, the largest organization for gay and lesbian servicemembers, was born. Nicholson and several others who had been discharged under DADT toured the United States, where they spoke at American Legion posts, on radio talk shows, and at press conferences across the South and on both coasts. Surprised at the mostly positive reception that the tour provoked, Nicholson and Servicemembers United were propelled to the forefront of the DADT repeal fight. In time Nicholson became the only named plaintiff in the successful lawsuit that ordered the policy overturned, forcing the US Congress to act. Fighting to Serve gives a no-holds-barred account of the backstage strategies and negotiations, revealing how various LGBT organizations, the Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House often worked at cross purposes. But in the end, it was the pressure brought by active veterans, a court ruling out of California, and a few courageous senators, representatives, and military leaders that brought the destructive policy to an end.

31 review for Fighting to Serve: Behind the Scenes in the War to Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    In the penultimate chapter of this text, following the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', Alexander Nicholson describes an unpleasant encounter with a reporter who was looking to cover the roll-out of repeal training briefings to active troops. She is apparently particularly eager for any incidents 'that went badly', to which Nicholson reports that he shared with her his experience that the sessions were proceeding well: "The horror stories that she was trolling for simply weren't materializing. In the penultimate chapter of this text, following the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', Alexander Nicholson describes an unpleasant encounter with a reporter who was looking to cover the roll-out of repeal training briefings to active troops. She is apparently particularly eager for any incidents 'that went badly', to which Nicholson reports that he shared with her his experience that the sessions were proceeding well: "The horror stories that she was trolling for simply weren't materializing." When the story was published, however, Alexander reports that he was surprised to see that she had taken his words out of context to form the basis for an 'unjustified hit job' on the Marine Corps. He concludes: "[T]he unusual severity of her agenda for that particular piece really made me stop and think about what else I was reading from otherwise trusted and credible mainstream news sources. How many stories on other issues had been similarly agenda-driven but had gotten by me because I didn't have the inside view to recognize the manipulation?" Whilst I can certainly empathize with Nicholson's realization here, the implication of this comment, and purpose of the inclusion of the encounter altogether, is that Nicholson's account is providing the reader with 'the inside view' of policymaking in the fight to repeal DADT. I'm not sure that's the case. Whilst it is true that the medium of news media simply doesn't allow for an indepth account of the background politicking behind policy issues due to inherent space constraints, this is really all that Nicholson's account has going for it. I don't believe in the highly-lauded ostensible goal of a text to strive to be 'unbiased', as all accounts are, obviously and unalterably, historically and sociopolitically situated. The very decision that a topic is worthy of discussion is a very explicit value judgement, so the notion that a text could ever be free of value judgments is ludicrous. I therefore obviously don't fault Nicholson's text for being a subjective account, as all texts are. What I do fault it for, however, is the author’s narcissism. The text at times almost seems written solely to ensure that Nicholson marks his place tangibly for posterity’s sake. We get a hint of this at the very beginning - in the first sentence, in fact, of the acknowledgments section, where Nicholson writes that he 'never intended to write a book about this truly unique experience', and 'actively resisted efforts aimed at recruiting' him for 'over a year'. I didn’t take this as a flag initially - perhaps he really did have a unique story to tell - but in retrospect, it might have been. We will spend the following 200-some pages hearing all about how integral Nicholson was to the fight. Not just integral, actually, but vital, in the most literal sense of the world: if his account is to be believed, Nicholson was the very life and soul of the pro-repeal movement, which barely existed before he came around, and had effectively no chance of success without him. No-one comes out of this book well except for the author and the co-founder, Jarrod Chlapowski, of their former organization, Servicemembers United. Even then, he is certain to note that Chlapowski is the 'number two’. Nicholson barely spends a word acknowledging anyone else’s contributions to the fight. At one notable point - distinguishable for its rarity - he gives another activist, Winnie Stachelberg, acknowledgment for floating the concept of a conditional trigger in a bill. He even goes onto say that he finds Stachelberg 'pleasant', which is pretty much unfettered gushing coming from this guy. However, this compliment cannot be allowed to pass unconditionally, apparently, because he quickly follows it up by saying that he grew to trust Stachelberg 'less' as he got to know her, and that he didn't believe that her idea for the conditional trigger was actually hers, or even originated from her organization. Nicholson gives no reasons for this and refuses to elaborate further, so why he felt this was necessary to include is inexplicable to the reader. Most people rarely rate more than a single mention, however, unless Nicholson feels that they've acted especially egregiously. That would be fine – I’m all for candor in a non-fiction text – except that he really does next to nothing to acknowledge anyone else fought as hard as he did. In a rare concession, he states that 'several others were substantively involved in several of those fronts, but' – (you guessed it!) – 'no one else helped lead the charge in all those categories except for me'. In one anecdote, Nicholson is yet again sharing the story of how his amazing ideas (which we never really hear about, by the way, beyond his ingenuity in fundraising and planning events on the other organizations’ dime) are about to be derailed by Aaron Belkin, another lobbyist. Nicholson's problems with Belkin might be legitimate, but it’s difficult to see that when Nicholson literally compares himself to a 'neurosurgeon… elbow deep in complex brain surgery', and casts Belkin in the role of a 'shaman [who] wants to push [Nicholson] out of the way and start casting spells'. The sheer lack of respect for anyone else (even perhaps just in acknowledgment of their shared goals and determination, if Nicholson can’t muster anything up for their methods) is a recurring theme here. For instance, he repeatedly emphasizes that he saw his primary role as 'put[ting] those impacted by DADT in significant (i.e. decision-making, strategy-shaping) roles within the DADT repeal movement'. That would be a fantastic goal, but other than Nicholson’s lip service on a few occasions, we hear nothing about it. Furthermore, he no less than four times belittles former troops sharing their lived experiences as 'telling boo-hoo stories'. Servicemembers United may have indeed achieved Nicholson’s aim of opening up the pro-repeal movement to these people, but we wouldn't know, since we don’t hear anything about anyone who he works with at the organization other than brief mentions of Chlapowski. In another chapter, Nicholson recounts a meeting where the president steps in. Despite having mentioned on the previous page that it is extremely statistically unlikely to meet a sitting president given the constraints on their time, Nicholson immediately goes on to berate Obama for not singling out him and Chlapowski, even though they're in a room full of staffers and other lobbyists: "I thought it funny that he [Obama] felt the need to remind us that as commander-in-chief, he had certain responsibilities and considerations in policy that we civilian activists didn’t necessarily understand. He obviously didn’t catch, or no one informed him, that two of us in the room - Jarrod and I - had actually served in the military under DADT… and understood broader defense policy considerations quite well. If that wasn’t evident in our higher-level conversations with [the White House], it was certainly pasted all over the media as we specifically sought to educate the rest of the progressive community on why certain options were not realistic and why others were, all based on nuanced defense policy considerations. But instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to engage in a more advanced level on where we were and what still needed to get done, we got lectured on the least common denominator by the president." Yes, because it is totally realistic and not at all pathologically narcissistic to claim yourself and your buddy as the two most enlightened people in a room full of dozens of people who do the same thing as you do, and demand that the president direct all his undivided attention to you. There’s certainly a great deal to call out Obama for, but this isn't remotely close to being one of those things. The thing is, it's really difficult to know what to believe when the author's primary goal appears to be writing his own hagiography. In preparation for writing this review, I went through and highlighted some of the more self-aggrandizing parts of the text, but they were pretty numerous, and it would take me some time to recount them all. Quite honestly, that’s not worth any more of my time. More importantly, this book probably isn't worth yours, and you should read the texts by Randy Shilts and Nathaniel Frank on the same subject instead.

  2. 4 out of 5

    willowdog

    The battle to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" legislation is documented by the founder of Servicemember United, the largest organization of gay and lesbian servicemembers. The book illustrates the manuevering and scheming between the various gay organizations in the repeal effort, and the stratagems and subterfuge of congressional and presidential offices. If one can get past the ego of the author, it is a fascinating read. The battle to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" legislation is documented by the founder of Servicemember United, the largest organization of gay and lesbian servicemembers. The book illustrates the manuevering and scheming between the various gay organizations in the repeal effort, and the stratagems and subterfuge of congressional and presidential offices. If one can get past the ego of the author, it is a fascinating read.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Mike Horton

    One of the best hands-on accounts behind the policymaking process, with a particularly poignant insight into how glbt groups are often in the fight for mainly the wrong reasons. Nicholson lived this battle, breathed this battle, and his account rightfully holds everyone accountable for their actions. I already had a questionable opinion of Harry Reid, but this sealed my dislike of him.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Tammy

    I admire Nicholson's ambition to repeal DADT and all of his good work but the clunky writing was too distracting. I admire Nicholson's ambition to repeal DADT and all of his good work but the clunky writing was too distracting.

  5. 5 out of 5

    GONZA

    THE REVIEW WILL BE OUT THE 1st OF OCTOBER THANKS TO NETGALLEY AND CHICAGO REVIEW PRESS FOR THE PREVIEW.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Gwen

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mackenzie

  8. 5 out of 5

    Amber Owen

  9. 4 out of 5

    Laura

  10. 4 out of 5

    Matt

  11. 4 out of 5

    20hrsinamerica

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

  13. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

  14. 4 out of 5

    Gordon

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jon

  16. 4 out of 5

    John Carlton

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ingrid

  18. 4 out of 5

    Rodney Ulyate

  19. 5 out of 5

    Devin

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy Hooper

  21. 4 out of 5

    Nick Pozek

  22. 4 out of 5

    Nikhil P. Freeman

  23. 4 out of 5

    Vestal Public Library

  24. 5 out of 5

    Russell

  25. 4 out of 5

    Xina

  26. 5 out of 5

    Michael Nicholson

  27. 5 out of 5

    Chicago Review Press

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bert Gillott

  29. 4 out of 5

    Diane

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ipg

  31. 4 out of 5

    Graham Edward

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