Good Soldiers

GARRY WILLS

May 03, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago. -- Whatever happened to Tom Dooley? In the 1950s his name was on every superpatriot's lips. He was the anti-communist Cardinal Spellman offered as a model to Catholic children. As a Navy doctor in French Vietnam, he championed the nuns who had educated the colonials of that French holding.

His book, ''Deliver Us From Evil,'' alerted the nation to the godless ways of the native insurgents trying to overthrow the colonial power. He set the stage for our intervention in Vietnam. As a favorite of the cardinals and the nuns, he had special clout among President Kennedy's early constituents. Dooley vouched for President Diem and his ''dragon lady'' wife.

When Dooley died of cancer, there was even a brief flurry of activity, in conservative Catholic circles, to begin his canonization process in Rome. But Dooley was soon subjected to some very energetic forgetfulness.

He had left the Navy under obscure circumstances, and avoided the limelight he once sought out. He did not want anyone to inquire into the process that had led to his discharge from the military as an ''undesirable.'' Tom Dooley, you see, was gay.

Dooley's story begins and ends Randy Shilts' new book, ''Conduct Unbecoming'' (St. Martin's Press), the story of gays in the military since the Vietnam War. Dooley was Catholic -- and so are many of the people whose travails are described in the book. He was conservative -- and so are many of those who served in the same uniform and had it taken from them in ways that haunted their later life, making employment difficult, erasing their good deeds, branding them if they sought the light, driving them into a mantling darkness.

Gays in the military have been war heroes, misfits, informed on and informing; they are not all good guys. And they are certainly not all, or even mainly, leftists. Nor, for that matter, liberals. Quite the opposite. Enthusiasts for the counterculture do not seek out a life with patriots and control freaks like those who serve in the volunteer Army.

Though the gays whose stories fill the book do not fall into simple categories, the one attribute that most of them show is, simply, patriotism. They make an odd target for the enmity of the right wing. How many Tom Dooleys are the conservatives willing to sacrifice to their odd notion that gays do not make good fighters, good patriots, good soldiers, good Americans?

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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