It may have been unfortunate that those in a position to influence the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell debate probably did not read C. S. Forester’s World War II novel, The Ship. My own copy, printed on wartime paper, is falling to pieces and it is high time there was a reprint.
The Ship is fiction but closely based on the real British light cruiser HMS Penelope at the second battle of Sirte in 1942, when a British force of cruisers successfully defended a convoy to Malta against a much more powerful Italian force led by a 15-inch-gunned battleship. Forester spent some time at sea in Penelope (nick-named HMS Pepperpot from the number of shell-holes in her), and, as one would expect from the creator of Hornblower, the story has a wealth of technical detail and knowledge. Also, as one would expect from the creator of Hornblower, it is a story of duty — duty over-riding any personal attachments or likes and dislikes, and over-riding life itself.
Although nearly 70 years have passed since it was written, The Ship’s themes of fighting men’s ingrained duty and loyalty to a unit enabling them to achieve the apparently impossible are timeless.
The Ship examines about 20 men scattered about the vessel, including the loneliest — the lookout at the mast-head and a stoker checking the bearings in the propeller-shaft tunnel, as well as the loneliest of all, the Captain, never leaving the bridge, sleeping on the deck there under a tarpaulin when it rains. There is the fanatical anti-fascist and the ex-IRA Man who has come to love the Navy in spite of himself.
The men are by no means supermen — the man in the shaft-tunnel is struggling to make atonement before God for some largely imaginary sins. The captain’s secretary, a reservist, feels painfully inferior and resentful in the company of officers who have been in the Navy since they were 13. The Captain knows his worst enemy is his own black rage which, under his mask of icy control, could overthrow his judgment to the ruin of them all.
There is the ship’s chronically bad character, an exceptionally stupid man who the Captain has been trying to get transferred out of the Navy before he does any harm, now out of the way in one of the shell-handling rooms.
There is the Commander, the second-in-command, who is being turned into a fussy old woman by the demands of running the ship, fretting about paint-work and paper-work, and whose job is to sit and wait for something unpleasant to happen, such as the Captain getting killed or his beloved paint-work damaged. There is a clever young petty officer, marked out for promotion, in charge of the after gun-turret. In a compartment near the bottom of the ship the marine bandsmen are controlling the gun-directors. There is the chief electrician, even the chief cook, all entirely focused on what they have to do.
The light cruiser is no match for a battleship. We learn a great deal about this “egg-shell armed with sledge-hammers.”
The ship is hit twice, with, as the Captain laconically reports “slight damage” and then “moderate damage.” The after third of the ship is an inferno of flame. The clever young petty officer, we learn almost as an aside, is “baked to death in a steel box” because after ordering “Clear the turret!” he remains in the turret to report it is out of action, and by the time he has done this it is too late for him to get out. If he had failed to make the report, the gunnery might have suffered. The fire threatens the after magazine, and the wheels that control the valves that flood it are red-hot. In a terrible, almost unreadable scene, the stupid stoker forces himself to turn them with his bare hands. The Commander leads the damage-control party through the exploding shells cooking off from an anti-aircraft-gun.
The man in the shaft-runnel, his collar-bone broken and in darkness, with several feet of water slopping about, continues his reports, feeling that now perhaps God will be a little less angry with him. Turning back into its smokescreen the ship almost collides with another cruiser, and the captain raises his voice slightly. The point is that, as a result of discipline and tradition, every man aboard feels loyalty to the entire ship, but also to whatever task he is responsible for.
As the British ships leave their smoke-screen, the enemy admiral sees this, the leading ship, is on fire aft, but its forward guns are still firing as regularly as clockwork. Night is coming on, and the British destroyers are preparing an attack with torpedoes. He turns away. Aboard the British ship the Captain notes that the behavior of the ship’s company was “most satisfactory.”
The real Battle of Sirte was a brilliant victory by a greatly inferior force, though tragically after the convoy reached Malta it was destroyed by air-attack with only a few thousand tons of supplies unloaded.
What has this got to do with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, an issue which, when Forester wrote The Ship, would have been as remote as the moon? It suggests, I think, that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was basically a good and civilized idea. In a combat unit people’s sexuality is their own business.
There must be areas of privacy but there must also be an awareness, even if it is not expressed in so many words, of an over-riding loyalty to the whole unit. My own feeling is that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which asked no more than that private lives be kept private, made this easier.