‘Men at War’ by Luke Turner review
A part-memoir, part-historical exploration of British Second World War masculinity and sexuality.
I was 14 when I began to notice that my relationship with war stories had a different bent from those of my male relatives. My fascination with uncontroversial classics – The Great Escape, Band of Brothers, Master and Commander – began to feel illicit, itchy, for reasons that seemed far less noble than my emerging anti-war politics. Things came to a head when my brother and I borrowed Das Boot from our local library. He went to bed early, bored by hours of sweaty submarine misery. I stayed up late rewinding a brief, tender conversation between two sailors, furtive and embarrassed as though I were watching porn. I had a vague sense that I was drawn to an intimacy between men seemingly only available in wartime. More immediately, I was aware that the allure these characters had for many of the men in my life was due to the fact that they weren’t allowed to transgress the bounds of heterosexuality. As an adult historian of war and queerness, I came to understand better the tension between popular war narratives and the ones I sensed below the surface as a teenager: they tell seemingly contradictory stories about what it means to be a man.
In Men at War: Loving, Lusting, Fighting, Remembering 1939-1945, Luke Turner lingers over moments from his own Second World War-obsessed adolescence. He recalls being afraid to glue pilot figurines into his AirFix Spitfires out of a ‘moral anxiety’ that they might turn into flesh-and-blood men. During a battlefield tour school trip, he experienced the agony of sleeping in a bunk just feet away from his teenage crush, hoping for contact while surrounded by a history that fascinated him. For a queer kid growing up under Section 28 and a new wave of Second World War mythologisation, history was a fraught country for self-exploration. ‘For a while, the Second World War provided me with an escape from my peers, with my weak body, physical ineptitude, and confused sexuality’, Turner reflects: ‘but I was starting to feel like I was nothing like this generation who were held up as heroes.’
It’s this apparent contradiction that drives Men at War, a part-memoir, part-historical exploration of British Second World War masculinity. Turner uses his own cultural memory of the war – from his grandfather’s religiously motivated conscientious objection, to a childhood fascination with planes – as signposts for a deeper enquiry into the lives and sexualities of perhaps the most celebrated generation of British men. Intended as a broad challenge to notions of ‘real’ British manhood, Turner’s focus on queer life stories, from the bisexual commando-turned-writer Michael Burn, to the transgender Spitfire pilot Roberta Cowell, allows him to connect themes rarely considered together in scholarship on the World Wars. Despite the richness of British masculinity studies and the pervasiveness of queer First World War poetry in British school curricula, Emma Vickers’ 2013 Queen and Country: Same-Sex Desire in the British Armed Forces, 1939-45 remains one of the few academic monographs to consider queer men not just as a given in British histories of war, but as a distinct culture enabled by wartime mobilisation.
Turner draws tactically from scholars like Vickers, but he leans more heavily on individual voices, ranging from well-known figures to otherwise forgotten soldiers. He lightly rejects the individualist commemoration of Alan Turing as a ‘gay hero’. With Turing, what began in the 1970s as activist attempts to reclaim queer figures in British history has, in recent years, been taken over by governmental use of his image in sanitised attempts to address historical wrongdoings against queer people.
Turner prefers to explore the lives of everyday actors, figures such as Henry Denton, an army officer who became a ballet dancer after being found ‘temperamentally unfit’ to fight by military tribunals. Turner uses firsthand accounts by gay men such as Peter de Rome (who served in the Royal Air Force) and Quentin Crisp (who was rejected on account of ‘sexual perversion’) to demonstrate the variety of queer experiences during the war, and the need for nuanced study of those experiences. Comparing British memory of the war with that of other countries, Turner asks why British soldiers are not remembered alongside Japanese and German men as potential perpetrators of sexual violence, despite evidence of these crimes during the Allied occupation of Germany and postwar colonial uprisings.
Where Men at War’s memoirist approach falters is in Turner’s reluctance to consider himself critically within the already-substantial canon of queer men’s uneasy desire for England. Turner cites Derek Jarman’s film War Requiem, an adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s 1962 opera (in turn based on Wilfred Owen’s poetry) as a life-changing encounter with ‘a portrait of Britishness that was a safety net for someone trying to untangle ideas of patriotism and desire’. At times, his preoccupation with memory glides over the uglier, harder aspects of commemoration. He writes that he wishes the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park could be rebuilt to create ‘a sensation of grace and light’, ignoring the fraught negotiation required in commemorating a service also responsible for the firebombing of Dresden. Not for nothing did Churchill exclude Bomber Command from his 1945 victory speech. The memorial has been defaced by anti-war activists repeatedly since it was first unveiled in 2012.
But the real strength of the book is in how it demonstrates the power of desire as a driving force: in intellectual curiosity, national myth-making and in writing history. Men At War is a commendably vulnerable argument for desire as unapologetic historical methodology. As the Second World War recedes from living memory, critical reflections like this – about what we do with our inheritance, both the one we are given and the one we choose – stand to become all the more important.
Men at War: Loving, Lusting, Fighting, Remembering 1939-1945
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 352pp, £18.99
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Jack Doyle is Departmental Lecturer in LGBTQ+ history at the University of Oxford and Managing Editor of the British Journal for Military History.