Friday, 19 March 2010

Homosexuals in the Military

General Sheehan has made the news today for claiming that, as one headline pithily put it, 'Gay Dutch Soldiers Caused Srebrenica Massacre'. Sheehan argued that European countries which allowed 'open homosexuality' in their military had done so as part of a 'socialisation' process which led to forces being 'ill-equipped to go to war'.

General Sheehan is far too masculine and heterosexual to spend his time reading war poetry. That is a great pity, because were he to do so, he would learn that history is not on his side. For example, the Spartans encouraged homosexual relationships between soldiers because it fostered greater camaraderie on the battlefield. It has even been suggested that the 300 at Thermopylae comprised homosexual couples. Far from being associated with an unwillingness or an inability to fight, homosexuality was considered a vital component in effective soldiering.

The extent of homosociality and homoeroticism in the poetry of the First World War has been well documented. But homosexuality is present from the start in Western depictions of military prowess. When Alexander the Great visited Troy with his intimate friend Hephaestion, they paid homage to the greatest soldier of them all --- Achilles --- by drawing attention to a shared sexuality: 'Alexander garlanded the tomb of Achilles and Hephaestion that of Patroclus, the latter riddling that he was a beloved of Alexander, in just the same way as Patroclus was of Achilles.'

Of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, classical literature leaves us in little doubt. Aeschylus has Achilles ask his lover, 'Does not my holy reverence for your thighs move you, oh you thankless of my frequent kisses?' And it is his love of Patroclus which draws Achilles back to the battlefield in Homer's Iliad. Achilles refuses to fight after Agamemnon forces him to give up his beloved slave-wife, Briseis. However, he becomes enraged at the killing of Patroclus by Hector, and takes his terrible revenge against the defenders of the besieged city. (The closest to a modern parallel would be 'Mad Jack' Sassoon's suicidal rampages through German lines after the death of David Thomas.) General Sheehan might draw some comfort from the fact that Achilles's sexuality plays a role in his downfall. Troilus, fleeing from Achilles's sexual aggression, escapes into a Temple of Apollo, and is there slain by the warrior. Apollo punishes this transgression by guiding the arrow which will penetrate Achilles's heel.


  1. What happened in Sebrenicia in 1995 was the largest mass murder seen in Europe since WW2 and an examination of what happened is of utmost important for military forces of the 21st century. I totally agree that the blaming the sexuality of the Dutch Soldiers for what happened is a red herring and was not the issue. Worse, it puts forth a seductively reductionist argument especially to those who do not know the facts as to the causes of the massacre. It makes it much too easy to dismiss the real failures of the international community, the UN and specifically the poorly prepared and ill led and ill equipped Dutch Soldiers on July 13 1995 and the days leading up to it. There are many lessons that can be learned from those failures however focusing on the sexuality of the Dutch soldiers is definitely a way to keep that from happening. For a more detailed examination of the events of July 1995 in Bosnia, see LeBors's "Complicity With Evil" and Honeig and Both's Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime,

  2. I've always found the story of the Sacred Band from Thebes to be an intresting one as well. Given that much of the mordern day is shaped by homosexuals from ancient Greece its strange to me that people would see being gay as some corupting influence. Or given the likes of Alexander or Richard I that a gay man was is anyway less of a man.

  3. Thank you --- I'd forgotten about the Sacred Band. It was inspired by Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium:

    And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other's side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?

    (Taken from the Wikipedia page for the Sacred Band.)

  4. Simply as a point of fact, Achilles and Patroclus are portrayed in the Iliad as heterosexual, even if the interpretation of their relationship changed over the centuries.

    But it trivializes Homer, and perhaps poetry and human nature in general, to assume that the grief Achilles enacts for the death of Patroclus is explicable only by sexual orientation.

    Even if Homer silently imagined his characters as off-stage lovers, he did not indicate that sexuality exerted any greater an influence on Achilles' actions than did kinship and the fact that he and Patroclus grew up in the same house as foster brothers.

  5. Thanks, Jonathan. I was thinking about the classical tradition generally except where I explicitly alluded to a particular text.

    You are right that Iliad is more ambiguous than Aeschylus, Plato, etc. But I don't agree that Homer's Iliad portrays Achilles and Patroclus as exclusively 'heterosexual'. The 'we two alone' speech is (at the very least) strange if denied a homosexual implication. Additionally, Achilles states that he will not eat 'because of [his] longing for' Patroclus. Finally, there is a strong insinuation in Thetis's remark to Achilles (while he continues to mourn Patroclus) that 'It's a welcome thing to make love to a woman'.

    Plato believed that the nature of the relationship was clear enough, so it's not as though this is some belated revisionist distortion. Even so, I take the point that there is no explicit sexual relationship in Homer's Iliad as there is in Symposium or Myrmidons.

  6. thousands of hours with soldiers in the field has led me to observe that they are extremely physically and emotionally intimate in a number of ways with each other... sometimes brothers, sometimes father, sometimes like pups, sometimes mother hen... and at all times partner... there is a function in this bonding/intimacy, and that is survival... you don't want to go out on a patrol with someone as your fire team partner that you don't know and can't trust.

    I have heard from infantrymen that they would die for their brothers (and sisters). I've also heard that they'd choose the army over their family (not all, some).

    as for the homoeroticism of war, check out Scott Water's work ... he is a former infantryman who is now a painter. he's heading to A'stan in the next little while.

    and in the Cnd. army, maybe it's a non-issue, maybe it's underground, I don't know. I don't really see any difference with this debate and the debate of having women infanteers. I know 2 women Infantry officers... they're damn good at their jobs. they have their challenges. but who doesn't?