Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Christmas Truce 1914: All quiet on the Western Front?

   One of my favourite Yuletide war stories is the unofficial truce on the Western front in 1914.

   Sure, it's a clichéd story today and everybody uses it as the feel good wartime Christmas story but so what, I'm sipping eggnog by a roaring log fire in a Swiss chateaux overlooking the holiday lights of an alpine ski resort. Actually, I'm telling you outrageous lies. I'm really knocking back cheap CVS pharmacy vodka next to a crusty electric heater in Los Angeles suburbia overlooking my douchebag neighbor's dog shit stained lawn. But that's why I love military history. You get to realize how worse off you could be. You could be in the trenches on the Western Front but for a simple accident of chronology. If you were born male in Britain, Germany, France or Russia in the years 1885-95 it was pretty much guaranteed you'd wind up spending a Christmas knee deep in mud, rats and lice while waiting for your turn to play dodgeball with machine gun bullets.

  That's why there's something really heart warming about a football match in No Man's Land.

   It was Christmas 1914 in a war that was supposed to be over by Christmas 1914. The soldiers on the field had no real beef with each other. This whole war was triggered because some rich guy the average infantry man had never heard of ate a bullet in Sarajevo. And no mustard gas had melted off anyone's skin yet and the meat stacking operations of the Somme or Passchendaele hadn't even happened. There was still room in 1914 for an outbreak of human camaraderie, spontaneously between men who realized, in a shared holiday season, that they were all human, ordinary joes, flung into the wrong place and time as enemies and destined to be mere pawns chewed up in the global games of fat cat financiers, politicians, generals and old aristocracies.

   Some things in history never change right?

   It's hard to imagine Christmas in the trenches in 1914. It's not the type of war that happens anymore.  Siege warfare in open mud. WWI came at an interesting period where, for the first time in military history, there was no battlefield mobility. Cavalry were obsolete and armored maneuver warfare hadn't arrived yet. Modern small arms were pretty much perfected though. The British Lee Enfield and German Mauser rifles were both accurate up to 600 meters in the hands of a good shooter. That the Enfield was in use all the way up to 1957 was testimony to the effectiveness of those simple bolt action rifle designs. Of course, trench warfare was also the stage where the machine gun finally came into its own. The British water cooled Maxim gun could spit out a flesh ripping 600 rounds per minute. Artillery too had developed to the point of precision accuracy, timed fuses, multiple shell trajectories, howitzers, air bursts, rolling barrages, all of that steel rain was pretty much perfected by this time.

   This made for the worst kind of stalemate in military history.

   Hell, you can go all the way back to Themistocles and a general would still have multiple unit types at his disposal; heavy infantry, ranged units and cavalry, giving a commander at least three unique elements to play around with when trying to defeat the enemy. But in 1914, you lost that fast moving cavalry unit (the first tanks would not come until Delville Wood in 1916) so all you had as a commander to play war with on your carnage planning desk was artillery and sad meat sacks called men.

   1914 was still early in the war. The British army was composed, at this stage, of elite non conscripted men. Real soldiers. Volunteers. (They hadn't all been wiped out yet). The German Schlieffen Plan had been attempted through Belgium and had failed spectacularly at the last minute. Yet it was still a 'fair war' at this stage. Even with the trenches being laid all the way to the Channel, the barbed wire, the artillery strikes, it was still a war all soldiers could 'relate to' on some 'working class' level. With 'workers of the world unite' brewing in the East, there was a definite sense amongst the officer corps on both sides that they could lose control of their forces ideologically if fraternization were ever allowed to occur.

   And then Christmas Eve 1914 rolled up.

   And the war was still on like the newspapers had said it wouldn't be. I think this was the point where the average soldier on both sides realized they'd been duped. The situation in the trenches was taking on a permanency in winter that was starting to look like a really shitty long term deal for a soldier who was far from home with no personal grievance against the 'enemy'; except the one manufactured by hysterical propagandist newspaper headlines.

   And then it happened...

   The Germans in the trenches along the Western Front in Flanders received an influx of mini Christmas trees in wartime care packages from home (German supply lines being shorter than British ones). They lit their trees with candles and began singing traditional Christmas hymns (Tannenbaum) from the trenches on the other side of No Man's Land.

   The British were confused.

   Let's not get all fuzzy nostalgic here. The British had lost 94 men that day to German snipers all along the front. The Germans had lost similar numbers. This wasn't some outbreak of peace and love '60s style. This was a spontaneous Christmas celebration by the enemy in a trench across the way.

   But the British got curious. Like any enemy would.
   They popped their heads up over trench parapets to watch the lighted spectacle the Germans were putting on. Suddenly, signs began to appear from the opposing trenches in broken English.

   "You no fight, we no fight! Tommy!"

    That must have been a weird moment as the sun came up on the frost hardened mud of Christmas Day Flanders. The first man stood up and offered himself up to the snipers. But nobody fired. He was not shot. More men stood up, testing life itself at the hands of an easy bullet, for Christmas' sake. And then they began to march, from both sides, toward each other.

   I'm getting misty now. Someone has begun chopping onions in my immediate vicinity. It's Christmas right?

   Both sides met in the middle of no man's land

   Smokes were swapped. Hands were shaken. Alcohol was shared. Helmets were sampled. A game of football was played on shell pocked land where, the story goes, the Germans won 3-2. This fabled match is recorded as hearsay in regimental histories, something that was witnessed but never actually recorded by the players. God, I hope it happened. I would like it to have happened in the same way that I would like that some Jewish baby born two thousand years ago can make me survive my own death. Both stories are equally unlikely but it doesn't spoil Christmas by wanting to believe in them.

  The generals on both sides had a shit fit of course. How could it happen? How could ordinary men be friends with each other in the absence of state sponsored propaganda? It was never to happen again. The war got increasingly ugly and left everybody with scars. People wondered where had all the 'good' wars gone?

   To No Man's Land?

   Just the way the politicians, generals and old aristocracies always intended.

    Merry Christmas to you all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Don't ask, don't tell... Can gays fight?

    Don't ask, don't tell just got repealed in the Senate!

   The whole issue got me thinking about gayness in world military history.

   Most of the 'don't ask, don't tell' argument stems from some right wing existential fear that your ability to pull the trigger gets compromised by what you like to do with other people when you're naked. That's the crux of the issue right there. In the US, conservatives run with the idea that gays in the military weaken it based on two assumptions:

    A) Gays can't fight.

    B) Gays weaken a unit by spreading their gayness amongst otherwise non gay troops (the communicable disease theory of gayness).

   I always find argument B particularly funny.  You'd have to be borderline bent already to think that too much exposure to the gay might tip you over the edge into fully fledged homo. That's not exactly something that's going to happen to the average soldier who loves female tits and ass. Sorry, but seeing penis in 'Sexy Harlots 15' didn't ever make me want to fuck the guy in that movie. The stunt dick was only ever there so I could pretend it was mine as I watched it going into the girl.

    Anyway, both arguments are run of the mill homophobia but they got me thinking about gayness in armies of the past. And when I say gayness, I'm not talking about a platoon of  flaming Elton Johns waving pink AKs. That kind of effeminate gayness is not the kind of gay that wants to be a soldier. To want to be a soldier in any age and seek out combat you've got to be hard as fuck and I'm not talking in your dick. I'm talking in your head. What you do for fun naked has got nothing to do with it.

   Any history of warrior gayness must start with the Greeks I suppose.

   Most especially the Thebans and their 'Sacred Band of Thebes'. They were an elite force of 300 warriors who just happened to like boning each other. These guys were as queer as anything you'd see in a San Franciscan assless leather pants bar today and yet were total badass fighters. They fought in pairs, side by side with their lovers on the idea that if one of them died in battle, the other guy is going to be seriously pissed off and rage more on the enemy. It worked and the sacred band played a crucial role in winning at Leuctra. (Not the most famous Greek city state battle I admit, but their skeletons were found in 1890 and some stone monument to them does exist today). Funnily enough, the sacred band were finally defeated by Alexander, perhaps the greatest gay warrior in history.

   The Spartans too had a culture of militarized homosexuality. You know those badass few that stayed behind to die at Thermopylae? All of them would have set your gaydar meter blaring. But they conveniently left that bit out of the Greek history movies and standard history books, omitting the scene in the second act where the warriors all go back to a tent after a hard days fighting for a sausage party. Fucking Hollywood and their historical details right? The Spartans were so gay that Herodotus mentions a Spartan wedding night, where the new bride has to dress up like a man so as to make the transition to pussy easier for her husband.

   That's pretty fucking gay.

   Good fighters though!

   The Spartan's whole culture was a military industrial complex much like the US today. And they proved that there's nothing about what you do with your dick that limits your ability to kill people.

   The Romans didn't have a problem with gayness either. But they did believe in a type of manliness where pleasure seeking began to be seen as weakness. That's where the whole idea of gayness being bad in armies probably originates. The idea that sexual pleasure and killing should be kept separate. They are, after all, two diametrically opposed poles on a single magnet. The idea that they repel seems reasonable. But it's hard to reconcile with ancient historical fact.  Caesar himself may have banged his adopted son Octavian who was later to become Rome's first emperor, Augustus. Historians will argue but the point is, two of the greatest military leaders of the ancient world, Alexander and Caesar, were both benders.

   That alone should wipe out the "don't ask, don't tell' argument, right?

   Conservatives will most likely argue that 'the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there', that ancient history has no bearing on today. So I'll be forced to come up with more recent examples of warrior gayness to prove my point. Okay, no problem. There's plenty of gay to go around.

   Let's break out the Revolutionary War.

   One of my favourite people from that period was Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben who was totally queer. And  also a damn fine military leader and tactician. Without him, Washington's army would have been a useless band of peasants taking pot shots at the British from barn roofs. He was a Prussian, probably my favourite militarized society in post Renaissance Europe. Those guys were the solid, spit and polish, shine your musket, help me up after the cannon ball blew my leg off badass military of the 18th century. Any country that can produce a Clauswitz is serious business. But Von Steuben got kicked out of the Prussian army because he liked the cock. So he went to America in search of freedom. Don't you miss that, when America and freedom went together in the same sentence without any cognitive dissonance?

   Perhaps my favourite gay military leader is T E Lawrence who led the Arab revolt against the Turks in 1916.  Of course, Lawrence kept his sexual preference on the down low, him being an officer in the post Victorian British Army tasked with holding together a disintegrating empire (any parallel with today's US is purely coincidental) and even the movie they made about Lawrence only passingly alludes to his gayness. And that's just fine by me. Nothing about a man is truly revealed by how he has sex. Especially a soldier. Anyone with the balls enough to risk their life in a combat zone has already gained my respect and what they do with their genitals is surely nobody's business but their own.

    It's just a pity there are no honest to goodness wars for them to fight in anymore.