Monday, March 22, 2010

Visual Poems

Some Wordle word clouds made from the writings here, and a poem or two about Whitman. Just for fun.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Gay Warlords

In these days when the US military's standing policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" supposedly allows gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces, so long as they keep a low profile, we need to remember that the original form of that benighted policy included "Don't Pursue," yet thousands of servicemen and women have been pursued, discriminated against, and expelled from the US armed forces: pursued, even though they hadn't been asked, hadn't told. So now the Joint Chiefs of Staff are being told to review the DADT policy. Some are in favor of reviewing it; others are benightedly coming up with ever more irrational and arcane reasons to support their prejudices against gays openly serving. Of all the NATO allied nations, the so-called First World, all the nations allow gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military, except the United States, Russia, and China. The so-called superpowers, current and former, are the most benighted about this issue.

But let's turn back the clock a bit, to the days when the DADT policy was first into place, in the mid-1990s. Amid controversy and acclaim, the US policy was instituted with much fanfare and many attempts to claim that it was an enlightened policy.

Probably the smartest, if most ironic and sideways, response to this came from science prophet and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke was one of the most influential writer-scientists of the 20th C., with numerous visionary books and films to his credit. He was a genuine out-of-the-box thinker. He was also the last survivor of the great Golden Age of science fiction, outliving his friends, and friendly rivals as SF authors, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. In several of Clarke's novels of the future, bisexuality is taken for granted, and with hardly a comment, as the rational recognition of the truth of human behavior. Clarke was an avowed logical positivist, yet many of his most memorable short stories contain some of the most original thinking about God from the 20th C.; enough to have earned him a theologian's credit, should he have desired it.

In his massive 1999 volume, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!, Collected Essays 1934-1998, Clarke included a previously unpublished ironic piece about DADT. The essay is titled "The Gay Warlords," and is an ironic and scathing indictment of the sense of unreality surrounding the debate. Clarke's essay is therefore worth excerpting at some length, below.

It is astonishing that the most important reason for keeping gays out of the armed forces has never beeen widely publicized, despite the fact that even the most casual student of history knows their bloodthirsty record. (Okay, I confess, I'm a closet pacifist, having had a very peaceful war in the Royal Air Force. . . .) [One might add that as an engineer during WWII Clarke made an essential contribution to the development of radar.]

Those archetypal warriors, the Spartans, proudly boasted how they maintained their esprit de corps, with accent on the corps. And Julius Caesar's popularity with his men, who chanted, "Every wife's husband, every husband's wife," after him, was undoubtedly enhanced by his enthusiastic swinging in both directions: vide his youthful affair with the king of Bythinia. However, like most of his coldly calculated actions, this was probably motivated by politics rather than passion.

There's very little of Caesar's ambidextrousness about the two other greatest military leaders of antiquity, Alexander and Hadrian. The seem to have been hetero only rarely, and then entirely for reasons of state. For details, see Mary Renault's The Nature of Alexander and Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian.

Jumping forward a thousand years or so (and with only a passing glance at the unproved allegations against the Knights Templar), we come to that amazingly well-matched pair of military geniuses, Richard I and Saladin. About Richard's predilections there is no doubt: one of the most piquant incidents in the history of British arms was the occasion when Eleanor of Aquitaine berated the aptly named "Lionheart," in front of his own troops, for his failure to give her a grandchild. (He never did.)

As for Saladin, though he did produce a few offspring, there is considerable evidence that his main interest was elsewhere. . . .

It must be admitted that England's most celebrated royal gays—Edward II and James I—hardly fit the militaristic mold. When James succeeded Elizabeth, the courtiers remarked (out of his hearing), "Once we had a queen who was a king—now we have a king who is a queen." And Marlowe has told us all too graphically how Edward's death reflected his life: I've often wondered how they stage the last act of the play, but don't really want to know. . . .

But the classic textbook specimen of the brutal, brilliant, and pathologically antiheterosexual warrior will be found not in Europe or Asia, but in Africa. During the last year of the—literally—reign of terror that created the Zulu nation, Shaka the Great executed any woman found pregnant, together with their husbands. Nice guy. . . don't know how he expected his empire to continue. But it did, even after his inevitable assassination, and us Brits a lot of trouble. . . . Much of this was self-inflicted; it was in one of these wars that the dead British gunners were found with their fingernails torn out—by themselves, in a desperate attempt to open the ammunition boxes. The storekeeper had forgotten to send the keys; doubtless he was promoted, in the best military tradition of "reward the guilty, punish the innocent."

How/why did I get involved in this grubby line of research? (Thought you'd never ask.) Well, it was triggered by recent revelations about certain multi-decorated Royal Air Force Command war heroes, which reminded me of a long-forgotten scandal here in my adopted country of Sri Lanka. . . .

At the turn of the [20th] century, the commander in chief of the Ceylon forces was a very remarkable man, Sir Hector Macdonald. Winner of his country's highest military award, the Victoria Cross, he was known as the bravest soldier in the British army and had achieved the astonishing feat of being promoted all the way from private to general.

Alas, to the great embarrassment of the local Brits (and doubtless the amusement of everyone else), Fighting Mac was caught in flagrante with some Colombo schoolboys—not the natives, by gad!—at least they were burghers (upper-class Eurasians). Whitehall recalled the general prontissimo; he got as far as Paris, and shot himself. . . .

Maybe the equally brave General Gordon (read between the lines of Lytton Strachey's admittedly biased Eminent Victorians) was lucky: he died at the siege of Khartoum (1885) and so became a national hero. Ditto the widely suspected Lord Kitchener, though his fate was somewhat less valiant; he drowned when his flagship was torpedoed in World War I.

But enough: I consider my thesis proved beyond doubt.



They're too bloodthirsty and warlike. We need gentle, compassionate soldiers, in the peaceful new world we hope to build.

—Arthur C. Clarke

One might add T.E. Lawrence of the Arabian conflict during WWI, among others, whose tastes were definitely towards men and boys. And several homo-warriors.

Reading this Clarke essay was a pleasant surprise; I had no idea till now that he'd ever written anything on the subject. But it oughtn't be a surprise, I suppose, as he was a great writer on a great many topics. Thank you, Sir Arthur.