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War Literature  
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The unique conditions of wartime create multiple possibilities for writing, for while the military at once nurtures intense same-sex friendships and prohibits their expression in sexual acts, the tribulations of war itself can often work to dismantle inhibitions.

Although love between comrades is a constant theme in war literature, descriptions of the homosexual act are comparatively rare, especially prior to the twentieth century, and the relationships that war literature frequently celebrates are sometimes ill-suited to categories like "homosexual" or "heterosexual."

The Three Categories of Homoerotic War Literature

War literature with clear homoerotic content falls roughly into three categories, each associated with a historical period.

Ever since Homer's Iliad, heroic poetry has celebrated the friendship between an inseparable pair of comrades in erotic terms, finding in the death of one the occasion for eulogizing the love that bound them.

This heroic mode dominates until the nineteenth century, when the war elegy comes to prominence (as, for example, in Whitman's Drum Taps). The war elegy, frequently written from first-hand experience, flourishes especially in the poetry of World War I.

From the turn of the twentieth century, prose fiction begins to explore homosexuality, usually as a problem between military men, and perhaps more often warning of dangers than singing love's praises. Though homoerotic war fiction resists generalizations, this form may be most characteristic of World War II.

Classical Heroic Poetry: Homer

At the fountainhead of Western literature, Homer's Iliad (late eighth century B.C.E.) provides the archetype of comrade-love in the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus.

Achilles forgets his great anger against Agamemnon when his servant Patroclus joins the battle wearing the armor of his master, and is killed by Hector. Achilles' grief now drives the action, for his wrath turns away from the Greeks toward the Trojan hero Hector as the murderer of his beloved friend.

David Halperin has remarked the "conjugal" qualities of their friendship, qualities that belong also to warrior pairs such as David and Jonathan in the Books of Samuel and between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

Though Achilles' love for Patroclus is barely sexualized in Homer, later Greeks took for granted that their relationship was --though there was disagreement about which of them was the beloved and which the lover. Achilles seemed both the more senior of the two and the more desirable.

Aeschylus gave their friendship an explicitly erotic coloring in his lost tragedy Achilleis, but in Plato's Symposium, Phaedrus argues that the playwright was wrong to give the role of beloved to Patroclus, for Achilles was the most beautiful of all heroes and Patroclus much the older of the two.


In Virgil's Aeneid (19 B.C.E.), the friendship between warriors is still not explicitly homoerotic, but the kind of pederastic devotion between soldier pairs that made the Sacred Band of Thebes so formidable (as described by Plutarch and Xenophon) is one that Virgil, during the reign of Augustus, still sees as possible and praiseworthy.

The episode in Book IX, celebrating the devotion of Nisus to the boy Euryalus, is the most memorable account of homoerotic comrade-love in Western literature. The pair volunteer to carry a message through enemy territory to Aeneas; after Euryalus is captured, Nisus attempts a rescue but both perish, with Nisus sacrificing himself to repay his friend's death.

In John Dryden's translation (1697): "Dying, he [Nisus] slew; and, stagg'ring on the plain, / With swimming eyes he sought his lover slain; Then quiet on his bleeding bosom fell, / Content, in death, to be reveng'd so well."

Yet the entire epic is colored by a homoeroticism only slightly less explicit, for heterosexual relations are always treated with some suspicion, whereas male friendship is idealized.

Later Heroic Poems

The heroic mode of Homer and Virgil remained the model for homoerotic war literature until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Thus in the twelfth-century Song of Roland, Roland may be betrothed to Aude, but his warm friendship with her brother Oliver overshadows this relation, and when Oliver is killed, Roland's grief and thirst for revenge rival those of Achilles.

In Abraham Cowley's Davideis (1656), David is portrayed as a young warrior so beautiful that his distracting looks even play a part in slaying Goliath. Virgil's precedent allows Cowley richly to amplify the Bible's single line of praise for David's beauty, and, as Raymond Frontain suggests, to defend Charles II's proclivities with a Biblical sanction.

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