Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Warrior of Darkness... by Aleksandr Voinov

Hi, I’m Aleksandr Voinov, and a large percentage of my characters wear uniforms. This doubles if we consider the killer business suit a uniform, too. My first story in the genre, Special Forces, was all about the uniforms and, once Vadim hits retirement, the suits.

Of all the writers who feed the uniform kink, I am possibly the most ambivalent about it. The reason is that I’m a military historian, so one of my primary interests is a) the culture of war (and soldiers), b) the many factors around warfare (tactics, strategy, technology, doctrine) and c) the history and development of it.

Obviously, it’s all about the people behind the battles: those who come up with reasons to kill other human beings and laying waste to human-made structures (politicians and leaders); those who equip them (scientists and manufacturers); and then the men (and women) who fight those wars, from front-line troops to support troops.

And then there are the dark sides of war; genocide, religious wars (whether you call them crusade or jihad is only a gradual difference), killing and maiming of civilians, aerial bombardment (from Guernica to Dresden to Baghdad). As a writer, I’m endlessly fascinated that these atrocities are being committed by the same uniformed people who, with a twist of the hand, can be as heroic as laying down their lives for a comrade or a “higher purpose” (however you wish to define it). In a way, war crystallizes the very best and very worst of human nature, and that is, for me, where the most interesting stories live.

Warriors themselves don’t change much over time; the cultures are different, obviously, but the quandaries and issues are the same. Soldiers have to decide how to treat, say, the body of a fallen enemy – and there’s always the option to drag it around behind one’s chariot like Achilles did, or piss on it and post the photos on Facebook, or cut off fingers and keep them as trophies. There’s also the potential for mercy, clemency, mildness and generosity. Both live in the same heart, went through the same training, exist in the same military structure, under the same doctrine.

A few examples, since I’m currently researching the Second World War; there is Herrmann Goering, once a highly-decorated, courageous and accomplished fighter pilot of the Great War in Manfred von Richthofen’s “flying circus” fighter squadron. In the Second World War, he was morbidly obese, and so vain in his fantasy uniforms that German widely called him the “Goldfasan” (golden pheasant); he was also the treacherous commander of the Luftwaffe who betrayed Hitler in the attempt to take power—in the last red dying glow on the Third Reich. The same “hero” of the First World War famously told his outgunned, outnumbered and outfought fighter pilots that, if they don’t manage to stop the Allied bombers, he’d order his anti-aircraft gunner crews to “shoot them down like the cowards and cripples they are”.

There are many examples like it. Von Stauffenberg, the decorated crippled officer who tried to blow up Hitler and paid with his life for it was not a democrat by anybody’s standards. He was ultra-nationalistic and very conservative, and some historians believe that if “Valkyrie” had succeeded, Germany would have turned into a military dictatorship that wouldn’t have been that much more benevolent place—and certainly not a democracy.

It’s easy for evil to hide in a uniform. There’s a reason why many hats (“covers”) of dress uniforms shield the eyes. In camouflage, faces painted, everybody looks the same. Responsibility can be pushed away with “I was given orders”. Many things never come to light. Soldiers can turn against civilians in a heartbeat, in modern war, on an unprecedented scale. It was “necessary for victory”, it was “an order”, or the “rules of engagement”, and you end up with fire-bombed cities, shot babies and raped teenagers and nobody’s guilty.  

After all the reading and studying I’ve been doing, I can’t “perv out” over a uniform, regardless of personal kinks and very visceral responses I have to uniforms. And I’m the kind of guy who spends hours in military museums gawping at all the shinies on display there without being bored for a minute.

When I look at soldiers these days (and that includes creatively), I recognize the fetish of status and power, and I recognize both the virtues of the bearer and the potential to turn ugly, the potential for abuse, cruelty and unbridled murder. I frankly know too much to simply celebrate the modern version of the warrior or what he wears, or what the get-up signifies in a cultural context.

And all this sounds a bit weird in the discussion of a fetish or a trope/sub-genre of m/m. But it’s in my work, too. My soldiers are ambivalent. Pretty much all of them have the potential for vast darkness and selfless sacrifice. There is no warrior or soldier in any of my books who’s “pure” or “good” without reservations. I frankly don’t believe such a pure person exists.

When Taylor asked me to write this blog post, she knew that I’m currently working on a number of stories set in the Second World War, told, in part at least, from the German point-of-view. There’s family history there, too, but I’m not going to delve into that. Let’s just say that the books I’m currently writing are extremely personal. One of my friends asked me why I’m doing this to myself, grappling with those extremely dark twelve years of history, and I joked “because the German uniforms were just the prettiest in that war.”

There’s another anecdote in that. Hugo Boss, the designer of the German uniforms, is now a big listed company that makes expensive suits for business people – see, we’re coming full circle! – but of course, “pretty” makes it sound way too simple and is flippant to boot. The Third Reich has probably gone the farthest in perverting the warrior virtues on an epic, inconceivable scale. The uniforms are still iconic to this day. For decades, if you wanted an embodiment of pure evil, a black uniform with a silver skull emblem would do it (arguably, this received some competition from bearded young male Muslims or Soviets in later decades).

I’d assume that this will stick around with us forever—last week, I watched Captain America: the First Avenger, which features a secret technological Nazi organization as the primary evil. As the antithesis to the pure, selfless “all-American” hero, nothing is better than Nazis.

Or, another example: I don’t think there are many people who wear Second World War British or American uniforms on modern-day uniform fetish sites, but you can’t step anywhere without stumbling over SS paraphernalia. There’s wide-scale fetishization of especially Nazi get-up, and that’s another can of worms. (There’s a whole film genre for it: Naziploitation, and the uniform is the primary fetish.

These images and ideas have power, and they go right past our brains for the most part. For years, all this baggage has kept me away from the WWII books I’m currently writing. I’m terrified of “getting it wrong”, and half of my work with the current novels is to dig through all those issues and find the breathing, living stories underneath.

But one of the biggest challenges for me is to tackle all these themes (in a romance, or a historical novel with a romantic sub-plot, no less!), without writing it for the kink, and while fully accepting that soldiers can be dark, evil, twisted, or, at the best of times, ambivalent. They do kill people, you know.


  1. I know that when I was in the Army there were some people who you knew only enlisted for either the opportunity to say that they were in the Army, for the money, or because they wanted to be able to kill people legally. The bulk of us weren't in there for that reason. I know that I was definitely fighting for freedom and because it was an honor to serve my country, but there is a darkness that seems to sort of permeate the air around the military.

    I didn't know about the Naziploitation thing, that right there is...I really don't even know what to think of that.

    Regardless, you do write men in uniform very well and I'm looking forward to seeing you tackle WWII. I'm sure that in true Aleksandr Voinov fashion you will do an exceptional job with it.

  2. I'm fascinated by WWII, but emotionally vulnerable about it too. My Japanese grandfather was on a battleship sunk by American planes—he died before my father ever met him. But my other grandfather was in the US Army during WWII. Going to school in the US, I regularly got blamed for WWII, called a dirty J*p, and told that "we" deserved to get nuked.

    Although a small part of me wanted the Captain America movie to be grimmer and more realistic than it was, I also appreciated that it was the kind of movie I could take my son to. And that it also featured a Japanese-American soldier fighting with Captain America, so it didn't support the kind of racism that made my childhood miserable even two generations after WWII.

    One of my favorite WWII movies is "Hell in the Pacific," starring Lee Ving and Toshiro Mifune. It's the story of an American and Japanese soldier shot down on the same island, where the men have to learn how to stop struggling against each other and fight against nature instead.

    I'm really not into uniform fetishism at all. But I've studied one of the most outrageous cases of it, gay writer Yukio Mishima, who designed his own homoerotic fascist uniforms, then killed himself in one after his unsuccessful coup.

  3. It actually astonishes me to hear you say you're ambivalent. I have trouble with your stories because so far I found no ambivalence in them. Your writing is brilliant, but I've yet to come across any book which doesn't sicken me to the core.

    Up to now it was a wholehearted feasting of war and darkness to me, without much temporising or even just the hint at that we need to cease training (these days mindless) killers or making war.

    But then, to me, there is no heroism in war. None at all. Only an utter absence of intellect and soul and so many misled people. Nothing except casting away weapons and willing to be peaceful is ever heroic.

    I gave up on your books recently, because I'd decided that indeed you are feeding a fetish, eroticising death and killing and war, to satisfy your own kinks and those of others, and that that was absolutely your right in a free country.

    Seeing you now claim you are actually ambivalent is shocking as for this reader here you fail completely in that regard.

  4. @Vicktor - Thanks. And - absolutely, there's all this idealism and selflessness, too, which, counterposed with the flipside of the medal, only becomes starker. I was on the verge of joining up myself after university, and, had I been single then, I'd likely be typing this at a desk in the Kosovo, or Afghanistan, or Turkey, or wherever they'd have sent me.

    @Violetta - That's horrendous. I think the Japanese are getting the rawest deal of all, post-war. I get a lot of ribbing (and just a few days ago was told that all Germans were "evil" and deserved to be firebombed, even the women and children), but at least there seems to be some kind of grudging respect towards the Germans, something which I'm not seeing towards, say, the Japanese. The Pacific theatre seems like a totally different war, too, and I haven't tackled that one yet at all.

    "Hell in the Pacific" is interesting - also, I think it was the prime inspiration behind "Enemy Mine", and the premise of "enemies to friends" I find really compelling. I mean, just a bit over 65 years on, I'm having conversations with this with people who might just have "crossed blades", as it were, with my grandfather (who was the NCO on an anti-aircraft gun), and some of those are my friends.

    And then there's, of course, the claim that WWII created the modern (western) world as we know it. The deeper I dig, the more that's true in my view.

    @Dena - Thanks for your perspective. I don't think there's anything else I can say to that.

  5. I just got done skimming WWII history for a short story, and I can't wait to see what you write from a much deeper perspective. There has been so much fictionalization around that war that the cliches abound. The actual sources when you get into them are much more ambivalent and enthralling. I know you will bring us something far more interesting, especially going into it from the German POV. The range of possible characters is so broad. Are you going to include the post-war period at all? That is a fascinating time in history to me in many ways.

  6. Kaje - Thanks for the comment. I'm planning to take both WWII novels past "Day Zero"; one ends with the liberation of Paris, the other shows a bit of the post-war years, which were culturally pretty depressing (the young Federal Republic of Germany was a hostile place for gays, leaving many of them doubly traumatized - everybody got liberated, but they didn't... that kind of thing).

    I might tackle an even more personal/serious book about internally-displaced people (refugees from the former German territories to the east), but that is even more of a touchy subject. But it's fascinating, and it's family history.

  7. Wow, that blue tie grabs the eye. Dang. Great post! Loved hearing your perspective.

  8. Edmond - I need to find this one in real life. It'll go well with my new three-piece suit that's currently being made. :)

  9. Thank you so much for detailing your perspective! :)

    I'm a 'baby-boom' child, born just after WWII, and my parents both took part (in the RAF); however, they never, ever, said a bad word about Germans in general, and by the 60's, my father had a number of work-colleagues/friends of German extraction - who had also fought in the war.
    So, I suppose I was brought up to respect 'human' beings, irrespective of their nationality; and as a result, 'uniforms' never really bothered me. I'm profoundly satified that you are taking this 'delicate' aspect, and writing stories about the 'human beings' involved.

    I'm appalled that Vicktor (bless you, Vic!) had to suffer; and all I can say is that people forget (when parents/grand-parents STOP griping) eventually.

    So, thank you agsin for an alternative view (and I'm definitely looking forward to the new 3-piece!!)

    Hugs all round

    1. LOL. Oh Carole-Ann, I don't know that I really suffered. As far as actually serving in the Army...I know my Sergeant tried to make me suffer. While there's definitely a hardness and yes, a darkness that hovers and invades, there's also the strength of character, a discipline, a courageous spirit that permeates the being of those who served. Even coming out of the Army disabled and unable to do the things that I did before, I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. I know of many who feel the same. We served our country, which means we served our families and our friends. It's humbling. I also loved hearing about the different wars growing up (I am a history nerd). Not just the battles but the way the civilians in the different countries pulled together and got involved, the stories of survival, the stories of people who fell in love, families that grew stronger. I believe darkness is there hovering over almost anything that involves humans. I know I saw it attending seminary school just as much as when I was in the Army, probably more so because they future pastors and ministers were doing it "on order from God." I think that's why I love reading books by Aleks because you don't just get the darkness, it's there, he doesn't let you forget it, but you get that there's light there too. It may be hidden, but it's there. And I love the research, because you can always tell that he did his research, which, as a nerd (albeit a sexy one) I love.

  10. I know, I'm unfashionably late, but I read this post and was actually a bit shocked by the level of honesty and truth. That doesn't happen often, me being shocked nor people being that honest, so I'm making note of it.
    Touche, Aleksandr Voinov, and thank you.