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.