The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 27 Aug 2014, and is filled under Uncategorized.

The last taboo

Tomorrow is D-Day. Your unit is set to be one of the first ashore, walking into a steady stream of fire laid down by German machine gunners in seemingly impregnable strongpoints high up on the coast. The chances are that you will end the day face down in the water, or bleeding out on the beach, miles away from any medical help beyond a shot of morphine.

When my granddad was dying, he talked about the certainty that they had in the days leading up to the invasion that they weren’t going to come back. It’s easy to forget, in the hindsight afforded by seventy years’ history, that D-Day was not a certain success. For the soldiers heading into history’s largest seaborne invasion, the days to come all belonged in a realm of unknowing.

But there was something else my granddad said which surprised me. He said that men had quietly disappeared with each other, intent on getting a last moment of intimacy, however clumsily manifested, before they died. This seems simultaneously shocking to someone brought up on comic book tales of plucky asexual Tommies and yet utterly, heart-rendingly human.

What seems strange is that it’s never been talked about. Homosexuality would still be illegal in Britain for another two decades, so I can understand a reluctance to admit to anything much in a country sodden in hypocritical prurience. And in the decades to come, perhaps that myth of the warrior breed hardened on them, admitting of no human frailty or uncertainty. Our own attitudes to homosexuality, deeply conflicted and defined by fear, can’t do much to allay fears of denunciation and revulsion.

As the generation that did these things slowly close up their stall, it seems that, maybe, we’re missing an opportunity here. If we see that here is no tension between being a warrior and being gay, that bravery is not limited to people of one particular sexual orientation, it opens up some interesting questions that we should have the courage to answer.

What would it look like to look again at the people of that generation and accept the totality of what they were? Admit that they were warriors, but also humans, with desperate aching needs and who cried out for comfort? That some of them were gay, but that others found that expediency could conquer artificially erected walls?

I don’t have the answers to any of these and suspect that, as time goes on, there’s a risk of ending up in a desperate, Daily Mail version of the past that views everything through the prism of patriotic idiocy and mis-remembering. That seems like it’d be a huge shame as, what passes before us now could tell us something real about the past, something new which has never been said before, and help us be more honest about ourselves.

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