Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 657-662
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Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present. Edited by B. R. Burg. New York: New York University Press, 2002. Pp. ix + 299. $65.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
Historian B. R. Burg should be commended for undertaking an ambitious and difficult scholarly project. In his new book, Gay Warriors, Burg sets out to shed light on the two-thousand-year history of same-sex desire, practice, and identity in the military, an important subject whose analysis is complicated by a regulatory closet that has obscured, concealed, but also generated same-sex eroticism for centuries. Even though the topic has attracted the attention of a distinguished and growing set of scholars in the humanities and social sciences, including Judith Butler (rhetoric), Janet Halley (law), Leisa D. Meyer (history), Charles Moskos (sociology), and Mary Katzenstein (government/political science), military homosexuality remains an understudied phenomenon. And, as Burg rightly implies in his introduction, few scholars have engaged in the comparative, transhistorical analysis that might identify and account for similarities and differences across distinct epochs and cultures. Military homosexuality has been inflected by so much invisibility that almost any commentary is welcome. Consequently, the limitations of this book are an even greater disappointment than might otherwise be the case.
Burg's aim in compiling this volume is to facilitate the study of military homosexuality by presenting key documents and then drawing on analytic essays to provide interpretive context for the primary materials. He explains that "[t]he purpose of Gay Warriors is to bring together in a convenient format an essential segment of the historical materials that underpin the folklore, legends, truths, and traditions of military homoeroticism [End Page 657] through the ages" (2). Burg organizes the documents into nine chapters, ranging from the armies of the ancient Greek city-states to the current American "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Although none of the chapters challenges Eurocentric paradigms of sexuality or addresses non-Western examples such as the gay warriors of Shaka Zulu, Burg presents an impressive range of cases, including the Amazons, the medieval Templars, the British navy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the American Civil War, the U.S. navy after the First World War, and the Second World War. Most chapters follow a similar format that begins with a one- or two-page introduction by Burg and an interpretive essay reprinted from the secondary literature, followed by a handful or two of documents such as government regulations, court-martial transcripts, and diary entries.
Burg makes a valuable contribution by presenting obscure materials such as eighteenth-century courts-martial transcripts from the British navy that would be difficult for all but the most advanced experts to locate. In addition, many of the materials are fun to read. Who could resist, after all, the discussion of how during a trial of the Order of Knights Templar in the early fourteenth century "William of Born, a knight of the diocese of Limoges, related that . . . [w]hile the other man lay on the ground holding himself with his feet and his hands, William climbed upon him and introduced his penis into the anus of the prostrate individual" (87). Apparently, William enjoyed over fifty such encounters.
Despite its important contributions, however, the book falls short in other ways. Intergenerational rape, masturbation, consensual sex, ancient Greek boy lovers, and modern American lesbians are all included in this volume without so much as an explanatory peep as to what, if anything, these diverse identities and practices might or might not have in common. Are Quartermaster James Ball, accused in 1706 of raping thirteen-year-old Walter Jones on HMS Swallow, and Betty Somers, an American who left her civilian girlfriend to join the Marines in the Second World War, both "gay warriors"? By including diverse materials in a single volume, the book implies a kind of classificational coherence without justifying this assumed premise. Far from accounting for or even identifying elements of...