If the generals really plan to spend a year reviewing the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” before its anticipated repeal by Congress, they should have plenty of time to read James Lord’s My Queer War. What they will learn, among other things, is that the American warriors who fought in World War II, trumpeted as our “Greatest Generation,” were the usual mix of gay and straight, humane and sadistic, cowardly and brave. They will also learn that the United States Army has been as much a refuge for gay men as a system for identifying and expelling them from its ranks. “The army experience, after all,” as Lord notes early on in his book, “advertised its facility for creating buddies, the happenstance of warfare famous for forging bonds between men, having, in fact, made heroes of soldiers embracing each other in foxholes while the gentle rain of shrapnel burst above them in the vivid air.”
Lord, who died last summer at the age of eighty-six, was an independent-minded art historian and memoirist who wrote memorably about his friendships with Picasso, whom he first met while doing intelligence work in Europe during the war, and Giacometti, of whom Lord wrote a well-received biography. Another of Lord’s books, A Giacometti Portrait, published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, is one of the classics of American art writing. It records the eighteen sittings that Lord endured while Giacometti drew and erased, drew and erased, Lord’s portrait, repeatedly unmaking what he had patiently worked up the day before, and talking, always interestingly, about what he was doing and thinking. “You have to do something by undoing it,” Giacometti told Lord. “You have to dare to give the final brush stroke that makes everything disappear.”
A Giacometti Portrait is shaped around two ambiguities. First, it is both a portrait of Giacometti and the record of a portrait he made of Lord. And second, it is a remarkably self-effacing book—Lord reveals almost nothing about himself—even as the focus of the sessions is squarely on Lord’s own rather ordinary face, which, in the various stages of the emerging portrait, might be mistaken for that of a clubby Boston banker or confidential lawyer.
If we learn little about James Lord in A Giacometti Portrait , we learn almost everything about him in My Queer War. Portraiture of various kinds is again at the center of the proceedings; the title, suggesting both the queerness of the writer and the oddity of the war, is again ambiguous. We learn that in November, 1942, in flight from “my hateful college” (unidentified here, but Lord attended Wesleyan, before and after the war), he volunteered for the Air Force. He offers a self-portrait of himself at the time: “a college dropout, single, aged nineteen, and white, number 12183139, brown of hair and eye, with a straight nose, sensuous mouth, slightly protuberant chin, average of height, weight, build, unremarkable, in short, in every outward aspect.”
A few pages later, Lord offers another self-portrait, but this time the inward aspect is revealed. This vision of himself, he explains, came to him as an epiphany four years earlier, as he was walking back to his prep school dorm after a piano lesson, “along the cement sidewalk strewn with dead leaves.” Those dead leaves take on a symbolic resonance, a complex image of desire, sterility, and horror.
I suddenly saw like an appalling sunburst, fatal and final, that what I really wanted to do with the good-looking boys whose best pal I longed to be was not just horsing around in the locker room but doing freely with them in bed after lights out everything I had always till then been compelled to do in solitude with myself. In short, the creature I’d suddenly seen was that abnormal, that abominable thing called a homosexual, a loathsome mistake of nature, a cultural criminal whom any feeling person would naturally put in prison.
It is to avoid this fate, both inner and outer, that Lord flees to the Army. Later, he contrasts his own cowardly flight from reality with his younger brother’s motivations for joining up. “Teddy had heroically sought out danger and achieved the merit of dying,” shot by a Japanese sniper on Luzon, “whereas I had miserably run away from the inconvenience of being queer.” Lord’s ambivalence, one foot in the closet, leads to predictable misunderstandings during his early posting in a chemical warfare unit near Reno. He tells one of his superiors that he’s in love with him. “Don’t tell me,” the officer replies. “Don’t even think about telling me.”
Lord gets a more encouraging, if lingeringly ambiguous, response from a mysterious young soldier named Johannes Friedrich Kessler, who goes by the name of Hanno, just like “the last of the Buddenbrooks in Thomas Mann’s novel.” Lord and Hanno embark on romantic excursions to ghost towns and silver mines in the Nevada outback, all the while discussing Tonio Kröger and young Werther. (“Guy in a story by Goethe,” Hanno explains. “Hopelessly in love. He kills himself.”) They reveal everything to one another except the one big secret, the “lurid, shaming, guilty secret,” that might seal their Burschenherrlichkeit, rendered by the well-hung and camera-shy Hanno as “glorious fellowship,” forever.
Hanno emerges as the great might-have-been in Lord’s story, an embodiment of ideal masculinity, “the superior shiver of high culture,” and “another Germany.”
It is odd, surely, that while my homeland was at war to destroy the Third Reich, do away with its criminal rulers, and shame the German people for their slavish adulation of the führer, at the same time I was deeply in love with things profoundly German, the music of Beethoven, the imagination of Thomas Mann.
Lord later discovers that there are secrets in Hanno’s life beyond his sexual orientation. Hanno’s disappearance during the last days of the war on a “secret secret” mission, with orders “right from the top,” adds to the sense that he is a figure of fantasy, a Tadzio of the trenches.
Lord finally learns his “sexual ABCs” when he is transferred to a Military Intelligence unit, housed on the Boston College campus, dedicated to training soldiers for undercover work in France. Lord’s more exciting undercover experience is in the pickup scene at the Hotel Statler (150 soldiers at the bar, several rows deep, and “all gay”), in the men’s bathroom at the Museum of Fine Arts (“[t]he line of dead white urinals was about as fetching as a parade of tombstones”), and in various locales in what he calls “the incautious dark.” What is striking in these scenes is how open and un-policed this gay world was during the war. At the same time, Lord is oddly reticent about the details of sexual behavior, retreating behind a curtain of purple prose: “The ascent into oblivion was utter caesura of self.”
Once the action shifts to France and the Rhineland, where Lord arrives too late to experience much in the way of “real war,” the narrative takes on an increasingly novelistic quality, part picaresque and part gothic. Despite the failure of his team of intelligence operatives to ferret out spies or military secrets, he is mysteriously awarded a Bronze Star. Whatever heroism he is capable of comes later, when he is a very unwelcome whistle-blower in hideous, American-run camps for prisoners of war and displaced persons. This narrative reversal—recognition for unearned bravery followed by acts of heroism—resembles Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, as does the self-inflicted scar, a “red badge,” that Lord mysteriously scratches into his own forehead. Another literary parallel much on Jim Lord’s mind is Lord Jim, with its pattern of cowardice followed by self-sacrifice. A stray reference to “one of ours,” when Lord playfully fires a pistol across enemy lines, may allude to Willa Cather’s war novel of that title, which happens to be about a gay soldier in World War I.
Some of the scenes in My Queer War, all meant to reveal the sexual aspect of war, seem literary in a different way; they feel generic, déjà lu. Lord may have witnessed a crowd of French townspeople taunting girls with shaved heads who slept with Nazi occupiers, or he may have witnessed it in Hiroshima Mon Amour. A scene in which an American sergeant comes in his pants while shooting a Nazi officer in the face also feels stagey, and so does a torture scene in which a French sadist with his shirt off works over some innocent—and naked—French boys. In the closing chapters of My Queer War, one tires of the belabored passages about the paradox of high German culture perpetrating the Holocaust. “[T]hey all knew,” he writes of the Germans. “And this was as normal, as ordinary, and as banal as a drop of water in mid ocean.”
Livelier and more reliable are the remembered scenes with Picasso, whom Lord tracks down on a whim—“Encounters with greatness are the civilizing milestones on the journey of a lifetime”—and from whom he rashly requests a portrait. Picasso surprisingly complies, executing a drawing remarkable for its swiftness, in contrast to those eighteen sittings with Giacometti. Lord is disappointed with this first portrait, so Picasso makes a second one. “But before I could even apprehend that the experience was an event, much less that it had meaning, it was finished.” As Lord prepares to leave for home, Picasso delivers an “extraordinary and unforgettable prediction anent my future.” He seizes Lord by the shoulders and turns him around to face his other guests, Eluard, Aragon, and others. “Here is my young friend Lord,” Picasso says. “Look at him closely. Someday he will surprise us. There will be great things in his future. He will do something to astonish us someday.”
After the war, Lord reveals in an epilogue to My Queer War, he wrote a long novel based on his wartime experience, with a Dantesque descent into hell and a self-sacrificing hero of the Lord Jim variety. Thomas Mann shepherded the novel to Knopf, where it was turned down. In a generous letter, Mann tried to reassure Lord: “If in the end your book should be judged too unaccomplished for publication, you will find consolation in renewed creative efforts which will benefit by your growing years and inner maturing.” Perhaps Lord hoped that My Queer War was the astonishing thing that Picasso predicted and Mann encouraged. The book is less astonishing, it seems to me, than A Giacometti Portrait. The reason, I suspect, is that it bears too many traces of the early novel that Lord, no doubt wisely, consigned to the wastebasket. In its best passages, however, when self-portraiture reveals the poignant ambiguities of being gay in the military, My Queer War makes us grateful that Jim Lord/Lord Jim decided, late in life, to abandon the policy of “don’t tell.”
Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke and the author of A Summer of Hummingbirds.