This is the table in the house our parents rented in Skiathos, Greece, where our dad told us the story of THE ILIAD for the first time. He explained, to our great surprise, that Achilles was gay and Patrocles was his lover, and that was why Achilles got so angry when Patrocles was killed. I wrote about this in my memoir, LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME. My brother and I thought he was making it up.
Our father was 24 years old in 1943, when he decided he wasn’t going to fight anymore. He was disgusted and enraged by the army’s red-tape bureaucracy, by the fact that when the wounded soldiers came home from the war, they were treated badly and without respect. He went AWOL several times, until they threw him in the stockade. When asked by an army psychiatrist why he was acting this way, he said he’d killed an emaciated Japanese soldier in hand-to-hand combat on Guadalcanal and he never intended to kill anyone ever again. If that made him crazy, then so be it. The army finally discharged him as unfit for duty in 1944, and gave him a pension. When FROM HERE TO ETERNITY was published in 1951, the army took his pension away, because they decided that anyone who could write a book couldn’t be all that crazy.
We have the letters he wrote to his editor at Scribner, Burroughs Mitchell, fighting and arguing to keep every f-word and c-word; every reference to homosexual sex; every scene of masturbation, in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY – and more often than not, he was overruled. What he cared about was depicting the reality of life in the pre-war army. The US Postal Service would not ship the book if it contained “prurient” language or scenes. His response to his editor was: “The things we change in this book for propriety’s sake will in five years, or ten years, come in someone else’s book anyway, that may not be as good as this one, and then we will kick ourselves for not having done it, and we will not have been first with this … and we will wonder why we thought we couldn’t do it. Writing has to keep evolving into deeper honesty, like everything else, and you cannot stand on past precedent or theory, and still evolve … You know there is nothing salacious in this book as well as I do. therefore, whatever changes you want made along that line will be made for propriety, and propriety is a very inconstant thing.”
My brother and I have wanted to publish an uncensored, unexpurgated version of the original manuscript for a long time, and Open Road Media‘s enthusiasm and energy for the project matched ours. Over the last few days this new edition has gotten a good deal of attention in the press — in The New York Times; on BBC News; and Perez Hilton‘s site.
My father believed that there has been and will be homosexual sex in the armed forces since armies have existed, which means, pretty much since men figured out how to band together and club each other on the head. He didn’t think it was a big deal and wanted people to be open and honest about it. He also believed that who a person likes to sleep with is hardly the point when you are lying in a foxhole with the enemy advancing upon you; what matters is if the person will stay cool and focused under fire. He didn’t see much progress in this area in his life time.
There are also sections of a novel of his that never was published, a first attempt, that we are going to release to the world. It is called TO THE END OF THE WAR. His scenes of the home front in 1943 are unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The soldiers, recovering from their wounds in a Memphis army hospital, are steeling themselves to be shipped back out overseas. They all know they’re being sent to England to prepare for the invasion of Normandy. They also know they don’t stand a chance of surviving this time. Some of their wounds are very serious, but the army doesn’t give them a break. And they are changed, psychically broken in some fundamental way. They can’t sleep at night, and would rather be back in the jungle with their old outfits, but their old outfits don’t exist anymore. They’ve kept track of everyone, and everyone is KIA, MIA, or transferred. The civilian population likes its heroes, just as long the heroes don’t act out, or talk too much, or need too much attention. So the soldiers learn to put on fronts, to wear the mask the world wants them to wear. My dad understood so much about human nature at such an early age, I can hardly believe it. There is only one writer I can think of who got this and took it a step further – Tim O’Brien, in THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. In his book, it’s the narrator who puts on the fronts, who lies, who tricks us, the readers, all in order to show us that there is no way in hell we, as civilians, will ever understand war.