Almost as if timed to coincide with the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" developments in D. C. -- not that it was -- comes James Lord's memoir, My Queer War (Farrar Straus Giroux, 344pp. $27). Which side of the issue it supports may not be quite so obvious as the author recounts his experiences in the World War II years following his 1942 enlistment as a naïve, incipient 19-year-old homosexual.
Virtually coincident with his coming out, Lord recalls -- in the kind of detail for dialogue and incidental behavior that frequently strains credulity -- his easy stateside war and his mostly relaxed European war. Through a stroke of good luck shortly after basic training, he was dispatched to Boston intelligence facilities where he could while away leisure hours in clubs that gay officers and enlisted men frequented in large numbers. Subsequently, he underwent a coming-out not unlike the proverbial day at the beach -- a nude beach.
Eventually shipped to England and France, his war remained relatively stress-free -- the designation "queer" applies not only to his sexual orientation but to his anomalous experiences -- and even enhanced by his being awarded the Bronze Star for duty he openly admits was undeserving. In a far-flung English village of the sort observed in the superb television series Foyle's War, Lord practically lives the country gentleman's life by befriending a local woman and her two sons before being sent to Paris.
In the City of (Dimmed) Lights, he has the chutzpah to seek out Pablo Picasso, who not only insists Lord meet Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas but executes two -- count 'em, two -- portraits of the enterprising young soldier. (What must the hastily drawn sketches be worth?) This stretch of his career, during which he rose to the rank of sergeant, is testimony to how queer (in a couple senses of the condition) his war was. While other soldiers were dying on the battlefield, Lord was walking the streets of Paris with the gregarious Stein.
For various reasons having to do with his own off-handed behavior and the illogic of wartime practices, Lord does land in situations that aren't such pots of confiture. His worst posting is to a prisoner-of-war camp where he's privy to cruelty on the part of those in charge that tarnishes the benefits Americans were generally assumed to be providing as rescuers. Lord's depiction of his superiors is among the most alarming elements of his remembrances. And it's plain that in Europe he had far fewer, if any, opportunities to indulge the homosexual life-style to which he had become so comfortably accustomed.
Reading My Queer War is a curious undertaking in 2010. (Lord died in 2009 at 86.) The prose is a big problem. Much of it is purple -- and not simply because that color is a deeper shade of the lavender frequently associated with gayness. Although there's something of that, too, especially in his account of the first time he sleeps with a man. In the sequence, there's at least one paragraph over which a reader wishes he'd drawn the veil.
Then there's Lord's total recall of every conversation he ever had during the period the book covers, not to mention the sudden shifts of weather when he was having them. Some allowances can be made for recollections of exchanges past but not to this extent. He's got to be imagining some of it, and his results begin to feel as if he's fictionalizing. For instance, it's difficult not to question something like: "Shht," he expostulated in French, adding, "Don't dare speak to me. You have no authority. I refuse to hear you. What I know is what I know. Scat!"
Another hurdle, although perhaps lower, is what to make of Lord. Liking him isn't necessary, of course, and wanting readers to like him may not be his intention -- whether he even likes himself isn't evident -- but over the course of the book, he does court impatience. Maybe his humorlessness compounds the problem. He does redeem himself with his response to the POW-camp conditions, which now -- perhaps needless to say -- conjure thoughts of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and those sojourns with Picasso, Stein, Albert Giacometti and the like can arouse envy, but so much of his escapades register as shallow at a time when there's little excuse for it. This, of course, wasn't entirely his doing but a function of the waste that inevitably accompanies war in many guises.
And yet, My Queer War is an undeniable illustration that homosexual men and women have served in the Armed Forces both honorably and perhaps dishonorably -- but having nothing to do with their sexuality. Believing or pretending to believe otherwise is a form of ignorance, and ignorance is never to be excused or encouraged, certainly not in globe-threatening conflicts.