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The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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The Anti-Christ Has All The Best Tunes

The P2P revolution is like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk all rolled into one highly compressed file, by Mark Simpson

Sean Fanning

 (Independent on Sunday, August 2001)

Perhaps the best thing about digital music is that it doesn’t only make listening to music more convenient and less irksome: it actually does part of the tiresome job of listening for you.

ISO-MPEG Audio-Layer-3 -- mercifully shortened to MP3 -- is the digital file format for music exchanged on the Internet and very possibly the acronym of doom for the record industry. It is a form of extreme algorithmic compression of sound files that uses “psychoacoustic” models that account for what listeners actually notice when they hear music or other sounds. “Unnecessary” data is stripped away to make the file as small as possible to facilitate easier storage or uploading and downloading. In other words, MP3 anticipates and interprets mu­sic for the listener before she or he actually hears it.

Of course, this job used to be performed by record companies, with their A&R men and marketing departments. But, like so many before them, they appear to have been automated out of a job—dis­pensed with by algorithms, the Internet, and a bunch of geeky kids in their bedrooms. A whole class of intermediaries and authorities have been liquidated.

The Internet has often been compared to Gutenberg in its im­portance. However, after reading John Alderman’s detailed account of the online music revolution, Sonic Boom: Napster, P2p and the Battle for The Future Of Music, John Alderman, I have a hunch it’s more like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk—all at once, in a highly ‘compressed’ form.

Thanks to the personal computer and the Internet, every man is now at home with his god—downloading The Sex Pistols’ EMI. The corrupt, uncool suits and cassocks who used to intercede have been swept aside and the Word can be enjoyed directly and free from distortion, com­pressed by pure, clean mathematics, not dogma. The free ex­change of information—which is all that digital music amounts to in cyberspace—is the credo of what one might call the Nettist Movement: the true believers in the web and everything it represents.

To many Nettists, anyone who attempts to stand in the way of this Reformation Superhighway is the Papist Antichrist, or the fascist re­gime. And of course this means anyone who doesn’t share their holy zeal—anyone who is non-Nettist. Record companies are about as non-Nettist as you can get. After all, they have most to lose from the free exchange of digital music. All their frightfully expensive CD printing presses, distribution deals and back catalogues melt at the press of a button in someone’s bedroom. If indulgences no longer have to be bought but can be plucked from the air instead, then where is the temporal wealth and power of the record business to come from?

For the record companies, the leaders of the MP3 revolution are seen as heretics who have to be made examples of; burnt at the legal stake so that others may not be tempted to stray. Against the cries for info freedom, their lawyers invoke the Mystery of copyright. Digitising music, just as printing the Bible in German did, puts it within the grasp—and control—of the laity. And like the leaders of the Counter-Reformation, they see themselves as acting in the interests of the people they burn.

You think I exaggerate? You think I take this Reformation, Counter-Reformation metaphor too far? Well, just listen to Edgar Bronfman Jr., heir to the mighty if not exactly holy Roman Seagram Empire, quoted here by Alderman: “I am warring against the culture of the Internet, threatening to depopulate Silicon Valley as I move a Roman legion or two of Wall Street lawyers to litigate. I have done so… not to at­tack the Internet and its culture but for its benefit and to protect it”.

Is Shawn Fanning, the boy who at nineteen founded Napster, the famous MP3 file-sharing “peer-2-peer” online service, a Luther for our times? And is Napster his Wittenberg Theses, nailed to the door of the music industry? For a while, in our accelerated culture, it looked that way. Twelve months after the launch of Napster in June 1999, there were over 200,000 souls praying in his church nightly. By the end of 2000 there were over 50 million registered users and Fanning was a very famous young man indeed; his criminally young, beatific face shining out from the cover of magazines.

But Fanning was no ideologue or evangelical; merely an American boy who saw a need which he believed his software could fill. From his time spent chatting on the Net, he knew that people were eager to trade music files, but find­ing good music was the problem. He joined with two online pals, only slightly older than himself, to solve this with smart code. To­gether they wrote the Napster program, which allowed users to share files by plugging their computers, in effect, into a giant, global network.

Because Napster hosted no music itself (the files were stored on user’s computers and traded), it was hoped by Fanning et al that they would be free from any taint of blasphemy and heresy in the form of copyright violations. They were very wrong. In the opening blast of what was to prove a merciless barrage, the fearsome Recording Industry Associa­tion of America filed a copyright lawsuit against Napster in Decem­ber 1999, just six months after it had launched.

And who could blame them? For the record industry Napster was a disaster of, well, biblical proportions. Practically a whole gen­eration of college kids who didn’t even have to pay for the college computers or the Internet connections they downloaded the MP3 files with, stopped buying CDs. Not only was Napster free, Napster was easier than going to a record store and it was even easier than ordering CDs online. Emusic.com, an e-tailer of digital music, was reduced to giving away MP3 players (worth $150) to anyone who bought just $25 worth of music.

A year and a half on, under the epic weight of various lawsuits and in­junctions brought by the record industry and Lars Ulrich of Metallica, who famously discovered that three unfinished versions of a song he had been working on had been traded on Napster (along with his entire back catalogue), the Church of Shawn Fanning is not what it was. Napster got into bed with record giant Bertlesmann— one of the few record companies to respond to the MP3 revolution with anything other than public burnings—in an attempt to turn Napster into a legal, mainstream, subscription-only service which, crucially, paid royalties to performers.

The issue of intellectual copyright and rewarding artists is a thorny one and not so easy to dismiss as “record company greed.” Ulrich is certainly not the only professional rock and roll rebel to take indig­nant offence at the “criminality” of online file trading. Ultimately though, the feelings of artists or even record companies may not count for very much. In a sense, file trading is what the Internet was designed for—and it was also designed to survive some­thing even more destructive than a music company lawyer: nuclear war.

There is perhaps a tad too much jargon in Sonic Boom for the IT agnostic, and the narration doesn’t always quite match the raciness of the title or the import of the revolution it docu­ments, but it’s a valuable, insightful book for anyone interested in where our cul­ture is headed.

The Nettist Movement itself continues its onward march undaunted. Napster and Fanning may have recanted, but most of his 50 million disciples that Bertlesmann hoped to convert into more orthodox customers have left and are now praying at lesser known online P2P sites. And there are always new, more convincing Luthers. Programmer Ian Clarke, for instance. He believes vehemently that information should be free. But he isn’t going to try too hard to convince you with words; he’s won the argument already with code by designing a system called Freenet which allows users to post and retrieve files with complete anonymity. Unlike Napster, there is no central server—this is a church which really has no walls and whose congregation is invisible.

Clarke likes to tell reporters that he couldn’t take Freenet down if someone put a gun to his head. Which is all very well, but Alderman doesn’t tell us what Clarke would do if Edgar Bronfman Jr. sent a Roman legion of Wall Street lawyers after him.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2001

How to Spot a Sodomite

A look at the famous Victorian anuses of ‘Fanny and Stella’

(bv Mark Simpson, the Independent)

“I had never seen anything like it before… I do not in my practise ever remember to have seen such an appearance of the anus, as those of the prisoners presented.”

So testified Dr Paul in shocked tones at the trial of Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, two young, crossdressing clerks charged with sodomy in 1870 – a crime that then carried a penalty of a lifetime’s penal servitude.

Park and Boulton had been arrested in the Strand Theatre dressed as their coquettish, lascivious alter egos Fanny and Stella. The trial of “The Funny He-She Ladies” as the press dubbed them, was the sensation of the age. Largely forgotten until now, Neil McKenna’s highly readable recounting in Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England brings it roaring back to life.

According to the medical authorities of the day, the signs of sodomy were easily detectable. A wearing away of the rugae around the anus, making it resemble the female labia. Elongation of the penis, caused by the “traction” of sodomy. And dilation.

Dilation was the biggie. The way one tested for it was by the insertion of a professional finger. Repeatedly. If the sphincter failed to show enough resistance to the expert finger-fucking then you were dealing, alas, with a sodomite.

The appalled police doctor was, as we’ve seen, convinced he had fingered major sodomites. Six more doctors lined up to inspect the upraised rectums of Park and Boulton and insert their digits, repeatedly. After two fetid hours, five declared there were no signs of sodomy to be found on or in either arrested anus.

In fact, both Park and Boulton were guilty as proverbial sin. Their bottoms had been rogered senseless by half of London – though, unlike the good doctors, their partners usually paid. From respectable middle-class backgrounds they enjoyed working as brazen, hooting cross-dressing prostitutes in the evening, as you do.

The single dissenting doctor had a few years earlier treated Park repeatedly for a syphilitic sore in his anus.

But because the medical probing had produced the opposite medical opinion to the one hoped for – and because sodomy was such a serious offence (carrying a penalty of life with hard labour) – the Attorney-General had to withdraw all charges of actual sodomy.

Instead Boulton and Park were charged with the vaguer but still serious catch-all of “conspiracy to solicit, induce, procure and endeavour to persuade persons unknown to commit buggery”.

Seventeen dresses and gowns; quantities of skirts and petticoats; bodices and blouses; cloaks and shawls; ladies’ unmentionables, all a bit whiffy and worse for (working) wear, were paraded through the court as evidence.

Although cross-dressing was not in itself a crime, and was actually a popular form of burlesque entertainment at the time in which both Fanny and Stella had enjoyed some success, the Victorian state was keen to make the case – presented by Attorney General Sir Robert Collier himself – that their cross-dressing was part and parcel of their abominable sodomy and the “confusion” of the natural and godly gender order it represented.

The male anus dressed as a vagina.

This approach also backfired, spectacularly. Digby Seymour for the defence asked the court:

“Would young men engaged in the exchange of wicked and accursed embraces put on the dresses of women and go to theatres and public places for the purpose of exciting each other to the commission of this outrageous crime?”

In other words, the very obviousness and shamelessness of Stella and Fanny’s (deliciously outrageous) behaviour was presented as proof that they could not possibly be guilty. Which, in a strange, 20th-century gay pride sense, was sort of true.

But the defence’s ace in the, er, hole was a final, irresistible appeal to patriotism. “I trust that you will pronounce by your verdict,” intoned Digby Seymour, “that London is not cursed with the sins of Sodom, or Westminster tainted with the vices of Gomorrah.”

The jury did its duty and the “foolish” young men, as their defence termed them, were acquitted – having fooled most of their customers, the doctors, the courts and the imperious Victorian state.

‘Sex Terror’ Now Available on Kindle – Sweet Dreams.

Sex-Terror-cover-web

SEX TERROR

Erotic Misadventures in Pop Culture

Mark Simpson

This book will change the way you think about sex. It may even put you off it altogether.

NOW AVAILABLE ON KINDLE 

Amazon.com * Amazon.co.uk * Amazon.de * Amazon.fr * Amazon.es * Amazon.it * Amazon.co.jp * Amazon.com.br * Amazon.ca * Amazon.in * Amazon.com.au

In his full-frontal follow-up to his widely acclaimed It’s a Queer World, Mark Simpson dispenses with the monkey business of sexuality and gets to grips with the organ grinder itself: SEX.

Subjecting our saucy new god to his sacrilegious satire, Simpson sins against every contemporary commandment about doing the nasty: It must be hot. It must be frequent. It must wake the neighbours. And it must be Who You Are.

Simpson argues that we all put far too much faith in sex these days, and that in actual fact sex is messy, confusing, frustrating, and ultimately disappointing.

Especially if you’re having it with him.

Along the way he gets worked up with Alexis Arquette over Stephen Baldwin’s bubble-butt, gets intimate with Dana International, Aiden Shaw and Bruce LaBruce, and – very gingerly – confronts Henry Rollins with those ‘gay’ rumours.

Praise for Sex Terror:

“MARVELLOUS… open Simpson’s book at any point, as many times as you want, and you’ll find the sort of gem-like sentences that Zadie Smith would give her white teeth for.”

– Suzi Feay, Independent on Sunday

“A chainsaw cock of wit… blisteringly, endearingly honest… insightful and valuable.  VERY FUNNY INDEED.”

– Dermod Moore, The Hot Press

“Setting common sexual sense on its ear, Simpson’s Swiftian proposals strike at an emotion dear to us: sexual desire. His anarchic mission is to free sex from sermonizing, convention, egoism, and cultural bias. But unlike Foucault, his deconstructing weapon is built of ribald humour and potshots at pretension. Simpson’s essays produce rancour and HILARIOUS LAUGHTER, DISBELIEF AND DELIGHT. Some call him wonderful, and some call him outrageous, but I call him A TRUE ORIGINAL and YOU SHOULDN’T MISS THIS BOOK.”

– Bruce Benderson, author of Pretending to Say No and User

“BRILLIANT… With surgical precision Mark Simpson peels away the layers of modern masculine culture, leaving few iconic figures un-scarred. This book is certain to provoke and likely to offend; we would expect nothing less from one of the most important voyeurs of contemporary life.”

– Bob Mould, Musician and Songwriter

“When the culture of sex breathes its final breath, Mark Simpson will be there to deliver the eulogy with great zeal. And what a GLORIOUSLY SARDONIC AND INSIGHTFUL farewell it will be!”

– Glenn Belverio, Dutch magazine

“One of those books that bounces up and down on your knee yelling ‘read me, read me…. Brutal honesty and razor wit  – a perfect feast. QUOTABLE GENIUS.”

– RainbowNetwork.com

“BLOODY GOOD…  every outrageous insight is just that – an insight into the modern  condition that often makes you laugh out loud and, if you are not entirely beyond hope, think. Simply some of the best writing on modern culture around.”

– Brian Dempsey, Gay Scotland

“One of England’s MOST ELOQUENT AND SARDONIC commentators.”

– Bay Windows

“Mark Simpson won’t be every reader’s cup of tea, but those who enjoy a biter blend of DARK HUMOUR AND KEEN SOCIAL OBSERVATION will want to drink deeply.”

– Washington Blade

“…never fails to amuse, bemuse, stun and stir… a writer at his peak, a SHAMELESS SUMPTUOUS SERVING OF SOCIAL SATIRE you’ll be digesting long after you put the book down”

– All Man Magazine

ABOUT MARK SIMPSON

English author and journalist Mark Simpson is credited/blamed for coining the word ‘metrosexual‘. Simpson is the author of several books including: Saint MorrisseyMale Impersonators, and Metrosexy.

Sex Terror cover image taken by Michele Martinoli.

Camp For Beginners: David Halperin’s ‘How To Be Gay’

Mark Simpson interviews David Halperin about his controversial new book How To Be Gay  

(Originally appeared on Out.com 20/08/2012)

I’ve always been a big fan of Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Doris Day. But it was a secret, shameful love -- until, that is, David Halperin’s new book, How to Be Gay (Harvard University Press), finally gave me the strength to come out about it. Talking about gay culture can make people of all persuasions very angry indeed. When Halperin began teaching a course on it at the University of Michigan called “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation” back in 2000, it caused a national scandal. He was inundated with outraged, abusive emails, politicians tried to axe funding for his university, and his course was denounced on Fox News, as well as in some corners of the gay press.

SIMPSON: How on earth did your charming—entirely chaste—course on gay initiation manage to upset so many people, straight and gay?

HALPERIN: It was the title. Conservatives in the United States had long suspected that college professors aim to convert straight teenagers to homosexuality; now they had the proof. And gay people in the United States get very upset at the slightest implication that any aspect of homosexuality might not be inborn. Of course, I was neither trying to convert straight students nor suggest that people become gay because they are recruited into the homosexual lifestyle. But in order to understand that, you would have had to read the entire course description, not just the title. It’s interesting, though, that gay culture should be more scandalous nowadays than gay sex.

If you’re doing it right… Do you expect your book to cause a similar outcry? Do you want it to?
I never like to upset people, and I don’t aspire to be polemical, but I have a point of view to defend and I think the book is going to be controversial because it celebrates the fact that gay men are not exactly like everybody else. In an era of gay assimilation, the notion of gay difference arouses a lot of doubt and suspicion.

Is it true to say that the gay culture you are writing about is mostly the “gay sensibility” -- the subcultural appropriation and subversion of mainstream straight culture that characterized pre-Stonewall gay life? Judy! Joan! Oklahoma!
Yes, I’m interested in the persistence of that subcultural appropriation at a time when gay people have now created their own culture. I love that new, post-Stonewall gay culture, but it has trouble competing with the appeal of those traditional icons or their contemporary descendants, like Lady Gaga, and I wanted to find out why. I wanted to know why gay men in particular still thrill to divas and train wrecks when they have original works of gay fiction, movies, and pop culture that feature gay men instead.

Why has the out-and-proud gay identity failed to kill off the self-loathing, closeted gay sensibility?
Because gay identity can’t contain the full play of gay desire. I discovered this when I taught a class on contemporary gay male literature a dozen years ago — I expected gay male students to like such a class. But they got bored with the reading and amused themselves instead by drawing cartoons on the attendance sheet, portraying the members of the class — including me — as characters from The Golden Girls or Steel Magnolias. That’s when I realized I was doing something wrong and decided to teach “How to Be Gay.”

Does the fact that you’re in many ways an outsider on gay culture make you the right or the wrong person to write this book?
Both. I spend a lot of time reconstructing laboriously and imprecisely what many gay men already know. I’m sure they could do it better, but they aren’t talking, except in one-liners. It takes someone who doesn’t get it on the first take to work out the logic. I wish someone else would do the explaining, but it looks like I have to.

How bad at being gay are you? Embarrassing examples, please.
Terrible, truly terrible. I’m not a very camp person; I’m very serious. I spent the first several decades of my life absorbing high culture — studying Greek tragedy, German music, American politics. I thought the appeal of Judy Garland to gay men was a profound enigma. I hated disco and loved rock music. I was a junkie for meaning.

Tell me about your “mother” — or rather, the fact that you didn’t have one. Do you wish you’d had an older gay male confidante who taught you about gay culture?
Well, from time to time in my youth I would meet a wise old queen — that is, someone in their early thirties — who would explain to me why my idiotic notions about gay romance were wrong. But in some respects, my “mother” turns out to have been an Australian boyfriend half my age who made me watchThe Women about 20 years after I came out.

To my undying shame, I only saw that film myself a year ago. So many great, instructive lines: “Cheer up Mary, living alone has its compensations. Heaven knows it’s marvelous being able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”
Golly, I’d forgotten those. How about “Pride’s a luxury a woman in love can’t afford”?

Back in the ’70s, when I came out, I saw no need for a mother. Like many gay people of my generation, I thought homosexuality was just a sexual orientation — I resisted being initiated into a separate culture. I just wanted to know how to find guys who would sleep with me, how to be sexually fulfilled, how to have a successful love affair.

Of course, it turns out that gay culture was full of information about that topic, but the information it offered seemed mostly useless or homophobic; it implied that the object of gay desire did not exist. Now, after decades of disillusionment, we may be coming round to some of those radical insights. But that will be the subject of my next book!

What will it be called? There Is No Great Dark Man?
Perhaps After Sexuality, Love.

A cherished line of mine in your book is ‘Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people.’ Why are gays these days so keen to out-straight the straights?
They’ve been bought off with promises of normality, and their social worlds have been destroyed, so they lack the context and the courage to claim their cultural heritage, to the genius of being queer. They still produce cultural breakthroughs of brilliance, but they aren’t comfortable taking credit for them.

Is it a paradox that the resurgence of biological explanations of homosexuality has coincided with the dominance of the line “gays are just like everyone else,” except even more boring?
It’s kind of weird that so much of the gay movement embraces that bogus gay science, because that’s the one area in which claims of gay difference are triumphing in a kind of return to Victorian notions about congenital abnormality. You would think gay people would prefer to think of themselves as culturally different rather than biologically different. But here you can measure the effect in the United States of religiously inspired homophobia: In order to dodge the implication that homosexuality is a sinful choice, gay people are willing to accept biological determinism.

Believing that you only suck cock because God made you do it is kinda kinky, though. Are you a bit of a gay chauvinist. Do you believe that being gay is better than being straight?
Yes, I am and I do. At least, I can’t imagine living any other way, or wanting to. I certainly think being gay is better than being a straight man. But then nobody really likes straight men, except for some misguided gay guys.

I know I’m hopelessly misguided, but I do think straight men make the best bottoms. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether you might not have too much faith in heterosexuality. After all, how straight is straight these days?
Straight people these days may often be highly perverse, but that doesn’t make them gay. They would like to think they’re queer — the category “queer” is the greatest gift gay people ever gave straight people, because it allows straight people to claim an edgy, transgressive identity without having to do anything icky — but that’s just their usual insistence on being the everyman.

But you admit that some of your best “How to Be Gay” students were straight…
Yes, they were. There are lots of straight people who understand gay male culture better and who enjoy it more than gay men. There are numbers of straight people who are culturally gay, but gayness also involves that extra little sexual thing… It’s not a lot, but it adds something.

After teaching this course for a while and writing this book, are you any campier? Do you watch Glee? Desperate Housewives? Even Joan Crawford movies, when you’re not using them in class?
No, I still hate popular culture. I did love Desperate Housewives, even if it declined after the first season. But then, its producer was a great comic gay writer. I loved it for the same reason I loved Serial Mom: It produced such a demented version of normal life. I do think working on this book made me a lot gayer; I’m much more willing to claim my cultural birthright as a gay man in everything, from the kind of music I like to the kind of food I eat. But I’m still a desperate case, and I have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of you.

Mildred Pierce (8/10) Movie CLIP - Cheap and Horrible (1945) HD

The Few, The Proud: A Jarhead memoir of the First Gulf War

The mythology, the rituals, the dogma, the cult of masculinity and most of all the haircut, set US Marines apart. Mark Simpson takes a look at a memoir of the First Gulf War.

(Independent on Sunday 23/03/2003)

It may seem odd that the United States Marine Corps, the elite fourth branch of the US Armed Services, larger and better equipped than the whole British Army, heroic victors of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, spearhead of the last and current Gulf War, should be best known for, and most proud of, its hairdo. But then, the USMC is a peculiar institution. Magnificent, but very peculiar.

“Jarhead”, the moniker US marines give one another, derives from the distinctive “high and tight” buzzcut that Marine Corps barbers dispense, leaving perhaps a quarter of an inch of personality on top and plenty of naked, anonymous scalp on the sides. Like circumcision and the Hebrews, the jarhead barnet has historically set US marines apart, marking them as the chosen and the damned: monkish warriors. Or as one of the Corps’ mottos has it: “The Few, The Proud”.

Image is important for US marines, perhaps because of the burden of symbolism – for many, the USMC is America. Or perhaps more particularly because the USMC is John Wayne. Jarheads, or rather, actors in high-and-tight haircuts, are invariably the stars of Hollywood war movies; the other services just don’t have the glamour and the grit of the devildogs. As a result, the mythology, the rituals and the dogtag dogma of the Marine Corps cult of masculinity – boot camp, the DI, sounding-off, cussing and hazing, tearful graduation, test-of-manhood deployment, and that haircut – are probably more familiar to British boys than, say, those of the Royal Marines.

The relationship of real jarheads to their actress impersonators is confusingly close. When 20-year-old Lance Corporal Anthony Swofford and his buddies in a scout/sniper platoon get the order to prepare to ship out to Saudi Arabia in 1990 in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, they spend three days drinking beer and watching war movies. Ironically, their favourite films, such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are ostensibly “anti-war” liberal pleas to “end this madness”, but for fighting men they only serve to get them hot: “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man,” explains Swofford, “with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his First Fuck.” Take note, Oliver Stone, you pink feather dick-tickler: “As a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.”

In fact, Swofford’s ”Jarhead: A Marine’s chronicle of the Gulf War’’ is an avowedly “anti-war” memoir, powerfully written (pink feathers aside) and well-crafted, by someone who was clearly embittered, not to say damaged, by his experience of the USMC and his participation in the First Gulf War. Nevertheless, it isn’t clear whether Swofford, for all his reflectiveness, and of course his authenticity, is much more successful in demystifying war in general or the Corps. Telling us that war is hell (again) is rather counterproductive: hell is after all a rather interesting place, certainly more interesting than heaven, or civilian “normality”. Moreover, the quasi-religious, dramatic tone Swofford strikes of despair and ecstasy, loneliness and camaraderie, and the awful- but-fascinating baseness of war is not so different from that of Stone or Coppola (or for that matter, of Mailer). And while there are not quite so many explosions, there’s no shortage of pornography.

When sweating in Saudi in 1990 waiting for the war to start, Swofford’s unit find themselves being ordered to perform for the media, playing football in rubber NBC suits in 100-degree heat. To sabotage the hated propaganda op, they start a favourite ritual of theirs, a “Field fuck”, a simulated gang rape, “wherein marines violate one member of the unit,” Swofford tells us. “The victim is held fast in the doggie position and his fellow marines take turns from behind.”

Getting into the spirit of things, the jarheads shout out helpful remarks such as: “Get that virgin Texas ass! It’s free!” The victim himself screams: “I’m the prettiest girl any of you has ever had! I’ve seen the whores you’ve bought, you sick bastards!” The press stop taking notes.

Swofford reassures us that this practice “wasn’t sexual” but was instead “communal” – however, even in his own terms it seems that the distinction is almost superfluous: it’s the hallmark of military life that what’s sexual becomes communal. Elsewhere he tells us about the “Wall of Shame” on base: hundreds of photos of ex-girlfriends who proved unfaithful – frequently with other marines.

Swofford’s obsession with the marines had a media origin, beginning in 1984 when the USMC barracks in Lebanon was bombed, killing 241 US servicemen. He recounts watching the news bulletins on the TV and how he “stood at attention and hummed the national anthem as the rough-hewn jarheads… carried their comrades from the rubble. The marines were all sizes and all colours, all dirty and exhausted and hurt, and they were men, and I was a boy falling in love with manhood…”. Manhood in Swofford’s family was intimately linked to the military: his father served in Vietnam, while his grandfather fought in the Second World War. The desirability of manliness was the desirability of war.

It is probably not so strange that his obsession should have begun with an almost masochistic image of suffering and death: taking it like a man is an even more important part of the military experience than giving it. Sure enough, at boot camp Swofford finds his Drill Instructor to be a fully-fledged sadist of the kind that civilian masochists can only fantasise about: “I am your mommy and your daddy! I am your nightmare and your wet dream! I will tell you when to piss and when to shit and how much food to eat and when! I will forge you into part of the iron fist with which our great United States fights oppression and injustice!” Like many recruits, Swofford signed up to get away from a disintegrating home life and the flawed reality of his father and found that he had married his superego made barking, spitting, apoplectic flesh.

The DI’s job, as we all know from the movies, is to humiliate and break down the recruit, shame him, strip away his civilian personality and weaknesses and build him up into a marine. The DI is obsessed with inauthenticity: finding out who is not “really” a marine. He asks Swofford if he’s “a faggot… you sure have pretty blue eyes”. During one of these hazings, Swofford pisses his pants – an understandable reaction, but intriguingly it happens to be the same one that he mentions earlier in the book, when, as a young boy living in Japan (his father had a tour of duty there), he received “confusing and arousing” compliments on his blue eyes from Japanese women.

For good measure the DI also smashes Swofford’s confused shaved head through a chalkboard. Later, when this DI is under investigation for his violent excesses, Swofford shops him. However, he feels guilty about this and daydreams about running into the DI and “letting him beat on me some more”. Like I said, the USMC, God bless it, is a peculiar organisation.

Of course, Swofford isn’t your average jarhead. “I sat in the back of the Humvee and read the Iliad” is a memorable line. Other days might see him buried in The Portable Nietzsche or The Myth of Sisyphus. Swofford also seems a little highly-strung: he attempts suicide, Full Metal Jacket- style, fellating the muzzle of his rifle after receiving a Dear John letter from his girlfriend. He’s saved by his returning roommate, who takes him on a run “that lasts all night”. More physical pain to salve the existential variety. By the book’s end, we are left with an image of Swofford, long discharged, wrestling with despair, not least over the sights he saw in action in Kuwait, but now without the distraction of physical suffering and discipline. Sisyphus without the rock.

Mind you, “jarhead” does suggest something that can be unscrewed: brains that can be easily spooned out. It may be true that some men become soldiers to kill; but it may equally be the case that some join to be killed, or at least escape the burden of consciousness. Swofford appears to feel cheated that life not only went on after the Gulf War (like most U.S. ground combatants he was a largely a spectator of the massacring potency of American air power) but in fact became more complicated and burdensome.

Under these circumstances, I think most of us would miss our DI.

© Mark Simpson