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

Tag: USMC (page 1 of 1)

Passive Duty: Gay 4 Pay Paratroopers Probed

Mark Simpson bravely gets to the bottom of the US Army’s gay porn scandal

(Uncircumcised, uncensored version of exclusive which appeared in Details, April 2006 )

.

“Is this your first time with a guy?” asks Jason solicitously in his Tennessee burr.

“Erm… no,” I stutter, “not exactly…”.

It’s an odd question for me to be asked by a straight paratrooper who is trying to fluff me. But then, this is a rather odd situation.

I am on a bed wedged between not one but two naked fit cute, and ostensibly straight American soldiers in their early twenties, “Jason” and “Carl” who are being very friendly indeed. On camera. And they’re much more ‘up’ for this than I am.

“I’m sorry about this lads” I say, gesturing to my semi, “I’m a bit nervous”.

“You mean it gets bigger dude?” asks Jason, with a forgiving wink and a smile, proving, to my mind at least, that he most definitely isn’t gay.

Then again, this is my first time. It’s my first time in porn, my first time with two paratroopers, straight or otherwise. And the really odd thing is that these guys who have had little or no exposure to the tired codes of gay porn are making it feel, in their joshing, horsing around, try-anything, decidedly non-jaded way, like my first time with a guy.

How did I get here?

***

Long before the Department of Defense and the global media took an interest earlier this year the ‘art’ films of Dennis Ashe alias ‘Dink Flamingo’ at ActiveDuty.com had become a phenomenon amongst the self-abusing cognoscenti. With ‘stirring’ titles such as ‘Battle Buddies’, ‘Tour of Duty’, ‘Rear March’ and ‘Band of Lovers’, not only do they offer the online voyeur athletic young military guys with military tattoos and military demeanour who actually look the part, but, manfully, they frequently do everything. No ‘tops and bottoms’ sissy role-play for them. The guys in ActiveDuty are videos are impressively versatile, frequently taking on almost any challenge. What’s more, they usually do it with cheeky grins and gosh-darn dude-ness. (Though sometimes it does look more like an endurance test or another assault course than intercourse.)

And, contrary to much of the coverage the story received, they’re not ‘gays in the military’; many if not most of them are straight-identified, some with wives and kids. They’re ‘gay for pay’, even if they look like they’re mostly enjoying a play.

If they’re faking their enthusiasm, they’re doing a much better job than, say, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain: they take it like real troopers; not Hollywood cowboys. There’s a curious blend of innocence and corruption, and genuine excitement to Dink’s deliberately amateurish films. The guys seem to be getting off on the sheer naughtiness of what they’re doing. After all, it’s contrary to both the etiquette of their official sexuality and the Pentagon’s Matronly sex-policing which decrees no sodomy, no adultery, no prostitutes, no porn (so what’s the fucking point of joining the army, dude?). And they get to be that most modern of celebrities, a porn star – rather than just wear the T-shirt.

Somehow I managed to convince myself that this story of straight military men ‘acting gay’ in the form of mansex rather than manicures was something that I, the ‘father’ of the metrosexual and over-keen follower of masculine trends really needed to research. Personally.

So in 2004, with a commission from Salon.com and an introduction from mutual friend and co-author Steve Zeeland (we published a book of salty correspondence called ‘The Queen is Dead‘), I flew to North Carolina to meet Dink, the man behind ActiveDuty and also the director and cameraman who you never see – though you might occasionally glimpse his helping hand – but you always, always hear. Sex-rapping constantly in his tobacco-rich Southern drawl: “I’ll re-spect your boun-dar-ies… would you like some more lube?’ is one of his favourite lines. Usually followed not long after by: “Arch your back, bitch!”.

Picking me up from the airport, the faceless Svengali of military porn turns out to be a short, very stoutly built, affable and charismatic chap in his thirties, with an infectious chuckle-giggle that starts off low but can go mighty high. He’s not exactly what a modern homosexual is supposed to be: “I’m a queen, not a ‘gay man'” he informs me defiantly. But he’s had his revenge. Not only in the form of all the buff military boys he can eat, but also in living the American Dream super-sized. Much of Dink’s childhood was spent in penury but the car he has driven out to meet me in at the airport today is a latest Jaguar convertible – one of several luxury cars in his fleet. He has only been in the military porn business since c.1996, but has been very, very successful, blowing some of his much longer-established competitors out of the water.

Driving back to ‘Camp Flamingo’, the flashing neon signs of churches and strip joints sliding past, Dink tells me how, growing up in a military town and attracted to men, in his late teens and early twenties he began picking up horny military guys – “lots and lots of them!” – in topless dancing bars and adult video arcades. He began filming them for his own pleasure, and theirs – “military guys like to be admired’. Then some friends suggested that there might be a market for these films. “And boy, was there!” But, businessman that he certainly is, Dink isn’t just in this for the money. “This is my job – but, Mark, I LOVE my job! I also love my boys – I feel very mat-ternal towards them. Many of them become good buddies and call me up asking for advice. I cook big Thanksgivings dinners for the guys.” 

We pass a particularly ramshackle strip-joint with a sign promising ‘DINNING & DANCING’. “I guess not a lot of dinning goes on there!” chuckles Dink.

Arriving at his house, a sprawling 1960s suburban pile, he tells me a couple of paratroopers are coming over this evening for a shoot. “It’s meant to be a double jerk-off video,” says Dink, “but I think I can turn it into suck and fuck film”. Truth be told, it’s almost certainly a suck-and-fuck film already, but Dink is very good at selling you the narrative of corruption-seduction.

And if he sounds a little blasé about all this, that’s because he is. He claims there are literally too many volunteers for duty on the sodomy front for him to film, even though he films almost every night. He estimates that in total he has filmed “hundreds” of guys. “About 95% of them are straight. And you know what? The straight guys almost always perform better – I guess because they’re not so worried whether the guy they’re with is their ‘type’ or not,” he cackles, only slightly bitterly.

If you wonder how a straight-identified military male could do gay porn consider this: Dink, who has few competitors in Fayetteville, gay or straight, pays his stars the full market rate for gay porn modelling – several hundred dollars (several times the going rate for male models in straight porn). The average paratrooper at Fort Bragg makes between $1,200 and $1,700 a month. So a couple of hours at Camp Flamingo could earn them the equivalent of nearly a month’s pay from Uncle Sam.

In fact, gay porn is often made by models who are not gay. Ex-USMC and veteran porn star Rod Barry, who considered himself straight for many years but who now just considers himself “just sexual”, told me that most of the guys in the adult video industry are straight-identified and many prefer to bottom – “It’s easier. You don’t have to get an erection on camera. Plus, if you ask me, there’s something wrong with a guy that doesn’t like something up his ass.” And as an exclusive top, I couldn’t agree more.

On the other hand, many of these boys are from conservative rural and religious backgrounds where homosexuality is. at the very least, frowned on. Might not this be, I suggest to Dink, a way for them to express their same-sex interest? Dink acknowledges that most of his models are probably ‘curious’ but insists they would likely never go looking for sex with a guy and that, ironically, being paid to appear as actors in a porn film is for them a way to explore that curiosity without necessarily having to own it. “Sometimes I get guys calling me up saying ‘Dink, I want to make another movie’ and you think that it’s not just because they need the money – it’s because they want the experience again.”

But a paratrooper allowing himself to be filmed have sex – clearly, identifiably, contravening the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which bans appearing in porn – seems like a particularly dangerous way to experiment? Dink is very familiar with the UCMJ, but says he’s determined to protect ‘his boys’ as much as he can – or as much as someone filming them having sex and putting it online can. He points out that he was always careful not to mention the Army, or paratroopers, or Fort Bragg on his site. Nor would he allow illegal drugs in his house. And despite the years he’s been in business and the “hundreds” of military men he’s filmed, there has been (until 2006) very little trouble.

“In 2000 A couple of OSI [Office of Special Investigations] guys did come round once,” he told me. “They tried to push their way into the house. I slammed the door in their faces: ‘What do you want? You know you have no jurisdiction here. I’m a civilian.’ They wanted me to show them the model release form for this guy they wanted to kick out. I told them to get lost. They kept hammering on the door. So I grabbed a cane, opened the door and charged them, shouting ‘GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!’ They ran like the wind.”

Imagining Dink in full-frontal cane-wielding mode, I don’t blame them. The investigation fizzled out, apparently without any courts martials or discharges.

“The boys should be here any minute,’ says Dink. Adding, in a precisely-calculated casual style, “would you like to sit in on this shoot as an observer?”

Oh yes, I would, actually.

How does he solicit his talent? “Well, mostly word of mouth now. But in the good ol’ days I would go up to them wherever I found them, including Wal-Mart, and say, ‘have you ever thought about modelling? You have a wonderful face,’ and hand them my card”.

Would they have to be alone? “Nope. Often I go for the best-looking one in a group. They’re usually the leader and if you get him then the others come along too. Plus, you’re flattering a guy by approaching him in front of his buddies and telling him how good-looking he is.”

“You know what it’s called, honey chile?” he purrs, slipping out of his low, business-like voice into his somewhat higher Mae West-meets-Truman Capote – while cupping his man-breasts. “Hmm? I’ll tell you what it’s called! It’s called LACK!… OF!… SENSE!”

I meekly suggest that to many people it might seems a very, ahem, brave thing to do, approaching a trained killer like that in broad supermarket-light, often in front of his buddies. “It’s not brave,” counters Dink. “You know what it’s called, honey chile?” he purrs, slipping out of his low, business-like voice into his somewhat higher Mae West-meets-Truman Capote – while cupping his man-breasts. “Hmm? I’ll tell you what it’s called! It’s called LACK!… OF!… SENSE!”

Speaking of which, what about this interview? “Well, I’m sure it will be fine Mark, so long as you don’t mention the town or which base the guys are from or that they are paratroopers. Nobody wants to claim a problem like me unless they’re forced to, you know what I mean?”

‘Jason’ and ‘Carl’, our stars for the night, arrive. Easygoing Southern country boys, in their early twenties, both sport lean, rangy bodies in standard-issue jeans, t-shirts and ball caps – these buddies could be shooting the shit in a pool room or over a pick-up truck. They’re ordinary young American military guys – except that both have both done a porno for Dink before. Last week Jason did a ‘solo’ flick, in which he jerked off to orgasm – while pushing an impressively large dildo up his butt. Apparently this was a few days after his wife had given birth. Perhaps it was his way of sharing the experience – or perhaps it was just a way of helping to pay for it.

Jason is dark and hairy, butch, rambunctious and loud. Carl is quieter, smoother and slightly buck-toothed, a not entirely unattractive flaw. Jason banters with Carl, teasing him, “Your asshole is gonna get torn up bad tonight, dude!” Carl laughs, flicks some ash off his Marlboro, and replies, poker-faced “Nope. I don’t think so. It’s yours that is gonna get reamed!” Then he adds, laughing, “Man, I’m not leaving this house gay tonight!” 

Dink makes sure the models are well supplied with Budweiser and viagra, then swiftly sets up lights and a camera, encouraging them to banter more, knowing how much his large and loyal audience appreciates this almost as much as the action. (If their straight boy banter is an act, it’s an extremely convincing one to this cynical homo.)

After his verbal fluffing, Dink tells the models, who are now lazily propped up against the headboard, to start playing with each other, which they do, giggling a little, glancing repeatedly at the straight DVD porn discreetly playing off-camera on a TV by the bed. Then he orders them to ‘start sucking’. Jason warns buck-toothed Carl: “Dude – no teeth, OK?” Then Dink, who perhaps has not entirely abandoned the idea of Carl relinquishing his bubble-butt cherry that evening, directs Jason to ‘rim’ Carl. Jason in his boisterous way decides to improve on this: he stands on the bed, makes Carl do a handstand, then grabs his legs from behind and unflinchingly, heroically follows orders.

***

The word “freedom” appears frequently in street signs in Fayetteville: ‘Freedom Furniture and Electronics’ and ‘Freedom Paintball’ are just two such I noticed during my return to the city two years later last March shortly after the scandal broke: ‘Seven U.S. soldiers from an elite Airborne division have been charged with “knowingly engaging in sex for money on a public Web site”,’ reported CNN. The men were from Fort Bragg and the website was ActiveDuty.com.

But then, much of Fayetteville is not so much a town as a benign growth on Fort Bragg, one of the largest military bases in the world. Clearly it’s a patriotic town that wants to show support to its Boys, as well as relieve them of their bucks. But there is a slightly camouflaged irony here. After all, Fayetteville is a military town and the US military, though it may see its mission as defending freedom will prosecute its indentured servants for Puritanical crimes that are largely a thing of the past in the country it serves: such as “adultery”, “sodomy” – or being taped while having sex. (Do any civilian Americans have sex nowadays without being taped?)

Those are the charges officially handed down in February to seven young soldiers after an Army investigation established that they had appeared in gay porn. These weren’t just any soldiers however, but elite paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, “America’s Honor Guard”, one of the most heralded units in the military. Four soldiers were given the maximum “non-judicial punishments”: demoted to Private, confined to base for 45 days, given 45 days of extra duty and forced to forfeit half their salaries for two months. They also face discharge. Three others have been named and “shamed” and charged with “pandering”, “sodomy” and “wrongfully engaging in sexual acts with another person while being filmed with the intent of broadcasting the images over the Internet for money.” One has also been charged with “adultery”.

Altogether, the charges for doing gay porn in the US military add up to a potential if unlikely 16 years incarceration [in the event all three plea-bargained and were sentenced to three months]. Followed by dishonourable discharge. Compare the treatment of these young enlisted men, some of whom were veterans of Bush’s (illegal and immoral to many) ‘adventure’ in Iraq, for what they did with their own bodies in their own time out of uniform with, say, Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer Jnr, the man who killed an Iraqi general during interrogation/torture in uniform – no jail-time, no discharge, no demotion, just a $6000 fine.

‘Free’ Fayetteville is not what you’d call conventionally pretty. It’s too… butch for that. Just one road of several leading to the giant base has 35 barber’s shops along it. Bars, strip joints, and ‘military pawn shops’ abound, testament to the day-by-day, night-by-night lives of many military men and their families – and why some extra cash is always tempting. Why not pawn your body? After all, isn’t that what you do when you sign up?

And what bodies! Fayetteville’s soldiers can be painfully, winsomely, devastatingly beautiful. Driving their pick-up trucks and cruising the strip malls in tank-tops and shorts, these young, usually country boys, whose smooth, muscular, tattooed bodies are the instruments of Bush’s foreign policy – and frequently have to pay a very personal, very physical price for it – display a not-so innocent all-American beauty that would steam even Bruce Weber’s lens. Writer and military male admirer Steve Zeeland, a Walt Whitman for our times, describes them perfectly in this passage about young Marines appearing in gay videoporn in the early Nineties at the centre of another scandal:

‘They display a touching abashment, a cocksure bravado, unexpected grace, a blond-trash coarseness, and the desperate horniness of rutting beasts.’ ‘Sometimes,’ he adds, ‘all in the same sequence.’

Military guys and gay porn have a long history. There have been several “gay porn scandals” involving the US military before [see sidebar]. Previous scandals, which were only the tip of the military gay porn iceberg, have generally resulted in non-judicial punishments and a few token, quiet, rushed dismissals that generated minimum publicity. Fully-fledged courts-martials are unusual, not to say reckless, for this kind of offence.

This, however, is the first scandal in wartime – unpopular wartime, when recruitment levels are falling ever shorter. No doubt in the eyes of the Pentagon this scandal makes a poor recruiting ad. Arguably though, it is the unnecessarily harsh scapegoating of these young guys, men who have already risked life and limb for their country, for some consensual, cash-lubricated x-rated horseplay that is the really poor recruiting ad.

Perhaps that other US Army ‘gay porn’ scandal, Abu Ghraib, has something to do with it. After all, these are not images of simulated acts of sodomy but real ones; they’re not coerced but (mostly) enthusiastic; they’re not performed by Iraqi detainees but US soldiers. Meanwhile, at Guantanamo, gay porn has reportedly been used as a torture technique by US military interrogators. As has been pointed out elsewhere, it is not entirely impossible that detainees might have been inadvertently tortured by gay porn featuring US paratroopers. Just one of the surreal paradoxes of the military world which makes you wonder whether gay S/M leather clubs are derivative parodies of masculinity or in fact the original template.

At least the crackdown had not been prompted by my work. After returning home to the UK and delivering my copy my editor at Salon insisted, amongst other things, that Dink ‘prove’ that his guys were ‘really military’. Dink, funnily enough, wasn’t keen on faxing his guys’ military IDs to a New York online magazine and the piece was spiked. According to a source, the real problem was that my editor, who was gay himself but a little uptight, appeared to have been scandalised by the explicitness of my piece and the way I personally, as you will see, ‘crossed the line’. (It was to be the last piece Salon commissioned from me.)

So I filed the article away in a drawer and forget about it. Then two years later, with all those headlines about US PARATROOPERS IN GAY PORN SCANDAL the story had, in a sense, come after me. So did that editor at Salon – who had the impressive gall to email me out of the blue asking if I would agree to “talk to a reporter we’ve assigned to the story.” I demurred and explained that now that the Department of Defense had proved to Salon’s satisfaction that Dink’s models were military after all, I’d be taking my story elsewhere. Somewhere that actually had some money. So with a commission from Conde Nast-owned Details magazine, I returned to Fayetteville to gauge the reaction from soldiers and citizens there to the scandal.

Predictably, it’s hard for some people to understand. “All this gay stuff is something that someone from my generation just doesn’t get,” explains a retired, middle-aged ex-army NCO running a sports supplement shop in town. “To me it’s another sign that this younger generation just aren’t as disciplined. Back in my day we would never have done something that disgraced our uniform like that.”

But most other people in Fayetteville I spoke to were not terribly concerned – or surprised. Many mentioned reports by returning vets of homosexuality among frustrated male soldiers serving in Iraq, where there are almost no women and strict rules against alcohol and pornographic materials. Military divorce rates have skyrocketed with long-term overseas deployments. Perhaps this is the real ‘Brokeback’ story: lonely bored young American soldiers, not cowboys, sharing tents in the middle of nowhere, wondering if they’re going to die tomorrow or merely lose all their limbs, and whether anyone will care.

Two friendly early-twenties military best buddies from Oregon, drinking in a Country and Western Bar, killing time before their third tour of duty in Iraq, told me that they had both been divorced by their wives during their last tour. “Neither of us wanted to go back to living on base so we rented a house together”. It sounds like the perfect marriage, I tease. They look at one another and laugh, but don’t disagree – or smack me on the chin. Times are changing.

Unsurprisingly, none of the military guys I spoke to would talk on the record about Fort Bragg’s gay porn scandal. One did volunteer it made him “want to barf”, but most seemed largely uninterested and much more concerned with pay, with the war, and most of all with a sense of not being valued enough by either the military or the public. Of course, being paid money to take your clothes off and be filmed having sex is one way to feel valued – and more than one soldier told me that they might have considered it themselves: “for the right price.”

“A friend of mine, a waitress, recognised one of the guys on the website,” recalls April. “He was, like, sucking two cocks. She asked him ‘How could you do that?!’ ‘It was no big deal,’ he replied, matter of factly. ‘And besides, I got paid.'”

For his part, a young gay chap living near Fort Bragg told me: “Most of my buddies are military and they don’t give a shit about me being gay or this so-called scandal. But then,” he added, laughing, “I’m blowing half of them.”

“Fayetteville is not such a strait-laced town as you might think,” explains April, a friendly twenty-something manager of an adult bookstore and video arcade near the gates of Fort Bragg – one of Dink’s old stalking grounds, which, perhaps uniquely in the whole of Fayetteville, features a display of ActiveDuty titles. Under glass. Retailing at $60 a pop.

“For a start, people here are from all over. I’m from New England, but dated a military guy and ended up here. Yeah, the military has old-fashioned regulations, but the boys – well, at lot of them are wild. They’re always getting into trouble: drugs, prostitutes, DUI, rights, you name it. So when you’re living in a military town you have to take a pragmatic view of things. Boys will be boys.”

And do boys? “Yeah, that too! A soldier was telling me how in Iraq they’re living around one another 24-7, they shower together, sleep together for months on end. He told me that you start thinking about stuff after a while.”

Homosociality is sometimes only a dropped-bar of Dial soap away from homosexuality. Witness the convincingly simulated gay gang-bang ‘field fuck’ scene in the movie Jarhead – very ActiveDuty. I put it to April that maybe gay porn isn’t such a big deal to some soldiers because soldiers aren’t so squeamish, so… pussy about dick as civilians. After all, their bodies are already weaponized. “Well yeah,” she says, “they jump out of planes, for god sakes!”. 

If masculinity – and joining the military – can be a form of showing off, so I guess is doing gay porn videos.

“I majored in Human Sexuality” says April, “but I’ve learnt a lot more in this place – including that a lot of straight guys have an interest in guy-on-guy stuff. Yeah, they’re usually terrified of admitting it – whereas women together, well, that’s just fine. But I think that’s changing – I think the ‘metrosexual’ stuff is the beginning of that.”

Ah yes, that word again. April is probably right though – even young soldiers, even men whose bodies are ‘weaponised’, have also been immersed in media images of male desirability since birth and, judging by the gym-honed muscles, designer tattoos and fashionable casual wear I’ve seen pimping around Fayetteville, desire to be desired as much as the next metro-guy. As Dink used to whisper in their ear: Have you ever considered modeling?

“A friend of mine, a waitress, recognised one of the guys on the website,” recalls April. “He was, like, sucking two cocks. She asked him ‘How could you do that?!’ ‘It was no big deal,’ he replied, matter of factly. ‘And besides, I got paid.'”

At the centre of this globally-reported scandal, and yet still somehow remaining off-stage ‘somewhere in North Carolina’ and not wishing to aggravate the situation further, is the man I met two years before, Dink Flamingo. The director-cameraman who took the young military men he found in video arcades like April’s and turned them into porn stars, showcasing them in the big video arcade in the sky known as the internet, wouldn’t talk to me on the record on my return trip. Although he did assure me that neither of the models I met were involved in the scandal and were already out of the Army by the time it hit. 

TV reporters had been leaning on his doorbell for weeks but he had refused to speak to any member of the press. He obviously didn’t want to draw any more attention to himself in such a small town, but he also seemed to have a genuine desire not to make things worse for ‘his boys’ facing courts-martial and jail-time.

Two years ago though he wouldn’t shut up. Dink is a very talkative, very persuasive man. But, like the military, Dink knows that where guys are concerned the most persuasive thing of all isn’t chatter, or money or flattery but camaraderie. As I experienced first hand during the porn shoot I was supposed to be just ’sitting in’ on….

***

As I sat on the sofa, watching Jason and Carl perform while I hid behind my notebook, Dink started suggesting, first in jokey fashion, then more seriously, that I join in. “Just for ten minutes or so. It would be great for your story…”.

I tried laughing it off: “Oh I couldn’t, I’m English after all.” But soon the guys started egging me on too.

“C’mon man,” implored Jason, like he was inviting you to arm-wrestle or a drinking competition, “Show us your uncut English cock!”

And almost before you could say, “God save the Queen” I was stripping down to my foreskin.

Now, some cynics might suggest that I did this because I was somehow unprofessionally aroused by the prospect of joining two fit naked young paratroopers in bed. But, alas, on this occasion they’d be wrong. I wasn’t horny, I was terrified. That’s the nature of a dare, however. To not join in would have felt… unmanly. (Though I had a strong suspicion that the guys had been coached beforehand in just how to entrap me).

Besides, Dink was right: it would make for a better, more ‘interactive’ story than simply observing from behind the lines. (Even if it turned out to be too good a story for Salon.)

“This is very brave of you, Mark,” Dink had purred at me as I climbed onto the bed.

“It’s not bravery,” I retorted. “You know what it’s called? It’s called LACK!…OF!…SENSE!”

So the three of us went through most of the gay porn ‘foreplay’ repertoire in almost every queer Rubik’s Cube possibility. But it felt more like horseplay than gay sex. Actually, if felt too friendly to be gay sex. (Even Jason’s deep-throated implorations to, “Yeah, fuck my bitch-ass good!!” seemed to emanate from a different place than, say, Falcon videopacs.) 

Though I was still terrified. I had at one point to go to the bathroom to try and furiously fluff myself. When it came to the money shots we all took forever to hit the jackpot, individually – and had to close our eyes and go to our own happy place, Carl covering his face with his hat. Ultimately, even in sex movies, sex is a very private thing. They always edit that part out of porn – not least because it would otherwise make them twice as long, and much too realistic. Even the ‘reality’ type of porn that Dink specialises in is of course not real. It’s showjiz.

After I’d bonded with my co-stars – and towelled off – Jason asked me earnestly: “So tell me man, who was the best at sucking dick, Carl or me?”

“Well, er, I don’t want to hurt any feelings…” I mumbled. “But that would be you, Jason.”

Jason turned to Carl, punched him in the shoulder and crowed, “I told you, dude! I told you I suck dick better than you!”

Carl didn’t seem to be arguing the point.

***

There’s Something About a Man in Uniform: a brief history of military porn scandals, by Rolf Hardesty

1977 — The Brentwood Scandal: The enterprising little Brentwood Studio, famous for its stable of the most gorgeous of models in that era’s porn (most of whom were active-duty Marines), ceased operation soon after the FBI came to call. The owner joined the San Francisco-based “Falcon Studios”. (The early numbers in Falcon’s DVD catalog feature much of the old Brentwood material.)

1985The Kly-Max Studio Scandal: The owner of this tiny studio filmed the self-pleasuring of active-duty Marines, in his Oceanside apartment. Like Travis, he panicked when the FBI came calling, folded his studio, and moved out of state.

1994The Bobby of Oceanside Scandal, and The Seabag Scandal: Feisty Filipino Bobby employed a sharp attorney when he began filming active-duty Marines (c.1990) who assured him the Corps had no jurisdiction over him and that the FBI couldn’t charge him with anything if he wasn’t “transporting persons across a state line for immoral purposes”. So Bobby — who appeared in virtually all his videos, interacting with solitary Marines as insertee – simply refused to run and hide, after Oceanside’s weekly newspaper exposed his operation. He’s even rumoured to be still in business. Around the same time, a local TV station in San Diego started a campaign against the “Seabag” military-themed gay porn studio operated by Rick Ford. But, like Bobby, Ford refused to close down.

2000 — The Twentynine Palms/MarineMeat.com Scandal: Amateur wanking videos, shot in a high-desert motel room by Dan Devlin.  After some dozen or more sessions, the Corps came calling — whereupon, Dan decamped – literally in the middle of the night. Not for fear of the Corps but it seems for fear of a vengeful assault by the young men whose military careers he’d ruined.

2006 —  The Fort Bragg Scandal: At last, a branch of the Army has achieved its own notoriety, thus breaking the monopoly of the Navy and Marine Corps. ActiveDuty proprietor Dink Flamingo, a former lawyer, remains in business, though relocated.

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

The mythology, the dogtag dogma, the cult of masculinity and most of all the haircut, set US Marines apart. Mark Simpson on 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.

Lashings of manly love in a Humvee – review of ‘One Bullet Away’

‘One Bullet Away: the making of a Marine Officer’, Nathaniel Fick (Orion)

Reviewed by Mark Simpson

Why do we blokes – and it is almost always blokes – read war books, catch war movies and play twitchy first-person Second World War shooter games like Call of Duty? Why do we crave “war porn”?

Because we still believe, deep down, in this post-masculine era of digitised, virtual life and professional/quasi-mercenary armies that “take care of business” for the rest of us, that one day we will be called up. That one day we will be roused from our comfortable cosseted techno-textured vanilla-flavoured semi-slumber and tested. And we wonder whether we will be able to find the necessary selflessness, courage, virtue, toughness, and, well, murderousness.

Most of all, we worry that they’ll find out we’re sorry sacks of shit.

And, let’s face it, we’re all sorry sacks of shit compared to… blond, square-jawed, Nathaniel Fick, former elite USMC officer, Afghan and Iraq war vet, Classics scholar, talented writer (damn him) and all-round gent. Fick is one of that strange minority of men who isn’t interested in what it’s like to go to war. He’s one of those oddities: someone who actually goes to war. Voluntarily. So, during a particularly hellish, sleepless, hungry moment in Basic Training he spies from a helicopter commuters on the freeway headed to work, rested, showered, well-fed, calm and finds himself not wishing to change places with them for a minute. Moreover, unlike, say Anthony Swofford, the slightly neurotic author of Jarhead (about the first Gulf War) he’s no passive grunt. He’s a man who makes things happen, who takes decisions, who looks after his men and, even argues with superior officers. Not surprisingly, he comes across as inspiring but also rather peculiar.

His memoir ‘One Bullet Away’ provides the self-loathing civilian with almost everything he is looking for. We get the officer version of USMC boot camp, which turns out to be much the same as the grunt version, except even more gruelling, and starring the same homo-sado DI we know and love: ‘”What’s in here?” He grabbed my toiletry bag. “Drugs? Booze? Maybe a tube of K-Y jelly and a big cucumber?”‘

We get action, and rather more of it than Swofford was able to offer: with almost Hollywood-style scripting, Fick passes the terrifying training programme in time for 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. A swift promotion follows a successful tour of duty, and he joins the elite Recon Battalion, the Marines of the Marines, and the vanguard of the Coalition forces invading Iraq; he describes the action and his own experience of it in economical, fluid, convincing and occasionally lethal prose. Though not always “unflinching”: for example, when the firing started, sitting in his unprotected Humvee, he would will his limbs to retract into his body armour (but, rest reassured: this was only because he didn’t like to be stuck in a vehicle during combat and preferred to feel the ground beneath his feet).

We also get the “money shot” of war porn: and not just gruesome descriptions of exploding heads (though we do get some of that), but lashings of manly love in the form of camaraderie: Fick was devoted to the Spartan Band that is the USMC, is unafraid to quote Classical Greek poetry and Rudyard Kipling, and takes an almost maternal interest in his men. Fick even confronts his superior officers when they appear to him to be taking reckless risks with his chaps. He is rightfully proud of the fact that he succeeded in returning from Iraq without having lost a single man from his platoon.

Fick, who is clearly a thoughtful and sensitive man – as well as a well-oiled killing machine – eventually leaves the Corps because he doesn’t feel capable of regarding the lives of his men as expendable. If this is “war porn”, it is definitely the better kind.

So what’s a civvie pussy to complain of? Well, Fick may question the policies of his superior officers, but not of his Commander in Chief – and blocks any discussion of whether it was a “just” war or not with a riposte that seems to have come from Platoon: “We fought for each other.”

Then again, Fick joined the Marines because he wanted to fight. Having been called upon to fight for his country, it’s not so surprising that he wasn’t keen to question the cause, especially in the dusty wake of 9/11. No, the main reservation I have – my armchair whinge – is that I don’t feel that either Afghanistan or Iraq tested Fick enough.

Although Fick sees much more action than Swafford, and is fired upon regularly, he and his men always have absurdly superior firepower to the enemy, who most of the time run away or surrender, or can’t aim their weapons. And when they don’t run away, Fick can usually call in the Cobra gunships or F-16s or an artillery barrage and wipe them out in seconds. Which he does, frequently. The disparity in firepower is greater than that between Mussolini’s troops and the Abyssinians – or the stormtroopers and the giant bugs in Starship Troopers. I don’t mean to diminish the training, skill, bravery or all-round awesomeness of Fick and his men, without which the technology would be worthless, nor do I wish any more of them dead or wounded, but Afghanistan and Iraq were not heroic wars. They may or may not have been necessary, and are tests that I would have failed miserably, but they would have sickened the Spartans.

I suspect Fick feels uneasy too, but in a way that he has yet to accept. After a battle, surveying the piles of lightly-armed enemy corpses shredded by American weaponry, one “stapled to a tree trunk by .50 caliber machine gun rounds”, another filled with “thousands of tiny metal slivers” from a Cobra’s flechette rocket, Fick reflects: “I found no joy in looking at the men we’d killed, no satisfaction… But I wasn’t disturbed either. I fell back on an almost clinical detachment. The men were adults who chose to be here. I was an adult who chose to be here. They shot at us and missed. We shot at them and didn’t miss. The fight was fair.”

Much as I admire Fick and his book, and much as I consider myself unworthy to polish his boots with my tea-towel, I find it difficult to believe any of these statements about his feelings – or the nature of the fight that provoked them.

(Originally published in the Independent on Sunday, 26 March 2006)