I know that this year’s Oscar ceremony is dead and buried, but I was late to the party, and I’m still catching up on some of this year’s nominated films, including Restrepo, a documentary about a platoon of U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The film aimed to give audiences a glimpse of what it feels like to serve in a war, conveying the excitement, the sadness, the fear, the boredom, and the anger of the soldiers at Outpost Restrepo in the Korengal Valley, where they were stationed for months.
The soldiers developed incredibly close bonds, and these were the clear focal point of the movie. You can confidently believe that these soldiers—all of them male—would do anything for any of their fellow soldiers.
In a few scenes, their intimacy actually raises some eyebrows. Toward the beginning of the film, one man says about another, “He’s a beautiful man—I’d fuck him back in the states,” before tackling him to the ground and wrestling in a playful way. The homoeroticism pops up a few more times in Restrepo: one soldier straddles another who is standing up, a spontaneous dance party begins to an electronic girl pop song.
The scenes in the film are subtle and fleeting, but Restrepo’s co-director, journalist Sebastian Junger, elaborates further on the subject in War, the book he wrote as a result of a series of articles he published for Vanity Fair. He writes:
Ultimately, it made me think that if you deprive men of the company of women for too long, and then turn off the steady adrenaline drip of heavy combat, it may not turn sexual, but it’s certainly going to turn weird. And weird it was: strange pantomimed man-rape and struggles for dominance and grotesque, smoochy come-ons that could only make sense in a place where every other form of amusement had long since been used up. … It was just so hypersexual that gender ceased to matter.
Junger and his co-director, Tim Hetherington, have stated that these scenes weren’t homosexual in nature and that they hadn’t heard of any male-male sexual exploration at their base, but Hetherington did say that the works which emerged from this platoon convey “a more nuanced sense of who men are.”
How many times have you heard about homoeroticism between men serving in the military? All of the war movies, journalistic conflict coverage, and written narratives that I have seen or heard have not once suggested that the military may have the power to break down and nullify some of our traditional views of masculinity. But why is that? Isn’t that an interesting story?
Paradoxical though it may sound, what the [“don’t ask, don’t tell”] policy actually ensures is that men still have a place to experience male-male intimacy without being called gay.
The perspective didn’t catch much fire in December, and exploration of the subject continually doesn’t get much attention. Is that because the Restrepo soldiers were just uniquely intimate, and the situation is exclusive to their experience? Or is it because war documentarians don’t want to make the U.S. troops “look bad” or seem like lesser men by appearing to be physically intimate with each other? Could even the mere insinuation that the military isn’t the end-all and be-all Mecca of masculinity shake the foundations of what it means to be a man?
At least one of the soldiers from War—Bobby—doesn’t think so. When asked if he would actually have sex with a man while serving without a woman in sight, he said it would be gay not to. Junger writes:
Bobby launched into a theory that “real” men need sex no matter what, so choosing abstinence can only mean you’re not a real man. Who you have sex with is of far lesser importance.
Junger concedes that Bobby’s is a radical viewpoint, but even this, in a way, trivializes the perspective. Are we just not ready to view U.S. soldiers as anything other than strong, courageous, studly models of no-doubts-about-it heterosexuality?
—Photo NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENTERTAINMENT