As a child, Luke Turner was obsessed with the Second World War. He spent hours watching Sunday war films, poring over stories of derring-do and relishing in birthday trips to air museums. Lying in bed beneath Airfix fighter planes suspended from his ceiling, he would think about the men that might sit in their cockpits, and whether he could ever be one of them.
Now, as an adult who has come to terms with a masculine identity and sexuality that is often erased from dominant military narratives, he undertakes a refreshingly honest analysis of his fascination with the war. In Men at War, Turner looks beyond the increasingly retrogressive and jingoistic ideal of a Britain that never was to recognise men of war as creatures of love, fear, hope and desire. From writers, filmmakers, artists and ordinary men – including those in his own family – Turner assembles a broad cast of characters to bring the war to life.
There are conscientious objectors, a bisexual Commando, a pacifist poet who flew for Bomber Command, a transgender RAF pilot, a soldier who suffered in Japanese POW camps and later in life became an LGBT+ activist, and those who simply did what they could just to survive and return home to a complicated peace. As the conflict moves beyond living memory and the last veterans leave us, we are in danger of missing the opportunity to gain a true understanding of this rich history. By exploring a wartime experience that embraces sex, lust and the body as much as tactics and weaponry, Turner argues that the only way we can really understand the Second World War is to get to grips with the complexity of the lives and identities of those who fought and endured it.