NAKED WAR and PEACE
“Naked Is As Naked Does…”
Lady Godiva’s ride through 11th century Coventry–stark naked except for her flowing locks.
Frank Harris (1856 – 1931), author of the infamous My Life and Loves, a five volume autobiography completed in the1920s, is the poor man’s Casanova. Born of Welsh parents and raised in Ireland, Harris first emigrated to the American West and became a cowboy. The movie Cowboy, starring Jack Lemmon, is about Harris’ love for a Mexican señorita. Later, he became editor and owner of several politically influential periodicals, which included London’s Saturday Review. Before and after the turn of the century, Harris knew everybody of importance in Britain and France, and he would meet the leading figures of half the world during his global travels. A short, spry, muscular fellow, dapper, mustachioed, easy to caricature, Harris fancied himself a great lover and wrote explicitly about his sex life, which tended toward teenage girls. Harris’ Life and Loves was banned practically everywhere, and in Britain possessing a copy became a criminal offence. By now, the lengthy memoir seems merely interesting and, on the whole, innocent. Harris’ main crime was to reveal down and dirty pastimes of the British political class, which retaliated with venom.
Of all the countries Harris visited, Japan was his favorite. On several visits beginning in the late 19th century, he admired Japanese courtesy and manners, “the astonishing politeness of the people.” He was struck by their no-nonsense attitude toward sex and their casual acceptance of nudity. On his first visit, out in the country, his rickshaw was stopped by a bunch of naked girls and women who came out of a bathhouse. “They all wanted to see if I was white all over . . . They were of all ages and all absolutely nude.” The crowd grew, and when Harris touched the breasts of a pretty girl, “She seemed pleased and the whole crowd laughed as at a good joke.” Harris favorably compared Japan with France, not only for its lack of sham modesty but in the people’s love of art and appreciation of artists. The connection is clear, when we recall that the naked human form is the greatest subject of the master painters.
We wonder, how could the same courteous people, or their army, be responsible for the horrors of the Rape of Nanking, during the 1930s Japanese invasion of China, which led to World War II in the Pacific? Nanking, then the Chinese capital, was overrun by the Japanese army by early December 1937. There followed a six-week period during which some 57,000 prisoners of war were tied together and machine-gunned, hundreds of thousands of civilians were murdered, and up to 80,000 women, from children to matrons, were viciously raped by soldiers of the victorious army.
Japan, unlike Germany, destroyed all its war records before formal surrender in 1945. Still, the repeated, gory massacres and massive, non-stop rape were witnessed by missionaries and American correspondents, and the facts sufficiently established by The International Military Tribunal convened by General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allies in the Pacific. The atrocities committed by the people Frank Harris found to be astonishingly polite are astonishingly grizzly and needn’t be gone into in detail. War turns men into devils. Murder and rape become deadly weapons to be used against the enemy. The image from the Rape of Nanking that haunts us is a photo of a Japanese soldier thrusting his bayonet into the dead, nude body of a woman, as though she were hamburger.
We find American soldiers in Iraq employing nakedness as a weapon.
In Abu Ghraib prison, Iraqi prisoners were stripped and stacked on top of each other to form naked pyramids, or forced into sexual acts. The snapshot of Pvt. Lynndie England holding the naked prisoner “Gus” by a leash became an icon of the war. The French social theorist Jean Baudrillard defined this as “war porn,” a genre that has grown popular on the Net. American military police, guarding male and female Iraqi prisoners, stripped them naked, forced them to masturbate, and even, at times, raped them. Oddly, like good scouts, the captors documented their behavior with snapshots, so that Major General Antonio Taguba could state, “These pictures show torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.”
To some degree, the American MPs understood that, given the Islamic morality of the prisoners, getting them naked in public, humiliating them, and documenting their disgrace was itself a form of torture. This was a criminal offence, which led to several MPs being court- martialed and sent to prison. But War Porn had been born, and it flourishes on the Internet to this day. The footage has grown bloodier and shows naked, headless corpses, severed limbs, and the like. The fellow with the leading website has stated, “It was a view of war that had never been seen.” Possibly, but it was anticipated by Norman Mailer’s novel of WW II, The Naked and the Dead.
Fortunately, nudity can be used for peaceful, positive purposes as well. A classic example is Lady Godiva’s ride through 11th century Coventry–stark naked except for her flowing locks. We owe the story to Roger of Wendover, who in the 13th century wrote his Flowers of History to set down main events in English history to that date. Godiva (literally “God’s Gift”) was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who married Leofric, Earl of Mercia. The couple was generous with gifts of gold, silver, gems, and costly garments to monasteries in the West Midlands. Leofric was not so generous with the heavily taxed people of Coventry. Godiva many times begged her husband to lift these onerous taxes, but the Earl steadfastly refused. Finally, exasperated, he told her: “Mount your horse, and ride naked before all the people, through the market of the town, from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have your request.” To Leofric’s surprise, Godiva accepted his challenge.
According to Roger, Godiva “loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil, and then mounting her horse and attended by two knights, she rode through the market-place, without being seen, except her fair legs.” Since the whole town was out intently watching, Godiva was seen all right. “Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity,” wrote the poet Tennyson, which is all she wore. Godiva is usually pictured as blonde, but a painting of 1898 from John Collier shows her hair as auburn, and it covers little of her pale skin. Leofric was sufficiently impressed by his wife’s audacity that he did indeed lift the townsfolk’s taxes. A later, made-up addition to the story claims Godiva requested the townspeople to remain indoors, shutters closed, during her ride. Only one fellow cheated by boring a hole in the shutter and peeking. He was struck blind. His name was Tom and this is the origin of the Peeping Tom. Instead of cleaning up Lady Godiva’s ride, the notion adds an element of voyeurism, not to mention a vicious morality.
At the time of the American Civil War, the wildly popular actress Adah Isaacs Menken gave us the nude ride of Mazeppa, from a poem by Lord Byron. The historic Prince Mazeppa fought the Russian Tsar for his tribal people. In the play, soldiers capture the prince, strip him bare, tie him face up to a wild stallion, and send him up a mountain to let the wolves and vultures have him. Adah wore a sheer bodystocking but to the audience she looked stark naked, and she became known as The Naked Lady. Since the stage mountain was four stories high and the ramp narrow, the performer was in danger of actual injury, and eventually Adah was badly hurt, leading to her death at thirty-three. The drama was such a hit that other actresses imitated Adah, and they too were maimed and one killed. Here, in mid-Victorian times, we have the elements of cross-sexuality, violence, and resistance to tyranny added to nude titillation. Sounds like an afternoon at the movies.
Mazeppa was performed throughout the 19th century. Then, after WW II, it became a popular item in the countries of Eastern Europe because it was about resistance to Russia. Where the drama couldn’t be performed, it was at least surreptitiously read. Again, The Naked Lady rode up the stage mountain in the name of freedom. In today’s America, freedom is once again threatened but from a different quarter. Democracy is threatened by heavily armed so-called citizens who menace our elected officials with insults and spit and stage gun-toting rallies on the edge of the nation’s capital. Sooner or later that sort of agitation leads to political assassination, as it did in the murders of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It is well that the Texas based, alterna-soul singer Erykah Badu, who sounds like an etheric Marvin Gaye, reminds us, through the use of nudity, of what happened to our 35th President in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
In April 2010 Dallas police charged Badu with disorderly conduct after she performed a public striptease for her latest music video, “Window Seat.” Badu stripped at midday in Dealey Plaza, where JFK was gunned down. In the video, she walks through the square, removes her t-shirt and pants, then her underwear, while curious passers-by look on. The singer then falls to the ground to the sound of a gunshot. The attractive mother of three claims her point was not simply publicity but to remind people of what happened to JFK. “John F Kennedy was a revolutionary,” she told a TV interviewer. “He was not afraid to butt heads with America, and I was not afraid to show America my butt-naked truth.”
A Dallas police spokesman said they had received calls from people across the country complaining about Badu’s behavior. Also that there were children nearby when she stripped. Thus Badu was fined $500 for showing her ass. Here’s the rub: How did those people “across the country” know about Badu’s performance? They must have been forced to watch her “Window Seat” video on YouTube–quickly, before it was censored by the YouTubian Puritans. No doubt the offended citizens were held at gun-point by their neighbors. Or maybe it was the children in the Plaza who complained? In our humble opinion, Ms Badu deserves a medal.
As do the brave strippers from PETA, whose motto is “Bare Skin, Don’t Wear Skin.” PETA is the acronym for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. With a two million plus membership it is the largest and most active, at times outrageous, animal rights organization in the world. PETA members can often be found nude, or clothed only in a statement banner, in the middle of cities large and small. They realize that nudity makes a crucial point: Humans are another animal species, and to an animal its skin means what our skins mean to us: life. PETA’s purpose, its crusade, is to save the lives of our fellow creatures, and to make their point the PETAs are willing to show it all in public, right downtown.
For now let’s focus on two members who bared all in Brattleboro, Vermont, which has lenient laws about nudity. The ladies–no, too young for that–girls–no, not girlish, too mature for that–chicks--no, too Vermont for that–these two females, one brunette and one blonde, were partially covered by their banner, bearing the motto above. Their backsides were not covered at all, and their behinds, their best feature, might have been given more emphasis.
Viewers’ comments to photo documentation of the Brat Baring on The Peta Files website was largely favorable to the young women and thankful for their courage in exposing themselves on an autumn day in Vermont–they call that “Stick Season,” because anyone who hasn’t already headed south is probably stuck for the winter. There were a couple of punsters, such as “It’s so em-bare-assing!” Yuk! Yuk! And one male nincompoop compared the PETAs unfavorably to brave American troops in Iraq, and insisted, “[M]en only care about the t & a and don’t give a crap about your messages!!!!!” Well, the Nude News does care about exhibitions of breasts and rear ends, especially when they are shown off to a higher purpose. We agree with the suggestion that female nudity might be accompanied by a video or brochures showing how animals are routinely tortured and killed. Concerning our troops, the “Nude News” is certain they have caught onto the shows of pulchritude on PETA, and they too are grateful to the dolls whose life and limb and other parts they would gladly defend, if only they weren’t so far from their front.
Michael and Barbara Foster are authors of the upcoming definitive biography of America’s first superstar Adah Isaacs Menken called A DANGEROUS WOMAN.