Deployed to cities at high risk of coronavirus, photos of the Spanish Legion provoked lust, loathing and comments about homoeroticism when they went viral on social media. Yet the history of the Legion makes these responses no contradiction at allby Catherine Baker / March 24, 2020 / Leave a comment
They are musclebound and tanned, with sage-green shirts open to the chest, bulges below their black leather belts, and chinstraps curiously slung along their chiselled jaws.
They are the elite troops of the Spanish Legion, and on an internet desperate to be distracted from pandemic lockdown, they are English-language Twitter’s latest thirst trap.
After the Spanish military was deployed to cities at high coronavirus risk, New York writer Jill Filipovic tweeted “Spain, hi, can you deploy some of that in our direction?” above photos of parading legionnaires. Thousands of Twitter users joined her in desire, some informed her of the Legion’s fascist origins, and others remarked on how homoerotic their uniforms seemed.
Yet the history of the Legion makes those three things no contradiction at all.
Spain is deploying its army to help manage their coronavirus outbreak and not to be insensitive at an anxiety-inducing time but uh… I think I speak for all New Yorkers when I say, Spain, hi, can you deploy some of that in our direction? We will comply with your orders. pic.twitter.com/LyxIPsGu3g
— Jill Filipovic (@JillFilipovic) March 22, 2020
When the Spanish officer José Millán-Astray proposed his army should found a French-style Foreign Legion in 1919, Spain’s colonial ambitions in Morocco were growing, and the right longed to restore the country’s imperial glory through victorious desert war.
Millán-Astray, a veteran of colonial wars in the Philippines and Morocco’s Rif mountains, created the Legion’s immersive and brutal traditions to separate men from their past lives and unify them in brotherhood and death.
Inspired by the French example and what he understood of Japanese samurais’ bushidō code, Millán-Astray wrote up a “Legionary Creed” of tireless duty, bodily hardness, unconditional friendship, and combat to the deadly end.
Many of these themes were common across fascist movements and the militaries they influenced, but others were distinct to the Legion. Legionnaires swore to become “bridegrooms of Death” (from the title of a popular song about a Legionnaire’s sacrifice in the Rif), renouncing familial and romantic bonds and sublimating them into loyalty to each other and the Legion’s flag.
The open shirt which drew so many social media comments after Filipovic posted her photo was introduced by Major Adolfo Vara del Rey, and rejected the ordinary army’s nineteenth-century ceremonial dress to symbolise their readiness for open war in muggy desert air. The sage-green colour, meanwhile, was Spanish forces’ first adaptation to standards of camouflage.
Millán-Astray’s language of sacrifice and reconquest fuelled Spanish fascism well before the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Franco, commander from 1923 to 1926, harnessed his charisma to make the Legionnaires the shock troops of a coup by anti-Republican generals in July 1936. An airlift of Legionnaires gave the Nationalist side enough manpower to take Sevilla, and the Legionnaires who captured Badajoz on 14 August 1936 executed up to 4,000 Republican prisoners and civilians in the city streets, dragging hundreds into the bull ring where they were shot to death in a circle of machine guns.
In democratic Spain, the Legion became a mechanised infantry formation which now makes up a large part of Spain’s rapid reaction capabilities, and continued to garrison the enclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla, the first sites of today’s fortified EU border regime. It has admitted women since 1999.
As well as participating in the annual Spanish National Day parade from which Filipovic’s photos likely come, it also joins the Málaga Holy Week procession to carry an effigy of its patron, the crucified Christ of the Good Death and All Souls.
Twitter’s armchair anthropologists are not the only ones to have analysed the troops. Two anthropologists who observed the Málaga processions in 2010–12 argued that their ritual plays out “a specific form of martial masculinity” which makes death for one’s compatriots “not only … acceptable but even desirable”—but which had started to become embarrassing as the region’s economy turned towards managing EU agricultural investment.
Besides being objects of heterosexual desire, the Legion’s stylised appearance also speaks to a queer male gaze, as author and critic Huw Lemmey remarked in 2017 when these images last surged through Twitter.
Today’s tight-shirted Legionnaires, exempted from the army’s strict rules on beards and tattoos, do indeed resemble queer fantasy figures in uniforms which might seem tailored more for catwalks than parade-grounds when seen from outside Spain. As multiple Twitter users joked this time, “Who designed these uniforms—Tom of Finland?,” referencing the artist whose erotic illustrations of soldiers, bikers and policemen with larger-than-life bare chests and bulging groins have gone down in queer history.
The tension between fascism’s homoerotic ideals of the male martial body and many queer men’s desires to embody and possess that same ideal pulses through art, literature and fashion—but in Spain, it has further overtones dating back to the founding of the Legion itself.
Carlos Arévalo’s 1941 film Harka, set during the Rif campaign, helped cement the Legion’s myth in early Francoist Spain. For a film contributing to the public culture of a clerical fascist regime that imprisoned thousands of gay and bisexual men, its lingering shots of a captain and his lieutenant bonding under desert stars come dangerously close in some film scholars’ eyes to condoning same-gender desire.
Behind the myth of the “bridegrooms of Death,” Susan Martin-Márquez has argued, the Legionnaires’ famed physical intimacy with each other spilled into their off-duty music and dance, where cross-dressing entertainment was not rare. Franco’s command memoir lauded his campaign to stop Legionnaires and Moroccans fraternising in cafés, where male sex workers may well have been found.
No wonder, therefore, that today’s Legion uniforms seem crafted to be exaggerated spectacles of desire: militarism, fascism and homoeroticism were bound together when the Legion was founded as tightly as the Legion’s sage-green shirts encircle troops’ biceps today—whether everyone on Twitter realises it or not.