Is Masculinity Under Attack in America?

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Look at Bush at his “ranch.”  Look at that belt buckle!  And you dare claim masculinity is in decline?

W.J. Astore

Is the American male dead?  I’ve seen enough articles and books espousing a “war” on men and boys, amounting to a concerted attack on masculinity, to suggest that males are, if not dead, very much in decline in America, threatened by a “feminized” society that devalues manly virtues.

An article at the National Review, “Understanding the Inescapable Reality of Masculinity,” suggests that men as men have an “essential nature,” one that is “physical, aggressive, violent,” but that these traits are under attack as wider American society works to deny men their “inherent masculinity.” The article further argues there aren’t enough male role models in the lives of young boys – especially fathers and father-figures. This is a well-worn argument on the vital importance of the nuclear family with a man like Ward Cleaver in charge of it.  There’s nothing wrong with that, except not all fathers are patient, kind, and intelligent mentors like Ward on “Leave it to Beaver.” Sadly, more than a few drive young boys to be aggressive and violent in selfish and dangerous ways.

Leaving that aside, it seems odd that this narrative of the decline of masculinity persists so strongly in Trump’s America.  Now there’s a man!  He’s physical, aggressive, unafraid to boast of pussy-grabbing or the size of his penis.  He’s urged his followers at rallies to get physical with protesters.  He supports torture and even hints at shooting immigrants as a rational “get tough” policy.  Posing like Winston Churchill, he scowls and frowns in a simulacrum of manly determination.  If the president is America’s chief role model, Trump’s doing his best to project masculinity as he understands it.

Indeed, you might argue Trump won the presidency in part because of his unapologetic “masculine” posing.  Contrast this to Hillary Clinton, often portrayed as a “ball-buster,” an emasculating female.  (Indeed, I had a Hillary nutcracker, a novelty gift from a friend.)  Male voters (joined by a majority of White women) in 2016, perhaps looking for a “real” man to vote for and turned off by an alleged nut-cracking harridan, broke for Trump.

Trump’s win—and continued tolerance of his bullying, boastful, and bellicose manner—give the lie to the decline of masculinity narrative in America.  Why does it persist, then?  Because it’s yet another way to divide us.  Consider similar narratives of an alleged war on Christianity, or that higher education is driven by hegemonic liberal/leftist agendas.  In fact, Christianity is more powerful than ever in America—just look at Mike Pence and the influence of evangelicals in the U.S. government—and higher education is increasingly about serving the needs of business, industry, and the military-industrial complex.

But truth is unimportant when the object is stirring up divisiveness.  Tell American men they’re threatened: that radical feminists, effete city dwellers, Ivy League elites, and other disreputable elements are out to get them.  Then urge “threatened” males to vote for retrograde (fake) tough guys like Trump.  It may not be the most subtle tactic, but it works.

In this narrative, masculinity is defined in “can-do,” action-oriented ways.  Man as Alpha male, as doer, as fighter, whether in a bad way (as a killer) or in a good way (as a protector).  It’s warrior-and empire-friendly.  And indeed U.S. foreign policy today is distinctly masculine, with loads of emphasis on domination, on bossing other peoples around, simply because we’re bigger and badder than them.

What’s truly worrisome is not false narratives about masculinity’s decline but how it’s narrowly defined in violent and aggressive ways.  We forget that macho posturing by America’s “leaders” has created enormous problems.  Just think of George W. Bush and all his macho strutting before and during the Iraq war.

America needs fewer calls about putting on “big boy” pants and more emphasis on engaging in negotiation and diplomacy, along with action to end America’s chaotic and unwinnable wars.  America is already carrying a big stick.  It can afford to speak softly instead of shouting.

Fewer American Snipers, More American Workers and Builders

Role model to young men?
Role model to young men?

 

W.J. Astore

Former Army Ranger Rory Fanning has a thoughtful article at TomDispatch.com on why young men should not join the Army to fight the war on terror in distant lands.

Here’s an excerpt:

Believe me, it [the Afghan War] was ugly. We were often enough targeting innocent people based on bad intelligence and in some cases even seizing Afghans who had actually pledged allegiance to the U.S. mission… I know now that if our country’s leadership had truly had peace on its mind, it could have all been over in Afghanistan in early 2002.

If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003 … Given the reign of terror that followed, it’s hardly surprising to find former Baathist army officers in key positions in ISIS and the Sunnis choosing that grim outfit as the lesser of the two evils in its world.  Again, the enemy you are being shipped off to fight is, at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country. And remember that, whatever its grim acts, this enemy presents no existential threat to American security, at least so says Vice President Joe Biden. Let that sink in for a while and then ask yourself whether you really can take your marching orders seriously.

Fanning makes persuasive points here: How the U.S. military bungled its wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan; how often Iraqi and Afghan innocents were killed due to bad intelligence and the usual deadly mistakes associated with war; how the wars fed, and continue to feed, a cycle of violence that is perpetuated by new U.S. troop deployments and weapons sales (with respect to weapons sales, see this excellent article by Peter Van Buren, which details how the U.S. is hawking M1 Abrams main battle tanks to the Iraqis).

Yet persuading young American men against joining the military, let alone convincing them not to strive to be elite Rangers, is not, sadly, an exercise in logic.  In American society today, young men, especially from the working classes, seek an identity and a status that affirms masculinity.  They want to earn the respect of their peers, parents, and prospective dates (and mates).  American society provides few options for such men, especially if they’re living in straitened circumstances in dead-end jobs.  Consider that many physical jobs, such as working in a warehouse, pay only slightly better than minimum wage, with weekly hours curtailed so that employers don’t have to provide health care.

Military service, which exudes masculinity while conveying societal respect (and free health care, among other benefits), is in many ways the most viable option for working-class men (and more than a few women, obviously).  Like it or not, young men often aspire to being “the biggest and baddest,” or at least serving with a unit of such men.  They seek community and a sense of belonging within unapologetically masculine settings.  They may also have dreams of being heroes, or at least of proving themselves as capable within a community of likeminded tough guys.

American society bombards such impressionable young men with images of soldiers, often deified in movies like “Act of Valor” or “Lone Survivor.”  Consider the popular success of “American Sniper,” with its depiction of the resolute sniper as avenger and punisher.  Movies like this are powerful in persuading impressionable youth to sign on the dotted line as volunteers for military service.

Military service, which conveys personal dignity, adds a dash of grandeur.  By joining the military, you become part of something much larger than yourself.  A sense of masculine challenge, especially in elite units like the Army Rangers or Navy SEALs, combined with societal respectability prove alluring to young men.  Sadly, no amount of logic about the lack of wisdom and efficacy of America’s war on terror will convince them otherwise.

Some will say there’s nothing wrong with this.  Why not encourage young men to join the military and to fight in foreign lands?  Yet if those fights serve fallacious causes that amount to strategic folly, our troops’ sacrifices amount to little.

One thing we can do: American society should provide more jobs for young men that convey respect within masculine codes but which don’t require donning a uniform and killing an enemy overseas.

For nearly a decade, I taught working-class students, mostly young men, in rural Pennsylvania.  My students came to class wearing camo fatigues.  Many looked like they had just climbed down from a tree stand in the woods (a big holiday for my students was the first day of rifle deer season).  They drove pickup trucks, listened to country music, dipped Skoal or smoked Marlboros.  They’re not guys who aspire to be metrosexuals sipping lattes at Starbucks.  They’re looking for a job that screams “man,” and sometimes they find it: in welding, as a heavy equipment operator, in residential construction, and so on.

But for those who can’t find such “masculine” vocations that provide decent pay and benefits, military service is powerfully alluring, and almost impossible to resist, especially when there are so few alternatives.

In September 2008, I called for a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps, national service that is dedicated to rebuilding America.  We need to instill an ethic of national service that goes beyond war and killing.  An ethic that inspires young men with patriotic pride and that conveys societal identities that appeal to them as men.

What we need, in short, are fewer “American snipers” and more American workers and builders.

Too Many Troops Have Died in the Name of Big Boy Pants

Too many troops have died in the name of big boy pants
Too many troops have died in the name of big boy pants

W.J. Astore

Jeremy Scahill is a reporter for whom the word “intrepid” may have been invented. He’s been remarkably bold in covering the creation of private mercenary forces in the United States (as documented in his bestseller, Blackwater) as well as America’s “turn to the dark side” after 9/11/2001, which led to “wars of choice” in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with interventions in Somalia, Yemen, and across the world in the name of combating terrorism. Indeed, the subtitle of Scahill’s new book is “The World Is A Battlefield.” And since there’s always a terrorist organization at large somewhere in the world, we are ensured of a forever war, a grim prospect on this Veterans Day.

I’ve written an extended review of Scahill’s Dirty Wars at Michigan War Studies Review, edited by the incomparable Jim Holoka.  An aspect of this review I’d like to focus on is the use of macho language by Bush Administration operatives soon after 9/11.  A strength of Scahill’s account is his ear for the tough talk of civilians within the administration, most of whom had no military experience.

In the days and weeks following 9/11, L. Paul Bremer, later to become the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, wrote of the Clinton’s Administration’s “limp-wristed” approach to terrorism.  Cofer Black, Bush’s head of counter-terrorism, talked of “taking the gloves off” as well as of “unleashing the junkyard dog” of CIA and special operations forces against terrorist networks.  Perhaps the most telling attempt at tough-talk came from the lips of Jose Rodriguez, Director of Operations at the CIA, who said it was time for “everybody in the government to put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities what we [the CIA] needed [to take action].” [Emphasis added.]

The worst fear of these men seems to have been of appearing weak. They didn’t want to be caught wearing little boy pants; they didn’t want to fight with gloves on; and they certainly didn’t want to appear to be limp-wristed. No — these were REAL men. They wanted to put on big boy pants; they were ready for bare-knuckle brawls; no limp-wristed wimps need apply.

Here Scahill quotes Malcolm Nance, a career counterterrorist expert for the U.S. Navy, as describing Cofer Black and his fellow tough-guys as “civilian ideologues” who embraced “Tom Clancy Combat Concepts” that consisted of “going hard, … popping people on the streets, … dagger and intrigue all the time.”  Tom Clancy might make for decent Hollywood action movies, but it’s never a good idea to confuse fantasy with reality.

There’s much more to Scahill’s book (and the documentary that accompanies it, also named “Dirty Wars”) than this, and I urge you to read it.  Its major theme is the abuse of power by the U.S. government and the erosion of Constitutional safeguards and freedoms, all justified in the name of “keeping us safe.”  But one of its minor themes is the macho posturing of men with little or no experience in the military who were all too willing to order others to fight in their name.

Yes, they all put on the “big boy pants” — figuratively speaking. They sat in offices and ordered young troops into battle.  And I’m sure they signed those orders with bare knuckles and firm wrists.  In so doing they risked nothing and gained, at least in their own minds, a reputation for toughness.

Far too often in the history of war have old men believed that, by sending others off to fight and die, they were putting on the big boy pants. The costs of such macho posturing have been, and continue to be, far too high.

The Persistence of War

A young Tom Cruise loving his machine gun in "Taps"
A young Tom Cruise loving his machine gun in “Taps”

W.J. Astore

“[W]ar is a distressing, ghastly, harrowing, horrific, fearsome and deplorable business.  How can its actual awfulness be described to anyone?”  Stuart Hills, By Tank Into Normandy, p. 244

“[E]very generation is doomed to fight its war, to endure the same old experiences, suffer the loss of the same old illusions, and learn the same old lessons on its own.”  Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War, p. 81

The persistence of war is a remarkable thing.  Two of the better books about war and its persistence are J. Glenn Gray’s “The Warriors” and Chris Hedges “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.”   Hedges, for example, writes about “the plague of nationalism,” our willingness to subsume our own identities in the service of an abstract “state” as well as our eagerness to serve that state by killing “them,” some “other” group that the state has vilified.

In warning us about the perils of nationalism, Hedges quotes Primo Levi’s words: “I cannot tolerate the fact that a man should be judged not for what he is but because of the group to which he belongs.”  Levi’s lack of tolerance stems from the hardest of personal experiences: surviving Auschwitz as an Italian Jew during the Holocaust.

Gray takes this analysis in a different direction when he notes that those who most eagerly and bloodthirstily denounce “them,” the enemy, are typically far behind the battle lines or even safely at home.  The troops who fight on the front lines more commonly feel a sort of grudging respect for the enemy, even a sense of kinship that comes with sharing danger in common.

Part of the persistence of war, in other words, stems from the ignorant passions of those who most eagerly seek it and trumpet its heroic wonders even as they stand (and strive to remain) safely on the sidelines.

Both Hedges and Gray also speak to the dangerous allure of war, its spectacle, its excitement, its awesomeness.  Even the most visceral and “realistic” war films, like the first thirty minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” represent war as a dramatic spectacle.  War films tend to glamorize combat (think of “Apocalypse Now,” for example), which is why they do so little to put an end to war.

One of the best films to capture the dangerous allure of war to youth is “Taps.”  I recall seeing it in 1981 at the impressionable age of eighteen.  There’s a tiny gem of a scene near the end of the film when the gung ho honor guard commander, played by Tom Cruise before he was TOM CRUISE, mans a machine gun.  He’s firing against American troops sent to put down a revolt at a military academy, but Cruise’s character doesn’t care who he’s firing at.  He’s caught in the rapture of destruction.

He shouts, “It’s beautiful, man.  Beautiful.”  And then he himself is shot dead.

This small scene with Cruise going wild with the machine gun captures the adrenaline rush, that berserker capacity latent in us, which acts as an accelerant to the flames of war.

War continues to fascinate us, excite us.  It taps primal roots of power and fear and ecstasy all balled together.  It masters us, hence its persistence.

If and when we master ourselves, perhaps then we’ll finally put an end to war.