Battle Lines - It's a guy thing
April 12, 2003
BATTLE LINES It's a guy thing And it has been for eons, but
there's more to men and warfare than biology. http://www.calendarlive.com/cl-war-johnson12apr12.story
Reed Johnson, Times Staff Writer
Brash or heartbroken, macho-cool or terror-stricken, the complex face of
modern masculinity stares out at us from TV screens and newspaper pages
in these fractured days of war. One minute it's a pensive U.S. medic
cradling a wounded Iraqi girl in a gender-reversed Pietà. Next it's
a line of smiling Marines, stripped to their T-shirts and camouflage trousers, handsome and buff as Abercrombie &
Fitch models, shouting
frat-boy bonhomie to a passing convoy of comrades. And now it's
Army Staff Sgt. Chad Touchett, sprawled in a dainty chair in one of
Saddam Hussein's rubble-strewn palaces, puffing a cigar. Take that,
Mr. Mother of All Battles, the photo seems to say, and your sissy French-style furniture, too!
If these images conjure up a portrait of the fighting man that's far more
complicated and contradictory than those flashy, MTV-style Marine
recruiting ads, well, Leo Braudy is here to help. For "x-thousand years," the USC professor says, war has
been "the crucible
It was Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century man of letters and London bon
vivant, who may have best expressed the immutable link between warfare
and manliness. "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having
been a soldier or not having been at sea," he said. But as Braudy
documents in his forthcoming book, "From Chivalry to Terrorism:
War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity," to be published
this fall by Alfred A. Knopf, the difference in definitions of
manhood between the time of Homer or the crusaders and today is nearly
as great as the difference between a tomahawk and a Tomahawk missile.
Sifting through sources from history, literature and art, Braudy traces
the metamorphosis of the warrior ideal across a millennium, roughly
from the Norman conquest of England in 1066 to the collapse of the twin towers in 2001. What he finds is that testosterone
and animal instinct alone
aren't enough to explain why generations of men have
measured their self-worth by their actions on the battlefield. Instead,
he argues, centuries of social, cultural and technological change
have shaped, and been reshaped by, warfare, and this in turn has
altered our definitions and perceptions of manhood.
"I don't deny biology," Braudy says. "What I'm trying
to do is ... give
masculinity a history rather than just to see it as a biological essence."
In times of war, Braudy says, masculinity is often defined as much by what
it is not -- or at least by what it supposedly shouldn't be -- as
by what it is. In wartime, men aren't supposed to be soft or sensitive, introspective or self-doubting. With rare
exceptions, such as the
Spartan armies of ancient Greece, they're also supposed to be rigorously
heterosexual, though what goes on in bunkhouses and below decks
often bears little relation to what gets preached in training manuals.
At the same time, war tends to polarize relations between the sexes by
creating an imperative for men to behave more "like men" and
women to act more
"like women." It is then common, Braudy says, to discredit
one's enemy by pinning to him all those qualities -- "softness,"
"weakness," "effeminacy," "cowardice" --
that are considered polar
opposites of the qualities that make up the masculine
"The thing about war is, because it's an 'us versus them'
situation, it frequently
gathers into its sphere, its atmosphere, other polarities,"
Braudy says. "So 'If we're men, then they must not be.' ...
In order to minimize [the enemy], you call them women or you call them
vermin or whatever your repertoire [is] of things that aren't you,
that you don't want to be."
The ultimate trophy
Variants of those ancient taunts have been heard on many sides of America's
11Z2-year-old war on terrorism. Saddam Hussein and his aides,
before disappearing into Baghdad's smoldering ruins, repeatedly insinuated that America's leaders were cowards and
that its troops lacked
the necessary red blood cells to wage a tough urban war.
Similarly, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, some U.S. journalists remarked on Osama bin Laden's
If traditional warrior cultures conceive of women as a threat to proper
masculine identity, female sexuality also has represented the ultimate
trophy for the male warrior. Braudy's book reproduces two wartime
images that proffer female sexuality as a prize, yet from utterly
different perspectives. In a World War I recruiting poster, a porcelain-skinned beauty coos "I Want You for the
Navy." In the other,
a Vietnam-era anti-draft poster, a miniskirted Joan Baez and her
two sisters, looking very counterculture chic, sit on a sofa below
the slogan "Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No." This come-on,
Braudy says, is
"sort of the opposite of a Dear John letter."
Like many men of his generation, Braudy, 61, fell between World War II
and the Korean War (too young to fight) and the Vietnam War (too old).
He didn't set out to write a book about men and warfare. But after
finishing "The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History"
(1986), which was a
finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, he penned
a series of essays whose themes coalesced in the new work.
Possibly the most provocative idea in Braudy's 800-page tome is that notions
of warfare and masculinity have, in a sense, come full circle,
"from chivalry to terrorism," over the last 1,000 years.
During the Middle Ages, the European knights invented the chivalric code
of honor to govern their behavior. Among its primary tenets was protecting
women, who were viewed as weak and defenseless, a presumption that reinforced the Christian, male-dominated
social hierarchy of the
Gradually, the introduction of gunpowder to European warfare made the armored
knight irrelevant. And as nation-states emerged to replace the
old feudal system, and new mass armies of citizen-soldiers fought wars
for territorial gain or political change rather than personal glory,
the chivalric codes faded away. Along with them went the myth of
the gallant knight charging to the aid of the damsel in distress, which
already had grown musty when Cervantes parodied it in his novel "Don
Quixote" (1605) -- though remnants of it persist, for example, in
some of the more sentimentalized media depictions of last week's rescue
of Pfc. Jessica Lynch.
But in some countries, an archaic warrior culture endures, as Braudy suggests
in his book's final chapter, "Terrorism as a Gender War." He
believes that a parallel exists between that long-ago world of
armored horsemen and
certain present-day fundamentalist societies where
war is waged through "terrorist" acts carried out mostly by honor-seeking
men, and women are usually relegated to second-class citizenship.
"I wouldn't call it chivalric, particularly, but it's certainly
the old warrior
code," he says. "What's happened in the West is that over the
centuries, and I think under the impact of wars, democracy, citizenship,
all these things that are going on, is that gender is seen
as a continuum, not as a polarity. But in radical Islamic culture -- well, I mean it's there in Islamic culture in
general and it's pushed
to another extreme in terrorist stuff -- men have to remain
men, and you have to keep women, whatever is 'polluting,' whatever
is 'corrupting,' [from] undermining that warrior self."
It's a delicate argument to make, Braudy acknowledges, particularly when
images of U.S. tanks rumbling through Baghdad are bombarding the Arab-speaking
world. Yet he believes that the United States is not a true
"We're warlike, but we're not warriors," Braudy says.
"I think one of Bush's
models, it's not John Wayne, it's Alan Ladd in 'Shane.' It's like
we have to be pushed -- push, push, push, and then finally, whammo!
And I think in all those kind of '50s westerns where the hero has
to be pushed before he's going to do anything, is that being pushed
shows you have self-restraint and gives you the moral high ground."
A changing culture
For fighting men in Western democracies, the greatest challenge to traditional
concepts of manhood may now be technological rather than sexual.
If the knight and the cowboy were rugged individualists, the modern
high-tech soldier is more of a cog in an impersonal killing machine.
At least since the Renaissance, Braudy says, popular culture has reflected
this belief, which has dovetailed with a growing skepticism about
the aims of warfare in general. In Stephen Crane's Civil War-era novel "The Red Badge of Courage," the grunts
marching toward mass
slaughter question whether their deeds will ever match those of Homer's heroes. And by the time British war poets like Wilfred
Owen and Siegfried
Sassoon and novelist Ernest Hemingway were facing machine
guns on the battlefields of World War I, it had become devastatingly
clear that technology had overtaken the individual combatant.
The allied forces currently in Iraq are trying to counter this depersonalization,
Braudy says. For example, some British troops have been
careful to remove their helmets and replace them with berets or tam-o'-shanters
after taking possession of Iraqi towns, so as to look more
like humans and less like Robocops.
But an even bigger crack may be emerging in the traditional manly warrior
persona, Braudy says.
His students, he observes, tend to be "much easier about
identities. They sort of take it for granted" that people can be
heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.
"The interesting thing to speculate on would be, does this mean
that in fact war is
detaching from gender?" Braudy continues. "Because masculinity
and nationalism are so connected too, historically. So will
nationalism itself disappear? If the United States was the first country
to truly break away from a monarchical system, will it be the last
country to hang onto a nationalist one?