Manhood and War

May 5, 2003 Michael Kaufman

The war and now the occupation of Iraq is indeed about oil and the arms industries; it is about a particularly nasty dictator; it is about who controls the Middle-east, and about the long-held political agenda of a small circle in the United States who happen to control the White House. All true, but it is also about men and masculinity.

When I say this war has been about men I mean much more than a physical description of the vast majority of generals and politicians, enthusiastic corporate boosters, or the soldiers who have been moulded by fear to kill on command.

Rather it is far deeper, embedded in the psyches of men, embedded in qualities that far too many men have learned to value, embedded in our political, social and religious cultures. The stories tell all:

The former President Bush ushered in the last Gulf war twelve years ago with the taunt of a schoolyard bully, daring Saddam Hussein to step across a line in the sand.

The White House and Pentagon evoked Old Testament images of patriarchal wrath when they spoke of “shock and awe.” My dictionary defines “awe” as an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, and fear. What does it say about those men? Picture an Iraqi mother or father, gripping their dead child in their arms, its legs torn from its body; would you imagine them feeling reverence or admiration? These are words for men who admire their ability to kill far more than the ability to give or nurture life. They celebrate a destructive brand of masculinity far more than the tender feelings they associate with femininity and which, apparently, they have come to despise.

On the eve of war, Major David Anderson, a spokesman for the US Marines, spoke of the mood among the Marines who, like real men, never feel fear: “They’re not scared, but their anxiety level has gone through the roof. It’s like it’s just before game time.”

Sexualized imagery around domination and war was evident in a photograph of the long muzzle of a US Abrams tank. This potent weapon, pointing erect, was painted with the words “cohone eh” We’ll add the grammatically correct “s” to the first word, for it is Spanish slang for “balls.”

Perhaps most unspeakable was an account in the newly published book, Jarhead, by a former Marine sniper who fought in the Gulf War. He writes that snipers are often taught that their ultrasensitive rifle trigger is like a woman’s clitoris and the bullet exploding into the victim is her orgasm.

Such images are no surprise. Jingoistic support for leaders who go to war is no surprise. Good Christian, or Jewish or Moslem businessmen who see no problem profiting from barrages of murderous armaments should not surprise us either.

After all, most boys learn from an early age to define our self worth in terms of power. What type of power? Power to love? To nurture? No. Power to dominate and control. We are taunted at school if we are seen as weak and unyielding. We taunt political leaders who stand for peace rather than war. We reward men who get their way in sport or commerce or politics, no matter who else is injured along the way. Generations of men failed to learn the basic nurturing skills required to hold and feed and care for the young, writing off such activities as suitable work only for “the weaker sex.”

Yes, this war is about geo-politics, oil and much more, but it is also about the men who have brought us this war. George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Saddam Hussein share the belief, held by far too many, that a real man must show he is tough and in control, no matter how many people must die.

And that serves them well, particularly those who mobilize public opinion and vast resources to unleash so much destruction. They are able to tap into a reservoir of fear of impotency and a love of a triumphant masculinity, and turn these towards their own economic and political ends.

The bloody results are always predictable, or so the history books tell. This time, however, part of the outcome is the unpredictable: this war heralds a period of even-greater international instability for which, we will be told, more arms and more war will be required.

To save us all and to usher in a future in which our children can experience hope rather than fear requires many things, most of which are beyond the scope of this short essay. However, one necessary requirement is the ever-unfolding process of shifting exclusive social power out of the hands of men (although, as we know from Margaret Thatcher, Condeleza Rice, and Indira Gandhi, women who aspire to a certain form of power can be as destructive as any man.) That is one of the things that will encourage the shifting of social and economic priorities to the long-term needs of our children, the nurturing of communities, stewardship of our environment, and an end to the proliferation of weapons, massively destructive or not.

And it will require new models of manhood. A week or so into the war, across the world in Vietnam, Carlo Urbani, a forty-six year old Italian doctor who had been active in Médicins sans Frontières and the World Health Organization, died from SARS. Faced with an unknown disease killing his patients, he risked his life to be at their side and, in doing so, was the first to identify this new disease. He lived and died not to control the world, but far more simply, to give life. I’ll take him as my model of manhood any day over the Bushes and Husseins.

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