Manhood and War

[The following is excerpted from The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. For more information click here.]

A key defense of patriarchy invokes the mysteries of warfare as crucial to understanding the ‘natural’ gender order. As the argument goes, men must be aggressive and develop a capacity for violence in order to defend society and family. As Sam Keen puts it in his book, Fire in the Belly, sacrifice is at the center of men’s lives as they put the welfare of others above their own: “Most men went to war, shed blood, and sacrificed their lives with the conviction that it was the only way to defend those whom they loved. . . . [S]hort of a utopian world . . . someone must be prepared to take up arms and do battle with evil” (p. 47).

The violent-man-as-protector image is connected to patriarchy through the idea that men’s capacity for violence and aggression inevitably leads to male dominance over women, children, and property, since men must be more powerful than those they protect. “Men . . . must be manly,” anthropologist David Gilmore tells us in Manhood in the Making, because warfare demands it” (p.150). But it is no less reasonable to also argue that warfare exists because patriarchal manliness and its related structures of control and dominance demand it.

There are two major problems with using warfare to justify patriarchy and male dominance. First, the romantic images of warfare don’t fit much of what we know about actual men and war. The idea that men are motivated primarily by self-sacrifice doesn’t square with the high value patriarchal cultures place on male autonomy and freedom. According to Keen, autonomy and independence, not self-sacrifice for women and children, were a key to the patriarchal rebellion against goddess religions and men’s ‘servitude to nature.’ The warfare argument for patriarchy also fits poorly with the reality of warfare as most people actually experience it. I don’t know which wars Keen has in mind, but most that I can think of were fought for anything but defense of loved ones, and men in privileged racial and economic classes who presumably love their families as much as the next man have been all too willing to allow those less fortunate than they to serve in their place. Was it love that motivated the endless bloodshed of the Roman conquests, the slaughter of countless religious wars and crusades, the Napoleonic wars, the U.S. Civil War, or the two world wars? Was it to protect women and children that the United States ‘liberated’ the Philippines from the Spanish following the Spanish-American war and then brutally suppressed Philippine resistance to becoming a U.S. colony and gateway to Asian markets? Was it for the sake of hearth and home that U.S. soldiers went to Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and Iraq, or Soviet troops to Afghanistan? Does love of family explain the ethnic slaughter in Eastern Europe and the brutality of civil wars from Cambodia to Somalia to El Salvador? Is the collective emotional rush that typically greets declarations of war and the itchy yen for glorious victory simply a joyous welcome for yet another opportunity for men to demonstrate their love for wife, children, and community and the fulfillment of their duty to protect?

It would seem not. Closer to the truth is that war allows men to reaffirm their masculine standing in relation to other men, to act out patriarchal ideals of physical courage and aggression, and to avoid being shamed and ridiculed by other men for refusing to join in the fight. As Keen himself tells us, war is “a heroic way for an individual to make a name for himself” and to “practice heroic virtues.” It is an opportunity for men to bond with other men, friend and foe alike, and to reaffirm their common masculine warrior codes. If war was simply about self-sacrifice in the face of monstrous enemies who threaten men’s loved ones, how do we make sense of the long tradition of respect between wartime enemies, the codes of ‘honor’ that bind them together even as they bomb and devastate civilian populations that consist primarily of women and children? Could soldiers fighting only out of such lofty motives as love for home and hearth accumulate such an extensive and consistent record of gratuitous rape and other forms of torture, abuse, and wanton violence inflicted on civilian populations? Certainly there are men who refuse to go to war, and others who go with the sense of self-sacrificing mission that Keen describes, but to attribute warfare as a system to such altruistic motives is the kind of romantic thinking that warfare thrives on. In spite of the horrible price that many men pay for their participation in war, we shouldn’t confuse the fact of their being sacrificed with self-sacrificing personal motivations, especially when trying to explain why warfare exists as a social phenomenon.

The second problem with using warfare to explain male aggression and patriarchal dominance is that it’s a circular argument. As much as we like to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, every nation going to war sees itself as justified in defending what it defines as the good. Each side believes in and glorifies the use of male-identified armed force to resolve disputes and uphold deeply held abstract principles, from the glory of Allah to ethnic or racial purity to the sacredness of democracy. Even the most reluctant government may welcome a breakdown of negotiations that will justify using force (unless they think they’ll lose), and it has become commonplace for national leaders to use war as a way to galvanize public support for their regimes, especially in election years. The heroic male figure of western gunslinging cowboys is almost always portrayed as basically peace-loving and unwilling to use violence “unless he has to.” But the whole point of his heroism and of the story itself is the audience wanting him to ‘have to.’ The spouses, children, territory, honor, and various underdogs who are defended with heroic violence serve as excuses for the violent demonstration of a particular version of patriarchal manhood. They aren’t of central importance, which is why their experience is rarely the focus of attention.

The real interest lies in the male hero and his relation to other men as victor or vanquished, as good guy or bad guy. Indeed, the hero is often the only one who remains intact (or mostly so) at the end of the story. The raped wife, slaughtered family, and ruined community get lost in the shuffle, with only passing attention to their suffering as it echoes across generations and no mention of how they have been used as a foil for patriarchal masculine heroism. Note, however, that when female characters take on such heroic roles, as in Thelma and Louise, the social response is ambivalent if not hostile. Many people complained that the villains in Thelma and Louise made men look bad, but I’ve never heard anyone complain that the villains in male-heroic movies make men look bad. It seems that we have yet another gender double standard: it’s acceptable to portray men as villainous but only if it serves to highlight male heroism.

To support male aggression and therefore male dominance as society’s only defense against evil, we have to believe that evil forces exist out there, in villains, governments, and armies. In this, we have to assume that the bad guys actually see themselves as evil and not as heroes defending loved ones and principles against bad guys like us. The alternative to this kind of thinking is to realize that the same patriarchal ethos that creates our masculine heroes also creates the violent villains they battle and prove themselves against, and that both sides often see themselves as heroic and self-sacrificing for a worthy cause. For all the wartime propaganda, good and bad guys play similar games and salute a core of common values, not to mention one another on occasion. At a deep level, war and many other forms of male aggression are manifestations of the same evil they supposedly defend against. The evil is the patriarchal religion of control and domination that encourages men to use coercion and violence to settle disputes, manage human relations, and affirm masculine identity.

None of this criticism means that men can’t feel compelled to lovingly sacrifice themselves. It also doesn’t mean there’s no place for ferocity in the face of danger, as the females of many species, including our own, demonstrate in defense of their young. But as we saw in Chapter 4, there is a difference between patriarchy as a system and the personal motivations of the people who participate in it. When some men go off to war they may feel full of love for family and community, but this doesn’t explain why warfare exists as a social institution or what compels men to march off to it. In similar ways, men may put family needs before their own simply out of love, but this happens in spite of a patriarchal system that encourages them to value their competitive masculine standing above all else. How else do we explain the men who abandon families rather than work at jobs they consider beneath them and leave behind wives who are far less reluctant to do whatever is necessary to support their children? How else do we understand men who insist on ‘sacrificing’ themselves only in ways that tend to impress other men? I suspect that most men would rather work overtime or fight another man, for example, than diaper babies or risk true emotional intimacy, even if the latter provided loved ones with what they needed most. The patriarchal path of least resistance for a man whose wife is raped isn’t to take care of her, but to wreak heroic revenge on the rapist, an act that, if anything, makes things worse for her. But in a patriarchy her well-being is secondary to his rights and standing as a man in relation to other men. In this sense, the rapist does more than assault a woman, for he also violates a man’s proprietary rights of sexual access and casts doubt on that man’s ability to defend his sexual property against other men. The husband’s revenge uses violence in true patriarchal fashion to reestablish his masculine rights and standing in relation not only to the rapist, but to men in general.

When we romanticize patriarchy or define it as noble and socially necessary, we blind ourselves to what’s going on and paralyze our capacity to work for change. In truth, patriarchy is everywhere, from family, sexuality, and reproduction to global politics and economic production, and not seeing it won’t save us from its consequences.


From The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy.  For more information click here. See also Allan’s new novel, Nothing Left to Lose, about a family in crisis during the Vietnam War.

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