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Excerpt: War and Gender

Chapter 5 (Excerpts)

Manhood in War

Book cover of 'War and Gender' by Joshua S. Goldstein

Although combat trauma itself does not depend on gender, cultural responses to this problem -- tricks to make men keep fighting -- depend heavily on gender. In brief, cultural norms force men to endure trauma and master fear, in order to claim the status of "manhood." This is the heart of hypothesis 5A: cultures develop concepts of masculinity that motivate men to fight.

Men are made, not born. Across a broad sweep of cultures, this central theme recurs with stunning regularity, as David Gilmore's cross-cultural study shows. Unlike women, men must take actions, undergo ordeals, or pass tests in order to become men. The are told to "be a man" whereas women are told to "be" women (though certainly women too are socialized into gender roles). In this way, a surprising number of cultures converge in treating masculinity as something that must be created by individual and collective will against the force of instinct of "doing what comes naturally." (Oddly, the term "real men" refers to the aspect of masculinity that are least real biologically.)

Culture after culture features rites of passage from boyhood to manhood. Only select men can achieve "manhood," an it must be won individually. In many cultures' initial rituals, older males systematically inflict pain and injury on young ones, who must hold up without flinching, or face life-long shame. Men who fail the test become "negative examples ... held up scornfully to inspire conformity." The particulars of these rituals vary by cultural context. In fishing communities, would-be men go on dangerous expeditions into the water. In hunting cultures they risk their lives in hunting exploits. In societies with frequent warfare (the majority of gathering-hunting societies), young males must participate in war -- and, for some, kill an enemy -- before being called a man. Despite these variations, the passages to manhood are surprisingly similar across cultures in terms of passing harsh tests bravely.

These practices recur in cultures worldwide that "have little else in common," including those with frequent or infrequent war, and simple or complex social organizations. In East Africa, boys endure "bloody circumcision rites by which they become true men. They must submit without so much as flinching under the agony of the knife. If a boy cries out while his flesh is being cut, if he so much as blinks an eye or turns his head, he is shamed for life as unworthy of manhood." In an Ethiopian society where whipping ceremonies are the test, "[a]ny sign of weakness is greeted with taunts and mockery." For the warlike Sambia in New Guinea, boys endure "whipping, flailing, beating... which the boys must endure stoically and silently." For the relatively peaceful !Kung of southwest Africa, before males are considered men and allowed to marry they must "single-handedly track and kill a sizable adult antelope, an act that requires courage and hardiness." Pueblo Indian boys aged 12-15 are "whipped mercilessly ... [and] expected to bear up impassively under the beating to show their fortitude."

Modern industrialized societies continue to enact rites of passage into artificial manhood, albeit in diverse ways. The "heroic image of an achieved manhood" is "deeply ingrained in the American male psyche." Views of manhood have change in industrialized societies, leading some men to worry, throughout the twentieth century, that nations were going soft, that boys were losing their way on the road to manhood because we now lack the rituals of passage found in simpler societies. The loss of traditional male coming-of-age rituals in contemporary society has been blamed for various ills, including the creation of an "in-between stage" called teenagers or adolescence.

The military provides the main remnant of traditional manhood-makin rituals, especially in boot camp and military academies where yougn men "endure tests of psychological or physical endurance." "The epithets of drill instructors ... -- 'f----,' ... 'p----,' or simply 'woman' -- left no doubt that not becoming a soldier meant not being a man." This method takes advantage of the fluid character of adolescent recruits' psychic structures, "preach[ing] with a fanatical zeal the cult of masculine violence." Drill sergeants draw on "the entire arsenal of patriarchal ideas ... to turn civilian male recruits into 'soldiers.'"

Recruits in the South African army in the 1980s, as in so many other times and places, faced constant ridicule and gay-baiting if they couldn't keep up. Many of those classified on medical grounds as noncombat soldiers "attempted to be reclassified ... because they felt their manhood was threatened. Anything associated with weakness was considered effeminate." Many soldiers interviewed "emphasized that the core of military training was to equate aggression with masculinity."

Since womanhood comes more naturally and does not require passing tests, the process would not work the same way for women. However, if a culture mobilized women for war, it might just borrow the metaphor from men. The Nicaraguan revolutionary song, "Girl of the Sandinist Front," explains that a "simple girl" who takes up a gun for her "own liberation," through "heroic struggles" will find that "girl, you're a woman now." Alternatively, since manhood is an artificial constructions anyway, women can just declare, with the women soldiers of Dahomey, that "we are men now," or go to war disguised as men.


Shame is the glue that holds man-making process together. Males who fail tests of manhood are publicly shamed, are humiliated, and become a negative example for others. The process is reinforced repeatedly as boys grow up and even after they become soldiers. The power of shame should not be underestimated. Goldschmidt argues that prestige in a social group is among the most central motivations of human behavior. Shame centrally punished failure in masculine war roles in particular -- i.e., succumbing to fear in battle and thus proving oneself a coward. (Although many cultures shame as cowards men who do not fight, exceptions exist. Apache culture blamed unwillingness to participate in war on laziness rather than cowardice.)

In World War I, and other cases, shell shock was treated as tantamount to a failure of manliness, i.e., of bravery and discipline. Military doctors in 1917 saw shell shock as an extension of the repressed emotions expected of men in peacetime: "The suppression of fear and other strong emotions is not demanded only of men in the trenches." Shell shock was, as Elaine Showalter puts it, "the body language of masculine complaint, a disguised male protest, not only against the war, but against the concept of manliness itself." Officers suffered from shell shock at four times the rate of enlisted soldiers, and the officers' symptoms were more emotional (nightmares, dizziness, disorientation) than the more physical symptoms of the soldiers (muteness, paralysis, blindness, vomiting). The officers faced greater pressures to uphold a masculine ideal, in order to motivate their men. Not surprisingly, given the label of failed manhood as well as the lowered testosterone levels resulting from defeat, "sexual impotence was widespread" in shell-shocked British men of all ranks.

In World War I cases of shell shock, Britain found that "[n]o longer could [male hysteria] be dismissed as a continental aberration from which stout British manhood was immune." "This parade of emotionally incapacitated men was in itself a shocking contrast to the heroic visions and masculinist fantasies that had preceded it." Similarly, in Australia, shell shock served as a "stark reminder" of the fragility of masculinity" since it made men "emotional, dependent and weak -- bearing the traits of the feminine." The psychiatric treatment of these men reinforced the feminization of combat trauma victims, in contrast to a masculine ideal of independence and confidence. Men's loss of self-control was feminized by labeling it a form of "histeria" (a feminine ailment).

Soldiers in World War I were told to pull themselves together and get back to the fight. "Armies on both sides of the line responded to the specter of malingering with a constant barrage of hectoring appeals for men to demonstrate their pluck and manliness." There was a fine line between treatment and punishment. Therapists' goal was not the individual's well being but rather his willingness to resume his duty to society. To induce him to do so, and to serve as an example for others, disciplinary therapists inflicted electric shocks and cigarette burns, among other methods.

The idea of treating shell-shocked men (primarily officers) with respect and therapy instead of shaming them was a new and largely untried innovation -- with the goal of returning men to combat as quickly as possible. It was advocated by British doctor and anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers. His most famous patient was Siegfried Sassoon who wrote in 1917 (which in "treatment" before being discharged back to duty): "I'm back again from hell / With loathesome thoughts to sell; / Secrets of death to tell; / And horrors from the abyss... / For you our battles shine / With triumph half-divine... / But a curse is on my head... / For I have watched them die."

Like soldiers in many wars, those in World War I felt radically disconnected from civilian society -- those who had not "watched them die." Veterans referred to the Great War as "the Great Unmentionable." Within a few years after World War I, psychological interest in combat trauma faded, and its victims became "an embarrassment to civilian societies eager to forget." They had been made "strange" because "identities formed in war ... were formed beyond the margins of normal social experience." The changes combatants wen through were rooted not in specific horrifying experiences but in "a sense of having lived through incommensurable social worlds -- that of peace and that of war." The image of No Man's Land -- a grotesque blasted field of mud between entrenched lines -- "captured the essence of an experience of having been sent beyond the outer boundaries of social life." It was the "most lasting and disturbing image" of World War I for its veterans. Furthermore, the advent of trench warfare had moved soldiers into a darkened world, intensifying their feeling of invisibility.

A similar sense of isolation plagued US veterans of the Vietnam War. Their PTSD was aggravated by anti-war sentiment at home and the incompetent management of the war by politicians and generals. Veterans felt stigmatized upon their return -- facing taunts of "baby killer" from those who opposed the war, and blamed for failure and indiscipline by those who supported it (especially their fathers who had fought in the "good war"). Caught in the middle, returning from "a b----- war and a b----- Army," these veterans found it especially hard to reconnect with society or to talk about what they had been through, and thus perhaps suffered longer-lasting and deeper psychological aftershocks from their combat experience. These "returning soldiers often felt traumatized a second time" by this experience. "That year in Vietnam separated me from you" was the inner response of one veteran to a party his family and friends gave for him soon after his return. Some men never regained the ability to feel comfortable in "the mundane world which women also inhabit." Unlike after earlier wars, US society did not successfully sweep veterans' trauma under the carpet, perhaps because civilians also felt traumatized by the war. Australian veterans of Vietnam, who were denied the hero status of earlier veterans, found a "crisis of confidence became crisis ... of male sexuality."

Men who do not take the manhood bait suffer less emotional damage in war. Soldiers who avoid PTSD despite participating in combat generally have a combination of "stress-resistant" traits found in about 10 percent of the population: they are very sociable, use active coping strategies, and maintain an internal sense of control. US Vietnam combat veterans with these qualities, who did not develope PTSD, saw the war as a dangerous challenge to meet effectively, "rather than as an opportunity to prove their manhood or a situation of helpless victimization."

Representations of manhood in war

The "classic narrative of the war film" has been called the "richest of all texts of masculinity." In short, boy leaves home, faces death (representing fear of castration), wins war, returns to claim bride, and wins acclaim from father-figures. In an alternative post-Freudian interpretation, leaving home to face death represents not a castration fear but a separation from mother-womb to pass a test that establishes autonomous identity.

Representations of the Vietnam War in the United States (in books, films, and TV shows) reinforced "the interests of masculinity and patriarchy" and heralded a broad postwar "remasculinization" of America. Rambo films masculinized the independent hero while feminizing the weak-willed political establishment that had prevented the US military from winning the war. Vietnam veterans became emblems of a masculinity unjustly victimized -- by "their government, the war, the Vietnamese, American protesters, and the women's movement." The rebirth and purification of America's manhood, through rejection of femininity and sexuality, played a central role in the political conservatism of the 1980s, in this view. An alternative view, however, sees these events as the lifting of a "national fog of silence and denial" by which the whole US society dealt with the shared trauma of Vietnam. (For example, the war's Tomb of the Unknown remained empty from 1974 to 1984.)


To summarize, cultures around the world with few exceptions construct "tough" men who can shut down emotionally in order to endure extreme pain (physical and psychological). The omnipresent potential for war causes culture to transform males, deliberately and systematically, by damaging their emotional capabilities (which biologically resemble those of females). Thus manhood, an artificial status that must be won individually, is typically constructed around a culture's need for brave and disciplined soldiers.

One approach to masculinity emphasizes that "[m]asculinity... is always local and subject to change." Some scholars tie present-day Western conceptions of masculinity to specific historical phases such as nineteenth-century Europe or the earlier rise of capitalism. These studies, despite their insights about how the parts of masculinity that do vary are constructed locally, do not explain well the cross-cultural regularity of gendered war roles documented in this book.

To the extent that cultures employ gender to help motivate fighters, having women in the ranks could disrupt this dynamic. As one US sergeant put it, having females perform masculine soldiering roles "sort of makes the man to feel like -- I'm not really the man I thought I was, I've got a female who can do the same job." Proposals to create a women's auxiliary army corps in 1942 provoked this protest from one Congressman: "Think of the humiliation! What has become of the manhood of America?" US General William Westmoreland testified in 1979, after retiring, that "No man with gumption wants a womean to fight his nation's battles." The next year, the US Marine Corps commandant said that women's participation in combat "would be an enormous psychological distraction for the male who wants to think that he's fighting for that woman somewhere behind ... It tramples the male ego. When you get right down to it, you've got to protect the manliness of war."

War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa, by Joshua S. Goldstein Copyright © 2001 Joshua S. Goldstein. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.