[Excerpt below is from Chapter 5 of War and Gender]

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War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)

Photo, father and child
Father and child [Not in book. Library of Congress FSA 8c35144u].

Manhood in war

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. They are told to “be a man” whereas women are not 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 or “doing what comes naturally.” (Oddly, the term “real men” refers to the aspects of masculinity that are least real biologically.)34

Culture after culture features rites of passage from boyhood to manhood. Only select men can achieve “manhood,” and it must be won individually. In many cultures’ initiation 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; see p. 24), 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.35

These practices recur in cultures worldwide that “have little else in common,” including those with frequent or infrequent war, and simple or complex social organization. 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.”36

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 changed 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.37

The military provides the main remnant of traditional manhood-making rituals, especially in boot camp and military academies where young men “endure tests of psychological or physical endurance.” “The epithets of drill instructors…– ‘faggot,’…‘pussy,’ 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.’”38

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.”39

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 construction anyway, women can just declare, with the women soldiers of Dahomey, that “we are men now,” or go to war disguised as men (see pp. 63, 106–11).40

Warrior qualities in men Somewhat contrary to arguments that masculinity is an arbitrary and time-bound social construction, those parts of masculinity that are found most widely across cultures and time are not arbitrary but shaped by the war system. Despite a range of gender variation, across human cultures and historical periods, some common elements recur. What war requires of fighters is not blood-lust or activation of murderous impulses. Rather, war requires men to willingly undergo an extremely painful, unpleasant experience – and to hang in there over time despite every instinct to flee. The basic requirements for being a soldier, furthermore, tend to be the same everywhere. As General Sir John Hackett put it: “Whether he was handling a slingshot weapon on Hadrian’s Wall or whether he’s in a main battle tank today, he is essentially the same.”41

Being a warrior is a central component of manhood, forged by male initiation rituals worldwide. “The warrior, foremost among male arche-types … has been the epitome of masculinity in many societies.” A man learns to “deny all that is ‘feminine’ and soft in himself.” Common features of “warrior values” across cultures and time periods are closely linked with concepts of masculinity. Warrior values among young males are widespread in nonstate societies, and underlie the development of an elaborate “warrior caste” holding high status in many complex societies, such as in medieval Europe and Japan, or twentieth-century Nazi Germany.42

34 Gilmore 1990, sweep 11–20; Segal 1990, 111–15; McBride 1995, 189; Mead 1949, 147–48, 180–81; Walsh and Scandalis 1975, 138–39.

35 Gilmore 1990, conformity 17; Kessler 1976, particulars 79–81; Ulman and Brothers 1988, kill 155.

36 Gilmore 1990, common 19, bloody–fortitude 13–15; Sambia: Huyghe 1986.

37 Gilmore 1990, psyche 20; Gerzon 1982, stage 173–75; Segal 1990, 130–33.

38 Gerzon 1982, endurance 174, epithets 35; Ulman and Brothers 1988, zeal 159; Enloe 1983, arsenal 14; Segal 1990, 98; Levy 1992; Tickner 1992, 40; Watson 1997, 19, 22; Spinner 1997b.

39 Cock 1991, 59–60.

40 Randall 1981, song 149.

41 Construction: Mosse 1996McLaren 1997, 238; Hackett: Dyer 1985, 4.

42 Wicks 1996, epitome 29; Keen 1991, 37.

To book website:
War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)