Masculinity, Militarism, and Empathy

Knowing something of feminist-human rights activist and sociologist Kathleen Barry’s ground-breaking work on female sexual slavery and related topics, I hoped to unconditionally recommend her latest book Unmaking War, Remaking Men (Santa Clara, CA: Rising Phoenix, 2010). And because I’ve recently been studying the politics of empathy, I was also favorably predisposed by the book’s intriguing subtitle, “How Empathy Can Reshape Our Politics, Our Soldiers and Ourselves.”

I do intend to make this book required reading in two of my courses, including a seminar on the politics of identity which has a gender component. However, as will become clear below, my only hesitation for not totally embracing Barry’s thesis derives from questions I have about the political lessons she draws from her research. But more on that later.

In recent years the gendered dimension of U.S. imperialism has received increasing attention and this book is a welcome addition. Certainly the dominant organizations supporting the empire are gendered and it behooves us to incorporate an understanding of the masculinization of these institutional subcultures into our analysis. Indeed, as Robert Jensen has noted, there is a close overlap between how men are socialized and the mission of the U.S. military’s killing machine: “Dominance and conquest through aggression and violence, in the service of deepening and extending elite control over the resources and markets of the world.” ((Robert Jensen, “Critiquing Masculinity at the Corps.”)) Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Blood Politics, depicts this perverse construction of masculinity, coupled with warfare, as “mutually reinforcing enterprises.”

In a small but telling example of this phenomenon, political scientist Cynthia Enloe wonders about the male soldiers who remained silent about the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. “Did any of the American men involved in the interrogations keep silent because they were afraid of being labeled ‘soft’ or ‘weak,’ thereby jeopardizing their status as ‘manly men’?” ((Cynthia Enloe, “Wielding Masculinity Inside Abu Ghraib: Making Feminist Sense of an American Military Scandal,” Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, 10/2/2004.)) And Francis Shor, a preeminent historian of U.S. imperialism, reminds us that “For hypermasculine warriors, compassion and caring become signs of feminine weakness, marking someone as a wimp or wuss.” ((Francis Shor, “Hypermasculine Warfare: From 9/11 to the War on Iraq.”))

This foreshadows how Barry answers the vexing question that prompted her to write this book, namely, “Why do wars persist in the face of our human urge to save and protect human life?” Her response is that “War will not be unmade without remaking masculinity.” In fact, the author’s answer to virtually all questions surrounding war is the same: masculinity of the violent, aggressive and militaristic form. The term she coins for this phenomenon is core masculinity. Here she’s careful to specify that this means core socialization and not violence as an essential biological trait in men. Barry argues that early on men are set up to be the protectors of women, children, tribe, and state. Violence and aggression follow from this role. Her argument is more nuanced than I can do justice to here, but she asserts that only by undoing core masculinity, eliminating blinding macho, and violent standards of manhood can we begin “remaking men from the ground up, from the personal to the political.”

The most compelling parts of the book are those in which she explains how masculinity requires that men’s lives be expendable; how the military’s intensive brainwashing reinforces and exploits earlier socialization of boys and men; and the dynamics of the process she labels “From Soldier to Psychopath.” The result is a soldier who kills without remorse, acts without conscience or regret—and then is praised for it. The personal trauma and “loss of one’s soul” that often follows in the wake of this behavior receive careful and sensitive treatment. This heart-rendering recital is driven home by anecdotes collected from firsthand accounts and interviews with soldiers. If empathy is putting oneself in another’s shoes, the indissoluble combination of core masculinity with brainwashing, degradation, and stripping away any sense of self aims to foreclose this response.

Further, there is general agreement in the literature that sociopathy is defined as the lack of empathy. Barry contends that by replacing empathy with desensitized callousness, the military is creating sociopathic characteristics, that the military itself is a sociopathogenic institution. That is, the task of the military is to “normalize amorality for soldiers … the same amorality found in sociopaths.” Here I was reminded of an interview with former combat marine Chris White (not included in this book) who recalled his recruiter explaining the purpose of the initial twelve-week indoctrination as removing any “undesirable traits, such as anti-individuality for the sake of a team work ethic, and, most importantly, the ability and even desire to kill other human beings.” ((Chris White, “Double Think: The Bedrock of Marine Corps Indoctrination,” Counterpunch, July 13, 2004.))

Why Soldiers Fight

The debauched spirit reflecting an absence of remorse appears in this refrain from grunts on the ground in Vietnam:

Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for I am the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley.

She quotes one Marine who recalls that shooting to kill “becomes muscle memory, you don’t think about it. You just do it.” Soldiers have “the remorse driven out of them” and the military counts on insensitivity to fill the void, allowing more killing without a second thought. Another Marine tells Barry that “shooting someone was like watching a moving target, hitting it, and watching it fall. It wasn’t real.”

To reshape human groups into effective killing machines the military uses male bonding and attendant fears of being ostracized. It would be unmanly, cowardly behavior not to proceed, even toward one’s own likely death. ((I was reminded of Becky Johnson’s counter recruitment postcard reading “You Can’t be All That You Can Be If You’re Dead.”)) Even in retrospect, after feeling a modicum of remorse at “taking someone out” the soldier’s mantra remains “I was only there to defend the person next to me,” even as they return to the killing fields.

Barry understands that one of the consequences is that “support for your buddy and unit is as far as sympathy for others is allowed to go” (emphasis added). Anyone who threatens a buddy’s safety is “the enemy,” a potential enemy, and someone without a life at all. In putting forward this “fighting for each other” argument, Barry’s position is compatible with research suggesting that soldiers fight because those in their unit are depending on them.

Historian S.L.A. Marshall’s study “Men Against Fire” in 1942 concluded: “I hold it to be of the simplest truths of war that the one thing which enables an infantry soldier to keep going with his weapon is the near presence or the presumed presence of a comrade…. He is sustained by his fellows primarily and by his weapons secondarily.” This conclusion apparently holds true for recent wars.

A military study of American soldiers from Iraq concluded that the primary motive was “fighting for my buddies.” One soldier’s answer was typical as he responded, “That person means more to you than anybody. You will die if he dies. That is why I think that we protect each other in any situation.” ((Leonard Wong, “Why Soldiers Fight.”)) And this view wasn’t limited to the “grunts.” Just prior to the start of the Gulf War in January, 1991, one Marine Corps lieutenant colonel remarked, “Just remember that none of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap the politicians feed the public. They are fighting just for each other, just for each other.” ((Former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges in James M. Skelly, “Iraq, Vietnam, and the Dilemmas of United States Soldiers,” Open Democracy, 24 May, 2006.)) Journalist Sebastian Unger, after five months of observing U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, concluded that “The guys were not fighting for flag and country. They maybe joined for those sorts of reasons, but once they were there, they were fighting for each other.” ((Quoted in Skelly.))

Patriotism, fear of jail if drafted, lack of economic opportunities, job training, naivete, or boredom might explain a recruit’s enlistment and undoubtedly there are individual exceptions, but topping the list for actually engaging in combat is the social connection of not wanting to let down one’s comrades. This unit cohesion bleeds into self-preservation because remaining alive means keeping fellow soldiers alive. Of course, while the soldier is fighting on behalf of joint survival, the larger context of the mission means he or she is a resource expended on behalf of state-sanctioned killing.

In Vietnam, Prof. James McPherson found that Army psychologists became intensely concerned because the largely draftees not only didn’t want to be there but “didn’t understand in many cases, why they were there.” But the pressing problem for the military was that because fresh replacements arrived individually, the indispensable bonding with other members of the unit was the issue. ((James McPherson, “Why Do Soldiers Fight?” Interviewed on NPR.))

In terms of how to unmake war and remake men, Barry wisely advises that we adopt an attitude of critical empathy. This will allow us to see through the lies and disinformation suffusing these matters. That is, we need to employ the potent combination of emotion and intelligence. In that spirit and because I felt Barry was selective in applying the cognitive dimension of critical empathy, I’ll raise a few questions about her analysis.

First, the Pentagon might well prefer to rely on robotic warfare, a variation on empathy-devoid androids. ((The classic sci-fi treatment is Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, 1968.)) “Closing with the enemy” already occurs with some frequency as “cubicle warriors” in suburban Las Vegas dispense death from 7,500 miles away. This wholesale substitution for “boots on the ground” is projected to occur sometime between 2020 and 2035.9 This doesn’t mean these changes won’t be masculinized or that recruiting posters will soon read “we’re looking for a few good androids.” But it has been suggested that because the combat warrior ethic has been inseparable from the military’s historic emphasis on face-to-face killing, change in military doctrine might strongly influence future generations of military masculine culture. ((Paul Higate and John Hopton, “War, Militarism, and Masculinities,” in M. Kimmel, J. Hearn and R.W. Connell, Eds., Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinity (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers, 2005), p. 442.))

Second, military indoctrination is complementary, albeit in more intense form to the subtle and arguably more comprehensive indoctrination of the civilian population under neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalism’s pathological numbing of our empathic disposition is what Shor terms “the hectored heart,” and those “imperial mental enclosures often work to deter most U.S. citizens from expressing empathy toward those brutalized by U.S. imperial policies.” ((Francis Shor, Dying Empire (London: Routledge, 2010, paper).))

As products of this empathy-deficient cultural programming, a certain preconditioning may soften up and facilitate some aspects of military training. However, as a tool of the state, the military is less concerned with what a soldier thinks or believes about “the system” because the objective is absolute compliance in service to a specific mission. Empire requires a “trained to kill” culture or the system would break down. Recall that the definition of Marine Corps discipline is “instant willingness and obedience to follow others”—all orders—and to follow them absolutely. ((Chris White, “First to Fight Culture,” Counterpunch, May 29/30, 2004.))

For instance, the respected Zogby polling organization found in 2006 that 72% of American troops in Iraq believed the U.S. should exit the country within one year.13 No matter, as long as they follow orders in the field of combat, this is a non-issue.

Finally, it’s unarguable that the American empire currently requires this particular version of gender construction. In that sense, Barry’s book sheds needed light on the intersection between masculinity and empire. But as Shor argues in his comprehensive and accessible account of recent approaches to understanding U.S. imperialism, this endemic masculinism is only one constituent element deployed on behalf of creating, expanding, and defending political-military control of the globe. ((Shor, Ibid., 37.)) Therefore, in trying to understand war, it’s not helpful to claim, as Barry does, that U.S. presidents have repeatedly led the country into “unnecessary wars” to test and prove their machismo, their virility. In her treatment of psychopathic leadership, Barry specifically identifies machismo as the primary shared pathology of “leaders,” from George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon to Bin Laden and Dick Cheney. But not brutal war-mongers like Golda Meier, Indira Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher? And what of our rogues’ gallery of militarism enablers including Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton? If it’s socialized and not essential, it’s not confined to men.

Perhaps it’s the lack of opportunity for women rather than core masculinity? Women now make up 20 percent of new recruits for the U.S. military, 14 percent of the active-duty force, 17 percent of the reserves and some 16 percent of senior officers. Women in the military have bitterly complained about the heretofore “military exclusion” rule because the lack of combat experience slows down their promotion through the ranks. Valorizing these behaviors for women will facilitate career advancement and based on reports requested by Congress that rule is now being reconsidered. Here I’m reminded of political scientist Michael Parenti’s observation (I’m paraphrasing) that it’s not what’s between one’s loins but what’s between one’s ears that matters. U.S. imperialist wars require empathy anesthetizing socializing agents that we generally associate with traditional masculinity—whether the soldiers are male or female. I wish Barry had done more to address these questions and I expect she’ll do so in the future.

At still other points she cites masculine revenge and irrational masculine thinking as the key factors behind U.S. interventions around the globe. I would argue that making core masculinity the stand-alone, virtually monocausal explanation for U.S. (and all) war making tends to weaken an otherwise sterling contribution. And to argue that all this violence is the result of a culture of socialized masculinity is more of a tautology than an answer. Don’t we need to understand whose interests are being advanced by this culture? Exactly who is reinforcing it? Yes, in some important aspects the military is an end in itself but I felt that Barry failed to address its primary role as servant to the ruling interests and their capitalist state. In fact, unless I missed them, Barry never mentions capitalism or imperialism, the critical political-economic context. Here I reference Parenti’s definition of imperialism: “The process whereby the dominant investor interests in one country bring to bear military and financial power upon another country in order to expropriate the land, capital, natural resources, commerce, and markets of that country.” ((Michael Parenti, The Face of Imperialism (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011, paper), p. 7.)) Unquestionably “core masculinity” complements the overriding motive of protecting and advancing the interests of transnational capital. However, I didn’t detect any appreciation of the very real geopolitical and economic motives behind U.S. global behavior. There’s not a single reference to pillaging of natural resources like oil and gas, military Keynesianism, exploitation of workers, the reasons for 750+ U.S. military bases around the world and related factors. I offer these few objections only to suggest that while socialized masculinity facilitates war-making, in and of itself it can’t explain the basis for U.S. imperialism.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Contact: Per usual, thanks to Kathleen Kelly, my in-house ed. Read other articles by Gary.