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It's a guy thing

And it has been for eons, but there's more to men and warfare than biology.

April 12, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Brash or heartbroken, macho-cool or terror-stricken, the complex face of modern masculinity stares out at us from TV screens and newspaper pages in these fractured days of war. One minute it's a pensive U.S. medic cradling a wounded Iraqi girl in a gender-reversed Pieta. Next it's a line of smiling Marines, stripped to their T-shirts and camouflage trousers, handsome and buff as Abercrombie & Fitch models, shouting frat-boy bonhomie to a passing convoy of comrades. And now it's Army Staff Sgt. Chad Touchett, sprawled in a dainty chair in one of Saddam Hussein's rubble-strewn palaces, puffing a cigar. Take that, Mr. Mother of All Battles, the photo seems to say, and your sissy French-style furniture, too!

If these images conjure up a portrait of the fighting man that's far more complicated and contradictory than those flashy, MTV-style Marine recruiting ads, well, Leo Braudy is here to help. For "x-thousand years," the USC professor says, war has been "the crucible of masculinity."

It was Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century man of letters and London bon vivant, who may have best expressed the immutable link between warfare and manliness. "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier or not having been at sea," he said. But as Braudy documents in his forthcoming book, "From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity," to be published this fall by Alfred A. Knopf, the difference in definitions of manhood between the time of Homer or the crusaders and today is nearly as great as the difference between a tomahawk and a Tomahawk missile.

Sifting through sources from history, literature and art, Braudy traces the metamorphosis of the warrior ideal across a millennium, roughly from the Norman conquest of England in 1066 to the collapse of the twin towers in 2001. What he finds is that testosterone and animal instinct alone aren't enough to explain why generations of men have measured their self-worth by their actions on the battlefield. Instead, he argues, centuries of social, cultural and technological change have shaped, and been reshaped by, warfare, and this in turn has altered our definitions and perceptions of manhood.

"I don't deny biology," Braudy says. "What I'm trying to do is ... give masculinity a history rather than just to see it as a biological essence."

In times of war, Braudy says, masculinity is often defined as much by what it is not -- or at least by what it supposedly shouldn't be -- as by what it is. In wartime, men aren't supposed to be soft or sensitive, introspective or self-doubting. With rare exceptions, such as the Spartan armies of ancient Greece, they're also supposed to be rigorously heterosexual, though what goes on in bunkhouses and below decks often bears little relation to what gets preached in training manuals.

At the same time, war tends to polarize relations between the sexes by creating an imperative for men to behave more "like men" and women to act more "like women." It is then common, Braudy says, to discredit one's enemy by pinning to him all those qualities -- "softness," "weakness," "effeminacy," "cowardice" -- that are considered polar opposites of the qualities that make up the masculine warrior ideal.

"The thing about war is, because it's an 'us versus them' situation, it frequently gathers into its sphere, its atmosphere, other polarities," Braudy says. "So 'If we're men, then they must not be.' ... In order to minimize [the enemy], you call them women or you call them vermin or whatever your repertoire [is] of things that aren't you, that you don't want to be."

The ultimate trophy

Variants of those ancient taunts have been heard on many sides of America's 1 1/2-year-old war on terrorism. Saddam Hussein and his aides, before disappearing into Baghdad's smoldering ruins, repeatedly insinuated that America's leaders were cowards and that its troops lacked the necessary red blood cells to wage a tough urban war. Similarly, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, some U.S. journalists remarked on Osama bin Laden's "effeminate" appearance.

If traditional warrior cultures conceive of women as a threat to proper masculine identity, female sexuality also has represented the ultimate trophy for the male warrior. Braudy's book reproduces two wartime images that proffer female sexuality as a prize, yet from utterly different perspectives. In a World War I recruiting poster, a porcelain-skinned beauty coos "I Want You for the Navy." In the other, a Vietnam-era anti-draft poster, a miniskirted Joan Baez and her two sisters, looking very counterculture chic, sit on a sofa below the slogan "Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No." This come-on, Braudy says, is "sort of the opposite of a Dear John letter."

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