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The measure of a man

From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity; Leo Braudy; Alfred A. Knopf: 614 pp., $30

October 26, 2003|Joanna Bourke | Joanna Bourke, professor of history at the University of London's Birkbeck College, is the author of "An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in 20th Century Warfare."

It is hard to be a man. At least, so I'm told. Castrating schemes and humiliating rites allegedly threaten the unwary male. Girlfriends have become assertive; the executive director wears a skirt. Even science has conspired against men: Increasingly sophisticated in vitro fertilization may yet render a male presence in the bedroom redundant. The problem has even come to the attention of feminists more and more concerned about the state of this new "second sex." Many men don't know where to turn. Leo Braudy's new book, "From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity," won't restore the castrated male, but it will remind him that manliness has always been in flux and that diversity and confusion can be creative.

"From Chivalry to Terrorism" is history at its most powerful. It is impossible to do justice to the range of fascinating material in this book. If you want to know about things as diverse as pornography or pacifism, male domesticity or military training, novels or machines, nationalism or athletics, romance or religion, pirates or highwaymen, you can look here. This series of interpretive essays is empathetic, analytical history at its best and most lively. It is also deeply personal. Braudy, a professor of English and American literature at USC and author of "The Frenzy of Renown," an influential study of the history of fame, among other works, is not afraid to put himself on the page. With bemusing modesty, he says he is writing "as an ordinary man and citizen, steeped in a never ending barrage of stories about men and war."

Braudy's book is much more ambitious than its title suggests. There is, however, little on terrorism, and the first paragraph insists that "war is not its theme." Rather, with encyclopedic thoroughness, Braudy sets out to tell us what it has meant to be a man, from the Norman Conquest of England to present-day America. Men are made, not born. And although Braudy believes that combat is the "crucible of masculinity," war is really only the armor within which Braudy encases his themes. Manliness is too complex to be reduced to the warrior ethos, he says.

Nevertheless, Braudy is right in arguing that warfare throughout history has been one of the central rites of manliness. Despite the presence of women in and near the front lines and the massive mobilization of female labor in military production, women's role in war has been relegated to the home front, where they act in a limited fashion as virgins, whores or mothers. Across time and cultures, combat has been a man's occupation. This does not mean that men are somehow primed for war. Those who argue that men's minds are different from female ones are only arguing in terms of averages. As that other astute interpreter of masculinity Joshua Goldstein argues, biology may provide some answer to the question of why war tends to involve men -- but not why it is almost exclusively male. It only explains why men "on average" have a greater propensity for war. In contrast to the idea that biology is fixed while culture is flexible, "biology provides diverse potentials which culture then limits, selects, and channels," Goldstein reminds.

Culturally, armed conflict has provided the main test for men wanting to claim their right to the power and prestige of being "men." After all, war does not come naturally. That is why men need considerable socialization and training to engage in combat. Most men don't want to fight -- and that includes men who have chosen a career in the armed forces. In a 1992 survey of the U.S. military, only 14% of enlisted officers said they would volunteer for combat if they had a choice. Harsh discipline, including the death penalty, is needed to get guys to pump lead.

Braudy contends that women play a central role in socializing men for armed conflict and that war would not happen if women weren't so keen to buckle on men's psychological (if not military) armor. He tells the story of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, who invaded Italy after the fall of the Roman Empire. Fearing defeat in the battle for Ravenna, Theodoric prepared to order his troops to retreat. His mortified mother rushed up to Theodoric, demanding that he act like a man by continuing to fight. When he ignored her, she lifted up the front of her dress and said, "Truly, dear son, you have nowhere to flee unless you return to the womb from whence you came!" Shamed, Theodoric returned to battle. The historical truth of this story is questionable, but it illustrates the societal pressures on a man to act honorably and bravely in battle if he is to retain his birthright as a man.

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