When I arrived in Vietnam in 1970, members of my platoon had lost a friend to a booby trap just two weeks before. I was smoking dope in a guard bunker when a group of them went into the outskirts of Bongson and gunned down an old woman who was hoeing in her garden. They called it “killing a dink for Jojo.”
My new colleagues had detonated a grenade as a cover story—the old woman “threw” the grenade at them. The grenade burst knocked her into the dirt. They then pumped M-16 rounds into her and dragged her up the bulldozed hill to our platoon perimeter, her ankles tied by her blouse. It made a mess of her body, eyes and teeth stained with blood and dust, head bouncing off rocks.
The battalion commander flew out for five minutes to congratulate the platoon on its enemy “kill.” Three days later, with the corpse bloating inside a poncho on our landing zone, a South Vietnamese lieutenant was escorted into the perimeter. The body was that of his mother. She’d been missing, and he’d heard about the kill. He screamed at us as they took him away. We didn’t speak Vietnamese, but could imagine: “Murderers! Liars!”
I’d volunteered to be the boy hero fighting alongside other virtuous American soldiers just like in the movies. But the South Vietnamese army lieutenant knew. Murderers. Liars. Earlier that week, my new buddies had called me a “fucking missionary” for giving C-ration gum to the kids who hung around the camp.
Within three months, I, too, was a hardened racist, a malignant, skinny 19-year-old affixed to an M-60 machine gun. War doesn’t ennoble anyone. And war is gendered male. Benito Mussolini, a macho wannabe not unlike Donald Trump, called war the male equivalent of motherhood. War is gendered … all the way down, even though some women are now in armed service.
Masculinity is a lifelong project for most men. We are trained for it from birth. Military institutions and practices have been developed over centuries within this “masculine” sphere. Combine institutional history and gender indoctrination, and we have a self-reproducing feedback loop. Adding a few women has done little to change war or military misogyny, because women in combat succeed by becoming what I call “honorary men.” All must conform to a historically male/masculinized institution and practice, including its moral grammar of counter-empathy, compartmentalization, and the willingness to lie and murder for the greater good. What do I mean by moral grammar? Regardless of what “just war” theorists say about the possibility of war being just, the reality is that war—all war—always targets civilians, always involves “collateral damage,” always involves the moral degradation of its practitioners, and never concludes with the expected results. Modern imperial war, war to control peripheries, is the same: The soldier’s responsibility is to control a population, and this relation requires that soldiers first objectify the population (calling them “targets”), then dehumanize them (“gooks,” “dinks,” “hajjis”). Acknowledgment of targets’ basic humanity can only lead to cognitive dissonance.
The moral grammar of war is gendered masculine because institutional history and male socialization make it so. Some male soldiers come to enjoy war and killing, more than you’d like to know. The way we conduct war changes, the tactics change, but the moral grammar of contempt for human life, compartmentalization, cold instrumentality, and total lack of accountability stay the same.
War compels its participants to do bad things . . . and we become what we do.
Masculinity thus understood is the exercise of brutal power, and this exercise morally degrades all of us.
Masculine Violence and Capitalism
Let’s drop back a few centuries and look at liberal (capitalist) philosophy in formation, where the masculine-conquest trope reigned supreme. The philosophers René Descartes and Francis Bacon bequeathed us a (very male) conquest-inflected division between Man (they meant males) and Nature—the cosmic Subject that subdues the cosmic Object. Bacon equated science to torturing “witches” (his female stand-in for objectified “Nature”) for their secrets, something with which he had firsthand familiarity. As sociologist Maria Mies says, modern imperial ideology then “defined women and colonies into nature,” rendering them the Objects of masculine conquest. Mother Nature is a woman—wild and unruly—requiring the guiding hand of Man to subdue her, not unlike the husband’s responsibility to guide the formation of a dutiful wife. These associations are built into our gender-formative national imaginary.
So is “redemptive violence.”
The idea of cleansing the social body with killing is as common as air. Redemption is a spiritual concept. War is holy in our culture, as evidenced by our civic worship of flags, soldiers, generals, and weapons.
War (conquest) and misogyny go together. Thought exercise: Courage is not exclusively masculine, and vulnerability is not exclusively feminine, but they are gendered that way. Men or women (or anyone) can be courageous or vulnerable, sometimes at the same time. But the association of courage with masculinity or vulnerability with femininity reproduces and reinforces patriarchy. In a strange paradox, where masculinist culture valorizes courage and holds vulnerability in contempt, it takes courage for a man to show vulnerability. He risks being called a pussy or bitch, in other words, a woman.
War Inheres with Misogyny
Women may be fighting in the endless wars of the United States, but war remains inherently misogynistic because it evolved within and through patriarchy and tends powerfully to reproduce it. Women in the military know that military culture is hostile to women. It is an ideal rape demographic (lots of men between 18-40), and women in the military experience the predatory male gaze from every direction, every working day. They are constantly reduced to sexual objects (or judged on their suitability as sexual objects) by colleagues and are still concentrated overwhelmingly in occupational specialties apart from combat (though only about one out of four soldiers of either gender is in combat arms).
We may not fight with pikes and hammers anymore, but the mentality of the soldier has trans-geographic and trans-historical features discernible in all war, which to a substantial degree accounts for the sustained correspondence of patriarchy with war. Across centuries and continents, war is:
- coldly instrumental and brooks no moral reservations;
- requires abject obedience and the outsourcing of moral decisions; and
- requires some (still overwhelmingly male) soldiers to kill—and killing changes people. Not for the better.
Empire is materially established by exploitative flows between imperial cores and subjugated colonies. But imperialism is sustained, nourished, and mobilized by conquest masculinity. Oftentimes, our arguments against imperialism dash against this rock: Masculinity is self-protective, paranoid, and fragile, and so it must be walled in by a psychological fortress. Although there are many generational differences in constructions of masculinity and of hegemonic masculinity, from when I shipped out to Vietnam, this one stubborn thread persists, whether in “real life” or “virtual reality.” And the Left is not immune from adolescent macho fantasies that look a lot like war, even if they play out on computer screens and in chat rooms rather than through the grit and grief of battlefields.