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Militarized Masculinity

“Men make wars for many reasons, but one of the most recurring ones is to establish that they are, in fact, ‘real men.’ Warfare and aggressive masculinity have been, in other words, mutually reinforcing cultural enterprises.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War.

How does the cultural enterprise of militarized masculinity create killers like Timothy McVeigh and John Allen Muhammad? What is the lethal link between those who have been trained to kill as instruments of state policy and their post-military engagement as home-grown terrorists who turn on their fellow citizens? Trying to answer these questions goes beyond speculating about the psychopathology of certain men. Instead, we must confront the larger issues of war, violence, and guns in American culture in order to understand the horrific death and destruction wrought by those hyper-aggressive men “born in the USA.”

The kind of conditioning that both Timothy McVeigh and John Allen Muhammad received as part of their military training for the Gulf War built on a pre-existing militarized culture from violent Rambo films to vengeance video games. Constantly bombarded by recruiting appeals to “be all they could be” against the dead-end of blue collar jobs, thousands of working class kids like McVeigh and Muhammad answered the call to “serve their country.” Deeply embedded in that call was the mesmerizing message of “the Manchurian candidate, a hypnotized agent of the state waiting to be called into active service by the bugle call of ‘Duty,’ ‘Honor,’ ‘Patriotism'” (Sam Keen, Fire in the Belly, p. 46).

During the bullying of military training, young men are further taught to despise any signs of weakness and to begin to shun an aversion to killing. Misogynist and homophobic derision often reinforce this militarized masculinity. Furthermore, as noted by a former military psychologist, David Groomsman, young men are drilled into “disengaging” from any sentiments that would undermine the commitment to becoming trained killers. This desensitization to killing creates a “trigger-pull ratio” that produces men on “hair-trigger” alert inside and outside of combat. (Doug Sanders, “Military Training Links String of Serial Killers, Toronto Globe and Mail, October 25, 2002, A5.)

What happens to such trained killers in combat and in particular wars provides further evidence of the blowback effects of militarized masculinity. It has been estimated that since 1945 the US has made overt war on at least 25 countries. (William Blum, Rogue State). Certainly, living in a society that is constantly preparing to rain down death and destruction on others will have profound social and cultural repercussions, not to mention the inevitable political fallout. As Michael Moore’s brilliant new documentary film, “Bowling for Columbine,” suggests, the lethal link between foreign military operations and domestic gun violence may be a primary factor behind the massive homicide rate in the United States, a rate which far exceeds other countries where guns and violence, nonetheless, proliferate.

Of course, another factor implicit in Moore’s film and explicit in the home-grown terrorism of the McVeighs and the Muhammads is how a society that turns its young men into killers has very few mechanisms to make them feel valued in civilian life. Added to this is the disillusionment that some former soldiers experience and transform into their own vengeance on the government or its citizens (Muhammad) or both (McVeigh). Random civilians then become mere “collateral damage” in the minds of home-grown terrorists who have been somehow “betrayed” by a system that was intended to make them heroes. Of course, the twisted logic by which such killers extract their revenge on society is a matter of individual psychopathology, even if the socio-economic and socio-cultural context is evident for all to see and feel.

In particular, the desire to be “on top” is part of the competitive environment fostered in invidious ways in the United States. Those who wield power in the ruling circles are, in fact, more vicious terrorists than McVeigh or Muhammad could imagine in their wildest vengeful nightmares. What does it mean to wipe out the savings of thousands of one’s employees with no compunctions or compassion? What does it mean to spread toxic waste and dangerous chemicals in massive amounts into the bodies of tens of thousands of unsuspecting consumers? And what does one label those who plan to carry out military campaigns, irrespective of the pretexts, that result in the deaths of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions of innocent civilians? Being a “winner” at whatever physical and psychological cost to others is integral to those male fantasies and macho posturing by policy-making elites far removed from the actual results of their terrorist plans.

To play god, as apparently believed by Muhammad, is so much a part of militarized masculinity, especially in its desire to shed blood and prove one’s male invulnerability, a proof built on a fundamental illogic. Our species is all too vulnerable in a way that other animals, with instincts against killing their own, manage to escape. We are, however, locked into a consciousness that needs nurturing if it is to develop compassion and caring. There is nothing essential about men or women that provides such compassionate and caring hardwiring. Nonetheless, men, especially those marginalized in American society, are constantly at risk of being tagged as “less than a man” for those signs of compassion and caring (as in the “w” words – wimp and wuss). For many men, guns have become the ultimate compensation for such vulnerability and turning them on either those they claim to love, or those who have somehow shamed them, or on strangers who are too “weak” or “stupid” to elude their wrath is a large part of the continuing tragedy of American gun violence.

Of course, redemption through violence, as numerous cultural historians like Richard Slotkin have reminded us, cuts through the tenuous threads of American civility. When the myths of frontier vengeance are combined with militarized masculinity, a deadly concoction emerges which has threatened and continues to threaten the security and sanity of the society. Removing the guns is not enough; we need to purge the system of militarized masculinity and make the nation and the world a place where non-violence and peace with justice prevail.

FRAN SHOR <f.shor@wayne.edu>