Masculinity and the Military: Love in the Trenches

What an understatement it is by now to observe that President Clinton touched a raw nerve when he proposed allowing open homosexuals to enlist and serve in the military. The military’s long-standing policy has been to discharge homosexuals on either moral or security grounds. Clinton, heir of the social engineers who think that human nature can be remade by political action, believed that he merely had to sign a piece of paper and all but a few diehards would fall into line with his radical proposal. Instead, Congress reportedly received 400,000 calls opposing homosexuals because not to do so could be a matter of life and death for heterosexuals.

If homosexuals are allowed to serve, they will inevitably have to serve in a combat situation for which young men would be drafted. Ironically, then, to exempt homosexuals from the military will increase the number of heterosexual men who are maimed or killed in combat. Therefore, the exclusion of homosexuals must be justified on the grounds that the presence of open homosexuals would lessen combat effectiveness, and thereby decrease the chance for survival of American soldiers. (I have four sons, and I know that war may come in their lifetimes.)

Objections to Clinton’s policy often are phrased in practical terms. Some of the objections seem rather stretched; for example: would homosexuals be allowed to bring dates to social functions? would their partners qualify for spousal benefits? would homosexual couples live in military housing? The simplest objection is unanswerable: isn’t putting a homosexual in continuous physical intimacy with young men in the barracks or on ship the same as putting a heterosexual man in continuous intimacy with young women? Human nature being what it is, and young men (heterosexual and homosexual) being what they are, there is going to be trouble, either in the form of homosexual activity or of vehement objections by heterosexuals to being propositioned by homosexuals. But these considerations obviously are not the deep emotional foundation for the massive public repudiation of Clinton’s first attempt at social engineering. Rather, Clinton’s plan to admit open homosexuals to the military has correctly been seen as an attack on the nature of masculinity itself. Since masculinity still is the ideal by which most men try to live, Clinton has attacked the very principle—the heart—of American manhood.

Of Masculinity and Maleness

Masculinity and maleness are not the same thing. Maleness is a biological given, a matter of XY chromosomes and normal physiological development. Homosexuals are (with rare exceptions) as male as heterosexuals. Instead, masculinity is a social construct, that is, a pattern of behavior and expectations that inform men how they ought to behave—indeed, what they ought to be. It is, to be sure, based on unalterable biological facts and tendencies, and it taps into the libidinal energy of the psyche, but masculinity is not a necessary biological development. Boys do not have to grow up to be masculine, to be men in the fullest sense of the word. Indeed, it is difficult for a boy to mature into a man.

In Manhood in the Making, anthropologist David Gilmore has noted that masculinity is a perilous achievement, attained only through Sturm and Drang and often at much hazard to life and limb. Many boys are lost because they are killed or maimed emotionally or physically in this testing process. Society naturally accepts the loss of its men, because the male is less central—biologically—to the species than is the female. A society can sustain itself even if most of its males are killed; it cannot do so if most of its females are killed. Similarly, the female role in reproduction takes up a lot more time than does the male. Theoretically, the male could be dead by the time his sperm unites with the woman’s ovum. Enough fathers die before the birth of their children that many societies have customs about naming such a child: the Romans named such children Posthumus, and I believe that Orthodox Jews give children the father’s full name only in this circumstance. But if the mother dies, not simply during pregnancy, but during lactation and early childhood, almost certainly her baby will not survive. Consequently, societies that have to face harsh environments or hostile neighbors send the males to face the dangers. This is not confined to primitive hunting societies. In 1991, of those killed by accidents during work, 92 percent were men. The British census before World War I disclosed that there already were a million more women than men in England; in other words, the Industrial Revolution had been hard on men. Machinery is dangerous. Industrialized warfare is even harder and more dangerous. After World War I, the British census reported 2,000,000 more women than men, and the gap in the male ranks was of course among the 20- to 35-year-old cohort who had vanished into the mud of the trenches—literally vanished, for half the British dead were never found.

The Principle of Pain

Boys are trained at a very early age to bear pain. My six-year-old son is very demonstrative. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He has fits of temper and also is very affectionate. Once, during a soccer game, he got kicked hard in the face and started crying. The game had to be called briefly, and the other boys started complaining about crybabies and not being able to take it. He went on to score the only goal of the game, so the other boys shut up, but it was apparent to all that the social pressure to “play the man” begins very early for a boy. I had just read In Parenthesis, David Jones’ long poem about a British soldier in World War I. The soldier, terrified by the prospect of going over the top, “wept for the pity of it all.” His comrades try to get him to shape up: “You can’t really behave like this in the face of the enemy and you see Cousin Dicky doesn’t cry not any of this nonsense—why, he ate his jam puff when they came to take Tiger away.” That is the voice that every man hears when he faces pain—”Be a big boy, and don’t cry.”

Boys also are trained to sacrifice themselves for their family and their community. Only if they are willing to do so are they recognized as men. This training takes all sorts of forms. The Spartans made their boys steal for food or starve. A Spartan boy stole a fox and kept it under his cloak. When he was stopped by an adult, he refused to confess to the theft by letting the fox go. The fox then ate into the boy’s intestines until he fell down—dead. Spartan mothers’ words to their sons who were going off to war was “with it or on it”—that is, come back victorious with your shield or be carried back dead upon it. The British adopted this model in their public schools: cold water, bad food, and bullying toughened generations of English boys. Boys may also undergo the informal discipline of the schoolyard or city street, or the hard labor of the farm, or a combative education based on debate and competition, prizes and humiliation.

A few societies do not have such an ethos of manhood. Usually, they are situated in mild climates and have peaceful neighbors. If danger comes, all, including the men, flee. But, according to Gilmore, any society that faces dangers rather than fleeing them develops an ethos of manhood. America always has consisted of a competitive society; after all, we live in a competitive—and dangerous—world. Because the American mainland has not seen combat since 1865, and has not experienced a foreign invasion since 1814, we do not really know, even after Pearl Harbor, how vulnerable we are, and how much we owe to those who stand between us and the horror of conquest.

The Comradeship of Sacrifice

It bears repeating: men are trained to sacrifice and even to die for their community. American men well learn this lesson, and are willing to serve their country and even to die for it. But one’s “country” becomes something of an abstraction on the battlefield. Those who have been in combat report that, in fact, the soldier fights and dies, not for his country, but for his comrades—those in his platoon or regiment. Similarly, when facing a battle, men will go to almost certain death because they know that if they flee, someone else—a comrade—would have to fight and die instead. It seems that, in the heat of combat, it is almost easy (and I say this hesitantly, never having faced combat) for soldiers to save their comrades by sacrificing themselves. Many of the Congressional Medal of Honor awards for combat at Peleliu were given to Marines who threw themselves on grenades to save their buddies. Obviously, death seems less real and less important than a comrade whose life is in danger. Better to die, that he might live.

The word comrade has a faintly foreign sound to American ears. Buddy is the usual American term, but it doesn’t convey the seriousness of the bond that soldiers feel as well as comrade does. J. Glenn Gray was a philosopher who observed combat closely as an intelligence officer in Europe during World War II. In his book The Warriors, Gray was able to analyze and articulate his emotions and give a voice to all the soldiers who had fought and died without being able to explain why they did so. He discovered that the isolation of the human person within the shell of the self is a terrible burden, and that in times of crisis, almost anything, including death, is preferable to that isolation. Friendship overcomes the isolation in one way, for it is a love based on a common interest or dedication to something larger than the self. But comradeship is not quite friendship; its focus is on the other—on the comrade. Men experience a fusion of personality with the comrade, a union which is not interrupted by death. Gray notes that the Germans do not say that soldiers die, but that they fall. As a soldier, Gray realizes, “I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my physical life.” This fusion of personality is so exhilarating that veterans yearn to recapture the feeling at their reunions. Apparently, though, it seems that imminent danger is the necessary catalyst for the experience.

The Language of Love

There is a certain resemblance between comradeship and homosexuality. Like lovers, and unlike friends, comrades focus on each other, and the fusion of personality in the ecstasy of self-sacrifice is like (though manifestly not the same as) the fusion in the ecstasy of sexual intercourse. There is a further resemblance in that comrades, like lovers, focus on each other’s sexual identity. Or rather it is that lovers focus on sexual identity, comrades on gender identity—that is, on masculinity. Often the two are conflated, because men like to feel that their masculinity and their maleness reflect on each other. Their masculinity is an achievement, one sometimes gained at great price. By comparison, their maleness is a biological given. But men can confuse the two—masculinity and maleness. Why else would men feel proud of how often they ejaculate? Do they boast of how frequently they urinate, or describe their defecations? Obviously, then, gender and sex are so closely connected that often one is talked about when the other is meant.

This is why military poetry frequently uses language that sounds (especially to the post-Freudian ear) homoerotic. Sometimes it is, because homosexuals get involved in war, too. More often, though, it is simply that sex and gender are closely connected. For example, in praising the beauty of masculine self-sacrifice, poets, who use concrete language, often use physical or even sexual imagery. This device is found especially in the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Owen, in “Greater Love,” sees the love of woman as less than the love of the comrade who is blinded or knifed to death in saving his fellow soldier: “Kindness of wooed and wooer / Seems shameless to their love pure.” Sassoon definitely was (at least in his literary persona, George Sherston) and Owen may have been a transient homosexual, but the language each used was in the tradition of Victorian sentiment, and therefore would not have been deemed to be homoerotic. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell devotes a whole chapter to homoeroticism in the literature of the First World War, but he places a mistaken emphasis on latent homosexuality. The two loves—one so honored that the soldier becomes Christ, the other a disgrace and abomination—are forced to share the same language, in somewhat the same way that erotic love and mystical love have used the same language, from the Song of Solomon to John of the Cross.

J.R.R. Tolkien transmuted his war experiences at the battle of the Somme into fantasy in his famous Lord of the Rings. When he wrote this book, Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and the father of several children. Yet in the tradition of the poetry of the Great War, he drew upon erotic imagery to portray the love of comradeship which Frodo and Sam feel for each other—a relationship that Tolkien later explained was modeled on the British officer and his batman (servant) in the Great War. When Frodo is captured by Orcs, he is stripped and tortured. Sam surprises the Orcs from behind and kills them:

[Sam] ran to the figure huddled on the floor. It was Frodo.

He was naked, lying as if in a swoon on a heap of filthy rags; his arm was flung up, shielding his head, and across his side there was an ugly whip-weal.

“Frodo! Mr. Frodo, my dear!” cried Sam, tears almost blinding him. “It’s Sam, I’ve come!” He half lifted his master and hugged him to his breast. Frodo opened his eyes.

[Frodo] lay back in Sam’s gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when night-fears are driven away by some loved voice or hand. Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness.

This sounds unusual and suspect to modern ears, but the nakedness is only the visible representation of Frodo’s vulnerability in his sacrificial and masculine role, and the gestures of affection are an attempt to express the closeness of comradeship. As in the Renaissance and Baroque paintings of Jesus in which His genitals are at the focal point of the painting, it is not sexuality, but masculinity and its connection to sacrifice that is of interest and is emphasized by His physical maleness.

The eros of homosexuality and the eros of comradeship resemble one another in that the focus is on the one loved, but the mode of union is different. In homosexuality, eros seeks union through genital activity. It is the inherited wisdom of the ages that this attempt is worse than in vain. Rather, sexual union is achieved, not in pleasure alone, but in the act of conception, in which man and woman literally unite in one flesh, that of the child. It is, therefore, the possibility of conception that suffuses erotic love between man and woman with the hope that the prison of the individual personality can be escaped—that love can overcome loneliness, and even death. Likewise, in the eros of comradeship, the personalities (of men) are fused because of a shared willingness to die for each other. This is a brotherhood of blood that is attained only in shed blood, in sacrifice, and if need be in death, and invariably under the shadow and threat of each. A man is willing to die for his comrade because he senses an identity with him—an identity that is not based upon common interests or background, for it unites men of different races, classes, and nationalities, and sometimes even men who cannot speak each other’s language. The only common characteristic of the identity of comradeship is masculinity, because masculinity is, at heart, a willingness to sacrifice oneself even unto violent, bloody death for the other. This is the powerful feeling to which military men refer when they talk about group cohesiveness—and this accounts for their experiential knowledge that the presence of open homosexuals in combat would undo it.

In straightforward terms, men know that homosexuals are not masculine in the fullest sense, and that homosexuals therefore cannot provide—but instead imperil—the identification of the comrade. This is because comradeship is not based on nationality but on gender, and men sense, truly, that the gender—the masculinity—of homosexuals is flawed, to say the least. Soldiers do not trust a homosexual to be willing to die for others. In addition, because of the resemblance of the feelings of homosexuality and comradeship, there is an ever-present danger that a heterosexual’s gestures would be misinterpreted. Men do not want to feel that the expressions of affection that denote comradeship could be mistaken for homosexual overtures. Young Marines, especially those who have been in combat together, will routinely and without any sarcasm address each other with phrases like, “I love you.” A friend of mine once overheard one Marine saying to another at a bar, “I love you, but I’ve got to get back to the barracks now.” Without precisely this fusion of identity—this love—a fighting force would dissolve into a mob of individuals each concerned solely for his own skin.

Males but Not Men

It is a fact that American men do not believe that homosexuals are masculine. The public outcry against President Clinton demonstrates the fact. Are American men right? Though Sassoon was a homosexual, he was a decorated officer, and a brave man who deeply loved (in a non-homosexual way) his troops, and cared for them more than anything else in the world. He voluntarily returned to his unit (and to probable maiming or death) from medical leave because he could not continue to live in safety while his comrades were suffering and dying in the trenches. Yet even he realized that he had to conceal his homosexuality because admitting it would have destroyed the comradeship that he cherished.

Americans generally, in common with men (and women) throughout the world, believe that homosexuality is not masculine. To be masculine, one must be good for something, and one must be willing to be used up for the good of society. The heterosexual, at least in potentiality, allows his sexuality to be used for the good of society. He can conceive children and undertake the burden of protecting them and providing for them. His sexuality therefore becomes useful and fruitful. By contrast, homosexuality is fruitless, and useless to society, and therefore is it reprobated. A homosexual, insofar as he is a homosexual, is not masculine. Homosexuality manifests at the least a serious flaw in masculinity. True, it is not the most serious flaw, for cowardice and self-indulgence are worse flaws, but they also exclude a man from military service. If homosexuality is a soldier’s only flaw, and if it is concealed (remembering Sassoon), it will not prevent an otherwise masculine soldier from fighting bravely. (Although, even in Sassoon’s case, his homosexuality may have led to the conflicts and mental confusion that required psychiatric treatment before he could return to his unit.) The present policy of the American military therefore seems to be the best: men with homosexual tendencies can serve (and, indeed under the draft, must serve) if their homosexuality is concealed. If their homosexuality is open or becomes known, invariably it jeopardizes the cohesiveness necessary to a combat unit, and the homosexual soldier is discharged. In fairness to the homosexual, if his conduct is otherwise honorable, the discharge should also be honorable. (This, too, is standard American military policy.) Soldiers are not noted for their chastity, but the lapses of homosexuals unfortunately have military implications.

Women Also Are Not Men

Of course, all the foregoing applies a fortiori to women and combat units. In a serious large-scale war, all units have to be prepared for combat, even those consisting of cooks and payroll clerks. Separate women’s units, like the WAVES and WACS, function far better than would the current attempt to integrate women even in non-combat units. By the same token, perhaps all-homosexual units would work. I have heard that such units existed in antiquity, and the German Wehrmacht accused the SA of being just such an organization, but no regular army in modern times has attempted such an arrangement, and it is not now under consideration for the U.S. Army.

Obviously, then, President Clinton is attempting to ignore deep structures of human nature with an executive order. He seems never to have heard of Canute and the waves. Men are willing to die for their country because doing so is part of what it means to be masculine, and because their cultures have educated them to know that masculinity is more important than life itself. If a culture doesn’t do this, eventually it will succumb to a culture that does do it. When men are on the battlefield and normal life is far away and perhaps a circumstance they will never experience again, they are able to consummate their sacrifice because they know that their fellow soldiers are willing to die for them, that they have the masculine ethos of self-sacrifice as a constituent part of their identity. It is hard to die, but dying for those you love and who in turn love you not only makes it seem easy, but imperative—and glorious.

Masculinity, though it involves the characteristics of physical and psychological sexuality, and though it taps into the energies of the libido, is a cultural artifact. It is not always easy for a society to construct an enduring and socially useful ethos of masculinity, nor is it easy to persuade all boys to become men. Paideia is an art that is not always successful. All societies know the failed man, the male who doesn’t really make it as a man. American society previously possessed a fairly stable and useful ethos of masculinity. In the 1940s, an American society with a low crime rate was able to appeal to this ethos and produce a citizen army to defend the country. But the ethos of masculinity has suffered since. Some segments of society still manage to transform most of their boys into men ready to work and, if necessary, to die for their families. But large segments of society cannot do so. Middle class Peter Pans don’t want to grow up; they want to depend on women rather than providing for them. Inner-city blacks, the underclass, the lumpenproletariat of America, have a vicious and destructive ethos of pseudo-masculinity. The drugs, the cruelty, the hatred for the women on whom they depend, and their disregard for children, reveal a twisted and false form of masculinity, but, alas, one still full of libidinal energies that is often more important to black boys than is life itself.

For these and many other reasons, it is unwise to tamper, as Clinton is doing, with the psychological attitudes of men upon which society relies to guarantee its very existence. Franklin Roosevelt also was a social engineer, but he knew his limits. What if he had tried in 1938 the experiment on the military that Clinton now is performing? Our boys would have ended up in the Hitler Jugend. The world continues to be a perilous place. Though we are not now at war, and though perhaps the military can be reduced in size and improved in quality, we should never forget that we live in a world beset by problems and conflicts—and with headlines that are the bleakest since 1939. The news from Sarajevo continues to be discouraging. If Clinton wrecks the military, our oceans cannot always be counted upon to protect us, especially as the multiculturalists are doing their best to cultivate tribalism in North America. An effective military can control riots; without a reliable federal army, the United States could one day share the fate of Bosnia.


  • Leon J. Podles

    Dr. Leon Podles is the author of two books including Sacrilege, an in-depth look at sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. His writing has also appeared in numerous publications

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