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Autumn 1992



By Myriam Miedzian


If we stop imbuing our boys with the values of the masculine mystique, we'll end up raising nice, decent, sensitive men who will do just about anything to avoid war and violence. But what about the Hitlers, the Khomeinis, the Husseins, and the rest of the belligerent unliberated world? They'll go on raising strong, tough men ready to fight at the slightest provocation-or without any provocation at all. Our nice wimpy leaders will be sitting ducks. We can't afford this kind of experimentation, the realists will say; our national security is at stake.

I wanted to put this type of objection to rest. But the more research I did the clearer it became that our national security was already endangered. The real men who run our country are handicapped by the values of the masculine mystique in their ability to make rational foreign policy decisions.

These values also serve as a facile cover for self-serving economic interests. They help mask the fact that many national defense decisions have more to do with economic interests of the military-industrial complex than with defense needs. This further endangers our national security.

The masculine mystique hampers the real men in our government in their ability to deal rationally with national security issues. It influences many citizens to support wars unquestioningly, and encourages young boys to sacrifice their lives in them, often unnecessarily.

Through much of our history, the failure to place pragmatic over moral concerns, the failure of a person in government to fully embrace a policy of unquestioning belligerence and/or full-scale war toward whoever the enemy might be has led to that person being called soft, weak, unmanly, unpatriotic, an abettor of the enemy, and most recently wimpish.

In 1848, then Congressman Abraham Lincoln was vilified in the Illinois press for his stance against the Mexican-American War, a war waged by the United States in order to take from Mexico some of its provinces.

When Woodrow Wilson showed reluctance to enter World War I, Theodore Roosevelt charged that Wilson has" done more to emasculate American manhood and weaken its fiber than anyone else I can think of.

New York Times columnist Tom Wicker recalls that during the Vietnam War he was regarded by many as being unpatriotic because he opposed the war, but columnist Joseph Alsop, who supported the war, was not considered unpatriotic: "You can't be considered unpatriotic if you 're for a war." To be deeply committed to negotiations, to be opposed to a particular war or military action, is not only considered unpatriotic, it also casts serious doubt on one's manhood.

In his book The Best and the Brightest. David Halberstam informs us that "the thing [Lyndon] Johnson feared most was...that his manhood might be inadequate." When Johnson was told that a member of his administration was going soft on the war, he dismissed him with the comment' 'Hell, he has to squat to piss." According to Halberstam, "Manhood was very much in the minds of the architects of [the Vietnam War]. They wanted to show who had bigger balls. "

Paul Warnke, chief American negotiator of the 1979 Salt II Arms Control Treaty remembers being called a "weak wimp" by the Committee on the Present Danger, which succeeded in preventing the ratification of the treaty by the Senate.

In the Contragate secret jargon, the name for the State Department was “Wimp.” This was due to then Secretary of State Shultz's disapproval of the sale of weapons to Iran and diversion of profits to the Contras.

When TV interviewer Larry King asked Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill why the President [Reagan] wanted to intervene in Nicaragua, O'Neill responded, "It's his being a man. [The President believes] America has to show a firmness of manhood. "
After the 1989 United States military intervention in Panama, the New York Times ran a front-page story entitled, War: Bush's Presidential Rite of Passage. The article pointed out that "for better or for worse, most American leaders since World War II have felt a need to demonstrate their willingness to shed blood. All of them acted in the belief that the American political culture required them to show the world promptly that they carried big sticks." A year later, the press was discussing President Bush's need to prove his manhood as a motivating factor in his threats to go to war with Iraq [emphasizing], for example, Bush's tough talk about Saddam Hussein getting "his ass kicked."

Richard Barnet describes the inner sanctums of power: "One of the first lessons a national security manager learns after a day in the bureaucratic climate of the Pentagon, State Department, White House, or CIA is that toughness is the most highly prized virtue...The man who is ready to recommend using violence against foreigners, even where he is overruled; does not damage his reputation for prudence, soundness, or imagination... " On the other hand, "the man who recommends putting an issue to the UN, seeking negotiations, or horrors of horrors, 'doing nothing' quickly becomes known as 'soft. "

Barnet points out that since the onset of the Cold War "the outstanding bureaucratic casualties...have all been men who took modest risks to promote conciliation rather than confrontation. In the 1950's George Kennan, father of our Soviet containment policy, lost political influence when he expressed the view that the Soviets did not represent a serious military threat in Europe and that negotiations with them were preferable to continued confrontation. In 1962 Chester Bowles developed a reputation for wooliness because of a plan he proposed for the neutralization of Southeast Asia. For this Bowles soon lost his position as Undersecretary of State. Barnet points out that "ten years later [Bowles's plan] would look like a blueprint for a US victory."

It is difficult to think clearly and rationally, to entertain all the possibilities objectively when taking wimpish positions endangers one's high position in government and one's livelihood, and puts one at risk of being considered unpatriotic. Only men of exceptional courage will do so.

As long as those who favor negotiations and are reluctant to enter armed conflicts are put on the defensive, are considered wimps, it will be exceedingly difficult to pull away the cloak of patriotism in which our military-industrial-congressional academic complex is wrapped, and clearly analyze our military needs for the future.

Barnet is convinced that our national security managers suffer from a severe handicap in conducting foreign relations because they have no "training or incentive to develop understanding, compassion, or empathy for people in different circumstances from their own."

An important part of what enabled Chester Bowles and other wimps like him to foresee that getting involved in a war in Vietnam would be a calamitous mistake was their ability to empathize with the Vietnamese people, see things from their perspective. They understood that Ho Chi Minh was a national hero for the Vietnamese, and that the Viet Cong, which was the offshoot of the revolutionary army, had the enthusiastic support of the Vietnamese people. Because they understood this, they realized that it would be close to impossible for the United States to win in Vietnam.

To the architects of the Vietnam War, empathy was a soft. irrational, effeminate quality antithetical to their rational, hard-nosed thinking. And so they were unable to develop a realistic understanding of the situation.

During much of our history, the tendency has been to identify political rationality with hard positional bargaining and the willingness to go to war when such bargaining fails. Being weak, irrational, and wimpish has been identified with soft positional bargaining and a disinclination toward war.

But if we look carefully at the distinction between weak positional bargaining and principled bargaining, we realize that many of the men maligned as being wimps have in fact been much closer to the latter in their way of thinking about foreign policy than the former. They have been aware of the need to understand and empathize with the other side in order to arrive at a realistic long-range solution. They shun the kind of macho posturing and concern with ego that characterize hard positional bargaining.

Ron Kovic, the Vietnam War veteran whose autobiography Born on the Fourth of July was made into a film, returned from the war a paraplegic, and became increasingly enraged as he realized that his sacrifice had been unnecessary. He writes:
"We had never been anything but a thing to them, a thing to put a uniform on and train to kill... They were smooth talkers, men who wore suits and smiled and were polite, men who wore watches and sat behind big desks sticking pins in maps...They had never seen blood and guts and heads and arms. They had never picked up the shattered legs of children and watched the blood drip into the sand below their feet. "

Saving lives is not a top priority in the halls of power. Being compassionate and concerned about human life can cause a man to lose his job. It can cause a woman not to get a job to begin with. Women's reputed empathy and compassion are viewed by many as rendering them unqualified for high offices that involve tough international decision-making.

David Evans, a former Marine lieutenant colonel who is now the military correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, vigorously rejects this callous, unempathetic attitude. He is convinced that it leads to a thoroughly unrealistic foreign policy based on fantasy and denial, and that direct involvement in combat leads most men away from a macho, belligerent response to political conflict. War becomes a nightmarish reality, not a patriotic, flag-waving, exciting demonstration of manhood. A relatively small percentage (Oliver North comes to mind) are excited by battle and cannot get enough of it.

Evans points out that many of the men in our government who take the toughest, most macho positions on foreign policy and nuclear strategy have never seen any form of combat. McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, and Walt Rostow served in W orId War II, but their service was limited to planning and analysis. They all supported the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the Vietnam War.

In the Reagan administration, Pat Buchanan, Elliot Abrams, and Richard Perle favored support for the Contras and more American involvement in Nicaragua. They took tough positions on the nuclear arms race. None of them has been in the service.

The social conditioning that romanticizes war and teaches young boys to repress empathy, to be tough, to be fearless, not to cry, to value winning more than an}1hing, leads to the development of mental machismo among politicians who make decisions unencumbered by moral scruples. Their machismo requires the courage to make decisions without concern for the human suffering they will bring to others. This detached decision-making, which is in fact deeply attached to the values of the masculine mystique, is then viewed as the epitome of male rationality.

After having spent three years at the Pentagon, Evans is convinced that our most dangerous failure to deal with reality is in nuclear policy. He describes the men who develop our nuclear strategy and defense policy as suffering from severe denial psychosis. The fact that most of them have never experienced any war first hand makes it easier for them to shield themselves from any concrete sense of what fifty million casualties - or the destruction often of our major cities might really mean.

Their tendency to look at war' 'as a huge football game" further facilitates avoidance: An advertisement by the manufacturer of the F-15 fighter compares its uses to football plays, stating that "we've gone to a long deep pass from a nuclear line of scrimmage. " Star Wars is perceived as "blocking the kick."

The briefcase that contains the secret codes needed to authorize the launching of our nuclear weapons follows the President everywhere, enabling him to react immediately in case of nuclear attack. This all important briefcase, whose contents hold the key to destroying all life on earth, is called the "football. In the Vietnam War, the May to October 1972 bombing of North Vietnam was named "Linebacker I"; the December bombing was "Linebacker II."

In describing the White House reaction to Mikhail Gorbachev's July 1985 announcement of a unilateral nuclear test ban, then National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane stated that it led to "a sense that they were more agile now, so we had to become agile ourselves. It's like being a member of the Notre Dame football team and you're used to playing Davidson. And all of a sudden Davidson recruits some players from the New York Giants. You have to adapt and move quicker yourself. "

The obsession with winning, and the notion that you can never go wrong being too tough, owe much to the training in extremely competitive sports that so many American boys receive from the youngest age, both as participants and as spectators. In sports, there is no further goal beyond winning. For many men in government the goal of winning, of having more than they do, becomes a substitute for a carefully considered foreign policy [which analyzes] the effects that various policy decisions are likely to have on human beings.

Author Carol Cohn likewise argues that the thinking of nuclear theorists is based on the avoidance of nuclear reality. Both the limited subject matter they deal with-in their war games, nuclear strategists are concerned primarily with survival of weaponry, not human beings-and the techno-strategic language they have created make it possible for these normal, decent men to plan nuclear holocaust as though it were just another job.

The use of abstraction and euphemism allows them to talk about nuclear holocaust without having to deal with the reality behind their words. In their language the incinerating of cities is referred to as "countervalue attacks." "Collateral damage" refers to human deaths. A "surgically clean strike" refers to "attacks that can purportedly 'take out'-i.e., accurately destroy-an opponent's weapons or command centers without causing significant injury to anything else. "

The nuclear strategists' theorizing is about weapons, not about people. If asked about human survival, they will explain that they don't deal with those issues.

They consider the separation of technical knowledge and theorizing from social, psychological, or moral issues to be legitimate and necessary. This separation enables them to talk about weapons that are supposed to protect people "without actually asking if they can do it, or if they are the best way to do it, or whether they may even damage the entities you are supposedly protecting. "

The masculine mystique teaches men to be tough, to repress empathy, and to not let moral concerns weigh too heavily when the goal is winning. These qualities have become identified with political realism.

But what is rational or realistic about not allowing the human cost of war be a major factor in political decision-making? Why is not weighing the suffering of the Ron Kovics who fight wars or of the civilians who are innocent victims, a condition of rationality? Why does political realism require a lack of concern with moral issues?

Could it be that if politicians allowed themselves to feel empathetic they would feel so sorry for the soldiers who might be maimed or killed in war that they would be paralyzed, unable to do what [is] necessary to defend our nation against dangerous enemies? Would moral concerns about killing civilians lead them down an irrational road to enslavement?

The answer is clearly no, for the tendency to defend oneself against attack is so strong, both in terms of individuals and groups, that it is almost unthinkable that leaders imbued with moral concern would allow our nation to be attacked and not respond. The bloody history of our species suggests that much greater effort is required to restrain violent response than to encourage it.
The claim that theirs is an instrumental rationality that does not get involved in questions of values detracts from the fact that the values [of men in power] are almost entirely limited to what they take to be national power, prestige, and economic interests [which] often grow out of their 0\\11 ego needs, their need to prove [their] manhood, or their desire to secure positions of power. Instrumental rationality permits them to avoid fundamental questions. For example, if our national interest is related to the welfare of our citizens (isn't that what the Constitution tells us?) then what could be more contrary than a cavalier disregard for the lives of young Americans who fight in wars whose need has never been rationally assessed?

The belligerent policies of the real men in power are made possible through public support given by citizens raised to believe that being patriotic means supporting their nation's wars and military actions without question. The values of the masculine mystique prepare boys, from the youngest age, to someday willingly risk their lives in battle. Boys find out at a very early age that war is respectable. There are endless role models of great conquerors, heroic warriors, and brave soldiers.

It is not only patriotism that leads so many parents to acquiesce in the sacrifice of their sons in _ unnecessary wars, but also pride in their sons' manhood. (Many young women raised with the image of men as tough and dominant find men in uniform sexy, thus further reinforcing these values.)

In a letter published in the Ladies Home Journal during World War I, a father writes to his son: "Don't forget that the biggest thing that a war can do is to bring out that man [in you]. That's really what you and the other chaps have gone over for, to demonstrate the right kind of manhood. "

The opportunities for demonstrating manhood in a major war are greatly diminished in a nuclear age, but excitement over violent conflict continues. In 1984, when my younger daughter's sixth-grade class voted on a nuclear freeze (after having studied the issue), out of twelve girls, eleven supported a nuclear freeze, one was undecided. Out of seventeen boys, six were pro-freeze, three were undecided, and eight opposed a freeze. "Nukes all the way!!!!!" one boy wrote. "I say yes to total Global Thermonuclear Missiles build up (in other words NUKES)," wrote another.

In the film of Born on the Fourth of July, when Kovic visits the family of one of the men in his battalion who died in Vietnam, the soldier's father confesses that he doesn't understand what his son gave his life for; he doesn't grasp the purpose of the Vietnam War. But he does not question any further. He proudly tells Kovic that his own father fought in the First World War and that he fought in the Second. On screen we see his young grandson, who will never know his father, practicing with his toy rifle for his turn to prove patriotism and manhood.

Like this young boy-like most young boys-Kovic started his practice for war at a very young age. The film opens with him and his friends playing war in the woods with their toy machine guns, helmets, grenades. Later we see Kovic's high school physical education teacher calling the boys "ladies" and screaming at them to sacrifice their bodies. (In the book it is the drill sergeant in boot camp who constantly threatens the young marines' manhood by calling them "ladies.") We also see a young Kovic despondent when he loses a wrestling match and jubilant when he plays an important role in winning a baseball game. This constant competition prepares boys to think in us/ them and win/lose terms. They become so imbued with the glory of winning that it hardly matters to them, later, what military contests are about. They are mainly a chance to fight and win.

The romanticization of \var through war toys, in books, in films, on TV, and the extreme emphasis on competitiveness, winning, and sacrifice in sports, all prepare young men to sacrifice their bodies and often their lives years later in warfare.

For his book A Choice of Heroes, Mark Gerzon interviewed a large number of Vietnam War veterans. He found that living out a John Wayne fantasy was foremost in the minds of many of those who had embraced the war. Typical was author Phil Caputo, who enlisted because he had wanted "the chance to live heroically...1 saw myself charging up some distant beachhead like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima and then coming home a suntanned warrior with medals on my chest." Gerzon tells us that "the John Wayne syndrome is an explicit, if unwritten, code of conduct, a set of masculine traits we have been taught to revere since childhood." These traits include being "hard, tough, unemotional, ruthless, and competitive. "Author William Manchester, who fought in Asia in World War II, tells us that when his rifle company was polled on why they had joined the Marines, a majority cited a war fantasy with John Wayne called To the Shores of Tripoli.

Manchester recalls, "after my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii. Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry stretchers down to the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us. Before the film the curtains parted and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit--l0 gallon hat, bandanna, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs. He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said, 'Hi ya, guys!' He was greeted by a stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing."

"This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren't going to listen 10 him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left."

Real men seem unable to distinguish between (on the one hand) boldness in the ability to make decisions that are difficult precisely because of human concerns, and (on the other) making decisions without empathy for those who will suffer the consequences. They have mistakenly confused the latter with manliness.

(There is a certain irony that men, who in the political arena dismiss a concern with human morality as soft, are outraged-or at least claim to be-by crime, rape, and domestic violence: for it is the same values that guide them that also lead to male brutality in the home and crime in the street).

If the so-called wimps are often ineffectual in changing our foreign policy, it is not for lack of determination, but because they are struggling against the values of the masculine mystique which are deeply embedded in our political establishment.

We have come full circle. If the major objection, from a national security perspective, to our moving away from the masculine mystique and rearing sons who will not place intrinsic value on toughness, dominance, emotional detachment, and fierce competition is that such men will not be able to defend our nation in the real world, then our response is that the actions of the men who determine our national security policy now are based on confused thinking and self-deception that grows out of their attachment to the values of the masculine mystique.

Just like a John Wayne war movie, it's all fake machismo. Real strength, real courage, are based on dealing with reality, not denying it. The thinking of the real men who are supposed to be defending our national security is based on avoidance. All their talk about toughness is a form of verbal swaggering as unconnected to reality as John Wayne's physical swaggering on the screen.


From Boys Will Be Boys, copyright 1991 by Myriam Miedzian.. Used by permission of Doubleday. a division of Bantam, Doubleday. Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

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