There is much talk about violations, cruelty and brutality in the public discussion of war, but very little talk about men. Yet, factually speaking, it is mainly men who are the practitioners of organized violence as its ideologues, planners, technical designers, and its workforce at the sharp end. So, why don’t we all talk about men, masculinity and male cultures of violence much more in the humanitarian world?

Academics have long discussed masculinity and violence in military sociology. Many others have now joined them from gender studies. The study of gang cultures in urban violence in the last few years has been explicitly focused on men and masculinity as drivers of that violence. But analysis of masculinity remains largely absent in the political, policy and media communities that come together around war.

Why the silence? Why aren’t men and masculinity called out much more as the main causes of the terrible abuses and tragedy of armed conflicts—its indiscriminate attacks, inhumane detention and sexual violence?

There seems to be a genuine emotional difficulty with the subject.

But, first, we need to be clear on the facts.

Mainly men

Is it mainly men who are responsible for the horrors of war? The answer is yes. The cultures and institutions that prepare for and deliver organized armed violence on behalf of the State or non-State armed groups are predominantly constructed by men, led by men and filled with men.

There have always been exceptions to this rule, as there are today, with women fighters at the frontline, senior women military strategists and women Heads of State who take their countries into war. In an increasing number of liberal militaries today, there is a determination to enable women to serve in the armed forces, which may lead to changes in the culture of war and, equally, may not. A majority of women often support war and can become full of loathing for their enemies. But still, the evidence tells us that it is mainly men who organize and deliver violence, and it usually has been.

It seems fair, therefore, to call men out on war—just so long as we also recognize that every act of restraint, compassion and lawfulness in the planning and delivery of violence in armed conflict is also likely to be the action of men. We need to remember that male warrior culture can be kind as well as cruel.

A difficult subject

Even if the evidence is clear, the subject seems difficult to raise. It is a painful subject for most of us because each of us—men and women—knows that although this fact of male violence is true, it is only one truth about men and only one truth about each man.

This all makes the masculinity of war difficult to talk about. Most of us do not want to paint men as predominantly violent. This would be unfair and risks stereotyping men into a corner from which they will probably fight their way out. We need a more nuanced and caring discussion—human to human. This is hard to do in the knock-about macho culture of public advocacy that is so frequently driven by the ‘outrage’ of both men and women in the advocacy set.

Law does not help much here. Talking about the violence and suffering of war in highly legal terms leads to public descriptions of armed conflict that can be abstract and gender neutral. Largely male behaviours are described remotely as ‘violations’ and ‘abuses’ committed by ‘parties to conflict’. These legal terms are seldom attributed directly to men, when they usually should be. Legal speak often obscures rather than reveals the gendering of violence.

Suffering, on the other hand, is stereotyped as largely female today with a foregrounding of the pain of women and children. Some female focused policies of aid could verge on breaching the principle of impartiality, which is based on need alone, and not identity. But men suffer terribly in war as well, and many resist the mainly male violence of a conflict, and non-violently support the rescue and survival of their families.

Let’s talk about it—Masculinity and war

Let’s break the silence about mainly male violence. We can and should talk about men and masculinity in war, or even men and masculinity as war.

We can do this by owning the problem and creating a more honest and realistic policy discussion of masculinity and war, which can be carefully informed by psychology, ethics, sociology, biology and, of course, humanity.


NOTE: Posts and discussion on the Humanitarian Law & Policy blog may not be interpreted as positioning the ICRC in any way, nor does the blog’s content amount to formal policy or doctrine, unless specifically indicated.