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The masculine condition in contemporary warfare

Gender / Gender and conflict / Humanitarian Action / Identity 13 mins read

The masculine condition in contemporary warfare
Hugo Slim, in a piece entitled Masculinity and war—let’s talk about it, puts his finger on a modern-day paradox: although men have been the protagonists of war and fighting since time immemorial, the discussion on masculinity and men’s relationship to violence today is admittedly relatively guarded and somewhat marginal. Maybe this is so because of the increasingly ambiguous images of masculinity in contemporary society. Although the traditional view of what it takes to be a man may have been knocked off its pedestal, have we thought enough about what will replace it? Let’s take a closer look at men’s relationship to violence, to what we might call ‘the masculine condition’.

From Sigmund Freud via Hanna Arendt to Slavoj Zizek, thinkers of the modern era have taken an innovative and critical look at human violence. But the dearth of significant perspectives and ways to look afresh at violence and its consequences from the perspective of gender is somewhat disappointing—a residual taboo of patriarchy perhaps.

It was second-wave feminists in the 1970s, mindful of the slaughter of two world wars, who breached the walls of the patriarchy and smashed gender essentialism, debunking the myth that male domination was ‘normal’ and showing that men’s and women’s behaviour and attitudes were not biologically but socially determined—and therefore changeable. You would be forgiven for thinking that such a radical shift would have led people to take a new, gendered look at violence—and indeed at all other fields (science, politics, ethics, etc.)—and to see violence not as a part of one’s nature but of one’s nurture. After all, if ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’, it may similarly be the case that only by being put in a corrupting environment does one become a violent man.

But that is not what happened. On the contrary, in the western, and further in the global, culture an unspoken consensus grew that male violence is something one just has to take for granted, a biological, psychological and anthropological flaw that cannot be overcome. And it is perhaps that, more than anything else, that has muffled the debate before it even got going. But a closer look at the issue shows that the modern view bears an uncanny resemblance to the old one—male violence is simply a fact of life—while simultaneously turning the value system on its head. That is, while in the past, male violence was seen as inevitable, it was also held up as a value to live by, the expression of an idealized vision of virility, or at the very least, something made tolerable by putting down boundaries that limited its excesses. In traditional societies, the warrior’s honour, the honour bestowed on the alpha male who made use of his power, was valued without question.

Today, things are more complicated. For those with a certain kind of ‘politically correct’ mindset, an inheritance itself of post-war human rights and 1970s feminist thinking, the alpha male is no longer someone to be looked up to. Society has continued to consider violence to be down to our nature, rather than our nurture—in the form of culture, education, law and so forth. And it is nurture’s never-ending mission to tame nature. At the same time, masculinist values are back in society, returning in a variety of forms and gnawing away at territory conquered under the banner of feminism and human rights.

The value system itself is changing and ambiguous. On the one hand, the Harvey Weinstein scandal grabbed the headlines and helped trigger a mass movement. On the other, there is a growing tendency to see the aggressive ‘impulses’ of the ‘macho man’ in a positive light. The desire for ‘a strong man’ to take control has recently galvanized many electorates around the world.

Given how highly divided societies are on these values, it is no surprise that having a calm debate about ‘the masculine condition’ has proved difficult. But in reality, is it not the pessimistic consensus around human nature itself—accepted by many, it would seem, in the western world—that is preventing us from having this debate? Amazingly enough, both the supporters of a certain kind of masculinity and the supporters of a certain kind of feminism share this pessimistic view of human nature and treat it as an established fact, a destructive instinct and death drive buried deep in all of us—albeit stronger and wilder in men. The former considers it an adaptive advantage, the latter a terrible curse. Both sides continue to hold this pessimistic view of humanity, which from the Ancient Greeks to Freud via Hobbes serves only to confirm the bellicose stand of masculinists: indeed, since human nature is what it is, the use of force will always, therefore, be the ultimate means of resolving a conflict. In turn, this probably leads certain feminists away from a position (or prevents them from taking positions) of strength where they could persuasively argue their case about masculinity and violence, since they are, at heart, already convinced that their struggle for human rights and pacifistic ideals is doomed to founder on the rocks of biological determinism.

Such mainstream assumptions on masculine nature have spread to the humanitarian sector. As Hugo Slim points out, it is almost impossible to show human distress without foregrounding it in the suffering of women and children. In speeches and in operations, the beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance and the faces that unblock huge sums of humanitarian aid at large international conferences are those of women and children. In these situations, projects that are designed to specifically address the suffering of men in war are paid scant attention.[1] This is so despite its particular nature: men, past and present, are after all the victims of war too (perhaps more so in today’s civil wars). They are victims in their roles as fighters—often involuntary, exposed to all the dangers and horrors of the battlefield—and in their roles as civilians—that is as fathers, uncles, brothers and sons, who have to undergo the pain of losing loved ones and, in ever more frightening and chaotic conditions, see their homes and belongings destroyed.[2]

It is too often forgotten that humanitarianism was born in the 19th century out of one man’s recognition of the suffering of soldiers in war. The first humanitarian, Henry Dunant, broke the silence hanging over men’s suffering. And, although we might see in this a certain masculinism too, Dunant was realistic enough in his ambitions that the outcome was the creation of international humanitarian law (IHL). Indeed, this body of law is fundamentally about the use of force and violence, a language that men who wage war and suffer its consequences can and do understand. It is this unprejudiced discussion about the use of force that IHL allows that, still today, makes it unique.

Perhaps it’s that kind of realism that is missing nowadays. A certain kind of politically correct way of thinking can give the impression that one has to put women and children at the centre of our humanitarian concerns and the feeling that communities exclude men altogether, leaving only the role of the aggressor to them and demanding that, for their heinous acts, they take responsibility. The result: a startling denial of men’s suffering. But it is only by taking account of this specifically masculine suffering—of the particularity of the masculine condition in war—that we can talk about masculinity and war in humanitarian terms.

There seems to be little recognition in most people’s minds of this double burden of suffering. Many go so far as to reject the very idea that the ‘perpetrators’ of inhuman violence could themselves feel human suffering. Their suffering is viewed by such people as merely a by-product of the shameful, predetermined ‘evil’ that is buried in men’s nature, and which has only to be ‘mastered’. There is indeed little forgiveness shown to men in war who are considered to fail to control the animal within. And that lack of forgiveness in our politically correct value system is the result of the loss of the ancient view of masculinity,the old admiration for the violent hero, for the man of honour. That old consensus, as we have seen, has largely dissipated in the wake of feminism, human rights and the trauma of two world wars. And, has moreover, in reality, been transformed at best into a distinct distrust of men—seen as liable at any time to explode into compulsive violence—and at worst into a sort of a priori disqualification of men as moral beings and of their ‘innate’ violent machismo. This disqualification is even more pronounced in the case of armies and armed groups, no matter the background.

Such an attitude is self-defeating in more ways than one. In the field, it risks sidelining men from global empathy, compassion and aid. In other words, it risks fostering attitudes that men are quite rightly likely to interpret as a form of rejection, discrimination and disdain—moral condemnation that they can only put down to ‘Western attitudes’ that belittle their suffering and whittles their very existence down to technical and legal terms that frame them as ‘violent actors’ alone, mindless brutes. This can lead to a fraught relationship in the field, especially in countries where international law has virtually no impact. Nothing is more dangerous than the social and ethical ghettoization of humiliated, violent men—a predicament that swamps them in the self-perpetration of extreme forms of violence.

If humanitarian actors want to have a chance at getting their message across to men who carry out violence and who suffer its consequences in the savagely destructive wars of today, they have to leave such talk behind. They have to, as Hugo Slim says, stop reducing such men to mere concepts. They need to take greater account of the human dimension of what they have gone through. From that angle, the humanitarian and human rights community may see more clearly that, though these things are in our instinct and our nature, they are more often manipulated by culture than we think. After all, doesn’t the history of warfare show us how much effort society puts into teaching men to be violent? Isn’t men’s monopoly on violence above all a social construct? Isn’t the excessive violence a corollary of men being socialized for war rather than the expression of instinct?

And in the field, is it not the experience of most male combatants to lose their bearings, thrust as they are into an environment made incomprehensible by civil war, where they are forced to commit atrocities that are, naturally, condemned by all. But are these atrocities not the result of fear, humiliation, anguish—a response to the traumas generated by a wholly corrupting environment? It is commonplace to recall that these combatants are less and less often incorporated into a formal chain-of-command. Is it not then the case that those acts are more likely to have been committed by men overtaken by events, who were powerless to do otherwise and had no control over their own lives? Are these not men who have been ill-treated by History with a capital ‘H’? Who are stripped of their pride and dignity? Who have been placed in a position where notions of victory and of protecting their loved ones, which until then had justified their violence and bravery, have been obliterated by armed conflict that plunges everyone into the same hell? Is this not the experience shared by most ‘ordinary violent men’ in wars, and isn’t this moral distress what we need to understand, and make clear we understand, if we are to get our message across to them?

So yes, let’s talk about masculinity and war, because we urgently need to find a way to put our relationship with those who wage war back on a firm footing. Dunant was the first to break the taboo over the masculine condition on the battlefield. The power of international humanitarian law then opened the way to dialogue with those who fought in large Clausewitzian wars. But although the language of law tends to render abstract the bodily realities of war and the chaotic battlefields of today, we need to generate a new discourse and a new relationship with combatants, one which takes full account of the human and specifically masculine dimension of those men who fight and who suffer.



[1] Men do, of course, benefit from humanitarian operations, but mostly from operations aimed at helping all victims alike (women, elders, children), with the statistical exception of arbitrary arrest and detention that more often affect men. The issue though is that it will be more difficult to find projects tailored specifically for men to find than projects tailored for women (probably in particular in the field of reconstruction, education, even smart relief). The issue is also that there is little attention paid to the fact that the consequences of the emotional experience of men in war—that is masculine humiliation, shame, self-hatred, etc.—may beget more violence and turn out to be more costly and even devastating for the individuals and their community than any other form of distress.

[2] It goes without saying that the author is fully aware of the role that women have played in combat throughout history, and of the role of contemporary fighting women (from Peshmergas and Tamil Tigers to regular national armies—the United States, Canada, UK, etc.).  Women’s engagement in combat remains, however, exceptional and is psychosocially premised on a fundamentally male gender role.

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DISCLAIMER: 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.

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