Tough Guys

As for the war,” Hector tells Andromache in the Iliad, “That is for men.” In the past, almost all societies have accepted this proposition unquestioningly and in two different senses. Since men do not get pregnant, are generally taller and stronger, and possess larger lungs and hearts, war has traditionally been viewed as rightly and necessarily their province and not women’s. The few apparent exceptions to this rule have worked mainly to reinforce it. Boudicca of the Iceni led her ancient British warriors against the legions of imperial Rome, and Lakshmi Bai, the rani of Jhansi, died fighting the armies of the British Raj in 1858. But these were female rulers and therefore in some sense honorary men. In the early fifteenth century, Joan of Arc briefly put on armor and became an active military leader, but although she did so in the name of God and the king of France, this did not save her from burning at the stake. For most of history, going to war has been a jealously guarded male prerogative, proof and validation of masculine superiority, and often a prerequisite for political citizenship.

War has customarily been viewed as being for men in another sense too: as an occupation and destiny which not only differentiates them from women, but also enables stronger, braver, alpha males to distinguish themselves from less impressive specimens of their own sex. Time and again, virtually all cultures have viewed the battlefield as the best and most rigorous testing ground for what Theodore Roosevelt styled “the iron qualities that must go with true manhood.” Only by intermittently exposing large numbers of male bodies to the risk of violent mutilation and destruction, it has generally been believed, can true masculinity and the health of society at large be adequately displayed and preserved.

Part of Leo Braudy’s concern in his new book, From Chivalry to Terrorism, is to investigate these ancient, pervasive beliefs: “to outline a history of the intertwined ideas of war and masculinity since the Middle Ages, especially, but not exclusively, focused on European and American history.” Of course, war has been a preoccupation of historians since Thucydi-des, while men have traditionally and tacitly functioned as the “benchmark gender” for most writers. But Braudy’s treatment of war and men reflects current scholarly and cultural concerns. He argues, rightly, that war is always more than the sum of armies, tactics, weaponry, logistics, leadership, and the like, and must be explored in its broadest cultural setting. He also takes it for granted that masculinity is not a straightforward, monolithic quality rooted in physiology, but rather something variable, contested, and subject to change over time. If, in his previous book, The Frenzy of Renown(1986), Braudy was concerned to show that “fame has a past as well as a present,” here he is no less insistent that masculinity, too, has a complex history.

He is aware, moreover, that it is not simply a linear one. From Chivalry to Terrorism is …

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