“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.1 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 a vivid, hugely ambitious book which synthesizes a great deal of material on the early modern and modern West explicitly for the benefit of “curious amateurs.” As such, one of its virtues is that it draws attention to some recurrent patterns of behavior and belief. Warriors, for instance, have often been concerned with hair, though in widely divergent ways. Sometimes a Samson-like hirsuteness has been the ideal, either the warrior’s own or borrowed hair like the plume on a helmet or a guardsman’s bearskin hat. At other times, military masculinity has sought expression in a studied lack of hair. The heads of modern GIs are cropped far closer than is dictated by considerations of neatness or hygiene, which is one reason why so many male anti–Vietnam War protesters and so many Vietnam veterans enjoyed flaunting long hair and beards.
There have been other, far more significant recurring patterns. Over the centuries, technology, resources, numbers, disease, and chance have often counted for more in military conflict than individual courage, while acts of valor have easily gone unnoticed amid the din and slaughter of battle. Awareness of this has always provoked anxiety. For if warfare is arbitrary and offers no guaranteed audience, then how can it adequately test and display the masculine virtues?
A standard response to this dilemma, Braudy demonstrates, has been refuge in and nostalgia for a lost and largely imaginary warrior past. All Western societies have cherished stories of ancient Greek and Roman heroes, as well as sagas like the Arthurian legends and the Song of Roland, or—in the case of America—tales of cowboys and the US cavalry. Like the Lord of the Rings films today, such myths and half-myths have offered a vision of male combat in which bravery, comradeship, and individual honor and achievement are indeed both conspicuous and effective. For officer-class males, however, such cultural reassurance has rarely been enough. For reasons of status as well as masculine pride, they have sought out ways to ensure that their prowess could be seen and applauded. Thus medieval knights practiced single combat in public tournaments, and though kings and churchmen initially disapproved of these stylized, lethal games, they later, as Braudy writes, found ways to accommodate and reward patrician male violence. The Church set up its own knightly orders (the Knights Hospitaler in 1113, the Knights Templar in 1128) and blessed Crusades; while European monarchs established chivalric orders, such as the Garter, which were—until recently—confined to elite males, and often won on the battlefield.
Yet the growing cost and technical innovativeness of warfare militated against the prominence and priorities of individuals, however grand or brave. In 1415 the Battle of Agincourt showed how longbows deployed by peasants on foot could destroy the most splendid, well-born knights on horseback, and the impact and subversive potential of guns and gunpowder were still greater because no long apprenticeship or marked expertise were needed to use them. Braudy cites an Ottoman Turkish proverb to the effect that “manliness died when firearms were invented,” and the Tokugawa rulers in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Japan tried to outlaw them. In the West, however, expensive guns and cannon proliferated, and this helped to ensure that warfare became increasingly a monopoly of the nation-state. An upper-class warrior in an ancien régime European army still wore a sword for killing and prestige. He might still be distinguished from the ranks of humdrum infantry by the quality of his horse and the flamboyance of his well-tailored uniform (until the invention of smokeless explosives made dull colors and camouflage compulsory); but he was nonetheless a cog in a state-controlled killing machine. After 1776, his prestige faced another challenge too.
First the American Revolutionary War and then the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars popularized the ideal of the citizen soldier: the ordinary man in homespun who left his home, or plow, or workshop to fight for his country’s cause—and who won. As Braudy remarks, this new democratizing of military exertion encouraged “a war-based definition of masculinity even more explicit than when war was the business of a particular class in a hierarchic society.” In addition, traditional European elites found themselves under tremendous pressure to show themselves superior, both on and off the battlefield. “The diadem of Bonaparte,” remarked one journalist in 1809, “has dimmed the lustre of all the ancient crowns of Europe; and her nobles have been outshone and out-generalled…by men raised by their own exertions from the common level of the populace.” Reactions to these revolutionary changes differed markedly on the two sides of the Atlantic. In America, patriotic belief in the superiority of the citizen soldier fostered the idea, as Ulysses S. Grant put it, that the rank and file in European armies were little better than illiterate and oppressed cannon fodder, whereas “our armies were composed of men who were able to read,” and therefore easily superior. But for Europeans, Napoleon’s defeat by patrician-led professional armies at Waterloo in 1815 gave extended life to more traditional ideas about the nature of war and warriors. Waterloo—an immensely influential battle which Braudy mentions only in passing—did something else which was far more important. It allowed Europe an unprecedented period of internal peace, and so paradoxically helped to ensure that, by the late Victorian and Edward- ian eras, extraordinary numbers of its politicians and young males were avid as never before for what they saw as the novel, cleansing experience of war.
It is when Braudy reaches the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that some of the strains in his immense survey become obvious. Part of the problem is simply excess of ambition, which to be sure is a venial fault among writers. Charting fame and celebrity over several centuries is one thing. Constructing an argument about arms and Western man from medieval times to the modern era, a vast, ungainly, and contentious subject on which so much has already been written, is quite another matter. Predictably, too much gets left out; and too many subtleties and divergent trends are smoothed over.
But more fundamental problems arise from both the approach he takes to the use of sources and to the larger issues that are involved in the history of war. No sensible writer about war ignores culture, and Braudy is certainly able at intervals to draw on Western literature to good effect. He makes some provocative links, for instance, between elite male anxiety about changes in warfare and political power in the later seventeenth century, and some of the writings of court wits like Sir George Etherege and John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, on male sexual embarrassment and failure in bedtime battles between the sexes. Thus in one of his poems Etherege played with analogies between man as a vulnerable and (in this case) premature warrior, and woman as besieged but all-too-resistant fortress: “When, overjoyed with victory, I fall/ Dead at the foot of the surrendered wall.”
Giving priority to literary sources, though, can bring its own distortions. It now seems clear, for instance, that Paul Fussell’s classic The Great War and Modern Memory(1975) at times relied too heavily on the sophisticated and well-documented responses to combat of leading poets and writers. Many ordinary veterans of the trenches in World War I appear, on closer examination, to have been less ironical, or more religious or stolid, or to have believed more straightforwardly in home and country, than such writers as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, or Erich Maria Remarque. It was the responses of the mundane majority and not just the well-known writers that shaped interwar Western attitudes.2 In much the same way, Braudy, who has evidently been much influenced by Fussell, is sometimes too ready to conflate literary prominence with influence on and representativeness of mass opinion. Thus he devotes a chapter to T.E. Lawrence, whose desert exploits in the First World War certainly became known to millions by way of his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and the public lectures by the journalist Lowell Thomas. Yet a recent military historian claims to “have searched in vain for mention of T.E. Lawrence in the personal papers of [British] servicemen,” and it may well be that Lawrence was too extraordinary a warrior and too odd a man to typify anyone’s attitudes toward war and masculinity other than his own.3
Another aspect of the same problem emerges when Braudy refers to the infamous resolution by Oxford University’s debating society in 1933 that “this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country,” and to the pledge signed by 120,000 “young Englishmen” three years later renouncing war. “A new version of masculinity,” he comments, “disentangled from an automatic relation to both nationalism and war, was being fashioned to oppose the machine-self of the acquiescent soldier.” Yet in 1939, many of the self-same young men who had debated in Oxford six years earlier, or who had signed the peace pledge, grimly went to war with Hitler’s Germany alongside the rest of their countrymen. As this suggests, however fascinating elite cultural expressions may be, it is in the end states, nations, and rulers, and the attitudes of large groups of people, that determine when wars are fought and who gets to fight them. That Braudy gives only limited attention to issues of competing nationalisms and state power inevitably blunts his analysis.
Thus “Europe” and “Europeans” frequently feature in his volume—as they too often do—as homogeneous entities. Yet neutral and cantonized Switzerland, say, and France, which unified early and has a tradition of large standing armies, have naturally very different histories of wartime involvement, and therefore presumably rather different attitudes toward military masculinity. And what about those nations which possess or possessed large navies? The latter have been crucial over the centuries to Western (and to a great deal of non-Western) warfare, and to the West’s sense of itself, but they are rarely mentioned by Braudy. Yet one has only to glance at Jane Austen’s novels for evidence that maritime men-at-arms have tended to enjoy a different reputation from their land-based counterparts. The warmth with which Austen treats Captain Wentworth and his brother sailors in Persuasion, as against her disapproval of Captain Wickham and his fellow militia officers in Pride and Prejudice, derived in part from the fact that she had brothers in the Royal Navy, but her attitude also had deeper, broader roots. In Britain and elsewhere, sailors were popular warriors because they protected the home nation and its trade, while doing so normally at a safe distance from domestic shores. Soldiers, by contrast, aroused suspicion because they were based on land, and might therefore represent a danger to their own country of origin, not least to the virtue of its womenfolk. There were, and there still are, in garrison towns around the world, a great many real-life counterparts of Lydia Bennet, unwisely bedazzled by a uniform.
Braudy’s limited concern with issues of nationalism and the varieties of state power is most apparent, however, in regard to his own country, the United States. He completed this book, he tells us, following the terrible events of September 11, and this has influenced his conclusion as well as his title. As he sees it, al-Qaeda is a “society of self-anointed holy warriors” at war not simply with the West’s “democratic inclusiveness,…progress, [and] technological change,” but also with its flexible and liberal ideas about gender roles. “The more set apart women are from men in a society,” he argues throughout this book, “the more physical strength and military prowess are the main criteria of masculinity.” Not surprisingly, then, Islam “in some versions…has retained a more male and warrior-oriented aspect than has Christianity, which even in its most militant periods has had an alternate, even pacifist tradition that could be appealed to.”
Our current troubles are therefore at one level a struggle over the meanings and proper ideals of masculinity. On the one hand, there is “the United States and Europe…where over the last century the definition of masculinity has most separated from its military embodiment.” These are regions of the world, as far as Braudy is concerned, which are moving firmly in a more progressive direction and are “now finding a new set of heroes among policemen, firemen, and other civil servants.” On the other hand, there is “fundamentalist warrior-oriented terrorism” which may be the “last gasp of a militant warrior personality type that has survived the centuries.”
Authors should never be begrudged their topicality, but the blinkers on display here are alarming, not least because Braudy’s book is likely to be widely read. Islamic societies, like other societies, incontrovertibly possess their own violent warrior traditions, and some of them, though not all, interpret women’s rights and roles in a rigid and restricted fashion. But by concentrating so single-mindedly on the links between Islam, Mars, and unreconstructed masculinity, and by claiming “that Europe and the United States in particular are in the aftermath of a period in the histories of both war and masculinity,” Braudy neglects two obvious and vital points. Since 1700, and the decline of the Ottoman and Mughal Empires, it has in fact been nominally Christian, Western, and aggressively modernizing regimes that have been responsible for the world’s most lethal international conflicts. Moreover, while attitudes in the United States toward roles of men and women have indeed become more relaxed in recent decades, this phenomenon has coincided with a huge rise in Americans’ capacity for armed intervention.
This was not a complete departure. As one historian has written, war has been “central to the way the United States has developed as a nation and a society” from the very beginning.4 The conquest of Indian lands, the expulsion of first the French and then the British Empires, western expansion, the preservation of the Union, and America’s accession to global power status after 1914 were all accompanied by, and in part accomplished through, military exertion. Nonetheless, before 1939, America’s military arsenal was usually negligible by the standards of other great powers. The transformation since then has been without precedent. In 1940, US defense expenditure was still under $1 billion. By 1970, it had risen to be higher than any other nation’s at almost $80 billion. And, as of now, US spending on its armed forces is running at over $400 billion, a larger sum than the combined defense spending totals of the ten next-biggest military powers on the planet. Moreover, this overweening military supremacy seems certain to increase still further in the future. America is so rich that it can budget for guns on a vast scale, while still allowing most of its citizens to enjoy relatively high standards of living.
It is extraordinary and unfortunate that Braudy devotes barely a sentence to these momentous developments. Extraordinary, because one would have expected a book such as this to analyze some of the seemingly paradoxical cultural trends in America that have accompanied its ascent to military hegemony. On the one hand, there has been a succession of highly popular Hollywood productions like An Officer and a Gentleman, Die Hard, the none-too-subtly titled Top Gun, or the Rambo and Rocky films; and there has been the recent election of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Braudy’s own California. This latter event is often explained by the cult of celebrity, but it would scarcely have occurred had Arnold been called Angela, or had the new governor been five feet two inches tall with a history of Oscar-winning performances playing pacifists.
Yet alongside such popular celebrations of all-American male violence and power, there has also been—admittedly only in some parts of America, and for some groups—growing liberation for both sexes. Gay rights are now more secure in the US than ever before. Heterosexual and homosexual American males can now take part in child care and domestic life to a degree that earlier generations would have found strange or unacceptable. At the same time women have been drawn into the labor force in America more comprehensively and assertively than in any other country, including all the branches of its military service. Yet this growing acceptance of “a wider spectrum of both male and female possibilities,” as Braudy puts it, has proved fully compatible with outbursts of fierce, gung-ho patriotism and an ever more enthusiastic American development of the instruments of Armageddon.
By not fully acknowledging all this, and by concentrating instead on the claim that “the West is faced with an enemy…whose own canons of sexuality attempt to reestablish a past from which the West has been distancing itself,” Braudy risks encouraging complacency when what is desperately needed at present is a broad vision of American power and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths about it. Al-Qaeda and its kind are obviously dangerous, and must be opposed. But doing so will only be rendered more difficult if there is insufficient appreciation that America’s ever-increasing military might is also dangerous and provokes widespread alarm and mistrust.
May 13, 2004
The phrase is Michael Kimmel’s in his introduction to Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity (Sage, 1987), p. 11. ↩
See, for instance, J.M. Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge University Press, 1995). ↩
See Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 29. ↩
J.W. Chambers II in The Oxford Companion to American Military History (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. vii. ↩