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From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity Paperback – April 12, 2005
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Which comes first--war or masculinity? The complex and shifting relationship between the two is the subject of this provocative selection, which reads as both military history and an exploration of gender. Braudy is interested in what it is to be a man, particularly in wartime, and how the technological evolution of warfare has altered what makes a male a man. Understanding masculine sexual identity is the key, he argues, particularly in the early modern period, when stirrings of female emancipation led to fear of impotence and inadequacy, while gunpowder simultaneously blew battlefield honor into new forms. Pirates, cowboys, adventurers, and sports figures all emerge as the modern world's masculine archetypes, and manliness in combat becomes a new way of coping with the madness of war. Criticizing innate notions of masculinity while praising the nobility of manliness' many mutable forms, Braudy's synthesis is intelligent and wide ranging (T. E. Lawrence and seventeenth-century pornography only rarely appear in the same volume). Its gender-identity-based analysis of present-day wars is also timely and appropriate. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“History in the grand manner, pulled off with brilliance, wonderful imagination and considerable erudition. . . . Fascinating.” — The Washington Post Book World
“History at its most powerful. It is impossible to do justice to the range of fascinating material in this book.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“The reader is left marveling. . . . An expansive, ambitious project.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“A terrific topic . . . The book displays Braudy’s loving immersion in his subject, fine grasp of historical complexity, and aversion for glib or dogmatic judgments.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A vivid, hugely ambitious book . . . Likely to be widely read.” –The New York Review of Books
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This is a big book in terms of the breadth of themes it discusses, in terms of historical scope and, which may be daunting to many, the pure size of the book. Any book that attempts to cover the subjects of men (and by association women) and war (and the antonymous peace) spanning a period of over two millennia is bound to be large. Having said that, Braudy's analysis is always lucid, cogent and well-narrated. Of the multitude of issues discussed, I think he brings particularly keen insight into two in particular: misogyny and the modern phenomenon of terrorism.
He traces misogyny to two roots. The first is to "tribal" initiation rites, both modern and ancient, amongst which circumcision is one of the most widely practised:
"Female circumcision, with its explicit denial of sexual pleasure (even with an approved male), defines the woman as the property of her tribe, her family, and, later, her husband, without a history or autonomy of her own. Male circumcision in contrast identifies the young boy with the past, present, and future structures of tribal power and authority....Being a man is thus a wilful act, celebrated by the tribe, while being a woman is the default or natural state....Many [initiation ceremonies] also serve to legitimize a masculine line of social authority. As initiation separates the boy from both infancy and women, it creates the tendency to identify infancy with the world of women." Later, he goes on to say:
"The ancient tribal imperative that defined a man's honour as composed of both honour in warfare and protection of his family's sexual purity in peace became a prelude to a newly reinforced belief that women were a threat to male control....the ancient misogynist view of women's demanding sexual nature began to allow for the possibility that it is male [sexual] failure rather than female avidity that is the crucial issue."
His second theory as to the origins of misogyny is a deep seated fear within men of their sexual capabilities. He suggests that women offer "private disruptions" to the warrior temperament through sexual enticement and thus erode the warrior ethic. They threaten the "self-containment of knightly manhood" by their sexuality:
"....women, in other words, must be approached cautiously, even when they seem to be telling their secrets. Like the witch, so persecuted in the seventeenth century, or the femme fatale in film noir after World War II, their sexuality threatens male control because they can invoke a power to which men have little direct access."
Braudy argues that many men consider "intercourse, even the paying of what Protestant theologians called "the conjugal debt," to be a risk for masculinity rather than a reward for maleness" and goes on to say that "male humiliation is also an inherent potential of heterosexuality. The problem in reducing masculinity to the penis as the mark of power is that it can easily become the mark of impotence." He contrasts the genders by saying that "female nakedness retains some of the power of an insoluble mystery, while male nakedness more often than not undermines male assertion and makes men look foolish...." He includes in his discussion the frequent and often necessary camaderie that men exhibit during times of war, with its implicit homosexual overtones and concludes by saying "....in modern warfare homophobia was downplayed or kept at arm's length because of the overwhelming need for male solidarity and tenderness. Women were always perceived as a more threatening force than other men, and aggressiveness toward women became a way to overcome the fear of being unmanned."
His discussion of modern terrorism is also particularly enlightening. Beyond the religious and nationalistic drivers that are commonly accepted as the main cause, Braudy sees its origins in the struggle to defend a tribal and largely agrarian way of life in some cases and in others as "one of the few ways of breaking out of an inherited social hierarchy, through which members of disadvantaged and immigrant groups could make their names--or die in the process." His discussion of the notorious misogyny of Afghan culture indicates that "This need to repress the feminine in order to exalt the masculine in a reborn warrior culture suggests that the Taliban effort, for example, was not so much a part of Islamic culture as it was a stage in nationalism." With regard to the terrorism practised by Al-Qaeda he states "The attacks are not about nationhood but about masculine tribal self-esteem" and goes on to say "The possibility that male and female may be connected rather than eternally separate is a special threat to traditional societies that are still emerging from an agricultural into an industrial world, where a strict division of male versus female work seems necessary to the stability of life itself. Given the high ratio of men to women and the difficulties of subsisting on the family farm, there are large numbers of young men for whom domestic life is a dim possibility. In medieval Europe, they might have gone either to war or into the church. With bin Laden's brand of Islamic fundamentalism, they can do both."
He does an excellent job of demonstrating that modern day terrorism is not as divorced from Western history as many of us may wish to believe, His conclusion: "None of these attitudes or customs are unfamiliar in Western history. They are based on a polarized idea of male and female that simultaneously asserts masculine power even as it covertly admits that the male sense of honour and selfhood is so flimsy that the slightest exposure of the female body may shatter it. The remarkable irony of history is that just at the time that, in the wake of World War II, such attitudes have been open to the most widespread criticism, at a time when women have achieved more structural equality than ever before, when homosexual behaviour is no longer so officially stigmatized, the West is faced with an enemy emerging from the ancient lands of the Aryan warriors, whose own canons of sexuality attempt to re-establish a past from which the West has been distancing itself."
Mr. Braudy makes several references throughout his excellent book to the impact that war, courage and self-sacrifice has surely had on the gene pool and the survival of the fittest. He says "Perhaps in terms of gene pool survival, it was a bad choice for some of the brightest minds of the Christian era, say, to choose to become celibate priests and monks." He goes on to remark that "the inefficiency or inadequacy of a style of masculinity has never been a sufficient reason to dispense with it" which is why a great proportion of warriors, chivalrous or not, suicide bombers or regular soldiers, wind up dead on the battlefield. Not only those who participate in battle or warfare of whatever kind you wish to name end up not contributing to the gene pool: misogynists too, in their own way, prove their fitness for being given a modern day Darwin Award.
Thus is an excellent book and is well worth the price of admission in terms of both the cover price and the time required to read it.
Also, the US Navy did not lead the Army in integration. In fact, the Army commissioned black officers well before World War Two, while the Navy commissioned its first black officers in the 1950s. Despite the occasional factual error, the book is a major study that belongs in the company of such books as John Keegan's, The Face of Battle.
But once one takes the plunge and wades around a bit in this hugely entertaining book one begins to feel quite comfortably at home. That's because Braudy doesn't let the potential weightiness of his topic keep him from writing in an accessible and lively style.
Braudy's chief concern is the definition of `masculinity,' and how, contrary to what many might believe, it has shifted throughout the centuries. Is a `man' the product of his biology or his social conditioning? It's a question not unlike the one posed by feminists regarding women and the answer proves to be just as elusive. Most likely, it seems, a `man' is some impossible to determine formula containing a mix of hormones, cultural seasonings, and socio-political molding...and all of it heated in the crucible of war. For, as Braudy points out, war is the single most important constant that's defined masculinity throughout the centuries.
Using historical sources, literature, art, and popular culture, Braudy builds a compelling case for the idea that what makes a man a man often depends on a culture's defense against its enemies, its own imperialist dreams of expansion, the pathologies of its leaders.
*From Chivalry to Terrorism* often loses the thread of half of its proposed topic--the changing nature of masculinity--and becomes more of a history of war alone, and its effect on society as a whole. But even then Braudy doesn't fail to entertain and inform, even if he makes his book that much longer and unfocused than it strictly needs to be. Going off track as he does, the reader is treated to some interesting perspectives. Still, if I have one major criticism of the book it's that while for the most part Braudy remains neutral and objective he colors--and discolors--some of the later chapters regarding more current events with shades of the prevailing politically correct opinions of the day, even while criticizing the politically correct opinions popular in days gone by for their unenlightened short-sightedness. Braudy seems to be blind himself to the obvious fallacy of believing our own `scientific' and expert views on such issues as homosexuality, for instance, are any less flawed or definitive, any less influenced by prevailing social mores than those of the past.
But a far more glaring lack of objectivity comes in a chapter titled `Targeting Civilians' in which Braudy incomprehensibly fails to mention what is, perhaps, history's most damning example of a wartime government targeting the civilian population of a rival nation: the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While he mentions the dropping of these bombs later in a wider, more philosophic context, as if they had nothing specifically to do with American policy, the failure to present this unprecedented nuclear assault on a civilian population seems more than a mere oversight, but a failure of nerve. One can only speculate whether Braudy feared to alienate a large part of his readership by appearing un-American, or implying that the 9-11 attacks were somehow less undeserved and not quite so heinous by comparison. In any event, I found the omission unconscionable.
For that matter, whenever Braudy moves away from history and moves into commentary about history, the book tends towrds a muddled-headed, fuzzy, Oprah-like optimism that conveniently offers `proof' of the most liberal-minded attitudes of contemporary American society regarding gender, peace, world government, economics, religion, and just about everything else. Braudy, as a `thinker,' is clearly not an author who takes any chances or wants to ruffle any feathers. He breaks open no new ground, offers no fresh insights, nor does he have any desire to do so. In this regard, his appeal is to the widest possible audience.
Still, *From Chivalry to Terrorism* is a book well-worth reading for the history of war alone, and the interesting revelations about the ever-changing attitudes of what it's meant to be a `man.' You can't help but come away feeling sorry for us guys, shot to pieces, stabbled, and blown to smithereens over the centuries whether we had it in us to be warriors or not. If it really is a `man's world,' then you're probably talking about it belonging not to one-half of the population, but maybe one percent of it...because by the warrior definition of what it takes to be a man, that leaves out a full ninety-nine percent of all the rest of us, no matter what sort of genitals we have.