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American Masculinity: Defined By War Essay

1884 words - 8 pages

War has been a mainstay of human civilization since its inception thousands of years ago, and throughout this long and colorful history, warriors have almost exclusively been male. By repeatedly taking on the fundamentally aggressive and violent role of soldier, Man has slowly come to define Himself through these violent experiences. Although modern American society regulates the experiences associated with engaging in warfare to a select group of individuals, leaving the majority of the American public emotionally and personally distant from war, mainstream American masculinity still draws heavily upon the characteristically male experience of going to war. In modern American society, masculinity is still defined and expressed through analogy with the behavior and experiences of men at war; however, such a simplistic masculinity cannot account for the depth of human experience embraced by a modern man.
Whether engaging in European trench warfare or fighting through the jungles of Vietnam, a soldier must learn to cope with the incredible mental stress brought on by the ever-present threat of a grisly death. The physical stress introduced by poor nutrition, a harsh and hostile environment, and the cumulative physical effect of emotional trauma only serves to make a trying situation even more taxing. It is out of this violently stressful environment that the coping mechanisms that characterize wartime masculinity arise.
A natural response to such a violent environment is to simply behave in a way that portrays no weakness. If the soldier does not show any signs of weakness, he finds it much easier to convince himself that he can survive by his strength. In asserting his control over himself by hiding all of his weaknesses, he finds a way of asserting his control over his fate and the fates of his comrades, however illusory that control may be. This is revealed most lucidly when these defenses are brought crumbling down. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross berates himself for daydreaming about enjoying a happier, more peaceful existence with his imagined love Martha after the death of Ted Lavender. Cross burns every picture he has of Martha in order to prevent himself from daydreaming about her any more, believing that by wiping her from his mind he will be able to better protect his men. Numerous vows to follow protocol more strictly, as well as to be on constant alert against danger, are made. At first these seem like valiant efforts on the part of the lieutenant, but further consideration reveals that his efforts to become a perfect leader are in vain. No amount of care or discipline will allow him to guarantee that his men survive the war. Mistaking his sentimentality as a sign of his weakness rather than of his humanity, he tries to hide his weakness in order to become a “good” soldier: emotionless, stoic, focused, and strong. He cannot escape his humanity, however, as the images and dreams of a better life persist even without...

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