Chris Hedges’s essay makes the excellent point that Americans have romanticized soldiering, war, and combat, to the detriment of veterans and the country as a whole. However, his attempt to identify sinister class motives behind this tendency misses the mark. In my experience, those who are economically secure are just as entranced by the allures of war as the poor and working class.
On campuses like mine, there are plenty of college students who are either economically stable or have good prospects, but who tell me how much they look forward to military service. Even students at elite prep schools here in Texas are drawn to military recruitment events, though they more often opt for military academies. They are no less conditioned to take up soldiering and go to war. Some of my student veterans tell me they could have paid for a college education, but deliberately chose military service first. The poor, the powerless, the marginal young men who believe military service is the way out of dead-end jobs, small-town life, or unemployment are conditioned to go to war, but no more so than ROTC students or those who enlist right after college graduation.
Hedges’s charge that war is about “elites preying on the weak, the gullible, the marginal, the poor,” who fight and die for the sake of elites is a familiar one. To be sure, defense industries can see outsized profits in time of war. Obviously elites—mostly white males—make decisions that send young people to war. But beyond that, the link that Hedges asserts between greed and the decision for war hasn’t been substantiated historically. We don’t go into combat for the sake of the profit motive.
Rather than a tale of class conflict—of wealthy men manipulating the poor or disadvantaged for their benefit—our continued romanticization of war, as Hedges only insinuates, reflects our culture’s warped views of masculinity. Playing upon repeated references to concepts of honor, patriotism, duty, sacrifice, and courage, military service is portrayed as the required initiation into manhood and the basis of virtuous citizenship.
Popular beliefs have conditioned men of all classes to accept the costs of combat.
There is ample evidence for this. Just read Gerald F. Linderman’s Embattled Courage: the Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (also The Red Badge of Courage), which demonstrates how the Civil War changed the definition of manly courage, especially after the Battle of Gettysburg. Hedges is on target when he comments that “war is touted as the ultimate test of manhood,” but all economic classes are susceptible to such influences. Amy S. Greenberg’s Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire analyzes the imperial lust of politicians and filibusterers between 1848 and 1860 and found that feverish justifications for U.S. expansionism occurred in the context of dramatic transformations taking place in the nation’s understanding of gender roles. Kristin L. Hoganson’s Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars demonstrates how U.S. society gradually became concerned about emasculation during the rapid industrial expansion of the latter nineteenth century, and she provocatively, but persuasively, links a perceived “crisis of masculinity” to the decision to go to war against Spain and, after that, to battle the Filipino nationalists. And who can forget that paragon of manliness, Theodore Roosevelt? He and many others, most prominent among them Admiral Stephen B. Luce, touted the Social Darwinist benefits of war to a nation tending toward a complacency exemplified by avoidance of war and “ignoble peace.”
These Victorian-era definitions of manliness have continued into the modern era. Robert D. Dean’s Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy similarly demonstrates connections between Cold War definitions of masculinity and the making of a hard-line foreign policy by two very different men, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who exhibited enough anxiety about their own manhood that Dean believes this is a partial explanation for each one’s militant and ultimately military posture in Vietnam. Finally, William Broyles Jr.’s compelling “Why Men Love War” (Esquire, November 1984) reflects upon several links between conceptions of manhood and war. The pageantry of military life, “the power and seductiveness of violence,” as Hedges observes and Broyles underscores, the beauty of weaponry among the ugliness of war, simplified notions of right and wrong, the homoerotic comradeship among “brothers in arms” (as Paul Fussell revealed in The Great War and Modern Memory), appeal across all economic classes. Legions of young men buy into the idea that “seeing the elephant” is a rite of passage to manhood. These beliefs, rarely examined or questioned, have conditioned men of all classes to accept the “barbarity, perversion, and pain,” that Hedges rightly identifies as costs of combat.
No, “elites preying on the weak, the gullible, the marginal, the poor,” is not the problem. As Gail Bederman shows in Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, the more serious problem is a national obsession with notions about manhood and their link to what Hedges calls the hyper-masculine world of the military. Our culture teaches our youth that manly virtue and martial valor are one and the same. They choose to serve so that they can “make something of themselves” and “be all they can be.” When they return home, wounded or not, they await the honor, the glory, and the privileges that their status as “real men” should bring them. Then they grow impatient, depressed, sometimes angry while waiting for the signs that everyone recognizes and applauds what they have sacrificed so they can earn entry into that club. They wind up empty handed.