Frogmarched into manhood

Fifty years after the end of the Second World War, our society has yet to learn that armed conflict deforms, not defines, masculinity
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The Independent Online
Pick a war, almost any war, and the anniversaries are rolling off the calendar just now. The fall of Saigon and the withdrawal of the beaten US from Vietnam, the Allied run-up to VE Day, the dark memory of Gallipoli all pay their poignant tribute this month to war's reliance on the spring offensive since time began. In such celebrations, custom long ago established the familiar and comforting rhetoric of fallen heroes and dauntless survivors, the grateful many honouring the immortal few for the gift of life and freedom.

So each war fades into history, leaving us with war memorials, poppies and remembrance services, "lest we forget". Societies treat their wars as finite episodes, and do not trace the lines of continuity that must have linked the men who marched away with the world they had to rebuild on their return. But human life and feeling do not exist in date-driven compartments, and the experience of war is not something to be simply obliterated on demobilisation. What did it mean for individual men and what is its legacy for their children and children's children?

Whether to contain or ennoble masculine aggression, war has always been elevated to the highest pitch of human endeavour and hallowed by its most sacred traditions. Making war was both a necessary evil and a great good, and growing males were brought up to accept it with an open heart; Rupert Brooke's generation of young men plunged joyfully into the First World War, "like swimmers into cleanness leaping".

Even the inevitable carnage found its lyric proponents. "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ("it's a wonderful thing and highly appropriate to die for the fatherland"), the Roman poet Horace wrote without irony, even though his own taste of war at the legendary Battle of Philippi was so horrific that he threw down his weapons and fled in anguish from the scene. Almost two thousand years later, the Irish poet and patriot Patrick Pearse, commander-in-chief of the Easter Rising of 1916, addressed his followers in the same terms: "Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that fears it as the final horror has lost its manhood."

Dissenting voices like that of Wilfred Owen in his savage revision of Horace, "Dulce et Decorum Est", did nothing to disturb the romantic myth of combat. The feelings of the humble squaddie, let alone those of his loved ones, are always surplus to requirements: no ruler or commander stops to ask what war does to him.

The question is not asked when the answer is readily available. Nothing prepares a boy for life as war does, the late Bobby Kennedy said, "except football". Warfare and military service have always been taken to provide a prime and unique training ground for a country's youth, a proving ground for the purest form of its manhood. In this formulation, manhood is not biologically given as womanhood is, but has to be created, established and demonstrated. "You're not a man unless you can fight, fuck and make a lot of money," said Norman Mailer. As always with Mailer, first things first.

Nor has there been much dispute about what it takes to make a man into a lean, mean fighting machine. Masculine prowess in battle depends on developing what Keats called "the feel of not to feel it". To turn a boy into a potential hero or make him able to kill involves teaching him to override feelings of pity or tenderness - who could drive home a bayonet or toss a grenade if they started to feel sorry for those on the receiving end?

But the skills that ensure success and survival in military terms are those least adapted to life outside the ranks. War trains men to be "strong" or "tough" and above all not to empathise with those weaker than they are. But in comparison with a fighting fit specimen of young manhood versed in the use of arms, everyone is weaker. Men who have been thus forcibly restricted can find their emotional world shrunk to encompass only those who have been handled as they were.

And this emotional process of discarding "softness" in favour of "manliness" cannot simply be reversed when peace is declared. Many of the men who spent up to seven years in the Second World War forcing themselves not to feel their fear, their horror of bloodshed, the pain of separation from their loved ones and the constant hunger for home could not easily switch those feelings back on again in Civvy Street. In the era before stress or counselling, hundreds of thousands of fighting men were simply turned loose into the civilian population, like inmates suddenly released into the community from war's universal prison with no after-care provided.

Only on arrival home did the extent of the problem become clear. Household after household had waved off a laughing boy and got back a damaged man. Ex-soldiers could be insensitive, restless, depressed, embittered, or just different in a hundred unhappy ways. And they visited their suffering upon wives who had been self-sufficient and celibate for years. The burden of rewarding, not resenting, the incomer was increased by the coldness, anger or aggression which the men now brought with them into bed. From 1945 to 1955, GPs reported a steady rise in the number of women suffering from "nerves", a condition always attributed to "the after-effects of the war", never to the conditions of the peace.

Children, too, now found a stranger in their midst. Accustomed to the rule of mothers and grandmothers, they had to adjust to men whose only concept of authority was the unforgiving model of military discipline. The men's attempts to find their way back to their family units often turned to disappointment and even conflict as the broken family bonds simply refused to repair.

Boys typically suffered more than girls. "I can't talk to my father", the constant litany of today's disaffected young males, began with their fathers: men now aged 50-plus, the children of the late Forties and early Fifties, became adept at just "making themselves scarce", getting out of the way of the man they didn't know and were only learning to hate.

Deprived of fathers, the children of the war grew up with no serviceable model of the mother-father partnership. So they had to face adulthood and the whole task of getting married and having children, without the vital training in emotional stability and consistency only available in a steady, ongoing relationship which is free to flourish undisturbed. Is it any surprise then that those children grew up to be unable to sustain continuous marriages of their own? That the entire generation of those who were children during and after the Second World War are the couples who have given us the highest divorce rate in history.

These children are now parents and grandparents themselves, and the generational drip-down goes on. Today's young talk passionately about monogamy and fidelity, but the reality is that almost half of those who find a partner and try to stay together are already doomed to fail.

And in a brave new world that has seen no world war for half a century, how is soldiering seen now? The Vietnam war produced a generation of soldiers who broke the warrior code for the first time in history to "tell it like it is".

The Falklands war and the conflict in the Gulf found British officers and soldiers also "coming out" about war's trauma and distress. When heroes and warriors blow the gaffe, it is inconceivable that the flower of the nation's youth could ever again go so uncomplainingly to war as it did in 1914 and again in 1939.

Nowadays, men who attend disasters are routinely offered counselling for performing acts which soldiers in wartime treated as normal. This greater public readiness to acknowledge that men suffer emotionally tells us a great deal about how little help and support they received in the past. Soldiers and civilians no longer need quasi-medical names like "shell shock" or "exhaustion" for their emotional distress. The greater availability of counselling and therapy may have been disproportionately important in allowing men to express emotions, and thereby seek alleviation of sufferings their fathers and grandfathers were simply expected to bear.

Concepts of manhood have suffered a similar revision in our post-post- war world. Fifty years after their grandfathers came marching home, the young men of the Nineties are frantically groping for a form of masculinity acceptable to themselves and to their peers. They do not know where to find it, though they sense that it lies somewhere between a fast car, a good aftershave, having "mates", and money to spend. But what they do know is that they don't want to be like their old man.

One response lies in the numbers of cool, determinedly laid-back young guys who read the new men's/style magazines, like to cook, prefer women as friends rather than on their backs, and who constantly distance themselves from their father's aspirations and drives, be they a "good steady job" or a heavy consumption of alcohol. These young men are constantly, often humorously, working against gender stereotypes, and would never be embarrassed to work as a secretary or buy tampons for a girlfriend. They are determined to be more like people than what they see as the worn-out caricature of posturing masculinity of their father's generation, "peering into car engines and pretending to know where the big end is", as one 25-year-old put it to me.

At the other end of the spectrum lie those who define their young manhood through an exaggeration of all the old clichs of masculinity. Roaming in gangs like war-parties, the so-called yobs (only back slang for boys) will manufacture the confrontation and combat that their grandfathers came home to escape. Denied an enemy, they create one out of a rival football team. Without legitimate targets for destruction, they search and destroy in random acts of vandalism.

The law-and-order lobby routinely calls for military-style solutions to the problem of today's rootless, disaffected young men: boot camps or compulsory community service as an updated version of conscription will mop up all that undirected young male energy and "make men out of them". It seems to me unlikely that the profound social problem of the lack of self-definition for young men will yield to any such short-term thinking.

For we are facing a youth generation that largely rejects the father, or any other authority figure, as an acceptable model, and to which war with its instant conferring of masculinity is no longer available. Young men face an almost existential crisis of uselessness, which has been all too clearly recognised by the young women who are rejecting them in droves to get their own jobs and homes and have their own babies. The girls may be doing the logical thing, but they are invariably making things harder for themselves and their children. And the young men need that experience of caring for women and children to release the human side of themselves. Where will they gain the confidence to do this? Not, I suggest, by throwing them back into the shadow of militarism.

Without impugning the heroism of the past, when will we accept that war does not define but deform masculinity, and with it the lives of all the women and children caught up in its wake?

Only when we dare to question the necessity for the "supreme" sacrifice, and examine truthfully the quality of life that all the survivors are destined to lead afterwards. Only when we manage to unpick the intricate connection between men, masculinity and war's authorised killing, its bloodshed, torture, death, and the death of the heart. And only when we can do this will we be ready to abandon the age-old belief that masculinity means that there are things worth dying for more important than anything else in life.

The author is the author of 'The Rites of Man: Love, Sex Death and the Making of the Male', and 'The Children we Deserve: Love and Hate in Family Life' (Harper Collins).