Veterans Day — a ramble on man-ationalism
This isn’t headed anywhere in particular. Just a few recycled thoughts on this militaristic holiday.
“Thank you for your service.”
“I made war on poor people.”
World War I wasn’t over on Armistice Day (November 11, 1918), because the Treaty of Versailles wasn’t actually signed until July 1919, but the date stuck for this celebration of peace after Klan sympathizer Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it on November 11, 1919.
Something else happened on the 1914 battlefront, now remembered as the Christmas Truce. French, British, and German troops arranged a truce and climbed out of the trenches to exchange Christmas greetings. Begun as an action taken in mutual suspicion, they began to chat, look at each other’s family photos, exchange drinks from their stashes, and play soccer. Both sides sick of the war, the fighting often ceased then after Christmas had passed, and and the fraternization between sides became a regular feature of the trenches in several areas, so much so that commanders had to intervene to stop the ad hoc truces. Later, the war would resume with lethal intensity ending the truces altogether.
It reminds me of a scene in one of my favorite films, Children of Men, where the appearance of a baby (no spoilers, watch it yourself) causes a pitched battle to suddenly stop and a moment of pure grace to break in, then within seconds one shot begins the deadly exchanges in earnest again.
Another film, Joyeux Noel, is a dramatization of the Christmas Truce. I recommend both for Veteran’s Day this year.
Armistice Day was transformed into “Veteran’s Day” (from a peace holiday to a celebration of militarism) in 1954 as the Cold War took hold and with it, a refreshed post-WWII American militarism — now backed by the bomb.
Veterans Day is now a national liturgy in praise of militarism, with The Veteran Ⓡ as an object of veneration. Most people would be summarily gassed online for saying anything untoward about this cipher — The Veteran Ⓡ; but I can generally get away with it because I am a veteran, and not just a vet, but an ex-lifer who retired out of the Army (few years back), which immunizes me from one of the veteran-veneration tropes — being declared a Chickenhawk.
Chickenhawk — not the avian kind — is an insult hurled at people like Donald Trump (“Cadet Bonespurs”) who talk a good game about war and even facilitate wars without ever having to get up close and personal with the wars they promote and start. Oddly enough, liberals who go after Trump seldom go after Obama, another non-vet, who was far more warlike than Trump. George W. Bush, another example. Back in the day, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. All chickenhawks by this vet-venerating formula.
It’s a man-taunt. “Chicken,” get it? You can only start wars if you aren’t too big of a pussy to fight them. FDR, Lincoln, Wilson? What happened to the civil-military relation supposedly enshrined in US law, subordinating the military to civil authorities? Of course, it’s about masculinity — personal and national — not law. Militarism is packed full of gender mojo.
Patriotism, root patriot, root patria, root pater, equals fatherland. In my several travels throughout the world, no matter where I’ve gone, there are statues of national heroes — military men — on display. Always in action poses. The modern state, by definition, is a war machine, so it’s maintenance in terms of public support requires public veneration of The Warrior Ⓡ . . . because worshiping war itself would reveal what’s behind the curtain. The object of our worship is the masculine nation.
I know, women are veterans, too. There’s what’s real, what’s imaginary, and what’s symbolic. I’m not talking about the reality that 14.5 percent of those on active duty today are women. I’m talking about our social imaginary with regard to the armed forces. As noted in Tough Gynes, a little book I wrote about movies, violence, and gender a few years ago, American masculinist/militarist culture has learned to accept women under arms with a few provisos, as “honorary men.”
Women have been admitted into many formerly male jobs and professions; but the deal is, they have to adapt their own personalities and experiences in such a way as to behave like men did when men were still hegemonic in those professions . . . note, in the military, men are still very hegemonic. In our social imaginary, there is another proviso, that the imaginary women who are becoming honorary men have to be “hot,” self-consciously un-self-consciously sexually desirable and available with a compartmented “sexy” persona that’s willingly objectified off the job.
It’s complicated, but in reality, actual women in the military and female veterans are not like this social imaginary, and the military is still an extremely hostile place for women. I’ve written about that here.
In the past few years, we’ve seen the migration of American militarism from its institutions into the street, as commando wannabes increasingly show up at public events to show off their gun and tactical gear collections — a bizarre and compensatory special-ops-chic fashion runway. The domesticated patriotism of earlier decades has, in a kind of narcissistic fracture, shifted its focus from the nation to The ManⓇ, another artifact of the militarized social imaginary.
As the US occupation of Vietnam marched toward its ignominious finale, a host of films appeared that I remember quite well, which shifted the focus from the more amorphous and virtue-adjacent national masculinity of the recent past (post WWII) to an individual, hypermacho, and nihilist-adjacent masculinity embodied in veteran narratives. Billy Jack. Rambo. Men with special secret skills learned in the war where politicians stabbed the military in the back.
In the former frameworks of the American social imaginary, when a certain traditional gender essentialism was still widely accepted and stable, proving one’s manhood was a minor thing compared to demonstrating one’s personal masculinity in very overt, aggressive, and narcissistic ways as we see now. In that past time, the loudmouthed, fascistic version of masculinity — now hegemonic among the most nationalistic — was considered a vice, an indication of someone who had something personal to prove (and suggesting that this compensatory behavior might be suspect), something appropriate to loudmouthed punks, bullies, and braggarts.
This period at the end of the Vietnam occupation also witnessed the emergence of a “men’s liberation” movement that groused about perceived injustices with regard to child custody, alimony, and the dirty feminists. The correspondences are not accidental. All social upheavals and all crises are also epistemological upheavals and crises, and social gender is embedded in the very subsoil of all our ways of knowing.
Gary Cooper characters gave way to the amoral and nameless characters in spaghetti westerns. Murderous fascist-adjacent vigilantism was celebrated in Death Wish and other male revenge narratives. Dirty Harry, a bully with a Really Big Gun, showed up to replace those pedestrian bastards like Joe Friday. Being defeated in Vietnam was a crushing blow to the national masculinity, and we had to compensate. President Joe Biden’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan is ramifying in some of the same ways. (Death Wish was recycled last year in concert with peak fascist-adjacence.)
Being a veteran doesn’t mean what it did when we were telling ourselves that we’d just fought the good war to defeat Hitler. We can’t point to the war itself as something both virtuous and necessary. Now the veteran comes front and center, with the messy political details of actual wars fading into the background. The VeteranⓇ is the drama — sympathetic, tragic, heroic, our civil religion’s icon of sacrificial service. It matters not that most veterans are no more or less sympathetic, tragic, heroic, or self-sacrificing than anyone else. We’re not in The Real as an order of being, but in The (social) Imaginary.
We knock the dust off of our flags and post them in front of our houses as a declaration of perfect fealty to the nation — the man-ation. When that seems insufficient as a form of man-ation-worship, we might decorate our trucks with the most recent symbol of fascist-adjacent man-ationalism: the black and blue flag that began as a reaction against Black Lives Matter. That particular protofascist symbol was transfigured by the national dramas of 2020 into an overt symbol of support for suburban jingo fascism — a viral calling for the restoration of a past patriotism and the restoration of violent male power.
It’s not just an American phenomenon, of course; but American man-ationalism has a particular historical flavor . . . and I live in the US. Moreover, as the still hegemonic state on the world stage, what happens in the US ramifies through finance, politics, and cultural production around the world.
Curious fact: what’s not well known is how formative comic books were in the construction of American martial masculinities since the Great Depression leading up the Second World War. We are a comic book nation. Buncha boys.
Germany was inundated with visual propaganda under Hitler — paintings, posters, and statues. Masculinity, as it had been since the eugenics movement began in the West, was closely associated with “physical culture” — bodybuilding. The male form was represented in Nazi art as lean and heavily muscled, modeling its bodily archetypes on Greek and Roman art, with facial features that emphasized “Aryan” beauty. Figures of men were often nude and hairless, emphasizing the idea of a clean, self-contained, impermeable boundary at the skin. The torsos of the Nazi male archetype were modeled on breastplate armor to reinforce the idea of impermeability and lack of vulnerability. Feet were planted firmly apart, hands often doubled into fists, and visages sternly aimed at the horizon.
American war propaganda also emphasized men’s bodies as hardened, using the terms “steely,” “like iron,” and “hard as nails” to describe them. And while Nazi images did the same, they were often hyper-idealized and standing naked to merge a Classical aesthetic with a racial purity ideal. American images had well-muscled men who were dirty, hairy-chested, at least partly clothed, and almost always in contact with big guns or big rounds of artillery ammunition displayed in decidedly phallic ways. The underlying narrative was that of the citizen-solider, the industrial worker cum soldier, of men fused with their machines, with a look of determined anger on their faces. A “now you’ve pissed us off ” look.
Christine Jarvis concludes that the transformation of working man into fighting hero mapped onto a popular American art genre, the comic book superhero:
The aesthetics of American figures . . . were based on the bodily ideals evinced in comic books. . . . Superheroes could, with the aid of a magic word or swirling costume change, transform themselves . . . into superhumans with abilities and bodily characteristics that exceeded the realm of mortal powers.
Bodybuilding, which was once a niche practice, has infected metropolitan masculinity in the past four decades, as men — more and more, in a coeducational world — have been provoked by advertisers into marketing themselves (like women had before) as competitive sexual commodities. It’s become almost compulsory for those men who have the wherewithal to pop those supplements and torture themselves for hours each week doing heavy work which accomplishes nothing beyond the cultivation of vain obsession with how one appears. Progress, really, because now advertisers have opened up a whole new (beyond female) market for selling inadequacy, envy, self-doubt, and compensatory display.
Most man movies, like most movies, are really moving comic books. I worked on a film once, where I realized that every scene had been constructed as a comic book frame by the artistic guy (it was a guy on that film) who did the “story boards,” or a set of comic book frames.
We men are children in many respects, little boys scaling the treacherous cliffs of our own self-doubt.
I hate nationalism, but I can’t (won’t) hate men.
We were made into children — a longer story about the infantilization of American culture — through mass communication, deskilling, the erasure of responsibility, carefully propagated narcissism, and progressive technological dependence. We want to pretend we’re big boys, and in the face of contradictory realities that becomes a real effort. So in addition to what we see in our performances — like the extreme man-ationalists of the Proud Boys, pictured above accoutred in thousands of dollars worth of useless tactical gear and on a mission of intimidation (secretly a desire for recognition) — we do suicide. There’s a relation between these desperate compensatory performances and male suicide (we kill ourselves 3.5 times as often as women).
I did some research for a piece recently on “veteran suicide,” which has been falsely portrayed as some kind of epidemic in the media. In fact, what I discovered was not that veterans commit suicide more often than anyone else (they don’t), but that the preponderance of men as veterans skews the suicide numbers. When men and women are separated for the analysis by age cohorts, male veterans commit suicide at pretty much the same rate as men generally. The nationalism part of man-ationalism is built into this vet suicide narrative, and the real reasons men kill themselves is disappeared from view.
Suicide. Like one of my soldiers when I was in the Army. Like my great nephew. Like one of my past employers. Like I and most of the men I know have contemplated at one point or another.
The veteran suicide narrative is one about a veteran whose sacrificial service to the God-nation wounded him (or her), psychologically or physically or both, and neither the government nor the population has shown the proper veneration and support. We’ve neglected our “heroes.” For shame. (No, I’m not saying veterans shouldn’t be able to avail themselves of competent public services. I live in part on a military pension.)
I’m not making anything up about masculinity and suicide. Numerous studies confirm it. More women attempt suicide, but way more men succeed. The first thing is guns, that masculine fetish. You can change your mind, or be discovered, or puke . . . when you desperately pop a handful of pills. That gun in the mouth, however, is instantaneous and irreversible.
Internalized demands to be tough, self-reliant, competitive, and strong, especially in the discursive arms race between men leaning into the media-hyped masculinity of American militarism, will — given the right stressors — be turned inward. The actual need people have to be vulnerable (prerequisite for love), dependent, cooperative, and sometimes weak and frightened are suppressed, even anathematized. Recognition, reputation, status, and control are the masculine standards. I’ve focused plenty on the collateral damage of men’s games; but this year I want to point out what a mug’s game martial masculinity is so we can fit that into our thinking about man-ationalism. We — men — have been trapped, too . . . in an invisible cage, cut off, exiled from ourselves.
I try to remember that when I react — and I do react — against the collateral damage of nationalist masculinity. We men are broken, but in our brokenness we break others. It’s easy to selectively portray The Bad Men with their victims in the foreground. Too easy. Victimizers can be victims sometimes, and vice versa. The more difficult perspective than victimizer-victim is grasping the ways in which we are all actors in a drama not of our own choosing. The same cultural mass production that divided the world into Good Guys and Bad Guys is the one that gave us militarism, the militarism that converted Armistice Day into Veterans Day.
I sincerely believe that most people, given the same circumstances and the same pressures, will act in very similar ways. It’s not a comfortable belief, because it exposes of some of my own moral posturing and it forces me to extend my understanding to declared enemies. I’m no better than they are . . . luckier in some respects, but no better.
Rene Girard, in discussing the biblical story of Peter denying Jesus at the crucifixion, says that Peter — who had declared again and again that he’d not be cowed in his devotion to his teacher — was doing what humans do, going along with the crowd.
“Peter is all man — and men cannot resist mimetic contagion. When you are in a crowd, you become literally possessed by the crowd.”
We all go along with our own crowds. That’s why militaristic nationalism is so incredibly effective. And men — the gender, not the shorthand for Homo sapien — become men by participating in and going along with man-crowds. No bloviating self-righteous moralizer is going to change who a man’s friends, family, and associates are, and therein is the man himself.
Or, more recently, his media.
Public relations, propaganda, advertising . . . all the same thing . . . are extremely successful precisely because they know that most people, given the same circumstances and the same pressures, will act in very similar ways. One of the main contradictions between the militarized nation (the state) and capital (read here, the ad industry) has been divergence of interests. Capital needs the state — to print legal tender, to appropriate land, to make laws that protect capital from labor, et al — and the state needs patriotic propaganda. Capital can’t afford that single-minded focus on legal power, because it’s always on the make for the lowest hanging fruit . . . and any damn thing can be commodified, and nothing — not even the state — is sacred.
That’s how January 6th happened. Patriots stormed their own capital. Police supporters attacked cops. Postmodern (performative) masculinity, and its Marjorie Taylor Greene-style, martial-masculinity-adjacent women, went full-on batshit with sly guidance from wannabe Mussolini, whose whole appeal was at bottom for (nihilistically-conceived) patriarchal restoration.
Social media has leapfrogged the rest of mass communications applications by developing niche markets; and niche markets in controversy, it turns out, are little veins of 24 karat gold. That gold is mined regardless of whether or not any particular mine supports or opposes the state.
Now even militarized nationalism is a niche controversy market; and I see bumper stickers that say, “Are you an American, or a Democrat?” There’s the knucklehead driving the stickered SUV, and there’s the smooth invisible bastard whose bumper stickers are for sale on Amazon at $10 a pop.
This year is the first since Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal from a 20-year-long defeat in Afghanistan. Expect the 2022 elections to be about that — a lot. Yet another affront to American national masculinity, another crisis for the American social imaginary. It’s the lowest-hanging of the low-hanging fruit. With all that male bluster there is an undercurrent of terror that requires a lot of compensation.
I wish I could tell all of them — all the frightened men flirting with violence, all the boys going oooh and ahhhh at fighter jets zipping over football stadia, all the tv-patriots who yearn secretly for the recognition that veterans get — it’s okay. You can relax. The world won’t come to an end if you allow yourselves to be fully, vulnerably human. You don’t have to hurt anyone . . . not even yourselves.
I’ve gone on long enough. Always down for a Christmas truce. Peace.