Vietnam, Afghanistan & macho nihilism
Male supremacy, in history, is challenged by the destabilization of various masculinities, but this challenge is never met with abandonment, only reframing. The response to any destabilization of one masculine archetype is to reseat male power in a new archetype, in much the same way the church over the centuries has recast its rationale for the exclusion of women.
It is no accident that films like Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974) came on the scene — nihilistic splatter-flicks featuring a lone male avenger and set inside the United States — just as the U.S. was seeing the inevitability of its defeat in Vietnam. It is no accident that the film Man on Fire  corresponded in its moral rationalization, the “tempo task,” to the governmental rationalization for the employment of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” that is, torture, when the myth of American military invincibility was being dismantled again in Southwest Asia. The destabilization of masculinity is followed by a reactionary reassertion of it. (Borderline, p. 115)
My dad was a self-identified “conservative.” He was born in 1906, so he was seven and a half when WWI broke out, twenty-three when the 1929 crash happened, and forty-five when I was born in 1951. In 1970, when I shipped out to Vietnam, he was 64.
Before I went, John Wayne was still a thing, and someone I also admired, not for who he was. We didn’t know that. We admired the characters he played, who were conservative men doing heroic things to protect an ordered world that was under constant threat by the wolves of chaos beyond the light of the campfire.
Masculinities are always shifting and jostling between emergent circumstantial change and the commercial media and pop-culture dialectic. That older (profoundly racist) masculine social imaginary, the one my dad embraced and into which I was indoctrinated as a youngster (we got our first B&W TV when I was a baby), was oppressive and dishonest, but it was not nihilistic in its conception. Men’s power as men, men’s prerogatives and privileges were tempered and contained by an admittedly patronizing noblesse oblige that compelled men to exercise courtesy, to defend the weak, to play by the rules, to show humility (boasting was considered a character flaw), and to never “punch down.” Restraint was considered part of the “ideal” masculinity, and righteous violence was always understood as proportional, not some version of “shock and awe.” Not saying this was how men lived into this phony ideal, but the ideal was there . . . and hegemonic — a media-indoctrinated national masculinity.
I can trace the departure from this older, restrained, rule-bound white hegemonic masculinity — and its loss — through film. After the stalemate in Korea, which queered the pitch of post-WWII American triumphalism, and the Soviet acquisition of the bomb put the entire world order into question, we saw the first in a series of Clint Eastwood “spaghetti Westerns,” which Badiou called “epic nihilism.” My excerpt above made note of the macho nihilism on display in the splatter films following the defeat in Vietnam. John Ford was displaced by Sam Peckinpah.
What will follow in the wake of the US defeat in Afghanistan? Will we get some version of Rambo? R.W. Connell saw fascism as a reassertion of male prerogative in the face of feminist advances:
In gender terms, fascism was a naked reassertion of male supremacy in societies that had been moving toward equality for women. To accomplish this, fascism promoted new images of hegemonic masculinity, glorifying irrationality (the “triumph of the will,” thinking with “the blood”) and the unrestrained violence of the frontline soldier.
I want to suggest that it’s also a substitutionary masculinity — still glorifying irrationality — when the corporate (national) masculinity suffers a hard blow . . . like a “superpower” losing a war to peasants.
Masculinity, of a new, louder, and dis-proportionally violent masculinity metastasizes inside an escalation dynamic. A “fuck you” masculinity that drops all pretense of masculinity-for-the-common-good.
The new war has nothing to do with nations, poisoned as they are by defeat (interpreted as excessive restraint); it’s a war within — each man reaching for enough violent-crazy to be safe from other men reaching for enough violent-crazy to be safe. The goal is not victory, but an insane idol called “survival” (as if anyone survives life). It is no coincidence that “survivalists” have such an overlap with nascent fascists. Every man a little god. Hello, Proud Boys.
Hello, Donald Trump. Trump had no ideological commitments, apart from mobilizing fear and hatred; but his appeal was not predicated upon ideology. It was himself — brash, bigoted, brainless, bullying, sexually assaultive . . . and proud of it (a proud boy). He spoke for all those men who needed a national masculinity but couldn’t find it. He rode to victory on a wave of “fuck you” masculinity. He didn’t have an ideologically conformed movement, but a cult following. He gave male resentment and bitterness and fear a national voice, and his acolytes squealed with pleasure and applauded every time he “broke conventions” to “own the libs.”
By the time I returned from Vietnam, I’d lost all that John Wayne bullshit. We didn’t protect the women and children. They were “fucking gooks,” like the rest of the country. We burned their houses, killed their livestock, beat them, and sometimes . . . just for something to do . . . we murdered them.
It wasn’t the time of John Wayne any longer. It was the time of Charlie Manson and Billy Jack, Rambo and Dirty Harry. Serial killer Richard Ramirez found his path after hanging out with Vietnam veterans who had collected ears and graphic death photos as souvenirs. During Afghanistan, another hopeless and aimless war, soldiers were sport-killing and collecting fingers.
I won’t compare Afghanistan too closely with Vietnam, in particular as it relates to the military. When I left Vietnam, more than half my unit was using heroin, and enlisted men were shooting and fragging their officers. The draft army was eliminated by 1973, and a ground-up re-professionalization took place. The military was broken by 1973 — I sold weed to my own squad leader. It’s not broken now. But there are no draftees, and the cost of this re-professionalization was astronomical. If you want to get on the public teat now, in the precarious times, the military is a great place to start.
[One reaction against this trend has been the unexpectedly popular TV series Longmire, which hearkens to that old John Wayne era (with the sexism and racism tactfully removed). I wrote a long piece on this here.]
The blow to the national masculinity in Kabul comes at a time when former military and wannabe military and nihilist macho boys in general are in abundance . . . a cultural inheritance from the sixties and seventies.
The rugged individualism of ethical-macho, that John Wayne masculinity, has been supplanted by this loud-mouthed macho . . . which, again, most men don’t live into except in their imaginations. But there are always those who will go the extra mile to prove themselves, to demonstrate the courage of their convictions, so to speak, and they are showing up as Proud Boys, as mass shooters, as a protofascist surge, as gun-worship culture, as a brooding species of “preppers.”
What comes next, after the fall of Kabul? We’ll soon see.