Monday, August 30, 2010

Crisis of Masculinity Blogging: Military Preparedness, Fit Soldiers, and the National Character since the Late 19th Century

The Army has changed its training regimen because the troops are too fat and out of shape.

I'm not going to weigh in much on the whole fat debate and whether or not it's mostly a socially constructed concept used to oppress people or if there's a national crisis. I understand the former but do tend slightly to the latter; regardless of the former's validity, there are real health problems with morbid obesity.

I'm more interested in how worries about soldiers' health are seen as a reflection of national character. Critics have connected the male body with the national character since at least the late 19th century. If I had more time, I'd actually go into my boxed up research notes to the various places where I've seen this. Lacking that time, let me just sketch a couple of quick points.

In the late 19th century, the middle and upper classes discovered the joys of sport hunting. While there were many reasons for this, chief among them was fear over what the industrial city did to the male body. The pollution, the closed spaces, the Jews*--all of these things threatened the white Anglo-Saxon male body and soul. Men like Theodore Roosevelt wondered what these weak bodies and corrupted morals would do to the nation during wartime. In order to see through their master plan of the United States as a military power, Roosevelt, Alfred Thayer Mahan, George Bird Grinnell, Madison Grant, and so many others clamored for young men ready to fight for their country. But they couldn't do that living in the cities.**

So these men turned to outdoor pursuits in order to make our fine young WASPs men. Boy Scouts, boxing, football, camping, fishing, and hunting all became training grounds for war. Men like Roosevelt made explicit connections between these activities. Of course, nothing could actually substitute for war, but it would have to do.

The nation had similar concerns during and after World War II. Military planners worried about the large number of conscripts denied entrance into the military during the war. Like with the Gilded Age cities or the weight of current recruits, there were legitimate health concerns here. The Depression created chronic malnourishment and untreated health problems that did reduce the fighting force during World War II. Under total mobilization, this never really threatened the nation because these men could work in factories or do any number of other necessary jobs.

While military men expressed concern over all this during the war, it was in post-war fears of communism that men's bodies really reentered the culture as a point to question the national masculinity. Americans often saw the Soviets as supermen during the 1950s, leading many to wonder whether we could defeat a nation with that combined powerful masculinity, even in their women,***, with unlimited national resources and a totalitarian government. Of course, we vastly overrated the Soviet capacity to keep up with American economic development, but that's irrelevant here.

For many Americans of these years, our national masculinity might not be up to the Cold War test. Again, returning to nature became a possible solution in our fight against the Soviets. Luckily for those upset by our national capacity for war, the 1950s became a decade of robust national health in so many ways, including in media portrayals of young people. Yes, like in the 1890s, bad morals threatened to undermine normalcy and Americans worried about juvenile delinquency.**** But Americans were going to the beach, buying big cars, taking dates out to malt shops, and going into the outdoors. Again, commentators called for a return to nature in order to recharge the national manhood.

I don't want to draw connections too closely between these three periods. We haven't seen concerns about the national male body lead to environmentalism, as happened in the 1890s and 1950s. If anything, the national indifference to environmental questions poses a major threat to our society. And no one is directly making connections between our ability to fight against supermasculine terrorists and our fat kids. However, there are interesting parallels around how Americans have made connections between the state of men's bodies***** and the national body at various points in our history, something that we see again today. 

*--Quite literally, the ethnic body threatened the WASP body in the minds of these elite masculinity worriers.

**--For all the clear contempt I have for much of this line of thought, Gilded Age cities were, of course, death traps.

***--I'm fascinated at the 180 degree shift in how Americans have viewed Russian women since the 1980s. During the Cold War, we had a vision of them as coal miners, steroid-using track athletes, and hairy peasants growing cabbage for the state. Today in the American mind, they all look like models and exist as a store for men to buy wives that won't talk back and will have sex whenever demanded. 

****--I've always loved that one of Paul Newman's most heinous crimes in "Cool Hand Luke" is taking the tops off of parking meters. I don't even remember him stealing the coins. For this, he is sentenced to a chain gang.

*****--Of course, any discussion of today's military also includes female bodies, but the nation has never reached any kind of comfort point discussing the role of women in combat. Most people, I believe, still view women in the military as a support system for "our boys."