By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, February 7, 2022
I’ve added a book to my growing list of key war abolition reading, which is at the bottom of this article. I’ve put the book Boys Will Be Boys at the very bottom of the list, not because it is the least important, but because it is the earliest, having been published a decade before any of the others. It is also probably the book that — perhaps along with many other influences — has had the biggest impact thus far, on the agenda of which we have seen the most progress. Some of the cultural reforms it proposes have to some degree been achieved — others not so much.
Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence by Myriam Miedzian (1991) begins with the recognition that individual violence is very disproportionately male, along with the understanding that academics’ and historians’ accounts of humanity have generally treated male and human as interchangeable. Miedzian believed that this made it easier for women to question the “feminine mystique” (if women are flawed anyway, why not question what is normal and consider changing it?) but harder for men to question a masculine mystique (against what standard might men be judged? surely not against women!). And if you can’t critique as overwhelmingly male something that is overwhelmingly male, you may have a hard time addressing the problem of violence. (By male I of course mean the males of a particular culture, but critiquing Western culture by comparison with other cultures has never been hugely popular within Western culture either.)
This set of belief patterns has meant something different in the years since 1991. It has meant that we could switch from viewing military participation by women as a freak occurrence to viewing it as perfectly normal, even admirable, without having to adjust one iota any mythical conception of “human nature.” In fact, it has remained (at least for pro-war academics) inevitable “human nature” to participate in war quite regardless of whether women did it or not (and somehow not a problem that most men don’t do it either). The fact that “female human nature” could be imagined switching from abstaining from war to participating in war simply doesn’t raise the possibility that “male human nature” might switch from participating to abstaining — because there is no such thing as “male human nature” — whatever certain men happen to do at the moment is “human nature” all encompassing.
But let’s say we admit, as many more people do now than three decades ago, that levels of violence vary dramatically between human societies, that some have and have had dramatically less than our society, that some have been virtually free of rape or murder much less war, that within our society most of the violence is by men, and that the biggest factor in this is almost certainly cultural encouragement of viewing violence as admirably masculine, what — if anything — does this tell us about war, about politicians or weapons profiteers or media pundits who promote war (women seem to be more or less as war prone as men in a system based on war), or about women who participate in militarism directly (those who join up do what they’re told more or less just like men do)?
Well, it doesn’t tell us that recruiting and electing women in a society in which support for war has been reframed from admirably masculine into admirably American will reduce militarism. It could never have told us that. It tells us that for women to take power in Washington, D.C., they have to please the same media owners, sell out to the same campaign bribers, work with the same stink tanks, and get along with the same established routines as men do. Miedzian cited in her book a study that found numerous Vietnam war veterans had seen living out a John Wayne fantasy as a major motivation, and a study of high up men in the Pentagon, Senate, and White House who admitted that when both the U.S. and the USSR had nukes to destroy the planet many times over it didn’t really matter which government had more than the other but who also admitted that it made them feel much better to have more anyway. That feeling may have come out of how boys were raised, what their football coaches rewarded, what they saw modeled for them by Hollywood, etc. But we haven’t much stopped encouraging militarism in boys, we’ve just begun treating it as admirable for girls too. Were it not for truly ancient sexist beliefs among Republican Congress Members, the Democrats would have already added women to compulsory draft registration.
So, yes, your belief in the need to stand up to Vladimir Putin by threatening war on a distant country full of men, women, and children, owes a great deal to a toxic idea of masculinity that women are largely buying into as the new femininity as well. We need a better understanding. We need the ability to dismiss the Rule Based Order as a game for little boys and to demand a government that actually abides by laws instead.
But we have made some progress on some things. Fist fights are way down. Individual violence is very much frowned upon, and not generally encouraged in women or men. And the “wimp” criticism of insufficiently militaristic politicians that was in the air when Miedzian was writing is, I think way down. As an advocate against U.S. wars, I’ve never been called a wimp or female, etc., only a traitor, an enemy, or a naive idiot. Of course we’ve also been significantly increasing the age of Senators and Presidents, and the criticisms they might have faced decades back may remain the most relevant for them.
Miedzian offers numerous solutions. Some we have made clear progress (not glorious final success, but progress) on, at least in some segments of some societies, including fathers caring for children more, overcoming bigoted fears of homosexuality, tamping down on bullying, denouncing sexual harassment and abuse, and teaching boys to care for younger children and infants. The school my children attended frequently had older classes help younger ones. (I won’t name the school to praise it because opposition to war is still nowhere near as acceptable as some of these other elements.)
Much of what Miedzian writes about war is still perfectly relevant and could have been written today. Why, she wonders, is it OK to give children books called “Famous Battles of World History” when we would never do the same with “Famous Witch Burnings of World History” or “Famous Public Hangings”? Why does not one history book ever suggest that young men might have been misguided rather than heroic in marching off to die killing people they’d never met? “Most human beings,” Miedzian wrote, “are capable of extraordinary self-control with respect to acts that are considered deeply shameful and humiliating. We are able to control our body functions, however pressing they may be, because we would be mortified if we didn’t. If human beings are to survive in a nuclear age, committing acts of violence may eventually have to become as embarrassing as urinating or defecating in public are today.”
Miedzian’s key Chapter 8, focused on “Taking the Glory Out of War and Unlearning Bigotry,” is what is most still needed. She wants, in other chapters, to get violence out of movies and music and television and sports and toys, and rapacious corporations out of children’s lives. I couldn’t agree more. But I think what we learn over the years in this struggle is that the more specific and direct we can be the better. If you want a society that views war as unacceptable, don’t focus everything on a triple bankshot that starts with reforming the ownership of public television. By all means do that. But focus foremost on teaching people in any way you can that war is unacceptable. That’s what World BEYOND War works on.
I have fewer quibbles with this book from 1991 than with most antiwar books published since 2020, but I do wish the Munich appeasement thing weren’t in there. That mislearned lesson may yet kill us all.
THE WAR ABOLITION COLLECTION:
Understanding the War Industry by Christian Sorensen, 2020.
No More War by Dan Kovalik, 2020.
Social Defence by Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin, 2019.
Murder Incorporated: Book Two: America’s Favorite Pastime by Mumia Abu Jamal and Stephen Vittoria, 2018.
Waymakers for Peace: Hiroshima and Nagasaki Survivors Speak by Melinda Clarke, 2018.
Preventing War and Promoting Peace: A Guide for Health Professionals edited by William Wiist and Shelley White, 2017.
The Business Plan For Peace: Building a World Without War by Scilla Elworthy, 2017.
War Is Never Just by David Swanson, 2016.
A Global Security System: An Alternative to War by World Beyond War, 2015, 2016, 2017.
A Mighty Case Against War: What America Missed in U.S. History Class and What We (All) Can Do Now by Kathy Beckwith, 2015.
War: A Crime Against Humanity by Roberto Vivo, 2014.
Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War by David Carroll Cochran, 2014.
War and Delusion: A Critical Examination by Laurie Calhoun, 2013.
Shift: The Beginning of War, the Ending of War by Judith Hand, 2013.
War No More: The Case for Abolition by David Swanson, 2013.
The End of War by John Horgan, 2012.
Transition to Peace by Russell Faure-Brac, 2012.
From War to Peace: A Guide To the Next Hundred Years by Kent Shifferd, 2011.
War Is A Lie by David Swanson, 2010, 2016.
Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace by Douglas Fry, 2009.
Living Beyond War by Winslow Myers, 2009.
Enough Blood Shed: 101 Solutions to Violence, Terror, and War by Mary-Wynne Ashford with Guy Dauncey, 2006.
Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War by Rosalie Bertell, 2001.
Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence by Myriam Miedzian, 1991.