Aaron Belkin, author of Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Facade of American Empire, 18982001, spoke Wednesday, May 29 at the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago. Belkin is known for work relating to Don't Ask, Don't Tell and is author of How We Won, The Repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (2011), and Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Debating the Gay Ban in the Military (2003). He is a professor of political science at San Francisco State University and director of the Palm Center.
His new book looks at the complex construction of a masculine mystique that has become distorted and been normalized in military culture and tradition.
His chapters show that glorification associated with military service serves the military's needs by helping attract recruits and by justifying self-sacrifice, but creates a culture that is anything but benign. "In one sense, it is more about us as civilians then about service members," said Belkin. "While it is good for citizens to be loyal and law abiding like the troops, these messages [that civilians should be more like service members] become so ubiquitous and so hidden in plain sight that it is hard to think critically and hard to avoid hero-worship. Which, by the way, I don't think is good for the troops or for the military."
The soldierly persona, with its implied rejection of everything non-masculine, is not available only to men. The respect that attaches to the warrior is available to and very attractive to women, to transgendered people, to non-citizens and to others who may see themselves as outcasts.
"One of the arguments against Don't Ask, Don't Tell was that inclusion of these minorities would sissify the military and undermine the masculinity, the potency of our male service members," said Belkin. "One of the things that's so astonishing about masculinity is that, contrary to those arguments, masculinity is a very flexible concept and it can readjust itself to accommodate women, gays and lesbians and transgender people...who at some point will be included in the U.S. military....short people, tall people, disabled people, abled people, Jewish people. Military masculinity is an idea that's available for all service members."
Belkin's research shows that dominance, penetration and rape are commonplace and supported by military tradition.
A full chapter of the book is devoted to male-on-male sexual penetration in all its forms, making clear that it happens far more often than generally known and that it is not always seen as rape by the aggressors or the victims. In some situations, penetrating is understood to confirm a warrior masculinity, in others, being penetrated does so. In the context of rituals like hazing and the line-crossing ceremony (a sailor's first time crossing the equator) assault is so expected and accepted that it is sometimes understood by both parties as an act of inclusion.
Acceptance of new norms, written and unwritten, is part and parcel of the socialization of new soldiers and questioning is not encouraged. New recruits, to succeed, just go with it.
In the Q&A follow his remarks, the author didn't speculate about how the problem of sexual assault in the ranks could be changed.
Other chapters explore the array of contradictions inherent in definitions of masculinity and the influence of perceived masculinity on our national identity and in foreign policy decision-making, including the decision to go to war.
Video clips by Jean Albright here:
Aaron Belkin at Pritzker Military Library in Chicago 5-29-2013 PART 1: www.youtube.com/watch .
Aaron Belkin at Pritzker Military Library in Chicago 5-29-2013 PART 2: www.youtube.com/watch .
The Pritzker Military Library offers a video of his full remarks here: www.pritzkermilitarylibrary.org/Home/aaron-belkin.aspx .