From Wildman to King: Another Look at Male Myth and Initiation Part 2

Like sex, war takes place in a primal realm where only the most basic instincts matter and a man's prowess is simply and directly tried. Sometimes we confuse sex with war, mistaking a sexual partner for an enemy whose conquest must be achieved at any cost. Archetypally sex and death, being mysterious biological processes representing respectively the beginning and end of the life cycle, are closely linked. Men at war are especially apt to mix up the business of creating life with that of taking it, for the same energy that drives battlefield exploits also fuels sexual aggression. The increased sexual activity so often noted during wartime makes biological sense as an evolutionary adaptation to an increased death rate. The soldier who impregnates a woman before marching off to his possible death ensures that something of himself will continue to live on, even if he does not.

The defense of women and children against an enemy who would rape and kill them is an often heard rationale for war. Yet the same men who willingly sacrifice themselves in defense of their loved ones often have no hesitation about raping the enemy's women. Rape has probably been an integral part of warfare for as long as there has been war. In Homer's Iliad, the wise old warrior, Nestor, rallied the discouraged Greeks with a reminder that the women of Troy would be theirs to ravish once the Trojan men had been disposed of. More recently, rape was intentionally used as a weapon in the Serbian-Bosnian civil war.

Throughout most of recorded history, women have been regarded as the property of the men for whom they produce children. In "plunder, rape, and pillage," the traditional behavior of victorious armies, winners reap their rewards in the form of the loser's property. In forcing the enemy's women to submit to him sexually and bear his children, the victor both adds to his possessions at the expense of his enemy and furnishes irrefutable proof of his masculine superiority.

Primal masculine energy, in its best and worst aspects, finds expression in war. By killing the enemy a warrior proves himself master of the most primordial of male challenges. He willingly sacrifices himself in defense of others. He knows at first hand the fierce freedom and horror of going beyond social constraints. He is rewarded for actions that would be condemned if done anywhere except on the battlefield.

To kill and risk being killed so that others may live is the ultimate expression of male power and sacrifice in service of community. This is especially true within the intimate community of the squadron, the basic unit of every army. In the shared ordeals of training and the battlefield, the men of a squadron prove their worth as men to one another. The manhood of anyone outside the group, not having been proven in company with them, is open to question. First and foremost, a soldier's loyalty is to the small group of men with whom he shares the rigors of basic training, the tedium of camp life, the horror and glory of battle. He fights to protect his buddies, and in turn depends on them to stand by him (Keegan, p. 53).

War has deep psychological and biological roots. The greater the difference, real or imagined, between ourselves and others, the easier it is to justify their destruction. We tend to fear and distrust those who are not as we are, forming groups, organizations, and neighborhoods to include people like ourselves and exclude those who are not. At times we are so ill at ease with otherness as to be unable to rest until those who differ from us have been exterminated.

Closely related to fear of the other is the biological drive to perpetuate one's own kind. In evolutionary competition, the winning male is the one who impregnates the most females and best ensures the survival of the resultant offspring. While attempts to reduce complex behaviors to "nothing but" biological drives are always simplistic, war in its essence is about surviving at the expense of the other.

The warrior is based upon an archetypal, hence natural, potential of the human psyche. But the warrior himself, the soldier who fights as he is ordered, is an artificial development, an exaggeration of that potential. Even more than the general run of men, soldiers are made and not born. The would-be warrior must learn to quell his reverence for life along with his fear of death. From ancient Sparta to contemporary boot camp, military training is designed to suppress a young man's softer, feeling side while exalting his capacity for phallic aggression (Gilmore, pp. 188-191).

Parallel with archetypal fear of the other is the desire to join with other individuals like oneself. The most obvious group to which we all belong is the human race. But we rarely regard others as our equals on the simple basis of shared biology. Normal narcissism leads us to value people who are like ourselves more than those who are not. Our group, being defined by qualities that we value, naturally seems superior to groups lacking those qualities. Since social rules and ethical standards apply more within the group than without, aggressive energies that threaten group stability tend to be directed out of the group. While killing a member of one's own group is regarded as murder, the killing of an outsider may be sanctioned as a necessary and heroic deed.

Perhaps in some long ago Golden Age there were wars, like that depicted by Homer, in which enemies both respected and slaughtered one another. But more often the enemy is despised. Not only is he (as the representative of a debased masculinity in contrast with the idealized manhood of our side the enemy is always "he") a consummate threat to all that we hold dear, he is not even fully human. Since the moral obligations that govern our relationship with the rest of humanity do not apply to him, we are free to kill him with a clear conscience. In fact, his destruction is absolutely necessary if civilization as we know it is to continue and any means, no matter how terrible, towards that end are justified.

As self-proclaimed civilized people, we take pride in going to war only when we can justify it as a necessary evil in defense of the good. Still, our ideals repeatedly lead us into wars in which we repeatedly betray them. Labored theological and political reasonings to the contrary, the existence of the truly just war is doubtful. As the distinguished historian of war, John Keegan (p. 60), puts it:

"Most wars are begun for reasons which have little to do with justice, have results quite different from those proclaimed as their objects, if indeed they have any clearcut results at all, and visit during their course a great deal of casual suffering on the innocent."

Life is much more than a Darwinian struggle for survival. Above all else, the human race is bound together by an abiding belief in the inherent sanctity of life. Few soldiers become the mindless killing machines, automatically and perfectly following orders, that are a commander's dream. World War II studies disclosed the startling fact that only about one quarter of the soldiers involved in combat actually used their weapons against the enemy (Keegan, pp. 73-74). Despite the compelling forces that draw men to the battlefield, despite the excitement and danger of meeting the enemy face-to-face, despite extensive training in the techniques of killing, men at war still hesitate to take the life of another human being.

It is tempting to renounce war and all that pertains to it as an evil that should not be, and leave it at that. But the problem of war is not so easily resolved. The potential for aggressive evil, if not its realization, seems to be inherent in human nature. Some human actions are truly demonic, and must be actively resisted if we are to have any hope at all for social safety and stability. Dismantling weapons and disbanding armies is, in itself, no more likely to eliminate war than dismissal of the police force would end crime. While we often see an enemy where there is none and the possibility of war clearly increases in proportion to the preparations made for it, history is littered with the ruins of peoples and nations who were unprepared when more aggressive people arrived at their door. Had there been no warriors willing to kill other young men in the name of freedom, Nazism may well have swept over the globe like a bloody tide to become the dominant ideology of our world.

Sometimes it seems that the terrible choice of "kill or be killed" cannot be avoided. Nowhere on earth is there a secure refuge from the darker side of human nature. So it happened that the country of the Grimms' tale was invaded by an enemy. As the king feared, the battle did not go well. Many of his soldiers had fallen, and those remaining were on the verge of a rout, when an unknown knight arrived with a whole company of iron armored troops. The fresh troops fell upon the enemy, slaughtering them as they turned and ran in panic. Having utterly destroyed the invaders, the mysterious knight and his army disappeared as quickly as they had come. The king was left bewildered, but grateful.