- Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-And-Tight: Gender, Folklore, and Changing Military Culture
As I write this review, the war in Iraq rages with no end in sight. This war and the fighting between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah dominate the news. Militarism has a prominent place on our cultural landscape, making Carol Burke's book, Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-And-Tight: Gender, Folklore, and Changing Military Culture, especially relevant. Despite all the media attention devoted to these contemporary conflicts, public officials and pundits don't seem to be asking how gender socialization and male aggression are shaping militarism in our world.
A folklorist who taught as a civilian faculty member at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Burke offers rare insights, critically examining the U.S. military as an occupational folk group with its own rituals, verbal art, and customs. Her seven years of experience and fieldwork at Annapolis yield deep material for analysis, and her keen observation of detail and human behavior enriches her findings. She documents the many ways in which military culture perpetuates and encourages sexism in its everyday practices, through basic training, military dress and speech, marching chants, hazing, sexual harassment, and other sordid, secret rituals of military manhood.
Beyond offering a fascinating exposé of military masculinity and its many expressions, Burke argues that the hypermasculinity promoted by military culture is just an exaggerated and intensified version—an amplified reflection—of the larger, misogynistic culture. She demonstrates how the military establishment reinforces the principles of hierarchy, conformity, and the binary opposition of dominance and submission. For readers concerned with social justice issues, her findings are cause for alarm: in the effort to embed "the cult of masculinity" (p. xiii) in military life, military culture situates women and gays and lesbians in the place of the vanquished enemy, the dehumanized "other."
Those familiar with feminist criticism know that the military is shaped by sexist and misogynist traditions. Burke takes the reader a step further by demonstrating in impressive detail just how these multifaceted traditions find expression in daily military life. She examines the military as its own cultural or folk group, one characterized by deeply rooted notions of masculinity, uncritical allegiance to country, Christian piety, strong group identity, and a set of imposed moral values. Through her analysis of many varied military rituals and practices, Burke clearly demonstrates that sexism and racism have shaped military practices. Her study would benefit, however, from additional attention to class issues: how the military has often relied on the poor and working classes to fight the battles and protect the interests of the rich and privileged.
Burke provides an excellent case study of folklore as the instrument of cultural continuity and oppression. Her investigation of expressive behavior in the military indicates that blind obedience to authority is a requirement for service. She notes that the suppression of individual differences for the sake of group conformity and identity is a key value. Her data suggest, I would add, that along with negation of the personal and individual come a series of corollaries: the negation of critical thinking, debate, reasoned discussion, and ethical decision-making. There is little good news here for [End Page 368] those of us who have focused our work on folklore as resistance to, or liberation from, dominant cultural values. The military rituals and practices that Burke investigates clearly have one goal in mind: conformity to a notion of masculinity as it is conventionally and conservatively defined in military culture.
Burke's book also examines what happens to women when they enter the military system of "gender apartheid" (p. x). She asks whether women will ever be treated equally and with respect and whether they will have access to all levels of military service, including intensive combat roles. Burke makes the case that women can be successful and should have the opportunity to advance in all aspects of the military.
This feminist interrogation of the current military...