- Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Facade of American Empire, 1898–2001 by Aaron Belkin
Whenever I travel abroad, I am reminded of my first time, when fellow college-age gay travel partners each remarked at different times how England, France, Italy, or Spain had so many more “obviously” gay men inhabiting streets, cafes, and museums than one sees in the United States. Setting aside the obvious problems with these kinds of generalizations, meant partly as jokes even at the time, they revealed a deeper truth: these European performances of masculinity were unreadable to us as anything other than “difference,” and in the 1980s most US college-age gay students had been schooled to read “difference” of any kind as a possible indication that someone was gay. Anything outside of our own experience of a rigid and paranoid hypermasculinity read as “unmasculine” and therefore as “gay” to us. Limited by our own homegrown frame of masculinity, our ability to read gender performance was lost in the confusing yet productive semiotic intersection of culture and gender.
In his book Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Facade of American Empire, Aaron Belkin argues that critics of the US military have often made the same mistake. Belkin’s central thesis is that “many scholars and many Americans understand the ideal of military masculinity in one-dimensional terms, as an identification that is premised on a renunciation of the unmasculine,” while in fact, “in modern American history the United States Military has compelled troops to embody masculinity and femininity, filth and cleanliness, penetrability and impenetrability, dominance and subordination, civilization and barbarism” (173). Belkin claims that this contradictory and ambiguous construction of masculinity creates confusion about what really is required to be a modern American soldier and that it is this very confusion that leads to greater troop obedience and conformity, [End Page 154] the components of good order and discipline that the military has for over a century insisted are necessary to its mission.
From boot camp shaming to the bedtime practices of military academies, from “crossing the line” rituals for those passing over the equator for the first time to the regulation of waste by the military, Belkin’s examples provide a powerful and shocking insight into the culture of the US military, a culture of sexual violence and extreme hazing. Building upon the published work of others and his own interviews, Belkin creates a picture of sexual hostility and violence not as the seamy underside of military life but as an integrated part of the simultaneous construction and confusion over what masculinity means in the military.
For example, Belkin demonstrates how in some military situations, being the recipient of anal intercourse is coded as effeminizing, as in the hazing taunts of boot camp sergeants. At other moments it is coded as the hypermasculine endurance of extreme pain, leading to an almost official embrace of the common accusation that “all marines are bottoms.” This unpredictable mapping of penetration/impenetration on understandings of masculinity produces unquestioning compliance and obedience within the military but renders the recipients almost impossibly ill prepared to return to daily life in a democratic society. The graphic abuses that Belkin’s cases detail are of the kind one would find in a war crimes tribunal. That they are almost commonplace in the US military makes it obvious that soldiers and cadets alike need not see battle to leave the military with posttraumatic stress disorder.
But Belkin hopes his analysis to be more than a retheorization of military masculinity à la Judith Butler or Jack Halberstam and more than an exposé of an unambiguously abusive military culture as documented in greater detail by some of Belkin’s own sources, such as Lawrence Murphy’s Perverts by Official Order and Stephen Zeeland’s Sailors and Sexual Identity and The Masculine Marine. His own analysis, research, and firsthand experience as director of the Palm Center make a tremendous contribution in both of these areas, but Belkin...