A soldier who thinks too much – who thinks independently – is not much use to the military. A soldier who questions is worse than useless to the military. The useful soldier is one who obeys the rules that are passed down to him without explanation. It is not his task to think. As Tennyson puts it in The Charge of the Light Brigade, “[His] not to reason why, [His] but to do and die”.
Discipline – one of the main requirements of the military is drummed into each boy and man as he is trained for war. When men are brought together they can only be ‘used’ as a fighting force if they obey orders immediately and without question. This is obvious. It is a natural and rational requirement for war. It doesn’t make it positive for men.
What do boys and men have to go through to reach this unthinking, unquestioning discipline? Does it affect other areas of their lives? And is it healthy for men or for society?
If we look at the Oxford definition of discipline we find: the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience; the controlled behaviour resulting from such training; a system of rules of conduct; or, as a verb, train (someone) to obey rules or a code of controlled and habitual behaviour, using punishment to correct.
Let’s look at how parents and society prepare men to be disciplined, unquestioning pawns for war.
Joshua S. Goldstein* in his book War and Gender says that childhood segregation is the first step in preparing boys for war. Why would he say this? Because it is much easier for society to train boys into identifying with ‘acceptable’ masculine characteristics if boys are collected in a segregated school. Even in a gender-mixed school, boys are separated from girls in play and some classes. Boys are inducted into the ‘rules’ and the ‘joy’ of belonging to the male ‘tribe’ through tough, often violent, initiations. If they fail, they are shamed for their lack of both discipline and ‘masculine’ perseverance – in truth, the ability to take pain and humiliation without complaint.
Hierarchies are more prevalent in all boys’ schools, and especially in boarding schools. Punishment is harsher and more common. Kids learn to obey bullying, older boys and then, when they reach the higher classes, they dish out the same cruelty that they suffered. Violent attitudes and behaviour beget and increase violent behaviour.
We segregate boys from girls in order to encourage male bonding, discipline and hierarchies. Part of the unspoken discipline that undercuts and undermines any moral code is the boyhood pact where boys do not ‘tell on’ each other. This will be echoed in the military, where a pledge to the unity of the men comes before any immoral, illegal or cruel action on the part of one of them.
Then there are boy scouts. The system of boy scouts continues boys’ induction into discipline, into what is regarded as masculine and what is not. Discipline means that they must control and suppress all emotions except anger, including fear, gentleness, tolerance, compassion and grief. It may be fun but the underlying message is aimed at breeding the ‘correct’ masculine choices and behaviour. Training in any institution where boys are segregated from girls does not allow for different or alternative forms of masculinity – for the shy boy, the academic boy, the physically weaker boy.
Following the prejudices implanted in them by fathers and society, boys themselves decide who is not ‘masculine’ enough and punish them accordingly. Accepting alternative expression of masculinity can be seen as threatening to the masculine code of behaviour. Different ‘non-masculine’ characteristics are dangerous to the military – they have the capacity to undermine the purpose and success of training.
Most fathers think military training is good for boys. Fathers rely on the military to provide the ritual, the painful experience to ‘make’ their sons brave and disciplined (the latter being in fact the very opposite of the autonomous Rambo hero). It gives them ‘backbone’, toughens them up, make ‘men’ out of them. Of course! To the boy’s detriment, this is exactly what it excels in doing. Few fathers understand that what military rituals also do, are to leave men unable to make moral choices, cowed into disciplined obedience, afraid of ridicule and insecurely aggressive. And it leaves them unable to access all that is gentle and human within them.
Those with power (like the military) would love to have a mindless population that accept their every decision. Conscription and military training continue the training, upping the discipline, the bonding and the unthinking development of ‘patriotism’. We brainwash all boys to think that it is patriotic, moral and courageous to kill other people or die for one’s country. Men choose to obey the ‘rules’ to avoid humiliation and gain ‘masculine’ points. They accept the con; they play the game of loyalty to the concept of masculinity.
The close connection of war to masculinity pulls all men towards war. Men want war to prove they are ‘men’. Not entering war is regarded as emasculating of a nation and its men. We train our sons to be cannon-fodder and killers. They must give up their lives, without questioning, often for no logical, rational reason. We persuade them by saying that they are only ‘real men’ if they are prepared to fight to defend their country, to protect delicate women and children. For the sake of ‘patriotism’, men are asked to put logical reasoning and choice aside and not to attempt to rationalize war in terms of legitimacy, value or meaning.
It may be every parent’s dream to have a son who obeys every wish of theirs without question, but is it healthy? Of course not. Society needs people to be thinking, questioning, challenging members. It is only through that type of citizen that those with power – politicians, bureaucrats, police, opinion writers, bosses, committees, and anyone else with power, can be questioned and challenged. It is only through thinking, questioning, challenging individuals that discoveries, adaptations and progress are made. It is only through them that institutions and laws and knowledge adapt to meet society’s changing needs.
Society deceives men into thinking that they are strong and independent at the same time as making them into non-thinking pawns in the games of the political and powerful.
In my next post, I want to look at the limitation of male communication as a necessity for warfare.