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Our Boys, Our Toys


new internationalist
issue 221 - July 1991

Our boys, our toys
Professionalism, precision and manly control over sophisticated weaponry.
Anuradha Vittachi unpicks the values that won the war - and their true cost.

Ten places were formally set for dinner in the elegant New York apartment. Nine of the guests were from the Third World. The tenth was an American who bombarded us loudly all evening with the same insistent question: what did the rest of the world think of America's victory in the Gulf War?

He wanted us to see America as the selfless rescuer, the hero in a white hat. No other conversations could take place. In the elevator down, we joked to defuse our irritation that the Third World had been bombarded by another American air attack. America's glorious image! America's superior strength! Nothing else mattered it seemed.

A few days later, George Bush was reported as saying, 'We've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all'. So America's ego was secure again. Two of its bastions of male power and identity, military might and money - had been dented recently from the dual blows of the Vietnam war and the spectacular rise of Japan's economic power: but perhaps the Gulf victory - and America's belated benevolence towards the Kurds - had restored America's image in the eyes of the world.

The cost of comforting America's ego has been catastrophic. What we most hear about in the North is the 'miraculously' low casualty-level of the Allied troops. And occasionally we hear about the 100,000-plus Iraqi dead from aerial attack. But beyond these victims, hundreds of thousands of other human beings are now homeless, starving or in danger of disease epidemics because of the war. There is little mention of the many millions of destitute people in the Middle East and Asia and North Africa who will not now receive aid because so many billions have been spent on arms and armies. How many are really paying the price imposed by America and Iraq in their determination to be seen as tough-guy heroes?

The driving power of a nation's ego and its needs should not be underestimated. Hitler, to whom Saddam Hussein is constantly compared in the North, rose to fame after Germany had been humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles. It was the energy of this churning misery that Hitler scooped up and offered to transform into national glory. And hadn't Hitler written an allegorical novel, where the hero's name meant 'Nobody'? Hitler wanted Germany to become Somebody, just as Saddam wanted the Arab World to be seen as Somebody. And so did America, it seems, after Vietnam.

Asserting military and economic power over pieces of territory - the imperialistic impulse - has been the historic way in which national egos have reassured themselves they were Somebodies. Bigger is better in the macho world. But size alone isn't enough: righteousness is another key element.

The righteous male is always in control, is rational, civilized, intellectual, knowledgeable, sane, smart, efficient, speedy, precise, and usually white. Pale and bloodless, he seems to exist mostly above the neck. God is on his side.

The enemy, however, is chaotic: out of control, ignorant, mindless, hysterical, crazy, stupid, weak, wild, savage and often dark-skinned. And though he too imagines that God is on his side, that just proves how fanatical he is. He is 'all mouth and trousers' - an emotional character, easily led, more related to blood than brain. Women will be familiar with this light-and-shadow demarcation, having fallen foul of it for centuries.

In keeping with these perceptual requirements, the British press described the Allied soldiers during the Gulf War as professional - that is, trained to control their minds and emotions, while the Iraqis were brainwashed; blindly obedient, and fanatical - mere mindless puppets in the hands of their mad leader (the Nazi comparison again). Further, the Iraqis were butchers of Baghdad (bloody, savage), while the Allies were young knights of the sky (noble, detached, practically in heaven) acting with an old-fashioned sense of duty. Ah, duty: that which must be done - however painful it may be - by those who are righteous.

Just in case you miss the point, the Allied troops were portrayed as our boys - or, even more indulgently, as our lads. Why, you could practically see each freckle-faced youth with his pint of beer. But the Iraqis had no lads, only savage, undifferentiated hordes. We are back to the Middle Ages, when the Crusaders came to bring spiritual light to the dark masses of the Infidel.

The theme of the Allies' civilized superiority continues with the interminable adulation given to 'smart bombs', weapons that the Allies could control precisely (rational, efficient, mentally superior), while the Iraqis sent off random missiles (wild, crazy). In Britain, we saw the 'smart bombs' nightly on our television screens, hovering near their passive target, pointing at a small orifice, nuzzling in, penetrating, pausing, then exploding triumphantly. The whole country could share in the collective orgasm, cheering on the macho weapon which was both strong and smart as the best heroes should be.

After the cheering, the horrors should be remembered. That weapons are symbolic extensions of phallic force is almost too obvious to mention. But not only are weapons used as phalluses: phalluses are used as weapons. Rape is a deliberate weapon of war, a strategy for cowing civilian communities. In Bangladesh, for example, Pakistani soldiers were shown pornographic videos to incite them to rape Bengali women. In a few months of 1971 an estimated 400,000 women were raped.

And it should be remembered too that smart bombs made up only a tiny fraction - just seven per cent - of the arms used by the Allies. We haven't heard much about the random devastation caused by the not-so-smart weapons. The real number of casualties and the terrible experiences of those who suffered are far, far greater than we are told in this macho war. Nor, more compelling still, their terrible, daily human experience.

The most righteous of the macho males, however, the real elite, aren't just strong and smart. They are also stainless. Thus the myth of the pure-blooded Aryan, blond and blameless down to his genes. But surely no-one is racially 'pure', or always strong and rational, even if these attributes were desirable? Well, you might think so, but the macho male doesn't. He is desperately afraid of any contamination or weakness in himself being found out. Hitler, for example, hated Jews and wanted them destroyed not because he was racially 'pure' himself but because he feared he had Jewish blood and wanted that 'impurity' destroyed. What he couldn't eradicate inside himself, he tried to eradicate outside.

Paradoxically, the more you try to present your ego as angelically immaculate by hiding your dark stains even from yourself, the more of a monster you may become. Everywhere you go you will see reminders in other people of the characteristics you despise and repress in yourself - and if you despise and fear a large part of yourself, you will despise and fear a great many people.

For the white macho male trying to shore up his would-be-pure masculine ego, the greatest threat comes not from other men, whether Jewish, Arab, Japanese or any other shade of non-WASP, but from those who bear the marks of femininity. Homosexuals were murdered by Nazis - many of whom, logically rather than oddly, were secretly homosexual themselves. And women in Nazi pornography were meted out hideous treatment.

In Greek mythology, Zeus, the symbol of male power, suspended his wife Hera, who symbolized the feminine principle, over a cloud with anvils tied to her ankles. The myth demonstrated the lengths to which macho men feel they must go in order to keep the feminine well repressed. The trouble is not only that women display femininity in full force. Worse, they arouse in men the qualities which they associate with being sissily feminine: their longing to merge, to be tender and vulnerable. What's more, women bring out in heterosexual men disturbing feelings of lust and jealousy, even love, which are not amenable to rational control. So the one-sided macho identity that men artificially construct for themselves, as cool, tough, rational, defended characters, well in control of their feelings, comes under threat in the presence of women: shadowy chaos seeps up from the dungeons and through the barricaded doors.

Ros Miles, author of The Rites of Men, says that 'Yorkshire Ripper' Peter Sutcliffe used to drive around displaying a notice that threatened: 'In this truck is a man whose latent genius if unleashed would rock the nation, whose dynamic energy would overpower those around him - better let him sleep!' Note that the macho woman-hater boasts not only of his 'dynamic energy' but of his 'genius': his assertion of the power of the male mind over those tempting, disgusting, mind-confusing female bodies.

Should anyone imagine that only Nazis or psychopaths suppurate with an intense loathing of women, they should try a poem or two written by a self-styled elite, the pilots from the US Air Force 77th Tactical Fighter Squadron stationed at Upper Heyford in the gentle slopes of Oxfordshire, England, brought to public attention by Joan Smith in Mysogynies. A strong stomach is required to read these gruesome outpourings, which use venereally-diseased women as the allegorical images of violent death (as in 'I Fucked a Dead Whore').

But why do men not simply welcome the inclusion of their feminine side? Why must Zeus hang Hera by her ankles? Psychologists believe that these men are still struggling against the powerlessness they experienced as babies, when they were helpless at their mother's all-powerful breast. They are still struggling to get out of her arms, to prove that they don't need her, that they now have a separate, independent masculine identity which is better than being merged with her female power. As the French psychologist Christiane Olivier says, from this fear of weakness and loss of control arises their compulsion to strike back at women and to strike first.

Strike the enemy, strike first if you can, whether your enemy is a woman or a black man. That is the macho ego's recipe for success and will remain so, as long as the danger and chaos represented by the 'wild' and bloodthirsty black man and the 'irrational' and menstrually-bloody woman remain entangled in the dark recesses of his unconscious.

Former NI editor Anuradha Vittachi is currently working on a TV documentary on the arms trade to be shown on BBC2 this Autumn.

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New Internationalist issue 221 magazine cover This article is from the July 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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