Politics & Policy

The Elite Force

War and masculinity and the pundits and thinkers who don�t get it.

How splendid that Hasbro is to bring out a new version of its G.I. Joe doll meant to look like George W. Bush in his flight suit after landing an airplane on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln last May. Called an “Elite Force Aviator,” the action figure representing “George Dubya himself in all his glory and flight equipment” will be available in KB Toy Stores in September and will make a great Christmas present for little boys, with or without a Jihad Joe for him to do battle with. And, as a side benefit, it is sure to make the anti-Bush Left apoplectic with rage.

This is not only because they hate and despise the president and can’t bear that anyone, particularly impressionable children, should regard him as a hero but also because the military trappings themselves are an insult to their view of the world — part of what Maureen Dowd called at the time of the carrier landing “the myth of masculinity.” Judging only by the number of books that have been written lately to debunk it — another one by Leo Braudy amusingly titled From Chivalry to Terrorism is due out from Knopf at about the same time that the George W. doll appears this fall — this is a pretty powerful and pretty scary myth. That, at any rate, is presumably why Maureen Dowd sometimes seems to have devoted her life to belittling it, and shrilly insisting that it’s all a fake.

In her column last May, for example, she compared the carrier landing to the male-stereotyping in The Matrix Reloaded, noting that Karl Rove had “cast Mr. Bush, who officially declared his re-election bid on Friday, as a G.O.P. Neo: a reluctant hero, a man of few words and one true- blue woman, who must battle enemies and forge alliances in a strange world, building strength and character as he rescues humanity.” What could be more ridiculous? Unless, I suppose, there were some significant numbers of humanity that he had rescued. Say in Iraq. Or Afghanistan. But to Miss Dowd, the ridiculous male hero-pose is by definition only a pose. “Testosterone as a campaign accessory,” she concludes. “Because some things never change.”

She speaks truer than she knows. Not only does male “stereotyping” never change, neither does the reason for it, which is war and the threat of war. A useful corrective to the bland assumption that seems to be shared by Miss Dowd and Mr. Braudy — namely that warlike-posturing is what produces wars rather than being produced by them — is to be found in Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage by Steven A. LeBlanc (with Katherine E. Register) (St. Martin’s Press, 272 pages, $25.95). The book is as much a critique of academic anthropology’s willful blindness to the centrality of warfare in human experience as it is an adumbration of the reasons for accepting that centrality.

Steven LeBlanc and Katherine Register do not go into the matter, but there is also an anthropological investigation to be made into the reasons why feminists, like Miss Dowd, and intellectuals, like Mr. Braudy, cling to their belief in a mythical matriarchal world without war and therefore without swaggering presidents dressed up as G.I. Joe. Because that world is a hypothesis, a fiction, it takes a large army (you should pardon the expression) of writers and pundits and wits and English professors (Dr. Braudy’s trade) furiously scribbling away around the clock to keep our belief in it alive in spite of bitter experience. Or rather not-so bitter experience, since the sheltered life purchased for our leisured classes by American wealth and power is the first requisite for those who would ridicule and belittle that wealth and power.

By coincidence, I notice that one of the “four cardinal principles” enunciated by Michael J. Lewis, head of the art department at Williams College, in the Wall Street Journal for the memorial to the victims of September 11th at the World Trade Center site is that it must portray “No violence.”

The memorial must not perpetuate the violence of the attacks, nor imply it by fractured form. It must heal the wounds, not pick at the scab. Most of us experienced 9/11 on television and have a storehouse of visual horror to draw on. As vivid as those visual images were, they have no place in this design.

Ah, yes. Shades of the “cycle of violence” that those Middle Eastern primitives, unlike our very clever American columnists, haven’t the wit to escape from. It’s all very well their taking the high moral ground about somebody else’s quarrels, but I wonder if the widows and orphans of 9/11 will be equally keen on refusing to “perpetuate the violence of the attacks”? They, at least, will be harder to persuade that “violence” is not a perpetual feature of the human condition — like the masculine virtues (and vices) which it has always elicited.

James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and American editor of London’s Times Literary Supplement.

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