Gender, virility, violence and fear: warmaking has long been thought to have a very specific and masculine identity. But a French researcher has shown that it's not so simple.
LAUSANNE — Back in the 19th century, young French conscripts who passed the army's physical would attire themselves with a lapel pin they'd bought for a few cents, inscribed with the words "Fit for the ladies." A sticker would sometimes accompany it, showing a private fondling a prostitute's breasts.
"This was true in all Western European countries in the 19th century," explains French historian Fabrice Virgili, whose research for the past 20 years has consisted of studying how wars have influenced relationships between men and women.
"With the arrival of universal suffrage and of compulsory military service that replaced a formerly professional army," he explains, "so too appeared an equivalence between being a citizen, being a warrior and a manly man, including with regards to sexuality."
Still, considering armies and wars as showcases for triumphant masculinity would be too simple. Virgili believes that the truth is instead more complex, more paradoxical and more subtle. Between World War I and today's drone wars, the representation of manliness in war has progressively changed, for two primary reasons.
"In 1914, soldiers were men and men only," he explains. "Woman were excluded from the front. But little by little, a certain number of women got closer to it, not just as nurses but also as drivers and ambulance women. From that point, the male monopoly on war started to dwindle."
The second factor is that the image of the alpha male boasting his weapons received an unprecedented reality check. "The heroic, fearless warrior still lives in propaganda, but we notice that it corresponds less and less to reality," the historian says. "When they're at war, all men have their body and their psyche bruised."
OK to be scared
Fear in particular has gained a rightful place in the representation of manliness. In the accounts of those who have spoken about it, whether in literature, in military speeches or among army psychiatrists, a crucial turning point came in the middle of World War I. "The idea is that, not only can men be scared, but that they actually can't help it," Virgili says. "Which shows that there's also a certain weakness in masculinity. That was the beginning of the flaw in a representation that until then was uniform. From then onwards, the image of manliness became more diverse."
The same thing happened during World War II, only in a more amplified way. "In the case of France, the defeat in 1940 was perceived as a male rout," Virgili says. "They failed because they couldn't do what their national anthem tells them to — prevent the enemy from coming "right into our arms to butcher our sons, our wives.""
What's more, a lot of men were taken prisoners, and women had to cope on their own through the German Occupation and bombings. There was a large proportion of women in the Resistance, and some networks were in fact created by women.
The situation was similar in Germany. The fall of the Third Reich was seen as the defeat of Germany's men, and this defeat continued for many years after the war, with prisoners being held in North America, in France or in the Soviet Union.
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The country's reconstruction therefore began in what was mostly a society of women. They were called Trümmerfrauen (literally, "ruins women"). "Generally speaking, World War II showed that there wasn't much difference between how men and women experienced war," Virgili says. "Under the bombs, all are pretty much equal."
Women in war
This "reorganization" didn't happen without reactions. Virgili believes that the wave of public shavings of women across Europe at the time was a symbol of restoring a weakened masculinity. After a prelude in the Francoist camp during the Spanish Civil War, men of all European countries shaved women's heads during World War II, in acts that the historian reads as much as a retribution as self-reparation.
"There is a punitive side to it because in France most women targeted were accused, wrongly or rightfully, of having collaborated with the enemy," the historian explains. "But I believe that there's also the idea of putting right the male humiliation of defeat. These were not the men who had fought and lost in 1940, and most of the prisoners had not yet been returned. These were younger men who sought to reaffirm their power over women, which their fathers and big brothers had lost."
Still, this didn't prevent French women from obtaining the right to vote after the liberation.
War creates precedents and exceptional situations that don't always last, but they designate possibilities that can develop over the long term.
Does this mean that we should praise armed conflicts as catalysts for equality? "Don't make me say that!" he says. "No, what happens is that instead of the false image that wars reinforce manliness, they fall within a long process that sees equality rise."
War today has posed its own issues. In March 2013, war veterans and U.S. senators criticized a plan to rank medals for drone pilots and cyberwar soldiers above those for combat fighters.
In a 1997 article for the book Of Violence And Women, French historian Danièle Voldman wrote that airstrikes were a sort of termination of the fighter during the two world wars, as they allowed soldiers to kill remotely, away from the frontline. "One-on-one fighting disappeared with World War I, in which 80% of the dead were killed by artillery fire," Virgili says. "Drones nowadays are symbols of a similar trend."
And once again, it's only the latest development in a long process.
Women have progressively entered the army thanks to technical development. In fact, there were women drivers in World War I who offered a skill that was rare back then. And shortly before World War II, the French army created a corps for air pilot nurses. In 1914, the military hierarchy thought the army was no place for women and fought tooth and nail against the idea. But it's now widely accepted that the army is mixed. So much so that the last stronghold of male domination, submarines, will be open to French female soldiers starting in 2017.
"It's the end of a cycle," Virgili says. "Of course, hypermasculine icons will continue to exist in war propaganda, movies and video games. But video games and reality are two different things."