Willocks on Belkin, 'Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire, 1898-2001'

Author: 
Aaron Belkin
Reviewer: 
Remy Willocks

Aaron Belkin. Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire, 1898-2001. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. 244 pp. Illustrations. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-70284-3; $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-70285-0.

Reviewed by Remy Willocks (Miami University of Ohio)
Published on H-FedHist (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50616

Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire by Aaron Belkin creatively problematizes the development of a military-based masculinity within American society throughout the last century. Belkin claims that military masculinity is built upon a series of nuanced contradictions that a soldier must personify to become the perfect masculine citizen. Furthermore, Belkin argues that these same contradictions can be seen in American imperialism and the military as a whole. Bring Me Men incorporates personal anecdotes from veterans to demonstrate how military masculinity is created and perpetuated, primarily via how soldiers treat citizens and environs of occupied countries, along with countless accounts of male-on-male rape within the military.

The book draws on and builds off prior scholarship, primarily works like Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization (1996) and Joshua Goldstein’s War and Gender (2003), especially the latter’s idea of a “militarized masculinity.” In Bring Me Men, Belkin explores in three parts how military masculinity and imperialism both utilize penetration and filth as forms of power. He argues that a country can enforce its power over another as a penetrator (economic or military), but soldiers can claim their power both as the penetrator and the penetrated. Another way soldiers and countries assert their dominance over other servicemen and nations is by forcing the latter groups to accept some form of the former groups’ filth. Belkin proves how this style of masculinity and imperialism are heavily connected by using the “gross-out” hazing rituals of the various branches of the US military and the heavy pollution from the American base at Subic Bay in the Philippines, both of which exemplify individuals and entire groups forcing others to take their filth in the form of bodily fluids, excrement, and industrial-scale pollution.

Belkin describes military masculinity as a series of dichotomies of dominant and subordinate, clean and dirty, masculine and feminine, and literal and figurative penetration. Servicemen are expected to fully embrace these contradictions. The first section explains masculinity theory. Belkin argues in the first chapter that masculinity is not necessarily heterosexual. The 1920 Navy scandal was illustrative of this dialectical sensibility. The Navy used straight sailors to lure purported gay men into sexual relations to either affirm their heterosexuality or make it a basis for prosecution.[1] He uses this narrative, as well as others, to demonstrate the contradictory nature of military masculinity. Belkin goes on to explain that the uniqueness of this kind of masculinity is founded on a vague and confounding combination of masculine and feminine traits.

In chapter 2, Bring Me Men takes these same contradictory principles and applies them to American imperialism. Specifically, Belkin demonstrates that the power an individual receives from adhering to military masculinity and the power an empire claims over other countries are derived in similar ways. In order to claim this power, the state smooths over contradictions within the imperialist system so as to hide the extent to which they exist. He argues that, similar to how soldiers use penetration to claim masculine power on an individual level, the United States uses penetration to claim imperial powers over other countries, using the Philippines as his primary example. Furthermore, Bring Me Men claims in this chapter that, while not all groups are included in this masculine narrative (mainly ethnic minorities), members of those excluded groups help to reinforce the principles of military masculinity. These marginalized people, in an effort to earn the respect and masculinity that American society has denied them for centuries, work especially hard to exemplify this form of masculinity which perpetuates the entire system. Belkin demonstrates these circumstances in two case studies.

Chapters 2 and 3 assert that American imperialism from the late nineteenth century through to the twenty-first century demonstrated an intimate link between masculinity and nationalism. Additionally, Belkin explains how penetration becomes an extension of this military masculinity and imperialism. Bring Me Men uses the first case study, that of a sexual assault scandal that erupted at the Naval Academy in 2000, to demonstrate masculine and imperial power from penetration in chapters 3 and 4. The Naval Academy received a handful of reports of male-on-female sexual assaults happening in the dormitories, with a single male-on-male case in the year 2000. The study follows the efforts of a faculty member to investigate these assaults with the supposed assistance of other faculty and Naval officers. Despite the attempts to create new standards to prevent these assaults from happening again, the officers and other faculty members prevented the investigation from delving too deep into the extent of assault in the academy and presented their findings in the context of general campus safety without once mentioning the terms “assault” or “rape.” This case study represents state efforts to smooth over the contradictions of penetration in the form of rape, both on an individual level and within the imperial system.

Chapter 3 narrows the focus of Bring Me Men’s discussion of penetration and rape as contributors to military masculinity down to an individual level. Belkin argues that some cases illustrate that both penetrator and penetrated can claim masculine power. The basis of this power comes from an individual soldier’s ability to make his body both impenetrable, or “hard-bodied,” and penetrable, the latter of which plays into the idea of “taking it like a man.” Thus, when Belkin addresses instances of soldiers being raped by or being forced to rape their comrades, both circumstances demonstrate said individuals claiming their masculine power. He discusses at length Navy hazing rituals that involve sailors raping each other as their ship crosses the equator, a tradition dating at least to the mid-eighteenth century. As the ship made its approach, the uninitiated would be assaulted by their fellow sailors in various places on the ship, and then they would do the same to their attackers a few days later. This demonstrates Belkin’s argument that, in a rather confusing twist, to be sexually penetrated or to be a penetrator confirms manliness.

Chapter 4 returns to the Naval Academy case study and expands its focus to demonstrate how the scandal normalizes this paradoxical principle of penetration. Unlike chapter 3, this chapter shows that male-on-male rape is so standard in the Navy that a Naval Academy student in a lecture calmly pointed out that assaults occurred all the time. The cover-up by the chain of command and other faculty to hide the prevalence of sexual assault at the academy demonstrates the extent to which rape and, by extension, the contradictions of military masculinity, are normalized. 

In chapters 5 and 6, the book explores themes of filth and cleanliness in connection with both soldiers and the American empire during the Spanish-American War and the Cold War. Similar to the previous case study, Belkin uses the conduct of American soldiers in the Philippines as an overarching theme. In chapter 5, Belkin points out the repeated occurrence of US soldiers maintaining the façade of their cleanliness by pushing their personal filth such as excrement onto foreign lands and other people. The main examples Belkin provides are US soldiers in different wars and military campaigns ignoring hygiene protocol and defecating wherever they saw fit, and the “gross-out” hazing rituals in which subordinate servicemen were coerced by their peers into incredibly unhygienic practices, such as ingesting the bodily fluids of their fellow soldiers in a display of dominance and submission. In both cases, soldiers assert their power over others by forcing these people and countries to accept their filth.

Chapter 6 expands this view and examines this dichotomy on an empire-wide scale by taking a close look at the portrayal of America and its physically clean soldiers as going to wash the dirty “barbaric” peoples. Bring Me Men compares this outwardly benevolent motivation to the reality of the US military forcing its own filthiness upon other groups and nations as a means of demonstrating its power over such “inferior” states. Belkin uses the industrial-level scale of pollution from the US military base at Subic Bay in the Philippines as the main indicator of this imperial dominance. Bring Me Men shows that, similar to how individuals affirm their masculine power over others through the use of physical filth, the United States maintains its dominance over the community at Subic Bay by contaminating the river and forcing the locals and the Filipino government to accept its waste. On an individual and international level, both cases exhibit how the soldiers and America claimed their power over these foreign lands by giving their refuse to the lands and its peoples. This ties back into American imperialism and, by using examples from the Spanish-American War through to US military campaigns in the Middle East over the last three decades, demonstrates the continuity of this aspect of military masculinity over the course of approximately one hundred years.

Throughout the book, Belkin effectively utilizes the testimonies of veteran interviews and demonstrates how marginalized voices reveal contradictions among soldiers and American foreign policies. Furthermore, Belkin smoothly transitions from how servicemen become indoctrinated with these conflicting ideals to detailing how the American imperial system benefits from and supports these principles. This allows the reader to connect the intricacies of individual experiences and tie them back to the larger historical significance.

Bring Me Men situates itself within a subgenre of historical scholarship that connects military history, masculinity theory, and imperialism. Scholars such as Bederman discuss masculinity within society whereas others, like Cynthia Enloe (Maneuvers, 2000) and Allan Bérubé (Coming Out under Fire, 2010), address gender and masculinity in the military. Goldstein, in War and Gender, touches on all three topics and presents the idea of a militarized masculinity as well as examining imperialism. From there, Belkin uses this foundation to tie the three larger topics together and contribute to the field by arguing that military masculinity is founded on a nuanced mixture of contradictions. This argument directly contradicts general assumptions that, in order to claim masculine power, one must destroy all that is feminine. Bring Me Men greatly contributes to this historiography by not only examining this paradoxical masculinity on an individual level but also by demonstrating its relation to American imperialism.

Despite the strength of its argument, Bring Me Men’s narrative on military masculinity is silent on consensual homosexual interactions within the military. Apart from describing the entrapment of gay men by the Navy and an anecdote from a World War II veteran who recounted passionately kissing his comrade, Belkin does not incorporate many references to homophile relationships. Belkin draws heavily from Manliness and Civilization and War and Gender, both of which address homosexuality’s impact on the masculine ideal, but remains conspicuously silent on the matter. As a result, there remains an open question of how homosexual sex conflicts or supports military masculinity.

The most distracting aspects of Bring Me Men stem from the plethora of rhetorical questions and reiterations of its argument. Typically, presenting the reader with a thought-provoking question that segues into the next book section helps facilitate the work’s flow. Similarly, reminding the reader of the argument as well as adapting it to the specifics of the different sections in the book helps tie the subject back to the overarching theme and significance of the author’s arguments. Belkin’s presentation of numerous questions in rapid succession disrupts the flow of his work and makes it difficult to smoothly follow the text.

None of this is to say that Belkin does not make convincing claims. He uses considerable research to support an argument that simultaneously builds off of prior scholarship, including Lawrence Murphy’s Perverts by Official Order and Christina Jarvis’s The Male Body at War, and uses their points on masculinity to develop his own argument. His explanation of military masculinity as hinging on a series of contradictions contributes to both the subject of masculinity and American imperialism in a broader sense.

Note

[1]. For more about this scandal, see Lawrence Murphy, Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign against Homosexuals by the United States Navy (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1988).

Citation: Remy Willocks. Review of Belkin, Aaron, Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire, 1898-2001. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. February, 2018.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50616

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