Non-fiction review: Unmaking War, Remaking Men

Unmaking warUnmaking War, Remaking Men
Kathleen Barry
Spinifex Press

Five years ago, walking through the Dandenong ranges outside Melbourne with my lover at the time, I had one of those fights that seem to tear the hills down around your ears. It was meant to be a beautiful afternoon, allocated ‘couple time’, but I have very little memory of the day, of what the weather was like, of the shifting undergrowth.

All I remember is the fight, which was over feminism: if it was worth it, what it meant, and who was worse done by when all the million hurts and slights of our different genders had been tallied and reckoned.

At one point, my ex turned to me and said: women aren’t asked to die in wars. How can you even understand what that’s like, what you ask of us?

For him, it was a trump card; an angry Joker wagging his genitals in our faces. Proof that what we needed was humanism, not feminism, which could never understand men, which could only ever be their enemy.

We walked on together, uphill, in silence.

Kathleen Barry’s latest book, Unmaking War, Remaking Men, brings a welcome feminist perspective to war and peace. In the opening chapter Barry, a Professor Emeritus at Penn State University, recounts her experience of a morning interrupted by tragedy when, walking on the beach with a friend, she bore witness to a drowning. A child was caught in the surf. His father followed him in and succeeded in flinging his son over the waves to safety, only to be dragged out himself. A helicopter circled, then returned the father’s dead body to the waiting shore.

Barry describes how the strangers on the beach were brought together in that moment of grief and empathy over the life lost. It’s the experience on the beach that frames the question Barry seeks to answer in Unmaking War: why do we persist ‘in the face of our human urge to save and protect human life?’

To answer this question, Barry looks at the ‘masculinity of war’, at how men are made into soldiers all the way through to the psychopathic leadership which defines the political elites of highly militarised states such as the USA, Israel, and Russia. Men, Barry argues, are born into a world where they are taught from birth that their lives are expendable. To justify the killing of soldiers and the waging of wars, a very particular kind of thinking is required, one in which some lives are capable of being defined as ‘innocent’, and others as expendable.

Key to Barry’s thesis is her description of ‘core masculinity’, the construction of masculinity which is a necessary corollary to soldiers and therefore to war.

Violent masculinity is modeled, socialized and taught to boys until it becomes an unconscious reaction to being expendable… Our societies impose powerful negative sanctions on men who refuse violent masculinity. Boys who are not aggressive, who cower when attacked by other boys, and who will not fight, are bullied and taunted for being wimps and wusses. Those men who are caring, soft and tender risk ridicule for being effeminate, that is, like a woman. That misogyny and its contempt for all that is female is a foundation of male aggression that forms into what I call core masculinity. It is core because it precedes all other ways of being a man and because it traverses all classes, cultures, states, ethnicities, and races.

Core masculinity contains both men’s expendability and their contempt for women.

Barry sees the violence perpetuated by ‘core masculinity’ as endemic, whether or not societies are at war. She points out that even in highly demilitarized states like Costa Rica, violence against women remains high. Despite sixty years of official peace, Barry cites research finding that 58 per cent of Costa Rican women are victims of partner abuse, more than one in two.

It was her research in Costa Rica which persuaded Barry that ‘the failure of global movements to achieve world peace comes from the fact that in demanding change, they do not cast their nets far and wide enough’. Until we remake masculinity, she argues, male violence is inevitable.

For Barry it’s empathy – what happened that morning on the beach between strangers ¬– that must be both the starting point to remaking masculinity, and the end point at which we should all seek to arrive.

‘Empathy’ seems at once too small and too big an answer to how we should seek to ‘fix’ not only the tragedy of war but also male violence. However, regardless of whether or not human empathy is strong enough to end war, Barry’s own empathy is impressive. In the most harrowing sections of Unmaking War, former soldiers discuss the process of their dehumanisation, from training to the front, and what it’s like to come back again.

Sitting in a cafe talking to a Vietnam veteran, Barry asks repeatedly what happened to him when, in his own words, he ‘took someone out’. The veteran can hardly speak of the ‘club’ you join, the club that you can never leave.

My unanswered question still hangs heavily over us. Finally, in almost a whisper, ‘I think the closest you can get to it… You inadvertently have a hole…’ long pause and he looks away, then to the floor. ‘…in your soul.’ Huge tears that had welled up in his eyes drop directly to the floor. I try to hold mine back. Absolute stillness hangs between us in the midst of the café’s clanging cups.

Barry’s empathy interrogates the fault lines at which particular constructions of gender hurt us all, from the rape and murder of female GIs, to the lives lost across decades of middle eastern wars, to the trauma of returned service men who have been trained out of their humanity, yet still seek to cling to it.

Unmaking War, Remaking Men reminds us that this is what the best feminism should do: keep listening, keep talking on the uphill walk.

Unmaking War, Remaking Men is out through Spinifex Press.

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