“Be a man” - Willingness to serve and masculinity


  • Andreas
    Speck, War Resisters' International

Introduction I

I want to start with an
autobiographical note. When I was about 13 or 14 – and the army
still a long way ahead – I was quite fascinated with technology, as
many young boys are. I even remember during one holiday going to a
Navy open day, looking at the different Navy ships, helicopters,
etc... I could be fascinated by this technology, but I didn't think
much of myself in a uniform, and being part of the Navy. At that time
these two things were quite separate issues.

Once I got a bit older,
the reality of having to serve in the military got closer. And
increasingly I could not see myself running around in a uniform,
being shouted at, and being part of an all-male and very macho
environment. I was at that time experiencing an almost all-male
environment during my apprenticeship as an electrician, and could
never relate to the sexist talk and macho posture. Not that I was the
big conscious anti-sexist at that time, but I just couldn't relate to
it. This was just for eight hours a day, five days a week, but
thinking about something like this 24/7, without any space to escape,
felt more like horror to me.

I wasn't aware of being
gay at that time, but had already experienced quite a bit of peer
harassment for not taking part in dirty sexist talks, and other macho
posture, during my last years at school. Again, military service just
felt like exponentially worse.

So, when the time came,
I opted for conscientious objection. Of course, there were also
political reasons for the objection, but I think on a different level
my deeply felt aversion against this masculine environment might have
been more important at that time. My unwillingness to serve was
deeply connected to the images of masculinity linked with the
military, which I felt very uncomfortable about.

Introduction II

Willingness to serve is
not only an issue when we have the right to conscientious objection
in a conscription army. It is an issue too in countries that have
conscription and do not provide for conscientious objection, and
maybe even more so in countries with in principal voluntary Armed
Forces. In this presentation, I want to look at some of these issues,
and ask the question what this might mean for the antimilitarist
movement. I don't necessarily want to provide answers here – my aim
is to raise awareness.

Masculinity and military service

Wars and
militaries are organised around a socially constructed masculinity
that is defined by discrimination and humiliation of women and gays,
and a mentality of conquest. We, as women and men homosexuals, we
stand against heterosexism, patriarchy, and militarism, which are
closely allied with one another”
(KaosGL 2002).

This statement from
Kaos GL in Turkey puts a whole system of relationships into two
sentences. Jeff Hearn writes: “It is an understatement to say
that men, militarism, and the military are historically, profoundly,
and blatantly interconnected
” (Hearn 2003). But he also points
out: “The exact nature of the connections between men and the
military are themselves various and plural – thus there are
and not just military masculinity
” (emphasis in original). R.
Connell explains it this way: “The relationship of masculinity
to violence is more complex than appears at first sight.
Institutionalised violence (e.g., by armies) requires more than one
kind of masculinity. The gender practice of the general is different
from the practice of the front-line soldier, and armies acknowledge
this by training them separately
” (Connell 1995).

Emma Sinclair-Webb
links the issue of masculinities with class. She writes: “As has
been shown in various studies of masculinity, class background is
highly significant when it comes to questions of how different images
of masculinity are valued: physical endurance and stamina which go
with labouring or factory-floor jobs are inevitably more valued
qualities among working-class men for whom their bodies and the skill
of their hands are their main economic assets than they are for
white-collar men working in office environments where 'knowledges' of
certain technologies and organizational principles are what are
valued. In this sense, it is perhaps conceivable that those who have
had the advantages that generally go with their class of prolonged
education and immersion in a cultural formation that prepared them
not for physical work, but taught them to view their identity as
deriving its meanings – masculine and other – from different
kinds of 'knowledges' and sources of 'cultural capital', proof of
masculinity through the physical endurance tests of military service
holds less appeal”. (Sinclair-Webb 2000)

all this has not always been the case, and is in fact quite recent.
Joanne Nagel shows that for the United States the connection between
militarised form of masculinity – the ideal of soldiering – goes
back to the late 19th and early 20th century
(Nagel 1998). In Germany, this process happened in the early 19th
century – German bourgeois masculinity, which was not convinced of
military service, had to be reshaped and militarised. At that time,
as Ute Frevert points out, “the male gender character more and
more incorporated soldier-like elements. Military values and
assumptions on order ... thus more and more became the general ideal
for the male nation
” (Frevert 1996). Similar arguments can be
made for the construction of Jewish masculinities through the Zionist

Willingness to serve

While this might all be
a bit abstract, it is very concrete for young people. Hanne-Margret
, a German peace researcher, did some extensive
research on “willingness to serve among youth” involving a range
of interviews (Birckenbach 1985). To put this research into context:
Germany is a country with obligatory military service, and the right
to conscientious objection, including a substitute civilian service.

In her conclusions, she
writes: “Those willing to serve expect that military service
helps them to become an adult man. Serving in the military is
connected to the expectation that this provides masculinity and with
it the right and power for a natural ruling role. But the image of
masculinity of these youth is in no way directed towards proving
themselves in military combat, but towards mastering challenges in
civilian everyday life, especially work life.
” (Birckenbach
1985, p230)

And: “Conscientious
objection and civilian service make insecure the usually civilian
orientation of those willing to serve, which is linked to an ideal of
masculinity (...). Part of this ideal of masculinity is to prove ones
ability to defence and violence in fantasy, in games, and in military
service. Exactly this is threatened by conscientious objectors,
because they are seen as agents of the ban on violence. In the eyes
of these youth, conscientious objectors in the first place don't
refuse military service, but this ideal of masculinity.

(Birckenbach 1985, p233)

In short: "Under
the disguise of 'no to killing – yes to killing for the purpose of
defence' conscientious objectors and those willing to perform
military service do not only fight about military violence, but also
– without knowing – about ideals of masculinity
(Birckenbach 1986). Bartjes argues that compulsory military service
forces young men to opt for different models of masculinity when they
make their decision about serving or not (Bartjes 1996).

It is important to note
that this research had been done in a country that – at that time –
did not and was not expected to participate in any military
operation, not to speak of war.

Gül Altinay comes to
similar conclusions in relation to Turkey. She quotes a young man,
Ibrahim, as saying: “You do not become a man until you serve in
the military. It is a sacred obligation. And people make fun of those
who have not served. I, for one, did it just because I would feel a
lack without it. I am flat-footed. If I had wanted, I could have been
excused from military service. But I did not want to be excused. So I
did it
” (Altinay 2006, p82). Altinay concludes, very similar to
Birckenbach for the German context 20 years earlier: “In this
context, military service is not only, or perhaps not even primarily,
seen as a service to the state, but one that defines proper
masculinity. It is a rite of passage to manhood (...)

Similarly Uta Klein for
Israel, referring to Rela Mazali: “For Israeli Jewish males,
military service is an inherent part of maturation, a rite of passage
to male adulthood. Military service is seen as essential to a boy's
right to belong to the inner circle of adult males.
” (Klein
1999, 1999b, Mazali 1998)

Kaplan quotes a gay
former soldier as saying: “I look at people who haven't served
and they are still kids. I look at myself – I feel it made me more
mature. It's not just pure machismo, it's a process of maturation

(Kaplan 2000).

However, Birckenbach
makes an important point. Initiation is a process that is aimed at
the establishment of identification with certain forms of masculinity
and traditional social culture. She argues that military service
fails to fulfil the role of an initiation rite, because the society,
into which it could initiate with its traditional military rites,
does no longer exist (Birckenbach 1985, p120). However, she argues,
this model of society did not completely disappear, but continues to
exist in fantasies. Military service thus does not initiate a young
man into real society, but into a socially constructed, backwards
oriented illusionary world.

a conference on conscientious objection in Istanbul Cynthia Enloe
pointed out in one of the discussions that when we talk about
conscientious objectors, we also need to talk about the women around
them: mothers, girlfriends, other female peers, etc... This is
equally true when we talk about the willingness to serve.

Turkey, it is a common statement that it is impossible to marry
unless someone has done his military service, based on the assumption
that neither would a woman want to marry a man who did not do his
military service, nor would the woman's family agree to such a
marriage (Altinay 2004, Sinclair-Webb 2000).

quotes an Israeli woman saying “I know that I prefer men who are
combat soldiers to others who are just
(Klein 1999b).

research also shows that girls – in 1980s Germany – expected boys
to serve in the military, and preferred those serving in the military
and not conscientious objectors (Birckenbach 1982).

societies, and with them masculinities, are changing. When
Birckenbach did her research in Germany in the early 1980s, the
number of CO applications stood at 40,000-60,000 annually, compared
to more than double this number nowadays. Conscientious objection
then was more an exception, especially for lower educated youth, and
military service was the norm. Nowadays, it can almost be argued that
military service is the exception, as the majority does either not
serve at all, or does substitute civilian service. However, those who
do serve are more likely to come from a lower class and education
background, where masculinities oriented towards physical strength
are more dominant.

Changing masculinities

It is important to be
aware that hegemonic masculinity is changing, away from the “warrior”
image, towards a more professional business masculinity. This is not
to say that traditional, on physical strength oriented masculinities
do no longer exist – they certainly do – but that they lose their
status as the hegemonic form of masculinity.

As Melissa T. Brown
points out: The Army “has offered men several versions of
masculinity: the soldier firing high-tech weapons, the professional
who makes important decisions under tough conditions and saves lives,
the caring surrogate father and provider of relief and protection,
the bearer of marketable skills, and, of course, the guy who
successfully gets into his girlfriend's bedroom.
” (Brown 2002)

Of course, masculinity
is only ONE aspect when men or boys make their decision about
military service, or joining the military voluntarily. Economic
aspects should not be undervalued – military service is often a
prerequisite for a career in civilian life, and leads to the
connections needed for moving quickly into positions of power. Or
signing up voluntarily is seen as the only way to get out of poverty,
or to get higher education.


Masculinity is one
important aspect which leads people to serve in the military, be this
an “all-volunteer” force or a conscription army with or without
the right to conscientious objection. It is one factor which is
exploited by military recruitment propaganda, but which is mostly
ignored by antimilitarists or peace movement activists in our work.

However, I don't think
we can afford the luxury of continuing to ignore issues of gender in
our antimilitarist work. As Cynthia Enloe writes: "As we have
accumulated more and more evidence from more and more societies, we
have become increasingly confident in this assertion that to omit
gender from any explanation how militarization occurs, is not only to
risk a flawed political analysis; it is to risk, too, a perpetually
unsuccessful campaign to roll back that militarization
(Enloe 1988).

I hope that this
seminar will contribute to some practical solutions.


Altinay, Ayşe
Gül 2004: The myth of the military-nation. Militarism, gender, and
education in Turkey. 2004

Bartjes, Heinz, 1996:
Die andere Schule der Nation. Der Zivildienst als (übersehene)
Sozialisationsinstanz. In: moritz. Zeitschrift für
Männer in Bewegung. No 30,
3rd+4th quarter 1996

Hanne-Marget 1982: “...besser vorbereitet auf den Krieg.”
– Frieden – Bundeswehr.
Verlag Jugend und Politik,
Frankfurt, 1982

Hanne-Margret 1985: Mit schlechtem Gewissen –
Wehrdienstbereitschaft von Jugendlichen. Zur Empirie der
psychosozialen Vermittlung von Milit
und Gesellschaft.
Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft Baden-Baden, 1985

Hanne-Margret 1986: Das ambivalente Verhältnis zur Gewalt.
Psychosoziale Grundlagen militärischer Kampfausbildung.
antimilitarismus information, no 7/1986

Brown, Melissa T. 2002:
“Be the best”: Military Recruiting and the Cultural
Construction of Soldiering in Great Britain
. In: GSC Quarterly No
5, summer 2002,

Connell, R. W. 1995:
Masculinities. Polity Press, Cambridge, 1995

Enloe, Cynthia, 1988:
Beyond 'Rambo': Women and the Varieties of Militarized
In: Eva Isaksson (ed.): Women and the Military
System. Proceedings of a symposium arranged by the International
Peace Bureau and Peace Union of Finland. New
York/London/Toronto/Sydney/Tokyo 1988

Frevert, Ute, 1996:
Soldaten. Staatsbürger.
Überlegungen zur historischen
Konstruktion von Männlichkeit.
In: Thomas Kühne (ed.):
Männergeschichte –
Geschlechtergeschichte. Frankfurt/New York 1996

Highgate, Paul R. (ed.)
2003: Military Masculinities. Identity and the State. 2003

KaosGL 2002: Eşcinseller
neden Irak'ta savaşa karşı? (Why are homosexuals opposed to the
, 20 December 2002,
quoted from Altinay 2004

Kaplan, Danny, 2000: The
Military as a Second Bar Mitzvah. Combat Service as Initiation to
Zionist Masculinity.
In: Mai Ghoussoub and Emma Sinclar-Webb
(ed.): Imagined Masculinities. Male Identity and Culture in the
Modern Middle East. London, 2000

Klein, Uta 1999: The
contribution of the military and military discourse to the
construction of masculinity in society
. In: Seminar Men and
Violence Against Women, Council of Europe, 1999

Klein, Uta 1999b: “Our
Best Boys” The Gendered Nature of Civil-Military Relations in
In: Men and Masculinities, Vol. 2, No 1, July 1999,

Mazali, Rela, 1998:
Parenting Troops. The Summons of Acquiescence. In: Lois Ann
Lorentzen and Jennifer Turpin (eds.): The Women & War Reader. New
York and London, 1998

Nagel, Joane, 1998:
Masculinity and nationalism: gender and sexuality in the making of
. In: Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol 21, no 2, March 1998

Sinclair-Webb, Emma,
2000: 'Our Bülent
is Now a Commado': Military Service and Manhood in Turkey.
Mai Ghoussoub and Emma Sinclar-Webb (ed.): Imagined Masculinities.
Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East. London, 2000

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Programmes & Projects

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