Last week, a veteran came to speak to my American studies class about his experience in the US military. This dude was young — I’d say about late 20s, early 30s — but also an experienced soldier, having served oversees for almost ten years. He told us he enlisted as soon as possible, has been stationed all over the world and plans on making a career out of being a soldier. For me, his talk stirred up some complicated emotions concerning masculinity, patriotism, sexuality and my own prejudices.
First of all, the guy was hot. He was dressed in khakis and a pale blue Oxford, with buzzed blond hair and blue eyes. Tall, bulging arms — everything you’d expect from an experienced soldier. His swagger and wide stance evoked images of basic training, firing ranges, football fields, gay porn locker room scenes. This guy was all muscle and coiled energy, and you could feel the class react when he walked into the room. We were impressed. He looked like G.I. Joe.
So already I’m feeling weird. Here’s this guy, the ideal American man with a perfect physique, masculine features, serving in the U.S. military — and then cut to me. Tall and lanky, pale and concave with long hair and concealer on my chin. True opposites. In our society’s opinion, this guy is the paradigm of man, and much cultural pressure works toward getting a guy like me to become a guy like him. He’s what Men’s Fitness wants me to look like.
In my case, there’s pressure coming from gay culture trying to convince me to want to sleep with him, and the pressure increases once he opens his mouth. The southern accent, something I still can’t disassociate from conservativism and homophobia, completes his persona. I see him as a walking, talking representation of every notion of red-blooded America: deeply patriotic, uneducated, blindly passionate about war. And this type of man has been excessively colonized and fetishized by various media. Just look at the Village People or gay porn or high fashion editorials for examples of the masculine muscle stud look. Gay or straight, he’s everywhere, and he’s often portrayed as or implied to be uneducated and of a low economic class. And he’s usually white.
Anyway, all that stuff is influencing my opinions about our guest speaker. I’m attracted to him on a physical level, yeah, but it’s a hollow attraction. I’m aware of my attraction as nothing more than a direct result of being told again and again that masculine men are the epitome of male hotness in America, and that you can’t get much better than the super-straight, strong-jawed southern stud. So my prepackaged attraction is one I try to challenge throughout this guy’s presentation, knowing that within its structure I’m again left out. I’m no muscle stud, so it hurts to think that my gay peers are told repeatedly to lust after the Brawny Man.
The stuff this guy talked about also inspired in me all kinds of different complicated feelings. He described raiding houses in Afghanistan, dodging bullets and explosives, killing “bad guys” (his words). He talked about his excitement to kill people, his aggression on the battlefield, his “hardness” and disconnect upon reentry into civilian life. However, I had trouble feeling any sort of sympathy or connection with a man I saw as a brutal warrior. He approached the subject of killing and battle with a glee I found deeply off-putting. I understand that war is unconscionable to most people, especially those of us who have never held an AK-47 or worn body armor or ridden in a camouflaged tank. But I still found it impossible to find honor in the business of murder, especially when presented in such a jocular and sarcastic way.
I felt further excluded by his use of “guy talk” throughout his presentation. He cussed, used slang, made jokes about drinking and shooting guns, all strategies that created a “manly” feel in the room. For instance, at one point during his talk, he showed a series of pictures of an enemy fort that he and his troop members had destroyed during a battle. Without warning, charred body parts flashed on the screen, strewn on the sandy road around the fort. Our presenter said, “I hope none uh y’all guys got weak stomachs” as he continued to show us about ten more images of dead Afghanis.
First, I do have a weak stomach, and these images are potentially triggering. A disclaimer should have been given beforehand, and to give one halfway through is unacceptable. Second, to couch the warning in “manly” language makes the warning a challenge, as if it would be unmanly to raise a hand and ask him to stop. He phrased his warning as a joke by implying that of course everyone in the room could “take it,” making it impossible for any of us to voice a protest without coming across as pussies.
After the presentation, there was room for some quick Q&A, which turned into a pretty eye-opening moment in terms of how the class had been reacting to this guy. Throughout the semester, we’ve focused our attention solely on the culture of war and paid no attention to military strategy or weaponry. We learn about social institutions surrounding the military, not the details of battle or the technology employed by soldiers on the field. However, almost every question asked by my classmates was along the lines of, “Whoa, that’s a cool gun in that picture. What kind is it?” It was fascinating to see my classmates try to “man up” to the soldier and ask what I considered to be pretty pedestrian questions.
Because here’s the thing. Most of the people in my class are guys, and most of the guys have only ever experienced war through video games. Here we are sitting under fluorescent lights in a college classroom, avoiding critical questions about war or war culture and instead relying on what we’ve learned from “Call of Duty.” I not only felt excluded from the “guy talk,” but also paralyzed. I didn’t feel as though I could rise to the occasion and ask a bro-y question about guns or armor just as I couldn’t raise my slender, effeminate hand and ask the nice man with the projector to please stop showing us icky pictures of dead people. I couldn’t draw on everything I’d learned so far in this course to ask a question that might further my understanding of what it means to be a soldier today, because I was worried I’d come off as a privileged academic, unable to hide my pacifist politics from a man who is not a college graduate and who has chosen to make this stuff his career.
So I found myself perpetuating the disconnectedness between veteran and civilian. How could I connect with this guy on any sort of human level when, if I had my way, he’d be out of a job? I hate war, do not find it charming or romantic or thrilling in any way – and yet I’m sitting here listening to this guy geek out about raiding homes and killing “bad guys.” Leaving the classroom, I wondered what this said about me as an American. Am I unpatriotic for not following the advice of a thousand yellow bumper stickers and supporting our troops? Am I, or people like me, guilty of causing mental and emotional problems for countless veterans? Am I a bad feminist for not raising my hand and voicing my concerns about the violent images he showed our class? Am I bad gay man in for a life of sexual frustration for finding this hunk attractive, then questioning that attraction until it becomes so removed and abstract that it becomes meaningless?
And where does this leave me? I feel like in this situation I don’t know how to do anything but ask questions. I’m sad and angry about all this, but don’t know how to fix any of it. I want to support my troops, be proud of America, not trap myself by pointing out every societal problem I see until I’m a sterile old queen with no friends.
Maybe I’ll never be a patriot. Maybe I’ll never be a red-blooded American with biceps and a southern drawl. But my reactions to this guest speaker have taught me that I’ll give myself an aneurism if my first instinct to anything challenging is to respond with ire and annoyance. I want to stop getting angry. I want to start looking for ways to find love for guys like the one who spoke in front of my class, to stop using him and guys like him as examples of things I hate about gay culture or American society. Individuals don’t deserve to be sights on which I work out my personal prejudices, neuroses, and frustrations. I want to start seeing people as people — then worry about the rest.
Pictures via Flickr.