Thursday, August 2, 2012

Aaron Belkin's "Bring Me Men"

Aaron Belkin is professor of political science at San Francisco State University and director of the Palm Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has been a MacArthur Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, and a predoctoral fellow at Stanford University. He has published more than twenty-five books, chapters, and peer-reviewed journal articles. His books include How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Belkin applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Facade of American Empire, 1898-2001, and reported the following:
I’m not sure how I feel about this page-99 thing. On one hand, it seems so strange to jump into the middle of the text without any context, extract a disembodied passage, hold it up and say, “voila, this is what my book is about.” It would be like taking a close-up photo of some random body part, the belly button perhaps. And then exclaiming, “This is who I am!” On the other hand, why the hell not? The exercise is just quirky (can I say queer?) enough that I am truly delighted at the prospect of opening my book, which I can no longer stand to read but love to re-read just the same, to page 99.

So here goes…
As David Boxwell, a former professor at the Air Force Academy, says of his students, they “don’t know whether to fuck or fight each other”...
Hmmm. What am I supposed to do with that?

For starters, I would like to thank my parents for dissuading me, 30 years ago, from applying to the Air Force Academy.

More broadly, I can situate Boxwell’s observation in a broader argument that I make in Bring Me Men, that warrior masculinity is structured by contradictions in that service members are expected to be masculine and feminine, dominant and subordinate, civilized and barbaric, emotional and stoic, top and bottom, dirty and clean. And that these contradictions play a powerful role in confusing the troops (“they don’t know whether to fuck or fight each other”) and hence making it easier for the military to control them.

Page 99 is in the middle of a case study about male-male rape in the military. In the case study, I address one contradiction – penetrable/impenetrable – in some depth by showing that service members' bodies are not supposed to be penetrated by bullets, penises or anything else. But at the same time, both men and women in uniform are expected to endure rape, sometimes as initiation into the warrior community and sometimes as a form of punishment or excommunication.

Here is another passage from page 99:
In U.S. military culture, service members have penetrated and been penetrated by each other continuously, and their anxieties about penetration have been structured by a split and then projected onto incoherent imaginations about gay men as violently aggressive penetrators but also passively weak victims of penetration. As a projective mirror of the service members themselves, the fragmented displacement illustrates and reflects fundamental contradictions involving penetration which have structured their masculinity.
Why is this interesting? I argue in Bring Me Men that contradictions that structure warrior masculinity look a lot like contradictions that structure U.S. empire, and that both sets of contradictions get sanitized and swept out of sight at the same moments, often by outcasts (African Americans, women, gays and lesbians) who portray the military and the empire in noble terms as part of inclusion-seeking strategies.
Read chapter 1 of Bring Me Men, and learn more about the book and author at Aaron Belkin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue