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A Man’s Vision of Love:
An Examination of William Broyles Jr.’s Esquire Article
“Why Men Love War”
“Men love war because it allows them to look serious. Because they imagine it is the one thing that stops women laughing at them. In it they can reduce women to the status of objects. This is the great distinction between the sexes. Men see objects, women see the relationship between objects. Whether the objects need each other, love each other, match each other. It is an extra dimension of feeling we men are without and one that makes war abhorrent to all real women - and absurd. I will tell you what war is. War is a psychosis caused by an inability to see relationships. Our relationship with our fellow men. Our relationship with out economic and historical situation. And above all our relationship to nothingness. To death.”
John Fowles in The Magus
A Man’s Vision of Love:
An Examination of William Broyles Jr.’s Esquire Article
“Why Men Love War”
The fact that war is both beautiful as well as nauseating is a great ambiguity for men. In his article for Esquire magazine in 1985 William Broyles Jr attempts to articulate this ambiguity while being rather unclear himself. On the one hand Broyles says that men do not long for the classic male experience of going to war, while on the other hand he says that men who return know that they have delved into an area of their soul which most men are never able to. Broyles says that men love war for many reasons some obvious and some obviously disturbing. Many books support this notion while few stray far from the admission of love. I believe that most sources indicate that men do in fact love war in a general masculine way. I also believe that the sources that do not admit to this love of war do not because of the author’s unique, face-to-face experience with war’s most severe atrocities. I feel that the sources, while few in number can faithfully account for the average soldier in any war in the twentieth century, which Broyles applies his argument to.
Stories of combat provide a way of coping with a fundamental tension of war: although the act of killing another person in battle may invoke a wave of nauseous distress, it may also incite intense feelings of pleasure. William Broyles was one of many combat soldiers who articulated this ambiguity.
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Yet, Broyles recognized that there were dozens of reasons why combat might be attractive, even pleasurable. Comradeship, with its bittersweet absorption of the self within the group, appealed to some fundamental human urge. And then there was the awesome power conferred upon individuals by war. For men, combat was the male equivalent of childbirth: it was the “initiation into the power of life and death.”(Broyles 70) Broyles had little to say about the `life' aspect, but argued that the thrill of destruction was irresistible. A bazooka or an M-60 machine gun was a “magic sword” or a “grunt's Excalibur“:
all you do is move that finger so imperceptibly, just a wish flashing across your mind like a shadow, not even a full brain synapse, and poof! in a blast of sound and energy and light a truck or a house or even people disappear, everything flying and settling back into dust. (Broyles 36)
In many ways, war did resemble sport which, by pushing men to their physical and emotional limits, could provide deep satisfaction (for the survivors, that is). Broyles likened the happiness generated by the sport of war to the innocent pleasures of children playing cowboys and Indians, chanting the refrain, `bang bang, you're dead!’ or to the seductive suspense adults experience while watching combat movies as geysers of fake blood splatter the screen and actors fall, massacred.
There was more to the pleasures of combat than this, said Broyles. Killing had a spiritual resonance and an aesthetic poignancy. Slaughter was an affair of great and seductive beauty. For combat soldiers, there was as much mechanical elegance in an M-60 machine gun as there was for medieval warriors in decorated swords. (Broyles 71) Aesthetic tastes were often highly personal. The experience seemed to resemble spiritual enlightenment or sexual eroticism. Indeed in the two sources which I have chosen to support Broyles, sexuality and power play major roles.
In The Coldest War, James Brady discusses his experience in the Korean War. He intends his story to be typical of the average soldier during the conflict. Brady discusses his time in Korea mainly as a growing experience. He went into the war as a fearful 23-year-old and came out a man who had been through a war. After joining military school to dodge the draft, Brady was sent to Korea without the desire to fight. One of Broyles’ arguments is that men are not raised to love war. He argues that you have to be through it before you know what areas of your soul you have delved into. For Brady the war itself was not to be loved. The killing was not the object of his affection as he clearly states in his novel, but Brady’s memoir fits in with most of the reasons which Broyles gives as motive for men to love war.
“The enduring emotion of war...is comradeship,” says Broyles on page 70 of “Why Men Love War.” One of the themes of Brady’s novel is definitely camaraderie. Brady’s relationship with Mack Allen as well as with Chaffee and other members of his rifle platoon shows the importance of friendship in his love of war. He fondly remembers Mack Allen and has seen his fellow lieutenant since the war. Brady reinforces this by stating that “Everyone goes to war alone.” (Brady 13) By contrasting this to the friends whom he speaks of and displays pictures of it becomes obvious that his comrades were very important to his feelings about war. Even though he stresses the absurdity of killing, Brady shows us his view of war in terms of friendship and not simply violence.
James Brady also supports Broyles’ idea that war is loved because it does away with some of the confusing aspects of daily life. The enemy is not someone whom you have to search for. You know who the enemy is and for Brady it was the Chinks and the Gooks. No other words are needed in the Korean war to describe who the soldiers thought that they were facing. Almost every time that a battle is mentioned the enemy is named as the gooks. Broyles would agree that during his tour in Vietnam he had named the enemy Charlie or gook which gave his enemy a simple identity. This is what Broyles means when he says that you usually know who the enemy is and are given the means to deal with them. (Broyles 69)
Brady states that on his ride home he had time to ponder the unnatural act of killing and “the mystery of who lived and who died.” (Brady 241) He also says that he had the good fortune to be alive. This reinforces one of Broyles’ “more troubling reasons why men love war.” (Broyles 70) War defines the thin line between life and death. When the dead are thought of on this ride home Brady might be pondering that they are dead yet there is an “exultant realization” that he is still alive and on his way home. (Broyles 71) Especially in the type of war that Brady describes it is hard to tell how many deaths you are directly responsible for. Mortar fire and aerial bombings claim most of the dead. Brady could not feel as guilty about other’s deaths as he was glad that he was going home with his life.
Alvin Kernan is another war survivor who’s World War II memoir, Crossing the Line, displays more of the love which Broyles has written about than does The Coldest War. Alvin Kernan was a young man when he was sent to war. At seventeen he had no where to go after high school and therefore enlisted in the US Navy in 1940. The war had not yet been brought to the United States. Kernan’s story describes more of the military maneuvers than The Coldest War does and makes Kernan’s love of the war more noticeable.
During the attack on the Marshall Islands Kernan’s enthusiasm is obvious. “My first real experience of a shooting war!” he exclaims. (Kernan 38) His description brings to mind Broyles idea that one of the reasons for man’s love of war is that the enemy is obvious. (Broyles 69) The gray areas of daily life are not important during the war. Your duty is clear and is to kill the enemy. Kernan demonstrates this in his description of many of the battles which he was a part of. There was one enemy and it was the Japanese. In Crossing the Line Kernan’s only enemy is the Japanese. It is unimportant that he lauds them with compliments on their military might. Not only is this fifty years after the war that we won, but he still recognizes them as the enemy that he was fighting. In slight contrast, Kernan mentions that in conversation while on the faculty of a liberal university he has to hold his tongue when people are talking about the racism surrounding the bomb so as not to say that he is grateful for it because he did not have to be involved in a ground invasion of Japan. (Kernan 155) This demonstrates the gray areas which Broyles is talking about. During the war there is no confusion as to whose side you are on. Who your enemy is.
Kernan also discusses the connection between sex and war which is so prominent in Broyles’ article. Broyles says that the connection between sex and war is the root of man’s love for war. (Broyles 70) War heightens sexual desire. Kernan also plainly states that there is a connection between sex and war. Chastity, he says, was cast aside for the duration of the war. (Kernan 93) Kernan talks about brothels at least twice during his recollections of the war. He makes it seem as though they were a necessary part of a sailor’s leave or liberty. (Kernan 18-19) Kernan’s “Stateside” chapter is by far the most telling. He describes his experience of being on leave and back home where no girl plain, or pretty used to give him a first glance. During the war however, little Alvin Kernan experiences, first hand, the connection between sex and war.
I stated in my thesis that Broyles’ argument that men love war fit for most first hand sources of war experience. I also stated that those that do not are written by individuals whose experience during the war was so unique and atrocious that they were forced to come from war without being able to embrace this manly right to love it. Two items which demonstrate this are “The Vietnam in Me” by Tim O’Brien and Company K by William March.
Tim O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran much like William Broyles Jr. Both men are now famous for their reporting skills and for their war stories. The main difference between the two is that while Broyles states that he spent most of his tour in Vietnam without incident (Broyles 68), O’Brien was in Alpha Company whose area of patrol was Mai Lai the year after the massacre of the village. He also tells many horror stories of friends dying while within sight. (O’Brien see bib.) “The Vietnam in Me” not only tells of O'Brien's wartime encounters, but also of his personal life before and since Vietnam. He describes failed relationship with Kate, a serious girlfriend, as well as his youth. His tour in Vietnam does not fit much of the mold that Broyles has set.
O’Brien’ narrative gives much evidence as to why he would feel the way he does about war in light of our previous analyses. On the issue on friendship being the enduring emotion of war, O’Brien’s story lends support. The things that O'Brien says that he loved during the war were family friends and “everything that might be lost or never come to be.“ His best fiend in Alpha company was Chip. Chip was a black soldier with whom O'Brien had become good friends. In May of 1969 Chip was blown up. Being that O'Brien does not show any love for war the fact that one of his best friends, and the enduring emotional outlet of war says Broyles, was killed so violently sheds light on why O'Brien does not fit Broyles ideas.
The other major reason why O'Brien does not love war is because of his connection to the Mai Lai massacre. Though Alpha Company was not around until a year after the massacre, O'Brien does not have a fond memory of this experience. During the war he was able to walk through the village and was unaware that anything out of the ordinary had ever happened, but in his article he goes back to the area and interviews some of the survivors. He states that after the interviews he visits the ditch where the people were shot and feels “the guilt chills.” Obviously his memory of his own involvement has been affected by a collective memory of this horror. For these reasons, his friends powerful death and his connection to the Mai Lai massacre, O'Brien is the type of soldier who would not fit into William Broyles’ view of men loving war.
The accounts, albeit fictional, in Company K demonstrate the effect of powerfully atrocious events on man’s love for war. Company K is not the a first hand source in the way that the above memoirs are, but it can provide readers with a general account of a company’s sense of love for war. The novel describes a company during World War I, and generally tells the worst of what war has to offer. Many of the vignettes are tales of what James Brady would call “bugging out.” Two events surrounding Company K show how these events can result in a man‘s love, or lack thereof, for war.
William March, the author of Company K, was in fact a soldier during Word War I. Little is known of his involvement in specific battles. He was awarded many medal including the Croix de Guerre. One event that is known is reported to have been repeated many times by March in conversation. He was separated from his company when he came upon a German youth whom he instinctively lunged at with his bayonet killing the boy and piercing his throat. The boy stared at March’s face in death. (March xi) Apparently March suffered from “hysterical conditions related to...his throat and eyes.” (March xii) Personal experiences of March, a non-fictional soldier, demonstrates the effect that these up-close events had on March’s writing.
In the actual novel there is one specific event which sums up the attitude of the war for this company. In the course of about six of the small stories in Company K an event similar in grotesqueness to the Mai Lai massacre is told. A troop of German prisoners is lined up in a trench and gunned down by their American captors. While this story is not based on truth it shows William March’s hatred of a war which he fought bravely in.
These two works, “The Vietnam in Me” and Company K lend evidence to the idea that while men generally love war, there are events which are heinous enough to change this basic emotion. War may cater to the darkest recesses of man’s soul, but the conscious mind still has the power to block out that which is too dangerous to face. Broyles says that he loved war but would never want to fight again. It is possible that this should be the basic idea of his paper: men who have seen war and survived it have a great reason to love it; they still have a beating heart in their chest. The men who have not seen it are most likely the ones to fear and hate war. They might know someone who died in a war while they were never given the chance to risk themselves and come out alive. I believe that it might be just what Broyles says it is not: the classic male experience that we are taught to train for in playing army men as youths. This, however, is the topic of an American Culture course and not a History ourse.
Outside Source Bibliography
Fowles, John. (1985) The Magus New York: Dell Pub Co. Rev Rei edition (May 1985).
O‘Brien, Tim. (1994, October 2). “The Vietnam in Me.” The New York Times, Books. (also available online at nytimes.com/books/98/09/20/specials/obrien- vietnam.html)