War changes a man, writes the distinguished cultural historian Braudy—and a woman, too, and all who fall between the dichotomous poles.
Apparently uncomfortable with small themes, Braudy (English/Univ. of Southern California; The World in a Frame, 1976, etc.) sets out on an uncommonly ambitious task: to “outline a history of the intertwined ideas of war and masculinity since the Middle Ages.” Even then, he can’t resist dipping into the pages of Gilgamesh and the Iliad, turning up fascinating tidbits across time about the transformative effects of war across human society. Braudy ponders the nature of masculinity as seen in dozens of mirrors, contrasting current don’t-ask-don’t-tell Pentagon orthodoxies with the ancient Greek belief that the best fighters were men in love with each other and concluding that most societies have always agreed that “aggressiveness and violence, whether masculine or feminine, are potentials to be tapped when the occasion warrants.” In an inquiry that ranges from Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts to the Plains Indians to South Seas headhunters to Al Qaeda and that draws on a huge library of sources (he gladly admits that this “is a work of synthesis,” though he’s being too modest when he says it doesn’t contain much that is new), Braudy looks closely at what the world’s cultures have expected of their men as men and as fighters. Sometimes those cultures have been content to dress their soldiers up in finery approaching women’s fancy dress, hoping that no actual blood will be spilled; sometimes those cultures have taken great pains to define their fighters as men apart and then been troubled afterward by the barbarians within the gates; sometimes those cultures have not much cared about notions of the masculine at all, so long as the killing was done, not to mention their fighters.
Even if you sometimes suspect that Braudy is stretching here and there to suit his thesis, his learned explorations are wonderfully engaging and provocative. A first-class work of cultural history, thoroughly impressive in scope and skill.