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Masculinity and the Agency of War

Shohini Ghosh

By Kathleen Barry
Women Unlimited, Delhi, 2012, pp. 234, Rs. 550.00

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 2-3 February/March 2013

At the centre of Kathleen Barry’s book Unmaking War: Remaking Men is the question: ‘Why do wars persist in the face of our human urge to save and protect human life?’ The book starts with describing an incident on a beach at Bodega Bay. Onlookers at the beach watch as a killer wave sweeps away a young boy whose father dives into the water to rescue him. The father manages to hurl his son back to safety but is unable to escape the strong currents of another wave that crashes him to the ocean floor before sending him afloat on the sea. As rescue helicopters retrieve the young father’s body, a typical day at the beach is disrupted. Many of the beachgoers are moved to tears and find it impossible to ‘go back to their activities as if nothing had happened’. Barry says that this gesture of empathy—of feeling sad at another’s demise—is evidence of a ‘shared humanity’ that war and military not only disregards but systematically dismantles. In her own words, Barry’s book focuses on the ‘masculinity of war’, from soldiers in combat to leaders in the White House and around the world, from how masculinity is made and how war turns men into remorseless killers and it looks at how, in that masculinity of war, resistance forces fight the occupiers and defend vulnerable peoples. Barry’s argument is this: Military training manipulates men’s ‘core masculinity’ and ‘dehumanizes’ them so that they become complicit in their own ‘expendability’ while turning into remorseless killers. She writes: ‘The purpose of military training is to wipe out the recruits’ identities, to disconnect them from how they knew themselves before joining the military and to diminish their sense of their own agency until their wills are subordinated to military command....Soldiers learn that they are superior to civilians who are not as neatly organized as they are in the military and who do not have the power of life and death over others.’ Further, she writes: ‘The ultimate goal of combat training is to prepare soldiers to kill without remorse, to act without conscience. Think about it—having no feelings about taking the life of another human being! The goal of remorseless killing requires redesigning the soldier’s humanity.’ For Barry, the recognition that war ‘dehumanizes’ men is the first step towards ‘unmaking’ the war. Notions ...

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