“It is not necessary for a man to be actively bad in order to make a failure in life; simple inaction will accomplish it. Nature has everywhere written her protest against idleness; everything which ceases to struggle, which remains inactive, rapidly deteriorates. It is the struggle toward an ideal, the constant effort to get higher and further, which develops manhood and character.” –James Terry White
After a year of intense combat, Major Dick Winters certainly deserved a break. As the commander of Easy Company — aka, the “Band of Brothers” — Winters had led his troops through a D-Day attack on German artillery, an assault on the French town of Carentan, a bayonet charge on a dike in Holland, the bitter cold of Bastogne, and finally to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in the Bavarian Alps.
His next mission — helping to manage the occupation and demobilization effort in Europe in the aftermath of victory — was a piece of cake in comparison. Yet in many ways, his new task proved more onerous than battle.
Winters had to keep his eye on 25,000 surrendered Germans, but it was his own men that gave him the most trouble. The majority of the combat-hardened paratroopers he had served with had rotated home, and their replacements — fresh from basic training — lacked the discipline and gravitas of the old vets.
With seemingly “nothing to do, no reason to work,” units of once legendary toughness were “growing lazy, both mentally and physically and going to hell fast.” As Winters explained, “With demobilization, everything that sustains morale in a military command — danger to the country, the potential for combat, and the fear of the unknown – virtually disappears overnight. Maintaining discipline and morale become a major leadership challenge.”
Lacking a clear purpose and focus, many of the men put forth a bare minimum of effort in their duties and strayed into vices, partying, and causing trouble.
Winters himself felt adrift. Laid-back days filled with inspections, light calisthenics, volleyball, reading, and sunbathing, which had at first been relaxing, quickly grew stale. “There is a limit to how much garrison life a fella can handle,” he had found.
And so, while the major considered making a career out of the military, he ultimately decided against it, as he just couldn’t see himself being satisfied serving in a peacetime force.
“They could have it all. I’d dig ditches first…There was far too much chickenshit in this man’s army, now that the fighting was over.”
Winters observed a paradox and phenomenon as old as antiquity: men have a harder time being their best in times of peace, than they do in times of crisis.
Because idleness kills manliness.
Masculinity Is Energy in Need of an Outlet
There are many ways to define masculinity, but one of the best is to describe it as a particular kind of energy — one that drives men to take risks, compete, fight, and explore. It is the energy that fueled men in what were their primary roles throughout history: protectors, warriors, hunters.
Certain conditions are necessary to keep this energy at its highest pitch: danger and threat — whether of nature, human enemies, or the hunger of one’s family. To survive and thrive in the face of these threats, men must stay vigilant and keep their mental and physical skills sharp.
In the absence of these conditions — in a society that’s relatively safe and prosperous –masculine energy, as a whole, collapses. In a time of security and comfort, individuals and organizations have a lot of buffer and margin for error; a lot can go wrong and red tape can abound without lives being lost — at least ones immediately traceable to a certain cause. Things keep on going on, ineffectively, but pretty much the same.
So standards slip, and men get sloppy and soft. They have the luxury of laziness — of deciding to take leave and opt out.
Without an external threat to provide challenge and excitement, men turn to vice to create a little drama themselves.
A good case study of how this dynamic plays out in the real world can be seen in the problem-riddled culture surrounding the Air Force’s nuclear missile officers.
Missileers, as they’re called, oversee the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles — the weapons that can level cities halfway around the globe with the press of a few buttons. Their job is crucial — they literally hold the keys to preventing or launching nuclear annihilation upon the world — but also mind-numbingly dull. Missileers take turns pulling 24-hour shifts in small, stuffy capsules located miles from the base, and embedded 60-feet below the ground. Beyond going through some checklists and taking care of practice alerts, they have a lot of idle time on their hands.
Air Force brass try to imbue the job with prestige, but to the folks sitting in underground swivel chairs, in front of switches even the missileers themselves sometimes doubt actually do anything, things aren’t very romantic. Tucked away on cold, barren posts in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, far from the action abroad, working in an area of the military that feels obsolete, in a job that consists of passive monitoring rather than proactive maneuvering, morale amongst missileers is often low.
Unsurprisingly then, the AF’s nuclear force has been plagued with problems in recent years. In April 2013, seventeen officers at the Minot, North Dakota base were stripped of their authority to control and launch missiles and ordered to undergo 2-3 months of remedial job training after performing poorly in inspection and mishandling launch codes. In August 2013, a missile unit at the Malmstrom base in Montana failed a safety and security inspection due to “tactical-level” errors. In October 2013, a two-star general who oversaw the entire nuclear command was relieved of his duties after spending an official trip to Moscow getting drunk, carousing, and being rude to his hosts. Then in 2014 an investigation of illegal drug use (ecstasy, amphetamines, bath salts) led to the discovery of widespread cheating amongst nuclear officers on their monthly proficiency tests. The cheating ring involved at least 20% of missileers (with insiders saying it was probably more like 90%), and resulted in the removal of 14 mid-level commanders.
Overall, the nuclear missile force has a court martial rate 2X that of the Air Force as a whole, with the infractions ranging from drug use to rape to assault.
The missileers’ morale and esprit de corps is sapped by boredom, feelings of irrelevance, a lack of recognition for their work (when the Secretary of Defense visited them in 2014, it was the first such visit in almost 30 years), the disconnect between the purpose of their job and how effectual they feel, and the absence of action-oriented outlets for their energy.
In this, the problems that face the nuclear missile force are very much a microcosm for those which ail all modern men.
Modern men (hopefully) know that they have an important purpose, but sometimes feel irrelevant and unrecognized for the work they do, and frequently don’t know how to exercise their restless energy.
We want to be ready to act in a crisis, but it’s hard to stay vigilant and keep an edge when nothing ever seems to happen that calls forth our abilities. The motivation to stay sharp atrophies, and we’re lulled into apathy and complacency. As a result, men’s standards, self-respect, discipline, and all-around hardihood get soft.
Idleness kills manliness.
Action for Survival
For primitive man, staying active and sharp was a matter of necessity and survival. He never knew when another village might swoop in for an attack, a bear would cross his path in the woods, or a lightning strike might start a wildfire. Simply obtaining food required physical effort and sometimes risk.
It’s for this reason that tribal rites of passages nearly always included painful tests of a man’s stoicism and hardihood and required the public demonstration of skill and mastery in the arts of fighting and hunting. If a boy wanted to earn the title of “man,” he had to first prove his manhood.
But the tests didn’t stop there; they lasted his whole life through. A man had to continually show courage and prowess in the face of danger and risk, and be willing to stand up and fight his fellows when challenged. Primitive men almost universally participated in regular physical sports and contests — often wrestling or plain old brawling — as these activities were opportunities to both hone their physical skills and fitness (i.e., preparation for hunting and battle) and to publicly compete for status with other men.
As civilization developed, societies often harnessed male energy by instituting universal military conscription. As citizen-soldiers, men had to not only develop skills in labor and/or gain an education in the humanities, they also had to be trained in the arts of war.
Today, absent the explosion of another worldwide crisis, the re-institution of the draft seems incredibly unlikely. And even if every man wanted to join the military voluntarily, they couldn’t; it’s a shrinking institution, and even some current officers are being pushed out.
There are those who doubt another world war like those of the past could ever happen again, but even if one did arise in the future, we in the West still reside right now in a period of peace.
So what’s the mass of manhood to do in a time of safety nets, where they’re not obligated to stay fit and ready for any exigency, and the seeming lack of an imminent threat entices the majority to take the path of least resistance?
A Moral Equivalent of War?
“A permanently successful peace-economy can not be a simple pleasure-economy.” –William James
William James, the famous philosophical psychologist and an ardent pacifist, grappled with this question in an essay published in 1910. James conceded that war, though bloody and costly, had much to recommend it; it activated ingrained qualities of manliness, called forth the capacity for heroism, and tested virtues like hardihood, fidelity, vigor, courage, and inventiveness more acutely than any other challenge or crucible.
James thus had sympathy for martial enthusiasts who saw great merit in war, and who feared that in a world without it, the qualities of manliness would atrophy and society would get soft. He summarized their arguments against a wholly peaceful world thusly:
“The notion of a sheep’s paradise like that revolts, they say, our higher imagination. Where then would be the steeps of life? If war had ever stopped, we should have to re-invent it, on this view, to redeem life from flat degeneration.
Reflective apologists for war at the present day all take it religiously. It is a sort of sacrament…it is an absolute good, we are told, for it is human nature at its highest dynamic. Its ‘horrors’ are a cheap price to pay for rescue from the only alternative supposed, of a world of clerks and teachers, of co-education…of ‘consumer’s leagues’ and ‘associated charities,’ of industrialism unlimited, and feminism unabashed. No scorn, no hardness, no valor any more! Fie upon such a cattleyard of a planet!”
“Human life with no use for hardihood,” James concluded “would be contemptible. Without risks or prizes for the darer, history would be insipid indeed.”
For this reason, James felt that you couldn’t just get rid of war without substituting another great mission/purpose/challenge in its place. Conceding that “Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us,” he thought men’s energy would need to be directed into another kind of “fight.”
“We must still subject ourselves collectively to those severities which answer to our real position upon this only partly hospitable globe,” James exhorted. In times of peace, “We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness” that was formerly built through martial endeavors.
James thus proposed the creation of a “moral equivalent of war.” In place of the war of man against man, he called for a “war on nature.” By this he didn’t mean the destruction of nature, but its taming and management — the construction of new things from its raw materials. James envisioned a mandatory program of national service where armies of young men — rich and poor alike — spent a few years building roads and bridges, fishing, mining, etc. Hands-on projects that would build up the country while breaking down class barriers, developing men’s toughness and discipline, and offering a chance to experience the challenge of laboring by the sweat of one’s brow. Something like the Civilian Conservation Corps that was enacted during the Great Depression.
James felt that this “war on nature” would develop the kind of virtues brought out in traditional war, if not to the exact same degree, then at least further than would be possible without such an experience. It would create a rite of passage that would be good for the nation as a whole, and good for each individual man who participated:
“our gilded youths [would] be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature, they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.”
I am personally a big supporter of the idea of mandatory national service, for men and women alike. At least in theory.
Not being a pacifist like James, nor as optimistic as he was that a permanent end to war will soon be forthcoming, I’d give folks a choice between community service and joining the military. Yet I’m not very optimistic about such a program ever coming to fruition for three reasons: 1) It’d need to be run efficiently and effectively, and our present government cannot get even little things accomplished without massive bloat and red tape. 2) Our current culture has largely lost the notion of civic service and sacrifice for the larger good, so the idea would likely bring howls of protest from many corners. 3) Which is why it almost assuredly would never pass politically. So too, to get the maximum benefits from it, the participants ought to be sex-segregated, so that men can experience the unique dynamics of fraternal bonding that happen in all-male “platoons.” And of course, no one would sign off on that idea in our current political and societal culture.
I thus don’t think anything like James imagined will happen anytime soon.
So, where does that leave the individual man?
How do you get up the motivation to develop the four tactical virtues of masculinity in a time when they’re not acutely needed, to cultivate hardihood and toughness in a period of comfort and softness, and to stay sharp and become your best when you can get by just being mediocre?
To be honest, there’s simply no way to be as motivated to keep your edge when there’s not a good chance of an enemy tribesman jumping out from behind a tree to attack you, or of your being called up to serve in battle. This is especially true for the culture of manhood on a societal level; the majority of guys will simply take the comfortable path of least resistance when they’re not pushed by an external prod to do otherwise.
But, on an individual level it is possible for some men — those who will never be happy with the status quo — to stay sharp and ready, driving themselves purely from internal motivation.
How do you develop that inner motivation while living in a safe and prosperous time?
That’s what we’ll discuss next time.
Last updated: May 1, 2017