in: Behavior, Character, Featured

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

Male Expendability: Inspiring or Exploitative?

Guard marching with tomb of the unknown soldier.

Of all the factors that have made masculinitythe biological essence of males — perhaps none is as consequential and underappreciated as this: wombs are more valuable than sperm. A man can impregnate multiple women at a time, but a womb can only hold one baby (occasionally two or three) at once; thus twelve women and three men can re-populate a society to a far greater extent than three women and twelve men.

This makes men more expendable than women.

Male expendability — the survival-based calculation that men’s lives can more readily be sacrificed to a greater objective — has had an outsized effect in determining what behavior we consider manly, and even on the structure of society itself.

For thousands of years, male expendability, combined with men’s greater physical strength and testosterone-driven drive for aggression and dominance, placed men in the role of taking on riskier pursuits like hunting and fighting. This dynamic arguably goes a long way in explaining the near universality of patriarchy in the history of human culture (and why it weakens in times of prosperity and peace). In the harshest of environments, before the rise of civilization, men’s physical strength was needed to perform the dirty and dangerous work that kept everyone alive. Men accepted their expendability and did what needed to be done, but in return expected at least a little more power and privilege. Women accepted this arrangement (either gratefully or grudgingly, depending on one’s perspective), because they needed men’s protection for themselves and for their children. Male expendability can even be seen as the force that kept more democratic governments from turning into tyrannies; as Carlin Barton writes in regards to ancient Rome, “the aggressive and self-aggrandizing will of the strutting warrior (with its potential to disrupt all bonds and balance within Roman society) was controlled by its expiatory, sacrificial aspects; a man atoned for expanding by expending his being, by wasting his breath of life.”

And if you think this idea of male expendability is null and void in our post-modern society, you need look no further than a newscast after a big accident or terrorist attack. Inevitably, the reporter will solemnly intone that “women and children are among the dead” — making it clear that they represent an especially tragic category of victim, while the loss of men’s lives is expected. 

Male expendability further explains why vice — long to the chagrin of purveyors of clean, upright living — is associated with manhood. For centuries, philosophers and preachers have exhorted men to see that smoking and drinking do not a “real man” make. The persistence and vehemence of the argument of course points to how strong the connection is! The association between manhood and vice is based on the fact that a partaker of such potentially injurious habits (and even simply dangerous activities like riding a motorcycle) shows that he holds his life cheaply, and isn’t fixated on prolonging it. Such an attitude viscerally registers as distinctly masculine, even if we can come up with intellectual arguments for why the behavior isn’t wise and rationally sound.

Of course, male expendability also explains our conception of the height of masculine virtue. To hold one’s life so loosely as to be willing to face danger, to lay down one’s life for others, has and is considered by many to constitute the very pinnacle of heroic manhood. In fact, in times past, a whole philosophy celebrating male expendability grew up, and echoes of it indelibly remain with us in the modern age.

Today’s we’ll examine that philosophy, and the interesting, difficult questions it raises as to whether such thinking is inspiring, or exploitative.

The Philosophy of Male Expendability

“The virtus proper to a man is fortitude, for which there are two main tasks: scorn of death and scorn of pain. We must practice these if we wish to possess virtus–or rather–if we wish to be viri.” –Cicero

Throughout time, arguments have been made that male expendability is more than a consequence of biological happenstance, and is in fact worthy of being a higher truth, a philosophy of life. This philosophy rests on three premises: embracing expendability 1) constitutes the highest exercise of will, 2) demonstrates the valuing of something above life itself, and 3) serves as the ultimate source of power.

These premises can most easily be explained using perspective and examples drawn from ancient Rome, a culture in which a mingling of the classical code of honor with the tenets of Stoicism raised the philosophy of expendability to its height.

Exercising the Will

In ancient Rome, a male attained manliness — virtus — and became a man — a vir — through unflinching effort and action. As Carlin Barton puts it in Roman Honor:

“A male was transformed into a man by the willful expenditure of energy. Above all, a man willed himself to be expendable. Like the sun, a man fed the fire of his honor on his own substance. The magnus animus, the animus virilis, squandered itself in contempt of its own dear life.”

A human has no greater, more instinctual drive than that of self-preservation. Willing oneself to loosen one’s grip on life, to conquer the fear of death, runs so contrary to natural impulse that it constituted the greatest demonstration of a man’s discipline — the ultimate test of self-mastery. As Barton writes, “It was the unnaturalness, the artifice of his actions that, for the Romans, told the will of a vir.”

We continue to celebrate the virtue (note that our word for virtue in fact comes from the Latin vir) in such an act of will; for example, while we honor rank-and-file soldiers for embracing their expendability, we celebrate even more the general who positions himself on the frontlines — as the former are ordered to face death, while the latter chooses to put himself in greater danger than is required. The more the embrace of risk, and expendability, is a deliberate decision, the manlier and more heroic it is perceived.

Valuing Something Above Life Itself

“Here, here is a soul that scorns the light of life and holds that honor you are aiming at as cheaply bought if all its price is life.” —Virgil

While we are used to thinking of life itself as the most precious commodity, men have often valued other things — family, country, freedom, honor — as greater still. Death was not then the worst thing that could befall a man — losing such things without a fight was. As Cicero argues, it is better for a man to be “led by the splendor of honor” and embrace danger and risk over safety and expediency, for that “which appears most splendid is done with a great and exalted spirit and in disregard of the concerns of mortal life.”

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca gives the example of a young man who would rather die than lose his freedom:

The story of the Spartan lad has been preserved: taken captive while still a stripling, he kept crying in his Doric dialect, ‘I will not be a slave!’ and he made good his word; for the very first time he was ordered to perform a menial and degrading service — and the command was to fetch a chamber-pot — he dashed out his brains against the wall. So near at hand is freedom, and is anyone still a slave? Would you not rather have your own son die thus than reach old age by weakly yielding? Why therefore are you distressed, when even a boy can die so bravely?”

We are so used to seeing the prolongation of life, at any cost, as the greatest good, that such a story is apt to strike us as quite foreign, if not outright disturbing. As will this one which Barton recounts:

“When in the fourth century B.C.E. a crevice mysteriously opened in the Forum, the soothsayers declared that if the Romans wished the Republic to endure forever, they must sacrifice the greatest source of their strength. The valiant young warrior Marcus Curtius stepped forth. After admonishing his fellows that the strength of Rome lay in arma virtusque, devoted himself to a sacrificial death. Fully armed and riding a horse splendidly caparisoned, he leapt into the chasm. For the Romans, the voluntary death of a Curtius or a Decius Mus was, to use the words of Bakhtin, ‘a pregnant and birth-giving death.’”

As Barton alludes, “The deliberate wasting of oneself and one’s forces was a form of generosity” — a gift to someone or something you considered greater than yourself. It not only might save that person or ideal directly, but a show of contempt for one’s own life worked to stiffen the courage and conviction of others. To return to the example of a general on the frontlines, many an enlisted man has been spurred to action by the sight of a superior officer refusing to spare himself and running into fire.

Being prepared to offer oneself as a sacrifice was not entirely altruistic in nature, however. A disdain for the fear of death freed a man to truly embrace life. As Seneca says, “He never wished to live who did not wish to die.” And should death be required, a heroic sacrifice ensured one’s immortality. In the words of Plautus, “He who dies by virtus nevertheless does not perish.”

The Ultimate Source of Power

“He who scorns his own life is lord of yours.” –Seneca

For the Romans, holding one’s life too preciously was a weakness; it made a man more likely to shy away from danger and less likely to give his all. In the context of battle, he who clung to the hope of life — to the hope of coming out unscathed and/or being taken prisoner — would never fight as ferociously as he who had willed his expendability. Thus, paradoxically enough, the man with a casual attitude towards death actually had a greater chance of living; “the willingness to sacrifice what he loved most in the world,” Barton writes, “was his trump card.” Sulla put it this way: “You will be safer the less you spare yourself.”

For the Roman, the man who would make it farthest was the man who didn’t save anything for the way back

Expendability: Inspiring or Exploitative?

It’s hard not to feel stirred by the ancient maxims above. But there are some modern men who would say we shouldn’t be fooled by such platitudes — that they merely function to enable and ennoble the exploitation of men as “cannon fodder.”

It’s easy to see how we’ve arrived at this conception of male expendability. Since ancient times wars have become further removed from directly protecting home and hearth — one’s own people — as well as anonymized and mechanized, leaving less room for individual action and glory; it can be hard to feel there was much honor for the men who were mowed down during WWI, or that the cause for which they sacrificed their lives was worth the price. At the same time as self-sacrifice has lost honor, our idea of individual worth has ascended. Because we have come to see each person as uniquely special and valuable, each potentially avoidable death is seen as thoroughly tragic and wasteful — to a greater extent than when individuals were more subsumed into a mass of men. Finally, there seems to be fewer compensations for sacrificing one’s life; in an egalitarian society, there are no special powers and privileges attendant to being expendable. If men and women have equal rights, why should men be the only ones who register for the draft? Why should men continue to do society’s dangerous and dirty jobs, and continue to incur nearly all workplace fatalities?

From this perspective, the philosophy of expendability simply serves as a shiny veneer for something that started as a biological imperative, a survival mechanism, and has become outmoded in the modern day.

Is this the case, or is there really something heroic about holding life loosely? Is male expandability merely the result of human evolution, or does it parallel and point to a higher, metaphysical truth — a nobler, better way to choose to live, regardless of biology?

The answer really all comes down to the individual man, and his personal outlook on the meaning of life.

Today we tend to value the quantity of life as the greatest good. We carefully tend to our health, trying different diets and supplements in the hope of extending our years. We’re willing to undergo any and all medical interventions, even to squeeze out just a few more months of pain-ridden, compromised mortality. We play it very safe — seatbelts, air bags, security systems, smoke detectors. Only a very small segment of the population will engage in anything deemed dangerous or unnecessarily life-threatening; for most people, even something like owning a motorcycle is completely out of the question, and just plain stupid. We just want to make it to very, very old age in one piece and die peacefully in our sleep. Scientists, both amateurs and professional, are even working to “cure” that inevitability — hopeful they can add a few more decades to the human life span, and eventually, make us immortal.

There’s another way of looking at life — one much more foreign to us — and that’s to judge it not on its quantity but its quality. In this view, spending a short time in a cause greater than oneself or simply experiencing a flash of glory, excitement, and/or adventure, even if the result is an early death — is worth more than multiple decades of a safe but mediocre existence. What use is it to gain years by counting calories and looking both ways, if nothing remarkable or terribly meaningful happens in all that time? As Seneca pointedly asks those who are shuffling through a miserable, mediocre existence, and yet say they are afraid to die: “What! are you alive now?” Certainly, it’s hard not to see the irony in the fact that at the very same time scientists are working to extend mortality, more and more people are experiencing their current life span as empty and meaningless. To those who see life — in terms of mere mortality — as “cheap,” we have forgotten what General Creighton Abrams argued in distilling down what has been called the warrior’s credo: “There are many things in life worse than dying.”

From this second view, the compensations of living dangerously, of seeing one’s life as expendable, are worth the risk. It is a perspective well summed up by Captain John Alexander Hottell, commander of the Army’s 1st Calvary Division during Vietnam, who penned this letter to his wife — to be opened in the event of his death — shortly before dying in a helicopter crash:

“I am writing my own obituary . . . [because] I am quite simply the last authority on my own death.

I loved the Army; it reared me, it nurtured me, and it gave me the most satisfying years of my life. Thanks to it I have lived an entire lifetime in 26 years. It is only fitting that I should die in its service. We all have but one death to spend, and insofar as it can have any meaning, it finds it in the service of comrades in arms.

And yet, I deny I died FOR anything—not my Country, not my Army, not my fellow man, none of these things. I LIVED for these things, and the manner in which I chose to do it involved the very real chance that I would die in the execution of my duties. I knew this and accepted it, but my love for West Point and the Army was great enough—and the promise that I would someday be able to serve all the ideals that meant anything to me through it was great enough—for me to accept the possibility as a part of a price which must be paid for all things of great value. If there is nothing worth dying for—in this sense—there is nothing worth living for.

The Army let me live in Japan, Germany, and England, with experiences in all these places that others only dream about. . . . I have climbed Mount Fuji, visited the ruins of Athens, Ephesus, and Rome . . . and earned a master’s degree in a foreign university. I have known what it is like to be married to a fine and wonderful woman and to love her beyond bearing with the sure knowledge that she loves me; I have commanded a company and been father, priest, income-tax advisor, confessor, and judge to 200 men at a time; I have played college football and rugby, won the British national Diving Championship two years in a row, boxed for Oxford against Cambridge only to be knocked out in the first round. . . . I have been an exchange student at the German Military Academy, and gone to the German jumpmaster school. I have made thirty parachute jumps from everything from a balloon in England to a jet at Fort Bragg. I have written an article for Army magazine, and I have studied philosophy.

I have experienced all these things because I was in the Army and because I was an Army brat. The Army is my life, it is such a part of what I was that what happened is the logical outcome of the life I lived. I never knew what it was to fail, I never knew what it is to be too old or too tired to do anything. I lived a full life in the Army, and it has exacted the price. It is only just.”

Life, Death, and the Difficult Questions of Male Expendability

There are no easy answers in choosing between these perspectives and taking a view on the merit or demerit of male expendability. Just many difficult questions.

A man may accept the risk to his own life inherent in a certain endeavor, but when does his death exact too much of a price on others? Is it worth a man going to war if he single, but not if he is married? What if he has kids? How does one weigh the net benefit to a man’s country from his death against the cost to his own family? Does the scale only tip towards the former if the cause for which he fights directly affects his loved ones and/or is just? What if he risks his life not for the sake of a just war, but only for the pleasure of going on an adventure? Can embarking on a dangerous, voluntary expedition only be justified if you’re a bachelor? When does the generosity of expendability become selfishness?

Is it better, as Jack London put it, “to be ashes than dust”? Is a lifetime of pretty good memories and decent experiences more or less valuable than a brief time spent at the summits of meaning and excitement, followed by early death?

Did a strong culture of male expendability in times past exploit men, or did it push more of them into a shorter, but more meaningful life — into the fulfillment of their genetic destiny? If the virtue of male expendability partly rests on its requirement of the mastery of will, does a military draft then remove this virtue? Can there only be meaning in male expendability if the individual wills that expendability himself and submits to a voluntary death, rather than that expendability being determined for him?

Is masculinity ultimately even possible in the absence of expendability? If so much of manhood has been shaped by the male imperative to embrace risk, to hold life cheaply, is it possible to live a manly life in an age devoid of danger? If you unduly fear death?

Perhaps the only answer that can be agreed upon is a “No” to that final question. Barton remarks, “For the Ancient Romans, the border between life and death was at the center of existence. For us, life is at the center and death is at the periphery.” Maybe we can all agree that greater masculinity hinges on moving the place of death somewhere closer to the beating heart of things.

How close, well, that’s up to you.

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