As we mark the centenary of the start of World War I, Glen Poole considers the question: “Do men start wars?”
Asking if men start wars may seem like a stupid question. Whoever heard of a warmongering leader called Adele Hitler, Wilma the Conqueror or Matilda the Hun? Nobody!
It only takes a cursory glance at the history books to reveal that the major players in the history of warfare have always been men. But then again, how many of us actually know a man who has started a war? I certainly don’t and the last time I looked, I was still a man and I still haven’t launched any major armed conflicts.
And yet somehow, as men, we are expected to share collective responsibility for the horrors of war (in a way that women aren’t). In February, for example, the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, told us the use of rape as weapon of war “should shame all men” and that to avoid confronting this issue “is in itself unmanly”.
Do “men as a class” start wars?
And therein lies the true meaning in the question “Do men start wars?” It is not a question of whether men like Adolph, William and Attila start wars, because we know they surely do. The actual question I want you to consider is this: “Do all men— men as a class—start wars?”
It’s certainly a belief that many people hold. As the anti-war MP, George Galloway, righteously observed on BBC Question Time this year:
“[We were told]…for years in the Labour Party, if only we could get more women into parliament there’d be fewer wars, less aggression and all of that. There was 101 ‘Blair babes’ elected in 1997 and all but three of them voted for every war that Tony Blair took us into.”
So where does this idea come from, this notion that men as a group collectively start wars? Is it a post-modern invention of what the right-wing media might call the trendy, liberal left?
The ancient Greeks linked voting and fighting
It may sound like a feminist-inspired belief, but you could argue that the idea that “all men” start wars is at least as old as the ancient Greeks, whose democratic city states were founded on the principle that citizens were given the privilege of voting, only by accepting the responsibility of fighting.
Fast forward to 1914 and in Britain, millions of men bore the responsibility of fighting, without enjoying the privilege of voting. These brave men fought for King and country, not because they were male and liked to have a bit of a war every now and then, but because of the social expectation that it is “men’s work” to protect women and children, even if that means putting your own life at risk.
Some experts, like Dr Amanda Robinson at Cardiff University claim that “masculinity is associated with violence in most cultures”. If this is true, then we should ask ourselves if masculinity is a cause of violence or a consequence of violence?
Is masculinity a cause of violence?
When war kicks off, do we want the men around us to be more or less masculine? As conscientious objectors have learnt at times of war, we all (men and women) seem to carry an expectation that men will live up to the primordial masculine directive to protect the weak.
If men as a group are responsible for starting wars, then we should also remember that men and boys die disproportionately in wars accounting for 83% of violent deaths in global conflicts each year. And more importantly, men should be given credit for ending wars too.
In reality, war is far too complex to dismiss as a manmade problem. It wasn’t a man who took us to war in The Falklands, it was Margaret Thatcher; it wasn’t a man who took India to war with Pakistan, it was Indira Ghandi; it wasn’t a man who was Secretary of State when U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, it was Hilary Clinton.
And it was Hilary Clinton who famously said in 1998 that “women have always been the primary victims of war”; the same Hilary Clinton who complained last year that the media failed to highlight the fact that when bin Laden was killed, they moved wives and children “to a safe location so they wouldn’t be hurt”.
Notice how politicians like Clinton and Hague tell a story of war where women and children are the victims and all men should be ashamed. This demonstrates just how deeply ingrained our beliefs that “men should protect women” are. For as long as women and men believe this, there will always be an expectation that men should be “real men” and fight our wars if needed.
So what does this tell us about the question “Do men start wars”?
War is simply and brutally the use of force to get others to do what you want them to do. It’s a tendency that is inherent in all human beings, as a trip to any pre-school nursery at playtime will show you.
To war is human and it is not men, but the people in power who ultimately make the choices that take us to war. If the last Labour government is any guide, more women in power does not mean fewer wars, it just means more women have the opportunity to vote for men to fight and die.
From Boudica to Bloody Mary to the Iron Lady, British women in power have been sending British men to war for centuries and as we have written elsewhere this week, women who are not in “power” can also play a huge role in applying social pressure on men to fight.
What’s changed in the last 50-100 years is that there are now more women than ever before with the political power to vote for or against war. The “masculine” role of political leadership is no longer reserved exclusively for men of the political classes.
It’s still men who are dying in war
At the same time, the “masculine” role of warrior, as defined by the people we send to kill and be killed, has remained almost entirely male, for example, 99% of the 453 British military personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since 2001 are men.
Our belief that women and children’s lives are more valuable than men’s lives has also not changed. If we want to approach war as a gendered problem, it’s not the proportion of women in power we need to focus on, it’s the proportion of women in the military and our unequal concern for the death of men and boys in conflict.
Men don’t start wars, humans do and most humans still have the expectation that if a war comes our way, then it’s men who should protect us with their lives. For as long as we hold onto that expectation, men and women will continue to send men and boys to their deaths.
As we continue to mark the centenary of the start of World War I, it’s time to question the sexist use of men’s lives as the primary human resource in the wars that men and women start. It’s time to ask the question “Why do we send men and only men to die in war?”
—Photo credit: Flickr/Jayel Aheram
Article by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men
Also on insideMAN:
- Why Kitchener’s finger gives me the arsehole
- The bravery and brutality of being a conscientious objector: one man’s story
- Gaza: why doe it concern us more when women and children die
- Do I look like I’m ready for war? 17 year-old boy on conscription and WWI
- 100 years after WWI the UK sill sends teenage boys to fight its war
- I saw two men stop a fight between two women