Heroic Masochism (new paper)

Perhaps nothing has been more detrimental to scholarship than the dissociation of the study of politics and history from psychology. Why this will to separate one domain from the other? Perhaps in order to maintain the illusion of politics and history as a “sacred space”—not bound to limitations and ordinary human motives.

During my many years studying societal or collective forms of violence, I’ve often used the term “sacrifice” in writings and lectures. More recently (e.g., discussing the First World War in this Newsletter), I’ve preferred the terms “slaughter” or “destruction” or “self-destruction.” By using these words (as compared to “sacrifice”), one strips radical forms of collective violence of transcendental meaning.

I often reflect on the fact that I rarely (more accurately, almost never) have come across the term “masochism” in hundreds of books I’ve read on battle, warfare and soldiers. The title of Steven Gardiner’s paper, “Heroic Masochism,” provides illumination. By linking the term “masochism” to the term “heroism,” the idea of sacrifice for one’s nation loses its glamor.

A veteran of the Second World War stated that, “The basic hero is the dead soldier.” According to Carolyn Marvin, “Blood sacrifice preserves the nation. Society depends on the death of its own members at the hands of the group.” If there was no such thing as a hero (a human being willing to die for his or her country), there could be no such thing as blood sacrifice. Without blood sacrifice, what would become of the idea of the nation?

We prefer to separate political causes from the behavior of soldiers. Though we may disagree with a particular war, we honor and revere soldiers for their sacrifices. However, is it possible to separate warfare from the behavior of soldiers? Doesn’t the very existence of warfare depend on the fact that some people are willing (or required) to sacrifice their lives?

We are aware of the social and historical meanings bound to the ideology of warfare and behavior of soldiers. Military organizations function according to the idea of “honor.” Soldiers conceive of their actions as noble sacrifices made in the name of and for the sake of the group.

However, what about the actual experience of soldiers: the psychic meaning of his or her endurance of pain and suffering; willingness to entertain the possibility of death and bodily mutilation. This is the subject of Steven Gardiner’s important paper.

The extracts here have been substantially edited by the LSS staff—for purposes of ease of reading and comprehension in Newsletter format. We hope you will read this important paper in its entirety, which appears here.

Thanks so much for your time and attention.

Excerpts from Heroic Masochism appear below

Soldiers, Misery and Death

Soldiers practice being miserable, and thereby learn to cope with the heightened emotions and flaring tempers brought on by chronic fatigue, unpredictable meals, and bad weather. Soldiers learn about their own mortality, the most ambivalent lesson: the reality and finality of death. It is precisely death that is the center of what it means to “be a (military) man.” Instead of being the one who expels, I become that which is expelled, leaving behind not myself, but a rotting corpse.

Purging Weakness

Every soldier is monitored and expected to self-monitor constantly for signs of weakness—that must be purged. Such weakness, of course, already exists in each of us by virtue of the actual fragility of our bodies, and our lives in the face of punishing climates, deadly weapons, and opportunistic infections.

To turn abject, penetrable and soft bodies into soldiers, institutions perform comprehensive surveillance. They create and demand high stake performances, monitor and test urine, blood and feces—and measure body fat percentages. The despised properties become a permanent part of the soldierly self. He (or she) must never forget what must be rejected, and this is paired with the special understanding that every soldier—no matter how hard—always risks slipping into abjection, and thus expulsion from the social/institutional body of the military.

In this context of ruthless competition, the myth of masculine plenitude is generated, a myth that amounts to the displacement of a shared human legacy of inevitable abjection—displaced not only onto women, but onto feminizable subjects. It is the context in which gender-authorizing institutions—men’s clubs, fraternities, religious organizations, schools, colleges and professions—have thrived. These institutions certify certain forms of masculinity and its privileges, often marking such belonging with rites that paradoxically involve reminders and experiences of abjection, including whipping, flailing, beating, and other forms of terrorization. The very rites so often used both to solemnize institutional awards of gender and to train the bodies and minds of initiates—almost invariably subject applicants to the very forms of abjection that masculine status supposedly will allow them to elide.

Heroism and Erotic Masochism

The mechanism of inclusion typically involves the use of pain and inculcation of heroic masochism. What allows heroism—other than association with countless narratives that showcase necessary suffering as a stage in the development of heroes (from the Labors of Heracles to the Passion of the Christ)—is the repression of the erotic potential of abjection.

This is not to say that this desire is eliminated. Rather, it is attached—not to the experience of abjection—but to the socially authorized purpose: group belonging, thwarting the enemy, preserving comrades, obedience to the institution, the redemption of the world—glossed in the phrase “the greater good.” This requires the pretense that “such sacrifices” have nothing to do with the horrifically fascinating and perverse attraction of the abject.

Heroic masochism, then, is the socially useful suppression of abject masochism. It valorizes sacrifice and finds meaning and purpose in suffering. Yet at the level of erotic arousal, its distance from abject masochism is never more than the flip of a switch. The selfish and the selfless merge in the uses of pain.

Heroic masochism achieves its most socially potent forms precisely in those cases where pain is multiplied to infinity—in burning, dismemberment, and crucifixion. Few can imagine the victim to harbor secret and equally infinite pleasures. Yet the construction of such experiences as sublime and transcendent depends precisely on the capacity to imagine the unimaginable: that annihilation through suffering and abject masochism is linked with something desirable: union with the infinite, communion with the divine, or obtaining permanent victory in the name of a nation.

Taking it Like a Man

Low crawling involves dragging yourself along with your body pressed as closely to the ground as possible, on your belly, keeping your head down: a useful technique if you are taking fire with little cover. It is, however, extremely uncomfortable and creates a lot of friction. Uniforms and body armor in the field minimize the bruising and scraping.

A drill sergeant liked to assign his soldier to low crawl in the barracks, along the smooth linoleum floor, in their underwear. The result was copious self-inflicted friction burns, like rug burns, on the knees, toes, elbows and at times faces and ears—as the sergeant stomped along behind those being punished, demanding they go faster and stay down.

Such non-standard physical punishment is frowned upon in the US Army but is nonetheless common. In my interviews and my own experience, I have encountered dozens of soldiers and veterans who were personally subjected to unauthorized, technically illegal training techniques. Not every soldier will be under the direct authority of a sadistic drill sergeant who makes it a point to go beyond the prescribed training techniques, but virtually every US soldier will have witnessed or heard of such excesses.

The excesses become part of the training milieu. And while soldiers with less “hardcore” trainers often feel sorry for those subjected to such punishments, soldiers in these platoons often take perverse pride in what they endure, and develop an awestruck respect for the drill sergeant.

The Privilege of Suffering

While risking injury or death in war might not seem like a privilege, it has been repeatedly constructed as such: as an opportunity to bond with the sacred nation. The benefit to those who become casualties might be considered as evanescent. However, the privileges accrue collectively, not just to soldiers, but to men as a class. Their participation as victim or perpetrator enmeshes men in a system that is reinforced by the most popular and well known narratives our culture has produced. Who doesn’t want to be a hero? This is more than a rhetorical question. The warrants for masculine privilege have their roots in the notion that suffering is, or ought to be, good for the soul.

Pain and its psycho-emotional kindred—humiliation, shame, anxiety—are at base forms of arousal that can be, and often are, invested with erotic energy. The investment, because perverse, and doubly perverse in the context of masculine homosocial environments, is to an extent unspeakable, unknowable. It is a powerful font of affect that attaches men to groups via the narrative of the greater good.

Suffering, then, has a purpose: service to the group, the family, the nation. The perversely alluring dread and ambivalence associated with initiation in the group—with acts of heroism, sacrifice, and death—are tamed. This structure underwrites masculine privilege and bonds men together—concretely and in the general sense of overvaluing values associated with a capacity to suffer willingly: toughness, self-discipline, emotional control, and discounting consequences to self or to others.

gardinerAbout the author: Dr. Steven Gardiner is assistant professor of anthropology at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. His research focuses on military institutions, nationalism, gender (particularly masculinity), and social movements. His 2010 chapter, “Relationships of War: Mothers, Soldiers, Knowledge” was included in Women, War and Violence: Personal Perspectives and Global Activism. His entry on “Militia Groups,” was included in The Encyclopedia of War and American Society (2006). He previously served the Portland-based Coalition for Human Dignity as an editor and director of research.