An American soldier comforts a fellow infantryman whose close friend has been killed in action, Haktong-ni area, Korea, August 1950. (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Are men losing the chance to love other men?

The modern trend to write off male camaraderie as “bromance” is doing great harm to young men

What counts as “the love that dare not speak its name” is undergoing a noticeable shift these days. Given the huge progress made in gay rights, it seems increasingly irrelevant to use the phrase in its traditional form.

The phrase derives from Lord Alfred Douglas’s 1892 poem “Two Loves” and used to serve as a euphemism for homosexuality. The poem was published two years later in The Chameleon magazine to scandalous acclaim and that line was invoked by Oscar Wilde at his trial for gross indecency in 1895. Nowadays, with gay love seemingly never more celebrated, the phrase seems far more applicable to the realm of platonic brotherly love: what the Greeks called philia.

This type of love is of course not a prerogative of heterosexual men, and yet a deeper recognition and appreciation of it appears to be one of the casualties of the ongoing assault against The Patriarchy and its denizens of so-called toxic masculinity. Popular culture has compounded the damage by portraying masculinity in simplistically negative terms, argues the American poet and writer Robert Bly in his bestselling 1990 book Iron John: Men and Masculinity, which dissects how masculinity and manhood have become increasingly maligned in modern society—especially in academia and the media—resulting in younger men turning away from the more positive aspects of their XY chromosome birth right.

The camaraderie among soldiers is something which the civilian world just can’t seem to emulate

Bly applauds feminist movements for forcing men to examine women’s history and the wrongs inflicted on women. This has caused many men to become more thoughtful and gentler: a process Bly calls “wonderful and necessary.” But he also notes how it appears to have been at the cost of a type of male integrity and vitality. “They’re lovely, valuable people—I like them—they’re interested in not harming the earth or starting wars,” Bly says of the new form of man that has emerged since the 1960s—but he concludes that many are not happy. “You quickly notice the lack of energy in them,” he says, describing the absence of any wildness or life-affirming fierceness. “They are life-preserving but not exactly life-giving.” The sum total of all this, he says, is “the increasing monotony and bareness in contemporary men’s lives.”

All this was brought to mind while recently watching the 2003 period war-drama film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World with an old friend who joined the British Army around the same time as me and whom I recently reconnected with at the end of my Camino pilgrimage through Portugal. His wife had left us to it following dinner, retreating to bed while rolling her eyes as my friend and I sang the praises, as we are prone to do, of Patrick O’Brian’s series of 20 sea novels—the first of which is Master and Commander—set during the Napoleonic Wars and focussing on the adventures of captain Jack Aubrey and his best friend and ship’s surgeon-cum-government spy Stephen Maturin, on which the film is based.

In our defence, both O’Brian’s novels and the film directed by Peter Weir—who also directed the prescient genre bending comedy film The Truman Show—are exemplars of their crafts. O’Brian was described in a Times Literary Supplement article last year as writing in the genre of C. S. Forester but with the elegance of Jane Austen, all the while weaving plots with the sophistication of John le Carré, populated by characters that had the depth of Tolstoy and sustained by an imagination with the immersive qualities of Proust and Joyce. The film garnered 10 Oscar nominations and was recently described by Russell Crowe, who impeccably portrayed the essence of Jack Aubrey in the film, as “brilliant … an exacting, detail oriented, epic tale of fidelity to Empire and service, regardless of the cost.”

The army unit was everything: forged by a love that transcended class, personality and education

Crowe had been replying to a Tweet from Ian McNabb, an English singer-songwriter and musician, who had suggested that those struggling with sleeplessness during the Covid-19 pandemic watch Master and Commander. To the credit of McNabb, who suddenly found his light-hearted Tweet taken to task by Crowe, he bowed out gracefully—The Guardian, on the other hand, took this interaction as need for an article about Crowe’s supposed inclination for bolshiness and not accepting criticism, which seems a slight case of the pot calling the kettle black.

In addition to the sweeping cinematography, the stunning level of detail, the rollickingly engaging plot: what the film also captures so well—especially given its two-hour limited capacity—from the books is the intense camaraderie and sense of philia that exists between the two main protagonists and among the other seamen, which my friend and I knew too well from our time in the British military. So, too, did C. S. Lewis, whose World War I experience left a lasting impression on his view of male friendship.

“In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself,” Lewis wrote in his 1960 book The Four Loves, which he breaks down into their Greek representatives: storge – affection, philia – the friend bond discussed here, eros – romantic love, agape – unconditional God-related love. “He stands for nothing but himself. No one cares two-pence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts.”

In Iraq you had the most tangible relationships you’ve ever had

That’s pretty much how it was out in Iraq during Operation Telic 4 among the troops I deployed with. There was a blissful sense of community: a communal satisfaction tapping into a primordial core. It revolved around the soldiers doggedly looking out for each other—even for their maddening young officers. Obviously, it wasn’t a total love-in. Some soldiers disliked you, perhaps even worse as they eyed the safety catch on their rifle, as did some of your fellow officers. But this tended to be the exception, and any personal enmity that did exist was typically put aside in the name of a greater code of comradeship that sustained the army. This camaraderie is something which the civilian world just can’t seem to emulate. In Iraq you had the most tangible relationships you’ve ever had. People didn’t look through you. It was the most utopian experience those of us there will ever know. Possessions, backgrounds and ranks counted for little – just as Lewis described. The group was everything: forged by a love that transcended class, personality and education.

That’s why for all veterans—whether of Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan—it is so wrenching to meet up with friends and comrades afterwards. Each of us knows how the special realm that nurtured our intense friendship is gone, and how we’re now marooned among the mundane demands and petty recriminations of everyday life.

“Veterans’ reunions are invariably filled with boozy awkwardness, forced camaraderie ending in sadness and tears,” William Broyles, a former platoon commander in Vietnam, wrote in the 1984 Esquire article Why Men Love War. “You are together again, these are the men who were your brothers, but it’s not the same, can never be the same.”

But it’s not just because that special realm has vanished. It has something to do with the nature of the civilian realm—especially the modern alienated Western variant—and with how men are meant to behave in it. In the book Tribe, the American journalist, author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger argued that one of the causes of post-traumatic stress disorder for many veterans is the loss of a sense of community and common purpose—a tribal connection—when troops return to civvy street.

Junger noted how, decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lamented that English settlers were constantly fleeing over to the Indians, but Indians almost never did the same. “Tribal society has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years,” Junger pointed out, the reason lying deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species and the eternal human quest for meaning. This, he said, may explain the irony of how, for many veterans as well as civilians, war can feel better than peace and “adversity can turn out to be a blessing.”

For an organisation that is ultimately primed to kill the enemy, there was very little malice in the army

As British Army officers we were taught about the battle-winning necessity of identifying and holding the so-called vital ground. This was defined as ground of such importance that it must be retained or controlled at all cost for the success of the mission. Increasingly, modern societies and their inhabitants—but especially men—seem to be struggling to both find and hold that vital ground. It seems increasingly elusive for young men in today’s ever shifting and complex modern world, which, while it seems to be adjusting to better accommodate the hopes and ambitions of young women, isn’t doing as much for disillusioned young men. The consequences manifest in the likes of porn addiction, substance abuse, domestic violence, embracing white supremacism, racism, xenophobia, nihilism and suicide. Many men seem entirely lost.

In his 1934 book English Journey, J. B. Priestley described a peacetime reunion of his World War I platoon and their reaction upon encountering, after many years, the man who had been their commanding officer. “Those rough chaps, brought up in an altogether alien tradition, adored him; and his heart went out to them. I caught a glimpse then—and I am not likely to forget it—of what leadership can mean in men’s lives.” The problem though, Priestley explained, is how “the long years of a snarling peace, in which everybody tended to suspect everyone else, had made me forget almost its very existence.” This leaves him lamenting the incongruity of how this “endearing quality of affectionate leadership” was conjured only during the “stupid long-range butchery” of the war—and never afterwards. “It is peace that is wrong,” Priestley said, “the civilian life to which they returned, a condition of things in which they found their manhood stunted, their generous impulses baffled, their double instinct for leadership and loyalty completely checked.” Priestley’s final conclusion was that “men are much better than their ordinary life allows them to be.”

Has much changed since World War I? All too often it still seems to take a war to allow men to find and explore their better natures, while outside of that peaceful society won’t deign to grant much of a chance. Much of the military eco-system—especially the officer-soldier dynamic—was more stable, caring and compassionate compared to the ruthless and cutthroat nature of many civilian interactions, especially when it comes to employment and business.

I find myself in a society enthralled to the apparatus of the internet and the digital realm

In the army the idea of self-sacrifice was a given and readily expected. Goodwill and kindness shown to others was abundant. There was even room for forgiveness, or at least sympathy, which is particularly out of favour these days. Especially now with trial by social media and the righteous mob, if you err you risk becoming an outcast, thrown into the pit of cancel culture. People shun, ignore and hurt others all too readily, and it is compounded by a heartless narrative—especially being peddled to young women—that this is empowering and an overdue settling of scores. That rarely happened in the army. For an organisation that is ultimately primed to kill the enemy, there was very little malice – rather quite the opposite: good-natured willingness, even compassion. I have never loved so many men.

“Few major social institutions teach moral integrity, courage, personal discipline, humility, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and commitment to the lives of others better than the armed services,” says Rita Brock, co-author of Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War, and the director of the US-based Shay Moral Injury Center. “And none works so thoroughly to compromise, deny, dismantle, and destroy the very value it teaches. This is the paradox of war.”

Despite all the military’s recent tragedy and folly, it’s impossible for a veteran confronted with the civilian world not to feel an acute loss over the positive aspects of the military life as alluded to by Brock: the clear purpose, the defined and cooperative hierarchy, the willing sacrifices, the sense of true brotherhood—all of which is so brilliantly displayed in the film Master and Commander, leaving anyone ex-military swooning in a nostalgic daze. The military maintains a sense of higher purpose and selfless love much more clearly than the civilian world, which appears to be racing toward losing touch with anything that may lend it a sense of meaning.

“Society is a machine for destroying love,” wrote the provocative French novelist Michel Houellebecq. He has a point. Having turned my back on tanks and jets and drones and increasingly technologically-advanced war machinery, I find myself in a society enthralled to the apparatus of the internet and the digital realm, even though such slavish obedience seems to be deepening our personal isolation, vulnerability and susceptibility. It’s forever getting harder to interact with those civilians I hoped to find outside the army—and that was well before Covid-19 turned everything on its head to exacerbate the trend—as people find portable screens fed by infinite data more interesting than interacting with a real person.

Most men of my generation will never experience the type of love I shared with my fellow soldiers

“This dystopian reality, where boys have seen rape pornography before their first kiss and girls base their value on sexy selfies, is belied by the warm, fuzzy straplines and mission statements of technology companies,” Josephine Bartosch recently wrote in The Critic on the dehumanising danger of social media. “It is perhaps not surprising that when young people, traumatised by digital exposure and with no solid sense of self, turn online, searching for an authoritative framework to make sense of their feelings, they often fall prey to a censorious, tyrannical groupthink.”

This is afflicting both sexes. But men have suffered in their own particular way for some time (the irony being that the feminist fightback has been so successful that many women are now experiencing this once predominantly male-related malaise too):

Contemporary business life allows competitive relationships only, in which major emotions are anxiety, tension, loneliness, rivalry and fear,” Bly writes. “After work what do men do? Collect in a bar to hold light conversations over light beer, unities which are broken off whenever a young woman comes by or touches the brim of someone’s cowboy hat. Having no soul union with other men can be the most damaging wound of all.

For all the problems associated with my military career, I will forever be deeply appreciative—and I am confident this applies to the majority who served—of how I experienced that type of companionship and philia with my fellow officers and soldiers: a love that most men of my generation, and perhaps all men in subsequent generations, may never know, appreciate or be made better by.

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