What Makes a Man?
All of these veterans have seen the definition of masculinity and the role of “the man” shift dramatically in the past seventy-plus years. The single, definable role of men in and around World War II seems to be an integral part of what made this generation the greatest. This was, after all, “when men were men.” It is impossible to talk about a war without some understanding of contextual conceptions of masculinity. In the early to mid-twentieth century, men served as bread winners and protectors for their wives and children. These two responsibilities, threatened and denied due to the Depression, reawakened with the rise of the war. Serving in the military gave a chance to assert one’s masculinity through violence in combat, through holding a commanding rank over other soldiers, through traveling, through fraternity, and through service to one’s country, which (thanks to the Depression) was now an integral if complicated component of masculinity.
Due largely to the age of these recently interviewed veterans, the war served as less of a chance to reassert their masculinity, and more of a chance to “earn” it all together. Many of these men, boys, really, had just graduated high school, some of them not even that, when they got called up for service. For them, the war presented a chance for autonomy, to set themselves apart from their childhoods and families, and earn their lives as men. Even those that didn’t see combat came out of the military far different from how they came in. For many, it served as a foundational experience, one that they now believe should be mandatory for all American youth, but mostly for men. It taught them discipline, teamwork, courage, and the importance, once again, of service to one’s country.
The negative effects of such demanding masculinity came about as well. The definition of masculinity really throughout the twentieth century did not include weakness or vulnerability. Therefore, many of these veterans experienced a great trauma in war and combat, but simply had to swallow any of the nasty after-effects of that after coming home. The opinions about what we now understand as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, formerly referred to as “shell shock,” vary even amongst the small collection of interviews. Many discount it due to lack of understanding or experience with it. The great majority say that they dealt with their traumatic experience by pushing it aside; it seemed like the only tactful response when so many men did not come back at all. A couple men, however, if they do not completely understand that they have experienced some effects of PTSD, prove they have through stories or mannerisms. Some of these men, still in their teenage years during their service, experienced formative moments of trauma that have now festered for seventy years in an attempt to maintain the outdated ideal of masculinity.
 Leisa D. Meyer, “Creating GI Jane,” Feminist Studies, 18, no. 3, (1992) 582.