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.[1]

                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.

1. Gene Pflughaupt was drafted into the US Army and served at the tail end of the Battle of the Bulge. He had not spoken of his experiences in the war until very recently due to his belief that so many had it so much worse than himself. He only speaks out now due to the lack of veterans still alive. 
2. Omar L. Tatum and his identical twin brother never saw combat, but instead trained as experts in bayonet fighting in order to serve as instructors. At age 65, Omar started his own candy company. 
3. Prentice Ball could have been exempt from serving in the military due to the fact that his three older brothers had all volunteered, but at 17 years old he decided to sign up in the Navy anyway.
4. Though not a man, Helen Evans became a Captain in the Women's Army Corps and was in charge of food distribution for military forts across the United States. The call of duty and the desire to prove one's capabilities was not reserved for men. Hundreds of thousands of women served in military branches as well as combat nurse positions.  
5. Ronald Van Stockum, the son of a British soldier who died in World War I's Battle of the Somme, rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the US Marine Corps as he fought across the Pacific theatre and in post-war settlements. He turned 100 years old on July 8, 2016. 
6. Bluford Smith has served as the Deputy Coroner for Floyd County for over 40 years, and he is still technically active on the volunteer rescue team and fire department he started there after returning from war. He claims the war desensitized him to death, allowing him to face it every day for the last four decades. 
7. Lawrence Hogue served in the 11th Airborne Division of the US Army as a paratrooper. Paratrooper divisions had notoriously high casualties in World War II, especially those who served in the Philippines, as Lawrence did. Lawrence began working on his family's farm, as he did the rest of his professional life, the hour after he got home from the war. 

[1] Leisa D. Meyer, “Creating GI Jane,” Feminist Studies, 18, no. 3, (1992) 582.  

What Makes a Man?