Men and Guns: An Affinity for Steel

Tom Matlack, MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, and others weigh in on men, violence, and America’s gun culture.

I’ve been taking kickboxing with a mad Russian for a couple of years now, learning the proper technique for smashing my fist through another man’s brain stem. I’ve taken the NRA handgun course (got a perfect score on the exam), so I could get a license to carry a concealed weapon if I wanted to. I’ve also had long debates with friends who believe that violence in men is not innate.

I’m not so sure.

My desire to pound a heavy bag or the rush I get holding a gun is something I can’t explain. It scares me enough that I pursue activities—working out, meditation—designed to control my aggression. I have to work at being the man I want to be, rather than the animal I might be if I succumbed to my basest instincts. Despite having been born to a longstanding Quaker family, pacifism still doesn’t come naturally.

My instinct, though I obviously can’t prove it, is that male violence and our affinity for guns is tied to the pressures we face. Society tells us that we should be achievers and stay-at-home dads, breadwinners and emotionally present husbands, fighters and peacemakers—all at the same time. When I punch a heavy bag, fire a handgun at the range, or watch mixed martial arts, it’s a way to unleash the rage that’s welling up inside me.

So as much as it makes us uncomfortable, guys, we all have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, What is going on? Why do we love guns and violence so much?

Here are a few voices from those on the front lines of the battle over guns, manhood, and violence in American society.


I’ve owned firearms for about 35 years. I’ve used them for fun, I’ve used them for work, I’ve been forced on two occasions to use them against other human beings. I freely admit having to shoot a man is something that has haunted me every day of my life. I have good friends and a stellar family, which has helped a great deal over the decade between the event and today. Nobody ever wants to shoot someone; if they’re normal, it’s a wretched, heartbreaking circumstance.

Christopher Calkins, Pojoaque, New Mexico


I absolutely condemn any notion that having a gun makes anyone “manly.” That’s ridiculous and absurd. Like many, after the tragedy with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona happened last month, I have spent a lot of time evaluating how a tragic shooting like that happened. And I want to be crystal clear—the only person responsible for that shooting is the apparently mentally deranged, sick young man. As a country, we need to do something about the crisis of under-treated mental illness among our veterans and other mentally ill Americans who can‘t get the help they desperately need. We need to ask ourselves if Americans with mental illness should have access to firearms.

I will take the liberty to tell you that I own a lot of firearms. I hunt and fish. Deer rifles, 10-gauge, 12-gauge, 20-gauge. I’ve been doing it for 35 years. It’s part of my life and family. But I don’t own a pistol and I couldn’t imagine having a firearm, because I wouldn’t know what do with 30 rounds. Those guns are made to kill people.

Ed Schultz, host of MSNBC’s The Ed Show


I was 4 years old when a bullet took my father away from my brother and me. He was gunned down during an argument over money. Now I’m 35 and I think a lot about the relationship with him that was stolen from me due to senseless violence. For many men—especially men of color—that has become the way that arguments and disputes are handled. It’s up to individuals like myself and those personally affected by such violence to take a stand and speak out. Only then can we see real change.

Cyrus Webb, host of Conversations LIVE, Brandon, Missouri


Some people are violent and dangerous and that isn’t going to change. In the absence of guns, knives, and bats, even a kitchen pan could be used to commit a violent act with equally devastating results.

Jordan Gottlieb, Mansfield, Texas


On July 25, 1993, I thwarted a terrorist attack on the St. James Church in Cape Town, South Africa. Terrorists attacked the congregation with hand grenades and automatic assault rifles during an evening service. I returned fire with a small .38 special revolver and hit one of the attackers. They fled. I then pursued them on foot and fired another three shots at them at the getaway car, which they jumped into and drove off. The attack became known as the St. James Massacre—11 people were murdered and over 50 injured. The police said that many more would have died had I not returned fire.

Charl van Wyk, Christian missionary, Springfield, Virginia


I have legally carried a concealed handgun for over four years. In doing so, I have an increased sense of responsibility, and an increased need to avoid violent encounters. This is due to a heightened sense of awareness of my surroundings. I carry a firearm to physically defend myself and my family if needed, while I avoid using it to protect myself and family from civil litigation regardless of the legal justification. Carrying a firearm may allow me to defuse a violent encounter by drawing the weapon without actually using it, but the alternative to not having it would be simply to fight, risking injury to myself and the attacker. An armed society is a polite society.

William Elsner, law enforcement officer, Sitka, Alaska


I lost my brother when I was 16. A teenager, just six days younger than I was, shot him while he was on duty as a cab driver. My brother had three children and was just shy of his 26th birthday.

Natalie Nicole Gilbert, singer-songwriter, Los Angeles


In America, approximately 91 percent of all felons are men, or, in other words, less than 10 percent of all inmates in our prisons are female offenders. Men have a monopoly on crime and violence, and this includes gun violence. There are many reasons offered by experts to explain why this is so, ranging from a lack of family values during the rearing years, social and cultural influences such as violent video games and movies, gang memberships, emotional and mental imbalance, and more—and yet with all of these ideas not one of them completely or correctly explains men’s propensity toward violence. It should be obvious to point out that alcoholism and drug abuse are significant factors, if not at the very core of much of the violence.

William C. Allan, director, Corner Post Friends, Washington, D.C.


I am a female, a former law enforcement officer, and a hunter. My husband is a retired law enforcement officer and a hunter. The vast majority of gun-owning/carrying men are not violent and do not use weapons to bully or empower themselves. Weak-minded and unprincipled men hit those they believe are weaker than they are and use whatever is at hand to bully or intimidate others, men or women. The theory that men who own and use guns are somehow more violent than a male counterpart who does not is ridiculous.

Elizabeth R. Dilts, Orlando, Florida


I’m 65 and not a violent person, but I am a responsible gun owner and absolutely support the right to keep and bear arms. I’m an occasional recreational shooter. The fact that we have police, courts, corrections officers, and prisons shows that good intentions alone are not sufficient to protect us; there are a lot of varmints out there and not all of them are locked up.

Guns are why we are not still a British colony. Guns are why Hitler and Hirohito don’t rule the world. Guns are why Israel still exists.

Mike Arman, Florida


I lived in Iran during the Iran/Iraq war. Discovering that there are actually people in the world who are obsessed with guns was a jarring realization. I mean, here I was living in a country that was actually at war and had an actual revolution fresh in the minds of the average citizen, and yet I can’t tell you about a single occasion where I saw someone showing off guns or glamorizing them on TV. Guns were considered to be a horrible, necessary tool and a fact of life.

Arash Afshar, San Diego, California


I’ve owned and shot guns for over 40 years, and I’ve trained about 22 women, most of whom went on to get a license to carry and legally protect themselves. I will say that, without exception, every woman I have ever taught to shoot says that she feels more empowered! And only a few of them had experienced any physical or sexual abuse. It’s a great equalizer for women who have felt dominated or abused—as long as they follow the law and constantly check their own attitudes.

Jack Cleary, Boston, Massachusetts


In the U.S. we live in a society that is fear-based. Men have not been supported in the innate ability to feel safe in this world. They are taught at a young age that they need to conquer and destroy, and are given guns to create this false sense of security.

Dr. Valerie Lane Simonsen, licensed naturopathic physican and shaman, Hawaii


My husband and I are both gun owners. We live in Virginia. I inherited my 12-gauge shotgun from my dad and I was an NRA member and sharpshooter bar 3 with my own .22 rifle when I was 9 years old. Those of us from the middle of the country (Arkansas and Oklahoma) grow up handling guns safely, and many help our parents and grandparents feed the families with hunting. Guns have always been precious tools for survival.

My husband is a retired Marine and an NRA shooting instructor. He loves target shooting, but only last year went on a hunting trip. The antelope he shot has fed us for six months, and we are grateful. So, yes, we are pro-gun people. We accept that guns are a fact of life in the U.S.

Sherrye Landrum, Virginia


As a Marine I learned that guns were not bad. They were for protecting self and others—killing only when necessary to protect life. That organic self-others balance is not being understood or has been lost in our society; now it is skewed toward the self. Over emphasis on self-protection insidiously turns into self-projection. Guns are sometimes wielded by the untrained to make a statement about personal power or invulnerability—and when I say untrained, I mean untrained in moral values—and this can lead to inappropriate use of them. We see the phenomenon in MMA as well. Martial arts, which was also designed as a set of self- and others’-protection skills, has become more about proving personal toughness or manliness—or even womanliness. But the problem is not the gun or the martial arts skills, the problem is values.

Jack Hoban, subject matter expert, U.S. Marine Corps Martial Arts Program


As early as it was legal for me to do so, I began carrying a gun. I carry a gun out of love for my wife, daughter, and fellow citizens. I don’t know if I could handle seeing someone carry out a violent act on an innocent person, knowing that if I had done my due diligence, I could have prevented it. It’s a love for life and people that compels me to carry. And for what it’s worth, I’ve gone through safety training and take safety seriously.

—Stephen Smith, Bellingham, Washington


Men are unconsciously attracted to guns because guns are phallic symbols. Therefore, they make men feel more manly and powerful. Men are also more likely to consume violent media—movies, video games, TV, music—which cumulatively makes them more aggressive. The epidemic of guns and violence is due not only to years of violent media being consumed, but also to men feeling increasingly emasculated in a scary world.

—Carole Lieberman, M.D., former chair of the National Coalition on TV Violence, Los Angeles, California


Louisville Sluggers are meant for playing baseball, but many are used as weapons. Registering, licensing, or banning baseball bats or bat owners will have no effect on crime. Our national pastime would become extremely difficult while criminals will simply steal bats or use another tool. There are approximately 22,000 “gun-control” laws nationally and not one can be demonstrated to have prevented any crime whatsoever. What these laws have accomplished is to create a huge criminal black market in guns by making them commodities. In over 42 years as a firearms instructor, I have yet to hear of a valid method for preventing the criminal use of firearms. Any attempts only unnecessarily burden legitimate use. Laws only affect those inclined to obey them.

—Craig R. Brownell, chief instructor, Minnesota Pistol Class, Minnesota


Guns don’t kill people. Absent parents (who allow violence-laced television and Internet and juvenile-delinquent street gangs) kill people. What percentage of those youth who trained in value-based organizations such as the NRA, Scouts, etc., actually commit crimes of any type? Compare that to the youth abandoned to grow up on their own.

—Dale Brakhage, father of two, Indian Springs, Alabama


Much of what needs to happen is an honest conversation about issues related to masculinity and violence. Many people have circled around this subject, especially in terms of the intensifying debate about guns. The Tucson massacre has revived debate (for the moment) about our country’s gun laws, and the astounding power of the NRA to block commonsense regulations. Some people go beyond the power of the gun lobby and ask larger questions about our culture, such as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who asks repeatedly: What’s the obsession with guns? But few, if any, voices in mainstream media have discussed the connection between guns, violence, and American ideals of manhood.

Amazingly, this connection has not been part of the mainstream coverage of Tucson or any of the rampage killings in recent years. The trouble is, you can’t change a social phenomenon until you can at least identify and name it. Each time one of these horrific acts of violence occurs, commentators and editorial writers hone in on every relevant factor they can identify—mental illness, the availability of handguns, the vitriolic tone of talk radio and cable TV—and leave out what is arguably the most important factor: gender.

—Jackson Katz, Ph.D., educator, author, and filmmaker


I’m so sick of people blaming guns for all the violence that goes on. If it wasn’t guns it would be something else. Do we try to ban knives when someone gets stabbed?

Not having a gun is just irresponsible. Being a man means being able to defend yourself and your family. It’s in our nature; we’re not meant to be a bunch of metrosexual pansies. We were put here to provide for our families and protect them. Having a weapon is just part of being a man.

I think there is an epidemic of people over-reporting sensational gun stories to advance a political agenda. It’s not law-abiding citizens who are killing people; it’s criminals who have grown up to believe they have no hope for a better life. We have become a culture that does not value life.

I think the problem is we don’t have enough men in our current culture. We have become a society that dismisses the value that men play in a child’s life. If you look at the people who are committing crimes, it’s usually ones who grew up without a father.

—Robert Richardson, Off Grid Survival, Las Vegas, Nevada


It is clear to me that guns are an extension of manhood for so many of us American males. In a world where we’ve been taught via school, mass-media culture, sports, and our communities that to be a man is to be aggressive, in control, and, yes, violent, being obsessed with guns is its logical conclusion. Until we begin to change definitions of manhood to peace, love, nonviolence, and the ability to settle conflicts or beefs civilly, gunplay will remain a very viable option for far too many of us.

—Kevin Powell, activist and writer, Brooklyn, New York


I lost my husband and a brother-in-law to guns.

My husband was killed near our goat ranch not far from Flagstaff. He was shot at close range with a sawed-off shotgun by two white men who both held grudges against him. The men did no time for the shooting, not even a full night in jail. Everyone I know out here owns a gun—everyone. Up to that point we did not. Needless to say, I own two big guns now, and wouldn’t want to live here without them.

—Sandra Benally, Navajo Reservation, northern Arizona


We’ve got to have a dialogue on guns. We never have a discussion because it’s so polarizing. We should all agree there’s no earthly reason to have a 30-shot magazine.

—Ted Kaufman, former Delaware senator

—Photo by paljoakim/Flickr

♦ ♦ ♦

Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.

About Tom Matlack

Thomas Matlack is a venture capitalist.


  1. Hard steel is a phallic symbol. It gives power. No more no less. Nothing to be embarrassed about, nothing to be ashamed of, just a fact. If you have to ask why, you are never going to get it.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Two problems. It appears that weapons prior to or in addition to guns–swords, knives, bows, and other pre-gunpowder weapons–are still popular with men. Some are collectors, some just find them. I got a souvenir court sword when visiting Toledo in Spain about thirty-five years ago. Some friends from Mexico gave me a what looks like a combination machete and cutlass with some nice engravings on it. Presto, I have two swords.
    Swords and guns don’t wear out. If you get one today, you’ll probably have it thirty years from now.
    It isn’t guns, it’s weapons. For a good look at the thinking on the ev-psych line, see Ardrey’s :African Genesis. His paleoanthropology is dated but the rest of the book seems spot-on.
    Weapons are tools. If you want to, or have to, go to trump in human relations, a tool helps. If the other guy goes to trump and you don’t, youi lose. Fairly simple. So do the people depending on you.
    As has been said elsewhere, the Swiss are pretty well armed but they don’t have the murders we do. Again, cultures. Non-hispanic whites in America are about as violent as the notably notable Luxembourgers. Other American cultures have different rates of violence, including gun violence.
    Guns are not a support to masculinity except ina few folks who have terribly wounded senses of self. For the most part they are a tool, and a good man is suppose to be prepared. Jumper cable in the trunk, first aid training, various ways of dealing with contingencies. The threat of violence is a contingency. Some guys want a tool to deal with it. Centuries ago, it might have been a sword or mace, say.

  3. Wellokaythen says:

    I’ve said this elsewhere on this site, but again I think a real manly man has to be willing to get his hands dirty. I subscribe to the strictest “original intent” interpretation of the Second Amendment — you can own any firearm that was available in 1789 when the U.S. Constitution was ratified (a couple years before the Bill of Rights, but close enough.) If you want to own a muzzle-loading single-shot smooth-bore musket, I say no one should stop you. You have to load the powder, ball, and wadding yourself, round by round. You better be within 80 yards of your target. If you’re really good you could shoot once every 20-30 seconds, but you better be prepared to repel counterattack with a bayonet.

    That would do wonders for preventing drive-bys and school massacres.

    Maybe I’m just a contrarian antiquarian, but there’s something quite…feminine… about the convenience, lack of accountability, and irrationality of much of the handgun culture in this country today. Buying ammo over a glass countertop like you’re buying make-up at the mall? Buying a gun because of how it looks? Treating a gun as a household appliance? Buying a gun mass-produced by robots in a factory instead of built by hand? Shame on you manly men.

    • Wellokaythen says:

      P.S. Obviously it’s not just about steel. There are lots of less cowardly weapons made out of steel, but that’s not where the fascination seems to be here.

      • wellokaythen says:

        On second and third thought, maybe there is something to the whole “steel” thing. Many of the things made of steel fifty years ago are now made of other materials. I think for many men firearms represent something that seems timeless, one of the last vestiges of things actually still made out of steel. (Maybe not in America, but steel nonetheless.)

        One word: plastics

  4. The Good Man project is a good idea but I would like to rename it. The Good Person does not have the same ring to it, but “man” in the larger world of media and social conciousness is a loaded term. A term I might say is against males. The time has more than come when, if we as a species are to survive, re-evaluation of our collective ethos of living is a necessity. Kick the concept into the bin with Global Warming/ Greening the Earth/religious revival (or rivalry) you might…but if we don’t come to a new accommodation with our fellows, there just might be no fellows. Sad we were so promising.

  5. Sandra Benally says:

    Because of the recent shooting in Tucson of a female U.S. Senator, Gabrielle Giffords, owning and carrying a gun is a big issue in Arizona. As I said in the above article, I wouldn’t want to live without a gun. I just wanted to emphasize that my husband was not killed on the reservation. I have been a professional journalist for 15 years and in my younger days I was a Military Policeman. Despite my experiences, my late husband and I chose to live in the upper Painted Desert without weapons. It was a conscious choice by both of us based on our belief that possessing a gun contributes to the use of a gun. I’ve had to rethink our philosophy. Since his death 11 years ago, I have moved into the deep reservation. At my ranch and here on the rez, you would be lucky to have police response to an emergency after an hour. Here on the rez, that might be several hours…not because of lack of police interest, but because officers here may cover a beat extending a hundred or more square miles. I don’t pretend to have the answers. I also wanted to add that I have always enjoyed shooting, grew up on a farm in Illinois, and ate game as often as beef or chicken. My brother and I spent hours target shooting with his pump b-b gun, and I loved firing the big stuff in the military. Yep, women can love their steel, too…but I have no desire whatsoever to use one on my fellow man…or woman.

  6. I always find discussions like these interesting because they’re almost entirely devoid of any shred of mention of the violent women and girls in our society… the same females who initiated half (or more) of all domestic violence incidents, the young girls who kick the ever-lovin’ crap out of one another on youtube, and all of the other violent, controlling tendencies of women.

    As an aside, you then have the “female sentencing discount” in terms of punishment meted out in criminal courts and the fact that an untold number of women commit heinous acts of violence by proxy – they get men to do their dirty work.

    Women are more likely than men to use a gun for protection. Approximately 45% of all men own guns and about 15% of all women own guns. Do women like guns because of the feel of the “phallic” symbol in their hands? That’s more than 15-million gun-owning women in this country.

    The Good Men Project is about as annoying as any other man-bashing site. The stories here tend to slant towards what makes men bad… how men need to change to appease women… what more men can do for the benefit of women…

    Add this to the pile of wretched refuse being put out by what I originally thought was a potentially solid site for real men’s issues. You would think that only men own guns, use guns as a tool for protection, and use guns to commit crimes.

    Women are violent, too. Maybe the Good Men Project can do an expose’ on how violent and controlling women contribute to the demise of men and how often they get away with it.

    • “Women are violent, too. Maybe the Good Men Project can do an expose’ on how violent and controlling women contribute to the demise of men and how often they get away with it.”

      Good point M…..but I don’t suggest any of us hold our breath waiting for it.

  7. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    Because only criminals and government will have guns if they’re radically controlled. We have two and they’re always loaded. I’m a liberal, but agree with Woody Guthrie on this score. I favor open carry for those who want to have guns on their person, but not closed carry.

  8. It’s crap to turn this into a gender issue.

    I’m a woman, and I own guns. Moreover, I’m a woman and I own guns and I enjoy shooting them. My favorite thing to do at the gym is use the heavy bag. I’ve played (and liked) GTA. I also meditate and do yoga to de-stress. Do any of these things make me a man?


    They make me a member of a personality type. A more assertive (which does not autimatically translate to violent) personality with a penchant for adrenaline.

    • One step further, it is neither an issue nor a gender issue. It is polemic used by the “Man bad, Woman good” crowd. Another of their examples, “domestic violence is the number one reason woman seek emergency rooms,” when in fact bee stings are more likely. We live in a time when fear is easy currency, and fear-mongers have license. Thus politics and The Media…

      • Couldn’t agree more. Most fears are irrational, like fear of flying or sharks

        Why don’t we bring back prohibition cause that worked.

        At least it more rational than gun control.
        100,000 alchohol related deaths each year

        •5% of all deaths from diseases of the circulatory system are attributed to alcohol.
        •15% of all deaths from diseases of the respiratory system are attributed to alcohol.
        •30% of all deaths from accidents caused by fire and flames are attributed to alcohol.
        •30% of all accidental drownings are attributed to alcohol.
        •30% of all suicides are attributed to alcohol.
        •40% of all deaths due to accidental falls are attributed to alcohol.
        •45% of all deaths in automobile accidents are attributed to alcohol.
        •60% of all homicides are attributed to alcohol.

        Read more:

  9. Responsibility & education. I know that sounds cheesy, but they are the balm to many ills…whether we are talking about the dangers of guns or the dangers of automobiles.

  10. “Why do we love guns and violence so much?”

    -I think it has to do with showing off for women. Women love tough, strong and violent men to protect them.

    I love steel, made by men for the good of society.

    • I don’t love my particular steel, but since the ruling class won’t give in without struggle, I’m willing to use the Second Amendment. For the good of society.

  11. David Wise says:

    Canada ranks third among the developed
    western countries (behind the US and Norway) in gun ownership, and yet only 800 people died annually from gun-related deaths there. In the US, 30,000 people died each year from gunshots. The US is truly the wild west. A very violent culture.

    • A neat trick that, considering there have been less than 20,000 annual homicides for the better part of a decade now.

      • David Wise says:

        Listen, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Hee, hee. I guess you can’t trust stats you find on the internet either. That’s the figure I found anyway.

        • I think you didn’t need to include gunshot suicides to make your point. We are both absolutely and proportionately far ahead of Canada in gunshot homicides. Michael Moore may have a point; we may just plain nuts, not gun nuts. But the homicide picture is improving and guns are easier than ever to procure. Food for thought.

  12. Chris Blanchard says:

    I’m not into guns, I’m into archery, but they’re similar: you shoot at things. I think it’s related to the hunter gatherer thing.

    Chris Blanchard, Author, 1 Story a Week

  13. Keagan Pearson says:

    “Simplistically, guns seem to bolster a male sense of protectionism and to some extent, a sense of increased confidence”

    Keagan Pearson, Fatherhood Factor,

  14. Michael R. Shannon says:

    Three URLs you need to visit for context:

    Majority of deaths in US by firearms are suicides:

    List of countries by firearms related deaths:

    List of countries by murder rate:

  15. Seif-Eldeine Och says:

    The one time I went to a driving range I shot a glock and the worlds second largest barreled cougar magnum among other guns. The magnum had such a huge kickback that the gun almost hit me in the face when I shot it. I was so scared that I put the gun down right in front of and in the direction of my father and his business partner. Huge gun no-no. About guns and violence, there have been numerous studies that have shown that guns decrease violence, increase violence and do not have an effect on violence. Studies on socioeconomic factors have shown disparity in class and a large poverty rate are much more important than laws on the books in determining the crime rate of an area.

  16. I include myself fully in the problem: men who have yet to sidestep the combined impact of evolutionary instincts to hunt and a society that tells us that we should be breadwinners, stay-at-home dads, emotionally present husbands, and peacemakers all at the same time.

    That implies that violence is innate rather than socialized. Society tells us as boys we need to pound each other, dominate each other; football and G.I. Joe aren’t in our DNA, they are cultural forces at least as much as they are biological. You set up a false dichotomy here: biology violent, society non-violent. I think it’s biology neutral, society with mixed messages. Appeals to evolution always strike me as a kind of “I can’t help it, I’m just a guy!” strategy that’s really unappealing.

  17. Tom Matlack says:

    One postscript on guns, manhood and war.

    As members of a volunteer army in a country at war almost a decade, the men who are at the front lines don’t get there by accident. They seek out the adrenaline rush of daily fire, and accept the risk of death freely.

    Seb Junger and Tim Hetheringon have produced perhaps the most vivid account of modern American warfare in the film, Restrepo (, which chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The movie focuses on a remote 15-man outpost, “Restrepo,” named after a platoon medic who was killed in action.

    “For the first few months of the deployment, we’d get rocked hard,” recalls Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin in the film while in the background the sound of guns echoes through the valley. “They’d hit us from—they’d ambush us at 360 degrees.”

    “I remember thinking holy shit, did everyone from the entire country come to this valley?” Specialist Kyle Steiner asks. “Is nobody else fighting anymore? Is every bad guy in my face?”

    “In the entire country of Afghanistan, we dropped something close to 70 percent of all of the ordnance, and all of the bombs that were dropped at that particular time were dropped in the Korengal Valley,” Major Dan Kearney reports in the film. “CNN dubbed it one day ‘the ugliest place on earth.’”

    What would make boys, not even men, travel around the world to voluntarily get their asses shot off for a valley the United States eventually abandoned as impossible to conquer? (The film was shot between May 2007 and July 2008; U.S. troops left in April 2010:

    “Growing up, you know, I wasn’t allowed to have sugar until I was like 13 because my mom was a fucking hippie,” Specialist Misha Pemble-Bilkin recalls of his childhood in Oregon. “She always had us doing hippie children things, I guess, like making paper and painting something or going on nature walks. It was a nice childhood. I just wasn’t allowed to have toy guns or anything like that, like boys should have, I guess—your little toy guns or, like, violent videogames or any violent movies at all. Like, I had a toy squirt gun that was a turtle and my parents took it away because it was a squirt gun.

    “But to my family, I never really told them much until about halfway into the deployment. I didn’t tell them when Vimoto died. I didn’t tell them when Sergeant Padilla lost his arm. I didn’t tell them when Pisak got shot. I didn’t tell them when Restrepo got killed. And then when Restrepo got killed it was a few days before my mom’s birthday also. So I had to suck it up when I called my mom on her birthday and act like everything was OK and say, hey, Mom, happy birthday. You know, like yeah, I’m doing really good out here, everything is fine.”

    Even after he returned from the Korengal, Specialist Pemble-Belkin wanted to go back, despite the death of his friends. (Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin on life after deployment:

    I asked Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and photographer Michael Kamber, who has spent much of the last decade in exactly these same war zones, about the connection between manhood and guns. “A gun sure makes you feel more secure!” he told me. “But more manly? I think the opposite: You have to be truly hard to walk around without one when you know the bad guys have them. But there is something so comforting about them. I think when we have a weapon, we walk around cockstrong, as they say in the Bronx. It’s like, come on, fuck with me, I’ve got something for you.”

    I asked him about whether it manlier to fight or walk away from a fight, thinking about my pacifist parents and Specialist Pemble-Bilkin’s “fucking hippie” of a mom. “I just moved back to the Bronx after a 15-year hiatus and the rule was always that you don’t want to get into it with some idiot that has nothing to lose,” Kamber told me. “They will kill you, literally, without a thought to the consequences, so better to walk away if possible. But there are a number of real assholes out there that need an ass-kicking occasionally.”

    • Hold the phone right there! Take a step back and look at the last few thousand years! Here is Steven Pinker at TED with “A Brief History of Violence.” Could it be that we are magnitudes less violent than ever before?

    • Chris Albertson says:

      I think you should appologize. Not every member of the military in Afganistan is there because they want to shoot at people. Most are there because they are patriotic and feel the need to defend you and I. The “tough talk” these men engage in is to mentally cope with what they are going through, and is something you will never truly grasp.


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