Blurring the Lines of Military Masculinity

I know that this year’s Oscar ceremony is dead and buried, but I was late to the party, and I’m still catching up on some of this year’s nominated films, including Restrepo, a documentary about a platoon of U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The film aimed to give audiences a glimpse of what it feels like to serve in a war, conveying the excitement, the sadness, the fear, the boredom, and the anger of the soldiers at Outpost Restrepo in the Korengal Valley, where they were stationed for months.

The soldiers developed incredibly close bonds, and these were the clear focal point of the movie. You can confidently believe that these soldiers—all of them male—would do anything for any of their fellow soldiers.

In a few scenes, their intimacy actually raises some eyebrows. Toward the beginning of the film, one man says about another, “He’s a beautiful man—I’d fuck him back in the states,” before tackling him to the ground and wrestling in a playful way. The homoeroticism pops up a few more times in Restrepo: one soldier straddles another who is standing up, a spontaneous dance party begins to an electronic girl pop song.

The scenes in the film are subtle and fleeting, but Restrepo’s co-director, journalist Sebastian Junger, elaborates further on the subject in War, the book he wrote as a result of a series of articles he published for Vanity Fair. He writes:

Ultimately, it made me think that if you deprive men of the company of women for too long, and then turn off the steady adrenaline drip of heavy combat, it may not turn sexual, but it’s certainly going to turn weird. And weird it was: strange pantomimed man-rape and struggles for dominance and grotesque, smoochy come-ons that could only make sense in a place where every other form of amusement had long since been used up. … It was just so hypersexual that gender ceased to matter.

Junger and his co-director, Tim Hetherington, have stated that these scenes weren’t homosexual in nature and that they hadn’t heard of any male-male sexual exploration at their base, but Hetherington did say that the works which emerged from this platoon convey “a more nuanced sense of who men are.”

How many times have you heard about homoeroticism between men serving in the military? All of the war movies, journalistic conflict coverage, and written narratives that I have seen or heard have not once suggested that the military may have the power to break down and nullify some of our traditional views of masculinity. But why is that? Isn’t that an interesting story?

There are a few books about homoeroticism in the military, and the Daily Beast published a piece on the subject in December. Contributor Brendan Tapley wrote:

Paradoxical though it may sound, what the [“don’t ask, don’t tell”] policy actually ensures is that men still have a place to experience male-male intimacy without being called gay.

The perspective didn’t catch much fire in December, and exploration of the subject continually doesn’t get much attention. Is that because the Restrepo soldiers were just uniquely intimate, and the situation is exclusive to their experience? Or is it because war documentarians don’t want to make the U.S. troops “look bad” or seem like lesser men by appearing to be physically intimate with each other? Could even the mere insinuation that the military isn’t the end-all and be-all Mecca of masculinity shake the foundations of what it means to be a man?

At least one of the soldiers from War—Bobby—doesn’t think so. When asked if he would actually have sex with a man while serving without a woman in sight, he said it would be gay not to. Junger writes:

Bobby launched into a theory that “real” men need sex no matter what, so choosing abstinence can only mean you’re not a real man. Who you have sex with is of far lesser importance.

Junger concedes that Bobby’s is a radical viewpoint, but even this, in a way, trivializes the perspective. Are we just not ready to view U.S. soldiers as anything other than strong, courageous, studly models of no-doubts-about-it heterosexuality?



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About Adam Polaski

Adam Polaski is a writer, designer and organizer for Freedom to Marry, where he works with an amazing team to win marriage for same-sex couples nationwide. He also enjoys the New York Public Library, love stories overall, and the perpetual quest to go vegetarian. Follow him at @AdamPolaski


  1. I think in this degree of isolation there is a need for intimacy and contact. Plus boredom and the need to mess with each other’s heads means that going gay is the natural next step. When men get intimate with men it become homoerotic. In the UK we have saying ‘Not afraid of trying it. Just afraid of liking it.’

  2. Well – the Spartans went a step further. Not only did they accept sexual relations among soldiers, they encouraged or even demanded it, on the basis that it created stronger bonds between soldiers – the kind of bond needed to make sure soldiers would be willing to die for each other.

    And yet, we today (as with the movie 300) use the Spartans as a idealized model of masculinity. Which makes sense, of course; man-on-man action is pretty masculine.

  3. It will be a grand day in America when our image of masculinity as “Cowboy”, rough, stoic etc. is broken and we accept humans sexuality is on a scale. Many other countries, and much older civilizations, are evolved. This is just part of our sexual evolution!

  4. “a more nuanced sense of who men are.”..Indeed. Join one of the services. Grow a pair, and get out of academia. It’s not rocket science. Human sexuality is not something you’re gonna learn from text books and “controlled experiments” . It’ s like describing the taste of an apple. What in the world are you learning? Pathetic.

  5. All of the war movies, journalistic conflict coverage, and written narratives that I have seen or heard have not once suggested that the military may have the power to break down and nullify some of our traditional views of masculinity. But why is that? Isn’t that an interesting story?

    Socially speaking, it is not an interesting story. Our society works in myths and stereotypes. The intimate, emotional soldier does not work for us. Soldiers are supposed to be stoic, stone-cold, unbreakable machines, not guys who love the man next to them. However, if you watch interviews with veterans, the intimate bonds those men had with their fellow soldiers become apparent, although those emotions are often very raw.

    As for the military breaking down and nullify traditional views of masculinity, I do not think that is what happens. I think the bonds shown in the film are instances of true masculinity, not the facade men must put up in order to fit in. I think this happens for two reasons. One, there are usually not women present, so the need to fit a masculine stereotype tends to fade. Two, everyone is in the same boat, so some of the walls men build up due to social pressures begin to fall.

    Paradoxical though it may sound, what the [“don’t ask, don’t tell”] policy actually ensures is that men still have a place to experience male-male intimacy without being called gay.

    That is a valid point, and it is something that gets lost in our politically-correct, “everything needs a specific label” culture. What we see is that when no one does or says anything to question men’s sense of masculinity, men will engage in intimate interactions with other men. I think the flaw in most progressive liberal commentary on masculinity is the effort to render masculinity as somehow devoid of emotion or intimacy. Those two things have always been a part of masculinity. Even warrior-focused societies like Spartan and feudal Japan expected intimacy and emotion from men. When the commentary insinuates that men who are intimate with other men (and not necessarily in a sexual way) are homosexuals or behaving in a feminine way, it undermines the attempt to bring masculinity back to its previous fullness because in calling men gay or effeminate attacks their masculinity.

  6. Russel Yoak says:

    How sad. Americans seem unable to conceive of intimacy without sexual content amongst men, but constantly celebrate it amongst women. I think it is high time to end the emotional oppression of men by the forces of popular culture and accept that a straight man who has an intimately emotional bond to another man isn’t, de facto, behaving deviantly. And by the way, as a guy who knows a good many actual “Cowboys” let me tell you something (and this tends to be true of any man who puts in blood, sweat and tears shoulder to shoulder with another man)….those men are hardly the picture of unemotional detachment, in fact some of them are the most sensitive, deep souls you are likely to meet. And they understand the sort of Eprit de Corp that can be an incredibly deep bond …a bond that has everything to do with being emotional, but not necessarily anything to do with being sexual.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Recently, the DoD announced it was going to investigate, which is to say end the career (at least), of nine officers who were in a position to stop Maj. Hasan’s greased slide through the Army to Ft. Hood. All of them should have said something about his appalling performance and demonstrated Islamic nutcasery. There were efficiency reports, disciplinary letters, and additional actions which would have resulted in the bastard being passed over for promotion. Passed over twice and you’re out.
    But, as was said early on, there is a fear of being accused of islamaphobia if you give a poor performance rating to a Muslim soldier. Shortly after the shooting, possibly the same day, Gen. Casey said that he hoped this wouldn’t damage our diversity, which is our strength. IOW, if another Muslim soldier demonstrates appalling performance and islamic nutcasery, the general doesn’t want to hear about it.
    Some years ago, the first two women pilots who graduated from F14 flight school did so with failing grades. One blew an approach and was killed and the other was grounded for unsafe flying. Thing is, the F14 is a two-seater. Which means the Navy took two people who hadn’t done the Navy any harm that we know of and put them in high-performance aircraft flown by unqualified pilots.
    In addition, the services have gender-normed the physical requirements. Means women can look as if they qualify without being up to the physical abilities required of men. They have done some amazing things–see Misty Frazier, Teresa Broadwell, Leigh Ann Hester, the Brits’ “Combat Barbie”. But if there is a reduction in combat efficiency–say in MPs’ in urban combat training, it’s worth an officer’s career to say so.
    Point of all of the above is, when you have an Accredited Victim Group, dealing with the underperformers is a huge difficulty. Those who do well do well. Those who don’t cause more damage to the mission than you would expect, because it’s not a good idea to point out or discipline members of an Accredited Victim Group. Under DADT, gays have not been an AVG–although there is some indication that Manning got away with some bad stuff because of it. But now they will be. Now, dealing with underperformance will be difficult and mission abilities will be compromised.
    So. Is the degradation of mission ability worth it?

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