FROM WILD MAN TO KING:
ANOTHER LOOK AT MALE MYTH AND INITIATION
By Jim Moyers, MA, MFT
Almost before it began, the flirtation of the princess and the gardener's boy was interrupted as "war overran the land." Declaring himself now a man, the youth announced his intention of joining in the fight against the invader. Everyone laughed at him, but said they would leave him a horse in the stable. When he went out to get his horse, the gardener's boy found a lame old nag.
Men and war are not easily separated. Men seem to have an innate propensity for organizing themselves along military lines to "attack" problems, even when a warlike approach may well be counterproductive. Men who hardly know one end of a rifle from another use the language of war to describe the relatively peaceful tasks of their everyday lives. The professional sports which obsess so many men are a very thinly disguised form of ritual warfare. While men often exhibit the best traits of warriors, they also have a distressing tendency to emulate the worst behaviors of off-duty soldiers.
The archetypal power that drives men to war has very little to do with the rational explanations we invent for it and has, thus far in human history, successfully eluded all attempts to banish it. There is an undeniably strong spiritual quality to war. Throughout history, in culture after culture, blood sacrifice and religious experience have been tied together. In war the linkage is explicit and literal. Every war is, in a sense, a holy war made so by the actions of men sacrificing themselves as well as their enemies to a cause transcending life itself. Standing face-to-face with death, the warrior passes beyond, if only for a moment, the bounds of his own mortality. In death, through his sacrifice the fallen warrior is joined to something greater than his mortal self.
Despite its horrors, no matter what its cost in wasted lives, wealth, and energy, there is something fascinatingly compelling about war and the men who wage it. Many of the greatest stories of all time, masterpieces that have captured the very essence of human experience, are set in and about the battlefield. From ancient tales to the latest blockbuster movie, the resolute man of action who resolves problems by skillfully dispatching the people who cause them is a universally admired figure. Judging by the number of titles containing the word "warrior" to be found in New Age and self-help sections of bookstores, even proponents of universal peace and harmony find the archetypal appeal of the man of war hard to resist.
Like sex, war takes place in a primal realm where only the most basic instincts matter, and a man's prowess is simply and directly tried. Sometimes we confuse sex with war, mistaking a sexual partner for an enemy whose conquest must be achieved at any cost. Archetypally sex and death, being mysterious biological processes representing respectively the beginning and end of the life cycle, are closely linked. Men at war are especially apt to mix up the business of creating life with that of taking it, for the same energy that drives battlefield exploits also fuels sexual aggression. The increased sexual activity so often noted during wartime makes biological sense as an evolutionary adaptation to an increased death rate. The soldier who impregnates a woman before marching off to his possible death ensures that something of himself will continue to live on, even if he himself does not.
The defense of women and children against an enemy who would rape and kill them is an often heard rationale for war. Yet the same men who willingly sacrifice themselves in defense of their loved ones all too often have no hesitation about raping the enemy's women. Rape has probably been an integral part of warfare for as long as there has been war. In Homer's Iliad, the wise old warrior, Nestor, rouses the discouraged Greeks with a reminder that the women of Troy will be theirs once the Trojan men have been disposed of. Sexual aggression as an element of war is not just something that happened in long ago times. As has been repeatedly noted in recent conflicts, rape is often intentionally used as a weapon.(1)
Throughout most of recorded history, women have been regarded as the property of the men for whom they produce children. In "plunder, rape, and pillage," the traditional behavior of victorious armies, winners reap their rewards in the form of the loser's property. In forcing the enemy's women to submit to him sexually and perhaps bear his children, the victor both adds to his possessions at the expense of his enemy and furnishes irrefutable proof of his masculine superiority.
Primal masculinity in its best and worst aspects is manifest in war. By killing the enemy the warrior proves himself master of the most primordial of male challenges. He willingly sacrifices himself in defense of others. He knows at first hand the fierce freedom and horror of going beyond normal social constraints. He is rewarded for actions that would be condemned if done anywhere except on the battlefield.
To kill and risk being killed so that others may live is the ultimate expression of male power and sacrifice in service of community. This is especially true within the intimate community of the squadron, the basic unit of every army. In the shared ordeals of training and the battlefield, the men of a squadron prove their worth as men to one another. The manhood of anyone outside the group, not having been proven in company with them, is open to question. First and foremost, a soldier's loyalty is to the small group of men with whom he shares the rigors of basic training, the tedium of camp life, the horror and glory of battle. He fights to protect his buddies, and in turn depends on them to stand by him.(2)
War has deep psychological and biological roots. The greater the difference, real or imagined, between ourselves and others, the easier it is to justify their destruction. We tend to fear and distrust those who are not as we are, forming groups, organizations, and gated housing to include people like ourselves and exclude those who are not. At times we are so ill at ease with otherness as to be unable to rest until those who differ from us have been exterminated.
Closely related to fear of the other is the biological drive to perpetuate one's own kind. In evolutionary competition, the winning male is the one who impregnates the most females and best ensures the survival of the resultant offspring. While attempts to reduce complex behaviors to "nothing but" biological drives are almost always simplistic, war in its essence is about surviving at the expense of the other.
The warrior is based upon an archetypal, hence natural, potential of the human psyche. But the warrior himself, the soldier who mindlessly fights as he is ordered, is an artificial development, an exaggeration of that potential. Even more than the general run of men, soldiers are made and not born. The would-be warrior must learn to quell his reverence for life along with his fear of death. From ancient Sparta to contemporary boot camp, military training is designed to suppress a young man's softer, feeling side while exalting his capacity for phallic aggression.(3)
Parallel with archetypal fear of the other is the desire to join with other individuals like oneself. The most obvious group to which we all belong is the human race. But we rarely regard others as our equals on the simple basis of shared biology. Normal narcissism leads us to value people who are like ourselves more than those who are not. Our group, being defined by qualities that we value, naturally seems superior to groups lacking those qualities. Since social rules and ethical standards apply more within the group than without, aggressive energies that threaten group stability are directed out of the group. While killing a member of one's own group is regarded as murder, the killing of an outsider may be sanctioned as a necessary and even heroic deed.
Perhaps in some long ago Golden Age there were wars, like that depicted by Homer, in which enemies both respected and slaughtered one another. But more often the enemy is despised. Not only is he (as the representative of a debased masculinity in contrast with the idealized manhood of our side the enemy is always "he") a consummate threat to all that we hold dear, he is not even fully human. Since the moral obligations that govern our relations with the rest of humanity do not apply to him, we are free to kill him with a clear conscience. In fact, his destruction is absolutely necessary if civilization as we know it is to continue and any means, no matter how terrible, towards that end are justified.
As self-proclaimed civilized people, we take pride in going to war only when we can justify it as a necessary evil in defense of the good. Still, our ideals repeatedly lead us into wars in which we repeatedly betray them. Labored theological and political reasonings to the contrary, the existence of the truly just war is doubtful. As the distinguished historian of war, John Keegan, puts it:
"Most wars are begun for reasons which have little to do with justice, have results quite different from those proclaimed as their objects, if indeed they have any clearcut results at all, and visit during their course a great deal of casual suffering on the innocent."(4)
Fortunately, life is much more than a Darwinian struggle for survival. Above all else, the human race is bound together by an abiding belief in the inherent sanctity of life. Few soldiers become the mindless killing machines, automatically and perfectly following orders, that are a commander's dream. World War II studies disclosed the startling fact that only about one quarter of the soldiers involved in combat actually used their weapons against the enemy.(5) Despite the compelling forces that draw men to the battlefield, despite the excitement and danger of meeting the enemy face-to-face, despite extensive training in the techniques of killing, many participants in war are still hesitant to take the life of another human being.
It is tempting to renounce war and all that pertains to it as an evil that should not be, and leave it at that. But the problem of war is not so easily resolved. The potential for aggressive evil, if not its realization, seems to be inherent in human nature. Some human actions are truly demonic, and must be actively resisted if we are to have any hope at all for social safety and stability. Dismantling weapons and disbanding armies is, in itself, no more likely to eliminate war than dismissal of the police force would end crime. While we too often see an enemy where there is none and the possibility of war clearly increases in proportion to the preparations made for it, history is littered with the ruins of peoples and nations who were unprepared when more aggressive people arrived at their door. Had there been no warriors willing to kill in the name of freedom in World War II, fascism may well have swept over the globe like a bloody tide to become the dominant ideology of our world.
Sometimes it seems that the terrible choice of "kill or be killed" cannot be avoided. Nowhere on earth is there a secure refuge from the darker side of human nature. So it happened that the country in which the once prince of the Grimm's tale had found work as a gardener's helper was invaded by an enemy. As the king feared, the battle did not go well. Many of his soldiers had fallen, and those remaining were on the verge of a rout, when an unknown knight arrived with a whole company of iron armored troops. The fresh troops fell upon the enemy, slaughtering them as they turned and ran in panic. Having utterly destroyed the invaders, the mysterious knight and his army disappeared as quickly as they had come. The king was left bewildered, but grateful.
Long after everyone else had returned from the battlefield to celebrate the victory, the gardener's boy came in on his limping horse. He made a strange remark about having saved the day, but as usual no one took him seriously. The youth let the matter drop, and once again his real identity remained a secret. This time, though, it was concealed more by the assumptions of others than by his reluctance to reveal himself.
The gardener's boy was an outsider. While the people at the palace thought kindly of him and wished him no harm, they could not help but notice that he seemed more than a little odd, the sort of person who never quite fits in. Even while he was still at his father's palace, the tale gives no indication that the prince had any playmates. Given his royal status, it may have been difficult for the little boy to find any peers. In his father's kingdom, his special position set him apart. As a gardener's boy, he was isolated by his lowly station and peculiar behavior. Like many a lonely individual, he probably felt at one and the same time both inferior and superior to the people around him. Awareness of his unusual and inconsistent nature only added to his reluctance to reveal himself. Part prince, part common laborer, yet really neither, he was a person who seemed to belong nowhere.
Social standing and social conformity go hand-in-hand. Peer relationships are an important and often overlooked factor in the development of a sense of self. Rejection by other children can be devastating. Elementary school boys tend to organize themselves into competitive groups, miniature warrior bands dominated by the most aggressive boys. Boys both within and outside the group are judged by conformity to group norms. Members of other groups are looked down upon, and bullied when the opportunity presents itself. A boy who belongs to no group at all is likely to be abused by everyone. While the importance of peer groups waxes and wanes during the course of a man's life, the dynamics of playground, sports field, barracks, shop, and boardroom groups are strikingly similar.
Outsiders may find solace in dreams of revenge against those who have excluded them. Sometime such fantasies explode into violent realities when a quiet loner suddenly begins mowing down people at random. Suicidal fantasies often revolve around the bitter belief of an ostracized individual that a dramatic death will bring recognition denied in life. Fortunately most violent fantasies are never acted out, and most imaginings of social revenge take a more benign form. Dreams of what might be can sustain purpose and direction in times when there is otherwise little support for who one is. Sometimes dreams even come true when hidden potential meets with activating circumstance.
The gardener's boy, left behind with his useless horse, knew where to find the assistance he needed to realize his heroic potential. He had not yet availed himself of Iron Hans' promised aid. Maybe the boy knew that he had to first complete his assigned task of learning "what it is to be poor" before he could go to the wild man for help. Perhaps a certain degree of maturity is required to be worthy of the gifts of a wild man. Or it may have been that Iron Hans, who was after all less than civilized, would have been of little use to the boy in peaceful society.
In war, civilized behavior gives way to wildness. Inside the noblest warrior, no matter how well disciplined, lurks a wild man. The immature warrior, unable to control it as a means towards a constructive, socially sanctioned end, is overwhelmed and himself used by archetypal wildness. In battle or not, he carries it with him as a threat to social order. The mature warrior draws upon the same energy to do his terrible deeds, but knows that he is not the wild man. When the battle is done, like Odysseus restrained by Athena after he had slain the suitors whom he had found pestering his wife Penelope when he finally arrived home, he leaves the wildness behind.
The youth was ready for the wild man's gifts. Riding the lame horse out to the edge of the forest, the boundary where the civilized and the wild came together, he called for Iron Hans. True to his word, the wild man responded and all went well for everyone but the enemy.
The youth become a man might have returned to the palace with his magnificent charger and army to justly be acclaimed the hero of the day. But instead, he rode back to the forest to return the horse, armor, and army to Iron Hans. And so the identity of the hero was still a mystery when the gardener's boy came in on his crippled mount. His claim that things would have gone badly without him was taken as further evidence of the general belief that he was a simple fool. But the king's daughter, knowing that there was more to the gardener's boy than met the eye, had her suspicions.
(1) Paul Lewis, "Rape Was Weapon of Serbs, UN Says," New York Times, Oct. 19, 1993, pp. A1, A4. César Chelala, "Rape As a Weapon of War: It Persists in Africa," San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 2005, p. F-3
(2) John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Viking, 1983), p. 53
(3) David D. Gilmore, Manhood in the Making (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 188-191
(4) Keegan, p. 60
(5) ibid, pp. 73-74
©1999 James C. Moyers