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John M. Kang


John M. Kang is a professor of law at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida. The unedited version of this essay appears in the Nevada Law Journal.

If you are a man, you probably have been subjected to it throughout your life, I would imagine. I am referring to the societal summons for you to fulfill the obligations of your gender: “step up like a man,” “act like a man,” and a precursor when you were very young, “big boys don’t cry.” Me, I am especially taken with the injunction these days to Man Up. More economical than its predecessors, the call to “man up” pithily encapsulates the idea of manliness. For, to be a man requires that you do something. Perhaps your dear mother adores you as the apple of her eye, but, trust me, no one else -- including (or is it especially?) your wife -- takes her cue from Billy Joel’s schmaltzy serenade and loves you just the way you are. (And who are you kidding? Not even your mom really feels that way).

No. You, my poor bloke, are instead told to comply with the expectations of your community -- Man Up. What does manning up entail, though? While its meaning, like that of many aphorisms, is imprecise, the injunction to man up when distilled to its essence is meant to prompt a man to comport himself with valour. For you are only urged as a matter of idiom to man up in situations of danger. Consider these examples: The rookie cop is solemnly tutored by the hardboiled veteran detectives that he must man up sooner or later and chase down suspects into dark alleys; the aging quarterback is reminded by his fans to man up and wait in the pocket for that ideal pass even as burly linemen charge to trounce on him; the nebbish assistant professor is urged by his exasperated wife to man up to his dean and ask why he was not promoted; the habitual drunk is chided by his brother to man up and face the fact that he is an alcoholic, and thus, to confront a humiliating truth. As these examples suggest, men become men as a cultural matter, only when they overcome some danger or risk, only when they have demonstrated courage.

The unstated but intimidating premise in these examples is that failure to man up will emasculate you as a coward. To conscript another epigram, albeit one more vulgar, you have to prove your balls; should you falter, you would become the symbolic instantiation for the corresponding female pudenda. (Tellingly, there is no analogous admonishment for females to “woman up,” although there are familiar warnings for women to tamp down their masculinity, to cool their metaphoric balls, and to behave demurely, more lady-like). This is not, furthermore, an exclusively American phenomenon, as you probably surmised. The axiom that men must prove their courage has been embraced by cultures around the world, from nomadic Sub-Saharan tribes to sedentary suburbanites in places like Bowling Green, Kentucky.

One can also consult older, more scholarly ruminations about the connection between manliness and courage. The etymological relationship between the two is instructive. Take the Latin root vir. It forms part of ‘virtue’ which, as conscripted by Christianity, has come to represent traits modeled after Jesus, including humility and forgiveness. But vir has a meaning which predates Christianity. For the ancients vir was shorthand for ‘man.’ Those words which derived from vir also referred to courage, including virtus, or in its Anglicized form, ‘virtue.’ Consider how the mischievous philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, who, although living in a sixteenth-century Italy ruled in part by the Pope, subverted the Christian ideal of virtue. Exhorting his Italian prince to oust the invading Turks from Florence, Machiavelli quoted Petrarch, the great Italian poet, who wrote:

Virtue will take up arms against fury
and make the battle short,
because the ancient valor in Italian hearts
is not yet dead.

No olive branch of Christian forgiveness, Petrarch’s virtue is itching for a fight – and a fierce one, at that, which will “make the battle short.” Today, we find remnants of this older Roman association between vir and manliness in 'virility' and 'virulent,' with their respective connotations of masculine spiritedness and potent destructiveness. Latin, incidentally, was not alone in making the equation between being a man and being brave. In ancient Greek, andr- meant adult man and formed andreia, which meant courage. In Hebrew GEV(B)URA (courage) was derived from the root G-B(V)-R (man).

This is interesting stuff, I hear you murmur, but, well . . . since this essay appears in a law journal . . . what does it have to do with . . . the law? A lot, actually. I have explored that connection, between law and manliness, in previous work. And, as much as I would enjoy surreptitiously rehashing it (although, I confess, there is a bit of rehashing in this essay) and receiving credit anew, I instead will invite the reader to peruse it elsewhere. Perhaps I may suffice to say that the expectation for men to behave with courage, or to suffer the ignominy of gender failure, permeates the government’s justifications for a host of policies. Congress defends restricting the military draft to men based on the view that they are more courageous than women, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court. Military courts have only disciplined male soldiers for the formal offense of ‘cowardice,’ as though it were natural to expect courage from men, but not women. State criminal laws exploit men’s fears by permitting the excuse of deadly self-defense only for, in the law’s words, a “man of courage,” not a “coward.” A prestigious public military academy denied admission to women because they were deemed to be lacking the courage which men allegedly possessed. Judicial opinions, even landmark ones, are not exempt; in cases whose facts would not seem to bear any manifest relationship to gender, judges seek purchase for their decisions by invoking the mantra that men must be brave.

In treating courage as the chief virtue of manliness, we often as not obscure manliness’s meaning.


If men are expected to prove their manliness through acts of valor, there is no more vaunted arena than military combat.

Hockey, boxing, football -- they are all dangerous -- but military combat exposes you to something qualitatively different than the danger of sport. War exposes you to unparalleled terror, to situations that call for unimaginable reserves of courage. Unlike football, military combat anticipates that you, a combat soldier, may suffer a violent death, or -- perhaps just as wretched -- grisly wounds that leave you pleading for your death. There is also the corollary dread of having to bludgeon some anonymous chap, like yourself, who has a family and who never did you any personal harm.

Nevertheless, many men enlist for service, or when drafted, resist temptations to flee. A chief reason is that they are afraid of being outed as cowards, as gender failures. Let Tim O’Brien, the novelist and the combat veteran, narrate. O’Brien, a brainy and sensitive college graduate, had been accepted for doctoral studies in English literature at Harvard. Unfortunately for him, he was also drafted by the military to fight in Vietnam. He did not want to go -- and, although moral objections to the war did stir him, O’Brien’s chief objection was fear -- he was terrified of dying in combat.

But, as much as he was afraid of violent death, he was even more afraid of being denounced a coward -- and hence being publicly unmanned -- by his tightly-knit Minnesota town.

So O’Brien reported for duty. Once in Vietnam, O’Brien realized that his fear of emasculation was shared by others.

[The soldiers] carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.

For O’Brien’s battalion, “the object was not valor,” but instead, “they were too frightened to be cowards.”


I have suggested that what motivates male soldiers to do seemingly brave acts is, ironically, a relentless fear that they would be accused of being cowards. Thus, what passes for courage may very well be a sort of cowardice in drag. But the anxiety of a combat soldier is one that is mixed incestuously with a partial love of the anxiety itself. What I have dubbed the burdens of manliness exist as more than a collection of repugnant obstacles whose negotiation yields nothing other than grimacing pain. These burdens also paradoxically are experienced by men, or at least some of them, as moments of matchless pleasure and gratification.

Let us turn to some firsthand narratives starting with that of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Before he became the famous justice, a college-aged Holmes enlisted as a young soldier in a Massachusetts regiment during the Civil War. A member of a distinguished family in Boston, he could have easily dodged military service, but he was eager to prove his manliness. Holmes, indeed, proved it, over and over, having been wounded thrice, one time nearly dying.

Looking back, a middle-aged Holmes, now a judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, reflected on his wartime experiences. He delivered a Memorial Day speech at Harvard before the graduating class of 1895. Holmes did not sugarcoat the horrors of war. He asked the audience to imagine being a combat soldier, feeling “the burst of the spherical case-shot,” seeing “the shrieking fragments go tearing through your company,” and knowing “the next shot carries your fate.” Imagine, too, Holmes said, fighting for twenty-four hours and witnessing in the morning “the dead and dying lay piled in a row six deep,” as “your foot slip[s] upon a dead man’s body.”

Why do men like Holmes submit themselves to such ordeals? Holmes, at one point, appears to attribute his willingness to what I earlier called the burdens of manliness -- the collective expectation that men fulfill their ideal as courageous beings or face unmanning ridicule. “Who is there who would not like to be thought a gentleman?” Holmes asked. “Yet,” he continued, “what has that name been built on but the soldier’s choice of honor rather than life?” “To be a soldier,” Holmes said, “is to be ready to give one’s life rather than to suffer disgrace.”

For Holmes, however, there was more to being a man than having to shoulder the fearsome burdens of manliness. Being a man entailed the thrill of performing those ostensive burdens. “War, when you are at it,” Holmes observed, “is horrible and dull.” “It is only when time has passed,” he explained, “that you see that its message was divine.” For Holmes, war was divine in hindsight because it gave men an opportunity to raise themselves from the idiotic and easy pleasures of civilian life and to test their manliness to the fullest in the forum of mortal struggle. Men in civilian life, in “this snug, over-safe corner of the world,” spend their lives, Holmes bewailed, “revolting at discipline, loving flesh-pots, and denying that anything is worthy of reverence.” The “joy of life is living,” and to live life to its fullest is “to put out all one’s powers as far as they will go; that the measure of power is obstacles overcome; to ride boldly at what is in front of you, be it fence or enemy; to pray not for comfort, but for combat.” Remarking about the soldiers of his generation, Holmes said, “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.”

By evading the experience of combat, the civilian absentees had missed a “great good fortune.” Neither money nor fame -- the familiar ends of pursuit in civil society -- could compare with a young man’s experience of combat, of having his young, callow heart “touched with fire.” To be touched with fire meant for Holmes that the young men who fought had their valor, and therefore their manhood, tested in the most excruciating terms. From this tribulation, Holmes and his fellow soldiers learned what it meant to embrace a passion to the fullest, to give everything that a man could muster for a moral cause and to receive in turn the greatest fulfillment of manliness.

Holmes acknowledged his ignorance about life’s ultimate ends (“I do not know the meaning of the universe”). But, there is something that he finds to be “true” and “adorable” -- the soldier’s faith. What makes this faith so noble for Holmes is that it is tested under inconceivable stress.

There is an ethereal and cold quality in Holmes’s descriptions of war; he sketches a world of disembodied, faceless men immersed in abstract conflicts. In the excerpts that I quoted, Holmes does not speak of the camaraderie of soldiers. The journalist Sebastian Junger does at length, however. Junger spent fifteen months in 2007 and 2008 embedded with the 173d Airborne in Afghanistan. A powerful reason why men are attracted to combat, Junger argues, was because they want to protect each other. Combat represents not merely horror but, for some of the soldiers, an opportunity to test their love for each other. Junger remarks that “perfectly sane, good men have been drawn back to combat over and over again, and anyone interested in the idea of world peace would do well to know what they’re looking for.” It was not killing per se but “the other side of the equation: protecting.” Based on his observations in Afghanistan, Junger comments: “The defense of the tribe is an insanely compelling idea, and once you’ve been exposed to it, there’s almost nothing else you’d rather do. The only reason anyone was alive [at the base camp] was because every man up there was willing to die to defend it.”

Bear in mind: The collective defense Junger alludes to is not reducible to rational calculation. It was a test of the men’s valour, to what extent they would sacrifice themselves for the next man in the battalion. And collective defense, at some point, became its own end: For the soldiers in the 173d Airborne, “collective defense can be so compelling -- so addictive, in fact -- that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place.”

The paradoxical and symbiotic relationship between loathing and desire in manly courage is evident in Junger’s observation: “It was everyone’s worst nightmare but also the thing they hoped for most, some ultimate demonstration of the bond and fighting ability of the men.” By being that which “they hoped for most” and an “ultimate demonstration” of both their collective “bond” and their individual “fighting ability,” the defense of the battalion spoke to the same impressions that found their way into Holmes’s speeches.


Logic would seem to require courage to be contemplative. For courage, however defined, requires its possessor to know that what he does is dangerous and to know that danger in the correct proportion. Consider a familiar authority in the Webster’s Dictionary, which defines courage as the “mental or moral strength enabling one to venture, persevere, and withstand danger.” Embedded in the definition is the assumption that courage, before it can “venture, persevere, and withstand” some danger, must first recognize the existence of that danger. Under this formulation, if you casually walk over a land mine thinking that it is some random bump in the road, you are not acting bravely; you are acting ignorantly and, if there was good cause for you to have known about the land mine, foolishly. William Tecumseh Sherman, the fierce Northern general in the Civil War, insists that a knowledge of danger is a prerequisite for courage: “I would define true courage to be a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger, and a mental willingness to incur it, rather than insensibility to danger of which I have heard far more than seen.”

The thesis advanced by General Sherman and Webster’s Dictionary -- that to be courageous you have to know that what you do is dangerous and know it to the correct degree -- is examined famously, if rather briefly, by Plato. Written in 380 B.C., Plato’s Laches involves a debate between Nicias and Laches about the meaning of courage. Socrates is asked by the two men to mediate their dispute, and during the arguments, Nicias remarks that “there is a difference, to my way of thinking, between fearlessness and courage.” Before someone is dubbed courageous, he must have thought meaningfully about the danger that he sought to overcome or endure.

There is one problem that immediately attends the account of courage on offer by Nicias, which is essentially the same as that wrought by Webster’s Dictionary and General Sherman. Nicias implies that courage is contingent on recognizing the danger, and hence, overcoming a fear of that danger, yet those circumstances in which soldiers are most required to prompt their courage do not afford opportunity for such deliberation. Therefore, we do not know what, if not courage, is impelling such outward daring.

Read again General Sherman’s definition of courage: “I would define true courage to be a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger, and a mental willingness to incur it, rather than insensibility to danger of which I have heard far more than seen.” Perfect sensibility of both the measure of danger and the willingness to incur it? How would anyone be able to make even ballpark guesses of either element in a given situation where he finds himself having to react within seconds?

Soldiers also throw themselves into peril without being conscious that what they do is courageous. Sebastian Junger observed of the 173rd Airborne that “the combat medic’s first job is to get to the wounded as fast as possible, which often means running through gunfire. Medics are renowned for their bravery,” Junger writes, “but the ones I knew described it more as a terror of failing to save the lives of their friends.”

Junger reports that “most firefights go by so fast that acts of bravery or cowardice are more or less spontaneous.” He elaborates: “Soldiers might live the rest of their lives regretting a decision that they don’t even remember making; they might receive a medal for doing something that was over before they even knew they were doing it.”

Combat’s success, therefore, hinges in part on not thinking about dangers and, ironically, not thinking about corollary issues of courage. As Philip Caputo remarks of his experiences in Vietnam, when you are away from combat “there was too much time to think,” but in combat “there would be very little time to think.” For Caputo, “that is the secret to emotional survival in war, not thinking.” Thus reads the paradox, then: the more you are required to be brave, the less you are actually able to assess whether you are brave when circumstances most demand it.



Two years ago, the pop star Bruno Mars released a song, ubiquitously broadcast in every Burger King, supermarket, and dentist-office-reception area in the United States, and which shares the same title as Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” Billy sweetly, and in his own style, discreetly, crooned in the 1970s that, although he did not know about the rest of the world, he would “love you just the way you are,” but Bruno went one better (or worse, depending on your view). Bruno sang -- no, celebrated -- that you were “aaah—mayyy—zingg. . . just . . . the . . . way . . . you . . . are . . .” and that “when you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while.” You, blessed reader, are no longer just lovable in the eyes of one, as you were in the ‘70s; in the 2010s, you are now amazing in the eyes of all. Amazing, indeed. Simply for being you. Perhaps it is a sign of our times, in the early twenty-first century, with its democratic narcissism, that such an unblushingly idiotic paean to self-esteem is received without irony as a species of pedestrian praise.

But no matter how frequently Bruno Mars is, like some nightmarish Orwellian propaganda, played everywhere we go, indoctrinating us with the message that all of us are “amazing” for no other reason than we have blood coursing through our carotid arteries, one thing remains the same: No man can consider himself a true man, or be seen as one, without the perceived possession of courage, that most manly of virtues. No man, according to society, is amazing, or even plain acceptable, unless he proves his mettle. That does not mean that courage alone will suffice to make you a man but, for good or ill, without it, no one will think of you as one.

Easier said than done, though. For courage, as I have suggested, is weirdly paradoxical. Courage is sometimes impelled by the vilest feminine vice, cowardice. Courage, conventionally understood as the overcoming of a loathsome fear, is sometimes head drunk in love with that ostensive object of fear. Courage needs time to calibrate the danger and what is necessary to overcome the fear attending that danger, but courage has no time for such measure when courage is most necessary.

If courage is so paradoxical, so barbed, how do we make sense of it as the supremely male virtue? How do we make sense, in short, of what it means to be a man?




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