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Men Without Hearts

Conservatives tend to complain about the feminization of this or that thing, but sometimes, masculine culture is cruel and degrading and ought to be confronted as immoral. Consider the story of Thomas James Brennan, a Marine Corps veteran whose career was ended after he suffered traumatic brain injury and PTSD in battle.

Writing a suicide note to my wife on Dec. 28, 2012, was much easier than I thought it should be. I was also surprised at how easy it was to then swallow an entire bottle of sleeping pills. But lying down and accepting my fate was the easiest by far.

I stared intently at my grease-stained pair of Marine Corps-issued boots strewn across my bedroom carpet. I locked my gaze on the debossed eagle globe and anchor on the outside of each heel. I wondered if asking for help for my post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was the smartest decision – after all, it had ended my career.

The way my leaders had treated me tore me up on the inside, and their words haunted me. They had convinced me that I was not a Marine in pain, but someone looking for free benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. At work, at home, in bed, all I could think about was how my career in the corps had ended in such a terrible, tasteless fashion, with my peers and leaders turning their backs on me because I had enrolled in treatment.

I felt worthless.

His suicide attempt didn’t succeed, thank God, but consider what led to it: rejection by the men he respected, who called him a weakling because he was hurt and needed help. Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for putting me on to that link. 

At Grantland, Brian Phillips excoriates pro-football’s “warrior culture” that brought about the Miami Dolphins scandal. I have sanitized this excerpt with asterisks for your NSFW protection:

The Dolphins have, or maybe had, a 24-year-old left tackle named Jonathan Martin. And they have, or maybe had, a 30-year-old left guard named Richie Incognito. Last week, Martin left the team to seek help for emotional issues. Then allegations emerged that Incognito had been bullying him. Hazing him, if that word makes you feel better. Threatening him. Threatening his family. Leaving him racist voice mails. Sending him homophobic texts. Here’s a quick example, and I’m not bleeping out the bad words, because being a man means looking reality in the face.

Hey, wassup, you half-ni*ger piece of sh*t. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] sh*t in your fu**ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your fu**ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F**k you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.

Incognito was suspended from the team Sunday. Over the next few days, NFL columnists rounded up NFL sources to opine about the only thing that matters in the NFL: warrior fu**ing toughness.


I love football — it’s so much fun, it’s beautiful, it’s thrilling, it’s an excuse to drunk-tweet in the mid-afternoon — but it has also become the major theater of American masculine crackup. It’s as if we’re a nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who’ve retained this one venue where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race. We’re Klingons, but only on Sundays. The Marines have a strict anti-hazing policy, but we need our fantasy warrior-avatars to be unrestrained and indestructible. We demand that they comply with an increasingly shrill and dehumanizing value set that we communicate by yelling PLAY THROUGH PAIN and THAT GUY IS A SOLDIER and THE TRENCHES and GO TO WAR WITH THESE GUYS and NEVER BACK DOWN. We love coaches who never sleep, stars who live to win, transition graphics that take out the electrical grid in Kandahar. We love pregame flyovers that culminate in actual airstrikes.

And of course this affects the players. Locker-room guy-culture is one thing; the idea that any form of perceived vulnerability is a Marxist shadow plot is something else. It’s a human inevitability that when you assemble a group of hypercompetitive young men some of them will go too far, or will get off on torturing the others — which is why it’s maybe a good idea, cf. the real-life military, to have a system in place to keep this in check. What we have instead is a cynical set of institutional fetishes that rewards unhealthy behavior. The same 110-percent-never-give-an-inch rhetoric that makes concussed players feign health on game day encourages hazing creep after practice. Don’t believe that? I’ve got a helmet-to-helmet hit here for you, and that’ll be $15,000, petunia.

Read the whole Brian Phillips piece.  There is no cowardice like the cowardice of the pack turning on its own weakened members. Yet as Phillips points out, we’re totally schizophrenic about this stuff. It reminds me of this quote from C.S. Lewis:

“We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

… but turned inside out. Lewis is right, but here’s the Incognito Corollary: We make men without hearts in their chests, and expect from them humanity. We laugh at compassion and are shocked to find monsters in our midst.

UPDATE:Teaching little boys to be MMA fighters. What the hell is this?! Dads living out their ragemonkey fantasies through their sons?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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