Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Tax Summary 2012

This fall, I attended the most challenging leadership course the US Army has to offer: Ranger school. For 51 days, I planned, led and executed a series of complex missions in a simulated combat environment, in which I was deprived of food, sleep and most shelter. To give you some idea, over the first 20 days we slept an average of 2 hours and 15 minutes per night, and rucked 5-10 kilometers per day carrying 65-100 pounds of weapons and equipment. After those 20 days, I lost track and stopped counting.

I did not pass Ranger school, sadly. I was dropped during what’s called Darby phase, in an event called patrols, which I was allowed to try twice after failing the first time (I also failed my peer evaluations, which I will say more about shortly). Failure is somewhat common, as the school has only about a 42% pass rate overall. Nevertheless, it was a very disappointing and embarrassing outcome for me as an officer. Coming up short in such a lengthy and trying endeavor is occasion to do some soul searching, and the writer in me would be remiss not to articulate some lessons and takeaways from the whole experience.

Ranger school taught me much about leadership, tactics, and my own strengths and weaknesses, much of which I described in a prior entry. As it pertains to today’s topic, the important take away from that earlier post is that I failed Ranger school for many reasons. The shortcomings described therein would almost definitely have been enough to cause me to fail Ranger school on their own, quite apart from any additional shortcomings I will describe here. Under no circumstances, therefore, should the comments which follow be seen as an excuse for why I was dropped!!! I failed in many ways, and all of them were my fault. This post will simply explore a particular failure of mine that is a little more complicated than the others.

Throughout my time in Georgia, I could not shake the feeling that there was another factor at play which was preventing me from succeeding to a greater extent than any of the failures listed in my prior entry. There was another variable, that is, hidden just beneath the surface, which caused other students to view me and interact with me differently than they viewed and interacted with one another. That variable was masculinity. 90% of my peers at Ranger school - and 100% of the RI’s – were cocky, angry, swaggeringly aggressive Alpha-males, and I am none of those things.

***

This is a familiar insecurity for me. I almost blogged about it one time previously during the Elliot Rodger controversy a few years back. To jog your memory, Rodger was a 22 year old college student who went on a killing spree after crafting both written and video-recorded manifestos about his hatred of women who rejected him. The videos also described his hatred for sexually active men who were not plagued with the same lifelong pattern of rejection he claimed to have suffered.

What I almost revealed at the time was that I, too, had written a mini-dissertation about my inability to get girls, only 18 months prior to the Isla Vista tragedy. I was nowhere near as depraved as Elliot Rodger was, but we did suffer many of the same frustrations growing up.
For most of my upbringing, I was the stereotypical high school nerd: skinny, pimply, and bespectacled, with very few social skills. So far as I know, no girl ever had a crush on me, and the crushes I had were bottled up in paralyzing fear of the whole subject. I never spoke about girls with my few friends, and when they brought it up, I tried to change the subject as soon as possible. I was never invited to parties. I was never invited to play truth or dare or spin the bottle or other such middle school games. My first kiss was a week before my 17th birthday. I was still a virgin by the time I turned 20, and that was not by choice. I was pretty insecure about these things, but of course all that was internalized. I never dared breach the subject with anyone.

One night in the winter of my Sophomore year, I was so bothered by my inability to get any action that I logged onto my computer, opened a new word document, and ranted. Just like Elliot Rodger, I wrote myself a little fucking manifesto to try to make sense of my perceived inadequacy. But unlike Rodger, I didn’t blame other people for my woes – this was a rant of self-evisceration.

For four paragraphs, I listed all the reasons I thought I was failing with girls. I wasn’t intriguing, I hypothesized. I wasn’t mysterious, or enigmatic, or affectionate, or engaging, or coy, or subtle. I wasn’t good at flirting or escalating simple conversation. I was too friendly, too innocent, too deliberate, too transparent, too honest, too overeager. But I settled upon one explanation above all: I was too feminine, which in my anger and frustration and ignorance I castigated as something pitiful and shameful. I closed my rant with these exact words:

“I don’t get girls because I’m not sexy. That has nothing to do with my looks. I wish I had the excuse of ugliness, but I don’t. I’m tall with dark hair, bright blue eyes, a six pack and a trim, athletic figure. No, for sexy guys, the body is secondary. Being sexy is about being macho, being the alpha-male. It’s about constructing an aura of confidence and intrigue and masculine libido, and I’m terrible at it.

I don’t get girls because I am a beta-male, which is the polite, technical term for pussy. I am the punching bag that the alpha-males beat up on, the stand-in loser they blow past on their way to a score – the fucking Washington Generals of flirtation. I am the nervous, hesitant weakling that evolution would cast aside to die in a prior era, but which in the modern era it mockingly keeps alive to play video games and watch porn at 3 am.

In other words, I don’t get girls because I’m a little bitch.

The worst part about it is that there’s almost nothing I can do. If getting girls were about knowledge, I could learn. If it were about my body, I could work out, or even get surgery. But you can’t fix bitch. There is no book I can read, no homework I can study, no exercise I can perform, no distance I can run, no medicine I can take, no amount of powder I can dump in my fucking workout shake that will turn me into the cocky, arrogant, douchebag macho-man who takes names and gets what he wants. I am stuck with the testosterone level of a fucking eight year old, and yes, I’m a little salty about it.”

That’s where I stopped. It was 4:00 am. Before I logged off, I saved the document under the title "Tax Summary 2012" - a paranoid effort to ensure that no one besides me would ever think to open it.

Even as I did this, I knew it was silly and immature. I knew it was exaggerated and written in anger. And I knew it was sexist and derogatory towards pretty much everyone, because I was not totally ignorant of those things. I didn’t care. It felt good. I was finally getting these weights off my chest that I’d struggled with for a LONG ass time. Besides, I would never dare let anyone else read it, so who cared if it was offensive?

I couldn’t phrase it feminist terms at the time, but I now realize the emotions I felt that day were a form of internalized misogyny – just as Elliot Rodger’s self-loathing became externalized misogyny. This article from The Atlantic explains why beautifully.

Success with women is…an important part of men’s self-image—that’s a big part of what it means to “be a man.” This seems to be the kind of thinking at work when Rodger says he feels like women are "treat[ing] me like scum" when they have boyfriends who aren't him. To him, women aren't people; they're markers of who is and who is not a man. If a woman chooses someone else, the thinking goes, that means Rodger and others like him are not men.

This equation of manhood with desirability and sexual prowess is just about everywhere in our society, from the priapic James Bond to the nebbishy, always rejected Clark Kent and his alter-ego, the ever-desired Superman. This rings true in my own experience, too. For me, being a virgin wasn't painful because of the lack of sex or the lack of companionship. It was frustrating because of the sense that I was doing it wrong; that if I didn't have a girlfriend, I was, like that old Marvel character, Man-Thing, a misshapen mockery of a man…

The stigma against male virgins is something that men like Rodger—and men like me—internalize, and is, in itself, a form of misogyny. As Julia Serano writes in her book, Whipping Girl, that misogyny is directed not only against women, but against femininity—against anyone who fails to be that ideal, powerful, alpha superman.

These insecurities are extremely common in men. It is fair to call them typical. As a mentally unstable person, Elliot Rodger had a very atypical response to these commonplace emotions. But as a much more mentally stable person, my response to these pressures (and I think the response of most men) was not to deflect the blame outwards or go on a rampage. It was merely to take a hard look in the mirror and initiate changes to make myself more desirable. In other words, it was to “fix” the things I didn’t quite like about myself; essentially code for becoming less of a wimp.

In the weeks following my little manifesto, that’s exactly what I did. I worked out more, funneling my anger into something productive. I got a new haircut. I changed my wardrobe. I went online and literally studied how to get more game. For what it’s worth, it worked. I had more energy. I felt more confident. As both a cause and effect of that confidence, I did better with women. Before long, the monkey was off my back. All of this improved my mood and made me more secure in who I am. Nobody was harmed by any of it.

Being feminist means realizing that I shouldn’t have had to do any of that to feel good about myself. But at the same time, I’m convinced there was nothing wrong with how I responded. The pressures themselves were wrong. It is wrong that femininity is viewed as a negative trait. It is wrong that men are made to feel ashamed for not being more “alpha”. It is wrong that men and women are taught to link their self-worth with their ability to attract the opposite sex. Shaming is bad in general for things that carry no moral connotations. But in the interim, until those things are fixed, there’s nothing wrong with men becoming more masculine if it makes them feel safer in their own skin.

By analogy, some people are insecure about their noses. It’s unfortunate that society revolves so heavily around physical appearance that people with ugly noses are made to feel insecure about it, and maybe we should try to be less shallow and judgmental about ugly nosed people. But does that make it wrong to get a nose-job? If it will make people happier, they should go for it!

There’s a difference between supporting the patriarchy and adapting to it. There is also a difference between exhibiting traditionally masculine traits, or striving to do so, and demanding others do the same. I recently had a Facebook discussion with a man who phrased it this way (in response to another woman in the conversation):

“I can be stoic and not demand that of others. I can demand that I am strong without being hard on others. I can choose not to cry and still be tender to those that do. My acceptance of those ideals on myself isn't wrong until I attempt to force them on others.

Telling me I'm giving a bad example because I don't cry often is no different than telling a child not to cry because it's "weak". There is a world of difference between me not crying or showing emotion on as broad of a spectrum as you do and saying it's wrong.

Just accept people for how they are, and stop pressuring people one way or the other.

I don’t need to feel guilty about aspiring for the traditional masculine ideal any more than I should feel ashamed of the opposite. It doesn’t make me a bad feminist or a sellout to the patriarchy. Being feminist just means acknowledging that men and women are equal, and that masculinity and femininity are equal; which we personally choose to embody is wholly up to us. I have understood this principle for years now, and it has helped me come to terms with the frustrations I expressed on that winter night in my Sophomore year.

That understanding did not spare me the familiar pang of inadequacy in the forests of Fort Benning, GA.

***

There is no question that the culture at Ranger school is deeply misogynistic. There were no females in my squad, but I heard “bitch,” “pussy,” and “faggot” used derisively - by the instructors, no less – more times than I can count. It was never directed towards me personally, but more of a general warning to everyone: “snivel is for faggots,” or “don’t be a bitch,” etc. In fact, several students had that latter phrase written on the underside of their patrol cap in permanent marker. The Army has a robust EO program with thousands of paid employees whose entire job is to eradicate such language (and, more importantly, the attitudes which underlie it) from the military. I am convinced that none of them would dare approach the 4th Ranger Training Battalion. It would be like bringing a fly swatter to room swarming with hornets.

To reiterate, these mindsets are not an excuse for why I was peered out at Ranger school. They were simply the biggest reason.

While I knew peer evaluations would be part of the challenge all along, my strategy towards navigating them had been hopelessly na├»ve: “just be a nice guy!” I said to myself. “Help people. Offer to carry the heavy weapons. Volunteer for chore details at every opportunity. Make friends, and avoid making enemies. If people are unkind to you, turn the other cheek instead of firing back. Don’t let fatigue and frustration suck you into petty, trivial arguments. Lend people gum whenever they ask, and offer it unsolicited whenever you can. Don’t give people an obvious reason to peer you, and they won’t. Lay low, do your bit, and you’ll be fine.”

As it turned out, this was exactly the wrong advice for myself. What I saw as turning the other cheek was seen as a sign of submission and weakness. The people who were rated the highest by their peers at Ranger school were not the nice ones. More often than not, they were the ones I considered “assholes,”– people who were needlessly confrontational and aggressive and vain and bossy and rude. Society has another name for these kinds of people, and it’s highly relevant to our implicit assumptions about gender roles: we call them “dicks.”

To succeed at Ranger school, you needed to be a dick. Imagine an ornery drill sergeant from the 1930’s, hyped up on steroids, and you’ll have some vague notion of the sort of leadership they require.

This is not my style of leadership. For example, if I wanted someone in my squad to move from one location to another, I would simply tell them where to move, walk away, and expect that it be done. I treated people like adults, because that’s how I like to be treated, and I saw it as a courtesy they would return in kind.

That was not the sort of leadership the RI’s wanted to see. They wanted the leader who would pick the person up by the collar, drag them into place, order them to get the fuck down in the prone position, tell them their sector of fire, and explain that if they moved a muscle before instructed you would personally kick the living shit out of them. Apparently, that’s the sort of leadership that Privates from Ranger Battalion respect. That’s what makes it stick. And that’s fine! There’s nothing wrong with that style. It’s tried and tested and it works. It’s just not me.

I am a thinker, not an enforcer. I make decisions. I analyze risk. I plan. I keep the big picture in mind. I consider the long term. I don’t shout, or even get angry much. It’s just not my style. Were I to ever try to adopt the tone of the grizzled, bulldog NCO, it would come off as phony and ridiculous. Besides, I’m just a freshman lieutenant; who am I to scream orders at a senior NCO with multiple combat tours? I’d be laughed out of the room.

Ranger school teaches young military leaders to have unwavering confidence in their every command. Combat leaders must be assertive and aggressive, domineering and dictatorial. All of these traits are associated with masculinity and manhood in modern society. None of them are natural strong-suits of mine.

That is not to say they are totally beyond my reach. I can be confident when I am prepared, and I can be assertive when I am confident. I have trained myself to be more of these things than I used to be. Like most people, I feel anger and aggression every now and again. If you were to array every man on the planet in one giant spectrum according to their relative levels of masculinity, I would not be an outlier.

But I would be below the median – always have been, always will be. And relative to US Army Rangers – at least, the Ranger candidates who made it past RAP week with me – I most certainly was an outlier. As the course went on, that became more and more obvious, and I felt more and more out of place. My ability to lead was crippled before I even stepped into an evaluated leadership role.

It was in this manner that my feminist enlightenment was bookended by two occasions on which I was completely emasculated.

***

This is where my distinction between an excuse and a reason becomes super important. An excuse attempts to evade blame by attributing the outcome to happenstance circumstances beyond the excuse-maker’s control. Someone making an excuse for why the Carolina Panthers lost the Super Bowl yesterday might point out that the referees arguably missed an important call in the 1st Quarter, which not only stalled a Panthers drive, but wound up leading to a Denver fumble return touchdown on the ensuing play. While this is true, it does not excuse a 14 point loss; enough of the game was still under Carolina’s control, even on those two plays, that the Panthers retain full responsibility for the outcome.

A reason, by contrast, merely explains how an event came to transpire, without passing judgment on accountability. The primary reason the Panthers lost the Super Bowl was because of their inability to stall Denver’s pass rush, leading to seven Denver sacks and two forced fumbles. Pointing this out does not suggest that anything besides Carolina itself was at fault for the loss; rather it seeks only to analyze how the game played out as it did.

Ranger school’s unique flavor of misogyny – “directed,” according to Serano’s paraphrased definition, “against anyone who fails to be that ideal, powerful, alpha superman” – is the reason my peers at Ranger school voted me off the island. The reason this is a reason, and not an excuse, is that their decision was entirely justified, and that I am entirely to blame for it. Ranger school’s veneration of traditional masculinity at the expense of femininity is necessary and wise.

To borrow an overused phrase, “let’s unpack that.” Attribute A is a set of traits called “masculinity.” It is traditionally associated with maleness, but we feminists understand it is not directly linked to maleness at all.

Attribute B is a set of traits called “femininity.” It is traditionally associated with femaleness, but again, it isn’t really related to sex. A and B occupy opposite ends of a spectrum, and people of any sex can fall anywhere along that spectrum.

In life in general, A = B, irrespective of the sex which happens to be exhibiting A or B. Neither the set of traits historically associated with masculinity nor those historically associated with femininity are objectively “better” than the other. They’re just traits, like hair color or left/right handedness, which make us unique from (but not superior to) one another. Each have their strengths and weaknesses in different situations.

In the particular situation of armed combat, however, A > B. Stereotypically “masculine” traits like aggression, confidence, decisiveness, anger, toughness, and brute physical strength are clearly preferable on the battlefield to the opposite traits. This may not be true in the Army in general; as warfare becomes more complex and less conventional, traditionally feminine attributes may be more helpful in other sorts of military work (like negotiating, civil relations, interrogation, etc.). But when it comes to the lethal small unit missions Ranger school trains for, masculinity inspires more confidence in the troops and more fear in the enemy. It enables longer movements through harsher conditions in shorter times. I’m not going to bother to explain this any further, because any soldier reading this will agree with me, and any non-soldier reading this doesn’t have much leg to stand on. I’m not sure why this is: perhaps it is due to human nature, or perhaps it is due to deeply ingrained sexism. But for the time being, it is absolutely true.

There is nothing immoral about masculine people having an edge in certain endeavors, or vice-versa, so long as that edge results from masculinity’s inherent merits, rather than from social discrimination (as I explained here). This means that for the time being, creating an environment of inclusion and equal opportunity needs to be weighed against competing priorities. When we’re training leaders for the world’s most lethal warriors, accomplishing the mission and surviving are simply more important priorities. The lives of soldiers and the success of their missions should trump equal treatment of all sorts of persons within their ranks.

Ranger school is right, therefore, to value A over B, to pressure its students to become more A, and to weed out those students who are not sufficiently A.

Of course, like the rest of society, Ranger school is wrong to continue associating A with men, and B with women, especially now that women have gained access to Ranger school. Female candidates should be given every opportunity to meet the same standards. Derogatory use of the words “bitch,” “pussy,” and “faggot” indicate Ranger school is unsurprisingly less than enlightened in this regard.

But however they phrase their hostility, Ranger school is right to be prejudicial towards traditionally feminine behavior, because traditionally feminine people really are less effective combat leaders. To be more specific, Ranger culture is unjust to the extent that assumes all women submissive and dithering and weak. But to the extent that that culture weeds out those who truly are submissive and dithering and weak, male or female, that is to be commended.

***

I think it’s a bit harsh to describe myself as submissive, dithering or weak. Physically speaking, I was at least as tough as anyone in my squad. I got one of the fastest times on the 12 mile ruck march. I passed RAP week, the initial four day hell of incessant physical punishment, without much problem. I never came close to quitting. I made timely decisions under pressure. By the last two weeks of the course, I was running patrol lanes which I still believe were good enough to pass, TAC dependent. Fuck, I made it 51 days through one of the toughest combat leadership courses on the planet! By any civilian standard, I’m a certified badass.

But by Ranger standards, that’s not enough, for one simple reason: as of now, my personality is not the sort that inspires organized violence. I can memorize all the steps. I can brief an eloquent OPORD. I can learn how to use NODS and mount an M240B machine gun on its tripod and input the frequency in a SINGAR radio. I can master all these things, but until I develop a little more experience and confidence leading soldiers through trying circumstances, I won’t make the cut.

Just as a less mature me once complained that the men who got the most sex were often the biggest jerks, I recently found myself lamenting how soldiers who were complete morons in every respect except their own confidence could pass the same patrols and peer evaluations which I had failed. And in both cases, I had to get over that fact that being a friendly and intelligent and hard working person is not enough to make either soldiers or females rate you highly relative to other men. In romance and Ranger school, traditional masculinity is just better.

In both cases, patriarchy exacerbated the insecurities I felt as a consequence of failure. But in neither case was it to blame for the failure itself.

I am not a victim of anything – I’m just not cut out to be a Ranger.

Yet.

I refuse to believe that I failed Ranger school because of any permanent deficiency in me; even if that were true, such a belief is not productive towards maximizing what one can accomplish with ones abilities. There may be such thing as “natural born leaders,” but for the rest of us, leadership is just like any other skill: it has to be learned. Once learned, it must be practiced if it is to develop and improve. Last fall, I just didn’t have enough practice.


Accordingly, I will respond to this setback in the same way I have responded to every other failure in my adult life: by working on my weaknesses and redoubling my efforts to improve as a leader and a man. I’ll strive to become more confident, assertive, and traditionally masculine in those situations that require it. In those situations that don’t require it, I’ll just be me. And most importantly of all, in neither case will I feel ashamed for such behavior. Like Darby itself, I’m past that phase.

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