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New book looks at myth of war and manhood

Oct. 1, 2008

KALAMAZOO--A new book by a Western Michigan University professor explores the deep divide between popular images of war as it relates to manhood and the written record of war in literature and personal memoirs.

In his book "Male Armor: The Soldier-Hero in Contemporary American Culture," released this month by the University of Virginia Press, Dr. Jon R. Adams, associate professor of English, examines the ways in which novels, plays and films about America's late-20th-century wars reflect altering perceptions of masculinity in American culture. By highlighting the gap between the cultural conception of masculinity and the individual experience of it, he exposes the myth of war as an experience that verifies manhood.

"I talk about this as the gap in understanding and it's the gap between soldier's experience and the civilian expectation of what that experience is going to be," Adams says. "The civilian expectation is the luxury of war as a manhood-verifying enterprise, whereas the experience of the soldiers themselves seems predominantly to negate that."

It's a popular theme in American culture that war makes a young soldier into a man. But the effect, Adams says, is often the opposite.

"They're unmanned in a whole number of ways," Adams says. "Sometimes it's expressed through injury, sometimes it's expressed through a sense of loss and confusion and an inability to be at home in a civilian world because their experience isn't understood."

Adams draws from a wide range of work, including the war novels of Norman Mailer, James Jones and Joseph Heller, the David Rabe play "Streamers" and Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir "Jarhead." Through them and many others, he explores the evolving image of the soldier from World War I to Operation Desert Storm.

"This has been present since Ernest Hemingway wrote 'In Our Time' and 'All Quiet on the Western Front' came out in Germany," Adams says. "It's been a pretty common way of talking about war since World War I. It's not the heroic, manhood-verifying experience that you're going to find in Homer, for instance."

Adams went across print genres, from the fiction of war writers to the nonfiction of soldier memoirs to explore this disconnect between soldier experience and societal expectation. Fiction or not, the depictions of war's effect on the individual are very similar.

"I'm very close to saying that it is, essentially, the same story, over and over and over again," Adams says. "And that is, this thing that the public thinks about war as doing for men, it does not do for them."

For more information, including how to order the book, visit www.upress.virginia.edu/books.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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