This article is excerpted from a talk Rob Okun gave in Portland, Maine, on March 2, 2005, to the group Boys to Men.

Recently, despite my having filled out a form authorizing my son’s high school not to release his name and address to military recruiters, Jonah, who turns 17 this spring, has been getting mail from the Marines. Already a progressive young man with three older feminist sisters, Jonah is highly unlikely to enlist. Nevertheless, he still feels the pressure conventional masculinity continues to exert on young men—40 years after the Vietnam antiwar movement began to shape alternative ideas about manhood.

In the ensuing decades, questions about masculinity’s direction have continued to be asked. Today, nearly two years after the U.S. launched the war on Iraq, there are many who believe understanding masculinity—and redefining it—is the central question society needs to try and answer. And as the war grinds on thousands of miles from our shores, the struggle over the future of masculinity is being joined in town squares from Maine to Massachusetts, and from Texas to Tennessee. The interests battling to keep old-style, conventional masculinity in place at the head of the American family and at the head of the American government are pulling out all the stops. George W. is among their most passionate (if least articulate) proponents. And he has Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, new team member Alberto Gonzalez, and honorary male wannabe Condoleezza Rice all beating his war drum.

The linguist and social critic George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, has decoded the language of the Bush White House and of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. In so doing, he offers insight into the masculinity debate as well. That debate is clearly spelled out in the ideas of Rev. James Dobson, the evangelical Christian right’s leading moral philosopher, who heads an organization called Focus on the Family which has inaugurated a number of moral masculinity crusades, most recently taking on the animated children’s character SpongeBob SquarePants. Dobson is concerned that SpongeBob might be—perish the thought!—gay!

But that’s not all. Mr. Dobson oversees a multimillion-dollar business enterprise that includes broadcasts carried on hundreds of radio stations and books selling in the millions. One, entitled Dare to Discipline, calls for a return to the “strict father” model of parenting. It is an instructional manual for parents on how to raise their children.

Lakoff summarizes Dobson’s position this way: “The world is a dangerous place and there will always be evil out there…. The world is competitive; there will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore they have to be made good. So what is needed in such a world is a strict father who can:

  • Protect the family in the dangerous world
  • Support the family in the difficult world and
  • Teach his children right from wrong

Children need to know discipline and the strict father is the moral authority who knows right from wrong. It is further assumed that the only way to teach children right from wrong is through punishment.”

Punishment is a key concept to keep in mind when thinking about masculinity. The assumption boys grow into men believing is that if they are not strong enough and tough enough, they are going to be hurt. And the internal assumptions many fathers carry is that if they don’t threaten their sons with punishment for stepping out of line, then their sons will grow up weak and unable to defend themselves in a dangerous world.

Beneath the surface connecting “grow up weak” and “defend themselves” lies the principal message boys grow up with: I may have to be a soldier someday and I may have to kill. A central question for us to consider: Can we create conditions in our society so boys can be freed from that deadly burden?

Clearly, male biology has a say in the conversation. That’s a given. But “war does not come naturally to men from biology,” according to Prof. Joshua Goldstein in his 2001 book, War and Gender. :Cultures mold men into warriors by attaching to ‘manhood’ or ‘masculinity’ those qualities that make a good warrior. Warriors,” Goldstein suggests, “require intense socialization and training in order to fight effectively. Gender identity becomes a tool with which societies induce men to fight.”

But gender identity can be redirected into other, more fruitful channels. Professor Goldstein, also the father of an 11-year-old boy, described for me how he and his wife struggled to find a suitable form of rough-and-tumble play for his son that didn’t involve toy guns. They hit upon firefighting and outfitted their then much younger little boy with all the accoutrements. The ability to think clearly under pressure, to be physically strong and to take decisive action to protect others offers a useful direction to boys and young men. One day, after firefighter play had long been established in his home, Professor Goldstein came home to discover his son playing in the living room, both arms extended sweeping the room and making a sound he presumed was imitating gunfire. “Oh, no,” he thought. Despite his best efforts to keep it at bay, the culture of boys and guns had invaded his son’s psyche. Casually, he asked him what he was doing. “Oh,” his son said, demonstrating, “I’m putting out a really big fire.”

Flash forward to the firefighters and rescue workers amid the smoldering rubble at Ground Zero at the World Trade Center in the days following September 11 and you can see how this aspect of masculinity was so movingly expressed. (Of course the bravery of women working at the scene was also fully in evidence.)

Let’s return to George Lakoff’s decoding of Reverend Dobson’s stern philosophy. Lakoff summarizes Dobson’s rationale behind physical punishment like this:

When children do something wrong, if they are physically disciplined they learn not to do it again. That means they will develop internal discipline to keep themselves from doing wrong, so in the future they will be obedient and act morally. Without such punishment, the world will go to hell. There will be no morality.

(We may cringe, but remember: this is a message an alarmingly large number of mothers and fathers in the United States are now hearing.)

Now, let’s look at Lakoff’s assumptions about how progressive people understand morality. It, too, comes out of a family model, which Lakoff calls the “nurturant parent” worldview. The strict father model is so named because it sees the father as the head of the family. The nurturant parent model is gender neutral, and assumes both parents are equally responsible for raising children. It also suggests that children are born good and can be made better. The parents’ job is to raise children to make the world a better place, and part of doing so means nurturing their children to nurture others.

If men and women cooperatively decide to raise our boys with these values, then we are undermining the strict father model by encouraging freedom over obedience. And by articulating these values in our families, by sharing them explicitly in our communities and championing them in public discourse, we are clearing the path of impediments that would slow boys’ journey to healthy manhood. Those of us concerned with our boys taking this journey have to be vigilant in intervening to prevent institutions and customs that seek to encourage boys’ allegiance to the “strict father” worldview. That may mean challenging sports traditions that promote hyper-aggressive ways of getting up for the big game. It may mean organizing alternative programs when military recruiters descend on local high schools. (In western Massachusetts, for example, an organization called the Veterans Education Project sends vets into schools to share a message quite different from the recruiters’ pitch about the experience of serving in the military in wartime.) It may mean confronting authoritarian coaches and teachers who try to limit boys’ full range of emotional expression.

Also essential to our job of protecting and educating our youth is connecting the dots between what they see and hear suggesting that war is cool—the “shock and awe” of war news on TV, the violence in video games, the armed forces’ macho recruiting pitches—and the epidemic of domestic violence happening at home. As important as it is to ask them to consider what it means that over 1,500 U.S. citizens have been killed and 7 or 8,000 have been wounded since the Iraq War began—along with estimates of Iraqi war dead ranging from 75,000 to 100,000—what do they feel about the murder of women in our own communities, killed by men who believe it is their right to control them? When are we going to begin the conversation connecting peace in the home with peace in our land and abroad?

Boys are witnessing how their fathers treat their mothers. They are seeing how male teachers speak to female teachers. They are listening to how song lyrics depict girls and women—and boys and men. They are seeing how music videos do, and television shows and movies, pornography and video games. Where is the line between fantasy and reality? Between gender equality and sexual exploitation?

It may be a surprise to some that killing does not come naturally to men. Joshua Goldstein reminds us that societies historically have had to work hard to get men to fight—drafting them, disciplining them, using press gangs to round them up, shooting deserters.

And while there’s a long tradition of pacifism, conscientious objection, and protest in time of war, COs in World Wars I, II, and Korea were a tiny minority and often ridiculed—and jailed—for their principled stands. During the protests against the Vietnam War in the sixties and early seventies, however, there emerged the first modern example of large numbers of men refusing to go to war who were seen, in an influential subculture, almost as heroes, and certainly not as cowards.

I came of age in that era, reluctantly registering for the draft in June 1968, in the midst of the generational tug of war over our country’s moral direction. By the time my draft lottery number, 64, came up, and I was called for a physical at the old post office in Springfield, Massachusetts, I knew I had no intention of serving in “this man’s army.” Four years of college, half on the streets of the nation’s capital demonstrating against the war while a student at George Washington University, made it clear I was not going to be that kind of man. Nevertheless, regardless of one’s point of view about Vietnam, all 18- to 26-year-old males did have one thing in common: we had enlisted, in the words of writer Susan Faludi, in “the central masculine crisis of [our] generation.”

I recently contributed a chapter to a new book on the sixties called Time It Was, which will be published by Prentice-Hall next year. The following excerpt may shed some light on how some of us navigated the turbulent waters of conventional masculinity in those years:

As long-haired, rebellious young men, moving to the pulsing drumbeat of the anti-war protest movement, many of us saw our path to adulthood diverging from the path our peers were taking in the jungles of Viet Nam. I remember one spring driving on the Washington beltway in my brother’s VW, seven of us packed in en route to Baltimore for a concert featuring Janis Joplin & Big Brother and the Holding Company. We came upon a caravan of seven or eight open-backed army trucks tightly filled with soldiers in camouflage uniforms, wearing matching flat-rimmed caps over their closely shaved heads. We were keeping pace with them, us in the left lane and them in the right, heading, for the moment, in the same direction. What we had in common was our age—18, 19, 20—yet we were taking such different roads to manhood. In those days when I saw soldiers I’d shake my head dismissively, not understanding what drew them to the military. We represented a movement of men rejecting soldiering as the defining ideal of a masculine identity but back then we had no language to describe what we were feeling and what we saw happening. And sadly we never tried to find common ground on which to meet. All we knew then was that our decision to reject the military put us at great risk of being seen as less than “real men.” (On reflection, I’m sure there were very few among us back then who had begun to consider the issue of homophobia.) The language of war and the growing movement for peace obscured the gender lens we would years later use to understand our experience. What us strapping hetero rebels did appreciate was the support our tribal sisters offered, affirming our virility. As a popular tongue in cheek button and poster from the period read, “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No.”)

Who were these guys, I asked myself as we rode alongside the caravan. Were they shipping out soon for Nam? What must it have been like to be leaving behind everything and everyone you cared about? I was in the passenger seat up front. The folks on my side in the back seat and I rolled down our windows and started flashing the peace sign at the soldiers. Miraculously, they started flashing it back, a sea of hands raised high, index and middle fingers spread wide. In that moment I felt us joined by our youth and our idealism, even if it was an idealism existing in a parallel universe. Ours was fueled by a naïve belief that we were subverting them—right then and there!—with our long hair, our colorful clothes, our freedom. These boys—our brothers—would surely go AWOL tonight or otherwise sabotage the war machine! We could feel it. They too, no doubt, felt they could change the world. But traveling to the jungles of Viet Nam where many would end up killing people, to go through that nightmare, would make any crazy acid trip seem like an Alice in Wonderland picnic. For the moment, on the road to Washington, we weren’t thinking about getting our heads kicked in by D.C. police at an anti-war demonstration and they, no doubt, weren’t thinking about raiding a village at daybreak, or getting shot by a sniper.

As we finally began to pass the lead truck, I locked eyes with a soldier who reminded me of a kid from my home town in Massachusetts. He looked tough, unemotional, defended. I suppose I was just beginning to get an inkling of some of the ways my male peers were playing out their passage into manhood. Could it be that the smooth stock of a rifle was actually a comfort to him? I certainly didn’t yet know what my brand of masculinity would end up looking like, but I was certain it would not be one that included sleeping with my rifle—a soldier’s “best friend.”

I believe it is critical that men’s work locate itself within the larger framework of the movement for social justice. Shining a hard light on men’s central roles in perpetuating the war system is a beginning. Social activists often say: “If you want peace, work for justice.” Taking that notion a step further, we can add: “If you believe that sexism contributes to war, work for gender justice in order to pursue peace.”

A few days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, I led a group for men who have abused their wives or partners. On the night after the unfathomable attacks against the United States, I asked the men to talk about their feelings, instead of what many men might naturally do—discuss the glut of news and images that had already overwhelmed all of our minds.

Each man said he was angry and wanted to retaliate. But what else? After some silence they allowed that things were no longer “safe,” they were “unsure” about the world, they were “afraid to travel.” More silence. My female co-leader finally named the feeling they didn’t seem ready to identify: vulnerability. Ironically, that’s the feeling their partners and wives often feel around them. And that’s just what such men must learn: When something happens to trigger rage, there are other choices to make besides reacting with violence.

Why talk about men’s tendency to lash out when they are frightened during a time of national trauma? Because what could be more important for our leaders to contemplate? Our anger was justified. The perpetrators needed be brought to trial. But it was time for a different approach from “might equals right.” It was time for the president to invite peacemakers such as the Dalai Lama back to the White House for more than just a photo op. It was time for a full-scale examination of a foreign policy that evokes such rage, such boiling hatred. Self-reflection has never been a particular strength of our country; it was time now to exercise it in full measure.

We had arrived at a teachable moment many citizens hoped wouldn’t require such an overwhelming tragedy to attain. Men in particular are obliged to seize such moments, to exercise a new kind of leadership. We knew what a unilateral assault on any nation would bring: countless dead, and fresh blood on our hands as we perpetuate the cycle of violence. For U.S. men to champion a culture of compassion rather than a culture of destruction sends a critical message to the rest of the world. Men today, especially fathers, have a rare opening to model a different kind of leadership for our sons and daughters at home and to press that message in Washington.

Will men step forward to call for restraint? Will men step forward to call for insight and wisdom? And ultimately, will men step forward to end the masculine culture of violence?

With the possibility of a draft being reinstated that would put more of our sons and daughters in harm’s way, men in particular have a responsibility to demonstrate how we could work to end that quintessentially male violent culture. We have an opportunity to emancipate ourselves from the gender straitjacket that keeps us trapped in conventional masculinity’s belief that war is the answer. Will we be man enough to envision a world in which peace is the way?