The real men behind the “Real Men”
November 12, 2018 § 2 Comments
Predictably, I saw yet more memes yesterday lauding the “real men” of the UK’s wartime generations, and comparing them favourably to the “offended, mentally ill gender neutral vegan snowflakes” that men supposedly are today. I didn’t make this post on remembrance day itself because yesterday was a time to reflect more than to argue, but I am going to say it now – that attitude is monumentally disrespectful.
The war generations in the first half of the last century were people like us. They weren’t some kind of invincible demigods, and building them up as if they were doesn’t respect the reality and hurt that they went through. War and the resulting mental ill health damaged those people permanently. Many had post-traumatic stress disorder for life – men who couldn’t listen to the whistling of a kettle without flinching, or for whom loud noises could trigger dangerous flashbacks. For others, the violence of what they had seen made them erratic and dangerous to be around – a knock-on effect that damaged the lives of them and their loved ones.
Living in a society that often didn’t recognise those effects on them, let alone one that severely repressed other parts of their lives for many of them – because yes, we had gay, bi, and gender non-conforming soldiers fighting just like all the others, who had to go through the same hell as everyone else without being allowed to admit to parts of their own identity – wasn’t something that strengthened those people later in life. Quite the opposite, it was something that increased the pain they went through. A lot of the time, rather than being able to admit to who they were or how things were affecting them, they killed themselves. The 1930s, a decade in which many First World War survivors were also having to grapple with being unable to feed their families properly during the depression, saw suicide rates three times higher than they are today.
People today have made significant, though by no means complete, progress towards respecting and accepting people for who they are and towards accepting that mental illness is something that needs compassion and support, not shutting down. And that’s good, for ex-service personnel and for everyone else. So I’m sick of seeing social media posts attacking the fact we have a more caring attitude to trans people, a less rigid attitude to people’s roles in life, a sensible compassionate approach to mental illness. Every time you post or share one of those, you send the message that the military service of those who are trans or those who don’t eat meat is somehow worth less. You send the message, too, that you don’t care about looking after folk who need it, when they need it – hardly the world that the world war two soldiers who came back and voted in droves for a government that would build a National Health Service wanted. Perhaps most self-defeatingly, you send the message that we should paper over what the soldiers on the battlefields of the world wars went through in favour of some sort of plastic cut-out rose tinted view of what people endured.
One final point about “real men”. Think about the men in your life when you read this, the ones you love and care about, and ask yourself a question. If that person was struggling, if that person was trying to deal with horrors in their mind, would I rather know and do something to help? Or would I rather that person kept the mask up, kept trying to be a “real man” like people claim “real men” used to be, until it got too much for them and killed them? I think there’s only one of those answers that really respects what wartime PTSD sufferers, or anyone else with mental health issues, goes through. Which society would you rather live in?
If there is one thing which people of all generations deserve, then, it is this; that we allow them to be vulnerable, that we show them compassion, that we respect, above all, that they were and are human.
Thanks for reading.