Dilemma of a Spartan Survivor: War, Disability and Masculinity

13 Jun

As in ancient Sparta, modern American military training emphasizes physical fitness. Pictured here, two Marines wrestle to demonstrate strength (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As in ancient Sparta, modern American military training emphasizes physical fitness. Pictured here, two Marines wrestle to demonstrate strength (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


The widespread purge of modern artistic expression that occurred upon Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 was motivated by fear. The Nazi regime was determined to use culture to control the people and they chose to promote a conservative, unadulterated classical Greek and Roman aesthetic within the Reich. Avant garde artistic movements such as impressionism, surrealism and cubism were rejected, and art inspired by these movements was deemed degenerate and was to be purged by the Reich Culture Chamber. For example, Otto Dix was labeled a degenerate artist and had his position at the Kunstakademie in Dresden terminated because of his anti-war advocacy. Perhaps his most famous painting, War Cripples, depicting German World War One veteran amputees, was displayed by the regime at the Degenerate Art Museum in Dresden and was later destroyed by the Nazis. The irony is that Dix actually volunteered for and fought for Germany in the war, and was himself almost fatally wounded in combat. Dix drew deep inspiration from war and the trauma inflicted by war on men’s bodies and minds.

The Nazi purge raises questions about the challenges confronted by those artists and writers who represented alternative interpretations of human difference when their interpretations were deemed to subvert the chief objectives of the state. In the case of males and male bodies under the Nazi regime, notions of degeneracy became entangled with ideas of the übermensch, the perfect man, with the state or “Fatherland” playing a pivotal role in birthing and reproducing ideal-type identities. In this scenario, we are confronted with a strictly utilitarian vision of manhood and womanhood vis a vis the state, and, necessarily, vis a vis one another. Thus, we can see the merger of the political and social dimensions of identity formation in terms of how one’s sexuality manifests both personally, in how one sees oneself, and popularly, in how one in seen by the others, all of which is premised upon approximation to or deviation from a meticulously manufactured, politically motivated ideal.

In terms of manhood, the Nazis (and many societies that preceded and succeeded them) deployed what I refer to as the militia-masculine model of manhood, a clear privileging of those male bodies that are best suited for war and work. Politically, war and work make a male a man and a man a citizen. Socially, war and work make a male a man and a man desirable. What then, of the degenerate, deviant, disabled untermensch who finds it impossible to, quite literally, embody the militia-masculine ideal? Simply put, if he isn’t fit, where does he fit?

Although much has changed both legally and socially regarding the treatment of the disabled (e.g., the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act, the Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights: Draft Protocol on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), we are still left with the stubborn persistence of the militia-masculine archetype of manhood. In societies like Nazi Germany that practiced eugenics-based infanticide, only those men who approached the “superman” were allowed to survive and reproduce. Today, changes in law and changes in the nature of war and work have in some ways qualified the militia-masculine model. However, whether those changes have been sufficient for disabled males – males who are the antitheses of the superman – to dislodge or disembed the intransigent specter of a biologically forced non-conformity is unknown.

These dynamics are perhaps best personified in the case of ancient Sparta. Sparta was the quintessential war state; it employed universal male conscription – every male had to serve in the military which was almost perpetually at war. It was considered an honor because only male citizens – those who could trace their ancestry back to the original Spartans – could serve. Aggression and physicality were privileged among men and were explicit prerequisites for meaningful male participation in society. Hunting and humiliating menial Messenian helots (slaves) was seen as recreation and proof of dominance. Male children lived with their mothers for seven years and then entered the agoge, a military school designed to instill virtues such as physical fitness, sports acumen and unquestioned obedience. The children’s training was by all accounts difficult and cruel. Whipping and starvation were common practices. All of this was done to create the perfect warrior. Most of these children’s/men’s lives was spent with their comrades either preparing for war or engaging in war. Soldiers were not allowed to live with their wives until age 30. Until then, they were permitted only secret meetings at night. Women also underwent strict training, so that they be suitable to bear and rear children. Clearly, gender roles in ancient Sparta were rigid, well-established and inculcated from an early age.

As a consequence of the Spartan warrior ethic, disabled newborn sons (and daughters) were ritually killed. As Plutarch notes in his Life of Lycurgus, the newborn son had to be brought to Lesche, a forum in which the elders would gather and engage in debate over the fitness of the male child to serve as a Spartan warrior. If the child was determined to be “stout and well made” it could be reared. If it was adjudged “puny and ill-shaped” it was to be abandoned at a chasm named Apothetae, under Mount Taygetus, “as thinking it neither good for the child itself, nor for the public interest, that it should be brought up, if it did not, from the very outset, appear made to be healthy and vigorous.” A bath in wine would help distinguish between the “epileptic and weakly children [who would] faint and waste away upon thus being bathed,” and “those of a strong and vigorous habit [who would] acquire firmness and get a temper by it, like steel.” In the Spartan case, war, disability and sexuality were all intertwined and mutually constitutive. Disability was consonant with asexuality.

Today, the practice of literally throwing the newborn away has largely ended, and, as a result of technological advances, war-making no longer requires the physical prowess it once did. However, one could argue that the militia-masculine model of male sexuality continues to pervade. One could argue further that the U.S. is a modern Sparta, as evidenced by the fact that it has the world’s largest military, spends the most on military operations of any country, has the most military installations and spends more than half a billion dollars annually on military-related advertising. The male militaristic ideal can also be seen in the popularity of sports such as mixed martial arts and American football. Athletes and warriors remain the most popular and desirable social icons, leaving a physically disabled heterosexual male with a dilemma as to how to craft an alternative identity in which he can see himself as worthy. Otherwise, he may succumb to the propaganda that dictates that, because of his inability to conform, he is consigned to a fractured, frail and flaccid existence.

To be sure, in terms of self-actualization and self-expression the militia-masculine paradigm necessarily fails; however, there does seem to exist a seeping primordial undercurrent that continues to make it desirable and compelling, as something to be aspired to even though achievement for the physically disabled male is impossible. So what is the position of the disabled heterosexual male who, having now evaded the lip of Mount Taygetos, must negotiate a social landscape in which no readily available alternative paradigm of masculinity exists? The worst-case result of this failure of the attempted and repeated forcing of a square body into round armor is tension, followed by frustration, anger and depression – a gloomy perverse cognitive dissonance punctuated by recurring war-torn nightmares, just as Dix had after his war. In his mind, the untermensch may come to perceive himself as a deserving degenerate feminized male non-citizen, relegated to the sharpest corner of a circular arena, a corporeal abstraction in a realist world.

Emergence from this existential crisis of sexual identity begins with the difficult project of re-imagining manhood, a manhood that is not derivative of the militia-masculine model, or any model for that matter. The first step is to disconnect from the seemingly ubiquitous state-propagated messaging that measures bodies’ worth by height, length and width, or by war, work and sex. This exercise will then pave the way for the process of de-programming and reprogramming, opening avenues for the discovery of new, particularistic metrics of sexuality. Ultimately, the true battlefield for a disabled heterosexual male – or for any “other” – is within. The true warrior’s first adversary is himself.

A. Rahman Ford is a freelance writer and editor with a particular interest in issues of identity. His latest work is “Life as a Sclerian: Poetry on Politics and Periphereality.” He earned his JD from Howard University and his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

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