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From Putin To Netanyahu: How Masculinity Shapes Narratives Of War

As hospitals, schools, houses and shelters crumble down in Gaza strip killing thousands of innocent children, Netanyahu’s roar that it is 'only the beginning' is seemingly the muscle-flexing of a masculine leader.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu
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Photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed in 2011 during the war in Libya, throughout his lifetime tried to understand one simple question -- “What is it about war that really draws men?” Spending most of his life in different conflict zones across the world, Hetherington learnt that “Warfare is a particularly male preoccupation, wrapped up with aggression and masculinity.”

However, beyond the veneer of manliness, he discovered the ‘boys’ in the body of tired soldiers. His 2008 photo series titled ‘Sleeping Soldiers’, clicked at the battlefield of Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, portrayed soldiers of a US army platoon sleeping in a state of ‘peaceful vulnerability’. While talking about the series, he said, “They always look so tough, but when they’re asleep they look like little boys. They look the way their mothers probably remember them.” 

Such vulnerability and its portrayal, nevertheless, have no space in the representation of global leaders who are continuously engaged in wars. Campaigns, government appeals, and popular media narratives -- all together make men infallible, leaving no space for the sleeping boys within them to make peace with their non-aggressive selves. 

Historical evidence shows that men have always waged wars -- sometimes to occupy territories in other times to fulfil their ego. A cursory look at World War II shows how Hitler’s injured ego became one of the major grounds behind the war. During the Cold War, from the Cuban missile crisis to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, the masculine ego has always been a factor. The ego of the male leader merges with that of the Nation, leading to the wars. In this process, the narrative of manliness gets amplified in every narrative.  

Though there are not many studies to corroborate that women leaders don’t participate in wars, several political scientists point out how the feminine traits are being weeded out in the beginning to pave the way for only those women leaders who suit the aggressive men’s club. But the references of leaders like Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi rarely hold water as a study shows that between 1950-2004, there were only 48 women leaders in 188 countries, amounting to just 4% of all global leaders. This small sample size can’t be representative of women leaders’ participation in wars.  

However, the men don’t fight the war only on the battlefield. They fight it out in narratives. From Putin to Netanyahu, the manliness of the leaders always comes with the call to reinforce gender stereotypes. The image of a non-addicted, courageous ‘man’ engaged in protecting the nation becomes sanctimonious. Anything that contradicts it- from having a drunk leader to mental illness- is considered aberration.  

‘A Man Like Putin’:

A man like Putin, so full of strength. 

A man like Putin, who doesn’t get drunk. 

A man like Putin, who wouldn’t hurt me. 

A man like Putin, who won’t run away. 

These lines from the popular Russian propaganda song ‘A Man Like Putin’ written by Alexandar Yelin and performed by Poyushchie Vmeste, an all-girl band, not only highlight how the Russian President’s masculine assertion shaped his policies rather it flexes the projected masculinity of a supreme leader who “won’t run away”. This 2002 song, however, found out its implications two decades later when Putin declared war against Ukraine.  

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Since Putin came to power, most of his actions and statements are filled with masculine chest-thumping. In 2021, he contrasted the strength of the Russian army with the emasculated ‘wokeness’ of the United States. His evocation of strength soon got sanction from US senator Ted Cruz, who, in a Tiktok video, mocked an advertisement showing the diversity of the US military force and comparing it with Russia’s masculine army, wrote, “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea …” 

In a bid to further boost the idea of manliness, Russian media came up with different campaigns calling for “warrior masculinity”. Since the country got engaged in the bloody war with Ukraine, thousands of Russian youths fled the country to avoid conscription. To restrain the outflow, in April 2023, the Kremlin passed a military draft paper that made it almost impossible to avoid conscription.  

These administrative steps were accompanied by aggressive campaigns. Media reports suggested how the billboards in Russia had been filled with the message that ‘A real man deserving respect and admiration joins military’. The propagandist advertisements went nothing short of showing how the former girlfriends of the ‘men’ are falling in love again with the person after he joins the military. One of them, referring to the young men who left the country as ‘cowards’, makes a woman say, “The boys left, the men stayed”. Another one reads, “You are a real man, be one.”  

In Russia, joining the military for men between the ages of 18 to 27 is considered a constitutional duty, but since the fall of the USSR, this hardly materialised. And since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some reports suggest that at least 7,00,000 men have fled. Even after such desperate campaigns, why is the idea of warrior masculinity failing? Perhaps the market economy here has a role to play.  

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The Human Rights Watch report in 2004 found that the transition to a market economy actually helped the privileged young men to avoid conscription and make their way out. But it is the “the most disadvantaged, least affluent parts of society” who are brought lured in to oil the war machine. The cannon of masculine portrayals also gets amplified by the photoshoot of bare-chested Putin riding a horse or fishing in the Russian wilderness. So, the justification for Putin’s war against Ukraine stems from his hyper-masculine projection as a ‘saviour’ of the country who ‘won’t run’.  

Netanyahu and His ‘Manly’ Assertions  

Around 6,000 km away from Russia, another leader -- despite differences in historical context- shares similar masculine projections. It is none other than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu- engaged in a seemingly never-ending war against Palestine. Whereas the socio-political contexts of Ukraine and Palestine are far different, what unites them is the masculinity of war.  

Netanyahu, while he couldn’t be found directly displaying his masculine traits, took some leaves out of Putin’s playbook when he tried to gain some moral high ground by calling the former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a ‘drunk’ allegedly leading to his assassination in 1995. Though he later refuted the charges of incitement, his efforts to portray himself as a morally superior leader to Rabin didn’t go unnoticed.  

It was, however, in 2019, when the ‘stable man’ within him came out as he called his close aide Benjamin Gantz, a member of the Israeli Knesset, ‘mentally ill’, in a bid to discredit him. The mental health of Gantz here became the fulcrum to emasculate him. The manly leader, as the unwritten playbook goes, cannot suffer out of mental illness.  

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However, Netanyahu’s policies have also been gendered on several counts. In July 2023, the Israeli government sent civil service directives to the Universities asking them not to use both male and female suffixes and said that “the masculine form is also used as a neutral, non-gendered form.”. As a gendered language, Hebrew needs to address the issue to make it more inclusive, noted different University scholars.  

Moreover, in 2020, while addressing the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Netanyahu compared women to ‘animals’. Though some media reports considered it as a ‘slip’, the protests of the Israeli women activists in the last few years, citing dwindling representation of women in the administration, don’t let him get away with it.  

As the hospitals, schools, houses and shelters crumble down in the Gaza Strip, killing thousands of innocent children, Netanyahu’s roar that it is “only the beginning” is seemingly the muscle-flexing of a masculine leader. War benefits none. But it can encourage a triumphant masculine nature- amplifying the stereotyped meaning of manliness that ends up pulling youths into a blood-stained endeavour where ‘to be a man is to be a soldier’- a protector of the Nation. 

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