How Many Miles to Basra
Masculinity in Regeneration and How Many Miles to Basra
A key concept to masculinity is being a strong protector, that one should protect one’s family and nation. Yet the texts, ‘Regeneration’ and ‘How Many Miles to Basra?’ present the argument that warfare promotes a distortion of masculinity; a passivity. The isolation from normal societal structure and lack of the two sex model leaves no contrast for the soldiers, collapsing the stereotyped masculine ideal. There is a definite distinction between the setting and circumstances of the two texts. The setting for ‘Regeneration’ is more extreme than that of ‘How Many Miles to Basra?’, in the sense that the horrors of WW1 were more devastating and long lasting than that of the modern war. However, comparisons can still be fairly constructed because ‘Regeneration’ is related to society’s perceptions of what and who a man should be; independent, strong, heterosexual and most importantly the provider for society. There is extreme pressure from the rest of society to conform to these stereotypes, and when they are not followed in any form the soldiers become dislocated; whether that be in terms of sexuality, moral stance on war, physical or mental condition. Whereas ‘How Many Miles to Basra?’ is more concerned with the crisis of masculinity on a personal level. The novel unravels the intertwining relationships between the men in their squadrons, exposing how society has regressed in its acceptance of diversity. The Iraqi war is surrounded by controversy and was born from corruption, meaning it was not popular with the public. This would not have helped the men readjust to the normal societal conventions and would further dislocate them. The men show little tolerance for the Iraqi people, Ursula, and even themselves; Ursula representing the role and treatment of women in a typically masculine environment. In ‘Regeneration’ there is a sense of hope, it indicates society can evolve and discard the traditional masculine and feminine roles. However progress has stagnated and the men go to extreme measures to present themselves as the ideal masculine figure; the alpha male.
The archetypal ideological position of society has been manipulated by the horrors of the Great war, especially concerning sexuality and emotional exposure; epitomized by Hynes as ‘war has disturbed the familiar word of values and meanings, leaving only contradictions, denials, conflicts, tensions, incoherences’. The war was a ‘trial of the Victorian masculine ideal’, according to literary critic Elaine Showalter, the industrial revolution of the 19th century also led to the advancement in warfare technology, and the evolution of warfare itself. The rudimentary, unsophisticated cavalry charges of old had been replaced with the mechanic and systematic slaughter of millions of men; trench warfare. The men were confined to claustrophobic, muddy trenches, along with the thousands of other men, ‘they’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move’. They were isolated from society, not having to follow the rules and social norms that had confined them before. Absence of the two sex model further adds to the distortion of masculine ideal, there is no contrast for the soldiers in the male dominated environment. This could also be said for ‘How Many Miles to Basra?’ because there is a distinct lack of female characters within the play, and the ones that do feature are not put in a good light by the men. Showalter also suggests that the soldiers were silenced and immobilized by the pure nature of war, so they therefore, ‘like women’, had to ‘express their conflicts through the body’. This supports Hynes statement because it contradicts the values and ideals of the traditional Victorian outlook, in which men should be strong and show little emotion.
The soldiers of WW1 spent prolonged periods of time in close proximity of other men so naturally bonds between them were formed, often Sergeants or Officers would be become very close to their men. The relationship between them often became ‘domestic’ and ‘maternal’, as pointed out to the surprise of Rivers by Layard, one of his former patients. The lack of autonomy and powerlessness the soldiers experience often draws parallels with ‘feminine passivity’; Erving Goffman coincides by suggesting they were in an ‘analogous position to women’. These connections caused men like Prior and Sassoon to resist staying in Britain, they would rather go back and protect their soldiers who had valiantly fought alongside them. Such emotions made men question their own masculinity, as being homosexual; or being perceived as homosexual, was seen as a sin and evil, some Scientists even attempting to cure it, as if it were a disease. Homosexuality was not only considered a religious deviance but was a polar opposite to the ideal masculine character, whose sexual dominance over women was just as important as the appreciation of their control over other men. One of very few direct references to homosexuality in ‘Regeneration’ is when Graves is discussing his writing to a girl call Nancy with Sassoon over coffee, and how his ‘affections’ are now ‘running in more normal channels’, showing discontent with the assumption he was homosexual, ‘even in thought’. Graves represses his emotions with the objective of conformity; repression was an ‘essential aspect of the British masculine ideal’ according to literacy critic Showalter. The desperation to disconnect themselves from homosexuality is not unique to ‘Regeneration’, the constant use of innuendos and mention of sexuality in ‘How Many Miles to Basra?’ serves a similar purpose. The verbal jousting between the soldiers is their way of asserting themselves as alpha male, regularly referring to sexual themes; more often than not sexist as well. A prime culprit is Freddie, who has built his entire personality on very masculine and aggressive tendencies. The reference to the ‘gasp’ of a women before sex shows he is trying to prove himself to be heterosexual by proclaiming he has experience in that area. He objectifies women and his viewpoint on them becomes obvious as the play continues until it reaches the apex; the attempted ‘rape’ of Ursula. Geordie’s more respectful view of women could be seen to represent hope, that the younger generation will be more accepting. Despite this it also demonstrates how war can manipulate the young mind, as Freddie is often argued to be the end result of the ‘barrage of horror’, with Geordie representing the impressionable young soldier.
The increase in feminine power contributes to the emasculation and disconnection of men, due to societal changes they must embrace on returning home. It can be seen in two categories, personal and social power, both equally detrimental to the men in their own right. Italian Marxist theoretician and politician Gramsci noted that ‘dominant groups have to work on staying dominant’, which is especially true in ‘Regeneration’ as the era the novel is set saw movements like the suffragettes beginning to gain a voice, and the rights of women being reformed for their advancement. The novel reveals the effect of women’s expanding social powers. Due to the absence of men ,who were the traditional providers, it was up to women to provide for not only their families, but the whole of society. They filled in for jobs in every sector, most working in munition factories. Sarah is arguably the most influential female character in ‘Regeneration’, she provides an interesting insight into the lives of WW1 women. She is Prior’s eventual ‘girlfriend’, and often evokes conflicting emotions from Prior. On an excursion from the hospital, Prior takes Sarah to the beach, where they see crowds of people, he ‘envied and despised’ her because ‘she belonged to the pleasure-seeking crowds’. Prior resents her happiness; he feels excluded from the joy of other people. Prior is envious because he can never mentally escape the war like the crowds have, everything brings back memories for him. The conflict is born from the feeling he is betraying the men who are still fighting in the war by trying to forget them. Prior’s anger becomes focused on Sarah, being a woman, she has been protected from all the horrors of war. He is dislocated from society and observing her freedom makes him jealous of her ignorance and innocence, which affords her an unburdened happiness he can never achieve. He, along with many other men, are trying to force old philosophies into the new world. They left for war with complete control over society, but have come back to a completely new, and for some incomprehensible playing field. Juxtaposing the two texts would show a lack of similarities in their historical contexts; there was no upheaval of the social system after the Iraqi war, unlike WW1. However ‘How Many Miles to Basra?’ focuses on the effect of women’s personal power over men. The primary and almost sole example is Ursula, whose authority threatens them, especially the older and more experienced soldiers. They are disgruntled that a ‘woman journalist’ has been sent in to follow and interview them, Freddie calling her a ‘nosey bitch’; an early sign of his sexism. Freddie is the main perpetrator in regards to mistreating Ursula. Stewart also shows signs of mistrust when he tells DangerMouse that he should tell her ‘nothing’, worried that she will compromise his authority. Stewart is very affected by the ‘girl’ from Ireland, whom he shot and killed while serving there. He wants to compensate for her death by saving the Iraqi mother and child, this drive leads to the eventual death of his entire squadron, a devastating amount of destruction done by the memory of one person. The long term effect the Irish girl has over Stewart shows how much personal power she had; despite being dead for a number of years. This type of influence contrasts to what is seen in ‘Regeneration’, with society’s perception of what a man should be and how he should act contributing the most.
The two texts present different portrayals of masculinity, not solely the angry, stereotypical young soldier. The narrative of ‘Regeneration’ is based around Sassoon’s perspective, and his eventual return to war. Although this is the likely outcome for men who recover from illness, he subverts the system; speaking out against the motives for starting and continuing the war. His passivity results in the ‘soldiers declaration’, in which he criticises the ‘political errors’ of the government and attempts to remove nativity from the rest of the country. The passive protest shatters the ideal masculine image, being prepared to fight for his country no matter the circumstances, disregarding whether it was morally correct or not. But the shattering of the ideal image caused him to be sent to the ‘loony bin’, showing the immense pressure society put on the men to obey the orders without thinking. Sassoon feels duty-bound to his men, unwilling to let them wage war alone. Rivers believes the reason Sassoon is going back to war is to ‘look after some men’, epitomizing bravery. With a burden as large as this on their shoulders it comes as no surprise that masculinity foundered, the Victorian view of masculinity did not fit kindly with the modernisation of warfare and the slow evolution of society. Another subversion from the usual trite of the soldiers is Malek in ‘How Many Miles to Basra?’. He is the driver and general guide for Ursula and eventually the rest of the soldiers. Malek is an Iraqi citizen and is presented as the most intelligent and humane of all them men, he is subject to racism from them; especially Freddie who frequently regards him as a ‘rag head’. Malek exudes an aura of confidence and professionalism, not tolerating racism or sexism of any kind, forcing Freddie to ‘apologise’ for conducting himself poorly; considering how stubborn Freddie ordinarily is this is a considerable feat. Malek has control over every situation he is placed, a very masculine ideal that none of the soldiers can ever replicate, proposing the idea that different cultures are affected differently by war.
The apotheosis of war is an epitome of masculinity; a concept that promises grandeur and prestige yet only delivers the sour taste of disappointment. The two texts show that war is not an exercise of one’s machismo and strength, but a tragic disempowerment and reduction of masculinity. They are left in a ‘analogous position’ to women, becoming passive through the isolation and lack of two sex model that allows conventional masculinity to function. External pressure from women in society contributes to the emasculation, as well as personal power. The returning soldiers cannot readjust to the ever-changing landscape of society, whether that’s Prior returning from WW1, or Freddie, who draws certain parallels because of how war has manipulated him into a position in which he could not cope with the normal societal structure; Geordie often being seen as the innocent and impressionable soldier Freddie entered war as. The two differing angles taken by both texts create an overall image of how war produces such a dramatic crisis of masculinity, ‘Regeneration’ focusing on society’s perceptions and pressures, while ‘How Many Miles to Basra?’ exposes the affect of personal relations between the men and other characters.
Gramsci, A, 2012. A War of Position. http://www.warofposition.com/?page_id=94
Showalter, E, 1987. The Female Malady. 1st ed. Virago
Hynes, Samuel, 2011. A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. Random House, London