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Machismo -- or Masochism?

11.03.2006 04:29 | DISPATCHES

In war, as well as sports, there's a fine line between the two.

How did we ever wind up prisoner to the private pathologies of our garden-gnome-come-to-life of a vice president? That's a question best left to history to decide. Another is more to the point. 

Cheney, as well as Bush and Rumsfeld, remain curiously unmoved by the argument that those who preside over "harsh interrogation techniques" (the dark art formerly known as torture) invite like-minded treatment of our own forces. Why?

Perhaps for the same reason that the hard right is impervious to the argument that our excellent Iraq adventure creates terrorists. If you're on the side of truth, runs the argument, creating enemies comes with the territory. When fighting for what's right, real men don't pull their punches out of fear of blowback.

Aren't military commanders concerned about the safety of their troops? Of course, but they have to pick their bureaucratic battles. Right now, it takes all the courage an officer can muster just to voice his or her opposition to the occupation.

Neither do the rank and file cringe in fear of torture. Their focus is more immediate -- simply ensuring the survival of themselves and their squad mates. Beyond that, if objecting to being hung out to dry requires, whether male of female, removing they're macho mask, don't hold your breath. Expressing concerns about their personal safety begins and ends with requests for better body and Humvee armor.

This ethic is mirrored in a parallel universe, one where lives aren't taken and (usually) no one is maimed: pro football.

A decade ago, the NFL found its product devalued by injuries to quarterbacks -- its leading men. Rules were instituted to protect them: calling the play dead when they were only in the grasp and not actually tackled and penalizing shots to the head, as well as hits leveled within a nanosecond of the whistle.

Who, besides defensive players, squawked most about how unfair this was to the defense? Quarterbacks.

Or at least retired QBs like Troy Aikman, now an announcer, who, two or three times a season, criticizes the rules protecting the quarterback. Just let the defense play, he argues. In other words, he both welcomed how defenses tested his toughness and wanted neither special treatment nor the league's pity.

Like a soldier, he sought as little quarter as he gave. But hidden within that kind of machismo is a deep-seated masochism. There's a part of soldiers and football players that actually yearns for the badge of courage that an injury or even torture awards him, with all the attention accompanying the drama of martyrdom.

If the military won't stand up for the soldiers, it's once again left to us. But much of the public gives no indication they're repulsed by the concept of torture. In perilous times, we entrust our safety to those willing -- all too, I'm afraid -- to fight dirty for us.

Still, one shudders to think the public will greet reports of tortured American troops with the same cringe-inducing response that, at times, soldiers' deaths have been met: "They knew what they were getting in for when they signed up."


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