Part of the Job Description

I recently read the account of the death of three firemen in New York, who were killed when an explosion ripped through a building where they were fighting a fire. All three were husbands and fathers. A photo accompanying the article showed several grieving firemen consoling each other for the loss of their comrades.

Several months ago, I saw another newspaper article describing the heroic actions of individuals who at the cost of injury or death to themselves, rescued someone else. Of the thirty or so individuals mentioned, all but one were men. The woman was injured rescuing a child (I can't recall if the child was hers or a neighbor's). Most of the male heroes rescued complete strangers; and all the heroes who died were men.

I recall the story of the unidentified man, back in the 1980's, who rescued several of his fellow airline passengers in the Potomac River when a plane, attempting to land, collided with a bridge in Washington, DC. After helping them safely to shore, the man himself drowned.

I vividly remember the impact of another incident involving a bridge over a river, this time in Cincinnati, on the Ohio. A policeman was helping a fellow officer catch a suspect fleeing on foot across the bridge's sidewalk. The policeman leaped over the concrete barrier between the road and the sidewalk. It was nighttime. In the darkness, the police officer didn't see the 3-foot gap between the road and the sidewalk, and he fell 90 feet into the icy river. It was over four months before his body was found.

One of the books I am reading to my four-year-old as part of his bedtime ritual is about a boy and his father who work in a coal mine. (The boy is the author's grandfather.) He and his father survive a mine collapse. His father shields the boy with his body as the ceiling caves in. They manage to dig their way through, the boy leading the father, until they reach the men on the other side of the cave in. At this, the miners pass the boy around "like a prized puppy." The boy and his father go home that evening with the knowledge that they will be back in the mines again tomorrow.

I'm sure you recall similar stories of men dying or being injured either as part of their job or as an act of heroism. We all recall the men-our fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers, sons, brothers and uncles-who died in war fighting for their countries.

For men, death is part of our job description. It seems human males have made a virtue out of necessity: since males are more expendable than females (in terms of reproduction), men made willingness to die for the group (family, tribe, nation) the litmus test for manhood. What's more, most men gladly take on this role. Indeed, it is unendurable for most men to live with the knowledge that in a moment of weakness he failed to risk himself to save another. I would venture to say that this aspect of manhood is hardwired into men.

What has changed, however, is the value placed on masculine heroism. In these politically correct times, while no insult to women (perceived or actual) is too small to go unnoticed, no sacrifice by men is ever seems big enough to get noticed. It used to be that a man's role as protector and provider, entailing as it still does a greater risk of premature death or disability, was appreciated and recognized by society. Now, apparently, the cultural orthodoxy dismisses masculine sacrifice as irrelevant or frowns on giving it any special attention. In fact, anything that once set men apart-the military, high risk occupations, pioneering new lands or realms of knowledge-are now made generic ("firefighters," "police officers," "our brave men and women in the armed forces," ), even though it is still policemen, firemen, servicemen, and other men who are the vast majority of those who die or are injured. (How many women do you know who have been killed in combat, taken prisoner or war, killed in the line of duty, etc.?)

You will notice that while men who die in the line of duty are honored individually (our culture hasn't become totally bankrupt yet) the issue that men are at greater risk is accepted as normal. If women comprised 90% of workplace injuries and fatalities (as men do), the media and government would be all over it instantly. It would, in short, be unacceptable. In fact, the most egregious example of this I saw just this month while driving through Pennsylvania. On I-90 there was some road construction and, in an effort to get motorists to take seriously the safely of the road crews, the state Department of Transportation had put up a sign in childlike script saying, "Please drive carefully, my mommy works here." The implication being that either it's okay if someone's daddy is killed or injured, or that safety is a concern only when women (no matter how few) are involved.

At the same time, while women are demanding access to formerly male professions, you don't hear any feminists demanding equal access to male responsibilities. Feminists want women to have all the prestige and opportunities that men had as a result of men's willingness to bear increased risks, but few will argue that women should also bear those higher risks (longer work hours, more dangerous work, dirtier work, more time away from family, the military draft). In short, feminists want the best of both worlds (the special protections that society traditionally afforded women and the special status traditionally afforded men).

Like most men, I don't like to complain. I only point this out to reveal the flaws in the feminist critique of men and masculinity. Feminism is blind to the fact that the male role exacts a high price-a price most men are willing to pay, if their sacrifice is valued and meaningful. It is also a price most women are unwilling to pay, and it is a cause of much resentment among men who are being forced to admit women to their ranks on preferential terms. I think it goes much deeper than fairness. For men, it is a question of maintaining our honor as men. Even with the best of intentions, women cannot take on the same character that has been hardwired into men over hundreds of thousands of years. Certainly women are capable of bravery and can make good team players with men-but only up to a point.

Millennia as hunters and warriors has bred into men an esprit de corps and fraternal sense of honor that is simply not part of woman's makeup. That's just the way it is. When you think about it, women normally experience feelings of being protected from the opposite sex, from men--their fathers, older brothers, boyfriends, husbands, grown sons. Men, because we are the designated protectors, need to rely on our own resources-or other men-for protection. When the trust is there, men can abandon themselves to the protection of other men, knowing of course that they will protect their brothers in turn (this is of course the basis for the intensity of male bonding in war). With men, then, protection is a mutual experience and it is a same sex experience. It is also a sacred trust. This is what makes men's self-sacrifice possible.

In having to confront the face of death men have come up with two strategies: humor and honor. By facing death together, as brothers, men have been able to live with a much higher risk of death and injury. While nature has provided the testosterone, giving us the energy to take risks, men have turned mere risk-taking into bravery and valor. Our legendary propensity for gallows humor allows us to make fun of ourselves and our plight, to laugh at death and danger. It is something that is almost inborn in men. It also has the added advantage of keeping us humble. By the same token, the concept of masculine honor which we men have cultivated over the millennia has harnessed our testosterone, especially that of thrill-seeking young men, for the good of all.

If women bring forth new life into the world, men put theirs at risk for the sake of that new life, knowing that this is what being a man is all about. It is at once terrifying and extraordinarily beautiful. But that is just part of our job description as men.