Sunday, January 19, 2020

Edward Gallagher, the Navy SEALs, and the discourse on Masculinity

The Trident Pin

On November 21, President Trump tweeted that the U.S. Navy could not take away the Trident pin, a badge of honor, from Chief Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who had just been acquitted in a trial for the first-degree murder of a captured ISIS fighter in Iraq. As he tweeted,  “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin. This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!” Later, addressing a rally in Florida, he said that the Navy’s conduct was one more example of the “deep state’s” interference in good governance, a reference to the presumed alliance of conspirators in the federal government who work in concert to undermine him. Earlier in March, before Gallagher’s trial, Trump ordered the Secretary of the Navy to release Gallagher from the brig, and in March he considered pardoning Gallagher before the trial, only to be dissuaded from doing so by Pentagon officials. Trump’s overriding of the Navy chain of command in the matter of an individual SEAL’s conduct was unprecedented. But it matched his penchant for riding roughshod on the federal government apparatus and acting without consulting the leaders of different agencies and departments. 

What did Gallagher do? Gallagher was put on trial for first-degree murder after members of his platoon said that he had killed an ISIS fighter who was on the operating table by stabbing him repeatedly in the neck. After the stabbing, Gallagher, and no one disputes this fact, sent a friend in California a text with a photo of himself with a knife in one hand, holding the captive up by the hair with the other. “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife,” he wrote.. The prosecution’s case depended on the testimony of a medic, Corey Scott, who was attending to the captive’s medical needs. But when the prosecutors, who had granted Scott immunity, put him on the witness stand, he shocked the court by reneging on his story, saying that in fact he himself had killed the captive as an act of mercy by pressing his thumb over the captive’s trachea. “I knew he was going to die anyway, and wanted to save him from waking up to whatever would have happened to him.” Nonetheless, Corey testified and Gallagher never denied that he had in fact stabbed the captive in the neck while he was on the table, though the resulting wounds did not appear life threatening. After the captive’s death, the officer in charge who was in his first command “then held a re-enlistment ceremony for Chief Gallagher over the corpse.”

After his acquittal, Gallagher appeared on Fox News without authorization and called his Navy superiors “morons” on social media. The Navy command—alarmed at Gallagher’s conduct and despite his exoneration on a first-degree murder charge—demoted him, sentenced him to four months in prison, and sought to remove his Trident pin, which meant expelling him from the SEALs. This is when Trump intervened, reversing the demotion and allowing Gallagher to resign with honor thus keeping his $200,000 pension.

Why Is Gallagher a Hero?

The Navy’s response to Gallagher seems reasonable enough. His platoon provided hours of video testimony against him, he stabbed a captive in the neck, posed with the body, and insulted his superiors. In videos leaked to the New York Times, the Navy SEALs in his platoon described  him as “freaking evil,” “toxic,” and “perfectly okay with killing anybody that was moving.” They accused him of killing civilians from a sniper’s perch and ordering platoon members to turn off their location beacons so they would not be caught by superiors. They believed he appeared amped up or zoned out on drugs. Gallagher dismissed these charges, describing the SEALs in his platoon as liars “who could not meet [his] high standards.” He referred to them repeatedly in public as “the mean girls,” saying they sought to get rid of him.

What is difficult to understand is why Fox News, Trump, and right-wing veterans’ groups should have cast Gallagher as a hero. After all, what is heroic about stabbing a captive on the operating table and then bragging about it? It is also insubordinate to malign one’s military superiors in public. If this is not egregious conduct, it is certainly not heroic. What does Gallagher represent that he should have achieved fame and prominence based on this dubious record?

Of course, one can give a cynical account of these events. Trump saw an opportunity to exercise his dominance over another branch of government, and this was simply one more opportunity to do so. But this explanation presumes that the Navy’s attempted punishment of Gallagher did not trigger his supporters’ strong feelings that his treatment was unjust. They saw him as a symbol of achievement, of the heroic ideal, and were by no means cynical. As some of Gallagher’s supporters commented on a “freeEddie” Twitter feed, “Patriots & my fellow Vets please let’s pound this campaign to #FreeEddie until DOD has no choice but to exonerate his hero. Eddie Gallagher is a Warrior whose mission was to take down the enemy. He’s been unjustly charged.” And, “This is absolutely disgraceful. War is hell. We need men who will heed the call to protect us from evil. We stand with this American Hero! We stand with this beautiful Navy SEAL! Whose life is important? Enemy combatant of Navy SEAL?!”

In this frame of reference, his supporters could see the attacks on Gallagher, his indictment, and the failed attempt to convict him as one more example of the deep state’s undermining of our military and its heroes. Trump tapped into these feelings, and when announcing his reversal of the Navy’s decision he added,, “We’re going to take care of our warriors and I will always stick up for our great fighters. People can sit there in air-conditioned offices and complain, but you know what? It doesn’t matter to me whatsoever.”

The reference to “air-conditioned offices” could be dismissed as demagoguery. But it also touches upon an important motif or meme, that there is a group of very comfortable liberal bureaucrats who neither understand nor appreciate combat, who don’t know that “war is hell.” This image at a more primitive level evokes the distinction between “soft” versus “hard,” of those who are self-absorbed versus those who self-sacrifice. One can sense in this invective an even more primitive layer of discourse—that we are faced with a conflict between what must be necessarily masculine and the forces of feminization that are undermining it. As one Gallagher supporter tweeted, “I am tired of hearing that we have too many white males in positions of power. Try another whine vintage. This one is sour. People of quality have no native color, creed or gender. A society that continually caters to identity politics is one that gives us mediocrity.”

Before proceeding with this story, let me outline the main points of my argument. 

1. Gallagher's and his allies believe that a "wussified" left is undermining heroic combat on the battlefield. Gallagher, they believe, is the left's sacrificial victim. 

2. Trump advanced this idea based partly on his belief that the Navy SEALs had been corrupted by the "deep state." His conception of a deep state justified his violating the Navy's chain of command and attacking its hierarchy. His impulses are deeply anti-institutional.

3. Trump's ideas did not emerge in a vacuum. The political correctness left has been attacking the masculine ideal as toxic and dangerous. This is represented particularly well in the American Psychological Association's public statement, Harmful Violence and Masculinity. 

4. The political correctness left argues that fathers, inheriting the western tradition, raise toxic males. But this ignores that the primary cause of male toxicity is fatherlessness. Good fathers helps sons to integrate aggression and restraint. This enables sons to subordinate to authority when cooperative work requires it.  

5. Masculinity is being attacked and disowned from both sides, with the anti-institutional right elevating aggression without restraint and the political correctness left elevating restraint without aggression. They are acting in concert.  

6. The unspooling of the Gallagher case exposes how corruption breeds corruption. The Secretary of the Navy and the Navy prosecutors in Gallagher's trial violated the time honored principles of respecting institutional authority and supporting hierarchy in the service of cooperative work and fair play. 

7.  The Navy SEALs creed, of quiet heroism, restraint, and brotherhood expresses a time honored concept of masculinity. Trump, Gallagher's allies and the political correctness left are undermining it. 

8. We need to better understand what masculinity actually is. The best research indicates that masculinity is a "precarious" achievement won through objective and observable performance. The Navy SEALs creed is one instantiation of this conception and remains broadly applicable and workable today, if we can protect it from the political correctness left and the anti-institutional right.  

Pete Hegseth

One way to understand Trump's language and Gallagher's supporters is to consider the role that Pete Hegseth, a Fox News reporter, played in propagating the Gallagher story. President Trump has a close relationship with Hegseth and often tweets comments while watching Hegseth on the news show, Fox and Friends. Indeed, in the Trump era, Fox News newscasters have become the president’s close collaborators in making sense of world events and in shaping the president’s decisions. For example, Tucker Carlson played a decisive role in shaping how Trump responded to Iran’s attack on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Trump called Sean Hannity, another Fox News broadcaster, “an amazing warrior” for defending him in the impeachment hearings. At a November 2018 campaign rally for House and Senate seats, Hannity took the stage to introduce President Trump, crossing the line from newscaster to political operative.

Hegseth is an ambitious and talented young man. He was valedictorian of his high school class, an all-star basketball player, graduated from Princeton University, and served in Iraq and Afghanistan earning two bronze stars. In 2012, he lost the Republican party's endorsement in his run for a Senate seat in the state of Minnesota. He served as executive director of Vets for Freedom, which advocated for an increased troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. He joined Fox News in 2014. He undoubtedly has physical courage.  After a year’s service on Guantanamo  Bay in 2004 as an infantry platoon leader he returned to work for Bear Stearns the investment house.  In 2005, he read the news of an Iraqi suicide bomber attacking a crowd of children gathered near passing U.S. Troops. Eighteen children died in the attack. Going toward danger he successfully volunteered for duty in Iraq to lead  an infantry platoon in Baghdad.

When Gallagher was acquitted of murder, he told Hegseth in a televised interview, "I want to say thank you to you, Fox News—to you guys, Pete, for being with us from day one. You guys backed us from the beginning.” After the Navy demoted Gallagher, took away his Trident pin, and upheld its decision after Gallagher appealed it, Hegseth spoke with Trump. Four days later Hegseth told viewers that Trump’s review of the Navy’s decision “is still ongoing and a decision will be announced soon.” Two weeks later Trump announced that Gallagher would not lose his Trident pin and could retire from the Navy with honor. 

Hegseth’s Book

Hegseth wrote a  book  titled, “In the Arena: Good Citizens, a Great Republic, and How One Speech Can Reinvigorate America.” The “speech” in the title refers to an address that President Teddy Roosevelt gave in Paris in 1910 after spending a year hunting in Central Africa. Hegseth quotes what were, to those attending his lecture, its most enthralling words:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

To Hegseth, this short statement represents his own heroic ideal and has shaped his self-conception and the decisions he has taken to date. As he writes, in assessing his own conduct he asks himself, “Am I striving valiantly? Is my face marred by dust and sweat and blood? Am I spending myself in a worthy cause? Am I daring greatly? Am I in the arena?” And he adds, “For me, the arena has included tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. It has included cultural clashes on Ivy League campuses, firefights in Iraq, political confrontations on Capitol Hill, and media battles on Fox News and MSNBC. It has also included plenty of failures, through every twist and turn of life.”

The Arena and Manliness

Hegseth links his heroic strivings to what he sees as a cultural battle for the definition of manliness. As he writes, life in the arena means manliness—"a manliness that America is quickly losing among both our young men and women. From fifth-place trophies to ubiquitous bike helmets and safety equipment to obsessive anti-bullying efforts to helicopter parents and their hand sanitizers to gender neutrality, we are raising a society of entitled, coddled, sheltered, feebled and emasculated citizens.” Inveighing against a “politically correct” culture, he writes further that, “We teach our men to be more like women, and our women to be more like men. The result is youth who enjoy their freedoms—and their own socially constructed sense of self—but have developed little constructive ability to fight for them. They believe their fifth-place trophy is special, and will wear bike helmets as dainty adults and shun the ‘violence’ of tackle football (a sport Teddy Roosevelt literally saved from abolition during his presidency); they obsess over every ‘microaggression’ and micromanage their kids, and refuse to acknowledge the physiological reality that boys and girls are very different. The wussification of America is in full effect.”

The Politically Correct Left

It’s easy to dismiss this discourse as exaggeration. But the politically correct left’s denigration of masculinity is real. Put the phrase “toxic masculinity” into the Google search bar and you get 14 million hits. There is a discourse on the left that sees masculinity as a potential disability and at worst as a disease. For example, in an influential 2018 public interest comment, titled Harmful Violence and Masculinity, the American Psychological Association (APA) writes in its opening paragraphs:

Western culture defines specific characteristics to fit the patriarchal ideal masculine construct. The socialization of masculine ideals starts at a young age and defines ideal masculinity as related to toughness, stoicism, heterosexism, self-sufficient attitudes and lack of emotional sensitivity (Wall & Kristjanson, 2005), and of connectedness. Boys learn to be men from the men in their lives, from their own experiences navigating our social norms, and from the larger social and cultural context. Boys live under intensified pressure to display gender-appropriate behaviors according to the ideal male code.

Looking at the development of aggression throughout childhood, we know that not only do aggressive behaviors emerge at an early age, they also tend to persist over time, without early prevention intervention (Broidy et al., 2003; Moffitt, 1993; Zigler, Taussig, & Black, 1992). The socialization of the male characteristics mentioned above also onsets at an early age, making it a prime time-period for prevention intervention.

The possibility of negative effects of harmful masculinity occurs when negative masculine ideals are upheld. Primary gender role socialization aims to uphold patriarchal codes by requiring men to achieve dominant and aggressive behaviors (Levant et al., 2003). The concept of gender roles is not cast as a biological phenomenon, but rather as a psychological and socially constructed set of ideas that are malleable to change (Levant & Wilmer, 2011).”

There is much to consider in this public comment. The note impugns western culture and its patriarchal codes for raising boys who are dominant and aggressive from an early age, though aggressive and misogynistic behavior can be found throughout the world, for example in parts of the Muslim world where misogynism is rampant, in the Indian subcontinent, and in parts of Africa. Most importantly, the note’s prolix prose, when simplified, posits, as Jordan Peterson points out, “that men who socialize boys in a traditional manner destroy their mental health.”


Yet years of research have demonstrated that the single biggest impact on a boy’s poor socialization, an upbringing that can induce violence in later life, is fatherlessness. This is because, as a careful review of years of academic research shows, “father absence affects children’s socio-emotional development particularly by increasing externalizing behavior.” “Externalizing behavior” means in the common parlance “acting out” rather than controlling one’s impulses. In other words, boys learn to regulate their impulses by subordinating to the authority of the fathers they love and respect. Moreover, girls who experience father absence become more promiscuous in adolescence and are more likely to experience unplanned pregnancies and unwanted births. In other words, toxic masculinity results not from the way fathers raise their sons but from fatherless sons.

The literature on this theme is vast, for example, “Children born to single mothers show higher levels of aggressive behavior than children born to married mothers.” Or, “children from single-mother families are more likely to show resentment and anger toward their fathers.” Or, boys without fathers are “at risk for undisciplined behavior, unclear responsibilities, antisocial behavior, and an inability to attach completely to adult women, thus continuing the cycle of divorce.” And finally, “71% of high school dropouts are fatherless; fatherless children have more trouble academically, scoring poorly on tests of reading, mathematics, and thinking skills; children from father-absent homes are more likely to be truant from school, more likely to be excluded from school, more likely to leave school at age 16, and less likely to attain academic and professional qualifications in adulthood.” 

Strikingly, research also shows that father involvement expands rather than restricts boys’ capacity to express feelings, for example, “The tendency for boys to demonstrate a lack of emotions can be traced to the influence of their fathers…. a father’s involvement resulted in less aggressive, less competitive, and more emotionally expressive behavior, and the ability to convey vulnerability and sadness.” And,, “Emotional issues are sometimes passed down through generations. The lack of emotional development in men is cyclical. If young boys do not have a male to share their emotions with while growing up, they will be less likely to provide emotional support for their sons or younger males they may know.” This does not mean that every fatherless boy becomes a compromised adult. Some boys can find father figures among their uncles, grandfathers or neighbors And some fathers raise their boys with such harshness that their sons never internalize standards of good conduct nor develop the moral compass for regulating their behavior. Gallagher, as fas we can know, grew up in an intact family. But the exceptions do not obviate the generalization. On balance, fatherlessness hurts.  

The Political Correctness Program

In light of these facts one has to ask of the APA statement, “what is going on here?” Why impugn fathering when fatherlessness is itself the source of the greatest distress? One self-evident hypothesis is that the literature on toxic masculinity as represented, for example, by the APA statement is one manifestation of the political program known as “political correctness.” My colleague Howard Schwartz has written several books with great perspicacity on this subject. The underlying premise of this program and its corollary goal is to impugn masculinity and to deny the central role fathers play in socializing boys and girls. This attack on the role of fathering is conjoined with the attack on the abstract father, represented in political correctness discourse as the founders, purveyors, and creative spirits of western culture, the culture that gave us Beethoven, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Apple computer. This is why the APA statement begins with the phrase “western culture” even though violence has been an integral element of world culture since time immemorial.

Consider finally the second section of the APA statement which addresses intimate partner violence (IPV) as “a prime example of [male] dysfunction.” IPV “reflects the feelings of distress males experience in situations that threaten their idealized masculine identity (Baugher & Gazmararian, 2015). An annual report by the Violence Policy Center (2017), “When Men Murder Women” (PDF, 264KB), uses recent data to show the effect IPV perpetrated by men has on women in the U.S.: 1,686 murders included female victims and male perpetrators and 93 percent of the victims were murdered by a male they knew.”

Again to simplify the prose, the APA statement says that men, under impress of an idealized masculine identity, are at risk of murdering their intimate partners. Yet a very thorough review of all the empirical evidence in intimate partner violence, based on 91 empirical comparisons, found that, “The median percentage of men who severely assaulted a partner was 5.1%, compared to a median of 7.1% for severe assaults by the women in these studies.” In other words, considering the findings across all available studies, women were more likely to engage in intimate partner violence than men. This means that the threat to masculine identity could not possibly be the cause of intimate partner violence since women are more likely to commit such violence than men. The cause is most likely the distaste and sometime hatred that intimacy itself creates.

The central finding of all this empirical work is very straightforward. A son with a good enough father learns to regulate his impulses so that his conduct is based on the thoughtful pursuit of long-term goals. Freud described this succinctly in defining the goal of a psychoanalysis, “where id was, there ego shall be.” A good father helps a son achieve this psychologically intact state naturally. A father does this by orienting his son toward the demands and constraints of the world outside the family where the coin of the realm is not love, but rather indifference. In psychoanalysis this is called “reality testing,” the capacity to view the interpersonal world objectively and to determine how to gain one’s rightful pleasure from it. Through good reality testing a son learns that to secure his pleasures, he must engage in roundabout behaviors, subordinating to institutions and settings that reward and sanction based on what he contributes, rather than on his inherent lovability. Any custom or practice that undermines this psycho-social process, for example, advocating that a boy get a grade he does not deserve, or protecting him from the competition associated with any endeavor, or rewarding him for his effort rather than his accomplishment, weakens his ability to regulate his behavior by bringing his impulses under control. In this regard, Hegseth’s anxiety about “wussification”, an unfortunate term because of its implied attack on femininity, would nonetheless seem to be well placed.

Gallagher's narcissim

Yet if Hegseth is right, the conception that Gallagher represents the masculine ideal seems equally far-fetched. At minimum, stabbing a prone combatant who is on the operating table is cowardly and immature. Calling his superiors “morons” displays a lack of respect for an institution whose integrity is central to our security and which trained him and gave him a calling. Before he deployed to Iraq, he commissioned a friend and former SEAL to make him a custom hunting knife and a hatchet, vowing in a  text, “I’ll try and dig that knife or hatchet on someone’s skull!” He led his team beyond the front lines in violation of his mission and tried to cover it up when one platoon member was shot. “He  spent much of his time scanning the streets of Mosul from hidden sniper nests, firing three or four times as often as the platoon’s snipers, sometimes targeting civilians.” He often “yelled at his commanding officer or disregarded him altogether.” He stabbed the ISIS captive on the operating table as a prelude to sending a photo of the knife he used.

Let me suggest the following. Through this pattern of conduct he was enacting his fantasy of what heroes do, though in practice he was endangering others and undermining his mission. We can’t say why, though one likely reason is that he was disappointed in his record as a SEAL and that the time for becoming his ideal was running out. Now a person like Gallagher, who is playacting a role according to his fantasy of it, is at risk of coming into touch with his own pretense. This is what makes narcissists fragile. This happens, for example, with couples where husband or wife playact at being the ideal spouse when in fact their inner experience is one of estrangement or disappointment. What protects people under these conditions is when others affirm their fantasized status. It takes a village to sustain a narcissist. This is why Gallagher sent out the photo of his knife, a childish gesture.

It is no surprise then that Gallagher, after retiring from the Navy, quickly turned from being a hero to being a celebrity and started cashing in on it. In his own mind, his celebrity status confirmed his heroism. When he retired from the SEALs he started an apparel line called Salty Frog Gear. Described  as a “coastal lifestyle brand with an edge,” it features T-shirts that read ‘stay salty’ and hooded sweatshirts with a custom front pocket designed to hold a beer bottle. He has used his Instagram account to support veteran-owned muscle-building supplements and displays the logos of right-wing veterans’ groups “including an apparel brand run by the SEAL veteran who made the knife Chief Gallagher was accused of using to kill a captive.” Along with all sorts of items emblazoned with the logo “KILL BAD DUDES,” the site sells a “Waterboarding Instructor” shirt. His alliance with Trump, as one critic notes, also raises his profile in conservative circles and will help him cash in on book deals.

The Anti-Institutional Right

If the “political correctness” left elevates restraint and devalues aggression, so much so that power accrues to those who claim the greatest injury, then the right, in its elevation of Gallagher as a hero, elevates aggression and devalues restraint, so much so that a Rambo figure, a fictional figure born out of a fantasy, becomes the model of a hero. Why should this be? I am drawn to the idea that people who support Gallagher have taken up the task of attacking institutions that, within the penumbra associated with the idea of the “deep state,” are seen as completely corrupt, as  governed by shadowy figures. This is certainly one way to interpret both Trump’s and Gallagher’s conduct. That is why Trump said at a rallyI stuck up for three great warriors against the deep state,” referring to two other soldiers implicated in misconduct. Trump took steps that risked delegitimating the naval chain of command, while Gallagher’s contempt for it, with the likely consequences that his supporters felt the same contempt, had the same knock-on effect. This conception of conspiracy, which is one conception of how institutions are corrupted, certainly motivated Trump’s search for the Ukrainians who presumably protected Hilary Clinton in the 2016 election. This idee’ fixe led him down the dangerous path of soliciting foreign interference in U.S. elections, itself a violation of institutional norms and safeguards and thus their corruption. To Trump, Gallagher, instead of corrupting the SEALs, was a vehicle for exposing its corruption. 


We could interpret Trump's conduct as one more example of his attack on the "deep state." This is his explanation. But the attack had cultural knock on effects, He attacked the SEALs by undermining its chain of command, its hierarchy. Of course, as commander in chief he is authorized to do so. But overruling the chiefs in a personnel matter, when they had decided that a chief petty officer had violated norms and standards, was unprecedented. Trump did simply overrule, he demolished.  This touches on the cultural issue of fathers and fathering. 

Let me suggest the following. Hierarchy is the social instantiation of the father principal both culturally, and personally, for each individual who is joined to the world of work and organization.  Like the father principal in the family, the hierarchy is the method for mediating between an internal world of relationships among participants, expressed through informal and formal ties, and an indifferent objective world that rewards or punishes the organization according to whether it meets customers’ or stakeholders’ needs. To accomplish its ends the organization constrains each participant’s freedom of maneuver as well as his emotional expressiveness, with the promise that should the organization succeed, each participant will profit materially and psychologically. It expresses what Freud called the “reality principal” which posits that to gain pleasure and reward we must subordinate to the hard work required to win the resources we desire. This is what "good enough" fathers teach their children and why fatherlessness often results in boys who do no readily subordinate to authority in school or at work. This accounts for their relative failure as adults, unless they are very talented.  While we can't know what Gallagher experienced in this family of origin he gives every evidence of having problems with authority.

This suggests that Trump’s attack on the Navy SEALs and Gallagher’s contempt for them were attacks on the cultural “father.” But if the cultural father has already lost legitimacy, if institutional authority is corrupt and shadowy rather than legitimate, it’s no wonder that the stance of integrating aggression with restraint, in the service of working with and through reality, is itself suspect, or at the worst a con. Why respect the Navy's chain of command if it is one more exemplification of the deep state? This is why Gallagher and Trump can be heroes for deconstructing an institution like the Navy with unmediated aggression. In this way the political correctness left and the anti-institutional right are joined. 

Spenser attacks Hierarchy

People act out when institutional authority is attacked, further undermining institutional authority. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper fired Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, his subordinate, because the latter had also violated the chain of command, its hierarchy.  On November 15, after Trump had restored Gallagher to his rank as Chief Petty Officer but before the Navy decided to take away his Trident, the Navy decided to convene the board of chiefs to see if he could keep the pin. Esper believed that he, Spencer and others had agreed to let this process play out. But then Spencer went behind Esper's back to negotiate a deal with Trump in which Gallagher could retire with his pin. When Esper learned of this from a White House official, he fired Spencer. “Once we agree on a position, we stick to it and support it, both in private and public,” Esper said. Explaining the firing he added, “If you don’t like that position, then simply resign. Otherwise, implement it as if you would implement any order.” 

I suggest that this sequence of events was not accidental. Spencer in this reading, experienced the weakened authority of the Naval chiefs and this emboldened him to take an initiative on his own unsanctioned authority, thus undermining his own boss. We cannot know precisely what Spencer was thinking. It is possible that consciously he felt he was showing initiative and was thus helping his boss. Unconsciously, he may have seen this as an opportunity to win Trump’s favor and supersede his boss. But this is precisely the point. When a hierarchy loses legitimacy, people find many reasons to claim for themselves more authority than they are entitled to: for personal advantage, the search for glory, to be a hero. The result is that they amplify the chaos rather than reassert order.

The Prosecutor’s peculiar conduct

This backdrop of delegitimating hierarchy also provides insight into how the prosecutors in Gallagher’s trial conducted themselves. Opening an email from the prosecution, Gallagher’s  defense attorneys, “noticed an unusual logo of an American flag with a bald eagle perched on the scales of justice beneath the signature of Commander Christopher Czaplak, the lead prospector. It was not an official government logo.” It was readily apparent that the logo was in fact a tracking device enabling the prosecutors to discover if documents related to the trial were being forwarded, even though the judge had imposed a gag order. The prosecutors had sent the email to 13 defense lawyers and paralegals and to a reporter at the Navy Times, who was reporting on the trial. The judge, Captain Aaron Rugh, aware earlier of  leaks, believed that the prosecution had embedded the tracking device in a court document, not in emails sent to the defense. In addition, he believed that prosecutors were coordinating with a U.S. attorney’s office even though, “a federal prosecutor told the military prosecutor to make sure they had the judge's approval before launching the tracking effort.” Strikingly, several experts testified that the tracking device could not be used to, “identify a specific person or capture content.” Instead, it could tell whether the recipient forwarded the email and what browser she used. The judge removed Commander Czaplak from the case and freed Gallagher from his confinement in a Navy Medical Center.

What was going on here? One is struck by the prosecutors’ clumsiness. The logo on the signature line was unusual and was readily discovered. At best, the prosecutors might learn that the emails were forwarded to people not officially on the defense team, but not their names, nor what they might have learned. Let me propose the following. People supporting Gallagher, including President Trump, were mobilizing to undermine the prosecution’s case. One reasonable question was whether or not the defense lawyers were in fact coordinating their efforts with this wider public, including President Trump, so that Gallagher’s prosecution could be undermined by his trial in the court of public opinion. As an American Bar Association webpage notes, “Smart lawyers, clients, and their advisors now realize that litigation communications (or litigation public relations, as it’s also known) is, at its core, a litigation management function - as important to the case as any other element of modern litigation practice….. if you are not planning for effective communications in legal matters before a case is filed (or worse, "blows up"), the damage can be quick and irreversible. Manage the crisis, or it will end up managing you.”

Yet the prosecutors also knew that they were skirting ethical guidelines and to limit their trespass they delimited what they could learn from the tracking device. They were being tactical and sneaky, after all they were not straight with the judge about their authorization, without, in their own minds, actually violating any ethical injunctions. As they said in their own defense, “the emails contained code similar to what marketers use to see when an email is opened and what device was used to open it.” This conception of their innocence, added to their felt right to delimit Gallagher’s defense in the court of public opinion, led to their clumsiness. No need to hide your tracks if in fact you are entitled to your intrusion.

This interplay between public opinion, leaks and the court highlights, in the small, the dynamics of de-institutionalization, in this case the court of law. The fact of the matter is that Gallagher had the President of the United States behind him. Mark Mukasey, Rudy Giuliani’s long-time partner, who in turn is Trump’s personal lawyer, worked on the Gallagher defense team while also defending Trump in a lawsuit requiring him to turn over his financial records to congress. Trump was delegitimating the trial with this words, actions and resources. The prosecution responded by taking extra-legal steps, violating the ethical guidelines that institutions underline, contributing in turn to the trial's delegitimation. In other words, corruption breeds corruption and this is how institutions are undermined.* (The addendum has some additional thoughts on the sources of deinstitutionalization)

The Navy SEALS' model of masculinity:

Let me propose that the Navy SEALs have developed a workable concept of masculinity, reflected in their creed and based on centuries of western history and culture. The creed instantiates the elements of civilized masculinity, the opposite of "toxic masculinity." In 2005, “50 active duty and retired SEALs of various ranks and experience levels gathered on San Clemente Island to contemplate the SEAL archetype. The goal was to define the standard by which all SEALs could measure themselves. Through their efforts, the SEAL Ethos was born.” The creed  encompasses quiet heroismrestraint and brotherhoodLike any creed, it posits ideals which may be compromised by organizational or cultural dynamics. Gallagher's behavior is one such example. But the creed when in force also calls participants to their best behavior and stands as a dike against primitive impulses that can undermine an institution. In this sense we must take the creed seriously. 

Quiet heroism: The Ethos includes the injunction that I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.” This concept of the “quiet professional” who serves with honor serves a practical end—the Navy does not want to reveal the methods SEALs use to defeat the enemy—but it is also based on the idea that heroism is in the deed and not in the celebrity that may attend its performance. This is why the Trident pin is so important. It is an indication of a SEAL’s worthiness, while remaining “silent.” It is quiet testimony.

Restraint: The creed states, “The ability to control my emotions and my actions, regardless of circumstance, sets me apart from other men.” At first glance this may appear to unduly restrict the expressive life of a SEAL. It reflects what Nancy Sherman, who taught at the Naval Academy, describes as the Naval officers’ considerable attachment to the philosophy of Stoicism. In Stoicism, the fundamental theorem is that what is real becomes so only insofar as we internalize it with a particular meaning. Feelings can help us synthesize meanings, but they are not always the best guides for action. I may judge based on synthesizing my thoughts and feelings that I have failed. But if failure impels me to passively accept defeat or strike someone weaker than me, then I have let my emotions control my actions. With Stoicism I create a circuit breaker between a feeling and an action. It is not that I don’t feel—a SEAL can be frightened by an unexpected sound in the distance—but rather I use the feeling as a datum to make a rational judgement about what to do, for example to lie low or lob a grenade.

The merits of emotional control in combat are obvious. It allows SEALs to make good judgments under (literal) fire. But it is also consistent with a conception of heroism that is linked to the idea of restraint. In this way of thinking, the extreme feelings of revenge, hatred, and the search for glory, which are the emotional hazards of battle, are destabilizing and lead not only to bad judgment but potentially to atrocities. One of the preludes to the famous My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War in which an American platoon slaughtered 500 Vietnamese people, many of them non-combatant older men, women and children, was Captain Medina’s direction to Charlie company that now was “our time to get even. A time for us to settle the score. A time for revenge—when we can get revenge for our fallen comrades.”

This focus on the interplay of restraint and combat is an ancient one. The Iliad begins with the famous line,

“Rage: Goddess sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed that cost the Achaeans countless losses hurling down to the House of Death so many souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds.”

When Hector kills Achilles’ comrade Patroclus, Achilles is so enraged that upon killing Hector, he violates a sacrosanct law of ancient war. Instead of returning Hector’s body to his kin, a soldier’s desire throughout the ages, he drags the body around the walls of Troy for days and stops only when the Gods intervene. Indeed, Hector’s final words to Achilles are, “Give my body to friends to carry home again.” Only after Hector’s father Priam begs Achilles for the release of his son’s body (“I put my lips to the hands of the man who killed my son”) does Achilles soften and return the body.

Restraint also assures cooperation in the execution of a task. The individual soldier is not a free agent to do as his emotions may dictate.  Indeed, as Sherman reports, “Navy captains took it as precisely their mission to knock the “Rambo” out of their young charges. As one officer notes, “They are too ready to flare up in the name of warrior glory.” Restraint requires discipline, attending to the authority figures and their direction, and focusing on the roles that fellow soldiers play in executing operations.

Brotherhood: The Navy SEAL creed states, “My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission.” The reference to protecting teammates highlights the central role that the “brotherhood” plays military life. Under the intense conditions of battle, this orientation toward others, toward the cooperative task, gives rise to the compensatory and powerful emotional experience of brotherhood. Siegfried Sassoon, the English poet and novelist who fought in World War I, described a yearning for his brothers and his wish to rejoin them after he was injured, despite his opposition to the war. In a poem titled Banishment, he wrote, “They smote my heart to pity, built my pride. Shoulder to aching shoulder, side by side,” and “Love drove me to rebel [Sassoon’s dear friend was killed in battle triggering his opposition to the war], Love drives me back to grope with them through Hell.” In other words, he could not bear to be separated from his brothers, and indeed Sassoon did return to the front only to be injured by friendly fire.

It is the process of restraint, which enables soldiers to act in concert toward a goal, that provides them with the emotional connections to each other. The work is the psychosocial solvent. Consider as well that social psychology research suggests that the, “team aspect of many sports may foster greater emotional openness with other men.” One result is that surprisingly, “men tend to score higher in self-compassion than women do,” a function of their wish to improve as well as their receptiveness to their teammates.

A Model of Masculinity

All this suggests that the Navy SEALs provide us with a very workable model of masculinity. It calls upon the man to focus on the work to be done, to cooperate in its execution, to take pride without pursuing  glory, to mobilize his aggression in contending with adversaries or a recalcitrant situation, to contain emotional responses so that they do not distort judgement nor jeopardize a mission, to rest secure in the knowledge that a SEAL can win the gratitude of his peers even when his heroism is unsung, to build emotional connections to his brothers, to focus on self-improvement and in that process forgive himself for occasional failures. This is a far cry from the conception that there is embedded in western culture a masculinity that is toxic and that we need a decisive break from tradition in order to raise good men. We have had a good enough model for a very long time.

Precarious Masculinity

Yer the Navy's struggle to sustain its model of masculinity highlights a wider psychological and sociological issue. The masculine striving to succeed can lead to over-reach, failure, and narcissistic disappointments. While we can't know the psychological details of Gallagher's upbringing his unhinged conduct suggests some failure of socialization into the male role. Hence his narcissism and overreach. In this sense masculinity is a disability. Men are four times as likely to commit suicide as women. But this is not due to the impact of the “patriarchal ideal masculine construct” as the APA statement puts it. Rather, as Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson have shown in their extensive research program, achieving manhood is a precarious process dependent as it is on objective performance and the public demonstration of one’s effectiveness. This holds across time and cultures. As they write, “Regardless of culture-specific markers of masculinity, cultures around the world view manhood as a social status that must be earned and can be lost (Gilmore, 1990). In comparison, womanhood is typically viewed as a status that follows naturally from biological changes and that, once earned, remains secure. “Manhood,” they write, “is confirmed primarily by others and thus requires public demonstrations of proof.” The result, they note, is that “the only enduring quality characterizing ‘real manhood’ is its continual anxiety, and this anxiety, we argue, centers around manhood’s structure (its precariousness) more than its contents (specific qualities, behaviors, preferences, or tendencies that men must display).” No wonder more men than women commit suicide!

In this context, the job of the father is to help the son learn to manage the anxiety associated with this precarious status so that he can achieve the best objective performance possible. In the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century it was thought that this required a certain harshness, with the father withdrawing love or meting out punishment when the son failed. George Orwell in his famous essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” describes the undue harshness of the English private boarding school where young boys were beaten for wetting their beds. We know today that good fathering requires considerable compassion and that physical punishment increases childhood aggression, antisocial behavior, and depression, while delimiting the child's ability to internalize moral standards as their own. These learnings have helped civilize the nuclear family and brought fathers and sons closer together emotionally.

Why the Precarious State?

Vandello and Bosson are reluctant to provide a reason for why masculinity should be precarious across cultures and time. One possibility is that our culture is the product of evolution in which men competed for women on the basis of their ability to provide women with food and safety. The men had to perform in order to reproduce. One argument in favor of this idea is that we are descended from twice as many women as men. This means that many men in the past failed to reproduce while others monopolized several women. Men alive today inherit the competitiveness and the precariousness that this process induced and reinforced.

Freud provides a complementary explanation. In his way of thinking, the boy—unlike the girl—must make a shift from identifying with the mother to identifying with the father as he matures. This process cannot be complete because the good mother is always loved. This means that the boy always feels the undertow of his mother’s presence as an ideal figure, someone who loved him for who he was and not what he did. This can inhibit his ability to join the world of men as competitors and comrades. This is the femininity undertow. This helps explain why, as Vandello and Bosson discovered in their experimental research, “one of the most pervasive and salient behavioral norms of the male gender role is the antifemininity mandate.” As they note, “Manhood is defined in part as an aversion to femininity.” But this is not because men hate women, but because they love their mothers.

Perhaps the evolutionary and the psychoanalytic explanations can be joined in the idea that the family evolved partly but not wholly to provide sons with the best possible chance of reproducing. This meant ensuring that the son could secure both his mother’s love, thus giving him the inner confidence that he was special, and his father’s attention, so that he could compete. This particular family complex proved to be the best engine for successful male reproduction, and this is the complex we have inherited. 

Therapy and the Brotherhood of Men

As the Navy's seal creed suggests men need each other, their brotherhood, to remain true to their best version of masculinity. The discourse on toxic masculinity fails to recognize this brotherhood provides friendship, attachment, and emotional expressiveness. The APA statement describes the male attributes of “stoicism, heterosexism, self-sufficient attitudes and lack of emotional sensitivity and of connectedness.” It is a simple step from this thinking to propose that men are resistant to entering psychotherapy. This may be so for individual men, but it overlooks the role of the brotherhood itself as a therapeutic agent. During World War II Wilfred Bion, a British psychiatrist who had been a tank commander in World War I, conducted  a short-lived experiment in helping army soldiers disabled by psychiatric ailments recover so that they could return to battle. The soldiers in the hospital were isolated, depressed, and aimless; individual counseling was ineffective and solders were often idle. Bion reconceptualized the hospital as a setting in which a group of soldiers could band together to defeat their war neuroses. “The soldiers were given the opportunities to realize that the solutions were largely in their own hands. Bion achieved this by apparently relinquishing his responsibility for solving all the problems and forcing the group to fall back on their own resources.” The author of this study goes on to note, “the next few weeks saw a marked change in the performance of the men and the unit. The commanding officer remarked on the improvements in cleanliness. The parades developed into constructive and active meetings. Men took part in activities well outside the normal parade hours. There was a subtle but unmistakable sense that the officers and men alike were engaged on a worthwhile and important task.”

Similarly, in a study of group therapy for veterans with PTSD and/or major depressive disorders, the authors note that the veterans overcame their “abject identity” of feeling like failures, of “going from hero to zero,” by rediscovering their camaraderie with their “band of brothers.” As one participant noted, echoing Bion’s hospital experiment, “Here, there were no judgments but a real sense of connection. It was the first time that I had felt camaraderie, a sense of belonging, a deep understanding and connection in over 10 years. I felt that we were a troop who was facing our fears and all standing beside each other against a common enemy. My sense of despair left and was replaced with hope.” Participants saw the group therapy as a way to “stand by their buddies” and when someone dropped, one participant noted “you felt that you had to come back to be here for everyone else.” The researchers summarize with the observation, “Attendance and engagement have become reframed as agency, loyalty, and selfless service to others—values that are consistent with dominant military masculine ideals, yet which now support engagement rather than disengagement and isolation. Just like in military training, the focus is no longer on self, but on others.” In other words, the brotherhood is the therapeutic agent, and the masculine ideal, far from inhibiting treatment and recovery, facilitates it.

In sum.

Anthropologists use the concept of the event.These are moments which crystallize or condense large scale social forces within the confines of a particular narrative moment. We can view “the large” in "the small.” Such events are not simply expressive. They may also move a social system forward or backward by recalibrating the interplay of forces which are their background. In the study of organizations such events are called “critical incidents” which reveal a background of institutional forces and their impact on individual choices in situations that are conditioned but not determined.

The story of Gallagher and his trial has these features. It condenses three essential movements and reveals their interdependence; the discourse of masculinity, institutional corruption and the twinning of polar opposites. The left, through political correctness and the right through its rejection of restraint are both undermining a workable concept and practice of masculinity, expressed well by the Navy SEAL’s creed. The left elevates restraint without aggression and the right, aggression without restraint. Apparently opposed they are working in concert.

The SEAL’s creed has ancient roots and reflects the role that institutions play in civilizing aggression. These roots are reflected in civilization’s concept of the “father” both the real one and the abstract one. The real father socializes boys and girls so that they learn to regulate their impulses in the service of securing their long-term pleasure. Boys are particularly at risk since by evolution’s design and the psychodynamics of the nuclear family they prepare for competition by suppressing their feminine selves. This, and the anxiety associated with objective performance, makes them feel precarious. The abstract father, represented in hierarchy, regulates conduct and restrains impulses so that people can cooperate to produce something of value. The military is the oldest expression of hierarchy—how to discipline cooperation to accomplish a performance -- and modern organizations, despite their many variations, retain its essential features.

Trump is profoundly anti-institutional and in Gallagher he saw the occasion to attack hierarchy, in this case the Navy chain of command, while elevating unrestrained aggression, both his own and Gallagher’s. He corrupted the Navy SEALs and stimulated further acts of institutional corruption. Spencer, the Navy Secretary, went behind the back of the Secretary of Defense, and the prosecutors skirted ethical guidelines by planting trackers in emails sent to the defense attorneys. Corruption feeds on itself. This process delegitimates institutions, violates the principal of hierarchy and attacks the father principal as one organizing principal for society. This is joined by the political correctness left's devaluation of actual fathers and the role they play in socializing sons. 

Commercialization and the open door

Gallagher was not the first to commercialize his experience. To amplify its recruitment efforts the Navy cooperated  in the making of a movie about the SEALs, “Act of Valor.” It was released in 2012 and grossed $83 million. This encouraged Brandon Webb, who had a short stint in the SEALs, to found Force 12 Media and hire former SEALs, Green Berets, and Army rangers to write about the U.S.’s clandestine wars around the globe. After Osama bin Laden was killed, the CIA cooperated with Hollywood in the making of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” which revealed some of the methods SEALs used to capture him.

In 2012, Rear Admiral Sean Pybus wrote, “I am disappointed, embarrassed and concerned. Most of us have always thought that the privilege of working with some of our nation’s toughest warriors on challenging missions would be enough to be proud of, with no further compensation or celebrity required. Today, we find former SEALs headlining positions in a presidential campaign; hawking details about a mission against Enemy Number 1; and generally selling other aspects of NSW [Navy Special Warfare] training and operations. For an elite force that should be humble and disciplined for life, we are certainly not appearing to be so. We owe our chain of command much better than this.”

This suggests to me that Trump and Gallagher were pushing against an open door. They were undermining an institution that was already weakened by people who, while profiting financially and politically from it, were actually undermining it by revealing its secrets. Indeed, its weak state indicated that it was already corrupt and therefore merited contempt. Yet this need not be so. People can work together to strengthen an institution in jeopardy. But perhaps the felt contempt makes reconstruction seem naive. Why improve an institution that has become a joke? Better to profit from its decline and fall.

There may be a model of a larger process here: I posit this as a hypothesis for the reader’s consideration.

A societal wide process of deinstitutionalization accelerated by the unholy alliance of social media and commerce is putting all our institutions and organizations at risk from attack by both the right and the political correctness left.

For example, when men are accused of sexual harassment on university campuses, they don’t have access to the protections that people accused in court have had as a matter of course over centuries. Consider what one self-identified feminist professor at Harvard argues. In response to threats from the Office of Civil Rights in the Federal Department of Education, universities, “have put in place a system in which it is commonplace to deny accused students, (who are mostly men- LH)  access to the complaint, the evidence, the identities of the witnesses, or the investigative report, and to forbid them from questioning complainants or witnesses.” In other words, to counter presumed male aggression, the universities are corrupting the rule of a law. And the law, which governs conduct while regulating force, is one more instantiation of the “abstract father.” My hypothesis is that in exploring this issue in depth we would find larger forces in the background that are deinstitutionalizing the university, for example faculty have withdrawn from campus life, while social media offer many alternative ways to acquire vocational skills. In terms of my hypothesis, Title IX advocates are also pushing against an open door. 

What the SEALs and the university cases suggest is that that when wider social forces undermine institutions, the long knives of self-interest and power-plays emerge to further delegitimate them. The content of these attacks vary by historical circumstance. The collapse of the liberal world order after World War One made institutions vulnerable to fascism, but the collapse preceded the fascist victories. If I am right, the content today is cultural, an attack on masculinity as it has been organized by the nuclear family and has been expressed in a range of settings, for example in the Navy SEALs. This attack breaks apart the intertwining of aggression and restraint as the best method for advancing society while holding it together.




  1. Another home-run, Larry, with a staggering number of players on bases to boot. I count at least 15!! Not only do you address the areas of leadership and ties to masculinity, but the relatively ignored areas of followership. Same for your notion "good enough fathering," where the literature focuses on the "good enough mother." Your relatively straightforward use of language to integrate complex phenomenon, easily understood by the thoughtful reader, is also of great worth. Engaging readability, whose worth will be valued beyond narrower Karnac readership --please consider your blog's value for the general public.

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