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#WavellReviews Of Boys and Men by Richard Reeves

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Introduction

From reading the news over the last 5 years, it is clear that members of the Armed Forces and Civil Service are not always getting it right regarding behaviour.  Coverage has discussed the full range of issues, from the inappropriate behaviours described in the Atherton Report and the recent MOD Civil Service letter to the RAF’s recruiting scandal.  While some of that behaviour falls squarely within individual responsibility, the culture of the MOD also plays a large part.  That culture, particularly as it relates to inappropriate behaviours committed by men, has often been ascribed to toxic masculinity, but do we truly understand what that means?1 Or indeed, how to define masculinity more widely? How should men be, or behave, in a military (and a society) which sees gender roles rebalancing? Reeves’s Of Boys and Men tackles parts of this question head-on. 

While it does not directly discuss masculinity in the context of the military, it provides excellent background, context, and something of a way forward for men, more generally, which could be comfortably applied to a military environment.  For leaders at all levels of all four services, reading Of Boys and Men will help you to look at the challenges faced by the modern Western male in a different way and should help reframe some of the problems we face without excusing the behaviour of individuals.

Becoming a father

I didn’t worry unduly about what it meant to be a man until I recently became a father.  That might sound strange given that I am and have always been male, but I have cracked on with life on the basis that I am simply myself and have not really thought about it beyond that.  When my son was born, however, I realised that I ought to give proper thought to what kind of role model I wanted to be to him, specifically as a man and a human.  The latter isn’t new to me – military officers, warrant officers and non-commissioned officers in the UK are taught to lead by setting an example to those with whom they work. 

In various roles and at various times in my career in the Royal Air Force, I have succeeded and failed at that.  The difference, however, is that where I have failed with my colleagues in the past, I have normally had the opportunity to rectify my mistakes – both with those individuals later as our paths once again crossed and with new teams as I have changed jobs.  Equally, aviators under my command have had other commanders who may have been able to mitigate some of the impact of my bad example. 

With my son, however, I don’t have the same luxury I have working with adults.  I need to try and get it right the first time in a way I haven’t always done as a Serviceperson.  What kind of man I want to (try and) show him how to be through my example has been the question I have worried most about, as the world appears to be becoming more polarised politically and in its approach to masculinity.

The Growth Equation

A chance listen to The Growth Equation podcast episodes on masculinity on the commute prompted a visit to the library. Enter Of Boys And Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It by Richard V. Reeves.  Its also worth pointing out that both The Growth Equation episode and the TED Talk aligned with this book are worth a listen.  Reeve’s book is well researched, well written and easy to read.  It was also released at a time where diversity and inclusion were particularly important for the RAF under Air Chief Marshal Wigston, ahead of the recent controversy over recruiting practices and for the Army under General Sanders as they delivered Operation TEAMWORK.

Although Reeves’ approachable and comprehensively researched book focuses very much on the issues facing men, it positively acknowledges the huge benefits brought by the feminist movements and regularly references the leaps forward made by women in a range of areas.  The analysis and the proposals in Of Boys And Men are compatible with equality; a key theme of the book.  In a TED Talk on the issue, Reeves decries those who suggest that to care about the plight of men means you cannot also be a feminist: “that’s like saying to the parent of a son and daughter: ‘you’re only allowed to care about one of them’, and it’s the kind of zero-sum thinking that is doing so much damage to our politics and our culture.  We can think two thoughts at once.”

Of Boys And Men is structured logically.  Reeves paints a somewhat stark picture when he describes the challenges for boys and men in education and work in the 21st century (drawing comparisons with the 20th century).  In the USA, for example, the loss of a significant proportion of manufacturing either to automation or to (job) migration overseas means that traditional jobs for men have declined.  Some aspects of his description are even jarring, but this section is well-evidenced and convincing. 

Calling out the political spectrum

Reeves builds on this foundation by identifying the exacerbating issues experienced by black men in the USA as well as those living in lower socio-economic conditions.  This leads to a nature versus nurture discussion where he dives in to some of the political issues associated with masculinity, calling out those on the right and left of the political spectrum for the ways in which they make the situation worse through their thinking and their actions.  This section, in particular, appears relevant to the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) today in the context of woke vs anti-woke culture, the highly publicised instances of inappropriate behaviours and Service policies.  It might also inform MOD programmes to reduce or eliminate negative behaviour in the services. 

Finally, he suggests some potential solutions. His HEAL acronym (Health, Education, Administration and Literacy) links to the significant progress made within the MOD and across the UK to de-stigmatise talking about and seeking support for mental health issues – suicide remains a significant killer of men in the UK – while his emphasis on positive examples also chimes.  Reeves emphasises the importance of male role models, particularly as teachers of subjects such as English, in order to support the development of boys and young men.  He is also definitive in stating the importance of father figures, whether biological or adoptive fathers or substitutes in another environment.  This, at least, is an area where the military excels and where it has the potential to help young men across the country. 

The British Army, in particular, has long been touted as a superb vehicle for social mobility for those who have been less fortunate early in life, with (in a rose-tinted case, or perhaps I have watched too much Sharpe) soldiers being able to join as a teenage entrant with the bare minimum of qualifications and leave as a Late Entry Lieutenant Colonel with their children attending private school supported by Continuity of Education Allowance.  The lives of Servicepeople (and Servicemen in particular, given the MOD’s demography) are packed with role models, most good, a few bad.  This is clearly on the Army’s mind too; the Army Sergeant Major spoke recently of the importance of setting an example to those joining a new unit: “We can sometimes look back in the past and say we didn’t do everything right, but our Senior NCOs are the ones that made us today.” 

Helping me navigate the 21st century

Neither Reeves, nor I, can provide the answers to all of the MOD’s behavioural problems, and Reeves hasn’t provided all the answers in terms of what I tell my son about masculinity.  He does make clear that despite the many advantages that men hold in the world, navigating the 21st century is not easy for many of us, and that is something we should pay attention to, as parents and as leaders, to help understand each other and our behaviour.  As for the solutions Reeves proposes, longer reflection has led me to the conclusion that whatever my own failings as a leader and father, I am lucky enough to work with men and women in uniform, pseudo aunts and uncles to my son, who are compassionate, capable warfighters that manage to treat their colleagues with respect and set an example for all those around them.

Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What To Do About It, by Richard V. Reeves (2022)

Ben Lonsdale

Ben is a Royal Air Force Military Training Specialist.  Much of his career has been spent as a Parachute Jumping Instructor in training, trials, and operational support roles.  He has worked in joint and single-Service staff roles in the UK and overseas, including in support of counter-piracy and counter-violent extremist organisation operations.

Footnotes

  1. Dr Kinsey Spears and Caroline Hayes, ‘Harmful Masculinities and the Threat to Force Readiness in the U.S. Military’ (New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, 8 December 2022)

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