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Masculine fitness as the body of permanent war

May 12, 2011

‘It is war that shapes peace, and armament that shapes war.’ 
—Thomas Fuller

1. For only $34.95 plus shipping & handling you can own a piece of the Hero Builders SEAL Team 6 Obama action figure. MSNBC calls the Rambama toy a ‘muscular President in fatigues armed with an M1-A4.’


 The action figure features the U.S. President wearing a black t-shirt with the picture of a skull, similar to the insignia of the Rio de Janeiro ‘Elite Squad’ command unit lionized in the film Tropa de Elite.


2. In the context of permanent war (a term I’m borrowing from Napoleon Bonaparte and former U.S. colonel Andrew Bacevich) achieving a moderate body weight or shape loses its pure connotation of health or wellness. ‘Recruiters work with young men and women to get them to a recruitable weight‘ (my emphasis), not unlike the way wrestlers have to ‘make weight’ before competition. Childhood obesity (Michelle Obama’s project in the Task Force on Obesity) becomes a matter of ‘national security,’ and likely has been since former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared a ‘War on Obesity’ in 1996.

3. The right-wing worship of masculinity, as described by Amanda Marcotte, achieves a new bodily ideal beyond the hymn of ‘onward Christian soldiers’: ‘In our eyes, they may be sweater-wearing, soft-handed men who spend most of the day in leather chairs, but under that exterior beats the heart of ancient Greek men who favour hard grounds and camaraderie with other half-dressed naked warriors.’

4. The principal actors in the global ‘War on Terror’ are to some degree formless: think of the hero-soldiers whose funeral coverage was banned by the White House, or the bandit-fiends in drab, garish orange behind Gitmo barbed wire. But if the current media-driven fervor is to be believed, the public is clamoring to have those faces and bodies—dead or alive—laid bare. In the case of bin Laden, while his external appearance is etched in the American imagination as the criminal element behind violent civilian attacks, he is more subconsciously experienced as a bearded specter, the ultimate ‘terrifying Muslim‘ whose cultural codes (distinctive facial hair, turban, long robes, etc.) are largely inseparable from the targeted markers of ‘Islamophobia.’

That’s the context in which the recent Washington Post ‘Who shot bin Laden?’ feature should be observed. Heavy speculation ensues about the ‘portrait’ of this faceless hero. An expert trainer from the Heroes of Tomorrow program says he was a high school or college sports alum. ‘They call themselves “tactical athletes.” Another lays out a distinctive phenotype: ‘”He’ll be ripped. He’s got a lot of upper-body strength. Long arms. Thin waist. Flat tummy.”‘

5. ABC News‘ video report borrows the WaPo discourse so exactly that one might be allowed the assumption that the same military PR official pitched both the story. Chris Cuomo reminds viewers, ‘For security reasons, we’re not allowed to know [the shooter’s appearance],’ not adding that it certainly didn’t stop producers from a computerized simulation:

As in the WaPo rendition, which noted the likelihood that the shooter was not ‘neatly shaven,’ it’s important to highlight the mysterious interior-exterior dichotomy of the fit, trim hero, a ‘perfect specimen’ hiding beneath a ‘disheveled exterior.’ But this unshaven, likely soiled figure mustn’t be confused with the shooter’s adversary. It is merely ‘designed to let him blend in in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan,’ and undoubtedly aided him ‘killing enemy number one in 40 minutes.’ Whew.

What’s important to remember is that just as the bandit-fiend is encoded, marked, and presumed to be ultimately legible, the hero-soldier receives the same (albeit far more positive) treatment. If the beard—long robe—Muslim—terrorist synecdoche is thought to be useful (even morally righteous) in the context of permanent war, the same rigid bodily configurations are projected onto the long-held ideal of the always muscular, always male, always American hero.

Addendum: Alexander Chee’s much-circulated essay ‘Fanboy’ on the transformation of a sickly boy into Captain America, dares to ask if there is such a thing as a mask-less hero, and ends on punctuated questions at the intersection of race and national mythology (note the racial designation of ‘white’ in the screen grab above, even though blacks, Latinos, American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders are vastly overrepresented):

Why is a nation with a black leader and a future white minority dreaming of white heroes who save the world and their white god allies? When do we get a hero who does not need superpowers? And what if he didn’t need to go outside the law?

(Photo of Obama action figure from Hero Builders. Cartoon by Daryl Cagle for All screen grabs taken by South/South.)

[Update: This post was cross-posted by KABOBfest.]

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2011 18:53

    no shout out for ol’klaus t.?

  2. May 19, 2011 09:53

    very happy to have watched this post take shape on twitter. by the way, if you search for pictures of black/afam seals you’ll find the most racist arguments about why there are not many black seals, ie. they dont know how to swim.

    and this is interesting too.

  3. seth edenbaum permalink
    May 19, 2011 22:15

    Of course it’s also homosexual kitsch

  4. seth edenbaum permalink
    May 19, 2011 22:17

    It’s hard to tell but both those comments contained links.

  5. South/South permalink*
    May 20, 2011 19:56

    Thanks to all for these links as this idea takes shape (from tweeting to blogging to conference paper).

  6. Maryam Z permalink
    May 23, 2011 11:33

    I was kind of waiting for you to comment on the Obama’s statement on Israel’s ’67 borders!

  7. December 20, 2011 17:14

    I recognize the argument you’re making regarding the co-optation of health for war purposes.

    However, the athlete who uses the war metaphor for understanding their psyche is not upholding the rhetoric you’re arguing against here. Their war is waged on themselves, on their distractions, on their limitations. It is an entirely appropriate metaphor for the athlete, and should not be shot down.


  1. The Bodies of Permanent War | KABOBfest

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