A Tale of Two Wolves: Studies of Men and Behavior: Chapter 1: War in the East
The Wolves We Feed: Men, Masculinity and Violence
An old man told his grandson, "My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth." The boy thought about it, and asked, "Grandfather, which wolf wins?" The old man quietly replied, "The one you feed." --Cherokee Proverb
For all its association with power and strength, manhood is a fragile veneer. It is not a status conferred simply by sex or age but rather by social performance—assessed by both men and women—and based on a man’s ability to fulfill societal expectations. As a result, masculine identity is tenuous and susceptible to evisceration. When men are unable to fulfill the demands of manhood, which in many patriarchal societies still rigidly require that men be stoic breadwinners and protectors, their sense of self-worth is eroded. With emotional communication constrained and distorted by masculine code, anger and volatility often prevail over measured emotional expression. Under these circumstances, some men go to horrific lengths to reassert their wounded manhood, a quest in which violence can function as a tool.
With support from the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa, I commenced a photographic research project in late 2013 that explores these dynamics by examining masculinity and the role that male gender identity plays in violence. Over the last eight months, I worked on this project in the war-torn region of eastern Congo, where male-perpetrated violence—committed by armed elements and civilians alike—has been egregious and endemic. It is also a place where psychological trauma caused by years of conflict is woven into an expansive and nuanced web that entangles all segments of society, men included.
The work has been challenging and engaging as my approach to the men with whom I interact is unusual, both for them and for me. Because of the nature of the study, I am fortunate to pursue questions that others rarely ask and to which many men seem eager to respond. What makes a successful man? How do men relate to their families? How do men process stress and trauma? If and at what point does a man’s inability to fulfill social expectations lead to violence?
I spoke with soldiers and civilians in different settings in Congo and while their experiences varied, common threads emerged. Men spoke at length about successful manhood hinging on their ability to provide for their families, and how failures in this area undermined their sense of worth. “My children do not even call me ‘dad’ anymore,” a middle-aged man explained in a sprawling refugee camp near the city of Goma. “When my children want to eat and I’m not around, they simply ask ‘where is he.’” Others explained how the challenges of poverty and displacement undermine a powerful, patriarchal social contract in which provision of necessities and security affords men authority, respect and sex—all essential indicators of manhood. “This situation can create violence in the house because when you are unable to provide for your family, they stop respecting you. You have lost all of your authority and are treated like a child,” one man explained.
In an environment steeped in conflict, men’s inability to provide is compounded by profound and largely untreated psychological trauma. This is perhaps most apparent among soldiers, who are often responsible for the war’s most abhorrent abuses and whose circumstances, consequently, are a subject of little concern. “Soldiers live a deplorable life,” an officer in the national army told me. “Imagine men who have been on frontlines since 1996. Imagine the trauma that they’ve endured during these wars. They’ve seen comrades die. They’ve killed. They get no rest or psychological support. Do you think that this is a normal army?”
While government soldiers are perceived as powerful in the conflict hierarchy, the experience of many low-ranking soldiers is often one of destitution and trauma. Soldiers are often drastically underpaid, or not paid at all. “We’re asked to fight, to risk our lives and to kill people and at the end, we are penniless,” a young solider with callous eyes tells me. “I rarely see my family and I have nothing to send to help them satisfy their needs. I’m here fighting for the country and they see me as a useless man.” Even during military operations, I watched desperate soldiers beg for water and fight for access to beans, often all they had to eat for a day or more. The camps in which they live, sometimes with their families, are often indistinguishable from those built for refugees. Within this environment, social malady, desperation, and violence abound. At times, I was warned to leave these areas because of their violent and volatile nature.
Just as some men seem to violently lash out in response to feelings of emasculation, others utilize violence to fulfill the responsibilities of manhood in the dysfunctional situations in which they find themselves. “When they gave me this uniform they said that it represented my duty to protect Congo,” a battle-hardened solider told me during a secret meeting near Goma. “Now, when commanding officers steal my pay, I say fine. I have a gun. I can hide myself in the darkness and when a civilian passes, I take what he has.” He showed me wounds on his arms from being chained and beaten by his commanding officer for demanding his pay, which he’d not received in months. “My family has nothing to eat,” he lamented. “How do they expect me to behave?”