This book is a valuable addition to the scholarly literature on military folklore and a fascinating collaboration between two authors, — Journal of American Folklore
John Paul Wallis and Jay Mechling are fluent in the vocabulary, premises, and current concerns of contemporary academic social critique, yet are still readable and reflective in tone—helpfully sharing their own multi-faceted personal connections to their topic.Some readers may wonder if it is more the erosion of traditional masculinity, rather than its perseverance, that is among America’s major ailments. Nevertheless, folklorists and military personnel alike will be enriched by reflecting on what the authors have drawn from both the mainstream and unusual backwaters of military experience—customs and practices that provide identity, order, and siblinghood in high-stress situations and, afterwards, help manage strong and persistent combat-related emotions. This may be the most compelling book to take seriously the potential therapeutic benefits of folk-psychological insight since David Hufford’s The Terror that Comes in the Night nearly forty years ago. It is a welcome push for the field to continue recognizing folkloric processes at work in unexpected forms and unexpected places.— Eric A. Eliason, professor of folklore, Brigham Young University, co-editor of Warrior Ways: Explorations in Modern Military Folklore
In this exhaustively researched and engagingly personalized study, an eminent scholar of American masculinities and a Marine veteran of the Iraq War show how combat troops draw on vernacular practices—not all of them endorsed by the military brass—to provide short-term “battlefield first aid” for post-traumatic stress. Following lucid discussions of American boys’ socialization, the myth of redemptive violence, and current therapeutic approaches to PTSD, the authors devote a trenchant chapter each to warriors’ use of animal companions, “rough and tumble” playfighting, first-person-shooter video games, masturbation, and deep (sometimes dark) play as self-administered “folk therapies” for warzone stress. Some of these, they argue, functionally mimic such VA-approved desensitization techniques as Prolonged Exposure Therapy; all of them serve as improvisational attempts to manage the aggressive and erotic implications of being in harm’s way.
Wallis and Mechling have made an admirable contribution to the study of U.S. military culture and of American culture generally. In a volume that offers acute analyses of normative masculinity, they write incisively about the psychological costs of that norm, about male warriors’ homoerotic bonding, about women warriors in traditionally male “friendship groups,” and—in a provocative conclusion—about changing patterns in the social construction of masculinity. Their book is an exemplary model of intergenerational collaboration.
— Tad Tuleja, coeditor of Warrior Ways: Explorations in Modern Military Folklore
This theoretically rigorous, deeply researched, compassionate, and accessible study illuminates the surprising and diverse practices that U.S. service members draw upon to cope with their wartime experiences. Mechling and Wallis’ book is essential reading as we reckon with the psychological toll that nearly two decades of war has taken on men and women who serve and as we contemplate potential future conflicts and their likely consequences.
— David Kieran, Washington and Jefferson College