September 11, 2021 - 7:00am

Joseph Pfeifer was the first NYFD chief at the World Trade Center after the initial plane struck the North Tower. He described his experience on Radio 4 this week, remembering how he looked into the eyes of his younger brother Kevin (also a firefighter) just before he rushed into the North Tower, never to return.

Pfeifer spoke in a composed and unsentimental manner. That, combined with the professionalism and courage that he and his brother displayed that day, brought to mind the band of brothers I served alongside during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Despite all that went wrong, so much of what I saw and experienced with my fellow soldiers — the vast majority of whom were male — gave me faith in the masculine ideal. We were a brotherhood, and we would have given our lives for each other.

This chimes with a somewhat surprising defence of manhood that comes in Jan Morris’s book ‘Conundrum’ about her ten-year transition from man to woman. Recalling her days as a young man in the army and as a reporter covering the 1953 conquest of Everest, she homes in on what she relished as a man: “The male body may be ungenerous, even uncreative in the deepest kind, but when it is working properly it is a marvellous thing to inhabit,” she writes, looking back on “those moments of supreme male fitness as one remembers champagne or a morning swim.”

I remember such moments in the army — those that pushed you to your absolute limit — and Morris compares the “superbly successful expedition” that conquered Everest to a military expedition. She describes “its cohesion as a specifically male accomplishment” in which “constancy was key.”

That constancy — a drive to see things through to the end — is arguably a blessing and a curse for men, going some way to explain the behaviours of Pfeifer, his brother, and those soldiers I knew fighting in horrific situations. None of them abandoned their posts and some paid the ultimate price for it. Morris concludes:

Men more than women respond to the team spirit, and this is partly because, if they are of an age, of a kind, and in a similar condition they work together far more like a mechanism. Elations and despondencies are not so likely to distract them. Since their pace is more regular, all can more easily keep to it.
- Jan Morris, Conundrum

It’s not a question of men being superior to women or of women not being capable of the same things; numerous female soldiers saw more combat than I did and conducted themselves in a far braver manner. But it’s important to acknowledge masculinity’s virtues as well as downsides. Then we might really start to move beyond the battle of the sexes.

James Jeffrey is a freelance writer who splits his time between the US, the UK. He previously served in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan with the British Army. Follow him on Twitter: @jrfjeffrey