by James Jeffrey
Saturday, 11
September 2021

9/11 responders gave me faith in the masculine ideal

As a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan, I saw it for myself
by James Jeffrey
Firefighters on 9/11. Credit: Getty

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

Join the discussion

  • A more interesting article would be whether, in the years since 2001, there has been a concerted attempt to eradicate masculinity.

  • This is interesting as a vignette but it doesn’t explain why the American male as a group has opted into feminisation and pacifism from the mid 20th century onwards more generally.
    The Vietnam draft dodgers’ search for cupboards to hide in, the reliance on volunteering plus media blackout to conceal the reality of wars lest the populace balk at the human cost.
    The meek surrender to Marxist cultural theory on the ground, across the southern states especially, when they sat on their hands as their ancestors’ images were desecrated.
    These behaviours are all indicative of a manhood which has given up the search for predominance at home and abroad.
    Rather depressing.

  • …perhaps the distinction is that women are bound in collective action by groupthink, with discipline maintained by reputational hen-pecking. Women don’t instinctively die for each other, which is a male trait, whatever the cause being pursued.

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