You’ve Heard of the Military Industrial Complex, But Have You Ever Heard of Empathy?

By: Kacy Jones and Scott Douglas

I’ve never been asked, “Hey Kacy, do you know any musicals that are critical indictments of toxic masculinity and the concept of American heroism?” but I sure wish someone would.

Okay, go on. Ask me. Ask me.

Well, my my, I have never thought about it before, I’m gonna have to think – Dogfight. Yeah. It’s Dogfight.

Sure, it’s based on a 1991 movie written by Bob Comfort and the musical’s book was written by Peter Duchan and the music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who are all men. And, yes, its 2012 Off-Broadway run was directed by Joe Mantello who is also . . . a man. And, uh-huh, there are only four women actors in the cast and the titular “dogfight” is Marines trying to win money by bringing the ugliest girl they can find to a party BUT I swear it’s actually about why dudes suck. Specifically white American dudes who revere the military.

Set before and during Vietnam, Dogfight encourages us to think critically about the concept of American heroism by disengaging from the public perception of Vietnam veterans as being monsters, depicting the harmful effects looking up to the military has on men, and by offering up a new idea of what an American hero really is.

Unfortunately, I cannot write with authority on men and their psyches. I wish I could; it would make my love life a lot easier, but I digress. So, instead of me writing “men are sexy trash” over and over, Scott Douglas and I are working together to break down these larger Dogfight themes. I will be bringing you that sweet historical context, Scott will be analyzing the complexity of the men, and then I will tie it altogether by presenting the musical’s idea of a real hero.

First things first: The history and what makes a “hero”.

Dogfight is set primarily on November 21st, 1963 and follows a group of Marines on their last night in the States before they ship out to Okinawa, Japan, but they aren’t slated to actually fight. Mostly they’ll just be sitting around a military base and then they’ll be home in a year and lauded as heroes, or so they think.

Eddie is the first in the musical to express a desire to fight. He says to Rose early on that he wants to go to Vietnam and “kick a little ass, take a few names, be back in a couple of months”*. When Rose presses him on the danger, Eddie clarifies and states that if they were to go to Vietnam, they’d be “there as advisors more than anything…[teaching] ‘em how to take care of the Commies.”

He’s not wrong. In 1963, there were a few thousand American advisors in Vietnam, working with the country to stop the spread of Communism. The President at the time, John F. Kennedy, had put an American presence overseas due to the public’s demand that the spread of Communism should slow in countries that weren’t our own to govern. This was the Cold War, on the heels of WWII, and America was seen as the world’s protector. We became this hero through military intervention, so the implication was that we could only stay this hero by continuing that path.

JFK didn’t see it that way. He saw unnecessary force in other countries as being a precursor to colonizing, so he had plans to pull everyone out of Vietnam once he was safely reelected.

But JFK never was reelected. On November 22nd, 1963, the day Eddie and the other Marines ship out to Okinawa, JFK was assassinated. Vice President Lyndon B Johnson took over, was elected the following year, and on March 8th, 1965, LBJ started the Vietnam War by sending the first aggressive ground troops to Vietnam. LBJ sent the 3rd Marine Division who were previously stationed in Okinawa. Eddie’s Division.

JFK was correct and the public stopped believing in American heroism by way of the military quickly. There was public unrest over Vietnam and when those who survived made it back to the States, they were seen as murderers rather than as heroes.

The Act 2 opener is called “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade” and features the Marines singing about what they can expect when they get home from their time overseas. It’s mostly what they’ve seen in year’s past – parades, sex, and lemonade. They’ll go from being a “no-name schoolboy” to being a “hometown hero”. A dream. In the 2013 Off-Broadway cast recording, the harmonies are beautiful, the music sounds like a cheery marching band’s drumline, and the beat is fast and fun. You can tell these men are yearning to leave normal life behind as their voices soar over the music on “You’re a goddamn hero” with Nick Blaemire’s Bernstein reaching the highest falsetto, as he wants to go farther and be better than the Marines around him. It’s a celebration of things to come because, well, it’s November 21st, they have nothing to fear.

The eleven o’clock number is “Come Back,” in which Eddie arrives back in San Francisco in 1967. He is the only Marine introduced in the musical that survives the war. He’s grieving, homeless, has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Survivor’s Guilt, but immediately gets spit on by a passerby. There will be no parade, no sex, and no lemonade. His violence is no longer celebrated or even tolerated and Eddie is left standing alone in a city that he barely knows. This song is a cry for help and Derek Klena belts painfully high notes as if he’s screaming as loudly as he can. He understands mortality so well now that he doesn’t know how to live – all he has are the horrors of war.

The musical easily could’ve sided with the public perception and claimed Eddie and the other Marines who served in Vietnam were not heroes like the men who served before them. Instead, the musical portrays the male characters as kind of terrible people even when they thought they were just going over to be advisors, effectively saying the old version of American heroism didn’t create heroes after all. Dogfight shows us the military doesn’t turn people into wonderful people or scum. They’re all just people. Toxic awful people, perhaps, but not the monsters the public thought they were.

But who am I to discuss men? I’m going to turn it over to Scott, a creature man himself, to explain how Dogfight goes beyond military stereotypes to depict real human beings.

———————————————————————

Hello, Scott here! Before I begin, please allow me to clarify that I will be defining toxic masculinity as the view that men should adhere to traditional male gender roles characterized by a perpetual “toughness” in their appearance and attitudes, that they should have a need to assert dominance, and that an inability or refusal to maturely or openly express one’s deeper emotional states is a requisite for manhood. There is an abundance of psychological research literature which provides evidence for the harmful effects of toxic masculinity both on the men who adopt this view and those individuals (friends, family) who are close to them.

Toxic masculinity has become a popular topic of engagement across many artistic mediums over recent years. And this is a good thing! Resultantly, our openness as a culture to discussing this concept has grown, and more and more people have been made aware of the inherently harmful nature of this repressive conception of the male identity. Through our collective exposure to art pieces which demonstrate the damaging effects of toxic masculinity, we have grown more apt as a society in recognizing and reacting to systems and individuals who endorse and exhibit the ideals of this view of masculinity. However, a common trend in many contemporary art pieces that examine this subject matter is that toxic masculinity tends solely to be condemned, rather than understood. Yes, audiences are often imparted some greater understanding of how to recognize its symptoms and perhaps are offered a model of how to respond to it, but rarely are audiences asked to do something far more challenging – to empathize.

As Kacy said, the male characters in Dogfight are people. Yes, the Marines are aggressive, harmful, self-infatuated, and extremely belittling to women. The audience is intended to be made fully aware and maybe even repulsed by the actions and intentions of the Marines whenever they are together. Key aspects of the leading lady Rose’s character, such as her abundant trust, empathy, and tenderness, serve as a foil to the Marines, and we the audience gain an understanding of just how damaging the Marines’ display of toxic masculinity is when we see the effect it has on Rose specifically. I mean, this sweet person who embodies the pacifist perspective and explicitly denounces violence is so hurt by Eddie and his friends after she finds out about the dogfight that she says, “I hope you die, Eddie Birdlace. I hope there’s a war and you get killed, all of you, that’s what I hope.” You think the writers were trying to drill home with this line the fact that when these marines enable each other to embody the traits of toxic masculinity, they fucking hurt people? I do! These toxic assholes? Are assholes.

“But Scott, you tastefully vulgar 21 year old male undergraduate student,” I hear the voice in my head say, “How does Dogfight both condemn toxic masculinity and offer the audience a means of empathizing with and understanding the men in this show? Should we even bother to? I mean, you just said they were assholes!”

Well, my cognitive companion, here’s why Dogfight is special. Yes, it takes responsibility in vilifying the Marines’ actions and explicitly demonstrating to the audience the damage that toxic masculinity imparts on others, especially within a patriarchal social hierarchy in which men – and soldiers – expect to be revered. But what is so daring about Dogfight is that it actually implores its audience to understand and empathize with its male characters: it asks its audience to be willing to see why these men are who they are, and it is very selectively effective in doing so, without abandoning its condemnation of their actions.

This exploration in pursuit of understanding is centered upon Eddie Birdlace, the Marine with whom the audience spends the most time. Yes, when we meet Eddie, he too is an asshole, believing himself to be ordained to something great because he is a marine who will use the force of his manhood to, as he sees it, improve the world and his country. He thinks force and violence is the answer, not because it is a conclusion he has come to on his own accord, but because that is the rhetoric of the armed forces and American international affairs. He joined the marines because that is how he understands the duty of his manhood. He has been reared to believe that men must be strong, tough, dutiful, immovable. He has had no model otherwise, as his father abandoned his family when he was only 6 years old. So, what does becoming a Marine offer him? Eddie sees it as a chance to prove his manhood, not only to himself, but to some extent the father who abandoned him too. The fraternity of the marines offers Eddie a sense of stability through his “friendships” with his brothers in arms. American society has convinced him, a 21 year old man, that this is the way to be.

The Marines in this show don’t want to be killing machines, they want to be heroes. They want to be something great, and this is the only way they’ve been shown that they can accomplish greatness. They are incapable of processing their personal insecurities because they have been raised to think that men should not engage with or express such thoughts, so in search of security, they become brothers in the Marines. And together, they become something far more dangerous.

———————————————————————

…A haunting look at the inside of a man’s mind, Scott! I rarely want to think about the abuses men do to women because of gross societal pressures, so let’s transition to Dogfight’s final point about American heroism. Since they’ve established the hero wasn’t destroyed by the Vietnam War since the American military hero never actually existed in the first place, they have to give the audience some sort of hero to root for, right?

Lucky for this essay, they do! That’s where Rose comes in.

Although Rose, like Eddie, was raised by a single mother during wartimes, Rose is not a man and is therefore not subjected to the same notions of manhood. As a result of her femininity, father’s death in war, and her love of folk music, Rose becomes a pacifist who longs to work with the Peace Corps. She mentions loving artists such as Woody Guthrie, Odetta, and Bob Dylan, so it can be assumed Rose eventually supports the anti-war movement, as well as the Civil Rights Movement, working to bring about peace and growth in America.

This does not mean that Rose does not understand the world or isn’t critical of what is going on around her. Rather, like the musical itself, she tries so hard to understand why Eddie thinks the way he does and attempts to talk him out of his violent thoughts and behaviors without simply vilifying them. In the first scene in which Eddie starts to see Rose as a human with a soul, Rose is criticizing his love of guns. Eddie, after saying guitars aren’t equal to guns, says, “There’s talking and there’s doing – and that’s a pretty big difference.” Rose asks back, “But why’s the doing always gotta be done the same way?”

Of course, we know today that Rose was right. The folk revival did much more for the country than the Vietnam War did, especially considering it was one of the reasons the war ended. So through the laws of dramatic irony, we know that Rose and Eddie will switch roles by the end of the musical. She will be the hero and he the ugly one – at least in the public eye.

Through her empathy and love, the same empathy and love the musical holds at its core, Rose helps Eddie see the problems in his behavior and work against them. Ultimately, Eddie and the world discover that being a hero has nothing to do with putting people down, but it’s people like Rose, who lift others up, who are the beautiful ones. The ending where Eddie chooses to tear up Rose’s address and not write her during the war is a tragic one, but it’s not presented as a flaw on his part. It’s a flaw that the American military system requires men to, as Scott put it, become brothers in the Marines and therefore become something much more dangerous. He is a victim of a system that churns out horrible people and all too often hurts the world – a system that is in direct opposition with everything Rose stands for. And if Eddie isn’t the hero, clearly Rose is.

We should take responsibility for our actions, and many characters in this musical do, but Dogfight also wants the audience to see that the choices we make are usually some byproduct of our upbringing or society and that the American society can be a particularly compelling and toxic one. Through Rose, though, there’s hope that our pasts don’t have to define us and we don’t have to stay tied to systems that don’t serve us. All it takes is what she has – trust and compassion for others.

The public didn’t have compassion for those who served in Vietnam like Eddie, Eddie didn’t have compassion for women like Rose, and the world now rarely has compassion for men who might not have been exposed to different, better ways of living. Scott is right in saying that Dogfight is special. It asks for us to throw out all concepts of American heroism, old and new, and instead revere the people looking to love the unlovable and raise up the voices of those so far unheard. Those are the people who have made America great and will continue to keep doing so.

* – All quotes are from the publicly available libretto and the references to the songs are all from the 2013 Off-Broadway Cast Recording.

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