Brawn may be `in', but brains will bail us out

January 24, 2002|By Alec MacGillis

TIMES ARE tough for the American geek.

In the months since the terrorist attacks, we've been told over and over that Sept. 11 heralded the return of the manly man.

Amid images of brawny firefighters storming into burning skyscrapers and cutthroat commandos roaming Afghanistan, the "real man" is back in demand and the skinny, cerebral type is as out of fashion as unmarked mail.

Everywhere you turn, praise is being lathered on big guys like so much body oil.

They are "men who charge up the stairs in a hundred pounds of gear and tell everyone else where to go to be safe," wrote former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan.

Social critic Camille Paglia swooned over "how robustly, dreamily masculine the faces of the firefighters are."

Robin Givhan, The Washington Post's fashion editor, wrote of the real man's "bulging biceps, broad shoulders, narrow waists, squeezable derrieres."

It's enough to make a 150-pound pencil-neck cry (which apparently is deemed acceptable for the New Masculinity), or at least consider steroids.

There's only one problem, though: If you stop and think about it, the ascendance of the manly man makes no sense in the post-Sept. 11 world. Truth is, one of the tragedies of Sept. 11 was how powerless American muscle was against the terrorists.

On that day, 19 men -- by most accounts, few of them with linebacker builds -- took control of four airliners, destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, killing more than 3,000.

None of the thousands of uniformed men arrayed against them could do much about it -- not the fighter pilots who arrived on scene too late, not the veteran soldiers who perished at the Pentagon and not the firefighters who flooded into twin towers that weren't supposed to fall. The firefighters' courage has no peer; but so deviously successful was the plot that few of them even had a chance to put their brawn to use in carrying victims out.

No, the only people who could have saved the country that day were brainiacs in suits and ties, the very types who are supposedly out of vogue now. They include CIA agents skilled enough to pick up on a worldwide plot in the making for several years, FBI agents smart enough to look into a tip from a Minnesota flight school about a guy who wanted to learn how to steer a plane but not land it, computer whizzes at the National Security Agency worldly enough to make sense of intercepts in Arabic that went untranslated, and government policy wonks circumspect enough to make counterterrorism a top priority.

The same goes for the war we've been fighting against terrorism since Sept. 11.

According to David Granger, editor in chief of Esquire magazine, people now "want to regain what we had in World War II. They want to believe in big, strapping American boys."

But again, those boys aren't going to be the ones who'll save us from future attacks. As the dean of the new manly men, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, keeps reminding us, this is a different kind of war, fought over information, not territory.

Television teases us with images of rock-solid Special Forces and Marines trooping across the Afghan desert, but in the age of low-casualty warfare, their bulk will only go so far. After all, American military leaders have resisted even letting the soldiers search Afghan caves for Osama bin Laden.

Our saviors will be the suits at the Treasury Department who manage to disentangle the al-Qaida money web; the spies and diplomats who track down the bad guys and get them turned over; the public health officials and biologists who protect us against anthrax and its bioterror brethren.

But you wouldn't know it from the New Masculinity mania. Since Sept. 11, the media have been keeping a close eye on whether the soaring stock of the manly man will result in an increase in army, firefighter and police recruits. I'm sure some men's health magazine will soon tell us that the war's got more of us pumping iron.

Frankly, I'd feel a lot better if we saw an uptick in the numbers of people studying Arabic and Urdu, playing chess, or reading John Le Carre -- all of it low on testosterone. But it'll stand us in much better stead.

Alec MacGillis is a reporter for The Sun.

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