Soldier Snapshots

Masculinity, Play, and Friendship in the Everyday Photographs of Men in the American Military

Jay Mechling

In Soldier Snapshots Jay Mechling explores how American men socially construct their performance of masculinity in everyday life in all-male friendship groups during their service in the military. The evidence Mechling analyzes is a collection of vernacular photographs, “snapshots,” of and by American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and aviators. Since almost all of the snapshots are photographs taken of men by other men, this book offers a unique view into the social construction, performance, and repair of American masculinity. Mechling guides the reader from the snapshots to ideas about the everyday lives of male soldiers to ideas about the lives of men in groups to ideas about American culture.

In his introduction Mechling offers his thoughts about how to undertake the interdisciplinary study of American culture; he draws from history, folklore, anthropology, sociology, rhetoric, psychology, gender and sexuality studies, ethnic studies, popular culture studies, and visual studies to reveal the intricacies of how men use their folk practices in an all-male group to manage the paradoxes of their friendship and comradeship under sometimes stressful conditions. Soldier Snapshots begins with a brief history of war photography and establishes the nature of vernacular photography: the snapshot. This is followed by a jargon-free discussion of the key ideas about masculinity and the vernacular practices of men in groups, exploring male friendship, the important role of play in men’s relationships, and the ways “animal buddies” adopted by male friendship groups actually tell us even more about male friendship and issues of trust.

“A bold book that doesn’t invite neutrality, Soldier Snapshots will delight some readers and annoy others. The field of men and masculinity studies is burgeoning, and war and soldiering has been examined extensively, yet there is nothing in print quite like what Mechling has written, especially in its wide-ranging interdisciplinary approach and provocative interpretative criteria. Like the author’s other work, Soldier Snapshots is utterly distinctive and engagingly written; it should have appeal in several fields and find an audience beyond the academy.”

—John Ibson, author of Men without Maps: Some Gay Males of the Generation before Stonewall

“Jay Mechling’s astonishing collection of soldiers during downtime—and his deeply thoughtful commentary about them—suggests a far wider emotional versatility than one might imagine from these battle-hardened men. The casual affability, the genuine affection, the embodied fluidity of movement offer such a stark contrast to the toughened mask of the soldier. Like those nineteenth-century images of mining camp saloons, whaling ships, and army barracks, these images reveal the homosocial intimacies that can emerge when men let down their guards. As it answers one question about the range of emotion, though, it begs another: How can such tender and loving people also be capable of the barbarism and gratuitous cruelty that war requires?”

—Michael Kimmel, distinguished professor of sociology and gender studies, emeritus, Stony Brook University, and author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men

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In the final section Mechling’s careful analysis reveals how the men employ different folk practices—including rough-and-tumble playfighting, building human pyramids, bathing naked in public, cross-dressing, hazing, and gallows humor—in order to manage their relationships. Regardless of the man’s sexual orientation and sexual identity, the strong heterosexual norm in the military means that the men must find ways to understand and even enact or perform their feelings of bonding while still defining those feelings and acts as heterosexual.

About the Author

Jay Mechling is professor emeritus of American studies, University of California, Davis. He is the author of On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth and coauthor of PTSD and Folk Therapy: Everyday Practices of American Masculinity in the Combat Zone.