oedipal issues in military families

A previous post talked about the transgenerational impact of slavery on the Oedipus complex. Another one highlighted the fact that the Kerner Commission said black families were “matriarchal.” The New York Times just published an article about the sociology of the “1.5 million missing black men.”

Military Brats has a section about the impact of the US military on the Oedipus complex. It’s weird how much projection and other Freudian things have to do with racism. There are a lot of parallels.

The Fortress, in its very extremes of gender roles, is the perfect stage on which to play out the Oedipal drama. The authoritarian father is the unquestioned ruler of the family and, often, scourge of his son; the mother is her son’s refuge and, potentially, the source of his guilt. And the son himself has no lack of rage, of jealousy, of aspiration.

Providing that the Fortress mother is not an alcoholic or dysfunctional in some other way, she can be a wonderful compensating presence in the life of a son suffering under an abusive or neglectful father. She also helps balance out the one-sided macho emphasis of Fortress life.

As one embattled Air Force son put it, “Advice and guidance always came from my mother. It was my mother who continually reinforced my sense of being a decent human being, and who tried to work something out between our father and us so we’d still have a sense of family in the face of his continual rage.”

It is well known that the mother is a profound shaping influence in any son’s life. Inside the Fortress, however, where the son feels taunted by the supremely masculine warrior world to which he should be entitled but which remains out of reach, the mother’s influence is increased geometrically. In addition, a son of the Fortress spends a great deal more time with his mother than most of his peers in the civilian world, since his father is frequently away from home on sea duty, or temporary duty, or working sixteen-hour days at the SAC base.

By implication, black men win at something, even if it’s the Oedipal struggle:

What this means is that a boy’s need to prove himself gets worked out within the family rather than in the outer community, where his attempts at proving himself are so often interrupted by moving. It also means that the way a boy works out his relationship to women is concentrated unnaturally on the mother–not, normally speaking, in overt sexual ways, but in the day-to-day dynamics that shape his assumptions, his expectations, his attitudes. The problem is considerably worsened in families where an extremely authoritarian father actively deprives the son of opportunities to develop in relation to girls and women outside the family–by not allowing him to date, for instance, or by openly ridiculing him in front of a date or his sister’s friends.

[I]t is part of the macho ethos of the military (something one cannot find in the Department of Defense publications, but which nevertheless exists) that in order for the warrior to be optimally “ready” for the Military Mission, which is clearly the warrior’s first allegiance, he must cultivate a level of indifference to his family that keeps him from being overly distracted by it. This is one reason the “promise” the son receives by virtue of his maleness–the promise of being personally guided into the warrior path by his own warrior father–is so often broken.

The terrible dilemma for many a son of the Fortress, the dilemma that colors his entire childhood and adolescence and casts its shadow on his adult life, is that he is supposed to be bred for the exalted company of warriors, but instead–either by default, because of an absent or indifferent father, or by fiat of an authoritarian, rejecting father–he is abandoned to the world of the mother.

The father’s abdication puts him in the psychologically dangerous position of winning the Oedipal struggle—not by “killing” the father and “sleeping with” the mother, but by taking over the place in his mother’s life the father should by rights occupy. The mother turns to her son for companionship–not sexually, though Freud would say those undertones are always present–but in conversation, sharing of ideas and activities. The son, hungry for some kind of acceptance and acknowledgement of his maturity, not to mention anxious to be seen as interesting and companionable by the woman who represents all women, is usually happy to comply. And thus guilt–the other plague of military sons–enters the picture. Oedipal struggles are not meant to be won.

The son of an Air Force colonel is quoted:

I was very much my mother’s confidant, since she was left alone a great deal by the Air Force life. Therefore I learned rather sophisticated ways to entertain, be a listener, sense feelings, be with someone. I am currently a therapist, and I believe my skills as a therapist have a lot to do with having been brought up in the Air Force.

…A lot of my fantasy material and my interests as a kid were focused on groups of people that were opposed to the US military. For example, American Indians, especially Apaches.

The moving is more applicable to me than the paternal absence, although there was the time we were living in Italy and my dad spent months at the Bethesda VA getting treated for prostate cancer and pernicious anemia…So far, I’ve been vegan for 7 years without B12 issues.