The Young & The Expendable

March 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Over at the Kings of War, Dave Betz has an interesting piece on the gender imbalance of children in many parts of Asia, based on an article from The Economist.  Both Betz and The Economist bring up many issues and questions to ponder, but here I’d like to look at one, from an historical perspective.  Betz ruminates on whether or not a surfeit of young men in a society (most particularly China) will lead to a rise of militarism in that culture and, ultimately, belligerance.

The Economist points out that “in any country rootless young males spell trouble.”  Indeed.  Society tends to be suspicious of young men in general.  However, historically, there have been simple uses for such young men: the military or colonisation.  Essentially, they were the cannon fodder, whether literally or figuratively.  Societies never got too excited about their demise, either, at least not on the macro-level, there were always more where they came from.

The Ancient Greeks also found another use for rootless young men: they made excellent colonisers.  So the Greek city-states would send out boatloads of young men, sending them across the Aegean Sea to Anatolia.  Or up towards the Black Sea.  If they were successful, and they established a colony, hey, great.  Now there was a captive market for goods produced in the home city.  If not, meh, so be it, there would be another boatload next year.  This model was picked up again by Europeans in the Age of Expansion in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Across North America, bachelor cultures emerged.  For example, in the inland woods of New France, the coureurs de bois spent their time carting furs from the hinterland, where they traded with the aboriginals, back to the colonial centre, such as Montréal or Detroit.  But out in the woods, these guys lived life hard.  Their work was insanely physical, carting the furs and other goods in their canoes, over portages, in and out of the water, most of which was insanely cold, and rafting down rapids.  Priests in the back country were both in awe of these men’s physical strength and stamina, and terrified of them.  Probably for good reason.

Along with their intensely physical work, the coureurs had a bachelor culture that reflected their hard lives.  They drank heavily, sang songs, engaged in all kinds of physical tests of strength and stamina, including wrestling, fighting (boxing hadn’t been invented yet), and various other events that would put MMA to shame.  Colonial officials echoed the priests’ fear of them.

The West, in both Canada and the United States, was also another bachelor culture.  And whilst Hollywood has over-dramatised the violence in the American West, Canadian historians have under-represented the violence of the Canadian West.

The bachelor culture of the Western frontier was not all that different than the coureurs 3 centuries earlier: heavy drinking, braggadacio, and contests to see how was the “best” man.  The best man was usually the one who could drink the most, make the most money, was physically the strongest, or who had the best luck with the ladies.

Long and short, young men have historically been the most rambunctious segment of society.  But historically, societies have found an outlet for their bored, rootless young men, whether as cannon fodder or as explorers/colonists.  What happens to these young men in Asia is something, as Betz notes, for us all to ponder.  It is clear the issues run deeper than just simply a gender imbalance and too many young men for the young women.

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