By Kathleen Barry
Although more women are joining the military than ever before and some are seeing combat, women’s primary role, as far as the military is concerned, is patriotic. Not just any kind of patriotism is expected of women; they are expected to eagerly send their sons and husbands and lovers and partners and fathers off to combat.
Then women are to turn away and not see what actually occurs in combat. Under cover of sacrificing their lives for the United States of America, their loved ones are killing randomly, without remorse, otherwise known as murder. That is how they are trained, actually brainwashed.
“Collateral Murder,” the WikiLeaks video, allegedly leaked by Private First Class Bradley Manning, is what remorseless killing looks like. As civilians are mowed down from a hovering helicopter, the soldiers are joking and cheering. In research for Unmaking War, Remaking Men, I found that random killing is everyday life for U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a feminist, it is not difficult to see how the military exploits masculinity for war. Regardless of the gender of the soldier dropping the bomb or pulling the trigger, violent, aggressive masculinity underpins the military’s amorality of remorseless killing, institutionalizes it and rewards it.
Nevertheless, in writing about combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to understand the wars we have to unmake, I found myself confronted with conflicting “values,” using the term loosely for a moment. Most blatant is how the value of patriotism in war time elevates sacrifice for one’s country over the value of human life. The military, claiming to defend its country, teaches soldiers to value the lives of their buddies over their own, which keeps them fighting, as it would be unmanly to not protect your buddy. Meanwhile, they treat anyone who is not their military buddy in a combat zone as an enemy whose life has no value, who the soldiers are trained to think of as not even having a life.
Yet, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights assures all human beings of their right to live, and to live in dignity and peace. This is where I began in constructing the feminist human rights paradigm that shaped the book I was writing. Refusing to allow this study of masculinity and war to be driven by beliefs — in patriotism, in religion with all of their patriarchal trappings — I consider the value of human beings’ lives to be sacrosanct, beyond debate, and like universal human rights, unconditional.
Likewise, for me, being human is being interconnected with each other, that is, to be very clear, each with all others. Soldiers’ revulsion to killing other human beings is but one evidence of how deep that interconnection goes. It is driven by our life force (or spirit) that propels human beings to save others whose lives are at risk. That is why the military must train them intensively if they are to get them to kill without remorse.
The issue of feminist values then is not what one believes but how we frame the knowledge upon which we act. In the case of masculinity and war, even the Geneva Conventions — which accepts war as inevitable — was of no use to me in establishing the values from which my book would be written.
Finally, I defined the values underpinning my study of war in this way:
“This new framework of understanding is a human rights paradigm because it places the dignity of human beings and their rights above all other considerations. It is a feminist paradigm because it confronts the power of masculinity as it is socialized and constructed for war as well as female complicity in that power. And yet because shared human consciousness transcends nationalities (nationalism), races, ethnicities, classes and gender, this feminist human rights paradigm is global, encompassing all human beings.”
Feminists, bless our hearts, are everywhere, including in war zones, where clarity of values is a matter of life or death. I see it in Afghan women who reject “fundamentalist warlords and misogynist terrorists,” as Malalai Joya identifies the enemies of women in her homeland. I see it in Code Pink activism. And I see it in men in combat who are refusing to fight and kill. Our activism in concert with universal human rights becomes a feminist human rights paradigm that reaches many.
December 29, 2010