Posted tagged ‘Iraq’

Women in the military and the myth of male combat

October 20, 2009

This originally started as a reply to a comment by Kristy on my Generation Kill post, but it’s a big and important topic, so I thought I’d give it some independent space. The salient section of that comment is below;

“And I wonder if men resent women for not going to war in the same numbers that they do? Does this account for misogyny amongst some male soldiers? i.e. the thought those that silly women aren’t out there risking their lives and limbs for freedom and country like us? I suppose that the idea that women are loathed because they are less physically capable is not new.”

In regard to the role of women in combat, and whether or not this is something male military resent, I would argue that it isn’t a resentment of women not being more involved. Rather I’d argue that the masculine identity constructed relies on what is essentially the myth of a homosocially exclusive experience of combat. Women, especially in a conflict like Iraq are a part of combat, ‘rear echelon’ military see combat along with the ‘front line’ troops, in a type of conflict where these divisions are increasingly meaningless. However the experience of combat is seen as something so quintessentially male, that great social and cultural lengths are gone maintain the strict gender division. Discursively women do not take part in the same combat as men; and the two great arguments always raised in defence of this maintenance of gender are the physical inferiority of women, and their negative effect on morale/cohesion. In regard to the latter variants of the arguments “Men will instinctively risk themselves to protect a female soldier, who is more vulnerable” and “Male soldiers will become sexually distracted” I believe I even once read an argument against frontline female troops based on the military’s inability to accommodate menstruation “on the frontline”  (surely if anyone can handle a little blood it’s the army) – but I kinda want to believe I’m making that up.

Oh, by the way, the same argument can be applied to homosexuals in the military – and the convenient political/discurvice tool of ‘Don’t ask Don’t tell’ is a prime example of how combat is constructed as not only a masculine pursuit, but a heterosexual pursuit also.

In Australia at least, there have been man arguments, some quite recent about the role of women in the military, and the debates around this fiercely enforced gender division are often quite vitriolic.

I can think of few other aspects of modern society where the gender binary is so demarcated and enforced as combat. Women take part in combat, not as active, masculine participants, but as victims, as in ‘womenandchildren’ as I believe (and I could be wrong) the excellent Cynthia Enloe so rightly put it. If women are not directly victims of war, then their only role is as some sort of conflated meta-housewife, keeping the home fires burning.

It is essential to the construction of a martial masculine identity, itself an immensely influential  hegemonic masculinity, that combat is exclusively male. And in a world were conflict is increasingly technologised, fluid and based less on ‘fronts’ it is hard work for the social and cultural discourses to maintain that strict gender division.

So thanks for your comment Kristy. That’s my take on women and the military.

Generation Kill – a study in hypermasculinity.

October 16, 2009

Oh that’s right, I don’t just talk about regular masculinities, I talk about hypermasculinities.

In the last week or so seven of my hours were spent watching  Generation Kill – a HBO produced 2008 miniseries,  from Ed Burns et al. It’s a 7 part miniseries that tells the story of a Marine Recon Units involvement in the invasion of Iraq. On a production level, it is superb, visually impressive, well shot, acted and written. 

What was of particular interest to me, and relevent to this blog, was the depiction of masculinity in Generation Kill.  I should also point out that I am not attempting to form any detailed or conclusive analysis of masculinity in the series. It is very dense and to do it justice requires more time and commitment than I can offer at the moment, so please read my thoughts as a few notes and broad impressions relating to the series as a whole.

Now, it might be obvious, but I’ll still say it – in terms of representation of masculine identity, The exclusively homosocial world of marines in  wartime is a pretty extreme example. An archetypal hypermasculine identity.  Hypermasculinity is term used to describe a masculine identity, that is in one or more ways, extreme; marines, pro-footballers, Tom of Finland are all good examples.

And from my “extensive” research (ie – reading comments on IMDB from Marines and other service personnel/veterans) it seems that Generation Kill is a reasonably accurate depiction of events, and more importantly for us, the culture and lifestyle of marines at war (I have no objective way of verifying this, and in some ways, there is no point – but to me, it certainly feels a lot more real than other war drama).  There is a LOT of misogyny, racism & homophobia, both casual and very explicit represented in the series. My thoughts about this are mixed. One one hand it is good to see a realistic representation of an oft valourised community, a counterpoint to common sanitized representations. On the other hand Generation Kill risks further glorifying a culture of hate, oppression & violence. This is something I think true of all representations of war, including anti-war texts; Anthony Swofford, the author of Jarhead noted how movies like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now where popular with Marines, and that their reading of those films was not necessarily one critical of war. Not much can be done about subjectivity, and if you ARE going to produce war dramas, I’d rather they were like this than say, something from Bruckheimer.

What I found particularly interesting and good about the depiction of masculinity in Generation Kill was the was it demonstrated the powerlessness, real or imagined at the core of hypermasculinity. These Marines, trained, physically and psychologically to be and believe in themselves as elite warriors, have a very limited realm in which to exercise any power. One notable scene shows some marines observing a hamlet for possible mortars, they radio in that there are only women and children in the village, only to see it blown up by artillery minutes later. In other instances the marines are shown as identifying genuine military threats, or obtaining legitimate intelligence, and are ordered not to act on it.  Their powerlessness is also demonstrated in a scene where they encounter some Iraqi farmers, naked – their clothes stolen by Iraqi soldiers. The naked Iraqis ask the  marines what the can do about it, and all they can do is give them some water and drive on. Their powerlessness is also represented on a more micro level, they are poorly equipped, for example their state of the art technology is useless without batteries. Seen in this context their aggressive masculine posturing is a veneer, a comforting and communal lie to make their lack of agency less galling.

Generation Kill also represented a few other things in notable ways; the standard trope in war dramas is for the soldiers to be traumatized or deeply affected by the act of killing, and many in Generation Kill where shown like this, especially one soldier who (perhaps not accidently?) shot some children. But refreshingly, for a representation of this type, several soldiers were shown as not only unaffected by their acts of violence, but revelled and relived their experiences, and sought more grotesque acts of violence, and treated the mutilated bodies of dead civilians and enemy soldiers as entertainment.  That Generation Kill shows a varied and complex range of reactions to sanctioned violence is a good thing, it challenges the traditional understanding of war time masculinity, and problematises the dominant understanding act during, and after war. It isn’t comfortable, but it (again) feels true.

Interestingly though, I noticed that Generation Kill did not depict or deal explicitly with rape or sexual violence. It formed a large  part of how the marines speak about women (and men) – but to my recollection no physical sexual violence is depicted. I am not sure why this is the case, as the show is not at all uncritical or glossing over the unsavoury – and the absence of this aspect of war surprised me.

Generation Kill is television, it is about war, and I’m sure a lot of people who watch it, will not do so critically, and enjoy it for the explosions, violence and tension. In this Generation Kill will not hugely promote a deeper understanding of masculine identity or gender relations.  But if someone is at all inclined to view Generation Kill critically, they will find a rich and nuanced representation of hypermasculinity, and one which, quite explicitly, expresses the powerlessness and anxiety under the muscles and bravura posturing, at times heartwarming, but for me at least, overwhelmingly sad.