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Joshua S. Goldstein
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Reviews by Silja J.A. Talvi
What accounts for the cross-cultural consistency of gender roles in war? What theory best explains the fact that war is nearly always waged by men? And how should we explain the fact that women, despite intermittent yet proven historical success as warriors, are largely excluded from modern-day combat?
Joshua S. Goldstein, professor of International Relations at American University, sets out to answer this complex set of questions in his new work, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa.
War is a tremendously diverse enterprise, operating in many contexts with many purposes, rules and meanings, writes Goldstein in his introduction. Gender norms outside war show similar diversity. The puzzle...is why that diversity disappears when it comes to the connection of war with gender.
A self-described anti-war feminist and accomplished scholar, Goldstein brings a timely, well-versed, cross-discipline analysis to this multifaceted topic.
As Goldstein explains categorically, the gendering of wardefined as lethal intergroup violenceis both stark and alarming. In Rwanda, Burundi, and Algeria (among many other locales), women across the world have increasingly been the primary targets of massacres, mass-orchestrated rapes, and organized sale into sexual servitude. All the while, an overwhelming 97 percent of the 23 million soldiers serving in todays standing, uniformed armies are men. Where combat forces are concerned, 99.9 percent are male.
Yet the important and ever-present intersections of war and gender are typically ignored in both academic and political discoursewith the notable exception of the work of such critical feminist thinkers as Cynthia Enloe. But overall, lacking answers from any one academic field, Goldstein takes on the ambitious task of turning to six academic disciplines to test a host of scientific and cultural hypotheses.
In the process, Goldstein turns War and Gender into a fascinating (albeit occasionally oversimplified) survey of the history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, biology, and political science of war.
Are gender roles in war, for instance, explained largely by anatomy and physiology, including the role of testosterone? Should we look toward innate gender differences in group dynamics, which might have their roots in childhood gender segregation? Borrowing a page from feminist critical theory, are the answers more likely to lie in the cultural construction of tough men and tender women? Could the sharply defined roles of men and women in war be largely explained by mens sexual and economic domination of women and the accompanying feminization of enemies?
In testing those hypotheses, Goldstein surveys an impressive range of material, sharing sometimes familiar, occasionally surprising and even startling conclusions along the way.
The actual practice of war, writes Goldstein, is more important to some societies than others. It is neither necessary nor preordained for human beings to wage war against one another, he affirms, but when war does occur, it is almost an entirely male enterprise where combat is concerned: Killing in war does not come naturally for either gender, yet the potential for war has been universal in human societies. To help overcome soldiers reluctance to fight, cultures develop gender roles that equate manhood with toughness under fire. Across cultures and through time, the selection of men as potential combatants (and of women for feminine war support roles) has helped shape the war system. In turn, the pervasiveness of war in history has influenced gender profoundlyespecially gender norms in child-rearing.
In child-rearing, Goldstein points toward the ways in which parents unwittingly enforce gender norms with their offspring. From his careful survey of existing research on the topic, Goldstein concludes fathers are typically the most significant players in reinforcing gender roles.
In a 1993 study, for instance, fathers were five times more likely to show a negative reaction to a preschool-aged son playing with feminine materials than to a daughter playing with masculine ones, whereas mothers reacted equally to children of both genders. (According to other recent research, fathers also tend to use disparaging remarks and name-calling more often than mothers, and seem to direct such language more to sons than daughters.)
Proscribed childhood gender roles and gender segregation are actually the first step in preparing children for war, asserts Goldstein. All-boy groups in middle childhood develop the social interaction scripts used later in armies, he writes. The characteristic boys play styles and themes are very often tied directly to the boys future roles in wartime (play-fighting, dominance, heroic themes, and specific war scripts). If boys culture is seen as functional in socializing males for adult roles, it surely does so most efficiently with regard to war roles.
While not denying an interrelationship between biology and culture, Goldstein dismisses ideas of biological determinism where the shaping of gender roles are concerned. After surveying existing research, Goldstein posits that high testosterone does seem to amplify existing patterns of aggression, but the hormone does not appear to cause such patterns.
While it is true that the average man is taller and stronger than the average woman, says Goldstein, women have proven themselves to be fierce, skilled warriors throughout history. (To prove this point, the author devotes an entire chapter to Women Warriors, detailing the exploits of the African Dahomey, female Soviet bombers during WWII, and women fighters in the Sandanistas and the FMLN.)
The idea that war comes naturally to menand that this natural inclination is why men are almost exclusively the combatants in warfareis not supported by the reality of veterans experiences and the depth of their traumas. As Goldstein writes: People who might be considered mentally ill in another contextsoldiers who participate in combat find it extremely unnatural and horrible. Any sane person, male or female, who is surrounded by the terrifying and surreal sights and sounds of battle, instinctually wants to run away, or hunker down and freeze up, and certainly not to charge into even greater danger to kill and maim other people. Contrary to the idea that war thrills men, expresses innate masculinity, or gives men a fulfilling occupation, all evidence indicates that war is something societies impose on men, who most often need to be dragged kicking and screaming into it, constantly brainwashed and disciplined once there, and rewarded and honored afterwards. War is hell.
Ultimately, Goldstein finds strongest support for the gendered nature of war in a trio of interrelated hypotheses: that societies across the world toughen up boy children (who do possess, on average, greater size and strength than their girl counterparts) and link bravery in war to manhood; that many women in societies are conditioned to actively reinforce mens toughness and societally- defined masculinity; and that male soldiers use gender to encode domination and feminize their enemies.
Its this trio of hypotheses that contain some of Goldsmiths most interesting findings. Boys have to be trained and conditioned for a warrior role, he writes, something that is accomplished differently in each society.
In some, drugs and alcohol, religious rites, and the social rewards of honor, prestige, or even political influence or leadership act as incentives. Other common themes in the preparation of males for combat range from the infliction of shame (by society, by other men, and by women) toward men who demonstrate weakness, and through the learned suppression of emotions.
Goldsteins insights regarding womens reinforcement of soldiers masculinity are particularly notable. In pushing men toward the horror of combat, a militaristic-minded society must also construct a nurturing feminine realm, which is largely incompatible with womens participation in active combat. The net effect, explains Goldstein, is to make combat tolerable.
Male soldiers can better motivate themselves for combat if they can compartmentalize combat in their belief systems and identities, he writes. They can endure, and commit terrible acts, because the context is exceptional and temporary. They have a place to return to, or at least to die trying to protecta place called home or normal or peacetime. In drawing this sharp dichotomy of hellish combat from normal life, cultures find categories readily available as an organizing device. Normal life becomes feminized and combat masculinized.
In this way, women participate actively as codependents, even to the point of publicly shaming men into fighting wars. (In Britain and the U.S. in World War I, for instance, women went so far as organize campaigns to goad men into serving in the army by handing out symbolic white feathers to able-bodied men.)
In asserting this codependent relationship between men and women in a militarized society, Goldstein never downplays the extent to which women have been central organizers in peace and anti-nuclear movements. (For all the women with white feathers during WWI, for instance, many others were agitating to prevent conscription.) But, to his credit, Goldstein does not shy away from analysis of the ways in which gender roles are used and manipulated by societies to serve the purpose of warfare.
As has been well-documented by feminist authors for the last several decades, military occupations and invasions have traditionally created a temporaryand sometimes permanentmarket for prostitution and the sex trafficking of poor and vulnerable girls and women.
Military commanders have often encouraged, or directly organized, prostitution to service their armies, he writes, citing Enloes groundbreaking work on the militarization of womens lives.
The rape of women is now seen as a sickeningly normal accompaniment to war, tied integrally to warfare as yet another form of effective domination. As precisely this kind of instrument of control and terror, rape in wartime seems to have spread in the 1990s, asserts Goldstein, having occurred in the context of countless numbers of violent conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Algeria, and Indonesia, among many other countries.
As an academically-oriented text, War and Gender lacks the kind of lyrical grace and creativity that a work encompassing such a broad range of subtopics could have benefited from. But as a tool for understanding the weight, complexity and magnitude of the role of gender in perpetuating and feeding the existence of war, Goldsteins work is no less worthy of attention.
Silja J.A. Talvi is a Seattle-based freelance journalist. She is a regular contributor to publications ranging from the Christian Science Monitor to In These Times, and is co-editor of LiP Magazine.