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The Softer Side of War

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The military is a brotherhood.  The battlefield a cauldron of male bonding.  And so it is that we are accustomed to thinking that war is men’s work.  “Real” men’s work.  So much so that even the thought of a homosexual in camouflage is enough to make some in the Pentagon almost apoplectic as they seek to explain the deleterious effect such “integration” would have on unit cohesion.  And generally, the conventional wisdom goes, women are really no less problematic inasmuch as they create “distractions” that disrupt the fragile ecology of the band of brothers. As the photograph above suggests, however, one solution to this problem is to have all-female units, a band of sisters, as it were, who might lend a softer touch in the battle for the hearts and minds of  those whose land we have chosen to occupy by military force.

This photograph leads off a slide show at the NYT titled “The Female Marines” that tells the story of a group of women warriors who have been attached to the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment in the Helmand Province with the express purpose of “engaging” Afghani women.  The assumption, apparently, is that gender trumps nationalism, and when Afghani women encounter other women they will see past their uniforms and body armor—as well as the fact that they are carrying high powered, automatic weapons—and they will identify with them as women.

The premise relies on a cultural reductionism that is altogether implausible, if not downright absurd given the circumstances of the American occupation of Afghanistan.  And so one has to wonder about photographs such as this one, which show the “engagement team” sitting on the floor in an Afghani home, drinking tea and playing with a toddler while members of the family look on.

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The photograph has all the qualities of a snapshot in which the principals studiously avoid acknowledging the camera so as to feign a natural or candid moment. But there is nevertheless a tension in the image that belies the illusion of a comfortable identification between the family and its “visitors.”  Note, for example, how all but the toddler—who presumably has no knowledge or experience that would signal danger or caution—holds back from any direct interaction with the marines. And notice in particular the boy who stands deep in the back corner, his line of sight riveted upon the automatic weapon that sits on the rug in the middle of the floor.  It is hard to know exactly what he is thinking, but it seems unlikely that he is counting his blessings that the people who have taken over his home are women and not men.

That wars such as the one we are fighting in Afghanistan are a struggle for hearts and minds is obvious, and it should give us serious pause as we continue to commit to the use of military force as a way of overcoming the influence of the Taliban in a country that has withstood occupation for centuries.  But more, we need to challenge the notion that such force and occupation can be made less noxious or troublesome—let alone more successful—by trying to feminize it.  In the end, female marines with guns are, well, simply marines with the guns.

Photo Credit:  Lynsey Addano/NYT.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


The Softer Side of War


3 Responses

  1. rhetorician76 says

    I think it is a little more complicated than this. From what I have read, there is an assumption that Afghani women are more likely to accidentally give important information than the men because they do not know what is or is not important. In addition, in cultural situations they are more likely to be “forgotten” by Afghani men, which means the men might slip and mention something that they would not otherwise say if they thought there was a listening, sentient being around. Women soldiers are sent in to ferret out the information because Afghani women cannot/will not talk to American men.

    This leaves me worrying about several things. What happens when Afghans realize what is going on? Will the Afghan women be punished? What might happen should the Afghan women feel “betrayed”? How does it affect our army to play with assumptions of female inferiority? Our women are going in as “just women” (granted, in camo) to talk to the locals who have been below consideration. Western women generally are not considered “women” in such societies (instead they are something between man and woman, unnatural). How will reiterating their femininity change their position in the eyes of the Afghans? Will they be in more danger?

  2. lucaites says

    I think that is exactly right David. My thought when I saw the female marines images was that this was one more effort in the attempt to “normalize” war. And in fact I had originally though of titling the post “Band of Sisters” with the obvious gesture to male bonding. I think the idea is there in the images, but it isn’t quite so pronounced. But the point is very well taken and consistent with my own thinking.

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