Militarism and Gender (part 1)

By Lynn Koh
Aug 17, 2012

This is a book review of Cynthia Enloe's Maneuvers. It's the first in a series of posts I hope to do about Militarism and Gender. If there are other books or films you think should get discussed, let me know.


“Imagine,” Cynthia Enloe asks towards the beginning of her book Maneuvers, “ the story of the American Revolution if it could be told by the scores of women who followed -- and served -- the British and American troops” (43). Upon reading that, my brain promptly did a somersault. This is something other than a shift in perspective, looking at something familiar from a different point of view; it’s more like learning that you had subconsciously, but perhaps intentionally, avoided noticing a door in your living room. In this case, what lies behind the door is the vast web of practices that sustain militaries but are invisible even to antiwar or anti-imperialist critics who do not connect militarism to gender.

Enloe teaches us that militarism is not only bombed-out cities, acres of mine-studded fields, the theft of natural resources, or the destruction of a coastline for a military base. It is also the duties expected of military wives, popular understanding of warzone nurses, the relationship between servicemen and sex workers, the degradation of so-called camp followers during the American Revolution, the use of rape as a war-crime but also the use of rape-victims as a symbol of wounded nationalism for the purposes of war.

I think the revelation here is analogous to what socialist feminists effected during the 70s and 80s, in which the workings of capitalism were enlarged to include not just production and consumption, but the range of labor and other practices necessary to produce workers and social life -- and thus the capitalist order itself. The labor and practices here, we note, were typically thought of as feminine and not accorded value.

Militarism too has its gendered roles: boosting morale, providing comfort, raising new soldiers and ‘reproducing’ current ones, as well as soldiering (p. 45). This optic takes us far beyond the conventional discussion about women and warfare, in which women and girls usually are described as ‘the most impacted’, and thus appear as collateral damage to be pitied or saved.

Enloe’s book is wide-ranging and spans several countries and centuries. While there is a good deal of analysis of the US and UK militaries, Maneuvers also takes the reader back to the Roman conquest of Britan, as well as to the civil war in Yugoslavia, and the Japanese imperialism of World War II. This has the obvious strength of tracking changes in the relationship between militarism and gender as the institution of the military evolved, and it also has the merit of attempting to foreground militarism as such rather than generalizing from US imperialism.

Additionally, as I described above, Maneuvers takes up gendered roles which at first glance would seem to have little in common -- sex workers and nurses, for instance. Significantly, this means the connections between militarism and gender that Enloe describes are not reducible to a single, fundamental relationship -- say, gendered violence, for instance.

To the extent that there is a thread which connects the various militarized gender roles across both history and geography, it may be Enloe’s contention that these tend to be the outcomes of conscious, often obsessively debated policy decisions. This policy, in turn, is undergirded by the assumption that the men on top need to control women in order to control men, if we may put it crudely.

All of this makes for a book which is difficult to summarize, and so I hope it suffices to give a taste of some of the books rich empirical material. One of the book’s longer chapters is on militarized sex work (Enloe uses the more conventional term ‘prostitution’). With some notable exceptions -- the recent deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia and Bosnia, for instance -- military policy makers have almost universally assumed that their soldiers’ masculinity requires women to be sexually available to troops, while at the same time fearing the effects, in terms of health or morale, those women may have on their troops.

The British passed the Contagious Diseases Act in 1864 with this in mind; it empowered government men to force health inspections on women suspected of sex work. Conversely, governments also sought to protect the sexual status quo during wartime. During WW II in the US, the state criminalized women they accused of ‘sexual delinquency’ and forced them to undergo venereal disease testing.

Antiwar activists who came of age during the Iraq war are familiar with Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs). As these define the relationship between the US military presence on foreign soil, they also define, according to Enloe ‘the sexual politics of militarization’ between the US and other countries, as “governments’ officials hammer out” these politics behind closed doors (92).

Maneuvers describes the revision of the US-South Korea SOFA which, in response to incidents of racial violence and mounting tension between the governments in the 70s, led to a bilateral agreement to increase the surveillance and control of sex workers’ bodies in areas around the base. The aim was to “reduce soldiers’ interracial hostilities, sustain soldiers’ morale, bolster the self-esteem of ROK elites, and reconfirm US commitment to protecting its ally from communist invasio (96). The same chapter follows the dismantling and then re-emergence of the sex work industry in Vietnam from the 70s to the present, as well as the anti-bases campaign in the Philippines and sex workers’ relationship to that movement for genuine national sovereignty. 

Other chapters in the book describe military wives, female soldiers, the professionalization of military nurses, and the use of rape during war. Enloe also recounts the many inspiring movements for gender equality led by women, some of which struggled within the institutions of the military, some which struggled against the military, and some which had to struggle within militarized nationalist or anti-imperialist movements. The image of Russian mothers physically retrieving their sons from the tanks of the Chechnyan battlefield is sure to move anybody that has organized to stop a war.

But the cross-national organizing by women in Yugoslavia stands out for its political sophistication. The context was one in which the Serbian military used rape systematically in Bosnia to intimidate and punish the local populations. Serbian femninists took a position against gendered violence in war, but also the everyday gendered violence ‘on the home front’, while seeking to welcome all nationalities and ethnicities into their organizing.

Croatian feminists, on the other hand, had to raise the issue of rape while opposing a militarized nationalist response. During 1996 and 1997, the Serbian feminists were active in anti-Milosevic demonstrations in Belgrade, in which they handed out whistles to participants and urged demonstrators to whistle against all forms of violence. They were criticized even by opponents of the war for attacking a perceived Serbian nationalism. They continued in 1998 with their opposition to the Kosovo conflict, publishing a pamphlet that foresaw international war as the likely result of competing militarized nationalisms that demonized feminists as traitors.

Maneuvers was written before 2001, and so is somewhat removed from the particular mix of patriarchy and racism that animates Islamophobia, which plays a central role in contemporary US militarism. But the broad scope of Maneuvers is eye-opening nevertheless, and it poses an urgent political challenge -- how to bring together the women in all of these social locations in a movement for gender liberation and antimilitarism. Let us draw on the traditions that Enloe gives us in this book, and get to work.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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