This essay is divided into two parts: each of them consists of a diary entry and a subsequent theoretical discussion of a topic related to the course GI413. In the first part, I make use of sections of the movie Hacksaw Ridge as a starting point to discuss the concept of ‘military masculinity’. The second part of the essay centres around the phenomena of how women in ‘wars’ are represented in a simplistic, homogenized way. The subject is introduced by revealing several statements of YPJ-commanders.
The following diary entry uses sections of the movie Hacksaw Ridge, which was directed by Mel Gibson and released in September 2016.
Virginia, U.S., around 1945: Desmond Doss, a young, religious American talks to his father Tom Doss about joining the U.S. army to fight in the battle of Okinawa, Japan:
DESMOND: “I have to enlist. I can’t stay here while all of them go fight for me. I have to. I want to be a medic. I figure I’ll be saving people, not killing them”.
Desmond registers as a medic and has to attend the preparation camp before joining the battlefield. A central part of the training is to learn how to use a rifle.
SERGEANT HOWELL: “This is a standard issue U.S. rifle, calibre 30., M1. A […] weapon, designed to bring death and destruction to the enemy. […] Fellas let’s dance! Grab a girl!”.
After everyone but Desmond has grabbed a rifle, Sergeant Howell asks him, what he was doing:
DESMOND: “I was told I don’t have to carry a weapon. […] I am sorry Sergeant. I can’t touch a gun”.
Thereupon, Desmond is sent to Captain Jack Glover, who leads Desmond’s unit. Jack asks Desmond, if he was screwing with him:
DESMOND: “No, Sir. I ain’t got no problem with wearing my uniform or saluting the flag and doing my duty. It’s just carrying a gun and the taking of human life”.
CAPTAIN GLOVER: “You don’t kill? […] You know quite a bit of killing does occur in a war? I mean, that’s the essential nature of war”.
Desmond gets beaten up and harassed by the other soldiers who call him ‘chickenshit’ and tell him that his wife was a ‘broad’ who deserved a ‘real man’. In another scene, Sergeant Howell tells Desmond in front of the unit that he should “let the brave men go and win this war”. The whole military wants him gone, which is why they send him to a military psychiatrist who should discharge him. However, Desmond proofs to be a legitimate conscientious objector. Despite the psychiatrist’s green light, Desmond is accused of refusal to obey orders and faces military prison. Finally, the court decides that Desmond is allowed to go to Japan. In the battlefield, Desmond carries 75 wounded men to safety on Hacksaw Ridge, a rock in Okinawa. The movie is based on real events and Desmond was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for courage under fire.
Desmond is rejected from the whole military because he somehow doesn’t behave like the other soldiers. His refusal to take up arms and killing people in a ‘war’ disturbs the image of a ‘real’ soldier and could be interpreted as a subversion of the dominant military masculinity. In this part of the essay I ask what an ‘ideal’ form of military masculinity contains and to what extent the hegemonic form of military masculinity can be weakened. I begin this essay with an analysis of ‘masculinity’, in order to subsequently address the concept of military masculinity. Finally, I proceed to the concept of ‘alternative masculinities’ to close up this part of the essay.
MASCULINITY OR MASCULINITIES FROM A GENDER PERSPECTIVE
Discussing masculinity or military masculinity from a gender perspective requires us to acknowledge the historicity, contextuality and process-nature of concepts (İbrahimhakkıoğlu, 2018). Concepts are never static, nor homogenous; their nature changes over time and they should be seen as discontinuous (de Mel, 2016; Belkin, 2012). The way in which masculinities (often used in plural, to which I will come back later) work, is complex, ambiguous and highly contested (Cohn & Enloe, 2003; Hutchings, 2008) and it matters by whom, where and in what circumstances masculinities are studied.
In feminist scholarship masculinity has been understood as oppositional to femininity: “Masculinity […] is used to refer to those (variable) sets of values, capacities, and practices that are identified as exemplary for men. These […] are normally defined in contrast or opposition to a feminine other” (Hutchings, 2008, p.402). The assumption that masculinity can only be conceptualized in juxtaposition to femininity is criticized by Connell who argues that masculinity “does not exist except in contrast with femininity” (1995, p.68). She explains that the binarism of these concepts is a modern, Western construction, and that there are different forms of masculinities which are relational to other forms of masculinities and to femininities. Masculinities are socially constructed and positioned in a hierarchical order towards each other. The most dominant form of masculinity, the hegemonic masculinity, competes with marginalized, subordinated and vulnerable masculinities, which are still more privileged than femininities (Connell, 1995). Thus, masculinities, like gender, are done, practiced and produced always in relational ways (Connell, 1995; Belkin, 2012).
If we assume that there are different forms of masculinities in a certain context and that they are understood relational or complementary (Vijayan, 2004), military masculinities have to be analysed in relation to other masculinities, too. Feminist scholars are interested in how those relations look. One controversial subject is whether ‘ordinary’, or ‘civilian’ masculinity can be seen as completely separated from military masculinity. Connell opines that “the masculinity of the general is different from the masculinity from the front-line soldier” (as cited in Belkin, 2012, p.31), while İbrahimhakkıoğlu (2018) contests that military masculinity is always connected to other masculinities. Tapscott goes one step further and observes tensions between what she calls “militarised masculinity” and “civilian masculinity” (2018, p.120), the two existing ‘ideal types’ of manhood in the Ugandan society. Militarised masculinity is promoted by the state as a strategy for controlling the access to resources, whereas the civilian masculinity refers to the traditional roles Ugandan men should fulfil in order to become men. The conflicting ideals of manhood of the two forms of masculinities make young men especially vulnerable to state interventions. As Uganda is a highly militarised state, military values are institutionalized and became part of the national culture and thus militarised virtues of manhood are more prestigious than civilian ones (Tapscott, 2018). What Tapscott calls the “state’s militarised hegemonic masculinity” (2018, p.130) has also been observed by Yi and Gitzen in South Korea. Militarisation and masculinity are deeply connected, as the state promotes a highly militarised masculinity. They call this state-led militarisation a “technique of masculinity” (2018, p.382), which produces a prioritisation of the militarised masculinity over other masculinities within and outside of military institutions.
The concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ referred to by the scholars above was coined by Connell in 1995, whereas she and Messerschmidt revised the concept in 2005 due to a lot of criticism. It has been proved to be a controversial concept but is still useful to understand the power-relations between dominant and less dominant forms of masculinities (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Hegemonic masculinity is the most dominant form of masculinity (Kazyak & Schmitz, 2016) at any given time, which is “culturally exalted” (Connell, 1995, p.77). The concept is a normative model and doesn’t correspond to the real life of any man (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). The hegemony works through the production of masculine ideals like being white, physically strong, economically successful (Kazyak & Schmitz, 2016), independent, aggressive and rational (Barret, 2001) on the one hand, and through the oppression of deviant masculinities and femininities on the other. Especially targeted male individuals include homosexuals, peaceful and conciliatory men, or men who are not interested in sexual conquest (Connell, 1995).
If the concept of the hegemonic masculinity is thought of in relation to military masculinity, many similarities become apparent. Men within the military have to position themselves to the hegemonic masculinity within the unit or the whole military (Perez & Sasson-Levy, 2015). In Western culture especially, the male soldier or warrior is one of the most celebrated masculine figures (Cooper & McVeigh, 2012; Mosse, 1996) and “men in uniform are imagined as embodiments of manhood” (Belkin, 2012, p.23). Military virtues are will, toughness, honour, violence, power, courage, being protective, able-bodied and loyal (Mosse, 1996; de Mel, 2016; Bourke, 1996), as well as physical strength, self-discipline, rationalism, self-restraint, emotional control and heterosexuality (Perez & Sasson-Levy, 2015). Perez and Sasson-Levy mention that during World War I, conscientious objectors were seen as the prototype of a dangerous form of masculinity and even as a “degeneration of manhood. […] They were depicted as ‘unmanly’, and the traits ascribed to them […] defined them as the antithesis of both man and soldier” (2015, p.465). Other marginalized masculinities during ‘wars’ are deserters and non-combat soldiers (Cooper & McVeigh, 2012). Tapscott concludes descriptively, how hegemonic and militarised masculinity can be thought of together: “If hegemonic masculinity naturalises a system of distribution of power among men, then militarised masculinity, while also internally hierarchised, naturalises the dominance of ‘the military man’[…] and excluding non-military (that is, civilian) forms of masculinity” (2018, pp.121-22).
Tapscott could be criticized for only differentiating between the military and the non-military man, while there are many other factors which determine how someone is positioned in the hierarchy of masculinities. Military masculinity has to be analysed including categories such as race (Jones, 2015), gender (Whitworth, 2004; Yi & Gitzen, 2018), class (İbrahimhakkıoğlu, 2018), ability/disability (de Mel, 2016) and sexuality, which are central in relation to the oppression of vulnerable masculinities (Belkin, 2012).
Even if within militaries there is “limited space” for “heterogenous expressions of manhood” (Tapscott, 2018, p.122), the case of Desmond shows that there are ways to still be celebrated as a national ‘war’-hero without embodying all the virtues of the dominant military masculinity. Perez and Sasson-Levy (2015) identify the weakening of military masculinity over the last few years. They argue that hegemonic masculinity can be rejected or subverted, and people develop complex mechanisms which are challenging the binarism of control and subjugation. By quietly resisting the required virtues of the dominant manhood, men perform an “antihegemonic masculinity within the hegemony” (2015, p.482), which doesn’t require public exposure. Such alternative masculinities are able to survive, because “exempted men can never fully embody the militarized masculinity reserved for soldiers, but our point is that neither can soldiers” (Yi & Gitzen, 2018, p.389). As a consequence, if hegemonic masculinity in militaries can never be entirely reached, it can never be resisted either. Even if individuals reject the warrior-as-hero narrative, their attitudes are still embedded in military masculinity (Perez & Sasson-Levy, 2015). Belkin (2012) summarizes the concurrency of reproducing and challenging military masculinity, as well as the simultaneous rejection and embracement of the ‘unmasculine’ as follows: “The military has convinced service members that they could be queer, weak, feminine, and the like while promoting idealized warrior archetypes” (Belkin, 2012, p.39).
The stereotypical representations of women in 'wars' with the examples of the YPJ
COMMANDERS OF THE YPJ
The second diary entry relies on sections from different interviews with commanders of the Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ, Women’s Defence Units), an all-female military and political organization of Rojava, Syria.
DILOVAN KOBANI: “In its beginning, the October Revolution was kicked off by women, but soon after it succeeded, men took the power and pushed the women out. But in our case, we (as women) formed an independent force. […] We lead our armed force and political force ourselves. We do not carry out our revolution in the shadow of men” (Journal #84 2017).
ZERIN: “In all countries and everywhere there are armies, right? And sometimes women also take part in these armies. But in our example, the women’s force, the YPJ, is independent and our life, our fight, and our goals stand for this. […] In our example, women are even more visible and active than men” (Journal #84 2017).
KURDISTAN WASHUKANI: “Women have for a long time been seen just as housewives who raise children, make food and meet the needs of men. But today women’s will and their dedication to the defence units has created a fear in the heart of the reactionary and statist man. […] The pride in their [the women’s] participation brings out their natural will. […] In 2019 there was widespread participation in the defence forces especially in the YPJ” (Women Defend Rojava 2019).
MERYEM KOBANE: “But we as women went and held the forward front. […] A profile of the warrior woman is emerging. We have no problem in fighting our enemies” (Kurdish Institute 2015).
NISRÎN ABDULLAH: “In Kurdish history women fighters are not new. We have had 28 revolutions and in all of them women have had important roles, and some of those women have become symbols for the struggle” (Plan C 2016).
The statements from the commanders of the YPJ centre on the independence of the YPJ, on their political and military goals, on their victories and on the emergence of a ‘warrior woman’. The Kurdish militia gained international attention in 2014, when they successfully expelled the ISIS (Daesh) from their region. This victory is seen as one of the biggest defeats of Daesh (Bengio, 2016). But in spite of the success of the YPJ-fighters, they are usually portrayed in a homogenised way and representations focus on their physical appearance or girlish look (Eskandari, 2018).
In this part of the essay I start by presenting a feminist understanding of women in ‘war’, whereas in a second step, I demonstrate which stereotypes are related to women in ‘war’. Finally, I show to what extent YPJ members fight against those representations and how they create a different image of women in ‘war’.
WOMEN IN ‘WAR’
John Keegan, a military historian, said in 1993 that warfare was an exclusively male activity: “Warfare is [...] the human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart. [...] Women [...] do not fight [...] and they never, in any military sense, fight men” (as cited in Mathers, 2013, p.124).
Keegan’s opinion is still widespread today and shows that ‘war’ and the question of who participates in it is deeply gendered. Men are usually presented as the protective heroes, who sacrifice themselves for their wives, children and homeland, while women are depicted as the ones left behind who give birth and raise new soldiers (Sjoberg, 2010; Cohn, 2013).
Since the 1990’s, however, there is more recognition of the fact that women do not only perform reproductive tasks during ‘wars’ (Tank, 2017). Scholars emphasize that women have actively participated in bellicose conflicts, yet it’s difficult to encounter a comprehensive historical overview over female participation in ‘wars’ (Sjoberg, 2010). But there is proof that women and girls already participated in armed conflicts in the 5th century (Mazurana, 2013), and that since the age of modernity women have been involved in the conduct of ‘war’ more and more (Sjoberg, 2010). In World War II for example, women functioned as commanders, spies, gun runners, recruits and political strategists (Mazurana, 2013) and Soviet women became famous as snipers and combat pilots in the Red Army (Markowitz, 2013). But in spite of this knowledge, many people don’t see women as ‘real’ soldiers. Cynthia Enloe therefore concludes that “women may serve the military, but they can never be permitted to be the military” (1988, p.15).
STEREOTYPES OF WOMEN IN ‘WAR’
The woman as a victim and the woman as a peacemaker are the most widespread roles of women in ‘wars’ (Tank, 2017). Women are designated as being passive actors and inherently more peaceful than men, which entails the negation of other roles. Through the naturalized connection of women and peace, concrete efforts of women in peace-building processes are not valued, because they are seen as something women ‘naturally’ do (Chinkin & Kaldor, 2013).
In addition, in many ‘war’-narratives women appear as the ‘beautiful soul’, a term coined by Jean Elshtain (as cited in Tank, 2017). In those narratives, women are equated with the homeland or with the nation, for which men have to fight. The beautiful soul is pacifist and doesn’t know anything about ‘war’ (Sjoberg, 2010). Insofar, the identity of women is tied mainly to motherhood, birthing, the providing of love and nutrition and to the moral support of the fighters. They are regarded to be “[...] a symbol of the good and pure that requires the evil of fighting to save it” (2010, p.56). Those representations deny the agency or every form of political or military participation of women in ‘wars’ (Sjoberg, 2010).
Similar narratives are found about the YPJ fighters. Eskandari (2018) researched into how YPJ fighters are depicted in English newspapers and found that they are portrayed in a homogenized, simplified way. Even though the fighters are described as brave and as acting logically, they are constantly defined by a focus on their physical appearance (“beautiful heroines”, 2018, p.50) and their familial relations. The gaze is mainly on their hair, their smile and their girlish look, which has nothing to do with their context or with political goals. Eskandari writes that “these [...] portrayals create a romanticised image of the fighters as exotic warriors with shiny long hair, who are framed only through the war against Islamic State” (2018, p.54). She points to the problematics of the Eurocentric view on non-European women, who are underestimated due to their gender and origin. The fight of the YPJ is constantly reduced to their emancipatory motivations, which reinforces the victim-narrative. The media generates an image of the Kurdish fighter as opposing sexist and state suppression, what in turn obscures their ideo-political project of reconstruction (Tank, 2017). Commander Amûde expresses, how those representations differ from their reality: “We don’t want the world to know us because of our guns, but because of our ideas. We are not just women fighting ISIS. We struggle to change the society’s mentality and show the world what women are capable of” (as cited in Tank, 2017, p.427).
CHALLENGING THE STEREOTYPES
The YPJ and its success prove that women can also be the military, and not only serve it (Enloe, 1988). They are an independent military and political force and its fighters have become heroes. One fighter expresses this as follows: “If the Kurdish resistance remained unnoticed until the battle of Kobani, the women’s resistance there gave birth to a symbol that transcended any previous conception of women’s capabilities” (YPG Press Office, n.d.).
The YPJ which was founded on the 4th of April in Derik (Turkey) grew in numbers since its early years: In 2014, the YPJ had approximately 10,000 members, whereas in 2016, the number rose to 20,000 members. In 2017, 35% of the people who fought under the Kurdish commando, were women (Gorman, 2017). Gorman argues that on not many occasions in the past, have women played such a crucial role in a ‘war’ and have challenged so many stereotypes like the fighters from the YPJ. The image of the weak woman, who bears children far away from ‘war’ is challenged by YPJ fighters, because to actively participate in the organization, women and girls leave behind their families (YPG Press Office, n.d.). The reasons why women join the YPJ, furthermore, are as diverse as its members. They have personal, individual, but also ideological and political motivations to join the armed force (Tank, 2017). The YPJ members also challenge the stereotype of women only joining militaries because of personal trauma, familial relations or because they are forced to do so. In many media representations of female fighters, their motivations are traced back to experiences of sexual violence, to imprisonment or to their participation in the opposition (Mazurana, 2013). The political or ideological motivation of female fighters is often negated, which is something the YPJ commanders try to fight against. Their social and political movement is successful exactly because of the underlying ideologies and philosophies (Tank, 2017), which is what made them become heroes in their society and internationally: “Society doesn’t expect them to hide their faces, or not go out in public. Kurdish women have a voice and are expected to use it” (Gorman, 2017, p.85).
In the first part of this essay, I used sections from Hacksaw Ridge to illustrate how Desmond is discriminated and marginalized due to the fact that his peaceful attitude doesn’t match with the ideal form of the military masculinity within his unit. As I argued, his behaviour can therefore be seen as a subversive act against the hegemonic military masculinity, although I further demonstrated that while resisting to certain aspects of the required masculinity, he still reproduces other ones like being the brave soldier who sacrifices himself for his home country.
In the second part, I presented a feminist understanding of women in ‘war’ and how women are usually designated in typical ‘war’-stories. I argued that women have been actively involved in bellicose conflicts throughout history, but that they are still represented as peacemakers, victims or beautiful, pacifist souls who need male protection. I showed that in spite of the YPJ’s success as an independent military, political force, its fighters are reduced to their womanhood.
What came into my mind while I was writing this paper, was Terrell Carver’s sentence “masculinity rules, even when men do not” (2014, p.115), which explains so accurately how not only men, but also all the other humans somehow position themselves towards a dominant masculinity. To realize that as a man you can be a human, but as a woman, you are just a woman, and therefore to understand how profoundly masculinity navigates our minds, is disillusioning.
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Written for the Course "Gender and Militarisation" at London School of Economics.