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What Would a Post-Masculinized Military Look Like?

December 29, 2010

On the road home from South Carolina I posted notice of Laura Sjoberg’s critique of militarized masculinity in her analysis of DADT-repeal discourse. Now that I’m settled in, I’ve realized it’s the comments thread on that post where the real action is and I feel compelled to throw in my two cents.

Laura’s key argument:

That the military now includes gay people and (kind of) women openly does not mean that it is some how gender-equal or gender neutral. Instead, masculinity remains the standard of good soldiering in the United States military. Celebrating the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell the way it has been celebrated, I think, may obscure that point. It also obscures a long tradition in Western political systems of defining full citizenship by military participation/bravery.

Some important questions asked by commenters:


So I wonder what a non-masculinist military would actually look like. Starfleet? Probably not. Do we have any models?… while I can easily think my way from a feminist analysis of the masculinized military to a call to replace the military and end the war system, I can’t quite think my way from that critique to an alternative military.

Dan Nexon:

I’m interested in your critical imagining of what a de-masculinized way of killing people would entail, and why that would be preferable to the kind of de-gendering of biological sex implied by allowing non-heterosexual men into the role of “masculine solider.”


I am quite interested in an answer to Dan’s question. I think the really fundamental point in this comment thread is whether killing can be ‘de-masculinized’. Given the problems I, PTJ, Dan and others are having imagining what on earth this would look like, it would be really helpful to have some suggestions, even if this means that you have to zoom out a little. What would a de-gendered war system look like?

Grigory Lukin:

Can you post a specific description of what a non-masculine and/or gender-free military would actually look like, how it would be different from what we have now, and how/why it would be more effective – in less than 100 words? Don’t refer to feminist IR or deconstruct history through feminist/progressive/whichever perspective – just answer the question.


I don’t entirely (yet) know the answer to your question, except to start with that it is the wrong question. Critique/deconstruction/ rethinking/reconstruction can’t start with a small portion of the war system, but the whole thing… it is not just militaries, but militarism (and by extension militaristic culture) that would need to radically change operations in order to see any real “change” in the gendering of strategic cultures….There is no simple answer.”

Hmm. Let me humbly offer one: it’s really about civil-military relations, not military culture or raison d’etre per se. A post-masculinized military, as I imagine it, would differ from the system she’s critiquing not in its ability to use violence (in other words, I don’t share Laura’s view, finally, that it would look like a ‘cross between the peace corps and a chain gang.’) And it would not merely be constituted by who is in the military or what kind of masculinity the military privileges in its soldiers (though these things matter). More significantly, one would know a post-masculinized military system by the character of the military’s relationship to the civilian world it serves. And I would argue with Sjoberg that there is further (beneficial) work to do, but also that we are heading in the right direction faster that she might acknowledge.

What exactly does that world look like?

Well, it is a world in which women and men both have the equal right to serve.

And it is a world in which hetero-normativity is not a requirement for the sort of archetype we valorize in soldiers. Women’s integration and the repeal of DADT therefore do take us in that direction.

And it is also a world in which “normal masculinity” is delinked from the attributes we associate with hyper-masculine military culture. This is happening in many places already: men’s groups, rap lyrics, third grade classrooms like my son’s, where students are taught to include everyone, to use I-statements when they have hurt feelings, bond without smack-talk, to value other cultures and the earth, and to see “bad” not in the guy but in the behavior. These things are also happening in the military.

And it is also a world in which militarism is de-linked from its historical raison d’etre “killing bad guys to protect innocent women and children on the home front.” But there are many ways to do that delinking short of letting “‘guys’ who do bad” run rampant, and these things are also happening already. Since at least the early 1990s, the US military has been intimately involved in a variety of humanitarian and stability operations worldwide, where the vulnerable being protected are “theirs” not “ours”; where the enemy are not “bad guys” so much as disease, starvation or natural disaster; where the goal is not to kill but to “peace-keep”; where the tactics involve very “feminine” traits such as listening, intercultural dialogue, and the provision of comfort; and where the “good” and “bad” “guys” (when there is killing to be done) may just as easily be children or women. All of this, for better or for worse, is already destabilizing the conventional gendered war narrative that IR feminists use as a foil.

But “de-masculinizing the military” it’s also about at least three other things that are happening, if at all, much more slowly: a) balancing the esteem we pay to military service with the esteem we pay to traditionally feminized roles such as child-rearing b) making the same effort to gender-integrate traditionally feminized roles as we do to gender-integrate traditionally masculinized roles c) changing the relationship between the military and civilian sectors in security operations to be more collaborative and less hierarchical.

Let me expound a little on each, for they constitute answers to the question about how to translate feminist insights into policy.

1) In a De-Masculinized Military System, Child and Elder-Care Would Be Understood as Important a National Service as “Fighting Bad Guys.”
A concrete way to de-link militarism from ‘national service’ in this way would be to provide a package similar to veterans’ benefits for parents who have taken time out from the paid labor force to rear children. Ann Crittenden laid out this entire agenda in her excellent book The Price of Motherhood. She also pointed out that the military already had the best child-care system in the United States ten years ago – for those who serve the military. What if non-military families were entitled to the same benefits? What if we privileged, remunerated and valorized the care and feeding of functional future citizens in the same way that we valorize soldiering? What if the US military functioned in such a way as to actually enable its personnel to effectively balance warrioring and family life?

2) In a De-Masculinized Military System, Policy-Makers Would Gender-Integrate Feminine/Civilian Roles as Aggressively as They Gender-Integrate Masculine/Military Ones.
A way to delink militarism from hetero-normative masculinity is by delinking its binary opposite (‘child-rearing’) from hetero-normative femininity. You do this by making the benefits and obligations of rearing children or caring for elders gender neutral as well. Those parenting benefits? They need to apply to fathers as well as mothers and, if the Sweden experienceis any indication, men need to be required to actually take them if they father children. We can work to change the perception that men who seek positions as nurses or childcare workers or kindergarten teachers must be less than manly. We need to raise our sons to think of “real man-hood” in terms of fathering as well as soldiering or fighting fires, and we need to make sure they have the skills to succeed at these tasks, which is the only way their sisters will be fully free to participate on equal footing in national or military service. And now that gays have the right to serve openly in the military, perhaps we can move on to acknowledging they are fit to raise children as well.

3) A De-Masculinized Military System Would Emphasize Collaborative Relations Between the Military and the Civilian Sectors, Rather than Protecter/Protectee Relations. This too is already happening, but not necessarily in ways to destabilize militarized masculinity. What we see happening, as Colonel Matthew Moten has aptly described, are armed “civilian” contractors displacing uniformed troops in stability operations, exhibiting a renegade form of warrior masculinity delinked from the just war ethic of those socialized into military culture; and military personnel encroaching upon civilian political authority. What we need to see: increasing engagement by weapons-bearers with “civil society” groups, particularly women’s groups, who often have not only the contextual knowledge to detect threats and mobilize social capital but are frequently overlooked in stability ops because they are not perceived to have the expertise necessary to work with the military. (In fact, people in care-giving roles, historically mothers, have precisely what the military is realizing it needs most: socio-cultural intelligence. Cynthia Cockburn has great examples of this in her chapter on reconstruction in Bosnia in this book. Also see this.)

In short, at least in theory, it is in the equalizing of responsibility for “security” between weapons-bearing and non-weapons-bearing sectors, between protector and protected, that policymakers can begin to de-gender that militarized narrative and make militaries work better for human beings rather than primarily for the state.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.