In gender terms, fascism was a naked reassertion of male supremacy in societies that had been moving toward equality for women. To accomplish this, fascism promoted new images of hegemonic masculinity, glorifying irrationality (the ‘triumph of the will’, thinking with ‘the blood’) and the unrestrained violence of the frontline soldier.
In past years, I talked about veteran-worship-as-militarism, about veterans who give up being villains and victims to become witnesses, about the overblown veteran suicide narrative, about the malignant realities of US foreign policy that the military helps execute, and about the military and militarism as formative of a particularly dangerous form of masculinity. This year, I want to talk about what happens in the military — which is where we veterans come from to become veterans.
But I want to talk about women as troops and veterans, and about the emergence and recent explosion of #MeToo. In other words, about sex and war. In my experience, there is no way to have more than a superficial conversation about war, soldiers, and veterans without a conversation about sex — both in the production of warlike masculinities, and in the abuse of women who are soldiers or veterans.
If you are a woman and a veteran, or just an honest veteran, you’ll know my description of what the military does to women is right; and if you are a woman considering the military . . . think long and hard.
The actual military is an institution that is, at its very core, misogynistic. The enterprise of war is, at its core, misogynistic. I will now step on the toes of liberal fantasies about women in the military meaning “progress,” as well as garden variety patriotism. Military misogyny cannot be changed, because of the peculiar historical relationship between conquest-masculinity — that imperial masculinity which targets nature, women, and colonized people — and war.
War reproduces conquest-masculinity; and conquest-masculinity reproduces war. In ideology (and manufactured pop culture), this dynamic is supported by women’s inclusion only as honorary males — women who adapt to male norms without challenging them. In reality, military institutions are horrifically hostile places for women, and this has not been substantially changed by the inclusion of more women.
If any woman wants to vastly multiply her opportunities for hostile objectification, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, the United States Armed Forces is the right place to go. It has the best rape demographic — lots of men between eighteen and thirty years old. It has the right ingredients for a super-rape culture — young men indoctrinated into violence, associating with other men like them, misogynistic to the core, combined with long hours where women are left with these men day and night. And best of all, it is a self-protective bureaucracy that will scapegoat a few vulnerable enlisted men for off-color remarks to establish their anti-harassment bona fides to the public, while engaging in massive cover-ups of systematic rape and abuse, especially if officers or senior NCOs are the perpetrators. Military ethics are purely instrumental.
The other thing these pro-military pop culture never mentions is the moral hazard of war itself. People are allowed to do things in war with a certain impunity that they could not do otherwise. Vehicular hit and run (of anyone who failed to get out of the way) was a very common example in Iraq. Once the people who failed to accept a foreign invasion and occupation started building command-detonated mechanical ambushes (improvised explosive devices), commanders told their vehicle drivers to drive at warp speed and ignore slow-down obstacles like bicycles, dogs, and pedestrians. Since Iraqis had no legal recourse nor even any way of knowing which vehicles with which drivers from which base had just run over their child, there were no consequences. I have personally spoken with several former soldiers who have this particular beautiful memory to carry around with them for the remainder of their lives. There are plenty of other things, of course, like shooting a carful of people who fail to follow commands shouted in English, or that loony bastard in your unit that shoots anyone with a shovel and claims the victim was burying an IED. Or the bystander victims that get hit by stray rounds and bombs. Or the stories of the grunts who engage in thrill-killing while on patrol. If you’re really the thoughtful type, you might even begin to wonder what gave you the right to be here in someone else’s country pushing them around in the first place.
The usual narrative is that the military has its bad “exceptions,” and that soldiers become damaged by the bad things they see. If there are bad exceptions, someone needs to explain how the bad exceptions all end up in the same units — because this stuff is done by units, not individuals. And, as I said in Borderline, “My experience of war is that war, as a practice, does not inculcate honor as often as hatred, hostility, cruelty, and the fragmentation of the soldier’s personality. Bad soldiers do not make war a bad thing. War invariably makes soldiers do bad things, and we become what we do.” (Borderline, 102)
Anuradha Kristina Bhagwati, a former Marine officer, in conversation with Setsu Shigematsu, a feminist scholar-activist, told Shigematsu:
“A large part of me was drawn to these superwomen icons, and shaped my desire to fight the man in whatever institution I was in. If it weren’t for Demi Moore playing the role of GI Jane, I might never have joined the military. One of the horrible results of the Hollywood version of the sexy woman killer is that the causes and effects of violence are very rarely explored. Killing is basically a livelihood for these fantasy women. They rarely have to deal with the warping of their soul or psyche.”
To which Shigematsu replied:
“These popular representations of women’s empowerment through their ability to compete with and outdo men through acts of physical prowess and militarized violence have become one of the ways in which representations of token and fantasy women not only misrepresent women’s experiences in the military, but operate to normalize the mass industrial violence and obscure the gravity of our socioeconomic crises that the cycle of warfare will only exacerbate . . . Many feminists who identify themselves as antimilitary and anti-war may not pay heed to how the militarization of women may in fact constitute a deep crisis for US feminism.”
One cannot fully understand militarism without an account of violent masculinity, and one cannot fully understand violent masculinity without an account of militarism. They are kind of a cultural yin-yang, each embracing and reproducing the other. This is one reason that the failure to address militarism in the context of an allegedly feminist narrative is even more problematic than the failure to address race, class, and nationality. Not because generic women can’t do what generic men do in the military — as former career military, I can promise you that there are some women who can absolutely perform any task performed by men in the execution of their responsibilities as soldiers — but because militarism, the nationalistic elevation of the status of military action and war as the nation’s highest form of “sacrificial service,” has its roots in a practice and ideology that historically associates masculinity (even with a few women now added) with the idea that violence is virtuous — the selfsame masculinity that devalues, exploits, and dominates women.
The corresponding reality is that, as a special form of masculine virtue, the willingness to kill perfect strangers requires a form of psychological compartmentalization, suppression of Misericordia, or empathy, and the amplification of those traits already gendered male — cold instrumentality, aggression, and cruelty. This amplification of traits that are gendered male, apart from the moral issues involved, when considered virtuous, in turn devalue those traits that are its opposite and historically gendered female. This is what underwrites the long standing and still persistent culture of misogyny that characterizes military organizations.
A commitment to sexual equality with males is a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered.
When Andrea Dworkin said that “equality” means becoming the murderer instead of the murdered, this is precisely what she meant. This is not women’s emancipation. It is American exceptionalism — the idea that the United States, as the Great Nation responsible to both police the world and transform it in its own image, has the unique right to intervene in the affairs of foreign nations — that is the very ideological canvas upon which militarized pop culture war stories are painted.
In films like G.I. Jane, which Bhagwati says provoked her interest in joining, the scenarios are set up in such a way that the Good Guys (and honorary male Good Gynes) kill only wicked armed combatants. In real war, non-combatant deaths outnumber combatant deaths by more than three to one. Depending on where the war is, the percentage of those noncombatant deaths who are women and children can range from twenty-five percent, for example in Iraq, where soldiers killed noncombatant “military-aged” males more frequently based on suspicion of their combatant status, to half female where bombing has been the primary method of attack. This does not take into account loss of public services to pregnant women and women with children, skyrocketing incidences of rape, untreated disease from contaminated water and malnutrition, maternal death, and suicide. One might ask the G.I. Jane “feminist” the same question put to her colleagues by former slave Sojourner Truth in 1827: “Ain’t I a woman?” Aren’t the women on the receiving end of U.S. wars women?
Imagine how many women on the receiving end of the US military would respond, if they had smart phones and computers, to #MeToo. Imagine how many women in the US Armed Forces would . . . because they are there, now, nursing their hurt and silence in an institution that is structurally designed to hate them.
“The crucial element of fascism is its explicit sexual language,” write Jessica Benjamin and Anson Rabinbach, “what Theweleit calls ‘the conscious coding’ or the ‘over-explicitness of the fascist language of symbol.’ This fascist symbolization creates a particular kind of psychic economy which places sexuality in the service of destruction. Despite its sexually charged politics, fascism is an anti-eros, ‘the core of all fascist propaganda is a battle against everything that constitutes enjoyment and pleasure.’ … He shows that in this world of war the repudiation of one’s own body, of femininity, becomes a psychic compulsion which associates masculinity with hardness, destruction, and self-denial.”
And now we are living under a proto-fascist government. Your Commander-in-Chief is the Sexual Predator-in-Chief, so everyone — especially women and people of color — who is in the armed forces, all you who are proto-veterans, is now faced with some serious questions.
Fascism, in shorthand, is characterized by ethno-nationalism, hypermasculinity, scapegoating of minorities to transform them into “internal enemies,” and a cult of personality.
When will you be ordered to train your guns on the vulnerable and innocent inside your own country? When will you be required to tear a screaming baby from the arms of a screaming mother? Other armed services inside the US are already doing this. Your Orange Commandante hates women, he hates people of color, and he regards you as his own personal toy army.
“Rape,” writes Inga Muscio, “viewed merely as a crime . . . is the fundamental, primal, most destructive way to seize and maintain control in a patriarchal society.” In a terrible double-bind, women in uniform are already dealing with this threat every day; but they are also faced with the moral hazard of soldiery itself.
In 2016, 6,172 sexual assaults were reported in the US Armed Forces, including the service academies. Anonymous surveys show closer to 20,000 assaults. Six of the ten reporting also report subsequent retaliation for making the reports. And those who managed to navigate the treacherous terrain of military masculinity know, too. Women in uniform know how relentless is that judgmental and predatory male gaze following them like a threatening shadow every day. Women who are veterans remember it, too.
As a veteran and a veteran career soldier who spent over two decades on active duty, I can honestly say that I feel a good deal of plain contempt for Veterans Day. It is a high holy day in the liturgical calendar of empire. Nonetheless, as a veteran who is also a heterodox leftist and Christian pacifist, this day of groveling before all things military always feels like a teachable moment, too. The electronic semiosphere will be abuzz with this Festival of Military Idolatry anyway. Why not grab some of that attention and redirect it?
Share freely with veterans and members of the armed forces.