Militarism and heteronormative gender identities are co-constitutive. It is not that ‘masculinity’ generates war, as the question has been put, but rather that the process of militarization both draws on and exaggerates the bipolarization of gender identities in extremis. Mustering troops is all about the mobilization of men into aggressive expressions of hypermasculinity – they are ‘pumped up’ and as it were to facilitate their most murderous and pornographic capabilities. This is not just a masculinizing process of a particular quality, but an intersectional dynamic that also ‘works’ ethnicity, religion and other social distinctions, and very often appeals to racial supremacist constructions of ‘the enemy’. This is not just a matter of ‘prejudice’ or ‘traditional gender stereotypes’ – because this gendering of subjectivity is a process that lies at the dehumanizing heart of a systemic shift towards “war preparedness”.
Even before war looms, the proclivity is there because the dynamic of gender is at the centre of modern Western statecraft itself – the very definition of the state includes the existence of a standing army. Societies that do and did not maintain the standing armies that characterize the modern state were not only vulnerable to conquest. They were also regarded as “primitive”. “Acephalous” was one term used by colonial anthropologists to describe the decentralized Igbo socio-political formations that Chinua Achebe and Ifi Amadiume recuperate in their writings.Patronizing depictions of alternative political systems provided justifications for imposing patriarchal and militarized systems of governance on some these more interesting precursors to patriarchal capitalism.
Colonial officers are on record as having responded to their encounters with non-militarized societies that did not subordinate women in the way that Europeans considered civilized by advocating ‘making men of the natives’ by creating armies (Mies 1986). What were initially frontier forces used to guard occupied territories from rival occupiers (Brits vs. French vs. German etc) were also used to suppress dissent. Recall that the Women’s Wars in Nigeria were suppressed using colonial forces schooled in misogynistic and ethno-religious contempt– Hausa troops were brought in to gun down Igbo women – a sad theme that was to be repeated in the anti-Igbo pogroms that erupted in the town were I grew up, as Nigeria descended into the civil war.
And of course the mass conscription/recruitment of colonized men into the first and second World Wars shows us how this served empire. The social costs of that massive removal and militarization of millions of African men in colonial armies have never been even estimated (e.g. over 100,000 men were conscripted from French Sudan in the first World War, many thousands more in the second). Their return after the first and second World Wars informed the quality of nationalism and facilitated liberation movements, but the fact is that most of Africa gained independence with bloated colonial armies more used to detaining and locking up the men that had become their political leaders. Within a decade more than half had lapsed into military rule.
In former colonies we have had to draw a distinction between colonial armies (replete with the racism, sexist, misogyny etc) that characterize modern Western militarism, and the national liberation forces, designated by the former as terrorist. These also exhibited a different gender/sexual politics and involved many more women than conventional all-male armies of occupation.
Postcolonial conflicts present the latest iteration of organized violence reliant on ethno-nationalist and sexist identity politics. ‘Rape as a weapon of war’ is thus nothing new – war has always involved sexual carnage - misogynist and violent expressions of masculinity facilitate the killing of people and the destruction of societies/cultures, via racialized tropes. The rape of women is an act that sees men humiliate other men across ethnic/class/religious status hierarchies within a patriarchal paradigm that persist long after peace has been declared. Vanquished men and boys are also vulnerable to sexual humiliation because ‘victory’ is quintessentially phallic.
I’m not sure that ‘challenging masculinity’ is all that is required. The evidence suggests that much deeper transformation will be needed to excise the structural basis of gendered violence central to modern statecraft. Notions of national security rely on rapacious constructions of masculinity that need to be challenged alongside the constructions of woman as victims in need of male protection. In the context of globalization, the ‘protection of women’ is too easily invoked in the service of imperialist national security agendas, and women will continue to pay the price.
Amina Mama spoke at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World May 28th, 2013, in Belfast, Ireland. Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference.