Soldiers without guns

Patricia Daniel
3 November 2006

The French expression for buffer-zone is le zone tampon. Let's stay with the metaphor. In English, the first connotation is a discrete, fairly hygienic, device to staunch blood-flow during a regular, normal and healthy gynaecological process. There's no reason to feel embarrassed or squeamish by it.

This is why the term is not so appropriate to the deployment of the United Nations peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon after the war of summer 2006 - especially after new rules of engagement, fiercely negotiated by the French, were agreed. These passed decision-making to ground commanders and included non-defensive use of weapons. In other words, the UN forces will have greater leeway...to continue fighting. If and when a new round of bloodletting occurs, it will be man-made not natural.

The reason for the French insistence on new rules was explained by the country's defence minister, Michele Alliot-Marie: to avoid the "humiliation" that French troops experienced in their UN Balkan peacekeeping mission, when troops were "constrained by UN impartiality" from firing when a truce was broken (see Celestine Bohlen, "New rules give UN peacekeepers greater leeway," International Herald Tribune, 30 August 2006).

Patricia Daniel is senior lecturer in social development at the Centre for International Development and Training, University of Wolverhampton, England. She is involved in a study on gender, peace and stability in Mali, in collaboration with the University of Bamako and the Centre for Democracy and Development in Lagos. Her website is here

Also by Patricia Daniel in openDemocracy:

"Mali: everyone's favourite destination" (11 May 2006)

"Africa: ask the women" (3 August 2006)

This concept of male humiliation, the fear of not having control, was a direct cause of the war between Israel and Hizbollah. Ehud Olmert, recently elected prime minister of Israel and inexperienced in military affairs, wished to show how tough he was over the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. He continued to escalate the conflict, despite the political and humanitarian cost and opposition from within the ranks of Israel's army (see "Protest petition by IDF reservists back from war," Ha'aretz, 21 August 2006).

This episode cuts to the crux of the whole of global politics, the ongoing middle-east crises - and war itself. It underlies the nationalistic positioning of (inevitably male) representatives within the UN Security Council, the allegiances that political leaders make with each other, and - more than anything - the domination of the United States in world affairs.

All this is about is the male ego. It has to do with how masculinity is perceived - or maybe what kind of masculinity is aspired to.

Doing masculinity the peaceful way

When I went to Mali in December 2005 to research gender and peace, I found myself billeted in a small hotel, the only woman and only civilian alongside twenty (male) military officers. They belonged to a pan-African training course for UN Mission Observers, run by the Canadian forces' Peace Support Training Centre in Kingston, Ontario. Their likely assignment was to work in Darfur, the Congo, perhaps now in Lebanon; some had already worked as UN peacekeepers in disintegrating Yugoslavia.

The reason for the bizarre billeting is actually relevant. There was no room for me in the other, larger hotels because they were all reserved for the twenty-third France-Africa summit. This event, which I watched on Mali TV, had the most unexpected spectacle of modern-day spear-waving I have witnessed. Around fifty heads of state separately flew into Bamako in their own jumbo-jet, with their own retinue and their own media corps. The summit lasted twenty-four hours, heard a lot of fine rhetoric from Jacques Chirac about French benevolence towards Africa, and then everyone flew out again (see Patricia Daniel, "Mali: everyone's favourite destination" (11 May 2006).

The United Nations trainees were not involved in this at all. They were on an intensive 8am-8pm schedule, learning how to monitor peace agreements and survive in a buffer-zone - without a weapon. The training partly included the necessary physical skills: parachuting, night-time orienteering, ways of escaping, where necessary, from the janjaweed ...and much else I don't know.

What was more interesting for me, as a former english language training specialist, was the focus on communication skills and the types of activity I was familiar with: team-work, role-play, dealing with the unexpected, how to behave in difficult encounters with interlocutors from different cultures. It all made sense: from paralinguistics (how to recognise danger - the tone of voice, the facial expression, and how these give signs of suspicion, fear, aggression...), to response (how to show peaceful intentions, submission, hold up your hands, step back, back down...).

After supper we had some interesting, wide-ranging discussions about peace, development and democracy in Africa.

These were regular beer-drinking guys, family men, forthright in their views, with military training in the US or Canada. They may have been motivated by the chance they saw for career progression, a move sideways into civilian posts or to study for higher degrees.

But the fact is that, as trained soldiers, they had all made the decision to lay down their arms - in a two-year posting. And however challenging they may have found the training, they didn't seem to feel that it diminished their masculinity.

It's disappointing that high-level female politicians - Condoleezza Rice, Michele Alliot-Marie, and perhaps Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel - have (been) bought into the machista version of war and peace.

The African officers in the Hotel Tamara in Bamako showed me that, even for soldiers, there's a different way to do masculinity, and it's certainly not a soft option.

If a fraction of the $940m pledged to rebuild Lebanon after the latest crisis had been spent on some basic communications skills for world leaders, we might have (I know I'm dreaming) averted the war altogether.

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