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Equally Expendable: Looking at Men and War through a Feminist Paradigm

by Kathleen Barry


I had not planned to write a book on masculinity and war. But following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 with daily reports for a month of "loss of innocent lives," that term haunted me. "If we agree that it is wrong to kill civilians in war, then there must be others who can be killed." I knew, of course, the answer to the question that followed, "Who are they?"

Men in combat! In my research I found that even the Geneva Conventions exclude all of those "engaged in hostilities" from the protection of their right to live as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, I discovered, the Geneva Conventions violate the universal, inalienable guarantee of human rights to everyone. In international law, that guarantee cannot be segmented to one class or another, available at one time (in peace) and suspended at another time (in hostilities). Of course, it is also perfectly obvious that if soldiers in combat were legally granted the human right that will be again available to them once they leave combat, there could be no war at least legally.

My feminist work on violence against women began in 1968 and 1969 as I joined with other feminists to initiate "STOP RAPE" campaigns. That work led me in 1979 to write Female Sexual Slavery which launched a global movement against trafficking in women. From decades of activism, I followed that book with another in 1995 on global, sexual exploitation of women, The Prostitution of Sexuality. And here I was in 2006 writing empathetically about men in combat?

I persisted and soon realized that deep questions and issues lie buried in masculinity that hold keys to violence.

Male expendability for war begins with childhood socialization through which boys learn that they may be expected to fight and die for their country, that they may not live past 19 or 23 if they go to war. And if they do not go to war when it is expected of them, they may suffer the ridicule of not being a real man, just as boys who do not fight on the playground at school are bullied for being sissies or wusses. I began to listen to men talk about going to war and reading soldiers' accounts of how they got into combat "because I was embarrassed not to," Tim O'Brien said in The Things They Carried.

Being a protector is the heart of the masculinity of war and of male superiority. Violence and aggression come with men learning that they are protectors of women, children, and their country or their people. "How else would they protect us?" is the logic of the masculine/military paradigm of war. That same paradigm expects women's complicity with the heart of violence. Women are supposed to expect men to be our protectors, those same men who turn their violence against women and against men who are not as "manly" as they are and then against civilians and combatants alike in war zones.

While it is true that some women are ending up in combat, sometimes fighting alongside male soldiers, not only does the U.S. not officially assign women to combat, but the model to which those in combat must adapt is masculine to the point that they are reduced to being grunts.

In Unmaking War, Remaking Men, I define that violence as blinding macho the force that is turned on women in their homes, in wife and partner abuse. That is the same violence that the military trains to turn soldiers into remorseless killers. And more. With the increase of women in war zones, that violence is turned against female soldiers, one in three of whom experience sexual harassment or assault, while the incidence of wife abuse in military families is significantly larger than in the general population.

Military training and combat push soldiers beyond their own humanity. Remorseless killing, many soldiers tell us, means a loss of their own soul. The harm to them from severe dehumanization by the military sets the stage for post traumatic stress disorder. Seriously under-diagnosed, it is estimated that one in eight U.S. combat soldiers in Iraq suffers from PTSD.

In Unmaking War, Remaking Men, I developed a feminist human rights paradigm that confronts the power of masculinity as it places the dignity of all human beings and their rights above all else. It is built upon our own shared human consciousness, that collective reaction toward saving a life at risk, which is hardwired in us. I ask: "How in the madness of war do so many human beings throughout the world who share an unconditional love of life, who are connected to each other through the life force that urges us away from death to spontaneously want to save another's life and to protect one's own come to accept war as inevitable?"

Our work toward unmaking war and remaking men is already in progress. Women have gone a long way in throwing off the male protector role and more slowly men's roles are changing. But war intensifies violence, not only in the countries that are invaded, but in aggressor states, particularly the United States where the mentality of war enables violence all around us.

Nevertheless, the most powerful models I have found of men remaking themselves are in our war resisters, those in combat who individually stand up to the entire U.S. military and The White House and refuse to kill, to destroy peoples homes and their lives, and who are willing to suffer the painful consequences of their actions.

October 26, 2010

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Professor Emerita Kathleen Barry's latest book,Unmaking War, Remaking Men: How Empathy Can Reshape Our Politics, Our Soldiers and Ourselves has just been released. A sociologist and feminist activist, her first book, Female Sexual Slavery, launched an international movement against trafficking in human beings.

See "A Feminist Vision: No Justice, No Equity" by Loretta Ross in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see "Reducing Violence by Educating for Empathy" by Myriam Miedzian in the Spring 2010 edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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