Revised (1/25/13, 7:38 am).
Leon Panetta’s announcement, overturning a 19-year ban on allowing women to join small-group combat units in the military, heralded some predictable responses from liberals and feminists: “How great! Let there be no inequality between men and women anywhere.” Some veterans tried to point to the legitimacy of this new permission by pointing to their newfound realization that women were just as capable as men in combat roles.
My generation assumed women’s capabilities—in all areas—were equivalent to those of men, so the veterans’ realizations were hardly earth-shattering. Generally, I’m in agreement with removing gendered and racial barriers to inequality and discrimination: in education and all other opportunities. Moreover, there are genuine benefits to the DoD’s official position. For women who are already in the army and serving de facto in combat-vulnerable positions, e.g., if they are attacked while serving in maintenance units (remember Pfc. Jessica Lynch?), ambulance units or escorting convoys, they can finally be compensated, promoted, and rewarded for the work that they have already been doing for years.
But I can hardly join in the feminist shouts of victory. Many have already understood the irony of this new “freedom”: women will now be officially allowed to join a war-time military that has been involved in several long-standing deadly wars, notably all over the Middle East. President Obama’s 2nd inaugural reality-bending notwithstanding, there is little evidence that a decade of war has ended, except in terms of troop withdrawal from Iraq. As we know, that withdrawal is being done according to a timeline set under the Bush Administration, which the Obama Administration was unsuccessful in renegotiating. Never mind that a significant presence of non-combat U.S. troops private contractors will still remain in Iraq.
The war has gone underground or been expanded through remote-controlled drones directed towards regions with whom the US is not officially at war. War-like threats have also increased through the expansion of military bases all over sub-Saharan Africa. To boot, the US is now “assisting” France in invading Mali. These wars, it should go without saying, are targeted toward large swaths of the world’s brown and black populations.
There is a remarkable shallowness to the notion of “feminist progress.” We have heard various sources, including director Katherine Bigelow, exhorting the wonderful feminist dimensions of Zero Dark Thirty, which shows Jessica Chastain as Maya, the CIA operative and supporter of torture. As feminist scholar and professor Zillah Eisenstein points out,
This film is not to be made seemingly progressive or feminist because it presents a female CIA agent as central to the demise of Osama. Nor should any of us think that it is “good” that Maya is female, or that several females had an important hand in the murder of Osama. There is nothing feminist in revenge.
While I disagree with Eisenstein on this—sometimes revenge can be a feminist act, —there is typically nothing feminist in committing bodily, emotional, or psychic harm to any other person.
Harm to others violates the principle of the innate dignity of human beings. Seeking physical retribution without using court and legal procedures violates due process, which is a US constitutional principle, but which should be a standard of human rights upon which states and individuals should be able to depend.
Still, I find it puzzling that there is something in the ethos of our age that suggests that “feminism” can be ascribed to women and policies supporting the most destructive of actions—from Maya, to Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton as advocates of violence military actions in the name of defending American security.
Last night, Jon Stewart and MIT drone expert Missy Cummings had this bizarre, if enthusiastic, interchange about the coolness of drones. In the midst of it, Cummings pointed to her feminist credentials as one of the first female fighter pilots. Sounds great. Until one realizes that being a fighter pilot means that one is being trained…to engage in combat…to kill. It is a progress of a certain sort to realize that women can kill as easily and emotionlessly as men. Just as, I suppose, it is progress for an African American president to exceed a white president in his ability to promote secrecy, violence, absence of transparency, and endorse human rights violations.
What does it mean to talk about feminist progress when defined as enabling women to participate combatively in the colonizing project? To fight aggressively in the name of creating a world-wide imperialist presence? To join an institution whose policies for 11 years have involved, as Wikileaks has shown us, the shooting, maiming, and plundering of black and brown men, women, and children in the name of “U.S. freedom and security”?
There are other dimensions of this “feminist” policy to consider here as well: Why is this decision being taken now? It comes in the aftermath of another achievement for which the Obama Administration is being given full credit: the end of a 18 year “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy initiated under another neoliberal Democratic president. Both of these policies augment the already-aggressive practice of recruiting poor or working-class whites and minorities–with more female and/or lesbian/gay/bisexual soldiers–for the US Army.
The timing of Panetta’s announcement is hardly coincidental: in the context of an improving economy, it is difficult and precarious to maintain a steady supply of troops in an all-volunteer army to service a global war that is more unpopular than ever among Americans (not to mention the folks that the U.S. is targeting—but perhaps that was obvious). The supply chain, as it were, is dying and new food sources need to be found.
The U.S. Armed Services, as a federal employer, provides a broad range of remarkable benefits to government employees: health care (not to be confused with Obamacare, which is a health-insurance scheme); child-care, housing, lodging, skilled training, and other forms of subsidized or free education. It is neither hard to understand nor sympathize with the men and women who see the US Army as an employer of last resort in the face of a failing economy. But addendums such as the dissolution of DADT and “women in combat” will help erase any remaining barriers and supply a steady stream of—male, female, black, brown, working-class, gay, and patriotic—bodies to the war-feeding machine.
There is only one remaining obstacle. The Department of Defense hopes, with any luck, that said obstacle will soon be overcome with the passage of the DREAM Act. This act will offer young undocumented migrants the Faustian opportunity to enroll in college (one that they can somehow afford or which will subsidize them) or participate in American wars against other black and brown people around the world, in return for the miraculous chance to become “legal” residents of the United States.
3 cheers for Feminist Progress.