Progress: Cheering Feminists Who Kill

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.

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15 thoughts on “Progress: Cheering Feminists Who Kill

  1. After reading this article, nodding my head in agreement, and then arguing for a bit with my girlfriend, who took issue with some of the points here (her position: gender equality and anti-war sentiments are unrelated and thus this is an unequivocal feminist/gender equality victory), I am even more confused about it. I suppose one has to admit that it is a step toward gender equality in the most literal sense, but at a very significant cost. Her assertion was that feminists should be first and foremost concerned with achieving absolute gender equality in all areas, and then concerned about stopping war, violence, etc., an interpretation I thought a bit oversimplified. I didn’t know what to say. I’m limited by both my lack of education in the topic(s) and my life experience as a straight white male.

    I also have a dumb question: Can the removal of the ban on women serving in combat roles not be considered as a feminist victory/setback apart from the motives behind it? Can we not just ignore why the Pentagon decided to do it (as many ignored Obama’s decision to come out in favor of gay marriage, as politically calculated as it was) and evaluate it vis-a-vis the goals of (I assume Western, North American) feminism?

    • Of course it’s possible to see it purely as a victory. Separating the motives from the facts depoliticizes the policy (and strips it of its ethical content) and thereby makes it easier to swallow–precisely as those in power would like us to do. It’s a classic liberal position, which allows a selective interpretation of the facts in favor of highlighting the “pure” principle. Your girlfriend’s position is consistent with the classic liberal feminist position, which is inherently problematic, since it favors the principle of “gender-equality” over the fact that such policies (like allowing women in combat) will affect women of color disproportionately: they are demographically more likely to have fewer employment options and thereby will be disproportionately inclined to join the Army–with its range of benefits. All they have to is agree to be cannon fodder for an imperial war.

      So, it’s a “feminist victory” for those who actually have a range of options and decide that they want to be in combat positions. Not for those who don’t want to be in combat and/OR who can’t challenge their superiors’ decisions to put them in combat positions, or for those who didn’t have many options for employment but are attracted to access to healthcare, childcare, etc.

      A non-conscription Army–in a society that suffers radical economic inequality (in wealth, employment, and healthcare)–is a classist institution that will exploit the vulnerabilities of men and women of color. By ignoring this context, and the timing of this policy, one (not necessarily you) can smugly enjoy the ‘victory’ or ‘principle’ without having to consider the implications for those who have to suffer through the exigencies of this policy-. This is similar to the “victory” of gay marriage, which side-steps other crucial implications, like (1) the national absence of health-care and (2) corporations’ decision to deny same-sex benefits to unmarried couples (because now everyone, including same-sex couples can get married–so they are forced to do so in order to have benefits). It’s a way to discipline citizens into conforming to certain societal norms.

      The idea that feminist equality should be favored over challenging violence or war is a short-sighted–if not selective–one. So, should violence only be challenged when it affects women in domestic violence or rape? Feminism and anti-war positions ar en’t necessarily linked for everyone, but that does not mean that they have to be exclusive. Doesn’t violence affect others too? Isn’t part of the principle of feminism–any feminism–that human beings and their sanctity should be prioritized? Especially in the case of imperial wars that take brown and black bodies–not only as feed for army war-machines–but as the targets of drones, guns, bombs? For feminists like myself, feminism and anti-violence are intimately linked–especially, when I consider that violence is disproportionately targeted toward black and brown bodies, male and female–here in the U.S. and internationally.

      North American feminism is not monolithic–there are enormous variants and strands. But liberal feminism is often a conveniently myopic kind of feminism–that cheers principle, often when it won’t affect lib fems at all, and will affect many others adversely (and not by choice).

  2. Pingback: Women vs. War | Peace & Bread

  3. Ms. Sheth,

    You’ve become essential reading for me. Thank you.

    There are two aspects to this issue I just can’t get around:

    1) One is what seems to be a rather reactionary version (or co-option) of “feminism,” in which upper-class Rightists (I count Bigelow among them) can celebrate this kind of “success” as being somehow important for women’s equality. There is a kernel of truth to this, of course, but it’s hardly a positive development when the commission of war crimes is now free of gender bias. Big deal. But in using feminism this way, they can brand themselves as something resembling “progressive murderers,” as opposed to some other version.

    2) I can’t get past the class bias in all this. Upper-class Rightists like Hillary Clinton are feminists in the sense they aggressively promote upper-class (and almost entirely white) women into positions of power. Fine. Lower-class women, on the other hand, are obviously meant to be exploited. Cannon fodder is merely one form of exploitation. The women working in sweat shops–especially those owned by big corporations in the US– here and abroad are another obvious example.

    So while it makes perfect sense that the warrior caste be opened up to women, on the one hand, it’s really only motivated by the need for more cannon fodder. Also too, given the fact that the sexual assault crisis (I don’t think that’s too big a word) isn’t being dealt with in any way, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be based in a forward position when one has a roughly 30% chance of being raped by one’s own comrades.

    Add on to this, we have an administration that has no problem allowing religious groups to interfere with women’s health, while they are willing to toss women into the meatgrinder of war… well, the “feminist” argument seems to fail at first glance.

    So I tend to view this as co-option, rather than something “progressive,” rather like the Air Force claiming MLK would be proud of their Global Strike Program. It’s absurd, but apparently Americans have a massive tolerance for absurdity. Especially the wealthy ones, since it costs them nothing. It’s not like their daughters are going to end up at an FOB getting shot at and possibly worse. That’s for the lower orders.

  4. I really had no idea how to respond to this. On one hand, if we must have a military, then I suppose women should be treated equally to men. However, doing so will inevitably result in an increase in membership of an institution which I despise. I felt the same way with the repeal of DADT and I suppose I’ll have similar feelings about the inevitable passage of the Dream Act; as always, 1 step forward is accompanied by 17 steps backwards. Now that the military is finally an equitable institution (gays and women are allowed!!!) what are the chances that anyone pays attention to the small things; like, you know, the astronomical odds that these women are sexually assaulted during their “service”? After the Dream Act, maybe can fix our prison problem by increasing wages in inmate work programs?

    As for the Dream Act: Is that next? God I hope not. I work a great deal with undocumented immigrants and I’ve had a very difficult time recommending that they spend several hundred dollars — that they rarely have — on applying for a temporary work permit which also comes with the added benefit of allowing the government to know exactly where they live. Something tells me the Dream Act will have similar provisions: Namely, a highly prohibitive cost for a conditional permit (what happens if they have to drop out of school or if they don’t want to be a Marine?) that is cheered by immigrants rights “activists” (and liberals) in exchange for permitting politicians to claim “immigration reform” and thus making actual reform less likely. I would also wager that any Dream Act legislation will include some extremely punitive measure designed to “crack down” on undocumented immigration.

    CORRECTION: I inexplicably have MSNBC on in the background — it appears that gun control is next. Hooray for solving gun violence through assault weapons prohibition! It’s not like that comes with the caveat of pushing demand for such weapons underground, while dramatically increasing the power of drug cartels throughout Central America (which brings us back to our undocumented immigrant problem). It seems you’re going to have a lot to write about this year.

    • NDAA 2013 lifted a statutory ban that used to deny women soldiers coverage for abortions in the case of rape or incest–a far cry from dealing with sexual assaults in the military.

      The timing on allowing women in combat is interesting. It comes after lifting the ban on DADT, and before the DREAM Act…it’s about finding a new supply of marginalized members for a volunteer army in an increasingly unpopular war.

      • I never meant to imply that they dealt with sexual assaults in the military. I was trying to use sarcasm to point out that it’s now less likely that the military addresses the sexual assault crisis as the media will now move onto the next thing (as if they were going to cover it in the first place). I apologize if my comment implied that such a problem was in fact “dealt with”.

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