- Reading Militarism and Gender with Cynthia Enloe
Cynthia Enloe’s newest book on gender and militarism is a timely lens for framing inquiry into the Afghan war and the “war on terrorism.” Enloe follows the tracks of gender through the violence-producing practices of states, militaries, and nationalist movements. She offers a global examination of the ways that militaries rely on, and help to produce, both dominant ideologies of masculinity and femininity and material labor of women and men. At the same time, she charts the global efforts of feminist groups to contest militarization — presented in remarkable detail in the 178 pages of footnotes accompanying the 300 pages of text — and sketches the dilemmas both feminists and militaries face in negotiating the dense narrative and structural fields within which gender and militarism reside.
Like Enloe’s earlier books (The Morning After, Bananas, Beaches, and Bases, and Does Khaki Become You?) Maneuvers provokes us to examine our own curiosity, or lack thereof, about the gendered dynamics of all things military. Her insistence that we become curious about military arrangements that “just seem normal” is a radical challenge to prevailing treatments of the current violence. Enloe’s method for provoking our curiosity is a trademark of her work: she hesitates to offer strict or straightforward definitions of key terms. Instead, she accumulates a critical mass of events, policies, practices, statements, and vignettes. She tacks back and forth between specific examples and general observations about cases. She connects similar stories from different parts of the world, juxtaposing familiar with unfamiliar illustrations — until patterns paint themselves. After a brief definition of militarization on p. 3, Enloe returns to her usual indirect approach, seemingly wandering around the topic, compiling example after example to construct the grounds upon which her arguments rest. When, nine pages before the end of the text, she defines militarization as “the step-by-step process by which something becomes controlled by, dependent on, or derives value from the military or militaristic criteria”(p. 291) so many profound, mundane, horrifying, hilarious, familiar, and alien examples have been offered that the tremendous scope of militarism as a kind of order has been convincingly portrayed. Militarization, then, is not simply what militaries do, but a subtle, pervasive, and uneven process that enables militaries to do what they do by recruiting gendered and racial sets of social practices and self-understandings.
Accompanying Enloe’s insistence on denaturalizing militarism is an accompanying double argument: first, that militarization, and the struggles against it, are genuinely global phenomena, and cannot be understand within an America-centric posture; second, that militarization is explicitly political, a process reflecting not undifferentiated “tradition” or “culture” but the sedimented weight of thousands of decisions by human beings across diverse institutional and historical contexts.
The global sweep of this book is most successful in looking at women’s activism; it is somewhat less successful in examining militaries themselves, where Enloe focuses most of her analysis on the U.S. Enloe highlights the complex circumstances, and the overlapping yet unique struggles, of women intersecting with militaries in different parts of the world. Echoing themes from her earlier books, but exploring them with fresh examples, Enloe studies military wives, women working as military prostitutes, mothers of soldiers, women who are soldiers, women who are military nurses, women raped in war, women who cook and clean for soldiers, women who star in war movies, women who work in defense industries, women campaigning for environmental cleanup around military bases, and feminist activists. She charts their relations with military leaders, base commanders, rank-and-file soldiers, and male resistance leaders. Given the large numbers of differently-situated women who are involved with militaries, Enloe asks pointed, and unfamiliar, political questions: might these groups have anything in common? How are the divisions among them maintained, and what would happen if they began to speak and act together?
Two chapters stand out as particularly powerful investigations of ways that state militaries and male-dominated resistance movements rely on women to conduct their operations and sustain their legitimacy. Chapter 3...