Picking Your Battles: Feminism and Militarism

This piece was originally posted on Righteous Anger.

I’ve discussed the doctrine of “choice” that runs through liberal feminism and libertarian feminism in previous posts.  It’s the pervading philosophy that the goal of feminism is to give women choices.  That’s a philosophy with which I agree wholeheartedly.  However, it comes as part-and-parcel of the philosophy of ethical relativism, which says that those choices cannot be judged or condemned.  That is definitely not a philosophy with which I agree.  While my past discussions of the choice issue has revolved around sex work, the issue is also crucial to the discussion of militarism and its relationship to liberal feminism.

Traditional Leftist movements have had at their heart an aversion to militarism.  After all, wars are seen as the tools of the oppressors; they are little more than the capitalists of one nation-state fighting the capitalists of an opposing nation-state over resources.  It is the poor and the oppressed who end up fighting and dying for the gains of the capitalist.  For all the claims of women’s more peaceful nature, feminists have tended to avoid involvement in peace movements.  In fact, they have often fought not against the glorification of war, but in favor of women’s greater involvement in war.  This exposes the greatest failing of liberal feminism:  its belief that the traditional ways of men are the better ways, and women should strive to equality in those ways.  I would argue that, in many cases, we need to fight to abolish the traditional ways of men, not join with them on equal footing.

It has become the habit of the liberal feminist to exalt the female soldier and to worry herself with the rights of women in the military.  She will concern herself with whether women are allowed to go to combat.  She will worry over whether women face sexual discrimination and harassment within the ranks.  She will praise the woman who shows valor at war.  She will exalt the women who justify American military and interventionist tendencies.  Women like Secretaries of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Madeline Albright will be held up as models of feminist achievement.  Ignored will be Clinton’s support of the invasion of Iraq, which has led to the deaths of over 114,000 Iraqi civilians.  Ignored will be Albright’s justification of the sanction-caused deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children as “worth it”.  How on earth could a feminist, a person who believes in the equality of human beings, care more about one’s career advancement than about the lives of living, breathing human beings?

Women and their children suffer inordinate amounts of abuse from war.  While men are always at risk of death, women are far more likely to suffer the additional assaults of rape during war time.  It has been used as a weapon of war probably for as long as war has existed.  In some cases, it has been the explicit policy of the war-makers.

The sexual abuse of women in war is nothing new. Rape has long been tolerated as one of the spoils of war, an inevitable feature of military conflict like pillage and looting. What is new about the situation in Bosnia is the attention it is receiving – and the recognition that it is being used as a deliberate military tactic to speed up the process of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

And, of course, the women suffer long after the rape and the war are over.  The Asian (mostly Korean) women forced or tricked into sexual slavery to service the Japanese military during the second world war still fight for justice.  Muslim women in the former Yugoslavia were forcibly impregnated by their rapists, and often cast out by their religious families. These horrors of war are as old as war itself, and ought to be enough to turn all feminists against war.

The involvement of women in war-making has done nothing to eliminate this.  In fact, it has made new victims.  The women soldiers become victims of their supposed comrades, as rape is rampant in the U.S. military.  Instead of protecting these female soldiers, officials label them “crazy” or even bring them up on charges of adultery, if the victims or their attackers happen to be married.  Other women engage in the sexual humiliation of male prisoners of war, as the horrific pictures of Abu Ghraib proved. The horrors of sexual abuse in war has not been abated, despite record numbers of women serving in the armed forces.

Women in the military have also done nothing to eliminate the other horrors of war.  There are still children killed.  There are still lives destroyed.  There are still enduring repercussions that come from the destruction done by war.  It’s not just the immediate effects of the bombing and the shooting.  The destruction of water and waste facilities can lead to untold deaths for years after the last shot is fired.  The effects of nuclear and biological weapons poison the environment for decades after their deployment.  Men, women, and children of all ages stay trapped in those poisonous environments.

Wars and military interventions can lead to unforeseen consequences that have even worse effects for women.  The women of Iran after the Islamic Revolution and the women of Afghanistan after the rise of the Taliban are testaments to that.  U.S. and British meddling in the affairs of other countries led directly to both situations.  And women paid the price.

Wars are not fought to protect our “freedom”.  None of the targets of U.S. invasions or proxy wars over the past 70 years have posed a threat to American freedom.  Korea?  Vietnam? Nicaragua? Grenada?  Panama?  Iraq?  Afghanistan?  Not one damned one of them.  What threats the U.S. has faced can inevitably be traced back to previous invasions and periods of meddling in the business of other countries.  This constant use of the military to enforce the interests of capitalists is what truly threatens the safety and freedom of Americans.  Feminists need to recognize that supporting war does not help women.  It does not help women in the military, it does not protect female civilians at home in the U.S., and it certainly does not help women in the countries that are invaded and bombed.  It’s time for feminists to take a stand against militarism and for peace.

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