Friday, September 19, 2014

The Women of War

Interesting article on a new book by Helen Thorpe that focuses on three women of the Indiana National Guard who deployed to Afghanistan. For me, reading this piece hammered home how little meaning what we call "traditional" family life has for many Americans of our time. Two of these women "gave up legal custody of their children to get around rules against training and deploying single parents." Not that they have written their children out of their lives; they were and remain mothers. But like characters from the Iliad, they find war compelling in a way that home life is not:
Though it would be easy to read “Soldier Girls” as antiwar, it does not present the kind of narrative in which everything points neatly in the same direction; Debbie sees her time in Afghanistan and Iraq as the highlight of her life, and Desma says that in certain ways, “life is easier in a combat zone; it’s simplified.”
Their sex lives are also anything but traditional:
One of the biggest surprises of the book, Thorpe says, “was the amount of sex and the number of relationships” the women had, though those stories only came out slowly, over time.
This reminded me of a military woman I worked with recently, who is married but lives a thousand miles from her husband and child and regularly disappears for weeks at a time for training or other assignments. I am enough of a conservative to wonder if this is really the best sort of system for raising children. And then there is the perennial question of what war does to the people who experience it:
Soldiers in their unit routinely opt not to visit home in mid-deployment, even when they can, because it’s so rough on them and their families when they have to leave again a few days later. The cost that Desma’s children paid for her service was awfully high even before she was wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. And “the hardest thing about a deployment is coming home,’’ she tells me, because “we’re definitely different people” at that point.
There are things about our world that worry me because they are genuinely new, and therefore have consequences we can hardly guess at. One of these is our determined effort to break down all barriers between men's and women's work, extending even to the trade of soldiering. (Internet-intensified global financial capitalism is another.) It puzzles me that contemporary American conservatives worry much more about things that strike me as side-issues, like gay marriage and Obamacare, than the really big changes taking place around us. The way the American working class is shedding the gender roles, marriage practices, sexual mores, and other assumptions of previous generations is a big deal, and we could use a lot more thoughtful discussion about where this is going and what we should do to help people, especially children, survive these changes.


G. Verloren said...

Strip away societal behavior conditioning and there is very little difference between the psychology of a male soldier and a female one. Yes, there are some brain chemistry differences related to hormones, but at a fundamental level, the horrors of combat and human brutality affect everyone the same way - regardless of physical sex.

That said, the things you seem to suggest as "genuinely new" are, in historical actuality, not new at all.

Women have been warriors throughout all of time. They have served in combat roles identical to their male counterparts in nearly every army of every nation in every era - despite being glossed over in historical representations of warfare. Historical accounts of warfare focus almost exclusively on the elite upper echelons of militaries - which have often been dominated by powerful men perpetuating societal patriarchies - but the bulk of historical armies have always been the peasants and the conscripts - of whom a great number have always been women, no more or less ignored by history than their male counterparts. There is absolutely nothing new about women soldiers.

As for matters of sexuality, gender roles, and marriage practices? These have seen such extreme variance from culture to culture throughout the ages as to make it absolutely certain that everything one might consider "new" about these topics in the modern age - with the sole exception of cheap, reliable, readily available contraception - is in fact quite ancient.

Homosexuality, for both the sexes, is not at all uncommon in the historical record. Despite millenia of arbitrary objections handed down by the emergant dominant religious cultures (chiefly the Abrahamic traditions, all drawing ultimately from the values of the Ancient Hebrews, but also the various permutations and influences of Buddhism to some extent), the practice has been active (if often taboo and kept quiet) since the dawn of civilization straight through to the modern day. Many powerful cultures didn't really give a damn about homosexuality - see the Ancient Greeks and Romans for the most readily available examples. And even those that did take issue with the pracice have long treated it as an open secret - literally pick a naval force for basic examples: the practice of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is in no way unique to the US, but stretches back beyond remembrance in every major naval power known to mankind.

And gender roles? They've never been unified across time and space. What is "masculine" in one culture is "feminine" in another. Our European-infuenced culture may view makeup and cosmetics as things for women, but there are various cultures, both extinct and extant, which reserve these practices exclusively for men. Our long descent from Abrahamic influences might have instilled in us a strong sense of patriarchy, but there are numerous examples of matriarchal and gender-equal cultures far back in the annals of time.

Long before our particular line of societal values ever began - before the descendants of Abraham arbitrarily decided to abhor certain acts and then pass down those values for the next several millenia to their ascestors, women were warriors and people slept with their own sex all across the globe, and somehow the world kept turning.

These are not new things. These are things as old as humanity itself. If anything, the strictures of our society against these behaviors are, in the long perspective, young and rebellious acts. If not for the bizarre chain of events that led to the beliefs of a small, war-like, xenophobic, patriarchal band of Bronze Age desert dwellers being continuously transmuted and transmitted across the world over the millenia, we would see these behaviors as natural and normal - just as we today instead see the rejection of them as natural and normal; as somehow eternal and omnipresent; as worthy of "conservation" and perpetuation.

John said...

There have always been some societies with a few female warriors. Those women seem to have adopted a male lifestyle; in particular, they did not have children. I believe it is rather radical for mothers to be warriors. And it is certainly radical for a society to have no clear distinctions between men's and women's work. It is certainly true that what is men's and women's work varies greatly; to take just one example, among most American Indian tribes farming was done by women. But I know of no traditional society that does not have clear boundaries between men's and women's work.

G. Verloren said...


I'm not talking about "a few" female warriors.

I'm talking about things like roughly half of Viking graves in England turning out to be of women - proven by scientific study of the physical remains, when the graves were initially automatically presumed to be of males "because they were buried with weapons".

I take issue with your supposition that warrior women have "adopted a male lifestyle". The fact that women, all throughout history, lived and served as warriors - overwhelmingly conscripts, yes, but rank and file soldiers nonetheless - by definition makes soldiering just as much a "female lifestyle" as a male one.

Your notion of warrior women not having children likewise strikes me as flawed. Soldiers, by dint of their very lifestyle, are not in a position to rear children. Consequently, if a soldier of either sex is a parent, they are forced to rely on others for the rearing of their children. Which sex they happen to be has absolutely nothing to do with it.

In our society, in the culture we are familiar with, we relegate childrearing to the women, freeing the men to go to war. But it is trivial to imagine a culture in which the opposite is the case - where childrearing is relegated to the men, therefor freeing women to act as soldiers, unfettered by the constraints of raising a child. Conversely, a culture might develop a completely different method of childrearing altogether - perhaps enacting a system of communal caretaking and education, similar to the notions Plato puts forth in The Republic.

The comparative prevalence of patriarchal systems throughout history is by no means evidence of their morality, nor of their intrinsic worth. If anything, it is evidence only of our lingering evolutionary and biological limitations. We're all essentially apes - so is it any wonder that our earliest cultural values matched pretty exactly the behaviors of male and female apes?

These behaviors, then, are perfectly understandable in terms of raw biology. If our species was not descended from a biological patriarchy, but instead from a more communal social structure with less behavioral dimorphism, our earliest cultures clearly would have developed to mirror that more communal structure.

But civilization is a step beyond mere biology. We need no longer be slaves to our evolutionary history. We possess language, and with it generational learning. We no longer rely on primal maternal instincts to preserve our species and pass down genetic knowledge. We possess agriculture, and with it a stable food supply. We no longer rely on the physiological suitedness to hunting of males to feed ourselves. We possess technology, and with it, a means to exceed our physical limitations. Our sexual dimorphism, inherited from our ape ancestors, is now irrelevant. Our biologically influenced patriarchal tendencies are, in a word, obsolete.

Anyone can raise a child. Anyone can grow crops. Anyone can be a soldier and go to war, or perform any other job for that matter. Our physical sex no longer matters in any meaningful way - with the single, solitary exception the physical act of reproduction.

There is no such thing as "men's work" and "women's work" - at least not intrinsically; inherently; objectively. What you call "men's work" is only men's work because you call it that. Anyone else in the entire world can come along and call something else entirely "men's work", and neither one of you is any more correct than the other. It is entirely, utterly, completely subjective and arbitrary.

G. Verloren said...

Furthermore, you know of no "traditional society" that does not have clear boundaries between men's an women's work? Of course you don't - that's a tautology. A society would necessarily have to follow the tradition of dividing behaviors by sex in order to qualify as a "traditional society". That's like saying you know of no water that isn't wet. Any society which lacks gendered behavior is, by defition, not a "traditional society".

And one final note - you're completely wrong about Native Americans / First Nations cultures.

Both American Indian men and women alike carried out farming, although this varied with location and culture. While some cultures such as the various Great Plains tribes saw chiefly women managing agriculture, other cultures were far different. Although the Apache had some degree of genderization of behavior, children of both sexes were instructed in the primary skills the tribe would need - women learned to use weapons and ride horses along with men, and men learned to cook and perform household tasks along with women. The Haudenosaunee had male chieftains, but these leaders were elected solely by the tribe's women, and the Great Law of Peace gives roughly equal powers to each sex. The Navajo had a distinct third gender, which is somewhat beyond the conceptual limitations of our language and culture. The Hopi and The Tanoans were matrilineal, and the majority of farmwork was carried out by men, and tasks such as weaving and crafting were carried out by both sexes. The Inuit originally had very little in the way of gender roles, only developing a patriarchal system after contact with Europeans. The Delaware were another matrilineal culture, and are particularly noteworthy for the records concerning them produced by early European settlers suffering from the culture shock of their non-patriarchal ways.

Patriarchy was actually something of the minority among indigenous American tribes, practiced chiefly by the various Sioux clans and their offshoots. Additionally, a number of Pacific Northwest tribes were patrilineal, but even among them these numbers many were bilineal - such as the Kwakwaka'wakw - or even matrilineal - such as the Haida.

John said...

You need to look at that study of Viking graves again; it concluded that half of Viking settlers in Britain, were women, not half of Viking warriors. Graves of female warriors are rare everywhere; outside the Scythian/Sarmatian sphere they are very rare.

John said...

I confess to knowing nothing about the Apache; among the eastern tribes that I do know something about, all farming was done by women. But if there were some tribes where men and women shared women, ok. But I would bet my house that they had other tasks where the division of labor was strict. If you're to argue that traditional societies don't count because of course traditional societies had strict social rules you are excluding almost all of humanity before 1800.

John said...

If there were female peasants in many past armies, but nobody bothered to write this down, how would we know? Except for the Amazon tales of the steppes peoples, all of the sources I know depict characters like Viking shieldmaidens or Mulan as rare exceptions, which is also what the archaeology shows.

G. Verloren said...

Regarding the female Viking graves - surely if you are buried with a weapon, that is an indication that you are a warrior? Given than many of these graves were previously presumed to be male warriors until osteological study determined the remains were female, why would the presumption of occupation suddenly change?

I did re-examine various articles on this topic, and upon further research I will concede that the ratio of 50% does seem to be poorly supported by the evidence. But what is -not- poorly supported is the fact that substantial numbers of warrior graves were in fact of women - even if the ratio ends up being much closer to 1 in 4, rather than to 1 in 2.

That said, how do we know about female warriors if they weren't written about? Well things like archaelogical studies of grave certainly help. So do things like oral traditions and folklore, which are rife with such figures. But so, too, does the fact that female warriors -were- written about. Many crop up in non-European cultures, and certainly their total numbers are not nearly as great as the total numbers of male soldiers - but warrior women are a regularly recorded fact of human civilization, even if they were not as numerous as their male counterparts.

So when you remark about the "newness" of warrior women, I still must insist that there is nothing new about it. We know that women have been fighting since the dawn of time - albeit in lesser numbers, but fighting nonetheless.

We also know that what is deemed "men's work" or "women's work" is completely arbitrary - meaning trepidation or concern over women becoming warriors is inherently irrational. Even if it were a new development - which it is not - there is no logical basis to suggest such a development would have any negative impact not already connected to warfare. War is a nasty, brutal business, but if women want to take part in it, why shouldn't they? Because someone has to look after the children? Because someone has to grow the crops? Because women are marginally less physiologically imposing?

Our history need not continue to be shaped by obsolete evolutionary limitations. If we wish to think ourselves rational beings, we must act and think rationally - and there is essentially no rational basis for delegating warfare purely to one physical sex or the other.