Thursday 20 February 2003

Ladies, lock & load

Disgusted that the Peloponnesian War has dragged on for years with no end in sight, Lysistrata convinced the women of Athens to go on a sex strike to force their husbands to make peace with Sparta. Echoing the theme of Aristophane’s play, Tara Sue Grubb wrote:

Peace on earth is possible. Ladies, We must stop raising assholes, or at least stop having sex with them.

A sufficiently provocative soundbite to warrant a link in Scripting News—though, given that Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata in 411 BC, not a startlingly original idea. The core of Tara Sue Grubb’s post is devoted to a conviction that probably predates the Peloponnesian War and which remains one of the most strongly held and deeply cherished beliefs of the women’s movement: that a world dominated by women would be more peaceful than the world we live in—dominated as it is by men.

My friend Ross and I have a lot in common. We both come from military families—his cousin and uncle serve and my brothers are soldiers. We were both raised by our father. And we share many ideas in business and politics. But there is plenty of room to disagree. Today we argued about war. I spoke with his wife and said, “If we replaced every man in power with a woman, there would be less war.” I don’t care for any speculation on the matter. We’ve never experienced mass matriarchy on this planet. There is no room for discussion—only proof. We will make peace in this world only after peace has been brought to our home. There are too many females pushing the testosterone bandwagon. I read an article today by a “chick” who thinks war is the “grown-up” thing to do. She went so far as too chide the protestors as though they are just simple minded youngsters, left-overs from the sixities who are just not “grown up” enough to make a choice for peace, but those who are grown up should know to support the war. Well, sister, even morons grow up.

Ross says I have this dreamy idea of peace on earth. “It’s not going to happen Tara!” I don’t believe him. I know how to turn the cheek and swing a punch. As long as this world is dominated by men and the women who want to have what they have, we will remain in a state of advanced destruction and decay while an entire portion of the human species denies its own duty.

Tara Sue Grubb’s assertion that there would be fewer wars under a matriarchal system is borne out by John Keegan’s argument in A History of Warfare:

Half of human nature—the female half—is in any case highly ambivalent about warmaking. Women may be both the cause or pretext of warmaking—wife-stealing is a principal source of conflict in primitive societies—and can be the instigators of violence in an extreme form: Lady Macbeth is a type who strikes a universal chord of recognition; they can also be remarkably hard-hearted mothers of warriors, some apparently preferring the pain of bereavement to the shame of accepting the homeward return of a coward. Women can, moreover, make positively messianic war leaders, evoking through the interaction of the complex chemistry of femininity with masculine responses a degree of loyalty and self-sacrifice from their male followers which a man might well fail to call forth. Warfare is, nevertheless, the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart. Women look to men to protect them from danger, and bitterly reproach them when they fail as defenders. Women have followed the drum, nursed the wounded, tended the fields and herded the flocks when the man of the family has followed his leader, have even dug the trenches for men to defend and laboured in the workshops to send them their weapons. Women, however, do not fight. They rarely fight among themselves and they never, in any military sense, fight men. If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.

And yet, other ideas that Keegan expresses equally forcefully, suggest that advances in weapons technology may be reducing women’s aversion to taking part in war.

It’s important to understand that Keegan’s book is a cultural history of war, based on his belief that “war is always an expression of culture, often a determinant of cultural forms, in some societies the culture itself.” Accordingly, he relies on psychology, metallurgy, genetics, logistics, archeology, politics and many other disciplines to illuminate his subject: the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of the weapons, strategy, and tactics used by warriors—from prehistory to the present day.

Keegan’s discussion of how man the hunter was transformed into man the warrior hinges on two crucial weapons: the bow and the horse. Describing primitive man’s relationship with the animal world, he stresses that “man the hunter was brave and skilful”, quoting the prehistorians Breuil and Lautier to suggest that there was

[no] great abyss separating [him] from the animal. The bonds between them were not yet broken, and man still felt near the beasts that lived around him, that killed and fed like him … From them he still retained all the faculties that civilisation has blunted—rapid action and highly trained senses of sight, hearing and smell, physical toughness in an extreme degree, a detailed, precise knowledge of the qualities and habits of game, and great skill in using with the greatest effect the rudimentary weapons available.

Keegan then drily adds that

these, of course, are the qualities of the warrior across the ages, which modern military training-schools of Special Forces seek to re-implant in their pupils at the cost of much time and money.

Man’s relationship with other animals changed with the introduction of the bow, which he characterizes as “the first machine”

…since it employed moving parts and translated muscular into mechanical energy. How the men of the New Stone Age hit upon it we cannot guess, though it spread very rapidly once invented; why they did so has most probably to do with the progressive retreat of the last ice-sheets. The warming of the temperate zones completely changed the movement and migration patterns of the hunters’ prey, abolishing the old pelagic areas where game was predictably found, and, by liberating animals to roam and feed further and more widely, forced the hunter and the hunting-party to find a means of bringing down a more fleeting target over longer ranges.

The simple bow, as the original is called, is a piece of homogeneous wood, typically a length of sapling, and it lacks the opposed properties of elasticity and compression that gave the later composite and long bows, made of both sapwood and heartwood, their greater carrying and penetrative power. Even in its simple form, however, the bow transformed the relationship of man with the animal world. He no longer had to close to arm’s length to dispatch his prey, pitting at the last moment flesh against flesh, life against life. Henceforth he could kill at a distance. In that departure ethologists like Lorenz and Ardrey perceive the opening of a new moral dimension in man’s relations with the rest of creation but also with his own kind. Was man the archer also man the first warrior?

Later in the book, Keegan extends this idea in his discussion of the impact of the horse—first employed in war by the nomadic people who inhabited the steppe—and the composite bow, a far more sophisticated weapon than either the simple bow used by prehistoric hunters or the long bow employed by European archers. The composite bow shot a lighter arrow than the long bow “but could still carry to 300 yards with great accuracy… and penetrate armor at a hundred yards.”

A mounted warrior, equipped with the composite bow, transformed the practice of warfare, which had been up until then fought mainly at close quarters by soldiers equipped with swords, shields, and other relatively primitive weapons.

The horse-riding peoples, like the charioteers before them, brought to warmaking the electric concept of campaigning over long distances and, when campaigning resolved itself into battle, of manoeuvering on the battlefield at speed—at least five times the speed of men on foot. As protectors of their flocks and herds against predators, they also preserved the spirit of the hunter, lost to agriculturalists except of the lordly class; in their management of animals they showed a matter-of-factness—in mustering, droving, culling, slaughter for food—that taught direct lessons about how masses of people on foot, even inferior cavalrymen, could be harried, outflanked, cornered and eventually killed without risk. These were practices that primitive hunters, with their empathetic relationship with their quarry and mystic respect for the stricken prey, would have found intrinsically alien. To the horse peoples, equipped with their principal weapon, the composite bow, itself a product of the animal tissues which supported their way of life, killing at a distance—of emotional detachment as well as physical space—was second nature.

I have no idea what Tara Sue Grubb might think of women in the military—whether she sees female soldiers as part of that group of women she criticizes for wanting “to have what [men] have.” Yet, given that one of the key goals of feminism has been to dismantle the political and cultural barriers to women’s participation in every field of human activity, it’s inevitable that women—or, at least, some women—would wish to participate in John Keegan’s “entirely masculine activity”: combat.

When we consider the major psychological transformations precipitated by weapons and tactics that allowed man to kill at a distance in an emotionally detached manner, it is hardly coincidental that women are integrated into combat units in the US Navy and Air Force—where they would not be expected to engage directly with an enemy—but are excluded from combat in the US Army where the chance of face-to-face contact is significantly higher.

Thus, in 1998, during Operation Desert Storm, Navy Lt. Kendra Williams became the first female fighter pilot to deliver a payload of missiles and laser-guided bombs while flying an F/A-18 mission over Iraq while First Lt. Cheryl Lamoureux was the first woman to fly a combat mission for the US Air Force when she was a crew member on a B-52 that fired Cruise missiles at Iraqi targets.

US Army units, on the other hand, are classified as either “P-2” (open to women) or “P-1” (closed to women). In May last year, the Pentagon removed eight female soldiers from ground reconnaissance units that are part of the Army’s fast-deploying combat brigades by reclassifying those units as P-1. The ruling was supposedly made to comply with a 1994 Defense Department policy that prohibits women from serving in units that perform direct ground combat roles but, as the Washington Post story makes clear, this was a political/cultural decision made by the Bush administration since Clinton political employees “did not view the newly created squadrons as direct combat units when the brigades were created in 1999 and developed in 2000.”

However, now that the barrier to women participating in air force and navy combat units has been removed, it seems only a matter of time—as in the period required for a further cultural shift to occur, or for the government to change, or both—before American women will be deployed in US Army combat units. Though I wonder whether Tara Sue Grubb would agree that their skills might eventually be useful in enforcing matriarchal rule.

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This "woman as nurturing mother figure" is absolute bullshit.

The primary reason women have been adverse to warfare in the past is because women have usually been left at home, unprotected, while the men went off with all the weapons, leaving them vulnerable.

Tara Sue needs to consider a little history lesson about women and fighting. Most of the early Celtic war leaders were women. Women were gladiators in Rome. Most of the native american tribes in this country were matriarchial and they did fight wars. Women have dressed as men to fight as soldiers, or have picked up the guns of fallen soldiers and taken their place -- without training I might add.

There isn't a 'war gene' that's sex related. The only reason women aren't allowed in fighting infantry is the stupid old men in this country who don't want to face the political backlash of the first women killed in actual hand to hand combat. Horrors! A potential mother killed!

And because of this, women also lose out on advancements, many of which are dependent on being in a combat unit.

If women have one thing that men don't have it's more of a willingness to see and acknowledge our mistakes, and our aggressiveness is usually vocal rather than physical. And these are more from cultural upbringing than sex-related genetics. Perhaps because of these characteristics, there _might_ be less war.

Here we go again, another round of making women into these delicate flowers of sensitivity and feminity, fragile, manipulative little blossoms whose sensibilities are too refined to do something such as 'fight in a war'. Horrors!

Girlism redux.

Posted by Burningbird on 20 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Gotta say, I'm with Bb on this one.

When I was maybe nine, I verbally provoked a male buddy into physically attacking me.

I then decked him. Bloodied his nose. And he was physically bigger than I was.

Still female, last I checked. (Checking again... yep, still female.)

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 21 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Keegan is ignoring the female warrior (Tomoe, Hangaku, just to name two from the late 12th early 13th centuries in Japan). How to treat that? Exceptional? The spread of the idea as titillation factor (e.g. amazons, the stories of Northern US women disguising themselves as boys to fight in the American Civil War)?

In terms of numbers, he's fair to do so: there are a million crusaders for every Joan of Arc (and Hangaku might be said to be a defensive fighter: depends on how you read the material, I think; defensive fighting for women could be ideologically different from offensive fighting, for one's more an issue of survival); and, true, he does gloss Joan of Arc in his statement. I don't think you can put Tomoe in that category, however. I'd say the theory needs to address these and some others (which I forget offhand), even to say that they're not the norm.

As female, I certainly don't think that the gender is gentler or kinder. Prone to different sorts of aggression usually, sure.

Posted by Kristina on 21 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Also, quite simply, women are less expendable than men. It may not matter so much now, as there are large numbers of both men and women, but during earlier stages of human development, women were a resource as they were able to repopulate the tribe, even if a large number (but not all) of the men in the tribe were killed, through impregnation by the remaining members. This need to protect women has been handed down as a cultural bias (with the notable exceptions mentioned in the previous comments), even if it's not strictly a survival requirement these days.

Personally, I think a matriarchal society would be just as violent as ours so long as there is the same competition for limited resources we have today. Men do not hold a monopoly on greed and desire on the mass level.

Posted by John on 21 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The idea that the world would be more peaceful if women were "in charge" is completely absurd. Women may not generally fight in the same way as men do, but they have their own ways of manipulating and bullying people.

An interesting take on the achievement of world peace is Sheri S. Tepper's "The Gate to Women's Country," which describes a post-apocalyptic, matriarchal society gradually breeding out war.

Posted by Laurabelle on 21 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

excuse me,
1.Margaret Thatcher
2.Mahatma Ghandi
generalisations suck

L x

Posted by Linda on 22 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Linda, while Margaret Thatcher appears to embody "the messianic female war leader," it's interesting that she doesn't rate a mention in Keegan's book (first published in 1993). Nor does Mahatma Gandhi, though that is rather less surprising.

Posted by Jonathon on 23 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

As a somewhat topical aside, there will be coordinated worldwide readings of Lysistrata on Monday, March 3rd.

No matter how you do your dates, that'll be 03/03/03. Cool.

Posted by RKB on 24 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I would have sided with Messrs. Keegan and Delacour until recently. But, as I've watch my daughter negotiate the vicious shoals of her ninth, tenth and eleventh years surrounded by perfectly nasty other little girls, I have to say that I'm glad fighting is confined to men. Sure, it's anectodal, but the sublimated aggression of gossip and bitchiness reveals -- aggression. And when I've asked older women about their experiences growing up, they universally shudder at the cruelty of the girls they endured. I'm glad I just got a few black eyes and not the subtle mindfucks dealt out by budding harridans.
And, to further buck stereotypes, the most ferocious warrior cultures were homosexual, were they not? Samurai, Junker, the Spartans, not to mention Alexander the Great, and, of course, Julius Ceasar who "was a woman to every man and a man to every woman"?

Posted by Tim Roessler on 26 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour