Thoughts on “Wielding Masculinity in Abu Ghraib”

April 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

I remember when Abu Ghraib happened, thinking “That’s just typical.”  I wasn’t even surprised by it, really.  I expected that, with our military already in the middle of an unjust and unpopular war fought in ignorance against an enemy we couldn’t even pinpoint, much less understand, a logical next step would be to abuse the prisoners we did manage to capture.  I was angry and ashamed, definitely, but not surprised.  I do remember being somewhat surprised that women were participating in the torture, though.  When Cynthia Enloe was talking about the media circus that erupted around the presence of female guards in the videos, I was no less susceptible to that furor than anyone else.  It never occurred to me to question why it was that I held such a double standard, where male soldiers forcing POWs to perform humiliating sexual acts were not surprising but female soldiers committing the same act were.

Enloe explores the questions that were not asked by the media, investigators and public.  She asks why the masculinization of the US military, and the specific type of masculinity it promoted, and the corresponding femininities it rejected, were not explored.  Even as I was reading her arguments, though, I was not emotionally or intellectually touched in the same way I have been while reading other articles in this book.  I felt like I already knew the answer.  Throughout the course of human civilization, men have predominantly been the ones to engage in war.  There have been exceptions, but the bulk of the warriors have been men.  So of course the war-making and fighting social structures are going to embody masculinity.  Perhaps it never occurred to investigators to examine masculinity in the military because they figured it was a given. Enloe says the question that should have been asked is: Has this organization become masculinized in ways that privilege certain forms of masculinity, feminize its opposition and trivialize most forms of femininity?  I would argue that if we wanted to explore the masculinization of the military, we would have to go back much farther in history than a few decades, or even a few centuries.  The question makes it sound as if the concept of the military was not originally masculinized, but became that way over time.

I definitely think it would be helpful to explore the specific brand of masculinity embodied and promoted by the American military, as well as the perceptions of femininity it promotes, and the way it accepts or rejects specific gendered behaviors.  But in the context of the Abu Ghraib abuses and the other instances of excessive military violence, I don’t think it is practical or advisable to feign surprise that masculinity is a deeply-entrenched aspect of military culture and practice, and to try and attack the military masculine hegemony in its entirety.  In my opinion, it would make people take the feminist agenda less seriously, view it as less of a positive, practical discipline and more idealistic and radicalized.  If Enloe is disappointed that certain parts of feminist critiquing tools have been adopted while the overall approach has not, perhaps it is because feminism has not made itself accessible to mainstream culture, attacking the foundations of social structures rather than working within the existing framework to gradually change it.  Most people aren’t revolutionaries and aren’t going to readily adopt a disciplinary lens which, in their minds, threatens societal equilibrium.  I guess what I’m trying to say is, you catch more flies with honey than by threatening to take a sledgehammer to the established social order.

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