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What Would a Post-Masculinist Military Look Like?


On the road home from South Carolina I posted notice of Laura Sjoberg’s critique of militarized masculinity in her analysis of DADT-repeal discourse. Now that I’m settled in, I’ve realized it’s the comments thread on that post where the real action is and I feel compelled to throw in my two cents.

Laura’s key argument:

That the military now includes gay people and (kind of) women openly does not mean that it is some how gender-equal or gender neutral. Instead, masculinity remains the standard of good soldiering in the United States military. Celebrating the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell the way it has been celebrated, I think, may obscure that point. It also obscures a long tradition in Western political systems of defining full citizenship by military participation/bravery.

Some important questions asked by commenters:


So I wonder what a non-masculinist military would actually look like. Starfleet? Probably not. Do we have any models?… while I can easily think my way from a feminist analysis of the masculinized military to a call to replace the military and end the war system, I can’t quite think my way from that critique to an alternative military.

Dan Nexon:

I’m interested in your critical imagining of what a de-masculinized way of killing people would entail, and why that would be preferable to the kind of de-gendering of biological sex implied by allowing non-heterosexual men into the role of “masculine solider.”


I am quite interested in an answer to Dan’s question. I think the really fundamental point in this comment thread is whether killing can be ‘de-masculinized’. Given the problems I, PTJ, Dan and others are having imagining what on earth this would look like, it would be really helpful to have some suggestions, even if this means that you have to zoom out a little. What would a de-gendered war system look like?

Grigory Lukin:

Can you post a specific description of what a non-masculine and/or gender-free military would actually look like, how it would be different from what we have now, and how/why it would be more effective – in less than 100 words? Don’t refer to feminist IR or deconstruct history through feminist/progressive/whichever perspective – just answer the question.


I don’t entirely (yet) know the answer to your question, except to start with that it is the wrong question. Critique/deconstruction/ rethinking/reconstruction can’t start with a small portion of the war system, but the whole thing… it is not just militaries, but militarism (and by extension militaristic culture) that would need to radically change operations in order to see any real “change” in the gendering of strategic cultures….There is no simple answer.”

Hmm. Let me humbly offer one: it’s really about civil-military relations, not military culture or raison d’etre per se. A post-masculinized military, as I imagine it, would differ from the system she’s critiquing not in its ability to use violence (in other words, I don’t share Laura’s view, finally, that it would look like a ‘cross between the peace corps and a chain gang.’) And it would not merely be constituted by who is in the military or what kind of masculinity the military privileges in its soldiers (though these things matter). More significantly, one would know a post-masculinized military system by the character of the military’s relationship to the civilian world it serves. And I would argue with Sjoberg that there is further (beneficial) work to do, but also that we are heading in the right direction faster that she might acknowledge.

What exactly does that world look like?

Well, it is a world in which women and men both have the equal right to serve.

And it is a world in which hetero-normativity is not a requirement for the sort of archetype we valorize in soldiers. Women’s integration and the repeal of DADT therefore do take us in that direction.

And it is also a world in which “normal masculinity” is delinked from the attributes we associate with hyper-masculine military culture. This is happening in many places already: men’s groups, rap lyrics, third grade classrooms like my son’s, where students are taught to include everyone, to use I-statements when they have hurt feelings, bond without smack-talk, to value other cultures and the earth, and to see “bad” not in the guy but in the behavior. These things are also happening in the military.

And it is also a world in which militarism is de-linked from its historical raison d’etre “killing bad guys to protect innocent women and children on the home front.” But there are many ways to do that delinking short of letting “‘guys’ who do bad” run rampant, and these things are also happening already. Since at least the early 1990s, the US military has been intimately involved in a variety of humanitarian and stability operations worldwide, where the vulnerable being protected are “theirs” not “ours”; where the enemy are not “bad guys” so much as disease, starvation or natural disaster; where the goal is not to kill but to “peace-keep”; where the tactics involve very “feminine” traits such as listening, intercultural dialogue, and the provision of comfort; and where the “good” and “bad” “guys” (when there is killing to be done) may just as easily be children or women. All of this, for better or for worse, is already destabilizing the conventional gendered war narrative that IR feminists use as a foil.

But “de-masculinizing the military” it’s also about at least three other things that are happening, if at all, much more slowly: a) balancing the esteem we pay to military service with the esteem we pay to traditionally feminized roles such as child-rearing b) making the same effort to gender-integrate traditionally feminized roles as we do to gender-integrate traditionally masculinized roles c) changing the relationship between the military and civilian sectors in security operations to be more collaborative and less hierarchical.

Let me expound a little on each, for they constitute answers to the question about how to translate feminist insights into policy.

1) In a De-Masculinized War System, Child and Elder-Care Would Be Understood as Important a National Service as “Fighting Bad Guys.”
A concrete way to de-link militarism from ‘national service’ in this way would be to provide a package similar to veterans’ benefits for parents who have taken time out from the paid labor force to rear children. Ann Crittenden laid out this entire agenda in her excellent book The Price of Motherhood. She also pointed out that the military already had the best child-care system in the United States ten years ago – for those who serve the military. What if non-military families were entitled to the same benefits? What if we privileged, remunerated and valorized the care and feeding of functional future citizens in the same way that we valorize soldiering? What if the US military functioned in such a way as to actually enable its personnel to effectively balance warrioring and family life?

2) In a De-Masculinized Military System, Policy-Makers Would Gender-Integrate Feminine/Civilian Roles as Aggressively as They Gender-Integrate Masculine/Military Ones.
A way to delink militarism from hetero-normative masculinity is by delinking its binary opposite (‘child-rearing’) from hetero-normative femininity. You do this by making the benefits and obligations of rearing children or caring for elders gender neutral as well. Those parenting benefits? They need to apply to fathers as well as mothers and, if the Sweden experienceis any indication, men need to be required to actually take them if they father children. We can work to change the perception that men who seek positions as nurses or childcare workers or kindergarten teachers must be less than manly. We need to raise our sons to think of “real man-hood” in terms of fathering as well as soldiering or fighting fires, and we need to make sure they have the skills to succeed at these tasks, which is the only way their sisters will be fully free to participate on equal footing in national or military service. And now that gays have the right to serve openly in the military, perhaps we can move on to acknowledging they are fit to raise children as well.

3) A De-Masculinized Military System Would Emphasize Collaborative Relations Between the Military and the Civilian Sectors, Rather than Protecter/Protectee Relations. This too is already happening, but not necessarily in ways to destabilize militarized masculinity. What we see happening, as Colonel Matthew Moten has aptly described, are armed “civilian” contractors displacing uniformed troops in stability operations, exhibiting a renegade form of warrior masculinity delinked from the just war ethic of those socialized into military culture; and military personnel encroaching upon civilian political authority. What we need to see: increasing engagement by weapons-bearers with “civil society” groups, particularly women’s groups, who often have not only the contextual knowledge to detect threats and mobilize social capital but are frequently overlooked in stability ops because they are not perceived to have the expertise necessary to work with the military. (In fact, people in care-giving roles, historically mothers, have precisely what the military is realizing it needs most: socio-cultural intelligence. Cynthia Cockburn has great examples of this in her chapter on reconstruction in Bosnia in this book. Also see this.)

In short, at least in theory, it is in the equalizing of responsibility for “security” between weapons-bearing and non-weapons-bearing sectors, between protector and protected, that policymakers can begin to de-gender that militarized narrative and make militaries work better for human beings rather than primarily for the state.

[cross-posted at Duck of Minerva]

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  • Laura’s post was fail because it confused a lot of things for masculinity. This post may have made the same mistake by not providing a better defintion of masculinity, or deconstructing Laura’s definition. Without that first effort, it is unclear why a De-Masculinized Military System is preferred over the existing system when the original usage of the word masculinity has been so terribly abused.

    I’ll give an example of Laura’s fail. She quotes Army Infantry and Ground Marines who are admiring remarkable deeds of strength, endurance, and combat effectiveness as part of a definition of masculinity. That is counterproductive, because it ignores why feats of strength, endurance, and combat effectiveness are important attributes of being Army Infantry or Ground Marines.

    Army Infantry and Marine ground forces have been straight male formations forever – why wouldn’t they represent masculinity in celebrating the attributes that are most demanded in that occupation?

    The point here is this: Long after women and gays and whoever are integrated into Infantry, the qualities that will always be respected the most by the Infantry community will still be those of strength, endurance, and combat effectiveness – and unless a definition of masculinity deconstructs itself from those physical attributes that are requirements for certain military jobs – masculinity will always be the prevailing perception no matter how many women or gays or whatever fills the ranks of that community.

  • rea

    Allowing gays to serve openly in no way “demasculinizes” the military. The notion that we gay males aren’t masculine is an offensive stereotype. You might as well talk about how the military would cope with the inevitable logistical watermelon crisis caused by letting blacks serve.

    • But I think that’s precisely the point: it is an offensive stereotype that becomes unsustainable in the face of openly gay men serving in combat roles.

      • DocAmazing

        It’s a stereotype for anybody that’s never heard of Tom of Finland, maybe. Some of the most hyper-masculine types in history have been gay. Sparta and Thebes weren’t exactly flouncy places.

        • rea

          Amusing to think of these people telling Richard Coeur du Lion, or Alexander of Macedon, that their presence in the military was demasculinizing. The fact of the matter, however, is that most gays are just ordinary people.

          • Yes, but despite all if this anti-gay insults remain synonyms for insufficiently masculine. And a significant number of people would accuse you of maligning various historical figures. So I’ll still advocate DADT repeal as not just a victory for rights and equality, but as a long-term blow against pernicious stereotypes.

    • My argument is not (nor, I think is Laura’s) that openly gay men aren’t or cannot be masculine – there are many masculinities, and openly gay men can and do exhibit every possible version of masculinity.

      Our argument is about what it would mean in practice to de-link culturally hegemonic definitions of masculinity from traits we associate with warrioring. This is about shifting our understandings of those traits (like strength, endurance and combat effectiveness) to draw on feminine archetypes as well (women also exhibit these very traits in very feminine roles). And it would also mean shifting the standard of masculinity we value politically and economically to include traits besides those that befit warriors.

      None of this changes the fact that warrioring will always require strength, endurance and combat effectiveness – though arguably just warrioring also requires empathy, compassion, ability to see past us/them dichotomies, and willingness to sacrifice oneself to protect the vulnerable (an archetypical feminine role). I have argued that the best military values are actually already based on a combination of archetypical masculinity and femininity.

      More broadly, I am arguing is that warriors can retain the same characteristics necessary for combat while society moves beyond the idea that these characteristics are associated with one particular kind of manliness rather than other kinds or womanliness, and beyond the idea that true manliness is associated with those warrior characteristics rather than others.

      • Michael Drew

        It is not going to happen.

        • You may well be right. This entire thread is based on answering a question about what a counter-factual world would look like. It doesn’t say anything about precisely how you’d get there politically. Not sure I agree it’s impossible, but that’s a discussion for a different day.

      • Gabe

        Soldiers are trained to become machines. To shoot first, ask questions later. This is how any military is structured in order to be as effective as possible.

        Questions of morality, empathy, etc are left up to those higher in command, and those in high positions of political power who choose wage war in the first place.

        The military is a tool, and for it to be as effective as possible a certain type of cultural and social order has been created. us/them dichotomies are precisely what allows soldiers to look at an enemy in the eyes and pull the trigger. Imagine if during WW2 American soldiers were so grief stricken at the plight around them that they were unable to fight off Hitler’s advance. Brutishness is a cherished quality in the military.

        If you want to do away with us/them dichotomies then you should do away with the military.

        • Decius

          If you want to make wrong generalizations about the (US) military, you are welcome to do so. But that doesn’t mean you can use them to say anything.

          The most effective soldiers need to know who and why to shoot. They need to understand what to do in every situation that they come across, and they need to be able to give useful orders as well. A corporal in the field has the legal authority to override any orders given by anyone not present, and the PFC next to him has the legal responsibility to determine if those orders are lawful, and to obey or disobey them accordingly.

          That means that soldiers need to ask the questions long before there is anyone to shoot.

          In WWII, it was easy: Shoot anyone wearing a German military uniform, and go towards Berlin. The command structure made broad decisions on where to attack, with what troops, but did not authorize individual shots. A soldier encountering an enemy was expected to react and kill, capture, or evade the enemy as appropriate.

          In Vietnam, it was more complicated: The enemy did not always wear uniforms. The soldiers still needed to make decisions on whether to kill, capture, or evade the enemy.

          Why is it any different in Iraq, or Afghanistan? As more information becomes available, more people are required to process it. No one person can possibly have all the information; the soldier on the ground has the latest information from the ground, and needs to act on it in an intelligent manner.

  • rea

    Our argument is about what it would mean in practice to de-link culturally hegemonic definitions of masculinity from traits we associate with warrioring.

    But I don’t see why allowing gays to serve openly in the military is the occasion for such a discusssion, nor do I understand why you feel constrained to tell me in this context that, “there are many masculinities, and openly gay men can and do exhibit every possible version of masculinity.” Sure we do, and so do all other males.

    Allowing gays to serve openly in the military will not change one damn thing about the military, other than that gays are allowed to serve openly. That’s the whole point.

  • JRoth

    Kim duToit was right: what Rob is proposing is nothing less than the Pussification of the American military.

    third grade classrooms like my son’s, where students are taught to include everyone, to use I-statements when they have hurt feelings, bond without smack-talk, to value other cultures and the earth, and to see “bad” not in the guy but in the behavior.

    I think we know the next target of the culture warriors: “Our third grades are being rendered ineffective by the use of I-statements!”

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  • I would add something that’s Charli sort of touches on, which is that in a de-masculinized military, prestige and career advancement for high-level officers would depend less on warfighting experience and more on managerial/experience. To an extent, the Iraq War has already improved career opportunities for officers in MP-type functions, because they did such a huge share of stability operations. But we’re obviously not there quite yet.

    • JRoth

      My understanding is that Petraeus has never been involved in a single firefight, which suggests that warfighting was already no more than one of a suite of qualifiers for advancement in the officer ranks.

  • anthony

    Feminizing the military would ultimatley create a detrimental affect when our soldiers risk their lives battling an enemy. I can’t think of any group (feminism) more oblivious to what it takes to become a soldier. It seems feminism is more about PC and less about military deaths. Shame on you! This might come as a shock, but they’re areas of society which still benefit from traditional masculinity. I wonder, is your obsession with social engineering more important than service men coming home with missing limbs?

    • wiley

      As a woman veteran I find your statement ridiculous. The biggest problem the infantry has is being composed primarily of people who aren’t intelligent enough to do much else in the military—people stupid enough to carry on and on about how manly they are yet how vulnerable they are to men they consider to be pansies. Pick one.

      When those brave, manly men call for an air strike; the soldiers who respond need to be quick, accurate, and clear in order to respond effectively—chest beating and muscle flexing is contraindicated.

      • Actually, I am starting to realize that some of the language we’re using in this thread – and that I used in my post – may be confusing the arguments being made here. The term “de-masculinizing” doesn’t actually mean “feminizing” (it means to me at least ‘un-gendering’ – that is, disassociating necessary soldiering traits such as strength and valor from notions of heteronormativity and manliness). However the terms are so loaded that I think they’re drawing the discussion into a different direction than I intended in my post.

        It makes me realize that we have an extraordinarily impoverished vocabulary in our language with which to discuss gender.

  • Starbuck?

    I’m sort of wondering if the military was not at one time a “white guy thing” before integration made it a “guy thing” or no? A warrior culture doesn’t necessarily need be any one thing or does it?

    I realize the possibility that Sgt Hester and Sgt Brown could be outliers and that women in ground combat might be a different thing than women in combat aviation but it also seems from what I’ve read that 21st century warfare (or at least COIN) means more women in combat. Women choosing to enlist or accept a commission would presumably be aware that this is the case. At least I assume as much.

    P.S. If Admiral Helena Cain told me to jump, my only question would be: “Where to?”

  • X

    Seriously? The act of killing and existing in combat in general requires the ‘enemy’ be dehumanized, requires the suspension of deep thinking in favor of instinct and ingrained/trained reaction.
    Perhaps I am shortsighted and narrow minded, but I am very slightly familiar with combat and spent a few years in a light infantry unit. Strength, endurance, the will to kill and the stubborness not to die, the belief that you are in fact better than ‘those other people’ seem key to winning in combat. Technology doesn’t change the fact of life for a Soldier or Marine shooter.
    The kind of changes you are talking about here seem broad, cultural and social changes that have nothing to do with the purpose of a military, which is to break things, blow stuff up and kill people in order to impose our national will on other states and organizations. If we don’t need or want that ability then do away with a professional military altogether, and return to some form of conscription and mandatory national service of the form you have described for every adult, say aged 18-21.
    I think such a force would not be able to do Afghanistan, which would be bad, but nor would it have been able to do Iraq, which would have been good.
    It is the civillian government’s role and responsibility to handle the garnering of ‘hearts and minds’, and if we would have done that wisely in Iraq and Afghanistan six years ago maybe we could have done well there, instead of squandering so much blood, treasure and world opinion for no gain at all.

    • Gabe

      well said!

  • Fitch

    It’d mean a lot more dinners together at a nice picnic table with olive casserole and Aunt Melba’s baked Alaska. Mmm, mm, sign me up!


    Very interesting analysis here by everyone. The OP makes a couple of mistakes in his analysis, though I’ll focus on just one: Thinking that military culture will change because of the inclusion of gays. This is no more likely to happen now than it was when blacks and then women were integrated. The military ethos is deeply inculcated through training, experience, and peer pressure. The posters above who mentioned Sparta & Alexander the Great are precisely on point; homosexuality was even thought to PROMOTE hyper masculinity. Look around at other countries that allow homosexual military service and nowhere do you see any sort of a sensitive, “feminine” military. (And calling peacekeeping operations “feminine” ignores the history since peacekeeping has been a part of UN operations well before the rise of even 2nd Wave feminism).

    All that will happen is that slowly–very slowly–homosexuality will lose its “girlie man” perception as homosexuals demonstrate that homosexuality is completely compatible with valor and strength. And, honestly, as long as your life depends on the wellbeing of your fellow soldiers I have no idea how most front line military people rise above “Us vs Them” thinking.

    So bottom lining it, the military will remain a hyper-masculine environment. At best, what MAY happen is that VERY slowly masculinity & sexuality will be disentangled. Homosexuals will one day be seen both as gay and as masculine. So while the repeal of DADT is undoubtedly good for homosexual military people, its not a win for the broader feminist goals OP wants.

  • Seamus

    Honestly, I hope that if this vision ever comes to reality our entire country invaded and brutally raped by a barbarian horde. As the hyper-masculine conquerers put on their 50-grit condoms, perhaps you will reconsider your position. Which would probably be doggy style without a healthy dose of masculinity in the military.

    Weakness invites the wicked, and with a military like the one you lust for the door would be wide open.

    • bay of arizona

      Soldiers rape the women they serve with all the time already.

      • missy

        A woman can get raped no matter where she is; not just in the military.

  • River

    For so much “smart” talk there sure is a whole lotta stupid here. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Go take a look and the militaries in other countries. Why sit around imagining what it might look like, when you can take off the America Is The World blinders and read what feminists and others have written on blogs coming out of other countries about their fully integrated militaries. In Sweden, for example, any Swedish citizen can serve (all colors, sexualities, AND genders– yes, trans people are allowed to serve and even transition on the job). There is a Swedish feminist political party. They’re nice. Write to them and ask them for an essay about their armed forces.

  • mjay

    A feminized military is one in which women do not legally have to sign up for the Selective Service, with concomitant penalties for shirking that requirement, penalties that men now face for failure to sign up. For women, there are no legal requirements to sign up for Selective Service.

    A feminized military is one in which women cannot legally serve on the front lines of combat on the ground, but are treated as “heroes” nonetheless.

    A feminized military is one in which women are subject to less rigorous PT requirements than male requirements have to measure up to.

    Remove the optionality and legal privileges that women have in the armed forces and hold all soldiers to the same standard and you will have a gender-neutral fighting force.

    • testing


  • Michael Drew

    Though a demasculinized military may require fully equal service of women and gays, my guess is that the institutionalization of those changes won’t in time do a damn thing to change the dominant competitively masculine cultural norms that our military will quite consciously and increasingly defensively continue to promote, starting from the top but exploiting the insecurities of insecure 17 and 18 year old recruits. One thing that may happen is continued balkanization of the professional-managerial class of soldiers, where some of the changes you discuss may occur slowly. But in the enlisted ranks, especially in combat units, with or without the presence of gays and women, the competitive masculine environment will persist.

  • Gabe

    Interesting, if wholly un-pragmatic ideas…but I’ve got a real problem with #1

    A military that spends an equal amount of time honoring child-bearers as it does Medal of Honor recipients would be a profoundly screwed-up institution.

    A guy who sits at the vet center and plays dominoes with old people doesn’t even deserve to be in the same stratosphere of respect and/or admiration as a soldier who jumps on a grenade to save his comrades. You really can’t equate the two.

    • Kate

      What he said.

    • Ky

      You’re lumping all military in with the greatest of them that you’ve chosen for your examples of military, and lumping all caretakers in with the most ordinary of them which you’ve chosen for your examples of caretaker.

      It’s the logical equivalent of describing Star Wars as a lopsided battle of Jedi Knights versus inept, bumbling stormtroopers.

      Both military and caretaker populations have heroes and both have mediocre people who provide everyday, ho-hum services that do nothing more than keep things running smoothly.

      A better comparison with the soldier who jumps on a grenade to save his comrades would be a civilian who jumps into the path of a truck to retrieve a child who has wandered out onto the street.

      Heroism doesn’t come only in uniform, and mediocrity doesn’t always stay out of it.

  • Ky

    I found the concept of killing as irrevokably masculine interesting . . . in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories he on several occasions presents killing as a feminine trait, repeatedly conveying the image that the females, especially the mothers, were the ones to watch out for, the ones who were likely to get really dangerous and nasty to deal with.

    Mostly it’s in the context of protecting children, and I’m not sure what that does with it (perhaps links it with an indisputably-feminine trait so that the females would still be seen as feminine?), but when Mowgli is arranging the death of Shere Khan, when Shere Khan is trapped by the separate groups of water buffalo, Shere Khan chooses to face the male group, knowing them to be the less dangerous and less vicious of the two groups. Such concepts do exist, although they are not common and generally not native to our worldview.

    That said, possibly the difference between masculine and feminine killing might be in the reasoning/rationale (for need rather than for proving dominance/prowess;), how it’s viewed (defending valued people of varying strengths vs. defending the weak and helpless), and how the enemy is viewed (demonized enemy vs. other, opposed human being) and how killing is viewed (tragedy or victory).

  • The Creator

    When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
    He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside;
    But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail,
    For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

    Admittedly this is also a thesis put forward by Ann Coulter.

    And, admittedly, anyone behind a gun is liable to abuse it regardless of gender.

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