Author: Sara Meger

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

Why Feminism is Integral to Understanding ‘Conflict Related Sexual Violence’

Last year, I was invited to participate in a couple of workshops on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). One was academic, with a specific focus on how we can know something about sexual violence in war and the methods used by researchers to come to know this violence. The other was more practitioner-oriented, and was attended by some of the key players of international policy-making on CRSV. While both were invigorating and inspiring events, what struck me from discussions in both is how far removed the study of wartime sexual violence has come from its feminist roots.

In recent decades, academic and policy interest on sexual violence in war has grown exponentially. Far from its origins on the margins of studies of war, sexual violence is now a central topic and efforts to understand its causes and consequences span the disciplines interested in armed conflict, political violence, international security, and humanitarian crises. However, as the issue has become mainstream, much of its early feminist-informed analyses have been lost to increasingly positivist socio-political and scientific approaches to understand this violence.

But much is lost in this maneuver. As I’ve written about elsewhere, the harmonized ‘rape as a weapon of war’ narrative that has been produced through the elevation of sexual violence to the international security agenda “has produced an unsustainable and ineffectual paradigm that is based ultimately on the fetishization of this violence.”

While early feminist analyses of rape in war contributed to this amalgamation of all forms of CRSV as a single, coherent phenomenon, recent corrective efforts by critical scholars to disaggregate and contextualize CRSV has resulted in a near abandonment of feminist frames for understanding this violence. While feminists have pointed out that rape in war, like rape in so-called times of ‘peace’, cannot be understood except through an analysis of patriarchal power disparities between the sexes, some have argued that because patriarchy is a constant structural feature of societies, it cannot be causal or independently explanatory for sexual violence.

But if we throw the baby out with the bathwater, as we have seen done in not only scholarship, but also policy and advocacy on sexual violence in armed conflict, we end up with the explanation that either men are animals who can’t control their insatiable sexual urges, for which war provides the convenient breakdown of social barriers to their animal impulses; or, that rape and sexual violence is genderless, equivalently perpetrated and experienced by members of both sexes, and thus understandable only as either an innate human quality or the result of a few ‘bad apples.’

The value of sexual violence must be seen through the lens of sexual politics. That is, the recognition that (the physical act of) sex and sexuality are deeply set within human social relations and comprehensible only in relation to “the variety of attitudes and values to which culture subscribes” (Millet 1970, 23). Such a perspective invites us to critically interrogate the ways in which sexual violence is enacted within a system of sexual domination, which simultaneously inscribes meaning and power to violated/violating bodies and to the act itself. This meaning and power is not isolated to CRSV, but visible also in the typical link between cruelty and sexuality in our everyday ‘peacetime’ societies, as well.

That is because sexuality is a social construct borne out of patriarchal relations. As such, sexuality is made meaningful as a relation of dominance and submission, gendered through dichotomous symbolisms that associate dominance with the masculine and submission with the feminine. In this way, the gendered nature of sexual violence comes from its construction within a system of patriarchy, while the gendered effects are not limited to the biological sex of either the victim or perpetrator.

Ultimately, the study of sexual violence in armed conflict requires feminism in order to understand how power and sexuality are mutually constituted in ways that make sexual forms of violence particularly egregious and humiliating, reaping for the perpetrator personal, social, political, and/or economic dividends.

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

Sex and Death in the Irrational World of Nuclear Defense

The blogosphere is a-Twitter with Donald Trump’s recent reaction to a speech made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as part of his New Year’s address to the nation. In the speech, he stated:

“The US cannot declare war against us. The entire US territories are within our firing range and the nuclear missile button is right there on my desk,”

“We have secured powerful deterrence against the nuclear threat from the US.”

His speech was followed by a series of social media posts flaunting his nuclear capabilities:

In response, Donald Trump, in usual fashion, responded via social media with a tweet now heard ’round the world:

While many have noted this tweet as the latest in a series of misguided, reactionary social media responses to global political issues that have come to define Trump’s presidency, the obvious analogy to penile (dys)function has been less commented on.

In 1987, Carol Cohn published what has become one of the germinal works of feminist theory in international relations: “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” The piece is an auto-ethnography and participant observation based on her time at a university center on defense technology and arms control, “The Center.” She sheds light on the gendered language through which unfathomably destruction and mass death becomes rationalized, palatable, and even funny in The Center. The ‘technostrategic’ language used by Defense Intellectuals obscures the physical realities of these weapons and instead  is “abstract, sanitized, full of euphemisms…sexy and fun to use.”

In particular, she notes the sexualized vocabulary of the nuclear standoff during the Cold War found the language used by defense staff suffused with sexual, mostly phallic imagery that creates a sexualized intimacy between the developers and handlers of the weapon and the weapon itself. She notes: “homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination, the drive toward competency and mastery, the pleasures of membership in an elite and privileged group.” The association of nuclear power with male sexual prowess, she finds, mirrors the famous US Marine Corps chant: “this is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for killing the other’s for fun.”

How does feminist theory help us understand Trump’s reaction to Kim Jong-Un? Chris Cillizza, writing for CNN, notes:

“In Trump’s mind, the first, second and third most important measures of success are size. Everything he is involved with must be the biggest, the tallest, the most well-attended, the most expensive, the best.
A bit of armchair psychology would suggest that relentless focus on size is born of insecurity.”

Yet, we cannot understand such insecurity manifesting through obsession with size without feminist analysis. As Penny Strange wrote about the arms race, in 1989,

“striving for mastery and superiority [is] a striking feature of a male-dominated society; we see it as not only widespread, but also admired, desired and cultivated in half the human race, and an acceptable mode of political discourse and international relations.”

This is only made possible because international relations exist in a global system of patriarchy, wherein the physical ability to subjugate someone or something “becomes necessary proof of manhood.” That subjugation need not be only physical, but economic, political and social as well. Each is merely an expression of the same underlying drive for dominance and “are convertible one to the other.”

Of course, Trump (nor Kim Jong-Un) would be the first head of state to act out of masculine anxities. David Halberstam accounts for the behaviour of US leaders in the Vietnam War, noting that:

“President Lyndon B. Johnson had always been haunted by the idea that he would be judged as being insufficiently manly for the job…. He had unconsciously divided people around him between men and boys. Men were the activists, doers, who conquered business empires, who acted instead of talked, who made it in the world and had the respect of other men. Boys were the talkers and the writers and the intellectuals who sat around thinking and criticising and doubting instead of doing…. Hearing that one of the administration was becoming a dove on Vietnam, Johnson said ‘Hell, he has to squat to piss.'” (Emphasis added).

What these analyses point to is the limited scope we have for de-escalation when one’s willingness and ability to “push the button” is so tied up to their self-conception of worth constructed within the norms of masculinity under patriarchy. But also, that a simple change of leadership may not be sufficient, when those leaders are in many ways reflective of wider societal expectations of manly behaviour when at the helm (or fingertips) of the nuclear ‘button.’

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

Discerning the Truth in War

“The first casualty when war comes is Truth.”  — Hiram Johnson, 1918.

Since the 2016 US Presidential election, political analysts, scholars, and pundits alike have lamented the death of truth and the ushering in of an era of ‘post-truth’. But as a researcher interested in war, I began to wonder what the era of ‘post-truth’ meant for knowing war.

Has war ever been knowable

Throughout history, war has been fought not only in the trenches, between the armed troops, but most importantly in the ‘hearts and minds’ of the civilian populations who provide the monetary, logistical, and reproductive support for the war effort. Convincing risk-averse people to risk life and loved ones for abstract political agendas has long required propaganda and black-and-white narratives of the moral superiority of ‘us’ versus the explicit evil of ‘them.’ These narratives circulate as part of the affective economies of war that make war conceivable and acceptable for the human labourers needed in the efforts.

As I write this, I am in the field conducting research on the conflict in the region (formerly?) of eastern Ukraine known as Donbass. Since 2014, a very conventional style of war has been waged over control of the region after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution polarized the country and germinated a separatist campaign in Donbass. A group advocating separation held a referendum in May 2014, to which the Ukrainian government responded by sending in the armed forces.

But even that description is largely problematic because, at the time, the Ukrainian armed forces were in disarray. By some accounts, they were non-existent. The Euromaidan revolution saw massive lustrations carried out throughout the institutions of the state, including defence institutions. Thus, many of the militants who descended on Donbass in the lead-up to and following the referendum were not formally with the armed forces, but were rather gangs of ‘hooligans‘ and far right-wing activists who had taken it upon themselves to defend the nation from internal and external threats.

When I began this research, I sought to discern Truth in this war. But the accounts from each side are so diametrically opposite. My Ukrainian respondents all spoke with certainty that this was not a civil war, but an invasion. Some recounted first-hand their evidence – that they had personally seen or taken captive Russian soldiers as prisoners of war. My separatist respondents all emphasized the grassroots nature of their movement and that the fight was not just for autonomy in the region, but fundamentally a fight against fascism.

On both sides of the conflict, both fear and love play important roles in the affective economy of this conflict. The fear is deeply ideological. For Ukrainian nationalists, it is a fear of losing their short-lived independence to a Russian neo-imperialist agenda. For the separatists, it is a fear of nazism and loss of political, social, and economic freedoms. While both sides are deeply tied to their ideological standpoint, neither is open to the idea that the other side is genuine. The Ukrainian nationalists believe that the narratives of independence, self-determination, and social improvement are a smokescreen of Russian propaganda. Meanwhile, the separatists believe that the neo-nazis are misinformed puppets of capitalist oligarchs who seek integration with Europe not as a means of improving the living conditions of Ukrainians, but as a way of further forcing down the cost of labour and exploiting the working classes.

One respondent puts it this way:

“Now, in the era of the information revolution, when all the information is available and everyone produces the information that he wants, people are not accustomed to reading about one piece of news from two, three, four sources and drawing a conclusion for themselves. They are accustomed to reading either the first thing they encounter or what someone advises them, and they tend to believe it. They believe that they have made their own conclusion and that this opinion is their conscious decision. But there is no culture of information processing. There is information, but people do not know how to process it. I made a decision for myself ten years ago that I need to read the same piece of news on five or six different resources to draw conclusions for myself. However, there are no independent resources, unfortunately; all of them are biased.”

Another, very much a veteran of the war, who has been fighting on the front line since December 2014, confided in me: “This is no longer a military or economic war. Now, it’s an information war.”

The challenge, as a researcher, is not only in discerning the Truth in war, but, perhaps more so, the politics and circulations of different versions of the Truth that give meaning and value to violence. While I cannot hope to determine the geopolitical strategies that lay behind various countries’ (in)action in response to this war, one thing I feel confident in concluding from this research is that no matter where the Truth ultimately lies, the versions of truth circulating here form an integral element of the affective economy that drives this war.

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.