Category: Masculinity

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.

De-centring ‘militarisation’ in the study of collective masculine violence

Reading Cynthia Enloe’s work on militarisation for the first time really shocked me on a personal level. At the time I was an 18-year-old who had grown up watching war movies, playing military strategy computer games, listening to heavy metal music preoccupied with war and spending a significant chunk of my time assembling, painting, and playing with military miniatures. The idea of the military as an institution and tradition which permeated my gender identity simply made sense. My encounter with Enloe also required me to rethink my relationship to the aesthetics of military institutions seriously and had a big role in the topic I eventually chose for my PhD thesis three years later.

The album art from Agent Orange by Sodom. The concept of militarization went a long way to unpack the fascination with military-themed cultural products.

While I still think the idea of militarisation has a lot to offer, I am increasingly uncomfortable with how often and how broadly it is invoked. Earlier this year Marysia Zalewski wrote a think piece for the Critical Military Studies special issue on “Masculinities at the Margins” on the topic of military masculinities. In that piece, she laments that the idea of military masculinities has become “overly familiar and ‘comfortable.’” Zalewski, in characteristically incisive fashion, asks the reader to consider what military masculinities mean at a stage when military roles are increasingly affixed to female bodies and to consider the blurry boundaries of military practice. I greatly appreciated this injunction, but my own discomfort comes from trying to navigate a different kind concern. The fear that my own use of ‘militarised masculinities’ has centred European style military institutions as the natural and inevitable holders of collective violence.

Over the past year and a half, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the role that masculinities play in mobilising young men to join Islamist networks in Indonesia. One aspect of this work that has struck me most significantly is the absence of military signifiers, in the aesthetics, narratives, and ordering principles of these groups. Notions of collective violence, discipline and heroism are present, but these factors were not linked to aspirations of a military tradition. At least not in the sense of formal army with associated traditions of soldiering and service to the state.

Instead, very different traditions, aesthetics, myths and practices have emerged as being the structuring force in men’s lives. These forces build on tropes around collective violence but do not link them to what one might think of as military institutions. One interview which I conducted with Noor Huda Ismail as part of a small project on men’s lives after jihad stuck out in this regard. We were speaking to a young man who had participated as a trainer and recruiter in an Indonesian jihadi network. When we asked him how he became interested in the network, he recounted meeting a man from an Islamic boarding school (pesantren) and being amazed at the man’s beautiful white clothing, his neatly kept beard, his cleanliness and perfumed scent. He spoke about the man’s sophistication, strength and desirability. This encounter resulted in a long-term project of self-reaction to embody his idealised vision of a pious Muslim warrior.

Nusra Front, “Day of the Infiltration” (2012), sourced from Asfshon Ostovar’s chapter The Visual Culture of Jihad, in Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists edited by Thomas Hegghammer.

This process has a lot in common with militarization. It is one of a young man undertaking ‘body work’ in a desire to emulate the imagined role of a valorous warrior. But the signifiers, the narratives, and the tropes which this young man drew on were not built on a military tradition, and not a process was that of militarisation. These practices represent a different historical cluster of practices that are linked to collective violence in the Indonesia archipelago. The recent edited volume Jihadi Culture edited by Thomas Hegghammer has gone a long way to explore some of these traditions and the associated narrative and aesthetic components, albeit without a focus on SE Asia. Through this volume does not include a gender focus it shows the memetic quality of jihadi narratives which do not necessarily rely on a genealogy tied to formal militaries.  They are often positioned in direct opposition to the idea of the military, which was associated with colonial histories and the oppression of a secular government.

I am inclined to think that the overwhelming focus on processes of ‘militarisation’ is a product of particular histories of collective violence that have been so salient during the past 150 years. In conducting my own research, I now worry that my initial fascination with the military and militarism might result in viewing collective violence through camo-tinted glasses, rather than viewing patterns of collective violence in their own right. By writing work on violence in the Global South as being about a process of militarization, I fear other genealogies of violence may be written out by an approach to violent masculinities which is perpetually measuring performances in relation European military traditions. While state militaries and militarisation are clearly still vitally important subjects of study and analysis, I hope to show more curiosity around dynamics of collective violence that do not hold militaries or military-like institutions at their heart.

David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies within the University of Queensland. His research interests are on pro-feminism, masculinities, the transformation of war, and peacebuilding. His current research looks at attempts to transform masculinities after large-scale violence through peacebuilding programs. He is the author of Masculinity and new war: The gendered dynamics of contemporary armed conflict.