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.
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.
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.