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.

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.