Studying War and Gender, Cont.

Last September, I wrote a piece about Joshua Goldstein’s academic survey of the relationship between war and gender. I finally finished reading the book.

It’s a fantastic piece of scholarship, even if for no other reason than its cross-disciplinary approach (which I found sorely lacking as a student in Columbia’s political science department).

In summary, Goldstein argues that the gender constructions of masculinity and femininity evolved as a social response to the ever-present possibility of war. After reviewing the evidence that more than 99% of all warriors in observable history are male, he argues that the genetic and biological differences between male and female homo sapiens are too small to account for the virtual absence of women in combat.

Since participation in war is physically demanding, opponents of integrating the infantry justify their position by pointing to the tiny overlap in physical strength between the male and female populations. However, even this tiny overlap is not reflected in the combatant population. While biological differences can explain why 90 or 95 percent of combatants have been male, culture is required to explain the last five or ten percent. To prepare itself for the possibility of war, human society has ideologically transformed sexual generalizations into binary gender categories.

Viewed through this lens, masculinity is a series of sacrifices and duties imposed on men to prepare them for possible combat at the expense of their peacetime sociability. For example, men are taught from birth to repress emotional and physical vulnerability. In war, this repression allows them to continue fighting after repeatedly experiencing the traumas of pain and loss. But in peacetime, repression of male vulnerability greatly complicates interpersonal relations by making it verboten to address the core of an issue where male vulnerability is implied. Masculinity is, by definition, socially stunting.

In contrast, femininity encourages the acceptance and even the embrace of vulnerability. Positioned as the inferior of masculinity, femininity motivates men to fight by validating their superiority and by establishing their duty as protectors of the feminine. Having been rejected from participation in combat, women are made available to prevent the general collapse of society in wartime by filling its “homefront” functions while the men are fighting.

So it’s feasible that war was the impetus for gender norms. Unfortunately, these norms create a feedback loop. By deriving its validation from war, masculinity poses an obstacle to societal acceptance of the need to replace war with an alternative method of intergroup conflict resolution.

This leads to a dilemma for the cause of integrating women into the infantry (and the military in general): On one hand, the successful participation of women in combat is the ultimate refutation of essentialist gender norms. On the other hand, the same participation of women in combat may cement war’s legitimacy as a social institution. My hope is that integrating women into the infantry builds momentum for what is surely a much longer journey to society’s ultimate rejection of gender norms and the enormous social losses that we suffer in maintaining them.

War and Gender was published in 2001, so I’d be interested to see how much science has progressed in answering the 20 hypotheses Goldstein tests. The biological hypothesis tests are probably due for an update. A recent Andrew Sullivan post mentioned new research which reaffirmed that testosterone does not cause aggression. Rather, the study found, women given testosterone injections were prone to interact with others more fairly than women given a placebo. The researchers concluded that testosterone causes not aggression but sensitivity to social status. In simple societies, the fastest way to increase social status is through the use of aggression. But in complex human societies, pro-social behavior is a more reliable method.

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