Many progressives were shocked by the militaristic response of Americans to the attacks of September 11, 2001–but not feminists. They had already been tracking the militarization of American daily life–from Super Bowl bomber flyovers to yellow ribbons on family cars–and its intimate connections to the cult of masculinity that has recently tightened its grip on American politics.
Gender-coded militaristic rituals are now so integrated into the culture, they’re nearly invisible–which is why they’re so important to re-examine. Take those flyovers. What’s fun about sending an ominous V-winged vehicle of death and destruction over a Sunday afternoon football game? It takes coordination between the NFL and the Pentagon to plan a flyover. Is sending a black bomber racing across the sky supposed to confirm players’ and fans’ manliness? Is the pageant also designed to prove the patriotic bona fides of players, owners, fans and the networks? If so, then the NFL and the Pentagon are in collusion to militarize masculinity and to masculinize militarism.
And how about the ubiquitous yellow ribbon magnets that so many Americans have been sticking on their cars announcing that they “support our troops”? Popular engagement is as important as budgetary allocations to a government intent on war. It takes someone in the family to buy the yellow magnet and attach it to the car. Was it the woman of the house, declaring to the world that her maternal care extends to other mothers’ soldiering sons and daughters? Is it the man of the house, trying to say something about his fathering or about his identity as a vet? In some families it’s the complementary combination of both. Either way, it’s hardly the innocuous, apolitical gesture it might seem.
By paying attention to the daily workings of militarization, feminists expose it as the step-by-step process by which institutions and ideas–a marriage, a sports league, the presidency, an ad agency, concepts of loyalty, responsibility, honor or security–come to depend on the military or on militaristic values and goals for respectability and credibility. Feminists, furthermore, know that militarization can happen anywhere–not just on a battlefield or behind the closed doors of an intelligence agency but in a school guidance counselor’s office, a newspaper’s editorial meeting, a Congressional hearing, a peace movement, a brothel or around the family dining room table. A newspaper’s editorial meeting is becoming militarized every time military or war-zone events are deemed more urgent news than the government’s re-imposition of an antiabortion foreign-aid gag rule.
American feminists are indebted to other countries’ women activists for much of what we know about the way these processes rely on women’s silence, praise and service. They’ve taught us to keep a sharp eye on militaries’ prostitution policies and the nationalist rhetoric of manly protection and feminine gratitude. Women activists–in Serbia, India, Japan, Chile, South Korea, the Philippines, South Africa, Argentina, Turkey, Burma and Rwanda–have taught us always to take rape seriously, never to be satisfied with glib stories of “loot, pillage and rape.” That’s why today American feminists are pressing the Bush Administration to come clean about both the scores of reported rapes of American women soldiers by American male soldiers and about the treatment of Iraqi women held in US-controlled detention centers.
Focusing our attention on the military-industrial complex, oil and empire isn’t enough. If we dismiss the politics of femininity and masculinity, we will never get to the bottom of what fuels militarization. We will never roll it back because we won’t know what propels it forward.
Feminists’ realization that militarization is woven into the fabric of everyday life has inspired anti-militarizing strategies that challenge seemingly trivial ideas and practices. Last summer the savvy young activists of Oakland’s Women of Color Resource Center held a high-energy anti-militarism fashion show. In a packed theater, hip-hop designers, rappers and local activists asked one another whether wearing camouflage cargo pants and T-shirts subverts local militarization or unwittingly sends its roots down deeper into communities of color. What’s cool and what’s complicit?
The launching of two nationwide activist groups, Military Families Speak Out and Gold Star Mothers Against the War, reflects a new consciousness of the roles mothers–and fathers–are expected to play in building up a large military force, as well as a growing sense of the urgent need for alternatives to those scripted roles. These groups have begun to find a new language of mothering to explain to themselves and their fellow citizens how it is possible to be a caring parent and still oppose the government’s uses of their children to wage a wrongheaded foreign policy. As it always does, mothers’ politicization is making the Pentagon nervous. Its Recruiting Command and contracted ad agencies have just invested millions of dollars to retool ads that target mothers of potential recruits.
March 8, International Women’s Day, is a good time for everyone critical of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” to start taking feminists’ insights seriously. American feminists–in Women in Black, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Code Pink, Women Waging Peace–are smart, moreover, because they listen closely to women in other countries as they examine and challenge the militarized minutiae of daily life. Together, they’re making a lot of people nervous. That’s the good news on IWD 2006.