The War Rages On: Women in the British Military and the De-Politicisation of War in ‘Our Girl’ (2014)

A guest post on military gender in popular culture from Harriet Gray. Harriet is a PhD student in the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics, working on intimate partner abuse in the British military. She has also written on female combat roles in the American military, consent, and celebrity intimate partner violence, and can also be found on Twitter.


their war her battle

The five part BBC drama series Our Girl (and the 90 minute TV film which preceded it) centres around the experiences of Private Molly Dawes, a young medic serving in the British Army. Molly is assigned to a unit referred to as ‘2 Section’ as a combat casualty replacement, and with them deploys to Afghanistan. Her colleague in 2 Section, Private Dillon “Smurf” Smith, and their leader Captain Charles James, an experienced officer on his fourth tour of Afghanistan, form the two other principle characters in the series.

Our Girl was broadcast at a time when women’s roles in the British armed forces are once again under review. At present, women – who make up 10% of British regular military personnel – are able to serve in most roles in the British military with the exception of ‘combat roles’, defined as “ground combat units where the primary role is to close with and kill the enemy”. Previous reviews of the ban in 2002 and 2010 have concluded that while many women may well possess the physical and psychological capacities to serve in any military role, the impact of women’s presence on unit cohesion and therefore on combat effectiveness cannot be fully understood without taking the risk of sending mixed combat teams into battle; a risk which the MOD and the armed forces were not at the time of these reviews prepared to take. That is, women’s continued exclusion from combat roles was justified not on the basis of what women were capable of doing, but, as I have argued elsewhere, of who (what?) they are.

The current review, ordered by (then) Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond in the spring of 2014 and due to conclude by the end of the year, will once again prioritise the delivery of operational effectiveness in deciding whether women will be admitted to combat roles, but it is widely expected that this time, the ban will be lifted, in particular because the review has been brought forward to report earlier than the 2018 deadline required under EU equality laws, and following the lifting of a similar ban in the US armed forces in early 2013. While women are soon likely to be able to serve in all roles in the British armed forces, however, this is unlikely to mean that the masculinised culture and male domination within the British military itself will be undermined any time soon; it is likely that it will continue to be the case that, as Victoria Basham puts it, “it is gender-conforming for men to want to join the military or engage in paramilitary activities, but gender-nonconforming for women”.

As Cynthia Enloe also suggests, the definition as ‘combat’ of the roles from which women are excluded has long been largely ideological as opposed to practical – and Molly’s experience in the series reflects this. While as a medic, she is not in a combat role – indeed, as could be considered gender-conforming for a woman since her primary purpose is to preserve life rather than to end it – she is certainly not portrayed as a “beautiful soul” and her role requires her to be very much in the thick of the action. She is shown on patrol with her section, firing her weapon, and being on the receiving end of gunfire with the men alongside her, although she, unlike her comrades, shows some anguish and regret at her own perpetration of violence. While Molly’s role is not a combat role, then, her experiences with 2 Section illustrate many of the well-hashed arguments both for and against the growing presence of women in Western militaries.

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Clinton’s World

As part of the Canada 2020 conference, Hillary Clinton will be giving a lunch-time talk at the Ottawa Convention Center on Oct. 6. The subject of her speech is yet to be announced, but I imagine due attention to “Canada-U.S. relations in a changing world” will be given. I also imagine the event will be sold out despite high ticket prices (495 Canadian dollars per person + sales tax).  The main reason is that the former U.S. Secretary of State—former front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, former U.S. Senator, and former First Lady—is also the most likely person to succeed Barack Obama as POTUS (according to the American and British bookies at least).

By my count, this will be her fourth visit to Canada’s national capital region, and the first since 2010, when she swung by to attend important meetings in nearby Wakefield, Quebec. But where exactly is my city in Clinton’s world?

To answer this question, I turned to Hard Choices, her second memoir published earlier this year, and I read it through the lens of Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” a famous Manhattanite mappa mundi from the era when the Vietnam War was a fresh trauma and Jimmy Carter was making an unexpected splash in the Democratic presidential primaries.

steinbergnewyorker1976

 

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Aircraft Stories: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Part II)

This is the second part of a single post about the F-35 as actor-network. The first part is here 

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Strike

This word is meant to convey the F-35’s identity as a proper multirole fighter, a machine rigged to conduct both air superiority and strike missions, the latter defined as tactical attacks on a ground or naval target with a particular focus on “initial blow” or “first day of attack” operations.  All three variants of the F-35 fighter family hold this capability: the conventional A version designed for use by the U.S. Air Force and allied air forces; the Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing (STOVL) or B variant for the U.S. Marines Corps as well as the UK’s Royal Navy, as well as the conventional carrier-based edition for the U.S. Navy, the F-35C.

Airstrike, or strike for short, shapes, and is shaped by, the evolving structure of international politics in important ways.  Pax Americana, defined in terms of successive hegemonic or hierarchical international and regional orders centered on Washington, D.C., can be regarded as an assemblage made possible by the so-called global strike, among other smaller assemblages.  Since the middle years of the twentieth century warplanes have transformed themselves into multirole, fighter-bomber machines capable of ever-greater lethality and survivability.  What makes U.S. strike aircraft especially formidable is the surrounding stuff—assets like ballistic and cruise missiles plus countless “force enablers” such as ground bases, aircraft carrier groups, logistics depots, a large tanker force and aerial refueling know-how, interlinked information and communication systems, the ability to generate and sustain the use-of-airspace deals on relatively short notice and so on.

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Pacific Redemption Songs

Te Hau

“Te Hau” by Abby Wendy

A few years ago I was reasoning with members of Ras Messengers, a reggae-jazz band who had in 1979 toured Aotearoa New Zealand. The Rastafari musicians recollected their experiences with various Māori communities. Occasionally female Māori elders (kuia), in introducing themselves to the band, would connect their genealogies back to Africa. The kuia did this as part of an indigenous practice called whakapapa, which literally means to “make ground”. It is a practice that allows diverse peoples who might never have met to find a genealogical route through which they are already personally related.

Chauncey Huntley from Ras Messengers showing the Rakau (traditional sticks) that he was gifted thirty years previously

Rastafari also have a practice called “grounding”, which is to collectively reason on the meaning and challenges of contemporary life. Over– or inner- standing (instead of under- standing) is cultivated through the guidance of natural laws and – often with the help of drums, fire and holy herb – the intuition provided by spiritual agencies (Irits) that allows ones to pierce the veil of deathly inequality, oppression and dehumanization so as to redeem living energies and relationships that might help with healing in the present. When I think of Irits I also think of a key concept of Māori cosmology called hau. Overstood by Māori Marsdenhau is the breath or wind of spirit which is infused into the process of birth to animate life and associated with the intention to bind peoples together in righteous living.

A key stone of the Rastafari faith is that adherents collectively redeem their African genealogy so as to breathe life back into their suffering condition and leave behind the death of enslavement and its contemporary legacies. So when I heard of this story of the kuia and Ras Messengers, I imagined how this practice might have given strength to the Ras. After all, in those days (and perhaps still today), peoples of various African heritages were often forced (directly or indirectly) to disavow those connections themselves.

Whakapapa is an art practised collectively. Yet it is not free play, nor is it the manufacturing of fiction. It is a creative retrieval. It could even be a redemptive act.

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Keskidee perform in New Zealand

This was certainly the intention of those who organized the tour of Ras Messengers alongisde the Black British theatre group, Keskidee (the name of a Guianese bird known for its resilience). The organizers were a group of New Zealand activists that came together under the banner Keskidee Aroha (Aroha being the Māori word for love, sympathy, nurturing affection etc). Their intention was to learn from and work with the artistic tropes of Black Power and Rastafari so as to catalyse a cultural revolution and renaissance amongst young Māori and Pasifika peoples thereby strengthening them in their confrontation with a racist post-settler society.

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Notes on Ex-Yu Justice, Part III

Following Part I and Part II


The court is incompetent

The ICTY is constantly criticized for its organizational and procedural shortcomings, but is it fatally “incompetent”? To the extent that it resonates with ex-Yugos this charge must be made in the abstract only – the living ICTY is incompetent compared to the ideal ICTY. Compared to national legal venues, especially as they operated until recently, the court is indispensable, however (more on this below). Further, the ICTY is perceived as the big fish court, and the ability to get those “most responsible” is regarded as one of its strengths. And yet, much of this hard-earned reputation is being squandered in a series of rulings that acquitted some very big and very nasty fish.  Even its supporters feel like the ICTY has lost its mojo.

Consider the Momčilo Perišić case. Here the Yugoslav National Army commander who was first convicted (27 years in prison!) for aiding and abetting war crimes perpetuated by Serb forces across the river Drina, and then completely acquitted by the Appeals Chamber. Logistically and financially supporting génocidaires may not be a crime after all! Putting aside the inability of the prosecutor to ever establish a clear chain of command going from Belgrade to Pale and Knin respectively, this ruling changes the current legal understanding of the principle of command responsibility so decisively that it will almost surely protect many miscreants in the future. Some have even used it read back past ICTY rulings, breaking the chains of causation that lead to Belgrade (“this is a posthumous acquittal of Milošević!”) as well as Zagreb, and blaming  the massacres on the small fish (what’s next? Isolated cases of extremism?).

smallfry

Then there is the acquittal of Ramush Haradinaj, the prime minister of Kosovo, and that particular joint criminal enterprise (the presence of witness intimidation, note, was mentioned in this ruling). Next, the Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač decision. The 2011 Trial Chamber ruling convicted them to 24 years for their role in, among other things, the joint criminal enterprise to expel the Serb population in Krajina following the 1995 Operation Storm (with Tudjman as the enterprise’s CEO again). Then, earlier this year, the Appeals Chamber ruled, in a split decision, that no such joint criminal enterprise existed (as well as that some Mladić-style military actions might be ok, but let’s put that aside for now). And last, the Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović case: the ICTY found no qualms with their arms dealing, bankrolling para-military formations and otherwise supporting of the Serb administrations in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, and, above all, no evidence of conspiracy to bring about the removal of the non-Serb population from any part of the former Yugoslavia (the rest of their ghastly dossier, so much of which is easily accessible via YouTube, fell outside the court’s scope).

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Notes on Ex-Yu Justice, Part II

Following Part I, and in advance of Part III.


The court is political  

The smartass response goes something likes this: “Of course it’s political; what’s not political? Haven’t you read the ICTY’s website? It says clearly that the tribunal was established for explicitly political reasons, too, by the UNSC, which is political by definition.” But the smartass response is a rude interruption. The above assertive prefaces monologue, not dialogue. The monologue is a story about world politics as a dog-eat-dog contest in which the strong always devour the weak with a focus on the origins of the ICTY. “Of course an international judicial institution cannot be created on the basis of an UNSC resolution alone. Of course Chapter VII of the UN Charter does not specify the conditions under which war crimes tribunals can be set up. Of course the ICTY quickly discovered that it could not bother with the question of own legality. But when have great powers ever cared about law and institutions? Might makes right, right? The ICTY is based on the consent of states – big states, not our banana republics.”

This story varies in terms of breadth and depth, but its modal conclusion is that the tribunal cannot represent anything but “victor’s justice” and/or Western and specifically American oppression of those living on the periphery. As for the motive, the supposedly aggressive prosecution of Bosno-Serbo-Croat baddies practiced by the ICTY is a function of the desire for retribution for every case of ex-Yu insolence in recent history, starting with the Trieste crisis of 1945. As discipline and punishment at once, trials are also meant to serve as a warning to the rest of the peripheral and semi-peripheral world. This type of theorizing could be described as a cross between pop-realism and pop-Marxism with a whiff of the crudest forms of pop-anti-Americanism and some other, far less respectable prejudices. While it is not exactly a closed loop, for every new newstory indexing Western and specifically American double standards and double visions in international law, the theory gains strength. Who in the former Yugoslavia doesn’t have an informed opinion on the “Hague Invasion Act”?

imgfrontisThe two accounts of the origins of the ICTY that I have on my shelf make something of an opposite case. Pierre Hazan’s book, subtitled ‘The True Story Behind the ICTY’, suggests that the weak (international justice activists) outfoxed the strong (realist diplomats and state-centric lawyers) and, against all odds, managed to turn the tribunal into such a revolutionary achievement (more on this below). Hazan is no theorist of norms and transnational advocacy networks, but there are more than a few parallels with this literature. The second account is Rachel Kerr’s 2004 book, which begins and ends with the thorny issue of “politicization,” including the issue of “prosecutorial discretion” as its special subset. Kerr has the ICTY walking on a tightrope. Sidle up too closely to justice, and you alienate those who rule the world; let politics in, even to manipulate it for judicial ends, and you lose credibility. While infinitely more nuanced than Hazan’s, Kerr’s framework for analyzing politics (it, too, chimes with 1990s IR theory, namely the “bringing international law back in” literature) follows the same binary – let me personify it a little as a contest between “realists” versus “legalists” – and it reaches the same conclusion. And judging by both the quotidian operation of the court as well as its key decisions up to 2002-3, Kerr finds, “legalists” had the upper hand.

Antonio CasseseI am not sure what stock-taking exercises based on the realist vs. legalist framework look like today (again, this post is my attempt to reconnect with the literature I stopped following years ago), but what struck me in my conversations is how adamant my interlocutors were in rejecting even the most carefully drawn legalist claims. It’s simple, the typical response goes, the ICTY is subject to constant political pressures and it shouldn’t be surprising to see so much judicial malpractice. Lest one is keen to dismiss this as “typical” ex-communist (and transitionalist) disdain for the notion that law serves to ensure that valuable social goods are distributed in ways that protect equal respect for everyone, note that some of the most critical arguments about the “hopelessly political court” are drawn from the texts left behind by bona fide ICTY insiders like (he of  those great international law textbooks), Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, Louise Arbour, Graham Blewitt, Carla Del Ponte, Serge Brammerz, and Florence Hartmann (more below). Anyone can cherry-pick a few memorable lines from a few memoirs and journalistic accounts (Hartmann, if I recall correctly: “the ICTY was formed so that war criminals could negotiate on the level of their innocence”), but what I find interesting is that these types of arguments have gained more and more adherents over the years.

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The Manning Trial, Truth-Telling, and The Precariousness of Democractic Society

The following is a piece written as part of an interview I did at City University on the political and ethical significance of the Bradley Manning trial currently ongoing (links to potentially embarrassing video to follow).

I think that the most important thing that the Bradley Manning trial shows us is the gap that opens up between our legal institutions and our sense of right and wrong, between the law and morality. Many people around the world are shocked by Manning’s imprisonment. People are shocked partly because he has been held under conditions that the UN said violated his human rights, but also because Manning is being tried for exposing the actions of US soldiers and diplomats, including evidence of many potential and confirmed human rights violations. Manning’s supporters are incredulous and view the proceedings now taking place at Fort Meade as illegitimate.Bradley Manning War Crimes

I understand this incredulity and on a level I share it. What I want to suggest, however, is that what we are seeing in the trial of this young man is even more troubling than the corruption of the law by politics – it reveals that the law is always suffused with politics. The law is a technical code. Yes, it is also a normative system that is supposed to determine right and wrong, guilt and innocence. But it is vital that we do not forget that it is a technical code first and foremost, a code that political authorities use to justify their power. Therefore, those with the capacity to influence and manipulate the legal code will always be at an advantage, will always be able to shape that code not towards the pursuit of justice but towards their own interests. This is what Finnish legal scholar Martti Koskenniemi calls this the gap between apology and utopia. The law has its utopian moments and this is especially true of human rights law – for example, Manning supporters see him as a hero who has exposed the grievous crimes of the US government and its military, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. They appeal to human rights standards that are quintessential moral claims, but which sadly lack the force of political authority and so are not reliably protected. This is important, but the law also has its moment of apology, where it serves the interests of established authorities, of powerful actors like the US government.

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