The Patriarchal Dividend At War

Thursday’s Masculinity/Violence Symposium was lovely, thanks for asking. Lots of people came, which was heartening, and they all had great stuff to say, which was exciting. It bodes well for the International Feminist Journal of Politics special issue (*hint*). Here’s more or less what I said on the day, incorporating a splash of revisions and a dollop of answers and critiques provided by the audience. The day itself deserves some kind of report of its own, and I hope to make some time for it, or perhaps just extract some highlights from the papers presented.


Being part of something potent and comprehensible amid chaos, witnessing death and destruction as a participant and testing yourself in the masculine ritual of war remain elemental to the formation of soldierly identity. To tour as a soldier is to become a male exemplar, to take the chance of looking upon horror from the inside, to attempt to neutralize its voyeuristic allure through becoming its agent…The performance of soldiering is plastic and infinitely variable, shifting through the cautious cadences of the defense phase to the aggressive, rolling bounds of the ‘advance to contact’, always to end in ‘the fight-through’. ‘Fighting-through’ is the end of the dance, the culmination point where the dancers become the dance, where the fighting body achieves a sensuous unity with grenades, bullets and the bayonet.

Shane Brighton, ‘The Embodiment of War: Reflections on the Tour of Duty’ (2004)

War is not simply a breakdown in a particular system, but a way of creating an alternative system of profit, power and even protection.

David Keen, The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars (1998)

From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.

Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women & Rape (1975)

Conceptualising masculinity in terms of relations of hegemony and subordination and marginalisation and authorisation, Raewyn Connell proposed that men receive rewards as participants in male gender orders, and that this takes the form of status, command and material assets. This is the patriarchal dividend. Inequality on the scale observable in contemporary societies is, in Connell’s words, “hard to imagine without violence”, which is taken to have an important enforcement role both in terms of maintaining men’s power over women through acts like rape and in setting patterns among men. Extending this reasoning to the practice of war, it is plausible to see violence in general, and extreme acts like rape in particular, as an instrument of this enforcement, protecting or extending the patriarchal dividend. Soldiers in this sense become the frontline troops for the collective of men, just as domestic violence, street-level intimidation and rape fulfil the same functions outside of the war system.

Evidence from Chris Coulter’s work in Sierra Leone exemplifies how such a process may work. She reports that the majority of those abducted as ‘bush wives’ by the Rebel United Front (RUF) appear to have been raped. The creation of RUF rebel villages where commanders lived and the abducted were taken reflected the sociological structure of ‘peacetime’ arrangements: a pseudo-family structure with commanders at the head of a number of ‘bush wives’, subordinate males and occasionally elderly residents. The forms of labour assigned to women also followed the patriarchal imperatives of reproduction: fetching water and firewood, cleaning, and preparing food. Traditional roles like the ‘mamy queen’, who would look after young girls and prepare them for marriage, were also replicated within the camp structure. These arrangements were stable, to the extent that hierarchies among bush wives also manifested themselves, with the favoured wives of powerful commanders themselves taking on responsibilities for distributing arms and ammunition and holding power over other wives and children within camps.

In the context of masculinities, I take this kind of perspective to suggest that there are what we might call enforcer masculinities at work in war. This is to say that there are patterns of behaviour, representations and identities which, in the practice of violence, secure benefits for patriarchy as a system. A Debt Paid in Coin and Sweat.

Coin because the patriarchal dividend involves, in whole or in part, an economic and material dimension. It reproduces modes of accumulation, dispossession, production and labour that systematically benefit groups of socially-defined men. This is nicely illustrated by Terrell Carver’s phrase that “being a man is a gilt-edged platinum card for life. Or at least it is a significant head start on one”. In critiquing Connell’s work, Steve Hall poses a challenge to the idea of a patriarchal dividend in a similarly illuminating metaphor. if there is a ‘patriarchal dividend’ accessible to all men, despite internal differences, then, for Hall, “it must be possible for lower-class men to cash them in for some of the real privileges and benefits enjoyed by those men who – alongside many women and ‘subordinated masculinities’ – inhabit the higher class or occupational echelons.”

Sweat because achieving the patriarchal dividend is a work of labour and violence, carried out by particular kinds of men and through particular kinds of masculinities. The gender system does not perpetuate itself automatically, but requires more and less active agents to guarantee and protect its foundations. As an almost exclusively male domain in both representational and historical terms, war is an obvious site through which to interrogate this kind of action, a field in which we might see male domination in expansionary mode, in ambiguity and threat, or perhaps in retreat.

Debt because the running internal critique of work on men and masculinities in the last decades has been to emphasise the existence of multiple and sometimes contradictory male roles and identities. In differentiating between different kinds of masculinities, arranged hierarchically in what is nevertheless still a patriarchal form of gender order, speaking of debts not only re-emphasises the economic and material dimensions of gender, but also suggests that some men owe others, which is to say that there is a circulation of resources and obligations among men themselves, one made particularly vivid in the theatre of battle where some men die so that others may live, or live better.

It seems clear that masculinity is essential to war as a practice in several senses: the dispositions acquired by boys and men in their more physical social indoctrination and training; the parallel social taboos on women as fighters and killers; the historical production of male-only armies; the narratives of protection and honour that stimulate expectations for male fighting; the feminised forms of work that serve to reproduce and bound the spaces of modern militaries; and the feminisation of enemies and anti-war activists as a rhetorical tool for the extension of collective violence, among others. So war is a key discursive arena for the legitimation of male power as well as a kind of behaviour inflected by gender in all kinds of ways. What isn’t so clear is the role that war itself plays in the gendered system, and particularly within securing economic capital for men as a class.

Charli Carpenter and Adam Jones, although for me incorrectly opposing a distinctly feminist reading of gender and violence, nevertheless come closer in some respects to thinking through the complexities of the patriarchal dividend. For both, a gender reading should alert us to the ways that men are gendered in war in a way that provides them no advantage, and in fact puts them at greater risk. Both maintain that gendered norms of men as soldiers mean they are more likely to be killed than woman and children.

There are other reasons too to think of men as experiencing particular suffering in war. But this should not be taken to be part of a Victim Olympics (a phrase shamelessly borrowed from Cai Wilkinson at ISA this year). The question is more fine-grained: where do the men who are overwhelmingly responsible for direct violence in war fit within hierarchies of masculinity? If there is a patriarchal dividend, in what form do fighting men receive their payments?

As well as being the men most likely to die in war, enforcer masculinities are also often drawn from the margins of society, and return to them after war. Poverty (particularly racialised poverty) is one widely-cited cause for young volunteers for armed forces, and working class men have historically made up the bulk of ‘grunts’ and ‘tommies’ at the front line. Even in conscription armies, the ability to avoid war is fundamentally tied to wealth. Although this may be explained by a desire to rise up the hierarchy of masculinity by moving from a marginalised male role (poor and black) to one more strongly associated with the good male subject (war veteran), hardships associated with war and its aftermath cannot be so easily dismissed.

The process of training for war is itself traumatic. As Joanna Bourke shows in An Intimate History of Killing, the interplay between the discipline and difficulty of becoming a soldier and the pleasures of being one is complex, but military planners themselves have expended much effort on convincing men to fight and kill, which should speak against any self-evident joy or self-interest on the parts of those involved. Combat motivation is a problem for a reason. This is not to say that there is not pleasure for soldiers in obedience, action, risk, killing and even high probabilities of death. But the character of this pleasure, and its connection or not to material benefits, needs thinking through.

Then there is the post-war settlement, in which male soldiers suffer from trauma conditions, are over-represented among the homeless and are not uncommonly driven to suicide by their experiences. This is so even in the contemporary British and American militaries, where the risk of harm is probably lower than it has been in any army at any point in history. The point is not that soldiering is the ultimate hardship, but that these contradictions give rise to a problematic, which is that men who are otherwise greatly celebrated and honoured as paradigms of masculinity (warrior heroes, sacrificers for the nation, etcetera) are precisely those most likely to suffer and die to achieve the benefits which then accrue to other men and women.

One answer might be that we are looking at war wrong, and so misunderstanding the role of gender and masculinity in violence. On one level we can read this as a debate between views of war as a domain of instrumentality and politics and war as a domain of uncertainty and existential challenge. Proponents on both sides claim Clausewitz for these arguments, some adopting his now clichéd dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means while others stress his awareness of war as a space that undid all assumptions.

Tarak Barkawi and Shane Brighton have recently turned to this question and tried to conceptualise war as the practice most fundamentally unsettling to social realities, and least able to be controlled by the desires of military planners and politicians. As with work on the effects of World War II on the home front, the argument here is that war does not so much defend and protect previous forms of social order, but unsettles and even abolishes them.

And consider the role of subordinate colonial masculinities in carrying out violence. As Barkawi has neatly explained, the peripheral armies of the British Empire played a vital role in securing the empire, even in the nominally European battles of the First and Second World War, where Indian Army forces played a decisive role at several stages. Similarly, it is notable that many of the ‘crack troops’ in contemporary armies have their roots in peripheral and semi-peripheral spaces of old empires. Think of the Welsh Guards, the Royal Irish, the Black Watch, the Gurkha Rifles, the Highlanders, and so on. The relationship here is directly analogous to that among superordinate and subordinate masculinities and men, with more marginalised groups carrying out the most ruthless and dangerous work and yet awarded a certain rhetorical glory and minor financial tribute for preserving the privileges of a class-based elite only nominally joined to them in a political community (whether imperial or gendered).

This raises an interesting question of intersectionality for the analysis of militarised masculinities. But it also poses a challenge to the idea of a patriarchal dividend and to the role of war as a direct enforcer of masculinities. Again the question arises as to whether we should think war as fundamentally an expression of power, or as its breakdown.

All of this points to two sources of potential difficulty in theorising enforcer masculinities and the patriarchal dividend. The first exists at the level of individual men and their subjectities. What Michael Kaufmann calls ‘men’s contradictory experiences of power’ – the combination of privilege and pain in a particular life and the way men’s deal with and experience such contradictions.

The second source of difficulty is that which David Morgan identifies as the gap between a collective body of men and individual men’s bodies as a structure/agency and individualism/holism issue. Jeff Hearn speaks in similar terms when he characterises a double complexity in men as a gender class: men are both a gendered social category and collective and individual agents in the world.

In both cases, it is plausible to thinking of masculinities at war to be related to some kind of material or economic system, although not necessarily one best characterised in terms of a binary gender division, but also as intimately wrapped up in a  psychic and mythological mode of symbolism and libidinal identification. To adapt James Der Derian’s apt phrase to a wider context, we might speak of the “dirty secret of war-cum-game…that combination of fear and fun that allows the soldier to espy yet deny death, their own as well as others”.

But further, this discussion hopefully helps build a case for an analysis which is both more comparative and more focused on war as practice. Comparative in the sense of locating different historical expressions of male gender order and tracing the ways in which they produced their warriors, commanded loyalties and distributed the spoils of war. More focused on war as a practice in that, while not losing those elements of inquiry which examine the social aspects rendered silent by war, nevertheless devote analytical energy to war as an activity, one not already scripted in advance to render its participants as cyphers or cogs in a Man machine.

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