Female Terrain Systems: Engagement Officers, Militarism, and Lady Flows

One of the more interesting interventions made at Friday’s Gender, Militarism and Violence roundtable came from Vron Ware on the topic of a photo exhibit about the British Army’s Female Engagement Officers. The exhibit is funded by the Poppy Appeal, which was itself subject to some debate as a sentimental memorialism allocating funds in the service of a imperial-nostalgic self-image. The pictures, collected by a female former RAF Sergeant, are presumably understood by military and civilian leaders to be a significant public relations resource in illustrating the flexibility, equity and decentness of Anglo-American-Western ‘involvement’ in Afghanistan. Manifestations of cultural sensitivity, postfeminist integration and armies as state-building reconciliation services. And yet someone decided, both on the Army website and Twitter account, that the best image to lead with was that of knickers on a washing line. A puerile social media engagement.

The rest of the images, and the media coverage of them, focus heavily on assorted ‘personal’ issues experienced by the women. Gaze on their beauty products! See how they control their lustrous hair! Peak in on their need for mementos of home! Marks of difference indeed, although none of the coverage I have seen broaches the possibility that men too might stash deodorant in their tents, or manage their body hair to maintain professional standards, or display reminders of loved ones waiting at home. Instead, as any gender-sensitive observer might expect, the specially femininity of these troops displaces all other dimensions of war/peace/development/security (an impression encouraged by some of the subjects themselves). The BBC even recently juxtaposed the death of a female army medic with an image of another woman coming out of the shower tent. A soft voyeurism on military women as leaky bodies and as somehow out of place. But not just that. The juvenilia comes packaged together with the idea of the Female Engagement Officers as crucial to a kind of military effectiveness:

Captain Crossly told the London Evening Standard that one of the highlights of the tour was ‘seeing the absolute fascination of women in the compound when I removed my helmet and protective glasses to speak to them in their own language’.

She added: ‘Women are known throughout the world to bring people together, to focus on family and community. Just by being female, even in military uniform, you are seen to promote such things and are therefore more accepted.’

Lieutenant French said: ‘The photographs demonstrate the more feminine traits of female soldiers can be used as a strength on operations.’

So, alongside the spectre of menstrual bloody and scandalous nipples, we begin to see soft/smart power at work, a new way of managing global insecurity set against past machismos. Female Engagement Officers as so many Montgomery McFates. As clear an illustration as one could imagine of what Laleh Khalili has analysed as the gendered practices of counterinsurgency:

At one level, counterinsurgency itself is presented as the opposite of a more mechanised, technologically advanced, higher-fire-power form of warfare. Given that the latter is often coded as hyper-masculine, the former is considered feminine. Second, the very object of population-centric counterinsurgency would be perceived as feminine, since the focus of counterinsurgency is the transformation of civilian allegiances and remaking of their social world. On the one hand, in the binary categorisation which forms the basis of mainstream discourses about war, civilian (feminine) is the opposite of combatant (masculine). On the other hand those spaces and subjectivities which regular warfare destroys as a matter of side-effect rather than intent, or which are considered ‘collateral’ to the main job of war-fighting in conventional warfare, are demarginalised, brought into focus, and, in some senses, made central to the work of military and civilian counterinsurgents. These spaces and subjectivities are perceived by both the military and the civilians as gendered in particular and specific sorts of ways. Finally, the practice of counterinsurgency itself is predicated on ‘telling’ (combatants from civilians, hostiles from friendlies etc.), invading, organising, fighting, detaining, transforming, and destroying on the basis of gender (cross-hatched with class and race).

Borrowing from Anne McClintock, this is what Khalili identifies as a colonial context in which, although power is shaped primarily in the interests of (white) Western men, white women are, in relation to the ‘local’ populations, placed in “positions of decided – if borrowed – power”. Past the intimate titillations lies the imagined capacity of the feminine to negotiate and coopt the ‘private’ spaces that imperial grunts cannot otherwise reach. The close co-existence of a mockery of the engagement officers as flawed or impossible soldiers with a view of them as capable and crucial is instructive. It reflects the continuing ambiguity of the counterinsurgent soldier-scholar: that military subject that both retains the characteristics of power, dominance and force usually coded as masculine but also continually keeps them in check through the sensitivity, understanding and communal intelligence more often thought of as feminine. At the level of doctrine, this has been a constant pre-occupation of planners and advisers. Just ask David Kilcullen (also cited by Khalili):

Most insurgent fighters are men. But in traditional societies, women are hugely influential in forming the social networks that insurgents use for support. Coopting neutral or friendly women, through targeted social and economic programs, builds networks of enlightened self-interest that eventually undermine the insurgents. You need your own female counterinsurgents, including interagency people, to do this effectively. Win the women, and you own the family unit. Own the family, and you take a big step forward in mobilizing the population.

Compare that with the views of famed military historian Martin Von Creveld, who wrote the following more than a decade ago on the feminisation and attendant decline of Western militaries:

police forces that specialise in crowd-control now often include a handful of helmeted, baton-carrying, women not because they are really needed – when hard comes to hard they are nowhere to be seen – but because they may be used against other women. In a world where any man who so much as touches a woman is likely to be accused of ‘sexual harassment’, it is helpful to have a few of them around.

The tension, then, is not just one found in media narratives, but also in the internally varied projects for military transformation themselves. An internal othering, in which militaristic ideologies distinguish themselves from an antiquated past or a feminised future, here seeking to preserve the idea of real men doing real fighting, there enacting a progressivism which sees in armed collectives a real equality and a greater ability to understand and intervene in the world than fragmented and egotistical civilian society is capable of. It is an ambiguity that extends beyond this instantiation of gender to the nature of counterinsurgency itself, as Alan Cromartie has recently argued so persuasively.

The original counterinsurgency theorists (like David Galula) reclaimed in the updates of Kilcullen et al. were concerned with the guarding of an imperial order (Galula’s experience was in Algeria, and contemporaries like Robert Thompson were dealing with the problem of rebels in colonial Malaya). Today’s manuals cannot acknowledge that heritage, but terms like ‘legitimacy’ and ‘development’ cannot erase the underlying reliance on violence, displacement and the assassination of political opponents. The ‘culturally sensitive general’ is thus faced again and again with the demands of direct control. A rather fraught internal tension, transposed via gender codings into a contradictory dismissal/valourisation of the feminine at war, and its promise of imperial nurture: coaxing subjected communities into acceptance and usefulness, and saving shock-and-awe masculinity from its own delusions of victory through firepower. But with silly knickers.

3 thoughts on “Female Terrain Systems: Engagement Officers, Militarism, and Lady Flows

  1. Hi Pablo K – It’s great to see someone respond to that spread, I found it quite striking myself. And, not surprisingly, I found the comment section to be very revealing (as usual in the case of pieces, especially those accompanied by images, about servicewomen).

    I did want to point out that my colleague Keally McBride and I make some related points in a piece on “The Gendering of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan”. We argue that:

    the adoption of COIN and the deployment of FETs serve an interesting signaling function in the overall “War on Terror.” As many feminist scholars have pointed out (e.g. Bhattacharyya, Hunt, Nayak, Shepherd, Wibben, Young), one narrative of the War on Terror frames it as a “feminist war” – fought in support of women’s rights in countries with less than stellar human rights records. As such, the deployment of FETs can be read as further evidence of the ‘feminist war’ narrative. Here the woman soldier deployed in Afghanistan, especially to engage the population, delivers the feminist promise: She signals loudly that the occupation of Afghanistan is fundamentally emancipatory – the U.S. and her allies have good intentions in their civilizing mission. This presentation of the intervention as moral and virtuous is achieved via a familiar binary framing making ‘symbolic use of women as markers of cultural, religious and national difference,’ as Nira Yuval-Davis (2001) writes. Here, U.S. women (deployed in FETs) serve as ‘a device for ranking the men of the ‘other’ community as inferior according to their deviation from a putatively normal Western standard’ (ibid, cf. Khalid). [excerpted from our shorter e-IR piece, available here]

    More recently, Jill Steans also mentions the signaling function of FETs in a recent piece for the GiGG Network.



    • Thanks Annick,

      There’s indeed a wealth of good analysis out there, unfortunately often cloistered away behind paywalls and without the reach of The Daily Mail. I’ve personally found notions of ‘imperial feminism’ both incisive and frustrating, but this is something that many colleagues are working on, and interested parties should also check out some of the articles on these issues published in International Feminist Journal of Politics and in texts like Zillah Eisenstein’s Sexual Decoys.


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