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.’