As wars become less about states and more about societies, women can play a greater role in shaping or ending conflicts. So why do we still think of war as inherently male?
An Afghan artist removes rubbish in front of her graffiti in an industrial park in Kabul / Reuters
Asked to describe war, most Americans would probably throw out words like troops, tanks, guns, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Our historical and cultural understanding of war is shaped by our focus on the men who fight -- and it is still overwhelmingly men who fight -- and the tools they use, and this has become the prism through which we understand war and its consequences. War is a male domain, says conventional wisdom, in which women play little direct role.
But the idea of war as a male domain is increasingly out of touch with the way that war is fought today -- and whom it impacts. Across the globe, conflicts are primarily fought not by well-trained armies at the behest of their governments but by non-state groups with complex motivations and little incentive to obey the laws of war. In these wars, civilians are often targets, not just collateral damage; 90 percent of conflict casualties are civilians, many of whom are women and children. A 2009 study by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo concluded, "men are more likely to die during conflicts, whereas women die more often of indirect causes after the conflict is over." When our understanding of a given war focuses so overwhelmingly on its male soldiers and statesmen, we miss the larger context -- namely, we underestimate the many roles women can and do play -- which makes it harder to end war and create durable peace.
Our common understanding about what war is and who participates can change, but it's a slow process. For example, the idea that wartime rape is a crime against humanity -- rather than an inevitable byproduct of war -- is relatively new. After the Holocaust, there was little effort to collect evidence of systemic rape; at the Nuremberg trials, no charges of rape were filed. In contrast, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia opened a case devoted solely to sexual crimes -- a watershed moment in the development of international law regarding the intersection of women's rights and conflict. As part of their excellent, five-part Women, War & Peace series, PBS produced I Came to Testify, a documentary that tells the story of Foča, the town in Bosnia that was the site of multiple rape camps during the war there. The site later became central to the International Criminal Tribunal's efforts to prosecute rape as a crime against humanity. Prosecutors were able to collect physical evidence from Foča and gather 16 women willing to testify before the court. The inclusion of women as witnesses, lawyers, and judges was key to the case's success and to the establishment of systematic rape as a crime against humanity.
Through ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has begun to appreciate the importance of gender in war -- and not just as an artifact of political correctness. As the U.S. moved to a strategy of counterinsurgency, they put less emphasis on killing bad guys and more on engaging with locals as a way of de-escalating violence. The military, though a male-dominated institution itself, became increasingly aware of the role of women in society and their influence over the men in their families. The military created Female Engagement Teams, whose members can talk directly with Afghan women (whose culture forbids them to talk to men outside their family). That was a strong start, but the idea that traditionally female spheres are of secondary importance during war and are not a male concern still persists, and may hamper future counterinsurgency efforts.
Men still tend to dominate peace negotiations -- often the same men who were responsible for starting the war -- in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Women are still in the minority at these talks, if they're invited at all. The 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell tells the story of the women of Liberia, who ended the decades-long conflict there by pressuring dictator Charles Taylor to attend peace talks in Ghana -- then followed him to Accra to keep the pressure on. The women were led by Leymah Gbowee, who, along with Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent work to ensure women's voices were heard in the peace process. In the documentary, Gbowee discusses the talks in Ghana, where the men acted like they were on vacation until the women staged a sit-in and refused to allow the negotiators to leave their conference room until they took their work seriously. The imagery is telling: the men are inside bargaining while the women are outside, with no direct influence over talks that could change their lives until they decide to use their bodies as doorstops.
There are lessons here for Afghanistan, where women are struggling to hold on to what gains they've made since the Taliban was driven from power in 2001. In Liberia, women have helped prevent the return of large-scale violence through their influence over family members and communities, which might be more likely to use violence without this women-led, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Though there are cultural differences between Afghanistan and Liberia, of course, the need to include Afghan women in the peace process is clear when the stakes for women -- and the country -- are so high. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged that she will not bargain away Afghanistan's women, but Afghan women themselves are still not sufficiently represented at international talks, such as the 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan.
Including women becomes even more important in post-conflict reconstruction, particularly disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration efforts. In peace time, women generally bear the responsibility for the health of the family and the education of children; after war, they often take up the added burden of sick and injured relatives. Because women often suffer more in conflict than men, they may have greater incentive to pursue non-violent strategies.
Local women may also understand on-the-ground realities of war in ways that the international community cannot. And yet, outside forces and peace-builders -- NATO in Afghanistan, for example, or the United Nations in Libya -- often fail to seek their input. In an interview, Gini Reticker, director of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, recounted an incident where the United Nations planned to collect guns from former combatants. The UN had expected it to be a symbolic event; when thousands of men showed up to accept a payout to turn in their guns, the UN was unprepared and a three-day riot followed in which 12 people died. If UN workers had engaged the women of Liberia in the planning process, they would have understood that the women were pushing hard for their sons to disarm. These women also knew the communities that the guns would be coming from, and could have told the UN which factions needed to be separated in the disarmament camps. Liberia's disarmament process went as well as it did because women were eventually involved, but it would have gone even better if they'd been included earlier.
By understanding war as a male pursuit, we obscure the suffering, the triumphs, and the contributions of women. We also limit our ability to conduct war and to negotiate lasting peace. Without a dramatic shift in our popular conceptions about war and the roles women can play during and after conflict, we will have a harder time escaping the cycle of war and will be unable to find new ways to limit conflicts and rebuild societies.
War Redefined, the final episode of Women, War & Peace, airs tonight on PBS.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Maya Arulpragasam is a famous rapper, singer, designer, producer, and refugee. When she was 9, her mother and siblings fled violence in Sri Lanka and came to London, and the experience was formative for her art. As she explained to The Guardian in 2005 after the release of her debut Arular, “I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about. Take everybody’s bad bits and say, ‘Actually, they’re good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?’”
That goal—to glorify people and practices that the developed world marginalizes—has been a constant in her career. Her new music video tackles it in a particularly literal and urgent way, not only by showing solidarity with refugees at a moment when they’re extremely controversial in the West, but also by posing a simple question to listeners: Whose lives do you value?
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
The year after my father died, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
That same week I got a call from my mom—she was struggling to pay off my dad’s funeral expenses. I looked at my “House Fund” and sighed. Then I deleted it and typed the words “Funeral Fund” instead.
My father’s passing was unexpected. And so was the financial burden that came with it.
For many Millennials of color, these sorts of trade-offs aren’t an anomaly. During key times in their lives when they should be building assets, they’re spending money on basic necessities and often helping out family. Their financial future is a rocky one, and much of it comes down to how much—or how little—assistance they receive.
To solve climate change, we need to reimagine our entire relationship to the nonhuman world.
Humans were once a fairly average species of large mammals, living off the land with little effect on it. But in recent millennia, our relationship with the natural world has changed as dramatically as our perception of it.
There are now more than 7 billion people on this planet, drinking its water, eating its plants and animals, and mining its raw materials to build and power our tools. These everyday activities might seem trivial from the perspective of any one individual, but aggregated together they promise to leave lasting imprints on the Earth. Human power is now geological in scope—and if we are to avoid making a mess of this, our only home, our politics must catch up.
Making this shift will require a radical change in how we think about our relationship to the natural world. That may sound like cause for despair. After all, many people refuse to admit that environmental crises like climate change exist at all. But as Jedediah Purdy reminds us in his dazzling new book, After Nature, our relationship with the nonhuman world has proved flexible over time. People have imagined nature in a great many ways across history.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The generation has been called lazy, entitled, and narcissistic. Their bosses beg to differ.
Yes, many Millennials are still crashing on their parent’s couches. And there’s data to support the claim that they generally want more perks but less face time, and that they hope to rise quickly but don’t stick around for very long. Millennials have also been pretty vocal about their desire to have more flexible jobs and more leave time.
But does all of this mean that all Millennials are actually worse workers?
Laura Olin, a digital campaigner who ran social-media strategy for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, says that’s not been her experience. “You always hear about Millennials supposedly being entitled and needing coddling, but the ones I’ve encountered have been incredibly hard-working and recognize that they need to pay their dues.”
Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and other presidential contenders appease Donald Trump at their own peril.
Give Donald Trump this: He has taught Americans something about the candidates he’s running against. He has exposed many of them as political cowards.
In August, after Trump called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and vowed to build a wall along America’s southern border, Jeb Bush traveled to South Texas to respond. Bush’s wife is Mexican American; he has said he’s “immersed in the immigrant experience”; he has even claimed to be Hispanic himself. Yet he didn’t call Trump’s proposals immoral or bigoted, since that might offend Trump’s nativist base. Instead, Bush declared: “Mr. Trump’s plans are not grounded in conservative principles. His proposal is unrealistic. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.” In other words, demonizing and rounding up undocumented Mexican immigrants is fine, so long as it’s done cheap.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
While Saint Nicholas may bring gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe's Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways—or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack.
While Saint Nicholas may bring gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe's Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways—or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack. In keeping with pre-Germanic Pagan traditions, men dressed as these demons have been frightening children on Krampusnacht for centuries, chasing them and hitting them with sticks, on an (often alcohol-fueled) run through the dark streets.
What I learned from attending a town-hall meeting and listening to students’ concerns
Sometimes it takes a group of young people to set you straight.
For months now, I’ve been reading about college students who’ve been seeking “safe spaces.” They’ve often been met by derision—even the highest ranked Urban Dictionary definition is mired in sarcasm, describing them as having “pillows” and “soothing music” that “allows them to recover from the trauma... of exposure to ideas that conflict with their leftist professors.”
I also had some mid-life skepticism about teenage hyperbole, that is, until I attended a town hall meeting at Duke University (my alma mater) earlier this month. The “community conversation,” as it was called, had been hastily convened to discuss the rash of racist and homophobic incidents on campus. Listening to those students—and watching their expressions—I realized that what’s been happening at Duke is serious, and no amount of sarcasm can disguise the pain and anger on campus, or cover up the real dangers lurking there.