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.
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.
Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”
George Will is denouncing a GOP that has been ailing for years, but quitting won’t help—an American political party can only be reformed from within.
This past weekend, George Will revealed that he had formally disaffiliated himself from the Republican Party, switching his Maryland voter registration to independent. On Fox News Sunday, the conservative pundit explained his decision: "After Trump went after the 'Mexican' judge from northern Indiana then [House Speaker] Paul Ryan endorsed him, I decided that in fact this was not my party anymore.” For 40 years, George Will defined and personified what it meant to be a thoughtful conservative. His intellect and authority inspired a generation of readers and viewers, myself very much among them.
His departure represents a powerful image of divorce between intellectual conservatism and the new Trump-led GOP. Above all, it raises a haunting question for the many other Republicans and conservatives repelled by the looming nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for president of the United States: What will you do?
Hillary Clinton wrote something for The Toast today. Are you sobbing yet?
Either you’ll immediately get why this is crazy, or you won’t: Hillary Clinton wrote a thing for The Toast today.
Are you weeping? Did your heart skip a beat? Maybe your reaction was, “What. Whaaaat. WHAT,” or “Aaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!” or “OH MY GOD,” or simply “this is too much goodbye I'm dead now.”
Perhaps your feelings can only be captured in GIF form, as was the case for someone commenting on Clinton’s post under the name Old_Girl:
Reader comments like the ones above are arguably the best part of Clinton’s post, because they highlight just how meaningful hearing directly from Clinton is to The Toast’s community of readers. The Toast is a small but beloved feminist website known for its quirky literary humor. It announced last month it couldn’t afford to continue operating. Friday is its last day of publication.
“This western-front business couldn’t be done again.”
On this first day of July, exactly 100 years ago, the peoples of the British Empire suffered the greatest military disaster in their history. A century later, “the Somme” remains the most harrowing place-name in the annals not only of Great Britain, but of the many former dependencies that shed their blood on that scenic river. The single regiment contributed to the First World War by the island of Newfoundland, not yet joined to Canada, suffered nearly 100 percent casualties that day: Of 801 engaged, only 68 came out alive and unwounded. Altogether, the British forces suffered more than 19,000 killed and more than 38,000 wounded: almost as many casualties in one day as Britain suffered in the entire disastrous battle for France in May and June 1940, including prisoners. The French army on the British right flank absorbed some 1,600 casualties more.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
What percentage graduated from high school and enrolled within a year at a four year institution where they live on campus?
Who are today’s college students?
The answer surprises most people who attended four year universities, according to Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina Foundation. Addressing audiences, like the one he spoke to Friday at The Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, he frequently poses this question: “What percentage of students in American higher education today graduated from high school and enrolled in college within a year to attend a four year institution and live on campus?”
Most people guess “between forty and sixty percent,” he said, whereas “the correct answer is five percent.” There is, he argued, “a real disconnect in our understanding of who today’s students are. The influencers––the policy makers, the business leaders, the media––have a very skewed view of who today’s students are.”
The trend helps explain Trump and Brexit. What’s next?
On Wednesday, Facebook made an announcement that you’d think would only matter to Facebook users and publishers: It will modify its News Feed algorithm to favor content posted by a user’s friends and family over content posted by media outlets. The company said the move was not about privileging certain sources over others, but about better “connecting people and ideas.”
But Richard Edelman, the head of the communications marketing firm Edelman, sees something more significant in the change: proof of a new “world of self-reference” that, once you notice it, helps explain everything from Donald Trump’s appeal to Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. Elites used to possess outsized influence and authority, Edelman notes, but now they only have a monopoly on authority. Influence largely rests with the broader population. People trust their peers much more than they trust their political leaders or news organizations.
There needs to be more nuanced language to describe the expanding demographic of unmarried Americans.
In 1957, a team of psychology professors at the University of Michigan released the results of a survey they had conducted—an attempt to reflect Americans’ attitudes about unmarried people. When it came to the group of adults who remained single by choice, 80 percent of the survey’s respondents—reflecting the language used by the survey’s authors—said they believed that the singletons remained so because they must be “immoral,” “sick,” or “neurotic.”
It’s amazing, and reassuring, how much has changed in such a relatively narrow slice of time. Today, certainly, marriage remains a default economic and social arrangement, particularly after having been won as a right for same-sex couples; today, certainly, those who do not marry still face some latent social stigmas (or, at the very least, requests to explain themselves). But the regressive language of failed morality and psychological pathology when it comes to singledom? That has, fortunately, been replaced by more permissive attitudes.
The relationship therapist Esther Perel thinks so—and argues that it’s time to rethink matrimony and, with it, infidelity.
Think of the last wedding you attended. Did the couple’s vows to each other involve promises to be, for the rest of their lives, friends and family and companions and lovers and allies? Did the two people vow to keep exciting each other and soothing each other and listening to each other and challenging each other, to be co-adventurers and co-Netflixers and co-owners of things and possibly co-parents of things and, all in all, pretty much all things to each other?
If so, the couple is very modern. Marriage has spent most of its existence, in the West and elsewhere, as primarily an economic arrangement; as a result, it has also spent most of its existence much less laden with the emotional expectation that we tend to heap upon it today. The current romantic conception of marriage—evident in the culture not just in the guise of hopeful wedding vows, but also in the wedding industrial complex and in pretty much every Hollywood rom-com that defines its “happy ending” according to the satisfactions of long-term commitment—is the result of historical coincidence. It arose, the Belgian relationship therapist Esther Perel argues, from a collision of several forces that collided in the 19th and 20thcenturies: among them capitalism, latent Romanticism, and the political and cultural notion of the primacy of the individual.
How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?
Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.
But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?