Thursday, July 28, 2005

Feminist Perspective on War:Strengthening A Reasonable Position

The question on the feminist position on war has long been debated. Jean Bethke Elshtain argued in her essay that basically, there is no clear position taken by feminist or more generally women on war and related issues such militarism and violence. Elshtain illustrated two main extreme positions. The first was the `Spartan Mother`-the woman who places the civic above the private, eager to sacrifice her son of the civic necessity, and thus perceive war- especially that is motivated by patriotism- as a justified matter, in which woman should give their contribution. The second position, called as the `Beautiful Soul`, conversely perceives war and any other related violence as something that should be resisted by women, as it was identical with the masculine values. ‘Beautiful Soul’, which has been known as the more dominant perspective in the contemporary feminist thinking, urges that women should stand up against any use of violence and contribute to the society through non-violent action instead. Elshtain concluded by offering an alternative position manifested in the prototype called a `chastened patriot`, which in many senses, quite similar to the `Spartan Mother`, except that this position said to be `keeping alive the distancing voice of ironic recognition` of how patriotism can shade into the excesses of nationalism`. [1]
Besides making people easier to justify a war, having undermined the diversity of feminist discourse as well as many aspects in the feminist non-violent arguments, this argument has a serious problem. In respect to the just war theory as well as the feminist discourse, I would like to propose my own argument about what position should be taken by the feminist, and women in general.
To strongly oppose to war and other uses of violence is the most reasonable position for women. It is not an essentialist point of view or solely biological reductionism (as accused by Elshtain) when the bulk of the feminist thinkers said that women are more likely to choose the non-violent and peace efforts. Rather, it is a result of the women’s long empirical experiences in the history of mankind. During the waging of war, women often forced to carry the heaviest burden. They lost their husbands and sons, suffered severely as refugees, had to take care of the children and the elderly in harsh condition, targeted for rape (which is very commonly happen during the conduct of war and often systematically organized by the military as a war strategy), and suffered from the domestic violence when their husbands returned from war in mentally-ill condition as the memories of the war had disturbed their mind.[2] As this situation has taking place for centuries and internalized in women’s mind in general, it is not surprising when women become the most eager anti-war segment of the population.
History has also shown that most of the people who are involved in and conduct the war and violence are men, which it is even become a stronger force for women, to take the opposite position against them, in order to create such a balance in the just war and non-violence scale. In creating this balance women then seek for an alternative tool to struggle for justice. As non-violent action has been universally acknowledged as the `weapon of the weak` and those who opposed against the conduct of war often accused to be a `wimp`, they just reverse this stereotype by using non-violent actions, in contrast to hard weapons used in war. In many cases, this `weapon` as proved to be as effective as, or even sometimes more effective, than the violent methods.
This is not to say that any kind of war is intolerable, because in certain circumstances, the conduct of war is sometimes forced to be the most suitable strategy. When the conduct of war is based on the reason of justice and the non-violent efforts have really been exhausted, even women can tolerate the conduct of just war, of course with some strict conditions. [3]
Elshstain’s cynicism on the non-violent position of most feminist thinkers is a fallacy. The argument seemed to exaggerate the importance of patriotism, while in my opinion, patriotism and nationalism certainly often become the cause of unjust war. I agree that justice is difficult to measure, but in many cases, patriotism is often clearly not the manifestation of justice. Moreover, as argued by Jill Steans, patriotism, has been a creation of patriarchal spirit in the modern nation building process, has long been a source of oppression toward women. War’s prominent role in the creation of the modern nation states has settled up a ‘Patriarchal State’, which gives privileges to the so-called ‘Warrior Hero’ or people who contributed in the war who are mostly male. Consequently, this ‘Patriarchal State’ excludes the women, making them the second class citizens. [4]Basically, I believe that regarding some certain circumstances, feminist and women can tolerate a just war, not because this war can be justified on the notion of patriotism, but by the demand of justice and the exhausted non-violent efforts.
However, I should emphasize that the so called ‘just war’ is really rarely take place, moreover in the recent times when the interests of the superpowers often disguised as the freedom and justice for all people and unilateralist violent action is more preferable than negotiation and multilateralism. The danger of military subordination toward civilians, which makes civilians (especially the women and children) more vulnerable casualties also make the requirement of just war more difficult to accomplish. In short, in the conduct of war, unjust war is almost absolutely unavoidably taking place.
Based on this situation, I strongly agree to maintain the feminist’s anti-war and non violent position until the very last limit, as it might be the best contribution that women can give not only to protect their fellow women (and children, often inseparable part of women who are also vulnerable from the negative impact of war) from vulnerability during the conduct of war, but also for the human being in general. This kind of alternative force is needed to create a tighter restriction toward the conduct of violence and war, in order to avoid the unjust war and to minimize the just war.
Actually, women’s special relationship with peace and non-violent nature has even been considered as one of the most important contribution of feminism in the studies of International Relations. This discourse, once again, not solely based on the stereotyped perception toward male’s violent nature and women’s peaceful and nurturing nature (as most of the essentialist feminist’s critics said) , but based on the actual needs and the real situation. Many people might see it mostly as an academic debate, but it is expected to encourage women, to give their best contribution to the human civilization.

[1] Jean Bethke Elshtain explained this in the essay titled ‘Is There A Feminist Tradition On War And Peace?’ (Handout of ‘Just War’, Summer Semester 2005, College Of Art And Science, The University Of Tokyo)
[2] The post-war trauma and domestic violence relationship recently gained more attention during the US’s invasion on Iraq January of 2002, researchers from Yale University and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Haven, Connecticut published a study in the American Journal of Public Health which found that the 21% of the American men involved in the combat possessing the problem of current spouse or partner abuse. (
[3] For further reading, Michael Walzer’s ‘Arguing About War’ (Yale University Press, 2004) provides the most recent discussion about the criteria of ‘Just War’, including some latest criticism and development of the Just War doctrine.
[4] Jill Steans explained this in her ‘Gender And International Relations: An Introduction’ (Polity Press, Oxford, 1998), particularly in the chapter titled ‘The ‘Warrior Hero’ And The Patriarchal State’

(written for 'Just War', Summer Semester 2005, The University Of Tokyo )

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