War (or Lack Thereof) on Gender

The Winter Soldier testimonies of 1971 and 2008, conferences held by Vietnam and Afghanistan war veterans in an effort to exhort the public to end these respective wars, both reveal the persistent and destructive presence of gender in war. Like war, a social construct such as gender benefits no one. Those born male in the United States are pressured to embody stereotypical American masculinity, an ideal that consists of the suppression of an emotional self in addition to rampant participation in brutality. As both Winter Soldier conferences confirm, war’s environment demands an individual to cloister their emotions both in order to survive and to continue perpetrating severe violence. On the other hand, femininity as a social construct implies complacency, chastity, and subservience to males. Therefore, from the testimonies of both male and female soldiers in both Winter Soldiers, it seems as though there is no room for femininity in war. For this reason, women—even those who actively serve their country—are glued to a position of victimization during wartime. Everyone touched by war, however, is plagued by injustice long after war ends. As the Winter Soldier conferences exhibit, war ultimately represents the failure of gender structures, as it more broadly signifies the extreme culmination of masculinity.

In 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) congregated in Detroit to share their experiences in Vietnam with the public, holding back no gory detail nor explicit memory. This conference sought to expose the monstrosities that took place during the war. The testimony from soldiers revealed that boot camp training even includes desensitization to violence. Those in higher ranks address the prospective soldiers not by their names, but by “soldier.” Already, these young men no longer think of themselves or each other as men or people, but soldiers: disposable killing machines. One soldier describes “the rabbit test,” which occurs on the day prior to deployment and consists of a drill sergeant skinning a live rabbit in front of the men, ending the exercise by saying, “that’s the VC.”1 This exercise reinforces the idea that men, in order to properly prepare for war, must suppress emotional reaction to violence. One soldier blatantly said, “they tell you the people over there aren’t people,” and another adds that they are taught to do or say “anything to de-humanize them.”2 Though encouraged to suppress their emotions and strongly assert themselves in daily life, men are required to do so during war.

From a young age, people born male are bombarded with the idea that violence, insensitivity, and domination over females characterize their gender. War, then, is advertised toward men with the promise that participating will fulfil the social expectation already set for them. One soldier says, “what I really wanted to see for myself was whether I was really a man or not, and [going to war was] how I thought I’d find out.”3 If war represents the epitome of masculinity, enlisting, then, becomes the ultimate test of this arbitrary social construct. Having at last served, subsequently bearing witness to the unspeakable cruelty of war, the same soldier testifies,

Sometimes when I talk about [the war and its atrocities] I laugh all the time because I don’t want people to think I’m not a man. It’s kind of the way I’ve been brought up . . . you’re supposed to be a man and men are hard and they don’t have feelings. But when I think about it, it bothers me inside and I know there’s nothing I can do to change it, so why let it bother me? So I don’t think about it. 4

This soldier’s insight perfectly exemplifies the incredibly destructive mental consequences of gender for males. Since they are rarely taught emotional language, men have few channels through which to express feelings other than anger, frustration, and pain. War logically dovetails this notion. Moreover, rather than show any sensitivity to either himself or the Vietnamese—a form of catharsis that could lead to healing—the soldier chooses to laugh his experiences off in order to maintain his masculine facade. War has forced men to act out the extremes of their gender roles; the severity of the situation has forced them shut out any perceived feminine emotions like sensitivity, compassion, or gentleness. For men, adhering to gender structures during war becomes a crucial survival mechanism. Rather than accept and emotionally process the horrors of war, the soldier reverts to the lessons he has gleaned from masculinity (suppress real emotion, continue rampage) in order to survive.

The pressure to maintain stereotypical maleness appears as a common thread between all the soldiers’ testimonies. Men who served in the Iraq or Afghanistan war also understand the extent to which gender dynamics play into war. Just like those who participated in the first Winter Soldier, these young male veterans recognize the role they played in perpetuating the poisonous constructions of masculinity and femininity. Unlike the Vietnam veterans, however, the 2008 Winter Soldier participants more directly accept their guilt and address the problems presented by gender constructs without equivocation. Rafay Siddiqui testifies about his experiences in Djibouti on an earlier deployment. He witnessed young Ethiopian girls, trying to escape poverty, come to Djibouti only to work as prostitutes for Marines and for French legionnaires who were also stationed there. Prostitution, of course, represents an extension of one branch of femininity—that of a woman not as a person, but a body. He says,

You’re not a man until you’ve taken advantage of a woman. You’re not a man until you’ve sexually abused someone at some point. Impressionable 18- and 19-year-old young men come into the service, and see everyone doing it, so they themselves have to do it too because they want to fit in. 5

Any buyer who participates in the system of prostitution undeniably maintains subordination of females. Siddiqui seems far more critical of the implications and consequences of his own gender than do those veterans in the first Winter Soldier. He correctly identifies the immense social pressure young male soldiers feel in upholding the facade of their masculinity, which as he also identifies, depends on taking advantage of and sexually abusing women. Though we do see the same dynamic in daily life (that of men needing to prove their manhood through sexual conquest), in war it is taken to the extremes of sexual abuse. Worse, just as we saw in the Vietnam war, this abuse becomes normalized. As a LGBTQA rights-advocating veteran, Jeff Key, perfectly articulates, “at the core of war machine is an ideology that is based on the gender paradigm.”6 The soldiers, however, do not think to combat this stereotype, and instead continue to suppress their feelings as they have been taught to do.

The pressures of masculinity that drive men to war perpetuate the male veterans’ pain long after war ends, prolonging their healing, if not obstructing it all together. War inflicts unimaginable psychological harm upon those who serve, the pain from which extends into  daily life once the soldiers return home. When asked at the 1971 conference how war shifted his concept of manhood, the first soldier to speak gives a heartbreaking response, representative of the undeniably strong correlation between masculinity and war. He says, “I had some sensitivity courses and sometimes guys would cry, and sometimes I felt like crying . . . I’d start to, and then I’d think about something else. Even though I know I shouldn’t think of a man the way it is, I just can’t change. I try to change, I still try to be brave and things like that, rather than hard and emotionless.” 7 The existence of such courses in and of itself speaks to the ways in which America fails its people by instituting and reinforcing the construct of gender. Sensitivity training treats emotional rhetoric and experience like calculus or physics, as though there exists a linear step-by-step solution, when in actuality fixing the problems brought about by masculinity and by war begins with the destruction and understanding of gender before it is ever enforced. This soldier’s testimony emphasizes that the ability to access one’s own emotions, an ability that should have been—can only truly successfully be—instilled and exercised when coming of age, should not have to be taught at all. Male veterans, soldiers, and civilians alike deserve more than this weak attempt to compensate for the trauma males are conditioned to endure. Furthermore, since the vast majority of these soldiers were young when they arrived in Vietnam, many were forced to come of age during war. This environment bears witness to bloodshed and inhumanity almost exclusively while the soldiers enter the most emotionally informative period of their lives. Thus, their mental health weathers inconceivable damage that the soldiers, due to gendered societal expectations, cannot express.

In order to reintegrate themselves in American society, soldiers must unlearn normalized violence. Yet their gender restricts them from fully processing the intense mental wounds they still carry after the war. A veteran shares, “That’s got my head spinning a little right now, the fact that at one time I was an animal, and now I have to come back and be civil again. People expect a purpose, to have a definite purpose  . . . but there’s more and more veterans now that just are finding that there’s no purpose because they’ve never given us one.”8 No longer encouraged to kill, these men have forgotten how to function in normal society, though they must pretend as though war did not permanently alter their lives. These veterans’ troubles show that ritualized violence, as perpetuated by masculinity and normalized by war, proves unsustainable; the lessons of war—of masculinity—are useless and unusable in any peacetime context. Another soldier says, “[once home] it took me a week and a half to remember [a specific] incident . . . and then all this stuff just kept coming back to me.”9 Forced by social expectation to forget the war and set aside their emotions, these soldiers felt a pain unable to be healed even by time. In fact, the first documented cases of PTSD were in Vietnam War Veterans. 10 When sharing their experiences, some soldiers clearly force themselves to hold back tears, restraining themselves from visibly exposing their emotions even when describing the most intense horrors. Still, unlike the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese women violated during the war, these male soldiers get the opportunity to voice their experience.

Displays of violence in the Vietnam War were clearly distinguished and executed by gender. Though American soldiers viewed the Vietnamese through a lens of racism, the sadism inflicted upon Vietnamese women goes far deeper than that against the men. By definition, male supremacy requires the total domination of females. In the context of war, this definition radicalizes so as to demand unparalleled sexual violence against women. In the United States, traditional femininity, at least as it was understood in the years leading up to the Vietnam war, suggested that a woman not act or live as her own individual but as a complement to the life of her man. From the veterans’ statements, it seems as though brutality against the Vietnamese women most commonly resulted in rape. Besides the utter mental desecration unleashed onto one human being by another, rape more largely represents the dehumanization by an attacker of his or her victim: the ways in which a rapist sees his or her victim not as a person, but as a body. Recounting his experience with villagers, one soldier describes that one female civilian, “had no clothes on so I assumed she had been raped, which is pretty SOP.”11 If racism allowed for the American soldiers to mentally dehumanize the Vietnamese, sexism—the pressure to fulfill gender roles—allowed the mobilization of these dehumanizing thoughts. Soldiers considered rape SOP: Standard Operating Procedure, a complete normalization of the perverse. Such behavior became so commonplace, in fact, that a different soldier actually admits,

These people are aware of what American soldiers do to them, so naturally they try to hide the young girls. We found one hiding in a bomb shelter in the basement of her house. She was taken out and raped by 6 or 7 people, in front of her family, in front of most of the villagers. This wasn’t just one instance, just the first one I can remember, but I know of ten or fifteen such instances at least.12

Rape, violence against women as encouraged by masculinity in war, became standardized to such an extent that Vietnamese came to expect it. Women especially become a target during war, as evidenced by the fact that the Vietnamese choose to hide their women rather than children or men. Beyond the monstrosity of the rape itself, it occurred in a very public space, one in which this person’s family and community witnessed it; the realization of any woman’s nightmare, put on display in front of her most intimate relations. Not one soldier at the conference reports of sexual violence against men; possibly because sexual assault has been defined as a feminine issue, so men feel that they forfeit their masculinity by admitting to having been a victim of sexual assault. Masculinity views women through a lens only of sexual conquest, as evidenced by the sexual nature of violence inflicted upon women by men during both the Vietnam and the Afghanistan or Iraq war.

Displays of violence in the Iraq or Afghanistan war also were distinguished and executed by gender, yet unto women who chose to serve their country. When a woman serves her national defense, she transcends her gender role. Because, however, war is oriented toward those who society believes should embody masculinity, women are punished for participating. Unlike the 1971 Winter Soldier, the 2008 conference dedicated an entire panel to the presence of gender and sexuality in war, which suggests the pressing and permeating nature of the issue. Moreover, the existence of this panel signifies that the flaws of gender have finally gained some deserved recognition. Recognition, alone, however, does not amount to justice. Margaret Stevens, one of the veterans present, rightly says that the panel exists because the issues “transcend into the core of war itself.”13 Wendy Barranco, another female veteran, shows the ways in which women—even when they break away from their gender roles for the greater good of their country—face discrimination. She says, “I was harassed every single day, I dreaded going to work . . . it’s extremely difficult to do your job efficiently, proficiently, correctly when there’s someone you have to look out for.”14 Gendering not only degrades the lives of individuals, but hinders the overall war effort. As Barranco says, she had trouble doing exactly what she had enlisted to do simply because her male companions viewed her as a body rather than a person. Especially during war, every effort must be utilized to the fullest extent. With gender present, however, such an effort becomes impossible. Masculinity, due to its shallow nature, encourages men to view women in a sexual manner. War serves not as an exception, but as radical evidence and reinforcement of this viewpoint. Barranco once again expresses her disbelief at her treatment during employment. Shocked, disappointed, and frustrated, she says, “I joined trying to do something for my country and trying to do something patriotic, and the last thing I would have imagined would have been joining an organization where, by my own peers my own comrades, I would have been harassed in that way.” 15 War presents a system of rewards for brutality, a system in which only men are allowed to participate and in which women are punished for doing so.

Institutionalized enforcement of gender roles in war explains why many victims of sexual assault or harassment do not report, and why the army does not take thorough precautions to ensure that proper protocol exists and is executed for such issues. The Army, Navy, and Air Force do, in fact, require sexual misconduct prevention education, which Barranco describes as “check-the-box training;”16 a system in which one need only spout the lessons of equality and just treatment, though not need actually practice them nor learn their proper exercise. As Stevens poignantly asserts,

There’s no evidence [of sexual harassment or assault] because from the beginning you’re not taken seriously, and when there’s no evidence you don’t qualify for benefits. And you can’t claim you have PTSD because there’s no documentation of the crime, and when you try to document the crime you’re coerced . . . that’s psychological warfare against the entire population, not just against the women, because those young men have to live with that too—deciding whether they want to be on the side of the victim or the victimizer.17

Her declaration perfectly illustrates the extent to which gender poisons not just war, but life—the extent to which institutions are set up to disservice women, most frequently the victims of sexual crimes (at least as it is reported) and perpetuate the supremacy of men. If a woman comes to her superior (who very well might be the one sexually harassing or assaulting her) to report the crime, she is written off, so if no report is filed, the crime never happened in the eyes of the armed forces. If a woman is not written off and a report does materialize, Stevens suggests she is silenced through coercion or blackmail; charges are never pressed, so the perpetrator goes free, and can continue to inflict damage. The unnecessarily grueling process, as Steven correctly asserts, would mentally devastate anyone, not just women. In the system of gender, men who seek to exceed the confines of their gender roles by advocating for women are also forced into silence; the choice represents social justice at the expense of reputation, which choice would lead to their own subordination and ridicule. How, then, could anyone expect a man to support a woman—for the oppressor to sympathize with the oppressed—in the context of war, a situation in which every relationship dynamic is centered on a winner and loser?

War extracts, capitalizes upon, and reinforces extreme stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. The promise of securing one’s masculinity draws men to war, only for them to find this lure proved false; they were trained to enact horrific acts of violence for a lie. The idea masculinity for which they struggled to prove and defend later plagues them in their process of recovery. As shown by male veterans in both Winter Soldiers, too many people discover the futility of gender roles only once they have gone to war. Women in war, regardless as to whether they participate in the armed forces themselves or are merely civilians, must either suffer or constantly dodge sexual harassment and or assault. In war, in gender constructs, there are no winners. The silence that surrounds gender narratives merely perpetuates the misery inflicted upon everyone regardless of gender identity, especially during wartime. The psyche of a human being cannot be belittled or simplified into a stereotype—human nature has intricacies, nuances, sophistications that go far beyond the convenience of labels.

  1. Winter Soldier, produced by Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Winterfilm Collective. 27 January 1972. (Detroit, MI: Milliarium Zero).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Winter Soldier,” produced by Iraq Veterans Against the War, accessed December 6, 2016, https://www.ivaw.org/wintersoldier
  6. Ibid.
  7. Winter Soldier, produced by Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Winterfilm Collective. 27 January 1972. (Detroit, MI: Milliarium Zero).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Winter Soldier, produced by Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Winterfilm Collective. 27 January 1972. (Detroit, MI: Milliarium Zero).
  10. Matthew J. Friedman, MD, PhD, PTSD History and Overview,” National Center for PTSD in U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, last modified February 26, 2016, http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/PTSD-overview/ptsd-overview.asp
  11. Winter Soldier, produced by Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Winterfilm Collective. 27 January 1972. (Detroit, MI: Milliarium Zero).
  12. Ibid.
  13. “Winter Soldier,” produced by Iraq Veterans Against the War, accessed December 6, 2016, https://www.ivaw.org/wintersoldier
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.