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Monday, March 19, 2012

Military Wives

     War is hell though it is legal and sometime just. And in that hell awful things happen, some of them intended, others that are not.

     Because soldiers are trained to kill their enemies society often pays more attention to the unintended killing of non combatants--though the cynics among us would say that no killing is unintended—than to the death of servicemen. We even produced a name for the unintentional killing of civilian during war time, calling it “collateral damage”, a term whose origin is traceable to the Viet Nam war.

     When collateral damage occurs, we often invoke the principle of proportionality that is codified in a number of international treaties, such as the Hague Conventions of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949, allowing nation-states to defend themselves, provided that the force they use is proportional to the injury they suffered or expect to suffer, though experts agree that the proportionality principle is contextual and open to interpretation.

     What has not been codified and what is rarely discussed, however, is another form of collateral damage, which is the suffering of those who remain in the rear during wartime, mostly the spouses of soldiers who actively participate in war; women in particular.

     This past week we paid much attention to the horrendous act of an American soldier identified as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who is accused of the cold blooded killing of sixteen civilians, mostly unprotected women and children in a town near his base in Afghanistan. The reasons behind Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’s alleged action will undoubtedly be argued by his opponents and supporters alike, and by his legal team, most likely provoking a national debate about the expectation a professional army should have from its soldiers. 

     But we paid little to no attention to Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’s wife Karilyn, until  this weekend, when the media revealed the content of her blogs about her experiences as an Army wife, left in the rear while her husband was fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

     The subject of women and war has captivated a growing number of feminist theorists and other social scientists since the early 1980. Thus, some scholars surveyed the role of women warriors, the exploitation of women workers in wartime, the changing role of women in the military, or the role of women in resistant and revolutionary movements. Others studied the role of women as peacemakers, often dissociating them from war and bloodshed, connecting instead womanhood with pacifism and motherhood with anti-war activism. And even though war has devastated women for centuries, it was not until the mid-1990s, when the mass rape of women as a war-fighting method in Bosnia and Rwanda became public, did the victimization of women by war gain the public attention the subject deserves. At the same time, the subject of women’s aggrievement and other anguish brought upon them by war and its aftermath has gotten little attention. The wives of active-duty soldiers who stay in the rear while their male companions are busy planning, executing and fighting war, often far away from home, fall under this category.  The neglect of their suffering does not reflect the sacrifice these women have made for their nations; nor their potential leverage in their societies.

     Over fifteen years ago as part of a post-doctorate project I conducted, I interviewed Israeli and Palestinian woman who suffered the consequences of conflict and war. Based on their personal experiences, most of the respondents believed that women suffer the consequence of war differently than men. Widows, for example, contended that their societies set much more stringent standards of behavior for them compared to widowers. Others explained the different behavior of men and women in terms of the two sexes' contrasting roles in national war efforts.  Men are usually engaged in war planning and in actual fighting, having no time, chance, or natural inclination to worry about life back home.  Females, on the other hand, are left the burden of domestic responsibilities in addition to worrying about their loved ones in the front.

     Most interviewees thought that the number of women involved in decision-making on military and security issues was not only disturbingly low, but that their participation could change the nature of such decisions. Most were also convinced that their role in their national and existential struggles was no different from that of the male members of their societies even if such a role assumed a different responsibility than that of men.

     I wonder how women like Karylin Bales would compare their unglorified status with that of their glorified military husbands.

1 comment:

  1. You have posed an interesting perception on those left behind. I agree with you that society, in general, places more stringent expectations of the wives left behind. It is still a man's world.
    One only has to look at the brouhaha about birth control being funded by health plans vs Viagra and other male enhancement drugs and their acceptance by health plans.
    We have not achieved equality in this male dominated world.