Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Review: Globalization and Militarism

[Cynthia Enloe. Globalization and Militarism: Feminists Make the Link. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.]

Among the hardest books to review (and even to read, at least for me) are those that score high in both the plus column and in the minus column. Globalization and Militarism gave me exactly what I was hoping to learn and demonstrated other strengths I hadn't expected, while simultaneously doing things that were not infrequently disappointing, at times shockingly so.

For one of the two major new writing projects whose possibilities I am tentatively exploring at the moment, I wanted to develop a better sense of how feminists have written about militarism and how to integrate considerations of gender with analysis of things military. I've heard Cynthia Enloe's name for years as a leader in that kind of work but hadn't had a chance to read any of her stuff, so going with one of her books was an easy choice. And, sure enough, at least if understood narrowly, it fit my needs to a 'T'. From gendered analysis of globalized relations of production, to a feminist analysis of national security, to the many things that can be learned by starting from the lives of women situated in diverse ways with respect to global relations of militarism, she works step-by-step through different ways that gender can, indeed must, be considered to arrive at a robust analysis of militarism. Moreover, she presents it all in a way that I wish more academics would: with clear, methodical attention to readers who are not already experts. She frames much of it as question-posing, as kinds of things that must be asked and often aren't in efforts to understand the phenomena under consideration in accurate, useful ways. As well, there are certain simple but powerful frames she uses for all of it -- like "feminist curiosity" to describe a certain stance towards constantly asking questions about gender and about women, and like her approach to social analysis that starts from diversely situated lived experiences.

Some of the limitations of the book begin to appear beside the strengths, however, if you consider one of its foci, militarism (and militarization). Giving explicit critical attention to militarism is too seldom done with any thoroughness on the left. At least where I live, it is common for social democrats to oppose a particular war or to oppose a particular right-wing military policy while going out of their way to be very visible about their active endorsement of a slightly tweaked but still essentially militaristic militarism. And the radical left is often both anti-war and anti-empire without giving much explicit attention to the militarism through which both wars and empires partially happen, particularly at the cultural and institutional levels. So I welcome this book's focus on militarism.

Yet the analytical attention to militarism and militarization in this book often feels quite unidimensional. It is not unusual for questions of militarization in different parts of the book -- even granting that a more sophisticated analysis likely underlies each instance -- to be phrased in terms of a linear scale of presence and absence rather than a complex network of relations. Even more concerning, militarization is often talked about as the problem rather than a problem, and the ways in which integration into proximally non-militarized relations of production, state relations, and global inter-state relations binds us into participation in violence and oppression even in non-militarized contexts is largely erased. It seems to me that militarization is best understood as a how and a what, not just a what. Her analysis of national security is a good example of the problem -- the text as written makes it sound like the only problem with national security is its potential or actual militarization. While this is certainly a problem (and an important site for analysis), framing it like this erases all of the exclusion and subordination organized in non-militarized ways through the liberal-democratic state form and its impulses towards so-called "national security." Similarly, when placing militarism in a global context, though aspects of the legacy of colonization and the present-day realities of not-necessarily-militarized oppression and exploitation are described at the phenomenal level at particular points, the centrality of these things to global social organization is largely not named and discussed, which I think is a serious shortcoming.

A few examples: In introducing the U.S. invasion of Vietnam as a site for considering certain gendered aspects of international relations, the text characterizes U.S. actions as pursuing "military solutions to political problems" (47) and suggests that a key question to understand is why successive U.S. administrations continued to pursue an approach that consistently failed to solve said problems. While this is certainly a question worth asking, it was shocking to me that the book asked about persistence in the face of unwinnability but did not ask about (or use as part of the context for the question that it did ask) how the U.S. state and much of the U.S. population could be so blase about an enterprise (effective or not!) that killed millions of racialized people and that was done in support of broader efforts to oppose decolonization. Or later in the book, the example of Haiti is given in passing, with a list of the trials and trauma that its people have had to endure, with no mention of the long-term context of persistent colonial treatment by France, the U.S., and other white-dominated Western nations, and no mention at all of the U.S.-sponsored coup against a democratically elected president just a few years before the book was published. And in the discussion of women serving in combat roles in the military, while her insights into the complex gender dynamics are important and her underlying skepticism of such inclusion as a feminist goal is welcome, this skepticism is never presented as being based in the fact that the U.S. military is a fundamentally imperial organization and being in it means enforcing global relations of empire and colonization and exploitation.

Similar problems of unidimensionality can be seen in the way the book talks about gender, though not always. There are some places where, for instance, its embrace of the centrality of starting from the diversity of women's experience is thorough and emphatic. And there are also places where integration of consideration of social relations of gender and other aspects of social relations are done fairly well -- the early chapter that looks at the global sneaker industry, feminized labour, and militarization does a good job at bringing gender and production together, albeit perhaps not as innovatively or forcefully as a feminist like Sylvia Federici might do it. But there are far too many places where the intertwining of various aspects of social relations is just ignored, and patriarchal relations are treated as fundamental to how the social world is organized but rather than treating other aspects of social relations in the same way (e.g. colonization/white supremacy), they are included through attention to diversity of women's experience without associated structural analysis. Saying this isn't saying that every book has to talk equally about everything, and it isn't arguing that a book about gender should decentre gender -- rather, it is to wonder about the limits of an analysis of the role of gender that does not talk about how the social organization of gender interlocks with other aspects of how oppressive relations are socially organized. Perhaps I am being ungenerous in my reading, but it seems to me that there are plenty of instances in the book in which failure to ask questions about, for instance, racism/colonization is just as likely to lead to an analysis of militarism that misses important aspects as is the pervasive tendency not to ask questions about gender found (as this book rightly notes) in far too many other pieces of writing on the topic. How can you talk about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, for instance, without talking explicitly and structurally about colonization and about white supremacy, and about how they intertwine with gender? There are plenty of other examples. (As I did in another recent review, I would point towards Sherene Razack's Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism as a great example of a book in this area that consistently treats various aspects of oppressive social relations as structural and interlocking rather than artificially separate.)

So, as I said at the start, there are lots of ticks in the plus column, and lots in the minus column. The problems I see with this book are serious ones. Nonetheless, I have learned a great deal from it about how to think about gender as it relates to militarism, which was why I picked up the book in the first place, and also some important things about presenting critical material to a lay audience. So I wouldn't recommend that this be the only thing you read to get a critical perspective on militarism. However, depending on what tools you already bring to the issue, there's a good chance that you might benefit from making sure that this is on the list.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this interesting summary. Have you read the newest edition of her book?