COE 1999 :SEMINAR Men and Violence

The contribution of the military 

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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66c-en_vio ... Violence


European Council of Europen - Human Rights

Section Equality between women and men

Seminar : Men and Violence Against Women

Strasbourg, 8 October 1999 - Palais de l'Europe - France


COE 1999 :SEMINAR Men and Violence

The contribution of the military and military discourse 

to the construction of masculinity in society


The contribution of the military and military discourse

to the construction of masculinity in society

Uta Klein, University of Münster (Germany)


The violent development in former Yugoslavia revealed gender-related aspects of nationalism, of conflict and of war. Whereas women usually remain invisible in situations of armed conflict and military policy-making the last years proved that thorough analysis has to go beyond the "old" formula, that war is "men's business". Serious facts are troubling those who are interested in peaceful societies: Sexual attacks and mass rapes of women and girls in wartime; control of women's sexuality and reproduction; wartime prostitution; the increase of domestic violence in wartime; the uncontrolled influx of weapons in society; the impact of combat experience on men; the loss of family members; the cultural acceptance of violence in society and the dominance of military discourse.


In the following I'm going to deal with militarisation of a society as a gendered process. The example of Israel shows how in a region of conflict (ethnic or/and political conflict)

A gender dichotomy develops which sees defence and fight as the national duty of men and reproduction (in a biological as well as in a cultural way) as the national duty of women

Military socialisation can be understood as a rite of passage to male adulthood

The dominance of military discourse leads to gender inequality in society at large

Israel serves as an interesting case study because military service is compulsory for Jewish men and women. Nevertheless - as we will see later on - this national duty is highly gendered. The military turns out to be the main agent of society in shaping gender roles, constructing masculinity as a military masculinity, and thus serving as the main source of gender inequality in society. In spite of the participation of women in the military Israel shows that ideologies of manhood and the dominant position of the military in society are deeply interconnected.


Men as fighters, women as reproducers

The ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia is the most recent cruel reminder of the importance to investigate the construction of masculinity through nationalism and to unveil nationalist politics as a major venue for accomplishing masculinity.

Nationalism, according to Benedict Anderson, is a set of cultural constructions. Its goal, nation-building, involves imagining a national past or present (Anderson, 1991), inventing traditions (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983) and symbolically constructing community (Gellner, 1983). Nationalism favours a homosocial form of male bonding. George Mosse described modern masculinity as a centrepiece of all varieties of nationalist movements (1997). The representation of the homeland as a female body has often been used. The "geobody of the nation" is a gendered entity.


Gender roles and images are interwoven in national or ethnic conflicts. Narratives define the national duties of men and women in a dichotomous way.[1]

This process can be observed clearly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Central to the Zionist movement as a latecomer among the European nationalist movements during the last century was the notion of masculinity. In the highly negative image of Exile, the Jew of the Diaspora was perceived as passive, fearful, weak and feminine or better effeminate. The Zionist ideal of manliness served as an antithesis. Physical strength and readiness to defend his honour by fighting were the desired characteristics of the "new Jew", a man of action rather than a man of words (ill.1).[2]


The Zionist movement imagined the "return" of the Jews to their "motherland" as the return to the bride Zion. Sometimes the land was depicted as the lover to be conquered and fertilised; at other times it became the mother giving birth to a new "masculine" people.

In any case, imaging Zion or Palestine as female vice versa turned its defenders into real men (see also Katz, 1996). The Palestinian Arabs regarded the Zionist invasion of Palestine as a rape of the land, as is often done in a colonialist struggle.[3]


In various nationalist discourses women are constructed as "bearers of the collective" (Yuval-Davis, 1997), they are perceived as representatives of the collectivity. This usually means they are not only attributed responsibility for the biological reproduction and transition of culture, but also represent the honour of the nation and mark its boundaries (see Yuval-Davis and Anthias, 1989).


To some extent the Israeli-Palestinian political struggle has taken place in women's bodies: Nira Yuval-Davis talks about a "demographic race" between the Jewish and the Palestinian population in Israel (1989). This is often the case in societies in which national conflict exists between two national groups competing for the same territory. In Israeli society security and reproduction are viewed as being the two major necessities for the survival of the Israeli state. Motherhood is emphasised as the national duty or task. The Jewish Israeli birth-rate is discussed widely in the media and those parts of the country which have Palestinian Israeli majority are still cause for concern for politicians.


Vice versa for the Palestinian population in the occupied territories after 1967 a high birth rate became a political weapon against the occupation. If you go through the statistics, you will see that the fertility rate in West Bank and Gaza increased from the beginning of the Intifada (1988) steadily until 1992. It grew from 6.84 as the average number to 7.37 after it had declined during the beginning of the eighties until 1987 (Courbage, 1997).

Bodies and sexualities are of crucial importance as territories and markers of the narratives of nations. In a culturalised discourse gender is embedded in cultural constructions of social identities and also in most cultural conflicts. Cultural differences are used to emphasise 'otherness'. Mostly women symbolise the spirit of the collectivity, they often are constructed as the symbolic bearers of the collectivities' identity and honour, personally and collectively - they carry the "burden of representation" (a term used by Kubena Mercer, 1990). Women's behaviour thus marks the boundaries of the collective. While traditionalist men may be defenders of the family and the nation, women are thought to embody family and national honour: women's shame is the family's shame, the nation's shame, the man's shame.


Again here I would like to give an example connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the Intifada in Palestinian society women were murdered as so-called collaborators. A report of a human rights organisation mentions over 100 murdered women during six years because of suspected collaboration (B’tselem 1994). There are no exact figures for today. One report (of the Women’s Empowerment Project) mentions 20 honour killings in Westbank and Gaza in 1996. Representatives believe there are far more. If you study the cases you'll find that what usually was called collaboration has in reality been a behaviour which was regarded by the families of the murdered women (mostly male relatives) as bringing "shame" on their community and violating honour.


It seems to me, that these gendered nationalist narratives apply to other regional conflicts also. In a study about the Croatian media Dubravka Zarkov (1997) shows how Croatia was depicted as a mother who has to be defended by her sons against the Serbian aggression. The message was that sons have to die to rescue the mother, soldiers were needed to defend the vulnerability of the newly established Croatian state.


Military socialisation as a rite of passage to male adulthood

In Israeli society the heroic fighter has always been male in spite of the presence of Jewish female soldiers. This is not the place to elaborate on women in the Israeli Defense Forces. Very briefly: The conscription of Israeli women does not lead, like one might think, to a deconstruction of the dichotomy between men and women. Women are not conscripted not only as soon as they give birth to a child but as soon as they get married (!), showing that the raison d'ętre of marriage is reproduction. Women are not allowed to have combat roles, so that in Israel as in other defence forces around the world, men are identified in society as the protectors and women as the protected (Stiehm, 1982). Furthermore only men are called to reserve duty regularly until the age of at least 52.


Although the Israeli army is still perceived as the main mechanism of building a national identity,[4] it has become particularly the basis of a male self-image and a source for male social mobility in society (Klein 1999).[5]


For Israeli Jewish males, military service is an inherent part of maturation, a rite of passage to male adulthood. Military service is seen as essential to a boy's right to belong to the inner circle of adult males. It fulfils typically male adolescent desires like intense thrills, adventure and peril, it "provides the specific cultural context for the Israeli transition to adulthood" (Lieblich, Amia and Meir Perlow 1988, 45). That's why army service is described and perceived by war veterans as an opportunity for fulfilment of masculinity (see Edna Lomsky-Feder 1992).


Already in school Israeli Jewish youths are prepared to join the military forces. Lectures are delivered by members of the Defense Forces to give information and impressions of life in the Israeli army. Some youths volunteer for special units or undergo pre-induction courses. Nearly each Jewish Israeli pupil takes part in the yearly "Jom Hakheilot“, a one-day seminar, which is held in co-operation between school and army.


The example of this "Jom Hakheilot" shows that military service for males is a bodily experience. Boys and girls are separated. Films showing soldiers in action and the exciting military life are presented to the boys. The young men are being told, that physical exercises are most important to prepare for military service. Girls however do not see films about women in action. Physical necessities are nearly not mentioned. The main emphasis of lectures and talks lies in emotional questions of military service like the separation from the parents. Also preparing books contain suggestions for fitness-training only for young men.


Military service itself then is a bodily experience. The construction of military masculinity is a physical, a bodily exercise (ill.2). For the huge part of male youths the soldier doing duty in a fighting unit is the ideal. The motivation to serve in fighting units is still high. To be a hero means to be capable of feelings of anxiety. To confess "I'm afraid" is an admission most Israeli soldiers learn to deny during their training, Yaron Ezrachi observes (1998: 138). Those positions requiring a maximum of self-control show the highest status (parachuters f.i.). A good soldier is the soldier who is able to control anxiety.


All in all, in spite of the presence of women, the unit is perceived as a male peer group, as a place of male comradeship, as a place of brotherhood, as a community of warriors.


No wonder that in the public consciousness the soldier as a defender is male. Houses for Commemoration are called Yad banim (translated: House of the sons) and war memorials show women separating from son or husband going to war (for example the memorial at Balfuria from Mordechai Kafri) or nursing wounded soldiers (at Nitzanim from Moshe Ziffer).[6]


The question is however, how these experiences have an impact on behaviour and attitudes of male adults.


Whereas entrance into the society of men is possible only through a test of strength, force and power (participation in the military), women are defined through their relation to the male members of society. Their task, being either wives or mothers or sisters of soldiers is the female role in a process of initiation.


It seems that military training cultivates young men's ability to become skills-oriented "doers", more than reflective individuals, an orientation, which finds its sociolinguistic expression in the prevalence of the typical "dugri" speech style (Katriel and Nesher 1986). The experience of war enhances that orientation and every war reinforces the traditional male-female stereotypes. For Israel we should keep in mind that today's entire active father generation experienced the traumatic Yom-Kippur War of 1973. A huge part of the ten years younger age cohort experienced the Lebanon war. All of them are still in the reserve duty. Their experiences include fear of death, the death of friends, being wounded oneself resulting in the often described "pseudo-strength", a facade of toughness, of blunt, aggressive behaviours.


The Gulf war gives us some impression about what happens when men cannot fulfil their roles as protectors. As Israel didn't join the war, Israeli men for the first time were spared the stress of participating in combat. On the other hand, they were deprived of defending and forced to "passivity". They had to stay at home with their women and children in sealed rooms, which undermined the male identity. Reports show that the number of sexual offences and domestic violence against women increased during the Gulf War.[7]


Sophisticated research about the connections between the military orientation of society and domestic violence in Israel is still missing. Numbers of murders of women by their partners or male relatives are high, taking into account the size and number of population in the state of Israel: statistics speak of between 73 (counting only husbands or spouses) and 127 (counting male partners or other male relatives) murders of women in the years 1990 to 1995.[8] In 1991, the year of the Gulf war, 35 women were killed by their partners. Looking through the reports in the newspapers, I found that a quarter of them were murdered with firearms, sometimes firearms owned by the Defense Forces. There are some cases, where a connection between violence during service in the occupied territories and domestic violence is obvious. In one case, a soldier, who shot and killed a Palestinian girl who sat reading at the entrance of her home in 1989, two years later, in 1991 shot his Israeli girlfriend, who had decided to leave him. I don't want to be misunderstood: in general, men in Israel, as they carry out the military operations, are those who are wounded and killed. But it is women who become targets of beatings from men of their own society because of the heightened aggression.


Men talking about their army experiences often relate to themselves as somehow becoming another person in the army. Reports of soldiers serving in the occupied territories especially during the Intifada show the brutalisation these young men run through.


The dominance of military discourse leads to gender inequality in society at large

Among the impacts of the centrality of the defence forces on gender in the public sphere let me mention only two: the impact on the labour sphere and on politics.


Those who do the most dangerous jobs gain from it not only in the military sphere but also in the civilian sphere. Because of the centrality of the military in Israeli society, service is crucial for a civilian career. Service in the higher echelons of the army is a pathway towards positions inheriting importance and influence in public life. The Israeli Defense Forces are a stepping stone for most of the senior officers for a civilian career. This automatically means a discrimination for those groups not incorporated in it, which are first of all Moslem Arab Israelis of both sexes. Jewish Israeli men gain from their military service by accumulating social capital, establishing contacts for their professional careers (networking) and achieving material and symbolic benefits. The capital Jewish women accumulate is not valued very much on the civilian labour-market.


Men convert their military rank into ranks of political parties. Military background is regarded as a necessary precondition for public office. The percentage of women in the Knesset since the establishment of the Israeli state has never exceeded 10%, which is lower than the percentage of female representatives in any European democracy![9]


In the election campaign this year several women's organisations addressed in a public appeal the fixation on male leaders with military backgrounds (ill. 3). Former generals established new parties, politicians adorned themselves with the support of high-ranking military men.

In the newly formed government in a projected cabinet of 33 ministers one single woman, Dalia Itzik, was appointed as minister. After some months, in August, the prime minister appointed five additional new ministers, among them the second woman, Yael Tamir. The preoccupation with military background you find also in the homepages of the Knesset members in the Internet: the military rank is, after education and profession, the next information given about male members.


Women's representation in local authorities also has been extremely limited. During the state's existence only six women have served as heads of local councils, none of them in a city with a population over 10,000. Currently there are only two women head of a local council. The political sphere is predominated by men, who during the last ten or fifteen years have, in their 40s, retired as generals and transferred into business or into the political realm.

It seems that this process relates to both sides of a regional conflict: if you observe the Palestinian state formation, you'll find a highly preferential treatment of those men who fought in the liberation movement and who had been imprisoned during the Intifada or earlier.



What is a militarised society?


According to Betty Reardon's classic "Sexism and the War System" militarism is a belief system that is "based on the assumption that military values and politics are conductive to a secure and orderly society" (1985, 14). Militarism, she continues, "manifests the excesses of those characteristics generally referred to as machismo, a term that originally connoted the strength, bravery and responsibility necessary to fulfil male social functions" (15). Whether or not a society is in a state of conflict is not the only factor to describe a society as a militaristic one. One also needs to consider, so David Morgan, the extent, that military training is seen as necessary feature of the training of all male citizens, the extent to which political leaders have military backgrounds, the extent to which military uniforms are a persistent feature of public sphere and the economic variables: which proportion of national resources are being devoted to military expenditure (1994).


I hope to have shown that I consider military and military discourse as the main agent in shaping gender relations in Israeli society.

The following indicators deriving from that example should be investigated in order to judge the influence of the military on the construction of masculinity in societies:


► Is the military the main agent to sharpen male identity? ● compulsory military service / all volunteer force ● option of alternative service (scope & length of alt.ser.) ● numbers of age-cohort deciding for military service ● is conscientious objection accepted in society?  

► Elements of military training/ socialisation ● military language ● devaluation of what is regarded as being female ● male bonding ● drilling ● rituals of subjugation ● presence of female recruits  

► Predominance of military in ● private sphere, ● political realm ● public life  

► Degree of defence expenditures




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Mosse, George Lachmann (1997). Das Bild des Mannes. Zur Konstruktion der modernen Männ­lichkeit. Frankfurt a.M.

Reardon, Betty (1985). Sexism and the War System. New York: Teachers College Press.

Stiehm, Hicks (1992). The Protected, the Protector, the Defender. In: Women's studies international Forum, 5, 3/4, pp. 367-376.

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Yuval-Davis, Nira (1997). Gender and Nation. London et al.: Sage Publications.

Yuval-Davis, Nira and Floya Anthias (1989). Women, nation, state. Houndsmills, Basingstoke: The macmillan press ltd.

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