I was just considering whether to recycle a truncated debate in class last week for this post, when an email message brought me notice of a lecture by the illustrious Prof. Paul Collier, an economist from the Blavatnik School at Oxford University (http://users.ox.ac.uk/~econpco/). His title: “Is the world approaching war again?” This chimes in with my subject today: WWIII may be already happening and will test the limits of our gender system. Yes, it’s bleak.
Last week I lectured on a favourite subject: Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 and its film adaptation. A favourite because it is a very candid exposé of the patriarchal military ideals manufactured by the USA and exported to the rest of the world (also, well, it has all those great-looking men). I embarked on a long digression criticising the military code based on the defence of honour, glory and duty, with the help of Leo Braudy’s excellent From Chivalry to Terrorism. War is not a subject that goes down well with young audiences, much less with girls, and my choice of a remote conflict (Leonidas died 480 BC) was, perhaps, less than thrilling to them.
I insisted that what is really relevant is not what happened in Greece at the battle of Thermopylae all that time ago but how we represent war today since war, after all, is so intimately connected with patriarchal violence (and hegemonic masculinity). To engage their interest I asked them what would happen if the terrifying Islamic State extended its hold onto our own European shores, or if Putin invaded NATO territory? Shouldn’t we, as feminist women, also volunteer for combat? How would young men react to the need to enlist? Time ran out without my surprised students answering me back.
If I recall correctly, author Nick Hornby voiced through his protagonist Rob Fleming in High Fidelity (1995) a concern that post-WWII generations would not be up to the task of defending the (British) homeland. I recall explaining to an MA class that for men in WWI being branded a coward was fearful enough to enlist; the young male students simply could not understand this: they’d rather be called cowards, they explained, than engage in murder on behalf of their nation. Fair enough.
Conscientious objection is a product of the Great War, which was, let’s say, a war among equals and as such not a justified war. WWII was quite different, as the threat posed by the Nazis was downright evil (the same applies to the terrorist Islamic State today), and it had to be stopped at all costs. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after Vietnam, after the elimination of compulsory military service in most Western countries, we were left with the impression that a) military corps should be exclusively composed by professionals and volunteers, not by citizens called by conscription, b) if WWIII happened, it would be a colossal nuclear affair so short-lived that no actual fighting would happen.
This is not, however, what is happening around the world. Prof. Collier must be either grossly misinformed (which is unlikely) or thinking of WWIII (most likely) for, as far as I know, war has never stopped for a single day on planet Earth. That we, the privileged, have been born and live in peace does not mean that patriarchal violence (in its worst aspect, war) is over at all. Actually, the threats posed by both our Russian neighbours and the Middle East inferno are 100% patriarchal in nature.
I know I am beginning to sound like Maggie Thatcher while waging war on Argentina’s dictatorship but, well, the life of both my grandfathers was marked by their participation on different sides of the tragic Spanish Civil War. How can I forget this? And I have simply no guarantee that what is happening to the young women kidnapped by Boko Haram in Africa will never happen in Spain.
So, if Prof. Collier concludes that, indeed, WWIII war is coming if not already here as a constellation of local conflicts, what are we supposed to do? It’s very depressing, I know, as I’m warning that a civilised masculinity and a pacifist feminism can do little in view of the onslaught of the ultra-violent patriarchal Other. If you think I exaggerate about the Islamic State, just think of Putin’s military might. And of what NATO keeps in our backyards. No, the Cold War is not over.
What am I saying, then? Am I calling the authorities to re-introduce military service in Spain, this time for both men and women? Should we become Israel? No, not really –I’m just feeling horrified by the possibility that the story I’ve been told (peace is vanquishing war) is not true but just a pretty utopia, mere wishful thinking.
In case of war, I told my students, lines will be drawn in the West possibly according to age, not gender: everyone below 45 would be fighting at the front, those above 45 would run the home front. The polite smiles suggested they dismiss this scenario as my sick fantasy (too much SF, most likely). And, then, of course, I’m above 45 as they know.
Yet… what do we know about the future? After all, Europe felt more smug and self-confident than ever, thinking that all wars were over until the very eve of WWI. Let’s just hope, then, that we’re not feeling too smug…
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