Saturday, May 30, 2009

Men and Their Wars

A cousin of mine, when asked what kind of museum she wanted to go to, said "Not one about men and their wars". We're in DC right now - museums are what one does, and so this was rather nontrivial. I am, as you may have guessed, rather interested in War. That said, it's perfectly reasonable to defer to something we all like, like the Natural History Museum, for our DC time. That can be done if one dislikes war, is upset by it, is made uncomfortable or angered or has a hostile reaction. Valid reasons all for not going to a war museum. They are not, in my mind, reasons to skip a history museum. This wasn't about not liking history; this was about 1) treating the whole of history as a series of wars, and 2) treating war as an exclusively male phenomenon.

1. The vast majority of history is the developments, changes, and evolutions in human society, as well as interactions between separate human societies, during peace time. Or times of relative stability - in ages of small-scale and irregular war, it is challenging to classify everything as peace; neighborhoods post-Katrina New Orleans, for example, could be labeled war zones, but that doesn't remove the story of New Orleans from the complicated period of domestic US policy we classify not as an actual war but as the War on Drugs. In order to address the social problems/challenges of such a city, we can't write the violent nature of it's present state off as a discontinuity from the whole prior history of the city; yes, Katrina is a delineating point, but one chaotic force of natural violence isn't the be-all end-all of violence in the area. It is far, far more complicated then that. We don't write the history of New Orleans as a series of unfortunate events beyond human control with no interlude - we write it as catastrophe-survival-adaptation-relaxation-catastrophe. Hurricanes, plagues, and, yes, wars, all serve to mark and identify the end-periods of eras, but the history isn't "this crisis made all this happen". It is "this historic tension, altered by this violence, led to this future, thanks to the actions of these folk". Writing it as a series of crises cheapens the history of the crises and of the city. More than that, though, it is inaccurate - they are both parts of the coherent whole of human experience. To treat history as nothing but war would be to do chemistry with exactly one element - not just dull and useless, but rather impossible. Treating history as a full range of experiences means that yes, it gets more challenging and complicated, but it also means that you are actually treating the subject as though it has worth.

2. War is not an exclusively male phenomenon. It is a predominately male phenomenon, but exceptions at all levels abound: espionage at all times in history, at the command of warring nations in the form of Hatshepsut, Zenobia and Boudica in antiquity, as well as Indira Ghandi, Golda Meir, and Margret Thatcher in the past century, as well as countless others throughout history. On the field of battle itself, women fought in defense of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, and in many specific instances wonderfully compiled here. History is not devoid of women in military roles. What is interesting, then, is how exceptional all these cases are - war is an incredibly gendered phenomenon. Perpetrating and fighting in war has for so long been an overwhelmingly male phenomenon (and, as corollary, women have been especially victimized by war). But that shouldn't make war an irrelevant area of concern for feminists - the gendered nature of conflict should be especially interesting for that reason, not less so.

My point is this: if one objects to studying history because war is unpleasant and history means covering wars, then one should say so. But don't object to the study of history because war is a gendered phenomenon, because that is exactly why it is relevant to gender studies. And more broadly why it is relevant to people as a collective whole.

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