I was listening to NPR yesterday morning as I straightened my hair and caught part of this program:
Leaked Documents and The War in Afghanistan
on the Diane Rehm show.
I caught most of the discussion and some of the call-in comments from listeners from around the country. I did not call in myself, but I had a reaction to what they were discussing and I’d like to share that reactions here.
In their discussion they began to discuss not so much the leaking of documents themselves, but more so their effect on public support for and public perception of the war. As leaks draw more attention to the war itself, people will push for a quicker solution. One caller even said that the information had changed his mind about whether or not we should even be at war, if that had been the right course of action to begin with.
In my opinion, from the get-go, Americans have misinterpreted the entire nature of not only this war, but war as a concept. The epitome of war for Americans is World War Two. We perceive ourselves to be peace-loving folks, so it was only after a surprise attack that ended the lives of many American seamen and airmen that we were forced into battle. We also like to think of ourselves as decisive folks, so once we decided to go to war, we really went to war. We see how our entire society mobilized. Even our women became part of the war effort- Rosie the Riveter is probably one of the most recognized symbols of the war. In our minds, we marched in and saved Europe when all other hope had faded. We hardly acknowledge the role Russia played in Hitler’s defeat. We also pay little attention the fact that the war was hardly a “world” war at all. Most of the fighting occurred in Europe, and the only reason other countries were involved was due to our own practices of colonialism. America tends to forget these facts. We would rather believe that through our own daring and bravery and power we saved the world. And therefore the world should show us all the respect we are due.
Now, I hope I am not stereotyping or distorting too much. I feel that a lot of people would like to disagree with me, insisting that America knows its place in the world a bit better than that. Unfortunately, the truth is that the average American does not know all that much about her or his own history, and the general idea she or he does have can be only but so accurate.
My main point is that Americans tend to see war through rose colored glasses. When they think of war they think of soldiers valiantly stepping up to fight. Marching into battle with their heads held high. Brave young men struggling across battlefields, ever onward to victory. When Americans conceptualize war they picture this particular type of war. In political science this type of war is known as conventional warfare. But conventional warfare, as its name would indicate, is not the only type of war. If something is conventional, then their must be something with which we can contrast it. Political scientists are not all that creative in their nomenclatures and they call it “unconventional warfare.” It covers types of warfare including insurgency, terrorism, and counterinsurgency.
The Afghan war falls into the unconventional category. It is a war based on counterinsurgency. Despite fighting the war for nearly a decade now, America does not seem to have gotten the tactic right. This raises the all important question: WHY? Why has America, undeniably the greatest military power in the world, been unable to win this war?
Why? Because Americans cannot fully conceptualize unconventional warfare. It is not an idea with which they are familiar, and more importantly, it is an idea which certain social and cultural structures make difficult to embrace. I argue that this difficulty in grasping and accepting unconventional war such as the counterinsurgency taking place in Afghanistan is due to American society valuing the masculine over the feminine.
Before you go writing me off as just another wacko- femi-nazi please let me explain.
When I use the terms masculine and feminine I am not referring to male and female in a biological sense. Male and female refer to sex while masculine and feminine refer to gender. Gender is the values and concepts we ascribe to a particular sex. It means that the values and concepts are not inherent in the sex, but rather something society creates and assigns.
American society has assigned the following traits or values to the masculine and the feminine. Each trait or value is mutually exclusive and opposite of each other. And it is also important to note that the masculine trait is always held at a higher value than the feminine trait.
Masculine v. Feminine
Simplicity v. Complexity
Active v. Passive
Parsimony v. Pluralist
Hierarchical v. Non-hierarchical
Autonomy v. Relatedness
Unilateral v. Coalition
Public v. Private
Rational v. Irrational
Intelligence v. Cunning
Truth v. Fiction
Reality v. Appearance
Strength v. Weakness
Courage v. Fear
Order v. Disorder
Permanent v. Ephemeral
Dominate v. Subordinate
Domination v. Persuasion
Teacher v. Student
(I must note that I have not developed this dichotomy on my own, but rather based it off the works of J. Ann Tickner and Carol Cohn.)
As this post is basically the condensed version of a very long research paper, I will not delve too much into the descriptions of the various types of war. Instead I will point out that all the traits and attributes of the masculine Americans associate with conventional warfare. The feminine they associate with unconventional warfare. And because Americans value the masculine conventional warfare, they naturally discredit and devalue the forms of unconventional warfare. They even fail to see how some aspects of unconventional warfare can even be considered acts of warfare at all, instead seeing them as acts against humanity or other criminal acts.
I argue that if America wants to be able to “win” this war in Afghanistan, then it must come to terms with unconventional warfare. And doing that requires a complete re-evaluation of how we look at war as a society. The public will not support a war it does not understand. And without the public support the war is lost before it is begun.