BIG IDEAS: War. What is it Good For?

Kavita Ramdas and Isabel Allende /
Credit S. Smith Patrick
While perusing Jezebel recently, I was completely annoyed to read about a conservative pundit who was bemoaning the “feminization” of the Medal of Honor in the U.S. military. Bryan Fischer laments,
“When we think of heroism in battle, we used to think of our boys storming the beaches of Normandy under withering fire, climbing the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc while enemy soldiers fired straight down on them, and tossing grenades into pill boxes to take out gun emplacements. That kind of heroism has apparently become passé when it comes to awarding the Medal of Honor. We now award it only for preventing casualties, not for inflicting them. So the question is this: when are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night?
(Emphasis mine.) Normally I would dismiss this kind of commentary for what it is: inflammatory and irrelevant...

But I had just read the story of Salvatore Giunta out loud to my boyfriend the night before, and the weight of war and the incredible, impossible position it puts our young men in (Giunta was only 22 when the incident that earned him the Medal of Honor occurred) was vivid in my mind. Not only that, but in the past week I had just attended two events that got me thinking about women and their roles in wars and war-torn countries: A conversation between former president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women Kavita Ramdas and famed author Isabel Allende, and a dialogue between Women for Women International’s country directors from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Christine Karumba, and Sudan, Karak Mayik.

The event with Kavita and Isabel was called “Resist, Reclaim, Restore,” and took place on Veterans day—an interesting choice for an announcement of the Global Fund’s new Women Dismantling Militarism initiative. Kavita and Isabel wondered: when rape is used as a weapon of war, when women and children comprise 75 percent of casualties of war, why has the feminist movement remained largely silent about resisting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why aren’t we protesting the fact that the U.S. spends billions of dollars on its military while simultaneously cutting funding for education, the arts, and public health? (By the way, for a visionary reimagining of the U.S. budget with billions less spent on the military, check out Jane Midgeley's submission to Economica, "Gender Budgeting and the U.S.") Kavita and Isabel both had personal experiences with women victims of war, and Kavita said these experiences solidified her perception of women as “indestructible.”

A few days later I listened in as IMOW’s Executive Director, Clare Winterton, moderated a conversation between two women who live with, and rise above, war every single day: Christine Karumba from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Karak Mayik from Sudan, country directors for Women for Women International. Christine and Karak remain incredibly optimistic about the future of their countries, but the realities they have faced while living in war-torn nations are heart-wrenching and horrific. The DRC has been at war for nearly 20 years, while Sudan has been at war almost continuously for two generations. Millions of people have been killed, and mass rape continues to be a common weapon of war.

And while Christine and Karak spoke to the resilience of women in their communities despite violence, ruin, and death, neither of them see the women in their countries as indestructible. In fact, Christine said that in the DRC, she sees two types of deaths: The death of the body, in which you no longer physically exist on this earth, and the death of the spirit, in which all hope is lost, and with it, the will to go on.

So, Bryan Fischer, if the Medal of Honor has indeed become feminized, I’d argue that is one small step in the right direction. And I'm crossing my fingers that the rest of the military gets a little "girlier," too.