What's Wrong with Just War Theory? Examining the Gendered Bias of a Longstanding Tradition

By Jiri Krcek
2012, Vol. 4 No. 05 | pg. 1/2 |

The project of just war theory has enjoyed a long and distinguished pedigree, dating back to the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy. Over the centuries, it has, however, commanded a substantial influence from Christianity, enlightenment philosophy, and western secular academia. As a result, the tradition evolved into a myriad of separate branches, which differ in their substantive contents, yet use the same language to express their evaluations. Beside their conceptual divergence, all of the adaptations of just war theories share one identical feature: they are all interpretations of male-derived morality, leaving the feminine voice out of their underlying assumptions.1

In this essay, the gendered nature of the just war tradition is critiqued and its reliance upon hegemonic male-derived understanding of ethics is questioned. The argument is structured in three parts; while the first two  take inspiration from the methodology of poststructural feminism, examining the language behind the just war tradition, the last section revolves around the standpoint of feminism, proposing revitalization of the just war tradition through the ethics of care. In particular, the first part examines the resonance of gender archetypes of the ‘Just Warrior‘ and ‘Beautiful Soul‘ in the rhetoric of non-combatant immunity principle. The second part investigates into the abstract language of just war tradition, rendering itself in the ignorance of war atrocities and portrayal of the enemy as an inhuman “Other.”

These inquiries into gender essentialism and abstract thinking serve to reveal the failure of the just war tradition in paying adequate attention to feminine values. As such, the third part proposes a recalculation of ethical assumptions behind the just war tradition through gender lenses, in particular, through the ethics of care. The essay arrives at the conclusion that the ethical wrongness of the just war tradition lies in male-derived perception of ethics rather than in its specific guidelines. The ethics of care and its emphasis on the value of empathy provides a new source of ethical inspiration for just war theory in order to abandon its gendered effects.

Gender Essentialism

The first critique that feminists have levied against the just war tradition is that it relies on gendered essentialism, privileging values of masculinity over femininity. Jean Bethke Elshtain was among the first feminist scholars who indicated that the exclusion of women from just war tradition was not incidental, but a historically established practice. Although not a post-structural feminist, Elsthain used a Foucaldian linguistic to examine the manner in which dominant images and myths of male as ‘Just Warrior‘ and female as ‘Beautiful Soul‘ continued to resonate in just war doctrines. Her contention was to show that this dualistic gender discourse only serves to reproduce and secure women’s social position as non-combatants and men’s identity as fighters. Elshtain notes that the gendered archetype of portraying women as weak and vulnerable only serves to perpetuate the gender subordination.2

Drawing from Elshtain’s observation, Laura Sjoberg argues that the gender essentialism directly affects the constitution of non-combatant immunity principle in jus in bello. Sjoberg argues that the immunity principle inherently expects that men and women will conform to the inherited gender roles of men being a combatant and women being a passive victim of the war. In other words, men fight wars in order to protect the innocent and vulnerable women. These gender stereotypes indicate that women’s need for protection is the causality as well as the source of moral legitimacy to the practice of making war. While this logic initially appears to protect women, it actually risks women’s lives and perpetuates gender subordination at the same time.3 A classic example of the masculine bias is Article 27 of Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.“4 This statement demonstrates how immunity principle itself is gendered according to masculine values, because it does not equate a woman’s right to be protected from sexual violence with other civilian rights. Categorizing rape as crime against honour has far more to do with how men perceive rape than how women do themselves.5 The fact that the Article 27 fails to see rape as human rights abuse further objectifies women, portraying them as a property of men.6

On the other hand, some feminists argue that the masculine bias of the immunity principle has negative impact not only on civilian women, but also civilian men. According to Charlie Carpenter, the immunity principle has been framed in such a way as to identify only women and children as specific group of innocent and vulnerable citizens, turning a blind eye on the vulnerability of non-combatant men.7 Sjoberg explains that the omission of non-combatant men from the just war tradition is a consequence of the valorised warrior status.8 Those men who fight wars as women’s protectors and heroes fulfil their expected gender roles, whereas others who do not take up the arms are equated with women.9 The Just Warrior archetype makes the civilian man a paradox in the just war tradition. Civilian men exist, but the gendered narrative devalues their masculinity. It is through this devaluation that just war tradition legitimates war and inspires recruits.10 As a result, the gender essentialism renders immunity principle ineffective, failing to protect both civilian women and men.

The story of Private Jessica Lynch offers perhaps the most important insight into how gendered narrative of the immunity principle is exploited to gain moral legitimacy for war. Private Jessica Lynch was among seven U.S. soldiers captured by the enemy forces in the outset of Iraq War. Having suffered injuries during the combat, she was taken as a prisoner of war to the hospital in An Nasiriya to mend. Several days later, U.S. soldiers executed a successful mission to rescue Lynch after obtaining vital intelligence from an Iraqi citizen.11 The story of Lynch has commanded substantial attention in media. Initial reports glorified Lynch as an “American hero” and “female Rambo”, who bravely fought in struggle not to be taken alive. From a first glance, these representations appear to unsettle the distinction between “the man as a protector” and “the woman as the protected”. As a matter of fact, Lynch’s military training and subsequent participation in the Iraq War qualify her as a combatant, disrupting the boundaries on which both masculine and feminine archetypes rest.12 However, a closer investigation into grammar of the story reveals how the image of Lynch was deliberately constructed to portray her as an innocent, civilian woman in the need of protection.13

John Howard and Laura Prividera demonstrate how discursive rhetoric used by U.S. military and media deliberately supplanted Lynch’s military identity with a civilian one in order to fit Lynch into the gendered immunity principle. Howard and Prividera argue that the identity-transforming process occurred in three interconnected ways of Lynch being civilianized, sexualized, and victimized.14 First, numerous military and media reports stripped Lynch of her military identity by excluding her military rank or simply referring to her as “Jessica”.15 Instead, media associated Lynch with a characteristic of innocent civilian by highlighting her pre-war desire to become a kindergarten teacher along with referencing her small physical stature.16 Such characterization ultimately diminished Lynch’s military identity of courageous, Rambo-esque, female soldier and rather civilianized her to fit the gender archetype. Secondly, in constructing Lynch’s feminine archetype, media also frequently highlighted her beauty, sexuality and sexual vulnerability. Being repeatedly depicted as a young, cute and attractive blond served to suppress her military status even further. In addition, there was a discussion on the possibility of Lynch being raped, which yet again emphasized her vulnerability as female and contributed towards victimizing her.17 Finally, Lynch’s construction as an “innocent victim” as opposed to “captured soldier” completed the whole process of identity transformation. Although media labelled her as a hero, it was only because she fulfilled the archetypal expectations of the woman victim. Her heroism was recognized not for being a subject who was saving others, but for being an object that was saved by Just Warriors.18

The above analysis of the story of Private Jessica Lynch reveals two gendered effects of just war tradition. First, it shows how the media representations serve to perpetuate traditional patriarchal nature of military and its reliance on particular form of masculine identity. Yet mainly, it demonstrates how immunity principle was exploited by depicting an image of a helpless, innocent woman who still relies on Just Warrior for her protection, even as a member of the armed forces.19 The gendered narrative classified Private Jessica Lynch into the category of non-combatant civilian, using her gender archetype as a proxy to authorize her rescue. In this sense, the immunity principle fails to achieve its genuine purpose of protecting civilians, and instead yields legitimacy to the practice of war-making.

Abstract Thought

A number of feminist thinkers have voiced their critique against the abstract character of the just war theories for its tendency to examine the criteria for war in terms of hypothetical rather than with reference to actual conflicts.20 Feminist critique rejects the abstraction in the application of just war tradition for two following reasons. First, the abstract thinking turns a blind eye on the atrocities of war and its effects to individuals; and secondly, it creates a perception of the enemy as an evil, inhuman “Other”.21 These abstractions alternate realities in a way that realities are no longer identifiable. In the following paragraphs, I will elucidate these critiques and examine the language through which the abstraction is generated.

The first feminist critique of the abstract character of just war tradition points towards its ignorance for the horrors of war. To illustrate such abstraction in practice, Carol Cohn examines the tendency of state defense intellectuals to use highly abstract and euphemistic language in describing nuclear weapons technology.22 Cohn argues that the deployment of terms such as “clean bombs” or “collateral damage” ultimately distorts the concrete and realistic image of “burning, explosive, flesh-tearing, radiation poisoning, life-annihilating, devastation of nuclear war.”23 The usage of technostrategic rhetoric abstracts nuclear weapons of their horrific capacity to generate suffering.24 Moreover, the specialized jargon used by nuclear strategists replaces actual human lives with hypothetical people. Along with Felicita Hill and Sara Ruddick, Cohn illustrates the story, where nuclear experts were attempting to project realistic estimates of the number of immediate fatalities that would result from different deployments of weapons of mass destruction. At one point, the department discovered that using different calculations the immediate fatalities would instead of 36 million only be 30 million. With a triumphant delight, the strategists announced “That’s great, only 30 million.”25 This rhetoric offers exemplary insight into how abstract reasoning in just war tradition ignores the concrete and particular human lives and their vulnerability.

Another feminist critique of the abstraction in just war thinking relates to portrayal of enemy as the evil “Other”. Jesse Glenn Gray notes that it is essential aim of a state at war to instill in its soldiers an abstract image of “Other” in order to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder.26 The image of an evil enemy allows soldiers to perceive their opponents as aliens rather than humans who share similar needs and desires, making their annihilation much more palatable.27 Gray further reflects on the usage of definite article in the term “the enemy” instead of an enemy or our enemy. By reference to the enemy we imagine a universal force that is not only opponent to us, but also to whole mankind, reinforcing the sharp denial of its humanity. It is through invoking such terminology that people often find themselves unconsciously surrendering reason in creating atmosphere of an abstract communal hatred.28 As a consequence, the abstract hatred blunts people’s sense of real suffering, magnifying the violence in war.

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