What are bodies in a military context

Weapons and armor

Cordula Dittmer

To person

Dr. phil., born 1977; Freelance researcher at the Disaster Research Center of the Free University of Berlin.
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Although military organizations, in historical retrospect, have always relied on women in times of war and crisis, war and the military are still regarded as typically male domains. They were seen in the past as the most important institutions in the construction of masculinity; Military masculinity was made up of the combination of physical strength, heterosexuality, courage, the will to fight, the willingness to die for the nation and to protect the weak, the "women and children" [1]. [2] Many of the current conflicts and wars are also based on the connection between struggle, strength and masculinity and the idea of ​​femininity to be protected. Sexual violence is used in wars to weaken the enemy's fighting strength; The mass rape of large parts of the female population was used, for example, in the wars in the former Yugoslavia to break the morale of the enemy troops. [3] The idea that women (as soldiers, fighters, supporters) could also be involved in killings, war crimes and torture is still difficult to grasp for the international political public, as the participation of women soldiers in the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners of war impressively shows has. [4] The instrumentalization of gender identity is, as feminist and gender-sensitive peace and conflict research has shown in various studies, an essential aspect of modern warfare. [5]

The use of weapons and the associated opportunities to decide about life and death and to exercise power and violence are central to the definition of military masculinity and have always been a clearly defined criterion for separating the sexes into an armed male and a non-armed female gender used. Until recently, women were formally excluded from fighting positions in almost all European countries. It is true that they were allowed to use weapons as paramedics as part of self-defense, and they also received appropriate training. However, this did not apply to combat operations. "Armament (is) the longest-lasting and most stable limit that women had to cross in order to become fully recognized soldiers." [6]

In social practice, however, the link between the use of weapons and military masculinity was by no means as close as the official line dictated: Depending on the historical context, the requirements of the military and political leadership and the ambitions of individual women, women always took an active part in combat events. In addition to the most famous historical fighter and French national heroine Johanna von Orleans, who defeated England and Burgundy under French troops in the 15th century during the Hundred Years War, for example a woman named Gesche Meiburg fought during the siege of Braunschweig by the troops of Duke Friedrich Ulrichs von Braunschweig. Wolfenbüttel 1615 and successfully defended the city. Dorothy Lawrence was a war reporter in men's clothing at the front in World War I and made it into the special forces of the British military in 1915 dressed as a man. [7] The best-known German example in recent history were the so-called flak helpers: in the final phase of the Second World War, after the reservoir of male soldiers was exhausted, women and young people were brought in and deployed in combat support positions that were actually reserved for Wehrmacht soldiers.

However, these historical examples did not lead to the connection between soldier honor, masculinity and the use of weapons being broken; on the contrary, women carrying weapons were taboo, mystified or discriminated against as "shotgun women" in the public eye. The flak helpers also returned home after the end of the war and fulfilled their traditional housewife role. Traumatic or emancipatory experiences that they had in these missions found no room to come to terms with in the post-war period. It is only since the 1990s that the diverse experiences and complex entanglements of women in wars and conflicts as victims and perpetrators have been dealt with. [8]

With the end of the Cold War and the restructuring of military organizations from conscription armies to professional armies, many European armies opened partially or entirely to women. However, fighting positions remained closed to women in many countries. [9] In 2001, a ruling by the European Court of Justice forced Germany to open the Bundeswehr to women. Although the majority of German soldiers do not identify with traditional combative masculinity due to German history, [10] the use of weapons and the associated possibility of exercising violence is still negotiated in the context of military masculinity. In a study published at the beginning of 2014 by the Center for Military History and Social Sciences on the acceptance and integration of women ten years after the opening of the armed service, almost half of all male and almost 30 percent of female soldiers expressed the opinion that women were unable to to take on physically demanding tasks. 40 percent of the men supported the exclusion of women from combat positions, and 20 percent of the male soldiers were of the opinion that women need special protection in difficult missions. [11] Traditional notions of military masculinity thus continue to create identity for some of the soldiers.

At the same time, war and warfare are changing their face: the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles and drones not only challenges the parties to the conflict and the civilian population in new ways, the military gender order is not unaffected, especially if the traditional fighter is the basis of military self-definition, as is particularly true of the US armed forces.

On the symbolic meaning of weapons for military cultures

Five different dimensions of the use of weapons (related to hand weapons, small weapons) can be identified historically: [12]
  1. The weapon as a social symbol: The weapon serves to separate society into civil and military areas. Historically, it also served as a distinguishing feature of different social classes and different types of troops. Each branch of service within the military has its own armed pride that defines its soldierly honor and masculinity.
  2. The weapon as a religious symbol: The weapon symbolized the connection between war and Christianity in the Christian area for many centuries in the sense of the "sword of God".
  3. The weapon as a national symbol: Weapons always serve to create positive self-definition and fighting power. Their own weapons are judged to be stronger and more powerful than those of the enemy.
  4. The weapon as a symbol of sexuality and masculinity: weapons always have a sexual connotation. Thus, the weapon is seen as a phallus that penetrates into hostile areas (defined as female). On the level of masculinity, they symbolize socially recognized male characteristics such as courage, strength, fighting power, protection and defense. Weapons symbolize an "embodiment of violent, often militarized models of masculinity, which, in turn, have broader socio-political ramifications". [13]
  5. The weapon as a person: weapons become close friends, especially in the context of military socialization, they are the "bride of the soldier", a comrade or a part of one's own body. They become partners, emotional support and thus feminized in internal military discourse.
From the previous statements on the close historical connection between military masculinity and the use of weapons, it could be concluded that the handling of weapons is a particular challenge for female soldiers. In social practice, on the other hand, the opposite is initially evident: for female soldiers, the opportunity to be trained on the weapon is often an important reason for deciding to go into service. Many are enthusiastic about the shooting training and very proud when they successfully complete the training and sometimes do better than their male comrades. [14] Soldiers see "carrying a weapon as a privilege and as proof of their military worth as well as a source of authority and self-confidence". [15] Only by mastering the weapon can they participate in military masculinity and cross gender boundaries. In the process of "becoming a soldier", women who join the military must conquer and appropriate these male-occupied spaces. In addition to wearing the uniform, passing military exercises, demonstrating physical performance and exercising camaraderie, training on the weapon represents the last hurdle in identifying with the soldier's profession and acquiring the power to injure. [16]

On the other hand, the discourse on the use of weapons also shows the difficulty women have in developing a positive soldier self-image. On the one hand, they do not identify with the given military ideal of femininity - the weak woman to be protected - but, on the other hand, they can only assume the identity of the soldier as a fighter with great effort, since the discourse about the different physical capabilities of women and men is very dominant. For example, the carrying and use of weapons are explicitly described by many women soldiers as a very physically demanding task which, as women, they are not up to. Soldiers are therefore in an ambivalent position: The training and use of weapons are central to participating in military masculinity and thus becoming "real" soldiers. At the same time, they have to deal with the fact that they are always seen as women with certain female connotations.