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To understand why gender is important regarding the explanation for why people fight the term ‘gender’ must firstly be defined. A good definition to use would be Joshua Goldstein’s definition. Unlike other feminists, Goldstein does not use ‘gender’ as the socio-cultural opposite to the biological ‘sex’1. In its place, he uses this term to involve the gendered roles and bodies biologically and culturally appropriately incorporating structures, dynamics and roles2. Although not explicit, a similar attitude is taken by other feminists such as Cynthia Enloe and Miranda Alison regarding war and its relation to gender. Many of these scholars maintain the idea when explaining why people fight gender is vital. This is argued by Alison who contends women in particular go to war in hopes of achieving wider gender equality. Additionally, the concept of masculinity could explain why people go to war; men fight as they feel obliged to due to social norms. However, there are other feasible arguments that could explain why people fight; these are political ideologies, group loyalty and training. Yet, even training will produce a gendered understanding of war and promotes the idea that masculinity is what helps win wars. The outline of this essay goes as follows; the first half will analyse the arguments for why gender is important when explaining why people fight. The latter half will look at the counter arguments. This essay will subsequently, come to the conclusion that gender is not the sole factor for why people fight however, it is something that should be considered and intertwined with other explanations.

One reason why gender is important when explaining why people fight is due to the notion of women emancipation. Many women join the army in hopes of liberating themselves and achieving gender equality therefore, demonstrating the one of many reasons why gender is vital. This idea is discussed by Alison in her work where she uses the example of the LTTE movement who were crucial in the Sri Lankan civil war. This nationalist movement purposely included women in hopes of portraying itself as an ‘all-encompassing social movement’3; the objectives of the group was not just independence from Sri Lanka but also to establish social change within the Tamil community whereby, women were equal to men4. Therefore, gender equality was crucial in group from its beginning. There were several reasons for why people enlisted but two major reasons, which are also gendered, are the ‘sexual violence against Tamil women’5 and the ‘women’s emancipation and the desire to expand their life opportunities’6. This therefore highlights why gender is fundamental in explaining why people fight; it will affect the society socially and will act as a catalyst for equality. Additionally, Alison notes how the LTTE held the belief that women would achieve liberation from the gendered oppression through active combat7 thereby, making them intrinsically different to other militaries who understand the women’s role to be in non-combatant activities; again, demonstrating why gender is central in this instance. Furthermore, the LTTE gave the Tamil women the opportunity to do things that females were raised to believe were either inappropriate or dangerous for women8. Subsequently, Tamil women would feel a sense of empowerment and would join the army in hopes of achieving this hence, indicating how important gender is in explaining why people fight. It serves as something that can empower you as a woman and helps progress towards a more equal society.

Masculinity is another factor that should be taken into consideration when discussing why people fight; this is strongly advocated by Goldstein. Goldstein argues that the concept of masculinity acts a motivation for soldiers across different cultures and thus, the different armies across the globe; it is a worldwide norm. Such norms would comprise of the notion of a ‘test of manhood’, masculine war roles balanced by feminine war roles such as mothers, wives, daughters and sweethearts9, and the women’s roles in actively opposing war thus, furthering the conception of war as linked to masculine traits and peace linked with feminine traits10. Consequently, the presence of women in combatant invalidates the normative aspects of war. What this is essentially asserting is war is for ‘real men’ therefore, signifies why gender is important for why people fight.

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However, gender is not the only reason why people fight. It could be argued that people fight due to group loyalty. A consequence of the primacy of the small group is argued to be that soldiers fight for their friends in their unit rather than for their country11. This is seen with the shift from conscription to voluntary enlistment12. Rather than coercing people join the army, states encourage friends to enlist together. One can take from this that armies have come to realise the importance of units based upon friendships. So, rather than forcing people to join the army they would encourage groups of friends to join thus, group loyalty becomes a key reason to fight. However, there are many things wrong with the small group theory according to Hew Strachan. Firstly, this does not take into account the high casualties, especially over a short time13. An example to illustrate where the notion of small groups did not survive the intensity of the casualties is World War II14; within 7 weeks 73 percent of the soldiers became casualties15 in the U.S. army and an infantry regiment lost its entire strength16. These causalities would have made it difficult to create bonds between the soldiers; many of the soldiers would either die or become so injured they would have to be relocated. Therefore, group loyalty cannot explain why most people fight and is thus not an important explanation; perhaps true for a minority of cases but most do not form bonds where they will consequently fight for their friends. Moreover, there is the key characteristic of the small group; it recognises itself by its contrast to others17. This feeling of distinction between the groups can cause one group refusing to fight, defy orders and in some cases to rebel18. This can be seen in the Vietnam war where the problems of the small group were made clear19. So, small group theories do not explain why people fight thus, leading scholars to turn to theories of ideological indoctrination.

Omer Bartov argued that small group loyalty cannot explain combat motivation due to such high casualty rates in the most bitter fighting of the 20th century, the eastern front in World War II, hence, turning to political ideology20 to explain why people fight. According to Bartov morale was sustained, thereby, allowing the war to be continued, on both sides as each side was committed to a particular cause21. Examples to demonstrate this are World War II with the two ideologies of Germany and Russia being Fascism and Bolshevism and in World War I the ideologies were liberalism and militarism22. However, ideological indoctrination does not seem to be adequate enough to account for high morale and Strachan notes that patriotism ‘seems to be the more general consensus in getting the soldier to the front’23; although he does point out that this is at best implicit rather than explicit24. Nonetheless, this makes it clear that gender is not the only factor; there are several factors in conflicts that influence people’s decision when joining militaries hence, fighting. Conversely, despite liberalism driving the war in Afghanistan, gender was also utilised to gather support for the war and to recruit manpower. This can be seen with the notion of white men having to ‘save brown women from brown men’ in the Afghan war25 thereby, highlighting how important gender is when explaining why people fight; though, it may be a secondary factor in this particular example because liberalism was still the driving force.

Training is another factor that could be used when explaining why people fight. This is strongly advocated by Strachan. Strachan argues this is what essentially explains why people fight. He maintains that training is vital in regard to establishing discipline and order claiming that ‘the aim of discipline is to make men fight, often in spite of themselves’26. He also argues training further helps explain why people fight due its psychological nature. He states it is an ‘enabling process, a form of empowerment, which creates self-confidence’27. Bravery subsequently becomes something that is socially constructed through training and is often perceived as a male trait. Accordingly, this deconstructs the discourse many hold which is males are biologically more inclined to fight; the male soldiers hold these ‘masculine characteristics’ due to the nature of their training and not their biological sex. This could be linked to what Anthony King terms as the ‘honorary man’28. He coined this term due to the masculine emphasis on the training leading women to adopt a masculinised identity and take on masculine traits; this is to enable them to feel they are a legitimate soldier and will affect their fighting; they will fight effectively to prove themselves; shows why gender is essential in this argument. These women fight due to their masculine training rather than a result of their biological sex. However, it must be noted that the reason why women fight may not be intrinsically linked to gender; there may be other underlining causes such as the Kurdish women in the PKK in who fight for independence – so, nationalism – and Marxism – thus, political ideologies29.

In conclusion, gender is vital when it comes to the explanation for why people fight. This can be demonstrated in the Afghan War where the notion of saving the ‘brown women’ was prevalent. This is also highlighted in the Sri Lanka where women fought for wider gender equality however, this is not an isolated case and can be seen in the many other conflicts and armies around the world; the most notable example being the Kurdish women in the PKK. However, in most cases, such as the Kurdish example, gender is a secondary reason rather than a primary reason. This is seen in regard to political ideologies; people fight for a political cause whether it be liberalism, fascism etc. Furthermore, people fight due to the training; it is a source of empowerment and equips you for war by installing masculine characteristics in you. As a result, it becomes clear that gender is important when explaining why people fight but, it is not as important as one may think.

1 Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa, Cambridge, 2001, pg. 2

2 Ibid

3 Miranda Alison, ‘In the warfront we never think that we are women’, women, gender, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,’ in Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry, Women, Gender and Terrorism, Georgia, (2011), pg. 134

4 Ibid

5 Alison, ‘In the warfront’, (2011), pg. 137

6 Ibid

7 Ibid

8 Miranda Alison, ‘In the warfront’, (2011), pg. 139

9 Goldstein, War and Gender, Cambridge, (2001), pg. 5-6

10 Ibid

11 Hew Strachan, Training, Morale and Modern War, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2006), pp. 211-227, Sage Publications, pg. 211

12 Ibid

13 Ibid, pg. 212

14 Ibid

15 Sam Sarkesian, Combat Effectiveness: Cohesion, Stress and the Volunteer Military, California, (1980), pg. 259

16 Martin von Creveld, Fighting Power. German and US Army Performance 1939-1945, London, (1983), pg. 75 

17 Ibid, pg. 213

18 Ibid

19 Ibid

20 Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis and War in the Third Reich, Oxford, 1992, pg. 104-178

21 Strachan, Training, Morale and Modern War, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2006), pp. 211-227, Sage Publications, pg. 214

22 Ibid

23 Ibid

24 Ibid

25 Gayatri Spivak, Can the Subaltern Speak?, in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, Herforshire, (1994), pg. 93

26 Strachan, Training, Morale and Modern War, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2006), pp. 211-227, Sage Publications, pg. 220

27 Ibid, pg. 216

28 Anthony King, The Female Combat Soldier, European Journal of International

Relations 22 (1), (2015), pg. 137

29 Owen Jones,, (2015), accessed 19/01/18 

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