Elevate Difference

One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers

Are there lessons to be learned from the interminable nightmare in Iraq? Was more heartbreaking instruction needed, even after My Lai and William Calley and Zippo raids? The media, with its relentless blather about heroism, simply can’t accommodate the postmodern ambiguity in the story of Private Jessica Lynch or the fragging death of Pat Tillman. And then there’s Abu Ghraib.

Tara McKelvey brings together a fine collection of essays in One of the Guys, contributed by the likes of Eve Ensler and Angela Davis, mostly responding to a single horrible image from that episode of torture: Private First Class Lynndie England and two of her fellow soldiers holding a naked Iraqi man on a leash. Some of the writers in the collection, such as Barbara Ehrenreich, are struggling to accept “a tough new kind of feminism” that recognizes that atrocity knows no gender. It is not women who are the heroes and men who are the enemies, but rather feminism as an idea and spirit that holds out the promise of human liberation—and patriarchy as a system that has kept us in chains.

Ensler makes what should be an obvious point: “having a vagina is not a prerequisite for being a good leader.” Women who submit themselves to a system that encourages torture, killing and destruction are perfectly capable of the same malevolent behavior more typically associated with men. Some of the writers in this collection note the mixed emotions they experience after having advocated for women’s equal access to the military, an opportunity, many felt, that entails the possibility of social mobility for many poor or working class people.

Davis points out, however, that being assimilated into an “ideology of male dominance”—a culture of violence wherein women are given “equal opportunity to torture”—is antithetical to what feminism can and should be. The fact that women soldiers (along with uncounted female “noncombatants”) are being injured and killed in record numbers is a dubious mark of progress, to say the least. Some try to defend Lynndie England by pointing out that her relationship with a male supervisor played a role in the torture—or that she is more victim than persecutor. The larger point is that there can be no heroes in war, postmodern or otherwise, and the sooner we accept that principle, the sooner we can move on to the next stages of feminist critique and social justice.

Written by: Rick Taylor, April 28th 2007