Women Now Run the Military-Industrial Complex. That’s Nothing To Celebrate.

Against the feminist-washing of U.S. militarism.

Dean Spade and Sarah Lazare January 12, 2019


Major media out­lets are fawn­ing over the fact that women are tak­ing over top posi­tions in the country’s largest weapons com­pa­nies and in U.S. defense and intel­li­gence agen­cies. From MSNBC to Politi­co to NowThis, a num­ber of promi­nent pub­li­ca­tions are fram­ing this ascent as an indi­ca­tor of over­all progress for women — and of increased equi­ty in the orga­ni­za­tions they are now leading.

Faux feminist P.R. is not just for private corporations—it is also being used to sell woman-led CIA torture.

Women are now the CEOs of four out of the country’s five biggest mil­i­tary con­trac­tors, writes Politi­co reporter David Brown, not­ing that, across the nego­ti­at­ing table, the Pen­tagon’s top weapons buy­er and the chief over­seer of the nation’s nuclear stock­pile now join oth­er women in some of the most influ­en­tial nation­al secu­ri­ty posts.” Brown hails the devel­op­ments as a water­shed” moment, cit­ing Kath­leen Hicks, senior vice pres­i­dent at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, a think tank whose top cor­po­rate fun­ders are weapons con­trac­tors, as assert­ing that the nation­al secu­ri­ty com­mu­ni­ty” is more of a mer­i­toc­ra­cy than oth­er fields.

Through­out the arti­cle, the women lead­ing these orga­ni­za­tions pro­claim that women can make it to the top if they believe in them­selves. They call on well-worn gen­der stereo­types to assert that women have some­thing spe­cial to offer because of their unique tal­ent at nego­ti­at­ing, their fierce pro­tec­tive­ness as moth­ers, and their dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive” on prob­lem solv­ing. The arti­cle even includes patron­iz­ing praise of how women’s lead­er­ship in the mil­i­tary can result in inno­v­a­tive solu­tions like wrap­ping sen­si­tive equip­ment in panty­hose to keep out sand.

Yet, fem­i­nists should not view this rise” of women as a win. Fem­i­nism, as the most recent wave of impe­r­i­al-fem­i­nist arti­cles shows, is increas­ing­ly being co-opt­ed to pro­mote and sell the U.S. mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex: a pro­found­ly vio­lent insti­tu­tion that will nev­er bring lib­er­a­tion to women — whether they are with­in its own ranks or in the coun­tries bear­ing the great­est brunt of its bru­tal­i­ty. As Noura Erakat, a human rights attor­ney and assis­tant pro­fes­sor at George Mason Uni­ver­si­ty, put it in an inter­view with In These Times, women’s inclu­sion in U.S. mil­i­tary insti­tu­tions makes the sys­tem sub­ju­gat­ing us stronger and more dif­fi­cult to fight. Our his­tor­i­cal exclu­sion makes it [appear] desir­able to achieve [inclu­sion] but that’s a lack of imag­i­na­tion. Our his­tor­i­cal exclu­sion should push us to imag­ine a bet­ter sys­tem and anoth­er world that’s possible.”

This pro-mil­i­tary media spin is no acci­dent: Weapons con­trac­tors are work­ing hard to sell a pro­gres­sive, pro-women brand to the pub­lic. Raytheon and oth­er firms spend mil­lions on pub­lic rela­tions paint­ing them­selves as noble empow­er­ers of women and girls in the sci­ences. Raytheon cham­pi­ons its part­ner­ship with Girl Scouts of the USA. Through a mul­ti­year com­mit­ment from Raytheon, Girl Scouts will launch its first nation­al com­put­er sci­ence pro­gram and Cyber Chal­lenge for mid­dle and high school girls,” states a pro­mo­tion­al page. A high-dol­lar pro­mo­tion­al video quotes Rebec­ca Rhoads, pres­i­dent of Raytheon’s glob­al busi­ness ser­vices, as stat­ing, Raytheon’s vision about mak­ing the world a safer place and the girl scouts’ vision of mak­ing the world a bet­ter place couldn’t be more well-suit­ed as part­ners.” Such a claim is par­tic­u­lar­ly brazen, com­ing from a com­pa­ny that sup­plies a steady stream of bombs for the U.S.-Saudi war in Yemen, which has unleashed a famine that has killed an esti­mat­ed 85,000 Yemeni chil­dren under the age of five.

Lock­heed Mar­tin, by far the biggest arms pro­duc­er in the world with $44.9 bil­lion in arms sales in 2017, man­u­fac­tured the 500-pound laser-guid­ed MK 82 bomb that struck a Yemeni school bus last August, killing 54 peo­ple (44 of them chil­dren). But that doesn’t stop the com­pa­ny from pre­sent­ing itself as a pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tion that recruits — and sup­ports — women sci­en­tists. A page on its web­site quotes the Langston Hugh­es poem, A Dream Deferred,” to make the case the the com­pa­ny helps girls achieve their dreams. This poem was one of my favorites from my high school Eng­lish class, but, now, as I con­sid­er my Com­mu­ni­ty Ser­vice and Engage­ment with the Lock­heed Mar­tin com­mu­ni­ty, I per­son­al­ly know what can hap­pen to a dream deferred, when many say no, but I say, Yes you can,’” the page states. In her speech at the 2015 World Assem­bly for Women in Tokyo, the company’s chair­per­son, pres­i­dent and CEO Mar­il­lyn A. Hew­son said that it is just as impor­tant to sup­port women as they work to lift them­selves up and raise up each oth­er. Because tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for our own careers is empow­er­ing in and of itself.”

Faux fem­i­nist P.R. is not just for pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions — it is also being used to sell woman-led CIA tor­ture. Gina Haspel, who once over­saw tor­ture at a black site in Thai­land, now runs the CIA, and the Trump admin­is­tra­tion defend­ed her from crit­ics of tor­ture by point­ing out the fact that she is a woman. Any Demo­c­rat who claims to sup­port women’s empow­er­ment and our nation­al secu­ri­ty but oppos­es her nom­i­na­tion is a total hyp­ocrite,” said Press Sec. Sarah Sanders on Twitter.

Yet, Erakat asks, How are you going to cel­e­brate women in high mil­i­tary ranks as an achieve­ment when all they do is ful­fill an agen­da that was nev­er cre­at­ed through a fem­i­nist frame­work? Haspel was an archi­tect of our tor­ture régime. Why would I cel­e­brate her?”

Mean­while, the war crim­i­nals of yes­ter­year are being reha­bil­i­tat­ed by this girl-pow­er” cov­er­age. Last April, The Wash­ing­ton Post ran a sto­ry with the eye­brow-rais­ing head­line, “‘The kids, they love Madeleine Albright’: How a vet­er­an diplo­mat got turned into a girl-pow­er icon.” In 1996, Albright, the then‑U.S. ambas­sador to the Unit­ed Nations, told 60 Min­utes” that the half-mil­lion Iraqi chil­dren killed by the U.S. sanc­tions régime were worth” it.

It’s a very white, impe­ri­al­ist, lib­er­al under­stand­ing of fem­i­nism to think that the pro­mo­tion of women at the top of mil­i­ta­riza­tion and mil­i­tarism is advanc­ing women,” says Kara Eller­by, author of No Short­cut to Change, who derides what she calls the add-women-and-stir” approach. Sure, it’s great that you have a woman at the head of Raytheon, but what about the women who those bombs are being dropped on?” Eller­by empha­sizes to In These Times. From a glob­al per­spec­tive, putting women in charge of U.S. mil­i­tary dom­i­nance is not remote­ly fem­i­nist: It’s imperialist.”

Fem­i­nist schol­ar and author Cyn­thia Enloe echoes this con­cern, sug­gest­ing that women’s lead­er­ship in these orga­ni­za­tions does not change what the orga­ni­za­tions do to the rest of the world. There is no evi­dence that I’ve seen — of the CIA, defense depart­ment, or oth­er insti­tu­tions where only a few women are ris­ing to the top — that they chal­lenge the mis­sion of the com­pa­ny or the orga­ni­za­tion,” she tells In These Times.

The mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex is not good for women

U.S. mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion is par­tic­u­lar­ly bad for women: It remains deeply inter­con­nect­ed to sex­u­al and gen­der vio­lence, for peo­ple in the mil­i­tary, for mil­i­tary spous­es, and for peo­ple liv­ing in or near the esti­mat­ed 1,000 U.S. mil­i­tary bases around the world or where U.S. mil­i­tary actions occur. From Japan to the Philip­pines, local pop­u­la­tions have long protest­ed the pres­ence of the U.S. mil­i­tary — and the envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion and sex­u­al vio­lence it brings.

The impacts of war—such as reduc­tion in basic ser­vices, elec­tric­i­ty, and access to food and water, loss of fam­i­ly mem­bers, and increased rates of ill­ness and dis­abil­i­ty—all increase women’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to assault and wors­en the con­di­tions of women’s labor. Women are pre­dom­i­nant­ly respon­si­ble for car­ing for sick and dis­abled peo­ple, chil­dren and elders — and the con­di­tions for doing that work wors­en severe­ly in war con­di­tions. The U.S. mil­i­tary is also the largest pol­luter in the world. It is dif­fi­cult to argue that its activ­i­ties are good for women” when it con­tributes to cli­mate change and the poi­son­ing of air, water and land that endan­gers all people.

The U.S. mil­i­tary is also pro­found­ly vio­lent towards women with­in its own ranks. Accord­ing to Vet­er­ans Affairs records, 1,307,781 out­pa­tient vis­its took place at the VA for Mil­i­tary Sex­u­al Trau­ma (MST)-related care in 2015. Approx­i­mate­ly 38 per­cent of female and 4 per­cent of male mil­i­tary per­son­nel and vet­er­ans have expe­ri­enced Mil­i­tary Sex­u­al Trau­ma — a euphemism for rape or sex­u­al assault. Research reveals that 40 per­cent of women home­less vet­er­ans have expe­ri­enced sex­u­al assault in the mil­i­tary. (Far less is known or pub­licly report­ed about the U.S. military’s sex­u­al vio­lence against occu­pied peoples.)

Ser­vice mem­bers are pun­ished for speak­ing out. A report from the Depart­ment of Defense finds 58 per­cent of women and 60 per­cent of men who report sex­u­al assault face retal­i­a­tion. And 77 per­cent of retal­i­a­tion reports alleged that retal­ia­tors were in the reporter’s chain of com­mand. A third of vic­tims are dis­charged after report­ing, typ­i­cal­ly with­in 7 months of mak­ing a report. A report from Har­vard Law School’s Vet­er­ans’ clin­ic finds sex­u­al assault vic­tims receive harsh­er dis­charges from the mil­i­tary, with 24 per­cent sep­a­rat­ed under less than ful­ly hon­or­able con­di­tions, com­pared to 15 per­cent of all ser­vice members.

Women who drop out of the mil­i­tary because they have been sex­u­al­ly assault­ed can­not rise through the ranks. The media por­tray­al of the women who have climbed to the top of the mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence appa­ra­tus­es, how­ev­er, relies on boot­strap tough-it-up nar­ra­tives that implic­it­ly vic­tim-shame women, often fram­ing fail­ure to achieve what they did in terms of women’s lack of con­fi­dence that cre­ates obsta­cles to their suc­cess. Lynn Dugle, CEO of Engli­ty and for­mer CEO of Raytheon, tells Politi­co, One of my biggest chal­lenges has been resist­ing the temp­ta­tion to tell myself I couldn’t do some­thing. I didn’t think I was ready to be pres­i­dent of a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness at Raytheon when I was offered the role. I con­tin­u­al­ly remind myself to have courage and confidence.”

These nar­ra­tives about progress” through inclu­sion of under-rep­re­sent­ed groups in dom­i­nant insti­tu­tions (in this case women), actu­al­ly fol­low a well-worn pat­tern in U.S. pol­i­tics. Whether it is police depart­ments cham­pi­oning diver­si­ty” while per­pet­u­at­ing tar­get­ed harm against mar­gin­al­ized pop­u­la­tions, or oil com­pa­nies por­tray­ing them­selves as green,” the dri­ve to be asso­ci­at­ed with a (watered-down) pro­gres­sivism or inclu­siv­i­ty is one of the most com­mon P.R. strate­gies at work for the world’s most harm­ful institutions.

Wars to save women?

The idea that the U.S. mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex can be pro-women is not just an inter­nal rebrand­ing exer­cise: It is used to jus­ti­fy dis­as­trous U.S. mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions around the world. In his book Ide­al Illu­sions, his­to­ri­an James Peck shows how this is part of a larg­er trend that devel­oped dur­ing the Cold War when, as an anti-com­mu­nist strat­e­gy, the Unit­ed States revamped its image as the human rights pro­tec­tor of the world to jus­ti­fy its mil­i­tary empire. The U.S. claim that it unique­ly pro­tects women’s rights was part of this larg­er picture.

The George W. Bush admin­is­tra­tion famous­ly jus­ti­fied the war in Afghanistan by argu­ing that it would res­cue women from the Tal­iban. On Nov. 17, 2001, Lau­ra Bush gave the president’s week­ly radio address, pro­claim­ing, Afghan women know, through hard expe­ri­ence, what the rest of the world is dis­cov­er­ing: the bru­tal oppres­sion of women is a cen­tral goal of the ter­ror­ists.” Media out­lets duti­ful­ly fol­lowed suit: In 2010, Time ran a cov­er show­ing Bibi Aisha” with her nose cut off, with the head­line, What Hap­pens If We Leave Afghanistan.” Of course, the pro­tract­ed U.S. occu­pa­tion has only fur­ther entrenched the Tal­iban, which now con­trols more ter­ri­to­ry than at any point in the past 17 years. Mean­while, civil­ian deaths are climb­ing. Yet none of the politi­cians or pun­dits who pop­u­lar­ized the rhetoric of sav­ing women” are forced to answer to how this war has actu­al­ly harmed — and killed — women in Afghanistan.

The 2011 bomb­ing of Libya was cheered as the first U.S. war led by women, as not­ed by The Dai­ly Beast, which report­ed that “[t]he Libyan airstrikes mark the first time in U.S. his­to­ry that a female-dom­i­nat­ed diplo­mat­ic team has urged mil­i­tary action.” The fact that com­mand of the Libya air strat­e­gy was giv­en to a woman offi­cer was also cel­e­brat­ed in The Guardian as a boost to women in the US mil­i­tary who com­plain dai­ly about dis­crim­i­na­tion.” Are these cel­e­brat­ed woman archi­tects of war required to answer to today’s night­mar­ish con­di­tions in Libya where Black peo­ple are now bought and sold in open-air slave mar­kets? Do cheer­lead­ers of the inter­ven­tion actu­al­ly exam­ine whether U.S. mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Libya, or any­where, leads to improved con­di­tions for women?

Nar­ra­tives about sav­ing women are also preva­lent in the U.S. War on ISIS. While there is no doubt that women face hor­rif­ic treat­ment at the hands of ISIS, rape, enslave­ment and abuse has been used to jus­ti­fy a bru­tal U.S. bomb­ing cam­paign that has caused thou­sands of civil­ian deaths in Syr­ia and Iraq and relaxed stan­dards for killing civil­ians in both coun­tries — open­ing the door to more civil­ian deaths. Mean­while, atroc­i­ties against women per­pe­trat­ed by U.S. ally Sau­di Ara­bia go unpun­ished, reveal­ing that the need to pro­tect women is con­tin­gent on U.S. geopo­lit­i­cal interests.

These tropes are not new. They come from the play­book of U.S. and West­ern Euro­pean col­o­niza­tion, in which col­o­niz­ers argue that their pres­ence helps women, and their exit would do them grave harm. In just one exam­ple, Lord Cromer, who was the British con­sul gen­er­al in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, cit­ed the veil — and women’s well-being — to argue Egyp­tians should be forcibly civ­i­lized. The posi­tion of women in Egypt, and Mohammedan coun­tries gen­er­al­ly, is, there­fore a fatal obsta­cle to the attain­ment of that ele­va­tion of thought and char­ac­ter which should accom­pa­ny the intro­duc­tion of West­ern civil­i­sa­tion,” he once declared. Yet, as fem­i­nist schol­ar Leila Ahmed has point­ed out, at the same time Cromer was rail­ing against the veil, he was agi­tat­ing in favor of the sub­or­di­na­tion of women in Eng­land, as a leader of the Men’s League for Oppos­ing Women’s Suffrage.

In her work, A vocab­u­lary for fem­i­nist prax­is: on war and rad­i­cal cri­tique,” fem­i­nist, activist, writer and schol­ar Angela Davis artic­u­lates a bold vision for fem­i­nism. This more rad­i­cal fem­i­nism is a fem­i­nism that does not capit­u­late to pos­ses­sive indi­vid­u­al­ism,” she writes, a fem­i­nism that does not assume that democ­ra­cy requires cap­i­tal­ism, a fem­i­nism that is bold and will­ing to take risks, a fem­i­nism that fights for women’s rights while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly rec­og­niz­ing the pit­falls of the for­mal rights’ struc­ture of cap­i­tal­ist democracy.”

Accord­ing to Chris­tine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ, a glob­al net­work of women mobi­liz­ing to end the Kore­an War, Cel­e­brat­ing the rise of women in these insti­tu­tions of dom­i­na­tion, whether Pen­ta­gon con­trac­tors like Lock­heed Mar­tin or the CIA (which has been respon­si­ble for secret tor­ture pro­grams and covert over­throws of demo­c­ra­t­ic regimes world­wide), dis­tracts from the point at hand, which is that we need to be min­i­miz­ing the pow­er and reach of these institutions.”

Dean Spade is an Pro­fes­sor at Seat­tle Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law. His book, <>Nor­mal Life: Admin­is­tra­tive Vio­lence, Crit­i­cal Trans Pol­i­tics and the Lim­its of Law</i> was pub­lished in 2015 by Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.
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