Published October 1, 1987
Contemporary American feminism has never known quite what to do with the war/peace debate. One faction argues that equality requires women in the military to go into combat. Another faction claims that the war system itself reflects cultural patterns of male hegemony, usually labelled patriarchy; women’s refusal to countenance a patriarchal culture will, it is suggested, lead to a withering away of war. The first faction takes its cue, in terms of historical-cultural symbols, from Joan of Arc; the second claims Antigone as its heroine. In all of this, the notion that peace might be advanced by exempting half of humanity from being a legitimate target of war seems to have gotten lost.
The result of this confusion has been, too often, confused politics, of which Dr. Helen Caldicott, the Australian pediatrician and redemptrix of Physicians for Social Responsibility, may be taken as a paradigm. Dr. Caldicott once espoused the view that “missile envy” was the root of the arms race. Latterly, she has opined that “Gorbachev is the only sane leader in the world. He’s like Jesus. He just keeps giving out good things like arms control proposals and [getting] hit with rejections.”
Into this often miasmic debate now comes Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her new volume, Women and War is not going to win her friends at either pole of the feminist ideological spectrum. Dr. Elshtain thinks that the varied experience of women throughout the ages has a lot to do with thinking morally and politically about war and peace. But she resolutely declines to follow the new received wisdom about patriarchy, and she debunks the notion that women as women (whether in leading the Strategic Air Command or in protesting at Greenham Common) will solve the moral and political problem of war by a great corporate act of assertiveness.
Rather, Elshtain proposes that we have to address the problem of war as citizens, through politics. “Politics is the work of citizens, human beings in their civic capacities. In such capacities, men and women over the years have struggled to eliminate warfare and to attain a hope of universal peace. The efforts, cast as absolute goals, have failed.” Which is all the more reason for men and women together to create “modes of discourse that might help sustain hope and underscore a civic ethos to combat our current deadlock and provide a freer play of individual and civic virtues than we now enjoy.”
Dr. Elshtain’s new civic discourse would be created by what she terms “chastened patriots,” or “. . . men and women who have learned from the past. Rejecting counsels of cynicism, they modulate the rhetoric of high patriotic purpose by keeping alive the distancing voice of ironic remembrance and recognition of the way patriotism can shade into the excesses of nationalism. . . . The chastened patriot is committed and detached: enough apart so that she and he can be reflective about patriotic ties and loyalties, cherishing many loyalties rather than valorizing one alone. . . .Devirilizing discourse, in favor not of feminization (for the feminized and masculinized emerged in tandem and both embody dangerous distortions) but of politicization, the chastened patriot constitutes men and women as citizens who share what Hannah Arendt calls ‘the faculty of action.’ ”
Women and War, as these brief citations suggest, is not your basic light reading. But if there is to be a post-feminist debate about the experience of women and the pursuit of peace, it will have to engage Jean Elshtain, who has had the courage to challenge the
regnant orthodoxies and has thereby made a bold attempt at starting a better, which is to say, more truthful, argument.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.