By Cynthia Enloe

Cynthia Enloe is a feminist writer, theorist, and professor known for her work on gender and militarism, and a member of WILPF Academic Network.

They weren’t dressed in their usual khaki. They weren’t wielding guns or grenade launchers. Their combat zone was a civilian airport, not a battlefield. Their enemy was invisible to the naked eye.

Yet these were soldiers. Outfitted in bulky, white hazmat suits and wielding elongated disinfectant hoses, they were Spanish military personnel, spraying down Barcelona’s airport, to protect members of the public from coronavirus infection.

For a critic of militarism, is this a reassuring sight?

This is not a new quandary. Those resisting militarization have tussled with this puzzle before. In the wake of the tsunami, Japanese feminists pondered the implications of the Japanese Self-Defense Force being deployed to clean up the Fukushima region after the terrifying nuclear reactor meltdown. Chilean and Turkish feminists have debated the post-disaster consequences of their states’ militaries taking on the roles of first responders in the aftermaths of devastating earthquakes. While most Americans seem to have taken pride in their soldiers being sent to Thailand and the Philippines to aid in natural disaster relief efforts, many American feminists remained skeptical.

Here is the conundrum: When soldiers are deployed to do civilian public health and disaster relief work, are they serving to de-militarize their state’s military? OR is the deployment of soldiers to perform civilian health and relief work, further entrenching the legitimacy of the state’s military?

Today, in this confusing coronavirus-era, what are we witnessing: steps toward demilitarization or deepening militarization?

Not all state militaries enjoy public trust. Most state militaries, while they may have important pockets of popular support, have acted in ways that have seriously undermined their credibility among portions of the public, thus making them ineffective in carrying out civilian relief work. The military’s commanders, for instance, have covered up male soldiers’ sexual abuse of female soldiers. The military’s senior officers have corruptly engaged in personal land-grabs. The military’s ordinary operations have wasted the taxpayers’ money. The military has recruited young men – and a few women – from all communities, but promoted to the senior officer corps only men from those few communities favored by the state elite. Soldiers have routinely suppressed popular demonstrations or stood by passively while thugs beat up members of religious or ethnic minorities.

Thus when officials in Madrid sent Spanish military personnel to disinfect the airport in Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, it did not elicit cheers from all civilians in the province, many of whom want to secede from the very state that has deployed these hazmat-suited soldiers.

For those militaries – a majority – that have suffered a deficit of public trust, the current pandemic is a time of opportunity. If they can spotlight their non-violent civic roles – without bothering to seriously address their institutional abuses, wastes and corruptions – perhaps civilians will overlook their flaws.

When soldiers perform non-violent tasks that appear to serve the wider public good, what are we, as feminist peace activists, to think? An unarmed sailor, stripped down to his (usually his) t-shirt, preparing a navy ship to serve as an emergency hospital or a helmet-less soldier working with his colleagues to transform the city’s convention center into an ICU unit – each vision is appealing. Each detaches the military from its core mission: the wielding of violence. Each makes soldiering, especially manly soldiering, appear to embody national service. Maybe our state’s military does represent our collective best selves. That certainly is what most militarizers want us to think.

There is, though, a more effective, non-militarized, non-patriarchal alternative: the creation of national and transnational Social Solidarity Corps. Inclusively recruited, members of such Corps would be explicitly trained in, and fully funded and equipped for disaster relief and public health maintenance. Their institutional mission would be framed by the principles of political accountability, civic service and feminist-informed human rights. Manliness would be beside-the-point. Its members would be rewarded on the basis of experience and competence in those demanding fields of non-warlike civic service.

We have learned that militarism is not a single idea. It is a tangled package of ideas. Ideas about the military and soldiering are not the sole ideas comprising militarism, but they are crucial components of the package. Those ideas privilege certain forms of masculinity; they legitimize surreal public expenditures on deadly weaponry, while shrinking our notions of bravery and service. Those ideas about militaries and soldiering simultaneously distort our understandings of safety, security and community.

Thus it seems important especially now, in the midst of this extraordinary health crisis, to resist the seductive ideas that militaries are our best defense against infection and that soldiers are our finest protectors.

Banging our pots and pans in thanks to health workers, two-thirds of whom world-wide are women, is a start. For the long term, though, we can start today to press for the creation of national and transnational non-militarized, non-masculinized Social Solidarity Corps. Let’s make militaries passé.