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COVID-19: Turning Swords into Ventilators? Or is it Ventilators into Swords?

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?

Image credit: WILPF
Cynthia Enloe
7 April 2020

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.

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Cynthia Enloe

Dr. Cynthia Enloe is a world-renowned scholar on gender and militarism and is a member of the WILPF academic network.

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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