Genevieve Riccoboni, WILPF’s Women, Peace and Security Programme Associate, spoke with three of the students – Gaya Raddadi, Conrad Otto Lude, and Clara Palmisano – to learn more about their findings and their individual perspectives on the research. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
One focus of your research is on trends and practices of military recruitment, specifically in the United States. Why do you think this is an important issue for feminists to learn and think about?
Conrad Otto Lude: The military is [often] one of the biggest employers in many different countries, including the United States. As such, it directly affects those who serve in it and their immediate social circle, as norms and values that are propagated by military culture transcend the confines of the workplace by affecting social norms and values upheld privately as well. In fact, the US military in particular not only offers accessible employment opportunities, but military service is often also directly linked to other scarce opportunities such as access to high quality education, healthcare, and other social benefits. Thus, the appeal to join the military and consequently become immersed in military culture can initially also be pragmatic in nature.
This broadened scope of incentives for joining the military helps reach people who may not necessarily have wished to serve in the military, but rather [saw] it as a price to pay in order to get an education or because other employment opportunities are scarce and inaccessible. The subsequent exposure to military culture that upholds the ideals of especially male heroism and strength – which is also frequently propagated by the entertainment sector – can then later have a significant impact in shaping young adults’ value systems.
Gaya Raddadi: The specificity of the US case is a false one: as a global hegemon, the US has significantly shaped practices of militarisation abroad, through a variety of modes of influence. This was achieved, firstly, through the considerable levels of foreign military training, logistics, and intelligence support, sponsored or conducted by the US army. Secondly, thanks to the leading role the US plays in most military and security centred international organisations such as NATO and the UN. Lastly, but crucially, through the continued presence of the US military in foreign countries, be it as an occupation or stabilisation force. […] This is a pivotal area of interest for feminists, as pervasive practices of militarisation and recruitment by the US military, exported abroad, exploit and further re-entrench stereotypical gender norms and toxic notions of masculinity.
Clara Palmisano: Especially during a pandemic, it is crucial for everyone to learn about how our hard-earned money is spent to foster imperialistic wars. Feminists not only have the duty to demonstrate the exploitation of harmful gender norms such as toxic masculinity in military recruitment, they also must advocate against increasing militarisation and all the intersectional issues it causes. [This has] a significantly disproportionate impact on people with marginalised genders, and in particular those from the Global South, where most US military interventions take place.
You were researching this project for many months, and it delves into so many complex issues related to military practices and the military-industrial complex. Did your perspective on these topics shift in any way over the course of your work?
Clara Palmisano: Seeing how everything was so interconnected and intersectional was particularly striking to me. For instance, we could not talk about the military-industrial complex without an analysis on capitalism or the prison-industrial complex, there could be no understanding of violence without looking into human security, no insight on American masculinity without a focus on new technologies of warfare or mental health.
Gaya Raddadi: Each member of the research team had their own ideas on how the military-industrial complex operated and how pervasive it was, and these changed drastically throughout the course of our research. As we delved deeper into the scope of industry support for the US military, we were confronted with a sad reality: the military’s area of influence was larger than [we] expected.
Conrad Otto Lude: As someone who has close friends who serve in the (German) military, I have already been familiar with some of the ways in which recruitment is conducted in many Western countries and I had also noticed the recent shift towards increasingly more online presence of military recruiters.
However, I undeniably deepened my knowledge significantly as I was not necessarily aware of the extent of, for example, military-entertainment cooperation. One of the most interesting examples for me was the close cooperation between the Pentagon and Hollywood on a far wider range of movies than I anticipated. In [a] similar vein, the military involvement with the gaming industry did not come as a surprise to me per se, but I did not expect such a depth of cooperation.
I would love to hear more about that entertainment aspect. At one point in the paper, you look into the links between the military and the entertainment industry – including video games. As a young person, I know I have so many examples from my own life of how gaming has influenced me and people I know. Do you have any reflections about this, more from a personal rather than academic standpoint?
Conrad Otto Lude: Even the open world roleplay games that are commonly situated in different (sci-fi, fantasy, mediaeval, etc…) settings commonly depict men as the heroic protagonist whereas women are often in need of saving. Thus, to an extent this can also subconsciously reinforce idealised societal gender roles […].
Even in the early days of the industry, some franchises were centred around strong female protagonists, [but] only recently, as more customisation options became available due to technological progress, did it become more common to have the option to play as a female character. What remains present is the common sexualisation of especially female characters who are meant to appeal to the predominantly male player base. […] This sexualisation then also extends to real player interactions in multiplayer games. Once it becomes evident that a player is female, the behaviour towards them will change – this can range from degrading, belittling, and sexualising behaviour and comments to overt flirtation attempts and overprotective behaviour. This can directly affect the experience of many girls and women playing multiplayer games who may refrain from disclosing their gender online for this reason.
Thus, even when the ties to the military theme are not necessarily evident, it remains clear that many of the ideals related to militarised masculinity are echoed by the gaming community, which makes it a suitable target audience for military recruitment efforts.
Gaya Raddadi: This was one of the most concerning aspects of our research. As someone who enjoys video games, and who has often played video games with younger family members, it is disheartening to see such an apparently innocent activity being weaponised.
Clara Palmisano: I was always taught to stay away from them (video games) as they were “for boys”. While many games can be fun and educational, most video games can be very harmful. In the research, we mention the sexist reality of video game culture that keeps fomenting toxic ideals of how a “real man” should be. But actually, [I think that] video games can potentially be a space to [help] promote healthy masculinities and feminist peace instead.
The main case study is the United States, although there are four other case studies that are explored along with thematics. Is there something that surprised you when learning about the US military and its recruiting practices?
Gaya Raddadi: Two aspects that we uncovered through our research left an impression on me. The first one was the ways in which the US military adapted its military recruitment practices to target the younger generations, specifically through the use of social media and video games. The second aspect that surprised me was the apparent targeting of socio-economic disadvantaged individuals in recruitment practices, and [some of] these groups’ disproportionate presence in the military versus their civilian counterparts. This reality was particularly daunting given the racial realities of the United States.
Clara Palmisano: The US has had relevant influence in the four focus countries of Afghanistan, Colombia, Cameroon, and the DRC. It is not surprising to see it has had cultural influence on definition of gender roles, militarised culture, and involvement in military training, the deployment of troops on the ground, etc.
Conrad Otto Lude: Whereas other countries may rely on mandatory conscription, the US still manages to exceed most other militaries in size even if one looks at the respective militaries in proportion to the total population size. The military consequently is culturally pervasive in everyday life, which is a noticeable difference when compared to my home country, Germany. Germany’s particular history has generated a lot of scepticism towards its military despite comparable recruitment strategies being employed. This stands in stark contrast to the societal idealisation of the military in the US, showing just how effective and present the military-entertainment-industrial complex is. This is especially relevant since the US, as a cultural hegemon, directly affects societal images of the US military and its propagated norms and values.
Is there a topic that you started to look into that you think deserves more research either from you, or from other researchers?
Clara Palmisano: There is room for a lot of future research within the context of militarised masculinities. It would be very interesting to study how these manifest within non-state armed groups, or to provide an in-depth research on deserters, on men who resist militarism and advocate for the abolition of mandatory conscription.
Gaya Raddadi: The most under-researched aspect that we touched upon in our report, I believe, is the intersectionality of military recruitment. There appears to be a lack of literature analysing how the interactions between class, race, and gender impact military recruitment, which is particularly important in a heavily racialised society such as the United States and similar contexts.
Conrad Otto Lude: Two actors we could not focus on as much in particular due to the limited scope of our research project are non-state armed actors on the one hand and the arms industry and private security firms on the other hand. […] In terms of recruitment, for instance, the state military, private security firms, and non-state armed groups may even be competing for the same pool of potential recruits. […] These are just some of the questions that I would deem important to expand on in the future – be this via my own research or the work of other researchers.
What’s next for each of you?
Gaya Raddadi: As a young researcher, I am working towards building a career in academia. As such, I am currently focusing on writing my master’s thesis on the impact of time in conflict resolution and statebuilding, with a specific focus on the MENA region. After graduation, I wish to undertake doctoral studies to continue researching conflict dynamics, while also working in the peacebuilding and conflict resolution sector.
Conrad Otto Lude: Personally, I am currently in the process of writing my master’s thesis on regional security cooperation in Sub-Saharan Africa. Simultaneously, I have started to look for employment opportunities during my last semester whilst continuing with my engagement in the initiatives of our student association. I have also started to plan ahead for after my graduation in late summer 2022, but I have not yet finally decided which type of work I want to take on and am thus keeping my eyes open for any interesting opportunities.
Clara Palmisano: This semester I will focus on writing my thesis on transformative justice and I will work as an intern at the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs in Geneva. I will continue advocating and supporting movements like WILPF, that believe a better world is possible!
Read the full IHEID-WILPF study, “Militarised Masculinities: Identifying Causes, Manifestations, and Strategies for Change”.
Gaya Raddadi is a master’s student in international affairs at the Geneva Graduate Institute, after pursuing an honours degree in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at the University of Warwick. Her research interests revolve around security issues, terrorism, and state-building, with a focus on Sub-Saharan and North Africa. Alongside her academic commitments, she devotes her time to the advocacy of anti-racist and feminist goals.
Clara Palmisano is a master’s student in international affairs at the Geneva Graduate Institute after pursuing an honours degree in PPE at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Her main research interests are transformative justice, disarmament, and international law. Extracurricularly, she co-hosts a podcast on intersectional feminism for a non-profit organisation.
Conrad Otto Lude is a master’s student in international affairs at the Geneva Graduate Institute, after pursuing a degree in international studies at Leiden University in The Hague. His research is predominantly concerned with conflict and regional security environments in Sub-Saharan Africa.