Monday, May 28, 2007

Some Thoughts About Women and War

Carolyn Ives Gilman

Recently I have found myself in an odd situation for a person descended from a long line of Quaker pacifists: I have been earning my living doing military history. I hope you will not stop reading when I say that I find it fascinating.

It is not that I have become a militarist. I don’t know why people expect military history to be celebratory. The best of it isn’t. You find that, as in other fields of history, the apologists and cheerleaders are the ones with the least personal experience and the least sophisticated grasp of what they are talking about. I feel no obligation to think war is an acceptable solution in order to study it; in fact, its seems to me rather urgent that people who would like to prevent wars ought to study them. If we leave the study of conflict to militarists, we’re never going to have a three-dimensional understanding of how we get into, and out of, it.

I do find that the traditional study of war suffers from an oddly narrow focus that limits the explanations it can offer. It tends to break down along gender lines: the traditional roles of men (combat, strategic planning, coordination and command, etc.) are defined as war. The traditional roles of women (food production and preparation, child bearing and rearing, home and family maintenance) are not war. Women are, almost by definition, civilians—even in situations such as occupation, where their lives are every bit as disrupted (or ended) as the men’s.

This is a peculiar state of affairs. War, it seems obvious to me, is a dysfunction—or a response to a dysfunction—of whole societies. It is a group activity aimed at achieving a group goal. It wouldn’t happen if half the population weren’t acquiescing (at the least) or participating (at the most).

And yet, women often do their acquiescing and participating in fundamentally different ways than we are used to talking about and factoring into our explanations. They fight, as it were, on different battlefields—so different that the noise and confusion of male combat makes them invisible.

Let me give an example from the war I am currently studying: the 40-year-long resistance of the Indian tribes of the Ohio Valley to the invasion of Euro-Americans, which lasted approximately 1754 to 1794. This is not taught as a single war in our history books. It is classified as four different wars, two of them European (the French and Indian War and the American Revolution), and two of them Indian (Pontiac’s War and the Indian Wars of the 1790s). But from the Indian point of view, it was one long war against a parade of colonial powers.

Now, this war is not as remote from our experience as it might seem. In fact, I am continually struck with how modern the story feels. Except on rare occasions, it was not a conventional European war where armies faced each other in massed ranks. It was, in today’s terminology, an asymmetrical conflict where European military powers (I include the United States) faced a tribal society that used the tactics of a guerilla insurgency. There was no battle line that separated combatants from civilians. Soldiers on patrol and innocent civilians faced unremitting danger of senseless, anonymous death. Armies would march into Indian towns only to find the combatants vanished into the population. They would level the towns anyway, to deprive the enemy of its base of operations, only to have the fighters reappear more implacable and deadly than ever. Atrocities proliferated on both sides. Passions became so heated that Thomas Jefferson himself denied legal and human rights to British prisoners of war because they were suspected of collaboration with the Indians. It was ugly, deadly, and essentially impossible to stop. It was a traumatic formative experience for the United States—one we have almost completely erased from our collective memory.

In the 18th century, women were not generally expected to play an active part in war, but in this case they did, on both sides. There are many stories about women in what can only be called combat—those tough Kentucky women who seized their husbands’ shotguns to repel intruders, or lit fires under Indian attackers trying to shimmy down the chimney (a story repeated so often, with so many different names and locations attached, that it just about accounts for all the smoked moccasins in museum collections). At one dramatic moment in the siege of Boonesborough, the women of the fort sallied out to fetch water, so bravely defying death that the Shawnee commander, Blackfish, gallantly allowed them to complete their errand unharmed.

But such moments were the exception. The vast majority of their time, women spent fighting in far subtler ways. I am particularly interested in the Indian women who were attempting to keep life going in the midst of the carnage. Unlike the Kentucky women, they had not chosen this way of life; it was forced on them. They helped defend their homeland in a way so unlike Euro-American war strategies that it bears study. They fought by adopting the enemy.

Adoption was an old and integral part of Indian warfare, practiced on enemy tribes long before it was applied to Europeans. The most formal version of it happened to prisoners, both male and female, who surrendered to an Indian war party. The many surviving descriptions follow a general pattern. After their defeat, a group of prisoners would be culled; some would be executed on the spot, some chosen for captivity. The survivors, terrorized by the sight of their companions’ deaths, were treated with brutality—beaten, bound, humiliated. They were often stripped of their old clothes and given Indian garb instead, then forced to make a long, disorienting journey on foot through forests, expecting death by torture at the end. The ordeal dehumanized them, severed them from their old identities, stripped them of mental defenses and loyalties, reduced them to such desperation that the only emotion left to them was the bare instinct for survival.

What happened when they arrived at the Indian village varied some by tribe and circumstance. Among the Shawnee, a prisoner’s fate was traditionally determined by women’s organizations and individual women. One society of older women took the role of condemning prisoners to death. Other women might exercise a ritual privilege to intervene on behalf of a prisoner. (This is evidently what happened when John Smith was rescued by Pocahontas. There was nothing romantic about it; she was acting out her traditional role in the community by asserting power over a prisoner.) People who had suffered a recent death in the family could demand a revenge killing in compensation. But they might also choose one of the prisoners to adopt in place of their deceased relative. Because these last were the captives who survived to write about it, we know most about them.

The adopted captive experienced a sudden change in status. He or she was now treated with great kindness—literally, as a member of the family. Captives were not chosen for a resemblance to the dead family member; in one instance, a child took the place of a grandfather. Nevertheless, they were regarded quite literally as the dead person come back to life, and were treated exactly as that loved one would have been. Among other things, after a little while their freedoHem was not restricted in any way. They could walk away at any time.

And yet, remarkably few did. Whether it was Stockholm Syndrome or a genuine preference for their new life within the close-knit Indian community, Euro-Americans settled in happily to their new lives and often declined to be “rescued” when conquering armies demanded their release. They forgot their original languages, married, fought in defense of their new Indian families, and became culturally indistinguishable from Indians. The fact of their white skin or red hair made not the slightest difference within the Indian community, since Native Americans did not (until taught it by Euro-Americans) have any concept of race as determining identity. A person was Indian if he or she spoke, acted, and believed like an Indian, regardless of appearance or blood quantum.

It was far different in Euro-American society. The phenomenon of adoption was widely recognized and written about in colonial America, and it struck terror into the colonists. The popular explanation was that there was something so alluring, so addicting, about Indian life that once people had been converted to it, they were lost forever. The most feared and reviled people on the frontier were the “white Indians,” people like the Girty brothers or William Wells, who though racially white were culturally Indian. Intellectuals opined about what a thin veneer “civilization” was, since civilized people were susceptable to degenerate into savagery, but savages rarely made the opposite transition. Journalists warned western settlers always to be on their guard—to avoid eating the meat of wild animals, or living by hunting, since these might cause the degeneration to set in. As for going to live with the Indians, they didn’t call it “captivity,” they called it “captivation.” It was as if the Indians could cast a magical spell on people, and make them want to be Indian.

So adoption was an extremely effective war strategy for the Indians. It terrorized the enemy by challenging their assumption of superiority and making them doubt their own identity. It converted enemy combatants into new recruits, often extremely useful ones. It replenished a population thinned by war. It was also an effective mechanism for Indian families to cope with grief, since it focused emotions of love and loss on a new object, short-circuiting antisocial anger. By pretending that a loved one had come back, Indian women sometimes made it happen. One captive, John Tanner, remained so loyal to his adoptive mother that he supported her in old age, while her good-for-nothing biological son abandoned her.

Another strategy Indian women had for co-opting the enemy was marriage. Euro-American traders, soldiers, missionaries, and others who spent time in the Indian community came under intense pressure to marry. Often a man yielded as a mere temporary expedient, then later found himself so emotionally committed to the mother of his children that he could not break free. His loyalties were altered, and he became as if adopted. As with captives, he was often regarded with suspicion and contempt by Euro-Americans—“squaw man,” they called him.

Thus Indian women deployed love as a war strategy. It is a truism that we become what we fight, but these women sped the process along, actively converting enemies into husbands and sons, tampering with their loyalties. It was still slow and incremental, but it eventually worked on the French and the Spanish, and it would have worked on the Americans, as well—if it hadn’t been for a counter-weapon American women deployed: sheer fertility. While Indian women had learned how to keep the population stable so as not to overstress resources, American women were having families of thirteen or sixteen children, busily overwhelming the Indians with sheer numbers. The American war against the Indians was not won on the battlefield; in twenty years of fighting only Anthony Wayne managed to win a battle. The war was won by demographics. That is, by women making babies.

As a matter of fact, if you think on a time scale of centuries, I am not so certain the Americans have won. Who do you think those immigrants are, flooding across our southern border, changing the composition of our culture? They are the descendants of Indian women who married Spanish men. We invaded the Indians, and now they are returning the compliment. There is something marvelously just about it.

I worked some of these ideas about war into my last science fiction story, called “Okanoggan Falls” (F&SF, August 2006). I have described this as a story about how women make war. The scenario is an alien-invasion story where the aliens have already conquered, and are now occupying, Earth. The aliens are, of course, metaphorical. Like human occupiers, they are susceptable to assimilation; but in this case they are vulnerable to physical, as well as cultural and psychological, metamorphosis. Like Americans on the frontier, they take extraordinary precautions to prevent this. But in the story a human woman unsuspectingly thwarts an alien’s defenses, and transforms him. In the end, the humans do not win in any conventional sense; but one alien has become human, and the implication is that, one by one over the centuries, the rest will follow. In the end, the women will win.

Although the story was selected for two Best of the Year anthologies, the reviewers generally seemed a little baffled by it. The most thoughtful review, by David Truesdale, found the story dissatisfying because of the ambiguity over whether the humans had triumphed. There was no revolt, not even a conspiracy.
So what was really gained, and what lost? Earthlings are still conquered
on a global level. Okanoggan Falls and its surrounding towns will
still be leveled, and Captain Groton is to be court martialed, his career
ruined. So it looks like the only good to come of this is that Susan
Abernathy feels good about what she had achieved. (
I found that I disagreed with him not so much about the story, which he read correctly, as about what constitutes victory.

Conventionally, victory has been defined as forcing your enemy to retreat, surrender, or die. Victory is when you overpower and force your will on your opponent. I would like to propose an expanded definition that includes what Indian women were doing. Victory is also when you get your enemy to love you.

That may be setting the bar a little high. It is also victory when you persuade your enemy to tolerate you, since that is the first step to incorporating with you. It is victory when you and your enemy blend so that the boundaries become indistinguishable, even if you give up some of what you are in the process.

Now, this is not a short-run type of victory; it is not an immediate-gratification victory, which Americans are so fond of. It is incremental, slow, and lasting. It stands the test of time, because it has deep roots.

I have to think: how much differently might we be fighting wars if this was our definition of victory?


Anonymous said...

these women sped the process along, actively converting enemies into husbands and sons, tampering with their loyalties.

If you reverse the genders, this becomes the racist fear-mongering cliché of European women's rape by savages. Or any story of rape as a crime of war, but here characterised by love, after the violence. (Much like the honeymoon phase in domestic abuse, actually.)

Can you be said to have "converted enemy combatants into new recruits" when the assimilated class is that of the (nominally) non-combattants? The nobility, or non-violence, if you prefer, of this mode of "combat" seems to depend largely on the respective status of the assimilators and of the assimilated.

baby221 said...

I haven't read Okanoggan Falls in its totality, but based on that review, it seems to me that the take-home message of the story is that sometimes the only thing you can do is change yourself, and realise that those changes may or may not have wider echoes. I don't think that's "feel-good" at all -- it's actually kind of depressing on the surface, without having gotten to know the characters -- but hey, that's life, you do your thing while the rest of the world moves on with or without you, and I think it's a lot more realistic than "small rebel army topples superior alien invader" or any of the other universe-saving tropes.

It makes me wonder if that's another socially constructed gender difference, the need this male reviewer has for a cut-and-dried ending, preferably one that ends favourably for the "good guys." Hmm. *ponder*

Timmi Duchamp said...

You've given me much to think about, Carolyn-- thanks. (I'm envious, I have to confess, at your working on such a fascinating research project.) The entire issue of "asymmetric" warfare-- raised by US & European leaders to brand one side as "terrorists" & thus both illegitimate & "uncivilized" even as they themselves are wreaking the most horrific, savage, & indiscriminate devastation on civilian populations at a scale "terrorists" never achieve-- demands that all of us question current assumptions & definitions of "war," which would in turn force us to think differently about what active involvement in war encompasses. The demographic strategy, of course, is an important part of the State of Israel's war against the Palestinians: they have an official policy of bulldozing Palestinian homes & refusing to give building permits to Palestinians wanting to enlarge their homes to accommodate growing families, while at the same time welcoming non-Arab immigrants & rewarding them for building homes on Palestinian-owed land.

I'm still fuzzy-headed from lack of sleep & overstimulation, so I can't think of any additional titles off the top of my head: but surely sfnal explorations of future war must have at least made a start at reconceptalizing and redefining war. Have you been able to think of any other stories besides your own that does?

One obvious point that should probably be underscored (since "obvious" doesn't necessarily mean it's visible to everyone) is that we need to be reexamining all the many ways populations support the wars their governments wage-- not just through paying taxes, which in the US at least is already well understood, or handing out white feathers, as women in Britain did to shame men who weren't in uniform-- in order to give us a clearer idea of how to oppose, resist, & undermine those wars.

I'd also like to say, Carolyn, that we could have used your thinking at the Romance of the Revolution panel at WisCon. (Suzy Charnas, who was in the audience & out of my line-of-sight, got up & left when I cited her Holdfast Chronicles as fiction that grapples with what happens after the revolution-- but what a different panel it would have been if you & Suzy had both been participating...)