Militarization and masculinities: Refusing militarism is not possible without refusing hegemonic masculinity

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It’s one thing to call a ceasefire, another to decommission militarized masculinity

Andreas Speck

“Questioning the militarist value system and its practices which are identified with military service, one is also obliged to question the hegemonic understanding of masculinity. In Turkey, military service is a laboratory in which masculinity is reproduced. The patriarchal system is solidified through military service. I objected to military service, because I am also against this laboratory manufactured masculinity. The struggle against militarism defined in heterosexist terms through sexist structures finds its fundamental expression in anti-militarism. This refers to freedom of sexual orientation, gender equality and total and unrestricted freedom”.1

Halil Savda, Turkish conscientious objector, repeatedly imprisoned for his conscientious objection to military service

I can easily relate to what Halil Savda writes above. When I was about 13 or 14 – and the army still a long way ahead – I was quite fascinated with technology, as many young boys are. I even remember during one holiday going to a Navy open day, looking at the different Navy ships, helicopters, etc... I could be fascinated by this technology, but I didn't think much about myself in a uniform, and being part of the Navy. At that time these two things were quite separate issues.

Once I got a bit older, the reality of having to serve in the military got closer. And increasingly I could not see myself running around in a uniform, being shouted at, and being part of an all-male and very macho environment. I was at that time in an almost all-male environment doing my apprenticeship as an electrician, and could never relate to the sexist talk and macho posture. Not that I was consciously much of an anti-sexist at that time, but I just could not relate to it. This was just for eight hours a day, five days a week, but thinking about something like this 24/7, without any space to escape, felt more like horror to me.

I wasn't aware of being gay at that time, but had already experienced quite a bit of peer harassment for not taking part in dirty sexist talks, and other macho posture, in my last years at school. Again, military service just felt like exponentially worse.

So, when the time came, I opted for conscientious objection. Of course, there were also political reasons for the objection, but I think on a different level my deeply felt aversion against this masculine environment might have been more important at that time. My unwillingness to serve was deeply connected to the images of masculinity linked with the military, which I felt very uncomfortable with.2

Militarism and masculinities – the links

Jeff Hearn writes: “It is an understatement to say that men, militarism, and the military are historically, profoundly, and blatantly interconnected” (Hearn 2003). But he also points out: “The exact nature of the connections between men and the military are themselves various and plural – thus there are military masculinities, and not just military masculinity” (emphasis in original).3

And Raewyn Connell adds: “There are many causes of violence, including dispossession, poverty, greed, nationalism, racism, and other forms of inequality, bigotry and desire. Gender dynamics are by no means the whole story. Yet given the concentration of weapons and the practices of violence among men, gender patterns appear to be strategic. Masculinities are the forms in which many dynamics of violence take shape”.4

For men, especially in countries with compulsory military service, serving in the military is an important part of “becoming a man”. As Turkish gay conscientious objector Mehmet Tarhan puts it: “Military service creates a definition of normality for itself through the exclusion of women, gays, disabled persons and children and generalizes this definition to the rest of the society. The heterosexual man becomes the norm that the regime prefers and identifies with. The rest are considered as either surplus/excess or property to be protected”.5

This link between militarism, violence, and masculinity is not at all “natural” – it had to be constructed, and what has been constructed can also be undone. In fact, it is historically a quite recent development. Joanne Nagel shows that for the United States the connection between militarised forms of masculinity – the ideal of soldiering – goes back to the late 19th and early 20th century.6 In Germany, this process happened in the early 19th century – German bourgeois masculinity, which was not convinced of military service, had to be reshaped and militarised. At that time, as Ute Frevert points out, “the male gender character more and more incorporated soldier-like elements. Military values and assumptions about order ... thus more and more became the general ideal for the male nation”.7 Similar arguments can be made for the construction of Jewish masculinities through the Zionist project.

Research on why young men perform military service points to a very close link with masculinity. Hanne-Margret Birckenbach, a German peace researcher, did some extensive research, involving a range of interviews, on the subject of “willingness to serve among youths”.8 To put this research into context: Germany is a country with obligatory military service, where the right to conscientious objection is recognised but conditioned upon performing substitute civilian service.

In her conclusions, she writes: “Those willing to serve expect that military service would help them to become adult men. Serving in the military is connected to the expectation that this provides masculinity and with it the right and power to play a natural dominant role. However, the image of masculinity of these youth is in no way directed towards proving themselves in military combat, but rather towards meeting challenges in everyday civilian life, especially in the field of employment” (Ibid, p. 230). In short: "Under the guise of ‘no to killing vs. yes to killing for the purpose of defence’ conscientious objectors and those willing to perform military service argue not only about military violence, but also – without being aware of this – about ideals of masculinity”.9

Ayşe Gül Altinay comes to similar conclusions in relation to Turkey. She quotes a young man, Ibrahim, as saying: “You do not become a man until you serve in the military. It is a sacred obligation. And people make fun of those who have not served. I, for one, did it just because I would feel a lack without it. I am flat-footed. If I had wanted, I could have been excused from military service. But I did not want to be excused. So I did it”.10 Altinay concludes, very much like Birckenbach did in the German context 20 years earlier: “In this context, military service is not only, or perhaps not even primarily, seen as a service to the state, but one that defines proper masculinity. It is a rite of passage to manhood”.

Women and masculinities

“As a woman, I am a consumer of masculinities, but I am not more so than men are; and, like men, I as a woman am also a producer of masculinities and a performer of them”,11 writes E.K. Sedgwick. A quote from an Israeli woman makes this very clear: “I know that I prefer men who are combat soldiers to others who are just jobniks”.12 This was also true for Germany in the 1980s, where girls generally preferred boys who had done their military service.13 Thus, through women's expectations of what it means to be a man, they contribute to the creation of certain forms of masculinity.

Changing masculinities

It is important to be aware that hegemonic masculinity is changing, away from the “warrior” image, towards a more professional business masculinity. This is not to say that traditional masculinities, oriented toward physical strength, no longer exist – they certainly do – but they are losing their status as the hegemonic form of masculinity.

As Melissa T. Brown points out, the Army “has offered men several versions of masculinity: the soldier firing high-tech weapons, the professional who makes important decisions under tough conditions and saves lives, the caring surrogate father and provider of relief and protection, the bearer of marketable skills, and, of course, the guy who successfully gets into his girlfriend's bedroom”.14

Of course, masculinity is only one aspect when men or boys make their decision about whether to perform military service, mandatory or voluntary. Economic aspects should not be undervalued – military service is often a prerequisite for a career in civilian life, and leads to the connections needed for moving quickly into positions of power. Signing up voluntarily is seen in many places as the only way to get out of poverty, or to get higher education.

However, I don't think we can afford the luxury of continuing to ignore issues of gender in our antimilitarist work. As Cynthia Enloe writes: “As we have accumulated more and more evidence from more and more societies, we have become increasingly confident in this assertion that to omit gender from any explanation how militarization occurs, is not only to risk a flawed political analysis; it is to risk, too, a perpetually unsuccessful campaign to roll back that militarization”.15

A “strategy for peace must include a strategy of change in masculinities”, writes Raewyn Connell. “This is the new dimension in peace work which studies of men suggest: contesting the hegemony of masculinities which emphasise violence, confrontation and domination, replacing them with patterns of masculinity more open to negotiation, cooperation and equality”.16



1Halil Savda, Letter from Halil Savda, 14 April 2009,; more information on Halil Savda is available at

2See also: Andreas Speck, “Be a man” - Willingness to serve and masculinity, Presentation at the WRI/New Profile seminar on Gender and Militarism, August 2008,

3Jeff Hearn, Foreword: On Men, Women, Militarism, and the Military. In: Paul Highgate (ed.): Military Masculinities. Identity and the State, Westport and London, 2003.

4R. Connell, Masculinities, violence, and peacemaking, Peace News No 2443, June-August 2001,

5Mehmet Tarhan, “For there was no shelter under which I could hide...”, Interview with Mehmet Tarhan for the Spanish newspaper Diagonal, January 2006,; more information on Mehmet Tarhan is available at

6Joane Nagel, Masculinity and nationalism: gender and sexuality in the making of nations. Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol 21, no 2, March 1998.

7Ute Frevert, Soldaten. Staatsbürger. Überlegungen zur historischen Konstruktion von Männlichkeit. In: Thomas Kühne (ed.): Männergeschichte – Geschlechtergeschichte. Frankfurt/New York, 1996.

8Hanne-Margret Birckenbach, Mit schlechtem Gewissen – Wehrdienstbereitschaft von Jugendlichen. Zur Empirie der psychosozialen Vermittlung von Militär und Gesellschaft. Baden-Baden, 1985.

9Hanne-Margret Birckenbach, Das ambivalente Verhältnis zur Gewalt. Psychosoziale Grundlagen militärischer Kampfausbildung. Antimilitarismus information, no 7/1986.

10Ayşe Gül Altinay, The myth of the military-nation. Militarism, gender, and education in Turkey. Basingstoke, 2006, p. 82.

11E. K. Sedgwick, ‘Gosh, Boy George, You Must Be Awfully Secure in Your Masculinity’ in M. Berger, B. Wallis and S. Watson (Editors) Constructing Masculinity, 1995, quoted in: Alan Greig, Michael Kimmel, James Lang, Men, Masculinities & Development: Broadening our work towards gender equality, May 2000, Gender in Development Monograph Series #10,

12Uta Klein, “Our Best Boys” The Gendered Nature of Civil-Military Relations in Israel. Men and Masculinities, Vol. 2, No 1, July 1999, pp. 47-65.

13Hanne-Marget Birckenbach, “...besser vorbereitet auf den Krieg.” Schüler – Frieden – Bundeswehr. Verlag Jugend und Politik, Frankfurt, 1982.

14Melissa T. Brown, “Be the best”: Military Recruiting and the Cultural Construction of Soldiering in Great Britain. GSC Quarterly No 5, summer 2002.

15Cynthia Enloe, Beyond 'Rambo': Women and the Varieties of Militarized Masculinity. In: Eva Isaksson (ed.): Women and the Military System. Proceedings of a symposium arranged by the International Peace Bureau and Peace Union of Finland. New York/London/Toronto/Sydney/Tokyo 1988.

16R. Connell, Masculinities, violence, and peacemaking, Peace News No 2443, June-August 2001,

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