The Disruptor Series: with Kathleen Barry, Author of Unmaking War, Remaking Men

Kathleen Barry Unmaking Men Remaking War Feminist Foreign Policy

Gender constructs can be destructive, especially as they manifest on the stage of international relations. In an anti-war critique of masculinity, Kathleen Barry’s Unmaking War, Remaking Men, argues that the intention of the male social construct is to bolster militarism.  It is this cultural pipeline from play fighting in the playground to warfare in foreign lands, that Barry sees as superseding the inherent human capacity for empathy. In this complex process of socialisation, Barry saw the civic value of empathy as a quality that differentiated men in combat - a quality that detached them from a violent “core masculinity.”

Empathy enters her work in more ways than one.  From whether the politics of empathy needed to come from our leaders, to the necessity of practicing empathy as a researcher, it was an attribute that Barry believes to be inherent in “what women do, they way we talk, frame, and fight our issues.” It is this empathetic criteria that she saw as the cornerstone of feminist foreign policy.

When I asked, “what made you a feminist?” Barry’s response was - “the short answer: men.” So it is no surprise that her tool of inquiry and nexus of analysis is men in combat and their performance and/or experience of masculinity. But Barry’s long answer to this question was an autobiographical account of the historical movements upon which the present moment is built. Finishing high school in 1959, the (regrettably) routine exposure to sexual harassment and workplace discrimination culminated in her activism as part of the Civil Rights movement. Living in Detroit during the late 1960s, she protested with CORE and People Against Racism. She remembers the male cohort of the New Left, who led the latter organization, were both “idiotic” and dismissive of her and other women’s contributions. These same men announced, after the riots, that they would move to the suburbs. In a fine demonstration of resistance, Barry recollected shouting back, “you and all the other white people in Detroit - what’s new about racism?” Whilst this response was ignored by the room at large, there was a woman seated next to her who whispered, “there’s a women’s lib group being made here in Detroit.” The rest is history - both hers and ours.

This was a book that Barry had no intention of writing. The idea first emerged in 2009 when Israel was bombing Lebanon and Barry’s anger was mediated by curiosity. She was interested in the clear distinction that repeated media representation of death tolls made between the life of the soldier with that of the civilian. Whilst the former were merely tallied in numbers, the latter were characterised as “innocent lives.” In political rhetoric, the term “collateral damage” has been used, with the effect of erasing the humanity from casualties of war. In contrast, “innocent lives” strikes a poignant chord. Barry explained to me that “as soon as you use the term, you imply that other lives are not [innocent].” This underlying binary that there are lives deserving of death by warfare and, more specifically, that soldiers’ lives were expendable, forms the basis of Barry’s critique of “core masculinity.”

Unmaking War Remaking Men Kathleen Barry Feminist Foreign Policy

Conducting research interviews with men in combat, Barry’s first interview was with a Vietnam War veteran. Found in a local supermarket by one of Barry’s female friends, upon hearing that the research was about life being expendable in combat, he replied - “she sure got that right.” In the process of sharing his military service, he remembered that the first time he killed someone was his initiation into an esteemed cadre. The buddy system, as they called it, had a killing criteria. On the battlefield, the premise of having each other others back meant that trust could not be given until it was earned. However, in gaining their trust, this veteran also lost something, lamenting that “you lose your soul.” What Barry uncovered was a continuum, a lineage of this rhetoric of loss. Observing the Winter Soldier’s Hearing conducted by Iraq Veterans Against the War, there were similar sentiments. One soldier took off his medals, threw them on the ground and claimed that “I never want to see them again.”

Before she was a sociologist, Barry was an elementary school teacher and observed gendered behaviours on the playground. Whilst the boys would be jumping, tackling and play-fighting, the girls would be holding hands and talking. (Debra Tanner has made similar observations in her seminal work on gendered linguistics.) Barry saw this early socialisation as teaching those young boys that in order to assume their role as the expected protector of women and children, they needed to learn how to fight. This gender role was also the basis for subordinating those who they saw needing protection: women. So it was in the playground, solidified by the influence of TV and family models, that boys were being socialised for the military.

For feminists concerned with taking on the patriarchy, there is much to be learned from its simultaneous imprisonment of manhood as well as its manifestations in masculinity.

One of the key realisations that Barry had whilst writing this piece was that after having written 50 pages, she hadn’t yet said anything about women (even though one might protest that male training for violence inherently involves women). She reflected that most feminist scholars, writers and critical thinkers, want to start with how women have experienced a social issue - whether it be sexual violence, sexual labour or the wage gap, and then work out how we fix it. However in her authorship of this book Barry started with men, explaining that “I trust myself enough, based on my whole life, to bring feminism in,” because “if you’re a feminist, it’ll come out.” For feminists concerned with taking on the patriarchy, there is much to be learned from its simultaneous imprisonment of manhood as well as its manifestations in masculinity. We cannot miss foreign policy, nor its male-centeredness, in a feminist foreign policy analysis. (For more on an analysis of masculinity, Marissa Conway has written about nuclear weapons).

One of my final questions to Barry was whether she saw a place for war in foreign policy. She answered that “if you were asked this question during World War 2… when we found out about the concentration camps and Nazi persecution against Jews, we would appreciate the intervention of so many countries to end that war.” She continued that although she did not support war, “…when you see a genocide against people who are deemed unacceptable to the nation state - there has to be an intervention. When you see it happening… when you see it coming… you have to stop it.” Reflecting on her own U.S. citizenship she lamented the scarcity of reasons to be proud of it. However, it was that night in the airports when the Muslim Ban had first been implemented and the TV infiltrated houses with imagery of body-to- body protest. “I don’t know where they got the oxygen to stay in those terminals as long as they did,” regarding the lawyers with signs around their necks offering legal services. “I don’t remember reading a lot of that history in Hitler’s rise to power - in that sense we might have learnt something.”


Interview and article by Taylor Fox-Smith, FFP editorial intern and gender studies teacher at Macquarie University.  Follow her on Twitter: @TaylorFoxSmith3