The Feminine Side of Private Military Contractors

09/13/2011 05:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2011
  • David Isenberg Author, 'Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq'

Over the years I've read a lot of academic literature on private military contracting. I've read analyses from the fields of economics, international relations, political science, human rights, law, and sociology, to name just a few. But I've never read an analysis from the gender studies perspective; until now.

But in 2009 an Isabelle V. Barkera published an article in an issue of Politics and Gender. Evidently, using private military contractors, among its other actual or presumed virtues, saves the American fighting man from having to do women's work. According to the abstract of her article, "(Re)Producing American Soldiers in an Age of Empire."

While there has been little data gathered as to the presence of migrant workers in service occupations on U.S. military bases in Iraq, the data that do exist along with anecdotal evidence gathered by journalists suggest that the division of reproductive labor on military bases reflects an underexplored axis in the global organization of social reproductive labor. Due in part to the privatization of these services, the vast majority of vital support service labor is outsourced to and performed by men migrating from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, and Pakistan. This globalized division of reproductive labor is a site of symbolic politics that reinforces the gendered dimensions of the national identity of the American soldier. This division builds off of a long tradition of gendered dynamics framing military service. The displacement of reproductive labor, which remains coded as effeminate, onto poor migrant men serves to reinforce the aggressive masculine version of American soldiering in a way that smoothes over differences among soldiers along the lines of race, class, rural or urban origin, and even gender. Echoing earlier colonizer-colonized relations, this division of labor in turn supports the increasingly imperial posture that the United States has assumed in the world.

It's certainly an interesting perspective, though I doubt a trade group like ISOA is going to include it in its list of talking points.

In case you wonder what "reproductive labor" is, Ms. Barker defines it as encompassing "the physical and emotional care of dependents, but also has generally been held to include subsistence and educational activities involved in reproducing the labor force."

In her view, the displacement of reproductive labor may well reinforce the aggressive masculine version of American soldiering. "One key effect of the symbolic politics of off-loading this feminized work is that the resulting masculinist image of the military serves to rationalize the privatization of the armed forces. That is, the symbolic politics of this outsourcing is such that emphasizing the feminization of this labor serves to reinforce the neoliberal model of a leaner and more effective and efficient armed forces."

Furthermore, outsourcing this labor "serves to mute significant race, class, gender, and regional differences among service members." And it also appears to play a role in obscuring the disconnect that soldiers experience between their training for combat and the actual daily "nation-building" operations of occupying Iraq.

Of course Mr. Barkera seems to overlook the fact that many, though certainly not a majority of the labor force that comes from developing nations are, in fact, women. One wonders if the joy of working for, oh say, KBR, will make a woman from the Philippines even more feminized than she was to begin with.

However, she does make an important point, namely:

This points to a central strategic paradox at the heart of today's Pax Americana but one that has been managed to date. The only way that the United States can support an empire of military bases with a trimmed-down force comprised of all volunteers is by outsourcing services. The privatization of key components of the military in an era of neoliberal ideological dominance has turned out to be absolutely crucial for enabling a militarized imperial turn on the part of the United States. Thus, it is more accurate to term this a neoliberal empire of bases, one that relies heavily on nonstate, private entities to support all of the activities of the military--from security services to logistics and vital support services. In this neoliberal era, due in part to the all-volunteer army as well as to the availability of a low-cost and mobile global labor force of migrants, the U.S. armed forces have reverted back to a pre-World War I organization of both logistical support and the division of labor, outsourcing reproductive activities, among others, to nonsoldiers through privatized channels.

Hmm, empire through an internationally sourced feminized labor force. Isn't globalization wonderful? I wonder if Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz appreciated this aspect of privatization back when they were pushing for more A-76 competitions.

In Ms. Barkera's view an implicit message of outsourcing is that real men don't do logistical services work.

This is not a task for the unmanly. Soldiers are reminded of this on a regular basis, several times a day, in fact. The people who serve them pizza, ice cream, and hamburgers, the people who do their laundry, and the people who clean the latrines they use are not soldiers. Of course, for the most part, they are not women either. Here, we see the symbolic politics of gender overlaid with an imperial posture toward the world. In this case, the aggressive undertaking on the part of the United States is emboldened by its masculine qualities--which in turn are emboldened by the emasculation of the rest of the world. This emasculation is reinforced in the staffing of devalued and disavowed reproductive labor activities on the American military base, with poor men of color migrating from South and Southeast Asia making up the vast majority of these workers. The division of labor on the base also serves as a daily invocation of the orientalism of colonial projects, and the corresponding pattern of relative strength on the part of the United States in relation to the rest of the world. It is this kind of gendered symbolic politics that serves to reinforce the neoconservative foreign policy message that the United States is in a unique, but tenuous, position of preeminence. As such, it is endowed with a set of global responsibilities and so must not shirk "the cause of American leadership" as the neoconservative group, Project for the New American Century has put the matter. This is a manly undertaking if there ever was one--in fact, it reverberates with Machiavellian civic virtue in the sense that the rest of the world figures as feminine, unequal, and in need of being directed.

Well, that certainly helps explain why people such as Dick Cheney like military outsourcing.