Carol Burke, Beacon Press, 2004

Reviewed by: Jillian M. Duquaine-Watson, doctoral candidate in
Women’s Studies Department, The University of Iowa

Drawing from her background as a folklorist and an “insider” who served as a civilian faculty member of the Naval Academy, Carol Burke examines the military as an occupational folk group and unpacks the various aspects of military culture that continue to separate and exclude on the basis of gender. In addition to highlighting the more obvious customs and ceremonies, Burke also attends to the secret rituals and informal aspects that, even when officially “banned,” are still practiced in boot camps, military academies, and aboard submarines and aircraft carriers. Through a complex interweaving of examples–familiar and unfamiliar, historical and contemporary, from the front lines and from POW camps—Burke links cultural lore to ideology as well as policy. The result is a comprehensive study that illustrates not only how the cult of masculinity and resulting gender apartheid have contributed to military culture of the past and present, but also how they fail to adequately prepare U.S. forces for the future, thereby threatening national security.

It is against the backdrop of the military “corporate warrior spirit” that Burke takes her reader through the training and preparation that are considered fundamental in the creation of well-organized, effective soldiers. New recruits learn the rules of military culture from the moment they begin their training, whether it takes place at summer field training programs for ROTC cadets at Camp All-American at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, boot camp at the dozens of bases across the U.S., or at the academies that prepare cadets for careers as military officers. Even from these earliest encounters, trainees learn that only men can become true “warrior leaders,” a message that is reinforced through uniforms, haircuts, marching chants, speech and slang, and official ceremonies. Informal rituals also play a key role in the dissemination of cultural values, whether it is through the construction of a human scaffold by midshipmen celebrating the end of their first academic year at the Naval Academy, the marking of the first crossing of the equator for a “polliwog,” “blanket parties” to weed out those deemed weak or otherwise inferior, or the debasement and infantalization of plebes through traditional “fourthie games” that position new recruits as slaves and upperclassmen as masters. The cumulative effect of such practices is the reinforcement of a rigid hierarchy that prizes conformity, heteronormativity, and, above all, a narrow definition of masculinity.

This hierarchy, when combined with misogynistic attitudes, defines women as inferior and unwanted, thereby singling them out for gender-based discrimination and abuse. Such abuse takes a variety of forms including verbal insults, name-calling, ostracism, and other seemingly minor cruelties. At their most extreme, abuse may include physical and sexual assaults of the sort that led to the scandals at the Tailhook Convention and Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Yet whether it is tossing WAC’s and WAVE’s Kotex and Tampax overboard during World War II or rape of recruits by superior officers, such practices function to exclude women from full and equal participation in all aspects of military life.

Burke asserts that much of military culture is found in the details as “no detail of military life…is without significance, whether its meaning is imposed from above or smuggled into the barracks or onto the parade ground by the grunts and common sailors” (p. ix). And, indeed, her attention to those details is the greatest strength of the study for it enables her to create a multi-faceted, engaging representation of the gendered aspects of life in the service. What is less convincing is Burke’s prediction that emerging warfare technologies will “raise even more questions about the place of masculine exclusivity” (p. 187) within the armed forces. She suggests that such technologies will render brawn less important than brains, thereby undermining the primary argument that has been used to limit women’s participation. However, she gets mired down in descriptions of the training simulators as well as the radio systems, computers, global positioning systems, displays, and weapons systems that comprise the Land Warrior 2010 program and are part of the Army’s soldier modernization program that was launched in 1993 and enables each soldier to function as a solitary warrior, an “army of one.”

Though Burke hints at the ways such equipment will make bicep circumference less important than IQ, she stops short of making a substantive case concerning the need for full gender integration into the military. Given the pervasiveness of masculinity and sexism that she so thoroughly details throughout the book, it is disappointing that she resists advocating for the kind of change that she suggests is so important to the future of democracy. Still, the book is one I can easily imagine using in the classroom, as it is accessible and certain to generate lively discussion and debate, particularly at a historical moment when many aspects of military culture and practice are being called into question.

Jillian M. Duquaine-Watson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Iowa. She is currently completing her dissertation, an ethnography that compares the experiences of single mother students at two educational institutions—a community college and a large, public university—in order to understand both the supports and the barriers that single mothers experience as they pursue post-secondary education and training in the post-welfare reform United States. Her research engages feminist scholarship in the areas of motherhood and reproduction, anthropology, and pedagogy, as well as research on welfare policy, grassroots organizations, and higher education.

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