War Through a Gender Lens
We have seen war and death. We have felt the chaos of combat and the tension of leadership. We have walked behind caissons and have carried coffins, feeling their weight pulling us down. We have stood in front of graves, holding tight to our families and making promises to friends lost far too soon — promises to remember their sacrifices and to work for sustainable peace. And we have poured ourselves into understanding the root causes of conflict, hoping that one day our voices can help those in power consider options other than war.
War has many faces. It is a political game of chess, conceptual strategic balancing with nameless pawns, and a way of asserting dominance. But it is also the personal ache of separation, the fear that accompanies the chaos and fog of a firefight, and the deep wounds that families and communities torn by conflict suffer. The lens through which strategic leaders understand the definition and facets of war matter because they shape the path chosen and can impact the lives of millions. As a nation, when considering war, we legitimize the perspective of a wartime president in the White House, the military brass displaying rows of ribbons, and the well-educated policymakers who speak of strategic grounds gained and troops deployed. But on the other side of the equation is a mother dreaming of a more stable world for her children, and a woman hoping to navigate safely to work. Also set apart is the pilot who notices the faces of families as she flies overhead, and the platoon leader who sees a child who makes him long to hold his own back home. Which perspective represents understanding war? Which is more valid? And do our leaders and decision-making processes value both?
On the same day that Iran attacked Al Asad air base, a place we both know well, a Washington Post op-ed recommended that, if world peace is the objective, we should let women run the world. While we have met our share of men and women who buck that stereotype, there is truth within that idea. Women’s leadership matters because diverse leadership matters. We have seen it, we have lived it, and our research supports it. War is incredibly complex — and if the people, processes, and institutions that manage conflict exclude diverse perspectives, then the choices made will be limited, driven by the status quo in power.
Watching the news of the attacks on Al Asad this week from thousands of miles away, safe in our homes, we are transported back over the years. The weight of a coffin is heavy on a shoulder again, and the anger is tight in our chests. The faces of families we flew over and friends we have lost appear in our dreams, and the images of schools, storefronts, and communities left devastated by the reality of urban fighting remind us of a mission yet unfinished.
As events unfold in the Middle East, we have seen numerous analyses on the history of U.S.-Iran relations and our military history in the region writ large. However, we have different questions concerning the experience and perspectives leveraged to make these decisions. Whose voices were in the room when the decision to kill Qassem Soleimani was made? What second- and third-order effects of that decision were discussed? What perspectives were offered? And as the Trump administration considers options in the ever evolving situation, are different perspectives being sought?
And where are the women with voices of experience, of loss, of empathy and humanity? Where is the discussion of cost and effectiveness that goes beyond rocket attacks and considers the social, cultural, political, and economic impacts? As tensions escalate, we must consider the perspective of families seeking access to food, water, education, and healthcare. We must examine flight plans, convoy routes, and targets to consider how disruption can impact the lives of civilians in the region. We must acknowledge the mental and emotional wounds that military members, spouses, children, and communities back in the U.S. can suffer — as a small fraction of Americans continue to bear the weight of war — and weigh them alongside kinetic escalation and shows of force. Research shows that lack of access to basic needs and the disruption and displacement of daily lives are major drivers of conflict. But is anyone considering these issues during the planning process? Women do — and as a result, too often, questions like these are dismissed as “women’s issues” during conflict planning and conduct, considered only after the planning for “real security” has happened. To achieve stability, we must mainstream these considerations by truly integrating the perspectives that have for too long existed on the margins.
As we watch a base that we flew into get attacked and friends that we served with prepare for war in the region yet again, our personal experiences and research lives collide. We know how it feels to go to war, and we also see what is missing in our planning processes to stop them.
Diversity matters. Having women at the table matters. Like people of color and those of different religions or genders, women experience different challenges and can face greater obstacles to progress — particularly in security-focused careers and institutions that are male-dominated. These experiences give women perspectives that often diverge from the “traditional” or mainstream, helping us see both problems and solutions that remain invisible to a more homogenous team. Including the voices of leaders who face different challenges and inequities — and are normally excluded from roles of power — is critical to finding unique and creative solutions to intractable problems… like war.
We have not quite made it to that room yet, that room where it happens. But it is time to speak up, so we are projecting our voices into that room. For those leaders who carry the privilege and burden of choosing and shaping war, please listen. The stakes demand diverse perspectives. Elevate women’s voices. Demand that others sit at that table with you. Include. Listen. Change. And remember that war has many faces — and most do not look like your own.