Sunday, May 16, 2004

Battle of the Bulge

The fascination with Private First Class Lynndie England and the much-photographed part she played in the alleged torture and abuses at Abu Ghraib prison continues unabated. Her cheerful enthusiasm, her cocky attitude, her obvious swaggering pleasure in taking total humiliating control of Iraqi prisoners, is the subject of much unabashed public interest beyond the issue of the torture itself. And central to that enthrallment is her sex; what was a woman doing there?
As much of a feminist as I am, I can't argue with this particular gender bias: war and torture are historically man’s business. And there’s something decidedly unwholesome about this strange little person pointing with such girlish glee at the exposed genitals of the naked, hooded, hamstrung prisoners in her care.
My girlfriends and I are surprised to express rare agreement; much as we might argue sexist, genderist, stereotypes - a whole battlefield of issues created by the recently co-ed battlefield itself - it's still virtually unthinkable for a woman to be so involved... and to participate so wholeheartedly to boot. Women are just as horribly fascinated as men at this vision of a sister doing it for herself.
She’s a real barrier breaker alright… a one-woman movement, engaged in changing the traditional, accepted role of women in war.
But besides Lynddie, how much really has changed?
According to experts, the equation goes something like this: men = testosterone; too much testosterone = violence; too much violence = war; therefore (ergo, Q.E.D.,) men = war. It's science is all it is - pure chemistry; and it appears there isn't nearly enough estrogen floating around in Iraq (save Lynddie) or Washington (save Condoleeza) to make a damn bit of difference.
There was an argument put forth a few years back (by a pair of Canadian psychologists Neil I. Wiener and Christian G. Mesquida) that argued that violence and conflict are closely connected to a given society's ‘male age ratio’ - the ratio of men aged 15 to 29 to men aged 30 and older. If there’s a relatively high proportion of young men, the theory goes, a society is much more prone to violence. They pointed to particular periods in history when for a variety of reasons a demographic shift resulted in higher than normal demographic 'bulges' of young males, and the corresponding incidence of war.
(A new grouping! Parliament of owls - murder of crows - pack of hyenas - bulge of men!)
It seems a pretty straight cause and effect line could be drawn between the two - the theory being that nature abhors a significant change in male/female ratios and does whatever she can to address the discrepancy.
Now a new book takes up the argument – this time focusing on the prevalence of sex selection in certain societies, and opines on the potential problems the imbalance could create.
In Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population (MIT Press) Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer have done the demographic math and come up with the disturbing possibility of a whole generation of angry young Asian men who won’t be able to find wives. They contend that history, biology, and sociology all suggest that these "surplus males" will generate high levels of crime and social disorder. Even worse, they allow that if such circumstances continue, the possibility exists that “… the governments of India and China will build up huge armies in order to provide a safety valve for the young men's aggressive energies.”
Even to a layperson the numbers are frightening; some social scientists suggest that through sex selected abortion, infanticide, or the adopting out of female babies, in China and Asia some 100,000,000 females are ‘missing’. The preference for male offspring for a variety of cultural and economic reasons is nothing new in certain parts of the world, but affordable, available technology has created a situation where such choices are now much more simply, cheaply and easily dealt with.
In figures I've lifted completely from the Branches study, the authors note that in 1993 and 1994, more than 121 boys were born in China for every 100 baby girls. In India during the period 1996 to 1998, the birth ratio was 111 to 100; in Taiwan in 2000, it was 109.5. In 1990 a town near New Delhi reported a sex ratio at birth of 156.
Astounding as those numbers are, there are scientists who consider the examples the authors use much too subjectively selective to establish an absolute correlation; others however, regard such studies as further proof that demographics are fundamental to human behaviour.
In 1996, David Courtwright, a professor of history at the University of North Florida authored a report that studied sex ratios and murder rates in North America. He concluded that demography is ‘social destiny’.
But what about the Middle East? I haven’t seen or read anything that suggests that such male preferenced selection is taking place – I would be surprised if it were; the technology is beyond the economic reach of the inhabitants of many of the regions, and the freedom by those most particularly affected to make use of it is virtually nonexistent. So how could demographics have had any effect on the increased amount of rage and violence spewing out of the region? Could it account for any part of the terrorist acts, and the resulting war in Iraq?
Is it possible that the female/male ratios haven’t had to physically change for a dangerous imbalance to emerge? Could making women virtual non-entities achieve much the same results as making them literally non-existent too?
And what’s going on here in North America? If our male/female statistics have remained essentially static, what does that say about the female effect on decisions surrounding the war in Iraq? Might we as well be Burqua-ed for all the difference we’ve made as a gender in addressing the crisis?
It’s hard to say – but this morning on one of the Sunday political talk shows in between commentary on Lynddie et al, on The Chris Matthews Show, host Matthews suggested that Americans admire the President of the United States because he’s such an Alpha Male – so unquestioningly sure of his decisions. There’s no self-doubt, no second guessing, virtually no apologizing; just a complete and utter sense of being right. The kind of guy people admire, he said, because unlike a woman, if driving around lost, he’d never stop to ask directions.
Perhaps it’s a similarly male trait to the one currently displayed by Pfc England; her explanation for her part in the now infamous snapshots of abuse is that she was ‘just following orders’.
Now more than ever we need the balancing influence of women – if not in numbers, than in attitude; perhaps if we all stopped now and then to ask directions instead of just following orders, we’d all have a better idea just where the hell we’re going.

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