Eichler, Maya. Militarizing Men: Gender, Conscription and War in Post–Soviet Russia. 2012. Stanford University Press, USA.

“Men are not naturally militaristic, they become militarized…If men are not willing to serve and their mothers or female partners do not want them to join the military, the state is less able to wage war or legitimate its rule on the basis of militarized patriotism.”

“Militarized masculinity is part of the foundation of the contemporary international system.”

Militarizing Men by Maya Eichler: Book Review

From this dry sounding title of an academic work – the book is based on a PhD dissertation – comes a fascinating story of militarization of men as the very basis of modern society. Eichler, a Canadian academic went to Russia to meet and interview “soldiers´ mothers, draft evaders, veterans of the Chechen and other recent wars” in order to understand how a society, in particular, Russian society, inculcates that the concept of manhood requires militarization. Although her research and conclusions are based on this particular group in a specific time and location, this book raises many questions for the reader. It made me look at the current phase of ´militarizing´ men and glorifying war in my own society. Then I looked wider to see that killing someone or something appears to be a ritual of achieving manhood in many cultures.

Eichler´s fieldwork was in Samara, a city on the Volga, south of Moscow, at one time a centre of arms manufacturing. She reviews the role of the military in Soviet society during the WW2, when nearly one million women served in the military, but later women returned to more traditional female roles, like mothers and family of soldiers; their service was a wartime necessity, not part of the political need to relate military heroism and service to masculinity. After the war militarization was a form of male–bonding and also a way to assimilate men from different ethnic groups and religions into a prototype of the new Soviet man. As birth rates declined women were encouraged to resume traditional motherhood roles.

During the Soviet–Afghan war, cracks began to appear in the perception of militarism. Mothers´ group began to grieve publicly over the loss of their sons while some mother looked for ways to keep their sons out of the war. Gorbachev was not enthusiastic about the results of the war and neither were veterans who questioned the whole purpose of the conflict and their sacrifices. The war and its effect on the Soviet image internally and externally were discussed and criticized much as the war on Vietnam was in the USA.

Since the Soviet collapse, present Russian leaders have had difficulty in encouraging its population to support new wars as in Chechen, ´fought against “separatists,” “bandits,” and “terrorists”. Perhaps the memory of the Afghan war and women´s activism has contributed to the new scepticism.

In her research Eichler examines in depth the gender analysis of state and society militarization, gender roles in supporting state ideology and how militarization fits into post–Soviet ideology and is used to stabilize the current political ideology. She examines the inability of the current Russian state to create a coherent ideology of “the ideal soldier as tough and heroic warrior”. Soldiers are not well–treated within the forces, they are poorly cared for and after service have little support or state help. Mothers´ groups have become vocal and active on these issues as well.

She writes that the Soviet state provided a minimum level of social and economic security for Soviet citizens. The post–Soviet governments promised much more, but “the reality was a collapsed welfare regime, economic instability and a sharp increase in inequality. Military service brings the tensions in state–society relations that have arisen from the economic and social crisis into view as the breakdown of the social contract has undermined young men’s willingness to serve.”

Again the reader may wonder how Eichler´s analysis fits into an examination of Canadian society where the military are glorified and the military budget is soaring as social services, public broadcasting, environmental research and monitoring and more programmes are cut and slashed from the federal budget. How easy is to convince a population that militarism is heroic? How difficult is it for a society to accept the futility and unsustainablility of a system based on militarism?

And is there any doubt why the fastest increasing production of weapons is that of drones, airborne weapons without pilots and launched afar by the hundreds by a handful of safe computer technicians? We may be less willing to accept the death of our soldiers, but not unwilling enough to refuse the concept of a society that defines itself by militarization. Eichler´s analysis of a society not so different from ours can help us to overcome the present crisis in Canada and globally and to identify the current war mania for the insanity that it is.

Filed under Book Reviews, Maya Eichler