August 05, 2021

Unconventional Combat: Exploring Intersectionality through the Study of Military Veterans

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

When you picture a military veteran, what image comes to mind? A buff young man? An older man wearing his weathered uniform?

Michael Messner’s new book, Unconventional Combat: Intersectional Action in the Veterans’ Peace Movement, gives us insights into the lives of veterans who may not neatly fit into the public image of what a vet “looks like.” In this follow-up to his 2018 book Guys Like Me, Messner shares the often-hidden experiences of veterans: women, those who identify as gender fluid, persons of color, including Native Americans, and LGBTQ+ people, including two-spirit individuals.

These categories, of course, are not mutually exclusive, which is the main point of the book: people’s identities are intersectional, which shapes the way they navigate their relationships with institutions (such as the military) and organizations (like those formed as part of the veteran’s peace movement).

Peter Kaufman’s 2018 Everyday Sociology Blog post, “Intersectionality for Beginners” is a great place to start if you are new to the concept of Intersectionality. He begins by citing key scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, who wrote in 1989 about the experiences of Black women in particular. Crenshaw notes:

Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.

Kaufman goes on to add:

One of the best ways to understand intersectionality is to ask yourself: how do my race, gender, class, and other social positions enable my actions in some instances and constrain them in others? And in what ways do these social positions combine together to give meaning and structure to my life? How would my life choices and life chances change if I occupied different social positions? Embracing an intersectional perspective requires that you be introspective and reflexive so that you are willing to see how your life is shaped by these various social factors.

Messner’s study explores how the intersectional identities of veterans shaped their military experiences, which for many people he interviewed included experiences of sexual assault. Their post-military lives are often shaped by dealing with the resulting trauma. One informant told Messner that she had also experienced sexual harassment and groping at a Veterans for Peace convention, noting that the group “’needed to be made safe’ for women, people of color, and queer people” (p. 52).

Click below to hear Karen Sternheimer's discussion with Michael Messner about intersectionality, gaslighting, and challenges underrepresented people face in social movement organizations:

Unconventional combat podcast

Rather than seeing sexual assault and harassment as solely an individual experience, many of the veterans interviewed for this book were keenly aware and sought to expose how such experiences are rooted in the structure of the institution. These experiences of marginalization inform their post-military activism.

A recurring concern his respondents voiced was that the veteran’s movements they participated in needed to better address inequalities of race, gender, and sexuality--both within their organizations and within their activism more generally. Some long-time members saw these as more tangential issues, and wanted to keep their focus solely on anti-war efforts.

Interactions within veterans for peace movements could also be problematic. They described experiences of “tokenism” when moving into leadership positions, having limited “access to informal networks of support and advancement (p. 59).” One informant, who identifies as a gay male of color, described how leaders are expected to “look” a particular way. “You see the same tall, White guys being the squad leaders.” He notes that within a peace organization he participated in the leadership was nearly identical (p. 63). This spills over beyond the organization, as people who fit the image of a “military leader” tend to play well in public and in the news media more generally and get more attention, reinforcing the notion of who is leadership material (p. 65).

One of the most important things that we learn from this book that can be applied to many different social contexts is “how gendered racism in organizations shapes emotions, and people’s interpretations and responses to others’ expression of emotions” (p. 68). Messner describes one informant’s experience:

When Monisha Ríos raised her voice to be heard in a …board meeting, she learned that behind her back another member was labeling her as “unstable.” By contrast, Ríos said, when an older man gets loud or excited at a …meeting, he’s viewed as “passionate.” And if he should cross a line with bullying and aggression, the behavior is often excused and minimized by others who attribute it “to his PTSD” (p. 70).

Informants also describe being “gaslighted,” describing situations where others who do not experience the same forms of discrimination tell them they are imagining something or misinterpreting an event. This is an experience several interviewees reported when their concerns were not taken seriously or dismissed entirely. These kinds of experiences often lead to pulling back from an organization when attempts to raise awareness of the group’s race/gender/sexuality blind-spots are pointed out. This reproduces the marginalization of people whose identities differ from those in dominant leadership positions. In social movement organizations growth and coalition building is crucial or an organization is likely to shrink and lose momentum (p. 107).

As military participation shifts to include more gender and sexual diversity, more persons of color and Native Americans—Messner points to a study that finds approximately 22 percent of Native Americans over 18 are military veterans—the issues highlighted in Unconventional Combat will impact more and more people (p. 100). His findings teach us about many types of organizations that might seem race- and gender-neutral but may unwittingly be less-than-welcoming to members of color and those with diverse gender and sexual identities.

How can organizations face the challenge of becoming more accepting of people with diverse identities? This is an issue faced by many types of organizations and institutions, from universities to the military. What suggestions do you have for increasing inclusivity within the organizations in your life?

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