Cynthia Enloe, Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
War is usually presented as all about hard power and weaponry. In school, students are taught about generals, battlefields, advances in armaments and innovations in military strategy. The historical figures associated with wars whose pictures are featured in textbooks are overwhelmingly male. Women’s experiences are considered to be of secondary importance in understanding armed conflict.
Cynthia Enloe’s Nimo’s War, Emma’s War offers a worthy rejoinder. As she has done in her previous work, Enloe argues that women’s experiences are crucial to an accurate understanding of wartime. Here she profiles eight women: four Iraqi and four American. The reader is not supposed to feel intimately acquainted with any of the women (none of whom, in fact, Enloe has met), because each is strategically chosen to illuminate a larger issue that women face during war. Enloe uses the eight stories artfully to provide a feminist perspective on a war — the Iraq war beginning in 2003 — that to date has received only masculinist interpretations.
As Enloe writes, “These eight women have made me rethink the meanings of, and evidence for, ‘the cost of war’ and ‘security.’” Examining the wartime experiences of women, she continues, allows students of war to “become more realistic about how the ‘costs’ of war should be tallied.” Among the women profiled is Nimo, a beauty salon owner in Baghdad. As the US occupation takes hold in the Iraqi capital, Islamist militias and, later, elements of the elected Iraqi leadership implement a conservative religious agenda. Among other restrictions, the militias discourage women from “immodest” dress and personal appearance. As a result, beauty parlors and other establishments catering to women became targets for attack. Nimo’s fears for her shop’s solvency and her own safety are grist for Enloe’s discussion of the relationship between physical security and women’s employment outside the home. As Nimo’s shop was also forced to close during power outages, the war took a toll on her livelihood. Such costs are not calculated in mainstream accountings.
Enloe also introduces Danielle, an African American soldier fighting in Iraq. Before joining the army, Danielle was a basketball star at Duke University. Without a family to call her own, Danielle hoped the Army would provide her with camaraderie. Not long into her deployment she is seriously wounded, resulting in the amputation of the left arm that guided her jump shots at Duke. Through the tale of Danielle, Enloe addresses the problems faced by women in the military, not only debilitating injuries, racial discrimination and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which affect men as well, but also sexual assault.
The other three Iraqis that Enloe profiles are Maha, a displaced widow whose husband was kidnapped and murdered; Safah, the sole survivor of a Marine massacre of her family; and Shatha, an elected parliamentary representative. Enloe does not treat Iraqi women as monolithic—not everyone in the book is portrayed as a victim, whether of war or Iraqi patriarchy. She rejects the notion that all women in the Middle East are similarly oppressed and begging for Western intervention.
The American women are Emma, an overwhelmed and burdened Latina mother whose son is relentlessly recruited by the Army; Kim, the wife of a deployed National Guardsman; and Charlene, the mother of a soldier who returns home after being wounded. These stories are a bracing reminder of the harsh effects of wartime deployment upon military families, particularly when juxtaposed with such dramatic treatments of the subject as the Lifetime Channel’s series Army Wives. Set alternately in the fictional, always sunny Fort Marshall and Iraq or Afghanistan, Army Wives does not dodge upsetting issues; episodes deal with brain injury, domestic violence, sexism and more. At Fort Marshall, however, the military’s “support system” for people wrestling with such traumas is intimate rather than institutional. The general’s wife’s circle of friends includes women married to a sergeant, a lieutenant colonel and a Delta Force member, as well as the African-American husband of a female lieutenant colonel. Enloe’s real American women live drearier and (often) more desperate lives. The military “support system” they deal with exhibits far less love and concern, being primarily aimed at “solving” family problems quickly and efficiently.
One aspect of Nimo’s War, Emma’s War is unsatisfying. From beginning to end, Enloe preaches that the female experience of the Iraq war is necessary for a thorough and reliable understanding of the conflict as a whole. She suggests that such an understanding will help anticipate the impact of future wars, but offers no concrete prescriptions for change. Perhaps her tacit prescription is that war should generally be avoided in the first place, but as that event is unlikely, it would help to have recommendations for intermediary reforms from a scholar of her particular expertise.
Enloe concludes with an intricate scene from Iraq that deserves close examination. The scene was on view in a series of photographs featured in the February 28, 2009 issue of the Washington Post. In 2009, security and “progress” in Baghdad were measured by the reopening of businesses. Among these businesses are nightclubs on Abu Nawas Street, the street in central Baghdad that lines the bank of the Tigris River. Here, soldiers and civilians, Iraqis and Americans, mixed. Amidst the music and drinking, it is easy to forget that the scene takes place in the middle of a war zone. There is also a belly dancer. Where is she from? She may very well be displaced due to violence in her home neighborhood, provinces away. Or she may have accepted being objectified at her job as a last resort because she is the sole provider for a family fractured by the war. She might not even be Iraqi. Amidst the advertisements of “progress” for a democratic Iraq, how much progress has the belly dancer experienced? Enloe warns that there must be a “perpetual return to women’s own voices” in order to understand the Iraq war. Among them is this dancer’s, whose voice is overpowered by the pulsing music to which she dances.
As the Obama administration declares and end to the “combat” phase of the Iraq war, Enloe’s book is a reminder that for many of these women the war is not ending and will never end. When Kim’s husband is killed in Iraq, she is burdened with thousands of dollars of debt, none of which will be forgiven following the September 1 troop drawdown. Safah’s massacred family will never enjoy whatever promised peace is yet to come. War’s horrors will reverberate through generations of women, from grandmother to daughter to granddaughter. If we are ever to grasp the full reality of the Iraq war, we must listen attentively to the stories that these and other women have to tell.