Secretive, paranoid, and aggressive, our militarized, hyper-masculine political culture feeds violence abroad and in the home. As John Stuart Mill argued, the subjection of nations has everything to do with the subjection of women.
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Picture this. A man, armored in tattoos, bursts into a
living room not his own. He confronts an enemy. He barks orders. He throws that
enemy into a chair. Then against a wall. He plants himself in the middle of the
room, feet widespread, fists clenched, muscles straining, face contorted in a
scream of rage. The tendons in his neck are taut with the intensity of his
terrifying performance. He chases the enemy to the next room, stopping escape
with a quick grab and thrust and body block that pins the enemy, bent back,
against a counter. He shouts more orders: his enemy can go with him to the
basement for a “private talk,” or be beaten to a pulp right here. Then he wraps
his fingers around the neck of his enemy and begins to choke her.
No, that invader isn’t an American soldier leading a
night raid on an Afghan village, nor is the enemy an anonymous Afghan
householder. This combat warrior is just a guy in Ohio named Shane. He’s doing what so many
men find exhilarating: disciplining his girlfriend with a heavy dose of the
violence we render harmless by calling it “domestic.”
It’s easy to figure out from a few basic facts that Shane
is a skilled predator. Why else does a 31-year-old man lavish attention on a
pretty 19-year-old with two children (ages four and two, the latter an equally
pretty and potentially targeted little female)? And what more vulnerable
girlfriend could he find than this one, named Maggie: a neglected young woman,
still a teenager, who for two years had been raising her kids on her own while
her husband fought a war in Afghanistan? That war had broken the family apart,
leaving Maggie with no financial support and more alone than ever.
But the way Shane assaulted Maggie, he might just as well
have been a night-raiding soldier terrorizing an Afghan civilian family in
pursuit of some dangerous Talib, real or imagined. For all we know, Maggie’s
estranged husband/soldier might have acted
in the same way in some Afghan living room and not only been paid but also
honored for it. The basic behavior is quite alike: an overwhelming display of
superior force. The tactics: shock and awe. The goal: to control the behavior,
the very life, of the designated target. The mind set: a sense of entitlement
when it comes to determining the fate of a subhuman creature. The dark side:
the fear and brutal rage of a scared loser who inflicts his miserable self on
As for that designated enemy, just as
American exceptionalism asserts the superiority of the United States over all
other countries and cultures on Earth, and even over the laws that govern
international relations, misogyny — which seems to inform so much in the
United States these days, from military boot camp to the Oscars to full frontal political assaults on a woman’s right
to control her own body — assures even the most pathetic guys like Shane of
their innate superiority over some “thing” usually addressed with multiple
Since 9/11, the further militarization of our already militarized culture has reached
new levels. Official America,
as embodied in our political system and national security state, now seems to
be thoroughly masculine, paranoid, quarrelsome, secretive, greedy, aggressive,
and violent. Readers familiar with “domestic violence” will recognize those
traits as equally descriptive of the average American wife beater: scared but
angry and aggressive, and feeling absolutely entitled to control something,
whether it’s just a woman, or a small country like Afghanistan.
Connecting the Dots
It was John Stuart Mill, writing in the nineteenth century, who
connected the dots between “domestic” and international violence. But he didn’t
use our absurdly gender-neutral, pale gray term “domestic violence.” He called
it “wife torture” or “atrocity,” and he recognized that torture
and atrocity are much the same, no matter where they take place — whether
today in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Wardak Province, Afghanistan,
or a bedroom or basement in Ohio.
Arguing in 1869 against the subjection of women, Mill wrote that the Englishman’s habit of
household tyranny and “wife torture” established the pattern and practice for
his foreign policy. The tyrant at home becomes the tyrant at war. Home is the
training ground for the big games played overseas.
Mill believed that, in early times, strong men had used
force to enslave women and the majority of their fellow men. By the nineteenth
century, however, the “law of the strongest” seemed to him to have been
“abandoned” — in England
at least — “as the regulating principle of the world’s affairs.” Slavery had
been renounced. Only in the household did it continue to be practiced, though
wives were no longer openly enslaved but merely “subjected” to their husbands.
This subjection, Mill said, was the last vestige of the archaic “law of the
strongest,” and must inevitably fade away as reasonable men recognized its
barbarity and injustice. Of his own time, he wrote that “nobody professes” the
law of the strongest, and “as regards most of the relations between human
beings, nobody is permitted to practice it.”
Well, even a feminist may not be right about everything.
Times often change for the worse, and rarely has the law of the strongest been
more popular than it is in the United
States today. Routinely now we hear congressmen
declare that the U.S. is the
greatest nation in the world because it is the greatest military power in
history, just as presidents now regularly insist that the U.S. military is “the finest
fighting force in the history of the world.” Never mind that it rarely wins a
war. Few here question that primitive standard — the law of the strongest —
as the measure of this America’s
The War Against Women
Mill, however, was right about the larger point: that
tyranny at home is the model for tyranny abroad. What he perhaps didn’t see was
the perfect reciprocity of the relationship that perpetuates the law of the
strongest both in the home and far away.
When tyranny and violence are practiced on a grand scale
in foreign lands, the practice also intensifies at home. As American militarism
went into overdrive after 9/11, it validated violence against women here, where
Republicans held up reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act
(first passed in 1994), and celebrities who publicly assaulted their girlfriends faced no
consequences other than a deluge of sympathetic girl-fan tweets.
invasions abroad also validated violence within the U.S. military itself. An estimated
19,000 women soldiers were sexually assaulted in 2011; and an unknown number have been murdered by fellow soldiers who were, in many cases, their
husbands or boyfriends. A great deal of violence against women in the military,
from rape to murder, has been documented, only to be casually covered up by the chain of command.
Violence against civilian women here at home, on the
other hand, may not be reported or tallied at all, so the full extent of it
escapes notice. Men prefer to maintain the historical fiction that violence in
the home is a private matter, properly and legally concealed behind a
“curtain.” In this way is male impunity and tyranny maintained.
Women cling to a fiction of our own: that we are much
more “equal” than we are. Instead of confronting male violence, we still prefer
to lay the blame for it on individual women and girls who fall victim to it —
as if they had volunteered. But then, how to explain the dissonant fact that at
least one of every three female American soldiers is sexually
assaulted by a male “superior”? Surely that’s not what American women had in
mind when they signed up for the Marines or for Air Force flight training. In fact, lots of teenage girls
volunteer for the military precisely to escape violence and sexual abuse in
their childhood homes or streets.
Don’t get me wrong, military men are neither alone nor
out of the ordinary in terrorizing women. The broader American war against
women has intensified on many fronts here at home, right along with our wars
abroad. Those foreign wars have killed uncounted thousands of civilians, many
of them women and children, which could make the private battles of domestic
warriors like Shane here in the U.S. seem puny by comparison. But it would be a
mistake to underestimate the firepower of the Shanes of our American world. The
statistics tell us that a legal handgun has been the most popular means of dispatching a
wife, but when it comes to girlfriends, guys really get off on beating them to death.
Some 3,073 people were killed in the terrorist attacks on
the United States
on 9/11. Between that day and June 6, 2012, 6,488 U.S.
soldiers were killed in combat in Iraq
and Afghanistan, bringing
the death toll for America’s
war on terror at home and abroad to 9,561. During the same period, 11,766 women
were murdered in the United States by their husbands or
boyfriends, both military and civilian. The greater number of women killed here
at home is a measure of the scope and the furious intensity of the war against
women, a war that threatens to continue long after the misconceived war on
terror is history.
Getting the Picture
Think about Shane, standing there in a nondescript living
room in Ohio
screaming his head off like a little child who wants what he wants when he
wants it. Reportedly, he was trying to be a good guy and make a career as a
singer in a Christian rock band. But like the combat soldier in a foreign war
who is modeled after him, he uses violence to hold his life together and
accomplish his mission.
We know about Shane only because there happened to be a
photographer on the scene. Sara Naomi Lewkowicz had chosen to document the
story of Shane and his girlfriend Maggie out of sympathy for his situation as
an ex-con, recently released from prison yet not free of the stigma attached to
a man who had done time. Then, one night, there he was in the living room
throwing Maggie around, and Lewkowicz did what any good combat photographer
would do as a witness to history: she kept shooting. That action alone was a
kind of intervention and may have saved Maggie’s life.
In the midst of the violence, Lewkowicz also dared to
snatch from Shane’s pocket her own cell phone, which he had borrowed earlier.
It’s unclear whether she passed the phone to someone else or made the 911 call
herself. The police arrested Shane, and a smart policewoman told Maggie: “You
know, he’s not going to stop. They never stop. They usually stop when they kill
Maggie did the right thing. She gave the police a
statement. Shane is back in prison. And Lewkowicz’s remarkable photographs were posted online on February 27th at Time
magazine’s website feature Lightbox under the heading “Photographer
As Witness: A Portrait of Domestic Violence.”
The photos are remarkable because the photographer is
very good and the subject of her attention is so rarely caught on camera.
Unlike warfare covered in Iraq
by embedded combat photographers, wife torture takes place mostly behind closed
doors, unannounced and unrecorded. The first photographs of wife torture to
appear in the U.S.
were Donna Ferrato’s now iconic images of violence against women at home.
Like Lewkowicz, Ferrato came upon wife torture by chance;
she was documenting a marriage in 1980 when the happy husband chose to beat up
his wife. Yet so reluctant were photo editors to pull aside the curtain of
domestic privacy that even after Ferrato became a Life photographer in
1984, pursuing the same subject, nobody, including Life, wanted to
publish the shocking images she produced.
In 1986, six years after she witnessed that first
assault, some of her photographs of violence against women in the home were
published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and brought her the 1987 Robert
F. Kennedy journalism award “for outstanding coverage of the problems of the
disadvantaged.” In 1991, Aperture, the publisher of distinguished photography
books, brought out Ferrato’s eye-opening body of work as Living with the Enemy (for which I wrote an introduction).
Since then, the photos have been widely reproduced. Timeused
a Ferrato image on its cover in 1994, when the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson
briefly drew attention to what the magazine called “the epidemic of domestic
abuse” and Lightbox featured a small retrospective of her domestic violence work on June 27, 2012.
Ferrato herself started a foundation, offering her work
to women’s groups across the country to exhibit at fundraisers for local
shelters and services. Those photo exhibitions also helped raise consciousness
and certainly contributed to smarter, less misogynistic police procedures of
the kind that put Shane back in jail.
Ferrato’s photos were incontrovertible evidence of the
violence in our homes, rarely acknowledged and never before so plainly seen.
Yet until February 27th, when with Ferrato’s help, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz’s
photos were posted on Lightbox only two months after they were taken,
Ferrato’s photos were all we had. We needed more. So there was every reason for
Lewkowicz’s work to be greeted with acclaim by photographers and women
Instead, in more than 1,700 comments posted at Lightbox,
photographer Lewkowicz was mainly castigated for things like not dropping her
camera and taking care to get Maggie’s distraught two-year-old daughter out of
the room or singlehandedly stopping the assault. (Need it be said that stopping
combat is not the job of combat photographers?)
Maggie, the victim of this felonious assault, was also
mercilessly denounced: for going out with Shane in the first place, for failing
to foresee his violence, for “cheating” on her already estranged husband fighting
and inexplicably for being a “perpetrator.” Reviewing the commentary for the Columbia
Journalism Review, Jina Moore concluded, “[T]here’s one thing all the critics seem to agree
on: The only adult in the house not responsible for the violence is the
man committing it.”
They Only Stop When They Kill You
Viewers of these photographs — photos that accurately
reflect the daily violence so many women face — seem to find it easy to
ignore, or even praise, the raging man behind it all. So, too, do so many find
it convenient to ignore the violence that America’s warriors abroad inflict
under orders on a mass scale upon women and children in war zones.
invasion and occupation of Iraq
had the effect of displacing millions from their homes within the country or driving them into exile in foreign lands. Rates of rape and
atrocity were staggering, as I learned firsthand when in 2008-2009 I spent time
in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon talking with Iraqi refugees. In addition, those women who
remain in Iraq now live
under the rule of conservative Islamists, heavily influenced by Iran. Under the
former secular regime, Iraqi women were considered the most advanced in the
Arab world; today, they say they have been set back a century.
too, while Americans take credit for putting women back in the workplace and
girls in school, untold thousands of women and children have been displaced
internally, many to makeshift camps on the outskirts of Kabul where 17 children froze to death last January. The U.N. reported
2,754 civilian deaths and 4,805 civilian injuries as a result of the war in
2012, the majority of them women and children. In a country without a state
capable of counting bodies, these are undoubtedly significant undercounts. A
U.N. official said, “It is the tragic reality that most Afghan women and
girls were killed or injured while engaging in their everyday activities.”
Thousands of women in Afghan cities have been forced into survival sex, as were
Iraqi women who fled as refugees to Beirut and
That’s what male violence is meant to do to women. The
enemy. War itself is a kind of screaming tattooed man, standing in the middle
of a room — or another country — asserting the law of the strongest. It’s
like a reset button on history that almost invariably ensures women will find
themselves subjected to men in ever more terrible ways. It’s one more thing
that, to a certain kind of man, makes going to war, like good old-fashioned
wife torture, so exciting and so much fun.
Ann Jones, historian, journalist, photographer, and TomDispatch regular, chronicled violence against women in the
U.S. in several books, including the feminist classic Women Who Kill (1980) and Next Time, She’ll Be Dead (2000), before going to Afghanistan
in 2002 to work with women. She is the author of Kabul in Winter (2006) and War Is Not Over When It’s Over (2010).
Copyright 2013 Ann Jones