International workforces underpin contemporary security operations—many of these forces originating from the global South. Similarly, miltarised households supporting these operations have also gone global. But what can military households tell us about global military operations and global security markets? In this blog post we reflect on what a focus on these kinds of households means for the study of security and political economy – and what a feminist secureconomy perspective enables researchers to place households at the centre of their research agendas.
Focusing on global military households tell us how global labour chains are ones that demand the flexibility and loyalty of their contractors in pursuit of geopolitical and economic interests. These labour procurement and management strategies are invariably deeply gendered. Stark gender divisions of labour underpin global forms of capitalism and militarization – even with the increased presence of women within militaries worldwide. As we suggest below, feminist political economy scholarship provides some important tools for understanding why this might be.
In order to understand what we mean by global militarized households, it is perhaps useful to reflect on the following two vignette’s collected during Amanda’s research:
Hanna kindly agreed to talk about her experiences of being a military and now security contractor wife. She smiles as she offers us olives and tea. Her place is beautiful. It’s a terraced stone cottage located in a sleepy town in Hereford, UK. Hereford is a city known for its cider and the UK military’s Special Forces, the SAS. She tells us that she’s happy to talk but not sure what her experience can tell us. We talked for just over an hour about her experiences, how she manages the household, how she finds it important to have flexible work as an accountant so that she can be at home to go on holidays or just spend time with her husband when he’s back on leave. She says a strong marriage is one where you are “not ships passing in the night” and it’s important that her work is flexible to fit around his leave schedule. She also tells us how she worries about “managing” him once he finally retires from security contracting work. You know he will find the transition difficult and I will need to find things that keep him occupied, she tells us. Overall, Hanna describes to us her life as blessed and at times feels like a princess with all the material possibilities opened to her because of the work her husband does—honourable work, of helping keep safe people in dangerous places.
I met with Nihra in her home in Pokhara, Nepal. It is a city that is also famous through its association to military heritage. It has a huge settlement of Gurkhas, Nepali men with over 200-years serving with the British military as foreign soldiers. Nihra’s home is kept very clean and has built-in air conditioning—a rarity and yet very welcomed on the humid day. Nihra is very animated in her descriptions of marriage, moving into her husband’s family home at the age of 20, abandoning higher education for the pursuit of being a full-time wife, mother and carer to her husband’s ageing parents. She tells me she is happy with her life as a military-now-private security wife. Being a Gurkha wife has elevated her social status in the community and given her children more opportunities for schooling. Her husband works overseas because they need the money to put their children through school and to pay for the running costs of the house. She, unlike her husband, cannot find work outside the home for various cultural and local economic reasons. The household very much depends on his income. She is a very good saver though—her husband confirms this to me. While he works in Afghanistan, Nihra financially invests in a local Gurkha female cooperative banking scheme that offers high interest rate return and access to affordable loans. Nihra tells me about the necessary steps she needs to make in order for her and her family to be financial secure in the future.
What can these vignettes, teach us about global politics, the everyday and gender? Both stories, whilst contextualized through different economic, social and political geographies, show us the important role households play in the overall functions of the global security market. For example, both Hanna and Nihra, the fact that they could remain flexible in their time allows the security industry to demand of its contractors the long hours and extended time away from the family home. Both placed primary importance on the work their husbands performed, which also normalized the reproductive (gendered) work of these women. Both also receive cultural payoffs of increased social status and financial security through their marriages. These payoffs appear to justify and also obscure the gendered work they do in keeping the household running while their husbands work away.
Both stories deeply connect with the emerging work by feminist military scholars such as Victoria Basham, Harriet Gray, Ali Howell, Jenny Hedstrom and Alex Hyde on the military household and the everyday. They tell us how the household is shaped and shaping militarised geopolitics and the various ways the state invests in household matters. Militarism positions military and security service as honourable and important and the household as the enduring supportive feature. Families are called upon to support with deployments and reintegration, to be, as Ali Howell aptly demonstrates, a resilient family in times of war and austerity. Militarism also gives these households a sense of identity and of value. These families are celebrated in public commemorations of military service. Hanna is very proud of the honourable work her husband does. She specifically planned her career path to be flexible in order to fully support his security profession. For Nihra, the household is also shaped by uneven geographies of economic development—military service provides an important financial lifeline to provide for the family and greater community.
Importantly these military households are also shaped by and in turn serve to shape global security economies underpinned by both neoliberal capitalism and militarism. Feminists have demonstrated how global security labour recruitment from both miltiarised communities are made possible through the everyday, even banal, supportive work these wives do. Hanna and Nihra’s stories undeniably connect us back to Cynthia Enloe’s work in Bananas, Beaches and Bases in which an exploration of the everyday worlds of diplomatic and military wives or the experiences of female plantation and garment workers provide alternative insights on ‘what matters’ for the study of global politics. The conditioning of the family to endure, to be resilient, and to reproduce/sustain life all the while remaining obscure, banal and in the background is a particular gendered politics that resonates with Juanita Elias’s and Adrienne Robert’s work on gender and political economies of the everyday. Such feminist interventions tend to present the everyday of the household as just a site in which global politics ‘touches down’ in particular ways, but also as a site in which specific temporalities, activities and spatialities continuously shape and reshape global economies.
For example, largely unaccounted for and undervalued, social reproduction is the socially necessary labour that is central to capital accumulation. A focus on the social reproductive activities of military wives reveals how social reproduction is also central to ongoing forms of militarization. Feminist political economists, such as Juanita Elias and Samanthi J. Gunawardana have also highlighted the significant ways in which households have ‘gone global’ – emphasizing the significance of foreign domestic workers within middle class households, and the widespread dependency of households around the world on the remittances sent home by family members. Military households are yet another manifestation of this ‘global household’ – the mobility of armed forces is reliant on those who care for children and tend to the home and foreign assignments bring in extra funds into the household.
Much feminist political economy also speaks directly to a broad yet disparate literature in International Relations and International Political Economy that seeks to connect the mundane ‘little nothings’ of everyday life to wider, more global, economic and political issues. It is perhaps through a focus on the everyday lives of military households that we are able to grasp how daily economic interactions serve to support particular geopolitical configurations and military operations. How does military service serve to bring material prosperity for individual households? What impact does military service have on the gendered division of labour in the household – how does working ‘flexibly’ around the work of a military partner limit personal employment choices? What impact does the end of military service have on household life and gender relations within the household? How do ideologies of the good housewife and/or mother serve to uphold these arrangements? And what can we learn from the everyday consumption, saving and investment practices of military households (the ‘beautiful house’, the ‘good saver’)?
Feminists have long been concerned with locating women, and those that are socially marginalised within broader political, economic and social regimes. In its various guises feminism has shone light on the everyday matters of global security and economy. One way in which this is done is by thinking about how everyday life provides us with an opportunity to challenge what might be termed “boundary drawing”-the carving off of particular issues as “national” “international” “economic” and “security” for example. Within the military household all of these distinctions conflate into one another and yet other boundaries, such as those that demarcate particular gender roles within and beyond the household remain remarkably durable. By better accounting for the everyday we can begin to unravel disciplinary divides that tell us one particular side of a very complicated global phenomenon.