Women Cadets Talk “Homeland Security”

11 Mar

This past weekend, Global Action teamed up with the New York Chapter of Women in International Security for a presentation at West Point to women cadets as part of International Women’s Day.

The cadets represented two service academies – at West Point and Annapolis – and were attending the Corbin Women’s Leadership Summit on the theme, “Beyond the Brass Ceiling: Educating, Inspiring and Empowering for the Future.“

The situation of many women cadets in the US service academies is challenging at best.   There have been a host of very ‘public’ incidents of discrimination and abuse that have undermined trust in the academies and raised concern from women, peace and security advocates.   There have also been some high profile military activities that portend a shift from conventional military operations to more ‘high tech’ engagements that substitute robots for soldiers and drones for ‘manned’ aircraft.

None of this was news to these cadets.  Indeed, we generally find that conversations on peace and security with military personnel (or personnel in training) are among the most stimulating discussions that we are fortunate to be part of.   For this session, we decided it best to focus more on their social environment and a bit less on their military obligations:

·       We highlighted the changing constellation of threats that need to be assessed as potential sources of conflict.   Not only does most of the conflict on the UN Security Council agenda take place within states rather than across borders, but there is a general recognition that future conflicts are at least as likely to arise from competition over resources, especially water, as well as lands and oceans whose ecological potential has already been seriously compromised by pollution and climate change.  In addition, cadets must prepare to participate in a new generation of multi-lateral peacekeeping operations as well as assess security factors such as the trend to more asymmetrical warfare with an array of non-state actors and their increasingly clever killing devices.

·        We highlighted the need to identify and enfranchise stakeholders across a wide spectrum of conflict prevention and response.  This is not about ‘hearts and minds’ so much as about willing hands.    We simply leave too many assets on the table when creating strategies for addressing conflict, and we desperately need to raise that involvement.   We drove the point home that the most powerful military that has ever graced this planet had more than its share of difficulty subduing one of the poorest countries in the world.   Our militaries, it seems, are simultaneously intimidating and insufficient to the tasks of preserving and rebuilding the peace.  We need more, and we need it from a wider range of stakeholders and their distinctive capacities.

·         We highlighted the need to rescue ‘service’ from its overly militarized contexts.   These cadets were quite prepared to acknowledge that their ‘service’ is only one of many forms and that, indeed, more service from more places would be most welcome.    My many relatives in the military would have made a similar acknowledgment, that service is more a lifestyle than a professional obligation.   For all our flaws as people, we took seriously the need to lend a hand where we could, to look out for our neighbors, to offer support in a crisis, to share skills that would otherwise be in short supply.  As our societies become more complex and anxious, the need for service – if not the interest in service – must grow as well.  As our militaries are not sufficient to the challenges of modern security, our notions of service are inadequate to societies drowning in distraction and self-preoccupation.

·         And this led to the final major point, the degree to which modern culture has tuned out the institutions, strategies and practices of the military (and others) on whom we depend to protect our ‘way of life.’ We don’t always like what the military does, but it is indispensable to keep connected with its people, like these cadets, who will carry out missions ostensibly on our behalf.   More and more, people in the US (and elsewhere) know little or nothing about what military personnel do on a daily basis, how they motivate themselves to perform, how they feel about the things they are being asked to do on behalf of a largely disinterested population.   I related stories of my church life in the 80s and 90s when service personnel would return to the US, often badly damaged in body and spirit, sometimes drug addicted, with few employment prospects, let alone access to sufficient physical and psychological care.   Most of them could handle the dangerous streets.  What was harder to deal with was the sense that they were being shunned by the very people they imagined it had been their job to protect.

This seemed to strike a deep chord with many of the cadets.  How do you defend people who don’t have any interest in their erstwhile defenders nor in any of the other activities that must take place in the world in order for us to have all the material comforts and distractions that we take for granted, the advantages to which we feel entitled, the career pursuits that have little benefit beyond the limits of our own tight social orbits?  How do you ‘defend’ people who see others largely as ‘markets,’ who are more bitter than grateful, who allow themselves to be absorbed by gadgets such that we don’t ever have to pay attention to the world beyond our phones?

The cadets came away with a clearer sense, perhaps, that our security is about much more than defending our perimeter through military bases sited in other countries.   It is also about the security of the homeland, ensuring that the cores of our cultures are active and disciplined and hospitable and fair, including and especially fair to women.  As citizens, these women gave every indication of being willing to see and acknowledge connections to global processes to which we are usually blind, as well as the needs in our neighbors towards which we are more and more content to remain willfully ignorant.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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