At War with Women asks the important question of “how liberal feminist narratives of war enable and normalize US imperialism” (Greenburg 2023, 16). To do so, author Jennifer Greenburg draws upon an expansive and impressive range of research methods, including studies in the archives; document analysis; interviews with servicewomen; ethnographic observation; and journaling. The research was also conducted at an admirable number of sites, from Quantico Marine Corps Base to Camp Pendleton, from the US Naval War College to a field mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. This rich and extensive analysis, as Greenburg suggests, helps show how war has been perpetuated and how it continues to inform our present. Such a study is timely: the year of the book’s publication marks 20 years since the US and its allies invaded Iraq, and as the book notes, the fallout from the War on Terror continues: there is ongoing trauma from the injury and death of civilians and soldiers, at home and abroad; infrastructural failure and insecurity are pervasive in those places where war was borne out, and where it continues to expand; and immigration laws, terrorism prosecutions, surveillance, and Islamophobia persist and are tenacious.

A tension runs through the book’s analysis, which is captured in the double-entendre of its title—At War with Women—which refers to how women have participated in and perpetuated war, as well as themselves being targets of violence. Servicewomen, for example, have been extensively engaged in the War on Terror in units such as Female Engagement Teams and Marine Corps Lioness Teams. The naturalization and essentialization of their gender was used to funnel them into specific roles that were grounded in emotional labor and “armed social work.” These new “military femininities” that were encouraged, however, were highly problematic, not least because of the presumptions made around race and sexuality—as Greenburg details. They were also troubling in that many of the servicewomen were quite proud of the gendered “advantages” that they brought to their missions, for example, how this allowed them to gain access to a wider range of informants, such as women. On another note, when servicewomen were injured, these very same gendered prejudices were used against them to deny their claims (for example, of impaired hearing or PTSD), arguing that their work could not be conceived of as combat.

In other examples servicewomen saw themselves as blazing feminist trails for equal pay and women’s rights within the military, while also acting as “global ambassadors for women’s rights.” Yet these celebratory narratives were dependent on imperial frameworks that cast foreign women as helpless and oppressed. Further, they obscured the ways that servicewomen continued to be made vulnerable within the military, dealing with verbal and physical threats, for example, around inappropriate bathroom arrangements and the threat of sexual violence.

At War with Women both illustrates how servicewomen were enrolled, often willingly and with excitement, in a “new imperial feminism,” while also pointing to the dangers of these new formations. The book thus provides a valuable and deeply grounded contribution to our understanding of women at war. The focus is on the US, but it would be interesting to consider how these examples compare with those of servicewomen elsewhere, especially as there is at times a tendency to universalize the US experience. The book is also focused on counterinsurgency operations of the 21st century: it would also be interesting to consider how its insights apply in other forms of conflict, not least because there seems to be a resurgence of more “conventional” forms of warfare.

One of the subcurrents that runs through At War with Women is a consideration of the many forms that violence takes, including “numbing” PowerPoint presentations and role playing during training. These are what Greenburg calls “violence as other means.” While I appreciate the attention to how mundane practices can produce violence, I also worry when all violences of all kinds are lumped together as if they are the same. I think more analytic clarity could be directed onto the concept so that we can see that a PowerPoint presentation is not the same as a detonated cluster bomb, even if they might be intimately related. This includes asking questions such as: are violences different from another? How are they the same? What does thinking through both differences and similarities reveal and conceal? What are the implications of doing so, and for whom? And how does this help (or not) think about responsibility and accountability for violence?

Thinking through violence more deeply might also help build a stronger case for the abolition of war and militaries. Greenburg notes in her Conclusion that “If nothing else, this book should warn against any rosy view of militarized tactics that were neither successful in their applica­tion in the post-9/11 wars nor appropriate for replication at home” (Greenburg 2023, 208-9). Instead, she suggests, we should embrace an “anti-imperial feminism” that will “work toward more educational and economic opportunities so that the burden of mili­tary service does not disproportionately fall on those with limited economic op­tions [… so that we can] build [a] less militarized, less destructive US engagement abroad that begins from knowledge of local priorities, politics, and history” (Greenburg 2023, 209).

But shouldn’t we demand more? What is needed is not a reshaping of the military and warfare, but their abolition. In my experience talking with people, such calls have become particularly tricky since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has galvanized war hawks and has been used to legitimize more and more military power and spending. However, this is all-the-more-reason to push for abolitionist futures that would see the end of militaries and war, and not simply their reformation. What At War with Women helps us to see is precisely how difficult this future might be to realize, given the deep entanglements of militarism, imperialism and feminism. And yet, at the same time, with its astute analysis of these entanglements, Greenburg provides plenty of examples as to why an abolitionist project is so necessary.

Emily Gilbert is Professor of Geography & Planning at University of Toronto whose research focuses on issues related to citizenship, borders, security, economy, nation-states, and globalization. Her work has been published in Security Dialogues, Environment and Planning D, Antipode, Political Geography and other venues.