onsiderable attention has been afforded among critics and proponents alike to the US military doctrinal turn to a population-centric approach to counterinsurgency during the height of the global war on terror seen most evidently in the 2006 US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (United States Army 2006). In contrast to an enemy-centric approach, which utilizes punitive measures and kinetic force to undermine the insurgency, the population-centric approach embraces a wider and more complex strategy of engagement that aims to shift alliances and perceptions among the civilian population away from the insurgency and toward the counterinsurgent’s aims. This support is often won, so the theory goes, through development and humanitarian interventions and various other non-kinetic means, including economic regeneration and basic service provision fashioning counterinsurgency, in the words of David Killcullen (2006) as “armed social work.”

Much has been written about the so-called “cultural turn” in US military doctrine as part of the second phase of the Revolution in Military Affairs with its emphasis on the importance of cultural knowledge, ethnographic intelligence, and civic action to influence attitudes and perceptions among the population. Derek Gregory (2008), for one, frames the cultural turn as part of the “’re-enchantment’ of war in which developmental forms of war are merely a ‘dress uniform’” to distract the public from actual violence (quoted in Greenburg 2023: 20). Such a framing, Jennifer Greenburg contends, replicates “the military’s own language of humanitarianism” – that is, it fails to conceive of non-kinetic (nonviolent) and kinetic (violent) dimensions of warfare as two constituent parts of war-making, bracketing instead the former as mechanism of concealment or as an ameliorative force. At War with Women offers a critical corrective on this score demonstrating how women’s military labor is folded into and directly facilitates the operation of war.

Jennifer Greenburg’s At War with Women crucially holds in intimate relation the overly violent and lethal dimensions of counterinsurgency warfare and their more humanitarian, liberal, and specifically gendered components. Drawing on ethnographic research of US military trainings and “female engagement teams” (FETs) specifically – believed to be more adept at accessing the Arab household and thus the population at large –  alongside archival research of the post-9/11 doctrine, Greenburg shows how FETs undertook key functions in carrying out the work of “winning hearts and minds” of the civilian population and in instrumentalizing US counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan more broadly. Over time, as Greenburg points out, “all-female counterinsurgency teams were increasingly attached to special operations missions, in which female soldiers were expected to calm women and children during violent night raids of Afghan homes,” to “search and question women at security checkpoints,” and to distribute humanitarian supplies (Greenburg 2023: 2). The military’s increasing reliance on women’s labor, refracted through gender essentialisms which saw women as more “naturally’” adept to “’soothe and calm’ war’s victims” constitutes part of what Greenburg calls a “new military femininity,” in which women military personnel undertook gendered and specifically emotional labor and “humanitarian” acts to further US war and counterinsurgency goals (Greenburg 2003: 2). As one example, all-female counterinsurgency teams, Greenburg shows, served important intelligence functions by “providing opportunities to question women and children residing in a militarily surveilled home and allowing secret missions to remain under the cover of silence by calming the subjects of a home raid” (Greenburg 2003: 7). The gendered military labor of the US woman counterinsurgent, much like Jasbir Puar’s homonational subject, was folded squarely into the production of imperial war-making and violence (Puar 2018).

Demonstrating how the so-called liberal or non-kinetic dimensions of counterinsurgency warfare, here emotional labor and care, are intimately interwoven with tactics of population control, surveillance and policing, At War with Women crucially overturns the binary military language of kinetic and non-kinetic, showing instead how both are constitutive elements to the production of violence and war-making. The “cups of tea female counterinsurgents describe drinking often in the language of ‘winning hearts and minds,’” Greenburg underscores, “actually support intelligence gathering;” the “sanguine exchange between Afghan role players and marines, in a simulated village meeting” or the “dry delivery of a PowerPoint presentation by US military officials” lays out blueprints and strategic plans for how to pacify a civilian population and enact broad-based population control. Such non-kinetic activities, Greenburg underscores, are directly implicated in the operation of war and military violence. “It would be a misreading,” she rightly points out, “to view such activities as nonviolent military acts. Nor are they simply papering over the more violent aspects of war. Rather, the subtle, even boring aspects of war making such as PowerPoint constitute violence. They make possible the air strike, the civilian casualties, and the thirty-eight million or more displaced: the female soldier’s emotional labor facilitates the night raid in which civilians die (Greenburg 2023: 20-21).”

Holding militarized development and humanitarianism in relation to their military objectives, Greenburg presents us with a critical corrective for how we ought to conceive of violence (Greenburg 2023: 20). The non-kinetic dimensions of counterinsurgency warfare, which are so meticulously mapped in this text, are not somehow distinct from, nor do they serve as an ameliorating force to, real violence and war-making: they are war-making. Importantly here, Greenburg lays bare the farcical nature of the kinetic/non-kinetic binary. We cannot separate out the seemingly “non-violent” aspects of war-making: indeed the mundane aspects of tea drinking, PowerPoints, the female soldier’s emotional labor that facilitates intelligence gathering in night raids, or the “human terrain teams” which embedded anthropologists into counterinsurgency missions to “better understand” the target population all make war possible. It is here that Greenburg importantly “talks back” to liberal war scholars broadly and Eyal Weizman specifically and his conceptualization of the “humanitarian present” in which an economy of violence is calculated and modulated via humanitarian, legal and moral technologies. As Weizman (2011) puts it in The Least of All Possible Evils, “humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law, when abused by state, supra-state and military action, have become the crucial means by which the economy of violence is calculated and managed” (2011: 4). Weizman’s main concern is with how state violence is managed according to an economy of calculations that is often justified vis-à-vis a logic of the least possible evil, and thus “how the moderation of violence is intrinsic to the very logic of violence” (Weizman 2011: 4). Here, however, humanitarianism is still external to violence: it constitutes a means and mechanism through which violence is managed and regulated. While Weizman does argue that humanitarianism enables the reproduction and continued exercise of political and military violence, violence and humanitarianism are still separate spheres, even if entangled.

Crucially, At War with Women rejects the notion that somehow militarized humanitarianism and development are instruments that regulate or buffer state violence, nor are these mechanisms of concealment for violence, rather they constitute projects and practices that are themselves deeply implicated in the continued production of violence. Greenbug here presents us with an expanded conceptual frame for how to conceive of contemporary violence and war-making to include not just the site or moment in which kinetic force is materialized, whether in the form of a bomb, tank fire, or drone strike, but instead to incorporate the multiple and seemingly mundane, “boring,” bureaucratic, and tedious logistical processes and practices that create the infrastructures, rationales, and institutional forces that enable and sustain wars, whether debates over the legalese of resolutions introduced in congressional halls, in the physical loading of ships with stockpiles of weapons bound for populations halfway around the world, in military trainings where imperial centers train proxy forces and global south partners, or in intelligence rooms wherein subjects and populations are placed on security and terrorism lists marking them more susceptible to military violence and death. These all constitute violence – they are all part of a long series of interlinked relations which are directly implicated in violence work (Seigel 2018). Indeed, as I write this, the death toll in the Gaza Strip continues to rise with no end in sight. We might all do well to heed the conceptual lessons Greenburg offers us here. Indeed, as Greenburg shows, with rich ethnographic detail, war-making happens along a long chain of interlinked relations, actors, and geographies; so too, then, do points for the disruption of the relations that enable and sustain war also exist.


Greenburg, J. (2023). At War with Women: Military Humanitarianism and Imperial Feminism in an Era of Permanent War. Ithaca: Cornell Univeristy Press.
Gregory, D. (2008). ‘The rush to the intimate’: Counterinsurgency and the cultural turn. Radical Philosophy  150(July/August): 8-23.
Kilcullen, D. (2006). Twenty-eight articles: Fundamentals of company-level counterinsurgency. Military Review  May-June: 103-108.
Puar, JK. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke University Press, 2018.
Seigel, M. (2018). Violence work: State power and the limits of police. Durham: Duke University Press.
United States Army. (2006). Counterinsurgency field manual 3-24.  Washington: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from here.  
Weizman, E. (2011). The least of all possible evils: Humanitarian violence from Arendt to Gaza. London & New York: Verso.

Lisa Bhungalia is an Assistant Professor of Geography and International Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, researching late-modern war, law, empire, and transnational linkages between the US and Southwest Asian and North African region. She is the author of Elastic Empire: Refashioning War through Aid in Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2023), which examines the deepening entanglements of aid, law, and war in Palestine with attention to the surveillance and policing regimes produced through the embedding of counterterrorism laws and infrastructures into civilian aid flows. Her other published work has appeared in Politics and Space, Political Geography, Geopolitics, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Society and Space, Environment and Planning A, Middle East Report, and Jadaliyya, among other venues.