his is an impressive and exceptionally well written book, which analyzes the weaponization of gender as part of the U.S. war machine during the so-called “global war on terror.” Greenburg specifically examines the US military’s Female Engagement Team (FET) program as part of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This book details that ways in which the U.S. military incorporated female service personnel through a discursive framing of the liberated (mostly white) western woman as an idealized figure standing in stark contrast to the suffering/oppressed Afghan woman or as Greenburg identifies as the “pathologized Afghan other.”

The assumed soft skills of care and comfort associated with femininity provide female service personnel with a path toward implementing and increasing combat roles for women in the US military. Increasing opportunities for women occurred, while simultaneously reinforcing essentialized gender norms, roles, and stereotypes. Greenburg provides an outstanding analysis of the toxic trifecta of “diplomacy, development, and defense.” Three branches of government, Department of Defense (DOD), Department of State (DOS), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) used gender as both strategic and tactical methods of occupation.

Greenburg’s extensive, multi-sited, and empirically rich data along with her theoretical prowess are exceptionally evident throughout this text. This book provides an excellent critique of the use of humanitarian aid, medical treatment, and feminized care as methods for manipulating populations and gathering intelligence. For example, Female Engagement Teams (FETs) were both viewed as a sexualized distraction to men on the forward operating bases (FOBs) in Afghanistan and Iraq, while simultaneous deployed to attract Afghan men and draw them out of their homes to supposedly “ogle” these women. The US military sought to draw Afghan men out their homes, and have female soldiers speak with Afghan women, as a tactical method of intelligence gathering.

The majority of my own research in Afghanistan has focused on gender, geopolitics, and international development, therefore I feel it is important to emphasize the profound assumptive similarities and tactics employed by both the US military and US development workers. For example, the ways in which they othered Afghan people through a paternalistic lens, viewing or identifying them as “childlike”, and in need of education and reform.

I laughed aloud when I read in Greenburg’s book that the USAID employees were providing cultural sensitivity training to military personnel. I found this funny because most USAID employees working in Afghanistan possessed precious little knowledge and an intense lack of nuanced understanding about Afghanistan and its diverse cultures. Additionally, military service personnel, particularly enlisted service members, were able to engage more directly with and within Afghan communities, than their aid/development counterparts. USAID, and many other international development workers, spent very little time in Afghan communities or homes, due to extensive security protocols that limited their spatial mobility within the country. They spent most of their time in their homes, offices, or other expat/international spaces, and regularly made decisions with little to no input from Afghans.

The development workers holding the title of “gender expert” resonates with Greenburg’s discussion of the “emotional expertise” of female military personnel. Gender experts and emotional expertise represent two separate but co-constituted uses, abuses, and weaponization of the female/feminine gender designation, for particular types of jobs. Therefore, the objectified representation of the Afghan women in a burqa/chadri, became a quintessential emblem of their oppression. The Afghan woman as a suffering subject was continually imagined and reimaged in contrast to a stereotyped version of the western, white, “liberated” feminine subject. Female soldiers were also expected to gather information from Afghan women by assuming that these women would “naturally” befriend each other despite a plethora of different views, values, experiences, etc. Additionally, many Afghans including Afghan women viewed the US as occupiers rather than liberators. While the US continually represented their military and development occupation as liberating Afghan women, Greenburg aptly calls attention to the extensive amount of sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated against female US soldiers by their fellow soldiers, not Afghan men! This also occurred among female international development workers, who regularly experienced sexual harassment and abuse from their fellow international workers (Fluri 2011).

Female soldiers operating as counterinsurgents, as Greenburg states, left “combat masculinity untroubled by doing the emotional work themselves” (pg. 134).  Toxic masculinity and war zone geopolitics were subsequently set aside or ignored, while simultaneously objectifying Afghan gender roles and relations as the distant “other.” This as Greenburg argues, remains a “form of violence that operates through gendered notions of emotion in combat” (Greenburg, 2023, 147).

So called emotional expertise, gendered female, became a corporeal site upon which western-liberal and mostly white women identified the value of their gendered positions within these fields. This use of gender trades on gender essentialism to increase women’s roles in male dominated institutions such as the U.S. military. Additionally, Greenburg underscores the placement of female service personnel in the active theater of war, while women were—at that time—excluded from combat roles in the U.S. military. Thus, the position of women in combat situations but without combat status, manifested into Kafkaesque bureaucratic hurdles for women injured in the line of duty. Many women who served in combat were unable to receive Veterans Administration medical benefits for injuries sustained during combat, because at that time women were barred from serving in combat roles.

Returning to the earlier point of women trading on gender essentialism to increase their roles in male dominated institutions; several women as part of the FET program sued the U.S. military, leading to increased combat roles for women. Initially the military set aside 3% of combat soldiering for women, and then later, removed any gender-based restrictions for women in combat, while these roles remain male dominated within the U.S. armed forces.

In addition to trading on gender essentialism to increase women’s value and opportunities within the U.S. military, Greenburg’s analyses further highlight the incongruencies of military humanitarianism. Her beautifully written narratives reveal the ways in which military personnel differentially embraced or resisted counterinsurgency programs. Resistance to military forms of humanitarianism from service personnel laid bare the antithetical, difficult, and contradictory expectations of soldiers who are tasked with both “killing and caring” (Greenburg 2023, 102). Greenburg’s rich analyses offer readers a detailed overview of gendered military operations, and like all exceptionally researched books, we are moved as readers to reflect, think critically, and ask questions. Therefore, I offer a few questions in the following paragraphs.

Greenburg uses the term “Imperial Feminism”, a term that I and many other feminist political geographers have also used to call attention to the misuses and abuses of gender roles/relations and the cooptation of women’s rights for imperial geopolitical purposes. However, after reading her book, I have been grappling with the use of this term and would like to propose a call for additional discussion. Does attaching imperialism to feminism muddy the term, which is already fraught with misunderstanding and misuse? Does it incorrectly suggest that the cooptation of women’s rights and the weaponization of gender equates to feminism or feminist power relations? I suggest we problematize the use of feminism, because the actions Greenburg describes in her book, while situated within many of the principles of western-liberal feminism, are not feminist in practice.

The feminist ideals that many of us aspire to achieve including regular and continual engagement with differential power geometries, intersectionality, positionality and self-reflexivity (to name a few) should not trade on other women’s suffering, oppression, or subject positions for individual or even collective gains. Rather, would it be more appropriate to identify these practices as a misuse of feminism and gendered exploitation? Should this be more aptly identified as gendered imperialism, or as stated by McBride and Wibben (2012) the gendering of counterinsurgency? Early criticisms of the use of gender by the U.S. military after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, focused on the cooptation of women’s rights, rather than viewing this as a form of imperialist feminism. These studies highlighted the ways in which feminism was “misappropriated and marketed as part of the promissory of western democracy as contradictory to Islamic and patriarchal nationalism” (Hunt 2002, 119). Additionally, while I completely agree with Greenburg’s assertions that emotional labor is gendered female and expected of female service personnel, within the FET program; shouldn’t we also consider and critique masculine emotional labor? For example, anger remains a legitimate form of male emotion, which is often cultivated and manipulated as another tool of gendered soldiering and geopolitics.

In conclusion, this is an amazing, insightful, thoughtful, and well-written book. Greenburg’s text is well suited for upper division undergraduate and graduate courses, focusing on political geography or geopolitics, military geographies, geopolitics, war/conflict geographies, and of course gender and geography or feminist geography. I highly recommend this book!


Fluri, J., 2011. Armored peacocks and proxy bodies: gender geopolitics in aid/development spaces of Afghanistan. Gender, Place & Culture, 18(4), pp.519-536.
Greenburg, J., 2023. At War with Women: Military Humanitarianism and Imperial Feminism in an Era of Permanent War (p. 282). Cornell University Press.
Hunt, K., 2002. The strategic co-optation of women's rights. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 4(1), pp.116-121.
McBride, K. and Wibben, A.T., 2012. The gendering of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 3(2), pp.199-215.

Jennifer L. Fluri is Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado-Boulder. She is a Feminist Political Geographer who examined the 20-year U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan focusing on gender, geopolitics, and international development. She is the co-author of The Carpetbaggers of Kabul and Other American Entanglements: Intimate Development and the Currency of Gender and Grief (University of Georgia Press, 2017).