Interrogating the Project of Military History

February 23, 2004 - I spoke too soon--may 'way too soon--about the limited number of responses to my query on H-War ("Is military history Eurocentric?")  So far it has elicited twenty-three replies--enough to give the Sherman tank a run for its money.  I'll deal with that heartening development  in another entry.  For now, I want to talk about the most recent meeting of the History of War Readings Group (see Entries 10 and especially 11), which is now in its fifth week.  The first week sixteen people showed up; the next week seven; the third week three (including me).  We skipped a week to accommodate another event.  The next week we again had three.  Today we were back up to seven, and in my opinion it was the best discussion to date.

The article for the week was Tanya Lyons, "Guerrilla Girls and Women in the Zimbabwean Liberation Struggle," in Jean Allman, Susan Geiger, and Nakanyike Musisi, eds., Women in African Colonial Histories (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 307-326.

Norma Kriger

Our group included Prof. Norma Kriger, a Visiting Scholar at the Mershon Center this year and the author of two books on the 1972-1980 war in Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe's Guerrilla War :  Peasant Voices (Cambridge University Press, 1992) and Guerrilla Veterans in Post-war Zimbabwe : Symbolic and Violent Politics, 1980-1987 (Cambridge University Press, 2003).  Also five graduate students:  in early American history, modern American history, diplomatic/international history, Latin American history, and Women's Studies (which at our university forms a separate department).

Written to illuminate why Zimbabwean women did not achieve equality with men after the Zimbabwean conflict of 1965-1980, as the revolutionaries  promised and many observers expected, Lyons' essay argues that the divergence between rhetoric and reality could be seen even during the struggle itself.  Most of the essay focuses on the experiences of the several thousand Zimbabwean women who served in the military wings of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and Robert Mugabe's ZANU (Zimbabwean African National Union).  How many thousand, by the way, is pretty much impossible to estimate.  Lyons quotes an array of sources that range from a low of 20,000-36,000 to a high of 250,000.  Prof. Kriger thinks a figure of 250,000 would have to include absolutely every woman who ever played any role at all in the Zimbabwean struggle, right down to fixing an impromptu meal for a passing guerrilla unit.  As to the ratio of female to male service personnel, the Zimbabwe veteran's organization considers that women comprise about twenty percent of war veterans.

This map of wartime Rhodesia (taken from a white supremacist web publication) shows the principal inflitration routes used by ZIPRA (black arrows) and ZANLA (white arrows).  The hammer and sickle serves to emphasize that ZIPRA was backed by the USSR.  China, indicated by the star, backed ZINLA.  The names "Tangent," "Repulse," etc. are military zone designations used by the Rhodesian army.

Young women frequently saw military service as a way to escape customary gender roles.  Like their male counterparts, the first step for a female serving in a revolutionary army--the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) in the case of ZAPU, the Zimbabwean African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) in the case of ZANU--was to get across the border into Zambia or Mozambique, where the armies maintained their training camps.  Most women served in combat support roles, despite propaganda they were frontline participants--the better to dramatize the involvement of women--and despite the fact that many women sought combat roles.  (Late in the war about 1,000-2,000 did serve in combat.)  One of their more important roles was to carry weapons and ammunition between the base camps in Zambia and Mozambique to the guerrilla formations inside Rhodesia (as the country now called Zimbabwe was called under white rule).  Lyons interviewed a female veteran who underscored the cultural reasons for using women as bearers--"because in our culture here, women carry loads on the head, on the shoulders, even on the back.  Whereas the men here culturally would only use their hands to carry."

ZANLA  trained both men and women in the same camps.  ZIPRA trained them separately.  ZANLA tended to be more advanced in terms of utilizing women militarily.  At the same time, however, the greater integration of women into ZANLA formations led to problems of various sorts.  Some women were raped or sexually exploited by their commanders.

  Even consensual sexual liaisons between men and women were condemned by the ZANLA high command, which both officially and unofficially held the women, not the men, responsible for them.  The reasons seem to have had much less to do with the preservation of good military order and discipline than with concern that pre-war customs were being undermined.  For instance, ZANLA forbade the use of contraception and considered any woman having sex with a man, especially those using contraception,  to be a prostitute.  This July 1979 report, produced by the ZANLU Commissariat Department, illustrates the official view of the issue:

On Marriage

It is consistent with our customs and it is a natural process that a man or woman who has become of age should marry, if he or she so wishes. To refuse suitable partners from marrying can have disastrous consequences, inter alia:

a) The rate of prostitution will escalate. Men will spoil women with the knowledge and understanding that they will not have any responsibility to bear down on them.

b) women will practice birth control to avoid having "fatherless" children. When they have done this, they will engage themselves, freely, into prostituting.

c) The cultural value of marriage will disappear, etc.  Viewed from this angle, marrying is a convenient and unavoidable process. The question of marriage becomes a complicated issue in the course of our struggle. More often the meaning and essence of marriage is abused and the responsibilities accruing the marriage come into conflict with the commitment each individual has, to our revolutionary struggle. Some of the reasons why marriages are a failure in our struggle are:

1) By coming to the revolution, a majority of our youths feel freed from parental restrictions and see the revolution as something that justifies their ego for youthful mischief.

2) The presence or grouping of many girls induces infatuation which is oftenly misinterpreted as love. This brings about 'short term' love affairs and results in the changing of boyfriends or girlfriends regularly.

3) Lack of strong action to end prostitution.

4) Youths engage into prostitution whilst they are still very young and fail to be rebuked strongly by adult comrades or their responsible authorities.


Probably a remedy lies in the four headings stated below:

a) Outline procedure to be followed before getting into marriage.

b) Draft regulation governing marriages.

c) Impose penalties for breach of these regulations.

d) Intensify orientation on our culture with emphasis on marriage and "internal discipline."

Pamberi Na President Mugabe!
Pamberi Ne Z.A.N.U.
MEYA URIMBO (Chief Political Commissar)


In statements to sympathetic audiences abroad, ZANU repudiated the practice of lobola, the payment of bridewealth to a woman's family which was widely considered to be a major structural impediment to social equality for African women.  In practice, ZANU kept records of marriages so that lobola could be paid after the war.  One of Lyons' interviewees explained that ZANU did not challenge African customs, because it could not afford to lose the support of the traditional chiefs and of parents in the countryside, who were considered crucial to the success of the guerrilla war.  Even Teurai Ropa, a member of the ZANLA high command and often described as "the most liberated woman in ZANU," had lobola paid for her.

This and other evidence enables Lyons to make a convincing case that the continuation of patriarchal norms in Zimbabwean society was foreshadowed even as the revolution routinely exploited a rhetoric of gender equality in order to gain international support.  Which makes it a good piece of women's history and African history.  But is it military history?

When this question cropped up in discussion, the grad student from Women's Studies  was surprised.  Wasn't it obviously military history?  The group as a whole, however--including me--thought a good many military historians would be reluctant to take it seriously.  To use a word employed by a grad student in military history to explain why he didn't regard a discussion on war and gender as worth his time, the subject matter seemed awfully "squishy."  I suspect a good many more would pay lip service to the value of such a perspective but would not deem it important enough to introduce a war and gender angle into their courses.

Then too, quite apart from the gender angle, there's the Africa angle.  Somewhere in John Keegan's A History of Warfare he more or less excludes sub-Saharan Africa from the geographical zones in which war plays a significant role.  Certainly if you think of war as looking more or less like European war, that has by and large been the case.  And even if you think in terms of revolutionary warfare, sub-Saharan African examples have attracted far less attention than Algeria or southeast Asia, perhaps because from a strategic and operational standpoint they offer fewer "lessons learned" and are therefore less interesting.  I have noticed that on H-War the fact that somebody, somewhere has written on nonwestern war is occasionally used to argue against the notion that military history is Eurocentric.  Look at the major textbook surveys on military history and the content of most military history courses, however, and the Eurocentric label is harder to scrape off.  But that's an entry for another time.

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