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17 March 2003

War: ain’t nothing but a dick thing

The debate on Iraq is being played out against a background of macho posturing

By Bonnie Greer

This month of March is dedicated to the lives, achievements, the very existence of women – we marked International Women’s Day on the 8th. It is also the month named after the Roman god of war. How appropriate: because, as we ready for war, we should recognise that we are re-enacting perhaps the oldest of all conflicts – the Battle of the Sexes.

This war is big, epic in the true sense of the word, and erotic – in the way that Freud defined Eros as the urge for self-preservation. What is struggling for self-preservation? It is the Big M, the Masculine at its most extreme. The Big M sees everything, as people would say in the South Side of Chicago neighbourhood where I came of age, as “a dick thing”. We are caught up now in yet another of the Big M’s “dick things” on the stage of human history.

The Big M can plague anyone regardless of gender: women, too, can be possessed by it. The Big M overwhelms us, leaves us drowning in its swagger and its rhetoric of “stand up and be counted”, “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists”. The Big M has pinned America against the wall – and its gun to our head. It is reminiscent of Pistol, in that martial masterpiece, Henry V, who says, strutting and crowing: “Pistol’s cock is up.” Whether Shakespeare meant this to allude to the hammer on his character’s gun, or to something more symbolic, or both, there is one thing women know for sure: when that boast is made, things have gone over the top.

We can hear it now, in our present Iraqi conflict. For one moment, after that horrible day in September, we were all, as a French newspaper put it, “Americans”. Now, 18 months later, those of us who oppose the Iraqi adventure are all “women”. Our leaders are treating us like the pampered wives of mafia dons, and we are warned, as Kay Corleone was, to “never ask me about my business”.

We are something else, too: “appeasers”. The anti-poster-boy of the Big M is Neville Chamberlain after Munich. Another nightmare image of the Big M is that photo of George Bush I in the early 1990s. He is steering his sailboat against the wind, his patrician face in a scowl, and above his head are the words “the wimp factor”. The “wimp factor” was the Stone Guest during Bush’s quest for a second term in office. He was defeated, plunging the Big M into temporary eclipse.

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After Bush Sr came the “feminisation” of America. Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted on using her maiden name, and said that even though she was “First Lady”, she would not be baking cookies. Hillary raised the alarm for the Big M, and Colin Powell had to counter it by resigning as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff partly because of Bill Clinton’s decision to allow homosexuality in the armed forces.

Things went on red alert with the Monica Lewinsky debacle. The sacred Oval Office was desecrated by the human stain of the commander-in-chief, captured on the cheap dress of a girl on the make. In the wake of this scandal, the Big M concluded that some manly fibre was needed. The Republic had been pussy-whipped by women, ethnic minorities, the young, intellectuals, gays, artists, the UN and the androgynous “new man” long enough.

Enter George W Bush. He ticked all the boxes: a non-ethnic Protestant, complete with traditional wife who did bake cookies. We overlooked the drawback that, like a lot of other rich boys, he had managed to avoid his 18 months in the jungles of Vietnam; and that he had been a bit of a boozer and a loser. Now he was clean, sober and saved. His was a real-life Hollywood narrative complete with a dog named Spot.

The plague of the Big M reaches beyond Bush, America and even the west. Look at Saddam Hussein, astride a white stallion, galloping at the head of his moustachioed guard of honour, vowing to fight to the last drop of his people’s blood; Osama Bin Laden, another rich boy who has seen the light – a stern, shadowy presence on our TV screens, complete with beard, flowing robes and wagging finger; Ariel Sharon, the pot-bellied and ageing bad boy of Sabra, out to prove that the people of Israel are tough. And Tony Blair, the variation on this theme, the Good Daddy, the one who just can’t tell us everything, but trust him anyway, OK?

And yet. Though the Big M is in the ascendant, it is only temporary. For we women know from the evidence of our own bodies: change is the only constant, and nothing remains the same for ever.

Bonnie Greer’s second novel, Kiss the War Babies Goodbye, will be published this spring by Serpent’s Tail. She is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday