August 3, 2003 in Current Events

The Art of War

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Below is an excerpt from recent Slate article on situation in Liberia. Who knew that cross-dressing could be used in the art of war.

According to the soldiers themselves, cross-dressing is a military mind game, a tactic that instills fear in their rivals. It also makes the soldiers feel more invincible. This belief is founded on a regional superstition which holds that soldiers can “confuse the enemy’s bullets” by assuming two identities simultaneously. Though the accoutrements and garb look bizarre to Western eyes, they are, in a sense, variations on the camouflage uniforms and face paint American soldiers use to bolster their sense of invisibility (and, therefore, immunity) during combat. Since flak jackets or infrared goggles aren’t available to the destitute Liberian fighters, they opt for evening gowns and frilly blouses.
The cross-dressing “dual identity” isn’t just a source of battlefield bravado, though. Cross-dressing has deep historical roots in West African rites-of-passage rituals involving “medicine men” who would recommend wearing masks, talismans, and bush attire as a means of obtaining mystical powers. Rebels dressed in gowns and wigs and adorned with bones, leaves, and other “forest culture” trappings are practicing a modern variation on this technique of using symbolic “clothing” to access sources of power far stronger than their own. And in common Liberian initiation rituals—which exist in memory throughout the country, if not always in practice—a boy’s passage to adulthood is symbolically represented by the donning of female garb. He must first pass through a dangerous indeterminate zone between male and female identity before finally becoming a man. A soldier dressed in women’s clothes—or Halloween masks, or shower caps, etc.—on the battlefield is essentially asserting that he’s in a volatile in-between state. The message it sends to other soldiers is, “Don’t mess with me, I’m dangerous.”

One Comment

  1. August 4, 2003 at 1:24 pm

    Kate S.

    How interesting! Who knew? I had heard that bit before about going through the woman phase before entering manhood, and thought that made sense: to become complete one must experience both sides, eh? But cross-dressing to confuse and intimidate the enemy? I must admit, the picture is confusing all right, and if I came upon this machine-gun wielding, pink wig-wearing soldier a littl intimidation would definitely not be out of order.

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