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JOHANNA MÖHRING A VIEW FROM THE FRONTLINE: J O U R N E Y I N TO ‘ N O -WO M E N ’ S L A N D

MEET 20 WOMEN IN DEFENCE AND SECURITY AND HEAR THEIR STORIES A PROJECT BY WIIS UK TO MARK 30 YEARS OF WOMEN IN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY AUTHORS: JOHANNA MÖHRING AND BEN ROBINSON

* PHOTO-ESSAY DEPICTING JOHANNA MÖHRING’S STORY AS A SAMPLE OF WHAT WE AIM TO ACHIEVE WITH EACH OF THE 20 STORIES TO BE DOCUMENTED THROUGH THE ‘VIEWS FROM THE FRONTLINE’ PROJECT FOR WIIS.

1, Johanna Möhring

Johanna Möhring, 2


I am interested in how our Western civilisation can survive in today’s world, and how the military fits into the mix of power resources we can deploy to that effect. Close up and personal, my interest in matters relating to war, and power in general seems to be deeply counterphobic. My career as professional-into-the-abyss-peeker started in early adolescence when, walking out of the children into the adult section of our public library in Heidelberg, Germany, I discovered, held between book covers, a world ridden by violence. Male violence, on the face of it, with women featuring as spectators at best, and victims at worst. (The other topic usurping human affairs, sex, seemed to somehow live in uncomfortably close proximity.)

WWII, the importance of “Ne pas subir”: of not finding yourself in a position with no other choice but to endure. Especially as a woman. And, secondly, to paraphrase Clemenceau, famously combative French Prime Minister during WWI, that war was too important to be left to the men - that it was, and especially in democratic countries, should be of deep interest to everybody. How to learn about the use of force? Where and when I was growing up, the military was definitely not “cool”. For the ladies, the “Bundeswehr” offered the options of playing the clarinet, and of putting on bandages in the medical corps, so to speak. In politics and in the media, there were close to zero women dealing with “serious issues” such as foreign policy and defence. Charting my course, I was thus fully prepared to enter “no women’s land”.

‘Where and when I was growing up, the military was definitely not “cool” Reading about the Third Reich, and the mass murder and terror it unleashed, the Peloponnesian War, the Spanish Civil War, the Crusades, or colonisation, it became clear to me that the use of force, at the individual and collective level was a distinct reality, and that it showed no sign of disappearing. How did force rhyme with democracy? And how on earth would I fit into this violent universe ?

JOHANNA MÖHRING 3, Johanna Möhring

Two things appeared imperative : Although I could not quite formulate it as succinctly as Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, French hero of

And indeed, when I did my internship at NATO two decades ago, the few women visible were mostly members of the Nordic, Canadian, American delegation, as well as members of the international staff and soldiers from said countries. Or of course, secretaries - providing that powerful visual cue of associating the female gender with “subaltern” positions, even though every secretary holds far more power and expertise that their male or female boss may care to admit!

Johanna Möhring, 4


I remember the odd sense of sticking out visually, and feeling like an intruder, or worse like an impostor, something that to some extent trails you in this line of work, so perhaps you should embrace it and wear it like a badge of honour - easier said than done! At NATO, I also first heard about Women in International Security, founded by the then US secretary of defense’s representative to NATO, Catherine McArdle Kelleher. I immediately applied for the summer programme and to my great joy, was invited to attend! If we assume that politics is about power, and that the organised use of violence lies at the heart of it, what does being a women in defence and security represent? With all the progress achieved, with female defence ministers and generals now in existence, for men and women to see and to serve under, it still remains a provocation, and a conundrum.

But the presence of women at the heart of power does not make us softer, nor does the guiding principle of equality make our societies weaker. It does make us smarter, and more resilient. To thrive and to survive in the complex and hypercompetitive world we live in, we need all the resources of brain and grit available in society.   The recommendation to my younger self, indeed to any woman intrigued by the subject area would be to physically familiarise oneself as much as possible with the “terrain”. If not signing up for life in camo – join the reserves, civil defence organisations or volunteer firefighters, visit military installations, do field trips to industrial fairs, take classes in strategic studies, watch war movies (not necessarily in that order, or all at once)... anything that let’s you lose the sense that this world is alien, that you do not belong.

“the presence of women at the heart of power does not make us softer, nor does the guiding principle of equality make our societies weaker. It does make us smarter, and more resilient.” But I would argue that tensions resulting from women entering “no women’s land” tend to dissolve, almost magically, whenever minds, and numbers change.

And as this project hopefully shows: women are everywhere, doing an excellent job in many different security and defence-related occupations. There is ample reason to be inspired.

Our opponents and strategic competitors see our “so-called obsession” with equality between women and men as a weakness. They portray our societies’ drive to inclusiveness, to us and to their domestic audiences, as at best frivolous, at worst as source and reason of our hypothetical future downfall.

Where do we stand today, with WIIS having entered its thirties? Paradoxically, despite the fact that the past three decades have been marked by tremendous individual achievements and strong verbal commitment by policy- and opinion-makers to strengthen female representation, overall numbers seem to put up quite a resistance.

5, Johanna Möhring

Johanna Möhring, 6


The pyramid-shape of women in defence and security, be it in government, the world of think tanks, the military, academia or the media - a few visible one’s at the very top, few and far between in the middle, and a lot of promising women entering the field - has not budged terribly over the last three decades. Experts invited on panels and interviewed on the media tend to be overwhelmingly male. In November 2017, an open letter, #metoonatsec, signed by more than 200 women hailing from the US national security community presented us with an exceedingly uncomfortable picture :

women exiting the field because of sexual assault and harassment, fleeing “environments that silence, demean, belittle or neglect women”. This “war of attrition” is no longer silent. It needs to stop. This project is about finding critical behaviors that need to change, and identifying those positive behaviors which are allowing women to flourish. It is about social and structural incentives that can move us forward – away from perpetuating unconscious biais, towards focusing instead on expertise and ideas each person can bring to defence and security, regardless of their gender.

“We are all promoters of change, in our personal routines and within our organisations.

It can be done. And it is worth it, because we – as societies, and as women– are worth it.

Johanna Möhring, Senior Fellow, The Institute for Statecraft, London, UK

7, Johanna Möhring

Johanna Möhring, 8

WIIS 30 - Short story format  

A sample visual-story of the case-studies to be published as part of the WIIS @ 30 project, "A view from the frontline".

WIIS 30 - Short story format  

A sample visual-story of the case-studies to be published as part of the WIIS @ 30 project, "A view from the frontline".

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