Helga Björnsdóttir is working on her PhD thesis in Anthropology from the University of Iceland. Her research has been focused on ideas of masculinity and spaces where those ideas are exist. A large part of her study has been devoted on peacekeeping in relation to masculinity. She recently gave a lecture at the University of Iceland where she presented a somewhat different image of Icelandic peacekeeping from what is usually presented in Icelandic media. A Grapevine journalist sat down with Björnsdóttir at her home to ask a few questions about peacekeeping in general, ideas of masculinity and the role of Icelandic peacekeepers.
Maybe you could start by telling me a little about why you started to research Icelandic peacekeepers?
Well, at first it was not supposed to focus on the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit, I was going to research ideas of masculinity, not peacekeepers, except as a special space around these ideas. But gradually the focus has turned to peacekeeping per se and to the ICRU as a part of a bigger context. It is impossible to let it be to talk about that, so it has become a big part of my research. Of course, ideas of masculinities exist within certain context and space and this space in particular forms certain ideas.
In your lecture, you talked about how peacekeeping is always defined as a man’s job. Is that the case?
Yes, it usually is. Peacekeeping is usually referred to as some kind of a military operation. When you are working in peacekeeping, you are always working around some sort of conflict or war; this is pretty obvious, war – peace. Therefore, peacekeeping is usually defined in relation to military and military development. Traditional peacekeeping is very male oriented. Six out of every seven peacekeepers are soldiers, and soldiers generally tend to be men. Although women have been forcing their way into militaries around the world, it is still a very small portion of the whole. In the British army for example, although it has made an effort to increase the numer of women anttending and working in the Army and advertising it as job for everyone, certain jobs are still reserved for men only.
You have talked to many members of the Icelandic Crisis Unit; do you have any idea what it is that attracts them to this job?
I think that the Icelanders volunteer for this job really want to go there to be a part of a reconstruction project. One peacekeeper told me that there are two kinds of people who go into peacekeeping. On one hand, there are people who want to carry arms and be gunhappy; on the other hand, there are people who want to be a part of some sort of a reconstruction. That is the majority of the Icelandic peacekeepers. When the ICRU was first formed, a register of 200 names was put together, a response list of available volunteers. But as it happens, that list is seldom used. In reality it is the demand from NATO that decides who goes. If NATO needs technicians or ambulance men to put together a team, they call and ask to see if the ICRU can put together a team. But, the Icelanders want to go there to help. But of course, it is also exciting. This is an exotic environment and a great experience. And as they say themselves, this is a bank of experience that they can always go back to.
Are they generally positive about their experience?
Yes, most of them are, because they have experienced so much that they would never have an opportunity to do otherwise. For example travel, you usually cannot just travel around Afghanistan, but many of the Icelandic peacekeepers who have been there have travelled a lot. They have seen a lot and done a lot that most people don’t have a chance to see or do. They are very positive towards that experience and to the idea of peacekeeping itself.
What has their job mainly be?
That varies. In Kosovo, a team of flight traffic controllers and firefighters built up the airport and the airport fire brigade. Then there are people working with the UNIFEM; then there is a media liaison officer in Iraq; there are people in Kabul airport, working on building the infrastructure of the airport there, there were air traffic controllers there, fire fighters, and engineers. Then they have been a part of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, and in Sri Lanka they partaking in the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and supplied doctors and medical staff with a Norwegian outfits. There is more info on this on the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, [http://www.utanrikisraduneyti. is/utanrikismal/fridargaesla]
Judging from the media coverage of the Icelandic peacekeepers, you sometimes get the feeling that everyone is playing soldier.
Well it is. That goes with out saying.
But the way you have described this, it sounds more like men who want to partake in reconstruction efforts.
I said they wanted to take part in a reconstruction. And they do. But that does not mean they are always compleately content with what they are doing.. Once you enter a space where there is a military infrastructure, you become a part of it. And peacekeeping is such an undefined area really. Peacekeeping is often discussed in relation to politics, how can we improve the situation. But when you reach the question how we can keep the peace through arms… what kind of message are we sending when the peace is kept through arms?
You mentioned that many peacekeepers are soldiers.
Yes, that is true.
Are they retired soldiers?
No, peacekeeping is just another form of using the military. Many nations use their military for peacekeeping. The United Nations has a peacekeeping force, The United Nations have a peacekeeping force and so does ISAF. When you have a large military, you need something for it to do. You can’t just go off to war anytime you please, so you need operations to maintain and train the military. Some people claim that peacekeeping is just a training ground for foreign militaries, while others claim that this is a good use of a military force. Here we have all this equipment and all this know-how… you know, lets put it to use. Soldiers are always deployed to react against natural disasters for example. This is very similar in many ways.
So is peacekeeping a political decision in order to maintain a military?
No, that’s not really how it is. But this can be good opportunity for a military to maintain itself, train people and to create a new identity. For example when the Dutch Army became an all-volunteer force in 1996, it has focused mainly on peacekeeping missions. Also, wars in the world have changed. There are no longer wars between countries, most wars are interstate conflicts. And peacekeeping is always moving more towards reconstruction efforts and humanitarian aid. This is mixed in with the military part. The ICRU is sort of rocking there in between. Of course, it is not a military outfit, and they are not allowed to do anything except for self-defence, so they are focused on reconstruction work. That’s what they mostly do, and, they are pretty good at it. The Icelandic peacekeepers are a little special. For one thing, most of them are older than the average soilder who works as a peacekeeper, and they are not trained as soldiers, and they are very hard working, they work fast and they do it well. When something needs to be done, they simply do it, without necessarily going through the proper channels because they don’t have this military background, but they know how to get the job done.
But do they fit in then?
Yes, I think they are well received and are considered to have done excellent work. Of course, they don’t fit into the military structure. It is easy to put Icelandic peacekeepers in a military uniform, but that does not mean the uniform will fit, metaphoically speaking. I think that we need to decide what we want to do with the ICRU. There are so many jobs that Icelanders know and could do so well that would fit them a lot better than the military side of it.