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A decade and a half ago, Joshua Goldstein, then finishing up his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scribbled down a list of potential research topics that he might pursue one day. Included on the list was “gender and war”; next to it, he tacked on the following addendum: “Most interesting of all. Will ruin career—wait until tenure.”

Last month, Goldstein—now a tenured international-relations professor at American University—finally published War and Gender, a 523-page opus that wends its way through history, political science, psychology, biology, anthropology, and sociology.

Supported by a two-year MacArthur grant, Goldstein began working on the book in earnest in 1991. But the roots of his interest go back even further.

“I’ve been studying war my whole career,” Goldstein, 48, says. “It’s the most important problem in the world, yet it’s not well-understood.” The author—who got a high draft-lottery number—came of age during the height of the Vietnam War protests and says that the endless discussions he had with friends about the conflict seemed only to muddy, not clarify, his understanding. His interest in gender issues began to jell later—during his time at M.I.T., when he lived in a primarily lesbian group house. “My existing feminist education,” he says, “[was] accelerated by that.”

The gist of War and Gender is that societies—from primitive hunter-gatherer tribes to modern industrialized nations—have consistently intertwined the teaching of gender roles and war, each reinforcing the other like strands of a double helix.

“Most societies toughen up boys, equating masculinity with the qualities of good warriors,” Goldstein says. “They’re categorically tricking men into doing something that’s stupid individually but which is sometimes necessary for society: going to war.” Women, he asserts, have traditionally been socialized to fill “acceptable” roles in support of the troops, from nursing to rearing the children left behind.

Though women have generally not been allowed to take up combat roles, a number of exceptions punctuate recorded history. During World War II, the battle-weary Soviet Union employed at least 100,000 women in the military to handle everything from sniping to piloting bombers to firing anti-aircraft artillery. In the 18th- and 19th-century African kingdom of Dahomey, now known as Benin, up to one-third of the army was composed of women; “they were often the shock troops that turned the tide of battles,” Goldstein says. One drawing, reproduced in the book, shows a Dahomean female warrior with a long rifle in one hand and a man’s severed, still-bleeding head in the other. “The two sexes are equally capable of pain and brutality,” Goldstein says.

Though gender, for the most part, has not played an explicit role in shaping America’s war against the Taliban, Goldstein maintains that the issue lurks just below the surface: Although the United States, he says, has established “the largest-scale gender integration in the history of the military anywhere,” the Taliban, in stark contrast, imposes a highly restrictive interpretation of Islam on women. “Maybe it’s not an accident that we’re having this fight,” Goldstein says.

—Louis Jacobson