Monument to the Women of World War II, Whitehall, 2014. Godot13/Wikicommons.The week before Remembrance Sunday I was on the number three bus into central London, accompanied by the piped voices of national treasures (in collaboration with Transport for London, they said), encouraging me to buy a poppy. Perhaps prompted by these non-subliminal messages, I noticed for the first time, half way down Whitehall, the Monument to the Women of World War II. As the bus glistened by, the black-bronze monolith caught my attention with its ration book font and its representation of women’s work: the coats, hats, bags and helmets of uniforms hung on pegs. In such a way, the monument depicts the different roles women adopted during the war, and in a rather limp and lifeless form, as in a hallway at the end of the day, it also depicts women’s return to ‘normal’ life (and the home) when it was over. Fittingly, it exudes an air of fatigue, of getting home to put the dinner on, bath the baby, start the ironing.
Women’s role in war and other state projects has been understood as a reserve army of labour in this way, a workforce that can be mobilized in times of excess need and cut back again later, along with both the freedoms and the hardships that come with it. Noticing the Monument also reminded me of the women I met when I spent six months with a Regiment of the British Army during its deployment to Afghanistan in 2012. I didn’t accompany the Regiment to Afghanistan, rather I stayed at home and focused instead on the war work undertaken by army wives during an operational tour. Forget the much-touted Army Reserve, women married to servicemen are the army’s own, invisible, reserve-reserve army of labour. And they are invisible because the kind of work they do is the work of everyday life.
This kind of work doesn’t require a uniform because it is already camouflaged as ‘mother’ and ‘wife’. Because, despite increasing numbers of servicewomen, the majority of military spouses are still female; because their identity as part of a militarized social order remains defined by traditional ideas about gender, class and nationality; and because, from collective metaphors to the material allocation of housing, the British Army is deeply entwined with the heterosexual institution of the family.
Like duty, service, or loyalty to one’s country, this work is done in the name of something amorphous and hard to pin down, only more private – most often I heard people say, in effect, that it was done in the name of love, as in the repeated phrase: you can’t help who you fall in love with. Hang up your coat in the hallway, roll up your sleeves, and get on with it. On the number three bus, with the voices of Joanna Lumley and Brian Blessed telling me to remember remembrance, I wondered what a monument to military wives’ work would look like. It, too, might exude a certain sense of weariness.
Bringing remembrance into the everyday
In November each year, and with increasing collective commitment it seems, we remember the servicemen and women who have died in more recent wars as well as those of the previous century. It is curious, remembrance - the way we visualize it, give it a physical presence in the form of monuments or dedications, the way we need to touch it, render it something we can buy or keep, with newspapers, art installations and ceremonies making it graspable for us.
In 2012, with the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan already in sight, I spoke to women married to servicemen who were coming to the end of their husband’s most recent deployment. Their experiences shed a different light on remembrance, or more specifically perhaps, on what it is to be reminded, to reflect on military death - the ways we find to imagine it and render it collective.
Take for example ‘the knock on the door’, a euphemism used widely by women when discussing the risks of deployment, referring to the visit they might receive from the families liaison officer upon the event of their husband’s death, a phrase that un-sites that death from the battlefield and lays it at the threshhold of the family home.
More than a euphemism, these collective imaginaries emerge in women’s everyday practices, arise from and feed back into the work women do during an operational tour: one woman tidies the house every night just in case the knock on the door comes in the middle of the night and she has to leave quickly. When a soldier is killed in action early on in the tour, a woman’s neighbours interpret her closed blinds and late arrival at the school bus stop as a sign that it was her husband, and when she approaches they burst into tears. During a security alert in Camp Bastion, when all communications are closed, a woman passes the time waiting at her front window, watching for the car that will bring the bad news she fears. All of these women had ways of rationalizing their responses, but acknowledged that they needed that ritual, that rehearsal, the collective sign, the imagined grief and the relief that it facilitates. They too were looking to make remembrance graspable. Such experiences bring remembrance out of the past and into the present, and more than that, into the everyday.
What these experiences also do, is to connect the work of soldiering to women’s work – not the kind of exceptional work put on and taken off again like uniforms on a peg, but the kind of work that is so naturalized and taken for granted that it is practically invisible. The military institution relies on women married to servicemen to help reproduce its community, to provide voluntary support and keep its social networks alive, to sustain its soldiers, to keep the family and the military institution in sync.
Even more so during an operational tour, women married to servicemen hold this fractious relationship together, working to produce stability out of instability by absorbing the shocks. Very few of the women I spoke to viewed this labour as political – in other words as part of the social fabric on which the military as an institution relies (and, not unproblematically, as an extension of its war work). Which makes it even more important to take account of the work that military families do, and not to forget the everyday remembrances of military wives.
Military Wives singing God Save the Queen at official opening of the London Olympic Stadium, 2012. Cmglee/Wikicommons.