The military in our midst

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Up in Arms normally focuses on the figure of the soldier in order to track the militarization process. Here we visit the overlooked role of the ‘military wife’ as a key to interpreting far-reaching policy decisions.

Vron Ware
29 April 2013

The costs of Iraq and Afghanistan have frequently been calculated under broad headings of death and money: the numbers of lives lost and the expense of training, equipping and maintaining sustained warfare overseas. But non-stop combat affects the relationships between military and civilian communities at home too in ways that are not always visible. How do those of us who inhabit the belligerent Nato bloc calculate the impact of living with the military in our midst?

State armed forces constitute social institutions as well as national ones. We are used to them providing the symbolic resources that feed the very concept of a nation, embodying a particular set of values predicated on the use of lethal force and preparedness to die. But in more prosaic terms they are also employers with responsibilities for thousands of people whose lives are circumscribed by the demands of military life.

The combination of the words ‘women’ and ‘military’ usually prompts two distinct questions. First, the issue of female soldiers and whether they should be allowed access to all combat roles, a subject rather exhausted with the Pentagon’s recent decision to drop the gender bar in the US armed forces. The second question relates to the high levels of military sexual assault illustrated by the disturbing documentary, The Invisible Wall. But the focus on gender in the workplace ought not to obscure what happens in bases and garrisons where soldiers actually live.

Duty of care

In order to fully understand the social dimensions of the military, as an employer with a duty of care as well, we only have to look at its invisible support structures:  the service family.

Cynthia Enloe has identified the role of what she calls the Model Military Wife – the ideal embodiment of compliance and resourcefulness who functions as the ‘bedrock’ of military culture. Military wives and girlfriends are also civilians but they operate in a strange space where they perform unpaid work for their partners’ employer. Hence the term first used by feminist anthropologists Hilary Callan and Shirley Ardener in the 1980s to describe the dynamics of the ‘incorporated wife’, whether she was married to a diplomat, businessman, politician or soldier.

Without the unquestioning loyalty of families standing behind their soldier, military institutions would simply fall apart. While the importance of the ‘service family’ is recognised in official defence doctrine and acknowledged in piecemeal reforms, there are endemic problems that remain hidden from view.

The green machine

The social lives of all military spouses is rigidly structured in accordance with partners’ rank and roles and the differences in education, income and backgrounds influence individuals’ access to support services. The partners of minorities and migrants serving in the British Army face particularly difficult challenges of isolation and loneliness as I discovered while researching my book Military Migrants.

The idea that military wives constitute a tribe of their own surfaced in the UK with the phenomenal success of the reality TV show Military Wives Choir. The show’s format was based on a project to get people singing and create community – in shops, business, hospitals, places of work. In this case, it was the wives of marines living on a base in Devon who were brought to national attention through the insistence of choirmaster Gareth Malone who persuaded them that they only had to sing to find a voice.


Military Wives singing God Save the Queen at Official Opening of the London Olympic Stadium on 5 May 2012. Wikimedia/Cmglee. All rights reserved.

Impeccably timed to peak around the season of national remembrance in November 2011, their first song – ‘Wherever you are’ – was scripted from wives’ loving letters to their partners in Helmand. Sure enough, it topped the charts, culminating in a performance in the Royal Albert Hall at which the future king was caught on camera mopping his eyes with a royal handkerchief.

The interviews throughout the TV series captured the sense of isolation that many military wives feel. It is clear that the particular nature of the institution to whom they are hitched entails living in a psychological timewarp, not to speak of a physical one. It is little surprise that there is now a Military Wives Choirs Foundation entitled Stronger Together. The choirs form a network so that members can move from one to another when they are posted with their husbands.

Another problem is the chronic difficulty of living with partners who are simply away from home a great deal. Not only that, there is the question of ‘homecoming’, a particularly fraught period in which soldiers are expected to adapt instantly to domestic life after six months in a war zone. The online forum Rear Party, ‘the friendly sister of the Army Rumour Service for forces friends and families’, often explores these issues. A recent thread - ‘Don’t know how to feel’ – pretty much sums it up.


2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, Helmand, 2006. Demotix/Andrew Chittock. All rights reserved.

While the media focus remains on the soldier as a hero, bemedalled, battle–scarred or increasingly down and out, the predicament of partners and children is absent. One exception is Joanna Trollope’s novel The Soldier’s Wife in which she portrayed the dilemmas of the officer class. Speaking on BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour last year she announced that the real problem was that the men returning from Afghanistan were basically all in love with each other. Their wives were reduced to figureheads that functioned to keep them going in the heat of battle. And this was after she was permitted to do her research in a real regiment where everyone was desperate to talk.

A more tangible problem is housing. Army housing in the UK continues to be notoriously poor quality, often consisting of rows of sub-standard houses with leaking roofs, dangerous levels of dampness and horrible decor. Maintenance is contracted out to impersonal and inefficient companies.  Welfare officers – usually senior NCOs out of uniform and at the end of their careers – are the first port of call for family members with housing problems and are often powerless to help, even if they want to.

The same is true in cases of domestic abuse and marital discord. The military welfare services are part of what the Army Families Federation (AFF), the ‘voice of the army family’, calls the ‘green machine’. From the spouses’ point of view, why would anyone with relationship problems seek advice from their partner’s employer? In theory the systems to address domestic abuse in military communities are in place but there is barely any publicly available research to monitor how effective they are.


Army housing near Glencorse Barracks, built in 2005. Wikimedia/Richard Webb. All rights reserved.

Latest model army

Reform is not just about modernising the social aspects of military institutions. In the UK at least, tracking the policy statements relating to spouses and families soon brings into view the ideological, material and logistical shifts that have been taking place during the last decade and a half.

In 2010 the Coalition government announced a New Model Employment policy intended to modernize the terms and conditions of military service life. Clearly driven by the need to downsize the defence sector, the new policy builds on earlier plans to integrate military communities into adjacent or surrounding civilian towns. Vast sums of money have already been spent on relocating, refurbishing and expanding military bases, up and down the country.

And for the first time, local authorities have been involved in auditing the impact of the ‘military footprint’ in terms of everything from rubbish collection to teenage pregnancies to the particular needs of army children in schools. Drawing on the emotive language of the Military Covenant campaign, first launched in 2007, the MoD administers the Armed Forces Community Covenant scheme which channels funding into local projects that bring the communities into greater contact.

One of the latest developments is a two-year ‘model employment project’, launched in April this year. According to the AFF, the aim is to improve the financial situation of families through a second income which would allow them to increase their standards of living. Importantly, they say, it will enable more families to look at buying their own homes where they might have some stability and autonomy.

All change and none

And while the regular army is being reduced and restructured, the private contractor Capita has been told to recruit thousands of part-time soldiers to emulate the US system of reservists. Another cost-cutting exercise designed to normalise the occupation of military work and to embed the military in society, the scheme for the new Army Reserve entails doubling the number from 15,000 to 30,000 by 2018.

Seasoned soldiers such as Colonel Bob Stewart, Tory MP for Beckenham, have been particularly voluble in challenging the new policy. After calling for a debate in the House of Commons he suggested that ‘someone at the MoD is smoking a lot of dope if they think they will actually manage to get the reserve up to 30,000.’

Many reservists could not be deployed overseas, he added. ‘What happens is that employers don’t want to lose their staff for up to a year, wives don’t want to lose their husbands and the blokes themselves don’t actually want to go.’

But let no one say that the UK military is not prepared to change. General Sir Peter Wall, the Chief of the General Staff, recently announced that the new plan was part of a ‘cultural reset’ that required a very different attitude towards military reservists. What was needed, he said, was ‘a cultural revolution in the way the civilian population supports the reservists, particularly in the work place’.

In an interview with the Telegraph he revealed which bits of the culture had to be re-thought and by whom: ‘The area we need to look at is the relationship between the Army and the employer…We need to have the employers on side.’ No mention of how they intend to address the different needs of the part-time military spouses and families, if at all. Presumably they count as members of the civilian population which are evidently expected to pick up the cost of the military in our midst.

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