When soldiers are migrants: more questions to ask about culture, the military and migration

An essay in Roland Barthes’s book Mythologies (1957), a landmark in the study of myths and symbols in Western industrial societies, uses the image of a black soldier in French military uniform saluting, probably towards the national tricolour, on the cover of Paris-Match. Barthes interpreted the image as signifying something of much more social and collective significance beyond the photograph of the individual man: ‘that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors’ (p. 115, 1972 trans.).

I was reminded of Barthes’s discussion of the black soldier’s photograph recently on reading a new book by Vron Ware, Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR Country (2012), on the recruitment of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers, mostly people of colour, into the British military since 1998. Her book, which has much to say about British nationalism and war memory as well as the cultures of the military itself, begins with a vignette from 2010’s public commemoration of the Armistice Day silence in Trafalgar Square (a new commemorative ritual instituted by the Royal British Legion in 2006). At this ceremony, the end of the two minutes’ silence was signalled by a video reel containing images of politicians, celebrities and wounded soldiers. Among them was the Royal Marine Commando veteran Ram Patten, who had founded a fundraising march after being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: ‘But for the vast majority, he was likely to be a symbolic figure performing another role […] He appeared to be an ordinary serviceman doing his job, but he was also black’ (p. xiii).

Ware’s argument weaves together official understandings of British national identity in recent years – covering the defence reforms of the first New Labour government, the requirement on the military to fight wars of counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the drive for national ‘cohesion’ after the 7/7 bombings in 2005 – with an in-depth account of soldiers’ experiences through recruitment, selection and service. Governmental multiculturalism and the practices of equality and diversity management produced a demand that the composition of the military should reflect the ethnic balance of the country that it was supposed to defend. In practice, however, a significant amount of this visible diversity seems to have been provided by troops recruited from other countries in the Commonwealth, who became eligible to join the British military after a review of nationality issues for armed forces employment early in 1998.

Over the next ten years, until recruitment was curtailed by the 2008 financial crisis, the British Army would send dozens of Overseas Pre-Selection Teams to Commonwealth countries, concentrating on Fiji and the Caribbean. Soldiers’ motivations for joining up had much to do with their economic prospects at home and the opportunities to qualify in a trade during their Army contract, though a number found themselves re-routed to infantry regiments in need of extra troops before their foreign deployments – at a greater rate, Ware suggests, than UK recruits who had also expressed preferences for a different corps. Ware’s interviews and focus groups with soldiers from UK and Commonwealth backgrounds and a range of ranks explore how the military’s new diversity policies were implemented, or sometimes undermined, in practice – and how immigration policies coming from a different part of the state could seriously affect the lives of migrant soldiers and their families.

Reading the book, I rather wished Military Migrants had existed when I began working for the Languages at War project in 2008. During this project, I developed the interest in language intermediaries’ work which has since developed into a longer-term interest in the socio-economic impact of international intervention and peacebuilding, and also interviewed approximately 15 British soldiers about their experiences of language support during the UN/NATO peace operations in 1990s Bosnia. (Some of this material has appeared in my articles, and is rounded up in a new co-authored book, Interpreting the Peace.) There are several more research questions and interview questions we could have taken further with the help of this book.

Some of them relate to the military’s understandings of ‘culture’, which we did explore, particularly in the first edited volume that came out of the project, also called Languages at War. As Ware describes, the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in response to counter-insurgency turned ‘awareness’ of the culture of foreign populations into a military asset, supported through training exercises in simulated Iraqi/Afghan villages, through information cards and apps, and in the US case with the controversial incorporation of social scientists into military ‘human terrain’ teams:

Cultural knowledge was seen as something that could be learned and preferably kept in the pocket in the event of face-to-face encounters with local people. These measures were replicated in some of the NATO forces which began systematically to acquire linguistic and cultural expertise. (Ware, p. 117)

Language, in the words of a new article (£) by Vicente Rafael, was ‘weaponized’ in order to fulfil military objectives. There are precedents for this ‘cultural turn’ in the – initially rushed and improvised – training for troops deploying to Bosnia and Kosovo that several interviewees for Languages at War retold, and in the handbooks and phrase books developed by the Allies in preparation for the liberation of Western Europe in 1944, discussed in this (currently free) article by Hilary Footitt. ‘Heritage speakers’ – troops whose ethnic background has given them knowledge of languages required by the military (in this case Arabic, Pashtu and Dari) – have experienced even greater difficulties during the War on Terror than in previous operations, yet simultaneously have never been so valuable to their commanders.

Military Migrants, however, prompts me to ask more about ‘the concept of culture as something that had to be “managed”‘ (p. 114). I’d like now to have pursued it in more depth during my interviews with British soldiers. Was the concept as it manifested in the 2000s one of the ‘lessons learned’ through peacekeeping deployments in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo? Did it go back further still – perhaps, as Brendan Simms suggested in Unfinest Hour (2002), to the military’s explanation for the conflict in Northern Ireland – and structure the way in which the military made sense of ethnopolitics in the former Yugoslavia? Should I be looking to ‘the dubious theory of martial races’ (Ware, p. 121), that is, the colonial belief that certain groups such as the Gurkhas, the Zulus and the Ashanti had inherent racial characteristics that made them suitable as soldiers, as a direct antecedent of contemporary cultural essentialism in the military? Although I’ve discussed foreign understandings of ethnic identities in Bosnia in some depth during one chapter of Interpreting the Peace, I feel now I could have said more about the history of British military culture.

Military Migrants also makes me wish I had more data on hand about my own interviewees’ experiences of immigration procedures and border control. Ware achieves something that I also appreciated in Thomas Carter’s book In Foreign Fields: to ask what happens when we think about people such as sports professionals or soldiers as migrant workers, as well as thinking about the symbolic functions that the people in these occupational groups necessarily take on. ‘Foreign travel,’ she observes (p. 235), ‘is a basic premise of military work’ (a perspective I’ve tried to bear in mind when writing about soldiers’ interviews as the narratives of military travellers). In the case of Britain’s military migrants, the Ministry of Defence seems not to have thought through the visa implications that would arise when, for instance, non-UK soldiers were posted to Germany (where visits by a non-EU spouse would require a Schengen visa) or sent with a training team to a country with different entry regulations for citizens of their state. Tighter regulations for UK residency and citizenship caused the families of Commonwealth soldiers great anxiety. I didn’t ask systematically about migration experiences like these in my interviews, although sometimes they appeared (one Bosnian interpreter, visiting the UK as part of a group who were to participate in pre-deployment field exercises for soldiers, related problems at Heathrow because the MOD had not obtained the type of visa that the Home Office expected them to have). I’d like now to have asked much more about interpreters’ experiences and aspirations with migration and how far their jobs might have provided resources and contacts for settlement abroad.

The cuts to military recruitment after 2008 mean that the wave of Commonwealth recruitment may turn only into a statistical bulge, rather than an institutionalised practice on the scale and length of the recruitment of Gurkhas from Nepal. By the time Ware was interviewing successful recruits, the Overseas Pre-Selection Teams had already been wound down and potential recruits were now asked to travel to the UK for selection at their own risk. Military Migrants nonetheless illuminates a significant factor in contemporary British military history, and opens up new questions for thinking about the UK’s military past.

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Historical musicals and resistant readings, or, do we need to talk about Eponine?

Like everyone else with half an interest in history or revolution, I seem to have been at the cinema this weekend watching Les Miserables. I have to say one incentive to get there early was to join in the conversations that the virtual communities I’m part of were having, while they were still going on: yes, with high-speed broadband we can access almost anything any time we want to, but there’s still an appealing simultaneity in discussing the same new and interesting thing at the same time, which social media amplifies.

Alongside the incisive reviews of Les Miserables and historical representation that I’ve been able to read, I originally wanted to write about it from the point of view of ways to incorporate music into teaching about history on film (my department has a module called Representing the Past in Film that I teach seminars for, so this is often in the forefront of my mind). When I started trying to interpret it, on the other hand, I found I couldn’t begin making sense of it except in relation to another historical musical, the 1996 version of Evita that came out when I was at school.

Evita made a huge impression on me when I was 14, and even this far on I find that I can still remember a shocking amount of the words. I didn’t even see Les Mis or have much of an idea what went on in it until I was 28 (maybe the problem was that it wasn’t about the French Revolution, which I studied in exhaustive and enjoyable detail at A level), but in many ways I suppose it could be described as the anti-Evita: two historical epics in stage musical form, written and produced at around the same time in different European countries, but structured very differently in terms of how they present power and justice, social action, and the function of the individual in history.

The film versions of both musicals contain significant public funeral scenes. The opening of Evita segues from the funeral of Eva Perón’s father in 1926, where her father’s wife throws Eva, her mother and siblings out of the ceremony, to her own state funeral in Buenos Aires in 1952. The funeral theme, which recurs as the film’s inevitable end, is a requiem of collective mourning and grandeur, accompanying images of a well-drilled, orderly parade and leading to a musical climax. As critical as other sections of the musical can be of Eva Perón’s power (expressed through the character of Ché, an abstraction originally supposed to have been based on Ché Guevara), the requiem asks the viewer to take pleasure in power and the acquisition of it, and in the taking of revenge against those who had previously excluded you.

Les Miserables‘ funeral is the funeral in Paris of General Lamarque, the leading critic of the re-installed French monarchy. In the musical, the group of revolutionary students led by Enjolras have chosen Lamarque’s death as the signal to begin their insurrection. The funeral parade and military march in this film is disrupted, when the students jump into the crowd; the climax is not delivered, and the funeral is instead a transition to raising the barricades, where the climax of the story arcs for several characters will come. Here, the viewer is being invited to feel their emotions about a struggle that is collective rather than individual, and that aims to cause change through challenging power rather than to take power in order to hold personally on to it. (As poorly-supported as the students’ insurrection may be, and as simplistic a depiction of revolution as it is.)

On a personal level, the two songs that appeal to me most from each musical – Another Suitcase In Another Hall from Evita, and On My Own from Les Miserables – are also, or rather can be made into, counterpoints of each other. Another Suitcase In Another Hall, sung by the young Evita on first moving to Buenos Aires, expresses temporary despair but with the hope, which becomes the expectation, of fulfilment. On My Own, sung by Eponine after she has seen proof that the person she loves is promised to another woman, is also about despair, but a statement of fantasy and denial without any chance of hopeful resolution. (Its arrangement works against its lyrics in an interesting way. If in the show-tune genre there’s triumph in the soaring climax, Eponine receives hers at the moment of acknowledging ‘All my life I’ve only been pretending […] The world is full of happiness that I have never known’.)

As a viewer, I want Les Mis to be the anti-Evita, but of course that’s not all it is. What seems to me to be an incredible amount of time is taken up on stage and screen by Valjean’s ward and the female romantic lead, Cosette. The two characters who interest me most, Enjolras and Eponine, don’t even get to interact with each other. (I’m always drawn to narratives like Eponine’s, while Enjolras reminds me of the figures I spent so much time reading about when I studied the French and Russian Revolutions; in the novel, Hugo explicitly compares Enjolras with Saint-Just.) My frustration that the text isn’t about Enjolras and Eponine ends up as an annoyance with Cosette. (I later learned I wasn’t alone in this. I’m sure that with time somebody will remix a Cosette-less version of the musical in the same way that YouTube has or had a remix of Breakfast at Tiffany’s including only the scenes that have the cat.) I respond very differently to the musical than to the novel, which I read some months after seeing the show. In the novel I want to read about Valjean’s redemption through saving Marius and Cosette, to which France’s early 19th-century history can happily (or less happily) be a backdrop; on screen I find their plotline the least interesting.

A few days before I went to see Les Mis, I’d been reading a blog post by Jem Bloomfield on ‘resistant readings’, an important idea in the study of texts and their fans, and obviously what I’m bringing to Les Miserables when I’m drumming my fingers and waiting for Cosette to go away. As Bloomfield explains:

This process, codified most famously by Judith Fetterley’s work The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, involves deliberately reading a text against the grain.  The resistant reader recognises what the text claims to be saying, and then rereads it through their own agenda, opposing the ideology of the text itself.  It’s not simply reinterpreting a work, but directly confronting it: identifying the surface meaning and proposing an alternative (using the text’s own words and images) which runs against the grain.  Though we don’t necessarily call it resistant reading, it’s a process many of us are very familiar with.

If the types of narratives you enjoy are incredibly well represented in the texts available to you, resistant readings might not be such a big part of your experience (though of course they may). If they’re not – for instance, if you want to see queer desire on screen but are in a predominantly straight (or ‘heteronormative’) media space – they’re likely to be more important to you than they might be otherwise, perhaps even the only way to bring about a reading/listening/viewing experience that somebody who doesn’t face that obstacle is likely to take for granted that they can access wherever they want. If convention says that Ripley always lives but Vasquez Always Dies, it takes a lot more imagination on the part of the viewer to imagine the potential of Vasquez alive.

Yet the original text never, or hardly ever, provides enough material to make a resistant reading truly satisfying. Enjolras in Les Miserables manifests fully-formed with no personal history. Eponine’s entire narrative function is to save Marius so that he can be available to serve his own narrative functions in later scenes (although the character as we see her would probably be quite happy with that description of her life’s purpose), and it really isn’t clear how her spoiled seven-year-old self as the daughter of the gruesome Thenardiers changes into the woman we see by 1832. This is the sort of material that fan fiction, as studied by Henry Jenkins for more than twenty years, and including but not limited to the ‘shipping’ of alternative romantic relationships between characters, tries to supply. The Les Mis fandom is so well established, and growing in size now that the movie has expanded the audience for the story, that I’m sure I could find all this somewhere if I wanted to. There must surely be queer readings of Eponine – who after her big solo dresses as a man (and in the movie is seen binding her chest) and joins the otherwise all-male group of revolutionaries on the front line of the barricades – out there as well.

(What space was there for resistant readings in Evita? Probably far less. At the time I saw it I didn’t even know that wanting to identify with both Ché and Eva could be a thing.)

For most of my life, readings that were at least somewhat resistant were the only way to find fictional narratives that would be maximally meaningful. I wish that novels like Malinda Lo’s Ash – a young-adult queer retelling of Cinderella, where the kitchen maid ends up with the king’s huntress instead – had existed when I was 14; maybe they might have stopped me making the misinterpretations of who I was and what I wanted that I went on to make for some time after that. Instead, it took until my mid-twenties for me to start encountering narratives that felt as if they were meant to be about people like me and the ways that they could relate to others, and that were written by people who in that dimension of identity at least were positioned in a similar way to me. Would Ash have been published twenty years ago, or stocked in British school libraries that were still subject to the ‘Section 28’ prohibition on ‘promoting homosexuality in schools’? I’m not sure it would. But I also know that for a long time I didn’t even think to demand better than the possibility of making resistant readings from texts that weren’t designed to contain them. Which is why when I first read about them during the cultural studies reading for my PhD the idea of them made so much sense, and why I notice them so much in my responses to popular culture even now.

Apologies, Cosette. It isn’t really your fault.

On intersectionality, academic language, and where to put my big feet

For the last week my social media timelines have been filled with some often very angry arguments about what the priorities of feminists should be and how the ideas that they draw on ought to be expressed. (The context: Suzanne Moore’s essay on the power of female anger, which met with anger in return for a comparison that made fun of Brazilian trans women, and Moore’s decision to leave Twitter in response to the intense criticism that she received.)

Part of the argument, as in a similar Twitterstorm a few months ago involving Caitlin Moran, has been to do with the idea of ‘intersectionality’: Moore’s and Moran’s critics claiming that feminism ends up contributing to oppression unless it is intersectional (or in the words of Flavia Dzodan, ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’), and their defenders claiming that intersectionality is an academic, theoretical concept that distances feminism from the real problems at hand.

(‘Intersectionality’, the novelist/poet/activist Roz Kaveney wrote today, ‘is […] the simple observation that most people having a bad time in this society are getting it in the neck for several things at once, and the way we write about oppression needs to address that.’ Let’s go with that for now.)

[ETA, May 2013: several people a week are finding this post after googling ‘what is intersectionality’. This is a good post by Kat Gupta on what it means and how someone’s various experiences affect each other.]

By the end of the week the argument had forked in two directions: one where columnists have been able to use their platforms in national media to deny that feminism should be concerned with trans women or even to deny that trans women are women (Christine Burns, Quinnae Moongazer and others have written about this much better than I can), and another about whether intersectionality alienates and divides feminists or whether it’s essential for feminists to recognise in order to be able to bring about change.

I’m going to talk about this second direction of the argument in this post, but I haven’t had much to say about it in any of my social media spaces until now. A defence of intersectionality from someone like me against the charge that it’s too academic doesn’t carry much weight. I do have a PhD and I am an academic; voices with the institutional and social standing of mine are part of what’s causing the problem, if that’s what the problem consists of.

The only thing is that I didn’t learn about intersectionality at university, or while I was studying for my PhD, or at work after that. (In fact, last year I was trying to find an academic reading on it that I could put into a module handbook for a session on gender and nationalism. I couldn’t find anything written in academic terms that would fulfil what I wanted students to get out of it: not something that describes what intersectionality is, but something that explains why it matters and why they ought to take it into account in their own work.)

I only found out that it existed as an idea through reading blogs written by people who face discrimination and oppression in multiple ways at once, like s.e. smith, Monica Roberts or Dzodan. Generally, they put intersectionality into practice much more than they named it, and when they did it was often to say, in effect: ‘you, cis or white or non-disabled feminists, have fucked up if you don’t recognise that these experiences are different from yours, because there are ways in which you have privilege where the person retelling this experience does not; and you will have fucked up, too, if you try to speak for all women without taking this into account.’

Eventually, I found out about a landmark article by the Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who made the case that ‘racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people’ and that feminists and anti-racists, including but not limited to academics, had to take this reality seriously. Intersectionality struck me as a theory developed in attempt to explain that reality, rather than a theory developed for its philosophical value that needs the corners to be filed off reality in order to make it fit.

It isn’t something I’ve learned about through academia, then, although academia has allowed me to feel comfortable when I’m reading something and run into new concepts with difficult names. I have to acknowledge that. I have to acknowledge also that I do approach my writing slightly differently now that intersectional perspectives are further in the foreground of my reading than they used to be; even though I didn’t learn about intersectionality through academia, it’s still become (or I hope it has become) part of my academic practice. It would be hard for it not to have done after taking it on board.

And so, the contribution to this week’s exchanges that has probably made me do most thinking has been a couple of blog posts by Stella Duffy about the language of arguments on the feminist left. There are things in Duffy’s original blog post that I wouldn’t agree with, but what I or someone in my position needs to take away from it is this, which she writes as the first person in her family to go to university:

I do find the term ‘intersectionality’ to be both classist and educationalist – or rather, not the term itself, but the way the twitter fight had people using it as if everyone knew what they meant. Working class me, non-academic me, often finds those terms daunting, the ones so many people in so many political groups bandy about easily (and yes, I don’t live in the working class now, I work in the arts and have a fortunate – in some ways!!! – life, but I do still come from where and what I come from) and those terms, that tone of debate, especially when it gets very academic, not only shuts me out, but it also makes me feel badly educated, incapable of engaging, and stupid.

As someone who wants to talk about the things I care about with other people who care about them regardless of whether or how long they’ve been in universities, I need to keep this in mind. I tend to think that I do all right with explaining the ideas I use (the audiences I write for at work can come from several disciplines, so I need not to write my work in a way that only makes sense to one of them), and blogging and Twitter have both encouraged me to get better. But I do need to keep reviewing the way that I write or speak and making sure that I’m not excluding people who I think I’m speaking to.

I have to tread carefully when I talk about this. I can very easily be part of the problem if I go clumping around with my privately-educated, formerly studentship-equipped, PhD-holding feet. (There are some complications about how those feet got privately educated, but the fact still remains that they did so.) Me saying that somebody who feels intimidated by academic language shouldn’t let it worry them isn’t going to make a difference. As an educator, who might be working with someone over several years, I might be able to do more to help someone feel more comfortable with academic knowledge than they were when they started learning. But I can’t just wish that discomfort away for someone.

And academics don’t have the monopoly on expressing things that people need to know about. The ones of us who are lucky enough to be in stable jobs just get more salaried time to think and talk about those things than a lot of other people. We don’t, unfortunately, spend as much time as we might do learning how to listen.

So I suppose this explains why I’ve been mostly listening to what’s been going on this week: I’m not really sure I have much to say that’s worth saying. What I did want to do was to make some acknowledgement of how it makes me reflect about things that I do myself, so that I don’t end up alienating people I ought to be in solidarity with.

And there’s always the risk that I may have done so anyway. The various ways privilege has intersected on me, all told, mean that I have the privilege of having been able to take intersectionality on board through reading; I haven’t in most part had to live being intersectionally oppressed before finding out there was a word for what I’d lived. I hope there are people who trust me enough to tell me if I screw things up, and the more I write about this sort of thing the more chance there is that I will screw up at some point. There are a lot of things I’m not equipped to see. I hope, too, that if they do tell me that, it’ll be in a way that I read as constructive rather than a way I instinctively want to defend myself against; but I really don’t get to choose how someone addresses me in that situation. It was my responsibility and my mistake.

So that’s really what the things I’ve read this week have made me think of, and my thanks to those who have contributed to me thinking them. I hope that I’ll do my best not just to write about these things, but do them.