Today’s discussion about masculine and feminine roles in the war piqued my curiosity. The passage we read from page 29 explores how women take the masculine roles of protector and men take the feminine roles of senseless broken beings following each other. It opens questions to how we looked at masculine and feminine and interpret it being divided into different absolutes. But is it possible to look at this war zone as a place where gendered norms mix into being part of both masculine and feminine? Strength is not just masculine, weak is not just feminine. They each mix to define men and women as more genuinely themselves in a world of chaotic extremes.
As prior military, I have the lens of men and women working in a high stress environment. Part of training is looking past the defined norms for men and women. Last names are used as a person’s identity, women are called names like Smith, Speer, and Lopez. Men are called Vallery, Brook, and Rose. It disrupts the idea of defining a person by gendered stereotypes. Every character introduced in the warzone takes on a different name, like last names, nicknames, initials, or their official title. Some people do adhere to traditional views of what should be masculine or feminine. B.F. holds onto her belief system of a woman’s place and duties in an argument with Edwards. Perhaps, she represents the feminine ideal for English society? She insists, “We are doing our bit.” (pg 55, Amazon digital edition) Despite the “bit” comment demeaning ambulance driving, the work is important to them and to the men they transport.
I wanted to introduce the idea that masculine and feminine roles enter a more fluid territory as we read the text. It is very easy to read a full page and think “he” instead of “she” or “him” instead of “her.” There is an undercurrent of feminine values from the homeland, but they don’t work well with the culture Helen and her friends have at the warfront. The stronger feminine influences of clean clothing, long hair, and positive letters received from family are catalyzed into wishes that don’t work in a war zone. Tosh cuts her hair rather than deal with lice. Helen calls her bed a fleabag as a statement of fact. Commandant drives her crew in the most acidic manner that causes hate and wishes for revenge. This space becomes where they are the most real and honest version of themselves. It opens ideas of questioning masculinity and femininity. And it demands that one explore these characters with the words they choose, actions, and a look at what ties them to traditional British feminine norms or defies them.
Reading about everyone’s thoughts on The Great War and what links we have found to connect with make me realize something. I am 38 years old. When I was a child in the 80’s, the last wave of World War 1 veterans were living as grandparents, speakers at elementary schools, and standing at attention honoring their departed friends at memorials. According to The Telegraph, the last living WWI veteran passed away just a few years ago at the age of 110. Florence Green joined the Women’s Royal Air Force of England during the war. And according to this source, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9066371/Last-surviving-veteran-of-First-World-War-dies-aged-110.html, she only served two months at an air base in England. But it is interesting to note that it still places her in league with those who served.
Two more last survivors who have passed and are recognized in this article issued February 7, 2012 include:
“Last May the only living male First World War combat veteran, British-born sailor Claude Choules, died in Australia at the age of 110.
Britain’s last survivor of the First World War trenches Harry Patch – known as ‘The Last Tommy’ – who died in July 2009 aged 111.” (The Telegraph, see link above)
We can listen to podcasts, watch old new footage, read books, and look at pictures. But we will never be able to shake the hand of a World War I veteran again. The 100th Anniversary of the end of World War 1 is coming, but we have lost every living person that connects us to that time. I’ve met Tuskegee Airmen, shaken the hand of a B-17 bomber pilot who was shot down during WWII, and listened to a WWI vet speak of his experiences at my elementary school in 1987. Is it enough to know I’ve made a small connection to people? They are flesh and blood in my mind and it feels like carrying that memory hurts because they are gone or will be gone by the time my daughters have grown up.
WW1 was the first war to use air warfare with aircraft in a limited function. Previous to this war, air inflated craft were used for surveillance and limited attacks. When I was assigned to RAF Lakenheath (a US Air Force Base in England), my introduction to the base included a trip to Duxford. It hosts the largest living Air Museum in the world and is a part of the Imperial War Museums located in England. I’m sharing a bit of my experience there and a link to some of the First World War objects in their digital collection. If you ever have the chance to visit the UK, please make a trip out to this place. It is incredible and lives up to the name living air museum. A large number of their air craft are set up for actual flight and not just for display. My favorite area was a massive aircraft barn that had several dozen aircraft in various stages for a rebuild to working status.