Category Archives: Commentary

Creative Methods in Military Studies… What Next?

On Wednesday 5th of June 2019, the Military War and Security Research Group at Newcastle University hosted an intensive one-day workshop on ‘Creative Methods in Military Studies’.

This event emerged out of an awareness that there are so many of us doing really interesting creative projects that in some way approach military power and experience, creative in the sense that projects were finding new ways of using established approaches, or were developing creative practices as methods in themselves. And yet, despite all this great work being done in military studies, there hadn’t been much opportunity for real conversations about what these creative approaches could bring to our research. So, what we really wanted to do in this workshop was bring some of this work together, and explore a few key questions:

  • What constitutes ‘creative research’ in military studies?
  • What can creative methods offer our understanding of military power and militarised cultures?
  • What are some of the challenges of this type of work?

We ended up with a huge amount of interest in the event (which I think is indicative of how open to this way of working critical military studies folk are!) and on the day had 45 participants from as far away as Norway and the United States (you can see the final programme for the event here). This included academic researchers of all career stages, veterans (or those who identify instead as ex-military), artists, creative practitioners, and psychologists – so, it was a really diverse group. The range of creative approaches we heard about included military theatre (such as Alice Cree’s collaborative work with Workie Ticket Theatre Company  and female veterans in ‘Women Warriors’) and Sarah Bulmer, Victoria Basham and David Jackson’s work on Lola Arias’ ‘Minefield’), sound installations, model making, photography, song-writing (you can read about Hannah West’s work on this here), dance, fiction, creative approaches to teaching Critical Military Studies, and more. We had some great conversations around ethics (is there a distinct ethics to making military experience ‘interesting’ through creativity?), data and analysis (what do we consider to be our ‘data’ in these creative works, and how do we analyse them?), representation (who gets to speak for whom?), and collaboration (what is the ‘value added’ of collective creative engagement?).

Across the presentations and conversations, several threads emerged.  Relationships are important, between academics and practitioners, between academic-practitioners and audiences, and with different types of audiences, which might be civilian or military or both.  There are always issues around military involvement in research practice, and issues of control, accountability, transparency, gate-keeping, involvement and non-involvement.  The spaces of creative engagement and creative practice, and of engagements with audiences, are multiple and varied, and we wondered how these different spaces shape or allow engagements of researchers with military phenomena, and shape relationships between academic-practitioners and audiences.  There is also the question about the ultimate purpose of activities that identify as ‘creative’; is it to find new representational forms, or new audiences, or new ways of addressing research questions, or all these in combination?

There is something we’ve been left mulling over though…What is it about creative approaches that can help us specifically in our work on and with military power? After hearing about all of this really interesting and critically engaging work that people are doing in critical military studies, it seems that there is definitely something useful in looking beyond typical modes of research and representation in this work. One of the common threads that connected many of the presentations related to embodiment and lived experience. Melanie Friend’s work on the militarised landscape of Salisbury Plain for example considered how different people experienced the ‘militarised’ sounds of the space, while Lindsay Clark’s ideas around ‘drone dance’ considered how choreographed bodily movement might help us to think differently about embodiment in disembodied warfare. In both of these examples, as with many of the others that we heard from, creative methods or forms were used in some way to explore aspects of military power and military experience that are not otherwise accounted for. Victoria Basham & Sarah Bulmer (2017) tell us that we must out of necessity think differently about what it means to practice critique in military studies, arguing that “[t]his recognition has profound implications for feminist praxis because it compels us to ask the question: What remains hidden if we fail to get closer to that which we critique?” (p68). Is part of the value of creative approaches in military studies therefore that they can help us to get closer to that which we critique, by tapping into the lived, the felt, the embodied, and the sensory experiences of military power? If we are committed to deepening our critical engagement with militaries and their practices of power then it seems that creative methods have a lot to offer, and so maybe we should be doing more of it.

We’re currently thinking about what to do next, and in particular whether we should develop a publication of some kind bringing together different stories about approaches which in some way use creative methods or practices to address military phenomena.  If you’re interested in joining the conversation, get in touch.

Alice Cree and Rachel Woodward

The military memoirs book cover challenge

There’s a thing that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter over the past few weeks, termed variously ‘#7days7books’, or ‘#7daybookcoverchallenge’ or ‘#7daybookcover’.  The idea is that you Tweet images of book covers over 7 consecutive days, and challenge someone else to do the same when you do so.  You are instructed not to include any explanation or justification – just the images of book covers.  I’ve been spending more time than I should looking at what gets posted under this hashtag, because I’m interested in book covers.  This is mostly an outcome of the military memoirs work that Neil Jenkings and I have been doing over the last ten years; we ended up thinking a lot about their covers and their role in book marketing.  When we interviewed military memoirists we asked them to explain to us why their books looked like they did.  They had some really fascinating observations on this, and you can read our discussions of this in the chapter ‘Why Do Military memoirs Look Like They Do?’ in Bringing War to Book.  If you can’t get hold of a copy of the book and want to read the chapter, get in touch with me direct (

I was tagged in the book covers challenge by a colleague, and of course couldn’t resist.  I decided that all the covers had to be of military memoirs.  But selecting just seven was tough; I’ve got 250+ military memoirs on the shelves in my office, and those are just the ones about participation in the UK armed forces and published after 1980.  And then I found it impossible to randomly tweet images of the selected seven without wanting also to say something about why I was so drawn to these covers.  So I felt a blog post was called for.


  1. F.N. Clarke, Contact, (Secker and Warburg, 1983)

I like the dark pink, and I like the line drawing; no other military memoirs in my collection use either this colour or this style of illustration.  I think the vehicle shown is an FV603 Saracen (I had to do a bit of web-browsing to work this out – apologies if I have this wrong), an armoured personnel carrier in use by the British Army in the 1970s.  The singular title and a line drawing give nothing away.  This is one of the Northern Ireland deployment memoirs.  There are not that many of these in existence (Neil Jenkings and I have written about this here).  A.F.N. Clarke’s account draws on his two tours of Northern Ireland with 3 PARA, to Belfast in 1973 and to Crossmaglen in 1976.  I’ve found it a useful and illuminating book for a number of reasons.  I’ve just flicked through it again, and have found inside a note-to-self from a number of years ago saying ‘John Hockey says this was made into a BBC film’. John is always a well-informed source, so I need to check this out.  I did another quick web search, and I see that Contact was re-issued in 2010 in a revised edition which includes text about injury and trauma suffered by the author that had been removed from the manuscript prior to publication of the first edition.  So there’s a story there that I’ll have to look into too.  I’ve ordered a copy of the revised edition.  It has one of Jonathan Olley’s Castles of Ulster photographs on the cover – a stark military landscape.


  1. Hugh McManners, Falklands Commando (originally published by William Kimber & Co, 1984, cover below from HarperCollins edition, 2002)

I bought this book in 2003, when I’d been doing some work on the idea on rurality and military masculinities, and was starting to get interested in military personnel’s accounts of the spaces and places of their deployment.  I remember picking the book up in the shop, looking at the cover, and deciding to buy it on that basis.  The picture above is a scan of my copy, which has been read a number of times as you can see by the creases and the coffee stain on the cover.  The image credits in the book indicate that the photograph was taken during a specific operation (Brewer’s Arms) during the Falklands War.  Author images make for good book covers because they communicate the idea of veracity (so important to military memoirs given the number of people who will take issue with the idea of their ‘truth’).  This image is striking; the author’s face is lit by the sun, and his rifle is visible but in shadow.  He looks cold and tired and battle-worn.  He fixes us with his stare, and we can guess at fatigue by looking at the size of the Bergen on his back.  The distinctive stencil font clarifies this as ‘military’, as if we hadn’t already guessed – a cliché, I know, but effective nonetheless.


  1. Andy McNab, Bravo Two Zero (Corgi, 1994)

I bought this when I first started doing research on military-related things (mostly the politics of military land use) in about 1997, and I realised that I knew virtually nothing about the organisation and structures of the British Army.  I had tried to read a few things like Charles Heyman’s pocket books, but as useful as these are, they aren’t exactly light reading.  I saw Bravo Two Zero on sale and realised I recognised the title, but knew little else about it.  So I bought it.  Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.  The book is about a Special Forces operation in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War; the operation is compromised and the story unfolds around what happens to McNab and his colleagues in the aftermath.  It’s an action-adventure memoir that’s still worth reading; the fact that it sold about 1.5 million copies is indicative. As for the cover, there are several significant features:  the use of fire, indicating destruction, chaos and rebirth; the use of McNab’s post-nominals to signal his credibility and achievements as a soldier; the use of the SAS winged dagger, ever-present on the covers Special Forces books to indicate its potential appeal to a particular market segment (read John Newsinger’s Dangerous Men for a full account). Bravo Two Zero, famously, has its detractors, and there are a number of interesting stories about the afterlives of this book and its cultural effects.  I’ve got a more recent edition of Bravo Two Zero with an updated cover using more contemporary military memoir design features (armed men in silhouette, visible rifles, a helicopter, use of muted sandy colours).  These are common in memoirs from the 2000s, from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the re-designed cover was produced presumably to introduce the book to a new readership.  But I have a fondness for the original – the use of fire and the winged dagger are repeated on the covers of many Special Forces memoirs, but this one’s The Daddy.


  1. Sarah Ford, One Up (HarperCollins, 1997)

Military memoirs written by women are fairly rare – at the last count I had ten by women in my collection of 250+.  This is because of the smaller number of women having a military experience to write about (even in 2019, only 10.4% of the UK’s armed forces are women), and because of publishers’ primary interests in specific types of narratives relating to direct combat roles, roles from which women were excluded until very recently.  The military memoirs written by women have tended to be about women in exceptional roles – although across this small collection, they accord in the main with the conventions of the genre as a whole (Claire Duncanson, Neil Jenkings and I have written a chapter about gender and military memoirs here).  I like this cover because it shows, simply, a woman dressed for her job.  There’s nothing sexualized about the image either (unlike the covers of some other memoirs by women).  The book itself is well worth reading; it’s Ford’s account of her military life which included attachment to Special Forces in Northern Ireland, and it’s one I’ve used a lot when trying to think about both gender issues in the military, and things like the movement of personnel through spaces of deployment (she is deployed because, being a woman, she has access to spaces and access to modes of intelligence gathering not available to men).   And the implications of familiarity in the endorsement is also interesting (McNab is a serial endorser of military memoirs, and there’s something to be written about that too, another time).


  1. Monty Woolley, Cleanse their Souls (Pen & Sword, 2004)

This is a memoir of peacekeeping in Bosnia; the author was a Lieutenant with the Cheshire Regiment battlegroup deployed in 1992-93, and the story centres around his witnessing of atrocities.  The image show what looks like a displaced family; there is rubble in the background and the sense that it is a cold winter day.  The abjection of the family is notable, and the hand of the man front and centre in the image is blurred, as if he’s gesturing to someone off camera.  There’s no photo credit (that I can find, anyway) in the book, and I’ve wondered a number of times whether this is one taken by the author, or whether the author is one of the two soldiers shown.  It is a striking image because military memoirs rarely have covers showing civilians caught up in war. Catherine Baker has written a number of interesting papers on the experiences of British military personnel in Bosnia, and her work explores issues of language, translation and communication, and the difficulties and politics of this in the British deployments to Bosnia. This book captures something of those issues, I think.


  1. Dan Mills, Sniper One (Penguin, 2008)

This is such a great example of contemporary military memoir cover design that I had to include it.  It has everything: the stencil effect typeface for the title (and when you hold the book in your hand you appreciated that the title is slightly embossed on the card of the cover); the cross hairs around the letter O; the use of sandy-camouflage design in the background; the palm trees to indicate a vague sense of location; the inclusion of a very visible weapon (which I assume to be a sniper rifle); and images of three figures which look like they could have been superimposed on each other from three different original sources.  We see another Andy McNab endorsement, the idea that this is a popular book selling in high volumes, and the sub-heading indicates very clearly what kind of account this is likely to be.  I’ve seen a more recent edition with ‘The book they tried to ban’ included on the cover, and this will always help with sales (though I’m not sure, and must check up on, the reasons for this).  This cover was really helpful to Neil and I when we wrote a piece on military masculinities and public narratives of war, available here.


  1. Pen Farthing, One Dog at a Time (Ebury, 2009)

I like showing an image of this cover when I give lectures or talks about military memoirs.  I put the image up on screen, look out at the audience, and watch as they go ‘awwwww’ and start to smile.  Puppies.  What’s not to like?  It’s also a really interesting example to think about when trying to determine the parameters of the military memoirs genre.  Neil and I have always worked within the definition of a book as a military memoir if it is written as a first-person, non-fiction account of deployment by a military operative in some kind of military context (which needn’t necessarily include armed conflict).  So according to this definition, we include it as a military memoir, because it is about the activities of the author and colleagues on a tour in Afghanistan in 2009.  But the author and publisher categorise it within the genre of true-life animal stories, and booksellers position it there on the shelves of their shops, rather than in the military history section where military memoirs are usually found.  The author’s comment when we interviewed him was that it was a kind of ‘Marley and Me – with guns’.  Because although it’s a deployment story, the narrative focuses on the activities of Farthing and colleagues in rescuing stray dogs.  When the author returned to the UK, he set up the Nowzad charity which works for animal welfare in Afghanistan – activities like vet training, animal neutering, anti-rabies programmes and the like.  What seems to me to be significant about this book – and the cover is crucial in this – is that it works as a mechanism for telling people who wouldn’t necessarily have kept up with news media reporting, about the activities of British forces in Helmand in Afghanistan.  Many people who wouldn’t have access to information about the experience of those deployments would learn something about them through reading about dog rescue.  I won’t go into the politics of representations of the Afghanistan war (Neil and I have written about that here), and I don’t want to suggest that the dominant narrative should be one of dog rescue.  But in talking about dog rescue, the author managed to reach a readership that other military memoirs wouldn’t, and that has to be a useful thing.


Rachel Woodward


The labours of military spouses: Unpaid (and precarious?)

Two days ago the Government’s Defence in the Media blog responded to the recent Barclays report, which explores the career barriers faced by military spouses as a result of their partner’s service (you can read their blog post here). The research by Barclays suggests that 1 in 5 military spouses surveyed felt that they face discrimination when applying for jobs, while a third claimed that they either had to reduce their hours or leave their job entirely as a result of their partner’s service.

Families, and in particular spouses, of military personnel are integral to the functioning of the Armed Forces (Cynthia Enloe’s book Does Khaki Become You  is great for an overview on this). Military partners engage in countless forms of unpaid labour in service of the military and its ideals, ranging from domestic duties and solo childcare during deployment, to fundraising and ‘flying the flag’ for military charities that fill the gap in the provision of support for veterans and their families. The partners of servicemen and women even provide a level of emotional support and stability for their spouses that they usually do not get elsewhere, both of which are crucial to the very survival of the Armed Forces (see Denise Horn’s chapter on military support networks in Gender, War and Militarism: Feminist Perspectives). It is no wonder that Segal describes the military family as the intersection of two “greedy institutions”, both of whom demand commitment, loyalty, time and energy.

The findings of the Barclays report are troubling, but unsurprising. Over the course of my research with the Military Wives Choir in Plymouth, I heard a number of similar stories from women who had left their jobs, moved across the country or even across the world as a result of their partner’s military service (see Alex Hyde’s chapter in The Palgrave International Handbook of Gender and the Military for further reading on the mobilities of army wives). What groups like the Military Wives Choir offered these women was an opportunity to meet people who understand the lives they live, make friends, and have time for themselves. More than that though, as I discovered, the choir was often empowering its members to go back into education, start businesses and change career direction. One research participant said;

It has been very empowering, a lot of the girls have started to do things like they’ve started courses, so like for me I’ve wanted to train to be a counsellor for a while and going to the choir and doing the gigs and having the support and stuff I’ve finished my course. Other girls have started up businesses, other girls have changed jobs or gone for jobs that they’ve always wanted to go for, and I think it’s been really empowering for everybody to have this voice, that’s a big thing that the choir has given us. It’s given us this voice together but also individually, so like “OK I want to go and change my job so I’m going to change my job”.

We are beginning to see more support for the partners of servicemen and women when it comes to employment. The Armed Forces Covenant for example, alongside organisations like X-Forces, offer valuable support to veterans and military spouses in the development of their careers and business enterprises. In their response to the Barclay’s report, an MoD spokesperson said;

Service families are a vital part of the Armed Forces community and we encourage companies to support the careers of military partners through the Armed Forces Covenant. We have announced a new fund to step up access to vocational training and career development for military partners, and we’ve recently launched a review into the support for service families, to ensure they are not disadvantaged by their loved ones’ service.

But, it seems to me that groups like the Military Wives Choir also have an important role to play. What these kinds of organisations do, that more formal support networks perhaps cannot, is offer a safe and emotionally supportive space for self-reflection and empowerment. After all, it is undeniable that a significant challenge facing female military spouses in particular is that the gender roles in military families, which mark wives as homemakers and husbands as breadwinners, remain pervasive. Groups like the Military Wives Choir arguably offer a means of helping these women imagine their lives, and the roles that they play in them, differently. Seeing greater value attributed to these kinds of groups might therefore represent a positive step forward in reducing the disadvantage faced by military partners in the workplace.

You can read more about the findings from my research with the Military Wives Choir in a previous blog post, available here.

Published work from this research is forthcoming!

Alice Cree

How Reservists negotiate their military identities in the civilian workplace.

Over the last few years I’ve been working with a group of colleagues on an ESRC-funded research project, Keeping Enough in Reserve, and an important paper coming out of that research is now available.  Published in the journal Critical Military Studies, the paper was prompted by what seemed like a contradiction at the heart of the Future Reserves programme.  On the one hand, reforms to the Reserves initiated from around 2011 onwards were often talked about in Government statements in terms of the utility of a reformed Reserve in developing and sustaining positive civil-military relationships.  On the other hand, when we interviewed Reservists we were struck by the ways that they talked about the separation that they maintained between their military and civilian lives and identities.  It seemed to us that this reticence at an individual level was in marked contrast to the broader objective.  Although the development of civil-military relationships was by no means the only driving force behind Reserves reform (and for further commentary see our paper in Defence Studies and Patrick Bury’s book Mission Improbable), it was not insignificant.

The paper looks how reservists believe themselves to be regarded by their civilian co-workers, as military actors of a particular kind.  There are many instances where our military interviewees reported that their identities were discredited by their civilian co-workers, in ways that seemed to align with Erving Goffman’s concept of stigma and spoilt identity.  Our interviewees, in response, showed a lot of reflexivity and creativity in presenting civilianized selves in the workplace, and put a great deal of effort into the management of distance and familiarity with colleagues in terms of the ways they did and did not talk about their lives as Reservists in their civilian jobs.  In the paper, we consider this as a potentially productive tension, and ask whether there is what we call a ‘militarist dividend’ as a consequence.

The paper is available open access, so is free to download by anyone, including those without a subscription to the journal. Click on the link below.

Higate, P., Dawes, A., Edmunds, T., Jenkings, K.N. and Woodward, R.  (2019)  Militarization, stigma and resistance: negotiating military reservist identity in the civilian workplace.  Critical Military Studies. Available online.

Further information about the Keeping Enough in Reserve project and the wider ESRC/MoD Future Reserves Research Programme is available here.


Rachel Woodward

The Current Recruitment Crisis in the British Armed Forces

The British armed forces are experiencing an acute crisis in their ability to recruit personnel. There is a current personnel deficit of 6.6% in full-time trained personnel across the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force, with this deficit being higher in the Army at 7.5%. This recruitment crisis is not new; the British armed forces have continuously experienced difficulties in recruiting enough personnel, with Hew Strachan in 2000 noting such difficulties have arguably existed since the time of the Boer war. The British military is finding itself challenged on multiple fronts when it comes to recruitment, explaining why these difficulties are so persistent. Factors such as high employment levels, demographic change (with a declining population of young people who represent the main target audience for recruitment and rising numbers of women and non-white populations typically less inclined towards a military career) and a shrinking presence and visibility within wider society have all contributed to creating a challenging recruitment environment. The former Chief of the General Staff Sir Nicholas Carter reiterated this point in a 2016 appearance before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. When asked about the state of recruitment to the regular Army, he responded:

“The answer is that it is not as good as we need it to be, nor indeed as I would like it to be. It is a very challenging recruiting marketplace at the moment. The economy is reasonably vibrant. We have had four rounds of redundancy over the past four years, which has sent a message. Our traditional recruiting grounds—here I am talking about white Caucasian 16 to 25-year-olds—have shrunk by about 25% over the past 10 years. We are therefore having to adjust our recruiting to get after a different recruiting base from the one that traditionally we went to.”

These factors have been further exacerbated by the unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which decreased the recruitment appeal of the armed forces, particularly amongst gatekeepers such as parents who the military must navigate to persuade young people to enlist. There is little doubt, then, that the armed forces are facing a crisis in their ability to recruit personnel, a point reiterated by the National Audit Office’s 2018 report into recruitment and skills shortages within the armed forces and the 2017 Francois Report into the state of recruiting for the Prime Minister.

The question is therefore how are the armed forces responding to these difficulties? My interest in this question arises from a broader (feminist) concern with the gendered culture of the armed forces. If the armed forces are having to broaden their conception of what constitutes the ideal soldier, sailor, or aviator as a consequence of their inability to recruit according to its traditional template, as Sir Nicholas Carter’s remarks imply, it is important to ask how changes in recruitment strategies might (re)shape the armed forces understanding of who can serve and how they can do so. We see one example of this potential ‘reshaping’ in the Army’s 2018 This is Belonging campaign. As has been noted elsewhere by Paul Higate and Nivi Manchanda and Jennifer Mathers the campaign is significant for framing a military career through questions such as ‘can you be gay in the Army?’, ‘can you be Muslim in the Army?’ and ‘can you be emotional in the Army?’, representing a significant departure from the images of action and adventure which recruitment campaigns are typically organised around.

Although the implications of the campaign and whether it represents a genuine attempt to diversify who the Army seeks to recruit is debatable, it nevertheless captures how armed forces recruiting is in a state of change. This is reinforced by the fact the campaign proved highly controversial, provoking a backlash from former Army officers and others who argued the campaign represented a ‘softening’ of the Army’s approach and identity and was unlikely to recruit the numbers needed. This so-called ‘softening’ of the Army’s identity has been a perennial theme in debates concerning recruitment since the early 1980’s. The campaign is therefore a marked illustration of the tension between the Army’s masculine identity and its need to appeal to population segments which typically conflict with that identity. As the armed forces continues to struggle to recruit the personnel it needs, both in terms of quantity but also in terms of skills, it is therefore worth thinking about what this ‘crisis’ in recruitment might make possible both in terms of who the armed forces seek to recruit and the types of images through which they market themselves. The example of This is Belonging signals the importance of thinking about this question, especially as we look towards the Army’s new campaign which launches in January. It will be interesting to see if the new campaign builds upon the ‘inclusive’ messaging of its predecessor or reverts back to more traditional messaging.

However, it is equally important to note that the British armed forces are also taking additional steps to respond to their recruitment difficulties beyond adjusting their recruitment messaging, most notably in 2018 lifting the residency requirement for Commonwealth applications (and see Vron Ware’s Military Migrants for a fuller discussion of Commonwealth recruitment. This demonstrates that the armed forces are not confident of their ability to source a sufficient amount of recruits from the UK alone, reiterating how recruitment is in a state of significant change and that the armed forces need to draw on a wider labour market. This matters because as scholars such as Amanda Chisholm have illustrated, the fact that individuals from the global South are motivated to join the British military is not politically neutral but shaped by classed, gendered and raced inequities. Thus, even as British military recruitment campaigns such as This is Belonging seek to produce a more inclusive military identity, it is worth remembering that recruitment continues to be complicit in (re)producing the inequalities which shape an individuals’ predisposition to serve.

Matthew Kearns

Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper, by Helen Parr (Penguin, 2018)

Dr Helen Parr, from Keele University’s School of International Relations, will be visiting Newcastle on Tuesday 11th December to talk about her book Our Boys.  The event will be at Blackwells Bookshop on Percy Street in Newcastle at 6pm.  Our Boys is an excellent book and highly recommended, and if you’re able to come to the event, please join us – all are welcome.

At the core of the book is the story Helen has woven together from multiple sources, about the Paratroop Regiment’s experience on the Falkland Islands in the 1982 war and more specifically the participation and loss of her uncle Dave Parr during the conflict.  Helen brings a historian’s sensibility to the task of telling the story, with her meticulous use of a wide range of sources from official or quasi-official records, through to published memoirs and personal papers, to interviews and conversations with former Paras and their families.  She is insightful about these sources; where there are gaps or half-truths or common misconceptions in the public memory and discourse on the Falklands War, she is able to speak with authority about why it is that some things are well known and some not, and how fuller details about incidents during the war have come to light. What we get in this book is an account that can stand on its own merits as a book about the Parachute Regiment’s experience in the Falklands War, but which can also sit alongside older, sometimes quite well-known, narratives and shed new light on them.  For me, having read most of the first-person military memoirs of the Falklands War, Our Boys provided a really authoritative contextualising of the narratives I know well, by positioning them within a wider framework.  So I learned a great deal by reading it.  The book is a nuanced, readable and insightful narrative.

What is particularly interesting, too, is the framing of this Falklands War account around the men of the Parachute Regiment.  As the books’ title suggests, it’s in part the story of a paratrooper, her uncle Dave Parr.  But because of the efforts Helen has taken to engage directly with others serving in the regiment at the time, it’s also the story of the collective group of men enlisting in the Regiment in the late 1970s.  She explores the patterns that emerge when their backgrounds are considered, and the context for recruitment at that time of national industrial decline and the lack of opportunities for young working class men.   She provides us with details of significance to understanding the Regiment at the time, the importance of particular modes of training, the capabilities in terms of physical robustness and endurance abilities developed in recruits, and features common to the backgrounds of many recruits on enlistment that pushed them to military service and gave them the necessary resilience to cope with its demands.

Our Boys, in Part 3, then turns the focus outwards to consider the aftermaths of the conflict, for the soldiers themselves, for their families, for wider social understanding of military participation, and ultimately for the nation state.  As Helen puts it, ‘The hours of intense combat on the Falklands were in some ways the crucible into which 1970s British life was poured and came out altered’ (p.293).  Through this book, Helen makes the connections crystal clear, between individual deaths through armed conflict, and the national narratives that try to account for these losses.

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed reading this book.  More information on Our Boys can be found here.

Rachel Woodward

On the links between sociology and the armed forces

I’ve been re-reading a bit of Squaddies recently, John Hockey’s ethnography of a British Army infantry unit.  It was first published in 1986, and is now something of a classic of military sociology.  It drew on John’s PhD fieldwork which involved a period of time living and working with a group of soldiers, something John was well qualified to do.  It’s still an essential reference for understanding military participation (check out the citations in Google Scholar), and an absorbing and informative account.  I was re-reading it having just reviewed a paper which was quoting it, and as often happens, I found myself carrying on reading after checking out the point I was after.  Proof, to me, of the enduring value of this book.

Above all else, Squaddies seems to me to provide clear validation for the argument that military forces and the defence community in general have much to gain from sociology and a sociological understanding of military forces.  There’s often a degree of antipathy within military and defence circles to the insights of sociological thinking on military matters.  So I’ve been told many times over the years, in discussions with people working within these circles, that certain arguments are somehow unreliable because of the methodologies used, particularly when the methods concerned sit at the qualitative end of the spectrum.  Or it’s been explained to me that much sociology is insufficiently ‘objective’, reflecting a mis-perception particularly of the more critical military sociological analyses that are out there, which are trying to examine military phenomena with reference to the political contexts in which they sit.

Yet I was struck when reading my Google news feed last week (set to deliver a round-up of news using alert terms like ‘British’ and ‘armed forces’) how the majority of news stories about British military forces are essentially about sociological issues.  Last week’s feed, for example, reported stories on obesity levels among military personnel (so about bodies and embodiment), suicide rates amongst former personnel (so about the sociology of trauma and mental health) and a stream of invective on a far right website in response to a Centre for Army Leadership piece about women’s military participation (so about gender and the structuring of social life).

I’m also frequently reminded – not least by John Hockey’s work – about the contributions to military sociology by academics who have a military background and who have used their thinking and training in social science in their interventions about military sociological phenomena.  John Hockey is a case in point, of course, and he reflects on this a little in his chapter in The Routledge Companion to Military Research Methods, as does David Walker.  I can think of a number of others similarly placed – Lauren Greenwood, Neil Jenkings, Patrick Bury, Ross McGarry, Anthony Forster, Godfrey Maringira, Ryerson Christie, Kevin Spruce, Hannah West – who even if they don’t describe themselves as sociologists, clearly (to me, at any rate) use their military experience to inform their academic social scientific research in ways that seem sociological.

I wonder if the UK is quite distinct in the ways that the defence and academic military research communities engage with each other (or don’t), and whether this explains at least some of the antipathy towards military sociology’s insights?  The North American context is quite different, with the ‘soldier-scholar’ model animating much work behind the IUS-AFS and the journal Armed Forces & Society.  In mainland Europe the practice of social scientists working within defence ministries, evident in the ERGOMAS meetings and the recently revived journal Res Militaris, mean that a very different military institutional view is possible of the benefits of sociological approaches to military issues.  In the UK, it seems that some kinds of social science – behavioural psychology, management studies – are considered useful for the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces.   The work of a few social scientists has had clear utility over time in shaping defence thinking (see for example Tony King’s work on military transformations or Tim Edmunds’ on security sector reform).  But beyond these examples, I often feel that we’re missing a trick here in the UK.

It’s the critical analyses, in particular, that have the most to offer.  Those labouring in the Ministry of Defence to respond to the Government latest anxieties about the armed forces / civil society disconnect, would surely have an easier time if they went through a few back-issues of Critical Military Studies to help with their thinking (even if they disagree with the analysis).  For those faced with unpicking the multiple problems caused by the outsourcing of military tasks and requirements, such as base maintenance or personnel recruitment, something like Swed and Crosbie’s The Sociology of Privatized Security might help.  Concerns about the fine lines between criminal acts and acts legitimated under rules of engagement call for insights on criminology and war.  The list is almost endless; the point is that sociological analyses (including, perhaps even particularly, those most critically engaged with military activities and phenomena) have enormous potential to inform the UK’s military and defence policy and practice.

Above all else, the idea persists with me that most military personnel are actually really good sociologists – and to return to the starting point, I think this is one reason why Squaddies is such a good book.  Military personnel live and work from a relatively young age in an institution, so social structures, organisations, hierarchies and institutional behaviours are thoroughly familiar, and they’re dealing with other people all the time, so identities, positionality, micro-politics and embodiment are routine, daily issues.  Sociology and the armed forces seem to fit together well.


Rachel Woodward

The Future of Military Environmentalism

The other day, I spotted a Tweet by Landmarc (who provide estate management for much of the defence estate), celebrating the success of grassland management on part of the British Army’s training area at Salisbury Plain, in terms of the government’s National Pollinator Strategy:


This got me thinking about some research I did, many years ago now, on the intersections between military land use and environmental protection (see here and here). That work feels very dated now, and seeing Landmarc’s celebration of its habitat management strategies, I’ve been thinking about why that is, and what has changed.

The most obvious change is that it is now really widely recognised that much of the UK defence estate consists of sites with rich and diverse ecosystems and habitats.  The reason for this scale of habitat protection is fairly obvious: military land uses tend to include activities which may be dangerous to those not involved, or may require a certain amount of space and privacy.  Designating land for military purposes generally means that other land uses are either entirely absent (such as intensive agriculture, housing development, significant public infrastructure), or are present but at a modest scale (upland low-intensity sheep farming would be a case in point).  Given that activities such as intensive agriculture, urban development or other types of construction can have hugely negative impacts on environments and habitats, by default because military land uses block these activities, much of the defence estate has a far richer and more diverse range of habitats, flora and fauna than equivalent ground beyond the perimeter wire.  Habitats (and their inhabitants) that may be rare, threatened or otherwise absent elsewhere can thrive on the defence estate.  There has been considerable proactivity around this on the estate.  Conservation Officers (first established in the early 1970s) have long been active on many military installations, and Sanctuary (now up to issue 46 and published by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation) through its long print run tells a story of places where there is some kind of harmony between military land uses and environmental protection as a consequence of land use strategies and practices.  The environmental health of the defence estate is widely recognised now, in ways it probably wasn’t 20 years ago, because defence land management practitioners have been adept at spreading what is by any measure a positive message.

The original research that I did on military environmentalism was done in the late 1990s and the defence and security context was of course quite different then (and this was also a time when the idea of environmental security as a legitimate military concern was barely mentioned).  I’m wondering now whether my original analysis about the ways in which we could understand the defence estate and military environmentalism still holds.  I’m assuming that, for example, reduced personnel numbers, different equipment capabilities and altered training patterns will all have had an effect on the ways military environmentalist discourses and practices are mobilised.  The management regimes will have changed, not least because serving military personnel no longer do much of the defence estate’s regular management: as the above Tweet shows, Landmarc is a key player in defence estate matters now, and I wonder what changes this has brought to land management practices.   I don’t know with precision (because I haven’t asked anyone recently) how these and other defence changes have filtered through into shifts in the organisation and management of training on the UK defence estate.   Neither do I know what this has meant for the habitats concerned.  I suspect that there have been quite significant changes in defence estate management practices, but that very little has changed on the ground – I was up on the Otterburn ranges fairly recently, and apart from some bits of infrastructure, it looks much as it did when I first went up there more than 20 years ago.   Environmental protection continues, in other words.

The flip-side of celebratory comments about the protections afforded to habitats by defence use was always an issue around environmental contamination.  What does the rich environmental heritage of the defence estate hide?  What about the toxic effects of military training – fuel spills, the emissions from weapons, the contamination from heavy vehicles, from military testing?  In other words, what lurks beneath the greenery?  I’m fairly sure that this issue hasn’t disappeared, that although there may be defence sites where remediation for past pollution and contamination has taken place, that there are also many others where the ground is potentially quite toxic.  How would we know, though?  There is little on public record which suggests detailed studies of this (but give me a shout if you know of any).

In thinking about what has changed over the years in terms of military environmental issues, I’m also thinking about the future for these lands.  I won’t go into detail here about the future size of the defence estate, and questions about whether its current size (about 1% of the land area of the UK) can still be justified – that’s a contentious issue, an important one, but for another blog post.  But, if there were to be a move towards the demilitarisation of parts of the rural estate, what issues does that then raise?  David Havlick’s excellent Bombs Away: Militarization, Conservation, and Ecological Restoration is a really useful guide for thinking about this.  In the book, David carefully unpicks the complex and often politically fraught practices around the ecological restoration of former military sites, primarily in the USA.  He reminds us that celebrating the biodiversity of current and former military lands is only part of the story; there is always a politics at play here in these hybrid spaces where ecological processes, scientific practices and political discourses come together in transformative ways.  So let’s celebrate the bees buzzing happily in the grasses of Westdown Camp – but be mindful that this is only part of a much more complex and often quite difficult military environmental story.

Rachel Woodward

Invictus Games: Beyond the ‘Invictus Spirit’

On the 20th October 2018, the Invictus Games will be heading to Sydney, Australia for their fourth tournament. The usual #Invictus Twitter storm is already brewing, and with the appearance of the Games’ new hashtags such as #makeyourmarkdownunder alongside the usual #weareInvictus, I’ve been thinking again about the ‘spirit’ of the games.

According to the Invictus Games Foundation, the word ‘Invictus’ means “‘unconquered’; it embodies the fighting spirit of the wounded, injured and sick service personnel and what these tenacious men and women can achieve, post injury” (see the Invictus Games website here for more info). This is so much of what the Invictus Games is about, this overcoming of injury and trauma in a way that marks them as tenacious warriors. Harriet Gray (2015) has written some interesting stuff on the narratives of redemption at work here;

According to the Invictus Games website, the ‘wounded warriors’ who compete ‘have been tested and challenged, but they have not been overcome. They have proven that they cannot be defeated. They have the willpower to persevere and conquer new heights.’ The injured bodies of these servicemen are thus reinterpreted, and understood not as something which makes servicemen weak, but conversely as something which makes them strong through providing the opportunity for demonstration of their ability to overcome” (pp.13-14).

As Gray tells us, the Invictus Games provide the opportunity for the injured bodies of servicemen and women to be remade, and presented to the public as conquerors of their weakness. The men and women of the armed forces are thus not simply heroes, but warriors, not only because they have fought in wars, but because they have fought to overcome the physical and mental impairments that these wars have inflicted upon them.

But there is something troubling to me about this. Is there a violence at work in remaking the horrors of war as an opportunity to ‘overcome’? What do we lose in our understanding of war and trauma when we display the wounded bodies of servicemen and women in this way? HRH The Duke of Sussex, patron of the Games, said in his rousing speech at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Orlando Games that;

What could explain the remarkable sportsmanship of Mark Urquart in sacrificing gold on the track to push Stephen Simmons into first place? Invictus!

How else could I describe the way I felt seeing Tim Payne, a man I met three years ago to the day, in his hospital bed at Walter Reed, beaming as he wore his gold medal round his neck? Invictus!

What defines the spirit of Denmark’s Jonas Andersen, who loaded the coffin of his friend onto the flight which changed my life in 2008, and then fought through his own dark days to compete in London and Orlando? Invictus!”

He then goes on to say

“You are all Invictus. You are now ambassadors for the spirit of these games. Spread the word. Never stop fighting. And do all you can to lift up everyone around you

(Invictus Games Orlando 2016 closing ceremony – you can read the full transcript here).

There is clearly something very powerful about such calls to action. Harry tells us that we are “all Invictus… Spread the word. Never stop fighting”; thus, we are all implicated in spreading the Invictus spirit. But what does the glorifying of the ‘Invictus spirit’ do for those who cannot or choose not to overcome? This is a question I come back to again and again when thinking about the role of the Invictus Games in shaping how we come to view and understand wounded veterans.

There is of course nothing inherently bad about the Invictus Games, and the work that the Foundation does to help wounded servicemen and women. The recovery from trauma and injury in the military is and should be a central concern of the state, and organisations such as the Invictus Games Foundation clearly have a role to play in this. There is also nothing inherently wrong with, as the Duke of Sussex says, being ‘ambassadors for the spirit of these games’. If the Invictus spirit is characterized by a renewed tenacity for life, a drive to overcome injuries and psychological traumas that might very well have broken you, then how can we critique that? Why would we want to?

And yet, there is something troubling to me about the way that wounded military bodies are displayed through the games, and claimed as national competitors. It seems to me that the lived experiences of wounded veterans are very much sidelined, or even erased in favour of a more positive ‘heroic’ representation. I can’t help but be reminded of Gareth Malone’s 2016 Invictus Choir, a two-part mini-series in which Malone works with a choir made up of physically and psychologically wounded servicemen, women, and veterans towards a performance at the 2016 Orlando Invictus Games. This of course was the first year that mental trauma was incorporated into the representation of wounded servicemen and women in the Games in any real way. In the programme’s two episodes, Malone echoes the ethos of the wider Games by telling choir members that their goal is to “inspire the world with your voices, what you’ve been through, and what you’re doing now” (Invictus Choir, Episode 1). The choir actively seeks to shed light on the emotional and physical trauma of war, but largely as a means of providing a compelling and entertaining story to viewers. Viewers are invited to spectate upon these men and women, revel in their pain, but importantly follow the story to its conclusion in the form of their final performance in Orlando. But what happens after that? The audience are given a sense of closure, a warm fuzzy feeling that everything was alright in the end, but that isn’t the end of the story. And, just because we are afforded the opportunity to watch wounded servicemen and women achieve something remarkable in the face of inconceivable adversity, this does not mean that we should close our eyes to the bigger picture.

Some of the material for this blog post has been taken from my doctoral thesis, which you can access here if you’d like to read more.

Alice Cree





Cree ASJ. (2018) The Hero, The Monster, The Wife: Geographies of Remaking and Reclaiming the Contemporary Military Hero. Ethesis available here. Accessed 18/09/18.

Gray H. (2015) The Trauma Risk Management approach to posttraumatic stress disorder in the British military: masculinity, biopolitics and depoliticisation. Feminist Review. 111(1): 109-123. Available here.

The costs of maintaining a Reservist identity need full recognition

Over the last 4 years or so, a team of us have been doing a piece of research looking at how Reservists manage the task of being both a civilian employee and a Reservist. In the next couple of weeks or so, we will be mailing out to a number of Reserves units a short briefing document on the research, and a copy is also available here.

During the research, we did a large number of interviews with Army Reserve, Royal Naval Reserve, RAF Volunteer Reserve and Royal Marines Reserve participants. One of the really striking things across these interviews was the amount of time and effort that these personnel put into the work of both being a Reservist, and following their civilian career.

It was striking how many Reservists wanted to maintain quite a stark distinction between their identities as military personnel, and their identities as civilian employees. All our interviewees took great pride in their military participation, but sometimes found it hard to convey the detail of what they do, and why they do it, to their civilian colleagues. Efforts to do so were often met with bafflement, scepticism or humour. As a consequence many Reservists were reticent in discussing their military identities and Reserves participation when in the workplace, playing down or even concealing their membership of the Reserves.

This reality of Reservist life is interesting when put in the context of the Future Reserves 2020 plans when they were originally set out. These plans identified the expansion of the Reserves as a means of developing greater civilian awareness of the armed forces and defence. That wasn’t the primary purpose of the plans – but it is there in the documentation. For example, the original White Paper implied that the FR2020 plans might be one of a number of mechanisms that could be used by the then Coalition government to address what it saw as the widening disconnect between the military and civilian worlds. (There’s a lot more to say about civil-military relationships here, not least the history – going back to Options for Change – of political anxieties about this, the many ways in which this changing relationship has been visible or not, and the ways that binary thinking has obscured some more interesting ideas about this relationship – but I’ll save all that for another blog post.) These ideas about the role of the Reserves in developing civilian awareness seemed to contrast quite distinctly with what Reservists themselves told us, when they talked about the work they put into maintaining their identities as Reservists and how this might include silence or reticence about their service when talking with work colleagues.

It seemed to the research team that a more detailed appreciation about this identity work – and we use the word ‘work’ deliberately to reflect Reservists’ serious commitment – was needed by senior policy-makers. It may be the case that the demands of maintaining a Reservist identity are well recognised by senior individuals in the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces. After all, many of these people are themselves Reservists. But we wonder whether policy interventions and strategies on the Reserves reflect that understanding. The idea that you should know your people was one that came back to use, time and again, when we conducted the research interviews and read through the transcripts.

Understanding Reservists as members of the workforce and understanding the work they do, not just in terms of employment but also in terms of identity work, seems to be critical to addressing some of the tensions around Reservists in the workplace, and ultimately to the future sustainability of FR2020.

The ‘Keeping Enough in Reserve’ project was conducted by Rachel Woodward (Newcastle University), Antonia Dawes (University of Bristol), Tim Edmunds (University of Bristol), Paul Higate (University of Bath) and K. Neil Jenkings (Newcastle University.

Rachel Woodward