A short reflection on men, women and war

Last night we watched Journey’s End, the film production of the play written in 1928 by R.C. Sherriff. It is about group of British soldiers awaiting their fate in an Aisne dugout during the end of World War I. I hadn’t seen it before but I remember my son studying it at school as did my husband.  Everyone feels horror at the catastrophic loss of life in this war but it stirs something else in me as well. A mixture of anger and impotence. War is very male. There were no women in this film. The lack of women fighting and being killed can somehow make it hard for a woman to criticize war. This isn’t so much a criticism, as a reflection. To record my thoughts and feelings when I see scenes of war on the news or in a film. I don’t want to accept it as part of human life, to be impervious to feeling outrage at what horrors humans (men) inflict on others. No doubt it was shown because of it being the first anniversary of Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, yet another destructive war about land and who owns it, never mind the people.

I said to my husband this morning that I didn’t understand  why war was and remains such an integral part of our world. His first response was that it was human nature. Is it? If so, I replied, it is part of male human nature perhaps but I don’t think it is part of women’s. Of course women take part in acts of inhumanity in war and out of it, but war and endemic violence has really always been a male domain.  As women we are included as part of a ‘nation’ or ‘religion’ or ‘tribe’ that may defend or attack but generally we are not in positions of power and didn’t choose war. Sometimes we are told that men are fighting on our behalf.  Most of the time women look on in horror as their sons and husbands are killed and they and their children are caught up in the violence and impact of war.

 My thoughts this morning went to Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938) in which she replies to three requests for a guinea: one to help preserve peace, one to further women’s education, and the last to encourage employment for professional women. She links all three and asks

“What sort of education will teach the young to hate war?”

“For we have to ask ourselves, here and now, do we want to joining that procession or don’t we? Where is it leading us, the procession of educated men?”

And she concludes,

“Our country”, she will say “throughout the greater part of its history has treated me as a slave; it has denied me education or any share in possessions”. “For”, the outsider will say, “in fact as a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”

I am familiar with this concept of women being outsiders from my work on organisational cultures.  It often seems that we women are travellers in a male world.

Today with our Western penchant for safe spaces and claims that language can constitute violence, war is still part of our public discourse. It is still a big industry. Should we send fighter planes to Ukraine? We manufacture arms for profit and export them. We build nuclear weapons. War we are told is necessary sometimes to protect and defend our way of life, which seems an acceptable rationale. It is easier to justify war when there are potential totalitarian depots like Hitler, Putin perhaps even Xi Jinping, for whom human life is of little value.  These evil individuals are responsible for many atrocities. But it takes more than one man to take a nation to war. When I look at the rows of men standing around modern day leaders I am at one with Virginia Woolf. These men do not represent me, they don’t speak for me.

So that is what I wanted to write. That as a woman in this world I often feel an outsider, especially when looking at war and its pointless violence. It makes me angry but also sad.