Building a Gendered ‘Just War’ Narrative: The Iraq-Afghanistan Memorial

By Matt Simmons

Memorials matter. Far from just inert, lifeless features, actively shape the ways in which people experience space, understand the past, and conceptualise the present. Indeed, in many cases, war memorials have been erected in prominent (and often sacred) spaces to enhance nation building and identity. However, they often act to embed political objectives into a “normative social order”, remembering certain events and peoples at the expense of others (Alderman and Dwyer, 2009). Unveiled on the 9th March 2017, the Iraq-Afghanistan Memorial (IAM) stands in testament to UK civilian and military contributions in the Gulf region from 1990-2015, pictured below. The memorial provides a space of remembrance for three major UK military operations; The First Gulf War, The Iraq War, and The War in Afghanistan. Commissioned by the Ministry of Defence, architect Paul Day designed the memorial.

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The Iraq-Afghanistan Memorial. Source: Author’s own.

Conflicts are especially interesting as these events inflict both mental and physical wounds on combatants andare funded by public money. A perception of failure in war often undercuts the authority of prominent political leaders and destroys international legitimacy (Falah et.al 2006). As a result, the Gulf War conflicts must be construed as ‘just’ (Temes, 2003). Considering that these narratives are literally cast in stone, it is vital that we take them to task. Indeed, as part of a strategy which has routinely sought to justify, explain, and legitimise UK involvement in the Middle East, the IAM creates a clear self-other binary where the UK export ‘western’ values to a uncivilised, unstable part of the world. Indeed, the official brochure conveys the conflict as a solely Western endeavour and does not mention the substantial support received by Afghani and Iraqi security forces which were vital to the long term, post-invasion stability phase. Instead, the native citizens are consigned to smiling gratefully whilst being handed aid packages by UK Aid workers, something made more ironic by the amber-red mark given to DFID’s humanitarian work in the Gulf.

Additionally, there is a distinct gender politics to the IAM. It has been argued that although the number of memorials featuring women has increased substantially, they are still not represented well enough. One looking at this memorial would be forgiven for thinking that it was an entirely male-driven affair… This directly underminesthe work done by Roya Mahboob, the founder of a Digital Citizen’s Fund, whosescheme saw the establishment of several educational institutes to develop the business skills of women and girls.Furthermore, the Women’s Defence Units set up by Iraqi nationals have played a crucial role in post-invasion stability, and are active in fighting against the Taliban and Daesh (Cockburn, 2015). There is also a total lack of recognition given to the uniformed British women who fought in the region. Armed Female Engagement Officers played a crucial role in engaging with Afghani and Iraqi communities during the conflict, gathering intelligence and conducting patrols with male soldiers. Finally,through portraying British combatants as solelymale, there is no recognition of the women who gave their lives whilst on reconnaissancemissions, patrol patterns and support operations. Considering that a recent government report has found many womenexperience systematic exclusion and a lack of respect from male peers, the IAM is clearly (re)producing thegendered conditions that many women have to overcome whilst in the Army.

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The UK Aid side of the IAM. Notice the UK AID logo on the boxes being handed to those in need. In the top left of the image you can see two men making decisions, whilst women are depicted as care-givers and bystanders. Source: Author’s own.

Although it is difficult to assess the legacy of the Iraq-Afghanistan Memorial in London, it has divided opinion. There is a concerted effort to forge a narrative of humanitarianism rather than accept the illegality of conflict. This propaganda has clearly influenced the ways in which people experience the memorial. Indeed, David Lenham, a former RAF pilot, argues that the MoD “are trying to make it shiny and rebrand the war…it is about altering our understanding of Iraq, so we look like the good guys”. Participants of my own research felt similar, with one stating that this memorial “celebrated death and destruction”. Encounters like this are troubling as while people are having these conversations and thoughts they are not engaging with the most important purpose of this memorial – to remember those servicemen and women who died in combat. This, perhaps, is the most problematic consequence of the monument: through attempting to rescript the conflict, the Iraq-Afghanistan Memorial pulls our attention away from the things that matter.

However, should we expect the UK government to erect a memorial that recognises the illegality and poor execution of the Gulf conflicts? In short, yes. Monuments should not just make statements about what happened in the past, but force visitors to dwell on the nature of conflict (Hixson, 2000). If we are to prevent the same mistakes from re-occurring, it is vital that memorials facilitate reflection. This is what Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans memorial aimed to achieve. Shunning traditional memorials which have celebrated death in war as being a form of patriotism, Lin’s use of black granite creates a literal and metaphorical mirror, encouraging visitors to remember the conflict and framing remembrance as conciliatory:

“Generations to come will walk before these gleaming walls and, like them, will reflect”

Lin’s memorial has been largely well received despite its deviance away from the traditional model of remembrance. A replica of the original has recently toured the US, escorted under the slogan of “the wall that heals”. It has become a “near-universally treasured piece of public sculpture” (PRI, 2013) and went on to inspire the World Trade Centre Memorial. Monuments such as this successfully remember the lives of the servicemen and women, whilst refusing to glorify conflict itself.

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The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, designed by Maya Lin. Source: worldstrides.com

Clearly, memorials have the ability to produce certain discourses and shape the way we understand the past actions of states. However, this remembrancecan be done in different ways, some better than others. Perhaps Maya Lin’s positionality as an Asian-American women allowed her to produce a monument which facilitated reflection as opposed to glorification. Either way, I wishto see memorials in future which do more to encourage us to learn from the mistakes of the past, rather than celebrate them.

Bibliography 

Alderman, D. Dwyer, O. (2009) Memorials and Monuments.in. Thrift, N. Kitchin, R. (eds.). The International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. New York: Elsevier, pp. 51-58.

Cockburn, P. (2015) ‘War with ISIS, Meet the Kurdish women’s militia fighting for their families west of the Syrian town of Ras al-ayn’. The Independent, 25thMay. [Online] Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/war-with-isis-meet-the-kurdish-womens-militia-fighting-for-their-families-west-of-the-syrian-town-of-10274956.html(Accessed on: 14th August 2017).

Falah, G. Flint, C. Mamadouh, V. (2006) ‘Just war and extraterritoriality: The Popular Geopolitics of the United States’ War on Iraq as Reflected in the Newspapers of the Arab World’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 96(1), pp. 142-164.

Hixson, W. (2000) Historical Memory and Representations of the Vietnam War. New York: Garland.

Public Radio International (2013) ‘Here’s how a controversial work of art healed America after Vietnam’ [Online]. Available at: https://www.pri.org/stories/2013-10-06/heres-how-controversial-work-art-healed-america-after-vietnam(Accessed on: 13thJuly 2017)

Temes, P. (2003) The Just War: An American Reflection on the Morality of War in Our Times. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.


Matt is a PhD student based at Royal Holloway, University of London. Having completed both his undergraduate degree in Geography, and Masters’ in Geopolitics and Security, he is currently exploring how video games can be used to effect meaningful social and politicalchange. His main research interest is in popular geopolitics, however he is also curious as to how dominantnarratives can be disrupted by non-state actors. You can follow Matt on Twitter.

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