- Living with the Aftermath: Trauma, Nostalgia and Grief in Post-war Australia
What if we could use numbers to measure emotional devastation the same way we use them to measure war fatalities and wartime wounded? What, that is new, would those numbers reveal to us about the toll war has taken on human hearts and minds over the course of the twentieth century? Joy Damousi’s most recent book, Living with the Aftermath, documents and de-shrouds the history of emotional devastation created by three twentieth century wars fought by Australians. She argues that most historians have neglected the history of grief because it resists empirical analysis.1 To fill this historical lacuna, Damousi interviewed over fifty wives and widows of Australian servicemen who participated in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, to understand their post-war experience of trauma, nostalgia and grief. [End Page 517]
Through recording the voices of women who lost husbands in these wars, or who greeted emotionally and physically scarred survivors, Damousi achieves a noteworthy accomplishment. She shows that through “forbearance of absence and emotional support of their men” Australian women have made a significant, but unacknowledged, contribution to these wars. Her interviewees also testify that the violence of war, sadly, does not end with the return to peace for those living closest to former combatants.2 Damousi’s work adds to an emerging body of historical work on war widows and wives of demobilized combatants to enlarge the recorded body of women’s memory and experience. However, her book makes few analytical or methodological innovations and draws inspiration more from the field of psychology than history. Psychology more than history has addressed the issue of grief and trauma regarding soldiers as well as civilians. How historians might best draw upon the work of psychologists presents certain methodological and conceptual problems that Damousi never explicitly addresses. Instead her work employs the language and findings of psychologists’ grief and trauma studies without historicizing those findings and terms. One case of the loose application of psychological concepts occurs when she discusses the function of nostalgia and uses definitions of the concept advanced in Sigmund Freud’s 1917 study, Mourning and Melancholia.3 She argues, through Freud’s concept, that women who lost their husbands sustain themselves through melancholic nostalgia, pining for a different past. Perhaps this is so, but have psychologists upheld Freud’s early century theories or have researchers modified in part or in whole Freud’s work on melancholia? Readers might be helped by a brief discussion of the advantages and limitations of applying concepts and terms from psychology that tend to universalize rather than historicize emotions.
An important assertion by Damousi is that wives of soldiers comfort and support their husbands.4 When soldiers participate in “just” wars, women support men and fulfill a patriotic duty. But how should historians evaluate women’s supportive role when soldiers commit atrocities in wartime or fight in wars deemed “unjust” by history? Damousi skirts this issue. She interviews several wives who expressed doubt about Australia’s mission in the three wars, but she never situates her subjects in relationship to any politics separate from their identity as war widows or veterans’ wives. If women, particularly wives of Vietnam combatants, sustained their men in war’s mission, are they not also complicit in perpetrating violence against others? Until Vietnam, the Australian armed services relied on voluntary enlistment. Men joined the services out of patriotism or to seek adventure. Clearly, voluntary enlistment and women’s support of volunteerism should be distinguished from forced conscription. Only during the Vietnam War did the Australian government turn to conscription.5 Soldiers and wives had little choice but to support each other and the mission. Still, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with a war’s mission, historians as well as women should be clear about the full range of consequences of the extension of their emotional support to soldiers and the military. Romanticizing, for the purpose of...