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Living with the Aftermath: Trauma, Nostalgia and Grief in Post-war Australia.

Living with the Aftermath: Trauma, Nostalgia and Grief in Post-war Australia. By Joy Damousi (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. vii plus 240 pp.).

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.

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 historical recognition, women's role as a nurturer to soldiers, does not, in my mind, advance historical understanding about war and citizenship. Karl Jasper's post-World War II appraisal of the German nation's complicity and guilt in allowing the rise of Hitler and the military aggression of Germany, usefully analyzed concepts of individual and collective guilt. (6) It is too easy for historians of women to celebrate women's role as patriotic supporters of national causes. It is more difficult, and frankly less pleasing work, to consider their role as supporters of war crimes and aggressive militarism. Historians have engaged this difficult question regarding the support German women provided Nazi soldiers during World War II, but the question has, in my opinion unfortunately, received less attention for the post-World War II era, from Damousi, and from historians of U.S. women. (7)

The most important chapter of Damousi's study she titles, "Marriage Wars." This chapter documents the challenges faced by women whose husbands did survive their wartime assignments and returned home, often mentally and physically damaged. One wife confessed, "He was my eldest child, that's the way he was just like a child. He needed help. I hated him." (8) Another wife described the inability of her husband to cope with his "nerves:" "They'd love to see you and they didn't know how to express themselves ... they were thrown in amongst the people and said get on with life. That was it." (9)

The wives whose husbands did not return suffered mentally. Damousi also documents that the wives whose husbands did return often suffered mentally and physically. Despite the fact that Australian Anglicans initiated a marriage counseling movement as early as 1948, specifically to address marital strife that grew out of demobilization, counseling needs and expressing anger and grief did not find a social outlet until after the Vietnam War. Many of Damousi's interviewees suggest that the domestic violence that followed the Vietnam War seemed more aggravated than had been the case in the aftermath of the two earlier wars. One wishes the author would document this change more systematically, but the assertion begs the question: Were the conditions after Vietnam so much worse for war wives that domestic violence pushed them to seek public assistance? Or, had public grieving simply become commercialized and accepted as Damousi suggests?

Joy Damousi's book painfully documents how war's weaponry tears beyond the battlefield into domestic life, wounding not only soldiers, but their families as well. Sadly for contemporary readers, and this reviewer, Damousi's topic is far from academic. I encourage contemporary policy makers as well as students of history to listen to the voices of the wives and widows of Australia's war dead and wounded. They hint at the emotional contours threatening to emerge in the aftermath to our world's current strife.


1. Two important studies readers might consult include Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (New York, 1998); and Annette Becker, Helen McPhail (Translator), War and Faith: The Religious Imagination in France, 1914-1930 (New York, 1998). Both works address the process of public and private grieving.

2. Joy Damousi, Living With the Aftermath: Trauma, Nostalgia and Grief in Post-war Australia (New York, 2001), 193.

3. Damousi, 66-67.

4. Joy Damousi, Women Come Rally: Socialism, Communism and Gender in Australia, 1890-1955 (Oxford, 1994).

5. Perhaps the most surprising information in the book for this American reader is learning that 8,300 Australian troops served in Vietnam: 519 died and 2,348 returned wounded. Damousi, Living With the Aftermath, 49.

6. See Karl Jaspers, E. B. Ashton (Translator), Joseph W. Koterski (Introduction), The Question of German Guilt (New York, 2002 [1946]).

7. Claudia Koonz has most persuasively advanced this argument, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics (New York, 1988). See also, Renate Bridenthal, et als. When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany (New York, 1994).

8. Damousi, 117.

9. Ibid., 134.

Nicole Dombrowski Risser

Towson University
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Author:Risser, Nicole Dombrowski
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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