BOOKS : Dressed to drill

DISMEMBERING THE MALE: Men's Bodies, Britain and the Great War by Joanna Bourke, Reaktion Books pounds 19.95
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The Independent Culture
"AFTER Mons ... my friend saw men face each other and cry, the reason for which no one can thoroughly understand." Joanna Bourke's study Dismembering the Male faces a double wall of incomprehension: not only a book about the Great War, but one that centres on the male body - a subject that began to be the subject of as much propaganda as the war itself.

Between 1914 and 1918, the male body underwent an increasingly intrusive regime of surveillance and regulation. The lasting effects of this time range from the establishment of institutes of psychology and giant leaps in orthopaedic surgery to licensing laws and the sanitisation of funerals. A number of cultural histories, such as Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, have brought the war into focus through a certain class ethos - a war of poetry, rugger and House honour. Bourke draws instead on more popular male culture - pubs and sports, Scout groups, body-building and the Lads' Drill Association. The loss of a great national innocence is here substituted by more personal shocks and day-to-day embarrassments: "One of my mates Said to me. Casey have you ever dipped your wick, what do you mean, I ain't got no wick to dip, when the laughter had subsided, they put it more blunty ... " [sic]

Bourke quotes extensively from diaries and oral sources, and makes use of photos and cartoons. Her material is organised around a number of themes: mutilation, disability, malingering, inspection, male bonding and sexuality, the corpse. The real men themselves stumble uncertainly through all these new drills - the pictures show them awkwardly naked awaiting physical inspection, or posing limbless and smartly-suited for a group photo.

The layers of official rhetoric and debate Bourke uncovers are so riven by ironies that they constitute their own infernal comedy. The changing view of shell shock provides an intriguing example. As it was initially interpreted as a haemorrhaging within the brain, sufferers received the honourable status of being wounded. When the diagnosis shifted towards that of a nervous paralysis, one traumatised, mute soldier was strapped down and electric shocks applied to his neck and throat with increasing voltage for two and a half hours until he spoke. Shell-shocked officers were felt to have cracked under an unendurable strain, and given financial compensation for their suffering; the Chinese and Irish were more often suspected of being weak-willed malingerers.

Under the pressure of war, the language of truth and beauty that had once been used of the male body was reduced to one of basic instrumentality. Medical inspection revealed a startling incidence of what the military termed "defective chest measurements", while eugenecists such as the bizarre Caleb Williams Saleeby lamented that the "brave, the vigorous and the healthy" were sent to the front, leaving a load of syphilitics and tramps to perpetuate the British race.

Even at an emotional level, individuals were dominated by a crude language of efficiency - a "predisposition to emotivity", according to one war psychologist, became a "pronounced functional disability" - and units enlisting from the same home town would be broken up, as a single death might plunge them all into grief. Yet as fighting men struggled to maintain the sensibilities of the real world - soldiers would cradle dying comrades in their arms and give them a mother's kiss - they were left to make sense of the new world dictated by the war in their own way: one spoke of going over the top "together as we had gone to Sunday school, hand in hand".

The grand irony exposed by the book is the public belief that the army could mould a "perfect human form in health and strength". This phantom body hovers over the fields of dismembered and putrid corpses like the angel of Mons, or the missing body of Lord Kitchener which haunted post- war remembrance. It is as if the bad conscience of society turned the body against itself with such violence: in a striking chapter on self-

mutilation we read of men passing dirty needles through their joints, drinking petrol, rubbing horse dung into their gums to cause ulcerations or making pacts to shoot each other's hands and legs.

Bewilderment and incomprehension has led to a mythologisation of the war as something impossibly removed from our experience. At the time, people could find no adequate explanation of the war, because the way it was described to them - in the language of Christianity and heroism mixed with the brutal technology of carnage - no longer made sense. It is these contradictions and delusions in the representation of the war, and the warrior's body, that Bourke tries to bring to light. Many of the attitudes explored here - towards productivity, race, bodily perfection - still operate today and are recognisable in responses to contemporary wars: for instance, the military's difficulty in responding to "Gulf War syndrome"; or the way limbless soldiers were paraded in rhetoric but tucked away out of sight at the Falklands memorial service.

The book lacks any real conclusion - a disappointment, but perhaps inevitable. To draw all the threads of enquiry into a coherent vision would require social analysis on an epic scale. However, these brief but cogent insights into wartime experience counter the "unspeakable" with a real drama of bodies caught in a horrific national crisis.