This one-day conference brought together a wide variety of methodologies – from ethnography to quantitative analysis – and diverse disciplinary perspectives in a critical examination of the perceived ‘uniformity’ of national armed forces.
Prof. Mark Philip (University of Warwick) chaired the first panel, ‘Italians and Ethnic Italians in the Italian and Allied Armed Forces’. Though papers dealt principally with specific case studies from World War WII, the emergence of the recurrent themes of exclusion, inclusion and belonging and their clear contemporary relevance sparked historical consideration of the role played by military forces in both nation-building and a sense of personal identity, particularly for those involved in combat. Dr. João Fábio Berthona (State University of Maringá) focused on the Legione Parini, highlighting the importance of this neglected element of Italian history in understanding the significance of Fascism amongst Italian emigrants, and constructions of Italian national identity today. Dr. Matteo Pretelli’s (Warwick) overview of the experience of Allied soldiers of Italian descent and the sense of gratitude reported towards adopted homelands resonated with current mediated representations of (im)migration, emphasising the validity of studies in this field. Dr. Francesco Fusi (University of Pisa) balanced qualitative analysis with statistical data, providing an additional dimension to the portrait of Italian-Allied soldiers and marking the study of military experience as a thought-provoking intersection between state structures and individual lives; in the subsequent discussion, Prof. Christopher Duggan (University of Reading) brought together the questions raised, inviting further contemplation of Italy the nation as an ‘organic body’.
Dr. Jennifer Burns (Warwick) chaired the second panel, centered around the experience of ethnic minorities in UK armed forces from World War II to the present. Dr. Wendy Ugolini (University of Edinburgh) offered a stimulating insight into the conflict between family and societal roles represented by the ‘forgotten ethnicities’ in armies, with a case study of British-Italian soldiers. Dr. Simona Tobia’s (University of Reading) examination of the role of enemy aliens in British Human Intelligence brought into sharp relief the practical mechanisms of identifications of nationality in quotidian individual experience. Prof. David Killingray’s (Goldsmiths) study, ‘Black voices on Britain’s Two World Wars’, as the concluding paper, considered war not only as a military phenomenon, encouraging reflection of its influence on wider civil politics, in a multiplicity of contexts. Prof. Bruce Collins’ (Sheffield Hallam University) closing remarks, and reminder of the heterogeneity of the groups scaling up from patrols, to platoons, regiments, divisions, to form a symbolically homogenous ‘army’, exemplified the contradictions between personal experiences and the “binary divides” recurring in the day’s debates; individual/national, family/society, civil/military, inclusion/exclusion.
The tenth anniversary of July 7th terrorist attacks on London fell a week after the conference. At a memorial service commemorating the event, survivor Emma Craig commented poignantly, ‘it may not have broken London, but it did break some of us’. The stark contrast of national memorialization processes, and the capacity for tragic events to become reworked into national legend, with the devastating impact of those same events on personal life trajectories, provides a timely and sobering verification of the validity and necessity of perspectives which frame national history and broader rhetoric of the ‘nation’ in relation to individual narratives; given the interaction with the notion of “nation” – be it practical or emotional – implicit in processes of international migration, this seems a particularly relevant concern for migration studies.