June Special Issue: The Human Bodies of WWII, Beyond the Battlefield

Brandy Schillace Interviews Dr. Hannah Simpson and Dr. Megan Girdwoood, editors of the June Special Issue

The destructive action of World War II extended far beyond the traditional battlefield arena, the more familiar trench-and-no-man’s-land zones that had typified World War I. This special issue investigates the impact of medical crisis and treatment as it impacted on non-combatant bodies: civilian women, evacuated children, interned prisoners, spies and double agents, and, in the long aftermath of the war, medial patients affected by chronic physical injury, mental trauma, and changes to national healthcare provision and policy. In drawing attention to these multiple sites of non-battlefield suffering and medical practice, this issue seeks to disrupt what we have termed here the ‘single-body narrative’ of the war’s impact: the subsuming of all particularities of various bodily wartime experiences into the figure of the white male military body. The articles in this issue foreground the specificities of various lived bodily experiences of the war, rather than attempting to fuse them into any more easily assimilated but deceptive discrete narrative of ‘single-body’ suffering. In this podcast with the co-editors, Hannah Simpson and Megan Girdwood, we discuss the ways in which modern pandemics (like Coronavirus) also play out well beyond the event and affects many who are not technically “on the front lines.

Listen to the interview on Soundcloud.

Read the editorial here.

Dr Hannah Simpson is a postdoctoral scholar at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, specialising in modern and contemporary theatre and performance. Dr Megan Girdwood is an Early Career Fellow in English at the University of Edinburgh, working on modernist literature and dance.



BRANDY SCHILLACE: Hello, and welcome back to the Medical Humanities Podcast. Today, I am speaking with Dr Hannah Simpson and Dr Megan Girdwood about the special issue that’s going to be published in June, The Human Bodies of World War II: Beyond the Battlefield, which investigates the impact of medical crisis and treatment on noncombatant bodies beyond the battlefield during, in, and in the long aftermath of World War II.

Dr Hannah Simpson is a postdoctoral scholar at St. Anne’s College University of Oxford, specializing in modern and contemporary theatre and performance. And Dr. Megan Girdwood is an early career fellow in English at the University of Edinburgh, working on modernist literature and dance. I’m so happy to have you both here with me today.

HANNAH SIMPSON: Hello, Brandy.

MEGAN GIRDWOOD: Thank you for having us.

BRANDY: I think that we’ll start off just by having you say a bit more about yourselves in general, and then I’d love for us to talk a bit more about the June podcast. So, Hannah, why don’t we start with you.

HANNAH: OK. So, my initial monograph I worked on for my PhD thesis, which was the work I was doing at the time we conceived this conference, and the special issue is on Samuel Beckett’s work, and specifically, the representation of physical pain and suffering. And I look at his plays as very specifically post-war plays, plays that are influenced by this long period of witnessing really widespread mass pain, but also examples of very close, localized suffering.


HANNAH: And so, that was the background for the thinking about this conference that led to the special issue, was that idea of, OK, you’ve got war time and you’ve got the post-war moment. What does it?

BRANDY: That’s great. And I think that’s actually, I wanna come back to this idea of pain in just a minute. Megan, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your own work and how you arrived at this place.

MEGAN: Yes, absolutely. So, like Hannah, I quite recently finished my PhD, and I’m now an early career researcher at the University of Edinburgh. And I’m also working on modernist literature and performance, looking specifically, as you said at the question of dance. And this really, I think, pertains to issues around embodiment. I like to think about how (indecipherable) kind of attempted to translate bodily arts like dance into language and also to think about how we, as kind of interpreters and spectators, attempt to decipher and decode bodily performance. And my work kind of covers the late 19th and early 20th century, but the monograph I’m currently working on does go up to Samuel Beckett. So, that’s interest I share with Hannah. And I think the kind of very start to minimalist gestures and very particular movement vocabularies that artists like Beckett are developing are quite keenly attuned, as Hannah said, to questions of pain and suffering and embodiment. So, that’s the kind of backbone to which I came to the kind of questions that are at the heart of this issue.

BRANDY: Mmhmm. And I’m actually going to ask you to articulate those questions in just a moment. I wanted to say a few words, though, about I know when you conceived of this topic, and after they were submitted and everything, long before we expected to have the coronavirus crisis, which we’re all facing at the moment. But in some ways, there are interesting parallels or overlaps, especially in terms of embodiment, suffering, this concept of before and after and continuity of suffering, that I think your special issue actually does have some pertinence to the present moment. So, maybe you could tell us a bit more about the questions that are at the heart of this issue and how you see them still affecting us today.

HANNAH: Mm. I mean, certainly the issue that has struck me most forcibly at the moment that seems relevant is the fact that we were interested in looking at how these forms of physical and mental injury during the war are not contained in any neat battlefield location or moment.

BRANDY: Mmhmm.

HANNAH: They spread throughout the entire globe and certainly disrupt any of these boundaries that we might want to think about us here is the dangerous location, here is the battlefield, and here is the area of safety.


HANNAH: And that, you know, this is a war of chemical warfare and air bombardments. There is no safe space.


HANNAH: A lot of the articles look at as well. There’s also no sudden moment of safety, at which point we can definitively say, “OK, the war is over, and the suffering and the problems occasioned by the war are also over.” And sitting here, you know, in a pandemic of this incredibly flexible timeline that we’re looking out over the next couple of months, those have been the moments that seemed to speak really pertinently from the issue to me right now.

BRANDY: Yes. Yes. Megan?

MEGAN: Yeah. I mean, I absolutely agree with what Hannah said. And I suppose one of the things that struck me is that we’re kind of living in this state of suspension and kind of an odd sense of our temporality, which really, I think is something that resonates with Laura Salisbury’s article on the temporalities of waiting that really characterized the Second World War. And I’m also, I guess, struck by the fact that we’re newly attuned really to one another’s bodies and to the kind of distances and uncomfortable proximities between us, which I think echoes what Hannah said about the kind of contained nature of bodily experience during the Second World War. And equally, Roberta Bivins’s comment on the NHS, which kind of closes the special issue, complicates the narrative of the National Health Service as a kind of postwar reward for British citizens. And I’m just really interested in how we see some of these dialogues occurring around the National Health Service and kind of global health services at the moment, the kind of rhetoric that’s being used to kind of define the role of our key workers. So, yeah, I’m hopeful that the articles and the issue more generally do speak to our present moment in interesting ways.

BRANDY: Yes, I agree. And of course, I am in the United States, and we have managed to handle this worse than anyone else, I think, so far in terms of the response to the virus.

But one thing that’s come out of this recently—and I don’t think this is just rhetoric in the United States; I think I’ve seen it in the UK as well—is this reference to health workers as though they are wartime combatants when they are, in fact, non-combatant bodies, much like you are speaking about, and what that means in terms of our expectation of sacrifice. And I wonder, particularly in your focus on non-combatant bodies, what that might say in the larger context.

HANNAH: Yes, and I mean, to refer back to, to refer to Bivins’s article that Megan mentioned, her focus on the NHS being constructed temporally and very deliberately as this site of continued patriotic labor. You know, this is a way, yes, it’s a reward for your wartime service, but it’s also a way to continue that wartime service. It’s a very deliberate construction of that idea of the NHS. But then to go at a slightly different track, Letitia Johnson’s article, which looks at a really sort of under-researched area, she’s looking at the interned Japanese-Canadian citizens in Canada during the war. And not just the lack of healthcare that’s available within these internment camps, but also the Japanese-Canadian medical professionals who were interned and who struck this really interesting balance between adaptation and resistance by continuing their medical practice as they’re interned and to develop that into this conversation of healthcare provision as being, yes, an expression of political power, who get access to healthcare; who’s given access to healthcare, but also was an expression of political ideals: Who do you provide to and when? When do you give your service, and how you contextualize that as service or a form of resistance, in fact.

BRANDY: Yes, especially, I mean, and I know that prisoners, people who are actually incarcerated, not just in internment camps, which unfortunately we do presently have in the United States with refugees in them, but also prisons as a state, in a similar kind of situation. Megan?

MEGAN: Yeah, and I mean, just to kind of build on what Hannah was saying, I think we do also see this kind of rhetoric seeping, too, into the kind of treatment of victims of coronavirus and survivors as well, you know, with sufferers being characterized either as fighters or as non-combatants or as kind of passive. Which is, I guess, one of the other risks of this kind of rhetoric taking hold, is that it kind of characterizes a medical struggle in ways that reflect kind of wartime dialogues. And it can become politically expedient to frame these kind of medical crises as patriotic struggles. But it’s the way that these kind of gloss over existing political fractures that are quite concerning. And I suppose we haven’t really seen the kind of repercussions of that yet because it’s, as I said, we’re existing in this state of perpetual suspension. But it is worrying, I think, the way that we see the ambiguities around healthcare provision kind of being worked through with kind of uncertainties about, you know, the treatment of the very elderly, people with underlying health concerns.

You know, here in Scotland, for instance, it’s, I think at the moment, estimated around one in four deaths have been in care homes. So, there’s this kind of risk that the scrutiny of government policies in times of healthcare crises might be somehow seen as unpatriotic. So, those are the kinds of issues, I guess, that are raised in very different ways in our special issue pertaining to the scope of the Second World War. So, yeah.

BRANDY: I think that’s really fascinating also in terms of acceptable sacrifice, because the moment you speak to these issues in terms of patriotic service, then the sacrifices somehow become patriotic sacrifices as well. And I can think of lots of places in your special issue where that kind of comes up, sometimes not directly, but the concept that this suffering is worthwhile or that this pain is for something, is partly steeped in that rhetoric, don’t you think?

HANNAH: Mm. Absolutely. And I mean, I think to speak to what Megan is saying there, the fact that we still don’t have another easily accessible discourse for this kind of encountering of suffering, it still has to get spoken through the terminology of the fighter or the survivor. And that was, you know, it was very much at the heart of the collection of articles in the special issue and that we bring up in the introduction, this idea that so often, not just the discourse, but actually the research that gets carried out is so focused on that male military body, and quite often, the white male military body. That’s how we understand violence and suffering to have taken place. And of course, we know logically that that is not the case in any conflict situation, let alone in a global conflict. But it’s so engrained in our way of thinking and speaking about any form of mass suffering that we are still coming back to that discourse; it’s still the only way that we can make sense of it.

And it was one of the challenges of the issue, one of the challenges, but I think also one of the really exciting challenges was to try and introduce a framework for talking about this kind of mass suffering that did justice to the scope, that didn’t try and subsume it into one neat narrative, but that allowed you to get a grip on both individual and more global cases without it becoming an easy, single body narrative.

BRANDY: Mm. Interesting. Interesting, Megan?

MEGAN: Yeah. I mean, I think that is one of the key aims of the issue, is to disrupt this single body narrative of war, which tends to kind of subsume all experience into one figure. And I suppose we’re also working with other kinds of emblematic figures in the issue: so, figures like the evacuee, the spy, the interned prisoner, these are all figures with a kind of symbolic resonance as well that’ve had their histories co-opted culturally in certain ways. I think the articles through their quite diverse kind of critical methodologies have provided new ways of looking at these kinds of wartime experiences. So, even thinking sort of specifically of Jonathan Taylor’s article on evacuated children’s welfare services, he kind of really probes into the received wisdoms about the postwar consensus and the argument that the kind of visibility of impoverished urban evacuees led to unprecedented social reform. And I think the kind of work that that article’s doing challenges particular ways of looking at these kind of symbolic or nostalgic figures. So, I’d absolutely agree that the importance of this intervention lies around looking at the kind of broader range of bodily experience and narrative.

BRANDY: And of course, for myself, this is Medical Humanities, and to me, the value is also in that breath: that there are no singular reasons for anything. There’s no way that we’ll be able to look back on this pandemic and find the singular cause. I know people are looking for it now, but, you know, of course, our present pandemic is brought on by everything from environmental change to systematic racism, at least in its pervasiveness. And I think that personally, the breath that you’re taking to the special issue is part of its strength and what made it, in my view, a Medical Humanities special issue. Because I think in some ways it’s very historical. But it’s not just history of medicine, because I think you’re engaging on these multiple levels with the human at the center of these problems and engaging with them through multiple means of embodied experience and also embodied performance, which is really a strength of the issue.

Again, this is the special issue for June at Medical Humanities called The Human Bodies of World War II: Beyond the Battlefield. And it is looking at the impact of medical crisis in a broad context after, and as well as during, but also after World War II. So, I’m really pleased to have had you both on, and I know we’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything you would like to sort of sum up, say finally to our listeners here today?

HANNAH: I would just quite like to draw attention to Emily Mayhew’s commentary, which is at the end of the issue, which again, does a wonderful job of summing up some of the issues there, but is also speaking really broadly to the value of Medical Humanities at this moment of what it means to have a multi-disciplinary but incredibly detailed resource for analyzing issues of medical, physical, and mental injury as a way of bringing new resources to not just historical research, but to our contemporary practice. And, you know, I think even if World War II is not your special interest, it’s a piece of writing that really speaks to the broader heart of what it is we’re trying to do within the Medical Humanities.

BRANDY: And actually, I think World War II at the moment being itself something that affected every country. I mean, it was its own pan-critical situation that happened and possibly, in some ways, the closest thing we can compare our present crisis to. So, actually a really, really relevant time for this special issue. Megan, anything that you’d like to share with us before we head out?

MEGAN: Yeah. I just echo what Hannah said. And I do want to kind of try and harness the issue broadly to present movement. But I would just say that I hope readers kind of find the diversity of disciplinary perspectives on show kind of interesting and even sort of provoking in terms of the current political climate. And I guess, yeah, just to suggest that the diversity of all the experiences that we’re examining in this issue hopefully resonate with readers from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds.

BRANDY: So do I, and I think that it will. I’ve been increasingly impressed with the breadth of the types of articles we’ve seen at Medical Humanities in general, and this special issue is just one more excellent example. Once again, thank you so much. This is Dr Hannah Simpson and Dr Megan Girdwood. And this is the Medical Humanities Podcast. Thank you for joining us in the conversation.

HANNAH: Thank you.

MEGAN: Thank you.

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