In early May, I was invited to participate in the symposium “The Art of Misdirection,” discussing the exhibition “Present Continuous” of Berlin-based Israeli video artist Omer Fast at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK. Many of the works exhibited here tackled issues relevant for my project on war experience, discussing the struggles of homecoming and reintegration, but also moral implications of warfare, and guilt.
As the Guardian‘s review of the exhibition states, Fast’s works warn us over and over “that the world is not to be trusted.” Films like his 5000 Feet is the Best (based on Fast’s interview with a US Predator drone pilot) subvert genre conventions: they suggest ‘authenticity’ and ‘truth’ in their gestures toward the documentary mode but insert orator’s tangents and flashbacks, time loops, and obviously veer into fiction at times, making the observer wonder if the interviewees and/or the filmmaker are lying to us, and why. It didn’t help here that I recognized the actor representing the drone pilot, Denis O’Hare, from the TV series True Blood, where he played the vampire Russell Edgington, a particularly untrustworthy character.
In A Tank Translated, the crew of an Israeli tank share their experience about fighting in the conflict with Palestine. Lighting, the positioning of the interviewees, the sequence of questions and answers, all suggest an oral history documentary, until the English subtitles subtly begin to take on a life of their own: words disappear or change, often altering or even contradicting the meaning of what was just said.
I was fascinated and confused by this blurring of genres. My researcher self longed for the documentary mode, to be able to trust the films as sources (as far as oral history can be trusted as a historical source in the first place), and take home more information on how war experience can be narrated. Yet, I also enjoyed how the films played with the viewer, and how their rejection of genre conventions visualized not only possible renditions of traumatic war experience, but also hinted at a veteran’s struggle to talk to a stranger about his experience, the decision on whether or not to be truthful, and what repercussions one’s personal tale might have―on one’s reputation, one’s sense of self, or on the public imagination and memory of that particular conflict.
The Symposium’s contributions marked a truly trans-disciplinary approach to Fast’s work. While I contextualized it with my take of milblogs as a form of ceremonial storytelling, other scholars approached it via historical perspectives on visual artists as military spies, via trauma studies in literary theory, via critical observations on militarization in urban studies, or historians’ efforts to protect cultural heritage sites in conflict zones.
Among its services, Dresden’s state and university library SLUB offers the opportunity to republish older articles and essays in open access format. After permission was secured from the original publishers, SLUB services uploaded PDF files of most of my early publications on Saxony’s document server QUCOSA. I have updated my publications page with links to these PDFs today. I am glad that a colleague reminded me of this option to thus increase the international visibility and accessibility of my work.
A few permissions still need to be acquired, and most of my more recent works are still subject to a one-year protection period. Links to these texts fill hopefully follow in the coming months.
Given its strengths and weaknesses, I am very happy with this opportunity. QUCOSA does not promote the texts, I still rely on the original publisher’s and my own PR efforts. However, I am not subject to a strict one-on-one share system and the texts are not hidden behind a paywall.
A few days ago, I attended this year’s meeting of historians in the GAAS in Tutzing at Lake Starnberg, southwest of Munich. The meeting’s central theme was “Auto/Biographies in American History,” which gave me an opportunity to look at milblogs from a perspective of autobiographical writing.
I had worked through a number of books on Anglo Saxon war diaries and memoirs early last year, among them Samuel Hynes’s The Soldier’s Tale. I enjoyed the way Hynes discusses various war narratives’ medium and genre specifics; he develops a fascinating overview of how personal war narratives interrelate with other genres, such as historiography, travel writing, and autobiography. His observations on commonalities and differences between these text types and personal war narratives make Hynes’s work fruitful material for teaching: It explicitly invites students to engage in source criticism, e.g., by addressing that, while both travel writing and war narratives have a ‘touristic’ perspective in that they discuss foreign and exotic places and peoples, war narratives depict the radical cognitive gap between civilian and war experience, focusing on the battlefield as an “anti-landscape,” and, thus, revealing that war “is not a place we could travel to” (7-8).
However, Hynes’s approach seems too narrow to do justice to the various forms of personal war narratives. He argues that war narratives “are by their nature retrospective. To perceive the changes that war has made in a man requires the passage of time and the establishment of distance from the remembered self” (4). In this and similar statements, Hynes favors the memoir over the diary or the letter as a source on personal war experience, positing that a soldier-author does not have time to reflect on war experience during the war itself and, more importantly, that it needs a post-war self to bring memories in order and create a coherent narrative of one’s war.
I’ve found this emphasis on an author’s temporal distance to the actual experience of war to be problematic and used my presentation at Tutzing to discuss how milblogs, especially their technological specifics and the corresponding cultural practices of public discourse between bloggers and audience, invite and nurture dialog among soldiers and civilians and, thus, facilitate reflection on the impact of war on the self even during deployment. According to Hynes, war narratives―being a form of conversion literature―have autobiographic elements but, unlike autobiographies, they do not depict “continuous lives” and focus on war as an interruption. Veteran (memoir) authors look back on their old war selves as strangers: “For everyone except career soldiers, military service is a kind of exile from one’s own real life, a dislocation of the familiar that the mind preserves as life in another world” (7-8). However, it is worthwhile to study texts focusing on this interruption as they reveal that, indeed, reflection takes place in the war zone and that these texts convey fruitful information for historians, and literary and cultural studies scholars, as well as psychologists.
A researcher’s focus on milblogs written during deployment can help explore the causes and effects of the “dislocation of the familiar” as they happen, and it illustrates the soldiers’ and civilians’ discourse on these extreme circumstances while the soldier is still embroiled in the war. As historical sources, memoirs are limited because, although their authors had time to reflect on their old war selves, they might depict selective or distorted memories, and will probably have been influenced by collective memory, i.e., by the public, interpretation of that war shaped by media and the arts. While milbloggers may not have had much time to sort out and come to terms with their experience yet, their interaction with their audience provides a public forum for reflection; this exchange, in addition to depicting personal experience, illustrates how collective memory of that event is being constructed.
Public exchange on personal war experience has also begun to play a larger role in psychology in recent years. The growing focus on narrative in psychology, especially on a narrator’s interaction with a supportive and responsive audience, reveals that reflection and meaning-making may take place through narrating experience and bearing witness. Recent psychological works on war stress and PTSD suggest that research emphasis on personal war narratives may even help integrate the frequently opposed branches of cognitive/neuro-psychology and experimental social psychology. Milblogs and other social media demonstrate the role of reflection and meaning-making through social support, because they facilitate exchange between deployed soldiers and civil society.
In addition, working with methods and concepts from popular culture studies, e.g., fandom studies, allows us to see milblogs as a joint effort between soldier-authors and a (mostly) civilian audience to make meaning of war experience and negotiate one’s place in US society, that is, to constitute community in an effort to create a joint narrative (for a detailed discussion, see my article “Keep that Fan Mail Coming”). Reflections on individual as well as collective impacts of war are part and parcel of the exchanges in milblogs. As such, these public debates and the social support for soldiers through interactive communication are not a new phenomenon. While Web 2.0 provides the technology to engage in such exchanges on a global scale and in almost synchronous communication (minimal time delay between narrative and response), such public debates were already observed during the US Civil War, when soldiers’ letters were widely distributed among home communities and frequently republished by local newspapers.
A few days ago, another huge project was finished. Starting in 2012, my Leipzig colleagues Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez, Anne Grob, Maria Lippold and I prepared a conference on “Selling Ethnicity and Race.” The conference, held in November 2013 at Leipzig University, discussed “the production and performance of ethnic and racial identities as well as the consumption of ‘ethnic’ and racialized products in the complex field between representational politics, economics, and consumerism, […investigating] new emerging ethnic imaginaries and the ways in which they respond to the re-invigoration of ethnic identification and to the increased visibility of nonwhite Americans in the United States.” We invited scholars from the fields of cultural anthropology, history, ethnic studies, cultural studies, and Native American studies from the US and Germany, to discuss these issues.
The anthology collecting some of the contributions has just been released with Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, completing an exciting three-year project
Although, or better, because it was not immediately related to my current research projects in its thematic outline, I loved this project as it forced me to go deep into unfamiliar territory. Working on the introduction to bundle these various approaches and disciplines into a coherent work, we discussed theories of ethnic marketing, forms of capital (e.g., cultural, social), border studies, consumerism, and commodification. Our collected case studies explore examples from Native American, Asian American, and Hispanic communities.
The collection at Amazon.
Shadow Wolves – the “Indian Scout Syndrome” in Policing
My own contribution to the project drew from my current work on Native American military traditions and warrior imagery, focusing on a case study I had wanted to research since my graduate work at the University of Arizona in 2000. My essay discusses the all-Native Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit called the “Shadow Wolves,” stationed at the Tohono O’odham reservation in southern Arizona. To a large extent, the text employs Nancy Leong’s concept of “racial capitalism” to argue that most media representations of the Shadow Wolves cater to popular notions of Indian super-scouts. Newspapers portray the Native officers’ tracking and scouting techniques (known as “cutting for sign”) as their―supposedly inheritable and unique―racial capital.
Scholarship on the Shadow Wolves is scarce; most works focus on border issues, particularly the militarization of the border after 9/11. Only a few of those, and none of the media articles I analyzed, address the political significance behind the ethnic composition of this unit (although all state the fact): The Tohono O’odham assert their sovereignty by insisting on an all-Native unit in exchange for allowing the federal government to permanently station an ICE unit on the reservation.
Over the course of my research on the Shadow Wolves’ expertise, I became intrigued with their record of tracker training courses across the world: they served in Eastern European countries during the expansion of the EU, in Central Asia, and on the Arabian peninsula. Some of these tracker courses seem to be part of EXBS (Export Control and Related Border Security), a US program within an international agreement to counter smuggling and terrorism and to enhance international collaboration of security forces. For my interest in warrior imagery, I would have loved to see the correspondence by which American representatives suggest the use of Shadow Wolf instructors to foreign diplomats, especially the way their tracking expertise is advertised. Unfortunately, it seems that these documents―if they are available at all―are subject to a FOIA request, and the scope of this article didn’t allow for such a rather time-consuming process.
Flagstaff Symposium Tackles Sensitive Issues: Comparing Genocide and Settler Colonialism in the Nazi East and the American West
Between 11-13 October, I was invited to a symposium titled “Colonial Conquest in the Nazi East and the American West” at Northern Arizona University’s Martin Springer Institute, Flagstaff. The symposium was part of a larger collaborative effort in comparative genocide studies that I had been introduced to during my lecture tour last fall.
I was invited to present my work on Nazi appropriations of German Indianthusiasm, a great opportunity to promote the recent monograph. Beyond my initial research focus, it was fascinating to touch base again with current work in military history of World War II, social science approaches to mass violence, and Native American studies. As the organizers put it aptly during the introduction to the event – the symposium strove to discuss benefits, concerns, and questions about bringing together vastly different topics and methodological approaches that often seem so self-contained that they might even be considered “disciplinary silos.”
Political considerations, sensibilities, and activist interests are a major concern that academics should take into account when discussing genocide, in this case, comparing the Holocaust and Nazi occupation in Poland and the Soviet Union with the settlement of the North American continent, when comparing the ideologies of Lebensraum im Osten (living space in the East) with Manifest Destiny and the horrendous effects these ideologies and their implementations had on affected peoples. Comparing these historical phenomena entails the danger of establishing “hierarchies of suffering” that would devalue the suffering of some victims of colonialism and mass atrocity, and grossly insult the memory of some survivors and descendants of victims. Being familiar with these activist perspectives both from public discourse and scholarship in postwar/post-reunification Germany, and from my work in Native American studies and my acquaintance with Indigenous political activists, I was excited about the debates. Fortunately, these political concerns caused all participants to approach this bringing together of, not only disciplinary silos but also political powder kegs, with great transdisciplinary and transcultural care and sensitivity,
In disciplinary terms, I was once more amazed how wide the field of Holocaust studies/ history of Nazi Germany and World War Two is―from my own work, I felt well-versed in the field of Nazi media and propaganda, especially regarding Indianthusiasm, and nationalist/völkisch/Nazi ideology. However, it can be daunting to learn about author’s names and case studies in―often only slightly different―fields of interest, all coming with their respective scholarly networks, debates, academic trenches, historiographical infighting, annual meetings, and the like.
What struck me in particular about the meeting was how differently the question of comparing the Nazi East and the American West can be approached, and how these approaches will produce vastly different, often contradictory results and representations of these results. The question of genocide in the Nazi East and the American West is not merely a matter of debating intent and effect. It must consider and distinguish between ideology, public discourse, corresponding formulations of state policy, propaganda (domestic and foreign), and finally, observations on how the policies were implemented on the micro-level: by state agents, i.e., local commanders who must strike a balance between directives and improvisation as required by the moment, and by non-state agents, i.e., settlers and settler militias. These micro-level perspectives often enough requires empirical case studies whose results might contradict any of the above criteria and make comparison and generalizations between the Nazi East and the American West exceedingly difficult.
One prime example might be the oft-cited references Hitler made to the Euro-American conquest of the West when discussing his plans for the Nazi East. We know about these references from documentations of his Table Talks and from his Second Book, but that does not automatically mean that the Nazis used the frontier as a role model in their planning for the east, that they publicly promoted any such parallels in their propaganda, that they issued corresponding directives, or that local commanders and administrators made (or were made aware of) any such comparisons when implementing these policies on the ground.
I have seen a number of documents in which cultural anthropologists discussed US-Indian policy, such as the detrimental effects of forced relocation during the Trail of Tears, and argued that future German colonies in Africa should thus avoid massive relocation and cultural imperialism directed at Indigenous peoples, but I cannot speak to whether or not there were actual plans to that effect in Africa. Neither can I speak to the impact such comparisons actually had on the plans for starvation and relocation of Slavic peoples in the Nazi East. I am looking forward to doing more research into German government documents on these issues one day, and am currently not aware of any previous―and detailed―works focusing on American role models for the Nazi East. Without detailed knowledge of such documents, plans, and directives, Hitler’s remarks on using America’s westward expansion as a role model for the Nazi East are of limited value, for the man had a lot to say about everything in his ramblings.
To use a more concrete example of the complexities of comparison from my own work, consider the contradictions between domestic and foreign propaganda: As Kenneth Townsend, Jere Franco and others have pointed out in their works, the Nazis operationalized US groups, such as the German American Bund, to attack the “Indian New Deal” as the Roosevelt Administration’s covert attempt to install Communism in America: the 1934 Wheeler-Howard Act, or Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), ended the policy of allotting tracts of land to individual Native families since the 1887 Dawes Act, reinstating communal ownership of land, and revoking some of the repressive measures against native religions and cultural practices. Communal ownership of land here symbolized Communist collectives and gulags.
Back in Germany, however, the Nazis hailed the IRA as the Americans’ (belated) acknowledgment of inherent racial idiosyncrasies: since all peoples, according to racial ideology, come with inherent group character traits determined by blood and their natural environment (hence, blood-and-soil ideology), trying to impose alien culture on a group will lead to that group’s demise. The Nazis argued at home that Americans had finally stepped away from trying to turn ‘Indians’ (who, supposedly, must roam, hunt, or ranch livestock by virtue of their biological heritage) into yeoman farmers, because this practice of cultural imperialism destroyed their culture and peoplehood. US-Indian policy in this regard was praised as good because it acknowledged racial difference and (seemingly) supported racial segregation, which the Nazis quickly exploited to ‘prove’ their own Nuremberg laws on racial segregation as necessary and ‘natural’ measures (i.e., the exclusion of Jews and other unwanted groups from the ‘community of the people’).
So, the same legal measures of the IRA were denounced as Communist in the US and praised as benevolent, racially sensible protection of peoplehood at home. In many other aspects, the comparison of the Nazi East and the American West raised more questions than it helps answer. Still, the symposium did great work to address the complexities and pitfalls and thus helped to develop more meaningful comparative approaches to genocide.
Refugees and Guns: Catchy Historical Arguments on Emotionally Charged Social Issues in Germany and the US
I have been back in Arizona for more than a week now, to continue research on Native American military traditions and on veterans’ issues, both for the Native and non-Native veteran demographics. It was good to be back in Tucson and spend time at the U of A library, meet old colleagues and friends, and catch up on news. I am currently in Flagstaff for more research and for a conference on comparative genocide studies, which I will discuss in a later post. During conversations both here and in Tucson, it struck me how emotionally charged many of the current political debates in both the US and Germany are, and the role historical arguments play in both.
For Germany, it is the often bizarre comparison to Native American history in debates on immigration and the refugee “crisis” that I have discussed in a number of recent posts. Once again, I am surprised that liberals and Native activists in the US mockingly use xenophobic arguments on immigrants to point out that, after all, American society was built on immigration. Yet, these same arguments serve nationalist and even völkisch/racist standpoints in Germany, allowing German nationalists to portrait themselves as the Indians of the 21st century.
Here in the US, the recent college shootings in Oregon, Arizona, and Texas have flared up debates on gun culture, once again. The shooting at Northern Arizona University occurred the night before I took the shuttle from Tucson to Flagstaff. Walking around NAU campus in the afternoon felt eerie. I could not help wondering if people I watched were particularly friendly in attempt to assert community and belonging after the event, if the two girls I watched laughing so hard over some text message they had received that they were actually rolling on the floor were excessively giddy to take their minds off of the incident, if people wearing sober expressions were still shocked, contemplative or if they worried about the next take-home exam, or, generally, whether I simply interpreted too much into everyday behavior. Colleagues I talked to, both in Tucson and Flagstaff, were concerned about policy changes the recent shootings might bring regarding gun regulations on campuses.
To come back to historical arguments, though, it is scary to see how prominently comparisons to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust figure in the public debate on gun control. This Huffington Post article details some of the flaws in Ben Carson’s recent comments following the shooting in Oregon. In addition to the discussion of German legislation on firearms since the end of World War One described there, including the resulting estimates on how many guns German Jews might have owned in the late 1930s and whether this could have prevented the Holocaust or not, we should also consider that all major German parties had their paramilitary militias before 1933: The Nazis, of course, had the storm troopers and the SS, the Communists had their Alliance of Red Front Fighters (RFB), the Social Democrats, Liberals, and Catholic Center formed the “Black – Red – Gold Banner of the Reich,” the veterans’ organization Stahlhelm formed their own militia, etc. All of these paramilitary and para-state militias were armed, legally or not. They had taken home guns from the war and “squirreled away” guns during the often chaotic events of revolution and civil war 1919-20. There was no shortage of firearms among the German population when Hitler took power. However, these guns did not prevent the Nazis from taking over and, in the isolated events were they were used against the Nazi takeover, such as the infamous “Köpenick Week of Blood” in Berlin in June 1933, they quickly ignited a massive backlash of organized Nazi and police repression.
And yet, here we are, having to discuss gun control in the US by way of distorted comparisons to Nazis and the Holocaust once more. In idealist and utterly rose-colored moments, I like to imagine the social purpose of historians to be that of some sort of “guides of public memory,” of people who can tell society, as it approaches another fork in the road and does not seem to be able to decide which way to go, “let’s not go down this particular direction this time, it didn’t work for us the last time we tried.” This would be a role of historians who can break down the complex contexts of historical events for everybody to understand and to draw conclusions from. Apparently, though, and I hope this does not sound too gloomy, historians often are only left to mumble a resigned “I told you so” and retreat back to their dusty archives, while politicians and ideologues spout catchy and unrelated historical anecdotes that all too often are utterly inapplicable to explain the contemporary moment.