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I’m glad to announce that two articles from my research on veterans and war narratives have been released recently. This work is part of the larger research initiative “Selbst-Bewusste Erzählungen” on the interrelations of textuality and social relevance in contemporary US literature and culture, originated as a research collaboration between TU Dresden and Leipzig University.
One article, “’To Put Others Before Yourself’: Volunteerism and Mental Health in US Veterans’ Projects,” discusses two NGOs organized by and for veterans to analyze how their activism responds to the sense of social crisis prevalent in these public debates on veterans’ affairs (The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon). It presents the projects’ online self-representation and their documentation in activist scholarship and journalism to carve out how civic engagement in veterans’ affairs challenges the traditional myth of American individualism to promote volunteerism and community service as vehicles for reintegration, promoting – and enacting – the civil-military social contract.
The other article, “’Writing Yourself Home’: US Veterans, Creative Writing, and Social Activism” explores how public discourse about civil-military relationships, war experience, and trauma, simmering since the domestic divisions over Vietnam, turned to first-person narratives in recent years to discuss the psychological costs of war and homecoming. It interprets the proliferation of veterans’ writing projects as part of a civic activist movement that seeks to address veterans’ social and emotional struggles through community (re)building and social therapy. The writing projects promote themselves as a means to bridge the experiential gap between civilians and veterans and, in doing so, they enact social reintegration.
The manuscript for the project’s main publication, my second monograph Ceremonial Storytelling. Ritual and Narrative in Post-9/11 Wars, was recently submitted to Peter Lang Publishing and will be released in their American Culture series.
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.
36th American Indian Workshop in Frankfurt, and a Presentation on Mental Healthcare for Native Veterans
Preparing this post I realize two things – first, I have been behind in writing and need to catch up because more items and events are down the road. Second, it seems not so long ago that, this venue of a research blog being all new to me, I reported from the 2014 AIW in Leiden, Netherlands. So, a year has passed surprisingly fast.
The AIW is the annual meeting of an interdisciplinary network of scholars in American Indian Studies in Europe. This year’s convention, held 24-27 March 2015 in Frankfurt, Germany, was titled “Knowledge and Self-Representation.” I was excited to hear a number of presentations on Indigenous knowledge and applications thereof, in disciplines such as philosophy, literature, political science, and anthropology. I particularly enjoyed Rainer Hatoum’s presentation on his work with Franz Boas’s shorthand notes, especially since I missed his lecture on that topic during an exhibition and lecture series in Dresden in 2013. John Gilkeson and Suzanne Berthier-Foglar offered intriguing overviews on how scholarship in Native American history and the Southwest, respectively, has developed and how Native voices and perspectives have gained more ground and influence during the recent decades.
Birgit Hans’s presentation on reservation day schools in North Dakota during the Reservation Era struck a chord with me. She discussed the amount of data that teachers and school supervisors had to collect about their’ students’ families. I found this especially significant because a colleague of mine is currently busy with a major research project on how Americans developed a sense of information as “data” during the nineteenth century, and how the systematic collection, storage and analysis of information affected US culture. The idea that day school teachers recorded the number of windows and chairs in their students’ families’ houses, the number of bales of hay the men made per year, whether or not the women attended sewing circles, whether families approached schools to obtain medicine, and other seemingly unrelated information collected here, in order to devise a key to tell school boards and BIA authorities whether these Native families were “progressive” or not, struck me as very odd. This was especially so since Birgit Hans worked out convincingly how inconsistent these teacher-statisticians were with their numbers and the conclusions drawn from them. In many cases, they simply seem to have gone through the motion of counting, because even the higher-ups did not seem to have known what to do with all the data, and simply wanted to have it for the sake of having it. This opens up quite a few parallels to today’s governments’ culture of collecting data about the citizenry.
This year’s focus on knowledge at the AIW was an opportunity for me to extend my own research in the milblog project from investigating how military psychology and US mainstream representations of war trauma and PTSD refer to Native American warrior and veteran traditions. I have become interested in how mental healthcare services for Native American veterans have evolved since Vietnam, and in how far they reflect the interest in traditional and alternative approaches and in storytelling for healing apparent in mainstream discussions of trauma in the last few decades.
I was intrigued by the number of (medical) studies focusing on mental healthcare services related to the 1999 report of the US Surgeon General on mental health and its 2001 supplement on the role of “Culture, Race, and Ethnicity” in mental healthcare, how many studies stated the need and made suggestions to improve care for Native veterans. Yet it is sad to see that, in the fifteen years since, so many difficulties remain, if only to improve the collaboration of mental healthcare providers, such as VA and IHS. In addition, my presentation discussed successful projects, such as the VA’s institution of Tribal Veteran Representatives, which was instigated in the early 2000s, to provide better access to and engender trust in the VA’s services among Native veterans in rural areas.
With a perspective of my overall project on cultural transfer and veteran and trauma issues, I was inspired to see how the VA and the Indian Health Service gradually became aware of and began to integrate traditional healing methods regarding war trauma, and how they tried to integrate such services in their practice for Native veterans. A number of comments to my presentation pointed me to specific projects in which these traditional methods, such as sweat lodge ceremonies, are offered by the VA. It will be interesting to compare these projects to approaches that try to integrate Indigenous knowledge into the practice of mental healthcare for non-Native veterans, such as the work of John P. Wilson (see his essay in chapter four of Raymond Monsour Scurfield and Katherine Teresa Platoni’s collection Healing War Trauma), or Ed Tick’s Soldier’s Heart. In addition, I recently became aware of the website veteranceremonies.org, in which Native Studies scholar Lawrence Gross proposes that Native Americans should actively help non-Natives develop their own rituals for reintegrating returning soldiers into civil society by discussing ceremonial storytelling, community activism, and Native approaches to humor. I add this here because next year’s AIW in Odense, Denmark, will focus on humor. I hope that, apart from presentations on Native comedy and stand-up, there will be discussions and presentations on the role of humor in healing, as well.
A few days ago on 3rd December, I have held my last lecture on this trip. While the earlier lectures discussed my work on German perceptions of Native American cultures and promoted the forthcoming book, this talk presented some of my current work on deployed soldiers’ milblogs. This guest lecture was hosted by University of Nebraska, Omaha’s English Department and the Office of Military and Veteran services.
I met Dr. Charles Johanningsmeier, who invited me to Omaha, during his Fulbright year at American Studies Leipzig in 2007. Since then, we have kept in close contact and frequently worked together. Omaha is very dear to me, for the friends and colleagues I know here but also because this is where I held my first lecture when my dissertation project took shape in 2007.
Last week’s lecture provided an overview of the interdisciplinary methodology of the project and contextualized Native American military traditions before launching into a close reading of an American soldier’s milblog from Afghanistan. I pointed out different elements of ceremonial storytelling in the interaction between deployed soldiers and civilian audience. Some of these textual elements led back to the presentation on “tribute and memorial posts” I held at the 2014 ASA convention in Los Angeles. Similar to my reflections on the longue dureé in Indianthusiasm for teaching due to the lectures on Nazis and the GDR that I held over the course of only one weekend in Oklahoma in late October, this lecture helped me approach the topic of death and mourning in milblogs from different angles, discuss it with a diverse audience, and thus extend the scope of my work from the ASA presentation in early November. This widened perspective will help me tackle another chapter of the blog project in the coming year.
Apart from the academic values gained from this final lecture, it was fascinating to observe the environment in which the event took place. The lecture was held at UNO’s Community Engagement Center, a brand-new building dedicated to community outreach. The audience was thus both “gown” and “town,” comprised of students of both English and Native studies courses, veterans, and members of the Omaha community. As my colleagues told me, UNO was recently rated the best four-year college in veteran services by the Military Times. It was thus particularly interesting to observe and discuss veterans’ affairs at this institution. This also brought back discussions and observations from last year’s conferences at UC Santa Barbara and Copenhagen where many discussions and presentations centered around the question of college veteran services, student veterans, and the role of the humanities in veteran reintegration.
Similar questions recurred during the last few days when I met with colleagues and representatives of veteran groups, such as The Mission Continues. The Mission Continues has recently become one of the best-known veteran support groups. They focus on community service and volunteerism as its founders have realized that many veterans are eager to continue serving and that volunteerism, i.e., helping others, helps veterans to help themselves in their efforts to reintegrate into civil society. I became interested in groups like TMC when looking at the warrior philosophy of Native American military traditions and their strong focus on ceremonialism, community relationships, and mutual aid. Native studies scholars argue that “warriorhood” is anchored in perpetual community relationships, while “soldiering” in the ‘Western’ sense is more perceived as playing a social role. The community engagement of The Mission Continues reminds me of relationships in changing tasks (from fighting to, say, charity or care-giving) known from native warrior philosophy.
Since both Native scholars and military psychologists have argued that ceremonialism and community relationships might support the reintegration of non-Native veterans and could play a role in working through their traumatic experiences, I have begun looking beyond milblogs to find other non-Native efforts to implement community and ceremony in my research during this year. The Mission Continues is a very good example for such efforts. Getting together with TMC representatives as well as social sciences scholars from Washington University and Lindenwood University in the St. Louis area helped me explore these veteran groups’ efforts. Their information and advise provided valuable social science perspectives for my project. I will continue to look into this and similar projects, although they are not deployed soldiers’ narratives, to look for ceremonialism and community interaction as ingredients for reintegration.