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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.
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.
Between 3 and 6 April 2014, the European Association for American Studies held its biennial conference at The Hague. I was surprised to see so many conferences on war in so many different disciplines over the last few years. This cannot simply be related to this year’s Great War anniversary, but is probably also because the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have either officially ended or “Western” engagement draws to a close. In addition, the outbreaks of these wars are more than ten years in the past now which has given scholars a bit of time to reflect and connect the dots.
I went to The Hague because I co-chaired a workshop on “War Narratives and Web 2.0: Justification, Storytelling and Public Discourse” with my Danish colleague Morten Braender. We developed this workshop out of observations that, in recent years, a number of European scholars have reflected on the steep rise of war narratives in the new media from various methodological angles. We brought these different approaches into dialog and opened the topic to scrutiny for a variety of disciplines relevant for American studies within both the humanities and the social sciences. Our presenters’ academic backgrounds illustrated these different angles: Johanna Roering’s work centers on media research, Morten Brænder is a political scientist, Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg teaches comparative literature, and my own work uses historical, anthropological, and cultural studies approaches. These presentations supplement were mutually supportive in addressing the common theme of public discourse by deployed soldiers in online media.
The point of departure for Johanna Roering’s presentation was the shared experience of researchers within this field that studying web 2.0 technology is studying a moving object, and that scholarly conclusions about, say, early blogs from 2003 are likely to be outdated already because of the fast pace of changing information technology and corresponding cultural practices. By drawing on Henry Jenkins’s concept of ‘converging cultures,’ she demonstrated, however, that the challenges of studying the how the representation of a single person’s identity is articulated in different media (from blogs to tweets to YouTube vlogs) can be turned into an analytical advantage. Roering also explained the technological specifics and media-related aspects of a military blog, which constituted a common ground for all participants and thus further contextualized the field of research for the following presentations.
Morten Brænder’s talk centered on how blogs can be used in the social sciences as a source to explore different justificatory practices. He employed the concept of “sacrificial ideology” (Hubert and Mauss (1929); Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 1979) and distinguished between the sacrifice’s ‘explicit function’ (the justification itself), and its ‘implicit function’ (to show that something is perceived as worth dying for). He argued that the explicit function of sacrifice can only be maintained as long as its implicit function is not articulated. Drawing on this conceptual framework, Braender compared how two bloggers from the same American unit in Iraq perceived the deaths of three of their colleagues in an incident on 8 February 2008 and thus, how milbloggers discuss and and make meaning of death.
Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg’s presentation also emphasized the importance of justifying military action in blogs. His approach addressed that any justificatory practice articulates a particular view on justice, a view that does not cover what justice is in a genuine ethical perspective. Hence, Zangenberg illustrated in his reading of a blog featured in the New York Times how the blogger justified the war in Iraq but, at the same time, ignored the question of the civilian costs of the war by unequivocally focusing on the higher purpose of fighting terrorism.
My own contribution explored the cultural work and the therapeutic potential of milblogs by comparing them to Native American ceremonial narrative practices of re-integrating war veterans into their communities. Many Native vets employ their war experience in their continuing reciprocal relationship with their communities. Similarly, the interaction between bloggers and their audience negotiates the social contract between soldiers and civil society and thus facilitates an interpretation of war experience as an asset for the community.
The discussion following the presentations addressed Army censorship of online communication, identity construction in online narratives, reliability and source value in regard to the authors’ narratives and audience responses, blank spots and (mis-)representation in online communication, as well as notions of ritual and symbolism in online narratives.
The conference organizers announced that they requested short reports from all workshops and will publish them on the conference website – if you are interested in the many other presentations on such topics as war and food, women at war, human rights, international law, representations of trauma etc., please check back visit either http://www.eaas2014.org or http://www.eaas.eu/conferences. I am curious about information from all the panels I missed myself.