The Voice of the Veteran as Researcher

This post by Hannah West and Sophy Gardner picks up from the debate captured by two previous events: a panel discussion by Ben Schrader, Daphne Inbar and Aviad Levy at EISA in September 2018 on military veterans in International Relations and Critical Military Studies (discussed on this blog post) and a workshop held in Bristol in October 2018 reflecting on the positionality of the veteran-researcher (discussed on this blog post).

 What is the value of military experience in scholarship? This complex and long-running debate has been a feature of the discipline of War Studies since its inception, embodied in the figure of Sir Michael Howard himself. Traditionally, the discussion has focused primarily upon how individual experiences of war have shaped subsequent scholarly trajectories. Yet as modern armed forces espouse the importance of critical thinking, and increasingly seek to provide a wider range of graduate and postgraduate educational opportunities for serving personnel, we felt it was the ideal opportunity to adopt a more diverse and wide-ranging approach to the contribution and experience of the ex-military-scholar.

On 19 November 2019, the Defence Research Network hosted a series of panels exploring ‘The Voice of the Veteran as Researcher’ and engaging with the following questions:

  • What is the value of war experience as the basis of scholarship?
  • What do veterans’ voices add to critical commentary on war and the military that other voices might miss?
  • How does the scholarship of veterans differ methodologically?
  • How does engaging with academia affect veteran’s reflections on the military and their service?
  • What are the cultural barriers to veterans participating in the academic community?
  • What are the blind spots for veterans researching the military/defence?

·         How do veterans engage with politics and critical practice following their transition from service?

·         Is there a danger of/how do we avoid exploiting our own and other veteran’s experiences?

Reflecting our recent partnership with the Defence Studies Department, the event was held at Kings College London and preceded by a small workshop for contributing authors to a Special Issue of the Critical Military Studies journal on the same subject at which proposed articles were reviewed. The afternoon opened with the presentation of these papers by Paul Higate, Neil Jenkings, Ben Schrader and Sophy Gardner to the wider audience who enjoyed a lively exchange on the subject. Their critical papers asked questions about the notion of military pride, teaching war, critical research and the female veteran and a veteran-centred view of fratricide. The concepts and viewpoints put forward by the panel exposed some differences amongst the audience around the idea of criticality and what it means to be a veteran when researching one’s military service. Question topics ranged from the concept of demilitarisation, to the perpetuation of imperialism, and the difference between criticality and negativity.

 The second panel brought together a group of veteran researchers at an earlier stage of their research journey, who reflected on their experiences of negotiating their identities as veterans and researchers. As this group – Julie Marionneau, Paul Barnes, Ian Westerman, Darryl Cathcart and Rob Clark – reflected on how their military service has affected their research they brought a diversity of experiences. The panel ranged from those who were still serving or recently left, from the British military or overseas and from a range of ranks which exposed different challenges from the difficulty of being dismissed as a credible contributor to academic debate if not an officer, to the extent to which one is defined by one’s veteran status and the privileging of combat experience.

The final panel explored the use of creative methods to find voice as a veteran researcher. David Jackson opened the final panel with a pre-recorded video filmed on set of his tour of Argentina with the acclaimed play Minefield with a letter to academia challenging us to think about what form knowledge takes. This was followed by a folk music video by Hannah West reflecting on her military service as gendered. An ex-Parachute Regiment turned photographer, Stuart Griffiths, shared how he had taken photographs to make sense of what he was seeing and how he had come to see the value of capturing soldier’s experiences in this way. Finally, Dudley Giles discussed the challenges of collecting oral history in recent conflicts with a warning gleaned from his own experiences about how this can be turned against the speaker. Once again, the audience asked some challenging questions which helped develop the debate around these diverse creative methods. The panel presentations and discussions were enhanced by a large and engaged audience to whom we were very grateful for their contributions.

 We are now working on putting together a Special Issue of the Critical Military Studies Journal on the Voice of the Veteran as Researcher bringing together full articles and shorter, more creative pieces. The Special Issue will explore further these questions of criticality, positionality and reflexivity asking what they mean for ways of understanding the military and why we need to hear the voice of the veteran.  

Authors: Hannah West and Sophy Gardner

Double Crossed: A Review

As the legacy of Britain’s war in Iraq continues to unfold, one ugly chapter of the conflict’s aftermath is chronicled in Brian Wood’s compelling new memoir Double Crossed. The book tells the story of Wood’s involvement in the now infamous ‘Battle of Danny Boy’ during Operation Telic on 14th May 2004, and the subsequent public inquiry into the events of that day. As the title suggests, this is a story about “complete betrayal”, and the pain and turmoil caused by being forced to publically defend one’s character and conduct in the face of false accusation.

The initial complicating event of the story is the Battle of Danny Boy itself. The battle was an ambush by Iraqi troops of the Madhi Army in which British forces found themselves outnumbered and fighting for survival. Wood drags the reader through a grievous account of the fighting that took place, including the ghastly aftermath of the battle:

“Having fought these individuals, gone through the battle, then looking at the bodies afterwards, it was brutal. To take another person’s life is a lot to process. To pick up that body afterwards, it makes what you’ve done hang heavy on your shoulders. I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy.” (p. 101)

After this reminder of the heavy burden and life-altering consequences of participating in close combat, Wood’s story turns to the emotional fallout of his tour in Iraq. He writes, for instance, of waking up at night and staring into the darkness for hours with scenes from the battlefield playing over in his mind, and of the anger and irritability that soured his personal relationships. This part of the story describes what is (lazily) often assumed to be a typical experience for veterans: relationship breakdown, post-traumatic stress, and a tumultuous transition to ‘civvy street’. And then the twist.

When news of the Al-Sweady public inquiry broke and the press were running rampant with accusations that Wood and his colleagues had abused and murdered Iraqi prisoners of war detained following the Battle of Danny Boy, Wood found himself not only under the media’s spotlight, but, also, seemingly abandoned by the Ministry of Defence. This sets the stage for the betrayal narrative that scaffolds Wood’s memoir.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Wood was eventually vindicated by the inquiry (we are told on the book’s reverse cover that he is “redeemed at last”), and that in the words of inquiry’s chair Sir Thayne Forbes, the allegations made against British servicemembers were “wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation, and ingrained hostility” (Sir Thayne Forbes; quoted in Wood 2019).

One thing that strikes me about this book is the manner in which betrayal is narrated throughout the story: that is, as a treasonous assault on the values of the British Army. As well as offering a cautionary tale about the potential for recklessness in the UK’s legal and justice system, Wood’s story reads as an emotive and patriotic defence of the British Army’s institutional honour. For me, this is most evident in passages such as the following:

We were British soldiers. We were sent to war to do what we’d been told by politicians, only to then come back and find ourselves fighting another battle to clear our names (p. 195).

And again, during Wood’s reflections on being questioned by one of the inquiry’s lawyers:

Inside, I was thinking, Fucking shut it up. Why are we even discussing this? I am a British soldier and you are a British person as a British citizen questioning me about how I applied a plasticuff[1] when I am out fighting for my country, protecting and serving this great nation. What the fuck is all this about? (p. 232-233)

The inquiry positions Wood as the villain, and Wood’s impassioned refusal of that identity and defence of his character is clear and heartfelt. Yet it is also worth considering the emotional and political work undertaken by the category ‘British soldier’ in this narrative. In other words, what does the patriotic defence of British soldierly virtue do to our understanding of soldiers’ accountability?

The term ‘British soldier’ carries with it the considerable weight of history. Arguably since at least Britain’s role in defeating the Nazis in World War Two, the British soldier has been synonymous with service, sacrifice, nationhood, and citizenship within British culture. Pride ‘sticks’ to it as an emotion (Ahmed 2014), and the use of the term conjures the emotions and meanings attached to it. Using it as part of a defence against accusations of military wrongdoing instructs us toward a certain outrage that the actions of a British soldier should be questioned at all. On the back of strong, prideful emotion, it positions the subject of the British soldier as, at least potentially, morally beyond reproach. The issue here is not about semantics but the coupling of patriotic feeling with unquestionable virtue, a relation which should make us think carefully about how we approach the subject of accountability in war.

But Wood’s story also raises a larger question about accountability, specifically over who or what is made accountable in the first place. As Owen Thomas argues in his work on the Iraq War Inquiry, our legal system seems wedded to the idea of individual responsibility (juridical individualism). The logic of this approach is that someone – some particular individual – has committed an offence and must be brought to justice. Root out that individual, and moral order is restored. Crucially, this protects the institution (in this case, government and the Ministry of Defence) from any alleged transgressions. As such, we cannot hold institutions accountable for the cultures, systems and procedures that create the conditions for potential wrongdoing. There is, it would seem, something deeply unjust and hypocritical about holding to account only those ‘close to the ground’ whilst protecting the wider institution, the senior decision makers, and the politicians who opt for war.

Double crossed should therefore be read not only as a moving reflection on the personal devastation of publically facing down false accusations, but also an effect of the politics about how we inquire into the alleged abuse of human rights in war.

[1] Plastic disposable handcuffs

Author: Dr Nick Caddick

What it means to be a veteran-researcher

This post by Hannah West and Sophy Gardner picks up from the debate captured by Ben Schrader, Daphne Inbar and Aviad Levy following their panel discussion at EISA 2018 on military veterans in International Relations and Critical Military Studies and discussed on this blog post.  

 The Defence Research Network held a workshop in Bristol on 6 October 2018 to bring together veterans to explore what it means to traverse the military-academic divide. We considered questions including, whether veterans’ military experience and identity shape their research agendas, methods and interpretative frameworks; what unique opportunities and challenges veteran researchers whilst conducting research on defence; and what it means to be reflexive about their positionality within their research. The workshop was funded by Volkswagen Foundation as part of the Military Afterlives project.

 Hannah shares her reflections:

‘Entering a room full of veteran-researchers is at once comforting – to find others who are going through the same transition from the military to academia – but at the same time there is an unspoken dynamic going on that I found fascinating. It happens in everyday life of course, we make judgements, some conscious, some unconscious, when we meet and interact with others, but with veterans it feels there are a set of questions framing how we understand each other. And as I stood next to my civilian supervisor, Sarah Bulmer, who was chairing the workshop, I was struck with how the subtleties of this interaction might appear or be invisible to an outsider. How long had they served for? Did they serve as an officer or NCO? Were they a regular or reservist? What was their regiment/trade/branch? Did they deploy? And these questions are not necessarily answered in a brief resume on meeting but in the subtle and silent assessment of how someone dresses and presents themselves, and also what they share about their military career. So, whilst I can’t speak for the other participants this was definitely somewhere in my mind when I met this group. I also noticed that Sarah was left out of these discussions, and it was strange to see my supervisor needing my guidance to interact with this group.  And this was just the opening of the workshop. But it got me ready to talk about what the ‘shared experiences’ of being a veteran are.’

It was a fascinating and useful day connecting with fellow veteran (and in fact serving and reservist) researchers, hearing about their research and identifying common experiences. The points below capture some of the observations emerging from our discussions:

  • Experiential knowledge. We talked about what our military experience brought to our research, and what this allowed us to see, say and understand when compared to a civilian researcher. We recognised how we bring a particular understanding both to the interpretation of texts and in interactions with military research subjects and institutions but we were challenged to think about our blindspots too. We acknowledged the importance of the veteran experience to academia but shared our nervousness sometimes in sharing personal experiences and overcoming traditional cultural stereotypes about what it is to be a veteran, especially with colleagues critical of military power and militarisation.
  • Pride and criticism. Reflecting on their military service, participants had varied responses to their own past roles but we agreed there was potentially a tension between pride in our service and being critical of the military. We explored the idea of critical practice and needing time to reflect on our service to be able to understand what we had normalized or been desensitized to through serving. This linked to the idea of becoming more politically active following military service, catalyzed by reflections on our military experiences. However, another perspective reconciled critique and pride because through critiquing the military we support it to reform and improve.
  • Intersections of organizational culture. Military culture and language is second nature to us but we discussed that academia has its own culture and language too and that our challenge is negotiating the intersections of these two cultures. Perhaps the challenge for the veteran researcher is navigating the journey between the two and being able to accommodate and draw on these two cultures in different contexts.
  • Societal understanding. This debate also led us to reflect on being part of a diminishing band of veterans with fewer families knowing someone with military service and how this impacts on how we are understood in society, and, in particular, by our civilian academic colleagues. We remembered how there had been a time when most scholars had done military service.
  • Instrumental advantage. We did not dwell on, but did acknowledge, the instrumental advantage of military service in military research in terms of access and credibility but were challenged to think about the methodological implications of our blindspots, for example what we might assume because of our familiarity with military norms.
  • Blurred lines. For some, the line between the military and academia is not distinct – they perhaps started doing research, in some form, whilst still serving or in fact are still reservists or regulars now, only adding to the blurry nature of this transition for some people. We considered whether the distinction between the two spheres was as distinct as it seemed.

We are intending to hold a follow on workshop in Autumn 2019 on the subject of ‘The voice of the veteran as researcher’ to present papers for discussion and build towards publication. Our aim would be to bring together veterans who are also researchers and would be interested in contributing to this debate.

At this time when the notion of the expert is under fire in the popular press, what is the value of military experience in scholarship? We have seen the emergence of soldier-scholars and social media has amplified military attempts to engage with critical thinking e.g. Wavell room, BRAIN and Dragon portal. With this increased visibility, there is now an opportunity to encourage a more diverse commentary on defence and specifically reflect on the contribution of the ex-military-scholar.

We would be interested to hear from any veteran-researchers who would like to engage with the following themes:

  • What is the value of war experience as the basis of scholarship?
  • What do veterans’ voices add to critical commentary on war and the military that other voices might miss?
  • How does the scholarship of veterans differ methodologically?
  • How does engaging with academia affect veteran’s reflections on the military and their service?
  • What are the cultural barriers to veterans participating in the academic community?
  • What are the blindspots for veterans researching the military/defence?
  • How do veterans engage with politics and critical practice following their transition from service?

A call for papers will follow. In the meantime, expressions of interest would be welcome to

Authors: Hannah West, Sophy Gardner

The Politics of Remembrance: War Poppies and Rising Walls

How we commemorate war is an important, contested, and deeply political process. The politics of remembrance become increasingly heated surrounding key commemorative events, such as the Centenary of the First World War commemorations currently taking place across Europe. In this valuable contribution to the War Stories blog, Dr Sarah Hitchen provides thoughtful reflections on the politics of remembrance in the context of Ireland.

In 2016, I was asked to present a talk on the broad topic of soldiers’ lives and remembrance.  2016 proved to be a particularly interesting time to do so.  In the UK, FIFA were in the news following a ‘poppy ban’, and the meaning of poppy wearing was the subject of national debate.  2016 was more interesting still for many, as it marked the coincidence of the ongoing First World War centenary commemorations, and the centenary of the Easter Rising in the Republic of Ireland.  Two symbols stood out at this time as centres for public discussion of the place, meaning, and importance of particular acts of remembrance; the poppy, and the Remembrance Wall in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

These two symbols allow us to think not only about individual acts of remembrance, but also national acts.  They allow us to think about the ways in which commemorations can both unite and divide us: as individuals, as citizens, and as nations.  They allow us to think about how commemoration can symbolise, or encapsulate, a political mood or ambition and the ways in which these can change over time.

The poppy has become a particularly ambiguous symbol.  Its meaning shifting from place and time, and from individual to individual.  We can read many things into the wearing of this symbol, and these readings include controversial statements.  Does wearing a poppy suggest support for militarism and wars both ‘good’ and ‘bad’?  Does it show support for current servicemen and women no matter their deployment history and status, or only the injured and the dead?  Does it mean all the injured and dead, or only the ‘good’ ones, or only ‘ours’?  Does it commemorate our glorious dead, our boys, our heroes?  The ordinary victims of structures designed to benefit others, or the callous butchers of innocents?  And what about all those innocent civilians, do we forget their suffering in wearing a symbol so tightly bound to military men and women?

Wearing a poppy can say a lot about a person.  It can be taken to say a lot about them that they do not intend.  Not wearing a poppy can say a lot about a person, including much they do not intend.  It can foster mutual understanding, or provoke misunderstanding.  It can be seen as a political act, or it can be seen as beyond the realms of politics.

There are now many poppies to choose from in order to communicate more clearly a particular act of remembrance; the white peace poppy being the most prominent.  All of these can be used to make different, and differently ambiguous, statements.  That statement can be heard differently dependent on context and audience.  A red poppy worn in Belfast can mark out the wearer as a Unionist.  Not wearing a red poppy in Belfast can mark the wearer out as a Republican. In recent years a new poppy has appeared; the Irish poppy, which specifically remembers the loss of Irish lives in British forces in the First World War.

In 2011, Queen Elizabeth II visited the Republic of Ireland.  This was the first visit of a British monarch to the Republic. The short tour included the Irish National War Memorial Gardens; a formerly neglected and contested space.  The memorial was bombed twice in the late 1950s in an attempt to bring it down, and though completed in 1939 no Irish government officially opened the gardens until 1986, when no Irish government representative attended.  This historic visit led to national discussion about whether it was now time to remember those Irish men who fought and died in the First World War.

In July 2014, President Michael D Higgins, the Duke of Kent, and the Northern Ireland Secretary of State dedicated a cross of sacrifice in Glasnevin cemetery to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the war.  They were joined by a military band made up of members of both the Irish and the British armed forces.  Also in 2014 the Irish Ambassador to the UK laid a wreath at the Cenotaph in London; the first time this had happened since 1946.

Around 50,000 Irish-born men died in the First World War, with around 200,000 serving out of a population of 4 million.  The largest fighting force, and the largest death toll, of any war in Irish history.[1]  All were volunteers.[2]

The Irish poppy rests on a shamrock, contains the dates of the First World War, along with a ‘lest we forget’ banner.  It is a clear attempt to communicate as full a message as possible in one small pin badge.  It is also, perhaps, an attempt to show that we have, a century on, begun to see the beginnings of a move away from Yeats’ loitering dead who stifle talk of give and take, and ‘stir the boiling of the pot.’[3]  A move seen in many of the commemorations of the Rising, and embodied in the Glasnevin Remembrance Wall.

The way we commemorate can reflect changing political relations.  It can reflect a willingness to remake our understanding of who we are, and where we come from, to rethink past conflict and cast it in a new light.  The Remembrance Wall in Glasnevin cemetery stands as an excellent symbol of both of these.  Installed for the centenary of the Easter Rising the wall lists all those who died in the rising.  In the past this ‘all’ would mean those who fell taking part in the rising itself.

That ‘all’ has extended in recent years to include civilian deaths, as the costs, as well as the benefits of the rising are included in the national myth.  Of the almost 500 killed in the rising, 268 were civilians caught up in the violence.

That ‘all’ has, most surprisingly, extended to include those service men in the British Army who were killed fighting against the rising.

The dead are listed according to when they died, not who they were, not which ‘side’ they were on.  Civilians are listed next to rebels next to British Soldiers.  These soldiers are remembered as individual human beings.  Importantly, these people are remembered in a way that allows the viewer to make their own interpretations.  The Glasnevin Trust insists that the memorial is a presentation of historical fact, presented without hierarchy or judgement.  The lives of these people are not assumed to be a site for further conflict and division in remembrance, though they may be the start of many (often uncomfortable) conversations.  This act is truly revolutionary.  As is the laying of a wreath at the wall by then Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

This wall has not been a full stop in the conversation about appropriate public acts of commemoration.  The question of whether a citizen of the Republic should wear a (non-Irish) poppy continues.  A recent edition of RTE’s Late Late Show broadcast from London asked guests whether they would wear the symbol.  This question was asked during a television debate in the current contest for the Presidency of the Republic in October 2018.  Where MEP Liadh Ni Riada, the Sinn Féin candidate in the current Presidency campaign, stated that she would be open to wearing the poppy on Armistice Day.  Notably, of the four candidates present, only one said they would not do so, and this was on the grounds that they believe that the President should not adopt any symbol.   That this question was asked of each candidate, and that each candidate chose to give a clear answer, is a clear sign that whilst acts of remembrance may be political, the divisions they point to needn’t be absolute, and that public acts of remembrance may play an important part in recognising, openly discussing, and beginning to heal old wounds.

Author: Dr Sarah Hitchen


[1] Bowman, Irish Times, Aug 2, 2014, ‘How was the Great War forgotten for so long?’

[2] second world war commemoration does not have the same support as yet, Ireland being officially neutral, nor does the fact that Irish men and women can join UK armed forces on same conditions as UK nationals seem to impact the likelihood of the red poppy alone being worn by many.

[3] W.B. Yeats’ Sixteen Dead Men

O but we talked at large before

The sixteen men were shot,

But who can talk of give and take,

What should be and what not

While those dead men are loitering there

To stir the boiling pot?

You say that we should still the land

Till Germany’s overcome;

But who is there to argue that

Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?

And is their logic to outweigh

MacDonagh’s bony thumb?

How could you dream they’d listen

That have an ear alone

For those new comrades they have found,

Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone,

Or meddle with our give and take

That converse bone to bone?

Military Veterans in International Relations and Critical Military Studies

This valuable contribution to the War Stories blog picks up key issues regarding reflexivity and the role of veterans as scholars/academics. What is the value of war experience as the basis of scholarship? What do veterans’ voices add to critical commentary on war and the military that other voices might miss? The post summarises a lively panel discussion at this year’s EISA conference in Prague in which Ben Schrader, Daphne Inbar, and Aviad Levy led the debate with critical insights into their own experiences as veteran-academics:

Reading an interview with a soldier, conducted by a scholar who had never served in the military, I (Ben) was struck by how much was being said “in-between” the lines by the soldier that the researcher seemed to have missed. Annoyed, I realized that it was because of my time in the military that I understood what that soldier was talking about. I reflected on my own interviews with veterans and remembered many of them telling me that they felt so much more comfortable talking to me in these interviews rather than other academics or journalists because we spoke the same language and went through many of the same ordeals. So upon this reflection I decided to further examine this idea of what it means to be a veteran and a scholar looking at issues of war. I first contacted Sarah Bulmer who has written about similar issues with another veteran academic, David Jackson, and Paul Higate, a veteran who has done a lot of work around veterans and masculinity. I began searching for other academics who were veterans in our field to start new conversations on these issues.

This past week at the annual Pan-European International Studies Association conference in Prague, Czechia, a small panel of veteran-scholars convened to discuss the role of military veterans turned academics and what they bring to the field of International Relations (IR) and Critical Military Studies (CMS). On the panel was Daphne Inbar, Aviad Levy (both former Israeli Defense Forces soldier), myself (former US Army soldier), and it was moderated by Sarah Bulmer.

I opened the session by telling my background in the military, my research around veteran activism, and addressing three key points about what veterans as academics can bring to IR/CMS:

  • First, for me as potentially for other veteran/academics, activism and scholarship is my form of healing and demilitarizing. When I left the military I was angry and felt broken, but I wanted to understand my experience so I got into antiwar activism and I returned to school to learn about war, both the political and the social. The fire never left, but the more I learned it felt that the pieces were coming back together, and I wanted to pass on this knowledge, which is in part why I do what I do.
  • Second is the ability to read the texts differently than those who have never experienced war. I greatly value my fellow academics who work on these subjects and I learn so much from them, but there are times when my embodied experience tells a different truth than the one they are telling. My experience complicates and transforms what they are writing. The point being that too often we write in dichotomies and absolutes, but the grey areas – which can’t be seen or understood without experiences – are brushed over. Does this make experience the end all be all? Definitely not. I would not be where I am in understanding militarism had it not been for those who have never experienced it. So it is not about privileging experience, and CMS is great at showing why and how experience can often be problematic. Rather, it is more about showing how experience is a value adding process, especially when that experience has the critical/introspective researcher lens that we have.
  • Finally, we bring a different level of credibility on a number of different levels, from the ability to talk with and interview veterans and soldiers with greater ease, to students giving us more credibility when learning about war from us. This point was challenged in the Q&A and I understand and agree with the criticism; there are some instances where I lack experiential credibility, as some do not privilege veteran or military identities as much as other identities that they hold; thus a woman who is a survivor of military sexual trauma may not feel at ease talking to me as a male combat arms soldier.

Daphne spoke next. Reflecting on the panel, she writes:

The first point I made was acknowledging the ways in which my military service has shaped, affected and informed my research interests. Serving as an educational instructor working with immigrant soldiers in the IDFs’ largest military prison (incarceration base 394) has greatly impacted my research on the everyday resistance practices of soldiers within mass-militaries. More specifically, I shared some of the ways my service provided ‘insider’ knowledge on the under-researched phenomenon of “grey refusal” among Israeli soldiers.

The second point I raised was the differences between veteran-academics coming from a mass military vs. a professional military background. Since military service is mandatory in Israel, one could say that Aviad and I come from a ‘society of veterans’. Military service is not a unique experience but a shared one among most Israelis. Furthermore, there are limits to comparing our ‘post-military life’ experiences with other veterans from professional military backgrounds, as in the context of Israeli society, where militarization is embedded in every aspect of our everyday life, the military remains present long after our completion of service.

The third point I made was how in the academic context this militarization might have unique implications to veteran scholars seeking to write from a critical perspective on their military service in mass militaries, such as censorship and self-censorship (since such critical writing suffers from delegitimization on a societal and institutional level). This point could perhaps also explain the pervasiveness of traditional military studies scholars over other critical perspectives in Israel.

Lastly, another insight gathered from the Q&A dealt with the power relations that come with incorporating embodied knowledge into our research. In response to a question on whether the label of “veteran-scholars” only serves to reaffirm hierarchies of knowledge between veteran-scholars and non-veteran military scholars, I argued for the importance of deconstructing these hierarchies, and noted how these hierarchies also extend beyond scholarly debate and exist between the veterans themselves (e.g. between non-combative soldiers and combative soldiers).

Thus, for me, being a veteran and critical scholar means also acknowledging the plurality of veteran subjectivities, experiences, and grounded truths.

Aviad then spoke. He reflects on the panel:

I must admit that I came with some worries, but ended up being fully surprised by the thoughts we managed to share on stage. Most of the things I said were new even to me, as I have never reflected on them that way ever since I had finished my army service in 2005.

I opened with a short introduction to my military service in the IDF between the years 2002 and 2005. I shared with the crowd some of the main outlines of my mandatory service as a writer and later an editor in the IDF’s weekly magazine. Though it was hard for me to call myself a ‘veteran’, I could easily regard my time as a soldier as a highly significant phase, that taught me several things, which still influence my contemporary life as a young scholar.

Being a soldier, and mainly being a soldier-journalist, pushed me into the corners where the marginal people and voices stand as the backgrounds of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the first time in my life, during my service, I needed to approach real political moments and issues with a real critical view. Therefore, I needed to question everything I saw and encountered. I referred in my words also to the “grey zones” that create every military service, in which small conversations are being conducted, dark coffee is being boiled, and true love affairs might arise. As part of that, I also mentioned the issue of time and its different meanings in the life of a soldier. My point was that in contrast to what we usually read, watch, or hear about the apparent political moments of the army time – the majority of our hours in uniforms is dedicated to burning time, counting sheep, waiting, surviving boredom. One of the commenters in the crowd analyzed this notion nicely while referring to Cynthia Enloe, and suggested they are all ‘pre-political moments’. I tend to agree with her. In the end, maybe that is precisely where our mission as veterans starts: this acknowledgement of the grey areas of politics that are accountable for the political no less than the well-known climaxes of wars, quarrels and military clashes.

The three perspectives stimulated many valuable questions and insights from the crowd which filled the rest of the session. Questions related to our service, our research, and the boundaries in between. One question from another veteran-academic: ‘do we need to come clean and write it all down?’ I believe we do. For me scholarship is political, and while I personally see it as healing, I also aim to contribute to knowledge. A part of me believes that every soldier and veteran who has participated in war doesn’t want anyone to experience the traumas of war that we have faced, and I feel that us telling our stories and exploring these subjects in our research works to accomplish this. I also think that at the same time we work to complicate the perception of war and the military as we highlight and distort the spaciotemporal aspects of war, or the “gray zones,” and as we also show the joys of war.

We look forward to continuing this discussion with other academics, especially those who identify as veterans, as well as those who may not identify as veterans but also have militarized ex-soldier identities. Perhaps we can find new and productive ways to channel our experience, energy, and knowledge. I’m encouraged that other discussions like this are taking place as an upcoming workshop for veteran-academics is being held by the Defense Research Network (DRN),  as a part of the Military Afterlives Project. Details about the event can be found here.

Stay tuned for more on this topic, as we hope to collaborate on future projects!

Authors: By Benjamin Schrader, Daphne Inbar, and Aviad Levy

Declassified – a review

What’s the purpose of a war story? To entertain? Inspire? Instruct? Shock? Warn? What effect does a war story have on those who listen to and consume it? How should we respond to a war story? These are questions I’ve written about recently, and ones I come back to with renewed energy when listening to Michael Coates’ thought-provoking new podcast ‘Declassified’. A former firefighter and former soldier, Coates began documenting stories from the military and veteran community as a means to ‘provide hope, guidance, support and help for individuals who are suffering from both mental and physical illness or injury.’

The effect war has on veterans’ mental health is a major feature of the series, which so far includes ten interviews with individuals featuring a variety of pre, during, and post-military experiences. The series also includes one important and upsetting conversation with a wife (herself a former soldier) discussing the intensely stressful impact of deployment for families and children, and one particularly haunting interview with the parents of a soldier who died by suicide.

The podcast creates a great opportunity to improve the social conversation about veterans and ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, which is by far the dominant means of interpreting veterans’ mental health experiences. If there’s one clear message from the podcast overall, it’s about legitimising the psychological and emotional suffering caused by war and combat trauma. As a technique for legitimisation, the podcast seems to emphasise strongly the toughness and respectability of veterans featured discussing mental health. For example, when the message “Its O.K. to say” comes from ex-SAS soldier and all-round tough guy ‘Big’ Phil Campion, the message is amplified by the rogue-ish, rugged masculinity of the storyteller. By focusing on the intense, shocking, and extreme details of combat which provoked veterans’ psychological turmoil, the podcast also aims to establish the normality of being adversely affected by trauma. But it’s worth considering whether an unintended consequence of this may be that veterans perceiving themselves to have had ‘lesser’ experiences of combat fail to recognise the legitimacy of their own experiences through a process of social comparison (“my ‘trauma’ wasn’t as bad as that, maybe I’m weak”?)?

Declassified reinforces and reflects some of the key research findings that have emerged in relation to veterans’ mental health in recent years. For example, the interview with Terry Brazier is a personal validation of the role of sport in helping veterans deal with the turmoil of life after war. His story also illustrates recent findings that veterans experiencing initially poor encounters with the NHS and mental health services can easily be put off from seeking further help. More broadly, several interviews implicitly highlight the influence of betrayal in driving psychological distress. Examples include the betrayal that can result when senior officers based in a unit’s headquarters send orders that seem bizarre or immoral to soldiers in the field (Brazier), or when the military establishment refuses to support soldiers caught up in legal battles surrounding their actions in combat (Brian Wood; whose forthcoming book ‘Double Crossed’ tells this story in full). Such examples illustrate Jonathan Shay’s argument concerning a ‘betrayal of what’s right’ as a central feature of combat trauma and psychological injury.

The podcast presenter, Coates, deals carefully and sensitively with veterans’ stories of trauma and distress. This I found to be a real strength of the podcast. And nowhere is this more evident or more necessary than the interview with Derek and Maria Hunt, whose son Nathan took his own life at the end of 2017. Knowing how this story ends, I listened with a chill as Nathan’s parents talked movingly about their son’s life and (largely hidden) struggles with mental health. Their story speaks powerfully about the potential consequences of failing to seek help in times of need, of bitterness over the coroner’s refusal to attribute the cause of death to suicide, and about the permanent, incomprehensible grief of losing one’s child to suicide.

As a narrative researcher, I’m interested in what the stories in Declassified are doing – the effects they are having as part of society’s conversation about veterans and war. For instance, I find it useful to consider how these stories play into wider narratives about ‘PTSD’. The close focus in Declassified on the psychological damage of war serves to undermine the institutional narrative about PTSD; that is, PTSD is a condition experienced by a marginal, problematic few and that there are already too many stories about it in the public domain. True, there are too many stories that make veterans into victims, and the media is quick to respond with sensationalising claims. But one danger of the institutional narrative its effect in obscuring the realities of psychological harm from public view. Declassified makes this harm strikingly evident. It also balances the experience of harm with an emphasis on the resilience and resourcefulness of veterans dealing with the psychological and emotional pain of post-war living. It illustrates how mental strength can coincide with mental ‘weakness’, and how trauma can sometimes lead to new ‘perspective’ that was formally absent. In doing so, it shuns the victim narrative of the popular press and exhibits different responses to living with chronic adversity.

Other effects of the Declassified stories can be read from social media responses to the podcast, which frequently revolve around the ‘humbling’ and ‘inspiring’ qualities of the veterans featured. Without wishing to denigrate these qualities or undermine the authenticity of those responding to the stories, it does seem possible that the podcast is feeding an appetite for stories of military heroism among the British public that shows little sign of abating in the post-Iraq/Afghanistan era. This is potentially quite problematic given that the pervasive narrative of heroism is one means through which militarism thrives. The central issue here – and this has been robustly critiqued by analysts of ‘support the troops’ rhetoric – is that the reasons veterans encounter harm in the first place (i.e., the recent wars now widely perceived as ‘unwinnable’ and potentially illegal) are obscured from view and hence become more acceptable.

That said, the ‘bravery’ for which the veterans on Declassified are frequently commended by Coates is mostly linked to their choice to speak out about mental health issues. To the extent that speaking out entails making oneself vulnerable within a military culture still dogged by mental health stigma, bravery does feel like an appropriate description. It would also be hard to argue that in telling their stories, these veterans are seeking sympathy or wearing the ‘PTSD’ label as a badge of honour, for as indicated above, the victim narrative is refused, and the veterans are honest about their own failings too.

The stories on Declassified are not uplifting; they are a hard and challenging listen. But they are a necessary part of social conversation about veterans and war. In the final episode of the series (a summary of the previous ten), Coates begins to challenge the medicalised notion of distress as ‘disorder’, by building on the conversation with Walter Busuttil of Combat Stress in which PTSD is described as a ‘memory problem’ rather than an illness. More could be done to push this theme in future episodes, for instance by devoting time to discussion of moral injury as a framework for understanding distress and what Shay described as the ‘undoing of character’; a non-medicalised way of understanding war’s impact.

Declassified portrays veterans as complex, conflicted, and human. If one effect of these stories can be to promote a better understanding of mental health whilst also breaking down the familiar, worn-out trope of veterans as tragic ‘hero-victims’, it will be a welcome and worthwhile contribution indeed.

Author: Dr Nick Caddick

Beyond being the best: the role of education in transition from British Army to ‘Civvy Street’

The following is a re-blog of Graham Cable’s summary of his forthcoming thesis on education and transition. The theme of ‘narrative transformation’ speaks to this blog’s core interest in war stories. Graham’s blog ‘Write for you life’ is well worth exploring for stories of transition and we look forward to engaging with his work when it becomes available.