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

2 thoughts on “Military Veterans in International Relations and Critical Military Studies

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