Changing meaning in war memoirs


A new study from LSE looks at how the study of soldiers’ memoirs can help us understand the historical context of war. Professor Lilie Chouliaraki discusses the concept of ‘radical doubt’, and how it can provide insight into soldiers’ complicated relationship with each conflict.

Periods of history are often defined by major wars and their aftermath. From the suffering of the First World War and the economic and political turmoil of the following decades, to the widely held suspicion towards the state following the War on Terror, war offers a prism through which we can understand our society and history.

Professor Lilie Chouliaraki of the Department of Media and Communications analysed soldiers’ memoirs, using the records to shed light on the changing social, literary and moral attitudes towards warfare. She said: “We can use war memoirs to gain insights into the cultural contexts in which each soldier’s war took place and to reflect on the changing aesthetic and ethical values that inform soldiers’ own experience of fighting in a war.”

Professor Chouliaraki’s research focuses on a narrative comparison of two key moments of western warfare: the First World War from 1914–1918; and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the ‘War on Terror’, from 2001–2014. She said: “I chose to focus on the sharp comparison between the two major conflicts circumscribing the past century.”

Professor Chouliaraki found a striking contrast of narratives between the conflicts to identify three major developments that gradually took place. She said: “The first change is about authorship. In the First World War, it used to be civilians, with prominent memoirists mostly the sons of the educated upper middle-class.”

“Conscription in many countries meant that war became a near-universal experience for civilians living at that time. In this kind of mobilisation, entire populations came together to defeat a common enemy." Professor Chouliaraki added.

While the memoirs of the early 20th century civilian soldiers articulate a sense of uncertainty and risk that turned them into the stoic victims of trench warfare, Professor Chouliaraki said that 21st century conflicts intensify this sense of doubt: “As contemporary armies became specialised and professional, the battlefield itself became increasingly ‘civilianised’."

"In the Iraq conflict, for example, the entire country became a warzone. There was a blurring of where the civilian zone stops and where the battlefield began, and this created new circumstances of uncertainty for soldiers.”

The second change is about the technologies of soldiers’ memoirs. Professor Chouliaraki said: “The First World War took place in the era of propaganda, within a heavily controlled information environment. In contrast, while the War on Terror may have been controlled, it was bound up with a much more pluralistic, immediate and personalised media environment.”

“In a way, the visibility of new technologies for soldiers has highlighted and exacerbated the contradictions that are inherent to the ethics of contemporary warfare.” Professor Chouliaraki added.

The third change is about the literary styles that soldiers use in the memoirs. Professor Chouliaraki said: “In the two wars, there is an important shift: from a more distanced and ‘objective’ narrative standpoint, in First World War memoirists, to the more involved and emotional one in the War on Terror.”

Professor Chouliaraki cites a memoir from the First World War, where a soldier unemotionally recounts the prospect of imminent death in the Somme: “We were waiting at the fire step from four to nine o’clock with fixed bayonets, for the order to go over. My mind was a blank.”

According to Professor Chouliaraki, the detachment can be explained as the narrative strategy of civilian soldiers. It is an example of their attempt to manage their disillusionment with the mass violence of industrialised killing, set against the noble values that sent them to war in the first place.

This contrasts with an example from the War on Terror, where a soldier’s encounter with a terminally ill Iraqi boy reveals his empathy for the child’s plight: “Ahmed reminded me that I should be eternally grateful for all that has been given to me. At this point, guard duty didn’t seem like that bad any more.” According to Professor Chouliaraki, the evident emotionality is about the philosophy of the War on Terror as a benevolent project to protect populations and save lives.

Professor Chouliaraki said: “Even though the memoirs of both wars deal with soldiers’ doubt, the professionalisation of conflict, the mediatisation of communication and the intense ‘emotionalisation’ of soldiers’ narratives are today coming together to create a more intense and generalised sense of ‘radical doubt’.”

For Professor Chouliaraki, radical doubt stems from the philosophy of early 21st century wars. She said: “The central argument for the War on Terror was that these conflicts are fought not in the name of our nation, tradition or ideology, but in the name of a supposedly universal ‘common humanity’, a claim that was not made in the wars of the past.”

Professor Chouliaraki added: “This moral argument was an essential part of legitimising the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, but it meant that these conflicts also took on a new meaning for those involved in it."

"It is precisely with these meanings, set against their brutal stories of the battlefield, that soldiers’ memoirs seem to be struggling to come to terms with.”

Useful links

Authoring the self: Media, voice and testimony in soldiers’ memoirswas published in Media, War & Conflict in April 2016.

Lilie Chouliaraki is a Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. Her research focuses on the media as technologies of meaning-making and her publications, three of which are award-winning, have consistently explored human vulnerability as a problem of communication.

Professor Chouliaraki has written extensively on the cultural, political and ethical dilemmas of mediating the human body-in-need across a number of genres, including disaster news, the photojournalism of development, humanitarian campaigns, war and conflict reporting. She is currently working on a book about the changing technologies, narratives and ethics of war reporting, in 21st century conflicts.

Image: US 10th Mountain Division soldiers in Afghanistan CC-PD-Mark