Ceremonial Storytelling

Ritual and Narrative in Post-9/11 US Wars

by Frank Usbeck (Author)
©2019 Monographs 332 Pages
Open Access
Series: American Culture, Volume 14


US society has controversially debated civil-military relationships and war trauma since the Vietnam War. Civic activists today promote Indigenous warrior traditions as role models for non-Native veteran reintegration and health care. They particularly stress the role of ritual and narrative for civil-military negotiations of war experience and for trauma therapy. Applying a cultural-comparative lens, this book reads non-Native soldiers’ and veterans’ life writing from post-9/11 wars as «ceremonial storytelling.» It analyzes activist academic texts, «milblogs» written in the war zone, as well as «homecoming scenarios.» Soldiers’ and veterans’ interactions with civilians constitute jointly constructed, narrative civic rituals that discuss the meaning of war experience and homecoming.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • Ritual, Narrative, and War: Disciplinary and Methodological Approaches
  • New Media, Community, and the Traditions of Firsthand US War Narratives
  • Milblogs and New Media as Primary Sources in a Historiographic Context
  • 2. Narrating War: Activist Discourse and Cultural Comparison
  • Native American Traditions of Warrior Reintegration
  • Individual Experience
  • Personality
  • Warriorhood as a Relationship
  • Role Modeling Indigenous Traditions in Psychology and Veterans’ Affairs
  • Civil-Military Relationships and Non-Native ‘Warriors’
  • Narrative in Psychology and Mental Health Care
  • Conclusion
  • 3. Milblogs as Rituals: War, Citizenship, and the Sacred
  • Introduction
  • Relevant Disciplinary Approaches in Ritual Studies
  • Civil Religion, Sacrifice, and War-Related Memorial Culture in the US
  • Civil Religion and Sacrifice
  • Memorials and Ritual
  • Memorial and Ritual 2.0: Medial Adaptations of Traditional Cultural Practices
  • “You Are Appreciated, All of You.” Ceremonial Storytelling in Milblogs
  • Memorials and Tributes
  • Ritualized Negotiations of Stress during (and after) Deployment
  • 4. Beyond the Call of Duty: War Experience, Relationship-Building, and Community Service
  • Veteran Readjustment in US Military Psychology and Civic Engagement
  • Experience and Personality
  • Military-Civil Relationships in Psychology
  • Continued Community Service and Social Support in Veteran Readjustment Projects
  • The Personal Sense of ‘Mission’ in Milblogs
  • “Old Sarge” and the Rookies: Milblog Mentoring for Fellow Soldiers and Relatives
  • “It Is not Like that in America.” Cultural Brokering in Milblogs
  • “Winning this War with Education.” Milbloggers’ Charity Missions as Part of the War Effort
  • Conclusion
  • 5. Singing their “Song”: Veterans, Civilians, and the Trials of Homecoming
  • Introduction
  • Operation Homecoming
  • The Welcome Home Project
  • The Veterans Education Project
  • Theater of War and Aquila Theatre
  • Conclusion
  • 6. Conclusion
  • 7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Studies from around the world show that recovering from war—from any trauma—is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to, and there are societies that make that process relatively easy. Modern society does not seem to be one of them.1

Time and again since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, public discourse in the US has revolved around society’s relationship with its soldiers. Apart from medialized farewell and welcome-home ceremonies, yellow-ribbon campaigns and “I-support-the-troops” bumper stickers, protagonists within this discourse have increasingly expressed concern about how soldiers come to terms with war experience. The public’s obsession with war experience reveals a prominent discursive motif, a sense of crisis and anxiety about the state of civil-military relationships, as the psychosocial aftereffects of war, e.g., veterans’ reintegration troubles and psychological injuries such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), permeate debates about US wars. These aftereffects are argued over in broad swaths of academic literature ranging from psychology to sociology, media studies, literary studies, and beyond. The debate about them fuels the nationwide proliferation of veterans’ centers and programs at university campuses. They are central themes in countless self-help books written by and for veterans and their families, as well as mental-health specialists. Civic-activist projects and NGOs foster public discourse about these effects of war experience. They promote alternative therapies for psychological injury, engage in social work, and encourage veterans to share their experience with the public either in fiction, life writing, performance, or creative arts. Reinforcing this discursive phenomenon, droves of first-person narratives about post-9/11 wars in print memoirs and documentary films reflect this cultural anxiety about war experience. Perhaps most importantly, the integration of such firsthand narratives in the new media, be they blogs written from the war zone or conversations in soldiers’ and veterans’ private social media accounts, vastly expanded and intensified public discourse on war in the last two decades. All these practices ←7 | 8→manifest US society’s urge to make sense of its contemporary wars and to (re)negotiate its relationship with those who fight them.

Yet, public discourse on war experience also reveals the historical roots of this sense of crisis in US society. To a large extent, it is tied to the Vietnam War, to how this conflict has since been commemorated, and to how constructions of collective memory helped shape US foreign and domestic politics. The ongoing discourse on war experience since Vietnam also affected the US military’s culture, its social and institutional structure, and society’s relationship with the military in general. The Vietnam War provoked domestic strife while it lasted, and debates have raged ever since over its political justification, its results, its legacy, and its morality.2 Vietnam also brought war trauma to the public’s attention. The war produced thousands of cases of psychological injuries that afflict veterans’ lives as well as their social environments. Owing to public attention and to the gnawing perception of war trauma as a relevant social problem, activist psychologists of the Vietnam era campaigned to develop and define a diagnostic assessment for PTSD which, since its official designation in 1980, has in turn created more controversy over war trauma, its diagnostic parameters, and appropriate therapy methods since then.3

In the American cultural imagination of the Vietnam War, fueled by countless films, novels, and memoirs, US society at large bears responsibility for veterans’ psychological afflictions. Regardless of political affiliation, various perspectives have contributed to this notion of social responsibility, be it the allegation that the US government sent its citizens into an unnecessary and unjust war, or that the antiwar movement at home caused the military defeat overseas, or that (all of) civil society unjustly blamed the returning soldiers for the war’s ills, that it abandoned them, and thus compounded their trauma.4 While public protestations of support for the troops at the start of the post-9/11 wars insisted that the country would not abandon the troops again, the legacy of Vietnam once more cast a shadow both because large segments of US society questioned the validity of the cause for the invasion of Iraq, and because Afghanistan and ←8 | 9→Iraq, having quickly turned into similarly indecisive quagmires like Vietnam, produced equally horrendous numbers of moral dilemmas and psychological casualties among US soldiers. The post-9/11 wars, then, although they did not generate nearly as much domestic strife or as many US casualties as Vietnam, drove the public to draw parallels to that earlier war and, as a result, voice anxieties over the well-being of US soldiers and veterans. Influenced by the cultural imagination of Vietnam, activists feared that the new wars might reproduce traumatization and reintegration troubles—especially since the increasing social segregation between civil society and members of the military suggests civilian neglect5—and that US society might once more ‘abandon’ the soldiers, that is, fail to uphold its responsibilities for the soldiers sent to war on its behalf.

Because the anxiety about war experience and trauma during the post-9/11 wars is shaped by the ongoing discourse on civil-military relationships since the 1970s, it appears that US civil society has renewed its efforts at scrutinizing, renegotiating, and reaffirming these relationships since the early 2000s. In this context, it is not surprising that Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s 2017 documentary series on Vietnam helped rekindle the public debate about contemporary domestic struggles and US civil-military relations and that Vietnam-era veteran writers, such as Tim O’Brien and Karl Marlantes, feature prominently in the series.6 This rekindled debate on war experience manifests itself in diverse political perspectives and ideas, cultural practices, and media, pointing to the mutual responsibilities of the civil-military social contract. It rests on a self-reflective public exchange involving soldiers, veterans, and members of civil society to promote a medialized cycle of narrating personal war experiences and civilian responses to renegotiate civil-military relationships. These practices argue that coming to terms with individual experiences necessitates coming to terms on a collective level. The script of narrating and acknowledging war experience in these practices serves to reassert the social contract, to pledge support, and to construct ceremonial frames for these negotiations.

This book expands previous approaches to firsthand war narratives and carves out a new field of intercultural and interdisciplinary knowledge production by anchoring its methodological perspectives in these cultural practices’ ceremonial frames. It will investigate how public discourse during the post-9/11 wars addresses personal war experience and its potential psychological effects, and how it constructs ritual scripts to interweave the making of individual and ←9 | 10→collective meaning. It will employ a cultural-studies framework for its multidisciplinary approach, integrating questions, concepts, and techniques from related fields such as cultural anthropology, cultural history, literary studies, ritual studies, (new) media studies, narratology, performance studies, and veteran studies, to pinpoint the production of knowledge within this discourse. Focusing on the sense of crisis in these negotiations of war experience, this study will draw its primary sources from three major sets of texts and practices. Firstly, an analysis of activist texts in psychology, social work, and veterans’ self-help elucidates how cultural pessimism fuels a desire for cross-cultural role models in constructions of war-related social therapy. This comparative approach will then be applied to the other sources, reading, secondly, ‘milblogs’ written by deployed soldiers and ‘homecoming scenarios’ (narrative rituals of veteran reintegration) as ceremonial negotiations of war experience and of civil-military relationships between soldiers, veterans, and civilian audiences.

The epistemological purpose of this study draws on activists’ discursive practices about war experience particularly because their invocations of therapy determine their cultural work and their social significance: they treat war experience as a social concern and, thus, diagnose psychological war injuries as social and cultural problems, rather than as individual afflictions. Consequently, they argue that cultural comparison with and role modeling of the community-oriented warrior traditions of some non-’Western’ cultures offer solutions, and that rituals and narratives are key components therein. Their focus on ritual and narrative not only helps disseminate creative mental-health therapies for veterans. It also self-reflectively invokes the therapeutic attributes inherent in civil-military discourse itself. That is, activists promote firsthand war narratives as social-therapy vehicles to facilitate healing through a public, ritualized conversation on war experience among soldiers, veterans, and civil society. My study applies this perspective to its analysis of milblogs and veterans’ storytelling projects, reading them as narrative rituals whose cultural and social relevance revolves around the ongoing discourse on war experience, on civil-military relationships, and on social therapy.

This book, thus, explores how activist transcultural references to war-related traditions illustrate the activists’ cultural criticism and elucidate the ceremonial framework in negotiations of war experience, trauma, and civil-military relationships in US society since Vietnam. Where their discourse portrays psychological injuries as a social ill, the outline of modern US society at large comes under critical scrutiny.7 Activists frequently contrast Indigenous, particularly ←10 | 11→Native North American, community-oriented war traditions against the assumption that overt individualism and competition in US society have caused widespread isolation and alienation, compounding psychological problems among veterans.8 To illustrate the cultural-pessimist impulse in the ceremonial framework of activist discourse with an example, consider acclaimed war journalist Sebastian Junger.9 In his 2016 nonfiction book Tribe, Junger portrays “posttraumatic stress [as] a medical term for a cultural problem”10, i.e., he attributes US veterans’ shock, their sense of loss, of alienation, and the social problems around war experience to a lack of communality, of social responsibility, and of mutual aid in US society. As he argues, facing extreme danger, violence, and suffering requires people to support and rely upon each other for survival. Among soldiers, this experience results in tight personal bonds that are sorely missed once they return to a civil society grounded in competition and individualism. Junger observes that Indigenous societies have developed ceremonial practices to preserve and transform these bonds and mutual obligations for support between warriors and their communities so that communities can absorb the warriors’ shock and memories of violence. He concludes in the above motto that modern ‘Western’ society lacks these social mechanisms. His book proposes to reorient US society toward what he understands as “tribal way[s];”11, to closer social bonds, to mutual aid and responsibilities in order to remedy many of the social and psychological problems veterans face today.12

←11 | 12→

My study will employ Indigenous traditions as an analytic lens, factoring in how activists utilize cultural comparison and transfer to create, negotiate, and disseminate knowledge: I argue that an analysis of activist references to and role-modeling of Indigenous war-related ceremonies serves, in turn, to understand milblogs and homecoming scenarios as civic rituals, regardless of whether they actually invoke Native American traditions to make their point. By perceiving milblogs and homecoming scenarios through the lens of Indigenous traditions, this study reveals functional equivalencies among Indigenous and non-Native cultural contexts that would otherwise not become apparent. This analytic lens, thus, opens up an avenue to glean nuances and complexity in the cultural work of these non-Native war-related practices.

Applying this analytic lens of Indigenous war-related traditions to milblogs and homecoming scenarios, I understand them as forms of ‘ceremonial storytelling,’ as ritualized practices of relationship-building and mutual rapprochement among US soldiers, veterans, and civilians. As Indigenous warriors narrate their war experience, their communities respond by acknowledging this experience (including hardships, suffering, and loss), expressing gratitude, and pledging to uphold their responsibility to reintegrate the survivors into community life and to tend to their well-being. In their respective cultural contexts, milblogs and homecoming scenarios feature similar discursive functions. On an abstract level, then, both Native and non-Native practices symbolically reaffirm the social contract between their respective societies and members of the military. The symbolic exchange of narrating and acknowledging experience negotiates citizenship and group cohesion (i.e., cultural, national identity) and, if necessary, addresses emotional distress, in a public setting. It is this abstract understanding that social and academic activists seek to transfer into the non-Native discourse on war and that this study observes in milblogs and homecoming scenarios.

To do justice to the complexity of this topic and to the diversity of the source corpus, my cultural-comparative perspective integrates methodological approaches and concepts from a number of disciplines. While several are addressed in detail in the chapters below to apply specific analytic perspectives to different source types,13 I discuss some methodological approaches in the ←12 | 13→following subsections to explain this study’s working concept and situate it in related academic traditions. First, I outline the interdisciplinary background for my approach to narrative and ritual in the reading of ceremonial storytelling among milblogs and homecoming scenarios. Second, I focus on the specific mediality and textuality of milblogs and homecoming scenarios to examine their embeddedness in the tradition of US firsthand war narratives. Third, I briefly discuss milblogs as source types from a cultural-history perspective to highlight the 2000s as a unique moment in the historical development of war writing owing to major transitions in communications technology and cultural practices of media use and to illustrate the resulting selection of my milblog sample, before outlining the chapter structure for the readings.

Ritual, Narrative, and War: Disciplinary and Methodological Approaches

Situated in American studies, this project opens up productive interfaces of cultural studies, literary studies, cultural anthropology, cultural history, ritual studies, (new) media studies, and performance studies. It further expands the interdisciplinary traditions of the field, drawing on the social sciences and psychology. Its approach aligns American studies with the focus on culture and on social topics in the field of new military history, as well as the emerging transdisciplinary veterans studies. Perceiving milblogs and homecoming scenarios through the comparative lens of Indigenous war rituals, my project grasps them as cultural practices, as sets of events and texts anchored around ritualized narrative negotiations of war experience, expressed and promoted in diverse media and genres, and embedded in generic and cultural traditions. In short, it observes practices of ‘ceremonial storytelling’ about war experience whose cultural work lies in constructing, negotiating, and asserting collective identity and civil-military relationships. In doing so, this book also expands earlier scholarship on these practices that, until now, have mainly addressed particular, individual practices or text types, and explored specific, narrow disciplinary foci in literary and cultural studies, (new) media studies, or sociology.

This section serves to explain how my approach integrates methods, questions, and concepts from the above disciplines to interpret the cultural work ←13 | 14→of my sources. It will specifically introduce disciplinary influences on my conceptualization of narrative and ritual from literary and cultural studies, media studies, and ritual studies, and discuss parameters informing the book’s cultural-comparative approach and its analytic lens of Indigenous war-related traditions through cultural anthropology and Native American studies.

My project draws on literary studies both regarding its subject matter and its methodology. US literature has (con)textualized war experience from the beginning; this book elucidates how blogs and homecoming scenarios write forth this tradition by mediating between society, veterans, and the military with the technological opportunities of the twenty-first century. My approach shares its interest in typical themes of war experience with traditional war fiction, such as suffering, loss, cognitive dissonance and shock, trauma, soldiers’ liminality, and the postulation of an experiential gap between returning veterans and their communities. These issues pervade traditional war fiction and poetry and have repeatedly been discussed in literary scholarship.14 Veteran writers, such as Ambrose Bierce, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller, and Tim O’Brien have contributed classic works to war literature and frequently shaped scholarship on war narratives.15 Literary studies have also generated an extensive body of scholarship on war-related autobiography and life writing, including the study of war letters, memoirs, and diaries.16 In the wake of the post-9/11 wars, vast numbers of memoirs have been published and are currently popular subjects of rapidly expanding literary scholarship.17

This book, thus, draws a major methodological impulse from literary studies, expressing how contemporary discourse on war experience is embedded in these literary traditions. It discusses in how far activists invoke the literary classics to ←14 | 15→promote war narratives as vehicles of negotiation and healing within the discourse, self-consciously reflecting on the cultural work and social relevance of their own storytelling practices.18 Academic traditions, e.g., methodologies for the analysis of first-person writing, serve to contextualize current war narratives. Finally, literary studies shape the general methodological outline of this study because its analysis of activist scholarship and nonfiction, of milblogs, and of homecoming scenarios, treats these sources as literary texts and carves out their cultural work in close readings.

My analysis involves classics in war narratives to elucidate how earlier representations of war experience helped shape the cultural imagination of war among contemporary firsthand authors. Cultural studies—particularly film studies—offer productive contextualization in this regard. Some of the earliest events captured on film depicted war, and Hollywood has shaped the perception of what war supposedly looks and feels like, not only for civilians but also for generations of US soldiers who had to question their preconceived notions of war once they were confronted with its reality.19 Studies of visual representations of war illustrate the allure, spectacle, and persistence of war-related imagery. As the chapter readings demonstrate, contemporary soldiers frequently contrast their own experience with these cultural images.

Cultural studies are central to this project because they provide and open up the interfaces on which my interdisciplinary approach relies. The book’s focus on the cultural work conducted within the discourse on war experience, its interest in how cultural practices negotiate social problems and relationships, applies cultural-studies perspectives to related fields: Cultural history provides the major concepts of experience, memory, and identity construction. Media studies explain how technology determines the specific textuality of communicative practices which, in turn, shape a community’s social cohesion. Ritual studies contribute perspectives on how formalized communication self-consciously performs and asserts this social cohesion.

Since the current discourse on war experience emerged from historical discursive traditions, particularly those related to Vietnam, this book integrates concepts and approaches in cultural history. Historians in the US and Europe ←15 | 16→turned to the study of war experience in force during the 1980s as part of a longer development of a “history of war from below”20 that extended its focus beyond social structures to include observations on how people’s everyday activities and behavior were shaped by specific social conditions and cultural processes. Emerging as a new field, the cultural history of war sought to grasp war experience as a process driven by interrelated determining factors. Established in the 1990s in Tübingen, Germany, the collaborative research center on war experience (SFB 437) concludes: “Experience of war includes the actions and immediate perceptions of those who were present during the battle, but it also goes further. The term experience emphasizes the multiple and often contradictory effects of wars on individuals and societies.”21 The center’s researchers describe the reality of war as a “perpetual process of social communication in which perception, interpretation, and action relate to each other.”22 The study of war experience, then, not only asks how soldiers perceive battle, but it also investigates how cultural representations of earlier wars shaped soldiers’ expectations about war, how these expectations inform a state’s justifications and explanations for war, how soldiers remember and relate their firsthand experience to their families and communities, how individuals, communities and the general public interpret the meaning of these events and, eventually, how these public exchanges in turn influence the social structures, attitudes, and behavior of future generations.23 In accordance with this complex, process-oriented cultural-history perspective on war experience, my approach to firsthand representations of the post-9/11 wars considers the debates and cultural practices related to the Vietnam War and its aftermath as a necessary precursor to understand current social structures and practices of meaning-making related to war, and it sets representations of individual experience in relation to patterns and themes of the broader public debate on war today.

Emanating from these premises, this study makes operable the diverse interrelations of cultural history with other disciplines, particularly regarding memory and identity. Early new media studies draw on classics, such as ←16 | 17→Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, to explain identity construction and social cohesion in online cultural practices, which informs my perspective on the community-constituting attributes of milblogs.24 I discuss constructions of collective memory25 and war-related memorial culture26 to interpret, e.g., conversations about death in milblogs as practices of a “virtual sepulchral culture.”27 In addition, the urgency of references to trauma in activist discourse since Vietnam will be a major focal point throughout the study. I integrate the close readings of activist texts with trauma scholarship to highlight how thoroughly historiography, cultural studies, and psychology are intertwined in their perspectives on trauma.28 In this context, the following chapter also analyzes activist scholarship in psychology, illustrating their growing influence on the public discourse on war experience since Vietnam.29

This project draws on media studies, particularly new media studies, to contextualize the mediality and specific textuality of its sources, as well as the actors driving the discourse. It utilizes previous studies’ empirical and often quantitative approaches within this field (e.g., content analyses), as springboards to reflect on patterns of media use and social interaction, forming a foundation for close readings of the cultural work conducted in milblogs and homecoming scenarios.30 Their work allows me to extend my perspective beyond literary and cultural studies which, apart from explicit reader-response approaches, usually do not include in their analysis the discourse among authors and their audiences, nor the wider public discussions about a particular text. Integrating (new) media-studies approaches emphasizes the role of communication through ←17 | 18→and about war narratives in my sources, and it expands the analysis to the level of social actors, e.g., to describe discourse among bloggers and their audience in comments in chapters Three and Four, or to explain the network of texts and actors in civic projects in Chapter Five. Cultural-studies inflections within new media studies, such as scholarship on fan communities in popular culture, helps conceptualize the discourse on war experience in my sources as practices constituting community,31 and they facilitate analyses of cumulative and collaborative texts, that is, of conversation threads among soldiers, veterans, and civilians.32

The expanding field of ritual studies offers a major starting point for my cultural-comparative lens where it emphasizes the social and cultural functions of rituals rather than formal and structural attributes with a theological focus. It integrates the study of religion with cultural anthropology but, increasingly, also with sociology, cultural philosophy, and cultural studies. This disciplinary tradition goes back to Émile Durkheim who examined ritual’s role in forging social cohesion.33 Roy A. Rappaport interprets rituals as vehicles to negotiate and enact meaning and to assign morality to conventions, concluding that rituals thus not only represent, but actually constitute social contracts.34 This understanding makes ‘ritual’ a particularly productive concept for a cultural-studies perspective as it underscores my emphasis on cultural work, that is, the production and affirmation of knowledge, values, and meaning—and, thus, of civil-military relationships and of the social contract—in my reading of war-related cultural practices.35

This American-studies perspective on war-related discourse makes previous works in ritual studies productive not least because of their interest in the cultural functions of communication since the 1970s. Describing rituals, e.g., as a “culturally constructed system of symbolic communication,”36 these expanded ←18 | 19→perspectives inform my reading of the exchange between soldiers, veterans and civilians as civic rituals. This is especially significant where they discuss features, such as conventionality and redundancy, to identify degrees of “ritualization”37 in communicative practice. Their perspective of “symbolic communication” facilitates applications of ‘ritual’ outside of the immediate realm of religion and serves to integrate it with the cultural-studies paradigm of cultural work, particularly given the strong traditions of semiotics in cultural-studies methodology. Chapter Three further conceptualizes and dialogs ritual with ‘civil religion’ to situate the readings of milblogs and homecoming scenarios in prevalent methodologies in American studies and sociology.

Emphasizing the communicative aspects of enacting meaning in ritual also brings issues of storytelling to the fore; a reading of firsthand representations of war experience as rituals, thus, is suitable for methodological approaches to narrative. Of particular interest in this regard is the development of ‘postclassical narratology’ since the 1990s. The new period diverged from its ‘classical’ predecessor in expanding traditional research interests beyond the structure and formal attributes of fiction. It complemented text analysis with a focus on readers and contexts.38 Notably, postclassical narratology became interested in the “world-making”39 attributes and the politicality of narrative by situating narratives in their cultural contexts.40 In the course of these developments, postclassical narratology diversified. It explored and integrated contexts, methodologies, and themes beyond literary studies, receiving methodological feedback from the expansion of narratological scholarship throughout the humanities, social sciences, and psychology, in the wake of the ‘Narrative Turn.’41

This diversification process fosters the synergistic interaction of ritual studies with narratology as both fields recognize overlap and potential to complement their respective methodologies and research questions. Joint projects posit “that narrative structures and the telling of stories play an important role in ritual ←19 | 20→and ritual practice, just as ritual can be an important dimension of narrative.”42 They identify a set of interfaces between narrative and ritual, of which, e.g., experientiality, performative power, the power to create and change worlds, and self-referentiality43 are particularly significant for my analysis of the discourse on war experience. They foster the communicative production and negotiation of knowledge and values, and thus, of collective identity.

Diversification in narratological methodology shifted the field’s focus to “natural-language data,”44 that is, postclassical narratology not only explores narrative discourse within a single text, it also investigates how the social discourse represented in cumulative texts constructs an overall narrative. This is pertinent to discussions of new and, especially, social media where hypertext and communication threads among different people produce individual but interrelated text segments.45 The subchapter below discusses how new media studies serve to interpret online cultural practices as collaborative and cumulative contributions to a narrative, how their performance of communal interaction determines ritualization, and how discourse on war experience and cultural contexts further ritualize narratives.

These methodological interfaces between narratology, ritual studies, and American cultural studies, then, mutually reinforce my reading of milblogs and homecoming scenarios as forms of ‘ceremonial storytelling.’ They help carve out how the representation of war experience in a firsthand narrative, paired with audience response, not only describes, but also enacts the symbolic negotiation of the social contract: It is at once a war narrative and a communal ritual about war experience. It forges social cohesion by representing and negotiating cultural knowledge and values.

The focus on ritual and narrative in negotiations of war experience and citizenship transmits both epistemological aspects central for my reading of these practices’ cultural work. Through this lens, their discursive contexts and traditions become apparent. It exposes their symbolism, their production and dissemination of knowledge, their construction of meaning, and their constitution of group identity. Yet, by contextualizing milblogs and homecoming scenarios with activist discourse on psychological injury and mental health care, ←20 | 21→this approach also acknowledges the dominant role of individual suffering and of the social-therapeutic thrust in the discourse’s cultural work.

This lens on ritual and narrative also avoids pitfalls inherent in strictly disciplinary approaches. On the one hand, it moves the study beyond the dominant focus within cultural studies on the politics and power relations behind warfare. By ‘zooming in,’ it takes note of the suffering and social struggles of concrete, individual people and observes how activists propose that US society should acknowledge and remedy these struggles. On the other hand, the study’s interest in the practices’ cultural work and in their discursive traditions avoids a depoliticized perspective on war experience. Some activist psychological approaches portray the protagonists of ceremonial storytelling practices merely as victims of a psychological condition, rendering their experience devoid of any social, political, and cultural contexts and interrelations.46 A narrow psychological perspective would also face the conundrum inherent in activist discourse on war experience: In postulating a social crisis in veterans’ affairs, highlighting the psychological aspects of war experience, the suffering of individual veterans, and civil society’s responsibility for veterans according to the social contract, activists run the risk of overgeneralizing, of associating all war experience with psychological injury and trauma and, thus, of pathologizing and victimizing all veterans.47

In taking up the epistemological impulse from activist transcultural comparison in war-related discourse, this book chisels out functional equivalencies between Indigenous ceremonies, non-Native milblogs, and homecoming scenarios. It highlights two major themes within the discourse: a) the cognitive and social psychology of war and b) the discursive context, that is, the practices’ self-conscious and self-reflective representation of discourse on war experience as a vehicle to construct group belonging and to negotiate citizenship. First, both Indigenous and non-Native practices address how war experience affects personality and social relationships. Ceremonial storytelling in both cultural contexts represents a group effort to help soldiers and veterans come to terms with their individual war experiences and to relate them to both individual and group identity. Hence, the collective search for meaning helps an individual make sense ←21 | 22→of his or her own experiences and put them into perspective. Even when it is not conducted in an explicitly therapeutic setting, such as a soldier’s blog entry about a mission to deliver humanitarian aid to an Afghan village, the group (i.e., the audience) responds by acknowledging the experience thus shared and by expressing their support. In the same way, a Native American veteran dancer would perform his or her experience during a ceremony and receive symbolic support and appreciation in the form of corresponding dance steps and applause. Basically, the sequence of narrating experience and group response in these distinct cultural contexts serves to (re)affirm the narrator’s relationship with the group. Activist perspectives in psychology, as the following chapter explores in detail, believe that this equivalence carries inherent social-therapeutic potential, which explains their focus on Indigenous role models.

Second, the discursive context marks another functional equivalence between these practices on a more abstract level. If the ceremonial, public exchange of individual narration and affirmative responses serves to constitute meaning and to renew the relationship between Indigenous warriors and their community, then the entire ceremonial setting will also constitute a symbolic negotiation of the group’s sense of community and the relationships among its members in general. That is, the audience acknowledges the warrior’s soldierly commitment to the group, but also their own responsibility for the warrior’s well-being, working toward restoring social and spiritual equilibrium. Tribal cosmology becomes critical in this context. Warriors’ actions in war are interpreted by their communities in relation to tribal creation stories, tangible and intangible powers, the interrelations between human beings and the supernatural and the metaphysical, worldviews, and social structures. The discourse on the warriors’ participation in battle serves to negotiate and disseminate cultural norms, values, and knowledges.48 The corresponding ceremonies, thus, symbolize and reconstitute the tribes’ social contract and define parameters of group belonging. This has been relevant for both the era of intertribal and frontier warfare as well as for contemporary Indigenous veteran traditions that were revived and adapted after World War II.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (March)
Military Veterans War Experience Life Writing Blogs Cultural Comparison Native Americans
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 332 pp.

Biographical notes

Frank Usbeck (Author)

Frank Usbeck studied at Leipzig University and at the University of Arizona. He earned his PhD at Leipzig with a work on German «Indianthusiasm» in Nazi ideology (2010). His research interests focus on Native American studies, cultural and media history, military history, nationalism, and museum studies.


Title: Ceremonial Storytelling
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333 pages