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Ceremonial Storytelling

Ritual and Narrative in Post-9/11 US Wars

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Frank Usbeck

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.

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1. Introduction

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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...

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