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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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2. Narrating War: Activist Discourse and Cultural Comparison

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Contemporary America is a secular society that obviously can’t just borrow from Indian culture to heal its own psychic wounds. But the spirit of community healing and connection that forms the basis of these ceremonies is one that a modern society might draw on.1

The wars of the twenty-first century have rekindled public discourse on war experience that had been pervaded by notions of social crisis since Vietnam. Because, like Vietnam, the new wars could not be concluded quickly and decisively, they forced the US public to revise relationships between civil society and the military. Initially, the discourse was marked by fervent and well-medialized public support for the troops, regardless of controversies over the political justification of the war in Iraq. As the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on and casualties mounted, the debate increasingly revolved around concerns about psychological injuries, physical disabilities, veterans’ reintegration struggles, and veterans’ suicides. Over time, the media’s focus shifted and immediate attention to military operations waned, while activist observers decried a social segregation between a small professional force, largely comprised of consecutive generations of military families in mostly rural areas, and civil society. This social gap presumably safely allows US civilians to ignore the wars as not immediately relevant to their own lives which, ostensibly, compounds veterans’ problems.2 All these various manifestations illustrate how segments of US society reflect on civil-military relationships and call upon civil society to more actively acknowledge the social contract and live up to its...

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