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Ceremonial Storytelling

Ritual and Narrative in Post-9/11 US Wars


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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5. Singing their “Song”: Veterans, Civilians, and the Trials of Homecoming


Each and every one of us veterans must have a song to sing about our war before we can walk back into the community without everyone […] quaking behind the walls. […] Those who are afraid or uneasy must hear it. They must see the art. They must lose their fear. When the child asks, “What is it like to go to war?” to remain silent keeps you from coming home.1

What is “home” anyway?2


In countless war narratives across genres, cultural traditions, and history, the story’s arc ends with the soldier’s homecoming. The battle is won, the war is over, and the hero returns to his loved ones. Many such narratives adhere to and even explicitly invoke what Joseph Campbell has described as the archetypal “hero’s journey”: The hero goes forth to meet and withstand a challenge and, eventually, returns home victorious and matured.3 In US literature and culture, this pattern can be observed in personal war narratives such as memoirs, fiction, war movies, nonfiction books, and in academic analyses of war experience. Milblogs often follow a similar narrative arc. Many blogs end with the soldiers’ report of a happy reunion with their families; photos of soldiers hugging wives or enjoying the peace and amenities of home are typical features of such posts.4 In a way, this type of narrative ending resembles the final kiss in a love story—regardless whether the boy gets the girl5 or the soldier comes home,...

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