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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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6. Conclusion


In his comprehensive cultural history Was ist Krieg (2013), Bernd Hüppauf argues that discourse is a central element in distinguishing war from other forms of killing: “War requires collective representation and imagination. Human beings are determined by violence and represent violence in symbols.”1 Symbols and images, he adds, turn ‘mere’ murder and mayhem into war because they “construct an order that expresses much more than victory and defeat.”2 War, then, not only entails the use of force among societies, these societies must also negotiate the meaning of the killings in order for them to be regarded as a ‘war.’ Although Hüppauf applies a rather ethnocentric perspective in arguing that such discourse could only emerge in urban societies, that is, in states, which would deny Indigenous cultures the capability to make ‘true’ war,3 his focus on discourse nurtures a cultural-history perspective on war and it focalizes negotiations of war experience. The order constructed by discourse on war helps a society to identify and mobilize its resources against an adversary. Eventually, the representation of war through discourse serves to justify and make sense of the violence. It deliberates that particular society’s norms and values, and contextualizes them with the war. It creates and disseminates knowledge, and (re)constructs collective identity by negotiating the meaning of violence against the enemy. In the US, discourse on war has carried such negotiations since the War of Independence. It has been expressed in leaflets and broadsides, newspapers, memoirs, letters,...

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