Why study war stories?

Katarina Birkedal

When I began my undergraduate degree here at the University of St Andrews in 2009, I did so with the wish to be absorbed into the words and worlds of others. I loved learning about other perspectives and fantasies through literature, and I enjoyed applying that understanding to new problems. Unexpectedly, it was International Relations (IR) that really sparked my imagination; I stuck with it for the next several years, leading first to a degree in IR, then a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies, and finally to writing my PhD thesis within the field. 

An Old Story, Katarina Birkedal

However, for all that IR presented me with a great array of stories – about how states act, about how power works on the international scene, and about how and why wars are waged – they were rarely discussed as such: as ‘stories’. I studied the power structures that facilitate conflict, the decision-making processes of leaders in times of crises – but not the stories that kept morale up among civilians, nor the songs soldiers hummed in the trenches. Of course, had I been a student in, e.g., the School of English or the Department of Film Studies, I would perhaps have encountered such narratives sooner – but at the expense of my knowledge of international political theory and martial politics. The study of war is multifarious, and different approaches naturally offer different perspectives: brought together, they form a complex and more complete picture of what war is. However, as long as war is studied through disciplinary siloes, those approaches remain limited. 

At the core of each aspect of a conflict is its story, and I argue that this understanding is one way of bringing together different disciplinary perspectives. In fact, every discipline’s ways of studying war are themselves narratives of war. For example, the first such story IR told me was presented as a theory of the international, where war is an expression of the anarchic nature of international politics, where every state for its security must seek power at the expense of others. Consequently, war is a natural phenomenon, a paradoxical extension of humanity’s desire for safety. Though not presented as a story, if we study it as such we can uncover the tropes it perpetuates.

Through paying attention to the narratives of war – how war is told – we can come closer to understanding the ways in which our study of war does not simply reference or reflect but actively reproduces a politics of naturalised conflict experience. In other words, viewing the disparate studies of war as part and parcel of one self-referential story of war might also teach us to pick apart the tropes that sustain that story – and thereby also war itself.

I indicated in my first thought piece that ‘narrative’ can be understood in different ways: for example, it can be understood as an umbrella term inclusive of the many ways in which humans communicate with each other. In this sense, to focus on war narratives is to focus on the means by which experiences and expectations of war are relayed, whether as conventional stories or in inter alia photography, museum curations, charity events, or music. 

As such it makes sense to view narratives as the form through which we understand and inform each other’s encounters with trauma and violence. In this there is something ageless; as Anke Walter suggests, in seeking to communicate what war is, authors, film-makers, journalists, peace campaigners, academics and others encounter many of the same challenges – and find many of the same solutions.[i] In this sense, ‘representations of wars – like the wars themselves – are often heavily intertextual (or interbellical).’[ii]

In an essay about remembering war, Stephanie McCarter compares the story of Aeneas with her grandfather’s experience as part of the Allied assault on Monte Cassino in World War II, writing that wars ‘have a devastating tendency to repeat themselves.’ Perhaps as a consequence of war’s incommunicability, we reach for the same narratives over and over again to try to share what happened, even when those stories really don’t reflect what happened; like this, we build what Kate McLoughlin calls a ‘bellicose canon’[iii] of what war is like. 

Artistic representations, written stories, dramatic productions, and other means by which the events and consequences of war are creatively visualised, seek to embed in the audience a seed of that war. These narratives are designed to affect those who encounter them, to engender emotions and inspire action: to translate the unspeakable into something that we can begin to understand; into ‘a synaesthetic taste of the chaotic traumatic experience itself.’[iv] War is an ellipsis that those who experience it try, over and over again, to share the contents of – and through repeated attempts we now have a form through which war is processed.

In the Roman epic poem The Aeneid, Virgil ends the story of Nisus and Euryalus in Book IX with the invocation ‘si quid mea carmina possunt / nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo’ – ‘if there is any power in my poetry, the day will not come when your memory is erased.’ Because of the power of stories to affect the reader so viscerally, these media are picked up and employed in order to produce the kind of impact that engenders lasting change. For example, IR scholar Elizabeth Dauphinee’s book The Politics of Exile is written as a novel, with the result that the reader is uncertain whether the events detailed within occurred as written, or at all; instead, the book inspires a profound reflection on the notion of responsibility – and the difference between responsibility and guilt – in conflict.[v]

No less affective – and effective – was Hitler’s use of Shakespeare in his Stalingrad speech, imploring the German people to ‘think incessantly […] only on the fact that this war will decide “the to be or not to be” of our people.’ This speech is not only an example of intertextuality in practice, but also of the destructive power of such references: here is a ‘live or die’-moment, a narrative highlight around which you – the protagonist – must stop and take stock. Furthermore, Hitler, like many other speechmakers, refers back to previous conflicts – to Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, a winter ‘exactly 50% as cold as the winter we put behind us last year’; to Germany’s defeat in World War I as a people ‘confused and untrue to themselves’; and to the brutality of the British Empire, which ‘in 300 years [has] oppressed and yoked and subjected nation after nation’ – as cultural short-hands that trigger predictable emotional reactions in the audience. 

I have used Hitler here as a particularly disturbing, affective example: referencing his propaganda brings to mind the atrocities of Nazi Germany. For many alive today (at least in the West), the narrative of World War II was our first encounter with war, and it has shaped all subsequent meetings. By studying such narratives we can begin to appreciate how these stories and narratives haunt our understanding of war. Our perception of what war is makeswar, in the way that all endeavours are derivative of what came before. 

Every way we have of relaying what occurred in any given situation is, in a sense, a story told. For this reason, it is important to consider the ways in which we represent any aspect of war, because any such narration involves a responsibility taken for that event. What words and phrases are chosen, which cases are evaluated side-by-side, how the numbers are presented, and even the design of graphs; all of these become part of the narrative of any given war. 

For example, should we compare the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 to a civil war, or would this make us complicit in a political forgetfulness? In my previous thought piece, I mentioned the genocide in Guatemala, which was originally presented as legitimate state violence through a language of counter-insurgency.[vi] The presentation of facts of what happened – violence, massacre – is as liable to bias and tropes of storytelling as a story that is upfront about what it is. 

With that in mind, it is important to study war narratives as a way of unpacking the preconceptions that recur and become self-sustaining in our understanding of what war is and does. The Visualising War project studies war narratives because of their ability to affect us so powerfully: not only in the moment, but in the sense that their legacy haunts us in all our encounters with war. In so doing, these war narratives form the conscious and unconscious blueprints for future war. The study of narratives of war is so important because in understanding their power, there is hope that we might in turn subvert the stories of other wars as they happen. 

[i] Anke Walter, ‘“What It Felt like”: Memory and the Sensations of War in Vergil’s Aenid and Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds’, in Krieg Der Sinne – Die Sinne Im Krieg. Kriegsdarstellungen Im Spannungsfeld Zwischen Antiker Und Moderner Kultur / War of the Senses – The Senses in War. Interactions and Tensions between Representations of War in Classical and Modern Culture, ed. Annemarie Ambühl (Thersites 4, 2016), 275.

[ii] Kate McLoughlin, Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Illiad to Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 14.

[iii] McLoughlin, 2,14.

[iv] Mark Thorne, ‘Speaking the Unspeakable: Engaging Nefas in Lucan and Rwanda 1994’, in Krieg Der Sinne – Die Sinne Im Krieg. Kriegsdarstellungen Im Spannungsfeld Zwischen Antiker Und Moderner Kultur / War of the Senses – The Senses in War. Interactions and Tensions between Representations of War in Classical and Modern Culture, ed. Annemarie Ambühl (Thersites 4, 2016), 79.

[v] Elizabeth Dauphinee, The Politics of Exile (London: Routledge, 2013).

[vi] Roddy Brett, The Origins and Dynamics of Genocide: Political Violence in Guatemala (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).