The Ethics of Experience of War

Since I am going into vacation mode later this week, I thought I would depart from my contemplation on Obedience to respond to and augment the discussion in Jill S. Russell’s great post this week on military personnel sharing (or not) their experience of war with civilians. Sharing the burden of experience She focuses more on this sharing in the context of intimate and family relationships, but I think many of the same considerations and questions (raised at the end of the post) apply more broadly.

Some backstory. Once every or every other fall term I teach an International Honors course Courses called the Experience of War, which is an international and multi-disciplinary General Education course (fulfilling the Humanities line, but is not restricted to the humanities disciplines though they do comprise a plurality of the texts in the course) in our honors program.  We look not just at the experience of combat, but the experience of war more broadly to include non-combatants, social structures, children…. And the course is designed to empathetically and intellectually engage the experience of war to understand war, but also to develop their own views and positions on war as informed citizens.

Much of the course involves me trying to help my students (using a variety of ‘texts’ and approaches) bridge the gaps of time, space, history and experience; this very often involves pushing my students outside their comfort zones and to ask questions and engage in material that, to be frank, they have been intentionally sheltered from. This process is a balance of of challenge and support and we have to engage empathetically and develop emotive analysis (something not natural in academic training) before proceeding to the intellectual analysis. This emotive part of the course generates a lot of resistance from my students (largely civilians with an occasional ROTC cadet here and there), who being good honors students are very comfortable with intellectual analysis and want to skip right to that.

However, I stress to them that in order to become effective scholars of war and warfare as part of the human experience, they have an ethical responsibility to start with this kind of engagement and then move into intellectual analysis.  This question of ethical responsibilities is interesting as it intersects with the post mentioned at the beginning of this post. I think many military personnel, in thinking about whether and what to share with civilians, and which civilians to share with, encounter this question of what are their ethical responsibilities – to themselves, to their loved ones and to their comrades in arms (especially the fallen and injured.)

These questions are important and are explored well in various collections and discussions of veteran writing (especially fiction and memoirs), as the writers wrestle with what, how and to whom to share their experiences. These questions are hardly new. Soldiers and warriors across time have wrestled with what to share especially with loved ones and to what degree those on the home front should know or want to know what is/was experienced. (This theme is explored well in Paul Fussell’s classic The Great War and Modern Memory and Tim O’Brien’s reflections on Vietnam like The Things They Carried.)

To this discussion, I would add a further question: what is the ethical responsibility of those who are to listen, with whom these stories are shared? Nancy Sherman has argued that civilians bear an important responsibility in engaging moral jury and such listening is part of this responsibility. (See her most recent book, After War for more.) I agree with her that we have a responsibility to listen, but I do think we need to think about what this entails and exactly how we listen. Given our reality show, entertainment culture there is a danger that this listening and engagement will be superficial, Thank You for Your Service and even voyeuristic (“What was it like to kill people? How many people did you kill?”) To put the matter bluntly, I think this kind of listening is unethical.

Unethical? Isn’t that a bit harsh? No. It’s not actually. To listen and engage in this way, to consume their stories as #warporn is to objectify those telling and sharing their stories, which are highly personal and require a level of vulnerability and exposure. We have an ethical obligation to honor this vulnerability and exposure and own the civilian responsibility for war which includes engagement with the process of homecoming and ethically processing and engaging what has been done or not done in our collective name. I think this requires a fundamental shift for many civilians in our culture, a shift that my students genuinely struggle with in our course. This requires engagement with the history of war, with the ethical discourse that emerges out of that history, with the art produced by combatants and non-combatants alike and thinking about the future directions and implications of how we engage and prosecute war. This requires asking difficult questions, engaging lots of unpleasantness and being willing to engage and own our part in it. And yes, I use trigger warnings.  This whole enterprise is a massive trigger warning for all concerned, if we are doing it right. The only safe space, however, is together in conversation.

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