International Conferences on War Narratives and Trauma in Spring 2013

23Jul

In addition to our own conference on "The Poetics of Politics" in Leipzig, during which I presented my latest readings of milblogs, I had the opportunity to attend three international conferences on war, trauma, and narrative this Spring. Although they addressed the issues of war experience from very different angles, all three are manifestations of a recently increased interest in war experience, trauma, and veteran's affairs in academia, the media, and the general public, both in the US and in Europe.

The first conference took me to southern California in late April. The Interdisciplinary Humanities Center at UC Santa Barbara organized a series of events titled “Fallout: In the Aftermath of War” in 2012-13, of which the conference on “Narrative-Making in the Aftermath of War” on 25-26 April, 2013 was a part. What struck me about this event was the huge variety of veteran-related projects among the humanities in the US. The projects presented here ranged from creative writing courses for student veterans at universities, to writing projects at VA hospitals, to literary courses on war narratives for VA hospital employees, or writing therapy offered by teams of literature professors and psychiatrists. Most of the presentations and the corresponding discussions centered on the war experience of US soldiers and the myriad ways in expressing and representing this experience, both to help the soldiers navigate this experience, and to give their audience an idea of “what it's like.” The conference participants agreed in the necessity of both supporting veterans in their endeavors to come to terms with their experience and to raise public awareness of veteran's issues. They also discussed the strengths and experiences of the humanities in this regard.

The conference “AfterShock: Posttraumatic Cultures since the Great War” in Copenhagen, 22-24 May, 2013, emphasized trauma, its treatment, and its representation in literature and culture. Again, the presented projects were very interdisciplinary in nature. This conference took a more historical perspective and emphasized strategies of diagnosing, treating, and overcoming trauma, especially in World War I and the interwar years, mainly for European countries. An overarching discussion, however, recurred to the question of how to diagnose and explain trauma among soldiers, particularly in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These discussions were at times very controversial in their inquiries on vastly different numbers for PTSD cases among US and European (i.e. UK, Danish) troops. Among the issues discussed here were questions of combat exposure (i.e., deployment in “hot” versus “quiet” regions of Afghanistan), data comparability (do studies count only combat infantry, or admin and tech specialists, as well?), and cultural explanations (i.e., the recent popularization of (m)TBI as a category in the US, or different health care and veteran benefit systems in the US and Europe). Most intriguing were discussions on current strategies for PTSD treatment and combat operational stress control which tied in with my own work on the therapeutic potential of online ceremonial storytelling by soldiers and veterans.

Finally, I attended “Digital Testimonies on War and Trauma” in Rotterdam, 12-14 June, 2013. This meeting had a strong focus on the states of former Yugoslavia and the (civil) wars in this region during the 1990s. The conference celebrated the completion of the project “Croatian Memories” in which oral accounts and life stories of Croatian witnesses from World War II until the present were collected, documented by video, and archived. A recurring theme in presentations and discussions was the issue of how digital technology and online platforms can support the preservation and accessibility of oral testimony. In this context, issues of accessibility, privacy, and research functions to serve both collective memory-making, reconciliation, criminal justice, and historical research, were addressed. Although this focus did not affect blogs directly, it raised questions about the usefulness and durability of milblogs and other Web 2.0 content as long-term historical sources. My own recent troubles in locating a few particular early blogs analyzed in secondary literature on milblogging are a case in point.