This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.
Anything is better than to have nothing at all happen day after day. You know that I do not love war or want it to return. But at least it made me feel alive, as I have not felt alive before or since.
—An unknown French woman in the Resistance after World War 2.
It may sound like a dramatic thing to write but reading this quote actually changed my life. It really did. Let me tell you what happened.
It was 2012 and I was studying a Masters of International Relations at the University of New South Wales. Unsettled, restless, bored, I had thrown myself into my studies, a bit lost after working overseas with international organisations for a few years—two “missions” in Afghanistan, one in North Ossetia in Southern Russia and one in Pakistan. The serious and international nature of the Master was keeping me sane in Sydney, a peaceful city which felt so far away from the intensity of where I’d been. Let’s go to the beach! Good idea. It might stop me from feeling like I’m drowning on land.
As part of my degree, I was researching for a short paper on women on the frontline when I found the above line. An unknown Frenchwoman in the Resistance had made the statement to J. Glenn Gray after the war. I was startled. I hadn’t been in the Resistance, but I felt exactly like this woman did. Her words were my words; her voice through time articulated my dilemma. In Afghanistan, I had indeed felt very alive. Here in Sydney, I was partly dead.
I emailed my lecturer, asking if she knew anyone who had written about the thrill of combat and women having positive experiences in war. My teacher replied that she didn’t know of any. A few months later, I wrote again, asking if she knew of any books or research into the emotional elements of war that may cover pleasures and highs of fighting?
As I put it: “It is a topic that interests me, and I can’t seem to find much on it.”
I was so curious about this woman who had been enlivened by war. Wasn’t war meant to be awful? I was yet to know I was at the beginning of an unstoppable intrigue.
I tracked down Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle and found he had an unusual back story. In 1941, on the day he got his paperwork to go to war, he was also awarded his PhD in philosophy from Columbia University. He spent the next four years in various theatres of World War 2 as an intelligence officer. He returned to university life in the US and became a professor, and a translator of Heidegger. The book was based on his diaries from the war and time spent back in Germany in the 1950s.
The Warriors threw open a door: here was a soldier focusing on the strange pleasures of war. One page after page after page. As Gray put it: “What are the secret attractions of war, the ones that have persisted in the West despite revolutionary changes in the methods of warfare? I believe that they are: the delight in seeing, the delight in comradeship, the delight in destruction.” (1959: 29)
I began trying to find other voices examining positive experiences of war. Of course, there were ancient epic poems lauding the heroism to be gained in battle. There was an endless supply of Hollywood war movies starring pleasure, but they were about male soldiers. I intermittently found gold in the memoirs of war correspondents and aid workers.
But I needed more depth. I wanted to know what pleasure in war meant, what the politics of it were, how it played its part.
Theorising experience and emotions in war is quite new to international relations. For too long, as Christine Sylvester suggests, the field has been “operating comfortably in a world of theoretical abstractions” (2012: 483). Swati Parashar, who has spent years conducting fieldwork studying political violence, has argued that the focus on causes and impacts of war — and the use of quantitative tools — neglects that people who “fight/suffer/live” in war have knowledge about it and insights into why they happen (2013: 618). So while scholars were exploring war in a myriad of ways: emotionally, as an affect, embodied or disembodied, the focus was largely negative. Any examination of emotions was usually in relation to PTSD, violence, trauma, and death experienced by soldiers. As one would expect really.
(It should be noted that the field of International Relations is not alone in being focused on the negative. The anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner documents how anthropology has been fixated on the “dark turn”, which is dominated by examining power, inequality and ethnographies of poverty and violence.)
The fact that IR had ignored or not engaged with the pleasures of war felt like an incomplete portrait of this huge social phenomenon. So I wandered into psychology, history, sociology, anthropology and ethnomusicology and it was here that I found a range of pleasures: existential notions of freedom (Sartre 1944), love and vulnerability (Macleish 2013), beautiful sounds (Daughtry 2015), friendship (Harari 2008, Glenn Gray 1959), the joys of travel (Lisle 2016) and laughter (Brown and Penttinen 2013) to name a few. Again, it was largely soldiers, but it was something.
Piqued, I set out to deconstruct this somewhat controversial idea that war is solely a source of trauma. I also wanted to wrestle war away from the military; they were not the only ones at it were they?
Thus, as part of my PhD—which I’m half-way through— I have interviewed 32 non-combatants who were in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2019 and found a world of professional and personal positive experiences. Of course, there is pain: friends killed in suicide bombings, compounds attacked and high stress levels. But there are also reams of pages of extraordinary, poignant and mundane moments of pleasure: the satisfaction of changing the US military’s approach to airstrikes and night raids; the simple joys of warm Afghan bread; the adventure of facing risk and danger while embedded with troops; working alongside passionate Afghan colleagues and seeing them want more for their country; shoe shopping or eating a muffin at an embassy event while a bomb explodes; sitting down for a meal; visiting the spectacular pale blue lakes at Band-e Amir; the sense of importance at being in a country that was at the center of world affairs; going to Dubai for a break and having the money to be able to choose champagne over prosecco; enduring and deep friendships.
But what was also striking was how some of the respondents wondered if they were in war. Most of them hadn’t been on the frontline. They hadn’t picked up a gun. And if they were having moments of pleasure—did that mean they were not in war? Could one only be in war if one were traumatised and terrified? I began to see that pleasure was a curious frame into looking at the ontology of war.
I too hadn’t been on the frontline getting shot at or lying terrified in a house as bombs rained down around me. Nor was I a male warrior. I was a female international organisation worker who worked in an office. Like some of the respondents, I also wasn’t sure if I was in a war. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was a half war? Or as one respondent put it: “It was the right amount of war.”
It certainly felt war’ish. Security was central to everything. My home and my office were both surrounded by barbed wire and guards out the front with guns. When I got picked up to go to work every day, we took a different route to the office to avoid kidnapping; a security guard used a mirror to check for bombs under the vehicle when it stopped out the front.
Explosions and the crackles of gunfire intermittently rang through the city at any time of day. Sometimes the boom was so loud my housemates and I would rush onto our front lawn, sleepy-eyed in our pyjamas, wondering what had happened. We were often put into “lock down” for a few days due to any number of security incidents— an explosion, a kidnapping, or a suicide attack. One of my flatmates was a former British soldier and kept a rifle under his bed. At night, we did radio checks with a walkie talkie that I took everywhere I went.
If I wanted to visit a restaurant or an office, it had to be ‘MOSS’ compliant, which was short for Minimal Operation Security Standards. Certain restaurants were cleared. Visiting public places was limited and only “point shopping” was allowed, which was defined as direct from car to shop. Walking was not allowed. Every day, a security briefing landed in my inbox, giving an update of the various bombs, threats, thefts, and deaths that had taken place across the country.
Kabul was certainly dressed for war: Hesco blocks, barbed wire draped across high walls, guards and soldiers in camo, large tanks sitting in traffic lights next to my bullet proof 4WD. This violent dressing undoubtedly masked something deeper though. Brett Ashley Kaplan has explored how the often gushing and peaceful depictions of Hitler’s holiday chalet on the Obersalzberg, in the hills of Bavaria in magazines of the time, for example, masked the violence of the Nazi regime (2007: 241). In a sense, was this “war” dressing that I saw daily helping to mask the pleasures? Perhaps we need to mask these pleasures. Or do we? Kaplan highlights how when it comes to depicting the Holocaust in literature, art and memorials, beauty has long been demonised. In response, he argues that the unwanted beauty of these depictions, “encourage us to see the complexity of the Shoah in ways that conventional works fail to achieve” (2006: 3).
Aside from beginning the journey of looking at human experiences, international relations are also going deeper into the ontology of war, which has for centuries put fighting at its core. “War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale,” wrote the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz on the opening page of On War. He asks us to imagine two wrestlers. “Each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will: each endeavours to throw his adversary, and thus render him incapable of further resistance. War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”
But many scholars see this characterisation of war as being about soldiers fighting with guns, bombs, and an assortment of warcraft as not quite right. As Carolyn Nordstrom argues, war is not just about men doing battle nor is it set in a particular place (1997: 8). She writes of looking for the “warzone”, a marked battlefields with soldiers. “Finding it proved difficult” (1999: 21). She also speaks of it as being a “sprawling process” (1999:21).
To claim that war is solely about soldiers fighting also cruelly ignores the thousands of Afghan civilians who have been killed in their homes, offices, and cars, and to the international noncombatants who died doing their jobs. As the Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary said about the Afghanistan war in 2019: “Everywhere is a frontline. Where has not been attacked? Schools, clinics, mosques, restaurants,” he says. “Cities, villages, highways—nowhere is safe” (Dent 2019).
The pairing of pleasure and war is undoubtedly offensive, a jolt to our idea of what is right. But the connection has been known for thousands of years, dating back to the love affair between Mars, the God of War, and Venus, the Goddess of Love. The fact that their affair was illicit touches on how pleasure and war together —and apart — has always been touched by morality. Nonetheless, we need to keep digging through the darkness of war as getting to the light will help us better understand this social phenomenon.
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Clausewitz, C. (1984). On war. Princeton University Press.
Daughtry, J.M. (2015). Listening to war: sound, music, trauma and survival in wartime Iraq. Oxford University Press.
Dent, J. March 6, 2019 “Bilal’s War”. War Spot. https://warspot.wordpress.com/2019/03/06/bilals-war/
Gray, J.G. (1959). The warriors; reflections on men in battle. Harcourt.
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