This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.
“The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there”, Gandalf noted turning his glance towards the moonlit window. “You’ll have a tale or two to tell of your own when you come back”, he added. “You can promise that I will be back?”, Bilbo Baggins anxiously inquired. “No. And if you do, you won’t be the same”, Gandalf replied in a serious, even ominous, voice.
– The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”.
– Roy Batty’s death soliloquy, Blade Runner (1982)
Why do ‘we’ fight? For freedom? For democracy? For peace? You name it, and so politicians readily do. There are justifications of war in plenty. Still, is that really why ‘we’ fight? What about power? What about resources? What about greatness? Surely, these are credible explanations of war. Yet, is that really, really why ‘we’ fight? The answer must depend upon who ‘we’ are, and which fight ‘we’ have in mind. For instance, are we talking about Russians invading a neighbouring country, about Ukrainians defending their homeland, or about ‘foreign fighters’ volunteering for Ukraine’s International Legion? In any event, the dominant political discourse on why the ‘national we’ fight is often radically different from the demotic discourse among those who do the actual warfighting. At least that is the case of those Danish combat troops with whom I, as an ‘embedded researcher’, have conducted ethnographic fieldwork – before, during, and after deployment to Al Anbar, Iraq, and to Helmand, Afghanistan, respectively.
It’s the adventure, stupid!
Once more, why do ‘we’ fight? Why do ‘our’ troops fight? This question is one I have endeavoured to get to grips with since the heyday of the Danish Helmand campaign. Back then I had a defining moment of ethnographic wonder when I one day, comfortably seated in my armchair, read my newspaper and came across a series of short portraits of Danish soldiers, all deployment-bound for Afghanistan. Particularly one mugshot caught my eye. The caption stated that the young man, depicted in his ‘desert uniform’, had signed up for the coming tour of duty because of the adventure. I almost spilled my coffee. Wait, what? The adventure? Not anti-terrorism? Not good governance? Not women’s rights and girls’ schools? Not even God, Queen, and Country? I carefully scrutinised the soldier’s portrait – a private in his early twenties. He looked perfectly sane and normal. But if he was not somehow retarded how then could he be willing to risk life and limb for the sake of an adventure? How could he be willing to cause death and destruction, not in the name of a greater course, but on the contrary merely in the name of what he seemingly expected to be an exciting experience? I was shocked. I was dumbfounded. I was puzzled. Above all, my curiosity was kindled as if by magic. What was going on? What was at stake? And so, my journey began into worlds of military and warfighting.
In retrospect, of course, my initial wonder strikes me today as rather naïve. My then modest insight into ‘things military’ (Mohr, Sørensen & Weisdorf 2021) had made me expect the portrayed soldier’s war participation to be in line with the dominant, political discourse on why ‘we’, the Danes, fought in Afghanistan. Instead of recognising the adventurous soldier as one who, however unintentionally, ‘spoke truth to power’ and gave voice to what I, with inspiration from Brown & Lutz (2007), have elsewhere called a ‘subjugated warrior knowledge’ (Pedersen 2017b), my first reaction was one of disbelief. Clearly, I found it hard to accept that the soldier in the news did not fit my discursively informed preconception of ‘our’ troops as a heroic breed of patriots and humanitarians, more noble and more altruistic than the rest of us. All the same, the discursive spell was broken: It is the adventure, stupid!
The rookie and the veteran
What then is in an adventure? Why is an adventure worth dying for? One place to start looking for answers is in the margins of the battlespace, yet right under our noses, namely in cinema or popular culture more generally. Take, for example, The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins and Blade Runner’s Roy Batty. Of course, Bilbo and Roy are fictional characters, still each of them embodies a widespread cultural figure: ‘the rookie’ (Bilbo) and ‘the veteran’ (Roy). The adventurous rookie is dying to see the world and is happily facing the unknown once the existential bargain has been settled in favour of going into the danger zone rather than staying in the zone of comfort. The seasoned combat veteran, on the other hand, has seen their fair share of extraordinary things in life and may thus die with peace of mind.
‘The rookie’ and ‘the veteran’, I contend, prime ‘our’ young people for going to war in search of happy-ending adventures. ‘The rookie’ and ‘the veteran’ socialise ‘our’ young men and women into war as a place of adventure, a place where there might be a price to pay, yet also a prize to win. Now, it goes without saying that war involves the risk of death and (self-)destruction, yet it is not often said that war also harbours the chance of life and (self-)creation. On this, the ‘bright side’ of war, ‘the rookie’ and ‘the veteran’ enchant the world of war as a place of potentialities and possibilities; a place where one goes in search of experience and pleasure, of feeling alive and undergoing transformation, of self-discovery and self-improvement, of existential well-being and self-becoming (cf. Pedersen 2017a, 2017b; 2019). Indeed, the quest for adventure entails that ‘our’ troops seek out war in the pursuit of happiness, hedonic as eudemonic (ibid.). That is at least so in the case of those Danish ‘grunts’ I have followed.
Drawing upon Walker and Kavedžija (2015), I conceive ‘hedonic happiness’ as an inner state of feeling good, a state of satisfaction and enjoyment. ‘Eudemonic happiness’, on the other hand, I understand as a matter of doing good and living a life of human flourishing (ibid.). In short, hedonia emphasises pleasurable sensations and eudaimonia a life of virtue. Yet, as Walker and Kavedžija (2015) remind us, hedonia and eudaimonia need not necessarily to be in conflict: you might feel good by doing good. In a similar vein, Lutz calls attention to a variety of war pleasures, including “the thrill of feeling like a moral victor [and], the pleasure of feeling like you are a good person” (Johais & Lutz 2022: 9).
In my earlier work with Danish ISAF troops, I have explicitly explored eudemonic happiness in the case of my interlocutors’ struggle for becoming what I have described as ‘virtuous warriors’ (Pedersen 2017b). By contrast my interrogation of hedonic happiness has only been implicit, namely in the case of the ‘desire for the real’ – real combat, that is (Pedersen 2017a). However, the current, reinvigorated focus of a major research project (WARFUN) on the relationship between war and fun (De Lauri 2022; Johais & Lutz 2022; Mogstad 2022) has encouraged me to revisit my empirical data on contemporary Danish expeditionary forces and look at them through the analytical lens of hedonic pleasure. Accordingly, what has materialised is a range of pleasures, including what we may call ‘the thrill of destruction’, ‘the fun of a gun’, ‘the excitement of fighting’, ‘the love for being one of the guys’, ‘the pleasure of feeling like a hell of guy’, and ‘the satisfaction of having been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt’. I will look further into these pleasures in a different context (The War and Experience Conference).
Tales and spectacles
For now, I restrict myself to attend to what we may refer to as ‘pleasures of tales and spectacles’, thus taking us back to Bilbo and Roy, that is, to the pleasure of having stories of one’s own to tell, and to the pleasure of seeing remarkable things. In the case of my OIR material, these pleasures are voiced, among others, by Private First Class ‘Larsen’, then serving with the Jutland Dragoon Regiment’s Viking Coy, a mechanised infantry company. Larsen was deployed as Guardian Angel providing force protection to a Company Training Team stationed at Al Asad Airbase. A few months into the tour, which was his first, Larsen shared his thoughts on the deployment, while we enjoyed the cool night breeze outside Larsen’s quarters in Al Asad’s Camp Tripoli:
“If this should have been an adventure, which I would have loved it to be, then we should have been doing like the Norwegians who get out [of the camp] and get to see more … Surely, that sounds considerably more exciting. Then you do also have that as draw: You get to see Iraq. Then you can say, ‘I’ve been driving round in Iraq for half a year and seen what it looks like’.”
Inquiring into what extent he had signed up to OIR for the sake of the deployment bonus, Larsen promptly replied:
“I would have done it for less money as well. After all, it’s because of the adventure, although there is not much adventure in it. But one does always set off hoping. Surely, we have seen things. It is a funny place, right? We are never going to see anything like this anywhere else. So, in that sense, there has been a very tiny adventure in it. Surely, we have seen something that resembles a ghost town … Once it was a huge camp [nicknamed ‘Camp Cupcake’ (2003-2011)] with swimming pools and all sorts of things built by the Americans. We were out having a look at it. It’s almost like Chernobyl where things have just been deserted … It’s special. It’s very strange. You return home with that. At least you get to see those things.”
As for my ISAF material, the pleasures of tales and spectacles are expressed, for example, by Gunner Private ‘Lyngby’. He served with the Guard Hussar Regiment’s 1st Light Recce Squadron and deployed with the Force Protection Section ‘Fenrir’. It was Lyngby’s first tour of duty; a tour that would take him into the Helmandi ‘theatre of operations’ at the time when ISAF’s war was drawing to a close. Shortly prior to the deployment, a sunny summer afternoon at Almegaard Barracks, home of the 3rd Recce Battalion, Lyngby let me in on his anticipations of the coming tour:
“I’m just looking forward to experiencing it all; experiencing being deployed to Afghanistan … What is it actually like down there? … I’d be lying if I returned and didn’t say it was awesome to be part of it … Then you’re just a little more. After all, it’s not that many who have been down there. Then you can say you’ve tried it … It will also be exciting to see Camp Bastion. What the heck is that? It’s quite a monstrosity, right? … It is bloody well not kid’s stuff. It’s huge. The outer perimeter equals the distance of a Marathon race. It’s quite impressive.”
Lyngby and Larsen might not have any fantastic tales of trolls and dragons to tell, and they might not have seen anything as spectacular as space combat. Nevertheless, they did seem to find pleasure in the not quite so dramatic tales and spectacles that their deployment was offering them after all. But what then is so pleasurable about such pleasure? First, to judge from the interview snippets above, tales and spectacles, I suggest, harbour the pleasure of seeing things with one’s own eyes, the pleasure of ‘being there’, the pleasure of learning for oneself what it is like ‘for real’ (Pedersen 2017a), whether that be Iraq, or Afghanistan, or simply a tour of duty. Second, tales and spectacles, it appears, involve the pleasure of feeling awed in the presence of large-scale war infrastructures like Al Asad and Bastion; the pleasure of feeling one’s sense of self enlarged through attachments to ‘things miliary’ among one’s own or allied forces. Third, tales and spectacles seem to entail the pleasure of having rare experiences and becoming remarkably experienced; the pleasure of becoming a ‘who’ by virtue of the ‘what’ one has experienced at war (cf. Jackson 2013); the pleasure of feeling special, like a somebody (a veteran) rather than a nobody (a rookie); the pleasure of having tales of one’s own to tell and perhaps, however wishful, even becoming ‘the most interesting person in the room’.
More than meets the ear and the eye
To be sure, the study of war pleasures calls for further elaboration elsewhere, empirically as theoretically. Here, I conclude this reflection by noting that my preliminary investigation into pleasures of tales and spectacles tends to be collapsing the distinction between hedonic and eudemonic happiness. There is more to the adventurous longing to see the world than pleasurable sensations of war wonders: Existential well-being and human flourishing, for instance, and thus the pleasure, with Jackson (2013), of experiencing oneself as acting upon the world rather than being acted upon by others; and, as I add, the pleasure of imagining, or even experiencing, oneself as self-transforming and coming into one’s own as an experienced individual and seasoned veteran.
Brown, Keith & Catherine Lutz. 2007. Grunt Lit: The Participant-observers of Empire. American Ethnologist 34(2): 322-28. doi.org/10.1525/ae.2007.34.2.322
De Lauri, Antonio. 2022. The Experience of War: The WARFUN project. WARFUN Diaries 1: 2-4. Bergen: Chr. Michelsen Institute.
Jackson, Peter, director. 2012. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Warner Bros. Pictures. 2 h, 49 min. https://www.warnerbros.com/movies/hobbit-unexpected-journey
Jackson, Michael. 2013. The Politics of Storytelling: Variations on a Theme by Hannah Arendt. 2nd edition. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.
Johais, Eva & Catherine Lutz. 2022. Is There a Place for Fun and Pleasure in War Research? A Conversation between Eva Johais and Catherine Lutz. WARFUN Diaries 1: 8-11. Bergen: Chr. Michelsen Institute.
Mogstad, Heidi. 2022. ‘Are You Heading to the Fun Zone?’: Notes from the Polish-Ukrainian Border. Allegra Lab, November 22. https://allegralaboratory.net/are-you-heading-to-the-fun-zone-notes-from-the-polish-ukrainian-border/
Mohr, Sebastian, Birgitte Refslund Sørensen & Matti Weisdorf. 2021. The Ethnography of Things Military – Empathy and Critique in Military Anthropology. Ethnos 86(4): 600-615. doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2019.1687553
Pedersen, Thomas Randrup. 2017a. Get Real: Chasing Danish Warrior Dreams in the Afghan ‘Sandbox’. Critical Military Studies 3(1): 7-26. doi.org/10.1080/23337486.2016.1231996
Pedersen, Thomas Randrup. 2017b. Soldierly Becomings: A Grunt Ethnography of Denmark’s New ‘Warrior Generation’. PhD dissertation. Dept. of Anthropology, Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen.
Pedersen, Thomas Randrup. 2019. Ambivalent Anticipations: On Soldierly Becomings in the Desert of the Real. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 37(1): 77-92. doi.org/10.3167/cja.2019.370107
Scott, Ridley, director. 1982. Blade Runner. Warner Bros. Pictures. 1 h, 57 min. https://www.warnerbros.com/movies/blade-runner
Walker, Harry & Iza Kavedžija. 2015. Values of Happiness. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5(3): 1-23. doi.org/10.14318/hau5.3.002
 ‘Larsen’ is a pseudonym.
 ‘Lyngby’ is a pseudonym as well.