Have I killed someone? Meaning making by German soldiers after combat in Afghanistan

This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.

The experience of military violence during the German ISAF operation has not only been essentially new to German society and the armed forces but also and particularly to the Bundeswehr soldiers. For the first time since the end of World War II, German servicemembers actively used kinetic violence during combat. The question in focus here is how do soldiers deal with combat situations, the fear, the permanent tension and how do they cope with killing and death? Killing is still one of the best hidden phenomena of modern wars, because social scientists generally hesitate when it comes to discussing and investigating the act of killing. It is a challenging research undertaking to not per se classify violence as something evil (or something good) but, in defiance of the moral challenge, to examine how people can inflict violence upon others or even kill them and how they evaluate the significance of such an act. When ISAF soldiers returned to Germany, friends and relatives often tersely enquire: “Did you kill anyone?” instead of asking the usual question: “So what was it like?”. Due to certain spatial distances given in most combat situations, the soldiers most often than not do not know whether they have actually injured or killed someone. Having certain knowledge in this respect is very rare in military conflicts. This not-knowing can lead to equally irritating feelings of guilt and shame as being sure to have shot somebody. In most combat situations, soldiers do not face each other when they shoot; on the contrary, the view on the other soldier (who is moving and taking cover) can be blocked by (large) distances, the terrain, bushes, buildings etc. This is also called the “fog of combat”. A (fatal) hit on an opponent can only be noticed by the ceasing backfire – in most cases, the only ones who have a clear view on the enemy to be killed are the snipers (if at all) or movie heroes. Therefore, the experience of killing another person seems to remain rather abstract to most of the German soldiers with combat experience. Interestingly enough, even snipers are protected from a too direct confrontation with the act of killing by looking through their rifle scopes.

Therefore, the soldiers experience killing in highly contradictory ways (cf. Bar/Ben-Ari 2005: 133). This may lead to a range of (emotional) reactions between desire for combat and triumph on the one hand and seeking of sense, feelings of guilt, compassion and remorse on the other hand. Directly after a fight, the soldiers are happy to have survived and maybe to have even killed the enemy. In most cases, unsettling thoughts, questions of meaning and feelings of guilt only arise after some time has passed, because the soldiers also may see “an ominous component of hopelessness” in the bloodshed and killing.

Soldiers can be morally unsettled by these questions. Most studies in the context of social sciences are focused on the victims of violence rather than on the perpetrators. During ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan, however, the soldiers not only became victims but perpetrators as well. This perspective can be hard to bear for some soldiers and, apart from moral questions, can also lead to feelings of guilt, shame and aggressiveness as well as to speechlessness and helplessness. Additional consequences may include disturbed social behaviour as well as impulse control disorders. The majority of soldiers are nevertheless dealing quite well with the killing in battle – especially if the enemy has been identified unequivocally and if servicemembers can be sure to have successfully fought against insurgents. However, our natural biological scruples to kill another person have to be overcome again and again. People do not want to kill, and soldiers are no exception. Apparently, in World War II, 80 to 85 per cent of the American soldiers did not shoot at the enemy. This psychological barrier has been lowered considerably afterwards by better training during the wars in Korea and Vietnam. 

When soldiers kill another human being, this act can call our inherent humanity into question. The legitimization of the use of violence by society is thus of particular significance. If one’s own group approves of the collective killing (imperative to kill), the cultural concept of the prohibition of killing can be overcome and adequately processed. As indicated by German ISAF soldiers during personal interviews, they sometimes not only questioned the meaning and purpose of the mission, they were also aware of the poor legitimization of this robust operation on the part of German society. This awareness burdens soldiers. Additionally, war is not an endeavour of a few but, instead, “war is a state of society” and therefore affects everyone. 

With regard to the psychological wellbeing of soldiers from a combat mission, it is vital for the soldiers to be reaccepted and readmitted by society as ‘people like you and me’ and to not be perceived as ‘psychopathologized strangers’ or “marginal women/men” as often the case in Western societies.

In the German society, soldiers are often marked as being special so that their experiences may be excluded as particular ones. This way society does not have to integrate war experiences enter into a direct confrontation with the experienced violence. In other words, experiences of violence are not being integrated into society; instead, the affected soldiers are being repulsed by focusing on psychopathology. However, war and warlike conflicts cannot be individualized. Combat experiences cannot be excluded by so-called post-heroic societies, which send their soldiers into conflict or war scenarios. Experiences of violence are not only stored in narrations and archived in language. They are also incorporated into bodies, movements, gestures, (unofficial) rituals and objects. 

Personal interviews with Bundeswehr soldiers with combat experience have demonstrated that, even in the military context, violence is being interpreted in highly different ways. It can have both abominable and positive aspects. As unsettling as experiences of violence may be in that particular moment, for many soldiers the confrontation with violence is only part of a more complex experience during a mission as well as afterwards. Externally, the armed forces represent the state’s monopoly on the use of violence. As members of this organization of the state, the soldiers are trained in the use of violence and sent on sometimes robust missions mandated by parliament. During these operations they will have to make use of the learned violence in combat situations. For the soldiers, violence is the ‘gravitational centre’ which is not only the basis for core military training but also for the emergence of a soldierly identity. The training and performance of military violence is an essential part of a professional soldier’s view on his profession. Therefore, we need to understand that for many members of the military, violence is nothing that automatically traumatizes but it is part of their profession as well as of their professional self-perception. In most cases, soldiers are able to deal quite well with experiences of violence as an integral part of their soldierly assignment in the country of deployment. 

The experience of violence is not automatically traumatizing and is not taken as an opportunity to distance oneself from the values and norms of the native peaceful society. In many cases, soldiers with combat experiences who have been directly confronted with their own mortality often appreciate their home more than they did before. In many cases they also experience a strengthening of their value system – virtues such as honesty, politeness, reliability and taking care of each other now (once again) have a higher importance. Combat experiences can trigger a certain self-assurance which helps to regain one’s “own wholeness”. Suppressed or dormant facets of one’s own personality can be revived/lived out under the challenging conditions of a violent confrontation.


Bar, N., & Ben-Ari, E. (2005). Israeli snipers in the Al-Aqsa intifada: killing, humanity and lived experience. Third World Quarterly26(1), 133-152.

Pleasures of War

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. 


Brown, K. E., & Penttinen, E. (2013). ‘A ‘sucking chest wound’ is nature’s way of telling you to slow down….’: humour and laughter in war time. Critical Studies on Security, 1(1): 124–126

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.

Harari, Y.N. (2008). Combat Flow: Military, Political, and Ethical Dimensions of Subjective Well-Being in War. Review of General Psychology, 12 (3), 253-264.

Kaplan, B. A. (2007). Masking Nazi Violence in the Beautiful Landscape of the Obersalzberg. Comparative Literature, 59(3): 241–268. 

Kaplan, B. A. (2006). Unwanted beauty: aesthetic pleasure in Holocaust representation. University of Illinois Press.

Lisle, D. (2016). Holidays in the danger zone: entanglements of war and tourism. University of Minnesota Press.

MacLeish, K. (2013). Making War at Fort Hood. Princeton University Press.

Nordstrom, C. (1997). A Different Kind of War Story. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Nordstrom, C. (1999). Wars and Invisible Girls, Shadow Industries, and the Politics of Not-Knowing. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 1(1): 14-33.

Ortner, S. B. (2016). Dark anthropology and its others: Theory since the eighties. HAU Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 6(1): 47–73. 

Parashar, S. (2013). What wars and ‘war bodies’ know about international relations. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 26 (4):615–630. 

Sartre, J. (1944).  ‘Paris alive: The Republic of Silence’. The Atlantic. 174 (6): 43, accessed https://www.scribd.com/doc/238556147/Paris-Alive#fullscreen&from_embed

Sylvester, C. (2012). War Experiences/War Practices/War Theory. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 40 (3):  483–503.

Neretva & Sutjeska in Horror and Magic of Individual Remembrances – research notes and late-night thoughts

This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.

    Yugoslav historiography counted seven major Axis military operations undertaken against the Yugoslav partisan forces during the Second World War. Each of the offensives had as its goal elimination of the partisan resistance and the pacification of the Yugoslav countries. By surviving and continuing to fight, the partisan forces won in each one. And by surviving, they had no other choice than to continue to fight. Part of the reason was the ideological irreconcilability of enemy groups. From the partisan perspective, all military activity was supplemented by cultural and educational activities organized by the partisans in their military units as well as by the representatives of communist institutions in the liberated territories. These activities colored the idea of postwar future into utopian tones of communism. “Their” as well as “our” dead paid the toll towards the realization of that ideal. Corresponding resolve of the enemy forces was the other part. The sources often mark the German Wehrmacht’s efficiency and ruthlessness as particularly formidable in the partisans’ eyes. Behind them, it seems, nothing but ruin remained. 

     And in order to survive and to continue to fight, a little magic was needed too. Magic, noun denoting the power of influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces, I am well aware, is a completely unwieldy concept. At this point of my research, however, it serves the purpose of sheltering a set of different occurrences which helped some of the participants of the Yugoslav partisan struggle to make it through one more day, and sometimes even made a difference between surviving and resisting. Such magic, prime quality emergency handmade hodgepodge, could come in the form of hope, empathy, love, or laughter. For many of these episodes, if they did not happen in such extreme circumstances, one would easily say that it was simply having fun. Whatever it was, it influenced moods, minds, and dispositions. Personal accounts about the war in Yugoslavia abound in randomly scattered moments of such commiseration and comfort, even in the most desperate of situations. In addition, because of the way some of the participants remembered the war, to a reader like me sometimes seems that it really was magic in the literal sense of the word.

     It seems pointless in the Sarajevo prison when, after returning from yet another all-night interrogation-cum-beating, Radojka Lakić’s friend and comrade combed blood and dirt out of her hair, braided it, pulled it up into a bun and secured it with hairpins. At the same time, other prisoners joined her in quiet singing of revolutionary songs, the only ones that Lakić sang (Beoković 1967, 158). It seems girlish and unencumbered when Drvar peasant girls, instead of elaborating the work strategy of the local branch of the women’s organization (on which the partisan army often depended), assigned priority to embroidering flowers on the skirts of their Party representatives, because, they fancied, it was not acceptable for young women to wear black. Carried away by cheerfulness, the girls started to sing, and some even started a circle dance (Beoković 1967, 420). It seems mystical when the actor Vjekoslav Afrić recited verses about sixteenth-century peasant rebel Matija Gubec into the ear of a partisan with whom he happened to be sharing a campfire between two long marches (1958, 486-487). It seems completely ridiculous and incredible when one vet refused to continue to walk and had himself tied on a mule as a piece of equipment, and even more so when, in the meal break in which everyone got to eat except for him (as a joke), he got so upset and shouted so much that he also upset the mule, which disappeared into some shrubbery amid the clatter of hooves and equipment and laughter of all present (Božović 1958, 411-412). 

     The war distorted things. The experiences it made possible were extreme, physically and emotionally strenuous and draining. Consequently, it made small things look and feel big, important, lifesaving. That is why the narrative of World War 2 in Yugoslavia, individual destinies as well as the biggest of battles, is entwined with stories of magic. Sometimes those were hairpins, quite often those were partisan variety shows, singing, and dancing, and over time partisan leader Josip Broz Tito became imbued in magic as well. In the context of my research so far, the battles of Neretva and Sutjeska have brought to the fore some of the most exquisite examples. 

     In January 1943, the battle of Neretva (locally also known as the Battle for the Wounded or the Fourth Enemy Offensive, January/March 1943) began. Its goal was to destroy the central command of the partisan movement and the units around it as well as the Central Committee of the Communist Party. To be as effective as possible, German and Italian deployed commanders did not punish soldiers’ excessive brutality. Participating Chetniks and Ustasha soldiers did not deal with such trivialities anyway. In March 1943, still in the midst of enemy encirclement and without a set plan of extraction, the members of the Cultural and Artistic Team of the Fourth Operative Zone (for Dalmatia) gave a theatrical performance – songs with accordion accompaniment, recitations, and two comic plays – for the members of (for the most part) Fourth and Fifth Montenegrin Brigades who had just arrived from fighting positions as well as the wounded and civilians who were present. The performance culminated in a familiar manner, with a circle dance. Reportedly, it was interrupted just before dawn when the soldiers had to return to the battle positions (Borozan 1983, 45; Rutić 1952, 331-332).

     Despite heavy losses, more than half of partisans within the encirclement killed and captured, and a clear tactical victory for the Axis, the partisan army managed to secure their command and the central hospital, retreat, and resume activity. Taking advantage of the partisan exhaustion, however, the Axis forces immediately set about executing another large-scale operation, the battle of Sutjeska (also known as the Fifth Enemy Offensive, May/June 1943). The goals of this offensive remained the same, as well as the methods employed by the Axis soldiers. Unlike the previous offensive, though, partisan leader Josip Broz Tito was wounded in this battle. In all-embracing carnage – this time around, most of the central hospital, particularly the immobile wounded, could not be transferred across Sutjeska as they were transferred across Neretva; along with some medical personnel, mostly partisan nurses, as well as local civilian population, they were killed in the clean-up operation that followed the closing of the encirclement – a number of personal memories reflect particularly on Tito’s wounding (ad es. Božović 1958, 395-396). His mortality astounded and frightened many. According to one exceptional testimony, after the news of the wounding, Tito’s safe exit from the closing enemy encirclement offered a glimpse of magic of almost biblical proportions. Exhausted groups who dropped to the ground only a few hundred meters from the place where the battle was still being fought and showed no intention of moving forward, upon seeing Tito passing by them just rose to their feet and continued their journey in silence (Skrigin 1968, 198). In academic language, using the conceptualization of Ernst Kantorowicz’s king’s two bodies, it can be said that with his natural body Tito already then stood for the body politic of (the future of) Yugoslavia (Brkljačić 2003). Following more on the emotion emanating from the sources, maybe such an occurrence should not come as a surprise. Maybe it is quite reasonable that people who were drawn into a war that all but guaranteed their destruction and exceeded the limits of what they thought possible on a daily basis, had to believe in a higher power, even if it was another man. They could be the heroes and heroines as long as he was willing to be their savior. Together, they survived on.


Afrić, Vjekoslav. 1958. “Pokret, vatra… i smrt” [“Advance, Fire… and Death”]. In Đurović, Milinko, ed. Sutjeska, zbornik radova 1 [Sutjeska, Collection of Works 1], pp. 483-494. Belgrade: Vojnoizdavački zavod JNA “Vojno delo.”

Beoković, Mila. 1967. Žene heroji [Heroines]. Sarajevo: Svjetlost.

Borozan, Braslav. 1983. “Avangardno i inovacije u kazalištu NOB-a” [“Avant-garde and Innovations in the NOB Theatre”]. Dani Hvarskoga kazališta: Građa i rasprave o hrvatskoj književnosti i kazalištu 10, no. 1, 41-52.

Božović, Saša. 1958. “U sanitetu Druge proleterske” [“In Second Proletarian’s Medical Corps”]. In Đurović, Milinko, ed. Sutjeska, zbornik radova 1[Sutjeska, Collection of Works 1], pp. 392-412. Belgrade: Vojnoizdavački zavod JNA “Vojno delo.”

Brkljačić, Maja. 2003. “Tito’s Bodies in Word and Image.” Narodna umjetnost 40, 99-128.

Rutić, Joža. 1952. “Sjećanje na Kazalište narodnog oslobođenja Jugoslavije” [“Remembering the Theatre of the People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia”]. Kulturni radnik 7-8, 327-332.

Skrigin, Žorž. 1968. Rat i pozornica [War and Stage]. Belgrade: Turistička štampa.

The self-realising soldier

This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.

Soldiers participate in wars for various reasons, some of which are historically, politically and culturally contingent, and others shaped by individual circumstances and dispositions. While research on the U.S. and U.K. militaries has often highlighted soldiers’ desires for social mobility and economic security, the Israeli military sociologist Ben-Shalom (2012) emphasises soldiers’ need to feel a sense of purpose or meaning. From his perspective, meaning-making is an active creation and selection process, leaving room for individual agency and choice. However, soldiers’ motivations and narratives are also a matter of public and political concern. Moreover, public institutions like the government and the military are heavily invested in the “psychic and emotional lives of those whose job it is to fight, kill, be injured, and die on the nation’s behalf” (MacLeish 2019: 275). In other words, it matters not only what soldiers do but also what they say and feel.  

In this blog post, I begin by discussing what other scholars have identified as the “humanitarian soldier”, that is, a moral figure embodying both the humanitarian spirit and military ethos expressed in the post-9/11 “humanitarian wars” and counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan in particular (De Lauri 2019a; Kotilainen 2011; 2020). Drawing on my own research with Norwegian soldiers and veterans, I thereafter identify a new mode of soldiering: the “self-realising soldier” motivated primarily by a desire for adventure, thrill and growth. 

The contribution is based on my ongoing research with Norwegian soldiers and war veterans who have served in international operations during the last two decades. My primary data collection method is in-depth, semi-structured and occasionally repeated interviews with current and former soldiers in the Norwegian Armed Forces. These are supplemented with media analysis, archival research, expert interviews and research visits to military camps and academies, veteran centres, military museums and soldiers’ homes. My interviewees are mainly men (hitherto 18 men vs 4 women), but they have different class– and educational backgrounds and come from and live across the country. Moreover, they have different ranks, military specialities and careers, ranging from special forces operatives and intelligence officers to infantry soldiers and other enlisted personnel. Due to my interest in soldiers’ relationships to violence and enemy construction, I purposefully sought out people with combat experience. I have also focused on soldiers and veterans who have served in professionalised expeditionary forces in Afghanistan, sometimes referred to in Norway as “the new generation of soldiers and veterans”. However, several of my interlocutors have also experience from peacekeeping missions and military interventions in the Balkans, Africa, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. Since I have yet to complete my analysis, what I present below are only preliminary findings and reflections. Further discussions and ethnography will be shared in future articles and publications. 

The humanitarian soldier  

Writing specifically about the post-9/11 era, Kotilainen argues that “the co-optation and closer collaboration of humanitarianism and militarism have given birth to a figure who encapsulates and embodies the global politics of the politicized humanitarian system and the logics of the new wars: the humanitarian soldier” (2020: 100). As De Lauri elaborates, “the humanitarian soldier appears as a global moral agent who embodies both the ‘humanitarian spirit’ and the military ethos expressed in contemporary humanitarianism and the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan in particular” (2019a: 33). The figure frequently appears in political discourses and legitimising speeches where it “aspires to make Western warfare seem humane and conducted in accordance with the moral legitimizations for such interventions. The humanitarian soldier is therefore well suited to winning over the hearts and minds of the domestic populations of the warring states” (Kotilainen 2020: 100; see also Kotilainen 2011). 

However, the figure of the humanitarian soldier is more than a visual representation or tool to persuade civilians and non-combatants. In the context of the war in Afghanistan, scholars have shown that soldiers’ narratives and self-understandings are deeply influenced by humanitarian campaigns, justifications and imaginaries. For instance, one of the Italian soldiers De Lauri (2019b) interviewed, emphasised ISAF’s mission to “help Afghans to rebuild their country, to give hope to the Afghan population” (p. 49). Another interviewee spoke of soldiers’ “moral duty towards humanity at large” (ibid: 50). Likewise, Welland (2016) writes that, when asked about their personal motivations, British soldiers tended to “assume a more humanitarian explanation than the security of their home nation” (p. 140). In her understanding, “many soldiers appeared genuinely excited about getting involved with the local population, with doing something more than just war-fighting, and had an unselfconscious desire to ‘do good’” (ibid; see also Duncanson 2013). Put differently; they had come to embody the figure of the humanitarian soldier used to legitimise foreign interventions as a form of compassion and moral responsibility (De Lauri 2019a). 

The self-realising soldier 

Prior to starting my research, I had expected that at least some of the Norwegian soldiers I interviewed would talk about their motivations and experiences in similar ways. A major donor of aid and development assistance, Norway has a rather self-congratulatory public self-image as a “nation of peace and compassion” (fredsnasjon) or “humanitarian superpower” (humanitær stormakt) (Gullestad 2006; Tvedt 2017). In accordance with this self-definition, the country’s participation in foreign wars and military operations are typically framed as humanitarian or peacebuilding interventions (Heier et al 2017). Moreover, the Norwegian Army is known to be restrictive with the use of violence and decorate soldiers for their efforts to save civilian lives. Given the Armed Forces’ consistent efforts to make historical connections with Norway’s World War Two “resistance heroes” and positive nationalist sentiments in the population at large (Gullestad 2006), I had also expected several of my interlocutors to exhibit patriotic values and motivations. 

However, neither of the soldiers and veterans I interviewed conformed with these dominant cultural scripts. First, despite the ideological justifications for the war in Afghanistan (De Lauri 2019b) and the focus on counterinsurgency (Welland 2016), they rarely expressed strong positive or negative feelings about Afghan Others, whether enemy or civilian. In fact, nearly all interlocutors explicitly underscored that they were not in Afghanistan to help the civilian population or to serve humanity, nor did they express hatred of the enemy. Second, while generally proud and grateful to be Norwegian, the soldiers and ex-soldiers I interviewed rejected or downplayed patriotic commitments to “serve the king and fatherland” (tjene konge og fedreland). As one explained: “I have always felt proud to wear the Norwegian flag on my shoulder and serve in the Norwegian Army. But going to Afghanistan was never about that. I was about my own desires to experience war and test myself in combat.” It was an “ego-trip” or “form for self-realisation”, others admitted unapologetically.   

Notably, the soldiers emphasised that their exact motivation changed over time. Initially, many were motivated by a strong desire to experience a “real war” (see also Dyvik 2016; Pedersen 2017) or experience something “unique” and unparalleled to their friends and peers at home. They typically described themselves as “young, immature boys who had always enjoyed speed and thrill” (fart og spenning) and life outdoors in the wild. Largely without economic and familial responsibilities at home, they considered themselves free and immortal, though retrospectively, many said they were probably “a bit stupid and naïve”. However, after one or several tours in Afghanistan, most of my interlocutors said they had satisfied their lust for risky assignments and combat. At this point, they were not only “older and wiser”, but many had been promoted and were leaders for younger troops. “No longer in their carefree twenties”, the majority had further married and got young children who depended on them and worried about them when they were abroad. Both developments made them feel more responsible and less willing to take risks on behalf of themselves or others. 

At the same time, serving in international operations was still considered more than just their job and obligations as professional soldiers. Using words like “freedom”, “comradeship”, “simplicity”, “fun”, “mastery” and “bubble”, many described their tours in Afghanistan as an exciting and pleasurable break from their work and commitments at home. Moreover, nearly all the soldiers I interviewed described Afghanistan as a place to grow and develop themselves as soldiers and individuals. Most also said they had experienced such growth, typically telling me they returned from their tours in Afghanistan as better warriors, leaders, and even human beings. Together with a growing sense of duty to and comradery with their fellow soldiers and unit, this desire to grow professionally and personally was a key motivation to return to war despite being more risk-averse and having lost faith in the overall mission (Waaler et al 2019).

By way of conclusion  

Serving in war is often framed as a national duty and sacrifice, which we assume provides soldiers with a larger purpose and meaning. In the post-9/11 era, the blurring of militarism and humanitarianism has also given birth to the figure of the “humanitarian soldier”, which has influenced European soldiers’ narratives and self-understanding. 
However, as described above, my interlocutors’ decision to join –and in many cases return– to the war in Afghanistan had little to do with their moral or emotional commitments to Afghan civilians or an abstract humanity. Nor were they primarily motivated by military or national loyalty or a desire for economic security. Conversely, what emerges from my interviews is the figure of a self-realising soldier initially motivated by the promise of adventure, thrill and self-discovery (including a desire to experience combat first-hand) and later by a strong desire for personal growth and development. 

How should we interpret this figure of the self-realising soldier, and where does it come from? At first glance, it is easy to view my interlocutors’ emphasis on self-realisation as an expression of the disciplinary power of contemporary neoliberalism (Strand and Berdntsson 2015). Indeed, the figure of the self-realising soldier is closely associated with the neo-liberal ideal of the autonomous and entrepreneurial citizen always looking for a way to invest in himself (Gershon 2011; Strand 2022). However, the idea that war can be regenerative or transformative is not new (Mosse 1990; Pedersen 2017). Moreover, we should be careful not to portray soldiers as,

“somehow seduced into military and war, either by valorization of personal regeneration in the ‘Myth of War Experience’ (Mosse 1990) or by idealization of self-making in neoliberal recruitment discourses (Strand and Berndtsson 2015) – let alone by celebration of violence and warriorhood in military-industrial-media-entertainment networks (Der Derian 2009) or in political-military narratives and commemorative practices (Sørensen 2015; Sørensen and Pedersen 2012)” (Pedersen 2017: 8).

In my current work, I follow Pedersen’s (2017) example and take soldiers “seriously” as self-driven and reflective human beings with complex and shifting motivations. I also tackle what I initially believed was a big puzzle: How come Norwegian soldiers –publicly said to protect the nation, liberal democracy and humanitarian values– repeatedly and unashamedly describe their main motivation as self-realisation? Finally, I consider some of the questions my interlocutors did not ponder much about: What, if anything, are the problems with seeking self-realisation in war? Moreover, what are the moral and political implications of treating Afghanistan as an arena for adventure and growth?


Ben-Shalom, U., Y. Klar & I. Benbenisty. (2012) ‘Characteristics of Sense-Making during Combat’ in Handbook of military psychology. Eds. J.A Lawrence & M.D Mathews. London: Oxford University Press, pp. 218-230. 

De Lauri, A. (2019) The Taliban and the Humanitarian Soldier: Configuration of Freedom and Humanity in Afghanistan. Anuac, 8(1): 31–57.

De Lauri, A (2019b) Humanitarian Militarism and the Production of Humanity. Social Anthropology 27(1): 84-99.

Duncanson, C. (2013) Forces for Good? Military Masculinities and Peacebuilding in Afghanistan and Iraq. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Dyvik, S.L. (2016) Valhalla Rising: Gender, Embodiment and Experience in Military Memoirs. Security Dialogue 47(2): 133–150. 

Gershon, I. (2011) Neoliberal agency. Current Anthropology 52(4): 537-555.

Gullestad, M. (2006) Plausible prejudice. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Heier, T., R. Ottesen & T. Tvedt (2017). Libya: Krigens uutholdelige letthet [Libya: The unbearable lightness of the war]. Oslo: Cappelen Damm.

Kotilainen, N. (2020). ‘Humanitarian soldier’ in A. De Lauri (ed). Humanitarianism: Keywords. Leiden: Brill, pp. 99-101.

MacLeish. T. (2019) How to Feel about War: On Soldier Psyches, Military Biopolitics, and American Empire. BioSocieties14(2): 274–299. 

Mosse, G.L. (1990). Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press

Pedersen, T.R. (2017) Get real: Chasing Danish warrior dreams in the Afghan ‘sandbox’. Critical Military Studies3(1): 7-26.

Strand, S. and J. Berndtsson (2015). Recruiting the ‘Enterprise Soldier’: Military Recruitment discourses in Sweden and the United Kindom. Critical Military Studies 1(3): 233-48.

Sanna, S. (2022) The birth of the enterprising soldier: governing military recruitment and retention in post-Cold War Sweden. Scandinavian Journal of History 47(2): 225-247 

Tvedt, T. (2017) Det internasjonale gjennombruddet: fra “ettpartistat” til flerpartistat! [The international breakthrough: from one-party state to multi-party state!]. Oslo: Dreyer Forlag.

Waaler, G., S. Nilsson and G. Larsson. (2019) Voldsbruk og livsfare: Norske og svenske soldaters krigsefaringer fra Afghanistan [Violence and danger: Norwegian and Swedish soldiers war experiences from Afghanistan]. Oslo: Cappelen Dam 

Welland, J. (2016) ‘Gender and “population-centric” counterinsurgency in Afghanistan’ in Handbook on Gender and War.Eds. S. Sharoni, J. Welland, L. Steiner & J. Pedersen. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 127-145.

‘No laughter, no war’

An exploration of soldier humor

This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.

Are soldiers funny? On the face of it, military life does not appear to hold a lot of fun: soldiers relinquish civil liberties and accept the possibility of injury and death, hierarchy orders relations top-down, soldiers learn to control their body through drill exercises. 

For Michel Foucault, the military is an institution that produces disciplinary power (Foucault 1979). Disciplinary power governs through creating ‘docile bodies’ that have incorporated a certain form of conduct as normal. Modern institutions like the military achieve this by subjecting individuals to constant surveillance, isolation, punishment, exercises and a specific arrangement of time and space. Thanks to these techniques, discipline foregoes the excessive use of force or coercion because ‘docile bodies’ govern themselves. In a similar way, Erving Goffman (1961) characterizes “total institutions”. Total institutions are largely cut off from the outside world, remove the separation between work and private life and manage its members according to a fixed set of rules oriented towards an overarching institutional purpose. These conditions straitjacket individuals in a public role and prevent them from developing their own identity. In light of both theoretical conceptions, soldiers face a regime of total control. Thus stripped of agency, how could soldiers nourish a sense of humor?

But in contrast to these preconceptions, humor forms an integral part of military culture. Soldiers find reasons for amusement not despite but because of the particularities of military life. Humor is essential for upholding military practice because it makes people stay. Three sayings discussed in this blog post will demonstrate how the particularities of military life shape the humor of German soldiers.[1]

Humor arises from social interaction (Podilchak 1991, 137). Therefore, the examples provided here are an entry point into soldier culture. I will explore the lifeworld of soldiers through situating the sayings in the social situation in which they occur and the universe of meaning in which they make sense. The examples include a ‘classic’ handed down from generation to generation and sayings that respond to specific situations in soldier life.

„Wer nichts kann, kann Anzug“ – „Who knows nothing, knows dress code“

„Wer nichts kann, kann Anzug” is a classic comment on the competence of superiors. However, when soldiers utter that a superior knows dress code, it is not meant as a compliment for fashion consciousness. Instead, the soldier says figuratively: ‘The guy has no idea what he[2] is talking about.’ Typically, the saying occurs when soldiers grapple with a superior who belongs to another branch of service than their own. In this situation, the superior faces a dilemma. On the one hand, he has the task to supervise the subordinates and provide feedback on their performance. Thus, he is supposed to say something. On the other hand, he lacks the expertise to say something meaningful. According to one interlocutor, only few superiors solve this dilemma through honesty, proclaiming: ‘Well done, lads! Looks good! I have no clue about what you’ve done but I assume it’s correct.’ Most superiors would compensate their lack of expertise for evaluating proper handling of weapons or execution of bodily movements through focusing on something that everybody knows: Even a halfwit can assess whether soldiers observe the military dress code. Are the boots polished? Are pockets closed? Do straps hang loose? Are trousers seams turned up neatly? Are faces well-shaved? 

Although soldiers generally accept the rules that secure a uniform and well-groomed appearance, they sense when superiors misuse these rules for covering up own incompetence. Thus, by dropping ‘Wer nichts kann, kann Anzug’, soldiers express their disdain. Yet, they would not address the superior upfront but use the comment for “create[ing] a shared universe of meaning” (Ben-Ari and Sion 2005, 669) with their peers united in the experience of an incompetent, niggling superior.

With this saying, a soldier finds a humorous way to deal with the particularities of military life in lieu of anger or apathy: In the hierarchical order, soldiers are subject to the will of superiors and evaluations by superiors affect their future career. In addition, they learn to follow, not challenge given orders. Therefore, they abstain from open criticism. An interlocutor explained how humor provides room for agency in the hierarchical order:

“The human being needs an outlet to communicate his displeasure or ideas. Frank words – not allowed in the hierarchical system. Therefore, he seeks communication channels, such as irony. He says things that he dresses flowery, but where everybody comprehends what he wants to convey. But when put on trial, he could always claim: I have never said it that way. The soldier learns from the beginning how to express his position especially if he disagrees with the general mood or state of command. Thus, after thirty-five service years I am able to communicate to a general that I absolutely oppose his statements. Of course, I don’t tell that to his face. I smile at him and a classic statement I would utter is: ‘You can do it that way.’ This is the highest form of disapproval. Translated literally: ‘What you are doing is total nonsense.’ He knows exactly what I just told him, namely he is an ‘asshole’. But, of course, I could never call him ‘asshole’.”

As becomes clear, humor offers a safe mode for transmitting criticism to superiors that keeps the hierarchical order intact. The subordinate finds a way of expression that avoids the risk of sanctions. The superior saves face and could even – if warranted – take the subordinate’s suggestion into account.

“Schluss ist, wenn Schluss ist.” – “It’s not over till it’s over.”

The English translation “It’s not over till it’s over” conveys a different meaning than the use in German soldier life. The proverb points out that the final outcome cannot be assumed or determined before a given situation or activity like a football match or the vote count after an election is completely finished. Usually, the phrase is supposed to keep up hope that – in contrast to the current state – events will develop in the desired way. Instead, when my interlocutor used it for underlining that the present activity was unfinished, this was by no means a reason for hope. He replied “Schluss ist, wenn Schluss ist.” when subordinates moaned how long a strenuous exercise would take. 

With this, the instructor socializes recruits into military discipline: The civilian organization of time is replaced by the military organization of time. This means that the aspiring soldier can neither rely on a schedule that predetermines when working hours end nor a task description that allows for planning the steps until its completion. Instead, duty ends when the mission is completed, respectively when the superior says it is.[3] For instance, a soldier remembered an instructor’s counting method: When the trainees were supposed to do 50 push-ups, he would not count ‘1-2-3-…-50’, but for example ‘1-2-2-2-3-1-…’. Thus, the instructor suspended the – civilian – common-sensical manner of counting in favor of his unpredictable counting style. Similarly, the saying conveys that superiors’ commands supersede one’s own judgement. 

Accordingly, the hierarchical order puts soldiers at the mercy of people who are higher up in the chain of command. Some superiors may enjoy exploiting their might and take sadistic pleasure from issuing arbitrary orders. However, a good superior instills in his subordinates that he can better assess a situation due to his experience. Thus, while soldiers lose familiar orientation frameworks, they learn to trust their superiors. 

In the case of my interlocutor, his subordinates appropriated the saying ‘Schluss ist, wenn Schluss ist’ that he had employed as an educational measure. It turned into a running gag that the soldiers of his platoon used among each other and towards other units as a motivation mantra for holding out. In particular, the running gag served as a source of power in arduous or thorny situations during deployment abroad. Thereby, the example illustrates again the productive effect of humor for military performance: Starting out as a disciplining method, the saying later promoted self-motivation. Furthermore, it reflected how the relationship between superior and subordinates matured.

Nach links wird geschossen und nach rechts kannste[4] Bonbons verteilen.“ – „Shooting to the left and handing out candies to the right.”

An interlocutor made this remark in passing to underscore that soldier life holds a mix of emotions. In one moment, soldiers feel confident about mastering their bodies or weapons and enjoy the camaraderie of their peers. All of a sudden, when they detect an improvised explosive device (IED) or – even worse – if it explodes, they can tumble from feeling over the moon to a serious mood filled with anxiety and tension. 

At first, the remark points out that the military profession generally distinguishes itself by the use of armed force. Apart from that, it captures a specific mission reality: the population-centric counterinsurgency approach that soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were supposed to adopt in Afghanistan. In conventional warfare, the military focuses on fighting the enemy – “shooting to the left”. However, counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies address tactical situations in which regular armed forces face irregular militant groups who use unconventional tactics like suicide attacks and improvised weapons (Mujahid 2016, 47–50). In addition, COIN strategy assumes that insurgents can count on the support of the civilian population. Accordingly, COIN practice in Afghanistan aimed at persuading civilians to defect from the insurgents commonly called Taliban. Therefore, foreign soldiers were instructed to promote the popularity of the international forces and loyalty towards the Afghan government. In other words, they had the task to win the hearts and minds of the people – “handing out candies to the right”.

With such remarks, soldiers prove their ability to put the complexity of a situation in a nutshell. In addition, the ironic tone with which this summary of ‘our daily life’ was delivered creates a “feeling of distance” to the experience (Beck and Spencer 2020, 70). Presumably, the emotional detachment helped soldiers deployed to Afghanistan cope with the contrasting roles they were tasked to carry out as both fighters and development aides (cf. Daxner 2018, 99). 


Do soldiers display a special sense of humor? Certainly, humor is equally important for organizations and group processes as in civilian domains. However, the examples presented here show that the particularities of military life shape how humor is used and what humor achieves. Among the specific conditions of military life is the hierarchical order that exposes soldiers to the will of superiors and prevents them from uttering criticism openly. Furthermore, the military structuring of time and space replaces the familiar civilian framework of orientation. Civilians become soldiers through disciplinary methods that entail interminable repetitions. At the same time, military life offers the safety of comradeship and trust in respected leaders. 

Humor provides a way to live with the conditions of military life. The humorous mode functions as a safe way for expressing criticism, an option for coping with ambivalent feelings, a didactical approach and a source for self-motivation. Although humor opens room for soldier agency, this ultimately stabilizes the military institution because it makes people stay. While possible, I suggest that it is less successful to run a military organization and discipline soldiers solely in the serious mode. Or, to put it simply: no laughter, no war.


Beck, Daniel, and Alexander Spencer. 2020. “Just a Bit of Fun: The Camouflaging and Defending Functions of Humour in Recruitment Videos of the British and Swedish Armed Forces.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 34 (1): 65–84.

Ben-Ari, Eyal, and Liora Sion. 2005. “‘Hungry, Weary and Horny’: Joking and Jesting Among Israel’s Combat Reserves.” Israel Affairs 11 (4): 655–71.

Daxner, Michael. 2018. “Competing with the Dead Hero: Ther German Particular Way.” In Conflict Veterans: Discourses and Living Contexts of an Emerging Social Group, edited by Michael Daxner, Marion Näser-Lather, and Silvia-Lucretia Nicola, 91–108. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Garden City, N.Y. Anchor Books.

Mujahid, Gulrukhsar. 2016. “Questioning the Counter-Insurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan.” Strategic Studies 36 (1): 46–58.

Podilchak, Walter. 1991. “Distinctions of Fun, Enjoyment and Leisure.” Leisure Studies 10 (2): 133–48.

[1] I selected these sayings from in-depth interviews and group discussions with more than 30 current or former members of the German armed forces conducted in 2022.

[2] I use the male pronoun throughout instead of a greater gender variety as that reflects that the military is still a male-dominated social sphere.

[3] Military tactics differ in the degree to which they grant subordinates freedom in the execution of tasks. In mission-type tactics, the military commander defines a clear objective and orders which forces are supposed to accomplish the objective in a given time frame. Then, subordinate leaders decide themselves how to achieve the objective. In contrast to tactics focused on executing a set of orders, mission-type tactics require that subordinates understand the intent of the order and are trained to act independently. In the German armed forces, mission-type tactics are the predominant style of command.

[4] ‘Kannste’ is a contraction of the words ‘kannst du’/‘you can’ that I kept for preserving the ironic tone of my interlocutor.

Between privilege and precarity: European soldiers remobilising as private security contractors in Africa. An interview with Jethro Norman

What happens to soldiers after they leave the military? From the Middle East to Africa, increasing numbers of demobilised soldiers have found work in private military and security companies or as security consultants, military trainers, and risk management professionals. While often in the news, sustained ethnographic research with this group is limited, and they are rarely acknowledged as individuals with complex desires, fears and anxieties. 

What follows is an interview with Jethro Norman about his novel multi-sited research following, interviewing, and living with security professionals across Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan. His upcoming book project, tentatively titled Military Afterlives: private security contractors in Africa, dislodges assumptions about private security contractors as either destabilizing mercenaries or the unwitting proxies of states. Instead, Jethro radically reconceives private security work as a struggle for community and solidarity amidst the trauma of demobilisation and the precarity of the labour market.

The conversation highlights the heady mix of privilege and precarity that defines contemporary private security work. Whilst money is an indisputable motivation for many, Jethro’s research shows that there is far more to this line of work. Among other things, we discuss the allure of life in (post)conflict zones and the complex desires and fears of former soldiers, including escapism and colonial nostalgia. Jethro also shares his personal experiences of conducting research in post-conflict areas, his ‘uncomfortable positionality’ and some of the quandaries involved in anthropological research with groups often considered undesirable or repugnant.     

This interview was initially conducted on November 25th 2022, for a WARFUN podcast.  

This version has been edited and amended for clarity.


Heidi: Jethro, I have so many questions I want to ask you but let us start from the beginning. What made you study former European soldiers turned private security contractors?

Jethro: I initially studied History and Politics at university, but the course mostly focused on Great Power conflict, International Diplomacy, and so on, which I quickly discovered was not my vibe. However, in my final year I took a course with a transnational historian who had interviewed foreign fighters travelling to the Balkans in the 1990s. I was immediately struck by how these war volunteers’ messy experiences did not align with the relatively birds-eye and state-centric image of the world that formed the basis of most of my university coursework. So, energised by this newfound transnational angle, I became interested in private military companies. At that time, around 2014, there was still much alarmist and frankly ahistorical talk about the rise of “corporate mercenaries” meaning the end of the Weberian state and a regression to some kind of neo-medieval era (Singer 2010; McFate 2014). Scholars like Rita Abrahamsen and Michael Williams were already pushing back at this, but for me, there was a larger problem: the voices of these individuals were largely absent from the conversation.

As such, I did a Masters by Research where I reached out to some security contractors working in Somalia. Funnily enough, my initial contact point was through LinkedIn, where some of these guys were starting to market themselves. I approached some of them and asked if they would agree to a Skype interview. Quite a lot just ignored me and a few unsurprisingly told me to ‘F off’, but far more than I had expected had a genuine desire to talk about their experiences.

The Masters was interesting, but you cannot build a relationship with people over Skype, nor understand what is really going on in these places. So next, I applied for PhD funding and spent the best part of a year travelling around East Africa talking to people working for private military and security companies, as well as security consultants, military trainers, humanitarian security professionals and corporate risk management professionals.

At first, I was concerned with mapping ‘the industry’: the companies, the clients and the contracts etc. Over time, though, I ended up focusing more on the individuals themselves rather than the specific companies they worked for. Because what became apparent to me was that, lying behind a mirage of companies and LinkedIn profiles was a transnational community, the core of which is a bunch of former soldiers trying to build a new life in Africa, connected by the shared experience of both military service and their own privatization.

Heidi: I see. You alluded to this already, but why do you believe it is important that we take these ex-soldiers and private security contractors seriously, as you argue in one of your forthcoming articles (Norman in press)?

Jethro: Partly because security contractors are frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. On the one hand, contractors are quite often maligned, even caricatured as mercenaries. At other times, they are treated as soldiers or veterans, but often through a Foucauldian lens as a kind of “docile automaton” – machines disciplined by training and just following orders. However, the individuals I got to know through my research were not unthinking war machines, nor were they motivated purely by money or material gain. Many had strong political convictions and were often highly critical of the nation-state militaries and political establishments they once fought for.

Hence, we need to acknowledge, on the one hand, how diverse these people are, and on the other, that they are a group of human beings that have shared some very particular experiences in the military and then subsequently as private contractors.

Moreover, I believe we can learn a lot from ‘taking them seriously’ and understanding them through long-term ethnography, as I have done. As other scholars have argued (e.g., Catherine Lutz, Ken MacLeish and Zoe Wool), soldiers can teach us a lot about the way our world works, not least by complicating the neat boundaries between war and peace, and soldier and civilian.

In my case, the group of former soldiers I got to know provided a unique window into western society. Many of them experienced defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan first-hand and are acutely, viscerally aware of the declining power of the west. Moreover, they are angry about it and seek ways to escape or rebel against this new world.

Heidi: The idea of taking people seriously has become a bit of a cliché or buzzword in Anthropology, but that does not mean it is unimportant. Arguably it is what ethnographic research is all about. And, as you suggested, it might be especially important when it comes to people who are frequently caricatured and misinterpreted.
Of course, there must still be space for criticism and critique. However, as Astuti (2017: 119) argues, “when people—living human beings—are firmly center stage, one is bound to see temporal and contextual transformations that make it impossible to give a one-dimensional account.”
Jethro, please share more from your fieldwork. What research methods did you use, and how did you go about building trust and relationships with your interlocutors in what I can only imagine must have been an environment characterised by mistrust and secrecy?

Jethro: The mainstay of my research is semi-structured interviews and ethnographic observations. This kind of private security work is quite an insular world, and there are a lot of closed and informal networks. So, it should come as little surprise that it took a long while before I made any real breakthroughs. Initially, some people would not talk to me, and if they did, they would be quite suspicious and give abrupt or even hostile interviews. I vividly remember one of my very first interviews, which was with a towering man, ex-Special Forces, very successful in the business. As I blurted out my first question he stopped me mid-sentence, looked me in the eye and gruffly said, “now, do not be alarmed”, before flourishing a pistol from somewhere around his midriff and placing it on the table, where it sat between him and me for the duration of the interview. This kind of display was something of an outlier, most of my interviews were not like that. And fortunately, after some months, I had made friends and been invited for beers, to watch sports and so on. And at that point, things started to snowball, and doors began opening everywhere.  

This methodological experience also explains why the central concept in the book is what I call the contractor community. I argue that whilst private security is an intensely competitive and cutthroat industry, behind the companies and the contracts there still lies a community of mostly ex-military figures who know each other and socialise with each other through their work and military background. So, at some point I had managed to become at least tentatively allowed into this community. I was sometimes asked “who I had served with in the military” or “which security company” I was with, for example. I was always upfront that I was a PhD researcher and that whilst I wanted to hear their perspective, I still stressed my own academic freedom of interpretation. But I did not hide the fact that fieldwork was also an opportunity for me at that time to explore and travel, which I think resonated with a lot of these guys.

I should say here that there is some uncomfortable positionality to this fieldwork. I was a white guy in my early twenties who liked to play rugby and football and did not mind sitting in a bar until 4am. This certainly made things easier. That is not to say that there were not some ethical quandaries that I struggled with, especially when conversations included misogyny or racism.

Lastly, aside from fieldwork, I also visited the national archives in Nairobi and London because I was interested in how contemporary private security work in East Africa had aspects of continuity between the colonial and postcolonial periods.

Heidi: That is very interesting, and we will return to some of it later. However, I first wanted to ask you about the contractors’ relationship with the military and their past lives as professional soldiers. Contrary to popular opinion, soldiers often characterise war zones as spaces of freedom, something you also touch upon in your work. Yet you write that the ex-soldiers you worked with also contrasted the freedom they experienced as private contractors to the rigidity and bureaucratization of the contemporary military in their home countries. Can you elaborate on this? 

Jethro: I think security work promises an opportunity to recapture some of the rhythms and facets of soldierly life. You are surrounded by your former comrades, you work overseas and leave your family at home, and you go to places deemed to be exciting, dangerous or exotic. Hence, for some of these individuals, security work is an opportunity to remobilise –a second chance for a life of travel, comradeship, and adventure.

That said, many of the contractors I got to know were not merely hoping to get back to how things were in the military; they were trying to find something the military could not give them in the first place! Some of them had very ambivalent, if not openly hostile, relationships to the militaries they had served in. And some suggested that security work offered greater freedoms and opportunities than military institutions, which they increasingly saw as bureaucratised – even feminised. And this is strange. Because the private security industry can be brutal, with short-term contracts and under-regulation that often leave these former soldiers in a precarious position. In my book, I explain their embrace of freedom and risk-taking as a means to rationalise their own precarity in the present. However, it is also a way to criticise the military establishment they came from.

The other irony is that their work often directly feeds into the very same bureaucratised systems they are critical of. During my fieldwork, I managed to access an oil camp in Kenya through a private security contractor I knew. One thing that struck me was these incredibly over-the-top security procedures they had to enforce through which everything was ordered and controlled to the minute degree. At that time, I had been living outside of the camp for around a month, talking to communities living around the oil sites. And it became immediately apparent that those inside the camp had no idea what was going on outside of their bubble. Hence, for most contractors, it is probably more the idea of freedom rather than a lived reality.

Heidi: That is an important distinction. Let us talk more about the ex-soldiers’ motivations to remobilise as private security contractors. In my own work, I have been particularly interested in the question of what attracts people to participate in wars they do not believe in or have any personal stakes in, but you make the point that your interlocutors were also trying to escape something in their home countries. Can you say something more about this? 

Jethro: I think there is always a mix of push and pull factors, and the question of agency is a thorny one indeed. There are several contexts that are important here in explaining the push as well as the pull of security work.

First, as I mentioned, many contractors had experienced the military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan first-hand, and then returned to societies that were reeling from the global financial crisis. A lot of the conversations we had were about specific issues related to demobilisation, such as marital issues, a feeling of not fitting into society, or finding meaningful work, or indeed finding work at all. And the book I am writing tries to front this context – by reconceiving private security work as not simply about money – but at its heart, a struggle for community and solidarity amidst the trauma of demobilisation and the precarity of the labour market.

So this context helps us understand the turn to private security work at this specific moment in time in the 2010s. But the broader backdrop is the steady decline of western authority and influence at the twilight of empire. In the book, I focus historically on the UK and US, and argue that much soldierly work outside of the formal military during the 20th century – mercenarism if you want to call it that–  often took place in the context of the decline of empire, with ex-soldiers fighting anti-colonial movements in Africa and elsewhere. I argue that we must also understand this phenomenon as part of a larger history in which soldiers circulated from Europe to Africa through the colonial and postcolonial periods to the present day.

Zooming back to East Africa in the 2010s, one of the things that surprised me was how a number of these contractors were reading colonial histories and travelogues of colonial adventurers. Through this, they could recast their private security roles in terms of these colonial adventurers. In effect – I think they found refuge in an imagined settler-colonial past, reinscribing colonial and postcolonial legacies into exploitative neoliberal work practices in order to make the precariousness of private security palatable. So private security becomes a way to escape, or even rebel against this new world. Contractors do not see themselves as futuristic, dystopian corporate agents of ‘new wars’ as some academics would suggest, but as the exact reverse – they view their privatised roles as akin to colonial adventurers and explorers.

Of course, much of this is specific to the East African context. Britain’s Kenya colony was constructed as ‘white man’s country’(Jackson 2011), but these settlers were not just any white men. It was very much a place of elite privilege, an aristocratic playground in pristine nature, a place of escape, where the ordinary rules did not apply. And this legacy is still alive today – and partly explains the contemporary allure of working there amongst certain former soldiers, especially from higher ranks.

Heidi: Colonialism has so many afterlives. These expressions of colonial nostalgia and revival are both disturbing and fascinating. They also remind me of Norwegian ex-soldiers who remobilised as private security contractors in Congo and were charged with espionage and murder. While imprisoned in Kisangani, the two men formed a club for other ex-pat prisoners, which they called ‘Expatriate Club Stanleyville Prison’ (a reference to the Belgian colonial name of Kisangani). They also regularly expressed nostalgia for colonial Africa (Bangstad and Bertelsen 2010).

Before we conclude the interview, I wanted to ask you about another part of your work that I found intriguing and which unsettles popular imaginaries of war and conflict zones.  In one of your upcoming articles, you look at the international green zone in Somalia, which you argue served as a space of not only protection or safety, but also recreation and entertainment. This reminded of the work of historian Meredith Lair (2011), who discusses how boredom was an enemy to the U.S. mission and efficiency in Vietnam and how, in order to combat this boredom, the military created a standard of living for troops in Vietnam which often was higher than what the soldiers enjoyed at home. Could you please tell us more about the role of entertainment and recreation in the international green zone in Somalia?

Jethro: I think there is some resonance with Meredith Lair’s work that you describe, especially in relation to the disappointment that some individuals felt – that their military experience was not as exciting or life-changing as they perhaps expected it to be. Quite a number of contractors I spoke to claimed they had seen far more ‘action’ in their post-military careers than they ever did in decades of military service. At the same time, it is a curious thing that places like Mogadishu or Juba are deemed areas of extreme risk, areas of hardship for international workers, and yet they are also places that some individuals quietly enjoy. Some security contractors for example, seem to find these austere, regulated, and militarised spaces more familiar and even desirable to live in.

Over time, they become not just a place to work but to live. I remember one contractor in Mogadishu telling me how nice it is: ‘Kabul with seaside’ he joked. At the airport, you can buy shark jaws and other curios to take home as souvenirs. People tell stories of some of the best fishing on the planet, with the ocean teeming with fish. Again though, the risk and reward calculation comes into play, as there are numerous sharks in the water (graphically illustrated by a photo circulating of an unfortunate pilot who had gone harpoon fishing and had his leg bitten off by a shark).  One interpretation of this is that this kind of extreme-sport leisure and recreation becomes a way to deal with the disappointment of not getting the real ‘action’ that many had sought out or expected when travelling to somewhere like Mogadishu. These are important rituals for military masculinities, where social and leisure activities are not separate from war, but constitutive of it.

One of the crucial points here is that these places, like the green zone airport compound in Mogadishu, were always supposed to be temporary – they are supposed to disappear once the mission was complete and stability restored. These are designed as nonplaces – spaces of transience, buildings made of prefabricated material, scattered about in patchwork style. But decades later, they are still there. And as the temporary slides into the permanent, leisure becomes increasingly important to maintain the balance between the comfortable inside and the chaotic outside that is the hallmark of enclaves everywhere.

Heidi: That is very interesting. To conclude, I want to return to the question of your personal experience of studying these private security contractors up close. You mentioned previously that you considered fieldwork in East Africa as an opportunity to travel and explore, and that you did not mind sitting at the bar until four in the morning and chatting with your interlocutors. At the same time, you also underlined that it was difficult and time-consuming to gain trust and acceptance and that you sometimes struggled with ethical quandaries, for instance when your interlocutors expressed racist and misogynistic attitudes.  Would you say that you had similar experiences of joy, freedom and precarity as your interlocutors, or did your research provoke other feelings and experiences? And how did you deal with the ethical quandaries you mentioned?

Jethro: The short answer is –to a degree. Going back to my ‘uncomfortable positionality’, I certainly felt some similar emotions at that time in my life. I suppose it is a part of why I was able to be accepted –that in some senses, my emotions were aligned. However, I would caveat by saying that there were plenty more times when I felt boredom and frustration – and especially in the first six months, rejection – rather than intense thrill or joy, or even fear. 

However, is only to a degree, because I certainly would not say that I experienced the same precarity. True, I was a broke PhD student paying for fieldwork costs out of my PhD scholarship. But I did not have a family, I did not have any responsibilities really. Moreover, I had never been a soldier, I had not experienced war in that way. So, in that sense my experience was clearly not comparable. 

I have already noted how my rather uncomfortable gendered and raced positionality meant I possessed relevant cultural capital that made accessing this particular community easier. Yet there were also some ethical quandaries that I faced. Do you challenge racism and misogyny when it emerges in conversations, for example? What are the limits of the things you will accept in the quest to gain access? Having said that, I want to point out that I experienced an awful lot of this kind of thing from other international actors, especially humanitarian aid workers, albeit often in a more subtle or less blunt manner.

What I would like to end on is to emphasise is the importance of fieldwork, and especially when it concerns politically and emotionally charged topics such as war, or apparently ‘unlikeable’(Pasieka 2019) groups of people such as mercenaries or security contractors. This point becomes more essential in our current era where long-term fieldwork is becoming more and more difficult. I think the future of sustained fieldwork looks a little bleak right now, but I hope I am wrong!

Heidi: I hope so too! Thank you for sharing your reflections and experiences, and good luck with finalising your book – I very much look forward to reading it.

Astuti, R. 2017. Taking people seriously. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7(1): 105-122

Bangstad, S and Bertelsen, B.E. 2010. Heart of darkness reinvented? A tale of ex-soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Anthropology Today 26(1):8-12

Jackson, W. 2011. ‘White man’s country: Kenya Colony and the making of a myth. Journal of Eastern African Studies 5(2):  344–368.

Lair, M. 2011. Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press

McFate, S. 2014. The modern mercenary: Private armies and what they mean for world order. Oxford University Press.

Norman, J. 2023. Tensions of modernity: privilege, precarity and colonial nostalgia amongst European security contractors in East Africa. Comparative Studies in Society and History, in press.

Pasieka, A. 2019. Anthropology of the far right: What if we like the “unlikeable” others? Anthropology Today 35(1): 3-6

Singer, P.W. 2010. ‘Corporate warriors’, in Corporate Warriors. Cornell University Press.

At a turning point – climate change and the responsibilities of humanitarian actors

Climate change is going to be the game change to the humanitarian world. How? By sheer necessity. There is no other way. Otherwise, the humanitarian system will be overworking its way into exhaustion and oblivion. The current international humanitarian system is not fit for purpose to stem what is coming its way. The latest IPCC report presented alarming evidence for what is at stake with half of the world’s population living in areas highly vulnerable to climate change. António Guterres called the report “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”. The list of horrifying alerts seems endless: 2015-2021 were the warmest seven years on record. We might have already overturned at least five of the core tipping points of no return influencing the climate.

At the same time, humanitarian need is skyrocketing. In 2022 alone, 274 million people were projected to be in need of humanitarian assistance, an increase of 14 percent of the year prior – one that already broke the records. These numbers were published prior to February 24, when the Russia-Ukraine war moved to another level. In September 2022, the numbers escalated to 313 million people in need.

Today, with all of its floods, fires, and storms, also the small but powerful Western world has realized that climate change is no longer only an issue of charity and carbon offsets. It is not “only” about small islands in the Pacific perishing or children starving as a consequence of droughts at the horn of Africa. A large part of the world is on fire, under water, overheating, shook, and dried out, including those parts of the Western hemisphere that have been relatively spared by catastrophic effects of the forces of nature in the past.

The humanitarian system as a whole, and humanitarian organizations in particular, are not prepared or equipped to face the climate crisis, financially, technically and capacity-wise. Scaling–up and skilling-up are the two core paradigms of the humanitarian future. Change is needed, in the way humanitarian organizations plan and run their operations, in terms of the norms and principles that are the foundation of humanitarian work as well as regarding the humanitarian mandate and its limitations, especially considering its short-term cycled thinking.

Concerning the normative framework of humanitarian action, the climate crisis might offer the chance to revisit some of its core assumptions by taking a look into the questions of compensation and justice surrounding the discourse on climate change. For decades, the climate justice movement has advocated for political intervention emanating from the vast difference in responsibility for and vulnerability to the effects of the climate crisis. Both are unequally distributed around the globe and often the division is running along colonial fault lines.

The recent floods in Pakistan make it painfully clear, once more: those who have contributed the least to climate change, have to pay the highest price of climate change. In loss of life and loss of a livable future. While Pakistan’s greenhouse gas emissions account for only 1 percent of the overall total, it is among the ten countries most affected by climate change. In August 2022, one third of the country was flooded, more than one thousand people died, more than 30 million people are internally displaced. A catastrophe for those affected and a massive challenge for humanitarian actors and their responses.

The flooding in Pakistan is only one example among many, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, laying open the intimate and destructive relationship between colonial models of space and power. Colonized people, people of color and poor people are disproportionally affected by the consequences of climate change, within nation states as well as globally. The poorer the neighborhood the more exposed it is to the effects of climate change, nearly everywhere in the world. The distribution of environmental risks spatially mirrors the historically generated unequal distribution of access to power, capital and knowledge. More often than not, it is exactly this divide that humanitarian action operates in.

With the accelerating climate crisis, the movement around climate justice gains political momentum. The latest IPCC report of February 2022 featured justice quite ostentatiously. The upcoming COP 27 has chosen its motto: Together for just, ambitious implementation NOW. Also, the discussions around loss and damage for nations severely affected by climate change within the COP context are a start. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with climate change impacts formalized the discussion around loss and damage in 2013. The Santiago Network initiated at the COP 25 in 2019 intends to support developing nations with technical expertise. Yet, the question of funding and compensation is still high up in the air.

Next to the local first responders, international humanitarian organizations are at the forefront of the fight against climate change and its diverse effects and thus need to claim more space, advocate better and make more demands in this discussion. Humanitarian actors can help the loss and damage framework to grow beyond technical support into a compensational mechanism that does justice to the unequal distribution of cause and effects and ultimately into an accelerator for a renewed and revisited understanding of responsibilities and commitments, with additional benefits for internal debates around the normative bedrock of humanitarianism.

One idea debated mostly behind closed doors so far is using a seat at the table to demand a specific percentage of GDP funding for the climate crisis to allow for scaling-up and skilling-up. A part of that percentage can be reserved to compensate countries affected by climate change within the loss and damage framework. When offset against a possible 18% global GDP loss as an effect of global warming recently projected by the second largest reinsurance company, a 0.7% or even 2% GDP share for measures against climate change seems like a reasonable investment. While the core argument should be one of compensation and shared responsibility, these calculations might also convince those more prone to utilitarian thought.

As the ones faced with the catastrophic effects of climate change as a baseline of their everyday work it is the responsibility of humanitarian actors to make clear how much the world is at a turning point right now and that mitigating the effects of climate change will be to the benefit of everyone in the long run. 

Episode 7: Forging emotions and truth in criminal courts

In the 7th episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews anthropologist Kamari Maxine Clarke on how emotions—and its expressions —are central to interpreting justice in criminal courts. Clarke’s work on affective justice highlights the larger historical conditions and structural inequities under which justice is realized, the role of time and space in the materialization of justice in juridical proceedings and the significance of geospatial technologies in forging truth.

Blog series – Heritage, belonging and land: global perspectives on Grace Ndiritu’s ‘A Season of Truth and Reconciliation’ – Blog 3 – Lake Poopó as cultural heritage: the entangled futures of a drying water basin and the ‘people of the lake’

Blog 1

Blog 2

Lake Poopó, chronicle of a death foretold?

Lake Poopó is a shallow, saline lake situated in the Andean highlands of Bolivia at an altitude of about 3,700 meters. It constitutes the country’s second largest lake, after Lake Titicaca. While the lake’s size has always been subject to extreme variability, its surface during stable, dryer seasons used to span 1000 km2. Late 2015, however, Lake Poopó’s vast body of water dried up almost completely. The desertification is the outcome of slow natural processes in combination with anthropogenic climate change factors. Mining, irrigation, and urbanisation in the broader basin have led to a loss in water quantity and quality (Marti-Cardona & Torres-Batlló, 2021). Poor water management has dramatically sped up the area’s natural salinization. The lake is situated within an endorheic basin, which means that its water has no outflow to the ocean, and can only evaporate. Salt and waste are trapped in the retained water, condemning the lake to a future as a salt flat.

Landsat recording of Lake Poopó, 12 April 2013. NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey (Wikimedia Commons).
Landsat recording of Lake Poopó, 15 Januar 2016. NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey (Wikimedia Commons).

The dramatic transformation of the lake directly affects the livelihoods of the communities living in the basin, with many migrating in search for work. The impact is particularly significant in the indigenous communities of the Uru Qot Z’oñi people (Perreault, 2020). Known as ’people of the lake’, and generally referred to as ‘Uru-Murato’, this ethnic minority group maintains a very intimate bond with this body of water, economically and spiritually. However, throughout their history this identification with the lake has been used as an excluse to deny these communities land rights, leading to dispossession and displacement (Barra Saavedra, Lara Barrientos & Coca Cruz, 2011). Through centuries-long processes of colonial and inter-ethnic discrimination, exploitation and assimilation, only three small communities still survive on the former shores of the shrunken lake, disconnected from other Uru ethnic sub-groups, the Uru-Chipaya and Uru-Iruhito. The lake’s announced death seems to seal the fate of the Uru Qot Z’oñi communities as well, on the brink of becoming climate refugees. In their strategy to guarantee the entangled survival of their people and the lake, they managed to have their ‘knowledge, wisdom and ways of life linked to water as traditional living spaces and ways of subsistence’ declared Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2019 by the Bolivian state.

This blog assesses how the link between the Qot Z’oñi people and the lake has been ‘naturalized’ and eventually ‘heritagized’ in a contradictory context of climate change and environmental policies, discrimination and indigenous revitalization. While this complex history deserves a more in-depth elaboration, the aim of this blog is to briefly cover how the exploitation and contamination of Lake Poopó has deprived the Uru from their most basic means of subsistence, leading to the extreme drought of 2015. Considering different stakeholders’ responses to the lake’s transformation since the late 20th century, the blog finally reflects on what role “heritage”, memory and related artistic and ritual practices play in the Qot Z’oñi’s efforts to recover and gain recognition of their identity and their ways of life.

The intimate bond between Uru communities and Lake Poopó: from land grab to water grab

As the people inhabiting the Andean central high plateau the longest, the Uru people self-identify and are generally acknowledged as Qot Z’oñi or ‘people of the lake’. This ethnic identity seems to be supported by colonial accounts, Uru memory and mythology, and ethnographic observations of the Uru as fishers and hunter-gatherers of aquatic plants and birds and their eggs. However, ethnohistorical research suggests that this apparently “natural” bond with the lake obscures a more complex history through which Uru communities gradually lost their lands, and thereby their agricultural and pastoral practices (Barra Saavedra et al., 2011).

Through the assignment of fiscal categories and a process of “othering”, an initially heterogeneous Uru population was gradually excluded from land access and reduced to an ever smaller group of poor, marginalized families (Wachtel, 1978). In order to remain outside the reach of discriminatory colonial politics and inter-ethnic exploitation, the Uru families appropriated Lake Poopó as their refuge. The high reed vegetation named totora allowed them to retreat in a kind of marronage community, providing shelter and a means to construct houses and floating islands on the lake.

The intimate bond with the lake became a survival strategy, yet as the lake basin integrated deeper, albeit weakly, within an emerging state apparatus and market economy, this bond came under growing pressure. Throughout the 19th century, the lake’s fluctuating water levels seriously tested that survival strategy and drew the Uru closer into the logic of on-land settlement and labour exploitation (Mamani Humérez & Reyes Zárate, 2005). Episodes of drought motivated neighbouring Aymara communities to seize the “new” land for cultivation, initiating long cycles of conflict over land and at times forcing Uru to migrate and assimilate with dominant ethnic groups.

By the 1930-40s, the last group of Uru still remaining on Lake Poopó were forced to settle on land (Miranda, Moricio, Alvarez & Barragán, 1992). Out of the lake, their intimate bond with the water continued to offer a justification to other communities to deny them access to land. In addition, they gradually lost control over their access to water resources due to competition over, reduction and contamination of those resources. In the decades after pejerrey (silverside) fish was introduced in the lake in the 1950s, surrounding communities set up enterprises that obtained fishing concessions, an economy that boomed in the 1980s (Rocha Olivio, 2002, p. 97). In the following decades, the lake started to suffer more frequently from serious drying cycles (Satgé et al., 2017). Moreover, the effects of water extraction for irrigation and contamination caused by urban and mining activities became more evident. Pollution levels disturbed the dynamics that had interwoven Uru and lake life, taking the adaptive potential of the Uru’s survival strategy to the edge.

‘Heritage’ as an attempted ecological and cultural revitalization strategy

The changes in Lake Poopó started to attract attention among scientists and public institutions in the late 1970s, and especially from the 1990s onwards (Coronado Pando, 2009). This led to the design of action plans to combat drought and desertification with financial and technical support from international cooperation, including a major EU programme, and new initiatives to monitor changes in the broader water basin system that interconnected with Lake Titicaca (OEA, 1996; Comisión de las Comunidades Europeas & República de Perú y Bolivia, 1993; Vazquez Ruiz, 2018). Under growing national and international attention, and as a way of protecting the area’s biodiversity and culture, Lake Poopó was declared National Heritage and Ecological Reserve in 2000 by the Bolivian state. In 2002, the site was designated as a conservation site under the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Despite the research, the money and institutional arrangements, the heritage and conservation site was officially declared evaporated in December 2015. A year earlier, the massive death of aquatic fauna in the lake had already led to the declaration of Lake Poopó as a ‘natural disaster zone’ by the regional government, to enable authorities and international organizations to attract resources for the recovery of the lake’s water level and its biodiversity as well as communities’ livelihoods. However, few concrete initiatives followed. Around that time, the 14 million EU programme for the conservation and rehabilitation of the Poopó basin came to an end, unable to prevent the lake’s transformation to a ‘puddle’ on the brink of completely disappearing.

Just as during previous declines of the lake, the dramatic events in 2015 provoked scientific analyses, campaigns and popular media reports that tend to frame the fate of Lake Poopó and the Uru Qot Z’oñi as a rather linear tale of inevitable disappearance. Already in the 1990s, there was critique about how scientific and political responses to the desertification and contamination of the lake failed to consult and include Uru perspectives and experiences (Schwarz, 1996). Both the lake and the Qot Z’oñi tend to be reduced to passive residues of water and cultural practices respectively, detached from the intimate relations between not only water and humans, but also plants, animals, salt, and spiritual ‘presences’ (De Munter, Quintero & Rocha, 2019). Against such rather victimizing discourses, the remaining Qot Z’oñi community leaders and their families seek to revitalize their fragmented community organization and political representation. After establishing the ‘indigenous Uru nation’ in 1992 among different Uru groups, they initiated a demand for land titles before the National Institute for Land Reform in 1997, based on colonial documents that proved their control over the entire lake area. While unsuccessful, they gained access to some small patches of land around the lake thanks to land donations. This material reconstruction of their territory was accompanied by political mobilization and the recovery of ceremonial and artistic links with the lake. Since 2000, the Uru communities surrounding the lake have restored – and partially reinvented – the annual ritual offering to ‘Qucha Mama’, Mother Lake. Through artisanal crafts with different reed types that grow in and around the lake, the Uru families are generating a new, albeit precarious source of income, thereby demonstrating their rich knowledge of plant and animal life in and around the lake.

Annual ritual offering to ‘Qucha Mama’ in Lake Poopó. Picture by author, 30 August 2022.
Young Qot Z’oñi women walking towards what remains of the lake. Picture by author, 30 August 2022.

This process of revitalization and visibilization culminated in 2019 with the declaration of a law, co-designed among the communities and public institutions, to recognise their mutual bond with the lake as intangible heritage, thereby identifying the lake as a ‘traditional life space’ (Bolivia: Ley No 1255, 2019). ‘Heritage’ in this case encompasses knowledges, ancestral wisdom, subsistence practices, and ecological resources including the landscape produced through those knowledges and practices. Reflecting recent developments around biocultural heritage management, the law offers a good example of how indigenous peoples seek to bridge entrenched dichotomies between cultural heritage and nature conservation by recovering and demanding recognition for ‘traditional’ resource management practices in specific landscapes (Bridgewater, Rotherham, & Rozzi, 2019). Often, such examples derive from science- and or state-initiated conservation projects that seek to integrate indigenous knowledges as directly imported from an inert past (Sarmiento & Hitchner, 2019). Different from the 2000 heritage status, the Uru leadership was the demanding party for this law and was directly involved in its formulation, attempting to create an instrument that allows them to steward their historical memory and their landscape.

Of course, opting for heritage status is a well-known pragmatic strategy to bolster indigenous rights claims and generate economic perspectives. Article 3 of the law states explicitly that it aims to

promote actions … oriented towards … strengthening cooperation measures at the municipal, regional, departmental and national levels, to ensure that the Uru Indigenous Nation fully exercises its civil, social, economic, political, cultural, linguistic, educational, health, environmental rights, [and] respect for its ancestral lands and territories, housing, tourism, and hunting and fishing of unprotected wild animals.

However, as of today these remain mostly symbolic words, as a regulation still needs to be elaborated to be able to implement the law.

Mural in the community of Vilañeque. Picture by author, 2022.

Water, property, and reconciliation: The limits of heritage in the lake Poopó basin

The insecure future of the lake highlights the limits of heritage as a strategy for securing material and cultural rights. While Uru communities perceive the recognition of the site as Uru heritage as a means to defend their rights, it will not undo centuries of discrimination and othering, portraying the Uru as ‘savages’ and exploiting them in semi-enslaved relations. On top of landscape transformations depleting Uru heritage, the perpetuating unequal socio-economic relations with those communities constantly undermines the stewarding of Uru ‘traditional life space’. As the heritage status is explicitly linked to water, and not to a land-based territory, there will be every time ‘less’ heritage while the lake continues retreating. At the same time, the patches of dry land that appear tend to be seized by neighbouring indigenous non-Uru communities, even though this land is officially designated as state property.

It remains challenging to envision how heritage can help to disrupt the stark (inter-indigenous) inequalities and fragilities that have reorganized Lake Poopó into a sacrifice zone, and create openings towards ‘living together’. Yet, while this heritage of knowledge and practices is mostly a symbolic and nostalgic site for younger Uru generations—having never eaten fish from the lake, let alone been fishing in the lake—it nurtures a first step of reconciliation with their identity as ‘people of the lake’. It also forces authorities to recognize the Uru people and their culture, and sit around the table to support this process of revitalization, however still conditioning that process to its link with water without viable bases for recovering land rights.


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Blog series – Heritage, belonging and land: global perspectives on Grace Ndiritu’s ‘A Season of Truth and Reconciliation’ – Blog 2 – Castle of Good Hope: from bastion of colonialism to beacon of decolonization?

Blog 1

Blog 3

On 9 August 2017, a couple dozen activists gathered in front of the Castle of Good Hope in central Cape Town to mark International Indigenous People’s Day. Constructed between 1666 and 1679 at the behest of the Dutch East India Company, the Castle is South Africa’s oldest surviving colonial building and the epicentre from which settler colonialism spread across the subcontinent, leaving the indigenous people, commonly known as ‘Khoi and San’ or ‘Khoisan’ — a controversial term, subjugated, decimated and dispossessed (Verbuyst, 2022). Using the Castle as a base of operations, European settlers eventually broke down the Khoisan’s resistance and chased them away from the lands they traditionally occupied (Adhikari, 2010). The Khoisan could remain only as pacified colonial labourers with a Christianized identity stripped of references to indigenous culture, identity and modes of subsistence. This protracted process of assimilation reached its peak with the promulgation of the Population Registration Act of 1950, through which the apartheid regime categorized people according to supposedly innate and neatly bounded racial identities. The Khoisan were thereby definitively lumped together alongside various others, such as descendants of enslaved people from Asia and East Africa, as ‘Coloureds’: a label devoid of indigeneity, vaguely denoting mixed-race origins and situated between ‘Whites’ (i.e. Europeans and Afrikaners), ‘Blacks’ (i.e. the majority Bantu-speaking demographic) and ‘Indians’. Badgered by centuries of oppression, most Khoisan internalized their ‘Coloured’ identity and lost any meaningful connection to their ancestral roots, even if some kept the awareness alive covertly (Øvernes, 2019; Bam, 2021).

This changed dramatically with the democratic transition of 1994, when increasing numbers of ‘Coloureds’ were reclaiming Khoisan identities with a vengeance. Ever since, more and more Khoisan activists are demanding recognition and reparations from the state. One such occasion was the aforementioned protest, where the activists attempted to form an “Aboriginal Khoisan human chain” around the Castle to highlight how the Khoisan were still not recognized as indigenous people by the post-apartheid state, how their historical land claims unjustly fell outside of the scope of the official land reform program, and how the Khoisan were marginalized in various other cultural, political and economic domains (SAHRC, 2018). The Castle was chosen as the location to stage the protest due to its historical and symbolic significance and because it houses museums dealing with military history, art and colonialism, attracting thousands of visitors each year. Together with other dissenters, various Khoisan were for centuries imprisoned and tortured at the Castle, a history currently not adequately recognized and represented according to the activists. The “slaughterhouse” embodied centuries of unsubdued oppression. For them, it was better to tear down the offensive structure altogether.

However, not all Khoisan share in this damnation of the Castle. There have been various self-styled “decolonization” initiatives by the management of the Castle, which many Khoisan support or have givenimpetus to (Gilfellan, Hendricks & Sipoyo, 2019). It is moreover important to take into account that the Castle is not just a museum hub, a provincial and national heritage site or a popular location to host public events. Remarkably, as it remains under the custodianship of the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans, the Castle still hosts military ceremonies and houses military equipment and personnel. Given the shared use of the site, the Castle is governed by its own legislation, the 1993 Castle Management Act, and since 2013, by a CEO and management board made up of representatives from various public entities, including the military, the city of Cape Town and South African Tourism Board. We do not have the space in this article to extensively detail the ways in which all stakeholders utilize and relate to the Castle. Rather, in keeping with the overarching theme of the blog series, we want to show below how the Khoisan are engaging with the Castle as ‘heritage’ in order to contest and/or (re)define the relationship between the site and the growing Khoisan community, particularly since 2013, when the current CEO, Calvyn Gilfellan, took office with a mandate to “decolonize” the building.

Decolonizing the Castle of Good Hope

Resurrection Day Event 2018 (Rafael Verbuyst)

Indeed, together with two colleagues, Gilfellan explained in a 2019 contribution for the South African Museums Association Bulletin that a deliberate choice was made in 2013 by the Castle Control Board to “reposition, reimagine and reimage the Castle of Good Hope into a beacon of hope” (Ibid.: 11). Although the precise reasons for this timing remain unclear — the article mentions “a global call for the redefining of the museum and its sector and the national appeal to address how museums are decolonised”, it is undoubtedly related to the rise of Khoisan activism during this time, even if they were not directly involved in determining the agenda. With decolonization as “a ‘code’ word”, this agenda was articulated in terms of “nation building and reconciliation”, pursuing UNESCO World Heritage Site Status and maximising tourism potential. However, as other stakeholders are not really highlighted in the article, at the core of this “decolonization and Africanisation drive” was (and is) “direct and robust engagement and programmatic activities” with the Khoisan, as well “acknowledging the significance of the connections between the Castle and the chequered and painful past of the country”. The Castle records show hundreds of engagements with Khoisan representatives in recent years. As Gilfellan explained in various contributions in Eerste Nasie Nuus [First Nation News], a Khoisan community newspaper, this ongoing dialogue allows for the Castle to shed its image as “a bastion of white colonialism” and “transform… into a living heritage space” (Gilfellan, 2014; 2016). To facilitate this, the new CEO not only established “the Centre for Memory, Healing and Learning” – essentially a conference space — but also brought the unwritten rule into effect that the Khoisan are free to utilize the Castle for events, meetings or ceremonies.

This has allowed for a wide range of activities to take place at the Castle since, from community-organized Khoisan language classes and book launches for Khoisan authors, to !Nau ceremonies, which some Khoisan representatives use to swear in tribal members and traditional leaders, and cultural festivals. A noteworthy example of the later was Aba Te, launched by Khoisan activists in August 2015 and involving educative and creative sessions covering art, history, hunting and gathering, cooking, plants, spirituality, indigenous music and medicinal practices. A year later, the same people involved with Aba Te created a “Khoi-khoi Village Scene” at the entrance of the Castle: “a new exhibition celebrating the journey, culture, heritage and aspirations of the first indigenous people”. As the main designer explained in Eerste Nasie Nuus: “[T]he KhoiSan kraal retains all the elements of authenticity”, which creates educational opportunities for youths in particular to learn about Khoisan identity, culture and history (Eerste Nasie Nuus correspondent, 2016).

Statues of resistance fighters, unveiled in 2016 (https://www.castleofgoodhope.co.za/index.php/gallery)

The CEO has also endeavoured through countless activities to have the Castle “recognized as a safe space to deal with the aftermath and pain of colonialism, slavery and apartheid” (Gilfellan, Hendricks & Sipoyo, 2019: 14). Some events have been more modest, such as private ‘cleansing’ ceremonies or Khoisan-organized tours of the building highlighting traumatic legacies, whereas others have been more largescale. An example of the latter was the “Resurrection Day Event”, a religious Khoisan-themed event organized by a local church on Easter Sunday 2018. The goal was for the Khoisan to gather en masse and “spiritually take possession of the gates trauma… to go back to the original sin” and carry out “a cleansing of the curses which have lingered for centuries, especially those emanating from the Castle and its torture chambers” (Verbuyst, 2022: 159-160). Similar rhetoric surfaced in the context of the Castle’s “commemoration”, rather than “celebration”, of its 350 years existence. As part of the events marking the occasion, the “soul” of Krotoa, a 17th century Khoisan woman of note, was symbolically “reburied” at the Castle by a sizeable Khoisan contingent (SABC News, 2016). Krotoa was however not featured among the four statues of Khoisan and non-Khoisan prisoners that were unveiled in the main courtyard. Instead, Krotoa was honoured with a commemorative wooden bench in one of the smaller courtyards of the complex. This stirred up quite the controversy. Various Khoisan representatives argued that a bench was disrespectful and insignificant. They claimed they had not been meaningfully consulted on the decision (eNCA, 2016).

Beyond the Castle: ongoing heritage tensions and the limits of decolonization

The fallout over the commemorative bench is an apt reminder that the Castle’s role as ‘heritage’ remains unsettled and fiercely contested. Echoing arguments often made elsewhere about material changes being a prerequisite for decolonization (Tuck & Yang, 2012), some of the Khoisan desire total ownership of the site and do not agree with the “nation-building” dimension of the Castle’s rebranding exercise (Gilfellan, Hendricks & Sipoyo, 2019: 13). Others want to transform the structure itself in more profound ways or become part of the Castle Control Board, which they are currently not represented in. William Langeveldt, a prominent activist who also temporarily acted as a Khoisan representative to the United Nations, has long been campaigning to transform the “Stone-Kraal” into a “Place of Love and Indigenous Healing” and the headquarters of a “Ministry of Indigenous Affairs” (Verbuyst, 2022: 253). In Langeveldt’s view, this would require renaming the five bastions of the Castle after indigenous nations, creating “storage facilities for organic food production” and “using the roofs to generate solar and wind energy”. So far, these types of ideas have not been taken on board by the management team at the Castle. There are also pressures for the Castle to respond to issues that do not directly relate to the building itself. At the 2017 Indigenous Peoples’ Day protest there was a telling moment when the protesters ceased marching across the perimeter of the Castle and pointed out how a group of homeless people, some of them stuck on social housing waiting lists for decades, had set up shelter just outside of the Castle’s walls. To the activists, their living conditions symbolized the ongoing marginalization of the Khoisan as many were “still” forced to sleep outside on the pavement and did not have decent access to basic services and infrastructure.

Housing is evidently not the responsibility of the Castle Management Board; nor can it satisfy everyone’s demands or is disagreement among the Khoisan something the Castle should get involved in. And yet, because it is such a symbolically significant location and housing conditions have such a painful historical legacy in South Africa, the Castle quickly becomes the focal point of these types of broader calls for decolonization linked to urgently needed material change. The Castle is not the only heritage site being contested in this manner in the City (or elsewhere). Just a few kilometres further, there is a fierce ongoing battle over the Two Rivers Urban Park, part of which is currently being redeveloped into a commercial and residential complex, with Amazon as the anchor tenant (Charles, 2022). Here too, the Khoisan community is split between those conditionally supporting the redevelopment and those opposing it on grounds that it is allegedly located on a “sacred site”. What makes the Castle unique, however, is that it has committed itself to decolonization and made it a priority to include the Khoisan in particular in decision making processes and dialogue, or at least allow them to use the space to host events, meetings and rituals. Further research is needed to ascertain how non-Khoisan stakeholders — the military in particular — feature in the Castle’s decolonization agenda and respond to Khoisan activism and its diverse engagements with the building. Moreover, the debate is ongoing about whether the Castle’s take on “decolonization” is in line with, a response to, or an attempt to co-opt the diverse calls for decolonization by Khoisan activists. However, as one Khoisan academic recognizes, for now the Castle’s decolonization agenda has allowed the Khoisan to create “a counter narrativewithin the space… by counter curating the castle as a site of memory” (Bam-Hutchison, 2016: 24). Ironically then, though not by coincidence, because of the Castle’s commitment to explore creative solutions and think outside of the box about ‘heritage’, the old bastion of colonialism and symbol of Khoisan oppression is becoming a prime facilitator for the growing indigenous revival movement in South Africa.


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