Marburg University’s CENTER FOR CONFLICT STUDIES hosted the international conference on
Discourses and Living Worlds of an Emerging Social Group, 7-9 July 2016.
The program can be retrieved from https://www.uni-marburg.de/konfliktforschung/veranstaltungen_tagungen /rueckkehrer_innen
This is a short report on an unusually rich meeting. Some 40 scholars, advanced students and practitioners of various field, from 7 countries, produced a variety of presentations, panels and posters that set a baseline for the academic and political discourse on deployment returnees in Germany and opened a window for comparative and international exchange on field rather marginalized both in the academic and public spheres.
The conference followed the original call for papers and participation rather tightly. However, we regretted that there so few participants from the civilian deployment of NGOs, IGOs and diplomats, thus making the meeting concentrating on war veterans and returnees for out of area deployment. As a summary we can say that the conference brought remarkable insights in the lifeworld and environment of returnees, both under the aspect of their position in a private environment and a public sphere, where the construct “veteran” has become part of a very special discourse on peace and war, on being a soldier and becoming a veteran.
The keynote by David Jackson, from Exeter, set a tune: in his lecture on an alternative representation of the culture of war he asks for giving the returnees their voice and their “story of loss” (instead of pre-defining the space of discourse between normalcy and PTSD or other derangement). The experiences of returnees gave us a broad insight into the circumstances of the deployment and the reflections upon return, with a rather fundamental overview on the survey of German returnees (Anja Seiffert, Potsdam) and the questions about how to find a homeland again upon return (Lars Mischak, Rendsbrug).
One of the big questions is: who (and what) is a veteran? From legal definitions to subjective self-perception or logical constructs there were quite a few approaches. These definitions are pivotal for the issue of (re-)integration, for recognition by private and public environments, by social and cultural governance instances.
Very good comparative aspects were brought in by Marie Vivod, of Strasbourg, on Serbian politics, by Ken McLeish on the U.S. Veteran Treatment Court system, by Tatiana Prorokov Marburg) a with her U.S. critique of Irwin Winkler’s movie “Home of the Brave”, and the U.K. accounts by K.Neil Jenkings and David Jackson. The perception of danger by ex-combatants in Sierra Leone was exemplified by Anne Menzel. Of course, the special situation of Germany’s making of a new social group was a subtext of most discussions.
It was a conference that enriched the fields of military and political sciences by anthropology, history, ethnology, linguistics and sociology. Contributions by Maximilan Jablonowski (Zürich), Klaas Voss (Hamburg) and Michael Galbas (Konstanz) demonstrated the rich multi-aspect format of the debate. This interdisciplinary approach is confronted with a certain disinterest by politicians and media and a single issue attentiveness, when a family or a particular group is confronted with a veteran’s fate.
Sidekick: Two days after the conference, I presented some of my research on veterans to faculty from U.S. community colleges (GCA 6 Meeting in Potsdam, Germany). 80% (!) of the participants (N=50) have relatives or close friends who are veterans!
Germany seems to be behind the state of the art in research on returnees and veterans. The reasons are certainly to be found in the post WWII past of the German perception of war and peace, and the difficulties to discuss military traditions after the Bundeswehr has been established in a wider context (even bigger problems appeared with the GDR’s National People’s Army). But the recourse to the past will not suffice in understanding a certain mixture of apprehension and disinterest by the German politicians, media and broader public when it comes to veterans. This is a problem of the present self-perception of the German society. One example can be regarded as typical: The perception of veterans is closely linked to the perception of legitimacy of a respective intervention or deployment. The person is incorporated into political opinion, while elsewhere, the care for and empathy with veterans is frequently detached from the judgment on legitimacy and adequacy of a military intervention. This makes it also difficult to get a differentiated discourse on war and peace inside the peace camp. The contextualization of the veterans‘ interpretation of their personal and institutional experience in war is still a wide field for science and public discourse.
The conference will be a step towards a network of researchers and practitioners. We shall try to publish a selection of contributions to the conference, and we will try to attract the interest and awareness of a broader academic and social communities, also in order to give the returnees their voice.
Acknowledgements: the conference was well organized with the support of quite a few collaborators from the CCS and the Universities of Marburg and Berlin. The location in the brand new building of the German Language Atlas was splendid. The Conference was supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Hessia) and the Catholic Military Mission (Berlin).