Ceremonial Storytelling. Ritual and Narrative in Post-9/11 US Wars

Usbeck, Frank
Frankfurt am Main 2019: Peter Lang/Frankfurt am Main
Anzahl Seiten
332 S.
€ 68,70
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Mareike Spychala, Professur für Amerikanistik, Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg

Ceremonial Storytelling: Ritual and Narrative in Post-9/11 US Wars is a well-written and thoroughly researched book that brings together several interdisciplinary approaches to war narratives in its analysis of military blogs, or “milblogs”, which the author defines as blogs written by soldiers during their deployment (p. 29). The most well-known example of such blogs might be Colby Buzzell’s My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2004), which was also published as a book after his deployment. In addition, the author looks at what he calls “‘homecoming scenarios’ […] transmedial, heterogeneous, ceremonial scripts about homecoming, designed to foster exchange and to mend relationships among veterans and civilians but also to engage in social-therapeutic practices” (pp. 50–51). From his starting point of Indigenous war-related traditions and military psychology, the author defines and analyzes milblogs and homecoming scenarios as “forms of ‘ceremonial storytelling’” that “[enact] the symbolic negotiation of the social contract” (p. 20).

The book is organized into six chapters. After the introduction (Chapter 1), in which the author sketches his innovative, interdisciplinary project, Chapter 2 delineates Indigenous war-related traditions and how they have been used in activist psychologist discourses. Chapters 3 and 4 present close readings of milblogs, while Chapter 5 focuses on the already mentioned homecoming scenarios. Chapter 6 provides a short conclusion that summarizes the monograph’s main arguments and once again places them in a larger cultural and historical context.

In Chapter 2, the author provides informative overviews of Native American traditions of warrior reintegration, as well as Native American conceptions of the social role of warriors, which go beyond the U.S.-American conception of the (citizen-)soldier. He also delineates activist psychologist discourse and how, in the decades since the Vietnam War, they have increasingly incorporated references to Indigenous war traditions, suggesting that such or similar traditions might also be beneficial for non-Native veterans. The author not only connects this development to “traditional anxieties in American culture that link negotiations of modernity with colonization and national identity” (p. 71), thus providing a cultural history background for his arguments, but also takes care to address issues of cultural comparison and cultural appropriation in these contexts. Concerning cultural comparison, he notes the efforts in psychology research to create therapies that, while using elements and practices similar to Native American traditions, are anchored in non-Native veterans’ cultural backgrounds (p. 89). He also notes efforts by psychology researchers to address issues of cultural appropriation (p. 89). The author persuasively argues that “extending these activists’ cultural comparison based on ceremonial storytelling to [the] analysis of milblogs carves out a new field of intercultural knowledge production” (p. 54).

After this groundwork is established, Chapter 3 situates milblogs as rituals and delineates how milblogs transfer aspects of U.S. civil religion and memorial culture into a new medium. Here, he once again presents a historical perspective on civil religion, memorial culture, and their assorted rituals, highlighting the Vietnam War Memorial as a “space for public mourning and discourse on mourning” (p. 132) that lends itself well to comparison with memorial websites and milblogs. He uses this comparison as a stepping stone to introduce media theories, allowing him to further sharpen his definition of milblogs as rituals and highlight how they “emerged out of particular cultural traditions and transformed conventions of these traditions to a new medium and to new technological conditions” (p. 135). The chapter’s main argument about the community-building aspects of milblogs and their “negotiation of the social contract” (p. 177) is illustrated and strengthened through the classification of the different types of practices in which milblogs are engaged and the author’s close readings of several examples.

Chapter 4 builds on the preceding analyses and analyzes milblogs and how “bloggers and their audience negotiate values and knowledge in their self-reflective discussion of the bloggers’ experience during deployment as well as their assertions of relationships and mutual responsibilities in these exchanges” (p. 178). This chapter focuses not only on deployment experiences but also on other “voluntary civic engagements” (p. 197). These activities, and recounting them on their blogs, the author argues, allows them to retain a sense of citizenship and to stay in contact with civilian communities. Here once again, comparisons with Native American traditions and references to how blogging about the described activities—as well as the activities themselves—are similar to activist discourses form an important part of the analysis, weaving in the historical, cultural, and theoretical background provided in Chapter 2.

Chapter 5 pivots from milblogs to what the author, drawing on performance studies, calls “homecoming scenarios” (p. 232), focusing on various projects that help veterans to reintegrate into their communities after their return from deployment. This focus expands not only the texts and activities analyzed by the monograph, but also includes female soldiers, who are absent from the chapters on milblogs, forestalling one of the few possible points of criticism of the monograph. In historically situating and analyzing these scenarios, the author breaks new scholarly ground that will prove fruitful for further scholarship focused on war experiences—and especially the return experience—and its cultural and societal negotiation.

A particular strength of this monograph is its interdisciplinary approach to milblogs, especially the integration of new media theories and ritual studies and the use of Native American war traditions as an analytical lens. Rather than treating milblogs as diaries or similar autobiographical texts that happen to be published in a new medium, this book takes the possibilities and challenges of Web 2.0 into account. In doing so, it highlights in particular the exchanges between bloggers and their audiences, how these exchanges transform blogging and homecoming scenarios into rituals, and how they help to establish and maintain a sense of community between deployed soldiers and (civilian) audiences. Furthermore, the focus on homecoming scenarios in the final chapter opens up new fields of inquiry that will prove increasingly important in today’s mediatized and networked world. Its innovative, interdisciplinary approach and its insightful readings, especially its concepts of ceremonial storytelling and homecoming scenarios, make this monograph essential reading for scholars interested in the depiction and negotiation of war experiences in contemporary U.S.-American culture.

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