Narrative, Self, Agency: Reflections on a Workshop

Richard JacksonRichard Jackson offers the fifth post in the Methodology and Narrative mini-forum. Richard is Professor of Peace Studies and Deputy Director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester University Press, 2005), Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch), Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Marie Breen Smyth, Jeroen Gunning and Lee Jarvis), and numerous related articles. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. He blogs at Richard Jackson Terrorism Blog, where part of this post originally appeared.


Any scholar who has ever reflected on their academic career can identify a number of key transformative turning points along the way – those moments when some new insight or experience turned you from the path you were on and sent you in an exciting new direction. It may have been a particular lecture, a book, a chance conversation, a teacher. Either way, it altered your thinking and set you on a new course. Reading Joseba Zulaika and William Douglass’s Terror and Taboo in the days after September 11, 2001 was one such turning point for me. I never would have become interested in critical terrorism studies if I hadn’t found a sale copy of that book in the Otago University Bookshop exactly when the world seemed to be going crazy about the ‘new’ threat of terrorism. The books I later wrote, the journal I helped to start, the conferences and panels I helped to organise – all that might not have happened if I hadn’t picked up that particular book when I did. Sometimes our lives turn on a simple moment that seems utterly ordinary at the time.

Attending a workshop on ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’ organised by Elizabeth Dauphinee, has proved to be another of these important turning points in my academic career. It has transformed me to a degree I never imagined; I feel that I am no longer the scholar or person I was before I went to Toronto for what I thought would be just another interesting but not necessarily out of the ordinary kind of academic workshop. I’m on a different path now. I want to do different things than I did before. It’s not that I have it all mapped or know where I will end up. I just know that I don’t want to continue to be the same kind of scholar I was before or pursue my work and academic career in the same way.

In preparing for the workshop, and during the workshop discussions, I had a genuine moment of revelation about how powerful narrative can be – as a mode of thinking, a way of writing, a method of teaching, a way of seeing and being in the world. I hadn’t really grasped it before, but I learned that narrative can help you connect more deeply with students in teaching situations, and also help them to learn in new ways; it can engender deeper levels of affective understanding and insight of subjects like war and politics; it can help to de-subjugate silenced voices and knowledges; it can challenge dominant political narratives and reveal the operations and effects of discipline and power; it can make your work more interesting and accessible to the reader. During the workshop, we discovered a great many reasons for considering narrative as a powerful tool and approach to IR which ought to be more widely used and legitimised in our discipline.

In relation to critical terrorism studies, the field I am most deeply involved in, I had already started to think that we needed other forms of production apart from scholarly books and articles to make a greater impact on the wider culture – such as films, novels, plays, art, music and so on. However, until I met the other writers and scholars at the workshop and heard their stories and experiences, and how narrative has affected them and impacted on their research, I hadn’t really understood just how powerful and transformative narrative writing could be.

Among other things, perhaps the most important revelation for me was when I came to see that narrative writing – especially auto-ethnographic narrative writing – can be an important step in understanding how your own subjectivity has been constructed, and how in turn, this can be an essential step towards greater individual agency and a kind of personal emancipation. For example, soon after the workshop I began to reflect upon, and write about, how my experiences had shaped my academic and political outlook, leading me down a particular path – and also how those experiences had enriched my understanding of some of the political phenomena I study as an IR scholar. Partly as a result of this auto-ethnographic reflection, I subsequently ‘came out’ in relation to my pacifist beliefs. I wrote the following piece not long after the workshop and published it on my blog.

My Journey to Pacifism

I

It can be quite hard to admit that you’re a pacifist these days. Say the words out loud in polite company and you’re likely to be ridiculed or made to feel naïve and weak. At the very least, you’ll face a barrage of strident questions about Hitler, Rwanda, genocide, people coming into your house to murder your wife, and UN peacekeeping. It has taken me until quite recently to come out as a fully-fledged, paid-up pacifist. For several years, when I was an International Relations scholar, I kept quiet about my growing pacifist tendencies, only voicing doubts about the utility and morality of organized violence in the gentlest terms possible, and only on those rare occasions when I perceived a low risk of derision. In the silence of my office, I would think through all the intellectual and ethical arguments I wanted to make against militarism, war and violence, but then push them deep under the surface of my mind when I walked into a lecture or seminar. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I wanted to be taken seriously by my students and my peers, which meant never openly challenging what is now the most widely accepted commonsense about war.

I am a pacifist today in part because I’m a scholar. I have considered the arguments and evidence in support of militarism, just war, national defence and humanitarian intervention and found them wanting. Upon sustained analysis, it seems to me that all of the well-known arguments for organized violence soon crumble into dust. At the same time, the arguments and evidence in support of pacifism, nonviolence, and civilian defence seem to me to be both convincing and ethically consistent. On balance, therefore, I am convinced that pacifism is intellectually and ethically superior to militarism; at the very least, it is as defensible as the pro-violence viewpoint and thus ought to be the default attitude for clear-thinking, ethical people.

However, the most important reason I am a pacifist is because I am a human and I have come to understand at the deepest level that war and violence is fundamentally anti-human. I came to this understanding in many ways through a series of deeply affecting personal experiences when I was a young lad growing up in Africa – a series of encounters which lead to moments of profound emotional insight and moral recognition about the nature of war.

II

When I was twelve years old I had a slight, some might say fairly trifling, brush with the Zimbabwean war of independence. What I mean is, compared to most people who have experienced war directly my story would not even merit a passing mention. To me, however, the memory of this brief encounter with political violence continues to evoke a deep feeling of anxiety; I can still feel the same terror I felt all those years ago by the side of that dusty road in Africa.

It was 1979 and we lived in Zambia’s Southern Province, a few miles from the border with Rhodesia where a vicious war for independence had been under way for some years. Zambia officially supported the freedom fighters against the racist Smith regime, which meant that Rhodesian military forces would regularly conduct raids into Zambia, including an audacious assassination attempt on Joshua Nkomo, a prominent Zimbabwean rebel leader living in Lusaka. I can remember that a few days after the raid, my friends and I cycled across town to Nkomo’s house and collected spent bullet shells. The Rhodesian Air Force would also bomb guerilla training camps; some days, we’d hear the jets screaming overhead and the teachers would make us get under the desks. At first, it all seemed quite exciting to a young boy immersed in The Adventures of Tintin and The Great Escape. Later, of course, when friends of mine were injured by a land mine, and after I came face-to-face with the threat of being shot, it seemed a lot less like an adventure.

As a consequence of the Rhodesian raids, the Zambian army deployed and set up military check points on roads leading to the capital, Lusaka. The situation grew increasingly tense: the Zambian troops felt helpless in the face of constant Rhodesian attacks, and viewed Europeans living in Zambia with great suspicion. They believed that Europeans held secret sympathies for the white regime in Rhodesia, and might even be spying for them. Getting through the military checkpoints became a fraught and terrifying experience, especially at night when young conscript soldiers were prone to drunkenness, boredom and aggression. Rumours spread that people who could not produce their national identity cards would sometimes be taken into the bushes by the side of the road and summarily shot. I was particularly frightened because I was tall for my age, and the roadblock soldiers were perennially reluctant to believe that I was not sixteen, the age at which everyone was obliged to get a national identity card. They insisted that I should have an identity card and often became belligerent and threatening when I insisted that I was too young to have one.

One evening, my father and I were on a bus home when we stopped at one of the checkpoints. A blank-eyed soldier walked down the aisle, the barrel of his machine gun pushing into the faces of the passengers, demanding to inspect everyone’s ID. When I could not produce my identity card, he ordered me off the bus. My father pleaded with him that I was too young, but he ignored him like he didn’t even exist. He pulled me down the aisle, off the bus and onto the side of the road. He slapped the bus and told the bus driver to drive on. My father followed, pleading to let us back on the bus. It was to no avail; the soldier started marching me towards the nearby bushes. I genuinely thought I was about to be shot, like the others everyone had heard about. In that moment, the whole world disintegrated until all I knew was the most profound ontological terror. My body was stiff with fear, my breathing shallow. By the side of that dusty road, in the midst of a state of war, there was suddenly no law, no justice, no reason or dialogue, no mercy; only indifference and the threat of deadly violence.

This tiny little brush with war, a brush without even a single shot fired (I may not even have been in any real danger, it’s hard to know, and I had friends who had much more traumatic experiences than this), nevertheless revealed to me the way in which war strips away all assurance, destroys all rules; the way in which it reduces people to nothing more than bodies in fear, receptacles of terror. War, in other words, is the opposite of law, the opposite of moral and ethical certainty; it is the negation of the rules that make social life livable or even possible. War strips away all those inhibitions and structures which would make it impossible for a defenseless child to be shot at a road block by an angry soldier. War is the deliberate construction of an anti-society.

As it transpired, in fact, an officer appeared from somewhere and following a discussion with the young soldier in a language I did not understand, my father and I were allowed back onto the bus, which, against orders, had mercifully waited for us. I collapsed in relief into my seat, although it was a temporary respite because there several more roadblocks to negotiate before we reached home. I do not know what was said by the officer or why, but it seemed I had garnered a reprieve from whatever fate awaited me in the bushes. Although I escaped physically unharmed, I felt I knew what can happen in war.

III

Not many years later, John (not his real name), a graduate of the international school I attended, returned to Lusaka from service in the South African Defence Forces. He was treated like a returning hero at the school, feted by the great and the good; everyone wanted to be his friend. One day, while I was waiting to be picked up, John and I talked about his experiences since leaving school. We were the last people on the grounds; I remember how quiet it was, the wind whistling along the empty corridors. I was surprised when he started to speak very frankly, holding nothing back. It was as if he needed to unburden himself, although I couldn’t fathom why he chose me, a boy several years his junior, to tell his story to.

He began by explaining that he had wanted to join the South African army straight out of school because he really wanted to experience the adventure of war. He knew there was a war in South Africa, and he so much wanted to be a part of it. A few weeks after his basic training, he found himself deep in the Angolan bush, on guard duty. Two rebels, with explosives on their backs, ran out of the scrub towards the encampment. He shouted at them to stop but they kept coming. He opened fire and killed them both, saving the lives of many of his comrades. Within a few hours, despite the accolades of his superiors and fellow soldiers for his heroism, he felt physically sick and was confined to sick bay. For two weeks, he lay shivering in his cot, ill and unable to function. After he recovered, he marked his time and resigned from the army as soon as his contract allowed it. The adventure was well and truly over.

John cried as he told me his story. I was shocked to see a strong, strapping man like that cry in front of a junior like me. He seemed utterly broken, undone by his experiences. I will never forget seeing him trying bravely to smile through his tears as I walked away towards the car that had come to collect me. I never saw him again after that day, and I don’t know what became of him. Did he later commit suicide, as so many other former vets have done? Or did he find a way of dealing with his pain and go on to lead a normal life? I only know that in that moment I realised that war injures and disfigures everyone and everything it touches: the soldier pulling the trigger and the rebel who takes the bullet into their body; the living and the dead. The fact is that no words or legitimate justification can heal the wound of knowing or thinking you have taken the life of another human being, even when they are an enemy soldier trying to kill you. War, in other words, is the ultimate destroyer of souls, the ruin of human minds.

IV

It was a hot day in 1983, the kind of day when sweat dries quickly and leaves a white salty crust on your face. Your cheeks ache from squinting against the relentless sun. I was trudging down the road on the dusty outskirts of one of the nondescript little towns that dot the South African high veld thinking about an ice-cold glass of water and where the best place might be to hitch a lift to Pretoria. Ahead of me, two young men came into view. They had blond buzz-cuts, jungle fatigues and sun-darkened faces and forearms. They were smoking, joking around, holding out their thumbs to occasional passing cars. I nodded as I walked up. They nodded back, momentarily subdued but not unfriendly. I stopped and put down my backpack with a groan of relief. In Africa, you never walk past a fellow traveler on a lonely road without taking the time to rest awhile and converse.

It turned out they were conscripts on leave from deployment somewhere in Angola. In South Africa’s desperation to hold back the spread of national liberation engulfing Southern Africa (Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe had all recently thrown off colonialism; the tide of liberation from white rule sweeping the region seemed to be inexorable), every young man had to spend two years in the military, often fighting with South Africa’s UNITA allies in Angola or searching for ANC infiltrators along thousands of miles of open border with Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. These guys were hitch-hiking home to Bloemfontein to spend a week with families, girlfriends, their community; and they were very glad of it, if their nervous, relieved joking about was anything to go by.

We all managed to catch a lift together and spent the next few hours talking. They spoke in heavily Boer-accented English which I frequently struggled to decipher. Most of all, I remember feeling sorry for them. They weren’t much older than me, and they were soldiers who’d been fighting in a brutal, vicious bush war. I could not imagine the terrors and hardships they must have endured, where snakes, scorpions, wild animals, and a thousand different diseases and infections were the very least of their worries. They seemed somewhat fragile, tightly held together.

Flash forward a few years, and I was talking to a young South African diplomat at an African studies conference in Melbourne, one of the few white South Africans in the newly liberated nation’s Foreign Service. As a young man he had fled to London to avoid going to prison for refusing to fight on behalf of the racist government. It was widely known that those who refused to do military service would be sentenced to harsh prison sentences where they would suffer serious physical and sexual abuse. It was apartheid society’s way of discouraging draft avoidance and war opposition, punishing disloyalty to the volk. Instead, he fought hard against the apartheid system with his fellow exiles in London, only returning when the ANC won the first free elections.

Over a beer at the end of a long day of conference panels, he told me about South Africa’s wars in Angola and other places, and about some of the men who fought them – men he personally knew. The conscripts were usually given a few weeks of basic training and then, if they were particularly unlucky, they were shipped to the Angolan bush to fight the Cuban-backed MPLA forces. He explained that one of his friends had done the six week course, been driven across Namibia to somewhere in Angola, and two days later, as the golden African sun sank into the horizon, his friend had joined in a football game his fellow soldiers were playing where the ‘ball’ they were kicking around was the head of an enemy soldier.

As I listened to stories like this (and others besides, such as how captured ANC infiltrators would sometimes be tied to the front of a jeep and then driven through a forest of African thorn bushes until they were nothing more than tattered shreds of flesh hanging off of shiny white bone), I wondered if those two young men I had met on that hot day in 1983 had witnessed or even committed similar acts, and what effect it had had on them. What were they doing now? What did they think about when they looked into the darkness at night, when they crept back down the road of memory? Did they imagine a scene of boys joyfully playing football in the setting African sun – not recoiling with horror, not tearing off their uniforms and running screaming towards home – but shouting and laughing with youthful enthusiasm: ‘Pass it here! Pass it here!’

V

These stories – these encounters in which I experienced a moral recognition – are not unusual in the long annuls of war. In fact, they are barely even noteworthy compared to what so many others have suffered. Since those days, I have heard far worse – utterly unspeakable, in fact – stories of the brutality and sheer depravity of war. I have learned that there is no bottom to the moral abyss humans can sink in situations of war, and that war disfigures all of its subjects. Collectively, all of this – my personal experiences, my study, the stories I have heard – convinces me that pacifism is the last remaining ethical position for a person of principle to take. War cannot be defended for the good it allegedly does; neither can it be redeemed or tamed. It is purely destructive of humanity. Clearly, any system which can transform boys into monsters, causing them to hack off the head of a fellow human being and kick it around in a sick parody of a football game, is inherently anti-human. This means that war in any form should never be tolerated; and neutrality is not an option, as it functions as a form of consent. Instead, war must be condemned, opposed, resisted, and deconstructed from our common life, lest we suffer its cruelty and injury evermore. This is the only moral course of action left. Perhaps most importantly, there exist numerous viable and ethical nonviolent alternatives to war. This is why I am a pacifist.

—–

Postcript:

When I published this piece on my blog, two things happened. First, I felt empowered as I understood more fully where I had come from, and how my experiences had shaped my life as a scholar and a person. Moreover, this understanding gave me the confidence to say and be different. It’s actually very hard to be a pacifist in IR – like being a feminist in a world of defence intellectuals. But I know now that I have good reasons for it, and a deeper affective as well as intellectual understanding of the realities of war. So I’m no longer afraid to admit my reasons for being a pacifist. A second result of publishing that story was the amazing response I got from readers, many of whom would never have even read it if I had written it as an academic article. The truth is, I feel I have had a better response to this piece of work than any of my academic publications to date (although that might be a reflection on how good an academic I am!). In any case, it seems that this story deeply affected many of my readers, including many who were my current or former students, causing them to think about their own subjectivity and their own agency.

To conclude this little narrative, I now know that I want to make narrative a core part of what I do as a scholar and who I am as a person. I want to keep trying to reach deeper understandings of myself and my place in the world through narrative writing. I want to learn about my subject and teach about it through in narrative form. I want to connect at a more affective level with my students and colleagues through the sharing of narratives. I know it will throw up many challenges and it may cause problems along the way; I also don’t know where it will lead or who I will end up being. I just know I can’t go back to my old life. I can’t be the person I was before I went to this workshop.

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2 thoughts on “Narrative, Self, Agency: Reflections on a Workshop

  1. I really appreciate these stories and these insights. I did a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies at Congrad Grebel while I was at the University of Waterloo, and I’ve often been struck by the spaces in Political Science where we can’t think and speak so much of what I learned in PACS. I’d often wondered if it was because my PACS education was often from an explicitly Mennonite tradition, but I sense it extends to pacifism more generally. We need to be confronted; thank you, Richard, for your contribution to that.

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