Several authors have shown how representations of the enemy can influence the practice of war (and vice versa). From this perspective, for example, an important set of studies has documented how racist and animalizing representations of the other contributed to fashion the “culture of violence” which characterized the Western way of war during the colonial wars and both world wars.
Parallel to this, another set of authors has made the point that consent for violence does not only take root in negative representations but, also, in more subtle dynamics of dehumanization such as bureaucratic reasoning, the routinization of violence, “technostrategic” language, mechanization, etc. Although it puts an equal emphasis on the question of representation, this second literature partly contradicts the first as it underlines that one does not need to hate or despise one’s enemy in order to feel able to kill him. Reification is sufficient and it is achieved perfectly - so the argument goes - when one fails to recognize the other as an alter-ego.
Finally, a third constellation of research has taken a completely different stance and pointed out that, in some cases, consent for violence goes along with some extreme forms of identification with the opponent. J. Bourke observed such a phenomenon in her “intimate history of war” based on the narratives of war veterans. Far from de-humanizing their opponents, these war veterans pictured the latter as their exact alter-egos. Bourke analyzed this discursive practice as a way of displaying one’s agency, as well as a consequence of the esthetization of violence in popular culture and in the mainstream media. When war becomes beautiful, Bourke argues, violence can take place outside of all de-humanizing patterns.
Whereas the nexus representation/violence has been well documented concerning former wars, we know little about how this complex dialectic operates in contemporary ones. My new research project aims at shedding some light on this blind spot by focusing on those wars that have been waged by European and North-American powers since the end of the Cold War. Concretely, I conduct qualitative interviews with French, German, and British soldiers and officers. Some preliminary findings have been published in: