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Scholarly Explorations of War

Scholar Thomas Dodman once said, “All wars big and small are catastrophes of one sort or another for those who they affect.” For years scholars at the Kluge Center have reflected on and studied the effects of war on those who fight, the nations who engage in them, and on society as a whole, in an effort to provide meaning to these human catastrophes big and small.

Dodman’s words were spoken at the start of his lecture this past July at the Kluge Center, the culmination of his four-month residency as a Kluge Fellow. Dodman—who is an assistant professor of history at Boston College and an affiliate scholar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard—focuses on the psychological impact of warfare. His research draws upon European manuscripts to trace the origins of the word “nostalgia,” and in particular nostalgia as an illness of war. During the 18th and early 19th centuries the word “nostalgia” defined a war-induced sickness that was a precursor to today’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Using government records, soldiers’ letters, novels, artwork and more, Dodman uncovered the medical and military history of this concept and the inner emotional torment of soldiers on the battlefield 300 years ago.

Scholar Tara Tappert also examined the war-induced trauma suffered by those who fought. An independent scholar who held the 2014-2015 Larson Fellowship in Health & Spirituality, Tappert’s research examined the use of art and art therapy as a healing mechanism for veterans suffering from PTSD. Specifically, she re-traced the history of how art was used to help World War I veterans in Europe and America deal with the disfigurement, amputations, and mental wounds of the conflict. The letters and artwork she uncovered from soldiers illuminated this culture of healing 100 years ago.

The examination of war has not been solely confined to Europe and the United States. In the early days of the Kluge Center, scholar Mustafa Aksakal (Mellon Fellow, 2004) conducted research on Ottoman public opinion on the eve of World War I. And in 2009, scholar Maroun Aouad examined doctrines on war that were held by medieval philosophers writing in Arabic. Unlike the concept of jihâd, much less attention, according to Aouad–the director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France–had been paid to the doctrines on expansive war that were held by Arab medieval philosophers. These doctrines were grounded in reason and provided answers to complex questions regarding war and conflict that had value far beyond Islamic civilization. Aouad’s research resurfaced the writings of these thinkers and probed their relationship to jihâd.

In 2008, Kluge Fellow Geert Buelens addressed the use of poetry as propaganda during the First World War, focusing on WWI poems about Belgium by poets such as e.e. cummings, Witter Bynner, Ford Madox Ford and prominent Russian, Italian and Scandinavian poets. According to Buelens, now a professor of modern Dutch literature at Utrecht University, in 1914 the Belgians found themselves at the heart of a propaganda battle in both warring and neutral nations. The writing of war poems became part of the war effort.

Finally, this past year Kissinger Chair Bradford Lee undertook a six month residency at the Kluge Center to examine whether the results of one hundred years of American military interventions in foreign conflicts have been worth the costs. Lee drilled deeply into important policy, strategy, and operational decisions made by American leaders in World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and the wars since, to understand what was on the minds of key wartime decision makers. His overarching question was whether or not U.S. military intervention produced results that were worth the costs to society and the nation–a question that we continue to grapple with.

The effects of war upon humanity are vast, multifaceted and complex. For fifteen years scholars at the Kluge Center have sought to comprehend elements of this unfortunate aspect of the human experience, and, perhaps, to offer us lessons that we may draw upon to avoid wars in the future.

§ Watch:Before Trauma: Nostalgia, or the Melancholy of War” (Thomas Dodman, July 30, 2015)

§ Watch:Art from War: Documenting Devastation/Realizing Restoration” (Tara Tappert, January 22, 2015)

§ Watch: Arab Medieval Philosophers’ Doctrines on War” (Maroun Aouad, February 25, 2009) — requires RealPlayer

§ Watch: Remember Belgium’ — Poetry as Propaganda During the First World War” (Geert Buelens, July 17, 2008)

§ Read: The True Costs of 100 Years of War” — an interview with Bradford Lee

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