by Rafe McGregor
8th November 2021

War memoirs are military memoirs that focus on the experience of combat rather than military life and they are a popular genre of autobiography. They are also a useful resource for criminologists, particularly those who are primarily concerned with questions of harm, power and inequality.

I recently published a philosophy and a literary studies article on related subjects and together they suggest why criminologists might be interested in war memoir. Before I explain, let me recommend three examples: James Ashcroft’s Making a Killing: The Explosive Story of a Hired Gun in Iraq (Virgin, 2007), Mark Owen’s No Easy Day: The Only First-hand Account of the Navy Seal Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden (Penguin, 2013) and Ryan Hendrickson’s Tip of the Spear: The Incredible Story of an Injured Green Beret’s Return to Battle (Center Street, 2020). The lengthy subtitles give a good indication of the content and the second has the added appeal of providing an insider perspective on the subjects of two successful Hollywood feature films, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips (2013).

War memoirs typically aim to achieve what I call moral immunity, i.e. some kind of acquittal, amnesty or absolution from readers for not only representing repeated killing, but representing that killing as exhilarating or addictive. In other words, the authors want us to read the memoirs with an interest in their lives rather than, for example, a historical interest in the conflicts or a criminological interest in the harms. Given that these narratives are usually lacking in complexity, they deploy surprisingly sophisticated devices to encourage readers to empathise with the authors. I identified three in my initial study, though there may well be more: literary irresponsibility, ethical peerage and moral economy. Literary irresponsibility occurs when the author deliberately misrepresents a situation to invite a response under an inappropriate set of norms, for example, by depicting a tragic situation as amusing. Ethical peerage involves an appeal to the reader’s trust, such that we are likely, at least initially, to agree with the author’s judgement. Moral economy facilitates approval of the author by framing the group to which he (it is almost always a man in these memoirs) belongs as less morally reprehensible than the others represented. What I find fascinating about these devices is their similarity to Gresham Sykes and David Matza’s (1957) techniques of neutralisation.

War memoirs don’t just strive for moral immunity, however, but promote a moral psychology that enacts the philosophy Jonathan Webber characterises as canonical existentialism in Rethinking Existentialism (OUP, 2018). The memoirs focus on the construction of subjectivity, the exercise of agency and the achievement of authenticity in the crucible of combat as they describe overcoming challenges and participation in historic events. Owen’s account of the 2011 raid on Abbottabad is the most obvious example of the latter, but Ashcroft represents the work of private military contractors as essential to the reconstruction of Iraq, and Hendrickson represents his five tours of duty in Afghanistan as part of a life made meaningful by being lived to the full. In combination with moral immunity, the moral psychology of war memoir can be compelling, in spite of failing to acknowledge one of the crucial aspects of authenticity articulated by feminist Simone de Beauvoir – that it becomes absurdity when achieved at the expense of others. My interest in the moral psychology of war memoir is not in its philosophical underpinning, but in the extent to which it reveals the imperial rather than military mindset. Subjectivity, agency and authenticity are constructed, exercised and achieved by means of expedition and dominion, characteristics that extend beyond the institution of the military.

With the apparent end of the two decades of political violence known as the War on Terror in August 2021, the relationship between psychology and politics revealed in war memoir takes on a special significance. First, the memoirs offer insight into how the war could last so long. Heads of state declare war, but other people do the fighting and dying and the memoirs explain why soldiers were motivated to continue after Bin Laden had been killed and after it became clear that Operation Enduring Freedom would provide nothing of the sort. Second, the memoirs provide evidence for psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon’s conception of the way in which politics shapes and limits the subject. Fanon was concerned with the alienation produced by colonialism, with understanding how the inferiority of the colonised is internalised in order to be able to undo its legacy and enable violent resistance. The moral psychology of war memoir reveals an internalisation of superiority, a barely questioned right to authenticity at the expense of, in these examples, a Muslim other. As in Fanon, the relationship between politics and psychology is reciprocal, because the politics of empire drives and is driven by the psychology of empire, nail-biting narratives of patriotic self-sacrifice fuelling the fire of imperial ambition. I suspect that the War on Terror has actually just entered a new phase, one in which there will be increasing reliance on combat drones, local proxies and deniable operations. Analysing war memoirs can help us understand why.

Rafe McGregor is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Edge Hill University, prior to which he spent 15 years in the police and the prison service.


Critical Criminology and Literary Criticism cover

Critical Criminology and Literary Criticism by Rafe McGregor is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £36.00.

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