85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History
Landscapes of War and Peace
April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky
Title: The Sensory Landscapes of War
Abstract: Ever since the French Annales school called for a "history of sensibilities" in the 1930s, historians have studied how the senses have been understood and utilized in the historical past. Most recently, historians such as Mark Smith have drawn on this tradition in order to historicize the "sensescape" of the battlefield, that is, to explore its sounds and sights, smells and tastes for soldiers engaged in combat. Our panel continues this scholarly trend by exploring how soldiers in the Second Word War ETO, Iraq and Afghanistan experienced the battlefield with their senses. In the ETO, sense impressions allowed infantrymen to forge strong bonds of comradeship as they taught each other the sounds of incoming shells, or shared their revulsion at the smells left behind by battle. In Afghanistan, soldiers both experienced and remembered battles through their senses, using them to comprehend a bewildering natural and civilian environment. In Iraq, Army leaders and medical officers made decisions concerning deployment based on the sensory experiences troops might likely encounter. They did so to protect and preserve soldiers from battle stresses they had already experienced. In a variety of military scenarios and terrains, then, soldiers learned to use their senses to gain information from a hostile environment, and to protect themselves from external threats. In other words, they used their senses to "make sense" of the battlefield, and thus protect themselves both physically and mentally.
Mary Louise Roberts, University of Wisconsin - Madison
Participant's Paper Title: The Sensescape of the Second World War: How Infantrymen in the ETO Made Sense of the War
Participant's Paper Abstract: Infantry memoirs suggest an incomparable alertness to the sensescape of the battlefield. The sound of an incoming shell, the smell of cordite and burnt powder, the sight of decaying bodies, the taste of blood. Because sense impressions predominate infantry memory, they tell us a great deal about foot soldiers and their lives on the frontlines. And yet military historians, their eyes fixed on battle strategy and outcome, have overlooked the value of a soldier's sense perceptions. This paper attempts to reconstruct the sensescape of the ETO during the Second World War, the meanings given to it, and its social and cultural impact on infantrymen. My sources are memoirs, letters, and diaries of British and American soldiers who fought in the Italian mountains during the winter of 1943-44, and the Ardennes battle in the winter of 1944-45. My aim here is not to establish how the war "sounded" or "smelled." Instead I focus on how soldiers made meaning from what they heard, smelled and tasted. How that meaning was constructed has a history inasmuch as it emerges from a particular social and cultural world, in this case, the front lines of the ETO. The language of sensation tried to make comprehensible-- and hence master?the alien world in which millions of young men were thrown without choice in the two winters of '43-44 and '44-45. Sense impressions also structured crucial bonds of comradeship among frontline soldiers. Infantrymen taught each other how to "hear" the battlefield for their own survival, or how to make a K Ration a bit more palatable. In doing so, I argue, they created an identity and a culture as infantrymen, one which they counter posed to official army culture.
Jennifer Keene, Chapman University
Lisa Mundey, University of St. Thomas
Participant's Paper Title: The Sensory Landscape of the Suck: The Experience and Memory of America's Longest (Forgotten) War in Afghanistan
Participant's Paper Abstract: "Welcome to the wastelands of Afghanistan, men," announces the Special Forces combatant to the newly arrived troops in Oruzgan Province. Filth and feces. Extreme heat and bitter cold. Jingle trucks and pick-ups. IEDs and mortars. Afghanistan delivered some of the soldier's perennial physical and mental gripes in a strange new landscape. In Embedded Training Teams, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and Spartan forward operating bases, American soldiers faced an enormous cultural clash with a population they were there both to help and to fight. Encounters with the locals were often confounding. Conversations with interpreters could be enlightening. Combatants struggled to make sense of their war to friends and family in near real-time thanks to modern communications technology. Soldiers instant messaged while being mortared. They could call home after a near-death experience on patrol. Afghanistan also became the new "forgotten war," overshadowed by the conflict in Iraq. In blogs, emails, phone calls, and memoirs, American combatants in Afghanistan described their immediate impressions of the enemy and their environment and their reactions to the boredom, fear, and exhilaration of combat.
David Kieran, Washington & Jefferson College
Participant's Paper Title: 'If you Love the Troops, You Don't Send them Back to Fight with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a Bottle of Antidepressants': The Sensory Experience of War and the Debate Over Redeployment to Iraq
Participant's Paper Abstract: As the Iraq war deteriorated into a bloody civil war in the mid-2000s, the war's opponents increasingly pointed to the mental health challenges that service members faced as evidence that the Bush administration's strategy had failed. In particular, in 2006 and 2007 the war's critics in congress and in the media frequently argued that sending troops who had been diagnosed with a behavioral health issue on another deployment demonstrated a callous disregard for American life in pursuit of a failed strategy. The United States Army, however, took a different, and more complex perspective on the deployment of diagnosed troops. Faced with a recruiting shortage and increasing demands for deployable troops during the 2007 Iraq surge and the 2010 Afghanistan surge, the Army developed a series of protocols for determining which diagnoses were allowable in theater, which pharmaceutical prescriptions could be effectively managed downrange, and which soldiers were likely to succeed or struggle. These decisions were driven by the Army's understanding of the unique nature of both the Iraq War and the all-volunteer force fighting it. Army leaders and medical officers particularly sought to imagine the specific conditions and sensory experiences that troops would likely experience and to calibrate decisions about deployment accordingly. This paper explores these public debates and internal efforts, asking what the juxtaposition between them reveals about divergent popular and military perceptions of mental health and the sensory realities of combat and what implications this holds for contemporary US culture.
Beth Bailey, University of Kansas