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Acting out and working through: trauma and (in)security


Trauma, the silenced aftermath of violence, has been largely neglected by international security studies, which perceives trauma as having little relevance to global politics. However, this article contends that trauma profoundly influences global security. Unless traumatic events are worked through, they can heighten insecurity not only in the immediate aftermath of violence but decades and even generations later. The article is divided into three parts. The first section examines trauma in general terms, noting its individual, social and political dimensions. The second section examines acting out in response to trauma, with a particular focus on the meaning-making narratives adopted in order to make sense of traumatic experiences: the heroic soldier, good and evil, and redemptive violence. These narratives serve to secure the state by shutting down questioning and showing strength and decisiveness in the wake of traumatic shocks. Section three examines the notion of working through trauma. Working through involves a process of mourning, in which past atrocities are acknowledged, reflected on, and more fully understood in all their historically situated complexity. It is a deeply political process that struggles to understand and challenge those structures and practices that facilitate traumatic loss.

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1 This is especially the case for developed Western states, which paradoxically reinforce their own sovereignty even as they undermine other states' sovereignty by waging war in the name of human rights and democracy. See, for example, Jabri, Vivienne, ‘Solidarity and Spheres of Culture: The Cosmopolitan and the Postcolonial’, Review of International Studies, 33:4 (2007), pp. 715728 . Such interventions, of course, also serve a particular kind of state sovereignty, evidenced by the rush to construct liberal States in the wake of violence.

2 Rose, Gillian, Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 51 .

3 See, for example, Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) ; LaCapra, Dominick, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) ; Herman, Judith Lewis, Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (London: Pandora, 1992) ; Kertész, Imre, Fatelessness, trans. Tim Wilkinson (London: The Harvill Press, 2005/1975) ; Moses-Hrushovski, Rena with Moses, Rafael, Grief and Grievance: the Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, trans. Tim Wilkinson (London: Minerva Press, 2000) ; Sassoon, Siegfried, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (London: Faber and Faber, 1937/1972) ; Volkan, Vamik, Blood Lines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism (Colorado: Westview Press, 1997) ; Winter, Jay, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) ; Yoder, Carolyn, The Little Book of Trauma Healing: When Violence Strikes and Community Security is Threatened (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2005) .

4 International Relations theorists have been challenging realist assumptions about international security for some decades, highlighting the political and socio-psychological dimensions of security that exist alongside the more readily observable and measurable material dimensions. See, for example, Booth, Ken, Strategy and Ethnocentrism (London: Croom Helm, 1979) ; Buzan, Barry, People States and Fear: The National Security Problem in International Relations (Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books, 1983) , and Cohn, Carol, ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’, Signs, 12:4 (Summer 1987), pp. 687718 . More recently, within the genre of critical security studies, there has been growing interest in investigating role of trauma and emotion in world politics. For an overview of critical security studies, see Fierke, K. M., Critical Approaches to International Security (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007) . For writing specifically on trauma and emotion, see Bell, Duncan, Memory, Trauma and World Politics: Reflections on the Relationship between Past and Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006) ; Crawford, Neta, ‘The Passions of World Politics: Propositions on Emotions and Emotional Relationships’, International Security, 24:4 (2001), pp. 116156 ; Edkins, Jenny, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) ; Fierke, Karin, ‘Whereof We Can Speak, Thereof We Must Not Be Silent: Trauma, Political Solipsism and War’, Review of International Studies, 30:4 (2004), pp. 471491 , and Pupavac, Vanessa, ‘Pathologizing Populations and Colonising Minds: International Psychosocial Programs in Kosovo’, Alternatives, 27:4 (2002), pp. 489511 .

5 Caruth, , Unclaimed Experience, p. 11 .

6 Ibid., p. 4.

7 Ibid., p. 5.

8 This aspect of trauma is captured well by Theodor W. Adorno, who is torn between the insistence that we cannot express horrific events in words (‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’) and that suffering must be expressed (‘The need to lend a voice to suffering is a condition for all truth’). See Adorno, Theodor W., Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1981), p. 34 ; and Adorno, Theodor W., Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge, 1973), pp. 1718 . For reflections on the relevance of Adorno's work on suffering for international political theory, see Schick, Kate, ‘“To lend a voice to suffering is a condition for all truth”: Adorno and International Political Thought’, Journal of International Political Theory, 5:2 (2009), pp. 138160 .

9 Erikson, Kai, ‘Notes on Trauma and Community’, in Caruth, Cathy (ed.), Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Maryland: Johns Hopkins University, 1995), p. 186 .

10 Ibid., p. 187.

11 Ibid., p. 189.

12 Ibid., p. 194. Emphasis in original.

13 Martha Cabrera, ‘Living and Surviving in a Multiply Wounded Country’, {} last accessed on 15 September 2010.

14 Literature on ‘children of the Holocaust’ or ‘second generation’ Holocaust survivors has proliferated in recent years. See, for example, Bauman, Zygmunt, ‘The Holocaust's Life as a Ghost’, in Fine, Robert and Turner, Charles (eds), Social Theory After the Holocaust (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000), pp. 718 ; Starman, Hannah, ‘Generations of Trauma: Victimhood and the Perpetuation of Abuse in Holocaust Survivors’, History and Anthropology, 17:4 (2006), pp. 327338 .

15 Volkan, , Blood Lines, pp. 4344 .

16 Yoder, Trauma Healing, pp. 14–5.

17 Fierke, ‘Trauma, political solipsism and war’, p. 482.

18 Ibid., 487.

19 Cabrera, ‘Living and Surviving in a Multiply Wounded Country’.

20 LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma. See also Yoder, Trauma Healing, for an accessible introduction to different responses to trauma. In this model, what LaCapra terms ‘acting out’ is referred to by Yoder as ‘reenactment’, encompassing both acting out, where trauma energy hurts others, and acting in, where trauma energy hurts oneself, for example, with anxiety and depression. LaCapra's notion of acting out encompasses both these maladaptive responses to trauma.

21 As mentioned above, I draw on a variety of different literatures to illustrate acting out and working through: history, literature, cultural studies, psychiatry, and peace studies. There is a broad consensus on ideas about trauma – the effects of traumatic experiences on individuals and communities and the ways in which these change over time – across these literatures. My examples are chosen for illustrative purposes, and are necessarily a partial representation of a much broader range of possible examples that could have been included had I had more space.

22 LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma.

23 For a thorough delineation of the symptoms of trauma, see Herman, Trauma and Recovery.

24 Yoder, , Trauma Healing, p. 37 .

25 Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning.

26 Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, in Sassoon, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, p. 364.

27 Edkins, , Trauma and the Memory of Politics, p. 9 . The phenomenon of ‘labelling’ resulting in loss of agency is also discussed in Fierke, Karin, Critical Security Studies (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), p. 125 . For a personal account of medicalisation and de-politicisation during WWI, see Sassoon's autobiographical novels, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston.

28 Pupavac, ‘Pathologizing Populations and Colonising Minds’, pp. 489–511.

29 Singer, , The President of Good and Evil, p. 143.

30 Žižek, Slavoj, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002), pp. 1314, fn. 8 .

31 At this early stage of the War on Terror, any questioning took place largely underground. Bush's assumptions created a clear political agenda that did not allow for official alternatives, but in civil society individuals and groups did begin to question the US administration's response. One such organisation is Peaceful Tomorrows, founded by people who lost family members in September 11, and who advocate non-violent alternatives to the Bush administration's response. See: {} last accessed on 14 July 2010. See also Underground Zero, a collation of independent filmmakers' responses to September 11: {} last accessed on 14 July 2010).

32 Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), pp. 118 .

33 Butler, , Precarious Life, p. 9 .

34 Ibid., p. 15.

35 Žižek, , Welcome to the Desert of the Real!, pp. 4950 .

36 Yoder, , Trauma Healing, pp. 3637 .

37 Singer, , The President of Good and Evil, pp. 152153 .

38 Moses-Hrushovski, , Grief and Grievance, p. 12 .

39 Ibid., p. 44.

40 Ibid., p. 115.

41 Ibid., p. 163.

42 Ibid., p. 113.

43 Ibid., p. 115.

44 Volkan, , Blood Lines, p. 64 .

45 Ibid., p. 78. See also his chapter in the same book entitled ‘Chosen Trauma: Unresolved Mourning’, pp. 36–49, and Fierke's analysis of acting out in Germany post-World War I and its facilitation of the horrors that ensued in World War II in ‘Trauma, Political Solipsism and War’.

46 Kertész, , Fatelessness, p. 256 .

47 Ibid., p. 259.

48 LaCapra, , Writing History, Writing Trauma, pp. 148149 .

49 In suggesting this framework of ‘working through’ as a means of dealing with trauma, I am not suggesting that the version I present here is the only possible framework. My research draws on a Western psychoanalytic tradition that is extremely well developed; however the framework is broad enough to allow for local versions. My point is that some sort of working through is important; its form will inevitably vary from culture to culture. In some cultures, there will be less emphasis on the narrative form and more on bodywork and ceremonial forms of dealing with trauma. See, for example, the emphasis on traditional American Indian healing ceremonies in Brave Heart, Maria Yellow Horse and DeBruyn, Lemyra M., ‘The American Indian Holocaust: Healing Historical Unresolved Grief’, American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, 8:2 (1998), pp. 6082 . For a discussion on the problems encountered with the top-down imposition of Western psychotherapeutic notions of healing to other cultures, and particularly in relation to the truth and reconciliation commissions, see Shaw, Rosalind, ‘Rethinking Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Lessons from Sierra Leone’, US Institute of Peace Special Report 130 (2005), {} last accessed on 14 February 2008 .

50 Before the broad stages of working through I have outlined can take place, some degree of safety should ideally be established. However, this is not always possible, for example in situations of ongoing conflict. For an excellent chapter dealing with the establishment of safety in personal recovery, see Herman, ‘Trauma and Recovery’, pp. 155–74.

51 Yoder, , Trauma Healing, p. 54 .

52 For example, Jayne Docherty, one of Yoder's STAR colleagues, notes how much more relaxed a man from Uganda was than the other participants in one of the workshops she was running. When she asked him about it, he replied that one of the methods his people used to mourn was dancing, and that he utilised the technique to help him process his grief and cope with stress. (Personal communication, International Studies Association Annual Convention, Chicago, February 2007).

53 Mollica, Richard, ‘Why Stories?’, Harvard Program on Refugee Trauma , {} last accessed on 14 July 2010. See also, Mollica, Healing Invisible Wounds.

54 The HPRT website has various examples of art as a healing tool, including a comic book about a Cambodian brother and sister who survived the Khmer regime: Svang Tor and Richard Mollica, ‘Sun and Moon: A Khmer Journey’, downloadable from {} last accessed on 14 July 2010.

55 Moses-Hrushovski, , Grief and Grievance, pp. 8, 18 .

56 Ibid., p. 19.

57 Herman, , Trauma and Recovery, p. 175 .

58 Yoder, , Trauma Healing, p. 53 .

59 Nutkiewicz, Michael, ‘Shame, Guilt, and Anguish in Holocaust Survivor Testimony’, The Oral History Review, 30:1 (2003), p. 17 .

60 Nutkiewicz, ‘Shame, Guilt, and Anguish’, pp. 18–9. For details of the Project on Genocide, Psychiatry and Witnessing, see: {}, last accessed 12 September 2007.

61 Mollica, , Healing Invisible Wounds, pp. 3448 .

62 For example, Mollica tells of the Khmer Rouge practice of forbidding proper burials and Buddhist ceremonies for their victims. He notes that an important part of working through for those who lost loved ones in this way is to conduct a traditional ceremony that remembers those who have died. See, Mollica, , Healing Invisible Wounds, pp. 4142 .

63 Matsuda, Mari J., ‘Public Response to Racist Speech: Considering the Victim's Story’, Michigan Law Review, 87:8 (1989), p. 2373 .

64 Ibid., pp. 2320–81.

65 Ibid., p. 2380.

66 LaCapra, , Writing History, Writing Trauma, p. 42 .

67 Sassoon, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston.

68 Kertész, Fatelessness.

69 Adorno, Theodor W., ‘What Does Coming to Terms with the Past Mean?’, in Hartman, G. (ed.), Bitburg: In Moral and Political Perspective, trans. T. B. and G. Hartman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), p. 124 .

70 Moses-Hrushovski, , Grief and Grievance, pp. 3643 .

71 Ibid., pp. 67–91.

72 Butler, , Precarious Life, p. xii .

73 Ibid., p. 17.

74 See, for example, Nutkiewicz, ‘Shame, Guilt, and Anguish’, on the issue of the risk involved in telling one's trauma story and the risk in listening to the story.

75 Rose, , Mourning Becomes the Law, p. 62 . Emphasis in original.

76 Honig, Bonnie, Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 39 .

77 Rose, , The Broken Middle, p. xv .

78 Honig, , Democracy and the Foreigner, p. 118 .

* The author wishes to thank Nicholas Rengger, Brent Steele, Megan MacKenzie, Karin Fierke, Ben Thirkell-White, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments and advice.

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