Skip to main content Accessibility help

Joy and war: Reading pleasure in wartime experiences

  • Julia Welland (a1)


In recent years there has been a ‘turn’ to thinking about war through the experiences of those touched by it. While this scholarship has generated numerous important insights, its focus has tended to remain on wars’ violences, those responsible for enacting them, and the effects of such violence. In this article, the experiences of pleasure and joy in war that simultaneously take place are placed centre stage. Drawing on three war novels, the article tracks three recurring themes of pleasurable and joyful experiences related to war: bodily pleasures, the ‘togetherness’ of war, and moments of joy that escape war’s reach. Through this focus, war is shown to work across a range of affective registers and as never totalising or universalising in its experience. The article argues that paying attention to joy and pleasure can work to displace war as a focus of analysis, directing attention instead to the experiences of those who live through war and how they survive, sustain, and resist it.


Corresponding author

*Correspondence to: Julia Welland, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL. Author’s email:


Hide All

1 Parashar, Swati, ‘What wars and “war bodies” know about International Relations’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 26:4 (2013), pp. 615630 (p. 619).

2 Hedges, Chris, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), p. 6 .

3 See, for example, Sylvester, Christine (ed.), Experiencing War (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011); Sylvester, Christine, War as Experience (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013); Basham, Victoria, War, Identity and the Liberal State: Everyday Experiences of the Geopolitical in the Armed Forces (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013); Parashar, Swati, Women and Militant Wars: The Politics of Injury (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014); and Dyvik, Synne L., Gendering Counterinsurgency: Performativity, Embodiment and Experience in the Afghan ‘Theatre of War’ (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017).

4 It is not my intention here to imply there is a coherent and bounded school of scholars who ‘do’ experiential research. Rather, I am pointing to a range of contemporary (and predominantly feminist) scholars who have placed the everyday, embodied, emotional, and affective experiences of war at the centre of their research.

5 Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War, p. 1.

6 Ibid., p. 3.

7 Christine Sylvester, cited in Dyvik, Synne L., ‘“Valhalla Rising”: Gender, embodiment and experience in military memoirs’, Security Dialogue, 47:2 (2016), pp. 133150 (p. 135).

8 For a notable exception, see Pentinnen, Elina, Joy and International Relations: A New Methodology (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013).

9 A range of emotions, it should be noted, that many of the ‘experiential scholars’ mentioned previously take account of themselves. Parashar, ‘What wars’; Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War; and Dyvik ‘“Valhalla Rising”’ all recognise that as a site of international politics, war is productive of a range of experiences, including those of excitement, celebration, and joy. What I am concerned with in this article is what happens when war is understood as not only productive of these experiences and emotions, but what happens when they are placed at the centre of analysis.

10 With thanks to Paul Kirby for this particular list of meanings and affects.

11 Pentinnen, Joy and International Relations, p. 4.

12 Lisle, Debbie, ‘Waiting for international political sociology: a field guide to living in-between’, International Political Sociology, 10 (2016), pp. 417433 (p. 423).

13 Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War.

14 Mann, Michael, States, War and Capitalism: Studies in Political Sociology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988).

15 Åhäll, Linda and Gregory, Thomas, ‘Concluding reflection’, in Linda Åhäll and Thomas Gregory (eds), Emotions, Politics and War (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), pp. 222233 (p. 230).

16 Åhäll and Gregory, ‘Concluding reflection’, p. 230.

17 Pentinnen, Joy and International Relations, p. 62.

18 Ibid., pp. 62–3.

19 Lisle, ‘Waiting for international political sociology’, p. 423.

20 Ibid., p. 424.

21 Ibid.

22 Pentinnen, Joy and International Relations, p. 13.

23 Ibid., p. 8.

24 Ibid., p. 16.

25 See, for example, Barkawi, Tarak and Brighton, Shane, ‘Powers of war: Fighting, knowledge, and critique’, International Political Sociology, 5:2 (2011), pp. 126143 ; Brown, Katherine E. and Pentinnen, Elina, ‘“A sucking chest wound is nature’s way of telling you to slow down …”: Humour and laughter in war time’, Critical Studies on Security, 1:1 (2013), pp. 124126 ; Stephen Chan, ‘On the uselessness of new wars theory: Lessons from African conflicts’, in Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War, pp. 94–102; and Crane-Seeber, Jesse, ‘Sexy warriors: the politics and pleasures of submission to the state’, Critical Military Studies, 2:1–2 (2016), pp. 4155 .

26 See Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare (London: Granta Books, 1999).

27 See Duncanson, Claire, Forces for Good? Military Masculinities and Peacebuilding in Afghanistan and Iraq (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and Dyvik, ‘“Valhalla Rising”’.

28 Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, p. 3.

29 Sebastian Junger, cited in Crane-Seeber, ‘Sexy warriors’, p. 41.

30 See, for example, Darby, Philip, The Fiction of Imperialism: Reading Between International Relations and Postcolonialism (London: Cassell, 1998); Zehfuss, Maja, Wounds of Memory: The Politics of War in Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War; Park-Kang, S., ‘Fictional IR and imagination: Advancing narrative approaches’, Review of International Studies, 41:2 (2015), pp. 361381 .

31 See Bleiker, Roland: ‘The aesthetic turn in international political theory’, Millennium, 30:3 (2001), pp. 509533 ; Aesthetics and World Politics (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and ‘In search of thinking space: Reflections on the aesthetic turn in international political theory’, Millennium, 45:2 (2017), pp. 1–7.

32 Åhäll and Gregory, ‘Concluding reflection’, p. 230.

33 Cerwyn Moore and Laura J. Shepherd, cited in Åhäll and Gregory, ‘Concluding reflection’, p. 230, their emphasis.

34 Bleiker, Aesthetics and World Politics, p. 25; see also Bleiker, Roland and Hutchinson, Emma, ‘Fear no more: Emotions and world politics’, Review of International Studies, 34 (2008), pp. 115135 (p. 132).

35 Darby, The Fiction of Imperialism, p. 29.

36 Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War.

37 Bleiker, Aesthetics and World Politics, p. 39.

38 One very notable exception to this is, of course, Cynthia Enloe’s significant body of research – for a selection see: Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (London: Pandora, 1989); Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (London: University of California Press, 2000); The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire (London: University of California Press, 2004) on the everyday militarisation of women’s lives in which she traverses munitions factories, garment factories, and the private quarters of diplomat’s residences in order to uncover the tangle of gendered power relations at the heart of the international political system.

39 Darby, The Fiction of Imperialism, p. 216.

40 Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War, p. 119. It is worth noting at this point that I am not claiming that war novels or fiction are an unmediated way to ‘access’ war or war experiences. Like any form of representation, fiction is profoundly mediated, with novels in particular often written – and thus marked – by those who have the time, education, and resources to devote to writing and publishing. Rather, my decision to turn to fiction comes from its attention to the personal, the everyday, and the emotional.

41 Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War, p. 119, emphasis added.

42 See Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases; Alison, Miranda, Women and Political Violence: Female Combatants in Ethno-National Conflict (London: Routledge, 2009); MacKenzie, Megan, Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security, and Post-Conflict Development (New York: New York University Press, 2012); and Parashar, Women and Militant Wars.

43 Pentinnen, Joy and International Relations, p. 7.

44 Thanks to Sanna Strand who encouraged me to think through my use of the term ‘war experience’.

45 Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War, p. 100.

46 Ibid.

47 One of the anonymous reviewers to this piece noted that while there is often a lot of sex in war novels, it is rarely about relaxed pleasure seeking. While I agree with this observation in part, my concern here is not with sex in war novels per se, but rather, the ways in which the characters in the three novels I discuss engage in sexual relations and their apparent bodily enjoyment of them. Further, while I very much agree with the reviewer’s comment that sex in war can be about ‘distraction, power, [a] release of tension’, I would argue that this is not necessarily or always mutually exclusive to its pleasures and enjoyments.

48 Zoe Norridge, ‘Sex as synecdoche: Intimate languages of violence in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love’, Research in African Literatures, 43:2 (2012), pp. 18–39 (p. 21).

49 Norridge, ‘Sex as synecdoche’, p. 28.

50 Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, Half of a Yellow Sun (London: Harper Perennial, 2007), pp. 307308 .

51 Ibid., pp. 391–2.

52 Ibid., p. 392.

53 Wool, Zoë, ‘Critical military studies, queer theory, and the possibilities of critique: the case of suicide and family caregiving in the US military’, Critical Military Studies, 1:1 (2015), pp. 2337 (p. 24).

54 Norridge, ‘Sex as synecdoche’, p. 33.

55 Hoffman, Cara, Be Safe I Love You (London: Virago, 2014), p. 18 .

56 Ibid., p. 12.

57 Ibid., p. 123.

58 Ibid., p. 232.

59 Ibid., p. 244.

60 Ibid., p. 185.

61 McNeill, William H., Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 2 .

62 Dyvik, ‘“Valhalla Rising”’, p. 143.

63 Ibid.

64 See Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991); Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 1997); Nakamura, Jeanne and Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, ‘The concept of flow’, in C. R. Snyder and S. J. Lopez (eds), Handbook of Positive Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 89105 ; and Harari, Yuval N., ‘Combat flow: Military, political, and ethical dimensions of subjective well-being in war’, Review of General Psychology, 12:3 (2008), pp. 253264 .

65 Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, ‘The concept of flow’, p. 90.

66 Harari, ‘Combat flow’, p. 253.

67 Ibid., p. 254.

68 Ibid.

69 Ibid., p. 257.

70 Dyvik, ‘“Valhalla Rising”’, p. 144.

71 Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War, p. 107.

72 Anam, Tahima, A Golden Age (London: Canongate, 2012), p. 102 .

73 Anam, A Golden Age, p. 103.

74 Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun, p. 123.

75 Ibid., p. 124.

76 Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War, p. 107.

77 Ibid., p. 108.

78 Anam, A Golden Age, p. 52.

79 Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun, pp. 162–3.

80 Ibid., p. 171.

81 Dyvik, ‘“Valhalla Rising”’, p. 143, emphasis in original.

82 Welland, Julia, ‘Militarised violences, basic training and the “myths” of asexuality and discipline’, Review of International Studies, 39:4 (2013), pp. 881902 ; Whitworth, Sandra, Men, Militarism and UN Peacekeeping (London: Lynne Rienner, 2004).

83 See Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006).

84 Ahmed, Sara, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014 [orig. pub. 2004]).

85 Stewart, Kathleen, Ordinary Affects (London: Duke University Press, 2007).

86 Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 44.

87 It should be noted that both Ahmed and Stewart use the term ‘body’ to mean not just human bodies, but ‘human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise’. See Linda Åhäll and Thomas Gregory, ‘Introduction: Mapping emotions, politics and war’, in Åhäll and Gregory (eds), Emotions, Politics and War, pp. 1–14 (p. 6).

88 Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 4. It is worth noting here that while for some writing within the field of ‘affect studies’ a clear distinction can be made between ‘emotions’ and ‘affects’. See Clough, Patricia (ed.), The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007) and Gregg, Melissa and Seigworth, Gregory J. (eds), The Affect Theory Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), with emotions remaining within the realm of language and discourse, and affects as ‘non-conscious, non-subjective or pre-personal’ (Åhäll and Gregory, ‘Introduction’, p. 5). I follow Ahmed [The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Afterword] in her scepticism of a clear-cut distinction between emotion and affect. For Ahmed, the claims made by some in the affect literature who argue that the ‘turn’ to affect has qualitatively shifted understanding erases the insights and contributions of feminist and queer work that has consistently challenged the mind-body dualism some affect theorists claim to have newly transcended. As such, Ahmed is uninterested in distinguishing emotions and affects as different aspects of experience, and while her own theorisation makes use of the term ‘emotion’ – ‘because it is the term used in everyday life to describe what I wanted to give an account of’: Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 207 – it ‘involve[s] bodily processes of affecting and being affected’ (ibid., p. 208).

89 Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 45.

90 Stewart, Ordinary Affects, p. 128.

91 Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 45.

92 Ibid., p. 45.

93 Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War, p. 107.

94 Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun, p. 245.

95 Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War, p. 107.

96 See Steven Morris, ‘British army is targeting working-class young people, report shows’, The Guardian (9 July 2017), available at: {} accessed 3 November 2017.

97 Whitworth, Men, Militarism and UN Peacekeeping, p. 158; see also Harrison, D. and Laliberté, L., No Life Like It: Military Wives in Canada (Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1994).

98 See, for example, Razack, Sherene, Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004); Richter-Montpetit, Melanie, ‘Empire, desire and violence: a queer transnational feminist reading of the prisoner “abuse” in Abu Ghraib and the question of “gender equality”’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 9:1 (2007), pp. 3859 ; Welland, ‘Militarised violences’.

99 Brown and Pentinnen, ‘“A sucking chest wound …”’.

100 Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun, p. 347.

101 Ibid., p. 295.

102 Whitworth, Men, Militarism and UN Peacekeeping.

103 Duncanson, Claire, Forces for Good? Military Masculinities and Peacebuilding in Afghanistan and Iraq (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

104 Norridge, ‘Sex as synecdoche’, p. 19.

105 Anam, A Golden Age, p. 147.

106 Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun, p. 273.

107 Hoffman, Be Safe I Love You, p. 163.

108 Anam, A Golden Age, p. 142.

109 Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun, p. 333.

110 Hoffman, Be Safe I Love You, p. 157.

111 Anam, A Golden Age, pp. 99–100.

112 Berlant, Lauren, ‘Slow death (sovereignty, obesity, lateral agency)’, Critical Inquiry, 33:4 (2007), pp. 754780 (p. 759).

113 Ibid., p. 759.

114 Lisle, ‘Waiting for international political sociology’, p. 426.

115 Åhäll and Gregory, ‘Concluding reflection’.

116 Bleiker, Roland, ‘Learning from art: a reply to Holden’s “World Literature and World Politics”’, Global Society, 17:4 (2003), pp. 415428 (p. 417).

117 Pentinnen, Joy and International Relations, p. 108; see also Chan, ‘On the uselessness of new wars theory’.

118 Bleiker, Aesthetics and World Politics, p. 39.

119 Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War.



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed