War and everyday life: how we learn to live in the extraordinary

For res­i­dents of Eastern Europe war is not just a word from text­books and news any­more. It invad­ed their homes and their des­tiny, became part of their dai­ly rou­tine. Ariel University researcher Victor Vakhshtein, in his open lec­ture at the Free University, pro­posed to con­sid­er dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions in which war and ordi­nary life are sep­a­rat­ed or not sep­a­rat­ed by time and dis­tance, and to under­stand what soci­ol­o­gists can and can­not tell us about it.

The war is “drawn out by the fabric of everyday life”.

This German philoso­pher Bernhard Waldenfels’ metaphor can describe a sit­u­a­tion in which war and every­day life are sep­a­rat­ed from each oth­er in time. The war has been left in the past, but it is a very recent past. It is still vis­i­ble and audi­ble, it influ­ences on the peo­ple’s behav­ior. The lec­tur­er him­self observed these man­i­fes­ta­tions while work­ing in the Balkans (in north­ern Albania, west­ern Bosnia and east­ern Croatia) 10 15 years after the end of the war: “This is a strange feel­ing of a half-healed wound. The war has not gone away, it is still here, it still deter­mines whole polit­i­cal life, con­tin­ues to struc­ture every­day prac­tices, but as if it was blur­ry, wrapped in the fab­ric of every­day life.

10 – 15 years after the end of the war, the bridge con­nect­ing the past war and every­day life most often turns out to be cul­tur­al or col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. Sometimes it may seem to us that col­lec­tive mem­o­ry is silent and the top­ic of war is a taboo. Victor Vakhshtain is sure that even in this case the war affects every­day life. He cites an exam­ple from a play by Israeli writer Gila Almagor, in which par­ents who sur­vived the Holocaust try to avoid the top­ic in every pos­si­ble way. Nevertheless, the pres­ence of the war and the Holocaust is evi­dent in every phrase they utter, in every action they take. A sim­i­lar reac­tion can be observed among old­er peo­ple in Russia who sur­vived the war but do not want to remem­ber it. The phrase “food is not about plea­sure, it is about eat­ing” is famil­iar not only to the hero­ine of the play.

Experience of peaceful life in the reality of war

Neither vol­un­teers at the front, nor those who are called up to the front, nor res­i­dents of occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, nor refugees start their mil­i­tary life from scratch: they all approached the war with already exist­ing life expe­ri­ence. They rely on their expe­ri­ence received in a past life.

Sometimes this expe­ri­ence is con­scious­ly used. For exam­ple, at the end of World War II, America began pro­duc­ing T12 and T13 Beano hand grenades, which were exact­ly the size of a base­ball: not all young con­scripts had expe­ri­ence throw­ing grenades, but most of them had expe­ri­ence play­ing base­ball. Here the body becomes the mech­a­nism of trans­fer. All our expe­ri­ence, our skills and abil­i­ties are reflect­ed in the way we speak, walk, open doors, etc. And all this can be quick­ly recon­fig­ured for a new reality.

There are many his­tor­i­cal exam­ples of how peace­ful habits influ­ence the advance­ment of mil­i­tary inno­va­tion. One such exam­ple is the obser­va­tion (or spy) gon­do­las com­mon dur­ing the First World War. Such a gon­do­la was a spe­cial bas­ket, which was low­ered from the air­ship on a long cable. They were used for intel­li­gence pur­pos­es. At the same time, the air­ship itself was inac­ces­si­ble to ene­my artillery, unlike the mil­i­tary in the gon­do­la. Working there was not only dan­ger­ous, but also extreme­ly uncom­fort­able. The inven­tors feared that the sol­diers would have to be dri­ven onto this gon­do­la under pain of exe­cu­tion. However, the crew mem­bers of the air­craft will­ing­ly car­ried out the mis­sion assigned to them, since this was the only place on the air­ship where smok­ing was allowed.


“War is out there somewhere”

But what hap­pens if war and every­day life are sep­a­rat­ed not in time, but in space, when ordi­nary peo­ple can only learn about war through the media? This seems to be the modus operan­di of most mod­ern wars, Vakhstein believes. Sociologist Hugh Gastersen con­nects this rela­tion­ship between war and every­day life with the tra­di­tion of impe­r­i­al wars: empires always fight some­where on ter­ri­to­ry that they con­sid­er theirs, while it can remain unknown to inhab­i­tants of these empires.

History has known many such exam­ples. For instance, some res­i­dents of Australia and New Zealand learned of the exis­tence of Gallipoli and Turkey when their coun­tries lost 8,709 and 2,721 peo­ple there, respec­tive­ly. Otherwise, they would not have paid atten­tion to the Battle of Gallipoli (a mil­i­tary oper­a­tion near the coast of Turkey, which last­ed from February 19, 1915 to January 9, 1916). According to Vakhstein, refugees should be includ­ed in this same mode. Although they are ter­ri­to­ri­al­ly sep­a­rat­ed from the war, they con­tin­ue to expe­ri­ence the war that is tak­ing place in their homeland.

The main medi­a­tor, the bridge in this mode is still the media, through which we learn news from the front and form our own idea of the war. It is log­i­cal that not only the media influ­ence on our per­cep­tion of war, but also wars influ­ence on the media. Thus, accord­ing to the lec­tur­er, the Crimean War (1853-1856) played a key role in the mod­ern “media race”. Until the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tu­ry, the English pub­lic learned about the war pri­mar­i­ly thanks to enthu­si­as­tic essays appear­ing in news­pa­pers from time to time. These essays appeared about a month after the real bat­tle, after the same peri­od, death notices also came.

But in 1854, William Russell, a British cor­re­spon­dent for The Times news­pa­per, came up with the idea of using the tele­graph to trans­mit his mate­ri­als. Of course, you can­not send a detailed essay by tele­graph, only news or a short report. So he described that the attack near Balaklava failed, and a cer­tain num­ber of bril­liant British offi­cers and sol­diers died due to a com­mand error. For the first time in his­to­ry, par­ents learned about the death of their chil­dren from the news­pa­per the day after the inci­dent. Although offi­cial con­fir­ma­tions, as well as offi­cial funer­al notices, still came only a month later.

Parliament was furi­ous and demand­ed an answer from the prime min­is­ter. The Prime Minister him­self didn’t know any­thing yet. Only the cam­era could resist the tele­graph in the fight for the read­er. The first offi­cial war pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Roger Fenton, was sent to the same Crimean War. Although the cam­eras of that time did not allow to shoot bat­tle scenes. Therefore, Fenton’s pho­tographs look quite pas­toral: they rep­re­sent either scenes of prepa­ra­tion or the life of sol­diers. Nevertheless, this is how war pho­to­jour­nal­ism was born.

Before this war, none of the inhab­i­tants of England had the feel­ing of war in real time, they were sep­a­rat­ed from the news from the front by both space and time. Today, the media, if they do not make us real eye­wit­ness­es of events, then cre­ate the illu­sion of involve­ment due to synchronization.

War as a premonition

In this case, every­day life and war are sep­a­rat­ed as actu­al and poten­tial. There is no mil­i­tary action. Nevertheless, you wake up and go to sleep with the feel­ing that war is inevitable. It is pre­cise­ly this modus that can be attrib­uted to the life of many American fam­i­lies dur­ing the Cold War, in which fathers, prepar­ing for the upcom­ing exchange of nuclear strikes with the USSR, built bomb shel­ters in their backyards.

Sinisa Malešević, a pro­fes­sor at the University of Dublin who stud­ies the soci­ol­o­gy of war, exam­ined how chil­dren’s toys changed in the run-up to the First World War. Toys became mil­i­ta­rized and pre­pared chil­dren for war, in fact, even before it began. The main bridge between every­day life and such a war is pro­pa­gan­da. At the same time, pro­pa­gan­da can both try to mobi­lize the pop­u­la­tion and calm it down, for exam­ple, by refus­ing to call the war by its name.

War is actually an everyday life

War and every­day life are not sep­a­rat­ed either in time or in space. Everyday habits sub­or­di­nate the log­ic of war (the desire to smoke out­weighs the risks of being killed), and vice ver­sa, the log­ic of war sub­or­di­nates every­day life (you choose your route to work based on the like­li­hood of shelling). In such a sit­u­a­tion, there is sim­ply no bridge between war and every­day life: the war is an every­day life. It is about this mode that the least num­ber of sci­en­tif­ic works have been writ­ten. And most of their authors are not soci­ol­o­gists, but ethnographers.

Why do sociologists study war so little?

Sociologists pay great atten­tion to mil­i­tary ser­vice as a social insti­tu­tion, every­day life in the army, con­scrip­tion and the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of soci­ety. But they don’t actu­al­ly con­sid­er the war itself. And, accord­ing to Viktor Vakhshtein, this has its reasons.

The English philoso­pher Thomas Hobbes wrote in his trea­tise “Leviathan” that human nature con­tains only a few basic con­stants: the thirst for goods (both mate­r­i­al and intan­gi­ble), the fear of being killed, some rudi­men­ta­ry com­mon sense and inter­est “in high­er spheres.” But what is miss­ing, accord­ing to Hobbes, in human nature is an innate fuse that would pre­vent one from start­ing a war against a neigh­bor. There is no “nat­ur­al law”, no sol­i­dar­i­ty. Therefore, the war of all against all is the nat­ur­al state of mankind. But at some point, thanks to rudi­men­ta­ry com­mon sense, peo­ple enter into a social con­tract, that is, they exchange their nat­ur­al right to kill for the civ­il free­dom not to be killed. On this basis, accord­ing to Hobbes, soci­ety aris­es. Before the social con­tract, there is no soci­ety. There is a “mul­ti­tude” (that is, a set of indi­vid­u­als at war with each oth­er). Therefore, war is either a pre-social or extra-social phenomenon.

Since soci­ol­o­gy owes its emer­gence pre­cise­ly to the “Hobbesian prob­lem” of social order, war is per­ceived by the clas­sics of soci­ol­o­gy as the col­lapse of social order, and there­fore is not the sub­ject of study of the new science.

“This approach has led to the fact that soci­ol­o­gy is the only dis­ci­pline that “did not notice” the Second World War,” notes Viktor Vakhshtain. — The expe­ri­ence of con­cen­tra­tion camps, the expe­ri­ence of the world war turns the axioms of psy­chol­o­gy and phi­los­o­phy upside down; in eco­nom­ics, under its influ­ence, the axiom of ratio­nal­i­ty is aban­doned, and only in soci­ol­o­gy, with the excep­tion of some mar­gin­al authors who demand­ed to be clos­er to real­i­ty, no one is inter­est­ed in war.

Perhaps the only excep­tion here is Max Weber, who under­stands “social” not as “order and sol­i­dar­i­ty,” but as the total­i­ty of ratio­nal actions of indi­vid­u­als. And then the war begins to take soci­o­log­i­cal shape. “But with this approach, every­day life is left out,” the lec­tur­er notes. — Weber is much more inter­est­ed in how mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline gives rise to mod­ern, ratio­nal bureau­cra­cy. He is inter­est­ed in how war­ring armies ori­ent their actions towards each oth­er, how they try to pre­dict each oth­er’s actions, and how this ulti­mate­ly leads (or does not lead) to a peace treaty.”

“Both in the first (there is no war at all for soci­ol­o­gy) and in the sec­ond approach (war turns out to be a high­ly ratio­nal enter­prise), the every­day life of war is beyond the scope of inter­est,” notes Victor Vakhshtein. — Even Alfred Schutz, the Austrian soci­ol­o­gist who first drew atten­tion to the prob­lem of every­day life, writes noth­ing about every­day life and war. Although the war lit­er­al­ly rolled over his life.

Why is it important: the war or the “Special Military Operation”?

However, Schutz iden­ti­fied six para­me­ters that define every­day life. Among them are a spe­cif­ic per­cep­tion of time (the cycli­cal time of work­days), mech­a­nisms for sup­press­ing doubt  what can and can­not be doubt­ed (oth­er­wise you will be afraid to leave the house, and even more so it is impos­si­ble to go on the high­way), an atti­tude of con­scious­ness that excludes reflec­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion etc. According to some of Schutz’s para­me­ters, war is at odds with every­day life, but accord­ing to oth­ers, it com­plete­ly coin­cides with it. This makes it pos­si­ble, on the one hand, to look at war as an event that breaks apart every­day life, and on the oth­er hand, how the extra­or­di­nary becomes every­day life (every­day life of war).

The devel­op­ment of Schutz’s ideas led to the emer­gence of the the­o­ry of frames. When an extra­or­di­nary event occurs in a per­son­’s life, he selects qual­i­fi­ca­tions for him, places him in a spe­cial cog­ni­tive cell. This allows not only to rec­og­nize and inter­pret the event, but also sug­gests how to act. Vachstein com­pares the frames that we encounter in every­day life with “exe” files: when unpacked, they prompt us with an algo­rithm of actions. That is why it is of fun­da­men­tal impor­tance whether you call what is hap­pen­ing in Ukraine a “war” or a “mil­i­tary oper­a­tion”. Different names, dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions entail dif­fer­ent actions of subjects.

 In fact, the every­day­iza­tion of the war is the embed­ding of the event of the war into some more under­stand­able, famil­iar, repeat­ed­ly test­ed interpretation.

Viktor Vakhshtain sees sev­er­al ways of mak­ing war every­day. For exam­ple, there is appro­pri­a­tion. We try to find the famil­iar in the unfa­mil­iar and act accord­ing­ly. The lec­tur­er, who recent­ly lives in Israel, had to sit in bomb shel­ters six times over the past two years:

 What do I see there? A vari­ety of forms of man­i­fes­ta­tion of rou­tine life. Someone brings speak­ers with them, some­one brings a water­mel­on, peo­ple get to know each oth­er, com­mu­ni­cate, and frag­ments of the Iron Dome rock­ets fall 150 meters from us. The behav­ior of most peo­ple in the bomb shel­ter is an exam­ple of appropriation.

The phe­nom­e­non oppo­site to appro­pri­a­tion is refram­ing, an ordi­nary event is dis­guised as a mil­i­tary one.

The exam­ple of refram­ing that Victor Vakhshtain gives is almost shock­ing. On February 19, 1942, sirens wailed in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, at 6.30 a.m. bombers with a swasti­ka appeared in the sky, drop­ping bombs. After which 3.5 thou­sand sol­diers in German uni­forms entered the city. A cou­ple of dozen offi­cials, priests and jour­nal­ists were sent to a con­cen­tra­tion camp, which was set up on the ter­ri­to­ry of a local golf club. In fact, no bombers bombed the city  it was an imi­ta­tion of an attack; bomb explo­sions on the ground cre­at­ed pyrotech­nics. There were no Germans among the attack­ers; the entire “inva­sion force” con­sist­ed of Canadian sol­diers in dis­guise. This was done to encour­age res­i­dents to help finan­cial­ly in the fight against the Nazi regime. But many Winnipeg res­i­dents took the “inva­sion” at face val­ue. And they began to hand over the Jews, they began to report to the occu­piers that they were “unre­li­able.” Some peo­ple rushed to sign up for the police, some were inter­est­ed in how to join the SS.

“One way or anoth­er, the the­o­ry of frames assigns a lit­tle more weight to those mod­els that already exist in our heads,” Vakhstein shares his opin­ion. “It is assumed that our col­lec­tive ideas are so sta­ble that they can grind through lit­er­al­ly any­thing, even war.”

Filippov’s the­o­ry  the the­o­ry of social events  pro­pos­es to sin­gle out a sep­a­rate class of events that can­not be framed. Alexander Filippov, a Soviet and Russian soci­ol­o­gist, com­pares such events to some­thing that “burns through the fab­ric of your every­day life.” You don’t have any cog­ni­tive slots where you can put what hap­pened. There are no words to describe it. In such a sit­u­a­tion, we can­not dis­cuss the mech­a­nisms of rou­tiniza­tion. We study what has the poten­tial to destroy rou­tine to its core. Schutz’s six vari­ables no longer work: you have fall­en out of every­day life.

The frame ana­lyst will like­ly assure you that this state is only tem­po­rary. Social life is struc­tured in such a way that every­day life is its most fun­da­men­tal lay­er, even in con­di­tions of war, in con­di­tions of mon­strous depri­va­tion. A new every­day life and new prac­tices are being formed. And here the dif­fer­ence between every­day life and nor­mal­iza­tion is most clear­ly visible.

Routineization is when some­thing unthink­able just yes­ter­day becomes rou­tine. Normalization is when some­thing unthink­able just yes­ter­day is described in the pub­lic space as some­thing com­plete­ly nor­mal. Barbecues in a bomb shel­ter and the thoughts “If it weren’t for the shelling, we wouldn’t have talked”  this is nor­mal­iza­tion. The new road to work, tak­ing into account shelling, is an every­day occur­rence. Using the phrase “we work the block” to describe the bomb­ing of res­i­den­tial areas is nor­mal­iza­tion. Routineization is often a new set of actions, and nor­mal­iza­tion is a new way of describ­ing something.

As a result, when dis­cussing the fifth mode, we can first of all talk about every­day life, about how some­thing that we couldn’t even imag­ine yes­ter­day needs to be includ­ed in rou­tine today.

Unfortunately, the war today is hap­pen­ing too close to all of us. We see from our own expe­ri­ence both the process­es of every­day life and the process­es of nor­mal­iza­tion. Can such lec­tures change any­thing in this sit­u­a­tion? Probably not. But they, with­out a doubt, help to under­stand what is hap­pen­ing, help to look from a new, unex­pect­ed side. This means that they will help some­one make the right deci­sion, some­one to main­tain their san­i­ty, and some­one  humanity.

Text: Yulia CHERNAYA


Books rec­om­mend­ed and men­tioned by the lec­tur­er for those who want to under­stand the top­ic deeper:

Maurice Halbwachs, Social Frames of Memory

Gila Almagor, play “Summer of Avia”

Hugh Gusterson Drone: Remote Control Warfare

Siniša Malešević The Sociology of War and Violence

Mary Douglas. Purity and danger

Brad West. Towards a strong pro­gram in the soci­ol­o­gy of war, the mil­i­tary and civ­il society

Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan or Matter, the form and pow­er of the state, eccle­si­as­ti­cal and civil

Thomas Schelling. Conflict strategy

Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis. Essay on the orga­ni­za­tion of every­day experience

Alexander Filippov. Construction of the past in the process of com­mu­ni­ca­tion: the­o­ret­i­cal log­ic of the soci­o­log­i­cal approach


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