The social production of the contemporary British military memoir

This project looked at how military memoirs - the autobiographical accounts of military personnel recording their military experiences - come to be produced. The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and was conducted by Rachel Woodward and Neil Jenkings. The project started in April 2009 and the funded period of research finished in April 2011.  Rachel and Neil are currently writing up the research findings (see Publications). Further information about this research is available on the ESRC’s website.

Why do this research?

The motivation for this research came from two initial observations. First, the military memoir is - and has long been - a well-established genre with a great deal of influence. These books sell, often in very large quantities, and are really important in shaping the ways in which civilian society comes to understand the armed forces. In particular, we as readers come to draw some very specific conclusions about what military life and military experience is like, which may or may not be entirely accurate or universal, but which nonetheless shape how the armed forces are viewed. This is not just a contemporary phenomenon either - military memoirs have always influenced the ways in which wars are remembered, and the ways that the military experiences of serving personnel are understood. Our second observation was that military memoirs are influential beyond the civilian public readership. Historians of war use them: for example, the full story of the Falklands war couldn't be told without the memoirs written after that conflict. Sociologists of the military use them: for example, our understanding of the ways in which soldiers' identities are constructed and negotiated is enhanced by reading what soldiers have to say themselves about their senses of self. Geographers use memoirs: our interpretations of military environments and landscapes are enhanced by the reflections of military personnel who are trained to see terrain and landscapes, and they reflect on this in their writing. Military memoirs, then, are more than just a good read.

What did this research do?

The narratives contained within military memoirs, though, are only half the story. There is another story at work with these books, and which was the focus of this project - the accounts of how these books come to be written and published in the first place. Military memoirs don't just appear on the shelves of bookshops and libraries. We interviewed a number of authors and publishers of a selection of contemporary military memoirs, finding out from authors what turned them from soldiers, sailors or airmen into writers, and from publishers about the processes and practices that transform a manuscript into a finished, published book.

We have started to publish the results of this research, and anticipate writing a book about the contemporary British military memoir, which will be aimed at a wide readership. Please go to our publications page, for details of articles already in print which use military memoirs.

Which memoirs are we interested in?

Our focus with this project was quite explicit; we are interested in memoirs that fit all the following criteria:

  • They must have been written by people who have served with the British armed forces - in whatever capacity. These people need not be British citizens themselves; but must have been members of the British Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force.
  • The military activities and experiences they describe must be about (or include) the period 1980 to the present.
  • They must be first-hand accounts. We are focussing in this project on authors' own experiences, so are not including journalists' accounts of armed conflict, or more general books about wars and warfare.
  • They must have been published and available for sale as books. We are only including published books in this project, because we think that unpublished manuscripts and web-format publishing such as blog tell a very different story and deserve a specific research project in their own right.

We have a collection of about 150 memoirs; if you have any suggestions to add to the list, please get in touch.

If you have written and published a military memoir that fits our criteria, we'd very much like to hear from you - contact Neil Jenkings.

This research was funded by ESRC grant RES-062-23-1493, 'The social production of the contemporary British military memoir', and ran from 2009-2011.

Publications

Further details about publications from this project are available here.

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