Soldiers, identities and representation

This research on soldiers, their identities, and how they are represented comes out of the project Negotiating identity and representation in the mediated Armed Forces. This project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council during 2006-07, and was undertaken by Rachel Woodward, K. Neil Jenkings and Trish Winter (University of Sunderland).

What this research was about

This research started with an observation about the ways in which soldiers talk about themselves and their military lives, and the similarities and differences between these ideas and the ways in which soldiers are represented in the media, particularly the print media. In our conversations with serving and former soldiers, talking about news coverage of military operations and personnel, we'd often been told that 'the Army isn't really like that'. We decided to investigate these differences.

This research set out to look at media representations of British soldiers, and soldiers' representations of themselves. This research revolved around photographs and the narratives that accompany them, which came from print media reports of British forces' activities, and from interviews conducted with serving and former soldiers about their military lives. We wanted to look at both sets of representations and ask about the connections and distances between the two. What we found were two quite distinct sets of ideas about what a soldier is, and what being a soldier means.

Print media photographs

We looked first of all at British print media stories around soldiers, collecting as many reports as we could for the period 1st February to 31st August 2006, adding to this dataset reports back to 2004 from our own archives where accompanying photographs were available with the stories. The most dominant idea - unsurprisingly - is that British soldiers are represented as heroes. Picking apart of the idea of the soldier hero, it became apparent that behind this simple notion lie a number of more complex ideas which reflect contemporary anxieties about legitimate, illegitimate and legitimized violence.

Where an anonymous soldier is pictured, usually through very generic photographic conventions showing an individual posed with a weapon or with a military vehicle, these representations fit readily within established narratives of war in which bodies of troops engage in dangerous acts in hostile territory. The legitimacy or otherwise of those dangerous acts is squeezed from the frame of reference by this universalised figure of the anonymous private soldier, gone to fight in a foreign war that is not of his or her making. Where a soldier is pictured and named, the anxieties around violence are somewhat different. The dead soldier, represented through a cropped formal or informal photograph from their life as a soldier, is named and their status as hero assumed. The hero position is the only one possible for these war dead, and as a victim of violence, the legitimacy or otherwise of that violence is called into question. The soldier disabled by armed violence is rarely shown, and any such photographs that appear in print are striking because of this. The vulnerability of these figures, part of their subject position as hero, is evident through their portrayal. The bad or fallen soldier, always named, is framed around anxieties about violence and its legitimacy, in the reporting of controlled violence that has somehow run out of hand. These anxieties are reflected back on the errant individual rather than out onto a wider military body.

Looking at soldiers' own photographs

Our second task was to look at representations that soldiers choose of themselves and of their military lives. We interviewed 16 serving and former soldiers about their military lives, asking them to frame their observations around ten personal photographs from their collections that they felt were significant in terms of their military experiences. At the centre of this exercise was an attempt to capture some sense of how military identities - what it means to be a soldier - are expressed by soldiers themselves. Our methodology worked very well for these purposes, and our dataset for this part of the project produced 150 photographs and 23 hours of recorded interviews which were then transcribed.

The ideas about military identity that emerged from this exercise pointed very clearly to military identity as resting on three components. The first of these was the centrality of a sense of professional skill, competence and expertise as a trained military operative. Our interviewees, whatever their military profession, took care to highlight how activities depicted in their photographs should be read as indicative of skill in the execution of military acts. This idea is not common in contemporary commentaries about soldiers, particularly lower-ranking soldiers. The second idea was about the significance of fictive kinship and camaraderie amongst soldiers, and photographs were chosen and described to drive home this point. This idea of the bonded group is commonly associated with military units; what our interviews confirmed was the salience of this idea beyond military life and its centrality to a sense of identity. The third idea that emerged was the way in which soldiers, as participants in (often) global events, maintained their own narratives about what those events were about. These alternative meanings around different military engagements were used to draw attention to untold stories and to ascribe an alternative set of meanings that often stood in contrast to wider public narratives about specific military events. Running through these three features of identity were two further ideas. The first was about time and place, about the fluidity of memories constructed in the present to interpret events in the past, and the significance of photographs as material objects which contain memory, both in the sense of holding on to memories but also in the sense of limiting their power. The second idea was around the performance of soldiering. Military activities are performed for observers in many ways, and being a soldier is both about the act of performing such actions as well as being watched or seen to be performing these activities.

Conclusions

When we started this research, we had speculated that there would be a degree of exchange between print media representations of soldiers and those that soldiers produce of themselves. What we concluded, instead, was that these two sets of representations operate in different visual economies, with different contexts, mechanisms of production, processes of exchange and communication.

This project was supported for 2006-07 by ESRC grant RES-000-23-0992, 'Negotiating identity and representation in the mediated Armed Forces'. Further details of outputs are also available on the ESRC website.

Publications

A number of publications are now available on the Publications page.

Contacts

Dr Trish Winter, who is based in the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media at the University of Sunderland, is now working on a project Performing Englishness in New English Folk Music and Dance.