IRRC No. 910

Heroic memory and contemporary war

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Inter-State wars seem to have come to an end in the late 1990s; ever since, the global reality of collective violence has come down to the chaos of contemporary civil wars and terrorist attacks. In this article, it will be argued that in today’s civil wars, as well as in terrorist violence, the traditional warrior ethos is fading, giving way to types of violence governed by a new psychological and social paradigm. In other words, it is assumed that the very set of values that has universally determined the male gender role and the frame of hegemonic masculinity since time immemorial has also informed the waging of war according to a “heroic regime of violence”, and this phenomenon has made war a desirable option for countless generations of young men. On the other hand, the global changes entailed by modernity seem to have undermined this warrior ethos, giving way to a “post-heroic regime” in which extermination-oriented violence, rather than combat-oriented violence, is fostered. In this article, the author will scrutinize the founding psychological and social determinants that have so far upheld the cultural construct of the heroic model, in order to illuminate the ominous consequences of the deculturation of war in today’s chaotic conflicts. In such contexts, the men who are fighting suffer from a loss of meaning and the impossibility of gaining dignity and social recognition in an ecosystem of humiliation and ubiquitous violence that has little to do with the expectations of pride and dignity conveyed by the past ideals of heroism associated with a certain vision of masculinity. The article will also discuss ways and means of getting the message of international humanitarian law through to men on the front lines caught up in such circumstances.

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