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Graduate Conference on Soldiering

Posted Thursday, 14 April 2011


Exploring a topic as relevant as today’s headlines, PhD students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will host an interdisciplinary conference on April 22 and 23 to look at the social, economic, and political realities that influence, and are influenced by, the nature and experience of being a soldier.

Hosted by the Humanities Center at Harvard, the conference —titled “Soldiering: The Afterlife of a Modern Experience — tackles such subjects as the influence of privatized armies and corporations on military operations, statesmanship, and foreign policy; the changing nature of warfare and  eroding distinctions between civilians and soldiers; the replacement of soldiers by technological systems like unmanned drones and armed robots; and how contemporary forms of soldiering, from the early days of the Cold War to the current “global war on terror,” contribute to the increased ethical isolation of war and conflict.

For Tal Arbel, a fourth-year PhD student in history of science and a coordinator of the conference, the event is a conflation of academic interest and personal experience. The experience of being a soldier “has been a preoccupation of mine ever since my own military service. It became a topic of scholarly engagement for me,” says Arbel, who spent two years in the Israeli army after high school. “In a sense, all aspects of your life are consumed when you are part of soldiering. It may be the first time that the individual leaves home, and it’s a stressful social experience. You come into contact with things you’ve never encountered before, and it’s very heterogeneous, but unlike college it’s not about developing your individual aspirations: it’s disciplinary, you’re put under strict schedules, rules, and other forms of authority. For those who are put in a combat situation, which I was fortunate enough to not have to go through, it can be a very traumatic experience.”

The conference “will focus on the experience of being a soldier - not only the social institution and political reality, but the individual experience as well,” says Arbel. She and her fellow coordinators — Melissa Lo (a third-year student in history of science), Oded Na’aman (a third-year student in political philosophy), and Sabrina Perić (a sixth-year student in social anthropology — “felt that soldiering was a neglected topic in both the humanities and social sciences.” They were surprised when they received more than 70 paper proposals worldwide for the conference. “I was also very happy that we were approached by what I call ‘practitioners,’” Arbel says — “people who were in the military or had first-hand experience with the subject. So we’re going to have former soldiers talking about their points of view and their experience.”

As a result, Arbel says, “it’s ended up being a truly productive and interdisciplinary experience. It’s a great opportunity for people who were not necessarily engaged in conversation before to get together and share different points of view.

— By Jennifer Doody


Soldiering: The Afterlife of a Modern Experience

The Annual Interdisciplinary Humanities Graduate Student Conference
The Humanities Center at Harvard University

April 22-23, 2011