War and Fun: Reconceptualizing Warfare and Its Experience (WARFUN) is a research project funded by the European Research Council and led by Research Professor Antonio De Lauri.
Fun has every shade of connotation, from the most joyful to the most sinister. In the framework of this project, fun represents an entry point into a deeper realm of war and soldiering. An understanding of the complexity of participation in war requires an epistemic change in conventional learning and debate. The overall objective of this project is to offer a new understanding of war and soldiering through a study of the role and implications of fun for soldiers and veterans.
The suffering and hardships that humans endure within war cannot be stressed enough. It is precisely for this reason that we urgently need a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be at war. WARFUN investigates the plurality of experiences and affective grammars that are generally neglected by normative approaches. Anthropological studies have emphasized the ambivalent sentiments that arise as troubles escalate during large-scale violence and the crucial role that social actors have in determining the magnitude and consequences of conflict. War can only be understood through the broadest and the most complex assemblages of emotions and imagination available. It is only by taking the wide array of sensations and emotions into account that we will be equipped to understand how war blurs the boundaries between the extraordinary and the ordinary and to foresee the long-term, articulated effects of war on those who practice it. This consideration builds on the assumption that war has a co-participative epistemic nature, since it cannot be simply described as the by-product of political decisions from above; it is also determined by participation and initiatives from below.
Building on multisited research and mixed-methods approach, the project will explore the role of fun in the symbolic and concrete reproduction of practices and narratives involved in the construction of the enemy; it will study the mechanisms of normalization of war and the articulation of different emotions among soldiers and veterans; it will address the relationship between agency, complicity, and participation in situations of social disruption and violence; and it will contribute to debates about hazing and sexual violence in the military.
WARFUN is a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant project - Grant agreement ID: 101001106.
“Memories” is a true story about an Iraqi fighter pilot who was captured by ISIS. I got in touch with this man through a good friend from the US who studied to be a pilot with him. We arranged a facetime meeting and talked for around two hours. He moved me deeply. Not only his story but also him as a person. A beautiful and calm soul that had gone through brutal things in life, but was now in a very good place. He wants to stay anonymous. He told me the story of how he was captured, tortured and then thrown into a dungeon with other prisoners. They were told when they would be killed and how. They were just sitting there waiting for the day to come. Every day jailers came down to the dungeon to pick up one soldier to kill. And every day they would come back to show the dead body to the other prisoners so that they could see what was waiting for them. I asked the difficult question, “if and how did you manage to use humor in such a dark place?” And he answered, “the human mind works like this - when you know you are going to die, you want to tell someone your story. And mostly, the happy sides of your story”. Because of his calming, trustworthy and listening nature, he became the person in the group of prisoners that everybody used as a sort of therapist and they told him their story. And they laughed. This painting tries to reflect him sitting there with his mind and thoughts, his head hidden under a bag that jailers had placed on him. He is listening to his friend who is laughing while telling his life story and holding his own skull in his hand, knowing he will die. His neck is already half-cut and bleeding, but still good memories make him laughing. Fun emerges even in the darkest places.
This painting is inspired by the brutalities that occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In the painting, a couple of US soldiers take a picture of themselves, a selfie, in an intimate pose. Behind them, the tortured and exhausted bodies of their prisoners lay on top of each other in a sort of human pile that makes it impossible to distinguish them and see their faces, a representation of the dehumanization they suffered.
During the early stages of the Iraq War, members of the US Army and the CIA committed a series of human rights violations and war crimes against detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, including physical and sexual abuse, torture, rape, and the killing of Manadel al-Jamadi.
The abuses came to public attention with the publication of photographs. The incidents caused shock and outrage, receiving widespread condemnation internationally.
Brina, the contemporary dancer
On the evening of September 8, 1943, an Italian soldier in the guardhouse of the concentration camp Rab (northern Adriatic) shouted: “The war is over, let’s go home!” Some soldiers have left the camp, and after a rally in the so-called Hunger Square, the inmates disarmed and captured the remaining guards.
About 1,750 of the approximately 5,000 former camp inmates organized themselves into a Rab Brigade that contained five battalions and a headquarters. After being transported to the mainland, part of the brigade members went to Banija (central Croatia), and part to southern Slovenia (while the partisans forces of Croatia deployed most of the others in the partisan-held territories).
When the members of the Rab Brigade arrived at the hamlet of Mašun in Slovenia, they took an oath of allegiance before a military priest of the XIV division. The ceremony was accompanied by the program performed by the cultural group led by the poet Karel Destovnik - Kajuh.
For a couple of weeks, since the very end of August, contemporary dancer Marta Paulin - Brina was part of Kajuh’s cultural group. She greeted the fighters of the Rab Brigade with a “battle dance”, and they accompanied her dance with clapping and singing.
The circumstances of war changed quickly.
Most members of the Rab Brigade were too weak to fight. The former detainees were soon after deployed in smaller numbers to other units. And Brina’s partisan dance performances ended with the march of the XIV division to Styria in January and February 1944. Due to inappropriate footwear and very cold winter weather, she got frostbite on her legs. Although she avoided amputation, she could no longer dance.
Recalling her short partisan dance career, Brina primarily remembered that unique combination of hope, conviction, joy and togetherness that were a part of her partisan experience:
... it was a dance expression rooted in the soil of the home, in a person’s participation in the historical events of their people. In the participation in the liberation struggle of a people who do not know despair, who are aware of their power and their mission. Dance calls for battle, wins in battle; it evolves into joy: because of the struggle, because of the endured efforts, because of the power, because of the historical act itself. In this dance circle, we gave each other our hands. Our circle was firmly closed: with effort and suffering, amid gasps and smiles. As a dancer, standing alone among a crowd of fighters with the awareness that I would be able to express with my dance talent and weak body what united us, that I would be able to master the immense space of nature, I felt strength in my legs as I stomped hard earth. The hands felt the extent of the woods and climbed over the treetops.
Jože Javoršek (partisan, but not a member of the Rab Brigade) testified that Brina’s dance was indeed a unique sight:
I will never forget Brina how she danced to the sounds of the wind and the rustling of branches, to the chirping of birds and to the rhythm produced by the quiet breathing of the earth.
Author of the photograph: Jože Petek, Slovenian partisan and war photo reporter (1912 - 1945)
Owner of the photograph: Muzej novejše zgodovine Slovenije (Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia), Ljubljana, Slovenia
Komelj, Miklavž. Kako misliti partizansko umetnost? (How To Think Partisan Art?) Ljubljana: Založba /*cf, 2009.
Milohnić, Aldo. Gledališče upora (Theather of Resistance). Ljubljana: Akademija za gledališče, radio, film in televizijo Univerze v Ljubljani, 2021.
Paulin-Brina, Marta. “Plesna umetnost v partizanih” (“Dance Art in the Partisans”). In Partizanska umetnost (Partisan Art), edited by Filip Kalan et al., 20-27. Ljubljana: Zveza kulturno-prosvetnih organizacij Slovenije / Delavska enotnost, 1975).
Soldiers deployed for war train and prepare for all kinds of danger and even death – but not love.
This painting is inspired by the story of an American soldier who unexpectedly found love while serving on a small outpost in the remote mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Here she became friends with an Afghan interpreter who was always kind and helpful to all those around him. She admired this about him.
After her tour ended, the two remained friends and stayed in close contact. Overtime, the friendship grew into something more and two years later, the once US soldier returned to the tiny outpost in Afghanistan, but this time as a civilian to get married. The two married in a simple wedding and honeymooned in the capital Kabul.
This story touched me as it shows that love can be found even in the toughest and darkest of places. It shows that amidst the chaos, carnage and horror of war, we as humans still have the desire for friendship and love. In my painting, you see this couple on their wedding day with the groom in traditional clothes, but the bride in her military uniform, a reminder of how war brought them together.
Mira, the ballet dancer
When World War II broke out, ballerina Mira Sanjina was part of the Croatian National Theater (Hrvatsko narodno kazalište) ensemble in Zagreb. After the establishment of the Ustasha-led Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska), Sanjina (who was of Jewish descent) and her husband Ljubiša Jovanović (who was a Serb) fled from Zagreb to Split and then to Ljubljana. Finally, in 1943, they joined the partisans and the Theater of the People’s Liberation (Kazalište narodnog oslobođenja, KNO) in the liberated territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Recalling her first performance as a member of the KNO, the ballet choreography she performed to Dvořák’s Sixth Slavonic Dance played by pianist Andrija Preger, Sanjina described the intense feeling of pleasure: “I danced cheerfully, enjoyed the dance, surrendered to it; I danced in a very beautiful, white, fluttering costume made of parachute silk.” Her dance and her costume, however, caused embarrassment for the audience. That is, the differences in the understanding of appropriate female appearance and behavior made it impossible for Mira Sanjina to share the pleasure of ballet dancing with the Bosnian audience. For many attending the event, Sanjina was probably the first ballerina they had ever seen:
I was not aware of the extent to which it was a shock for an unaccustomed audience, the partisan fighters who lived under very harsh conditions, the Muslim women who had never seen a ballet. The appearance of a ballerina was something quite unexpected for them. […] The Muslim women felt shame while I was enjoying the dance. While I was getting carried away and dancing it up, they were ashamed. It seemed to me that they were exiting the hall bit by bit.
For her later wartime performances, Sanjina adjusted both her dance and her appearance. For instance, for the anniversary of the October Revolution observed later in 1943, she chose to play the “more suitable” Joan of Arc. In addition, the military superiors controlled her costume. On that occasion, Sanjina wore a dark gray woolen leotard. Moreover, until the end of the war, she for the most part danced in classical ballet performances, which usually contained folklore elements.
Informed by traditions and religion, local beliefs about appropriate femininity limited Mira Sanjina’s ability to perform expressively. However, although her classical ballet performances were customized with elements of folklore and although her revealing ballet dresses were replaced with more modest costumes, the wartime spectators, she maintains, responded to the adjustments with immense enthusiasm:
Even today I think that it was perhaps my most beautiful audience […] standing for a long, long time, breathless, […] watching and immersing itself [in the performances] with such curiosity and such attention. I think that I never have had such a nice experience and such wonderful contacts [with audiences] during and after my performances, certainly not in such a way. In the way of a wonderful, chaste audience that was so infinitely grateful, so curious, [the audience] that watched me dance with such pleasure.
Author of the illustration: Dario Jelusic
Milohnić, Aldo. Gledališče upora [Theater of Resistance]. Ljubljana: Akademija za gledališče, radio, film in televizijo Univerze v Ljubljani, 2021.
Tako je rođena nova Jugoslavija. Kazivanje učesnika II. zasjedanja AVNOJ-a. Mira Sanjina. [That Is How the New Yugoslavia Was Born. Statements of the Participants of the 2nd Session of AVNOJ. Mira Sanjina.] Režija Žika Spasić, produkcija Muzej zasjedanja AVNOJ-a u Jajcu, 1971. https://www.muzejavnoj.ba/video-arhiv.