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.
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.
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).
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.
Irena, the actress
In the summer of 1943, Irena Kolesar joined the Yugoslav partisans. Having caught the eye of Šime Šimatović and Joža Gregorin, members of the theater group that was visiting her unit, she was invited to an audition. She spent the rest of the war acting in several major theater groups (and continued her successful acting career after the war ended).
In a 1972 interview for the Yugoslav magazine Start published in Zagreb, Kolesar testified to a common aspect of partisan life: “When things were most difficult for us, we sang. No one believes us today (…).” But many memoirs bear witness to singing in the most unexpected, oftentimes grim and difficult moments.
Irena Kolesar’s recorded memories also reveal an unsurprising but barely mentioned aspect of officially organized entertainment of the partisan war – that artists were usually bored by their assignments, and were also unwelcome and even slighted by their comrades in arms. Kolesar was not particularly straightforward about this. The reason, it seems, was her good-natured personality. Neither the theater colleague who “forgot” to return her trousers, nor the anonymous person who stole her shoes while she was sleeping (shoes were a valuable asset among the partisans, as many soldiers spent long periods of time in soft peasant footwear or barefoot), or even the fact that military units as a rule considered that actors were a burden and treated them accordingly, failed to affect her kind disposition toward everyone she mentioned in her texts and interviews.
Yet there are one or two interesting, negative observations in her small written legacy. These concern the partisan cultural evenings that usually consisted of theatrical performances organized for the civilian populations followed by informal socializing accompanied by music, singing, and dancing. These were well-attended events at which young village girls wore their best dresses. There were, however, always fewer men (usually only the members of the visiting theatrical group) than girls, and so there was a scramble for suitable dance partners. Because of this, Kolesar writes, female members of theater groups had to approach the guests and ask them to dance. She adds: “As uninteresting as that was to me, I know it was the same for those girls!” It comes as no surprise then, that if a partisan took a liking to a comrade – as was the case with Irena Kolesar and Šime Šimatović who eyed each other until he proposed to her in the summer of 1944 – he or she might find such arrangements tiresome. Moreover, the mention of the small numbers of the opposite sex at some of the partisan cultural evenings is an obvious allusion to girls’ desire to indulge in heterosexual socializing. In other words, the partisan cultural evenings, alongside the official emphasis on political and cultural education, were used by young people as opportunities to meet, mingle, and have fun, as in peacetime.
Vladimir Balašćak (ed.), Osmeh porculanske figurine (The Smile of a Porcelain Figurine) (Sremska Mitrovica: Društvo Rusina i Novinarska asocijacija Rusina, 2020), 14.
Irena Kolesar, “Moji doživljaji, moja sjećanja” (“My Experiences, My Memories”), Dani Hvarskoga kazališta: Građa i rasprave o hrvatskoj književnosti i kazalištu 10, no. 1 (1983): 269-286.
Đuro Zagorac, “Još uvijek je zovu Slavica” (“They Still Call Her Slavica”), Start 80 (February 9, 1972): 26-28.
Ina, the poet
Remembering the moment when perhaps the most famous photograph of the People’s Liberation Struggle, “Kozarčanka” (Girl from the Kozara Mountain), was taken, one-time partisan nurse Milja Marin said:
“Even today, I don’t know how that smile in Skrigin’s photograph appeared on my face. I gave in to my emotions, although I did not feel like laughing, but I believed that my personal suffering at that time and the suffering of my family must come to an end.”
Indeed, the everyday challenges faced by nurses in the Yugoslav partisan army were numerous and draining because, as Ina Jun Broda, another wartime nurse, explained, to both doctors and the wounded soldiers the nurses “represented something between the ‘mother of God’, the self-sacrificing comrade and the ‘hospital bedpan’.” As a well-educated woman particularly inclined to poetry, Jun Broda expressed her weariness, her grief and compassion, but also the irony and mockery she sometimes felt in writing. The poem “Samokritika (Selfcriticism)” captures this combination of emotions well:
I confess, comrades, it is my fault.
It is my fault that I survived every assault
While the comrades died on the mountain peaks,
I still have all my limbs.
I confess, comrades, it is my fault:
I still don't know when was the third assault
Because, during the political course,
I escaped to the park through the hospital doors.
I h a d to for a while be alone!
I enjoyed the evening's dark tone…
A petit-bourgeois song rising from my chest was so nice and fine
Yet it certainly was not along Party line...
Comrades, I confess that it is my fault
I sinned against the collective.
It is horrible: I would like to have my own home, my own dreams,
My own toothbrush,
my own shoelaces,
my own shoes –
my comrade and his embrace
and my child…
I know, it is not right
because of my kid
to forget our orphans and their afflict
But I know that I would love that son of mine
even more than the Red Army and Stalin at the same time!
Sitting under Tito’s photo until late last night
I spoke to our hateful ally.
Joe is good and humble, honest and kind
And o u r s. But wounded – he was wounded only two times!
Three years of fighting and still head on his shoulder!
I don’t know, maybe he is not such a devoted soldier?
And so, comrade Commissar, I would like to be informed
Did I sin against our norms...
That’s all. Now let the comrades decide
So be it as they derive.
If I’m guilty, liquidate me.
Put a bullet through my head simply.
Perhaps it was meant to be –
The real consciousness, the new, has not yet been awakened in me
I’m confused and I have no one else to blame but me:
I still don’t know, comrades, how to live.
Should I follow fervor or head – a new blind allegiance
or the old compliance?
Cold discipline or my own ardor,
My heart or instead – the revolver???!
It is too hard, comrades, that’s why I said:
Bullet in the head. – But when they put me in front of a wall
once again I will boldly exclaim:
Death to fascism!!! – and freedom, freedom, freedom
Translation: my own.
Poem: Samokritika is a part of Ina Jun Broda's wartime diary. It’s retyped contents, entitled Iz moje Crne bilježnice (From my Black Notebook), are kept in her archival collection at the archives of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts.
Illustration no. 1: Žorž Skrigin, Rat i pozornica (War and Stage) (Belgrade: Turistička štampa, 1968), 248.
Illustrations no. 2 and 3: Davor Konjikušić, Red Glow: Yugoslav Partisan Photography, 1941-1945 (Berlin and Boston: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2021), 214, 319.
Kovačević, Dinka. “Mlada partizanka iz čitanke” (“Young Partizanka from a Textbook”). Nezavisne novine, June 8, 2007. http://www.nezavisne.com/novosti/bih/Mlada-partizanka-izcitanke/10554.
Bakšić, Lucija, Grubački, Isidora, and Jelušić, Iva. “Ina Jun Broda.” In Texts and Contexts from the History of Feminism and Women’s Rights in East Central Europe, edited by Zsófia Lóránd, Adela Hȋncu, Jovana Mihajlović Trbovc, and Katarzyna Stańczak-Wiślicz (forthcoming in 2023).
 The poet refers to the Third Enemy Offensive, one of seven major Axis military operations undertaken against the Yugoslav partisans during World War II, happening in the spring and early summer of 1942 in eastern Bosnia and in Montenegro.