The Bereavement Discourse

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Yagil Levy discusses the individualization of the human costs of war in public discourse.

The so-called “casualty sensitivity syndrome”, which refers to the declining tolerance for military sacrifice in industrialized democracies, became visible after the Vietnam War. When casualty levels are low, the media can present soldiers to the public and to decision-makers as individuals with names, faces, and stories. This makes it significantly harder for governments to justify the death of their soldiers in military combat.

An important mediation between casualty sensitivity, as an abstract political-cultural phenomenon, and its political manifestation in public opinion and collective action is the “bereavement discourse”. The “bereavement discourse” is the way in which various social groups interpret the loss of their children’s lives or the potential risks to their lives posed by their military service and translate this interpretation into a public discourse (as a spectrum of attitudes that range from subversive to submissive). The bereavement discourse, therefore, individualizes the human costs of war.

The more a subversive discourse becomes the dominant response to wartime losses and initiates collective antiwar actions and public opinion, the more the military and its political supervisors might read this discourse as signaling a high level of casualty sensitivity and opposition to risking soldiers. Force protection, i.e., transferring risks from one’s own soldiers to enemy noncombatants, and avoiding military missions altogether are among the options that policymakers might consider under such conditions. The right to life of soldiers then clashes with the state’s authority to risk its own soldiers in order to respect the immunity of enemy civilians and to protect the security interests of its own civilians.

Against this background, the bereavement discourse presents itself as an interesting area of inquiry. Drawing on the cases of the U.S., the U.K., and Israel, the linked article offers a conceptualization of the bereavement discourse, maps its spectrum, and hypothesizes about its determinants.