Book Review - From the Ashes of History: Collective Trauma and the Making of International Politics

By Oumar Ba - 02 December 2022
Book Review - From the Ashes of History: Collective Trauma and the Making of International Politics

From the Ashes of History: Collective Trauma and the Making of International Politics by Adam B. Lerner. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. 272 pp., £64 hardcover 9780197623589, £19.99 paperback 9780197623596

Mass violence is central to the discipline of International Relations (IR), which tends to conceptualize it as an event, studied, as Adam B. Lerner notes, through a “linear, sequential timing and mechanistic notions of cause and effect” (p.3). The event model of the study of mass violence however, by atomizing it into discrete episodes, has the unattended effect of sanitizing collective trauma. The focus then becomes the effects of those violent events on other core concepts of IR such as the balance of power, international security, or international political economy. But what if we adopted a different approach to understand the reverberations of histories of mass violence on the present, in a way that complicates the event model logic? This is what Lerner proposes in his book.

In From The Ashes of History, Lerner uses the lens of collective trauma to investigate “not only how individuals respond to mass violence, but also how the aftermath of mass violence becomes politically embedded over time, liable not only to shape dominant modes of thinking but also to resurge in importance during pivotal moments and motivate action” (p. 5). Arguing that collective trauma can shape the enduring understandings of the self and the other, Lerner conceptualizes it as “a multilevel crisis in representation—the result of initial violent disjunctures reverberating through complex political systems” (p. 11). Given the centrality of collective trauma to international relations and history, it can be viewed as “an ontological condition of international life” (p. 12).

Picture1.jpgThe empirical work of the book, which demonstrates the utility of its conceptual framework, focuses on the cases of India, Israel, and the US foreign policy after 9/11. After having offered a study of the historical development of the concept of collective trauma, Lerner theorizes, in Chapter 3, the identity discourses shaped by collective trauma narratives and the means through which they inspire political change. Chapter 4 offers the case study of collective trauma’s impact on economic nationalist discourses of India during decolonization. Lerner shows especially how narratives of mass violence equated liberal economic policies with devastating famines and political oppression in India. By foregrounding colonialism as collective trauma and linking and collectivizing various trauma into a collective identity, post-independence India leaders justified “a prevailing logic that autarky and economic self-sufficiency were vital to preventing further oppression and mass violence” (p. 97). Hence, these collective trauma narratives added emotional resonance to otherwise technical policy debates, which eventually reverberated in India’s development plans for the following decades.

In the case of Israel, Lerner argues that victimhood nationalism was deployed as a post-traumatic identity discourse, which over time, “[projected] post-Holocaust grievances away from Germany and its European collaborators and toward Israel’s Arab neighbors” (p. 22). This shift in the state’s identity discourse took shape during the capture, trial, and execution of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s, subsequently allowing the Israeli state to strategically deploy a collective trauma discourse and grievances unto actors that were not involved in the precipitating violence. The Israeli state reconfigured then the Holocaust memory, “deftly shift[ing] grievances away from the genocide’s perpetrators in Europe to present enemies in the Arab world, harnessing the emotional resonance of these experiences for strategic goals” (p. 137).

Finally, Lerner shows how increased public discourse on trauma via PTSD diagnosis in post 9/11 America contributed to blurring the lines around the concept of war, eroding war’s “implicit spatiotemporal limitations, extending the consequences of military conflicts into an unknown future and outside the war zone, onto the home front” (p. 23). The re-inscription of trauma and focus on PTSD also blurred the ethical distinction between perpetrator and victim, reassigning victimhood to the traumatized American soldiers, “crowding Iraqi and Afghan victims out of public sympathy” (p. 179). As the collectivization and politicization of PTSD gained prominence in American political and public discourse in the 21st century, it also gained the “productive power” that blurred the boundaries around the concept of war, a central tenet to IR (p. 178), furthering new understandings of war’s long-term consequences (p. 203). Ultimately, the case of PTSD and collectivization of US combat trauma shows how collective trauma ripples through foundational concepts in international politics, which is why Lerner calls for a “trauma turn” in IR and an “international politics turn” in trauma studies bridging the two fields (p. 214-218).

In this theoretically sophisticated study of collective trauma and international politics, Lerner argues that over the recent decades, “two and half” ontological traditions of theorizing collective trauma have emerged: one that privileges insights from the psy disciplines and focuses on trauma as primarily contained within the brain, and another strain, known as the cultural tradition, “[which] theorizes collective trauma as primarily a sui generis sociocultural phenomenon, divorced from individuals’ psyches” (p. 37). Lerner advocates embracing the tensions from both these positions and their connective threads, such as the notion of a delay in the onset of trauma symptoms, the repression of the trauma’s memory and its recovery, the emotional indeterminacy of trauma, and the western bias of trauma scholarship. Conceptualizing collective trauma with a “fluid ontology” that transcends levels of analysis would allow a better understanding of collective trauma as a phenomenon that “vacillates in tension between the realms of individual experience and social knowledge” (p. 47).

But what are the mechanisms through which trauma is translated from the individual to the collective? Through narrative representation, as Lerner argues, which makes collective trauma serve as “vital meaning-making devices,” connecting not only the individual to the collective, but also the nation to the state and as such show the foundational aspect of collective trauma to international political life (p. 55). The narrative approach then ought to focus on what identities do (rather than what they are), and their fundamentally interpretive and changing nature in addition to their discursive stabilization and the bridge that they provide between the individual and the group, the agent and the structure, and the nation and the state (pp. 72-87). To that extent, it helps to think of collective trauma and international politics as mutually reinforcing and co-producing one another.

Ultimately, this book shows not only the extent to which collective trauma is foundational to international politics, but also how it fuels and bends the arc of history. When championed and re-narrated by political actors with sufficient urgency, collective trauma can morph into a national and state identity that has the force to alter the logics and course of international politics. The theoretical framework and empirical materials that the book puts forth allow for new ways of reading collective trauma beyond a mere phenomenon subject to savvy political manipulation. Lerner also highlights the western bias in trauma studies, which limits a conceptualization of collective trauma suitable to international political theory, a necessary corrective that this book provides.



Dr. Oumar Ba is Assistant Professor in the Department of Government, at Cornell University.

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