Case study A: Heroes and loved ones; death arising from armed combat

The background to this case study is the new mode of global military intervention that has developed since the Cold War with corresponding changes in military-civil relations and identities. These changes afford the opportunity to focus on the public/private interface in contemporary memorialisation as well as adding to the analysis of the relationship between memorialisation and identity, both individual and social.

Military-civil relations and identities are mediated today largely through the mass media and social media, rather than through formal institutions (such as the Royal British Legion), though the two forms also meet. The British frontline soldier today is a highly valuable asset, a volunteer professionalized by the investment of intensive training, often a specialist as well as general combat soldier and engaged in combining armed intervention and global peacekeeping. Their violent death is thus an anomalous event at the same time as it has become a routine and (for individuals and families) ever-present risk.

Deaths of UK military personnel in armed conflict are publicly mourned and memorialised, both initially and through recurrent ceremonies such as Remembrance Day services. Little is known, however, about how these function in relation to the grieving and memorialisation processes of private families or comrades or how these compare with the impact of war in the past. The research has two parts:

  • a highly focused analysis of material in the public sphere;
  • an empirical study of the large Remembrance Day ceremonies in Beverley (East Yorkshire has a high concentration of military personnel)

The research employs participant observation of the ceremonies; a questionnaire survey of people gathering to watch the procession on street corners and at memorial sites in the town, in-depth interviews with a cross-section of participants concerning their reasons for attendance, meanings taken from the ceremony and, if personally bereaved the role and function of the public ceremony in their personal memorialising. It uses discourse analysis, content analysis and visual studies methodologies in the context of theoretical frameworks such as the study of the public sphere and changing parameters of the public/private divide in contemporary society.

The research makes use of the vast accessible pool of data available online in multiple forms, such as media reports, online obituaries and organisation websites, analysing texts and visual imagery. The research is focused on the framing and representation of private grief in the context of public mourning, and on the social identity of the soldier and the military institution in the reporting and social commentary of military deaths in late modernity in the UK.