A Self-Inflicted Wound; or, The Burden of Scholarship

I once spent a year studying all the violent international conflicts between 1945 and 1995. Fifty years of people killing, raping, torturing, terrorising and brutalising each other. It was research for an encyclopaedia of international conflict. It was a great opportunity for a grad student to co-publish a book with a well-known professor, a real boost to my academic career. I had to carefully catalogue who attacked who, how many people died, where all the refugees fled to, when they finally stopped killing each other, which countries sent arms to the protagonists, what was done to try and stop it. All the gory details of organised political murder.

To this day I can remember reading a story about the Korean War in Keeings Contemporary Archives. I was sitting in the university library. It was a bright Autumn day. There were students all around me. I could hear them writing, turning pages, gossiping, munching on snacks. I started reading newspaper summaries of the conflict. After outlining the current state of fighting, one report mentioned a new kind of flame thrower developed by the American forces. It fired flaming liquid a hundred yards. The sticky, flaming substance would cling to human flesh while it crackled and burned. The report described in unusual detail the horror of setting a dozen Chinese soldiers on fire, and how impressed the senior officers were with their new weapon. I was utterly unprepared for the visceral description. The details were so vivid. I was appalled. I could almost smell the burning flesh, see the bright flames. Sitting at that library table, amongst the ordinariness of student’s studying, I must have covered my mouth with one hand as I read, although I don’t remember such a gesture. However, the fact that I can remember that day so vividly speaks to the horror I felt – and still feel – reading about how some young men, of a similar age to me, were turned into human torches, burned alive, no doubt screaming pitiously for mercy that never came.

I’ve since done similarly horrific research for subsequent academic publications on internal war, torture, state terrorism. There are many other such painful moments burned into my memory.


Monday: I go to a lunchtime lecture by a visiting professor. It’s about how victims of physical, psychological and sexual violence in state-run care homes try to get a little justice and recognition for their state-sanctioned, society-condoned suffering. It seems that no one in authority or the media wants to believe them or to accept responsibility. So they engage in various forms of self-harm. Some try to take the government to court. None of them is undamaged by their experiences; they carry the trauma around with them like little backpacks of acid. The personal stories read out by the professor are seriously heart-rending. I feel a little weepy by the end. It’s hard to go back to my office like nothing ever happened, but I have other work to get on with.

Tuesday: We watch a documentary about Sierra Leone in my security studies class. It is pretty brutal: mutilated corpses, piles of severed hands, people being executed, beatings, terrifed refugees, children with stumps instead of feet. I show it because my students have no real idea of the reality of war. The television networks won’t show that stuff anymore, and the course readings are all so abstract and detached. So they only ever see cinematic violence in cool, stylised, slow motion. I’ve seen this video four or five times already. I can’t watch it anymore. It disturbs me too much, especially when they start to beat a little mentally ill boy they think is a sniper. The terror in his screams cuts right through me these days. It tears at my spirit and crushes my chest until it’s hard to breath. I go out of the room and come back at the end to lead the discussion.

Wednesday: I go along to a seminar on gender violence. I sit in the audience and listen to the horrific statistics – hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands – on mass rape in war, honour killings, domestic homocide, female circumcism, and lots of other equally traumatic violences enacted against women and girls. At least there aren’t any personal stories or photographs of dead or mutilated women on this occasion. Still, it’s very hard to listen to. I’m glad when it’s over, but feel ashamed of my sense of relief. It’s a really important issue. I know that. Someone needs to research this more deeply. But I can’t face any more today.

Thursday: In my terrorism course we discuss state terrorism, especially the use of torture as a way of intimidating whole populations. We talk about how some of the democratic countries innovated so-called ‘clean torture’ – torture which leaves no obvious physical marks, like sleep deprivation, stress positions, water-boarding, use of chemicals. I explain that these torture victims suffer a double torture when no one believes their accounts. I tell them stories about people I’ve met who were tortured in the war on terror. I show them some of the Abu Ghraib pictures and we discuss the deep hatred and racism that created almost identical photographs in the American South and the Holocaust. After the class, I feel drained. I sit for a long time in my office trying to gather the pieces of my self together. I need to get back to work.

Friday: I stay at home and read a PhD thesis. I am the external examiner. It is about how we might better understand why ordinary people would take machetes and systematically hack their former neighbours to death. There are stories of unbelievable horror leaking out between the pages. I have to make a real effort to be detached, objective. I try to remain focused on whether the thesis meets sufficient research standards, whether it reaches the required level of scholarship. But the stories haunt my thoughts as I cycle home. I look at the spectacular scenery. It’s impossible to think about death and torture when you’re really looking at beauty. I know the stories will slink back into my mind later, when I’m lying in the dark.

Sunday: I work on a piece I’m writing about how a regular person becomes a militant, willing to kill and die for their cause. I like to work on a Sunday sometimes. It’s quiet. I find I can think a little more clearly. It’s based on real-life stories of militants, some of whom killed children, elderly people, innocent people. Many of them experienced shocking violence themselves, or their relatives, friends, colleagues did. Or they read about horrific violence in the newspaper, came to the conclusion they had to fight back. Fire with fire. Atrocity with atrocity. I’m immersed in their pain and anger; I feel it pour out of me onto the pages.

Monday: Another week starts…


Some days I feel like I’m being slowly crushed under the weight of this unholy knowledge. It constricts the breath out of me, squeezes my heart in a vice. No matter what I do, the stories creep back into the crevices of my mind, leaping out on me like a great toad, piercing my calm, snarling and snapping. I can’t stop thinking about the man who wouldn’t let go of the severed head of his three-year daughter in a filthy refugee camp in Eastern Zaire, even when he was taking a shit. Or, the two frightened young conscripts who had their throats cut after surrendering, writhing to death in a ditch while their captors laughed. Or the young girl who was gang raped and then had her face cut off by her abusers. They had to tranform her into the faceless victim to erase their crime. So many stories, peeking through the cracks of my work, whispering through the pages I read every day.

I don’t really understand how I do it, study this horror day after day, year after year. I’ve thought long and hard about it, but I honestly can’t say for sure how I maintain my sense of self in this daily sea of blood. It’s a miracle I don’t sink below the depths, that I’m not a depressive, an alcoholic, suicidal – or worse, an IR scholar, writing and speaking about human suffering like it’s a balance sheet, a simple tally of abstract values. I think it’s the love and kindness so freely given to me every day by my wife, my friends, my family, my colleagues, my students, sometimes complete strangers, which keeps me going. Those moments of warmth and fellowship, of being in the moment with others. And maybe the fishing, out in the mountains, or the music, jamming on guitar with mates.

Despite this burden, which is no burden at all compared to those who actually do suffer these horrors, I know this is the right path for me. It’s the right thing to do right now. Somebody needs to study this, to try to make sense of it so that we can perhaps begin to find ways of transforming all the hate and the unnecessary violence. I’m thankful to have such courageous fellow travellers, this cloud of peace scholars who share this painful road. My hope is that one day we will no longer be needed. Our work will be finished, over. We can all go for a drink. I can go fishing.

As I head away to another academic conference, this is the hope I need to sustain me.

About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently Professor of Peace Studies and the Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of pacifism and nonviolence, terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies (Routledge, 2016); Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. In 2014, I published a research-based novel entitled, Confessions of a Terrorist (Zed Books, 2014) which explores the mind and motivation of a terrorist.
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14 Responses to A Self-Inflicted Wound; or, The Burden of Scholarship

  1. Dear Richard I like this blog a lot..Its a nice counterpoint to what I was talking about last Thursday….cheers Kevin

    Sent from my iPad

  2. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Richard Jackson on the emotional impact of doing research on war, terrorism and international politics.

  3. Dear Richard,

    I study wastewater governance, informal recycling by waste pickers and transnational non-governmental organizations, so I sit on the “rosy” side of the research spectrum. I am in awe of your amazing writing, of your scholarship and of how humanly you have bared our soul to us, your fellow academics, in order to better understand the world, and the atrocities that happen in it.

    While I can’t claim that I study things as painful as the ones you have described here, I can’t help but be galvanized and energized that there is 2.1 billion people who don’t have proper access to sanitation. That a child dies every 20 seconds due to waterborne diseases, that could be easily prevented if we had better sanitation infrastructure. That thousands informal recyclers in developing regions survive on less than $3.5 USD a day picking recyclables from waste bins. A different (and perhaps much lower) level of suffering, but suffering indeed.

    We study these things because we want to make this world better. I am sure your work makes the world better, and I am hopeful mine is too.

    Sending you positive vibes.

  4. Thomas Odera says:

    Good reflections prof. It’s a true story we peace scholars undergo

  5. Pingback: Weekend Links | Political Violence @ a Glance

  6. I watched “Cry Freetown” in my second-year World Politics class. I only saw it once, 9 years ago, but I don’t think it will ever leave me. I can almost hear the screams of that little boy as you describe them, and I can see my friend watching through her fingers, crumpled on my shoulder.

    I’ve been working on a paper on emotion in political science education, because lately I’ve felt like there’s almost no academic space to talk about what you’re describing here, even though I think it profoundly shapes our work and the scholars and people we become through it.

    I can’t thank you enough for this, Richard. It’s incisive and crucial. I needed it; I think we all do.

  7. Miryam says:

    Hi Richard, I was reading a book a day or so ago on the Stalin regime… the horror of the starving, freezing prisoners slowly going insane was too much. I had to get rid of it.
    The question I wrestle with is: everyone is born with a need to be loved and affirmed – and the capacity to love back. How did these monsters, who began life like you and I did, become so depraved and brutal? Is that not the real thing to find an answer to?
    I find I need to be washed clean regularly, by beauty, the love of others, natural, ordinary things. This is how we were meant to live, surely? “Whatever things are true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent… worthy of praise, think on these things. And the peace of God will guard your hearts and your minds.”
    Overcome evil with good. Don’t let it crush you too.

  8. I know the feeling well. Doing my research broke my heart numerous times already and I expect it to continue to do so. I believe that responding emotionally to these subjects gives your work added value and depth that comes from the perception of people as human beings and not as IR pawns. Looking forward to that drink sometime down the road.

  9. Helen Berents says:

    Thank you Richard for sharing this. So often we don’t speak of the emotional investment we make/ we have to make in the topics we study, but it is so important. And I agree with Raul’s comment, that the reason we do it, and go back on the Monday to do it again, is because we do hope that the work we do makes the world a better place. Thank you so much for sharing this

  10. Very interesting post. It is stressful to deal with violence, but the reward comes from the awareness that we are not shying away, pretending that disturbing things do not exist.

  11. Dear Professor Jackson, love the blogs. please have a look at my latest piece on terrorism and NZ and see what you think, if you like it please help to spread the message http://futureallblack11.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/50/

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