Managing Death in the Armed Forces

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In the 1990s I undertook a project with a colleague to discuss death that occurs within organizations through an analysis of how deaths of soldiers are handled by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). While such deaths challenge the military’s organizational order and legitimacy, the IDF handles them through the institution of a “moving bureaucracy”: a combination of fixed administrative procedures and intense emotional work carried out by liminal military personnel (reserve officers). This arrangement enables the military to construct a highly controlled “buffer zone” around the deceased’s family, and thus to reconstitute the organizational order and the IDF’s legitimacy. The army as a palpable organization “reappears” on the scene, but that reappearance is gradual and takes place only after the funeral, when death is certain and finalized.
In 2009 I was invited to write an epilogue for a special issue regarding a “good” military deaths. The background to this essay was the understanding that during the past two decades or so have seen the emergence of a whole rhetoric about casualty aversion. The militaries of today’s industrialized democracies have been undergoing sweeping shifts in their domestic status, structure, missions, and—most important—the ways they use the violent means at their disposal. My analysis proceeds from the realization that the military (along with the police) is the organization most strongly identified with the legitimate use of violence. Given this character, it is not surprising that militaries around the world must deal with—handle, manage, or interpret— the casualties perpetrated by them and suffered by their own members. Indeed, the injury and demise of its members and of various enemies are invariably “normal” occurrences. Inside the armed forces, these occurrences include deaths in different fire fights (battles, skirmishes, or engagements, for example) and fatalities due to traffic accidents, suicide, or training. As a “greedy” institution, the military is charged with all aspects of the life of its members as with aspects of their death. The military, in other words, is responsible not only for soldiers’ body-building or for their bodies-in-use, but also for what may be termed “body disposal.” Indeed, this is the focus of this article: the casualties suffered by the armed forces and the ways in which they deal with their own fatalities.

Publications

Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi and Eyal Ben-Ari A knock on the Door: Managing Death in the Israeli Defence Forces The Sociological Quarterly 41(3): 391-412, 2000.

Eyal Ben-Ari A “Good” Military Death: Cultural Scripts, Organizational Experts and Contemporary Armed Forces. Armed Forces and Society. 31(4) 651-64, 2005.

Neta Bar and Eyal Ben-Ari Israeli Snipers in the Al-Aqsa Intifada: Killing, Humanity and Lived Experience. Third World Quarterly 26(1): 133-52, 2005.

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