This book is about understanding how former combatants come home after war, and how their political lives are refracted by the war and the experience of coming home itself. In particular, it captures the political mobilization among former combatants as they come home from three very different types of war: civil war (Colombia), war of independence (Namibia), and interstate war (United States involvement in the Vietnam War). The book provides a much-needed long-term perspective on peace. It also demonstrates the artificial division between literatures across the Global North and Global South, and demonstrates how these literatures speak to each other just as the three cases speak to each other. The novel use of interviews to document life histories and the inside perspective they provide also give a unique insight into the former combatants’ own perspectives on the process of coming home and their sense of political voice. This book is not about peacebuilding in the sense of interventions. Rather, it examines peace as a process through studying the lived experiences of individuals, displaying the dynamics of political mobilization after disarmament across time in the lives of fifty former combatants. The book demonstrates how the process of coming home shapes their political commitment and identity, and how the legacy of war is a powerful reminder in the lives of these former combatants long after the end of the war.
This chapter introduces the setting for the book and its aims, and describes the layout of the book’s argument. The introduction situates the book within a broad literature on former combatants, and shows how the book builds on previous literature in a number of different respects. The notable continuities across the Global North–South divide in the literature on former combatants pertaining to life after war highlight the importance of making comparisons across boundaries which are often taken for granted, and the book hopes to encourage these literatures to speak more to each other. The introduction shows that while there have been calls for such studies in the past, very few have taken on this challenge. The introduction also explains how this book tries to bridge this gap by studying different types of former combatants from different wars. The book is based on fifty life history interviews with former combatants in Namibia, Colombia, and the United States. Their political life is unfolded through examining how their identity, networks, and activities are shaped by the legacy of war and coming home. The introduction also explains some of the data collection strategies, and rationale for using life histories and life diagrams: these enable an insider’s perspective as well as a more long-term, dynamic, and holistic perspective. These are elements which have been missing in the current literature on former combatants.
This chapter situates the three cases: independence fighters from the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN)/South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO); guerrillas from Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19) in Colombia; and Vietnam veterans in the USA. As such, the chapter demonstrates the diversity both between and within these cases. This diversity is important, as any ensuing similarities in the political lives of these former combatants will be particularly striking. The cases are diverse in terms of both the war in general and policies at the end of the war. The specific experiences of the individuals interviewed for this book are also diverse, in terms of how they joined the armed groups, their war experiences, and their reception upon returning home. In Namibia, veterans’ programs were not planned, and the services on offer developed over time and were delivered in a compartmentalized and piecemeal fashion. In Colombia, M-19 was one of several guerrilla groups which demobilized in 1990, and the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) package included economic, educational, health, legal, and political components. In the United States, support was offered following a longer tradition of state support after war, largely used templates from earlier wars. In all three cases, the veterans expressed criticism against these programs. This chapter is important not only in terms of the research design of the book, but also as these war experiences are reinterpreted and reimagined over the course of the former combatants’ lives and therefore become sounding boards for the next chapters.
This chapter portrays the former combatants’ understanding of their process of coming home, which has been ongoing for on average twenty-four years (M-19), twenty-eight years (SWAPO), and forty-two years (Vietnam veterans in the USA), respectively. Many reveal a range of challenges which faced them as they came home, as they were trying to catch up with their own lives. But they also faced family relations in need of mending, mental and physical health issues, and concerns about their own security, some of which became exacerbated over time. The chapter also details how they make meaning of peace, as a way to understand the transition these individuals embarked upon. Coming home is not a process which is limited in time. Rather, for many this is seen as an ongoing process, and some even expressed a sense of being stuck in that process many years later. The war and the time after war are experiences which carry over, and are not always easily separated. What is clear is that while coming home is a watershed moment, it is also extended in time and is an ongoing process several decades after the end of the war. This combination of a rupture and an ongoing process is important for the way in which the life of politics is formulated for these former combatants. Hence, in this book “coming home” refers not only to the immediate process following war but also this drawn out process of continually reinterpreting these experiences throughout their lives.
This chapter examines how the veteran identity is constructed by the former combatants themselves, and as such it tries to address how the veteran identity is politically understood and internalized. The chapter demonstrates how the veteran identity is linked to the (new) regime and state, and notions of citizenship in general, through specific values and roles associated with the veteran, and how these relate to the life path and choices of the returning combatant. This chapter shows how claims of recognition are formulated and how they are directed at the state, society, and other veterans, and the centrality of a culture of heroes among all three groups. Their culture of heroes and recognition claims are important drivers for how former combatants formulate their own involvement in politics, and their own conceptualization of themselves as engaged citizens. The culture of heroes and the centrality of service color how to participate in society after war as they provide moral and political guidance, but also how the research participants evaluate other parts of the veteran community and political community. Their achievements during the war (the outcome of the war or their personal achievement) as well as their grievances associated with the war or their homecoming form the basis for their recognition claims. In relation to this, many expressed a sense of a broken pact with the state, and thus sought more extensive recognition from the state, and ended up being pulled into politics.
This chapter focuses on the role and meaning attached to other veterans in the lives of the former combatants. In particular, it explores how social ties between former combatants translate into social support and vehicles for political mobilization (e.g., in veterans’ organizations and political parties), and how these connections are sustained over time. The longevity of these networks is especially striking; some have been sustained for forty-seven years after the war. These networks provide friendship, financial support, and opportunities for work, and they help former combatants navigate their surroundings. But they also find more formalized expressions through veteran organizations and political parties. This overlap between functions, combined with affective ties within the group, is a crucial determinant for the longevity of veteran networks. Naturally, both of these developments shape the political mobilization of the former combatants. Former combatants seek each other out. By engaging in these networks, their shared past becomes a shared future. Their experiences of loss during the war, and feelings of responsibility for each other, incite the community of former combatants to continue to care for each other. A reciprocal responsibility thus permeates these networks, or becomes the standard against which members evaluate each other. The role of the networks is very similar across the three cases, even if there were differences in how the networks formally developed and how the former combatants related to them.
This chapter turns the focus instead to the political activity of these former combatants after war, asking what paths of political mobilization they have embarked on after coming home from war. In this chapter it becomes clear that war and homecoming experiences have left many traces on the former combatants’ political lives. These experiences, as well as the network and identity, shape their political engagement, both positively and negatively, and together they make up their political life. How their political mobilization waxes and wanes over the years, was in part captured through life diagrams drawn during the interviews. These different life paths can be divided into three types of mobilization paths: Resilient (sustained or increased political mobilization), Remobilized (falling in and out of politics, often multiple times), and Removed (leaving politics). This typology of mobilization paths shows how former combatants from each of the three cases follow similar paths. The distribution of individuals across these types, however, did seem to be gendered, as no women remobilized once they left politics. The chapter highlights how the war experience and the homecoming experience, as well as how their identity as a veteran and their networks, are understood as crucial in shaping these political paths, through both encouraging and depressing their political mobilization. The ways in which these pressures originate and reappear across their lives help us understand why former combatants, not only in these three cases, are often involved in long-term political mobilization.
In the concluding chapter, the main similarities of the experience of the former combatants in the three cases are discussed in an effort to help us see the traits and challenges of this global phenomenon. In order to make sense of these findings, the interviews and how they were conducted is further reflected on. The extended time perspective of this book helped both to see and understand the longevity of these dynamics. The legacy of the war and coming home from the war is not constant and overtly present in their lives, but continuously available for resummoning and recollection later in life, and thus also becomes part of the political present for these individuals. Ultimately coming home from war is not an experience limited in time. Through the eyes and lives of former combatants in Colombia, Namibia, and the United States we can see how questions of identity, networks, and political mobilization feed into each other. Despite large variations between these cases, similar patterns of political engagement can be located in the political lives of the individuals within these groups. In this way, the personal lived experiences of coming home from war are also connected to universal and comparative questions related to this process. Through displaying and engaging in how fifty former combatants navigate politics, how living politics is socially and emotionally embedded, we start to understand how they move toward peace and coming home from war.