Get to Know Our Fellows: Christine Sylvester

sylvester-christine-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

My formal academic background is in the field of International Relations, which in the USA is located in departments of Political Science, and elsewhere is often a field on its own. I have spent most of my academic career in regular tenured positions abroad, in Australia (Australian National University), the Netherlands (The Institute of Social Studies, The Hague), and England (Lancaster University), with visiting research appointments at the University of Zimbabwe, University of Southern California, Gothenburg University and Lund University. Currently I am Professor of Political Science and of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies here at Uconn, in my home state (I am from Milford).
-What is the project you’re currently working on?
In recent years I have been associated with critical war studies in International Relations, emphasizing  war as experience rather than war as military strategy, weapon systems, and foreign policy. I am interested in everyday and ordinary experiences with war inside and outside of war zones, and am spending my year with the Humanities Institute researching new ways of apprehending war through war objects and their display. With a focus on the Vietnam and Iraq (2003) wars, I consider objects that are displayed by professional curators at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, by communities of loss at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and in Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery, and by veterans of the wars who write novels about their war experiences and mention objects they grew attached to or despised in war zones. The project, called Objects of War: Whose Wars Are on View? is, in effect, a three-way recreation of both wars that works through the power of objects to communicate grand stories of national significance about war and countervailing stories about America's recent wars as experienced by a range of ordinary people involved in them.
-How did you arrive at this topic?
My field of International Relations has a history of writing people out of war studies. This has never sat well with me, especially after I experienced war in Zimbabwe in the days when the new government of Robert Mugabe sought retribution against people in the southern part of the country who supported a different would-be leader. I was there when the infamous Fifth Brigade of the national army, trained by North Korea, moved into the second city of Bulawayo and started shooting and smashing heads. Suddenly and unexpectedly the locals and I were in a war zone, and that experience early in my career, which I wrote up for the magazine The Progressive (1983), has never left me. While working in the UK (2005-2012) I started a multi-disciplinary and collaborative research project called Experiencing War, with colleagues based in Europe, and that project rolled into an ongoing book series I edit with Routledge (London) on War, Politics, Experience. Several volumes in the series are collections by project participants --the latest is Masquerades of War (2015) --while my own theorizing of war as physical and emotional experiences of collective armed conflict appears as War as Experience (2013). The Objects of War research is an off-shoot of that larger project and incorporates my serious interest in museums as important but often overlooked institutions of international relations (Art/Museums: International Relations Where We Least Expect It (2009) and a longstanding tendency to embed quotes from "fictional" people and tales in works of supposed war facts.
-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?
To me it is important for all of us to pay attention to the power of ordinary people to shape international relations and domestic politics today. In the case of war, it is ordinary people who conduct and suffer (and in some cases enjoy or reap benefits from) war. We should not hide the ordinary behind cold abstract terms like "collateral damage," "troops," or "civilians." The current wars in Syria and Iraq are central to the daily lives of everyone there and have become increasingly central to people who live in areas of the world that Syrians and Iraqis seek to enter as international war refugees. We miss so much of what the dailiness of war if we skip over people entirely or uncritically buy into stories of war reported from only one, supposedly expert, angle; when Americans thank soldiers on the street for their service and do not ask them their views on the war and how it is going, we fail to recognize that they are true experts on war, too. It is akin to learning about war from an exhibition at the Smithsonian and not going to see what "ordinary curators" of war display at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or in Section 60 of Arlington. I'm interested in producing a book from the project that is of use to academics and is also accessible to the interested public, because it concerns me that America has rebounded from utter defeat in Vietnam with such a ramp up of the military and war willingness that it makes sense to say that we are in a militarist era of permanent war.