Kat Balkoski

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What topic are you working on for your masters degree or doctorate?

My dissertation focuses on how the wartime draft and mandatory military service, which endured in French Law until 2001, brought to the fore key points of tension within French Republican values. Dating back to the Revolution, military service represented a core duty of the citoyen. But even non-citizens shared this patriotic duty. With the 1865 Senatus consultus and the “code de l’indigénat” defining the legal status of colonized populations, this compulsion extended beyond the racially circumscribed community of citizens. Colonial subjects coerced or cajoled into serving a nation not entirely their own represent an extreme case of conscription’s paradoxes. Through readings of literary texts and films that address the experiences of men who were neither professional soldiers nor civilians, I explore how their relationship to armed service, locatable somewhere between constraint and consent, could be described as an ethical and political double bind.

Conscription is fundamental to understanding key questions about the individual’s relationship to the modern nation state. It is interwoven with conceptions of citizenship and subject formation, and it is tied to biopolitical power and the distribution of rights and responsibilities based on criteria of sex, marital status, age, ability, and race. By studying shifting representations of military service and the draft, we can gain insight into points of tension and contradiction between patriotism and pacifism, camaraderie and alienation, duty and ethics. In the 21st century, Western militaries have become increasingly protected by secrecy, consistently well-funded, but also notably segregated to the lower middle class. Since the army has become a largely separate caste, with its own rituals, its own courts, its own communities, there is little literary production about military life today, and what blockbuster films there are veer towards gun fetishism, sentimentality, and propaganda. A study of 20th century perceptions of universal military service, with all of the draft dodging, desertion, sacrifice, violence, and absurdity it entailed, will serve to dispel our squeamishness about the essential link, disguised as it may have become, between our societies and militaries.

Why did you decide to work on the First World War?

I’m very interested in psychoanalytic work on trauma and literary/historical work on testimony and witnessing. Although these discourses are often associated with the horrors of WW2 Lager, they are in some ways traceable back to the battlefields of the Great War—the concept of “shell shock” is well known, and Jean Norton Cru’s Témoins is an early experiment in treating testimonial work as its own genre.
Which is your favourite book on the First World War and why?

This is a hard one! I’m partial to Maurice Genevoix’s wartime diaries, collected under the title Ceux de 14. For something completely different, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is a great read.