Call for Papers

State-Led Inquiries as Political Devices: Lessons Learned and Lost from British Interventions, 1853 to the Present Day

9th September 2021

We invite proposals for an interdisciplinary one-day virtual workshop hosted by the Centre for Histories of Violence and Conflict (CHVC) and the Leverhulme-funded Warnings from the Archive project at the University of Exeter. This workshop reflects a renewed interest in research into processes and politics of truth-telling and lesson-learning in the wake of state-sponsored violence, intervention, and transgression. The focus of the workshop will be on the political conditions and cultural norms that determine the composition and scope of inquiries and lesson-learning. Rather than treating inquiries as objective vessels of knowledge, we approach them as political devices. Our interests are in how contingent processes of investigation shape elite and popular understandings of the history and character of British military operations from the Crimean War to the present day.

The outcome of this workshop will be a special issue with a top-tier interdisciplinary journal for History, Politics, and International Relations with a target publication date of 2023.

Call for Papers

The British state has a long and chequered history of military interventions and occupations, including but not limited to the Crimean War, the South African Wars, the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia during the First World War, the Malayan Emergency, Palestine, Kenya, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Many of these have led to official inquiries and legal investigations. To date, there has been little comparative research of these inquiries, what they reveal about the character of the British state’s use of military force, and the limits of official and popular learning. The objectives of this workshop are:

  • to understand how learning and understanding has been conducted, and how this has been contingent upon cultural preferences for particular approaches to knowledge production;
  • to produce new knowledge of the cultures, values and beliefs that have shaped how Britain conducted and understood its military operations and grand strategy;
  • to foster awareness and enhance understanding of the lessons learnt and lost from episodes of British interventionism, thereby destabilising current narratives and revealing the artificial limits of British political imaginings of military intervention.

Formal sites of ‘lesson-learning’ and ‘truth-telling’ in the wake of state-sponsored violence have attracted criticism for their methodological selectivity, top-down approaches, and binary categories of victim/perpetrator. As well as official state-sponsored inquiries, the creation of numerous transitional justice commissions, in addition to the International Criminal Court, throughout the 1990s and 2000s has further ignited diplomatic debates about race, geographic biases, and cultural conceptions of ‘justice’ and ‘victimhood’ between the Global North and South. While spaces of international ‘lesson-learning’ have received extensive scholarly attention and political interest, examination into the politics and archives of state-led accountability investigations remain elusive.

This omission is the driving factor behind this workshop. State-led lesson-learning practices are bound to national ideas of prestige, morality, and expertise, generating unique political cultures and expectations. Within the Anglosphere, public displays of scrutiny and responsibility have driven societal conceptions and ideological support for military interventions. Built upon expectations of apolitical ‘rule of law’, lesson-learning processes have enabled the state to control the ‘history’ of counterinsurgency and military aggression abroad. Thus, it is imperative to understand the lessons learnt and lost from the last century of British interventions and the mechanisms through which the state has shaped the narrative of its own conduct in war. Retaining a military presence in other nations across the globe remains an integral part of the British state’s repertoire and self-image in the 21st century; how have past processes of ‘lesson-learning’ informed or shaped this self-perception? How have scholars defined, understood, and defined ‘lesson-learning’ processes? What aspects of state-led processes have been accepted uncritically, and why? Where are the archives of ‘lesson-learning’? What are the conceptual and methodological challenges of constructing both ‘bottom-up’ and ‘global’ approaches to state violence? How can we take a post-colonial approach to state-led inquiries? Indeed, can we avoid reproducing the same narrative exclusions as public inquiries? If so, how?

The aim of this workshop is to bring together scholars working on the topic of state-sponsored violence to discuss new methodological and theoretical approaches to conceiving formal and informal processes of ‘lesson-learning’. Inviting perspectives from History, Politics, International Relations, Law, Peace and Conflict Studies, Transitional Justice, and Geography, this workshop will stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue and critical debate on the politics of state-led models of responsibility and narratives of military intervention.

This workshop is an opportunity for scholars to refine their paper in submission for publication. We will host a follow-up workshop in February 2022 to finalise the special issue and prepare the selected articles for a target publication date in 2023. While not exhaustive, this list suggests contributions might address:

  • Comparative studies of British violence across temporal contexts;
  • Geographies of state-sponsored violence and/or sites of ‘lesson-learning’;
  • Political cultures of military interventionism within British structures;
  • The archives of public inquiries and truth commissions in documenting violence and state transgressions;
  • The prosecution of state-sponsored violence in international courts and limitations of state-accountability systems;
  • The usefulness of the concepts of ‘truth’, ‘justice’, ‘accountability’ to understand lesson-learning processes;
  • Informal processes of lesson-learning;
  • Media representations of military interventions in British society;
  • Ethics of national security, declassified documents, and the use covert intelligence in public inquiries;
  • Anti-war activism and political cultures of dissent.

The event will be structured around pre-circulated papers of max. 4,000 words in length. Each paper will be allotted 20 minutes in which the author will briefly summarise the main arguments and findings of their work (5 minutes) before engaging in critical dialogue with a senior academic assigned as discussant (15 minutes).

There will also be time for an open Q&A. All workshop participants will be expected to read the pre-circulated papers in order to maximise the quality of discussion.

General queries and abstracts of no more than 200 words should be sent to Margot Tudor by 28th May 2021. Please also include a brief biography (150 words) outlining your research expertise as well as your name, affiliation, and contact email.