- Reviewed by
American Exceptionalism in the Age of Globalization: The Specter of Vietnam, an ambitious and important project, takes shape as an act of memory, a remembering of the first postmodern war and its capacity to reveal, in the emergent age of the global War on Terror, the violence and futility of American exceptionalism both at home and abroad. For William V. Spanos, American exceptionalism is no abstract term; on the contrary, it names a disconcerting nexus of historical ideas—violence, amnesia, thoughtless devotion to an imperial logos, a continuous and interminable global errand into the wilderness—that became apparent in a decisive crisis precipitated by the American experience and defeat in Vietnam. Spanos thus recounts both the relegation of the singularity of Vietnam to obscurity and the stakes of retrieving the memory of Vietnam in an attempt to critique [End Page 376] the current state of affairs—namely, the post- 9/11 situation that is itself predicated on a certain amnesia with respect to the war and its devastating effects on American imperial hubris.
Spanos proceeds to retrieve what he calls, after Martin Heidegger, the "thisness" (singularity) of Vietnam through careful readings of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War, Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato, and selections from Herman Melville's oeuvre. Such thorough treatments of literary texts bear witness to the experience of Vietnam and, in turn, challenge the dominant cultural representations of the war and its aftermath that have come to prominence at the expense of its singularity. Spanos mobilizes Greene's proleptic treatment of American agitation in French colonial Vietnam as well as Caputo's and O'Brien's narrative accounts of the war against the systematic restructuring of the Vietnam War by the dominant American culture. He adeptly characterizes the dominant cultural reaction to the Vietnam War as well as to "the dispersion of the American national identity in the late 1960s and early 1970s" (218), as, first, a forgetting and, subsequently, a memorialization of the soldier symbolically enacted in the dedication of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington in 1982. Moreover, Spanos's investigations of literary texts challenge the reconstitution of muscular American policy best represented by the Rambo and MIA films of the 1980s, as well as in George H. W. Bush's famous 1990 declaration asserting that the US, on defeating Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome at last" (146). Against revisionist histories of the 1960s and 1970s, which stand in the service of contemporary American policies and assumptions, Spanos appeals to the specter of Vietnam, to the history and experience of Vietnam that is deliberately and strategically occluded by dominant cultural narratives and stands, in its traumatic and destabilizing singularity, to call the very being of contemporary American exceptionalism into question.
Although literary texts largely structure American Exceptionalism in the Age of Globalization, Spanos is not particularly invested in the study of literature or in "literature" as a disciplinary category. His treatments of The Quiet American, A Rumor of War, and Going After Cacciato, although detailed and meticulous, open to equally thorough interrogations of such works as Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and Who Are We? Challenges to America's National Identity, and Richard Haas's The Reluctant Sheriff: The United States After the Cold War. These are determinately political texts (in the sense that they bear directly on policy since the 1980s and, increasingly, after 9/11) by "intellectual [End Page 377] deputies of the dominant American culture" (xi). Spanos implicates these and other figures—notably the neoconservative members of the Project for the New American Century, particularly in their political ascendancy under the administration of George W. Bush—in the overwhelming endeavor of establishing the Pax Americana, an exceptionalist global mission with direct ontological roots in the earliest Puritan conquests at Massachusetts Bay as well...