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Literature in the Midst of Continual Warfare

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 2, Spring 2014
pp. 141-147 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0022

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In late May 2013, President Obama gave a speech at the National Defense University defending his administration’s use of unmanned drones as a counterterrorism measure. Although he acknowledged the controversy surrounding the practice and agreed to expand oversight, the president insisted upon the efficacy and necessity of the strikes. His language asserted a superior moral standing—“America does not take strikes to punish individuals,” he explained; “we act against terrorists who posea continuing and imminent threat to the American people”—while gesturing toward a constitutional legal framework that “respects the inherent dignity of every human life” (2013). Underscoring these appeals was language that positions both the danger and the government’s response as exceptional and, therefore, necessarily short-lived. Yet the certainty on display was undermined by Obama’s curious decision to quote his nineteenth-century predecessor James Madison: “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare” (Political Observations, April 20, 1798, quoted in Obama 2013). Rather than assuring Americans, the reference in fact reminds the audience of the country’s tenuous first decades and, more pressingly, of our contemporary history of US-led police actions, of retaliatory attacks, of hot wars conducted by proxy forces, and so on. Instead of bolstering the president’s claims, then, the quotation reveals his rhetoric to be only true on a surface level, uneasily obscuring the intricacies of actual history and the human cost of these actions. As this dissonance vividly illustrates, such facile explanations are insufficient for making sense of life in the midst of continual warfare.

Readers have long turned to literature to investigate these complexities, as famously argued in essays by Mikhail Bakhtin and in Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious. In fact, critics of postwar American literature have been keenly interested in the tensions between the moral and legal narratives advanced by political figures like President Obama and the consequences, both practical and philosophical, of their decisions. To this end, several compelling literary and cultural analyses have been released over the last twenty years, with Tom Engelhardt’s The End of Victory Culture, originally published in 1995, and Alan Nadel’s Containment Culture (1995) among the most important. According to Nadel and Engelhardt, American Cold War power operated according to a logic of containment that sought to narrowly define a “true American” ethos while eradicating or limiting the influence of foreign and domestic forces that did not conform. These actions were bolstered by what Engelhardt calls “triumphalist” narratives (2007, 9), stories that refigured the Manifest Destiny belief in American exceptionalism for the post-World War II political landscape in which the United States was a major superpower. Where these studies were largely interested in explicitly Cold War texts and events, recent studies including Samuel Cohen’s After the End of History (2009) and Sally Bachner’s The Prestige of Violence (2011) have attempted to extend this method beyond 1989. Obama called the period between the fall of the Soviet Union and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks a “decade of peace and prosperity” (2013), but Cohen and Bachner demonstrate that the difficulties inherent in continual warfare remain prevalent even in the absence of official war. And yet, as conflicts continue and change, the familiar interpretive constructs grow outdated, becoming just as inadequate as political speeches to understanding literature written in response to nontraditional combat. To preserve the relevance of these works, new modes of reading and avenues of inquiry need to be explored.

Two recent books, one concerned with the Cold War and the other with the War on Terror, provide just such a framework. In the essay collection American Literature and Culture in an Age of Cold War: A Critical Reassessment, editors Steven Belletto and Daniel Grausam explicitly position their project against existing critical models, not to dismiss prior findings—indeed, many of the contributors are established post-1945 experts, including Containment Culture author Nadel—but to take “the global imaginaries of containment, integration, and three worlds as powerful, but not necessarily exclusively explanatory, paradigms” (8). As they state in their introduction, Belletto and Grausam believe that “the full cultural impact of the Cold War remains unprocessed, and that some of the operative...


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