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  • Globalization, Culture, and War:On the Popular Mediation of "Small Wars"
  • Tarak Barkawi (bio)

Tina Chen remarks, in the introduction to this issue, that "the popular cultural realm is not distinct from geopolitics." Nor, it should be added, is geopolitics distinct from the domain of the popular. The relations between the two are clearly visible in, and can be explored through, the "Vietnam syndrome." This syndrome involves a link between popular culture and national identity, on the one hand, and the ability of U.S. political and military leadership to vigorously prosecute foreign wars in faraway places, on the other (Carruthers 2000, chapter 3). From the point of view of such leadership, popular memory and citizens' subjectivities become sites of strategic significance—strategic in the classic, political-military sense of the use of force to achieve political objectives. News and other media rep-resentations of past and present wars can strengthen or corrode the public willingness to support foreign adventures. Consequently, the domain of the popular is a key battleground in wars waged by the United States and other Western powers in the extra-European world, wars C. E. Callwell termed "small" because they involved limited numbers of Europeans in combat with irregular forces (1906). Invoking a connection between the character of the popular and political-military power, President Richard Nixon lamented in 1971, "the history of civilizations is strewn with the wreckage of nations that were rich and that fell before people . . . considered to be inferior . . . because the rich nations, in their maturity, lost their drive, lost their desire, lost their dynamism, lost their vitality" (quoted in McCormick 1995, 161).

The crux of the Vietnam syndrome, for Nixon as for the neoconservatives allied with the G. W. Bush administration, is that a nation [End Page 115] that is powerful "objectively," in terms of economic and military power, can be defeated by weaker powers if it lacks sufficient cultural backbone. These worries have resurfaced in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing fighting there. In a recent article in the National Review, the classics scholar Victor Davis Hanson fears that Americans are not "psychologically prepared for the burdens of conflict." The reason is that they "have come to expect that about 150,000 professional soldiers can rout the enemy while the rest of us attend to Sex and the City and Jackass: The Movie." For Hanson, the "Baathists," like the Viet Cong, know they cannot defeat the American army in the field. Rather, "they sense that their grotesque killing can finally get under the skin of complacent Americans." This will occur if the Bush administration "fails to mobilize the public behind a just cause" (2003, 35-36).

This essay explores the relations between democratic publics in the West and armed conflict in the extra-European world. In particular, it explores how these conflicts are mediated through popular culture, with specific reference to the United States from Vietnam to Iraq. Its thesis is that cultural and strategic histories must be written together. The essay builds on the developing thread of work incorporating war and armed force into analyses of globalization and culture (Black 1998; Shaw 2000) and on cultural studies' engagement with war and memory (e.g., Jeffords 1989; Renda 2001; Rosenberg 2003; Winter 1995). With respect to globalization studies, the essay elaborates a view of war as a form of transnational interconnection and circulation, rather than as a breakdown of communication and interchange. A discussion of some of the pacific and liberal assumptions that have informed conceptions of globalization, and their consequences for thinking about war and popular culture, follows this introduction.

In terms of cultural studies, the arguments offered here seek to move beyond a purely "cultural" encounter with war in order to better understand the relations between war and culture. Susan Jeffords's (1989) seminal and unsurpassed analysis of Vietnam War narratives in U.S. culture proceeds without much reference to the political and military history of the war itself. Yet it is precisely the specific nature of the war, its social, political and military contexts at [End Page 116] home and abroad, that informed representations of the war in popular culture. What might closer...


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