- IntroductionThinking Through Embeddedness: Globalization, Culture, and the Popular
I've been all the way through this desert from Basra to here and I ain't seen one shopping mall or fast food restaurant. These people got nothing. Even in a little town like ours of twenty five hundred people you got a McDonald's at one end and Hardee's at the other.—Sergeant Sprague, from White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom1
The language of embeddedness permeated daily life in March and April 2003 as news media enthusiastically provided airtime and space to reporters attached to American military units moving through the Iraqi desert. In coverage reminiscent of the scripted "reality" of reality television, these reporters brought games of survival and war into our homes. The convergence in the United States of media, the state, and its military produced a cultural milieu in which residents of the United States were exhorted to consume the war as spectacle rather than ask about the ethical parameters of the game and what it meant to be "embedded" in the war theater.
Mainstream representations of the war effort included lead-up coverage of war-game simulations and nightly television reportage of the "Countdown to War." The war itself begot the infamous "Deck of Death" featuring pictures and descriptions of Baath Party leaders. The Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed al-Douri, also picked up this language when he stated, in reference to the end of Saddam Hussein's regime, "the game is over."2 The distinction between waging and playing war was blurred. As the spoils of war were quickly awarded through oil and reconstruction contracts to companies with personal, political, or business ties to the Bush family [End Page 1] (such as Halliburton), other multinational corporations zeroed in on profit opportunities linked to war-inspired popular culture products. On March 21, 2003, one day after the Iraq War began, Sony applied to register the term shock and awe with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (Day 2003). Intended as the basis for computer and video games as well as a broadband game played on the Internet, this application joined many others filed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 seeking to ensure that profits from products bearing phrases such as "Operation Enduring Freedom," "9-11-01, lest we forget," and "Let's Roll" would line the pockets of the savvy entrepreneur. Companies such as NewsMaxStore then made sure products like the "Deck of Death" and its sequel the "Deck of Weasel," which depicts the fifty-four worst leaders and celebrities who opposed American policy, lined the pockets of the urbane consumer.
In our media-saturated lives war and mourning are actively marketed: British-based Sci Games released a sequel to its original PlayStation and Xbox game, Conflict: Desert Storm. The sequel is predictably called Conflict Desert Storm II: Back to Baghdad. Meanwhile, individual entrepreneurs at Ground Zero hawk Twin Tower memorabilia, likely cheaply produced in Asia or Latin America. But war and mourning are marketed not only by companies for profit; they are also marketed by the state and politicians. In 2001, the Pentagon hired Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of Armageddon, Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Pearl Harbor, and Black Hawk Down, to advise on the primetime television series Profiles from the Frontline, which followed U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001. Moreover, as the satirical newspaper The Onion wryly noted in a September 26, 2001 article entitled "American Life Turns into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie," we tend to make sense of extreme violence through spectacular film moments etched in our imaginations.
The above examples illustrate that the popular cultural realm is not distinct from geopolitics; the popular culture realm is a multilayered site of commodification, production, consumption, domestic and international politics, global economics, and socially situated identities that infuse and mediate lived experience. The (conscious) popular cultural mediation of (constructed) geopolitical crises is, of course, not unique to the present moment. Ronald Reagan recognized the [End Page 2] possibilities when he created "Star Wars" and the "Evil Empire" as part of the cultural front of the late Cold War...