- The Other Cold War
Reading Heonik Kwon's The Other Cold War during a recent trip to Korea made some of the points painfully obvious. For those in places like Korea or Vietnam—two ethnographic sites covered in the book—Kwon's point that the Cold War was not cold at all for the vast majority of people outside North America and Europe is palpable, both in the visual landscape of war memorials and mass graves and in the increasingly less visible generation that still remembers the experience of war, not to mention the subsequent generations that were affected by the bipolar allegiances required throughout the Cold War. Glancing at the title of the book, a South Korean muttered, "The other Cold War? [End Page 484] More like the still Cold War . . . ." Indeed, the Cold War continues on the Korean peninsula, divided as it still is two decades after the so-called end of the Cold War.
Kwon, thus, appropriately opens the book with the observation that Cold War historiography today has "an open-ended beginning and a closed ending" (p. 1), noting that the question of the origins of the Cold War enables multiple perspectives about who is responsible whereas the significance placed on the year 1989 as the definitive victory of liberal capitalism over communism forecloses such multiple assessments of its impact. Accordingly, the questions driving the book are "When we say the cold war is over, whose cold war and which dimension of the cold war do we refer to? Did the cold war end the same way everywhere, or was the 'struggle for the world' the same everywhere?" (p. 6). Kwon's answer, in short, is that there was never a conflict called the Cold War in the singular because this period encompassed brutal civil wars and vicious forms of political violence in much of the postcolonial world.
Challenging the dominant conceptualization of the Cold War as a time of "long peace" maintained through the balance of power between the two superpowers, Kwon highlights the "balance of terror" using Bruce Cumings's terminology (p. 17) that turned the Cold War hot in so many places, leading to some forty million human casualties throughout the world. Rather than concluding that the Cold War ended with the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, privileging states as historical actors, Kwon frames the end of the Cold War as a "participatory, ethnographic question" (p. 8) that involves shifting ideologies and cultures, affecting local communities, family relations, and individual identities. Using ethnographic examples from Jeju Island in South Korea, Danang in Vietnam, and Bali in Indonesia, Kwon's anthropological perspective shows just how Eurocentric the very terminology of the Cold War truly is by focusing on the memories that still haunt those who survived, the ghosts that still walk among the living, and the commemorative practices that attempt to bridge the bipolar history of the Cold War. Thus, he writes about the "decomposition" (using Stephen Whitfield's term) of the Cold War rather than its "end," caught in the "unsettling situation in which the lived reality is not really free from the immediate past and has not reintegrated the past into the time present as a past history" (p. 33).
Such analysis, however, is not new, as the book readily admits. In my view, Kwon's most important contribution is his critique of postcolonial theorists for their failure to see the violence wrecked by the bipolarity of the Cold War mapped onto the process of decolonization. Indeed, Kwon questions the possibility of decolonization during the [End Page 485] American Century, highlighting the singularity of American orientalism in the twentieth century in its use of the language of plurality and equality to compete effectively against the Soviet Union both in ideological terms and to gain allies in practical terms. He incisively historicizes the Cold War roots of concepts such as cultural tolerance and pluralism that advocate cultural diversity while relegating political difference as morally irreconcilable, moving the "domain of essentialism from the cultural to the ideological" (p. 79).
Theorizing American global...