- Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism
Mary Renda’s SUPerb account of the 1915–1934 U.S. occupation of Haiti starts with a series of questions: “How does a man imagine himself when he is about to pull a trigger? As an arbiter of life and death? As an agent acting on behalf of a rational state? If he is a white man, setting his sights on a black man, what image of himself does he conjure as the muscles in his hand tighten? If he is a man in uniform, pointing his gun at a bandit, what training drills, what adventure stories, what fragments of selfhood come before his mind’s eye as his target comes into focus? If it is 1918, and he is a private or a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps—routing out rebels from the Haitian hills rather than Germans from the fields of France—who does he think he is?” (3)
One of the things that makes this book so worthwhile is that Renda refuses to provide pat answers to these questions. Rather than merely categorize the U.S. marines who figure so prominently in the first half of the book as white men, Renda investigates how region, class, ethnicity, race, family relations, Marine Corps training methods, and more informal means of military socialization shaped their self-understandings. The result is a nuanced analysis of white manhood that serves as a useful corrective to more monolithic treatments of this category.
Although white manhood is not determinative in Renda’s rendition, neither do white men exercise self-determination, for they face what she calls “cultural conscription”—the mobilizing power of dominant discourses. Like Gail Bederman in Manliness and Civilization, Renda focuses on the complicated workings of a discourse that merged gender and racial ideas. Whereas Bederman highlights the importance of “civilization,” Renda regards paternalism as the most salient discourse shaping the U.S. occupation of Haiti 1 Renda rejects earlier scholarship that interpreted paternalism as a constructive mode of thinking resulting in hospitals, roads, bridges, and public buildings. But she also rejects the tendency to regard it as a rhetorical veneer that functioned only to obscure the violent nature of the occupation. According to Renda, paternalism enabled violence. “Paternalism should not be seen in opposition to violence,” she writes, “but rather as one among several cultural vehicles for it” (15).
Paternalism drew its strength not only from its prominence in official statements but also because it played on marines’ sense of selfhood. If, on the one hand, paternalism encouraged U.S. occupiers to view their role as protective, on the other, it promoted violent “discipline.” It fostered sympathy for the Haitians, but it also helped draw boundaries. In enabling U.S. marines to act violently without losing a sense of their own righteousness, paternalism functioned as a military technology. This is not to say that paternalism was hegemonic or that it should be seen as operating only upon Haitians. In Renda’s empathetic account, U.S. marines faced problems of their own: how to maintain a sense of themselves as white men and as Americans in occupied Haiti. Some of the strongest evidence for their anxieties comes from cannibalism stories. Renda insightfully interprets these as “cautionary tales for marines who risked being consumed by another culture. Cannibalism reminded marines, with the force of deeply felt emotion, to be vigilant about maintaining boundaries” (175). Further evidence that U.S. marines suffered identity crises can be seen in the cases of those who became mentally unbalanced, at times with deadly consequences.
In the second half of the book, Renda shifts from her earlier emphasis on the occupation forces to U.S. cultural productions concerning Haiti. How did the literature of empire invite people in the United States to imagine themselves in relation to Haiti, she asks. Leaving behind the marine memoirs, oral histories, government reports, and military training manuals that undergird the first half of the book, Renda turns her attention to civilian cultural productions. These include writings by...