Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The End of Victory Culture

Roll the dice, lady. Roll the dice.

Title: The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (New York: Basic Books, 1995)

Tom Engelhardt, a former journalist and book editor, now working as a fellow for the Nation Institute and writing for/editing the alternative news site One of the things he works on for Metropolitan Books is called The American Empire Project and looks really awesome.

The time between the Cold War and Vietnam marked the beginning of the end of American triumphalism, which was at a high point at the end of WWII, but marred by the existence of the bomb. Combining a bunch of different previous scholarship about American exceptionalism (see Nash Smith), Native Americans (see Slotkin), narratives of war and racism (see Dower, Drinnon), as well as his own childhood reflections, Engelhardt seeks to answer the question of how Americans lost their loving feeling toward their own country - and especially, how children who grew up during that 1950s got to the point where they began to question the country's mission. All of this questioning added up to what Engelhardt terms The End of Victory Culture. (Problem: Weren't there dissenters and disbelievers in American culture all along? Anti-imperialists and war protestors? Socialists? Communists? Yes, there were... Also, there's still a Victory Culture: just ask any random person on the street in Concord, New Hampshire.)

I. War Story
1. Triumphalist Despair:
Basic argument laid out.

2. Story Time: Real-life war stories of America, whose parameters are determined by the victors (see Lepore). Native Americans as central to these stories, while the black story is elided (and haunting in its absence).

3. Ambush at Kamikaze Pass: War stories in the movies. Short history of the Western, pre-1960, and its similarities with the war movies of the 1940s. A bit about captivity narratives; a bit about the "victim complex" (we are always the transgressed upon, never the aggressor).

4. Premonitions: The Asian Death of Victory Culture: How Asia became "the frontier", and how Korea became a precursor of/warning of what was to come in Vietnam.

II. Containments (1945-1962)
1. War Games:
How the 1950s mixed wartime with peacetime objectives (see May). Includes section on children's war games (81).

2. X Marks the Spot: Articulation of tensions between inclusionary and exclusionary tactics during the Cold War (how are we safe? by assimilating difference, or rejecting it altogether?)

3. The Enemy Disappears:
The invisibility of Cold War adversaries; coverage of the HUAC hearings and blacklisting (emphasis on the performative nature thereof).

4. The Haunting of Childhood:
Childhood, during the Cold War, was the "symbolic meeting place" for two fears: the fear of infection by the Other (see juvenile delinquents); and the propensity of the media to "concretize the fantasies of the young and the nightmarish fears of grown-ups into potent products" (137). "Twilight Zone" seen as example of how these secret fears/fantasies emerged in the public eye.

5. Entering the Twilight Zone:
The atomic stalemate "reflected the limits of what the American story, American national identity, could withstand" (157): we couldn't picture ourselves killing so many people without "provocation". This meant that adversaries had to be more careful, talk about things more, and that "a certain amount of control over the American war story...was placed in enemy hands" (161). Interesting piece on the invention of the Peace Corps as JFK's plan to Americanize far places through youth (164).

III. The Era of Reversals (1962-1975):
1. The First Coming of GI Joe:
Evolution of GI Joe figures seen as marker of how American ideas of heroism and enemy-ship evolved during this time.

2. The Invisible Government:
JFK's assassination, and subsequent conspiracy theories, indicated that Americans could now conceive that their government would keep things from them purposefully.

3. Playing with Fire: The story of Morley Safer's atrocity reports from Cam Ne, and how the response to it (people thought he was a Communist plant, and hey, he was Canadian) indicated America's inability to accept the possible moral bankruptcy of their mission in Vietnam.

Morley Safer at Cam Ne, 1965.

4. Into the Charnel House of Language: Vietnam's "backwardness" in the American war story led to linguistic machinations intended to help Americans process what was happening: an interesting analysis of the use of the word "quagmire", which holds that the word implies American victimhood, once again: Who's in the wrong, when men are being "sucked into" a war? The thing doing the "sucking", for sure. I'm never calling Iraq a quagmire again. (199)

5. The President as Mad Mullah: Nixon told advisors that he wanted the Vietnamese to see him as an evil madman so they would lose their nerve - a concept which fascinates Engelhardt, given American need to see their leaders as upright moral beings.

6. The Crossover Point:
More on the American state of mind in Vietnam, including the "logic" of body counts, which built on itself, and the idea that America wanted to impose a "story" on Vietnam, not just political rule (214).

7. "Something Rather Dark and Bloody":
The story of the My Lai massacre, and response to it. Interestingly, Engelhardt points out, everybody on either side of the protestor/establishment divide was interested in comparing the other side with Nazis.

8. The War Crimes of Daniel Ellsberg: Ellsberg, who worked for RAND and then leaked the Pentagon Papers, is seen as an exemplar of a young American who fell out of love with the war story he'd been raised upon.

D. Ellsberg.

9. Ambush at Kamikaze Pass (II): Reflections of the Vietnam War in film. Also, story of how young war protestors singlehandedly realized the twin fears of the Cold War era: Communism, and the vulnerability of the young.

10. Besieged: How the war protestors used the national media by manipulating symbols such as "Good War" paraphenalia in order to create a sort of living MAD magazine: a subordination of the accepted narrative. Those in charge were horrified: not only the war, but also the home agenda, was slipping from their grasp, due to the death of Victory Culture.

11. Reconstruction:
How did post-Vietnam Americans, robbed of their self-image of conquering righteousness, think to recoup their self respect? Through the children, of course...

IV. Afterlife (1975-1994):
Attempts to rehabilitate American self image include Star Wars, the first Gulf War (in its spectacular, TV-ready execution). More on GI Joe, and a bit of interesting, if slightly out of place, musing on the way that children's culture seems to drive all meaning before it in the creation of an apolitical, timeless global state of conflict (do I agree? don't know) (301).

Reviews: In Contemporary Sociology, George Lipsitz wrote (a bit scathingly, but rightly) that Engelhardt draws "sporadically and unsystematically" on recent scholarship, pointing out holes in interpretation caused by ignorance of such work as that of Eric Lott and David Roediger. Furthermore, Lipsitz continued, Engelhardt's unfamiliarity with the methods of cultural studies led him to write in a narrow, Myth-and-Symbol-style framework, ignoring contradictory or complicating aspects of his Overarching Narrative; and his lack of context for each cultural object (no analysis of the actors involved in production, etc) leads him to make unsupported guesses about their meanings. In the Journal of American History, Stephen Whitfield wrote that the book's analysis was "sprightly", if thin, and that Engelhardt's overall theory about triumphalism was worth encapsulating in book form. Both reviewers called Engelhardt a "leftist". It's interesting to see how differently a "popular" book is reviewed in scholarly publications...

Vocab words:
"osculation" ("close contact, an instance of this; spec. (a) the mutual contact of blood vessels (obs.); (b) Geom., contact of curves or surfaces which share a common tangent at the point of contact (also used analogously of spaces of higher dimension)" - also, "kissing").

Books to follow up on:
Primary: Books: Textbook from 1953: America Before Man; Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane E Levin, Who's Calling the Shots: How to Respond Effectively to Children's Fascination with War Play and War Toys (1990); MIA Hunter series ("Vietnam snuff novels"). Toys: GI Joe "Soldiers of the World" (p 175) and animal enemies. Movies: "North by Northwest"; "The Long Telegram"; "Fail Safe"; Morley Safer's reports on "The Burning of Cam Ne"; "The Dirty Dozen"; "The Wild Bunch"; "Bonnie and Clyde"; "Little Big Man"; "Soldier Blue"; "The China Syndrome"; "Coming Home".

Secondary: Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1992); Leslie Daikin, Children's Toys Throughout the Ages (1953); Ruth Miller Elson, Guardians of Tradition: American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century (1964); Frances Fitzgerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (1979); Antonia Fraser, A History of Toys (1966); Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (1984); John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925 (1975); Sydney Ladensohn and Ted Schhoenhaus, Toyland: The High-Stakes Game of the Toy Industry (1990); Edward Tabor Linenthal, Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields (1991); June Namias, White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier (1993); David Nasaw, Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (1993); Michael Paul Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (1987); Michael Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (1987); Keith Thompson, Angels and Aliens: UFOs and the Mythic Imagination (1991).

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