Week 10, Structures of Feeling & Depictions of the Soldier

This week’s readings fit into our continuing discussion of public sentiment towards the war effort and dominant discourses in politics and media as well. Although they differ in form and genre, I see these readings as being unified by their orientation towards our public fascination with the symbol of a soldier, and the rhetorical strategies and implications that constitute this relationship between military and public. These texts also bring us to consider the differences between how soldiers are portrayed in pop culture and how they are actually treated in their communities.

As we have seen, Jeremy Engels 2015 book entitled “The Politics of Resentment: A Geneology” alludes to many of the rhetorical strategies that we see in our modern political arena still today. Engels’ concluding essay represents a synthesis of the ideas that made up the first three chapters of the book, as well as a unifying argument in favor of rhetorical criticism. Engels brings up Zizek’s notion of three distinct types of violence: subjective (directly perpetrated by a specific agent), symbolic (communicated via language, symbols), and objective (a more indirect form of violence that is promoted from within our own systems of politics and ideology). In his discussion of civic resentment, Engels emphasizes that a sense of indignation is healthy within a democracy, but the ways in which we direct these sentiments as a society is where we can often go wrong. He says that often times the resentment which we should be aiming at our social systems (ad ratio) is aimed at our fellow citizens (ad hominem). The ‘objective violence’ that Engels describes as being perpetrated by proponents of neoliberal capitalism reminds me of Matthew Lyon’s conception of ‘business nationalism’ from his piece on fractured responses to 9/11.

Our readings for this week also included an example of political commentary in the form of literary fiction. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a 2012 piece by American author Ben Fountain, tells the story of a nineteen year-old soldier whose glorious homecoming ends up being far different than he would have hoped. From my perspective, the book’s strength lies in its depiction of the stark reality that soldiers face upon their return from duty, and how this differs from how we portray servicemen in pop culture. As private Billy Lynn and his fellow soldiers are paraded around the country as the subject of national spectacle, he begins to see this inherent disparity and the contradictions that slowly become apparent. As opposed to the hero-worship and doting admiration that is depicted in their homecoming tour, Billy and his fellow soldiers are ultimately treated poorly in their face-to-face interactions with other citizens. After the ceremony in honor of their service, the men are embarrassed in an exchange with Texas businessman Norm Oglesby, and they are then assaulted as they exit the stadium, harassed by a group of roadies who they confronted earlier in the night. To this effect, the book does a good job of illustrating the contrast between how soldiers are depicted in pop culture and news media, and how they are actually treated upon their return home. Stories like this one do well to remind us that the phenomena which Chris Hayes dubbed the ‘cult of the soldier’ really only benefits the elites who promote it, as opposed to the soldiers who it glorifies. Since it was published, Fountain’s book has been made into a major motion picture by tri-star pictures. This scene, from the 2016 film, presents a compelling depiction of the difficulty that soldiers face in relaying their accounts of the war to regular citizens (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhS1b56Koxc).

The other articles in this week’s readings serve to supplement the principles and ideas that were brought up by Fountain and Engels in their respective compositions.

Dr. Achter’s 2010 piece entitled “Unruly Bodies: The Rhetorical Domestication of Twenty-First-Century Veterans of War” gives us another interesting perspective on the disparity between expectation and reality for those soldiers who return home from combat. Dr. Achter’s article focuses on the ‘domestication’ of veterans who return home with visible physical injuries. The ‘domestication’ works here in two ways, as it refers to the physical relocation of the wounded soldier back into his homeland, but also the rhetorical strategy of “closing a perceived chasm between the soldiers firsthand representations of war and the war as constructed in U.S. mainstream news discourse for civilians” (Achter, 48). This ‘chasm’ represents the same sort of shocking disillusionment that is experienced by the men of Bravo company in Fountain’s book, and also by many soldiers who return to the domestic sphere after serving multiple tours of duty. Dr. Achter claims that injured veterans serve as metonyms for the American war effort as a whole, and that by presenting our veterans in a domestically acceptable scenario (such as Tommy Riemann at the white house or Marissa Strock in Newsweek Magazine), our government ascribes a strategic telos to these men which allows their image to be rationalized within the dominant discourse on the subject.

Crane-Seeber’s piece presents a highly nuanced and complex claim regarding the link between militarized masculinity and the role of eroticism in upholding systems of power and control. The article, entitled “Sexy warriors: the politics and pleasures of submission to the state”, essentially makes the claim that the ‘fetishization’ of militarized bodies in our society is indicative of a “psycho-sexual pleasure” that we seek in our depictions of American soldiers. Crane Seeber’s self-described “kink-informed queer theory of militarization” reminds me of the oddly hypersexual depictions of soldiers in popular films like Shooter, a trailer for which can be seen here: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3lPVwYOdzA , pay attention around the 1:00 minute mark).

Finally, Lisa Silvestri’s 2013 piece entitled “Surprise homecomings and vicarious sacrifices” offers another critical perspective on the phenomena of online soldier homecoming/reunion videos that have seen a wave of popularity in recent years. Silvestri essentially makes the claim that by watching and redistributing these videos, even ordinary non-military citizens can gain an affective benefit from identifying with their subjects. Silvestri then presents an analytical survey of 40 YouTube clips, focusing on aspects of subject matter and viewer commentary. The article ultimately puts forth the idea that these videos offer us a sort of “collective identification” and “social membership” within the national war effort. Silvestri’s writes that “Hegemonic American ideals encourage viewers to identify emotionally with the onscreen family and create a sense of national belonging” (Silvestri, 102). These videos can be seen all over the internet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdJOWczwt_Y) , and these ceremonies of reunion are often featured in sporting events all over the country. It would seem that our national obsession with these ceremonies extends into a realm of cultural fascination and hero-worship. Considering this, Silvestri’s analysis is compelling and pertinent to our discussion of soldiers’ role in the domestic sphere more generally.

11 thoughts on “Week 10, Structures of Feeling & Depictions of the Soldier

  • March 25, 2018 at 5:49 pm
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    Hey Alex,

    Thanks for the detailed and insightful accounts of this week’s readings. You do a great job of tying together these articles that separately cover a lot of different ground. I wanted to focus on your introductory point that these readings have an orientation towards “our public fascination with the symbol of a soldier” and specifically the soldier’s body, as discussed in the Silvestri and Achter readings.

    Achter talks a lot about the communicative force of a veteran of war’s body, and the many feelings and opinions evoked upon seeing someone with a visible physical injury from war. I was particularly intrigued by this idea of a veteran as a metonym for American spirit, and the example of President Bush acknowledging Tom Rieman for his sacrifice and service. Although injured from war, Rieman does not have visible physical “damage,” making him an ideal platform for this metonymy to serve. This situation perpetuates the public fascination with the symbol of a solider that you refer to, largely due to the sentiment towards an soldier hurt in battle, coming home and overcoming their injuries to go on and lead a normal life. This story has a happy ending, just as the metonym of a veteran for American spirit has a ‘happy” connotation.

    Perhaps this public fascination would shift should the “unruly” bodies that Achter discusses have the same acknowledgement and recreation that figures like Tommy Rieman have. I think the fascination would remain, but for different reasons. The solider certainly serves as a symbol- for many things- and this week’s readings have really made me question why these symbols are assigned.

    • March 26, 2018 at 8:20 am
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      Hey Tegan, thanks for your response. I like the way you’re focusing on the soldier-as-metonym strategy in American military, as this was a relationship that I had to examine for a good bit as well before I understood how it worked. You’re right to say that Tommy Riemann is a peculiar case, as his physical injuries were not as obvious and apparent as some other disabled veterans that we see in domestic environments. Other instances of promotion and advertising for organizations like AARP, however, use images of amputees and burn victims to drive home their messages as well. The implication when we see these men with serious injuries is again related to the phrase “all gave some, some gave all”. This phrases the situation in a way so that these men’s injuries stand as a metonym for our ongoing war effort, even as we acknowledge that other men lost their lives and have now become part of the casualty statistics. Here, again, Achter’s conception of “domestication” comes into play, as we see that these men’s injuries hold a special place in our collective consciousness here on the homefront.

  • March 25, 2018 at 6:52 pm
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    Alex, great blog post! I really appreciated your concise, yet still thorough, summary of this week’s readings. I thought you highlighted key ideas, and related the author’s overall message well back to our course and class discussions. After our class discussion on Wednesday regarding Zizek’s three forms of violence I too liked being able to re-organize my thoughts in his final discussion of their implications in his politics of resentment in our contemporary discourse. I want to highlight to quotes that I thought explained those implications well. The first deals with objective violence, Engels writes ,“Yet with its massive forms of objective violence, modern society greatly multiplies the opportunities for victimization while dispersing responsibility across vast bureaucratic structures and minimizing the opportunities for citizens to rectify their perceived wrongs.” I like this quote because it really sums up well the main points of his work, and gives us a direction to look for solutions. He goes on to say that “The politics of resentment takes advantage of the basic human need to matter— of the dread of suffering without meaning— by naming a scapegoat…” and that the solution to this rhetorical trend is a more informed and more rhetorically critical citizenry.

    The articles we read this week are the kind more people need to be reading to reach that higher level of critical examination. The unfortunate reality is that only a small percentage of American citizens will be exposed to these academic inquiries. Most will never engage with videos of homecoming soldiers like Silvestri does, nor will people examine the body of soldiers in such a critical light as Achter and Crane-Seeber without first being submerged into the liberal academic environment. This is really where I am starting to acknowledge the value of mandating a liberal education for the growth of our society and liberal polis.

    • March 26, 2018 at 9:11 am
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      Hey Collin, great points here, and thanks for your response. I like the quote from Engels that you first pulled out in your comment, about the elusive nature of blame and responsibility in today’s government bureaucracies. It has gotten to the point, as evidenced by that quote, that average American citizens do not know where to direct their resentment over issues of inequality and systematic injustices anymore. Instead of crafting our frustration into a more practical emotion (Engels’ “righteous indignation”), we let it stew into anger and we often assign blame to those who are not the cause of the problem. I also agree with you when you say that this sort of higher-order rhetorical criticism could go a long way to informing our citizenry more generally, and its a shame that more Americans aren’t exposed to these models of citizenship in their daily lives.

  • March 25, 2018 at 11:07 pm
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    Hi Alex, thanks for your summaries and comments! I want to focus on Engels’ conclusion because a lot of what Engels describes about violence, particularly gun violence, is incredibly timely. One quote that I found especially interesting was: “Humans crave certainty and meaning. If all the world’s a stage, we desperately desire to play parts that are rewarding (and rewarded) in the end. . . It is only natural for someone who suffers – or who finds their paths to fulfillment blocked – to survey the world for a scapegoat, to desperately and relentlessly seek out someone to blame, to name a devil who is said to cause the pain. This hankering, too, is human” (147). When I read this passage, I thought back to Emma Brown’s presentation on cruel pessimism and what she said about the ways in which perceived social failure resulted in acts of violence. Emma explained how social failure, in particular the failure to achieve ideal masculinity or success, was a common denominator in the case studies that she analyzed. I remember that something that surprised me from Emma’s presentation was how she presented the cases in narrative fashion and reminded us that, in fact, these people were often described by others as “normal” and that, in some cases, what they wanted to attain was not something particularly out of the ordinary (success, masculinity, popularity, etc.). I think Engels’ call for a recognition of this human desire for fulfillment is important because it points out that this desire is not without consequence. While it’s natural to seek fulfillment, there are consequences to that fulfillment being blocked — in Engels’ explanation, the consequences are the politics of resentment and scapegoating. Though Emma Brown’s presentation was not about the politics of resentment, it’s still interesting how the idea of fulfillment or lack of fulfillment functions within both of these arguments, both ultimately leading to violence.

    • March 26, 2018 at 9:22 am
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      Hey Kaitlin, thanks for your comment. I really like the connection that you drew here, between Engels’ politics of resentment and Emma Brown’s presentation on the psychological forces at play in mass shootings. Considering how resentment pushes us to assign blame and identify a scapegoat, the young men who commit these acts seemed to have assigned the blame for their problems to their own peers and their known social groups. This may come from the fact that it is their friends and classmates who seem to deny kids like Dylan Roof the life of masculine fulfillment that they crave, and so these kids direct their anger back towards their social sphere. It is not unreasonable to think that a more personalized ‘politics of resentment’ are at play in these incidents.

  • March 25, 2018 at 11:15 pm
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    Alex,

    Thanks for the well-thought-out responses to this week’s readings. The content of the material was not as centralized as in the past weeks, and thought you did a great job of showing the specific connections to each reading.

    Pulling from Dr. Achter’s reading, I think the dichotomy between the firsthand accounts of war experienced by the soldiers, and the perceived notion of war as created by mainstream media, is an important concept in the reading. The physical repercussions of war on the body are a reminder to civilians that war is not clean and there are actual sacrifices to be made. I found it particularly interesting that a physical symbol can disrupt a dominant rhetoric. The phrase “seeing is believing” came to my mind throughout the reading—as in one does not understand unless they see for themselves, therefore the loss of a limb or physical distortion of the body plays into the notion of the metonym as the public will never truly understand the first-hand account of war.

    I also thought Lisa Silverstri’s article offered an interesting area of study about the dominant, fanaticized warrior body and how it is part of the popularity of surprise homecoming videos. I want to focus on your point that our national obsession with these homecomings extends into cultural fascination and hero-worship. I question whether cultural fascination and hero-worship are at the center of these videos. I think the emotional desire to want to be an active participant in the war, without actually being in the war, plays a larger role. If we go back to last week’s discussion in class, I made a comment that I think these videos, circulated by mainstream media, specifically tend to the audiences that the network knows they can reach to gain viewership. I wonder if that has a large role in the phenomenon as well?

    • March 26, 2018 at 9:45 am
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      Thanks for your comments, Alex. I agree with your point about the visceral shock that many of us experience when we see a wounded veteran in our own day-to-day lives. Seeing these men, and knowing that their injuries represent our ongoing and arduous war effort, really gives many of us the real-life connection to the war that so many of us would never get otherwise. I believe this is why political groups and news media outlets work so hard to present these men in domesticated, sanitized environments; so that we can see these men as heroes of an unavoidable war, and not just as disabled Americans. I also see what you’re saying about hero-worship in the reunion videos. I agree with you that a sense of hero-worship is not the main emotional appeal here, and that what we focus on more is the affective relief that we get to experience along with the families in these videos. I only think the notion of hero-worship should come up in our considerations of Hayes’ “Cult of the Soldier” and other similar instances of military glorification in entertainment and media. I think that these instances of “militainment” border upon hero worship, and that many times people use their emotional connection to these soldiers as justification for our war effort in general.

  • March 27, 2018 at 11:57 pm
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    Hi Alex, thank you for your analysis of this week’s readings. I especially appreciate your explanation of the distinction between Zizek’s three types of violence that Engels cites in Politics of Resentment. I also appreciate your summary of Engels’s two types of resentment ad hominum and ad ratio. A purely ad ratio manifestation of resentment, which Engels describes as an ideal democratic dissatisfaction, seems very far off to me, particularly in our current political climate.
    One point I found most interesting in our readings for this week was Silvestri’s idea that surprise homecomings work to “’domesticate’ the warrior body, taming and softening him ‘for consumption at home’.” The word “consumption” struck me most; clearly, viewers of these surprise homecoming videos are consuming the videos for entertainment, contextualizing them within our mass-media and media markets. I wonder if Silvestri is correct in saying that “although the videos depict a father returning from deployment, war and politics and incidental to the narrative.” In fact, if these videos have the capability to “function as modes of collective identification among civil spectators,” then war and politics may be more than incidental to the content of the videos. And if viewing these videos is a form of “civil spectatorship,” from which, according to Silvestri, stems notions of American civil responsibility, then perhaps these videos are (even if unconsciously) more political or ideological than they seem. To paraphrase Althusser, identification as (and with) the subject presented in an ideology is an important component in embodying it.

  • March 28, 2018 at 5:10 am
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    Hey Alex,

    Thank you for the great summaries and insights into this weeks readings. I wanted to comment on your summary and interpretation of the Silvestri’s 2013 article. I completely agree with her view-point about these home return videos of soldiers makes it emotionally relatable to American audiences. While, these videos that usually portrays families and loved connects the audiences to the soldiers it also distances them from civilian population. These videos while emotionally appealing create a divide between army personnel and civilians by making the distinction between a “hero” and the ordinary civilian.

    Also, these glorified portrayals of the army personnel plays a major role in the shaping of public sentiment towards international war efforts and in a way overshadows larger issues that have direct and indirect impacts on the world. I recall Dr. Achter’s anecdote about how her niece was honored at a ice hockey for being a part of the army while still being in the reserves and not serving. I would not be surprised if that happens more often in order to keep up appearances and distract from the reality of war which to me is a very disturbing concept because it creates a cloud of misconceptions among the American public.

  • March 28, 2018 at 9:40 am
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    Alex, thank you for your work on this week’s readings, you did a great job of summarizing and fleshing out the key concepts. I find the disparity between expectation and reality for soldiers returning home to be one of the more intriguing ideas from the readings of this week. While the readings each explored this disparity in various ways, I began thinking about how PTSD has complicated this disparity even further. Soldiers returning home from combat continue to be praised in the media while simultaneously face challenges everyday with simple interacts with other citizens. One of the biggest challenges they face is the mental and psychological adjustment of returning to civilian life after spending time in a combat zone when they were constantly evaluating the threats around them and had to always be on alert. After experiencing this, returning to the civilian life, especially in big cities, can be very challenging for soldiers. This is further complicated when considering the emphasis on masculinity in the conceptualization of the soldier. While there is an existing stigma on mental health in American society, with these soldiers it is no different. They are expected to be tough, and able to handle anything that comes their way. With PTSD or other mental health issues, these soldiers are struggling to keep their heads above water while adjusting to civilian life, but they often feel that they are unable to seek help, or admit they need help. In recent years there has been a push to raise awareness for PTSD and mental health in general which I believe will help these soldiers returning to life stateside. However, it is still easy to overlook the struggles they face due to the media’s hero-worship.

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