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.