President Bush landed on an air-craft carrier in combat costume to promote the War on Terror.

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

The Shock and Awe campaign launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Rumsfeld tried to make the Defense Department function more like a neoliberal corporation.

The crawls at the bottom of the screen during the Shock and Awe campaign narrate the context of the attack.

The military report that the campaign is causing “complete confusion” in Baghdad.

Back in San Francisco, an iconic location for anti-war protests, dozens are arrested protesting the start of the war.

Supporting the troops has become an end in itself.

During the Vietnam War, conscription bred resentment toward the services.

“Be All You Can Be” was an effective recruiting slogan for many years.

The Defense Department spent billions bringing in products from the U.S. to make the soldiers feel at home on deployment.

GIs dance at a pool party in Uday Hussain’s former palace.

Most Iraqis appearing in the film support the ouster of Saddam.

Combat films often represent the aim of war as being about the troops’ survival rather than any political purpose.

The claim from all the soldiers is that we cannot understand their experience unless we have been in Iraq.


Necropolitical war

How did the United States get the opportunity to wage the Iraq War as part of the War on Terror when Iraq committed no terrorist act against the United States? Part of the answer is that many U.S. people blindly accepted the idea that Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein was a terrorist. But this is just one aspect of the answer. A fuller response takes some backtracking because dominant opinion in the United States post-Vietnam but pre-War on Terror saw military actions in very particular ways.

Militarily intervening in states whose politics were problematic to ostensible U.S. interests had been common practice during the Cold War but was considered too costly after Vietnam unless two conditions obtained: there were economic and humanitarian benefits to be had, and the conflict promised a low casualty count. For example, the 1991 Persian Gulf War showed that support for full-scale conflict was obtainable if the leadership followed the Powell Doctrine requirements of using overwhelming decisive force, asserting well-defined objectives, maintaining international support, and having a clear exit strategy.

The war in Iraq promised to be different. To promote his desired war, President George W. Bush offered ever-changing justifications for the U.S. invasion, including the allegation that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, the claim that Saddam tried to have the previous President Bush assassinated (or as the younger Bush put it, “This is the guy who tried to kill my dad!”), and the uncorrected misperception that Saddam Hussain was behind the September 11 attacks. But eventually Bush’s claims all morphed into a globalized variation of law-and-order ideology—“we” have to kill “them” over there before “they” come over here[1].[open endnotes in new window]

This ideology runs cover for a larger rationality behind many of today’s wars. Theorist Achille Mbembe calls this rationality necropolitics. Necropolitics can be seen as a subset of Michel Foucault’s biopower that characterizes contemporary sovereignty. Biopower consists of the power of “making live and letting die” as opposed to the older tradition of disciplinary sovereign power, say of a king who exercises the prerogative to “take life or let live” (249). If disciplinary power ultimately rests in the sovereign right to kill, biopower ultimately rests in governing through life processes such as mandating regimes to promote good health, for instance. But Mbembe and Foucault argue that the biopolitics that govern through life rely on a necropolitics in which the death of some is used to ensure the well-being of a population.

Racism stands at the heart of biopower as a way of dividing people by giving a biological-seeming justification for fragmentation and necropolitics. War becomes

“not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary but of destroying the enemy race, of destroying that [sort] of biological threat that those people over there represent to our race” (Foucault 255, 257).

And when the people we identify with go to war, it is to “regenerate” the race.

This rationality came to life in the Bush Doctrine. The Doctrine calls for preventive war, for invasion of sovereign territories based on a belief that the invaded people might become a threat. It is so radical because it instantiates the necropolitical relation that Mbembe says characterizes the West’s relations to colonized territories—where all the standards of legal or just war created by Western modernity do not apply and should be defied. Thus, when Bush stated in his first major post-9/11 address, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” and when in his 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States he claimed, “We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends,” he unapologetically announced his version of law-and-order ideology promoted and enforced by necropower.

Bush’s simplistic Manichean policy called for intervention not only when a nation launches an attack against the United States or even threatens to attack, but when any state or non-state actor (hence the fuzzy term “terrorist”) may be considering nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons programs (“before they are able to threaten” to use such weapons). Indeed, even being friendly with such an entity can justify invasion. And as with law-and-order ideology, the fundamental problem lies not just with the criminal, or in the globalized version, the rogue state or terrorist. The problem is also caused by those who stand up for due process—that is, liberals, civil libertarians, opponents of war, and other ostensibly soft personalities—who are said to be hampering the police or the military effort. Just as law-and-order ideology overlooks structural causes of crime and instead uses racist, us-versus-them logics to explain social and legal problems, neoliberal war marshals racism to caricature an “enemy” that is only interested in the United States’ destruction and therefore must be stopped—even before it poses an actual threat to the United States. Indeed, the National Security Strategy also stated a critical point—the United States would act unilaterally in any way it thought necessary to protect or promote the United States and would never again allow its military preeminence to be challenged as it had been during the Cold War.

The National Security Strategy would thus represent a challenge and a change for the post-Cold War United States. It formally committed the United States to constant nation-building war and is thus an expensive proposition, in terms of both lives and treasure. The U.S. people’s support would have to be won and maintained in order for such a goal to be accomplished. From the Administration’s perspective, living out the implications of the National Security Strategy required not careful consideration of the conduct of war but careful consideration of how to sell war to the U.S. people.

From this perspective, I want to consider the United States’ opening gambit in the Iraq War: the strategy of Shock and Awe. Associated with Harlan Ullman and James Wade, coauthors of 1996’s Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, the strategy was adopted as part of the larger effort at “Force Transformation” (also known as the “Revolution in Military Affairs”), a Pentagon initiative that became Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s pet project. Transformation under Rumsfeld was an attempt to make the U.S. military as lean, high-tech, non-bureaucratic, and as much like a neoliberal corporation as possible. This effort would have many consequences including maximizing U.S. military dominance while minimizing the number of troops in combat and consequently minimizing the likelihood of U.S. public interference in the execution of war. According to Ullman and Wade, Shock and Awe delivers

“instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large, meaning its leadership and public, rather than targeting directly against military or strategic objectives even with relatively few numbers or systems. The employment of this capability against society and its values… is massively destructive, strikes directly at the public will of the adversary to resist.” (23)

Overwhelming the enemy is not a new strategy, but what makes it new is Ullman and Wade’s combination of Hiroshima-and-Nagasaki levels of violent spectacle with the precision, surveillance, and communications abilities of the highest high technology. Indeed, they call for “brilliance in execution” as a requirement for success of their strategy. The goal of Shock and Awe is stated in their book’s subtitle, “Achieving Rapid Dominance.” That is the marker of success and the goal of the strategy. After all, “many challenges or crises in the future are likely to be marginal to U.S. interests and therefore may not be resolvable before American political staying power is exhausted” (37-38). Thus, Rapid Dominance is meant to demoralize the public being attacked while encouraging the U.S. public before it loses patience with a war it did not particularly want.

The promise of high-tech warfare is that it would ostensibly limit U.S. force commitment and losses by reducing the number of troops needed in the field. Indeed in the first heady days of the Iraq War, Ullman suggested there would be no need for ground warfare as was required in the Gulf War and thus almost no loss of U.S. life. That this sunny prediction turned out to be the very opposite of reality is not necessarily proof that Ullman and Wade’s approach did not finally serve the Pentagon’s purposes, however. It may in fact demonstrate that the intended target for Shock and Awe may not have only been the Saddam government—which did in fact fall quickly and with low U.S. casualties—but also the American people who also “fell” quickly believing that opposition to the war was just out of touch. That is to say, Shock and Awe may not only have helped erode the Iraqi military’s will to fight, it also helped erode many Americans’ will to oppose war by making any domestic opposition look hopelessly ineffectual and just plain out-of-touch in the face of the United States’ inevitable and glorious victory.

Shock and Awe is not a strategy for dealing with a protracted counterinsurgency, as the Iraq War became, since it is intended primarily to reduce the need for U.S. troops to physically enter battle at all. Rapid Dominance is a strategy not only for protecting U.S. life but also for protecting American lifestyle. Wars for lifestyle are wars “without a threat or compelling reason” to adopt Ullman and Wade’s phrase (38). These conflicts are not needed in terms of security but to protect the position of U.S. capital. Thus, the authors reason that war needs to be kept short and with as few risks to troops as possible, which leads to a key question, if the strategy is meant to keep troops out of battle, how does it enable protracted war?

September 11 changed the conditions that would ensure the U.S. people’s support for war. It created a foundation that Shock and Awe, and Force Transformation in general, could build upon. For even if Shock and Awe was meant to be used in an environment in which casualty figures had to be kept exceedingly low in order to keep U.S. popular support, as it turned out, the strategy worked not by scaring the opponent’s troops as much as changing the people back home, helping reorient the American population to support a prolonged “war on terror” because it made sure that militarism looks good to audiences watching on TV.

From this perspective, Shock and Awe worked to bridge the gap between previous U.S. war policy, which was largely a reaction to Vietnam, and a new period. In the United States, people were shocked and awed into blind support and one aspect of U.S. life that would begin to be “transformed” was the willingness to stay in a protracted war in order to regenerate the “American race.”

If 9/11 was the immediate source of the changed attitude toward war, 9/11 itself did not lead to the Iraq War. Indeed, the initial U.S. response was to launch war in Afghanistan. Though utterly avoidable and rightfully avoided, the Afghanistan War was an easily predictable response that would not necessarily have marked the beginning of a different approach to war or a new era of U.S. relations with the world. Indeed, international support was relatively plentiful in Afghanistan, and the United States’ initial bunker-busting attacks were deadly effective and could have led to a very different outcome for al Qaeda and Afghanistan if the war had been fought with very specific goals, as was the Gulf War. But launching an internationally condemned and nearly unilateral war with Iraq, a nation well known not to be a threat, signaled a change in the United States’ relations with the world. The United States would depart from its post-Cold War Washington Consensus posture of using neoliberal market reforms to promote U.S-defined interests.

According to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine one goal of the Iraq War was to build a nation governed by neoliberal principles. Whether her analysis is correct or not, it is certain that the Iraq War would continue to be fought long after most Americans understood there was no “threat or compelling reason” for U.S. involvement and long after the death toll reached previously unacceptable numbers; clearly there had been a significant change. The continued war was a sign of the success of techniques adopted by U.S. power to enable U.S. militarism.

Fetishizing the fighter

To remain a superpower and exercise superpower colonial prerogatives requires more than support for any particular war; it requires the maintenance of a military-industrial complex. This is a larger and longer-term historical, political, and ideological project than the execution of any single war. Central to that effort was a decades-long battle to put the members of the military at the center of the American national imaginary, and it is to them that I now turn.

It has been well established that once the U.S. goes to war, the American people will support the effort — regardless of their pre-war convictions. This apolitical stance is suited to imperialist war and it promotes a moral stance by which good citizenship depends not on supporting a necessary war but supporting war regardless of a conflict’s rightness or its political goals (Lucas and McCarthy). But just as Gunner Palace (and Cops before it) gives its audience no particular warrior hero to identify with, the Iraq War offered mostly a vague idea of supporting the troops as seen in the ubiquitous “Support Our Troops” phrases that were plastered on the mundane surfaces of commercial life—everything from yellow-ribbon bumper magnets to pizza boxes. In this societal push to blindly support the troops, the United States underwent a depoliticization of war: supporting the troops has become an end in itself.

This depoliticization and unthinking loyalty fetishizes the soldier and is a key part of the way the population is mobilized. This fetishized view of the soldier has its roots in the Cold War when the Pentagon embarked on a PR effort to link the U.S. military with the institutions of civil society such as churches and schools. If the U.S. were to maintain a large standing army, it would have to reassure a population traditionally mistrustful of a strong central government that the enemy abroad was much worse than the potential threat from the nation’s own executive branch or from the “unwholesome influence” of life away from home (see Loveland). But if a draft were a key element in making the United States a global power, so too the draft was key in making the military a power within the United States.

That is, in the Cold War’s early years the draft helped make the military and militarism itself all-American. Key to that acceptance was a combination of the presence of an enemy easily caricatured as Godless, and the military’s inclusion of special religious-based instruction as an element in basic military training instated in order to reassure small-town United States of the morality of the world outside. With these Cold War changes the foundation was set for the military to become as American as apple pie. By the early 1960s, public opinion had become generally very favorable toward the military and conscription (Loveland 805). However, with the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam, this favorable opinion would change. By the next decade, the draft had become as much an albatross as a lifeline for the war effort; it provided fighters but inspired tremendous resistance.

Ending the draft was the only way to stanch the considerable and widespread resentment that developed toward the military. The decades-long practice of conscription was no longer feasible in the U.S. context. As troops moved out of Vietnam and went about the more prosaic Cold War duties, the United States found new ways to attract the enlistees required to maintain its large standing army and its “empire of bases,” to borrow a term from Chalmers Johnson. Catchy slogans such as “Be all you can be!” encouraged enlistment, especially among working-class youth who saw little chance of being all they could be without military service.

Indeed, “Be All You Can Be” emerges directly from a biopolitical perspective. People join the military not because the law forces them to but because they choose to in order to acquire the skills to become “successful” members of society. If studies reveal a clear connection between economic circumstances and military enlistment—a 10 percent increase in unemployment usually leads to a 5 percent increase in military enlistment (Bender)—we can nevertheless say of enlistees that they chose to sign up. However, it is more accurate to say that they were governed through their freedom to sign up. For as Nikolas Rose explains,

“the present-day ethics of freedom itself, are not antithetical to power…but actually the resultants of specific configurations of power, certain technological inventions, certain more or less rationalized techniques of relating to ourselves” (54).

Furthermore, voluntary enlistment increases citizen support for the military and military action by making troops the best endorsement for the military itself. Their volunteer status suggests that they endorse the conflicts into which they are being deployed. As Christian Parenti writes, “Volunteering implicates [troops], effectively stripping them of the victim status that conscription allowed.” Removing their victim status creates support for militarism as much as for the military’s enlistees who can now be reframed as brave heroes as opposed to beleaguered victims of tragic political decisions, and since it is their lives on the line, opposition back home has a much tougher time resisting. (Note that the opposition's lives do not count in these negotiations.)

Just as effective in attaining support for service, but operating on a different level of insidiousness, has been the decades-old desire to apologize for the treatment of soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam. Reports of returning vets besieged at the airport by angry anti-war protestors abusing them with charges of “baby killer!” and spitting on them have created the image of the tragically unappreciated veteran—unloved and unwanted, he embodied the humiliation of loss and the sense of betrayal that arose in the wake of an unpopular imperialist war.

The main problem with this story of misplaced U.S. dissent is that it is an urban legend. As Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke demonstrates convincingly in The Spitting Image, no one can corroborate these attacks on vets. There is no evidence that they happened. However, what is demonstrably true about the stories of alienated veterans coming home to be spat upon is that they have become key in deterring citizens from mobilizing against war in a fear of being perceived as not supporting the troops. It is this sympathy for unappreciated veterans that finally sealed the national ideological love for soldiers. Since Vietnam, Americans are expected to never question the goodness of the troops themselves. The troops’ motives are to be presumed pure and untroubled by politics. It thus becomes inappropriate for opponents of a war to inject politics into what is ostensibly the post-political reality of troops in harm’s way. Gaylyn Studlar and David Desser’s “Rewriting the Vietnam War” argues that this depoliticization is the starting point for a narrative of victimization on which so many Vietnam films are built. From right-wing fictions like Rambo to the ostensibly progressive perspective of Platoon, the films represent the Vietnam War as a story of the victimization of the soldier.

Building from Studlar and Desser, Tony Grajeda shows that this perspective has become the starting point for Iraq War documentaries such as Gunner Palace. These representations of soldiers at war do not argue that the war is right or wrong—just that the warriors must live. In these representations the political becomes nonsense, or to put it more precisely, the political message may be accessible in the fact that justifications for the war are not mentioned. But this depoliticization, which is also a dehistoricization and reification, reflects the way soldiers themselves fight and the way the U.S. population supports them.

Troops in combat

Troops fight not for causes such as freedom and the other catchwords that are thrown about in political speeches. Troops fight for each other, and that has been one of the essential aspects shaping their training at least since General S.L.A. Marshall’s hugely influential 1947 study Men Against Fire maintained that most soldiers did not actually fire their guns in combat. It was determined that the best way to increase troop kill rates was not to train them to fight for principles or even to follow orders, but to train them realistically and to encourage them to fight for each other and with a sense of cohesion. As Marshall argued,

“[The soldier’s] first duty is to join his force to others!” (127, Marshall’s emphasis).

Marshall’s study has since come under attack, but its impact has nevertheless been huge. In Iraq that impact was felt not only in training but also in the policy that soldiers would not generally leave combat individually but as whole companies (Parenti). Team that unit solidarity with the sense of obligation that arises from voluntary enlistment, and we see how loyalty and an unwillingness to break bonds with one’s fellows creates a tremendous sense of obligation and duty. Troops are motivated to fight by the fact that they joined the military of their own free will and because they are fighting for their band of brothers. Tellingly, at the height of the Iraq War as the Army was struggling to sign new recruits, the Army Reserve exceeded its targets of re-enlisting soldiers, even though Reservists had been called up in unprecedented numbers to serve in active duty in Iraq. Moreover, large numbers of Reservists opted to enlist in the active-duty Army rather than reenlisting in the Reserves (Vanden Brook).

Despite this wide willingness to reenlist and fight, the numbers of active duty personnel were not increasing sufficiently to staff two wars and maintain the empire of bases. Nevertheless, there was no draft. Conscription would have destroyed much of the support (or tolerance) the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars received. Instead the U.S. military relied increasingly on staffing through privatization; that is, by using military contractors. This allows the whole world in effect to be recruited for the U.S. military since contractors come from all parts of the globe. Though it is claimed that they lower costs by bringing competition and efficiency, in Iraq they were vehicles of unprecedented excess because there was almost no competition for contracts. Defense services corporation Halliburton-KBR (now just KBR) alone earned in the first years of the Iraq War three times what it cost the United States to fight the entire Gulf War (Singer, “Can’t Win” 2). In truth, these contractors’ most important role from the Pentagon perspective was to enable military policy to be conducted with little public input and thus to disable the opposition. So while their job was to increase manpower, it was also to make those troops deployed as comfortable as possible.

Like all military forces in combat, those deployed in Iraq were putting themselves in the gravest danger, but the reality of everyday life in combat was very different from any previous U.S. war experience. Private contractors provided services to make troops feel at home—as much as possible in the middle of a war in a foreign land. These troops often lived in permanent or semi-permanent operating bases, such as Gunner Palace, and they ate diets so rich that they gained an average of ten pounds on deployment (Kennedy). From a counterinsurgency rationale, these deployment conditions are irrational—they inspired tremendous resentment among the civilian population, required incalculable resources to maintain (incalculable because of the massive graft and corruption that accompanies this way of war), and necessitated dangerous supply runs in order to bring the provisions to the bases. But from the contractors’ perspective such services made perfect sense:

“the bigger the bases they build and operate, the more fast food franchises they open, the more salsa dance lessons they offer, the more money that the firm makes” (Singer, “Corporate Warriors” 5).

It is worth contrasting the position of the contractors to that of the troops. While both contractors and members of the armed services can be said to be in service by choice, at least choice as made possible within the logic of capitalism, contractors can quit their jobs whenever they choose to. Members of the military cannot. And thus management of active duty personnel—and this category includes Reservists and National Guard troops—is different than managing contractors.

Private contractors remain in service in Iraq for any number of private reasons, but certainly one key factor is that their pay is quite high. At war’s start, the annual salary for an Army specialist or corporal with more than four years’ experience was $21,769; truck drivers working for private firms could take home $80,000-100,000 in one year (Kidwell 54). Enlisted people thus are governed, at least in part, by something other than the immediate need for a paycheck. Though pay is essential, these combatants are governed through other motivations including their sense of fraternal loyalty. To understand the implications of this loyalty, we must sidetrack back to Vietnam.

While this sense of fraternal loyalty generally achieves the military’s aims, the experience of Vietnam showed that if soldiers fight to protect each other, they might also resist fighting to protect each other. Indeed, the Vietnam War gave birth not just to a strong civilian anti-war movement but a strong GI anti-war movement. In short, the military may be playing a dangerous game in making the troops themselves the reasons soldiers fight.

Many speculate that Nixon shifted the ground war to the air in Vietnam because troops on the ground increasingly refused to fight. Fragging—that is, intentionally wounding or killing a fellow member, often a superior officer, of one’s own military—is the most excessive case of combat refusal. But it was a fact of life and death for soldiers on the ground in Vietnam, where in 1970, for instance, the Army reported 109 cases of fragging. Certainly, the likelihood of such extreme instances of combat refusal occurring increase in a protracted, directionless war when all that remains among personnel are their connections to each other.

If widespread insurrection is not a part of Vietnam War history that officials highlight or that schoolroom U.S. history texts even mention, the insurrectionists’ message is being contested in the anti-politics bias of most texts representing American war. If war is politics by another name, and if the politics leading to war make no sense, then war makes no sense. But the conclusion from that syllogism is not necessarily to avoid war. Very often the conclusion is to fight wars for reasons other than politics. And that apolitical orientation structures embedded-reporter narratives like Gunner Palace.

Thus in Gunner Palace, the conflicts the protagonists find themselves embroiled in are “deadly but vaguely ennobling” (80) as critic Tom Bissel puts it. I would argue that it is vaguely ennobling in showing the soldiers as they try to explain to the cameras that only people who have been in the war can really understand it. One of the more memorable lines from the film comes from Sergeant Robert Beatty who claims,

“If you watch this, you’re going to go get your popcorn out of the microwave and talk about what I say. You’ll forget me by the end.”

The claim from all these soldiers is that we cannot understand their experience and probably don’t really care unless we have actually been there. The soldiers thus present their experience as auratic and this representation reifies the war; it becomes an experience in itself, outside of context. To remove political and historical context can make war into a noble adventure or a tragic trauma but the effect either way is to depoliticize and dehistoricize the event as if the troops were the reason for the war.

Go to page 3

To topPrint versionJC 54Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.