Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dead People and the War Powers

Mary L. Dudziak

If I was teaching a research seminar on the history of war powers this coming year, my focus would be on dead people. Death is, of course, and intentional product of war. It is produced with both purposefulness and regret. In history, and in contemporary law and politics, it has been important to divide dead people into categories. The categories have tremendous meaning. The most important categories are dead enemy soldiers, dead American soldiers (for the US), dead noncombatants (sometimes called “collateral damage”); and there are also dead soldiers of allies, dead contractors, journalists, and others. The law of armed conflict/IHL is structured around the idea that certain deaths (the enemy) should be produced in a way that minimizes other deaths (the people we might call collaterals). The manner of the production of death also has important meaning. Although the endpoint can be the same (a person has died), the military honors conferred on a soldier can vary depending on how the person’s death was produced: by hostile fire, by “friendly fire,” by accident, by suicide.

That this all matters is apparent in the literature about how deaths are reported (or not), the history of censorship of casualty information, including images, and the way death in war is narrated and is commemorated. The production of death, especially the identity of the prospective dead, has figured powerfully in debates in Congress about impending military action, like the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. And, at least arguably, the availability of death affects the relationship between the broader public and war. Think of the heart wrenching stories of spouses and parents waiting for a letter home from their soldier in World War II. Does the email from a contractor under fire have less resonance because that danger is in exchange for pay? Will there be no touching documentaries about messages home from drone operators, since they often go home at the end of their shifts?

The most important recent work on war and dead people is of course Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the AmericanCivil War. “The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and enduring undertaking,” Faust writes. Her work sets up a question for the 20th century and after about the relationship between death and American war politics at a time when most people are protected from the sort of “republic of suffering” broadly experienced during the Civil War.

I will be writing rather than teaching next year, and am trying to puzzle through the particular role that death and dead people will play in my 20th century war powers narrative. An effective narrative strategy in a history book is to use a historical character as the conduit of the narrative and the argument. Rather than having ideas float in space across a chapter, the ideas are often effectively developed by having historical characters live through them across time. A chapter on declared wars, for example, can feature someone like Congressmember Jeannette Rankin who voted “no” on both WWI and WWII, and then, both times, was voted out of office. Her story can illustrate a broader theme: the way Congressmembers figured in the relationship between the electorate and presidents during earlier wars. It is harder to think through the way dead people can be active narrative characters. Usually, as with Pat Tillman, the management of a death by others is the narrative, or the pre-death story is a focus and is thought to inform the meaning of the person’s death.

It may be that dead people themselves can’t be my narrative characters since what matters – the death – is essentially a moment of crossing over from narrative character to memory. Policies and practices related to death have a narrative, and there is a great literature on commemoration. But dead people (across categories) are so important that I wish I could keep them in as active characters rather than as memories. At any rate, if I was working this through with a seminar, here’s what would be on the reading list. (Below the jump.) What sort of works am I missing?

And perhaps: Andrew Bacevich, Breach of Trust: How AmericansFailed Their Soldiers and Their Country; Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American Warin Vietnam; and the recent literature on contemporary wounded survivors of war.


This is a most sobering post. I have been thinking about it for a couple of days. Here is a link to Studs Terkel's interviews on "The Good War":

As to using the dead in narratives, that would be quite difficult for many reasons, including the broad categories of the dead. A dead person in a particular category might tell us what he/she was doing when killed, who killed him/her, why he/she was killed, what was accomplished by being killed, who benefitted, who suffered, from the killing. It would be an enormous task.

But can we rely upon narratives of survivors in the various categories? Consider "The Good War" interviews. And what about "The Bad War(s)"?

What might the world look like if we did not have these wars? I'm thinking of the military-industrial complex and its economic consequences as profits can result from wars. This brings to mind C. Wright Mills' "The Power Elite" that might have influenced Ike's farewell speech concerns with the complex.

I'll be thinking about this some more, but sadly.

I caught the tail end of a hearing of what seemed to be a Congressional hearing on military budgets on CSPAN that was broken off at noon to switch to the House. (I may pick it up later on CSPAN's internet site or perhaps a repeat.)

A witness was testifying that before the US entry into WW II, the military had to be quickly built-up with troops, equipment and arms. Training and preparation of troops at the beginning was poor, according to the witness, with the result that many such troops died. He went on to recite similar situations for the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War, extending this to Gulf I. His point seemed to be that after a war/conflict, steps would be taken to reduce defense spending, leaving the military in an inadequate position for the next war/conflict. I did not get the witness' name.

Instead of watching the House proceedings, I watched a rerun of Charlie Rose's program of yesterday evening. His first two guests were top officials of "The Economist" discussing their new book on the upcoming 4th Revolution. In the course of the interview, the guests were asked for their thoughts on Pres. Obama's performance. Reference was made to a recent The Economist article apparently critical of US foreign policy titled: "What is the US prepared to fight for?"

This brings to mind, as in my earlier comment, the role of the military-industrial complex. The question raised in the article suggests the need for US military to be ready for the next war/conflict, which may result in many deaths. Based on the witness referred to earlier, such preparation may result in fewer deaths.

If these are the voices of the military-industrial complex and The Power Elite, the end result may be more deaths. So the safest way to stay alive may be to be part of the military-industrial complex and The Power Elite, leaving dying to others.

This is a work of fiction, but I think would be useful to look at if you haven't already--The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.

Chris Edelson

Thank you for these ideas and to Chris for the suggestion of the novel. Another reader suggested Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. I've not read The Yellow Birds, but I will follow up on that.

I have been thinking that literature or art could be a route into a more persistent presence of the dead. Mary Favret, a literature scholar at Indiana, gave a brilliant paper at Emory last year on soldiers and suicide. She explored the topic through close analysis of 18th and 19th C paintings, and suggested that "if something cannot be articulated in language, it might nonetheless be made visible."

discussing their new book on the upcoming 4th Revolution. In the course of the interview, the guests were asked for their thoughts on Pres. Obama's performance. Reference was made to a recent The Economist article apparently critical of US foreign policy titled: "What is the US prepared to fight for?"
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