Talks

Like a Refugee: Veterans, Vietnam, and the Precarious Subjects of a False Equivalence

Modern Language Association Meeting
New York, NY
January 4–7, 2018

Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump claimed that American veterans were treated worse than refugees and undocumented immigrants. That belief–––that the government was “saving” refugees while abandoning its own soldiers––first emerged, as this paper will show, in the wake of the Vietnam War, when songwriters, journalists, and filmmakers began reimagining the white male veteran as “like a refugee” who had been dislocated from his “innocence,” his youth, and the national fantasies on which he was raised. The story of the veteran-as-refugee begins with the psychiatric research of antiwar liberals Robert Jay Lifton and Chaim Shatan, whose writing led to the inclusion in 1980 of “post-traumatic stress disorder” in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and it resurfaces in the POW/MIA myth, veteran tour services to Vietnam, and the veteran literature through which most American high-school and college students learn about the war in Southeast Asia. Following how the white veteran became like a refugee, I will argue, reveals how Southeast Asian refugees were erased from what Tim O’Brien calls “true war stories” and how pro-veteran politics became anti-refugee policies.


Technologies of Vulnerability: Permanent War and the Cultural Politics of the Fifth Domain

Modern Language Association Meeting
New York, NY
January 4–7, 2018

On the evening of Friday, August 5, 2016, the Obama administration declassified its rules and procedures for using lethal force outside “areas of active hostilities,” a document known internally as the drone-strike “playbook.” Ned Price, the National Security Council spokesperson, said of the release, “Our counterterrorism actions are effective and legal, and their legitimacy is best demonstrated by making public more information about these actions.” Yet, while officials described the guidelines as a constraint on the remote use of force, the playbook bureaucratizes and legalizes rather than restrains the government’s authority to kill those it deems terrorists wherever and whenever it wants. Formalizing drone war normalizes it, makes it seem rational and humane––in Price’s words, effective, legal, and legitimate.

Building on the work of such scholars as Neda Atanasoski, Laleh Khalili, and Nicholas Mirzoeff, this paper will investigate how the counterterror state has marshaled drone and cyber technologies to frame its wars as humanitarian, “non-kinetic,” and not really war at all. Politicians, journalists, and academics continue to distinguish war in “the fifth domain” from that fought on the ground, in the air, and at sea. Thomas Rid, a leading cyber war scholar, for example, argues in his book Cyber War Will Not Take Place (2013) that “cyber attacks are not creating more vectors of violent interaction; rather they are making previously violent interactions less violent.” But remote war cannot and should not be distinguished from conventional war. Rather, I will argue, it should be recognized as part of an enduring effort to humanize state violence through the militarization of new technologies. From the drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya to the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the second Bush and Obama administrations’ turn to remote technologies in the war on terror did not, as Rid suggests, result in less violence and fewer lives lost. Instead, emergent technologies have augmented the execution of state violence and, by removing American bodies from the battlefield, eased its continuation. The ongoing debate as to whether drone and cyber attacks constitute war––like the backlash to the proposed and then scrapped Distinguished Warfare Medal to honor drone pilots and cyber operators––surfaces a national discomfort with, and desire to disavow, war as a norm rather than an event. Indeed, Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson’s condemnation of the North Korea–affiliated hack of Sony Pictures, a hack motivated by the studio’s satirical regime-change film The Interview (2014), as “an attack on our freedom of expression and way of life” suggests that the endurance of American empire building rests now as much as ever on the stories we tell, and don’t tell, about permanent war.