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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

February 8, 2011: The Fierce Urgency of Nowhere

One of the most interesting and telling trends in mid-1980s popular culture would have to be the constant presence of films in which the US (or at least its action hero proxies) fought and won fictional wars around the world. Some of those wars explicitly pitted the American forces against the Soviets, whether as guerrillas at home (as in Red Dawn [1984], when a group of teenagers led by Patrick Swayze manage to emerge victorious against the Soviet army), as superior military forces abroad (as in the climactic sequence of Top Gun [1986], when Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer take out a group of Russian fighters), or as all-natural boxing champs on Russian turf (as in Rocky 4 [1985], when Sly Stallone climbs some snowy mountains and gains enough strength to beat the Soviets’ drug-enhanced machine). But our filmic victories likewise extended to Central America (as in Schwarzenegger’s Commando [1985]), Afghanistan (Rambo 3 [1988]), and even Vietnam (Rambo 2 [1985] and Chuck Norris’s Missing in Action [1984]), the site of the humiliating defeat that certainly contributed to the need for these kinds of fictional victories. The latter two films, in which Stallone and Norris combine to kill roughly 32, 281 Vietnamese soldiers during peacetime, make for a particularly salient double-feature, especially when paired and contrasted with the period’s two most famous films about the actual Vietnam War, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Platoon (1988).
But it wasn’t only on the silver screen that the US was fighting and winning largely fictional but hugely symbolic wars. The decade’s one actual shooting war, the two-day 1983 invasion of the small Caribbean island of Grenada, was to my mind at least as fabricated and stage-managed as the Hollywood conflicts of the next few years. I don’t intend in any way to downplay the experiences of the more than seven thousand American servicemen and -women who served in the conflict, and I most especially don’t want to elide the casualties (50 dead and 115 wounded on the American side, many more among both Grenadian forces and civilians) and the effects of those losses on numerous families and lives. At the ground level, to a significant extent and to the best of my knowledge, war is war, and I can neither speak for what it means for those who go through it nor argue that the experience of any war is more or less affecting and meaningful than any other. But from its tactical name of Operation Urgent Fury to its ostensible main purpose—to protect a group of American medical students who were studying at the island’s university—and many other details and elements, the rhetoric of the war seems comically out of balance with its realities, as if there was the actual invasion and then the narratives of the invasion, and the two bear only a casual relationship to one another at best.
That is of course my interpretation, and there’s plenty of primary source material (such as that cited in the first link below) through which you can and should develop your own (if you’re interested). But no matter what happened on the ground in Grenada, an American Studies analysis of the war would have to take into account the legacy of the prior war in which the United States had been involved, the new kind of Cold War foreign policy that the Reagan Administration had sought to pursue (or at least the new tough-guy narratives of such policy that it had worked to create) over its first two and a half years in office, and the representations of war that would emerge in our popular culture just after this invasion. Moreover, it would be important to connect this particular attempt to unseat a revolutionary Latin American regime to the very different kind that the US government (or at least certain figures within it) would undertake a few years later in Nicaragua, where secret funds and support were provided to the Contras in their violent battle against the Sandinista regime; the two situations and nations were distinct in many ways, but it’s certainly possible that the very mixed international reception of the Grenada invasion (a United Nations resolution condemned it and Margaret Thatcher’s government privately rebuked Reagan as well) led to the much more secretive and behind the scenes efforts in Nicaragua. All of which is to say, this highly minor war reflected, contributed to, and can help us perceive and analyze a great many broader narratives and trends in the period.
In part I’m trying here to reverse an existing scholarly argument, one which sees the wars fought in and after the 1990s (such as the invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War) as narrated and understood in significant measure through the lenses of Hollywood films, video games, and other pop culture materials. There’s certainly some truth to that, but it’s likewise true that many of those pop culture images of war emerged after the nation’s first truly media-friendly conflict, a war in which the urgency and fury could be found mostly in the name and the narratives, far from the small island toward which they were officially directed. More tomorrow, on a very different and much more inspiring Caribbean American connection.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A 20th-anniversary analysis of the invasion:
2)      Part of the opening sequence of the so-bad-it’s-good Red Dawn:
3)      OPEN: War, what is it good for? From an American Studies perspective, I mean.


  1. Hi Ben,

    This is a fascinating idea about rethinking war analysis. I've been trying to analyze how Americans imagine Afghanistan for a few years now, and I'm not sure if it fits into your thoughts or not, but we'll see.

    I do think there is some Hollywood element in our ideas about our current war in Afghanistan, but I would make some specific distinctions. I have found that soldiers and not officers are the ones who thrive on watching really bad Hollywood depictions of Afghanistan--and the majority of American civilians. Thoughtful, and hence troubling, views of Afghanistan are art house specials, with the notable exception of The Kite Runner--although even that text was a best seller book but a not-so-successful film.

    Our military strategy, as seen and implemented by officers and politicians, however, comes more from history, however misguided, than from Hollywood, I would argue. For instance, in the case of Afghanistan, there have been a number of strong studies that show how our backdoor involvement during the Afghan-Soviet war was very specifically shaped to engage the Soviet Union in a war that would be their "Vietnam." I don't think that Hollywood portrayals of Vietnam had much to do with that decision, but geopolitical strategy, right or wrong, did.

    And, as George Crile brilliantly showed, so did the specific personality of one man--Charlie Wilson.

    My main argument, as I have been harping on to everyone for years, is the American inability to imagine it from any perspective--Hollywood or geopolitical or otherwise--has made it far too easy to invade and occupy. One critic pointed out, for instance (and forgive the lack of a citation--the book is at home and I'm at school), that we often hear, even now, the gung-ho phrase about bombing the Taliban back to the Stone Age. Those who say this don't seem to understand that, in most rural districts, Afghans are already living in the Stone Age and were even under the Taliban.

    I'm not sure how this fits into your argument except that I find your thoughts rather compelling. I really think that the average American cannot really imagine Afghanistan. I think the Hollywood images weren't strong enough to shape the images of the current war, but I could be very wrong.

    I would love to hear other peoples' thoughts about this. Sadly, I think we will be having conversations about Afghanistan and American involvement for many years to come.


  2. Hi Irene,

    Thanks! I'd love to hear other folks' thoughts too, so won't add too many more of mine. I certainly agree that this current war in Afghanistan is huge and complex enough to demand its own analyses and readings, and have learned a lot from yours and plan on continuing to do so.

    Thanks again,