[This week I will be highlighting five of the year’s most significant events, and noting some of the ways an AmericanStudier might contextualize and analyze them. This is the third in that series.]
The year’s most prominent military action would seem to have more than enough complicated contexts in our own era—but nonetheless also and significantly echoes much more longstanding national histories and narratives.
In the first days of May, the United States brought it’s nearly ten-year, post-9/11 search for Osama Bin Laden to a dramatic and successful close, with the SEAL strike team operation against the Al Qaeda leader’s Pakistani mansion that resulted in Bin Laden’s death. As I wrote in my May 2nd post, any attempt to analyze Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, or any of the related events of the last decade without engaging with the hugely complex history of American relationships with the man, the organization, and the region will result in inevitably oversimplified and mythologized narratives. And any analysis of his death as representing (in any genuine way) the end of anything must confront the topic of my September 12th post: the perpetual and perhaps permanent nature of the “war on terror” as a very phrase and concept.
Yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the death of Bin Laden has also echoed—as in fact has much of the “war on terror” rhetoric, at least from its most vocal proponents and advocates—narratives of war that have been part of American culture since some of its first post-contact conflicts. When William Bradford describes (in Chapter 10 of Of Plymouth Plantation) the 1620 moment of “first encounter” (as the Pilgrims “called that place” from then on) between the Pilgrims and one of the local Native American tribes, he frames it explicitly as a conflict with spiritual symbolism and significance: “Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies, and give them deliverance.” While of course the Puritans viewed most everything through such spiritual lenses, such narratives of national holy wars have been carried forward by many other voices; it was in this vein, for example, that the 1893 Columbian Exposition’s national committee chairman J.T. Harris opened the Exposition by framing the continent’s post-Columbus history this way: “It remained for the Saxon race to people this new land, to redeem it from barbarism, … and in less than four centuries to make of it the most powerful and prosperous country on which God’s sunshine falls.”
I don’t mean to suggest that Bin Laden is no truer of an enemy to the United States than were (say) the Wampanoags to the Pilgrims—but whatever Bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s (clear and professed) crimes, an AmericanStudier can and must make note of the overarching national narratives to which our war against them has frequently been linked. And such links were even more overtly (if no less complicatedly) provided by the SEAL team’s use of the term “Geronimo” to describe either Bin Laden himself or the mission as a whole (accounts have varied); the term has many possible meanings, including its historical use by World War II-era paratroopers (although that use itself was based on a pretty racist Western film about the Apache chief), but in any case connects to the military’s multi-year search for Geronimo in the concluding period of the so-called “Indian Wars.”
Can the hunt for and death of Bin Laden tell us anything about this American history of wars, or more exactly the narratives and images created around wars? Whatever your answer, that’s just the kind of question all AmericanStudiers should consider. Another significant 2011 event tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?12/28 Memory Day nominee: Ilene Railton! But if you insist on a more public figure, I’d nominate Woodrow Wilson—a complicated and conflicted figure and president to be sure, but one whose idea for the League of Nations exemplified some of the ideals for which humankind can and should continue to strive. (And if Wilson’s constant political adversary and doppelganger T.R. gets to be on Mount Rushmore, shouldn’t Woodrow at least get a Memory Day?!)
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