Outside of the machines and techologies that humans have invented to kill each other, I’m not convinced that warfare is a suitable historical subject, if the measure of a historical subject is demonstrable and meaningful change over time. For example, check out this nationalist, masculinist rhetoric from the White House about the killing of Osama Bin Laden on Sunday. (This Washington Post article was reprinted in my home-delivered copy of the Denver Post this morning:)
The Obama administration presented new details Monday about the death of Osama bin Laden, portraying the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda as a reclusive figure who had lived in relative luxury and whose final moments had finally exposed his cowardice.
As Americans solemnly remembered those killed at bin Laden’s command, senior administration officials sought to turn their tactical military victory into a moral one by undermining the heroic image he had long cultivated among his followers. They stressed that he had been discovered not in a remote cave, but in a mansion in a wealthy Pakistani city. They also sought to suggest that, as he tried to escape U.S. Special Operations forces, he may have used one of his wives as a shield.
“Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,” John O. Brennan, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism, told reporters at the White House. “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”
Bin Laden’s narrative isn’t the only false or misleading narrative. Brennan’s narrative is strikingly similar to colonial trash talk about military and political foes, which makes me automatically skeptical of it. His words are guided by a nearly ancient script. Accusations of unmanliness and [effeminate] luxury were two prominent rhetorical weapons wielded by Anglo-American men against both Indian and French men, and Indian men gave as good as they got on this score.
I wrote a whole book about this kind of rhetoric in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I kept searching for change over time, extending the end date of my project, but I never found it. Clearly, I could have extended it to the present, because Bin Laden was hardly a man, he was hiding behind a girl when they got’im! And he lived a life of effeminacy and luxury, not manly self-sacrifice or military discipline. I especially liked that touch that “he may have used one of his wives as a shield.” It’s the same objectification of Muslim women’s misery and drudgery that’s always in play in wars with Western powers, with a bonus dig at the manhood of a Muslim man found cowering behind a woman’s skirts before his spectacularly violent death. Behold the power of the narrative: Anglo-American colonists were fond of tsk-tsking about the fate of “squaw drudges,” Indian women who were made to toil endlessly in the fields while their husbands played at sport like fishing and hunting.
It’s strange that when history was professionalized in the nineteenth century, warfare (along with politics) was considered an appropriately manly historical subject. To the contrary, the primitive rhetoric and role-playing in warfare is more impervious to change over time than any of the so-called “feminine” interests in the supposedly changeless realms of women’s lives, domesticity, family and community life, or sexuality.
On a related note: is anyone else appalled by the non-stop, mostly information-free coverage of Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy Seals? Why is the U.S. hyping and celebrating this, when it should hang its head in shame that it took 9-1/2 years, untold numbers of human lives, and billions of dollars to find a 6-1/2 foot tall Saudi on dialysis who was living only 35 miles outside of Islamabad? (And if that joint is “luxurious,” then David Koresh’s compound was “luxury” too.) I could craft my own narrative about the profligacy, cowardice, and bloodthirstiness of the American Empire–but I’ll decline, for the moment.
Even more childish is the belief that somehow one man’s death makes everyone in the U.S. and around the world “safer.” That’s another thing about warfare and our pleasing nationalist and masculinist narratives: they makes us (like Harry and Lloyd) “dumb and dumber.” All Hail the National Security State. When the next terrorist attack happens in direct retaliation for American celebrations of the death of Bin Laden, it will be used as an excuse to deny us more liberty.
(For a better critique of the exploitation of women’s bodies in the “War on Terror,” see Tenured Radical. For a more concise critique of the Osama-death-o-rama, see Comrade PhysioProf. TalkLeft has been all over the holes in these narratives, too, and don’t miss Roxie’s “The Truth is in the Typo.” Are you scarred or scared by 9/11/2001?))