Book Review: Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture (2007)

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

OK, this is a war diary, based on the question “when will it ever end?”  It will review Tom Engelhardt’s 2007 book The End of Victory Culture.  This, then, is a review of that book, and an attempt to apply its thought to the war situation of the current era.

(crossposted at Orange and at Firedoglake)

I’m sure that everyone’s paying attention to the oil spill in the Gulf by now — do, however, pay attention to Edger’s suggestion in his recent diary that BP is getting a pass on this one because they’re the military’s biggest supplier.  And then you also have this Glenn Greenwald piece about whistleblowers, with concurring echo by Jesselyn Radack — we’ve got to prosecute those whistleblowers and protect those state secrets, for if The Enemy were to get any of our precious state secrets, it would… pardon me, what would The Enemy do that it isn’t already doing?  Meanwhile the taxpayer is continually kept in the dark, and as Greenwald says:

It isn’t hard to see why Obama despises leaks.  Just look at the front page of The New York Times today, which details a secret order from Gen. David Petraeus last fall ordering vastly increased Special Forces operations in a variety of Middle Eastern countries, including “allies” such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and “enemies” such as Iran and Syria.  As Iran experts Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett contend, this constitutes, at the very least, “the intensification of America’s covert war against Iran.”  That is how we also learned of what is, in essence, a covert war in Yemen as well (not to mention the covert war in Pakistan).  Most of what our Government does of any real significance happens in the dark.  Whistleblowers are one of the very few avenues we have left for learning about any of that.

Here’s a cute question: don’t any of these people have any pride in what they do?  Certainly they must have some sort of patriotic justification for their numerous wars.  Shouldn’t America be proud of all they do for national security?  After all, someone is bound to expose them via the global Internet anyway.  Why keep it secret?


At any rate, the main point of this diary has to do with a new book by Tom Engelhardt, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Become Obama’s.  I’m going to recommend that you take a look at this book when it comes out, because you should at least be able to see the connections between this forthcoming book and the one Engelhardt has already written, which is called “The End of Victory Culture.”  This is the author’s earlier (2007) book, and its importance lies in its portrayal of US government militarism as having a cultural basis — the essence of it is ostensibly “victory culture,” which came into being through the violent actions of people of European descent as they colonized North America and erected a “United States” upon its ground.  (And, if you don’t know already, Engelhardt runs the TomDispatch website, a great place for news commentary.)

So with “victory culture” we have, to a certain extent, anthropologized American militarism, by attempting to tie it to cultural foundations.  “The End of Victory Culture” offers its readers a history of “victory culture, then.  Engelhardt proclaims that the origins of this culture lie in the “abduction narratives” of colonial American culture, starting with Mary Rowlandson’s “narrative” of her captivity by Indians as published in 1682.  As Engelhardt argues, these narratives “were the origin myths of the war story, for by putting the Indians in the position of invaders, violently intruding on a settled world, they made the need for certain types of explanation unnecessary.”  Thus captivity narratives “created the foundation for any type of retribution that might follow.” (23)  And so victory culture was off and running — global conquest eventually perceived as an extension of Manifest Destiny, and everyone perceived as not being “with us” becomes classified as an Indian.

Engelhardt’s own narrative quickly fast-forwards from the Indian Wars to the consolidation of “victory culture” narratives in movie and TV productions, especially in the years after World War II:

From silent films to “hip” westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), there may have been no more common or less commented upon scene; none more generically thrilling or less considered by either audiences or critics than the spectacle of the slaughter of the non-white.  Featured in thousands of movies, its prototype was certainly the band of Indians, whooping and circling the wagon train; but “they” could be Arabs charging the North African fort (Beau Geste), Chinese rushing the foreign legations (55 Days in Peking), Mexicans rushing the Alamo (The Alamo), Japanese banzai-ing American foxholes (Bataan), or Chinese human-waving American lines (Retreat, Hell!). (37)

Indeed, the cover of the paperback edition of this book has a spooky movie scene with some cowboy on a horse shooting an Indian on a horse, with a television screen interposed.

At any rate, after briefly summarizing movie victory culture, Engelhardt then proceeds to discuss the wars which, he imagines, were the beginning of the end for victory culture.  First, Korea, briefly synopsized, was a war against a technologically-inferior opponent which did not produce complete victory (despite the lopsided death totals: “For much of the war, the ratio of Communist to UN casualties stood somewhere between 20:1 and 14:1” (62)) and in which much of US elite and public opinion had endorsed the use of nuclear weapons in the war effort.  The Communists, then, were no longer Indians to be slaughtered, but a different kind of foe.  Thus “victory culture” became “bunker culture,” and American policy became one of “containment” of the enemy.

But the central chapters of this book have to do with the transformation of the American consciousness in Vietnam, in which the enemy became “invisible” (as it perhaps was when General Westmoreland was promoting his miscalculations of Vietnamese “enemy strength”) and in which the final stop for victory culture was ultimately President Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” which supposedly “justified” his pointless 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi.  As Engelhardt suggests, “the United States sometimes seemed to be not so much as war as on screen, for the singular focus of US policy makers came to be the preservation of the look of victory culture.” (241) In a memo to Robert McNamara in 1965, the Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton suggests that Americans were in “South Vietnam” “70% To avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).” (241)  At such a point it was the beginning of the end for victory culture, for if the purpose of fighting becomes “what will the neighbors think?” then the abandonment of the material objectives of war-fighting is just a heartbeat away.  As the author observes:

As for the policy makers, so for many Americans, the enemy, previously “faceless” yet substantial, was now dematerializing except in the context of a slaughter that looked like nothing more than that — evidence of a meatgrinder at work.  To understand how victory culture was transformed into that meatgrinder, an obvious yet generally unacceptable fact must be grasped.  It was Vietnamese unwillingness to stop fighting, politically as much as militarily, that proved crucial to the war story’s dissolution.  The Vietnamese were, of course, intent on fighting a real enemy, not a societal state of mind.  But it was a state of mind, a narrative, that Americans were intent on imposing on Vietnam, just as they were intent upon building an American landscape of PXs and air-conditioned offices, of ice cream production plants and airfields on Vietnamese soil.  (213-214)

Thus the narrative of “Indian savagery” becomes reversed, and the Americans at that point started to looked like savages in their own eyes.  This became especially “real” to the American psyche with the dramatization of the My Lai (4) massacre in 1969.

After having interrogated ’60s culture rather intensively, Engelhardt then skips to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which he interprets as an attempt to reconstitute victory culture in full.  His verdict:

… the question of whether a revivified war story could reanchor victory culture in American consciousness seems settled, not because its elements, which run deep in our history, have ceased to exist, but because it has proved impossible to force out of consciousness the quarter-century of that story’s dissolution.  Its boundaried and triumphant “innocence” cannot be “recalled” in the same way that the knowledge of the making of atomic weapons cannot be forgotten.  (300-301)

Thus Engelhardt imagines W.’s later 2003 attempt to reconstruct victory culture by invading Iraq with US troops, as symbolized by his “Mission Accomplished” photo opportunity, as having crashed and burned.  Nevertheless, the remarketing and repackaging of victory culture stumbles forward to this day:

It increasingly looks as if we are standing in the ruins of the Bush administration’s plans for the domination of the planet, possibly in the ruins of our political system, as well as in the ruins of a mytho-cultural world that can only be brought back so many times — and in the midst of a commercial maelstrom in which even the Internet wallpaper is screaming for attention.  (332)

So, where, might we imagine, do Obama’s wars fit into the notion of victory culture?

As I see it, war appears to have lost its point.  The Indians quietly demand their rights, the “Communists” were either co-opted or are demanding something we all desperately need right now.  The Chinese, the last proclaimed “national opponent,” own $1 trillion in US dollar-denominated assets.  Yeah, the warmongers are really going to piss off the Chinese right now.  The real world is governed by a transnational capitalist class, operating through organizations of global governance.  The Muslim Brotherhood is an unsavory bunch to be sure — but somewhere in his term W. stopped caring about Osama bin Laden.  Obama’s war against the Taliban appears to be self-propelling, and mainly an excuse to forward military careers.  “American enemies” are at this point all inventions of the US government and its proxies.  (If they really wanted to stop the “terrorists,” as Loretta Napoleoni points out in her book Terror Incorporated, they’d at least try to cut off the hawala money.  Don’t ya think?)  And, yeah, they’re going to invade us.  Uh-huh.  What’s really happening, then, is that what W.’s Dad called the “New World Order” needs a disciplinary cudgel to keep the client nations in line, and that the US Armed Forces, with bases ’round the world and a budget as big as the rest of the world combined, is that cudgel.  The cudgel continues not because of any victory culture, but because military careers depend upon its continued operation.  Good ol’ Ellsberg, he of the Pentagon Papers (which are mentioned at length in this book), was last heard saying that Obama continues the wars because he fears a military revolt.

The fact that so many of the wars have to continue in secret (or with trivial amounts of publicity, e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan) should tell you something.  Here’s what I think it tells me: the activity of the US military no longer rides the coat-tails of American victory culture except in the routine fashion promoted in war movies and video games and by GI Joe action figures.  There are no longer any “Indians” to abduct our women (or so we imagined), and none of the wars our taxes are buying promise us any “victory” in a world in which industrial technology (such as it is) is discovering increasingly onerous resource and environmental limitations.  Thus the US government could probably scrap about 90% of its military, the government could give each of those thus unemployed a job doing sustainability work, and all would be better off for it.

Rather, US military culture keeps alive (and is kept alive by) our dependency upon fossil fuels (and thus an economy tied in with the global dominance of capital) in an era when we should be desperately looking for ways to stop using them altogether.  Without any active social opposition, however, US military culture will continue until it (and its bigger twin, capitalist economic culture) exhausts the planet.


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  1. is complicated by the advent of the cell phone.  What, with Project Mockingbird globalist approved Linsay Lohan diversionary bullshit distractionary “news” delivered to your very own highly “insecure” not General Dynamics Blackberry, which BTW might be giving you brain cancer.  Oh, well.  And what about Islam as the MIC replacement “enemy” after the “end” of the Cold War.  What, you thought it was all about Larry Silverstien’s asbetos abatement solution?

    What do you think.  Is the New World Order going to feed the Facebook generation?  I think not.

    • TMC on May 27, 2010 at 02:01

    It is all about the “The War on Terror”, which has now become he “War on Terra“.  

    • banger on May 27, 2010 at 15:53

    Yes, it is a cultural trend and a part of the theology of American Exceptionalism (AE). But we are past that into the illusion of AE. We live in an age of fantasy–nothing has to be real. We have armies going around doing stuff but what exactly are they doing? I’m not sure at all. What is the point? I don’t know. Defeating the “enemy” — clearly that is not the case. I don’t see anything happening.

    What I see is Napoleoni’s last book called Rogue Economics only writ far larger than she maintains. I would go further and call our system The Empire of Con. Everything has become a confindence game. The criminals count on and nurture the credulity of the American people. No population is more credulous and militantly ignorant as the American people as can be seen from the fact that our standard of living (see Elizabeth Warren’s work on the vanishing middle class) has diminished dramatically since the mid-70’s–if you don’t count the benefits of all our electronic toys. Thus it is possible for the international elites (the elites are no longer bound by national boundaries–that should be fucking obvious by now) to count on exploiting American productivity to fund their habits in sex, houses, boats, cocaine and paaaarty–cause that’s what they do.

    Wars are just there to enrich some, get kicks for the usual sadists to torture, rape and kill, and keep populations in fear. In fact, the whole neo-con strategy was not so much to “win” wars as to inspire fear–in other words terrorism in its purest form. Yes, we are the premier terrorist state.

  2. If John Wayne was on the presidential ballot today, old Duke would probably get 20% of the vote. Not enough to win mind ya, but enough to keep em honest (as a truly concerned Anderson Cooper would say).  

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