PRINT November 1991


The motive [of the atrocity story] . . . is always either openly or symbolically sexual—the bombing of Rotterdam or Düsseldorf is not an “atrocity,” while a solitary rape is. . . .
— Alex Comfort, Art and Social Responsibility, 1943

But the line the narrator pursues is that of male action. Everyday life, the world of women, shines through only in the gaps between the descriptions of battle.
— Christa Wolf, Cassandra, 1983

[the iowa]
In April 1989, a gun turret exploded on the American battleship USS Iowa during practice firing in the Atlantic. The entire gun crew was killed. In the naval inquest that followed, suspicion fell on 1 of the 47 dead sailors, a gunner’s mate named Clayton Hartwig. The largely circumstantial evidence—Hartwig had allegedly displayed a spare-time obsession with explosives and death—led the Navy’s forensic technicians and the FBI to a startling but perhaps predictable conclusion: Hartwig was a “troubled young man” whose “sexual advances” had been “rejected by other sailors.” The explosion was therefore a hysterically clever act of suicide and mass murder. Over time, and under pressure from the family and friends of the accused, the Navy’s flimsy case against Hartwig collapsed. It became increasingly clear that the Iowa, a relic of the war with Japan, was a formidable but rickety, accident-prone ship with an undertrained and disaffected crew and old, unpredictable powder in its munitions stores. What had been conveniently blamed on individual psychopathology now proved to be the disastrous outcome of the Navy’s hypertrophied technological “preparedness,” an all-too-common military-industrial accident.

If we “remember the Maine,” that earlier battleship whose mysterious explosion in Havana harbor in 1898 provided the pretext for war with Spain, we will realize that the opportunistic use of explosives incidents is a longstanding tradition in the American navy. But if the Maine explosion led directly to war, the Iowa accident can be said to have effected an opportunistic discursive shift on the way to war. Homosexuality was now—as it has been before—both a problem of decadent cultural elites and a problem of dangerous working-class desire. Together, Robert Mapplethorpe and Hartwig may be said to have provided a provocative rogues gallery for conservative worriers about national discipline. This is, of course, a paranoid fantasy on my part, since no conservative columnist, no Patrick Buchanan or Hilton Kramer, bothered to make the connection between the two men. But if the Iowa’s cramped quarters could be feared as a dangerously homosocial environment, so also within a little over a year could the Saudi Arabian desert be welcomed as a vast laboratory of mass abstinence, a site of disciplined and sober asexuality.

The navy’s initial argument in the Iowa case reads like a cynical remake of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. You may recall the sequence of shots in that film in which the dreadnought’s guns erect as the mutinous crew prepares to fire on the czarist fleet, gunners embrace, and, finally, fraternal signals pass from one ship to the other. Eisenstein, a great champion of what might be termed the collectivity of the polymorphous perverse, could imagine an erotics of the revolutionary war machine, just as he was able to detect undercurrents of revolutionary and utopian desire in Walt Disney’s frolicking Water Babies.

As Michel Foucault has argued, discipline is a matter of individuation. Individuation occurs within technological contexts: the prison, the hospital, the factory, the school, and, I would add, the ship. Leon Trotsky understood individuation dialectically as a precondition for modern military mutiny, with the naval vessel as the most concentrated form of military social relations, in which under czarism “two alien and tight-shut worlds . . . live[d] in close contact . . . never out of each other’s sight.”

While incarcerated as an unwanted foreign radical on Ellis Island in the 1950s, the West Indian Trotskyite C.L.R. James wrote a book on Melville that understands the ship as the literal and figurative model of capitalist domination over labor power and nature. Writing in a context closer to that of Foucault, Gilles Deleuze has argued that the Melvillean ship constitutes the meeting point of order and disorder, of control and chaos. Viewed schematically, the ship is a model of order, of containment. Viewed phenomenologically, it is a labyrinth, threatening madness, claustrophobia, blindness, drowning. The first vantage point is that of the captain, the second is that of the crew. And yet the captain is human, and prone, like Ahab, to descend into chaos, just as the crew is capable, in the hopes of both James and Eisenstein before him, of rising to the level of autonomous collective command. The ship, then, can be said to be both a “heterotopia,” that is “a place without a place that is . . . closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea” (Foucault), and a great contested instrument of power, the very model of the war machine.

The Iowa case was a counterrevolutionary remake of Eisenstein. The problem, as with so much else in the imaginary life of the American military since 1975, was to exorcise two of the demon specters of Vietnam. The first was the specter of mutiny, of the widespread and largely unreported draft resistance of those who were already drafted, the most violent and individuated form of which was “fragging,” the assassination of autocratic officers. The second specter was that of military-technological failure, of the inability of the most sophisticated weapons systems to defeat “people's war.” The first narrative offered by the Navy in explaining the Iowa explosion was a story of mutiny of a peculiar sort: psychopathic, apolitical, nihilistic homosexual terrorism, mutiny individuated, gothic mutiny. As a kind of FBI-scripted pulp fiction, this story conforms to the pathologizing homophobia of the neo-noir novels of James Ellroy, notably L.A. Confidential. The second narrative, the embarrassed confession that things were not shipshape on the Iowa, was the honest realist version of another popular form of fantasy literature for men, the military techno-thrillers of Tom Clancy, such as The Hunt for Red October.

Ellroy and Clancy represent the “soft” and “hard” versions of contemporary American discourse on masculinity and organized state violence. For Ellroy, the body destroys itself because it cannot be a machine, and cops inhabit a lurid cartoon version of an all-too-human psychic underworld. For Clancy, the only bodies, apart from those of the proto-perestroikan Soviet navy mutineer-defects who long for the West and the cardboard family-man/CIA-man protagonist, are those of the military technicians, sonar specialists who can discern minute differences in pitch, the connoisseurs of submarine warfare. The machine, the submarine, becomes the object of an almost erotic fascination. In keeping with logic of cold war paranoia, technological perfection is always elusively other, and we must vigilantly strive to match or capture it. In a curious wish-fulfilling but also prophetic reversal of classical Marxism, the unequal development of the forces of production (brilliant Soviet naval architects) and the relations of production (sclerotic socialist bureaucratism) lead inexorably to the moment when the machine itself wishes to flee to the West.

Clancy and Ellroy are the pulp-novel avatars of reporting from the Persian Gulf. Clancy's story is the good story that can be told: “history according to the victors.” In the Clancy version of the Gulf War, Scuds would probably like to be better missiles; they would like to defect, to surrender to the ministrations of the rocket specialist at Raytheon, to become Patriots. Ellroy's story is the pornographic background murmur, the darker narrative of victory, of perverse bodies and destroyed bodies. In the Ellroy version of the Gulf War, we could discover our sadistic kinship with the master criminal and tyrant Saddam Hussein.

[war stories]
I don't have it quite right. You may recognize the Clancy version of the Gulf War in the endless and moronically repetitive stories that circulated in the press, illustrated with clean-cut diagrams detailing payloads, speed, range, and the cost of the U.S. taxpayer; in the little pocket-biographies of the A-10 Warthog, the venerable but ominously nameless B-52, the F-16 Falcon, the F-117 Stealth, the A-6 Intruder, the Apache, the Cobra, the entire natural-history museum of military-Keynesian excess. This version is the war without bodies.

The bodies that don't exist in any official version of the war are those many on the ground, those for whom air war is always and already ground war. In the account, we are confronted with a peculiar shift in scale. On one side were those bodies—too many of them, too many to look at, too many to count—as if the refusal to count was the crowning virtue of a higher morality, of a humanist revulsion against the quantification of death. On the other side, “our side,” were these bodies, subject to an almost microscopic attention, deployed and armored and monitored, expendable but relatively expensive. Innumerable third world bodies; precisely enumerated first world bodies.

Unfortunately for the technocrats of late-modern warfare, the battlefield cannot be completely automated, transformed into a conflict pitting artificially intelligent software and steel against stupid, wholly alien and abstracted peasant conscript flesh, to be “attritted,” in the language of the Pentagon, to the point of surrender or oblivion. Even if the bodies of our enemies can be redefined as mere matter in space, mere occupied volume, distinguishable from inorganic matter only by the quality of being “soft” rather than “hard,” and thus vulnerable to different intensities and distributions of destructive force, the problem remains of our bodies: what to do with them, how to direct their energies, manage their labor power, curb their tendencies toward indolence, lethargy, inefficiency, enervating self-gratification, fear, resistance to command, ethical and biological revulsion, autonomous individual and collective action—mutiny?

This management problem extends to the civilian population at home, although in this case, indolence, lethargy, and enervating self-gratification can be turned to good political use. Information, supplied in massive doses, can serve to blunt the capacity for resistance, for independent moral judgment, for memory from one day to the next. The spectator can thereby be reduced to a nervous state of narrative anticipation, waiting for the next horrific or triumphal story, the next “telling” bit of evidence, invited voyeuristically into mechanical rehearsals of mourning in advance of loss. It is interesting that the two persistent visual icons of human activity in this war were curiously passive and anticipatory: the soldier waiting and the spectator watching. (One unacknowledged truth of these icons of waiting is that they tend to surface in periods of economic depression, signifying a stagnation of productive energies, an immobility of capital.)

How then was the “all too human” constructed in this war? If the Ellroy text I’ve imagined is too unruly, too perverse, to be acknowledged as the model for the ghoulish narrative fragments that surfaced in even the most respectable reports in the New York Times, are there other forms of narrative that might serve as a substitute for the “bad” story of the “soft” body? What narratives might complement the Clancy story, the “good” story of the “hard” machine? Is there a “good,” or redemptive story to be told about the body?

I believe there is such a story, and its language is the language of therapy. This is, in part, a harsh language, a language of abstinence, of vices overcome cold turkey and en masse. More importantly, it has co-opted and rechanneled many of the concerns of the feminist movement. Within the austere and gritty desert laboratory an apparently new and even radical androgyny was invented—men and women fighting together—only to be submitted to a remodeled and “sensitive” paternal authority. A good father had to appear to preside over this vast mobilization of the forces of death.

A feminist political columnist I usually admire, Ellen Goodman, had this to say in the Los Angeles Times of March 15 about General Norman Schwarzkopf: “We’ve seen a man who is on speaking terms with his emotions, willing to express his fears, but not paralyzed by them. Someone who isn’t afraid of violence, but doesn’t like it. An Army man who calls war ‘a profane thing.’” She concludes with a partisan political fantasy: “To recognize Schwarzkopf as role model isn’t to anoint him as politician, though it would be poetic justice if this general turned out to be a Democrat.”

Where did Goodman get this enthusiastic nonsense? Specifically, from the March 11 issue of that conservative journal, The New Republic, from whence it proliferated with amazing rapidity, abetted by “sensitive” and “revealing” interviews with Schwarzkopf by smitten and deferential pool reporters in Saudi Arabia. The story in question was written by C.D.B. Bryan, who first met Schwarzkopf in 1971 while researching the book Friendly Fire. Consider for a moment the contrast between the homophobic demonology of the Iowa case and the opening paragraph of Bryan’s article:

I have read the stories about “Stormin’ Norman,” the terrible-tempered “Bear” who is a “pussycat” to his family. I have read how this general with the 170 genius-level IQ lulls himself to sleep in his Riyadh quarters listening to Pavarotti and Willie Nelson. I have read of his fluency in French and German; his love for the ballet and opera; and his membership in the International Brotherhood of Magicians. And I am sure, as reported, he has studied T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and that he has The Kingdom, Robert Lacey’s acclaimed history of Saudi Arabia, on his nightstand. I especially enjoyed the account of how, at his Kuwaiti hosts’ insistence, Schwarzkopf several years ago donned Arab robes and later said of the experience, “It was just like the scene in Lawrence of Arabia when the British officer’s clothes are taken away and replaced by robes, and he waltzes into the desert, intrigued by their feel and grace. I stood in front of the mirror and did the same dance. It was wonderful.”

What is at stake here is a redefinition of the character of the American elite, or at the very least a significant cosmetic alteration of the group portrait of the American ruling class and its lieutenants. Military men are no longer ill-lettered brutes, if they ever were. Nor are they unreconstructed patriarchal authoritarians, as they often were. In effect, military men are being outfitted as the new universal subjects of American political and cultural life. This occurs at a time when the moral and cultural prestige of artists, writers, and scholars has been severely damaged by attacks from conservative politicians and intellectuals. When intellectuals retreat to their bunkers, the generals crawl out of theirs. Schwarzkopf now represents the approved list of bedtime reading and the acceptable limits of cross-dressing. Again (remembering Ellroy), this newfound tolerance has its obverse, its imaginary walk on the wild side: in a recent broadcast, the radio noir novelist Joe Frank imagined a fictional dictator cowering in his bunker during a bombardment, remembering childhood transvestism and fantasizing himself a chanteuse. And Schwarzkopf’s recollections of Lawrence of Arabia have a dubious Boy Scout innocence. What of O’Toole’s characterization of the major as a man tortured by the self-recognition of his own capacity for bloodlust and barbarism? What of the scene in which Lawrence and his Arab cavalry slaughter a retreating Turkish column, fictionally paving the way to the carnage on the highway from Kuwait City to Basra?

Of course, Bryan’s story on Schwarzkopf may well be the familiar sycophantic offering designed to launch a political career. Whatever the stakes, it is clear that on both elite and popular levels, the terrain of gender is being reconfigured: the division of labor is less rigid, women can be manly, men can be womanly, as long as the dirty job gets done. But despite the fact that H. Norman Schwarzkopf is able to identify fleetingly with the gay orientalist, guerrilla fighter, and British imperialist T.E. Lawrence, he commands in a military that is profoundly threatened by homosexuality and still seeks to root out and expel lesbians and gay men.

Furthermore, this mendacious ideological “feminization” of American military power occurs at a time when American women have been more skeptical than men of the wisdom of war, and of the policies of the Republican Party. This is also a time when the contradictions of the “poverty draft” became most appallingly evident in the cases of young enlisted women, usually black or Latina, often single mothers to boot, desperately seeking childcare as they prepared to depart for the Persian Gulf. These stories, fairly common in the local press during the early months of mobilization, would have inspired neither Clancy nor Ellroy. And though the therapists may have tried their best to put a good face on the situation, psychology only goes so far in explaining or ameliorating the feminization of poverty.

The adulation of Schwarzkopf can be better understood as yet another instance of what Susan Jeffords has termed the “remasculinization of America,” the narrative reinscription in diverse fiction and nonfiction texts about the Vietnam War of a male-gendered power and authority. Significantly, Bryan’s nonfiction Friendly Fire, published in 1976, opposed an enraged Cassandra-like female voice of dissent, that of Peg Mullen, an Iowa farm woman who lost her oldest son to American artillery fire in a theater of operations under Schwarzkopf’s command, to the higher truth of a calm, rational, empathetic but self-exonerating voice of male authority, that of Schwarzkopf himself. Conforming ultimately with Christa Wolf’s description of the Homeric mode of narrative, Bryan’s story begins with empathy for “the world of women” but ends by seeking and following the red thread of “male action.” Women’s dissent is acknowledged for its moral force but dismissed in the end for its inability to grasp the empirical truth of war, which Bryan sees as merely the truth of chance, of accident, a truth beyond guilt, understood only by men. What Bryan plows under in his search for this fatalistic truth is the extraordinary epistolary solidarity constructed between a mother and her dead son’s enlisted comrades, all of whom regarded the Vietnam War as criminal and evil.

[persian gulf syndrome]
In a society like ours, in which all social relations are explained in terms of psychological categories, victimization is a hard monkey to shake. The difference between Vietnam Syndrome, so-called, and Persian Gulf Syndrome is this: V.S. sufferers are losers who see themselves as victims, while P.G.S. sufferers are winners who continue to see themselves as victims, even as that victimized feeling is loudly being put to rest.

The mythology of Schwarzkopf as national redeemer rests on his own background: wounded in Vietnam, falsely accused of negligence by the mother of one of his men, resentful of being sent to fight “the government’s war” in Southeast Asia. The journalistic preservation of the memory of this younger, victimized Schwarzkopf has allowed him to seem more noble in his present capacities than earlier military men of equivalent authority, such as William Westmoreland. What Schwarzkopf shares with Westmoreland is the indignation of the powerful victim, unjustly indicted with crimes against the wretched of the earth. If evil has occurred, the accused admits to no complicity, no kinship with guilty comrades, underlings, superiors. Here is Schwarzkopf speaking to Bryan about his feelings toward those who charged the American military with “burn[ing] villages and kill[ing] babies” in Vietnam: “I hadn’t done any of that!” (Italics in original.) Even at the pinnacles of command, a self-exonerating individualism reigns supreme.

This persistence of the category of the victim explains the inordinate symbolic importance in both conflicts of the prisoner of war. The POW, like the hostage, is the secular “desert saint” of the neoimperialist religion known as the New World Order. Whatever their missions, POWs are rendered innocent by the fact of captivity. The woman POW constitutes a new overlapping and reunifying category, embodying both the abstract and the increasingly anachronistic “femininity” for which wars were once fought, and the new disengendered operationalism of the military specialist.

How do we look, then, as spectators of this peculiar embrace—the “soft” male, the “soft” female—frozen in two colorful slices on the front and back covers of the March 18 issue of Life? What are we to make of the title “Coming Home,” with its perverse evocation of a more-or-less feminist antiwar film from the ’70s starring Jane Fonda? Our eyes are invited to embrace this embrace—to bracket it—and are enfolded, bracketed as we read. On the back cover, it is Schwarzkopf whose Cheshire Cat smile persists, suggesting that this cover-to-cover embrace structurally reproduces the great national alibi of the powerful victim, turned inward on a pain real and imaginary, “empathetic” but also oblivious to all other pains. Specialist Melissa Rathbun Nealy, with her girlish braids, is Schwarzkopf’s prop, his prodigal daughter, and his double. Like Peg Mullen in Iowa, she may have something to say, but no one is really listening.

Allan Sekula is a photographer, writer, and critic who lives in Los Angeles. Thanks to Rick Berg, Peter Bloom, Mike Davis, Annetta Kapon, Brian Palmer, Sally Stein, Jeff Wall, and Cecile Whiting.