Thomas Conroy, Jarice Hanson, eds. Constructing America's War Culture: Iraq, Media, and Images at Home. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008. viii + 171 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7391-1963-1; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7391-1964-8.
Reviewed by Fabian Virchow
Published on H-War (December, 2008)
Commissioned by Janet G. Valentine (U.S. Army Command and General Staff College - Dept of Mil Hist)
War, Culture, and Media
The recent emergence of two new journals--Media, War & Conflict (from SAGE) and Journal of War and Culture Studies (from Intellect)--investigating the complex relationship of war, the media, the military, and cultural protagonists, once again proves the growing interest of scholars in this field, as well as the political and social importance of related issues. Constructing America’s War Culture claims to demonstrate how media have “packaged” the war in Iraq. A short introduction by Kokkeong Wong reminds readers of the lies used to justify the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq. Wong also outlines the focus of the book’s eight chapters, that is: “to get at the messages and images of the Iraq war to explain how the George W. Bush administration sold the war to the American public, how the traditional, hyper-commercial U.S. media contributed to supporting images of the war for public consumption, how Americans were drawn to it, and how some alternative views have tried to challenge it” (p. 6). The essays, written from the perspective of communication studies, focus on the United States exclusively. As a result, readers in the United States may be quite familiar with the content of the mainly descriptive, less analytical parts of the book, while the volume may offer readers from other parts of the world--including European, African, or Asian readers--a good deal of new information.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part, “Constructions of War,” consists of three essays. Editors Thomas Conroy and Jarice Hanson start with an overview of wartime blogging, by both civilians and military personnel. They outline characteristics of blogging, compare these to traditional journalism, and give some socio-demographic data on bloggers. While the treatment of some bloggers, who gained some prominence in the run-up to and during the Iraq War, remains largely descriptive, Conroy and Hanson rightly stress the special character of blogs “that allow us to read and learn from a unique set of individuals ... and to read their words as they write them, without editors or other gatekeepers changing the meaning or the passion” (p. 28). However, in some cases, bloggers, who appear to be independent individuals, are actually front men for economic, political, or military interest groups. Conroy and Hanson justly emphasize the need for intensified research on the role blogging may play in the formation of social values and news impact. This holds true also for the relationship between blogging and traditional journalism.
In a comparatively short piece, “What Happened to Journalism,” Bill Israel draws our attention to the relevance of guiding principles of political strategist Karl Rove and his cynical reflections on journalism and election campaigns. While this chapter offers some interesting information about the journalistic shortcomings of the two top U.S. newspapers as sources of political intelligence, it lacks theoretical explanations beyond framing the approach.
The notorious phrase “War on Terror” and the United States’ Patriot Act are at the center of the investigation in Hanson’s chapter, "Selling the Bush Doctrine." Hanson reminds us of the close relationship of several “founding fathers” of communication studies to the field of (war) propaganda. To illustrate her point, Hanson uses the example of how the Bush administration mounted a pseudo-event to convince the general public to trust the spirit of the Patriot Act by sending Attorney General John Ashcroft on a speaking tour. Interestingly, the tour became known as a “Stealth Tour” because the meetings always took place behind closed doors, and were only rarely announced in advance. Ultimately, this pseudo-campaign was a major blunder. In light of the book’s introduction stressing the administration’s success in “selling” the idea of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction so successfully to the U.S. public, and Hanson’s focus on “persuasion, propaganda, and public relations,” it would have been interesting to learn more about factors and contexts that determine the validity and effectiveness of propaganda activities in general (p. 47).
The second part, “Iraq, Media, and Images at Home,” comprises essays written by Conroy (“The Packaging of Jessica Lynch”), Jeffrey Klenotic (“Staying in the Moment: Hollywood, History, and the Politics of 9/11 Cinema”), Thomas N. Gardner (“War As Mediated Narrative: The Sextet of War Rhetoric”), Gordon Chase (“Images of America at War on the Internet Newsgroup: soc.culture.europe”), and Rebecca L. Abbott (“The War Doesn’t End until the Last Soldier Dies: Transmedial Narratives of War”). In his essay, Conroy refers to an important section of the U.S. electorate, the working- and middle-class twenty-five- to fifty-five-year-old white males--that group that in 2002 Democratic pollster Celina Lake called “NASCAR dads.” Referring to Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model and George Lakoff’s "Strict Father" model (from his Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don't ), Conroy convincingly demonstrates how war propaganda can make use of the “nation as family” metaphor. He further illustrates that the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action myth, in general, and the narrative of Jessica Lynch’s rescue, especially, appealed to the NASCAR dads obsessed with their "left behind” status. “The Jessica Lynch story was a POW rescue that let the NASCAR dads get ‘to win this time.’ This myth, a story of capture and redemption mediated by gender, functioned as one force to articulate moments of the Iraq War propaganda circuit of meaning to produce a text structured to be pleasurably decoded by white working class males” (p. 72). Although Conroy declares that “the no hero left behind tag line reassured the working class heroes that, if they support the administration, that their worst fear, that they will be ‘left behind,’ abandoned by a feminized America, will never happen and that they can claim a modicum of self respect,” he does not address the effect of Lynch’s confession about the true circumstances of her capture (p. 80).
Klenotic’s essay ranks as one of the best of the volume. To explore the relations between film, history, and U.S. foreign policy, Klenotic investigates the emergence of 9/11 cinema using United 93 (2006) and World Trade Center (2006) as examples. Using The Monroe Doctrine (1939), the author demonstrates the strong nationalistic messages of film. Looking at 9/11, Klenotic describes meetings of Hollywood writers and producers with high-ranking government officials, like Rove, where they reflected “upon the ways in which their considerable storytelling talents might be applied to help foster support for the war on terrorism” (p. 96). Instead of disseminating conspiracy theories, Klenotic researches the plot offered by United 93 and shows quite clearly how the film interprets the action taken by passengers of United Airlines flight 93 as a “transformation from average citizen to heroic citizen-soldiers” and, thereby, as the first battle in an undeclared war (p. 98). Klenotic’s statement that it is “important to take film seriously as a medium for both historical and political communication, even when the content of this communication takes the form of popular genres of Hollywood entertainment,” has to be taken seriously (p. 86).
Gardner delineates what he calls “the sextet of war narratives” (p. 109). For him, war as a mediated narrative resonates around the categories of religion, national identity, gender, culture, economy, and ego. After outlining how the Pentagon approached the need to sustain its war narrative through control of media access in the past, Gardner turns to the phenomenon of embedded journalism. While he admits that embedding reporters with troops would create the tendency to identify with the troops they were accompanying, Gardner also stresses the risk of this approach, as the real course of a war cannot be foreseen in detail. Thus, embedded journalists may also report on military setbacks. Gardner’s piece is especially interesting when he uses his sextet of war narratives to explain the extraordinary drop in public support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As this idea is closely related to the political culture of a nation, and, as a part of that, a nation’s narrative norms established for war, it would be worthwhile to compare it with war narratives in countries like France, Russia, or Germany (a country that started to deploy troops abroad just fifteen years ago.)
Referring to Kenneth Burke’s agon analysis, Chase looks at images of the United States at war on a Europe-focused Internet newsgroup. However, this undertaking does not go far beyond the confirmation that binary constructions of lies/truth and the attributions of rationality/irrationality are relevant for the construction and maintenance of an agonistic relationship between two opposing groups, and that essentialized otherness plays a prominent role in moral conflicts.
Finally, turning to a field seldom looked at in media and communication studies, Abbott reports about a theater group of veterans, a play the veterans created (The Promise Once Removed), and a related feature-length documentary (No Unwounded Soldiers). Abbott refers to the duality of narrative, and David Herman’s idea of transmedial narratology, as different ways the story of war is packaged and the experience of war is articulated. Abbott shows that all too often talking about war is not enough to allow veterans to cope with their experiences. The play created by veterans in drama therapy is fully improvised to keep dialogues and actions as genuine as possible. Additionally, the “idea of playing characters that aren’t them but are like them, turns out to be especially therapeutic for veterans, among others, because by that means they experience the freedom to narrate their most painful memories vicariously, through the characters they inhabit” (p.154). What has been learned by this approach in dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder may be stimulating for veterans from other countries.
In sum, Constructing America’s War Culture offers several interesting observations and insights. However, many of them still demand further in-depth research, especially if one wants to consider “the way audiences use media to construct attitudes, beliefs, and--ultimately--a sense of history about the war.” Adding a comparative perspective to find out if there are specific sets of argumentations and narratives in different countries, and, if so, how they could be described and theorized, would be helpful
. This quotation is from the publisher’s book announcement on its Web site, http://www.lexingtonbooks.com/Catalog/SingleBook.shtml?command=Search&db=^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0739119648.
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Fabian Virchow. Review of Conroy, Thomas; Hanson, Jarice, eds, Constructing America's War Culture: Iraq, Media, and Images at Home.
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