Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dead People and the War Powers

If I was teaching a research seminar on the history of war powers this coming year, my focus would be on dead people. Death is, of course, and intentional product of war. It is produced with both purposefulness and regret. In history, and in contemporary law and politics, it has been important to divide dead people into categories. The categories have tremendous meaning. The most important categories are dead enemy soldiers, dead American soldiers (for the US), dead noncombatants (sometimes called “collateral damage”); and there are also dead soldiers of allies, dead contractors, journalists, and others. The law of armed conflict/IHL is structured around the idea that certain deaths (the enemy) should be produced in a way that minimizes other deaths (the people we might call collaterals). The manner of the production of death also has important meaning. Although the endpoint can be the same (a person has died), the military honors conferred on a soldier can vary depending on how the person’s death was produced: by hostile fire, by “friendly fire,” by accident, by suicide.

That this all matters is apparent in the literature about how deaths are reported (or not), the history of censorship of casualty information, including images, and the way death in war is narrated and is commemorated. The production of death, especially the identity of the prospective dead, has figured powerfully in debates in Congress about impending military action, like the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. And, at least arguably, the availability of death affects the relationship between the broader public and war. Think of the heart wrenching stories of spouses and parents waiting for a letter home from their soldier in World War II. Does the email from a contractor under fire have less resonance because that danger is in exchange for pay? Will there be no touching documentaries about messages home from drone operators, since they often go home at the end of their shifts?

The most important recent work on war and dead people is of course Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the AmericanCivil War. “The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and enduring undertaking,” Faust writes. Her work sets up a question for the 20th century and after about the relationship between death and American war politics at a time when most people are protected from the sort of “republic of suffering” broadly experienced during the Civil War.

I will be writing rather than teaching next year, and am trying to puzzle through the particular role that death and dead people will play in my 20th century war powers narrative. An effective narrative strategy in a history book is to use a historical character as the conduit of the narrative and the argument. Rather than having ideas float in space across a chapter, the ideas are often effectively developed by having historical characters live through them across time. A chapter on declared wars, for example, can feature someone like Congressmember Jeannette Rankin who voted “no” on both WWI and WWII, and then, both times, was voted out of office. Her story can illustrate a broader theme: the way Congressmembers figured in the relationship between the electorate and presidents during earlier wars. It is harder to think through the way dead people can be active narrative characters. Usually, as with Pat Tillman, the management of a death by others is the narrative, or the pre-death story is a focus and is thought to inform the meaning of the person’s death.

It may be that dead people themselves can’t be my narrative characters since what matters – the death – is essentially a moment of crossing over from narrative character to memory. Policies and practices related to death have a narrative, and there is a great literature on commemoration. But dead people (across categories) are so important that I wish I could keep them in as active characters rather than as memories. At any rate, if I was working this through with a seminar, here’s what would be on the reading list What sort of works am I missing?
And perhaps: Andrew Bacevich, Breach of Trust: How AmericansFailed Their Soldiers and Their Country; Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American Warin Vietnam; and the recent literature on contemporary wounded survivors of war. 

Cross-posted from Balkinization.

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