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Humanitarian Violence: The U.S. Deployment of Diversity by Neda Atanasoski

by Long T. Bui
2 Jun 2014 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10] | Review

humanitarian_violence_Neda_AtanasoskiReview: Neda Atanasoski (2013) Humanitarian Violence: The U.S. Deployment of Diversity, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press 280 pp. ISBN 978-0-8166-8094-8, ISBN 978-0-8166-8093-1.

In a world full of violence, humanitarianism always sounds like a good thing but there is a dark side to this lofty term.  In Neda Atanasoski’s book Humanitarian Violence: The U.S. Deployment of Diversity, the author reexamines the concept through the lens of American militarism to challenge the pretense of freedom, universality and moral virtue the phrase typically conjures.  Through a creative interdisciplinary perspective, Atanasoki critiques the mythologized image of United States as a benevolent multicultural nation spreading peace and democracy to the rest of the world, exposing U.S. ongoing efforts to rehabilitate or reform supposedly less enlightened populations deemed racially different, religiously conservative or sexually backwards. Tapping into a recent wave of new academic research on American empire, the author demonstrates the ways newfangled U.S. strategies of warfare refashion old imperial ambitions.  She does this skillfully by demonstrating how the end of the Cold War led the U.S. to undertake good-will foreign missions, waging war under the auspices of protecting human rights, all the while masking the ugly realities of American exceptionalism, aggression and intolerance of other cultures.   This incisive argument is made through the concept of what she calls “postsocialist imperialism,” where the fear of the communist “other” once epitomized by the Soviet Union finds itself displaced onto a multitude of illiberal “others” needing salvation and protection from Uncle Sam.

The first chapter “Racial Time and the Other: Mapping the Postsocialist Transition” explains how the formal end of the Cold War induced the U.S. to shore up its global authority again by fighting “crimes against humanity” and stopping atrocities abroad in former socialist states.  The divine “civilizing mission” to save certain other peoples and regions from the forces of evil not only props up the idea of U.S. as inherently good or innocent but negatively casts other societies as inherently flawed or evil. Cultural narratives about the inhumane nature of those countries involved in these conflicts, Atanasoski suggests, pathologizes them as enemies of mankind while covering over the problems of the U.S. as a nation dealing with its own “ethnic conflicts” and racial problems.  While the critique of American Studies and postcolonial scholars has done much to expose American imperialism overseas, the author is correct to say they often neglect Eastern Europe as a “racialized” territory and key geopolitical region of interest. To demonstrate the extent of the U.S. imperial project, the author covers a broad canvas, reappraising the supposed humanitarian role of the U.S. military in the Vietnam War, the Soviet-Afghan War and the Yugoslavia Wars. Toward this end, the book marshals an amazing array of texts for examination such as fictional novels, films and news media.  This particular chapter highlights journalist travelogues from an African American woman visiting the U.S.S.R., a young Black mixed-race Russian visiting the U.S. and a white American writing about the Balkans.  All these examples demonstrate the illusion of “promoting universal humanitarianism and rights through war” by creating “a new landscape of otherness” (p. 72).

In the following chapter “The Vietnam War and the Ethics of Failure,” the author uses the classic novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad to elucidate the crisis of American jingoism and barbarism in Southeast Asia.  The violent, unknowable darkness posed by Africa for Europeans disallows the white colonizer from ever recognizing the humanity of the African. Atanasoski is able to bring the lessons of Heart of Darkness to contemporary texts like Eleanor Ford Coppola’s film Hearts of Darkness.  Inspired by her husband’s descent into madness much like the main character in Conrad’s masterpiece, Eleanor Coppola award-winning documentary about Francis Ford Coppola’s experience in Vietnam while making his Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now reveals an ethics of self that merely accentuates the American male director’s celebrity status, while sidelining the exploitative history of the film’s production in the Philippines, a former U.S. colony considered the “First Vietnam.” On the flip side is the fictional story in Jessica Hagedorn’s novel Dream Jungle, which is more critical of U.S.-Third World relations as it revolves around the discovery of a fake stone lost tribe by a Westerner and the invitation of a photographer in Saigon to come to the Philippines to document this tribe. The novel problematizes the representation of “natives,” bringing together two colonial sites through the visual technology of photojournalism.  Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” these two texts when read together spotlight how U.S. entered the quagmire of Vietnam with little concern for recognizing the humanity of the Other. The unknown geography of the Third World presents a place of savagery and barbarism corrupting the purity of American ideals, when in fact Americans brought horror to foreign territories.

In the third chapter “Restoring National Faith,” Atanasoski closely scrutinizes the American media treatment and information blackout of the Soviet-Afghan War. She begins with an reappraisal of the Hollywood film Charlie Wilson’s War, which restages this forgotten war but “does not ask audiences to question U.S. ideals, just to question the moments when the United State abandons those ideals” (p. 125).  Under the Reagan Doctrine of supporting local insurgencies against the Soviets, the U.S. could recover from its past embarrassments suppressing a guerilla anti-colonial movement for independence in Vietnam by taking on the mantle of responsibility in supporting the Afghan people in their battle against the Soviets, portrayed as godless, mechanical and imperialist invaders. Insofar as foreign journalists were prohibited from fully documenting the events of the war and exposing U.S. military abuses as they did in the case of Vietnam, this left a gaping hole in public knowledge that inspired journalists Dan Rather to “go native,” donning Afghan clothing to blend into the landscape but offering little coverage of Afghan social experiences to mobilize public sentiment against U.S. violence. This left a vacuum in which visual “self-explanatory” signifiers of trauma, which the National Geographic magazine cover of the Afghan refugee girl with stoic green eyes could fill. Whereas the Vietnam War stood outside the nation’s time of progress, the failed testing ground for American democratic ideals, Afghanistan epitomized a new frontier, a graveyard of “moral darkness that must be opposed, through humanitarian action” (p. 112).

Chapter four, perhaps the most illustrative chapter of the book, draws on the Gothic genre of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and films such as Van Helsing to take to task the U.S. rendering of East Europe as an unnatural and unholy world needing to be exterminated. The classic Gothic story of vampire hunters searching for monsters to kill in the nether regions of the supernatural echoes U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) efforts to take down monstrous dictators like Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Miloševic, accused of ethnic cleansing of Albanians in the Balkans, a place perceived as rife with ethnonationalisms, religious conflicts and fascism. Conjuring the memory of the Jewish Holocaust, the U.S. invoked its self-proclaimed leadership in defending an “emergent global morality” (p. 138), overstepping the authority of the United Nations and acting out on its own to take over the region, which many Americans including then President Clinton had never even visited.  Forgetting the fact that most civilian casualties and displacement resulted not from Milošević’s forces but NATO aerial attacks, it soon became clear that the superior military power would triumph and “transnational ideas about humanity and inhumanity would continue to be consolidated through warfare” (p. 138). The author fruitfully expounds upon this Gothic narrative of foreign invaders killing the undead through the artwork of Yugoslav artist Tamara Vukov who in one piece displays the image of Dracula on the screens of fighter pilot cockpits, a reminder of the irrational human fear and loathing of the unknown behind geopolitical rationales and military logistics. Widely considered the first “Internet war,” Atanasoski makes the case that the traditional news media’s impact on U.S. policy could not be overestimated in the case of CNN and its newfound ability to fabricate simulated images of refugee flight and bombing sites to incite a sense of moral crisis and panic around what many saw as a genocide. Ending with the criminal trial of Milošević as a war criminal, the first for a current head of state, the U.S. with NATO pushed the global community to adopt a more “flexible” approach to international law with the assumption that “only the United States has the sovereign right” to decide on worthy causes and pursue them at all costs (p. 162).

The final substantial chapter “Feminist Politics of Secular Redemption” brings to a close the sustained analysis of texts demonstrated in previous case studies in its reading of juridical accounts from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).  Taking aim at a new human rights regime, which solicits and makes a spectacle out of the testimonies of Muslim Bosnian women raped by Bosnian Serb soldiers, the chapter broaches the issue of sexual violence, which gets prosecuted and represented as a “crime against humanity” for the first time. The violence imagined, reproduced and transmitted to audiences on the ICTY’s website merely re-inscribe trauma and pain to the bodies of survivors as the natural outcome of religious persecution and ethnic misogyny.  This re-representing of the survivor as pure victim crystallizes a secular faith in the new human rights regime “as part of a therapeutic project that will bring the Balkans back into the fold of humanity following their wartime dehumanization in the 1990s” (p. 169). Those most guilty of this project were North American and “international” feminists speaking for the poor, oppressed Muslim sister, making the latter both hypervisible as the ultimate abject victim of war and hyperinvisible, as a silenced subject without a specific voice of her own.  Humanizing, secularizing and whitening the East European Muslim woman provided the pretext for an array of sanitizing images, documents and stories that feminists and “others tell of the global women’s rights movement as leading, finally, to the recognition of gendered humanity s the new universal” (p. 179). The chapter ends presenting an experimental “documentary” that retells the story of war without sensationalizing it, splicing together images of the everyday with narrative voice-overs of the incident by survivors. Time and space collapse to leave audiences unsure of what they saw, a deeply reflective counter to the “official” alienating testimonies of “witnessing” induced by ICTY authorities.

The epilogue is as rich as the other chapters as Atanasoski discusses the broad current-day implications of contemporary state technologies of surveillance through which the U.S. spies on its own citizens. She juxtaposes this national “secret geography” against the dark opaque geographies against which the U.S. must attack in the “War on Terror.” When government weapons of war pervade all aspects of modern life, the commonsense that state violence can happen “here” as much as over “there” dissipates. When unmanned drones fly over U.S. citizens targeting them like the undead foreign enemy, it becomes necessary to question the idea of “national violence” as that which supposedly only emanates from ethnonationalisms abroad or Muslim religious extremism.  Coupled with a final commentary on the Boston Marathon bombers, first assumed to be Arabs but later discovered to be East European Chechens, Atanasoski leaves readers with the lasting impression of the human figure of the “all-American” subject bleeding into the inhuman specter of the “foreign enemy.”

Humanitarian Violence provides much needed theoretical and historical insights into our perpetual state of war.  By shifting the frame of humanitarism to consider its sinister underbelly, the book dislodges the “logic” embedded in American wars of necessity, helping readers to grasp state interventions on behalf of mankind as less a lofty goal than a blunt instrument of power.  Observing the changing conditions of American popular culture, Cold War relations and neoliberalism, Atanasoski speaks to the crafty ability of the last remaining superpower to reproduce and rejuvenate its own moral authority through precarious situations happening abroad.   Theorizing humanitarianism as a product and engine of American empire, the book identifies an ongoing discourse and politics of difference that makes “postsocialism” much like “post-Cold War” not the temporal bookmark of an end of violence toward greater freedom, but the conceptual marker for revisiting problems of “humanity” then and now.

Humanitarian Violence is a much needed addition to the vast contemporary literature on U.S. militarism, war and empire.  The book will find a place in a number of fields as diverse as international studies, visual studies, performance studies, history, ethnic studies, women and gender studies and cultural studies. It points moreover toward an exciting subfield that conjoins domestic critiques of U.S. multiculturalism with critiques of American foreign relations. Disregarding the false belief that U.S. is now a “postracial” society or the most democratizing force on earth, this lucid text demonstrates how a nation founded on universal ideas of life, liberty and freedom remains mired in inextricable forms of humanitarian violence.

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Long T. Bui is currently a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in the Department of Asian American Studies. In his teaching and scholarship, Bui explores the intersections of cultures, politics, history, memory and art. His first book manuscript reframes the legacy of the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnam through a multi-media analysis of cultural production. This research investigates how individuals in the U.S., contemporary Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora recall, recuperate and represent this Cold War geopolitical figure. His articles have appeared in journals such as positions: east asia cultural critique and Journal of Feminist Media Studies.
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