Combat Death in Contemporary American Culture: Popular Cultural Conceptions of War since World War II explores how war has been portrayed in the United States since World War II, with a particular focus on an emotionally charged but rarely scrutinized topic: combat death. Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet argues that most stories about war use three main building blocks: melodrama, adventure, and horror. Monnet examines how melodrama and adventure have helped make war seem acceptable to the American public by portraying combat death as a meaningful sacrifice and by making military killing look necessary and often even pleasurable. Horror no longer serves its traditional purpose of making the bloody realities of war repulsive, but has instead been repurposed in recent years to intensify the positivity of melodrama and adventure. Thus this book offers a fascinating diagnosis of how war stories perform ideological and emotional work and why they have such a powerful grip on the American imagination.
Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet is professor of American literature and culture at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
Chapter One: Melodrama, Dying and the Sacred: The Cult of Iwo Jima
Chapter Two: Melodrama Queered: The Outsider (1961) and The Portable War Memorial (1968)
Chapter Three: Melodramatizing Iwo Jima in the 21st Century: James Bradley’s and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers
Chapter Four: Adventure, Killing and the Pleasures of War: Robin Moore’s The Green Berets (1965)
Chapter Five: Adventure Revisited: Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014)
Chapter Six: Horror, Irony and the Anti-war Novel: Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers
Chapter Seven: The Hero’s Journey to Film and Back: Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Hasford’s Counter-attack
Coda: The Future of War Culture, the Cultural War for the Future
A remarkable achievement. Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet offers readers a profound, eloquent, and haunting reflection on the relationship between war and American culture.
For all of us drugged by American war culture, this book comes as a Prince Charming to awaken us from our treacherous fantasies. Dr. Monnet’s dissection of the genre conventions that control our emotional responses to war stories is stunningly brilliant. Her exploration of how the conventions of melodrama and horror fiction now tend to undermine the intentions of many would-be antiwar works is truly eye-opening. The book has made me rethink many works I thought I understood well, and it would be a treasure chest for a variety of courses. Anyone seeking to free us from our culture of war must read this invaluable volume.
It was said that the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady changed America forever by laying the battlefield dead at the people’s doorsteps. In her unflinching study, Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet shows how the battlefield victims of America’s “war culture” have increasingly dominated the imagery of literature and film since the end of the Second World War—to a degree that Brady’s contemporaries could scarcely have imagined. Theoretically informed, richly illustrated, and driven as much by a hatred of war as by the awareness of its perverse seduction, this book magisterially builds upon the insights of Richard Slotkin’s classic Regeneration through Violence.
This book is mightily impressive. Its core – an examination of the role of the idea of war in post-WWII American culture, and an associated racially- and sexually-charged thirst for killing (and sometimes self-sacrificially dying) – is carried through with verve, and enlightenment. It makes real new contributions to our understanding of popular genres such as ‘adventure’ and ‘romance’, and does it through beautifully crafted case-studies. These include the battle for Iwo Jima (from the myths around the battle, through the famous Rosenthal photograph, to the several film versions); the narratives of the Green Berets (from novels, to song, to movie); and a series of books and films post-Vietnam war. The combination of sophisticated thinking (grounded in sharply-considered reading) and close analytic study makes this an exceptional contribution to our thinking about the constructed meanings of war.
In this deeply empathetic study of the meanings and significance of American battle field deaths, Professor Agnieszka Soltysik manages, in one sustained effort, to resuscitate – so to speak – America’s soldiers fallen in combat and to spare them the fate of willful oblivion, as just so many body bags surreptitiously brought home. She explores the ingredients that help the survivors to redeem the fallen and to rededicate their remains to a higher purpose to inspire the nation.
We now live and die amid perpetual warfare, the violence of which has been brought home in countless ways. Our foreign policies, backed up by the world’s largest military and politicians on all sides, have reaped a terrible harvest. So has American culture, which since World War II has portrayed our foreign ventures in melodramatic, adventurous, even tantalizingly gothic ways to convince us that war is an answer, combat death glorious, and flags worth saving. Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet reveals the lies of such propaganda and offers solutions in our critical understanding of how war damages both our souls and our bodies.
Combat Death in Contemporary American Culture makes a compelling, insightful case for post-1945 media as mediating the illegibility of warfare, in light of the fact that death, by definition, is traumatic for everyone, other than the person who experiences it. The dynamics of narrative form, made accessible through film and literature, thus ritualize or sanctify experiences that can neither be reported nor confirmed. Drawing on works including Full Metal Jacket, American Sniper, Dispatches, and Flags of Our Fathers, Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet provides a lucid, timely examination of the generic paradigms privileged in contemporary mediations of combat death.
This perceptive and imaginative study examines the deep cultural longing for patriotic re-enchantment in the codes of popular war narratives. A brilliant deep dive into the post-sacred temptations of our unacknowledged civil religion.
Combat Deaths in Contemporary American Culture is a must-read contribution to war scholarship. Tracing the ambiguities in the representation of American combat deaths, Monnet deftly reframes classic war films, as well as unearths understudied texts, to guide readers into decoding war texts in ways that demystify the seductive war-promoting impacts of Hollywood storytelling. This is the first comprehensive study of the powerful emotions surrounding representations of combat death in popular culture, and it unpacks how both cultural and martial discourse have historically written death of service personnel as symbolically sacred. Beautifully and clearly written, this book rethinks the generic lenses through which to view war violence and lays out methods of recognizing the ways in which Hollywood war films encourage their viewers to be swept out of the horrors of war and into the emotional pull of the melodramatic mode alongside the excitement of the adventure genre. It unpacks how popular depictions of state-sanctioned violence, anchored and nurtured by the cultural addiction to fantasies of war, and challenges readers to resist the seduction and glamorization of war as any kind of solution to the global crises and challenges of the 21st century. For American citizens living with ongoing but barely perceptual “forever wars,” this profoundly relevant book should be required reading.