McKevitt on Simons and Lucaites, 'In/visible War: The Culture of War in Twenty-First-Century America'

Jon Simons, John Louis Lucaites, eds.
Drew McKevitt

Jon Simons, John Louis Lucaites, eds. In/visible War: The Culture of War in Twenty-First-Century America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017. 278 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-8537-6.

Reviewed by Drew McKevitt (Louisiana Tech) Published on H-War (November, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version:

First-year US college students in 2018 have lived, as the editors of this volume observe, virtually their entire lives in a country at war. And yet, as I discovered this fall in an auditorium full of them in an introductory world history class, while they may be able to sketch out some of the who, what, when, and where of US military activities since September 11, 2001, they draw a blank when it comes to significant why questions: Why was the United States attacked? Why did the United States respond the way it did? Why, in short, has their country been at war since 2001?

The contributors to this provocative volume find an explanation in culture for my students’ deficit of answers. The youngest generation of adults has experienced neither a mass mobilization of the nation’s resources for war nor any sort of organized, coherent, or enduring antiwar movement. Instead, in the twenty-first-century United States, “war is simultaneously seen and unseen, both visible and invisible at once,” a paradox of the “in/visibility of war” that has created “a public culture in which war is continuous and altogether present, but largely unseen and/or unacknowledged” (pp. 2-3). In each of the volume’s twelve chapters, one or two prominent scholars from an impressive interdisciplinary cohort—drawing from fields such as literature, media and communication studies, and political theory (though, notably, not history)—examine a narrow slice of war’s “in/visibility” in contemporary US culture. The result is a book full of thoughtful and creative essays, but one in which, at times, those insights are buried in a kind of theory-heavy writing that would make it unappealing to many historians, and simply impenetrable to my curious students. 

The editors have divided the book into three parts—“Seeing War,” “Not Seeing War,” and “Theorizing the In/visibility of War”—each of which maintains thematic consistency, speaking to the book’s origins in a year-long humanities forum at Indiana University. “Seeing War” presents four incisive essays on the ways in which the visual world reproduces the book’s central paradox. As Christopher J. Gilbert and John Louis Lucaites ask in chapter 2, “What do we actually see? Or perhaps more to the point: What are we not seeing? And why?” (p. 48). For these authors, who critique a photo essay of a returning combat veteran, viewers may see trauma’s impact on its victims, but they fail to see how such a “civic gaze” further alienates those victims from a community purporting to care for them. In recounting a professional debate about a photojournalist’s use of a phone camera filter app, David Campbell says that we miss seeing the depoliticization of war images. Jeremy G. Gordon offers a creative reading of a photo essay of combat veterans and a reimagining of the mythologies of PTSD—“We just need more than Homer” (p. 71), he writes, encouraging readers to look beyond archetypes of heroic warriors and imagine afflicted veterans in alternate frames, to see them as prophets wrestling with the “shades” that haunt them, for instance. 

Part 2, “Not Seeing War,” presents four essays on popular culture, exploring the Call of Duty videogame series, superhero movies, Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed film The Hurt Locker (2008), and the “canine-rescue narrative” genre of popular nonfiction literature. Each chapter analyzes texts that put war front-and-center but that nevertheless obscure, deflect, or rewrite the contentious politics of war. Superhero films and canine-rescue narratives, for instance, both have functioned in ways analogous to the rewriting of the Vietnam War found in 1980s popular culture, like the blockbuster action film Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), wherein Sylvester Stallone refights the war and wins, avenging the defeat of a decade earlier. In The Avengers (2012), a team of comic-book superheroes saves New York City from catastrophe in a kind of 9/11 rematch, while in books like From Baghdad with Love (2008), which Purnima Bose dissects in a particularly effective chapter, stray dogs in Iraq are humanized and rescued while Iraqis are implicitly dehumanized and destroyed. Part 3, “Theorizing the In/visibility of War,” is delivered as advertised: readers will find theory-driven essays on liberalism and war, on Jacques Derrida’s and Jean Baudrillard’s debate on the coming of the invasion of Iraq, and on the nature of war to come.

As a historian interested in this contemporary era, I find scholarly works like this encouraging, even if the foregrounding of theory makes some of it inaccessible to many historians. The proximity of these events and the lack of access to official archival sources mean that historians have yet to produce a significant historiography. The notable exceptions, like Beth Bailey and Richard Immerman’s edited collection, Understanding the U.S. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (2015), speak both to the possibilities for research but also historians’ hesitation to draw anything but tentative conclusions before seeing the full documentary record. Culture does not hide behind inaccessible government sources, though, even if it does, as the authors here demonstrate, manage to simultaneously reveal and obfuscate America’s seemingly endless twenty-first-century wars.  


Citation: Drew McKevitt. Review of Simons, Jon; Lucaites, John Louis, eds., In/visible War: The Culture of War in Twenty-First-Century America. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL:

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