Law, Culture & the Humanities 2012: Panel on “Global Citizens: Violence and the Transnational Subject”

This past weekend in Fort Worth, TX, I was pleased to be part of the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. This year’s theme was “Representing Justice.” Tweets can be found at #ASLCH.

Audrey Golden, Nicolette Bruner, and I formed a law and literature panel called Global Citizens: Violence and the Transnational Subject, graciously chaired by Marc Roark of The Literary Table. Here are the paper abstracts:

Translating the ‘Self’ from Central and Eastern Europe: Putting Theory to Practice thought the Works of Aleksandar Hemon and W.G. Sebald by Audrey Golden

The second half of the twentieth century has borne witness to forced migration and statelessness in numbers previously unimaginable within modernity. Through the works of Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American émigré writer, and W.G. Sebald, a second-generation German novelist, this paper looks to the narratives of displaced persons and questions the role literary theory might play in imagining the processes of transnational movement and of internal “self-translation” that emigrants must undertake. This paper conceives a broader and more abstract model of “translation” that looks beyond natural language to include a cultural self-translation, and then asks if such a process is fraught with previously unimagined identity problems, or whether, although stemming from acts of violence, translating oneself might have ameliorative qualities for an individual caught between places, or in “nowhere” spaces.

Corporate Citizenship as U.S. Empire in Richard Harding Davis’s Soldiers of Fortune by Nicolette Bruner

Published in 1897, Richard Harding Davis’s novel, Soldiers of Fortune, describes the travails of a mining company that operates in the fictional Latin American country of Olancho, a thinly-veiled version of Cuba. The hero, filibustering engineer Robert Clay, facilitates the success of the corporation through military and financial interventions in Olancho. Meanwhile, Clay romances and marries Hope, the young daughter of the sole owner of the company’s stock. In this paper, I examine how Davis complicates the boundaries between corporate employer and human employee even as he glorifies the deeply unequal relation between U.S. corporations and the countries they exploited for profit. Corporate imperialism, as represented by the incursion of the U.S. citizen stockholder and his employees upon Latin American territory, becomes more than a matter of domination, but also an illustration of the complex interdependencies between business, storytelling, and violence in the fin de siècle.

Another Vietnam: War, The Archive, and the USS Kirk by Mai-Linh K. Hong

In late 2010, National Public Radio (NPR) aired a special series about the USS Kirk, a U.S. naval ship that was sent during the fall of Saigon to rescue the “remnants” of the South Vietnamese navy. The rescue was accomplished partly by transferring the Vietnamese ships’ sovereignty to the U.S. through a change of flags, a peaceful, quasi-legal transformation that dislodges the conventional Vietnam War narrative of violence and moral failure. Placing this “never before told” redemption story in the context of today’s U.S. war in Afghanistan, my project examines NPR’s historical revisionism and its production of a new visual iconography for the war that has haunted all later U.S. wars. I argue that, with “the archive” a site of suspense in the Wikileaks era, the rewriting of Vietnam must be understood as a response to contemporary anxieties about American imperialism, militarism, and national identity.

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National Security Law Student Note/Essay Competition

From the editors of the William Mitchell Law Review:

The William Mitchell Law Review is conducting a nation-wide student note competition.  Students are invited to submit case notes or essays on any subject related to national security.  The Law Review staff will evaluate all the submissions, and one winning entry will be published in the forthcoming issue.  All entries must be received by December 1, 2011.

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Law and Society Association Conference Update: Panel on the War on Terror

First, I am very grateful to the organizers and faculty of the Law and Society Association’s Graduate Student Workshop, which wrapped up on Wednesday. It was a terrific and inspiring program—I highly recommend it to other graduate students who do what I will affectionately call “law-and-blank” research.

Second, I attended several great panels during Days 1 and 2 of the LSA Annual Meeting (see Twitter at #LSA2011), but will detail just one of my favorites for now. Yesterday’s panel Exploring the Discontinuity in the War on Terror at the Margins and Beyond featured exciting papers by Paul E. Amar, Asli Bali, Darryl Li (a.k.a. @abubanda), and Wadie Said, with commentary by Sudha Setty.

Bali presented “Subordination by Law? Discretion and Discrimination against U.S. Muslims beyond September 11th,” which argued that since 9/11, executive branch powers have expanded alarmingly to create a de facto preventive detention system for Muslim Americans, dodging anti-discrimination laws. Bali described, among other things, two supermax-style prisons that hold terror suspects, 95% of whom are Muslim. (The rest are called “balancers,” meaning they are there to prevent—laughably—suggestions of religious or ethnic profiling.) She also points out that counterterrorism laws have effectively added aggravating factors to many minor crimes solely because the offender is Muslim; credit card fraud, for instance, has a tendency to become a terrorism-related felony if committed by a Muslim.

Li’s paper, delivered by Bali in his absence, examined “Global Civil War and American Power.” Li argues that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) operates largely outside the existing law of armed conflict, constituting a sort of “global civil war” in which US power is projected through weaker states and non-state actors. He eloquently refers to this as a “haunting of sovereignty” that does not fit traditional paradigms of either international or non-international armed conflict. Li’s evocative language and creative analysis can also be seen in his recent article, “Hunting the Out-of-Place Muslim,” which demonstrates how Muslims’ physical mobility is constructed as threatening and aberrational.

Amar’s paper, “The Human Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism,” traced the interplay between stereotypes of Arab “timebomb” masculinity and UN-style feminism up through the recent Egyptian revolution. Said’s paper, “The Message and Means of the Modern Terrorism Prosecution,” discussed the U.S. Supreme Court’s exceptional treatment of terrorism to contextualize Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (2009), which codified a broad interpretation of the 2007 material support ban.


Daring Rescues, Dead Babies, and ‘Another Vietnam’

As Americans debate the recent “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, I am reminded of an NPR feature that aired last year. In the fall of 2010, NPR’s All Things Considered told the story of the U.S.S. Kirk, a small U.S. naval ship that, at the end of the Vietnam War, conducted an unusual humanitarian mission.

On April 29, 1975, as Saigon fell, the Kirk and its astonished crew were sent to retrieve thousands of refugees who were fleeing South Vietnam by boat and helicopter. The next day, the Kirk returned to “rescue . . . the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy,” about thirty ships that constituted the last sovereign South Vietnamese territory. The “rescue” of the navy was effected by lowering the South Vietnamese flag and raising the U.S. flag on each ship, transforming it into sovereign U.S. territory. Anthems were sung. Tears were shed. A Vietnamese baby who died of fever was mourned by all aboard the Kirk. All ended well, with the refugees resettled in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Bao Le, who died aboard the Kirk

The story, explicitly a redemption narrative, says a lot about Americans’ view of themselves as citizens of a military superpower, particularly in relation to the “Orient.” NPR resurrects and rewrites that other Vietnam narrative, the one usually characterized by destruction, grief, and moral failure, into a tearful rescue. The story contains all the ingredients for an American comeback on the world stage: grateful Asian refugees, brave (and hitherto unsung) American heroes, and the distinctly harmonious, shared mourning of a Vietnamese baby—an innocent, civilian “other” who dies not because of U.S. violence, but in spite of U.S. medics’ efforts to save him from illness.

It is significant that this story appeared at a time when the U.S. was engaged in two seemingly interminable, geographically vague conflicts in the Middle East/western Asia. For most of the last decade, Americans have been haunted by a discursive ghost, that nagging refrain: “We don’t want another Vietnam,” an expensive, bloody, ideologically-motivated conflict against an enemy whose low-tech warfare somehow overwhelms the U.S.’ “modern” might. This was even before the “Arab Spring” came with its tech-savvy hopefulness and its double edge of democracy and violence; we were tired of the same, old War on Terror.

NPR, in fact, gave listeners “another Vietnam,” much better than the one we remembered. Foregrounding the U.S. military’s humanitarian functions, the story of the Kirk momentarily absolves the U.S. of its other actions. The story serves as a palliative to widespread American anxieties about war, territory, immigration, and imperialism. It enables a transformation of grief caused by human conflict into grief for the lost child, who functions as a cipher for innocence and the will of God. As we cry with nostalgia and pride at the raising of U.S. flags over South Vietnamese navy ships, we are also reassured that there is such a thing as colonialism by consent.

We live in a murky world where military action causes more violence, even as it saves lives. As listeners to the NPR story, we glimpse ourselves among the refugees, rescued from the horror of real war, seeking shelter aboard the Kirk.


Earthquakes and Amnesia: Japan, the U.S., and All That Radiation Expertise

As Japan has worked to contain nuclear fallout, recover bodies, and rebuild towns after the earthquakes and tsunami, U.S. political leaders and journalists have been eager to praise the Japanese people’s “resilience” in the face of disaster. A week ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed America’s support for Japan thus:

This has been an unprecedented disaster, but it has provoked an unprecedented show of resilience by the Japanese people and a pledge of cooperation and friendship from the American people.

It seems a kind of amnesia has taken hold of Clinton, and of many others who marvel at the speed and orderliness of Japan’s disaster response. Some have chalked up the resilience to “culture”—but that’s the default explanation when anything to do with “the Orient” seems different from “us.”

The more obvious explanation is that the Japanese have more experience with mass destruction and radiation than almost anyone. That experience comes courtesy of the U.S., which in 1945 dropped atomic bombs on two densely populated Japanese cities with the intention of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. What happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific war crimes, ones the U.S. has never had to account for because it was the victor in that war.

War historians might argue over whether the bombings ultimately saved lives by ending the war. But as we offer our “pledge of cooperation and friendship,” let’s at least be truthful about the history of our two nations. It’s not that Clinton has forgotten; her omission is willful, even systematic. America loves being the benefactor, the friend, especially while it is waging two (now three?) unpopular wars abroad. Maintaining our moral standing in today’s world demands a certain amount of brazenness, or apparent amnesia.

According to the Children of the Atomic Bomb project at UCLA, conservative estimates place death tolls at 150,000 in Hiroshima and 75,000 in Nagasaki. It’s hard to know the true extent of the damage because of the far-reaching and time-delayed effects of radiation. What we do know is that the bombings were multi-dimensional disasters, with death and injury occurring in a variety of ways, including burns, crushing, radiation sickness, and cancer.

Today, it is no wonder that Japan’s disaster response is fast, organized, and effective. Japan’s Red Cross Society, developed after World War II, has over two million registered volunteers. Is some of this because of “culture”? Maybe. But let’s start with the obvious explanation.


War Stories and the ‘Legal Geography’ of War

This weekend I attended (and live-tweeted) “Law and War: An International Humanitarian Law Workshop,” a two-day training for law and graduate students. It was held at the University of Virginia School of Law and co-sponsored by the ICRC, the American Red Cross, and the U.S. Army’s JAG School.

Among the highlights was Kenneth Anderson‘s presentation on the use of drones and targeted killing as part of the allied counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Anderson raised some interesting conceptual issues about contemporary warfare: Does war have boundaries? When an armed conflict moves from one location to another, which laws of war govern? Is there, in Anderson’s words, a “legal geography” of war?

The law of armed conflict (LOAC) is based upon classification of conflicts, starting with the distinction between international (state-on-state) and non-international (all other) armed conflicts. Civilian protections and combatant privilege don’t kick in until a conflict has met the threshold for either category, and the rules differ substantially between the categories. Consequently, location and intensity of fighting as well as identity of the participants are key to a LOAC analysis.

A common view, according to Anderson, is that armed conflict is located wherever its participants are. If an armed conflict authorized to take place in Afghanistan spreads to Pakistan, say, through the use of U.S. unmanned aircraft (drones), it is unclear which, or whether, LOAC rules apply. And if the U.S. were to, say, have the CIA rather than uniformed armed forces control those drones, it is unclear whether the actions even fall under the umbrella of LOAC. If LOAC does not apply, then what law governs? Is the U.S. operating in a legal void?

This is one example of how modern warfare, with its fuzzy geographic boundaries and blurred distinctions between soldiers and civilians, confounds LOAC.

My interest, as a student of literature, lies in how we conceptualize and narrate war when the traditional elements of a war narrative no longer exist. Where is war set? What is a front line? Who is a combatant and who is a civilian? To the extent that LOAC follows entrenched understandings of war, sovereignty, and combatant status, it is a window into the structure of the war narrative. When war as the law describes it ceases to resemble war on the ground, interesting things happen to the stories we tell about war. More to come on this.