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Vietnam Generation Journal

Volume 4, Number 3-4

November 1992

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In the Belly of the Beast:
MIAs and the Body Politic, Part I

Maria Damon, English Department, University of Minnesota

The obsession to retrieve the remains of U.S. soldiers from Viet Nam points to a resurgence of a pattern of reifying the body politic during a crisis of political legitimation. The genuine and cross-cultural (one is tempted to use the term "ubiquitous") concern with proper disposal of the dead can be observed in as diverse phenomena as Antigone on the one hand, and, on the other, recent Native American victories in their protest against researchers' disrespectful appropriation of their ancestral remains. However, far from being a "universal" feature which operates similarly across the cultural board and around the world, care of the dead, and particularly in this case the war dead, consistently reflects and constitutes an instance of the dynamics of each culture.

In the context, therefore, of contemporary American politics, public phenomena such as the Rambo films, professional athlete Gary Gaetti's fixation on the MIA/POW issue, the fetishization of the presidents' bodies, and the anatomical tropes that creep into media discourse on domestic and foreign policy must be read with an eye toward our particular social situation. When an imperial power is embattled, when an economy threatens collapse, a wild scramble to salvage some kind of certainty ensues, and the physical body emerges as an icon to which ideological significance can be attached. National paranoia and a corollary self-aggrandizement both increase, and questions of boundary play themselves out on the fetishized body. The following discussion will touch not only upon the MIA phenomenon, but also upon other contemporary instances of physicalizing the body politic and separating national ideology from real bodies. I will note primarily the enormous publicity given to former president Reagan's health, and the way medico-physical language and imagery permeate the discourse of both foreign and domestic policy.

What appears to be a brief digression into a twentieth-century interpretation of medieval politics of the body and bodies politic will serve to outline the primary concept informing my discussion. Historically and culturally, the United States is far from medieval Europe. At that time, the very nascent concepts of nationalism and national leadership needed an ideology of the body to help these concepts appear "natural;" currently, the twilight of capitalism and nationalism demands an analogous ideology, though this time around it is reactively defensive rather than actively constructive. However, the way in which this medieval constellation of ideas comes to us makes it an appropriate template against which to consider recent events. Ernst Kantorowicz, an Eastern European Jew teaching at Berkeley during the 1940s and 1950s--and then dismissed for spearheading opposition to the compulsory loyalty oath--exhaustively explored this physicalizing of politics in his "study of medieval political theology," The King's Two Bodies. An enormous compendium of anecdotes, images, and literary and historical detail, The King's Two Bodies examines the medieval and Renaissance notion of the complex and at times mystical conjunction of the ruler's natural body with his spiritual body--in other words, the body politic.

In the context of Kantorowicz's own experience as a Jew exiled from Europe during the expansion of the Third Reich, one hidden agenda in his project was to demystify the spiritually rationalized totalitarianism invested in national politics--a totalitarianism, that is, effected through conflating spiritual authority with the person of the head of state, and the integrity of the nation with racial and ideological "purity." This conflation could be said to have reached its modern apex in the symbolically charged person of Adolf Hitler, but was also resurfacing in Kantorowicz's adopted nation, the United States, in the anticommunist discourse dominating the postwar period. Kantorowicz speaks euphemistically of the German 1930s and the American 1950s as dominated by "the weirdest dogmas... in which political theologisms became genuine obsessions defying... the rudiments of human and political reason." (viii) Reconstructing medieval history in the light of mid twentieth-century concerns, Kantorowicz illuminates the times in which he wrote, and we in turn are not indulging in arbitrary anachronistic comparison to apply his analysis to the 1980s.

According to this Cold War text, the fiction of the King's Two Bodies as it operated in medieval legal and political life was a versatile concept which could be interpreted in wildly divergent ways, depending primarily--of course--on the interests of the state. At times the two bodies were conceived of as separable. Kantorowicz quotes Edmund Plowden, the Elizabethan lawyer, who articulates seemingly contradictory positions in the same text. On the one hand:

The King has in him two bodies, a Body natural and a Body politic. His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or Age, and to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other People. But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of policy and government... and this body is utterly void of Infancy, and Old Age, and other natural defects and imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to... (9).

To illustrate this version of the concept, Kantorowicz cites the case in which peasants had to pay a fee on the natural death of the king even though his kingship was considered immortal; and also the case of the English Revolution, in which the Parliament could invoke the spiritual king's leadership in taking up arms against Charles, the King's natural incarnation.

On the other hand, sometimes these two are not so sharply distinguishable. The two kings could be conflated such that they were inseparable. Plowden also states:

[The King] has not a Body natural distinct and divided by itself from the Office and Dignity royal, but a Body natural and a Body politic together indivisible; and these two bodies are incorporated in one Person, and make one Body and not divers, that is the Body corporate in the Body natural, et e contra the Body natural in the Body corporate (9).

The perfection of the spiritual king redeemed any possible failing of the natural king--thus, for example, the infallibility and political omnipotence of children-kings.

We might look at a modern-day American instance of the bodying forth of a state in the person of its leader, and the corollary or contradictory situation in which the person of the leader comes to embody the state. We might observe that Johnson and Nixon were each forced to step down because their conduct was not worthy of the spiritual Presidency. Conversely, even Reagan's political enemies in government have played down his possible role in Contra-Gate because he has so successfully identified his person with the office of President that it is seriously feared that any condemnation of Reagan would lead to mass cynicism and public loss of faith in the Presidency itself. Another more humorous and bluntly physical comparison comes to mind: the public ridicule that followed Johnson's display of his appendectomy scar stands in neat juxtaposition with the noble cast of Reagan's highly touted drug test urinalysis. An acknowledgement of Presidential physicality is undignified in the first instance and morally praiseworthy in the second. Johnson and Nixon both served during periods of great public questioning of authority; the Reagan era, on the other hand, has been characterized on the whole by public passivity and increased state control of public institutions.

From these examples, as from Kantorowicz's examples of the English Revolution versus the omnipotence of children kings, one could speculate that increased conceptual slippage between the physical ruler and the body politic points toward the possibility for change--and conversely, the more the two are conjoined into one static and reified whole, the more literalized metaphors of the body politic become in the person of the ruler, the more intransigent the state's hegemonic rule. Again, consider the example of Hitler. Ernst Kantorowicz is not the only European to point with urgency to the dangers of over-investment in the person of a leader: much more recently, Jochen Schulte-Sasse has written of Reagan as a supreme icon and media invention of a national ideology; who "incorporates, more than any other [cultural icon], both the cultural politics of neoconservatism and the powerful effect of high technology on culture;" later in the article Schulte-Sasse draws parallels between the Hands Across America media event and Nazi rallies, reminding his readers that his personal history as "someone with a German background" dictates the gravity of his remarks. (146)

However, this literalizing--the body politic as the leader's body--is not always a simple equation. It can take the form of compensatory relationship: faith in the strong person of the leader can salvage a threatened nation. For instance, while former President Reagan's defiant survival of an assassination attempt, intestinal and skin cancer, and the natural vicissitudes of the aging process pointed toward his virility and even immortality, the body politic itself was in extreme danger. Its fragile health hung on the thread that is Central America. The "Central America crisis," with its coverage in the papers constantly accompanied by diagrams and maps of the isthmus, arrows and dots pointing out the capital of Nicaragua, contra campsites in Honduras, etc., merged with the crisis in Reagan's health, complete with diagrams of the president's colon, arrows and dots highlighting the offending polyps. Although Reagan himself insisted after each trip to the hospital that he is now a person who "had cancer," the nation was not out of the woods yet. Continuing to play on the myth, solidified by the assassination attempt, of the double vulnerability and immortality of the ruler's body, the President projected and displaced his condition onto the international scene, continuing to warn us of the far more dangerous "cancer of communism" spreading from seemingly harmless and tiny Managua, the polyp that will kill two continents if not subjected to certain "operations." On conventional atlas maps, Central America even looks like a long and skinny crumpled-up gut connecting the two larger continents. Without its health intact, North and South America may become incontinent. The consumers of these media images were urged to show the same outpouring of concern for the welfare of the body politic as for Reagan's natural body--in fact, the one should follow from the other. If we think of these diagrams of Reagan's colon superimposed over a map of the nation, Che Guevara's observation that we who live in the States live "in the belly of the beast" takes on a grotesque allegorical materiality.

Indestructible repositories for our national faith, both Reagan and Bush have survived skirmishes with facial skin cancer, smiling and sporting band-aids in TV appearances and on front pages. Exaggerated publicity of these minor problems both distracts from and is exactly analogous to the covert and unpublicized activities supported by the U.S. in Central America; according to John Stockwell, the highest ranking officer to defect from the CIA and author of the CIA exposé In Search of Enemies, one form of torture used by the Contras was to peel the facial skin off of Nicaraguan peasants as their families were forced to watch.

It is of special interest to point out here that national health care improvements were among the most successful undertakings of the Sandinista government; hence, health care workers, hospitals and people delivering pharmaceuticals and supplies overland to remote areas were special targets of the counterinsurgency. The counter-revolutionaries' brutal and preemptive "operations" were designed to prevent isolated parts of the Nicaraguan population from realizing the health benefits of the revolution. As faith in the good health of our individual leaders becomes itself a fetish, attacks on the health of others--even our own children, our indigent and our elderly, in the form of educational, welfare, medicare and medicaid cutbacks--unavoidably accompany anticommunist vigilance and increased military spending.

In a further linguistic displacement, military enterprises are described in medical terms. The "retaliatory" air attack against Libya was repeatedly referred to in the media as a "surgical strike," carefully aimed at excising only the undesirable elements of that country--Khadafi's 15-month-old daughter, for example. The precision and cleanliness we were meant to infer from the medical metaphor was both underscored and belied by TV coverage of wounded Libyan children and adults in hospital beds--as if, somehow, the U.S. armed forces had been the doctors rather than the disease, operating on them with our bombers "for their own good"--after all, here they are recuperating. More recently and even more dramatically, the Persian Gulf War was touted as a clean and again, 'surgical' war--a designer war for television, as it were. Not only, we were told, were there no Iraqi casulaties to speak of (literally, that is: the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed were not spoken about in the mainstream media); but American troops were spoken of as if they were virtually in no danger because the sophistication of their long-distance radar weaponry put them out of the range of retaliation. However, months after the war's end, though we still hear precious little about Iraqi suffering, many articles have appeared attesting to the post-traumatic stress suffered by members of the U.S. military. In this case, there were not images of Baghdad's wounded available to the general public, and news on American suffering was delayed until it could be safely dehistoricized and repackaged as a quasi-natural aftereffect of the stressful but responsible business-as-usual of a team of world-class Hippocrateses.

Accompanying the conflation of the ruler's body with the nation is a kind of national autism; the objectifying of the body politic renders that state incapable of acknowledging other states. If the country is one threatened and monolithic organism, other countries can only be perceived as either inert resources for our further survival or hostile obstacles to that survival. The United States alienates itself from other nations on the planet as it declares itself an outlaw state willing, if necessary to "go it alone" (the phrase has been used both by the U.S. defending its attack on Libya and by South Africa defending its emergency measures in the face of increased international pressure to end apartheid). As State Department spokespeople issued these claims of self-sufficiency, an obsession with national boundaries and the physical integrity of the nation sets in. Replicating on the national level the anatomical ideology encouraged by the religious right, the U.S. is to be born again into a state of virgo intacta, impenetrable from without--witness the increasingly stringent immigration laws and the paramilitary role of border patrols and the INS. (In connection with this point, I'd like to mention John Borneman's Journal of Popular Culture article, tellingly entitled "Emigrés as Bullets/Immigration as Penetration," an analysis of the homophobia in popular discourse surrounding the U.S. reception of the 1980s wave of Cuban immigrants.) Accompanying the terror of contamination and/or sexual penetration from without is a fear of escape from within. It's okay to leave your heart in San Francisco, but not your bones in Viet Nam--actually, in light of the AIDS epidemic, the former is no longer advisable either. Tourists are urged to spend their dollars on native soil rather than wasting them in ungrateful foreign nations. We are terrorized by the domestic press' accounts of terrorism against U.S. citizens foolhardy enough to leave their own shores. We could be taken hostage at any moment by foreigners characterized by a San Francisco television commentator as "creeps whose names I can't even pronounce." As long as there are Americans, or even parts of Americans abroad, the American nation is not "whole."

Continue to Part II

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