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In the Belly of the Beast:
MIAs and the Body Politic, Part II
Maria Damon, English Department, University of Minnesota
Aside from the preoccupation with the physical condition and retrieval of the bodies of the Challenger crew, which overlapped roughly with the release of Rambo, MIAs and KIAs in Viet Nam constitute the most dramatic version of this phenomenon. According to the government the numbers of missing personnel in Viet Nam are far less than in other American wars of this century. Captain Douglas Clarke has pointed out, in his book The Missing Man: Politics and the MIA, that the number of MIAs initially unaccounted for in Viet Nam was two thousand five hundred forty-six, or 5% of the fatalities, compared to eight thousand, four hundred six in Korea, or about 25% of all deaths, and almost eighty thousand in WWII, which comprised 22% of fatalities. By 1978, moreover, the number of Viet Nam war MIAs had been reduced to 282, an almost insignificant number in material terms (7-11). And yet the furor continues to resurface periodically, fueled by such media extravaganzas as Rambo. Public interest in the MIAs, from the popularity of Rambo to the ongoing grief and uncertainty of the families of the missing, makes them a symbolically charged group. This symbolism currently serves the dominant conservatism. According to this world view, the shame of Viet Nam is not that we initially intervened--it is that we didn't win. Viet Nam is unfinished business because there was no clear victory for the United States; the conflict can thus be seen as open-ended and unresolved. The MIA issue, especially the possibility that some of the men are still living captives who need rescue, offers the perfect opening for a re-engagement of public indignation and a chance to resettle the case. Bruce Franklin's book MIA, or, Mythmaking in America (which has come out as this article goes to press) details the history of the post-Viet Nam war MIA/POW obsession. He documents the U.S. government's initial complicity in fostering the belief in living MIAs, the role of the presidents (from Nixon through Bush) in supporting or appearing for campaign purposes to support the cause, and the subsequent estrangement of the government from the MIA/POW institutions (National Leauge of Families, et al.) and movement it created, as the latter institutions and spin-off organizations came to feel that 'bureaucratic officials' in Washington were as obfuscatory and insensitive as the new Viet government, and as repeated diplomatic and military forays into Viet Nam failed to unearth or reveal any signs of Americans, living or dead. (It is a current point of interest that Franklin also documents Ross Perot's pivotal role in establishing and supporting these MIA/POW institutions.)
In addition to the obvious and predominant reason for the prominence of MIA publicity, there is also a further implication that it is sacrilege to allow American remains to rest in a Third World--and socialist--country. This is true not simply because Viet Nam is a Third World socialist country, and not simply because the remains are proof of valorous service and thus their return, under the guidelines of the Geneva Convention, constitutes a way of honoring and accounting for the dead; those 282 unaccounted-for, missing people haunt us, pointing to a dispersal rather than a concentration, a threatening lack of closure not just of the war as event, but of physical boundaries. Those hypothetical ungathered bodies call our own bodies into question, and in particular, our civic and communal body, the body politic. The MIAs become the invisible Kings whose spiritual bodies will be restored only through the restoration of their physical remains. Even more poignant and unsettling than the image of dead bodies is the far-fetched but gnawing possibility that some of the living MIAs have chosen to stay in Communist territory. If these men are not truly insane, like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, their possible existence threatens our sense of ideological certitude.
It has often been observed that the Viet Nam War was the first television war. Although the images were primarily those of disfigured Viet rather than American bodies, television coverage offered a somewhat palpable, if still highly mediated, sense of the horrors of war. These nightly scenes of carnage in American livingrooms fueled the public indignation that eventually led to our withdrawal from the conflict. But again, through the peculiar hyperreal medium of television, that sense of horror was displaced and alienated. Physical suffering was made spectacle for the American public; body parts on display became the war. Bodies became fetishes that symbolized the war. Now, the sight of those Viet bodies on television is gone, and the horrors of war become emblematized by the invocation of American bodies left in Viet Nam. The indignation aroused against the war by the sight of maimed Asian bodies is transmuted into indignation at having lost the war; the absent and imagined bodies of our countrymen stand in metonymically for that loss.
Pertinent here is Minnesota Twins' baseman Gary Gaetti and his obsession with the MIA/POW issue. It is no accident, I believe, that a professional athlete, whose sole use value in the public eye and exchange value is his mortal and ever-aging body and whose body, moreover, is on constant public display, should choose this phantom cause as the only charity to which he will devote his energy and time. American athletes are, like soldiers, simultaneously valued and devalued as bodies in the interest of someone else's economic gain--as cannon fodder and/or spectacle, who, when they sign on for the job, effectively relinquish their right to bodily privacy and self-determination; who can be "traded," "stationed," drug-tested, drugged, and then superficially run through quick-fix treatments to get off drugs and who are otherwise deprived of free choice and movement. Behind a flimsy screen of hero worship, they are fundamentally treated as slaves. The displacement of Gaetti's concern over his own body (fetishized as intact and healthy) onto the apocryphal bodies of "forgotten servicemen" (fetishized as fragmented and ghostly) speaks poignantly to professional sports as an elaborately glamorized form of physical abuse, neglect and exploitation. The two versions of fetishization, of course, mirror each other. Where is the "real" body Gaetti yearns for? What inner battlefield is it strewn over? What kind of care would heal it?
The imagistic splitting and displacement go on, taking form in the "weirdest... dogmas" and "genuine obsessions defying... the rudiments of human and political reason," snowballing into violent scenarios which would be hypocritical were they not so clearly symptoms of national psychic dysfunction. Far from warning against war, the mental image of unreturned servicemen and their physical condition has come to justify continued war against others. (I have to mention that Platoon, the first in a new generation of Viet Nam films, does attempt to recoup the critical potential of these metaphors. The most powerfully assaultive image of the movie is that of the "heroic"--that is, dope-smoking and peace-loving--Sgt. Elias abandoned to the mercies of the Viet Cong, reaching up to the U.S. Army helicopter as it takes off without him. In this case the abandonment of the good soldier epitomizes not American failure to win a just war, but American military insensitivity and fear as the core of our involvement in Viet Nam in the first place. However, even this film, which acknowledges ambivalence on the part of the American military and valorizes the soldiers who doubt the ethics of their involvement, does not grant the humanity of the 'enemy.' The dramatic scene of Elias' martyrdom/apotheosis relies for its emotional power on the assumption and filmic depiction of the North Vietnamese as an entymological swarm beyond human appeal).
As each individual "set of remains" sporadically returned to us by the Viet government has been carefully and separately examined to ensure its singularity and authenticity, the United States has supported the proliferation, in El Salvador, of mass graves of death squad victims, mutilated and dismembered beyond recognition and differentiation, strategically placed on well-traveled paths for shock effect. A member of the SEALs, an elite Navy group, testifies in Al Santoli's oral history of the Viet Nam war that this technique was tried in out in Viet Nam:
Each impact you had in that area was to be interpreted in terms of its terrorist potential, terrifying the people... We were looking for the maximum impact of that experience... Sometimes we'd paint green on their face, which would mean that the frogmen had been there... the body would be dismembered... like an ear would be missing or... the PRUs would... cut the liver out and take a bite out of it... Finding a loved one with a green face and stabbed--in the middle of the road--was incredible terror (219-220).
Certain innovative "anti-personnel" weapons designed by American weaponsmakers are intended to maim rather than kill--for instance, the land mine that explodes at waist level and maims the genitals--because "research has shown" that it is more demoralizing to a population to confront mutilation and dismemberment, whether in the living or dead, on a daily basis than to lose lives. In fact, according to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, this technique has a long history in Euro-America. The strategy of Indian genocide was to surprise and kill noncombatants--women and children--in order to demoralize combatant forces, whose warriorship per se was usually far superior to the Europeans'; this demoralization, of course, facilitated the step toward complete genocide of the perceived enemy.
Shulte-Sasse points out quite rightly that the attack on Libya was "not primarily an act of foreign policy" but one of domestic policy, through its media status as mass spectacle. (125-126) Our government seems to be applying assiduously this finding that public display of unwhole bodies undermines a citizenry's morale. By bombarding us with media coverage of the MIAs and the body parts of the Challenger victims, by fostering and playing on an obsession with remnants and relics of the torn-apart bodies of its own citizens, the state, in the interest of protecting us, trains against its own people a psychological version of the military techniques developed and tested in Southeast Asia and continually perfected in Latin America and elsewhere. As other nations get physically terrorized by wholesale slaughter, our television and movie screen and newspapers become weapons trained against us. A few selected images of noble carnage, talked about but rarely shown, are multiplied over and over by disproportionate media attention. (For example, the case of the MIAs and the Challenger crew: tragic dismemberment is portrayed as self-sacrifice.)
It could certainly be argued that the two forms of terrorism cannot be considered equivalent, and that actual physical violence poses a terror far greater than media violence. However, one could conjecture that the results have proven almost the opposite of what one might expect; in the Third World countries terrorized by physical U.S. violence, there has in fact been an increasingly strong anti-American resolve and more willingness toward organized oppositional activity; in the United States, the state terrorism disseminated against its own people through the media does seem to sap the public of its critical powers. Moreover, intentional or not, there is a projection of this terrorism onto foreign agency, such that, somehow, Khadafi and assorted Communists--Viet, Cuban, or Russian--end up implicated not only in the attack on Libya [(i.e., the Libyans "deserved it")] but even, indirectly, in such unrelated incidents as the Challenger disaster. (There was a brief and apocryphal rumor that Soviet sabotage was behind the blowup.)
What is the purpose in a nation's government demoralizing its own people? As in a dysfunctional nuclear family, the urge to protect becomes the compulsion to kill spirit and liveliness. It seems clear that the prevailing national atmosphere, "(expressions) of an enfeebled neoconservative social policy" (Schulte-Sasse: 126), feeds a public paranoia that would justify a so-called strong defense. The development of this defense would require further experimentation with weaponry and terrorist techniques, and more living laboratories to replace Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. The cycle of aggression and objectification is re-engaged. The frogman terrorist I quoted earlier concedes as much pointblank:
About a third of the guys that were in my unit are still in. They go out on secret operations. And it's only conjecture, but I know enough about the way that group works and I was in Guatemala this summer (1978 or 9?) and I was noticing how the guerillas work down there. The SEALs go into... Central America and Latin American countries and do the training for right-wing guerrilla or terrorist units. I have to conclude that all of that in Vietnam was an advanced bootcamp to train operatives for other kinds of... activities that the United States runs all over the world (213).
Each instance of dismemberment and mutilation finds its analogue, comically or horrifically psychologized, in the American media's fetishizing of American bodies and American boundaries.
It seems bitterly appropriate that the nation that first sundered the atom at the cost of 40,000 Japanese and Korean lives is now itself obsessed, in a dazzling feat of paranoid self-projection, with guarding the intactness not only of the "nuclear" family but of its own concretized concept of "indivisible" nationhood--exclusive, impermeable, a closed and suffocating system. This beast has no birth canal: which way out of the belly?
Clarke, Captain Douglas, The Missing Man: Politics and the MIA (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press) 1979.
Franklin, H. Bruce, MIA, or, Mythmaking in America (New York: Lawrence Hill) 1992.
Kantorowicz, Ernst, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 1957.
Santoli, Al, Everything We Had (New York: Ballantine) 1981.
Schulte-Sasse, Jochen, "Electronic Media and Cultural Politics in the Reagan Era: The Attack on Libya and Hands Across America as Media Events," Cultural Critique (Winter 1987-88): 123-152.
Zinn, Howard, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Colophon) 1980.