Saturday, January 11, 2020

Purnima Bose's "Intervention Narratives"

Purnima Bose is associate professor of English and international studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, and also serves as chairperson of the international studies department. Her publications include Organizing Empire: Individualism, Collective Agency & India and co-edited volumes with Laura E. Lyons: Cultural Critique and the Global Corporation and a special issue of Biography on “Corporate Personhood.”

Bose applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Intervention Narratives: Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror, and reported the following:
If you open Intervention Narratives to page 99, you will find several paragraphs on the culture of pet ownership in the United States. The page begins by drawing on Heidi Nast’s insights that pets, particularly dogs, have displaced children as objects of affection in post-industrial societies that are oriented toward hyper consumerism. Dogs are less expensive to raise, and they are expendable if they become nuisances in ways that children are not. In the US, the anthropomorphism of dogs into family members has been accompanied by the emergence of a dizzying array of products and services oriented toward canines. On page 99, you would read that American consumers spent a staggering $69.51 billion on their household animals in 2017 compared with the $42.4 billion that the US government allocated to foreign aid for 140 countries. You would learn that corporations such as Paul Mitchell and Omaha Steaks, which have traditionally sold products for people, are developing shampoos and high-end food for pets to cash in on these markets.

At one level, the page 99 test yields an inaccurate snapshot of the book, which is about the stories that Americans tell about their engagement with Afghanistan since the Cold War. There is no obvious connection between Americans’ expenditure on pets and the US intervention in Afghanistan. Page 99 is in chapter three, which explains the relationship between American pet culture and foreign intervention by analyzing recent memoirs and popular films focused on US soldiers and Marines, who have either rescued stray dogs in Afghanistan or gone to great lengths to safeguard their military working dogs [MWDs]. I argue that these accounts efface the violence of military occupation against Afghans, whose conditions are rarely mentioned, and instead elicit our emotional identification with helpless strays and heroic MWDs. These stories have happy endings that narrate the successful immigration of these dogs to the US and their adoption by American families. While the achievements of the war remain dubious, Americans can believe the compensatory fantasy that we have saved blameless canines.

The page 99 test also does not adequately represent the range of stories I examine in Intervention Narratives, including Cold War depictions of the Mujahideen, Afghan women entrepreneurs, members of Seal Team Six, and Osama bin Laden. I make two central arguments that are invisible on that page: first, American representations of Afghanistan are contradictory, and, hence, have a wide appeal across the political spectrum; second, US policy toward Afghanistan since the Cold War is not anchored in realities on the ground and is largely based on fictions, a conclusion that a recent extensive Washington Post investigation validates.

At another level, the page 99 test accurately conveys how I contextualize the stories we tell of Afghanistan in facts and figures, particularly in terms of flows of money. Given the US Department of Defense’s shoddy accounting practices, we may never know how much money this conflict has cost. More importantly, the human costs of this war remain hidden because of the US military’s refusal to disclose the number of civilian casualties. Countless lives have been lost as a direct result of US military power; the indirect consequences of war such as disruptions to agriculture, food distribution, and the delivery of healthcare have meant untold misery for many other Afghans. Intervention Narratives interrogates American stories about the Afghan war to indict the rationales and prosecution of this most imperial of conflicts.
Learn more about Intervention Narratives at the Rutgers University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue