Orientalism and War

A new edited volume, Orientalism and War, edited by Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski, will appear soon published by Columbia/Hurst. Asked to blurb it, I took some time to read the chapters, some of which I found to be intellectually rich and effective in conveying the racist underpinnings of many wars. I was somewhat skeptical of the framing of the project because I have long found Ahmed’s critique of Said’s notion of Orientalism pretty persuasive. The concept partakes of that which it seeks to critique, inciting totalizing and moralized binaries at the same time as it tries to problematize them (imperial/anti-imperial being a particularly a seductive one). Some of the essays, those that skip blithely (as Said does) over hundreds of years of history and different contexts to make similar meta-points, succumb somewhat to this. Others are intellectually stimulating and well written, developing important points on voice, vision and gendered violence. Outing ‘Orientialism’ as a project can led to writing that is polemical and morally self-righteous, a condition avoided here for the most part though one could argue that there is a degree of self-affirming group think at work. To the editor’s credit, they enlisted Patrick Porter whose book Military Orientalism was published by Hirst in 2011 to write the Afterword (I have not read this work; here’s a H Net review). This Afterword is provocative in challenging some implicit assumptions in the essays that have gone before, most especially in a sometimes too easy homogenizing of cultures of knowing/positioning ‘the East.’ What is ‘imperial’ and not is also more complex than it appears. Its a good ending for the book, a call for more reflexivity and modesty in critique.

By pure chance, I managed to see a fantastic documentary that was very apropos of the subject, called Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor. It traces the search for a fifth Japanese midget submarine (unknown to this point and technological marvels, from the East!) that was involved in the attack in December 1941, and reveals a remarkable level of co-operation between US and Japanese academics. There is also a touching sequence in which a veteran of the Japanese imperial army dives with the sub search and upon its discovery shows modern day photos of relatives to the two dead Japanese mariners entombed within it. The degree to which the US Navy cooperates with the subsequent honoring of their memory is also remarkable, bearing in mind that they were part of a mission that killed thousands of Americans and launched the US into World War II. Studies of war and orientalism, in my opinion, are best approached through precise cases for that allows appreciation of the conjunctural and moral dilemmas that attend the subject.

About Dr Gerard Toal

Irish born academic living in Washington DC researching geopolitical competition and territorial conflicts in post-Communist Europe. Author of CRITICAL GEOPOLITICS (1996), BOSNIA REMADE (w C Dahlman) and NEAR ABROAD: PUTIN, THE WEST AND THE CONTEST OVER UKRAINE AND THE CAUCASUS (Oxford University Press, 2017).
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