U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Death of Osama bin Laden: V-J Day or Glorious Victory Over the Forces of Eastasia?

The death (or is it “killing” or “execution” or “assassination”?) of Osama bin Laden seems like a significant enough event that those of us in the American historical profession ought to give some space to it today.  But I struggled a bit whether or not to do so…and if so, how to touch on whatever intellectual history content one might find in yesterday’s events.*

Ultimately, I decided to put together this rather post in part because I was so struck by the public memory conversation that began even before President Obama spoke last night.   I found out about bin Laden’s death in a perfectly 21st-century fashion: a push notification from the New York Times on my iPad at around 10:15 pm CDT alerted me to the upcoming White House announcement, so I turned on MSNBC (which had the regular NBC news team’s coverage) and waited.  As crowds gathered outside the White House, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and chanting “USA! USA!,” one of the network talkingheads opined that this was going to one of those moments about which you’ll always remember what you were doing when you heard the news.

If bin Laden’s death is going to one of those moments (and with the media’s declaring it to be one, it may be well on the way there), how will we remember it? Will this be the end of a period in our history that began on 9/11/01?  Or will this be just another great triumph in the neverending Global War on Terror (or Whatever We’re Calling It This Week)?

Much like the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this great moment of national unity is (perhaps predictably) featuring a number of important political actors jockeying to attach their particular spin to what has happened.  The most obvious source of controversy so far seems to involve claims that bin Laden’s death vindicates George W. Bush’s foreign policy. At least in a narrow sense (that Bush, as opposed to Obama, somehow deserves credit), this argument seems doomed to fail. But I expect the broader idea that yesterday’s killing of bin Laden vindicates the broad, bipartisan consensus around the War on Terror (or Whatever) will go largely unchallenged in mainstream American public discourse.

But there really are questions to be asked here:  could another approach have captured bin Laden more quickly?  was an (apparent) assassination (as opposed to actually bringing bin Laden, alive, to justice) the right goal?  how much was this success the result of the broad, new powers that the national security and surveillance state accumulated for itself in the aftermath of 9/11? will the rest of the world be as giddy about what this operation’s success says about the United States as our pundits think they will be (Donny Deutsch, for example, was crowing about how good this will be for America’s “brand” overseas)? and what, ultimately, is the relationship of Osama bin Laden (and the now-concluded hunt for him) to the larger post-9/11 role of the US in the world?

Watching the crowds in New York and Washington, DC on tv late last night, I was filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, there was a certain America, F**k Yeah! quality about the celebration that seemed to reduce the whole thing to a kind of sporting event.  Given the direction that it took, I have no nostalgia for our immediate post-9/11 bout of national unity and have no desire to relive it.  I remain suspicious of a civil religion built around the notion that (in the words of a fellow Normanite) “we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way.”

On the other hand, the American people have been through a decade in which our nation has fought two wars (and numerous side conflicts) that have cost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives (including thousands of American ones).  The toll on military families, in particular, has been severe (and in very military states like Oklahoma, you can really feel the strain on those around you).    And though we’d spent twice the length of World War II doing so, before last night, we had yet to achieve our most clearly articulated goal: getting bin Laden, in the words of our last President, dead or alive.   This is one of the few moments in this long conflict in which Americans might tell ourselves, “finally, it’s over.”  Of course, that’s absolutely not the message that our leaders are conveying this morning (even as they are congratulating themselves on the operation). But I find some hope in the desire of our nation for this to be the V-J Day of the Global War on Terror. 

_____________________________
* At times this task feels like being a Daily Worker reporter and having to find a class angle on, say, a high school basketball game.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben,

    Ditto on finding a suitable way to introduce the topic here. I too sometimes struggle with the absurdity of “finding an angle.” I agree with your “public memory,” or “meaning of” (my phrase) approach.

    Thanks for that “America Fuck Yeah!” video. I like the *Top Gun* overtone. Some of my family members need to see that.

    But, more seriously, I agree with the exhalation-of-relief sentiment in your “finally, it’s over” observation. And there can’t be anything wrong with ~a bit~ nationalism when it celebrates a job well done, or a true “mission accomplished.” I took the spontaneous celebrations to be along those lines, and not necessarily linked to American blood lust.

    I found myself thinking about what last night meant during the run-up to the president’s news conference. After about 30 minutes of coverage I envisioned myself, momentarily, as a history textbook writer, circa 2050 or so: “The May 1, 2011 demise of Osama bin Laden symbolized both a refocusing of the previous war on terror and a moral victory in decades long battle against extreme Middle Eastern fundamentalism in the early twenty-first century.”

    I think the death of bin Laden has to be couched in symbolic meaning, for the material difference in the long war on terror will likely be small. But what is that meaning? So far I can only say, as noted in my fictional quote above, that it exemplifies a refocused war on terror (targeted, precise, smaller-scale).

    – TL

  2. Thanks for this, Ben. Your Orwell reference has made a nice point.

    I listened to coverage of this event on NPR this morning and heard a correspondent from Afghanistan assigned to get reactions from the Marines stationed in Helmand Province–a terrible dangerous and deadly place for troops. The Marines expressed their happiness and satisfaction that bin Laden had been killed, then put on their helmets and went on patrol. I don’t know what they thought in hours that followed, but I couldn’t help wondering for them–what the hell are they patrolling? What are they risking their lives for?

    Like many of us, I remember vividly Bush’s claims for the original mission in Afghanistan, something that seemed, in a limited sense, a plan proportionate to the terrorist attacks. But as you suggest, we fell into a war of ambiguity in which our contemporary stand-ins for Oceania fought both Eastasia and Eurasia–after awhile it didn’t really matter.

    Perhaps the point was, as Obama said at the end of his address, we need to recapture the unity that makes the US “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Yes, and 2 + 2 still equals 5.

  3. “What it means” in a historical context is for historians to say, but “what it says” is the most positive thing: think what you will of the USA, we will not forget and we will take care of our own. The projection of American power may be justified in some cases, and others not. But we are not paper tigers, and will take care of our own.

  4. As someone who was thirteen on 9/11, bin Laden’s death is highly symbolic because he was my generation’s Bogeyman.

    Osama’s death will no doubt be an important date (I’m sure most people will always associate it with 5/1), but a greater swath of historical significance is being created by America’s reaction(s) to his death and the future of American foreign relations in the context of Libya and the “Arab Spring.”

  5. Another historical thought: The successful raid on ObL makes the historical analogies between Carter and Obama less tenable. There was a high-stakes military operation in the Middle East where a helicopter went down, but that’s where the foreign-policy comparisons end. Obama’s foreign-policy legacy is now radically different than Carter’s. …Now if we could just see some separation on the domestic economic front. – TL

Comments are closed.