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Caught in the act of innocence : consensus, war, and myth in post-cold war American literature and film Barta, Damon


My study examines expressions of American innocence in post-Cold War U.S. fiction and film and considers how these cultural artifacts reveal the role of this potent cultural myth in consent for war after 9/11. As John Shelton Lawrence writes, “the notion of national innocence seems central” to post-9/11 consensus about war. Similarly, Marita Sturken sees a “renewed investment in the notion of American innocence” after 9/11 (7), and Donald Pease casts 9/11 as an uneasy navigation of the “fantasy of radical innocence” (162) that American mythology has enabled. I argue that my exhibits trace the recuperation of this mythical innocence across what Samuel Cohen calls an “interwar decade” (4) and reveal its renewed cultural currency as the post-Cold War era was transformed by 9/11 and the U.S. began its War on Terror, an abstraction that took form in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I examine how Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997) probe Cold War nostalgia in the “interwar decade” and interrogate notions of American innocence that rely on such nostalgia. I then anatomize how Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Thin Red Line (1998) invoke a nostalgic discourse of WWII that contributed to a recuperation of American innocence instrumental to the call to war after 9/11. I go on to show how Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (2012) expose the rift between notions of American innocence and the realities of war by depicting young veterans who struggle to reconcile the two as they return from the Iraq War. I also show how Toni Morrison’s Home (2012), written shortly before the end of the Iraq War, rebukes American nostalgia for the putative innocence of the 1950s by tracing the homecoming of an African American veteran of the Korean War. Finally, I explore how Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Argo (2012) articulate distinct but complementary notions of American innocence that capture yet another recuperation of American innocence in the wake of the Iraq War.

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