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Summer 2023 articles

A War at the End of Empire: The Militarization of America and Matt Gallagher’s Empire City

Ari Räisänen


This article examines how contemporary U.S. veteran literature helps understand the domestic effects of the 20-year long War on Terror, and its inseparability from violence at home. Literature written by veterans of the War on Terror provides a unique—and often overlooked—instrument for the mapping and navigation of this cultural terrain enveloped by “forever war.” I use Matt Gallagher’s novel Empire City (2020) as a case study to explore how contemporary veteran literature interrogates the relationship between state violence at home and abroad. The novel’s use of alternate history allows it to interrogate the domestic implications of the War on Terror and foreground the repressed imperiality of U.S. history. The counternarrative ruptures of Empire City demonstrate the unique vantage point veteran literature provides to understanding the ways in which the War on Terror has shaped, and continues to shape, the United States and its relationship with the world.

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1In this article, I argue that the War on Terror has come to project a totalizing field that envelops and frames the relationship between U.S. citizens and the state. In doing so, war has effectively colonized America, the amalgamation of mythical narratives that serves as the foundation of U.S. national identity and state fantasies. According to Donald E. Pease, state fantasies function as the “dominant structure of desire” which produces national identity (1) and legitimate the state’s authority to its citizens (3-4). This has resulted in what I term the hegemonic soldier—an ideological construct that informs populist representations of war and soldiering—to gain a central position in U.S. state fantasies. The hegemonic soldier acts as a link between state fantasies and the citizenry by providing a unifying, and seemingly de-politicized, symbol of patriotic Americanness.

2Given this development, I argue that the analysis of literature written by veterans of the War on Terror takes on a new sense of importance. The literature written by those that have fought—or still fight—in America’s longest war provides a unique vantage point in the examination of the wars’ domestic reverberations. I use veteran author Matt Gallagher’s novel Empire City (2020) as a case study to explore how contemporary U.S. veteran literature can provide counternarratives that transgress state fantasies defined by the War on Terror’s violence at home and abroad. Subsequently, Empire City refuses what Lucy Bond characterizes as the tendency to memorialize the 9/11 attacks from a trauma-centric framework in which trauma works both as a “mode of devastating destabilization and redemptive resolution” (48). This approach depoliticizes and dehistoricizes the attacks by contextualizing them within narratives characterized by a fascination with the introspective that obfuscates the political (Bond 36). Critically, such obfuscation also risks situating the wars that followed 9/11 in the same traumatic framework as instruments of national healing. Similarly, Roy Scranton has argued that in contemporary US culture, war has been primarily interpreted as a story of personal trauma in which the psychic and physical tribulations of the suffering soldier foreclose the wider political implications of war within the symbolic figure of the trauma hero (Total 13). In contrast, as my reading of Empire City suggests, many veteran texts of the War on Terror transcend such framing by historicizing and explicating the political interconnectedness between the war abroad and home. The transnational frame generated by such texts seeks to open the dual closures of trauma and American exceptionalism. The exploration of veteran texts such as Empire City allows for a deeper understanding of the domestic cultural and political aftershocks of the War on Terror while also contributing to the study of a relatively underutilized literary field.

1. Myth, the Exceptional Nation, and State Fantasies

3A nation has to be imagined before it exists (B. R. Anderson 6), and it is myths that sustain national imaginings. Myths provide narratives that legitimate otherwise inexcusable acts of senseless brutality and help find meaning in collective hardship (Pease 156). In doing so, myths exclude non-hegemonic perspectives and produce a sanctified narrative that attempts to resist and absorb changes to its prescribed meaning. Cultural myths thus establish “a blissful clarity” in which “things appear to mean something by themselves” (Barthes 143). In other words, myths mask the constant process of negotiation over the meaning of a nation by providing an illusion of uniform continuity. The key to dispelling this illusion lies, as Richard Slotkin notes, in the historicization of myth which treats them as “human creations, produced in a specific historical time” (80). Such interrogation of myths reveals the nation as an ever-evolving cultural construct (Bhabha 292). Mythical narratives, then, have a distinctly ideological quality to them as mechanisms of national reproduction. Together, these narratives form the body of national mythology which “exemplifies and historicizes ideology” (Slotkin, 70). They are critical to constructing what Bhabha terms as “the people” as “historical objects of a nationalist pedagogy” that inducts the individual into nationness (297). Similar to Bond’s view of America as a myth (53), America is understood here as an amalgamation of mythical narratives that is connected by the notion of an already ideal, and thus exceptional nation, free from the history that governs other nations. The shared meanings of such mythologized discourses of a nation help shape and give form to the “national Thing… that elusive entity called ‘our way of life’” that is constantly being threatened by the Other (Žižek 201). Normally, this dynamic animates a national fantasy which strives towards an idealized form of the nation. American exceptionalism, however, posits that America is already a perfect nation and a model for the rest of the world to follow (Kaplan 16). As such, Pease argues that in the United States the desire to achieve an ideal nation was replaced by an “abnormal desire to propagate U.S. nationalism” across the world (22). American exceptionalism, in Pease’s view, then, acts as the “master-fantasy of modern America” (Bond 55) that forms the basis of national belonging.

4In addition to being integral to U.S. national identity, American exceptionalism serves as the raw material for the production of state fantasies. State fantasies use mythical narratives to legitimate themselves to the citizenry by providing the “dominant structure of desire” of American national identity (Pease 1-3). They function as a way of internalizing the state’s policies via “scenarios” which present “the state’s rules and norms” as integral to the structure of national desire (Pease 4). As such, state fantasies induct in an individual citizen a desire for national belonging and purpose, and legitimize the state’s use of coercive force. National mythology provides the framework for this desire through a historically rooted discourse with common shared meanings and which reproduces national ideology (Slotkin, 72). State fantasies, in turn, reconfigure mythical narratives around nationally traumatic events, which is a new symbolic order that frames myths and generates new meanings (Dorson 111). Moreover, Bond notes that such crises are also used to “affirm the very vision of America as an exceptional nation” (55). During the Cold War, American exceptionalism functioned as a bulwark against Soviet communism, the national Other against which the mythical narratives of America were deployed by state fantasies with full force (Pease 19). Similarly, the exceptionalist Virgin Land myth repressed historical discontinuities by allowing U.S. citizens to proclaim a “radical innocence” that enabled the disavowal of historical national traumas, such as the forced displacement of Native Americans from their homelands (Pease 158–59). American exceptionalism, in other words, functions as an ideological strategy of containment, a maneuver that is seemingly “internally coherent in its own terms, while repressing the unthinkable… which lies outside its boundaries” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious 38). Pease argues that 9/11 provided the foundation for a new state fantasy that projected America’s radical innocence as a way of disavowing the implications—that America’s actions abroad had caused this—behind the attacks (Dorson 120). The new homeland fantasy produced cathartic sentiments of retribution among the citizens by making them feel participatory in the state’s limitless power over other sovereign states as well as individuals (Pease 172-173). The insistence that the state must be allowed to brutalize populations both abroad as well as home to ensure the homeland’s safety ensured that the war was integrally linked to the domestic from the beginning.

5The homeland fantasy provided the phantasmic support structure for an endless war to be waged across the globe by attaching itself to mythological narratives rooted deep in American history. Furthermore, the Homeland fantasy provided the possibility for U.S. citizens to disavow the wars abroad by appealing to America’s radical historical innocence. In this sense, the same American exceptionalism that provided a rationale for the Cold War-era interventionist foreign policy eventually morphed into a doctrine of endless war in the wake of 9/11. As a result, war projects a totalizing field that governs the production of American state fantasies, an absent cause whose effects are felt yet not always readily visible as such.

1.1. Contemporary Veteran Literature and the Exceptional Soldier

6War narratives are inherently political (Bates 2), making them uniquely suited for the exploration of the militarization of America. Crucially, war narratives help explicate the transnational flows of violence between the war abroad and home. The conscious negotiation with the relationship between the foreign and the domestic emerges as a key transgressive element in the literature written by American veterans of the War on Terror. Phil Klay, for instance, explores the intricate relationship between war and global capital, and the complex transnational structures of state violence that sustain conflict in his novel Missionaries (2020). Similarly, Eliot Ackerman’s works often go beyond the subjectivity of the American soldier: Green on Blue (2015) is an account of the war in Afghanistan narrated entirely from an Afghan perspective, while Dark at the Crossing (2017) examines the Syrian civil war from the viewpoint of Haris, an Iraqi-American interpreter. Klay’s and Ackerman’s works are illustrative of the American veteran author’s unique vantage point between the civilian and military worlds, as well as their self-awareness of the American soldier’s cultural status and their role as enforcers of American state power. This historicizing perspective grants veteran literature its subversive potential in mapping out the transnational networks of violence and social power in the contemporary United States. In a wider sense, the historicization of the War on Terror in contemporary veteran literature also enables the repoliticization of 9/11 and its legacy in a way that transcends the confines of a purely personal trauma narrative.

7Not all contemporary veteran literature is transgressive, however. On the contrary, populist war narratives such as Chris Kyle’s autobiography American Sniper (2012) which seek to enforce the status quo remain popular. The divide within contemporary veteran literature has been aptly put by author Brian Castner who has noted that “two kinds of books being published on contemporary war: red books and blue books, with these colors corresponding to the competing portions of the American electorate” (Van Reet). As Van Reet himself points out, dichotomous categorizations are inherently reductive, but it crystallizes the difference between populist war narratives which reinforce representations that sustain war through violent heroic action, and counternarratives which attempt to destabilize the same mythic structures. Nonetheless, both narrative categories emerge from what I have termed the military unconscious: an adaptation of Fredric Jameson’s political unconscious, in which the focus shifts from class towards the military as a social formation. Here, the role of the veteran author transcends the purely personal and becomes reminiscent of the “storyteller figure” who questions established truths and expresses communal desires (Dragas 2). These desires are articulated through narratives that seek to symbolically resolve social antinomies. Such counternarratives re-politicize narrative content and unfix the social totality that anchors the dominant narrative (Dorson 51). In contemporary U.S. veteran literature, this rupture opens the possibility for the narrative resignification of the signs and symbols that regulate American cultural representations of war and soldiering.

8In his novel War Porn (2016), veteran author Roy Scranton provides an ironic deconstruction of the popular image of the American soldier: “Back in the war, he was part of a ragtag team of misfit soldiers, hand-picked for a suicide mission to kill Hitler. Good and evil. He’s a downed fighter pilot. He’s red white and blue” (229). The amalgamation of pop culture imagery is demonstrative of what I term as the hegemonic soldier. The hegemonic soldier is an ideological apparatus which informs populist representations of war and soldiering and, in doing so, reinforces dominant discourses of patriotism and nationalism. The hegemonic soldier’s inner logic is located in the civilian-military divide, which exacerbates the former’s tendency to rely on the hegemonic soldier’s reservoir of patriotic imagery to construct their views on the military. In this sense, the hegemonic soldier functions in the manner of Fredric Jameson’s idea of nostalgic recreation, according to which contemporary society has been severed from history that is only reachable through the simulacra of cultural imagery (Postmodernism 25). Similarly, the hegemonic soldier relies on the civilian-military divide to reconstruct its object—the American soldier of the War on Terror—as the exceptional soldier: a seemingly depoliticized figure whose ideological support structure is rooted in essentialized discourses of American exceptionalism.

9This process of nostalgic recreation annihilates the individual soldier subject and assimilates them into the exceptional soldier’s naturalized discourses of patriotism. It transforms the soldier subject into a symbol of state power, which guarantees the continuity and safety of the nation beyond the temporality of ‘now,’ reaching into the future and the past. This mythological continuity is apparent in the metaphor of the “long gray line” employed by General Douglas McArthur in 1962 to new cadets at West Point: “The Long Gray Line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses thundering those magic words—Duty—Honor—Country” (“MacArthur at West Point” 11). The language transforms the individual soldier subject into a mythical representation of national continuity, differentiated only by the already deindividualizing uniforms. Similarly, national continuity is concretized in war memorials whose symbolic language generates a sense of a timeless nation through the figure of the de-individualized soldier (B. R. Anderson 9).

10Nostalgia plays a crucial role in the construction of the hegemonic soldier’s affective properties. Svetlana Boym notes that nostalgia is longing for the imagined lost collective home and a yearning for a return towards the clearly delineated values and borders constructed by national mythologies (49). This tendency is crucial to what she terms as “restorative nostalgia” which “attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home” and represents itself “truth and tradition” (Boym xviii). This is the nostalgia of the exceptional soldier as well; a nostalgia, which through romanticized representations of soldiering and war, anchors citizens to the imagined lost home of America. This mythical structure allows the exceptional soldier to serve as a way for a divided citizenry to traverse the gap created by political polarization and reclaim a sense of national unity. The exceptional soldier thus acts as a seemingly depoliticized symbol of national unity that allows Americans of any political leaning to imagine their national identity no matter what the prevailing state fantasy is. In this sense, the exceptional soldier functions as a way of containing the antinomies of U.S. actions abroad and the vestigial, yet omnipresent, sense of American exceptionalism that sees the country as inherently benevolent. In doing so, the exceptional soldier provides a phantasmic support network for an endless war by sublimating desires antithetical (death and subjugation of the enemy-Other) to American ideals into the more acceptable form of the heroic soldier.

2. The Aftershocks of War and Empire City

11Veteran author Matt Gallagher’s Empire City is an alternative history novel set in a world where the U.S. won the war in Vietnam by the early 1980s with the help of the newly formed American Foreign Legion. The novel takes place in New York City, now an American city state and re-named as Empire City – itself a variation of the State of New York’s nickname. The U.S. is stuck in a seemingly never ending 30-year long Mediterranean War which has seen the number of “warfighters”—veterans and active-duty members—to balloon to massive numbers. In Empire City, war is a structural and a totalizing force that animates all forms of cultural production. The public face of the warfighter class are the Volunteers—Pete “Justice” Swenson, Jean-Jacques “Dash” Saint-Preux, and Grady “Sniper” Flowers—a group of Rangers transformed into “superheroes” by an experimental bomb detonated above them during a hostage rescue operation in Libya which killed the rest of their platoon. Officially, however, the soldiers received their powers as a result of a government program titled the “Hero Project” (272). While warfighters are ostensibly venerated, veterans face the possibility of being assigned to one of the colonies, which are remote facilities supposedly built to help veterans acclimate to civilian life, but where they are subjected to medical experiments intended to replicate the incident that created the Volunteers. Meanwhile, the militant wing of paramilitary organization called the Mayday group—an allusion to the 1971 May Day protests that opposed the war in Vietnam—wages a violent campaign to force the nation to acknowledge the costs of America’s war.

12Alternate histories, as Hellekson points out, are intimately concerned with the contingent nature of history and the narratives that shape it (5). Historicization, in other words, is central to the genre. The use of alternate history in Empire City and its recontextualization of the Vietnam war acts as an allegory that induces a defamiliarizing and historicizing shock that foregrounds the War on Terror’s latent political, cultural, and social reverberations in the United States, and makes the implied imperial logic of the Homeland-fantasy explicit. At the same time, the novel highlights how individual soldier subject is subsumed by the exceptional soldier that sustains an unending war. The multivalent allegory of Empire City allows its counternarrative maneuvers to destabilize the narratives that sustain a never-ending war by repoliticizing the exceptional soldier.

2.1. Remembering Empire

13The relationship between national identity and space creates an omnipresent and “complex geography… constituted by borders, symbolic areas and sites, pathways, dwelling places and everyday fixtures” (Edensor 37). Nationhood is thus always present in every-day life and unconsciously reinforced in the day-to-day life of a nation’s citizens (Billig 93). In this manner, the urban spaces of Empire City form an allegorical national geography of a dystopian America colonized by an endless war. War pervades the spaces of the city and defines their spatial contours through ubiquitous patriotic signifiers: war memorials such as the “white spire” celebrating the victory in Vietnam (Gallagher 84) dominate public spaces and cinemas feature blockbusters detailing the Volunteers’ exploits (97). The imperial dystopia cannot, however, completely repress its underside: homeless veterans live and beg on the streets (109), while a memorial is scarred by “old bullet holes from the Vietnam arrests” (307). War is omnipresent and naturalized in Empire City. The totalizing field of the forever war even permeates the city’s audioscape as “monitor drones hummed from above, ever-steady” (3), serving as an auditory reminder of the domestic reach of imperial violence.

14The structure of Empire City also testifies to the transnational flows of imperial violence that have shaped America. The map of the city—and the Unites States itself—is continuously shaped by the arrival of refugees and other victims of imperial violence: “Below them, outlines of sprawling warehouses and trucking depots dotted the nightscape. Many were retrofitted spaces, breweries a century before, the last vestiges from a far-gone wave of refugees fleeing the Ottoman Purges. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren had scattered to the winds” (174). The constant demographic and economic movement implied by the passage is emblematic of the notion of assimilation and shedding of historicity implicit in the idea of America, as “people here never stopped immigrating, even if they called it something else… To suburbia. To the far West or deep South.… Carrying a name with scars but none of the memories” (174). To be American, the novel ironically suggests, requires a sort of willful, dehistoricizing amnesia that comes with assimilation. The scars of history might be present, but their origins are lost in the constant movement towards the imagined and distant frontiers, while the “old homeland” is only experienced through exchange programs consisting “of fuzzy nostalgia and partying” (174). Here, suburbia forms the apotheosis of the amnesiac landscape of America. It is where the “real American dream” of “your progeny [getting] soft and stupid” (174) finds its dehistoricizing endpoint. In contrast, ethnic areas such as the novel’s enclave of Little Haiti form gaps and disjunctures in the city’s imperial texture that resist the amnesia of America. These pockets of resistance, the novel implies, are destined to be transformed into reified and homogenized spaces of America through gentrification. In Gypsy Town, an empty “industrial wasteland… between empire and empire’s suburbs” was transformed by “settlers” who arrived “piecemeal at first, then in sudden waves,” eventually turning it again into a gentrified and homogenized space that “just was” (102). The novel explicitly constructs Empire City as an urban allegory of America by framing the gentrification process in the language of the Frontier mythology. The cityscape of Empire City allegorizes the paradoxical nature of America and its repressed imperiality and foregrounds the disjunctures of an invisible state of war. At the same time, it calls attention to the fundamentally transnational nature of America in a manner that critiques the idea of America as a homogenizing melting pot of cultures.

15The reverberations of war are also detectable in the aesthetic expression of cultural objects and the symbolic language of memorials. The abstraction of national mythologies is concretized in monuments and reinforced through patriotic rituals. These spaces function as the physical markers of “official memory” that sustain national myths by producing sanctified narratives of events (Ashplant et al. 22). These “places of memory”—as Pierre Nora terms them (7), also provide concrete sites for the reinforcement of state fantasies. However, monuments and their corresponding patriotic rituals also provide the possibility for resistance. For instance, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial designed by Maya Lin proved controversial as its design was intentionally somber calling “into question the fundamental tenets of American patriotism” (Hass 12). The visual language of the monument denies glorification of the dead: its black granite connotes mourning and the void left by the dead, while the names inscribed on it individualize the dead. The memorial is also intimately linked with surrounding historical sites. Pirjo Ahokas notes that the memorial’s “two black panels… point to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial,” thus bringing the memorial into “the historical context of the United States” (45). Finally, the memorial’s reflective surface allows the viewer to see their own image reflected back among the dead. The controversy over the memorial’s design also spawned a more traditional memorial, The Three Soldiers, whose imagery of “strong, highly masculinized, and heroic” men (Hass 18) reflects more traditional notions of war and heroism. It is a stark contrast to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. By linking martial heroism and masculinity, the monument is part of the wider re-negotiation over the “meaning” of the Vietnam War that emerged in U.S. political discourse and popular culture during the 1980s. Monuments, in other words, are intensely politicized sites where the wider antagonisms between sanctified national memories and countermemories manifest and meaning is contested.

16Like all cultural objects, the aesthetic edifice of memorials radiates symbolic and ideological messages. Jameson notes that the “ideology of form” can reveal latent narratives repressed by structures of “political domination” (The Political Unconscious 84–85). In Empire City, the evolution of the Statue of Liberty reflects the national transformation brought about by the War on Terror’s militarization of America. The statue is emblematic of America’s ideals of universalism and inclusion. In Empire City, it serves as an allegory of a nation unable to transcend war: the statue remains in a state of disrepair, a “droopy torch in her right hand,” with repair funds being assigned to monuments honoring the victory in Vietnam; the statue remaining a mere “snapshot of old American might, sealed in memory” (72-73). The statue’s torch, which symbolizes America’s democracy, now stands listless after three decades of war. The text also suggests that there has been a certain inevitability to America’s transformation: “Lady Liberty sank slowly into the island it rested on. Turned out it’s been set on sodden ground” (73). Finally, the phrase “sodden ground” implies that the repression of America’s past has inexorably led the nation towards a state where war inevitably colonized the nation’s mythical foundations.

17By the end of the novel, the U.S. has been transformed into a military-led state and the old statue has been demolished, “her torch bound for a city park,” with the rest of the statue rumored to have been bought by Lehman Brothers for their courtyard (333-334). The nation’s old ideals, in other words, have been sold to the highest bidder. A newscast proclaims that the new Lady Liberty is “four times larger than the original, the statue is made from Montana limestone with a shield strapped across her back, and holds aloft a longsword in her right hand” (349). The new statue marks the symbolic completion of America’s militarization. The grandiose statue signals an aggressive national posture that embraces conquest as the defensive shield is placed on back while the longsword is poised, ready to strike. Its materialistic nationalism—the replacement of Norwegian copper and French design with Montana limestone—effaces the foreign from the mythical America and marks the shift into a closed, jingoistic America of the forever war. Fears of such militarization have been echoed by military scholars as well as journalists. For instance, Gary Kohn notes that the militarization caused by the War on Terror could blur into an all-encompassing militarism that would transform American institutions and cultural values towards authoritarianism (181–82). Similarly, Spencer Ackerman argues in Reign of Terror that accelerating domestic militarization has made it hard to imagine America as anything more than “its War on Terror” (338). In Empire City, the symbolism and ideology implicit in the aesthetic form of the Statue of Liberty makes such national transformations explicit and visible.

2.2. (Dis)Remembering War: Memorialization in Empire City

18Out of all national monuments, it is perhaps war memorials that present national narratives at their most emotionally resonant. War memorials celebrate the endurance of the nation by providing a narrative of the collective sacrifice of its soldiers and civilians. At the same time, such sanctified memories also stifle experiences incongruous to it. Alan Rice notes in his discussion on the Memorial Gates—a British monument to the African, Caribbean, and Indian veterans of the world wars—that war memorials often suppress and appropriate war-time experiences to construct historical narratives concordant with the purposes of the state (154). The management of war memory and its mythologization through commemorative practices emerges as a key counternarrative element in Empire City. Monuments foreground the imperial nature of America’s history through the countless memorials to foreign wars that dot Empire City. These memorials simultaneously sanctify and repress potentially subversive war experiences by constructing an official war memory that sustains the novel’s imperial America. The dynamic is highlighted by the Mayday-group bombing of the city’s war memorials:

War monuments across the city had been blown apart with pipe bombs and homemade explosives. A rostral column in midtown dedicated to the USS Maine. The doughboy statue at the Hell Gate. A large, gilded eagle along the river celebrating the Greatest Generation. The spire at Vietnam Victory Square. The crossed-pistols gate that arched over Broadway, built in remembrance of those who fell seizing Beirut. Even a rock with plaque honoring a forgotten sergeant from the Boxer Rebellion had been turned to pebbles. Thirty war memorials, small and colossal, famous and otherwise, exploding within minutes of one another. Only foreign wars, though. (85)

19The spectacular destruction of sanctified places of war memory seeks to dispel the historical amnesia they induce. This generates a counternarrative element that forecloses the possibility of American innocence by forcing into view the national traumas suppressed by the sanctified memorials. Moreover, it reflects Amy Kaplan’s observation that American nationhood has always been inextricably linked and shaped by the shifting relationship between the foreign other and the transnational flows of empire (12–15). The bombing further highlights the suppressed imperial nature of these wars by only focusing on memorials that commemorate and mythologize U.S. military actions abroad. The resulting repoliticization of the exceptional soldier thus opens the signification and meaning of the memorials for negotiation.

20The management of official war memory is not relegated to just memorials. The novel’s veteran colonies also play a crucial role in the sanitization and containment of undesirable war memories. Officially, the colonies are presented as rehabilitation facilities located in remote areas to help veterans traumatized by their experiences to transition back to civilian life and a solution to managing the growing warfighter class (Gallagher 32). Simultaneously, the colonies also function as a way of maintaining the racial structures of American society by disproportionately affecting veterans of color: “Fourteen percent of new vets go to colonies now. That number’s closer to twenty-five if you’re brown or black” (225). It calls attention to what Khary Oronde Polk characterizes the “paradox of black military service” of African Americans willingly fighting for a country that constantly seeks to deny them their humanity (7). Certain types of veterans thus appear as less desirable and potentially threatening, and subsequently more disposable, to the implicit racial structures of the exceptional soldier. As such, they need to be contained for the phantasmic support structure of imperial America to function. The racialized colonies also draw attention to the intimate connection between the structures of imperial violence abroad and at the domestic carceral system. The U.S. prison population is disproportionately African-American and provides a cheap labor pool for defense companies, who use prisoners to construct weapons systems components (Shachtman).

21Ultimately, however, the function of the colonies is the repression of elements incongruous to sanctified war memory. As one Mayday member remarks: “America can stay at war as long as it doesn’t have to confront the consequences. A warfighter with a face of brain is that. Send him to a colony. A warfighter raped by her commander is that. Send her to a colony. An immigrant grunt who’ll speak truth about the rules of engagement?…. Send him to a colony” (225-26). The term “colony” is linked with the historical practice of empires exiling “undesirable” elements to internal or external penal colonies in peripheral areas. In addition to punishment, the practice also allowed empires to use such populations as pioneers in “national and imperial expansion” (C. Anderson 5). In Empire City, the colonies sustain an imperial America by containing its domestic antinomies—the disfigured, the traumatized, the dissidents—and rendering the space of an everyday imperial America possible. In this sense, the colonies function as heterotopias; closed spaces that contain individuals who in some way threaten the society outside them (Foucault 18). Veterans who deviate from the exceptional soldier threaten the state and citizen alike: the state sees them as a disruption to the fantasy that upholds the forever war as the citizenry is forced to reckon with the violence that sustains quotidian life. Additionally, the colonies allow the state to use undesirable veterans as subjects—unwilling pioneers—in Cythrax tests that attempt to replicate what happened to the Volunteers (272). The state’s attempt at transforming veteran bodies incompatible with the state fantasy into exceptional soldiers is only met with partial success. For instance, one escaped veteran can briefly “distort faces,” while another has a “small ability for healing” (273). The medical experiments concretize the state’s symbolic appropriation of veteran experiences.

22The colonies thus have a dual allegorical role in the counternarrative: they can be read as representative of the Veteran’s Administration healthcare system mistreating veterans, and, in a wider sense, representative of the gulf between the American people and its military that expanded rapidly during the War on Terror. The exile of undesirable elements—the traumatized, the minorities, the victims of abuse—to the colonies allows for the citizenry to disavow the obscene underside that sustains the imperial state fantasy. Thus, war successfully remains distant for an apathetic general public: “war, peace, generals, privates, army, legion, it was all the same, obscure and faraway, foggy and notional” (195). Moreover, it also articulates a central antinomy of the U.S. civilian-military gap: the paradoxical relationship between the civilian population’s simultaneous admiration and ignorance of the military (Pion-Berlin and Dudley 15-16). This gap, the novel suggests, flattens war and soldiering to an ethereal sense of unreality, the support of which can be reduced to ritualized gestures, such as the phrase “America Honors the Warfighter” (Gallagher 8). In this sense, the exceptional soldier allows the civilian population to disavow the costs of imperial warfare and the national failure to acknowledge the needs of returning veterans.

23Mayday’s militant wing also helps veterans escape the colonies by organizing violent breakouts in the remote facilities. These breakouts destabilize the boundaries between colonies’ heterotopia and imperial America. This allows previously contained antinomies—memories and bodies of soldiers that are transgressive to the state fantasy—to emerge into view. In this sense, the Mayday group can also be read as an allegorical manifestation of a type of military unconscious that facilitates the emergence of countermemories. The group’s role as a conduit emerges when Jean-Jacques is invited to a secretive Mayday-initiation rite after infiltrating the group at the request of law enforcement. The wide swathe of people involved appears to represent “something like a cross section of Empire City,” surprising Jean-Jacques (265). The people consist of not only veterans, but civilians as well—brothers, sisters, spouses, and parents—who have lost someone in the 30-year conflict. As such, the group’s wide appeal is demonstrative of the unacknowledged reverberations of war at home that the exceptional soldier negotiates by transforming individual deaths into patriotic sacrifice.

24The description of the Mayday initiation rite is also suffused authenticity that arises from the unexceptional. The ceremony takes place next to a pond lined with plain white plastic chairs, and those in attendance are clothed in everyday clothes rather than any uniform. The beginning of the rite inverts the stereotypical image of a well-dressed blonde woman singing the national anthem at the beginning of various public events in the United States. Here, the woman singing wears a regular “Empire State track sweatshirt,” highlighting the unceremonious nature of the ritual. Afterwards, a veteran recites a personal poem about his experiences titled “Hill 937,” which “didn’t rhyme … didn’t use imagery in interesting ways” (265). Rather, what gives the poem emotional resonance is its authenticity: “it had power, the kind that came from telling something straight and telling it true.… Jean-Jacques started picturing the faces of the fallen he’d known” (265). In essence, the poem’s enunciation creates a collective countermemory from an individual experience. Instead of the patriotic embellishment of official war memory, there is only the immediate authenticity of a traumatic memory of personal loss that gives the countermemory its emotional resonance. Crucially, the traumatic memory is explicitly historicized by the novel’s wider counternarrative, and thus avoids the depoliticization often implicit in highly individualized trauma narratives.

25The ritual’s intense focus on the power of authenticity and memory also emerges in Jonah Gray’s—Mayday’s secretive leader—ability to tap into people’s memories and make the individual experience them as they were happening then and there. Near the end of the rite, as Jean-Jacques prepares to kill Gray he finds himself back in his memories reliving his experiences as a refugee fleeing Haiti on a boat with his mother: “He’d been here before, but not like this. Not exactly this alone. Not exactly this together” (268). The memory ends as quickly as it began and Jean-Jacques finds himself “back in the meadow, in the park, in the city … He was still alive. His mother was still dead” (268). It is also revealed that Gray can make others experience his memories when Jean-Jacques is shown memories of Gray being an involuntary test subject for Cythrax injections in the colonies. Gray’s appearance highlights the exceptionality of the unexceptional, which makes it difficult to place him. Mia, looking at a mugshot of Gray remarks that “he looked like someone Mia had once known… but try as she might, she couldn’t place him” (200). Elsewhere, Gray appears to many of the characters as a non-descript homeless veteran dressed in ragged clothing on the streets of Empire City, hiding in plain sight. Assuming the guise of a dispossessed veteran symbolizes Gray’s role as a conduit for the military unconscious: he is able to evoke deeply personal memories that shatter the reified confines of the exceptional soldier. Alongside Gray’s powers, the Mayday-rite enables authentic remembrance and commemoration in a way that disavows the phantasmic embellishments of the exceptional soldier. The ritual acts as a site for the formation of countermemories that contest state sanctioned narratives of war. The negotiation between official and countermemories culminates in the climax of the novel’s narrative arc: the 30th anniversary parade honoring the American victory in Vietnam.

26National ideologies are also reproduced through tightly choreographed performances and ceremonies, whose rigidity and spectacle generate a sense of a timeless nation and legitimate its authority (Edensor 70–73). In Empire City, the victory parade reproduces an imperial America that is sustained by endless warfare. It is a display of ostentatious militarism, and in a darkly comical fashion, demonstrative of the intertwining of war and capital: “massing vets in charcoal blazers” linger harmoniously next to a “a man on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam handing out sofa discounts” while Lehman Brothers pamphleteers target returning warfighters (Gallagher 321). The sanitized imagery of the exceptional soldier plays a crucial role in reinforcing the novel’s imperial America where: “only a certain type of Victor marched…. No veterans with troubles, essentially, because they remembered… how America had triumphed in Vietnam and the messy slaughter it entailed” (226). The reified figure of the Victor demonstrates how instrumental the management of war memory is in maintaining an imperial America. State commemoration reinforces it by disavowing elements incongruous with it—the “broken, the scarred, the fucking enlisted” (227; emphasis original). The parade is, in contrast to the Mayday-rite, a ritual that reinforces the exceptional soldier and where nothing is “for the actual soldier or the veteran” (342). It reduces the individual soldier to a symbol of imperiality and nationness, and instruments of restorative nostalgia: “The great city of the conquering people held a parade for the Victors every year, though victory as both a concept and construct had been left in the last century… [The parade] harkened back to a place that wasn’t anymore, that couldn’t be, anymore” (319; emphasis added).

27The parade attempts to reconstruct a lost transhistorical national home by invoking the exceptional soldier as the reified figure of a “Victor.” The state thereby rejuvenates its relationship with the citizenry by reconstituting memory into myth and affirming the imperial state fantasy as the primary structure of national desire. In this way, the parade testifies to the exceptional soldier’s power as a nostalgic figure that connects to imaginings of a lost past national unity. Here, the novel’s counternarrative also rehistoricizes American state violence in a manner that strips it of its mythical embellishments. The phrase “conquering people” induces a defamiliarizing shock that refuses the myth of American innocence that contains the antinomies between U.S. actions and ideals. Consequently, Empire City’s counternarrative suggests that the mythical America built on the repression of both past and present brutalities and reproduced by a never-ending conflict is no longer possible, much less desirable.

28The celebration is halted as scores of Mayday veterans invade the parade on foot, while a truck filled with “colony Victors too broken to walk” bears signs that sarcastically proclaim, “THE HONOR IS OURS” (344). Here, the novel evokes imagery of the Vietnam-era protests organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), whose marches often involved the reappropriation of military symbols to protest the war and the government’s treatment of veterans. The group’s perhaps most impactful protest alongside the Winter Soldier hearings, was Operation Dewey Canyon III—named ironically after a failed US military operation—during which veterans, many of whom donned military clothing, at one point symbolically returned their service medals to the government by throwing them across an ad hoc fence which separated them from the Capitol building (Hunt 113). The public rejection and disavowal of medals symbolizing the state sanctified memory of the war in Vietnam by veterans was a powerful protest that effectively contested the state’s justifications for the war. Likewise, the entrance of the Mayday veterans in the novel disrupts the choreographed nationalism of the parade, turning it into a scene of carnivalesque rebellion and mockery that contests the forever war. National rituals, such as parades, can be seen as systematic ways of channeling the transgressive energies of the carnival towards “allegiance for the state” (Edensor 75). The Mayday-veterans’ entrance destabilizes the imperial nationalism of the parade, returning it to its carnivalesque roots that questions the state’s authority and legitimacy. The citizenry is thus inducted into what Bakhtin describes as the chaotic “second world” of the carnival that briefly subverts social boundaries and hierarchies (5–6). The Mayday veterans’ carnivalesque chaos degrades the exceptional soldier, the primary symbol of imperial America, allowing its meaning and legitimacy to be contested.

29The grotesque also plays a crucial role in this process as it allows for the degradation of “all that is high, spiritual, abstract” to the “material level” (Bakhtin 19–20). Moreover, Bakhtin notes that the grotesque body plays a crucial and “deeply positive” and de-individuated role that represents “all the people” rather than a singular individual (19). Unlike the homogenous and clean-cut veterans venerated by the state, the Mayday-veterans are described in grotesque terms; they are “ragged, lean and hollow-eyed” (Gallagher 343-344). There is, in other words, a utopian impulse in the carnivalesque grotesque that manifests here through the bodies of the Mayday-veterans. Their intrusion forms a rupture that seeks to liberate the soldier subject from the confines of the exceptional soldier. Specific costumes are crucial in achieving “an illusion of fixity and common purpose” in national rituals (Edensor 73–74). As such, the Mayday veterans wildly varying uniforms—"a jumble of urban and desert camo jackets” (Gallagher 343)—are a grotesque deformation of the globe-spanning war that sustains imperial America. Subsequently, the role of the uniform for the Mayday-veterans undergoes an ironic reversal: instead of a symbol of de-individualization and conformity, the uniform also reconstructs the soldier as an individual. The varied uniforms stand in stark contrast to the clean-cut parade veterans, whose homogenized clothing is symbolic of the state’s attempt to domesticate war. The Mayday veterans’ disorganized uniforms and their grotesque appearance form a mocking parody that destabilizes the exceptional soldier and reveals the repressed militarization of America. Instead of a uniform and ordered vision of war, the Mayday-veterans are an individuated and chaotic group, the seemingly wholesome façade of the exceptional soldier is replaced by the repressed grotesque underside of the forever war.

30The invasion also inverts the dynamic between the citizenry and the marching veterans. Normally, soldiers march in stoic silence while citizens cheer them on. The Mayday veterans, however, are vocal, “whooping like a hostile”, and “jeering obscenities, screaming and shaking their fists at the dismayed citizens” (344). Paul Fussell writes that “no one is very interested in the bad news [soldiers] have to report.… We have made unspeakable mean indescribable: it really means nasty” (184; emphasis original). As such, the veterans’ jeering articulates the unspeakable through grotesque language. It collapses the civilian-military gap maintained by the exceptional soldier and forces the citizenry to acknowledge the obscenity of war that the Mayday veterans represent. Consequently, the fantasy of a normalized and un-real forever war that sustains America momentarily collapses in the face of its own obscene underside. As the boundaries between imperial America and the heterotopia of the veteran colonies collapse, previously suppressed histories and subversive memories that become visible through the bodies and actions of the Mayday veterans. Here, the grotesque functions as a symbolic expression of the Real of History in the sense as suggested by Jameson. The Mayday-veterans degrade not only the “sacred” soldierly body of the marching veterans, but also the America defined solely in terms of militarism. This disjuncture forces a reckoning as the citizenry is faced with the grotesque of the Real as the counternarrative unravels and repoliticizes the ideological closure of the exceptional soldier.

31Carnivalesque rebellions, such as the Mayday veterans’ intrusion, however, are often only momentary; fleeting glimpses of what lies beyond and what could be. Terry Eagleton writes that the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, rather than representing a vehicle for permanent change, is a “permissible rupture of hegemony,” and as such, does not have the potential for affecting any meaningful and lasting change as “its utopian aspects are… largely subordinated to its satirical functions” (167). Indeed, it is revealed that Mayday’s invasion was merely a distraction for Jonah Gray’s assassination attempt on General Collins that the Mayday group was manipulated to execute by the military elite. This was done in order to help install Collins—one of their own—as the president, thus symbolically completing the militarization of America. The narrative turn serves an indictment of the ways in which individual soldiers are ultimately disposable to seemingly all facets of American society: the civilian population, the political elite, and the military itself. Indeed, this sentiment is underlined by Jean-Jacques who decides not to stop the would-be assassin: “They’ve used us, Jean-Jacques decided. They’ve used us all, now and always. Sending us to kill and conquer over there so they can control here” (Gallagher 345). Ironically, this realization does not stop him from continuing serving in the military. Rather, his refusal to stop the assassin is an act of personal rebellion, only known to himself. Like America, Jean-Jacques is ultimately unable to transcend war and the allure of the exceptional soldier.

32In Empire City, the intense politicization of state commemoration of war reveals the potential of memorialization in the construction of hegemonic narratives as well as a counternarrative practice. The novel’s use of memorialization produces a defamiliarizing shock that enables the novel’s counternarrative to critique and destabilize the War on Terror’s totalizing hold on America and highlights the transnational reverberations of empire and war. The ideological apparatus of the exceptional soldier emerges as a way of containing the domestic antinomies of a never-ending war. In a wider sense, the omnipresence of the exceptional soldier reflects the militarization of the American national imaginary. Consequently, the primary way for the citizenry to imagine their relationship with the state is through the state’s power to subjugate both at home and abroad.

3. Conclusion: Writing War Beyond Trauma

33The alternative history of Empire City generates a multilayered counternarrative that interrogates the latent domestic cultural and political effects of the War on Terror by recontextualizing and reframing it with national memories of the Vietnam War. The dystopian cityscape of Empire City acts as a spatial allegory of the militarization of the structures of national belonging brought on by an endless war. The imperial spatiality of the city also allows the novel to interrogate the repressed imperiality of America, both past and present, that is otherwise contained by American exceptionalism. The primacy of the imperial state fantasy is reinforced through memorialization and ritualistic practices that foreground the symbolic figure of the exceptional soldier—the Volunteers and Victors—while repressing the war’s underside. At the same time, however, memorialization also opens avenues for resistance via private and communal countermemories that facilitate a remembrance beyond the sanctified war memories of the exceptional soldier. The novel’s interrogation of the memorialization of war also negotiates the U.S. civil-military gap that has paradoxically grown wider during the War on Terror. The novel’s individual counternarrative elements form an intensely historicizing counternarrative totality which forces America’s repressed imperiality to surface and foregrounds the militarization of the structures of U.S. national identity.

34In her book Bring the War Home, which explores the radicalization of returning Vietnam War veterans, Kathleen Belew eloquently captures the difficulties of tracing the aftereffects of conflict: “War is not neatly contained in the space and time legitimated by the state. It reverberates in other terrains and lasts long past armistice. It comes home in ways bloody and unexpected” (16). Sometimes, these reverberations are barely concealed and easily detected. More often, however, they are detectable only by their aftershocks. The reverberations of a war as long and complex as the still on-going War on Terror only add to the difficulty of the task. As my reading of Empire City suggests, literature written by veterans of the War on Terror provides a useful tool in mapping the effects of the war at home and abroad. Veteran literature makes the transnational reverberations of war visible and opens new avenues of understanding the cultural development and crises of contemporary America by foregrounding the connections between state structures of violence abroad and at home. Crucially, many contemporary veteran texts go beyond the personal trauma of war, while still acknowledging its power over individuals. The historicization of individual trauma allows such texts to avoid the potential ethical pitfalls of ahistoricity often implicit in purely personal trauma narratives. As a result, contemporary U.S. veteran literature is often situated at the nexus of the antinomies—race and gender, violence, political polarization—that define many of the contemporary crises facing the United States.

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Electronic reference

Ari Räisänen, A War at the End of Empire: The Militarization of America and Matt Gallagher’s Empire CityEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 30 July 2023, connection on 20 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Ari Räisänen

Ari Räisänen is a doctoral researcher at the University of Eastern Finland. He is currently working on his dissertation on the counternarratives of literature written by US veterans of the War on Terror. His work has been previously been featured in American Studies in Scandinavia.

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