War games and imperial postures: Spectacles of combat in United States popular culture, 1942--2001

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Steven M. Cohan


War games, Combat, Popular culture

Subject Categories

American Film Studies | American Popular Culture | American Studies | Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature | Literature in English, North America


This dissertation critiques popular culture texts of war and warriors as cultural symptoms in order to analyze how consumption of dominant forms of entertainment creates and sustains a degree of consensus among citizen-consumers for U.S. government and military policies. In addition to the creation of ideological consensus, these forms of entertainment train citizens in the practices necessary to sustain the U.S. empire; imperial attitudes and behaviors literally enter domestic spaces and the individual bodies of citizens. The specular power and the force of national narratives work in synchronicity in popular entertainment that represents combat to create and sustain cultural numbing and collective amnesia. My chapters trace the consumer-citizen's relationship to combat spectacle.

In the chapter on the 1940s Hollywood combat film, I analyze the critical and popular reception of these films and argue that the manipulation and reconfiguration of realism serves to transmogrify this form of entertainment into a cultural technology of war making. Chapter 3 offers an historical background of GI Joe's development and marketing and a gendered analysis of his body provide the foundation for my argument that both the artifact and those who play with it have been influential in marking and performing changes in the image of the warrior. Chapter 4 interrogates the postures of U.S. American imperial citizenship that first person shooter arcade video games train into the player's body. These video games provide a more physically intense training ground than either combat film or play with action figures. I argue that shooter video games like Time Crisis, Time Crisis 2, Crisis Zone, and LA Machineguns train the player's body to perform imperial white supremacist ideology at the affective level. My conclusion proposes that one way to address the symptoms of amnesia and numbing in U.S. culture is to create and perform a new model of citizenship when playing with combat spectacle. I argue that play patterns that bring life, breath, feeling and history to these forms of popular culture can change the individual's performance of citizenship.


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