Wars of Contemporary Life: American Militarism in South Korea and Vietnam / Sunny Xiang

‘Waiting’ from Baik’s Reencounters. Image credit: Niana Liu


Marguerite Nguyen, America’s Vietnam: The Longue Durée of U.S. Literature and Empire. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018.

Crystal Mun-hye Baik, Reencounters: On the Korean War and Diasporic Memory Critique. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019.

Christina Klein, Cold War Cosmopolitanism: Period Style in 1950s Korean Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020.

In early March 2020, the United States began talking about an “invisible enemy.”1 To combat this enemy “on the horizon,” the US government repurposed slogans from World War II; reactivated the Defense Production Act from the Korean War; invoked body counts from Vietnam, 9/11, and Afghanistan; and participated in a new “global arms race.” Ordinary Americans, meanwhile, were asked to serve the war cause by “sheltering in place,” a phrase that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo deemed reminiscent of fallout shelters from America’s nuclear age.2 What I’m describing is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. The pervasive war rhetoric surrounding this pandemic seems not merely metaphorical. Indeed, one scandal set off by this global crisis has been that not enough people are aware that it is indeed a war. In an op-ed directed at Donald Trump, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio blared, “[t]his is wartime. It’s about time you started acting like it.”3 Without at all absolving Trump of his inaction, I find it necessary to push back against de Blasio’s suggestion that we are only now living in “wartime.” According to Mary Dudziak, “wartime” is often misunderstood as “an exception to normal life.”4 It is because of this misunderstanding that the current American discourse of virus-as-war has ritualistically invoked a return to normality—thereby suggesting that our exceptional episode of trauma was preceded by, and will be followed by, a state of equilibrium called “peacetime.”

The three works under review here show that “wartime” is continuous with “normal life.” Although distinct in their archives and arguments, Marguerite Nguyen’s America’s Vietnam (2018), Crystal Baik’s Reencounters (2019), and Christina Klein’s Cold War Cosmopolitanism (2020) share an overarching interest in time-based approaches to studying war. Nguyen’s framing of the American war in Vietnam as a longue durée, Baik’s conceptualization of reencounter as a dissident memory practice of South Korean diasporic artists, and Klein’s investigation of period style in 1950s South Korea film all mark a departure from center-periphery schematizations of the global Cold War. They also offer rich and varied responses to the blanket dismissal of historicism (often through the catchall category of “context”) in recent literary criticism. In demonstrating how the American wars in Korea and Vietnam have distorted the experience of “wartime,” Nguyen, Baik, and Klein characterize these wars as fundamentally imperial wars. Imperial wars are small wars: these conflicts often “fell outside the law” and, in turn, outside the larger historical narrative.5 Imperial wars are also long wars: they began long before and have endured long after mainstream conceptions of them. It is as imperial wars—both small and long—that the American wars in Korea, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia and the Pacific have undermined, exceeded, reshaped, and normalized the experience of “wartime.” Situated in the overlap between “wartime” and “normal life,” Nguyen’s, Baik’s, and Klein’s studies yield two key insights that will guide this review. The first is that aesthetic modes of evidence can make the logics of militarism available for political and historical analysis. The second is that the militarization of domesticity has been central to the indoctrination of war as normal, intimate, and quotidian. 

Aesthetic Historicisms

The historiographic coinages longue durée, reencounters, and period style are, in a sense, also reconceived descriptors of “wartime.” Not incidentally, Nguyen, Baik, and Klein intend these terms to possess aesthetic connotations in addition to temporal ones. These critics thus prompt us to ponder: How do style, form, media, and genre function as species of historical evidence? What kinds of knowledge—and justice—can these aesthetic modes of evidence avail? 

In America’s Vietnam, Nguyen turns to one of literary criticism’s most reliable resources for historicism: genre. The chief genres that preoccupy Nguyen are melodrama, cookbooks, journalistic memoir, and epistolary forms. Through this study of genre, Nguyen seeks to reconstruct a specific genealogy: “America’s Vietnam challenges the prevailing genealogy of Vietnam’s emergence in the American imagination, one that presupposes the Vietnam War as the starting point of meaningful Vietnamese-U.S. political and cultural involvements” (1). Genre enables a longue durée perspective on American imperial interests in Vietnam, which date to the earliest days of the republic (Nguyen notes how Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had both considered importing Vietnamese rice to the American South). This longue durée perspective thwarts clear-cut beginnings and endings, causes and effects. Nguyen writes, “The radical potential of a longue durée outlook lies in its recognition of both historical continuity and rupture and its openness to cross-spatial and cross-temporal dialogues” (5). This language of crossing offers an apt description of Nguyen’s genre-based reading practice. That is, an attention to genre, and specifically to sites of generic rupture, opens Nguyen’s investigation to surprising and revealing modes of comparison. By consulting English- and Vietnamese-language sources across intersecting national and imperial traditions, and by thinking across different levels and scales, Nguyen not only extends our historical purview, but also diversifies it, showing that “no two literary Vietnams are wholly alike” (8). 

In each chapter of America’s Vietnam, genre organizes juxtapositions between white Euro-American and Vietnamese diasporic writers. These juxtapositions are often indirect and inexact; they are not so much instances of postcolonial “writing back” or contrapuntal reading but rather efforts to identify a representational logic or to parse a historiographic stance. For example, juxtapositions between Michael Herr and Nhã Ca offer us divergent approaches to representing the dead. In another chapter, reading Võ Phiến’s epistolary writings of the 1970s alongside missing persons ads of the same era allows us to perceive an “emergent Vietnamese diasporic culture” catalyzed by a protracted and potentially endless wait. These simultaneously epistolary, apostrophic, and epitaphic writings show how a longue durée can hold together conflicting temporal units, experiences, and orientations while also facilitating different formal and affective relations between writers, narrators, addressees, and readers. One of the most exciting aspects of America’s Vietnam is its introduction of new primary sources in conjunction with fresh reinterpretations of familiar ones. I’m especially fond of the concluding chapter on Vietnamese-language literary journals from the 1960s–1970s. Nguyen devotes particular attention to journals that engage American southern literature (e.g. William Faulkner and Carson McCullers) and African and African American literature (e.g. Matei Markwei, Birago Diop, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin). This mapping of South Vietnamese literary thought “decenters the singularity of any one paradigm of ‘world literature’” (147). It also demonstrates how a literary imagination that emerged not only from the “periphery” but also in the thick of war became transnational through the critique of ongoing and overlapping imperial projects.

Where Nguyen’s longue durée study of genre enables a formalist analysis of how “literature and history interact” (7), Crystal Baik’s key term reencounter shifts our focus from literature and history to performance and memory. If a longue durée view of the Vietnam War locates the seeds of US empire in the early republic, then the concept of reencounter casts the Korean War as a resolutely contemporary condition that implicates the two Koreas, the United States, and Japan. Baik’s archive of reencounters privileges site-specific and performance-based aesthetics. These diasporic memory works appear to us “more as experiential processes than as inanimate artifacts” (8). As a memory practice that indexes contemporaneity, reencounter conceptually rhymes with return, another term threaded through Baik’s study. If such terms seem rather quotidian, it is because Baik intends to “treat the Korean War’s calamities less as exceptional aftereffects than as structuring conditions of contemporary life” (13). The performance pieces, oral histories, video installations, sound art, and personal reflections assembled in Reencounters attune us to “durable repercussions [of the Korean War] that are readily seen, heard, and felt by different publics but are intuited or named as something else altogether” (14). Described this way, “reencounters” might be said to emerge at the very border between aesthetic experience and everyday routine and to achieve intelligibility through the interfacing between artist and audience.

One memorable example of a reencounter is kate-hers RHEE’s Sex Education for Finding Face in the 21st Century (2002). This performance work unfolds on “a leisurely afternoon in the Seoul district of Myeong-dong” and draws an audience of “onlookers.” RHEE, dressed as a pregnant schoolgirl, engages these tourists and shoppers through convulsive movements and gestures, implicitly commenting on “the lack of accessible contraception and sex education” during South Korea’s “era of rapid development” (107). As a US-based adoptee returning to South Korea, RHEE displaces the “love, gratitude, and altruism associated with Korean transnational adoption” with “shock, fear, and curiosity” (107). An even more quotidian reencounter that Baik examines is the archive of sonic residues typically dismissed as “silence.” Indeed, among the many useful concept terms that Baik introduces, my favorite is “aural histories.” In contrast to explicitly verbalized oral histories, aural histories attune us to the sonic registers that “escape the conventional ways in which we might hear and remember war” (71). Baik’s aural histories include: a “visual study of silence” by sound artist Christine Sun Kim called In Pianoiss . . . Issmo (Worse Finish) (2012); the multistep techniques developed by the Intergenerational Korean American Oral History Project; and the listen-and-response structure of Dohee Lee’s public performance MAGO (2014). In these examples and others, Baik shifts our focus to the critical potentiality of excess. As I understand it, eruptions of excess allow us to perceive the militarized everyday as it is transformed into an aesthetic experience. They also illuminate the diasporic subjectivities that exceed the dictates of national citizenship and blood lineage. These multifaceted meanings are resonant in the phrase “diasporic excesses.” With this term, Baik gives name to the “cultural practices of resistance and regeneration that refuse to be narrowly confined to the arena of military security and state-adjudicated justice” (8).

In contrast to Baik’s reencounters and Nguyen’s longue durée, Christina Klein’s notion of period style does not emphasize the ongoingness of war. Indeed, by focusing on just one decade (the 1950s) and just one director (Han Hyung-mo), Klein’s articulation of a “cosmopolitan” period style may seem paradoxically parochial. Klein’s interest, though, is not wartime per se but the historiographic methods that one brings to it. In using the period style of Han’s films as a window into South Korea of the 1950s, Klein helps us conceive of the US military as a cultural institution that influenced music, literature, film, dress, interior design, and consumer tastes. The term that Klein uses to describe this period’s militarized and mongrelized aesthetic is a militarized and mongrelized cuisine: budae jjigae, an “army stew” invented by a Korean cook who had worked on a US army base. Interestingly, the artwork that best epitomizes Baik’s concept of reencounters—the one with which the book opens—also features budae jjigae. Where Ji-Young You’s 2005 video installation BooDaeChiGae helps Baik point out the Korean War’s “indiscernible implications in contemporary social life” (3), Klein views budae jjigae as an elaborate aesthetic metaphor. In the films of Han Hyung-mo, a budae jjigae aesthetic encompasses intercultural referencing (a mambo dance number or Scottish plaid upholstery), strategic mimicry (indigenizing the Japanese martial art of judo), and various kinds of “poaching” (customizing a camera crane from US Army helicopter wheels). 

As it happens, a budae jjigae technique also produces an aesthetics of excess. In Klein’s readings, this aesthetics of excess implicitly critiques the notion of aesthetics as excess. More than Baik and Nguyen, Klein wants to correct for a certain historiographic bias. This bias involves treating aesthetic evidence as second-rate—as mere reflections or fanciful fictions that are subordinated to a “truer” historical record. In reading for a style that is “excessive,” Klein is able to identify ways that a film calls attention to itself beyond the demands of plot and, consequently, to enact a form of historicism that is not necessarily rooted in empirical fact. One compelling example is the camera movement in Han’s Madame Freedom (1956), which expresses “the exhilarating feelings of being modern” (126). Read for movement rather than character or story, Madame Freedom “becomes less a study of one woman’s transgressions and more a film about a society in transition” (127). Although Klein repeatedly underscores coevality as a defining feature of South Korea’s participation in a Free World modernity, the irony is that the high polish, heady rush, and colorful abundance that Han depicts in films such as Madame Freedom have no material condition of possibility in an impoverished and war-torn nation. Other examples of stylistic excess include mise-en-scènes that symbolize consumerism, sound environments that seem metropolitan, and costume designs that emphasize spectacle over narrative. A cosmopolitan period style, in all these instances, evidences modern desire rather than empirical reality. 

The excessiveness of style, we might deduce, serves two functions. First, a period style predicated on excess encodes a historically specific experience of modernity—an experience that is “cosmopolitan” to the extent that it is capitalist, anticommunist, transnational, elitist, Christian, womanist, and pro-American. Second, style-as-excess formalizes Klein’s recurring mantra of “style as historical evidence” (147, 178). In other words, an evidentiary paradigm that exceeds the domain of fact and artifact enables not only a new historical narrative but also a new historiographic approach. In method and in content, then, what Klein calls Cold War cosmopolitanism is continuous with her immensely influential formulation of Cold War Orientalism in a 2003 monograph by that name. By treating these two works as companion texts, we become capable of viewing both Orientalism (despite its racialized and gendered specificity) and cosmopolitanism (despite its humanist and universalist overtones) as related modes of cultural imperialism borne of Cold War geopolitics. 

Wars of “Normal Life”

One important critical maneuver that Nguyen, Baik, and Klein share is their rejection of trauma-based, hauntological approaches to studying war. Baik is most explicit about this: “by exploring how the Korean War inhabits and habituates the everyday, Reencounters contends with how war functions as a normative element rather than a disruptive force of neoliberal life” (17). Nguyen’s longue durée approach, in emphasizing the temporal extensivity of empire, offers another way out of hauntological thinking. Through Herr’s Dispatches (1977), Nguyen usefully diagnoses the aestheticization of trauma as an “imperial gothic” (91). This “postmodern” technique of fragmentation, she shows, is premised on the dismemberment—the objectification and ornamentation—of Vietnamese bodies. As a counterpoint to the ghostly fragments of Herr’s “imperial gothic,” Nguyen shows how Ocean Vuong’s “Notebook Fragments” from Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016) offers “an alternative poetics of fragmentation,” one that de-sensationalizes war and renders it representable (111). Klein never calls out trauma theory in so many words. However, her account of Han Hyung-mo’s exuberant cosmopolitanism pivots sharply away from efforts to narrate Korean national history through “han, the distinctly Korean psychic condition of anger, resentment, and fatalism rooted in the country’s history of invasion, colonization, division, and war” (105). That Han’s cosmopolitan films takes the public-facing, career-oriented, consumer-happy woman as its central protagonist is particularly noteworthy given the prominence of the physically and psychically violated mother or wife in han discourse.

Nguyen, Baik, and Klein dispense with trauma-based frameworks, not simply because such frameworks are nearing critical exhaustion, but because they seek to provide an alternate conception of American militarism. Trauma, after all, is one key way that war narratives have appealed to eventfulness, emergency, and exceptionality. In so doing, such narratives have also perpetuated a particular rendering of peace. In the American context, representations of “peacetime” often perpetuate domestic themes of gender normativity. Such representations, which often take place in the living room or kitchen, reinforce the sense that, in Lauren Berlant’s words, “domestic privacy can feel like a controllable space, a world of potential unconflictedness.” This domestic space allows one “to live as if threatening contexts are merely elsewhere.”6 And yet, critics such as Beatriz Colomina, Karal Ann Marling, and Laura Wexler have shown that a domestic ideal of harmonious living is itself an ideological product of “wartime.” Social normativity receives moral sanction in the face of a foreign enemy. This is why Cold War Americana has endured as a rosy technicolored memory (for instance in recent shows such as Mad Men and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), while the contemporaneous presence of war has receded to the narrative’s dissolving edges. Even now, in twenty-first-century Americana, wartime continues to domesticize “normal life,” rendering it something to be protected from wars waged elsewhere and invisible enemies on the horizon. 

In the Editors’ Introduction for a forum on “Everyday Militarism” for Society & Space, Caren Kaplan, Gabi Kirk, and Tess Lea contemplate “how and why military infrastructures are rendered less visible.” Nguyen, Baik, and Klein take this contemplation a step further, suggesting that it is the domestic realm where regimes of militarism have “hidden in plain sight/site.”7 In investigating wars of empire, these scholars focus not on battlefields, body counts, weaponry, or bombs but on miscegenation, adoption, fashion, and food. Their attempts to reckon with war’s mundane, ephemeral, intimate, and feminized manifestations thoroughly undermine the classic divide between wartime and normal life as well as the corollary divide between public sphere and private home. The wars that Nguyen, Baik, and Klein examine are “normal” because they are permanent rather than exceptional, achieving representation not as a traumatic absence but as a quotidian presence. 

As we have seen through Baik and Klein, budae jjigae offers a potent symbol of how American militarism has become embedded in domestic life. Nguyen, too, treats gastronomy as a war genre. One chapter of America’s Vietnam, for example, examines Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s reproduction of recipes used by their Vietnamese cooks. Nguyen reads these seemingly straightforward recipes for a “temporalized hierarchy” and a perspectival multiplicity (62). She writes, “cookbooks transmit historical lacunae as much as they pass on instructions for how to prepare a dish” (63). In another chapter, Nguyen demonstrates how “Võ Phiến’s portrayal of Vietnamese food acts in America in 1976 sets up the quotidian as a site of contestation” (121). Whereas “an American frame” that focalizes military intervention may dismiss such “food acts” as “anomalous and anachronistic” (124), Nguyen asserts that for early refugees without preexisting enclaves, shared culinary practices allowed everyday writers—writers of letters rather than of literature—to preserve, at the scale of daily practices, Vietnamese culture and history. These documentations of Vietnamese life adhere to a different aesthetic and temporal logic than both Herr’s traumatic spectacle of Vietnamese body parts and the American national melodrama of good wars and humanitarian rescue.

Another site of domestic meaning-making is clothing. Writing about the economy of ornamentation in Harry Hervey’s popular novel and Broadway production Congaï (1928), Nguyen observes, “sartorial objects circulate as seemingly inconsequential items, yet they are crucial in helping empires scale down grand imperial claims to the level of everyday life” (24). By exploring how the relation between the ornamental and the Oriental informs Hervey’s anticolonial desires, Nguyen offers an unexpectedly queer reading of American Orientalist discourse, specifically of miscegenation. This notion that “miscegenation in Indochina not only advances the rationale of colonial salvation but also cultivates homosocial bonding” adds an important wrinkle to Anne Cheng’s theorization of “ornamentalism” as the stylistic logic of “yellow woman” and revises scholarship that associates Cold War Orientalism with the orthodoxy of the nuclear family (29). Hervey’s cross-dressing adventures articulate “gay identity and the ‘Oriental’” as conjoined—even synonymous—modes of otherness. As Nguyen provocatively puts it, Orient-as-ornament “‘miscegenates’ Hervey’s whiteness and perhaps links queer and racial alterity” (49). 

Klein, too, is interested in the sartorial accoutrements of empire. But where Nguyen reads ornament as a mediator of racial, sexual, and colonial meaning, Klein’s interest lies in fashion as a measure of Cold War modernity. Han’s “après girl” resides in apartments upholstered with Western-style textiles and patterns. The après girl herself is upholstered in Euro-American styles. Although clothing and décor pervade much of Klein’s analysis, fashion figures most prominently in her discussion of South Korea’s first fashion designer Nora Noh. Noh was employed by the US military government as a typist before going on to study in Spain, France, and the United States. In the 1950s, she designed costumes for the Eighth Army’s theatrical productions and even staged a “mini-fashion show” during the Korean War for NBC (203). Klein discusses Noh in relation to Han’s enchantment with “the spectacle of fashion” (207). The fashion sensibilities of Han’s après girl fall directly in step with mid-century American ideals of heteronormative femininity. Hence, even though Han is the first Korean director to depict female same-sex romance in A Jealousy (1960), this film’s critique targets not heterosexual culture but patriarchal culture. Klein writes, “More important, perhaps, than the film’s dismissal of lesbian desire is its forthright expression of feminist ideas” (33). 

Nguyen’s reading of Hervey and Klein’s reading of Han dissuade us from assuming that the feminizing logic of Orientalism and the nuclear family of mid-century cosmopolitanism are categorically heteronormative. Certainly, we should distinguish between a gay white American man writing about colonial Indochina to an American public in the 1920s and a straight Korean man introducing “Cold War imperial feminism” to a South Korean public in the 1950s.8 Yet in examining Nguyen and Klein in tandem, I’m inclined to view American Orientalism and Asian cosmopolitanism as intertwined phenomena in which depictions of heterosexual romance nonetheless serve as a breeding ground for alternative modes of desire. Although Klein is more inclined to read along the grain and Nguyen to read against it, both show how narratives of family and romance can invite, or perhaps even demand, queer critique.

It is not only romances explicitly marked as “queer” that qualify as non-normative. Nguyen and Baik share a methodological interest in using queer thought to chart new lines of relation between war and kinship. For example, Baik repeatedly takes the transnational adoptee as exemplary of “militarized migration” and “diasporic returns”: “adoptee returns, as embodied forms of diasporic excess, illustrate the degree to which South Korean nation building depends on and reproduces a persisting cycle of racial, gender, and sexual violence anchored in the enterprise of war” (101). In conversation with Fatima El-Tayeb, David Eng, and Alice Hom, Nguyen and Baik both “queer” nation-based understandings of war through the analytic of diaspora. Baik draws on “women of color feminism and queer diasporic scholarship to conceptualize the diasporic” as a “coalescing of social affinities and epistemes at odds with the heteronormative logics of the nation-state” (24). Similarly, Nguyen invokes “queer diaspora” as a rubric for bringing into view “formations that do not fit nationalist, normative conventions of time, space, and social relations” (76). Klein’s notion of Cold War cosmopolitanism can be understood as a function of militarized diasporas, too. This simultaneously militaristic and diasporic component of cosmopolitanism is apparent in the term “Seventh Fleet Culture,” which Klein borrows from Wong Kar-wai to describe the cultural resonance between South Korea and Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Seventh Fleet Culture, Klein writes, is the presence of “tens of thousands of American GIs and millions of dollars in US aid, which seemed to be hovering just outside the film’s frame” (2). 

It is precisely because Nguyen, Baik, and Klein are not “historicist” in the conventional sense that they are able to reshape our understanding of war, empire, and domesticity. All three of these terms have been relentlessly spatialized, whether through the geopolitical scheme of “areas” or the patriarchal idiom of “spheres.” When considered from a temporal standpoint, however, war, empire, and domesticity demand new vocabularies and introduce under-consulted archives. In the three works we’ve reviewed, the Korean War and the Vietnam War are neither national civil wars nor global cold wars, as has been commonly assumed. Rather, they are modes of everyday governance and cultural hegemony that police the boundary between the singular event and the circadian norm. Importantly, in their critiques of American militarism and imperialism, Nguyen, Baik, and Klein do not go so far as to exceptionalize the quotidian or the domestic as the source of an authentic or truer history. But by examining everyday excess rather than traumatic fragments, and perpetual presence rather than melancholic absence, their studies guide us to comprehend our own “wartime” as a structuring principle of “normal life.” Moreover, by characterizing American wars in Asia as pervasive, protracted, intimate, and ordinary, Nguyen, Baik, and Klein also help explain why justice, reunification, and decolonization have been so elusive in this region.


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Sunny Xiang is an assistant professor of English at Yale University. Her research and teaching focus on cultural genealogies of American empire in Asia and the Pacific. Her book Tonal Intelligence: The Aesthetics of Asian Inscrutability during the Long Cold War is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.



  1. Jack Shafer tracks the “invisible enemy” metaphor in “Behind Trump’s Strange ‘Invisible Enemy’ Rhetoric,” Politico, April 9, 2020,
  2. “Brooklyn Count Soars, as Coronavirus Cases in N.Y.C. Near 4,000,” The New York Times, March 19, 2020,
  3. Bill de Blasio, “Bill de Blasio: COVID-19 is a wartime scenario. President Trump needs to act like it is,” USA Today, March 18, 2020,
  4. Mary L. Dudziak, War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 4.
  5. Dudziak, War Time, 31.
  6. Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy: A Special Issue,” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (Winter, 1998): 285-286, emphasis in original.
  7. Caren Kaplan, Gabi Kirk, and Tess Lea, “Editors’ Letter: Everyday Militarisms: Hidden in Plain Sight/Site,” Society and Space, March 8, 2020
  8. On Cold War imperial feminism, see Mire Koikari, Pedagogy of Democracy: Feminism and the Cold War in the U.S. Occupation of Japan (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008).