Captivating Westerns

Captivating Westerns

The Middle East in the American West

Susan Kollin

University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2015, 294 pages

Book Review published on: August 18, 2017

Captivating Westerns: The Middle East in the American West is not a typical book pulled from the shelves of “military-related” works. In broad, bold strokes, Susan Kollin takes a decidedly different approach to examining some of the mythology surrounding our collective perception of the American West and its supposedly authentic, indigenous roots that have then been imprinted on U.S. foreign policy pursuits by both supporters and detractors. Specifically, she tackles two things. First, how “western” genre movies, theatrical productions, and entertainment leveraging that supposedly quintessential American motif have affected and continue to affect our view of the Middle East. Second, how westerns are used—by those both inside and outside the region—to convey contemporary political and moral views about the Middle East and America.

Kollin, a professor of English at Montana State University, is also the editor of Postwestern Cultures: Literature, Theory, Space. She attempts to shake our conception of the western away from stereotypical assumptions about its intrinsic origins and get readers to reconceive its formation and evolution via cyclical importation from, and subsequent circulation through, among others, Arab and Persian societies.

This reviewer, an avid believer in diversified reading to continually challenge existing theories and ideas, picked up this book, not because the title was appealing but rather because it was not. The book, while interesting and thought-provoking on many levels, manages, almost simultaneously, to stretch this reader’s mind and patience. Kollin does the former by introducing a trove of interesting connections demonstrating a multicultural collage of influences on this iconic American genre. Unfortunately, the author struggles to remain objective in her study of the genre and its evocative power in terms of America’s perception of itself and its role in the world. In many instances, Kollin asserts the genre has been “deployed” to serve as a metaphor for America’s missionary role in global affairs. She implies American leaders celebrate the mythology of the West to justify intervention or military invasion, advancing narratives about Western civilization’s struggle against the brutal savagery typical of so many despotic and deplorable places around the world. She contends that embedded within these American West myths are tales of self-sufficiency transformed into far-reaching, self-servingly righteous messages whereby the West seeks only to bring the fruits of modernity and freedom to those hapless individuals who, without the West’s able and mighty hand, would be unable to attain such progress. This is a tired, overly simplistic, and decidedly revisionist viewpoint demonstrating a degree of bias invoking colonial imagery of the savage and savior (in the form of Western forces of cultural change). Does the genre help frame American perceptions about good and evil? Of course it does. Does it propel us into Middle East and other places to foster idealism? That is a stretch.

The book draws upon a plethora of literary scholars to argue that in the collective American consciousness, the frontier has served to “separate the USA from global imperial history, marking it as an exceptional national experiment.” One of these critics goes on to say, “If there is a single metanarrative that can be derived from the diverse iterations of frontier experience in U.S. literature … it is that the frontier performs the settler culture’s failure of thought, the paralysis of its imagination in the face of facts too threatening, experiences too rare.” The crux of such revisionist logic implies the basis for American exceptionalism lies in our ignorance, which is a dubious assertion at best.

One of the literary “progressives” Kollin cites asserts that the “‘ideas of the Indian’ have frequently operated as ‘the contagion’ through which an American Empire ‘orders the places of peoples within its purview.’ … The colonizing power ‘replicates itself by transforming those to be colonized into ‘Indians’ through continual reiterations of pioneer logics,’” and demonstrates monolithic thinking and overreach in terms of explaining what actually transpired. Sure, these notions may inform thinking on some level, but are we to believe so much of what America does in the world today is driven by manifest destiny writ large?

The primary difficulty with the work is it tries to encapsulate too much under one canopy, leaving this reader with a sense that she is onto something, along a fringe but nothing central, to explaining American exceptionalism or its policies, such as the so-called Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Undoubtedly, GWOT has been a mixed bag in terms of arresting the dangers of radical Islam. It has at times been executed with deadly efficiency; at other times, with a cultural clumsiness that defies logic. Kollin is right to call out the multicultural influences that fed, and continues to feed, “the Western.” However, her theorizing is predicated on a very broad notion of what constitutes a western, and this detracts from her theory’s elegance and utility.

The dust jacket is replete with glowing praise for the work—“Groundbreaking in its analysis … nuanced and brilliant … exuberant”—and it is surely heartfelt, but the range of solicited opinion is fairly narrow and appears self-serving. One could argue who better to critique the work than those in the field, but that is precisely a weakness of the book; it presumes too much and attempts to corral various themes in one explanatory exposé. The fundamental problem is that there is no singular western.

In terms of the books usefulness for those learning to understand the Middle East or American framing of the issues involved, there are more helpful texts. One book that comes to mind is Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind. It is dated and not the final word on the subject, and maybe overly reductionist, but it is a good primer nonetheless and should, at the very least, be read ahead of this publication. It is doubtful military professionals will find much of practical use in this text, but that should not deter us from continually hunting for golden nuggets outside the narrow lane of military-themed works.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas