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History professor to deliver Harvard talk on the “optics of combat”


John Pettegrew, associate professor of history and director of the university’s American Studies program, will deliver a talk on his new research project at a Harvard University seminar on American culture and war in early October.

Pettegrew’s research, which is an outgrowth of his forthcoming book, Brutes in Suits: Male Sensibility in America, 1890-1920 (slated for publication in Spring of 2007), focuses on visual culture, combat psychology and the killing power of U.S. Marines in the Iraq War.

“How does the United States get a significant number of Americans to leave their homes, travel across an ocean, land on foreign soil, and, while staying in the line of fire, try to take the life of a nearly perfect stranger?” Pettegrew asks. “One answer, I think, is the conditioning of an ‘eye for battle.’ I’m interested in analyzing the mind's eye in a rather literal sense.”

Pettegrew says that cognitive patterning and visualization of homicide provide keys to the apparent ease and ferocity with which some young American men fight and kill in foreign lands. The concept of conditioning the mind’s eye for battle to facilitate successful performance is similar to the visualization methods employed by sports psychologists.

“Hollywood war film, amateur video of fire fights (or what I refer to as ‘war porn’), first-person shooter combat video games, as well as more formal training in boot camp, all pattern the eye and its attendant cognitive-emotional grid for killing,” he says.

In a new vein of research for cultural historians, Pettegrew looks at the four-year-old video game, “Close Combat: First to Fight," a first-person shooter game that engages the player as the leader of a four-Marine fire team whose mission is to rid the streets of present-day Beirut of radical Islamist insurgents.

He is also drawing on his interviews with former history major Colin Keefe ’06, retired sergeant in the U.S. Marines, who served as a machine gunner in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Keefe shared his experiences in the fist wave of Marines fighting in Iraq, and how he was conditioned for battle.

From his ongoing research on this topic, Pettegrew concludes that while the United States no longer relies on an army of citizen soldiers, it does depend on a tightening loop between the conduct of battle on foreign ground and the home-grown entertainment industry that privileges the horror, excitement and pleasure of fighting and killing for one’s country.

“It’s an ever-narrowing portion of the U.S. populace that actually does the fighting,” he emphasizes. “The American ‘warrior elite’ of perhaps 80,000 men constitute a very powerful force, though. It’s not enough for Iraq and Afghanistan today. But overall, this core group of ‘shock troops’ has provided a good start in post-Vietnam War conflicts.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Tuesday, September 19, 2006

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