Identity, Wrestling with an America in Decline & Pop Culture: A Turkish Tom Clancy?


Ted Widmer is the kind of historian who makes everything yesterday seem like it is happening now.
He is also politically connected. He journeyed these last couple of years every month from his home in Chestertown, Maryland to New York to serve as Bill Clinton’s intellectual ‘foil’ as the former president sorted out his memoirs. Ted was a speech-writer on Clinton’s National Security Staff and used to moonlight in a punk-rock band. He now heads the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, whose advisory board I have just joined.
I found this recent New York Times piece by Widmer profound in what it says about the way in which American power and might, what is left anyway, are perceived in the world.
He reviews a Tom Clancy-style novel, Metal Storm, written by a Turkish author about a Turkish war with America. I’m one who believes that pop culture can tell you nearly everything about a society at a given point in time — even though the real Tom Clancy didn’t like my characterization of him as one of the most important pop culture forces in America when it came to thinking about America’s wars and U.S. foreign policy.
If you are interested in a few minutes of commentary from Clancy at my recent conference, click here.
Widmer though gets to what Turkish pop culture is saying about America and its mess in the world. Here is an excerpt:

Although its title might sound more like a Judas Priest album than a political thriller, “Metal Storm” offers a highly realistic account of an American war with Turkey. In the grand tradition of the cold-war farce “The Mouse That Roared,” the book describes a series of baroque plot twists that result in Turkey’s humbling the American military behemoth.
To be sure, the book is trashy – its wild speculations include a shadow ruler behind the unnamed American president and arms smuggling via the Mexican drug mafia – and readers are presumably taking it with a grain of salt.
Yet it’s a sign of how far America’s reputation has plummeted that “Metal Storm,” first published in late 2004, is now in its eighth printing of 50,000. The book is said to be very popular with the Turkish military, and men aged 18 to 30.
That tinderbox demographic plays a part in the book, in the form of a secret service outfit that recruits 14-year-old orphans. At the start of the three-year training, each boy is given a puppy. At the end, he’s ordered to shoot it – a lesson in how to banish all love from his heart except love of country. “Come time, you may have to kill a little baby, maybe a whole family or the girl you love, in order to save your country!” the boys are instructed.
The plot of “Metal Storm” unfolds something like this. American forces invade Turkey over two weeks in 2007. After war planners discover Turkey has a high concentration of borax, a strategic mineral needed for nuclear weapons and space technology, G.I.’s overrun Turkey from their position in neighboring Iraq. The first phase of the invasion, Operation Metal Storm, resembles Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The Americans have no difficulty taking over Turkey’s primary cities, where they allow cultural vandalism. They fail to secure the countryside, however, and slowly their hubris begins to do them in.

Widmer notes that the book has even popped up in Congressional testimony:

So it’s not surprising the book has attracted attention in Washington. How many new thrillers have been the subject of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?
In March, Zeyno Baran, a Turkey expert from the Nixon Center, told the senators that “Metal Storm” was “essential in understanding the Turkish mind-set today.”

This is just fiction, but certainly, a compelling case can be made that part of an emergent Turkish national identity that sees itself as a more empowered actor in the world may fantasize about humbling America.
What is disturbing though is how quickly American prestige and the mystique of power may be dissipating — in fact rather than fantasy — and that the sense of American ascendancy that Bush talked about when he came into office is rapidly looking like the kind of decline that Nixon and Kissinger had to contend with when they came to office.
— Steve Clemons