National Melancholia: Homeland, Childhood, and Terror

Late at night on March 11, 2012 U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left combat outpost Camp Belambay and entered several homes in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Over the course of two separate trips he murdered sixteen villagers, burned several of the corpses of those he had just slain and returned to his base whereupon he confessed to the killings. Amongst the dead were nine children.[1] While much of the coverage focused on Bales himself, the articles ceaselessly searching for some latent predisposition in his past actions, each report specifically highlighted (as I have) the child victims. In a Huffington Post Op-Ed, commentator Dan Obeidallah cites the curious, yet commonplace, inability of the American media to see any Afghan civilian regardless of age beyond their victimhood. He states, “We need to hear about the hopes and dreams that the parents held for the eleven murdered children. We need to know if the children played soccer or were good students in school.”[2]

Obeidallah’s harsh criticism of the coverage of the aforementioned “Kandahar Massacre” stands (in his figuration) in opposition to the “flattening” coverage of most Afghan deaths, a treatment which one could easily imagine, whereby a news report states that a determinate number of civilians were killed by American forces “accidentally.” The tally of the dead operates as the victims’ sole recognition, a menial counter ratcheting steadily upwards.  Yet there is an erasure in both accounts that necessitates further examination. While the “mainstream” accounts that Obeidallah rails against refuse any differentiation among Afghan dead, his own work, rather than critiquing the crippling systemic effects of U.S. occupation (or Bales’ actions for that matter) solely wishes to recuperate the lives of the dead as imaginable tragedy. Through the attachment of the dead children to idyllic norms, school and soccer, the American reader can envision the loss of their own child, thereby reaffirming the horrors of loss while sidestepping the question of accountability altogether. It is almost as if, in the Baudrillardian sense, the death of a child looms so large as to disarm one’s recognition of the circumstances leading to the death of the actual child.[3] In acknowledging this lack, I aim to purposefully situate and politicize the child in the context of media representation of the “War on Terror,” specifically enunciating a politics of melancholia immanent in such depictions.

In the Showtime series Homeland, which first aired in 2011, one finds an intriguing counterpart to the Kandahar Massacre and further evidence of the importance of childhood to U.S. occupations abroad. Homeland revolves around two central characters, Nicholas Brody, a marine held hostage in Afghanistan for 8 years, and Carrie Matheson, a CIA field agent suspicious of his allegiances. Throughout the first season the audience is made to question Brody’s ties to terrorist leader Abu Nazir and a coterminous plot against America in which he may or may not be involved. The series’ reliance on children/childhood, however, is crucial to the logic of the show, as well as to its critical reception. Brody’s own children, Dana and Chris, loom large in his decision-making and ultimately prove essential to Brody’s willingness to play the terrorist or not to play the terrorist. Similar to the real life events of the Kandahar Massacre, the killing of Afghan children, and the culpability for their deaths is also a motivating factor for the show. Ultimately, however, the critique that Homeland provides is akin to the response of Dan Obeidallah’s editorial, the evil actions of singular persons or institutions. My aim, then, is to examine the processes of a national melancholia at work in newspaper and television news coverage, and the series Homeland and in doing so excavate a politics of shame and guilt that both sustains and undermines U.S. occupations abroad.

It is therefore primarily through the mediated lens of Homeland that I engage with the question of how depictions of childhood intersect with contemporary U.S. imperial interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan in a melancholic register. In doing so I aim to both demonstrate the importance of age-centric scholarship, by refusing a depiction of children as merely passive ciphers to be decrypted and highlighting the very importance of that trope, as well as illustrating the significance of serialized representations of childhood to affecting real world decisions. To evince the importance of childhood and national melancholia to the perpetuation of the War on Terror I will do the following. First, I will introduce Freud’s concept of melancholia as a means to read the cultural logics of Homeland and U.S. foreign policy concerning Iraq and Afghanistan. The “losses” of the post 9/11 era in their myriad forms are well displayed in Homeland and in the real world rhetoric of fighting terrorism. Next I will highlight the ways in which those perceptions of loss are combatted by projecting causality onto an Other, more specifically the figure of the terrorist. Children in this scenario are productive to the “remedy-ing” of melancholic sentimentalities and their representations aim to justify occupation abroad. Finally I will turn my analysis back to the U.S. to showcase that narcissistic evocations of trauma are really “about” the multiplicitous shames of U.S. intervention overseas. Here the child is not a comforting presence that assuages guilt and justifies occupation, but rather haunts the American imaginary and in which attempts to banish these specters only result in the reinvigoration of violence.

Situating Melancholia

Religious ideology, economic incentive, and national security are each broad themes constantly returned to by political pundits and media correspondents as the definitive impetuses and justifications for U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, children and their media figurations, too, are central in justifying both the “War on Terror” and U.S. occupations abroad.  There is, however, a definitive differentiation in how children of each of those nationalities are represented. Indeed in digging deeper, one finds that the apparent apolitical-ness of the child (non)actor is a blatant fiction and that variegated imageries of literal or imagined children are integral to all contemporary politics, as Lauren Berlant has argued, and especially the War on Terror.[4] Therefore, it is my intention to showcase the national, racial, gendered, and psychological presumptions and figurations of melancholia and childhood that also prove central to U.S. military occupations under the guise of “The War on Terror.” In doing so I will specifically explore instances of violence and/or death involving children and pregnant women to highlight the productive and melancholic affects mobilized in such circumstances. Expressly, I will utilize Freud’s conception of melancholia to explicate the nationalized impetuses to war, the national yearning for lost “superpower-ness”, the projection of “backwards-ness” onto Iraqi and Afghani governments and citizens, the possible future loss of viable markets/natural resources and the affective role of children in narratives of the war on terror. [5] These episodes of the melancholic, depicted on screen, intersect with tropes of reproduction and childhood in several crucial ways.

First, is the role of shame and/or guilt as manifestation of national melancholia in fictional representations of U.S. occupation(s) through depictions of childhood. I argue that imageries of dead children or violence enacted towards children have a dialectical relationship with the “war effort” domestically and abroad. Terrorist actions that kill children work to “justify” U.S. occupations (think of the white man’s burden and/or patriarchal programs of Third World “development”). Conversely, drone strikes, friendly fire, and off target missile attacks, when shown, propagate feelings of national shame/guilt for complicity in the deaths of children. Moreover, the lack of definitive military “successes” in Iraq and Afghanistan elicit a specter of failure that only sustains the melancholic sentimentality of the war on terror.

To Freud, “the melancholic’s erotic cathexis in regard to his object has…undergone a double vicissitude: part of it has regressed to identification, but the other part, under the influence of the conflict due to ambivalence, has been carried back to the stage of sadism.”[6] In this process, the ego constantly seeks out another object to replace the lost one; children as only one “object” in a long list of substitutions that justify occupation, i.e., WMD’s, harbored terrorists, Saddam’s atrocities, etc. and inflicts punishment on the perceived cause of object loss, or the object itself.[7] Therefore the military assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan emanate not only from the explicit actions of those regimes, but from the narcissistic projections of a U.S. attempting to recuperate loss. As Judith Butler has asserted in her work Precarious Life,

A national melancholia, understood as a disavowed mourning, follows upon the erasure from public representations of the names, images, and narratives of those the US has killed. On the other hand, the US’s own losses are consecrated in public obituaries that constitute so many acts of nation-building.[8]


There is also, of course, a third avenue of representation (or non-representation I suppose) in the depictions (or lack thereof) of “collateral damage” being shown on screen. This “visibility” of the relationship between childhood, mourning, and identification is played out on an individual level in the first season of Homeland. The main character Nicholas Brody, upon witnessing the death of Issa the son of terrorist leader Abu Nazir, who Brody has been living with and teaching English, returns home unable to return to his normal life. It is the destruction of Issa in a U.S. drone strike that plagues Brody in the U.S. and catalyzes his ambiguous relationship to terrorism that drives the plot of Homeland. And yet this is an imagery rarely seen in depictions of the U.S. projects of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Serving as the central interrogative for her work, Precarious Life, Judith Butler asks, “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life?”[9] It is precisely because Afghan and Iraqi casualties, excepting the congratulatory coverage of a vilified terrorist, are not made visible, and because of the hyperbolized humanity of American citizens that certain lives are mourn-able and others are not.

Projecting Superpower Temporalities

“We’re about projecting American power now…you wanna play softball spy games go join the Germans or the French.”[10] David Harewood the Director of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center in speaking to Middle-East Division Chief Saul Berenson on Homeland chastises Berenson after Saul has critiqued Harewood’s okaying of a drone strike in Iraq that killed 82 children. Harewood’s remarks are indicative of what he terms a new era in American foreign policy, one that Berenson, a relic of the old pre-9/11 CIA is ill-equipped to manage. Projecting American power, as Harewood terms it and as utilized in “real” U.S. foreign policy works in several registers. First is the military coinage of “power projection,” which, according to the U.S. Navy’s Science and Technology Strategic Plan, “strives…to enhance the ability of naval forces to damage, seize or destroy enemy forces at extended ranges… at a speed, rate and distance that defeats any adversary’s ability to conduct effective operations against us despite his use of mobility and deception to neutralize our efforts.”[11] Technological advantage becomes one way to effectively demonstrate U.S. superiority.

This projection works in accord with a more theoretical notion of projection that will serve as the central interrogative of this section, a concept of projection emergent from psychoanalytic theory and driven by desire. Glossing Lacan, Dino Felluga says, “At the heart of desire is a misrecognition of fullness where there is really nothing but a screen for our own narcissistic projections. It is that lack at the heart of desire that ensures we continue to desire.”[12] What we can productively glean from this statement about the Lacanian idea of the Gaze is that the images, ideas, identities, and ideologies that American media project onto the Other (in this case those who stand in the way of America; i.e., terrorists) are really desires and anxieties immanent to Americans themselves. September 11th operates as one such event that “necessitated” the projection of American power abroad. The attacks of 9/11 are constantly wielded not only to explicate the “evil” of terrorist regimes abroad, but also to display the U.S. in the role of the victim. As George W. Bush argued in his Presidential Address on September 20th, 2001,

Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom — the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time — now depends on us. Our nation — this generation — will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.[13]


Both the Harewood and Bush speeches are meant to elicit a sense of righteousness in carrying out acts that each knows will result in “collateral damage.” Harewood continues his diatribe, berating Berenson for threatening to go to the New York Times with a video of Harewood and Vice President William Walden authorizing the strike on a school where it was believed the Al-Qaeda leader Abu Nazir was headquartered. He says, “Telling the world we killed 82 kids would endanger every American soldier on the ground…you would essentially be handing Al-Qaeda the biggest recruitment tool since Abu Ghraib.”[14] The rallying cry of Bush’s speech becomes a vicious secret, a necessity of war.

And yet what do these projections of a dialectical American power/victimhood tell us about a “new” epoch of nationalized anxiety, emergent from the moment of 9/11 as Harewood and Bush seem to imply? Is it productive to differentiate between the concept of mourning and that of melancholia in classifying these anxieties? Freud argues that melancholia “may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object…The object has not perhaps actually died, but has been lost as an object of love…In yet other cases one feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost.” He continues saying that the melancholic individual may recognize “whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him.”[15]

This is crucial, for if we are to extrapolate a nationalized melancholia from Freud’s conception of an individual pathology we must also locate what Lacan calls the objet petit a (unattainable object of desire) the lost object mourned and obsessed over. And yet also, to Freud, the melancholic being feels no shame, in fact, “one might emphasize the presence in him of an almost opposite trait of insistent communicativeness which finds satisfaction in self-exposure.”[16] For Bush this “object” is seemingly the virginal, unpenetrated American past before the “great harm.” Indeed for Harewood as well, the superpower-ness of America suffered a loss, or a least a trauma during 9/11 that necessarily must be recuperated. Thus, the lacks of American vitality and security are projected abroad and re-appropriated through the occupation of the supposed perpetrators. Homeland provides the ability to read a national anxiety or melancholy on screen and locate some of its key markers. As Freud and Lacan would argue, the loss afflicting the melancholic needn’t even be “real,” but rather could also be a perceived loss or an anxiety over a possible future loss. In this way a childhood futurity (or foreclosure of the possibility of a future) can be mobilized in service of an imperial America.

Homeland is just one of a litany of television shows that take the War on Terror as their central theme. The most commonly cited American show addressing terrorism is the Fox show 24, which actually aired in Fall 2001 contemporaneous to the September 11th attacks. Similar shows include: The Grid, Person of Interest, Rubicon, and the U.K. series Spooks. Airing in 2011, Homeland comes at a moment in which the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are “winding down.” Together with the presence of numerous serialized precursors to the show, the timing of Homeland necessitated a different approach than those waylaid by the aforementioned programs. The lessened-presence of the wars and the facilitation of imminent U.S. exit from both Iraq and Afghanistan facilitated an alternative portrayal of U.S. militarism abroad. In common with each of the previous American shows, however, Homeland both expounds a melancholy immanent to the post 9/11 era and relies on a logic of American innocence (figured in the child).

Dana Brody is the 16-year-old daughter of Nicholas Brody who is the main character and central figure of ambiguity that propels the anxious plot of Homeland forward. Upon Brody’s return Dana becomes his sole confidant. He is distant from his wife, his son, and his former best friend who has effectively replaced Brody as father figure, Mike, a fellow Marine. Speaking to Dana he tells her that the thought of her “kept him alive” while in captivity.[17] This relationship proves crucial to the narrative of the first season, as Dana is the one most attuned to how “different” Brody appears to be after returning. Once we are presented with the “fact” of Brody’s terrorist affiliations Dana’s character also becomes suspicious of her father and the oddity of his behavior. Brody, growing increasingly nervous in anticipation of the imminent attack he must carry out has several run-ins with Dana that threaten to blow his cover. First, Dana almost catches him loading a suicide bomber vest into their car on a family trip to Gettysburg. Next she walks in on him in the garage engaging in a Muslim call to prayer, at which point he tells her about his conversion to Islam, leading her to say, “Dad you’re scaring me.”[18] In the final scene before Brody departs for a speech by the Vice President, Dana attempts to enter the room, while he is putting the vest on. These scenes are crucial to Brody’s ultimate decision on whether or not to explode himself, killing the Vice President who authorized the strike on Issa’s school and gaining revenge for the deaths of 82 innocent children.

It is Dana’s concern that softens Brody’s resolve, leading him to question whether or not he should carry out the attack. Ultimately, the plan unfolds as Nazir has hoped, with Vice President Walden, members of the Defense Department, and Brody all in a safe room together, the vest attached to Brody’s body ready to detonate. And Brody makes his peace with god and goes through with it, or at least he attempts to. The trigger mechanism fails, leading to a horrified Brody heading into the bathroom to attempt to fix the wiring and carry out his attack. During this time, however, Carrie Matheson has gotten to the Brody household where Dana is alone and alerts her of her father’s intentions. Dana at first refuses to call her father, but once Carrie is dragged away by the police she calls him. At this point Brody is about to trigger the device for a second time. She says, “I had to hear your voice…she [Carrie] said you’re a terrorist,” to which Brody mumbles, “I’m not” and Dana starts cracking up telling him “Promise me…you have to promise me you’re coming home, dad…I need you. You know that?”[19]


Dana’s interaction with her father ultimately results in his inability to set off the bomb he has strapped to his chest; leading him to abandon the revenge plot he has been a part of since the drone strike on Issa’s school. We have seen that Brody was willing to detonate the bomb prior to Dana’s phone call, so her earlier concerns had not swayed his choice. Brody cannot, however, bring himself to betray his daughter so egregiously after her pleas to come home. It is her voice and his recognition of the destruction of his family that would result from his actions that talks him down. As one review puts it, “he’s still just a man who loves his family and thinks he’s doing the right thing, however messed up that thing is.”[20]

Brody’s willingness to “do the right thing” is what allows the viewer to ultimately empathize with him, even if his tactics are unthinkable. In the beginning of the season finale episode, “Marine One,” we see Brody’s confession video, a pseudo suicide note that seeks to justify the actions he is about to undertake. In front of a home video camera in black and white we see Brody in full Marine attire talking about how he was “held for 8 years…tortured…and held in isolation” he continues, “People will say I was turned into a terrorist…I love my country…my action today is against…liars and war criminals…This is about justice for 82 children whose deaths were never acknowledged and whose murder is a stain on the soul of this nation.”[21] Brody’s turn to terrorism is absolved through the justice seeking measures he has undertaken on behalf of the Iraqi children he saw die. More than angry, Brody is ashamed of those in power of the country he fought on behalf of in Iraq. The destruction of children and ultimately of the one he was closest to, Issa, are the losses that have affected him the most, corrupting his integrity and leading to his affiliation with Nazir. Somewhat ironically, the show knowingly plays on the deaths of children and the tremendous ability to “propagandize” their deaths and mobilize support, whether for or against U.S. forces. In fact, Nazir is known to be an especially ruthless terrorist particularly because of his fondness for bombing women and children.

Brody has in fact, lost quite a bit. His family has fallen apart, he has lost 8 years of his life, and importantly, he has seemingly lost his identification with his American-ness. If we read Brody as a simulacrum of melancholia, particularly one that serves as synecdoche for the nation, his justifications become more apparent and more acceptable. Brody is unmoored from a normative notion of U.S. identity; he has converted to Islam, cannot perform sexually with his wife, and almost engages in a suicide attack. And yet he is nevertheless an ardent patriot to the end as his confession tape purports. Similarly, in a way the U.S. too has been “trapped” in Iraq and Afghanistan and has suffered losses of both military personnel and time. Like Brody, as well, the U.S. has engaged in unseemly acts, but always with the nation’s best interest at heart. It important then, in making this connection between Brody and the nation that he ultimately admits his intentions in the second season, whereby instead of being hauled off to Guantanamo or exposed to the public, he joins the CIA in their efforts to thwart Abu Nazir. Brody is incorporated into the very apparatus he originally sought to undermine, his transgressions effectively erased opening the possibility for catharsis.

Gender, Violence, and “Protecting” the Weak Abroad

If Brody espouses the melancholic sentimentality of the U.S. through his attachment to Dana and the loss of Issa, then he also demonstrates an attempt to recoup those losses. Part of the brilliance of Homeland is in how it showcases the extreme measures untaken by Brody, Nazir, and the CIA in the name of “justice.” Each plays at hero by mobilizing the figures of innocence, namely women and children, to justify their actions. The “heroic” rationale for war is of course not new to the U.S. It has been harnessed endlessly as a paternalistic validation of American interests from the Wild West to the shores of China and the Philippines. What I argue is new, however, is the melancholic attitude with which America’s latest imperial endeavors, Iraq and Afghanistan are teeming. As Gayatri Spivak has noted we once again see “white men, seeking to save brown women, from brown men.”[22] Importantly, however, we must now add several addendums to Spivak’s revelatory pronouncement, primarily that white women are also leading the charge and that children too “need” saving.

A radio address given to the American public on November 17, 2001 by First Lady Laura Bush proves an apt corollary to my discussion of Homeland and the greater cultural affects of the mobilized child. In the speech she denounces the oppressive regime of the Taliban, envisioning a brighter tomorrow heralded by the new American presence.[23] Her address cites the backwardness of a regime that sought not only to curtail the rights of women and children in Afghanistan, but was also engaged in a full frontal assault on the American people. As she argues, “Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror — not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.”[24] By framing the war as one of liberation and civilization, Bush places an anti-war stance outside the realm of possibility, for if the war is in fact a “War on Terror,” to be critically opposed to intervention is to support (or at least tacitly accept) the brutal suppression of women and children.[25] I mention Bush’s address in order to highlight the purposeful utilization of women and children as victims in need of rescue and thereby as justificatory mechanisms for war.

The image of the woman-hating Islamo-terrorist is not a creation of the writers of Homeland, though their portrayal of Nazir and several others certainly bolstered it. Following the events of September 11th, First Lady Laura Bush’s radio address similarly addressed the woman and child victims of the oppressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan. She states, “Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists. Long before the current war began, the Taliban and its terrorist allies were making the lives of children and women in Afghanistan miserable.”[26] Bush’s characterization of the Taliban served not only as a moralizing gesture that condemned the governmental policies of Afghan leaders, but also paved the way for a justification of the contemporaneous U.S. invasion of the country.

By making women and children the central victims of Taliban oppression Bush (amongst others) allied family rights groups with liberal women’s rights groups, a coalition of support heralding “women’s rights” through an assault on Islamic society. Hilary Clinton, in a speech a week after First Lady Bush’s maintained a similar argument, stating, “The mistreatment of women in Afghanistan was like an early warning signal of the kind of terrorism that culminated in the attacks of September 11. Similarly, the proper treatment of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan can be a harbinger of a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic future for that war-torn nation.”[27] As Bush further asserts, “the plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control.”[28]

These statements not only obscure a history of American inaction in addressing women’s rights abroad, as well as erasing any lineage of American intervention in Afghanistan that impacted the attacks of September 11th, but also place Islamic society in the past and the U.S. as a beacon of modernity and its corollary, freedom. As Judith Butler has argued, “Islam is conceived as not of this time or our time, but of another time, one that has anachronistically emerged in this time.”[29] This conceptualization is found in Homeland as well, with Carrie Matheson the genius, white, American, CIA analyst continually juxtaposed with oppressive Muslim men. As the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has noted,

The US and her allies tried to legitimize their military occupation of Afghanistan under the banner of “bringing freedom and democracy for Afghan people”. But as we have experienced in the past three decades, in regard to the fate of our people, the US government first of all considers her own political and economic interests and has empowered and equipped the most traitorous, anti-democratic, misogynist and corrupt fundamentalist gangs in Afghanistan.[30]


The women of RAWA highlight the “need” of US interlocutors to showcase their liberatory justifications for war, whilst actually being responsible for the very foreclosure of those possibilities in Afghanistan. The temporal circuitry of justification gets at the melancholic attempts of U.S. officials to recuperate a pre-9/11 world, one in which the U.S. was effectively ignoring the misogynist practices of the Taliban. As a U.S. State Department report on the Taliban’s treatment of women decries, “Restricting women’s access to work is an attack on women today. Eliminating women’s access to education is an assault on women tomorrow.” [31]

As Judith Butler has argued, “When a bleeding child or dead body on Afghan-soil emerges in the press coverage, it is not relayed as part of the horror of war, but only in the service of a criticism of the military’s capacity to aim its bombs right.”[32] Butler’s assertion gets at an integral biopolitical differentiation being made between an American life and the life of an Afghan or Iraqi life. While the State Department, Laura Bush, and Hilary Clinton might clamor for the rights of women under brutal regimes those figures exist only as abstractions, as ghosts to conjure when the projects of war demand their presence. Because while the brutalized victim might serve as an appropriate justification for military intervention, the actual value of those individuals lies only in their ability to be manipulated. A case in point is the shocking declaration by Madeleine Albright in 1996 of the worth-less-ness of a half million Iraqi children. Her interview on 60 Minutes went as follows:

Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.[33]


Albright’s statement is no aberration, however, and finds an apt parallel in a decision made by Vice President Walden. As the then Director of the CIA, he authorized a missile strike on a terrorist target in a highly populated area, which eventually turned out to be the school that Issa attended, spurring Brody’s extremist affiliations. To justify the strike he tells the room that “the potential collateral damage falls within current matrix parameters.” The logic of  “collateral damage” works to dehumanize the potential victims of a U.S. missile strike, emboldening our sense of Walden’s evil. He continues in saying, “If Abu Nazir is taking refuge among children he’s putting them at risk, not us.”[34] Walden’s double move is a perfect encapsulation of the necessity of victimization as a key strategy in justifying the War on Terror. While obscuring the value of an Afghan or Iraqi life as a means to “get the target,” he then immediately demonizes Nazir for his lack of respect for human life.

One cannot help but think of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney being invoked in the characterization of Walden. Bush, in his speech entitled “The Iraqi Threat” utilizes a similar rhetoric, highlighting the imminent threat of Iraq to the U.S. homeland and to the Iraqi people. He states, “America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”[35] The specter of Saddam Hussein is likewise raised and vilified as a means to project villainy. Bush continues, “On Saddam Hussein’s orders, opponents have been decapitated, wives and mothers of political opponents have been systematically raped as a method of intimidation, and political prisoners have been forced to watch their own children being tortured.”[36] As we have seen previously, women and children become the primary figures through which violence is justified, their innocence acting as rationalization for military intervention.

The wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have in a sense not measured up to the “good” occupations of WWII. Albright and Bush both cite WWII events and characterizations to rally support for the American cause, the justifiability of an immense loss of life in the name of the greater good. However, one could scarcely even hear the word occupation escape the lips of American policy makers at the onset of the Iraq War.[37] The unspeakability of “occupation” today is directly linked to a problematic present in which the ease of identifying the enemy is made more difficult. Speaking after President Bushs’ speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Japan in WWII, one naval officer stated, “You fly over a house in the day and you see these children come out and wave, and then you fly over the same house at night, and there are anti- aircraft guns in the backyard.”[38]

The problem with the critique that Homeland offers of the Bush/Cheney rationale is that it reifies the same ideals of American exceptionalism that Bush and Cheney are propounding. Bush/Cheney/Walden/Harewood operate as evil individuals in an otherwise ethical enterprise. Homeland offers no significant criticism of the CIA or national security apparatus. Likewise, Brody is similarly recuperated as a moral character through his affiliation with “real” American ideals, family and democracy. It is these “forgotten” principles that serve as the objects of national melancholia continually yearned for by Brody and Berenson. This liberal critique attempts to incorporate the women and children victims of terrorist tyranny to alleviate that melancholy. However, as we shall see, the specter of the terrorist is not so easily banished and continues to haunt the American psyche.

Ghosts of American Exceptionalism

Melancholia is an extended manifestation of loss. If, as I am arguing, the actions and reactions of U.S. media and state foreign policy constitute a national melancholia two questions arise. First, what are the losses that have proved so damaging to a collective psyche? And second, how can one temporalize this current state of being the U.S. seems so consumed by? Has America been melancholic since its inception, or can the phenomena be traced to a more recent causality? Though I would assert that a level of melancholic sentiment has constantly pervaded U.S. thought, the post 9/11 era seems particularly fraught. Thus far I have attempted to showcase one such iteration of loss centered around an imagery of childhood, read through the mediated lens of Homeland. Yet seemingly, there is more to this story. The “War on Terror” is not a monolith, it is not unchanging or unwavering. At the time of Homeland‘s release in 2011 that war was in its 10th year and the U.S. had already “departed” Iraq. Likewise, Afghanistan (save for a flare up in coverage around the time of Osama Bin Laden’s death) has hardly been visible.[39] If not apparent, or even readily viewable, how can one situate loss at the forefront of contemporary U.S. treatment of the “War on Terror”? Indeed, if I am arguing for the obsessive kind of loss that melancholia evokes, where is it to be found?

My assertion is this, that loss, especially in the “late” stage of the war in Afghanistan and a “post-war” Iraq, emerges from a spectral presence, less visible, yet no less potent. Iraq and Afghanistan effectively haunt the U.S. This is recognizable not only in the cathartic “need” to document the wars in narrativized fiction, vis a vis Homeland, but also in conjuring up a “post”-Iraq ideology in news coverage and political punditry. Therefore, Iraq, or more often, the occlusion of Iraq, functions as manifestation of American loss, particularly through the recuperative affects ascribed to the image of the child. Here, Homeland particularly instructive, not only because of the moment it arrives (right after the death of Bin Laden and contemporaneous to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq), but also due to the imagery it mobilizes.

I have mentioned briefly the effect of Issa’s death on Nicholas Brody, “radicalizing” him and leading him to almost carry out a suicide bombing in Washington D.C. What merits further inquiry, however, is that scene’s complex connection to loss and how Issa prefigures Brody’s national-izable melancholic sentimentalities. This scene also demonstrates what avenues of critique open up in a post-war time period. To Brody, the death of Issa at the behest of the CIA is unacceptable collateral damage in the context of the war. It is important to note that in Brody’s taped suicide message he is in full Marine dress, mentioning several times his dedication to the true ideals of the United States as well as his ardent patriotism. His character is juxtaposed, with Vice President Walden, whose mobilization of “collateral damage” is to illustrate its necessity and acceptability.

Even though Brody has converted to Islam and strapped a bomb to his chest he ultimately does not carry through with his terrorist action. And yet, Issa remains a everlasting presence for both Brody and the television audience exactly because of his death. I mentioned earlier the timeliness of Homeland and here it seems most forthcoming. To show the “costs” of war for Iraqi and/or Afghan citizens, especially children, seems a dangerous proposition in the midst of war, both due to the backlash from those populations and for the domestic response to the deaths of innocents. The Iraq War, however, is supposedly over, opening up the space for the “visceral” critique that Homeland provides. But what does this critique truly give us? Rather, more than just showcase the brutalities inflicted by both sides, Homeland precisely places those atrocities in the past. The past-ness of the Iraq War and U.S. responsibility therein, demonstrate the “safe-ness” of the critique that Homeland offers, yet also highlight the continual need to exorcise the demons of past occupations. It is of the utmost importance then, that the drone strike on Issa’s school takes place several years earlier in a flashback and within Iraq.

Drone strikes today take place, for the most part not in Iraq, but in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan in escalating rather than decreasing numbers.[40] Homeland, in fact seems to be utilizing an agglomeration of drone strikes on Afghan and Pakistani schools as referents in visualizing the strike on Issa’s school, thereby transposing the violence of current actions into and onto the past in locating Iraq as the site of U.S. atrocity.[41] Moreover, drone strikes likely represent only a fraction of civilian deaths as a result of the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, with some 130,000 non-combatants lost to those wars.[42] The omnipresence of the drone seems to signal, however, at least a latent cognizance of the horrific legacies of the war, particularly in highlighting the loss of life to so-called “precision” technologies. Here the “accidental” deaths of children, when reported upon, loom large in the American imaginary. Issa is a ghostly presence in Homeland just as the hundreds of children lost to U.S. military action are; each weighing heavily on the minds of the American public. It is not enough to argue that most people simply don’t know about the loss of civilian life because of underreporting, lack of air-time on the news, etc. Instead that knowledge is almost always there, driving the melancholy of U.S. imperial foreign policy. It is implicit to the current and recent projects of war. Media formulations of just-cause and terrorist possibilities are mere inoculations against the psychic trauma of complicity.

A very recent news report by the new show Vice, on HBO, makes this readily apparent. The interviewer, Shane Smith, a co-founder of Vice, travels to Afghanistan to speak with some failed suicide bombers. The episode, entitled, “Killer Kids” charts the Taliban discovery that “using a new transportation device for high explosives has proven very effective against the occupation. They’re using children.”[43] The heinousness of utilizing children on top of the horror of suicide bombing proves hard to watch, with two interviews conducted with Afghan teenagers who failed to successfully detonate their suicide vests. But like most coverage of violence in Afghanistan, the episode fails to cite the kids killed by U.S. actions. I mention this in no way to excuse the despicability of the Taliban coerced violence, but instead to showcase the acceptability of Afghan loss of life in relation to American life. Responsibility is one of the many ghosts that haunt the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, a lingering complicity visualized in the imagery of dead children. As Shane Smith’s closing remarks illustrate, those revenants so often bear the mark of a divisive logic of modernity, he says, “we have video chat, we have Facebook, we can reach mars, and I found myself thinking; this is our 21st century? This is out modern age? Where children are used as transportation devices, for dynamite”?[44]

             I have argued that imageries of dead children or violence enacted towards children have a dialectical relationship with the “war effort” domestically and abroad. Through Homeland one can see the logic of a national melancholia that runs through not only narrative fiction, but news media and political rhetoric as well. Contrary to Freud’s pathology, however, this instantiation of national melancholia has not rendered its subject inactive. Instead the melancholic sentimentalities expressed through the various media I have outlined are productive affects. A politics of loss has emerged in which the United States constantly wields the image of the child, domestically and abroad as a primary object to be saved. Rather than only document the numerous perceived losses that the U.S. has suffered, I have instead, examined the narcissistic impulses of foreign policy and the idealistic projections they work to recuperate. Yet the ghosts of the past are not so easily banished, the lingering uncertainties following the attacks of 9/11 of economic exploitation, of religious and racial demonization, and of the collateral damage the U.S. has inflicted throughout the world weigh heavily on a collective conscience. It is only in awakening new specters onto which those anxieties can be projected that the nation can shift its gaze, but we never truly forget, and Issa is forever present.


[2] Dan Obeidallah, “What are the Names of the People Massacred in Afghanistan” 03/20/2012

[3] Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra is especially useful here and the paper would probably benefit from a more in depth treatment of his work.

[4] Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham, NC : Duke University Press, 1997)

[5] My utilization of the melancholic emerges from Freud through some updating via David Eng, Melanie Klein, and Julia Kristeva.

[6] Freud, Mourning and Melancholia, 250-251.

[7] Freud, Mourning and Melancholia

[8] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso: New York, 2004), xiv.

[9] Judith Butler, 20.

[10] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12.

[11] “Power Projection and Integrated Defense Focus Area”

“there is elegance in killing a million-dollar cruise missile with directed energy for the price of a gallon of fuel.”

[12] Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.

[13] George W. Bush, Address to the Nation Washington, DC September 20, 2001


[14] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12.

[15] Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” 244.

[16] Freud, 246.

[17] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 3.

[18] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12.

[19] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12.

[20] “Homeland: “Marine One” Review” Scott Collura

DECEMBER 19, 2011

[21] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12: “Marine One”

[22] Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 303.

[23] Importantly the radio address came only weeks after the coalition invasion of Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

[24] “Radio Address by Mrs. Bush,” November 17, 2001

[25] Of course Bush’s framing of the war was not absolute and certainly did not occlude opposition, yet it is telling that at the time 8 of 10 Americans supported a ground war in Afghanistan.

[27] Hilary Clinton, “New Hope For Afghanistan’s Women” November 24, 2001,8599,185643,00.html,

[29] Judith Butler, Frames of War, 110.

[30] “From Afghanistan to Syria: Women’s Rights, War Propaganda and the CIA”

[32] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso: New York, 2004), 6.

[34] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12

[35] George W. Bush, “The Iraqi Threat” Cincinnati, OH October 7, 2002

[36] George W. Bush, “The Iraqi Threat” Cincinnati, OH October 7, 2002

[37] John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq. (New York: W.W. Norton), xxvii-xxviii.

[38] James Sterngold, “Bush likens situation in Iraq to WWII / Fate of democracy at stake, he insists in speech to sailors” August 31, 2005.

[39] John Hanrahan “The war without end is a war with hardly any news coverage” August 10, 2011, and Sherry Ricchiardi “Whatever Happened to Iraq?” June/July 2008

[42] Spencer Ackerman, “Afghanistan, Iraq Wars Killed 132,000 Civilians, Report Says”

[43] Vice, Season 1, Episode 1 “Killer Kids” Air date: April 5, 2013

[44] Vice, Season 1, Episode 1 “Killer Kids” Air date: April 5, 2013


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