Reflections on “Curating and Re-Curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq”

Panos Kompatsiaris and Christine Sylvester
doi: 10.18278/aia.4.3.6

Editor’s Note: This multimodal essay engages the content of Christine Sylvester’s new book, Curating and Re-Curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq (Oxford 2019). Panos Kompatsiaris offers his review and Christine Sylvester responds, both engaging on the question of who has the authority to memorialize war.

Panos Kompatsiaris is assistant professor of Art and Media at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He holds a PhD in art theory from the University of Edinburgh (2015). His practice is diverse, engaging both academic and experimental forms of writing as a means for fostering collaborative cultural and education practices. He has published on art, culture and politics in journals including the European Journal of Cultural Studies, Communication, Culture & Critique, Journal of Visual Art Practice and Social Identities. His monograph The Politics of Contemporary Art Biennials: Spectacles of Critique, Art and Theory (Routledge, 2017) looks at the politics of art biennials in the context of neoliberalism and its crisis. He is currently co-editing a volume on the sociology of creativity (Springer) and a special journal issue on art and value (Journal of Cultural Economy).

Christine Sylvester is professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and is professorial affiliate of the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University, Sweden. She has held the Swedish Research Council’s Kerstin Hesselgren Professorship for Sweden, a Leverhulme fellowship at the School of Oriental and African Studies, The University of London; the Susan Northcutt Award of the International Studies Association (ISA); Eminent Scholar of the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies Section of the ISA; the inaugural Ann Tickner Award of the ISA, and ISA Vice-President. She was also named one of Fifty Key Thinkers in International Relations, Martin Griffiths, Steven Roach, M. Scott Solomon, eds. (Routledge, 2008). Lund University awarded her an honorary doctorate in the social sciences in 2014. She has written widely on feminist international relations, International Relations theory, Zimbabwean political economy, and most recently on war as experience and international art/museums and memorials. She is editor of the Routledge book series War, Politics, Experience.

Reflections on Curating and Re-Curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq, Christine Sylvester

Panos Kompatsiaris

Curating commonly refers to the gesture of selecting, arranging, and displaying objects under a common concept, subject, and theme in a museum, gallery, or a less formal exhibition space. However, the public evaluation of curating (and of the curators as field professionals) is never done merely on the basis of how well objects are selected, arranged, and displayed in space. A successful curatorial gesture is expected to be more than a simple aggregation; it should produce knowledge and meaning about the world. In the past years, the rise of the curator to a professional who is expected to produce meaning has been followed by the simultaneous diffusion of curatorial “expertise” in an array of more ordinary activities, including curated restaurant menus, curated stores, curated home design, curated music festivals, or curated city walks. The consumption of these activities is often associated with forms of enhanced cultural value as it carries the signature of an “author” who bears some widely recognized expertise.

Yet, the combination of the words ”curating” and “war” in the same line may still strike as unexpected: curating, whether in its museological or wider cultural sense, invokes an activity that gratifies the subjects consuming its forms, while, on the contrary, war degrades, humiliates, and dehumanizes. At the same time, war can never be dissociated from the meaning, affect, and narratives we consume about it in our daily interactions with news media and reports. One can then argue that anyone wishing to question and oppose the horror of war would necessarily need to address “curating” in its broader sense: who produces, circulates, and controls public knowledge about war and how this knowledge forms opinions and beliefs about war events? In short, how and by whom is war knowledge “curated”?

Christine Sylvester’s Curating and Re-Curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq invokes precisely this questioning: “who is an authority on a war, able to truly experience it, represent it, and influence public discourse about it?” (2019:3). To ask this question from an anti-war perspective means to look at the tension between war as the ultimate dehumanizing and traumatizing condition and our obligation to produce knowledge for the horrific experiences of those involved in this condition in the hope that the public opinion will oppose or prevent future wars. The main public knowledge about war has always been simply a matter of what Sylvester calls a “statist drama” (5), a drama supposedly exclusively played out in the arena geopolitical and state interests. Yet, as the author sets out to explain, the “picture of any war will be massively incomplete when the people who experience war are assigned back-lot positions” (5). Speaking about the American wars in Iraq and Vietnam, which have both been represented by the American state as crusades for “freedom” or “democracy,” Sylvester employs a political epistemology that questions state-centred accounts turning instead attention to a variety of cultural spaces in which war is portrayed. Rather than drawing from the usual international relations material of political analyses, expert documents, and specialized commentary, the research material Sylvester explores involves what we can broadly call diverse and diffused “curating strategies”: the specialized curating, found in the Smithsonian institutions of the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum, the ordinary curating found in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Arlington National Cemetery as well as the more experience-driven curating of novels and memoirs about these wars (11). The danger here is that Sylvester’s approach of expanded curating pushes the notion of “curating” to its conceptual limits, to the degree that its analytical value is threatened with collapse, especially in relation to the “ordinary curating.” If we do away with the need to associate a named authority and public persona—the curator—with the practice of curating then any type of gesture can be considered as “curating”—from decorating one’s home to giving presents and making YouTube videos. The risk that Sylvester undertakes relates less to the immediate subject matter of the book, which, broadly speaking, is representations of war, and more to the book’s uncomfortable positioning in the emerging field of curatorial studies to which the author pays less attention than what the book’s title would suggest.

In the first chapter, Sylvester reviews the knowledge produced in the USA about the wars in Vietnam and Iraq in tandem with knowledge coming from Vietnamese and Iraqi sources via critical literature and the writings of war veterans. This has the goal of expressing the author’s stated aim of reconstructing “war upward from memories of ordinary people close to or distant from combat, rather than positioning war as a matter of state interests, military strategies, and geopolitics that collateralize people” (21). Or, in different terms, it has the aim to erect a “bulwark” against the militarism of the official accounts and the narratives around the heroism and sacrifice of American soldiers (22). In both war cases Sylvester examines, she portrays wars not only as badly planned and miscalculated but also as unjust, in the sense that American soldiers were sent to countries they had no knowledge about (apart from the one derived from military propaganda) as de facto occupiers. The domestic discourse of the “righteous country with the destiny to shape the world in its image” (32) is then here contrasted with actual numbers of dead people and individual tragedies, the installation of painful border regimes within local communities (e.g. the infamous Green Zone in Baghdad), or the countless cases of slaughtering, raping, killing, and assaulting that these wars nurtured. Following from this starting point, Chapter 2 familiarizes the reader with the sites that the author takes their empirical material from, discussing their dynamics, potentials, and limits in relation to the forms of knowledge they can enable. As Sylvester informs us, the museums have more clear agendas and thus, the knowledge they produce is more organized, the memorials or cemeteries are sites of remembrance without “on site curators” and can thus become hosts of diverse and often contradictory objects, while the memoirs and war novels help to animate the silent objects found in the sites above by inserting them in experiential, affective, and personalized stories (55).

Sylvester opens the empirical section of the book by looking in detail the workings of the National Museum of American History, which is part of the many museum spaces composing the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. For this matter, the author explores the permanent exhibition in this site, titled The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, which delineates the wars that the American State has been involved in, spanning from the War of Independence to the recent, post-9/11 wars. Sylvester turns focus on three rooms that host artifacts related to the wars the book is concerned with in order to apply the overall critical questioning guiding this research: “[…] whose wars are depicted in those displays and whose wars are marginalized or left out” (86). These rooms contain objects which Sylvester critically explores, from a collage of war photos and words to the American Huey helicopter, manifesting at the same time how they obscure aspects of war they wish to remain unseen while glorifying others. In particular, according to Sylvester, they sidestep showing any “difficult scenes of dead children or feeling civilians” (88), while the absence of any serious engagement with the complexity of their enemies results in a (non) portrayal of the enemy flavored “with little depth or cultural resonance” (88). In contrast to the heroic militaristic narration of war in these displays, Sylvester looks in Chapter 4 the less curated and more ordinary knowledge production in two other sites, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a site built in 1982 so as to honor the American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, and the Arlington Cemetery, a place in which graves of those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are located. Again, here, Sylvester asks the question of “whose war”? (110). As such, referring to the Memorial, Sylvester notes how in contrast to the “58,000-plus names” of American solders “chiseled on granite,” there is not any reference to the “thousands of Vietnamese civilians who died at the hands of American forces” (110). Yet, despite this institutional omission, a memorial is different than a museum since it gives the opportunity to ordinary people to dispose objects that have the potential to recreate history or, according to Sylvester, “to prosaically recurate the war” (111). In the Memorial, then Sylvester discusses objects that people left to commemorate their loved ones, ranging from noisy motorbikes to minor objects, like keychains with personal messages or letters of daughters and wives to those died in the war. It is worth noting how this improvised disposal can itself give form to institutional structures: according to Sylvester, from 1984 onwards, the objects left in the memorial were collected and categorized (more than 400,000 currently stored) providing content for mobile exhibitions organized by the authorities running the Memorial while there were plans (eventually abandoned due to insufficient funding) for building an education center based on these objects. The Section 60 of the Arlington cemetery provides another curatorial ground for representing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the graves and gravestones functioning as platforms where friends, relatives, and partners of the dead soldiers leave personal objects performing variations of remembrance. These “curatorial leavings” as Sylvester calls them, including “offerings of gifts, drinks, photos, notes, garlands, and complex collages that people assemble” (136), are re-curating these wars insofar as they foreground war knowledge “not authorized by … the war memory industry, or by most expert curators of these wars” (138). In accordance with this counter-knowledge, Sylvester explores in Chapter 5 novels and memoirs composed about these wars, that is to say literary events that narrate stories otherwise. The books that the author looks include the novels by Bao Ninth The Sorrow of War and Le Ly Hayslip When Heaven and Earth Changed Places or Tim O’Brien’s memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone having to do with Vietnam, while for the ongoing war in Iraq, the author chooses books such as Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer, Riverbend’s Baghdad Burning, and Kevn Power’s The Yellow Birds. Contrary to the knowledge of museums and memorials, these writings underscore the more uncomfortable and distressing aspects of war, such as “fear, destruction, excess, trauma, and twisted ethics,” what Sylvester eloquently calls, the “sins of war,” the encounter with which can potentially mobilize the reader to assume an anti-war position (166–167).

Throughout Sylvester’s book runs an often porous yet persisting dividing line between, on the one hand, the curation of war knowledge by state institutions (accounting to state glorification and soldier heroism) and the re-curation of war knowledge that comes from unofficial sites and the intimate circles of relatives and friends. This latter knowledge is more accustomed to show the pain, suffering, misery, and tragedy of war and thus enable negative public reactions against it. The dividing line between state-controlled knowledge and what Sylvester calls, borrowing Janes Young’s term, “everyday historians” (170) is then significant to maintain in order to provide counter-narratives of war as the states will always seek to advance their heroic moments in order to legitimize their reason of existence. Yet while this binary rightfully fosters an anti-war position against two imperialist wars, one could question its universality, i.e. whether it is valid for all kinds of war. Because, if we expand the concept of “war,” just like the concept of “curating,” to include anti-colonial wars, civil wars, ethnic wars, or even information and cultural wars, then the dialectic between the “bad” heroic and the more “benevolent” everyday may become complicated. This connects with larger questions about war’s relation to justice: Are there any just wars? Can we “heroize” individuals or collectives involved in types of warfare whose deeds and sacrifices are significant for the rest of humanity? If yes, how and by whom should this endeavor be undertaken? Of course, “justice” and “humanity” are concepts about which there can never be full consensus as their signification is produced in and through political antagonism. The question of “just wars” then becomes a larger question of politics and political power. If anti-Nazi fighters in Europe, anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, or even individuals like Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning are fighting just wars then do social justice champions have a responsibility to “heroize” them in some way?[1] Here, I would argue that we should be very careful disavowing the “heroic” and modes of heroizing from the vocabulary of political antagonism. To bring one example, as I have discussed elsewhere (Kompatsiaris 2019), it would be a suicidal strategy for the left to simply disregard the past, present, and future potentiality of heroic grand narratives amidst the rising of today’s “fascist matrix” (Traverso and Faure 2019).

To go back to Sylvester’s book larger politics, if the lesson that it teaches us is that the possibility to resist wars relates to making the fragility of the war bodies visible, rather than hide them behind sterilized monuments of state glorification, then this can help us looking at how other war-like dramas are represented and circulated in the public space. The examples are many, but one can think about how and what kind of knowledge we receive about refugee displacements, about poverty, about dispossession, or even about the meat industry, to refer to a non-human tragedy. And this can lead us thinking through counter-representations and how they could contribute in unmasking the suffering involved in all these suffocating conditions. Following Sylvester’s “whose war?,” our critical questioning of all these events needs to invoke responses about who represents whom, who, and what is left outside from these representations and what social identities this knowledge is able to invoke.

Expertise on the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq

Christine Sylvester

It is intriguing to consider the particular facets of a book that a reviewer settles on for comment. Here, the reviewer shows concern with two issues. One is the possible degradation of a practice widely debated in current museology literatures: curating and those who do it. The second is the view that in tackling the question of authority on the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the book comes down on the side of “ordinary curators,” whose displays land outside military-as-heroes narratives.

Curating and Re-Curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq is about two American-led wars of our time and the range of people that can be recognized for their relevant expertise on them. My home field of International Relations (IR) usually treats war as an abstraction, leaving people out of analytics unless they are key decision makers. Overlooked, as authorities by a discipline that claims war as a core topic, are the many civilians who experience war through loss, through direct encounters that turn up in war novels or memoirs, and in professional training for object displays. The book considers all these people curators—the professionals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the “ordinary curators” at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, and authors who curate aspects of these wars through the words of their novels and memoirs.

The reviewer wonders about a possible misuse of “curating” when applied to professional and nonprofessional war exhibiting. Noting that the term has already been stretched in daily life to include assemblages of food items (menus), tour itineraries, and interior design schemas, has curation suffered another descent into the ordinary, to borrow Veena Das’s (2007) imagery, in this study? Should not recognized authorities guide curated exhibits? Without a key personage leading the project, the concept gets pushed too far from its arts management base, which presumably can result in insignificant, illegitimate, or simply bad exhibits. My use of curating does take definitional cues from museum literatures that emphasize “collecting, archiving, organizing, and displaying material objects in ways that convey meaning to viewers” (Sylvester 2019:11–12). Moreover, I am aware that much curatorial expertise relies on art historical training and studies of museum displays (Sylvester 2009). I suggest nonetheless that one can be a successful curator of war in the absence of professional imprimatur, even in re-curatorial opposition to that anointed status.

I write, for example, of communities of loss refusing the stark aesthetic imposed at the country’s premier military cemetery. In Section 60, many collections of memento mori appear at the graves of American military killed in Iraq. To show them there, however, ordinary curators had to assert themselves against Department of Army rules and established military traditions. That ordinary curatorial rebellion succeeded against the odds, but the reviewer does not mention this. Given current controversies in museum studies about curatorial authority and autonomy (e.g. Von Bismarck et al. 2012), there is certainly space to grant those exhibitors the status of curators of their individual displays. Whereas professional curators often establish their reputations through display acumen, ordinary curators grasp power with a different intent: not personal advancement but concrete memorialization of people lost to them—and to us—through war. To be concerned with formal curatorship in such contexts seems unnecessarily elitist.

I would also point out that professional curatorship does not guarantee that a war exhibit will be free of misleading elements. In The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, The National Museum of American History features a Huey helicopter as the undisputed centerpiece of its Vietnam War rooms. A humble but ultimately war-effective North Vietnamese bicycle is parked under the Huey tail with less informational material available to viewers. Through the politics of display choice and staging, including consoles looping redemptive Huey war stories, that professional curation re-curates a key aspect of the American war in Vietnam. It strongly implies, especially to those too young to know the details, that these hi-tech aircraft must have won the war in Vietnam for America. They did not. The United States lost. Curiously, the reviewer does not address the dangers of biased professional war curating.

Objects ordinary curators assemble and display do not shout about the deceased or the wars that took their lives. And, as my second point, the reviewer seems nervous that heroism can be left at the curb when attention swerves to war’s injurious ordinary. Perhaps, some considerations of just war thinking might be missing in the analysis and in those pop-up exhibits. Looking at displays arranged by ordinary curators at Arlington National Cemetery, it is clear that their interest is in “just choice” to commemorate a person who lived a civilian life before and alongside military service—a life with family and friends, a life of tossing around footballs, playing with children, and being remembered as Uncle Joe rather than Staff Sergeant So and So. The reviewer might see truth and justice bestowed on the ordinary curatorial side rather than within a formally curated war exhibit. Yet, it is my position throughout the book that “war is decentralized, multiple, contested, and shifting. There is no true story or authentic site of war knowledge, no oracle or information god that can put inquiring minds or feelings to rest…” (142).

At issue, then, is not whether one site (or side) of war knowledge wins a war memory competition. The point is that multiple sites of curatorial display can curate or re-curate common but incomplete understandings of a war and its constituent parts. When expertise is granted mostly to agents of state, combat personnel, or even to credentialed museum curators, wars can be shown as more heroic than they were, as at The National Museum of American History with respect to Vietnam. To say this does not imply intent to minimize soldiering or military heroes; else, I would not have included disturbing novels by veterans of these wars and a picture of one war hero’s object-dense grave—Captain Humayun Khan. But there is also no intent to leave mortality uncurated, out of the picture of war, as IR, some professional war exhibits, and military language tend to do, masquerading death as “collateral damage” or the result of “friendly fire.” Ordinary curators know war through experiences of violent loss. Formal curators can know war through many other means. Multi-angled views are necessary, especially when civilians have few sources of information on America’s seemingly endless wars and their human costs today.

In closing, my approach does not suggest that we “disregard the past, present and future potentiality of heroic grand narratives amidst the rising of today’s ‘fascist matrix,’” as the reviewer suggests. Such are not the topics explored in this book. Two wars and four sites of war knowledge seem enough for one project on an encompassing and dominant social institution. War generates many points of knowledge differentially acquired, lodged, and made available for everyday and research uses. Through analyses of multiple war displays, I hope to give credence to the idea, restated in the concluding chapter, that there is no location “that can or should be relied on to provide authentic truth of a war“ (174).



[1] For such a recent attempt to “heroize” Chelsea Manning, see Reardon (2018).


Das, Veena. (2007) Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Kompatsiaris, Panos. (2019) On the Heroisms of Today: Experience, Memory and Risk as Anti-fascist Politics in Contemporary Art. Third Text 1–16, doi:10.1080/09528822.2019.1628447.

Reardon, John. (2018) Conversation about Monument for Chelsea Manning with Professor Rosalyn Deutsche, New York, June 7, 2018. Arts & International Affairs, doi: 10.18278/aia.

Sylvester, Christine. (2009) Art/Museums: International Relations Where We Least Expect It. London, Paradigm Publishers/Routledge.

Sylvester, Christine. (2019) Curating and Re-Curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Traverso, Enzo and Sonya Faure. “The Left Is a History of Defeats”: An Interview with Enzo Traverso. Verso Blog, January 31 2017. <; (Accessed 18 August 2019).

Von Bismarck, Beatrice, Jorn Schafaff, Thomas Weski, eds. (2012) Cultures of the Curatorial. Berlin, Sternberg Press.