The Theater of Operations

National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror

The Theater of Operations

Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: 57 illustrations Published: November 2014

Author: Joseph Masco

American Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies

How did the most powerful nation on earth come to embrace terror as the organizing principle of its security policy? In The Theater of Operations, Joseph Masco locates the origins of the present-day U.S. counterterrorism apparatus in the Cold War's "balance of terror." He shows how, after the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. global War on Terror mobilized a wide range of affective, conceptual, and institutional resources established during the Cold War to enable a new planetary theater of operations. Tracing how specific aspects of emotional management, existential danger, state secrecy, and threat awareness have evolved as core aspects of the American social contract, Masco draws on archival, media, and ethnographic resources to offer a new portrait of American national security culture. Undemocratic and unrelenting, this counterterror state prioritizes speculative practices over facts, and ignores everyday forms of violence across climate, capital, and health in an unprecedented effort to anticipate and eliminate terror threats—real, imagined, and emergent.


“Anthropologist Masco takes a cultural-anthropological lens to the study of a “counterterror state,” which he argues the US has become since the horrors of 9/11. ...  His remarkable treatise powerfully, sometimes cynically, demonstrates how the terrorist events of September 11 were deployed in the service of a “conceptual project” that ‘mobilizes affects (fear, terror, anger) via imaginary processes (worry, precarity, threat) to constitute an unlimited space and time horizon for military state action.’ …  Essential. Graduate and undergraduate collections in cultural anthropology, cultural studies, political violence, and terrorism studies.” — T. Niazi, Choice

The Theater of Operations is a joy to read. Masco’s writing style is eloquent and effortless. ... [A]nthropologists of security, violence, war and peace should look to Masco’s concept work and reflect on their own ethnographic experiences. At a cost of just under US$8 trillion, the War on Terror has succeeded in displacing governance from many genuine sources of violence and suffering. Anthropology has a role to play in attending to this and to the replacement of one defective social contract with another one based on emotion and violence.” — Mark Maguire, Social Anthropology

“Masco’s contribution to the emergent field of security studies and the anthropology of the military is undeniable. Students and practitioners across a broad scope of policy planning would benefit from reading a credible account of the evolution of the complex network of security structures to which Americans submit daily, and perhaps rarely pause to question. In fact, the book could provide the basis for a critical study of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. The most compelling point of the book—and, perhaps, its most disheartening—is that our national security ethos is not necessarily predicated upon real, existential threats, but imagined dangers which are only as finite as the limits of our imagination.” — Morwari Zafar, Anthropological Quarterly

The Theater of Operations is an important, well-argued book … [that] comes at a time when it is highly relevant and needed. As real threats multiply and the idea of ultimate security becomes obsolete, the country may have to prioritise its goals so that its own values and world security will not be undermined. It may be hard for the United States to do so, but, at least, Masco’s work reminds us how complex and multifaceted the relations between security, democracy and empire are.” — Michail Zontos, LSE Review of Books

“Fascinating and terrifying. …” — Caitlin Zaloom, Public Books

"Masco masterfully describes the contours of a world obsessed with counterterror that 'uses the potential of catastrophic future events as a means of overcoming legal, ethical, and political barriers in the here and now and that is endlessly searching for new objects of concern' (19)." — David H. Price, Current Anthropology

"Masco’s robust and historically rigorous comparison yields a deep understanding of the evolution of U.S. hegemony in the long postwar era and into the twenty-first century." — Jeehyun Lim, American Studies

"This book would work well as a monograph for graduate seminars in historical social science, the anthropology of the United States, expertise, subjectivity and affect, or the state. Written in highly sophisticated engagement with a wide range of theory, its writing nonetheless has a clarity, crispness, and vividness that would allow it to be used with advanced undergraduates to introduce them to what is sure to be one of this decade’s most important works in our field and in interdisciplinary study of the United States." — Catherine Lutz, American Anthropologist

"[A] valuable contribution to the debates that we need if we are to restore a more democratic and less fearful national community."

  — Spencer Weart, Technology and Culture

"The Theater of Operations is an engaging and lively read, evocative and often poetic." — Laura A. McNamara, Journal of Anthropological Research

"Joseph Masco's brilliance lies in his ability to make visible the complex affective and discursive technologies that emerged from the long history of the Cold War, and to illuminate their effects on our everyday perceptions of security and harm. This much-anticipated book will be read widely in cultural anthropology and cultural studies. It is beautifully written and argued. That one leaves The Theater of Operations a bit paranoid is a tribute to Masco's rhetorical skill."
— Elizabeth A. Povinelli, author of Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism

"We know that in the Cold War transportation infrastructures boomed, electronic infrastructures had to be hardened. We know about weapons and counter-weapons; we even have learned about the astonishing proliferation of security mechanisms put in place during the War on Terror. What Joseph Masco shows us in The Theater of Operations is an entire affective structure—the management of anxiety, resilience, steadfastness, sacrifice—that is demanded of every citizen. Alert to liquid containers above 2.4 ounces, hypervigilant to abandoned bags, suspicious loitering, or the detonation of a thermonuclear weapon—we learn to live our lives aware of tiny and apocalyptic things. With an anthropologist's eye long attuned to life in the para-wartime state, Masco is the perfect guide to the theater of our lives in the security state."
— Peter Galison, author of Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps: Empires of Time


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Joseph Masco is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post–Cold War New Mexico, winner of the J. I. Staley Prize from the School for Advanced Research and the Rachel Carson Prize from the Society for the Social Studies of Science.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction. The "New" Normal 1

1. "Survival Is Your Business": Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America 45

2. Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis 77

3. Sensitive but Unclassified: Secrecy and the Counterterror State 113

4. Biosecurity Noir: WMDs in a World without Borders 145

5. Living Counterterror 193

Acknowledgments 211

Notes 213

References 233

Index 261
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