Gulf War Captivity Narratives

Identity and Ideology

by Annika Wirth (Author)
©2024 Thesis 290 Pages


The book explores a newly compiled corpus of American Gulf War captivity narratives, their claim to truth and their construction of identity and ideology, as well as concepts of heroism and anti-heroism. Moreover, it probes the texts’ complex authorship, uncovers their role in promoting cultural stereotypes and in propagating violence. Hence, this study is deeply involved with uncovering narrative strategies of othering and with the construction of orientalist alterities. The findings are then connected to broader social debates in the USA. Unpacking themes of alterity, heroism, and violence, the research underscores the Gulf War captivity narratives’ role in justifying aggression and in shaping U.S. American national identity, underscoring the need for continued scrutiny.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • 0. Establishing the Framework: Theoretical Foundations and Introduction
  • 0.1. Terms, Definitions, and Temporal Context
  • 0.2. Corpus and Methodology
  • 0.3. Captivity and Intertext
  • 0.4. The Captivity Narrative as Factual Narration
  • 0.5. Narrative Identity Construction and Captivity
  • 0.6. Stories of Captivity, Ideology, and Dissidence
  • 1. History of the Captivity Narrative
  • 1.1. Puritan and Barbary Captivity Narratives
  • 1.2. Forms and Functions of the Captivity Genre
  • 2. The Mirage of Difference: Rhetorical Techniques that Define Self and Other
  • 2.1. Framing the War
  • 2.2. Shaping Narratives Around the Threat of Terrorism
  • 2.3. Colliding Narratives
  • 2.4. Interim Conclusion (I)
  • 3. Gulf War Heroisms: Constructing and Deconstructing (Anti-)Heroes
  • 3.1. Narrative Strategies of Hero-Making
  • 3.2. Eligibility for Heroism
  • 3.3. Performative Strategies of Hero-Making
  • 3.4. De-Heroization and Anti-Heroic Captives
  • 3.5. Interim Conclusion (II)
  • 4. Gender and Violence in Captivity
  • 4.1. Gendered Representations of Violence
  • 4.2. Implications of the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal
  • 4.3. Implications of the Tailhook Scandal
  • 4.4. Interim Conclusion (III)
  • 5. Conclusion
  • 6. Appendix
  • 6.1. Comparative Analysis of Select Gulf War Captivity Narratives
  • 6.2. Synopses of the Captivity Narratives Included in the Corpus
  • 6.3. The Bowe Bergdahl Case
  • 7. Works Cited

0. Establishing the Framework : Theoretical Foundations and Introduction

“Recounting, following, understanding stories is then simply the continuation of these unspoken stories.” (Ricoeur 30)

In the years of 2018 and 2019, the world’s attention was drawn to a captivity experience on U.S. soil that affected thousands of migrant children at the Mexican-American border.1 Starting in April 2018, American procedures against illegal migration via Mexico underwent a drastic change towards a “‘zero tolerance’ policy” (Gomez),2 which meant that migrant families were now being separated when caught crossing the border illegally. As a result of this separation policy, migrant children were detained without their caregivers for extended periods of time.3 These children were held in detention facilities that have since been compared to “a concentration-camp system” (Holmes).4 In an open letter, former First Lady Laura Bush linked the facilities in which migrant children were held to “the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history” (Calamur).5

The practice of separating migrant children from their families is epitomized in photographs that went around the world. They show young migrant children clinging to their parents and family members at border patrol stations along the Mexican-American border and pictures of infants, young children, and teenagers who clutch silver emergency blankets made of foil behind mesh-wire fences.6 In contrast to the captivity stories in the corpus of this book, the experience of these young migrant children largely remains unspoken, their voices unheard because they are either too young to speak for themselves or too traumatized (Sherman et al.). While the public soon engaged in a “semantic debate” (D. A. Graham)7 about how to refer to the mesh wire enclosures in which the children were being held, this focus “on what to call the pens in which children separated from their families are being held, rather than the fact that children separated from their families are being held” (ibid.) is completely beside the point from a moral standpoint. I agree with David Graham who states that the “point is that these children are incarcerated.” In addition to the dismal living conditions that were observed in these camps – “six children have died in the care of other [American immigration] agencies since September [2018]” (Holmes) – it is clear that these children run the risk of being traumatized and that they and their families suffer from this US American policy.

During the process of writing this book on American captivity experiences in Iraq, the reporting on these young migrant captives seems to forebode that the academic and the social community must confront a new captivity situation and investigate its ramifications for American social life and American identity. I am constantly reminded of dehumanizing strategies in former captivity scenarios when “Hispanic immigrants [are referred to] as ‘rapists’ and ‘drug-dealers’ and ‘criminals’” (ibid.). Looking at the language that is used by right wing politicians to refer to the so-called migrant crisis, “[t]‌here’s talk of ‘animals’ and monsters and suddenly anything is justifiable” (ibid.).8 This kind of language is highly similar to the way in which former conflicts have been framed. It can exert a powerful impact on the public reception of current events and on mainstream opinions, which is why it is especially important to study the aspect of language and its ideological use in various conflict settings.

During the running-up to the 2020 presidential elections in the USA, the concept of what it means to be ‘American’ – a discussion about who belongs to the American community and who does not – has once again been central to a heated social debate. As yet another presidential campaign was gathering momentum, we witnessed crowds of American Trump-voters chant the slogan: “Send her back!”9 This slur was directed at a Democratic Congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, after President Trump criticized her at a publicity event in North Carolina during his campaign for presidency in 2020.10 Even before this incident, the President’s rhetoric on Twitter had triggered an outcry of protest across all political factions. He had tweeted about four American Congresswomen, Ilhan Omar, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” (@realDonaldTrump).11 This dive into the storehouse of racist insults against American citizens with a background in immigration12 is a powerful incentive to critically re-examine notions of ‘American’ identity as much as American constructions of racial and cultural alterity that incite xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism.

My book deals with the ideological power and identity formation within American Gulf War captivity narratives, examining their factuality, authorship, and impact on public perception. It explores the struggle for epistemic authority and reveals the complex interplay between captors, captives, authors, and editors in shaping the narrative. By incorporating various resources and analyzing central themes such as alterity, heroism, and violence, the book highlights the correlations with historical events, ideologies, and social debates. It emphasizes the need for continued research into these narratives to counteract their persuasive power and balance their impact on socio-political discourse and conflicts, providing insights into their social, ethical, and ideological implications.

In this book, I research a contemporary form of the American captivity narrative, namely the Gulf War captivity narrative. Though I examine the Gulf War captivity narrative’s place in the genre history of the American captivity narrative, see chapter 1 “History of the Captivity Narrative,” my work offers more than a diachronic view on a successful American literary form. Instead, I propose that the American Gulf War captivity narratives are valuable objects of study for the field of narrative identity formation, for the research of ideology and dissidence, and for the debate on factual versus fictional narration. Therefore, I base my analysis on Paul Ricoeur’s “Life in Quest of Narrative” ([1991] 2014) and on theories of dissidence and ideology, such as Alan Sinfield’s Faultlines (2001). These theoretical perspectives are complemented with narratological theories of factual narration, for instance by Christian Klein and Matías Martínez, Wirklichkeitserzählungen (2009), and Monika Fludernik and Marie-Laure Ryan’s Narrative Factuality: A Handbook (2019). My overall aim in this book is to bring different theoretical paradigms together in order to further an understanding of the contemporary captivity narrative and its significance for controversially debated ethical, political and social topics in the contemporary U.S. American context. When they are approached with a combination of tools from classical narratology, discourse analysis and strategies of dissident re-reading, the Gulf War captivity narratives can provide a wealth of insight into the construction of individual and collective American identity in factual narratives, as well as into the ideological tasks of captivity narratives and the construction of alterity by narrative means in a contemporary context.

The dominant narrative about America’s role in the Gulf Wars is that of a rescue scenario as George Lakoff observes in “Metaphor and War” (1992) and in “Metaphor and War, Again” (2003). In this scenario, the roles of villain (Iraq), victim (Kuwait or Iraq’s oppressed population), and hero (America) are easily allotted. It is safe to say that the Gulf War captivity narratives are rather uncritical of the official line on the wars in Iraq: “I thought we should fight,” states Rhonda Cornum, a First Gulf War captive; “It would have rewarded Iraq for taking Kuwait if we [e.g. the Americans] had looked the other way” (Cornum and Copeland 62).13 Cornum’s biography and its lack of self-reflection on its role as Americentric war-propaganda and on its contribution to the proliferation of racist national stereotypes are striking. In fact, this attitude is the norm for the American Gulf War captivity narrative. Thus, it is critically important to identify rhetorical and narrative strategies of othering14 within the analyzed captivity narratives and to uncover the ideology behind the construction of collective identities, such as ‘American’ vs. ‘Iraqi.’ In pursuance of this aim, I attempt to locate “stories that have not been recounted” (Ricoeur 30) and trace the dissident potential of the unspoken in my corpus of Gulf War captivity narratives. Methodologically, I perform a close reading of the narratives and of related public discourses during which I search for moments where the rigid binary opposition between the American Self and the Iraqi Other fails to produce a semblance of stability.

With my analysis, I want to create an awareness of how the captivity genre works today, how its formal and stylistic characteristics influence the narratives that are produced now about the Gulf Wars and how, as a result of these narrative forms, the readers are manipulated into accepting a certain version of events. It is necessary to reflect upon the fact that this ‘official’ version, i.e. the dominant version, is often narrated from a biased and one-sided perspective. Much like the Indian captivity narratives of the seventeenth-century, the Gulf War captivity narratives frequently promote (white) American supremacy. However, what is presented in these texts as national identity must be regarded with skepticism. Precisely because of the lack of self-reflection in the materials that I analyze, I think it is important to show how the Gulf War captivity narratives, as factual narratives, operate as part of an American ideology that promotes (white) American supremacy and how they tell and re-tell a larger master narrative that justifies the Gulf Wars on moral grounds.

One central element of my book is an analysis of how the Gulf War captivity narratives and related American discourses in the media create and maintain an image of alterity that is used to define the Self in opposition to a perceived Other. For the most part, the texts uncritically employ overly simplistic binary categories, such as ‘the West’ vs. ‘the East’, us vs. them, good vs. evil, human vs. inhuman, et cetera. One result of this radical division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ via diverse narrative and rhetoric strategies is the dehumanization of the Iraqi Other. This effect can be observed in many different settings, for instance in the printed captivity narratives of my corpus, in the Abu Ghraib pictures, or in news-media coverage of the wars. “‘I didn’t Think of Iraqis as Humans’” (Daily Mail), states a U.S. soldier who was convicted of raping and killing an Iraqi teenage girl and of killing her family together with four comrades.15 In chapter 2, “The Mirage of Difference: Rhetorical Techniques that Define Self and Other,” I critically review the rigid binary oppositions that help to create a dehumanizing image of the Other and the representation of these oppositions as common-sense knowledge.

With a critical eye on the impact of racism, sexism, classism, and religious orientation, I also query conceptualizations of an ‘American’ heroism and of American national identity that are developed and propagated in the Gulf War captivity narratives, see chapter 3 “Gulf War Heroisms: Constructing and Deconstructing (Anti-)Heroes.” Considering the ‘send them home’ controversy or the worrying developments at the American-Mexican border, it is of vital importance to reflect critically on processes of heroization in the Gulf War context: who can become an ‘American’ hero and who, apparently, cannot? What kind of hero narratives are told? What are the practices of representation when it comes to heroizing ethnic minorities in captivity? By incorporating narratives with non-white captive protagonists into my analysis, I aim to counter the hegemony of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) perspective in the captivity genre – and in scholarship on the captivity genre for that matter – because it ultimately supports racist notions of white supremacy. In my search for counter narratives to the dominant story, I discovered that stories about American captives as victims are not nearly as visible as stories that tell of heroic captives. With the exception of representing (female) captives as martyrs, permanently ‘damaged’ captives and Americans who do not survive the war in Iraq are effectively banned from public remembrance and representation, for instance by means of the American policy of the Coffin Ban.16 It is therefore important to analyze these practices and their implications.

Another important issue that requires special attention is the genre’s ‘standard’ way of representing men and women in captivity. Some critics, like Elliott Gruner (1994 and 1994), have noted familiar tropes of the raped white woman and the male warrior immersed in a fight against evil in connection to the captivity narrative as a genre. Nonetheless, a systematic analysis of the Gulf War captivity narrative’s practices of representing captives according to gender is missing from the academic landscape. What are the social implications of the dominant modes of representation of male and female captives in the American Gulf War captivity narratives? What roles do class, and race play in these literary practices? Where are the faultlines17 of these dominant modes of representation? And what does the captivity narrative’s practice of exploiting women’s stories for the voyeuristic pleasure of an implied male reader mean in our contemporary context? The impact of violence and trauma on narrative identity construction is a multifaceted research field from which I draw inspiration for chapter 4, “Gender and Violence in Captivity.”

In the remainder of this introduction, I want to provide an overview over important terms, provide some historical context, and discuss the theoretical paradigms that underpin my analysis. My underlying objective is to point out how the different theories that had an impact on my analysis can be merged in order to better understand the phenomenon of the American Gulf War captivity narrative. For instance, it is nearly impossible to introduce the conceptualizations of ‘American’ heroism that can be found in the narratives without touching upon the subject of ideology or narrative identity construction. Likewise, it is equally difficult to write about the Gulf War captivity narrative as an instance of factual narration without mentioning the genre history. Moreover, the phenomena that I observe in the Gulf War captivity narrative cannot be explained solely on the basis of genre theory and the ‘micro-level’ of textual analysis. Instead, it is absolutely imperative to also include the cultural and historical context in the analysis. With the background provided in this introduction, it will thus be easier for the reader to navigate the subsequent analytical chapters.

0.1. Terms, Definitions, and Temporal Context

Terminology and Timeline of the Gulf Wars

The military conflicts that have resulted in the production of my corpus texts are usually referred to as the First and the Second Gulf War.18 The designation First Gulf War19 refers to the war of 1990–91, which was fought between Iraq and an array of coalition forces led by the U.S. It erupted in the wake of the Gulf Crisis (1990–91), during which Iraq had occupied and annexed the neighboring emirate of Kuwait. On January 16, 1991, one day after an ultimatum to withdraw peacefully from Kuwait had been ignored by Iraq’s political leader, President G. H. W. Bush informed the American public on the invasion of Iraq (cf. “Invasion of Iraq”).20 After heavy fighting throughout February 1991, Iraq’s forces withdrew from Kuwait and the country declared that it was going to adhere to the UN resolutions. On March 3, 1991, Iraq accepted a cease-fire agreement with the coalition forces which was presented by General Schwarzkopf. The First Gulf War was officially declared a victory for the U.S. and the coalition on March 6, 1991 by President G. H. W. Bush (cf. “Cessation of the Persian Gulf War”).21

Within the corpus texts and in the contemporary media discourses, the American military efforts in the Persian Gulf region are showing as a number of different terms which are sometimes used interchangeably. The First Gulf War is also called the Persian Gulf War and the American captives, politicians, and the media moreover use the terms Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm when they refer to different strategic phases during the war. These terms, especially Desert Storm and Persian Gulf War, in American news-media, academic literature, and popular histories of the war, are sometimes used synonymously to denote the whole First Gulf War.22

The Second Gulf War23 took place between 2003 and 2011. Much like the previous war, the Second Gulf War was initially fought between Iraq and a coalition of armed forces led by the United States. On March 18, 2003 President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq on the pretext of Iraq harboring terrorists and weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons).24 Two days later, allied forces began the war with air strikes that were followed by an offensive on the ground. Rather unexpectedly for the coalition, this ground offensive met with ferocious resistance and a “generally lukewarm reception [by Iraqi civilians that] was a bitter disappointment to US soldiers, who had been told to expect little of the former and a lot of the latter” (Hashim 14). Still, on May 1, 2003, President Bush announced that the offensive against Hussein’s government had succeeded and declared the military mission accomplished.25

In subsequent years, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took over the government of Iraq and efforts were made to rebuild and stabilize the region under a new Iraqi government. However, the political situation inside Iraq escalated from initial resistance against the coalition’s presence into a civil war between different ethnic and religious factions among the Iraqi population. With respect to the scope of this sectarian and ethnic internal conflict, Anthony Cordesman and Emma Davies state in Iraq’s Insurgency and the Road to Civil Conflict (2008) that it cannot be measured by counting the number of reported deaths alone:

One measure of the level of conflict that went beyond the data on killings was the number of refugees. At the end of 2006, the UN reported that there were 1.7 million internally displaced Iraqis since 2003, with an average of 45,000 Iraqis leaving their home every month. (373)

The number of internally displaced refugees in the time after the invasion is one indicator of the gravity of the situation and the extent of the crisis inside Iraq. In their report on The U.S. Army in the Iraq War (2019), Rayburn and Sobchak state that “[i]‌n retrospect, these worsening problems of insecurity, insurgency, and political instability were symptoms of two larger problems: state collapse and civil war” (250).

The Second Gulf War is also referred to as the Second Persian Gulf War or the Iraq War. Moreover, the term Operation Iraqi Freedom is used to refer to several phases of the Second Gulf War: a short period of conventional warfare from March to April 2003 and the subsequent occupation and governance of Iraq by U.S. and coalition forces that led to the insurgency and the civil war.26 In the American context, the first phase of resistance against the presence of the U.S. and the coalition forces as well as against the newly formed government of Iraq is known as the “Iraqi Insurgency” (177–178).27 When, in 2010, Barack Obama announced that “beyond the predawn darkness, better days lie ahead” (“Address on Iraq”),28 this speech initiated the last phase of the Second Gulf War (at least form the American perspective). This last phase is referred to as Operation New Dawn, which officially ended in December 2011 when all remaining American troops withdrew from Iraq.

In my analysis I refer to the wars in question as the First and Second Gulf War and try to refrain from using ideologically colored terms. For instance, Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Desert Storm cannot be considered objective because they rhetorically frame the wars in a way that is strategically beneficial for the American side. The American use of the word ‘storm,’ for instance, implies that their military power is comparable to a force of nature. ‘New Dawn’ likewise proposes that the Americans are heralds of a new day, a characterization that plays with the image of a rising sun and its connotations of redemption.29 ‘Desert Shield’ and ‘Desert Storm’ also implicitly transport the message that the war is waged in the barren desert, whereas it actually involved the massive bombing of inhabited areas in Iraq. The reference to an act of warfare as ‘Iraqi Freedom’ or as a ‘Shield’, means that the moral justification of the war is already contained within the term but, of course, this only holds true for the American side of the conflict.30 The use of these alternative designations for the wars in the Gulf region would reaffirm the underlying ideology. It would also diminish the critical distance from which I analyze the phenomena within the narratives about the American Gulf War experience. In addition to fostering an awareness of my own position as a researcher, it is also necessary to recognize the Gulf War captivity narratives’ potential as pro-American propaganda material.

Definitions: Captive, Prisoner, POW, Hostage

Over the following pages, I discuss a few terms in connection to the Gulf War captivity narratives’ protagonists, namely the terms captive, prisoner, hostage, and prisoner of war. Moreover, I address the potential hybridization of the Gulf War captivity narrative with other genres, especially the prison narrative and the travel/adventure narrative. In the Gulf War captivity narratives and contemporary American news-media discourse, the protagonists of my corpus are frequently referred to as captives, hostages, prisoners, or prisoners of war. A differentiation between these terms is not easily made but contributes to the clarity of the analysis. There are at least two available starting points at an attempted definition: the definitions given by the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which provide the lexical use of the terms, and the internationally agreed upon regulations of the Geneva Conventions (1949). The statutes of “Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War” (1949) and “Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War” (1949) provide an internationally agreed upon legal framework for the de jure definition of captives, prisoners of war, and hostages.

In the OED, the entry for “prisoner, n.2.” gives the following definition:

A person who has been captured or who has surrendered to an opponent in war; a captive. Cf. prisoner of war.

A person who is kept in prison or in custody; spec. one who is legally committed to prison as the result of a legal process, either as punishment for a crime committed, or while awaiting trial for an offence.

In extended use. […] A person who or thing which is confined to a place or position. […] (OED Online)31

In this definition, the overlap in meaning between a prisoner and a prisoner of war is already apparent. If one looks up the entry on prisoners of war, the OED specifies: “A person who has been captured or who has surrendered to an opponent in war; a captive. Abbreviated P.O.W.” (“prisoner of war, n.”). It appears that the term ‘prisoner’ is an umbrella term that contains prisoners within corrective facilities of a given a judicial system, prisoners of war, and, in a more general sense, people whose freedom of movement is restricted. Moreover, in the definition of prisoner that is given in the OED, the term captive is used synonymously to ‘prisoner’ in the meaning of ‘prisoner of war.’ The different lexical meanings of the term ‘prisoner’ thus depend on the context in which they occur.

Likewise, the OED’s entry on the term ‘captive’ gives several meanings of the word that range from “1.a. Taken prisoner in war, or by force; kept in confinement or bondage” to “captive audience n. an audience of captives; esp. in extended use, an audience that cannot escape a particular form of entertainment or instruction” (“captive, adj. and n.”). As the OED states, the use of captive as a noun or as an adjective is “hardly separable” (ibid.) in phrases and early examples. With regard to the captivity narrative’s specific plot, it seems highly reasonable to refer to the protagonists as captives, especially before the legal framework of the Geneva Conventions had been established as a referential framework for captives of military conflicts.

The distinctions between captives and prisoners appear to be contextual, too. Both entries in the OED mention confinement as a central point in their definitions, which makes the experience of confinement a common denominator for captivity and imprisonment. One of the differences between captives and prisoners is that a captivity need not be the direct result of a conviction. As opposed to the legal proceedings that can be narrated in prison narratives, the protagonists of a captivity narrative are not sentenced to imprisonment but, in most cases, simply abducted. In the seventeenth-century, captivity may have been the outcome of Native American attacks on American settlements; today captivity narratives result from travel or work trips abroad or from military conflicts.32 This means that captivity narratives can differ fundamentally from prison narratives with regard to the experience that they narrate and the plot that they follow.

Characteristically, captivity narratives have a frontier setting. This constitutive element of the captivity narrative ‘travels’ through the genre’s history and migrates to America’s New Frontiers from the first conquest of the continent to recent conflict settings. Thus, captivity narratives typically contain an element of “cross-cultural exchange” (Burnham 21), whereas this need not be the case in a prison narrative. The intersections between a captivity narrative and a prison narrative are probably most pronounced if the protagonist of the latter claims to be unlawfully detained and/or seeks to demonstrate his/her innocence. In this case, the individual could stylize himself or herself as a captive and thus produce a hybrid form of captivity and prison narrative. From these considerations, it emerges that captivity narratives can also be prison narratives, and vice versa.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2024 (March)
Representation of Violence Identity Formation Stereotyping Justification of Aggression Intertextuality Narrative Identity Alterity Heroism
Peter Lang – Berlin · Bruxelles · Chennai · Lausanne · New York · Oxford, 2024. 290 pp., 1 tab.

Biographical notes

Annika Wirth (Author)

Annika Wirth holds a Ph.D. from the University of Freiburg. She is trained in English and American Studies and has a special interest in narrative identity construction, ideologies, and theories of deconstruction.


Title: Gulf War Captivity Narratives