USO Camp Shows

Taken from the USO’s official blog, this picture from the 1940s depicts American performers and servicemen involved in “Camp Shows,” live performances put on by the United Service Organization (USO) for servicemen stationed at military bases both stateside and overseas (though my analysis focuses on USO presence at foreign bases). Though the USO is not a government agency, its congressional charter necessarily lends a political bent to its efforts, rendering its overseas performances an interesting marriage of foreign policy and the entertainment industry; a convergence of transnational flows that arguably occupy all of Appadurai’s “scapes.”

I am drawn to the fact that this transplantation of American pop culture to soldiers stationed in far-off war zones occurs for the enjoyment of people who are employed to sacrifice their lives, if need be, in defense of their country. Here, as Benedict Anderson writes in “Cultural Roots,” “it may be useful to begin a consideration of the cultural roots of nationalism with death” (Anderson, 10). The USO entertainers perform to bolster the morale of men and women who have pledged their lives not only in defense of the United States, clearly a tangible entity, but also the collective national understanding that constitutes an “imagined community,” thus disseminating American media in conjunction with the defense and promotion of American ideals by force and violence. Embodying a vital component of the national imagination, entertainers enter hazardous conditions to perform in active war zones, thereby implicating themselves within transnational ideoflows (to coin a term inspired by Appadurai).

For soldiers overseas, this supply of familiar cultural stimuli serves to mentally and emotionally reinforce their collective national memory even as they occupy a physical space far from the land where their allegiances lie. These performances simultaneously shrink and expand the space within which media is able to operate, bringing American culture overseas yet only to a specific audience; yet potentially rationing said audience’s exposure to local methods of cultural transmission and exchange.

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