The Wrath Bearing Tree

Once is Never: A Review of Edge of Tomorrow

by Michael Carson

Unknown

The Germans have a saying having to do with a life only lived once: “einmal ist keinmal,” or, in English, “once is never.”

I have thought a lot about this in relation to war and the soldiers I have seen die at war. I spend much time writing about how people die absolutely. But no matter how much I write or think, they do not come back. They do not return. There is no magical fairy dust to sprinkle over them. No reset button.

They are dead forever and ever.

So I was ready to dislike Edge of Tomorrow, the recent Tom Cruise blockbuster that seemingly solves this problem of “once is never” by allowing a soldier killed in battle to return to life as many times as it takes to get it right. What he “gets right” is a D-Day-esque landing against aliens that bear an uneasy similarity to the Nazis in military trajectory and racial politics (they begin in Germany, take over France, most conspicuously the Louvre, and work to eliminate the human race through superior evolutionary adaptation).

Doug Liman’s picture in many ways seemed an insult, a distraction, from what I took to be a, if not the, salient fact of war. My deployment had shown me the ways in which soldiers could use video games to deflect from experiences in the field. A death or a shootout would not be considered as a death or a shootout but understood in the light of a movie or a game. No one, it seemed, could take death seriously, and the video games only served to undermine what little hold on their experiences my soldiers had. A movie like Edge of Tomorrow, where the hero is turned into a video game character, would, I believed, only reinforce this dissonance, make its damage harder to expose, and keep us fighting and killing with no sense of the finality of all this killing and fighting and blowing things up.

I think it was after Tom Cruise is shot in the head the fourth or fifth time that I changed my mind. Most of the audience did not know what to do, whether to laugh or gasp, and so they just endured his increasingly stupid and obscene deaths in frustrated silence. I felt as if these people were for the first time recognizing the fleeting precariousness of their own lives compared to that of the character on the screen. I watched the movie on Fourth July weekend, a few weeks after its release on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. There were plenty of other options for big-screen mayhem, death galore, explosions and machine guns – Transformers, for instance – to get us through our Independence Day, but only this one, I felt, with its strange conceit of eternal return, actually portrayed what it would mean to die, and maybe, for a moment, broke through the brilliant electronic pyrotechnics that distract us from what our violence actually means.

Many critics have called Edge of Tomorrow, based off of the novel Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill, a combination of Groundhog Day and Saving Private Ryan. I think this rather misses the point. Saving Private Ryan already met Groundhog Day. Saving Private Ryan is Groundhog Day. For seventy years now we have woken up here, on these same body-strewn Normandy shores, and have re-understood America’s role as international protector and bastion of civilization once again. We have emerged anew in a Manichean universe defined by ultimate evil and reluctant warriors, forged into a nation on the PT boats and parachutes. Whether we are seeking to understand wars before World War Two, such as World War One, or those that followed, such as Vietnam, we judge them in comparison to “the good war,” our existential fulcrum. Even after Iraq, we continue to finger our World War Two dog tags like rosaries. Our national consciousness begins here again and again, erasing the sins of the more recent past, and purifying us as we move into future mistakes.

Edge of Tomorrow, then, is, in fact, not D-Day meets Groundhog Day, as that already exists. It is, rather, a reminder, a not so subtle blandishment, encouraging us not to give up on the concept of eternal return – that would be too much for a Hollywood summer blockbuster – but to choose something less hideous to return to other than the slaughter that played out in Normandy. Ironically, this becomes clear in a moment of dialogue that seems to imply the opposite. At the movie’s beginning, a US Army Master Sergeant from Kentucky, played by the always-brilliant Bill Paxton, delivers a stirring speech to Bill Cage, the cowardly officer played by Tom Cruise. Combat, the Master Sergeant announces, to a room filled with vagabonds, losers, psychopaths, hucksters and seeming idiots, the salt of the earth really, is the one place, the one crucible, where men are made equal, and even scumbags like Cage, chickenhawks who preach and sell wars but don’t fight them, can gain access to a sort of immortality.

By itself, this speech, even through Paxton’s ironic accent, would be the worst kind of propaganda, a celebration of the idea that war, whatever else it is, whatever its rightness or wrongness, its collateral damage or mistaken pretexts, is a forge where men (or women) are made and heroes immortalized. But we don’t hear this speech only one time. We hear it as many times as Cage comes back to life. And each time it loses its force, its magic. Cage’s character begins to interrupt the Master Sergeant, he mimics him, cuts him off. “No,” he says, in so many words, “each and every one of you will die and no one will remember you because you will be dead.” Robbed of its air of mystery, the speech is deflated. The Master Sergeant is left confused, fumbling for words he – and we – once knew so well. It begins to dawn on the audience, a faint glimmer, a tremulous effervescence, that there is no mystery here, each and every one of these downtrodden men who were exploited in the civilian world are now being exploited in the military one; they understand, if only for a moment, in a flash, that, in the words of Tim O’Brien, war simply “makes you dead,” and, possibly, to quote Vonnegut, “when you’re dead you’re dead.”

But, now that we know, now that we understand, can we stop the slaughter? Cage’s inability to do just that is as tragic as it is hilarious. He can’t save the individuals he likes, no matter how many times he sees them die; he can’t convince the sergeants and the generals of the evidence plainly before them; he can’t even run away. When he does, the old men drinking at the bar call him a coward even though he has died a thousand deaths. When he tells the truth about his power, about this curious condition he has, they threaten to put him in the psyche ward (shades of Siegfried Sassoon and the First World War there). Over the course of the movie’s first half, Tom Cruise becomes a Laocoön of our own cultural zeitgeist, screaming at us that we will all die if we think every war a beautiful gift horse, another D-Day, another necessary and inevitable contest between evil and good, between survival and annihilation that will bring us together and make us good and caring and brave in the eyes of the world. Of course, as in the myth, everyone ignores this ridiculous prophet, and serpents sent by jealous gods – or in this case aliens who look uncannily like serpents – drag him screaming into the sea.

About halfway through the movie, one realizes Cage is not the only one repeating his life over and over again. Bill Paxton’s Master Sergeant is an almost exact reprisal of his role in Aliens II. Tom Cruise, with his knowledge of other’s actions, turns into one of his Mission Impossible role, dancing like a superhuman spy through government buildings, courting his co-star (Emily Blunt) and mugging his newly formed muscles for the camera. A bunch of ne’er-do-wells, freaks from way on down the socio-economic scale, are the only ones who can take down the evil empire, which is housed in the Louvre of all places, elite-western’s culture ostensible center. We are back with The Dirty Dozen, Stripes, Inglorious Basterds. Da Vinci Code and Starship Troopers. The movies in the other theaters – How to Train Your Dragon Two, Transformers Four – repeat the same stories, recycling, adding another sequel. But Edge of Tomorrow does all this at once, making more and more appropriations, showing the way in which our memory works to provide substance and form to a life only lived once.

And as I watched Tom Cruise live so many lives on this last Fourth of July, I kept on thinking of Tom Cruise playing Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone’s much more straightforward, and perhaps that much more ineffective, anti-war film. Admittedly, Edge of Tomorrow does eventually descend into the Hollywood schlock we know so well, and for as many times as Cruise dies, we see surprisingly little blood – one wonders if the humans who live in this fantasy world are as biologically constituted as the aliens – but the movie as a whole does drive home, at least to me, that we are not Tom Cruise. We will not be born into a thousand and one different lives and a thousand and one different characters. We are us and the decisions we make regarding war and violence matter. People die when we use a drone. Countries cannot be invaded without consequence. The people we send to war do not come back no matter how many memorials we etch and patriotic firework displays we gather to watch.

“Einmal ist keinmal,” the Germans used to say. Still, I like to think, learning this, learning what we choose to memorialize, what we choose to relive over and over again, dictates who we are in the present, the form and substance of this dust that will soon be blown apart by history’s bitter winds. And, given this, better we eternally return to, shape and give substance to, a day that did not involve the mass slaughter of countless individuals, teenagers who never had a chance to go to movies on the Fourth of July with their families, a day with more nuance, less horror, no lies of transcendence. Learning this, even if only once, is to me something rather than nothing, and makes our one go around here on earth seem a little less like never.

Foreshadows from Iraq

by ahbonenberger

by Nathan S. Webster

View of the Bayji Refinery from the U.S. JSS, pre-2010. Photo by Nathan Webster.

View of the Bayji Refinery from the U.S. JSS, pre-2010. Photo by Nathan Webster.

Short moments from my embedded reporting in Iraq now seem like foreshadowing. Throwaway comments in 2007 and 2009, significant only in hindsight.

In 2007, I embedded in Bayji, Iraq, spending about a month at a Joint Security Station with an unobstructed view of the now-contested refinery’s methane flares, an orange glow on the night’s horizon.

Captain Tim Peterman commanded Charlie Company, 1st/505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division at the beginning of 2007’s “Sons of Iraq” security program – the Americans would pay local men $300 a month to maintain local security against the Al Qaeda insurgents that brought indiscriminate violence to the region.

Captain Peterman arranged meetings with cynical Iraqi sheikhs, to locate someone in Bayji’s all-Sunni community with enough credibility to take charge, and with whom the US forces could work. Peterman didn’t trust the Iraqis and the Iraqis didn’t trust him.

But the Iraqis understood one thing: “Better Bush than Persia,” one sheikh said, “Persia” meaning Iran. With an adversarial Shiite government to the south, and Al Qaeda’s violence all around them, the Iraqis were willing to listen to what Peterman had to say.

Captain Peterman deliberately played to the meeting’s Sunni constituency.

“If Izzat Al-Douri wants to stand beside me and fight Al Qaeda, I’ll work with him,” Peterman had told his audience, which was still sympathetic to Saddam Hussein’s former Ba’athist regime.

The Iraqis had laughed appreciatively at Izzat Al-Douri’s name, the King of Clubs in the 2003 deck of cards that denoted Hussein’s top commanders. Peterman mentioned this long-forgotten name to prove a point that the US soldiers were ready for reconciliation with former enemies. Al-Douri was on the run at the time, rumored even to be dead. He was as good a ghost story as any.

The Iraqis laughter seemed ironic at the time, like they were in on Captain Peterman’s joke. By 2014, Izzat Al-Douri seems to be back on his own terms. In retrospect, the sheiks’ laughter was informed by a clear-eyed appreciation for what was bound to happen. They were patient.

* * * *

In 2009, many of Charlie Company’s men had returned to Iraq again, this time to Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. Local “Sons of Iraq” groups had been in force in the region for a couple years, and it was fairly quiet.

New rules mandated that Iraqi and US forces have equal numbers on joint patrols. US soldiers were meant to accompany, not lead.

First Lieutenant Michael Telford’s men accompanied a night patrol of Iraqi soldiers, stopping at a patrol base in the quiet marshland north of the city. Telford and his Iraqi counterpart asked the base’s commander a few questions, but the dialogue quickly trailed away. Lt. Telford was restless, ready to hit the road to make the next stop.

Lt. Telford, on his first deployment, was equally cynical and professional. As US forces prepared to withdraw, handing over more and more responsibility to Iraqi units, he felt it would be a rough transition.

“How I’ll judge success,” Lt. Telford said at one point, “is that we leave them with enough training and stability so they don’t get slaughtered 72 hours after we leave the country.”

Through the interpreter at the Iraqi patrol base, the Iraqis explained they wanted to stay at the base for about an hour – the night’s patrol was scheduled for three hours, and to ensure it lasted that long they wanted to sit for a little while and kill some time.

Lt. Telford wasn’t having it. “You gotta do the job,” he implored them. “You can’t just sit around. You gotta do the job.”

He rallied the Iraqi soldiers, who begrudgingly continued their nighttime drive. Vehicles crawled at five miles an hour, chewing up the clock.

“A time standard. The Iraqis have a time standard now,” Lt. Telford had scoffed. “That’s what we’ve given them – a time standard.”

Telford didn’t say “after six years of war and all this work, this all we’ve given them,” I knew what he meant.

* * * *

Kent Dell was awarded a Purple Heart in Bayji, wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2006. By 2009, he was a squad leader. By 2014, he is married with a daughter and is now a Masters of Public Policy student at Michigan State, intending to be a legislative analyst for Michigan government.

Like all the men of Charlie Company who made repeated deployments to Iraq – who saw the violence of 2007 replaced with the quiet near-peace of 2009, it’s impossible to not be frustrated.

“You would think when a militant group is running rampant across their country they could put aside their differences for a moment to deal with the issue,” Dell said. “What’s worse is the Iraqi people are no better off under a representative democracy than they were under a dictatorship. The only difference is their lives are now miserable due to the apathy of many, rather than the megalomania of one.”

One of Mr. Dell’s former squadmates feels equally bitter about the current Iraq situation, if not surprised. Alex Busch is now a nursing student at Georgia Southern University, scheduled to graduate in December moving toward a career as a nurse practitioner. Mr. Busch likes that nursing is a service job, like the military but “helping other people in a different way.”

“I learned as a noncommissioned officer how to talk to people,” he said. It helps with difficult patients in stressful situations. “It’s my job. Don’t take it personally, don’t internalize it.”

It’s difficult to feel the same about Iraq, which he says makes him frustrated “nearly to the point where the news makes my brain want to bleed.”

“We accomplished our mission – at heavy cost,” he said. “We handed the Iraqi people their nation on a silver platter.”

“Any of us who were actually interacting with the Iraqi security forces saw this coming. I am frustrated by our disjointed response. Overnight we went from ‘no boots on the on the ground,’ to 300 advisers. Before we throw more American lives into the fire, the American people deserve a solid plan.”

* * * *

I think back to previous plans we tried to put into action. Trying to apply small-business approaches and democratic ideals to a country that had never seen them before.

Microgrant financing seemed like a good idea, providing start-up capital to tiny businesses. A woman running a sewing shop might receive a few hundred dollars, enabling the purchase of more machines or fabric, or salaries.

Others were less concrete. In June 2009, a mission led by Second Lieutenant Will Freakley looked over a storage shed filled with broken shelves and a dusty glass case. A 20-something Iraqi man filled out paperwork, posed for the mandatory biometric eye scan. He intended to turn this empty shell into a pharmacy.

The idea alone didn’t guarantee money. The woman with the sewing business was the widow of a Sons of Iraq leader. She was all set. This man was just somebody’s cousin.

Lt. Freakley seemed a little skeptical, but he was not paid to judge.

“I don’t know if this is going to work,” he said. “But we’ll fill everything out and see how it goes.”

Lt. Freakley’s last words, a throwaway comment, I look back on now and I can’t help but apply our naiveté and wishful thinking to Iraq, since 1991, 2003, 2007, 2009, 2014 and going forward, remembering all the enthusiastic cynicism and gleeful bitterness, the biting fears and star-crossed hopes.

“We’ll give it the old college try.”

 

Nathan Webster reported from Iraq several times as a freelance photojournalist embedded with U.S. soldiers. His work has appeared in dozens of publications nationwide, most recently The Rumpus, Daily Beast, and The New York Times. He is a Lecturer of English at the University of New Hampshire.

On Boredom

by Michael Carson

Sisyphus

I do not think I’ve ever seen my son bored before.

I mean really bored.

He stares emptily at the blue leather before him, and I am worried, a little frantic even. I rummage through the pocket in front of me for a magazine. I should have brought along a book. I should have thought of taking the Ipad out of the bag before I stowed it. I should have reviewed the current rules on using phones. It will only be for a few more seconds, only until the Captain turns the seatbelt light off, but, right now, I am overwhelmed by the idea that I have failed him in some way, seeing him stare dejectedly like this into space.

More than anything, I’m horrified by his glazed eyes. They haunt me as I write. I see myself in them. I see a slipping away. An indifference to the world. It makes me think how fragile our concentration actually is, how it might be crushed, snapped, and we would just float off into eternity, as if we had never bothered entertaining ourselves at all, and there were no thought or person in this world worth entertaining.

At one point in my life, I might have gotten up on a high horse and tried to point out how this shows something wrong about our culture. I might join the hounds that entertain themselves by baying over these over-entertained children. I would say that his is killing our children’s minds. I would argue that no culture that expects to be entertained all the time can produce anything of worth. I would bring up ADHD. I would point toward our failing schools.

But this would conveniently forget how much I detest boredom as well. It would gloss over the fact that I will bring a book with me on daily errands, that I check my phone email twenty times an hour, and that I run around my block once a day to avoid being bored.

I am just as terrified of boredom as my son.

I blame this insight – such as it is – on my time in the military.

I’ve never really been bored, bored to the point of tears, bored to the point of snapping, until my time in the infantry.

If I can say the military did anything for me, it forced me to confront my fear of boredom, though it in no way diminished it.

Before the military, death was nothing compared to boredom. I would rather die than be bored.

Boredom was perhaps part of the reason I got into the military. A lingering fear that if I didn’t do something dramatic life itself might become boring.

Of course, I had never really been bored, not really, that would only come later. Apart from occasional intervals at school and church, my childhood brought with it a whole host of distractions.

You hear a lot about how the military pushes you. How you’re always busy learning new stuff about guns and weapons and making new friends and running a lot. This is true. I made some friends, and I certainly ran a lot.

There is also another, equally exciting, idea of the military out there. In this version it is all guns and explosions, shoot-outs and near death experiences. And, if you’re lucky enough to go to war, this too, is, in some respects, true.

But both, while partially true, and in evidence occasionally, fail to account for the intervals between these events. They fail to account for the fact that these events are themselves rather dreary when they do appear. To talk to anyone for over an hour, much less months on end, about patrol tactics and field etiquette, requires a heroic fortitude and courageous stoicism seldom highlighted by military recruiters. To get in conversations about whatever city your interlocutor happens to be from, and to maintain this conversation over the course of twelve-hour overwatch missions, tends to become a tad repetitive.

There is nothing more boring to me than scraping up yet another dead body. There is nothing as monotonous as the dull fear, the inkling that you could die, not in some spectacular way, in some manner deserving of retelling, or even imagining, but for a stupid reason, because someone misfires a rifle or your vehicle rolls over the wrong pothole, and others will inevitably find your death boring, scraping up pieces of you to fill up their bags.

I suppose this really a problem of novelty. Sure, the first time you hear bullets above your head it is exciting, but the second and third time? It just becomes a matter of course. It just becomes yet another way to die. And you yourself become a little bit more boring for having participated in it so often.

So when I look back on my military experiences I can’t help but think of this boredom.

I can’t help thinking of them as boring.

Of course, as I grow older, the moments that were in truth abysmally boring might in comparison to present boredoms, like, say the four-hour flight I’m now on, seem exciting and fresh, winsome even.

I try to be faithful to the memory of boredom but a man can only do so much. New boredoms continually pester whatever it is in people that survives being bored.

The lady to my left is playing some sort of game on her Ipad. She touches the screen and tries to get the colorful pill looking object around the other colorful pill looking object. The next time I look over she is moving animal parts around to complete an animal puzzle. Every time I look over it’s a different game. Now it’s playing cards. I suppose this is the advantage of the Ipad. In my day you had to choose one distraction and stick with it.

The girl to my right cannot sleep. She tries different positions. She shakes her head, sighs heavily and curls up on the window. Finally, she gives up. She pulls out headphones and begins listening to a song she has heard a thousand times before (that, to be honest, if she was being honest, has become a bit boring).

I myself type these thoughts. I order a drink. By God. I won’t be bored.

I have been bored and it’s not pretty.

My son is watching a three hour-long movie he has seen before, so I feel better about his situation. I don’t think he is bored anymore, at least not as bored.

Most everyone in the plane is nodding off, or hoping to nod off, because they find the experience of flying forty-thousand feet above the earth boring.

You could blame the companies for packing us like this or the people for agreeing to it.

It’s really a matter of perspective – your enthusiasm for criticism, self-criticism or some combination of the two.

Right now, the stewardess is passing out peanuts, which my son, the chubby lady to my left, the teenager to my right, and I all open simultaneously, shoving them into our mouths with impatience, momentarily interested in the sparkle of salt on our tongues.

We are good souls, we are.

Never quite bored because we are in fact quite boring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suicide and the Military

by ahbonenberger

There are two substantial issues facing the American military and veteran community today. The first, a logical and narratively unified reaction to years of hero-worship, is a backlash against the impulse to thank soldiers for their service – a tendency, made explicit in recent media pieces, to vilify veterans and stigmatize them as prone to violence, hatred, racism, bigotry, and murder. The second issue is less dangerous than the first in absolute terms, but based on real statistics and empirical evidence: a growing problem with suicide.

This topic has been examined under a microscope. 22 soldiers and veterans die per day in America by their own hand, victims of some unknowable, tragically preventable plague. Especially tragic given the notion that a person who has cheated death should have some sort of inherent attachment to life. We believe that a man, having avoided bombs, bullets, and grenades from determined foes as variable as the enemies we’ve faced over the last seventy years, should have a higher reason to live. We believe that a soldier-veteran, ennobled by the experience of having come close to an end to their existence, should far more than others be eager to embrace the world, to love life. We imagine that we, in our dull day to day lives, which include regret, and trifle, and petty annoyances, have got it bad, and that veterans have seen clear through to some transcendent truth. Like a sunset over the water after a thunderstorm, with rays of light reaching up into the heaven, and beyond ourselves. Like encountering a known limitation, and moving beyond it.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 3.07.27 PM

Of course veterans are people like everyone else. Different in the sense that they’ve made a choice many non-veterans think – wrongly – that they’re incapable of making, fed on a steady diet of propaganda from movies, books, comics, video games, and history. Think, then, how disappointing it must be for a servicemember – a soldier, marine, airman, sailor, or coastguardsman (what do they call themselves?) – to discover that they won’t see war? Or, having seen it, that there’s no transcendent truth behind a dead face – friend or foe? Imagine that every meaningful assumption you’d made about the order of things was up-ended – good, generous, industrious and clever people died or were thwarted, while bad people, lazy and unscrupulous people profited and prospered? How would you feel, to know that life and death meant nothing?

I’m laying aside the question of faith in a higher power, and refraining from offering my own thoughts on the subject because a great many different ideas have occurred simultaneously in war on the topic of who believed what about which God, and praying to each of them seems to have had about the same effect (which is to say, nothing). Also, men of faith have taken their own lives, and agnostics and atheists have done the same, and out of respect for their service to God and Country, I should like to imagine that their lives are better or easier now.

During my time in the military, I came to believe that one reason there were so many suicides – apart from the proportional wealth of toxic leaders I encountered who likely did much to encourage their soldiers to take their own lives – was that it’s the single area over which the military has absolutely no jurisdiction. Each individual is instructed from the earliest moments in training that authority is violence, and violence is authority, and who can do the greatest harm to whom determines rank. A salute isn’t just a gesture of respect, it’s an acknowledgement of hierarchy. One person must awake at four in the morning to clean an area so that another person can walk over it with dirty boots. Infractions are punished. Individuality is punished. Thoughts are punished. Feelings are punished.

But suicide can’t be punished. Threats of suicide and suicide attempts are taken seriously by military units – very seriously – with the offending soldier often being carted out to behavior health and instantly transformed into a walking pariah, at least to the extent to which that soldier is still allowed to be a part of their unit. The impulse or desire to commit suicide, vocalized, is the worst type of offense possible – likely because it undermines the possibility of corrective violence, which is the military’s only organizational / institutional ability to correct misbehavior. For a toxic leader, who relies only on the threat of violence, suicide must be an evil. For a good or scrupulous leader, suicide is an unparalleled catastrophe.

Some people are afflicted with medical conditions that prevent them from taking any joy in life, or the world. Depression – suicidal depression – is a real condition. For these people, sights and smells and sentiments from which reasonable people would take pleasure offer nothing instead. These people require help – medical assistance, psychiatric guidance – and should be in places, surrounded by professionals who are capable of giving them said help. I’ve had brushes with depression in my own life, had my share of beautiful summer evenings that unaccountably tasted like ash – enough to know that people who must live with depression, with existential crisis, on a daily, hourly basis are truly cursed.

But this is different. These active duty military service members are killing themselves not because of a biochemical predisposition toward self-murder, but as an alternative to a torture that must feel infinitely worse than the idea of painlessness.

Veteran suicide, meanwhile, points at a similar but more diffuse problem – the problem of finding suitable engagement for veterans habituated to being employed, accustomed to using themselves in a way that creates meaning and value for their societies (but unable to do that in the context of the military any more, for a variety of reasons). Society itself becomes the problem for which the only solution is painless release – a society where service members are allowed to transition out without having jobs ready for them, or livelihoods assured.

So long as the military has toxic leadership, and a promotion system that encourages toxicity, many service members will take their own lives. So long as society does not have adequate room for veterans who wish nothing more than a steady pay check and some sort of useful employment, veterans will take their own lives. Perhaps the answer to the scourge is not to vilify the preventable suicides – but vilify the systems that make them possible in the first place. Otherwise, the prudent solution could be to stop vilifying suicide in the first place – make it an acceptable option in the event that a person’s life is truly unbearable. Of course, the system of financial servitude we live in could not bear such a situation – it would quickly collapse.

We Are All Bowe Bergdahl

by Michael Carson

Freedom

Freedom?

We called it Operation Istanbul.

Initially, it wasn’t much of a plan. We wouldn’t have made it halfway to Kurdistan. But over time Operation Istanbul morphed into an arabesque our hundred-man Brigade S3 shop would have envied.

Operation Overlord was child’s play compared to Operation Istanbul.

“What about gas?” one of the privates asked, an intelligent boy from Georgia who didn’t want to be either in Iraq or back in Georgia.

“Good point,” I affirmed, showing that not only could I lead but I could listen. “We’d have to send a scout team out, maybe Robbins and O’Donnell, to distract the motor pools NCOs. Cory could fill up at least a couple tanks.”

My squad leader, who had been looking intently, even a tad angrily, at the dirt, tracing, sharp evil figures there with his boot, spoke up, ”sir, we’d need a task force to puncture the CSMs tires. He’d have the entire battalion after us by mid-afternoon. We would have to do this at least three hours before zero hour.”

The privates giggled. “Yes, maybe smash the motor pool radios? You know they’ll call in the birds.”

“Yeah, they have GPS too you know.”

“The second border will be a problem. We’d have to ditch the Humvees. We’d be a little conspicuous.”

“Some Jihadi will use it as a propaganda ploy if they found them.”

“We could blow them up once we made it the mountains.”

I nodded wisely. “And then blame it on the Kurds, ask for help from the Turks.”

“What if the Turks ended up talking? Telling the Battalion Commander?”

“I doubt they’d hand us over. Aren’t they friends with Russia?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think their friends with us. They’d probably just hand us right back.”

My squad leader would not be deterred.

“But what if they didn’t? What if we pleaded asylum?”

Now I also giggled. The idea of us trekking through the mountains, half-starved, utterly confused, looked upon with wonder by Turkish peasants, trying to explain ourselves to the Istanbul authorities, was a rather funny one. We were such a hopeless little unit, utterly without intellectual reserves but not lacking in imaginative grandeur.

I seconded my squad leader. “Right, we’ll put together a fragmentary operations order having to do with contingency operations, including but not limited to questions of asylum.”

We were joking of course. I had no intention of actually doing what we talked about and I assumed – maybe a bit naively – that my soldiers didn’t either. It was a dream of freedom. A romantic scenario of adventure and escape that became increasingly deranged the longer into the night we debated its merits. Eventually, we had a UN peace keeping force chasing us across the Galata Bridge, the Yemeni and Israeli navies struggling for control of the Persian Gulf, and the few surviving members of the platoon fighting onward through Serbia, up into Finland, and taking hostage a fishing trawler bound for Greenland. There, what was left of our tired, broken and begrimed retinue fell in the ice, glorious and forever frozen and snowy white and clean of the war.

If the initial part of our plan sounds familiar, it should, and not because Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is in the news recently, but because there is a great tradition of escapism in American war stories. Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane had many tales of Civil War deserters. First World War novelists could not wait to get to war so they could walk away from it in manly disgust. In Catch-22, Yossarian and Orr seek escape from the people trying to kill them in the ocean. Tim O’Brien wrote a whole book about a soldier deciding to walk from Vietnam to Paris called Going After Cacciato. Yet this is not unique to books about war; it is also cultural. Americans love the idea of going off the grid, facing the elements alone, throwing over the responsibilities and expectations of civility. TV shows like Survivor Man and Survivor imagine men and women alone with the elements, proving their skills and getting back to their roots. Our movies nearly always feature one man in a brainwashed society, the chosen one, who sees clearly and can save everyone else from their civilized degeneracy. Adventure companies make good money marketing pre-packaged exoticism and myths of rugged individualism. Politicians gain power preaching lies of ahistorical self-determinism to their constituencies.

So, it seems to go without saying that when faced with something even the least bit boring and enervating, most Americans would at least consider walking away. And even professional soldiers grow tired of war. Not because they are afraid but because they are romantically predisposed as the rest of us. They think the command incompetent, the unit pathetic and their continued risking of life a waste, and they imagine taking matters into their own hands, walking off to a place where the command is competent, the people inspiring and the risking of life worthwhile. Problem is, of course, that this is sheer fantasy. As we are slowly discovering with Bergdahl – whose attempt at self-sufficiency ended up making him dependent on both a significant portion of the United States military and the Taliban – war’s banality extends all the way down, defining those who try to escape as well as those who try to bring them back. Further, I would argue that not just war but modern life itself is a slog that requires the help of other people, people who will be for the most part self-interested, bumbling and boring as you, whether you like it or not. If you do try to just walk off the grid, you will fail. A stingray will stab you. The Taliban will pick you up while defecating.

But what of those who stay? Were we somehow better people for not following through on Operation Istanbul? Perhaps. I don’t think we were any less romantic. Many of us were there because we thought war might offer and escape from the grind of managerial positions and Home Depot janitorial duties. Politicians and pundits sent us to Iraq because they were bored by the endless and demeaning back and forth of weapon inspections and international law. Some of us secretly wanted to train hard and become something really romantic, like Special Forces soldiers who could grow beards, wear whatever they wanted, and hop about the world saving damsels in distress. Others couldn’t wait to get home where they could settle down into happy domestic lives with spouses and children miraculously cured of pre-deployment grievances and discontents. We decided against one fantasy in favor of a more obviously safe one: namely, just do your job, keep you head down, and hope for the best. Our romance simply took another form.

At the time of Bergdahl’s disappearance, many repeated over and over the comforting idea of “no man left behind.” Since then, much has been revealed about Bergdahl’s character, and those who disapprove of Bergdahl’s actions have refined it to the clumsier: “no man who we like as a person and approve of as a soldier left behind.” But either version is equally romantic, a way of distracting us from the obvious, not that six soldiers died looking for him, but the fact we leave men behind all the time. We left around 50,000 in Vietnam, 5,000 of them in Iraq and 2,500 in Afghanistan. Their bodies might come home, but they are not coming back, whatever their personal heroic values or lack thereof. To replace them, we have reimagined them; we have woven them into countless other romances, enmeshing their individual and utterly meaningless eviscerations by bomb or sniper bullet into another magical quilt of American fantasia; we have deluded ourselves that if we give it another year, the tide will turn, history will collapse upon itself, and the people living in a country that is not ours will love us like brothers and embrace us and those who fell fighting for them as heroes.

Operation Istanbul would have ended badly. This should not take away from the fact that Iraq did end badly. If the Bergdahl story teaches us anything it’s that escape is a powerful fantasy in war and war is a powerful escapist fantasy. But we won’t learn this. Until the romance comes full circle, until we can be feted as liberators forever and forever, an eternal return where we storm Normandy and save France until the end of time, we will pile on Bergdahl, blame six deaths on him at first, then, eventually, all the deaths and all our successive failures on him and people like him. We will blame the authors of books like Catch-22 and Going After Cacciato for teaching Americans they can walk away from wars that they cannot actually walk away from, for taking our inherent escapism and exacerbating it through counter-cultural mythologies, all the while imagining ourselves to be realists, hard thinkers, men of the world. We will, in essence, do everything in our power to deny that the insidious romanticism that inspired Bergdahl to leave his post is much the same as the one that inspires us to stay at ours.

In Defense of Open Wounds

by Michael Carson

Helen Benedict’s Guernica Magazine essay paints a comic picture of a recent New York City literary event. In the piece, Benedict describes the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim departing from a pleasant discussion of literature to touch upon a rather awkward subject:

“Your army came to my country and destroyed it,” he said, arms crossed, eyes calm. “Your war has not only destroyed this generation, it has destroyed generations of Iraqis’ futures. And you don’t even say you’re sorry.”

I wasn’t there. I suppose it was not as funny for the people in the room as it is for me. But it is funny. The Americans have found a real live Iraqi who writes books, whose brilliance – according to his Penguin book blurb – is “forged” by the crucible of war (like a sword), and have paid a lot of money to have him go on tour in their country as Europeans used to take Native Americans through Europe. But, just when you want to have a nice discussion about literature and magical realism, just when we were going to see how decent and civil a sufficiently westernized Arab can be over a croissant and glass of wine, he goes and throws this curveball, this stunning accusation, at everyone in the room.

I mean who could have seen this coming?

Well, anyone who read Blasim’s book for one. His short story collection is so powerful not because it describes war but because it interrogates so ruthlessly the aesthetic appeal of violence. His work mocks those who make money at war, and not just arms dealers or politicians – that’s a little too easy – but the artists, the storytellers who make their money off of the violence. The title story of his American debut is not called Corpse Exhibition for nothing. In one of his stories, civilians vie with each other to tell the most horrific life story; to be proud of these experiences, this capacity, is, to say the least, a complicated sort of pride. Thus, Blasim, you could say, is the winner of a contest he is not very comfortable winning.

Yet Benedict insinuates not many people have read the book. She then proceeds to take veterans to task for their failure to face the fact of their crimes. They – everyone last one of them – “become trapped in a painful, roiling stew of unresolved guilt, unable to feel like a “good” person while desperately needing to.” Luckily, these poor souls are not alone; they have civilians there to take some of the blame: “We, too, are caught in morally erosive tangle of denial and lies, a tangle that has made us lose sight of who on earth we Americans are.” She enjoins all Americans, veterans and civilians, to regain our sense of moral clarity by facing up to and apologizing for our moral complicity. The problem is, this blandishment, like all such appeals to a recovery of essential “Americanness,” conveniently forgets the fact that this belief in the possibility of moral clarity, of a true “Americanness” that can be achieved through some sort of redemptive narrative and manichean universe, is largely what caused all this moral complicity in the first place.

I assume Benedict’s description of the audience’s reaction, silence, is likely dramatized. How could a bunch of writers, veteran writers no less, be so naïve to not seen this coming? But the drama makes aesthetic sense. Americans want to believe these ex-soldiers had nothing to say to Blasim because it fits so well into the American mythology of intense naiveté followed by hard-earned wisdom, with the idea that if we can try hard enough we can put our past behind us (as we did so successfully after Vietnam). If veterans and civilians haven’t truly considered what they did in Iraq, if they haven’t said they’re sorry (a meaningful sorry, no crossed fingers!) there is now a perfectly reasonable explanation for their lack of psychological health and political malaise. All the suicides, all those murders, all the sadness – Americans just need to own up to what we did and find our way back to our true essential American self, its “moral center” (which is obviously good and upstanding and innocent and un-suicidal). I admit it is nice to think that America is sitting where it is right now because it hasn’t said it’s sorry or admitted it made a mistake, but life, I’m sorry to say, is not an Disney movie (or a Spielberg one). America cannot regain a moral purity it never actually had.

But many insist otherwise. The question then is this: when did the world make sense for America? Where is this moral purity? When were heroes heroes, wars good, and civilians innocent? Benedict seizes on 1945 as the date we lost our way. We bit the apple sometime in the late 1950s or 1960s. Maybe in Vietnam. Maybe in Korea. I don’t know. People tend to be unclear about the specifics of the fall and quite clear about their vague fondness for World War Two. After 9/11, people were worried America had lost it’s way. Dictators were crushing freedoms all over the world, attacking us, and we sat idly by. Journalists and politicos furiously demanded the American they knew and loved wouldn’t be morally confused; their greatest generation, their grandfathers, would not have stood for this agonizing ambiguity. I was raised in the 1990s, before 9/11, when every other movie was about the good Germans who stood up to the Nazis during the Holocaust or the heroism of a band of ne’er-do-wells who stormed Normandy and took down Hitler. Things might have been confusing with the LA riots and school shootings and Kosovo, but back in the 1940s, back during the good war, things were not so morally frustrating. Things made sense.

Except for they didn’t. Someone living in the early 1940s, in a segregated country still hemorrhaging from the failure of their economic system, allied with Stalin, murderer of over 20 million people, contemplating whether or not to destroy entire cities of human beings with nuclear energy, would have hardly have described themselves as living in a time of innocence and moral clarity. Propaganda from the period makes it seem this way and worked very hard to make people believe the world was simpler and less messy than it actually was, but why should we believe the propaganda? I thought we were better than that. It’s time we admitted memories of the Second World War have become a sort of moral pornography. Not only do they push Americans to make horribly stupid decisions concerning going to war and blowing up countries, they undermine criticism of more recent wars. If we continue to see Vietnam and Iraq as exceptions to the rule, as deviations from a previous moral clarity, we will continue to hunt for this moral clarity and continue to apologize to country after country for what our moral confusion has wrought.

The idea that there is an original “self” or culture uncorrupted by time’s complications and indignities is absurd. Life itself, last time I checked, is “a morally erosive tangle of denial and lies.” Blasim’s call for an apology, I would think, has more to do with our predilection for this insidious fallacy. He likely wants us to apologize for believing that life could be any different, that Americans were at some point in our past exempt from the normal processes of history and experience. Toward the end of the interview Benedict has Blasim comparing reality in the wake of the Iraq war to “a giant mirror that has fallen and shattered into a million shards.” “Each one of us,” Blasim says, “picks up one shard and thinks he sees the whole picture.” Benedict, ironically, sees this as a call to action. Americans need to restore the mirror to look like it was in 1945. But isn’t the exact problem? Our tendecy to pick up a shard and act as if what we saw there – ourselves mainly – were the whole image? And then to hubristically force all the shards together to make a monstrous doppleganger of this fantastic idea of ourselves?

The good old days.

If we could just get back here somehow…

Benedict concludes with a suggestion:

“Thus I have a suggestion. Like the veterans I know who are struggling with the question, “Am I still a good person and, if not, how can I be good again?” so should we civilians ask this of ourselves: How we can we feel like a morally upright, “good” people when our military has killed and tortured so many innocents with our support, tacit or otherwise, and continues to do so? And if we do face these facts, where and how do we start to heal?”

Speaking as one veteran of the Iraq war, I have a suggestion as well, for civilians and veterans – let’s not be healed. Let’s keep the wounds open. Let’s see these wounds as not something to be cleaned up and forgotten but important contradictions that should be rigorously contemplated and endured for as long possible. Let’s not be so quick to apologize or pretend facing the facts will somehow make the facts go away. A half-a-million Iraqis will still be dead no matter how heartfelt our apology, no matter how intense our honesty. So, instead of imagining a world and America that never actually was, instead of seeing ourselves as good or bad, as characters in a medieval morality play, let’s examine the America that is here. That’s what Blasim did. He exhibited corpses. We would be well advised to resist burying our own under yet another destructive nostalgia.

 

 

 

 

Reaction to Helen Benedict’s “The Moral Confusion of Post-War America”

by ahbonenberger

Thought experiment. Someone you know, and who knows you, but not very well, says in public that you have no integrity. Like this: “You have no integrity. Zero. None. That’s what I think. This is my serious face.” How would you respond? Take a second with that thought.

 

According to a piece in Guernica, during a talk between Hassan Blasim, author of The Corpse Exhibition (an exceptional piece of writing, according to many whose opinions I trust) and a veteran moderator, one such moment occurred recently. Blasim asked the veteran: “All the time, I hear American soldiers say they are proud. But how can you carry a weapon and invade another country and call yourself proud?”

 

Helen Benedict, the piece’s author, and the one who relays that quote, is an author herself, and a professor of writing at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She makes many statements in her essay, titled The Moral Confusion of Post-War America that develop from Blasim’s question. She seems to feel that the choice to serve in war is an inherently bad one, and doesn’t understand how one could see or do or choose to see and do those things and still feel good about the experience, to honestly claim that one is proud. Of country, of self.

 

Helen is a friend. I don’t know Blasim, or his work, but I’ve read enough about it to have a healthy respect for his imagination and his talent. I’m going to attempt to answer the question, now, of why I believe what I did was – not just necessary, but good – despite the horrors – perhaps because of them. I should preface it by saying I have the utmost respect for Helen and her point of view, which is a view shared by my father and most of his friends, so far as I can tell – this is not surprising, given that they grew up during the Vietnam era, when the moral choices available to citizens and draftees were very different from the choices available to us today.

 

Assuming that Blasim really wanted an answer to his question, and wasn’t merely trolling the vet with a paradox designed to introduce intellectual discomfort, which is also fine. Blasim’s native Iraq (he lives in Finland) was invaded and plundered and destroyed by war. He’s entitled to his ideas about things – I’m not challenging his logic, or his position. He is correct.

 

I am an American soldier, and I carried and shot a rifle, and fired artillery and dropped bombs, and ordered people forward again and again, mostly to attack, and people died by my hand and by the hands of others who obeyed my orders. And I am proud of my service.

 

I didn’t get to go to Iraq. The first time, my unit was supposed to go and then, a month before the departure date the surge pushed us off the chart to Iraq and we were rerouted to Afghanistan. Everyone had been learning Arabic. The second time, my unit was supposed to go and then, three months before the departure date, the surge pulled us onto the chart to Afghanistan, so I didn’t see Iraq. But I joined to lead soldiers in Iraq, so that should count for something.

 

I also protested Iraq. I was on 1st Avenue with Aidan McGlaze, blocks from the UN, near 50th street. We watched Desmund Tutu. There were over 100,000 of us. I vocally and actively participated in this demonstration, and other smaller events, and felt fully committed to the notion that we should not invade. When we did, anyway, it was a bitter blow, and disillusioning in the way one probably imagines such things are for young men.

what_if

Blasim might ask why I didn’t do more, or less, and the answer is that it wouldn’t have mattered. America invaded Iraq despite my wishes, against my better judgement. This is the point at which he and I, and Helen and I part paths. Because once it became clear that the war was not going anywhere, that it was happening, an indisputable fact of our lives – that it would not end any time soon – I went to the Army recruiting station. Late November of 2004. Bush had four more years. Abu Ghraib was blowing up (though the original incident had occurred in May). We were still in Afghanistan.

 

In a country with a professional Army, the choice is not whether or not to avoid service. Everyone avoids service, by not being presented with a choice to avoid it or not. You get to not serve unless you really want to or need to. That’s fine, and acceptable, and in many ways all to the good. Save that in a country of rampant economic inequality, many more people need to than want to, and, ultimately, service becomes an economic obligation for some, while others can do as they like.

 

I felt that under such circumstances, I needed to serve, and this idea caught ahold of me like a conviction. I knew that war was wrong. I knew that killing and carrying a rifle would produce moral injury. I also understood that the people in my society, like me save for a trick of biographical history, who’d been compelled to serve for a variety of reasons, would return with moral injury, and I’d never be compelled to endure any privation.

 

My friends will tell you that I talk a lot about loving America, mostly in ironic terms. In truth, I feel a great affection to the country that my ancestors helped found, for which generations of ancestors have fought and toiled and bled, the country that allowed me to have a peaceful, moral upbringing, and the best education in the world, at a fantastic prep school (Hopkins) and a fantastic college (Yale). I feel, strongly, that the red, white and blue – the best of it – flows in my veins. I don’t begrudge that feeling to anyone – it’s an inclusive feeling. The best part about America, my favorite part, is that the promise is that anyone can share in that dream. My ancestors were peasants and nobility and drifters and criminals and schemers and farmers and lawyers. Like everyone. Come to America, take part in the dream, you’re welcome to be my brother and my sister.

 

I like that idea, although I know that in practice it rarely works out that way, and less and less as time goes on. So – why am I proud of my service? Because in every era, there is a war. Each generation faces its struggle – to participate or not. I chose to participate in the proper way this generation, which is correct for this generation in a way that it wasn’t for the Vietnam era, or for WWII, or for the Civil War.

 

I sympathize with Blasim, whose country has been ravaged by war and dictatorship and injustice, systematically – whose native country has been exploited by successive empires for centuries – whose birthplace, Iraq, was doomed by the British and French decades before he or I first drew breath. He talks about war, I’m told, as a series of ghosts that haunt the living, and each other. Well – I don’t feel particularly haunted by my ghosts – they are my guardians, the certainty that I will attempt to act a little bit better than they did, that I will avoid making the same mistakes they did.

 

And in Afghanistan, we did avoid those mistakes. We did make progress. We did good. I did that, carrying a rifle, because I represented the strong, and I was willing to stand up to the bullies in the areas where bullies called themselves Taliban, and they were defeated. They would not have been defeated without weapons. I suppose someone could talk about how the Taliban was given weapons by the CIA in the 80s, or through funding to Pakistan’s government, but that’s a ghost speaking. In the 1980s I was watching schools of minnows in a tidepool, or reading, or riding my bicycle. I don’t know what the 1980s are.

 

I’m sorry things have worked out the way they did in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and many places in the world. I understand now that the role of the writer is to help present people with truth, and I think Blasim has probably done that. Helen certainly has. In my opinion, the world is complicated, and one must sometimes hold opposing ideas in one’s head simultaneously. Like carrying a gun, and murder, and pride, and kindness. That’s not jingoism – that’s life, and participating in life.

 

Helen is correct in her view that war is awful, and should be avoided at all costs. I believe that and agree with her. I can’t disagree with any of her points, and I will stand side-by-side with her shouting against war until the day it breaks out. Once it has broken out – once Wotan’s spear has been shattered, and all the old alliances and civil obligations we owe each other as humans are gone, and the great calamity has returned for any reason, I believe that one must choose to participate if one can – if one is physically or emotionally able, if one is free from familial responsibilities (as I was) – to help bear some of that moral injury, to bring it home, and to digest it and move on with one’s life.

Blasim and Helen disagree with me on this point. I hope that Blasim wouldn’t hold it against me, and that Helen doesn’t, because I have great respect for them both as thinkers and writers – Helen through experience and Blasim by reputation. I’ve made choices in life, and am proud of them.

Yes.

A Good War

by Michael Carson

child-soldiers-in-world-war-ii-06

My son found a weapon the other day above a kitchen cabinet in our new house, a World War II replica Wehrmacht bayonet left behind by last owners. For the last week he has carried it with him everywhere. He places it next to his books as he does homework. It is waved often to ward off imaginary Nazis. Their imaginary corpses lay in lacerated heaps at my feet.

At first, I told him to keep it sheathed or I was going to take it away, but he acted deaf and continued to dance around the room, slicing and dicing.  So I took it away. Now the bayonet sits on one of my bookshelves. I want to call the last owners, tell them to pick it up, take it out of my sight, but then I wonder how long I can keep daggers away from my son. He had a gentle soul, the kind that takes bugs outside of the house rather than smash them – now it’s all camouflage, guns and knives. I worry about what this means. I wonder if this might be symbolic of some deeper change within him or if it reflects some failing on my part to inculcate important values in him.

But, then again, it’s only a replica bayonet.

When on my way to Iraq in 2006, it was generally known that this was one of the bad wars. Not that the reasons for getting into the war were bad – though that played an important role in the growing consensus – but that it was known the conflict could not end well. Somewhere between 2003 and 2006 it had missed its chance to be a good war. People had already started pointing fingers – insufficient funds, contractors, jihadists, gays. Once there, I found it strange the way everyone talked incessantly about what we had to do to make the war successful. Looking at the waste, incompetence and death, I couldn’t help but wonder if a war can go from bad to good. Would it all be justified again if the Surge worked? If they found plutonium? Did this war have any chance of being a good war still?

Years later, with this fake bayonet on my bookshelf, I find this question interests me no less.  I find this question bound up in my confusion over what to do with my son. I couldn’t answer it then and I can’t answer it now. People that decide these things, heads of state and talking heads, decided, at one point, that this might very well be a good war. Sadly, they miscalculated. I don’t want my son to miscalculate. I want to tell my son that Iraq has not gotten better over the last decade. I want to tell my son that people still die in explosions on a daily basis, but even if the country magically transformed, even if Iraq suddenly became a mecca of prosperity, tolerance and liberty, it would in no way make the war, the war I took part in, a good one.

But maybe I’m prejudiced. Maybe my bad war experience has jaded me to the possibility of good war experience. Reading Tim O’Brien’s early writings, the memoir he wrote only a few years after returning from Vietnam, I’m struck by how eager he is to point out how he would have willingly fought a good war if he had a chance. “Certain causes,” he says, “somehow involve self-evident truths; Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, the attack on Pearl Harbor, they were somehow self evident for using force” Vietnam went wrong, O’Brien suggests, because it lacked these self-evident truths. The same sense of betrayal likewise pervades the present day war memoir. Vietnam and Iraq, to these writers, are a failure of causes. Because they were misrepresented, their war did not work out the way it was supposed to, as opposed to the experiences of their fathers or grandfathers, who fought like men against something clearly evil, and which ended exactly as it should have, with the right people living and the right kind of people dead.

In my own war experience, even during a plainly bad war, soldiers and government officials jumped with glee at the right kind of dead person. Whenever one of the soldiers killed a man coming at us with a suicide vest or walking down the street with a rifle, they said, “look! This IS a good war.”  When a soldier sniped three IED emplacers in one night, he was patted on the back the entire next day. “We killed a bad guy,” they shouted at each other proudly.  The Army is an essentially practical institution. And as a practical institution, the war’s absolute morality made little difference; everyone went about practically solving the problems one by one, pounding each whac-a-mole with more napalm, resources and marines, bloodletting the world’s fevers like workaholic medieval surgeons.

When it didn’t work out, when people questioned the logic of paying the people we pushed out of power to keep the peace, when all open-minded people were forced to admit the war’s badness, Bush and his administration took the blame. Not because he invaded a country – the invasion would have been just fine if it all worked out – but because he gave us a morally ambiguous war.  Another, better leader, would have run a good war. This imagined leader would have caught the bad guy and blown up the evil and the flight-suit celebration on the battleship would not have been darkly ironic at all, because irony is not really irony when you believe, in your heart of hearts, that a good war exists somewhere over the horizon.

As I wandered the streets of Mosul, trying with America’s supposedly infinite resources to turn this obviously bad war into a good war (“here’s some candy, kid”), I began to wonder, I mean really think about, what would make this war a good one. What if Bush had been right? What if Sadaam’s toppling would mean the end of the war? What if the insurgency had not happened at all? Would that justify all this destruction? What if experience vindicated our ideas about good and evil, instead of constantly proving them to be childish, poorly-planned and clumsily executed fantasies? I mean what if it were ok to kill a bunch of people and then walk away from it like nothing happened, walk away from it because those guys were bad guys and bad guys have to die?

My grandfather had a friend who fought in the most famous good war. I met him once when I was around my son’s age. My grandfather took me to his friend’s apartment behind a series of rundown warehouses in Canton, Ohio. The apartment was littered with stuff. Baseball memorabilia, automotive magazines, cheaply produced china. My grandfather’s friend sat in a beat-up brown chair with medical equipment on both sides. A foul smelling liquid pumped back and forth between the machines.

He had been stabbed in the stomach by a German bayonet much like the one my son found, the one sitting on my bookshelf right now. The German who stabbed him had to fire the rifle to dislodge the bayonet.

“Hey Bill,” he yelled at my grandfather “Come on in.”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

My grandfather limped over on his artificial leg.

“My grandson’s here.”

“Ok.”

After trading lotto cards – losers each and every one – they watched TV – a black and white cowboy movie. I think they forgot about me. I flipped through all the junk on the table – the cards, the old clothes, the Americana – and tried to find any evidence of his war, maybe a helmet, or a bayonet.

I found nothing but junk, trash, dust, nothing that would suggest war held any attractions other than this lonely sort of despair, emotional entropy and a rotted gut, nothing except for a government stipend and the inability to go to the bathroom by yourself.

Luckily, like all little boys, I had an imagination. I saw Nazis everywhere, creeping in the windows, crawling toward me on the floor, and I knew, I just knew, I had to find a weapon fast, to defend my relatives, to defend my country, to defend myself.

And I did.

 

 

 

Wil S. Hylton’s “Vanished”: a Review

by ahbonenberger

Vanished, Wil S. Hylton’s book about the search to identify and return servicemembers’ remains to their families – no matter the obstacle – is a compelling read. It’s a non-fiction account, something between a mystery and a history, and is very well written. It took me three days to finish, and I was going hard, as hard as one can given a Masters Thesis and several other writing obligations. Hylton gives readers a rare view into the obsessive world of the Joint POW/MIA Accountability Command, or JPAC, the military department responsible for tracking down all U.S. service members lost to the tides of war. Not surprisingly given the personalities and circumstances involved, the process costs everyone – the taxpayers (the search costs over a million dollars), the people involved (broken marriages and friendships), and the local communities that are forced to endure years (in some cases, decades) of disruption by Americans bent on finding the answer to ancient questions. Nevertheless, Hylton makes a compelling case for the project by introducing a critical character early in the story, B24 tail gunner Jimmie Doyle’s son, Tommy. Tommy’s life was disrupted and irrevocably changed by the disappearance of his father, a tail gunner in a bomber who is either shot down over a small island in the Pacific in 1944, or who may have managed to parachute out to safety. The fate of Tommy’s father is unclear in part due to the unexplained rumor-mongering of his uncles.

 

This is a minor flaw in Vanished, and it is forgivable – the scope of the book is so great, so broad, that it’s impossible for Hylton to avoid raising questions that he cannot answer. The search to find a body that’s been lost for seventy years inevitably raises many mysteries and attractive sidebars, and 239 pages isn’t enough room or time to adequately address them all. The main storyline is sufficiently interesting to justify the proliferation of idiosyncratic subplots, and Hylton writes skillfully, incorporating them into the overarching theme – a single catastrophe, a human tragedy, echoes through history. The death of a young man does not occur in a vacuum.

 

One thematic difficulty that from my perspective Vanished doesn’t do quite as well with is the overall issue of World War II nostalgia, which runs through the book like a virus. It’s not Hylton’s fault – or, if it is, it’s as much Hylton’s fault as it is Steven Spielberg’s, or Tom Hanks’, or everyone who’s ever participated in the creation of a certain type of vision we hold of the Greatest Generation and what happened in World War II. Maybe it was inevitable, given the father-son storyline Hylton sets up in the beginning – a story that is better in the book than out of it. This isn’t to say Hylton sugarcoats war – he doesn’t. On the contrary he seems to go to great pains to humanize war, to explain how a thing like war can cost, what dread feels like. At the same time, World War II seems to occupy a special place in peoples’ memory. MacArthur, Nimitz, Roosevelt – the Japanese – so much of the backdrop to the actual story is done with the broad brushstrokes of someone whose grandfather fought in World War II. I’m not saying I would’ve (or could’ve) written it differently – on the contrary, I’d probably end up falling afoul of similar transgressions – an understandable impulse to romanticize, to sentimentalize. After all, my mother’s father was the Bombardier in a B-24 Liberator, over Europe. Regardless of the likely motivations and biases leading to Hylton’s characterization of World War II as exceptional and lovely, it’s impossible to condemn a person for something that affects so many – nevertheless, I didn’t want to pass the topic by, without remark.

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Jonathan Swift said that “Satire is a mirror in which a man sees everyone reflected but himself.” If that’s the case, then Vanished operates on two levels. The first, obvious level is as a mystery, a catalogue of challenges overcome by technology, doggedness, skill, and luck. The second, deeper level is as a satire – a mirror of ourselves, and how we choose to remember events. How we tell stories to make the past neat, and how some people cannot bear uncleanliness or untidiness. How America must see World War II – perhaps any war – and, therefore, itself, as beautiful, and comprehensible. Ultimately, this is the epilogue we all decide, collectively, to embrace: Dolce et Decorum est – the memory of an event, told in such a way that in its recounting one can hear the tinkling of its future echo.

 

When all’s said and done, the U.S. government finally delivers an answer to the question of “what happened to Tommy,” and the answer seems to have had a human impact that was worth the effort. Hylton’s investment – of time, of emotional energy, of his considerable talent – is well worth honoring by reading Vanished. It’s a complicated book, but very well written, and anyone should find it to be well worth their money. I’d lend you mine, but have already passed it along to my roommate, who’s reading it now.

The Saddest Story I Have Ever Heard: A Review of Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp

by Michael Carson

Unknown

People tend to forget that the twenty million dead soldiers of the First World War left upward towards twenty million still living mothers. These mothers remembered and grieved for their sons and daughters in a variety of ways, some less healthy than others. In Britain, many mothers found solace in séances. For a small sum one could talk to a dead loved one for a length of time determined by a medium. It should be unsurprising then that the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced similar consolers, charlatans who provide a sense of spiritual satisfaction and sustenance for what they see as a pittance; trauma, especially trauma experienced in a capitalist society, brings with it all kinds of hucksters, and none more effective than the spiritualist variety, who pretend at profundities and cure-alls while delivering mystification and idolatry.

Curiously, rather than providing an antidote to this spiritual kitsch, Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp, a book ostensibly about these lost souls who have turned to a bankrupt spiritualism in response to trauma, does her best to imitate it, offering the supposedly sophisticated reader a quick and superficial fix – a cursory understanding of underlying cultural dislocations. Her work, neither fiction, nor cultural scholarship, nor essay, nor work a religion, skates over all of the above, and gives the reader a vision of America more frightening than anything previously imagined in the rich literary tradition of Southern grotesques, more frightening even than a world of demons, war and suicide. If what Percy has written is fact true, if the people she writes about, herself included, are as she describes them, than there is not much to really care about, and precious little to try to save.

The problem begins with the plot. Percy received a National Endowment of the Arts grant to investigate intersections between post-traumatic stress and occult spiritualism. I’m not aware of the exact language of this grant but it helped pay for trips to the South to interview her subject, Caleb Daniels, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who lost his entire helicopter crew in the infamous Operation Red Wings. He now believes a giant demon called the Destroyer is following him and trying to make him commit suicide. This is the first exchange between Percy and Daniels:

“By the way,” he said, “are you religious?”

“I hesitated long enough for him to fill his mouth with a fresh wad of chew. I didn’t want the conversation to come down to this. Finally I told him I wasn’t.

“Good,” he said.

If the person doing the interviewing, Percy’s narrative persona, is an unbeliever, a “rationalist” as Daniels calls her, and the people being interviewed believe in ghosts, demons and squirting Jesus blood, then how could the conversation not come down to this? She would have to be one extraordinarily naïve journalist to think it wouldn’t come up at all, and she only compounds the problem by muddling distinctions between religion and spiritualism. Confrontations such as these continue throughout the book, each one more contrived than the last. When Percy finally tells us that “I’ve come to understand how easily, how intrusively, a heightened situation can make us, any of us, slip,” I personally did not feel in any way shocked, enlightened or, to be honest, interested. I find it difficult to believe that Percy, graduate MFA student, NEA fellowship in hand, did not appreciate this third-grade empathy beforehand (why else would they have given her the funding?). This is not Maurice Bendrix finding the germ of faith at the conclusion to The End of the Affair. This is Percy confirming her thesis using Caleb Daniels as a primary source.

A story of a jaded reporter losing her rational self in the boonies might have been believable if Percy gave us something of her own backstory; instead, Percy relies on her narrator’s prim revulsion towards the South and vague references to her own country-girl past, as if the South were some sort of preconscious Oedipal state and merely being there turns you slightly deranged and possessed of anthropological verities. Every time Daniels is interviewed we have to endure him putting dip in his lip, slurping salsa and gurgling coke; subjected to this odd descriptive fetish I couldn’t help but think of the British writers of the nineteenth century describing African tribal culture. When Percy and Daniels hug at the end, the reader can almost hear her saying, “ewww!” The problem is not so much the distaste for Daniels – I think she honestly tries to like him – but the way in which Percy relies on a visceral hatred for what the South represents politically and culturally – Walmart is mentioned repeatedly – to produce a series of caricatures of herself and others and little actual characterization.

At times, Percy does show a droll irony, which would be somewhat interesting if were not so jarring. Here she is reporting a conversation from Tim Mather, a sort-of-minister who “delivers” people of their demons in Portal, Georgia: “At one point he thought of calling it [the Demon Camp] a death camp because you would be dying for Christ. But then he realized the name would scare people.”This sounds to me a lot like a swarmy graduate student wryly commenting on Mather’s intelligence; but does this have to be even pointed out? This man and the people who follow him are obviously very sad; I see no reason to kick dead horses in this way, especially given the story Percy is trying to tell.  “The Son of a Jesus wears a pink sparkly shirt,” Percy says as she goes through the process of deliverance herself, a one-liner worthy of the city-boys in the movie Deliverance. I realize Percy is trying to show how dramatic her eventual conversion will be, but the reader knows her conversion is as much of a metaphor as Daniel’s Destroyer demon; consequently, all she does is highlight the divisions between herself and those she is trying to save, making plain the irreconcilable differences between the America she came from and that she is trying to understand.

If the book’s conceit involved the sending of a Salon staff reporter or Dawkins neophyte to be delivered or exorcised in Portal, Georgia, this could have been an amusing fish-out-of-water burlesque. Mencken’s essays on the South could be hateful but at least they were fun. But Percy came here to understand these people – as we are told often in sententious asides tenuously linking veteran suicide to the exorcisms in Georgia – and she seems to pride herself on her empathy. Her autistic laconicisms only exacerbate this schizophrenia:  “sweat stood on his skin;” “the clouds move in great white herds;” “my mouth burns with dehydration.” Percy has been complimented on her lyricism; I would argue she writes with a vacuous impressionism that fails to leave any impression whatsoever. It’s almost as if the vacuous spiritualism she investigates has made a convert of her prose. But perhaps that’s her point: there’s nothing there to relate and nothing at all to say about the world through which she travels. Much like Mather’s exorcism camp, what began as an attempt to do something good, to understand and ameliorate suffering, becomes a charade; a book about the universality of human experience turns into one that highlights the absurdity of even trying at sustained faith in anything at all, including language.

But Percy has faith, despite it all, faith in her thesis, and she blunders toward it like Daniels’ Destroyer demon. She references a whole host of cultural history as she tells her story (her book even has an acknowledgements page you find in academic history books). The denizens of Portal, Georgia, she argues, “borrowed the language of war just as George W. Bush borrowed the language of religion.”  We all endure and repress trauma, it is implied, and we all use appropriate language structures to make sense of death; in other words, we are all suffering from the trauma of life (a generality as banal as it is offensive to those who suffer from PTSD). Similar pseudo-academic observations clutter up the story: “war, Showalter believes, is the only time in the history when men have occupied a central position in the history of madness.” I agree. I too think war allows men to access voices and positions historically associated with the female gender; it breaks open boundaries and assumptions about hysteria and masculinity – a fault line as it were in the traditional social representations and expectations.  But the very way in which Percy writes her story validates the most egregious aspects of these cultural hysterias; it ends up using Caleb Daniels as a medium for her own argument, as the original Cotton Mather used those poor girls in Salem to voice his own hysterical thesis.

There’s a scene in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood where Capote describes how the prosecuting attorney likes to open the Bible at random and then pretends to lose his place. Luckily, he has it memorized, and the jury listens spellbound to this seeming coincidental evidence of profound religiosity. Capote uses it to show how Perry Smith, the man on trial for murder, has no real chance. Percy’s Demon Camp reminded me of this except with the sympathies inverted.  We the jury are meant to be amazed by the randomness of her findings when in fact her discovery of Caleb Daniels is not in the least random but purposely selected to support her particular argument about the connections between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD, and certain varieties of American religious experience. And then we are expected to be amazed when she loses her place, falls for the argument, starts dreaming of demon bats, questions her supposedly steadfast rationalism, and ends up supporting her argument even more. This worked well on the credulous yokels of Garden City, Kansas. It seems to be working on us yokels today as well (Paramount pictures has already picked up the book – hucksters will be hucksters).

I bring this up not to be insulting – all narratives make use of histrionics – but because Capote wanted to get to know a murderer to point out the horror of state-sanctioned executions (little known fact: Perry Smith, the murderer of In Cold Blood, was a veteran too!). Similarly, Percy wants to get to know a demented soldier in order to point out the horror of state-sanctioned war. Problem is Capote managed to make most of his characters interesting and you become interested in a murderer like Perry Smith by virtue of his love and interest in all the characters discussed.  You discover the horror of executions through your discovery of Perry Smith’s humanity. You forget there was a thesis. With Percy, with her bitter irony, truncated syntax and predetermined conclusions, you care little for the characters because she does not seem to. She might have tried hard to love Daniels; but for whatever reason, she can’t, which is sad because it seems to say much about where we are as a country today; it seems to say even the most gifted among our writers can’t help the grieving mothers and tortured soldiers remember the dead in any meaningful way. The best they can do is make the living dead as well.

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