How World War II gets remembered isn’t true. Not in America, not in Russia, not anywhere, really. At best, WWII has become a lie founded on emotional connections to people barely known in life, a series of well-intentioned miscommunications and words spoken (or not) in German, Italian, Russian, Japanese or English across untranslatable generational gaps – the product of the optimistic if misplaced belief that one human could ever be said to understand another without dreaming some part of one’s own self and aspirations into them. Less good, the memory is a thoughtless generalization, and ultimately, a stand-in for racism, nationalism, and all the worst stereotypes that made anyone feel good about going to the War in the first place. Worst case scenario, it’s a deliberate deception – the product of malicious individuals or concerns eager to portray the narrative in ways that advantage themselves and their interests.
In the version of WWII I grew up with – the one popular here in America – here’s how it happened. This comes from my grandfathers, one of whom was an enlisted man in Europe with the U.S. Army, and the other of whom was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, an officer (Lieutenant) in a B-24 Liberator. Nazi Germany declared war on Europe and beat them, save for Italy, which was Germany’s comically inept ally that was good mostly for humorous tension-relief. Then they turned on their sort-of-ally (more like Frenemy), the Soviet Union. Germany and the Soviet Union were slugging it out, and England was on the ropes, when in jumped America. D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, game over – America: 1, Nazi Germany: 0. The Soviet Union wanted Europe for themselves, but America said, “nope, not gonna happen fellas, hang on while we beat Japan with our other hand,” then we got the atomic bomb. Communists and peaceniks stole our secrets and sold them to the Soviets because they hated America, and the rest is history. Bottom line: Britain? Weak. France? Super weak. Italy? Worse than France! Japan? Sneaky, mostly. Russia? Strong, but sneaky. Germany? Strong, but not as strong as America!
And America? Strongest of all. Just, and right, and boy did we take it to the Germans.
One of the other editors of this intellectual initiative, Mr. Carson, gave me a book for Christmas: Kaputt, by Curzio Malaparte, nee Kurt Erich Suckert, a northern Italian. While as a “memoir” it falls under biography / autobiography, it’s the sort of memoir that can only be produced during a time of catastrophe. Kaputt describes Malaparte’s time as an Italian Army officer / journalist on the Eastern Front – an absurd account of the violence that is so far as I can tell, both largely inaccurate and unique. Malaparte visits Romania, Ukraine, Poland and Finland and through almost-unbelievable access, bears witness to the horrors of war and governance of the Nazis. That in and of itself is remarkable, because access breeds familiarity, but in this case, it grants the author (and the reader) a perspective on the occupiers that is simultaneously individual and universal. Witness the scene (one of many) with Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor-General of Poland, when Frank attempts to convince Malaparte that the Axis mission is just by invoking his wife and her friends knitting in their parlor:
Frank’s hand on my shoulder, though it was not heavy, oppressed me. Little by little, disentangling and considering each feeling that Frank aroused in me and attempting to understand and define the meaning, the pretexts and the reason for his every word and gesture, and trying to piece together a moral portrait of him out of the scraps that I had picked up about his character in the past few days, I became convinced that he was not to be judged summarily.
The uneasiness that I felt within me in his presence was born precisely because of the complexity of his character – a peculiar mixture of cruel intelligence, refinement, vulgarity, brutal cynicism and polished sensitiveness. There had to be a deep zone of darkness within him that I was still unable to explore – a dark region, an inaccessible hell from which dull, fleeting glows flashed unexpectedly, lighting his forbidding face – that disturbing and fascinating mysterious face.
The opinion I had formed of Frank long ago was, unquestionably, negative. I knew enough of him to detest him, but I felt honor-bound not to stop there. Of all the elements that I was conscious of in Frank, some a result of the experience of others and some of my own, something, I could not say what, was lacking – something the very nature of which was not known to me but which I expected would suddenly be revealed to me at any moment.
I hoped to catch a gesture, a word, an involuntary action that might reveal to me Frank’s real face, his inner face, that would suddenly break away from the dark, deep region of his mind where, I instinctively felt, the roots of his cruel intelligence and musical sensitiveness were anchored in a morbid and, in a certain sense, criminal subsoil of character.
“This is Poland – an honest German home,” repeated Frank, embracing in a single glance that middle-class scene of domestic simplicity.
Readers receive the usual evaluation of a prominent Nazi leader – that of the thug, the brute – but that is only the jumping-off point for a more careful and scathing indictment, which is to say, the suggestion that the thing that makes Nazi Germany spectacular and special is its specifically middle-class sensibility. In other words – to the British, German, or American reader – the Nazis are like us.
It’s an astonishing book by an extraordinary man, who has been largely ignored by American history, likely for the reason stated above. Malaparte seems to have gotten a bad reputation for his involvement in the Italian fascist party, and, as a human, seems also to have been both a fanatical social climber, as well as a flamboyant intellectual. For all his political and moral failings, though, it’s important to recognize that he spent 5 years in exile for publishing defamatory remarks public statements about Mussolini and Hitler, then was imprisoned for similar anti-fascist/Nazi activity in 1938, 39, 41, and 43. He was a valorously decorated combat veteran of World War I, which means something, especially considering his service with Italy’s premiere infantry unit of the time, the Alpini.
Kaputt details the destruction of a dying world order. We remember World War I as having swept away much of Europe’s prevailing social climate, and shows like Downton Abbey catalogue how that played out in Great Britain. There’s some truth to that recollection of history – the aftermath of WWI saw the beginning of Soviet (not Communist) Russia, and there were greater “rights” enunciated to women, as well as expanded economic opportunities for the lower and middle-class in non-communist societies (mostly through human space created by war casualties and the Spanish Influenza rather than human altruism) – but the events that were set in motion during World War I accelerated after the fall of Tsarist Russia and the ascension of the Soviet Union. By the time the Nazis swept into power and through Poland and France, the old social order had been almost entirely eviscerated. Kaputt is full of surreal images of the horrors of war – it is a read unlike anything else one will encounter on the subject of World War II. Two quick examples:
Mad with terror, the horses of the Soviet artillery – there were almost a thousand of them – hurled themselves into the furnace and broke through the besieging flames and machine guns. Many perished within the flames, but most of them succeeded in reaching the shores of the lake and threw themselves into the water…while still madly struggling, the ice gripped them. The north wind swooped down during the night… Suddenly, with the peculiar vibrating noise of breaking glass, the water froze. The heat balance was broken, and the sea, the lakes, the rivers froze. In such instances, even sea waves are gripped in mid-air and become rounded ice waves suspended in the void. On the following day, when the first [Finnish] Ranger patrols, their hair singed, their faces blackened by smoke, cautiously stepped over the warm ashes in the charred forest and reached the lakeshore, a horrible and amazing sight met their eyes. The lake looked like a vast sheet of white marble on which rested hundreds upon hundreds of horses’ heads. They appeared to have been chopped off cleanly with an ax. Only the heads stuck out of the crust of ice. And they were all facing the shore. The white flame of terror still burnt in their wide-open eyes. Close to the shore a tangle of wildly rearing horses rose from the prison of ice.
and this account of what a German Lieutenant Colonel did upon taking a Ukrainian boy-partisan prisoner, as told to a German princess and one of her aristocratic friends:
Finally the officer stopped before the boy, stared at him for a long time in silence, then said in a slow tired voice full of boredom: “Listen, I don’t want to hurt you. You are a child, and I am not waging war against children. You have fired at my men, but I am not waging war on children. Lieber Gott, I am not the one who invented war.” The officer broke off, then went on in a strangely gentle voice: “Listen, I have one glass eye. It is difficult to tell which is the real one. If you can tell me at once, without thinking about it, which of the two is the glass eye, I will let you go free.” “The left eye,” replied the boy promptly. “How did you know?” “Because it is the one that has something human in it.” …
“I met that officer again later at Soroca on the Dniester – a very serious man, a good father, but a true Prussian, a true Piffke as the Viennese say. He talked to me about his family, about his work. He was an electrical engineer. He also spoke about his son Rudolf, a boy ten years old. It was really difficult to tell the glass eye. He told me that the best glass eyes are made in Germany.” “Stop it!” said Louise. “Every German has a glass eye,” I said.
and a third, as though two weren’t enough – in this, a very different view of German soldiers (circa 1941) from that of the typical “they were all fanatical criminals” so popular in literature, cinema, and plays:
The German soldiers returning from the front line, when they reached the village squares, dropped their rifles on the ground in silence. They were coated from head to foot in black mud, their beards were long, their hollow eyes looked like the eyes of the sunflowers, blank and dull. The officers gazed at the soldiers and at the rifles lying on the ground, and kept silent. By then the lightning war, the “Blitzkrieg,” was over, the “Dreizigjahrigerblitzkrieg,” the thirty-year lighting war, had begun. The winning war was over, the losing war had begun. I saw the white stain of fear growing in the dull eyes of German officers and soldiers. I saw it spreading little by little, gnawing at the pupils, singeing the roots of the eyelashes and making the eyelashes drop one by one, like the long yellow eyelashes of the sunflowers. When Germans become afraid, when that mysterious German fear begins to creep into their bones, they always arouse a special horror and pity. Their appearance is miserable, their cruelty sad, their courage silent and hopeless. That is when the Germans become wicked. I repented being a Christian. I felt ashamed of being a Christian.
Malaparte had unfettered access as an Italian journalist to the Eastern Front (when he wasn’t in prison for mouthing off), and describes the events from the persective of someone who knows the war effort is doomed – far more interestingly though, are the ways in which he frames these stories, telling them, as it were, in a series of country clubs and aristocratic estates to the intellectual and social inheritors of the West’s cultural legacy. Swedish, Spanish, German, Italian, and French aristocrats and diplomats. Polish princesses. The wealthy and powerful of another age, now, no longer so – some of whom, bound for the death camps. It is an amazing story of loss, a way of life swept away forever. The British are largely absent, and come across when they are described as fairly pragmatic if not necessarily “good,” and the Americans seem, if anything, to be parvenues – in this sense, Kaputt could almost be a companion piece for Henry James’s earlier work – the reflection of American ambition for social weight in Europe, viewed through the prism of a massive class war.
Malaparte’s writing is powerful and moving, and despite his politics, it’s difficult to see how this book would not have had a stronger and more sympathetic reception in the West, save for its fundamental conceit: wealth and strength cannot keep you safe during times of war and true social tempest. There is no shelter from that storm, nothing counts in the end save the raw instinct for survival. This sort of morality tale is unwelcome in the capitalist West – this is not the sort of book anyone with property in the Hamptons would like to read, though I would argue that it is the clearest depiction of the horror of war that I have read, cleaner even than Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and certainly far better than any of the “realist” portrayals of wartime (O’Brien, Marlantes, etc) who end up sentimentalizing and therefore implicitly endorsing war, which means they couldn’t have thought very well about the experience even if they wrote effectively about it.
Malaparte becomes increasingly more sympathetic to the Soviets over the course of the book, an emotional and sentimental desire to see them as better or more than the Germans in part because they have beaten the Germans, and in part because of the horror the Germans have themselves inflicted, a fact that Malaparte observes firsthand on several occasions. This is interesting as well because the natural evolution of thinking for most in the West is a growing concern that the Soviets will simply replace Nazi Germany – in fact, in terms of history, the Soviets ultimately eclipsed the Nazis as a totem of fear when they acquired the atomic bomb, and became the first non-Western country with the ability to destroy the world. Despite the recent example of the war or perhaps because of it, many German and Italian intellectuals made up their minds to stick with moderates and capitalism after the collapse of Nazi Germany – more of them sided with the Totalitarian Soviets based on a sense that there was something in Communism, and to this day, European communism retains a small but important political presence, often derided in England and America. Malaparte’s viewpoint is, therefore, especially interesting considering his various positions before and during World War II.
There aren’t many “literary” fiction books out about Afghanistan, and almost none authored by veterans. Brian Castner, a veteran of Iraq, published an essay in Los Angeles Review of Books that examines the phenomenon in more depth. Roy Scranton, another veteran of Iraq and a philosopher, claims in a different LARB essay that there are plenty of war stories by American veterans already available, and that Western audiences should be looking for stories by or about the host nation. This claim has been made by writers like Joydeep-Roy Battacharya and Helen Benedict, as well.
Enter Green on Blue, a savagely honest, realistic novel about Afghanistan by Elliot Ackerman. Imminently readable and deeply subversive, Green on Blue draws on its author’s extensive experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan to paint a stunning and accurate description of why the West is losing and will lose in Afghanistan. The problem and solution both exist within the book’s title.
“Green on Blue” is a military term that derives from the color of units on NATO battle maps – blue colored units are friendlies (America, Great Britain, West Germany), green are allies (France), and red are enemy (Soviet-aligned countries). Green on blue describes what happens when allies deliberately or accidentally attack friendly soldiers / units. The incidents, therefore, are incredibly troubling – they represent the failure of alliance, the prospect of new enemies arising from botched friendships. They hint at betrayal, in the context of existential struggle.
In Green on Blue, Americans are “blue” and Afghans are “Green,” the allies. Crucially to the plot, there are no “red” – there are enemies, but this term, in the context of Afghanistan, is fungible. The plot revolves around an Afghan militiaman named Aziz, who navigates generations of human relationships between Afghans, while attempting not to be crushed by the war. At its heart, the war is described as a competition between groups for social standing – respect from young men, and money from the Americans.
According to the capitalist west, money is supposed to buy respect and loyalty. This forms the basis of an important miscommunication between Americans and Afghans in the novel – a strategic cultural miscalculation of extraordinary significance. Money, in the context of the story, represents a sort of catastrophic idealism, which merely compels individuals to compete in a zero-sum game for resources. Ultimately, American dependence on the coercive power of tangible resources predicts the type of incident hinted at in the book’s title.
On a local level, in Afghanistan, the most important thing is respect – the honor of a group (“nang”), which is under constant threat of insult. Once “nang” has been challenged, the group is required to respond to the insulter with revenge – “badal,” which consists of appropriately violent action. The protagonist learns this essential lesson as a child: “Once, in Sperkai, an older child had split my lip in a fight. When my father saw this, he took me to the boy’s home. Standing at their front gate, he demanded that the father take a lash to his son. The man refused and my father didn’t ask twice. He struck the man in the face, splitting his lip just as his son had split mine…” On this plane, Green on Blue operates as a sort of slowly-unfolding national tragedy, wherein the Afghans become their own heroes and villains, and the Americans – representative of “The West” – are simply agents of catastrophe and destruction, casually and unthinkingly paying money to keep the feuds going, hoping to find “High Value Targets” in the war on terror.
Aziz is both nuanced and archetypal – a quintessentially Afghan product of the West’s involvement in Afghanistan. At the story’s beginning, his father (a fighter for hire), dies at some point between the Civil War period after Soviet rule and NATO’s intervention in 2001: First there was the dust of people running. Behind the dust was a large flatbed truck and many smaller ones. They pushed the villagers as a broom cleans the streets… Amid the dust and the heat, I saw men with guns. The men looked like my father but they began to shoot the villagers who ran. The gunmen are never identified – they destroy Aziz’s village and move on, leaving Aziz and his older brother orphaned. After a difficult childhood where he and his brother struggle against the odds to improve their tenuous life at society’s margins, another, similar tragedy involving a Taliban suicide bomber leads Aziz to join the “Special Lashkar,” a CIA-funded militia on the border of Pakistan.
In the “Special Lashkar,” Aziz learns to fight and kill. The group’s leader is an Afghan named Commander Sabir, paid by the CIA to fight against the Taliban. Readers quickly learn that Sabir is enmeshed in his own struggle over “badal” and “nang” – Sabir is hunted by the brother of a Taliban fighter that Sabir killed, a Taliban named Gazan, in revenge for that now-dead brother having killed Sabir’s brother, the former leader of the Special Lashkar. If that seems complicated, it should – alliances and enmities proliferate in the book, ensnaring all and forcing everyone to take sides in the conflict. Nothing is sacred, not love, not honor, not brotherhood – nothing. And behind it all stands the enigmatic, fascinating character of “Mr. Jack,” the CIA officer who runs the Special Lashkar, and who seeks targets for America’s war on terror.
Mr. Jack is my favorite character in post-9/11 fiction. There isn’t much of him in the book, but his influence is seen everywhere – he resonates through the book’s pages, exceptionally powerful, moving in and out of autocthonic settings like he belongs, while making obscene and absurd mistakes that lead only to more preventable strife. Mr. Jack is so unaware of the consequences of his actions, that he becomes an incidental antagonist. His hunt for professional success turns Mr. Jack into a caricature of a man, a careerist who seeks professional success without any understanding of its human cost.
There are no heroes in this book, which could make it a World War II story similar to Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five – save that there are no antiheroes, either. There are believable human characters that find themselves at war in spite of themselves, forced to fight for meanings that shift and collapse until the only thing left is friendship, then friendship collapses as well. This resembles the standard Vietnam narrative, like Matterhorn or The Things They Carried, but the characters in Ackerman’s book are not motivated by ambition or by ideology – rather they seek simply to survive, not to be killed. The characters in Green on Blue do not have space for the type of indulgent self-reflection imagined by the typical Vietnam-era author, such as Tim O’Brien or Tobias Wolff – this is a book where there is little room or space for interiors. Perhaps we are on the verge of a new type of fiction – a story that balances deliberately earnest almost modernist narrative plotlines, while acknowledging the infinitely expansive potentials of post-modern perspective and awareness of self- and other-ness, only to reject that literary and intellectual dead-end as (paradoxically) reductive. Or, as Aziz says in the opening sentence: “Many would call me a dishonest man, but I’ve always kept faith with myself. There’s an honesty in that, I think.” Rather than opening a meditation on postmodernity, Aziz goes on to show us precisely, meticulously, how that opening statement could possibly be true, in the context of Afghanistan.
Green on Blue makes a series of bold philosophical, political, and literary claims, which are plausibly balanced and supported throughout. It is a powerfully realistic and exciting adventure; it is also a eulogy for the failed post-colonial ambitions of a capitalist society that believes it can demand service for money, as though the developing world is a whore or a dependent. It is among the best, most accessible and accurate descriptions of Afghanistan available – and the single greatest critique of the West’s policy yet written.
Incidentally, the most successful militia commander in Paktika Province for the last ten years – a wealthy man who has successfully played the role of insurgent, bandit, contractor, and militiaman on both sides of the fence? That would be Commander Aziz.
In a short non-fiction essay, “The Spirit of Place,” D.H. Lawrence rejects the idea that young men come to America for freedom. They go west, he argues, simply to “get away from everything they are and have been.” For Lawrence, those who come to America confuse the slavishness of escapism for the authority that comes with actual freedom. “It is not freedom,” he contends, “till you find something you really positively want to be. And people in America have always been shouting about things they are not.” This negative freedom, which is to Lawrence not really freedom at all, but “the sound of chains rattling,” has worked to undermine the true freedom of place, the kind in which a person has responsibilities, “a believing community” organically understood rather than an “idealistic halfness” petulantly professed. “Men are freest when most unconscious of freedom,” he concludes.
Matthew VanDyke is an interesting study in what happens when people no longer go to America but away from it to find this peculiar variety of freedom. Profiled in the recent Marshall Curry documentary Point and Shoot, Baltimore native VanDyke grows up with few friends and little masculine influence. His childhood was defined by video games, old movies about Lawrence of Arabia, and struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder. As an adult he attended Georgetown University Master’s Program in Middle Eastern studies. After graduation, VanDyke continues to be troubled by the sense that he has not proved his manhood. To find this elusive reality he decides to visit the one place a person an American with an obsessive need to wash his hands would not dare to go: the Middle East. A few weeks later he is in North Africa armed with a camera and motorcycle.
After many misadventures, including a detour with the American Army in Iraq where he poses as a photojournalist, VanDyke eventually finds the fame he seeks in a Libyan prison cell, having been captured by Gadhafi’s forces and then freed by advancing coalition-backed militias. An international darling for a few moments, the dazed VanDyke refuses to go back home. He wants to fight with his friends for the freedom of Libya. Soon enough, he is back in the fighting, though fighting might be too strong a word. Mostly he seems to be hanging about videotaping the chaos, trying to give the solemnity and dignity of a revolution to the seemingly trivial and slap-dash proceedings (which characterizes all warfare and likely all revolutions as well), as well as making heroic efforts to overcome his disgust with the lack of sanitation. The documentary ends with him not only overcoming his dirty-hands phobia – at least overseas – but also debating whether to shoot, to take another man’s life. He misses but he wants to make clear that he meant to kill. He had the guts, the manliness, and the freedom to kill. No phobia there. Mission accomplished.
Yet for all the exciting adventures VanDyke experiences, it is impossible to get out of one’s head the idea of a reenactment, of middle-aged office workers walking through the woods in Civil War uniforms and young men playing paintball between mounds of dirt. It is all so clumsy, so sad and trivial. He travels to Afghanistan to place an American flag in Bin Laden’s house. He makes the first real friends of his life in combat. Van Dyke’s whole life, his whole idea of freedom, consists in this idea of acting, repeating typically dangerous situations under the gaze of the camera; and while the adventures he finds himself in are ostensibly new, they feel old and worn out. VanDyke very much wants to believe otherwise. He wants to believe his experiences are immediately made hallowed through the ever-present camera, which turns the ephemeral and pointless violence he witnesses, the aimless and meandering journey he travels, into something much more. But it doesn’t quite come off. The camera instead dictates his adventures, hollowing out his experiences, transforming a war and people’s lives into an unfunny Jackass skit.
Garibaldi had politics. Byron had poetry. VanDyke has a camera. Context, ultimately, comes to little compared to the camera angle, the breadth of the shot. Whose freedom VanDyke fights for and against whom is immaterial, for the names and lives of the saved are as interchangeable as those who need to be killed. The war’s entire meaning is bound up in the existence of a picture, a video or a Huffington Post article, artifacts that answer one question and one question alone: was the person there or not? Like much recent war literature and movie fare, the thereness trumps what the author or auteur have to say about being there. Movies like Lone Survivor and American Sniper have been celebrated not so much for what they have to say about the war but what they show about the war. Some veteran writers have gone so far as to argue that documentaries best represent these particular wars because we live with ubiquitous lenses. Yet it could also be argued – and Marshall’s documentary seems a good example of this – that war documentaries ignoble through repetition and overcompensate for lack of imagination with documentation.
From this perspective, VanDyke’s movement from 27 year-old video-game freedom fighter in mom’s basement to actual freedom fighter does not seem all that surprising. War is a process of self-creation, and for many lost and insecure boys, a process of self-actualization as well. It has been one for likely much of warfare’s history. Yet in the self-reported story of VanDyke one gets the impression that this process of self-creation is done firmly within the constraints of previous documentaries, movies and stories. With the exception of his time in prison – which Marshall is forced to represent through animation – there is absolutely no space for truly disturbing experiences (i.e., not already expected, not scripted, and not violent) to inform who VanDyke is, or for politics to be anything other than a flimsily applied construct, a set of words used when dialogue is expected.
Watching this young man’s self-portrait, one gets the sense that the war itself, the fight for freedom VanDyke supposedly assists, does exist somewhere perhaps but the particulars of why they fight and what happens after the fight are unimportant. Marshall and VanDyke try to craft the narrative as a triumph over his Western squeamishness. But this is not what happens at all. It is almost as if instead of VanDyke conquering his OCD – as the film tries very hard to suggest – that his OCD conquers his mind entirely, and his adventures give an excuse to the despotic compulsions of his imagination, validate the incessant and never ending cavalcade of toppled dictators and heroic liberators, and he no longer has to deal with the particular, with the complications of not knowing exactly what to do, with a life without routine, without a script. He only has to clean again and again a damned spot that he has made everyone else believe is there, to purify the perception of weakness and fantasy of freedom that a lifetime of cameras has made a tyrannical obsession. For what better way to pretend at dignity for ourselves, to make music with our chains, then to perpetually reenact the violence that keeps us bound?
If you go to the Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas on any day of the week, you will find families clustered around two pieces of twisted metal, staring reverentially up at burnt bent steel. It doesn’t matter that the menagerie surrounding the violated beams – the jackets, dresses, dog collars and bullhorns – has no pattern, no basis in logic, no reason for being there other than the blunt sentimental force of memory. It makes no difference that this metal comes from another city and has little directly to do with the man being memorialized. All that matters is that those pieces of metal exist, and these pieces of tower give everything else in the museum a supremely beautiful and indisputable rationale, one that provides the visitors a moving and profound sense of the past.
The designers of the museum did this on purpose. They used this totem of our common suffering and apocalyptic terror to create a certain historical aesthetic, and rightly so, for in the modern world aesthetics usually trumps reason. In fact, in many ways, the more rationality has allowed us to accomplish, the stauncher our devotion to aesthetics has become. We need art and history to explain and justify a future that reason (and technology) has opened up for debate. The barbaric artifact then, this tangible evidence of fire and brimstone that we experienced, ties tight our tautological knot in the most convenient way possible, and we choose to use this icon of our common suffering as a touchstone, a point of historical departure in minds desperate for direction.
Yet, importantly, this love of the past, our predilection for grotesque historical memorabilia does not make us barbaric (or medieval). In fact, it makes us hopelessly and dangerously modern. It makes us like everyone else living in our fragmented world, everyone living in a world defined by a desperate ambition for history. To be modern means we live in a world with many different pasts and many possible futures, and thus we are continually tempted to forge a relationship between the past and the future through violence, to see an existential anchor in the finality of death.
I bring this up because there has been much confusion in the news recently over what it means to be barbaric, especially with regard to ISIS. Fashioning themselves as lone voices of common sense in a wilderness of cowardice, armchair historians have fallen over themselves to valiantly decry the actions of ISIS as savage. They have attested to the unique and invidious primitivism of these murderers, taking pains to show that they are not, as some have argued, byproducts of the modern world and those in control of this world, but artifacts themselves – testaments to a purer strain of 8th century fundamentalism. Ironically, they argue that ISIS is in fact exactly what ISIS perceives themselves to be: heroic champions of a past that once was, a faithful version of Islam that a stupid liberal world refuses to admit as an existential threat.
These critics of ISIS’s critics go on to imply that as long as we refuse to recognize that that ISIS is the ultimate other, that they are truly enemies of all that is modern and good in the world, and embody all that is archaic and reactionary about it, we will continue to give them power. The logic goes that we need to do something manly and violent, and fast, before they take us back to the Stone Age too. But this type of thinking misses a crucial point about what it means to be modern: namely, part of being in the Post-Enlightenment world is this exact obsession over the past, an overwhelming need to find a tradition to escape the shifting penumbras of a world denied transcendence, the radically contingent facts of our modern experience.
In his Use and Abuse of History for Life, Nietzsche argues that history in the modern context can often be as insidious as it is edifying. Instead of grappling with the past, many historians (and many people generally) seize on historical minutiae, singular facts or totems, “to excuse a selfish life and a cowardly or base action.” Wars rage and instead of discussing the fact of war Germans serve up new stimulants “for the weary palates of those greedy for history.” Faced with so many possible futures, history, Nietzsche contends, has become a neurotic disease, one that, if practiced in this way, seriously threatens the well-being of civilization.
But this should hardly be surprising. One way of knowing you are part of modernity is by how often you point to artifacts and events that prove you are part of a tradition, for only in a culture that knows the radical mutability of history do historical choices become important. For a long time, we have been reinventing histories through similar artifacts, using the contingency of culture itself – our capacity to choose what aspect of history we want to remember and ignore what we do not – to combat the terror of our provisional relation to any other history and the universe. People tend to be confused by this (and this confusion is itself a condition of modernism). They want to say there are people out there who choose to be relativists and those who believe in tradition. They miss the fact that anyone who chooses tradition over relativism implicitly makes an argument in favor of relativism. Their choice for tradition is an ironic rejection of the very values they espouse.
Currently, ISIS is destroying historical artifacts in Mosul and Northern Iraq. Distrubing as this is, it is important to see this destruction as not uniquely dangerous (as the Secretary of State has recently argued), or as the logical outcome of a fundamentalist reading of the Koran (as some journalists contend). Like the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, these pointed historical actions are born not simply of a terrible religiosity but of a terror at the idea of religious choice (historical relativism in other words). ISIS strictly reads certain scriptures, choses artifacts from the whole, and uses them to justify present “cowardly and base actions.” To blame the Koran rather than the actors is to engage in more fruitless iconoclasm. We make choices to read texts certain ways and to act on what we do read. These choices are historical choices made by real people living in this world. They are not in any way constitutive of Islam, nor should they be construed as such by our terror and our own iconoclastic temptations.
Like us, ISIS has a voracious appetite for history. ISIS worships the past and they furiously try to burn and break away the aspects of the past they say they do not like. The fact that they burn and break what our culture holds valuable from a distance only points to how much history dominates their imagination. They too are afflicted with what Nietzsche described as “the historical disease.” Lost in the modern world, deprived of any sense of self and power, they see a path to power and pursue it with the insane doggedness of their fear, for anyone who pursues what is in fact already dead and gone, and with such fanatical ardor, has mistaken the form of history for its substance, and abuses what they should be using to come to terms with the terrible and solemn responsibilities that come with being modern. Tragically, for us and for them, they value the study of the past so much they have degraded human life to the point where it has no meaning at all compared to their particular interpretation.
As I left the Bush Presidential Library on a sunny August afternoon with hundreds of other tourists, each looking for something there to organize their experience, some scrap of the past to make sense of the future, I could not help but think how much better we would be at approaching world problems if we understood we were all in some respects fighting the same fight against and with our temporal fate. If we did, we might be less surprised when Russia found succor in some artifact of its past strength, some fear of Nazis or of NATO, or when Israel or China chose to act out of the chosen artifact, the wellspring of their soul and suffering, rather than through reason or common sense. We might see them for what they are: scared and terrorized by modernity, trying desperately to find some footing, flailing and lashing out destructively at their own impotence. We might even see how we have sometimes done the same.
This does not mean of course that ISIS and others should not be stopped with the methods we have at our disposal (granted that these methods do not simply perpetuate the problem), only that if we truly want to be “serious” about groups like ISIS – as we have so many cheerleaders of the last disastrous war in Iraq telling us we need to be about the situation there today – we should start by recognizing ISIS as products of the same historical experience as us, as fellow travelers in modernity. This strikes me as infinitely more serious approach, to admit that the disease is a universal one, a fact of the world we are all born into, and then to do what we can together to mediate its more devastating epidemics.
Going into Adam Wingard’s The Guest, I worried Wingard and his screen writer Simon Barrett had created a classic veteran ex machina (a variant of Christopher Orr’s psychopath ex machina). The plot device, beloved by American authors, directors and journalists since at least the First World War seeks to explain violence in the States by tracing it back to an incident at war. “Oh,” the reader says, brow relaxing after two hundred pages of tension and discomfort, “the weird guy is a veteran. That explains why he can’t find work, drinks so much and commits suicide and/or murders someone else.” As you can see, it neatly wraps up inexplicable aspects of human experience by pointing toward a tried and true justification – shell shock, PTSD or just plain trauma – and serves as a useful device to conveniently ignore the fact that everyday there are people in America who can’t find work, drink too much, and commit suicide and/or murder someone else without having been to war.
Yet it turns out that The Guest is one of the only films since the Iraq War to effectively (and entertainingly) explore these very assumptions about PTSD’s explanatory power. Importantly, though, the disorder, the traumatic wound, does not belong to the veteran at all – the American soldier returned from the Global War on Terror to first seduce and then terrorize a family grieving over the loss of their son. It belongs instead to the family itself, the town in which they reside and the country who sent them off to war. There is much trauma to go around in the film, but very little of it is explanatory and all of it is on the side of those who have never seen a dead body much less killed a person themselves.
The movie opens with the Petersons, a middle-class American family grieving over a son who died in combat. We never find out precisely how he died. In fact, we never find out anything about the son at all. We just know that he died. And he has a room, which has not been touched. But this is fine because the movie is not really about the soldier, or soldiers at all, but what we expect from soldiers and what we want soldiers to be. We do find out that the family – his brother, sister and parents – still very much miss the brother in one way or another, and act out their loss in a variety of ways. His death has become for them, especially the parents, an excuse for failure, whether it be at work, in the bedroom or at school. They have lost a brother, a friend, a son, a boyfriend, and drinking buddy.
Wingard extends the circle outward. Although set in the late aughts, the town in which they live, a poor suburban New Mexico backwater, seems to be stuck in the 1980s with a little Breaking Bad thrown in for good measure. People work at diners, sell guns in quarries, get high and go have jobs that go nowhere fast. This is Reagan’s America fetid underside, with the moral lassitude, the searching sense of psychological disrepair that comes with economic malaise (I say this not as a historian but as one who grew up watching movies in the 80s). Not only is the family stuck on the idea of this dead brother, the town itself seems stuck on some vision of the American past to make up for a present that has passed them by. They tap the repeat button not because they particularly enjoy the experience but because it has so severely traumatized them that they come back to unwillingly, unwittingly, one foot in front of the other they dance the same old dance.
Into this desert the apotheosis of heroism runs (literally). Disarmingly handsome, unfailingly polite, manfully empathetic, David, describing himself as a friend of the fallen, provides the family exactly what they wanted from their dead son. He is a walking, talking, smiling middle-class American family’s wet-dream. He helps the mom fold laundry, commiserates with the dad, teaches the brother how to defend himself and takes of his shirt for the sister. The guest is not just their dead son’s friend, or a substitute for their loss. He is what they imagined their son to be. He is what all of America wishes their defenders to be – kind, polite, strong, handsome, and brave. David is the answer to the blight that was their lives, the aimless, stunted existence of bullies, mean bosses and loneliness, of dead-end jobs, substance abuse and bad relationships – he is the possibility of happiness and security in an empty material world.
Unfortunately, an empty material world it remains no matter how much they try to wish it away. No matter how badly they might want to relive their sentimentalities, the past is going to catch up and it will be ugly when it does. When the corpses start piling up, which they must, eventually, the family and everyone else begins to learn that they were not fact moving on when they indulged in this impossible hope. They were actually doubling down on their original trauma, trying to find succor in the same vapid dreams that led them to their situation in the first place. Of course it turns to horror – for what is horror if not holding onto something that is gone, desperately trying to touch the river in the same exact spot? What is more horrible than reliving the dead loved one through a figment of that person, throwing their shadow upon the screen as a sort of replacement for dealing with the actual real life issues that took the loved one away as the Petersons do, or as America has done with American Sniper?
According to the Mayo Clinic, two of the most prominent symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder include “recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event” and “reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again.” This is a movie about these eternal returns, however silly at times. So while the technical explanation for David’s appearance in the Peterson’s home does not make the least bit of sense, this does not much matter. Because that’s not the point. We didn’t need a logical reason for the Iraq War. We didn’t need one to keep on funneling money and life at Afghanistan for fourteen years. We don’t need technical explanations when the soldier, our guest, is himself a spiritual explanation for other kinds of emptiness, the deus in our broken machina. The fact that he turns on us is necessary, logical and inevitable. For how can we indulge in a fantasy to this degree without repercussions?
The movie isn’t perfect. Wingard has brilliant conceits, but has yet to successfully bring them to a close. 2011’s You’re Next suffered from the same lackluster last-minute reveal (though it too plays with expectations cleverly, making the affluent victims so unlikable you actually pull for the psychopaths). His taste for excessive gore undermines moments of otherwise superb irony (David to druggy friend: “I’m not going to pay for the guns. I’m going to kill you.” Druggy friend who is about to die: “Aww, David!”). Fortunately, The Guest makes up for the clumsy late-stage plotting through the masterful manipulation of tone. The Halloween maze/synth soundtrack climax might have been contrived and forced but it was undeniably fun.
Ultimately though, the veteran does in fact turn out to be a psycho killer. It would seem the father’s comic hesitation at the movie’s opening – “maybe he has the PTSD?” – was not entirely misbegotten. Doesn’t this just reinforce stereotypes? Give us another veteran ex machina plot device to neatly explain our troubles away? It could of course, for some, but such an interpretation would require the viewer become as literal as the family and miss the irony at the heart of the movie. When the veteran turns into a killer this is not “the PTSD” – it is simply our fears made manifest, the obverse condition of an impossible and insidious fantasy. If he did turn out to be a hero in the end, the soldier of our dreams born to take us away from our past and deliver us into our future, then this would be simply another traumatic repetition, the same one we’ve been living since at least Vietnam, the same one that dresses young men up like toys and sends them off to save us from ourselves.
Sentimentality comes at a cost. To dream the fallen back or to impose our own sense of loss and unexamined mistakes on returning soldiers is to miss what war is – the way in which it traumatizes not just those who go overseas but those who stay home. And if we don’t find a way to grapple with this reality, with the thousand-yard stares of soldiers and civilians alike, I guess Wingard is right: we should think twice before opening the door to anyone who promises easy answers to our pain.
“Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.”
These are lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” about the British cavalry charge in the 1854 Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War. That war was fought by the Russian Empire to expand its influence into the Black Sea and the lands surrounding it. The moribund Ottoman Empire opposed Russia’s expansion into its “sphere of influence”, and was supported in the war by the British Empire, which wanted to stop Russian naval expansion into the Mediterranean, the French Empire, which wanted to protect Catholic influence in the Holy Land and to gain “prestige” for France and its leader Napoleon III, and the Kingdom of Piedmont, which wanted to gain influence at the bargaining table with France for the establishment of a future unified Italy (which happened four years after this war). For the sake of these many empires, over half a million lives were lost in battle and many more civilian lives were destroyed. The Crimean War, often forgotten, was in fact a hugely important conflict that still has very real consequences today. In many ways it was also the first modern war: the telegraph, railway, and explosive naval shells were first used in war; the field of professional nursing developed on the battlefields from the work of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole; arguably the first war correspondence was written by Leo Tolstoy in his Sevastapol Sketches, which informed his later masterpiece War and Peace as well as his pacifism. The shuffling of borders and alliances during this war ended the post-Waterloo “concert of Europe” and stirred up romantic sentiments of nationalism, both of which helped lead directly to the First World War.
The immediate result of the Crimean War was that Russian imperialism was temporarily checked, but by no means stopped permanently. Russia today is the largest country in the world by far, which is the result of a long and aggressive history of expansion and imperialism that began with Peter the Great and seems to continue today albeit on a smaller scale under Vladimir Putin. The large Crimean peninsula was home to Greek settlers thousands of years ago, and was later settled by Turkic tribes moving west towards Europe. The Tatars, one of these tribes, fought against Russia for centuries and were the majority population of the Crimea until they were forcibly relocated to Uzbekistan by Josef Stalin and replaced by Russian speakers. The possession of Crimea within the Soviet Union was shifted from Russia to Ukraine during the Khrushchev regime in 1954, and this possession was secured by permanent treaty between Russia and Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Unreconstructed Russian imperialists and nationalists never forgot that this land seized by force 100 years earlier should somehow be theirs by rights, and the rise of Putin has signaled the return to a revanchist Russian foreign policy. Putin has gradually worked towards his long-term aim over the past 15 years: secure strategic areas bordering Russia that have friendly Russian-speaking populations, thus maintaining buffer states around Russia that are friendly or at worst neutral. Putin built his reputation around brutally subduing Chechnya and generally never backing down from tough rhetoric backed up by armed force when necessary. When Georgia looked west and considered joining NATO it was promptly invaded and squelched, and had two independent regions wrested from its authority that are currently unrecognized by any nation other than Russia. It is worth mentioning that the last time Russian tanks rolled into Georgia was 2007 at the tail end of the Bush administration, which even as the lamest of ducks did not see fit to intervene in this unwarranted use of force for fear of provoking Russia. Another place where Russia used its strong arm and maintains military presence is the sliver of Moldova east of the Dniester River called Transnistria; sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine it does not even border Russia proper, but its citizens speak mostly Russian instead of Romanian.
The Ukraine, on the other hand, is a large and important state dominated by Russia since the Napoleonic wars which closely shares a culture, history, and language with Russia. Indeed, the first Russians actually came to power in 13th century Kiev before moving east to Vladimir and later Moscow. When Ukraine became independent in 1991 for the first time in centuries, the country was divided into two main camps: those who wanted to stay closely aligned with Russia, mostly in the eastern provinces, and those who wanted a more western and liberal government, in Kiev and the western provinces. From 2004 to the present, the two groups traded power mostly between the presidencies of Victor Yanukovych (the Russian-friendly party) and Yulia Tymoshenko (the west-leaning party). Eventually Yanukovych fled the country and abandoned his post of president in 2014 during a protest movement against his corrupt regime and his move away from the European Union in favor of Russia. Putin, left without his political ally in charge of Ukraine, set in motion a plan to take Crimea by force and gradually send enough men and arms to the eastern provinces to effectively establish an “independent,” Russian-friendly state there as well. Everything went according to plan when Russian soldiers suddenly took control of bases and infrastructure across Crimea, followed by a dubious referendum that showed Crimean residents voted in favor of Russian annexation. Things are not going as smoothly in the eastern regions of Ukraine where fighting between separatist rebels and the federal government has continued unabated for over a year. Putin continues to maintain the most transparent denial ever in saying that Russia is not supporting the rebels.
Like the cardigan, named after the British general who led the Charge of the Light Brigade, another garment derived its name from the Crimean War–the balaclava. This black cloth cap which covers the entire head except for the eyes and mouth has been a staple of cold weather troops and bank robbers ever since its namesake 1854 battle. Most recently, it has been seen on the “unmarked” soldiers who appeared suddenly in great numbers to secure Crimea’s government buildings and Russian military bases. Likewise for the groups of organized rebels using advanced weaponry against the Ukrainian government in the east of the country, where there have been daily reports of military equipment and personnel convoying in from Russia. Even after a civilian airplane was shot out of the sky causing European countries to begin sanctions against Russia, Putin’s resolve to arm and support the rebels has been unwavering. Western countries easily condemn the conflict and Russia’s part in it, but Putin knows they are not willing to go further than a few economic sanctions–a mere slap on the wrist compared to the prestige in his homeland of bringing historic Russian lands back into the fold. What Putin could not expect is the drastic drop in oil prices, which has depleted Russia’s substantial monetary reserves and will eventually cause a full-scale crisis in Russia when the government funding for bread and circuses dry up (bread, in this case, representing subsidized food, and circuses representing either the Sochi Olympics, the image of their president as the most macho man in the world, or the sad tradition of cheap vodka and alcoholism). Putin’s power and popularity are due to fully exploiting Russia’s vast natural reserves, including oil and gas, at the expense of any other development of his country. This is a much bigger threat to Putin’s one-dimensional authoritarian regime, and Russia’s economy, than the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, especially considering that the ongoing conflict is draining Russia’s coffers at the same time as its main source of income is drying up and its currency is collapsing.
There has recently been a temporary ceasefire agreed to by Ukraine and Russia, mediated admirably by France and Germany. This does not mean that hostilities will not continue by the “independent” rebels anyway, or that Putin will not use this to his advantage to further cement his gains in eastern Ukraine. In fact, only days after the “ceasefire” there were reports of more arms and equipment moving across the border, more shelling in disputed towns, and even possibly some artillery fired from inside Russia. This means either that Putin has no control or influence over the rebels, or, more likely, that he is just playing for time and hoping that a formal truce will earn him support within a divided European Union. There are calls by America and some European countries to arm Ukraine and give more substantial military support. This is a bad idea and will only escalate a conflict which has already been long and violent and destructive enough. Ukraine could never compete with Russia militarily even with some extra help from America, and will further only give more excuse for Putin to drop his shabby alibi and move Russian units and arms into Ukraine more openly. It would also feed into his rhetoric about the West meddling in “Russia’s sphere of influence”. Stephen Walt has written a convinced article along these lines here. Let’s not forget that wherever America sends weapons to influence its favored outcome, trouble surely follows and the problem inevitably becomes much larger than it was at the start (Afghanistan of the 1980s is only one of many such examples). Instead, America and Europe should continue the economic and diplomatic pressure on Russia in lieu of reaching a more permanent pragmatic agreement that can end the bloodshed. Russia, despite the carefully crafted image and blunder of Putin, is a weak and declining country–the kind that often has the least to lose during the heated days before a local conflict becomes a greater regional or world war.
America and Europe should also give further economic aid to Ukraine and help build up their institutions as far as possible, not necessarily to be a future NATO member (the thing that most infuriated Putin in the first place, and rightfully so), but to avoid being a large failed state at their doorstep. It obviously does not set a good precedent to let countries invade others, even when done with “unconventional forces”, and to change borders at will, but in some cases it can be the best outcome from a bad situation. Frankly, it is not worth the escalation of a bigger European war against a paranoid, desperate, and declining country which also happens to have the most nuclear weapons in the world just to support a losing cause against some impoverished eastern regions of Ukraine that have always been happier being considered Russian than Ukrainian. For those that think that anything less than full armed intervention equates with appeasement, a la Germany in the Sudetenland, I would tell you that not everything is comparable with the Third Reich, and more weapons and tension do not automatically improve violent situations where power and prestige are at stake–history bears this out whether it be imperialists and war-mongerers from the past or opportunistic autocrats of the present like Putin. In this case, as usual, the best hope for a peaceful resolution is continued dialogue and increased economic aid for Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbors, and the best prospect for stopping Russian imperialism is not on the battlefield but with a patient economic and diplomatic approach. Since the first Crimean War, many things have changed, but many other things have stayed the same. Another line from Tennyson’s poem reads “someone had blundered”, which is something that can be said about every war in history (including several of America’s own recent adventures). Sending more soldiers and arms to die in this valley of death in the name of prestige, power, and spheres of influence is bound to fail–let’s at least try to avoid a blunder this time.
America has a problem with violence, and specifically gun violence. This is a fact, not an opinion, and is confirmed with a glance at the statistics, backed up as well by abundant anecdotal evidence. On any given day or week I can cite the latest example of the most publicized gun shooting or campus massacre. This week, for example, three Muslim students studying dentistry at the University of North Carolina were shot in the head execution-style by a gun-loving lunatic and “second amendment rights advocate” apparently because of an argument about a parking space. It’s hard to see how the presence of guns in situations like these do not escalate arguments into tragedies. For every absurdly awful example we hear about like this, there are dozens more happening the same week that do not even appear on the news. Gun deaths, for the first time ever, have just passed car accidents as the single most common cause of death in America. There have been at least 107 school shootings since the 2012 massacre at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school (source here). There is, on average, one mass shooting incident a week in America, and this type of killing is only represents a small percentage of the overall number of gun killings. America is by far the most violent of the developed and rich countries, and is one of the most violent even among all countries. There are so many gun deaths that they are literally impossible to keep track of. After the Newtown massacre, the online magazine Slate attempted a thorough crowd-sourced project to keep track of every single gun death in America in real-time. Not only did it prove overwhelming, but they quit after tracking over 11,000 gun deaths in a year, which are only about one third of the estimated number. Including not only murders but also suicides and accidental shootings, there are 30,000 gun-related deaths in America per year, an astronomical number which is highest in the world by a long distance. Are we supposed to assume that it is a completely unrelated fact that America also has the highest number of guns, and guns per capita, in the world–somewhere around 300 million guns in a population of 310 million–almost one gun per every man, woman, and child in the third most populated country in the world. We have often heard the dismissal of such figures by gun activists and lobbyists with quaint slogans like “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” That such a facile line could gain traction and still carry weight with many people shows the depth of the gun problem in America. To those who love guns and defend the right to bear arms, I would encourage you to hear me out. After all, the violence that plagues America is most likely to happen to those who have guns (as this other article in Slate also shows).
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is commonly believed to mean that every individual has the right to own any and all type of firearm he so desires. As we know, this law was written in the late 1700s in a new country with a dangerous frontier and a weak central government, and where the latest firearm technology was the long rifle. It is not difficult to understand that the maintenance of personal firearms was allowed for defense against Indians and also to ease the financial strain on the small federal government which did not even have a standing army yet and would hope that state and local militias could procure their own equipment at their own expense. Anyone who thinks that the right to bear arms can somehow protect individuals against government tyranny, one of the main interpretations of the 2nd amendment, is living in the past. The differences between 1790s America and 2015 America are many, but they include the the presence of well-armed local and state police, National Guards, the most well-equipped military in the world, and a countless variety of federal intelligence, spy, and investigative agencies. No citizen can hope to have a fighting chance against such an array of centralized force of arms, and I think we have to assume that America is fairly secure in its borders and its democratic system of government; it is this that has to be appealed to for grievances and rights, not the fact that you carry a rifle or handgun. Anyone who thinks that the short line of text which calls for a “well-regulated militia” to mean, in the 21st century, the limitless right to stockpile highly lethal rapid-fire rifles with armor-piercing bullets and concealed handguns with enormous magazines probably missed the point. Even if I agreed that an endless supply of guns and bullets were necessary for self-defense against criminals or a potentially tyrannical government (which I don’t), I would still at least hope for some serious limits and controls on who can buy guns and where. No such controls exist on the federal level, and each state has different laws and regulations, few of which are very strict (and if one’s state has stricter regulations, by chance, there is no obstacle whatever to going across the state lines or using the internet to get any weapons you want and need).
It is much easier to get a gun than a driving license, for example. One may argue that cars kill people too, and even in greater numbers (well, until last year when guns overtook them), so they should be regulated more. I am not arguing against regulations for cars and driving licenses — I’m perfectly happy with how things currently stand in that area; I am, however, arguing for more regulations and checks for guns. While the sole purpose of cars is a means of transport (which just happen to kill many people in accidents during normal use), the sole purpose of guns is to fire high velocity bits of metal into other things, living and non-living, to kill and destroy them. That is quite a significant difference of purpose, and negates the argument about how “people kill people” or how a variety of other things are also used to kill people, intentional or not (such as knives, cars, baseball bats, almost anything you can imagine); the difference, of course, is that only guns exist solely to kill people and animals, while all of the other things have other primary purposes as functional tools of some sort. I may be able to kill a person with a knife if I happen to be a murderously-inclined person, but it would be much harder to kill many people with that knife before I was stopped, unlike with high-powered guns with endless ammunition. And by the way, I happen to have many knives for cutting vegetables, opening boxes, and other dangerous daily tasks, but somehow do not feel any danger in owning these tools. Let me relate an anecdote: exactly the same day as a maniacal young boy shot and killed 26 people in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, a maniac with a knife attacked and injured 22 people in an elementary school in China. The attack in Newtown killed almost everyone who was shot, including mostly children, while in the attack in China, also involving all children, every single victim survived. This goes to show that while there will always be a certain number of crazed and murderous people around in any society, their murderous actions can be either very deadly or merely very disturbing but ultimately unsuccessful depending on the lethality of the weapons at their disposal. I think you can see that guns do, in fact, kill people. Lots of them. Nowhere as much as in America.
There are obviously good and bad aspects about any particular country, and America is no different. There are many great things about my country that I appreciate, but many things that I am uncomfortable with and ready to openly criticize, as is my right to free speech and free expression. I currently live in Italy, where my two young daughters were born. I imagine a return to living in America sometime in the future, but one thing that truly stops me in my tracks is the incredible and horrifying number of school shootings, and the apparent ubiquity of violence in general. This is not normal in a supposedly advanced, rich, and “free” society, and it does not occur anywhere in Europe or any other developed country for that matter. At this point, I can still say that it is almost impossible for me to imagine going back to an America where my children would be enrolling in schools that could be attacked by a demented lunatic at any time. It is not normal and not satisfactory. It is unconscionable that there has been no new legislation from the U.S. Congress at any time since the 2012 Newtown shooting, not to mention 13 years earlier at Columbine High School, the first school shooting that showed up on people’s radar. At least after Newtown there was a huge public outcry and some initial movement on the issue, including the president saying that things must change immediately and there can be no more Newtowns. Well, nothing has changed, and there have been over 100 more Newtowns.
Here is another point of comparison: in Australia, in 1996, there was a mass shooting spree similar to the ones that happen in America every week, and 35 people were killed. The Australian government, with pressure and support from the citizens, passed a strict gun control law immediately after that incident and there have literally been no more mass shootings since then, gun homicides have dropped 60 percent, and gun suicides have dropped 75 percent. I doubt that the Australian people feel any less free for being thus safer than their American counterparts–in fact, the new laws, regulations, and a gun buyback scheme had the support of 85 percent of Australians.
That brings me to the point of freedom. America talks a big game about freedom, but actually there is so much talk about it that the word has basically become meaningless in most cases. We hear about people who actually want freedom to limit other people’s freedom, for example. When someone talks about freedom to have guns, I think about my preferred freedom from being around people with guns. Does someone’s right to have a deadly weapon outweigh my right to not be threatened or killed by these weapons just by living nearby? That is what we are facing in America. The number of guns is so high, they are so widespread and easily obtainable by anybody, and the limits and even consequences for using them are so non-existent, that I would not feel safe returning to America. You may say, “Fine, stay in Europe, we don’t need you here.” For the moment, that is exactly what I will do. I feel no danger whatsoever of people with guns, or the possibility of school shootings, in Italy (I also have free national healthcare, but that’s another story). Anyone who wants a gun can go through the proper procedures and get one legally, usually for hunting, but the numbers are minuscule compared to America. The gun-related deaths are, unsurprisingly, also miniscule. Sometimes there are other rich countries with a high number of guns that are compared to America–Switzerland, for example, or Israel. These countries still have less than half the number of guns per 100 people than America, and they are much more regulated, or, in the unique case of Israel, used for a de facto military-police state where large numbers of conscripted soldiers walk the streets with their rifles. Even with a large number of guns per capita, these countries have a much lower incidence of gun deaths than America. So is America, in addition to being absurdly awash in guns (remember, almost one for every man, woman, and child in a country of over 300 million), also more violent and willing to use these guns than other societies? There must be a cause and effect relationship, though it is hard to tease out exactly the effects from the causes, which probably both influence each other.
Humans are imperfect and sometimes violent, but when someone becomes enraged for some reason, it is going to become much worse and have the possibility to escalate quickly into a deadly situation when there are guns readily available. Many gun owners think they will be safer, but I would argue that actually the opposite is true. A significant portion of gun-related deaths in America are due to accidental firings, even involving young children playing and killing a parent or sibling in a tragically high number of cases. There is a thought experiment in game theory called the Prisoner’s dilemma, in which two prisoners receive different sentences based on if they betray each other or remain silent. If A and B betray each other they will each serve 2 years; if A betrays B but B remains silent, A will go free and B will serve 3 years (and vice versa); if A and B both remain silent they both serve 1 year. By choosing logically in one’s self-interest the prisoner would appear to have the best chance of going free, but if both choose based only on self-interest it would actually be a worse outcome for both. The point is that cooperation and some sense of shared fortune or fate is often a better choice than pure self-interest. This relates to guns in the following way: it is commonly believed that having a gun makes one safer from harm, but if everyone believed this then the community actually becomes less safe. The more guns there are, the more chance for gun violence, as we have seen with the statistics I gave earlier. If some people make a choice to not own guns, and be apparently less safe, it will actually make the community as a whole safer. I choose to not own guns, and I think my stance does in fact support the overall safety of a community, though an individual with a gun may possibly be safer on his own.
Despite so much killing, and mass killing, why are there not new laws and restrictions on guns in America? One of the most shocking factors may be that the daily and weekly occurrence of gun crime, week after week, year after year, is often unreported, and when it is reported it has actually stopped being shocking to people. After all, humans can only take so much bad news before they inevitably start to tune it out and seek other distractions. There was a brief point of time after Newtown in 2012 when many people were again awoken from their unconcerned slumber and the forces were aligned to actually discuss gun control in a real way and maybe even do something about it, but soon most people lost interest and the moment passed. This brings me to the firearm manufacturing industry and its powerful lobby, represented by none other than the National Rifle Association. This lobby is highly skilled at the art of forceful persuasion of politicians to not attempt any gun control law, nor even discuss it. The NRA is possibly the most powerful lobby in the country and has been relentless in stopping all attempts at making the country safer, despite increasingly crazed and heartless rhetoric from its leader Wayne LaPierre about personal freedom that would make Jefferson and Madison blush. The fact is, its not about freedom–when 30,000 people a year get killed by something we cannot say it protects freedom–but money. The arms industry is extremely profitable, to say the least, and it is obviously in their interest to insure that new customers continue to purchase new guns with no obstacles standing in the way of their profit. We see a similar thing on an even larger scale with the entire military-industrial complex, in which huge arms producers are always looking for the next war and the next huge government contract. With guns, the industry appeals to private individuals as well as state and federal agencies, police forces, and the military, which all need to constantly stay highly armed with the newest models and accessories. Local police across the country are more highly militarized than some of the army units I saw during two years in an actual combat zone in Afghanistan. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Violence leads to more violence, and the guns flow only slightly more freely than blood. In this environment, paranoia reigns and people who already have guns or consider having them will be convinced that they need to get even more before the big bad government comes to take them away and limit their freedom.
America, get yourself straightened out. This violence is not acceptable, and the people should not accept it any longer. People need to wake up and get involved. The cycle will continue until it is stopped. In the words of Johnny Cash, don’t take your guns to town, son; leave your guns at home, Bill; don’t take your guns to town.
There is a superb moment in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby when Nick describes the aftermath of Myrtle Wilson’s premature death. A curious crowd forms and little boys “search for dark spots in the dust” while “some garrulous man” tells them “over and over what had happened, until it became less and less real even to him and he could tell it no longer, and Myrtle Wilson’s tragic achievement was forgotten.” It is a sad scene not just because we forget about the woman killed by the pretty rich girl (who will of course get away) but because we realize that we too are reading a story of tragedy and we too are participating in this process of forgetting. In other words, Fitzgerald (or at least his narrator) seems to be suggesting that tragic stories – and perhaps stories in general – might be more about forgetting than remembering.
This of course runs counter to contemporary assumptions about memory. For many today, stories provide us a record, hard evidence of the facts of historical experience, and are very much part of our sentimental heritage, so it seems counterintuitive and possibly dangerous to claim the opposite. If we go around arguing that we should not record disasters, or even suggesting that to render violence is to obviate it, then we might very well make space for those who rather disclose nothing at all about this or that tragedy, from vehicular manslaughter all the way up to martial manslaughter. Then no one will know about the disasters, no one will work to fix the horror, and many more people will suffer. Worse yet, we will have blessed off on ignorance, given the keys of our past to anyone with temerity to write it for us, and write it they will.
And yet the debates surrounding Brian Williams, Chris Kyle and ISIS have me wondering once again if Fitzgerald was on to something. Not only do the various commentators in each of the controversies seem to “have had the experience and missed the meaning” like T.S. Eliot’s narrator in Four Quartets, but also argue about particulars at the expense of the meaning. The resulting babble, this squabble over facts and authenticity, is, more often than not, actually worse than forgetting, a history with all the trappings of memory and none of its costs.
For those of you caught up in the Brian Williams debate over the authenticity of his war experience, you might have forgotten the one we had had last week over Chris Kyle. Then, as with Williams, accusers from both the left and the right spent much time debating and laying out the accuracy of violent claims versus the traumatic reality – what was said to have happened in memoirs and retellings and what actually did happen. In other words: who died or almost died and in what way they died or almost died. There is nothing wrong with having a conversation about war experience, and it should go without saying that it is far better to have a conversation than to not have one. The problem is that all the participants simply assume the base line of their investigations to be reality itself, and that this violent truth has a moral value of its own. They operate under the assumption that if we can get the story right all will be all right in the world, yet the mere recitation of the facts does not imply truth any more than a talent for memorization denotes intelligence.
Let’s say what happened to Williams happened as he had said. The RPG hit his helicopter instead of the one in front of him. I mean it was a war zone. It could have happened. And if it did, theoretically, this would allow us to trust Williams, because he had experienced the tragedy first hand and related it back to us perfectly, right? We would have to swallow his traumatic story with respectful awe and whatever its message was simply because he had participated in and witnessed violence (as we had until recently). Now that we suspect him of not participating, we are suddenly critical and discerning. Likewise, if Kyle had actually experienced the tragedies exactly as he had and nothing in his relation were false, then we would be forced to trust him because he had accurately rendered experience, right? I don’t think it’s that simple. Even if some writer or reporter were God and could render experience accurately in real time, just because something happened a certain way does not ipso facto make it the best way to convey experience. And just because it was an inordinately violent moment in the community’s life does not make the simple expression of the facts exhaustive or intrinsically edifying.
Arguing that violence happened a certain way with an absolute air of authority and using the authority to justify the experience’s value only muddles an already muddied conversation. Not only do such assumptions ignore how everything we do is always mediated in one way or another, either by the one telling the story or the one experiencing it, but this compels the listener to take as the base line of truth the mere repetition of violence. It turns the fact of horror and fear not just into a useful tool to construct arguments, but the moral basis of the argument itself. We have stopped talking about what Williams was doing cheerleading an invasion and Kyle shooting looters and have made the issue, the import, revolve around the fact of its happening or not. To mistake the experience for the moral is to miss the point of experience. Most simply: we shouldn’t be thinking about whether or not Kyle shot looters but why he wanted to shoot looters. We shouldn’t be talking about whether or not Williams was shot at but why he participated in a military invasion.
Further, and perhaps more disastrously, by privileging this sort of grotesque empiricism, we implicitly give the debate over to those who least deserve control. ISIS burned a man to death earlier this month. They taped the whole horrible spectacle, and directed it in an extraordinarily theatrical way. This does not change the fact that a human being was really burned alive. In a way the best way to forget this man was to put him on video. Now he is not a man at all but a thing, an idea, a free-floating concept in the service of propaganda. If I make my condition for truth an accurate reflection of violent reality, if my aesthetic for tragedy requires I simply capture death as it happened, then ISIS must be considered the premier artists, journalists and story tellers of our times. A man did burn to death. This happened. And other men put him in a cage and lit the flame so they could tape him burning to death. ISIS is the closest things we have to a Kubrick today and they don’t even know it. Where is their Peabody? Their Oscar?
Of course any thinking person can see what ISIS does is not art, history or any other kind of record. It is propaganda. But any aesthetic based on realism and realism alone ultimately becomes propaganda, something to be used in the service of a cause rather than reflected upon and considered. Fifty years down the road if I assumed the basis of art was this sort of trivial authenticity, this allegiance to experiencing violence rather than debating it, I would be forced to teach children through the ISIS video. I would have to say that this was the most effective piece of journalism from 2015, because it accurately reflects the tragedy. But that’s not right, is it? That’s not the history of our moment. That is not our moral truth. That is not the life of Moaz al-Kasasbeh. It is his death. And if we keep showing the video, it might very well be ours as well.
So, pace George Packer’s shallow New Yorker article on ISIS (my favorite analytical gem: “They are idealists—that’s what makes them so dangerous”), the Islamic State is not terribly hard to understand. We worship authenticity as we define authenticity through violence. By this logic, ISIS is by far the most authentic group in existence right now. It has taken control of tragedy and possession of the real and plays it for us daily. We tune in – all of us. It is Chris Kyle, Hillary Clinton, and Brian Williams without the cowardly dissimulations, the sense of dissonance and inauthenticity. They stride across the gap between the videos we watch and the authenticity we covet. They have taken possession of our truth – our fear and love of it. If we worship realistic tragedy, it only stands to reason we must respect those who wield it so effectively, and we must believe them as well. And with the authority duly invested to them, they will work hard to make us forget the people who are actually being killed.
A veteran myself, this grotesque empiricism is a problem for me as it should be for all writers who derive at least some of their authenticity and audience from witnessing or participating in violence. Our need to act as a witness to the tragic events we participated in and in many cases facilitated cannot simply be ignored. So what is a writer to do? Obviously, silence is not an option, and neither is elision of our own biography, for the former ignores the future and the latter denies the past, both of which eliminate the possibility of conversation. But simply reciting the events like supplicants in the church of violence events is not much better. How we talk about our experiences and what we say about them is as much if not more important than merely acting as a conduit for the event and then debating the accuracy of what it is we relate. This fetish for the real is worse than forgetting, worse than Fitzgerald’s old man. It is amnesia with the delusion of memory, authority based on a farcical parody of history. Nothing could be further from the tragedy than this. In fact, it might very well be the tragedy itself.
After war, most societies look for love. Instead of dealing with the various manifest issues that remain after years of chaos and wanton murder, they seek the understanding and hope that can only be provided by stories based on faith, something greater than the brutal logic of expedience. A certain type of story presents love as a gift to the audience, a sanctuary from the tension brought about by strife, a coherent conclusion. A happy ending. It seems, from reviews of Preparation for the Next Life, as well as the recent reception of American Sniper and the relationship between Chris Kyle and his wife that forms its logical heart, that many Americans feel that they deserve such a story as well.
Preparation for the Next Life is not about love – it’s a terrifically clever and realistic accounting of the ways in which people seek escape from life at the bottom of a capitalist society. The plot’s logic depends in part on offering readers the catharsis of a conventional love story, then switching the terms of the bargain without losing any momentum. By the time readers realize that Preparation for the Next Life uses love like toreadors use their capes, it’s too late. And instead of salvation, readers encounter a tragic tale of poverty and paucity that leads into a scathing indictment of the choices Western culture has made over at least the last fourteen years. More, if one counts Chinese communism, itself a product of Western culture.
There are two main characters in Preparation for the Next Life. The first to whom readers are introduced is Zhou Lei, an ethnic Uighur from the northwest of China. The Uighurs are Muslims, and the ethnic (Han) Chinese tend to dislike or hate them, which leads to her being alienated in her own country. Zhou travels from the type of crippling poverty one encounters in the third world to America (land of opportunity), where she is still viewed as an outsider by the predominantly Han Chinese immigrants. Despite the many hardships in her background, Zhou is defined by an inexhaustibly optimistic nature. This optimism draws its power from the myths her mother tells her when she’s a child, and is framed logically by her father, who believes in 60’s-style nationalistic, pro-Chinese propaganda. It’s interesting to see how easily this propaganda fits into Zhou’s idea of herself succeeding in the context of Western capitalism, as well.
The book abounds with stories and myths that the characters hear, and which they tell each other – they form the novel’s life-blood, and are simultaneously vital to the plot and empty of all meaning. The myths that Zhou Lei’s mother tells her, for example, serve as touchstones that readers can follow like signposts throughout the narrative. In one, offered in the beginning of the book, Zhou’s mother explains that distant mountains conceal a land of plenty. Much later in the book, a tired, hungry, and distressed Zhou finds herself talking with an Uzbek Afghan grocer, who has seen the same mountains from his native country of Afghanistan. The Uzbek offers her food and water, and Zhou experiences momentary relief, which leads nowhere. In another of Zhou’s mother’s myths, a girl travels to the faraway land of plenty with nothing but seven seeds to sustain her. The girl burns her feet while travelling over an iron desert, but makes it through to a blue river, where she’s healed. The occurrence of blue and injured feet later on in the book at various points offer useful guideposts on Zhou’s actual journey – or, at least, gives readers a sense of how she views a given situation; in keeping with the book’s relentless realism, these signifiers are logical to the narrative and unto themselves, but don’t actually deliver any more profound truth. Read the rest of this entry »