I recently met a new reader of this humble blog, who breezily if perhaps accurately described it to its author, of all people, as starting out as a discussion of books but then morphing into politics. Wasn't sure if this was admiration or frustration. Regardless, I beamed inside, little ray of sunshine that I am. Yes, Bibsters, my two favorite topics, and those of most grown-ups, are books and politics, in their way the same topic perhaps and pretty inclusive of almost everything. So that this week I'll embrace the same reliable formula, the topic being books about war, and this just after the hollow celebration of Veterans' Day, formerly Armistice Day, its name changed in this country (and others) where the bullying of the war buffs subordinates the real meaning of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918 to a kind of weird if hearty fatalism about the presumed need for even more war and more wounded and dead veterans, the perverse tautology of state violence.
So, to begin with the literary, and to end with politics. Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans starts with one of the most famous and perhaps best book openers ever, speaking to the burden of history, precedent, family and, yes, storytelling. The title no doubt pissed off some American readers of her seminal Modernist novel-memoir by even suggesting that Americans were created by anything or anybody else but God or our own boot-strappery and grit and Destiny-version of partheno-genesis. Which is why she chose it.
Here goes: Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. "Stop," cried the groaning old man at last, "Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree."
…for in our youth there is nothing there is we are more intolerant of than our own sins writ large in others and we fight them fiercely in ourselves; but we grow old and we see that these our sins are of all sins the really harmless ones to own, nay that they give a charm to any character, and so our struggle with them dies away.
I'll leave aside the analysis below it and concentrate on the image by way of discussing, with real reservations, a book sent to me toward promoting a literary event OC readers should certainly know about. The oddly perfect mythology of Stein's image means to evoke and provoke, and signals what she will do in the pages that follow. My beef with Karl Marlantes, a terrific writer who appears this Wednesday night at the Bowers Museum, reading and in conversation, is that although he does quite a lot, he doesn't drag anybody past the place they've been dragged before, at least not — you should forgive the phrase, politically! — in his otherwise important memoir What It Is Like to Go to War. To my mind that makes a potentially urgent literary memoir into yet another entry in that sad category called "Military History," this one burdened with a lot of tiresome Joseph Campbelly analysis and religious anti-thinking and a reductive and disempowering embrace of mythology.
Friends, I tried, believe me, and I am glad for the opportunity to not recommend. I am further grateful to be allowed to be the fly in talking about this particular ointment, an otherwise solid project called "War Comes Home" from the Bowers and Cal Humanities, the terrific California nonprofit which promotes literacy, community, reading and writing, all with support from the feds' umbrella National Endowment for the Humanities. Check out the Cal Humanities website here for more on its programs and click here for more on its partner, the excellent California Center for the Book.
Indeed, the book comes recommended and blurbed and has been chosen as the "California Reads" book for 2014 and yes, the writing is strong (go figure, Marlantes is a Rhodes Scholar and novelist after all) but it's the premise and its execution which kept tripping me up and causing me to take my own little armistice from reading it, with its surrender to the state and authority and the political status quo and a lot of reliance on mythic truths and ur-behaviors, again all without any history or politics.
Before I get ahead of myself, I'll offer that my grumpy analysis might be prejudiced by the gift I received from a friend, a book of which I am thinking everybody but me already knew about, a beautiful, sad, naive memoir by Bert Stiles called Serenade to the Big Bird. It's by a young writer who dropped bombs from B-17s in WW II then re-upped (he didn't have to) and was shot down over Hanover not long before the end of the war. Stiles was brilliant, sensitive and 23 years old, and his legend and boosters suggest he'd have been a Heller or a Vonnegut or a Mailer.
Granted, WW II was a much different war (yikes, what a phrase!) than was the US War Against the People of Southeast Asia. Stiles fights fascists, kills civilians, but ends Serenade as follows:
I am an American. I was lucky enough to be born below the mountains in Colorado. But some day I would like to be able to say I live in the world and let it go at that. The trouble with me is, I don't know even how to start to build my share of the one world.
I figure decorated war hero and author Karl Marlantes knows this book. And, yes, the "one world" trope seems impossible, destroyed, purposely annihilated after the Vietnam War, not to mention Korea and the rest since then. And, yes, I hear Vonnegut's line in
Slaughterhouse-Five about the relative comparative value of writing an anti-war novel and an anti-glacier novel. But what bothers me is the lack of a real-life (and death by Empire) analysis beyond Marlantes' tiresome Jungian and too-easy universalist framing of his experiences and others as "warriors." Stiles does not want to be a warrior. He wants nobody to be a warrior. He wants some instruction on being a civilian and, it seems to me, a peace-loving anti-war citizen.
Not Marlantes, however. He seems to completely miss any number of other possible critical frames for the experience of a combat vet betrayed by a big lie, including anti-imperialism, feminism, anti-theism. He still likes (no, loves, worships) the Big Ideas, including Jungian psychology and Greek myths and the Bible and, mostly, yes, the fatuous Psychology of The Warrior.
In his conclusion, titled "Mythology: Coming to a New Understanding of Mars," Marlantes offers the following, referencing the old god of war:
"Beyond fundamental changes in child rearing and military training, we need, finally, a new mythology about war itself."
Mythology, gods, religion? Really? That's what we need, and not, say, audits of the Department of Defense and the truth about the NSA, and the indictment of Henry Kissinger as a war criminal? This kind of fatalism suggested to this reader Marlantes' substitution of his own role and experience for that of a character in mythos (which sounds so impressive, to some) instead of, say, taking apart the "myths" of imperialism, air warfare, Dow Chemical, the Gulf of Tonkin and so on. Earlier he writes that "War will be necessary as long as there are people who will kill for gain and power or who are simply insane. We will need people called warriors who will kill to stop them."
Not to be too provocative, and not all these many decades after the conclusion drawn by most everybody but
Marlantes, but of course there are people like that, and you and I can find a lot of them, most recently in the Bush Administration, though we are discouraged from remembering. And plenty of combat vets with stories similar to Marlantes', who figured out that LBJ and Nixon and Kissinger were taking advantage of young men who perhaps did want to be mythic warriors, and coercing hundreds of thousands of others who did not want to be, thank you, so were not, no, needed to kill people.
So, no, I can't and won't recommend the argument of What It Is Like to Go to War, but I am grateful for the chance to think about it and argue against it, and certainly encourage others to do the same, especially at the upcoming appearance by Marlantes at the Bowers. There are plenty of combat vets who gave back the medals, who abandoned the sadistic and completely anachronistic myth of The Warrior. You can find their books, and their critiques, including the most famous, Born on the Fourth of July, by Ron Kovic, a vet I met on the pages of his memoir and, even better have met at just about every anti-war, anti-invasion, anti-bombing, anti-militarism vigil and protest and demonstration held in So Cal since I started hanging out with, yes, Viet Nam War draft resisters in the late 1970s.
Marlantes lives in a big world that is made too little, finally, while posing as spiritual and imaginative and, yes, transformative, gods help us. Reading this memoir, half of it horrific and accurate and honest in its detailed account of modern chemical and mechanical war, is diminished and made almost useless by the tedious other half, a sermon on the death dance of the mythic warrior and, yes, the pretty cool-seeming stuff about the psychological and spiritual "intensity" of war. I hope the moderator at Wednesday night's event asks Marlantes when he might leave the spiritual, or at least give it a needed rest and join the citizen anti-war activists out on the street. There is, by the way, a mass public protest against violence and the state (in this case, the narco-state of Mexico, supported economically by the US and encouraged by our ridiculous drug policy) on Thursday night. Its most recent victims, forty-three (who are we kidding, hundreds!) of young Left-progressive students were not warriors, were activists whose reality was urgent and terrible enough for them to engage the very real oppression of the elites and military who controlled their lives. And so they were murdered and, no, the US is absolutely not going to ever, not in a million years, going to invade in order to stop that, is it?
Novelist and memoirist Karl Marlantes appears at a "Bowers After Hours" lecture and books signing at 7:30 pm on Wednesday, November 19, where he will be interviewed by Mary Menzel, Director of the California Center for the Book. Bowers Museum, Kershaw Auditorium, 2002 N. Main St, Santa Ana, CA 92706 (714) 567-3600 www.bowers.org
Thursday, November 20: March and Protest in Support of the Missing Mexican Students. Cabrillo Park, 1820 E. Fruit Street, to Consul General of Mexico, 2100 E. 4th St., Santa Ana, 4 PM. Free. Free!
What It Is Like to Go to War, Karl Marlantes, Grove, 256 pgs.,$15.00
Serenade to the Big Bird, Bert Stiles, Norton, 216 pgs., out of print
Andrew Tonkovich edits the West Coast literary journal Santa Monica Review and returns in spring 2015 to hosting the weekly books show Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.