Tuesday, July 05, 2005


July 5, 2005

For centuries it was understood that history is written by the victors, and that all the ghoulish details of the battle could swept away in favor of a clear and morally succinct narrative. But things have changed.

In a fragmented, post-modern, Internet society there is no longer a barrier between the present and the future. Media has expanded to the point that there now is enough paper, hardware, software and microchips to record and preserve almost every point of view and version of past events.

Though it is popular to perceive this shift as a sudden result of the information age, the nature of “history” has been changing for almost 100 years. The roots, of course, are based in technology, but not that of the computer. It was, instead, the machine gun that set off this chain reaction.

To fit this space, allow me a vast over-simplification… In the wake of the Great War, a conflict in which 100,000 men were killed in a single battle, a baby was born. The child, who grew up, had children of his own, and now, like an old man in a hospice, has reverted to his less pervasive beginnings, was Irony. Ironically, the concept first appeared in the form of a dead baby, or multiple dead babies, in Ernest Hemingway’s “On the Quai at Smyrna.”

In telling his stories about World War I throughout "In Our Time," "The Sun Also Rises," and "A Farewell to Arms," Hemingway offered a parallel history of the era. But to be fair, Hemingway was an American and we won that war. The transition was incomplete.

Same for World War II, the Great Good War of the century, a clash so stark that irony was almost non-existent. That is, everything was as it appeared. But in the cartoons of Bill Mauldin, a flicker of sincerity and humor pierced the dark and Hemingway’s child survived those rough post-adolescent years. Survival was key, and by the time Michael Herr’s obscene and nightmarish “Dispatches” were received by the American public, pop history, which is to Irony what Sting’s solo career is to The Police, was invented.

Pop history, like pop music, is not always well-constructed, but it is made to satisfy an audience, an in contemporary culture it is the whim of the audience that rules the day. This is what we contend with in the Middle East today, a place that spits on Britney Spears’ sexuality, but thrives in the same banality and fickle violence of their own pop history.

The great swing though, came in the transition between World War II and Vietnam. No two wars have provided such a clear-cut and compelling divergence in the way they were chronicled. Although microfilms of day-to-day combat coverage in the Japanese jungle might not differ too heavily from the Vietnamese jungle, the literary archetypes of each conflict are almost irreconcilable.

When Richard Tregaskis landed with U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal in the summer of 1942, the war was far from being won. There would be three more years of brutal carpet bombing and firefights before Hiroshima was scorched on Aug. 6, 1945, the last hurrah as far as American military action goes.

Tregaskis’s account of the battle on Guadalcanal, which he experienced with the soldiers, is simple. On the cover of the book, Time magazine praises the writer for “good reporting-- fidelity and detail.” The first synonym for “fidelity” listed on dictionary.com is “allegiance,” and the text underscores this. Tregaskis is there as an American, writing about the war for Americans to read and, someday, remember. The “Japs” might as well be the slimy alien creatures from “Independence Day.” And as much as the writing attains a Hemingway-esque simplicity, it has no couched narrative.

Tregaskis frames his literary photograph of the event with a tightly focused frame and a single light source-- whereas Herr, soon to be discussed, tailored his picture with a panoramic camera and a head full of acid. Today such a closed worldview would be considered unhealthy, or even reactionary, but in the time “Guadalcanal Diary” was written it was simply a fact of life.

Limited media offered limited consciousness so it would be impossible to expect the grunts on the ground, Tregaskis among them, to measure, or recount their experience in a broader context. But even beyond that, “Diary” also offers a glimmer of the romantic war conception that Hemingway chipped away at and Herr would melt with napalm.
“The colonel set his helmet on the ground,” Tregaskis writes, “sat himself on it, and unfolded a map, while his staff, gathered around for the day’s orders, watched. ‘I’ll tell you what I know and then you’ll know as much as I do,’ he said. He pointed his finger to a spot on the map. ‘Here’s where we are,’ he said. ‘We’ve got to work down there and get to the Tenaru. Probably we’ll wade around the moth of the river.’ He went into the details of our plans…”

This passage offers a concise explanation of a small moment in a huge chain of events, but the scene is still instructive. The image of a determined and honest leader spelling out the mission ahead is quietly inspiring. The concept of “fragging” is yet to emerge to the forefront of war lingo, and everything is as it should be.

Composed in the same era as Tregaskis’s book is “Up Front,” a collection of cartoons written and illustrated by Bill Mauldin. Mauldin was a cartoonist, and satirist, for Stars and Stripes, the Army’s in-house news weekly. His work was not revolutionary, but rather evolutionary, and it represented a step forward from some of Tregaskis’s more classic accounts.

The soldiers in Mauldin’s cartoons were unshaven and miserable, but resigned to their duty. They don’t complain to one another about geo-politics, instead grumbling about the uncomfortable nature of their predicament and the ineptitude of the field generals.

In one cartoon, two G.I.’s are seen driving away from a urban neighborhood, perhaps somewhere in Italy or North Africa, deciding that the front might compare favorably to the strictly cordoned-off “Officers Only” city-scene. Prints like these were subversive enough to rankle military men like George Patton, and many others stand up, even today, as searing condemnations of the inanity of war. But in a collective sense, Mauldin’s cartoons are best described as “War Dilbert,“ more likely to have inspired Scott Adams than David Rees.

In his 1936 essay, “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “Of course all life is a process of breaking down,” and that within this progression there is a “sort of blow that comes from within-- that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick-- the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.”

This statement, taken in the proper context, can be extended into a metaphor to describe the experience and aftermath of the Vietnam War in America. The Quagmire was the American Crack-Up. It is the “second kind” because it crept up on us (September 11th could be categorized as the first type, or one of “the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come from outside-- the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about…”).

As much as the public remembers Vietnam now as LBJ and Nixon’s war, anyone with an inkling knows that it was just as much the responsibility of Eisenhower and Kennedy. But the realization of the profound stupidity of the war came slow, and even today there are those who lay the American defeat on pacifists and the era’s loud but hollow counterculture. President Bush’s hustlers in Texas did a brilliant job of exposing the still spacious divide in the population with their damaging “Swift Boat Veterans” ads during the past campaign.

Never is the madness of Vietnam more viscerally recounted than in Michael Herr’s “Dispatches.” The language is bizarre and trippy-- not an easy sensation to “put to paper”-- and frequently leaves the reader upset. His descriptions of soldiers’ “morale” are shocking, even by today’s standards. It’s not an easy book to read, and Herr wouldn’t have it any other way; it is, in many opinions, the defining novel of the war.

“Fuck the lieutenant,” one of the real-life subjects of Herr’s novel says during the siege of Khe Sanh, an American military base in Vietnam and setting for some of the book’s choicest delirium. This scene, juxtaposed against that of the fatherly commanders plotting out the battle of Guadalcanal, indicates the degree to which Vietnam shattered certain illusions, and even some realities, about the morality of combat and the military.

The greatest casualty of the war though, in Herr’s implicit estimation, was the cheapening of the Truth. In the sessions of what he called “psychotic vaudeville” with military spokesmen and commanders, the press was told, and often reported, statements many of reporters had literally seen to be false earlier in the day. These scenes, as we saw in “Control Room,” continue to play out today in the desert surrounding Baghdad.

In "A Farewell to Arms," Hemingway’s character, Lieutenant Henry, openly questions whether or not his fight will be another Hundred Years’ War. It’s a chilling consideration and it speaks toward the unknowing that defines modern warfare.

Today, the leaders of the free world have determined that the only way to preserve our way of life is to fight endlessly. It is a dark argument to make, and grows even darker considering the relative lack of effect war seems to have on the civilian population.

The cuts, and the crack-up, though, will show eventually, and it will be forlorn writers and besieged journalists-- not pundits and partisans-- who will emerge from the shit to present the mirror. And what that mirror reveals, in a world where light now shines on everyone everywhere will not be shaped by any one group or interest, winner or champion; instead, it will be a bitterly honest reflection of who we are.