Books, culture, fishing, and other games

September 01, 2004

Torture of Duty: Myth versus Truth

I started reading the introduction to Douglas Brinkley’s Tour of Duty on the way in to the office this morning. I understand already Beldar's reaction. This will be hard to read knowing what I've already learned from the quotes, other sources, and what's been blogged. But it's not an unusual exercise. And it's a reaction I know well from working on my M.A. and reading critics with whom I violently disagreed. There's nothing like reading contrary or tangental opinions to help clarify your own. Or so I keep telling myself as I think of the sheer pleasure I'm missing by not reading any one of the stack of paperbacks waiting their turn. I can still read fiction without being too critical. Usually.

That said, I haven’t gotten far. The first thing to irritate (and amuse) me were the quotes in the front matter. That first quote is pure irony.

Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience. --George Washington

It is, of course, a noble sentiment. Some of us might question whether its use here is an homage to or an indictment of John Kerry. Or perhaps Brinkley defines "conscience" differently from The American Heritage Dictionary:

The awareness of a moral or ethical aspect to one's conduct together with the urge to prefer right over wrong: Let your conscience be your guide.

How a man with a functioning conscience can testify under oath before the United States Senate to personally witnessing war crimes which he never reported as required by the Uniform Code of Military Justice is beyond me. If he did witness them, he violated UCMJ when he did not report them as soon as possible and he became complicit in the war crimes he witnessed. If he did not witness them, he perjured himself and he defamed innocent American servicemen. Neither of these evidences much preference of right over wrong.

Or perhaps the quote is meant as an exhortation, a reminder to do better going forward. I do hope that's the intent, but I wonder whether it isn't a bit late to teach this old dog the trick of minding his conscience. Consciences atrophy if not minded properly, eventually fading into a voiceless whine easily confused with a mosquito and even more easily slapped into a small smudge. It takes some sort of conversion, a reversal of path, to restore a conscience to operation. There is no sign of any such experience on Kerry's part. He's refused to even apologise for either letting war crimes go unreported and unpunished, or defaming his country and its servicemen through his perjury.

The quotes that follow on that page inspired in me varying degrees to similar reaction, the Lowell the least, perhaps because its allusion to the subject matter is most obscure. Its form is a parallel. “Life, hope, they conquer death, generally always” is set against “and if the steamroller goes over the flower, the flower dies.” If this is parallel logic, life and hope equate to the steamroller, and death to the flower. The steamroller, life and hope, generally always conquers the flower, death? The modernists are not known for their adherence to form or tradition.

Perhaps the aim is the opposite of parallel. Perhaps that “and” stands in for an ironic “but,” and the hint that this is the case lies in the “generally” which subverts the “always.” If we read it this way, we have a contrast of a questioned traditional or spiritual aphorism that life and hope conquer death set against a modern “equivalent.” This modern version is bluntly realistic and at the same time nihilistic: the flower cannot stand before the steamroller. It has no hope.

But even with this reading, we’re left guessing at what is the steamroller and what the flower. Are the flower children steamrollered by the state? Is the Vietnamese flower steamrollered by the U.S. military? The question here isn’t so much the intent of the poet, Lowell, as the intent of the one who selected these quotes. I must assume that person was the book’s author, since in the “Author’s Note” he says that Kerry “exerted no editorial control on the manuscript.” What tone is Brinkley seeking to establish through the use of these quotes? Or what theme is he foreshadowing?

Then comes the quote from Psalms:

I will set my ear to catch the morale of the story and tell on the harp how I read the riddle.
--Psalm 49

The clear suggestion here is that there is more to this story than lies on the surface. The suggestion is that the reader should look beyond the mere words and their obvious denotation. And thus I do so. Again, however, there is irony here. Along with the suggestion of depth beyond the surface is the hint that the truth lies beyond, thus what is here, this veneer, must not be truth.

This quote must be read in conjunction with the “Author’s Note” also. Brinkley there says of the book, “it is not meant to be a biography of John Kerry or an authoritative history of the era.” If it is not these, if we are to look beyond what’s here for the real truth, then what exactly is this work?

The choice of men to quote is interesting. All beg comparison, though I suspect the intent is equation of some sort, principally the equation of the last to the other three.

George Washington was father of the United States, first President, great hero and general, a military and political leader in a time of war and the formative period following that war. He was a rebel against the established order, though we don't think of him in that fashion, because he was a successful rebel. He became the established order. He rewrote history with his acts.

Robert Lowell, born in Boston as son of a former U.S. Navy officer, was conscripted into the Army during World War II after being initially rejected when he volunteered, due to poor eyesight. In the interim, the Allies had firebombed Dresden and he had a change of heart and declared himself a conscientious objector. He served several sentences in jail for his stance as conscientious objector. He went on to become an important poet; he won a 1947 Pullitzer for Lord Weary's Castle. Still later in the 1970s he became involved in the protests against the Vietnam War.

Then there's King David, the author of Psalms. We immediately think of the boy, David, facing the giant, Goliath, and bringing him down with a stone from his sling when we hear the reference. He too, like Lowell, is a famed poet. He was also, however, a famous warrior in his day. He was not the first King of Israel, that was Saul, but he was the one beloved of God and the one through whose line later came Jesus. In his day he was a rebel against the first king, Saul. He thus combines the attributes of the first two who are cited, and adds in an element of religion and a prophecy of salvation through his line.

Do we detect a theme in the choices of men to quote here yet?

And then there's the quote from John F. Kerry himself, which is longer than all of the proceeding combined. It combines talk of war with a reach for poetry. Yet, despite the name of the book, “Tour of Duty,” the quote concludes, “you can feel all the emotions of young men and women who in the end were fighting as much for their love of each other as for the love of country that brought them there in the first place.” Somehow, their love for each other trumps their duty to their nation.

This quote appears to fit with the first and third in the sense that they postulate something greater or truer beyond the immediate part or parts. The little spark is part of a larger celestial fire; the story is a mere part of the moral and the answer to the riddle lies beyond the reach of the mere words used to tell it. Kerry says that “Vietnam” is more than seven letters, more than a word, more than a country or a war, it’s a historic era. This parallelism suggests that Brinkley is saying that while the events herein may not seem historic on their own, they really are. It’s a sort of advanced apology that some of the events recorded may appear a bit trivial, but if the reader hangs in there and follows all the way through, and assembles the pieces, the reward will be a historic truth greater than the sum of the parts.

The first sentence of the “Author’s Note” confirms this impression: “This book tells the story of one young American’s Vietnam War odyssey.” First, “story” is reiterated. The obvious alternative is “history,” but the author goes on to tell us he’s not writing an “authoritative history of the era,” suggesting it isn’t a history at all. He also says plainly it’s not a biography. “Everybody who fought in Southeast Asia has his or her own highly personalized story to tell,” he adds. This has echoes of the recent statement of the resigning Governor McGreevey of New Jersey, “my truth is that I am a gay American.” What matters is a highly personalized story; that is my truth. But Brinkley has enough integrity (enough of the little spark of celestial fire still) to avoid claiming this book is the truth. He goes on to cite sources, most of which are documents produced by the hand of Kerry himself, but he has made clear he is passing no judgment. What then is he doing (besides selling books, in itself a reasonable motive)?

The answer lies in the choice of the word “odyssey.” The Odyssey is that great “historical” work of Homer. We now consider it to be myth. But it is based on historical fact. Troy existed. The Greeks attacked it. How much beyond that is actual historical fact I don’t know. I’m not even certain of that second statement, now that I consider it. Archeological digs at Troy show signs it was destroyed as a result of war, but do we know for sure it was a Greek confederacy that made that war?

But The Odyssey is the story, the saga, of Odysseus, who left his home of Ithaca to join the combined Greek force to lay siege to Troy. After its fall, he had a long trip home, to a home where his reception was (or could have been) a bit hostile. Penelope’s suitors might have tried to disappear him if he hadn’t taken preemptive action. Along the way he lost all his crew.

Now, I could draw some parallels to the story of John Kerry. I’m not sure that Brinkley is suggesting that here, though there is a case to be made. Kerry made a long trip, but his didn’t last two decades. He fought in a war at the far end of the trip. He commanded his own boat and crew for at least part of the time he was away. A dog, VC, enters into the story, though he wasn’t one at home who waited all those long years for his master to return as did Odysseus’s Argus. Kerry too was separated from his crew, but in his case it was by choice; he willingly left them behind as soon as possible. Kerry had no hostile homecoming, however. Instead, he created a hostile homecoming for his former crew. A case can be made that Kerry joined forces with the suitors of his faithful wife, those who strove to entice her from her virtue. Perhaps Brinkley would make the opposite case, that the virtuous wife was something other than the American public or the country itself.

But what I believe to be more significant is Brinkley’s choice of couching his statement of purpose in mythological terms. If he isn’t writing biography and he isn’t writing an authoritative history, he certainly is mythmaking. And what is myth but a story, based loosely on facts, that purports to hold greater meaning? But the myth here is not the end. Normally the myth follows the man; in this case the aim is for the man to follow the myth. If Brinkley can succeed in making this myth, then the man, John Kerry, might be elected President, and as a result move into a position to make history: his story.

Thus the choice of the first quote from George Washington, who did become President and who made history, and around whom we do find myth.

The question that is now being answered, however, is, “Can this story, this attempt at myth, bear close reading?” The early returns, following the efforts of Swift Veterans for Truth and the bloggers, suggest that it cannot. Myth depends upon being the only account for its success. Unfortunately for Brinkley, and for Kerry, Kerry lived too much in the eye of the public and as a result the hands of many scribes have recorded his words and deeds. Those accounts too often dispel the magic of this attempt at myth.

Posted by dan at September 1, 2004 04:34 PM