New York, January 5, 2017 (Alochonaa):
“The prophetic Indian postcolonial scholar Ashis Nandy said, “Michel Foucault was right, the worst thing one can do is to speak for the OTHER.”
The spectacle of war has created a new veteran elite via storytelling. I have a fear that new mapmakers in glam military writing are now not just generalizing war with “This is how it went down over there” in the war zone but finding new human territory on the Home front. Society is buying into this less than critical storytelling. This storytelling does not inspire action. Dale Dye’s book Platoon mirroring the Oliver Stone movie both inspired a movie that drove veterans and civilians to dialogue more intensely about the Vietnam veteran. Ron Kovic’s book Born on the 4th of July brought minds and souls together for a refreshing transformative learning related to veteran disability and trauma. The readers of these books were not left to just feel, cry and applaud. These days, where are war stories that promote greater positive change and awareness in our society?
Society has a fascination for the war story. National Geographic features adrenaline packed war stories. Even public radio is enraptured by the war story. What is the “telos” (Greek word for goal) of all of this intrigue for the war story? Who are the sacred messengers attached to the telos? Is it the present hyperhuman lifestyle that draws society to quick chiq war stories? Society’s investment towards war/veteran issues might be in the act of just buying that new war book in the bright lights. Is war that numbing to society, so that a quick read or quick public radio listen is the easier way out of expansive communicative action? Or, is there interest in the heightened drama of war? It can be easier to just buy a book about the war, let it all rest there on the coffee table while another war story is not resting. The war story that is not resting is on Jay Street in BK at “0000” with a homeless vet trying to find a warm place to sleep.
Besides society’s nebulous intrigue about war, there seems to be a search for absolution. Is society looking for quick emotional and moral healing from the recent wars that are being fought abroad? A new priesthood has been growing to absolve society.
The new priests are chosen veteran writers. The Chosen. They are war storytellers and in a subtle way promote a unique civic piety to the masses. The storytelling priests are the few who package the war in books and in high profile newspapers and magazines. The storytellers are highly marketed in their Father Fulton Sheen-like sensationalized or samurai stoic gatherings. And, it all carries an exclusion that limits the presence of diverse narratology. The larger veteran population is not heard. “Vet Cool” with all of the bravado and invitations to Vet Cool events. Or even better, civilian events with token vet participation for the few.
This is the scene for the newly ordained! Instead of communalizing discourse about war and readjustment, the veteran priesthood of storytellers preach an agenda of trauma and the experience of war from a distant and less than communicative manner. How can an editorial piece in the NY Times about war trauma by one of these priests be treated as gospel by readers. God forbid anyone questions the ordained storytelling messenger / message. The sensationalized sermonizing keeps society in a voyeurism that keeps the pews warm. Can the flock think about war for themselves? How much of the storytelling is inspiring a deeper way to question war and readjustment? Are we in the pews left with generalized ideas of war that are dressed in the dazzle of words. The new caste of storytellers do not just absolve but they also become the storyteller for other veterans. Our society cannot handle the multiplicity of the war narrative. It cannot allow the war story be weaved into daily life. So, it is easy to select a chosen few to be the voice for the many.
Much of the writings about war these days are treated by our society like the Greeks idealized the Homeric Epics. The writings enhance the collective civic piety. Civic piety has many faces that are subtle and hyperbolic. Society treats the “CHOSEN” war writers, these days, as priests absolving society for being part of the Post 9/11 Wars. There is something unsettled in many hearts after troops were deployed for over a decade. These priests are revered for just having a story about war for those many unsettled hearts.
It is interesting how Socrates engages his war narrative in his trial for the purpose of pointing out that reason is not an enemy to civic duty. He shared his deepest thoughts with the community persecuting him. It is interesting how these days, war writing is loaded with a mimicry that prevents the reader to engage the author in a deep way. What are the deepest thoughts of the war writer? One is left with the sensation of the war experience or left with patches of another person’s otherness outside of the writer. It is like the priest who only faces the alter and is wrapped up in a distinct divine mimicry. The society is left in awe with the backside of the sacerdotal vestments and remains content in absolution as war and diverse readjustment experiences rage across the veteran human terrain. Yet, society is left with less than expansive words and the vestments.
Forget not the great warrior Socrates, for he challenged his society to not be slaves of myths and unexamined stories. Socrates had a story that was not an expression of mimicry. The unexamined stories circulating in his society limited critical or essential questions. He even questions a fellow warrior, Polemarchus about warrior-like bonds of loyalty/friendship. Socrates did not craft his story from the otherness of the other. He was not taking faux existential patches from the enemy, other fellow warriors, fellow citizens, and non-combatants of other lands to craft his story for his trial. Socrates was passionate about his life, BUT as it related to personal ethics, the state of his society, and the actions of others.
Are certain war stories today a way to evade questioning the many layers of meaning related to war and trauma? The human beings in stories are not just mere objects. Subjectivity in many war writing workshops is evaded or cookie cut. The experts of writing are brought in to teach you more about writing. It is about presentation! It is like Ion’s ethic and actions in Plato’s Dialogues.
All war veterans have stories! The words of war are not limited to the new breed of war story high priests. And, war stories are not all the same. War readjustment is not the same for every soul exposed to war. Certain war writers have created myths about their units, the enemy and the civilian population they engaged “Over There” to minimize the “otherness” of others who also wore a uniform. Now it is fashionable to write about “Home” in the same manner and even minimize the journey home of a struggling veteran. They want to present their readers a “toughen up” Summa about war and trauma. They will create explanations about war that seem to be absolute because “They Were There.” It is hard for them to move outside of their war experience. This type of writer cannot see himself/herself sharing the unique human qualities of processing time and experience with other veterans and their diverse war stories. Much of this is hidden by the stress on craft or by using the dashing writing styles of old war writers like Hemingway and Crane. Writing craft has a value but there are other things that are part of war and storytelling. Are the dramatic words in certain recent war stories similar to the histrionic treatment of Homer by Ion pointed out by Socrates? Words and histrionics? It seems that book sales and publicity are priorities rather than taking action or deeply contemplating the phenomenology of war in the stories circulating in society.
What are the engaging dialogues surfacing from the “tapped” storyteller? What empowering messages are being sent to other veterans and civilians? What is being done with all of the public attention to a few in the caste? The civic piety that is promoted by the priests limits civic duty and many readers are just left with stories of war without a true call of duty for society. Can society be inspired to engage war in a more discursive manner? Is the act of contrition reading the hot war books featured on the Daily Beast? How much of the war writer’s story the story of the other? Where is the accountability in writing about war as it involves civilians and fellow soldiers that may not have had their voice heard? How far does the band of brothers concept go when pitching a story? Is the NY Times editorial page the primary domain for meaning making about war and readjustment? Do ethics in journalism need to be reexamined when it comes to writing about war? Are journalists with hero worshiping minds the new alter servers?
A high profile magazine has recently featured some of these war writers in a photo loaded with bravado. Vanity Fair back in 2002 featured in a photo bravado faces of those brash political leaders who would later start the war in Iraq. Some of these writers project their future wellness in their “words of war” as if they know now of things to come? This mirrors the confidence of those political leaders who ordained war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly, the ordained carry war into time with such confidence. Is it all as they describe it to be? Will it all be as they describe it to be? Has it been as they described it to be?
Where are the critical war writers like Ari Folman, Ambrose Bierce, Lewis Puller Jr., James Webb, Ron Kovic, Clara Barton, Phillip Caputo, and Herman Wouk? These warriors with deep and examined words were humble in their subjectivity and left room for the other’s voice. The sense of self/sense of the other in their stories of war were honored without overly objectifying projections.
Maybe WW I writers like Robert Graves and Henri Barbusse are forgotten because they wrote about war as a great emotional/moral exercise that this society may be too worn to absorb. Why has the dialogical book Thoughts about the Vietnam War: Based on my Personal Experiences, Books I have read and Conversations with other Veterans by African American Vietnam veteran, Eddie Wright been forgotten? Or, is it hard to remember Graves, Barbusse, and Wright because these writers were not seeking “veteran glam” status in their day? Maybe, military service nowadays also includes marquee lights. As the lights are on, can society see and act upon the acute existential challenges many veterans face. Does society need to always remain in awe with ornate war storytelling vestments and bravado words of war? Maybe there will be many ways to write and read about war. This may generate an expansive eschatalogical vision “the endgame, yo” for veterans.
*Michael Kim is a PhD student at the Columbia University. He pursued military/peace studies and interdisciplinary studies in mental health and pioneered the concept of crowdfunding before Kickstarter by spreadheading an effective and innovative international medical philanthropy project “Team Rawan Michael Kim” in 2008. He effectively led collective interventions from experts in the U.S. Army, Children’s HeartLink, Red Crescent Kuwait, Yale Medical School and revolutionary medical tourism site Narayana Health to assist gravely ill Iraqi children.
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Categories: War stories