May 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
While it is easy to forget foreign wars, it is not so easy to forget wars fought on one’s own territory. Reminders are everywhere — those statues, those memorials, those museums, those weapons, those graveyards, those slogans. While one may not remember history, one cannot avoid its reminder. — Viet Than Nguyen.
Nguyen wrote this about Vietnam, and how reminders of the Vietnam War are all over the Vietnamese landscape. But this is true of any war-marked landscape, any territory haunted by war. It is true of the landscape I live in, the American South.
Driving to Chattanooga last week, I saw, but didn’t see, the half dozen or so Civil War memorials that dot the landscape off I-24. I saw, but didn’t see, the National Monument atop Lookout Mountain just outside of the city (from here, Union artillery bombarded Confederate-held Chattanooga). I am sure I’m not the only one who experiences this. We historians like to talk about memorials, about their power and all of that, but most memorials are simply part of the landscape, no longer worth remarking upon.
Most of the Civil War memorials were erected in the half century or so following the war, and thus, have had another century or so to blend into the background. My personal favourite of these memorials is one that lies within a chainlink face, on the side of a hill, above a hollow, hard up against the interstate.
The Civil War was obviously fought on Southern territory, as it was the Confederacy that tried to leave the Union. And it remains the most mis-remembered of all American conflagrations, of which there have been many. Americans in the North and the West think the Union went to war to end slavery. And many Americans in the South (by no means all, or, even a majority, I don’t think) think that the war was fought for some abstract ideal, like states’ rights. Both are wrong. The Confederacy seceded due to slavery, as the Southern states felt the ‘peculiar institution’ to be under attack by Northerners. But this is not why the North went to war in 1861; the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t come about until 1862, enacted on New Year’s Day 1863. Prior to that, the Union was fighting for, well, the union.
To return to the landscape of the South, with its battlefields, its many monuments, and to the parts of the landscape still physically scarred by the war, over 150 years ago, there is this constant reminder. This, I would like to humbly suggest, is why the Civil War has remained such a bugaboo for the South.
I oftentimes get the feeling that the larger country would like to just forget the Civil War ever happened, to move on from it. Maybe this is not true for all Americans, particularly African Americans (given slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865). But, it is certainly a trope I notice in my adopted country. But for the South, it couldn’t forget the war even if it wanted to.
Both the Union and Confederate armies marched up and down Tennessee, between Nashville and Chattanooga, along the railway that runs between the two cities. That railway runs next to I-24 for much of that stretch, at most a few miles apart. There are a series of battlefields between the two cities and, of course, the fall of Chattanooga in Autumn 1863 is what allowed the Union Army of General Sherman to march into Georgia and towards Atlanta.
It is hard to forget and move on from a war when there are reminders of it in almost every direction. And mis-remembering the Civil War also serves a purpose beyond the macro political. For one, it removes the nasty part of the rationale for the war on the part of the Confederate States: slavery (this also, obviously, has a macro-political impact). This allows some Southerners to mis-remember the Civil War in order to claim their ancestors who fought in it, to celebrate those that came before them for defending their homes, family, and so on.
Nevermind the inconvenience of slavery, or the fact that these very ancestors in the Confederate Army were deeply resentful of being the cannon fodder for the small minority of the Confederate States of America who actually owned slaves. Nevermind that these ancestors recognized they were the pawns in a disagreement between rich men. Nevermind the fact that these ancestors didn’t own slaves. In fact, that makes it easier to claim and sanitize these men. They were innocent of the great crime of the Confederacy.
And thus, it is easy to take this mis-remembered vision of one’s ancestors fighting in the Civil War for the Confederacy. It is easy to forget that war is terrifying, and to forget the fact that these ancestors, like any soldier today, spent most of their time in interminable boredom, and only a bit of time in abject terror in battle. It is easy to forget all of this, and thus, it is easy to mis-remember the essential reason why this war happened: slavery.
May 11, 2017 § 19 Comments
I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story. Of course, that is bloody obvious. But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US. He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War. The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.
He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War. And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC. He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.
And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory. There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts. But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials. Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative. They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.
In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal. This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance. And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man. In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.
The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then). Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.
An example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52). The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million). It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland. The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo. But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.
But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event. And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event. How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen? Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland). So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?
I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.
January 18, 2017 § 3 Comments
I read David Means’ novel, Hystopia, last week. It is an alternative history of the 1960s and 70s in the United States; a novel within a novel. Hystopia, according to the editor’s notes, was actually written by a Vietnam vet named Eugene Allen, shortly before he killed himself in 1973 or 1974. In Hystopia, JFK survived Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet, and continued on as president and is now in his 3rd term (the scholar in me wonders how he got passed the 27th Amendment, mind you). He oversaw a massive increase in American involvement in Vietnam, much greater than that of his successor in real life, Lyndon Baines Johnson. And, of course, there was no Great Society policy initiatives. He was eventually assassinated in Springfield, IL, in 1970. But this is not the interesting part. The interesting part is what happens to Vietnam vets when they get home: they get enfolded.
A new branch of the government, Psych Corps, has attempted to use drugs to deal with the horrors that the soldiers in Vietnam saw, with a caveat: they only accept men who are not physically disabled by the war. At the Psych Corps HQ, the vets are fed an anti-psychotic drug and ‘enfolded.’ Psych Corps re-creates the source of the trauma and PTSD for soldiers, they are forced to relive it, and in so doing, their memories are essentially wiped. Thus, veterans who have been enfolded don’t remember their experience in the war, such as the ‘hero’ of the novel, a veteran named Singleton. Singleton, we eventually realise was an officer in Vietnam and commanded the unit that also included the other main characters of the book. But he has no recollection of this. The only thing that connects him to Vietnam is a horrible burn scar on his left side. Singleton’s scar comes from a friendly fire caused by a soldier calling in the wrong co-ordinates for a fire bombing, resulting in his own death.
Now employed by Psych Corps, Singleton falls in love (against regulation) with a fellow officer, Wendy, and sets off to Northern Michigan to track down Rake, a former member of his unit and a failed enfold. Rake, meanwhile, has kidnapped the beautiful but deeply troubled, Meg, whose boyfriend and first love was the soldier who got himself killed. Meg is also Eugene Allen’s sister.
Immediately after Hystopia, I picked up Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, for a new researh project I am undertaking. It turns out that Hystopia and The Body Keeps The Score are directly related for my purposes. I am still only about 100 pages into the book, but van der Kolk is talking about his early experiences in the field of psychiatry in the early 1970s (the same period the fictive Eugene Allen was writing his novel, incidentally) and his first clients, including Vietnam vets at the VA in Boston.
He writes about what trauma does to the brain, using a vet as an illustration. This guy was a high functioning, and very successful criminal lawyer in Boston. But, he was completely empty inside. He went through the motions at home, with his family, at work. He felt violent impulses and thus recused himself from his family, spending weekends at a time drinking heavily in an attempt to get his war experiences out of his head. He had been a platoon leader, and watched helplessly as he lead his men into an ambush. They were all killed or wounded. He was not. The next day, he took his wrath out on a Vietnamese village, killed at least one child and raped a woman.
As I read this story, and others, I couldn’t help think of Hystopia, and the vets being drugged to forget stories such as this veteran’s. In the late 1980s, van der Kolk began experimenting with PET scans and, ultimately, fMRIs, by which the traumatising event is re-created, according to a script, in order to discover which parts of the brain are triggered. It turns out it is exactly the same parts of the brain that one would expect to be triggered during a traumatic event. More to the point, the participants in these experiments reported feeling exactly as they did during the original event. And thus, van der Kolk notes, his colleagues began to wonder about how to use drugs to treat PTSD patients, using the information from the PET and fMRI scans to learn which parts of the brain neeed to be treated. Or, in other words, exactly what happens in Hystopia when the soldiers are enfolded upon return from Vietnam. The difference, of course, is that enfolding works for the majority of patients. There is no cure-all for PTSD for us in the real world.
Nonetheless, van der Kolk notes that we tend to respond to deeply traumatising events, whether something as graphic and terrifying and terrible as his Vietnam vet, or other traumas such as sexual assault, rape, being beaten as a child, etc.. And I found myself wondering about how our brains work to incorporate these memories and recast them in terms of society, how our memories and our traumas are never ours alone, but also belong to our wider society. Our memories are formed, re-formed, and re-fined in light of our interaction with society, of course. And it is difficult to tell where our individual experiences end and our societal imports begin, or vice versa.
And as I embark on a this project, I am wondering where that dividing line is between our own personal traumas and where society intervenes in the reconstructions of the narratives we tell ourselves about our experience. What makes our traumas unique and what makes them like other victims of traumatising experiences?
August 8, 2016 § 3 Comments
Last week, I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I hadn’t read a Stephen King novel since I was around 16 and I discovered his early horror work: Dead Zone, Christine, Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, and Cujo. I read and devoured them, then moved on to other things. But my buddy, J-S, raved about this book. So, I humoured him, bought it, and read it. It was pretty phenomenal. I’m not really a fan of either sci-fi or alt.history, but this book was both. Time travel and a re-imagined history of the world since 1958.
The basic synopsis is that a dying Maine restaurateur, Al Templeton, convinces 35-year old, and lonely, high school English teacher, Jake Epping, to go back in time. See, Templeton discovered a rabbit hole to 1958 in his stock room. He’s been buying the same ground beef since the 1980s to serve his customers, hence his ridiculously low-priced greasy fare. Templeton went back in time repeatedly, until it dawned on him he could prevent the assassination of JFK. Templeton figures if he prevents JFK from dying, he’ll prevent Lyndon Baines Johnson from becoming president. And thus, he will save all those American and Vietnamese lives. So he spent all this time shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald, and plotting how to stop him. But then he contracted lung cancer. His time was almost up. So, he got Epping involved.
After a couple of test runs, Epping agrees. So back to 1958 in Maine he goes again, spends five years in the Land of Ago, as he calls it, under the name George Amberson. I’ll spare you the details. But, he is, ultimately successful in preventing the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on 22 November 1963.
But when he returns to Maine in 2011, he returns to a dystopian wasteland. Before entering the rabbit hole back to the future, Epping/Amberson talks to the gatekeeper, a rummy. The rummy explains that there are only so many strands that can be kept straight with each trip back and each re-setting of time.
Anyway. Read it. You won’t be disappointed. I cannot speak to the series on Hulu, though. Haven’t seen it.
I found myself fascinated with this idea of preventing LBJ from becoming president. See, I’m one of the few people who think that LBJ wasn’t a total waste as president. This is not to excuse his massive blunder in Vietnam. Over 1,300,000 Americans, Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians died in that war. And the war left a long hangover on the United States that only really went away in time for the Iraq War hangover we’re currently living in.
But. LBJ wasn’t a total disaster. Domestically, he was a rather good president. He was, of course, the brain behind The Great Society. LBJ wanted to eliminate racial injustice and poverty in the United States. This led to the rush of legislation to set the record straight on these issues. We got the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and a whole host of other initiatives in the fight against poverty in inner cities and rural areas. We got the birth of public television that ultimately led to the birth of PBS in 1970. Borrowing some from JFK’s Frontier ideas, the Great Society was envisioned as nothing less than a total re-making of American society. In short, LBJ was of the opinion that no American should be left behind due to discrimination. It was a lofty goal.
LBJ’s Great Society, moreover, was incorporated into the presidencies of his Republican successors, Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. In other words, the Great Society met with approval from both Republicans and Democrats, to a degree anyway.
Of course, the Great Society failed. In part it failed because LBJ’s other pet project, the Vietnam War, took so much money from it. It did cause massive change, but not enough. In many ways, the rise of Donald Trump as the GOP nominee can be seen as long-term response to the Great Society. Trump has the most support from non-college-educated white people, the ones who feel they’ve been victimized by the liberal agenda. And, as the New York Times pointed out this week, Trump is really the benefactor of this alienation and anger, not the cause of it.
Nevertheless, I do take exception to the dismissal of LBJ as a horrible president based on the one glaring item on his resumé. No president is perfect, every president has massive blemishes on his record. Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order for Japanese Internment. Abraham Lincoln only slowly came to the realization that slavery had to end, and he did not really believe in the equality between black and white. I could go on.
King also makes an interesting point in 11/22/63: when Epping/Amberson returns to 2011 after preventing JFK’s assassination, he learns that the Vietnam War still happened. JFK, after all, was the first president to escalate American involvement in great numbers. And worse, the Great Society did not happen. There was no Civil Rights Act, no War on Poverty, etc. JFK, as King notes, was not exactly a champion of equal and civil rights.
Thus, as maligned as the Big Texan is by historians and commentators in general, I think it is at least partially unfair. LBJ had ideas, at least. And he was a visionary.
February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
Last February, I was back in Vancouver for a visit. I love visiting Vancouver, a city I know well (having grown up there). Everytime I’m back in town, I go to Blackberry Books on Granville Island. I have bought many, many books there over the years. This time when I was in, I got into a long chat with the guy working there about history and fiction (two of my favourite subjects) and he recommended Karl Marlantes’ sprawling Vietnam War book, Matterhorn. It’s an epic novel, telling the story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his indoctrination into the jungle war. It takes a long, long time to get going, I must say, but eventually it became engrossing and nearly impossible to put down. The guy at Blackberry Books said that he doesn’t read long fiction anymore, but this book was an exception to his rule. I agree. For some odd reason, probably due to the amount of American history I’ve taught of late, I’ve read a lot of Vietnam War fiction, and Matterhorn is definitely up there with Tim O’Brien’s two works, The Things They Carried and If I Die in A Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.