Life and imagination in twenty-first century America
I’m an avid reader of American fiction, and I’ve seen some strange things in recent years. This country has always been “at war” and you wouldn’t know it – except in the commonly published novels – except a little fiction by veterans. For at least a decade, Americans have been living in the shadow of war and yet, except in pop fiction of the Tom Clancy variety (where, in the end, we always win), there is remarkably little evidence of it.
As for me – I’m a novelist – I feel that no matter what I decide to write, I can’t escape that shadow. My first novel was about Vietnam vets coming home and my second novel is filled with a vague sense of what the Iraq and Afghan wars have done to us. And yet I’ve never been to a war, or been near one, and nothing about it appeals to me. So why does it always hide there? Recently, I couldn’t stop thinking about why this might be so and I finally have a very partial answer, very elegantly summed up in a non-American word: class.
Going to war in the South Bronx
I come from – to use an old-fashioned phrase – a Working Class Immigrant family. The middle child of four siblings, excluding foster children cared for by my mother, I grew up in the basement of a building in the South Bronx of New York City in the years after World War II. In my neighborhood, war – or at least military – was the norm. Young men (actually boys) generally could not live life without serving in some military capacity. Soldiers and veterans were omnipresent. Except for us, to me, none of them were “soldiers” or “veterans.” It was just Ernie, Charlie, Danny, Tommy, Jamal, Vito, Frank. In our urban jungle – multi-ethnic, diverse, low income – things were just like that and you never thought to question why, in every apartment on almost every floor, there was a young person who was in, would go in. , or was in the army at the time and, given the conflicts of that era, often went to war.
Many of the boys I knew had joined the Marines before enlisting for the same reasons men and women volunteer now. (Remember there was still a draft army then, not the all-volunteer army of 2013.) No matter how trite they may seem today, they reflected a reality I knew well. Then as now, the military promised a potentially meaningful future rather than the often gloomy adult future that surrounded us as we grew up.
However, as now, many of those boys returned home with little or nothing to show for that turmoil. And then, as now, they often returned filled with an inner chaos, a lostness from which many sought in vain for relief.
When I was seven years old, the Korean War started. I was 18 years old when our first armed advisers arrived in Vietnam. After that disaster finally ended, a lull followed, broken by a series of “skirmishes” from Grenada to Panama, Somalia to Bosnia, followed by the First Gulf War, and then, of course, Afghanistan and Iraq. American attacks took place.
I have dated, worked with, or been related to men who participated in some of these wars and conflicts. One of my earliest memories, in fact – I’m three years older – is of my anxious 19-year-old sister waiting for her soldier-fiance to come home from World War II. Distraught, he eventually arrived without any outward signs that the war had had any effect on him. However, like many vets of those “Greatest Generation”, he did not or could not talk about his experiences, and remained difficult to reach about most things for years afterward. His army cap was my first military souvenir.
When I was eight or nine years old, my brother was drafted into the Korean War and I still remember the constant worries about his well-being. I used to write my childish letters to him almost every day. He was assigned to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, given a pair of lace-up shoes, and told he would be trained as a paratrooper. He never recovered from the anxiety that work gave him. Discharged, several pounds thinner and with a bad case of mononucleosis, he came home with a need to keep guns with him, guns he kept with him for the rest of his life.
My first “serious” boyfriend was a sailor on the U.S.S. Warrington, I was 15 years old. Not surprisingly, he lived far from home. He had to get rid of his alcohol addiction.
I was 18 when my second boyfriend was drafted. John F. Kennedy was president and the Vietnam War was just a blip on the American horizon. He did not serve abroad, but later he too was at a loss as to what to do with the rest of his life. And the same happened.
Today, I no longer live in the South Bronx, where, I have no doubt, women and men also volunteer for the military with the same mentality of my youth, and unfortunately return home with the same problems that were endured by generations of soldiers before. Them. Suffice it to say that veterans of any war have returned having experienced a torrent of death and what followed in civilian life could not or would not have been as intense.
It is in the nature of armies to train their soldiers to hate, maim, and kill the enemy, but in the midst of the Vietnam War—by then I had made it out of my neighborhood and my world—few challenged this trained Granted- to dismantle the belief system and it began to break down in ways previously unknown in our history. Because of the sudden destruction of that mentality, many young men refused to fight, while others who had gone to war, some of whom were from neighborhoods like mine, came back home feeling like murderers.
In those years, thinking about those boys and many others, I became involved in the student antiwar movement, although I was often the only one in any group who was not a regular on campus. (Working class women held paid jobs!) As I learned more about that war, I grew angry at how my country was destroying a land and the people who fought for us. Didn’t do anything with it. The loss of American and Vietnamese lives, the terrible wounds, it all felt like both a waste and a tragedy. From 1964 onwards, ending that war as quickly as possible became my 24/7 job (when, that is, I was not at my paying job).
During those years, two incidents remain fresh in my memory. I was part of a group that opened an antiwar storefront coffee shop near Fort Dix in New Jersey, a camp where thousands of recruits received basic training before being shipped to Vietnam. We served coffee, cake, music, posters, magazines and anti-war talks to any soldiers who came during the holiday – and they came in. I met young men from as far away as Nebraska and Iowa and as close as Queens and Brooklyn. I don’t know if any of them ever refused deployment to Vietnam as some soldiers did in those years. However, that coffee house taught me how insecure, scared, excited, unprepared and ignorant they were about what they would encounter and, most of all, about the country they were invading.
Our storefront hours are anytime from 5 p.m. On the inevitable night bus to the Port Authority Terminal, I was unable to shake off my sadness. Night after night, as I returned home, I remember thinking: I wish I had the power to do something more to save their lives, because I knew some of them would come back in body bags and others would be physically or emotionally Will return physically injured. I remembered him well. and for what? That is why talking to him is both a burden and a blessing in my memory.
The second incident that sticks with me happened in Washington DC in May 1971, a large group of Vietnam veterans, people who had been in the middle of it and seen it all, decided they needed to do something that To attract national attention to the goal. To end the war. The method he chose was to act to deny his previous involvement in it. Passing the Capitol, a very long line of uniformed men tossed Purple Hearts and medals of every kind into the trash. Most then gave a brief statement explaining why they hated the war and could no longer afford to keep those medals. I was there and I will never forget their faces. One soldier, resisting the obvious urge to cry, walked away without saying a word, and fell upon the shoulder of his fellow soldier. Many of us watched crying.
In those years, I wrote political articles, but never fiction. Reality overwhelmed me. It was only after that war ended that I began to write my world, the one that was – always – shadowed by war, in fiction.
Why doesn’t war appear more often in American novels? Novelist Dorothy Allison once wrote, “Literature is the lie that tells the truth.” Yet in a society where war is ever-present, that reality disappears from most imaginations. These days, the novels I come across have many reference points, cultural or political, to mark their stories, but war is generally not among them.
My suspicion: It has something to do with class. If war is all around us and yet, for so many non-working class Americans, that is not part of our everyday lives, if war is something that other people do somewhere else in our name and we imagine it. When we reflect our world, that thing is somehow not us.
My own desire is to weave war into our world the way the South African writer Nadine Gordimer once weaved apartheid into her novels – without, that is, lecturing or preaching or even alluding to it. Without doing. When American fiction ignores the fact of war and its effects remain hidden, without even brief mention as simple markers of time and place, it relegates peace as the backdrop to the stories we tell. also accepts. And this, in its own way, is the lie that denial tells.
The shadow of war is a difficult truth for me and I thank my old neighborhood for it. If the background of my novels about everyday life is war, it is because it is in the air I breathe, which naturally means that my characters also breathe it.
Copyright 2013 Beverly Gologorsky
Featured Image: War by Sci-Fi. Art is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr
to follow Tom Dispatch But Twitter And join us on Facebook. The latest Dispatch Books, check out John Pfeffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the last in her Splinterlands series), novel by Beverly Gologorsky every body has a storyand Tom Engelhardt’s a nation unbuilt by warAlso Alfred McCoy In the shadow of the American century: the rise and fall of the American global power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and Ann Jones They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Men Returned from America’s Wars: The Untold Story.