Heading back to Austin from a brief tour of Louisiana. I will catch up on posting when I am home. I did see a sign in a gas station today that said: “Jefferson Davis Law – No Alcohol Sold Between 2 and 6am.” So that happened. I am glad that the ghosts of the Confederacy are attempting to keep me sober in the wee hours of the morning.
In Denis Johnson’s book Tree of Smoke, his epic Vietnam novel, one of the characters come to the conclusion that different parts of the world are governed by different deities. Each area operates under its own unique set of supernatural laws. When one travels the United States, one can’t help but feel the same way. Louisiana is not Texas is not Colorado is not wherever. It isn’t just different cultures and economic forces shaping human behavior, but almost nature itself. The haunted swamps of Louisiana create a different emotional context than the comforting greenery of the Texas hill country. “God is alive and magic is afoot.” The only question is what god and whose magic? Anyone that claims to know is deluding themselves…
In honor of Memorial Day I thought I would give a short list of films and books that deal with the subject of war. I am picking things that are not only showing the absurdity of war, but are also thematically and morally complex. There will be no mindless flag waving here. The best way to support our troops is to not send them into harms way unless it is absolutely necessary.
- Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes – Matterhorn is one of the best books about Vietnam, and the best work of fiction that I have ever read on the subject. In the book Matterhorn is a hill that the soldiers are defending in the beginning. They give it up to pursue another mission only having to absurdly take it back at the end of the book. The first half of the book is more about the terrible conditions the troops had to endure in the Vietnamese jungle while the second half focuses on the truly horrific reality of battle. This book is an absolute masterpiece. A depressing read, but also a very engaging one.
- Dispatches by Michael Herr – This is another Vietnam book, however this is a work of nonfiction. This is also another masterpiece. This book influenced the movie Apocalypse Now and Michael Herr also worked on that screenplay. There are things in this book that could only be described as batshit insane.
- The Thin Red Line – This is a movie directed by Terrence Malick. It takes place in the Pacific theater in World War II. It is a very contemplative film that uses the beauty of the nature as a backdrop to the corruptive influence of war and man. Man is in the Garden of Eden and he is destroying it.
- Why We Fight – This is a film directed by Eugene Jareki. This movie is about the military-industrial complex and how they play a role in sending us to war since World War II. It begins with Eisenhower’s famous farewell address and leads up to our invasion of Iraq. Absolutely essential in understanding why we should be vigilant as citizens in doing our homework before our leaders take us to war.
- The Bothers by Stephen Kinzer – This is a book that talks about John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles. They were Secretary of State and head of the CIA under Eisenhower, respectively. Before they held these positions they were corporate lawyers. There have been times when this country has meddled in the affairs of other countries on behalf of corporate interests. They also started us down the path to our modern day interventionist policy.
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut was actually in Dresden when we fire bombed it during World War II. The book follows a soldier named Billy Pilgrim who also is present at this event. This is a satirical novel that, with Vonnegut’s usual intelligence and dark humor, shows war to be the absurdity that it is. Although this is a work of fiction that uses elements of science fiction, many of the events that take place in the book were things that Vonnegut witnessed.
- Starship Troopers – This is a film directed by Paul Verhoeven. This is the one entry that is on the lighter side and some might say it is not serious enough. It can be viewed as just a science fiction action movie. However, there are many satirical elements to this movie, especially the commercials in the movie that that mimic real life propaganda. Though action takes center stage this movie is a critique of fascism. The young and beautiful are sent off into the meat grinder by the older members of society. You don’t need to know anything about history to be entertained, but you do need to know a little to get the subversive elements that Verhoeven puts in. By the end of the movie one of the main protagonists is wearing something that pretty closely resembles a Nazi uniform.
- Apocalypse Now – I thought about not including this on the list because it is so obvious, however it may be my favorite war movie. It parallels Joseph Conrad’s novel down river into the Heart of Darkness. I prefer the four hour long director’s cut. This movie is extremely dark but there are also moments of dark humor as well. This movie shows war’s corrupting influence on man and paints war as nothing short of pure insanity. One example is to watch how the character of Lance, a young all-American surfer boy, becomes a spaced out drug casualty by the end.
- Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – This is another novel about Vietnam. Denis Johnson is a very gifted poetic writer. Tree of Smoke is an expansive novel packed with many ideas. One that I keep returning to is that in the wake of World War II, a “good war”, America believed itself on the right side of history and therefore allowed us to wage more wars still believing we were doing the right thing.
- Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides – This entry is the only entry that is not a war book or movie. It is an account of Martin Luther King and James Earl Ray. The book is also largely about the manhunt for James Earl Ray after he killed MLK. The reason why I chose this is it shows the power of King’s nonviolence and contrasts it to James Earl Ray’s pathetic character who uses violence to achieve his aims.
These are just a few of the many entries I could have picked. I believe all of these are worthwhile for one reason or another.
Also take a listen to Billy Paul’s stunningly beautiful song Peace Holy Peace: www.youtube.com/watch?v=4flGGVrWfts
I’ve read everything there is to read by the author Denis Johnson. He is somehow able to blend a beautiful sadness about the world with lines of dark humor. Lately I’ve been thinking about his book Tree of Smoke. It’s an epic novel about the Vietnam War. It’s not the best book that I’ve read about Vietnam. That title would have to go to Michael Herr’s Dispatches or Karl Marlantes Matterhorn. However, it is a powerful novel that makes a great point.
I’ve read a lot of books, watched a lot of movies, and listened to a lot of records. Many times when I revisit something it is different than I remember. Sometimes the truth I might have grasped from something might be something I’ve created in my own head, distorted memories that are combined with other things I might have stuck my nose in at the time. As long as it’s with fiction, and you are not distorting actual historical facts and misleading people, I even wonder if this matters. I am not a reporter. Sometimes the truth of dreams may get to the heart of a matter more than the overlying facts. I am not excusing the lazy reporting that is a big part of our media. I’m talking about how sometimes fiction can be more enlightening than fact.
Anyway, I digress. There is a passage in Tree of Smoke, as I remember it, where it talks about past wars. It talks about how a war was fought for the right purposes, meaning World War II, that afterwards allowed Americans to create the myth that war could be good. After World War II we allowed ourselves to think we were always on the right side of history, and thus allows us to get entangled in wars that we have no business being a part of. Occasionally when I’m staring off into space, this is where my mind wanders.