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Beverly Gologorsky: My Neighbor, War

7:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Cover of "Stop Here"

Novelist Beverly Gologorsky on the influence of war on fiction & culture.

In the years when I was growing up more or less middle class, American war on the childhood front couldn’t have been sunnier.  True, American soldiers were fighting a grim new stalemate of a conflict in Korea and we kids often enough found ourselves crouched under our school desks practicing for the nuclear destruction of our neighborhoods, but the culture was still focused on World War II.  Enter a movie theater then and as just about any war flick ended, the Air Force arrived in the nick of time, the Marines eternally advanced, and victory was ours, a God-given trait of the American way of life.

In those days, it was still easy to present war sunny-side up.  After all, you couldn’t go wrong with the Good War — not that anyone called it that until Studs Terkel put the phrase into the language and the culture dropped the quote marks with which he carefully encircled it.  And if your Dad, who had served in one of the great draft armies of our history, sat beside you silently in that movie theater while John Wayne saved the world, never saying a word about his war (except in rare and sudden outbursts of anger), well, that was no problem.  His silence only encouraged you to feel that, given what you’d seen at the movies (not to speak of on TV, in books, in comics, and more or less anywhere else), you already understood his experience and it had been grand indeed.

And then, of course, we boys went into the parks, backyards, or fields and practiced making war the American way, shooting commies, or Ruskies, or Indians, or Japs, or Nazis with toy guns (or sticks).  It may not sound pretty anymore, but take my word for it, it was glorious back when.

More than half a century later, those movies are relics of the neolithic era.  The toy six-shooters I once holstered and strapped to my waist, along with the green plastic soldiers that I used to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima or Normandy, are somewhere in the trash heap of time.  And in the wake of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, who believes that America has a God-given right to victory?  Still, I have a few relics from that era, lead Civil War and Indian War-style soldiers who, more than half a century ago, fought out elaborate battles on my floor, and I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that holding one for a moment doesn’t give me some faint wash of emotion from another age.  That emotion, so much stronger then, sent thousands of young Americans into Vietnam dreaming of John Wayne.

These days, post-Vietnam, post-9/11, no one rides to the rescue, “victory” is no longer in our possession, and for the first time in memory, a majority of the public thinks Washington should “mind its own business” globally when it comes to war-making.  Not surprisingly, in an America that’s lost its appetite for war, such conflicts are far more embattled, so much less onscreen, and as novelist Beverly Gologorsky writes today, unacknowledged in much of American fiction.

There was nothing sunny about war, even in the 1950s, for the young, working-class Gologorsky.  If my childhood was, in a sense, lit by war and by a 24/7 economy in which the same giant corporations built ever larger cars and missiles, television consoles and submarines, hers was shadowed by it.  She sensed, far more than I, the truth of war that lay in our future.  That shadowing is the essence of her deeply moving “Vietnam” novel, The Things We Do to Make It Home, and her just-published second novel, Stop Here, a book that comes to grips in a way both subtle and heart-rending with the Iraq and Afghan wars without ever leaving the environs of a diner in Long Island, New York. Tom

In the Shadow of War
Life and Fiction in Twenty-First-Century America
By Beverly Gologorsky

I’m a voracious reader of American fiction and I’ve noticed something odd in recent years. This country has been eternally “at war” and you just wouldn’t know that — a small amount of veteran’s fiction aside — from the novels that are generally published.  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’s remarkably little evidence of it.

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Tom Engelhardt, Putting War Back in Children’s Culture

8:44 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Teenagers in Space 
Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Rambo, Red Dawn, and How a Tale of American Triumphalism Was Returned to the Child’s World (Part 2) 
By Tom Engelhardt

[The following excerpt from Tom Engelhardt’s book The End of Victory Culture is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press.  Part 1, “The Secret History of G.I. Joe,” can be found by clicking here.]

1. “Hey, How Come They Got All the Fun?”

The End of Victory Culture cover

An excerpt from Tom Engelhardt’s new book.

Now that Darth Vader’s breathy techno-voice is a staple of our culture, it’s hard to remember how empty was the particular sector of space Star Wars blasted into. The very day the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, Richard Nixon also signed a decree ending the draft. It was an admission of the obvious: war, American-style, had lost its hold on young minds. As an activity, it was now to be officially turned over to the poor and nonwhite.

Those in a position to produce movies, TV shows, comics, novels, or memoirs about Vietnam were convinced that Americans felt badly enough without such reminders. It was simpler to consider the war film and war toy casualties of Vietnam than to create cultural products with the wrong heroes, victims, and villains. In Star Wars, Lucas successfully challenged this view, decontaminating war of its recent history through a series of inspired cinematic decisions that rescued crucial material from the wreckage of Vietnam.

To start with, he embraced the storylessness of the period, creating his own self-enclosed universe in deepest space and in an amorphous movie past, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Beginning with “Episode IV” of a projected nonology, he offered only the flimsiest of historical frameworks — an era of civil war, an evil empire, rebels, an ultimate weapon, a struggle for freedom.

Mobilizing a new world of special effects and computer graphics, he then made the high-tech weaponry of the recent war exotic, bloodless, and sleekly unrecognizable. At the same time, he uncoupled the audience from a legacy of massacre and atrocity. The blond, young Luke Skywalker is barely introduced before his adoptive family — high-tech peasants on an obscure planet — suffers its own My Lai. Imperial storm troopers led by Darth Vader descend upon their homestead and turn it into a smoking ruin (thus returning fire to its rightful owners). Luke — and the audience — can now set off on an anti-imperial venture as the victimized, not as victimizers. Others in space will torture, maim, and destroy. Others will put “us” in high-tech tiger cages; and our revenge, whatever it may be, will be justified.

In this way, Star Wars denied the enemy a role “they” had monopolized for a decade — that of brave rebel. It was the first cultural product to ask of recent history, “Hey! How come they got all the fun?” And to respond, “Let’s give them the burden of empire! Let’s bog them down and be the plucky underdogs ourselves!”

Like Green Berets or Peace Corps members, Lucas’s white teenage rebels would glide effortlessly among the natives. They would learn from value-superior Third World mystics like the Ho-Chi-Minh-ish Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and be protected by ecological fuzzballs like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. In deepest space, anything was possible, including returning history to its previous owners. Once again, we could have it all: freedom and victory, captivity and rescue, underdog status and the spectacle of slaughter. As with the Indian fighter of old, advanced weaponry and the spiritual powers of the guerrilla might be ours.

Left to the enemy would be a Nazi-like capacity for destroying life, a desire to perform search-and-destroy missions on the universe, and the breathy machine voice of Darth Vader (as if evil were a dirty phone call from the Darkside). The Tao of the Chinese, the “life force” of Yaqui mystic Don Juan, even the political will of the Vietnamese would rally to “our” side as the Force and be applied to a crucial technical problem; for having the Force “with you” meant learning to merge with your high-tech weaponry in such a way as to assure the enemy’s destruction. Looked at today, the last part of Star Wars concentrates on a problem that might have been invented after, not 14 years before, the 1991 Persian Gulf War: how to fly a computerized, one-man jet fighter down a narrow corridor under heavy antiaircraft fire and drop a missile into an impossibly small air shaft, the sole vulnerable spot in the Emperor’s Death Star.

Here, Lucas even appropriated the kamikaze-like fusion of human and machine. In Vietnam, there had been two such man-machine meldings. The first, the bombing campaign, had the machinelike impersonality of the production line. Lifting off from distant spots of relative comfort like Guam, B-52 crews delivered their bombs to coordinates stripped of place or people and left the war zone for another day. The crew member symbolically regained humanity only when the enemy’s technology stripped him of his machinery — and, alone, he fluttered to earth and captivity.

At the same time, from Secretary of Defense McNamara’s “electronic battlefield” to the first “smart bombs,” Vietnam proved an experimental testing ground for machine-guided war. Unlike the B-52 or napalm, the smart bomb, the computer, the electronic sensor, and the video camera were not discredited by the war; and it was these machines of wonder that Lucas rescued through the innocence of special effects.

In James Bond films, high-tech had been a display category like fine wines, and techno-weaponry just another consumer item for 007. For Lucas, however, technology in the right hands actually solved problems, offering — whether as laser sword or X-wing fighter — not status but potential spiritualization. This elevation of technology made possible the return of slaughter to the screen as a triumphal and cleansing pleasure (especially since dying “imperial storm troopers,” encased in full body carapaces, looked like so many bugs).

The World as a Star Wars Theme Park

Not only would George Lucas put “war” back into a movie title, he would almost single-handedly reconstitute war play as a feel-good activity for children. With G.I. Joe’s demise, the world of child-sized war play stood empty. The toy soldier had long ago moved into history, an object for adult collectors. However, some months before Star Wars opened, Fox reached an agreement with Kenner Products, a toy company, to create action figures and fantasy vehicles geared to the movie. Kenner president Bernard Loomis decided that these would be inexpensive, new-style figures, only 3 ¾-inch high. Each design was to be approved by Lucas himself.

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Tom Engelhardt, War Games

7:02 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Secret History of G.I. Joe
Barbie, Joe, Darth Vader, and Making War in Children’s Culture (Part 1)
By Tom Engelhardt

[The following excerpt, from Tom Engelhardt’s book, The End of Victory Culture, is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press.]

1. The First Coming of G.I. Joe

The End of Victory Culture cover

An excerpt from Tom Engelhardt’s new book.

It was 1964, and in Vietnam thousands of American “advisers” were already offering up their know-how from helicopter seats or gun sights. The United States was just a year short of sending its first large contingent of ground troops there, adolescents who would enter the battle zone dreaming of John Wayne and thinking of enemy-controlled territory as “Indian country.” Meanwhile, in that inaugural year of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, a new generation of children began to experience the American war story via the most popular toy warrior ever created.

His name, G.I. — for “Government Issue” — Joe was redolent of America’s last victorious war and utterly generic. There was no specific figure named Joe, nor did any of the “Joes” have names. “He” came in four types, one for each service, including the Marines. Yet every Joe was, in essence, the same. Since he was a toy of the Great Society with its dreams of inclusion, it only took a year for his manufacturer, Hasbro, to produce a “Negro Joe,” and two more to add a she-Joe (a nurse, naturally). Joe initially came with no story, no instructions, and no enemy, because it had not yet occurred to adults (or toy makers) not to trust the child to choose the right enemy to pit against Joe.

In TV ads of the time, Joe was depicted as the most traditional of war toys. Little boys in World War II-style helmets were shown entering battle with a G.I. Joe tank, or fiercely displaying their Joe equipment while a chorus of deep, male voices sang (to the tune of “The Halls of Montezuma”), “G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, Fighting man from head to toe on the land, on the sea, in the air.” He was “authentic” with his “ten-inch bazooka that really works,” his “beachhead flame thrower,” and his “authentically detailed replica” of a U.S. Army Jeep with its own “tripod mounted recoilless rifle” and four “rocket projectiles.”

He could take any beach or landing site in style, dressed in “the real thing,” ranging from an “Ike” jacket with red scarf to a “beachhead assault fatigue shirt,” pants, and field pack. He could chow down with his own mess kit, or bed down in his own “bivouac-pup tent set.” And he was a toy giant, too, nearly a foot tall. From the telltale pink scar on his cheek to the testosterone rush of fierce-faced ad boys shouting, “G.I. Joe, take the hill!” he seemed the picture of a manly fighting toy.

Yet Joe, like much else in his era, was hardly what he seemed. Launched the year Lyndon Johnson ran for president as a peace candidate against Barry Goldwater while his administration was secretly planning the large-scale bombing of North Vietnam, Joe, too, was involved in a cover-up. For if Joe was a behemoth of a toy soldier, he was also, though the word was unmentionable, a doll. War play Joe-style was, in fact, largely patterned on and due to a “girl” — Mattel’s Barbie.

The Secret History of Joe

Barbie had arrived on the toy scene in 1958 with a hard expression on her face and her nippleless breasts outthrust, a reminder that she, too, had a secret past. She was a breakthrough, the first “teenage” doll with a “teenage” figure. However, her creator, Ruth Handler, had modeled her not on a teenager but on a German tabloid comic strip “playgirl” named Lili, who, in doll form, was sold not to children but to men “in tobacconists and bars… as an adult male’s pet.” As Joe was later to hit the beaches, so Barbie took the fashion salons, malt shops, boudoirs, and bedrooms, fully accessorized, and with the same undercurrent of exaggeration. (The bigger the breasts, after all, the better to hang that Barbie Wedding Gown on.)

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Barbara Garson: Going Underwater in the Long Recession

6:25 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Cover of Down The Up Escalator by Barbara Garson

Barbara Garson studies the lives of the 99% in our troubled economy.

They call it the “spring swoon.” For the third straight year, the American economy bounded out of the starting blocks, adding hundreds of thousands of jobs in January and February. And for the third year in a row, that momentum melted away in the spring like the last traces of winter snow. Employers added only 88,000 jobs this March, the Labor Department announced on Friday, the worst monthly jobs report since June. Economists predicted gains of at least twice as much, and the news fed fears that the economy’s modest recovery might be faltering. And this before we’ve even felt the real effect of the “sequester,” those $85 billion across-the-board budget cuts recently approved by Congress and President Obama.

The biggest cause for concern, however, isn’t actually that anemic monthly job-gain figure. Measuring the job market is, at best, an inexact science, and the number crunchers at the Labor Department could yet revise that number upward (or, god forbid, downward) in time for next month’s report. Here’s the real news, as U.S. corporations rake in record profits (and shift record amounts of money into offshore tax havens): nearly half a million workers “disappeared” last month. Yes, disappeared. The Labor Department tracks what it calls the “labor force participation rate” — wonk-speak for the percentage of people working or actively hunting for a job. In March, that number slumped to 63.3%, the lowest point since 1979. That means there are millions of people out there who have lost their jobs, stopped interviewing or even applying, who have packed it in, given up. The government excludes them when it calculates the main unemployment rate.  They have entered the invisible workforce.

The unemployment rate ticked down from 7.7% to 7.6% in March. Some might cheer that news. Don’t. The jobless rate didn’t dip because the economy improved; it dipped because the government simply stopped counting a half-million out-of-work people as out of work.

In her new book, Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, Barbara Garson, who has long chronicled the lives of people for whom bad times began decades ago, focuses on the self-declared members of the “Pink Slip Club.” She memorably journeys across the United States to introduce us to a range of Americans just scratching by in the toughest of tough times, trying to carve out a living with — not being bankers — no government to bail them out. They, like Duane, the man she focuses on in today’s post, deserved so much better. Andy Kroll

Down Is a Dangerous Direction 
How the 40-Year “Long Recession” Led to the Great Recession 
By Barbara Garson

If you had to date the Great Recession, you might say it started in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers vaporized over a weekend and a massive mortgage-based Ponzi scheme began to go down.  By 2008, however, the majority of American workers had already endured a 40-year decline in wages, security, and hope — a Long Recession of their own.

In the 1960s, I met a young man about to be discharged from the Army and then, by happenstance, caught up with him again in each of the next two decades.  Though he died two months before the Lehman Brothers collapse, those brief encounters taught me how the Long Recession led directly to our Great Recession.

In the late 1960s, I was working at an antiwar coffee house near an army base from which soldiers shipped out to Vietnam.  One gangly young man, recently back from “the Nam,” was particularly handy and would fix our record player or make our old mimeograph machine run more smoothly.  He rarely spoke about the war, except to say that his company had stayed stoned the whole time. “Our motto,” he once told me, “was ‘let’s not and say we did.’”  Duane had no intention of becoming a professional Vietnam vet like John Kerry when discharged.  His plan was to return home to Cleveland and make up for time missed in the civilian counterculture of that era.

I often sat with him during my breaks, enjoying his warmth and his self-aware sense of humor.  But thousands of GIs passed through the coffee house and, to be honest, I didn’t really notice when he left.

In the early 1970s, General Motors set up the fastest auto assembly line in the world in Lordstown, Ohio, and staffed it with workers whose average age was 24.  GM’s management hoped that such healthy, inexperienced workers could handle 101 cars an hour without balking the way more established autoworkers might.  What GM got instead of balkiness was a series of slowdowns and snafus that management labeled systematic “sabotage” until they realized that the word hurt car sales.

I visited Lordstown the week before a strike vote was to be taken, amid national speculation about whether a generation of “hippy autoworkers” could “humanize the assembly line” and so change forever the way America worked.  On a guided tour of the plant, I was surprised to spot Duane shooting radios into cars with an air gun.  He recognized me and slipped me a note with his phone number.

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Nick Turse: Chuck Hagel and Murder in Vietnam

7:20 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Editor's Note: Read more about Nick Turse's Kill Anything That Moves in the FDL Book Salon discussion --MyFDL Editor]

Kill Anything That Moves cover

Nick Turse's Kill Anything That Moves documents the bloody reality of Vietnam.

Think of it as the Great Obama Shuffle.  When U.N. ambassador Susan Rice went down in flames as the president’s nominee for secretary of state, he turned to ally, former presidential candidate, and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry (who had essentially been traveling the world as a second secretary of state during Obama’s first term). Next, he nominated his counterterrorism “tsar” and right-hand man in the White House-directed drone wars to be the next head of the CIA, which dominates those drone wars.  Then he picked White House chief of staff (and former Citigroup exec) Jack Lew to head the Treasury Department.  Meanwhile, he tapped his key foreign policy advisor and West Wing aide Denis McDonough to replace Lew as chief of staff.

He also renominated Richard Cordray, whose recess appointment as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was recently endangered by a federal appeals court, to the same position, and picked B. Todd Jones, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, as the man to reinvigorate that agency.  Otherwise, Tom Donilon will remain his national security advisor and James Clapper, his director of national intelligence.  And so it goes in Obama’s Washington where new faces and fresh air are evidently not an operative concept.

In such an atmosphere, the nomination of retired Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board, as secretary of defense was the equivalent of a thunderbolt from the blue.  Republicans, in particular, reacted as if the president had just picked Noam Chomsky to run the Pentagon, as if, that is, Hagel were the outsider’s outsider.  When it comes to military and foreign policy, the former Nebraska senator remains the sole breath of fresh air in today’s Washington.  That’s because he has expressed the most modest of doubts about the U.S.-Israeli relationship, as well as the efficacy of the U.S. sanctions program against Iran and a possible attack on that country’s nuclear facilities, and because he has spoken, again in mild terms, of “paring” a Pentagon budget that has experienced year after year of what he’s called “bloat.”

Of course, what little fresh space might exist between the Obama I and Obama II years (not to speak of the George W. Bush II years) has been rapidly closed.  Hagel was soon forced to mouth the pieties of present-day Washington, offering an ever friendlier take on Israel and an ever-tougher set of positions on Iran, while assuring everyone in sight that his previous positions had been sorely misunderstood.  This should be a healthy reminder that, at least when it comes to war and national security policy, debate in Washington can be fierce and bitter (as over the Benghazi affair), even as what Andrew Bacevich calls “the Washington Rules” ensure that not a genuine new thought, nor a genuinely different position, can be tolerated, no less seriously discussed in that town.

Barack Obama arrived in Washington in 2009 buoyed by the slogan “change we can believe in.”  The bitter Hagel hearings will be a fierce reminder that, when it comes to foreign policy, old is new, and the words “change” and “Washington” don’t belong in the same sentence.  It remains something of an irony that, whether it’s John Kerry or Chuck Hagel, what little breathing room exists in the corridors of power can be credited to a now-ancient war whose realities, as Nick Turse reminds us in his remarkable new book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, most Americans — Chuck Hagel evidently among them — could never truly face or take in. Tom

The Hagel Hearings
The Last Best Chance for the Truth About a Lost War and America’s War-Making Future
By Nick Turse

He’s been battered by big-money conservative groups looking to derail his bid for secretary of defense.  Critics say he wants to end America’s nuclear program.  They claim he’s anti-Israel and soft on Iran.  So you can expect intense questioning — if only for theatrical effect — about all of the above (and undoubtedly then some) as Chuck Hagel faces his Senate confirmation hearings today.

You can be sure of one other thing: Hagel’s military service in Vietnam will be mentioned — and praised. It’s likely, however, to be in a separate and distinct category, unrelated to the pointed questions about current issues like defense priorities, his beliefs on the use of force abroad, or the Defense Department’s role in counterterrorism operations.  You can also be sure of this: no senator will ask Chuck Hagel about his presence during the machine-gunning of an orphanage in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta or the lessons he might have drawn from that incident.

Nor is any senator apt to ask what Hagel might do if allegations about similar acts by American troops emerge in Afghanistan or elsewhere.  Nor will some senator question him on the possible parallels between the CIA-run Phoenix Program, a joint U.S.-Vietnamese venture focused on identifying and killing civilians associated with South Vietnam’s revolutionary shadow government, and the CIA’s current targeted-killing-by-drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands.  Nor, for that matter, is he likely to be asked about the lessons he learned fighting a war in a foreign land among a civilian population where innocents and enemies were often hard to tell apart.  If, however, Hagel’s military experience is to be touted as a key qualification for his becoming secretary of defense, shouldn’t the American people have some idea of just what that experience was really like and how it shaped his thinking in regard to today’s wars?

Chuck Hagel on Murder in Vietnam

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