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.