It’s a paradox: Dominic Tierney’s political platitudes

One can almost picture Tierney offering platitudes to undergraduates at Swarthmore as he scribbles dates and quotes on the whiteboard, asking “Can America return to victory?” But by whose measure, and for what cause, should the United States return to victory?

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Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 6.06.20 PMI can only hope Dominic Tierney’s book, The Right Way to Lose a War, is more persuasive and useful than his latest missive for The Atlantic. Published last week, Tierney’s 2,400 words, cribbing quotes from the usual political suspects, advanced a largely unenlightened and pulseless addition to current debates on America’s military machine.

His thesis, that America continues to lose wars because it is a “superpower in a more peaceful world,” offers little in the way of remarkable thinking. Not only because his assertions are staid, but also because they are not particularly original. Even the low-appetite consumer of political news will recognize the arguments below:

1) Modern warfare has shifted from interstate to intra-state conflicts.

2) Intra-state conflicts (i.e. civil wars, etc…) are messier, and waged in territories where Americans seed the “home-field advantage.”* 

3) Overlapping American security commitments ensure each individual contest is a “limited war” for America, while it is a “total war” for those fighting America.

4) Americans don’t have doggedness to see out campaigns where the “prize on offer is less valuable” and where the consequences are less threatening than previous “trials of national survival like the (U.S) Civil War and World War II.”

In addition, Tierney’s “essay” is gummed up with over-used political euphemism. Terms like “collateral damage” and “hearts and minds,” ought now be banished from any political writing which aspires to be intrepid. To use these line-items, so bled of meaning, betrays reality and makes cogent analysis impossible. Tierney deploys them both in the same sentence.

But this clumsy writing allows Tierney to glue together his battalion of straw men, as they wait to be mowed down by a series of banal circularities (“Once the United States was drawn into the quagmire, it couldn’t get out”) or overwrought assertions that gesture towards substance without isolating it (“Armed conflict is an expression of American identity and a trial of national vitality.”) These constructions might appear profound, but offer little to dwell upon. What I want to know is just why such quagmires present, whether there is sound justification for engaging in complex conflicts in the first place, and why —given the abysmal modern history Tierney sketches— armed conflict remains some measure of American “national vitality”? Maybe they are in his book. Maybe not.

One can almost picture him offering platitudes to undergraduates at Swarthmore as he scribbles dates and quotes on the whiteboard, asking “Can America return to victory?” But one yearns for the best-read, historically-sensitive and most-curious in his class to raise their hand. “By whose measure, and for what cause, should the United States return to victory?” they might ask.

America’s poor record in conflicts since WWII shouldn’t only prompt queries of American war-fighting mechanics (or strategy, for that matter), it should inspire meaningful debates about the principles —those bowling alley bumpers— that might guide reasons for war itself.

Where and when the United States decides to enter a conflict, there ought to be a considered and compelling justification. But that justification cannot and should not be pegged to whether America is likely to prevail. The question should be whether America (and the many other states of this world) can afford not to try.

As Tierney rightly points out, “[g]lobal warfare is mainly relegated to a few dozen failed or failing states that are breeding grounds for warlords, insurgents, and criminals.” But his globe appears to have only one superpower and a blank slate. Lost in the space between these sentences are these “few dozen” countries, home to a remarkable number of potential political “collateral damage.”  And if America is ill-equipped to wage these wars, should the political leadership abandon the project entirely? I’m not sure what Tierney thinks, but I do know what he wrote: “It’s time to reckon with the hard truths of conflict.”

I just wish he had tried.

*Given that the US has never been “home” to a major international war (save the attack on Pearl Harbor, which —at best— was an instigation and not permanent location of hostilities), there is no use speaking of “home-field advantage.” If Tierney is trying to suggest that this home-field advantage is gained by improving American service people’s knowledge of the “theatre of battle” then I would agree. But that isn’t an original contribution either.

The pain we will not see

War, especially today, is murky enough. But how we come to see it —to experience it— ought to be informed by actual events, made public and debated.

In August, The Atlantic published as piece titled: The War Photo No One Would Publish. The story looks at the fate of a single photograph taken by Kenneth Jarecke back in 1991. At the time, Jarecke was on assignment with TIME, corralled (as most journalists and photographers were) in the “pool” system, established by the Public Affairs Office of the US military. These protective outfits were designed to provide members of the media a “front-row seat” to Operation Desert Storm. In late February, as the Iraqi military signaled retreat, hightailing it across the Kuwaiti desert for the border, US air forces struck one of these Iraqi convoys leaving a mess of mechanical and human remains strewn across the wind-blown sands. This was the landscape Jarecke stumbled upon on February 28, 1991.

That afternoon, Jarecke did what any photographer would do: he worked the scene, documenting a discrete moment in time —archiving, visually, an event that owed its arrangement to war’s consequence. One photograph was particularly striking. Jarecke captured the charred upper body, arms and head of an Iraqi soldier, trapped inside a bombed out truck. While Jarecke filed his images soon after, American audiences wouldn’t see the photograph for nearly a month —a delay owed, among other things, to editorial disputes and myriad interpretations of decency or suitability.

While many of the sources interviewed in the piece believed censorship was a mistake, the article’s main meditation on civic education, media and our relationship to war draws out important debates on the public’s need for information, and the consequence of getting that equation wrong.

Time and technology play a role, of course. Towards the end of piece, the author discusses how the gatekeepers of yesteryear are not as capable of keeping an image (jarring or not) from the wider public. But the question of censorship —from the battlefield to the photo desk— should not be shirked too quickly. Today, censorship has a younger but worrying sibling —content overload. Because of the wealth of visual content, images that ought to matter might be missed entirely if not highlighted by major outlets. This suggests, at its core, the so called “mainstream media” retains responsibility to prioritize in service of truth, to inform in proportion to importance, and —in the case of war photography— to render the full color and cost of conflict.

Our current media landscape (that sleepless circle of revolving “information”) creates space for pundits to fire away with half truths and misconceptions. “Analysis”, broadly defined, has become so varied as to render meaningful debate nearly impossible. But this is where photographs, and the intrinsic value of what I’ll call “the moment presented”, can break the cycle.

This doesn’t mean that photographs cannot be wielded in service of specific interests —even the photographer, in selecting one of endless scenes around him/her, has edited the world of experience. But photographs provide the basic foundation upon which debate (and engaged conversation) might occur.¹

War, especially today, is murky enough. But how we come to see it —to experience it— ought to be informed by actual events, made public and debated. Jarecke knows this better than most. In The Atlantic piece, his 1991 interview with American Photo provides the final quote: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”

 


 

¹For example: Bag News Notes, run by Michael Shaw, tackles the “visual politics” of photographs, providing both a critical reading of context, which frames discussion of the image’s content.

The war tried to kill us… The majesty of The Yellow Birds

What bleeds from these passages are not the musings of a stubborn and hungry war-machine created by the world’s most powerful military, it’s the seething helplessness felt by those tasked with responsibilities most colossal: to feign power when positioned as pawn.

From the first line: “The war tried to kill us in the spring” to the final stanza, The Yellow Birds is an astounding work of literary fiction. Authored by soldier-turned-poet Kevin Powers, the novel traces the relationship between two men in arms (one of whom dies while serving in Iraq, the reader quickly learns) in life and death, into war, out of childhood, and throughout the troubling spaces in-between.

The novel’s prose, at once heartbreaking and captivating, allows The Yellow Birds to surprise the reader with the sharp beauty of a soldier’s fear, of their pretend fearlessness, and of the Middle Eastern terrain upon which the nightmare’s of our generation (and many others) have been borne. Where the book succeeds is not in its idolization of conflict, but its honest look at how violence defines the lives of those it courts.

“I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then. Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed,” Private Bartle, the book’s main character, says in an early passage after watching the platoon’s translator fall victim to a mortar strike. “I had to see the world with clear eyes, to focus on the essential. We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.”

These moments, told with the earnestness of youth so exposed to the elements, is what gives Powers’ short novel such gravity —a force that pulls the audience in, towards, and dangerously close, to a conflict rarely spoken of in American households. Yet family, or the struggle to sustain family through wartime, is exactly where this book’s tension emanates.

For instance, a brief encounter between Bartle and Murphy’s mother leaves the reader to ponder how significant some passing words and sentiments can be. A promise to keep a friend safe spawns a sense of responsibility that only grows throughout the course of the novel. For Powers, though, building up and out of this promise (largely impossible to keep) gives the story legs —legs that limp towards the inevitable conclusion.

In an interview about the book, Powers discusses the power of fiction in the context of war. While straining to assert the book’s neutrality (it isn’t to be read as indictment or endorsement of the war in Iraq, simply a testament to the existence of that war), he said that fiction does have a unique ability to relate the details of conflict in a unconventional way.

“It is perfectly understandable that people become inured to the violence when it is presented to them in the same way for ten years or more,” Powers said. “Art will sometimes allow you to see the same thing in a new way.”

However, Powers’ deftest touch is saved for the inner monologues of Private Bartle. The intermittent reflections are presented as if to suggest some eternal convergence with the grand soliloquy of war.

“Maybe if things happened a little differently…” Private Bartle reflects. “But things happened the way they happened without regard for our desire for them to have happened another way.”

What bleeds from these passages are not the musings of a stubborn and hungry war-machine created by the world’s most powerful military, it’s the seething helplessness felt by those tasked with responsibilities most colossal: to feign power when positioned as pawn.

This admission of powerlessness is what military leaders cover up with badges and stripes, it’s the sense they physically shake loose when smacking their soldiers awake before each firefight. None of this takes away from the soldiers bravery, though. In fact, Powers’ words only strengthen that: to be courageous is to be afraid and commit yourself to duty in spite of that fear.

As the details of the Private Murphy’s death arise —late in the novel— the narrative twists, keeping the viewer enraptured as war forces its way into life at home. When Murphy’s death is deemed criminally curious to military investigators, Private Bartle is trapped under the final consequence of that small, passing promise made to Murphy’s mother.

The reader follows Bartle as he bears this punishment with steady control and calmness —as if the routine of prison pleasantly reminds him of combat boots and body armor, when his minutes and meals, miles and memories weren’t truly his own, either.

But the impact on the reader (or at least me) was profound: that justice (in some principled, practiced, way) doesn’t, and perhaps cannot, exist when war is involved. It wasn’t judicious that Bartle’s and Murphy’s translator was murdered (or that helping the US troops required the translator to wear a mask to obscure his identity and protect his family). It wasn’t judicious when the soldiers fired their bullets into the body of an old woman who drove a car down the wrong street at the wrong moment. It wasn’t judicious that, in seeking to protect the feelings of a friend’s mother, Private Bartle surely damaged the feelings and relations with his own. Powers show us that there is little, if anything, judicious about war and the places it touches.

But as the book pulls to a close, Powers leaves the reader with the final image: A body, now lost to time, being swept into the vast expanse of a Middle Eastern waterway. It is the return to the elemental, in the same way that the book’s title embraces the natural world, that strikes as most profound.

War, like the systems that it corrupts, seems a natural and composite element of our world. What it takes away, it never fully replaces. War shows no remorse, utters no apology, and strives only to satisfy itself. For in taking the lives of men (and women), it proves to be the ultimate predator.

Tearing Pages: War in Prose at the New Yorker Festival

“You’re asking to tell someone else’s story,” said author ZZ Packer. “At some point you feel like a vessel instead of a stenographer.”

While some would argue that the coveted ticket for this year’s festival is David Remnick’s conversation with Jonathan Franzen Saturday morning, an opening night panel on writing and War with Tim O’Brien, ZZ Packer and Chang-rae Lee – authors of fiction who have dealt with the topic of war in unique ways – commands attention.

Most familiar in this crowd is O’Brien whose novels – almost too many to count – have been praised for their clarity of research, economy of words and, in some of his collection – the rending detail of the characters bred and bled in wartime.

As a drafted combat troop in Vietnam, O’Brien’s experience on the battlefield informs his manner of reportage and shapes his gripping storytelling. By luring the reader into his dutifully modeled world, O’Brien replicates the experience that drew him to writing in the first place.

It was watching his father, backlit by the sunset, sitting with a transported look on his face as he thumbed the pages of a novel that drew O’Brien to fiction.

“I wished I was the book,” said O’Brien, somewhat wistfully. Constructing prose that would “make [his stories] feel real,” he said. Fiction became a mission, of sorts, but not without its limitations.

Fiction is, in its most realistic, the recounting of the world through the eyes, ears, and words of the author. But, while O’Brien says that writers like him, “take the world [they] live in and run it through their typewriter,” only to come out “kind of like the real world.” For O’Brien, this flexibility and subjectivity becomes a mode through which larger questions can be tackled.

“You don’t find truth” through fiction, said O’Brien, “you surround it.”

Surrounding truth, however, is not a simple task.

ZZ Packer, now in year eight or nine of her novel on Buffalo Soldiers (African Americans who fought on the side of the Union Army in the Civil War) has oscillated between intense research and giving herself the space to write, creatively – honestly – about the topic.

“You’re asking to tell someone else’s story,” Packer said. “At some point you feel like a vessel instead of a stenographer.”

This space to write is so critical for the development of good fiction, concluded the panel, and that there are specific times when the author needs to feels the material, gain confidence from their hours, days, months of research, and finally write from a position of security — fleeting as this security might be. Constantly in tension are questions of truth and authenticity and an honest acceptance that the telling of stories can obscure as much as it can unearth the truths sought.

For instance, action and entertainment that result through the characters in a story can be a “malignant force,” according to Packer. This force has the potential to overwhelm character, to cheapen authenticity for ‘cheap thrills.’

For ZZ Packer, the mention of action or excitement in her ongoing work – revealed in short sections for the New Yorker and Granta – are enough to make her cringe. While she never clarified the clear cause of the unease, one could assert from her previous literary work that she may find something authentic about the mundane.

The individuating characteristics lend originality – and gravity – to the prose produced and places the author in a position unique in both time and space.

Thus it was Chiang-Lee heritage as a Korean-born American with a father affected by the Korean War that sparked an interest in tackling dominant tropes of identity and belonging – flavored further by experience. Probing the topic of war for insight, and with care, is something that is so often attempted but indelicately done.

“There are two dominant stories today,” said Lee. “There are war stories and there are after-war stories.” Both of them, it seems, stand as tacit endorsement of conflict itself.

However, he continued, when you are presented with such evidence of life, love and loss, “reality is overwhelming.” Fiction, confirming the claims of O’Brien and Packer, allows the author to tell a story that – strictly speaking – is “not my story and never was,” said Lee. There is something, however, that suggests it is a story worth telling.

In the end, stories that move, challenge, and persist are still just collections of singular “moments of human possibility,” as Lee calls it. Fiction, after all, may be the knitting together of everyday observations and experience, but at its most essential it deftly stitches finite parts into a meaningful whole.