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Table of contents :
Curating and Re-Curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
Acknowledgments and Preface
Introduction: Whose Wars Are on View?
1 America’s Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
2 Museums, Memorials, and Novels as Sites of War Knowledge
3 The Smithsonian Curates America’s Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
4 The American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq at a Memorial, Cemetery, and a Traveling Tribute to Veterans
5 Bodies of War Curate the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
6 Remembering, Forgetting, Curating, and Re-Curating War
Curating and Re-Curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
Curating and Re-Curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq Christine Sylvester
3 Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and certain other countries. Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America. © Oxford University Press 2019 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, by license, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reproduction rights organization. Inquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above. You must not circulate this work in any other form and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer. CIP data is on file at the Library of Congress ISBN 978–0–19–084055–6 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Printed by Sheridan Books, Inc., United States of America
Acknowledgments and Preface vii
Introduction: Whose Wars Are on View? 1
PART I | Commemorating
the American Wars in
Vietnam and Iraq
1 America’s Wars in Vietnam and Iraq 21
2 Museums, Memorials, and Novels as Sites of War Knowledge 45
PART II | Curating
Memory and Knowledge of American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
3 The Smithsonian Curates America’s Wars in Vietnam and Iraq 73
4 The American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq at a Memorial, Cemetery, and a Traveling Tribute to Veterans 102
5 Bodies of War Curate the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq 139
6 Remembering, Forgetting, Curating, and Re-Curating War 169 Appendix 183 Notes 185 References 197 Index 211
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS AND PREFACE
his project focusing on two wars and three genres of war displays has taken up most of my time for two years. It would have taken even more time had I not received a one-year faculty fellowship at the University of Connecticut’s Humanities Institute to research and write- up this study. Among many people to thank, the first is Michael Lynch and all staff and fellows of the Institute (and the external reviewers) who encouraged this project. Lynch directs the Humanities Institute, oversees a funded project on Humility and Conviction in Public Life, and has numerous books; my favorite at this moment in America is True to Life: Why Truth Matters (Bradford, 2005). Cathy Schlund-Vials of the Asian and Asian-American Studies program, another valued colleague, read my proposal for the Humanities Institute and offered important suggestions. The go-to person on all things Vietnamese, she is the author of War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work (Minnesota, 2012). Huge appreciation to both. Others to thank at UConn include Micki McElya, a History colleague, for good times during this project (Gaga anyone?) and for ensuring I would not make mistakes in characterizing Arlington Cemetery—she of The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery (Harvard, 2016). Eleni Coundouriotis is in the Department of English, and as soon as I arrived at UConn in 2012, she brought me into her interdisciplinary yearlong program on studying war and asked probing questions on my work. She is the author of The People’s Right to the Novel: War Fiction in the Postcolony (Fordham, 2014). Alexis Boylan, art historian, colleague, friend, and concert co-conspirator with Micki, makes me laugh and keeps
me from going overboard when discussing museum curatorship. Her latest is Ashcan Art, Whiteness, and the Unspectacular Man (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). Kudos. You are all great colleagues. I had planned to conduct interviews for this study but abandoned that idea early on for an observational methodology requiring significant time on the ground, watching curators and visitors, assessing designs and layouts, and getting into the experiential and institutional contexts of the research without being intrusive. It turned out to be the right decision and made me work harder to grasp what I was seeing and hearing. Before making that decision I contacted David Allison, Project Director of The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History with a sheet of questions. I thank him for taking time to address points that were not fully formed in my mind yet. I should also say that I deliberately relinquish theory-laden analytics in most of the book, striving instead for accessible expository writing that hopefully conveys both the professional and ordinary curatorial experiences I have witnessed. Thanks also to Christian Appy, the critical scholar of the Vietnam War, for talking about the war with my graduate class on War, the Humanities, and International Relations and also giving a public lecture on the history of American nuclear strategy; in later correspondence he improved my wording of one of his statements, thankfully. I leaned heavily on all his research including American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Penguin, 2015). Peter Molin the former military officer who writes the excellent blog Time Now: The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Art, Film, and Literature directed me to blog posts relevant to the literary works in Chapter 5. I appreciate his help and interest—and never fail to read his blog. I also want to thank Viet Thanh Nguyen for spending time at UConn in 2018 discussing his recent works, which I cite throughout the book: The Refugees (Grove Press, 2017), Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard, 2016), and the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer (Grove, 2015). James E. Young gets a shout-out for his stimulating Humanities Institute lecture on design and memory issues at war memorials; a jurist for the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, his recent Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between (Massachusetts, 2016) has been indispensable. Esteemed and generous colleagues, thanks. I also want to recognize two UConn PhD students for producing work that I cite here. Timothy Bussey, now working at Kenyon College, completed his doctorate under my supervision in 2018 on the “Lavender Security
viii | Acknowledgments and Preface
Threats: Understanding the Histories of Discrimination Against Gay and Lesbian Persons in the American Military and Intelligence Communities.” It is cutting edge. Dabney Waring wrote an inspiring class paper on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: “Capturing Surplus Memory: Symbolic Failure and Political Absence.” Both have brilliant careers ahead of them. Now the more personal thanks. Michael Weil, my wonderful British husband, was (mostly) heroic during this ten-hours-a-day project. His help was invaluable on research trips and at home when my cranky computer acted up. His own interests in the Vietnam War run deep, stimulated by American Studies and the American draft dodgers he knew while living in Sweden during the Vietnam War. Michael’s stash of materials relevant to this research also saved me many trips to the library. Big, big thanks to a cool dude. To my supporters in Mystic: Bibi, Mary, Lori, Maya, and Maryann, thanks for food, conversation, and friendship. To enduring Flagstaff friends: Hi-fives to Karen, Debra, Dave, and Dmitri, all of whom remain intense political interlocutors, as is Julie in Phoenix. This has been a homegirl project. The main financial contributors, to whom I am most grateful, were the Humanities Institute, the Humanities Book support award committee, the Scholarship Facilitation Fund, the Department of Political Science, and the program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities Studies, all at the University of Connecticut. Most of the images in this book reflect the generosity of the artists and assistance of many people and galleries. Special thanks to the Kehinde Wiley Studio; Catherine Dowman; the National Gallery of Australia and the Pollock- Krasner Foundation/Artist Rights Society; National Museum of American History (Kay Peterson, Archives Center); and the National Portrait Gallery (Deborah Sisum, Head of New Media and Production). Cheers all and errors all mine. Christine Sylvester December 2018 Mystic, Connecticut
Acknowledgments And Preface | ix
Curating and Re-Curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
Introduction Whose Wars Are on View?
1994, Canberra I was not au fait with the collection of the National Gallery of Australia before my initial visit in 1994. I knew the museum was in its infancy relative to encyclopedic art museums of Europe and the United States, yet quickly realized that it possessed an impressive, albeit limited, collection of modernist works from Australia and the world. Rounding the corner of a central exhibition space that first day, I remember entering a somewhat smaller room to the side. There, on the wall straight ahead, was a large colorful abstract painting. I did not know it at first sight as Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952, see color insert 1). I just saw a picture that stunned me, held me in its gaze, and forced my gaze onto it for longer than a work of art had before. And the painting kept beckoning me back. I spent hours, weeks, with Blue Poles during the years I worked at the then National Center for Development Studies at the Australian National University. I was around it so often I became an object of some curiosity at the National Gallery of Australia. Initially, the attraction was the mess of colors, the daring and bold paint application and the thundering beat and guitar riffs rolling off it. I recall inspecting every inch of the painting, from left to right and then from right to left, up from down, down from up, as if it held secrets I could decipher. It sure did, and the secrets I learned were actually out in the open. Embedded in Blue Poles was an international war relations that splashed out American energies and aspirations going haywire during the cold war, so haywire that bountiful colors running gorgeously amuck had to be contained by eight painted poles; I interpreted these, unconventionally, as military-grade assault rifles (Sylvester, 1996).
The Australians purchased Blue Poles in 1973, setting off a political brouhaha that helped topple Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. One big issue was the price of the painting—AUD$1.3 million, or USD$2 million, hefty for a modernist work at that time, and paid from public coffers. The timing of the purchase during the waning days of the unpopular American war in Vietnam was also a problem. Australia had fought alongside American forces from 1965 to 1972, even as scores of people at home demanded it pull out. Whitlam admired this painting that broke with tradition, something he hoped to do in Australia throughout his political tenure; but he also remarked, humorously when challenged, that “it was a form of overseas aid, an attempt to redress the adverse state of America’s [Vietnam era] balance of payments” (Barrett, 2001: 2). Whitlam was as quirky and bold as the painting. “No Australian political leader had even cared or dared align themselves so closely, so publicly, with questions of art and aesthetics” (p. 2). His embrace of Blue Poles was also total: he even put the painting’s image on the official prime minister’s Christmas card. The big American splash-out was like a personal logo, Whitlam’s proof of intent to move Australia into the global era and do so with panache. So confident of his judgment was Whitlam that he sent “his” painting off on a countrywide tour six months after its acquisition for the entire nation to appreciate. That did not go well. Many people went to see the famous painting hoping to find something they could identify in it—a figure, a landscape, a portrait. From remarks at the time, it is clear that many wondered if perhaps they were looking at the work of an overexcited child left alone with color tubes. And the distaste was not short-lived. As late as 1994, more than twenty years after the purchase, a middle-class family stood in front of the painting at the National Gallery of Australia and pronounced it to me—who was attending my own business—“repulsive, not worth the money.” Theirs was not an outlier or lagged reaction. Blue Poles was not embraced by the Australian viewing public early on, just as abstract expressionism was unpopular with average Americans when it first came on view. But even years later, this family would not acquiesce to the political decision to purchase Blue Poles; not acquiesce to an aesthetic they disliked. Unconvinced Australian art viewers made it clear that public consent to an official line can be thin or nonexistent, defying the efforts of experts to define “for subordinate groups what is realistic and what is not realistic” (Scott, 1990: 102).1 Meanwhile, I fell deeper into the stories cum aesthetics of the painting and witnessed with some chagrin very experienced museum docents striving to sell the painting’s virtues to a persistently skeptical public.
2 | Introduction
I overheard enough conversations at the picture in the 1990s to realize that average Australians could not understand why this cultural object from America was a big deal at all, let alone for Australia. Even into the early millennium years I heard docents resorting to parlor international relations to persuade viewers of its worth: “the United States is jealous of us because we are the ones who have this painting.” It was all so audacious: a great American painting hanging in the Australian capital against the backdrop of a bad war in Vietnam that Australia helped Americans shoulder to the end; remarkable public disdain for a work some called a gimmick; and the jumble of vibrant colors with potentially sinister weapons that make up big Blue Poles. That painting was the war object tucked most tightly in my mind as I took up this project.2 ———— Who is an authority on a war, able to truly experience it, represent it, and influence public discourse about it? The Pentagon? Leading politicians? Allies? Academic specialists in war studies? Various branches of the media? Soldiers? Victims of war? Antiwar protesters? Families of those who fight or die? Ordinary people going about their business in and out of war zones? Paintings? Curators of war exhibitions? War novelists? Whose war knowledge is displayed where and how, and with what impact? War is violent, armed politics intended to inflict injury on the bodies and societies of those it engages, whether directly or as “collateral damage” to buildings and bodies nearby (Scarry, 1985; Sylvester, 2013a). War is often studied, however, from a state-centric perspective, as in one country or coalition bringing collective violence to bear on other states. We know from instances of war in the past and present that armed identity groups can wage war against each other, against civilians, and against and with states simultaneously. One need only think today of the ISIS phenomenon that grew out of wars in Iraq and Syria, or Boko Haram in parts of West and North Africa, or the shifting militias that regularly form and re-form in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although it is tempting to believe that war is an exceptional politics, or war afflicts only some parts of the world, war is transhistorical, transnational, and transcultural. It is a global social institution along with other long-standing institutions such as family, religion, and gender. No location is absent war preparation, war talk, war waging, war denunciation, or war celebration. Yet there are differences between wars of the past and many current wars. Whereas the world wars of the twentieth century were declared, carried out mainly by state militaries, and usually ended in clear victories and peace treaties, it can be difficult
Introduction | 3
to discern all the forces involved in some of today’s wars, let alone imagine what a “win” would look like in some of them. Wars can go on and on in various forms and with forces and raison d’état changing over time. War is so normalized that it has entered everyday lexicon in the United States: “war” on drugs, war on crime, war on poverty, war on cancer. Some will remember talk about a peace dividend at the end of the cold war. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the post–cold war period would mark a new beginning for diplomacy over conflict. It turned out, however, to be a period full of conflict that carried on relentlessly and leeched into the contemporary moment, putting many societies on edge today. Cynicism is rampant about international institutions established after World War II to promote cooperation, resolve disagreements and assist with emergencies, institutions like the European Union, the United Nations, and the Bretton Woods financial regulators. According to voters in the United Kingdom and the United States in 2016, it is better to go it on one’s own than embrace, for example, the successful EU regional community. In the era of human rights, life is also remarkably cheap. Guns are more readily available around the world than regular sources of nutrition, and they are frequently used to settle disagreements (Overton, 2016); even a head of state who received a Nobel Peace Prize allowed guns to turn on a minority group in Myanmar. War concerns have pumped up military budgets in the United States, Russia, China, and North Korea. Violent militant groups regularly spill across areas of North Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, as do American special operations involved in so many conflicts that some call this the era of forever war (Filkins, 2009). A New York Times editorial pleaded in October 2017 “it is time to take stock of how broadly American forces are already committed to far-flung regions and to begin thinking hard about how much of that investment is necessary, how long it should continue and whether there is a strategy beyond just killing terrorists.” By its count, “the United States has been at war continuously since the attacks of 9/11 and now has just over 240,000 active-duty and reserve troops in at least 172 countries and territories.”3 I argue that contemporary wars cannot be apprehended through one perspective, methodology, vantage point, or theory. There is no ultimate cause or center in what Mary Kaldor (1999) called the new wars. Wars might start under one authority or in one location and change as new commanders, social forces, and goals emerge from the crucible of violence. Foucauldians say power begets power. In Iraq, the American shock and awe bombardment of Baghdad that aimed to produce a short, decisive war, produced instead a variety of new power centers that culminated in
4 | Introduction
ISIS, a war force that did not exist as such in 2003. Vietnam had gone just as badly as shadowy power centers bogged down the United States in a war that neither superior airpower nor plentiful infantry patrols could tame. The pathways along both wars are strewn with dead bodies of soldiers and civilians, ours and theirs and each side’s allies—corpses of two wars the United States chose to start and did not win. In this book, I look for knowledge of America’s failed wars in Vietnam and Iraq in places that can seem secondary or tangential to the usual locations and kinds of actors accorded authority on war. I look in museums, memorials, a cemetery, and on the pages of war novels and memoirs. Whose experiences and memories of these wars qualify for public viewing and whose war is out of the picture at these sites? What is the arc of politics at each venue of war knowledge? In the field I know best, international relations, people and their prosaic memories, cherished objects of war, and struggles with loss get kicked to the curb for a preferred focus on higher level war causes, war types, war strategies, weapons systems, and other power-laden considerations. The main proposition underlying this project is that unless people, public places of commemoration, and untold “ordinary” war experiences are brought into war studies, in international relations and other social science fields, wars cannot be comprehended in the round as politics and practice, preparation and execution, injury and exhilaration, memory and multicentered knowledge (Sylvester, 2011a, 2011b, 2013a, 2015). The picture of any war will always be massively incomplete when the people who experience war are assigned back-lot positions in a statist drama.
America’s Wars in Vietnam and Iraq Americans are regularly in wars and have been since World War II and the cold war era that followed. Vietnam was the site of one war that became just as unpopular among the public in the United States as it was in Australia. Americans lost that war ignominiously, their first such defeat. In the aftermath, the military lost its vaunted reputation, a government in Washington fell—in a sense, when Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection to the presidency—and many Americans snubbed their war veterans when they returned stateside. Over fifteen years that war had produced 58,000-plus dead Americans, upward of 3 million dead Vietnamese, and around a million Cambodian and Laotian casualties. In the end, the Vietnamese communists won the American war in their
Introduction | 5
country, and the party reigns there today. Yet so many decades later, that unsuccessful, humiliating war fascinates elements of the American public, not least its booming war-memory industry. The Vietnam War is the subject of numerous written and cinematic accounts, as well as object displays in museums, at war memorials and in cemeteries. It is also a conflict many ordinary Americans experienced in some way and can reconstruct in considerable personal detail, as Viet Thanh Nguyen’s works, which appear throughout this book, demonstrate. Children of American military and Vietnamese women, now in their forties, can still seek ways to remember their fathers. Refugees from the war live in vibrant communities in the United States that have erected their own memorials to the war. Generations that remember the war, know family war stories, actually fought with or worked alongside the American military, keep the war memories alive in important prosaic ways that can get lost or minimized in the usual historiographies. The American war in Iraq began roughly thirty years after the American war in Vietnam ended; it officially finished in late 2011 with the withdrawal of US troops. The United States undertook the war while still attacking Afghanistan for enabling the 9/11 tragedies in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. At that moment, fear and shock across America lent plausibility to the idea that a quick air attack on Baghdad would drive out a regime that survived President George H. W. Bush’s 1991 Desert Storm war to save Kuwait and could turn its ire on the United States. Bush’s son was president in 2003 and claimed Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction to use against the United States in alliance with al-Qaeda. The administration was able to convince the United Nations and a coalition of international forces, Australia among them, to help save the world from Iraq. The war commenced in March 2003. It was still carrying on in various forms in 2017. Neither rationale for it was accurate: to this day, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq and no government links with al-Qaeda have surfaced. At the time, however, a frightened and angry American public was primed to buy the line that Iraq was an existential threat to the United States and had to be handled immediately. When the administration could not come up with evidence to back up its justifications for war, the Bush administration tried shifting its rationale to the promotion of democracy and liberation of Iraqi women. By 2006, however, polls showed “more than 60% of the public opposed the war” (Appy, 2015: 305), while 72% of “American troops in Iraq said the United States should withdraw within a year” (p. 315). Altogether, the hapless American war in Iraq amassed an American military casualty
6 | Introduction
count near 5,000 and Iraqi casualties estimated at over 250,000 by late 2016 (www.iraqbodycount.org). Iraq was not only another war the United States was unable to win (Bolger, 2014; Bailey and Immerman, 2015). It was a war that created many more problems than it solved, paving the way for ISIS and its offshoots operating in West Africa, for terrorist attacks against civilians in the West, and for an unprecedented surge of refugees fleeing expanding war zones. And the war is not over as I write. The Pentagon is still present in Iraq mainly as military “advisers” to the government.4 Efforts of antiwar groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Code Pink (Rowe, 2013) notwithstanding, the US public has had less information about that American incursion than it had about daily and even hourly aspects of the war in Vietnam. Silence on the actual conduct of the war, including casualties sustained on both sides, has provided an opportunity for American veterans of the Iraq war to be hailed unquestioningly as exemplary heroes of our time, though few people know anything about their duties in Iraq. Having lived outside the United States much of my professional life, I find these post-9/11 American rituals cringe-worthy. Many American heroes go unlauded under a current regime of militarist truth, among them cancer researchers and educators who try to protect students from school shooters. When I voice that view, people look at me in amazement. Hallelujahs for the military have reached such a crescendo that those who resist them can be disciplined and punished by fellow citizens. Remain seated as the New York Yankees celebrate the military at their seventh inning stretch and you wind up picking gum out of your hair. If you are a sports star, a public show of even mild disapproval of America’s problem at home with inequality can lead to death threats on social media, unemployment, lost commercial endorsements, and Twitter attacks by the US president.5 The story of America at this time has recycled its war instrumentalities and the themes it likes best of a force for good at home and in the world (Cunningham, 2004). My interest is to ascertain how a range of unacknowledged authorities on the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq curate those two wars today under the bright lights of renewed militarism.
The Backdrop: Militarism in Our Time This book has been written at a particular moment in American history. It is a time that sees the United States struggling with numerous aftermaths
Introduction | 7
of its interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a time of covert military operations the American public is often not allowed to know about let alone glimpse. It is a moment when the only regularly feted hero- citizens have served the country in one primary way: through the military. America at war is such a sacralized aspect of national life that details of each war have little newsworthiness. I regularly teach courses on the wars of our time to university students at the flagship state university in progressive Connecticut. The students rarely know much about them, claiming, “Our American history classes in high school ended just as we got to the Vietnam War.” They stand and holler for military personnel celebrated at sporting events because “Americans have always done that, haven’t they”; my advice on that view is to talk to a Vietnam War veteran. For many of today’s students, militarism does not have a name. It is just how things are in patriotic America: we have to fight enemies that challenge “us” from many beachheads. Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton (2016b, SR7) says the latest version of militarism grows out of a long-standing and rejuvenated myth that “war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes. Whom we’re fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it will renew the body politic.” He is critical of American militarism, but it is exactly that normalized militarism that some of my students accept without question. Richard Slotkin (1973) earlier traced a strand of warrior America to the early days of a settler country that saw Native Americans and European “tyrants” as threats to its freedom. Today’s version is liberal militarism, which Victoria Basham (2018: 32) finds operating “when military actions and preparedness become meaningful responses to threats posed to the social body, not just the state.” American militarism takes sustenance from the global geopolitical edginess of the times. Partnered with a myth that war refreshes the country, no matter its target or outcome, the result can be a widespread conviction that Americans today have freedom only because some citizens fight for it. The warrior-America formula conveniently leaps over all the threats to American society of our own making—racism, sexism, and economic inequality among them. Andrew Bacevich (2010, 2013) writes extensively about the military in contemporary American culture and offers two additional factors to account for recent militarism and soldier love. One is the all-volunteer military established late in the American war in Vietnam, which grew a professional organization so shielded from public accountability that the Department of Defense can operate today like a corporation guarding its
8 | Introduction
business plans and practices from public scrutiny. Richard Nixon ended the draft in some measure to quell raging public sentiment against the American war in Vietnam. Thirty years later, George W. Bush could count on public acquiescence to war against Afghanistan in part because there was no draft and no need to place the economy on a war footing. George W. Bush’s earnest message to America shortly after 9/11 was to trust the professional military to handle the terrorists. As Bacevich retorts, a public that knows little about wars Washington conducts is likely to support any American war as long as the fighting is left to others.6 As for politicians, “as long as they make a show of supporting the troops, they are able to evade accountability” (Bacevich, 2018: 27). Separation from the daily mechanics of war has enabled militarist thinking to drill down so deep that Bacevich calls it America’s civic religion. Certainly it “is a powerful producer of historical narratives, particularly those that serve to justify and legitimize not just the use of violence in global affairs but also the economic and social organization of the polity required to produce the capability for such violence” (Davis and Philpott, 2012: 49). Not surprisingly, war situations in which American military behave dishonorably, suffer debilitating post-traumatic stress, or die in service can be less visible in today’s militarist time. So are nearly all the people on the other sides of our wars. American civilians carrying on normal activities at home can ignore everything going on “over there” and everyone affected. Issues emerge only with a catastrophic event—American or Russian forces shell an apartment building in Syria or Yemen or target hospital facilities “by mistake.”7 As journalists have been disallowed from independently roaming war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, as some did in Vietnam, many Americans have no way to conjure the war that local people experience; even the visual images local artists create are often out of sight (Wessels, 2015). Ignored, denied authority, or overdubbed by patriotic phrases with greeting card cadences are many decentralized voices and memories of the war. A general acceptance of militarism in the United States can be seen in indifferent reactions to disclosures that would have alarmed Americans during the war in Vietnam. In November 2015, then Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake reported that many patriotic displays staged at major sporting events were clandestinely orchestrated and financed by the Department of Defense as vehicles for military recruitment. The two senators denounced the practice as “paid patriotism” and requested all institutional recipients return taxpayer money used for such performances (Barron-Lopez and Waldron, 2015). Although the incendiary report made the papers and evening news, the public did not react. Americans were
Introduction | 9
accustomed to such activities by then, including the caveat in George W. Bush’s federal education policy of No Child Left Behind that allowed military recruitment in public high schools (Enloe, 2010). Remarkably, there was little organized parental backlash to the idea that military personnel could appear in school lunchrooms on a regular basis, and they could gather the names of high school seniors and send those names to the Department of Defense. Accustomed to everyday militarism, militarization of civilian spaces would seem par for the course. It is important to be aware of the current national acceptance of militarism when considering curatorial displays of America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq. In today’s climate, military failings get wrapped in mantras of war glory and soldier heroism, which is one reason this book looks away from the American state and its military wings to places where militarist war knowledge might not rule.
The Research Sites Recognizing I would have missed aspects of the American and Australian war in Vietnam had I not entered a museum and noticed Blue Poles, the focus here is on the kinds of knowledge of America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq that comes through textual and object displays. I entered such spaces not as an art historian, museum professional, war survivor, war historian, or literary analyst. I entered as a student of international relations seeking war knowledge in places my field would reject as nonauthoritative. I have looked to see whether objects and themes that a variety of war curators— professional and ordinary—assemble and display reflect today’s militarist values or send other messages to viewers. As for novels and memoirs, those platforms explicitly foreground war as myriad experiences of violent social interactions that are routinely passed over at other memorial venues. Museum displays are first in the lineup. I focus on two institutions in the Smithsonian system: the National Museum of American History primarily and, to a lesser extent, the National Air and Space Museum and annex (the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center) near Dulles International Airport. Partly supported by government funds, and laying claim in their titles to the “national,” it would be surprising if military themes did not lead in exhibits there. Nonetheless, Smithsonian curators are museum professionals tasked with arranging displays that can “inspire a broader understanding of our nation and its many peoples . . . [with] exhibitions and programs as accessible as possible to all visitors.”8 To fulfill that mission would seem to require
10 | Introduction
some attention to diverse views, participants, and moments of national success and failure. Of interest here is how each museum presents aspects of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq via object displays, design elements, and informational texts, and the assumptions underlying curatorial choices. A second set of display locations encompasses the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. Both sites exist only because war produces military mortalities. The Memorial lists names of the American armed forces who died in Vietnam at a built site where members of communities of war loss and others present objects that individualize the names. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has been so well received by the public that a facsimile is trucked to towns across America for even more people to see; I observed two of these mobile memorials when they came to West Haven and Preston Connecticut in October and November 2016. Directly across the Potomac River from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is Arlington National Cemetery, where 430,000 American military, dignitaries, and family members are buried. Section 60 is reserved for military deaths that occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq. There, as at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, people engage in what I term “ordinary curating” to show memento mori that reflect on a time period, a war, and known individuals laid to rest there; most leavings display elements of everyday people who became American soldiers, ordinary curators having been schooled in experiences of war mortality not war hosannas. I also read many novels and memoirs of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq with an eye on how the authors curate small moments of war in experiential terms.9 Memoirs face personal experiences directly while war novels can avoid “the perils of telling” that remembering in exact detail can enkindle.10 In either case, the writer can be thought of as curating miniatures of the wars they imagine or have experienced in part. Their tales slice into and through tropes of patriotism and gallant service to deliver tight shots of deadly practices, dodgy orders followed or refused, ethical dilemmas at every turn, and sights and rationales that disturb or calm the mind. Literary expositions of civilian war experiences present the social relations of war in situ, something social science treatments of war can miss or choose to ignore.
Curating War Curation is associated with museum practices of collecting, archiving, organizing, and displaying material objects in ways that convey meaning
Introduction | 11
to viewers. The museum curator is a professional “who enables the knowing of others” and their things (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992: 168). Of course, viewer subjectivities influence how they interpret the knowledge presented to them, which means the visitor takeaway from any exhibition can differ greatly from the intent of professional curators (Pugliese, 2006). Much of the time, however, museum visitors view “fully completed and immaculately presented displays” (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992: 7), having as little knowledge of the decision rules the curators apply as they have, say, of today’s wars. Curators craft displays as expert authorities on a subject. Visitors mostly admire, accept, and imbibe the curator knowledge. Professionally trained curators are said to bring a “gaze” to their ensembles (Bryson, 1988; Harris, 2001) that guides object selection. A gaze is a way of looking at, placing, and evaluating a work that relies on the authority of usual practice or accumulated expertise. Feminist scholars, for example, talk about a male gaze guiding art history traditions populated with female nudes, nudes of men less so, and with women depicted in passive domestic poses. Those preferences show the normalization of masculine gaze in outlooks, interests, and social privileges transferred to art appreciation (Mulvey, 1989; Kleinfelder, 1993; Broude and Garrard, 1992). Arguably, a kindred war gaze foregrounds men doing war using characteristic objects like rifles, cannons, and grenades. Women, if they appear at all, do so as nurses attending wounded men rather than combatants wounding men through their own war efforts. Jean Bethke Elshtain (1987) presented the gendered gaze on war as a binary of “just warriors” and “beautiful souls.” Jean Gallagher (1998: 3; emphasis in original) says “men ‘see battle’; women, as noncombatants par excellence do not.” Today, women may participate in warring, if they meet the standards set for men. The question this raises is whether and how some curators of war replicate or repudiate the gendered gaze in their displays. It applies equally to writers and object curations that condense panoramic wars into details that do not appear in other kinds of war displays. Whose war gaze orders the curated words? What curators present as knowledge and students of war learn about America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq from sites of curation is part of the larger question of war authority. Each display presents opportunities to visualize a war through a curator’s gaze. To ponder how war is displayed where is to consider whether some curations draw viewers into complicity with militarist myths of American wars or challenge conventional wisdom, knowingly or not, through curations that show alternative war knowledge.
12 | Introduction
Object Power “Things exist even when humans die.” (Nguyen, 2016: 164)
Museums display objects as do memorials and cemeteries. War novels and memoirs contain things on every page, including abjections of war that cannot be shown in museums, left at memorials, or be seen at cemeteries— dead, damaged, or rotting bodies among them. All are objects that convey some knowledge and power of interpretation, but how much power do objects possess? There are basically two starting points for considering this question. An anthropocentric entry gives humans power of agency over nonhuman things. The human is the instigator of knowledge and action, with all feedback loops returning to that home base, which means only humans can imbue nonhuman materials with importance or not. This would mean that for something to be associated with war, the human must make the object or make the association, individually or socially. Objects of war, from that starting point, are socially constituted. The second general direction of thought on objects has a posthumanist or “new materialist” starting point. Humans are not fully in charge of our existence. Nonhuman things have some power to engage, influence, or work in assemblages with humans and other nonhuman elements; in some cases, material things have an agency that can operate apart from human efforts, as electrical currents or bacteria in the body. From that perspective, an object of war could exert power in a relationship with humans; arguably, in war a soldier’s assault rifle is so essential that it almost becomes a body part. A combination of the two approaches is also common, such that humans and nonhumans are mutually constituted as material objects in a range of assemblages. Here one can imagine a painting as a powerful object of war in the sense that it compels the human viewer’s attention and might become famous. It is important to bear in mind, however, that typical Australian visitors to their national gallery have not thought much of a famous painting that “speaks” to me. The power in that context lies in an exchange between the viewer and the painting. Blue Poles compels me. Other people might walk right past it. The idea that material objects can operate at various levels of agency commands considerable attention in philosophy, history, women’s studies, technology studies, art history, international relations, ecology studies, and cultural studies (e.g., Latour, 1993; Alaimo and Stacey, 2009; Turkle,
Introduction | 13
2007; Daston, 2008; Bennett, 2010; Salter and Mutlu, 2013; Sylvester 2013b). It has also commanded attention historically. Pagan spirituality and early Christianity granted action, power, and determination to higher divinities thought to rule humans capriciously. The European Enlightenment relocated agency to humans. Marxists later asserted the centrality of economic materialism to all human life, with the mode of production at any time determining social relations of production and culture. Today, new materialists argue that things—those barely recognizable cans we kick down the street—and the valued and named objects we work with daily and display in museums and in our homes—participate in the social life of humans and animals in instrumental ways. How particular objects work in varied venues is the issue. Even those who are not necessarily materialists note the power of objects. Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016: 164) remarks that museums “often give more space to things than people.” Alma Wittlin (1970: 203) declares that objects in museums are the “main means of communication.” Steven Conn has asked Do Museums Still Need Objects? (2010), pointing out that they exhibit fewer objects these days relative to the range of interactive educational (and commercial) activities they host. Patti Smith (2015: 161), punker, poet, and awarded memoirist, devotes much of her book M Train to the power of lost things to “claw through the membranes, attempting to summon our attention through an indecipherable mayday;” things can attempt, in her words, to be treasured objects of humans. Recent wars in the Middle East are at least partially supported by the sale of looted antiquities dug from the earth or stolen from museums. Local people are not unaware of their existence prior to the conflicts; rather, at certain times, ancient vases and busts take on power and value for humans (Sylvester, 2013b). Whether the objects claw through, the humans claw down, or both work in tandem, is an open question in the object-human-power configuration. Note, however, that up to the point of human intervention, some objects are quiescent. One can go back and forth regarding these arguments. “Smart” objects dominate much of human life today by completing the shift from all- controlling gods, all-controlling humans, or all-controlling economic systems to object networks. But consider that the wars in Vietnam and Iraq featured showdowns between humans with advanced military technologies and those who fought very effectively using lower tech objects. The American war in Vietnam should have taught the lesson that unleashing sophisticated weapons on a population with more people power than hi- tech weapons does not mean your side will prevail. The American war in
14 | Introduction
Iraq imparts the additional lesson that shock and awe assaults on a capital city will impressively destroy much of it and also impress local humans enough to resist the assaulters and worse—precipitate civil war. Elements of materialist theorizing are fascinating. At the heart of the inquiry here, however, is the question of who is an authority on war, where, and from which experiential vantage points. I therefore take a middle position on the question of where agency lies in communicating war knowl edge: people curate objects and do so because objects filter and contain elements of human experience and are “companions to our emotional lives” (Turkle, 2007: 8). The emphasis is on relations between objects and humans who name, value, display, or write about them. Peter Bjerregaard (2015: 74), weighing in from the fields of archaeology and anthropology, which invented the modern museum, warns against “an overemphasis of the power of the individual object.” He would like to see movement toward the sense that “what we look for in the object would not be what we know of it but what we may make out of it” (p. 77; emphasis in original). Throughout this book, I consider what we know and what display curators make out of various types of war objects.
War Memories and Objects Memory studies are in vogue today, too, an interest especially germane to this project. I am taken with war-related memory analyses offered by Viet Thanh Nguyen and James E. Young. Both present critical insights into memory formation, retrieval, and display pertaining to today’s wars, but each foregrounds a different set of themes and foci. Nguyen (2016) approaches memory and war as a question of ethics. “Simply being remembered and being able to remember” (p. 33) stand for him as achievements in aftermaths of war, where forgetting is often “deliberate, strategic, even malicious . . . disremembering” (p. 40). The enemy and its society can be mindfully disremembered once soldiers end their deployments, and so can misdeeds that have been committed by one’s own troops. The society fought does exactly the same thing: remembers its war and its losses but often cannot conjure memory of its atrocities or find empathy for losses incurred by the other side. Writing about the war in Vietnam specifically, Nguyen notes that all the antagonists sought to leave the war with clean hands and with consciences sufficiently free of bad thoughts that they could enter war again if needed. By not reckoning with a war in its entirety, which always includes transgressions and illegal acts
Introduction | 15
by warring parties, civilians can remember their soldiers as heroes bravely taking on agents of wrongdoing abroad (Assman, 2011: 51). Nguyen also links remembering the full range of actions and participants in war with forgiveness that comes in recognizing the other’s deeds and misdeeds along with one’s own. War memories can then become ethical and just, rather than self-congratulatory or prone to laments of victimization. Since “the other is both human and inhuman, as are we” (Nguyen, 2016: 73), an achieved ethical memory could incubate skepticism toward future wars. It is regrettable, Nguyen notes, that only one-sided memories tend to turn up in war films, media discussions, holiday celebrations, and recycled veteran stories. Much that happens in any war is not curated at all because the people it affects and implicates are discounted as stakeholders; soldiers are the “real” stakeholders in war through whose eyes war reliably comes to life. To Nguyen, soldiers certainly do war, but they do not own war. War always includes civilians, scores of refugees among them, who are usually counted but go unrecognized as sources of knowledge on aspects of war. Cast mostly as victims or escapees, their memories can go unrecorded,11 a condition Nguyen seeks to change. James E. Young (2016) evaluates designs for contemporary war or trauma monuments and speaks to memory through issues of material memorialization. He points out that the urge to memorialize often reflects a desire “to unify disparate and competing memories,” and that urge gives rise to conventional war monuments that “propagate the illusion of common memory” (p. 15). Young detects and endorses a growing awareness in the West that it is impossible, and really unnecessary, to attain one collective memory of a war. It is preferable and far more realistic to strive for collected war stories that spread ownership of war memory across a range of citizen historians. To achieve that outcome, a monument cannot tell visitors what to think and what to remember. Rather, it must be designed to attract diverse audiences that will make of the monument what they need and desire, remaking memory and themselves as they interact with it. As against a long history of static and state-adoring monuments, Young wants architectures of remembrance to enable memory as “a never- to-be-completed process animated (not disabled) by the forces of history bringing it into being” (p. 16). For him, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial exemplifies that process by encouraging citizen curators to decide for themselves how to relate to it instead of presenting a ready-made and static script of the American war in Vietnam. A proper war-curation process must invite regular re-curations so the monuments do not become lifeless and irrelevant, like many of those bronze men astride rearing horses.
16 | Introduction
Young’s point of view can apply to war museums and cemeteries. Almost gone are the days when museum visitors moved through rooms full of objects in glass cases or paintings climbing the walls to heaven, imposing on viewers an ambiance of hushed reverence.12 Contemporary museum practice strives to meet the needs of museum aficionados as well as those who might be intimidated by the idea of being in a museum. To Steven Conn (2010: 231) museums today must be places “where we come to see ourselves.” That type of thinking can also inspire written war works that thrust readers into situations that amplify individual experience and identity. All these considerations chime with Young’s ambition for war monuments to gather individual memories and rework public memory over time. Objects of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars displayed in museums, left at monuments, or written into literary works are human companions and elements of the diverse communities that curate and view them. Like war itself, its curators and re-curators can be trained professionals or ordinary people who bow to no central authority over their object choices. At a militarist time when information on America’s wars is tightly controlled, it is useful to bear in mind and embrace shifting boundaries of war knowledge that reveal where neglected memories reside and how those can change a war over time.
Ahead The chapters that follow elaborate these themes—the contexts and legacies of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq; objects and memory displays at the Smithsonian, at a memorial, and a cemetery; and in displays of a literary kind in novels and memoirs—against a backdrop of contemporary militarism. The book is in two parts. Chapters 1 and 2 provide background on the wars and on the display sites considered here. The first chapter reminds readers of key events that characterized each war, drawing both on military and civilian accounts. This approach adheres to the broad mandate of critical war studies to study war as a realm of multiple and often underexplored expertise and experience (Sylvester, 2013a, 2015). The second chapter provides background on the sites of research: Smithsonian museums, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, and literary works that reflect on the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Chapters 3 to 5, comprising the second part of the book, examine specific war displays. Chapter 3 explores the Smithsonian museums of
Introduction | 17
American History and Air and Space for certain emblematic objects curated to put the United States in the best light possible despite outright defeat in Vietnam and a seemingly endless war in Iraq. Chapter 4 traces the history of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the facsimile that tours the United States, moving on to consider ordinary people and the objects and assemblages they bring to curate military deaths in Vietnam. Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery emerges as a politically troubled location, posing obstacles for those who wish to curate graveside displays for military members killed in Iraq. At both sites, some ordinary curators remake official landscapes of death in war to reflect their civilian-based memories of fallen individuals. Chapter 5 looks at the wars through classic novels and memoirs written from veteran and civilian perspectives on both sides of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq. This literature takes curatorship beyond museum experts and family and friends of war dead to people who come to know the wars because they either lived them or exquisitely imagine them. The recurring objects of interest there are bodies that become corpses and bodies that live on after atrocities of war. Chapter 6 returns to the central questions of the book: Who is an authority on war? Whose memories are curated where and how? What knowledge of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq emerge at different locations of war memory and display? The central argument is that war authority is a decentralized process of remembering and forgetting, including and excluding, acquiescing to and resisting dogma. To assess such processes requires moving among modalities, sites, and types of war experience and knowledge, collecting multiple war stories as one proceeds rather than capitulating readily to only one of them, as militarism encourages one to do.
18 | Introduction
I Commemorating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
1 America’s Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
elly Denton-Borhaug, a religious studies professor, analyzes and laments “the enduring and destructive relationship between U.S. War-culture, and frameworks and practices of sacrifice” (2011: 1). Americans speak of military service as a nearly sacred sacrifice, in which nationalism gets conflated with elements of popular “Christian doctrine, history and ecclesial practice” (p. 6). It is a combination that enables us to condone and even glorify violence undertaken by our country, “innocent and good, chosen by God to defend freedom and democracy around the world” (p. 3). Indeed, Denton-Borhaug argues, “we march quite confidently ahead with the assurance that we are ‘free’ in our liberal democracy from the radical religious fundamentalism that ‘infects’ other societies” (p. 5). Her ideas intersect with Roy Scranton’s (2016b) concern that America’s wars are presented as nationally restorative undertakings and therefore ennobling. This chapter reviews what we know about the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq from critical social and political history sources and from people who experienced the wars. How America remembers and renders accounts of itself, relative to how others remember America in war, is key to addressing a query that resides in critical war literatures: Whose wars are we mostly talking about? I reconstruct war upward from memories of ordinary people close to or distant from combat, rather than positioning war as a matter of state interests, military strategies, and geopolitics that collateralize people (Sylvester, 2011b, 2013a). Following Viet Thanh Nguyen’s (2016: 17) advice, the point is “to recall what might have been forgotten, accidentally or deliberately, through self-serving interests, the debilitating effects of trauma, or the distraction offered by excessively remembering
something else, such as the heroism of the nation’s soldiers.” He argues that a corrective process of remembering war is important for achieving “just memory.” It is also one bulwark against militarism. That foreign policy analysis can often minimize the power of ordinary people in international relations is difficult to square with influential people-centric episodes such as American antiwar protests of the 1960s and 1970s, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of entrenched regimes during the Arab Spring in 2011, terrorist attacks on global cities, the solidification of ISIS in 2014, the refugee surge that followed, and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. In these cases, masses defied and decentered the political status quo with some success; one can even consider the presidential elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the United States as moments when millions of people operated to redefine their lives and their nations. To understand wars in our time, therefore, we must descend into the ordinary, to use the language of feminist war anthropologist Veena Das (2007), into the everyday, the mundane, and personal realms of memory. And we must do so capaciously. The sources I draw from in this chapter consider the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq as experienced by those sent to do war on both sides and by civilians who found themselves in one of the war zones. The collected memories and stories provide some balance to American myths about its wars as violent restorative actions necessary to beat back threats to itself and bring democracy to the world.
Vietnam “In Vietnam, the Americans had no territorial lines to advance, no grateful villagers crying out for liberation, no decisive battle or final offensive. Only the Vietnamese enemy had those. All the Pentagon could present as “progress” was the high enemy body counts reported by its troops. For the troops themselves, success was measured primarily by survival. “The American heroes of Vietnam gave their lives for one another” (Appy, 2015a: 129). That the war had no real reason to start and no rewards for the United States or its military recruits even if won, is clear. Thousands of lives on all sides could have been spared had the Americans decided to pull out the troops well before 1973. A Vietnamese nurse named Ta Quang Thinh, who worked in a jungle hospital directly bombed by an American B-52, his spine broken under the weight of the collapsed roof, nailed the sentiment driving Vietnamese ferocity against the American military very
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simply: “Foreigners came to our country from out of the blue and forced us to take up arms. Don’t you think that’s absurd?” (Appy, 2003: 21).1 Judging from extensive oral histories of the war Christian Appy (1993, 2003, 2015a) has collected, the American incursion seemed absurdly off the mark from the start, for a number of reasons. First, the involvement in Vietnam crept up on America and on Vietnam and then pressed its foot to the floor. Unlike the later war in Iraq, which commenced in 2003 with a mighty air attack on Baghdad, something no one could fail to recognize as an act of war, there was not a definitive start to the American war in Vietnam. In Appy’s (2003: 35) words, “there was no initial invasion or battle to mark the outbreak of hostilities, no home-front mobilization, no presidential announcement that war had officially begun, and, of course, no congressional declaration of war.” Instead military and intelligence advisers were sent to Vietnam starting in the 1950s, followed in the early 1960s by small troop deployments that became larger and larger over time until the total number of American military in Vietnam topped 500,000. Because the war seemed to emerge imperceptibly until around 1965, the American public and each successive US administration shared the sense that US involvement in Vietnam was already well established by the time they had to confront it. There had been no historical animosity between the two countries in the lead up to military involvement, an important fact to remember. During the final years of the Franklin Roosevelt presidency, American intelligence operatives developed a good relationship with Viet Minh insurgents working against Japanese occupation during World War II. Those cordial relations ended with Harry Truman’s plunge into cold war thinking near the end of the war. Instead of supporting anticolonial forces around the world, as the new Atlantic Charter had foreseen, Washington was convinced that most anticolonial insurgencies were doing the bidding of the Soviet Union or China and had to be stopped. In the case of Vietnam, the United States supported France’s effort to regain colonial power there after the Japanese lost World War II and thereby its claims to the country. This required the United States to turn against the intellectual leader of the Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh, who was loved throughout his land and at that point was modeling a new Vietnam on American freedoms. When the Viet Minh forces defeated the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, the People’s Republic of China, and the Soviet Union negotiated an agreement to divide the country temporarily at the 17th parallel, with Ho Chi Minh governing the North and former emperor Bao Dai the South. Elections were to be held across
America’s Wars In Vietnam And iraq | 23
Vietnam within two years of those Geneva Accords, in order to reunify the country under one rule. Fearing a likely ballot-box victory by Ho Chi Minh, American officials refused to sign the Accords and instead set up a government and separate state in the south headed by their pick—Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic anti-Buddhist who held no place in Vietnamese affections. In doing so, the United States precipitated a civil war, confident that a democratic South Vietnam would prevail with US economic and military assistance. Many Vietnamese considered the United States just the latest in a string of occupying colonial forces working with local opportunists. Lost on the Americans was an appreciation of Vietnam’s military history. The Vietnamese had not only defeated Japan and France but also China, which had colonized Vietnam for a millennium. They knew how to win long wars on their turf and had developed a steely determination to defend themselves against all outsiders. “Ho Chi Minh often said that the Vietnamese were willing to fight for ten, twenty, even a hundred years . . . such claims were not taken seriously by American leaders” (Appy, 2003: xxiii). Despite ample evidence that American interference was no more likely to work than any of the past colonial incursions, the Americans shipped in military equipment, set up bases, and started training and fighting with the Republic of South Vietnam military. Philip Caputo (1996: 230) remembers that “in the patriotic fervor of the Kennedy years, we had asked, ‘what can we do for our country?’ and our country answered, ‘Kill VC.’ ” These were members of the insurgent National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, said to be an extension of the Viet Minh movement against the French, trained to operate against the government and supporters of the southern state, including American forces.2 Notwithstanding a technological advantage on the American military side, it was the Vietnamese who time and again controlled the war by deciding the locations and moments of battle and ambushes. In the earliest years of American involvement, the North mostly employed a guerrilla strategy against the South and its defenders. From 1963 to 1969 it instigated several conventional battles, each of which the US and southern forces would eventually win, but only after taking massive losses. Intense American bombing raids were characteristic of that period along with the swelling of ground forces from 1965 on, leading the Hanoi government to shift again from conventional battles back to mostly guerrilla strategies, the massive 1968 Tet Offensive notwithstanding. Its fighters would disappear during the day, mix with local peasants to watch the movements of Americans and their allies, and become active by night. That was their
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dominant strategy during the latter days of the war. It resulted in devastating casualties among American patrols as individual soldiers were picked off from an unseen enemy hidden in thick brush. It was also common for the anti-US forces to entice entire American companies to move near jungle hiding areas and then engage them in massive firefights on open ground. For most of the war, the US Army was on the back foot, desperately trying to determine where the enemy was, when it would appear, and where it had buried deadly mines and sticks topped with poison. Appy’s interviews with people who were in that war tell the story. George Watkins recalls that his unit spent the entire month of December 1967 in the field. “Everything we had, we had on our back. Where we stopped, that’s where we slept. It was just a continuous patrol and ambush at night . . . Seemed like everywhere we moved, they was right behind us. Seemed like we couldn’t get away from them. We went from ninety-three men down to forty” (Appy, 2003: 22). Toward the end of the war, Appy (1993: 8) argues, the American military actually used search-and-destroy missions strategically in order to draw fire from hidden Vietnamese sniper locations “so the full weight of American firepower—bombs, rockets, napalm—could be dropped.” Dennis Deal, a conservative Ranger and airborne lieutenant, told him that while he believed in letting the generals run the war instead of Washington, “[General] Westmoreland would have sacrificed you in a minute. He didn’t care what kind of danger he sent you into” (p. 135). The search-and-destroy operations were soul shattering for American soldiers who felt they were sent “over there” to be sitting ducks for North Vietnamese snipers. Utter contempt for the Vietnamese became commonplace among the American forces. Nurse Sylvia Lutz Holland recalls a time when a wounded VC was brought to one of the American medical stations after several rough days of US fighting: “the doctor just took a scalpel and carved VC on his chest. Then he just put the scalpel down and walked away . . . ten minutes later the doctor was talking as if everything was fine” (p. 173). The situation was even worse for the scores of ordinary Vietnamese felled in their fields by the napalm and Agent Orange defoliants Americans dropped. Locals had to leave their home villages if the US military declared those areas free-fire zones. As Jim Soular, a flight engineer on Chinook helicopters remembers it, “we would go in and tell the villagers that they’ve got to get out, that after a certain date they would be considered VC, and anybody we see we can kill” (p. 158). The military would airlift the villagers to the “safety” of protected strategic hamlets, quaintly referred to as Operation Cedar Falls. These turned out to be refugee camps.
America’s Wars In Vietnam And iraq | 25
Soular: “I never flew refugees back in. It was always out” of their villages (p. 158). The United States used forced urbanization to depopulate the countryside of VC (Appy, 1993: 159). Around 10 million Vietnamese became internal refugees so the Americans could clear out rural insurgents and somehow, thereby, win the hearts and minds of local civilians. Soular again: “We didn’t understand that their ancestors were buried there, that it was very important to their culture and religion to be with their ancestors. They didn’t understand what the hell was going on and had no say in what was happening . . . we didn’t know anything about the Vietnamese when we went there and we didn’t know anything more when we left” (Appy, 2003: 158, 159). Across Vietnam the American military “dropped three times more explosives than were dropped by all sides in World War II” (Appy, 1993: 5). Malcolm Browne, who photographed Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk publicly self-immolating in 1963 as a protest against the American-backed southern regime, recalls the force of the bombs released from sorties of three B-52s sent at a time, each plane carrying 3,500-pound ordnance: “They dropped them in a rectangle and this saturation bombing was designed to blast everything out of existence. One time I was about a mile from a B-52 attack . . . you could feel your clothing slapping against your skin from the concussions. It just seemed inconceivable to me that anything—even earthworms—could survive such a devastating attack” (Appy, 2003: 71– 72). Tran Thai Gung, a woman combatant for the North, told Appy how they survived such devastation. The Cu Chi tunnels, she says “were just wide enough to crawl through and so cramped. There were only some places where you could sit up, never mind stand. Most of the time we lived in the dark. We used kerosene lamps for meetings but never candles. There wasn’t enough oxygen so they went out very easily . . . one time I was stuck in a tunnel for seven days and seven nights while the Americans were constantly bombing us” (p. 17). Malcolm Browne told Appy “while the Viet Cong got better and better at negating the American technological advantage, the Americans never really grasped that the war was not about who had the most firepower” (p. 71). In Vietnam, the population proved immune to colonial overtures and to the awesome weapons of foreign occupiers, even when local war deaths totaled one-tenth of the country’s population compared with .035% of casualties on the American side (Nguyen, 2016: 7). By the late 1960s, it became clear to many Americans that something was very wrong. The turning point was 1968, when North Vietnamese forces initiated the massive, multipronged surprise attack on American bases called the Tet Offensive. American intelligence had reported military
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movements from the North and had undertaken some preparations in case of attack. Still, the US military had a low opinion of the northern military and, as it was a sacred holiday time across Vietnam, the command saw no reason to assume anything unusual or urgent was about to happen. On the evening of the January attack, James Meecham, an analyst at the Combined Intelligence Center was relaxing with intelligence colleagues at a pool party. He said “I had no conception Tet was coming, absolutely zero . . . Of the 200-odd officers present, not one I talked to knew Tet was coming, without exception” (Zaffiri, 1994: 280). When the attack started, however, it was apparent that elaborate planning was behind it. The Americans prevailed only after three days of intense effort to fight off devastating attacks on US air bases in and around Khe Sanh. Careful preparation by the enemy and its ability to launch a sustained attack on a sophisticated American military spooked Washington and alarmed the American public. A scant three months after Tet, the massacres occurred at the villages of My Lai and nearby Son My, March 16, 1968. Appy (2015a: 146) has described My Lai this way: Charlie Company moved into the hamlet unopposed. There were no enemy fighters. There weren’t even any military-age men in the hamlet. It was full of women and children. There was no hostile fire, not even a single round of sniper fire. There was no “fog of war” causing panic or confusion. The only noise came from American weapons, the screams of terrified villagers, and the helicopters hovering over the hamlet with higher-ranking officers . . . The Americans took their time. The massacre was almost leisurely, methodically carried out over a four-hour period. And in the midst of the carnage, soldiers took breaks to eat and smoke.
Five hundred Vietnamese were killed that day, and only one American military officer, Lieutenant William Calley, was convicted of a crime—and he was imprisoned through house arrest for only three years and released. The systematic slaughter was preceded by gang rapings of village women, the burning of village houses, and killing of livestock; the soldiers then mutilated many dead bodies. At the trial, it was said that Calley’s C Company had suffered forty casualties over a three-month period as well as the recent loss of a well-liked sergeant. Those factors probably led to the light sentence. But it was becoming increasingly clear that the United States in Vietnam was not “innocent and good” (Denton-Borhaug, 2011: 3).
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The Tet Offensive in late January 1968 and the My Lai massacre that March were followed by President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he would not run for reelection. These three events galvanized public opinion and “divided every significant class, group and category of Americans. There were bitter debates about the war within both major political parties, all the military branches, every religious denomination, every race and region, every school, every union and professional organization, the young and the old, the rich and the poor” (Appy, 2015a: 216). Many segments of American society continued to support the war, frustrated by strategies they thought were not working. More notable, however, was the emergence of the largest antiwar protest movement the United States had ever experienced. America had entered two world wars flying the banner of a savior country rescuing Europe from tyrannies—while also spending its way out of the Great Depression and into a period of unparalleled prosperity. Yet twenty years later, in the midst of the cold war, not only was the United States having difficulty prevailing in the economically and militarily weak country of Vietnam, it was increasingly using high body counts—corpses—as the only proof it must be winning, passing off many Vietnamese civilians as enemy objects killed. As the war blazed satanic, American soldiers there “came to perceive the war as meaningless, as a war for nothing” (Appy, 1993: 8). War writer Tim O’Brien (2009b: n.p.) recounted an experience that captured the malaise on the ground in early 1969. In the aftermath of a patrol that resulted in several American casualties, his unit entered a Vietnamese village. And there was this old man, 70, 80 years old who was completely blind, his eyes looked aluminum, and he was smiling and dunking into this well with a bucket and bringing out buckets of water, and was actually giving us showers, you know slashing the water over our backs and bellies and heads, and then for reasons I don’t—that also remain a mystery, one of my fellow soldiers, a kid named Tom, blond, blue-eyed son of America, somewhere from the Midwest I think, picked up a pint-sized carton of milk from about 10 feet away, or eight feet, threw that carton as hard as he could at that man, and struck him square in the face, near the eye, and the old man, fell back and milk was over his face, a little blood was trickling by his eye, and we all stood and, 30 of us or so just stood in stunned silence staring at that man, and staring at that kid who had done it, and no one said a word.
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O’Brien called it “an incident that in its own way was an atrocity.”3 Other atrocities on both sides were avoided by the American practice, adopted late in the war, of defying night patrol orders by relaying to command the coordinates of a patrol that would not actually take place. O’Brien (1973: 110): “During the night’s radio watch, we would call our nonexistent ambush, asking for a situation report . . . and answer our own call.” Antiwar protesters at home heard such stories from friends stationed in Vietnam; on the nightly TV news they could see soldiers on patrol there, note the daily body counts, and watch footage of returning coffins. Meanwhile, on the ground in Vietnam, American incompetence became endemic toward the end of the war, with newly minted officers from college Reserve Officer Training programs (ROTC) replacing many experienced field commanders, leaving the grunts “feeling like orphans up for adoption” (O’Brien, 2006: 148). To many, it was all “patent absurdity . . . the war has not been won, even with a quarter of the United States Army fighting it” (p. 129). Appy reminds us that the United States had five presidents during the course of the war, any one of whom could have pulled the plug on America in Vietnam; instead, “all of them acted as if they were trapped by the history they inherited” (2003: 35). In effect, the ordinary people of the United States stepped into the war-governance void to take action, demanding insistently and loudly, that America get out of Vietnam—for the sake of the country and for the people of Vietnam, who were victims of the meaningless war. One of my favorite antiwar interviewees in Appy’s extensive collection of oral histories is Beverly Gologorsky, a working-class high school dropout from the South Bronx, who rose to prominence as an antiwar activist and is now a novelist (Gologorsky, 2009, 2013). Arrested and jailed several times for her activities, she worried about how to explain her absence at work and keep her job. Other activists jailed with her “were happy to stay for a few days. They could afford to stay in jail” (Appy, 2003: 414). In those early days, the antiwar movement was largely student-led and middle class. I remember it well. As the first person in my family to attend university, I commuted to a local women’s college and worked three nights a week and all day Saturdays in a shoe store to offset expenses. I was curious about the Vietnam teach-ins other students were organizing, but I could not understand how they could spare so much time for these and for marches in Washington. Did no one else have to work? When the student body of my college boycotted classes, I remember feeling privately
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very sad. I had nothing to fall back on except an education, which was threatening to disappear because of the American war in Vietnam. A politics major, I thought it would be more effective to influence policy than shut down classes, for the reasons Gologorsky raised: “They don’t care if you have a peaceful demonstration. It doesn’t take any toll on the establishment. They can still pursue the war. There’s no price they have to pay. They don’t care if we don’t go to school. They don’t care if we’re out of our jobs and running around Washington or staying up all night. They don’t care” (p. 415). In The Things We Do to Make It Home (1999), Gologorsky’s fictionalized account of six American couples dealing with post-Vietnam experiences, women suffer far worse outcomes from the war than a lost year of classes or government indifference. Their men make it back from the war but cannot put together lives as civilians: “She remembers his silences, the lost jobs, his days of not eating. Gone one week, home another. The final leaving had to come. Pieces of him had been disappearing for so long” (p. 45). Historian Heather Marie Stur (2011: 2) points out that “although popular memory of the Vietnam War centers on the ‘combat moment.’ refocusing attention onto women and gender paints a more complex—and, ultimately more accurate—picture of the war’s far-reaching impact beyond the battlefields.” Considering gender elements affecting American experiences of the war opens the door to contemplating Vietnamese women who were sexualized by the American military and press, as well as gays and lesbians who were officially prohibited from serving in the military then (e.g., Jeffords, 1989; Walker, 1985; Norman, 1990; Taylor, 1999; Steinman, 2000; Bussey, 2018). Once the war ratcheted up in the second half of the 1960s, key politicians finally learned to care about public antiwar sentiment. That coffins from Vietnam seemed to arrive apace with new troop deployments fueled a movement that could no longer be dismissed as the work of effete students, as Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew infamously called them. Many returning veterans joined the war protesters, “serving” America in a new capacity as critics of the government and the military, some to the extent that they publicly threw their war medals in the trash. Others protested a war they were privately reluctant to hate.4 American sentiment against the war gathered so much strength by the time Kent State University students were killed by the National Guard in April 1970, that its voice was thunderous. Of course, not everyone joined the antiwar movement. Helen Tennant Hegelheimer had a unique lens through which to judge the war. She was an
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attendant on World Airways flights that transported new recruits to Vietnam and veterans of the war home to the United States. She remembers that discharged soldiers flying home were worried about reports of protesters treating veterans badly. There were often protesters at the gates outside Travis [Air Force Base]. I had to tell these boys that had just served their country to get out of their country’s uniform as soon as they could. I didn’t like the antiwar movement then and I haven’t changed my mind today. It just seemed like the protest movement targeted the soldiers more than they did the policy makers— making it seem as if all the soldiers had gotten together one afternoon in a bar and decided to go commit some sort of crime against the people of Vietnam . . . An ungrateful nation let some twenty-three year old stewardess welcome these guys home. That was their only greeting. (Appy, 2003: 110)
As Appy (2015a: 238) puts it, at the end “you were there, and now you’re not. Welcome home.” Although it can seem that the antiwar and antiveteran malaise lasted a long time, in fact, it would be reversing by 1982 when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened. The winds of memory started to blow away embarrassments about the war and replace these with sentiments of gratitude for those who had served and sacrificed for America in Vietnam. In some ways, this was the work of just memory. Yet, there was little to no concern at that time about the damage done to a small country in Asia when there were no benefits to the United States or to that country. The dominant sentiment and narrative would come to play the failed war as a tragedy for America. Appy (2015b) tartly summarized that new “truth” about the American war in Vietnam this way: “our veterans were the greatest victims of the war and . . . their wounds were largely a consequence of their shabby treatment by antiwar protesters upon returning from the battle zone to an unwelcoming home front.” To Vietnamese-American Nguyen (2016: 110), the sentiment behind the shift in focus was quintessentially American: “Americans love to imagine the war as a conflict not between Americans and Vietnamese, but between Americans fighting a war for their nation’s soul.”
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Militarism After Vietnam Andrew Bacevich (2010) argues that the Washington establishment viewed its loss of Vietnam as an anomaly, a one-time event that could be blamed on the media; the left; and the inability of the military to control events, imbue the war with legitimacy, and rally Americans around it. A mere three years after the disastrous evacuation from Saigon, the Republican Party platform supporting Ronald Reagan’s bid to oust Jimmy Carter “contained not a single reference to the Vietnam War”(p. 134). On the campaign trail, Reagan would refer to the Vietnam War as a noble cause from which the country should not shrink. His revisionist sentiment kick-started the idea that Vietnam was a war that “had no truly important lessons to teach” (p. 137). The United States repositioned itself to be a beacon of liberty again in the world at just the moment when the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. When it sank the dagger into itself in 1991, America was suddenly and by default the sole global superpower. Its surprise victory in the cold war energized the old myth of a righteous country with a destiny to shape the world in its own image, now with a neoconservative edge. The stubborn incompetence of the American war in Vietnam could then be masked by a military that vowed to rebuild itself and stand tall for the world’s indispensable nation. Bacevich titles the section of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, where he lays out this new Vietnam-denying leap of faith, “Fahgettaboutit” (p. 127). In its place came the revolution in military affairs that would see the United States boldly moving to achieve what the military termed “rapid dominance” using “mission capability packages” operationalized by forward operating bases (FOBs) in the oil-rich Persian Gulf and wherever else US interests might be threatened. The new overall credo was “preventive war” based on a self-declared “ ‘inherent right’ to attack anyone anywhere in the world deemed by the government to pose an ‘imminent threat’ to American security” (Appy, 2015a: 310). Under this doctrine the United States confronted Iraq in Operation Desert Storm (1991) to prevent the Iraqi military from completely overrunning neighboring Kuwait and forcing the country to become a province of Iraq. A short, sharp air operation would overwhelm the enemy and reduce the need for extensive infantry operations. In that instance, it worked. Iraq’s large land army was halted by US and coalition air, naval, and armored strikes lasting only five weeks. American forces then remained in Saudi Arabia as part of the forward base logic. Kuwaiti sovereignty was saved, albeit the regime of
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Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq, its military largely intact, though subject to sanctions. The American leadership celebrated the quick victory and also the ease with which it could recoup financial costs of the war from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Germany, and Japan. Washington calculated that future wars would be similarly short in duration and in casualties: “the mere prospect of the United States flexing its military muscles was likely to dissuade anyone from challenging the existing order or violating American norms” (Bacevich, 2010: 162). And then there was September 11, 2001, the day when the consequences of Operation Desert Storm and forward deployments to the Middle East were felt in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—and then everywhere. The Bush administration’s launch of Operation Enduring Freedom against Afghanistan a few months after those attacks seemed to earn the United States another fast “win,” sending the Taliban packing and Osama bin Laden into flight. Strategic air warfare was the new instrument of peace. Bacevich described the mood: “Washington need no longer view force as a last resort. Among the instruments available to policy makers, force now ranked as the preferred option” (p. 174). It was a force the magnitude of which would not simply meet the countervailing forces of the enemy but “control the adversary’s will, perceptions, and understanding and make an adversary impotent to act or react” (Ullman and Wade, 1996: 14). It would be the kind of preventive war strategy that would aim to “paralyze, shock, unnerve, deny, destroy” (p. 14). That strategy is said to have worked initially in Afghanistan but not ultimately. As I write, the war is in its seventeenth year. Yet at the time, with Afghanistan seemingly brought under control, if not exactly to its knees, the administration refocused on preventive war in Iraq, where the nemesis regime of Saddam Hussein continued despite its loss to the United States in Operation Desert Storm. War against Iraq was clearly on Bush son’s agenda (Anderson, 2011). It just needed a rationale. Hidden weapons of mass destruction were there, the administration asserted, and had to be eliminated. So it was proclaimed to American allies, the American public, and a global audience via the United Nations. Iraq was a danger to the world. More, the Bush administration insisted the Iraq government was part of the al-Qaeda coalition and had known of the plan to assault the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. None of this was true. There were no super weapons or Iraqi government links with al-Qaeda. Bush and his neoconservative advisers were creating their own reality in order to justify a war to remove Saddam Hussein from power (Anderson, 2011: 230). As Vice President Dick Cheney told American journalist Ron
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Suskind in the summer of 2002, “It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence . . . It’s about our response” (quoted in Anderson, p. 230). Iraq War veteran Kenneth Campbell (2007: 74; emphasis in original) put it this way: the Bush administration “sold the nation an illegal and immoral war of choice by packaging it deceptively as a legal and moral war of necessity.” Vietnam is the American war that failed tragically on all levels imaginable—militarily, socially, and politically. The war George W. Bush initiated in 2003 had moments of strong shock and awe, but it too would limp on weakly in defiance of the declaration, just weeks after the air strike on Baghdad, that the war was over and America had won. In fact, the war morphed into a conflict of biblical proportions and “begets”: the initial shock and awe strike begot an insurgency after the United States sent in occupation forces. Military efforts at counterinsurgency begot ethnic and religious civil war that the United States and allies could barely control. Then the United States left Iraq officially, and a war for Iraqi territorial integrity started against ISIS.5
Iraq Having gained the acquiescence of the UN, allies, and much of the American public, Bush unleashed a monstrous Tomahawk cruise missile attack on Baghdad in March 2003. It seemed a spectacular success. The Iraqi army withdrew from the city or fled outright and left the capital to arriving American ground troops, who immediately pulled down the colossal statue of Saddam Hussein in the main square. Then the trouble began. The Baghdad Museum, holder of priceless antiquities, was looted by Baa’th Party insiders. As well, the national archives building flooded from broken water mains, and frenzied digging in unprotected desert locations illicitly brought ancient treasures to the global art market (Bogdanos, 2005; Sylvester, 2009). Ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad experienced the start of the American war in Iraq without the joyous embrace of defeat that neoconservatives in Washington had anticipated.6 Many did not like Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, but as with the Vietnamese facing the United States, they disliked foreign occupation more. A young woman writing a daily blog in Baghdad recorded her views at the time: “I hated them all through the bombing. Every single day and night we had to sit in terror of the next bomb, the next plane, the next explosion . . . we sat in the dark, praying for our lives, the
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lives of our loved ones, and the survival of Iraq” (Riverbend, 2005: 14). Operating off the script of Operation Desert Storm, Bush jubilantly declared “Mission Accomplished” from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. Meanwhile the triumphant American forces in Baghdad found themselves increasingly ambushed by armed locals rather than welcomed. We know now how wrong Bush was in his overweening confidence in the political outcome of his shock and awe military strategy. The United States and its coalition partners battled in Iraq nearly four years longer than in Vietnam, a result of local backlashes and significant mistakes made along the way. It was clearly a mistake to demobilize the Iraqi military and police in the early days of the war, leaving the coalition and the Iraqi Governing Council, established under the authority of the Coalition Provisional Authority, with serious law and order issues. More than 500,000 local men suddenly unemployed and aggrieved “formed the basis of a growing anti- U.S. insurgency that . . . intensified” (Appy, 2015a: 311). To safeguard military and government personnel in Baghdad, the United States created the infamous Green Zone behind the walls that had sheltered the Presidential Palace— probably another mistake. That move isolated the Americans and their local suppliers from most of the city population. “It feels like a little America,” Mark Schroeder, an essential services analyst told Rajiv Chandrasekaran (2006: 16), an American journalist who lived outside the zone in 2004. The Green Zone was so stocked with American delights there was little reason to venture beyond its gates and out into “the checkpoints, the bombed-out buildings, the paralyzing traffic jams” (p. 19).7 Cynthia Enloe (2010) has written of Iraqi women caught up in the chaos outside the Green Zone yet endeavoring to go about their usual business. Her analysis drew on human interest newspaper articles about the women, which is not an ideal methodology, but one that enabled her to evoke the challenges civilians might face as their city imploded following the American attack. Nimo Din’Kha Skander owned a lucrative beauty salon in the commercial district of Karada, a Shi’ite area near what became the Green Zone. The journalist who interviewed her reported that Nimo and many of the women in her shop imagined at first that their circumstances would improve following the American bombardment and then capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003. Life under the old regime had become increasingly difficult owing to international economic sanctions imposed in 1991 to punish Iraq for trying to absorb Kuwait. Under “the most comprehensive embargo ever enforced on a nation” (Khoury, 2013: 1), UN member states were not to purchase oil or trade in other commodities
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with Iraq. Those sanctions were still in effect as the American war started twelve years later. With oil money lagging, despite black marketeering, the regime had to shrink the one sector where women had been making economic inroads prior to the 1991 war—state employment. Many shifted to the retail sector to make a living, aware that society looked down on women entrepreneurs, especially those who worked alongside men. Nimo’s all-women establishment carried on through air strikes that disrupted water and electricity facilities essential to her business; these services had only recently been repaired from the 1991 war. The political situation was unsettled, however, and turned dangerous in Baghdad between 2004 and 2008. Women became targets of violence and gender control by ethnic and religious insurgents, and they and foreign men were kidnapped for ransom, a strategy that would intensify as the war continued. At around the same time, the US military was caught abusing Iraqi prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Ricky Clousing, an enlistee assigned to one of the American detention centers, recalled that commanders tightened procedures in response to the scandal but exaggerated the number of insurgents imprisoned in order “to show that they were being productive in their area of operation” (Gutman and Lutz, 2010: 89). The year 2004 saw four Blackwater contractors working on behalf of the Americans ambushed, brutally killed, and paraded as corpses through the streets of Fallujah. By late 2005 more than 3,000 Iraqi civilians had died in Baghdad alone from local violence, and many women-owned businesses had been forced to close. One woman interviewed in 2007 spent six months in Iran and Syria after her beauty salon was attacked by Shi’ite militias: “They stormed my salon, but I had run away seconds before because the neighborhood kids had warned me that the militiamen were pointing at my store. They shot up the building, destroying everything” (Garcia-Navarro, 2008). Enloe says that beauty parlors were imagined “by the men with guns to be symbols of Iraqi women’s decadence and the nation’s disgrace” (Enloe, 2010: 37). The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority formally transferred sovereignty over Iraqi territory to an Iraqi interim government in June 2004, and the first meeting of the transitional National Assembly occurred in March 2005, two months after democratic elections. On June 18, 2004, Riverbend (2005: 273), who lost her job in the computer industry as a result of the war, wrote from Baghdad: “The whole charade is laughable. It has been quite clear from the very start that the Puppets do not breathe unless [Paul] Bremer asks them, very explicitly, to inhale and exhale.” Not surprisingly, a disconnect emerged between the formal structures
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insert 1 Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952, enamel and aluminum paint with glass on canvas, 212.1(h) x 488.9 (w) cm, © 2018 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artist Rights Society.
insert 2 Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, 2005, oil on canvas, © 2018 Kehinde Wiley.
insert 3 Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama, oil on canvas, 2017. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © 2018 Kehinde Wiley.
insert 4 Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, oil on linen, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
and procedures of democracy the coalition installed and the situation on the ground. Significant battles raged in Al Qaim, Haditha, and Tal Afar; the latter was thinly fictionalized by American veteran Kevin Powers (2010: 159), who wrote “we were unaware of even our own savagery now: the beatings and the kicked dogs, the searches and the sheer brutality of our presence.” Another veteran, Kenneth Campbell (2007: 87), reported that marines faced charges “of slaughtering twenty-four Iraqi men, women, and children in several households in Haditha on November 19, 2005.” As in Vietnam, the Iraqi enemy was characterized as difficult for troops to identify and separate from civilians.8 Sunni insurgencies spiked when politicians and their communities boycotted the 2005 elections and watched as Shi’ite parties and some Kurds won the new government.9 By late June that year, 1,745 American personnel had been killed. An estimated 9,358 Iraqis were killed between 2003 and 2008, most of them women and children (Hsiao-Rei Hicks et al., 2009). “Almost every day, death squads assassinated Iraqis working for the transitional government . . . [and] only one battalion of the new Iraqi army was deemed by U.S. generals to be prepared enough to fight without American assistance” (Chandrasekaran, 2006: 328). In another throwback to Vietnam, some American soldiers on the ground questioned why they were required to follow rules of engagement when the enemy did not do so when dealing with Americans and even their own people (Minear, 2010: 71). The Iraqi economy remained in such shambles that overseas investors were reluctant to take up generous new tax provisions offered them. Oil production was below sanctions era, prewar levels. The cost of maintaining security for businesses, and a western lifestyle for overseas workers, ate up almost half the funds earmarked for redevelopment.10 And corruption was rampant: “As much as $8.8 billion could not be properly accounted for, including $2.4 billion in one-hundred-dollar bills that was flown to Baghdad from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York six days before the handover of sovereignty” (Chandrasekaran, 2006: 329). On top of everything else, support for the war among the American public had diminished. In December 2006 President George W. Bush walked back his justification for the American war in Iraq, acknowledging that the decision to attack the country had rested on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda links. He accepted responsibility but maintained the war was justified nonetheless, a position his then counterpart in the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, has maintained to this day. Saddam Hussein had finally been captured after initially eluding American
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forces and on nearly the last day of December 2006 the Iraqi military hanged him. Shortly afterward, in January 2007, the American military won its insistent call for more troops on the ground to control continuing insurgencies. Under the concept of a surge, which General David Petraeus masterminded, over 20,000 additional troops deployed to Iraq, mostly to the Baghdad region, and tours of duty for many army and marine personnel on the ground were extended. There were now 156,000 US military personnel there, a situation the early air attack was meant to prevent. In an address to the nation on January 10, 2007, Bush indicated that the surge was intended to implement elements of counterinsurgency that had been shelved after Vietnam: the additional troops were to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, protect the local population from insurgents, and ensure that Iraqi forces were capable of providing security as a backdrop to reconciliation efforts between insurgent communities and other forces in the new Iraq. Bacevich (2010: 186) argues that, in effect, Bush was conceding that the war had been a failure, but this “course correction” enabled “senior civilian and military officials to sustain the pretense of having reasserted a measure of control over a situation in which they exercised next to none.” Now, instead of Americans defeating the insurgency the goal was to turn that job over to locals by currying favor in insurgent villages, weeding out the “bad guys,” and working alongside Iraqis to rebuild communities. Carolyn Holmqvist (2015: 178) has called this strategic communication with the local population a masquerade of war based on the fabulist idea that “we can kill you, but you will still want to be like us.” As in Vietnam, where counterinsurgency had been “employed with disastrous results” (Bacevich, 2010: 188), the new acronym COIN (counterinsurgency) stood for a last ditch effort to reinvent a war of choice when in fact “victory had essentially become indefinable and the benefits accruing to Americans were at best obscure” (p. 189). Initially, the surge energized the insurgents. Attacks on US troops rose by “40% in the first half of 2007, to almost 1600 in June . . . 904 U.S. troops were killed in action—bringing the total mortality toll to 3,907 by the end of December. It was the price paid for moving from big, safe bases [FOBs] to smaller outposts among the people—and the enemy” (Anderson, 2011: 206). Slowly the situation improved. Surge commanders on the ground, like Colonel H. R. McMaster, wanted Iraqis treated with respect and ordered military personnel to “survey the local population and ask questions”; he himself was “conciliatory and willing to listen” (p. 192). More attention was also paid to nation building at the
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local level. Major Jessica McCoy would later say, “I never even knew the Army hired veterinarians” (Minear, 2010: 89) like herself. It also brought in poultry specialists assigned to assist 300 farms across sectarian lines and opened schools and clinics. At the same time, strategic communication was a kill some and be kind to others logic that inevitably yielded some absurd results. Army Sergeant Gregory Mayfield recalled that “we would rebuild a school or a road or something and it would get blown up the next day” (p. 93). As for the insurgents local people were meant to identify to coalition troops, they organized throughout 2007 into military units that turned against locals who did not subscribe to their views. Sunni groups conducted assaults on Yazidi communities in northern Iraq, and Assyrian Christians came under attack in Mosul in 2008, allegedly by Kurdish Peshmerga who, it is said, gave the Christians a choice of death or converting to Islam. Local insurgency, which COIN was meant to counter, instead intensified until the country was facing civil war between organized religious factions. Civilian casualties climbed into the high 90,000s according to the independent Iraq Body Count NGO (cited in Enloe, 2010: 221).11 Bacevich (2010: 202) has pointed out that the surge averted the imminent collapse of Iraq and reduced the number of bombings in urban areas, even though violence across the country did not abate. Colonel William Wenger, a veteran and strong supporter of the war, defended the surge in more neoconservative terms: “we can’t change this part of the world overnight. It is going to take decades to bring the Muslim world out of the seventh century and into the twenty-first” (quoted in Mirra, 2008: 93). To Teri Mackey, an American mother with a son fighting in Iraq, her war experience under the surge was of an entirely different order: People would ask me, “How’s your son doing?” Well, from my reference point, I’d say, “I know he was alive at eight last night because I got a phone call. But right now I can’t tell you if he’s dead or alive because he’s out on patrol” . . . One person said to me, “They are really getting shot at?” I guess I can understand that point of view if you watch only certain news programs that reported things are going well, and we are making steady progress. (109)
COIN wiped out the previous operating assumption in Washington that shock and awe would deliver quick results in short low-casualty wars. But the consequence was that America was looking at a long and difficult involvement in Iraq at several levels. Troops on the ground did
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not always know what they were fighting for, any more than in Vietnam. Demond Mullins, a former dancer and model from the Bronx, turned member of the New York State National Guard deployed to Iraq, talked of the gallows humor that “both hinted at and repressed the ugliness of their situation . . . we’d ask each other—kind of saying that this was prison, What are you in for? What crime did you commit that got you here” (Gutman and Lutz, 2010: 85); most National Guard units had not expected to deploy to Iraq, given that their remit is the homeland. Bizarre behaviors by American soldiers also came to light. Ricky Clousing recounted a story about a soldier sitting in the passenger seat of a military vehicle, who “breaks out a baton and is smashing some of the windows of cars we’re driving past. I’m like, What the hell is going on? They were bored. Combat and war is really like that. It’s a club of bullies, really is” (Gutman and Lutz, 2010: 89). Other military turned against the war: “I ask people directly,” said Specialist Michael Harmon, “How would you feel if your child was just blown up? You can say ‘support the troops’ all you want, and put yellow ribbons on your gas guzzling SUVs to feel better about yourself. I say let’s wake up” (Mirra, 2008: 40). In fact, public support for the American war in Iraq had been steadily dwindling since at least 2006. By 2008 “opposition to the troop ‘surge’ was at 63%” (Sherman, 2008). The American war in Vietnam was shown daily on TV news. In Iraq, the media was carefully embedded with the military in war zones, for their safety and to control the narrative about this latest good war going bad— with the result Teri Mackey reports above: people at home could think all was going well in Iraq or not think about the war at all. Troops watching the very same TV and Internet news in Iraq could be demoralized by what they saw. Garett Reppenhagen, a cavalry scout sniper had recently arrived in Iraq and recalled tuning into George W. Bush’s address at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in March 2004. Bush pretended to look for weapons of mass destruction under the speaker’s podium and then joked, “ ‘You know, Ha, ha, no weapons of mass destruction, you got me! Too late, we’re in Iraq!’ . . . I couldn’t believe what I’d seen . . . I was really upset” (Gutman and Lutz, 2010: 93). Tina Garnanez, a medic newly home from Iraq, turned the practice of being thanked for her service on its head. “No, thank you . . . Thank you for being on the street . . . Thank you for just saying this is wrong, because I couldn’t do it at the time” (p. 59; emphasis in original). Most American troops left Iraq in late 2011 when President Obama followed the terms Bush had negotiated with the Iraqi government just
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before his presidency ended. Between that time and 2014, protests against the regime in neighboring Syria exploded in a civil war that enabled an operationally impressive movement of fundamentalist Muslim groups to emerge calling itself ISIS or ISIL. Moving quickly, they overran Syria and bled into Iraq, where their well-equipped forces put up a tremendous challenge to those who fought them. Obama sent some troops back to Iraq and a few thousand others were quietly assigned to Syria (Jayamaha, 2018: 26). The ISIS problem raged for three years and was only seemingly routed in 2017; meanwhile, throngs of civilian refugees had created their own surge into Europe to get away from endless wars. Other civilians were slaughtered as ISIS held them hostage through allied attacks. Although Obama had openly opposed the American war in Iraq from its beginning, leaving a war is far more difficult to arrange when wars are not declared or run entirely by states as they were in the first half of the twentieth century. Today’s wars can carry on with rotating participants, including child soldiers, and with brazen strategic disregard for civilians (Kaldor, 1999). Some militant groups become so rich off resources they control that they have no incentive to abate conflict. Keeping things chaotic on the ground keeps the war going and the profits flowing. Others are ideologically driven and keep conflict bubbling beneath a calmer surface. Indeed, a Huffington Post story from August 20, 2018, indicates that a “Defense Department’s report for the three-month period ending June 30 found as many as 17,000 ISIS fighters remaining in Iraq, with another 14,000 in Syria—numbers in line with the U.N.’s estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 fighters spread between the two nations.”12 A caldron of conflict across the region makes the end of the American war in Vietnam in 1975, awful as it was, seem relatively uncomplicated by comparison: the United States left Vietnam, the enemy took Saigon, and the war officially ended. It was a messy ending to be sure, but the war did end. No such outcome is in store for Iraq—and Afghanistan and Syria and their respective populations. The American war in Iraq has also differed from its counterpart in Vietnam in ways not yet mentioned directly here. There were more women in the American military by the mid-to late- 2000s for one thing,13 and more ability to learn about the war from local women than when Americans were in Vietnam. The information revolution has provided global platforms for local voices. Riverbend could write her daily blog about the war in Baghdad and send it out to millions of readers across the world. At the same time, it should be said that the restrictions placed on American media in Iraq meant some journalists simply turned to the local population for war-related stories.
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The question that looms out of the summaries of two different and yet similarly unsuccessful American wars is, whose version of each war is remembered and displayed where and how? Can we locate and piece together layers of war knowledge by considering how the two wars appear in important public venues—museums, memorials, cemeteries, and novels/ memoirs? Such are the overarching questions explored in the following chapters. Before going there, consider a second object of war that “speaks” to me of Americans and the war in Iraq. ———— The color insert 2 shows Kehinde Wiley’s monumental oil on canvas of Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, 2008, from the Rumors of War series. It is an updated, race-shifting interpretation of an art historical classic by Jacques-Louis David titled Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass, 1801. The American war in Iraq, in its long insurgency stage, was the backdrop to this painting and the four other equestrian portraits Wiley did of fictional military hero men on steeds (Tsai, 2015). Wiley is known in this series for exploring the absence of black men from historical renderings of military power and heroism, as well as for the revisionist impact of putting such men into famous white roles displaying sartorial and attitudinal elements of contemporary black male culture. The models in the series are ordinary people Wiley accessed through “street casting”—talking to people where they gathered, and asking if they would be interested in being part of his art; this he has done in the United States, India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, Morocco, Tunisia, Gabon, Cameroon, Israel, Congo-Brazzaville, and probably other international locations. Wiley poses each model in the manner of the figures he is reprising from historical work, photographs them in those poses, and then paints them against densely patterned backgrounds that sometimes transgress onto the figure-heroes, just as his race and time transmutations put the “wrong” people, the background people, at the heart of valiant white histories of conquest.14 I find Wiley’s Rumors of War, especially his Napoleon, in sync with the American war in Iraq. That war saw neoconservative white Napoleons from Washington riding rocket steeds into an ancient Middle East country in order to turn it to their liking. The painting instantly shows that something has been missing in the general sense of who has the power and authority in that and other wars—the elite generals or the “ordinary” people with boots on the ground? Ordinary people who are men, that is. There are conspicuous absences inlined in the painting.15 We must imagine the
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women: Could it be that “women bleed in private like animals [and] men bleed in public like kings?” asks a character in Sarah Ruhl’s 2016 political drama Scenes from Court Life that premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater in 2017. One might also inquire after the children, soldiers without steeds, and everyday farm horses that lurk just out of view of Wiley’s painting. Perhaps they did not make it through the St. Bernard pass. Surely a black man on a rearing horse, outlined in the same pose as a famous white general of European yore, brings on a welcome mind jolt (Solomon, 2015). At the same time, that out-of-place man does not soften the theme of conquest that appears in the original painting; it replicates it. Today’s model may eschew fancy dress for cool fatigues (good for Vietnam, inappropriately green for any desert location); but he is in combat gear nonetheless. The race of the model is significant, but it does not change the theme of militarized masculinity glaring from the gilded frame; look closely at Napoleon’s filigreed background and see all the sperm swimming about. The painting is a move within a war frame not a move against war or masculine ownership of it. The model in Wiley’s painting wears showboat Timberland boots. Whether they will get dirty depends on where Napoleon goes, if, indeed, this general enters the fray himself. The boots will be nasty dirty if he rides into Aleppo Syria to help sort through the remnants of a city devastated in 2016. They will remain more or less pristine if this Napoleon is heading to an office in the Green Zone of Baghdad circa 2004. Either way, a military commander with masculine swag is the heroic ideal here. This is not a gender mash-up. I also see in this painting the all-volunteer military that set the American war in Iraq apart from its counterpart in Vietnam. According to one art historian (Tsai, 2015: 15): “Wiley introduced into his portraits the idea of the subject’s active participation. By choosing to reenact or restage a particular work of art, the sitter collaborates with the artist in the creation of his image.” Something similar happened when someone enlisted voluntarily with the military and ended up in Iraq: the new recruit and the family left behind actively collaborated in a war-making enterprise. There are promised rewards in doing so, including the chance to earn social praise for serving, irrespective of whether one was deployed to a war zone. Yet at the end of the day, neither the Napoleon model in the Wiley painting nor an actual recruit to the US military is publicly known by name unless he dies—and there are shes in war, too—or does something unusual in serv ice. All of them coproduce the performance of war for art, for race, for gender, and/or presumably for country, but who knows how such enlistees live thereafter or die. The art model and the military recruit become part
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of the success or failure of the endeavor: both sign on and become objects of war. On February 3, 2018, Kehinde Wiley unveiled another painting of a black man in an unexpected position of power—President Barack Obama (see color insert 3). Wiley is the first African-American painter commissioned to paint a president, and that president is also African-American. It is a first all around. The painting has Obama sitting on a plain chair, dressed in one of his dark suits but positioned informally, legs spread wide, a relaxed hunch forward, arms crossed and elbows on knees. His dress shirt is unbuttoned at the top and is absent a tie. He is looking straight at us, the viewer, the audience, and, belying the performance of relaxed informality, Obama confronts us with a direct and challengingly serious face, a slightly arrogant face. No need to find a black model to insert into what was a white man’s role historically. In this scenario, the black man sitting as the president of the United States is the real deal. Perhaps the most surprising element in the mix is the backdrop to the portrait. Obama is entirely flanked by Hawaiian and other flowers and vines so dense that they cling to his shoes and trouser bottoms like indelible pieces of multicultural memory. Wiley generally seems to have a classic horror vacui, and this one softens the mien of the man, albeit the blooms are a bit smothering. Obama’s portrait now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, in the second floor gallery devoted to images of America’s presidents. It has been a bit less popular with the viewing public than the portrait of his wife Michelle, painted by African-American artist Amy Sherald (see color insert 4). The First Lady is in a black and white dress of abundance that flows nearly to the front bottom edge of the large painting. She leans forward like her husband, though with right arm under chin assessing we who are looking at her. Contra Wiley’s insertions of black men into white histories, contra that intense intellectual look on Obama’s face amid clinging vines, it is a black woman in her racially cutting-edge position of importance that draws the crowds. While in the White House, Michelle Obama kept her eye on wars experienced beyond America’s war zones. While her husband grappled with sending more military into those zones, his wife worked with the families of American military. Speaking at Fort Bragg military base as her husband prepared to withdraw American troops from Iraq, her expansive sense of war came through: “I know that while your children and your spouses and your parents and siblings might not wear uniforms, they serve right alongside you” (Obama, 2011). She spoke a truth of war comparable to the racial truth Wiley portrayed in his Rumors of War series.
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2 Museums, Memorials, and Novels
as Sites of War Knowledge
iewing the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq through reports from people who experienced one of them in unchartered ways raises many questions. Whose memories—whose wars—feature in public displays, whose war is sidelined or ignored, and who gets to hold the curator’s egg and decide what the public sees—politicians, war veterans, professional museum personnel, arts donors, ordinary people who leave memento mori at war memorials and cemeteries, or maybe writers who create novels and memoirs around these wars? Do certain cultural venues establish public truths about a war irrespective of whether those truths are accurate or not? Which ones should we believe, teach children, honor as a nation? One answer to these questions could be that the version of war that best conforms to public expectations of America is the one that will prevail. Expectations are often formed in a circular mode, though, with public understandings of America shaped by curated displays rather than the other way round. To Zachary Beckstead et al (2011: 211), it is important to contemplate “how societies create collective memories through material objects and how these objects, through their very materiality and holistic organization, affect passers-through in a culturally prescribed manner.” Literary texts can also reflect, create, and challenge cultural expectations and experiences through the words they curate into war stories. Reviewing six novels about the 2003 war in Iraq, Sam Sacks (2015) finds “a familiar language always invoked: shared suffering, eternal truths, the passion play that transmutes pain into collective redemption. War is hell, but its themes make critics purr.” At issue is the extent to which some curations
direct observers to a “culturally prescribed view” of America in Vietnam and Iraq or, contrarily, challenge, revise, and destabilize the associations and the memory politics that gave rise to a familiar sense of war. Such concerns animate this chapter on material and literary sites and practices of remembering, curating, and re-curating America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq. We know the war in Vietnam initially crushed many Americans’ expectations of the good country waging virtuous wars that help others while also renewing the nation and its international reputation. The military came out of it looking incompetent, and the country’s political leadership was found to care more about not losing than the human costs of continuing that war effort. The wisdom of getting militarily involved in countries that pose no direct national security threat also came under scrutiny. A pervasive anti-establishment mood gripped America’s demoralized youths. The combined reactions to the failed American war in Vietnam came to be known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Bacevich (2010: 126) described it as a form of national exhaustion that left Washington with little “appetite for liberating the oppressed, subverting unfriendly governments, or otherwise meddling in the affairs of far-off countries.” Quickly, however, the syndrome was shunted aside, vanquished in fewer than ten years by Ronald Reagan, who gave his imprimatur to resurgent American militarism. The erection of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982 was central to that mission. It took the country from a paralyzing state of embarrassment and soldier hate to the culturally mandatory practice, still evident today, of praising all America’s soldiers, even if we know nothing of their service and possibly hate the latest American war. The deflection from governments conducting war to individuals who volunteer or were drafted to “serve,” coupled with advances in military strategy and technology, turned the defeat in Vietnam into yesterday’s news well before 9/11, and revived a self-confident country yearning for glory days. Successfully staving off Kuwait’s absorption into Iraq in 1991, an America back in fighting form militarily and culturally set off to Afghanistan and then Iraq fully expecting support and success. The gulf between Washington’s renewed war energy in the post-9/11 era and the bleak lessons from Vietnam is evident in many veteran accounts of the wars. Christian Appy (2007: 148) remembers a former student telling him what it was like to decide on a second tour in Iraq: “For me, it’s a lose-lose situation. I have lost respect for myself for going because I know in my heart that this war is wrong, but only slightly less respect than if I would again have to watch marines go into combat without
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me.” His dilemma pits the security of a state healed sufficiently from the Vietnam Syndrome to undertake what at least one soldier believed was an illegitimate war against his loyalty to unit comrades whose voluntary efforts would have to be factored into personal decision-making. Not a good trade-off there, but one that would make the multiple “stop-loss” redeployments to Iraq, whereby soldiers were made to return to war zones, sometimes multiple times, after periods of civilian living in the United States, workable.1 Jenny Edkins (2003: 6) identified the problem underlying America’s seeming turn away from war after Vietnam and then toward war in the decades following: “In modern political communities in the west, our faith in the social order and our search for security are invested in systems that themselves are productive of and produced by force and violence.” That the American state was born in war has not only been retained in cultural memory but is also rehearsed continuously as fundamental to America. What to remember and show of these controversial American wars in Vietnam and Iraq? Whose memories and expectations count? This chapter considers the importance of several key locations of war remembrance and exhibition in the United States: museums, memorials, cemeteries, novels, and memoirs. I start with the museum that offers a permanent exhibit of all the wars the United States has been part of across its history—the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. I then walk down the National Mall from there to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where ordinary curators from a community of loss started a tradition of bringing objects to display that show the war they experienced as a result of one person they knew who fought it. The personal politics of war and death intensify at the Arlington National Cemetery across the river, where an austere aesthetic works hand-in-glove with cemetery restrictions pertaining to acceptable memories and objects that can be displayed there. The final stop has no fixed location—it could be a library, a home office, a living room couch, or a classroom—the focus instead being on American wars in Vietnam and Iraq as portrayed in war novels and memoirs.
Curating War at Museums The International Council of Museums (ICOM, 2006) defines a museum as “a nonprofit permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible
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heritage of humanity and its environment for the purpose of education, study, and enjoyment.” Many types of museums fit this definition, including planetariums, historical buildings, special interest collections, and collections that endeavor to be encyclopedic in scope. All share at least a stated goal “to research and demonstrate the social and cultural context of artifacts and to foster relationships between objects and people” (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992: 19). Knowledge is the museum’s main “commodity” (p. 2), even when that knowledge is full of silences and freighted with colonial relationships, ideological narratives, and object fetishism (Gurian, 1999). Some museums have static displays, their exhibit spaces frozen in the time they emerged. Others “create a vision of the past based on contemporary needs” (Marstine, 2006: 4; also Preziosi, 1996). With the current moment in American history enamored with military thematics, it follows that contemporary museum displays of war might reflect that militarist mood, tonally and materially leaning toward the warrior and his (purposive pronoun) war rather than civilians or the enemies American wars kill. Major encyclopedic art museums, in particular, grew out of intimate associations with government institutions, military campaigns, and persons of power. The Louvre is the model. Its original building was a palace that contained artworks and artifacts owned by the French royal family, some of which they gained as war booty or through imperial activities. It was open to other high-ranking individuals who, it was thought, would best appreciate the works, but the general public was explicitly granted access to the collection too, under the rubric of educating the common people about the treasures of the nation, without disclosing the machinations of object acquisition. Such grand museums would become associated with nation building and with international power, where, as I note elsewhere, “things are needed to provide tangible proof that the nation had a memorable past, an honorable past, a prestigious past, a past the world can mark and that the nation can protect today” (Sylvester, 2009: 55). The objects such museums come to possess, not the historical acts or ideas around them, become the “tangible truth” of national greatness (Marstine, 2006: 10).2 Other types of museums develop more personal agendas for collecting. Cabinets of curiosities are packed with jumbled objects, the significance of which is often unclear. Nobel novelist Orhan Pamuk’s (2009) Museum of Innocence in Istanbul is a small museum filled with items noteworthy only for having been mentioned in the text of his novel of the same name. Then there is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, a wealthy
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woman’s home left as she had it at her death in 1924. It displays paintings, furniture, and objets d’art collected on overseas trips Gardner took during the era when America’s “robber barons” competed to demonstrate public spirit by advancing high culture; some of her contemporaries started the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Mrs. Gardner had something different in mind: a tribute to personal taste. “Entering the Gardner collection you too can momentarily have the illusion of becoming a friend of Mrs. Gardner if you are willing to play that role” (Carrier, 2006: 123). Some museums show objects related to a specific subject or region of the world—Asian art, African-American history, or New England shipbuilding. Europe has numerous war museums, including Britain’s Imperial War Museums in London, Manchester, and Belfast; the Musee de l’Armee in Paris; and Holocaust museums in Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, and Poland. There are war museums in Korea, Vietnam, and Rwanda. There is even a war museum as part of a war memorial in a country that does not register in the mind as having a massive war history; the large and imposing Australian War Memorial and attached museum in Canberra sits just a few miles from the National Gallery of Australia where Blue Poles hangs. The United States is an outlier in the war museum department: it does not have a national war museum or one national war memorial, even though it has been involved in or has instigated numerous wars throughout its history. Instead, branches of the US military host individual museums and the Smithsonian group includes a museum of Air and Space, where visitors can walk the simulated deck of a naval aircraft carrier, peer at a Predator drone hanging from the ceiling, or look upon several ICBMs while also considering the rise of commercial aircraft in America and the life of a woman flier turned historical icon, Amelia Earhart. War objects are in the collection and on display there, but Air and Space is not a dedicated war museum. By contrast, Australia’s War Memorial with museum and extensive grounds decidedly zeroes in on war. The first architectural object one sees is a huge, domed, mausoleum-style building, facing an extra-wide formal boulevard called Anzac Parade (figure 2.1). Native blue eucalyptus trees line the boulevard and form a backdrop to commemorative statues and memorials that extend partway up the road linking the city’s artificial Lake Burley Griffin to the memorial building. The elaborate build-up to the memorial building and its grounds focuses attention on Australia’s international relations of war in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It fought for Britain in World Wars I and II, sent more than 60,000 troops
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Figure 2.1 Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Capital Photographer/Wikimedia Commons.
to Vietnam, and was one of the last to pull all troops from Saigon. More recently, it has been part of the coalition fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. A stalwart ally of the United Kingdom—the queen remains titular head of state—and then the United States, Australia gets into the fray even when there is little for it to gain beyond maintaining its western identity from a perch closer to Asia. A visitor might assume that this expansive site of national war memories is entirely state sponsored. In fact, it receives roughly the same percentage of federal support (52% of the budget in 2015–16) as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (roughly 58%).3 This means that neither museum with the word “national” in the title is national in the sense that all its expenses are covered by taxpayer funds. Yet both give the impression that they have been appointed to represent the nation at war through their object collections and war chronologies. Should you want to become a “friend” of these museums the annual fee is modest. In an era of neoliberal privatizations, though, those who donate millions get far more perks for their investment than use of the museum friends lounge. In 2000, Kenneth Behring, a wealthy, big game hunter and real estate tycoon,
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donated $80 million of a Forbes estimated fortune of $495 million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. As quid pro quo he insisted the museum building not only inscribe his name prominently over both the Mall and Constitution Avenue entrances but also rename the building as the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Behring’s role model and favorite historical icon is said to be Theodore Roosevelt, a man of immense family wealth who wielded a big stick in several imperial missions, including the Spanish-American War.4 Increasingly, the mission of many museums is affected to some degree by the wishes of large private and corporate donors, especially around shows they bankroll. Of his own fortune, Mr. Behring is quoted as saying: “this money did not come easy for me. I want to make sure it’s spent in a way I think is beneficial to America” (quoted in Boehm, 2006: 1148). Visitors come to museums as institutions of expert and trustworthy culture curated by professionals in their fields. Many have as little knowledge of the backstage politics and donor negotiations behind the exhibitions as they have about the conduct of America’s wars.5 Absent transparent information about object choices and their rationales, it becomes difficult to approach exhibitions critically. The larger, more prestigious, and “sacred” the museum, the greater the likelihood that many viewers will accept the content offered as authoritative. There are consequences of preparing displays that cannot easily be challenged. Two students of collective memory, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi and Chana Teeger (2010: 1107) argue that “the narration of certain memories and the silencing of others can oftentimes be conceptualized as the attempts of those with power to set the limits on what is speakable or unspeakable about the past.” Objects can be positioned to “speak” lessons about national values to the public. A life-size bronze figure of young Theodore Roosevelt sits on a bench at the entrance to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Viewers may join the future president on the bench, contemplate his interests, and travel along his journey from a budding naturalist to an American president committed to conservation. Nothing about big sticks and wars in that discrete millisecond of a longer life. Kenneth E. Behring himself is not sitting at the entrance to the National Museum of American History, but by dint of financial largesse this powerful donor creates a speakability, a “narration of certain memories” of America that has the effect of diminishing or “silencing of other” objects, memories, interpretations, and knowledge. Covert silence, say Vinitzky-Seroussi and Teeger, silences by omission and is intentional rather than accidental. It aims to widen “the audience
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that can share the moment at the expense of a certain depth to the narrative offered” (p. 1112). The result is likely to be a “bland commemoration” that actively avoids showing or textually referencing undesirable aspects of history (p. 1108). Covert silencing can feature even in exhibitions that do not have the haunting presence of a dominant patron. Museums select objects to exhibit that convey knowledge to broad audiences. Since not every angle of any topic can be covered, or every relevant object in a collection displayed, staff make countless decisions leading up to an exhibition, from whether to borrow objects from private or public museum sources, which can be an expensive proposition, to considering “how to position material things in the context of others” while remaining sensitive to the mission and practices of the specific institution (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992: 6). There are also decisions to make about the physical condition of some material objects, about object security, wall texts, conservation, and web design. Many determinations reflect “the interests, enthusiasms, and expertise of the curator in question” (p. 6), a consideration that can pass viewers by, especially those who presume that the objects they see are “unmediated anchors to the past,” when in reality everything is mediated by the museum and its staff (Marstine, 2006: 2). New museum practice (“new” from the 1990s on) has sought to enable viewers to see what is on offer as a way of expanding the way they see themselves (Conn, 2010). To that end, museums “ ‘manipulate’ material things [to] set up relationships and associations, and in fact create identities” (Hooper- Greenhill, 1992: 6). As an example, the National Gallery London endeavored in the mid-2000s to keep a small Raphael painting that its long-term lender wanted to sell to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Museum staff and Friends of the National Gallery worked to attract donors who could match the price the Getty offered. Other strategies included demonstrating that diverse groups of British visitors had a stake in the Great Master painting—because they could see themselves in it. The staff took school children to the Gallery and encouraged them to draw their own versions of the threatened painting, The Madonna of the Pinks. Single mothers were shuttled in to discuss the challenges of motherhood the painting evokes (Sylvester, 2009). The museum thereby orchestrated the idea that an old Italian painting had become a British national treasure and should not be allowed to leave the United Kingdom. In new materialist terms, the painting had become part of a new assemblage of viewers, curators, donors, and owners who endeavored to overpower the received facts, namely, that the painting’s owner was not the National Gallery or the
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nation but the Duke of Northumberland, and he could sell it if he wanted. In the end, the National Gallery saved the painting from legitimate sale to a legitimate museum overseas through donations, including five million pounds contributed by the American Friends of the National Gallery from an endowment Paul J. Getty established for the National Gallery in 1985. Such can be the international machinations of museum relations. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has its own manipulative strategies for attracting visitors and bringing them onboard as patriots or admirers of the United States. Just outside the entrance to The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibition a military band might be playing spirited rounds of American music. The subtle message is that the military does more than wage war. It is fun, patriotic, and energetic (maybe you will encourage someone you know to enlist). The Australian War Memorial and museum manipulates the contemporary viewer by inserting him or her into one moment of Australia’s war experience in particular: the ANZAC debacle in World War I. ANZAC refers to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, the antipodean forces involved in the early World War I effort to capture the Dardanelles from Turkey for Allied naval operations. For eight months, the Allies tried to gain control of the Gallipoli Peninsula in what would become one of the worst military catastrophes in a catastrophic war. Their effort achieved only a diversion of Turkish troops from assaults on Russian forces while producing massive casualties among the ANZAC forces.6 The date the Gallipoli assaults commenced in 1915 became associated with national ANZAC Day, which recognizes over 8,000 Australians killed in that single, long Allied effort. In effect, the memorial cum museum places Australian “selves” today in a national story of battle defeat rather than military success. ANZAC Day activities keep that particular set of memories going, drawing the nation together around memories of war and the loss of life war exacts. Years of reflecting on lessons from Gallipoli have not led to a national refutation of war as an instrument of policy or resulted in any disinclination by successive Australian governments to fight the wars of others. The combined museum and memorial give the impression of a nation that is prowar and antiwar simultaneously: the mausoleum section is filled with sentiments of loss; the museum attached to it displays a large number of battle dioramas and life size stagings of operations that can include a stuffed camel, plus fighter planes, weapons, and war art, all of which evoke what Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016) calls weaponized memory. Museum theorist Janet Marstine (2006: 31) is vehement that “because many museums do not provide transparency— do not articulate their
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agendas clearly—visitors need to develop the critical skills to identify and challenge the choices being made.” How to do so and build alternative public memories using the resources of museums? Brenda Trofanenko (2014) tells of an educational project carried out in Washington, DC, schools that combined classwork on war with the possibility of individual student visits to The Price of Freedom accompanied by a veteran of the American war in Vietnam. In one such pairing, a thirteen-year-old boy attended the exhibition three times with a sixty-seven-year-old veteran. A sobering set of discussions unfolded around things and messages included and omitted from the rooms on Vietnam. The student came to appreciate that the objects he was seeing had been taken out of context and conveyed important but limited aspects of the American war there. Missing from the exhibit but conjured up by the boy’s companion was a sense of the war as a physical and emotional experience that lingers for years within those who know it. Trofanenko: “History is often about contextualizing the past, showing how events are historically situated, conditioned, and determined. The difficulties of learning about the Vietnam War through the organized objects are the limits of knowledge that can be gained from any object” (p. 33). More generally, there are limits to what one learns about war from a set of objects fronted with glass or posed in lifelike stagings that seem designed to draw admiration and excitement more so than contemplation.
Memorials What of objects of war that ordinary people leave at war memorials? The Australian War Memorial is attached to a war museum, but technically speaking, memorials are not museums. Memorials are said to be structures commemorating traumatic social events (Edkins, 2003) and edifices that enable people to “contemplate the timelessness, the eternal, the inexorable reality of death in war” (Winter, 1998: 104). Recent work in international relations indicates a new direction in memorial-memory studies. Jessica Auchter (2014) emphasizes the relationship between memorials and statecraft that subsumes war-based deaths into the ongoing life of the state, albeit without complete success: ghosts of traumatic events lurk behind the memorials and haunt the living, resisting exorcism. For Charlotte Heath- Kelly (2016), war ghosts are never vanquished, even as a state endeavors to provide security as a displacement of death anxieties and to ensure its continued sovereign power. From a literary background, Nguyen (2016)
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would seem to concur with the hauntings perspective, saying that decisions about whose bodies can be memorialized as “our” war dead reproduces the dichotomies of war and its memory traumas. With memory and memorialization emerging as important topics across many fields (e.g., Fierke, 2006; Kwon, 2011; Bell, 2009; Reeves, 2018), the historical sociologist Jeffrey Olick (2003: 15), locates memory as “the central faculty of our being in time; it is the negotiation of past and present through which we define our individual and collective selves.” Neither national museums nor memorials can fix or resolve the contentious war memories they curate and display. Memorials usually do not have on- site curators in the manner of museums, and they do not usually organize and curate exhibitions per se. Memorials exist for the public to visit, touch, spend time with, remember, and heal. All visitors are usually free to bring personal items of remembrance to memorials and leave them there, which is not the case at most conventional museums; imagine bringing a painting from Uncle Joe’s home and hanging it in some empty space at the National Gallery— quite a faux pas. In a sense, though, that is exactly what transpires at some memorials, especially those commemorating a recent war. Small, self- contained displays are curated on-site for a limited run of a day or a week. Temporary and uncoordinated, the displays bring individual memory to bear on a collective location of war sentiment. At some memorials, the objects are gathered up at some point by an agency empowered to store them for posterity. Collections comprising hundreds of war-related objects have been amassed this way, larger collections in some cases than many museums hold, with all the attendant storage, archiving, and display challenges an acquisition practice of “daily collecting” poses.7 Although museums of all kinds have been multiplying in recent decades, their frequency does not overtake the numbers of war memorials. Walk through any town in the United States, no matter how small, and the only type of monument you are apt to find will commemorate a war and the area’s war dead. It can seem there is little else deemed worthy of concrete memorialization in everyday American history and life except war.8 Some battlefields of the American Civil War feature memorials at every turn in the landscape: Gettysburg National Park Foundation boasts 1,320 of them, one of the largest collections of outdoor sculptures in the world. In the small Connecticut town of Old Mystic where I live, I can see two war memorials from my house—one for World War II losses, and one commemorating local deaths in the American war in Vietnam. Each is carefully and lovingly maintained: neighbors take turns mowing the grass
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around them all summer, and in January the two memorials are always the last to lose the holiday lights set on nearby bushes. Older war memorials that depict individual military or political men of war as glorious saviors on rearing horses, eager to enter the fray, may draw more attention. Their highly exaggerated facial and body poses suggest superior courage and strong masculine character. “Almost always,” says Kirk Savage (2009: 255), “they materialized on a high pedestal, disconnected from the worldly forces and beliefs that had propelled them into action.” That tradition of memorialization is not entirely past but is no longer embraced much in the West; Kehinde Wiley’s latter-day black Napoleon painting simultaneously exemplifies, endorses, and challenges the heroic form. Overall, the older style of war memorial has been overtaken by large abstract designs, such as obelisks, headstones, or elaborate stonewalls chiseled with patriotic words and some individual names. This means visitors no longer always look upon a man’s features and intact body as the ideal- typical image of war. The magnitude of that shift in focus and meaning cannot be underestimated. Abstract memorials cede historical agency to the viewer, which might explain why ordinary curatorial displays abound at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and are absent at the related naturalistic statues nearby—one a bronze depiction of three soldiers seemingly haunted by what they have just seen or done in Vietnam, and the other a pieta-like ensemble of American nurses tending to an injured soldier in that same war. The war memorials near my home are understated stones carrying the relatively small number of names one expects in a limited population. I have seen only a couple of people at those memorials over the years, mostly lone tourists who quickly look them over and walk on. That the memorials do not move them is clear and also not unusual. War memorials can fade into near invisibility as new generations become unmindful of their significance or focus on commemorations of recent wars. As discussed in another chapter, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial remains remarkably popular considering that the conflict ended forty-plus years ago. Karl Marlantes (2017), a veteran of the war and novelist about it (2010, 2012), reminds readers of a New York Times series on the Vietnam War in the year 1967 that “even as Vietnam continues to shape our country, its place in our national consciousness is slipping. Some 65% of Americans are under 45 and so unable to even remember the war.” This is concerning to the aging veterans of a controversial, contentious war. Yet the slow demise of Vietnam memories might be prematurely proclaimed. Vietnam is one of America’s wars, perhaps like the Civil War, that steadfastly refuses
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to wrap, continually unfolding as new memories come to light; for example, Nguyen (2016) has enabled many to appreciate memorials that Vietnamese-Americans have constructed to a war that changed their lives and often their physical locations in the world.9 If war memorials can be inspirational or ignored, they can also be purposely denigrated. Nguyen writes of endeavoring to find memorials and cemeteries in Vietnam today for South Vietnamese who died during the American war. He knows such cemeteries did exist, and when he finds a few, their once manicured and welcoming landscapes have been allowed to go to seed by Hanoi governments that have difficulty remembering former allies of the United States. Any South Vietnamese cemetery becomes the ugly, beaten, closeted cousin of the one celebrating the victors across the highway. There are the same rows of tombs nearly level with the earth, but they lay unloved, unpainted, and untended amid green meadows of uncut grass and groves of shade trees . . . Someone has vandalised the photographs of the dead on these desecrated tombs, scratching out the eyes and faces. (Nguyen, 2016: 37)
That several headstones have been recently rebuilt and affixed with new photographs cheers him, but the very temerity of visiting the ruined cemetery of the enemy means that the second time he comes “one of the staff follows me as I walk from grave to grave, put-putting on his motorbike” (p. 37). The question formed in the wake of Nguyen’s experience is, Whose war is honored through a memorial or a well-kept cemetery? Usually it is not the war fought by people on the losing side or by those from the winning side who opposed the war. Who counts as a warrior or person with pertinent memories of a war? Only combatants? With the exception of genocidal wars, civilian experiences of war do not register or have the same authority as combatant experiences. Savage (2009: 282) argues that “honoring the trauma of combatants silences the trauma of their victims, who melt into invisibility.” Indeed, Americans do not find civilian names on war memorials that were built to honor the dead from a particular town or region, even though it was their war too. One has to look elsewhere to find such commemorations. Two memorials to the dead of America’s war in Iraq are noteworthy for underscoring the point that there is more to wars than military combatant deaths. Mobile rather than fixed, and temporary rather than permanent, Eyes Wide Open and Arlington West have been
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ephemeral war memorials paying tribute to the deaths of Iraqi civilians as well as American military deaths. Both were set up in deliberately “wrong” places, spaces in no way held sacred but rather selected in order to catch-up everyday civilians going about their business. The logic of the pop-up memorials has been to challenge average Americans to confront the realities of a war conducted in their name while they breezily engage in daily activities. For a moment, everyone who passes must step into that war, whether they want to or not. Eyes Wide Open has presented the accidental viewer with the spectacle of worn, sometimes threadbare, shoes placed at intervals on level ground. Some were military boots tagged with the name of an American killed in action in Iraq, and some were ordinary shoes for men, women, and children set about to represent civilian victims of the American war in Iraq; these also had name tags, and were often in sizes and styles worn by women and children. Unexpectedly, the “innocent” passers-by would come upon the shoes and become instant witnesses to war, possibly the last thing they had on their minds that day. Eyes Wide Open was organized and financed by the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers, within a year of the American bombardment of Baghdad (Collins, 2011). Faced with government restrictions on media access to the war, Eyes Wide Open delivered a counterpunch, a silent performance of the war’s injurious content and reach. It toured nationally for several years, sometimes turning up at events aimed at rallying people to support an increasingly unpopular war. At the 2004 dedication (by President George W. Bush) of the latest war memorial on the National Mall—the garish new National World War II Memorial—Eyes Wide Open was assembled on a lawn near the US Capitol. Arlington West was designed by the organization Veterans for Peace as a repeating, temporary memorial composed of small crosses and some wooden coffins. Each weekend it was set up at the entrance area of two popular Southern California beaches and then taken down and stored for the following weekend. The installation recreated the aesthetic of Arlington National Cemetery’s uniform rows of stark headstones and included flag- covered coffins placed at the head of the plain of crosses, the number of coffins varying by the number of American service people killed that week in Iraq. That staging emphasized the military costs of the American war in Iraq and, artistically, defied the prohibition regarding showing coffins of dead American soldiers off-loaded at US military bases, which had been a daily media visual during the war in Vietnam. It was also a departure from standard commemorations of American military deaths alone. The names
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of Iraqi civilian victims of the American war were inscribed and regularly updated on plywood “pillars.” A nearby sign read: “This small memorial represents only a portion of the more than one million Iraqis killed since 2003. Imagine walking with one foot in front of the other, toe to heel. Each step is one Iraqi life. If you took one step for each Iraqi life, you would walk 190 miles” (Haskins and Rancourt, 2017: 172). The memorial was so well executed that “more than one Veterans for Peace member admitted that it is common to be asked by bystanders whether there are, in fact, bodies in the coffins” (p. 171). As well, bereaved members of the public seemed to appreciate this remembrance-oriented activity and traveled to see it. Other types of ephemeral antiwar performative memorials developed during the Iraq War, some replicating protest activities initiated by veteran groups against the American war in Vietnam. Cami Rowe (2013) details many of these activities, including Winter Soldier staged in 2008 by Iraq Veterans Against the War, which featured testimonials of individual war experiences in Iraq. A year earlier, the same group had taken to urban streets dressed as combat forces complete with objects that looked like rifles. As ordinary people going about their business looked on, these “soldiers” moved in formation, they shouted commands and responses to each other, and warily scanned the street for potential threats. As more civilians gathered to watch, the band of soldiers surrounded groups of tourists taking pictures, and roughly ordered them to the ground. Terrified screams erupted from the detainees [planted actors] as the soldiers zip cuffed them and placed white bags over their faces. Shouting obscenities and ordering them to not move unless they wanted to be shot in the head, the soldiers guarded their targets while their fellows continued to patrol the streets. (p. 27)
These ephemeral protests took place at Union Station in Washington, DC, as well as at Arlington Cemetery, the Capitol, and near Times Square in New York on Memorial Day 2007. Meanwhile, members of an antiwar group called Code Pink regularly donned stereotypical feminine clothes— who could be threatened by “girls” in pink?—and enacted “pink slip” dramas at congressional hearings or infiltrated ordinary public places with their messages. One action entailed pushing a bed out into a rush- hour intersection in DC while the lights were red, whereupon women in pink curlers and nighties climbed out of the bed shouting to motorists and pedestrians to wake up to the horrors of the Iraq War.
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While protest actions are not usually classified as memorials, arguably they update the concept of a war “memorial,” just as some war memorials update the concept of “museum” by hosting objects of war for display there. A war memorial need not be a permanent structure composed of tributes to the military or feature hosannas of praise for heroes. Just as important and challenging are ephemeral and performative memorials that “deliberately instill debate and uncertainty among audiences” (Rowe, 2013: 34). Rather than lulling viewers into passive acceptance of received war wisdom, alternative forms of memorialization reveal the trade-offs, omissions, and denials of wrongdoing that dot militarist narratives. They break down boundaries that demarcate military personnel as more heroic than people who do not carry weapons of war as part of their professions, such as teachers, war journalists, novelists, and medical researchers. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and at Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery the issue of who is honored there and who is not is starkly policed. Both sites are strictly dedicated to American military lives lost in American wars. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial lists names of American service people who died in that American war and also serves as an ad hoc museum of objects curated anew each day by members of communities of loss. Section 60 of the Arlington Cemetery holds the remains of some American military personnel who died in Afghanistan and Iraq;10 its vast landscape is topped by identical white headstones carved with name, rank, tours of duty, military awards, birth and death dates, and a religious faith emblem if requested or indicated. At both memorializing locations, official authorities provide no information about lives lived outside “service” and death in the military. The dead soldier’s entire being is condensed “to a few patriotic lessons frozen for all time” (Savage, 2009: 10), with the state ultimately taking credit and no blame for the war bodies laid out in Arlington and for the many who died in Vietnam and were buried in regional war cemeteries. The informing idea seems to be that we should all remember these are state combatants, and such heroes do not really perish. Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery can also be considered a memorial cum museum of war. Its regulation art brut headstones often get a complete makeover by families, friends, and visitors, who personalize and enliven the drab death architectures and overall military mise en scène with Christmas pines and ornaments in December, piles of cards on birthdays, and a range of pictures throughout the year. Arlington Cemetery, though, is a reluctant museum host and has shown little interest until very recently in collecting the objects left at graves of
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American military killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, after several years of tolerating decorated graves, the cemetery started carting off all material evidence left behind that showed dead soldiers as individuals who had led multidimensional lives, thus forcing civilian visitors to focus on military, war, and the warrior state only. Families of fallen soldiers insisted the cemetery cease its memory policing and its removal of signs of personhood as though they represented an alien culture to be destroyed. The actions on both sides have raised questions about the American “ethics of remembering one’s own” (Nguyen, 2016: 24): at Arlington Cemetery, it has been clear whose memory practice has authority and whose can be cast out by it. It is often difficult to linger at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, given the immense crowds on certain days, the roped-off grassy spaces in front of the memorial that restrict the space, and parks department measures to move people along. Section 60 at the cemetery has more space for walking around, although graves and tombstones take it all up. There are few places provided for people to sit, so you see visitors sitting or lying on the graves; there is no alternative in some parts of the cemetery. Grieving civilians and curious visitors expecting to find comfort facilities in the far reaches of the burial areas will be disappointed. The only visitor services are at the cemetery reception center, which also provides tour tickets and souvenirs,11 or at the Lee House on the far edge of the property. Soon there might not be any room left in the cemetery for graves let alone for visitor assistance. The United States is so frequently involved in wars that the Arlington National Cemetery is rapidly running out of space for every body and everything (see McElya, 2016).
Fictive/Memoir War novels and veteran memoirs are not usually considered locations of object displays. In fact, as readers will know, war stories are full of objects. In Harry Parker’s (2016) novel Anatomy of a Soldier, the objects of war actually narrate the tale of one British soldier’s struggle with serious injuries sustained in the Iraq War. Each chapter features a different object describing war events from its point of view. Among the object narrators are “a mix of red and white blood cells, clotting factors, plasma, and platelets” (p. 111) and an oscillating saw used in amputations. War moments seen through the “eyes” of a seemingly indifferent assault rifle or through hospital tools that handle volumes of blood and flesh can emerge
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as more gruesome than tales recounted directly by the soldiers. Veterans cannot always gain the distance required to drill into abject excruciation or even fully acknowledge it. About his experiences in Vietnam circa 1968, Tim O’Brien (2006: 141) writes in his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone: “Death was taboo. The word for getting killed was ‘wasted.’ When you hit Bouncing Betty and it blows you to bits, you get wasted. Fear was taboo. It could be mentioned, of course, but it had to be accompanied with a shrug and a poorly concealed grin and obvious resignation and indifference.” Third-party writings that pass on information the writer has been told about war victims and their families can be remarkably flat in tone. Denise Chong (2000) wrote the story of Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old girl most everyone remembers from the Nick Ut photo taken as she ran naked and burning from her village after it was napalmed by American forces. Attack by a weapon so extreme that it melts the skin comes out as a matter-of- fact statement in the book: “Phuc sustained burns to the severity of third- degree or worse to 30 to 35% of her body surface. Those burned areas included almost her entire back, reaching around on her left side to her chest, the back of her neck and into her hairline, and her entire left arm” (p. 90). By contrast, some renditions of war by those who did not experience it directly can be very affecting, as in the case of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) and Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen (2011), both about experiences of American soldiers who deployed to Iraq and faced challenges when they returned home. Whether the war novelist or memoirist mentions rifles, saws, IEDs, napalm—objects of war all—in graphic or distanced, affective or stone- cold tones, it is nonetheless the case that the reader enters a war context inaccessible through other modalities. Museums show objects and provide snippets of information about them in isolation from their contexts in war. The exhibits can blot out individual experiences or provide only a heavily truncated path toward complex events. Gone is the urgency of the moments when an object on display was used, when it had personalized meaning, or was involved in an elaborate experience that remains in memory over time. Displayed outside the immediate frame of reference, objects of war get relegated to specialist historical interest, which can cause them to lose personality and use value. To resuscitate objects of war outside their war frames requires exploring the experiences of those who recollect or can imagine them in situ. War novels and memoirs—and war films and artwork—evoke such sites. They weave materiality into a war presentation narrated by a character, a person, a witness, or a group that readers get to know. They animate objects otherwise inactivated behind glass or
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enhanced by dramatic lighting and mannequin arrangements meant to supply the missing context and “experience.” War novels and memoirs also shake up the dynamics of war control and disturb the assumed sense of who or what has, or is supposed to have, authority to manage a war situation. Where does agency lie, in the rifle or in the human carrying or facing it? Perhaps agency switches back and forth among war objects and their wielders or victims; combat forces carry assault weapons and also activate Bouncing Bettys and other IEDs that leave them at the mercy of the oscillating saw in the emergency room. In novels and some war memoirs, it is often the case that no one in particular is in charge, that war has a life of its own and is, in effect, its own authority; thus, Kevin Powers’s (2012: 3) announcement at the beginning of his novel The Yellow Birds: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” Storylines, war progression, and war tactics condense into war miniatures in such novels and memoirs. The student of war faces war’s colors and war’s cunning through the texts. Anticipated confrontations turn out differently than they should, and objects that might never enter one’s consciousness can loom large. The power and agency of war do not come to the reader of any text directly or unequivocally. Words are mediators, filters, sometimes even obstacles to expression. Writing about interviewing women who experienced violence during the Partition of India and Pakistan, Veena Das (2007: 54) reminds us that it can be dangerous to remember, to speak, to reveal hidden knowledge: “containing it was itself the expression of it.” As well, war memories expressed in speech, novels, and memoirs are mediated by the words selected, the scenarios and themes constructed, and by the present historical moment. There is also the challenge of finding words to describe war experiences. O’Brien (2009a: 143) writes this in his story “Speaking of Courage”: “He could not describe what happened next, not ever, but he would’ve tried anyway. He would have spoken carefully so as to make it real for anyone who would listen.” But he could not. We find such words and moments in novels and memoirs, both of which are themselves objects of war and curations of war’s horrifying moments. Literary theorist Babette Tischleder (2014) would have readers approach imaginative literatures with what she calls material imaginaries that help us think about what the things that appear in novels are actively doing. To her, material imaginary “is not restricted to the life objects take on within fictional narratives, but it is an effect of the way in which the literary texts dramatize the vibrancy of objects and stir the reader’s own emotions and material existence—an aesthetic resonance that goes beyond literary story worlds” (p. 265). The reader is as important an actor as the
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writer and the objects and scenes written about. All operate together in ways materialist-based technology and science studies do not fully capture in their discussions of object and nonobject assemblages and networks. Jesse Bordwin (2016: 210) cautions about the danger in applying new materialist understandings of agency “without asking what was lost in translation . . . and how are things in the novel distinct from things studied by anthropologists and archaeologists, philosophers, and scientists.” In The Literary Life of Things, Tischleder is clear that she is mostly “interested in the ways in which literary texts animate objects in order to cast them as companions, custodians, alter egos, or antagonists of human characters” (p. 43). Tischleder’s take puts me in mind of the artist-researcher whose cultivated imagination moves her in and out of rational analysis, in and out of differing presentations of the “real world,” and wary of appropriations by those who would try to subvert her meanings (Gibbon and Sylvester, 2017; also Sylvester, 2016). As someone who is not a student of literature per se, I turn to novels for context, texture, emotional knowledge, and points of view that are factored out in accounts of war offered by fields that rely on social science conventions. I turn to literature to imagine objects of war, such as nuclear weapons systems or AK-47s, as “companions, custodians, alter egos, or antagonists of human characters.” International relations considers such material objects too but tends to avoid imagining the humans who carry them and the reciprocities that affect and are affected by such objects. The field also shies far away from the mortalities such objects of war inflict; indeed, “the discipline which makes claim to the conceptual territories of war and security . . . does not explore mortality despite its ‘academic ownership’ of violent terrain” (Heath-Kelly, 2015: 58). Such omissions are the norm that preempts questions about who or what is actually doing war when the headline reads “United States Bombs Baghdad.” Do tanks move along the roads on their own, IEDs construct themselves, drones decide to fire by themselves? Do members of Congress put on war clothes and enact the violence they endorse? Does the US commander-in-chief lead the troops in Iraq? No in each case, but someone is behind the wheel. War may be instigated in places remote from the lives of most people, but when “it” arrives, people’s boots hit the ground, and some people order other people to fire the missiles that blow up city blocks. A slew of people watch the destruction as it happens to them and around them. A neoconservative government in Washington could fool itself into thinking that American bombs would bring joyful Iraqis into the streets to celebrate.
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Instead, we learn from Riverbend (2005: 14) that she “hated them all during the bombing of Baghdad.” And even if one is going about usual tasks despite being in a war zone, such as traveling to bury one’s father, sudden indecipherable war terrors loom: “When the Humvee was about thirty or forty meters away, it stopped. The soldier on top shouted a number of times in English: ‘Get out of the car, now!’ ‘What is he saying?’, asked Hammoudy” (Antoon, 2013: 67). War is unmistakably peopled. People with weapons chisel the landscape, unleash bombs that break the water pipes as well as decapitate relatives, rape women and children, and render insecure objects of everyday succor and safety. People try to elude the war, and people grieve loss and do what they can to survive. Are they the real objects of war? What are their objects of war? We find the people, situations, objects, and trade-offs of war by reading war novels and memoirs. Still, when exploring the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq, it is useful to bear in mind the militarist context of that read today. We remember Roy Scranton (2016b: SR7) insisting, as mentioned earlier, that in American culture “war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes” willingly sacrificing ourselves and others for “the promise that it will renew the body politic.” Literary historian Richard Slotkin (1973: 5) argues that “the first settlers saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits and the power of their church and nation; but the means to that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience.” One might say that America’s many material imaginaries were captured, channeled, and ultimately restricted by the interpretations that formed around the originary regeneration experiences of the nation. The country relives those founding examples of violence each time it says it will liberate another country and help forge a new nation through war. Good guys go to war “over there” for the good of all here and there: it is a conviction difficult to question let alone unseat in America. Using Foucauldian terms, war was written on American bodies early and became embedded in a collective sense of the national self. Today the public gives the American military the highest level of confidence, despite a recent history of it not winning wars.12 Scranton is not a fan of America’s belief in ennobling wars, having seen that myth explode in fireworks set off on top of real artillery flashing in Baghdad on the July 4th he was there. He is also critical of a contemporary version of the myth that appears in veteran novels set in the American war in Iraq: the trauma-hero story. Scranton (2015) regrets that
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veteran novels tend to present American soldiers as the chief victims of war, not the main perpetrators of it, the soldier looking no farther than the self and combat buddies nearby. This point is similar to the one Nguyen (2016) makes about Americans remembering their soldiers and the hardships they experienced in an awful war in Southeast Asia and suffered again at home, while choosing not to remember what the American war did to combatants and civilians in Vietnam. It is a critique that also peppers Bacevich’s and Appy’s writings; both reject the idea of American exceptionalism on the grounds it is entirely instrumentalist. But then there is Powers (2012: 3) asserting it was the war that “tried to kill us in the spring.” The main American character in that Iraq War story hands agency to war and watches “it” wield power against American recruits. To Scranton, a sentence like Powers’s wraps US forces in a bubble of innocence. Indeed, the first paragraph of that novel holds no clue that the war was initiated by an American show of airpower followed by an invasionary force. That war would have already killed—not tried to kill, but killed—thousands of Iraqis by the moment in 2004 depicted with the words: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” The troops in Powers’s crosshairs are entirely self-referential. A parallel point can be directed at many of Tim O’Brien’s stories in The Things They Carried (2009). Who are “they,” exactly? Mostly not the Vietnamese. At least Billy Lynn of Ben Fountain’s (2012) novel is given a morally ambiguous and difficult war experience before the long half-time heroes walk to the Dallas Cowboys’ stage on Thanksgiving Day: he (not the war) has had firsthand experience with battle horrors in Iraq. He has attacked and been attacked, beheld life in the raw and its ebb away among members of his unit, and has seen shock in enemy faces that mirror his own. Any sense Lynn has of war as a noble affirmation of America disappeared well before his unit is heroized and thanked profusely at the football stadium, by those without the faintest idea of what Billy and company have faced. Fountain is not a war veteran, but he seems able to present a key aspect of war better than some novels by Iraq war veterans do. He is aware, to use Synne Dyvik’s (2016: 136) words, that there is a “radical relationality” of bodies in war; or, put in terms Tarak Barkawi (2004) might use, he is aware that war intensifies social relations between friends and foes. Still, there is some emphasis in the Fountain novel on war as personal revelation and personal transformation, which Scranton (2015) associates with the trauma-hero theme afflicting recent war novels by Americans. Scranton warns of “a politics of forgetting that actively elides the question of what U.S. soldiers were fighting for, and the bigger question of who they were
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killing in favor of the more narrow and manageable question of ‘what it was like.’ ”13 Despite what has transpired in his first deployment to Iraq, Billy decides to make a career in the military because he appreciates that certain radical relationality of soldier bodies around him. The military is the only place where he has experienced genuine friendship and genuine teamwork, and that war-based revelation overwhelms his profound ambivalence about the killing he did. It may also reflect the military training recruits now receive, which places operational focus on the unit and not the individual soldier. Whereas Americans in Vietnam faced shifting assignments within one deployment, current training programs teach inductees to fight for the people in their stable unit and not for any other cause. That Billy has moments of recognition that war precipitates both life-changing self-reflections and other-reflection, no matter how fleeting, makes this novel stand out. The spate of novels about the American war in Iraq has some proclaiming the dawn of a new golden age of war fiction, often with the caveat that “nothing complicates the celebration of a cultural high-water mark like the knowledge that we owe it to a rising tide of human misery” (Turrentine, 2014). Alongside Scranton’s disappointment that veteran novels, like the memorials to the American war in Vietnam that disappoint Nguyen, are more about what it was like for “us” than why soldiers were “over there” to begin with—and how it is for the other side—readers might take note of additional issues. When I read war novels, I see women turned into objects of war. I see corpses everywhere as war’s main achievement, its most basic object of war. I also see the remarkably prosaic objects Scranton (2016a: 105) notes in his novel War Porn: “Charms, Cappuccino packet, Country Captain Chicken, Pasteurized Jalapeno Cheese Food Spread, Wheat Snack Cracker, and Noodles with Butter Sauce.” And also the rice. All such war elements and locations of insight are on view in war novels and memoirs.
Exploring War Authority War exhibitions in museums, at memorials curated by ordinary survivors, and in war novels and memoirs raise the point again and again of who has the authority to talk about and represent war (see Harari, 2010). Does war knowledge belong to soldiers and civilians in war zones, both of whom have flesh-witnessing “truth” about war? Does it belong to those who rec ord facts about wars? Or does war belong to all the social fragmentations
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that war produces and that produce war? War novels and memoirs operate with and beyond flesh and facts. They work in material imaginaries that make it less easy to hide behind the powerful militarist intonation of “I can’t imagine what you went through.” Phil Klay (2014a), author of the short story collection Redeployment, tells his civilian friends, and then readers of the New York Times (2014b), that they should imagine war experiences as variations on difficult situations they themselves have faced. Try harder, he seems to say, ask veterans more questions. War novels and memoirs are entry points to aspects of war as experiential knowledge- making that readers are helped to imagine. They are war documents drawn up by those who have done considerable fieldwork on their subject, far more fieldwork on war than most academics can do. Their “write-ups” are also more accessible and nuanced but subject to analysis and critique as with any other type of war document. Swati Parashar (2013) says war always knows more about international relations and its weaknesses than the field of international relations knows about war. This is precisely because people have been evacuated as knowers and actors in that discipline. Put them back in through literary means, and one might read this as the first line: “One of the interrogation booths at Abu Ghraib has comfortable chairs” (Fair, 2016: 1). Lately there has been a move toward some story-writing in the ranks of international relations as a way to fill in details that a disciplinary fascination with abstraction blocks. Elizabeth Dauphinee (2013) has hidden critical international relations methodology in a novel about the Bosnian war that features an academic like herself coming to terms with her research aspirations through learning the war history of her Serbian assistant. Sungju Park-Kang (2014) uses storytelling as a method related to the accepted practice of creating scenarios to explore key decisions made around an exploded Korean airliner, an approach Graham Allison (1969) introduced when writing about American decision-making in the Cuban missile crisis. Richard Jackson (2014) has produced fiction about conversing with a terrorist, and there is now the Journal of Narrative Politics that features some of the writers mentioned here and others; one of its issues has feminist and postcolonial studies scholars laying out their own stories of becoming, being, and changing (JNP, 2016). These tellers of tales violate the usual separation of disciplines that sees social science refusing “softer” humanities approaches to knowledge as the difference between determining facts and exploring interpretations. Science and humanities cannot help but infuse interpretive norms into their work, even while trying to “sanitise our scholarly practices” (Moulin, 2016: 148).
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Literary works, however, do so purposively to enable a range of people, objects, visuals, and stories of war to communicate and complicate war knowledge. There are many curated and re-curated war stories embedded in the lives and objects that variously located people arrange into exhibitions. Museum people often position technology as a centerpiece of war. As a counterweight, walk through Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery and give a hard look at all those small pop-up displays that people who know something about war loss create; their re-curations take impressive technologies down a peg. Ditto for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; it is an architecture that attracts ordinary curators who display personal experiences of a war that still rocks the American psyche. The works of war novelists and memoirists suggest war is socially complex and deep; that it generates a range of people, relationships, memories, and consequences that carry forward long after the shooting and bombing end. Among the many possible takeaways from the sites of war curation and re-curation explored in the next three chapters, it should become evident, at the very least, that knowledge of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq is not the preserve of any one group. War is a decentralized phenomenon that renders official stories and culturally prescribed catch phrases about heroes and villains unacceptably simplistic.
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II Curating Memory and Knowledge of American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
3 The Smithsonian Curates America’s Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
ost western museums do not have the power to create one definitive narrative of a war for their society at large; the Australian War Memorial cum museum might be an exception as the centerpiece of a regime of truth about national identity forged around experiences in World War I. But western museums can globally broadcast narratives that glorify their societies in war and peace. Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016: 106–107) talks about western capacity to dominate international war memories through industries that widely transmit only our versions of complex wars through “museums, archives, festivals, documentaries, history channels. . . professionals who curate, design, and study memories . . . [and] the artists, writers, and creators of cultural works of memory.” Each has access to finances and communication technologies the rest of the world cannot match,1 which means “how America remembers [the Vietnam] war and memory is to some extent how the world remembers it” (p. 108). Major museums in the West can have deep collections and ample staff to research, sort objects for display, and mount large war exhibitions. They often have funds to borrow pieces for their exhibitions and to travel, photograph, and gather objects of war from the places where battles raged. Yet when crafting exhibitions related to America’s wars abroad, it is fair to say that the emphasis is on American military conducting and suffering the war. Few Vietnamese feature and even American civilians can be out of focus in post-World War II war displays unless they have protested the war. As for the American war in Iraq it comes through mostly in Hollywood films, like The Sniper, or war novels rather than in museum
displays—perhaps because there is as yet no dominant American narrative of that war to guide object collection and display.2 In both cases, the experiences of American combat soldiers are in the foreground with almost nothing said about Vietnamese or Iraqis soldiers or the contributions of any country’s women to the war effort (see Enloe, 2010; Al-Ali, 2012). War memories are condensed to the point where, as Nguyen (2016: 153) says, they come out grossly “asymmetrical.” It is important to point out that asymmetry of memory is not only a problem related to privilege and global status. The Vietnamese government has memorialized its American war through museum displays that show US military aggression against the Vietnamese. In Son My (My Lai) and in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, museum dioramas depict American military forces dropping napalm bombs on locals while angry-looking soldier mannequins shoot unarmed villagers. At the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi, pieces of downed American bombers, helicopters, and tanks are artfully arranged into a tall, America- smashing sculpture. Across Vietnam, the bombasts of western memory stand corrected: the United States was the invader, and the underdog was the winner. At the same time, just as Americans might not emphasize the cases where American forces were cruel to the Vietnamese they were there to protect, the Hanoi regime does not show the revenge it exacted against South Vietnamese at the end of the war in 1975. And, as the war anthropologist Heonik Kwon (2011: 85) points out, even in “the state-controlled public institution of commemoration . . . one sees no records of deaths from what the Vietnamese call ben kia (“that side,” meaning the American side).” Bearing in mind asymmetries of war memorialization, this chapter explores the evolving Smithsonian institutions and how the National Museum of American History’s The Price of Freedom: Americans at War presents US wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Aspects of the Air and Space Museum enter the discussion in a secondary role as a museum that shows some war aviation but does not have a dedicated exhibition on America at war. Indeed, Air and Space was buffeted in the 1990s by an object-display crisis that developed out of curatorial efforts to introduce some symmetry to the story of atom bombs dropped on Japan. That tale about the dangers of display “balance” would haunt The Price of Freedom ten years later.
The Smithsonian: Myths and Memories The Smithsonian Institution, located mostly but not exclusively on the National Mall in Washington, DC, hosts the largest museum and research
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complex in the world. The word “national” in many of its museums lends itself to an assumption that the Smithsonians are official museums of the United States. In fact, the Smithsonian is statutorily independent from the federal government (Plassart, 2010: 215n). William Taft, a former chancellor of the Smithsonian and later president of the United States, put the relationship this way: “the Institution is not a governmental agency rather it is a private institution under the guardianship of the United States Government” (quoted in Cohen, 1980: 6). David Allison, current project manager and senior scholar at the National Museum of American History refers to the Smithsonian as a “trust instrumentality” (interview with author June 2016). In practical terms this means it receives operating funds from the Congress under terms laid out in the founding gift of objects and money and intervenes only when important issues are brought to congressional attention. The Smithsonian story is somewhat convoluted. Its origins lie in an English mineralogist named James Lewis Macie, who later changed his name to James Smithson to match his true paternity by the man who would go on to be known as the Duke of Northumberland. Smithson died in 1829 having never set foot in America. Yet he bequeathed his entire cabinet of mineralogical and chemistry-related objects to the United States, expecting these items to become the basis of a collection of great importance. Smithson originally wanted his collection to go to France because he admired its revolution against the monarchy (Ewing, 2007). He did not admire what came later, though, including his arrest as a counterrevolutionary and imprisonment in Hamburg during the Napoleonic period. Disappointed in Europe’s great experiment, Smithson then looked across the pond to America, the other democratic country.3 Smithson’s unexpected gift perplexed the American government, which then spent years debating what to do with it. In 1846 Congress reached agreement to create a Smithsonian Institution and National Museum to house the bequeathal and expand it. The specimens Smithson used for chemistry and mineralogical research, along with his scientific papers and diaries, went into a new purpose-built architecture designed by James Renwick, borrowing from Oxbridge architectures (Cohen, 1980: 10). Called the “Castle,” it opened in 1855 as the signature building of the Smithsonian Institute. Five years later it was heavily damaged by fire and most of Smithson’s research documents, up to 200 of his unpublished papers, and all his mineral specimens, which included valuable pieces of meteorites recovered in Europe, were destroyed. The Castle building reconstructed in the aftermath of the historic fire has since been enlarged
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several times and now anchors Smithsonian museums that have arisen around it. Although planned largely as a science museum and working laboratory, the Smithsonian soon became known as America’s attic, owing to the plethora of miscellaneous objects bestowed on it as gifts. Very quickly this growing cabinet of curiosities developed a chronic space problem made worse by a quirk of curatorship. The first secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, Joseph Henry, decreed that staff would operate as scientific researchers only. That is, they were to “take complete responsibility for the building of their own collections, based on their own expertise, and designed for their own research needs” (Lubar, 2015: 83). With no overall collecting plan, certain objects related to a staff member’s particular research interests were acquired and might be placed on display. Many other eligible pieces were not collected or were deemed of professional interest only and hidden away.4 It was well into the twentieth century before the Smithsonian collection and curatorial norms changed, such that staff could gain promotions on the basis of their exhibition history as well as their research. Given the norm of curator autonomy, it also took time for the Smithsonian museums to embrace modern approaches to object displays.5 These idiosyncracies differentiated the Smithsonians from top American museums for years.
The Long Beginnings of the Museum of American History With additional space desperately needed for storage, offices, and displays, a new museum building was erected with congressional funding in 1881. It was called the Arts and Industries building and was designated to house a US national museum. In short time it too was soon loaded down with all manner of objects representing science, medicine, anthropology, art, and American history. By 1928 the secretary of the Smithsonian could credibly argue that there should be two separate museums one for American history and another for American science, invention, and industry; but the Great Depression began in late 1929, leaving no money for such things. The display logic in practice at the time, such as it was, emphasized simple object chronologies that did not provide the public with much information on the significance of what they were seeing. By 1945 more than a million visitors were passing through the museums, though, and Frank Taylor,
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then head curator of the Smithsonian Department of Arts and Industries, argued that the display situation had to be remedied. He wanted visitors to have experiences at the museums that “would in some degree influence their activities and decisions as individuals and citizens” (Cohen, 1980: 65). Objects were important, he said, but these could not influence visitors if they were displayed indifferently. To prove his point, Taylor refurbished three cases showing the development of the typewriter. He painted each case blue and placed larger objects on pedestals instead of squeezing everything into cases. Taylor campaigned over four years for greater modernization and finally got a go-ahead in 1950 for a committee to plan updated exhibits at the National Museum. Three years later, the annual report of the museum recorded the changes afoot: “In the future, exhibits would be expected to have a high idea content. The story underlying the objects was to be presented. The vast scope of the collections was to be made evident, not in specimen type displays as before, but within exhibits that coordinated different kinds of materials in thematic displays” (Cohen, 1980: 88). Taylor then gave the curators an opportunity to design exhibits to communicate a “particular story which they wished to extend to the public” (p. 89). In effect, he expanded their range of curatorial expertise to include the design of object displays and purposive narratives. Taylor also insisted curators carefully conceptualize the goals of each exhibit and indicate how every object would be selected and assembled “to tell the appropriate story” (p. 92). All of this necessitated hiring museum personnel experienced in design, visualization of an exhibit as a three-dimensional object in itself, and preparation of effective “scripts” for each displayed object. Henceforth, exhibiting at the National Museum was to become an art form (Skramstad, 1978)—as effective in drawing viewers as department store windows. Clutter would disappear as the number of objects on display was reduced and their impact enhanced through object groupings, better lighting, the addition of contextual elements, and new space-utilization techniques. “Memorable visual pictures” (Cohen, 1980: 97; also Harris, 1978) would now be on view. The modernization project was such a success with the public that the prospect arose again of moving some of the collection from the crowded Arts and Industries building to a new Smithsonian museum that would trace the history of American innovations in technology. In 1955 the Eisenhower administration offered $36 million for just that—a new building on the National Mall that would highlight American science, engineering, and
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cultural development. History and Technology, the direct predecessor of the National Museum of American History, opened in 1964.
Almost a National War Museum? Over the years of lobbying government for another Smithsonian museum on the Mall, advocates had to fend off competing claims for a national war museum. Between 1945 and 1950, four military museums were fielded by their partisans for congressional favor and approval: a national naval museum, a national military museum, a project to turn the USS Enterprise into a museum, and a national air museum. Two made it onto a short list: the idea of a national air museum and conservation of the Enterprise active in the Pacific theater of World War II. Only the idea of an air museum would eventually prevail. Congress requested information from all the museum advocates on the goals, proposed sites, and target audiences of a national war museum. There was opposition to any museum that would showcase military aviation or suggest the United States was a prowar country. For its part, the Smithsonian board would not support a museum that might minimize its own “historical collection of the Nation including naval and military collections” (London, 2000: 88, citing Cohen, 1980: 122). The air museum plan was acceptable, mainly because it would “memorialize the national development of aviation” (House hearings, 1946: 1, cited in London, 2000: 94) rather than focus on aviation used in America’s wars. In the aftermath of Europe’s second war in twenty years and Japan’s attack on the United States, a Smithsonian museum commemorating civilian as well as military aviation won over Congress and briefly ended the discussion about a national war or military museum. As it was, the Smithsonian had amassed a vast collection of surplus military and war objects. Those displayed inside the History and Technology museum were placed in the service of the Great Man Theory of History then in vogue. That is, certain military objects could be shown only if they had been owned by or were associated with eminent men in American history— and many such men had military associations. It was only following World War I that it became acceptable to collect and show military objects on their own (London, 2000: 116)—tanks, uniforms, arms, and medals—and even then there was reluctance to be seen endorsing war or militarism. Given the volume of military-object donations that arrived at the Smithsonian following each major war, and the limited storage space available, large military vehicles were initially set about on the Mall grounds.
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In 1956, an internal change in the Smithsonian seemed to bolster the interests of staff who wanted to see greater emphasis on military displays. That year the Department of Armed Forces split off from the Department of History, a move some staff interpreted as “ascendancy of the militaristic idea on the part of the administration” (p. 132, quoted from Department of History Annual Report, 1957). There was reason for concern, as “from 1945 to 1965, the Navy, Marine Corps and Army funded and supported the development of exhibition halls devoted to telling the stories of their respective services” (London, 2000: 132). When the transition from National Museum to a National Museum of History and Technology had seemed imminent, the navy and army held large exhibitions in the Smithsonian Arts and Industry building and sought assurances that the new museum would reserve space for military history because “from colonial times, the people of the United States had established armed forces solely because external forces had forced them to defend themselves” (p. 136). That is the same theme that animates The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibition now. In 1959, members of the military took another stab at launching a war museum under federal auspices, but the Smithsonian Department of Armed Forces opposed the idea for reasons similar to those offered in the past. It argued, “the establishment by the United States of a National Armed Forces Museum, in reality a National War Museum, might well be used by the Iron Curtain powers as the basis for ‘war mongering’ propaganda at a crucial point in delicate international negotiations” (Edgar M. Howell quoted in London, p. 142). The department also balked at all proposals to display objects of war in a separate museum building rather than mixing these into exhibits showing broader trends in American history. It said no to anything that smacked of a military “garden” full of tanks, gunboats, and missiles. The Eisenhower administration was concerned, like administrations in the past, that all such displays could present a picture of a bellicose America instead of a country proud of its democratic and peaceful traditions. Still, in 1961 Congress authorized a National Armed Forces Museum (NAFM) Advisory Board within the Smithsonian. Its task was to look into expanding the museum’s emphasis on American military and military technological contributions as related to “creating, developing, and maintaining a free, peaceful, and independent society and culture” (London, p. 66). As those debates unfolded, the American war in Vietnam heated up and members of the armed forces turned wary about a proj ect that could inflame antiwar protest. Discussion and project tinkering6
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carried on well into the mid-1970s before the armed forces museum idea finally died. Despite raising the option of a national war museum many times between the end of World War II and the late 1960s, nothing like Australia’s National War Memorial has come to pass in the United States.
The National Air and Space Museum Meanwhile, plans for the Smithsonian national air and space museum were coming to fruition around an approach that would fold aircraft into a story of American technological progress. Congress had finally approved the idea of the museum during the war years in Vietnam but added the caveat that appropriations for it would have to await a decrease in war expenditures. In 1971 that moment arrived, and Congress appropriated $40 million to the Air and Space Museum project. There was a sense leading up to the final approval and museum opening on July 4, 1976, that visitors would find civilian aviation a bit dull and the museum would drift over time toward military aviation and militarized space. In fact, there is a comprehensive exhibit of atomic and nuclear weapons on the ground floor of the museum, which documents their links to cold war history. Very little politics, however, accompanies displays of drone development or a facsimile aircraft carrier deck, and only three galleries of the twenty-four display military aircraft. At the Smithsonian Air and Space museum and annex the emphasis is on machines that fly and not on who or what the target is of those machines. Today that museum boasts the highest attendance of all the Smithsonians, which is not to say it has beat back all threats. Air and Space experienced a serious crisis in 1995 over its plans to stage a special exhibition commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II: The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War. The highlight of the exhibition would be the carrier that dropped the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. It was the B-29 Superfortress Gay aircraft, recently restored sufficiently to display at least in part. The curators wanted to provide information on the reasons for using that weaponry and also refer to the destruction it caused on the ground in Japan. Whereas Nguyen (2016) might call such an exhibition an effort at providing “just memory,” the mere mention of Japanese deaths in the plan was enough to upset veterans and cultural conservatives, among them then Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich. They argued that Air and Space was trying to peddle a revisionist history that downplayed the importance of ending the war conclusively to save
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American lives. Japan, they argued, had attacked Pearl Harbor and was waging fierce war against Americans in the Pacific when the decision was made to use atom bombs. To some, questioning the justification for dropping the bombs and displaying pictures of burned bodies amounted to a blame-America move or an effort at showing moral equivalence where none was perceived by the exhibition critics.7 The museum curators expected some pushback and had circulated a 300-page set of exhibit plans to veterans groups. When the criticisms came in, curators endeavored to mollify the offended groups by agreeing to remove aspects of the exhibition that suggested Japan was a victim, including pulling the photographs sent from Tokyo showing burned bodies of women and children. That proposed retreat from curatorial balance inflamed academics who accused Air and Space of cleaning up the war record; many called for national teach-ins reminiscent of those held by protesters of the American War in Vietnam. The script for the exhibition went through nine revisions but never did find acceptance with the culture warriors. In the end, only pieces of the Enola Gay’s renovated forward fuselage were shown with an accompanying film about the “specs” of the plane and details about its crew. Some found even that minimalist approach irresponsible. Timothy Luke (2002: 25) quotes the reaction of the pilot of the aircraft, Brigadier General Paul W. Tibbets Jr., to the partial Enola Gay. He insisted that “ ‘without wings, engines and propellers, landing gear and tail assembly’ the exhibit was a ‘package of insults’ that accentuate ‘the aura of evil in which the airplane is being cast.’ ” The fiasco culminated in the resignation of the director of Air and Space, Martin Harwit, two days before US hearings were to be held about the exhibition.8 Today, curators at Air and Space greatly underplay the politics of their displays of military hardware by showing isolated objects of war with information boxes that abstract the objects from any war context. It is as though the aircraft carrier is just a cool place to be, and a drone might be some enlarged child’s toy hanging from the ceiling. That the museum is remarkably cautious now about its exhibitions and object commentaries reinforces the ironic sense that a country comfortable with initiating overseas war is loathe to be seen as such in Washington, even in an era of manifest militarism.9
The National Museum of American History Today The museum that today houses the only permanent exhibit of American military prowess at the Smithsonian, The Price of Freedom: Americans at
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War, also faced a long uphill battle with Congress and its own staff before reaching its present form. Initially, all objects related to American science, history, and technology had been crammed into the National Museum in the old Arts and Industries building. That museum folded into the Museum of History and Technology in 1964, now located in a new purpose-built architecture. That building got negative reviews right from the start as a “faceless bare and square accumulation of blocks [that] seems to await some giant sculpture to chisel some life into it” (von Eckardt, 1963: E2). The interior of the new museum did not fare better with critics. Wolf von Eckardt derided it as a fiasco, with “no style,” “no dignity” and wrapped his disdain into a contemptuous comment delivered on the cusp of the American women’s movement: “Women in shorts and curlers will not look out of place.” The museum also opened with hand-me-down objects from 100 years of unguided collecting, and some of these were assembled using weak display logics. Here is one description of the rooms devoted to American military history and technologies: The wars in which the United States figured are represented by the Museum of History and Technology are little more than a parade of uniforms, ordnance and military paraphernalia . . . the setting is sterile. The artifacts are not arranged so as to evoke an environment or feeling for anyone but the devotee of military collections. This is the fault of the exhibit script—the responsibility of the curator in collaboration with the designer. The artifacts of war—the technology produced during war time—have markedly changed American life. Nowhere is this recorded in the Museum’s display. (Cohen, 1980: 320–321)
When the title of the museum changed to the National Museum of American History in 1980, under the command of museum director Roger Kennedy, the curatorial philosophy began to shift towards thematic collecting and displays that could tell stories about American social history (Lubar, 2015). No more talk of racially white ‘women in shorts and curlers’ would be remotely acceptable, nor parades of uniforms. America’s vibrant social milieu now came to the fore at the museum under one central theme: “What has it meant to be an American?” (p. 94). Utterly neglected in the years when “technology” was part of the museum title, that question set the museum on a path of “connecting curatorial research at last both to artifacts and to the public” (p. 99; emphasis in original). Behind the scenes, however, an important problem unknown to the public beset the Smithsonian system. Collections associated with many of
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the museums, including American History, had been improperly stored for decades. During the days of the National Museum, World War I archivists stored a bayonet and a cannonball in with “Indian costumes . . . and casts of Egyptian deities and other Egyptian artifacts” (London, 2000: 113).10 In the absence of institutional policies for collecting and conserving objects, shambolic storage persisted into the 1970s. So did idiosyncratic acquisitioning. There were large gaps in the collection, among them a notable absence of objects associated with African-American’s and women’s histories (Moresi, 2003). Gaps could be filled, but how to maintain the older objects and the new acquisitions? An audit of the National Museum of American History conducted by the office of the Inspector General of the Smithsonian reported in 2011 that many “collections were stored in substandard conditions” (Smithsonian Collections Stewardship, 2011: 1). The report included examples: “nearly all storage rooms at the museum had exposed pipes and conduits, resulting in frequent leaks that threaten collection items. Some storage buildings are contaminated with asbestos or lead-containing dust. Overcrowding in storage rooms and cabinets has damaged objects” (p. 1). As of that date, the American History Museum had not developed object preservation and security systems. The report states that such concerns had come up in earlier reports and “as documented in the 2005 report, Concern at the Core: Managing Smithsonian Collections, the Institution has been aware of these issues for many years. However, it has not developed and implemented a long- term plan to resolve these issues.”(p. 12). The words of the concluding section of the report (before the recommendations) are especially unnerving: “Inadequate storage conditions have contributed to the damage of objects; the unavailability of objects for exhibits, research, loans and education; and increased costs to stabilize and standardize collections and storage areas. The Institution and museum could also be vulnerable to charges of poor stewardship of the collections” (p. 14). In a damning study of museum mismanagement, the drafters also pointed fingers at Congress for repeatedly cutting operating funds for all the Smithsonian Institutions. This is the environment in which the National Museum of American History constructed its signature exhibition on war.
The Price of Freedom: Americans at War In many ways, this exhibition owes its very existence to a donor from outside the Smithsonian system. In 2000, Kenneth E. Behring contributed $80 million to the National Museum of American History, the biggest single
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gift given to a Smithsonian museum up to that time. Most of it was to refit the building, but $16 million funded The Price of Freedom: Americans at War (Burke, 2006: 241). When the exhibition was dedicated in November 2004, Behring said, “I know my ancestors, like yours, traveled to this country, and they went through many hardships. They had no money, lost babies on the way, but they came because this country is free . . . when we really get pushed by somebody, we all get together, and we make sure that our country remains free” (quoted in Burke, pp. 243–244). Academic Carol Burke minces no words about Behring’s commonplace myth of America, reminding us that the United States took freedom away from those it forced into being here during the slave era as well as from indigenous people who lost territory to American manifest destiny. She characterizes The Price of Freedom this way: “stifled in its efforts to raise difficult questions in the earlier Enola Gay exhibition, the Smithsonian has instead opted for happy talk: the safe and simple affirmation of America’s martial history as a kind of big brother’s charity” (pp. 237–238), “carefully constructed to offend the fewest viewers” (p. 239). How much influence Behring actually exerted on the content of the exhibition is unclear. One staff member reportedly said at the time of the donation, “We can’t make any decisions about what we’re going to do. We have no way to plan. I don’t know if we’ll have a foot of space to do anything we want to do” (Thompson, 2002). David Allison, the project manager of The Price of Freedom, told me in 2016 that the donor could not make curatorial decisions and was never presented with an object list for the exhibition. What may have found its way into the exhibition was Behring’s strong preference to dispense with social history in favor of heroically themed trajectories of military history and American male heroes. That throwback to the emphasis on Great Men would mostly exclude objects associated with ordinary Americans, Americans of color, and (certainly) women. It is important to recall that the 1970s and 80s in the United States was a time of culture wars over who had legitimate claim to narrate the history of the country. Robert C. Post (2013: 234), who worked at the museum at that time, claims Behring disapproved of exhibits that, in his mind, turned the American History Museum into a “multicultural museum” and “just showed the things we did wrong, not the things we’ve done right.” Only slightly less harsh was Andrew Ferguson (2008: n.p.) of the conservative Weekly Standard, who referred to the museum’s social history slant up to the mid-2000s as “deeply boring,” in thrall to the postmodern notion that chronology was “a contrivance,” and inclined to give “little attention to
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military sacrifice and heroism.” In the event, thematic trends clearly shifted to the military and sacrifices for the nation in The Price of Freedom, a title Allison told me he argued against with museum committees, and Beth Bailey (2005: 90) has called “an emphatically red-state phrase.”11 When the exhibition opened on Veterans Day November 11, 2004, one of the harshest battles of the American war in Iraq was taking place, Operation Phantom Fury to take Fallujah. It is unlikely that most visitors to the National Museum of American History that day would have been aware of the American war’s awkward turn there. They would instead be entering a large US-endorsing exhibition spread across 18,200-square feet of the museum’s renovated third floor. Arranged as a walk-through along a narrow (approximately ten-feet wide) continuous corridor, every square foot of exhibit space was given over to displays; a Willys Jeep hangs low from the ceiling to this day and myriad glass cases are stuffed with objects on both sides of the aisles. About halfway into this fifty-war exhibit, which is to say just before arriving at Pearl Harbor, the journey can start to feel spatially and mentally claustrophobic, as though there could be no possibility of escaping or refusing America’s wars and military preoccupations; exits from the exhibit are few in number. Perhaps it is the dogged self- referentiality of the exhibit or the dim lighting and sound track of battle noises and patriotic songs all around that can get to one after a while; or maybe it is the solipsism of America on display as the indispensable nation for everyone, or even the certain throw-back to the old Smithsonian tradition of jammed display cases, augmented now with new design techniques. The Smithsonian museums claim to strive for “balance” in their exhibits. Thomas Gieryn (1998: 199) avers that curators are always “desperately seeking balance” rather than pressing one interpretation of complex events on viewers. Yet when the staff at Air and Space endeavored to build a balanced exhibition around the Enola Gay, by including the ground experiences of those who were subjected to the atom bomb, some critics claimed it is not possible to have “a balanced perspective of World War II if you only show the ‘last act’ ” (Harwit, 1996: 303 quoted in Gieryn, p. 204). Allison used the term “balance” in his interview with me about the rooms showing Americans at war in Vietnam and Iraq, saying his team “picked pieces that could show a balance of points of view.” “Balance,” of course, is not the same thing as Nguyen’s (2016) notion of “just memory.” Balance might be struck between a limited number of viewpoints on a war, but just memory strives to include glimpses of war from winning and losing sides and from an ethics of recognition that your side was probably as evil in the war as the side it was fighting. Gieryn (p. 220) writes
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that achieving balance in exhibitions is precarious, “undermined rather easily by counter-assertions that one is really using History to push a party line . . . that advances political interests.” In contrast to the Enola Gay controversy, The Price of Freedom: Americans at War has not elicited criticism by veterans, the military, or congressional groups. Reported one reviewer, the exhibition “excited only public praise from soldiers old and new whose wartime sacrifice is unconditionally celebrated” (Boehm, 2006: 1147). It is the academics who have suggested The Price of Freedom should warrant less celebration and more critique for regurgitating “a triumphalist reading of U.S. military campaigns” (p. 1148). Balance requires more than the inclusion of military standpoints, and just memory is not achieved without the losers weighing in, but there are factors that curators cannot control, such as the decisions of museum committees, limitations in the collection, and unexpected visitor responses to certain objects (MacDonald, 1998: 231). Amidst the 800-plus objects comprising The Price of Freedom, our attention turns to the three rooms that house materials related to the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Rather than innumerate all the objects shown there, the challenge is to discern whose wars are depicted in those displays and whose wars are marginalized or left out. Put another way, if, as project curator Jennifer Jones avers, “space was allocated based on judgments about the significance of each war’s impact on America, not on the significance of the war itself” (quoted in Bailey, 2005: 90), which America are the objects in the Vietnam and Iraq rooms exhibiting and talking to? Whose war is curated and whose war is not? Paraphrasing museum educator Patrick Roberts (2006), who does the exhibit think I am as a viewer? Roberts comes up with an important distinction between a public and the public. Pitching an exhibition to a public, he says, entails encouraging difficult conversations with oneself and with the objects and narratives presented by the museum. Curating with the public in mind conjures a fully formed group that the exhibition is meant to please or perhaps lead to an overarching conclusion or dominant narrative. Roberts finds little in The Price of Freedom that invites “complicated conversation regarding who and what constitutes the public for whom wars are presumably fought. And who decides” (p. 110).12 War Object One: The Entrance
The first object a visitor encounters before entering the exhibition proper is the curated object called war—or a curator/designer sense of
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war as it looks to America (figure 3.1). A translucent curtain stretches across a long portal to the exhibition hall. Projected onto it are collaged photos and historical words meant to encapsulate Americans at war for freedom. The photos feature uniformed men (mostly) in recognizable historical war settings. They look earnest, endeavoring, patient, and wholesome. The large headshot of a pilot just to the left of the title panel presents the perfect combination of white male attractiveness and uniformed war weariness. A few photos feature scenes from the Civil War, a few show women in uniform. A recessed portrait shows an African- American combatant reuniting with his wife or girlfriend. Behind the screen, various war objects from the actual exhibit inside are visible. The program lights up scenes from two different American wars at the same time. All of this is projected in a repeating sequence accompanied by now patriotic, now war-noisy music, and a few flashed buzzwords Americans readily associate with the military and war –“sacrifice,” “service”; that “death” is in the sequence too is more of a surprise, as it momentarily concretizes and finalizes the other more abstract terms, though “death” as a theme or cost of war drops out of the exhibition almost immediately (Whigham, 2014).
Figure 3.1 Entrance to The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibition, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2017.
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The entrance “show” is very stirring or very sentimentalizing of war, depending on one’s viewpoint. The public at the curtain certainly faces no difficult scenes of dead children or fleeing civilians, or bombs detonating over Hiroshima. There is nothing in the visuals to suggest America is doing anything wrong in any war, and nothing that invites interrogation of war as a financially costly social institution dedicated to inflicting injury and damage. War is a given, a decided and accepted politics of doing right through a performance of violence that everybody can recognize when they see it. Mostly male uniformed soldiers of the American state own war. They are the ones who usually fight for “freedom” and will pay the ultimate price. All other Americans wait on the home front or elsewhere for his wars to end and (mere) moments of peace to reign before the next war for freedom starts. The entrance display inaugurates the process by which the viewer will be “constituted as part of the public for whom sacrifice has tragically been made,” Patrick Roberts says, making it clear “just who really has sovereignty over my body and my public” (2006: 111; emphasis added).13 Curatorial concern to achieve balance throughout the exhibit notwithstanding, the opening shots indicate that The Price of Freedom will exemplify the memory industry around war that Nguyen (2016) finds vexing. Visitors will gaze upon people like themselves and see very little blood and very little “otherness.” Visual or analytic terrains that raise too many issues of definition, history, and identity will be avoided. Heteronormative gender relations will not be challenged, nor will the exhibit delve too deeply into conflicts, as one reviewer put it, over “slavery, Indian removals, imperialistic endeavors in Asia and Latin America, strikebreaking at home, internment camps” (Emberton, 2005: 165). The enemies will remain mysterious stick figures with little depth or cultural resonance, if they are presented at all. In reviewing the exhibition, Carole Emberton refers to a “collapse of analysis” for the glowing light of American “brotherhood,” “duty,” and “sacrifice” (p.165). Indeed, at the precipice, it becomes clear that the exhibition will not challenge the visitor to think about why America engages in wars for freedom so often, who dies within them, and whose and which freedoms count, exactly? The entrance presentation is impressive, executed professionally, and so massive that visitors who arrive at the third floor east wing of the museum must walk the entire length of this animated curtain to get into the exhibition. Yet its preview of what to expect inside fits Roberts’s (2006: 110) notion of an exhibition that “refuses to acknowledge its own performative efforts to foreclose any attempt on the part of its audience to be any public other than the public that war demands.” And, with the war/freedom frame set as
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unquestionable right at the start, it is likely that militarism stalks the galleries, mixing confidently with recruitment-style patriotism and multimedia entertainment. There will be much to see and many absences and blank spots. Still, I am impressed with the first room of the two-gallery Vietnam War section. It features a bank of simultaneously operating period televisions, all playing original news stories from the war years. The televisions face the facsimile of a living room typical of a modest American home in the 1960s. It is a mise en scène that reviewer Beth Bailey (2005: 91) describes as a “Nam June Paik-esqe stack of televisions . . . whose disparate content powerfully evoked the divisions of the era.” At once one can listen to and watch repeating scenes of the National Guard at Kent State in 1970, war reporting on the news show 60 Minutes circa 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a speech condemning the war, interviews with American soldiers, and chaotic scenes of America’s evacuation efforts in April 1975, with one overloaded helicopter crashing into the water. Opening with these media presentations of the war in Vietnam enables visitors to see that nearly every American was in a position to experience that war in some way through such broadcasts. It also indicates how rife the era was with turmoil, making it impossible for any consensus to constitute the public view. There is no “collapse of analysis” in that display, although the difference between the plentitude of war news then and the reduction of war news in later American wars is left to the viewer to realize. Remarkably, fifty years beyond those simpler times of mass communication, Americans with their multiple devices can catch up-to-the-minute news on many subjects except daily operations of their military in war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Put baldly, it is possible today for civilian Americans to carry on day after day without thinking once of other Americans at war, as though the country’s military forces were just tucked up asleep in their barracks. That one room of The Price of Freedom provides considerable analytical grist for thinking about America’s relationship to war then and now. Even with all the efforts Washington made to deny impending defeat in Vietnam, war journalists and photographers could be in war zones providing graphic coverage of firefights. The Pentagon also supplied daily body counts and TV viewers saw flag-draped coffins being off-loaded at Travis Air Force Base in California. Arguably, the United States was more accustomed to war information during the war in Vietnam than it became later: war information flowed more freely and amply before the IT communications revolution than after it. President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to spin away a doomed American war did not prevent ordinary Americans from witnessing war 8,000 miles away or using the prime tool of citizen
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backlash—protest—to grind down war resolve in Washington. The entrance screen to The Price of Freedom: Americans at War does not even hint at these issues, but, to their credit, curators of the Vietnam galleries show much of it in just one room. And then they void it in the second room. War Object Two: The Huey Helicopter
Pulling oneself away from the news of those days, a visitor enters the larger room exhibiting Americans at war in Vietnam. The change in ambiance is immediate and dramatic. It is nighttime and we, the now wellinformed visitors, have been helicoptered into a war zone in Vietnam, where we join a small group of American military men mannequins (figure 3.2). One is wounded and being tended on the ground by another. A black soldier is keeping watch and looks apprehensive. Their mode of transport, and by implication ours too, is a Huey helicopter that takes up most of the exhibition space and is bathed in dramatic blue lighting. Everyone and everything else in that room is miniaturized and rendered inconsequential by the dominant object of the American war in Vietnam that the exhibit designers encourage us to gather near. The Bell UH-1 Iroquois overshadows all the other exhibits in the room, including photos of people in the war and people protesting it at home that line the wall across from
Figure 3.2 Photo of American Huey helicopter in life-size diorama, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.
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it. Never mind those—look at the Huey. It is so close you can very nearly touch it, or it you. Only a low metal barrier stands between onlooker and the most iconic American object of the war, surrounded by tufts of artificial undergrowth, and flanked by a few scripts and video opportunities. A placard tells us that this is the real deal, a genuine combat-wounded, but hardened and hard-worked centerpiece of the American war. We could climb into that beast, we think. Take it for a spin. One could be forgiven for thinking that this military object won the war for the United States; but even with 7,000 such workhorses operating in Vietnam—gunning, transporting, and rescuing—the victory went to the other side. None of the scripts or videos at the Huey exhibit admit this fact. Instead, the viewer can press red buttons on a console and listen to uplifting stories of American war experiences in which Hueys feature. One is narrated by an American nurse, Donna Rowe, who was responsible for rescuing a badly injured Vietnamese infant held tightly in the grasp of her killed mother. Thirty some years later a reunion, staged for the cameras at a Texas military base, occurs between rescuer and rescued, at the initiation of the latter (Burke, 2006). The nurse stands in a grassy open area and straight in comes the Huey carrying the adult Vietnamese-American woman heretofore referred to as “baby Kathleen,” her husband, and her adoption family. The visuals and the soundtrack are affecting, and many who see it, myself included, are moved, even though, or perhaps because, only part of the story is presented—the heartwarming part. The video brushes past the war as a violent source of the infant’s injuries, and the mother’s death, to reach a moment of American redemption. The short video ends with the nurse saying, “They say we killed babies; here’s a picture that says we didn’t.” In fact, though, all sides did. Contemporary viewers could leave that video thinking the talk about baby killing is yesterday’s equivalent of “fake news.” Not so. The balance is in favor of projecting a warm-centered piece for visitors in the midst of what was a war of overwhelmingly disastrous proportions for the local population. “We win even when we lose,” says Yen le Espiritu (2014; cited in Nguyen, 2016: 124). The pile-on of American experiences in the Vietnam War galleries departs all concern with “just memory.” If visitors can pull themselves away from the Huey and its console of American tales, they face the daunting task of scrutinizing the dozens of small photographs mounted on the very poorly lit wall opposite to find one of the My Lai massacre or the child screaming from napalm burns. Carole Burke (2006: 237): “The American soldiers sent to defend South Vietnam against outside aggressors found themselves performing aggressive acts on the people and the land
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they were attempting, ostensibly, to defend. But The Price of Freedom has no room in its crowded quarters for irony, criticism, or even reflection; it preserves the huggable anecdote, the rescue of one baby, rather than contrast that with the loss of hundreds of thousands of civilians simply trying to subsist.” Who wants to look at the usual sad war photos of the era when you can look into the console of a Huey. The particular Huey at the visual heart of the Vietnam rooms in The Price of Freedom—number 091—is in the Smithsonian collection. There are many Hueys displayed around the country and around the world. At least eighty can be seen in the United States. One is at the Australian War Memorial and about ten others are scattered around that country. The United Kingdom, which did not support the United States in its war in Vietnam, has two Hueys on exhibit, both captured from Argentina during the Falklands War. As for the enemy we fought in Vietnam, Nguyen (2016: 119) tells readers that Huey “rotors provided Vietnamese with the war’s soundtrack;” the Huey had “star power,” personifying “America, both terrifying and seductive.” It goes without saying that Vietnam has Hueys to show off. Some appear in reasonable shape, such as those parked at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Others are indecipherable pieces jumbled into an assemblage of defeated American air power that greets visitors to the Military History Museum of Hanoi (figure 3.3).
Figure 3.3 Photograph of Memorial to the American War, Vietnam Military History Museum, Hanoi. Photo: Catherine Dowman, 2013.
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Wherever located it can seem that big weapons of war are popular objects to look at, literally embodying what Jean Bethke Elshtain (1987) referred to years ago as war’s enthusiasms and excitements. We remember the iconic weapons: the machine guns of World War I, the tanks and planes of World War II. All sides remember the Huey of Vietnam because of its distinctive whooping sound and a versatile design that enabled it to be more than a hell-bent killing machine. The danger embedded in that memory, though, is that such objects replace people and become the memorable centerpieces not only of war exhibits but also of wars. A twist of memory making comes from the Vietnamese side, where the pyramid of large aircraft fragments in Hanoi marks American shame, and its emasculation through a large fronting photo of a young woman, rifle over shoulder, effortlessly pulling a plane fragment with a star on it from a downed American aircraft. Nguyen (2016: 166): “The contrast between the woman and the destroyed American machinery reverses the American predilection for seeing young Vietnamese women, alternately seductive and castrating as the most terrible of inhuman enemies.” Yet what might visitors remember most— the young woman or the carefully curated pyramid of shot-down planes that looks like an award-winning abstract sculpture? Is it the case that Americans win even where their loss is demonstrable and palpable? Is memory around America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq stacked so asymmetrically, as Nguyen puts it, that all the war stories converge around America’s selectively remembered and repeated war story? War Object Three: The Bicycle
Tucked under the tail of the Huey, in a darkened area where only one object is illuminated, is the bicycle (figure 3.4). Here is the vehicle that is said to have won two wars—the colonial war against the French that ended in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and the American war in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese bicycle has been placed in the shadow cast by the Huey, and, from what I observed in situ, visitors walk past it without a glance, so high are they on the machine vibes coming off the Huey and so hidden is this non-American key object of the war in Vietnam. If The Price of Freedom had been curated with a gaze on the outcome and not the process of the war, there would be many such bicycles set in prominent places in the room now awarded to the Huey. The bicycle was one key to the war’s outcome. Bicycles like this transported enormous quantities of war materiel along the paths of the long Ho Chi Minh
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Figure 3.4 North Vietnamese bicycle, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2017.
Trail running North−South for 9,000 miles. Each bicycle was piled high and wide with food, ordnance, clothing, and supplies and was pushed— not ridden—by porters positioned to the side and rear of the bicycle who steered the bikes using long bamboo poles attached to the front and the seat. Routinely loaded with 600 pounds of material, each bicycle required reinforcement by wooden struts on the wheels and along the body, and extra wide handlebars that alone could hold around 400 pounds. The journey was along a series of paths and roads that wound through Vietnam and Laos. With heavily loaded bicycles, one trip could take months. As more people and bikes tramped down the undergrowth—the North Vietnamese sent up to 20,000 soldiers south along the trail each month—the trip began to clock in at about six weeks. The American military targeted the entire area of the trail with continuous bombing runs but never succeeded in closing it off from North Vietnamese infiltration. Bicycles were quiet and easy to hide; when the American B-52s screamed above, these vehicles could be maneuvered into the thick canopies of bush. That the journey was always treacherous and exhausting, however, is attested to by the seventy-two cemeteries that line the trail, as well as the North Vietnamese move in the latter years of the war to decrease reliance on bicycles in favor of supply trucks.
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In conversation with David Allison about The Price of Freedom, he remarked with a laugh, “You get the bicycle! Good. Most people don’t.” Most people do not notice it, for one, and if they do, they are not invited by curatorial texts to learn anything about how the bicycle, not the Huey, prevailed in Vietnam. Unlike the case of the helicopter, the bicycle gets only an abbreviated script with no human interest videos showing it loaded up and moving.14 Reinforced and ready for heavy transport, it sits empty of purpose and of operator, more like some primitive recreational bicycle than a powerful machine of war. Object placement does matter. Putting the bicycle under the Huey’s tail seems the product of a compromise enabling the presentation of an object that could wreck face-saving stories of America in Vietnam, while simultaneously de-emphasizing its position in the war. If one does linger near the bicycle, there is more to see from the Vietnamese side of their American war, including booby-trap bombs and poisoned sticks that ensnarled, blew off legs, and killed so many American soldiers on night raids. A little farther on, a small display shows objects American soldiers carried with them in Vietnam and objects others carried to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and displayed in their honor. Positioned at the end of the Vietnam War exhibit, this feature offers few backstories about the objects and their honorees. Mortality as the guts of war seems almost a taboo topic in this room, just as O’Brien (2006: 141) said it was for American military on the ground during the war. The many small photos of war scenes crowding the wall opposite the Huey have short descriptions but not much lighting to see the texts or narrative to follow the phases of the war. One wonders how museum visitors born after the war ended can follow the American war in Vietnam from a montage of photos showing protesters, a burning monk, an assassination in South Vietnam, a massacre, bodies on a university campus, and the like, especially against the backdrop of the Huey sound and light show. The viewer is left to make sense of what is there, but it is not easy to concentrate in the face of a symbol of the United States standing tall and proud in its indisputable defeat. When Brenda Trofanenko (2014) teamed up a middle-school student, thirteen-year-old Alex, with sixty-seven-year-old William, a Vietnam War veteran to see The Price of Freedom together as part of a school history project, the two considered the objects in those rooms three times. Each time they had a difficult conversation about the meaning of the objects displayed. Young Alex’s first reaction was that everything was dark, dirty, and smelly. He remarked, “Perhaps this is what we are to smell when we are in war” (p. 30). The veteran William took smell and war in a different
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direction: “I close my eyes sometimes when I come through here so I don’t have to see what they are constructing as the Vietnam War. When I do that, I just hear the humming of the fans and there isn’t any smell that I recognize and none that take me back to being there” (p. 30). To Alex, the objects smell because they have been in a war. To William, the objects are not smelly enough to put him back into his war. Both visitors observe the exhibition well enough to realize that the information provided is insufficient to understand why, as William put it, the war was “so unpopular and how horrible it was being there” (p. 30). Alex wants to know more and feels the exhibition “just pulls at your heartstrings” (p. 30). When he asks William what the war was like for him, the multifaceted conversations of a public twosome that resists being the public the exhibition encourages turn more difficult. William does not want to talk about the death that surrounded him in Vietnam, at least not to a youngster. Morbidity is a haunting (Heath-Kelly, 2016) not to be readily unleashed. For his part, Alex feels bad enough about William turning taciturn on this topic that he sheds a few tears and says later, “It’s not just the objects that tell about a war” (p. 32). War Object Four: A Laptop
It is challenging to organize a display of war objects when a war has ended officially but has not ended in real terms. The displays in two rooms dedicated to America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest something of that challenge. The object offerings are paltry, merely suggestive of America’s wars there rather than helpful in understanding, engaging, or even recognizing them. Yet, the United States has been involved in those wars against terror longer than it was in Vietnam, a fact that renders the absence of objects incomprehensible. The one major piece made to carry a world of meaning and explanation is a large girder from one of the Twin Towers that fell on September 11, 2001 in New York City. It hangs ceiling to the floor in the first room one enters on leaving America’s war in Vietnam. The girder is undeniably the object genus of a contemporary tragedy that begets more tragedies abroad by the minute; however, the exhibition planners freight the girder with excess meaning because there are so few objects on display from the wars that followed. All that those with the stamina to make it to the last major room of The Price of Freedom get to see of the complicated, multiphased war the United States imposed on Iraq from 2003 to the last day of 2011 are some US uniforms, a photo of Peshmerga militia in their pristine uniforms, and ephemera like
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playing cards and a glass from one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. The room is exceptionally dark, perhaps because there is little to see anyway, and it is devoid of background sounds and human interest videos. The one object that can be seen tucked into a corner display case is an ordinary G4 Apple laptop that American journalist James Craven used to edit videos he took of the war zones (figure 3.5). In the early days of the exhibit, some of those videos ran in a continuous loop, but the practice was discontinued as the laptop aged. Now one sees incidentals such as Craven’s dog tags, cell phone, and credentials, set next to the opened but dark computer screen. The script to the right provides the only context: the United States allowed “selected” journalists to embed with the military during the war. Visitors are not told that one reason for this control was to avoid a repeat of the Vietnam era protests that fed off journalists’ reports on the ground. The brief script also neglects to mention that the government barred journalists from Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and released only Pentagon-based reports and photos of that war. The practice of “embedding” journalists rather than giving them more rein was a compromise position. Visitors curious about the approach—Which journalists were selected? What were the criteria?—find no answers in the
Figure 3.5 Laptop used by American correspondent James Craven in Iraq 2003, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2017
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exhibit. A perusal of the museum’s online collection indicates that Craven works at NBC-30 in Connecticut, where he makes some of the war videos available to the public. That information, however, is out of date, just as is The Price of Freedom display of America’s war in Iraq. The absence of objects from a conflict in its sixteenth year is remarkable for an exhibition that jammed objects of other wars into all available spaces. Given several accounts of the five or six phases of the American war in Iraq that were written during the time the exhibition has been running—from the Baghdad bombardment in 2003 to the audacious declaration of an ISIS caliphate in 2014 (e.g., Allawi, 2007; Anderson, 2011; Bacevich, 2016)—there seems little reason for so much empty space at the culmination of the Smithsonian’s only permanent exhibit on Americans at war.
The Smithsonian Curations of Vietnam and Iraq The official Smithsonian publication of The Price of Freedom: Americans at War states that the exhibition is dedicated to “exploring ways that wars have been defining episodes in American history” (Glass, 2004: 4). To Brent D. Glass (2004: 4), now director emeritus of the National Museum of American History, in order “to understand American history, we must understand the American Dream . . . [and] freedom, peace, and security are fundamental parts of the American Dream.”15 Themes of freedom and security are apparent in Price of Freedom... Peace? It does not feature much in an exhibit that zeroes in on threats, military responses to them, and national vigilance. In a large and encompassing war exhibition, peace eludes; it is an outcome Americans are willing to sacrifice for time and again without achieving—perhaps without choosing. Roy Scranton (2016: SR7) will not have any such talk about dreamy reasons the United States goes to war. America has pursued wars of choice as well as wars of necessity; it chose to fight in Vietnam and Iraq. Each was an American-led, asymmetrical, interventionist war of occupation that was initiated or prolonged unnecessarily. Each failed on many fronts. They were such bad wars that Johnson became a single-term president over the issues of slaughtered ground troops in Vietnam, and George W. Bush appears in some rankings as the worst American president in memory for his weapons of mass destruction alibi in Iraq and naive belief that Iraqis would welcome the intervention.16 How the National Museum of American History handles these wars is significant because the Smithsonian is America’s sweetheart museum institution.
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It emerged less by design than by dint of a British gentleman’s bequeathal and early congressional decision to locate his namesake institutions on the emerging National Mall. As time passed, a growing museum group left to its own museological devices for a hundred years assembled an accidental collection and a curatorial staff so idiosyncratically devoted to research that it fell behind evolving museum norms for collections, storage, maintenance, and visitor-oriented displays. By the time the Smithsonian woke up to its potential, it found itself locked into the age of donor dependency. Air and Space tried curatorial independence and was dressed down for doing so in the Enola Gay fiasco. In that light, The Price of Freedom ten years later was destined to be a cautious affair; add in that the moneyed donor had a Great Man vision of America, and the nation’s war attic was on a throwback course. The museum had been re- curating American history around the activities of the country’s ordinary citizens and their contestations, a reasonable curatorial approach for the time (Barrett, 2010). Behring insisted on foregrounding military history as the quintessential marker of the American story and its dreams. War was the “defining” activity, not home design, school lunch boxes, and mothers. The Price of Freedom became Enola Gay redux. Although the curation strives in places to achieve balance in presenting the wars of a nation, the exhibit panders to patriots of today’s militarized culture. It is not that the objects curated for America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq glorify war; the United States is shown in moments of triumph and moments of reluctance, skepticism and protest. It is more that the displays are uneven—very uneven—awkwardly marked, and naked of or stingy with informational content. Visitors are directed by almost theme park design elements to look at the big helicopter in a smallish room and marvel, and to behold the girder from a collapsed New York tower with sacred silence. We the visitors can readily recognize these cues and know how to behave in front of dramatically prioritized objects of war. Susan Crane (2000: 12; also Conn, 2010) says people enter museums “to learn about ourselves . . . and to come away with a stronger sense of ourselves as implicated in a vast web of tradition and knowledge.” That web can be a double-edged sword whenever learning about ourselves reinforces what we already believe we know. William, the veteran of Vietnam who viewed The Price of Freedom with young Alex, seemed to grasp the dilemma that seeing himself there posed: “Why would I want to tell everybody about my experiences [in Vietnam] when my experiences are not those that people wish to hear”—or see and take on board (Trofanenko, 2014: 33; also Klay, 2014b). At the same time, if visitors do not get a
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chance to learn the stories of ordinary draftees sent to Vietnam, then the curation tilts, leaving out experiences that might counter Huey hallelujahs. And if all we see of the other side of these wars are objects that do not work well in a selfie—a napalmed child, a piece of glass from a dictator’s palace, an old generic bicycle—then the nations we fight are set up for a pitiable fall against the great “us.” Millions of selves—ours and others— become trivialized and lost. The young Alex saw through the obsession with getting the objects right when he declared, in effect, that without William’s personal account of Vietnam, his own understanding of the war was reduced, and this despite looking at artifacts directly from it: he says, ‘it’s not just the objects that tell about the war.’ Elaine Heumann Gurian (1999: 165) echoes that sentiment when she claims, “objects are not the heart of the museum;” rather, the museum, she says, is “a place that stores memories and presents and organizes meaning in some sensory form. It is both the physicality of a place and the memories and stories told therein that are important.” William did not want to reach into his memory to add his own story to Alex’s growing store of knowledge about himself and the American war in Vietnam. To Alex, that meant something central went missing. The curated objects were incomplete, and in that incompleteness they lost what new materialists attribute to them—agency. It is not that the capacity to tell a story disappears altogether; rather, whatever agency the objects have is insufficient to convey war as experience, even in an exhibit that tries to do so and does avoid the tendency displayed in some military museums to present war as cases of weapons, oftentimes without comment (Overton, 2016: 134). Curators of The Price of Freedom have clearly tried to avoid that template. Turn this around, though. When war curators must limit the space for explanations, or are under pressure to send a message to the pregiven public rather than cultivate the difficult conversations of a public, they deprive curated objects of the power to convey plural stories. Added to that loss are all the objects of war that have not entered curation at all and could, if included, re-curate the sense of Americans at war. Visitors to war exhibitions can only pursue balance when information stories fill knowledge gaps and challenge visitor complacencies. There is a void between war object Huey and war object bicycle; to fill it in evenly would require stories of the humble vehicles and their ordinary operators besting 7,000 hi-tech aircraft and their expert pilots. Loading the American war in Iraq onto a 9/11 girder short-cuts discussions about a shock and awe response against Baghdad that was a spectacular failure. The nearly barren room for Iraq is emblematic. Is it barren because the museum does not
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have appropriate objects to show yet or a national narrative to picture? Or is it barren because the museum does not have access yet to an appropriately large weapon that might distract from this second misguided effort to save another country from itself? American troops in Iraq come home to many thanks and stand-up hollering at sports events. The Iraqis get left with a worse situation in some ways than they experienced under Saddam Hussein; meanwhile, the South Vietnamese who allied with the US military get no thanks in Vietnam or in America. Where are their objects, their stories of valor but defeat? The Price of Freedom exhibition starts with stereotypical glory wars but is forced to end with two wars Americans could not win. The emptiness that haunts the eerie Iraq gallery presumably complicates the war enthusiasms visitors must feel when listening to stories in the Vietnam War rooms of Americans trying to do right in Vietnam. Perhaps the invisible ones and their objects appear elsewhere? The next chapter goes to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery where the curators are ordinary and the objects they display are more prosaic and personal than honorific and militarist.
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4 The American Wars in Vietnam and
Iraq at a Memorial, Cemetery, and a Traveling Tribute to Veterans
emory is a central element of war experience. Nearly fifty years after the American war in Vietnam, the New York Times ran a series of firsthand experiences of the war in and around the year 1967.1 Contributing veterans shared memories of battle valor, injury, fear, excitement, dread, and anger, as well as relationships forged during the war and moments of compassion that punctuated brutality and death. Some reported seeking the tight bonds of battle in their civilian relationships back home; but they could not replicate that closeness and trust. Other veterans reported still being haunted by unbidden flashbacks or by the limbs they once had that are long gone. Stateside civilians recalled the helplessness of awaiting news of someone’s safe return, and of continuing to experience unrelenting sadness for a relative or friend changed or killed by the war. If Vietnamese villagers had been included, some might recollect working in fields one minute and fleeing them the next as the American planes came in; or they might remember gathering for shelter in buildings that various forces set aflame later in the war and are now gone. Some of us see The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibition or watch aspects of the American war in Iraq in movies that fit Viet Thanh Nguyen’s (2016: 106) characterization of a war-parasitic “memory industry.” Better, and far more difficult to take in, are the eighteen-hour episodes comprising the no-holds-barred 2017 documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick called, simply, The Vietnam War. That documentary is “difficult” precisely because it views the war through the eyes of many ordinary Vietnamese and Americans who experienced its battles, protests,
and losses directly (Rosenberg, 2018). In effect, it is difficult because it re-curates the war from the bottom up instead of the top down. With regard to the American war in Iraq, the day after the attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush admonished Americans to carry on—go shopping, take a vacation—and leave retribution to the government. Thus began the era of American military incursion into Afghanistan, which is ongoing as I write, and a few months later, into Iraq. At first it was easy to keep those assaults on the Twin Towers and Pentagon in mind as the source of these terror wars. As society (re)militarized, however, the old myth that war’s violence is a central element in making, securing, and resecuring the nation reemerged with a life of its own. Arlington National Cemetery grappled with the logistics of accommodating military personnel killed in America’s new war zones and with family members who challenged its tradition of austere uniformity by decorating graves with memento mori. People had been doing something similar at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for decades, that is, displaying objects showing their experiences of the American war and its lingering memories. Both sites where the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq have been re-curated focus more on the price of human loss than the price of freedom—loss not of the war but of beloved individuals that composed it. This chapter considers those wars as they are remembered and curated in part at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, and Section 60 of the Arlington National Cemetery. Whether those memories are correct and true is not the issue. War-related recollections, like most long- term memories, can be fragmented, selective, and distilled by time and trauma. Marita Sturken (1991: 118) suggests what to look for: “Public commemoration is a form of history-making, yet it can also be a contested form of remembrance in which cultural memories slide through and into each other, merging and then disengaging in a tangle of narratives.” What remembrances of America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq do communities of loss exhibit at each war memorial, and what do these tell us about the scope of the wars and the participants who experienced them?
The American Vietnam Veterans Memorial The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington was dedicated in November 1982. That was a little over ten years after a peace treaty officially ended the war, and seven years after the American war in Vietnam actually ended when North Vietnam forces entered Saigon and Americans and their local associates scrambled to evacuate. By 2010 at least 460 memorials related
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to the war had been erected around the United States, and more were commissioned or under construction. A smaller version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial called The Wall That Heals trucked around the country starting in 1996, mainly for the benefit of veterans and civilians who could not visit the Washington memorial; as of 2017 the traveling exhibition was still making over forty scheduled stops coast to coast. That there could be so many public tributes around a failed war resonates with the Australian story of national attachment to defeat at Gallipoli. Yet for America, which believes it is the exceptional country, the lasting memories of Vietnam are remarkable, even in a country heavily populated with war memorials and gripped by contemporary militarism. That the soul of those memories is dark, conflicted, and restless is evident at the mother lode memorial: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Lincoln Memorial side of the National Mall. The stories of its coming to be and the controversies surrounding its design and acceptance have been told many times (e.g., Hagopian, 2009; Hass, 1998; Sturken, 1991) but merit some reiteration here.
Achieving a Memorial The defeat of the United States in Vietnam was a turning point in the fortunes of the American political right. It assailed the weak foreign policy leadership of President Johnson and stared in shock at the scenes of American helicopters so overloaded with evacuees from Saigon that a few crashed on take-off. Christian Appy (2015a: xv) writes that “conservatives were determined to rebuild everything they thought the war had destroyed—American power, pride, prestige, and patriotism . . . Their restoration project was a key factor in the rightward movement of American culture and politics in the decades after Vietnam”—rightward toward a rebuilt military with gung-ho confidence impervious to the lessons of Vietnam. Through their insistence that the war could and should have been won, coupled with the quieting of protest politics, “a new mainstream consensus emerged around the idea that the Vietnam War had primarily been an American tragedy that had badly wounded and divided the nation. The focus was [now] on healing—not history” (p. xv; emphasis in original). The most obvious place to start a healing project was by reversing the image of Vietnam veterans as baby killers and hapless drug addicts and lauding them as brave patriots who had served their country well in the face of dual hostilities from the enemy in Vietnam and from antiwar protesters at home. One tipping point in the march toward renewed national pride came as a result of the Iranian hostage crisis. On November 4, 1979, Iranian
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students took over the US embassy in Tehran and held fifty-two American citizens hostage for 444 days. Jimmy Carter’s administration endeavored to free them in April 1980 through a military rescue operation that ran afoul of weather and technical problems. Iran then held the hostages for nine more months, releasing them on January 20, 1981, the day Carter left office. It had been the longest hostage crisis in history, and America erupted at its ending with patriotic spirit. Parades were held, drums were beaten, and “from then on anyone who had endured hardship in the serv ice of the United States could qualify for automatic hero status” (Appy, 2015a: 236), even if they could not be credited with any heroic act. The new spirit of pride in America edged over to include veterans of Vietnam. There had been no welcome home parades for them. No one had thought them heroes. Instead, the war and its combatants were cringe-worthy, an unmentionable glitch on the line of American successes. Best to forget the whole thing and everyone associated with it and move on quickly. Images of freed military hostages celebrating their safe arrival home changed that picture. Yet the organizational impetus for revivifying the American war in Vietnam and its veterans was actually underway and announced six months ahead of the Iranian hostage crisis. On May 28, 1979, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) stepped into the limelight, fronted by its founder and de facto leader, former Army corporal in the light infantry brigade and decorated Vietnam veteran, Jan Scruggs. Of humble origins and military rank, Scruggs stood for the many working-class draftee “grunts” he had fought alongside in Vietnam, insisting that they deserved recognition, not insults and embarrassed silence. Scruggs had a bachelor’s degree by 1975 and earned a master’s degree in psychological counseling in 1977 by working with data from his experiences with war survivors. His work caught the attention of a congressional committee, and Scruggs was invited to appear and discuss what he had learned.2 Scruggs formulated the idea that a national memorial to American veterans of the war in Vietnam would help them heal and help a war-wounded society reach reconciliation. Starting with less than $3,000 of his own money, Scruggs raised $8.4 million from private donors and within only three years turned the fund into a nonprofit corporate entity lobbying Congress for space on the National Mall to build a memorial. It was a remarkable achievement considering how long it often took even major Smithsonian museums to reach fruition. The secret to the success was Scruggs’s determination to keep the VVMF independent from potential control by Congress and the Smithsonian.
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The memorial idea was grounded in Scruggs’s interest in the newly identified post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and various therapies that seemed to improve it (Reston, 2017). When veterans could name the dead and talk about war experiences in a supportive environment, without feeling condemned or isolated, he found they began to recover. The VVMF embraced that therapy and extended it to Americans at large, arguing that it was important to address veterans of Vietnam by name and learn about the war through them; in other words, separate the soldiers from the wars directed in Washington. “Hate the war and love the soldier” became a national slogan in the 1980s, forerunner to today’s popular refrain “thank you for your service.” Even antiwar veterans could feel comfortable with the VVMF-generated phrase (Hagopian, 2009: 84). One question barely raised at that time, and largely ignored today, is whether it is reasonable to separate soldiers from war, given that soldiers train for war and execute the violence of war when called to do so. The post-Vietnam War emphasis on celebrating rather than despising soldiers was accompanied by a sense that those were the only authentic experts on war. Politicians lied and civilians held support statuses as mothers and spouses of soldiers or people who reported war, painted it, wrote about it, and taught it (Abouzeid, 2018; Pearlman, 2017; Sylvester, 2011a; Enloe, 2010). With politicians discredited and ordinary people placed outside the main war frame, the figure of the heroic soldier could emerge so seamlessly that critique would seem rude, unfeeling, and ungrateful; of course, public idolization of warriors would also enhance recruitment for the all-volunteer military and reinforce war agendas. In the event, the VVMF, having raised the funds for a memorial to American veterans of the war in Vietnam, hosted the memorial design competition and publicized its conditions. The organization stipulated that the memorial had to show the names of all American military killed or missing in Vietnam, fit harmoniously into the landscape of the Mall, and strike an apolitical and conciliatory tone that could encompass all positions; the memorial was not the place to adjudicate that war or any war. By virtue of having some authority over installations on the Mall, Congress also stipulated that the design had to be accepted by relevant statutory agencies: the Commission for Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the Secretary of the Interior. Those agencies added the conditions that the memorial be designed on the horizontal rather than vertical, maintain the spacious feel of the Constitution Gardens around it, and avoid competing with the Lincoln Memorial nearby and the Washington Memorial at a further remove. All parties involved agreed the
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memorial would not include names of Vietnamese who fought with the United States, essentially making a political decision for an ostensibly apolitical memorial; Patrick Hagopian (2009: 94−95) has tagged it “a reversal of Nixon’s ‘Vietnamization’ program. It meant that the war, although an international event, was domesticated, ‘Americanized,’ transformed into a U.S. affair and that contemplation of the moral issues the war had raised was ruled out of bounds.” A politics of race and gender became evident in the selection of a jury composed entirely of white men schooled in architecture, landscape, sculpture, and the arts. Each had been in the military at some point, but none had personal exposure to the war they were entrusted to memorialize. The competition attracted 1,420 anonymous submissions and the winner was Maya Ying Lin, a Yale undergraduate at the time. Hers was the most “deceptively simple” (Wagner, 2014) of designs—two thin slabs of polished black granite cutting into the earth and joined at an angle to form a V. Onto the granite would be chiseled the names of the dead American military in chronological order, starting and ending at the apex. She set the design against a grassy approach at the front with the back of the memorial built into the earth and invisible from the rear or from nearby memorials.3 The design fit the site perfectly. It also directed visitor attention to individual names that would appear without identifying information on age, home state or military branch, rank or regiment. That the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would become one of the most visited of all public history museums and monuments in the United States was not foretold by the reception the winning design and its creator received. The VVMF staff endorsed it, as did the regulatory agencies and the Interior Secretary; but considerable unease soon became evident. The black walls, it was said, would set the memorial apart from the white marble motif of existing Mall monuments and suggest a shameful American defeat in Vietnam. A monument built into the ground rather than up from it was read by some as indicating embarrassment, guilt, or an effort to hide the war by pushing the memorial into the earth.4 A segment of opinion held that a V-shaped gash in the land would attract more antiwar lefties making the V hand gesture for peace than veterans. Some veterans criticized the decision to list individual names of the dead and missing rather than group these by military branch and unit. Then there was the designer’s age, gender, and race. No one expected an unknown designer to win this important competition, let alone a young Asian woman who was still a university undergraduate. Lin recalls that her age made “it seem apparent to some that I was too young to understand what
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I had done or to see it through to completion” (Lin, 2000). Some decried the choice of a “hippie college liberal” to design the memorial (Lin, 2000). One juror commented that “he must really know what he is doing to dare to do something so naïve” (Lin, 2000; emphasis in original), while an architect who was then involved in the execution of the project suggested “the polished surface would be “too feminine” (Lin, 2000).5 Lin: “it took me almost nine months to ask the VVMF, in charge of building the memorial, if my race was at all an issue. It had never occurred to me that it would be, and I think they had taken all the measures they could to shield me from such comments about a ‘gook’ designing the memorial” (Lin, 2000). When the press reported an American war that took place in Asia would be memorialized by an Asian designer, Lin recalls, “controversy exploded in Washington” and spread to all elements of the project. Throughout 1981, some conservative legislators attempted to tarnish one of the design jurors by claiming he was a fan of communist aesthetics. A few veteran organizations refused to contribute funds for the memorial. Two founding members of VVMF, James Webb and Tom Carhart, resigned outright, claiming the memorial insulted veterans by aiming to reconcile them with antiwar protesters instead of honoring their war efforts. Each side in the ballooning controversy showed “unwillingness to concede to the other the right to speak for the dead” (Hagopian, 2009: 110). A major VVFW donor, Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who would later run unsuccessfully for US president, denounced the abstract design in no uncertain terms. So did anti-feminist Phyllis Schafly and novelist Tom Wolfe, all of whom argued the proposed memorial should have a naturalistic design with figures. How could soldiers be honored when visitors only looked at themselves via the self-reflecting granite? The dissenters persuaded many in Congress to support their views and threatened to organize war veterans against the memorial. Perot even offered to finance an entirely new design competition. Scruggs had to give a bit or risk the entire project, so he reluctantly authorized a statue at the memorial site depicting American soldiers. “Aesthetically, the design does not need a statue,” Scruggs told Lin, “but politically it does” (quoted in Reston, 2017: 109). With that decision made well into the process, it would take two years after the memorial dedication for Frederick Hart’s statue to be finished and placed to the side of the memorial on a rise overlooking it. It depicts three nearly life- size, haggard-looking soldiers walking away from an implied combat scene. A flagpole with an American flag, which memorial dissenters also clamored for, was installed nearby. When Hart’s statue of these tall, attractive, and photogenic soldiers was unveiled, a strong movement grew for a similar tribute to American women who had taken on important noncombat roles in Vietnam.
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Following considerable lobbying by the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project, a second naturalistic statue was situated on the same rise at a short distance from the soldiers. Sculptor Glenna Goodacre depicted three uniformed women tending a wounded American soldier and searching the sky for a rescue Huey. Neither statue garnered kudos from the art world; art historian and curator Anne Wagner (2014), for instance, describes the soldier statue as “Hollywood” and “deeply kitsch,” an antimemorial that does “our thinking for us.” The pieta-like statue of the American women strikes me as vastly worse in overall design and in the presentation of women in war as stereotypically maternal, with neatly pressed uniforms and absurdly tidy hair. Maya Lin (2000), whose opinion was not sought at the time each statue was approved, has this to say about them: The addition of the statue of infantrymen and then the addition of the female statue to make them equal are to me sad indicators that some politicians believe that you can please all of the people all of the time by compromise and conglomerate works. These statues leave only the false reading that the wall is for the dead and they are for the living, when the design I made was for the returning veterans and equally names all who served regardless of race, creed, or sex. I am only glad that the three infantrymen are not where they had been originally intended to be, right in the center of the memorial, heads sticking up higher than the walls.6
James E. Young (2016: 2) discusses the challenges war memorial architects and artists face in representing absence. He puts it this way: “How to articulate a void without filling it in? How to formalize irreparable loss without seeming to repair it?” Young argues that the Holocaust marked one clear turning point in memorialization of war dead, away from figurative statues or obelisks to more conceptual memorials that drive home the point that only people can remember, not architectures. Memory exists within individuals, and in order to engage it, war memorials should return the burden of remembering to the visitors instead of telling them how to remember.7 He argues that Lin (who with Young was one of thirteen jurors for the 9/11 Memorial in New York) engages this dilemma in her Vietnam Veterans Memorial design. Cutting the memorial walls into the ground opens a space for memory. A surface that reflects those who stand in front of it requires visitors to perambulate the spaces as a way of reaching and enacting memory. With these subtle design elements, Lin could articulate the idea that we travel with memory throughout life. She has said that in planning the design she kept thinking, “the pain of the loss will always
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be there, it will always hurt. We have to look at it directly,” which, to her, starts when the names of ordinary soldiers begin to appear on memorials following World War I, enabling visitors to engage with individuals lost rather than admire stiff leaders on steeds. To Lin (2000), the names are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which means they are the central objects of war there. There are 58,000-plus names chiseled on the granite. Many more people died in that war. Absent from the memorial brochures and placards is any reference to the thousands of Vietnamese civilians who died at the hands of American forces sent to protect them. American veterans who returned from the war and died later from PTS -related illnesses, suicide, or Agent Orange cancers are also not listed on the memorial. To Sturken (1991: 128) the problematic of naming and unnaming is “significant for the intersection of memory and history . . . in particular for how this memorial will construct the history of the Vietnam War after the generation of surviving Vietnam veterans is dead.” Her point resonates with Nguyen’s (2016) concern that absences of this sort impede the formation of just memories of war. It also echoes Jessica Auchter’s (2014: 128; emphasis in original) argument that “statecraft relies on the emphasis of presence and the making absent of something else.” Thus even reasonable decisions made by the sponsoring NGO called the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Fund manifest and enforce a statist logic that authorizes some people’s war experiences and refuses others at the wall. In subsequent years, the VVMF has taken steps to correct at least one of these omissions. It now oversees a program called In Memory that recognizes Vietnam veterans who survived the war and later died from diseases associated with it from Agent Orange and PTSD. Father’s Day 2016 at the memorial was dedicated to remembering the many veterans who died from the herbicides liberally dropped on Vietnam to open clearings in dense jungle. Fourteen-plus illnesses can be associated with exposure to Agent Orange alone, including multiple myeloma and chronic B-cell leukemia; children born of veterans exposed to the chemical can suffer birth defects. Noticing that I was reading the tribute to her husband she had propped against the granite, one veteran’s wife volunteered that his illness came on decades later but before the US Department of Veteran Affairs classified it as “presumptive,” meaning probably related to herbicide exposure through military service. The family had struggled to obtain financial assistance from the federal government and medical treatment by Veterans Administration hospitals. Today there are designated War Related Illness and Injury Study Centers for such veterans in Washington
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DC; East Orange, New Jersey; and Palo Alto, California; these also offer treatments for affected children and provide survivor benefits. Still, I try to imagine the toll from Agent Orange borne by ordinary Vietnamese and their memories of deaths in the American war. Or do not try enough. “Remembering is in itself a form of forgetting” (Sturken, 1991: 137).
Objects at the Memorial Maya Lin insists she designed the memorial for returning veterans and did not anticipate its tremendous popularity with the general public. The granite sheets at the edge of an open and gently sloping grassy area were meant to be approached from the front so a veteran would see the entire memorial at once. With drainage problems and hundreds of visitors threatening to turn the grass to mud, her original plan got rejigged. Visitors must now approach from one of the two sides of the memorial, which means that the prospect of seeing the total effect by walking toward a fully encompassing memorial is not possible. The walkway is narrow and often crowded with visitors and objects many leave at the foot of a panel bearing a recognized name. It is difficult to get the bigger picture in one close-up look. The memorial is meant to be a place of national and personal healing and reconciliation. Judging by the objects people display there today, forty-plus years after the war ended, those who remember and try to reconcile loss are not captured by any authorizing versions of the war. They bring to the memorial the stuff of ordinary civilians who could be standing next to them at the wall if only . . . Those objects prosaically re-curate a war survivor’s war experienced through the shadow of mortality: the absences that matter to them turn into moments of presence valorized over and over in photos showing “heroes” as civilian men in jeans interacting with kids, buddies, and loved ones. Some left objects do carry a far harder punch. One of the most jarring objects I remember from Veterans Day 2016 was a small vial of powder labeled “agent orange.” Visitors linger over some of the objects or ignore them and walk by; some even back away from them a bit as though regarding sacred relics. Taken together, however, a collective consciousness is palpable at a memorial that shuns the grandiose and all the publicly shouted thanks. Around this altar of memory, militarism diminishes to a pipsqueak, “service” brings few cheers, “soldier” is a fleshed person who plays pool on Saturdays, and reconciliation to a war that took someone away can be grudging not curative.
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When Lin (2000) was thinking about a memorial she recalls asking herself, “What then would bring back the memory of a person? A specific object or image would be limiting.” Even before she learned of the fund’s insistence on showing the names of America’s military deaths in Vietnam, she had come to her own conclusion: The use of names was a way to bring back everything someone could remember about a person. The strength in a name is something that has always made me wonder at the “abstraction” of the design; the ability of a name to bring back every single memory you have of that person is far more realistic and specific and much more comprehensive than a still photograph, which captures a specific moment in time or a single event or a generalized image that may or may not be moving for all who have connections to that time.
A name enables memory extension over more years than a picture does, even though the pictures left at the memorial do change. The children grow up; new grandchildren appear. The wife gets old. The only one who cannot change or offer an updated photo is the deceased. Young (2010) suggests that when “visitors bring objects of memory to the memorial, they are living with it and they’re living in it themselves at the same time, as well as redefining the monument.” They tweak their lives and memories through changing picture-objects and, unwittingly for the most part, authorize and reauthorize distinctive knowledge of the war, the knowledge of ordinary people missing other ordinary people. It all becomes part of an informal public war project: to remember things seemingly unimportant in the generally accepted repertoire of the war, something personal. Young (2016: 4) argues, somewhat contra Lin’s emphasis on the power of names on their own, that she designed the memorial as a negative space to be “filled by those who come to remember within its embrace.” If so, the community of loss around the American war in Vietnam fills up the memorial with objects that bear little relation to the war the Smithsonian shows. There are no Huey’s at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, no dramatic lighting draws visitors, and no mannequins pose in combat gear. Instead, numerous memorials- within-the-memorial take the form of individual object arrangements for all to contemplate on the day they are presented. Then they are disappeared in recurrent cycles of memory and forgetting, like so many Navajo sand paintings. There was a time in the first years of the memorial when larger objects of war did appear there, including motorcycles. Those quintessential American vehicles gained popularity in the 1940s among returning veterans of World War II looking for a rush akin to combat experienced with buddies (Mooney,
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2018). Jan Scruggs spent a year roaming the United States by motorcycle after leaving the military in 1970, and so did other veterans seeking and recovering themselves on the open American road. A custom-built Harley- Davidson arrived early at the memorial, loaded with thirty-seven dog tags of men from Wisconsin who had died in the war. Today a Softail custom Harley is part of the traveling Wall That Heals exhibition discussed later. Vietnam era veteran Steve Davenport drove it for a decade and then painted its tank with the names of seventy-five veterans killed in Vietnam, among them his childhood friend from Alexandria, Virginia, Robert Cupp, who died in 1968. The bike is a tribute to specific veterans and to all mothers who lost their sons to the war. Called the Gold Star bike, it is often the first object a visitor sees when arriving at the Wall That Heals. American motorcycles, Harley’s in particular, are legendary objects. They project a rugged conservatism and rough heteromasculinity that many associate with the Hells Angels, the infamous motorcycle club that provided “security” for the Rolling Stones Altamont concert in 1969. On that occasion, one concert-goer was killed, many were injured, cars got stolen and property damaged, all due, it seems to the “Angels’ ” aggressive handling of the crowd. That same year, though, the movie Easy Rider starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as laid back counterculture guys traveling on Harley “hogs”—those long-bodied, high-handled hardtails with panhead engines—from Los Angeles to New Orleans after selling a large quantity of cocaine. Smoking dope, dropping acid, and stopping along the way at a commune, they meet their end on the open road, bikes still running bereft of their men. Their nemeses are southern “redneck” men with guns who cannot abide long-haired hippies. Today in the United States, the motorcycle still fits many slots on a cultural masculinity continuum—from noisy symbol of mano-a-mano entitlement, to escape and healing. Most objects displayed at the main memorial these days are considerably smaller and do not make noise. Repeatedly one sees photos, letters, notes, toys, and beer bottles. Flowers are the default objects, the memory industry’s reigning funereal product. Military medals used to be common at the memorial and can still turn up once in a while. Those are difficult to interpret. Do they indicate a renunciation of the war and of the heroism that attaches to soldiering today, or do they show military achievement in Vietnam? Supposedly the first object to appear at the unfinished Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a Purple Heart thrown into the foundation cement, a significant choice given that those medals extend to the era of George Washington (Hagopian, 2009: 360); the person who left it, and perhaps kick-started the tradition of “leavings” at the memorial, is said to be the
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brother of a killed veteran and himself a navy pilot. My favorite is a keychain with a profoundly simple message: “Hey buddy, I still have your keys. I thought you might need them.” To get away from all this? Father’s Day 2016: a woman holds a red rose as she searches with a friend for her father’s name. Finding it near the top of the panel for the deadly year of 1968, she reaches up and tries to touch the tip of the rose to his name. She is not tall enough to get there, and after several tries she becomes agitated about missing the opportunity to connect with the father she says she never met. My husband offers to help her out. She hands over the flower and watches him reach it to her father’s name. It is such a small gesture at the memorial, but the woman’s smile shows unmistakable relief. Touching the stone and its names has been vitally important from the beginning; it seems to create a connection with the dead that this community of loss finds satisfying, calming, restful. Touch a name and share the war with the person lost to it (Sylvester, 2011b). These ordinary curators do the work of what Young (2016: 15) terms “everyday historians.” They remember common events and express those memories in the multiple voices of a public rather than the public working off a pregiven memory script (Roberts, 2006). Young lauds this “newfound sense of public ownership of national memory” and argues that it is replacing national “collective memory” with a nation’s “collected memory . . . [whereby] we recognize that we never really shared each other’s actual memory of past or even recent events, but that in sharing common spaces in which we collect our disparate and competing memories, we find common (perhaps even a national) understanding of widely disparate experiences and our very reasons for recalling them” (p. 15). I pick up another open letter at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that day and begin reading about a veteran who died a decade ago from one of the “presumptive” Agent Orange illnesses. His wife approaches and introduces herself. She tells me she is pleased to see someone taking an interest in what happened then and what is happening now with veterans who seek medical attention at still understaffed hospitals. It is one of many remarkable moments at the memorial—talking directly to the curator of her one-object exhibit and doing so at the curator’s initiative. During such encounters I am not a researcher of war objects or a professor who teaches courses on war. I cannot even think of disrupting these curators by “interviewing” them; instead I listen to their expert knowledge of struggles with ill-health after the American war in Vietnam officially ended. All of this is possible because there are no posted visitor guidelines, warnings,
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directives, or stated prohibitions at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That anyone can display experiences with or reactions to war, politics, and mortality means many curations and re-curations live in and with Maya Lin’s design. The photos in figures 4.1 and 4.2 are from that Father’s Day 2016. The collaged exhibits have similar components, yet each is an individual creation open to interpretation, as with any artwork. Other than regret, I could decipher no singular collective memory of the disasters associated with the American use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, or any sense that these fallen should be regarded as heroes. A visceral pall spreads out from the collages; some of the curators tell me they wonder whether their grief is less warranted than for those whose loved ones died in Vietnam. Charlotte Heath-Kelly (2016) has noted that many families who lost people in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers of New York remain desperate fifteen years later to have even miniscule parts of their loved ones’ bodies identified, so they can grieve properly. At the Vietnam Veterans
Figure 4.1 Assemblages at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2016.
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Figure 4.2 Assemblages at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2016.
Memorial, bodies may have returned to the States in flag-covered coffins but the sadness remains. The loss is a daily memory, survivors say, and even happy events like birthday parties give off a whiff of melancholia. It is not a site today’s militarism has been able to conquer and shape. Ordinary curators own the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and they re-curate the American war as the lingering presence of personal loss. As time goes by fewer objects appear at the wall on a daily basis, but composed assemblages are more common than single objects like letters (Hagopian, 1995: 162). By now, stories of American experiences in Vietnam are not scarce, and the veterans, siblings, and lovers who come to the memorial are no longer achingly young and haunted; few shed any tears on the days I have been there.8 These curators know their work will join a hidden collection overseen by the National Parks Service, which means loved ones will have afterlives of material remembrance, even if it is unclear when or where their left objects will be seen again. At the same time, objects clearly have some compensatory effects on those who assemble and display them at the foot
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of the object extraordinaire of war—the wall, or memorial as Lin calls it (saying often that she never saw her design as a wall). The objects are pieces of a memory encounter that contradicts aspects of today’s militarist enthusiasms. That cut into the earth remains a wound.9
The Next Phase: Vietnam War Education For two years the National Parks Service routinely discarded all objects left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, thinking their owners had simply forgotten to take these home or did not want them. The staff saved a few objects now and then, but the monumental task of object collection, storage, and preservation was undertaken only in late 1984. That job fell to the Parks Service, and not the Smithsonian or the VVMF, given its statutory authority over the entire National Mall. The VVMF maintains the memorial itself, the statue of the three combat soldiers nearby, the accompanying flagpole, the Women’s Vietnam Memorial, and a memory plaque. The entirely separate Smithsonian borrows objects from the Parks Service collection to display in The Price of Freedom: Americans at War. It is the Parks Service that collects all nonperishable objects remaining at the memorial every evening and transports them to a warehouse in Hyattsville, Maryland, for cataloguing and archiving. Everything from small scraps of paper scribbled with short messages to large craft-art pieces are warehoused. In 2015 that added up to over 400,000 objects in storage with more added on a daily basis since then. One can think of these objects as surplus war memories that get tucked away from the public rather than exhibited (Waring, 2018). Until recently, the VVMF had been planning to establish an education center and museum underneath the memorial to display around 4,000 memorial objects at a time and provide visitors with a history of the American war in Vietnam.10 The center received a lead gift from the TimeWarner foundation and the VVMF was energetically raising funds for a targeted opening in 2020. At the quarterly director’s board meeting of late 2018, the VVMF decided to abandon its plan for a built education center on the Mall. It simply did not have the sums required to proceed.11 Instead, the board was thereby “directing the staff to focus on online resources, hand- held technology, education staff, mobile exhibits to teach visitors about the Vietnam War and honor those whose names appear on the memorial” (PR Newswire, 2018). Even with the shift from physical center to memory activities, questions emerge about how the American war in Vietnam should be
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construed and conveyed. Will the new educational effort include adequate information on civilian war protesters and damage done to the land and people of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos? What of mistakes made and enormous expenses incurred by the nation in the conduct of the war? Will Vietnamese perspectives feature or will the new direction focus on curating a definitive American story? Crucially, could the intentional void Maya Lin created get filled up with the views of expert educators against her interest in putting the burden of memory on the visitor? Augmenting a memorial erected to honor the soldiers, and say nothing about the war that killed them, whose war will now be authorized and whose effaced or minimized? And what will be the physical fate of those 400,000-plus physical objects that have been left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and stored over the decades? Admirable as the organization has been in carving out public space for veterans of a war no one initially wanted to remember, there are already signs of overreach in its efforts to produce and control audience views of that war. The proposed education center has routinely been foreshadowed in the mobile Wall That Heals exhibition the VVMF manages. At locations across the country reserved by local veterans organizations, a small staff unloads, unfolds, and erects a three-quarters facsimile of the memorial in Washington, with all 58,000 names imprinted. The sides of massive trucks that transport the “wall” lift to reveal glass cases containing capsule histories of the war, a few memorabilia from veterans and families, maps of Vietnam showing battle areas, photos of fallen service people from the local area, and patriotic texts. Stated links between the Wall That Heals exhibition and the VVMF’s proposed education center were underscored to encourage visitors to donate to the cause. As of March 1, 2018, a revamped Wall That Heals hit the road, a bit taller, to approximate the experience in Washington of looking up at the names, and made of durable synthetic granite that enables visitors to trace the names they seek, as many do at the main memorial. There is added space allotted in the exhibition for objects, and more information available about the main memorial and objects that members of the public leave there.12 The original mobile exhibition came to three locations in Connecticut in 2016, and I studied two of them. One set up in October in a grassy park overlooking Long Island Sound in West Haven (figure 4.3), and a month later it appeared in a far less salubrious location—a vacant parking lot for the Mohegan Sun Casino in southeast Connecticut. At both locations I saw a project guided by an overarching theme of valor on the American side of the war, unmitigated by the ultimate loss or by massacres on the ground,
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Figure 4.3 The Wall That Heals, West Haven, Connecticut. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2016.
protests in the streets or Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The display is affecting nonetheless and two objects of war on view caught my attention. The first is a letter written by “Bill” in Da Nang to “Rog” the year of the January Tet Offensive, presumably during the mini-Tet launched by North Vietnam in late summer 1968 (figure 4.4). It tries hard to strike a normal tone (the traditional apology for a delay in writing) while conveying the news that seven comrades, all apparently known to “Rog,” are now dead. There is also that avoidance of personal fear that veterans like Tim O’Brien (2006: 141) said was de rigueur in the field (“not too many of us left pardner”), and the ritual of counting service days remaining (71). Bill offers the thinnest expression of concern about his mortality (“if I make it”; “if I’m still kicking”), and then there is the classic fade-out around needing to get to work, casually tossed off as patrolling “the perimeter,” which, in fact, was one of the most dangerous duties. The second object of war is a large poster that is overtly political in its message, something the VVMF eschewed for the main memorial in Washington (figure 4.5). In support of its planned education center, the fund presents four portraits. The line-up features a veteran of the American war in Vietnam named “Larry” in a group that starts with George (Washington), goes to Thomas (Jefferson), and has Larry at the end next to Abraham
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Figure 4.4 Letter home from Vietnam at The Wall That Heals. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2016. (See appendix for text).
(Lincoln). The portraits are all the same size and hang at the same visual level. The men are all labeled “heroes” in a manner that suggests they have contributed equally to the history of the United States. A short blurb to the bottom left tells viewers Larry’s last name is Maxam and he was a corporal who died in Vietnam in February 1968. The VVMF expresses concern that his “story is in danger of losing meaning to future generations.” That Corporal Larry is associated here less with the American
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Figure 4.5 Poster promoting and education center at The Wall That Heals. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2016.
war in Vietnam per se than with American presidential history up to the time of the Civil War, suggests he could be a deceased president, too, or the ideal historical Everyman-leader. Larry’s visage and story, and many like his, will be elevated, not just inserted, in American history via the then-planned education center. Never mind that Larry was part of a brutal losing war concocted in Washington by latter-day presidents. Never mind that the Everyman here is a white male, as are his presidential companions. And very importantly, never mind that the poster omits information on the choice of men foregrounded, the supposed commonalities across their historical eras, and the relationship of each to America’s wars. Larry is the epitome of American heroism in a capsule re-curation of American history. That none of the visitors I observed raised questions about this perspective on America had me wondering what other re-curations were planned by the group self-designated as official keepers of the American war in Vietnam. While gathering brochures at the West Haven Wall That Heals, a military sponsor approached and asked if I knew someone who would benefit from information on veteran benefits. A few minutes later my husband walked up and joined me. This time the same man asked him which branch of the armed forces he had served with in Vietnam. Beyond the obvious
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gender stereotyping was an irony: my husband is British, and the British did not join the American fight in Vietnam.
The American War in Iraq at the Arlington National Cemetery The American war in Iraq officially ended with President Barack Obama withdrawing the troops at the end of 2011. The US mission had morphed several times from effecting regime change to countering insurgents, and from taming civil war to eliminating ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. It is known that 4,000−5,000 US troops, plus coalition forces, were training the Iraqi military and advising the government through mid-2017. With ISIS largely routed that year, the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command deactivated as of April 2018. Army Times writer Todd South (2018) reports that “while some [military] will remain to ‘train, advise and assist’ Iraqi troops, major combat operations for land forces against Islamic state have ended.” Unlike the American war in Vietnam, the long mission-creep in Iraq was managed quietly—to enhance operations, it is said, but also to avoid stirring up the American public.13 Memorials are not constructed during ongoing war operations, but a project called Remembering Our Fallen is underway to remember American deaths associated with all the wars on terror initiated after 9/11. Civilians Bill and Evonne Williams of Omaha Nebraska have been working through their nonprofit Patriotic Productions organization, funded by Bellevue University, to mount photos of each fallen American on a mobile structure for an exhibit accompanied by soft music and solar lighting. Along with military personnel, the Williamses include photos of private contractors killed in American war zones, military who died in training accidents while on active duty, and veterans who committed suicide as a result of post-traumatic stress. The Williamses have been activists for veterans since 2008, raising funds to cover the costs of moving the photo memorial around the country (it is hosted mostly in the Midwest and South), expanding the photo collection, and transporting veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam to visit their respective memorials in Washington. In light of American reverence for the military today, a built memorial to terror war deaths will likely materialize on the National Mall once those long conflicts actually end, if they do. In the meantime, Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery is reserved for military casualties from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and has emerged as a de facto site of war
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memory. It is also a site of struggle between wishes of survivors to personalize the uniform burial plots through left objects and efforts of the Department of the Army to enforce a stoic sameness across the historical expanse of America’s war dead. A bit of that history first.
The Early Cemetery Section 60 is about as far into the two-plus mile, 624-acre cemetery as it gets. From the reception building, you walk out straight, turn left at Eisenhower Avenue and proceed past five headstone-jammed sections of the cemetery; a tour bus can also take you there as the last stop on its itinerary. It is an eerie journey past so many war dead, most of them under thirty years of age and almost all of them men. The graves stretch back at least to the era of the American Civil War, with some older graves of civilians and former slaves who lived in the area before it was claimed for the Arlington National Cemetery. The very existence of a national cemetery for military personnel killed in America’s wars is unusual. Across Europe, military forces are buried where the battle that killed them occurred. Across the Potomac from Washington, DC. 430,000-plus American war dead are buried in one place—and that is only a fraction of the total killed in America’s wars, as many lie in local or state military cemeteries. That the United States has been a warrior state for much of its history becomes visually evident at Arlington National Cemetery. En route to 60, the visitor passes Section 12, where Samuel Dashiell Hammett, the mystery writer, veteran of World Wars I and II, CIA operative, blacklisted leftist, and author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, is buried. Across the road is Section 59 (the numbering is not war-sequential) where the Beirut Barracks plaque commemorates 241 American military killed on October 23, 1983, when two truck bombs detonated close to their barracks during the Lebanese Civil War. Section 60, a large rectangular parcel, abuts the much smaller Section 64 at the Patten Drive boundary of the developed cemetery. In that section lie the intermingled remains of passengers killed on September 11, 2001, when one of the three planes smashed into the Pentagon in eyesight of the cemetery, and another crashed in a Pennsylvania field following an onboard struggle between passengers and hijackers. The visitor to Section 60 who looks back in the direction of Eisenhower Drive has a panoramic view of headstones by the thousands rising ahead. The cemetery had its beginnings when the state of Virginia seceded from the Union, and General Robert E. Lee left his wife’s Arlington Estate,
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on what is now cemetery grounds, and resigned his commission in the US Army to command the Confederate forces. Union soldiers overran his slave-built and -served mansion during the war. When Lee’s wife was unable to pay a $92.70 property tax in person during the war, as required by federal law at the time, the victorious Union government seized the prop erty and sold it to a tax commissioner for public use. Union Brigadier (and then US Quartermaster) General Montgomery C. Meigs summarily buried Union soldiers near the Arlington House and, to further humiliate Lee and the Southern cause, worked to establish a community on the property for freed slaves. Several thousand former slaves had already settled there starting in 1863, and more came once the secretary of war approved the land plan. Freedman’s Village, as it was called, became noteworthy for its schools, housing, and agricultural-training schemes. Its management and financial arrangements were less successful. A cumbersome arrangement between the army, the federal government, and the American Missionary Association provided management. Residents had to contribute to the upkeep of the village through a labor program that took half a worker’s monthly wage of $10 to support public services. The required contribution increased steadily to the point where villagers called for devolved governance and better compensation for workers whose labor turned a profit for management. In 1900, after years of unresolved tensions, the government dissolved the community and evicted its residents.14 The layout of the Village is not clear, but the land on which it sat was roughly along today’s Eisenhower Drive in what are now Sections 8, 47, and 25 of the cemetery, diagonally over the street from Section 60. The military cemetery was formally established in June 1864 and coexisted with Freedman’s Village until the residents were forced out. Years passed before Arlington Cemetery became the esteemed and sacred location that it is today. Its creation during the Civil War meant that Meigs and his colleagues had to recover dead soldiers from makeshift graves created near battle sites and transport the remains to Arlington for proper burial. Most of those bodies had no claimants because Arlington Cemetery was initially considered a burial ground for unfortunate or poor soldiers, a good many unidentifiable. Members of the Custis/Lee family and certain Union officers were interred near the plantation house, at a distance from Sections like 27 and 16, where remains of Confederate soldiers and African-Americans from the US Colored Troops unit of the Union army were placed. In 1866 a large tomb was designated for Civil War Unknowns, a decision that led to considerable concern about the likelihood that bones of Union soldiers were being made to share space with those of
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Confederates. Amid this Civil War politics of identity, it is noteworthy that the American president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation and was assassinated in 1862 is interred at Oak Ridge Cemetery in his home state of Illinois. At Arlington Cemetery, Lincoln is represented only by a crypt that contains the remains of his son and other family members. His absence from America’s cemetery of military heroes adds another layer of irony to the lineup of presidents, Lincoln included, with corporal “Larry” at the Wall That Heals discussed in the previous section. Once the Civil War era was sufficiently past, the question arose of who else would be entitled to burial in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1873 it became legally possible not only for military personnel killed in the line of duty to be buried there but also those who “served” in the armed forces and received an honorable discharge; or they could be buried in any one of nearly fifty national cemeteries across the country. It was a consequential determination, for to accommodate all military personnel at Arlington would require expanded cemetery grounds. Already in 1905 the “military remains from every war had been interred at Arlington, the only national cemetery then or now to claim this distinction” (McElya, 2016: 138). The long-term logistics of that practice were not promising. Decades later, with the United States increasingly involved in oversees wars, the myth of an isolationist country notwithstanding, Arlington Cemetery was under new pressure to facilitate a growing practice of “bringing home the dead” (p. 137).15 Historian of European wars, George L. Mosse (1979, 1990), recognized a cult of the fallen soldier emerging in World War I Germany around the idea that “those who had made the final sacrifice were not dead and gone, but instead continued to perform their mission of national renewal” (Mosse, 1979: 17). That language of “the fallen” and their eternal life through war service to the state have been accepted in the United States: note that the photo exhibition the Williams family promotes to commemorate military deaths associated with the wars on terror is called Remembering the Fallen.16 Shortly after the American Civil War ended, it became customary for civic groups to garland the headstones of fallen soldiers each spring, a ritual that started at Gettysburg and spread to Arlington Cemetery. In 1868 the federal government declared a national holiday called Decoration Day in recognition of the new tradition. It became the precursor to the Memorial Day holiday now celebrated in late May to honor America’s war dead to which, in 1954, was added Veterans Day to honor all veterans of America’s armed forces. Both of these national holidays draw crowds
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to Arlington. So does the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that was established in 1921. To handle all the visitors, the cemetery developed rules of proper comportment that remain to this day. At the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, for example, a uniformed guard steps forward and says, “In keeping with the dignity of this ceremony, it is requested that everyone remain silent and standing.” Signs at the cemetery entrance are equally schoolmarm-ish: “Please Conduct Yourself with Dignity and Respect at All Times,” and “Please Remember These Are Hallowed Grounds.” McElya (2016: 2) sees in these pointed protocols “a reminder of the constant safeguarding of a nation’s traditions in the face of potentially unruly publics.” The protocols also impart lessons on correct postures civilians owe soldiers, fallen or alive. The state can write the rules of reverence at Arlington National Cemetery because it owns the soldiers resting there. By 1973 around 4,000 tourists per day (p. 267) were observing the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and experiencing behavioral admonitions that are absent at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Internment of President John Kennedy in Arlington, coupled with the escalating American war in Vietnam, put contradictory pressures on the cemetery. Kennedy drew the public, but the war proliferated graves to the point of substantial worry that the cemetery would run out of space as early as 1967.17 The Pentagon managed the problem by changing the criteria for military burials at Arlington. No longer were those who had been in the military and received honorable discharge eligible for internment unless they died on active duty, had received a Medal of Honor, or were retired military. Honorably discharged soldiers who did not fit the new criteria could be buried in national military cemeteries situated around the country. It was a polarizing decision in a polarized country, with some worrying that the Pentagon would find reasons to exclude honorably discharged Vietnam Veterans Against the War and those who initially burned their draft cards or left the country for Sweden or Canada and later served. On several occasions, the superintendent of the cemetery barred protest groups from entering, leading one veteran to shout out in frustration: “Does a vet have to be dead to get into Arlington” (quoted in McElya, 2016: 260). And which vet, exactly? In addition to the political performances that played out at the cemetery, scandals later emerged around cemetery mismanagement, neglect, broken headstones, and mislabeled or unlabeled remains. Certain sections were better maintained than others. Areas around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Lee Mansion, and Kennedy’s grave were the best tended. By
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1990, it was clear that Section 27, where former slaves and Confederate soldiers were buried, was severely neglected and so disfavored by management that it was not even included on tourist maps of the cemetery. Quite apart from the cases of physical neglect were constant arguments over who could be buried at Arlington and who could not. As of 1997, Section 2 contains a memorial tree and marker to Lao Veterans of America for service to the United States in the Laotian campaigns of the American war in Vietnam—the secret war. Yet when General Vang Pao, who led those forces, died in California, where he had become a citizen, his family request for burial at Arlington was denied. In another case, some families of civilian employees killed at the Pentagon on 9/11 petitioned for individual burials at Arlington and were told those dead did not meet the military criteria for individual interment.18 Most visitors to Arlington National Cemetery do not look past the neat and austere aesthetic to learn such sordid details, just as visitors to the National Museum of American History do not question whether the objects displayed there have been carefully stored and conserved by the Smithsonian.
Section 60: Afghanistan and Iraq Section 60 of Arlington was remarkably quiet on Veterans Day 2016. Across the Potomac, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was chockablock with veterans, their families, and onlookers. A low stage had been erected on the grass in front of the memorial, where speakers from the clergy, military and Parks Service, looking smart in their best professional attire, sat waiting their turn to comment. Representatives from military units that operated in Vietnam were on hand as were specialist groups, such as Honor Flight members who escort veterans to war memorials. At least one “Donut Dolly” identified herself and recalled her days as a civilian Red Cross volunteer sent to Vietnam to help maintain morale in war zones. Veterans Day was a solemn occasion there, but it was also alive with veterans greeting each other and posing for pictures; and with the holiday landing on a Friday, the memorial was crowded the entire weekend. I went to Section 60, about a mile from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the next day and found it remarkably empty of visitors and of all indications that commemoration activities paralleling those at the memorial might have been held. The Veterans Day tradition at Arlington is for the president of the United States to leave a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an event widely covered by the media. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle also visited Section 60 and mingled with families
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around the graves on Veterans Day 2013 and at other times. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence chose to visit Section 60 on Memorial Day 2017 and spent some time talking with families gathered there.19 On such days, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan regularly stop by and “talk” to buried buddies and to visitors; it is said to be a good place for veterans with post-traumatic stress to meet and support one another. Although Section 60 is not a forgotten or neglected section of the cemetery, the events, people, and pomp at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day weekend 2016 contrasted sharply with the quiet in 60. That day, the public ceremonies at Arlington struck me as overly focused on unknown soldiers relative to those of known identity who also died. It reminded me of the uneven treatment the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History accords the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq in The Price of Freedom: Iraq gets two dark rooms barely curated at all. Another slight at the Arlington National Cemetery has to do with limited amenities for grieving visitors. Anyone going in the heat of a Washington summer or the warmth of a November day should bring water and whatever else they need, for they will find no comforts out in the cemetery proper—not toilets, not benches or chairs for sitting, and no drinking fountains. The Lee House is the exception, perhaps because it is managed by the National Parks Service, not the military, but it is located at the opposite end of the cemetery from Section 60. Sections far beyond famous burial plots near the reception building can seem planned to discourage visits from civilians. “We” do not belong in and among the heroes of state. More, the presentation of the dead in Arlington National Cemetery suggests that they do not want anything from the civilians. Everything the dead need has been given them by the state. That fallen military are not truly deceased is a point George Mosse (1979: 17) made about German treatment of military deaths after World War I: “Those who had made the final sacrifice were not dead and gone, but instead continued to perform their mission of national renewal.” Current American militarism draws in part on a related myth about war as a source of the country’s renewal, and that requires a deflection away from the ugliness of war mortalities. Since around 2005 the Arlington National Cemetery management has made it more difficult for the media to cover funerals in Section 60, even when the families approve the coverage. Gina Gray, a new public affairs director for the cemetery in April 2008, argued that nothing in the army’s cemetery regulations restricted press presence. Within a few months she was demoted from director to officer and then fired outright in July, only three months into her job.
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Gray is a veteran and an experienced hand both in public relations and in presenting army news around the world. But here is the thing: militarism rests on limited public awareness of the horrors of war, the mortality it brings, the body shreddings, and the all-compassing pain it inflicts. If members of the public witness funerals in Arlington, they might ponder such things and decide against military careers for themselves or their offspring. And then what? Dana Miliband (2008), an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post, had this to say about the Gray case: Through at least 2005—during Rumsfeld’s tenure, no less—reporters were placed in a location where they could hear the prayers and the eulogies and film the handing of the folded flag to the next of kin. The coverage of the ceremonies—in the nearly two-thirds of cases where families permitted it—provided moving reminders to a distracted nation that there was a war going on. But the access gradually eroded, and Gray arrived to discover that it was gone.
Across many different directors, Arlington Cemetery had maintained a tradition of media access. It was the George W. Bush administration that drew a nearly opaque curtain— approaching a news blackout at times—around the conduct of the American war in Iraq. Robert M. Poole (2014: 3) writes: “for most of the country, the longest war in the history of the United States has taken place largely out of sight, the casualties piling up in faraway Iraq and Afghanistan while normal life continued on the home front, with no war taxes, no draft notices, no gas rationing, and none of the shared sacrifice of the nation’s earlier conflicts.” Gina Gray was sent packing for seeking to maintain cemetery tradition in the face of Bush’s audacious insistence on controlling news of his largely stalled wars on terror. Section 60, the busiest and most active area of the cemetery, was hosting 1,000 burials by 2014. From the cemetery’s point of view, it was best for the public not to see these. This restriction contrasts sharply with traditions at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that enable the media and ordinary people to attend and possibly even re-curate aspects of the war through survivor memories of an extended armed conflict that gained nothing and lost loved ones their lives. Families comprising the latest community of loss over deaths in Iraq have from the beginning also brought memento mori to the graves at Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60. Their leavings include the kinds of objects one finds today at the memorial—letters, packs of cigarettes and
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bottles of beer, photos of the family, toys, and so on. Some items left in Section 60 no longer appear at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, such as the report cards of the soldier’s young children, sonograms of an unborn child, or, if the visitor was present at the death, a quarter (Poole, 2014: 7). Instead, akin to Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, picnics are spread out on the graves and family members might take a nap flat out on one of them. As Ami Neiberger-Miller, visiting her brother, Christopher T. Neiberger, who was killed in 2007, told Poole (2014: 30): “This is our memorial for Iraq and Afghanistan, like the Vietnam Wall was for their generation.” In fact, unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, visitors to 60 are actually at the remains of the fallen. They can “converse” with the dead, eat lunch with them, and have a drink together, or endeavor to smoke with their friend by sticking a cigarette into the grave. Such actions would be difficult to impossible to execute in the restricted spaces of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. One can also be publicly celebratory in 60: “Paula Davis released a cloud of yellow balloons and sang Happy Birthday to her only son, Army Pfc. Justin R. Davis, who was nineteen when he was killed. ‘He’d be old enough to drink by now’ ” (quoted in Poole, 8). Section 60 quickly became the abode of friends and family regaining connection to those lost to them through the American war in Iraq, a place they could interact in words, songs, gestures, and objects with the person behind the stone and do so fulsomely and unselfconsciously. The presence of material gravestones and a grave space for each soldier affords other curatorial opportunities not available at the memorial for Vietnam veterans. One can personalize the space, ringing the headstones with garlands —flowers in the summer, and festive roping and tinsel for the winter—paste small photos on gravestones, and set down folding chairs on the graves themselves. Technically, practices like these are against Arlington regulations and have long been discouraged at military cemeteries around the world. The idea is to preserve a pristine aesthetic that shows uniform respect for state heroes (McElya, 2016). The military dominates the Arlington landscape, clutches the persons lying there, and sets a statist atmosphere and standard of behavior. Mosse’s (1979: 17) analysis resonates ironically again here, though he was writing about a different country and a different war and time of militarism when he said, “there could be no room for personal grief in the midst of supposedly joyous sacrifice and a life after death of redeeming the Volk.” Indeed, a tug-of-war between families and cemetery management eventually developed over personal items left at the graves, despite the pattern of such leavings over the first ten years of the section. One day, without
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consulting the families, all the photos, garlands, letters, flowers, toys, and cigarettes were gone. Cemetery officials had swooped on Section 60 in July 2013 and confiscated every item left there. One Gold Star mother who regularly visited her son’s grave, Alison Malachowski, said it was devastating to arrive and find all mementos gone. “It didn’t look like Section 60! I had to pinch myself to make sure I was in the right place” (quoted in Poole, 2014: 113). After a decade of visitors decorating headstones and graves, all the leavings disappeared into the ether without explanation. The same thing had happened at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in its early days: the Parks Service initially threw away objects remaining at the wall thinking they were worthless litter or just forgotten. But that practice ended quickly. Visitors to the memorial have come to expect that their objects and collages will be on display for at least one day before being acquisitioned by the Park Service and put away for archiving and preservation. Ordinary curators have made the memorial their exhibition space, and the families of the American war dead in Iraq expected to do likewise at Section 60. The hard line was drawn under cemetery superintendent Patrick K. Hallinan, whose spokesperson relayed the message that “Arlington National Cemetery is not the Vietnam War Memorial” (Jennifer Lynch, quoted in Poole, 114). The reaction from many families was immediate. They alerted the media about the draconian assault on Section 60 and also complained to members of Congress. A meeting was called to negotiate a compromise between military order and family wishes to bring elements of life to their dead. A solution billed as a pilot program was still in effect in 2018. Small handcrafted objects could be left at the graves in Section 60 but not the signature pieces regularly sighted at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial— alcohol and cigarettes—which were labeled hazardous. Objects on graves or headstones would remain on display until the Friday following their placement, six days longer than the pop-up exhibits can be viewed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where space must be shared with all the names on any single panel. The cemetery said it could not allow photos affixed to “government furnished markers,” though it conceded that some photos might have historical value and be retained by the cemetery. Objects determined by archivists to have unusual, artistic, or historical significance could also remain for a week. Objects deemed worthy of retention would be stored at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.20 Many families who visited the cemetery regularly rebelled against all restrictions. Shortly after the compromise was reached, some defiantly left Christmas trees—hardly a small handcrafted item—or placed wind
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chimes around. Others offered alcoholic toasts to the dead. “What are they going to do to us—send us to jail for having a beer with a dead brother?” (quoted in Poole, 2014: 115). Having re-curated the new policy to suit their wishes, the lead families have mostly gotten away with overstepping the bounds. When I am at Section 60, I see photos affixed to headstones, lots of bottles of beer and individual cigarettes, as well as notes, small commercial objects, and garlands strung with toys or family photos; strings of large balloons are popular (figures 4.6 and 4.7). Cemetery officials seem to have relaxed extreme object vigilance. Yet as of 2014, some families were continuing to balk at any restrictions that would make light of lives that had meaning beyond a military script. “He’s a person. That’s what they [the cemetery regulators] are taking away” (Paula Davis quoted in Poole, 116). Of course, in some instances, the soldier’s personhood was taken away in Iraq and other areas of the war on terror by friendly fire. Death by one’s comrades is not noted on the gravestones nor are details of
Figure 4.6 Gene L. Lamie, Section 60, Arlington Cemetery. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2016.
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Figure 4.7 Uncle J, Section 60, Arlington Cemetery. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2017.
actual causes of death. Heroes serve. They die and yet live on, extenuating circumstances notwithstanding. Lest one think Section 60 is an object free-for-all, it is important to point out that most of the section is quiet and unadorned, perhaps because many family members live at a distance from Arlington, Virginia. Some graves, however, gain national attention and attract visitors and offerings from people who are not family members or friends of the deceased. Election year 2016 returned a surprise winner—Donald W. Trump. One of the sad sagas initiated by campaigner Trump involved the family of a soldier killed in the American war in Iraq. Humayun Khan died in 2004 and received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart posthumously. His Pakistani- American father spoke at the Democratic National Convention for Hillary Clinton and against Trump and his anti-immigration stance. At one point, Mr. Khan took a small US Constitution from his pocket, held it up, and with rhetorical flourish asked whether Trump had ever read it. He offered Trump his copy and admonished the newly nominated Trump to study it. Trump was not present at Clinton’s convention, but he reacted with fury
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from a distance, tweeting mocking comments about Mr. Khan and especially about his “silenced” wife, who stood quietly by her husband’s side as he spoke to the convention. The military criticized Trump for insulting a Gold Star family; but, being unfamiliar with the term “Gold Star,” some claimed, Trump carried on his insults for days. Humayun Khan is buried at Arlington Cemetery, and on Veterans Day 2016, five days after the national election, his grave was covered with flowers and written tributes, among them this open letter (figures 4.8 and 4.9). If evidence were needed that Section 60 remains both active and politically charged, this object of war, this letter of regret and commiseration, and the other tributes visitors trek to his grave to provide, are proof enough. And so are other interactions at the gravesites. On one visit I was sitting on a grave, as one does in Section 60, taking notes and muttering some words of introduction to its occupant. There were very few people about. Two older men wearing easily identifiable hats and jackets spelling out their military units in Vietnam walked into the section at some distance from me. One nudged the other and pointed; they turned and walked my way and paused by the grave. One of them gently asked: “You ok today mum?” I said, “I am.” They were looking for a fallen friend and
Figure 4.8 Letter to Humayun Khan, Section 60, Arlington Cemetery. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2016. (See appendix for text).
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Figure 4.9 Humayun Khan’s grave, Section 60, Arlington Cemetery. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2016.
had I seen him somewhere in the section? Interactions like that between strangers taken to be kindred spirits are characteristic of Section 60 sociability. People talk to each other, exchange names of comrades and family, and support and comfort one another as they grieve. The two veterans of America’s war in Vietnam seemed to assume I was a Gold Star mother of Private First Class Sharrett listed on the headstone where I was sitting, who died in Iraq in 2008 (figure 4.10). I am not—but could appreciate their gesture. I was there because I knew that David H. Sharrett II was killed by friendly fire, a fact his army commanders tried to deny. In fact, it was a fratricide (Jackman and Rivero, 2012; Poole, 2014: Chap. 6).
Memorials, Memory, and Curations of War When the dead are sufficiently important in the community or when they are many and their deaths unnatural and premature, the problem of ensuring them a place in the collective memory of the community becomes acute.
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Figure 4.10 David H. Sharrett II headstone, Section 60, Arlington Cemetery. Photo: Christine Sylvester, 2017.
The performative arts of mourning seem insufficient to the task. There is a desire to fix memory in a visible form. (Gail Holst-Warhaft, 2000: 158)
In the contexts considered here, visual performances of mourning turn on curatorial “leavings,” offerings of gifts, drinks, photos, notes, garlands, and complex collages that people assemble, bring to memorials and graves, and do not take back home. Such exhibitions of memory are hung and reworked daily or weekly. They are pop-ups the public misses at the risk of never seeing again. That letter to Captain Humayun Khan, so carefully written that there is not a single word crossed out or spot of inky hesitation—if I had visited Section 60 the following Saturday it would have been gone, unavailable, an exhibit missed, a lesson withheld,
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a surplus memory disappeared. Gone where, exactly? Into an obscure collection, a drawer or vault in an unpublicized warehouse the public cannot easily access. Had I been at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on a day other than Father’s Day, I might not have seen a daughter enabled to reach her father’s name with a rose. These are object pathways into the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq, moments of proffered knowledge that most academics do not consider weighty enough to store in their computer files. At these places it becomes obvious that war is not just for soldiers or just for states to ponder. Many people are at home during wartime, all senses alert, seemingly protected from injuries of war until crushed by that knock on the door. Through exhibits of prosaic objects, ordinary Americans re- curate the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq right under the nose of a state all around the National Mall and utterly present at Arlington National Cemetery. The international relations of that state led to the deaths of people the same state now takes care of. The bold message these curators send is that the state can claim those bodies, but it cannot claim their lives and erase the civilians they were while also being military. At Section 60, the authority of family and friends rules. The cemetery has been forced to follow. The same is true at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: the authority of object leavers reigns and has been accepted from nearly the start without argument. Communities of loss do not seek approval from invisible bureaucrats, even though off-location managers have the power to halt their war re-curations through regulatory means. Ordinary people are the war authorities at these sites, not the managers (Sylvester, 2018). It is their war, a war that families live and relive and grieve for a long time. “It doesn’t get better,” says a Gold Star mother who lost her son in Iraq. “It just gets different” (Alison Malachowski, quoted in Poole, 2014: 109). Memorialization emerges here as a contest of memory and political will. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund might have a war in mind for its new education campaign. It might glorify militarism by visually suggesting that a corporal in the US military automatically, by virtue of dying in an American war, possesses leadership qualities equal to some of the most distinguished leaders of the United States. Object exhibitors at Lin’s memorial might not recognize that version of the war and its warriors, but such might be beside the point for a group that has sought more recognition for Americans killed in Vietnam than three monuments on the National Mall provide. Having pushed aside heated postwar politics when considering submissions for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,
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the VVMF embraces a certain superhero politics through its depiction of Corporal Larry. Contrast that orientation with the war memories that materialize through objects left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There, military heroics take second place to letters of regret and lamentation, birthday cards, and efforts to find “dad” on the wall. Go to Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery and discover unexpected heroes there in the form of family members who defy the rules of military memorialization by personalizing the graves of those they knew who died in Iraq. What stands out at that site are memorabilia of shortened lives lived as ordinary civilians and military personnel. Multiple simultaneous identities become OK to show there instead of one military form of self and service. All these displays— at the Wall That Heals, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery—are re-curatorial in their emphasis. That is, each insistently foregrounds some war knowl edge that is not authorized by custom, by the all-powerful war memory industry, or by most expert curators of these wars. The question is whether students of history and international relations are paying attention to the entry points to war knowledge that these re-curators display in plain sight. Whose war experience must be included in thinking about the American war in Vietnam, the American war in Iraq? And what did happen to all those Vietnamese and Iraqis . . . ?
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5 Bodies of War Curate the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq
n the environs of the National Mall one can be forgiven for thinking nothing about war can be forgotten (Maier, 1992). Across an open space in a once-neglected area of town, the Mall now showcases museums that remember art, natural history, national history, African-American history, and more. Memorials stand to the Korean War, World War I, and, in a monstrous form, to World War II. A failed American war in Vietnam has three memorials: Lin’s abstract, the statue of three combat soldiers in Vietnam, and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. The Iraq War and its veterans are not there yet, but efforts are afoot in Congress to change the rule that a war must have ended ten years before a memorial can be erected on the Mall. Across the Potomac at Arlington Cemetery, war seems the most important politics to remember in all of American history. Every blade of grass on a diminishing amount of land holds a concrete piece of military memory, and those who would garnish the headstones can be accused of besmirching military honor. No worries about Americans besmirching The Price of Freedom exhibition: impressive technologies undoubtedly win the hearts of many viewing the Vietnam rooms, though neither televisions nor Hueys could win that war. As for America in Iraq, viewers walk through a near-empty exhibition room, possibly too tired by the trudge through the nation’s war engagements to notice the absence of curated objects there. Viewing these distinguished curatorial sites of America’s wars foregrounds the lead question of this study: Whose memories of war appear in public displays and whose do not? Put differently, whose war knowl edge is authorized and where and by whom? Memories at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial focus mostly on personal loss. Elsewhere on the Mall,
and in most of the military cemetery nearby, righteous praise of soldiers dominates. The Smithsonian’s curatorial turn makes a helicopter associated with the American war in Vietnam more commanding than the photos of dead Vietnamese and angry American war protesters on the opposite wall. Arlington Cemetery tries to overdub all 400,000-plus soldiers buried there with a uniform military austerity that Section 60 defies but cannot entirely displace. It is by moving to the arts, in this case the words of war novels and memoirs, that bodies of war emerge with curatorial voice to speak of life, death, despair, and survival in war zones. When Charlotte Heath-Kelly (2015) laments the effacement of mortality in the academic field that claims war as a core concern, international relations, we are reminded of the many effacements built into traditions of America at war. Soldier mortality is one of them. The warrior is so central to American cultural understanding of itself as exceptional in peace and war that mortality must be withheld or downplayed when soldiers fall. Though gone, they are still there, affixed to the honorable state. No messy or putrid bodies linger; just inert bodies to praise and simultaneously ignore.1 Novels and memoirs of America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq do not abide by these “laws” of “honorable” mortality effacement. They put bodies and their wretched mortality in war on view, in all forms, genders, ages, and nationalities, along with the forces that do them in. The featured bodies are not necessarily American soldiers or soldiers at all; they might be Vietnamese or Iraqi civilians for whom the war is an intimate imposition, a severe disruption, or a body blow that cannot be effaced (Woodward and Jenkings, 2013). Bodies of war rendered inert by austere headstones and the heavy weight of respect for tradition can be characters in war novels and memoirs who walk and talk and meet up with the war violence that turns them into the innards-seeping corpses Iraq war veteran Brian Turner (2005: 27) describes: . . . in their boxes, still slack-jawed twenty years later, as if amazed at their-own deaths.
Amazed, perhaps, at the experiences of war rather than the commemoration of it. Not everyone who experiences war is in a box. Rape violence is endemic to war. At the edge of fields of mortality, the living war-raped pace, nonskeletons hauling about horrific memories and injuries without ever being thanked for their involuntary war “service.” Inger Skjelsbaek (2012: 61) knows “it is not easy to explain why aggressors in a conflict
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situation resort to the use of sexual violence. Intuitively, it all seems so wrong. With advanced military technology, one would think that aggressors prefer to use weapons that increase the distance between perpetrator and victim.” Yet war and rape continue to hold stony hands, as they have throughout history. In fact, the “new wars” (Kaldor, 1999) of the late cold war period “demonstrate patterns of increased intimacy between aggressors and victims” (Skjelsbaek, 2012: 61). Even in societies that do not rely on advanced technology to wage war, rape can be so ubiquitous that an entire country can be called the rape capital of the world— the Democratic Republic of Congo (Baaz and Stern, 2009, 2015)—while others, like Rwanda and Bosnia, remember neighbors wielding rape as a weapon of extermination. Such are the horrors of war that some live through and that pin others to their boxes.
And Now, The Horrors As noted in Chapter 2, some literary analysts see in the number and quality of works on Iraq and Afghanistan a new golden age of war fiction (e.g., Turrentine, 2014), with Peter Molin (2015b) declaring “2011: The Year Contemporary War Fiction Became a Thing.” To Patrick Deer (2016: 66), the initial literary burst indicated there were readers out there seeking “an authoritative narrative about the wars” to center their understanding, something the World War II fight against fascism had provided. Cold war anticommunist appeals offered reason enough to funnel half a million American troops into Vietnam, even as public support in the United States was whittled away by an Asian country determined to rid itself of all colonial entitlements; the anticommunism “consensus” in America would come to mean little to segments of the public that decried the war. Today, the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are commonly narrated as fights against terrorism tied to fundamentalist religion; yet that publicly appealing narrative was undercut by lies about weapons of mass destruction and by wars that do not seem to stem terrorist activities. The new “golden age” stories of American wars do not fill the narrative voids; indeed, many writers would pull back from any such assignment. On offer instead are war-miniaturizing pathways into discrete moments, locations, experiences, and ethical dilemmas that entangle people in the vast conflicts of our time. Social science does not generally look for authoritative knowledge in such accounts. The knowledge presented there is not in the right format, is fabricated in parts, is uninformed by a recognizable
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methodology, and can end before a proper conclusion is drawn. Good to have novels on the nightstand but not in the office. As a counterpoise to such arguments, consider Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien’s (2009a) take on “How to Tell a True War Story.” He writes, “There is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed” (p. 68; emphasis in original). In the end, “it comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (p. 74). “Absolute occurrence is irrelevant” (pp. 79−80). Crediting the stomach with judgment about truth and falsehood is a heretical notion for empirically based social science. The field of international relations in particular does not historically register the gut feelings of everyday people, or other aspects of their personal ordinary, among the forces powerful enough to shape significant political outcomes. In international relations, there is great neck-craning upward and away from people to states, global institutions, and strategic processes that, at the level of assumptions, seem more salient than the realm of dish washing or corpse washing (Sylvester, 2014). War, though, is decentralized, multiple, contested, and shifting. There is no true war story or authentic site of war knowledge, no oracle or information god that can put inquiring minds or feelings to rest about war causes and operations. Literary analyst Leonard J. Davis (1997: 9) suggests “when the words ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ are used, they are not defining two distinct and unimpeachable categories,” so much as they refer to “extremes of a continuum.” It can be tempting to think the curated words of a war veteran must be more real, true, authentic, and authoritative than the words and objects communities of loss curate to relate their war experiences. Yet all war authors, or even memoirists, have limited entry to war through the bits of it they can see, can construct from the shouts, weapons noise, and destruction around, or can imagine. Moreover, all viewing platforms are freighted with interferences of memory, the senses, author identities, and intent in selecting certain scenes to describe and not others. The liberties authors take, the truths they present, and the fragments of war they offer nonetheless provide opportunities to consider people living lives inside war as civilians or occupants of uniforms that might later be put on display somewhere. Sam Sacks (2015) specifically laments “the fetishization of authenticity” expected of war novels and asks, “what if invention and exploration were more esteemed than testimonies of personal struggle?” War novels may be mash-ups of others and the authors themselves, but the characters are alive in mind, imagination, or memory; and they have something to convey about war. More
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important is their substance and sustenance that stretch a stomach beyond its burpy self-referentiality or easy equation of “veteran” with military service.2 Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016) offers a perspective on true versus fictive stories of war that takes the last point into account. To him, the key is not what form a war story takes as a novel, memoir, or research piece. “Telling a true war story requires the right kind of panoramic optics, an ethical one and an aesthetic one that allows us to see everyone and everything involved in war” (p. 227). It is especially important to see the war from the perspective of civilians, whose war is not likely to be the one soldiers experience and convey in war novels. For many civilians rape is the repetitive experience of war (Anonymous, 2000). It is now designated as an international war crime but was largely neglected in war studies until the advent of feminist analysis. Civilians also gain knowledge of war when they seek shelter from aerial attacks, try to escape expanding war zones, or work for war industries and agencies. Those war experiences, however, are relegated rather than accentuated for reasons Nguyen identifies: “contemporary war is a bureaucratic and capitalist enterprise that requires its bored clerks, soulless administrators, ignorant taxpayers, contradictory priests, and encouraging families . . . a pervasive system of complicity” (pp. 229−230). It is from such places that versions of war issue and become “authoritative” enough that American audiences will stand and salute soldiers at sports events when commanded to do so. Rape, profit, and complicity are not mentioned at those stand-up moments, foregrounded in The Price of Freedom exhibition or curated into assemblages I have viewed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. Where they appear is in war literature, which means that in the absence of war fiction and memoir, many elements of war would not be curated at all. This chapter selects within a mountain of works a few exemplars that throw light on the ways an array of people curate their war in Vietnam, their war in Iraq; that is to say, the way they telescope what they know. Angling into such stories counters or adds to the sweeping sense of war presented at war memorials, war cemeteries, and major war exhibitions. Novels and memoirs narrow war contours to elements that touch the lives of a few featured characters and can lay open “the historical understanding those representations create” (De Rosa and Peebles, 2017: 209). Through novels readers learn that wars do not end for people who have been singed by them. Memories dog survivors, affecting seemingly unrelated aspects of their lives in the long afterwards of wars immediate intensity (Sylvester,
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2018b). Those memories are often so arresting “that the force they exert can drain the present of its reality” (Ng, 2014: 90).3 The novels and memoirs featured here are classics by Americans, Iraqis, and Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians. All the works have been remarked on in literary circles, less so, in cases not at all, in the halls of social science. All reveal more elements of war horror than of war heroism, echoing Fred Turner’s (1996: 17−44) sense of “The Horror, The Horror” that veterans of the American war in Vietnam recalled of their deployments. Some display “horrorism,” which Adriana Cavarero (2009: 3) defines as “violence against the helpless.” Cavarero does not look into individual deaths or violations so much as cases of large-scale violence (Gregory, 2016). Yet horrorism also afflicts the ordnance-riddled corpse and hides in the living bodies of those physically violated and made to live on. Dead bodies are abject; even one’s beloved does not look heroic in death. The sexually violated body can host a live person who carries within pieces wounded by war acts. Corpses reveal the guts of war as an injury-insistent horrorism, and bodies of sexual assault reveal the exquisitely intimate, lingering horrorisms of war’s touch. Both the moments of calm and normalcy in war and moments of intensely violent social relations (Barkawi, 2011; see also Pin-Fat, 2016) can be captured in war novels and memoirs. I begin in Vietnam with contrasting literary versions of that American war and then journey to Iraq for a look at Americans and Iraqis interacting in the latest American war. One need not agree with O’Brien (2009a: 213) that “stories can save us,” but they certainly can provide elements of missing narratives. Toward the end of the section, the discussion takes an “O’Brien turn,” so to speak, to highlight his memoir of the American war in Vietnam.
Novels and Memoirs Curate the Wars in Vietnam and Iraq Vietnam. With Nguyen’s thoughts about “just memory” in mind, two well-regarded works are included here that describe the American war in Vietnam from Vietnamese perspectives. One is a novel by a man who fought in the war (Bao Ninh), and the other depicts the war from the perspective of a peasant woman who came of age in it (Le Ly Hayslip). Both writers, and many of the people written about by them, supported the North, not the side the Americans were there to liberate. Nonetheless, all Vietnamese confronted a military triangle of power between the United States, the Republic of Vietnam (south), and the Hanoi government and
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its external allies. In this three-sided war, it is other Vietnamese that these authors seem to fear most. Judging by the Tim O’Brien memoir, included here, American military on the ground were fearful of the Vietnamese military they were fighting and were also afraid of the Vietnamese people they were meant to be helping.
Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War “Why must he write of the war? His life and that of so many others was so horrible it could hardly be called a life.” (Ninh, 1996: 56)
Bao Ninh is the pseudonym of a Vietnamese veteran of the American war in his country. A northerner who still lives in Hanoi, he was born in 1952 and was part of the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade of the North Vietnamese army, active between 1969 and 1975. At its height, the brigade consisted of around 500 youths; many of them, like Ninh, were only seventeen when they joined; by the end of the war in 1975 only ten were alive. Bao Ninh survived repeated intense fighting in central Vietnam and then in Cambodia. His novel seems only lightly fictionalized, an autofictional treatment of the war that brings out the deep sorrows he and others could not abandon even after their side won. Written in 1990 and published in English in 1996, the novel only appeared in Vietnamese ten years later, when the government relaxed censorship. Raw and urgent, its curations foreground unredeemable loss as soldiers face one another from all sides of a war that strips away youth and nationalism and leaves the traumatized to fend for themselves. The story commences with the lead character Kien, the author barely masqueraded, looking for corpses and remains in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1975. The jungle seems to howl mournfully as the official Missing in Action Remains-Gathering Team works to recover unburied soldiers and civilians. Having fought in that same area, Ninh’s memories merge in Kien’s mind with the screeches he thinks he hears from lost friends, those “naked, warped, and torn souls [that] continued to gather, emitting a stink that penetrated the imagination” (Ninh, 1996: 7). He is excavating an area the locals called the Jungle of Screaming Souls, one of the worst battle zones of the American war. And whereas westerners could think of those bodies as disgusting war objects, to Kien/Ninh, they are ghost comrades. There is no lingering in that jungle over the course of the book, but tormented souls are integral to this account of the war. Kien recalls, for instance, three country teenagers who grew close to some of
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his comrades stationed near their farm. The girls were raped and senselessly killed one night by South Vietnamese commandos passing through, as were their companions from his brigade. Kien’s comrades hunted down and shot the commandos. The personal fallout from that one incident fills nearly fifteen-pages and contributes to a central lament: the war stripped away all romance and replaced it with nightmares. Kien loses nearly all his hometown friends to death or despair, including his best friend, confidant, and love, whose brutal rape by North Vietnamese soldiers traveling to fight in the South alters her in ways the two of them cannot mend together; nonetheless, their war-doomed relationship is his constant mental companion. When peace arrives at last, Kien/Ninh finds it not only anticlimactic but also disruptive and threatening, as the Hanoi government proceeds to hunt for its perceived traitors. “The future lied to us . . . Where is the reward of enlightenment due to us for attaining our sacred war goals?” (p. 47). It is all a lie, and Kien realizes he bought those lies too long and is now lost himself. Years later, Kien/Ninh turns to writing a novel to relieve himself of what some analysts think of as the inexpressibility of trauma (Ng, 2014; Robinette, 2007; Das, 2007). The Sorrow of War is that novel, its curations intimately capturing aspects of the horrorisms local forces perpetrated on themselves and others during the American war. The book shifts tenses from past to present around Kien’s volatile emotions. To Andrew Ng (2014), this jagged postmodern style effectively conveys characteristics of trauma, especially fragmented memories that resist coherent ordering. A stranger in a life where past and present merge and temporal boundaries dissolve, the traumatized author writes to discover the links between episodes that run together in a flow. It is also the mark of autofiction to seek “the language of adventure and the adventure of language . . . interactions, threads of words,” says the French writer who coined the phrase in 1977, Serge Doubvrosky (1977: 10). Ninh/Kien seeks but cannot land on a reasonable narrative of his war. This becomes clear at the end, when readers learn that Kien’s finished manuscript is assembled in his absence, somewhat randomly, by those entrusted with its many pages. He does not care. “Now that he had written it he had no use for it. Whatever devils he had needed to rid himself of had gone. The novel was the ash from this exorcism of devils” (Ninh, 1993: 114). As Kien’s/Ninh’s curation of war moves about, the one constant is the corpse. “Kien had perhaps watched more killings and seen more corpses than any other contemporary writer. He had seen rows of youthful American soldiers, their bodies unscathed, leaning shoulder to shoulder in trenches
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and dugouts . . . Parachutists still in their camouflaged uniforms . . . a rain of arms and legs dropping before him onto the grass . . . a soldier stepping onto a mine and being blown to the top of a tree, as if he had wings” (pp. 89–90). War mortality as a sorrow of his war can sound like some unidentifiable musical instrument: “They found a body wrapped in canvas in a shallow grave, its bones crumbled. Alongside the bones lay a hand- made guitar, intact” (p. 90). The last day of the war Kien/Ninh is part of the attack on Tan Son Nhat airport in Saigon. He tries to catch some sleep along with other soldiers in the airport lounge and wakes to discover he has been sleeping next to the fresh corpse of a naked woman. A large soldier carrying a case of beer comes by and trips on the body, dropping the beer bottles in the process. In anger the soldier kicks the corpse and drags it down some stairs, the head hitting each rise. The soldiers then dress the corpse in some clothes they find in an abandoned suitcase, “combing her hair into a bun and washing her face” (p. 103).4 The commander exclaims, “We’re fed up with corpses” (p. 104). So fed up are they that some of Kien’s compatriots take the opposite tack during the war and try to save a few hopelessly injured bodies to salve their killer consciences. It cannot work, and the corpses pile up as ultimate objects of their war, the “things” that cannot be curated and shown at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington Cemetery, or The Price of Freedom: Americans at War. Reviewers tend to praise the novel, some even putting it in the same league with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. A dust cover quote from the British newspaper The Independent proclaims it a novel that “vaults over all the American fiction that came out of the Vietnam War” and is among the best war novels of the twentieth century. A New Yorker endorsement compares it with Remarque’s masterpiece of youth lost to the devastations of World War I, saying the novel is “not just a good Vietnam War novel, or even just a good novel; it is a very good novel.” Despite the high praise, The Sorrow of War is not as well known in the western world as All Quiet, nor has it been heavily awarded here. It is a book written originally in Vietnamese by a man in Hanoi who has shunned publicity.5 After the Vietnamese government permitted publication of Ninh’s nonheroic curation of North Vietnam at war, it came out there with the misleadingly romantic title of The Destiny of Love, sometimes translated as The Sorrow of Love. If the novel is far removed from its Vietnamese chick-lit title, Kien/Ninh is also by no means a trauma-hero (Luckhurst, 2012). The famed Vietnamese poet and translator Duong Tuong (quoted in Goldberg, 2006) calls The Sorrow of War “the first truthful book about the war”—truthful because it
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is not about patriots fighting to save communist Vietnam, as in most early postwar novels from Vietnam, but rather shows war as soul-crushingly brutal, no matter who conducts it and no matter their cause. That is to say, the Vietnamese mirror the Americans: capable, cruel, and also lost and traumatized. Americans have difficulty bringing the Vietnamese into their curations of the war, and the Vietnamese often fail to recognize their own who fought alongside the vanquished Americans. If it were not for war novels and memoirs translated into English, it would be difficult for many Americans to imagine that what they think of as their war is part of a complex of wars in Vietnam. The Vietnamese know better than this. Not seeking to evade the horrorisms that produce corpses and raped people, Bao Ninh suggests that when the war climaxed in 1975 local survivors went home frightened and unsatisfied, even when their side prevailed. American Iraq War veteran Phil Klay (2014a) configures “going home” from Iraq as redeployment to another kind of war zone rather than an airdrop into reality from unreality. Some among those returning from any war will be sacralized, exhibited, and placed on pedestals of war memory. The vast majority will be ignored. American veterans of Vietnam lament that there were no parades in their honor when they returned home. No one held parades for triumphant North Vietnamese fighters either; indeed, many had to give their homes to the state as compensation for forbidden wartime allegiances. As for Bao Ninh, his body was intact at the end but felt barely alive. Fortunately, he could write.
Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places “Young girls like me were supposed to make friends with the Republicans and steal their toothpaste, cigarettes, and other sundries that were welcomed in the jungle.” (Hayslip, 1993: 47)
Consider the war Ninh describes from the point of view of a Vietnamese woman growing up near Ninh’s region. Le Ly’s classic memoir ranges across calm days following the French defeat, the tumult of the American war, migration to the United States in 1972, and her return to Vietnam in 1986 as a Vietnamese-American visitor. Le Ly focuses on how her family, friends, and neighbors survived continuous fighting by forces from Hanoi, Saigon, and the United States. “Survived” is the operative word: Le Ly uses the word “corpse” only once, I believe, in the entire book. For her, the major loss in the war was traditional ways of life in a poor but bucolic area that was repeatedly under attack by opposing Vietnamese forces. Each
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used her village as a staging ground against the other; one side would come through and begin to wall off the village from the enemy, and the other side (usually the Viet Cong, VC) would arrive in the evening and take down all the makeshift constructions—or, to be more accurate, order the locals to deconstruct aspects of their lives on a nearly daily basis. Villagers never knew what to expect, and women had to be diligent against efforts to recast them as objects of war to be indoctrinated, raped, or used as spies against the other side. The youngest of six children in a family of peasant rice producers, Le Ly initially listens to stories of impending war with some excitement: in her mind a great adventure is about to unfold, and when “it” does arrive in her village in the shape of the Republic of Vietnam forces, she runs into the street to see the war. She is twelve years old. Her curiosity combines with a sense that she is not usually in any danger she cannot escape; Mats Utas (2005) refers to the type of skill set Le Ly perfects in the war zone as tactic agency. Le Ly and her family support Ho Chi Minh and covertly assist his forces when they start coming through the village in 1963. But in a situation fraught with double agencies, both factions of the Vietnamese in the war detain Le Ly. She is tortured by the Republican army with electrical shocks and ants crawling all over her body. She is also raped by cadres of the Viet Cong she works with in their self-defense force, after inadvertently sending enemy Republican soldiers toward an approaching VC patrol. Declared a traitor to the VC, she must be executed; but in one of the common absurdities of war, the two young men assigned to kill her decide to rape her instead and then let her go. It reaches the point for Le Ly that she cannot remain in the village, less because of raging battles than the suspicions her pro-Republican neighbors harbor about her family’s allegiances. Mother and daughter head to Saigon. It is the mid-1960s, savage years of the war, and they are entering “enemy” territory. Through friends and family they find housekeeping jobs, but the work is not steady. They must move on when one family that employed them hears rumors of their VC loyalties. In another case, the man of the house impregnates Le Ly and his wife turns them out. Le Ly subsequently moves in with her sister in Saigon, who is energetically capitalizing on the American military’s sex business. She is now in a position to meet American men, who, as a group, seem less dangerous than Vietnamese men. Three American suitors invite Le Ly to live with them and she accepts each sequentially. One is mentally disturbed and tries to strangle her in bed. The second seems devoted to her but leaves without a word when his tour of duty ends—there in the morning and
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never seen again. The third is a civilian in his early sixties who dotes on Le Ly and wants to marry her and take her to Texas. He is Mr. Hayslip and he prevails. Le Ly Hayslip arrives in the United States in 1966. By 1969 she is his widow. It is quite a story, delivered with a near absence of sentimentality or embellishment. Le Ly determines that the best answer to the hardships of war is forgiveness and gratitude for whatever and whoever enabled her to survive. In her postwar memory, the two VCs who rape her are mere boys who save her from a death sentence. The American man who nearly suffocates her has her respect for helping a country girl get by in wartime Saigon. She reconciles with her mother who harbors a grudge against Le Ly for getting pregnant during the war; the mother lives into her nineties. On it goes: no one in this story is despised or objectified. All become war-trapped humans trying to navigate difficult circumstances in order to survive. Le Ly shows remarkable generosity of spirit for someone whose post-traumatic stress should be off the charts. It is a spirit, though, that travels lightly over the horrors of physical violence during wartime. Le Ly Hayslip thrives in California. She starts foundations for Vietnamese families and children and, for a while, is something of a celebrity on national talk shows. She seems to share with Bao Ninh a sense that living through war does not make her either heroic or consumed by trauma. Her tale is also not offered as a way to recapture her own lost or truncated childhood, a narrative route Eleni Coundouriotis (2010: 193) associates with “most stories of children in war.” Neither is hers a tale of “arrested historization” (p. 191) that black boxes the factors that got the Vietnamese into a civil war and then a postwar governing framework that hindered economic development. Her story is other-directed, concerned with the fates of all who suffered the war. Nguyen (2016: 207) says, “It possesses great vision—whether or not one agrees with that vision of humanity and reconciliation—which so many literary works lack.” Co-written with Jay Wurts, who was an American air force pilot during the war in Vietnam, it is a remarkable book by a woman who initially lived a peasant life in Vietnam and had limited formal education and developed into an insightful and empathetic adult. It is also a war memoir that extends in time and interest to Vietnamese immigrants living in the United States. While a number of American war stories center or touch on the challenges of redeploying stateside (e.g., Fountain, 2102; Klay, 2014a; Powers, 2015), this first-wave novel of the war in Vietnam, along with Nguyen’s recent short story collection, The Refugees (2017, also 2018),
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shows what it can mean to leave a war zone for the material abundance and cultural superficialities of America. Hayslip’s memoir adds to Bao Ninh’s sense that no matter which side of a war people support, they faced horrorisms. Kien’s long-standing girlfriend, so sacred to him that he cannot accept her invitations of sex, faces the horror of rape, always a case of intimate assault against the helpless. She is changed by that incident and so is Kien/Ninh as profoundly as if one had been turned into a corpse during the war and the other was forced to look upon it. Le Ly’s rape and torture figure less in her memoir than her struggle to survive two Vietnamese militaries that aimed at each other across the roof of their modest village house. There are corpses about; Le Ly is shocked that some bodies she sees had just been alive and talking to her in the street. There are also numerous corpses in Ninh’s borderless jungle of screams calling out for justice. Both Kien and Le Ly strategize to survive, one from a position of communist righteousness, and the other as a girl who must compromise to make it through a long war of occupation in a country packed with militaries and made-dispensable civilians-as- objects. That both stories appear fifteen years after the war ended suggests that what Nguyen calls the industry of memory tipped for years in favor of American tales. In that sense, the Americans win the memories, even when they lose Vietnam, Vietnamese, and 58,000 of their own.
Tim O’Brien, If I Die in a Combat Zone America did lose—itself, its soldiers, and much of its home front for a while. Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam veteran whose short stores unpack The Things They Carried, also wrote If I Die in a Combat Zone (2006), a memoir of his time on the ground in the heyday of the American intervention. Whereas Le Ly Hayslip forgives all and Bao Ninh suffers shattered nostalgia for a cause that seemed meaningful but brought only pain, O’Brien’s American war in Vietnam is one long absurdity. “ ‘Ever think you’d be humping along some crazy-ass trail like this one, jumping up and down out of the dirt, jumping like a goddamn bullfrog, dodging bullets all day?’ . . . ‘Jesus, you ever see anything like this?’ ‘Yesterday,’ I said” (p. 11). The Vietnamese appear in O’Brien’s book as “Charlie” and “Charlie Cong,” “little pricks,” “yellow bastards,” “gooks,” “dinks and slopes.” O’Brien is just as derogatory about the American military personnel he suffers during basic training and in Vietnam. They are “boors”— “a whole horde of boors”—“savages,” “robots” (p. 40), “the unconscious, genuflecting herd” (p. 41). In fact, they are mostly American “grunts”
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trying to do what they can to avoid joining the day’s corpses. To stay alive they might decide not to search tunnels or report incoming enemy fire. They might call battalion headquarters from the field without saying “a word about the little fight just now” (p. 18). Deceptions would save a long night of American gunships and suicidal patrols. Growing up in southern Minnesota, O’Brien remembers poetic moments when prairies seemed dotted with “ ‘corpses’ eyeballs from out of the corn” (p. 21). But humans destroyed by war were something else. He hails from a family of navy loyalists who savored victory in 1945 and passed 1950s values to their son. O’Brien went to university, graduated, and got his draft notice circa 1969, one of the most difficult times of the war in Vietnam and the war at home over Vietnam. He was against the first and more aligned with the second. A bookish supporter of Eugene McCarthy, the liberal Democrat who ran for president in 1968 to end the war, O’Brien felt some obligation to go when called, despite also recognizing that he “was not soldier material, that was certain” (p. 31), in part because he tended to think a lot about Socrates. In boot camp and in “Nam” the ground troops carried numerous objects of war: “radio, the hand grenades, the magazines of golden bullets, the rifle, the steel helmet, the jingling dogtags . . . the whole contingent of warring artifacts and flesh” (p. 34). By Iraq war standards, these killer Americans actually carried a light and inadequate load with their heavy consciences. When he learns of his assignment to advanced infantry training, O’Brien thinks about refusing to carry a sacred rifle. Then he thinks about going AWOL to Canada and talks to an army chaplain about morality, communism, and an American war the chaplain describes as fine and heroic. O’Brien gets the better of that conversation and is sent before the battalion commander to argue his case for leaving the army. The outcome is predictable, and he lands several weeks later at the American base south of Da Nang, Chu Lai, and his first experience of VC night attacks. “Enemy rounds crashed in. The earth split” (p. 80); and then he and the others threw the VC “corpses into a truck” (p. 81). O’Brien is sent on patrol to villages in the My Lai area that are loaded with VC blasting mortar rounds and Bouncing Betty mines. He reports that his patrol group sets fire to thatched huts of civilians, hammers the skulls of prisoners, or hangs them from trees. It is a year after the infamous My Lai massacre. O’Brien was not in Vietnam at that time but is on the ground later for the Viet Cong payback. O’Brien requests a rear job and transfers to battalion headquarters, mostly out of the daily danger zone. One of his responsibilities is to
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process dead bodies, noting their names, military information, how they died, where it happened, and date of death. Unlike Ninh/Kien, neither he nor others in the office see anyone kicking a corpse or pulling a dead body down a flight of stairs by its hair. At battalion headquarters, the war is mostly sanitized and bureaucratic, punctuated periodically by difficult moments of office politics. O’Brien writes of one exchange between a Vietnamese scout/translator and the battalion captain. The man has a sick child and wants three days leave to attend to her. The captain wants the man to remain on duty and argues that Americans like himself are sacrificing for the Vietnamese by leaving their own children for the war. The scout tells him: “You are here for one year. I’ve been in war for many billion years. Many billion years to go” (p. 185). The American soldiers in their safe rear office think the scout is a weak man, an unreliable ally: “it wasn’t a day before he was AWOL” (p. 186). Notably, the brief conversation that loses them a valuable local asset is the only time O’Brien records a conversation between an American soldier and a Vietnamese person. He does have a testy conversation with a gung-ho battalion officer over the My Lai massacre, when the major claims it was impossible to tell an enemy VC from an innocent child, civilian man or woman. The two argue. Drunk and ranting, the major orders O’Brien to accompany him on a two-person patrol to find the enemy. They end up in a rice paddy overnight without any threat from the VC. The major has proved his courage to the subordinate in a classic duel of masculinities. Later on, though, the major torches a local brothel and is relieved of duty. For those forced to experience “righteous” interventionist war, redemption has to be manufactured through individual attitudes of forgiveness, which is Hayslip’s line of attack, and through a writing process that forces trauma out into the open, à la Ninh. O’Brien does not present himself in his memoir as a soldier traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam. It is the other guys around him, American and Vietnamese, who seem to suffer. At the same time, he is not a hero. O’Brien is a participant-observer in the war, counting time until he can leave. There are costs to this: “You never knew the Vietnamese people” (p. 201), he says to himself on the flight back to the States. Other lessons: “dead bodies are heavy, and it’s better not to touch them” (p. 202).6 ———— Iraq. The post- 9/ 11 war in Iraq is contemporary, still ongoing with American “advisers” on the ground as I write (training the Iraqi military, as they always say). It is the contemporary American war that has
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unleashed a flow of stories from both sides. Four works feature here. Two Iraqi civilians offer perspectives on the bombardment of Baghdad and the early days of the American occupation. One American military veteran of the war explores mistakes that result in raging PTSD, and the fourth offers a multivoiced tale of women on opposite sides of the war who struggle against each other and against the misogyny that surrounds them both.
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer and Riverbend, Baghdad Burning “Decomposition must not show on the body and its odor must be made pleasant.” (Antoon, 2013: 24)
Corpses are front and center for Jawad, an Iraqi youth who has grown up under harsh sanctions imposed after the war against Kuwait. He experiences the American bombardment of Baghdad in 2003 and works in that city during the chaotic days of insurgency. Jawad is the son of a traditional Shi’ite corpse washer who cleans and purifies male bodies before their funeral. His father, he, and an experienced assistant usually wait for people to deliver corpses to their place of business, but the pace increases during the early period of the American war. Every day, relatives bear their dead men to the door of the only such cleaning business in Baghdad. The washing is highly ritualized, and the relatives stay and observe until they can remove the body in a coffin for immediate burial. It is intense work that in the past offered some time to listen to the radio or, in Jawad’s case, to sketch. In the years before the latest war, Jawad also attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad full time. His father assumes his son will return to the family business after exhausting this inexplicable devotion to the arts, but Jawad is not interested in being a corpse washer. He endeavors to avoid the business, even as the bite of war diminishes his options for an arts career. And those corpses keep coming: “corpses piled up like goals scored by death on behalf of rabid teams in a never-ending game” (p. 108). There are headless corpses, corpses retrieved from garbage dumps, waterlogged corpses, booby-trapped corpses. Jawad agrees to assist his father once more for what he hopes will be a short time. Instead, the war drags on seemingly endlessly, new brutalities appearing like seasonal changes on restaurant menus. A point comes when Jawad can no longer drive off nightly dreams featuring the war and the corpses. He has to leave, get out of Iraq altogether. Jawad convinces his sorrowful family to drive him to the
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Iraq-Jordan border, but he is denied entry and told Jordan is not admitting single men without families, who might bring trouble with them. The time is somewhere between 2009 and 2010. ISIS is not yet in the mix of violence, and the great exodus of Iraqis for Europe is still a few years away. Jawad is forced by war circumstances to accept his fate in Iraq: he is a corpse washer. Once he had assumed “life and death were two separate worlds with clearly marked boundaries. But now I know they are conjoined, sculpting each other” (p. 184). Antoon’s Jawad has few good words for the Americans, whose help always seems counterproductive. During Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, American fighter jets hovered near the no-fly zone and periodically shot civilians. One “never knew whether it was out of sheer idiocy, or whether it was a game, using Iraqis for target practice” (p. 59). During the American war in Iraq, Jawad’s father dies of heart failure while praying during a US bombing raid nearby. Following custom, Jawad washes the body and leaves with the corpse for the family burial place outside Baghdad. Any such journey undertaken during the war of foreign occupation is difficult. An American military patrol spots their car and orders them to stop, handles them roughly, and searches their belongings while barking orders in English; such were the police tactics applied in Arabic-speaking Iraq. The suspicious characters with the offensive object of war (coffin with corpse) are allowed to pass, but not until they are thoroughly taken down and insulted. “As we got our car back on the road, Hammoudy says, ‘Looks like these liberators want to humiliate us’ ” (p. 68). Later, Jawad will ruminate on his surprise that, in general, “the Americans made no effort to protect public institutions since even occupiers were required to do so by international conventions” (p. 71). Jawad’s communist uncle, Sabri, goes further, opining that American “ignorance and racism, will make people long for Saddam’s days” (p. 96). Riverbend, another young Iraqi, remarks, “it feels like we’ve gone back 50 years ever since the beginning of the occupation” (2005: 16). At age twenty-four, newly unemployed as a programmer and network administrator in the bomb-crippled IT sector of Baghdad, this woman starts a blog in English to record her experiences of life under the American liberators; her language proficiency reflects years of living overseas with her family plus English courses at the University of Baghdad. Riverbend is in tune with Jawad’s uncle Sabri about the turncoat Iraqi communists who agree to be part of the Governing Council that the occupiers created through their Coalition Provisional Authority. In the Council, everyone’s name is preceded by a religious classification: “Sunni, Shia, Christian . . . We
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were not accustomed to such a thing” (Antoon, 205: 92). Riverbend adds that the Iraq she knew was historically uninterested in religious affiliation: “We intermarry, we mix and mingle, we live” (2005: 19). As early as August 2003, however, she sees fundamentalisms taking hold against the uncertainties of war, excesses of western liberalism, and unemployment that reaches 65% once the Provisional Authority shutters entire ministries and dismisses the military and police. Riverbend’s opinions of the Americans in Iraq mirror those Antoon describes in The Corpse Washer. She too has been stopped at roadblocks and searched: [June 3, 2003] “we (3 women, a man and a child) were made to get out and stand in a row, while our handbags were rummaged, the men were frisked and the car was thoroughly checked by angry, brisk soldiers” (p. 14). She counts this incident as one reason among others that she sometimes hates Americans. As a young woman she must bear additional gender-specific humiliations from all sides during the American war in Iraq. She cannot leave home by herself. “A woman, or girl, out alone, risks anything from insults to abduction” (p. 16). Being accompanied by her younger brother would not be enough: “Two males have to be procured (preferably large)” (p. 16). Family members seek to ensure her safety by keeping her at home and off the streets. When they offer to fetch what she needs out in the wild streets, she resists: “the kilo of eggplant I absolutely have to select with my own hands is just an excuse to see the light of day and walk down a street” (pp. 16–17). She used to wear jeans and a shirt while shopping for that eggplant. Now she wears long skirts and long- sleeved tops. In such circumstances, it is difficult for girls to continue their schooling or for women to remain in their jobs. The corpses in Riverbend’s Iraq lie mostly beyond her reduced vision. She mentions Apache helicopters constantly hovering above and killing miscellaneous civilians, as well as fighter planes and “the horrifying tanks heaving down streets and highways . . . all over Baghdad” (p. 29). “People in residential areas didn’t know what to do with the corpses in the burnt vehicles . . . of people and families who were trying to get away from the heavy fighting in their own areas” (p. 55). Corpses were decomposing in the heat, but the American troops made no effort to remove them. When they could, local people gave the unwashed corpses shallow burials near their cars, in case relatives looking for them could recognize the cars at least. During the insurgency that develops a few months after the Americans arrive, local gangs and militias “pull up to houses in minivans and SUVs, armed with machine-guns and sometimes grenades . . . barge into the house and demand money and
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gold . . . Sometimes the whole family is killed—sometimes only the male members” (pp. 40–41). Riverbend kept up her regular blog, which was nominated for the British Samuel Johnson Prize in Non-Fiction, until 2007. Then silence. Her last entry appeared suddenly in 2013 around the tenth anniversary of the American bombing of Baghdad. Readers learned that she initially fled Baghdad for Syria and moved on before heavy fighting started there to two other Arab countries. Near the end of that last blog post she reminds readers the “liberation” of Iraq was about making America safer. “And are you safer Americans?” (http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com, April 9, 2013).
Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds: A Novel “I feel like I’m being eaten from the inside out and I can’t tell anyone what’s going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time.” (Powers, 2012: 144)
By 2004 America and coalition forces had turned their firepower on Iraqi civilians in a war ostensibly against Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction that morphed into a war against local insurgents. Kevin Powers, a machine gunner and bomb disposal expert, offers a thinly fictionalized or autofictional account of repeat American infantry assaults on the ancient city of Tal Afar in northwest Iraq. After blasting Baghdad, disbanding the police and military, and then failing to reestablish water and electricity, the coalition becomes a target of urban insurgency. The occupiers respond with patrols sent in the dead of night to find and capture insurgents. Fully armed, the soldiers kick in the doors of civilian homes, shout loudly in English, aim assault rifles at residents, and remove all the men present without explanation to their families. Unsurprisingly, that chilling and demoralizing strategy fails to quell the insurgency and instead ratchets up resentments against Americans. A second coalition strategy features military assaults on entire towns considered insurgent strongholds. Tal Afar is one site of attack in 2004 in an operation called Black Typhoon; the same town comes under fire again in 2005 in a three-day battle tagged Operation Restoring Rights. Colonel H. R. McMaster, later Donald Trump’s national security adviser, commands the second firefight over Tal Afar to clear out local insurgents who have been joined by foreign fighters associated with al-Qaeda. Restoring Rights largely succeeds. Nine years later, however, Tal Afar is in the hands of ISIS/Daesh, the radical force that fights the coalition and
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some Iraqis as well.7 It is only in June 2017 that Tal Afar is liberated, mainly by Iraqi forces. In The Yellow Birds, Powers (2012) poetically rearranges the name of Tal Afar to Al Tafar and depicts his lead American characters carrying out the strategy of open battle in September and October of 2004 to liberate the city. Everyone is in the wrong place during that phase of the war, but civilians are most directly in harm’s way. Powers presents a scene where an elderly Iraqi couple tries to drive through the firefight and out of the city. The American company cannot stop themselves from shooting at them, even though they realize this couple has misjudged the situation and should just be allowed to leave. Journalist and military historian Thomas E. Ricks (2010: 5–6) depicts the 2004–2005 war period as the time Iraqi civilians become “the playing field on which the contest occurs.” It is the same time American military behave scandalously at Abu Ghraib prison and massacre innocent civilians living in proximity to a deadly IED in Haditha. As in Vietnam thirty years earlier, the US troops are easily enraged when Iraqis do not gratefully embrace American “help” and instead fight back. Powers describes the war at that moment as a living force, a self- generating and self-curated object that “tried to kill us in the spring . . . It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded” (p. 3). It had not succeeded yet, that is; each soldier fears the worst and tends to be relieved when hearing that someone in their unit got the bullet instead of them. They know “the war” is after them, driven by something machine-like but with the ferocious manipulative power of human volition: “It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way” (p. 4). It would have its way through an unending feedback loop of violence. At one point after returning to base from the battle, the main character in the novel, Bartle, berates himself for joining the military at all. He only did it to cement his masculinity: “people made fun of you and pushed you around in the cafeteria and the hallways in high school because you liked to read books and poems sometimes” (p. 145). At the same time, Bartle thinks of the army as “a place to disappear” (p. 34), a context where “I’d never have to make a decision again” (p. 35), a demasculinizing twin to the competing urge to hone his manhood through the military. Now look what has happened. As his unit is about to deploy to Iraq from basic training, Bartle promises the mother of a younger team member he will make
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sure her son returns safely. This toothless pledge haunts Bartle during and following the battle around “Al Tafar,” especially as his mental state deteriorates from the war that is trying to kill him and his charge, Murph. That both men are integral parts of the mission of war to kill does not dawn on Bartle for a while. “I realized with a great shock that I was shooting at him and that I wouldn’t stop until I was sure that he was dead, and I felt better knowing we were killing him together and that it was just as well not to be sure you are the one who did it” (p. 21). Powers has been critiqued for presenting Iraq through American veteran eyes only. Roy Scranton (2015) argues that Americans cannot ignore the causes and consequences of their wars—to which I will add, nor can the many participants in those wars. He says there is “a politics of forgetting that actively elides the question of what US soldiers were fighting for and the bigger problem of who they were killing, in favor of the more narrow and manageable question of ‘what it was like.’ ” What was it like, that is, for our side. Powers plays up the idea of American soldiers traumatized by their own war, crafting a story in which several characters, the leading antagonist among them, succumb more to the stress of warring than to its ordnance.8 That he also chooses to focus on a few Americans fighting in one area of Iraq adds to the sense that the other side does not matter in this binary struggle between flawed, naive American men—no women feature as combatants in this story—and stick-figure Iraqis.9 Powers’s tale is cautionary about the Americans in Iraq, and yet staging the war through those traumatized soldiers makes them the ones war is out to get. The Americans are in a danger zone. The Iraqis do not really matter. Sarge: “They ought to kill themselves instead of us.” Bartle: “I wasn’t sure who ‘they’ were’ ” (pp. 42–43). “They” include a translator who is the first killed in a firefight while telling his story of life in Tal Afar. “They” include a local man who helps Bartle and Sarge look for the wayward soldier Murph, and who is shot for his efforts. “They” include other local men who kill Murph. That is about the sum total of “they.” “One obvious route out of the cul-de-sac of personal experience is to inhabit the perspectives of America’s enemies or allies” (Sacks, 2015). That does not happen anywhere in The Yellow Birds. Scranton (2015; emphasis in original) points out that “the truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society. So goes the myth of the trauma hero.” He knows the truth because he, and not the Iraqis or the international aid workers, was really there. The truth Bartle knows, though, is that he is a man avoiding decisions, a man
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who pretends to be Murph as he writes to the dead man’s mother assuring her he’s OK; it is his lame way of following through on the promise to safeguard him. The falsified letter violates military code and lands Bartle in prison back home, with PTSD as his roommate. Sarge, who Bartle both admires and dislikes, is no hero either. He stumbles down the stairs of a German brothel with a woman and “before he let her go, he shoved her and her head hit the wall behind the bar and made a loud thump” (p. 66)— shades of Bao Ninh’s Kien at the Saigon airport with the heroic victors of the war and a dead woman pulled down the stairs. Later in the Powers story, Sarge commits suicide. En route home from the war, Bartle does the count: “How many didn’t make it? Murph. Three specialists from Bravo Company, who’d been killed by a suicide bomber in the chow hall. A few others scattered over the year. One from HQ Company killed by a mortar on the FOB. Another I didn’t know but had heard was killed by a sniper. Ten more? Twenty?” (p. 101). Twenty properly buried American war corpses relative to the piles of Iraqi bodies left stinking in and around “Al Tafar.” No point in counting those because the war was not interested in killing them, just “us.” When Bartle arrives back in the States after his year in Iraq, and before he is charged and sent to prison, he avoids accolades, retreats into memories, and obsesses in particular about Murph. He casts himself as “like the curator of a small unvisited museum . . . I might return a small trinket from the war back to a shoebox, take another out. Here a shell casing, there a patch from the right shoulder of a uniform” (p. 179). He avoids socializing. Murph is his only companion: “Murph and me and the ghosts every night” (p. 112). But Murph is dead. He dies after the bombardment of “Al Tafar” subsides, wandering away from his unit in a naked stupor. When his comrades realize he is truly gone, and not just walking about, they search for him and find a tortured and destroyed corpse, gouged eyes, throat slit to the point of near decapitation, ears and nose cut off, and “he had been imprecisely castrated” (p. 206). Against Bartle’s advice, Sarge decides to throw Murph’s mutilated corpse into the nearby river rather than bring it back for burial and to inevitable questions about how this could happen. Military codes on loss and recovery are thereby violated: Sarge will report that they searched for Murph but did not find him. This is the climax of gradual destruction under the force of an all- encompassing war trying to get them, a process Bartle can see unfolding only in snatches of tortured thought while in Iraq. Only when released from prison after bearing his punishment does Bartle feel Murph “getting
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farther away in time” (p. 223). He has redeemed himself, redeemed Murph too, by working through the trauma of that one death and failed promise. Now he dreams Murph’s corpse has floated gently downstream, where an Iraqi fisherman “unknowingly caressed his remains with the pole that pushed his small flat-keeled boat along the shallow waters of the marches” (p. 226). The faceless Iraqi has been bad, now good, and wholly missing a personality, a life, and a story. The sturdy, isolated and nonheroic American is making it through to his own recovery. Is that the truth of being there? Is there some failure of language to communicate the expanse of that war? Or is it the short-sightedness of self-regard? That Americans know little about Iraq and Iraqis makes it possible for American writers and readers to focus on Americans doing war, just as in Vietnam. We are our own objects of war, damaged, guilt-denying, world-be-damned, and proud. Scranton (2015) urges readers to recognize that “understanding the problem of American political violence demands recognizing soldiers as agents of national power, and understanding what kind of work the trauma hero is doing when he comes bearing witness in his bloody fatigues.” One must ask whose wars soldiers represent and authorize. Peter Molin (2017d) draws attention to first-and second-wave war writing by women, and other works reacting to the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as departing from the white male trauma-hero model. A career American army officer, Molin advised the Afghan National Army in 2008–2009, then was volunteer coordinator for the online mentor program of the Veterans Writing Project. He writes a highly regarded blog on arts, film, music, and literature related to the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq called Time Now. The many and varied literary works that started to be published around 2011, means, Molin (2017a) argues, there is “no excuse now for not knowing what’s going on, nor for failing to recognize opportunities to make fresh contributions.” 10 One new direction that some contemporary war literature has taken is the multivoiced narrative, which features characters drawn from local communities in Iraq and Afghanistan interacting with or judging the Americans in their midst (Molin, 2017b). I close off this chapter with Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen (2011), a novel that revolves around the experiences of an unworldly American recruit (Kate) and a Baghdadi woman (Naema) whose family becomes entangled early in the American war when its soldiers barge into their house one night seeking insurgents. This reader considers it the best of the strong war novels and memoirs discussed here. It is also the most painful to encounter.
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Helen Benedict, Sand Queen “And that is when I felt the anger grow over me like a skin. That is when I became merciless and numb.” (Benedict, 2011: 17)
It all confronts us right away. Naema Jassim and her family have taken refuge with an elderly relative near the southern port city of Umm Qasr following the American bombing of Baghdad. One week later there is pounding at the door in the middle of the night and brusque orders in English to open up. In stomp combat-ready American soldiers. They immediately attack Naema’s father, a man who has been injured by Saddam Hussein’s strongmen in the past, shoving him to the ground along with Naema’s thirteen-year-old brother, Zaki, whom Naema describes as skinny and young looking. With no questions asked by the military, and ignoring the questions Naema puts to them in good English, the soldiers—“hideous in their bulky uniforms” (p. 15)—put “those horrible pointed hoods over [the male heads” (p. 16) and throw her father and brother into the back of an army truck, the young Zaki crying out in pain. Naema has been shunted aside when she asks them what they are doing. “ ‘This is a child, my father is sick. They will suffocate! Please!’ ” “ ‘Shut up!’ ” a soldier barked at me, and he pushed me so hard into Mama and Granny we fell against the wall. All I could see of his face was a twisted grimace of hatred and fear” (p. 16). Gendered war crimes are being committed here. Naema: “I had no voice to them, no existence” (p. 16). Later, a young military policewoman called Kate Brady is told to deal with the women who have gathered at the gates of the American prison compound to inquire about their family members. Naema is among them. There is nothing Kate can tell these pleading people. She only knows that all prisoners are held in tents on one side of the prison camp with the Americans in jerry-rigged accommodations on the other side. Naema, recognizing her advantage in facing an American woman rather than one of those “hideous” men—“How desperate the Americans must be to send their girls to war” (p. 19)—offers to translate for Kate in return for learning the whereabouts and condition of her father and brother. Kate reluctantly agrees, also sensing the proffered language skill would be useful when facing a crowd of angry, shouting locals. Later, Kate encounters her own hell as a woman in the American military. Her colleague Boner insists on talking dirty to her in the naive and stupid ways of someone whose “brain froze back in fifth grade” (p. 26). For the sheer joy of upsetting Kate, he serenades her with his desires and will not let her pass into the shed for
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water. Sargent Kormick inside hears all this and ignores it, eating “Skittles and reading some girly magazine” (p. 27). When he finally tells Boner to let her in, and after she finally gets some water, Kormick calls her Tits and tells her to get back to her post at the fence. And that is just the beginning of the gender-based violence Kate’s compatriots thrust on her and the few other women who enlist in the American military circa 2003 and find themselves in Iraq. “Sand queen” is the men’s shame term for the total slut, the unattractive woman enlistee who does it with all the men around her. That is not Kate. It is how her military colleagues pitch her, though, once she fights Kormick and Boner as they try to rape her. To avoid any repercussions from the incident, the two foiled men write her name as the Sand Queen on the toilet door and list all the men she has supposedly entertained. When Kate reports the incident— twice, once to a woman lieutenant who seems sympathetic—Kate learns that group loyalty and camaraderie in a war zone have no chance when militarized masculinity reigns. This despite efforts of the military to train post-Vietnam recruits to believe their main goal is to fight to keep one another safe and preserve unit cohesion. Meanwhile, Naema continues her daily vigil at the gates of Camp Bucca, seeking information on her father and brother; she never sees Kate again. Bucca is the real prison camp Americans set up in Garma, near Umm Qasr. It is infamous for incubating ISIS among at least nine detainees imprisoned there and then released in 2009, Bakr-al-Baghdadi among them (McCoy, 2014). Percolations of radical Islam in their midst is not Kate’s concern. She is bored, always thirsty, and psychically worn down by the insults American soldiers lazily throw at her; their slurs tumble out with the snide confidence of prerogative. Reassigned to the camp watchtower, a makeshift panopticon that overlooks the prison yard, she sees acres of unhappy Iraqi men; they, too, taunt her and mime sex acts as they look up at her. Despite having no further contact with Naema, Kate follows through on the promise to provide information on her father and brother. She gets out the word that Zaki is in one of the tents designated for children. Naema’s father’s whereabouts remain unknown; or to be precise, Kate does not ask anyone in her unit to look for him. She has done her one good deed in the war. But the inherent cruelty of war overtakes both women. Naema and her mother need to get the ailing grandmother to a hospital a few miles away. It is March 2003, however, and American military personnel are streaming in from bases in Kuwait. The roads are clogged with fighting vehicles, carts, camels, donkeys, and families seeking to leave bombed areas. It is
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three hours later when Naema finally makes it to the hospital and finds only one doctor for the crowds of injured people requiring urgent help. Naema pitches in to assist as her grandmother lies dying in a corner of the waiting room. Naema does not know then that her little brother has been killed by American soldiers, who later report that he was trying to escape. Naema’s father, also imprisoned at the camp and distraught upon hearing of his son’s death, runs into the prison yard and throws himself against the sharp edges of the fence below Kate’s lookout. Furious at that man, at all the prisoners, the ugliness of war, and the insults she suffers, to say nothing of a radio she holds that does not work to summon the MPs, she climbs down from her post, handcuffs the crazed man, shoves his face into the sand, and stands on his head—before recognizing the man in the photo Naema gave him. It is the father. That is a turning point for Kate. She rapidly descends into war madness accelerated by her own growing cruelty and that of others all around. Relieved of her panoptican post, she is transferred to the more dangerous work of transporting supplies to outlying camps. Her convoy is attacked en route, and the supply base hit with incoming fire on their arrival. One of only three women she works alongside in Iraq dies. On the return trip to Bucca, Kate sees a young boy trying to steady his frightened donkey on the road. She shoots the donkey.11 In this war novel there is no redemption for anyone, no relief from the varied evils and injuries intrinsic to war, no break for Kate from her increased self-loathing, and no possibility that Naema can be recognized by any American as a person. There is no let up at all, not at the beginning and not at the end. It is the only novel considered here that refuses to glimpse even a tattered heroism thrusting up from war’s debris. Trauma is the shared treat of war, inside and outside the camp gate, and there seems little chance anyone on any side will emerge OK from the American war in Iraq. The author of Sand Queen is an academic/novelist who was not in that war or ever in the military. Seemingly an outsider to war’s ghastliness, she is like civilian novelist Ben Fountain, who wrote Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) from the perspective of a group of young American enlisted men temporarily lifted out of combat in Iraq to a Dallas Cowboys football game. They are to be heralded— and commodified and misrepresented—at the 2004 Thanksgiving half-time show. Using O’Brien’s criteria for recognizing a true war story, my stomach believes that these (as well as Antoon’s novel) are true war novels despite their authors’ respective distances from war action. Benedict is interested in the circumstances of women military in war zones and crafts the Sand Queen
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characters from her interviews with American women veterans for a nonfiction book titled The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (2009). Fountain overthrows usual conventions of war novels to expose the exploitative nexus of professional war and professional sport. Antoon zeroes in on a necessary local trade that becomes a prison for Jawad once the Americans arrive to “help” the Iraqis. All these stories are bereft of hosannas to warriors. Like Billy Lynn, Kate Brady and Naema Jassim are credible, well-crafted, emotionally real, and highly memorable people experiencing the barbarisms of war. Written before ISIS was a full- blown actor in and among the many forces the Iraqis and US military faced in Iraq, these authors force the reader to confront the idiocies, the sloppy war preparations, the callousness, and the shallow refrains of America bringing regime change and “liberation” to Iraqis. Jennifer Haylock (2017: 337) champions multivoiced war novels that “decenter American experiences, link soldiers’ voices to those of the other, and open up the question of who matters in war, to include civilians, refugees, and other noncombatants.” Benedict’s novel is the only one presented here that matches her definition. It is the only novel that shifts back and forth, not between American soldiers in Iraq and Americans in Dallas, Texas, or between American military men with one another, but between national identities and class locations, while also tackling gender relations of power. In Sand Queen, Naema is the elite in the making and Kate is the hick girl from the hills of upstate New York. Naema is studying medicine and knows her conqueror’s language. High school graduate Kate deploys to Iraq with no language training or experience with cross-cultural issues. Different class backgrounds, notwithstanding, both women are singled out for some punishment in this war zone. When facing one another, both women lack ability to connect for more than a moment around the other’s complementary skills. Kate is assaulted as a woman by her comrades in arms. Naema can survive the American assault on her home and her men only because she is a woman—and only after being shoved hard by American soldiers and deprived of information on family members. Gender humiliation is endemic on both sides and at the camp gates. Yet Kate gets to go home to the security of a bus ride in the United States that will not be threatened by IEDs or slowed by tank-clogged roads. She would not be able to imagine Naema’s fate in the wake of American bombardment and occupation, nor could Naema imagine the horrorism of Kate’s gender problematic in the American military.12 They can barely bring themselves to speak to one another.
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Haylock argues that a novel like Sand Queen reveals attempts by authors “to imagine—and to invite readers to imagine—the possibilities and potential failures of such conversations” (p. 339). It is far more common, as Scranton (2015) indicates, to put the literary spotlight on the traumas American soldiers experience than it is to stimulate the reader’s imagination about all those lost conversations at the gates. Nguyen’s concerns are also relevant here: each group creates inward-looking war stories and willfully and self-referentially neglects to conjure the war from the other side. It is only by putting the stories side-by-side that the triumphs and abjections of war come to life.13
Curating and Re-curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq with Literary Words Readers of novels and memoirs centering on America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq spend hours with the words, actions, sights, and objects of war. They read about everyday challenges on the doorsteps of the wars as well as hot moments of violent action and painful aftermaths. Readers become observers of acts of kindness and acts of barbarism rendered by their own and by the foreign invader that is “us.” They gape at bodily abjection, at the detritus left in the wake of military operations, at the little objects people carry in the hope that these will ensure their survival when those other objects of war appear and work to obliterate hope; one person’s terrific Huey is another’s vehicle of death. The Price of Freedom at the Smithsonian sanitizes the wars by not showing bodily injuries in their raw state and not providing opportunities for viewers to hear women telling their stories of war rape. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery efface bodies of war and provide no information on how many people the person named on the wall or buried beneath the headstone killed or saved. War gore is omitted from public exhibition spaces and from the leavings survivors offer in remembrance of the lost. War novels mash-up and rename comrades and battles, but the experiences they convey are not made up. Good war novels and memoirs present close- ups of war as moments, practices, people, emotions, and horrorisms that anyone who has been in a war zone, or who tries to fathom one, can recognize as not faked. Details differ between the works reviewed here and across the wars in Vietnam and Iraq; but the themes of fear, destruction, excess, trauma, and twisted ethics reappear across them. And there are so many corpses, none of them collateral to war.
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The sins of war are always on view in such works. Veterans spotlight the side they fight for with a self-referentiality that can erase others or reduce them to stereotypes. One’s people are given complex histories, quirks of personality, and a host of needs indulged (often by sex workers) or suppressed. The enemy, when disaggregated, is barely human, unknowable, simplistic, Orientalized to the hilt. Narrative space is made in some war novels for only one among the alien others to take center stage—the translator, the driver, the mistress, the protector—before getting shot and killed mid-sentence (The Yellow Flowers), learning his needs are nothing compared to those of the foreign military fighting for him (If I Die), or disappearing home to the United States without informing Le Ly (When Heaven and Earth). Everyone forced to be inside these wars ends up damaged, and that includes people who appear to be keeping themselves together through it all—the Jawads, Riverbends, Le Lys, and O’Briens among them. Given the opportunity to imagine two well-sketched characters from either side of the war, we find mirrored perceptions that the other is not merely failing to take certain lives and problems seriously, but is thoroughly contemptuous of them. Certain aspects of war are not on view in these war novels and memoirs. Matt Steinglass (2010) notes the tendency in American veteran novels, at least, to place American readers into a grisly war scene without addressing how their country got there, how the war “that tried to kill us” started. One minute the lead character can be in basic training and the next minute in Vietnam or Iraq. There is a military inevitability to it all. Tim O’Brien knows he opposes the US military action unfolding in Vietnam and considers dodging the draft, but he obeys and goes. Bao Ninh’s Kien, on the other side of the American war in Vietnam, tries to square the ideology he has imbibed from Hanoi with the gruesome realities he faces daily; he fights to the end and comes away thoroughly disillusioned and nostalgic for his youth. Jawad cannot escape corpse washing because decisions reached in neighboring Jordan keep him out. Heaps of bad decisions made in Washington, Saigon, and in the Green Zone of Baghdad pile up, but these do not feature in any of the works except Riverbend’s war memoir. Entirely absent is the larger context of militarism in the United States, where military cruelties in overseas wars resonate with police overreaction at home today, just as they did during the Civil Rights movement that coincided with the war in Vietnam.14 War traumas and corpses fill these literary works, but finding war heroes or patriots is another matter. Characters may start off gung-ho or committed to sacrificing for country and lose enthusiasm once put in
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harm’s way. Those able to leave an area of war—Le Ly, Kate, Naema, Tim, Kien, Kevin, Riverbend—take the war along as a haunting experience from which they emerge exhausted, grateful for survival, or too sunk into mental stress to appreciate a thank you. These works foreground the injurious nature of war that cannot be shown in public museum exhibitions and must be subordinated at government gravesites. Edward Said (1994) maintained that the war novel in European history consolidated the authority of imperialist arrogance. Literary works about today’s wars do not elevate American, Vietnamese, or Islamist imperiums. Most stake out territory against imperial patriotism and vacuous sloganeering that stand in for war knowledge, relying more on what Molin (2017c) calls “highly curious and empathic imagination.” In escaping official war memorialization for ordinary war experiences curated through words, war novels and memoirs stand as important sites of repositioned authority over the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq. As Jonathan Gottschall (2012) put it in a Boston Globe opinion piece: “fiction is dangerous because it has the power to modify the principles of individuals and whole societies.”
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6 Remembering, Forgetting, Curating,
and Re-Curating War
iet Thanh Nguyen (2016) writes about remembering and forgetting war as simultaneities of memory. It is easy to remember aspects of a war when the state and what Nguyen calls the memory industry produce uncomplicated narratives for the domestic and global public to imbibe. This is one: America was in Vietnam to help the Vietnamese save an incipient democracy from communism. The prescribed take-away: the United States endeavored to do the right thing, and that is the most important point to remember. But then this: America bombed Baghdad in 2003 because the regime had weapons of mass destruction; that it lied and then declared premature victory is easily forgotten over the sixteen-year span of a war conducted around what one Iraqi writer calls “arrogance, ignorance, and racism” (Antoon, 2016 video). Under both power-masquerading moves, war carries on while civilians thank soldiers for their military service. That scripted line helps Americans forget their country’s failed wars and set a gaze instead on uniformed military as automatic heroes, though their actual service duties are no more known to the public than are details of the wars they join. Civilians at the receiving end of the war are not heroes, apparently. We can tell because they are rarely shouted for at sports events, eulogized along with military fallen, or sought out as important carriers of war knowledge. Only America’s fighting forces have the distinction of being always already heroes. That militarist culture of soldier thanks now floats free of any particular war and of all other statuses in society. It should not go without saying that the locals these well-thanked military might have warred against are usually out of the picture.1 The warrior is god, the hero of America, even when,
especially when, America does not triumph in war. Thus do wars sputter on, fed with bellows of gratitude and little public pushback. I have seen that memorials and monuments, battlefields, and moments of silence console and uplift the dispirited. A visit to an official commemorative site of war dead, even when it consists only of looking at a name atop a stone panel, can help survivors work with their loss, which is what the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund wanted from a memorial in Washington, DC, to begin with. But I have also learned through this study to consider whether war healing from loss reduces the efficacy of war or makes it right and reasonable to turn to war the next time around. Are memorial displays inexorably strapped to a war train even when they convey regret and loss rather than triumph? There is no definitive answer to questions about the potential leverage exerted by memorials and their ordinary curators, the experts on war that James Young (2016: 5) calls “everyday historians.” Certainly there is a range of stories to communicate by witnesses to individual lives lived prior to the military, before deployment to a war, or in-between deployments, as well as their own lives lived as war survivors. But is it not in the empty space between shouted war enthusiasms and quiet reckonings with war loss that national myths of warrior America reinvigorated root and re-root? The extent of American military activities abroad today is mind- boggling. The United States not only initiated war in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and assisted with troops and air defense in Syria, its special operations units currently engage in covert actions in parts of Africa, a fact that became known to the general public only because several Green Berets were killed in Mali in October 2017. At mid-2017, there were also such units in Columbia, Yemen, Philippines, Somalia, Libya, and at least 128 other countries; by December that year, the United States had deployed special troops to 149 countries (Turse, 2017).2 War analysts have a host of concepts to capture the essential quality of all this warring in contemporary American international relations: “perpetual war, forever war, interwar, preemptive war, holy war, civilizational war” (De Rosa and Peebles, 2017: 207). Even when a war is not in America’s best interests, even though no war since Vietnam has yielded victory for the United States or for the forces it supported, except the first Gulf War, and although it is difficult to imagine what a realistic “win” would look like in many places, war is the action choice time and again. That considerable sums have been invested in these wars passes the public by. Total casualties across the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq have also been astronomical, but who is keeping score? Since installation
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of a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it has been easy to praise all soldiers and forget all the wars they conduct. Elaine Scarry (1985: 93) offers one reason for that averted gaze: war is “remarkable in its ability to produce an outcome in one kind of activity (injuring) that is able to translate into a wholly different vocabulary, the right to determine certain territorial and extraterritorial issues.” Another question, then: Has this high-cost injurious institution enabled America to “determine certain territorial and extraterritorial issues” in Vietnam or Iraq? It seems not. As a result, perhaps, and as noted throughout this discussion, the military wing of the state is a black box now, insulated from surveillance by exigencies of “national security.” With mountains of war information at least partially classified and unavailable as sources of public war knowledge, what draws attention are all those facsimiles of war history that enable a seemingly unified American public to feel good about “our” wars, those movies, parades, standing ovations, and invocations to God and country that are louder than the realities. That some memory industry vehicles have been taken over as exhibition spaces for civilian war knowl edge is therefore more significant than it might initially seem. But who is looking at their curated war? Who is taking their knowledge as essential in understanding war? Some ordinary war authorities regularly re- curate the myth about the renewal American wars bring to the nation by showing mortality and injury as the main things war excels at every time it is unleashed: it is good at killing its own and scores of others. Is that the “win”—those body counts Washington paraded before the public as evidence it was prevailing in Vietnam? Civilians whose gaze is set on war losses rather than war glory can dial down soldier hoopla by curating the everyday faces and facets of those who heeded the clarion calls for war and did not return home intact. Some war curators are writers who show the sides of war that are not exactly heroic and so are not usually mentioned at all, even by ordinary curators of war. Phil Klay (2014b) finds it frustrating when civilians at home exclaim that they cannot imagine what he has been through without asking him what he has been through. “No one seemed to know exactly what they were thanking me for” (Klay, 2014a: 63). In his case, he had a desk job in Iraq. In his short story entitled “Bodies,” Klay’s (2014a) main character tries to tell people at home that his job in Iraq was to remove bodily remains. What many want to hear, though, are Hollywood-esque embellishments and imaginable sounds of valor. That is what they are conditioned by the memory industries to understand of war. So his character lies, makes up grim situations with Iraqi bodies that he can tweak with
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humor or render with sadness, depending on the audience. He does not reveal that one of the most difficult experiences of his war was the fist- fight he had with another guy in the Marine Mortuary Affairs unit. No one would believe it. Wrong enemy. Such unglamorous experiences of war are not on public view at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, but other types of information is available there through assembled objects that indicate the things some did before or alongside their short military careers. Government authorities tolerate those instructional objects for short periods. Then the objects laden with knowledge of war are treated as surplus to requirements for proper war memorialization and whisked to who-knows-where storage facilities (Waring, 2018). Knowledge is lost or silenced by object removals. The idea of an education center on the American war in Vietnam that would have displayed a rotating selection of ordinary war objects left at the memorial, is commendable and might have been highly compensatory. The concern in that situation, though, is whose knowledge-laden objects would be displayed there? Whose renditions of the war would likely be muffled and whose broadcast? Even as the VVMF education function goes virtual, there are more than half a million objects collected from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by now. Which among them will be online, and will the goal be to forge the public for this war or make choices that encourage a public of myriad viewpoints? Curation is always a guided activity. Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery is an unexpected but powerful center of American civilian insistence on authority to command war memory and war bodies. Families of individuals who joined the US military and did not survive its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have done battle with cemetery management over who has the right to determine the meaning of life and death at the nation’s premier military burial place. At this point, the civilian war survivors have won. In effect, they may re-curate strict military narratives and aesthetic codes of memorialization in order to display civilian elements of lives lost too soon in America’s recent wars. I consider those families master re-curators—not of the American war in Iraq per se, but of military rules that claim fallen military as everlasting members of state with no other meaningful identity. Ordinary curators steal the thunder of war memory practices by “simply” revealing the civilian lives residing inside the military uniforms, and then fighting to maintain that broadened focus. It is no small political achievement that “mere” families could prevail in a struggle with war authorities at Arlington National Cemetery.
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Other curatorial authorities cheerlead for war even if doing so entails re-curating some elements of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Through object choice and placement, the Smithsonian’s showcase exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War conveys the impression that advanced American technology used in Vietnam is what the public should gaze on with awe, not the fact that a lesser power actually prevailed against the United States and allies with help of lowly bicycles. The order of displayed objects and the emphasis placed on one over the other is misleading; but then the exhibition makes the additional mistake of removing itself almost entirely from the American war in Iraq in a case of nothing- to-see-there. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, by contrast, mines the horror war in Vietnam for every possible angle on veteran capabilities in death. It started out rejecting the tumultuous domestic politics of that war in favor of remembering all the American military who fought and died in Vietnam. Its mobile Wall that Heals, however, writes politics in through a re-curation of the fallen soldier as presidential. Societies regularly redirect, deny, repress, or hide war memories from themselves and others over time, leaving incoherent fragments to slide and knock about as sorrows of war or building blocks for future politics. Given the space and energy put into three memorials to American veterans of the failed war in Vietnam on the National Mall, it seems reasonable for some aspects of that war to be put aside now in the interest of revealing more about today’s mires of war. The Vietnam debacle could provide lessons to America about the unspoken futilities of soldiering in wars that begin under false pretenses, as in Iraq, and then carry on without public scrutiny. It is heartening that the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Fund now sponsors events that recognize military victims of America’s deadly war chemicals. It could also take a position on assaults that military women and enemy women have endured in war zones. Ditto for The Price of Freedom rooms on Vietnam and especially Iraq, where women barely appear. And what of American torture chambers in Iraq with “suffering yards” outside (Malek, 2017)? Parallels to the prison camps of Vietnam could be drawn and denounced by the powerful VVMF. It might be appropriately humbling for the Fund and its audiences to remember that after so many of our military died in Vietnam, the indispensable nation and its soldiers were forced out of Vietnam. At the end of the day, there are many contenders for war authority but “there is no single truth in war . . . Each of us can only see the world as we are; we are all prisoners of our own experience” (Burns and Novick, quoted in Ward and Burns, 2017: xiii). Perhaps that is the chief conclusion
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to draw from a study of this nature: there is no location of war that can or should be relied on to provide authentic truth of a war. It is important, therefore, to deeply dive into war as a social phenomenon.
Bodies of War as Referential I have made a point in this study to thrust bodies of war to the front rather than avert my gaze to the pageantry of invisible war deaths. Elaine Scarry (1985) is insightful regarding absences and presences around war and how these are used in memory and knowledge battles. Consider her fundamental point that war aims to injure bodies, a devastating fact that only war novels and memoirs do not try to sugarcoat, deny, overdub, or shove to the side. Focusing squarely on the war-killed body, Scarry (1985: 119) asks a key philosophical question: Does this dead boy’s (sic) body “belong” to his side, the side “for which” he died, or does it “belong” to the side “for which” someone killed him, the side that “took” him? That it belongs to neither makes manifest the nonreferential character of the dead body that will become operative in war’s aftermath, a nonreferentiality that rather than eliminating all referential activity instead gives it a frightening freedom of referential activity. The body’s activity is no longer limited and controlled by the original contexts of personhood and motive, thus increasing the directions in which at the end of the war it can now move. The state claims that body in everlasting life at Arlington Cemetery by tying it officially to one reference point only—the military. In the museum exhibition that calls attention to the price of “freedom,” few bodies of Vietnam and Iraq are on view; the tenor of the exhibition limits all those nonreferential bodies from crowding gallery spaces, as their numbers suggest they could. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery the family of a dead soldier can reclaim the body from controlling agencies that fail to recognize certain aspects of “the original context of personhood” as civilian referentialities. The exhibits ordinary curators arrange there can sometimes provide corpses with “freedom of referential activity,” as when a buddy returns car keys or a motorcycle materializes for the taking. Broken-in shoes at a pop-up memorial in California leave referentiality open-ended while also suggesting bodies of war are free to be in motion. A daughter shows visible relief when her rose touches her father’s name on the memorial; it is as though she has surmounted that body’s stasis in granite and moved it toward her as its reference point. All of these new referentialities, mobilities, and
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enablements fit Scarry’s understanding of war bodies that have no binding corporeality and do not belong to one memory, understanding, story, or version. That is what makes them so “frightening.” The flip side is the person living in a war zone who struggles to avoid mortality as others seek to impose crippling referentialities on her. Cynthia Enloe (2010) demonstrates this by juxtaposing the experiences of the eight civilian women she studies—four Iraqis and four Americans—whose life chances are deeply affected by the American war in Iraq. All must handle more burdens in the war with less freedom and mobility than before. One woman can no longer run a business in Baghdad. A counterpart in the United States cannot maintain her job when her husband returns from Iraq in need of considerable care. A single American mother frets about her son’s vulnerability to military recruitment at high school because of regulations under the federal No Child Left Behind program that allow personnel on campus. Another experiences the war as a child and only survivor of a civilian massacre conducted by American forces after an IED explodes on a residential road in Iraq. The living cannot escape the war and its out-to-kill-you referentialities. Not to notice and credit such people with authoritative memories of war violence can be more than an oversight. It can be a forgetting that is a pointed exclusion. On the other hand, the prospect, now removed, of a physical education center near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that could star one Vietnam veteran (“Larry”) in an overheated version of America past and present is also problematic, as is the Wall That Heals that has carried that version around America. The “real wall” on the National Mall has no such referentialities of dead soldiers lining up perfectly with dead presidents or even with their war friends. Following Scarry, that particular elevation of one soldier to an esteemed historical position is possible only because he was killed in war and can now be transferred elsewhere. Using the type of ontological stretch Kevin Powers (2012) employs when describing war as a calculating being coming after his American soldier characters, Scarry says war “requires both the reciprocal infliction of massive injury and the eventual disowning of the injury so that its attributes can be transferred elsewhere, as they cannot if they are permitted to cling to the original site of the wound, the human body” (1985: 64). “Larry” can no longer conform to the referential expectations surrounding him in life and is therefore free to be transferred to a leadership script of the VMMF choosing. Had he been active with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War would his portrait be in the presidential lineup established by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, or would
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that referentiality be transferred out of the picture? All sides of wars are choosey when it comes to referentialities. Vietnamese who selected the wrong “belonging” during the war were not commemorated in its aftermath by the victors, and Vietnamese military who “belonged” to the American cause were not etched onto the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington or buried in US military cemeteries. Vietnamese who made it to the United States as war refugees can still feel unaccepted as people who belong here (Nguyen, 2017). Uncertain which Iraqis are OK in terms of their loyalties, nearly all are absent from the meagerly curated Smithsonian room on the American war in Iraq. Their referentialities have not been scripted yet. War re-curations at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and in Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery do not bring in these surplus “others” either. With an emphasis squarely on the one person the curator knew among many American-only military killed in the war, there is little reason to think these ordinary curators connect their mourning and their remembrance efforts to similar experiences of loss on the enemies’ side of these wars. As Judith Butler (2004: xiv) famously laments: “Some lives are grievable, and others are not.” People who are not seemingly grievable, however, do show up in novels and memoirs, and with them many war actions that are nasty, scandalous, inhuman, or small, but momentarily important in context. Of course, the literary genre of war memorialization can also reinforce rather than question the status of American soldiers as authentic bearers of war knowledge. The few Iraqi civilians Powers (2012) adds to a story about American soldiers experiencing the war in Iraq are props that need not be fleshed out or ascribed profound thoughts. Virtually the only Iraqis in Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk are the enemy combatants who kill and must be killed in turn. How soldiers bear and suffer war make for riveting stories, but one lesson from scores of war novels and memoirs is that it is just as riveting and more powerful when the story includes civilians or enemy combatants who suffer at the hands of American soldiers or their own fighters. Some writers reduce Americans to mean-mouth automatons, as in Antoon’s funeral encounter with American troops or Le Lys’s sketch of an American man she lives with who sweet-talks her but suddenly abandons her in Saigon. Naema and Kien, on the other hand, are round characters that display a more sustained appreciation of the challenges integral to the wars in Iraq and Vietnam. There are also Kate Bradys in the American military, for whom “unit cohesion” means the men in the unit watch each other’s backs and abuse the women in the unit with impunity during the early days of the war in Iraq. Their war is decidedly not Bartle’s war in Powers’s The
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Yellow Birds. All this suggests that the norms of inclusion and exclusion in war knowledge need updating to enable more war parties to be recognized and accorded authority. Nguyen (2016) urges expansion of war memory to include those who linger invisibly at the edges of war monuments and cemeteries because their referentialities do not “belong.” That is a large and varied group in the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq: civilian and military Vietnamese; Thais, Laotians, and Cambodians; Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq; men and women with homes destroyed in Baghdad; Iraqis screamed at by soldiers on one side or the other; Syrians in Iraq and Iraqis in Syria. Nguyen offers an aspirational pipedream, perhaps, of truly just memory, ethics, and recognition; but his analysis does help readers bear in mind all the people—and animals, landscapes, and architectures—that know something of war. What he wants to end are omissions from the rec ord of war experience and knowledge as a form of disremembering that “allows someone to see right through the other” (Nguyen, 2016: 63; emphasis in original).
One More Object and Its Aftermath In the introductory chapter, readers saw an unconventional object of war that inspired my thinking about this project—Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. That big, dense, even claustrophic painting from the 1950s is a marker in my mind for the American war in Vietnam. I doubt many museum curators would see the painting in that light.3 Unlike a lot of curations of war that showcase tools for doing war, the Blue Poles object is complex in form and meaning. First you notice the cheery oranges and yellows making dizzying comet paths across the canvas; an appreciative viewer could just dive into that painting and expect to swim about it happily, perhaps lobbing paint balls around with abandon. But then you jump in and discover the poles in Blue Poles can skewer or shoot you. Consider now the M-1 rifle on display in the Vietnam War area of The Price of Freedom: Americans at War. If you were a university student or professor at the time of the American war in Vietnam, you were at some risk of getting “wasted” by an M-1 rifle on a spring day. The piece on exhibit in the American History museum is one of many the Ohio National Guard used against students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, while I was a university student in another state. When the contingent suddenly, without warning, opened fire, thirteen students were shot; four of them died. The rifle in The Price of Freedom is curated alongside stock press photographs from the event and its aftermath. They show the military-style
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formation on the hill aiming at university students protesting a war in their, by then, characteristic way: as a group, milling, shouting, holding placards, giving the Guard the finger, and accusing combat-ready men of complicity in an immoral war, all against the backdrop of the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) building students had earlier burned. Many, many times over the years I have seen those photos of bloodied bodies lying on the campus.4 Ellen Mann, who aided one student shot in the abdomen and ankle while standing near her, remembers something many forget: “the Guardsmen, the looks on their faces, they were smirking. They were kind of laughing.”5 They were seeing right through those American “others.” At The Price of Freedom exhibition, I wanted to look defiantly down the barrel of the rifle that might have shot one of the students—or me, had I been there. Such was not possible at the National Museum of American History. As is customary in posing firearms for display, the Kent State M-1 rifle is exhibited sideways to show its design features; but, presumably to save space, the rifle is positioned facing upward. Adult viewers of average height cannot see the barrel very easily let alone look down it. Near this object of war (figure 6.1) is the following description: The rifle fire left four students dead, one permanently paralyzed, and eight others wounded. Many of the students were walking to and from class. Not every student was involved in the demonstration. The closest student wounded was 30 yards away from the Guard, while the farthest was almost 250 yards away.
No names of the victims appear, and there is no information available there on what happened to the wounded students or to the commanding officers of that group of National Guard.6 The description of this historical moment when military Americans shot other Americans protesting a war that had expanded into Cambodia and Laos is written in flat bureaucratic language that suggests no one actually shot anyone else; according to the text the M-1s had the agency to fire and kill that day on their own (“rifle fire”). Now one of the offending weapons is shined up. Displayed behind glass, it looks safe, untainted by the rampaging politics that surrounded America’s war in Vietnam. It looks pretty. The weapon is disarmed but the injuries incurred by it in an American war atrocity at home are not pretty in the least.7 Segue back to the beginning and Jackson Pollock. He became a killer. In 1956 he wrapped his car around a tree pole on Long Island, New York,
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Figure 6.1 M-1 rifle used by National Guard at Kent State May 4, 1970, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.
killing himself and injuring his latest woman friend. The artist was famous by then but hardly most people’s idea of a great guy—he was uncouth, a serial womanizer when married to Lee Krasner, and an abusive and eventually deadly alcoholic (e.g., Naifeh and Smith, 1989). Nonetheless, Blue Poles stands on its own, drawing us to the energies eight rifle-like poles seem to be trying to hold in place without much luck. The poles remind me of the mode of Pollock’s death but also of the controlled chaos underlying cold war international relations. Those painterly resonances cannot kill the observers who are known to stand in front of the painting and mock or dismiss it. The M-1 rifle is a different matter, readily identifiable and acceptable as a death-dealing object of war calmed only when locked up by its human curators. Had curators at the National Museum of American History considered the Kent State context more carefully, they
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could have counterpoised a common military rifle used to kill at home to the Huey that did damage in Vietnam. Instead, the exhibition draws visitor attention to a dramatically staged masterpiece of aviation. In that curatorial decision, the many people who suffered America’s war are relegated, downplayed—they are beside the point rather than one major cost of the war.
Curating and Re-Curating War Memory Each commemorative war site considered here reveals aspects of American wars in Vietnam and Iraq that, taken together, could usefully expand scholarship and everyday knowledge about these wars. As it currently stands, war curations organized by a major museum, arranged by ordinary curators at an official memorial and cemetery, and described in selected war novels and memoirs can be discounted as not authoritative enough, not true or verifiable. To some, self-initiated exhibits or stories of war deaths do not constitute systematic “data” and can be dismissed as unique and too personal (meaning biased). To others, however, fleshed bodies reveal faces, families, and civilian social relations that, if accorded attention, would complicate easy associations of war with the state, honor, patriotism and national renewal, and unveil “casualties” and “collateral damage” as irreversible deaths. Body tracings can also project ordinary people into seats or moments of power, not only with regard to material memories that, after a struggle, end up being allowable at Arlington Cemetery. At the World Trade Center area of New York City, the prospect of forgetting even one person who died in the 9/11 assaults on the Twin Towers agitated survivors. Charlotte Heath-Kelly (2016) discusses the lengths survivor groups took to ensure that bodies rendered microscopic and unidentifiable were not simply shoveled away in the refuse but treated as precious elements to be retained at the Ground Zero site. On another level entirely, the war anthropologist, Heonik Kwon (2011), tells of a Vietnamese woman who eventually refused government orders to commemorate only those who had fought for the North by re-curating the family altar. She placed a picture of her son who died fighting for a Republic of Vietnam, which she had hidden for years in the closet, next to the displayed picture of her official hero son who fought for the North. Both were now visible on the same level to all who entered her house. That move is more in line with war memories that
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take account of heroes on the other side as well as the ones governments designate as our heroes. Think of other omissions from authoritative knowledge of war that could be rectified. Besides millions affected “over there,” and those who are here but ignored, are LGBTQ Americans who were thrown out of the military during the war in Vietnam or who worried about being detected during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” days of the American war in Iraq (Bussey, 2018). Children who lose a parent to war have knowledge of hardships that are not always tallied. Antiwar protesters have stories to tell as do draft dodgers who were forced to leave the country during Vietnam days or face jail time. All have authority claims on war and memory but get scant recognition at The Price of Freedom, the National Mall memorials, and the national cemetery; some of these war experiences can even be difficult to find in war novels. Being left out of war memory temporarily or permanently has implications for American politics over time. Historian Natasha Zaretsky (2018) traces links between one group of memory claimants—veterans of Vietnam—who were initially mistreated when they returned home, and a growing tide of discontent that culminated in the election of 2016.8 She says the 1970s “gave rise to the accusation that the most loyal Americans had suffered through sickness, injury and premature death, and had been forgotten and let down.” Decades later the same class of Americans judged themselves injured by changes in American capitalism that killed decent jobs without replacing them. There was little joy for once-were-workers in their new “freedom” to create livelihoods out of nothing. And so, down the line, America voted for a flim-flam millionaire who was just as angry at Washington elites for mocking him as his constituents were at them for not stepping in to salvage local economies. Museums, memorials, and cemeteries are all referential exhibitors and curators of war knowledge. It is only in “fiction” and memoirs, however that people in war—military and “ordinary”—move about, socialize, strategize, get caught, get out, get hit, get legs amputated, and face numerous contingencies that punch a reader hard in the stomach. It is only in that genre of war memory that low and undesirable military assignments in war zones are also on view. My pitch is for strong war novels and memoirs to be recognized as war documents that contain pieces of authoritative knowledge on war as a social institution. The point once more is that as a decentralized phenomenon, war knowledge and expertise is not fixed nor can it be staged “correctly” or fully in any single venue. The answer
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to who is a proper authority on war requires asking the question differently: Who experiences war and whose war knowledge is available where and how? To study war effectively, attend to its obvious and nonobvious locations, imprimatured and impromptu displays of war objects, and to a far wider range of people in war “over there” and “over here.” It is not easy to effect these inclusions in an era of American militarism that steers “us” to soldier glory and into wars of choice that achieve little. But it is necessary. “Rumor is we’ll be redeployed soon” (Benedict, 2011: 293).
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Letter to “Rog” from Bill (Figure 4.4) Sept 2, 1968 Da Nang Dear Rog, Sorry it’s taken me so long to write but I’ve been so busy lately. I imagine you heard on the news that we got hit by sappers here August 23rd. Anyway, all the news is bad this time. Kicklitter, Alphin, Hyesaka, Kepcyzk, Sgn Pegram, are a few of the ones who got killed in the attack. Also Sgt Kluns (?) and Norris. Also Sgt Hudson got killed a month ago. There’s not too many of us left pardner. I guess you heard about SPC Boyer getting killed in June too. I have 71 days to go now and if I make it I hope I never have to come back here again. Heidi and Billy are with her folks are in Germany now. They’ll be coming back about Nov 1st. Well Rog, I hate to write such a short letter but I have to go out on the perimeter shortly. Take care of yourself and I’ll see you in a couple of months if I’m still kicking. As ever Bill
Anonymous Letter Left at Grave of Humayun Kahn (Figure 4.8) Dear Humayun Khan, You made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. An immigrant who took on the duty to fight in the wars that our leaders see fit. You have become a symbol showing that we are a nation of immigrants. We turned to you and your family to show us that we do not need to fear what we do not know. We the people let you and your family down. Instead of uniting around the belief of people being good, we cower in fear of those who are different. Whether it is their race, religion, sexuality, gender, or beliefs it does not matter, we cower. And for that I, no We are sorry. We are sorry for cowering in fear when we should be standing up proud of the hodgepodge that we the people are. We are sorry for not embracing those such as yourself who can look and be so different from ourselves. We are sorry that this fear has lead us to embrace the words of a man who has insulted your family, a man who has used our nation’s fear to be elected to the highest office in the land, a man who wishes to only further divide us. Not only for our sake but for the sake of you and those like you, who have come before, we must remember the good in others and we must stand up even if we are afraid. Only then can we take steps towards forming a more perfect union.
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Introduction 1. Some curators of international art at the gallery were so affronted by the public reaction that they spoke without irony of an Australian “grocer aesthetic” (Lloyd and Desmond, 1991:12). 2. In September 2018 I learned that time has not erased all viewer negativity toward the painting. A group of middle-school children sat on the floor in front of Blue Poles and gazed at it as they listened intently to an engaging talk delivered by a museum docent. Docent: “Any questions?” One student in the group: “Why do we even want this painting here?” 3. “America’s Forever Wars,” Editorial Board, New York Times, October 22, 2017. www.nytimes.com/2017/10/22/opinion/americas-forever-wars.html. 4. The term “advisers,” used repeatedly by American leaders in the years before troops were openly sent to Vietnam, can mask military operations in the country. 5. In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a member of the San Francisco 49ers National Football League team, refused to stand for the traditional pregame playing of the national anthem. He explained that he could not accept the premise of the flag for a country that oppresses African-Americans and other minorities. Social media attacked Kaepernick for his actions, but other athletes took up the resistance posture of kneeling at the anthem. These refusals to go along with a fundamental rite of American patriotism at major sports events followed a year of police killing unarmed black men in cities across the United States, numerous protests in response, and formation of the influential Black Lives Matter movement. 6. The New York Times of October 16, 2016, ran a front page story about America’s quiet ongoing wars around the world—quiet in terms of information released: “This year alone, the United States has carried out airstrikes in seven countries and conducted Special Operations missions in many more . . . The Pentagon has acknowledged only a small fraction of these operations” (Mazzetti, Gettleman, and Schmitt, 2016: 1, 10). 7. Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders), the highly respected humanitarian organization operating in war zones, has witnessed several aerial hospital
attacks in Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan. On October 3, 2015, a US airstrike, later said to be a mistake, hit the Kunduz Trauma Centre in northern Afghanistan and killed at least forty-two patients and medical staff. As in other such cases, the MSF insisted that its location was communicated to all parties in the war, which means the strike deliberately violated international humanitarian law. MSF has called it a US war crime and is seeking to pursue this claim through the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission. 8. “Mission and History,” http://americanhistory.si.edu/museum/mission-history. 9. See Peter Molin’s ongoing blog, Time Now: The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Art, Film, and Literature http://acolytesofwar.com; also the blog of the Veterans Writing Project https://veteranswriting.org/blog-2/. 10. Helena Grice (2012: 954) writes about “the perils of telling” in her discussion of the difficult process Kim Phuc went through as she remembered and recounted her own story to Denise Chong (2001). Phuc is the Vietnamese girl who was photographed by Nick Ut as she ran naked in terror and pain from an American drop of napalm on a group of villagers. 11. Different views exist of the ethics of recognition and its necessity. Mabel Dodge Luhan (1987: 68; emphasis in original), an intellectual from Buffalo, New York, moved to New Mexico in 1917, stayed, and married the head of the Pueblo Indians there. She wrote about the Taos Pueblo: “If people came in here—don’t you see?—they’d grab all this and commercialize it somehow . . . I’d hate to have these Indians get recognition! Why, it would be the end of them!” Clearly she did not count herself as one of those people, but others would not agree. 12. Klaus Rifjberg (1998: 97 cited in Bjerregaard, 2015: 75) expresses the sensation of entering the National Museum of Copenhagen this way: “It must have been by the end of the 1930s, when not only the objects on display but the entire museum smelled of old age and the lighting seemed so dim adding to the eeriness, which the rows of bones and skulls in showcases evoked in the child.”
Chapter 1 1. To simplify the text, I include the name of a person I quote from Appy’s oral histories in the text and remove “as quoted in Appy” in the citation. 2. Philip Caputo (1996: 311) also mentions a policy introduced by his commanding officer after taking more casualties than they produced in 1966: “any marine in the company who killed a confirmed Viet Cong would be given an extra beer ration and the time to drink it.” 3. O’Brien gives a related version of this tale in his memoir about the war, If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973: 105), saying that the Vietnamese man hit by the milk carton was initially stunned but “picked up the bucket and with the ruins of goodness spread over him, perfect gore, he dunked into the well and came up with water, and he showered a soldier. The kids watched.” 4. Caputo (1996: xvii) writes in the prologue twenty years after the first edition of his memoir, A Rumor of War, “I could protest as loudly as the most convinced activist, but I could not deny the grip the war had on me, nor the fact that it had been an
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experience as fascinating as it was repulsive, as exhilarating as it was sad, as tender as it was cruel.” 5. Barack Obama withdrew American troops from Iraq in late 2011 but the war continued on with a smaller coalition presence and scores of private security contractors in the pay of the United States. 6. The phrase embrace of defeat is taken from John Dower’s (1999) analysis of the Japanese response to the firebombs and atomic bombs the United States unleashed on them during World War II. 7. Chandrasekaran notes the ample availability of “Fritos, Cheetos, Dr Pepper, protein powder, Operation Iraqi Freedom T-shirts, and pop music discs. If the PX didn’t have what he wanted, he’d go to the Green Zone Bazaar, a small pedestrian mall with seventy shops operated by Iraqis . . . “There was Mo’s Computers, run by a savvy young man named Mohammed. Several shops sold mobile phones and bootlegged DVDs . . . My favorite was the JJ Store for Arab Photos, the Iraqi version of those Wild West photo booths at Disneyland: you could get a picture of yourself in Arab robes and a headdress” (p. 17). 8. I recall meeting an American marine in 2006 who had recently returned from Iraq. He was utterly disillusioned with the war overall and the ambiguous orders troops got about when and how to use force against civilian Iraqis. After describing what happened when American forces broke down the doors of “suspicious” households—their weapons drawn, the women and children pushed out of the way, and frightened men dragged outside—he said, “no wonder they don’t like us over there.” A powerful rendition of American patrols barging into Iraqi homes appears in the novel Sand Queen, by Helen Benedict (2011), discussed here in C hapter 5. 9. At 20% of the population, Sunni Arabs gained only 8% of the seats in the new legislature, owing to districting arrangements put in place by the Coalition Provisional Authority under the command of Paul Bremer. 10. In October 2004, the Green Zone was attacked by two suicide bombers who detonated their explosives in separate business areas within the Zone, an event that led to upgraded security measures. 11. The organization’s website is www.iraqbodycount.org/database. 12. See S. V. Date, “Trump Says He Has ‘Obliterated’ ISIS. The Terror Group Seems Not To Have Noticed,” Huffington Post, August 20, 2018. www.yahoo.com/news/trump- says-obliterated-isis-terror-132611909.html. 13. For much of the war in Vietnam, American military women were subject to a quota: their numbers could only make up 2% or less of the total enlistment in the military. Approximately 300,000 American women have served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (Lemmon, 2015). 14. Much of Wiley’s oeuvre makes classic artworks over from a new point of view. While his particular work is unique, the new-from-old approach is not. The National Gallery (London), as an example, held an exhibition in 2000 called Encounters: New Art from Old, in which invited artists selected one work from the collection to reinterpret (see Sylvester, 2001). 15. “Inlining entails ignoring heavily drawn outlines for the shadows and boundary areas.” In putting a contemporary black man into the old art format of hero warrior on
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horse, does Wiley do so at the expense of recognizing blurred identities or “people who refuse to stand still as models?”(Sylvester, 2002: 279). Chapter 2 1. In Vietnam, individual soldiers were rotated out of their units and into others as needed (Caputo, 1996) and were sent home the day their contracts expired, even when they “re-upped.” 2. Prominent museum director James Cuno (cited in McClellan, 2003: 36) has said of comparable US museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that “an art museum’s fundamental purpose is to collect, preserve, and exhibit works of art as a vital part of our nation’s cultural patrimony.” 3. The Imperial War Museums website announces that the government pays 50% of the costs of the museums, the rest coming from corporate and private donations. The Australian War Memorial is not as open about its finances. The 52% figure is the result of calculations made from the 2015–16 annual report of the memorial (http://www.dva.gov. au/sites/default/files/files/about%20dva/budgets/2015-2016_DVA_PBS.pdf). The figure for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History is calculated from the Smithsonian Institution Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Justification to Congress (https://www. si.edu/content/pdf/about/FY2015-BudgetRequest.pdf) using the categories “federal appropriations for 2015–16” compared with “donor/sponsor designated funds” for the same period. Historian Douglas Newton (2018) reports that arms producer Lockheed Martin has a partnership with the Australian War Memorial to sponsor exhibitions and contribute to the operating budget, as do at least five other international arms firms. Memorial director, Brendan Nelson, has been known to scold arms manufacturers that do not step up and contribute to the memorial. Benefits of doing so include promotion of company names and brands plus certain naming rights at the memorial. 4. Behring gave an additional $20 million to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum where a number of Roosevelt’s game kills are on display. Relatedly, the Charles A. Freer Gallery of Asian art opened in 1923 as a privately endowed Smithsonian museum. “Freer informally proposed to President Theodore Roosevelt that he give to the nation his art collection, funds to construct a building, and an endowment fund to provide for the study and acquisition of ‘very fine examples of Oriental, Egyptian, and Near Eastern fine arts.’ The gift was accepted on behalf of the government by the Smithsonian Board of Regents in 1906” (Smithsonian Institution Archives, https://siarchives.si.edu/ history/freer-gallery-art). The adjacent Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian has similar origins (https://siarchives.si.edu/history/arthur-m.-sackler-gallery). 5. In late February 2017 the director and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Thomas P. Campbell, was ousted from his job, mainly over issues related to weak leadership. In responding to the news, and to concerns at the Met that much of its classic collection holds little interest to younger viewers, art critic Holland Cotter (2017: C4) offered advice that speaks to the knowledge gap separating museum curated exhibitions and viewers more broadly: “If historical art is now a hard sell, and it is, learn to sell it hard. That means, among other things, start telling the truth about it: about who made objects, and how they work in the world, and how they got to the museum, and what they mean, what values they advertise, good and bad. Go for truth
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(which, like the telling of history, is always changing) and connect art to life.” This strikes me as excellent and important advice. 6. The disaster has been blamed historically on inexperienced troops and the incompetent military commanders who threw them against Ottoman fighters without adequate equipment, ammunition, or benefit of surprise. 7. The Australian War Memorial has a vast collection of mostly military items—in recent years it has added a Chinook helicopter—rather than memorabilia left at the attached memorial. Indeed, visitors must arrange with the reception desk of the memorial to leave even a wreath or floral arrangement tagged with the name of a soldier at the memorial reflection pool. Only the name tags on such items are saved and archived. 8. This also seems to be the case in Vietnam, about which Nguyen (2016: 23) writes: “Every town and village has its own necropolis, devoted to the martyrs who died in the twentieth-century wars to unify and liberate the country.” 9. Viet Thanh Nguyen was too young during the war to be a combatant. For memories from the Vietnamese side see Hai T. Nguyen (2017). Also, extensive documentation of the American War in Vietnam, including Vietnamese letters and diaries from that time, are archived at Texas Tech University. 10. Arlington Cemetery also holds the graves of certain nonmilitary Americans, including Supreme Court Justices, some slaves of General Lee, and some military wives and children. 11. Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016: 177): “It is always a little disorienting, then, to leave these exhibitions of horror or even sorrow and enter the gift shop.” 12. A June 2016 Gallup poll found that the military is the most publicly esteemed of all American institutions. Seventy-three percent of those polled reported high confidence in the military (Congress was last with only 6% showing high support). http:// www.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx. 13. Of course, one could respond the way Guillaume Cretin did in composing a versed account of the battle of Pavia (1525), quoted in Harari (2010: 61): But do you think that soldiers in battle, In the hour when they stand in the midst of combat, Where men strive with great blows to completely cleave them asunder, Think of anything except of to defend themselves . . . ?
Chapter 3 1. There are some quirks to that generalization. Certain of the United Arab Emirates use their fantastic wealth to invite in branches of western art museums. Abu Dhabi is working with the Louvre and the Guggenheim, a move that proclaims that the best arts management expertise is in the West. Dubai is constructing a Museum of the Future dedicated to providing regional solutions to move beyond Middle East turmoil. 2. I thank Michael Lynch for this point. 3. It should be noted that the United States was actually Smithson’s third choice. Following his disastrous experience with his first choice country—France—he bequeathed his collection to a family member, first and foremost, and to the United States only on that person’s death, which occurred relatively soon after Smithson’s (Ewing, 2007).
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4. Lubar (2015: 85) notes that “curatorial autonomy was written into the Civil Service Commission’s (SCS) 1962 ‘Position Classification Standard for Museum Curator Series,’ ” and that standard holds to this day for federal curators. See https://www.opm. gov/policy-data-oversight/classification-qualification-qualifications/classifying-general- schedule-positions/standards/1000/gs1015.pdf. 5. Marilyn Cohen (1980: 51) points out that at the Smithsonian, “exhibits that conformed more to the shape of the objects, rather than artificially forcing the exhibit to be based upon the size of a case, were instituted in only a few instances as late as 1940.” 6. One idea that took hold in the 1960s entailed dropping the plan for a new museum in favor of developing a Freedom Park with attractions for young people, such as period buildings with false fronts, manufactured artifacts, and drill areas reminiscent of the Revolutionary War era, when the incipient American military was composed largely of civilians. A theme park approach was in keeping with new thinking on displaying the past less through object displays and more through “living history” programs. It was also a way for the Armed Forces Museum Advisory Board to join its plan to the American Bicentennial celebrations. 7. Having spent time in 2018 at the Hiroshima Peace Museum and Park, this entire episode in Smithsonian history comes off as absurd and mean-spiritedly self-referential. Museum curators and visitors should consider burned bodies and other dire consequences of war and deadly weapons. 8. The Enola Gay fuselage was on view at Air and Space from 1995–1998. In 2003, the Smithsonian opened an annex for large aircraft at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport, where the Enola Gay can be seen in full form today along with around 170 other aircraft. An average of 1 million visitors enter the annex every year, making it the most visited museum in Virginia. For more discussion of the Enola Gay controversy at Air and Space see O’Reilly and Rooney (2005) and Post (2013). 9. Some visitors to Air and Space, however, do seem intent on militarizing the objects displayed. On a visit in June 2017, I observed boys of about ten years of age led around the museum by men in quasi-uniforms who stopped the boys in front of World War II aircraft and asked them to identify a number of their parts. The beefed-up leaders sounded like drill sergeants loudly testing recruits on the basics of assault weapon assemblage. The boys responded in sharp clipped tones, each vying to show “Sir” that he knew the most about the planes. When the leader was satisfied the group moved on. It was chilling to see. 10. My favorite case of hodgepodge Smithsonian cataloguing is the tomahawk presented to Davy Crockett stored with “a necklace of pinenuts” of apparently unknown provenance. Joanne London’s (2000) enlightening PhD dissertation on the history of the Smithsonian is full of such revelations. 11. Ferguson (2008) writes that Behring insisted on “direct influence over the content of the exhibits he funded,” and “Behring’s agreement stipulated that he be consulted at every step.” Again, David Allison denied this level of involvement in an interview with me in 2016. 12. Post (2013: 304n20) points out that academic reviews of The Price of Freedom were, in his words, “devastating,” owing to the need to subsume every American war under the umbrella of righteous freedom, including those that ran roughshod over Vietnam and Iraq.
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13. For another discussion of the public versus a public, see Warner (2002). 14. A very different curation of the bicycle appeared in an exhibition on the Vietnam War staged in late 2017 at the New York Historical Society in upper Manhattan. The first thing a visitor saw on entering was a fully loaded Viet Cong bicycle, flanked by a large photo of Vietnamese pushing it along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. 15. During the nearly two decades I worked in academia outside the United States, I was blasted by many critiques of the country. Colleagues from welfare states were always amazed that freedom was valued far more by Americans than the equality Europe values. The most recent Human Freedom Index, assembled by the Cato Institute, Fraser Institute, and Freidrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, ranks the United States 17th in the world on measures of personal, civic, and economic freedom (Vasquez and Porcnik, 2017), lower than most European countries and the antipodes. 16. Of course, that presidential ranking might change after the Trump administration, which seems itching to whip up conflicts in international relations through threats of military or trade wars.
Chapter 4 1. “Vietnam ’67: Historians, veterans and journalists recall 1967 in Vietnam, a year that changed the war and changed America,” Series in New York Times https://www. nytimes.com/column/vietnam-67. 2. Scruggs also earned a law degree in 1990. 3. Lin received a very good but not excellent mark on her memorial design when she submitted it for the class she was taking at the time on funereal architecture. 4. Hagopian (2009: 114) points out that the finished wall defied the expectations of many critics that they would be looking down into a ditch or trench. “A ditch or trench, after all, has two steeply angled sides, not one gradual slope,” as the design indicated. Applying war terminology of ditches and trenches limited the ability of many critics to “read” the design accurately. 5. There was also concern about the granite, which Lin (2000) was told “could not come from Canada or Sweden. Though those countries had beautiful black granites, draft evaders went to both countries, so the veterans felt that we could not consider their granites as options.” 6. It merits noting that Hart, the highest-ranked sculptor from the memorial competition, was paid $330,000 for his statue, which a sculpture committee instructed him to design with three soldiers, one of whom had to be an African-American. As the winner of the memorial design competition, Lin had been awarded only $20,000 (Hagopian, 2009: 127). 7. The following remarks are paraphrased from a lecture Young presented at the Humanities Institute of the University of Connecticut, April 24, 2017. 8. The American war in Vietnam seems to be turning into a specialist interest for historians and foreign policy experts, new generations of family members, and war book clubs. Jason Bain, senior fund collections curator, believes the wall inspires visitors to join a collective memory process, even if they have no memory of the war in Vietnam. He says people increasingly leave objects related to “things that are happening in the culture, marches against nuclear proliferation, gay and LGBT rights” (quoted in Pager, 2015).
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9. There was a worry among a number of German poets and artists in the years following the Holocaust that all forms of expression about the war could unwittingly instantiate and redeem it by replicating the idea that following destruction there is redemption. See, e.g., Friedlander (1998). 10. A two-level memorial architectural scheme has been favored in Europe for several Holocaust memorials. It also features at the National September 11 Memorial in New York, with the Reflecting Absence memorials at the tower footprints, the 9/11 Memorial Museum underneath, and an area at bedrock open to survivors. See discussion in Young (2016). 11. For now, a significant number of objects from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, plus photos of as many of the fallen named there as possible, are online at the fund’s virtual Wall of Faces exhibition: http://www.vvmf.org/items/. Information on the current status of the new VVMF direction can be found at: https://finance.yahoo.com/news/ vietnam-veterans-m emorial-f und-c hanges-d irection-e ducation-c enter-1 64500702. html. 12. Information on the current Wall That Heals can be found at https://finance.yahoo. com/news/vietnam-veterans-memorial-fund-unveil-wall-heals-mobile-160100512.html. 13. Although a stirring up seems unlikely. Buddhika Jayamaha (2018: 26), a former fire team leader in Iraq, says, “I have students who, when I tell them we own a third of Syria, say, ‘Wait, what? We have soldiers in Syria?’ We have like two thousands of them! I don’t think people even care.” 14. Micki McElya’s (2016) recent book on the history of Arlington National Cemetery starts with a fascinating discussion of Freedman’s Village. She lays out the complex and changing relations between and among residents, the Union army, and the government over a twenty-five-year period. 15. Britain maintained the custom of not repatriating war dead—the unknown soldier of World War I the exception—until 2003, when it became involved in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 16. Given the significance of the fallen soldier to renewal in the context of Germany in the first half of the twentieth century, it is noteworthy that Mosse (1979: 17) ends his article on this note: “one result of the cult of the fallen soldiers was undoubtedly an ever greater loss of sensitivity towards individual life and individual fate.” 17. “At its current rate of approximately 7,000 interment annually, it is estimated that the cemetery will be full in about 25 years” (Ackerman, 2018). 18. Recall that the remains of Washington-based victims of the September 11 attacks plus those of Flight 77 that crashed in Pennsylvania were put in one casket and buried in Section 64 of Arlington Cemetery. 19. The tradition of visiting veteran cemeteries on Veterans Day is very strong in the United States. In 2018 President Trump was in Paris for a gathering of European heads of state on that date to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I. He was severely criticized for not visiting an important American war cemetery nearby owing to light rain, even though other heads of state were not deterred from their respective cemetery sites by the weather. 20. See http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/News/Post/1892/The-policy-on-itemsleft-in-Section-60.
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Chapter 5 1. Lauren Wilcox (2015: 2) writes about the field of international relations treating bodies as inert objects that “exist to be manipulated, possess no agency, and are only driven by the motivations of agents.” Such are the bodies in Arlington and other war cemeteries but not bodies in novels and memoirs. See also Vivienne Jabri (2006), who laments the absence of bodies in a field that broadcasts expertise on war. See also McSorley (2013). 2. The question of who is a veteran is one of several addressed by the new academic field of Military and Veterans Studies. Only a few institutions offer it, presently the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Eastern Kentucky University. Somewhat related is Columbia University’s Center for Veteran Transition and Integration located in its School of General Studies. So far the emphasis in each program is on Americans who have military experience. See https://veterans.columbia.edu and http://www.umsl.edu/~mvs/ What%20We%20Do/index.html. 3. And so it is for Stephan Wolfert, who has created a one-person enactment of his experiences in the military and with the PTSD that improved, but did not disappear, through drama and dance training. His remarkable one-man play, Cry Havoc! featured at the New York Historical Society on Veterans Weekend, November 2017. 4. Fred Turner (1996: 77) writes of a similar rendering of a dead Viet Cong. American soldiers gave the corpse sunglasses, put an open Playboy magazine on his lap, a cigarette in the mouth, and a piece of feces on his head: “their former enemy could no longer ‘fuck’ with them, literally or figuratively. Nor could he ‘shit’ on them.” 5. Bao Ninh is featured several times, however, in the Ken Burns and Lynne Novick 2017 documentary film The Vietnam War. 6. In 2013, Tim O’Brien won the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. Along with his memoir, which was initially published in the 1970s, O’Brien wrote several individually awarded works of fiction based on his experiences in Vietnam, including Going After Cacciato (1978), which won a National Book Award in 1979, and The Things They Carried, first published in 1990. 7. For instance, ISIS abducted small Yazidi children, changed their names, and sought to raise them with an approved identity (Clark and Alkhshali, 2017). 8. Powers (2018: 5) has more recently admitted to being suicidal when he returned from duty in Iraq, as is Bartle, his lead character in The Yellow Birds. Both sequester themselves from other humans and strip their daily lives of objects and friends. Powers says “my needs were few and simple. The door locked. The Shades came down. And a 7-Eleven two blocks away sold cold beer from morning to midnight.” 9. For discussions and critiques of The Yellow Birds, see Sacks (2015), Scranton (2015), and Tait (2013). 10. See Molin (2015a) for a humorous send-up of twenty “stock scenes” in contemporary war novels. 11. Phil Klay (2014a) opens his short story collection, Redeployment, with a veteran who returns home from Iraq and faces the prospect of killing his old sick dog. Having shot dogs in Iraq, he now finds this task difficult. Scranton (2015), in his article on trauma heroes, suggests that the trope of shooting animals in Iraq is apt to draw more sympathy from American readers than “the unpleasant fact that we shot people.”
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12. Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season (2017) continues the story of Naema, who is now in New York State as a doctor for a Veterans Administration clinic. Once again she interacts with a very damaged American woman veteran—not Kate. 13. Here I differ with Haylock’s assertion that Kate is a trauma hero in Sand Queen, typical in most respects except her gender. In this novel, there are many traumatized people and no heroes. Naema is traumatized by the arrest and confinement of her father and brother; her father is traumatized to madness by his son’s death; Jimmy, a gentle soul in love with Kate, is traumatized by her self-loathing; and Third Eye, a woman soldier who has been raped by comrades tries unsuccessfully to carry on but ultimately commits suicide. Everyone is brutalized by war because, as Scarry (1985: 67) puts it, “reciprocal injuring is the obsessive content of war.” 14. The Fatal Force database held by the Washington Post reported on July 30, 2017, “so far this year, 574 people have been shot and killed by police . . . last year, police shot and killed 963 people” (Wootson and Berman, 2017).
Chapter 6 1. I write this sentence on the day of American Senator John McCain’s funeral, September 1, 2018, which I watched on CNN. McCain seemed entitled to all the tributes he received, whether you agreed with everything he did in life or not. But what I also admired were references scattered about the eulogies to Vietnamese people he interacted with when captured during the American war in Vietnam and during his return to Hanoi years later after leading the campaign to normalize US-Vietnam relations. Local Vietnamese college students chanted his name when he arrived in Vietnam and sought his autograph. That there is a monument to McCain in Hanoi near the spot he was dragged from the water after ejecting from his destroyed plane also provides a local perspective on the war that is often overlooked “over here.” 2. It has been reported that the Pentagon launched a new classified initiative in 2018 to support the Saudi Arabian war in Yemen, called Yukon Journey, and new special operations in Northwest and East Africa. “Classified,” of course, means the details are unavailable to the public (Weinberger, Naylor, and McLaughlin, 2018). 3. Indeed, the docent talk on Blue Poles I heard in October 2018 contained no reference to the international or domestic politics surrounding the acquisition by the National Gallery of Australia. 4. Lesser known are the cases where nonwhite students were killed on other American campuses at the time for protesting racial discrimination— at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg (1968) and Jackson State University Mississippi (1970)—nor was much coverage given to protests organized by the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War that resulted in several killings. The media consistently focused on white deaths, much as it does today. 5. From the Kent State University Oral History project, May 3, 2003. https:// omeka.library.kent.edu/special-collections/kent-state-shootings-oral-histories/browse- by-narrators roles#Student%20at%20the%20University%20School,%20on%20the%20 Kent%20State%20University%20campus,%20in%201970. 6. President Richard Nixon appointed a Commission on Campus Unrest, which found in September 1970 that the Kent State shootings were not the result of any command to
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shoot and were unjustified. Eight members of the Guard were indicted by a grand jury and argued that they feared for their lives and fired in self-defense. In 1974 a US district court dismissed all the charges on the grounds that the prosecution had presented a case that was too weak to adjudicate. 7. See Scarry’s (1985: 67–69) examples of conflated understandings of injuring and disarming, the latter set up as “the benign activity of eliminating weapons from what is then presented as the only accidental and unfortunate entailment of human injury” (p. 67). 8. See also Zaretsky (2007).
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210 | References
Abu Ghraib prison scandal, 35–36 Afghanistan War, 8–9 aftermaths of, 7–8 American initiation, 170 Arlington National Cemetery, Section 60, 5–6, 11, 60, 122–23, 127–38, 132–33f, 172 Australian troops in, 45 Bush, George W., post-9/11, 103 journalist restrictions, 9 Operation Enduring Freedom, 33–34 public acquiescence, 9 agency, war knowledge communication, 15 Agent Orange, 25–26 post-war deaths from, 110–11 Agnew, Spiro, 30 Allison, David, 74–75, 84–85, 95 Allison, Graham, 68–69 All Quiet on the Western Front (Remarque), 146–47 Al-Qaeda, Iraq War, 6–7, 33–34, 37–38, 157–58 American exceptionalism, rejecting, 65–66 American military activities. See also specific types recent, American initiated, 170 America’s wars Iraq, 6–7 Vietnam, 5–6 (see also specific topics)
Anatomy of a Soldier (Parker), 61–62 antiwar protesters and movement, Iraq War Code Pink, 7, 59 Iraq Veterans Against the War, 7, 59 antiwar protesters and movement, Vietnam War discharged vets’ fear of, 30–31 Gologorsky, Beverly, 29–30 politicians’ attention, late 1960s, 30 Vietnam War, 29 Antoon, Sinan, The Corpse Washer, 145, 154–55 ANZAC debacle, 53 Appy, Christian (Vietnam War), 23–24, 25, 31 on American exceptionalism, rejection, 65–66 on discharged vets’ fear of antiwar protesters, 30–31 on explosives dropped, 26 on Iraq tour, second, 46–47 on napalm and Agent Orange, 25–26 on rebuilding American prestige after Vietnam, 104 on search-and-destroy operations, 25 on start, no decisive, 23 on troop deployments, 23 on urbanization, forced, 25–26 on veterans as war’s victims, 31
Appy, Christian (Vietnam War) (cont.) on Vietnam’s colonial history, 24 on war duration and U.S. Presidents serving in, 29 Arlington National Cemetery, 11 amenities, limited, 128 body as everlasting at, 174–75 early days, 123–27 funerals, limiting media coverage, 128–29 Gray, Gina, controversy, 128–29 Hallinan, Patrick K Kennedy, John, internment, 126 Lao Veterans of America, 126–27 memento mori at, 103 Section 12, 123 terror wars military personnel at, 103 who is honored, 60–61 Arlington National Cemetery, Section 60, 11, 127–38, 132–36f Afghanistan War veterans, 5–6, 11, 60, 122–23, 127–38, 132–33f, 172 burials at, 129 distance from and walk to main cemetery, 123 gravestone and grave spaces, 130 importance and value, 172 Iraq War veterans, 11, 122–38, 132–33f Khan, Captain Humayun, letter to, 133–34, 134–35f, 136–37 memory vs. political will, 137 objects left at graves (memento mori), 129, 130–33, 134–35f, 135–37 pop-up displays, 69 presidential visits, 127–28 quiet, 127–28 reclaiming bodies, families, 174–75 as re-curatorial, 138 setting and facilities, 61 visitors and types of visits, 129–30 who is honored, 60 Arlington West, 58–59 Auchter, Jessica, 54–55, 110 Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 49–51, 50f, 54–55 authority, on war contenders, 173–74
212 | Index
exploring, 67–69 identifying, 3 proper, 181–82 Bacevich, Andrew, 8–9, 32 on American exceptionalism, rejection, 65–66 on COIN, 39 on Iraq war failure, Bush concession, 38 on Operation Enduring Freedom, 33 on Vietnam Syndrome, 46 Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Bacevich), 32 Baghdad Burning (Riverbend), 155–57 Bailey, Beth, 84–85, 89 Barkawi, Tarak, 66–67 Basham, Victoria, 8 Beckstead, Zachary, 45–46 Behring, Kenneth, 50–52, 83–85 Benedict, Helen Lonely Solider: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, The, 164–65 Sand Queen, 62, 162–66 bicycle, North Vietnamese, 93–96, 94f Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Fountain), 62, 66–67, 164–65, 176 Bjerregaard, Peter, 15 Blair, Tony, 37–38 Blue Poles (Pollock), 1–3, 177 “Bodies” (Klay), 171–72 bodies of war curating Vietnam and Iraq wars, 139–68 (see also literary works; specific works) killing bodies, as aim of war, 174–75 as referential, 173–77 Bordwin, Jesse, 63–64 Browne, Malcolm, 26 Burke, Carole, 91–92 Burns, Ken, Vietnam War, The, 102–3 Bush, George H. W., Operation Desert Storm, 6–7 Bush, George W., 8–10 9/11 attacks, response to, 103 Iraq War justification (concession), 2006, 37–38
Iraq War news curtain, 54–56 Iraq War origins and shock and awe strategy, 34–35 Vietnam War, 34 Butler, Judith, 176 Calley, William, 27 Campbell, Kenneth, 33, 36–37 Caputo, Philip, 24 Carter, Jimmy, Iranian hostage crisis, 104–5 casualties. See also mortality Iraq War, 6–7, 36, 37, 170–71 private contractors, 122 Vietnam War, 5–6, 22–23, 28, 170–71 Cavarero, Adriana, 144 Chandrasekaran, Rajiv, 35 Cheney, Dick, 33–34 Chong, Denise, 62 Clousing, Ricky, 36, 39–40 Code Pink, 7, 59 collaborative memories, 45–46 collective memory, 16 Conn, Steven, 14 Corpse Washer, The (Antoon), 145, 154–55 Coundouriotis, Eleni, 150–51 counterinsurgency (COIN) Iraq, 37–40 Vietnam, 34 counterinsurgency, Iraq War, 35 covert silencing, 51–52 Crane, Susan, 99–100 Craven, James, Vietnam War laptop used by, 96–98, 97f Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War, The, 80–81 Cupp, Robert, 112–13 curation, war, 11–12. See also specific topics bodies of war as referential, 174–77 curating and re-curating war memory, 180–82 curatorial authority, 169–74 curators’ role, 12 curators’ writings, 171–72
definition, 11–12 war knowledge sites, 45 Dai, Bao, 23 Das, Veena, 22, 63 Dauphinee, Elizabeth, 68–69 David, Jacques-Louis, Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass, 42 David, Leonard J., 142–43 Deal, Dennis, 25 Deer, Patrick, 141 Denton-Borhaug, Kelly, 21 Diem, Ngo Dinh, 23 Doubrovsky, Serge, 146 Duc, Thich Quang, 26 Dyvik, Synne, 66–67 Edkins, Jenny, 46–47 education, Vietnam War, 117–22, 119–21f Elshtain, Jean Bethke, 12, 93 Emberton, Carole, 88 Enloe, Cynthia, 35, 175 Enola Gay, 80–81, 85, 99 Espiritu, Yen, 91–92 everyday historians, 114, 170 explosives dropped, Vietnam, 26 Eyes Wide Open, 58–59 Ferguson, Andrew, 84–85 fiction, war. See literary works, war firsthand war experiences, New York Times articles, 102–3 Flake, Jeff, 9–10 foreign policy analysis, 22 forward operating bases, 32–33 Fountain, Ben, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, 62, 66–67, 164–65, 176 friendships, true, 66–67 Gallagher, Jean, 12 Garnanez, Tina, 40 Geneva Accords, 23 Gettysburg National Park Foundation, 55–56 Gieryn, Thomas, 85 Glass, Brent D., 98
Index | 213
Gold Star families, 133–34, 134–35f Gologorsky, Beverly, 29–30 Things We Do to Make It Home, The, 30 Goodacre, Glenna, 108–9 Gottschall, Jonathan, 167–68 Gray, Gina, 128–29 Great Man Theory of History, 78, 84 Ground Zero site, 180–81 Gun, Tran Thai, 26 guns, worldwide availability, 4 Gurian, Elaine Heumann, 100 Hagopian, Patrick, 106–7 Hammett, Dashiell, 123 Harleys, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 112–13 Harmon, Michael, 39–40 Hart, Frederick, 108–9 Harwit, Martin, 81 Haylock, Jennifer, 165–66 Hayslip, Le Ly, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, 144–45, 148–51, 167 Heath-Kelly, Charlotte, 54–55, 115–16, 140, 180–81 Hegelheimer, Helen Tennant, 30–31 helicopter, American Huey, 90f The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, 90f, 90–93 Henry, John, 76 Holland, Sylvia Lutz, 25 Holmqvist, Carolyn, 38 “How to Tell a True War Story” (O’Brien), 141–42 Huey helicopter, American, 90f The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, 90f, 90–93 The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, vs. at Military History Museum of Hanoi, 92f, 92 Hussein, Saddam, 6–7, 33–36 capture, 35–36, 37–38 Iraqi life under, 34–35, 100–1 Operation Desert Storm, 32–33 palaces, Smithsonian exhibit, 96–97
214 | Index
If I Die in a Combat Zone (O’Brien), 61–62, 144–45, 151–53, 167 In Memory, 110–11 Iranian hostage crisis (1979), 104–5 Iraq Veterans Against the War, 7, 59 Iraq War, America’s, 6–7, 30–52. See also specific topics Abu Ghraib prison scandal, 35–36 Al-Qaeda, 6–7 American initiation, 170 American troop withdrawals, 40–41 Arlington National Cemetery, Section 60, 11, 122–38, 132–33f Australian troops in, 45 Bush, George W., post-9/11, 103 casualties, 6–7, 36, 37, 170–71 corruption, 37 counterinsurgency, 35, 38–40 dates, 6–7 embargo and sanctions, on citizens and economy, 35–36, 37 end, 41, 122 foreign policy analysis, 21–22 Green Zone, 35 information and journalist restrictions, 7, 9 literary works, 153–66 (see also literary works, Iraq) media control, 40 military personnel 2007, 37–38 as nationally restorative and ennobling, 21 Operation Desert Storm, 32–33 Operation Enduring Freedom, 33–34 post-9/11, origin and purpose, 33–34 public support, dwindling, 39–40 Remembering Our Fallen memorial, 122, 125 slaughters, 36–37 start and shock and awe strategy, 34–35 transitional government, 36–37 Iraq War, literary works, 11, 45–46, 61–67, 153–66 Antoon, Sinan, The Corpse Washer, 145, 154–55
Benedict, Helen, Sand Queen, 62, 162–66 curating and re-curating wars, 166–68 Fountain, Ben, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, 62, 66–67, 164–65, 176 overview, 141–43 Powers, Kevin, The Yellow Birds, 63, 157–61 Riverbend, 36–37, 41, 64–65 Riverbend, Baghdad Burning, 155–57 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 48–49 ISIL, rise of, 40–41 ISIS Iraq War, 6–7 origins, 3–5 rise of, 40–41 solidification, 22 Jackson, Richard, 68–69 Johnson, Lyndon, 28 Jones, Jennifer, 86 just memory, 21–22, 31, 80–81, 85 Kaldor, Mary, 4–5 Kennedy, John, internment, 126 Kennedy, Roger, 82 Kent State University (May 4, 1970) M-1 rifle used at, 177–80, 179f slain students, 30, 169–82 Khan, Humayun, Captain, grave of, 133–34, 134–35f Klay, Phil, 148, 171–72 “Bodies,” 171–72 Redeployment, 67–68 Kuwait, Operation Desert Storm, 6–7, 32–33, 46, 155 Kwon, Heonik, 74, 180–81 Lao Veterans of America, 126–27 laptop, American Vietnam War correspondent, 96–98, 97f Lee, Robert E., 123–24 Lin, Maya, Vietnam Veterans Memorial design, 107–8, 109 on added statues, 109 veterans focus and names, 109, 111–12
Literacy Life of Things, The (Tischleder), 63–64 literary works, Iraq War, 11, 45–46, 61–67, 153–66 Antoon, Sinan, The Corpse Washer, 145, 154–55 Benedict, Helen, Sand Queen, 62, 162–66 curating and re-curating wars, 166–68 Fountain, Ben, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, 62, 66–67, 164–65, 176 overview, 141–43 Powers, Kevin, The Yellow Birds, 63, 157–61 Riverbend, 36–37, 41, 64–65 Riverbend, Baghdad Burning, 155–57 literary works, Vietnam War, 11, 45–46, 61–67, 144–53 Chong, Denise, 62 Hayslip, Le Ly, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, 144–45, 148–51, 167 Ninh, Bao, The Sorrow of War, 144–48, 167 O’Brien, Tim, If I Die in a Combat Zone, 61–62, 144–45, 151–53, 167 O’Brien, Tim, Things They Carried, The, 65–66, 151–52 literary works, war, 45–46, 61–67, 139–68. See also specific works Afghanistan, 141–43 authorized knowledge, 139–40 bodies in boxes, 140 curating and re-curating wars, 166–68 ennobling wars, 65–66 hidden knowledge, 63 horrors and horrorism, 141–44 Klay, Phil, Redeployment, 67–68 material imaginaries, 63–64 moralities neglected, 64 National Mall, museums, 139 Parker, Harry, Anatomy of a Soldier, 61–62 rape violence, 140–41, 143, 145–46, 148–49, 150, 151
Index | 215
literary works, war (cont.) realities of war, 64–65 regeneration through violence myth, 65 Scranton, Roy, War Porn, 67 selection of, 143–44 Tischleder, Babette, Literacy Life of Things, The, 63–64 value vs. museum exhibits, 62–63 warriors in, 140 whose memories appear?, 139–40 Lonely Solider: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, The (Benedict), 164–65 Louvre, 48 Luke, Timothy, 81 M-1 rifle, Kent State University (May 4, 1970), 177–80, 179f Macie, James Lewis, 75 Mackey, Teri, 39, 40 Marlantes, Karl, 56–57 Marstine, Janet, 53–54 material memorialization, 16 Mayfield, Gregory, 38–39 McCain, John, 9–10 McCoy, Jessica, 38–39 McElya, Micki, 125–26 McMaster, H. R., 38–39, 157–58 Meecham, James, 26–27 Meigs, Montgomery C., 123–25 memento mori, 103, 129, 130–33, 134–35f, 135–37. See also objects, war memoirs, war. See literary works, war memorial-memory studies, 54–55 memorials, war, 54–61 Arlington National Cemetery (see Arlington National Cemetery) Arlington West, 58–59 asymmetries, 73–74 Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 49–51, 50f, 54–55 Code Pink, 59 collections, 55 ephemeral protests and pop-up memorials, 57–60 Eyes Wide Open, 58–59
216 | Index
Gettysburg National Park Foundation, 55–56 memorial-memory studies, 54–55 numbers, 55–56 older, 56–57 purpose, 55 Remembering Our Fallen, 122, 125 uplifting dispirited, 170 Vietnamese-American, 56–57 Vietnam Veterans Memorial (see Vietnam Veterans Memorial) warriors and persons remembered, 57–58 Winter Solider, 59 memories centrality, 54–55 collaborative, 45–46 collective, 16 just, 21–22, 31, 80–81, 85 memories, war, 15–17 being left out of, 181 corrective process, 21–22 curating and re-curating, 180–82 (see also specific topics) expansions, 176–77 experience, 102–3 films, Hollywood, 73–74 lessons from, 173 Nguyen on, 15–16 remembering and forgetting, simultaneous, 169–70 western domination and asymmetry, 73–74 Young on, 16–17 memory industry, war, 5–6, 88, 102–3, 113–14, 138, 169–70, 171–72 Metropolitan Museum of Art, 48–49 militarism acceptance, 9–10 American, critics, 8 forward operating bases, 32–33 in our time, 7–10 preventive war, 32–33 rapid dominance and mission capability packages, 32–33 Reagan, 46 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 46 after Vietnam War, 32–34
military contemporary American culture, 8–9 recruitment, public high schools, 9–10, 175 surveillance, restricted, 171 Military History Museum, Hanoi, 74, 90–93, 92f Minh, Ho Chi, 23 Molin, Peter, 141, 161, 167–68 mortality. See also casualties academic effacement of, 140 soldier, 140 Mosse, George L., 125, 128, 130 motorcycles, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 112–13 Mullins, Demond, 39–40 Museum of Innocence, 48–49 Museum of Modern Art (NYC), 48–49 museums, 47–54, 50f asymmetries of war memorialization, 73–74 Australian War Memorial, 49–51, 50f, 54–55 definition, 47–48 displays, 10–11, 47–48, 51–52 encyclopedic art, 48 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 48–49 Louvre, 48 manipulation, 52–54 Metropolitan Museum of Art, 48–49 Military History Museum, Hanoi, 74, 90–93, 92f Military History Museum of Hanoi, 74, 90–93, 92f mission, 51 Museum of Innocence, 48–49 Museum of Modern Art (NYC), 48–49 National Gallery London, 52–53 National Gallery of Australia, 49 National Mall, 139 personal collections, 48–49 politics and donor negotiations, 51 Price of Freedom: Americans at War, The, (see Price of Freedom: Americans at War, The) silencing, covert, 51–52
Smithsonian museums (see Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum; Smithsonian National Museum of American History) specific subject or region, 49 in Vietnam, on American war, 74 in West, collections and staff, 73–74 in West, domination of war memories, 73–74 My Lai massacre, 26–28, 74, 91–92, 152–53 napalm, 25–26 Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass (David), 42 Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (Wiley), 42, 43–44, 56 National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, 24 National Gallery London, 52–53 National Gallery of Australia, 49 National Mall, museums, 139 Neiberger-Miller, Ami, 129 new materialism, object display, 13 Ng, Andrew, 146 Nguyen, Viet Thanh on American vision of Vietnam war, 31 on contemporary war, 143 on fathers, remembering, 5–6 on Huey helicopters, 92 on just memory, 21–22, 80–81, 85, 110 on memorials, 54–55 on memory industry around war, 88 on object power, 14 Refugees, The, 150–51 on remembering and forgetting, 169–70 on Tet offensive, 26–27 on Vietnamese-American war memorials, 56–57 on war memories, asymmetrical, 73–74 on war memory, expansion, 176–77 on war memory industry, 102–3 on war-related memory, 15–16 on war stories, true vs. fictive, 143 on When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, 150–51 on young Vietnamese women, American views, 93
Index | 217
Ninh, Bao, The Sorrow of War, 144–48, 167 Nixon, Richard, 8–9 novels, war. See literary works, war Novick, Lynn, Vietnam War, The, 102–3 Obama, Barack, 22, 122 Iraq war troop withdrawal, 40–41 ISIS problem, 40–41 Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait, 44 Obama Michelle, official portrait, 44 objects, war, 15–17 collective memory through, 45–46 display, new materialism, 13 memento mori, 103, 129, 130–33, 134–35f, 135–37 power, 13–15 “smart,” 14–15 objects, war, Price of Freedom Huey helicopter, 90f, 90–93 Huey helicopter, vs. at Military History of Hanoi, 92f, 92 laptop computer, war correspondent’s, 96–98, 97f North Vietnamese bicycle, 93–96, 94f overview, 86–90 objects, war, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 111–17, 115f, 116f, 138 motorcycles and Harleys, 112–13, 172 removal and disposal, 131, 172 O’Brien, Tim, 28–29, 95, 167 “How to Tell a True War Story,” 141–42 If I Die in a Combat Zone, 61–62, 144–45, 151–53, 167 “Speaking of Courage,” 63 Things They Carried, The, 65–66, 151–52 Olick, Jeffrey, 54–55 Operation Cedar Falls, 25–26 Operation Desert Storm, 6–7, 32–33, 46, 155 Bush, George H. W., 6–7 Hussein, Saddam, 32–33 September 11, 2001 as consequence of, 33 Operation Enduring Freedom, 33–34 September 11, 2001 as consequence of, 33
218 | Index
paid patriotism, 9–10 Pamuk, Orhan, 48–49 Parashar, Swati, 67–68 Parker, Harry, Anatomy of a Soldier, 61–62 Park-Kang, Sungju, 68–69 Patriotic Productions, 122 peace dividend, post–cold war, 4 Perot, Ross, 108 Petraeus, David, 37–38 Phuc, Kim, 62 Pollock, Jackson as alcoholic and killer, 178–80 Blue Poles, 1–3, 177 Poole, Robert M., 54–56 pop-up memorials, 57–60 Post, Robert C., 84–85 posthumanism, object display, 13 Powers, Kevin, 36–37, 175–76 Iraqi citizens in stories of, 176 Yellow Birds, The, 63, 157–61 preventive war, 32–33 Price of Freedom: Americans at War, The, 53–54, 74, 83–98, 87f, 143 academics’ response, 86 advanced technology, awe, 173 balance, 85 entrance, 86–90, 87f Iraq wars, 128 opening, 85 origins and Behring’s influence, 83–85 politics, battle with Congress, 81–82 public response, 86 woman in, lack of, 173 Price of Freedom: Americans at War, The, war objects Huey helicopter, 90f, 90–93 Huey helicopter, vs. at Military History of Hanoi, 92f, 92 North Vietnamese bicycle, 93–96, 94f overview, 86–90 war correspondent’s Apple laptop, 96–98, 97f protests, ephemeral, 57–60 rape and sexual assault, war, 140–41, 143, 144, 145–46, 148–49, 150, 151 Reagan, Ronald, 32, 46
Redeployment (Klay), 67–68 refugees, fleeing war zone, 7 refugees, Vietnam War, 5–6 U.S. experience, 175–76 Refugees, The (Nguyen), 150–51 relationships, military, 66–67 Remarque, Erich Maria, All Quiet on the Western Front, 146–47 Remembering Our Fallen, 122, 125 Renwick, James, 75 Reppenhagen, Garett, 40 research sites, war knowledge. See sites, war knowledge; specific types Reserve Officer Training programs (ROTC), 29, 177–78 Ricks, Thomas E., 158 Riverbend, 36–37, 41, 64–65 Baghdad Burning, 155–57 Roberts, Patrick, 86, 88–89 Roosevelt, Franklin, 23 Roosevelt, Theodore, 50–52 Rowe, Donna, 91–92 Ruhl, Sarah, Scenes from Court Life, 42–43 Rumors of War series (Wiley), 42–43 Sacks, Sam, 45–46, 142–43 Said, Edward, 167–68 Sand Queen (Benedict), 62, 162–66 Savage, Kirk, 56, 57–58 Scarry, Elaine, 170–71, 174–76 Scenes from Court Life (Ruhl), 42–43 Schafly, Phillis, 108 Scranton, Roy on America’s pursuit of war, 98 on costs and consequences of American wars, 159 on ennobling wars, 65–66 on militarism, 8 on personal relationships, 66–67 on political violence and soldiers, 161 on war as nationally restorative and ennobling, 21 War Porn, 67 Scruggs, Jan, 105–6, 108, 112–13 search-and-destroy operations, Vietnam, 25
September 11, 2001, 33 war energy after, renewed, 46–47 sexual assault, war, 140–41, 143, 144, 145–46, 148–49, 150, 151 Sharrett, David H. II, 134–35, 136f Sherald, Amy, Michelle Obama official portrait, 44 silencing, covert, 51–52 sites, war knowledge, 10–11, 45–69. See also curation; specific types Arlington National Cemetery (see Arlington National Cemetery) Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 49–51, 50f, 54–55 collaborative memories, 45–46 content, decision makers, 45 literary works, 11, 45–46, 61–67 (see also literary works, war) memorials, 54–61 (see also memorials, war) museums, 47–54, 50f (see also museums) museums, displays, 10–11 public expectation, 45–46 Vietnam Veterans Memorial (see Vietnam Veterans Memorial) war authority, 3, 67–69 Skander, Nimo Din’Kha, 35–36 Skjelsbaek, Inger, 140–41 Slotkin, Richard, 8, 65 Smith, Patti, 14 Smithson, James, 75 Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, 74 beginnings, 80–81 Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War, The, 80–81 Enola Gay, 80–81, 85, 99 Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 50–52, 53, 73–101 acquisitioning, idiosyncratic, 82–83 beginnings, 76–80 curations, Vietnam and Iraq, 65–101 Department of Arts and Industries, 76–77
Index | 219
Smithsonian National Museum of American History (cont.) design, 75–76 growth, 76 Huey helicopter, 90f, 90–93 laptop, James Craven, war correspondent, 96–98, 97f mismanagement, pre-1970s, 82–83 Museum of History and Technology, 81–82 myths and memories, 74–76 name change 1980, 82 National Armed Forces Museum Advisory Board, 79–80 as national war museum 1945–1965 lobbying, 78–80 North Vietnamese bicycle, 93–96, 94f origins, 75–76 The Price of Freedom: Americans at War (see Price of Freedom: Americans at War, The) status and original purpose, 74–75 storage, inadequate, 82–83 Taylor’s modernization, 76–78 today, 81–83 Son My (My Lai) massacre, 26–28, 74, 91–92, 152–53 Sorrow of War, The (Ninh), 144–48, 167 Soular, Jim, 25–26 South, Todd, 122 “Speaking of Courage” (O’Brien), 63 Steinglass, Matt, 167 Stur, Heather Marie, 30 Sturken, Marita, 110 Taft, William, 74–75 Taylor, Frank, 76–78 Teeger, Chana, 51–52 Tet offensive, 24–25, 26–28, 119 The Wall that Heals, 103–4, 112–13, 118–22, 119–21f, 124–25, 138, 173 things, 13–14. See also objects, war Things They Carried, The (O’Brien), 65–66, 151–52 Things We Do to Make It Home, The (Gologorsky), 30
220 | Index
Thinh, Ta Quang, 22–23 Tibbets, Paul W., Jr., 81 Time Now (Molin), 161 Tischleder, Babette, The Literacy Life of Things, 63–64 Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 125–26, 127–28 Trofanenko, Brenda, 53–54, 95–96 Truman, Harry, 23 Trump, Donald, 22 Tuong, Duong, 147–48 Turner, Brian, 140 Turner, Fred, 144 Utas, Mats, 149 Veterans for Peace, Arlington West, 58–59 Viet Minh forces, defeat of France, 23 Vietnam colonialism, resistance to, 26 colonial occupations, 24 Vietnamese-American war memorials, 56–57 Vietnam Syndrome, 46 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 103–22 as abstract memorial, 56–57 achieving, 104–11 agency approvals, 106–7 citizen curators, 38 crowds, and difficulty lingering, 61 dedication, 103–4 design competition, 106–7 erection and militarism, 46 impetus, 104–6 as just memory, 31 Lin, Maya, 107–8, 109 memento mori, 103 (see also memento mori) motorcycles and Harleys, 112–13 names on, 110 objects at, 111–17, 115f, 116f, 138 (see also objects, war) objects at, disposal of, 131, 172 opening, 31 opening, national mood, 31 popularity and design, 61
pop-up displays, 69 post-traumatic stress disorder and, 106 praising soldiers by, 170–71 public ownership and collected memory, 114 as re-curatorial, 138 related post-war deaths (PTS, suicide, Agent Orange), 110–11 site, 11 Vietnam War education, 117–22, 119–21f visitors, number, 61, 107 The Wall that Heals, 103–4, 112–13, 118–22, 119–21f, 124–25, 138, 173 who is honored, 60 Young on, 16 Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), 105–7 education, virtual, 172 educational center, abandoned, 117 funding work, 105–7 goals, 170 In Memory, 110–11 Vietnam War, America’s, 5–6, 22–31. See also specific topics Agent Orange and napalm, 25–26 American initiation, 170 antiwar protesters, 29 atrocities committed, 28 beginning, no clear, 23 casualties, 5–6, 22–23, 28, 170–71 counterinsurgency, 34 education on, 117–22, 119–21f end, 41 explosives dropped, 26 failures, 26–28 failures, sequelae, 46 foreign policy analysis, 21–22 French history, 23 Geneva Accords, 23 as just memory, 21–22 literary works, 144–53 (see also literary works, Vietnam) militarism after, 32–34 My Lai massacre, 26–28, 74, 91–92, 152–53
National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, 24 as nationally restorative and ennobling, 21 Operation Cedar Falls, 25–26 reason and rewards, 22–23 refugees from, 5–6, 175–76 search-and-destroy operations, 25 success, measuring, 22–23 Tet offensive, 24–25, 26–28, 119 troop deployments, progression, 23 urbanization, forced, 25–26 Vietnamese control, 24–25 women and gender effects, 30 Vietnam War, literary works, 11, 45–46, 61–67, 144–53 Chong, Denise, 62 Hayslip, Le Ly, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, 144–45, 148–51, 167 Ninh, Bao, The Sorrow of War, 144–48, 167 O’Brien, Tim, If I Die in a Combat Zone, 61–62, 144–45, 151–53, 167 O’Brien, Tim, The Things They Carried, 65–66, 151–52 Vietnam War, The (Burns and Novick), 102–3 Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project, 108–9 Vinitzky-Seroussi, Vered, 51–52 von Eckardt, Wolf, 81–82 Wagner, Anne, 109 war. See also specific wars and topics as America’s civic religion, 8–9 contemporary, 4–5 failed wars, 169–70 as global social institution, 3–4 history, 171 information about, lack of, 7, 9 new wars, 4–5 as normalized, 3–4 results, Vietnam and Iraq, 4–5 state-centric study, 3–4 as transhistorical, transnational, and transcultural, 3–4
Index | 221
war authority contenders, 173–74 exploring, 67–69 identifying, 3 proper, 181–82 War Porn (Scranton), 67 warrior-America formula, 8 war zone, civilians living in, 175 bodies of war, 139–40 civilians carrying out daily life, 3, 64–65 horrorisms, 166 refugees fleeing, 7 seeking shelter from, 146–47 surviving in, 175 as tactical agency, 149 woman, punishing, 165 women, enemy, 173 war zone, military personnel experience in female military, 164–65 home as, after Iraq war, 148 leaving, for America, 150–51 redeployment to, 46–47 Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Bacevich), 32 Watkins, George, 25 Wenger, William, 39 When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (Hayslip), 148–51, 167 Whitlam, Prime Minister Gough, 2
222 | Index
Wiley, Kehinde Barack Obama official portrait,44 Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, 42, 43–44, 56 Rumors of War series, 42–43 Williams, Bill and Evonne, 122 Winter Solider, 59 Wittlin, Alma, 14 Wolfe, Tom, 108 women, in war enemy, war zones, 173 Lonely Solider: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, The (Benedict), 164–65 rape and sexual assault, 140–41, 143, 144, 145–46, 148–49, 150, 151 Vietnam War, 30 Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project, 108–9 young Vietnamese women, American views, 93 World Trade Center, 180–81 Yellow Birds, The (Powers), 63, 157–61 Young, James E., 15, 109, 112, 114, 170 on Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 16 on war-related memory, 16–17 Zaretsky, Natasha, 181