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Monday, March 24, 2008

The Aeneid, 4,000 & Time to Own Up....

Academics have argued the uses of literature since the beginning of time. What is literature's best use? How does literature reflect "real life?" Should it reflect real life? The arguments are endless. I have been musing about this post for a few days now. Mainly I have been doing so because I have a lot to say regarding "The Aeneid," yet the more I think about it, the less I am able to separate myself from what I am reading. Just today, the 4,000th United States casualty of the Iraq War was recorded. Many say that in five years that number could be a great deal higher, and that we should be thankful that it is as "low" as it is. I don't want to get into personal opinions of foreign policy or politics in general. This blog is not a place for that. What I would like to point out is the fact that the U.S. military is a force dependent solely on volunteers. Reading "The Aeneid" has made me reflect on what it means for an individual to volunteer, embrace the spirit de corps and forget about himself. My grandfather volunteered in World War I, as did my uncles in World War II and my dear father in that forgotten episode called The Korean War. One of my first cousins was killed in action in Vietnam. I volunteered when the time came for me to do so, and, by the initial look of things, I thought to serve five years, collect a juicy check for college tuition, and then go about my life as if nothing had happened. This picture is my boot camp picture--I was a lad then. After all, when I signed up (1985), Ronald Reagan and Mikhael Gorbachev were literally kissing on the television. But the truth is that the Summer of 1990 came like a light of thunder, and the storm unleashed at the beginning of August was unavoidable.

In "The Aeneid" there is no casualty count, no IEDs, no "smart bombs," and no $120 a month for "hazard pay." What there's plenty of is the code of "Warrior Mind," a courage beyond description and reason, but yet beautiful and admirable. The passages are innumerable, really, but I will include here--in my opinion--some of the best. "The Story of the Sack of Troy" is a confusing and honestly told scene of "battle royale" proportions. There's plenty of running around when the fury of the Grecians is unleashed, yet, one part of the scene touched me very deeply with its honesty and display of courage, honor and commitment to a cause. Priam, the old stateman, finds himself, at the height of the Grecian attack, contemplating the burning city.

"When he saw the ruin of his captured city, the gates of his house burst open, and the enemy amid his innermost chambers, the old man idly fastens round his aged trembling shoulders his long disused armour, girds on the unavailing sword, and advances on his death among the thronging foe."

My chest swelled with pride as I saw the old king of Troy stand up for his city that way. I suppose my argument is not to glorify violence, but rather to exalt the real sacrifice of an individual who, during heated combat, puts all his egotism aside and gives his life and effort for the ideals he hold sacred. As I said earlier, this book has me recollecting what was my personal experience in "whatever it was I fought in," that confusing conflict which inspired no one and left more questions than answers--questions that were to reap their bitter fruits 12 years after the fact. The First Iraq War (or "Desert Storm") was an aimless conflict, albeit the UN resolution that put us there in the first place. I believe that "my war" is destined to become the next Korean War: a confused conflict that no one really cared about then or now. The similarities between the conflicts are striking, but more importantly because both conflicts happened at a "blah" moment in history, a "flat" moment in the pop soda of human history. As described by "The New York Times," when Anthony Swofford's book "Jarhead" came out:

"The first Iraq war is obviously an event that impinges directly on the current situation, and yet at the same time it seems curiously remote. Its post-cold-war, pre-9/11 context is in some ways blurrier than more distant times. The war itself happened fast and left a confused legacy."

I suppose that the history of human conflict is just that--one blur event leading to another one. There might not be a way to escape what is obvious: imperialist powers jockey for position near what is today the largest deposit of fossil fuel known to the world. Leaders might encourage the young men to fight courageously, turn it all into some idealistic campaign for sacred (albeit empty) words like freedom, democracy, rights, liberty, etc. But to the warrior in the heat of combat fossil fuels, diplomacy (or lack thereof), political expediency, and other tricks of the political trade are unimportant. They all fight for the same reasons the genealogy of heroes did: self-discipline, courage, honor, the larger picture of virtues that are easy to see, yet easier to ignore. The impression "The Aeneid" characters make on the reader is that they are all into "the fight" with honorable intentions. When I think of the camaraderie in both "The Aeneid" and "The Iliad" it is clear to me that it is so. However, these men also have large egos. I have only to think of Achilles arguing with Agamemnon about what is owed to him after the battle; his reward seems so small next to Agamemnon's take of the pie. Hector too has a great deal of pride, something which plays a great deal into his encounter with Achilles in battle. I suppose I shouldn't generalize but I don't see these men having questions about whether or not they should engage in battle. Most of the combat in these classics seems "justified," despite the fact that from the distance of time we want to believe that no war is justified. But what is the impact of these conflicts on the men who fight them? That is the ultimate answer to an decipherable question. As Willard Waller put it: "War does different things to different men. It disables one, unbalances the mind of a second, pauperizes a third, and makes a fourth write great literature to ease his tortured soul."
Aeneas tells of the fate of Priam:
"At this Priam, although even now fast in toils of death, yet withheld not nor spared a wrathful cry: 'Ah, for thy crime, for this thy hardihood, may the gods, if there is goodness in heaven to care for aught such, pay thee in full thy worthy meed, and return thee the reward that is due! who hast made me look face to face on my child's murder, and polluted a father's countenance with death. Ah, not such to a foe was the Achilles whose parentage thou beliest; but he revered a supplicant's right and trust, restored to the tomb Hector's blood-drained corpse, and sent me back to my own realm."

Again, without the intention of advocating violence, there's something attractive about Priam's final defiance. The old king refuses to go quietly. I think of my father--his nonnegotiable code of honor; his impenetrable silence in the face of great pain and hardship; his unbending stoicism and resolution. These were things he tried very hard to teach me. I tried to follow his footsteps, but the size was a bit big for me. After years trying to fill his shoes I bended the road ahead and sheltered myself in a life of academics. I am light years away from what I was, really, and this is the reason why "The Aeneid" speaks to me the way it does. I've gotten lost in the wilderness of a world no one in my family ever entered before. The questions never abandoned me: do I belong where I am today? Is this really me? What do I do with the warrior mind now? Should I continue to struggle against the fact that I stood for values that today are being trampled and dishonored in the name of lower gas prices? What about the values that "The Aeneid," "The Iliad," and "The Odyssey" speak of? I am tainted. Part of me will always carry the stain, no matter what world I decide to inhabit. Anthony Swofford wrote eloquently about this. He too abandoned the vile and repulsive violence and embraced an academic life.

Anthony Swofford's book "Jarhead" was a breakthrough in combat-related writing. The book appeared at a time in my life when I sort of decided to "resign" my experience. I had given my life to the pursuit of academics, and, to my belief, those two segments of my life were as incompatible as water and oil. There was nothing, I said to myself, my combat experience can offer my new life in academia. The more I put myself above and beyond my experience in the United States Marines, the more I realized that it was unavoidable, inescapable. I wasn't that dumb kid who enlisted to make his father proud. I forgot all about the ills of communism, and how even in the mid-1980s the government was already using that ideology as an excuse to escalate tensions and the military budget. No, I wasn't thinking at all anymore. I didn't want to. That wasn't me anymore. I was different. I had been one of them, a part of the larger mission, but I had given it all up. With this crux I knew I would never find peace. It wasn't until literature helped me understand the causes and effects of my experience, and that no matter how fast or far I could run, there was no denying this:

"The man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war, and afterward he turns his rifle in at the armory and believes he's finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands - love a woman, build a house, change his son's diaper - his hands remember the rifle and the power the rifle proffered. The cold weight, the buttstock in the shoulder, the sexy slope and fall of the trigger guard.... To be a marine, a true marine, you must kill. With all of your training, all of your expertise, if you don't kill, you're not a combatant, even if you've been fired at, and so you are not yet a marine: receiving fire is easy - you've either made a mistake or the enemy is better, and now you are either lucky or dead but not a combatant.... The sad truth is that when you're a jarhead, you're incapable of not being a jarhead, you are a symbol, so that in a city like San Diego, where there are more jarheads than windows and the jarheads are embarrassing because of their behavior and dress and you want more than anything else not to be associated with the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, you are still one.... Though you might be an individual, first you are a symbol, or part of a larger symbol that some people believe stands for liberty and honor and valor, God and country and Corps. Sometimes this is correct, sometimes this is foolish. But either way, you are part of the goddamn thing.... That jarhead with the high and tight haircut, the Disneyland T-shirt, acid-washed jeans, farmer's tan, poor grammar, and plan stupid look on his face, he is you. And that one, with the silly regulation mustachio, the overweight wife from his hometown of Bumfuck, with three kids in tow, three kids covered with sticky boardwalk foods and wet sand, one of them crying because he has to pee and the older sister just punched him in the face, he is you. And that jarhead is you, the one with the wife just twenty-four hours out of a bar in the PI, the both of them deeply in love with each other and all things American.... he is you.... And the jarheads fighting and warring and cussing and killing in every filthy corner of the godforsaken globe, from 1775 until now, they are you. This is troubling and difficult to admit, and it causes you unending anguish, and you attempt to deny it, but it's true. Even now."

Education has a way of opening a new world of ideas to the individual, but it also has a way of disabling that individual's ability to relate to his past. Who he was before education becomes incompatible with the new person created by academics, as if the act of getting an education was part enlightenment, part freak science project gone wrong. I didn't want the association with whatever the sacrifices I made. The losses were heavier at home than in the far away desert I served my time. And no matter how far I wanted to be from those comrades, I was still and will forever be, one of them.

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At 1:48 PM, Blogger Imani said...

Have you ever read Andre Dubus' fiction? He himself was in the Marines and his story collections always include stories that involve them and the military experience to varying degrees. Or he focuses on their wives, children, other loved ones etc. In the one I just read, "Finding a Girl in America", I'd say about 80% of the stories involve Marines. He ended up in academics too.

I don't know if he ever experienced combat but so far I haven't come across a story in which he focuses on it -- he usually writes about the military man in civilian life, or in service but not actually in battle. (He mentions the Korean War too so he hasn't forgotten, at least.)

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Heather said...

This was a beautiful, detailed and very personal post. Thank you for sharing all this with us.


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