Fri November 30, 2007
American Wars, American Peace: Notes from a Son of the Empire
American Wars reads fast, like running downhill, like reading Philip Roth or Saul Bellow. Beidler has great skills at historical summarizing and drawing together the political and the popular arts, but he is never better than when he is writing the personal, the events that happened to him, the issues that enrage him.
By Don Noble
On April 1st, 1970, Philip Beidler was a lieutenant serving as executive officer for D Troop, Seventeenth Cavalry. It was the first day of his last month in Vietnam, the worst day of the war for D Troop, and, it seems, the worst day of Beidler's life.
His unit suffered heavy casualties, including the loss of Brigadier General William R. Bond, the highest ranking officer lost in Vietnam, killed about 150 feet from where Lt. Beidler was standing.
Beidler later learned that at that same time, in DC, President Nixon was nerving himself up to order the catastrophic Cambodian invasion, by watching, repeatedly, George C. Scott in the film Patton, which Beidler calls a "kind of guts and glory comic book."
Beidler recalls these coincidental Vietnam era events and goes on to discuss another appalling coincidence. On May 1, 2003 , while President George Bush was celebrating "Mission Accomplished," the megaphoto-op on board the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, at that very moment Pfc. Jesse Givens drowned when the tank he was driving overturned and rolled into the Euphrates River.
There are, Beidler asserts, a number of parallels between his war in Vietnam and the present war in Iraq, many of them ironic and obscene.
Beidler survived the war, took a PhD at UVA, and joined the faculty at Alabama, with a literary specialty in early American literature and what would be a growing interest in Alabama literature, but the Vietnam experience never left him, to say the least.
In several volumes, Beidler has examined the authors and literary works that came out of the national experience in Vietnam, but in his last book, Late Thoughts on an Old War, and this new one, American Wars, American Peace, he has moved from writing mostly what others had to say about the national debacle to what he thinks about it. In American Wars, he makes the connections to the war in Iraq.
Several essays in this volume are, in a sense, historical summaries. Beidler compares the training, weapons, and tactics of Vietnam and Iraq in "An Old GI looks at Generation Kill." Beidler, like most commentators, feels that this is possibly the best military we have ever put into the field, with morale, food, weapons, and medical treatment on the battlefield all excellent.
In a long and very informative essay "The Haji," reminiscent of the work of the late Edward Said, in his masterwork, Orientalism, Beidler summarizes our?the West's?impressions of the Muslim world, from Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik through Lawrence of Arabia to I Dream of Jeannie, King Farouk, Ali Khan, Malcolm X, all the way to Osama bin Laden. It is clear we don't know much, and much of what we think we know is wrong. This essay has more the scent of library dust than battlefield gunpowder, but it should still be required reading.
Beidler visits Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, home of the U.S. Infantry, and there contrasts the superb Colonel Steve Russell with Lt. William Calley, who must have been one of the army's worst but, even after the truth about My Lai was pretty fully known, was pardoned by Richard Nixon and spent his time clerking in his father-in-law's jewelry store. Beidler is appropriately tough on Calley, and, surprisingly, very tough on the charismatic president John F. Kennedy and the Rhodes Scholar president Bill Clinton, for allowing their personal weaknesses to distract them from crucial international business.
Beidler's prose in this volume is his best ever. American Wars reads fast, like running downhill, like reading Philip Roth or Saul Bellow. Beidler has great skills at historical summarizing and drawing together the political and the popular arts, but he is never better than when he is writing the personal, the events that happened to him, the issues that enrage him.
His general conclusion: "After all these years, we just didn't really seem to have learned much of anything."
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.