“Our Little Pest of A War”: Two Veterans Write On the War in Iraq

Summertime generally finds me with a large stack of books on my living room floor waiting to be read. This summer is no different. Now that classes are done for the semester I’ve been digging into that pile and pulled out two devastating gems that read like a hand grenade dropped into the soul. The first is Kevin Power’s novel The Yellow Birds (2012) and Phil Klay’s collection of short stories Redeployment (2014).

Power’s narrative is written in the first person and follows the experiences of 21 year old Private John Bartle and 18 year old Private Daniel Murphy as they join the U.S. Army and are sent to fight in Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq.The story is not chronological but jumps back in forth through time and space. We begin with scenes of battle from Al Tafar in September of 2004 and then jump back to Fort Dix, New Jersey in December of 2003 and see Bartle’s experience following enlistment but prior to deployment. This discontinuous method of narration makes the story hard to follow at times but clearly reflects the first person narrator’s state of mind. Private Bartle is caught between Iraq and the United States, between 2009 (the most recent date in the novel) and 2004 (his deployment to Iraq). The only consistent element in the story is the older-brother-like relationship Bartle forms with Daniel Murphy, mostly at the insistence of Private Murphy’s mother and Bartle’s Sergeant who’s not convinced that Murphy will survive the war. As you might imagine, things don’t end well for Murphy. I won’t tell you how, you’ll need to read the book. Bartle, however, manages to survive and can’t help but think as he stares out a window that “beyond the tree line the dull world that ignored our little pest of a war rolled on” (Powers, 216) while he is stuck reliving each day the things he saw and did on the streets of Iraq.

Phil Klay’s collection of short stories is even more fractured in narration than Power’s novel as he shifts to radically different characters and settings for each piece. Essentially Redeployment is 12 distinct narratives that are only loosely connected by the war and its effect on the characters represented. Readers meet enlisted men and non-commissioned officers as well as company level officers, the key players in most war fiction, but they also meet a foreign service officer tasked with rebuilding Iraq and an Marine chaplain struggling to hold on to his faith as the battles unfold. We see this vast range of characters experience everything from the death of friends in battle to the death of a family pet at home and the sympathy of friends and family as well as their inability to figure out what to say to soldiers coming home beyond “thank you for your service.” One of the few elements that ties these stories together is a recurring emphasis on storytelling as a key part of war and the public perception of veterans. Returning to base after a mission, the Marine grunt who narrates the story “After Action Report” remarks that

“every time I told the story [i.e. about the attack], it felt better. Like I owned it a little more. when I told the story, everything was clear. I made diagrams. Explained the angles of bullet trajectories. Even saying it was dark and dusty and fucking scary made it less dark and dusty and fucking scary. So when I though back on it, there were the memories I had, and the stories I told, and they sort of sat together in my mind, the stories becoming stronger every time I retold them, feeling more and more true” (Klay, 35).

Learning how to tell stories is part of the task of becoming a veteran that Klay describes but also views with a caustic eye worthy of Ambrose Bierce. In the story “Psychological Operations,” a former psychological warfare specialist struggles to fit in while attending classes at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He admits to readers that “I tended to play the world-weary vet who’d seen something of life and could look at my fellow student’s idealism with only the wistful sadness of a parent whose child is getting too old to believe in Santa Claus. It’s amazing how well the veteran mystique plays, even at a school like Amherst, where I’d have thought the kids would be smart enough to know better” (Klay, 170).When a student asks him “should I thank vets for their service…or spit on them, like Vietnam,” he tells her “I reserve the right to be angry at whatever you do. It’s all phony. When the war started, almost three hundred congressmen voted for it. And seventy-seven senators. But now, everybody’s washed their hands of it” (206).Because he is a former psychological warfare soldier, it is hard to know how much of the narrator’s words we can trust. At the moments quoted above, however, he seems to be genuine with the reader and (moreover) to hint at the author’s own perspective towards how U.S. citizens view those sent off to fight in this “Pest of a War.” Why are we thanking veterans for their service while at the same time making no effort to understand the war in which they fought?

This problem is not unique to the Iraq War and carries on throughout most of U.S. history. It is easy to forget that World War Two and Vietnam are not the norm for the American soldier. More often than great praise or public scorn, soldiers returning home from U.S. wars are met with indifference. Greeted by a public who has long forgotten that a war is even going on. Powers and Klay are among the vanguard of what promises to be a large collection of writing, both fiction and nonfiction, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One supposedly ended (for the second time) and the other still going on. At this point it is too early to tell how these wars will be remembered but I have a suspicion that future generations will remember these wars in a way much closer to the “small wars” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in places like Cuba, Nicaragua, China, and the Philippines. Trained to find and destroy the enemy soldiers of an opposing state, our army is just as ill-prepared today as it was over a hundred years ago to serve as politicians, policemen, engineers, and teachers. What we have in our time, I’m afraid, is another “savage war of peace” started by men who have no interest in learning from history and chose to let other men relive it for them. A sad and sobering thought like this I carry with me as I enter this Memorial Day weekend and prepare to honor the dead of all the U.S. wars.

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NEMLA 2016 (Hartford, Connecticut) Call for Panels (Due May 29)

2016 NeMLA flyer-page-001

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Thoughts on NEMLA 2015 (Toronto)

Luxurious is the first word I’d use to describe my experience in Toronto at this year’s NEMLA both spatially as well as intellectually.  Taking place at the historic Royal York hotel, I had the opportunity to spend time in a location once visited by Queen Elizabeth and filled with oddly beautiful and yet disconcerting traces of empire.

The first session I attended, on the self-made man in the plays of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde (5.21), was held in the Quebec Room, which featured a full length mural on one wall of explorers discovering the city in their dug out canoes.  An appropriately theatrical setting for a pair of authors who toyed with treasured assumptions of the middle class British male.

Following this session I attended one focused on meeting the needs of our students with flexible teaching methods (6.6). Two of the presenters were interested in the use of fully online or blended courses.  Their experience with them sounded mixed.  One presenter on the panel focused on the support services available at her school for transitional students who had dropped out of high school prior to attending university or had not imagined themselves as being college material.  The final pair of presenters described attempts at their university in Sweden (Uppsala) to shift undergraduate teacher education with a new form of thesis research that emphasized projects that could be used in the classroom to teach students while at the same time encouraging teachers in training to reflect on their teaching practices.  My lack of knowledge of the Swedish language prevents me from telling you much about the content of the student theses examples the presenters passed around, but the images suggested that each project was interested in creating an active learning environment for students.  Two thumbs up in my book.

The presenters from Sweden had my particular attention in this session as they seem to have found an effective way to close the gap between theory and practice in their discipline.  This dilemma has always been one of interest to me, in part motivating the creation of this blog.  What good is knowledge when it is hidden in a format that only a small number of people can see and use?  These students were learning the most important thing a teacher can learn.  Make learning accessible in both literal and metaphorical terms.

From this session on flexible learning I went to a panel presentation on the use of digital tools for learning (7.3). One of my colleagues, Mary Hale, gave an excellent talk on her own suspicions about the digital turn and its limitations for the teaching of literature.  The other speakers showed methods of digital pedagogy they had used in the classroom, primarily to contextualize the materials being examined.  My favorite approach was the bio-regional one taken by Ken Cooper from SUNY Genesco who with the help of librarian Elizabeth Argentiari created interactive maps and web pages (using OMEKA) that documented the layers of history underlying cultural representations of the Genesee valley.  I’ve always been a regionalist at heart and love projects that make students go outside into the landscape (rural or urban) and learn from the people and the land in addition to their textbooks.

One comment on the location for this panel, the Banff Room had clearly been a guest room at some point and was turned into a makeshift presentation space.  The old, yellow, peeling, and musty wall paper couldn’t help but remind me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  Hands down this was the creepiest conference room I’ve ever been in!  But I guess the nineteenth-century feel was appropriate for a nineteenth-century literature and culture panel.

After that stimulating session on the use of digital technology,  I took a break to eat, going outside to buy a hot dog from a surly street food vendor.  For a moment I thought I was in New York.  Then I went back inside the hotel for a panel on postwar Italian representations of World War II (9.2).  To my regret, the first presenter, Daniele Pipitone, was unable to attend the conference.  I was very much looking forward to learning more about the imagery of the war published by Italian popular magazines in its aftermath.  The three presenters I did have the pleasure to hear were very engaging.  I especially enjoyed Silvia Ross’s paper on the lack of Italians in the landscape of Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient and Nicole’s lively discussion of counter-factual history in relation to Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds.

The only sour note in the series of panels I attended greeted me on Saturday morning at the round table on adjunct faculty (10.1).  I was late attending this panel and only caught the last speaker who delivered a lively presentation of what he felt were the benefits of being a part-time faculty member.  Not long before he finished speaking a woman sat down in the back row next to me.  We started the discussion portion of the round table and someone asked a question about the gender and racial breakdown of adjunct faculty.  I muttered under my breath “the statistics are pretty clear.”  And they are.  Women and minorities make up the largest number of adjunct faculty.

The woman next to me glowered at me and spoke in a voice between a shout and a whisper:  “What statistics?  You mean the AAUP ones?  Those are skewed.  Don’t you know who funded them?”  She then proceeded to berate me for believing these statistics and began to cause a distraction for the rest of the people in the room.

Embarrassed, I tried to disengage from her and nearly left the room.  I stayed and watched her continue to hijack the discussion, telling everyone in the room to “follow the money” and leave the profession.  Eventually the room regained its equilibrium, but the storm blown in by her bitterness put a chill over the rest of the conversation.  I left as soon as a I could after that and went to another panel.  A sad end for me to what appeared to have been an otherwise positive session.

At every conference I attend, I make a habit of going to a panel on something I know nothing about.  This year I decided to attend a round table session on 21st Century Tunisian Women Authors (11.14).  The first two presenters spoke solely in French, leaving me to struggle through the remnants of my knowledge of that language learned many years ago as a middle school student in Vermont.  Luckily they had slides.  I could read and comprehend those easier than their speech, which I struggled to slow down in my head and translate.  I must say, however, the struggle was fun and reminded me of why I began to engage in scholarship in the first place, for the mental challenge.  The last presenter and much of the discussion was in English.  I was particularly interested in what the audience had to say about the role of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) in the lives of Tunisian women. Trying to help them achieve some measure of autonomy in their lives, many of these NGO’s were acting like 21st century colonizers, trying to impose a model of female autonomy on these women that did not respect their cultural heritage.  I left that session wanting to go back and study French if for no other reason than to read the works of these brave women trying to find their voice in a troubled land.

I left this realm of unfamiliar people and language for a more comfortable space in the next session on regionalist writing in the nineteenth-century United States (12.23).  All four panelists were excellent.  The one that caught my attention most, however, was Florian Freitag’s talk on local color fiction about New Orleans in Scribner’s and other monthly periodicals from the late nineteenth-century.  In part my interest was due to his explicit use of the periodical studies method, which is becoming far too rare in contemporary scholarship.  Florian is attempting to contextualize the regionalist narratives he is examining within the magazine as a whole, considering both its publishers and their intended audience.  I look forward to reading whatever publications develop from his research.

The last panel I attended was a round table on interdisciplinarity and the future of the humanities (13.24).  All of us in the room bounced through so many different topics that I can’t possibly cover them all here.  Suffice to say that there seemed to be a common thread throughout the discussion that the humanities are worth fighting for and that we as humanities scholars need to do a better job of promoting ourselves and our work.  A special shout out is in order to Jean-Paul Boudreau, Dean of Arts at Ryerson University in Toronto, one of our local hosts, for sitting on the panel and reminding us that we should approach our Deans with new ideas and instead of fearing rejection find new ways to argue our case.  Proof yet again, that Rhetoric is the mother discipline of all others.  ; )

A plane back to Chicago awaited me after that panel, but I would be remiss in not mentioning the two AMAZING keynote addresses.  The first was on Thursday where M. NourbeSe Philip and Madeleine Stratford brought their poetry to life for us.  Similar life was breathed into the bard on Friday night as Christopher Innes and Brigitte Bogar shared the many adaptations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the audience.  Brigitte sang musical adaptations of this classic story of ill-fated love and even shared the stage on two occasions with a ballet dancer who demonstrated two dances used to portray the character of Juliet.

I started this blog post with the word luxurious, using it to describe the setting of NEMLA 2015, but the intellectual aspect of the word has (I find) gotten lost somewhere in my expansive description of the sessions I attended.  What made this conference luxurious intellectually for me was that I was able to attend the conference without chairing a panel or presenting a paper.  I was simply a tourist in a land of fascinating ideas.  This won’t be the case for me next year in Hartford as I left Toronto the newly elected Director of American literature.  NEMLA 2016 is likely to be a busy event for me as I try to fill the large shoes of my predecessor, Jennifer Harris, and the amazing conference put together by the NEMLA board this year in Canada.  A daunting task, but I’m up for the challenge.  See you all in the Charter Oak State!

Front of Imperial Ballroom Lobby View of the Clock Murals of Empire Back of Imperial Ballroom Old Dinner Ware and Event Programe Hotel Lobby Viewed from the Mezzanine A Hotel Good Enough For a Queen Heading Home

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My Book Is Now Available For Purchase

My book at long last is now available for purchase.  You can buy a copy here:  http://fordhampress.com/index.php/new-men-cloth.html

No this is not an April Fools joke.  : )

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Military Service and Civic Guilt

How we represent veterans matters.  This is a concept central to my research, which attempts to provide historical perspective on the always complicated relationship between armies and the societies they were created to protect.  To understand that relationship at a given place and time, I rely on images and phrases that have moved beyond their original more limited symbolic use to become mythic in nature.  Once an image or phrase has shifted into the realm of myth, it contains a ready made story within it that viewers or readers don’t need to decode as much as re-enact.  Two such phrases that have been on my mind considerably of late are:  “more are dying every day” and “thank you for your service.”

The first of these phrases appeared in a somewhat altered form in an article published by the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, March 15 about seven brothers from the Powell family who had served in the Second World War.  In that article, the writer addressed a move by the state of Illinois to name a section of highway in Greene County, Illinois “The Powell Brother’s Memorial Highway.”  He suggested that state lawmakers should move fast, saying:

“George Powell is the last survivor among the Powell brothers and the lone surviving sibling of the 13 Powell children.  He’s also 99 years old, living in a Traverse City, Mich., rehabilitation center.  Meanwhile, the number of World War II vets continues to decline.  The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 550 veterans from that conflict die every day, and that 1.2 million of the 16 million who served in the war are alive today” (“Bad of Brothers.”).

Numbers don’t lie, according to this writer, and consequently we must hurry to honor the service of veterans such as George Powell, “550 veterans from that conflict die every day.”  But the question we don’t ask as we read this article is why this war and why this sense of urgency?  The writer assumes we already know.

Perhaps we do.  But it is worth remembering that the Second World War is one of the “good wars” in American consciousness.  Fought to save the world from Fascism and end the human rights abuses of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan.  In this respect at least, the Second World War bears a strong similarity to the United States Civil War, which was fought to end slavery and nudge the nation in the direction of improving civil rights for black men.  So it should come as no surprise that the words and phrases used to describe these conflicts and their legacy are close in nature.  Writing in a Galveston, Texas newspaper on Sunday, May 30, 1897, the writer claimed that:

“Nearly two thirds of those who fought in the Civil War have already passed away.  Of the 2,800,000 men called into the service of the nation, only a few more than 1,000,000 remain.  By 1940 these will be reduced to a battalion of 340, and, five years later, not one will be alive” (“More Than Half Are Dead.”).

There is something uncanny about the writer of this article in the 1890’s referencing dates that would become associated with the nation’s next “good war.”  More important, however, is the logic of urgency that we see repeated in this article.  The generation associated with the Civil War is rapidly dying off and soon no one with living memory of the war will remain.  Honor the veterans while you may for soon none will walk among you.

In the Civil War era, this logic actually proved untrue.  Although there is some dispute over when the last Civil War veteran died, many agree that it was some time in the 1960’s or 70’s.  This rate of decline would be comparable to that of other wars as the last veterans of World War I have only recently died and the last veterans of the United States Revolutionary War died in the 1820’s and 30’s.

Belief in the rapid mortality of World War II vets, the last examples of what to the national mind must appear to be a blissfully uncomplicated war, is paired with the concept made visible in the phrase “thank you for your service.”  Naming a roadway for George Powell and his brothers is one method of thanks.  But now we find many businesses offering discounts to veterans and their families and the presence of a man or woman in uniform elicits spontaneous applause in airports and train stations.  One veteran, Dave Duffy, complains in a Washington Post editorial from Thursday, March 19 that this action by U.S. civilians puts soldiers on a pedestal.  He says:

I get it that society is grateful for our military service, and reasonably so.  I also believe that society’s overboard efforts to recognize military service are directly related to the lasting guilt over how we treated returning Vietnam veterans….Teachers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, scientists, social workers, civil servants, diplomats and, yes, military all do our part to make our society a bit better while taking care of our citizens.  All deserve admiration and thanks. (“Stop Putting Our Soldiers On a Pedestal.”).

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Duffy makes an important point that service should be the reason we honor veterans rather than latent guilt.  Service to the country is what makes the concept of republican government work in the first place.  Without people willing to vote, serve on juries, run for political office, and the many other thankless but necessary tasks that make up life in a participatory society, we do not have a participatory society.

So where does this leave us?  How should we represent veterans and interact with them in a meaningful way?

I’ve thought about this question a great deal even as I’ve spent much of my time contextualizing the ways in which symbolic language use got us to the point we are at today. The best answers that I’ve arrived at so far are:  Ask veterans how they would like to be remembered.  Remember that not all veterans are the same.

Knowledge is the best cure for stereotyping of any person or group.  For what is a myth but a form of stereotype?  If you don’t know a veteran, make a point of befriending one in a genuine way.  If you know a veteran, take the time to speak with them about their service.  Also, it is important for all U.S. citizens to learn more about the military system that your tax dollars support.  The civilian military gap can’t solely be blamed on soldiers.  There is a lot as civilians that we simply don’t want to know.  Army life is one of those things.

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Imagining King Philip’s War (A C-19 Event at the Newberry)

On Saturday, February 14, C-19 (The Society for Nineteenth-Century Americanists) held what will hopefully be the first of many circuit events, which will help members of the organization meet on a local level and promote the study and discussion of nineteenth-century American culture.

Members of C-19 joined other scholars and the general public for a dramatic reading of a play recently unearthed by the Newberry library’s acquisitions staff.  That play was “Philip, or the Indian Chief (1838),” a play script written by Jehiel Lillie, a cadet at Norwich military academy in Vermont.

The script contained many of the themes and imagery that one would expect of a play written about Native Americans in the nineteenth century.  Philip and his warriors are portrayed as brave but ultimately doomed to extinction at the hands of colonists as they “civilize” the land.  At one point near the end of the play, Philip’s spiritual counselor, Francis the Prophet, directly references the myth of the “Vanishing Indian” in words that would not have been out of place in one of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels.

What surprised me, however, was the dialogue between the commander of the Colonial Militia (Church) and the Missionary (Elliot) and Surgeon (Cooper).  These two civilian professionals attempt to convince the military leader that violence is not the answer to resolving the land disputes between the Wampanoag tribe and the colonial settlers.  Although their argument ultimately falls on deaf ears, the fact that it is present in a play written and performed by military cadets is fascinating.  It suggests that in 1838, a period dominated by wars with the Native tribes and racist populism, a group of potential army officers were concerned about the relationship between the army and the people it was supposed to serve.

More research has yet to be done on this play.  I hope to see scholarship both from Native Americanist researchers as well as historians of the Jacksonian era that references this intriguing work.

This newly acquired play script is part of the Rudy Lamont Ruggles collection at the Newberry Library in Chicago and is housed in their Special Collections on the 4th floor.  Call slip information can be found here.

Many thanks to the Newberry Library and Karen Sánchez-Eppler, the President of C-19, for hosting and organizing this event.

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My Book is Now Available for Pre-Order

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not prone to bragging, but I just saw the cover image and web write-up for my new book and I just had to share it with you all.  The work the publishers did on the cover looks amazing.

Check it out if you’re so inclined.


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American Civil War and Reconstruction at the PCA-ACA Annual Conference April 1-4 2015 New Orleans

The American Civil War and Reconstruction


Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association

National Conference 2015


April 1-4, 2015

New Orleans Marriott

555 Canal Street
New Orleans, LA  70130  USA


The Civil War and Reconstruction Area of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association is calling for papers on the American Civil War and Reconstruction for its national meeting, April 1-4, 2015 (Wednesday through Saturday) at the New Orleans Marriott in the French Quarter.  Papers are welcome from a range of disciplines, and may explore any topic or “reading” of the War.  Past presentations have included such diverse subject areas as literature, photography, art, newspapers and journalistic history, counterfactual history, battle reenactments, music, politics, battle narratives, guerilla warfare, film, historiographical issues, women’s narratives, war games, secession politics, African-Americans at war, modern pop culture, memory and memorializing, battlefield preservation, and material culture.  Suggested special topics for this year could include slavery and politics, Northern intellectuals at war, military politics, New Orleans at war, The 150th Commemoration and the Politics of Commemoration, and the cultural legacy of the War.


Acceptance of your paper obligates you to appear and make an oral presentation of your paper.  Sessions run for ninety minutes, and each presenter receives fifteen minutes, depending on the number of papers in each panel.  Please plan to stay within this time limit.  Graduate students are welcome to submit proposals.  Whole panel proposals are also welcome


Please send an abstract of 100-250 words to:

Dr. Randal Allred,

Department of English,

Brigham Young University Hawaii,

55-220 Kulanui St.,

Laie, HI 96762

randal.allred@byuh.edu ,

phone (808) 675-3633, and fax (808) 675-3662.


Deadline:  Nov. 1, 2014


Please include in your proposal your address, school affiliation, e-mail, and telephone number.

Also, please submit your proposal online at http://ncp.pcaaca.org/

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Searching for the Right Metaphor: Veterans in Popular Culture

My research on veterans has been driven by a number of questions.  Foremost among them has been how we as a culture choose to represent veterans in the United States.  Naturally the answer to this question depends upon the war discussed.  Conflicts far distant in our imagination take on a mythic status.  Minute Men and the civilian militia dominate our mental portrait of The Revolutionary War while Johnny Reb and Billy Yank still loom large over the United States Civil War.  World War Two remains framed by the “Greatest Generation” label associated with it by former news anchor Tom Brokaw.  The Vietnam war is only slowly beginning to mythologize as its veterans advance in age and the war fades from living memory.

Part of the reason I chose to write a book on veterans of the Civil War was the challenge associated with attempting to recover the actual lives of veterans who fought in one of our nation’s most mythologized conflicts. Moving beyond the statues of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank that stand in town squares throughout most of the United States, I wanted to know: What had soldiers of the Civil War survived?  How did they understand it?  How did non-combatants understand them? What I discovered was that the Civil War served as a turning point in the way veterans were understood in American culture.  It set in motion ways of understanding former soldiers that remain influential today.

We tend to take for granted that veterans are different from civilians.  This assumption was not widely shared until the late nineteenth-century.  Military service was a skill or craft and participation in a war one of the many events that took place in a man’s life.  The unique nature of the Civil War, which nearly destroyed the country, marked the soldiers who survived this conflict differently from their forebears.  In the last years of the war, the pace of combat also changed leaving soldiers psychologically scarred by events they did not have time to process until much later in their lives.

Civilians viewed the growth of the veteran as a distinct social category with apprehension.  On the one hand, they were viewed as wounded warriors in need of civilian care and sympathy.  On the other, veterans were a potentially destabilizing force to society.  For every image of a pathos laden amputee returning to his family in Civil War era newspapers and magazines there was also a tramp, addicted to alcohol and drugs and never quite able to get his life together after the war.  In spite of the gender assumptions of the era, it did not seem clear at all that war made men.  Instead it seemed to unman them or remake them into something vaguely monstrous.

Time passes and the details change, but the Janus-like figure of the veteran as victim or threat remains.  They are two different ways of looking at soldiers and yet they are inextricable from each other.  Perhaps the best example in our own times remains the film First Blood (1982).  John J. Rambo is a special forces veteran of the Vietnam War.  Most viewers of the film will readily remember the action sequences as Rambo unleashes his military training upon a small town in the pacific northwest.  What often gets forgotten, however, is the somber way in which the film begins.  Rambo is a tramp.  We first see him hitchhiking with his battered field jacket and pack.  He is looking for fellow survivors from his unit in the war.  His travels bring him to the pacific northwest where he discovers that another comrade has died since the war, this one of cancer.  Not long after this depressing discovery, Rambo is confronted with a Sheriff who attempts to get him to leave his town.  He rebuffs the Sheriff’s attempts to push him back on the road and gets arrested.  Rambo is mistreated in prison and memories of the war emerge.  Suddenly he sees himself as a P.O.W. in North Vietnamese captivity.  Rambo escapes and engages in an epic battle with local law enforcement and the national guard.  It is only when his former commander comes to “take him home” that the violence ends and peace is restored to the small town.

One doesn’t often expect to find a parable contained in a popular film, but First Blood is the veteran parable as we’ve inherited it in perfect form.  Initially an object of pity, it takes very little effort for Rambo to become a threat. He has brought the war home with him and disrupted the lives of those far removed from it.  Only by removing him can peace be restored.  A soldier once, he is a soldier forever.

A better film in many respects than First Blood, winning six Oscars, The Hurt Locker (2008) nonetheless helps to perpetuate the “soldier once, soldier forever” theme.  Bomb technician Sergeant William James is the protagonist of this film.  Far from being a tramp, he is instead presented as a reckless adrenaline junky.  James pushes the limits with each mission and in the process risks getting himself and his team blown up by a bomb.  When he returns from his combat rotation, James attempts to readjust to civilian life with his family.  We see him cleaning the leaves from the gutters of his home, helping his wife chop vegetables for dinner, watching the baby, and helping his wife shop at grocery store.  In most of these tasks we see James attempting to feign some interest. We even see him filled with greater terror at the overabundance of the U.S. supermarket than he ever exhibited on the war-torn streets of Iraq.  Uncomfortable at home, James re-enlists and the last we see of him he is leaving a troop transport at the airport for his new base.

Surprisingly, few have noted the significance of the name William James being used for the protagonist of this film.  Nineteenth-century U.S. psychologist and philosopher William James was a proponent of a “moral equivalent of war.”  Like most of his contemporaries, James wanted to believe in the man-making power of military service.  At the same time, however, he had seen how the Civil War had scarred his younger brothers Wilky and Bob.  James wondered if the uplifting aspects of the soldier’s life could be separated from the ugliness of war.  The Hurt Locker has no such interest in war’s moral equivalent.  Nevertheless, it does, like James’s research, remind us that war is not the soldier’s problem.  It is a shared concern for the society that creates armies and sanctions war. In the end, this is what our current metaphors seek to evade.  War is many things, but at its heart it is a social pathology rather than an individual malady.

No image can do justice to the full range of experience in any person’s life.  Veterans are people with all their faults and virtues.  They are also complex texts for a society to read and interpret.  Unlike dead soldiers they talk back.  Their stories bend and twist down many roads, assaulting our assumptions about ourselves and our world. That’s one reason why we continue to search for the right metaphor.

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