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.

This lesson is admirably addressed in a recent novel by Paulette Livers titled Cementville (2014).  Set during the Vietnam War, Livers imagines the response of the fictional town of Cementville to the death of several national guard soldiers during a firefight.  These war dead are treated by and large with reverence.  Since they are dead, they are open to any interpretation the community chooses to place upon them.  The town, which has fallen on hard times, chooses to view them as heroes.  A similar approach is taken with the living veteran who returns home from the war after captivity in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.  Lieutenant Harlan O’Brien, however, proves anything but a blank slate for civilians to impress their views of the war upon.  He is aloof and somewhat menacing, even to his family.  The only people in Cementville with whom he seems to relate are Giang Smith, the Vietnamese wife of another local veteran, Jimmy, and Carl, a local man who has only recently been released from the insane asylum.  Gender and ethnicity stand between Harlan and Giang.  Not only does a sexual tension exist between them, but she looks too much like the enemy Harlan was taught to kill. Eventually he does murder her.  She is thankful.  Finally at peace with the demons in her head.  Her own ghosts of war.  Harlan is numb. Another death.  No meaning applied.

Once more the veteran proves a threat.  This time on the opposite side of the coin is the image of the disabled war hero that Cementville needs and wants him to be.  Harlan, however, is neither.  Civilians in this novel prove just as dangerous and depraved as those home from the war.  The town tears itself apart.  Soul sickness hovers over all.  It is only in the forest that peace seems to exist.  Those who stay close to the land are less prone to the days of chaos documented by the narrative.  Carl and Harlan know this instinctively and walk together through the woods.  One is an open outcast, the loony, the other a soon to be discovered criminal.  They know what the town has only recently discovered.  Pathology is simply a way of shirking responsibility for the broken lives a society creates.

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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Contract Signed with Fordham Press!!!

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” title=”Contract Signed with Fordham Press!!!”>Contract Signed with Fordham Press!!!

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Two Years Later: Revisiting an Open Letter to Rosemary Feal

In what has become something of a yearly ritual, controversy has erupted leading up to the 2014 conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago.  This has led to a spike in readership for my sleepy little blog. Specifically the November 21, 2011 Open Letter that I wrote in response to a Twitter argument with the Modern Language Association Executive Director, Rosemary Feal, in regards to the role of a “scholarly/professional” organization such as the MLA.

Being a literary historian by training, I have to admit that I’m addicted to comparisons (then vs. now).  So let’s pause for a moment to see what has changed since I penned the most read piece of writing I’ve ever composed (2,221 readers and counting).

I guess the best place to start is with my life and career.  For those readers who’ve taken the time to click on my CV link, you’ll see that I was not fired from my job for writing the open letter.  Instead I found myself hired as a full-time lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago and then went on to serve as Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies at that same institution.  In addition, I have a book manuscript soon to come out based on research from my PhD dissertation and I’m getting married to the love of my life in June.  So you see, good things can happen off the tenure track.

None of these personal events, however, negate the systemic problems that remain in Higher Education. Students, crushed by a heavy debt burden, are leaving the humanities in droves for fields of study that appear to promise lucrative employment following graduation.  Administrators are using this trend to hire more non-tenure track faculty and consolidate department structures.  Back in 2011 it was much easier to find a department of English or French and locate its chair.  Try doing that same activity today.  You’ll find that many have become programs housed within “schools” of language and literature whose leadership roles are primarily symbolic. Faculty and Staff find themselves squeezed, burdened with extra work, most of it unpaid.  This leads to a climate of greater isolation and snarkiness in many instances.  An ethos that all too readily migrates to the internet via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Those who should be fighting together are instead (in many cases) fighting against each other.

Frustrated by the circular rhetoric deployed by the MLA leadership, I turned away from pushing the Modern Language Association for change in 2011 and instead turned to a union (the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Association of American University Professors).  We’ve accomplished quite a bit on the UIC campus since then.  The most astonishing change I’ve seen is a growing solidarity between tenured and non-tenured faculty who don’t need to study “vulnerable times” because they are living them–together.

As I’ve long argued, many of the issues faced by NTT faculty are issues of prestige and recognition.  These can be dealt with at the departmental level.  One we addressed on our campus was the lack of name placards for NTT faculty on their office doors.  We are also working to get biographies of NTT faculty added to the department website to recognize the work done by these hard working teachers and scholars.  In addition, our department’s associate head has begun storing NTT faculty CV’s to get a sense of the full range of capabilities possessed by the department’s full faculty (TT and NTT).

While the department works to change the attitudes of TT and NTT faculty, union leaders are currently struggling to work on issues of appointment and compensation.  Even though state law requires NTT and TT faculty to have separate contracts, we are one bargaining team and one union fighting to save the university as we understand it.  Our union, UIC United Faculty, voted in the fall to authorize a strike.  We hope it doesn’t come to that, but we are willing to put our beliefs to the test.  Now is the time to fight not form a committee to study the subject of resource allocation in higher ed.

Has the MLA done the same?  Have they finally realized that we’re at war with a Neoliberal system that wants to return to higher ed as it was in the Gilded Age (a handful of prestige institutions such as Harvard and Yale surrounded by an ocean of trade-specific academies)?

Yes and No.

Since 2011, the MLA has made significant gains in changing the leadership roles for NTT and Alt-Ac members. It has also worked to update the conference format and encourage graduate students and graduate programs to look at alternate career paths for PhDs.

What remains unaddressed, however, is the need for activism.  The MLA still sees a “scholarly/professional” organization as a neutral body.  Neutrality was a farce in 2011.  It remains so today.

If I’ve been silent on these issues for so long on the internet, it’s not because I don’t care.  It’s because I’ve been active taking part in the creation of the kind of educational system I want to see in place for my children. The time for words is over.  We’ve spent a lifetime studying “vulnerable times.”  Let’s start doing something about it.

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Humanities 2.1: A Follow Up to A Millennial’s Response to the Digital Humanities

Originally posted on uic240sharedworkspace:

Michael Lobocki

October 11th, 2013

ENG 240 – 36394

 

Humanities 2.1

            In week six’s response paper, I was a cheerleader for the possibilities and potential that the Digital Humanities offers to both the classroom and personal scholarly pursuits. In week seven, that stance has not changed. I still believe that the boom of technological advancements born from the ashes of the “dot com bust” carries the possibility of a true explosion of literary competence and community. However, through this week’s reading, I was presented with various complaints of DH and how/why they are yet to be utilized to their fullest potential.

I’ll begin by saying that as a daily suburban commuter via the Metra train system, I have the opportunity to rub elbows with every walk of life for upwards of three hours per day. Recently, I took note of the fact that roughly approximated, 70…

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Andrew Fitzgerald: Adventures in Twitter Fiction (TED Talk July 2013)

Originally posted on uic240sharedworkspace:

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A Millennial’s Response to the Digital Humanities

Originally posted on uic240sharedworkspace:

Michael Lobocki

October 4th, 2013

ENG 240 — 36394

A Millennial’s Response to the Digital Humanities

            As a millennial, I feel as if I have a naturally engrained desire to see Digital Humanities succeed. Throughout my entire educational career, the importance of computer literacy has been stressed via numerous typing and computer-aided research courses. Despite sitting through painfully tedious lectures on the “home row” typing technique, I feel as if for the first time, the threat of “pay attention because you’ll be using this for the rest of your life” has—and will continue to—come true. While I haven’t written in cursive in almost ten years and I can’t remember the last time I did manual long division, I use computers and the internet as a vessel for academic research almost every day of my life.

“Digitial Humanities” is defined as “a field of research, teaching, and invention…

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Colorizing Civil War Photographs

This morning a post showed up on the C-19 Listserv for nineteenth-century Americanists that linked to a Daily Mail article on the efforts of two technicians to colorize Civil War era photographs.

You can read the article and see samples of their work here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2446391/Amazing-Civil-War-photographs-created-colorist-bring-eras-heroes-characters-life-color-time.html

I have to admit that seeing these well-known photos in color was fascinating.  Especially interesting was the ability to see the color of the landscape (indicating season) and also the tint of the uniforms.  We talk so much about the “blue” and “grey” and yet most of the imagery we have of them is black and white.

But I am also wary of the notion of improving history through technological advances rather than simply using it to store documents in an alternate format for preservation purposes.  This is something that could potentially be a lot more damaging to the archive than Ted Turner’s ill-fated effort years ago to colorize classic cinema.

 

Postscript:  A Civil War scholar responding to the C-19 listserv post a few minutes ago reminded me in his comments that photographs were hand colored in the 19th century.  So again the technology is not the issue here.  It’s the motive.  Why color these photographs?

Have any scholars commented on the theoretical implications of color in historical documents? What is the real psychological difference between a document in color vs. one in black and white?

I know when I teach film in my literature courses, black and white films tend to be perceived by some students as boring and other as more authoritative (cinema rather than film).  I call it the “black and white” effect.  I wonder if this is true of print documents and photos?

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Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North (Newberry Library Symposium 10/17-18)

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Newberry Seminar on Women and Gender (10/18)

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Can vs. Should: A Subtle Distinction (?)

Originally posted on uic240sharedworkspace:

Our examination in class of the Digital Humanities has shown the difference between visions of what this movement might mean to the Discipline of English.  The makers of digital tools, the old guard of Humanities Computing, still provide a compelling case for the need to actually create something in order to consider yourself a Digital Humanist.  Users of existing digital tools show how reading and scholarship are rapidly shifting due to technological advances.  And Critics, well, they are struggling to catch up.  What would a critical theory of the Digital Humanities look like and is it needed?

Although there are many objections to the Digital Humanities as a field of study, I think one major point of contention is the rapidity with which digital projects come and go.  To the less technically inclined this seems a waste of scarce resources of both time and money.  Why go to such great…

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