Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cult of the Warrior

I caught the wave of adultation for Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn when it was published earlier this year and inserted it into the mid-section of my reading list. It was, according to many critics, the definitive novel of the Vietnam war and a "final exorcism for one of the most painful passages in American History" (Sebastian Junger)

So I fascinated to come across Jackson Lears's more lukewarm response in the LRB. Like Marlantes, Lears is a veteran of the conflict in question, but unlike the much decorated author, also went on to serve in the peace movement.

He begins by noting that "since 9-11, a cult of the warrior has settled over America like the morning fog over the Mekong Delta." He takes particular issue against the now familiar (and worryingly empty) ethos of the combat soldier in contemporary film and fiction where war, however absurd on the political level, is somehow redeemed as the portal to a supremely deep and authentic male bonding experience.

"War as authentic experience: this is the nihilist edge of modern militarism, unalloyed by moral pretension. Marlantes sidesteps the nihilism by coupling it with communal redemption."

Marlantes might take pains to depict the unwinnability of this war, but this doesn't deter his lead protagonist Lieutenant Mellas from the conviction that he and his comrades are somehow "better people" as a result of participating in it; specifically better than all those insulated folk back home in civie-land, of whom women are represented as perhaps the most clueless.

Lears also objects to the notion suggested by one of Mellas's NCOs that boot camp "doesn't make us killers it's just a fucking finishing school". No, he concludes:

"Boot camp is less a finishing school than a remaking of the self. And the kinds of killing military men learn to do cannot be sublimated into a universal ‘destructive element’, a phrase Conrad intended to refer to human experience in all its tragic dimensions. War is not simply an expression of the beast within. Nor is it merely an opportunity for intense male experiences unavailable in civilian life – physical testing, the creation of community. It is also a product of policy decisions that can be challenged, changed or reversed. "

The end result of considering this article is that Matterhorn has slipped a little further down my reading list. It has also reminded me of one of the best and ultimately truest books I ever read about the grunt's-eye view of war: Joanna Bourke's An Intimate History of Killing, which goes some way to support Lears's position that not all men are natural born killers.

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