Remembering Ourselves

Here is another small part (slightly modified for posting here) of a much longer text I prepared for two talks I was invited to give at a conference in Poland that was later cancelled. 

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Just a few days after I received the invitation to participate in the later cancelled conference proposed for the end of October 2016 at the Institute for Archetypal and Religious Studies outside Krakow, Poland, originally cast under the topic of “poetry and the remembrance of the Holocaust,” so that the theme of the conference was already on my mind, my attention was drawn to a column in the opinion section of the Sunday New York Times for July 3 of 2016. The next day, July 4, is of course the annual celebration of “Independence Day” in the United States. The article in question did not concern the remembrance of the Holocaust as such, but it did concern broad issues of trauma and remembrance, issues that are certainly pertinent to considerations of remembering the Holocaust.

The column was entitled “The Fantasy of American Violence,” by Roy Scranton, a military veteran who served in the United States Army during the initial American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, participating in the conquest and occupation of Baghdad. In his column, Scranton describes how, born in the American Bicentennial Year of 1976, he grew up with the ideas implanted in him by Star Wars, George Lucas’s famous film-series with its young hero “Luke Skywalker.” The first film of the series was released in 1977, and Scranton says that it was the first movie he ever saw. Star Wars, he writes in his column,

managed a remarkable trick. Two years after the fall of Saigon and America’s withdrawal in defeat from a dishonorable war [in Vietnam], Mr. Lucas’s Wagnerian space opera recast for America the mythic story so central to our sense of ourselves as a nation.

In this story, war is a terrible thing we do only because we have to. In this story, the violence of war has a power that unifies and enlightens. In this story, war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes. Whom we’re fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it might renew the body politic.

The literary historian Richard Slotkin called this story “the myth of regeneration through violence” [. . .]. It’s a story about how violence makes us good.

Looking out over Baghdad on the Fourth of July [in 2003], I saw the truth that story obscured and inverted: I was the faceless storm trooper, and the scrappy rebels were the Iraqis.

Did it really take going to Baghdad to learn this? Hadn’t I read about the campaigns against the Cherokee, Nez Percé, and Sioux, the long [United States’] war against Philippine independence, and the horrors of Vietnam? My grandfather served on a Swift boat in the Mekong Delta at the end of his military service, though he never talked about it; hadn’t trying to fill in his silence taught me about free-fire zones, My Lai and hospitals full of napalmed orphans? The bloody track of American history, from slavery to genocide to empire, is plain for all to see. But reckoning with the violence itself was the appeal: I thought I could confront our dark side, just like Luke Skywalker, and come away enlightened.

As I have already said, I had received the invitation to participate in the conference on poetry and the remembrance of the Holocaust just a few days before I read those words by Scranton. Accordingly, as I’ve also already said, that topic was on my own mind when I did read them, during the 2016 July 4th weekend. When I read Scranton’s column, I could not help but see parallels between the United States as Scranton described it, on the one hand, and Germany, at least Germany up to the end of World War II, on the other. (Whether and, if so, to what extent that still holds true of Germany today remains to my mind an all too open question.)

For one thing, “the myth of regeneration through violence,” the belief in which is all too common among “red-blooded Americans,” to use a common expression in the United States, is a myth the Nazis certainly also believed in, and even actively propagated. They propagated it far more consciously, clearly, and calculatingly, in fact, than George Lucas ever did in Star Wars (but not necessarily more effectively, I might add).

For another thing, it is not that far, at least in my mind, from the common American glorification of all United States military veterans, irrespective of what those veterans may have done in the purported defense of “freedom,” to Himmler’s notorious speech to the SS at Posen (Posnan), Poland, 73 years ago, in October of 1943. In that speech, Himmler speaks directly of “the extermination of the Jewish people”—in those very terms—then goes on to extol as heroes the SS troops who were actively carrying out such a “final solution to the Jewish problem.” Himmler says at one point: “Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person —with exceptions due to human weaknesses—has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of.”

The issue raised for me by the coupling in my own mind of Scranton’s recent column about the United State and its war in Iraq at the beginning of this current century, on the one hand, with Himmler’s speech to the SS at Posnan in the middle of the last century, on the other, is not that of trying to weigh American atrocities against German ones. Such comparisons of atrocities dishonor our obligations of remembrance, in my judgment. Indeed, it was precisely the issue of such dishonoring of those obligations, dishonoring them by the failure to remember, that the disturbing parallels I have mentioned raised for me.

If what passes in the United States for “remembrance” of what Scranton calls “the bloody track of American history” just keeps everything chugging on and on along that very same “bloody track,” then it is in fact just such a failure. It is a deep distortion of remembrance, a distortion in which the United States actually just forgets itself—only this time in a shameful sense, rather then the positive sense of forgetting oneself I have considered above [in accordance with which to “forget ourselves” is to be relieved of our own obsessive self-concern by being overtaken by concern for another].

If that is so, then clearly a very different sort of remembrance would have to be found if the very obligation of Americans to remember “the bloody track of American history” were to be honored. It would have to be a way of calling the country back to itself, from self-forgetfulness. It would need to remind Americans of just who they really are, given their own bloody history—who they for far too long have been, and are called upon to stop being and, in fact, to atone for having been.

What is more, the same thing, it struck me as I read Scranton’s piece, would apply no less to remembrance of the Holocaust. We would need to be careful to separate the same two sorts of remembrance that are possible there as well—an irresponsible, shamefully self-forgetful sort of pretense at remembering, and a responsible, painfully self-revealing, actual remembrance.

A Brief Reflection on Remembrance for Veterans Day

What follows is a short snippet from a much longer essay I wrote this summer–the text for two talks I had been invited to give at a conference that was to take place outside Krakow, Poland, on the topic of poetry or art and remembrance of the Holocaust. (The conference was eventually cancelled, so those talks were never given).

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Just this last summer, I read an opinion piece entitled “Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam” (NY Times, July 20, 2016), by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese American raised in California and the author of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer.

In the title given Viet Thanh Nguyen’s column, the expression “American tragedy” is set off by quotation marks, to call attention to how highly questionable it is for “Americans” (that is, U. S. citizens) to speak of the United States involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s as though it were a tragedy especially for that nation, the United States, in disregard of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed by American arms in that war. Those Vietnamese dead are no more counted in that way of speaking of the Vietnam war as an “American tragedy” than are the Iraqi dead in the Chilcot report on British participation in the 2003 Iraq war.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s piece itself was written in response to the recent appointment of Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam war veteran, to become the chairman of the board of Fulbright University, the first “American-style” university in Vietnam. Kerrey himself had been severely wounded in the war in Vietnam, and went on after it to establish himself in politics, including becoming Governor of the state of Nebraska. However, he was also, by his own admission—one he did not spontaneously offer, but was eventually forced to make when confronted with the evidence of his guilt—the officer in charge and on hand during an episode in which troops under his command murdered a number of innocent Vietnamese women and children.

“I lived among many Vietnamese refugees,” Viet Thanh Nguyen writes in his piece occasioned by Kerrey’s recent appointment, “for which this war was a Vietnamese tragedy [my emphasis]. President Obama’s speech on the war’s 50th anniversary in 2012 focused on the deaths of over 58,000 American soldiers; I wondered why more than 200,000 South Vietnamese and more than one million North Vietnamese and Vietcong fighters were not mentioned, nor the countless thousands of civilians who perished.” A little later, he continues this way:

Some in the United States have said that Mr. Kerrey is also a victim—of an unjust war and disastrous leadership—but such a claim seems ironic, if not outright ludicrous, when one compares Mr. Kerrey’s prominence to the obscurity in which the survivors of the attack he lead and the relatives of those killed now live. His life and career have barely been impeded, except for any personal regrets. Indeed, as Mr. Kerrey was once in Vietnam as an expression of United States power, he now arrives in a different guise but still as a symbol of Western influence, this time as a leader of a university.

Many Vietnamese hope the university will deliver free-market values to a nominally Communist country eager to continue its capitalist development. But such hope must be tempered with the understanding that Western-style universities are ambivalent places when it comes to encouraging greater equality. At their best, they cultivate humane thinking. At their worst, they both practice and promote an economic inequality that supports the interests of the 1 percent: exploitation of underpaid adjunct teachers; tremendous increases in student debt; emphasizing the production of workers rather than learners.


Those closing remarks are sobering words especially for someone who has spent his whole adult life professing one thing or another in Western-style universities, but I will not dwell on that.

Published in: on November 11, 2016 at 6:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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