Monday, June 30, 2008

Re-Fighting the '60s on the Page, Not at the Polls
The inextricable military, political and cultural wars of the 1960s might have had a pretty dismal effect on American politics, but they did prove a deep wellspring of literary inspiration. Last week, I finished Jim Webb's novel Fields of Fire, a fictionalized account of one Marine platoon fighting in Vietnam in 1969. Webb, whose fairly prodigious literary output surely will get much closer scrutiny if he turns out to be Barack Obama's vice-presidential nominee, doesn't much grapple with the geopolitical issues related to the invasion in this novel, which came out a few years after the end of the war; his soldiers rarely delve into whether the war is justified or not, whether it makes sense on a strategic level, how it fits into the larger struggle against Communism, or any of the other big questions that consumed so many thinkers of the period.

The only political ground Webb seriously covers in the book has to do with the domestic antiwar movement. In a word, he detests it: while those who actually went to jail rather than serve have the respect of the narrative voice and the author's proxies, the much larger number who either manipulated their draft process (by self-inflicted injuries, aberrant behavior, etc) or, worse, ran off to Canada, draw only contempt. There's a devastating scene toward the end of the novel, in which one of the protagonists--a Harvard undergraduate who drifted into service, was critical of the war both on the conceptual level and the tactics employed to conduct it, felt alienated from his fellow Marines, and came home after losing a limb--tries to address an anti-war rally only to be booed off the stage by affluent young people chanting pro-North Vietnamese slogans. Surely, Webb is somewhat unfair in giving no credit for honest idealism and principled opposition to the war--but he's also incredibly powerful in evoking just how far from the American mainstream the protesters must have seemed even to someone who felt a degree of sympathy for their views.

Myself, I'd thought of the period primarily through the lens of the war's opponents; my mother always said while I was growing up that she would send me to Canada rather than relinquish me for a war we considered unjust. Webb's contention--that Americans are free to exercise their conscience (go to jail rather than serve), but not to essentially ignore their obligations under the social contract--is a powerful one; I can't help but feel that the country would be in better shape if it was more widely shared. Of course, the other side of his view was on display in his memorable response to the 2007 State of the Union address, when he blasted the Bush administration on Iraq:

We owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it. But they owed us sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it.

I suspect that Webb sees the failure of both sides, leaders and citizens, to live up to their respective obligations, as related... though I doubt he'd say as much unless directly asked. (The fact that he might say as much under any circumstance is one reason I suspect the increasingly cautious Obama won't choose him; the other, which I admit is a total hunch not substantiated by anything, is that I believe Obama is too much of an egotist to share the spotlight with someone who might be both a better writer and a deeper, more nuanced thinker than he is.)

Since finishing Fields of Fire, I've moved on to Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, which I remember was originally to be subtitled something like "Guided Tours of the American Berserk, 1965-72"; I think the publisher must have thumbs-downed that idea. Perlstein's previous book was an excellent history of the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, Before the Storm, which I read this past winter; the new one picks up pretty much where that book left off. I'm perhaps a bit too much of a fuddy-duddy when it comes to reading history to fully enjoy some of Perlstein's narrative flourishes, but his narrative is vivid and superbly readable--and through the first 130 pages or so at least (which is as far as I've gotten), he does an astounding job of setting up just how fractured the political landscape was, how irreconcilable the right and left seemed, through 1965 and 1966.

Though Perlstein is a serious lefty, he seems to have a good deal of credibility on the right: George Will wrote a relatively positive review of Nixonland in May, and Perlstein enjoyed an unlikely friendship with William F. Buckley, a significant character in both his books. (Perlstein also penned a glowing tribute to Buckley when the conservative legend died this past February.) Here's an interesting article that tracks Perlstein's relationship with his ideological adversaries; what's described here is something I myself aspire to, though unfortunately I tend all too often to get pissed off or lazy and fall back into an echo chamber... which I guess somewhat goes to Perlstein's argument.

That said, one critique Will makes of that argument, and Nixonland in general, seems on the money to me: his thesis seeks to explain too much, and its conclusion--that we're still essentially living in "Nixonland," where cultural division explains anything and everything about American politics--seems off the mark. Then again, maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, born of the realization that the candidates for the presidency this year are one guy who spent almost the entirety of the period Perlstein writes about in a Vietnamese prison camp--rendering him unable to participate in the cultural conflict of the time--and another guy who was a little kid (and also wasn't living in the country) for most of those years.

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