[Note for TomDispatch Readers: At the moment, Americans are dying en masse from a still-spreading virus — the latest estimate: nearly 300,000 dead by December 1, 2020 — thanks significantly to the ministrations of a self-proclaimed “wartime president.” Meanwhile, the wars the U.S. has been fighting nonstop under the rubric of “the war on terror” have finally been rejected by three-quarters of Americans and yet they’ve come home to the streets of this country via militarized police forces and federal agents dressed as if for its forever-war battlefields. And sadly, no matter that Donald Trump claimed he would end this country’s distant conflicts, they only threaten to expand (to Iran). At such a moment, I went back to novelist Beverly Gologorsky’s deeply personal 2013 tale of a life shadowed by war and, sadly, it seemed no less apt seven years later.
When you come from New York City’s South Bronx, as Gologorsky does, you can write about different kinds of characters than those who so often inhabit the universe of fiction we’re used to. That was true of her first novel, The Things We Do to Make It Home, which focused on the lost vets of the Vietnam era, their wives, and their children, all desperately trying to get by in a world that was anything but welcoming. It was no less true of the crew who worked in the roadside diner in her second novel, Stop Here, a kind of home away from home in an American world shadowed by war and financial disaster. And it’s even more powerfully so in her recent Dispatch Books novel, Every Body Has a Story, about two couples who barely made it out of the South Bronx and into middle-class homes before disaster struck and two administrations focused their attention on those who were “too big to fail,” rather than those who were too small not to be clobbered by the foreclosure crisis of 2007-2008.
So check out that 2013 piece of hers (and my intro to it) below — it’s a little classic in my opinion — and then pick up a copy of her latest book. I’ve edited her work for years and, believe me, she’s a one-of-a-kind author! Tom]
In the years when I was growing up more or less middle class, American war on the childhood front couldn’t have been sunnier. True, American soldiers were fighting a grim new stalemate of a conflict in Korea and we kids often enough found ourselves crouched under our school desks practicing for the nuclear destruction of our neighborhoods, but the culture was still focused on World War II. Enter a movie theater then and as just about any war flick ended, the Air Force arrived in the nick of time, the Marines eternally advanced, and victory was ours, a God-given trait of the American way of life.
In those days, it was still easy to present war sunny-side up. After all, you couldn’t go wrong with the Good War — not that anyone called it that until Studs Terkel put the phrase into the language and the culture dropped the quote marks with which he carefully encircled it. And if your Dad, who had served in one of the great draft armies of our history, sat beside you silently in that movie theater while John Wayne saved the world, never saying a word about his war (except in rare and sudden outbursts of anger), well, that was no problem. His silence only encouraged you to feel that, given what you’d seen at the movies (not to speak of on TV, in books, in comics, and more or less anywhere else), you already understood his experience and it had been grand indeed.
And then, of course, we boys went into the parks, backyards, or fields and practiced making war the American way, shooting commies, or Ruskies, or Indians, or Japs, or Nazis with toy guns (or sticks). It may not sound pretty anymore, but take my word for it, it was glorious back when.
More than half a century later, those movies are relics of the neolithic era. The toy six-shooters I once holstered and strapped to my waist, along with the green plastic soldiers that I used to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima or Normandy, are somewhere in the trash heap of time. And in the wake of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, who believes that America has a God-given right to victory? Still, I have a few relics from that era, lead Civil War and Indian War-style soldiers who, more than half a century ago, fought out elaborate battles on my floor, and I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that holding one for a moment doesn’t give me some faint wash of emotion from another age. That emotion, so much stronger then, sent thousands of young Americans into Vietnam dreaming of John Wayne.
These days, post-Vietnam, post-9/11, no one rides to the rescue, “victory” is no longer in our possession, and for the first time in memory, a majority of the public thinks Washington should “mind its own business” globally when it comes to war-making. Not surprisingly, in an America that’s lost its appetite for war, such conflicts are far more embattled, so much less onscreen, and as novelist Beverly Gologorsky writes today, unacknowledged in much of American fiction.
There was nothing sunny about war, even in the 1950s, for the young, working-class Gologorsky. If my childhood was, in a sense, lit by war and by a 24/7 economy in which the same giant corporations built ever larger cars and missiles, television consoles and submarines, hers was shadowed by it. She sensed, far more than I, the truth of war that lay in our future. That shadowing is the essence of her deeply moving “Vietnam” novel, The Things We Do to Make It Home, and her just-published second novel, Stop Here, a book that comes to grips in a way both subtle and heart-rending with the Iraq and Afghan wars without ever leaving the environs of a diner in Long Island, New York. Tom
In the Shadow of War
Life and Fiction in Twenty-First-Century America
By Beverly Gologorsky
I’m a voracious reader of American fiction and I’ve noticed something odd in recent years. This country has been eternally “at war” and you just wouldn’t know that — a small amount of veteran’s fiction aside — from the novels that are generally published. For at least a decade, Americans have been living in the shadow of war and yet, except in pop fiction of the Tom Clancy variety (where, in the end, we always win), there’s remarkably little evidence of it.
As for myself — I’m a novelist — I find that no matter what I chose to write about, I can’t seem to avoid that shadow. My first novel was about Vietnam vets coming home and my second is permeated with a shadowy sense of what the Iraq and Afghan wars have done to us. And yet I’ve never been to, or near, a war, and nothing about it attracts me. So why is it always lurking there? Recently, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about just why that might be and I may finally have a very partial answer, very modestly encapsulated in one rather un-American word: class.
Going to War in the South Bronx
I come from — to use an old-fashioned phrase — a working class immigrant family. The middle child of four siblings, not counting the foster children my mother cared for, I grew up in the post-World War II years in the basement of a building in the South Bronx in New York City. In my neighborhood, war — or at least the military — was the norm. Young men (boys, really) generally didn’t make it through life without serving in some military capacity. Soldiers and veterans were ubiquitous. Except to us, to me, none of them were “soldiers” or “veterans.” They were just Ernie, Charlie, Danny, Tommy, Jamal, Vito, Frank. In our neck of the urban woods — multi-ethnic, diverse, low-income — it was the way things were and you never thought to question that, in just about every apartment on every floor, there was a young man who had been in, would go into, or was at that moment in the military and, given the conflicts of that era, had often been to war as well.
Many of the boys I knew joined the Marines before they could be drafted for some of the same reasons men and women volunteer now. (Remember that there was still a draft army then, not the all-volunteer force of 2013.) However clichéd they may sound today, they reflected a reality I knew well. Then as now, the military held out the promise of a potentially meaningful future instead of the often depressing adult futures that surrounded us as we grew up.
Then as now, however, too many of those boys returned home with little or nothing to show for the turmoil they endured. And then as now, they often returned filled with an inner chaos, a lost-ness from which many searched in vain for relief.
When I was seven, the Korean War began. I was 18 when our first armed advisers arrived in Vietnam. After that disaster finally ended, a lull ensued, broken by a series of “skirmishes” from Grenada to Panama to Somalia to Bosnia, followed by the First Gulf War, and then, of course, the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
I dated, worked with, or was related to men who participated in some of these wars and conflicts. One of my earliest memories, in fact — I must have been three — is of my anxious 19-year-old sister waiting for her soldier-fiancé to make his way home from World War II. Demobilized, he finally arrived with no outward signs that war had taken a toll on him. Like so many of those “greatest generation” vets, though, he wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about his experiences, and remained hard to reach about most things for years afterwards. His army hat was my first military souvenir.
When I was eight or nine, my brother was drafted into the Korean War and I can still remember my constant worries about his well-being. I wrote my childish letters to him nearly every day. He had been assigned to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, given a pair of lace-up boots, and told he’d be training as a paratrooper. He could never get past the anxiety that assignment bestowed on him. Discharged, many pounds thinner and with a bad case of mononucleosis, he came home with a need to have guns around, guns he kept close at hand for the rest of his life.
My first “serious” boyfriend was a sailor on the U.S.S. Warrington. I was 15. Not surprisingly, he was away more than home. He mustered out with an addiction to alcohol.
I was 18 when my second boyfriend was drafted. John F. Kennedy was president and the Vietnam War was, then, just a blip on the American horizon. He didn’t serve overseas, but afterwards he, too, couldn’t figure out what to do with the rest of his life. And so it went.
Today, I no longer live in the South Bronx where, I have no doubt, women as well as men volunteer for the military with similar mindsets to those of my youth, and unfortunately return home with problems similar to those suffered by generations of soldiers before them. Suffice it to say that veterans of whatever war returned having experienced the sharp edge of death and nothing that followed in civilian life could or would be as intense.
It’s in the nature of militaries to train their soldiers to hate, maim, and kill the enemy, but in the midst of the Vietnam War — I had, by then, made it out of my neighborhood and my world — something challenged this trained-to-kill belief system and it began to break down in a way previously unknown in our history. With that mindset suddenly in ruins, many young men refused to fight, while others who had gone to war, ones from neighborhoods like mine, came home feeling like murderers.
In those years, thinking of those boys and many others, I joined the student antiwar movement, though I was often the only one in any group not regularly on campus. (Working class women worked at paying jobs!) As I learned more about that war, my anger grew at the way my country was devastating a land and a people who had done nothing to us. The loss of American and Vietnamese lives, the terrible wounds, all of it felt like both a waste and a tragedy. From 1964 on, ending that war sooner rather than later became my 24/7 job (when, that is, I wasn’t at my paying job).
During those years, two events remain vivid in my memory. I was part of a group that opened an antiwar storefront coffee shop near Fort Dix in New Jersey, a camp where thousands of recruits received basic training before being shipped out to Vietnam. We served up coffee, cake, music, posters, magazines, and antiwar conversation to any soldiers who came in during their off-hours — and come in they did. I met young men from as far away as Nebraska and Iowa, as close by as Queens and Brooklyn. I have no idea if any of them ever refused to deploy to Vietnam as some soldiers did in those years. However, that coffee house gave me an education in just how vulnerable, scared, excited, unprepared, and uninformed they were about what they would be facing and, above all, about the country they were invading.
Our storefront hours ran from 5 pm to whenever. On the inevitable night bus back to the Port Authority terminal, I would be unable to shake my sadness. Night after night, on that ride home I remember thinking: if only I had the power to do something more to save their lives, for I knew that some of them would come back in body bags and others would return wounded physically or emotionally in ways that I remembered well. And for what? That was why talking with them has remained in my memory as both a burden and a blessing.
The second event that stays with me occurred in May 1971 in Washington, D.C. A large group of Vietnam veterans, men who had been in the thick of it and seen it all, decided they needed to do something that would bring national attention to the goal of ending the war. The method they chose was to act out their repudiation of their previous participation in it. Snaking past the Capitol, an extremely long line of men in uniform threw purple hearts and medals of every sort into a trash bin. Most then made a brief statement about why they hated the war and could no longer bear to keep those medals. I was there and I’ll never forget their faces. One soldier, resisting the visible urge to cry, simply walked off without saying a word, only to collapse on a fellow soldier’s shoulder. Many of us watched, sobbing.
In those years, I penned political articles, but never fiction. Reality overwhelmed me. Only after that war ended did I begin to write my world, the one that was — always — shadowed by war, in fiction.
Why doesn’t war appear more often in American novels? Novelist Dorothy Allison once wrote, “Literature is the lie that tells the truth.” Yet in a society where war is ever-present, that truth manages to go missing in much of fiction. These days, the novels I come across have many reference points, cultural or political, to mark their stories, but war is generally not among them.
My suspicion: it has something to do with class. If war is all around us and yet, for so many non-working-class Americans, increasingly not part of our everyday lives, if war is the thing that other people do elsewhere in our name and we reflect our world in our fiction, then that thing is somehow not us.
My own urge is to weave war into our world, the way Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer, once wove apartheid into her novels — without, that is, speechifying or pontificating or even pointing to it. When American fiction ignores the fact of war and its effects remain hidden, without even brief mentions as simple markers of time and place, it also accepts peace as the background for the stories we tell. And that is, in its own way, the lie that denial tells.
That war shadows me is a difficult truth, and for that I have my old neighborhood to thank. If war is the background to my novels about everyday life, it’s because it’s been in the air I breathed, which naturally means my characters breathe it, too.
Beverly Gologorsky is the author of the recently published novel Every Body Has a Story. Her first novel, The Things We Do to Make it Home, was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Fiction Book. In the Vietnam years, she was an editor of two political journals, Viet-Report and Leviathan. Her new book, Can You See the Wind? (Seven Stories Press), will be published in the spring of 2021.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2020 Beverly Gologorsky