Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, February 28, 2008

P.C. readings of the classics

A deplorable trend in academia has filtered down into the population at large—namely, reading classic literary fiction through the lens of contemporary political correctness. I recently received an email from an acquaintance who had taken a Jane Austen tour. It was startling to read her reflections. She focused almost entirely on what she thought were the lamentable restrictions in 19th century women's lives in general and Austen's in particular. She made no comment upon Austen's literary output, but stated that she had visited her home and "felt compassion" for her constricted existence. I thought about my visit, a few years ago, to Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst where she famously led the life of a recluse and died of kidney disease in the second-floor room which in her latter years she rarely left. Compassion was not my primary feeling. Emily Dickinson was a colossus.

I remember the late famous (and controversial) Columbia University professor Edward Said writing an article, and then rehashing the same material later in a lecture, concerning the implications of slave-owning in the deep (very deep) background of Austen's Mansfield Park. Yes, yes, of course there was a good deal of money to be made by English owners of sugar-cane plantations in the West Indies. Yes, absolutely, this was cruel and inhumane. But that is a subject for major discussion for a class in history or the social sciences, not a class in literature. One reads Jane Austen for her psychologically penetrating portraits, her witty and wise commentary on human foibles, her exquisite mastery of language and dialogue, her charm and subtlety, her insights into human relationships, and a host of other things, none of them having to do with economic injustice.

It has often been noted that Austen never alludes to the Napoleonic wars, which defined her era. Is this a defect? Should every novel written during the Iraq war address the subject of the Iraq war? If we want to learn about the Napoleonic wars, we can tackle War and Peace, but we will find ourselves carried away by the Tolstoyan magnitude—a theory of history, yes, but conveyed through the saga of unforgettable characters and their inner lives. Or one could try the first part of The Charterhouse of Parma—the unforgettable misadventures of a would-be soldier who wanders onto the battlefield at Waterloo and finds himself caught up in utter chaos and disorder, with no one able to find his unit or even any reliable news about who is winning. But for Stendahl, one of the great novelists, the setting in the Napoleonic era is only incidental to his major universal themes.

If we want a detailed commentary on American culture in a novel, we can read Updike's Rabbit series. But much of the greatest literature makes no comment on such issues at all. It is generally agreed that the one time Eudora Welty attempted to deal head-on with the race question in Mississippi was a well-meant failure, compared to her other work. Flannery O'Connor flatly refused to comment on racial issues except insofar as she mined them for her great theme—the workings of invading grace. As for her truncated options and her terminal illness, Flannery would have been utterly disgusted at being the object of anyone's "compassion." She left us a stunning body of work.

I cannot share my correspondent's "compassion" for Jane Austen. Endless admiration is more like it. Are we to feel compassion for the Brontës, or Emily Dickinson, or Flannery for that matter? All of them led exceedingly limited and constricted lives from our modern point of view (and died too young by our standards), but Emily's biographer Richard Sewell wrote that she had perhaps the richest inner life ever lived on this continent. How about the author of the staggering masterpiece Wuthering Heights; should Emily Brontë on her dismal moor be the object of our compassion, or our dumbstruck awe?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Platoon: Old movie with insights for today

I have always liked war movies, for reasons I don't entirely understand, and I have seen a great many of them, but for some reason I had never seen Oliver Stone's Platoon. I had a vague recollection that it had won the "Best Picture" Oscar (1986) and was considered a classic, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I saw it on sale at the supermarket and looked at it last night.

It's often said that war movies, often billed as anti-war, are actually pro-war because they glorify military action and male bonding. Here's what Anthony Swofford says in his acclaimed book Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles:

"We [his Marine Corps platoon in training] send a few guys downtown to rent all of the war movies they can get their hands on...we get off on all the visions of carnage and violence and deceit, the raping and killing and pillaging...somehow the films convince us that these boys are sweet, even though we know we are much like these boys and that we are no longer sweet. There is talk that many Vietnam films are antiwar...But actually, Vietnam War films are all pro-war, no matter what [the directors] Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended...[soldiers] watch the films and are excited by them...Filmic imagery of death and carnage are pornography for the military man..."

For these reasons I hesitate to praise Platoon or to expect too much from it. A major criticism is that, like Private Ryan, it has a mawkish ending which threatens to undo it. However: I have never seen any other war movie that so clearly depicted the way a sensitive young man becomes hardened in war, and I have never seen scenes that so vividly let us see into the state of mind that produces atrocities against civilians, including women and children. The assault on a Vietnamese village is not like My Lai, for most of the villagers escape with their lives, but in certain scenes with Vietnamese civilians we see how closely sadistic impulses lie within the psyches of "sweet" American boys. Under the circumstances of warfare against insurgents, as in Iraq today, the temptations and opportunities are extreme. Only leadership of a very extraordinary kind can prevent such atrocities from taking place. I wonder if we are training officers and non-coms for this kind of leadership in the wars we will have to fight in the 21st century.

Next day: Behold, on the front page of The New York Times, February 8, comes the news that the Army has drafted a new manual reflecting the "hard-learned lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan," where military operations against insurgents depend more on "fragile efforts to win over a wary population" than on combat. It is uncanny how this reflects the disastrous results of poor leadership (at every level) shown in Platoon. Here are a few excerpts from the article:

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has cautioned the Army not to assume that the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are anomalies. Mr. Gates said in October that “unconventional wars” were “the ones most likely to be fought in the years ahead.” A 2005 Pentagon directive also advised the military to treat “stability operations” as a core mission.

..."The operational environment [in present and future wars] will remain a dirty, frightening, physically and emotionally draining one in which death and destruction result from environmental conditions creating humanitarian crisis as well as conflict itself,” the manual states [see Platoon for harrowing scenes of humanitarian crisis].

General Caldwell said the manual would influence Army education and training by stressing the sort of skills that are needed to bring stability to conflict-ridden states with weak governments.
“There will be people who naturally will say, ‘If I can do high-end offense and defense, I can do any lesser kind of operations,’ ” he said. “What we have found through seven years is that is not the case.”

...Some of the Army’s up-and-coming officers...say much more needs to be done, including attracting more officers to disciplines that the manual says are so necessary, like advising foreign security forces and assisting with civil affairs...Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, who wrote a widely circulated article criticizing how the generals fought the Iraq war, said, “However, the institutional Army, to include our organizational designs and our personnel system, is essentially the same as before 9/11.”

He added: “The most important tasks we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan are building host-nation institutions, including security forces and governance. We need to attract the very best officers into these specialties to be successful at these tasks.

To read entire article, click here:

Rent the movie and think. Do you know a young person who might make this sort of officer?