When I was a kid, the writer who influenced me the most was Norman Mailer. I read everything, a lot of which was pretty insane, but most of which was brilliant, if hard to understand. Mailer was a pretty weird guy. If Hunter S. Thompson was a voice of a generation, Mailer was both precursor and ghost. Mailer, Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote are all credited as founders of New Journalism, but it's safe to say that Mailer got there first.
In many ways, Hunter's preoccupation with sex, drugs, violence, war and politics mirrored Mailer's but with a couple of differences. Hunter was a screw-up draftee in the early 60s, in the Air Force working on the base newspaper; Mailer was an academic wunderkind, entering Harvard at age 16 and graduating with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1943 when he was drafted. He had some intent to gain a deferment, contending that as a writer he was essential to the war effort; the draft board looked askance at that nonsense, and off he went to Fort Bragg and then on to the Philippines, as a grunt-screw-up.
He talked in one of his books, Advertisements for Myself, about joining the Army because he wanted to write the Great American Novel about the war; since he spent most of his tour as a cook, he listened to a lot of stories from people who got shot at regularly which is an education in itself. He went on a few patrols, and did what he was told successfully enough that he didn't get killed and didn't end up in the stockade and left with all parts working and a Combat Infantry Badge. He took his GI Bill and took off to study literature at the University of Paris. So, drafting him spared us the possibility of flying in a plane designed by Norman Mailer... another victory for the GI Bill.
He then wrote one of the Great American Novels about World War II, The Naked and the Dead. There were a lot of contenders for that title, and I don't think it's really been awarded -- they're all fairly hard reads today, be it Here to Eternity or The Thin Red Line or Mailer. However, as you read them and pick up later books, you find that, with the exception of Gore Vidal, who was really writing about something else entirely in Williawah, the experience was such that those WWII authors were constantly rewriting that novel no matter what they were writing about.
Writers, poets, filmmakers and other veterans of war who reflect on their experiences are prone to that -- Tim O'Brien's, If I Die in a Combat Zone, is a great example from Vietnam. I expect we'll see a lot of similar stuff from Iraq and Afghanistan. Mailer summed it up in Advertisements for Myself, saying that, “The army gave me but one lesson over and over again: when it came to taking care of myself, I had little to offer next to the practical sense of an illiterate sharecropper."
If you read my pal and occasional editor Gordon Duff's occasional reflections on his Vietnam experience over at Veterans Today, , you get the same feel. Gordon was a Marine infantryman, and while I suspect he wouldn't trade the experience, he would have gladly avoided it. Starvation, disease, stupidity and ignorance -- by superiors, peers and the whole damned world at times -- has an impact on a man. My military career was gentler in a lot of ways, but when people ask me about my life choices, I point out that I'm probably not the best one to ask for advice -- after all, my Phi Beta Kappa in philosophy from Holy Cross got me a rucksack, a rifle and a toothless guy from Georgia yelling at me to get my ass down. I claim no moral superiority based on that or accept no inferiority.
What it did for Mailer, Hunter, Gordon, O'Brien and everybody who did these things was provide a framework that what happened before doesn't quite fit, and what happens later gets strapped on, like an extra appendage or primordial tail. I understand the world from the point of view of 0300-0600 guard duty in Germany at an isolated Army Airfield during the height of the Bader Meinhof activity. The weather is dark, the terrain unknown, and what the hell am I supposed to be doing? What am I doing? Why am I doing it? What's that noise? Terrorists or a stray dog?
Norman Mailer spent the rest of his life figuring out the answer to those questions, and to say he was an exceptionally screwed up dude as a human being is perhaps understatement. He saw his competition with other writers as competition; he saw it all as a fight card and he saw himself as the favorite. There were some great writers in those years, 60 years ago or so, and he had some pretty amazing competition. But, he also brought the whole "essayist/journalist/critic thing to his work."
His most famous and influential piece of writing, after The Naked and the Dead is probably The Armies of Night, his account of the first big anti-Vietnam protest march to the Pentagon. So, he was immersed; my first exposure was Cannibals and Christians, his journalistic record of the post Kennedy-Johnson years. I suspect that it was about a 12-way draw between writers, all on points.
In 1967, Mailer decided to engage in some root cause analysis, sort of.... in a novel about a rich Texas kid and his father and friends who go off to Alaska to hunt bears. In Why are we in Vietnam, he used the bear hunt as an allegory for the rationale behind the Vietnam War; while I think it doesn't work so well for Vietnam, I think it really works for Iraq and Afghanistan. Going to shoot a Kodiak bear from your wealthy neighborhood in Dallas is hardly a good substitute for war, but it is a real macho thing to do. Until it isn't and it's just a godawful mess but with no reason and no worthwhile outcome.
A lot of artists in the 60s used allegorical approaches -- Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant can be seen as one long allegory. He says so in fact, that "That's not what I came to tell you about; I came to tell you about the draft." Mailer doesn't mention Vietnam at all in the book, except for the title. If it seems dated, get a copy and black out Vietnam and write in Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran or just pick one. It'll work.
I am a child of the 60s, and I'm using allegory to approach a complicated or simple question. Assuming we lost, why did we lose in Afghanistan. (How can you lose something you never had?) Thursday's edition of Foreign Policy had a piece by Jim Gourley and Tom Ricks. Ricks is acting as the Obi Wan Kenobi of a lot of journalists who find our involvement in the past 14 years of unpleasantness irritating at best, and absolutely awful most of the time; he is no longer with the Washington Post and writing for and as himself. Gourley is a "former Military Intelligence Officer and journalist", who writes about military affairs and extreme sports. The irony is apparent there; his latest book is about the Ultraman Marathon in Hawaii. They pose the question this way: In 500 words or less, why did we fail to render our enemies — those people who actively participated in open hostility against our forces — powerless? Gourley based that question on what I consider possibly the right source but the wrong emphasis. The quote from Clausewitz is from the first page of On War: “Force, that is to say physical force because moral force as no existence save as expressed in the state and law is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object. To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless.”
Now, I am of a different opinion and am not sure if this is the right question. I believe that besides "getting bin Laden" and "teaching the Taliban a lesson", we had no reason for invading and staying in Afghanistan other than the Bush Administration had to do something, and attacking Iraq wasn't something that could be done with a couple of airborne battalions and Special Forces Operators. After that, the fall of the Taliban and the whole Tora Bora issue -- we could have declared victory and left.
But, there had been not so much mission creep as rationale creep... driven in large part by the "need" to get work for the special interests propping up the various administrations in the USA, the UK and so on. In other words, Afghanistan was a violation in much the same was as Iraq of the Powell doctrine: to not commit US Forces without a defined objective, without overwhelming force and without an exit strategy.
But, that's my position. What do you think? I'm asking the questions: Why do you think we are where we are in Afghanistan and what should we do next? And, how? Post comments here and I'll summarize them and see what trends if any emerge. Possibly, we're as confused now as everyone in the Bush Administration was.
I've already published this at Vets Today and have had a number of pretty interesting and thoughtful replies. I hope to get at least a few from this forum. For the sake of Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson, sitting in heaven drinking tequila and smoking opium while taking pot shots at passing angels with a .50 cal pistol, I'm really curious about what you might think.