Commentary Magazine


Topic: veterans

A Weak and Ugly Smear Against Veterans

One of the most welcome differences between the post-Vietnam and the post-Iraq/Afghanistan eras is that veterans are not being vilified for serving in an unpopular war. Even anti-war activists have generally drawn a distinction between opposing the war and attacking those who served—although that line got blurry at times, as when Moveon.org, for example, ran a full-page newspaper ad in 2007 slandering General David Petraeus as “General Betray Us.”

Now that both wars are ending—or, to be more accurate, now that American involvement is ending—there is, however, a disturbing tendency to paint veterans as mentally deranged ticking time bombs. That tendency grows when veterans commit horrifying acts of violence—as, for example, when Specialist Ivan Lopez, killed three people at Fort Hood on April 2. Lopez, it seems, briefly served in Iraq but saw no combat, yet there was the usual leap to judgment among those who decided that his murderous rampage must have been caused by battlefield trauma.

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One of the most welcome differences between the post-Vietnam and the post-Iraq/Afghanistan eras is that veterans are not being vilified for serving in an unpopular war. Even anti-war activists have generally drawn a distinction between opposing the war and attacking those who served—although that line got blurry at times, as when Moveon.org, for example, ran a full-page newspaper ad in 2007 slandering General David Petraeus as “General Betray Us.”

Now that both wars are ending—or, to be more accurate, now that American involvement is ending—there is, however, a disturbing tendency to paint veterans as mentally deranged ticking time bombs. That tendency grows when veterans commit horrifying acts of violence—as, for example, when Specialist Ivan Lopez, killed three people at Fort Hood on April 2. Lopez, it seems, briefly served in Iraq but saw no combat, yet there was the usual leap to judgment among those who decided that his murderous rampage must have been caused by battlefield trauma.

Now we are hearing something similar about Frazier Glenn Miller, the neo-Nazi nut who shot and killed three people outside a Jewish community center in Kansas. Miller, you see, served in the army in Vietnam—therefore his military service must be directly related to his violent and extremist acts more than 40 years later. It may not make much sense to you or me, but it seems to be a compelling case to Kathleen Belew, a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern, who has used Miller’s shooting as a peg to publish an op-ed in the New York Times suggesting that veterans are behind the white supremacist movement.

Here is Belew’s shoddy logic. Step A: “Vietnam veterans forged the first links between Klansmen and Nazis since World War II. They were central in leading Klan and neo-Nazi groups past the anti-civil rights backlash of the 1960s and toward paramilitary violence.” Step B: “It would be irresponsible to overlook the high rates of combat trauma among the 2.4 million Americans who have served in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the full impact of which has not yet materialized.” Implication: Many Iraq and Afghanistan vets are about to become violent white supremacists.

This doesn’t add up, to put it mildly, as even Belew (or her editors) seem to recognize because they put so many qualifiers into her argument. For example, she admits that “the number of Vietnam veterans in that [white supremacist] movement was small — a tiny proportion of those who served.” She also adds: “A vast majority of veterans are neither violent nor mentally ill. When they turn violent, they often harm themselves, by committing suicide.” But those qualifiers easily get loss amid the gist of the article, which clearly implies that the U.S. armed forces are a breeding ground for violent extremists.

The reality, of course, is that, while there are bound to be a few mentally unstable individuals in any group as large and varied as the armed forces, by and large veterans are more law-abiding, more successful, and better-adjusted than the population at large. To suggest some correlation between military service and membership in extremist groups, based on a tiny percentage of outliers, is a gross calumny on the millions of Americans who have served their country honorably and have adjusted to make a useful contribution in civilian life too.

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The Reality of Returning Veterans

The terrible shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Specialist Ivan Lopez, a soldier who had served four months in Iraq, will unfortunately reinforce the post-Vietnam image of a soldier home from war as a ticking time bomb–as a victim of the society and the military who is primed to kill either himself or others. That image, however, is at odds with reality.

While the number of veterans committing suicide is going up, so is the number of suicides in the general population. That, at least, is the finding of a Veterans Administration study of veterans’ suicides. “There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true,” Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who did the study, told the Washington Post. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.”

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The terrible shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Specialist Ivan Lopez, a soldier who had served four months in Iraq, will unfortunately reinforce the post-Vietnam image of a soldier home from war as a ticking time bomb–as a victim of the society and the military who is primed to kill either himself or others. That image, however, is at odds with reality.

While the number of veterans committing suicide is going up, so is the number of suicides in the general population. That, at least, is the finding of a Veterans Administration study of veterans’ suicides. “There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true,” Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who did the study, told the Washington Post. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.”

Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found little link between combat experience and the tendency to commit suicide: “Depression and other types of mental illness, alcohol problems and being male – strong risk factors for suicide among civilians – were all linked to self-inflicted deaths among current and former members of the military. But the researchers found deployment and combat did not raise the risk.”

A more wide-ranging Washington Post survey of veterans did find cause for concern. Among its findings: “More than half of the 2.6 million Americans dispatched to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation’s veterans…. One in two say they know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide, and more than 1 million suffer from relationship problems and experience outbursts of anger — two key indicators of post-traumatic stress.”

However, the Post also found that “the vast majority of recent veterans are not embittered or regretful. Considering everything they now know about war and military service, almost 90 percent would still have joined.”

What that suggests is that, while many combat veterans are understandably struggling with the stress of their experiences, they do not see themselves as victims–and neither should society. Nor should we see them as potential criminals, much less likely rampage killers. In fact, as might be expected, rates of crime are much lower among military personnel than among civilians.

Specialist Lopez was being treated for a variety of mental health problems. It stands to reason it was those problems–and not his experience in Iraq per se, whose details are still not clear–that triggered his fatal outburst. Vast numbers of soldiers have spent far more time “down-range” than he did, seen far more combat, been wounded, and returned home to live productive and happy lives. We should remember the “silent majority” of veterans instead of focusing on a tiny number of outliers like Lopez.

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Sheldon Adelson Talks Politics, Troops and Israel

Sheldon Adelson sat at the end of a sweeping boardroom table in an office in his Las Vegas hotel, the Venetian. Earlier that week, he had described himself as “basically a social liberal” in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. His comments quickly drew criticism from both the left and right; The Huffington Post called him a “low-information billionaire,” and he was blasted by the right-wing anti-immigration activists. But Adelson seemed unfazed. 

“I got a call from a friend of mine who went to a Republican thing yesterday,” he told me. “They said, ‘Well Adelson’s got it right. He’s got it right.’ What’s wrong admitting that some of the social issues are those which Republicans should adopt?”

As for the critics, Adelson was dismissive: “What right do they have to criticize me? They don’t know me at all.”

For someone whose name and face were a regular staple of the election coverage, the public does have many misconceptions about Adelson. His liberal social views rarely received media attention during the campaign season, though he’s certainly never hidden them.

“See that paper on the wall?” he asked, gesturing toward a poster with rows of names on it. “That is a list of some of the scientists that we give a lot of money to conduct collaborative medical research, including stem cell research. What’s wrong if I help stem cell research? I’m all in favor. And if somebody wants to have an abortion, let them have an abortion,” he said.

Adelson wouldn’t be the first high-profile Republican to suggest the party should soften (or at least downplay) its position on social issues. But as the seventh richest man in America and the biggest campaign donor in political history, Adelson could have much more influence over the direction of the GOP than any of these other internal critics. According to the Wall Street Journal, he spent over $100 million on the last election, and has no compunction about spending more. “To me, it’s not a lot of money,” he said. 

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Sheldon Adelson sat at the end of a sweeping boardroom table in an office in his Las Vegas hotel, the Venetian. Earlier that week, he had described himself as “basically a social liberal” in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. His comments quickly drew criticism from both the left and right; The Huffington Post called him a “low-information billionaire,” and he was blasted by the right-wing anti-immigration activists. But Adelson seemed unfazed. 

“I got a call from a friend of mine who went to a Republican thing yesterday,” he told me. “They said, ‘Well Adelson’s got it right. He’s got it right.’ What’s wrong admitting that some of the social issues are those which Republicans should adopt?”

As for the critics, Adelson was dismissive: “What right do they have to criticize me? They don’t know me at all.”

For someone whose name and face were a regular staple of the election coverage, the public does have many misconceptions about Adelson. His liberal social views rarely received media attention during the campaign season, though he’s certainly never hidden them.

“See that paper on the wall?” he asked, gesturing toward a poster with rows of names on it. “That is a list of some of the scientists that we give a lot of money to conduct collaborative medical research, including stem cell research. What’s wrong if I help stem cell research? I’m all in favor. And if somebody wants to have an abortion, let them have an abortion,” he said.

Adelson wouldn’t be the first high-profile Republican to suggest the party should soften (or at least downplay) its position on social issues. But as the seventh richest man in America and the biggest campaign donor in political history, Adelson could have much more influence over the direction of the GOP than any of these other internal critics. According to the Wall Street Journal, he spent over $100 million on the last election, and has no compunction about spending more. “To me, it’s not a lot of money,” he said. 

Adelson has not said whether he will use his influence to try to change the GOP internally. But he does believe social issues cost the Republicans the last election.

“If we took a softer stance on those several issues, social issues, that I referred to, then I think that we would have won the most recent election,” he said. “I think people got the impression that Republicans didn’t care about certain groups of people.” 

“They talked about Mitt Romney and said that he can’t identify with poor people. I can identify with poor people because I was one of them,” he added.

Adelson also breaks with Republicans on health care and immigration. He said he opposes Obamacare, but he does “believe in a socialized medicine system” like the one in Israel.

On immigration, he supports a path to citizenship with some sort of community service requirement.

“We have to find a way for them to earn citizenship,” he said. “I think they got to pay something for it. Not in money…people have suggested serving in the military, community service.”

If Adelson does decide to take a larger role in influencing GOP policy, the upcoming immigration reform debate could be his first opportunity. As a child of immigrants, the issue appears to hold a lot of personal significance for him.

“I was a poor person. My parents were uneducated. My parents were immigrants,” Adelson said. “All of the things that are under consideration today, I was part of.” 

Adelson was born during the Great Depression in Dorchester, Massachusetts. His father had fled from Lithuania in 1912. Adelson recalled his father telling him as a child: “You just remember, Sheldon, the United States of America is the greatest country God ever created. Don’t you ever forget that.”

I asked him what he thought about accusations that he is more loyal to Israel than the U.S., an anti-Semitic smear that proliferated during the election.

“Listen, I live here. I don’t live there,” he said. “My wife is Israeli, my children carry Israeli passports, but I don’t. And what right do critics have to make any comment about who I’m loyal to?”

He continued: “Israel is also one of the greatest nations on Earth…Israel is a melting pot for Jewish people like the United States is a melting pot for people who want to leave other countries. You can’t have another country like that? That’s OK.”

Adelson and his wife are both veterans. She served in the Israeli Defense Force, and he served in the U.S. military during the Korean war. They also contribute to veterans organizations, and six years ago began sponsoring a regular Las Vegas trip for wounded soldiers through the Armed Forces Foundation (my trip to Vegas to cover the event was sponsored by this program).

Adelson said he decided to start the trip after sitting next to a wounded soldier at a veterans event in Washington. Once the gala was over, he said he wanted to find a way to thank the wounded personally.

“Last time we had people coming from the [Brooke Army Medical Center] from San Antonio, that their faces…their bodies were so badly burned it was difficult to look at them, you know? And nobody ever says thank you to them,” he  said.

“It tears your heart out. You wonder how people can carry on.”

Adelson has struggled with his own health issues. He suffers from a condition that makes walking and using his hands difficult.

“Look, I have neuropathy. And all four of my limbs are affected by neuropathy,” he said. “On the motor side my thumb and my forefinger can’t operate. I can’t tie my shoe laces.”

“There are a lot of things I can’t do,” he continued. “But I’m thanking God that’s all I got. How can these people get along without fingers, without hands? Without legs? And all because they wanted to volunteer to fight to save our freedoms.”

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Re: The “Crazed Veteran”

David notes that American fiction has done little with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan — but that, given the way literature and movies have treated Vietnam veterans and the fact that, even after four decades “Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars,” the absence of veterans from post-9/11 fiction “is probably a very good thing.”

Agreed. But in passing, David asks where the image of the “crazed vet” came from. That question cannot be answered without reference to B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitely’s Stolen Valor, one of the most remarkable and surprising books I have ever read. Like Whitely herself, I came to the subject with the belief, inspired by years of media coverage, that the “crazed vet” (always a Vietnam vet) was a reality. The virtue of Stolen Valor is the way that it methodically and systemically uses documents obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, reveals fraud after fraud, fake after fake, and lie after lie from supposedly traumatized veterans who in reality rarely even served in the military or saw combat at all.

And these lies started well before the 1978 release The Deer Hunter and, indeed, even before 1971 — the publication date of the earliest book David cites. Burkett and Whitely point out that Robert Jay Lifton, a former Yale psychiatry professor, propagandized against the Vietnam War in 1969 on the grounds that ending the war was (as the American Psychiatric Association put it in a 1971 statement) imperative “to build a mentally healthier nation.” The irony is obvious: the works David cites were fictional in that they advanced the narrative that Burkett and Whitely explode. But they were not even inventive works of fiction: they merely elaborated (sometimes skillfully, sometimes less so) a preexisting trope that was invented for political reasons.

Perhaps the reason why today’s writers have little to say about combat and veterans is they are uneasily aware that, while they can’t get away from Vietnam in their own minds, the device of the crazed vet has — thirty years after Rambo — become a cliché best avoided. Or perhaps the answer is a bit more optimistic: the “crazed veteran” was a product of the anti-war movement, and the anti-war movement (including its literary vanguard) has by and large recognized that going after veterans, no matter how good it may make them feel, is bad politics.

David notes that American fiction has done little with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan — but that, given the way literature and movies have treated Vietnam veterans and the fact that, even after four decades “Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars,” the absence of veterans from post-9/11 fiction “is probably a very good thing.”

Agreed. But in passing, David asks where the image of the “crazed vet” came from. That question cannot be answered without reference to B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitely’s Stolen Valor, one of the most remarkable and surprising books I have ever read. Like Whitely herself, I came to the subject with the belief, inspired by years of media coverage, that the “crazed vet” (always a Vietnam vet) was a reality. The virtue of Stolen Valor is the way that it methodically and systemically uses documents obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, reveals fraud after fraud, fake after fake, and lie after lie from supposedly traumatized veterans who in reality rarely even served in the military or saw combat at all.

And these lies started well before the 1978 release The Deer Hunter and, indeed, even before 1971 — the publication date of the earliest book David cites. Burkett and Whitely point out that Robert Jay Lifton, a former Yale psychiatry professor, propagandized against the Vietnam War in 1969 on the grounds that ending the war was (as the American Psychiatric Association put it in a 1971 statement) imperative “to build a mentally healthier nation.” The irony is obvious: the works David cites were fictional in that they advanced the narrative that Burkett and Whitely explode. But they were not even inventive works of fiction: they merely elaborated (sometimes skillfully, sometimes less so) a preexisting trope that was invented for political reasons.

Perhaps the reason why today’s writers have little to say about combat and veterans is they are uneasily aware that, while they can’t get away from Vietnam in their own minds, the device of the crazed vet has — thirty years after Rambo — become a cliché best avoided. Or perhaps the answer is a bit more optimistic: the “crazed veteran” was a product of the anti-war movement, and the anti-war movement (including its literary vanguard) has by and large recognized that going after veterans, no matter how good it may make them feel, is bad politics.

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The “Crazed Veteran”

On this 11th anniversary of 9/11, I am struck by how little of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wormed their way into American fiction. The main character in Michael Chabon’s brand new Telegraph Avenue is a veteran of the first Gulf War, but by the time the novel opens in 2004, his Army hitch is already 12 years behind him, and his problems are no longer a veteran’s problems. The protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (2004) spends his time denouncing the Iraq war when he is not daydreaming about murdering President George W. Bush. Stephen King makes an Iraq war veteran the hero of Under the Dome (2009), but only, perhaps, because he regrets the atrocity he committed during the war. The voice of reason in William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters is a former Navy SEAL who “has murdered many men — in Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia — some of whom didn’t even know they were in the same room with him.”

The tone of admiration is even rarer than a character who is also a veteran. Robert Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran who began his career with The Alleys of Eden (1981), a novel about an Army deserter who stays behind to live with a bar girl in Vietnam because he can “never feel innocent again in the United States,” tried to explain why to the Virginia Quarterly Review:

Most of the best writers in Vietnam did not go there voluntarily. They maintained that sense of distance from what they were doing because they weren’t there from a natural personal impulse. They were not ontologically comfortable with the role they were cast in. . . . If you go there involuntarily the intensities of war make you doubt even more profoundly why you are there.

But I wonder if there isn’t a simpler explanation, one that is rooted in Butler’s own generation (and revealed in Butler’s own attitude). From his first appearance in American fiction, the Vietnam veteran was already well on his way to becoming a stock figure: the unhinged killer, the suicidal maniac, the post-traumatic ghost of himself. In Joseph Hayes’s Like Any Other Fugitive (1971), the vet is suffering from battle fatigue and instead of surrendering to the police when falsely accused of a crime, he leads them on a cross-country chase. In Edward Connelly’s Deer Run (1971), the vet wants to escape his painful memories of Vietnam by starting a commune, which goes badly. In Harry Mark Petrarkis’s In the Land of Morning (1973), the vet’s alienation from post-war America is symbolized by his fear of sleep, which feels to him like a “black, bottomless pit too close to death.” In Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die (1973), the vet is a violent and suicidal goon who is first seen beating up a sailor, muttering that nobody makes trouble “if you get a good one in first.”

Michael Cimino’s film The Deer Hunter (1978), in which Christopher Walken gives an unforgettable performance as the ex-U.S. infantryman who stays behind in Saigon to become a vacant-eyed and empty-souled legend at Russian roulette, and then Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) with Marlon Brando as the war-crazed former Green Beret, sealed the Vietnam vet’s fate in American culture. By the turn of the decade, TV critics were complaining that the “deranged veteran” had become a predictable stereotype, but what they didn’t understand was that that was its whole purpose. To identify a character as dangerously berserk, all a writer needed was to describe him as a Vietnam veteran. Even novelists who should have known better — or at least worked harder — fell for the narrative shortcut. As Philip Roth reminded his readers late last week in his “Open Letter to Wikipedia,” the “executioner” of the main characters in The Human Stain (2000) is “the tormented, violent Vietnam vet Les Farley.” He could have saved on words by merely saying “Vietnam vet.”

Where did the image of the “crazed vet” come from? The figment is not to be found in novels about veterans of the Second World War. Even when the veterans are emotionally scarred by battle, as in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) or N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), their biggest problem in these novels is readjusting to a civilian culture — as represented by the corporation or the Indian reservation — which gives them neither the opportunity nor the resources for sniffing out the meaning of their experience. The fault of the Vietnam vets, though, is in themselves.

Or perhaps in the attitude displayed by Robert Olen Butler — the attitude of “ontological discomfort” with war, and the suspicion that anyone who chooses voluntarily to join the military has a “natural impulse” for killing and violence. A writer who feels superior to men and women in uniform is unlikely to be interested in their experience, in combat or out. Small surprise the literature of 9/11 is almost entirely a bystander’s literature. And since American writers seem incapable of imagining veterans as anything other than ontologically unhinged, their absence from post-9/11 fiction is probably a very good thing.

Update: Last Friday, Jacob Silverman had a long satisfying review of four recent Iraq war novels at Slate: T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It ’Til It Hurts, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, David Abrams’s Fobbit, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (A fifth title, which Silverman does not get to, is Brian Castner’s The Long Walk.) Silverman’s conclusion is instructive:

It’s clear . . . that these new American wars have bred manifold types of isolation. Here, actual indigenous peoples are rare, whether enemy or civilian; the one named Iraqi that appears in The Yellow Birds is killed almost as soon as he’s introduced. There is little attempt to explore the perspectives of the very people these wars are being waged upon. . . . Three of these four war novels take place primarily in the United States, with the setting of Fobbit basically representing a miniaturized America plopped down in Baghdad. Even Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk . . . is mostly a stateside affair. A decade on, we read about life over here, so we don’t have to think about what we’ve done over there.

The only one of these I’ve read is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I found dreary and far-fetched. But if Silverman is right about them as a set, these four novels belong less to the Global War on Terror than to post-Vietnam American writing. They echo Tim O’Brien’s observation in Going after Cacciato (1978), the first truly good novel about the Vietnam war, in which the American soliders, who had little knowledge of the country in which they were fighting and less contact with its people, “did not know good from evil.” Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars even after four decades.

On this 11th anniversary of 9/11, I am struck by how little of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wormed their way into American fiction. The main character in Michael Chabon’s brand new Telegraph Avenue is a veteran of the first Gulf War, but by the time the novel opens in 2004, his Army hitch is already 12 years behind him, and his problems are no longer a veteran’s problems. The protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (2004) spends his time denouncing the Iraq war when he is not daydreaming about murdering President George W. Bush. Stephen King makes an Iraq war veteran the hero of Under the Dome (2009), but only, perhaps, because he regrets the atrocity he committed during the war. The voice of reason in William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters is a former Navy SEAL who “has murdered many men — in Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia — some of whom didn’t even know they were in the same room with him.”

The tone of admiration is even rarer than a character who is also a veteran. Robert Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran who began his career with The Alleys of Eden (1981), a novel about an Army deserter who stays behind to live with a bar girl in Vietnam because he can “never feel innocent again in the United States,” tried to explain why to the Virginia Quarterly Review:

Most of the best writers in Vietnam did not go there voluntarily. They maintained that sense of distance from what they were doing because they weren’t there from a natural personal impulse. They were not ontologically comfortable with the role they were cast in. . . . If you go there involuntarily the intensities of war make you doubt even more profoundly why you are there.

But I wonder if there isn’t a simpler explanation, one that is rooted in Butler’s own generation (and revealed in Butler’s own attitude). From his first appearance in American fiction, the Vietnam veteran was already well on his way to becoming a stock figure: the unhinged killer, the suicidal maniac, the post-traumatic ghost of himself. In Joseph Hayes’s Like Any Other Fugitive (1971), the vet is suffering from battle fatigue and instead of surrendering to the police when falsely accused of a crime, he leads them on a cross-country chase. In Edward Connelly’s Deer Run (1971), the vet wants to escape his painful memories of Vietnam by starting a commune, which goes badly. In Harry Mark Petrarkis’s In the Land of Morning (1973), the vet’s alienation from post-war America is symbolized by his fear of sleep, which feels to him like a “black, bottomless pit too close to death.” In Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die (1973), the vet is a violent and suicidal goon who is first seen beating up a sailor, muttering that nobody makes trouble “if you get a good one in first.”

Michael Cimino’s film The Deer Hunter (1978), in which Christopher Walken gives an unforgettable performance as the ex-U.S. infantryman who stays behind in Saigon to become a vacant-eyed and empty-souled legend at Russian roulette, and then Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) with Marlon Brando as the war-crazed former Green Beret, sealed the Vietnam vet’s fate in American culture. By the turn of the decade, TV critics were complaining that the “deranged veteran” had become a predictable stereotype, but what they didn’t understand was that that was its whole purpose. To identify a character as dangerously berserk, all a writer needed was to describe him as a Vietnam veteran. Even novelists who should have known better — or at least worked harder — fell for the narrative shortcut. As Philip Roth reminded his readers late last week in his “Open Letter to Wikipedia,” the “executioner” of the main characters in The Human Stain (2000) is “the tormented, violent Vietnam vet Les Farley.” He could have saved on words by merely saying “Vietnam vet.”

Where did the image of the “crazed vet” come from? The figment is not to be found in novels about veterans of the Second World War. Even when the veterans are emotionally scarred by battle, as in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) or N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), their biggest problem in these novels is readjusting to a civilian culture — as represented by the corporation or the Indian reservation — which gives them neither the opportunity nor the resources for sniffing out the meaning of their experience. The fault of the Vietnam vets, though, is in themselves.

Or perhaps in the attitude displayed by Robert Olen Butler — the attitude of “ontological discomfort” with war, and the suspicion that anyone who chooses voluntarily to join the military has a “natural impulse” for killing and violence. A writer who feels superior to men and women in uniform is unlikely to be interested in their experience, in combat or out. Small surprise the literature of 9/11 is almost entirely a bystander’s literature. And since American writers seem incapable of imagining veterans as anything other than ontologically unhinged, their absence from post-9/11 fiction is probably a very good thing.

Update: Last Friday, Jacob Silverman had a long satisfying review of four recent Iraq war novels at Slate: T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It ’Til It Hurts, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, David Abrams’s Fobbit, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (A fifth title, which Silverman does not get to, is Brian Castner’s The Long Walk.) Silverman’s conclusion is instructive:

It’s clear . . . that these new American wars have bred manifold types of isolation. Here, actual indigenous peoples are rare, whether enemy or civilian; the one named Iraqi that appears in The Yellow Birds is killed almost as soon as he’s introduced. There is little attempt to explore the perspectives of the very people these wars are being waged upon. . . . Three of these four war novels take place primarily in the United States, with the setting of Fobbit basically representing a miniaturized America plopped down in Baghdad. Even Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk . . . is mostly a stateside affair. A decade on, we read about life over here, so we don’t have to think about what we’ve done over there.

The only one of these I’ve read is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I found dreary and far-fetched. But if Silverman is right about them as a set, these four novels belong less to the Global War on Terror than to post-Vietnam American writing. They echo Tim O’Brien’s observation in Going after Cacciato (1978), the first truly good novel about the Vietnam war, in which the American soliders, who had little knowledge of the country in which they were fighting and less contact with its people, “did not know good from evil.” Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars even after four decades.

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