Jack Remick © 2021
Why is it difficult for us, in this century, to write about the Trojan War in other than historical terms? Why can’t we get into the American Civil War except as anecdote or history?
It is, I think, because the last war is the one we always refight. And we refight it for very clear psychological and cultural reasons.
It is the most recent war that interests us. We are just beginning to refight the Viet Nam War in books, movies, television. For years it was anathema. When Bill Decker was an editor at Viking, he told me about a novel The Parthian Shot, that he brought out in 1976. It was a Viet Nam novel, and it went nowhere. No one would buy it. But now, the Viet Nam war moves to the forefront. There is a reason for this. I’ve been calling it the Re‑Dreaming.
Writings about war fixate us because they deal with the disruption of time and its flow; war is about special times, nodes of terror and horror that erupt out of the smoothness of time and our daily work and it captivates us.
Young men are always guided into war by old men who ought to know better Young men go always with visions of glory, of killing but never being killed and they come back, invariably scarred and mostly silent and when they do speak it is in the language of the nightmare, of hell, of visions not of grandeur, but of blood and of lifelessness and of horror. The nightmare is the recurrent metaphor of disillusionment and death. We write about war in that way because we never learn and because we need to forget.
No one cares much to refight the Second War anymore. Except for our fascination with the Nazis, WW II is out of vogue, and the First War has receded deeply into memory and its horrors have been forgotten, wiped out by the more current horrors which we have since brought on ourselves.
The American Civil War, despite its mass killing and legacy of atrocity, has lost its sense of awfulness and its images have become icons reduced to a set of photographic images by Matthew Brady. By becoming cliches, these images lose their power to evoke the horror and the death that they represent. The images tell us that it is safe to look at the icon taken out of the time of that war. Safety sustains us, not the essence of the war with its brutality and horror.
It is curious that almost immediately we began to re‑dream the Second War. It is equally curious that we are less prone to re‑dream the Pacific Theater of Operations than the European one. I think this is partly because in the Pacific we were guilty of something. The single, awesome image of the Hiroshima bomb, somehow limits our ability to re‑dream the Pacific. Not so the war in Europe. There, we were victorious and above reproach: our goals were noble, our ideals intact, we had saved humankind from eternal slavery.
A Chronicle of Killing
To write about war is to chronicle the application of technology to killing. Each war is more horrid than the one before it. The machine gun replaces the rifle, the cluster bomb replaces the machine gun, the napalm bomb replaces the cluster bomb and so on.
Yet, it may be that the ultimate horror of war is not to see bodies blown apart or torn to pieces or cut in half, rather it is reports of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who, simply were vaporized. This will be with us for a long time and so we consciously revert to a less complete way of killing. This alone tells us that war is only peripherally about killing. We are choosing to limit our means, we choose a more humane way to kill. In contrast to the Pacific War, which we lost morally, the war in Europe was more conventional, while being total, and the means were still recognizable: bodies torn apart, blood flowing, wounded men and women and children destroyed by selective and general violence. We can re-image that war, but we cannot yet deal successfully with the vaporization of our enemies. No one was prepared for the power to vaporize our enemies, to make them disappear. Our power had become too strong, our force too mean even for us to admit it in our dreams, and when we do Re‑Dream the Pacific War and specifically the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is always with a heavy heart and an effort to justify the acts morally.
What does this tell us about why it has taken us this long to assess the Viet Nam War.
To live with past war in the present, we create images. We do this to freeze the past in place, to stop it from advancing further into our unconscious and to keep it from fading, and we do it in order to cleanse our collective unconscious of the horror. By distilling the entire event into a few icons, we capsulize it and we are able to deal with it not as memory, but as religious symbols were dealt with in our religious character: the images do not become the war in our minds. To the contrary, they become our way of releasing ourselves from the war and war making.
The Re-Dreaming Process
So, it is the Last War, the most recent one, the one that we have to re‑dream for it is only by re‑dreaming it time and again that we come to understand it, that we come to terms with it, and that we accept it. Re‑dreaming is our way of trivializing war so that it no longer haunts us; once that is done, the wound becomes memory which can be selectively edited. We can easily edit memory but we can only alter the flow of current events with difficulty. The war occupies us as obsessive nightmare. We have to re‑run it, sorting it out, filtering it, cleaning it up until we find the special and acceptable icons of the horror which we will identify in our collective awareness as the central figure or image of that war. In this way, the most recent war becomes a racial or national collective dream that passes into the hands of the artists who find the proper way to defuse the horror. They undercut the truth of the brutality that we are capable of by selecting which truth we are to accept and, I think more than anything, by finding someone to blame. The source and cause of war must always be outside ourselves.
It has taken us nearly twenty years to begin to redream the Viet Nam War and it is probably because like bad children, we sense that it is we who are to blame for this but can’t quite admit it. It is only as adults that we can come to accept our guilt. But to re‑dream is to revise, and we are gradually expunging defeat from our dream by rationalizing our presence and looking for someone, something other than ourselves to blame. With the Viet Nam war, it is the faceless, nameless protestors, politicians and the media who are to blame for our national disgrace. We have, in fact, decided that we ourselves were the enemy there. Had it not been for ourselves, we would have won. Or so it seems.
There is always a cultural pressure to make sense of what we have done and where we have been. We have to re‑write history when it is irrational and won’t release us from our bond. We must remake our bond with History, revise it until it releases us. The Re‑Dreaming is our cultural, societal way of avoiding the collective stress syndrome which can possess an entire generation unless it is distanced, as is happening, say, in Chile following the repression. We see this phenomenon in the modern Germans who have not been allowed to Re‑Dream the War as Victors. The Germans have responded to the collective stress of not being able to re-dream the war by expiating through economic proof of their self‑worth; what Hitler couldn’t do with the Wehrmacht Bonn has done with the stock market — conquered Europe. As H. R. Trevor-Roper has pointed out, only to the losers can’t redream and cleanse. Because the losers cannot cleanse them, their wounds fester.
From Image to Icon
From this we might conclude that the dreaming of images into icons assumes a psychiatric function that allows us to transfer the guilt and the blame from ourselves to the icons, to identify the terror‑objects of the past and imbue them with all the hatred, the dislike and the distrust. Icons can be put into books and forgotten; they can be crushed, ideas cannot. The icons become wicker men, they become scapegoats that we invest all our fears and hatreds and self‑loathing in, and because we can externalize the hatred and fear, we cleanse ourselves of the horror which we have perpetrated by focusing our fears and hatred into the scapegoat — the clean icon. The re‑dreaming into icons becomes a way of denying our own involvement. We become distanced from that part of ourselves which was involved in this event which we can understand and cope with only when it has become an icon, a picture or a summary statue that represents everything about it.
How Wars Become Past Tense
Each war is re‑dreamed until someone seizes its essence and stops it from having to be re‑dreamed. This is the case with The Iliad and The Odyssey and the Trojan War; it is the case with The Red Badge of Courage and Matthew Brady and the American Civil War. It is the case with World War I and Sergeant York or All Quiet on the Western Front; it is the case for World War II, and it is now the case with Platoon and the Viet Nam War. The icons of Viet Nam are not clean icons. We knew the Green Beret icon was a lie when it was told. We knew it because we knew we couldn’t identify with our heros in Viet Nam as we did with the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima and so there is a deep ambivalence in the collective unconscious about that war. How do we re-dream it when it makes us feel bad? And now, before we have had time to sanitize it and to justify it, the Viet Nam war is no longer the Last War. Before we resolved it cleanly, it has been pushed out of its place by Panama, Grenada and by Desert Storm.
We have two wars to re-dream, and it is my sense that we will not be able to pull the Viet Nam War into icons because there is so much negative about that war. Instead, we will now re-dream Operation Desert Storm. It was a war quickly over and we were, if not victorious, then certainly not the losers.
Because of the selective media coverage of Desert Storm, we already have icons of that war — the retreat from Kuwait, the highway littered with thousands of bombed out vehicles, the living iconic visions of the attack on Baghdad. We are safe in our re-dreaming in the desert. The warriors have returned home to parades and drums. The war has been accepted into the national consciousness and into the collective unconscious. It is clean. It can be re-dreamed easily. Desert Storm replaces the Viet Nam war. We can expect that only the warriors of Viet Nam will be able to re‑dream it. A closed circle. No way in, no way out. Just like the war itself.