Back from the Zone
This is Marshal Law post #2, out of (as currently conceived) five. (#1 is here) For those coming in late, I am concerned strictly and only with the original 6-issue series, collected under the title “Fear and Loathing.”
Here’s a core concept about the series, courtesy of Kim Yale: in it, everyone’s point of view is real. As I work on these posts, her words seem more and more to be my guide. During the period of our friendship, I remained very closemouthed about my partly-military childhood, to everyone. Now, I find myself willing to invoke it, and at the same time and in partly the same way, I’d like to represent her point of view as best I can.
This time it’s about Gangreen and its leader, Suicida, and his verbal tic: “Smack’im in the mouth.” And to a great extent, and for exactly the same reasons, Joe himself: “I’m also trying to be a normal person.” These men have exactly the same background; a flashback even shows they were in the same squad in the Zone. In the present, Marshal Law frequently mixes it up with Gangreen, in rather different fights from his briefly-depicted, implied routine takedowns of rogue capes (“Get in there, you asshole”). These fights are personal. He and Suicida know one another intimately and they talk to one another during the confrontations. Kim’s call was that Joe does not kill him because he completely and accurately identifies with him, and in a confused way, wants very badly to save him.
But let’s back up to the political context which, for Kim and me, was as straightforwardly present as the air we breathed: U.S. policy in the rest of America, including but not limited to Guatemela, Cuba, and Chile (earlier); and El Salvador and Nicaragua (current). Specifically, support for the Sandinista regime in El Salvador and the support for the so-called contras against the new government of Nicaragua. In the comic, the U.S. of the near future was bogged down in the military involvement there, in the fictional projection of what seemed quite likely at the time, a sudden ramp-up paralleling Johnson’s ramp-up of U.S. military action in Vietnam twenty years earlier. It may seem odd now, post-Gorbachev and given more recent latter-day presidential comparisons, but at the time, during Reagan’s first term, the re-instatement of the draft and a full-scale invasion of Central America was not a delusional fear. It was quite rightly grounded in the re-instatement of delusions which informed the events at the Bay of Pigs in 1962, as the comic itself referenced in its third issue.
Transporting the reality of Vietnam into Central America of the 1980s works all too well, specifically as opposition to transporting the old narratives of Vietnam, which was exactly what the Reagan administration and its media spin allies were trying to do. The new push to describe the Vietnam experience in ways best suited to 1964 propaganda was literally a psyop to garner support for the policy in the Americas. So instead of examining this in the larger context of Iran, Israel, and Lebanon (for that, I have a whole profile in Shahida), I want to look at that propaganda, much of which revolved around the veteran.
It’s familiar stuff down to the very phrases: “stabbed in the back by the press,” “won the battles but not the war,” “let down by the public” “failure of political will” – all the same horse shit that fueled the Nazi party in the 1930s and which propelled a similar mentality into power. And just as in the 1930s, the primary image is of the traumatized, abandoned veteran.
Let’s dispose of that “parades” thing immediately. U.S. forces received two (2) parades after WWII. All those photos you see are from municipal victory parades; they were not “for the troops” in the way the spin implies. No victory, no parades, with or without troops. It’s pretty straightforward.
The spitting is a whole universe of hassle on its own. Lembcke’s The Spitting Image raises exactly the right question: given that “hippies/war-protestors spitting on veterans” was completely absent from the media and all documentation during the 1960s and 1970s, how did this image get cemented so hard into the culture? Especially in contrast with veterans in anti-war demonstrations getting spat on by Birchers and many similar events, which were documented and visually available. Bob Greene’s Homecoming either refutes Lembcke’s point or inadvertently supports it, you’ll have to decide for yourself (note that using multiple undocumented and suspiciously similar accounts is rightly widely derided in reference to anti-vaccination, but that’s exactly what Greene does here). And Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves needs to get included too, as I’ll talk about in a minute.
You might not know that contrary to the abandonment myth, Congress of the 1970s fought hard to increase veterans’ benefits against the Nixon and Ford administration’s opposition, and succeeded. It was the gutting of public services and the Veteran’s Administration by the Reagan administration which constitutes abandonment, yes, the very same which re-introduced and so vigorously reinforced all the abandonment rhetoric.
I want to examine the traumatized vet meme and its usefulness across the entire later domestic political spectrum, 1980s neoliberal and 1990s neoconservative alike, both of which are the direct spawn of the Reagan administration, a great deal of which had more in common with LBJ’s administration than anyone likes to admit. “Left” and “right” are completely useless, debased terms in American politics, which I’m not going to go into now. Neolib-neocon have become the new normal, in a perfect recapitulation of 1948 and 1960. Today, we are all Reaganites and Johnsonites, Kennedyites and Trumanites. If you had told me twenty years ago that the millenium would usher in a combination of the Bay of Pigs (1961), the Vietnam mobilization (1964), and Iran-Contra (1986) all at once, I’d have laughed in your face. Even the Reagan propaganda machine couldn’t wind up that successful, I thought. Ha ha, very funny.
From then until today, the traumatized Vietnam vet is a staple of pop culture and political rhetoric, due to its utility to the Dreadful Center committed to American exceptionalism and privilege, with its neocon-neolib fake-poles. It’s of inestimable service to both militaristic policy and silence about the actual policy of the 60s and 70s which today’s repeats.
You see how it works, I hope. The image of the traumatized vet turns the entire U.S. policy issue into a self-involved, psychological, emotional issue, confining all judgment and discussion strictly to that. You can cast it as virtue or pathological trauma, with any of a dozen various combinations and spins on them, finding a particular mix for the whole variety of permissible pseudo-political position, including but not limited to …
- they should not have to suffer in vain
- we are shamed by our cowardice which abandoned them as they fought for us
- next time we’ll go all-in
- let the generals do their job, they know what they’re doing
- look at their terrible suffering, let’s stop the war (and get back to the oh-so-cleanly sanctions)
… and so on and on, but always enforcing silence on the direct discussion and always buying into the resurrected Reagan-does-Johnson narrative of the war. The depth of the suffering veteran is always invoked – as a constant, with which one dare not disagree or even talk – for whatever the speaker wants out of that narrative.
There’s yet another level to the core image, which is the notion that U.S. troops in Vietnam had gone literally into hell – not a dramatic turn of phrase at all, but the notion that war in Vietnam was worse than war anywhere else, that it was a special dimension that’s not only too traumatic in ordinary psychological terms, but actually ineffable, metaphysically opaque to discussion. This is a lovely way to force silence from everyone, because to offer or to ask for information means opening the forbidden dimension, which is both too terrible for us to grasp, and too terrible to “make” them talk about. Thus inquiry into the reality of the veterans’ experience is recast as a hybrid of secular insensitivity and metaphysical blasphemy.
The reality of the post-military experience remains mostly unexamined, for all engagements not just Vietnam. That’s where the Turse book comes in, in breaking that metaphysical barrier and discussing the personal experience there as a function of policy. There’s more to do. To name merely one sacred cow, it might be good to separate the variables of combat-experience stress vs. heroin addiction and withdrawal. Or about the organization of campus and radical anti-war efforts by the veterans themselves, dating all the way back to the mid-60s and forgotten by everyone. But the most relevant one here is the possibility of seeing stressed or even violent behavior on many veterans’ parts as socially undesirable and something certainly to be addressed, but also non-pathological, therefore a matter for discussion rather than for silencing (including medicating out of sight) and appropriation.
About a decade ago, I read a transcribed presentation by a Russian speaker, possibly a journalist, which I’m still tracking down. He was talking about economic collapse and at one point, the veterans of the Afghan campaign, and he used a phrase that jarred me and any American I read it to: When they realize[d] they do not have a psychological problem but instead a political problem … Specifically, he acknowledged the vets’ messed-up-ness, their violence, their capacity for ruthlessness, their gang mentality as real, but rejected the limited/limiting notions of the American narrative, in favor of the point that all this was an understandable result of being screwed over in this particular way in the absence of any way to talk about it.
It was impossible to discuss this in the 1980s, especially after Reagan’s second election, when the whole culture turned into Rocky IV and Rambo II. I remember a very late night in a bar in Chicago, age about 21, when I was by myself, getting invited into a conversation with several older men, white and black. We weren’t talking about Vietnam at all, but one of them more-or-less spontaneously told me that I reminded him of the point-man on patrol teams there. I blinked – that was one of the most surprising things I’d ever heard in my life, which I still don’t really believe I merit, and I asked a bit about what he thought of the recent movies. Anger blazed in his eyes, not directed at me at all, and he quietly asked not to talk about it, to which I immediately agreed.
The Suicida character nails it with that anger, the alienation with no direction, the silenced struggle to reflect and therefore forced to direct oneself outwards, exactly as he screams in frustration after a beating from Marshal Law: I just want to smack the whole world in the fragging mouth!
I am not a military veteran. But remember, I was a military kid just as much as a countercultural one, and I think I get what he means, or more accurately, I can see it from here. I can even see it as a more realistic, more honest view than Joe “trying to be a normal person.” Because he’s not a normal person – and not because he (or Suicida) is stupid or crazy, but because he is grappling with culturally-unacceptable truths. Because yes, the whole world did this to them. They are rightfully angry, and their abandonment isn’t about their “service to their country,” but about their corruption and sacrifice by that country, in the first place.
Never mind the sequels. Consider the original series as a single thing, with an ending, and in that ending, the very last panels, as Joe stands at Lynne’s grave, see his costume change – where once it said “Fear and loathing,” now it says … Pain and rage. On his sleeve, where once it said “Liberty,” now it asks Why.
Joe just realized he doesn’t have a psychological problem, but a political one.
Next: Today is for taboo
Posted on June 4, 2015, in Lesser is still great, Politics dammit and tagged Bob Greene, contras, El Salvador, Gangreen, Homecoming, Jerry Lembcke, Kill Anything That Moves, Kim Yale, Marshal Law, Nicaragua, Nick Turse, Sandinistas, Suicida, The Spitting Image, Vietnam veterans, Vietnam War. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.