The Great Trauma Of Your Generation

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From Cynic, in comments:


I'm reluctant to lean to heavily on biography to explain an argument, but in this case, I feel obliged to make one other observation. Here is Foote's account of his wartime service, from the same interview: 

I got crossways with a lieutenant colonel on staff for making him apologize to a soldier for cursing him. He laid for me and finally court-martialed me and I got sent back to the States and dismissed from the army. They didn't call it "dishonorable" then; they called it "other than honorable." I got back to the States and I worked on a local desk at AP for four or five months, and the war was heating up all the time. I couldn't stand it any longer, so I went down and joined the Marine Corps. 

The gist is accurate, although Foote fails to note that the charge on which he was finally nabbed was using his official jeep to visit his Irish girlfriend, a drive that took him beyond the prescribed radius. He was, as the court martial found, absolutely guilty as charged. And Foote was dishonorably discharged; he used his connections to have the penalty reduced to "other than honorable." He's also, apparently, holding back on why he worked for the AP in New York, and then enlisted in the Marine Corps. 

He told his biographer: 

I couldn't stand the disgrace. 

His biographer picks up from there: 

He was right: Many Greenvillians would later fault him for getting dismissed from the army, accusing him of finagling his way out. "That was the story around town," one Greenville resident later said....While other celebrated [the Japanese surrender] in the streets, Foote was devastated that World War II was over. According to Tony Horowitz, he had "missed the great trauma of his own generation's adolescence." 

So when Foote protests that he "certainly would have fought," when he speaks movingly of how "life would have been intolerable if you hadn't," when he romanticizes the combat and the killing, I can't help but think of the angry young man, disgraced for insubordination, too deeply shamed to return home, and ultimately denied the chance to redeem his honor on the field of battle.

This was a great comment, but the reply it issued from a reader was just as great:

Greetings Ta-Nehisi, 

Some months ago I asked you about Foote's trilogy in light of his adoration of Robert E. Lee and you said you were listening to it and that it was worth reading. Due to an eyesight malfunction hopefully soon to be corrected I can read a computer screen at a distance but not a book close enough to my face to hold in my hand, so the trilogy sits upon my shelf, mocking me. The long quote you posted is really difficult to read and digest. Cynic's comment here struck me for a purely tangential reason.

Within it the biographer he quotes says this: "According to Tony Horowitz, he had "missed the great trauma of his own generation's adolescence." 

This just about knocked me out. 

My father was born in 1928 and, as an exceptional student, was admitted to Fordham University in NYC at the age of 15. At the time Fordham (and presumably other universities) were running accelerated programs to produce graduates in under 4 years who could then be snatched up by the officer corps of the various services for training and deployment. My father graduated in the late spring of 1946. The war was over (he did enlist anyway and wound up in Korea via Texas). 

He never explicitly said so but I always had the feeling he in some perverse way regretted the ending of the big war because it meant he had not been able to participate in the Great Event of his generation. He went into the Foreign Service where he spent his life in service of his career. 



He was a distant figure in my life, up at 5 and home after 7 each night, a wannabe frustrated jazz musician (trombone, at which he readily admitted he was "not very good," though there must be something in his genes as three of four children become proficient at one or more instruments) who spent much of his youth not just yearning to be in the second great war but haunting all of the renowned jazz clubs of NYC at night seeing all of the legendary players. 

He loved us as he could, and supported us in even our more impractical endeavors but I could not escape the impression as a young adult and more so now that he woke up periodically, looked around at his wife, kids, and career and literally wondered "well, how did I get here?" And he never came up with a satisfactory answer. 

Hence, much drinking. 

A small kicker - his degree, the one that would prepare him for officer training and war was in philosophy. :) I have some of his readers from high school and books from college. In the margins and the front and back are decently done drawings of various aircraft used in the war and individual soldiers outfitted in the war making kit of the day. I can imagine him daydreaming of the glory of the fight, itching to get into it which leads me to believe that romanticizing war is a definitively human problem, a failure of imagination or refusal to acknowledge reality that generation after generation makes. 

The death and dismemberment seems to get papered over long enough to get the wars started that, once underway, are difficult to end. I will still read the trilogy once my eye issues are sorted, and my reading list for the Civil War contains many of the books you and your commentariat have written and argued about, but this interview makes it hard to trust the work. It reads like a confused apologia by a guy who deep down knows better. 

Regards,

That is, hands down, one of the most beautiful letters I've ever received. Some of you guys should be writing.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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