Two nights ago, President Obama ended his State of the Union address with a prolonged tribute to Army Sergeant Cory Remsburg, gravely injured in Afghanistan on his tenth deployment. For three previous items on what is right about this young man, but wrong about the spectacle, see #1, #2, and #3.
In those items, I said that during this part of the speech, I couldn't stop thinking about Ben Fountain's novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, about just such a tribute (at a NFL game). Readers suggest other comparisons.
1) David McCullough on Harry Truman. From a lawyer in Los Angeles:
I’m sure there has been plenty of commentary about Cory, and I think that’s a good thing. About what you said about remembering and moving on … I’m reminded of the story told in David McCullogh’s biography of Harry Truman, when he discusses the famous incident regarding the bad review of Truman’s daughter singing.
Truman of course wrote an angry letter to the Post’s music critic, for which Truman was widely lambasted. Apparently one of the critical letters that arrived at the White House was from a couple whose son lost his legs in the Korean War. That couple wrote to Truman saying in effect “Gosh, how lucky you are that your biggest problem with your kids is the bad reviews your daughter gets for her singing. Meanwhile, our son just came back from Korea without his legs and we’ll spend our old age helping him cope”. They even sent him the son’s purple heart.
Truman apparently kept that letter (with the purple heart) on his desk for the remainder of his presidency.
2) Apocalypse Now. From a reader in New York:
A common piece of writing advice is 'show, don't tell'. I'm not sure Remsburg would have liked to be used to explicitly illustrate the points you wish were made about our wars, much as I agree with those points.
That said, I think Remsburg did illustrate those points (wittingly or unwittingly, I don't know which) to all who would be receptive to them, and I'm 3/4 convinced that he was brought there for that very purpose (as well as to honor him). They didn't have to choose someone with 10 deployments or someone so damaged. They could have chosen someone who did something extraordinarily brave and escaped unscathed if they just wanted us to marvel at the bravery of soldiers.
I agree that the spectacle of oblivious war supporters applauding and completely missing the point is disconcerting. War lovers also applauded at the 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning' part of Apocalypse Now, but that doesn't make the movie a less powerful antiwar statement.
3) The Memoirs of Robert Gates. From another reader:
We should be so lucky to count the response to Lone Survivor as the worst cultural offender in the mixing up of doer and deed. My vote for worst purveyor of this attitude is Robert Gates, whose trashing of the President and other cabinet members seems to hinge entirely on their refusal to pretend that Afghanistan and Iraq were great success stories.
Of course those doomed adventures can't actually be defended on their merits, so instead Gates attacks his colleagues for their failure to keep faith with the troops. Doubting our purpose in Afghanistan is no longer the rational response to what is obviously a quagmire...instead, it's an inexcusable abandonment of the men and women serving there.
I found the ovation for Remsburg perverse, for the same reasons you did, and I have no interest in defending congress. But can we really expect the people in that chamber to adopt a different attitude when Secretary Gates is loosed on the public as he has been?
The critics of Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly those like you who were critical from the beginning, are letting the military fetishists get away with something. Underneath the grotesque "love" of the troops (a love that always seems to involve more of those troops getting blown to bits, oddly enough) is a deep desire to rewrite recent history, and pretend that there was something of value gained in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gates should have been publicly flayed by the press for defending two wars that we had all agreed--until rather recently--were debacles. Instead, he was met by gossip columnists and a shrug from everyone else. That's one more blow against a future of rational foreign policy.
4) "Tommy Atkins." This one is almost too obvious. As a reader put it, "I don't want to harp on this either, but this hundred-year-old poem is to the point." I won't quote Rudyard Kipling's entire poem, but the refrain is familiar and apt:
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!
5) "Toy Soldiers." Paula Craft, an artist in Bigfork, Montana, writes:
I want to second your notion that Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is extraordinary war writing. I was so inspired by it I scratched a planned photography show to mount one called 'Toy Soldiers' the theme of which was our casual use of these soldiers as props. I've attached a photo [below].
Between the book and my growing disgust at our University of Montana football games odd worship of wounded soldiers, I can hardly stand to see men singled out as the president did in is SOTU. I do believe that much the way we feel shame for the treatment some soldiers returning from Vietnam recieved, we will at some later date be shamed by our callous use of these brave, damaged souls to make ourselves feel better about wars we don't feel very good about.
6) Echoes of Vietnam. A veteran writes:
The practice of picking people out of the gallery during the SOTU has always struck me as basically a pretty cheap political tactic. With Remsburg my feelings were much more complicated.
That he has been through an enormous ordeal is obvious. To gaze upon him is uncomfortable as it should be. As a two tour Vietnam combat vet, it tears me up to see guys like that and see them I do at the Palo Alto VA hospital where I go for some of my healthcare. I am very aware of the ease with which politicians consign other, usually younger, people to die in their political gambits.
The other thought I had is that Cory is the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of veterans in similar shape with grievous physical and psychological damage resulting from a war that was truly a waste of thousands of lives (American and others) and completely avoidable; totally unnecessary. When do they get their standing ovation?
7) Katniss Everdeen. One last allusion:
Can there be any doubt about the right comparison? This is our Hunger Games.