Friday, May 6, 2016

If You Kill People Your Dick Might Stop Working (For a While)

Joseph Hirsch is quietly laying foundations for being the best unheralded literary voice of his generation turning out high quality books across multiple genres at an impressive pace (six new novels since I read his, at the time, current release Rolling Country two years ago). His latest (for the next ten minutes), Veterans' Affairs, is a largely biographical fantastic(?) story about an Iraq veteran and the violence that haunts him (and others) long after returning home from the war.

I asked Joseph for a piece from the perspective of a veteran on veteran and war literature and film in general and this is what he sent. Give this a go and then get your hands on some Hirsch.

If you kill People your Dick might stop working (for a while) 

by Joseph Hirsch

It’s been years since I’ve read Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece about World War II. It’s easily the best short book about war (aside from maybe William Wharton’s Shrapnel), and it works equally well as science fiction. The book has stayed with me so well that I can recall certain portions of it vividly even at this far remove.

I remember in the introduction Vonnegut describes an evening spent with his old army buddy, bullshitting around the dinner table and reminiscing about the war while said buddy’s wife glowered and shot hostile looks at Kurt from time to time. Finally he (or his buddy, I can’t remember) finally asked the woman what was wrong.

She said words to the effect that the two men were just children when the war was fought, and that when Vonnegut sat down to write about his war experiences, he would make himself look like a tough guy. Vonnegut assured the woman that he would do nothing of the sort, and even subtitled his book The Children’s Crusade, lest he forget her admonition.

I think, in general, it hurts more to see young people die rather than old ones. This is obvious, and either in spite of this or because of this, too often when Hollywood makes films about war (much like with films about high-school), the characters are all played by actors a full decade or so older than the kids they’re depicting. This explains why Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front is still the most effective and best movie ever made about war, even though it’s more than eighty years old. Its superiority to everything else in the genre is as assured as 2001’s towering status over every other science fiction film ever made except for maybe Blade Runner. A lot of the reason why the film still resonates, why it can still shut up a roomful of cynical high-school students even though it’s black-and-white, is because the people screaming in those bunkers look and sound a lot like high-school students themselves.

In his review of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Roger Ebert quoted Francois Truffaut (I believe) to the effect that it was impossible to make an antiwar film because war is innately exciting. Ebert believed that Stone, by making war a disorienting, 360-degree experience, had actually proven Truffaut wrong and had made a movie that was so fundamentally unsatisfying in its staging of combat that not even the most gung-ho American could walk away from Stone’s film feeling that war had any purpose or meaning.

It pains me to say this, but Ebert was wrong. When I was in the Army (2004-2008), I knew plenty of guys who loved war and loved Platoon. Like with the drug dealers who worship Scarface (penned also by Stone), these guys took what they wanted from the film in terms of quotes and scenes, and they ignored what didn’t already fit with their agenda and ideology.

You can show men losing their minds and their humanity in combat, and a certain kind of young man not even inclined to violence will stroke his chin and say My, how profound! Maybe I should try that! Michael Herr (Dispatches, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket) made it clear that he was a liberal, an “upper-middle class Jewish kid”, no “blood and guts” “John Wayne Jr.” and still the jungles of Vietnam called him like a siren and he went back, again and again.

Is it possible, ultimately, to make an antiwar film or to write an antiwar book, something so wrenching and horrific that any member of our species who saw/read the film/book in question would develop a total and permanent aversion to war? I don’t think so.

One of the problems with the portrayal of war is that the portrayal of the aftermath of war is usually botched in movies and books. Some of this revisionist fare is ludicrous, i.e. the Rambo films, starring Sylvester Stallone, who I heard coached soccer at a girls’ boarding school in Switzerland during the Vietnam War (I’m too lazy to confirm this one way or the other). Other films offer vets a therapeutic salve of sorts, with movies like Uncommon Valor or Missing in Action allowing Randall Cobb or Chuck Norris to go in and rescue POWs and put a coat of gloss on the blemish that was America’s humiliation and shame in Indochina. The most absurd of these films is undoubtedly The Park is Mine, starring Tommy Lee Jones, about a Vietnam vet who takes over Central Park for reasons known only to insomniacs with basic cable or anyone willing to shell out a penny on Amazon for a used paperback copy of the source material, a novel by Stephen Peters.
Are there any good books/films about PTSD? I can think of a couple off the top of my head. Birdy by the aforementioned William Wharton is criminally-underrated, but so is everything else Wharton wrote (at least for non-Polish audiences; for some reason the guy’s fucking huge in Poland). John L. Sheppard’s Alpha Mike Foxtrot is also a wonderfully-nuanced treatment of a subject that too often serves as grist for revenge fantasies or lame entertainment.

I’ll admit that the premise of a vet losing their mind upon returning to society has led to the creation of some great and terrifying work (i.e. Taxi Driver), but what I find even more terrifying is the opposite, the idea explicated once by the great crime writer Charles Willeford.

Willeford, who served with the Tenth Mountain Division in the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded, once wondered about the men with whom he shared the service, many of whom were violent sociopaths who thought little of murdering men who’d already surrendered, or who blithely decapitated a woman with an artillery round simply because she had the temerity to stick her head out of the window of a building at the wrong moment. How, Willeford asked, could these killers ever return to society and stop killing?

It was through Charles Willeford (along with Paul Fussell, author of The Boys’ Crusade: The American Infantry in North Europe, and James Jones, author of The Thin Red Line) that I learned the painful truth about Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” that they had done everything that American GIs were accused of doing in Vietnam, and worse. And then they came home. A very small number of them probably went on killing sprees (the number is probably smaller than the number of young men in our present day society who’ve never seen combat outside of a Call of Duty game on PC or Play Station, who have shot up a school or a movie theater). Some of the men who killed and raped overseas probably drank to excess or beat their wives and children (and their dogs) upon returning home. But the greater number of men who saw and did horrible things in Europe and the Pacific probably came home and just kept it to themselves until they died. They became postal workers who never went postal, or used car salesmen, or ad executives.

That, to me, is a lot more terrifying than the idea of a guy with a Mohawk gunning down a pimp, or some ‘roided up Sly Stallone making life hell for Brian Dennehy out in the Boonies. Contra to what Johnny Rambo would have you think, you can just turn it off.

I don’t ultimately write to make a difference, or to change the world. I believe that is possible, that the Victorian moralizing of a Charles Dickens or the rabble rousing of an Upton Sinclair or John Steinbeck may have made our world a better place or at least raised consciousness about deplorable living and working conditions. But when I sat down to write my own novel about my experiences in Iraq, and more importantly my experiences after the war, I didn’t have any objective in mind other than to do what I always do when I write, which is to relieve stress and try to keep myself from going insane.

It occurs to me now, however, that I may have inadvertently written a book that would give even the most boneheaded, young, dumb and full of cum red-blooded American male pause before going to war, for the main character in Veterans’ Affairs suffers from extreme erectile dysfunction, as I did for the first year upon returning from Iraq. Not that I’m necessarily the first writer to cover this aspect of PTSD.

My sex life is fine now (thank you), but the humiliation I experienced in the aftermath of the war was so total that I still have no idea why I would make it such an integral plot element in my novel.

Several answers proffer themselves now:

    •    I’ve been writing for too long, and existing at the margins of society in my own nightmare realm for far too long now to really care what anyone thinks or knows about me.

    •    James Jones was right when he said there isn’t much difference between a writer and a man who practices indecent exposure in public, and I just felt compelled to flash my cock (flaccid or no) in this last book.

    •    I thought (subconsciously) while writing, that if I talked about the real consequences of war, those shameful little details that not even a romantic with a death wish could valorize, that maybe I could give some young man pause before throwing himself into the next major ground conflict our nation engages in (and there will be another, and another, whether the next president is Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, or the mullet-headed, Libya-bombing, cackling farce of a sociopath that is Hillary Clinton).

I’ll be the first to admit that none of the three potential reasons for writing this novel enumerated above is necessarily the purest, but, notwithstanding the slim pickings, I’m inclined to choose what’s behind Door Number Three. It’s not the greatest chestnut of wisdom to impart, but sometimes you’ve got to make your appeal to the lowest common denominator, since, in the final analysis, they’re the ones who do the trigger-pulling while the think-tankers and lobbyists strategize from a cozy remove.

Kill people and your dick may stop working.

It was the best I could do. Sorry.


Thomas Pluck said...

What a great read. I'm a huge fan of Wharton myself. I'll be looking for subs Hirsch to read.

jedidiah ayres said...

He's cranking 'em out