Wednesday, April 18, 2012

War, Political Fictions, & the Making of Pulitizers

These days war seems to reach us through the back doors of culture, long after Dancing with the Stars shows even more bodice and yet another reality show offers the next cadre of ginned up beauties who scratch their way into the popular imagination. This is pumped up tribalism at its campiest and probably best described by animal imagery or better yet, cartoons. I can think of no better presentation of the pain in our national psyche than the cartoons of Matt Wuerken, of Politico, who just won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartoons. Of the twenty cartoons offered on Politico to celebrate this amazing achievement, my favorite is the one asking cartoon subjects to raise their hands if they think we are involved in too many wars. Everyone does, of course, including the politicians and peaceniks. The heavy-burdened soldier also raises his hand but apparently does not have a vote. On a street corner not far from my house, small, competing war and anti-war groups ask motorists to honk their approval. They have been drowning each other out for about ten years.

We do our best to deny war and its consequences. After all, only about 1% of the population has direct involvement in our military campaigns. Most media outlets don’t have the time, money or resources to explore “our terrible love of war” and its consequences. And the public is weary. These realities make the Huffington Post’s receipt of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting on war all the more noteworthy. Senior Military correspondent David Wood wrote a ten-part series, “Beyond the Battlefield,” examining the effect of war on the seriously wounded after they return from battle and on their families.

Enough will be written about an online news service winning this prestigious award after only seven years. It represents an enormous breakthrough. Most print publications would not have the stomach or the space for this kind of coverage. More than any account I am aware of, Wood has captured the physical and psychic cost of war, a story told with restraint and compassion from inside the families. Every American should read this series that grows in importance as the drumbeat for a war with Iran grows louder.

War has long been a part of America’s mythology—and politics. Whether one has served in the military doesn’t matter much now in a quest for political office. The last time military service seemed to be an issue was when George W. Bush was running for president and his service in the Texas National Guard came into question. Dan Rather of CBS put the issue in the national spotlight on a 60 Minutes broadcast September 8th 2004, providing documents that cast doubt on Bush’s service. The documents were attacked by conservative bloggers as forgeries, and twelve days later, CBS issued as retraction. Dan Rather apologized on the Evening News and six months later would leave the network. John Kerry, a genuine Vietnam hero, would be savaged by the Swift Boat crowd as a fraud and a phony and would lose a close election to Bush.

That might have been the end of the story. Dan Rather, ever ferocious in his reporting, wanders the world for HDNet, chasing a variety of stories. Sometimes I watch these reports, marveling at the tenacity of this eighty-year-old warrior who still thinks CBS caved due to pressure from the Bush family.

Rather might take some comfort in the Joe Hagan’s current Texas Monthly story, “Truth & Consequences,” that takes a fresh look at the Bush Texas National Guard years, an effort helped by the availability of new documents and less reticence on the part of observers now than Bush is out of office. This is a fascinating account and underscores that long-form journalism is alive and well. This piece is worthy of a National Magazine Award, at least.

Hagan does not come to any definite conclusions but sketches the intricate, complicated, shifting mosaic of Texas politics. Whether or not Rather got snookered by fake documents or a plant from a political operative, as the Texas Monthly coverage makes clear, the story was always about the chummy, clubby, back-scratching nature of Texas politics and how these influences found their way into appointments to the National Guard and government in general. Rather and his producer went for the smoking gun when the whole state was on fire and very smoky.

As Hagan points out, there are enough holes in Bush’s account of his Guard tenure to drive a tank through—my term. Did the elder Bush intervene to get his son in the Guard when he was three months away from being drafted and the Tet Offensive still resonated in the national consciousness? Once in, why did he stop flying? Why was he allowed to take a leave from duty to work in a political campaign? Why was he collecting pay for Reserve duty when he didn’t seem to be on base or even in the state? These issues remain important because they raise serious questions about Bush’s elaborate political narrative or fiction. And what will his Presidential Library say about these years when for a time he seemed to be missing in action?

But as Hagan notes, this might be as much about privilege as anything else. Many of the sons of the Texas wealthy and powerful found a home in the National Guard: Connolly, Bentsen, Bush, the grandson of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, and members of the Dallas Cowboys. Maybe Bush was just lucky to win a spot in the coveted 147 Fighter Interceptor Unit known as the “champagne unit,” which was destined to keep the local Gulf waters safe for democracy.

I recall President Bush landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. He announced that the mission in Iraq was accomplished under a banner bearing the same words. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Huffington Post, Texas Monthly and Politico for not allowing our wars to become fictions, photo ops or mere video games.

And as a veteran, I salute you.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dreams, Digital Swagger and the Endless Conversation

It’s a pleasant Renaissance notion that the best response to a work of art or a poem is another work of art or poem. Modern-day depth psychologists, some of whom use the language of the Renaissance masters, suggest the same advice when it comes to the dream. Carl Jung suggested we dream the dream onward, using “active imagination” to deepen and extend the dream. The idea is not to kill the dream as if it were a snake in the grass, by instant analysis and categorization. The snake is question is not necessarily a penis or a link to the Garden of Eden. After all, I’m not the author of my own dreams.

We are living in the age of the Continued Conversation, where the responses to magazine and newspaper articles are often more interesting than the original entry. In our world of social media where sharing and commentary rules, we are in a dynamic state of co-creating, whether we are talking about a business project or a work-of-art. Digitally speaking, the conversation might never stop, even when we are dead. There are indeed apps for that end state. Technology makes every permutation possible. Google just posted through its Google Art Project 32,000 renowned works of art using its street view technology. The pixel density is just incredible, taking the viewer back to the painter’s brush strokes. Perhaps this is the final solution to dreaming the dream onward and moving backwards to artistic intention.

I come from a background of the solitary writer/artist. Whether a dissertation, a self-help book, a novel, or a poetry collection, the work has been solitary and individual. I just published a book-length poem, In the Shadow of the DMZ, where the zone is physical, psychological and theological and the subject matter is war. I wrote this on countless trips to Asia, especially to China, but the zone of creation was one of isolation, even on crowded planes at 35,000 feet surrounded by a Babel of tongues.

I will do the usual: sell the book on Amazon and the Kindle; market in select urban book stores; give public readings and the like. I’m thinking about putting on a one-act play dealing with that zone between the hotel Americana and the land of pimps. But this is so, yesterday, so 20th century.

I was completely pulled into an interview with Wired contributor Clive Thompson at because, while I was ruminating, Thompson was putting down some very interesting fence posts. He mentions reading War and Peace on his iPhone and writing 16,000 words in notes and clippings. He printed these out “as an on-demand book. In short, I have a physical copy of all of my favorite parts of War and Peace that I can flip through, with my notes, but I don’t actually own a physical copy of War and Peace.”

The interviewer, sounding very much like a psychologist, asks Thompson, is he is having a conversation with the text, and perhaps even with his future self? Yes, it is all that, with all these characters present in what could be a lifelong conversation.

Paidcontent’s Mathew Ingram notes that “books remain stubbornly anti-social.”  He had a point, and this is one reason people love their Kindles that are far from the madding crowd.  I count myself among this congregation.  But Thompson is a little less dogmatic.  He sees the opportunity for the book-comment stream to be a turn-on option.  “You’ll have a digital book, and if you want, you’ll turn off all the comments, read in solitude-‘everyone shut up’-or you can say, show me the most awesome comments, show me the highest rated comments, show me everything, show me the fire hose.  What have my friends or people I care about said about a book?  Are there any actual people reading this page right now that I might want to have a live conversation with about it?  There is so much fun someone could have with these layers, ranging from classic, total isolation to like rollicking bar-party conversations.”

Freud famously wrote that even the slip of the scribe is significant.  If books go social we might have to retire that bromide.  Or rewrite it.  With so many people watching, sharing and commenting, no slip or stumble by the scribe will go unnoticed.  Everything is public.

Show me some mercy; show me my mistakes.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Freud, the Cult of the Personal, & the Trayvon Martin Case

NPR provided the delicious starting morsel: “A woman entered the room.” Viewers were invited to finish the sentence. And there were some good endings and flourishes. The starting point had something to do with it. After all, we were not dealing with a dark and stormy night or the car turning into a driveway.
This is all very human. We like to finish stories and video games. If not finish, we like to concoct. If we do concoct, we sometimes mistake the map for the territory. If we do this at the water cooler, little damage likely done. If we are the captain of the Concordia and miss an island that’s been off the coast of Italy for thousands of years, people die.

Jesse Singal, writing in the Daily Beast about the Trayvon Martin, case says, “We are inherently bothered by an incomplete story.” When we see holes in the narrative, we want to fill in the details. This penchant has more to do with our psychology than running out the grammatical string or finishing someone’s sentence. The subject/object world is straightforward, inviting and insufficient.

With all deference to Freud, we seem hard-wired to write fictions as well. This giant of psychology did not only bless us by putting our fictional in-laws in the room when we have sex, he also gave us a writing style that depends heavily on literature and mythology. Oedipus has occupied a chair in the consulting room for more than a hundred years along with a handful of his mythological friends and enemies. The master acknowledged as early as 1934 that he owed more to fiction writers, including Heine, Zola, and Goethe, than to scientific writing. He was not writing case studies; he was writing fictions. Freud earned the Goethe prize for literature.

We learn early on the difference between report, inference and judgment and how to avoid confusing levels of abstraction. We know from both hard research and the delicious and improbable CSI series that seeing is absolutely not believing. To paraphrase semanticist S.I. Hayakawa, we all have a tendency to see the “little man who wasn’t there.”

We don’t just fake our resumes, we fictionalize our biographies, our lives. The media is full of stories of remembrances of past lives and especially of sexual abuse. The former is a con; the latter more complex but still wide open to our imaginings. It has become a celebrity rite of passage, an affirmation of victimhood. Since the abolition of the draft almost forty years ago, the number of those faking their military resumes—stealing valor—has skyrocketed. Why earn a medal when you can buy one on eBay?

We will have our stories, one way or the other. I am writing a book about my Navy experiences in and around Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf. My fantasy is that it will be a cross between Mr. Roberts and Catch-22. As part of my research, I visited the Naval Archive Center in Washington, DC, and got some of the actual log books from the ships I served on. I was stunned by the mundane entry accounts of setting Condition Yoke, for watertight compartments, of standing down from a simulated atomic blast, and the captain’s mast for Seaman Mixed Hair. Except for Mixed Hair, the other items were routine at sea activities. But what about the typhoon that almost killed us, the on-board arsonist, the dust-ups off Vietnam, the suicide, etc.?

Those sailors weary of documenting their travels across the Atlantic and Pacific will talk about “gun-decking the log.” “The sea is always calm, the moon is high, and the chronometers have been wound and repaired.” Should my memory and imagination play second fiddle either to the facts or to the scribe who is writing his own case study about a private voyage inside his head?

A plot is a narrative of events. A story tells us what happens next, such as after the king dies. We want to nail down the plot; then we want the full story. What should or must happen next? By now this is as much about me as the characters in the drama.

What apparently troubles many of us about the Trayvon Martin case, other than the tragic death itself, is that the narrative lines and graphics keep changing. The first photo of Martin shows him as an angelic teenager. The shooter George Zimmerman appears in a mug shot. Later photos show Martin in a hoodie or with gold teeth. This time Zimmerman is in coat and tie and smiling.

Eye witnesses, videos, and leaks from the media and police come and go, adding to an increasingly complicated narrative thread. We are collectively writing a script and this plot is well on its way to becoming a film, whether we like it or not. That Martin’s mother is reportedly trying to trademark some of the familiar chants offered at rallies for her son, will not change the trajectory of the story.

Some judicial authority will write the official script, as in the OJ Simpson case, but that might not change a lot of minds. This narrative has been too juicy with too many invitations to enter the creative door for us to defer. Why let facts stand in the way? I’m not about to turn my back on that contract.

I haven’t seen or heard much understatement and humility, except from the funeral home director who prepared Martin’s body for burial.

The body showed no signs of a struggle. Just a 9-mm bullet hole in his chest.

End of plot.