December 16, 2007
In the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing surveys the surprisingly large number of books about the Iraq War that have actually been written by solders: “In no other war have so many books by soldiers appeared while the fighting was still going on — accounts written not just by generals like Tommy Franks but also by lieutenants, sergeants, reservists, and privates. Such works have been largely ignored by the mass media, which is too bad, for they provide a grunt’s-eye view of the war that is often far richer, and rawer, than anything available in our newspapers or on TV.”
Raw indeed. Here’s a passage from David Bellavia’s House to House: An Epic Memoir of War:
. . . a civilian candy truck tried to merge with a column of our armored vehicles, only to get run over and squashed. The occupants were smashed beyond recognition. Our first sight of death was a man and his wife both ripped open and dismembered, their intestines strewn across shattered boxes of candy bars. The entire platoon hadn’t eaten for twenty-four hours. We stopped, and as we stood guard around the wreckage, we grew increasingly hungry. Finally, I stole a few nibbles from one of the cleaner candy bars. Others wiped away the gore and fuel from the wrappers and joined me.
Massing’s piece is terrific. It also makes it clear that while the books aren’t all about atrocities — in fact, they’re also full of anecdotes that show American soldiers working to retain their humanity in their dealings with Iraqis — they end up making it clear what this war is costing us, in human terms.
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Is Tom Brokaw’s book Boom: Personal Reflections of the Sixties any good? Maybe, but if the spinoff History Channel documentary 1968 with Tom Brokaw is any indication, it sounds like the author of The Greatest Generation is dishing out more of Uncle Tom’s Pablum. Eric Rauchway sure ain’t having any:
Brokaw . . . says, “Southern working-class whites deserted” the Democrats. Why? Brokaw goes to Nixon speechwriter and unbiased scholar Patrick J. Buchanan, who explains these voters were “Reagan Democrats … they were driven out [of the Democratic Party] by what those kids and the rioters and the demonstrators and the denunciators were doin’ in the 1960s.”
It is also possible, of course, that Southern whites might have left the Democratic Party between 1964 and 1968 because the Democratic Party became, finally and after decades of vacillation, the party of African American civil rights, when a Democratic president put the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through Congress over the resistance of the segregationists within his own party.
In other words, it is a moral certainty that race, and not the hippies, broke up the New Deal coalition. And not old, Jim Crow racism like keeping blacks from whites in public and private places alike, segregating buses, and banning interracial marriages–but new racial attitudes, like blaming African Americans for the growth of government and for the increase of lawlessness in America’s streets. On best estimates, a bit over thirty percent of the wealth transferred to poverty-struck Americans in the 1960s went to blacks–a sum that, if poor and middling whites kept it, might have increased their disposable income by under half of one percent. But the numbers didn’t matter–the symbols did, and the nonwhite poor were a startlingly effective target of white resentment. As Nixon noted privately: “It’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” Moreover, as time has passed, those new attitudes blaming the black poor for the country’s troubles have increased in the South, and are closely tied with Republican voting.
But to Brokaw, it is about the dirty college kids–because to his dad, it was about the dirty college kids. “My working-class dad, a longtime FDR Democrat who was opposed to the war in Vietnam . . . was enraged by what he had seen on television [at the Democrats’ 1968 Chicago convention], enraged by the behavior of the antiwar demonstrators, the way they had flown the Vietcong flag, and taunted the police. I knew then, the Democratic Party was in real trouble.”
Brokaw swallows, uncritically, Buchanan’s line: that the protesters were “overprivileged kids [who] didn’t have any support in middle America.” For Brokaw, the clash happened between Americans of “working-class background” and college kids of, he diplomatically says, “different backgrounds.” He uses sociology worthy of David Brooks: there were “many Americas”–“one [in South Dakota], where the casualties of a controversial war were honored and mourned. And … my new home in California, where the antiwar resistance and rebellion was fueling a massive cultural change.” In red states, parents of the dead bury their kids with flag-draped coffins and hymns; in blue states they bury their kids (if those America-hating hippies have any kids in the army) with tie-dye shirts and bong hits.
Brokaw rests too snugly in his own memories. This is how guys like him see it–but that doesn’t make it true. If you want to understand what broke up the New Deal coalition, you don’t have to think about those dirty kids, you have to think about race. If you want to understand antiwar feeling, you don’t have to think about kids, clean or dirty: you have to think about the fact that by 1968, no matter which side of thirty they were on, 48 percent of Americans thought the war was a mistake. If you want to understand what overprivileged college kids were doing in 1968, you have to notice that twice as many of them joined the largest right-wing group, Young Americans for Freedom, as joined the largest left-wing group, Students for a Democratic Society.