Throughout the summer, Nathan Gelgud, a correspondent for the Daily, has been posting a weekly comic about the writers, artists, and demonstrators who attended the contested 1968 Democratic National Convention. Catch up with the whole series here. Read More
Indianapolis, 1964. My younger self owned a bandolier full of bullets; three revolvers, two with bone handles to fit a holster; a rifle; knives; a sword; a full Civil War uniform; a genuine U.S. Army helmet. From age eight to ten, I fought and died a thousand times for fun. My friends and I knew all the best ways to fall down dead, exhaling sighs of pleasure. Awaiting nuclear annihilation, we acted out gun ballets like period folk art. Here, in America’s “Gun Belt,” boys used to get their first squirrel rifle at eight, nine, ten years old; now they get pint-size assault rifles. Get them early, so they can learn to handle the violent kick of firing, learn not to hold the part of the weapon that gets so hot it smokes. And it’s not just boys. Parents can purchase special pink assault rifles for their junior misses.
In my own backyard, I was always alert for enemies. I moved with a stooped, serpentine grace, darting, pausing, looking around for people to shoot before they shot me. There was something adorable about it. We had very convincing submachine guns then. They were made by Marx out of hard molded plastic and came in black—the conventional color, suitable for playing Chicago gangsters or warriors in the European theater—or brown-and-green camouflage, for war in the tropics. There was a knob along the side to unleash a machine gun rat-tat-tat whenever we encountered the enemy. I was unaware of the irony in the brand name: we were training for our turn to halt the march of Marxism, but we were unfamiliar with Marx the mastermind. Every Friday I looked forward to the latest photos of the Vietnam War, counting the dead in LIFE magazine. Read More
How the perspective of war stories has shifted—from gods to guns.
My memories of war are fractured: faces disappear like smoke while literal plumes of smoke, their specific shapes and forms, linger on vividly for years. I remember the mesh netting, concrete, and dust smell of tower guard, but the events of entire months are completely gone. I remember the sound of a kid’s voice, but not anything he actually said. I guess that’s what Tim O’Brien meant when he wrote about Vietnam, “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning or end.”
Memories of people, too complex to carry through the years, fall apart. It’s easier to find purchase on memories of objects. The weapon I was assigned on my first deployment to Iraq was an M249 SAW, or what we would colloquially and inaccurately refer to as the “Squad Assault Weapon.” I remember the way it felt to disassemble—the slight give of the heat-shield assembly, its tiny metal pincers clinging to the barrel. I remember the sound of the feed tray snapping shut on a belt of ammunition. And I remember the tiny rust deposits on the legs of my weapon’s bipod, which would never go away, no matter how hard I scrubbed with CLP (Cleaner, Lubricant, and Protectant oil). I remember my SAW’s voice and the things it said. Read More
In wartime, the walls of the latrine provide a rare opportunity for self-expression.
“It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech,” as a patriotic poem by Charles Province has it. That presumption is a point of pride among service members, who defend civilian rights and privileges they’re often not afforded themselves. You don’t have the right to foment a strike in the military. You don’t have the right to a trial with a jury of your peers. You can’t sue the military. You don’t have the right to peacefully assemble. There is no such thing as freedom of speech. But self-expression is like hydraulics: plugging one hole only builds more pressure somewhere else. In my own experience as an infantryman in Iraq, the only place where the stress of combat found unfettered freedom of expression was on the walls of the latrine.
You begin to notice it as soon as you hit the staging area in Kuwait. At places like Camp Buehring, a crossroads where battalions came and went on their way to different operating areas in Iraq, American troops are sheltered under the anonymity of massive logistical bureaucracies. A port-a-potty next to a chow hall could be used by any number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines passing through. Unlike a permanent duty station, where bathrooms are assigned to specific companies and any defacement is easily traceable, there simply wasn’t any way to catch someone scrawling on the walls of a well-trafficked latrine. The situation wasn’t very different once one finally got to Iraq, where the bases were just as large and sprawling, and combat outposts were constructed in the half-destroyed hovels of what had been private residences. In the former, the anonymity was conducive to getting away with latrine graffiti; in the latter, no one cared if you wrote on some walls. Read More
Six paintings from Matthew Brannon’s “Skirting the Issue,” an exhibition at Casey Kaplan Gallery through October 24. In this series, Brannon uses traditional printmaking methods—letterpress, silkscreening—to depict the domestic and cultural trappings of America during the Vietnam War, when he was born: “I had entered a world battered from events that left the country’s identity in jeopardy,” he writes, “and Luce’s concept of the American Century shattered.” Brannon’s work is consumed with the question of “how America is its own worst enemy.”
Duras’s The Lover, thirty years later.
Early in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, we encounter an indelible image: a strange rag doll of a girl rides the ferry across the Mekong River en route to Saigon. She’s an adolescent, fifteen and a half, and she looks both too young and too old for her age, in a sleeveless, low-cut, red silk dress, a leather belt that belongs to one of her older brothers, gold lamé shoes, and—the most striking piece of her ensemble—a large, flat-brimmed men’s hat:
Having got it, this hat that all by itself makes me whole, I wear it all the time. With the shoes it must have been much the same, but after the hat. They contradict the hat, as the hat contradicts the puny body, so they’re right for me.
That elliptical, dreamlike tone is characteristic of the novel. The book’s narrator is a young woman in flux. She’s outgrown childhood and has poured her body into oversize markers of adulthood; the conclusion of the ferry ride signals the start of her sexual awakening, as she first glimpses the chauffeured black limousine that belongs to the twenty-seven-year-old Chinese businessman, the novel’s eponymous lover.
The Lover, Duras’s forty-eighth work, was published in France in 1984; the English translation arrived in the United States a year later. If the book, at just over a hundred pages, reads like the hazy, disconnected musings of a seventy-year-old writer looking at faded snapshots of her past, that’s because it is. When Duras claimed that the novel was entirely autobiographical, it became something of an international sensation. But, as the New York Times noted, “truth, in the Durasian universe, is a slippery entity”; Duras also went on to say “that the story of her life did not exist.” She and the novel found even more notoriety a decade later, when Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film adaptation was released. Duras eventually washed her hands of the film, which focused mainly on the erotic elements of the story—and indeed the novel’s depictions of sex receive an outsize portion of attention. But it’s also a study in the narrator’s fraught connection with her family and the cultural fissures in French-colonial Indochine. Read More