This week, we’re sharing stories from Megan Twohey, Jodi Kantor, Susan Dominus, Jim Rutenberg, and Steve Eder; Eliana Dockterman, Stephanie Zarachek, and Haley Sweetland Edwards; John Woodrow Cox; Nadim Roberts; and Phil Klay.
Are there atheists in foxholes? How do we justify our participation in wars that kill civilians, often children? At The American Scholar, veteran and author of Redeployment Phil Klay turns his writer’s eye on himself in this essay on war, faith, and fatherhood, and reckons with his own complicity.
I was in a different position. My job in the Marine Corps meant that I was generally a spectator rather than an actor in the war. I was never faced with the responsibility of leading men in combat, never responsible for the direct act of killing, never faced with what Marlantes has described as “a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite.” Instead, I had the images of those children in my head, and for a young man, fervently believing in the mission and in the potential for the Marine Corps to turn around Anbar Province, they confirmed me in all I believed. A Special Forces veteran later told me why, for him, killing people in Iraq felt less morally troubling than killing people in Afghanistan. “Iraq may have been a giant clusterfuck,” he said, “but al-Qaeda did always make it easy.” In other words, al-Qaeda was so grotesquely, absurdly evil, you could not help but compare yourself with them and assume that you must be good.
So rather than challenging my Christian faith or provoking deep questions about who I was as a man, what kind of war I was in, and what sort of country I was a citizen of, the children made me feel like I didn’t have to justify myself at all. When I got home, those children were a useful tool for propping up my image of myself as a decent human being. Confronted with a man who voiced contempt at the notion that anyone would fight in a war that had caused such horrendous civilian casualties, I told him, “I carried injured Iraqi children to medical care with my own hands! What have you done for Iraqi civilians recently? Posted snarky comments on Facebook?”
Americans hear more from our current President on Twitter than we do from his speeches, and it seems better that way. Donald Trump is no orator; he admits he doesn’t even read for pleasure. President Trump’s 140-character tweet style of mass communication—with its em dash misuse, random capitalization, and misplaced exclamation!— might portend the future of American politics in which words don’t particularly matter.
It certainly contrasts greatly with President Obama’s powerful oratory. At The American Scholar, former DOJ speechwriter James Santel reads the newly-published collection of Obama’s speeches, We Are the Change We Seek, to discuss what Obama’s sense of storytelling reveals about him, and how the power of residential speeches can motivate us, set the national tenor, our vision of the future and, as Obama frequently said, define who we are.
Like all good orators, Obama was a storyteller. Among his favorite stories was his own: how the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas rose to become a U.S. Senator. That background opens the speech that made him a national figure, the Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. After talking about his parents and grandparents, he said, “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story.”
Obama uses his autobiography to argue that his unconventional background did not place him at odds with the American experience, but made him emblematic of it. That case required Obama to offer a particular reading of American history, which goes something like this: Our shared commitment to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the principles set forth in the Constitution has always been more powerful than our divisions and disagreements, allowing our country to slowly “perfect” itself over time (to use a favorite Obama verb). It is a story of steady change and patient progress, of obstacles overcome and common ground discovered, a story in which all people are given equal attention and credit. In it, racism and prejudice are not defining features of the American character, but blemishes upon it, historical aberrations that we have slowly corrected over time. Above all, it is a story that, in one way or another, has always made room for everyone.
David Lehman | The American Scholar | Fall 2015 | 19 minutes (4,696 words)
Our latest Longreads Exclusive comes from the new issue of The American Scholar. Our thanks to them for sharing this essay with us.
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The Jeopardy category is Opening Lines, and the literary answer is “Two Bars, 52nd Street.” You need to ask what works begin in such venues. One comes to mind quickly enough, but if you have only an out-of-towner’s awareness of New York City and you have not paid close enough attention to W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” you may misread yourself 10 blocks down past Times Square. Read more…
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a series of travel journal entries adapted from poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s forthcoming book, Writing Across the Landscape. It first appeared in The American Scholar’s Summer 2015 issue (subscribe here!).
I was part of that Greatest Generation that came of age at the beginning of the Second World War. As I worked in San Francisco, the days and years fell away into the great maw of time. America went through a sea change after that. San Francisco, which had been a small provincial capital, grew up. So did I, and I started voyaging. I was usually traveling to some literary or political event or tracking down some author whose undiscovered masterpiece I could publish at City Lights Books. I didn’t keep journals consistently, so some literary capers went unrecorded, such as when I visited Paul Bowles in Tangier to pry from him his Moroccan tales in A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard. This was agreed to, and then we sat dully in his high-rise apartment near the American Embassy. And when Jane Bowles suggested we turn-on, Paul said he didn’t have any hash. I was clean-shaven in a white suit, and I imagine he thought I was a narc. Paranoia, the doper’s constant companion! I wrote these peripatetic pages for myself, never thinking to publish them. It is as if much of my life were a continuation of my youthful Wanderjahr, my walk-about in the world. Rereading them now, I see a wandering figure in momentous times. …The war ends, decades whir by, there is a rumble in the wings, the scene darkens, and Camelot lost! Read more…
This week’s Member Pick is “Letter from Kufra,” a story by Clare Morgana Gillis, first published in the summer 2012 issue of The American Scholar. Gillis, who was featured on Longreads for her report after being captured in Libya, explains:
I first arrived in Libya at the end of February 2011, less than ten days after the uprising began when peaceful protests were attacked by Col. Qaddafi’s forces. I spent a few months there on that trip and witnessed the beginnings of the armed conflict and the NATO intervention and, accidentally, the inside of the Libyan prison system. In September of 2011 I returned to report on the final phases of the war and the eventual execution of Qaddafi by rebel forces.
Like nearly every journalist who covered the conflict, and over 90% of the Libyan population, I had spent all my time in Libya on the Mediterranean coast. When I returned in February 2012 for the one-year anniversary of the uprising, I was determined to see more: the vast southern deserts had always fascinated me with their promise of oil-fields, tribal peoples, camels and oases. That month an age-old friction between the Tubu and Zwaya ethnic groups broke out into open battle in Kufra, some hundred miles north of the Chadian border. Despite claiming around 100 lives, it got almost no media attention, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go south.
We—my Ukrainian colleague Vadim Naninets (whose photographs were in the piece), our driver and I—set out before the break of dawn to make the 620-mile drive south from Benghazi. Fully stocked with bread, cheese, dates, and many cigarettes and bottles of water for the trip, the only real concern we had was bandits on the road. Since fighting in the city had ended, and it was fully ‘liberated,’ under the control of anti-Qaddafi rebels, we didn’t worry about politics in town. That was our first mistake…
On arrival we were immediately taken to the military council headquarters, where the questioning started off fairly innocuously (‘where are you from,’ ‘what are you doing here?’). Within an hour or two we were being questioned separately, our answers transcribed. Local newspapers wrote of our detention, prompting anxious Facebook discussions and phone calls from the temporary consulate in Benghazi. Ten hours later we were released into the custody of the National Army, the Benghazi-based outfit which had come south to quell the battles.
I quickly understood that in the Sahelian region of Libya—where lighter-skinned Zwaya and darker-skinned Tubu live together—the revolution had a very different meaning from the straight politics of the coast. Pro- and anti-Qaddafi factions were largely based on ethnicity and the history of relations between each ethnic group and the onetime Leader.
The ride home was much swifter and livelier than the ride down: National Army gave us a night-time lift in a C-130. In flagrant violation of any extant aviation law, we rode in the cockpit (I took a turn in the pilot’s seat), each of the ten or so men in the flight crew chain-smoking and explaining what all the dials were for, and pointing to distant red flares burning in the darkness which marked locations of oil fields.
I was struck yet again by the unimaginable vastness of the deserts, and the sense that we can never fully know what goes on there.
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Photo via Wikimedia Commons