Sunday, April 19, 2020
John Gregory Dunne, Magical Thinking, and Spectator Patriotism
This piece was published originally as a Shadowland column for Newsweek online, Oct. 11, 2005, but I cannot find a current link for it, so am posting the text from my hard drive:
On or about Dec. 30, 2002, which was a day after we’d had dinner in New York and a year to the day before he died of a heart attack, John Gregory Dunne put a floppy disk in an envelope and dropped it off at the Manhattan apartment where I was staying. As happens, I misplaced it in my travels after that, and only last weekend did I find it and read the digital newspaper clippings he’d pulled together, which he’d talked about with so much excitement at our dinner.
John was interested in patriotism. He was fascinated by the real substance of it, which he saw as diametrically opposed to what he called “the spectator patriotism” exploited by the Bush administration as it went looking for wars. There was something (it took a while for John to put his finger on it) in the fact that several people he knew had children on active duty: historian Doris Kearns had a son, John himself had a nephew, I had a son. We had people we loved in uniform doing what they saw, and we understood, imperfectly perhaps, as their duty to defend the values and the dreams that are the United States of America. But why were there so few from this circle of acquaintances if the cause was so great?
John would rage. He was articulate and funny then and always, but such was his passion that I remember him as almost inchoate when he talked about the bastards who wouldn’t end their Global War on Terror, which was conceived in rhetoric and dedicated to their reelection, yet would send America’s sons and daughters on futile errands of suffering and slaughter. John said he was going to write a book about patriotism, but he had a novel to finish first, and then he died.
John’s wife of almost 40 years, Joan Didion, has written a breathtaking book about John’s death, and the illnesses of their only child, who died in August, and the experience of grief. Joan’s book, called “The Year of Magical Thinking,” has been reviewed widely and well, as it should be. (Robert Pinsky in the New York Times pointed out, rightly, that it is “not a downer” and parts of it are actually quite funny.) Joan sent me the galleys last summer -- Joan and John have been our friends since we met in El Salvador in 1982 -- and I read Joan’s book then in a single sitting, lost in a salt sea of emotion and memory. It is a great, great book.
But it was John’s 1989 memoir, “Harp,” that I picked up to read again yesterday, trying to understand a little better the meaning of the newspaper stories on that long-lost floppy disk, and I wound up searching out on the Web the essays John wrote for The New York Review of Books about wars and soldiers and, yes, patriotism, in the two years after Sept. 11, 2001.
John is mordant and funny. He grew up in a wealthy Irish Catholic family in Hartford and went to Princeton with Donald Rumsfeld, among others. When he graduated he wanted, somewhat diffidently, to try his hand at writing. But fresh out of his elite college, John was still uncomfortable with his family’s immigrant background, and very uneasy with the idea of Stanford Business School (which is what his family wanted for him). So he went into the U.S. Army as an enlisted man. As he wrote in “Harp,” “What I wanted most in life was to be an Episcopalian. What I became was a PFC in a gun battery in Germany.”
It was the 1950s. Neither John nor the United States was in a shooting war. He was a clerk, and the only death he saw was from a traffic accident during a drill. But his life changed. “Had I not been drafted, I almost surely would have remained what I had become – the quintessential Princeton prig.” (One does think of Rumsfeld.)
In the enlisted man’s Army, John learned what it was to be an outsider, alien to the world of relative privilege in which he grew up, and he would write about outsiders not quite like himself for the rest of his life. By the late 1980s, when John wrote “Harp,” he would cite the Duke of Wellington’s dictum that the armies that defeated Napoleon were composed of “the mere scum of the earth.” John lauded “the subversive brilliance” of “From Here to Eternity” because James Jones “understood that an army is predicated on class hatred; patriotism is only a convenient piety (‘all stuff, no such thing,’ Wellington said).”
But 15 years later, I think John’s sense of patriotism was more complex. He was looking for something “without tricks or hurrah,” as he described a U.S. Marine’s memoir of World War II in the Pacific. That campaign -- so long, so bloody, so deeply rooted in race-hate, fanaticism and atrocity -- commands so little of our attention when compared with the relatively more civilized war in Europe. But the Pacific offers so many more lessons for the present and the future.
“When the country is once again unexpectedly at war,” John wrote for The New York Review of Books about four months after 9/11, “the campaign in the Pacific is the model to keep in mind. It was a war of hate as this will be. The kamikazes were primitive precursors of those more technically sophisticated suicide pilots who crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing more people in half an hour than the Divine Wind did when it sank and damaged over four hundred ships off Okinawa.
Patriotism is abroad in the land; in print and on the airwaves, men who were not inclined to serve as PFCs or platoon leaders in Vietnam talk about ‘taking out’ not only Osama bin Laden but any number of foreign leaders. Those who preen about ‘taking out’ have all the bravado of [an Ivy League lieutenant in a Marine mortar unit on Okinawa during the last days of WWII] who peed in the mouths of Japanese corpses.
“At a memorial service ten days after the WTC tragedy, I ran into a friend, another old Marine who had enlisted after Pearl Harbor and served in the Pacific,” John wrote. “Many of the mourners were wearing lapel flags or red, white and blue ribbons. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘patriotism is easy. It’s the war that’s hard.’”
A year later, as the invasion of Iraq approached, John was focusing his rage like sun through a magnifying glass. His targets were the armchair war-lovers in and around the Bush administration who seemed somehow unsatisfied with the Afghan victories and already wanted more war to satisfy whatever it was they thought America should be. By the time John reviewed “Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles,” the page was starting to burn.
“The volunteer military has always been most enthusiastically, even devoutly, embraced by those who would not themselves dream of volunteering – or of encouraging their children to do so,” John wrote, noting that only one of the 535 members of Congress had “an enlisted son in the Iraqi combat zone.”
“For interns at the The Weekly Standard or National Review, where the martial instinct finds its most insistent voice … the military ‘career path’ is not widely seen as a plausible future,” John railed. These “people with a fondness for the military search their memories and Rolodexes for someone wearing the colors other than the maid’s son or a limo driver’s daughter.” To defend their notion of a national cause they might cite “the historian’s son, the novelist’s nephew, the sons of both a retired columnist in San Francisco and a newsmagazine correspondent in the Middle East, the top aide to a senior Democrat, the conservative pundit’s boy,”
As John made sense of this small constellation of families in his circle who had children in harm’s way, including mine and his, he realized they could not and should not obscure the fact that these new wars were going to be waged, as the old ones were, mostly by people who had come from the powerless classes. Writing about football-star-turned-Army-Ranger Pat Tillman, whose example was used by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan as proof that “in this war, not only the sons of the poor are enlisting,” John asked “Who was the second NFL player to enlist?” (Tillman served in Iraq, then Afghanistan, where he was killed by friendly fire in April 2004.)
Those digital newspaper clippings that John dropped off at my apartment a few days after Christmas 2002 were all about the American military as it had become: a force of volunteer professionals and reservists who were trying to make sense of their lives now that the peace dividends of the 1990s were supplanted by the open-ended wars of the new millennium. “In many cases, the reserves and the [National] Guard offer a kind of military welfare, a second job with medical benefits and PX privileges for people unable to support themselves and their families with only one paycheck,” John wrote in May 2003. “The gamble is that any call to active service will be brief, and that their home-front jobs will be waiting for them when they return.” After the gamble in Iraq, of course, all bets were off.
I do not know what John would have said in his book about patriotism. He did not know himself. “There are those of us for whom words have no meaning until they are down on paper,” he wrote on the first page of “Harp.” But I can guess from what he did put in print that he believed we, the people of the United States, should be entirely committed to a war or we should not engage in it at all. Yes, sacrifices should be shared. Yes, the sons and daughters of the rich as well as the poor should be put in harm’s way. Yes, taxes should be raised; gasoline should be rationed. Yes, we should fight to win, and as quickly as possible. And, no, Americans should not be called on by coddled elites to fight gruesome wars spawned by grandiose academic theories, then exploited by political cynics for electoral convenience. John might not have said it this way, but as I write the words on paper myself, it strikes me that true patriotism is about one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.