The Mourner's Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnamby James Tatum
No matter when or where they are fought, all wars have one thing in common: a relentless progression to monuments and memorials for the dead. Likewise all art made from war begins and ends in mourning and remembrance. In The Mourner's Song, James Tatum offers incisive discussions of physical and literary memorials constructed in the wake of war, from/i>… See more details below
No matter when or where they are fought, all wars have one thing in common: a relentless progression to monuments and memorials for the dead. Likewise all art made from war begins and ends in mourning and remembrance. In The Mourner's Song, James Tatum offers incisive discussions of physical and literary memorials constructed in the wake of war, from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the writings of Stephen Crane, Edmund Wilson, Tim O'Brien, and Robert Lowell.
Tatum's touchstone throughout is the Iliad, not just one of the earliest war poems, but also one of the most powerful examples of the way poetry can be a tribute to and consolation for what is lost in war. Reading the Iliad alongside later works inspired by war, Tatum reveals how the forms and processes of art convert mourning to memorial. He examines the role of remembrance and the distance from war it requires; the significance of landscape in memorialization; the artifacts of war that fire the imagination; the intimate relationship between war and love and its effects on the ferocity with which soldiers wage battle; and finally, the idea of memorialization itself. Because all survivors suffer the losses of war, Tatum's is a story of both victims and victors, commanders and soldiers, women and men. Photographs of war memorials in Vietnam, France, and the United States beautifully augment his testimonials.
Eloquent and deeply moving, The Mourner's Song will speak to anyone interested in the literature of war and the relevance of the classics to our most pressing contemporary needs.
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The Mourner's Song
War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam
By James Tatum
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
An America War Experience
Do they think of me now
in those strange Asian villages
where nothing ever seemed
and my few grim friends
moving through them
When they tell stories to their children
of the evil
that awaits misbehavior
is it me they conjure?
-W.D. Ehrhart, "Making the Children
Winners get to name their wars; the Trojan War will forever be the Trojan,
not the Greek, War. But the Iliad and much other art from war enables us
to enter as intimately into the mourning of an enemy as of a friend. It
has never required a great leap of the imagination to see Homer's Trojan
War as also the Trojans' Greek War. What Americans call "the Vietnam War"
was in this sense obviously "the America War" for the Vietnamese. There is
perhaps even more reason today to think of this conflict as the America
War, since it was the Vietnamese of the north and of the Viet Cong, and
not the Americans and their allies in the south, who eventuallywon it.
The November 1996 Vietnam Wall Experience at Norwich University (a private
military college in Northfield, Vermont) was a highly disciplined guide to
what its war was supposed to mean. In this respect it was far more typical
than Maya Lin's original of what such monuments are designed to
accomplish, so far as governments are concerned. But as with all such
conflicts that continue to live in our imagination, the American Vietnam
War does not yet reduce to such a single meaning, however ardently the
teachers of cadets might wish it.
Knowing that no such official war monument could help but omit as much as
it commemorates, the antiwar activist and artist Chris Burden took Maya
Lin's design and used it to unheal memory's wounds. A preliminary sketch
of his Other Vietnam Memorial foresaw a "list of three million Vietnamese
killed during the US involvement in Vietnam"; it would be on "Copper
pages, hinged on [a] central pole," and could be turned by viewers. In the
catalogue prepared for a 1992 exhibition of The Other Vietnam Memorial at
the Museum of Modern Art, Burden is quoted as saying, "I just thought
somewhere there should be a memorial to the Vietnamese that were killed in
the war. So I wanted to make this book, sort of like Moses' tablet, that
would be an official record of all these three million names. I would
suspect that we will be lucky if we get twenty-five percent of the names;
other ones would be nameless, basically faceless, bodies.... I want the
size of the sculpture ... to reflect the enormity of the horror."
The result is a memorial statistically impressive in its numbers, at the
cost of making actual sense. In order to register three million
casualties, Burden took a catalogue that contained four thousand
Vietnamese names, transformed them into verbal integers, and designed a
computer-generated permutation of them. As the exhibition's curator,
Robert Storr, observed, "A degree of abstraction necessarily persists.
Even so, the war that so many want to consign to the past has never been
more actual, with the enormity of the bloodletting at last represented in
toto. Reckoning the gross facts of history in terms of the fate of
individuals, Burden's 'Other Vietnam Memorial' thus partially retrieves
the Vietnamese dead from statistical purgatory and so from a double
disappearance: the 3,000,000 it symbolically lists are the displaced
persons of the American conscience." The Other Vietnam Memorial is not
only marked by a degree of abstraction. The aim is to exhaust the very
idea of an American Vietnam War memorial.
Nations rarely build war memorials to their enemy dead, and when they do,
as in Ataturk's monument to the British and Commonwealth dead at Gallipoli
(and to their mothers), postwar politics usually inspire the gesture.
Unlike Burden's Other Vietnam Memorial, war monuments and memorials in
Vietnam are never conceived as counterparts to anything in the United
States. They are uniformly the nation's commemoration of its dead and its
celebration of victory in a war for independence. The Vietnam Wall
Experience at Norwich University is closer to these America War monuments
than any other Vietnam War memorial. Their themes are as far from Burden's
abstraction as can be imagined. Trophies and other souvenirs are
prominent, as in the billboard on the highway in the Mekong Delta
celebrating a victory at Ap Bac over the Americans and their helicopters
in January 1963 (fig. 13). Throughout Vietnam the random names generated
for Burden's Other Vietnam Memorial turn into documented lists of
civilians and soldiers who are martyrs that died to win independence from
foreign rule. To commemorate the 1972 Christmas bombing, the remains of an
American B-52 have been left where they fell in Huu Tiep Lake in the
village of Ngoc Ha in the northwestern part of Hanoi. A plaque at the site
reads: "At 22:00 hours on December 27, 1972, the capital's anti-aircraft
forces shot down this B-52 in the area of Ngoc Ha Village. This is one out
of 23 B-52s shot down from Hanoi's skies. The strategic surprise attack
against Hanoi by the B-52s of the American Empire was destroyed" (fig.
14). An easier stop for Americans than this gruesome souvenir is the
crumbling concrete monument to a pilot who parachuted into a small lake in
the northern sector of Hanoi and was captured and beaten by local farmers.
As the inscription reads, "On September 26, 1967, on the Chapai Lake,
Vietnamese people and army in Hanoi captured the American pilot Major John
Sney McGan of the United States Air Force, who flew an A-4 fighter. This
was the eighty-first fighter and it was shot down near the Yen Phu City
electric plant. It was also one of ten American fighters shot down on the
same day" (fig. 15). "John Sney McGan" is a garbled version of the name of
John McCain, the U.S. senator, then the son of one of the top American
commanders in the war and for that reason one of North Vietnam's prize
Outside the cities, the sites of some of the most ferocious battles of the
war have long since been overgrown with tropical forestation. There are
some locations that seem to preserve exactly the devastation of war while,
perversely, they do nothing of the kind. At the remote site of Khe Sanh,
in the central highlands near the Laotian border, there are traces of
tunnels and bunkers, but most of the deep holes and earthworks that I
could see in March 1994 were the work of dealers in scrap metal who
scavenged the battlefields long after the war was over (fig. 16). A waving
stone flag, a monument set in the middle of what used to be the marines'
landing strip at Khe Sanh, recalls the war's rhetoric. It presents this
The area of Tacon point was built by the
Americans and their Saigon puppets. Built
in 1968 including an airport and a steady
defense system with 10,000 occupying
soldiers and thousands of assault troops
from the Americans and the Saigon
puppet regime, in order to stop assistance
from the north to the battle of the three
countries of Indochina.
After 170 days of offensives and siege, on
July 7, 1968, Tacon Khe Sanh was
liberated. We destroyed the enemy and his
strategic systems, to the west of National
Road No. 9, killing and capturing 11,900
enemy soldiers and shooting down 197
aircraft and also destroying much other
war material of the Americans and their
Khe Sanh became a Dien Bien Phu for
American air and firepower guaranteed that there would be no replay of the
French defeat of 1954, however. General Giap never intended the siege at
Khe Sanh to be a Dien Bien Phu for the Americans, but a diversion from the
main event he was planning for 1968, the Tet offensive. When Khe Sanh's
strategic uselessness for even a war of attrition was at last obvious to
the American commanding generals-it had been obvious to the marines from
the beginning-they evacuated the position and took everything with them
that could conceivably be used as a war trophy, or as material for
propaganda, not reckoning on the value scrap metal would have for a poor
For Americans, the memorial to the victims of the 1968 massacre at Son My
(My Lai) will have more resonance than any other site in Vietnam. Over its
entrance are Ho Chi Minh's words, always inscribed at Vietnamese war
cemeteries: "There is nothing compared to freedom and independence." The
site of the massacre is documented both by art and the famous photographs
seen around the world after My Lai was discovered. The museum has in large
letters over its front: "Never Forget Our Anger against the US Oppressive
Imperialists." Sculpture groups are scattered throughout the site, all of
them executed by Thu Ho, whose wife, Vu Thi Lien, was a young girl who
survived the massacre in the village and became its chief international
witness after 1968.
My Lai is a reality that Burden's Other Vietnam Memorial seeks to evoke,
but it is no neutral record, either. The documentation of American war
atrocities is as scrupulous as possible; wherever the names or locations
of victims could not be determined, the blank spaces themselves became a
matter of record. Memorial stones mark the places where houses once stood,
in which the owners and their families were killed. The museum's official
casualty list (literally, "Name List of All of the People Who Were Killed
at That Time") says that 182 women were killed (17 of them pregnant), 173
children (56 of them unnamed), and thirty-seven men over the age of sixty.
The site where the most people were herded together and shot is now a
drainage ditch marked with a memorial in English as well as Vietnamese.
Even as the American Vietnam War was being fought, there was also a civil
war between the North and South Vietnamese. This led to memorials of a war
that still seems under way, even as we visit it years later. During the
war the South Vietnamese took Arlington National Cemetery for their model
and with American advisors began construction in the late 1960s of a
national cemetery for the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam
(ARVN, in American parlance). With the acceleration of the American
withdrawal from the war (what the Americans termed "Vietnamization"), the
casualties of the ARVN increased exponentially. By the end of the war in
1975 there was a huge but unfinished cemetery; as of 1994 its dilapidation
had progressed at a steady rate. Some families paid villagers nearby to
tend the graves, but for the most part the graves were abandoned and the
tombstones defaced. Goats grazed in the weeds that grew among the graves.
In his memoir of a return to Vietnam after the America War was long over,
Neil Sheehan observes, "In Washington, the names of each of our Vietnam
dead were inscribed on a memorial near the hallowed temple to Abraham
Lincoln. No one accepted responsibility for these dead ARVN soldiers....
In death they were discarded." Sheehan's Vietnamese guide, Mr. Tien,
himself a veteran of the war who fought against the ARVN, was moved to
say, "This should not happen to anyone." The comparison with the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial in Washington is quite apt. Sometimes war memorials are
constructed too long after a war is over, as American vets argued when
they pressed for what eventually became the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in
Washington. The ARVN cemetery at Bien Hoa shows that they can sometimes be
built too soon. In the accompanying photograph, for example, the name of
the Buddhist sergeant Le Dinh Suong is preserved, as well as his branch of
service (marines) and the date of his death (May 13, 1969), but his
picture has been chiseled out. Of all the monuments one could imagine,
none expresses more directly the arbitrary way time has of dealing with
the war dead than the poor traces of memorials that survive at Bien Hoa.
Pilgrimages to such memory places have become one of the preoccupations of
our time. Proust is an eloquent witness to what can be recovered by such
travel to these sites of memory.
These are most hazardous pilgrimages,
which end as often in disappointment as in
success. It is in ourselves that we should
rather seek to find those fixed places,
contemporaneous with different years....
There is no need to travel in order to see it
again; we must dig down inwardly to
discover it. What once covered the earth is
no longer above but beneath it; a mere
excursion does not suffice for a visit to
the dead city: excavation is necessary also.
But we shall see how certain fugitive and
fortuitous impressions carry us back even
more effectively to the past, with a more
delicate precision, with a more
light-winged, more immaterial, more headlong,
more unerring, more immortal flight, than
these organic dislocations.
A pilgrimage to the monuments of Thiepval, Norwich, or Bien Hoa is the
kind of organic dislocation Proust describes. It leaves us more than ever
in need of that delicate precision of thought, that light-winged,
immaterial, immortal flight. We need the songs that the Muses inspire.
Excerpted from The Mourner's Song
by James Tatum
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
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