Saint Joseph’s University Magazine, Summer 2018

The Hell of War Comes Home

Why does the propensity for war perpetuate in America?

Literature, films and the country’s very beginnings show that the prevalence of war will endure for generations to come.

Vietnam era US Soldier hangs head in despair

By Owen W. Gilman Jr., Ph.D.

When Martin Luther King Jr. visited Saint Joseph’s in late 1967 and voiced criticism of the Vietnam War in his remarks, public opinion in the United States was gradually moving toward majority in opposition to the American role in that conflict. After North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front’s Tet Offensive in early 1968, that shift picked up momentum; however, the war would drag on unmercifully for another five years. In my recent study of America at war, The Hell of War Comes Home: Imaginative Texts from the Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, I take a hard look at the American imperative of war and find — contentiously — that war is not only one of the most consistent features of our past, but also the most predictable feature of our future.

Following a decision to “acquiesce in the necessity” (Declaration of Independence), the story of America began with a hard fight against the British, action which bears heavily on every generation of Americans. Images of warfare vividly figure in the build-up to every significant athletic event — the “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” War is incessantly — albeit superficially — before us, always in our scope. Awareness of and commitment to the obligation of doing war, of living up to the standard established in 1776, took American soldiers abroad often in the 20th century — to Europe, to the Pacific (Japan), to Asia (Korea and Vietnam) — and then in the 21st century, to Afghanistan and Iraq. The Afghanistan commitment stands at 17-plus years and, while an endpoint of American military involvement might come, no victory parade will be warranted.

In the 1980s, early in my career at Saint Joseph’s, my research focused on American literature and film about war, especially Vietnam. As my students and I explored imaginative texts about war such as Fields of Fire, Dispatches and In Country as well as films such as M*A*S*H, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, it seemed possible that antiwar spirit might forever quell the “acquiesce in the necessity” impulse, but all the signs now show that readiness of Americans to embrace war remains undiminished by any text.

 

“Getting into war is too easy, getting out is painfully challenging, and as this pattern of war grinds on, it brings woeful consequences to many veterans.” Owen W. Gilman Jr., Ph.D.

 

A range of factors in America makes it difficult to resist the call of war. Getting into war is too easy, getting out is painfully challenging, and as this pattern of war grinds on, it brings woeful consequences to many veterans, who commit suicide at the rate of 20 each day (Military Times). As I scrutinized imaginative texts from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the most consistent pattern involves disillusionment felt by veterans when they come home and see that their fellow Americans are caught up in trivial pursuits.

The bonding of soldiers on tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq mitigated, in part, the frequent horrors to which they were exposed as they engaged an indistinct, hard-to-determine enemy. Upon their return to the United States, the hell of war then found them buried under an avalanche of matters they deemed inconsequential but which consumed their fellow Americans. War was an insignificant concern at home. Consequences of this inattentiveness are registered widely in diverse recent texts: The Yellow Birds, Fire and Forget, and Here, Bullet.

Furthermore, with few exceptions, the films presenting war in a harsh light have done poorly at the box office. Fantasy films, meanwhile, fill movie theaters. After Sgt. James finished disarming IEDs in Iraq in The Hurt Locker, home front conditions baffle him. The Hurt Locker won Oscars for best picture and best director, but it did not do well at the box office. Grossing 20 times more than The Hurt Locker, American Sniper, in its action-packed glory, will be the film that prepares future generations for going to war without question. Guided by his rock-solid mantra of “God, Country, Family,” Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was content in being the most successful sniper in American military history, even as his untimely death brought the hell of war home. Plenty of young patriots will follow his lead, and we know clearly where that goes.

 

Owen W. Gilman Jr., Ph.D.

Gilman, a professor of English, has examined American literature past and present, as well as film, for nearly four decades to teach SJU students about war and its consequences. From 1969 to 1971, he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, with an overseas assignment to Korea.