What We Love

As it turns out, John Barnes had some of it right – he applied the ethos and culture of MFA schools to the Scott Thomas columns. We can find on military blogs (and here) more substantive critiques of the specifics, while keeping in mind that soldiers, being human, can be assholes and that war is not the most positive experience. Still and all, the truth is important and much looks like these were, at best, tales embellished beyond recognition. The narrator seems quite confused about guns, Bradleys and life. TNR’s firing of the “whistleblower” is also not particularly attractive. It’s hard to take the youthful editor seriously.

Barnes brings us back to a territory discussed earlier. Tim O’Brien wants us to “feel” he is telling a truth even when he may not be telling the truth: this distinction may be justified in a work theoretically described as fiction. However, Scott Thomas wants us to see him as a “reporter” (indeed, an observer on occasions when many commentators would argue most would act); his territory is not his own (or a fictional) psyche but rather actions he contends he and others committed.

Barnes, however, describes why in situations that don’t bring the fame and riches of major slick magazine publishing his pose of toughness might be useful:

Among the benefits of that role are free passes on certain kinds of bad behavior in class, sexual attractiveness to some other grad students (those with a thing for bad boys), and the maintenance of their interior movie in which they are played by some combination of James Dean, Bob Dylan, the younger Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Well, it has been a long time since I’ve been interested in boys of any kind, bad or not. But I do remember the attraction of the class rebel, the guy your parents didn’t like, the outsider. Some girls like really bad boys, but most fancy the guy is just misunderstood; he’s sensitive but this is a secret only the girl knows. He appeals to her naughty girl but also her maternal instincts; she believes what he tells her when he reveals his soft, vulnerable side. Girls like a tough guy. But they like him because, in the end, he does the right thing; tough guys are doubly attractive when they do the chivalric thing – it’s kind of like the whore with the heart of gold or the prodigal son.   But do girls find attractive someone who taunts a burned & disfigured woman? Who says loudly

“Yeah man,” I continued. “I love chicks that have been intimate—with IEDs. It really turns me on—melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses . . . .”

“You’re crazy, man!” my friend said, doubling over with laughter. I took it as my cue to continue.

“In fact, I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? ‘IED Babes.’ We could have them pose in thongs and bikinis on top of the hoods of their blown-up vehicles.”

This seems to fall apart upon inspection: the curious lack of rank, the witnesses who remember no such woman, the unlikelihood of a woman with severe scars returning to a war zone. But, let’s allow that it did happen and he did say that.  And that his significant other at least saw if not was responsible for seeing it hit the pages of TNR.

Maybe his girlfriend/wife thought he was really great when he was in the creative writing program at Missouri and she was in J school. But, I honestly can’t comprehend how a woman can explain to herself that her man did this; I honestly can’t comprehend how a woman can love a man who did. This is in the mess hall; worse, perhaps, could be explained in the heat of combat. And sure black humor is a part of war. But this is mere casual vulgarity that most women, seeing in print, would find offensive. And, if she didn’t think he said it, did she think these were his fantasies? These were his lies? I had terrible taste in men, but I really can’t get my imagination around feeling affection for a man capable of doing this or even less imaginatively projecting it as who he is.

Does TNR human relations worry about its staff in ways that have little to do with journalism, the truth, Iraq? (Not that these aren’t important – it seems to have limited skepticism when a story seems too good to check. ) What I’m wondering is what do you think of one another in the break room? What do you see as polite conversation? How much do you trust your colleagues as people – let alone as journalists?

I suspect they are playing a game; they don’t really think the incidents are true, they think that “others” (the soldiers who don’t want out of the war, for instance) act that way.  They don’t really think the narrative voice is the true voice of their colleague’s significant other but rather an imaginary voice he created. But that isn’t what they say.  They keep up the pretense it is true. So, we might ask them, if you don’t approve of him, why didn’t you report these activities to his superior officer?  In what way do you see this as the result of war and not of a flawed character?  Why aren’t you honestly appalled by the person who describes himself and his buddies in this way? And when he whines that his critics are criticizing him, you might say, damn right. We all should. That his editor apparently doesn’t think that way, that he fires the whistleblower, that he claims respect for the writer tells us much about the journal – and little of it good.

11 thoughts on “What We Love”

  1. It’s head-shakingly sad that of all the milbloggers on active-duty, who post from Iraq, TNR picked this unskilled wanna-be.
    Or as my daughter said “an E-2 and a stupid one at that.”
    How ungifted to you have to be as a writer to not notice… well, everything. Like the fact that a Bradley makes a hell of a racket.

    And that nothing in the military happens in a vacuum. There are always other people around, especially when extraordinary events are alledged to have happened. Civilians often find this hard to believe.

  2. Once again, as in the Duke rape case, the facts and the Liberal narative are in disagreement. Liberals believe that athletes are uncultured, dumb, musclebound rapists murders. When the truth about Duke came out the Liberals still clung to their narrative – witness their unholy joy over the Dead Wrestlers on Steroids, the Tour de France and Barry Bonds.
    Liberals have always hated soldiers. There has not been a movie made since Viet Nam that has portrayed an American soldier as heroic, compassionate, or intelligent. Movies and TV always show American soldiers as the opposite and their wives and children as trailer park trash.
    The New Republic editors, like all Liberals elitists, see Al Qaida terrorists as freedom fighters and American troops are merely Duke lacrosse guys in uniform. The New Republic jumped at these stories because they fit the Liberal narrative.

  3. John Barnes had more than some of it right. This guy was in an MFA program, and he was a pogue who didn’t see much action due to his inability to follow orders. Barnes was uncannily accurate, and the only thing I quibble with him about is the statement that US officers aren’t loooking for this kind of thing. One of the reasons is that Barnes does not understand the role of the NCO in enforcing discipline.

    Any NCO worth his salt would rip any of his soldiers a new one for violattion of hygeine rules for playing with human remains (not to mention most NCOs I know would be disgusted and bounce someone caught doing that to latrine duty and then out of the unit ASAP), and with the threat of IEDs, playing at anything with Bradleys (their engine noise scaring dogs off notwithstanding) is a big no-no, and no soldier is going to risk his life for sport.

  4. Of course, I agree with the comments above.

    Still, I did have a different point, though I don’t think I expressed it well. (And it is tangential to the more important search for the truth.) Yes, he doesn’t know what he describes; yes, he’s a phony and probably this can be seen as libel.

    But what kind of a woman loves a man who is that much of a phony – let alone encourages him in his phoniness? If she believes him, she’s vile. If she doesn’t believe him, she’s vile. Stupidity isn’t an answer here – if she’s stupid enough to believe him, she is still loving vile behavior. Even if you are stupid you can be held to some kind of moral standard. If she believes it is not true, she is still loving vile projection and acting in a manner that undercuts the professed values of her profession.

    Sure, this is a side issue. But it also reinforces the picture Barnes gives of MFA programs and the students in them. Again, this says little good about them.

  5. How did Krupskaya Love Lenin? Or Alilueva love Stalin? They loved the cause, and any sociaopath high enough in the cause was OK with them. Added here is probably the delusion that the big bad Army did this to her precious wittle bunny, and now she can play Savior trying to turn him into a human being again. Never mind that many of his sick fantasies were published before he hit the sandbox. You can’t knock sense into that kind of woman with a brick. Which explains why there are so many of the pseudo-macho types in MFA programs for Barnes to expound upon an archetype.

    “But it also reinforces the picture Barnes gives of MFA programs and the students in them. Again, this says little good about them.”

    I’ve been saying this about Humanities grad students since I was one in the mid-nineties: a bigger passel of nitwits, sophists, nihilists, dickweeds, and all-around useless human beings I could not have deliberately assembled, even if I were using Maxwell’s Demon to sort human personalities.

  6. I’ve been saying this about Humanities grad students since I was one in the mid-nineties: a bigger passel of nitwits, sophists, nihilists, dickweeds, and all-around useless human beings I could not have deliberately assembled, even if I were using Maxwell’s Demon to sort human personalities.

    John, don’t hold back! Tell us what you really think.

  7. That his editor apparently doesn’t think that way, that he fires the whistleblower, that he claims respect for the writer tells us much about the journal – and little of it good.

    I think it tells us that TNR suffers from chronically bad management. They’ve hired a series of immature wonderboys as editors. It’s no surprise that eventually a perfect storm of authorial corruption and ignorant, overconfident editorial judgment comes along that seems likely to really burn them. Maybe the change in ownership was also a factor. For whatever reasons, there were no adults around when they needed someone to say to the editor: maybe you should run this story by an experienced outsider to see if it sounds like bullshit.

  8. John,

    Actually, we might ask what values the journalism school at Missouri inculcated – since that might have the most bearing on the “professionalism” of TNR – a professionalism I suspect Jonathan described well.

    By the way, I don’t like post-modernism; I do think that humanities departments have become increasingly precious; I hate how in many people’s hands the disciplines I loved have been politicized and made into superficial and useless studies. I loved the principle of American Studies programs, but generally agree wtih my colleague who calls them “anti-American studies.” That wasn’t how Goetzmann taught, but that was long ago and in another place.

    However, you won’t be surprised that I don’t think all those adjectives apply to me (English, 1979), my husband (English 1976), my daughter (linguistics, abd), my son-in-law (German, abd) or my other son-in-law (beginning in Russian) or his wife, (whose B.A. was in religious studies & Czech). Five of these are from U.T. Austin – not great, not famous, but not the bottom of the barrel. The last one is Princeton – generally considered good.

    I also don’t think they apply to several of my husband’s students (one is being capped in two weeks, did his dissertation on Pilgrim’s Progress, Mormon with 5 kids, started local ISI group, was in business – you may see him as a bit bizarre but he’s hardly the stereotype you describe); my friend (abd – with 3 kids and grandkids, fervent Baptist); one of my old students (5 kids, reading Hayek changed her life she told me when she took the American survey; right now, she’s doing quite well in the English ph.d. program). Another one of my husband’s students is a well-published poet who co-started the ISI program; her husband is a Russian Orthodox priest.

    It is true that over the years I suspect my husband has attracted more of the unusual ones, but then, he’s also had some of the best. (One couple were U. Chicago graduates, taught in the Valley at a junior college after they left Kent a bit abruptly after the bloody incident there, and decided to come back in their maturity for their doctorates.) Another one he capped a couple of years ago is an Anglican priest. Not surprisingly these students are often at odds with some of the teachers (and prejudice has raised its ugly head), but, you know, they got through the program, are doing well, and are as much humanities grad students as those who I agree with you can be pretty, well, stupid.

    I don’t want you to hold back out of politeness to me or anything; I do, however, want to say we are not all “nitwits, sophists, nihilists, dickweeds, and all-around useless human beings.” For instance, ph.d. in hand, I started a copy shop which employed 15-20 people over 13 years; I wasn’t a good businesswoman and we didn’t get rich – but every employee got all the money owed him and so did the bank. In fact, I had a pretty high rating on such factors. It is true that one of my more charming but not terribly competent employees did have a Harvard Ph.D. in pre-semitic languages and another a Yale masters in Anthro. (Let alone the Ag. Emgineering, anthro, English, and biology ph.d.s from around here.) So I was even finding employment for some with the kind of backgrounds you see as useless (though I must admit, typing for me at minimum wage is not what most Harvard Ph.D.’s aim at – at least I hired him and he did it.)

  9. Ginny – that statement did not apply to all of them – remember I was one at the time ;-).

    However, it did apply to roughly 3/4 of the Slavic Lit grad students I knew (with most of the exceptions being actual Slavs). That’s a big enough majority to color one’s perceptions.

    And there is no crime in being a little weird (I’m a scientist, fer crying out loud, we’re weird by definition) or studying something obscure (well, except for the fact that some who study obscure subjects do so to limit the field of potential critics).

    The problem was that most of the Humainities grad students I came into contact with (not just the Slavic Studies ones) were professionally weird – they worked at it because it was part of their self-image. I can stomach nihilism in an 18 year old, but not in a 27 year old.

    That’s also why I put the time frame in there. From the quality of the older teachers, I got a really good feel for the sea change that had occurred in the mid-1970s. By the 1990s, I would hazard a guess that 8 out of 10 grad students in the Humanities were useless. That ratio was probably half as bad in the 1970s and still less in the 1960s, because teachers who still expected some rigor were still in charge. By the 1980s, the change was pretty much complete, and by the mid-1990s, I had to search for good profs.

    So no, I didn’t mean to slam everyone in the Humanities, but the bad apples so outweighed the good at Big U in the mid-1990s that I just had to wonder what kind of social process would concentrate so many disfunctional personalities in one place. And why the good people didn’t say anything about it. I did say something about it – with my feet. But not before bringing up Sokal every chance I could get.

  10. Looking back at Ginny’s point; of apparently intelligent women falling for “bad boys”… isn’t it common enough to be a bit of a cliche? Look at the women who manage to fall in love with death row inmates. Granted, that’s at the extreme end.

    But Ernest Hemmingway and Pablo Picasso were talented… and attractive to women. And in their personal relationships, come off as being pretty loathsome to those women. Perhaps this is just another one of them, in a scaled-down way; the sweetie of the moment generously overlooking all those unfortunate qualities in her chosen love, because he is such a rare genius.

  11. Sgt Mom
    Yes, I guess it is common – the death row thing may be beyond my comprehension but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen all the time. Still, it does seem to indicate a lack of perspective from someone who is being trained to, theoretically, give us facts as a journalist. It surely takes a lot of blinking at facts to get to such a place.

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