It’s been a season of theologically informed memoirs in my work as an editor. Last week, I posted an excerpt from Charles H. Featherstone’s important new book, The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death. This week, I offer two excerpts from the equally important new work of Stan Goff: Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church. “Stan Goff is a remarkable human being,” enthuses Stanley Hauerwas, “so we should not be surprised at this equally remarkable book. Drawing on feminist theory, Goff helps us see war as an expression of a perverse masculinity. His philosophical and theological insights throughout this book are stunning. Borderline is a must-read for anyone concerned with war and its effect on our lives.”
Goff’s book is a big one, but don’t let that scare you away. We American Christians desperately need to make whatever time is necessary to grapple with every page of this searching work of theological and cultural criticism. The first passage is taken from chapter 30, “Bombs, Babies, and ‘Burbs,” pages 366–69; the second comes from chapter 31, “The Herd,” pages 376–77 and 383–85.
Bombs, Babies, and ’Burbs
Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.
upon witnessing the first atomic bomb test
Progress is our most important product.
—General Electric tag line, 1954,
delivered on television by Ronald Reagan
. . . .
After World War II, the leaders of the nation, civic and political, wanted to leave the war behind and begin the process of consolidating the power they had inherited in the wake of European destruction and the unraveling of European empires. American men themselves were keen to settle back down, get jobs, and raise families. Their collective masculinity had been proven abroad in combat, and their political masculinity was proven by the bomb. The nation required a new mythic narrative, now that “democracy had triumphed over dictatorship” and military action would become a sideline (in Korea?) while the nation’s efforts were directed toward the postwar surge in capital accumulation driven by technological innovation and consumer demand. Not only the nation, but the re-establishment of a hegemonic masculinity required a revised mythic narrative. One cultural manifestation of this shift was the renewed popularity of the Western. Richard Slotkin writes,
In the midst of this ideological turmoil, the Western and its informing mythology offered a language and a set of conceptual structures rich in devices for defining the differences between competing races, classes, cultures, social orders, and moral codes. It incorporated these definitions in pseudo-historical narratives which suggested that human [male] heroism could shape the course of future events. Moreover, the preoccupation with violence that characterizes the Western and the Myth of the Frontier made its formulations particularly useful during a period of continual conflict between the claims of democratic procedure and Cold War policies that required the use of armed force. [Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998) 350].
As we will see, this contradiction between “democratic” and conformist Father Knows Best masculinity and the Western hero cum secret warrior masculinity was being resolved by making these two forms complementary, with the former supportive of the latter, but supportive in a passive and vicarious way. The good suburban husband and father would virtuously consume and work, and his participation in the bloodletting of the warrior would be as a spectator. The cowboy-hero became the symbol for political masculinity.
In the two elections in which George W. Bush ran for president, we saw this transfer of cowboy-hero symbolism to the individual candidate/officeholder; it was politically effective even though Bush himself was born in 1946 to a wealthy Eastern patrician family and was a frat boy and cheerleader at Yale University. Simulation and symbol trumped reality.
In 1947, Hollywood produced fourteen Westerns; the following year the number jumped to thirty-one. In 1952, it produced forty Westerns, and in 1956 a total of forty-six. After 1956, there was a dip in production caused by competition in the genre from television. From 1955 to 1970, Westerns were consistently among the highest-rated television series, pulling on average about a third of all viewers [ibid., 347–48].
The interplay between film, fiction, television, popular norms, and power is complex. Cultural productions do not generate a certain politics, nor does a certain political practice play a direct causative role in the production of cultural myths and archetypes. Politics and public discourse about it create clusters of public concern—these are the things that are “important.” Yet if those public concerns have no connection with the real, material concerns of most people’s lives, they are likely to be ignored. Pre-existing patterns within culture interact with these concerns, and there is a dialectical give-and-take between “art” and “reality.” Art itself, when it is a commodity, has to take into account its salability, its likelihood of being accepted. Does it connect to popular concerns or the way people live their lives in a particular period, even if that connection is controversial? Controversy can be salable! Symbols that are not recognizable, however, will not provoke a response; and there are already numerous mythic landscapes with which a particular “public” may be familiar.
Art has a special ability to create emotional resonance that is not the case with many forms of “rational” public discourse. That’s why art is always part of any social change movement; it can mobilize emotions as well as new conversations. In combination, art, power, and mass communication have established a form of power unthinkable to local despots and transient emperors of the past, a means for rendering the governed incapable of imagining anything except how they are governed. In a nation of hundreds of millions of people, a largely conformist population is a prerequisite to effective bureaucratic administration combined with autonomy of the state to exercise its military and security apparatuses.
An analytics of government . . . views practices of government in their complex and variable relations to the different ways in which “truth” is produced in social, cultural, and political practices. On the one hand, we govern others and ourselves according to what we take to be true about who we are, what aspects of our existence should be worked upon, how, with what means, and to what ends. We thus govern others and ourselves according to various truths about our existence and nature as human beings. On the other hand, the ways in which we govern and conduct ourselves give rise to different ways of producing truth. [Mitchell Dean, Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society (London: Sage, 2010) 27].
Just as Carol Cohn, after speaking technostrategic for a time, found that “the more conversations I participated in using this language, the less frightened I was of nuclear war,” the power of mass media, if it uses the same idiom as power, can establish the actuality of that power as given, as common sense.
The postwar Western movie had several archetypical storylines, which Slotkin has named and described: the town-tamer, the cavalry and the Indians, the revised outlaw, the gunfighter, the High Noon showdown, and the good man with a gun. The Western genre gave each of these narratives a wide “mythic space” in which to tell these differing stories [Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 351]. Cold War Westerns all had some defining borderline, whether it was a river, a fort’s palisade, a street, a fence, or the (fragile) boundary between civilization and wilderness, or savagery. A hero or protagonist had to cross those borderlines and by transgressing them “reveal the meaning of the frontier line” as he entered the dark side to protect the good side. Sometimes, after we were schooled in the psychoanalytic wolf-man, as the protagonist dealt with the “darkness” across the border, he also dealt with the darkness within himself. It is always a he. In the Western, the audience was to understand the boundary that separates their past from the viewing present, and therein they understood this to be a tale of progress. Last but certainly not least, there was a resolution, a “regeneration” accomplished by male violence [ibid., 352].
. . . .
Saul replied, “Say to David, ‘The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.’”
—1 Samuel 18:25
We are the unwilling, sent by the unqualified, to do the unnecessary for the ungrateful.
—Helmet graffiti, Vietnam
“It don’t mean nuthin.”
I learned that phrase in Vietnam. We said it when someone was killed. We said it when the mail didn’t come out on the resupply bird. We said it when we got busted. We said it when we were shriveled up with four days of ceaseless rain. We said it when we watched the ARVNs beating the shit out of a prisoner. We said it when we got jungle rot. We said it while the house burned after we set the roof thatch on fire. We said it when we smoked opium in a whorehouse. We said it if we killed a child. We said it when we were just tired and it was a long way to our DEROS date.
“Fuck it. Don’t mean nuthin’.”
Postmodern philosophy in the boonies.
I entered the army with a head full of Ayn Rand’s smug, circular logic and a flaccid, indolent, adolescent body. I had rationalized the army and internalized the culture’s masculine ideal . . . minus football. I never liked football. I enlisted intent on becoming a Green Beret.
In basic training, I was summarily reduced to a slobbering, faint-hearted fool by a plague of sadistic drill sergeants. How I recoiled from the reality of hard work when my skinny limbs and tar-speckled lungs encountered real, deep-down fatigue! Within one day, I wanted nothing more than to retreat to my hometown, where I could fritter away the hours bargaining with girls for sex, drinking beer, and trying to one-up my acquaintances in debates on topics about which none of us knew a damn thing. With time, however, my body hardened, my bluster returned, I became accustomed to being named Dickhead (we were all named Dickhead), and I came to recognize the ever clean, ever starched drill sergeants as the embodiment of power. Stockholm at Fort Leonard Wood.
We sang “Yellow Bird” when we marched:
A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
I lured him in
With bits of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head.
. . . two, three, four, hut, two, three, four . . .
. . . .
With the progression of hours and days [in Vietnam], as is the case with young men, the discussions became more emboldened. Each retelling was another blow to my shattered innocence. A booby trap had killed JoJo last month. As repayment, it was okay to kill an old woman hoeing a vegetable patch. To “kill a dink for JoJo.” This was Vietnam, my truest and most tangible introduction to the possibilities of human action.
I was in the company of my peers. I needed their acceptance. They looked like me. They liked the same music. We got high together. We became misty-eyed with each other over letters from home. Many claimed that after the army they wanted to become hippies (for the drugs, music, and allegedly easy women). In the extremity of our circumstance, in my platoon, the lines between black and white were erased and replaced by the line between GIs and “gooks.” It was a brotherhood of youth, engaged voluntarily or not in a race war. I think that’s what Hawk was thinking—the one black man with the kill patrol—not long after the kill, when he gave me that long, sad look. He would become a heroin addict after that. I don’t know if he ever really came home. Sometimes, I’m not sure I did, or can . . . or should be allowed to.
The first time I tossed a burning heat tab onto the thatched roof of a barn, it was like pledging a fraternity. I was accepted more thoroughly than I ever had been in my life—accepted into a fraternity that was untouchable by anything but death. You don’t just set the building on fire. You giggle when the weeping, wailing family tries to put it out. Then you have become crazy enough to be safe. Mimesis.
Months later, I was a relative old-timer. We’d left our “pacification” installations after Christmas and gone back “on swing,” patrolling through the mountains, bedding down in shallow scrapes or between rocks wherever we found ourselves at the end of the day, unprotected from the weather. I was accustomed now to the steep, slippery trails that we hacked out a yard at a time with machetes. My M60 machine gun was no more bother than carrying a briefcase. I had a human skull mounted on top of my rucksack, tied on with an embroidered headband through two bullet holes in the occipital area (a gunship had killed him, or her, from above). The mandible was secured to the cranium with medical adhesive tape that had turned gray. My ear was pierced. I’d done it with a pencil, a sewing needle and a bar of soap at a whorehouse in Lodu Beach. My boots were scuffed down to a tan, the second pair. I looked crazy, walked crazy, was high any time I had anything to get high with. I didn’t even use the tablets to treat my water anymore. Drank it straight from the streams. I could sleep in a mud hole. I could put one foot in front of the other indefinitely. I was angry all the time, even when I smiled and laughed, even when I lay in the frame of the rucksack, letting the wind blow the sweat off of me, smoking and talking about what I might want to do when I got back to “the world.” I fantasized about killing officers.
On swing, we stayed in the “free fire” zones for the most part—areas where we were cleared to kill any human being that wasn’t wearing our OG-107 fatigue uniforms. We’d stay out for forty-five to sixty days in between three- to five-day stand-downs, rest periods inside fixed installations. We walked up. We walked down. Days in, days out. Sun or rain. During the monsoon season, it was rain or harder rain. We would see no one but ourselves, unless it was to shoot them, or call in Napalm or Phugas or artillery to kill them from afar. Walking, left toe then right toe, chipping mindlessly forward into the crushed vegetation. “Humping the boonies.”
Only rarely did we venture near a road or a ville, and this was when we’d stop some enterprising Vietnamese to secure more drugs. We bought pot by the sandbag full; pure heroin the size of a sugar cube for five bucks. And Obisetol, an over-the-counter speed to help us stay awake. They recognized us, the guys who had drugs for sale, and we recognized them. The rest, they were just more dinks.
One day, we were beside a road. A young Vietnamese man pedaled past me with a bicycle that had two saddle baskets full of sugarcane. He smiled at me as he approached.
“Keep movin’, you fuckin’ gook.” That was me. I said that.
He stopped. I leapt to my feet at his impertinence.
He seemed utterly unafraid, just sad. He spoke English.
“This my home,” he told me. “I am Vietnamese. You and me, why can’t we be friend?”
He was very direct. My intimidation did not work at all, and I was paralyzed. I couldn’t shoot him right there on the road . . . and honestly I didn’t want to. His question was simple, and I had no answer. He snapped off a length of sugarcane and handed it to me. Reluctantly, I took it. I was trying to maintain my hateful look, but it was hard. I’d spent months cultivating it. Now I felt foolish because he was not afraid. Then he rode away. I’d never eaten sugarcane before, never known that explosion of liquid, melonlike sweetness. A guy from Puerto Rico showed me how to peel it using a bayonet.
For the rest of the day, I fought hard to stop the hole the man on the bike had driven into my dam with his simple act of courage and hospitality. That night the dam ruptured in the darkness. I cried quietly through a whole guard shift, wanting more than anything just to go home.
I was suddenly stunned at how effortless my transformation had become.
I know plenty about racism.
Looking back—I can’t be sure—but one day, in the spring of 1971, I may have met Jesus on a bicycle.