Tuesday, September 4, 2007

War Lit

Rather than putting a hat tip at the end of this post, I need to say up front, I'd have missed this outstanding piece by Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic, if not for Chap.

It would ordinarily be enough to simply send you to it through Chap's Blog, but I want to capture a few quotes here before I send this post to friends of mine who are still doing the holy work of creating literate warriors and citizens. In particular, I think the man who taught an entire English department to think of what they do in that way would find himself nodding in agreement when Kaplan, speaking of Vice Admiral Stockdale's two books says:

When Stockdale writes about Epictetus, Socrates, Homer, Cervantes, Calvin, and other writers and philosophers, their work achieves a soaring reality because he relates them to his own, extraordinary experiences as a prisoner in one of the 20th century's most barbaric penal programs. Stockdale reminds us about something that much scholarship, with its obsession for textual subtleties, obscures: The real purpose of reading the classics is to develop courage and leadership.
Further, as half the cadet wing at that school (recently rated number one in its class in its region) where I spent eight years teaching, lives in a dorm named for Captain Lance Sijan, one or two of them might have some interest in reading another of the books Kaplan touches on:
The implications of "doing your duty" are spelled out further in Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail (Ballantine, 2006) by Rick Newman, a journalist at U.S. News & World Report, and Don Shepperd, a former Misty. They write that in November 1967, in order to rescue Captain Lance Sijan of Milwaukee, a smoke screen of cluster bombs was dropped near North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns, so that the guns could be taken out by low-flying F-4 Phantoms, throwing enemy air defenses into enough chaos to allow a helicopter to pick up the downed pilot. The operation failed. Captain Sijan, injured worse than Bud Day during ejection, evaded the North Vietnamese for six weeks. After he was captured, he escaped again, then was recaptured, and died of torture and pneumonia. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Finally, I was grateful to see that Kaplan devotes a full page of what emerged from my printer as a nine-page essay to an under-appreciated book by a good friend of mine: John Stryker Meyer's Across The Fence: The Secret War In Vietnam.

All in all, Kaplan's piece is worth reading, not solely as a review of some of the best pieces from a genre that receives too little attention, but also as a cogent exploration of some of the less obvious and arguably more important parallels between our current war in Iraq and the earlier war to which it is ever more frequently compared.