Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor: Most Americans under the age of 45 won’t remember the day the Vietnam War memorial in Washington first opened, nor the swirling controversy over its stark design—a long black scar cut into the National Mall, the names of more than 58,000 dead staring back in mirrored granite, not so much accusatory, but unshakable reminders of one country’s sacrifice for a war policy no one seems even capable of justifying anymore.
It’s been more than 35 years since that day—November 10, 1982—and Vietnam feels more like a phantom limb than the open wound it was then. It’s hard to recall, really, with our Vietnam vets now grandfathers heading into senior citizenship, the nearly impenetrable atmosphere that parade of thirty-somethings brought to D.C., and with them such a complex thrall of competing emotions.
That was why it was such an unexpected jolt of deja vu to pick up Peter Straub’s 1988 thriller Koko. Anyone who’s read Straub’s Ghost Story (1979) knows he can spin one hell of a spine-tingler. But Koko is more than horror and mystery—though on both counts he delivers with near-flawless construction—it’s his own attempt (he was 45 at the time) at exorcism, not so much of his own demons (he wasn’t in the war), but of the caricature, guilt and misunderstanding that was building up around the Vietnam generation in the 1980s.
Here Straub is at his best, recreating in the opening chapter, the November 10, 1982 parade scene from the eyes of the narrator, Michael Poole, one of five known remaining soldiers from a platoon that stood before a court martial for a village massacre during the war. Our narrator comes to D.C. to join the wave of vets: “together they were all so distinct that to Poole they almost felt like a secret country of their own.”
He meets up with his mates at a Woodley Park hotel roiling with veterans in varying stages of inebriation: Conor, the working class carpenter; Beevers, the sadist former lieutenant who can pretty much be blamed for everything that’s gone wrong; and Tina Puma, a troubled Manhattan chef with a 20-year-old Chinese girlfriend who makes him feel older and more vulnerable by the minute. Part Deer Hunter with a hint of the Dirty Dozen, the men are forced to hunt down another mate, writer Tim Underhill, who they think is responsible for several grisly signature murders in Bangkok and Singapore. They call the predator Koko. Spliced in with horrific flashbacks of recon missions and the emerging picture of what really happened to those Vietnamese children in the cave at la Thuc, Koko is a head-trip. The journey is often grisly and paranoid, metaphoric and dreamlike. But these men are real—many readers will recognize fathers, uncles, grandfathers, themselves. Searching for Koko gives them purpose (and the reader, genuine insight, devoid of the usual clichés), but it is clear, halfway through the book, that like Vietnam, all is not what it seems, then or now.
Addison Del Mastro, assistant editor: If you read my articles, you know that I’m a big fan of urbanist and social critic James Howard Kunstler. His blogging is entertaining and touches lots of different current issues, but his 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere displays a Kunstler with more message discipline. The book contains little that will surprise an urbanism expert, but of course it is not written for experts: it is a popular book, and a highly accessible one.
There’s plenty of invective and anecdote here. Take his commentary on the architectural critics and their modernist ideology. Or a visit to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village (a fake small town made of historic buildings Ford had collected over the years) that ends with Kunstler snidely noting that the faux town is pleasant mainly because there are no cars there.
There’s also a lot of what certain conservatives would label “socialism”: a concern for the public and civic realms and a skepticism of corporate interests, especially the real estate development and auto industries. But the book is also quintessentially conservative in a more temperamental sense, in that it gives the benefit of the doubt to traditional, time-tested practices.
But politics and opinion aside, Geography is still valuable because it also gets down into the weeds of zoning, town planning, street design, and other very technical topics that would never be widely read unless packaged alongside more entertaining fare. We learn, for example, that zoning more or less prohibits the building of traditional towns, due largely to a principle known as separation of uses (residential, commercial, and industrial sites must all be physically separated). The familiar pattern of meandering cul-de-sac neighborhoods and dense commercial highway strips is not an organic settlement pattern but a legal mandate. We also learn that humans intrinsically like streets with clear ends or destination points—consider classic small towns with a church or town hall in an island of land where the main street ends or splits—and that those ubiquitous meandering suburban roads probably cause some measure of psychic discomfort.
Above all, though, the book is about community, and its relationship to the everyday environment we inhabit. “A community is not something you have, like a pizza,” Kunstler writes. “Nor is it something you can buy, as visitors to Disneyland and Williamsburg discover. It is a living organism based on a web of interdependencies.” Destroy those intricate interdependencies, and you destroy community. Unfortunately, we haven’t stopped doing it.
Mark Perry, contributing editor: People say all kinds of things about the past, and most of them, it turns out, aren’t even remotely true. William Faulkner is the exception. Mississippi’s purveyor of the southern “gothic novel” (whatever the hell that is) once wrote that “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” He would know. Faulkner imbibed history ever as much as he mainlined Kentucky bourbon, with history’s dark ghost as corporeal (or perhaps, more so) than any character in Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying, or Intruder in the Dust.
For Faulkner, the Civil War was one of those embodied beings (a living and walking presence in everyday southern life) and proof that we actually know very little about the things we think we know best. The examples are right there, staring at us. For instance, we know more about the Battle of Antietam now than General McClellan knew about it on the day after it was fought, and we have learned more about the beginnings of early Christianity in the last 50 years, I would venture, than we learned in the last 2,000. There is history, and then there is new history: books that provide uneasy narratives about events we think we understand, but don’t.
Two such are Waldo Heinrichs’ and Marc Gallicchio’s Implacable Foes and Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars. For those of us who take our history straight (rejecting the sweetener that Faulkner often added to his bourbon), the two narratives provide brilliant insights into the real history of World War II—rewriting the triumphalist narrative that Winston Churchill, William Manchester, and Martin Gilbert (as good as they are) so lavishly ladled out. Civilization’s second global war, Churchill (et al.) implies, was a near-run thing, and might have gone the other way, but for the dedication of those patriots willing to fight to the bitter end. That having come to grips with the Wehrmacht, the American Army couldn’t wait to get their hands on the Japanese.
“Blood and Guts” Patton might have been “clamoring” to fight Japan, Heinrichs and Gallicchio tell us, but that wasn’t true for his soldiers, who were scrambling to meet the standards set by the government to be mustered out. George Marshall knew this well, turning down Eisenhower’s request for reinforcements in the war’s last year, not because the U.S. had reached the bottom of the barrel, but because the American people were tired of the fighting. Indeed, senior military officers wondered how many of America’s soldiers serving in Europe would simply jump off the trains taking them from east (where they would disembark) to west, where they would board ships bound for the Pacific. Which is to say that, by August of 1945, the Japanese weren’t the only ones looking for a way out of the war: so were we.
Hanson’s The Second World Wars is more than simply a companion piece to this, but a rejection of history’s initial, and largely accepted, judgment—that the Axis coulda, woulda, shoulda somehow won the conflagration, “if only.” For that to be even remotely true, the “if only” argument has to include the following. The Axis might have won “if only” they had developed a long range bomber (they didn’t), “if only” their armies were truly mobile (they relied on horses), “if only” they produced more submarines (they wasted precious resources on battleship behemoths), “if only” they were able to control the skies after 1942 (they didn’t), “if only” they coordinated their far-flung strategies (they never did), and, most crucially, if only they hadn’t underestimated the industrial power of their antagonists (they weren’t even close). By 1942, the U.S. alone outproduced all of the Axis nations combined—and the Red Army suffered 4.5 million dead in its first year of war against Germany, a number that was equal to the size of the German Army itself. And the numbers kept coming: by the end of the war, the Soviet Union deployed 500 divisions. The Germans relied throughout on hay and grass to power their military: the U.S. and its allied militaries ran on pistons.
It is true, perhaps, that America’s readers are so intoxicated by World War II that they can’t get enough of it—as they were once nursed on the milk of the Civil War. Yes, perhaps. Certainly my friends and family have noticed this, smiling wryly as I powered my way through the accounts provided by these two fascinating narratives. “Don’t you already know this?” they ask. My answer is to lift these two tomes at them, shaking them portentously. “No,” I say. “I don’t.”