Falluja falls to Al Quaeda; soldiers who fought there feel it in the gut. So the Times reminds us.
The news sent me back, as if I had fallen into some of her flash-backs, to Roxana Robinson’s extraordinary novel Sparta. Yes, ancient Sparta’s military society is the sub-text; Iraq is the inescapable reality; suicide keeps drawing closer.
But what haunts me about the novel is the contrast between the armor worn day-in, day-out by American troops in the war zone and what happens when they return home. In combat he has every conceivable support; when Lt. Conrad Farrell return home he has no protection. There seems no where to turn, not to the overstretched bureaucracy of the VA, not to family, for all their willingness to help, not to uncomprehending civilian friends. Nor is it easy to admit to another veteran any sign of weakness. He’s alone; all alone.
There is no armor back here, even the armor Simon Weill refers to in the apograph of the novel:
The man who does not wear the armour of the lie cannot experience force without being touched by it to the very soul.
The Iliad, or, The Poem of Force.
Sparta, I suppose, supplied that lie for its soldiers, “..the old lie/ dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” But Conrad can’t say that to himself, not what Cardinal Wolsey says to Cromwell in Shakespeare’s Henry the Eighth,
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies. (3.2.455ff.)
But, naked to his enemies he is, and the enemies are the demons of his psyche.
The best of American education, moreover, does Conrad no good. He graduated from Williams, majored in Classics, before joining the Marines. But when his demons take over, what he had learned at Williamstown seems to evaporate. How much did he write in those four undergraduate years at Williams? A lot one imagines, but the skilled writer of the novel never lets her hero glimpse that writing is a way some troubled souls bring order to life. The novelist is right, I guess; that’s not why serious writers write. That’s not the way to teach it. It’s literature not therapy.
Conrad feels himself totally alone, is as if no one had ever experienced that before, not Achilles, not Ajax, not Philoctetes. He’s not the first to have experienced the corrosion of war. He doesn’t have to be alone. Come on, Roxana, let him reach out to one of those texts, there on his bookshelf, and break that spell of isolation. When my friend Paul Woodruff returned from Vietnam, he told me, he read and re-read the Iliad. Time and time again. It helped. But. Oh no, that’s not what literature is for, not the way to teach it, or read it.
Or is it? Maybe Conrad’s feckless younger brother, Ollie, catches on. An aspiring film studies major at Bard, he emails Conrad:
Last night we stayed up until two watching alien movies. It’s fir a class, we’re meant to figure out how aliens represent ourselves, and what aspects of our society they represent… I think it’s great to use this stuff, but I also wonder if I’m missing things -- will I ever read the Iliad if I don’t read it in college? I remember you talking about it when you were reading it, and I remember thinking that’s what college is like, and that’s how it would be for me. But it’s so different here. (p. 352)
And later another email:
I transferred out of that class. I hated it. I’m taking The Age of the Classics instead. (p. 356)
Yah, Ollie, maybe you’ll find something there; maybe you’ll come through. Yah.