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Mailer, Vonnegut, Vidal: Those Brave Old Lions Roared

This year we lost two of our greatest and most prophetic American writers, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, both at age 84. Both served in combat in World War II. Both hated war, and opposed the Vietnam War 45 year ago. Even in old age they were outspoken in denouncing the Iraq War and its perpetrators.

They were two members of a trio of prophets who, unlike Cheney and Bush, hated war because they knew what it was. The third member of this remarkable group to oppose the war Gore Vidal, served on an Army ship in the Aleutians during World War II. (He wrote his first novel while in the hospital recovering from rheumatoid arthritis contracted from hypothermia while on the ship.) Vidal probably inherited a contempt for war from his grandfather, Oklahoma senator Thomas Gore, who lost his Senate seat because he was against U.S. entry into World War I.

Mailer knew war and the military so well that his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead," was based on his experience. He was keenly aware of the writer's prophetic role in probing a society's deepest pathologies and in searching for a remedy, however flawed. “You can't have a great democracy without great writers," told the "San Francisco Chronicle" in 2002. "We will look long and far before we find a good writer who is also a blind patriot."

The abuse of language by the Bush administration is maddening to anyone with a love of language. Mailer was especially contemptuous of Bush's manipulation of the word "evil" to make a case for war. Before the war began, he told the newspaper:  "Evil is one of the great mysteries. It's hard for philosophers to define the good. It may be even more difficult to define the evil. "But Bush uses it as a push-button, to get all the ignorami lined up behind him. The perfect proof of it is his syllogism: '9/11 was evil. Saddam is evil. All evil is connected. Ergo, Iraq.' " Less than a month after the Iraq War began, at age 80, he published "Why Are We at War?" in another of his many attempts to expose the forces that propel us to war.

Kurt Vonnegut who won a Purple Heart for his military service, was a pacifist who wrote a brilliant antiwar novel exposing the horrors of war that he experienced firsthand, "Slaughterhouse Five." He'd been captured in the Battle of the Bulge, and as a prisoner of war was kept in a slaughterhouse in Dresden. But this building sheltered him from the bombing of Dresden that killed at least 30,000. Understanding the immense horrors of even a "good war" heighted his rage against a rush to a senseless war. He felt the tragedy of war in ways unimaginable to toy soldiers like Bush and Cheney.

Vonnegut too knew that writers had to roar in protest. As he told "In These Times" before the Iraq War: "When it became obvious what a dumb and cruel and spiritually and financially and militarily ruinous mistake our war in Vietnam was, every artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against the thing."

For this old man it was not simply a metaphor to consider it "sick" to rush into war. He meant it in the strict clinical sense of the word, diagnosing the Bush team as psychopathic, mixing his diagnosis with humorous barbs:

"I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d'etat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka “Christians,” and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or “PPs.

"To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete's foot. The classic medical text on PPs is 'The Mask of Sanity' by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. Read it! PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!"

The third old lion, a few years younger, still roars. Before the Iraq invasion began, he echoed Vonnegut's idea of the insanity of this in an interview published in "Counterpunch" a week before we invaded Iraq:  "To have a major depression going on, economic, really, collapse all round the world and begin a war against an enemy that has done nothing against us other than what our media occasionally alleges, this is lunacy."

Vidal produced two short books against war, which he calls pamphlets, harking back to the political pamphlet tradition of our nation's founders, "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace" and "Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Bush-Cheney Junta." These eventually became best-sellers in the U.S., although some of the material first appeared in Italian publications because his U.S. publishers wouldn't touch it.

Steeped in U.S. history after having written powerful historical novels such as "Burr," "Lincoln," "1876," Vidal often cites the authors of the Constitution and other major historical in order to deflate the claims of flag-waving, militarists who equate war with patriotism. As, he told the "National Catholic Reporter" shortly after the Iraq War began: “[President James] Madison warned us at the dawn of our republic, ‘Of all enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops germs of every other.' ” Vidal also noted Ulysses .S. Grant's dim view of the Mexican American war: "General--then Lieutenant--Grant said that the Civil War was the vengeance of God upon us for what we had done to Mexico.”

These were prophetic voices. Unfortunately, very few of our most prominent politicians turned their war experience to prophetic ends. Instead, they bought into the twisted remilitarization of our country, and used their war experience as the political capital. They opportunistically bought into the popular idea that service in Vietnam was an important political credential. Once they accepted this role, instead of using to make a case against war, they used it to advance the military agenda. They ended up fearing the label of "weak on defense" and voting for war to prove how tough they could be. Instead of looking realistically at war, like our old wounded lions did, they engaged in the macho posturing that led us to war.

Perhaps instead of showing the constant comment of military experts, politicians, and cluelss pundits on the news, we should be allowed to hear more from our prophets. Maybe we need a new law that mandates lengthy congressional testimony from our literary prophets when the politicians are debating entry into our next war.

Sept. 25, 2008

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