Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Deborah Baker

Deborah Baker is the author of In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as well as A Blue Hand; The Beats in India, and The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’ve been reading Mary McCarthy’s trilogy of book length essays on the Vietnam War. I found them collected in a book called The Seventeenth Degree that I picked up at a used bookstore for a dollar. This is probably more than she made from them when they were published, in 1967, 1968 and 1972 as they were greeted with critical silence and left the bookstore only when the shop owners gave up the prospect of selling them. It is hard to see why no one paid attention, unless it was because people had already decided their views on the war and that was that. Or maybe people just felt there was nothing they could do. McCarthy was the only American novelist to visit North Vietnam. And in South Vietnam only John Steinbeck and Martha Gellhorn preceded her. Her decision to go began forming when talk of bombing North Vietnam first arose. She thought perhaps India or the Pope might intervene. Her need to find an alternative to the bombing, a way out of the impasse, she said, was evidence of how wedded she was to the “good image” she had of her country.

Until the war on Iraq actually began, I too was wedded to this image. I had imagined that the lessons we learned from Vietnam were somehow permanently tattooed on our national consciousness. If we were to ever forget them, I thought, it would be because too much time had passed. But the men who got us into the Iraq war, both the ones in the White House, and those at the editorial desks, were of an age to remember. I couldn’t get over that; I kept waiting for everyone to come to their senses. McCarthy describes a kind of peculiar mind freeze evident among those selling the Vietnam War to themselves. She explained it then as a conditioned reflex of Americans that is intimately bound up with our ironclad faith in free-enterprise; an idea that Occupy Wall Street now has by the throat. She believed that the laws of the market dictate our responses in ways that we are only dimly aware of, whether it comes to war or in smaller day-to-day decisions we all make. “The human damage involved,” she writes, “if seen close up, may elicit a sigh, as when a co-operative apartment building fires its old Negro elevator operators…to put in self-service. ‘We had to, you see. It was cheaper.’” But there are all kinds of mental prisons at work during a war. To hear him tell it, Johnson would have dearly liked to extract himself from his “commitment” to Vietnam, but he imagined himself powerless. “[T]he more deeply he involves himself in it, the more abused and innocent he feels.” In the end his entrapment and the nation’s was complete. If this sounds awfully familiar, it should.

While reading this book, I found myself substituting the word Iraqi or Afghan every time Mary McCarthy quoted the military on the Vietnamese. That the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were purported responses to the attacks of 9/11 doesn’t change the fact that they eventually morphed into something else entirely. These wars are coming to a close now, and we are free to turn our minds to other things. Still, I can’t help but wonder where our war’s Mary McCarthy was.
Visit Deborah Baker's website.

--Marshal Zeringue