The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Modern Library #76)

(This is the twenty-fifth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Finnegans Wake.)

We are two days away from the great Muriel Spark’s 100th birthday. Yet, despite New Directions’s valiant reissue of her remarkable work only a few years ago (along with a quiet event planned on Thursday at the 92nd Street Y, which stands incommensurately like a shaking child in the vast shadow of Edinburgh’s impressive celebratory blowout), we are no closer to literary people universally singing her praises on this side of the Atlantic than we are in stopping men from wearing black socks to bed. And that’s a shame. Because Muriel Spark was truly one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. She was a bold and an economical stylist who packed far more attentive detail and character speculation into one paragraph than most contemporary writers wrangle into a chapter, and she did so with high style, grace, and ferocious wit. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her most enduring and popular novel (and, through a magical twist of fate, the next volume in the Modern Library Reading Challenge), certainly sees Spark’s great gifts on full display, but it is also a book that demands constant and even obsessive study.

I have read Brodie four times within the last two years. It is very possible I will read it four more times within the next two. I am inclined to press this richly entertaining book, no more than a hundred pages, into the hands of anyone who purports to take literature seriously, but who has somehow ignored Spark to hold up some bland offering from one of those “Most Anticipated” lists published at The Millions that nobody will remember or quote from in a decade.

Brodie is both a portrait of an exuberant teacher determined to educate a carefully selected group of girls so that they may be better equipped when “in their prime” and an incredible tableau of 1930s Edinburgh, such as the “wind-swept hockey fields which lay like the graves of the martyrs exposed to the weather in an outer suburb.” Miss Brodie may or may not be a tyrant. (She is fond of Mussolini and Italian culture.) One can read the book anew and come away with an entirely different opinion of the title character. The novel tantalizes us with flash-forwards (which can also be found in many of Spark’s later novels, such as The Driver’s Seat and Territorial Rights, which are also well worth your time) revealing the fates of the schoolgirls in adult life, leaving us with impressions of how formative life and education influences unknowingly in later years. One reads little snippets of the six girls under Miss Brodie’s tutelage from the present and the future– Rose “pulling threads from the girdle of her gym tunic” in class or Jenny not experiencing any sexual awe “until suddenly one day when she was nearly forty, an actress of moderate reputation married to a theatrical manager” — and asks how much Miss Brodie is responsible for corrupting fate, with Spark slyly implicating us as we become more curious.

Muriel Spark wrote this masterpiece in less than a month. This is especially amazing because, much like the magnetic properties contained within the glowing amber necklace Miss Brodie wears when off-screen romance inspires a new step in her exacting stride, this short novel reads as if an exquisite jeweler had painstakingly ensured that not a single element could ever fall out of alignment. And Spark sculpts many glistening carats along the way: the fictitious letters that two girls write after imagining Miss Spark’s love life, the creepy, one-armed artist Teddy Lloyd who also teaches at the school and disguises his true pedophilc nature through the sham panacea of Catholicism and family life, and the lingering question of which schoolgirl betrays Miss Brodie and causes her to lose her job. The novel presents us with many hints and details that hide in plain sight, but that all contribute to an atmosphere in which the girls end up coming up with explanations (often fictitious and sometimes apostate) for what is both seen and not seen. Miss Brodie’s careful lessons, which include a field trip into a rougher part of Edingburgh and often involve knowing the roots of words to better understand them, are perhaps being applied in dangerous ways. And in an age where people judge people who they haven’t met based on what they think they know from a social media profile, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains potent and necessary reading.

Spark’s lecture “The Desegregation of Art,” delivered before a crowd of New York literati on May 26, 1970, offers useful insights into the ambitious gauntlet she felt obliged to throw down as an artist and gives us a sense of what is very much at stake in Brodie. She firmly believed that literature existed to infiltrate and fertilize the mind and denounced any fiction that stood in the way of this lofty artistic goal. If that meant tossing out socially conscious art that was not “achieving its end or illuminating our lives any more,” then this was the price to pay for better art that reflected the depths and thorny hurdles of life. She insisted that “ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left” and believed that addressing wrongs emerged not so much from instant outrage, but through “a more deliberate cunning, a more derisive undermining of what is wrong. I would like to see less emotion and more intelligence in these efforts to impress our minds and hearts.” Much as Spark detested being a victim in her life, she believed that art reveling in victimhood turned readers into oppressors.

So we are left with Brodie as a remarkable volume that fertilizes our minds even as it challenges our own interpretations. Spark’s honorable ridicule in Brodie may very well lie with the way she shrewdly sends up how people are perceived for their failings based on superficial shorthand. And this extends even to the hypnotic allure of Miss Brodie’s own teaching. At one point, Miss Brodie observes that “John Stuart Mill used to rise at dawn to learn Greek at the age of five” and that the teacher herself learned from this lesson. Mill is a particularly funny choice, given that this philosopher was known for utilitarianism and that we are seemingly experiencing a short “utilitarian” novel when we read Brodie. But, of course, we aren’t. For one wants to reread it yet again.

The intrepid literary adventurer plunging forward on a bold bender for real-life inspiration is often viewed with contempt by any practitioner transforming bits of his life into analeptic artistic truth withstanding the test of time. The adventurer shakily balances the author’s complete works like vertiginous trays stacked tall enough to scrape plaster flakes off the ceiling as the letters and the collected marginalia and the autobiographical tidbits are swirled into a overflowing flute by a jittery finger serving as a makeshift cocktail straw. If not written off as a slightly smarter TMZ reporter who has somehow retained the ability to read despite being barraged daily by Harvey Levin’s soul-destroying smile, such an apparent gossipmonger, even if she is cogent enough to know that fictional characters rarely spring from a singular source, is still tarnished as that rakish yenta who reads fiction for the wrong reasons.

As I have ventured further into this years-long Modern Library project, I’ve come around to the daring idea that, for certain sui generis authors (and Muriel Spark is certainly one of them), one may indeed find deeper appreciation in the way they forge art from the people surrounding them. It isn’t so much the schema of who matches up with whom that should concern us, but rather the fascinating way in which characters defy an easily identifiable origin, turning into a form of fictionalized life that feels just as real on the page as any spellbinding life experience. There is a fundamental difference between the novelist who runs out of raw biographical material mid-career, her limited inventive faculties and inherent disconnection with humanity dishearteningly revealed with mediocre and unconvincing and blandly repetitive offerings in late career (see, for example, the wildly overrated Joyce Carol Oates, surely one of the great living literary embarrassments in the early 21st century), and the novelist who seizes the reins of an indefatigable spirit that runs quite giddily to the very end.

For someone like Muriel Spark, who was fiercely protective of her privacy and her public image, this is not necessarily a slam-dunk proposition even when many of the real life details match up. The formidable literary biographer Martin Stannard secured Spark’s reluctant blessing to get his hands dirty on details occluded in Spark’s remarkably opaque autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Stannard, like many before him, pegged Christina Kay, the schoolteacher who taught Spark at the age of twelve, as the predominant inspiration for “the real Miss Jean Brodie.” Both Kay and Brodie insisted that their girls were the “crème de la crème.” Miss Kay also took Spark and her fellow students on great cultural adventures into Edinburgh. Both were keen on Italy and shared a rather clueless interest in Mussolini. (As late as 1979, Spark would insist that Miss Brodie was not a fascist and that Brodie’s admiration for Il Duce had more to do with Benito’s powerful masculinity, as it was perceived in 1930, which leads one to ponder the 53 percent of white women voted for Trump in 2016. Some weaknesses in human perception regrettably endure, despite the best history lessons.)

But much as the great Iris Murdoch regularly transcended reality to achieve jaw-droppingly marvelous art, which she defined as that which “invigorates without consoling,” one finds a similarly spellbinding spirit within Spark’s equally incredible novels. Once you read The Girls of Slender Means, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Memento Mori, The Driver’s Seat, or A Far Cry from Kensington, if you have even the faintest desire of wanting to know how art works, you may find yourself obsessing over just how she was able to put so much into her novels. Ian Rankin, writer of the rightfully well-regarded Rebus novels, found himself precisely in this very position, reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie over and over again over the course of thirty years and always finding new details, even wondering if the titular character was the hero or the villain. (Some of Rankin’s work on Spark when he was pursuing a Ph.D is available online behind a paywall.)

And if you read Brodie, you may very well join us on this pleasantly fanatical quest. We are told at the end, with one of the characters hiding from the truth of how her life has been altered, “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.” And that seemingly innocent notion, in Spark’s nimble hands, is the white whale that turns any reader into Ahab.

Next Up: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop!

The Moral Obligation to Stop and Convert Petty Tyrants

It is nearly impossible to traipse through life without encountering the petty tyrant, that highly annoying passive-aggressive type who carries on through life at such a childish level of emotional maturity that you often have to do everything you can to deny him the power and the attention he so desperately craves. There may be a part of you that very much wants to throttle the petty tyrant, but this is a negative feeling you rightly come to resent because spite and violent fantasies are usually not effective ways to get along with other people. It is a tribute to the petty tyrant’s toxic hold on our culture and his remarkable inflexibility to change that we come to detest tyrants as much as we do. But it really shouldn’t be this way.

We know very well who they are. Petty tyrants often elbow their way into positions of extremely minor authority — such as organizing a group picnic or collecting donations for a beloved peer’s cancer treatment or otherwise setting the tone for how a particular purlieu is perceived — but they can sometimes be so successful and unchecked in their pettiness that they rise to unfathomable power (see Donald Trump, who is now using petty tyranny to bring us closer to the brink of nuclear war). Rather than using their positions to gracefully include everyone, petty tyrants proceed to snub and undermine and exclude within an environment that is often so small that the hurt is somehow both sizeably felt and inconsequential.

Because one often has to endure a petty tyrant’s needlessly exiguous sullies over the course of a sustained period, the petty tyrant’s sting burrows into one’s soul far deeper than it needs to. The petty tyrant’s concatenation of minor slights is not unlike Chinese water torture, matched only by the relentless pings of push notifications purring from one’s phone and the incessant calls to be constantly connected. Small wonder then that the Internet has increasingly become the petty tyrant’s medium of choice. After enduring a petty tyrant’s latest jab, one often has to look in the mirror, take a few deep breaths, remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s cogent maxim, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent,” summon whatever mindfulness there is in the tank, and attempt to assert one’s naturally benign existence as much as possible. Unfortunately, because people tend to believe the word of other people who hold positions of power and we now live in a world in which an altogether different froth rises to the top, the petty tyrant’s influence and sensibilities can swiftly infiltrate a group dynamic, often stubbing out views and opinions that very much need to be considered. (As Margaret Jacobsen observed in Bitch shortly after Trump’s election, “Too often in our society, white women have value while women of color do not.” Let us not forget that white guilt is very much a petty tyranny of its own.)

Petty tyrants are often anti-intellectual. They are almost always convinced that they are infallible and can never be persuaded to change their minds, which is often saturated with a repugnant sense of vague knowingness often misconstrued as expertise. They really believe that their opinion is the only one that matters and are often insufferably absurd figures like the people who host NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, petty tyrants in the midcult mode who truly believe that culture should be made exclusively and only for them. (“I am, by any reasonable measure, a cynical jerk and my taste in pop culture tends to follow that,” revealed Glen Weldon in a recent episode. “But this year, something has changed within me. Something is not the same.” Anyone who has endured Weldon’s narcissistic flippancy for years knows that this is not true. This is a prime example of the petty tyrant who feigns honesty while ultimately practicing an absolutist sensibility that transmutes quite easily into tyranny, a quality not altogether different from a President who will tweet any outlandish and threatening bullshit under the rubric of “blunt honesty” to get people riled up.)

They are usually intolerant of other people for incredibly insignificant reasons and are remarkably petty about it (see, for example, Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s disemvoweling practice from 2008, which has rightly been styled as geek vengeance by Will Shetterly). They can be found on any part of the political spectrum, ranging from the intolerant MAGA booster who will never listen to facts, much less what a progressive has actually said, or the vituperative social justice warrior who would prefer to destroy the life and livelihood of an opponent rather than consider that there may be a peaceful possibility for someone to understand and change. They often have an inflated sense of their own importance, often bolstered through social media, a digital flesh-eating virus that cowardly and unprincipled Quislings like Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone lack the know-how or the gumption to cure. Twitter alone has been responsible for such a colossal wave of petty tyrants that, if one is fortunate enough to not be assailed for one’s vaguely controversial views by a crazed army of trolls, one often has to uninstall Twitter from one’s phone in order to be reminded that face-to-face conversation is not usually like this.

What makes petty tyrants so detestable is the way in which they discourage kindness, peace, understanding, compassion, and forgiveness — in short, the possibility for many different types of people to come together. As Rebecca Solnit smartly observed months before Harvey Weinstein’s exposure ushered in the beginnings of a much needed reckoning, petty tyrants live “in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity…buffered from the consequences of their failures.” Thus, the petty tyrant increasingly operates in a filter bubble of his own making, often clueless about the cruelty and abuse he casually metes out. (Witness Robert Scoble’s remarkably obtuse blog post from last October after he was hit with allegations of sexual harassment. He not only refused to acknowledge his potential complicity, but willfully outed the private details of his victims)

There’s really no easy way that you can win against a petty tyrant. You can be obsequious and you will still be subjected to belittlement. You can politely inform the petty tyrant precisely how you feel about her conduct, but your feelings may never be respected or honored. If you’re a passionate (albeit cautious) idealist with a distinct voice who wants to believe in people like me, the petty tyrant can be the biggest pain in the ass imaginable, an affront against amity and communal possibility causing you to give into the worst aspects of your ego as you take understandable offense and sometimes stop believing in people for a while. Because the tyrant’s offense isn’t just leveled at you, but often a whole category of people who live a particular way or practice relatively benign behavior that the petty tyrant takes inexplicable umbrage against, often because the tyrant subconsciously perceives some of these qualities within herself and doesn’t want to be honest about confronting the pain of recognizing something familiar. And that’s one of the tragedies of petty tyrants. If they weren’t so caught up in tyrannizing other people, they could actually find common ground and evolve and invite more people into their lives. That’s why it’s so important to be as understanding as you can, lest you become a petty tyrant yourself (and I regret to report that I have been a petty tyrant in the past and I am still trying to sort out the differences between emotional sensitivity and unknowing tyranny, both twisted together in a taut double helix that one cannot easily unravel; the hope is that more people can call me on my shit).

But the petty tyrant isn’t all bad. The petty tyrant’s gift is to present you with a perspective about how you are detested, thus giving you a view of flaws you can work on and qualities you may be able to repair so that you may be able to communicate better. Petty tyrants challenge you to love and carry on with your lives, even as it seems the world is burning or it feels as if nobody really cares about the heart or the work that you put out into the universe. If your love tendered towards a petty tyrant can never be reciprocated, there may not be a very compelling reason to invite the petty tyrant into your life. Relationships of any sort must be predicated upon mutual respect, humility, and the ability to listen. There must be true wonder for another that supersedes all egocentric concerns. On the other hand, if you can be in the same room with the petty tyrant and not take offense, perhaps there’s a chance to nullify the tyranny in question.

Still, this is not always possible and it often takes time. You may have to wait many years for the petty tyrant to drop in stature, to be humbled enough through failure and setbacks so that the tyranny becomes thoroughly vanquished from her system. That may very well be the moment when you can offer love and forgiveness. But it’s frustrating. Because what empathetic person doesn’t feel the need for the petty tyrant to change now and become a more wondrous and beautiful person? The greatest problem with tyranny is that it is such a seductive quality, something that can settle and stick inside one’s personality to the point where it becomes almost impossible to disinter it.

Groupthink and the allure of collective humiliation are two qualities that have allowed fascism (and thus petty tyrants) to flourish throughout human history. During the rise of Mussolini, Blackshirts would force enemies to imbibe castor oil, sending them home dripping in their own shit, when not forcing them to defecate upon anything (such as speeches and manifestos) that memorialized their beliefs. The victims were stripped naked, pummeled, and handcuffed to public posts so that all would know how to think. We are not there yet, but we are getting distressingly closer. The recent clamor against vlogger Logan Paul’s insensitivity towards a suicide suggests that we have not yet grown heartless and that the righteous horror that accompanied Lynndie England’s callous photographs from Abu Ghraib has not yet been deracinated from our national conscience.

As such, it is vital for us to remember that petty tyrants in all forms have almost always begetted more sinister tyrants (including Nazis), shimmering quite dangerously into public life. Our unity, which is pivotal if we hope to restore sanity and stability to this country, has become increasingly fractured, its prospects countered by the latest cartoonish developments. Our possibilities as a nation of amazing individuals is being squandered by our insistence that petty tyrants, wherever they may be found, are not that big of a deal. The time has come for us to start becoming more pro-active about stopping petty tyrants, to rightly recognize their behavior as something that is destroying this country. Or maybe we can do better. Why can’t we start making collective attempts to recognize tyrants within our own folds and help those who tyrannize become more aware of how they harm lives, turning their actions into benevolent gestures in which their identities are still respected but the results are more peacefully inclusive? That’s going to require a great deal of patience and strength and commitment from everyone. But what’s the alternative? Letting our nation be subjected to tyranny? Believing the worst in people? Democratic principles have kept America alive, for better or worse, for more than two centuries. It is both a betrayal of our history and our enduring national character to surrender what remains of our unity. Let us believe in and understand and, above all, listen to each other, especially the voices that make us wary. Hope should not merely be a buzz word manufactured by politicians who wish to win elections. It must become a more practiced and truer quality that is more natural to our lives than the easy immolation that comes with accepting and practicing petty tyranny.

Ben Dolnick, Accidental Fascist

Ben Dolnick is the contemporary master of a little-used freelancing device: the willingness to sell your soul for a pittance to draw attention for a forthcoming novel. Dolnick knew that nobody would read his latest book outside of his mother, his ex-girlfriend, the barista who humored his vaguely charming but obnoxious narcissism whenever he ordered a chai latte, and maybe a few former roommates who would buy his latest volume, The Ghost Notebooks, out of pity (and to prevent Dolnick, a resolute promoter-cum-novelist, from barraging them with endless texts urging them to attend every Dolnick reading within easy access of the L line).

Dolnick had written four previous books, which not many people had read outside of fatigued bookstore clerks who were obliged to read everything written by anyone who wrote and lived in the Brooklyn area. They rightly resented yet another ho-hum 300 page offering from another goddam white dude. “Haven’t these white men had their time?” they asked themselves. And some of them were white. And some of them were men. But it was not self-hatred that motivated their ennui, but rather the sense that something was severely missing within the publishing ecosystem. All who read in New York had become quite exhausted by the limitless and often superficial chronicles of white men so abundantly championed and repugnantly propped up as True Literature for many decades, even when the goods rarely matched the hype. Even though the VIDA warriors had exposed the bankrupt patriarchal bias that had fueled the publishing industry for far too many years, white males were still being published. But none of these bookstore clerks had ever encountered the likes of Ben Dolnick! Ben Dolnick would show them all that he was a white male novelist who mattered! Even though he had nothing much to say at all. Ben Dolnick would show them all that flip and superficial views on humankind still demanded a vast readership!

Faced with declining sales on his previous books, Dolnick considered changing his name to Jonathan, but was advised by his agent that this was not a good idea, as the literary world was quite fatigued with Jonathans in general. The Jonathans had stopped winning awards in recent years, although there were certain older men who believed that it was still 1962 who still wrote highly of them in the papers of record, even when the books in question still portrayed women as little more than one-dimensional doormats. With this intelligence, Dolnick adopted a winning strategy! He sought a blurb from Jonathan Safran Foer, believing that a hastily written sentence from this insufferable draw could win him the mass readership for which he had rightly toiled! Did not the fruits of his pen count for something? Surely, it must! For he had nothing else. He was a bespectacled white man in his mid-thirties who looked pretty much like any other bespectacled white male writer in Brooklyn and he possessed a Weltanschauung that was virtually indistinguishable from any other bespectacled white male writer in Brooklyn. It was tough, really tough, being a bespectacled white male writer in Brooklyn. Dolnick, possessing little more than a generic look and a generic oeuvre, was in need of a new way to get his generic ideas and his generic fiction –most important fiction of our age! – into the hands of new readers.

Dolnick had a contact at The New York Times. They had just published an offensively superficial article on a Nazi written by a white male. Superficial articles about fascist white males written by white males were now the Gray Lady’s bread and butter. It aggravated people on Twitter and was a cheap tactic to keep the New York Times in the headlines. But Dolnick saw an opportunity! He cast aside his half-hearted liberalism (Who had he voted for in the last election? Dolnick could not recall.) and summoned his shaky understanding of Buddhism and pitched the valiant editors at The New York Times‘s Opinion page. Donald Trump! That would be the way in. Being a novelist, he did not have an especially deep or nuanced view about the political situation. He had never attended a rally. At times, it was difficult for him to identify the political party of a particular Senator, even when the television flashed those little Rs and Ds. Could they stand for something else? He knew many businesses that had R&D budgets and he did not know what this meant. Still, blindly stumbling into a situation had never stopped Dolnick before! He was a novelist! And novelists were supposed to imagine!

Dolnick knew little about Trump other than that the President was fond of red baseball caps, allcaps tweets, and was fond of referring to himself in the third person. Perhaps he could empathize with Trump by spending his time referring to himself in the third person. He did not have time to reread Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, but he dimly recalled a chapter on the banality of tense. Trusting his infallible white male memory, and not bothering to vet his ideas with his friends, Dolnick progressed anew with the trajectory of his article. He thought of innocuous metaphorical parallels. Baby pandas! Buddhism! Yes, this would win the doubters over! He began to write his article with relish. The words flowed fast. After 400 words, he took a break to rub one out and, after he had relieved himself, he came up with the phrase “Uniqlo-clad lump of meat.” Brilliant! That would show the world that he was more than just a superficial bespectacled white male writer from Brooklyn!

Dolnick had never seen Donald Trump as an enlightened figure before. But as he wrote the final paragraphs of his article, his pants saddled around his pale white legs like an old worn blanket waiting to be donated to Goodwill, Dolnick realized just how easy it was to sell his soul and how malleable his perspective could be. He could treat a man that most of the nation had perceived as a pathological liar and a dangerous madman and an illiterate speaker as a trusted friend, the trusted friend who would help move a few units of The Ghost Notebooks. For hawking books was the novelist’s new Faustian bargain these days. And who would actually care? The editors at the Times, much to Dolnick’s delight, signed on enthusiastically for Dolnick’s hot take – and Dolnick had certainly been quite hot and warm with himself during the act of writing. They slapped Dolnick on the back and said to themselves, “Dolnick, my man! You are a genius! This is the stuff of journalism!” And as more Muslims were banned from entering the United States, and as the middle-class was further eroded with another hastily passed act of legislation, Dolnick smiled, looked into the mirror, and took in the moment of blissfully ignorant Zen. If you were white, male, bespectacled, and living in Brooklyn, you could pretty much publish anything you wanted, even if you knew nothing whatsoever about the topic you were writing about.

A Bright Shining Lie (Modern Library Nonfiction #84)

(This is the seventeenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: West with the Night.)

Young scrappy soldiers came to walk the villages and the jungles and the ricepaddies from all hopeful parts of America, itching to step into boots that matched the size and the bravery of their heroic fathers. They hungered to prove their manhood and their patriotism even as their spirits dwindled and their moral core dissipated as it became common knowledge that Vietnam was an unwinnable war. They came home in dishonor and disgrace, losers who had sacrificed their bodies and minds and souls in the name of failed American exceptionalism, and they were left to rot by their government and sometimes by their fellow citizens.

Much as the shellshocked men in World War I returned to their native soil facing similar indifference to their trauma and their pain, as memorably chronicled in Richard Aldington’s brutally mordant novel Death of a Hero, the men who served in Vietnam learned that the best years of their lives had been little more than a cruel joke, even when they defended napalm-soaking sorties that burned vast horrifying holes into villages and hospitals and fields and homes and schools that happened to be situated near a hopped up Huey often manned by a pilot who was losing his mind. Their collective shellshock was as commonplace as heartbreak and many dozen times more devastating. The Vietnam vets, who were all very brave and worthy of the same valor afforded the Greatest Generation (but never received their due), suffered PTSD and traumatic injuries and severe psychological damage. Every day of their lives after the war was a new battle against painful inner turmoil that spread to their families and their friends and their loved ones, stretching well beyond the poisoned polyester of the flapping American flag itself. It seemed that nobody wanted to hear their stories, much less any news about the one million civilians and Viet Cong soldiers who were slaughtered above the 17th parallel or the estimated 741,000 who died below it or the 312,000 people who died by direct order of various governments or the 273,000 Cambodians and the 62,000 Laotians.

They all died, and none of them needed to, because the conflict had escalated through the foggy hubris of war and the dogged jingoism of three U.S. Presidents and the exacting Pentagon number crunchers who believed they could will their analytical acumen into a guaranteed victory even when the truth was fudged and altered and far too frequently ignored and contemned. For all the Pentagon’s professed understanding, the imperious powers that be could not comprehend that the massive influx of American supplies would be plundered and reused by resourceful Viet Cong soldiers with a very long memory of history who learned how to take out Bell UH-1 helicopters and M-113 armored personnel carriers from the ground. They carried out the strategic hamlet program without providing basic needs to the very villagers who were supposed to be their allies. Most disastrously, the American interventionists severely underestimated the damage that the Ngo Dinh Diem regime was doing to South Vietnamese loyalty, culminating in the Buddhist Crisis of 1963, which persecuted religion in a manner shockingly similar to ongoing present-day American indignities against Muslims.

Somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.5 million people died in the Vietnam War. That’s close to the entire population of Chicago or the total population of Jamaica. It is the entire population of Nebraska. It is the combined population of Wyoming, Vermont, Washington D.C., and Alaska. It is the combined population of Iceland, Fiji, and Cyprus. It is a staggering and heartbreaking sum by any stretch of the imagination that should cause any human being to stop in his tracks and ponder how so much bloodshed could happen. Those who would blithely dismiss the study of all this as a priapic man’s game to keep close tabs on some completely insignificant item of celebrity gossip usually cannot comprehend the full scale of such unfathomable devastation and our duty to closely examine history so that such a bewildering bloodbath never happens again. And yet, even with the strong reception of Ken Burns’s recent documentary, the Vietnam War remains one of those subjects that Americans do not want to talk about, even when it epitomizes the toxic mix of Yankee Doodle Vanity, bureaucratic shortsightedness, savage masculinity, unchecked hypocrisy, credibility gaps, imperialist dishonesty, and cartoonish escalation of resources — all pernicious checkboxes that still mark American policy today.

We wouldn’t know of this American complicity without the invaluable work of reporters like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, who were raw and young and brash and sometimes foolhardy in their dispatches. It was undoubtedly their dogged free-wheeling approach, a fierce pursuit of journalistic truth that is unthinkable to such useless and unfathomably gullible New York Times company men like Richard Fausset and Peter Baker today, which caused Americans to ask questions of the war and that eventually led Daniel Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers (which Sheehan himself would later acquire for the New York Times in 1971). The quest for understanding, especially in the conflict’s early years, proved just as intoxicating to these sleep-deprived and overworked journos as it did to the soldiers who kept coming back for further tours of duty. All wondered why common sense had been so rashly and cheaply capitulated.

Sheehan and Halberstam followed in the footsteps of such famous war reporters as Francois Sully, Homer Bigart, Malcolm Browne, and Horst Faas. (William Prochnau’s book Once Upon a Distant War is an excellent and vivacious account of this period, although not without its minor liberties. A 1988 Neil Sheehan profile that Prochnau wrote for The Washington Post, offering some useful carryover material for his book, is also available online.) The two men arrived in Vietnam separately in 1962. They had both attended Harvard, but had arrived at the hallowed university through altogether different routes. Sheehan came from a working-class Irish background and lucked out with a scholarship. By the time Sheehan arrived in Saigon, he was a reformed alcoholic and a tortured man who had learned the fine art of carving extra hours out of any day, a talent he had honed while running a dairy farm as a kid. Sheehan worked for the penny-pinching UPI wire service and, much as a contemporary journalist is expected to write, shoot and cut video, and preserve his crisp telegenic form if he wishes to hold onto his job, he was often responsible for logistics extending well beyond the writing and transmission of copy.

Halberstam was a tall and lanky man from a middle-class Jewish background, but decidedly brasher than Sheehan. His trenchant reporting of civil rights struggles in the South attracted the notice of The New York Times‘s James Reston. Halberstam was a formidable if slipshod workhorse, banging out thousands of words per day that often had to be shoehorned into coherent shape by the exasperated Times team. But Halberstam’s reporting in the Congo was strong and gallant enough to land him in Saigon.

Sheehan and Halberstam would become friends and roommates, working very long days and often falling asleep at their typewriters. They chased any source that led them to demystify the war, but they were both seduced by a man named John Paul Vann, who became the subject of Sheehan’s journalistic masterpiece, A Bright Shining Lie. Halberstam would write two books from his Vietnam experience: The Making of a Quagmire, a short and useful 1965 volume that faded into obscurity within a decade, and The Best and the Brightest, a juicy and detailed top-down account of bureaucratic blunder that Stephen Bannon even pushed onto every member of the Trump transition team in February 2017 (as reported by the New York Times‘s Marc Tracy). But Neil Sheehan, who carried on with a quieter and more methodical approach than Halberstam’s gigantic and flagrant “us vs. them” style, rightly decided that more time and considerable rumination and careful reporting was the way in. He wisely believed that John Vann was the key to understanding American involvement and the mentality behind it. The book would consume sixteen years of Sheehan’s life. And for all the anguish that Sheehan suffered through that long and painful period, we are incredibly lucky to have it.

John Vann was a wildly energetic colonel from Norfolk, Virginia who could survive on four hours of sleep and sometimes none at all. He had built a military career on the “Vann luck.” He would willfully fly aircraft through a suicidal fusillade of fire and drive down dangerous roads that were known to be mined and patrolled by the Viet Cong. He would miraculously survive. Like Robert McNamara, he was very certain of how to win the war. But unlike McNamara, Vann did not rely on problematic data, but rather the know-how of knowing people and the pragmatic logistics that he picked up from his experience in the battlefield, often talking with and distributing candy to the South Vietnamese citizens suffering under the Diem regime. It was through such gestures that Vann avoided a few attempts on his life. Vann was savvy enough to court the trust and admiration of reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam pining for a few dependable truth bombs, to the point where the reporters pooled in their resources to buy him an engraved cigarette box when Vann left Vietnam the first time. But Vann would find a way back a few years later as an Agency for International Development official. He portrayed himself as a scrappy underdog whose candid bluster had prevented him from advancing to general, whose near twenty years of service and bravery and experience had simply not been heeded. But the truth of his checkered life, carefully concealed from many who knew him, told the real story.

Sheehan is both sensitive and meticulous in telling Vann’s take. We cannot help but admire Vann’s dogged work ethic and charisma in the book’s first section, as we see Vann attempting to bring the ARVN (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese army known to recklessly attack insurgents under Diem) together with the then comparatively diminutive American presence in an attempt to win the war. Vann hoped to train the ARVN to better fight against the guerillas, but faced indifference from Huỳnh Văn Cao, an AVRN colonel to whom Vann was appointed an adviser. Cao often liked to don the bluster of a general. We see Vann being kind to the common soldiers, whether peasants or seasoned regulars, but we also see Vann as an egomaniac willing to overstep his rank to get results. One of Vann’s guides to negotiating the tricky turmoil of Vietnam was a 1958 novel called The Ugly American, which depicted American diplomats in a fictitious nation named Sarkhan that proved incredibly arrogant towards the culture, customs, and language of the people. The book would inspire Kennedy so much that he had sent copies of the book to every American Senator. (The Peace Corps would later become a Kennedy campaign talking point turned into a reality.) Vann would take an altogether different lesson from the book in attempting to turn Cao to his side by appealing to his ego and by flattering him. But in practice, Vann’s benign puppeteering as military command could result in disaster, such as a July 20, 1962 battle in the lower delta, in which Cao resisted Vann’s efforts to load helicopters with a second reserve to prevent Viet Cong soldiers from escaping by flatly declining the request. Such stalling allowed the Viet Cong more opportunities to pluck American ordnance, transforming .50 caliber machine guns into antiaircraft weapons through tireless ingenuity.

This communicative combativeness between the Americans and the ARVN would reach its nadir with the Battle of Ab Pac, which is one of the most gripping sections of Sheehan’s book. Vann would watch helplessly from a L-19 Bird Dog surveiling the battlefield as the AVRN delayed sending troops, not knowing that the Viet Cong had intercepted radio transmissions using stolen American equipment. This allowed the Viet Cong to strike hard and accurately against task forces that were effectively separated and caught adrift, leaving them open to attack. The American Hueys disregarded Vann’s orders and were hit by the Viet Cong. Vann, whose domineering tone could be off-putting, was unable to send M-113 carriers across the canals to save the remaining soldiers and reinforce the territory. Vann, increasingly desperate and flustered by the ARVN’s recalcitrance in advancing, approached Captain Ly Tong Ba, the ARVN man holding up support who said that he refused to take Americans, and ordered Robert Bays to “shoot that rotten, cowardly son of a bitch right now and move out.” The battle became the Viet Cong’s first major victory.

By presenting the facts in this manner, Sheehan leaves us with many lingering questions. Was Vann a somewhat more informed version of American interventionist arrogance? Was American might, in Vann’s obdurate form, needed to atone for serious deficiencies from Diem and the ARVN? Even if the ARVN had permitted the Americans to have more of a commanding hand, would not the Viet Cong have eventually secured a victory comparable to Ab Pac? Even at this stage in the book, Vann remains strangely heroic and we can sympathize with his frustration. But in allowing us to vicaroiusly identify with Vann, Sheehan slyly implicates the reader in the desire to win by any means necessary.

And then Sheehan does something rather amazing in his portrait of Vann. In a section entitled “Taking on the System,” he broadens the scope to the soldiers and the command contending with Vann’s aggressiveness (while likewise exposing the hubris of civilian leadership under McNamara, along with the bomb-happy pacification strategy of Victor Krulak and the foolhardy optimism of MACV commander Paul Harkins). And we begin to see that the Vietnam quagmire, like any intense battle for victory and power, was absolutely influenced by strong and truculent personalities, which young reporters like Halberstam and Sheehan were rightfully challenging. Unable to get the top dogs to understand through meetings and communiques, Vann began to weaponize the press against Harkin’s reality distortion field — this as the Diem regime’s increasing persecution of the Buddhists revealed the vast fissures cracking into South Vietnamese unity. Sheehan begins to insert both Halberstam and himself more into the narrative. With Vann now retired from the Army, we are rightly left to wonder if he was indeed as indispensable as many believed him to be.

But then Sheehan backtracks to Vann’s past. And we begin to see that he had been living a lie. He pulled himself from an impoverished Virginian upbringing, where he was an illegitimate child raised by a wanton alcoholic mother, and married a respectable woman named Mary Jane. But while stationed as an Army officer, he cultivated a taste for underage girls and hushed up both his numerous affairs and the allegations, even persuading Mary Jane to lie for him during a court-martial for statutory rape and adultery while also training himself to pass a lie detector test. While stationed in Vietnam the second time, Vann could not control his sexual appetite. He carried on numerous affairs, devoting his attentions quite ardently with two mistresses who were half his age, one of whom had his child, and keeping the two women largely in the dark about each other for a sustained period. His predatory behavior presents itself as a bigger lie more unsettling than the Harkin-style prevarications that resulted in needless deaths.

In the end, the “Vann luck” could not hold out. His death in 1972, at least as portrayed by Sheehan, is almost anticlimactic: the result of a helicopter crashing into a series of trees. As Vietnam changed and the American presence grew with unmitigated enormity, Vann’s apparent know-how could not penetrate as an AID commander, even though Sheehan depicts Vann having many adventures.

A Bright Shining Lie isn’t just an epic history of Vietnam. It also reveals the type of conflicted and deeply flawed American personality that has traditionally been allowed to rise to the top, influencing key American decisions, for better or worse. I read the book twice in the last year and, particularly in relation to Vann’s obstinacy and his abuse of women, I could not help but see Donald Trump as a more cartoonish version of Vann’s gruff and adamantine bluster. But the present landscape, as I write these words near the end of 2017, a year that has carried on with an endless concatenation of prominent names revealed as creeps and abusers of power, is now shifting to one where a masculine, wanton, and ultimatum-oriented approach to command is no longer being tolerated. And yet, even after war has devastated a nation through such a temperament, it is possible for those who are ravaged by violence to be forgiving. In 1989, Sheehan returned to Vietnam for two profiles published in The New Yorker (these are collected in the volume After the War Was Over). In his trip to North Vietnam, Sheehan is baffled by the farmers and the villagers showing no bad blood to Americans:

I encountered this lack of animosity everywhere we went in the North and kept asking for an explanation. The first offered was that the Vietnamese had never regarded the entire American people as their enemy. The American government — “the imperialists” — had been the enemy; other Americans, particularly the antiwar protesters, had been on the Vietnamese side. This did not seem explanation enough for people like the farmer on the road to Lang Son. He had suffered dearly at the hands of Americans who had not been an abstract “imperialist” entity. One afternoon in a village near Haiphong, when Susan and I were with Tran Le Tien, our other guide-interpreter, we were received with kindness by a family who lost a son in the South. On the way back home onto Hanoi I said to Tien that thee had to be more to this attitude than good Americans versus bad Americans. “It’s the wars with China,” Tien said. I decided he was right.

In other words, the enemy in war is the one that has most recently caused the greatest devastation. While the North Vietnamese’s forgiving character is quite remarkable in light of the casualties, perhaps it’s also incumbent upon all nations to be on the lookout for the character flaws in failed men who lead us into failed wars so that nothing like this ever has to happen again. Men do not have all the answers they often claim to possess, even when they look great on paper.

Next Up: Lawrence Gowing’s Vermeer!

The Limits of Moral Depravity (NaNoWriMo #9)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: The Intake (Chapter 8)

Six years before, Dottie and I were sitting on the black leather couch as the television blared and the anchors tried to make incantatory sense of the madness the world was welcoming. There had been another mass shooting. The worst in American history. Just like the others had been the worst in American history. 426 people had been shot in Atlanta over the course of three hours. It had been three white men this time. The lone gunmen were learning that they didn’t have to be so alone. Even after this, and many other deadly sprees, the calls for gun control had fallen upon deaf opportunistic ears. Atlanta had seemed the tipping point, the one awful tragedy that would finally get America to wake up. This was all before the Virginia Massacre turned such discussions into reductio ad absurdum.

“Even children,” she said. “Innocent children.”

“We have to stop this.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Electing the right people. Holding them accountable.”

“That didn’t work. We tried. And they won. And they will go on winning.”

“Don’t be so cynical. It won’t continue like this. People have limits.”

“Do they?”

“Maybe there’s a certain point where people will put their feet down. I mean, you couldn’t kill anyone, right?”

“No. And neither could you.”

“Or could we?”

“What?”

“Under certain circumstances, we could kill.”

“But neither of us believe in the death penalty.”

“When a soldier returns from war, he is considered a hero. Nobody asks him how many men he’s killed. His service is honored, even though he has committed murder that most people would overlook. Because the murder occurs beneath the shadow of warfare.”

“That’s different. Most soldiers know what they sign on for. They die. They sacrifice their bodies for us if they’re lucky to live.”

“Yes, and we leave the vets in the cold. But let’s say every vet had a number attached to his name. A number that reflected just how many men that he killed in battle.”

“Come on. That could never happen.”

“Just hear me out. I mean, we are shifting to a more quantified world. Would a number appended to the name of a vet change your opinion about him? Would you give Joseph Richter 4 a more preferential treatment than Herbert West 17?”

“But that could never happen.”

“Let’s say that it did.”

“I’d probably be bothered a little by it. Or maybe I’d do my best to ignore the number.”

“But you can’t. Let’s say that the vets have to walk around with the number affixed to their foreheads. So you would see just how many men they have killed. It would be a little bit like The Scarlet Letter, but you’d have to see these men buy their groceries, work out in the gym, or on the subway.”

“It would be unnerving at first. But maybe I could get used to it. Even though I’d try to stay away from the vets with the largest number.”

“But could you actually visualize these deaths? It’s not unlike going to the meat market. You walk into the store. You get your meat wrapped up in plastic. But you have no idea how the animals were slaughtered or what their pain might have been because you’re too busy marinating the meat for a tasty dinner.”

“Come on, Alex. My rack of lamb was pretty damn good.”

“And so was the taste for blood among some of these men. They might have butchered children for all you know. Is a child’s death worse than a man’s?”

She turned off the television just as two pundits were screaming at the top of their lungs, very close to getting into a fistfight.

“Yes.”

“But it’s still a whole number. A child’s death is tallied without weight onto the vet’s forehead.”

“You know, I’ve had about enough of this. I know that Atlanta is depressing and I know that we need to watch just to stay informed. But can’t we just switch off?”

“What if one of the men that a vet killed was your brother? Or the love of your life?”

“Alex.”

“And you ran into the vet with the number on his forehead. It would be more than a whole number, wouldn’t it?”

“But this would never happen.”

“Don’t you think a few people might have said that right before the Middle Ages?”

“It’s not over, Alex. We could still get them to listen.”

“Or maybe we could move to Canada or New Zealand.”

“We have to fight this. We must fight this. I mean, we’re never going to turn into animals, are we?”

“No.”

14002 / 50000 words. 28% done!