October 06, 2008

Of Napalm and Collective Memory

This has nothing to do with sports or leisure. I was reading Uwe Johnson's Jahrestage, a story that is told like a diary over the course of one year, August 1967 to August 1968. Everyday the protagonist reads snippets from The New York Times; just random news from the front page, usually about the "conflict" in Vietnam or the "Negro riots." I wanted to translate this particular one for you, because it mentions John McCain. And it brings up an issue that no one mentions these days: the fact that McCain was conducting a napalm air raid when he was shot down.

Background: Johnson's Jahrestage is a 1,800-page tome released in four volumes in 1971, 1973, 1975, and 1985. The English translation by Helen Wolff, Anniversaries, was released in two parts in 1975 and 1987. It's abridged and doesn't include any information for the day I'm translating here (the English translation leaves out a lot of the news snippets that the protagonist reads in The Times - maybe it's a copyright issue). The main character is an East German defector who lives in New York with her daughter, reads the "Auntie Times" everyday, and thinks about a new way, thinks about the past, and thinks and thinks and thinks some more.

October 28, 1967 Saturday
John Sidney McCain III was shot down over Hanoi. In July he had witnessed the fire aboard the aircraft carrier Forrestal. After he had seen, in his words, 'what the explosions and napalm had done to our men on the ship, I'm not so sure that I would ever be able to drop the stuff over North Viet Nam myself.' But he was doing just that and Radio Hanoi reported his capture yesterday.

The rest of October 28, 1967, is spent with the main character Gesine reading about a memory experiment conducted at Princeton in which the participants demonstrated the ease of forgetting. As for our collective memory, it seems we have forgotten a lot ourselves. No one talks about napalm raids anymore. Only war heroes.


grainne proinseas said...

This is interesting. Makes me think of the various subtle forms of courage....moral responsibility...not just knowing the truth of the moral questions in the system but acting on your awareness. How many missed opportunities and moments of weakness McCain has had...seeing what Napalm does and knowing that blanketing Vietnam in it was criminal, but doing it anyway. experiencing torture himself and knowing that it is criminal, objecting to it for years, and then just in the last few months dropping his objections to torture for political gain.
It seems to me there are some larger questions at play here, which are relevant to all of us. the question of personal moral responsibility when one is positioned in a bureaucracy or a hierarchy in which one is expected to take orders, perform in a certain way in order to maintain a career trajectory or to maintain the favor of superiors.McCain dropped napalm because he was following orders, as a "good soldier" is supposed to. but if you have a choice between being a "good soldier" and staying right with your own moral concience, even if it comes with a dishonorable discharge, perhaps you should consider making the choice to disobey orders. (There is also the choice John Kerry made, which is sort of a middle ground- serve, maybe do or witness some things you don't feel great about, and THEN become a vocal critic of the criminal policies you've seen firsthand...can you really have it both ways?). My grandfather was a bomber pilot in WWII, and it fucked him up for the rest of his life to know that the bombs he had dropped over Germany may have killed innocent people. There are consequences, I think- there have to be consequences- to your sense of the continuity of your own personality...in a way you'd have to trust yourself a little less or feel like you didn't know yourself as well as you though you did- if you knew you had muzzled your own concience and perhaps committed a crime as a result.

but then there is also this point about the ease of forgetting. Does that mean pushing it into the subconcious? because nothing is truly forgotten. it just ceases to be actively acknowledged and actively integrated into daily life.

This is the weirdest thing to me about our nation of short attention spans. Everything in the present is a result of the past, but hardly anyone can remember or keep a grasp on the past. So much of what is in front of our face baffles us because we are unfamiliar with history. our history is the key that decodes our present...if only we knew how to read and use the key.

ß. Andrigon said...

The napalm angle could be a great left-wing smear, but I'm not sure who to forward it to to make it go viral.