- In the Neighborhood of Zero: A World War I Memoir
For the many academics familiar with William V. Spanos’ theoretical work—with its focus on Heidegger and the attendant intertwining of that legacy in the postmodern era—Spanos’ first memoir, perhaps counter-intuitively, does not strike with the force of one of the famed German philosopher’s lightning bolts.
Rather, this narrative of young-soldier Spanos’ harrowing involvement in the Battle of the Bulge, his experiences as a POW witness to the firebombing of Dresden, and his immediate postwar wanderings in a “zero zone” where identity and nationality dissolve and then reform, attempts to undo much of the electricity characterizing the received perceptions on “The Greatest Generation.” The preface, contextualizing the larger history of his own work and the reasons to present this story now, offers this polemic:
[This memoir] is not, therefore, intended to be “objective,” simply another of the numerous narratives of that “good war” written by the official custodians of the American national memory or by the ventriloquized American veterans who have contributed to the longevity of the exceptionalist mythology of the American national identity.(xii)
Spanos covers territory familiar to most critics of American foreign policy, while also linking to the longer narrative of America’s “special” quality that he finds embedded into everything from the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the Great Awakening to Tom Brokaw to Ken Burns (The War ) to the [End Page 389] current war on terror in the post-9/11 political climate. The preface further locates Dresden as a central-if-largely-hidden event in Spanos’ later academic work, acknowledging that those works (i.e., Heidegger and Criticism: Retrieving the Cultural Politics of Deconstruction ), theoretical in a way that might remain obscure to the casual reader of Zero, have become merely prefatory to this text:
Only now, in the twilight of my life, after many years of obsessively teaching and writing around this singular and unspeakable event… have I been able to do away with the scaffolding that has cluttered everything I have written.(xv)
To this end, the main narrative (dis)locates the young Spanos as outsider, ethnically Greek, kept at a distance from his fellow high school students and later the “Americans” that populate his Army units (“I couldn’t repress the nauseating feeling that I didn’t belong to this company, even though I was a part of it. ‘A-part,’ I kept saying…”).
The local awkwardness of pre-combat military life gives way to what may be the narrative’s perhaps most controversial claim, regarding the Battle of the Bulge: “I saw flickering there in the corner of the eye of my mind the cliché ‘cannon fodder,’ now, however, de-sedimented into an image of mangled young corpses piled atop each other in a lurid, blood red landscape” (42).
This suggestion, that military commanders deliberately sacrificed the 106th Division, fits with the larger critique of America’s motivations during the siege of Dresden. The young Spanos instinctively recoils from the firebombing, even as a number of his fellow POWs rejoice, perhaps characteristically, in this battering of the enemy. When his fellow captives savagely beat one of their own who had been caught stealing food rations from the others—and attempt to make all the prisoners participate—the larger critique again surfaces:
And wasn’t it ironic that this form of punishment took precisely the form that, in the eyes of almost all modern Americans, their ancestors had claimed distinguished “our” civilization from the savagery of the barbarians they had vanquished in the beginning?(89)
This criticism, that the narratives of The Greatest Generation and the “just war” evaporate on the ground, might suggest to the skeptical reader not that American is blameless in its war policy or even righteously correct in a larger context, but that Spanos-the-young-solider is so clearly inflected with what they identified as otherness, PTSD, and an admittedly humorless perspective that the vehemence of his critique weakens for having no basis beyond the subjectivity of...