- I Sing the Body Politic: History as Prophecy in Contemporary American Literature
As the book’s subtitle indicates, this collection of essays examines various recent works of U.S. literature (and film) that grapple with that country’s history in order to interrogate its current political predicaments. Surveying novels by Phillip Roth and Joseph Heller, memoirs of the Vietnam, Gulf, and Iraq wars, and films by Spike Lee and Michael Moore, the collection’s authors argue that the visions of the American past found in these works are to be understood as activist briefs meant to reshape the American future.
This argument is best fulfilled by Michael Zeitlin’s thoughtful contribution on “the ways that the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the Iraq War are bound up in complex webs of American cultural memory and historical repetition” (86). Zeitlin shows how fictions about the Vietnam War came to serve as interpretive lenses through which soldiers in the later wars understood their experiences. Zeitlin plays on both senses of “fiction” here, discussing feature films about the Vietnam War as well as the ideological fictions about that conflict that continue to shape contemporary U.S. political discourse. The Vietnam veteran occupies an especially vexed location in these fictions: the veterans who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd) upon their return illustrated the costs of the U.S.’s military aggression on its own soldiers, many of whom became radical critics of the war and of U.S. imperialism as a whole. Yet, as Zeitlin notes, the association in the popular mind of Vietnam vets with ptsd often served to delegitimize their political activism—marking it as the ravings of the mentally ill—while the damage done to these men by U.S. military policy was effaced by the (spurious) urban legend that claimed that soldiers were spat upon by anti-war activists. In this fiction, it was the anti-war movement, not the U.S. government, that mistreated the vets—a mistreatment that could thus only be rectified by waging new wars that could be won via overwhelming firepower and by a domestic politics that labeled any dissent from these wars as a failure to “support our troops.” Zeitlin explores the ways in which memoirs from veterans of the Gulf and Iraq wars engaged with the complex legacy of the Vietnam vet, redeeming the latter’s military service with their own, feeling guilt over the heroes’ welcome they received (and that the Vietnam vets did not), and fearing that the trauma of warfare will shatter their lives just as it did those of a previous generation [End Page 239] of soldiers. In these recent veteran memoirs, as Zeitlin artfully puts it, “the figure of the Vietnam vet encodes a painful recognition struggling unsuccessfully to negate itself” (94).
Unfortunately, the other essays in this collection do not engage their chosen cultural artefacts and historical questions with this level of aesthetic and political insight. Take, for example, editor Peter Swirski’s discussion of Joseph Heller’s Picture This. Describing Heller’s ungainly novel as one that “clothes Periclean Athens and the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic in rich historical robes and compares their rise and fall with the state of the American union,” Swirski is quick to point out that Heller is “too canny a historian and satirist to close his eyes to the differences among these three superpowers” (49). Yet Swirski’s essay quickly closes its own eyes to these differences—at one point lashing out against “hypocrisy that has changed not one iota in twenty-five centuries” (61)—while largely using Heller’s novel merely as an opportunity to launch into a series of critiques of recent U.S. government actions. It is not so much that these invectives against U.S. policy are mistaken; it is rather that they are not news to anyone who has picked up a copy of The Nation over the past thirty years. Meanwhile, the essay has little to say...