Steven Mcgregor

War is not to be envied

War is not to be envied
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Donald Anderson is a former US Air Force Colonel and current professor of English Literature at the US Air Force Academy. His new book, Gathering Noise from my Life: A Camouflaged Memoir, is a controlled crash, like all landings. It skips and judders, the wheels skidding across the tarmac, until finally the plane is at rest. One line aphorisms such as, ‘William Burroughs was for thieving and against paraphrasing altogether,’ are followed by paragraphs which, every so often, glide into anecdotes mingling observations of war with memories of a small town upbringing in Butte, Montana.

Given a setting in which rugged individualism is a generational mantle, it is not surprising that much of the ‘camouflaged’ memoir is about Anderson’s relationship with both his Dad and the more shadowy figure of his Grandfather:

‘When my father was a kid, he watched his father defeat a local tough. In a ring in the Butte Civic Center, my grandfather stepped through the ropes in his work shoes and stripped off his shirt. He wore long pants and a belt. Gloved-up, he took more than he gave, then one-eyed – one eye punched shut- jockeyed a right that knocked a fighter called Dixie LaHood senseless. In the center of the Depression, my grandfather stepped out of the ring, barechested, took his shirt and earnings, then walked home with my father, his son. How many chances like that does a father have?’

The legacy for Anderson is one where violence is impressive, a mixture of determination and luck, and it forges enduring relationships. His father was a devout Mormon and a safety engineer at the Mountain Con mine. ‘Because of his damaged eye, my father served… in copper mines in Montana. The loss of battle in World War II always seemed to me a galling and double privation…he not only lost his best friend, he also missed his one good chance for war — grinding for a man who did not dodge fights or forget friends.’

Yet Anderson forsakes this inheritance. During a mission to France, only described in snippets, he finds Mormonism of no use. And then the terrifying violence of Vietnam, experienced from the sidelines, destroys his notions about being tough.  Whatever residue of rugged individualism that remained was gutted, literally, when Anderson had to have a colostomy.

‘In 1987, I began suffering abdominal cramps of the serious sort. At the time a committed long-distance runner, I convinced my physician that what I was experiencing was an exercise-induced electrolyte imbalance. He prescribed packets I poured into water bottles. Medically trained, he counseled more fruits and vegetables…. On Memorial Day, my intestine burst.’

The irony, presumably understated intentionally, is that this disembowelment occurs on the Day of Remembering the Fallen.

Whatever one thinks of the sympathetic link between these two, perhaps unrelated events, we have touched down in Anderson’s life and finally slowed to a stop. The pain is suddenly real, unavoidable. This is contrasted with the listing of war crimes that causes Gathering Noise to veer out of control, skipping from one act of violence to the next. ‘Sixteen thousand Cambodians perished in Tuol Sleng. There are 14 known survivors,’ is one line that hangs by itself. Or another: ‘2,100,000 people died during the siege of Stalingrad.’ Testimony given during investigation of the My Lai Massacre is filtered throughout: ‘…Calley had two Vietnamese with him at this time and he killed them, too, by shooting them with his M16 rifle on automatic fire. I didn’t want to get involved and I walked away. There was no reason for this killing. These were mainly women…’ The question asked by the reader is how did we get from here to there — from small town Montana to Vietnam and beyond? Anderson implies there are connections (nationhood, comradeship, the simple grouping of friend versus enemy) but there is a feeling that nothing unifies either the memoir or our culture’s scattered wreckage.

The cataloguing, the eclecticism in Anderson’s memoir would seem to be part of a much-needed catharsis. And we sympathize with Anderson who is caught amid these strange contradictions — for these are the very problems we face when confronted with the ongoing violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gathering Noise offers no resolution. And in some ways the problem is only worsened as Anderson’s continual focus on war has a numbing effect. Statistics from the Dresden Firebombing, the nuclear attack on Japan, and the lengthy quoting of My Lai testimony, are spliced together with notes on literature and boxing. Taken outside of their historical and moral context, these infamous acts of war float past unheeded. They read like footnotes. And so it is with many descriptions of war in our culture. War is something quoted back at us. It is recorded by foreign correspondents or ‘embedded’ journalists.  It is there for our indulgence in first-person shooters, videogames, such as Call of Duty. Or it is an action film like Zero Dark Thirty. The danger caused by amplifying war is made even more serious considering the specific acts gathered to comprise this book. My Lai no longer needs to be followed by the word ‘massacre’ it has become such a cliché. For as our language atrophies with dead phrases so too our descriptions of war. How much more valuable then is Anderson’s recounting of his colostomy? The pain is crippling and gone is any sense of privation for the spectator. What Gathering Noise from My Life teaches is what I remember learning from Anderson’s creative writing class at the US Air Force Academy: that war is very real and never should be envied.