If you’ve been reading this blog, you also know that I love the public radio show “This American Life,” so when Ira Glass, who is the host of TAL, came out with an edited collection of nonfiction essays, I had to bite. The collection includes essays by pretty famous people — David Foster Wallace, Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman — and some less famous people — Jack Hitt, Coco Henson Scales. There’s no unifying theme to the book, just examples of writing that Glass admires. I’d already read the Foster Wallace piece in his book Consider the Lobster, and I’m pretty sure the Gladwell essay is included in edited form in The Tipping Point or Blink. So what I especially enjoyed were the essays that took new and unexpected leaps with their subjects.
For instance, the Klosterman essay is a profile of Val Kilmer, who will always be Iceman for me. Kilmer, according to Klosterman, is weird and nice, and after reading the essay, that’s pretty much the assessment I got, too. Here’s a great aside:
We talk about the famous women he’s dated; the last serious relationship he had was with Darryl Hannah, which ended a year ago. During the 1990s, he was involved with Cindy Crawford, so I ask him what it’s like to sleep with the most famous woman in the world. His short answer is that it’s awesome. His long answer is that it’s complicated.
Another essay that I enjoyed was Mark Bowden’s piece on Saddam Hussein, written in 2002, before the US invaded Iraq for a second time. The historic framing, from the reader’s perspective, makes it seem odd — I’m reading about Saddam Hussein (always known as Saddam, and I don’t know why that is, as opposed to Hussein), who was later captured, tried, and hanged. He’s the world’s most ignominious tyrant of recent times, yet Bowden gets into his head and humanizes him without making him a sympathetic individual. The essay is very much a “behind the scenes” kind of tale, informed by people who had escaped from Iraq. A telling excerpt describes the dual position of isolation and power that Saddam lived in toward the end of his reign:
One might think that the most powerful man has the most choices, but in reality he has the fewest. Too much depends on his every move. The tyrant’s choices are the narrowest of all. His life — the nation! — hangs in the balance. He can no longer drift or explore, join or flee. He cannot reinvent himself, because so many others depend on him — and he, in turn, must depend on so many others. He stops learning, because he is walled in by fortresses and palaces, by generals and ministers who rarely dare to tell him what he doesn’t wish to hear. Power gradually shuts the tyrant off from the world. Everything comes to him second- or thirdhand. He is deceived daily. He becomes ignorant of his land, his people, even his own family. He exists, finally, only to preserve his wealth and power, to build his legacy. Survival becomes his one overriding passion. So he regulates his diet, tests his food for poison, exercises behind well-patrolled walls, trusts no one, and tries to control everything.
The final essay that I want to highlight is Lee Sandlin’s “Losing the War,” which is an analysis of what World War II was really like for reporters and soldiers, and how removed the public is from the grotesqueness of war. I’ve been drawn into reading about World War II over the past few years. I’ve read the first two books in Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle. The former is about the Allied campaign in North Africa and the latter is about the miserable slog up the Italian boot. At some point there will be a third book, about the liberation of France and the rest of Europe. I’ve also read Jon Meacham’s book Franklin and Winston, about the friendship between Roosevelt and Churchill. I watched the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and Ken Burns’s documentary series for PBS, The War, and I’ve been to museums that feature the history of this era. In London, I visited the Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum, maintained in their underground lair, preserved immaculately from the 1940s. In Washington, DC, I admired portraits of the generals and leaders of World War II in the National Portrait Gallery. Last summer, I saw paintings of Eisenhower and Mark Clark — just the people I’d been reading about in An Army at Dawn.
I think we have a continued fascination with World War II, because we try to present it as a “good war,” a necessary war. Both my grandfathers served, as I’m sure did the grandfathers of most of the people of my generation. My maternal grandfather was in the Army in Europe, and he spent most of his time in the United Kingdom and France. I remember Papa telling me about being in Ireland, and the local people resented the Americans for requisitioning all the soap for their own use. But he wouldn’t talk much more about his war experience, as is and was pretty common. His job was to help route the mail, but he spent four full years of his life abroad, and I’m sure he experienced some pretty awful things. In fourth grade, I interviewed him for a class assignment, and he told me that coming back on a boat, the Statue of Liberty was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
So even though World War II is far away historically and geographically for me, I have wanted to fill in the gaps. I’m lucky to have such a comfortable distance. So does Sandlin, and in his essay, he tries to explode our myths about the purity of the soldiers and the censorship in the press. In particular, he emphasizes the otherworldliness, the “weirdness” of war:
The truth was, the only language that seemed to register the appalling strangeness of the war was supernatural: the ghost story where nightmarish powers erupt out of nothingness, the glimpse into the occult void where human beings would be destroyed by unearthly forces they couldn’t hope to comprehend. Even the most routine event of the war, the firing of an artillery shell, seemed somehow uncanny. The launch of a shell and its explosive arrival were so far apart in space and time you could hardly believe they were part of the same event, and for those in the middle there was only the creepy whisper of its passage, from nowhere to nowhere, like a rip in the fabric of causality.
Sandlin captures what Atkinson also observes: the disorganization and haplessness of the Allied forces, especially early in the war. So much is accidental, and so many lives were lost to senseless campaigns for a hill or an island. Yet in retrospect, we celebrate the heroes of World War II in movies, because there might have been a purer intention, to destroy Nazis. As detestable as modern terrorism is, there’s still no boogeyman to rival the Nazi regime, so regardless of whatever war crimes Allied forces might have committed, we celebrate the essential goodness of those soldiers. And probably most of them were good men, good men who had to set aside everyday morals and habits to engage in a long, arduous fight. It’s incomprehensible to me to imagine what my grandfathers went through, but maybe if I sketch in enough details, I can feel a bit more empathetic (sympathetic, maybe) to them.
Thanks for riding out my odd tangents here. That’s the nice thing about an eclectic essay collection like New Kings. It allows your mind to wander across a wide swath of issues, some close to your heart, some just weird amusements.