I’m writing under the Influence, having just finished reading Moby Dick. After 487 pages one is fully immersed. When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. So with Ahab at the helm of my ship, harpoon in hand, I started watching the PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. Herman Melville meet Ken Burns.
Like most viewers, I suspect, I’d long ago made up my mind about that tragic folly of a war. I had no appetite to witness a replay of the carnage. However there were many antecedents to our full entry and Burns gives the cast of distant voices a human face and context.
Ahab, as a force of Nature, is the great American allegory. There is no hissing the villain or cheering the hero in the book. Melville (call him Ishmael) presents the white whale as demonic and ferocious on one page and noble on the next. In one chapter on Whiteness we are reminded that his is the absence of color which sums up the ambiguity of both the pursuer and pursued. Add to this our contemporary understanding of the oceanic ecosystem and we grow indignant as Melville maligns our cuddly behemoth. Of course the journey of the Pequod is not to be read literally. The author is after far greater game.
Were the architects of our misadventure in Southeast Asia testosterone-driven men? Yes, of course, many were. But I’m not willing to paint all of the combatants with such a broad brush any more than can Ahab be captioned as a crazed monomaniac…though he was. Five presidents along with the so-called best and brightest they could assemble schemed and stumbled and abdicated their good sense and lied their way for nearly three decades with wanton disregard for human life. We met the enemy and they were us. Yet…
Yet their acts were committed in the Cold War context premised on the belief that this Leviathan called Communism would gobble up one country after another and doom would descend upon civilized life. Instead they created their own doom. They mistook a small country’s determination to shake off colonial rule for the Communist dragon. As it turned out that dreaded apparition is now the same form of government which buys our treasury notes and supplies our shelves in Costco and Walmart.
Ahab’s mission was revenge for the loss of a limb which Freud regarded as castration but more importantly to pierce the mask of Moby Dick, to destroy that which lies behind the face of so-called evil. His zeal was messianic but the imagined outcome was unattainable just as religious fanatics, with colossal wrongheadedness, obsess over an aspect of human nature which they project on to others.
Maybe it’s a stretch too far to grant the reckless Pentagon and blind Dulles, McNamara, Rusk, et al a similar status as Ahab. But I’d like to grant them, or at least the soldiers, the benefit of being knights-errant chasing an illusory dragon.
Aside from the war crimes of napalm, defoliants, stacks of body bags and a nation torn asunder the tragedy of Vietnam was our excruciating refusal to come to terms with our role as replacement for European colonialism. It was a dark time in American history lit by some bright songs and burning draft cards and the emergence of a counter-culture. Yet just as Ishmael survived the wreckage on a floating coffin we are carried away in our leaking ship of state, still wounded, still haunted.