Category Archives: Military Life

The C.O. Memorial Highway

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Conscientious Objectors Memorial Highway

One can walk a quarter-mile from the entrance/exit gate of the VA hospital next to CSU Long Beach and arrive at a portion of Pacific Coast Highway that is designated as a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway. I don’t know if there’s a census of this road marker of military service, but over the past two decades I’ve seen more than a few such stretches of highway, including one that was less than a hundred yards from where Linda and I lived in Lynbrook, New York.

I don’t object to honoring the veterans of that war. Those whose service enabled the policy makers of U.S. government to engage in their post-colonial fantasies in Southeast Asia are entitled to as much compassion as can be summoned. Highway markers, in fact, are hardly sufficient to compensate for the lack of care that many Vietnam veterans encountered upon their return to the United States. If such public markers can in some way assuage, reconcile, or dignify their decision to be part of that war, then let the memorials be maintained. So far, I have never seen any tagging on a VV memorial highway sign. Almost everything else has been fair game for graffiti, but this road sign appears to be off-limits.

On the other hand, it strikes me as odd that not a single highway has ever been named “The Vietnam War Protestors Memorial Highway.” Or even more to the point of genuine self-sacrifice: “The Vietnam War Conscientious Objectors Memorial Highway.” Do not the young men who went to prison or insisted on alternative duty rather than submit to America’s pathological war machine deserve at least one memorial road with a decent vista on the continental United States? If there’s a highway dedicated to those who serve in “Military Intelligence,” surely those who have refused to participate in state-organized mass murder have earned the modest singularity of “The C.O. Memorial Highway.” I doubt I’ll live long enough to drive that stretch of road, but I, too, have a minimal dream.

The VA (the value added tax of class servitude)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The VA (the value added tax of class servitude)

The Veterans Administration, popularly known as the VA, at some point set up its health system in Southern California so that its hospitals were located next to major colleges or universities. In San Diego, there is a huge VA center next to UC San Diego; in Los Angeles, the VA is on the flip side of the 405 freeway from UCLA; in Long Beach, the hospital is adjacent to CSU Long Beach. I went over to that VA the other day to work on getting some veterans benefits for my mother, who was a WAVE in World War II. She receives medical care through both Medicare and a program called TriCare, which is available to the surviving spouses of career military personnel. She will need to be in an assisted care home at some point in the near future, though, and I wanted to get information about her benefits.

Walking around the grounds of the VA complex, I felt on one level as if I could relax in my performance as a college teacher. How much chance was there that I would meet up with a colleague in a building at the VA? In fact, when was the last time any of the tenured professors I have taught with or studied under or conversed with at conferences would have found themselves visiting the VA? It is a social ghetto, in certain ways, and the fact that it is right next door to the campus only mounts the spotlights on the three hundred and fifty-nine degrees of separation between military and civilian life. Power extends from the organization of space itself, and the milieus one is assigned are meant to delimit your activities in a manner befitting one’s station in life. That I find myself at the VA, in hopes of finding a remedy for my mother’s plight, is only what might be expected, given the initial terms of my childhood enlistment. I remember a spokesperson from Brotman Hall who greeted the cohort of new faculty at CSULB in 2006: “When one has a Ph.D.,” she said with utter sincerity, “class is no longer an issue.” Even if one has severed all contact with one’s family, I doubt that’s true. To the credit of my colleagues, a skeptical murmur of disagreement ricocheted around the room.

I did, in fact, have one teacher who was a veteran, and he was perhaps the crucial teacher in my development. In the fall of 1967, I ended up enrolling in classes at San Diego State, mainly because my application to UCLA’s theater department had been turned down. I would be successful the following spring in gaining admission, but in the meantime I decided to study at SDSU and found myself in a poetry class with a young poet named Glover Davis, who had studied under Philip Levine. I had never heard of any of the poets Davis taught me about in the 1967-1968. I was 19 years old when I started studying in his classes and by the time I was 20 I had learned more from him than most MFA students learn in their two or three years in current programs.

Glover Davis’s class would serve as a prime example of how Don Allen’s The New American Poetry ended up as the most influential anthology of the past half-century. After his discharge from the U.S. Navy, Davis had enrolled at Fresno State University and had moved on to the Iowa Poetry Workshop, where I believe one of his classmates was James Tate. I took poetry writing courses with him as well as a survey of poetry course in which I first read Hart Crane’s The Bridge as well as substantial amounts of WC Williams. We read Williams first, so encountering Crane was initially a bewildering experience. I was utterly intrigued by Crane’s dense lyricism and imagery, but how could his poetics be reconciled with Williams’s? Which side was Davis on? He seemed to be presenting an equal case for each poet, and I found myself unable to decide between the two. In the end, I liked Crane’s sense of the line better than Williams, whose sense of enjambment never really matured.

One of the best parts of the year was a chance to attend readings by Allen Ginsberg, Philip Levine and Robert Mezey. Ginsberg didn’t read “Howl” or “Kaddish,” but instead gave a powerful reading of “Wales Visitation,” which even the conservative member of the English faculty, John Theobald, appreciated. Ginsberg by far attracted the largest crowd, but it was his talk in the afternoon that made an equal impression. In retrospect, I have to concede that the overwhelming emphasis on male poets in Davis’s canon would have been daunting for the female students; perhaps this is part of the reason for Rae Armantrout’s unflattering characterization of Davis in her memoir. She neglects to mention, however, that he would have been the first teacher she had to have praised at length the writing of Denise Levertov, with whom Rae went on to study at UC Berkeley.  Memory can be capricious, and maybe Rae wasn’t in the class in which I remember Davis giving “The Sharks” a close, deeply appreciative reading. Davis was perhaps the most fortunate encounter I could have hoped for at that point, given my limited options. For the first time, I encountered a man who embodied a masculine variant of physical prowess that was also vulnerable to the subjunctive.

Enlisted Life

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Enlistment

The writer who taught the fiction writing class at Idyllwild Summer Arts before I started a two-decade run on the mountain was Bruce McAllister. I never met him, but recently I found out that my predecessor and I shared one crucial feature in our childhood: both of us grew up in military families. The degree to which this environment affects the maturation process of children is largely an unexamined topic. A colleague at CSULB, Heather Rae-Espinosa, once told me that the children of military families share a degree of displacement that is more often associated with the children of families of migrant farm workers. In particular, both groups of children share a prolonged experience of social alienation due to the frequent change of residence.

One thing remains familiar, however, as children embedded in the armed forces skip between living quarters: the environment at each point of traversal (at least for the children of enlisted personnel) is often equally degraded in terms of physical and psychological violence. My memories of Norfolk, Virginia and Imperial Beach, California are utterly replete with trauma. Children are bullied in civilian life, too, but when that experience is intertwined with a continual sense of being uprooted, an individual is almost certain to be beyond any hope of reclamation for a life that would provide the ordinary rewards of family and home.

I have tried therapy. It doesn’t work, and some of that inefficacy may be due to a factor that was articulated in a discussion I had a year ago with a man who counsels vets at CSULB: We ended up agreeing that career military people can integrate with civilian society, but can never assimilate. This is predominantly true for their offspring, too. It’s not just the abrupt oscillations of domesticity that buffet one’s social balance when young: the allegiances of submission (and the resentments thereof) permanently fester and lodge the military brat in an irreconcilable psychological redoubt. Once a person, whether as an adult volunteering or a child being imposed upon, absorbs the values of military culture, civilian behavior will almost always seem idiosyncratically narcissistic. The hierarchy of blunt expectation for no excuses performance in military life is not something that is recognized in the civilian life; a military brat often finds his or her civilian co-workers or associates to be weird in how they seek to exempt themselves from the tasks or assignments that they expect others to do in their place.

Even in integrating, though, there is the key difference in the offspring of career military personnel between those who have one parent who is an officer and the “military brats” whose father or mother serves at the enlisted level. There is a degree of class distinction between officers and the enlisted ranks that is difficult for a civilian to comprehend and it plays out not only in the cultural capital available to their children, but in values of self-subjugation that do not fit well with the civilian world. From the point of view of military brats, the civilian world is full of narcissistic vanity; the possessive individualism that is a prime virtue of the middle class seems nothing more than a feeble rationale to explain one’s self-importance.

In my life as a poet and teacher, I have yet to meet anyone in the academy whose father’s (or mother’s) service in the armed forces as a career enlisted solider or sailor required them to make transcontinental shifts. There are occasional writers and teachers I have heard of whose fathers were officers (as was McAllister’s, for instance), but the attrition rate of cultural accomplishment for anyone growing up in an enlisted household appears to be an intellectual and imaginative cleansing as thorough as any ethnic project. How I have ended up as a professor at CSU Long Beach remains a daily puzzle: it’s far too unlikely to be believable.

The sole other exception to this vanishing act might Rae Armantrout. She has written of her experiences in a somewhat similar situation, but her family was never posted outside of California and in growing up in a single state, Rae had an extraordinarily rare degree of continuity for someone who classifies herself as a military brat.  Nevertheless, anyone who might undertake a biography of Rae someday should not overlook the ways in which the experience of growing up in the skewed environment of military culture affected her affiliations with a poetics of skepticism. It just now occurs to me, in fact, that one interesting common factor in the contrast between two of my favorite poets would be the influence of San Diego’s conservative environment. Amy Gerstler grew up, too, in San Diego, but in a civilian family. The difference in registers of tone in their poems might well have points of origin in their responses to authority. If poems can respond to power, as etched in ranks of social authority, by manipulating language so as to make control over one’s identity a matter of self-orientation and enactment, the difference in the uses of irony are perhaps most visible in the palimpsests of military and civilian life.

Post-script: The poet Marilyn Nelson once mentioned in a conversation that she arrived at a new elementary school at the fourth or fifth grade level and went out for her first recess. She looked across the playground and began crying. She had spotted her best friend from one of her first years in school, and had thought she would never see him again after her father, an officer in the air force, had been transferred. But the young boy’s family had eventually also been transferred to the same military base as her father was stationed at, and so they were temporarily reunited.