Reviewed by Bradford Wineman (Department of Military History, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College)
Published on H-War (December, 2006)
The Academic's Gulf War Syndrome
This book, with its title drawn from an e.e. cummings poem, presents a collection of essays written over the course of ten years (although published previously in other works). The essays are arranged roughly in the chronological order of the events on which the author muses. Vernon's style and structure borrows heavily from his literary heroes, Ernest Hemingway and Tim O'Brien (occasionally to the point of distraction for students of these works), using simplistic yet poignant wording in introspective stories that reveal the inner musings of the author and capture complex human emotion through the otherwise unsophisticated method of storytelling. As a student of literature, Vernon also draws from other great works, ranging from the classics to his contemporaries, to draw perspective and context.
The selections take the reader through the author's ordinary yet unique life, from growing up in late 1980s Cold War, middle America; to attending West Point, deploying and returning from the first Gulf War; to observing the coming second Gulf War as an academic. His journey is an unusual one, in which he wades in the ethical ambiguity of his cadetship, embracing many of the Academy's values but morally rebelling against much of its conformity by experimenting with Wicca and witchcraft to create an emotional location within himself that the Army could never intrude upon.
However, Vernon's contractual commitment to the Army eventually takes him to the sands of Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield, where he reflects on the uncertainties of the impending "Mother of All Battles," much in the same manner as fellow Gulf War veteran turned pensive author Anthony Swofford. Upon his return from the war, Vernon took advantage of the major Department of Defense draw-down and left the military for graduate school and a career as a professor of literature. He also reflects on the contradictions of being a soldier in the freethinking, anti-military "ivory tower" of a liberal arts college. Drawing from his own war experience and the inspiration of fellow literati, Vernon's final essays explore his feelings on September 11, and his fears regarding the impending war with Iraq, overlapping with the fears of his new fatherhood.
After he addressed an audience of Army ROTC cadets about his combat experiences, many of the students thanked Vernon profusely for adding a human dimension to the military experience that their ultra-technological and doctrinal training had lacked. It is this theme--the dichotomy between the human and the machinistic, the feeling versus the unfeeling--that drives his narrative. Whether writing of his experience as a literature major in West Point's engineering curriculum, as the hardened combat veteran in a stereotypically nonconformist liberal arts department, or of the absence of visible human suffering in the surgical air strikes of the Gulf War, Vernon's essays reveal a constant struggle between these two paradigms.
This dichotomy occasionally presents problems for the author. Vernon depicts himself as the misplaced academic or poet lost in the maelstrom of the military's warrior culture (à la Hemmingway, O'Brien and to a lesser extent, Swofford). He questions his choice of career while a West Point cadet, weeps openly before a chaplain before the war, fearing the death of his soldiers, and declares himself a "a soldier, not a warrior" and professes to "abhor violence" (pp. 50, 70). He is, self-admittedly, the reluctant soldier. But in his chapter "The Gulf War and Post-Modern Memory," he lambastes postmodern theorists and pundits who disavow the overall significance of the Gulf War because of its unexpected short duration and nearly bloodless result. Vernon vehemently contends that the conflict was not a video game or a television drama, but a real shooting-killing nightmare for him and his fellow soldiers who put their lives on the line against one of the world's most dangerous armies. Now, he demands the respect and attention for service as a warrior in an otherwise forgotten war. He curses war but bristles with insult when the war he himself condemned is not remembered correctly or mocked for its irrelevance.
Within the American warrior culture, the veterans of Operation Desert Storm find themselves lost in a sea of heroic obscurity crammed awkwardly amongst the Greatest Generation of World War II, the bloodied Vietnam generation, and the new heroes of the Iraq War and the global War on Terror. Regardless, Vernon essentially asserts, Americans need to acknowledge the forgotten human element of the conflict instead of being blinded by the success of the cold arithmetic of technology's overplayed role. Unfortunately, technology did ultimately win the Gulf War and made it the bloodless, Hollywood-like victory portrayed on CNN. This war was not waged by the triumph of human spirit or the courage of the individual soldier like the other conflicts of the last half century. In the end, this plastic perception of the war does undermine the small number of servicemen who lost their lives and the scores of others who returned home with various physical and mental conditions. Nevertheless, Vernon's quest for Homeric catharsis at times lacks historical perspective.
Despite this one quibble, the author's use of paradox to frame events around him as well as his own character make these essays remarkably engaging. Vernon's musings bounce between the world of the real and the tangible (the Academy, his tank platoon, graduate school), and the intellectual and hyper-imaginative reveries attempting to find perspective in the chaotic world around him. Vernon splashes each essay with narratives of his experiences, soul-searching monologues, literature excerpts, sociopolitical commentary, and anecdotal stories all woven together into thematically tight packages placing his personal story in the broader context of history and the human condition. Most Succinctly Bred provides a worthwhile and meditative read for those within and outside of the military.
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Bradford Wineman. Review of Vernon, Alex, Most Succinctly Bred.
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