Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Writers do like this "speaking out" thing don't they?

I was mincing round the RUSI library prior to an event recently when I stumbled upon a rather interesting book, the existence of which I was not aware of until now.

As readers will doubtless be aware, during the Spanish Civil War, an exercise took place whereby writers and public intellectuals took sides on the conflict in response to questioning by editors and their contributions appeared in book form. A rather crap reworking of this format was produced following the Iraq War (I do not encourage you to reach for your wallets).

Anyway, I found a copy of a book that looked at the Vietnam War in the same way. I was unaware of its existence and spent an interesting few minutes leafing through it.

A few things struck me. First of all, the most stupid entries rival the stupidity of our contemporary authors. The only exception to this rule is Harold Pinter, who has clearly got more stupid with time. His Vietnam vintage entry could conceivably have been written without his lips being crusted with rapid spittle:

The Americans shouldn't have gone in, but they did.
Now they should get out, but they won't.

Very mellow in contrast with the sort of stuff he's coming out with these days, which tends to be more along the lines of:

Shit, arse, Zionist Nazis,
Imperial America,
Bullets, Death, Battenberg Cake,

I paraphrase.

The book was split in to different sections - a section for authors with strong opinions one way or the other, a section for those sitting on the fence or unsure, a section on those who looked at the military aspects etc etc. You get the general idea. The first category was dominated by anti-war opinion, but what really struck home was how ridiculous most of it looked thirty years on, regardless of politics. I suspect there are a lot of very clever people who would now be quite happy to forget all about the sorry exercise.

Two of the best entries came from Tom Wolfe and John Updike - both of whom continue to be unusually thoughtful commentators to this day. Wolfe took the line that the cause was probably the right one but he wasn't sure if the means were correct, Updike provided a breath of fresh air by arguing that most authors didn't know what they were talking about on the matter and that their views should be held in no higher regard than those of any average man on the street. The contrast with the self-importance of some of the entries was stark.

The most disappointing entry came from Hannah Arendt, who might have been expected to have something interesting to say, but in the end argued that all wars should be dealt with by immediate ceasefire and negotiation. Banality, it seems, is not a monopoly of the evil.


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