John Larison’s Whiskey When We’re Dry speaks the American language of the tall tale: Its braggadocio is disguised as candor, and the novel mutes any trace of absurdity with its sharp plot, its tendency to whisper secrets rather than dwell on them, and its preference for scene overexposition. Set on the American frontier in the mid-1880s, Whiskey When We’re Dry presents itself as the confessions of one Jessilyn Harney, then an orphaned, teenaged girl who embarks from her ruined family farmstead to track (and reunite with) her outlaw brother Noah.
Jess narrates the novel in her own gruff idiom, a blend of frontier gumption and the brusque wisdom of her Pa, a disgraced Union sniper who refused to betray much about his past. Rather than a cacophony of dialect, though, Jess speaks with a ballad’s cadence and a con man’s lethal intent. Her voice plays a variation of the hollow, aggressive masculinity of the American West and the refrains of Manifest Destiny. In doing so, her frontier journeys illustrate how vacant the promises of the West are: Its rewards are reserved for those with political and economic power, the ones who become the official authors of history.
But circumstances nonetheless provide Jess with frequent occasion to study and emulate the self-important posturing of settler men. Her mother died in childbirth, so Jess spent her formative years orbiting the inevitable clashes between her Pa and Noah—Oedipal disputes that devolved into fistfights, drove Noah from the homestead, and launched his career as a notorious outlaw. After her Pa is killed, possibly in an ambush by other ranchers, Jess realizes that she cannot manage their remaining cattle by her lonesome—especially when the only conventional recourses permitted to a teen girl on the frontier were marriage or sex work. But she knows that conventions exist to be flouted, a lesson she learned when her Pa took her to a trick shooter’s performance. In the trick shooter, Jess has found an alternative to frontier womanhood:
Straight-Eye Susan wasn’t no man, of course. She was a woman some years past marrying age wearing a white dress with flowers embroidered on it and a showman’s hat and a golden revolver to match the golden action of her Winchester repeater. The men in the crowd called at her and said things they might only say to a whore, and she picked these men from the audience and dared them to stand still while she shot matches from their teeth and casings from their hats. Not a taunt rose from the crowd after that.
After her Pa’s death, a cruel winter, and troubles maintaining their herd of cattle, Jess resolves to follow Straight-Eye Susan’s model, but with a twist. “The idea had been coming to me for weeks,” she admits. “I just then set about doing it.” She hacks her hair, outfits herself in some of Noah’s too-tight boyhood clothes, and sets out with her Pa’s pistol and rifle—a fateful decision that takes her through ambushes, trick-shooting contests in which she alternately fails and wins, a stint serving in the territorial governor’s private guard, and an ultimate reunion with Noah (and his gang of outlaws).
If the narrator were different, or if the novel were in third person, Larison might not have managed the feat of constructing Jess’s frontier, let alone maintaining the novel’s breathless pace. In his introduction to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, collected in The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders offers a possible explanation for how a writer like Larison might pull this off: “This first-person voice turned out to be one of the most natural and poetic literary voices ever devised, a voice still startling in its ability to bring the physical world … off the page and into our heads.” Saunders makes the geography of Huckleberry Finn seem much lusher than it is, and the rhythm of Larison’s prose has a similar effect. Here, for instance, is Jess describing the approach to a valley while she, Noah, and their fellow outlaws are fleeing the forces of the territorial governor: “From here we had a long view over the terrain we’d just now transcended. In all directions stood rocky crags. The wind sifted the pines. A pair of jays mimicked the call of an eagle. We didn’t stop to gander but kept on and soon broke over the top of the lip.” The language is concrete, taut, but not particularly evocative. It needs the nearly iambic cadence of Jess’s voice to become more rugged, more textured, than a stock still of a John Wayne flick’s crags and scrublands.
Still, the brutalism and self-interest of this novel’s characters seem a necessary indictment of the American ethos, especially in 2018. The Civil War remains a tender scar for Larison’s white settlers, as they align themselves with the Yanks or the Rebs. (The only common traits are their shared xenophobia toward Mexicans and Native Americans and their racism toward the novel’s few black characters—almost all servants caught up in institutional traps that perpetuated the power dynamics of slavery.) But while Jess is complex, the tall tale seldom tolerates a wealth of round characters. So Larison falls back on types. The men are usually cutouts, generic gun-slinging toughs, too incompetent to see around Jess’s disguise. The other women are either stoic ace shooters like Straight-Eye Susan or Jess’s eventual love interest Annette, sweet-talking sex workers in brothels, or starry-eyed angel-of-the-household types like the governor’s daughter Constance and Noah’s wife Jane. One wonders how the novel might have retuned the tall tale’s timbre if Whiskey When We’re Dry had looked to the women of Willa Cather’s frontier novels or the men of Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (even if Hansen’s prose feels dowdy, if not pedantic, next to Larison’s).
However, since Twain’s tall tales are the more obvious ancestors of Larison’s novel, we should approach Whiskey When We’re Dry with a rapt skepticism. If Twain’s Huck Finn can hoodwink Saunders into declaring the first person so sincerely “natural,” Larison’s Jess Harney can also fleece the 21st-century reader. After all, Jess has a stake here: Telling this tale gives her a final shot at preserving her own reputation as a gunslinger and undercutting the history peddled by the territorial governor and the victors of Manifest Destiny. In telling it, Jess Harney situates herself as the true outlaw who stood against the brutality of the American West and the fickle whims of men, even if they claimed credit for her skill as a schemer and a hired gun. And she does so at the expense of Noah’s legend: She credits herself as the mastermind who pulled a daring, dead-of-night counterattack when the governor’s militia besieged a town under Noah’s care, and she takes for herself the mantle of the willing martyr who sacrificed her own mythic stature in the West so Noah, his wife Jane, and their daughter could escape to Canada.
What makes a tall tale like Whiskey When We’re Dry so distinctly American, though, is its interest in chronicling the individual rather than the past. For Jessilyn Harney, telling her story is akin to Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”: She can insist that she existed; that she had the mettle to shape the world after her own vision; and that neither history, prison, nor infamy can stifle the sound of her voice over the frontier’s endless terrain.
Do we need another book about Vietnam? We already have some 30,000 non-fiction books about America’s most horrific foreign misadventure, along with countless novels, histories, biographies, memoirs and movies. So the question must be asked: Do we really need more?
The short answer is: Yes, we will always need to know more about the Vietnam War and other defining moments in our national narrative. It’s an open-ended story that began with the arrival of the first Europeans and their brutal subjugation of the native populace, then continued on through the founding of the Republic, slavery, westward expansion, industrialization, wars (both foreign and domestic, victorious and not), the rise to the pinnacle of world power and, now, the inexorable decline of the American empire. We will always need fresh voices giving us fresh takes on this spectacular, ugly, rich, and ever-evolving story.
So we should welcome Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, a new work of history that argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration – not a one-off atrocity called My Lai – but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. These are devastating charges, and they demand answers because Turse has framed his case with deeply researched, relentless authority.
This book’s birth was an accident. Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, was researching post-traumatic stress disorder in 2001 when he made a serendipitous discovery. One day at the National Archives, a friendly staffer posed a question: Could witnessing war crimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder? Turse had never considered the possibility, but the archivist led him to the yellowing records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret task force that had been formed after the widely reported massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968.
The Working Group’s forgotten records were a gold mine, and Turse dug right in. The first thing he learned as he pored through the files was that the task force was not put together to prevent future war crimes; its mission was to make sure that the military was never again caught off-guard by a war crimes scandal. The distinction is important for what it says about the Machiavellian workings of the American war machine. Given those workings, it’s no surprise that hundreds of court-martial records were destroyed or went missing. Turse also learned that the military had succeeded in selling the lie that My Lai was an exception. As his research revealed, My Lai was “an operation, not an aberration,” part of a pattern that contributed to a shocking statistic. During the years of America’s involvement in Vietnam, by the most conservative estimates, more than 3 million people died violent deaths; 2 million of them were Vietnamese civilians.
As Turse writes, “The War Crimes Working Group files alone demonstrated that atrocities were committed by members of every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed without the rest of its division – that is, every major army unit in Vietnam.”
Once he got through the Working Group files, Turse didn’t stop. He scoured other files about war crimes investigations in the National Archives, he interviewed generals and top civilian officials, former war crimes investigators, veterans who had witnessed or committed atrocities. He read widely and deeply. He made several trips to Vietnam to interview survivors of the war.
Like all good histories, the resulting book reads like a detective story, especially if you follow the dense endnotes as you move through the text. The evidence leads Turse to this damning but inescapable conclusion:
The hundreds of reports that I gathered and the hundreds of witnesses that I interviewed in the United States and Southeast Asia made it clear that killings of civilians – whether cold-blooded slaughter like the massacre at My Lai or the routinely indifferent, wanton bloodshed like the lime gatherers’ ambush at Binh Long – were widespread, routine, and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.
Yet only a handful of men were brought to trial or punished for a staggering number of pointless civilian deaths.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I was eager to read Turse’s book because I share his fascination with the Vietnam War, and with the almost unfathomable missteps that turned it into the horror it became. My second novel, All Souls’ Day, is built around the C.I.A.-backed coup that led to the assassination of South Vietnam’s President, Ngo Dinh Diem, on Nov. 2, 1963, a day known to Diem and his fellow Catholics as All Souls’ Day, or the Day of the Dead. My reading of history told me that this was a pivotal moment, a chance for America to cut its losses and extricate itself from a deepening quagmire. Three weeks after Diem’s assassination, though, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas and hawkish Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President. Soon the serious killing would begin. The opportunity for withdrawal was lost.
Thirty-three years later, shortly after I’d sold the manuscript and almost a year before All Souls’ Day was published, my fictional enterprise received validation from a most unlikely source. Robert S. McNamara, defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and a prime architect of our Vietnam fiasco, published his long-awaited memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. One sentence in McNamara’s book jumped out at me. It was not his maddeningly tepid apology – “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” It was this: “I believe we could and should have withdrawn from South Vietnam either in late 1963 amid the turmoil following Diem’s assassination or in late 1964 or early 1965 in the face of increasing political and military weakness.”
That single sentence gave me the gratifying feeling that my novel had hit on an important but little-noted truth. It was the sort of validation all novelists dream of, but few get to taste. Robert S. McNamara, of all people, had made me proud.
There is no doubt in my mind that Kill Anything That Moves belongs on the very highest shelf of books on the Vietnam War – up there with the non-fiction of Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Jonathan Schell, and Frances FitzGerald, the memoirs of Michael Herr and Philip Caputo, the fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason, Robert Stone, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tim O’Brien, Ward Just, and, of course, Graham Greene.
It’s worth noting that in her magisterial history, Fire In the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, FitzGerald made only passing mention of war crimes. “The (Johnson) administration, if it were to pursue its objectives, had very little choice but the strategy of attrition,” she wrote. “And because of the very nature of the war, that strategy meant the attrition not only of enemy troops and military supplies but all Vietnamese. No one in the American government planned a policy of genocide. The American military commanders would have been shocked or angered by such a charge, but in fact their policy had no other military logic, and their course of action was indistinguishable from it.”
(Alas, FitzGerald’s book did not appear until 1972, too late for its contextual lessons to be of any use to Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Robert S. McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, Gen. William Westmoreland, Richard Nixon or any of the hundreds of others who shaped America’s war policy from inside a bubble of nearly immaculate ignorance about the Vietnamese people and their history. FitzGerald has high praise for Turse’s book, calling it “an important piece of history.” So does Seymour Hersh, who calls it a “painful and important book.”)
Philip Caputo was with the first marines to land in Vietnam in 1965, and a decade later, as a war correspondent, he was among the last people evacuated from Saigon as the victorious communists closed in on the panicked city. Caputo wound up facing a court-martial when marines under his command miscarried orders and deliberately shot two suspects. Caputo was acquitted and eventually received an honorable discharge. In his memoir, A Rumor of War, here’s how he described America’s military strategy:
General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition also had an important effect on our behavior. Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill communists and as many of them as possible. Stack ’em like cordwood. Victory was a high body-count, defeat a low kill-ratio, war a matter of arithmetic. The pressure on unit commanders to produce enemy corpses was intense, and they in turn communicated it to their troops. This led to such practices as counting civilians as Viet Cong. ‘If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC,’ was our rule of thumb in the bush. It is not surprising, therefore, that some men acquired a contempt for human life and predilection for taking it.
This contempt for the lives of the Vietnamese, as Turse points out, led American soldiers to abide by what was widely known as the Mere-Gook Rule, or MGR. “This,” Turse writes, “held that all Vietnamese – northern and southern, adults and children, armed enemy and innocent civilian – were little more than animals, who could be killed or abused at will.”
Before reading this book, I had believed that the racial epithet “gook” was coined by American soldiers in Vietnam. Turse, in one of many deft touches, cured me of this illusion. He writes that the word originated during the campaign in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, when American soldiers disparaged the natives as “goo-goos” and proceeded to slaughter 600 unarmed Moros. Mark Twain called those soldiers “our uniformed assassins,” and he dubbed their proto-My Lai “a long and happy picnic.” In time “goo-goo” morphed to “gook,” and the results became far more deadly.
In the title essay of his collection called The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders dissected America’s tendency to rush into wars in places it knows little about. He was talking about our current, never-ending war in Iraq, but his words are almost eerily applicable to Vietnam:
A culture capable of imagining complexity is a humble culture. It acts, when it has to act, as late in the game as possible, and as cautiously, because it knows its own girth and the tight confines of the china shop it’s blundering into. And it knows that no matter how well-prepared it is – no matter how ruthlessly it has held its projections up to intelligent scrutiny – the place it is headed for is going to be very different from the place it imagined. The shortfall between the imagined and the real, multiplied by the violence of one’s intent, equals the evil one will do.
Paul Fussell put it more succinctly: “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.”
As Turse has made clear, the Vietnam War was much worse than expected – partly because of the astonishing resolve of America’s enemies, but mainly because of the ignorance and the brute ruthlessness that beat in the heart of America’s war machine. Kill Anything That Moves should be required reading in every school, military academy and governmental office in the land. Not that it will stop us from blundering into the next war. Again, George Saunders summed it up, in an essay called “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra.” He was writing about Slaughterhouse Five, but he could have been writing about Kill Anything That Moves:
No, war will not be stopped. But it is a comfort, in the midst of a war, to read an antiwar book this good, and be reminded that just because something keeps happening, doesn’t mean we get to stop regretting it. Massacres are bad, the death of innocents is bad, hate is bad, and there’s something cleansing about hearing it said so purely.
So this is why we’re still reading about Vietnam: because the truth, purely told by writers as gifted as Nick Turse, is the only thing that has the power to cleanse us.
(Half of) Boswell, Stanley Elkin: My ambitious plan to read all of Elkin devolved into a desperate plan to keep from defaulting on my mortgage. I hope to give this one (and the rest of the oeuvre) the time it deserves in 2010, because Elkin, aside from being funny, is a master craftsman on the sentence level.
The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders: You’re a good man, Charlie Brown.
I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Percival Everett: It’s no Erasure, and I’m still not sure that the “whoa-crane-shot!” ending isn’t a shuck. But any book that features a Professor of Nonsense Philosophy is ultimately all right with me.
“The Sin of Jesus”, Isaac Babel (trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew): Grotesque, hilarious, profane, life-changing, and quicker than 8 Minute Abs.
Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, Michael Chabon: I read most of this waiting to hear Mr. Chabon read at the Tattered Cover in LoDo. I’d warned him in advance that, as somewhat of a book blogger (part book lover, part mugger), I’d have to come pester him after the reading. Of course, it never dawned on me that the time would come that I’d have to slide my copy of Manhood for Amateurs across the table and say “Hey…I’M THE RAKE!!!” That moment is the quintessence of life on the extreme margins of literature.
Harold and the Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson: Great children’s book or greatest children’s book?
D.T. Max, “The Unfinished“: Still can’t believe DFW is gone.
George Saunders is taking up residence at the Powell’s Blog this week as he embarks on a book tour promoting his latest (released today), The Braindead Megaphone. To my knowledge, it is Saunders’ first foray into blogging, a format we discussed nearly two years ago (scroll down). His concern: “I worry about how much I would have to pay myself to keep my blog supplied with content. My fear is that, knowing I was working for myself, I would start cheating myself, only submitting my worst pieces, then get into a labor dispute with myself and never speak to me again.” Hopefully, his fears aren’t realized.A new issue of Scott Esposito’s terrific Quarterly Conversation has arrived. It features, among several notable contributors, Garth, who “sorts out literary feuds, dissects James Wood’s essay against Don DeLillo’s 832-page opus Underworld, and argues that this book actually evolves the novel forward.”Emdashes has the schedule for this year’s New Yorker Festival. It looks fantastic as usual. I should really go sometime.