Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Remembering War (XI): Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, and… Pres. Ronald Reagan?

War is absurd. It is not absurd in the sense that it is inherently ridiculous or pointless, though some conflicts certainly are.

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Introduction from the editor of the “Remembering War” series: We’ve already noted a few ways in which our memories crave a narrative structure for war, complete with beginning, middle, end, and purpose. Paul Yingling pointed out that even sincere attempts to create historical narrative can be misleading. But what about our fictive narratives? Are they less useful or more? As a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, Captain Ben Griffin studied the influence of war fiction on the Reagan administration. The results of his study are simultaneously encouraging and unsettling. — Paul Edgar

By Captain Benjamin Griffin
Best Defense guest columnist

War is absurd. It is not absurd in the sense that it is inherently ridiculous or pointless, though some conflicts certainly are. Rather, war is absurd because of its surreal nature. It juxtaposes the normal and the truly bizarre, often leaving participants unsure of how to relate their experiences. Further complicating the memory of conflict is that individuals remember it in vastly different ways. While war is an inescapably communal undertaking, it is simultaneously a deeply private one. The impossibility of fully and accurately remembering something as chaotic as war means that works of fiction might tell a “truer” story of the experience.

Fiction allows the author to take significant liberties with reality and express the experience and effect of war in a more relatable way. Kurt Vonnegut did not come “unstuck in time” as Billy Pilgrim does in Slaughterhouse Five. However, the jumbled timeline of the novel effectively portrays the sense of temporal displacement many veterans feel not only when deployed, but also upon return. The existential dread and feelings of despair that J.R.R. Tolkien experienced on the western front of World War I became one of Sauron’s powers in The Lord of the Rings. Robert Graves and many others channeled the strangeness of their wartime experiences into poetry that captured the sense of loss and futility the war evoked in them. Much of the greatest literature of the twentieth century stems, either directly or indirectly, from efforts by the author to explain and understand the experience of war.

Novels, poems, and other fictional medium play a particularly important role in societal memory of war because they offer the public a chance to understand war better. These works build empathy among the public for those who fight in war or otherwise experience it directly. This is particularly important in the present, when only a small percentage of the population will ever find themselves in a combat zone. A work of fiction provides them with an accessible narrative that can create a powerful emotional connection. The potential of this connection to build or diminish support for national security initiatives is something policy makers have long tried to shape, as evidenced by the case of James Michener.

In her book Cold War Orientalism, Christina Klein notes that Michener served as “paraphraser” for the government’s national security policy and that his ability to translate “Cold War ideology into popular narrative” made him invaluable to the government. Michener wrote narratives of ordinary service members in newspaper dispatches and short stories, taking care to highlight their quality and heroism. He also introduced Americans to new weapons platforms like the B-52 bomber. Michener’s coverage of the Korean War began with newspaper dispatches. However, he soon recognized that a novella would allow him to express the feeling of the Korean War better. The resulting work, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, made powerful arguments about the need to support the Korean War. It immediately appeared on bestseller lists and a film adaptation followed. Congressional leaders recognized the value of Michener’s work. In 1961, Congressman Daniel Inouye said that the stories made Michener “one of our most effective anti-Communist weapons in the worldwide struggle.”

The Bridges at Toko-Ri’s influence on policy did not end with the Korean War. Ronald Reagan made frequent reference to it in his speeches. As he presented the Medal of Honor to Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez, Reagan quoted the final passage. In it, the task force commander looks out on the busy flight deck and asks, “Where did we get such men?” Reagan answered the fictional admiral’s question, noting that America found them where “we’ve always found them, in our villages and towns, on our city streets, in our shops, and on our farms.” He intended his blending of Michener’s words with his sentiments to bolster efforts to restore public respect of the military.

Fiction played an important role throughout the Reagan administration, as the president deeply valued stories. He found them to be a superior method of conveying deep meanings. The works of Tom Clancy, C.S. Lewis, James Warner Bellah, Allen Drury, and Robert Ludlum all received very public attention from the administration. In cases where the message of the book aligned with the goals of the Reagan Administration, such as with Clancy and Drury, the authors received improved access and glowing public statements. Drury accepted an invitation to interview Caspar Weinberger while working on his book, Pentagon. Clancy often found himself mingling with Admirals and National Security Council staffers after the success of Hunt For Red October. Countervailing narratives, such as the ones found in Ludlum’s Bourne Supremacy, faced harsh attack from administration officials in public and private remarks.

Reagan, and those around him, recognized that fiction has the power to create a narrative that audiences interact with on a personal and visceral level, leading to closer identification and greater support for the message within. The president elaborated on this in his farewell address. He lamented that children could no longer “get a sense of patriotism from popular culture.” This echoed a belief evidenced by a late draft of his commencement address at West Point. The draft of the speech excoriated Hollywood for its “reprehensible pandering” to the forces of “anti-militarism and anti-Americanism.” Apocalypse NowDeer Hunter, and Coming Home appear in the margin of the draft as evidence to support the claim. Though Reagan softened this language in the final version of the speech, potentially to avoid offending friends in Hollywood, the draft demonstrated the keen attention the administration paid to how war appeared in popular culture.

Mass media defines how the public remembers war and those who fought in it. The way that movies, books, and other medium portray conflict also affects the way the American people view the contemporary world, and the role of the U.S. within it. Popular culture both exploits and shapes public expectations, memory, and biases, making it a crucial part in framing political debate. Fiction is a decisive battleground in defining public memory, and one that veterans should increasingly use, both to tell their story and to shape the public discourse on how and why the U.S. employs military force.

Captain Benjamin Griffin served two tours in Iraq. He recently completed PhD coursework at the University of Texas and is finishing his dissertation while he teaches at West Point in the History Department. The opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Military Academy, the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1