Vide Bellum: A Vietnam Reflection

Earlier this month, Rachel and I carved out ten evenings to watch The Vietnam War, the new film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as it aired on PBS. Burns is the master documentarian, but this is a new high even for him—a peripatetic funeral march for the death of America’s virtue, such as it ever was. I hope every American invests the 17+ hours to watch this, particularly those of us who did not live through the period.

We were born less than nine years after the fall of Saigon, but it’s only been in recent years that we’ve even begun to hear people talk about the war. Growing up, no one I knew well had served, except for a distant cousin—the cousin who thought it was a good idea to bring a loaded service sidearm (Colt .45) to a family reunion and let 9-year-old me and another 10-year-old cousin shoot it into the creek behind the family homeplace.

Vietnam always felt like a shameful family secret; a box buried in the attic we knew existed but had been trained never to open. What remembrance and restoration there has been has been muted and not publicly embraced. It’s a sore spot we still don’t like touched. The war left us nothing to celebrate. No Yorktown. No Gettysburg. No Armistice. No D-Day. Only the dead, wounded, and a million might-have-beens.

None of this American angst begins to touch the devastation the war brought to Vietnam and her people, for whom every victory was also a defeat, and whose land bears scars still. This aspect comes through well in Burns and Novick’s work, with Vietnamese veterans (from both north and south) speaking their piece and helping fill this complex story with rich context. The war did not come about or escalate in a vacuum, and the pains that flowed into and out of it (from colonialism to civil rights) are given their fair shake.

Moreover, the personal tragedy of young lives snuffed out and veterans wracked with physical or emotional disabilities is brought front and center, with a wide cast of interviewees from every corner of the country and every branch of the military. The same young men who were sent off to die under the aegis of patriotism and honor impressed on them by their families and communities returned home as outcasts. The cause they served no longer seen as just, their sacrifice was turned into a stain on their conscience. No forgiveness. No lament. Only forgetting.

The full film is an impressive study in human nature, hubris, and groupthink, and none of the parties involved (on any side) come away unscathed. Yet I can’t help but notice that the United States has learned so little from that experience in how we conduct ourselves in the world. We persist in meddling beyond our expertise, using ethnic tensions or economic attachments as pawns in geopolitical chess. The specter of another Vietnam is always lurking in every pot we stir, every airstrike casually called in for political show. Now, as then, it is the young, the poor, the minority, and the “enemy” who pay the price for such games.

A movie, however good (and Burns & Novick have put everything they could into this one), is no truth & reconciliation commission, but my prayer is that it can be a spark to remind us of what lies at the end of the way of ignorance, callousness, and unconfessed pride.

Watch the movie. Talk to a veteran. Talk to someone who didn’t fight. Never vote for military force on a whim or to make a point.

Of course, the larger, unspoken target for this movie at this moment in time may be the political discord currently animating our national mood. We may not be at the gates of 1968 again quite yet, but The Vietnam War is a not-so-subtle reminder that it only takes a few well-placed sparks in a room full of gasoline to do a lot of damage.

As Walker Percy put it, describing his comic dystopia Love in the Ruins (which he wrote during 1968-1970), “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.” During the latter stages of the war, that conviction was stretched to breaking. It’s hardly seemed as shaky since, but I fear we’re getting close.

Image: Movie poster, courtesy of PBS

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Qualm Before the Storm

O faith once delivered for all the saints,
Built, against the gates of hell, on truth’s rock.
Secure, sealed by grace from all earthly taints,
Fitting man to don his heavenly smock.
Holy Word of God on high, placed in feeble hands.
Holy church on earth, guarding the good deposit.
Holy Ghost within to guide, convince, and sustain.
With great strength and courage, sent out to all the lands.
Authority and order, to truth apposite.
Full-arrayed in mighty armor, the Devil’s bane.

O! Doubt that cries out from behind restraints,
And bristles at that double-dealing flock.
God, who made the world, does not take complaints?
Stout cathedral doors cannot bear a knock?
Lament opens a chasm, untying stale bands.
Horrors in the name of Christ would likely cause it,
How should “Love thy neighbour” unleash such pride-wrought pain?
Confidence, a casualty of our warring clans.
Our baptized idols spill from the church’s closet
Upending joy, sapping power, shading hope vain.

“O child, I know thy strife.
Take now bread, breath, and life.
O sinner, I have died
For every evil plied.
No one is good,
No one is right,
But I have stood
Despite all blight.
I alone good.
I alone right.”

Photo: Summer Sunset, Chattanooga, Tenn., July 2017.

Doc, Gospel, and the Gospel

Last night, Rachel & I went to see May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. I can’t commend this documentary enough, and not just because I’m an unashamed fan of this band. There is something on display in their music and this film that pushes back, gently but firmly, against so many cultural orthodoxies and idols.

I can’t quite name them all, but the desire to lean in to hard truths and deep pain (rather than fleeing them with all possible speed) is close to the core of it. At one point in the film, Scott Avett, describing the season when bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer and band members kept vigil with the family at the hospital, said, “That’s when we grew up as men.” It’s a tacit recognition that maturity only comes through suffering, and that the greatest joys in life lie on the other side of such experiences.

One other moment sticks out, as well. Seth Avett described his reintroduction to folk and bluegrass music through spending time with Doc Watson as a young adult. Doc is not a “nobody” by any stretch, but he is not as widely known as perhaps he should be. Quite a number of artists trace their career success back to his influence, and he is, in some measure responsible for the return of “Americana” music to mainstream consciousness. For me, Doc is an emblem of home, for reasons described below in some thoughts I wrote after learning of his death over five years ago.


May 30, 2012.

Growing up in Watauga County, North Carolina, you inevitably hear some really good folk and bluegrass music. It just seems like the natural soundtrack to green mountains and mist-filled valleys. In Watauga, especially, one name always epitomized the gold-standard of mountain music: hometown legend Arthel “Doc” Watson. Doc was a fixture on the nationwide folk circuit for the better part of 5 decades, winning 7 Grammy awards (plus a lifetime achievement award) and the National Arts Medal. He was completely blind from early childhood, but made his way in the world quite capably with his other senses.

Doc passed on yesterday at 89, still picking and singing joyfully in his old age. It feels close to home for me, as his family homestead was just across the highway from my parents’ “homestead” (since 2006) in the little farm community of Deep Gap. The few times I crossed paths with Doc (more often at the grocery store than any place music-related), he struck me as a genuinely humble and grateful man—the simple fact that he was still living on his family land in Deep Gap after his fame attests to that.

Like many of his folk, bluegrass, and country contemporaries, Doc wrote or recorded a lot of spiritually themed music, what could broadly be termed “gospel” songs. It’s difficult to separate the biblical content from those genres, even in songs not explicitly about Christian concepts. The music, is, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “Christ-haunted” because of the deeply Christian culture that birthed it. If the testimonies of those who knew him better and the frequency and passion with which he sang about Christ and the Church are any indication, Doc’s love for these themes was anything but cultural. If so, he’s now living what he said once at a concert: “When I leave this world…I’ll be able to see like you can, only maybe a bit more perfect.”

Can “gospel” music be simply a superficial nod to the Christian roots of our culture that doesn’t have anything to do with the true Gospel message? Of course, but I think it also can be an ember that keeps the cultural memory of God’s sovereign grace from fading completely. Satan loves to have nations relegate the truth of Scripture and the influence of the Church to their history or to certain subcultures. Even more, though, God wills to see nations transformed by His Gospel, and He uses even the histories and subcultures of those nations to plant seeds that can fan those embers into a flame once again.

I don’t want to be in the business of over-spiritualizing popular culture, but I do see a bright lining to the customarily dark clouds of American entertainment in the resurgence of traditional (or “Americana”) music over the past decade. Of course, the music itself doesn’t qualify as preaching. The seeds of the Gospel contained in that music won’t do much to change hearts and lives unless they are watered by clear, faithful teaching of Scripture and modeled in the faithful witness of believers.

If Doc was indeed a follower of Christ, I’m sure he could think of no better legacy than that his music would be used to stir the calloused soul of America to hope again. As he sang in a recording of an old hymn (below), so also we can know that our hope doesn’t depend on our culture or, mercifully, on our own merit.

“Uncloudy Day”
by Josiah K. Allwood, Public Domain

O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

Refrain
O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an uncloudy day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
O they tell me of that land far away,
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a King in His beauty there,
And they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on the throne that is whiter than snow,
In the city that is made of gold.

O they tell me that He smiles on His children there,
And His smile drives their sorrows all away;
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of uncloudy day.

Photo © Ken Ketchie, www.boonencinfo.com

The Spiritual Vitality of Place

What does it mean to “be” somewhere?

We all live someplace; we are all from someplace. It could be a place or a nonplace, pleasant or otherwise. So long as life continues, this much is inescapable, but is location-location-location really a determining factor for anything beyond property value?

In 1910, English novelist E. M. Forster published Howard’s End, which explores questions of class, culture, and the future of his country in the face of a fading status quo. At one point in the book, Forster’s narrator laments the mobility inherent in modernity: “London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!”

What Forster hints at in this passage is a sort of spiritual vitality to place. We tend to think of communities in terms of the people who live there, which is good and right. What if there is something in the interplay of people and place, however, that goes deeper than either one can alone? A house or hill, sight or smell, can fix in our memory a summary of human experience that would not be possible without such markers. There is a “there” there, after all

In my own life, this was embodied by my maternal grandfather. At his funeral in 2011, I wrote, “He came home to Pine Mountain, and more or less stayed put for the rest of his life. In that, he taught me what a community was and why it was worth putting up with the bad and the ugly to be a part of the good.” The life he inherited and invested in that corner of West Georgia is a part of me even now because of him, though I never “lived” there a day in my life.

Perhaps to truly bind us to one another, we must love both a place and the people who find their homes there. Places (like people) are not all easy to love, but if we are willing to withhold love from anywhere, we effectively hate everywhere. Caring for God’s creation (and the spaces His image-bearers have carved within it) is part of what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Such care needs to encompass the full spectrum of our world. To borrow an idea from Wendell Berry, protecting only the majestic, “ecologically sensitive”, or quirky places without a similar regard for more mundane locales is less than true conservation. To be sure, regionality gets a lot of play these days—whether in food, language, music, or scenery. Most commentary on the subject, though, comes at a sort of cosmopolitan remove. The only people who talk about place in this way are those of us who are relatively detached from anywhere in particular. To know a place primarily in terms of terroir, I’d submit, is not to know it at all.

Geography itself has certainly played in the fortunes of men. Few major cities (at least prior to the advent of railroads and airplanes) are found away from seaports or navigable rivers and lakes. The rise of Western Europe surely owes as much to its relatively flat, arable land and moderate, Gulf-Stream-influenced climate as to any of the other cultural factors at play. In the other direction, the struggles of low-income communities in the U.S. and elsewhere are often a result of governmental and cultural segregation that located them in flood plains, cut off from commerce by uncrossable freeways and rail lines, and/or atop industrial wastelands.

Forster’s fear has long since become reality. Cosmopolitanism is king. Mobility has become the key indicator of success in the modern West. Even the average non-jet-setter is relatively capable of pulling up stakes and heading elsewhere when the opportunity arises, thanks largely to that “old Chev-ro-let.” Only the very poor seem to stay put anywhere, and their rootedness often looks less like loyalty and more like being trapped.

These divergent senses of place may be unavoidable consequences of specialization and globalization. Wealth, talent, and ambition slosh about from London to New York to Shanghai (and hundreds of other cities), creating a global “gated community” that admits comparatively few newcomers. Those who lack opportunity and access to enter the stream languish in cramped urban ghettoes or decaying company towns. Perhaps more is lost in the transaction than we realize. Berry writes, “The world has room for many people who are content to live as humans, but only for a relative few intent upon living as giants or as gods” (The Unsettling of America).

The world is increasingly stratified into the stuck-by-default and the nomads-by-choice, with less and less middle ground. A lack of shared place helps drive us to come apart in other ways. Rediscovering a way to share that space (even, as Chris Arnade observes, at McDonalds) will be key to bringing us back together. Proximity matters, and proximity happens somewhere. Can we truly love someone without being willing to be present with them? Can real relationship exist without shared sights and sounds and smells and tastes and textures?

Just as, by God’s grace, a great falling away is often followed by a great awakening, perhaps a great coming apart will be followed by a great reconciliation. There is, and has been, movement in this direction in the midst of the steady opposing current. Re-neighboring is becoming a hot topic, and the Christian Community Development Association’s plea for relocating to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty has been echoing for decades.

Perhaps, in answer to Forster’s plea, love is the only thing equal to the task of keeping us together. It was for love that God made the world, and then formed Adam from its dust. Love is what bound us to the spectacle of the earth to begin with. Recovering our love for people and their places, we may well recover our own roots and find a place called home.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate.”

– T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Further Thoughts
Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?
Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”
Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church

Photo: Bridges, Chattanooga, Tenn., October 2014.