"The Mourner's Song is a well-integrated and wonderfully written set of reflections on the role of the poetic, architectural, and visual arts in the remembrance of war dead and…of killing in war.…Illuminating and written with a lively and engaging style."—Jonathan Shay, Bryn Mawr Classical Review
"Tatum refuses to let us delude ourselves. The poetry of war for western civilization has always been in the killing."—Thomas G. Palaima, Times Higher Education Supplement
"[Tatum] gives us a sequence of elegant, thoughtful and moving essays on aspects of war as the Iliad suggests them."—Tom Payne, The Daily Telegraph
"An eloquent and moving study of the memorialization of death in war, showing how the forms and processes of art convert mourning into memorial."—History Today
[In The Mourner's Song] a Dartmouth classics professor delivers his shrewd, highly reportorial meditation on monuments and memorials to war dead.—Read Sun Tzu and Tatum together. Better, reverse the course of life and read Tatum first. Suddenly, Sun seems to stand still, as the voices rise silently behind him."—Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer Books
"The classicist James Tatum has taken two numinous texts, Homer's Iliad and Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, and studied them in their various dimensions along with other voices like Robert Lowell and General Grant, creating something new out of man's obsession with war and memory that roves back—like the rose—through so many wild centuries to our origins and the titanic wrath of Achilles before the walls of Troy."—Gore Vidal
An excerpt from
An America War Experience
Winners get to name their wars; the Trojan War will forever be the Trojan, not the Greek, War. But the Iliad and much other art from war enables us to enter as intimately into the mourning of an enemy as of a friend. It has never required a great leap of the imagination to see Homer's Trojan War as also the Trojans' Greek War. What Americans call "the Vietnam War" was in this sense obviously "the America War" for the Vietnamese. There is perhaps even more reason today to think of this conflict as the America War, since it was the Vietnamese of the north and of the Viet Cong, and not the Americans and their allies in the south, who eventually won it.
The November 1996 Vietnam Wall Experience at Norwich University (a private military college in Northfield, Vermont) was a highly disciplined guide to what its war was supposed to mean. In this respect it was far more typical than Maya Lin's original of what such monuments are designed to accomplish, so far as governments are concerned. But as with all such conflicts that continue to live in our imagination, the American Vietnam War does not yet reduce to such a single meaning, however ardently the teachers of cadets might wish it.
Knowing that no such official war monument could help but omit as much as it commemorates, the antiwar activist and artist Chris Burden took Maya Lin's design and used it to unheal memory's wounds. A preliminary sketch of his Other Vietnam Memorial foresaw a "list of three million Vietnamese killed during the US involvement in Vietnam"; it would be on "Copper pages, hinged on [a] central pole," and could be turned by viewers. In the catalogue prepared for a 1992 exhibition of The Other Vietnam Memorial at the Museum of Modern Art, Burden is quoted as saying, "I just thought somewhere there should be a memorial to the Vietnamese that were killed in the war. So I wanted to make this book, sort of like Moses' tablet, that would be an official record of all these three million names. I would suspect that we will be lucky if we get twenty-five percent of the names; other ones would be nameless, basically faceless, bodies. . . . I want the size of the sculpture . . . to reflect the enormity of the horror."
The result is a memorial statistically impressive in its numbers, at the cost of making actual sense. In order to register three million casualties, Burden took a catalogue that contained four thousand Vietnamese names, transformed them into verbal integers, and designed a computer-generated permutation of them. As the exhibition's curator, Robert Storr, observed, "A degree of abstraction necessarily persists. Even so, the war that so many want to consign to the past has never been more actual, with the enormity of the bloodletting at last represented in toto. Reckoning the gross facts of history in terms of the fate of individuals, Burden's 'Other Vietnam Memorial' thus partially retrieves the Vietnamese dead from statistical purgatory and so from a double disappearance: the 3,000,000 it symbolically lists are the displaced persons of the American conscience." The Other Vietnam Memorial is not only marked by a degree of abstraction. The aim is to exhaust the very idea of an American Vietnam War memorial.
The area of Tacon point was built by the Americans and their Saigon puppets. Built in 1968 including an airport and a steady defense system with 10,000 occupying soldiers and thousands of assault troops from the Americans and the Saigon puppet regime, in order to stop assistance from the north to the battle of the three countries of Indochina.
American air and firepower guaranteed that there would be no replay of the French defeat of 1954, however. General Giap never intended the siege at Khe Sanh to be a Dien Bien Phu for the Americans, but a diversion from the main event he was planning for 1968, the Tet offensive. When Khe Sanh's strategic uselessness for even a war of attrition was at last obvious to the American commanding generals—it had been obvious to the marines from the beginning—they evacuated the position and took everything with them that could conceivably be used as a war trophy, or as material for propaganda, not reckoning on the value scrap metal would have for a poor economy.
Pilgrimages to such memory places have become one of the preoccupations of our time. Proust is an eloquent witness to what can be recovered by such travel to these sites of memory.
These are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years. . . . There is no need to travel in order to see it again; we must dig down inwardly to discover it. What once covered the earth is no longer above but beneath it; a mere excursion does not suffice for a visit to the dead city: excavation is necessary also. But we shall see how certain fugitive and fortuitous impressions carry us back even more effectively to the past, with a more delicate precision, with a more light-winged, more immaterial, more headlong, more unerring, more immortal flight, than these organic dislocations.
A pilgrimage to the monuments of Thiepval, Norwich, or Bien Hoa is the kind of organic dislocation Proust describes. It leaves us more than ever in need of that delicate precision of thought, that light-winged, immaterial, immortal flight. We need the songs that the Muses inspire.
Credit for epigraph poem: Reprinted from W. D. Ehrhart, Beautiful Wreckage: New and Selected Poems (Adastra Press, 1999). By permission of the author. See www.wdehrhart.com.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 22-32 of The Mourner's Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam by James Tatum, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press and of the author.