T.J. Boynton: On "Up Rising"
Robert Duncan's "Up Rising," excised from the larger work "Passages," understands the Vietnam War as a natural manifestation of what mainstream politicians call "The American Spirit." This spirit appears under various names in the poem, such as "mania," "hatred" and "vanity," and in all of its guises emanates from the "swollen head" of Johnson, the image with which the poem concludes. Superintending the war in the late 60s, Johnson takes his historical place among the twentieth century's other great "simulacra of men" (1), Hitler and Stalin, and duplicates their efforts in human extermination with napalm, setting the North (and South) Vietnamese communists' "hair a- fire" in gruesome parody of a "Texas barbeque." For Duncan, however, it is not so much Johnson that is to blame for roasting the Vietnamese as it is nationalist Americanism itself, the megalomaniacal "will" that runs through U.S. history from the time of its conception and that has crystallized since World War II in machinations of the military-industrial complex.
In prosecuting the war Johnson calls on the United States' natural human resources, "drawing from the underbelly of the nation/ such blood and dreams as swell the idiot psyche/ out of its courses into an elemental thing" (6- 8). Johnson orchestrates the conglomeration of these "blood and dreams" in part at the behest of "the professional military behind him" (13), the men at the "back of the scene" carrying out the "business of war" (15). It would seem momentarily that Johnson is merely a puppet of these men, and that the cause of the war is limited to the enclave of the Joint Chiefs. But in the third stanza Duncan links these mens' militarism with "the all-American boy in the cockpit" of "the ravening eagle of America," "loosing his flow of napalm" in a creative burst, "drawing now/ not with crayons in his secret room/ the burning of homes and the torture of mothers and fathers and/ children" (20-25). The "all-American boy" burns Vietnamese peasants with a facility equal to that with which he drew pictures as a child, and it is precisely his heedless, unconcerned pursuit of his aims that makes him all-American.
When Duncan connects this boy with "the private rooms of small-town bosses and businessmen," the council chambers of the gangs that run the great cities" and "the fearful hearts of good people in the suburbs turning the/ savory meat over the charcoal burners" (34-39), he shifts his emphasis somewhat from the people to those in power, although it is still the people's fear that allows the military nationalist status quo to reproduce itself. It is in the "private rooms" of the nation's capitalist controllers more than in the all-American's "secret room" that the plans of war are drawn up. It is in the "back of the scene" that "the atomic stockpile; the vials of synthesized/ diseases . . . [and] the gasses of despair" get concocted, and those who concoct them appear in public as normal as average citizens: "chemists we have met at cocktail parties, passt daily and with a/ happy 'Good Day' on the way to classes or work, have workt to/ make war too terrible for men to wage" (49-51), but their efforts have yielded napalm, and with Johnson at the nation's helm incinerating the innocent is not "too terrible" a prospect for war to be waged.
The mistake has been to give scientists, capitalists, generals and presidents the privacy and insulation needed to breed nightmares, and the blame for their activities resides partly with the American citizenry. America's "deep hatred . . . for the alien world" drives its war machine, just as its deep hatred for "the new world that might have/ been Paradise" inspired "a holocaust of burning/ Indians, trees and grasslands," all of which in the eyes of American power appear as "real estate" and "profitable wastes" (52- 61). "All our sense of our common humanity," the affection for "communal things" and for "communion," which the barbequing "good people" in the U.S. share with the agents of North Vietnamese "communism," gets devoured by Johnson's military industrial complex, and "the very glint of Satan's eyes from the pit of hell . . ./ now shines from the eyes of the President in the swollen head of the nation" (55-70). In the year following the composition of "Up Rising," Nixon took power and installed Henry Kissinger as his national security adviser. In an uncanny and dismaying irony, the poem's hyperbolic encapsulation of 1968 U.S. military policy, to fire on "any life at all or any sign of life" (24), in fact became U.S. policy under these two mens' reign. Noam Chomsky quotes Kissinger as saying, in an exchange with Nixon reprinted earlier this year in the May 27th New York Times, that the strategy of the Cambodian bombing campaign should be "anything that flies on anything that moves" (International Socialist Review, Sep.-Oct. 16 2004). The worst Duncan could imagine only equaled subsequent military policy under Nixon. More ironic, perhaps, and certainly more dismaying, is that to this day the public perspective on the war and its consequences for the Vietnamese has changed very little. Chomsky describes the response to the article in the times: "Was there any reaction to the Nixon-Kissinger transcript? Did anybody notice it? Did anybody comment on it? Actually, I've brought it up in talks a number of times, and I've noticed that people don't understand it. They understand it the minute I say it, but not five minutes later, because it's just too unacceptable. We cannot be people who openly and publicly call for genocide and then carry it out. That can't be. So therefore, it didn't happen. And therefore, it doesn't have to be wiped out of history, because it will never enter history." So it is that Duncan's "good people" refuse to come to grips with the actions of people who have run their country. And so it is that irreversible crimes such as the extermination of Native Americans, the incineration of the Vietnamese, and the cluster-bombing of Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah are allowed to proceed.
Copyright © 2004 by T.J. Boynton