The Philosopher Hero: From Socrates to Scranton

“The truth of war,” Roy Scranton announces with not a little irony in his recent Los Angeles Review of Books essay, “is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.” By offering up an individual soldier to War Truth, Scranton argues, America heals its war wounds and leaves the actual victims forgotten. Scranton calls this “the traumatized hero myth” as opposed to “the hero myth.” The former, he believes, is as destructive and ultimately conservative as the latter, as they both allow us to forget the true victims of war, the ones we killed; and both, he contends, are predicated on the false epistemology quoted above – a pathological obsession with war experience that hijacks and makes impossible honest conversations about war’s morality.

This is a good, timely argument, worth thinking about, especially considering the American Sniper phenomenon. But there’s a problem. This isn’t a new argument. Philosophers of literature have long pointed out the way in which we use memory to forget. Paul Fussell – one of the authors whose argument the essay implicitly rejects – has been derided by historians since at least the 1990s. The wealth of literature historicizing trauma compares roughly to that of literature surrounding war itself.  So the argument’s resonance can’t be Scranton’s erudition, impressive though it is; it must be something else, some epistemological basis that Scranton has and these other philosophers and historians don’t. Yes, you guessed it. Scranton is a veteran, a veteran of the Iraq invasion who, in the public’s imagination, has stumbled upon “a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.” We listen to Scranton because he has the authority borne not of his intellect, robust as it is, but of his experience.

In the spirit of Scranton’s essay, I will describe a third myth: the Philosopher-Warrior-Hero Myth (or PWH Myth for short) – one who has gone to war and seen through the narratives that others abide. It too has a history, a much longer one perhaps than even the trauma one. In fact, a good case could be made that the trauma myth is simply a modern adaptation of the older variety, with us since that curmudgeonly-old-veteran Socrates. Yet it stands to reason that if the Hero and Trauma-Hero Myth are bullshit, so is the Philosopher-Hero Myth, and we should then be just as wary of its evangelists as we are of those who find succor in the idea of the traumatized hero.

Scranton’s essay gains most of its momentum by desacralizing veteran literary texts, and he does so by giving them a history, removing the works from the literary canon and building an archaeology as Foucault would say. But again: these works have been torn every which way by eager scholars already (just Google historicity and war trauma). What is new here is the fact that Scranton is a veteran indulging in iconoclasm, and when someone who has seen the truth destroys the temple, we listen. When he describes Tim O’Brien as mystical nonsense or “negative theology” that makes language impossible, we don’t blink because we understand that he has seen what O’Brien saw and wrote about and has a right to dismiss O’Brien’s (admittedly troubling) interpretation. Likewise, when he tells us that Wilfred Owen screwed up royally by grounding his critique of the war in experience (were there no research libraries and annotated bibliographies at Craiglockhart?), and “put the issue of war beyond debate,” we are inclined to take him at his word, no matter what Owen’s text might have meant or done in that particular moment of history, because most of us have not been to war and who are we to question the Truth of one who has?

Throughout the piece, Scranton points out exactly how long each of the writers he discusses experienced combat and the type of combat they experienced – Hemingway for only a few weeks and Klay was a public relations officer. I realize that these observations are meant to point out that people do not need to see war to talk about it, that experience does not in fact matter, but the effect is the opposite: it seems to say that their accounts are somehow less for not having experienced more and if they had stuck around instead of running off into literary fantasies, they would have paid more attention to the victims, to the only ones who have a right to say anything and the ones who should be talking. One gets the idea from Scranton’s argument that these other writers are cowards of a sort, and that while they went to war, they did not really go to war. Egoism, stupidity or some combination of the two keeps them from seeing the truth that Scranton managed to gleam from his own war experience.

Scranton goes on to claim writers like Kevin Powers (who Scranton describes as too untalented to know any better) and Phil Klay (who Scranton describes as sophisticated enough but sheepishly manipulated by the powers that be) gives the audience the conventions of traumatic revelation because the audience is “more interested in war as myth than in war as reality.” This sounds nice and I’m always up for bashing ignorance, but his language begs the question: who has a grasp of this reality? Who defines the real and not real? What is it exactly in Scranton’s experience that allows him to break through the conventions that have so muddied the waters since at least The Charterhouse of Parma? It’s not his PhD coursework alone, I’ll tell you that.

The truth is Scranton’s authority to divide and order reality and non-reality derives from his own experiences as a soldier at war – the truth truth that the audience can’t handle because they’re blinded by mythology. Scranton despises the fact that we are not talking about the other side, the country we destroyed and the Iraqis we killed. He wants more acknowledgment of the fact that many American soldiers have blood on their uniform (though I feel this is pretty much the message of every non-American Sniper war story I’ve read and seen so far). This for him is truth and he is upset no one understands the truth that he experienced as reality, which, I hasten to add, includes what comes after war as well as what occurs during it. We are, if nothing else, a product of what we choose to believe about our experiences as much as the experiences themselves.

Scranton’s New York Times essay, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, a prelude to his forthcoming book, makes his epistemology more explicit. It begins:

Driving into Iraq just after the 2003 invasion felt like driving into the future. We convoyed all day, all night, past Army checkpoints and burned-out tanks, till in the blue dawn Baghdad rose from the desert like a vision of hell: Flames licked the bruised sky from the tops of refinery towers, cyclopean monuments bulged and leaned against the horizon, broken overpasses swooped and fell over ruined suburbs, bombed factories, and narrow ancient streets.

Scranton saw Baghdad burning. Scranton saw not only the truth of war but that of a future of war. We did not see Baghdad burning. Ergo, he has the epistemological upper hand on the rest of us, and we must respect his authority. His tale continues to unfold, using his war experience as a guide:

Learning how to die isn’t easy. In Iraq, at the beginning, I was terrified by the idea. Baghdad seemed incredibly dangerous, even though statistically I was pretty safe. We got shot at and mortared, and I.E.D.’s laced every highway, but I had good armor, we had a great medic, and we were part of the most powerful military the world had ever seen. The odds were good I would come home. Maybe wounded, but probably alive. Every day I went out on mission, though, I looked down the barrel of the future and saw a dark, empty hole.

Not only did he experience death, but he also contemplated the “dark, empty hole” every single day. This is a man who has pondered what it means to die, not because he wanted to but because circumstances (conveniently unexamined) put him in a Humvee and he witnessed a civilization already dead (or, rather, one which had been recently blown up by American soldiers like Scranton and myself). Quoting Simone Weil, he even argues that “the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment, our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face.” This “face of death,” Scranton claims, “was the face I saw in the mirror, and its gaze nearly paralyzed me.” Thankfully for us, the uninitiated, it did not. Jeremiah has seen the destruction of Jerusalem and has come back to let him bear witness, to his vision and what the vision has wrought, which he promptly does:

The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

Whatever the particular merits of Scranton’s argument, it only makes sense that this would seem the biggest problem faced by a young man who has been through war and who then uses his experiences to build a philosophy about climate change. This does not make what he says about climate change any less true. But that’s not the issue. The problem put forward at the start of the LARB essay is not whether the people who have been traumatized possess truth at all but the false and insidious ways we bear witness to truth using war experience. Should we throw out his entire climate change argument because we now know that he too manipulates the Trauma-Philosopher-Hero narrative to his advantage?

I don’t think so. I rather like Scranton’s ideas about both climate change and the Iraq war. I too use my war experiences to make arguments that need to be made. People would have little interest in what I or he had to say without these experiences. I simply believe Scranton should exercise a little humility when accusing others of using their war experience (or lack thereof) unjustly. We cannot draw lines in the sand about false and true epistemologies. When we do, we end up condemning vast swathes of very different authors and stories to the dust bin of self-help nonsense. It should be acknowledged that these stories can be dangerous, that they can be used to forget war experience, to exclude that of others, but we also have to admit that they can be used to remember. To dismiss them as tools of forgetting is to miss how closely forgetting and remembering actually are to one another, how forgetting involves remembering and remembering forgetting. It is to be both ahistorical and illogical. It is to create another myth.

Towards the end of the LARB essay, Scranton mentions his own work within the veteran community, and his hope that people hear other perspectives, not just Klay’s, which he has somehow, through this discussion of myth, grouped with Hemingway and Owen. This strikes me as no different than George Packer’s article, which Scranton seemed to have disliked as much as I did. But where I took issue with the lazy grouping of wildly disparate authors, Scranton takes issue with the benevolent reception of their work. Packer’s arbitrary list of traumatic truth-tellers is no less arbitrary than Scranton’s list of traumatic lie-perpetuators. In fact, they are one and the same. Yet Owen, Hemingway, O’Brien, and Klay are not part of the same archeology no matter if the country has decided to have them represent their particular wars in one way or another. It’s unfair to let Packer’s gross misunderstanding of war literature excuse our own casual inversions, to make someone else’s stupid mythology our own by turning it upside down.

The larger point here is not that Scranton is wrong. I agree with much of what he says, at least insofar as he sees the trauma narrative worth criticizing. It’s about damn time. I’m even okay with his being a philosopher-hero, and wish him luck. My issue is the creation of a new mythology to dismiss the old. Go out and debunk the myths, yes, but please don’t ignore the part your own epistemology plays in these myths and the way we constantly work to create new myths. For when we pretend to absolve ourselves of this all too human tendency, we cease to empathize with any experience but our own, and we not only use our own experience for authority but also use this authority to deny others their experiences.

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Michael Carson

Michael Carson served as a U.S. Army Infantry Officer from 2005 to 2009. He studied history in New England and presently lives on the Gulf Coast with his wife and son.

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