Issue #34, October 1997
Winters of my early elementary school years found me in the company of my stepfather in the woods of Wisconsin in a duck blind, practicing aiming hunting rifles and minding the dogs between shoots, while he worked with the rifles and dogs to hunt and retrieve the birds. During hunting season at our house there were regular dinners of fresh-killed duck which we ate carefully, picking out the buckshot before dipping warm slices in melted butter. Our house was in the woods on a lakeshore, an hour's school bus ride from town, and was tiny; its address was Cottage Two. It was wood-heated, and during blizzards we slept in sleeping bags on the floor around the stove because snow was wind-driven through cracks in walls and siding into the other rooms. Hand-carved statuettes of game birds decorated the house, and a rifle leaned near the door, ready to be carried outside by my stepfather if any strange car were to turn off the main road down the long gravel alley toward our house and the lake.
Stepfather's efforts to bring my resistant self into his world of hunting were multilayered, beginning with an introduction to the bloodlust of the hunt, and ending with an appeal to my analytical mind that centered around his conception of natural order. In between were many phases of combined efforts, anchored in an emotional appeal of a person wishing to have company in his philosophy. He inconsistently attributed the embracement of this lifestyle to a gender-based preference. Sometimes he mused in frustration that if I were a boy, this would all come more naturally to me, and he wouldn't have to make so many appeals on so many levels so fruitlessly. On the other hand, I was a seven-year-old introverted bookworm, which I would have been no matter what my gender. So mostly he developed theories about my resistance to hunting that he attributed to my father's urbane influence.
Summer vacations of those same years found me in the company of my father in the woods of Oregon on long walks through the pine groves that surrounded and penetrated the college town he lived in. On our walks we counted trees, tickled and poked the crayfish that lived in the streams, and collected woodsy artifacts of leaves and rocks. We lived in a succession of apartments and small bungalows in neighborhoods so serene that even twelve blocks from "downtown" a dewy low-key silence pervaded the sundown that allowed the sound of crickets to come in through the windows. There were regular dinners of fried chicken, which my dad cooked from memories of his Okie father's cuisine, or else retrieved from the Colonel's up the street. We ate it on our front steps, and chatted with neighbors and passers-by.
Dad had gone to college on a track scholarship, and in school was co-chair of the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. He had been traumatized by the gun-related death a close friend in junior high school, and by the deaths by cancer and other diseases of many people close to him early in his life. He had a deep aversion to death scenarios of any kind, and his involvement with the SDS was an outgrowth of his committed pacifism and the depth of his negative identification with all things military. As did many people of his generation, he developed a deep interest in Buddhism, and became actively involved in studying and practicing Buddhist philosophy, which he found validated his wish to disavow violence and armaments.
In stepfather's theory, urbane people have developed an "illness", in the sense that their humanity (as he conceived of it) had deteriorated as they constructed lifeworlds that denied and disguised their interdependence with nature. For him, hunting was the ultimate affirmation of that interdependence. The identity that he built around his extensive involvement with game hunting was based on a general theory that war was the most historically consistent element of human cultural history, and that hunting was the "hobby" form of the profession of warrioring. He felt that other cultural options were not universal enough to combat the alienation inherent in twentieth-century life.
The dialogue between my father and my stepfather about the extent to which the two of them were opposites rang in my ears for twenty years. During my childhood I did experience them in many ways as the opposites they claimed to be, my dad the peace-loving, anti-war activist, suburban self-identified hippie; my stepfather the gun-toting, survivalist-identified woods dweller. I spent a large chunk of my early life within these two scenarios, scenarios so different that the twain never met except insofar as my life was shared with them both. This sharing necessarily created a space in my experience for reflection, since experiencing the two lifestyles as a pair illuminated their contrasting features in a way that made those features far more obvious than they would have been, had I experienced either of them in isolation.
As I grew up, I observed that these lives, while radically different in many ways, had in common some basic structural features: that both father and stepfather were white men from rural, lower-class backgrounds, and both had heavily mediated their identities through philosophies of war. I believe that these structural similarities are linked and interdependent, and that therefore my father's and my stepfather's life patterns were more coherent with one another than either of them would have acknowledged.
Among members of the lower class, roles in military campaigns are often major components of family history narratives. The U.S. military markets itself to the lower class as an emancipatory lifestyle choice that offers opportunities for travel, education, and professional growth. These opportunities are depicted in advertising as mimicking the opportunities that are available to the middle and upper classes by virtue of their economic freedom. This contemporary phenomenon parallels the relationship in the last century between the U.S. government, with its plans for the settling of north America, and the European immigrants who did the settling. This relationship between military interests and the lower class' interest in cultural emancipation results in a class-based cultural heritage of interdependence with American military history that is centered in the lower class.
Military history is therefore more self-defining of individuals from the lower classes than of other groups who had greater access to other avenues of self-definition. This is true of all members of the American lower classes. Since my father and stepfather are both white, however, this analysis focuses on the ways in which this relationship is played out among the white lower class. I trace this relationship between U.S. military interests and the lives of members of the white lower class as it has played out from its point of origin: the settling of north America by European immigrants in the nineteenth-century.
A primary task of Anglo-American culture in the hundred-and-forty years between the Lewis and Clark Expedition and World War II, was to colonize North America. As expressed by the philosophy of manifest destiny, this was its ultimate goal and responsibility. This colonization was enormously successful, as the national security and international dominance of the U.S. since WWII attests. If we think of manifest destiny as a philosophy that was expressed as a carefully planned and executed war effort, then that prompts us to look at the role of European immigrant settlers in that effort. Insofar as they were paid by the government to eradicate native populations, and "granted" native-inhabited land, the journeys of European immigrant settlers can be seen as an incremental stealth war in which the families who rode in the covered wagons were the footsoldiers. Consider the term used to describe the property titles of European immigrants: "donation land claims," donation here meaning gift, and claim meaning take. This linguistic obfuscation of the transaction that was taking place is revealing of the schizophrenic relationship European settlers had with the land they were taking. On one hand, they are subservient to the government's gift of land upon which they depend to start a new life. At the same time they are staking it as territory, in the sense of land captured in a military operation.
The settling of north America by European immigrants was a phenomenon that had many characteristics, of which this quality of being on the frontlines of a guerrilla war was only one. Because it was such a multiform set of events, it was very easy for the participants in this war, and many observers, to have other interpretations of the phenomenon. For instance, many refugee narratives were being lived out by the immigrants, who were fleeing religious and political persecution and famine. The cultural environment of the settlers was also dominated by the powerful "pioneer" trope of the exploring adventurer. And many immigrants were simply fleeing poverty, in search of new opportunities for wealth. But as the dream of manifest destiny was fulfilled, it had the effect of not only largely eradicating native populations, but also stratifying the European settlers into winners and losers of the big gamble--whether or not the new country could be more fruitful than the old.
Working-class whites are the group that lost that particular gamble, which raises the question of what kind of cultural history was inherited by the children and grandchildren of those people. If they were to have inherited their immigrant ancestors' native language, that inheritance was largely impeded by the fact that, unless that language were English, it was probably lost as the immigrants participated in the "melting pot" ideology. If they were to have inherited a native European cultural tradition, that inheritance was largely impeded by intermarriage between members of immigrant groups from different countries. It was also grandly impeded by the deliberate cultural trade, on the part of the immigrants, from their original traditions to the American pioneer tradition. And if their descendants are to inherit the "pioneer" tradition, then how is that tradition to be coherent and sustainable, as it is intertwined with complicit participation in the guerrilla war and holocaust which won North American for the Europeans?
This experience of settling North America, with the features of joining the melting pot, eliminating native populations, staking claim to territory on behalf of the government, and living out frontier mythologies, was a culturally defining experience for more than one generation of European immigrants. The term "melting pot" is a shorthand for an assembly of activities that all center around immigrant groups deliberately exchanging their disparate cultures for a common "American" cultural identity. The extent to which Americans as a whole have done this is extremely varied. But among European immigrants, I believe that the cultural homogenization implied by the "melting pot" process was in fact largely effective. As the frontier vanished, however, pioneer culture became progressively less relevant to the lives of rural Americans of European descent. It had an inherent temporal limitation, since its relevance was confined to a period of expansion which had a definable life span.
It is interesting to consider what happened to the people left behind as this fund of cultural meaning dried up. I believe that as this tradition was transmitted over time, it was parceled out into pieces of varying degrees of sustainable relevance, and that those pieces which had sustainable relevance were culturally retained. This is how I explain the prevalence of the tradition of game hunting among the white rural poor, and of family history narratives based on stories of generational participation in American military campaigns. These two characteristics of rural, lower-class European American culture are two of the most continuously relevant pieces of our culture. I see them as the remainders of the process in which the people have been drained on two sides of meaningful cultural activity. On one side, their European traditions have been compromised for the sake of developing a common American identity, on the other side, the American identity that many of them traded for was intrinsically limited.
It is my theory that this drain was experienced and interpreted in different ways by many members of my own family, most visibly to me by both my father and my stepfather. In considering the differences between them, one major feature distinguishes them from one another: dad fought in Vietnam and stepfather did not. This difference puts them in very different places in terms of their relationship to the American war tradition. In my dad's life, the use of the lower-classes as footsoldiers by the U.S. government, and the resulting tradition of generational involvement in U.S. military campaigns was in every way a living history. His linked life choices of committed pacifism, Buddhism, and suburban existence can be seen as a unified negative self-definition vis-a-vis that living history.
My stepfather was personally removed from that history, and related to it as an observer, although like my father he inherited a family history of generational involvement in the armed forces. He distanced himself philosophically from American foreign policy, and focused on researching cultural options available to him from the body of European cultural history, and defined himself in terms of a relationship to nature mediated by hunting as a lifestyle choice. This is opposite, in some senses, to my dad's adopted faith of Buddhism, and his anti-war efforts. However, insofar as a hunting expedition is a limited, one-way war, then the similarity remains that they both defined themselves culturally in terms of their relationship to war.
This difference in experience between the two of them, that one fought in Vietnam and the other did not, I think is a primary distinguishing feature between the ways in which the two of them generated different individual responses to the cultural heritage of white poverty that they shared. The fact that stepfather never experienced the horror of war directly may account for the extent to which he was absorbed by the mythos of war. Dad, however, even had he had a predilection for the mythos of war, would have been hard-put to sustain an involvement in that mythos, after having served in the special forces. John Wayne's interpretation of life in the Green Berets did not resemble the common experience of that situation.
Insofar as their distinct philosophies of war were responses to a common cultural heritage, my father and stepfather are two of the same: men navigating life options among the many drains of meaningful options placed on their history. For those rural white Americans, descendants of the original European immigrants, when they were left out of the economic bounty that was bought with their labor, they became long-standing human remainders of the war effort that originated with manifest destiny. Their life stories are much about navigating this dearth of inheritance.