On Scott Beauchamp’s essay “Did You Kill Anyone?” in Plough’s Spring 2021 issue, adapted from his book of the same title (Zero Books)
One of the most inadvertently sad TV shows of all time has to be The West Point Story, a cheesy 1950s Gene Roddenberry (yes, that Gene Roddenberry) production explicitly created, as a handsome West Point cadet tells the viewer at the beginning of each episode, to inspire pride in American citizens for one of their great institutions – the US Military Academy. The program shows a set of uniformly white, well-coiffed cadets learning lessons about honor and brotherhood and integrity (or sometimes, as in an episode actually titled “The Right to Choose,” women learn that it’s honorable to be an Army wife).
Viewed in 2021, it’s impossible not to think of the ten- and eleven-year-old boys who watched it and imbibed its promises of a shared world of tradition and honor and ethical conduct, only to grow up, attend West Point, head to Vietnam, and return to a civilian life with that sense of a shared world utterly shattered.
In Scott Beauchamp’s essay “Did You Kill Anyone?” (the opening of his brilliant book by the same name), we see Scott as a returned veteran from a different war, also in search of some kind of shared world – a community with a sufficiently common understanding of certain customs, moral attitudes, traditions, rituals, and history that the soldier’s relation to US society need not be renegotiated with each conversation, a community that might enable an authentic encounter. Instead, he gets the rote, repetitive questions veterans receive: “Did you kill anyone?” “Why did you join?” (I used to joke that I should get my answer to that last one printed on a business card, so I could just hand it out at parties and spare myself explaining it yet again.)
Most poignant to me is his discussion of what he calls “Midwestern Logistical Small Talk,” in which the conversation revolves around basic logistical data – have you eaten? did you have a good flight? – making “language into a comfortable and familiar meeting place where facts beget facts and everyone has equal access,” enabling “a pragmatic type of communion.”
But the shared world created by Midwestern Logistical Small Talk can’t be deployed amid the hipster-speak he encounters in Brooklyn, which back in the late 2000s was still the pivotal node of a slowly vanishing world of apolitical aestheticism (now replaced by an attachment to fashionable politics as earnest as the earlier attachment to MGMT and The Strokes). For this crowd, no amount of logistical data will explain Scott’s time in the Army.
Partly this is a matter of geography, as Scott notes, but it’s also a matter of class. Around the time I left the service, the richest twenty percent of zip codes in America sent the smallest number of kids to the military (the poorest twenty percent were also underrepresented – recruiters claim the ravages of poverty make more poor kids ineligible). The conversations Scott so ably mocks are, undoubtedly, mostly with the children of privilege for whom America is supposed to be a land of opportunities (and in those years specifically opportunities for self-expression), not sacrifices.
Against this rather depressing backdrop, conservatives sometimes like to contrast an earlier time in which there really was a shared world, the American fantasy so cheerily portrayed in The West Point Story. But the cheerful world of the show, in which the divide between citizen and soldier was bridged through the careful articulation of a sanitized vision of service (though it did capture something true about the aspirations of the Army), was a deliberate historical creation, one that eventually, violently, divided veterans against each other.
Reading Scott’s essay and reflecting on his interlocutors’ confusion about the meaning of his service, I thought not only of The West Point Story, but about a real event in the aftermath of World War I. As Jonathan Ebel details in his excellent GI Messiahs, a 1919 Armistice Day parade led by members of the American Legion ended up raiding the Centralia, Washington, offices of the Industrial Workers of the World and getting into an exchange of gunfire.
The Legion had been formed that year to promote a patriotic and collective vision of America that would keep alive “the spirit of the Great War” and protect “the American way.” Such a collective vision, though, is at odds with the other promise of America, that of pluralism – hence the attitude expressed by Chicago-based Legionnaires that “we still have a fight to be carried to a victorious conclusion here at home.”
That fight continued in a very real sense at the Industrial Workers of the World offices, where one of the Wobblies, as they were called, was a man named Wesley Everest. Everest was a veteran of the Great War as well, but his reaction to the “spirit of the Great War” was to join a revolutionary industrial-union movement, rather than one dedicated to cultivating civil and religious orthodoxy and deep reverence for a mythic past. And when violence broke out at the Legion parade, he took up arms and, supposedly, shot two of the rioting Legionnaires – men who were his ideological opposites but also fellow former soldiers. He was arrested, along with several others, but a lynch mob formed and broke into the jail. They left most of the Wobblies alone, but Everest was a veteran, an apostate. They dragged him out under the cover of darkness, beat him, hanged him, and shot him repeatedly before dragging him back to his cell and tossing his dead body in with the living prisoners.
An editorial published in the New York Times a few days later found a silver lining in the event, insofar as it could be used to further glorify the American Legion and their mission:
The word “martyr” is often misused and applied to men who are merely victims. A martyr is one whose death is caused by his support of principles and convictions. The dead soldiers who were marked for slaughter by the I.W.W. because they believed in the American flag were martyrs to that belief, and the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
When ideological divisions are too stark, and Midwestern Logistical Small Talk isn’t enough to fill the gap, that’s how a shared world is made.