[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Call it a summer whim or something about this grim moment of ours, but I had an urge to post at TomDispatch my very first piece of published writing. It appeared 48 years ago in what was, at the time, one of the more obscure journals on the face of the Earth, one I helped found as a then-antiwar-China-scholar-to-be: the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars . As happens in so many lives, however, I became anything but a China scholar. I was instead swept out of my life by opposition to the Vietnam War and ended up elsewhere entirely. The piece I wrote would, more than two decades later, lie at the core of my second book, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Anyway, having been on this planet for three-quarters of a century, I wanted to bring this piece, "Ambush at Kamikaze Pass," and its vision of how Americans (particularly white Americans) were once taught to look at the rest of the world back to our twenty-first-century moment. It's long compared to normal TD posts and I've changed nothing in it (except to add section titles). I'd stand by it today. Tom Engelhardt]
In the later 1960s, thanks to the efforts of the antiwar movement, the Vietnamese -- the dead, the wounded, the mistreated, as well as "the enemy" -- seemed to come ever closer to us until, though I was living in quiet Cambridge, Massachusetts, I sometimes had the eerie feeling that Vietnamese were dying right outside my window. In the present American world, that undoubtedly sounds ludicrous and histrionic. You'll have to take my word for it that the sensation then was visceral indeed.
Which brings me to the old black-and-white TV I got at some point in 1968 or 1969. What I remember about it is that, in the era before remote controls, the dial you turned by hand to change channels was broken, so I had to use a pair of pliers. Sometimes, I had it on my desk while I worked; sometimes, propped on a chair, an arm's reach from my bed. And in the off-hours when old movies filled secondary channels, I began to re-watch the westerns, adventure films, and war movies of my childhood.
It became an almost obsessional activity. I watched at least 30 to 40 of them, no small feat in the era before you could find anything you wanted online at a moment's notice. Those films from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s -- grade-B westerns, John Wayne-style World War II movies, and the like -- had for me been the definition of entertainment sunny side up. I had only the fondest memories of them. You always knew what to expect: the Indians (or Mexicans, or Japanese) would fall in vast numbers, the cavalry would ride to the rescue in the nick of time, the Marines would advance triumphantly, the West would be won, victory assured. It was how it should be. Imagine my shock, then, to look at those films again years later -- with that visceral sense of Vietnamese dying in my neighborhood -- and realize that the sunniest part of my childhood had been based on a spectacle of slaughter. The "Vietnamese" had always been the ones to fall in staggering numbers just before the moment of victory or the cowboy got the girl.
This was, of course, my own tiny version of the disillusionment so many experienced with a previously all-American tale in those Vietnam War years. Our country's triumphs, I suddenly realized, had been built on conquest and on piles of nonwhite bodies. Believe me, looking back on my childhood from that antiwar moment was a shock and it led me to produce "Ambush at Kamikaze Pass," the first critical essay of my life . It is now up at TomDispatch for the first time almost half a century later. Tom
Ambush at Kamikaze Pass
By Tom Engelhardt
[This essay first appeared in volume 3, number 1, of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars in 1971.]
"I was visiting an Indian school and a movie was being shown in the auditorium about the cavalry and the Indians. The cavalry was, of course, outnumbered and holding an impossible position where the Indians had chased them into the rocks. The Indians, attempting to sneak up on the cavalry, were being killed, one every shot. When it finally appeared that the Indians were going to overrun the army position the ubiquitous cavalry appeared on the far horizon with their bugle blowing, and charged to save the beleaguered few. The whole auditorium full of Indian students cheered."
-- Our Brother's Keeper: The Indian in White America
It was a thrilling drama of love and death they saw silently reeled off; the scenes, laid at the court of an oriental despot, galloped past, full of gorgeousness and naked bodies, thirst of power and raving religious self-abnegation, full of cruelty, appetite and deathly lust, and slowing down to give a full view of the muscular development of the executioner's arms. Constructed, in short, to cater to the innermost desires of an onlooking, international civilization."
-- Thomas Mann, Magic Mountain
"Westerns" may have been America's most versatile art form. For several generations of Americans, Westerns provided history lessons, entertainment, and a general guide to the world. They created or recreated a flood of American heroes, filled popcorned weekends, and overwhelmed untold imaginations. It's as difficult today to imagine movies without them as to think of a luncheonette without Coca-Cola. In their folksy way, they intruded on our minds. Unobtrusively they lent us a hand in grinding a lens through which we could view the whole of the non-white world. Their images were powerful; their structure was satisfying; and, at their heart, lay one archetypal scene which went something like this:
White canvas-covered wagons rolled forward in a column. White men, on their horses, ride easily up and down the lines of wagons. Their arms hang loosely near their guns. The walls of the buttes rise high on either side. Cakey streaks of yellow, rusty red, dried brown enclose the sun's heat boiling up on all sides. The dust settles on their nostrils, they gag and look apprehensively towards the heights, hostile and distant. Who's there? Sullenly, they ride on.
Beyond the buttes, the wagon train moves centrally into the flatlands, like a spear pointed at the sunset. The wagons circle. Fires are built; guards set. From within this warm and secure circle, at the center of the plains, the white-men (-cameras) stare out. There, in the enveloping darkness, on the peripheries of human existence, at dawn or dusk, hooting and screeching, from nowhere, like maggots, swarming, naked, painted, burning and killing, for no reason, like animals, they would come! The men touch their gun handles and circle the wagons. From this strategically central position, with good cover, and better machines, today or tomorrow, or the morning after, they will simply mow them down. Wipe them out. Nothing human is involved. It's a matter of self-defense, no more. Extermination can be the only answer.
There are countless variations on this scene. Often the encircled wagon train is replaced by the surrounded fort; yet only the shape of the object has changed. The fort, like the wagon train, is the focus of the film. Its residents are made known to us. Familiarly, we take in the hate/respect struggle between the civilian scout and the garrison commander; the love relations between the commander's daughter and the young first lieutenant who-has-yet-to-prove-himself; the comic routines of the general soldiery. From this central point in our consciousness, they sally forth to victory against unknown besiegers with inexplicable customs, irrational desires, and an incomprehensible language (a mixture of Pig Latin and pidgin Hollywood).