If American literature were acclaimed by talent rather than by the size of advertising accounts, a new book by W. D. Ehrhart would be the talk of the arts and culture world. One of the poet laureates of the Vietnam War, Ehrhart’s memoirs, to many readers, are even more sizzling. But there is scant mention in the mass media of his latest work.
Outside Philadelphia, where he lives and occasionally is showcased in The Inquirer, Ehrhart is a hard sell in establishment newsrooms. A major reason, I suspect, is his blistering critique of press coverage of Vietnam and subsequent U.S. military adventures—the topic of the title essay in The Madness of It All. Another reason, certainly, is that his publisher is a small press with a minuscule promotion budget. Getting minimal media attention, in any case, has been one of Bill Ehrhart’s frustrations ever since his first poems appeared in 1972 in a slim anthology of poetry by Vietnam veterans published from my kitchen table.
Author and editor of more than a dozen collections of prose and poetry, Ehrhart is one of the most fascinating writers in America. He bares not only his soul, but personal details most people only share with their closest friends. He offers not only his unvarnished opinions, but also the clash and swirl of contradictory beliefs and emotions that formed his current views. In gruff but generous fashion, he invites readers into his mind and heart at work, as he wrestles with what to make of the savagery that passes for U.S. foreign policy and inanities of domestic American life.
Throughout this collection of essays and speeches at college conferences and high school assemblies, Ehrhart blurts out his innermost thoughts and then recreates how he arrived at them. “What am I doing here, I thought. 7 should have known better,” he wrote in an account of the patriotic rage he stirred up in his hometown when he gave an antiwar talk at the Rotary Club, which had expected a heroic homage to American prowess on battlefields.
“I had grown up in this town. Then I had joined the Marines, fought in Vietnam, and discovered that the world was not what the people of Perkasie thought it was. The town looked different when I came back,” he recalled. “These people had misled me. And they had done this not out of malice or greed or spite, but out of willful and studied ignorance. They believed everything they had taught me.”
In the title essay, he unveils the volcanic depths of his own rage that drove him to furiously write book after book about his war and postwar experiences and, in his day job, importune high school and college students to study the stark consequences of our national myths. “For all that I am now 53-years-old and 34 years removed from the war in Vietnam, there is still a wounded place deep inside of me that will forever be the 18-year-old Marine watching journalists come and go as they please while I and my friends must stay where we are until we have served our time, or are severely wounded or crippled, or get killed,” he wrote in a jeremiad that bursts out of a book review.
Chucking aside literary conventions, Ehrhart yanks the focus from book review to a tale of how reading books by two renowned war correspondents triggered raw memories of why many GI’s despised the press: “those civilians with the notepads and cameras” who swept through a battle zone and “deluded themselves—and their readers— into thinking they understood the experiences of ordinary soldiers and Marines.” He notes that on this subject he is incapable of objectivity and in airing his bile, offended an author who was a friend. But, in what is his signature style, he says exactly what’s on his mind.
Ehrhart’s blunt commentaries are meant to shock readers into rethinking conventional wisdom. Some essays grab your arm to tell an impassioned tale of warning, some nudge your ribs with black humor. Most of them—whether about war and peace, junk mail, or taxes— have a sobering moral.
“In the ten years after I began smoking cigarettes, I also tried marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, barbiturates, LSD and PCP. (Well, it was the ‘60’s, after all.) I enjoyed some of those drugs more than others, but the only drug I ever became addicted to was tobacco,” he writes in an essay on cigarette advertising entitled “Alive with Pleasure.”
Sometimes, as in “Tugboats on the Delaware” and essays on poets, he writes for the sheer pleasure of describing people he admires doing skillful work. Many of the selections in this collection are comments on current events that first appeared as op-ed pieces in various newspapers. “An Encounter with the IRS,” a hilarious sketch of bumbling bureaucracy, was reprinted by Reader’s Digest.
But more times than not, Ehrhart is drawn to trying to reform America’s fixation on war. Tellingly, when he writes on calamities in Vietnam, forgotten poets of the Korean War, or mayhem in the Middle East, the circle of interested publishers dramatically shrinks. Yet Ehrhart’s work has won admirers far beyond the usual academic shelters for dissent. He has read bitter battlefield poems at West Point. His scathing look at coming home from combat to college, Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War, was taught at the Air Force Academy. The U.S. Army War College, where he has been an invited speaker, has a collection of Ehrhart books in its library.
“I’m just as weary of those I’ve come to call the “Professional Peace Crowd” as I am of those who want to settle every dispute by force of arms,” he writes in a typical zinger, that may unsettle readers who earlier in this collection learned that Ehrhart the ex-warrior became a teacher in Quaker schools. “I am coming to realize that the uniformed services are just about the only segment of American society that has actually turned around, stared the Vietnam War right in the face, and tried to come to grips with it. I don’t agree with all the conclusions the military has come to—in fact, I don’t think I agree with most of them—but I respect their efforts to learn something useful.”
Yet, in the wake of 9/11, Ehrhart emphatically parts company with military strategists. In “Where Do We Go from Here?” he concludes that war has come to America, yet rushing to battle overseas offers no solution. “If the United States of America is ever to find real peace and security, we must start sharing with the rest of the world all the blessings and bounty this world has to offer. This will not be easy to do because it will mean that all of us will have to give up at least some of what we have, but it will be, in the end, easier to accomplish than any other option available to us. We need only look at the fate of the Greeks, the Romans, the Turks, or the Spanish for proof. We forget at our own peril that the sun never used to set on the British Empire.”
Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear that quote on “Good Morning America.” But Ehrhart knows his audience: his aim, as it has been since his first poem on the rude realities of war, is to be read in barracks and bedrooms across the country.