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Early this week, The New York Times published a story by Jamie Tarabay about the proposed expansion of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, noting that critics contend that the memorial’s administrators “have sanitized the history of the present conflicts in order to legitimize ongoing deployments in Afghanistan and the Middle East.” The article presented an officially sanctioned museum rife with euphemism and omission that ultimately could create, at great public expense, a curation that is narrow, heroic and emotionally soothing.
This sounds less like history than fable.
One section leapt out: “Nearly every schoolchild in the country will at some point visit the memorial. They are taught how Australia, by participating in the world’s most significant modern wars, emerged from Britain’s shadow to become its own nation. It is a place where military heroism is celebrated as a foundational national principle.”
Never mind, apparently, the question of whether the invasion of Iraq was just or wise, or the occupation bungled. Forget that Afghanistan has eluded any military solution, reasserting its legend as a graveyard not just of fighters and empires but of ambitions and ideas. Stripped of the darker notes, with all foolishness and wasted blood and civilian death and persistent insurgency bleached out, such displays serve an implicit function: Let’s grieve our dead and celebrate our sacrifices and power, but without honest accounting, much less reckoning. Governments, like nostalgists, prefer their battlefield stories neat. Is this how best to teach a nation’s children about war?
On the same day this piece from Canberra appeared, At War published an investigation into the identity of a grievously wounded American Marine who in 1968 was photographed unconscious on a tank in Hue City, Vietnam. There have been rival claims to the identity of this stricken young man, and in recent years, through impressive packaging in a 2017 book by Mark Bowden and repeated amplification in articles, documentaries and a prominent museum exhibit, the man had been misidentified as Pfc. Alvin Grantham, who survived.
Loudness and repetition don’t make fact. This identification was wrong. The stricken Marine was Pfc. James Blaine, who died of his gunshot wounds on the streets of Hue.
Although these young men were alike in very many ways — fellow members of the same infantry battalion in the same battle at the same time, separated by a short distance within the flow of terrible house-to-house violence — the differences in their fates could not be more stark. Grantham (whose story remains true, but is distinct from what the photograph shows) was saved. His arc is one of recovery and long life. He is miracle-grade. Blaine died quickly. He was insensate by the time the most famous photograph of him was made, and never spoke again. An account of him is a flat, short chronicle of youth abruptly snuffed, lost to his family and this world. But he was more than silenced. Blaine was denied the extraordinary and enduringly resonant record of his own passing. After he was sacrificed in battle — a status his own service and much of his country honors and reveres — an iconic photographic artifact of his ending was overwritten, repackaged, swept into a story the opposite of his own.
How to reclaim his place and reset one moment in history?
First, read his story, by Michael Shaw, who as he picked up a research trail begun by a British war correspondent, Anthony Loyd, understood what too many people either do not grasp or cannily elide. Shaw wrote: “The confusion raises questions of accuracy and identity. It weighs the duties of journalism against the lure of uplifting war narratives. And it brings into question how much the instinct to memorialize truly respects the dead.”
Next, consider Blaine — Jimmy, as his eight siblings called him — as he was: a young farmhand and athlete drawn to the perils of the Marine Corps over the advice of his parents, who saw and urged a safer way. His brother Rob sent Shaw a long note about him that contains the sort of throat-tightening memorial that sorrow-soaked foot soldiers do not need a museum to know.
Jimmy, Rob Blaine wrote, was: “a bit mischievous. He liked to play pranks, such as bringing a fresh cowpie in tinfoil to the Gonzaga high school auction. The auctioneer was surprised when he opened it to see what was for sale. He and Tommy used to poke holes in the pop-machine cups with a straightened hanger and laugh as the purchaser lost all their cola out the bottom of the cup. He spent some time grinding down pennies into the size of dimes to use in the pop machines. He reveled in the thought of the priests finding pennies in the change box. He and his buddies once stole range balls from the local golf course and used them to pummel the nuns’ convent at their old elementary school. They hid in the field and escaped detection as the cops searched for them.”
Jimmy’s life ended soon after, in a war the country he rushed to serve would regret.
A painful truth is richer than its gentler substitute, even if the latter masks itself as more useful, or makes a better sale.
Rest in Peace, James Blaine.
Upcoming At War Event
ATLANTA, GA. // MARCH 19, 2019
Join us at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., to hear experts explore Georgia’s role in dealing with the unconscious bias veterans confront in the civilian workplace. Panelists include: John Ismay, At War staffer for The Times; Vivian Greentree, Navy veteran and senior vice president of global corporate citizenship at First Data; Jason Dozier, Army veteran and director of program operations and evaluation at Hire Heroes USA; and Ginger Miller, a disabled veteran, veteran’s spouse, business owner, chief executive officer and founder of Women Veterans Interactive. Lauren Katzenberg, editor of At War, will moderate the discussion. R.S.V.P. here.
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