Dulce et decorum est

Gore Vidal’s essays maintain his reputation as the grand old man of iconoclasm

by Nathan Hall

Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to spend some time in Europe knows the news coverage over there of America’s military forays differs drastically from the jingoistic pap one is subjected to here in the United States. What is described by CNN as the brutal kidnapping of innocent soldiers by ruthless Bosnian warlords might be alleged to be a case of arrogant, intoxicated American soldiers blatantly violating international law by German news networks. In times of economic crisis and seemingly endless warfare, many disaffected U.S. citizens often make half-hearted threats to move out of the country for good; something that Gore Vidal did many years ago. If any of those fleeing our troubled shores end up with an acerbic wit comparable to Vidal’s razor-sharp intellect, then perhaps the more the merrier.

Lord knows Vidal, 78, tried his best to fit in with us Yanks before finally packing up for a comfortable Italian villa. The son of a West Point aeronautics instructor who founded three airline companies, Vidal was raised by a former Oklahoma senator and happens to be the cousin of former Vice President Al Gore. Currently the author of 22 novels and well over 200 essays, the intellectual gadfly also unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1960. Acting and screenwriting is another time-consuming personal pastime, landing him substantial film roles in 1997’s “Gattaca,” 1992’s “Bob Roberts” and 1994’s “With Honors.” Vidal unfortunately also holds the dubious distinction of writing the script for 1979’s “Caligula” considered by some critics to be the worst movie of all time. Additionally, Vidal has penned five plays, most notably the election farce “The Best Man.”

“Dreaming War,” Vidal’s latest collection of essays, is a much more coherent attack on our current administration than the frantic, harried, slapped-together feel of the equally best-selling “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.” Both have received surprisingly harsh reviews in the States. Other reviewers dismiss his conspiratorial allegations as the opportunistic ramblings of a radical, revisionist historian of ill repute. The chapters come off much like a Revolutionary War-era pamphlet, the same medium which Vidal describes as “the oldest form of American political discourse.”

Vidal here rejects the George W. Bush administration’s hawkish mandate outright, pointing out that the miserable farce that masqueraded as the 2000 election precluded any semblance of a national consensus. He also compares post-Sept. 11, 2001, finger-pointing (which may have paved the way for Tom Ridge’s Homeland Security Department) to the murky origins of the “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Vidal also denounces our pre-emptive hot war as motivated primarily by a greedy lust for Eurasia’s mineral wealth that dates back to centuries old Anglo-Saxon “moral crusades.” Vidal reasons that perhaps Saddam Hussein has replaced bin Laden on the “Enemy of the Month Club” because that other “personification of evil” proved to be too adequate a foe. Vidal brands Cheney’s ambitions as unconstitutional at best, with a complicit media idly sitting by as good citizenship disintegrates altogether.

A self-described realist, Vidal represents along with “Rolling Stone” mainstay P.J. O’Rourke the valiant last stand of the “small r” republican thinkers. Rabidly isolationist and heavily influenced by Tory philosophy, Vidal longs for a reborn republic that fairly elects its leaders, keeps its pointy nose out of other nations’ autonomy, and primarily concentrates on repairing the woeful state of its domestic affairs. Vidal, who at the ripe old age of 19 eagerly joined up to serve for the Allied effort in World War II, now views his beloved home country’s foreign policy as corporate imperialism dictated by a Caesar-esque emperor, sans clothes, bent on oligarchy at all costs.

Vidal’s largely conservative critics consistently bash him for his unrepentantly positive views of homosexuality championed in his writing. Vidal himself has been a happily “outed” gay man for several decades. An adamant atheist, Vidal has firmly pushed for drug legalization, loudly decried the corruption of Israeli politics and was incorrectly branded a racist for having briefly befriended Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. A former television host who once described former president Teddy Roosevelt as a “sissy,” Vidal was physically threatened by National Review’s Editor in Chief William F. Buckley Jr. during a live televised debate conducted during the middle of the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Ill. “To be perfect for television is all a President has to be these days,” he writes.

“There is not one human problem that could not be solved,” said Vidal in a 1972 magazine article, “if people would simply do as I advise.” If Vidal has an Achilles Heel, ego is its name. As Vidal puts it so succinctly, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” A rich kid provocateur, his caustic prose wavers between Libertarian conspiracy theory and eerily patriotic odes to the days of yore. Essays have always been his strongpoint because, well, he knows everybody who is anybody. His anti-Gulf War stance here sounds genuine largely because his wizened eyes have already seen the true horrors of ground assaults firsthand.

“Dreaming War” should be required reading for anyone trying to intelligently comprehend the “shock and awe” surrounding Operation Iraqi Freedom as well as perhaps predict what lies ahead for the War on Terrorism (and Other Scary Sounding Nouns.) Beyond that, his essays, perhaps better than anything, sound the alarm for the uncertain future of a faltering empire.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]