The Mourner's Song jacket image

"The Mourner's Song is a well-integrated and wonderfully written set of reflections on the role of the poetic, architectural, and visual arts in the remembrance of war dead and…of killing in war.…Illuminating and written with a lively and engaging style."—Jonathan Shay, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Tatum refuses to let us delude ourselves. The poetry of war for western civilization has always been in the killing."—Thomas G. Palaima, Times Higher Education Supplement

"[Tatum] gives us a sequence of elegant, thoughtful and moving essays on aspects of war as the Iliad suggests them."—Tom Payne, The Daily Telegraph

"An eloquent and moving study of the memorialization of death in war, showing how the forms and processes of art convert mourning into memorial."—History Today

[In The Mourner's Song] a Dartmouth classics professor delivers his shrewd, highly reportorial meditation on monuments and memorials to war dead.—Read Sun Tzu and Tatum together. Better, reverse the course of life and read Tatum first. Suddenly, Sun seems to stand still, as the voices rise silently behind him."—Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer Books

"The classicist James Tatum has taken two numinous texts, Homer's Iliad and Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, and studied them in their various dimensions along with other voices like Robert Lowell and General Grant, creating something new out of man's obsession with war and memory that roves back—like the rose—through so many wild centuries to our origins and the titanic wrath of Achilles before the walls of Troy."—Gore Vidal


We have two more excerpts from this book:
1. The poetry is in the killing
2. The battlefields of Troy and Battery Wagner



An excerpt from
The Mourner's Song
War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam
by James Tatum

An America War Experience

Do they think of me now
in those strange Asian villages
where nothing ever seemed
quite human
but myself
and my few grim friends
moving through them
in lines?

When they tell stories to their children
of the evil
that awaits misbehavior
is it me they conjure?
—W.D. Ehrhart, "Making the Children Behave" [Credit]

Winners get to name their wars; the Trojan War will forever be the Trojan, not the Greek, War. But the Iliad and much other art from war enables us to enter as intimately into the mourning of an enemy as of a friend. It has never required a great leap of the imagination to see Homer's Trojan War as also the Trojans' Greek War. What Americans call "the Vietnam War" was in this sense obviously "the America War" for the Vietnamese. There is perhaps even more reason today to think of this conflict as the America War, since it was the Vietnamese of the north and of the Viet Cong, and not the Americans and their allies in the south, who eventually won it.

The November 1996 Vietnam Wall Experience at Norwich University (a private military college in Northfield, Vermont) was a highly disciplined guide to what its war was supposed to mean. In this respect it was far more typical than Maya Lin's original of what such monuments are designed to accomplish, so far as governments are concerned. But as with all such conflicts that continue to live in our imagination, the American Vietnam War does not yet reduce to such a single meaning, however ardently the teachers of cadets might wish it.

Knowing that no such official war monument could help but omit as much as it commemorates, the antiwar activist and artist Chris Burden took Maya Lin's design and used it to unheal memory's wounds. A preliminary sketch of his Other Vietnam Memorial foresaw a "list of three million Vietnamese killed during the US involvement in Vietnam"; it would be on "Copper pages, hinged on [a] central pole," and could be turned by viewers. In the catalogue prepared for a 1992 exhibition of The Other Vietnam Memorial at the Museum of Modern Art, Burden is quoted as saying, "I just thought somewhere there should be a memorial to the Vietnamese that were killed in the war. So I wanted to make this book, sort of like Moses' tablet, that would be an official record of all these three million names. I would suspect that we will be lucky if we get twenty-five percent of the names; other ones would be nameless, basically faceless, bodies. . . . I want the size of the sculpture . . . to reflect the enormity of the horror."

The result is a memorial statistically impressive in its numbers, at the cost of making actual sense. In order to register three million casualties, Burden took a catalogue that contained four thousand Vietnamese names, transformed them into verbal integers, and designed a computer-generated permutation of them. As the exhibition's curator, Robert Storr, observed, "A degree of abstraction necessarily persists. Even so, the war that so many want to consign to the past has never been more actual, with the enormity of the bloodletting at last represented in toto. Reckoning the gross facts of history in terms of the fate of individuals, Burden's 'Other Vietnam Memorial' thus partially retrieves the Vietnamese dead from statistical purgatory and so from a double disappearance: the 3,000,000 it symbolically lists are the displaced persons of the American conscience." The Other Vietnam Memorial is not only marked by a degree of abstraction. The aim is to exhaust the very idea of an American Vietnam War memorial.

Tatum figure 13
Figure 13. Victory billboard, Ap Bac, Vietnam
Tatum figure 14
Figure 14. Wreckage of an American B-52, Hanoi
Tatum figure 15
Figure 15. McGan (McCain) monument, Hanoi
Nations rarely build war memorials to their enemy dead, and when they do, as in Atatürk's monument to the British and Commonwealth dead at Gallipoli (and to their mothers), postwar politics usually inspire the gesture. Unlike Burden's Other Vietnam Memorial, war monuments and memorials in Vietnam are never conceived as counterparts to anything in the United States. They are uniformly the nation's commemoration of its dead and its celebration of victory in a war for independence. The Vietnam Wall Experience at Norwich University is closer to these America War monuments than any other Vietnam War memorial. Their themes are as far from Burden's abstraction as can be imagined. Trophies and other souvenirs are prominent, as in the billboard on the highway in the Mekong Delta celebrating a victory at Ap Bac over the Americans and their helicopters in January 1963 (fig. 13). Throughout Vietnam the random names generated for Burden's Other Vietnam Memorial turn into documented lists of civilians and soldiers who are martyrs that died to win independence from foreign rule. To commemorate the 1972 Christmas bombing, the remains of an American B-52 have been left where they fell in Huu Tiep Lake in the village of Ngoc Ha in the northwestern part of Hanoi. A plaque at the site reads: "At 22:00 hours on December 27, 1972, the capital's anti-aircraft forces shot down this B-52 in the area of Ngoc Ha Village. This is one out of 23 B-52s shot down from Hanoi's skies. The strategic surprise attack against Hanoi by the B-52s of the American Empire was destroyed" (fig. 14). An easier stop for Americans than this gruesome souvenir is the crumbling concrete monument to a pilot who parachuted into a small lake in the northern sector of Hanoi and was captured and beaten by local farmers. As the inscription reads, "On September 26, 1967, on the Chapai Lake, Vietnamese people and army in Hanoi captured the American pilot Major John Sney McGan of the United States Air Force, who flew an A-4 fighter. This was the eighty-first fighter and it was shot down near the Yen Phu City electric plant. It was also one of ten American fighters shot down on the same day" (fig. 15). "John Sney McGan" is a garbled version of the name of John McCain, the U.S. senator, then the son of one of the top American commanders in the war and for that reason one of North Vietnam's prize American captives.

Tatum figure 16
Figure 16. Scrap metal excavation holes, DMZ
Outside the cities, the sites of some of the most ferocious battles of the war have long since been overgrown with tropical forestation. There are some locations that seem to preserve exactly the devastation of war while, perversely, they do nothing of the kind. At the remote site of Khe Sanh, in the central highlands near the Laotian border, there are traces of tunnels and bunkers, but most of the deep holes and earthworks that I could see in March 1994 were the work of dealers in scrap metal who scavenged the battlefields long after the war was over (fig. 16). A waving stone flag, a monument set in the middle of what used to be the marines' landing strip at Khe Sanh, recalls the war's rhetoric. It presents this inscription:

The area of Tacon point was built by the Americans and their Saigon puppets. Built in 1968 including an airport and a steady defense system with 10,000 occupying soldiers and thousands of assault troops from the Americans and the Saigon puppet regime, in order to stop assistance from the north to the battle of the three countries of Indochina.
After 170 days of offensives and siege, on July 7, 1968, Tacon Khe Sanh was liberated. We destroyed the enemy and his strategic systems, to the west of National Road No. 9, killing and capturing 11,900 enemy soldiers and shooting down 197 aircraft and also destroying much other war material of the Americans and their puppet regime.
Khe Sanh became a Dien Bien Phu for America.

American air and firepower guaranteed that there would be no replay of the French defeat of 1954, however. General Giap never intended the siege at Khe Sanh to be a Dien Bien Phu for the Americans, but a diversion from the main event he was planning for 1968, the Tet offensive. When Khe Sanh's strategic uselessness for even a war of attrition was at last obvious to the American commanding generals—it had been obvious to the marines from the beginning—they evacuated the position and took everything with them that could conceivably be used as a war trophy, or as material for propaganda, not reckoning on the value scrap metal would have for a poor economy.

Tatum figure 17
Figure 17. Memorial sculpture, My Lai
For Americans, the memorial to the victims of the 1968 massacre at Son My (My Lai) will have more resonance than any other site in Vietnam. Over its entrance are Ho Chi Minh's words, always inscribed at Vietnamese war cemeteries: "There is nothing compared to freedom and independence." The site of the massacre is documented both by art and the famous photographs seen around the world after My Lai was discovered. The museum has in large letters over its front: "Never Forget Our Anger against the US Oppressive Imperialists." Sculpture groups are scattered throughout the site, all of them executed by Thu Ho, whose wife, Vu Thi Lien, was a young girl who survived the massacre in the village and became its chief international witness after 1968.

Tatum figure 18
Figure 18. Execution ditch, My Lai
My Lai is a reality that Burden's Other Vietnam Memorial seeks to evoke, but it is no neutral record, either. The documentation of American war atrocities is as scrupulous as possible; wherever the names or locations of victims could not be determined, the blank spaces themselves became a matter of record. Memorial stones mark the places where houses once stood, in which the owners and their families were killed. The museum's official casualty list (literally, "Name List of All of the People Who Were Killed at That Time") says that 182 women were killed (17 of them pregnant), 173 children (56 of them unnamed), and thirty-seven men over the age of sixty. The site where the most people were herded together and shot is now a drainage ditch marked with a memorial in English as well as Vietnamese.

Tatum figure 19
Figure 19. ARVN cemetery, Bien Hoa, Vietnam
Even as the American Vietnam War was being fought, there was also a civil war between the North and South Vietnamese. This led to memorials of a war that still seems under way, even as we visit it years later. During the war the South Vietnamese took Arlington National Cemetery for their model and with American advisors began construction in the late 1960s of a national cemetery for the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, in American parlance). With the acceleration of the American withdrawal from the war (what the Americans termed "Vietnamization"), the casualties of the ARVN increased exponentially. By the end of the war in 1975 there was a huge but unfinished cemetery; as of 1994 its dilapidation had progressed at a steady rate. Some families paid villagers nearby to tend the graves, but for the most part the graves were abandoned and the tombstones defaced. Goats grazed in the weeds that grew among the graves.

Tatum figure 20
Figure 20. The tombstone of Le Dinh Suong, Bien Hoa
In his memoir of a return to Vietnam after the America War was long over, Neil Sheehan observes, "In Washington, the names of each of our Vietnam dead were inscribed on a memorial near the hallowed temple to Abraham Lincoln. No one accepted responsibility for these dead ARVN soldiers. . . . In death they were discarded." Sheehan's Vietnamese guide, Mr. Tien, himself a veteran of the war who fought against the ARVN, was moved to say, "This should not happen to anyone." The comparison with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is quite apt. Sometimes war memorials are constructed too long after a war is over, as American vets argued when they pressed for what eventually became the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The ARVN cemetery at Bien Hoa shows that they can sometimes be built too soon. In the accompanying photograph, for example, the name of the Buddhist sergeant Le Dinh Suong is preserved, as well as his branch of service (marines) and the date of his death (May 13, 1969), but his picture has been chiseled out. Of all the monuments one could imagine, none expresses more directly the arbitrary way time has of dealing with the war dead than the poor traces of memorials that survive at Bien Hoa.

Pilgrimages to such memory places have become one of the preoccupations of our time. Proust is an eloquent witness to what can be recovered by such travel to these sites of memory.

These are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years. . . . There is no need to travel in order to see it again; we must dig down inwardly to discover it. What once covered the earth is no longer above but beneath it; a mere excursion does not suffice for a visit to the dead city: excavation is necessary also. But we shall see how certain fugitive and fortuitous impressions carry us back even more effectively to the past, with a more delicate precision, with a more light-winged, more immaterial, more headlong, more unerring, more immortal flight, than these organic dislocations.

A pilgrimage to the monuments of Thiepval, Norwich, or Bien Hoa is the kind of organic dislocation Proust describes. It leaves us more than ever in need of that delicate precision of thought, that light-winged, immaterial, immortal flight. We need the songs that the Muses inspire.

Credit for epigraph poem: Reprinted from W. D. Ehrhart, Beautiful Wreckage: New and Selected Poems (Adastra Press, 1999). By permission of the author. See

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 22-32 of The Mourner's Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam by James Tatum, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press and of the author.

James Tatum
The Mourner's Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam
©2003, 236 pages, 31 halftones. 6 x 9
Cloth $37.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-78993-4
Paper $16.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-78994-1

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