In the coda of H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War (Rutgers University Press, 384 pp. $34.95, hardcover and Kindle) the author ponders what kind of country could “simultaneously produce both as shameful an abomination as the Vietnam War and the as admirable an achievement of the movement that helped defeat it.” Franklin suggests that only when the answer to this question is discerned, will the country cease its hawkishness, and end what he calls the “forever war.”
Libraries and bookstores may have trouble categorizing this book as it tackles history, political philosophy, social commentary, and cultural criticism, all recounted in the first person. Franklin has been a professor at Rutgers University for more than forty years, and has written nineteen books on a variety of topics, including Melville, Star Trek, and oceanography. His Vietnam War books include MIA, or Mythmaking in America and Vietnam and Other American Fantasies.
Though the title, “Crash Course” is suggestive of an analysis of American militarism since World War II, the book is essentially a memoir. In it, Franklin recounts his life from his birth in Brooklyn to his antiwar activities in the 1960s and 1970s.
Crash Course is a highly entertaining read, and Franklin’s talent as a writer is unmistakable. He writes about his humble upbringing as Jewish boy in Brooklyn, his time Amherst College, his work on the New York City docks, his stint as an Air Force navigator, and as a Ph. D. student and professor at Stanford—where he remains the only tenured professor ever fired.
As Franklin weaves his life story with American political history, readers may find themselves nodding or shaking their heads; those on the Gore Vidal side of the Buckley-Vidal Vietnam War debate, up and down, those who agree with William F. Buckley, side to side. If Franklin’s opinions about the military industrial complex are tired and familiar, his prose keeps even a disagreeing reader engaged.
As the book is more personal than analytical, Franklin does not necessarily defend his thesis. He uses the term “forever war” essentially as a polemic to provide a backdrop for his life’s work. His mix of culture, myth, conspiracy, and history can be comically Manichean. To Franklin, the U.S. government is not just consistently erroneous, but sinister. This worldview allows for little nuance. Saying, for example, that the Vietnam War was a misguided tragedy and America was wrong in its entry and execution, does not necessarily mean that the North Vietnamese communists were right, let alone noble and just.
It is conceivable that the answer to Franklin’s concluding thought lies in the dynamism of America, a country that proverbially bends toward justice.
Franklin’s story is his own unique version of the American Dream: He was born poor and through his own guile and talent achieved his own version of success. It was not easy and he was not always treated fairly, but Franklin was ultimately given the freedom to vehemently oppose his government—and later the opportunity to write and teach while being employed by that same government.
Perhaps a better thought experiment is to imagine if that same poor boy in current-day Hanoi or Pyongyang would be afforded the same opportunities.
The author’s website is https://www.hbrucefranklin.com
—Daniel R. Hart