For no particular reason, over last weekend I was re-reading David McCullough’s account of the Johnston Flood, and was struck by the chapter which recounts the aftermath. Scores of reporters for American newspapers leaped upon the story – it wasn’t every day that a thriving industrial town gets wiped out in forty minutes flat by a sudden colossal rush of water from a catastrophic dam failure upstream, not even in the admittedly accident-prone 19th century. Among the first sensational stories reported from the wrecked city were lurid tales of gangs of Hungarian immigrants – the downtrodden and resentful minority du jour of that time and locality – looting the dead and raping the living, and of vigilante justice on the part of other survivors… all of which turned out to have been untrue. Even retractions and corrections afterwards wouldn’t squash those accounts dead in their tracks, and it reminded me of the stories of horrors in the New Orleans Superdome after Katrina; also lurid, also untrue… but widely disseminated, and even when debunked at length, with footnotes, forensic evidence and pictures… still passionately believed.

It all comes down to memes. They are a set of assumptions which have a life of their own through being repeated, especially by organs like the news media and beacons of popular culture like the entertainment industry. Thus propagated, memes are pernicious as nut-grass. No matter how many times they are debunked… still they exist, springing up sturdily in the cracks of public discourse and popular culture. Most of them do little harm, and even boost the subjects’ ego in a small way: Frenchmen are good lovers, New York is the center of American intellectual life, you get the best education at the most expensive college. Others exasperate experts by their persistence, in spite of being debunked, corrected or explained, over and over: Columbus was NOT the first European to believe the world was round, aliens from space did not build the pyramids- or any other monumental structure in the ancient world, and President Bush did not serve up a plastic turkey to the troops.

This morning the Blogfaddah linked to a discussion of l’affaire Beauchamp, which began with the lament “Isn’t it sort of disappointing that one has to spend this much time telling journalists, and journalist’s most ardent supporters, why it is important that journalists don’t lie?” Discussion immediately lurched away from examining what I thought was the point of the essay in question; why the milblog community landed on the New Republic’s fables with such energy and enthusiasm.

The answer is because it was another brick in the wall of meme under current construction, itself is an extension of the one constructed around Vietnam war veterans, which almost without exception painted them as tormented and drug-addled lost souls, riddled with guilt over having committed atrocities, and unable to make anything of their post-service lives. This meme had far more damaging results than just providing a handy stock character for movies, television and news documentaries; it impacted the lives of real veterans, essentially isolating and silencing them. Men and women who had satisfying, productive and well-adjusted lives did not particularly want to be identified as Vietnam war veterans, not if it meant being dismissed as a freaked-out looser.

That is why milboggers came unglued over Beauchamp’s and other fraudulent and malignant stories given credence by self-isolated specimens like Franklin Foer; because it’s being attempted, all over again with a new generation of veterans. Last time, it went unchallenged for decades. By my recollection it took about fifteen years for a TV show to feature a well-adjusted non-traumatized Vietnam veteran hero. It’s not going to happen again, not if we have the ability to forcefully question the individual meme-bricks before the mortar has set. Doesn’t matter that The New Republic is a small-circulation magazine or that some kind of truthiness about the brutalities of war -blah-blah-blah, or that our pop-cult gurus are too damn lazy to work up another set of clichés. This one we’re going to fight on the beach.

A more interesting line of thought is – is there something more than just intellectual laziness and the comfort of slipping into a well-worn track at work here, even if only subconsciously? Could there be something to be gained on one side of the debates about war, Islamic-inspired imperialism, the whole tar-baby of nuclear Iran, if military veterans whose service at the pointy-end-of-the-spear might have given them some particular interest or insight can be easily silenced and isolated… simply by being routinely characterized as ignorant, out-of-control redneck freaks?

Yeah, I’ve wondered about that myself, lately. Discuss among yourselves.

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