home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

a journal for jordan

29 april 2010

In A Journal for Jordan, journalist Dana Canedy tells her young son Jordan about Jordan's father. Charles King, Canedy's fiancé, died in combat in Iraq in 2006, when Jordan was an infant. He left a journal behind, telling Jordan how to lead his life based on Charles's example. Canedy supplements the journal with her own account of life with King: their tentative courtship, their blissful, brief relationship, and King's appalling death.

This is, by conservative estimate, the saddest thing that has ever happened. A Journal for Jordan is not a good book, so in what follows I am going to make some very severe criticisms of it as literature. But as life, we must grant Canedy an absolute and permanent pass to write whatever she likes. She has been through things that are just unimaginable. She tells a raw, harrowing story. Heart on her sleeve doesn't begin to describe A Journal for Jordan: heart, womb, entrails, soul, and skin turned inside out are all prominently displayed on the book's pages. Canedy has earned the right to expose herself in this way, and no-one can criticize her for printing a word of it.

A Journal for Jordan, however, has recently been chosen by my university as its 2010-11 "One Book," the book that all incoming freshmen must read and write about. So I guess my criticism is aimed at those who chose the book for us to read, and not at all at Canedy. My problem is simple: if a book makes an unanswerable statement about traumatic personal experience, what are students supposed to think and say about it?

And Canedy's book is politically unanswerable, as well. "If you're free, thank a veteran," says the billboard. For those who don't fancy being a British subject or a chattel slave or a prisoner of Nazis – or even a Kuwaiti under the rule of Saddam – this makes some sense. But it's harder to thank veterans of Vietnam and the second Iraq war for our freedom, because we're not sure that their actions have made us any more free. The sacrifices made by American soldiers in Iraq, since 2003, have been enormous. They have been utterly out of proportion to any good that the war effort has done – if indeed it's done any good at all. American public rhetoric insists that we support our troops unquestioningly. The lesson of Vietnam (with its even greater discrepancy between sacrifice and benefit) turns out not to have been "never get involved in a land war in Asia." Instead, it seems to be "never express the slightest lack of sympathy for the actions and sufferings of the American military."

What, then, can we say about A Journal for Jordan, or for that matter about the story of any soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan? Support our troops, assert that they keep us free, appreciate their lethal professionalism, never ask whether their "job" makes us safer or puts us in greater danger. Canedy, in one of the few bursts of skepticism she permits herself, says that Charles King was devoted to "protecting a country he loved from enemies real or imagined" (7).

You see the problem: if we don't distinguish between real and imagined enemies, we are living in an Orwellian state: a state of permanent war where military missions and budgets are never queried by civilians, a state where putative enemies are invoked to keep us in fear, and real enemies are created by pre-emptive belligerence. When Canedy learns that King may have been exposed to lethal danger by his commanding officer's foolhardiness, she asks: "As a civilian with no experience in war, did I even have the right to question the decisions they made?" (243) But the whole point of a republic is that civilians have both the right and the duty to question military decisions.

Canedy frames Charles King's decision to go to war as patriotic and professional – or, if we turn those words just slightly the other way to the light, as jingoistic and mercenary. "I put on the uniform and I take the paycheck, so I have to go where the commander in chief sends me" (105). The nature of today's volunteer army paradoxically makes individual soldiers' decisions less voluntary than those of draftees. A draftee could say, "I freely voted for (or against) the government that declared this war, and now it's the Army, prison, or Canada for me. Which will it be?" A professional volunteer can only say "I have taken the King's shilling. Where's my billet?"

Canedy seems to be anti-war, but in the face of King's tragedy, she can't bring herself to disrespect his code by objecting to the cause he fought for. She settles for wondering whether the tactical decisions that led to King's death can be questioned. She never overtly questions the war itself, or what drives men to war. Instead of resistance to martial rhetoric, she gives us extra helpings of glurge. Again, she's more than earned the right to emote on paper, and I understand why the book has been a success. It's touched a nerve for many readers with its highly conventional histrionics. Canedy seems utterly sincere to me. I don't usually go out of my way to pan such sincerity, and I wouldn't be writing this piece if my university hadn't decided that unanswerable glurge is a wholesome diet for impressionable freshmen.

Most of A Journal for Jordan is given over to reinforcing King's sense of himself as a "fierce warrior" (238). Canedy frequently describes King unironically as a "warrior," and is as fiercely proud of his chestful of medals as King himself was determined to downplay them. When she confronts the officer whose goading drove King needlessly to expose himself on his final mission, she is won over by the officer's "ultimate man-love" for King (241). Excessive testosterone becomes admirable for its own sake: once again, who are we civilians to question anything that "warriors" do?

Who am I, for that matter, to question anything in A Journal for Jordan? I'm an aging McGovernite, fond of folk music, whose boyhood hero was the pre-exercise-video Jane Fonda. I've never served in the military – and neither have any of my ancestors as far back as I know. I have nothing to balance against the book's love for "the uniform" except my own dogged sense that war must never become an end in itself. But at times in A Journal for Jordan, military life and death are precisely that: virtues in themselves. King's CO says:

He died a soldier's death and I will take that any day over rotting from cancer or anything else. He died a glorious soldier's death out there doing great things for God and country. (241-242)
Canedy does resist the word "glorious," repeating it mockingly in scare quotes in the next paragraph. But in the end, she is won over by the rhetoric of the splendid death. She sums up King's life and death with a bizarre echo of the most cynical words of the whole Iraq war (the words of George W. Bush, that served as a prelude to seven years of protracted fighting): "Mission accomplished." (265).

As an individual psychological need, one can admire the death of Charles King. He seems relentless in his need to endanger himself as a test of his own existential worth. There's more than a bit of Yeats's Irish airman in him:

I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
But what I long to hear in Canedy's narrative, and never come close to getting, is some echo of Steve Goodman's Penny Evans:
And now every month I get a check from some Army bureaucrat.
And it's every month I tear it up and mail the damn thing back.
Do they think that makes it all right; do they think I'd fall for that?
They can keep their bloody money, it won't bring my Billy back.
Because frankly, I'll take the rotting death from cancer, thank you. I'd have wished rotting cancer death and its decades of additional, peaceful, hopeful life for all the war dead on all sides in the Vietnam, and for all the scores of thousands whose lives have been prematurely blown to pieces in Iraq, for no saner reason than to give our "Irish airmen" their heroic deaths.

Canedy, Dana. A Journal for Jordan: A story of love and honor. New York: Crown, 2008.