Steinbeck in Vietnam

Reading Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From the War, edited by literary scholar Thomas E. Barden, is a fascinating, and occasionally uncomfortable, experience.

In December, 1965, Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, then 65, accepted an assignment from Harry F. Guggenheim to report on the war in Vietnam for Newsday.  A personal friend of Lyndon Johnson, with one son already in Vietnam and another in basic training, Steinbeck was not an unbiased observer–and made no pretense that he was.   He arrived in Vietnam a full-fledged supporter of the war.  He hated war protestors even more than he hated the Viet Cong.  He was fascinated by military hardware.  He treated American soldiers as heroes.

The columns were controversial at the time they were published.  Read more than forty years later, they are often shocking.  Written with the force that characterizes all of Steinbeck’s work, his Vietnam dispatches are a mixture of vitriolic attacks on war protestors, lyrical descriptions of the countryside, paeans to the American soldier, and moments of stunning insight.  What makes the columns more than a historical curiosity is Steinbeck’s effort to understand the war on its own terms.  That internal struggle, publicly shared in the pages of Newsday is as powerful an evocation of the Vietnam experience as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

Barden’s editorial touch is light, and clearly defined.  His introduction and afterword place the letters clearly in the context of Steinbeck’s career, including his later doubts about the war.


This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

From Confucius to Air Traffic Control

In 130 BCE, the Chinese emperor Han Wudi came up with a new idea for how to choose government bureaucrats. He established a civil service of Confucian scholars, known in English as mandarins, who earned their positions by passing a standardized examination. The system still favored those from privileged families who could afford to give their sons* a formal education. But at least in theory, getting a government job in imperial China now depended on what you knew instead of who you knew or what family you were born in.

In Wudi’s day, the examinations tested candidates’ understanding of the tenets of Confucian moral and ethical thought on which Han dynasty government was based–the equivalent of asking candidates for jobs in the United States government to pass a test on the Magna Carta, the Constitution, and the Federalist papers. Over time, the examinations became more and more divorced from the realities of government. By the Manchu dynasty of the seventeenth century, candidates were tested on their knowledge of Chinese history, their ability to compose poetry, and the quality of their calligraphy.

Wudi’s civil service exams controlled who got a government job in China from the seventh century CE through 1905, when the system was abolished in response to pressure from a new western-educated elite. The west didn’t adopt the concept until the nineteenth century. In 1853, the British East India Company was the first European power to use competitive examinations as a means of reforming an increasingly corrupt system in which positions were acquired through patronage and purchase. The East India Company consciously copied the Chinese exam system, creating a class of “new Mandarins”.

Other western governments, faced with the hazards of civil service based on “who you know”, thought Wudi’s idea that government employees should pass a test proving their fitness for government service was a good one. The United States entered the game in 1883, after a disgruntled would-be federal employee assassinated President James Garfield. Civil Service exams controlled who got a job in the United States civil service until 1978, when the general civil service examination was abolished. Today, civil service exams are still required for jobs requiring a specific set of skills, such as air traffic controllers and intelligence agency linguists.

* Just to put this in context: roughly 2000 years later Clara Barton was one of only FOUR women to work for the United States Federal government in the years just before the American Civil War. At the time, plenty of people thought the presence of women in government jobs was a sign that the system of patronage had gone awry.

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Ashoka: The Buddhist Emperor of India

I recently blogged about Chandragupta Maurya, who created an empire out of the chaos that followed Alexander the Great’s invasion of India. Chandragupta was an empire founder, but the real empire builder in the Mauryan dynasty was Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, who ruled from 269 to 232 BCE. Although he was a successful warrior, who expanded the boundaries of his empire , Ashoka is best known for his conversion to Buddhism.

In 261, Ashoka led a brutal expedition against the neighboring kingdom of Kalinga (modern Orissa). Sickened by the loss of life, he converted to Buddhism and proclaimed his conversion to his subjects in a series of inscriptions engraved on rocks and pillars throughout his kingdom, the 3rd century BCE equivalent of billboards. In the so-called “Ashokan edicts”*, which appear to have been written by the emperor himself, he outlines his new dedication to “moral conquest” in place of military campaigns and rules for running a Buddhist kingdom.

In pursuit of his Buddhist ideals,  Ashoka banned the animal sacrifices that were an important part of the Vedic religion, reduced the consumption of meat in the palace, and replaced the royal pastime of hunting with pilgrimages to Buddhist holy places. Despite his support of the Buddhist principle of ahimsa (non-violence) at a personal level, Ashoka never wholly embraced pacifism; he guaranteed the peace of his enormous empire with an army that included 600,000 foot soldiers, thirty thousand cavalry and nine thousand war elephants.

When modern India gained its independence in 1947, the new state chose the cluster of four lions that serve as the capital on the Ashokan pillar at Sarnath as its emblem. The choice was intended as a statement of India’s commitment to religious tolerance within a secular state.

*You can read a translation of the edicts here.

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