soldier-storytellers, vol. 1

Who counts as the first soldier/vet who dissented mostly through literature? My bet is our old friends Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. But then I remember Edgar Allan Poe, who dropped out of the University of Virginia and enlisted in the Army as “Edward W. Perry” in 1827.

Private Perry’s” enlistment was not really a natural progression from Poe’s Revolutionary-hero grandfather. His father David, a traveling actor who died when Edgar was two, had already fallen far from that tree. Poe then found himself the stepson of another of Virginia’s old military martinets, John Allan, an old Scot who kept young Poe on a short lease, and yanked hard when the young man dropped out of the university because of his debts. As Poe wrote in an angry letter years later: “It was then that I became dissolute, for how could it be otherwise? I could associate with no students, except those who were in a similar situation with myself.The military was perhaps the only way for Poe to redeem himself in Allan’s eyes, even after he’d fled to Boston and finished Tamerlane his first book of poems. So in May 1827, the 18-year-old enlisted in the First Artillery for a five-year term, using the false name “Edgar A. Perry,” the false age of 22, and the false occupation of “shipping clerk.” That October, his battery was ordered to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina,ii later described in his first hit novel, The Gold Bug:

The vegetation, as might be supposed, is scant, or at least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen. Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found, indeed, the bristly palmetto; but the whole island, with the exception of this western point, and a line of hard, white beach on the sea-coast, is covered with a dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle so much prized by the horticulturists of England.

The young man reportedly felt quite at home at Moultrie, where he quickly rose to the rank of Regimental Sergeant-Major, the highest rank for a non-commissioned officer. He befriended fellow artists like Thomas Downey, who called himself a “musician” on his enlistment papers, and like him had enlisted as much for the money as for national pride. And a fellow soldier at his next duty station called the young sergeant-major “highly worthy of confidence.”

Poe’s officers included many veterans of the ongoing Indian Wars, right up to General Winfield Scott, who came to South Carolina while still in the middle of the Black Hawk War, and would know before long what it meant to be the target of Poe’s satire.Poe grew bored before his five-year term was up, yearning for a more collegial atmosphere. He decided that West Point could supply it and secured a substitute to serve in his place. As he told Allan: “After nearly 2 years conduct with which no fault could be found — in the army, as a common soldier — I earned, myself, by the most humiliating privations — a Cadet’s warrant which you could have obtained at any time for asking.”

Thomas W. Gibson, Poe’s first West Point roommate, found his fellow occupant of the Barracks to seem older than his 20 years, with a “worn, weary, discontented look, not easily forgotten by those who were intimate with him.” In an essay in 1867, Gibson added that Poe was “easily fretted by any jest at his expense,” and did not discourage swirling rumors that he was the grandson not of David Poe but Benedict Arnold.

Relatively well-liked, Poe was soon tagged as a “January Colt,” unlikely to make it past the winter exams, but his peers looked forward to his sharp poetic chronicles of life at the academy under Thayer. “Poems and squibs of local interest were daily issued from Number 28 and went the round of the Classes,” writes Gibson. In particular, Poe wrote a long screed poking fun at tactics instructor Lt. Joseph Locke, who the poet remembered from his enlisted days:

John Locke was a very great name
Joe Locke was a greater in short;
The former was well known to Fame,
The latter well known to Report.

Better historians and scholars than I will ever be have looked at Poe’s stories and gleaned glimpses of both his military lives. If you have, please tell me in comments about it!

The road to revolution via…Julia Davis?

standing_rock_3The TV cameras are gone now. So are most of the veterans I was tracking and wrote about for Guernica, upon the request of the Standing Rock elders. Everyone knows that last week’s decision was only a battle won, and that the struggle continues: the drilling below Sioux land isn’t even completely stopped, the company having decided that it’s easier to pay fines to the Army Corps of Engineers even at $50,000 a day. But there seems to be a pause in the satyagraha at that location, as everyone regroups.

Me?  I’m still in Philadelphia, musing about the big picture. I told my wife as she left for work, “I’m going to show that the Oceti Sakowin protests all began in Philadelphia.” By Philadelphia I mostly meant Chester native Bayard Rustin, who said long ago:  ““Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.” And I meant Quakers, who’ve been making trouble since before Philly was founded in 1682.

The thread I’m noticing now traces at least back to Thoreau, who told peers he was “more of a Quaker than anything else, and anti-slavery iconWilliam Lloyd Garrison, a non-Quaker but a fellow traveler like me (I call myself an “aspiring Quaker.”) Garrison, who got his start editing a Quaker anti-slavery newspaper, urged and practiced “nonresistance,” a kind of proactive pacifism based in part on Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience.”

I knew “nonresistance” from how it was used by World War I conscientious objectors like Evan Thomas, but if I’d been an actual historian I’d have known how ubiquitous a term it was among progressive types in the 19th century. It was even global, a favorite word of War of 1812 veteran Leo Tolstoy, who  wrote a letter to America, praising Thoreau and Garrison as pioneering visionaries:

I’d like to ask the American people why they do not “>pay more attention to these voices (hardly to be replaced by those of financial and industrial millionaires, or successful generals and admirals), and continue the good work in which they made such hopeful progress.

 

Tolstoy went on to become a leading exponent of radical Christianity, and a pen pal of a young South African named Mohandas Gandhi.

From Gandhi we can go back to talking about Bayard Rustin, Quaker thanks to his eminent and charismatic grandmother, Julia Davis Rustin.  Julia mentored Rustin as he went to work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which had been practicing the Quaker “peace witness” since 1915 and sent Rustin, the FOR’s “youth secretary,” across the country as a “Peace Ambassador.” She visited Rustin in prison when he went there instead of serving in World  War II, and cheered him on when he went in 1948 to India, newly freed by Gandhi’s movement.

 

Rustin arrived in India right after Gandhi died, but he met with many of those who’d helped him perfect the technique they had named satyagraha. The Indian activists admired Rustin’s own nonresistance, including the very first Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. And he came back bursting with ideas about using satyagraha on behalf of African-Americans. Soon, he was crossing the country to talk about how to use nonviolence to fight both militarism and racism.

His workshops were electric, one of its participants said years later. They had “actually talked about the history of nonviolence, the history of Gandhi…Thd whole philosophy of the use of nonviolent direct action to accomplish your goals and your purposes: That really appealed to me.” Once trained, many put it to use trying to integrate lunch counters, restaurants, pools.  From that phase of the civil rights movement to now is too much for one essay, and includes both Philip Berrigan and ACT-UP, which was founded in 1987, a few years before Rustin died. 

I haven’t included anything here about Native American practice of nonresistance, or wondered if any contemporary Native activists have any use for Rustin or the Quakers.  However,  I suspect that this peace might be incomplete without it.

(Photo: Joe Brusky, Flickr.)

The soldier-dissenters at Oceti Sakowin.

https://www.democracynow.org/embed/story/2016/12/5/as_thousands_of_vets_descend_on

How could I not be paying attention when #VetStand was happening?

It broke my heart not to trek to Cannonball, North Dakota, as did Col. Ann Wright, Vince Emanuele and so many others. But I did manage to report long-distance for Guernica Magazine: “We Are the Cavalry!” has many voices familiar to this page as well as many more.

That piece doesn’t include my first thoughts as the protests at Standing Rock evolved: that Bayard Rustin would be proud.

Luckily, I’m about to write for Philly’s NPR outlet about that.  A few opening quotes for me, if not the article:

We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”

The second quote is not from Rustin but from Daniel Berrigan, who with his brother Philip took those principles to heart.  NYTimes columnist Eric Martin cited these words in connection to Standing Rock:

Someone, as a strict requirement of sanity and logic, must be willing to say a simple thing: ‘The machine is working badly.’ And if the law of the machine, a law of military and economic profit, enacted by generals and tycoons, must be broken in favor of the needs of man, let the law be broken. Let the machine be turned around, taken apart, built over again.”

By the time this piece is done, Tolstoy. . Berriganand Silas Soule will be side by side.

For D-Day anniversary: the voice of one who knows (Updated 6/9)

I Ain't Marchin' Anymore

normandyIMG

I first met Knox Martin two years ago. For one of my first Chelsea Now stories, I wrote about his “Venus” mural on 19th Street and the West Side Highway, since obscured by Jean Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue condominium complex. When I learned Martin, still fighting for his new anti-war mural “Killing the Whales,” was a veteran of Omaha Beach, I knew I had to talk to him for the book; we sat in his Washington Heights apartment, where he showed me the clipping at left – which was the only way his mother knew, in 1945, that her younger son was alive.

Below are some highlights of what he told me, which my paper published that August for the 60th anniversary of the war’s end.

You mirror your dad, pioneer aviator William Knox Martin, in that you’ve embraced both art and science.

Yes. My father’s uncle was putting him…

View original post 1,196 more words

john huston, veteran for the 1st Amendment

huston1943In 1942, John Huston received a mysterious letter containing “names of military personnel and various American Army posts. I puzzled over it briefly and dropped it into the wastebasket. Later I discovered that this was the Army’s way of sending orders.”  He was then a  new director at Warner Brothers, who’d just finished his first solo work The Maltese Falcon. “I had Bogie tied to a chair, and installed about three times as many Japanese soldiers as were needed to keep him prisoner…. I shot the scene, then called Jack Warner and said, “Jack, I’m on my way. I’m in the Army. Bogie will know how to get out.” As Major John Huston, Huston went on to make a trilogy for the Army, most of it controversial. And his first mission after the war, it seemed, was fighting censorship.

In April 1946, the two young Army men walking into the museum stand out. Nearly a year  after the end of the last war, their pale-brown uniforms are crisp, as ironed as the armbands marked MP (for Military Police). They walk past groups of schoolchildren, quiet academics, women young and old showing off the season’s new hats; for most, even for a weekday, a trip to New York’s Museum of Modern Art is pretty special.

The officers head straight to the INFORMATION desk, which gleams as much as the marble floors in the seven-year-old building. Directed upstairs, they move swiftly to the second-floor screening room. They’re looking for the Museum’s copy of the new film by John Huston, which is on the schedule for the museum’s Festival of Documentary Film.

In that second-floor screening room a small crowd squeezes into folding chairs. This is actually an informal months-early preview screening, includes journalists like critic Archer Winston of the New York Post and The Nation’s James Agee. They’ve come because the director, who made this film for the Army Signal Corps, is also a giant of the cinema since long before he entered the Army. Ignoring them, the MP’s walk directly to the back, speaking quietly to the projectionist. When they leave, they’re carrying all four reels of the film, before anyone has seen a frame of it.

Later that day, curator Iris Barry tells the public that the museum is pulling a number of Army films, due to “copyright restrictions (which) confine their showing to military personnel only.”1 ( In addition to Huston’s film, they insist on all the footage from what was scheduled to precede it, Army and Navy Screen Magazine.) That night, James Agee writes a blistering response in The Nation, reporting that “a beautiful, terrible, valuable film by John Huston” had just been censored by the Army. “I don’t know what is necessary to reverse this disgraceful decision,” Agee closes, “but if dynamite is required, then dynamite is indicated.”2 Unable to do that, MOMA’s Barry does the next best thing: she replaces Huston’s film with another of his Army films, San Pietro – which had almost been also suppressed, accused of being “too anti-war.” Huston had growled then that people should “take me out and shoot me” if he ever made a pro-war film.

In 1946, John Huston’s own honorable discharge was less than a year old. He’d reported for duty shortly after Pearl Harbor, before he finished The Maltese Falcon. (He’d left Humphrey Bogart tied to a chair, telling the studio “Bogie will know how to get out.”) After a few training films, he’d gone to Italy with the Army’s 36 Division, making what would be entitled The Battle of San Pietro. The filming had been beyond stressful: Rey Scott, one of the cameramen, had snapped after months of bombardment. The film itself then faced blowback for its gruesome battles, its shots of soldiers’ dead bodies being carried off the field. Afterward, his heart didn’t quite leave the combat zone: “In Italy, when the guns stopped, you’d wake up and listen. [Back home] I was missing them in my sleep. I was suffering a mild form of anxiety neurosis.”3

Huston wasn’t alone: about half a million troops came home as psychiatric casualties. Hoping to persuade a nervous public that the war hadn’t destroyed their sons, the War Department sent him to a Veterans Administration psychiatric hospital in Brentwood, Long Island. Huston’s team shot thousands of feet of film, as he followed a dozen young men who entered the hospital paralyzed, or lind, or amnesiac. The process, he writes, was “almost like a religious experience.” The resulting film is earnest, a little hokey by today’s standards. Young men learn to call their illnesses “psycho-neurotic anxiety disorders.” Doctors assure them, and the camera, that “we’re conducting an education campaign” to erase any stigma. But that campaign did not include the film Huston had titled Let There Be Light. “They wanted to maintain the ‘warrior’ myth,which said that our American soldiers went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience.”  The truth was probably closer to what Huston’s friend Ernest Hemingway had written in 1929: The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the Army’s suppression of his work, Huston soon had a new mission: to fight the burgeoning McCarthyism threatening his industry.

That included the group’s filmmakers. John Huston turned the Maxwell Anderson project Key Largo into a troubled veteran’s story. “We weren’t making all the sacrifice of human effort and lives.. .to return to the kind of a world we had after the last world war,” army officer Humphrey Bogart tells a gangster, adding that his war was about “fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils. Ancient ills.”1 Huston was trying, like Bogart’s character, tried not to give in to cynicism and fear. That wasn’t easy: 1947 was full of both.

While Huston was turning a Hollywood sound stage into Key Largo’s Florida, a “Loyalty Program” began in Washington, with government-mandated “loyalty oaths” and FBI investigation of anyone suspected of Communist ties. And the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), including a California freshman named Richard Nixon, had decided to investigate Hollywood. That summer Ayn Rand and Gary Cooper testified at HUAC hearingss about pro-Communist themes in movies like Robert Benchley’s “Song of Russia.” And back in Hollywood, gossip queen Hedda Hopper took up the cause of forcing every studio to require such oaths of their writers and stars.

Huston’s answer, along with Signal Corps peer William Wyler, was the Committee for the First Amendment, whose members included Humphrey Bogart, Albert Einstein and Lewis Milestone, who’d followed his Signal Corps tour by making All Quiet on the Western Front. Wyler told reporters that the “current climate” would have precluded his 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, whose soldier-protagonists come home with shattered limbs, marriages and psyches (one, played by Dana Andrews, screams in his sleep every night).

As the Hollywood Ten planned their testimony before Congress in mid-1947: “I was dining one evening at the Wilshire Brown Derby when Howard Hughes phoned me and said, “John, I understand you are planning a trip to Washington, and I just want you to know that you can use one of my airplanes. Not for nothing, that’s illegal…but you will have it all to yourselves.”zfter member after member of the Ten refused to speak, Wyler claimed to have been “duped.” By the following March Bogart was saying “I’m No Commie” on the cover of Photoplay, though he was still skeptical of HUAC: “There was no necessity for the vaudeville show — the Klieg light — for these men to speak in their own defense.”1

At home, that meant even less tolerance for free expression, especially when it had anything at all to do with the military. “A sickness  permeated the country,” John Huston writes. “Nobody came to the defense of people being persecuted for personal beliefs. ” The “loyalty oaths” terror was reaching its climax in mid-1950, especially in Hollywood.Huston organized Directors Guild members to adopt a stance against such a requirement. He told Cecil DeMille that his faction were Signal Corps peers, and “were in uniform when you were wrapping yourself in the flag.” Then he went back to working on his last film for Warner Brothers, The Red Badge of Courage.

>Based on the iconic Stephen Crane novel of the Civil War, Red Badge >was a passion project for Huston and producer Gottfried Reinhardt (who’d spent the war doing training films like K-Rations, How to Eat Them). As lead they’d hired the boyish Audie Murphy, whose childlike visage belied the fact that he was the war’s most-decorated veteran. And as the lead’s best friend they’d cast Signal Corps peer Bill Mauldin, the cartoonist who’d been in Italy with Huston in 1943. Huston then crafted a loosely structured meditation on war and identity, a signature “dreamlike interrogation of power, delusion, and violence.”

As shooting began, Huston took along a writer for the New Yorker, , who also came to some of the Hollywood parties Huston kind of hated. At his 44th birthday party, held at the legendary Chasen’s, “In the lapel of his dinner jacket, he wore the ribbon of the Legion of Merit, awarded to him for his work on Army Signal Corps films in the war. “

ForRed Badge , filmed in Chico, he paid careful attention to unorthodox scenes in which young recruits laugh at veterans; when a platoon marches softly singing “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, and when a figure called the Tall Soldier dies before the protagonist’s eyes. Huston called that last “the best scene in the movie.”,

But by mid-1950, Hollywood was busy drumming up support for the new war. It had filled movie screens with anti-Communist movies produced at White House request : I Married a Communist (1950),  and I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) to name a few. After previews highlighted Red Badge’s unorthodox form (and lack of a leading lady), Warner Brothers ordered a wholesale restructuringr: Out went the Tattered Soldier and veterans scenes; battle scenes were recut and compressed to form a story of triumph and victory. By then. Huston was in Africa shooting The African Queen, and he refused to see the new version afterward.

All this was duly recorded by the FBI, which would call Huston in for a meeting the following year to ask about “misguided liberals” like Albert Einstein and ‘Commies’ like Charlie Chaplin, who’d been barred from re-entry to the United States the same year. By then, the Hollywood blacklist was in full effect, Senator McCarthy had been re-elected, and resistance to the Korean war seemed almost inconceivable.
A few years later, Huston decamped to Ireland, from which he’d ride out the Cold War while making shot-in-Europe movies such as Moulin Rouge. When he was home, remembers his then-tiny daughter Angelica, “The only movies we watched were the war documentaries – San Pietro, Let there be Light…..”i) Unlike World War II peers such as William Kunstler and Philip Berrigan. Huston was done with activism, and his war stories were ever after pretty   coded.

Does he belong in this book? Or just as an accompanying story from history?

i

memorial day, Tomas Young and what we owe

I’ve =been rightly scolded for treating Memorial Day a bit too much like Veterans Day. My two commentaries this week are about Tomas Young, shot by a sniper in 2004, who took 10 years to die and  before then, emerged as an opponent of the Iraq war. (If you haven’t seen Body of War, you might want to make it your Memorial Day viewing.)

Tomorrow’s NewsworksWHYY piece will focus on the new book Tomas Young’s War — whose author, Mark Wilkerson, came to Philadelphia.The book chronicles Young’s final years, after an embolism stole the activist’s voice and ultimately his life. (Anoxic brain injury, for those in the know.) I read it in a day, cried  a lot.

Then, with Mark’s help,  I interviewed Young’s mother for my old shop Women’s Voices for Change, and reflected on those who, like her, have lost people to war. She works at Target, where her coworkers have spent the week chirping “Happy Memorial Day!”

More later, and I’ll add live links as they post. As a civilian, I’m not in a position to scold anyone for what they do this weekend. For me, it’s time to give respect to the dead, even as we question why.

 

so many ways to try to save Private Manning

1 The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning by Inis Nua Theatre Company (1)I was excited that the Welsh play THE RADICALISATION OF BRADLEY MANNING was coming to town — especially after I learned that it had its premiere at the Clearing Barrel, the GI coffeehouse in Heidelberg. Melding themes of gender identity, the war in Iraq, and Welsh radicalism felt and is a worthy task.

And the performers last night at Philaadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre, who traded off the role of “Bradley” among them as they shifted eras and roles, were terrific – engaging, comic and tragic by turns. In the photo above,Bradley Manning (Johnny Smith) downloads classified military intelligence while a fellow intelligence officer (David Glover) obliviously works behind him in Inis NuaTheatre Company’s American premiere of The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning by Tim Price. (Photos by Katie Reing)

Private Manning monitors the transfer of files she’s about to leak to Wikileaks -a few minutes before the entire cast shifts gears and dances to Lady Gaga:

Born This Way – LADY GAGA (Official Video) from Oguzhan Can on Vimeo.B

Bits of this video show up on the stage’s monitors that for much of the evening had the Collateral Murder video, as if Gaga could replace the latter: as if someone could find in its joy some healing, some knitting apart of torn selves and torn hearts.

And the entire cast, which up until now had mostly kept their limber bodies pressed into military poses, begins to dance. They surround Manning and help her shed her clothing, until FOB Hammer becomes the most delicious underground dance club imaginable.

I’ll write more lucidly about the play later, but these are the scenes that were still in my head this morning:

  • Manning lies tearfully in hir underwear while a procession of Marine prison guards circle the room, asking loudly whether Detainee was OK. The answer shifts repeatedly.
  • A Welsh middle school social-studies classroom turns metaphor for class warfare, with students rioting and tormenting one another by turns
  • The  basic-training exercise where recruits have to keep emptying their packs, and then race to put everything back together.

The scenes in those years  find most compelling were there, but less memorable onstage. I really wish I’d seen it with an Iraq vet – or with Stephen Funk, who danced to Gaga and Michael Jackson as he enacted a far more powerful version of the same story two years ago.

More later,  as I puzzle out what I actually think – as someone still striving tomake Manning’s story a coherent part of ours.