D-Day memories from an artist of stature

normandyIMG

I first met Knox Martin seven years ago, and every June 6 since I’ve heard his voice.

Back then, I was writing for NYC weekly Chelsea Now about Martin’s “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 through art school at the University of Maryland, when he walked out of his house one day and saw this thing flying through the air. Very primitive—the airplane had just been invented in 1906. And he said, “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

I was going to be a scientist, too. I went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, a school known for graduating scientists. I was doing a lot of drawing while at school and was drawing for a WPA project. I was also an avid reader. I was so advanced, I dropped out of the school because I thought, I’m not learning anything here I don’t already know. My father then died, and my uncle asked me to come to Virginia.

You were 19 when Pearl Harbor was hit. Did you know right away that you were going to war?

I knew it was coming: I was an early reader. I read the paper and thought, How can this be, about Hitler? We were at a wealthy family’s house in Scarsdale, N.Y., where the owner was for Hitler. When everyone was out on the lawn, I took every piece of furniture and wrote “Death to Hitler” on the bottom of each one. Then when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, It felt like a deep wound.

I didn’t go in right away. After my father died in 1941, I went to work for the Northwest Railroad, traveled through Virginia and Ohio. In the morning, you’d see for miles upon miles telephone wires glistening with spider webs. And the people were unbelievable! Living in pre–Civil War lives! But then I got into a fight with a supervisor and came home to New York. And everyone was in the service.

Why the Coast Guard?

My stepfather was a commercial fisherman, so we grew up around boats. He’d been in the reserves for years, so they made him head of this boat pool at Ellis Island.

Enest, Knox, Morris Martin (WKM's sons)We did boot training at Manhattan Beach, marching, gas masks, everything. Then we put in for a sub chaser and were sent to Mystic, Conn., to one of the most beautiful ships in the world: the 83-500. It was dark like a submarine, would submerge and turn itself upside down, depth charges underneath and rockets on the bow. We did this “bombing run” practice in Florida. They said there were German submarines in South America, but fortunately we never met one.

Normandy—it was an armada, you said.

We’re crossing the Atlantic and as far as you could see: cruisers, battleships, every kind of craft. The water was just full of ships. And the sky was blackened by planes going over, wave after wave after wave.

The Germans had a fantastic machine gun, and guys were dying everywhere all over the place—the water was littered with bodies. The invasion was threatened by a storm, so they made a harbor by sinking ships—a breakwater, 40-some-odd liberty ships. None of us slept for two nights; we were frazzled and hysterical and crazy. Then came that morning on the beachhead, lit up like the Fourth of July. There was this feeling, of being one organism with one goal, to get up on that coast and crush this thing: tyranny.

I do have to say, one of the greatest things was the atom bomb on Hiroshima. They had this little island—I saw it—where the Japanese fought to the last man. They would have done it; millions would have died. And before the bomb was dropped, the Russians were coming from the North, ready to invade. You would have had a Berlin wall of Tokyo.

You were discovered as an artist in a veterans’ hospital!

The first day when I came back, my mother greeted me—the tears. She was happy to see me but then said, “Your brother Morris, he’s gone. He was killed flying over Japanese waters.” How could this smart, great guy be gone? It wasn’t that I was divorced from reality, but the meaning of things changed, and I began to draw again. A guy came by the hospital on a project to work with “wounded veterans.” His name was Victor Kandel. I showed him what I was doing, and he said, “Hey, you’re a real artist. I would advise you to take private lessons.” So, I went to the Art Students League on the GI Bill.

In those days, everyone there was a Communist. It was my opinion that we were next going to fight the Russians. My uncle was in military intelligence: I knew what Stalin had done—how many mass graves. They would ask me, “Knox, why don’t you join the Party?” I said, “Ask me again, and I’ll see you in a rifle sight.”

Your mural, the one you’re still fighting to get made, was started as a statement about the Vietnam War.

Here’s what happened. The war starts; we’re after the Commies. It was great! Hit the Communists! Then, all of a sudden, on Sunday afternoon, what do you get on the TV? The war. It’s not an abstraction. A girl, a civilian, running from napalm. One guy, another civilian, sitting at a table, a soldier shoots him in the head. We all burst into tears. That’s why there was protest at all.

The young Knox Martin at the Art Students League

After my so-called success with the 19th Street piece [“Venus”] in 1972, I did the first maquette for this [current] mural. I tried to get it done everywhere. I figured I’d done the other one, Geraldo Rivera on the scaffold, and it would be a slam dunk! But—nothing.

You thought you had it this time, after Community Board 2 said yes and Cape Advisers [the developer of Jean Nouvel’s project] agreed to pay for it.

Two years of work, hundreds of people involved, and this one person—Michelle Cohen [of Art in the Schools] said, “This can’t be built now, or in the future.” She said, “It is not the content, not your credits.” What is it, then? Silence.

When I first talked to her, the first words out of her mouth were: “We have no funds.” I came up with the funds, and she said, the building can’t be touched for four years. I said, “The contractors working on the school say now’s the time to do it, not when the park is finished.” She said, “It’s dangerous for students.” I said that it’s on the back wall, away from the students. She said, “You can’t hang from the scaffolding; it’s too dangerous.” I said, “I’ll get a very slim cherry-picker, not me the fat guy.” She said, “Not on DOE property!” I don’t know her real objections, but it’s not over.

Any last words? Overall connections between the artist and the veteran?

After 9/11, maybe we’ll see the world waking up from 5,000 years of religious wars.

This is the infancy of Planet Earth. You don’t join a group, an army. Just be kind, look around you, and you straighten yourself out! You become a light unto yourself.

Look below for the rest of Knox’ D-Day story.

in defense of channeling voices

I’ve long since added Jill Lepore to my list of people younger than I who fruitlessly I want to be when  grow up.  (Others include legal star Kimberle Crenshaw and my J-school classmate Jina Moore.) So it made sense when I learned, preparing to write this, that she’s one of ours – a ROTC dropout like Bayard Rustin, a 1980s Reagan-resister like Jeff Sharlet, a Warrior Writer.  She only went to college, she told an interviewer in 2005, because “I won an ROTC scholarship:

I really liked ROTC, actually, except I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in the military. Loved boot camp; hated SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative. So, freshman year, there I was, in ROTC, playing sports, failing all my classes, when I got a letter in the mail. Or, well, my mother got it, and she forwarded it to me. It was from me.

In high school, I had an English teacher who was that once-in-a-lifetime teacher who shapes everything that ever happens to you. He had given us an assignment to write a letter to ourselves five years in the future, or four years into the future, whatever it was. And he was not going to read it. We had to give him money for stamps, adjusted, I thought somewhat suspiciously, for inflation. I mean, good for him, but he charged us like fifty cents. Anyway, we addressed the letters to our parents’ houses. I had completely forgotten about that letter because—did I mention?—I have a terrible memory.

Turns out, it was a very scary letter. It said, more or less, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and it went on like that, scolding, berating: ‘If you’re not actually doing what you’re supposed to be doing, quit everything and figure out your life for God’s sake. Get on with it!’ Apparently, I was a very difficult fourteen-year-old, but not altogether lacking in foresight. It was as if I had known that I would still be the jock who was reading in the dark. So I quit. I quit ROTC. I quit sports. I had been a math major; I switched to English.

This didn’t make me ‘become a historian.’ But later, when I thought about what I did want to do, I remembered that letter, that time capsule, and I wondered what it would be like to read old letters all day, other people’s letters, to listen to the past, and I knew I wanted to do that.

Like many, I discovered Lepore through her brilliant historical-context pieces for The New Yorkerone of which led me to her lovely Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.  On my way there, I did note that she named herself a fellow member of the I’m-Only-Happy-When-it-Rains Club, or what my friend Joshua Phillips calls “The House of Slytherin.” She describes why she took so long to be truly interested in Ben Franklin’s semi-literate sister:  at Harvard in the late 1980s, “I was sick of attics, sick of blighted girlhood….I wanted to study war. I wanted to investigate atrocity. I wanted to write about politics.” So her first books were about documenting the atrocity-born “New World,” about 18-century New York City set afire by abolitionism and untrammeled commerce. She’d already read all the work of William Apess, the main figure of my second chapter , and in 2005 published a book answering in depth my questions about Apess’ final work, “In Defense of King Philip.”

 "Philip, King of Mount Hope, from the Church's The Entertaining History of King Philip's War," line engraving, colored by hand, by the American engraver and silversmith Paul Revere. 17.3 cm x 10.7 cm (6 13/16 in. x 4 3/16 in.) Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, Yale University Art Gallery. Courtesy of Yale University, New Haven. Conn.

“Philip, King of Mount Hope, from the Church’s The Entertaining History of King Philip’s War,” line engraving, colored by hand, by the American engraver and silversmith Paul Revere. 17.3 cm x 10.7 cm (6 13/16 in. x 4 3/16 in.) Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, Yale University Art Gallery. Courtesy of Yale University, New Haven. Conn.

In 1836, Apess was writing about Metacom, the Wampanoug warrior who led perhaps the last serious effort by those indigenous to “New England” against the colonists there in the 1670s. His essay is one of thousands of documents Lepore illuminates in The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,  Lepore’s exploration of both the facts behind those early wars and the way ‘Philip”s defeat has been memorialized by waves of writers after. Including, as we learn from the image at left, Paul Revere, who 100 years after Philip’s defeat took up his image a s a herald of resistance to the British. Lepore does so with her signature clarity,  giving generous voice to Philip’s numerous chroniclers, including Revere, Apess, and the thoroughly unpleasant Increase Mather, who saw Indians as savages from hell and the war against  them holy. More important, she lifts beautifully the scraps and fragments that help us understand a little of that earlier world, strewing details that startle: how long Philip’s severed head loomed over Kennett Square, or how many natives of Massachusetts and Connecticut were sold by the Puritans into slavery in the Caribbean. It all goes down like an insomniac bedtime story, with endnotes nearly as mesmerizing as the text. I actually read The Name of War a few months after the equally absorbing Jane Franklin book, in which those scraps and fragments are of seemingly humbler stuff — but the second book is as much about power, memory,identity as the other. And as much about violence, if you count the sort of semi-voluntary servitude that as 13 successive pregnancies and the multiple child deaths that followed. The difference, in some ways, is that Jane Franklin did write her own story, in a language we can read and greatly helped by a writer who persuades us that her story is no less a biography of America.

PTSD in 1945: let there be truth

I was excited to see Paula Span’s piece today in the Times, “No End to Trauma for Some Older Veterans.” She follows one 80-something vet in his struggles and notes that seeking help wasn’t popular in his war: “The prevailing medical advice — even for someone like Mr. Perna, who had fought in North Africa, Italy and France, who had been wounded and spent six months in a German P.O.W. camp — amounted to “put it all behind you.”

And as much as that may be true, I did feel she left out an important element, as well as the role played by one of the ‘stars’ of ‘my’ World War II chapter.

I said so in a comment  I made on the Times website. Below is the one I first wrote, which takes a stab at explaining why the truth has been so long suppressed.

The piece  is wonderfully thoughtful, and tells me tons I didn’t know. Thank you – and thanks to Mr. Pena, who agreed to go on the record.

Let_There_Light_001-550wI do wish you’d been able to slip in a reference to the John Huston film ‘Let There Be Light.’  In 1945, the Army sent Huston to Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island, to film a veterans’ psychiatric unit at there.  (One of its long-term inhabitants was Dr. Jacob Ochs ( a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge), long before his son Philip sang “I ain’t marching anymore!”)  The film is a little hokey by today’s standards, earnest young men learning to call their illnesses “psycho-neurotic anxiety disorders” while assured by doctors that “we’re conducting an education campaign” to erase the stigma. Instead, just as with San Pietro, the Pentagon moved quickly to suppress 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 in between, but after seeing the film the Army immediately suppressed it from public viewing for 30-plus years.The Cold War was beginning, after all, so no call for admitting any kind of “weakness” in American men.

Interestingly, the film was just included as an “extra”  in the DVD release of The Master,  whose protagonist  is a traumatized WWII vet.

Thanks again for this piece. I hope it gets some families to seek help.

I watched the film when I was just starting out on this book, before learning that Phil Ochs’ dad had been a patient there.  I look forward to seeing it again,and posted the whole thing here in case you don’t want to spring for the Blu-Ray.

Ellsberg on Manning

Image:  ReutersListening now to the audio (available here): the voice of a young techie like so many I know, more comfortable describing the software he used as an intelligence analyst than his thoughts and emotions around the war crimes he wanted to expose.

But when he describes the Collateral Murder video, the anger comes out scorn for “what sounded like bloodlust.” Riveting.

Before talk about it any more, here’s the best authority on what Manning has done: Daniel Ellsberg, whose similarly groundbreaking leak occurred in what now feels was a gentler time. (And yes, I know we’re talking about the Nixon era.) Many thanks to Democracy Now for a terrific interview..

In the news today

RWR-CharterMember-FTAarmy9jNot to turn this into a videolog. but with so much to do it’s hard to avoid sometimes — and this is too good not to share.

A new docu about Occupy features one of my favorite VVAW pranksters, Ward Reilly (you saw him in this Fort Meade account a while back). He’s so much of a firecracker now, I can only imagine when he was an infantryman stirring up trouble in 1974.

At left, Reilly’s self-customized dog tag. You know what the acronym stands for.

 

 

 

 

A day for angelic troublemakers

2027777It’s kind of stereotypical, but every year I watch this film as part of the observance of Martin Luther King Day. It feels the least I can do, given what Bayard Rustin did for all of us.

This year, of course, I thought also of Rustin during President Obama’s Second Inaugural address, when the President said “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” I can’t think that Obama didn’t know that 60+ years before his election, the country was being rocked by a different hyper-articulate young African American trained in community organizing.

He’s also in Ain’t Marching: I count him as a dissenting soldier because as student at the historically black Wilberforce University, he  trained in the school’s mandatory ROTC program for close to two years. (Same with Phil Ochs and his stint in the military academy). Of course, he didn’t last long: repulsed deeply enough by hundreds of hours of drill and command, rifle marksmanship and “combat principles,”  he stopped attending drill and lost his scholarship. Later he was also a fervent organizer for the rights of black soldiers, submitting constant testimony at the Committee Against Jim Crow in the Armed Forces and turning to an Air Force veteran named Norman Hill to help run the 1963 March on Washington. All of it a sidebar to the major, world-changing difference he made, but enough connections to enough of “my” characters that his presence is almost required.

That’s not why you should see the movie below, though. That you do for the joy of it, to pretend you have his essential presence with you this holiday weekend. Share it with someone who’s never heard of him — multiple someones, if you work with groups.

Besides, if anyone insisted that the revolution include dancing, it was this guy.

these might be giants: report from Fort Meade

I went back to Fort Meade this week, more than two years after  Manning was first brought to court. Now in dispute during these last pre-trial motions before the court martial, now scheduled for June 3: those two-plus years.

If there’s not another delay, that means that Bradley Manning’s court-martial will begin almost exactly three years after he was first detained in Kuwait, on May 26, 2010. Please excuse the bold/italics: that’s  three years which already have felt plenty long in actual life — without imagining I’d spent them in military detention, much of it in a single cell without all my clothes.

All of this despite the fact that the Uniform Code of Military Justice includes a guarantee of “speedy trial” that must begin within 120 days of arrest. And much of last week’s proceedings were about that — whether all the delays were due to inevitable national-security issues, and whether the government is obligated to cooperate with the defense and share what it found in its long investigation. There were also some interesting rulings — including how much the trial will cover Manning’s motivations for his actions, something important when someone is  charged with “aiding the enemy.”

But I won’t write much about the hard news here: I’ve been hired by Boston Review to do that (yay!) so you’ll have to wait. In the meantime, check out summaries from Ed Pilkington at the Guardian, Julie Tate at the Washington Post, and Hari Sreenivasan of PBS’s Newshour  (who delivers his report in that worried middle-of-the-road tone we all know so well).

David-Coombs-attorney-for-0071You should definitely check out Scott Shane’s profile of David Coombs, seen at right exiting the Fort Meade courthouse.

When I decided what to title this post, Lt. Col. Coombs is one of the two people I meant. I never got a chance to see William Kunstler or Clarence Darrow at work, but I now feel I kind of know how that feels.

Shane’s coverage of the case itself is predictably bland. But he manages, if you look at it closely, to convey some of the slyness of the veteran advocate:

Mr. Coombs, 43, is deep into one of the most high-profile American military cases in recent years, leading an aggressive, if unorthodox, defense. In weeks of pretrial hearings, the tall, crew-cut lawyer, flanked by uniformed military lawyers who make up the rest of the defense team, has attacked the government’s case on every conceivable ground, even as he conceded that Private Manning was the WikiLeaks source.

Coombs, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, served 12 years in the Army before leaving active duty and opening a military-oriented defense practice in 2009 in Providence, R.I. He has worked, both in court and in a public speech last month, to frame Private Manning’s disclosure of documents not as a reckless act of national security vandalism but as a deed of conscience, intended to expose government misdeeds and defend the public’s right to know.

It was an honor to watch Coombs deliver his speedy-trial brief, in which he countered the government’s catalog of everything they’d been doing by enumerating the ways in which it could have acted with more alacrity, adding on every single week in which he saw government inaction “while Pfc. Manning remained in pre-trial detention.”

Each individual omission added up like layers of paint on a canvas, until Coombs closed by citing the Rule of Court-Martial 707(d):”The accused’s constitutional right to a speedy trial have been violated. And the sole remedy for such a speedy trial violation is dismissal [of the affected charges] with prejudice.”

The whole presentation led to a super-caffeinated rebuttal by the prosecutor, which told me that it was as brilliant as it had looked.

The other giant I met this week was someone I knew only from her posts at Firedoglake, without realizing who she was: Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who gives her take on the trial below.

jesselyn_radackWith all my attention around soldiers who dissent, I find I’m sorely ignorant of much of the history of civilian whistleblowing, and had forgotten about Radack in specific. And I’m not sure I ever knew her full story, as one of the few employees in John Ashcroft’s Justice Department who actively questioned its behavior in the aftermath of 9/11.  The photo is from the Brown alumni magazine around that time, when she refused to help interrogators corners in the questioning of John Walker Lindh.

Radack has been offering legal and logistical support to Manning’s defense, adding him to the Government Accountability Project’s Whistleblowers honor roll. I hope I can go to DC to meet with her and the rest of GAP, to explore what whistleblowing really means in the 21st century. (And maybe ask how she’s kept her  multiple sclerosis at bay, since with her it’s still the invisible kind).

One of the most fun, and humbling, things about this project is how often I come into contact with such giants. Though it has me listening to this band, so much that I had to include the video below. Tell me the lyrics to the song don’t get you hoping for a whistleblower of your own.

Men and MST: getting to the core of it


!  airplaneAce-croppedAnother military rape scandal — this one at Lackland Air Force Base.  A very few of you might have guessed my first thought: “Ground Hog Day. When will they learn?”

I say that because it’s nearly 18 years since a similar scandal at Aberdeen Proving Ground changed my  job description and catalyzed the formation of the short-lived Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel (STAAAMP— the link is to its ghost site at archive.org, since STAAAMP stopped existing as a nonprofit org a decade ago.) Back then, scandals at Tailhook, the Air Force Academy (the 1993 one), and a monumental 1995 Veterans Administration study had cracked the ice somewhat, and I was already talking to survivors of what we now call MST every week. Then came December 1996, when those brave young basic-training women came forward. Above, the image I chose to illustrate the peerless Kathy Gilberd‘s article about it all, for a magazine I edited.

A lot has changed since then for the good, of course. Congress mostly gets it, which is why they scheduled hearings on Lackland for January 23. Columbia University’s Helen Benedict wrote an iconic book on the subject.Visionary filmmaker Kirby Dick made the documentary those brave survivors deserved, which has been nominated for an Oscar this year.  And  STAAAMP has largely been replaced by the super-competent Service Women’s Action Network and the grassroots VetWOW and Protect Our Defenders.

And still, per the LA Times:

Hearings began this week for Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jaime Rodriguez, a Houston recruiter facing life on charges of rape and pursuing illicit relationships with 18 women, according to Air Force Times.

Last week, Staff Sgt. Christopher Jackson, 29, became the sixth basic training instructor convicted of sexual misconduct since April. Jackson received 100 days in jail, 30 days’ hard labor and was demoted to airman first class,  but was allowed to remain in the Air Force.

Ten others are headed to court, including Master Sgt. Jamey Crawford, who waived an evidentiary hearing this week, and faces up to 22 years in prison is convicted on charges sodomy, adultery and giving a false official statement, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

At least now, when it happens, even the current Defense Secretary (thanks to that film!) knows the problem is both endemic and systemic. And next week’s hearings will feature both SWAN and a multi-generational group of MST survivors, including the impressive Jenny McClendon (seen here when the scandal first broke).  McClendon has”cautious optimism” about the hearings, she  told reporters this week.

But as my dear friend Lily Casura (founder of Healing Combat Trauma.com) points out in San Antonio News-Express, the hearings will lack one important ingredient: representation from male Lackland victims. None have yet come forward. Yet the national numbers imply  that there must be some. Casura reflects on the possible reasons:

It’s hard for men (or women) to talk about it, and apparently even more so for men. Of the same active-duty males of every service surveyed who were assaulted, more than four in every five (85 percent) didn’t report.

Men don’t report for reasons ranging from thinking it wasn’t important enough or not wanting anyone to know, to doubting the report would stay confidential, or being afraid of retaliation, reprisal, being labeled a troublemaker, or concerns about affecting promotion.

But there’s also personal shame involved when a man is assaulted. I recently interviewed a former Marine, one of the few men featured in “The Invisible War” documentary on MST. He was gang-raped on active duty by other Marines he worked with. Did he report? Absolutely not. “I was embarrassed, scared, didn’t know what to do at the time, so I denied everything,” he says. “Big mistake.”

He also went back to work after the assault. “I sucked it up like a man,” he said, adding, “I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I know the culture.”

I know the culture. That sentence summarizes why, I think, the issue has been stinking up the military for so long — despite all the earnest commissions and exposes. There’s deep work to be done on making the system’s jurisprudence and reward system more just, and SWAN and POF are right to fight for it.  But I fear that there’s a far broader conversation about military “masculinity” that few are ready for yet, and without it you might get no more than  cosmetics.

Still, I wish them all – the survivors, the groups,  Congress — godspeed on trying to move this forward. And the reporters covering these hearings should also ask the probable new Secretary of Defense how he plans to confront this, especially as these wars wind down.

“Hollywood’s conscientious objector.” The subtitle wrote itself.

I’ve been reading a lot of biographies of late. These days, most are marvels of narrative nonfiction. I just finished Jean Harvey Baker’s  work on Mary Todd Lincoln,  (via Michelle Dean at the New Yorker), which taught me that the much-reviled First Lady was less a loon than a feminist that coulda been.

And sometimes  the most enjoyable part of my research for Ain’t Marching has been checking in with bios: Roy Morris’ Alone in Bad Company, about Ambrose Bierce, and Kate Larsen’s spectacular Harriet Tubman bio, Bound for the Promised Land: Portrait of an American Hero.  

coffin ayres bioAnd now I’m blown away by a book about one of my favorites in my WWII chapter: Lewis Ayres, who went from being Greta Garbo’s last silent screen kiss to being the iconic Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front to earning the apt subtitle given a new book by Lesley Coffin.  I started the book meaning to only read the opening chapters and finish it that night — and couldn’t put it down, racing to the end like a tween just gifted with The Hunger Games.

Coffin, who tweets at @filmbiographer, hooks us early with Ayres’ Minnesota childhood (he worked as a golf caddy at 10 years old and dropped out of high school at 14 to help out) and his early days as a silent starlet who loved to make music.

drkildareWe then watch him grow into the singular figure that compels me, through a Hollywood lens that includes his cash cow Dr. Kildare series (at right), and a lifetime of feature and character roles.

EBRB100ZAn alert reader can see in the earnest young man the Ayres I’ve spent much time with, the one who went to the “conchie” camp in 1942 and then became one of the most famous 1-A-O objectors, training as a medic and then becoming a chaplain’s assistant as his unit deployed to Asia. (At left, YANK Magazine shows Sgt. Ayres in action.)  And true to its cinematic focus, the book also lets us in to how war first had Ayres swearing off Hollywood, promising to dedicate himself to the ministry, and then changed his mind, after he realized how important movies were to the common soldier.

I’d known about this book from its beginnings, actually. I’d tracked down Ayres’ son Justin (who looks more like his dad every day, at least from his photos on Facebook) who said to me instantly, “But you have to meet Lesley!”

I wasn’t surprised that she finished her book before I did, and am glad to report that it not only has exceeded my expectations, but taught me a lot. I hope it made it into the Christmas stockings of many movie fans, who’ll thrill to its glimpse of 50 years of Hollywood history (including Ayres’ early marriages to Ginger Rogers and his romance with Jane Wyman before she met Ronald Reagan). I AM sort of glad her only mentions of Howard Hughes were as a romantic rival, and she left out the hilarious Western Union message in which Hughes told All Quiet director Lewis Milestone how little he thought of Ayres’ acting.I’m hoping to include that one in Ain’t Marching!

It also sent me scurrying to as many of the old movies as I could find (though Kildare is kind of a jerk), and wishing I could see some of the visual art to which he devoted himself in old age. Read Coffin’s book for a multi-faceted portrait whose prose is a joy.

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Status report

calendarFor those who might be wondering why this whole project is so overdue.and/or why you DIDN’T see it on the fall catalog for UCPress.

When I started working on this book, its subtitle was Soldiers Who Dissent: From George Washington to John Murtha, the latter name because back then, in 2006,  it wasn’t that long since the late Rep. Murtha first spoke against the war in Iraq.  I was originally scheduled to deliver a manuscript in 2008.

That was, of course, awhile ago.  George W. Bush would still be president. In that time, the U.S. war in Iraq has ended under a new president, who expanded that in Afghanistan and commenced an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers, which is why the subtitle has changed to focus on one such whistleblower — who as I write this is undergoing pre-trial proceedings at Fort Meade.

For most of that time I was also working as a reporter and a Web editor, which limited the time I could devote to the ms. — just as the amount of material I had to cover seemed only to expand. There was a lot to do:

Doing right by the past. Since my explicit focus is on both servicemembers and veterans, the fruits of my reporting showed a far deeper bench of dissenters from earlier eras: rather than the one-big-pre-WWI chapter evinced in the proposal, there’s now five. Even the 1980s deserved their own chapter.

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