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!

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

storytelling as dissent

youngblood-9781501105746_hrYesterday’s War Horse post only spotlit one small share of the vast number of veteran writers and artists, like the one pictured,  charting the forever war. They’re musicians, they’re poets holding incredible slams, they’re winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards.

The current bounty has me thinking about how the presence of such artists forms an arc throughout the history we’re charting — one that likely starts with Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce, continues with e.e. cummings and Lewis Milestone and and busts out after World War II as Randall Jarrell, Joseph Heller, John Huston — until Vietnam givesi us Bill Erhart, Tim O’Brien and so many others (now on my cutting-room floor). If I include journalists and filmmakers to the mix, it becomes a cacophony.

Why the increase? And does the plentitude of stories just release tension, or begin the process of creating dissent as personnel know they’re not alone?

I don’t know if these questions are for trauma studies,military history or English class. But I do think they’re worth tracing. And maybe we can send today’s veteran stars a questionnaire, to find out if Bierce and Jarrell really do whisper in today’s texts.

privateperrypoe

A day late salute to St. Patrick’s Battalion

stpatsbattIn yesterday’s excitement at the Inquirer piece, I forgot to observe St.Patrick’s Day by saluting the dissenting soldiers who took that saint’s name as inspiration. These Catholic soldiers emerged amid the killing spree known as the Mexican-American War, 1845-47.

In a war staffed entirely by career staff and volunteers, morale started  low and got worse. Between nonexistent wages and politically appointed officers, many Volunteers eventually fled to Galveston, where “they easily found employment, one as a school-master at $60 a month,” a Boston newspaper reported.

Desertion was by far the best-known form of dissent in Polk’s war. More than 13,000 deserted, out of a total force of 100,000—surprisingly less among the state volunteers than among the longer-serving regulars.

As for the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, who crossed over to the Mexican side: John Reilly, who left Scott’s army in April 1846 without firing a shot, assembled the battalion from Catholic soldiers discomfited by the nativism and anti-Catholicism of most of the American troops. They were welcomed by the understaffed, under-trained, and under-equipped Mexicans, helped them hold Monterrey, and in 1847 became a foreign legion of the Mexican Army, the First and Second Militia Infantry Companies of San Patricio.

 However, after their defeat at Chiarabusco in September 1847, many were tried and some executed, whether or not they had actually fought against the United States. That September, fourteen “San Patricios,” including Reilly, were flogged and branded with two-inch “D”’s on both side of their faces.

You’ve heard the San Patricios saluted at many an Irish bar. If you’re lucky, you’ve also heard this version:

 

No #47traitors here;The Logan Act’s namesake just wanted peace with France

If you’ve been following national politics some, you may have heard, from both the left and the right, people naming the “Logan Act” as a way to penalize those Republican senators who sent a letter to Tehran behind Obama’s back. This isn’t the site for it, so I’ll leave it to Charlie Pierce to  explain the atrocity.

What I can do, however, is make “Logan Act” less of a partisan mantra – and explain why we care about it over here. It’s actually an oooooold amendment to the Sedition Act: not the 1917 Act, whose buddy the Espionage Act is currently being used to prosecute whistleblowers, but JOHN ADAMS’ 1798 version. Trying to make like George Bush and get on with a sorta-war with France, Adams had to contend with two soldiers, a current Army medic and one veteran-chaplain-poet, neither of whom thought the newborn nation they’d fought for should take on naval kabuki as its first order of business.

220px-GeoLoganThe ink was barely dry on the Constitution when the first of America’s Wars for Unclear Purposes began: the naval duel with France known as the Quasi-War. By the time the latter ended in 1800, two soldier-dissenters had tried to prevent it—Quaker physician/militiaman George Logan {left} and former Continental Army chaplain Joel Barlow—while Matthew Lyon, now “the asp” of colonial politics, was imprisoned for publishing his objections , calling President Adams names, and publishing “confidential” memos meant for the elite.

The two who tried to prevent it were both Francophiles. Logan, whose grandfather had been secretary to William Penn, was a physician who had spent the war attending medical school in Switzerland and traveling in Europe; upon his return, he hobnobbed with his local militia and began serving in the Pennsylvania legislature.

Fluent in French and something of early enthusiast for the French Revolution, Logan watched closely as Adams responded to French naval maneuvers, made uneasy by unresolved treaty obligations and a new U.S.-Britain treaty. Also watching closely was Yale poet Barlow, veteran of the Battle of Saratoga, now living in France, having rushed to help the French with their Revolution. Barlow wrote home and encouraged Madison to send commissioners to meet with Talleyrand, horrified when said envoys were unable to get him that appointment.  As naval insults continued and anti-French sentiment was high in Congress, Logan took it upon himself to go to France, to see if he could possibly talk to the Directory and test the waters for peace.

While Logan was taking the Quaker path and listening, back home Adams had secured new funds for the U.S. Navy and recalled General Washington in preparation for a ground war. He also acted to crack down on the Federalist press, which in classic 18th-century flavor was a flood of insults to the “tyrant” Adams. Congress then passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, the latter of which made it a crime to criticize the President. Fines were set of up to $2,000 for any person convicted of uttering, writing or printing any “false, scandalous and malicious statement against the Government of the United States; or either House of the Congress of the United States, with intent to defame… or to bring them […] into contempt or disrepute.”

There was a special Logan Amendment added to the Act, written especially for George Logan, whose freelance diplomacy was regarded as traitorous. Logan had, however, met with Talleyrand; after securing the release of some captured U.S. sailors, he sailed for home in August carrying a list of possible terms for peace negotiators. When he arrived in November, he was immediately, if briefly, arrested.

Thinking about all this is enough to turn me into Alanis – as in, “Isn’t it ironic…” To rail against GOP senators who love war against Iran by threatening to use legislation meant to stop an enthusiastic Quaker from preventing a war – that’s jujitsu of a worthy sort.

Friday news dump, belated

AintMarchincoverbyAlexAs what one writer has called “this insult of a month” comes to an end, a baker’s half-dozen to keep us warm:

  • Famous Veteran: Leonard Nimoy. As many of us mourn the guy who made smart cool, IVAW’s Geoff Millard points out this Military.com Q&A in which Nimoy offered vets tips on making their dreams real.
  • One dissenting soldier interviews another: at CounterPunch, a dialogue between Vincent Emanuele, who’s been writing up a storm 6+ years since his mesmerizing Winter Soldier testimony, and Kourtney Mitchell of Deep Green Resistance, who emerges as a feminist environmentalist while still officially an Army AWOL.
  • In case you thought the end of DADT and Prop 8 meant equality for queers in the military: Texas VA told this Iraq vet and her wife that their marriage didn’t exist.
  • Thank you for your service, VVAW’s Jan Scruggs, who made the Vietnam Wall real and is now stepping aside as his foundation’s president. You deserve the time off,
  • At Foreign Policy, Tom Ricks’ thoughts on the moral-injury concept. Between him and David Brooks, you’d think the idea was nonpartisan or something.
  • And to finish off with Hollywood (where we sorta began), the LA Times on Edward Snowden as a movie star, now that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is playing him in an Oliver Stone movie.

Iraq and a hard place

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All this Manning talk has distracted me from writing about this amazing mural, powered by the singular organization Warrior Writers. They’re poets, essayists, performers and visual artists of all stripes, mostly from what their director calls “veterans who’ve served since September 11.” Together with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program,  they produced this testimonial a half-mile away from where I live, entitled “Communion Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” It was funded in part by veterans’ health agencies who believed sort of what I do: that creating art is a key way to tapping the strength inside the trauma.

I was there for the opening on Veterans Day, when the commissioners and City Council folk celebrated the work of the artists and all the vets who helped them create this mural. You get to decide if dissent is involved, but to the extent that vets turn their own trauma into something that speaks truth, there’s no question it deserves our attention.

At the mural opening, I also had the privilege of meeting a newer member of Iraq Veterans Against War, a talented writer from Western Pennsylvania. And he gave me permission to post the poem he read that day, which you should read aloud to yourself: I think it even without the line breaks it sings.

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