Archive for the ‘memory’ category

The Duty Of Memory: August 6, 1945

August 6, 2015

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

That’s the first paragraph of John Hersey’s Hiroshima.  You can read it in full here.


Seventy years ago today the Enola Gay, a B-29 within the Army Air Force of the United States of America, dropped the first of the only two nuclear weapons ever used in war.  About 200,000 children, women and men died in the attack.  Almost all of them were civilians.

I’m not going to add any political notes to that bald statement of fact.  There are some to be made, particularly at this precise turn in US decision making.  But those who died seventy years ago when Little Boy hit Hiroshima, and then again, three days later, when Fat Man destroyed Nagasaki, deserve attention uncluttered by the noise of the moment.

The extraordinary power of human reason exposed the fundamental behavior of matter at the level of neutrons and protons — and from that gorgeous insight drew disaster and woe and the ruin of two cities.  That’s what I’m thinking about right now.  The rest can wait.

Image: The Hiroshima Peace Memorial — “The Atomic Dome”

Grief is Another Country

December 16, 2012

I have nothing to coherently substantive to say about the Newtown tragedy, at least not yet.

I’ve lost much of today thinking about the parents, which has pretty much frozen my brain in place.

It’s a cliché, but still, absolutely true:  there is no loss like that of a child.  To my great good fortune and deepest fear, that’s a catastrophe I do not know.


But I did see it up close.  Without belaboring personal details (and a story that is not mine alone), my father predeceased my grandmother.  She lasted months only after that calamity, and that’s all I’m going to say about that for now.

But it’s the utter wreck that such a loss wreaks on those it touches that I’ve been turning over in my head all day.  John caught a lot of that with this post, which I read this morning, but that just made me think on it the more.  At some point during the day, it came to me, a stray wisp of memory — some words that I had once encountered that I half recalled to be as close as anything to give voice to something of what parents feel in these circumstances.

Decades ago, some years after we lost my dad, I capped a wholly undistinguished college acting career with a bit part in one of the lesser Shakespeares, King John.  Even Bill’s second tier work has flashes of seemingly impossible insight delivered in otherworldly language.  Act III of King John erupts in such a moment, at the point when Constance, believes her son, Arthur, has been doomed to murder at the order of King John.  I looked it up and here’s what I found:

Lady, you utter madness, and not sorrow.

Thou art not holy to belie me so;
I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine;
My name is Constance; I was Geffrey’s wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost:
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
For then, ’tis like I should forget myself:
O, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal;
For being not mad but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver’d of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he:
I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.

Bind up those tresses. O, what love I note
In the fair multitude of those her hairs!
Where but by chance a silver drop hath fallen,
Even to that drop ten thousand wiry friends
Do glue themselves in sociable grief,
Like true, inseparable, faithful loves,
Sticking together in calamity.

To England, if you will.

Bind up your hairs.

Yes, that I will; and wherefore will I do it?
I tore them from their bonds and cried aloud
‘O that these hands could so redeem my son,
As they have given these hairs their liberty!’
But now I envy at their liberty,
And will again commit them to their bonds,
Because my poor child is a prisoner.
And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven:
If that be true, I shall see my boy again;
For since the birth of Cain, the first male child,
To him that did but yesterday suspire,
There was not such a gracious creature born.
But now will canker-sorrow eat my bud
And chase the native beauty from his cheek
And he will look as hollow as a ghost,
As dim and meagre as an ague’s fit,
And so he’ll die; and, rising so again,
When I shall meet him in the court of heaven
I shall not know him: therefore never, never
Must I behold my pretty Arthur more.

You hold too heinous a respect of grief.

He talks to me that never had a son.

You are as fond of grief as of your child.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!
–William Shakespeare, King John, Act III, Scene 4

My thoughts and all sympathy to the families of those now burdened with grief, or, as it is customarily said at such times in my Jewish tradition, “may they be comforted wtih the other mourners of Jerusalem and Zion.”

Image:  Anthony van Dyck, Family Portrait, 1621.

Eavesdropping for Effect

March 21, 2012

I haven’t written anything about the Trayvon Martin murder, because I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said.  TNC’s been powerful on this, and I found James Fallows‘ take exactly on point, and what’s been said here speaks for me as well.  If I have any thought it is that if this isn’t our Emmet Till moment, we’re even more desolate as a society than I had feared on my worst nights. (And yes, Charlie Pierce went there, but I was thinking along this line before reading him. It’s hardly an unlikely remembrance.)

Yesterday, though, I couldn’t help but think about Martin’s death after one session of  a conference on the future of documentary.  There, I got the chance to hear, and later to talk to two of the collaborators behind Question Bridge — co-founder Chris Johnson and one of his colleagues, Bayeté Ross Smith.

That project turns on a deceptively simple idea:* find Black men with a question they want another Black man to answer, someone they may not know, someone of a different age, class, location, experience. Have them ask whatever it is while staring straight into a video camera.  The film makers then bring those questions to other men — strangers turned into confidants, who answer.  Again, they speak straight into the lens — or rather, through the camera directly to both the questioner and any eavesdroppers, you, me, whoever decides to click “play.

Here’s a sample:

There are a couple of things to note about the project from in the context of a new media conference.  The first is that this  is incredibly simple film making, as noted above, but that simplicity highlights the rigor of the craft involved, the meticulous attention to what its creators wanted to achieve as an aesthetic (and hence rhetorically) powerful piece of work. Think sonnets:  when you have fewer elements and more formal constraints, whatever you do right or wrong is there for all to see.  Put this another way, as I often preach to my students:  high production values do not mean necessarily expensive production.  It merely means you’ve thought out what you intend to do with great care long before you ever say, “turn over.”

Here’s another taste of the work, from a variant of the project intended explicitly for use in educational settings:

But back to Trayvon Martin.

Certainly, there’s nothing directly linking this project to that tragedy…except, as one of the two presenters yesterday said (I think it was Bayeté, and I paraphrase from memory), that such events are part of the fabric of Black male experience, part of the atmosphere in which Black men move.

In that context, Question Bridge has an explicit mission:  to enable Black men to speak out loud about the experiences and emotions that frame their daily lives.  Big stuff — like the blueprint clip above, or seemingly small (though, I suspect, not really so) matters like the one raised here.  Obviously, when a 17 year old kid is shot down, and the police do worse than nothing, that’s clearly a circumstance in which plenty of questions and answers will resonate — those already asked, and those to come.

Question Bridge is up front and center on this core goal: it aims to connect Black men with each other to address core questions of identity across all the barriers of distance and difference.  But, of course, by its very form as a web/museum/school/socially mediated and sourced effort, it invites others in.  It’s a triangle, built on asymmetries of time and place, questioner at a remove from his respondent, both separated from anyone else in the world who chooses to listen in…all of which adds up to a conversation that can only take place in a documented, enwebbed world.

And speaking now as what I obviously am, a middle-aged white man living a life of great good fortune (so far and mostly), what is likely obvious becomes more so:  there are lots of conversations that I would want to have, that I think our society, our culture needs to have, that in the ordinary course of the way Americans live now are vanishingly unlikely to take place.  But at Question Bridge, they do.  Of course, the exchanges constructed by the artist-film makers involved are just that:  made works of documentary art, constructed out of a whole hierarchy of choices made within the project — and hence anything but a live exchange, with all of the chance and serendipity of face to face talk.

But so what? Or rather, that’s the point.

This work entrains me, anyone, in a chain of thought and reaction, question, answer, argument, that if I were actually in the room would not happen.  And if there is anything to take from Obama Derangement Syndrome, from the seeming mainstreaming of dog whistle racism (and the old fashioned kind) — from Trayvon Martin’s death with its sudden, horrible reminder that possession of skittles can be a capital offense in these United States — then it is that one of the hardest and most vital tasks out there is to allow words that would not otherwise be uttered or heard to find voice and listeners across this wide world.

I don’t want to overclaim.  No video is going to approximate the job of living someone else’s life, and as the men of Question Bridge point out, that’s just as true within a group as varied as Black men as it is outside that particular cut of identity.  But speaking as both a guy living in America right now and as a someone who tries to work with the craft of documentary to shift people’s minds, I have to say that this is one impressive project, a genuinely innovative and (to me, at least) deeply effective use of our new tools to braid human connections that did not exist before they formed in this space.

And with that, I’ll leave you with one last video — the project explainer and pitch:

*recalling, as Richard Feynman put it, that “simple” — or “elementary,” as the physicist put it in the context of an “elementary demonstration” of a proof –does not mean easy. Rather, it means that “very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence.”

Just One Moment to Remember…June 6, 1944.

June 6, 2011

Because there are things that happened in the world before most of us were born, a belated remembrance of the longest day:

H/t for a reminder of the date to Paul Krugman, whose pun on this I cannot top.

Images: Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard, official U.S. Coast Guard photograph, 6 June 1944.

The build-up of Omaha Beach. Reinforcements of men and equipment moving inland. SC193082 {PD-USGov-Military}

Photograph by Taylor, American assault troops of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, injured while storming Omaha Beach, wait by the Chalk Cliffs for evacuation to a field hospital for further medical treatment. Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.

Tristan Nitot, The Omaha Beach Cemetery, aka World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, near Colleville-sur-mer in Normandy, France

On Veterans Day

November 11, 2010

Over at Balloon Juice, I wrote yesterday of war in the abstract, of the sorrow to be read in the numbing, enormous tallies of weapons bought and sold.

Today, on Armistice Day/Veterans Day itself, it seems to me more appropriate to center on the individual experience of war that the day itself evokes.

So, with apologies for republishing old material, here’s a couple of stories from that eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month from the year 1918 — the root of memory that we revisit today:

Those final six hours of the war were surreal.  The news of the cease-fire order passed swiftly down the line, but the fighting did not stop.  U.S. Army captain Harry Truman, commanding an artillery battery, fired under orders until 10:45 a.m.  British troops were ordered forward, with instructions to achieve their objectives by eleven.  German fire persisted too.  Among those killed were British soldiers wearing the Mons star, veterans of the first battle of the war.  Within the German lines, troops waited for news of the negotiations in the midst of preparations for a last battle.  Early that morning Georg Bucher went to his company commander to beg for more machine gun ammunition.   At 7:15, an attack came; Bucher’s machine guns broke it up before the Americans facing him reached his barbed wire.  His company’s casualties were light.  One new recruit went down with a chemical burn.  Bucher comforted him by telling him how much worse it could have been, how he could have lost his leg.  “The youngster seemed, God knew why, to find comfort in my words,” Bucher wrote. At that moment, Bucher’s company commander returned, leaping along like a mad man, shouting “Cease fire at eleven a.m..  Pass the word along, cease fire at eleven.”


Hearing that, Bucher wrote, “all we could think of was how to survive the next three hours.”  But within minutes, the neighboring  section of the line came under artillery fire, though Bucher knew the Americans across no-man’s land must have heard the news too.  Soldiers of proven courage began to waver, gathering their gear for flight.  At 10:30, the wounded newcomer cheered up, calling out the time left.  As he spoke, the allied artillery shifted aim, and began to shell Bucher’s position.  Gas came next, and “everyone cowered in the shelters with clenched hands.  The thought that death might overtake them a hundred times in that last half hour had completely unnerved them.”  The shelling died down, and the gas lifted.  Bucher and his company returned to the forward trench, grenades and rifles at the ready to repel any last charge.  At ten minutes to the hour, he stared over the parapet, watching the shell smoke drift in the breeze.  There was still just time for something to happen.  Time ticked on.  He stared at his watch.  The hand moved.  It was over.

Bucher’s experience was representative, but he did not experience the ultimate evil the war had to offer in those last hours and minutes.  There was one incident that captured the essence of war on the western front, the distillation of its arbitrary violence.

There was one incident that captured the essence of war on the western front, the distillation of its arbitrary violence.  At two minutes to eleven in the vicinity of Mons a Canadian private named George Price was hit by a sniper’s bullet.  He died instantly.  The man who killed him remains unknown.  That man made a choice.  He was a marksman, a skilled soldier.  He had just moments remaining in which it was legal for him to kill.  There was no need to fire, no purpose, and some risk at least to himself and any comrades near him.  If he waited until eleven, and then put his gun down, the only consequence would be that a young stranger would go home.   Instead, the shot rang out.  Two minutes ticked past.  The war ended.  George Price lay dead.

This passage comes from Einstein in Berlin, a book I published a few years ago.  Bucher told his tale in his memoir, In the Line, 1914-1918 published in England in 1932; Martin Gilbert wrote about the death of George Price in his one volume history, The First World War.


I’ve never served.  I’ve reported on one war, that parody of imperial ambitions in collision that was the Falklands conflict of 1982.  I say “reported” — but I was doing so from the safety and comfort of London, talking to Green Jackets in Whitehall and going for lunch with men who sold Rapier missiles to the armed services. No risk of dulce et decorum for me.


That little fight was memorialized in this, my favorite — if that’s the word — recent song to capture the pity and misery of war.


Wars are only little from the outside, of course.  A friend of mine lost her brother, a member of the SAS, in a quiet op on West Falkland.  I was with him on the farm to which he had long since retired from the Royal Artillery when my uncle learned that a brother officer had just been killed in Northern Ireland.  The son of a  member (when on this side of the water) of my synagogue died in the last days of perhaps the most pointless conflict in recent memory, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.  I have thoughts of them in my heart right now. You, I’m sure, have yours.

Not to be forgotten — them, or this:

There are no small wars.

And with that, I’ll leave this as it stands, but for one last thought.  I think this is a subject and a day for memory, not for politics.

So without naming names, let me just say that when I recall George Price, shot down for…what? Fun? Because he was there?… I cringe every time I hear any valiant keyboard kommandos baying for wars they will not fight nor begin to imagine.

That is not OK.

Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

[cross posted at Balloon Juice]

Image: Royal Irish Rifles ration party, 1 July, 1916 (probably) — the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

On 9/11: a trivial memory of the day

September 11, 2010

It is hard to assimilate the idea that the tenth anniversary of what has already — and maliciously — been translated into myth, is just one year away.

That seems like a long time, but it is not, of course.  A lot has happened, of course, and as I measure time at home, in the rhythm of a family’s seasons and my own, one-day-per-day march towards that moment when I resume non-existence, it sems quite a while.

For example:  September 11, 2001, That day was my son’s one-year+four-month birthday; now, just a couple of days ago, I walked him to the start of his fifth grade year.  The boy holding my hand as we crossed the one big street between us and school is almost impossible to fix within the image of the terrifyingly newly ambulatory little thing that once charged across the living room floor.

But really, even in personal memory, nine years is just not that broad a reach of time, certainly not when, as in my case, one now sees fifty in the rear view mirror, a milestone passed in that interval.

And so, I can remember still, with astonishing visual clarity, exactly where I was and what I was doing on the morning of September 11, 2001.

I was sitting in Joe Jr.’s diner on the corner of 12th St. and 6th Ave., just across from my borrowed apartment.

It was a beautiful morning — but you all know that; we’ve all seen the videotape that plays out its misery against that perfectly indifferent crystal blue sky.  The camera frames all focused on the towers of course, but this time the lens does not lie:  I was there I can tell you there was not a cloud in sight from horizon to  horizon.

I remember what I was eating, always with an odd moment of ethnic shame, just a little sense of the ridiculous: with my coffee I was eating light, just a toasted bialy with raspberry jam.  I ask you: who orders a bialy with a bit of jam?  No lantzman I know — but me that morning.

It was the morning after an New York Football Giants evening game, a crappy loss to the Denver Broncos.  Someone — this is one bit I can’t quite recall — had broken his leg in the game, and three or four of us at the counter — all strangers, all just waking up, in the last step of the routine before heading off to work — were talking about the outcome, and what the injury might mean for the rest of the season.

Just then a guy opened the door to the diner — a street guy, too many layers of clothes on for the tail-end-of-summer kindness of the day.  He poked his head in and said that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center.  He looked like someone for whom the ’60s had been much to interesting, and none of us paid him any attention. No one. We didn’t get up; we didn’t look; we just went on chewing, finishing our meals, and continuing with what would be, for a few minutes, an ordinary day.

If I had any thought in my mind it was of the last famous collision between a New York tower and an airplane, the time a WW II era B 25 bomber blew through the Empire State Building, a shooting an engine through the wreckage on to the street below.

I was just about done, grabbed a last sip, and paid my check.  I walked out onto 6th Ave. and saw first the crowd of people in the middle of the road.  I turned — I remember almost swiveling — and saw the north tower with that great scar in its side and the flames and smoke rising.  I was too far uptown to see any of the immediate horror you’ve read about over and over again.

I watched for a few minutes.  I called my wife in Boston — the cell phone towers on top of the World Trade Buildings were still there, and the call got through…a detail I keep stumbling over as I remember that day.

I turned away. I knew that I was watching people die from a safe distance, and I wanted to stop, I wanted to give myself no sense of spectacle.

I crossed the street and actually ran an errand — how utterly bizarre and banal is that? — picking up a couple of shirts at a dry cleaner across the street.  I recrossed the avenue and went back into my apartment building to drop off the dry cleaning.  My place was only on the second floor, so the whole interruption may have taking six or seven minutes, no more.  When I came out, the south tower was burning; that was precisely the interval in which the second plane hit, and it became impossible to hold onto even the thread of hope that the disaster we were witnessing could have been an accident.

I watched a while more and then walked up to 14th St. to catch the subway to go to work. It seemed absurd to do so of course — what on earth would I, could I, do in an office that day.

But what else was there to do?   I couldn’t quite think of anything, so I caught what may have been the last uptown train, and got off at Grand Central to walk the three blocks to the office.

No work happened of course.  We just watched TV, gathering around 20 inch screens to see what had been right in front of me downtown.  I couldn’t sit still, so I paced round and round the perimeter of our floor…which meant I missed the live shot of the first tower collapse, which meant I missed nothing at all, as you all know, for the thousands of times that image would be replayed over the next days.

We gave up around two.We all headed for home, with more or less effort; the subways and buses had long since stopped running, and the bridges and tunnels were closed.  Some folks from HQ on Long Island (I was working for Cablevision that fall on a doomed project) had helicoptered into Manhattan early that morning, and they ended walking across the 57th St. Bridge to reach the Town Cars sent to collect them — and I remember with some of my co-workers feeling an odd satisfaction that in the midst of disaster the suits had had to hoof it for a while.

All I wanted to do was get back up to Boston to my wife and very small boy, so I headed across to Penn Station to see if any train was running north, but there was nothing.  So I pointed myself back to my sublet on 12th, walking oddly down the middle of a dead empty 7th Ave., staring out the dust cloud that had been the WTC for twenty blocks.

Living downtown, I was able to pass the security cordon at 14th St., and made it to my building.  Another tenant was there, shaking, talking without stopping.

He had worked in one of the smaller WTC buildings, and he couldn’t stop telling of the sight of those who chose to fall rather than burn, and the sound their bodies made as they came to earth.  More:  he had only a short while before heard from his brother, who usually worked in one of the towers, but who had missed his usual PATH train that morning — pissing him off — and thus lived.  It had taken much of the day to get word through the communications madness to his sibling, convinced until that moment that he had lost his nearest kin.

Some of us, friends, an accretion of circles of work and college and neighborhood acquaintances gathered then, around eight, I guess, at a bar-grill on 6th Ave.  By then, the restaurant had run out of everything, just about — they could give us hamburgers, but not buns; no fries…whatever.  No one cared, obviously.   They still had beer.

We kept talking, all of us, over and at each other, where we had been at the moment, where we went, who we knew, what other friends we were sure were safe.  I learned later about some connections to those who died that day — distant ones, luckily enough for me, friends or colleagues of friends of mine, but no one intimately connected to me.  Not so for some of the others at the table that night, but no one knew anything then.  We stayed on and on into the night, well past any usual work day prudence, but not drinking much — which seemed typical that night at that bar; no one wanted to get blasted and no one wished to be alone.

Finally we gave up, went home severally, and separately to our beds.  When we rose, the cloud was still there, and I remember walking along a cross street — I can’t remember which, maybe 14th, maybe 23rd, and seeing a parade of out of town fire and rescue trucks, a convoy of twenty or more, driving slowly, as if in a cortege.

All of which to say that this is a day for memory, and now you have mine.  I was there on September 11th, right there in downtown Manhattan.  I was not endangered — never for a moment; and I did not suffer as so many others did.  But I was there, and I saw, and I remember, and I mourn again for neighbors (firefighters) and acquaintances, and that guy who could not go up into his apartment to be alone with the feeling of relief for his brother, the grief he had not yet banished for that same brother, and the sounds and sights he had witnessed that morning.

You can guess what I think of those who have made a fetish of this day, of those who charge C notes and more for the privilege of wallowing in terror porn and the easy thrill of wars other people fight a great distance away.  But I’m not going to write what is in my head about those grotesque excuses for human beings. This is a day for memory, and those who buy and sell such remembrances for cash or power…I abominate them, most days, but on this day, they are merely people I choose to forget.

To all  for whom that day marks loss and sorrow, I wish you solace.

Images: Edward Hopper, “Nighthawks at the Diner,” 1942.

The Empire State Building after a plane strike.

I do not choose to put up any images of the day itself.  We have seen them, all of us.

Veteran’s Day — nee Armistice Day — poem and remembrance

November 11, 2008

Update: Check out Lovable Liberal’s remembrance too.

Michael D. over at Balloon Juice has dredged up the inevitable In Flanders Fields as a token of memory on this sad day.

I have to confess I hate John McCrae’s poem because of the third verse, with its appropriating of the dead to keep the torch burning that consumed so many young men in a truly pointless and brutally mis-led war.  It’s home-front poetry, for all that it was written by a man who fought and died in the conflict — by which I mean that it plays on the familiar tropes of glory and honor deemed suitable for the consumption of those gentlemen and ladies then a-bed safely removed from the horror and squalor of the trenches.*

In the comment thread, one reader offers up Owen’s equally famous Dulce et Decorum Est as an antidote — and it certainly does offer the honest soldier’s counter argument:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

For my part, two thoughts:  first to McCrae himself.  The poem was born of his direct experience that was fully immersed in the bloody and in-the-moment pointlessness of the war as anything Owen wrote.  Read the story of how the poem came to be here.  The third verse that so offends me?…I have no doubt that it was truly felt, the more so that the poem was written in the spring of 1915 — the first full campaign season in the trenches — and before the grinding fact of the four-year meatgrinder could fully crush its schoolboy bravado.  In any event, he was there, he saw what he saw and felt what he felt, and he gets to express that emotion any way he damn pleases.

It’s the use of the poem by those who have not earned that authority in the same way that gets me, especially now, in the wake of five years of war when my friends on the other side of keyboard wars have so often called for sacrifices as long as others make them.  Maybe I’m the one fighting old battles here, in the new world after November 4, 2008, but I don’t think so.

(Note that I haven’t even begun to write about the collective criminal folly that permitted the trenches to consume so many men for so long.  For a lucid professional’s take on that question, the best place to start is the classic:  B.H. Liddell Hart’s seminal work Strategy.  My own take on it can be found in, interspersed with other stuff, in chapters 3-12 of this book.**)

Second thought:  here is one more poem just to make sure that I  drive home the point about the cost of stupid decisions in war.

This is another by Wilfred Owen, much less well known, perhaps less well made than Dulce…. but in its own way yet more wrenching:

S. I. W.

“I will to the King,
And offer him consolation in his trouble,
For that man there has set his teeth to die,
And being one that hates obedience,
Discipline, and orderliness of life,
I cannot mourn him.”
W. B. Yeats.

Patting goodbye, doubtless they told the lad
He’d always show the Hun a brave man’s face;
Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace, —
Was proud to see him going, aye, and glad.
Perhaps his Mother whimpered how she’d fret
Until he got a nice, safe wound to nurse.
Sisters would wish girls too could shoot, charge, curse, . . .
Brothers — would send his favourite cigarette,
Each week, month after month, they wrote the same,
Thinking him sheltered in some Y.M. Hut,
Where once an hour a bullet missed its aim
And misses teased the hunger of his brain.
His eyes grew old with wincing, and his hand
Reckless with ague. Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain.
But never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,
Untrapped the wretch. And death seemed still withheld
For torture of lying machinally shelled,
At the pleasure of this world’s Powers who’d run amok.

He’d seen men shoot their hands, on night patrol,
Their people never knew. Yet they were vile.
“Death sooner than dishonour, that’s the style!”
So Father said.

One dawn, our wire patrol
Carried him. This time, Death had not missed.
We could do nothing, but wipe his bleeding cough.
Could it be accident? — Rifles go off . . .
Not sniped? No. (Later they found the English ball.)

It was the reasoned crisis of his soul.
Against the fires that would not burn him whole
But kept him for death’s perjury and scoff
And life’s half-promising, and both their riling.

With him they buried the muzzle his teeth had kissed,
And truthfully wrote the Mother “Tim died smiling.”

*There is no shortage of great prose accounts of the disasters of the Western Front.  The first I read were by two of the War Poets — Robert Graves, in Goodbye To All That, and Siegfried Sasoon in his trilogy collected under the title George Sherston’s Memoirs, now out of print.  The central work of the trilogy, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, can still be found.

**Here’s a passage from my attempt to capture the relentless pointlessness of the so-called Great War at the level of the battlefield.  The incident described took place 90 years ago to the day.

There was one incident that captured the essence of war on the western front, the distillation of its arbitrary violence.  At two minutes to eleven in the vicinity of Mons a Canadian private named George Price was hit by a sniper’s bullet.  He died instantly.  The man who killed him remains unknown.  That man made a choice.  He was a marksman, a skilled soldier.  He had just moments remaining in which it was legal for him to kill.  There was no need to fire, no purpose, and some risk at least to himself and any comrades near him.  If he waited until eleven, and then put his gun down, the only consequence would be that a young stranger would go home.   Instead, the shot rang out.  Two minutes ticked past.  The war ended.  George Price lay dead.

Image:  Red Poppies at the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium.  Photograph taken on March 11, 2006.

For All Those I Wish Could See This Day

November 5, 2008

Readers of this blog know that my uncle Daniel Levenson died early this year, in September.  He was a good man, and I miss him, especially today.  Throughout his professional life he put in the time, the energy, and whatever else it took on the right side of critical struggles, from the anti-war movement to the fight against hunger.  He was a passionate Democrat and deeply hoped to see Barack Obama elected President.  He didn’t.

My mother died more than ten years ago.  She too was a happily partisan Democrat, having adopted US citizenship a few years after she emigrated from England so that she would never again feel the frustration of not being able to vote that she endured after desperately wanting to cast her ballot for Adlai Stephenson in 1956.  She too would have loved to have had a chance to vote for Barack Obama, and I would have pitied the poor undecided wretch who came up against her posh accent and absolute conviction in any canvassing call.

My father, Joseph Levenson, died when I was ten.  He was a World War II veteran — he floated all the way from the west coast to Tokyo Bay between 1942-1946.  He became a historian of China after the war, and one of the members of the academy who early recognized the folly of the Vietnam War.  He too would have loved this day — and in particular he would have loved the grace of language, the tragically rare political gift Obama has displayed consistently throughout this campaign, of being able to articulate both thoughtfully and beautifully, poetically, complex and important ideas.

They should all have seen this day, they and I’m sure many others.  For them, let Martin speak:

Travel Notes: Religious Stereotypes edition.

August 22, 2008

(Warning:  almost but not quite no science below).

There are certain requirements for being a tourist in the new South Africa. You have got to check out the history of Apartheid. Nothing you see makes sense without that knowledge, and some of the venues tied to that history are the places tourists more or less have to go.

So yesterday it was off to Jo’burg’s Old Fort for coffee in one of the most oddly peaceful cafe’s in this expectation-confounding city, and then a tour of the Number Four complex, South Africa’s contribution to the world’s miserable catalogue of iconic symbols of human cruelty.

The museum inside Number Four is extremely impressive. Number Four housed at one time or another pretty much every major figure in the Struggle, including, of course, Nelson Mandela. Mandela is understandably everywhere in South Africa these days, especially in the context of his recent ninetieth birthday (e.g.: Hertz is running a promotion right now bragging that it and Mandela are ninety years old (or something…the poster wasn’t quite clear) and that rental car goodies will flow from this coincidence). And certainly, the Robben Island museum centers on that hell-hole’s most famous inmate.

But what was striking about the Number Four exhibition is that it celebrated perhaps the only prisoner it held who could be said to rank Mandela as a veteran of South Africa’s gulag: Mohatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s experience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, leading his first major civil rights campaign there, was a foundational period, establishing the basic outline of the ideas that he would later develop so powerfully in India. The exhibition in Number Four gives a great rapid gloss on this period, and it reveals (a) Gandhi’s enormous strength of mind and character, and among much else, (b) that living the life of a saint is hard, but perhaps more so for the sainted one’s family than for the man (in this instance) himself.

But while the whole display was effective — down to the pair of sandals Gandhi made for his antagonist in this conflict, General Jan Smuts, sitting in a box on the floor of prison — there was one photograph whose caption caught my eye. It showed Gandhi with a group of fellow non-violent activists and it noted that most of those who helped form the Satyagraha movement in South Africa were Indian Muslims.

Now this, I’m sure, is a penetrating glimpse of the obvious to anyone who has actually paid attention to the histories of either Apartheid or the Indian independence movement.

But I didn’t happen to know that fact and as a more or less well informed tourist and survivor of too much wingnut rhetoric over the last few years, it strikes me as notable that I did not.

That is, while the plural of anecdote is not data, the top line meaning I took out of yesterday’s rapid tour of Number Four is that for all the talk that has spewed for some time now about Islam being at its core a religion of violence, there is at least one major modern-historical confounding example. Such stubborn facts, in the context of science are, of course supposed to confound the most seemingly comfortable of theories.

(Pre-flame self defense: this is not to say that Islam is inherently non-violent either. Just that members of a tradition that, among much else was able both to provide a quasi-religious gloss on Apartheid and, for many in the struggle against the Apartheid regime, consolation and strength for that effort, might want to be wary about broad stroke statements about other religious cultures. Just a thought.)

Program Notes: Who Patented the Bomb? Ask NPR.

March 30, 2008

Check this story out.

Here’s the backstory: Otto Hahn, (without mentioning mentor/partner Lise Meitner) published the news that he and co-workers had identified the element Barium in a sample of Uranium that had been bombarded by neutrons in December, 1938. Meitner, of Jewish background, had of necessity, abandoned her collaboration with Hahn and escaped for Stockholm earlier that year.

Still, she and her nephew, understood what had just happened. Hahn had achieved nuclear fission, the spectacularly unexpected splitting of uranium atoms.

By the happenstance of timing, this news came at almost the final moment for the next seven years that scientific communication would pass freely through the physics community. It was certainly almost the last time that a crucial result about the behavior of the atom would be so blithely broadcast to any and all…

…Or not quite, as the NPR broadcast linked above reveals. I’ve done a bit of reporting on atomic physics and the history of the bomb — not much, but not zero, either — and I never caught a whiff of the fact that the Manhattan Project filed something like 2,000 — two thousand!— patents on every angle they could find of design and engineering of the atomic bomb.

Patents are public documents, as the hero of the NPR story, Harvard graduate student Alex Wellerstein noted. National security can intervene — but even when it does, a secret patent leaves traces behind, decay products as it were. As the story explains, should someone else — a German agent — want to know if America were working on a bomb, all he would have to do is file a patent application of his own on some aspect of nuclear weaponry, and a letter would come back saying, in essence, the proposed invention had collided with a secret patent. Aha!

That never happened.

Do give the story a listen. It’s well done, and can be heard as a sidelight on the strangeness and the paranoia that accompanies every descent into a national security state.

But what gave me the most pleasure was hearing Philip Morrison remembered. Morrison had told Wallerstein that he had in fact filed a patent on the bomb (one that is still secret), and had signed his rights over to the US government for the princely sum of a buck year — which was never paid.

I’m pretty sure that Morrison never tried to collect. I knew him a bit — never that well, but for a few years, his role as advisor to NOVA meant that I would see him and his wife Phyllis on regular occasions. He was a genuinely great man, and the one time, the Morrisons came to my house for supper, I finally got my courage up to ask him what it was like to carry the plutonium core from Los Alamos to Almogodoro for the Trinity test.

He started speaking with a kind of a creak, as if he was resetting his mind to re-enter, and not just recall the event. And then the story took over, and my wife and I just listened as the drive unfolded, and Morrison started bringing to life the feeling, the combination of youth (Morrison was all of twenty nine years old), mastery, urgency — get the damn war done — and concern to make sure the damn thing worked.

Morrison is one of the unequivocally great figures I’ve had the good fortune to meet, smart, committed to right action, a small d democrat in all his doings — he’d talk with pleasure to anyone who was willing to exercise their brains. He became a major figure in the physicists’ movement working to defang the nuclear threat.

But he never hid the fascination and the sheer intensity of emotion and experience that came with working on the Manhattan Project. Sitting there around a dinner table, just the four of us, listening to the journey re-imagined — the guts of the bomb in his hands. Amazing. It was a moment when being a historian seem like the most fun it is possible to have, as so many lives and instants of place and time can, at lucky intervals, suddenly become imaginatively one’s own.

I’m still grateful to Phil (and Phyllis, who should never be left out of any memory of the Morrisons). He was kind to me and very helpful more than once. He deeper relations with and made a much greater impact on lots of other folks, and I don’t want to claim more of an acquaintance nor more influence from than was really there. But hearing a very nice bit of radio reminded me that I’d never acknowledged the real debt I owe him, and the great pleasure I took in the times I did get to hear what he had to say.

(Some other time, I’ll talk about an after dinner talk I heard him give to a very small and bumptious group of TV people who thought they knew about what mattered in 20th century science until they heard Phil’s defense of 1900.)

One last thing – a minor quibble with the NPR story. The story of the American patents on the bomb is, I think, genuinely new. But the broadcast did not mention something known for a while, and discussed in Richard Rhodes’ great book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Leo Szilard had been thinking about the possibility of nuclear chain reactions well before Hahn et al. achieved uranium fission. In 1936, living in Britain, he patented the idea — and assigned it to the Admirality to make sure that the weapon implied (obviously, it seemed to him) by the phenomenon would remain secret.

Image: Albin Schmalfuss, Boletus luridus, 1897. Source: Wikimedia Commons