WWI: Two Poems by Wilfred Owen

Portrait of Wilfred Owen, found in a collection of his poems from 1920.

Portrait of Wilfred Owen, found in a collection of his poems from 1920.

The Guns of August (Barbara Tuchman) blared 100 years ago. Out of the horror of the War to End All Wars, three artistic masterpieces arose, like warning phoenixes for all time: the poems of Wilfred Owen; Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms; and Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion.

Wilfred Owen once described himself as “conscientious objector with a very seared conscience.” He enlisted and was commissioned as a British officer in 1916. He won the Military Cross for his service, and was killed in battle on November 4, 1918. (The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. C. Day Lewis, New York: New Directions, 1965). (more…)

Two War Hymns Overturned

US soldiers in the Philippines, Manila, during the Philippine-American war, 1899. (Credit: Library of Congress)

US soldiers in the Philippines, Manila, during the Philippine-American war, 1899. (Credit: Library of Congress)

In 1861, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe heard Union troops singing at a review outside Washington D.C. She composed the well-known verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” In time, the song with her words became the most recognized hymn of the Civil War. Her last stanza:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on. (Civil War Heritage Trails)

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907.

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907.

In 1901, during the War in the Philippines that followed the Spanish-American War, Mark Twain—most glorious of American Tricksters—mused that Filipinos, to whom we were extending the “Blessings of Civilization,” were surely saying to themselves: “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” In Twain’s estimation, it was necessary that the Battle Hymn of the Republic be “Brought Down to Date” to conform to the kind of war the U.S. was fighting in the Pacific. (more…)

A Force for Good

Putin shakes hand with Modi at the 6th BRICS summit. BRICS is an acronym for the economic association of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.  The recently established BRICS bank is an alternative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. (Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

Putin shakes hand with Modi at the 6th BRICS summit. BRICS is an acronym for the economic association of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The recently established BRICS bank is an alternative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. (Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

Whether or not the rhetoric is sincere, it aims to persuade us that our country is on the side of the angels. Stories to the contrary are ignored or forgotten. The simple but effective mechanism for suppressing the nation’s guilty conscience is to concoct a devil figure. If our enemy is evil, then we are a force for good. This self-serving logic is regularly recycled. It keeps bad memories in check whenever or wherever they might pop up. It works like a vaccination to immunize us from a dreaded disease. (more…)

The Democratic Self

Walt Whitman by Alexander Gardner, 1863. (Feinberg-Whitman Collection, Library of Congress)

Walt Whitman by Alexander Gardner, 1863. (Feinberg-Whitman Collection, Library of Congress)

True democracy is hard to imagine.  America is a land of individuals, but democracy places a high value on the commons, on equality and community, on the people collectively engaged in self-rule.  The democratic self is a multitude of selves, not a singular ego detached and isolated from others.

Reconciling individualism with democracy is a challenge crucial to defusing U.S. war culture.  Why?  Because the other is the enemy in war culture.  Diversity is threatening; difference is deviance; the other is evil. (more…)

Chaplin’s “The Immigrant”: a fragment from “The Gospel of Scarface”

Promotional photograph for "The Immigrant" (1917).  Credit:  J. Willis Sayre Collection, University of Washington Library.

Promotional photograph for “The Immigrant” (1917). Credit: J. Willis Sayre Collection, University of Washington Library.

The Immigrant (1917) tells about the mythical origin of the Tramp—someplace in Europe (Chaplin said: “a composite picture of many Englishmen I had seen in London during the years of my life in that city”[1]), coming to America with other immigrants on a ship in which everyone was seasick at times and old ones were dying. People had trouble with the simplest things, especially walking and eating at table given the rolling motion of the ship. They had to live through the crossing among pickpockets and sitting next to furious card and dice games that broke out into quarrels. As if they had entered a psychic zone of dislocation in which the world had become topsy-turvy.

Then the immigrants see the Statue of Liberty. (more…)

The Shame of Murrieta

Murrieta, California.  Photo credit:  R Lee E / Wikimedia Commons.

Murrieta, California. Photo credit: R Lee E / Wikimedia Commons.

And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. 

Matthew 18:5

In this great country, teachers and school staff members have often thrown themselves in front of the bullets of shooters to shield their young students from harm (and that, by the way, is how a truly good person stops a bad guy with a gun); elderly and infirm grandparents have taken on the daily care of their grandchildren when parents are absent; single mothers and fathers have offered themselves in daily sacrifice to the welfare of their offspring. In spite of our craven worship of Founding Fathers (where, if you please, are the Founding Mothers?), the true backbone of this nation has always been a profound commitment to its descendants—a devotion to its children. This is what fuels our belief in the American Dream, and what fires up our irrepressible hopes in the future.

In the past, the United States has welcomed children fleeing a murderous tyranny (I was once one of these children), and has offered them sanctuary from oppression and persecution. That is why the recent events in the town of Murrieta, California, are a stain on the national honor, an affront to the American spirit, and shameful to every decent citizen of this bounteous land. (more…)

Defining Dissent

Saturday March 22, 2009 anti-war protest march on the Pentagon. Photo credit: Bill Hackwell, ANSWERcoalition.org

Saturday March 22, 2009 anti-war protest march on the Pentagon. Photo credit: Bill Hackwell, ANSWERcoalition.org

We may not know quite how to define dissent, but we know we don’t like it when we see it.  War protests are a case in point.  It is not uncommon to perceive such demonstrations, no matter how nonviolent, as inappropriate and unpatriotic, especially when war first breaks out.  When Eugene Debs spoke critically of Woodrow Wilson’s war to make the world safe for democracy, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned for sedition.  The very act of speaking against the administration was treated as subversive.

This is a common attitude, not just a thing of the past.  Critics of the U.S. war on terror have been subjected to surveillance, harassment, and even prosecution.  As Geoffrey Stone warned in 2004, exploiting a threat to national security is a time-honored strategy of consolidating power by inflating public fears, inflaming patriotism, and condemning critics as disloyal (Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, p. 74).

The negative stereotype of dissent is not well aligned with its dictionary definition or its democratic purpose. (more…)

Democracy by Dissent

Sticker advocating dissent: "dissent develops democracy", accompanied by a peace symbol. Photo taken in Portland, Oregon, 2007.  (Jason Wilson / Wikimedia Commons)

Sticker advocating dissent: “dissent develops democracy”, accompanied by a peace symbol. Photo taken in Portland, Oregon, 2007. (Jason Wilson / Wikimedia Commons)

Early in the war on terror, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! made a telling point about journalism and dissent, a point well worth revisiting eleven years later.   She began by observing how mainstream media in the U.S. report the war as if they are state media rather than independent news organizations.  She asked why it is that networks keep retired generals on the payroll but not doctors or peace advocates.  Why is it that they show romanticized pictures of soldiers against a sunset or aircraft carriers at sunrise?  Why don’t they interview the war protesters rather than only feature politicians who make the case for war and generals who explain war tactics?  (more…)

The Cowboys and the Ring

Apache warrior Geronimo (right) and his warriors from left to right: Yanozha (Geronimos´s brother-in-law), Chappo (Geronimo´s son of 2nd wife) and Fun (Yanozha´s half brother) in 1886. (Arizona Historical Society)

Apache warrior Geronimo (right) and his warriors from left to right: Yanozha (Geronimos´s brother-in-law), Chappo (Geronimo´s son of 2nd wife) and Fun (Yanozha´s half brother) in 1886. (Arizona Historical Society)

What was true during the Indian Wars throws some light on the dark clouds surrounding our contemporary War on Terror.

An asteroid field of rascals and blackguards orbited the Tucson Ring like a diabolical emanation from the central star of a planetary system. John G. Bourke continues to explain in his On the Border with Crook (New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1891):

To disarm Indians is always an unsatisfactory piece of business, so long as the cowboys and other lawless characters in the vicinity of the agencies are allowed to roam over the country, each one a travelling arsenal. The very same men who will kill unarmed squaws and children … will turn around and sell to the bucks the arms and ammunition which they require for the next war-path.

The parallels with modern North American warfare history easily come to mind: (more…)

The Tucson Ring

Brushing Against, Little Squint Eyes, San Carlos Apaches, 1897. (Florn88 / Wikimedia Commons)

Brushing Against, Little Squint Eyes, San Carlos Apaches, 1897. (Florn88 / Wikimedia Commons)

We are still fighting the Indian wars, and we treat the rest of the world—with the possible exception of Europe—as if it were Indian Territory. In the pages of John G. Bourke’s ethno-history of the late nineteenth-century North American Southwest, On the Border with Crook (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), we note the formation of a shadowy group in Arizona that was dedicated to the diabolical proposition that success in life is measured by profits:

[At Camp Verde] the prospects of the Apaches looked especially bright, and there was hope that they might soon be self-sufficient; but it was not to be. A “ring” of Federal officials, contractors, and others was formed in Tucson, which exerted great influence in the national capital, and succeeded in securing the issue of peremptory orders that the Apaches should leave at once for the mouth of the sickly San Carlos, there to be herded with other tribes. It was an outrageous proceeding, one for which I should still blush had I not long since gotten over blushing for anything that the United States government did in Indian matters. (216-217)

This relocation to Camp Verde was prompted by the earnings that would ensue from the selling of provisions to the federal government for the allocations promised to the Apaches. If the Indians ever became self-sufficient, the stream of federal funds would dry up. It was necessary for the Tucson Ring to insure that the Apaches remained wards of the government: (more…)