The Eyes Tell The Real Story

I was writing a microfiction piece to post later this week.  Nothing new in that, although I haven’t been as good at keeping up with the whole “Microfiction Friday” thing as I should be.  At any rate, I had finished writing the piece and I was looking for a photo to go with it.

Hoo boy, did that search send me down a rabbit-hole.  I wanted a very particular picture — a particular timeframe, a particular composition, a particular subject…

But I framed my initial search too broadly.  I framed it too broadly, and I ran into a whole lot of “other” pictures.  Oh, not the BAD kind of “other”, but rather the good kind…the kind that gets us writers to thinking.  To imagining and projecting.  To writing.  Pictures that, like the old saying goes, say a thousand words.  Pictures that say more than that.

Private-Edwin-Francis-Jemison.jpgOne of those pictures truly stuck with me.  It still sticks with me.  It sticks with me because it tells an entire freaking novel

It’s not a comfortable picture, not when you look at it for a while.  And it gets worse when you learn his story…and his fate.

Private Edwin Francis Jemison, 1844 – 1862.

Look, child soldiers are bad enough, but look at that picture…really look at it.

You know what gets me?  It’s the eyes.  Those are the eye of someone who has seen death, of someone who has fought and feared and suffered.  They are certainly not the eyes of a boy, of one we should be able to call an innocent.

Shit, I write about 16-17 year old kids.  I write about them as addicts and thieves and prostitutes.  I write about them, when you get right down to it, as who they truly are: the inhabitants — the victims, really — of the society we have created…and are still creating.  Now, I write about them in terms of sci-fi, but the eyes in that picture are a reminder that the same damned thing has been happening for centuries.  Worse than that, it has been happening as long as we humans have been around…

I do sci-fi and fantasy.  I’ve never tried my hand at historical fiction, but…

…but, holy shit!  How can you look at that picture and not want to tell the story behind those eyes?!  How can you not want to use Private Jemison’s short life to tell the story of those kids who still get pulled into every war — into every disaster and problem — we can create?

We lure them…

IMG_0720We draft them…

We propagandize them…

We indoctrinate them…

Then we kill them.

*sigh*

Musical Note — I’ve used this particular song in a post before, but I can’t think of a single damned thing to better accompany Private Jemison’s picture:

 

I Don’t Know

Really?  Did you think I wouldn’t do a special post with June 6th right around the corner?  C’mon…

I’m a fairly brave individual…or so I’ve heard.  I’m brave, they say, because there ain’t a whole lot in this world of which I’m well and truly afraid.  There ain’t a whole lot that gets much reaction from me beyond some tension and a shrug of my shoulders.  But…

But, there’s always a but…

But, I’ve never had anyone want to kill me.  Oh, I’ve had people want to kick my ass — had a lot of them try, too.  I’ve had bears contemplate just how I’d taste garnished with some berries and a nice drink of fresh spring water.  I’ve even had a wolf pack stalk me for a couple of miles…

But I’ve never had anyone really try to do me in, however.  Never had anyone whose own life depended on ending mine.

I’ve never waded ashore with the freight-train sound of shells ripping overhead.  I’ve never heard the snap of a bullet just feet away.  I’ve never felt the ground shake from explosions, never had my eardrums blown out from the concussions.  I’ve never had my life lie in the hands of compatriots on either side of me.

I’ve never seen the blood flow from a fresh chest wound.  I’ve never heard the screams and moans of the wounded and dying.

When you get right down it, I’ve never felt the reality of true, undeniable, unstoppable fear.  

I can’t tell you — just as I can’t tell myself — if I would have been a hero or a coward on D-Day, because I just don’t know.  I don’t know, and I never will.

Look, I’ve mentioned before that Naval History is one of my great passions.  I’ve mentioned also that that topic, along with video games, is how I got started writing professionally.  I may be an expert in Naval History, but I’m an expert who has never lived it.

I don’t know, and I can’t know…not truly.

Oh, I’ve done oral history interviews with Marines who waded ashore at some of the most godforsaken places in the world, just as I’ve done interviews with sailors who lived through some of the worst battles in history.  I’ve talked to, and learned from, men who swam away from an exploding ship, only to spend days more in the water…only to watch their buddies, their fellow survivors, get pulled under one by one by the circling sharks.

I’ve listened to all that, just as I’ve written about all that.  I’m considered an expert on all that…

…and I don’t know.

I don’t know, and I can’t know.  I don’t know it because I never lived it.  It is all, when you get right down it, just words and images to me.  Just emotion and memory learned second- and third-hand.

“I didn’t do a damned thing.  I just worked in the mailroom.  Now my buddy John, he was the real hero…” so said a former sailor, a man in his late 80’s.  A man who fought in, and survived, the most surprising and impressive victory in the long history of the US Navy.  A man who worked in the mailroom on the Sammy B Roberts…a man whose worst day involves more courage and accomplishment than the entire sum of my life…

It’s always someone else, to those Marines and sailors I’ve talked to.  It’s always that buddy, the one who brings a wordless tear to their eyes.  It’s always those who are lost, but are never forgotten.

That man died not long after I spent a couple of hours with him.  He died without me ever expressing my gratitude…or my awe.

Just as those who truly remember June 6th, 1944 are dying.  Just as those who heard the ripping of bullets, and the freight-train rumble of shells.  Those who felt the fear, and still waded ashore.  Those who lost friends and brothers, and still waded ashore.  Those who know.

We’ve all heard Eisenhower’s plan, just as we’ve all heard the codenames: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.  We’ve heard those things, but they are just mnemonics…talismans that no longer do a good job of invoking the reality that truly matters:

4,414 Allied soldiers died on June 6th, 1944.  Most were from the US, UK, and Canada, but losses came also from Poland, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.

Almost 9,000 soldiers in German uniform died that day, as well.

7B620855-2577-4D9F-8C52-79AB7156719CI’ve never heard the drums of war, and I don’t know.  I don’t know, but I know enough to pay my heartfelt respects to those who do…to those who were there.

Memorial Day: Sacrifice and Celebration

My…err…late thoughts on Memorial Day:

So, Memorial Day got me to thinking…which, I guess, is what it is supposed to do…

Given that Memorial Day is a holiday to honor the fallen, is it truly a time to be quiet and sad?  Or is it a time to celebrate the lives and sacrifices of those who gave so much?  To celebrate all they accomplished, and the triumphs they won?

Do I place a flag on a grave  in wordless silence?  Or do I shout from the rooftops everything those fallen soldiers — known and unknown — did to change the world?

Is it both?  Crap, can it even be both?

*sigh*

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to my musing, let alone a correct one…

An example, from the Naval History side of my life:  the various land and naval battles of Guadalcanal.

To the almost hundred thousand men who fought at Guadalcanal — counting both the ground and naval forces of the US and Japan — the place, and the battles that took place on land and sea, was nothing less than the most miserable, ass-end of the universe imaginable.  It was Hell on Earth…and it changed the outcome of WW2.

Look, we in the US often talk about the Battle of Midway as the turning point of the war, but that’s not strictly true.  Midway broke the Japanese momentum, true, but all that victory truly accomplished was to put things in tight balance between the USN and the IJN.  It was victory in the miserable, muddy, shitty, violent, and deadly hell of Guadalcanal that gave the US the momentum and initiative that she held throughout the rest of the Pacific War.

On the US side, roughly 1,600 Marines and 5,500 sailors died on that island or in the waters surrounding it.  On the Japanese side that number rose to well over 30,000 dead.

There is a lot to mourn there.  There is far too much blood and sacrifice, far too much bravery and cowardice, far too much….war…to sum up in one short blog post.

Those men, on the Godforsaken island, thought at the time their lives meant nothing.

for years afterwards, they thought the deaths meant nothing.

Hell, even now, even 75 years later, the US Marines still blame the US Navy for many of those deaths…just as the US Navy still performs full military honors when a warship passes over the dozens of wrecks littering the floor of Iron Bottom Sound…

A lot to mourn indeed…but there is a lot to celebrate, as well.

Had the US lost at Guadalcanal — had the Japanese commanders and forces there won that battle, and moved on to fight elsewhere — the entire war would very likely have ended differently.  In that instance, the odds of the entire Pacific War ending in a negotiated peace that left a large part of the “Greater East Asian Co-Propserity Sphere” intact and under the domination of the Japanese Army* would have grown astronomically.

*For the unhistorically minded, the Imperial Japanese Army was the driving force of Japan’s militarism and the ruthless dominance with which the conquered territories were ruled, while the Navy was the more professional and moderate service…

The men at Guadalcanal men suffered and died.  They died of bullets.  They died of malaria.  They starved to death.  They drowned.  They burned to death.  They died in every shitty, painful, horrifying way you can imagine…but they died for something.

Their sacrifices call for quiet, and for tears, yes…but they call also for celebration.  They call for honor and for pride.

And that is the heart of my question.  Look, I’m a historian by training and outlook, so how can I overlook the consequences of death and sacrifice?  How can I only mourn when I know to what outcomes those sacrifices lead?

I can, by the way, change the example of Guadalcanal for just about every nation and war in history…

The blood spent at Sekigahara made modern Japan…

The blood at Teutoberg…

The blood at the gates of Vienna…

The blood at Stalingrad…

Antietam…Leipzig…the Somme…Waterloo…

We mourn those who fell, and we should.  But we should celebrate, as well.  Celebrate all that they were.  Celebrate all that they gave.  Celebrate, when you get right down to it, all that they meant.

father-told-once-honor-duty-kia-military-army-demotivational-posters-1409196587So, to all those who gave so much — both the living and the dead — I say this: Happy Memorial Day.

When It All Changed

Normally I am not someone who will talk about “turning points” and “key moments in history.”  Quite simply, those things are much more rare than folks like to believe.  Most of the time those events and moments and people that we like to describe as “key” and “special” are not.  Instead they are the inevitable outcome of events and tides and movement far outside of their immediate scope.

murder_julian_cesar_bIf you went back in time and decided to “snuff out” Julius Caesar, for instance, you would do nothing to prevent the rise of the Roman Empire.  All you would do is delay that rise for a few years…delay it and put another face on it.  Perhaps an Aemilius, or a Cornelius or Domitius, would have stepped onto the stage and taken on Caesar’s “role.”  Whatever the name of the player, however, the demise of the Republic was written in stone; there was no single turning-point, no crossing of the Rubicon, there was just the evolution of society and economics and politics…

That being said, there ARE a few true turning points in history, a few events that really can be described as cataclysmic and world-shaking.  The most recent of those events happened a hundred years ago…it happened, and it really did change everything:  World War One.

No, it wasn’t “the war to end all wars” — war, I’m sorry to say, will never go away so long as humans are, well, human.  What WWI did do was completely shatter the “old world” and set the stage for all the years, and all the travails and triumphs, since.

Now, a lot of folks would argue that WWI can’t be described in such stark terms, that it’s genesis can and should be described in the years and decades prior to the start of hostilities.  The war, after all, was not about the murder of some random Austro-Hungarian prince by a bunch of Balkan separatists.  No, the war itself was an inevitable clash between the Great Powers of the day, and is fully a “natural outgrowth” of the power-politics and real politik of the day.

So why do I still describe it as a “turning point”?

d_War_i-_Read-Only_It was the first time the gentry and upper classes — the officer-class — lived and suffered and died right alongside the poor enlisted bastards.  It was the first time the barriers were truly broken down, the first time some landed aristocrat ate week-old horsemeat and got trenchfoot right alongside the guy that cleaned his freaking toilets before the war.

It was the first time death and pain and trauma became truly “democratic.”

Yes, it was also the first industrialized war, the first war on a total, unlimited and all-but unstoppable basis.  Yes, it was the first time technology dominated and determined tactics and strategy.  Yes, it was the first time war became an “industry.”  But…

But…

But, none of those things changed the world anywhere near as much as the utter destruction of social and economic differences in the trenches.  As a percentage of the various national populations, far more young men fought in WWI than in any other conflict up to that time.  It was all-encompassing…and because of that, it was all-leveling.

ft342-p5-cover_story_woundedJust how do you go back to “the ways things were” when the supposedly better, smarter and more well-born officer next to you spent the entire Battle of Paeschendale sobbing uncontrollably, unable to move or speak or fight while you had to protect and guide him?

In the trenches, I should explain, the “democratization” of war worked.  The officers knew it, and so did the men.  They could — and did — live and fight and survive together in ways their fathers and grandfathers would have considered both unnatural and dangerous.

And they were…oh, yes they very much were.

They were dangerous not during the war itself, but in the days after…

In the days when every town lost not just “someone”, but many someones.  In the days when an entire generation of European males were decimated by wounds, disease, death and trauma.  In the days when everyone, no matter for which side they fought, returned to countries they no longer recognized as home.  In the days when everything was different.

How do you go back to what you had before?  How do you turn the clock back?

You can’t.

Not even WWII changed the world quite so profoundly, in spite of the even greater death toll.

The history nerd in me wants to add all kinds of thoughts to this — thoughts about the pointlessness of WWI, and about the absurdity of it’s beginning, and about its almost criminally inept conduct by all sides.  Thoughts about the seeds it sowed that led directly to WWII…and how it profoundly affected and controlled those who were commanding nations and armies in that conflict.

I half-want to get in to those thoughts, but this isn’t the time.  No, I’ve prattled and rambled quite enough, I think.  I will, however, add a couple of bits below for further reading.  It’s important, I think, to do so because we don’t spend enough time learning and understanding WWI — we certainly don’t learn just how and why it changed the world…and that leaves the door far, far too open to not learning from it, and to repeating it…

Some suggested reading:

The First World War by John Keegan.  Pay special attention to his description of just how the war actually began…how the deaths of 40 million people can be traced to the all-powerful hand of bureaucratic timetables and schedules…

Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves.  Graves was a member of the small group of upper-class poets, writers and creators (he is most famous for writing I, Claudius) who fought in the trenches as junior officers, and it changed the world for him.  Goodbye is the first volume in his autobiography, and is…it’s…well…  Just read it.

Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie.  World War One is all about the blood and suffering of the trenches, but it’s start came on the water in the “battleship race” between Germany and Britain.  More importantly, it came in the family feud between two cousins who wanted to live up to their grandmother’s (perceived) expectations — unfortunately, those two unhappy men happened to be the Kaiser of Germany and the King of England.  Grandma Queen Victoria has some ‘splainin to do.

2K47BNZGK5CEFO2DSK42P7X4UIAnd now I’m going to do something I seldom do on this blog: quote extensively from another writer.  I’m not a huge poetry guy, by the way.  I’ve read thousands of the, but I’ve committed to memory just three…the three that are the most powerful for me.  One of those three was written by another member of that war-torn, literary circle I mentioned above.  Unlike Graves, however, Wilfred Owen didn’t make it home…

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
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.