Repercussions & Reflections

A Journal of the Intersection of ideas and actions on Global Conflict and Local Initiatives published by the William Joiner Center

May 18, 2011
by Nexus

The Good Soldiers


David Finkel

A Review

Travis Weiner

Note: The reviewer served with the U.S.Army’s 101st

Airborne Division in Iraq.

The simplest way to describe The Good Soldiers [1], by David Finkel, is to say that it is primarily a book about a certain Army unit in a particular place and time during the Iraq War. Unfortunately, mere words such as those cannot do it justice, because in all its complexity and subtlety it is as close to perfection as a book about Iraq and the military– or any other subject for that matter – can get.  I often find myself simply telling people to read the book instead of trying to describe it (or Iraq) to them. Nevertheless,  I will do my best to convey what it represents in terms of different perspectives on the American Way of War. In so doing, from time to time (when it will serve to corroborate and emphasize the realism of what is described in the book) I will relate select experiences that I had in Iraq as well. As will be addressed at the conclusion of this essay, it is my opinion that this book represents its own unique perspective on the American way of war, but that it borrows heavily from the ‘dissenter’s version’ (which we shall see upon closer examination).

Finkel was embedded with a unit that was part of the ‘surge’ (a troop increase designed to get Iraq under control) before, during, and after their year-plus long deployment to East Baghdad. The unit was the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, which is stationed at Ft. Riley, Kansas.  In the beginning of 2007, Iraq was at the apex of its “out of control spire” – the Baghdad area in particular. Sectarian and insurgent violence had been rampant when the surge that began in the beginning of 2007 started to curb it and the first effects of its success became visible (fewer insurgent attacks). The 2-16 was being sent in as part of the surge, to ‘turn around” the war, so to speak. Its purpose was to provide security so that the Iraqis would have the ability to take over much of this security, without having constantly to fight for their very existence. The 2-16’s commander felt – and told his soldiers – that their actions during the deployment would very likely be considered part and parcel of what snatched the Iraq war from the jaws of defeat.

Exactly what Finkel was trying to get across with the book is a complex matter. The only semi-obvious thing that Finkel wants the reader to see about the Iraq conflict is that it contained infinite complexities, absurdities, and tragedies. That it was fought by men and women who people wouldn’t give a second glance to in the civilian world, but who displayed a level of bravery and sacrifice of which many “patriotic” types could only dream. The characteristics of the 2-16’s unique conflict were largely a result of the convergence of technology, advancements in warfare, and the composition of our contemporary army.  Finkel described what the war was like for the 2-16, what it cost them, and how the ‘results’ or ‘success’ of their stated mission juxtaposed with their perceptions of the during that particular time period (2007-2008).

Indeed, the improvements in the physical landscape of a given area in Iraq, and gaining the population’s trust – both essential to the mission – could only be had if security could be provided first and foremost. Of course, that depended in large part on the relationships (trust) and visible-improvements in the infrastructure of a given area. A catch-22 in other words, which is in large part Iraq incarnate. The 2-16 was to find this out for themselves in due time.

Truly to emphasize the nature of the counterinsurgency fight in which the 2-16 found itself, Finkel switches seamlessly back and forth between numerous themes. The detailed actions during the various missions of the unit, the stated goals of that mission, the familial relationships and personal thoughts of the soldiers and officers, the different Iraqi civilians and allies that they dealt with along the way, are all addressed in turn.

The central problems the characters faced primarily had to do with reconciling their own beliefs about the mission and their faith in the army’s higher command compared with what they were witnessing firsthand on a daily basis. This is a central theme of the book. The gap between what they are being told their mission was, and what they experienced on a day-to-day basis, is significant – and is expressed in detail by numerous soldiers and officers.

Killing is handled – and described in the book – in a way that is first and foremost brutally honest. And like any honest depiction of war and conflict, it is absent the simplistic sugarcoating that it receives from so many other sources. It is juxtaposed between two themes. The first is the automatic, standard infantryman’s reaction due to the training and culture to which all are exposed.  This is represented in the following description from Sgt. Frank Gietz:

“….and for some reason or another I just stood there and brought my weapon up and shot, and I remember seeing one individual’s head just, it was weird, like a pink mist came out the back of his head when I shot, and inside my head I was like ‘Great, one down’ (pp 69).”

And the second revolves around the feelings of emptiness and guilt that often (but not always) follow after killing has occurred, not always explicitly about the killing itself but often tied to the circumstances in which it occurred. A soldier named Jay March, for example, is forced to kill an insurgent who ran into a house in front of a little girl who was hiding in the corner of the room:

“I can see the little girl [in a slideshow of memories, in his head], the face of the little girl…and as much as people say that they don’t care about these people and all that, I don’t care about these people – but I do, at the same time, if that makes any sense….I’ve seen a girl that’s as old as my little brother watch me shoot somebody in the head. And I don’t care if she’s Iraqi, Korean, African, white – she’s still a little girl. And she watched me shoot somebody (pp 122).”

As mentioned, characterizations of the warriors are in this case particularly complex. They span the spectrum from the cautiously optimistic officers to the increasingly-bitter and cynical enlisted personnel. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich is by far the closest to representing the ‘Idealist’ perspective. He is a true warrior, a true believer as it were. He truly believed in the mission at the beginning, and still had not abandoned it completely like many of the other central players toward the end of their unit’s tour of duty –though his thinking had changed significantly. To his credit, he preferred to lead from the front and constantly went out on missions; getting blown up a number of times in the process. However, many of the enlisted personnel eventually got to the point where they didn’t give a shit about the mission – all eventually came to hate (to varying degrees) the country, its people, the war in general, and in a few cases Kauzlarich himself.

The reader sees the mild evolution of Kauzlarich, however, from fierce idealist and optimist at the beginning of the tour, to mild cynic at the end. For example, the counterinsurgency manual (laden as it is with constant references to ‘winning over the population”) which was to become the infantryman’s ‘new’ bible, became covered in dust in his operations center, along with the soccer balls that he initially thought would be good to give out to the children (pp 27). He grew increasingly impatient with his Iraqi partners as well; with their laziness, their neediness, etc. He found himself saying ‘fuck em’ from time to time (pp 152).

Cummings is someone whose optimism disappears both sooner and to a greater extent than his boss’s. He too starts out cautiously optimistic, a result of his original motivations for joining the army, which included a love for the United States and a desire to defend his admittedly sentimental version of it (pp 43). Initially, he too cares about the Iraqi people and honestly wants to help them in every way he can. But he quickly develops an utter hatred for them, based on his consistent experiences with their corruption (locals not making a construction project work), incompetence (the Iraqi army and police were particularly poor, as usual), and the non-stop attacks that caused devastating casualties, conducted by insurgents that neither he nor anyone in the 2-16 could discern from the local populace. He eventually gets to the point that he is completely fed up:

“I’m offering peace and a shit-free life [repeated attempts to re-start the sewer project in the 2-16’s area of operations was meeting constant set-backs, and continued attacks were damaging its vital and fragile infrastructure] and you want to fight me? Fine. Live in Shit (pp 151).”

This is but one of his constant expressions of resentment, exasperation, and later outright hatred for the local populace and the country in general. Another tragic –albeit excellent – example of the evolution in the thinking of the ‘idealistic officers’ would be Nate Showman, a young lieutenant. Originally in charge of Kauzlarich’s Personal Security Detail (PSD), he was soon given a platoon in the battalion during their tour. Showman – who was initially thought of and described as a ‘little Kauzlarich’ for his relentless idealism and ambition – comes dangerously close to giving up hope, when, toward the conclusion of the tour and after a series of devastating casualties in his platoon remarks:

“I think it’s difficult for them [his platoon], and difficult for me, to hear about these strides we’re making, these improvements we’re making, when we know – when I know – for a fact, that this place hasn’t changed a damn bit since we set foot here in February (pp 184).”

As far as the soldiers go, they took much less time to come to their conclusions about the war, the country, and its populace. Take this excerpt, from Sergeant Jack Wheeler, in which he is getting some things off his chest after not being able to sleep well. He has recently had two confirmed kills during CQB (close quarters battle, a room-to-room distance), and also had to watch one of his friends die from an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attack:

“I starting thinking about what happened, and then I start thinking about why I’m here….they say on TV that the soldiers want to be here? I can’t speak for every soldier, but I think if people went around and made a list of names of who fucking thinks we should actually be here and who wants to be here, ain’t nobody that wants to be here. There ain’t probably one soldier in this fucking country, unless you are higher up and you’re trying to get your star or you’re trying to make some rank or a name for yourself….because there’s no point. What are we getting out of fucking being here? Nothing.” (pp 117)

In terms of the enemy, the characterizations are not explicit simply because for the 2-16 it was so difficult to tell the difference between the enemy and the civilian population. However, the portrayals the enemy does receive are exclusively due to the tactics that he uses against the 2-16, which consist of a willingness to engage in any and all tactics to defeat the American forces. We see the frustration of the commanders in that their attempts to improve the school system, the sewers, etc., are met with repeated attacks by an enemy that is infuriatingly indistinguishable from the larger civilian population…unless of course he his firing at the Americans. I cannot stress enough the authenticity of the descriptions by Finkel of the rage and alienation from and toward  the locals that the troops experience; I experienced it myself. The descriptions in the book are so powerful that we are led to feel the frustration and extreme anger that the 2-16 feels toward the enemy for his illogical actions in fighting the US, and in destroying the humanitarian aspirations of the 2-16. To be fair, Finkel makes no explicit or characterizations of this enemy, but simply by recounting the tactics that the enemy did use we are led to believe that those tactics – if not his cause, which is up for debate – were completely barbaric.

Other characters that are on display are the allies of the Americans – most prominently, the interpreters and the Iraqi Security Forces (the Iraqi Police – the ‘IP’ – and the Iraqi Army – the ‘IA’) and the civilian population at large.

Interpreters such as ‘Izzy’ – Kauzlarich’s personal interpreter – are characters in the book that we grow to love, for they are the noblest of people doing an impossible job for very little pay. Izzy constantly makes trips home to his family (pp 265), in which he has to evade potential followers and the subsequent kidnapping and murder that would ensue were he spotted by the wrong people. He constantly hears comments of ‘traitor’ from the local populace when out on missions with Kauzlarich. He survives a suicide bombing in his neighborhood in Baghdad. An interpreter that we worked with the first time I was over there, KJ, who lived with us for much of the tour, reminded me a lot of Izzy, especially the descriptions of his personality, and the troubles he faced (having to get searched at the chow hall, for example). He would constantly go back to Baghdad to visit his family and we used to marvel at the fact that he managed to stay safe every time. I guess it finally caught up with him, as I found out a year or two ago that he was finally killed in a suicide bombing, much to my utter dismay. And so, rather than changing my perspective on the tragedy of some of the circumstances our ‘allies’ face in helping us conduct our wars, Finkel’s descriptions of Izzy and others only served to solidify my already strong convictions in this matter.

Regarding the IA and the IP, consider this excerpt from the book:

“…..the fact was that the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) were a joke. Every one of the soldiers knew it. How could they not? Just about every time an EFP exploded, it seemed to be within sight of an ISF checkpoint, and did the Iraqis manning those checkpoints not see someone emplacing an EFP, and unspooling some wire? (pp 85).”

This is backed up by my own experience: seeing them (the IA) carrying their weapons backwards on patrol. Seeing them crying and hugging each other after being peppered (meaning lightly hit, non-life threatening) with shrapnel. Seeing them clean their weapons with gasoline and WD-40 (this corrodes the weapons and renders them ineffective). And finally, seeing the Iraqi Police tossing live bodies (badly injured, but still alive) into the back of a pick-up truck during a massive car accident on the main highway in Iraq, mixing them up with those Iraqi’s who were already dead. To be fair, not all of the IA or the IP are of such poor quality, but in my admittedly limited experience such a large percentage are that it calls into serious question the ability for them to be effective against the insurgents/foreign terrorists.

Interestingly, Women are only members of the narrative in brief segments throughout the book. These consist of a female doctor at the aid station who works diligently to save many of the casualties, a female interpreter that tries to save one of the soldier’s lives after an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attack and then helps Kauzlarich when Izzy goes on leave, and most prominently, the wives and girlfriends of the soldiers. There are hints at the dual roles that wives and girlfriends play. They can be, and often are, simultaneously the source of the greatest stress and the greatest inspiration to their significant others downrange. Often, officer’s wives take it upon themselves to provide the example for the younger girlfriends and wives, trying to be an example and an inspiration for how a relationship should work in that situation. This is not to say that they do not feel stress – indeed, they do – but merely that they do not show it or at least try not to.

Consider Kauzlarich’s wife Stephanie, who wasn’t going to tell Kauzlarich any of her problems (of which she had many, like any normal wife of a deployed soldier), because she knew that he (Kauzlarich) needed her to be upbeat (pp 195). In this way the book breaks with the ‘idealist perspective’ in particular, for showing that the reality of how women support their intimate partners while they are deployed soldiers is anything but simple. Rather than always blindly supporting them in any way possible, they just as often leave them while deployed, or stand them up on leave, as not.

Certain familiar factors must be considered when deciding what, if any, perspective on the American way of war the book falls under. And these are who fights, why they fight, how they fight, and how they are treated when they get back home (on this last point, because the book ends when the tour ends it will have to go unanswered).

Soldiers from lower Socio-economic backgrounds – drawn more and more heavily from the criminal and drug addict milieu – feature prominently. Their motivations for fighting range from sadism to boredom, to money for college – but rarely are patriotism and love of country the main reasons (they are much more likely to manifest themselves with officers, as with Showman and Cummings). As regards their actions while deployed, particularly in the 2-16 they were remarkably disciplined most of the time. Driven by circumstances entirely beyond their control, their composure is constantly pushed to the limit by repeated attacks and roadside bombs, yet they for the most part continued to observe their rules of engagement (designed to protect the civilian population). They watch their buddies get torn up by IED’s, mortar attacks, and gunfire, and yet do not lash out at the population with deadly force because of it. However, again through no fault of their own, their lack of cultural knowledge or empathy toward the civilian population caused them to constantly offend and scare that population, in doing everything from ransacking houses to destroying infrastructure during firefights. Again, this stresses the complexity and gray area of the perspectives-their discipline in following the rules of engagement speaks to the ‘idealist perspective,’ and yet various other actions speak to the ‘dissenters perspective.’

The way the Finkel presents the book, he seems above all to want to convey the cost of the surge, in the most detailed and sobering way possible – in particular devoting much material to the gruesome details of the injuries sustained, and the aftermath of the soldiers trying to cope with (and sometimes a fight just to stay alive) the life-changing injuries – and then to leave it up to the reader to decide whether it was ‘worth it’ (indeed he has said as such in numerous post-book interviews). Considering this fact, it is difficult to label it with representing a particular perspective on the American way of war. In my opinion, it is its own unique perspective simply because of the endless complexities of the war, the 2-16’s circumstances, and each soldier’s motivations and actions. But, without a doubt, it borrows heavily from the ‘dissenter’s perspective’ more so than the other two.

The most appropriate way to close would be to point out an excellent metaphor that the book provides, intentional or not. It is its description of General Petreus’s testimony before Congress regarding the progress of the Iraq war, and the surge. The hearing began, and after numerous politicians had spoken to him, regarding their concerns, it was now his turn to speak in answer. But, when he began to speak, no one could hear anything (there turned out to be a microphone malfunction), but it took everyone a while to realize this-‘we can’t hear you general,’ said the politicians. This reminded me of the film Forest Gump, when the title character begins to try to describe the Vietnam War for the crowd at the Washington Mall, and the microphone is dead, people call out ‘we can’t hear you!” (There turned out to be an audio malfunction caused by a ‘hawk’). Why do I mention these two things? Because, what better way to describe the book, and the Iraq and Vietnam wars, then the continuing and numbing silence that now surrounds these wars? Because, really, what can be said? What possible words could do justice to all of the horror, boredom, insanity, hilarity, fear, rage, guilt, numbness, etc., tied up in them? That feeling that you were in the Twilight zone? That all logic, good, and meaning had been suspended and everyone was just trying to get by, fighting his own war, counting the days until his leave and the end of his tour, only going outside the wire because his buddies were doing the same and he did not want to be a coward, and certainly did not want a dishonorable discharge, but a situation in which someone who actually believed in the mission – or cared for the Iraqis in any way – was so rare that such a person was mocked incessantly (unless it was an officer of course)?

And so my overall assessment of the work is that it is the best book I have ever read about  any war, period. It elicited emotions in me so powerful, that I cannot really describe them. The book has definitely contributed to the evolution of my thinking regarding the American way of war. Personally, it is a document that I could not have written better myself in conveying to those who did not experience it the various complexities of what fighting in Iraq was. It was confusing, boring, terrifying, enraging, and depressing, all at once and to varying degrees. The fact that he has so perfectly encapsulated this all into a book, while weaving a story line, is beyond description in terms of its importance in contributing to our thinking about the American way of War.


[1] Finkel, David. “The Good Soldiers.” Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York. 2009. Print.

April 7, 2011
by Nexus

A Perspective on the “American Way of War” as filtered Through my Experience in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division

Travis Weiner

Note: The author was currently enrolled as a student at UMass, Boston.

Growing up I became fascinated from an early age with military history and military culture. Certainly, my family was not ‘traditionally’ patriotic-and we were not a military family by any means. The concept of patriotism when I was younger was not something I gave much thought to, but if pressed I would have said that at its pinnacle, it involved military service. I would now say that is part of it, but it is much deeper than that as well-but more on that later. And so I read, watched, and listened to everything and that I could get my hands on regarding the military. I read both fiction and non-fiction books, memorizing various names, places, and battles. Such books as John Keegan’s The First World War, and The Second World War, Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried’ and If I Die in a Combat Zone’ Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and later on Phillip Caputo’s A Rumor of War’ and Michel Herr’s Dispatches all had a significant effect on me. Movies such as Platoon, The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Presidents, etc., all did as well. Though I did not comprehend it at that time, the juxtaposition of the hard non-fiction history books and movies with the more nuanced and subtle anti-war fiction, non-fiction, and films was an interesting one.  What I perceived as less-than-enthusiastic depictions of war and combat in these works still only served to further mythologize the military and war for me, and to fill in me a longing to be a part of it.

I decided to join the army after I graduated high school in 2004. The reasons were too numerous to mention, suffice to say it was not for (what I discovered to be) the more normal reasons: money for school, to get out of jail,  to get away from a bad household and/or a dead end life, or the motivations of bored, restless, or psychotic individuals. Upon completion of basic and infantry training, I was stationed at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). I completed two tours of duty in Iraq, from 2005-2006 in Southwest Baghdad, and from 2007-2008 in Iskandariyah. I finally got out of the army in the beginning of 2009, shortly after my second tour. My current perspective on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can best be described as complex, given my own personal experiences.  There is the (somewhat) logical and detached military mind of my past, which seems to at times be doing battle with the raw emotion and rage at what I perceived back then (and somewhat today) to be a betrayal by those at the highest levels of civilian and military command. It is an ongoing process that I’m trying to work out. But going into it, I think I was ambiguous about the Iraq conflict.

Before the First tour, while I acknowledged that Iraq may not have been invaded for the right reasons, I thought that service to one’s country  did not necessitate that a soldier make a decision about a particular war. Rather, the dictates of service forbade it, with the theory that politicians would take care to  put us in conflicts only when absolutely necessary. Thus, the willingness to fight wherever and whenever was both demanded and depicted as something to be proud of. However, and while I can only speak for myself, I will say that over there the ostensible mission of  killing the bad guys, saving the women and children, and defending freedom was an illusion that was quickly shattered for me. I hesitate to over-simplify my time there and what we did, as I think we did our best and definitely did some good. At the lower (and in some cases mid-levels) of command, most of us were for the most part doing everything we could in the best way we knew how, minus a few inevitable bumps along the way in a year-long deployment.

To say the least, it was often bizarre and surreal. Much time during the 1st tour was spent chasing insurgents on intelligence tips that were too late or bad altogether (resulting in helicopter raids that involved dealing with-for the most part-crying women and children), in addition to looking for-and getting blown up by-IED’s and Mortars that the insurgents we were trying to catch were emplacing/firing constantly, along with occasionally taking/returning small arms fire. We would spend vast amounts of time on ‘route security,’ living in HUMMV’s for days and sometime weeks on end which would quite literally drive us mad, all the while trying to prevent the emplacement of IED’s and deny the insurgents freedom of movement. We ran Traffic Check Points for months, trying to stop the smuggling of weapons and explosives-and yet, with lines that stretched far into the distance and temperatures exceeding 115 degrees, we never had the time nor inclination to thoroughly search or examine their vehicles. Most of my commanders would say that we controlled and held a given amount of space, and caught/killed many insurgents, denying them freedom of movement and as such completing the mission and discounting my claims.

While there were some important humanitarian and infrastructure projects that we completed, and while we did capture/kill some insurgents, none of this was  enough to justify our time there in my eyes-especially considering what they did to us (WIA/KIA-wise). The second tour was spent mostly training and supervising the deployment of the ‘awakening councils,’ former Sunni-insurgents who now acted as town police forces/militia, and though we took some casualties and some significant things happened, it was nothing compared to the 1st tour.

Most of the men I served with I consider brothers for life (though not all, for there were certainly a ‘shitbag’ or two among us). They are men who sacrificed more in a year then most do in a lifetime. Some of these men were the toughest, smartest, most shining examples of all that is good about humanity and our country if we were to use it justly. Indeed, I watched some of them become wounded. It is in fact the politicians, and the career-savvy highest level commanders, who I despise for putting us in that situation to begin with.  The highest trained and motivated of soldiers had no power to alter their circumstances, such as SSG Bieve of 3rd Platoon, a former Ranger Battalion member who was blown up by an IED and became a KIA, or my team leader SGT. Triplett, also a former Ranger Battalion member, who was lacerated by shrapnel in both legs and sent back home to the United States.  The larger reasons for these sacrifices are ones I neither accept nor fully understand.

I remember reading the book Fiasco by Tom Ricks during my second tour and, in addition to enraging my psychotic squad leader, it  also enraged me (albeit for different reasons humorously enough) because it exposed the lies, deception, and incompetence of those planning and running the war. It was, without doubt, a war that was not fought on any pre-text of American security, though it was claimed to have been just that. Whether in the name of ‘human rights’ (made soon after the WMD/terrorist connections were exposed as lies) or whatever else, the attempt to justify it became more and more ridiculous.ify it. The ‘human rights/liberation’ argument in particular was made all the more laughable by the simple fact that many, many other countries are much more ruthless to their populations-and harbor many more terrorists then Iraq ever did-and yet we do not invade them! Indeed, some are our allies!

These conclusions were not easy to reach. After all, we had all literally shed blood, sweat, and tears in Iraq, and for many guys the idea that it literally was for nothing more than keeping each other alive and the small differences that we made was something most of us simply could not accept. The fact that I know in my heart that in all likelihood I created more terrorists then I killed, that I did not defend America, that I did not fight the good fight, that I am not a hero, that I am not a defender of democracy in any way shape or form, and that I was the end result of the naive’ and criminally dangerous policies and planes of borderline fascist-Neocon-chicken hawks is not something that sits well with me. The fact that I was a target for insurgents who were like ghosts, and who I would have given anything for one clean shot at, is something that is so frustrating at times I can’t even think about it for very long without getting extremely upset.

And yet I have people tell me all the time that I did and am all of the things that I am not, and didn’t do. This is something that fills me with emotions I don’t even know how to describe. I often think of a quote I heard once, but for the life of me cannot remember the origins of: “The only thing worse than being a fraud, is being a fraud but having people not realize it.” I think Iraq, like Vietnam, will go down in history as one of the most tragic American strategic mistakes ever to be made (though it was so utterly deliberate, I suppose it is up for debate whether it can realistically be called a ‘mistake’). I think that no matter how pacified that country becomes, it will never be what we envision; that is, anything resembling an America-style democracy. The culture and values of that population are so different from ours that they might as well be aliens (I don’t mean that negatively). We had-though it is getting better-very little understanding of all of the complexities of that society, some of them maddeningly ridiculous and draconian. Imagine everything from neighbors having gunfights over stolen livestock, to sheiks embezzling their Awakening Council members’ (all of the men doing good work and making our lives easier the second tour) money, and you will get an idea of what I’m talking about. The fact that more civilians have died since the invasion than Saddam ever killed, and that more terrorists have been created since the invasion-both truly undisputable facts-does not help matters. All of this is particularly tragic in light of the fact that so many serving in that country, civilian and military, worked and are working so hard to ensure that the aforementioned is NOT a foregone conclusion. Again, when so many resources, and so much good will, training, and money are squandered in that hellhole under those circumstances, it is truly a tragedy of the highest proportions. I may be wrong about Iraq- it may turn out to be relatively stable, peaceful, and prosperous. But unless it does, in my mind anything short of that will come to be an unacceptable trade-off for the lives that we lost and the bodies that were shattered while we were over there.

I hoped I would be deployed to Afghanistan and briefly considered re-enlisting for the reason I originally supported the conflict was that I perceived it as a direct response to an attack on US territory-an attack against Al-Qaeda strongholds and by extension the Taliban that ‘harbored’ them. I considered the initial response soon after 9/11 to be a just one given the circumstances. In the subsequent months and years that followed I considered it to be a just war as well, unlike most of the wars of the past that this country has engaged in. Recently that view has been altered slightly, after hearing legitimate criticisms of the conflict from such individuals as Andrew Bacevich (who advocates a strict ‘counter-terrorism’ approach fought mostly by special operations forces) and various Army buddies who have served over there.  I think that the purpose of what we are trying to do there is noble, in preventing a ruthless and draconian regime like the Taliban from re-gaining power, and in trying to provide Afghanis with opportunities and education they would not otherwise have. However, this can be said of many despotic regimes in the world; and in Afghanistan, where our original mission was accomplished (destroy Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and deny them a base of operation) only to see it slip away, frankly it all appears to be up-in-the-air; specifically whether our goals, actions, and the reality on the ground are lining up in any meaningful way. I think it remains to be seen. Considering that my old unit-including one of my own former soldiers-is over there right now in the heart of it (Kandahar province and that accompanying offensive) serves to further complicate matters, in that I have feelings of guilt and shame for not going with them, and not staying in.

I am considering the fact that because we abandoned the country after the Russians left, and again in 2001 after we toppled the Taliban (because of force requirements in Iraq, we did not deploy enough troops to provide security and humanitarian assistance, and pulled half of some of the highest level special operations task forces out to hunt insurgents in Iraq), there is a growing amount of evidence that we lost our opening, blew our chances, and that the best thing we can do now is cut our losses and get out. However I do not think that this is for certain -it all remains to be seen in the not-so-distant future.  Sooner rather than later, the ultimate question of whether the longest war in our history can ever be won will be realized, and we should act without delay at that point.

My views on war, and on war in American culture, have been altered significantly-though not completely-from before I entered the service to the time after I exited. My views before Iraq were that all war was fascinating, relevant, and important. That it was an endeavor of the most honorable and significant tradition that a man could engage in, immortalizing him in lore, mythology, and history that nothing else could come close to. My views after my service were that it is more likely than not an infinitely complex, gray and messy endeavor-not the one that our culture displays. Right and wrong, honor and shame are more often than not interwoven in an unrecognizable tapestry during war. Of course I can only speak of my own experience-but I feel there are common strains that apply to most war. While all of those positive qualities I mentioned were possible, and do occur in small and sometimes big ways in the military and in war, it is unfortunately a complete crap shoot in that not all of those things are guaranteed to be experienced by each combatant. Indeed I did not experience most of what I expected, and “my war”-or more accurately my counter insurgency, because that’s really what it was and not a traditional war-was not how I envisioned it. For some, that is not necessarily the case, but it is common knowledge among combat veterans that it is the case the vast majority of the time. Whether the dichotomy between my expectations and reality were simply the result of my own unique experience, or due to a complete fantasy of war and the military which I previously held onto, I do not know. One thing is for certain however: even seemingly just wars or military actions are often just the opposite, at a frequency of which is truly startling. This can be seen in the Vietnam war-based on a staggering amount of evidence it was one of the biggest mistakes and avoidable tragedies in our nation’s history. I tend to compare and contrast that to “just” wars like WWII. Though it is apparent to me  from further readings of history that our reasons for entering that war were not as noble as many believe, nevertheless I still believe that the alternative to not-entering that war could have been, likely would have been, much worse than not entering at all. The same cannot be said for nearly all of the wars in our nation’s history.

Regarding ‘opponents’ of the current war, I feel obligated to mention that my own mother was part of Military Families Speak Out for virtually my entire enlistment, marching and protesting at various times. However, she remained fiercely respectful of me, my unit, and all of my buddies and comrades -all the while being deeply critical of the administration’s handling of the war. I always respected her for that, and though she was constantly asking if what she was doing was at all undermining our morale or confidence overseas, I told her to do what she felt was right, and that it was OK. Such reflects my feelings regarding most of the opponents of the current war; I have no problem with their opinions or politics, only occasionally their tactics/the contexts in which they display those beliefs. However, by and large those who claim to be ‘counter-protestors’ to the anti-war movement-those who often question the patriotism or realism of the anti-war movement-are often themselves the unpatriotic ones. One of their most enraging tactics is their tendency to ‘speak for the soldiers’: that is, the claim that criticizing the war is undermining the soldiers and that the soldiers do not appreciate it. What I can say to that is that among an Infantry Company, roughly 120-140 men-a good deal of whom I knew personally-just as many were ambivalent regarding the war or thought it ‘fucking retarded’ (as we would say) as supported it or who thought it was just. But when you are trying to get through it and watch each other’s back, and complete the mission, you don’t spend much time ruminating on such things. Suffice to say that there is no way that all or even most of the soldiers hold those opinions or get offended in the ways that the ‘pro war’ movement (as the media has at times dubbed them) would claim.

It may be a cliché, but one of the most patriotic and American things a person can do is question his/her government-because it indicates that citizens are paying attention, that they are involved, and that  they are willing to sacrifice their time for something they believe in-whereas many others are not. Putting a yellow ribbon on your trunk, the ‘gesture of choice’ for so many Americans, does not qualify someone as a patriotic American-ironically it is the protestors in the streets who are greater patriots then those who merely partake in the aforementioned gesture, and deem it adequate. That being said, there are small segments of the anti-war movement who have little-to-no understanding of geopolitical realities and dynamics, nor war in general, preferring to take the extreme pacifist rout and criticize the military and the soldiers themselves. This I find deplorable because it is based on an ignorance and laziness, on par with the so called ‘flag waving’ patriotic Americans. They, like the very people they claim to have issue with, have chosen the shameful rout of dressing up a debate about policy, war, and right and wrong with their real reasons-that is, the underlying motivations of different cultures and lifestyles and the confusing hatred and fear that it seems to engender among these fringe groups.  In the interest of fairness, I feel obligated to mention that there are people who demonstrate in favor of the war who do so in a respectful manner, and many military experts and veterans who have earned the right to have such an opinion.

Along these lines, I think that dissent about the American way of life in general is something we could use more, not less of, in the United States. We enjoy a standard of living that most in the world cannot fathom-and most of us here have no appreciation for. Witnessing the poverty of subsistence farmers in Iraq-where electricity and running water are luxuries-it struck me that we live in one of the luckiest countries in the world, standard-of-living wise. Now I am profoundly grateful for our standard of living. But I categorically reject the notion that our way of life is only attainable through our current practices-be they foreign incursion or domestic in nature-and I believe there is ample evidence to back this up as well.  When dissent is for a good reason/cause, and respectful most importantly of the facts-but also of the opposition-then it is an inherently good thing, one of the last true good things that we have with regard to our public discourse. However, when it is reactionary, lazy, and not based in science or reality, and when it merely masks cultural/personal/religious differences, then it is one of the most despicable and embarrassing things in our culture these days. There are numerous examples of both of these types of dissent within our daily culture, but unfortunately, there seems to be more-of the latter recently.

In conclusion: when I was young, I thought that the military, and war, was black and white. Now, I know that it is not. I only experienced one war, albeit a very different one than others in history (due in large part to technological advantages and geographical circumstances). And while I can only speak of my own experiences, I now suspect that war is never a good thing-it is never glorious, though some psychotics would disagree. There are opportunities for honor and courage within war, and some do attain these in the heat of battle. But they are few and far between.  This echoes what the vast majority of combat veterans told me prior to my enlistment, something which I ignored at the time. Perhaps that is a fundamental aspect of war in American culture-a culture that mythologizes war in movies, books, and video games, and glorifies it when it is anything but glorious.  Our culture  refuses to address the complexities or the horrors of war that are inextricable from the excitement of it. Perhaps this is the only way to keep the system going-just as everyone prefers a good drama over a bland documentary, it wouldn’t be entertaining for kids to watch footage of a HUMMV getting blown up and seeing the gore that results from that, with no enemy dead to show for it, only maimed US soldiers. Regarding war, the only thing realistically up for debate is whether some wars are absolutely necessary or not. And of course, some are necessary; though so few in our history-with the ‘wars of choice’ heavily outweighing the ‘wars of necessity’-that it almost makes one ashamed to be an American at times.  For the rest of my life, I have to live with the fact that much of what I strove for and wanted to be a part of, much of what I wanted to accomplish personally in the military, was not achieved. Some of this was well within my control-deciding to get out instead of remaining in and going to Afghanistan, and other special schools, etc. However, some of it was not, such as the nature of our collective experiences during the 2005-2006 deployment, which really was the turning point when I was made deeply cynical and embittered-and I realized I would never stay in the Army. I don’t know what it feels like to be proud of your service and what you did-the only pride I feel is that we ‘sucked,’ got through the deployment, always tried to complete the mission, and are part of a brotherhood for life that no one who did not go through it can ever understand.

All of that being said, I continue to believe that some of what the military and war offer us is positive and necessary-the discipline, training and knowledge; the extreme skill and courage of some of our soldiers (special operations soldiers in particular) and more are all something that many could benefit from-minus the unjust wars, of course. And I do not-even after all this-regret my enlistment. I was lucky enough to leave with a body and mind intact, friends for life, and a valuable skill set and experiences to draw on, perhaps the most valuable of which was a real-world education, a shattering of childhood illusions. As I mentioned, I met some of the most influential people of my life while in the Army, whom I won’t soon forget. The greatest tragedy is that what I, and the army as a whole, was and is capable of – truly helping the helpless, and killing the bad guys- did not come to pass. It was not to be for me or (for most of our country’s history for that matter, as I am discovering).  While I contend that the unfortunate reality of the world and of human beings necessitates the formation and maintenance of some kind of military, and some kinds of military actions, the ones we have been engaging in as of late do not resemble anything close to what is right, what is just, and what America should be standing for and/or pursuing in any way shape or form. The resources-be they financial or personal-that have been spent on wars in recent American history are beyond comprehension, especially when compared to more pressing domestic and environmental concerns calling for resources of their own. It truly boggles the mind that they should have been allowed to occur. Will we as a society ever learn? Is it circumstantial, the result of truly deceitful conniving by politicians and leaders, or something in our own biological nature? Hopefully we will find out before it is too late for all of us.

February 26, 2011
by Nexus

Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace,

-by Sara Terry.  NY: Channel Photographics, 2005.

In a foreword, photographer Sara Terry tells how she first went to Bosnia five years after the 1992-95 war, with the conviction that what happens after a war can be just as newsworthy as war itself.  This book is made up of reports from the aftermath, in photographs whose color and compositional elegance sometimes seem almost ironic, given the human and material devastation that is often their subject.  Aftermath brings us intimately close to the lives of people learning to be human again amid the lacerations of war.  And, as Terry says, the book is a way of testifying “that war is not the final word on who we are as human beings, nor the final image of our spirit.”

Terry spent four years of repeated visits shooting pictures for the project, giving herself enough time to allow not only her eye but also her heart to sink into what she was looking at, especially where such sinking was hardest to do.  Nearly seven years after the war ended, corpses and bit of clothing and personal objects were being exhumed from mass graves.  While Terry’s pictures are striking throughout, the section that dwells on the exhumation is the book’s energy center.

On her first visit in 2001, Terry befriended two Polish forensic anthropologists, Piotr and Ewa, who were in Bosnia to help sort what was exhumed, for possible visual identification by relatives or for subsequent DNA testing.  In one of several photos in this group shows Ewa holding up in her own white-gloved hand the “decaying hand of a long-dead boy.”  The viewer’s first response is shock.  At one level, the image is macabre.  But Terry’s note helps us see that in this photo there is also a living hand, Ewa’s, which, as it draws parts of the dead from the anonymous pit, draws them back into identity and life. In Ewa’s words, “These people have been stripped of their identity. . . .We are trying to return their identities to them.”  The acts of these anthropologists witness “an unyielding faith in the human spirit.”  So do Terry’s photos.  They are the opposite of “snapshots.”  They linger, as if the camera too lingered, presenting in the end not a picture of a surface but of something deeply meditated.  They present themselves to us in this same way, surfaces opening to contextual depth.

An instance is the opening photo, Terry’s only black and white shot.  It presents what, as the viewer first enters the book, is a kind of puzzle.  In it, a middle-aged woman is peering down at what might be a collapsed tent of damask, in whose folds we see dark scraps of something.  The lighting is exquisite.  The woman’s white babushka is sharply lit, as are the parts of the damask we can see, before, at about the same height as the bent woman’s head, they vanish into darkness.  The woman is clumsy as she bends, and she is obviously intent.  The light is somber, except for the two highlighted areas.

But our purely aesthetic response is short-lived.  We are looking at the book’s first depiction of a scene that shatters the decorum of conventional funerary scenes.  The simple dress of the grieving peasant woman, her face invisible, has a Tolstoyan quality.  We can only imagine what her face says:  does she think she recognizes something?

Then, whatever was our first aesthetic response, is wiped away in the flash when we see that the fabric is body bags, unzipped so that part of their contents is visible.  When we look closely, we can make out a hand, a thighbone – remains of the ethnic cleansing of 1992, exhumed much later.  Ultimately, the picture expresses love, the woman’s love for her dead husband, brother or son, but also the photographer’s love for the woman and for the emotions she is feeling, whether or not she finds what she’s looking for.

In another photo, Terry depicts the anthropologists at work, in what looks like a ruined auditorium.  In the foreground, Ewa, walking with umbrella and briefcase, appears to be through for the day.  The others, one seated and another crouched on the floor, are examining and perhaps making some kind of record of what they are looking at.  The floor is nearly covered with objects laid out on separate sheets or towels.  There’s a piece of paper pinned to each towel, presumably to describe the circumstances of the death and exhumation. Sometimes a scrap of cloth was the only way for loved ones to identify the dead.  In witnessing this work, Terry pays her homage.

*  *  *

In a very different picture a golfer is putting on a small green in a scene nearly pastoral, where peace reigns and this man, dressed in natty golfing garb, can return to a pleasure lost to him during the fighting.  Until Terry’s note tells us that the putting green has only recently been cleared of mines.  In the background, there is higher grass, equally green, that has not yet been cleared.  The tranquil image we began with becomes something more precarious.

The photo of the golfer illustrates an interesting feature of Terry’s book.  At least until we’ve accustomized ourselves to it, we can’t always be sure what we are looking at until she tells us in a note.  The trick is to take in the photo as it first presents itself, then read the note and return to the photo.  There’s a debate among photographers over whether an image dependent on a caption has full authenticity.  Thqat debate seems irrelevant here.

The photo en face with the golfer might also seem nearly Edenic.  Boys are running and tubing in a river.  On the far bank a farmer is watering his ox.  But two of the boys, in the foreground, stand against a guardrail facing the viewer.  One of these boys is quite close.  He’s wearing a kind of Mao-blue shirt, and he is looking at you in a certain way, as if maybe you’re the one come to save him, though there’s also skepticism in his look.  Sticking out from a bag behind him, we see the feet and one hand of a doll.  His companion holds a smaller doll.  The boys, we learn from the note, are among those returned to their villages years after they were forced to flee.  Even though they couldn’t be over nine, they have seen what they have seen.  And we know that it won’t go away soon, perhaps never. Yet they play in the Garden of Eden.

A still more complex Eden emerges from Terry’s photos of the Mostar Bridge over the Neretva River.  There had been a bridge here almost always.  The old Ottoman bridge was destroyed during the war, and the new one was completed in the summer of 2004.  In the first of this series, we see a boy’s bare legs from behind.  He is standing outside the bridge railing, probably looking down at the river, one of whose banks is rock, the other, what looks like industrial reconstruction.  In an instant the boy will jump into the blue river, so framed.  Boys had always jumped from the Ottoman bridge over the Neretva river.

The one about to jump is practicing for the annual jumping and diving contest for which the bridge is famous.  In a few days the custom will resume with the 448th of these contests.  In another photo in this series, a boy is poised in air, having leapt.  Of course he is motionless, as is the crowd strung across the bridge to watch.  In his figure, life is brilliantly renewed.

I know that I’ll keep on thinking about and revisiting the images that Terry gives us – images in which disaster and hope are only precariously in balance.  You can see this in the last photo in the book, an especially lovely one.  It’s echoes the picture of the golfer in that the frame is perfect morning light, with floating cumulus above the green-ridge opposite shore.  In the foreground on the near bank, a woman looks down at the river.  She faces away from us, her head and shoulders wrapped in a big scarf, black with white oak leaf patterns making the design.  The scarf, along with the bunch of carnations in her right hand, lends her a kind of tranquility appropriate to the scene.  Then you learn from Terry that the woman has come to the place where 2,000 Muslim men and boys were executed.  She’s about to throw her carnations down into the river, making a ceremony for her own dead.

If a coffee table book is something you leaf through, this is the furthest thing from that.  Aftermath is a book that wants to be taken in slowly.  The reward is that you find yourself very close to scarred lives and a scarred land that are  making their hard recoveries with resilience equal to the forces that crushed them.

A version of that theme also appears in Terry’s photo of a man on crutches, dressed in black and wearing a warm cap.  He’ s walking just to the right of a white dividing line down the middle of a street that looks as if it has been rained on, just next to the white line.  His head’s turned to the right, so he seems to be gazing at bright red nylon café chairs tipped against tables.  Fifteen yards ahead of him walk a man and a woman.  Their backs are turned toward us, but from behind they look comfortably dressed and free.  They give intensity by crisis to the drooped and twisted figure of the injured man. On the back of his coat, two blonds, in red, sit back to back, over the caption, “Pretty.”  The nudes provide, though their red is less intense.

The left lane is empty – just wet, cracked asphalt, with a row of granite blocks marking the edge, some of them covered with graffiti.  But in the foreground, in the direction opposite from where the man’s looking, and balanced against the café chairs leaning against tables, there’s a vivid splash of blood red on the asphalt, with big red drops appearing to fly from it.  Terry tells us that the splotch is a “rose” of Sarajevo, marking one of the many mortar blasts and the people who died in them.  The mortar blast leaves a pattern that looks like a flower, and these flowers were filled in with red as commemoration to the war dead.  There are white café chairs in the returning sun at the end of the street.  That’s where the couple is going.  Maybe it’s where the crippled man is going too, carrying his own rose of Sarajevo on the back of his jacket in two red nudes, seated back to back over the word “Pretty.”  Their color offers a kind of a bridge between the café chairs and the splash of paint.

A university student said to Terry:   “Everyone thinks it’s great that the war is over.  But we Bosnians often say we have yet to survive the peace.  This peace.”  Aftermath offer images of this peace, often bright and regenerative, yet still studded with vestiges of war.  There are memories that can never heal:  they can only be sealed off as a tree seals off wounds and infections so that it can go on living.

February 26, 2011
by Nexus


-by Barry Brodsky

In 1974, I found myself living in Brockton in a federally subsidized housing project called Battles Farm Village, going to UMass-Boston on the GI Bill, and working as a tenant organizer for a statewide housing organization.

While at a meeting one night, I met someone who worked at something called The Boston Community School. He told me about the school’s mission – bring classes to adults who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend them. I told him about the tenant union I was part of in Brockton, and he said to check with the tenants and see if they were interested in having a class taught at the project. Back home, several people said they’d love to learn more about the history of community organizing in America, and did this school have a class like that? I relayed that message to the school.

A few days later, I got a phone call from Howard Zinn. He told me he taught at Boston University, was volunteering with the Boston Community School, and that he would love to meet on a weekly basis with tenants active in the tenant union to discuss the history of community organizing.

For the next 12 weeks or so, Howard drove down to Brockton one night each week to deliver a lecture and then talk with the men and women cramped into a living room about ways people band together to fight for their rights. I attended three or four of the sessions. I still remember him talking about eviction blockings during the Great Depression, and about a citywide rent strike in New York City. He brought readings for people to study for the next session. He did it all for a cup of coffee (or maybe tea, I forget) and a piece of pastry each week.

People rotated apartments in the project, and would usually put out a flyer inviting their neighbors: the flyer would read something like “Come hear BU Professor Howard Zinn tonight in my living room” and describe the subject of the evening’s discussion. There was a core of about a dozen people who attended every session, and then there were others, like me, who would show up occasionally.

And then one week sessions were over. One of the tenant reps told me that Howard had wrapped up the night before. I felt badly that I missed most of the sessions, but during the next couple years, when we’d have a meeting and some issue or other would come up, it wasn’t unusual for one of the tenants, in the midst of a heated debate, to say something like “remember when Howard talked about…” and a lively discussion would ensue comparing the current situation to some historical event they had discussed with Howard in someone’s living room.

I started writing plays in the 1980s and was delighted to find Howard was also writing plays. I went to see his play “Emma” and hoped he would be there, but he wasn’t. I saw him speak a few times at rallies and events, but never approached him to remind him of those classes he taught in the living rooms of Battles Farm. I wanted to tell him how much it meant to all of us, and how empowering it is to know that what you’re doing is part of the flow of American History. I have a feeling, however, that he already knew.

February 26, 2011
by Nexus


-by Noam Chomsky,Resist Newsletter

It is not easy for me to write a few words about Howard Zinn, the great American activist and historian who passed away a few days ago.  He was a very close friend for 45 years.  The families were very close too.  His wife Roz, who died of cancer not long before, was also a marvelous person and close friend.   Also somber is the realization that a whole generation seems to be disappearing, including several other old friends: Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmed, and others, who were not only astute and productive scholars but also dedicated and courageous militants, always on call when needed – which was constant.  A combination that is essential if there is to be hope of decent survival.

Howard’s remarkable life and work are summarized best in his own words.  His primary concern, he explained, was “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lie at the roots of “those great moments” that enter the historical record – a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if it is torn from these roots as it passes through the filters of doctrine and dogma.  His life was always closely intertwined with his writings and innumerable talks and interviews.  It was devoted, selflessly, to empowerment of the unknown people who brought about great moments.  That was true when he was an industrial worker and labor activist, and from the days, 50 years ago, when he was teaching at Spellman college in Atlanta Georgia, a black college that was open mostly to the small black elite.

While teaching at Spellman, Howard supported the students who were at the cutting edge of the civil rights movement in its early and most dangerous days, many of whom became quite well-known in later years — Alice Walker, Julian Bond, and others – and who loved and revered him, as did everyone who knew him well.   And as always, he did not just support them, which was rare enough, but also participated directly with them in their most hazardous efforts — no easy undertaking at that time, before there was any organized popular movement and in the face of government hostility that lasted for some years.  Finally, popular support was ignited, in large part by the courageous actions of the young people who were sitting in at lunch counters, riding freedom buses, organizing demonstrations, facing bitter racism and brutality, sometimes death.  By the early 1960s a mass popular movement was taking shape, by then with Martin Luther King in a leadership role, and the government had to respond.  As a reward for his courage and honesty, Howard was soon expelled from the college where he taught.  A few years later he wrote the standard work on SNCC (the Student non-violent Coordinating Committee), the major organization of those “unknown people” whose “countless small actions” played such an important part in creating the groundswell that enabled King to gain significant influence, as I am sure he would have been the first to say, and to bring the country to honor the constitutional amendments of a century earlier that had theoretically granted elementary civil rights to former slaves – at least to do so partially; no need to stress that there remains a long way to go.

On a personal note, I came to know Howard well when we went together to a civil rights demonstration in Jackson Mississippi in (I think) 1964, even at that late date a scene of violent public antagonism, police brutality, and indifference or even cooperation with state security forces on the part of federal authorities, sometimes in ways that were quite shocking.

After being expelled from the Atlanta college where he taught, Howard came to Boston, and spent the rest of his academic career at Boston University, where he was, I am sure, the most admired and loved faculty member on campus, and the target of bitter antagonism and petty cruelty on the part of the administration – though in later years, after his retirement, he gained the public honor and respect that was always overwhelming among students, staff, much of the faculty, and the general community.  While there, Howard wrote the books that brought him well-deserved fame.  His book Logic of Withdrawal, in 1967, was the first to express clearly and powerfully what many were then beginning barely to contemplate: that the US had no right even to call for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam, leaving Washington with power and substantial control in the country it had invaded and by then already largely destroyed.  Rather, the US should do what any aggressor should: withdraw, allow the population to somehow reconstruct as they could from the wreckage, and if minimal honesty could be attained, pay massive reparations for the crimes that the invading armies had committed, vast crimes in this case.  The book had wide influence among the public, although to this day its message can barely even be comprehended in elite educated circles, an indication of how much necessary work lies ahead.

Significantly, among the general public by the war’s end, 70% regarded the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not “a mistake,” a remarkable figure considering the fact that scarcely a hint of such a thought was expressible in mainstream opinion.   Howard’s writings — and, as always, his prominent presence in protest and direct resistance — were a major factor in civilizing much of the country.

In those same years, Howard also became one of the most prominent supporters of the resistance movement that was then developing.  He was one of the early signers of the Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority and was so close to the activities of Resist that he was practically one of the organizers.  He also took part at once in the sanctuary actions that had a remarkable impact in galvanizing antiwar protest.  Whatever was needed – talks, participation in civil disobedience, support for resisters, testimony at trials – Howard was always there.

Even more influential in the long run than Howard’s anti-war writings and actions was his enduring masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, a book that literally changed the consciousness of a generation.  Here he developed with care, lucidity, and comprehensive sweep his fundamental message about the crucial role of the people who remain unknown in carrying forward the endless struggle for peace and justice, and about the victims of the systems of power that create their own versions of history and seek to impose it.  Later, his “Voices” from the People’s History, now an acclaimed theatrical and television production, has brought to many the actual words of those forgotten or ignored people who have played such a valuable role in creating a better world.

Howard’s unique success in drawing the actions and voices of unknown people from the depths to which they had largely been consigned has spawned extensive historical research following a similar path, focusing on critical periods of American history, and turning to the record in other countries as well, a very welcome development.  It is not entirely novel – there had been scholarly inquiries of particular topics before – but nothing to compare with Howard’s broad and incisive evocation of “history from below,” compensating for critical omissions in how American history had been interpreted and conveyed.

Howard’s dedicated activism continued, literally without a break, until the very end, even in his last years, when he was suffering from severe infirmity and personal loss, though one would hardly know it when meeting him or watching him speaking tirelessly to captivated audiences all over the country.  Whenever there was a struggle for peace and justice, Howard was there, on the front lines, unflagging in his enthusiasm, and inspiring in his integrity, engagement, eloquence and insight, light touch of humor in the face of adversity, dedication to non-violence, and sheer decency.  It is hard even to imagine how many young people’s lives were touched, and how deeply, by his achievements, both in his work and his life.

There are places where Howard’s life and work should have particular resonance.  One, which should be much better known, is Turkey.  I know of no other country where leading writers, artists, journalists, academics and other intellectuals have compiled such an impressive record of bravery and integrity in condemning crimes of state, and going beyond to engage in civil disobedience to try to bring oppression and violence to an end, facing and sometimes enduring severe repression, and then returning to the task.  It is an honorable record, unique to my knowledge, a record of which the country should be proud.  And one that should be a model for others, just as Howard Zinn’s life and work are an unforgettable model, sure to leave a permanent stamp on how history is understood and how a decent and honorable life should be lived.

February 26, 2011
by Nexus
1 Comment


Larry Aaronson

Former Chair of Social Studies Department

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School

“You wanna read a really good American History book? Read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I will knock your socks off!” -Will Hunting (Matt Damon), “Good Will Hunting”

The world famous historian, retired BU professor, playwright, poet, novelist, and “radical” peace and civil rights activist, died Jan. 26th, the same day President Obama delivered his State of the Union message. Howie was 87, active until the day he died, struck down by a massive heart attack. His famous history book, The People’s History of the United States, has sold well over 2 million copies, and counting. Last Dec. 11th, “The People Speak,” produced in part by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (’88 and ’90) appeared on the History Channel. Before moving to Cambridge in the mid-70’s, Matt Damon grew up next door to the Zinns. Both households equally sharing progressive politics, they became life long “family.” September ’81, Kyle Damon, Matty’s older brother, enrolled in my US History class. It was Kyle’s freshmen year, my “rookie” year at The Pilot, the very first year “A People’s History” appeared.  This was pure serendipity, all to the delight of their mom. Soon after I was invited over for dinner with the Zinn’s. The rest is history.

Howard Zinn’s history book A People’s History of The United States, has a compelling connection with CRLS. Rindge was one of the very first US urban high schools to allow teachers to use the controversial revisionists history book. I was one of the very first history teachers allowed to teach Zinn’s revisionist history in an American public high school. The year was 1981, less than a year after the book appeared. I taught 20-some years at The Pilot School, the progressive alternative school program housed in CRLS. I taught extensively from “The Peoples’ History” for the next two decades.

I submit there is a direct correlation between the introduction of Zinn’s book and the extraordinary awakening of student leadership in Cambridge Rindge and Latin during the 80’s and lasted until early 90’s. The change in the political activism in the school was palpable. Student leaders angered by US indifference to the Apartheid in South Africa, drove out all Coca-Cola dispenser machines from CRLS when they learned the corporation lied about their divestment policy. Students’ response to the California jury’s acquittal of the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King was to organize with teachers and alumni to produce their own revisionist multicultural curriculum writing project (Onesimus), dedicated to combat racial, gender and class prejudice and stereotypes in our schools. When a former CRLS student was senselessly murdered outside a housing project, students established Students Against Violence and For Equality (SAVE). When local educators, parents and civic leaders feared the worst– a rampaging AIDS epidemic, youth peer leaders organized a condom distributions program in our school’s Teen Health Clinic, one of the very first such projects in any public school in America. Student activists also helped establish Project 10 East, the second in-school support youth program for GTLB community in the country, another first! I actively joined my students in their endeavors.

Howie died promoting his latest project, “The People Speak.” He wanted it to inspire students to find their voice and take courage to fight for social justice and human rights. How will we be able to get this curriculum into our public schools?

February 22, 2011
by sadhana.palugulla001

Howard zinn In His Own Words

Howard zinn

Howard zinn

-Nguyen Ba Chung

One of Howard Zinn’s signatures is the power of his words. He has the knack of delineating the most complicated issues in the simplest way possible, with humor and wit. For example – “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” Or, “Remember this: Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”

I think it would be worthwhile to gather some of his most memorable and impactful statements to get a sense of why he has become such a powerful voice in the progressive movement of this country.

** Not to be on the side of the executioners.

Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such as world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Tom Paine, in America, saw war as the creature of governments, serving their own interests, not the interests of justice for their citizens. “Man is not the enemy of man but through the medium of a false system of government.”

** No Flag Large Enough

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.

It is possible, reading standard histories, to forget half the population of the country. The explorers were men, the landholders and merchants men, the political leaders men, the military figures men. The very invisibility of women, the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status.

“There has always been, and there is now, a profound conflict of interest between the people and the government of the United States.”

** We Will Control Ourselves

If those in charge of our society – politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television – can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.

(Nationalism is) a set of beliefs taught to each generation in which the Motherland or the Fatherland is an object of veneration and becomes a burning cause for which one becomes willing to kill the children of other Motherlands or Fatherlands.

One certain effect of war is to diminish freedom of expression.

** Scholars’ Self Censorship

Scholars, who pride themselves on speaking their minds, often engage in a form of self-censorship which is called “realism.” To be “realistic” in dealing with a problem is to work only among the alternatives which the most powerful in society put forth. It is as if we are all confined to a, b, c, or d in the multiple choice test, when we know there is another possible answer. American society, although it has more freedom of expression than most societies in the world, thus sets limits beyond which respectable people are not supposed to think or speak. So far, too much of the debate on Vietnam has observed these limits.

** Small Acts Can Change The World

Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.

The good things that have been done, the reforms that have been made, the wars that have been stopped, the women’s rights that have been won, the racism that has been partly extirpated in society, all of that was not done by government edict, was not done by the three branches of government. It was not done by that structure which we learn about in junior high school, which they say is democracy. It was all done by citizens’ movements. And keep in mind that all great movements in the past have risen from small movements, from tiny clusters of people who came together here and there. When a movement is strong enough it doesn’t matter who is in the White House; what really matters is what people do, and what people say, and what people *demand*.

People like Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, Emma Goldman, Jack London and Upton Sinclair were wonderful writers who joined the movement against war and injustice, against capitalism and corporate power. That was a very exciting period in American history.

He said, ‘Remember this: Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.’

** Well Trained To Be Obedient

I’m worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel – let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they’re doing. I’m concerned that students not become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that’s handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers”

“Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world and a power greater than money or weapons: the truth.

Truth has a power of its own. Art has a power of its own. That age-old lesson – that everything we do matters – is the meaning of the people’s struggle here in the United States and everywhere. A poem can inspire a movement. A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think, when we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. We live in a beautiful country. But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back.

** The Grand Thieves

Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient allover the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.

I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”

** Two Parties: Two Wings of One Corporate Party

The pretense in disputed elections is that the great conflict is between the two major parties. The reality is that there is a much bigger conflict that the two parties jointly wage against large numbers of Americans who are represented by neither party and against powerless millions around the world.”

“If the gods had intended for people to vote, they would have given us candidates.”

Americans have been taught that their nation is civilized and humane. But, too often, U.S. actions have been uncivilized and inhumane.

The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world and a power greater than money or weapons: the truth.

Truth has a power of its own. Art has a power of its own. That age-old lesson – that everything we do matters – is the meaning of the people’s struggle here in the United States and everywhere. A poem can inspire a movement. A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think, when we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. We live in a beautiful country. But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back.

Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.

** Voting isn’t enough

Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.

No form of government, once in power, can be trusted to limit its own ambition, to extend freedom and to wither away. This means that it is up to the citizenry, those outside of power, to engage in permanent combat with the state, short of violent, escalatory revolution, but beyond the gentility of the ballot-box, to insure justice, freedom and well being.

If democracy were to be given any meaning, if it were to go beyond the limits of capitalism and nationalism, this would not come, if history were any guide, from the top. It would come through citizen’s movements, educating, organizing, agitating, striking, boycotting, demonstrating, threatening those in power with disruption of the stability they needed.

Terrorism has replaced Communism as the rationale for the militarization of the country [America], for military adventures abroad, and for the suppression of civil liberties at home. It serves the same purpose, serving to create hysteria

** To Be Patriotic We Must Disobey The Government

If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, nor as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles
We have thrown away the most valuable asset we had — the individual’s right to oppose both flag and country when he believed them to be in the wrong. We have thrown it away; and with it, all that was really respectable about that grotesque and laughable word, Patriotism.

We grow up in a controlled society, where we are told that when one person kills another person, that is murder, but when the government kills a hundred thousand, that is patriotism.

** All The Lies in History

If more people knew something about the history of government deception, of the lies that were told getting us into the Mexican War, the lies that were told getting us into the Spanish-American War, the lies that were told getting us into the war in the Philippines, the lies that were told getting us into World War I, the lies that were told again and again in Vietnam, the lies on the eve of the Gulf War, they would have questions about what they are hearing from the government and the media to justify this war.

Behind the deceptive words designed to entice people into supporting violence — words like democracy, freedom, self-defense, national security — there is the reality of enormous wealth in the hands of a few, while billions of people in the world are hungry, sick, homeless.

While some multimillionaires started in poverty, most did not. A study of the origins of 303 textile, railroad and steel executives of the 1870s showed that 90 percent came from middle- or upper-class families. The Horatio Alger stories of “rags to riches” were true for a few men, but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control.

I’ve always resented the smug statements of politicians, media commentators, corporate executives who talked about how, in America, if you worked hard, you would become rich. The meaning of that was: if you were poor, it was because you hadn’t worked hard enough. I knew this was a lie.

One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and the unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.

Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes.

** If You Don’t Know History

History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.

The Fugitive Slave Act was a flagrant example of Northern and federal collaboration with slaveholders, a lightning rod that led to the growth of the anti-slavery movement.”

If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history, you will find Andrew Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people — not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians.

I don’t believe it’s possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions. And to be neutral, to be passive, in a situation like that, is to collaborate with what is going on. And I, as a teacher, don’t want to be a collaborator.

My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all) – that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.

** To Live Now As We Think Human Beings Should Live Is Itself a Marvelous Victory

TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Howard Zinn

February 22, 2011
by sadhana.palugulla001
1 Comment

Death’s Homeland, by Dragan Draojlovic

-Trans. Stanislava Lazarevic´. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2008

The plain fact is that there is poetry after Auschwitz, however wounded it may be. An honest poem today must at least have windows open to the never-ending tragedy of our times. But windows imply a house, secure, protected, from which we look out. Dragan Dragojlovic´’s recent collection, Death’s Homeland looks out from no house and says so right from the start:

However deep
this pain may have sunk into the heart,
the next one will sink deeper;
however loud this shriek may have sounded,
the next one will be softer,
filling the wasteland from a strange, inner voice.
“Stone of Woe”

And again,

In the village
there were no houses,
or stables, or fences.
Only soot and ruins.
“Soot and Ruins”

Even the voice in these poems is nearly no voice, or a voice searching for itself:

The wind reaches for
the distance in vain
to find the voice
that was extinguished.
“Under Death’s Wing”

Such mercy as the poems utter comes from afar: “the good old sun / that gives me warmth” [“Before the Unchangeable”], “a fragment of the moon [that] / hangs over the shredded forest” (“The Landscape of Dawn”). In “The Sun Above a Naked Forest, a single ray of sunlight breaking through “smoke and shooting” and bitter cold brings hope that “the forest will put out new leaves / to hide this death.” Yet even distant heavenly props are dubious: “The heart goes on counting / the rosary of the stars / that have betrayed us” (“Merciless Daybreak”).

Against such desolation, even heaven can offer only tears:

What do I care for the sky,
for the wan moon,
for the fickle stars
that were visible
but a moment ago?
. . . .
Now that I have no strength,
I will cry in heaven.
What else is there
to fill eternity?
“I will Cry in Heaven”

In the end, such comfort as we can take from Death’s Homeland is that, in the midst of war’s horrors, this suffering human voice can still be heard. And in hearing it we are brought into intimacy with the suffering of both the people and the landscape, thus affirming human solidarity in a wounded land that comes close to destroying it. From this we draw heart.

In Death’s Homeland Dragolovic´ reaffirms the necessity of a poetry of suffering in the midst of which the poet utters unquenchable life and compassion:

May all your delusions
be forgiven,
May your pain be eased
in heaven.
Forgive your murderer,
Pray for those
upon whom you have inflicted
suffering and death.
“Glory Eternal”

So must we all pray, against the again and again and again of human brutality, lifting our own “Never again, never again.”

February 22, 2011
by sadhana.palugulla001

Nguyen Thuy Kha,A Time of Green Blood

-transl. Nguyen Than Xuan. Danang Publishing House, 2007

The story’s all too familiar: a man comes home after long years of war, remembering comradeship and suffering, ready for peace and love, only to find the transition far from simple. Even his blood remembers war: sweaty green fatigues, the pallor of faces marked by hunger and malaria, even the green leaves of the tapioca plant (manioc), which, fermented, could be eaten along with the starchy root.

During the war, thoughts of home and of the beloved haunt and sometimes buoy up, yet war too has its consolations, in the love of comrades, and in a deepened love of country: on patrol

You go to someone else’s village,
thinking like coming back to your own (p. 34).

While the words of the translation may vary from English usage, Thuy Kha renders his thoughts and feeling with a precision that knows no language barrier. He can be especially touching about everyday things, like the manioc, which the soldiers pulled up only to plant again, so that “manioc and / the soldiers’ heart grew with each other” – this at a time when American air fire was able to destroy ninety-nine of each hundred rice trucks on the way to the battlefield. He expresses gratitude for damp caves that gave sleepless shelter to soldiers who “Suddenly felt warm when we were seeing / each other with our eyes shining like stars” (p. 27).

The poignancy of these poems is sometimes the result of overlays, historical and imaginative. The caves once housed ancestors, who also found shelter there, without fire or food. More subtly, in “The Night the Forest Trees Died Out,” as Thy Kha hangs from his hammock, wind blowing “without any sound of rustling leaves, through trees killed by napalm and agent orange, the shape of the trees alone suggests to him “a vast lushly green forest,” and the “human-shaped trees” [wave to] each other boisterously / . . . talking and laughing” (p. 35). At the same time, in the reality of natural ruin, “Night sky was like being scratched with anguish,” and “The moon in its third quarter / was like someone’s deformed mouth” (p. 36)

The anguish here is in the suspension of Thuy Kha’s mind and heart between the remembered dream of living things and the actuality of dead ones. Come morning, he scoops water from a poisoned spring, perfectly limpid with lifelessness, reflecting only the dead trees that to Thuy Kha are now inseparable from dead comrades. Reconciliation begins when the hearts of enemies open to each other. Reading these poems, notions of friend and enemy dissolve into a larger sky.

The freedom with which Thuy Kha’s mind travels between actuality and dream and symbol is remarkable, fluid in a way that we’ve hardly experienced since the English Romantic period. Thuy Kha could be called Keatsian in this regard. Witness “Looking for the Mountainous Village”(p. 51). It begins with the speaker looking for this village, but the village is obscured in dense fog, and not only the trail but even the bomb craters around it are covered with weeds. Suddenly, we see “the burnt pillar of someone’s house.” It stands forlornly, laden with memory –warm traces of hands still imprinted on walls, the spectral appearance of a cliff “someone used to lean on in the moonlight.” Thuy Kha has been here before, “in the peaceful time between battles,” and now he shares “the calmness of the old floor and fields.” Even though the village is deserted, Thuy Kha remembers it “overflowing with human love,” and “forest vegetables.” Finally, as he scratches through a heap of ashes, he can say “I have found the mountain village right ‘ in the hearts of the soldiers” (p. 52).

The poignancy of this poem is typical in its delicate balance between ruin and warm life, and also, in the end, between war and peace. In “The Accompanying Raindrops,” a soldier in a peacetime city is “knitted to the rain,” and becomes the “kid from inside him running fast / to join the group of naked children / shouting joyfully on the street.” The children are actually there, but Thuy Kha also becomes “the peasant inside him / Happily opening his hands to greet the rain in the drought field.” And also inside him is a soldier “hurriedly wringing the wet clothes / then drying them on a fire.” The juxtaposition of these images is also a projection of Thuy Kha’s psyche with its aspects of jubilation and hardship.

Thuy Kha’s psyche is labile, nearly without boundaries. He can be other people, bound to them in compassion and grief. He can also be the very mountains he writes about. In “Ascending the Mountain,” he and his gathered war-comrades form “a mountain on top of a mountain.” In “Footprint on the Rock,” on a mountain barren even before the war, “Traces of dry blood remain on sharp cliff. / Footprints imprint thickly on the lonely mountain.” The very stone seems to utter “the names of soldier’s family members,” and the succulent raspberries are like a “young soldier’s lips.” Everywhere, Thuy Khan sees human footprints on rocks, *and the relationship between the human and natural is never dualistic, or at least, not for long. Dead soldiers are “as pure as the raindrops / Absorbed by the soil,” and their deaths are an aspect of how their country “had to [peel] of its skin to grow big.”

That is what Thuy Kha has done too, and by his willingness we also are enlarged.

February 22, 2011
by sadhana.palugulla001

Remembering Etheridge

I met Etheridge Knight in the early eighties and met him slowly. Our mutual friend, the poet Robert Slater, had long since been urging me from Kansas City to give Etheridge a call, since I lived only forty miles from him. I hesitated, probably out of a combination of shyness and fear. I knew his work and stood in awe of the man. But also Etheridge had only recently been released from the Indiana State Prison, where, besides becoming a poet, he had been a block boss by virtue of his toughness. Finally, Etheridge was a junky. He’d been seriously wounded in Korea, and in treatment became addicted to heroine. His addiction had led him to robbery and a seven-year sentence. He never really broke his bad habit, though some of the time he replaced it with a methadone habit.

Eventually, because of Slater’s persistence, I did meet Etheridge. He was a big man and sometimes had a dangerous look. But his great charm, his melodious voice that sounded like a bass saxophone, along with his lovely manners and forthrightness, nearly always made his presence a pleasure.

In the early days of our friendship my wife and I saw Etheridge mostly at the Bluebird Café in the heart of Indianapolis’s ghetto. Etheridge held court there on most Friday evenings. Some twenty of us became regulars. We’d go to hear Etheridge say his poems, and also to work under his tutelage. To hear him was to experience the old bardic tradition – his words had that kind of power, part of it the pure sound of his voice.

But most of the time Etheridge listened. He was a great listener. You always felt that, good or bad, your poem went right to some special depth in him, and resonated there. It was his power of listening that made him a great teacher. He taught us by the look on his face, the movements of his body. But, most, he taught us by his grunts, by call and response “yeahs” and other sounds that came from deep in his belly and chest. Etheridge’s grunts, which weren’t frequent, told us where our own power lay– in a word, a flow of sound, a line, an image, sometimes in a poem.

Etheridge didn’t have much patience with shy or reticent readers. He taught us,
“Take your space.” This meant that when we read we were leader of the band. We weren’t there to be deferential to, let alone frightened of, an audience. We were there to share with them work we’d made with pride. We were in control of both silence and sound. It was our job to transmit the way we heard our poems – vowel sequences, rhythm and beat. He taught us to hit each word the way a musician hits each note, so that beauty and power beauty gather one clear drop at a time.

Several times over the years I invited Etheridge to read at Wabash College where I taught. At one time my wife and I lived in a shack – she still calls it a “cabin” – twelve miles out from the farm town where the college was. The shack wasn’t much – no plumbing, no gas lines, though we did have electricity. My wife could no longer bake because mice had stripped the insulation from the oven, and we could no longer listen to music because mice had stripped the wires and blown out the receiver. Wasps were also present, but not a problem. I found that I could pas through a doorway at the same time a was crossing in the opposite direction, and neither of us batted an eye. At bottom, they were good neighbors, whom I had no intention to provoke.

The cabin’s redeeming quality was that it sat on top of a hill that, from late autumn to early spring when the leaves were down, overlooked a river called Sugar Creek. Etheridge loved it there. At heart, he still thought of himself as a rural Mississippi homeboy — witness the great “Idea of Ancestry,” and also “A Poem for Myself,” which ends:

Going back to Mississippi
This time to stay for good
Going back to Mississippi
This time to stay for good –
Gonna be free in Mississippi
Or dead in the Mississippi mud.

It made Etheridge happy to be with us on that hill and it made us happy to have him with us.

Etheridge had elegant manners, especially with women, and my wife, like most women he met, loved him. But, then, so did I. He married three times to strong women, all of them poets. In fact, he was catnip to the ladies. I’ll never forget the night at the Bluebird when a pretty young woman read a poem about licking an ice cream cone, all the time looking at Etheridge. She knew a lot about licking and, once or twice, Etheridge deigned to look back.

Besides teaching me to read my poems aloud, Etheridge taught me another still more important thing. I was talking with him once about “The Idea of Ancestry,” one of his masterpieces. In the poem, Etheridge, in prison, remembered or imagined a family reunion he was, blissful until his “habit came down.” He writes beautifully about the network that holds a strong family together. Back home, walking “barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard, “ sipping corn whiskey, flirting with the women, he “almost kicked it with the kinfolks.” But abruptly he leaves the reunion, his “guts screaming for junk, and “cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.” Now pacing in his cell, he stares at a photo of

. . . 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space in between.”

The poem always moved me powerfully, and I told him that, despite the separation from family and native soil that his life brought about, I envied him such a family feeling. I told him that I didn’t have much, and that, because my grandparents didn’t speak English, and my parents were children when they came to America, I had no knowledge of the extended family that I hatched out of. That’s when Etheridge gave me one of his hard looks, and said, “You can know that stuff if you want to.” I understood what he meant.

Etheridge had high requirements for fellow poets. Once I heard him scold Ray di Palma for complaining that his work was temporarily stuck. Etheridge just said, “C’mon, man you’re a grown poet.” Another time, when Slater complained to him about Kansas City, Etheridge let him know that KC was Slater’s province, and if something was wrong it was his job to fix it. He saw the true government as a network of poets across the country and across the world.

What Etheridge meant when he told me that I could know about my family history was that I was a grown poet whose imagination had the power to find what it needed. And so, with the help of a little research about shtetl life and Jewish immigration, along with a few snippets of what I did know, I wrote a series of poems called “The Ragpicker’s Grandson,” and, in the process, realized that I was born long before 1930. I finished writing that series more whole than when I began.

The last time I saw Etheridge was at his “funeral.” I think it was Galway Kinnell, and maybe Donald Hall and Robert Bly as well, who had the idea of a memorial poetry reading for him while he was till strong enough to be there. Etheridge was dying of lung cancer. The event drew a large crowd, maybe 700 people gathered at the American Cabaret Theater in Indianapolis. The reading lasted for six hours, and I remember distinctly that during that time only two people left. It was that kind of reading. The poets who read to pay tribute were Robert Bly, Samuel Allen, Christopher Gilbert, Galway Kinnell, Haki Madhubuti, Dudley Randall, Elizabeth McKim, Mari Evans, and Jared Carter. Etheridge died seven weeks later, on March 10th, 1991.

But on that day Etheridge was in the auditorium for most of the six hours, mostly walking the outside aisles. I’m not sure if he wore a suit or a dashiki, but I know that he wore a kofia made of leopard skin. He looked like a tribal chieftain, and, as far as I was concerned, he was one.

I can only guess what his thoughts were. A strong foretaste of his death, I imagine. For all his regal presence, he was already a ghost looking back – a ghost with a sense of pride and fulfillment, but still, a ghost.

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