The Meat Grinder


101 years ago today, Serb teenager, Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on the heir’s fateful visit to Sarajevo. That one deadly act, carried out over a century ago, set into motion a series of events which ultimately resulted in the unimaginable bloodbath of World War One.

Last Wednesday while presenting my memoir, “River of January,” to a library group, an unexpected gasp came from a listener in the seats. My brain flew into immediate damage control “What I had said, (did I cuss?) Was the projector working behind me? Were my pants zipped? After only a heartbeat the cause dawned on me.

It was a 1928 snapshot of Mont Chumbley, the story’s central figure, beaming across the screen. He was uniformed in the garb of a Navy Seaman Recruit, proudly shouldering his rifle. He looks dignified in his pose, pleased at successfully becoming a part of the United States Navy—but his achievement had also left his family back on the Virginia farm in deep crisis.

Young Mont, “Chum” had required his father’s permission to join up, and the father had adamantly refused to go along with the idea. To modern ears, such as the listener Wednesday night, this obstruction seemed unpatriotic, a father ought to be proud; a military career today is considered noble and honorable. But not back in 1928.

The line that earned that unexpected gasp came after a direct quote from Chum. “Back then, in Norfolk there were signs in the parks saying, ‘Dogs And Sailors Keep Off The Grass’.”

We forget, but after the 1918 Armistice, America was truly sorry it had committed to war against Germany. The universal feeling was fighting in Europe had been a monumental mistake, and one that would never, ever be repeated. The country doggedly pursued isolation for twenty years until Japanese Zeros hit the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Between 1919 and 1941 military budgets were annually slashed, recruitment limited, and the military faced near elimination by a nation and Congress bent on going it alone.

The Treaty of Versailles that officially ended the war, along with its League of Nations was soundly defeated by a non cooperative US Senate. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1921 strictly limited the number of ships each maritime nation could possess, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an agreement between the US and France literally outlawed war. The public also grew convinced that American bankers and arms producers had only pushed for war to increase their profits. Companies like Dupont Chemical, and the banking House of Morgan were dubbed “Merchants of Death.”

Internationalism was dead, Fortress America was born.

That was the political climate surrounding Mont Chumbley’s ambition to join the Navy and learn to fly airplanes. Understandably his family fervently opposed this decision, and his father did all he could to block his son’s hopes for a military career. Mont’s aunt said it best, “The military is a refuge for scoundrels.”

And even after enlisting, young Mont learned his chances of getting into a cockpit were slim to none in light of draconian budget cuts inflicted on the Navy.

America’s enthusiasm for foreign involvement, the military, and war had fallen into fanatical disfavor. The meat grinder that had been World War One left our nation outraged and remorseful . . . America would never make that same mistake again.

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