Splendid Little War

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Precise beginnings to distinct endings, that is how wars are remembered. ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’ to Yorktown, Fort Sumter to Appomattox, Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima; all in explicit order from the opening salvos, to the tense calm of ceasefire. And this arrangement has worked well for classrooms, historical fiction, television documentaries, and films. Still this practice has its limits, failing to consider intricate causes, and lingering effects that set the table for the next war. Here is an obscure example from the past that isn’t fully understood—The Spanish American War (1898).

Cuba was in revolt. Through the 1890’s freedom fighters such as Jose Marti and Maximo Gomez struggled against 400 years of Spanish occupation. Alleging atrocities at the hands of their colonial oppressors, of burning villages and starving civilians, rebels captured headlines across America. Enterprising publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst took action dispatching droves of reporters to the war-torn island. Reporters filed even more sensational stories and readership mushroomed. Hearst illustrator, Frederick Remington, dispatched to Havana, cabled his boss reporting he found no war. Hearst famously, and tersely replied, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war.” A flood of salacious, skewed stories gave birth to the “Yellow Press,” of tabloid journalism. Facts didn’t bother these editors, they were busy raking in profits. Questionable newspaperman found help too, from the Cuban rebels themselves. To make sure America would intervene, insurgents torched acres of American-owned sugar cane fields. Absentee American sugar planters, losing their investments railed for war, pressing McKinley to act. 

As the last US President to have fought in the Civil War, William McKinley hesitated to draw America into armed conflict. But, in the face of fiery Cuba, the pressure grew fierce. A noisy, war-hungry faction of the GOP called “Jingoists” clamored as well for war against Spain. Young Republicans, like Theodore Roosevelt, impatient to flex American muscle, demanded action. Still McKinley held fast, understanding, what the young could not, the real cost of war in morality, blood and treasure. But following the sinking of the US gunboat “Maine,” moored in Havana harbor, the President relented, and the Spanish American War began. In the years that followed, the President’s worst fears were more than realized.

Characterized as a “Splendid Little War,” the Spanish American War reaped huge rewards for mainland business interests. Annexing former Spanish-held islands from Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, to Guam and the Philippine Islands in the Pacific, the US gained ready access to resources and markets for American-made goods. To many this step into world affairs proved worth every penny and every drop of American blood. The ability of American businesses to produce goods far outstripped purchasing power stateside. Overseas markets quickly absorbed stockpiled goods, and demanded more. Besides, it was argued at the time, if America didn’t shake a leg Great Britain, Russia, Japan, or France would gladly take over.

Unexpectedly, policy makers encountered a moral and legal dilemma. Were the people living in these newly-controlled possessions protected by Constitutional law? Should the US government follow custom and promise eventual statehood for these far flung islands? Prior Indian policy shed no light on the situation, these populations were the majority, not small, isolated pockets of nomadic people. 

The Supreme Court soon obliged and settled this legal quandary. In a series of Supreme Court opinions beginning in 1901, the Insular Cases established a principle that despite America’s governing authority over island possessions, the people could expect no civic protections. Essentially the Court ruled that “Rights don’t follow the Flag.” 

Consequently Pacific and Caribbean islands became US territories, but Cuba did not. After ‘liberating’ the island from Spain, optics prevented an out and out American takeover. Still, the embattled island could not be permitted full independence, Cuba was too valuable to the US. In 1898 the Teller Amendment established a military installation at Guantanamo, followed in 1901 with the Platt Amendment codifying continued American oversight.

Further, the McKinley administration opted to annex the Philippine Islands in 1900, rather than granting expected Filipino independence. This decision triggered a bloody, colonial uprising that resulted in the death of thousands. American Marines battled determined guerrilla insurgents in sweltering jungles; both sides committing horrific atrocities (six decades before a similar war in Vietnam). Businessmen salivated for nearby Chinese markets, and the Philippines offered deep natural harbors for passing American Vessels. 

But that’s not all the unexpected outcomes springing from the “Splendid Little War.” The US plunged into a world-wide race to carve up China. American business interests demanded a fair share of the Open Door to Chinese markets. By 1899 this multi national intrusion exploded in the bloody Boxer Rebellion. Young Chinese nationalists outraged by naked exploitation; the trade in opium, the depletion of gold to pay for the opium, the national bane of addiction, and overbearing western missionaries who insisted on ‘saving’ the Chinese from their pagan beliefs. Approximately 100,000 Chinese civilians died in the fighting that lasted three years.

In the end, there was no end. The frenzy for colonies quickened into a global mania. An arms race ensued, naval building reaching breakneck speed, nations vying to outstrip their rivals for dominance. Countries with few colonies jumped into the fray scooping up whatever lands remained open for the taking. Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy, relatively late on the imperial scene, headed into the Balkans and Africa. By 1914 the strain of fierce rivalry reached critical mass, engulfing, first Europe, and then America into the horror of the First World War.

Beginnings and ends work in delineating historic events, but with war there are no such limits.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Amazon.com.

 

Go Get ‘Um

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The date was June 5, 1944, and General Dwight D Eisenhower had made the decision to begin the Allied invasion of France the next morning. Christened “Operation Overlord” the massive campaign required disruption inland from the Normandy coast to insure a solid beach-head. The task fell to soldiers of the US 82nd Airborne, the US 101st Airborne,  and members of the 6th British Airborne. The mission was to impair the Wehrmacht’s ability to move their Panzer units toward the five invasion points.

General Eisenhower met informally with soldiers of the 101st, chatting and encouraging, to build morale. He must have felt an enormous responsibility sending these young Americans on such a hazardous and vital mission. While he mingled with the men, Ike suddenly wondered, “Is anybody here from Kansas?” A voice replied from the crowd, “I’m from Kansas, sir.” Ike looked the boy in the eye and responded, “Go get ‘um, Kansas.”

That story always leaves me teary. I don’t cry in movies, poetry doesn’t move me, and books have to be awfully emotional to elicit a sob out of me. But that moment of raw, honest regard, with so much at stake, hits me in the heart.

Washington at Trenton, Grant at the Wilderness, Doughboys in the Argonne, GI’s at the Bulge, Marines at Hue: the devotion to duty chokes me up. Every time.

But today Americans seem somehow lessened, cheapened. There are no Eisenhowers, or Washingtons, or Lincoln’s to describe what we represent. The institutions that inspired countless young people to lay down their lives are now attacked by an ersatz strongman from within. How could this happen? How can citizens of good conscience condone this very real threat? Where is our collective honest regard for our past, present , and future?

Makes me want to cry.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Amazon.com

Hat In The Ring (2)

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Captain Eddie Rickenbacker poses with an aircraft bearing the emblem of the 94th Aero Squadron. Image courtesy of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force via Youtube.

This is World War One flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker. Young Rickenbacker soared the deadly skies over France as a member of the 94th Aero Squadron. He engaged in dogfights piloting Nieuports and Spads, earning the distinction of most decorated American pilot of the war. The insignia of the 94th was the “Hat In The Ring,” seen above.

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Here is Captain Rickenbacker in the 1950’s while he was president of Eastern Airlines. He is lunching with Mont Chumbley, a proud career pilot for Rickenbacker’s “Great Silver Fleet” from 1940 until retirement in 1969. Mont, known as “Chum” is the subject of my two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

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And here stands Mont Chumbley next to his Pitts Special Aerobatic plane in the 1980’s. In memory of his famous employer, “Chum” stenciled the “Hat In The Ring” to his sports plane.

Gail Chumbley is the author of both titles available at http://www.river-of-january.com. Also on Amazon.com.

 

 

New Birth of Freedom

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We all know the story.

On a mild April night, President and Mary Lincoln attended the final performance of the popular comedy, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln, by all accounts was in a light, blissful mood. A week earlier Confederate forces commanded by Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, and except for some dust ups, the Civil War had ceased. We also know that John Wilkes Booth, and fellow conspirators plotted to kill, not only the President, but the whole order of presidential succession; Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, etc . . . but only Booth followed through with that night’s violence.

Andrew Johnson took office in a whirlwind of shifting circumstances. In the year up to President Lincoln’s death a notable power struggle had taken shape between the President and Congress. America had never before endured a civil war, and the path to reunion had never been trod. As President, Lincoln believed the power to restore the Union lay in the executive branch—through presidential pardon. But an emerging faction in the Republican Party, called the Radicals saw the issue differently. These men operated from the premise that the Confederate States had indeed left the Union—committed political suicide at secession—and had to petition Congress for readmission. (Congress approves statehood). And this new president, Andrew Johnson, was determined to follow through with Lincoln’s policies.

Unfortunately, Johnson was by temperament, nothing like Abraham Lincoln. Where Lincoln had a capacity to understand the views of his opponents, and utilize humor and political savvy, Johnson could not. Of prickly character, Andrew Johnson entered the White House possessed by deeply-held rancor against both the South’s Planter Class, and newly freed blacks. This new Chief Executive intended to restore the Union through the use of pardons, then govern through his strict interpretation of the Constitution. Johnson had no use for Radical Republicans, nor their extreme pieces of legislation. Every bill passed through the House and Senate found a veto waiting at Johnson’s desk, including the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and the adoption of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress promptly overrode Johnson’s vetoes.

Reconstruction began with a vicious power struggle. And much of the tumult came from Andrew Johnson’s inability to grasp the transformation Civil War had brought to America. While the new president aimed to keep government limited, the Radicals and their supporters knew the bloody struggle had to mean something more—America had fundamentally changed. Nearly 700,000 dead, the emancipation of slavery, the murder of Father Abraham, and a “New birth of Freedom” had heralded an earthquake of change.

But Johnson was blind to this reality, seeing only an overreaching Congress, (Tenure of Office Act) and Constitutional amendments that had gone too far. And so it was a rigid and stubborn Andrew Johnson who eventually found himself impeached by a fed-up House of Representatives. Johnson holding on to his broken presidency by a single Senate vote.

 

There have been other eras in America’s past that fomented rapid changes. The Revolution to the Constitutional period, the First World War into American isolation, the Vietnam War stirring up protest and social change. All concluding with reactionary presidencies. No less occurred with the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

2008 to 2016 witnessed social change of a new order. Administered by America’s first African-American President, Barack Obama, liberty reached further, bringing about change where once-closeted American’s hid. Gay marriage became the law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court in Obergefell V Hodges. The trans community found their champion in Bruce, now Caitlin Jenner. Health care became available to those caught in relentless poverty and preexisting conditions. Undocumented young people were transformed into “Dreamers.” And though he didn’t take the Right’s guns, President Obama did successfully direct the mission to nab Osama bin Laden, America’s most wanted man.

So when former students began sending horrified texts to me, their old history teacher on election night, 2016, I gave the only explanation history provided. The Obama years introduced change to America that reactionaries could not stomach. (And yes, racism is certainly a large part of the equation).

So now we deal with a Donald Trump presidency. But, Mr. Trump would be wise to acknowledge and accept what has transpired in the last eight years. The thing about expanding the ‘blessings of liberty,’ is no one is willing to give them back. When push comes to shove, the new president may find himself facing the fate of Andrew Johnson.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also on Amazon.

Capturing War

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I grew up during the Vietnam era. This conflict in Southeast Asia officially began in 1959, and officially ended with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. I was a four-year-old baby when Ike first sent advisers over, and a high school graduate when the boys came home under Nixon.

An opinion has grown among historians that the unpopularity of the Vietnam War came about because of particularly intense television coverage. Some claim that support for this “police action” shifted when the draft expanded to include middle class, college-bound boys. Mothers across the country grew alienated, and distressed by the relentless coverage flickering across all three networks; images of  Vietcong ambushes, exploding fire fights, and mounting body counts, soon drained any support women felt for the war.

I recall in particular doing dishes after dinner watching a little black and white Sony portable on the kitchen counter. It didn’t matter which network I switched to, the same footage blended into a mingled blur . . . jungle, fear, wounds, and an odometer-like graphic, tallying up the day’s body count.

The Vietnam War didn’t come to us through paintings, or photographs, or movie house newsreels. Instead the American public, including this growing girl from Spokane, viewed the unfolding drama as a grim reality program, years before that term was coined. And that little 10 inch window to the war told me, as young and unsophisticated as I was, that this involvement was awful. That war is an awful event.

CBS, in particular, ran special reports highlighting varying aspects of that endless nightmare. News cameras exposed the jarring horror of  surgical personnel–doctors and nurses splattered with blood–and set out with nervous reconnaissance patrols edging through deadly elephant grass, and huddled with desperate Marines battling at a stone wall in the ancient Vietnamese capitol of Hue. All of it awful.

So many years have flown by, and I find this little girl is now officially middle aged. Yet, as I type my graphic recollections from fifty years ago, I know that, at this very moment, young people in battle zones face the exact same hell as the lethal jungles of Vietnam. The human cost of war has not changed–not one bit. And though the American public isn’t quite as riled as 1970, nor as focused, the price of overseas conflicts remain the same for those beautiful young souls now in harms way.

In the spirit of comforting the disturbed, and disturbing the comfortable, I would like to finish this piece by reprinting a poem by WWI soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. With words alone, Sassoon captured the true awful, using no film crew, or photographer, or painter.

Dreamers

By Siegfried Sassoon

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
Have a safe weekend, and accent the memory in Memorial Day.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the non-fiction memoir, River of January

Capturing War

th

I grew up during the Vietnam era. This conflict in Southeast Asia officially began in 1959, and officially ended with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. I was a four-year-old baby when Ike first sent advisers over, and a high school graduate when the boys came home under Nixon.

An opinion has grown among historians that the unpopularity of the Vietnam War came about because of particularly intense television coverage. Some claim that support for this “police action” shifted when the draft expanded to include middle class, college-bound boys. Mothers across the country grew alienated, and distressed by the relentless coverage flickering across all three networks; images of  Vietcong ambushes, exploding fire fights, and mounting body counts, soon drained any support women felt for the war.

I recall in particular doing dishes after dinner watching a little black and white Sony portable on the kitchen counter. It didn’t matter which network I switched to, the same footage blended into a mingled blur . . . jungle, fear, wounds, and an odometer-like graphic, tallying up the day’s body count.

The Vietnam War didn’t come to us through paintings, or photographs, or movie house newsreels. Instead the American public, including this growing girl from Spokane, viewed the unfolding drama as a grim reality program, years before that term was coined. And that little 10 inch window to the war told me, as young and unsophisticated as I was, that this involvement was awful. That war is an awful event.

CBS, in particular, ran special reports highlighting varying aspects of that endless nightmare. News cameras exposed the jarring horror of  surgical personnel–doctors and nurses splattered with blood–and set out with nervous reconnaissance patrols edging through deadly elephant grass, and huddled with desperate Marines battling at a stone wall in the ancient Vietnamese capitol of Hue. All of it awful.

So many years have flown by, and I find this little girl is now officially middle aged. Yet, as I type my graphic recollections from fifty years ago, I know that, at this very moment, young people in battle zones face the exact same hell as the lethal jungles of Vietnam. The human cost of war has not changed–not one bit. And though the American public isn’t quite as riled as 1970, nor as focused, the price of overseas conflicts remain the same for those beautiful young souls now in harms way.

In the spirit of comforting the disturbed, and disturbing the comfortable, I would like to finish this piece by reprinting a poem by WWI soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. With words alone, Sassoon captured the true awful, using no film crew, or photographer, or painter.

Dreamers

By Siegfried Sassoon

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
Have a safe weekend, and accent the memory in Memorial Day.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the non-fiction memoir, River of January

The Pitch

Long rows of rectangular tables, draped and decorated, filled the hall. Cellophane covered baskets, revealing festive gifts sat inches apart, attracting hopeful bids from the browsers wandering about the silent auction. Attendees seemed to understand the drill, strolling from basket to basket, pen in hand, increasing the previous bid. And the purpose behind this auction? The IEA Children’s Fund; a statewide account to help Idaho kids with food, clothing, supplies, shoes, and any other need disadvantaged students face.

I squeezed in between colorful, refugee-sewn bags and wallets, and a boxed WiFi yoga program, complete with a mat and ready-to-use internet software. My books sat displayed below eye level, requiring some adjustments to attract possible buyers.

Both “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight” are rich with archival images. However, space limitations left the usual eye catchers tucked in a satchel, under my chair. Though dismayed at first, I remembered that the books have photo galleries inside, and my tactic instantly shifted. “Are you a reader?” I begin. And what’s cool about teachers is that 99.9% told me ‘yes.’ (Of course they are, we teachers are the champions of literacy.) Then I whipped out the photos in book one.

I begin . . . “River of January is a true story, a memoir, that I have written in a novelized style. Here is my main charter, a pilot, who won an air race in 1933. Here he is receiving the winning trophy from actress Helen Hayes at the premier of her newest movie, Night Flight co-starring Clark Gable.” (The listener looks mildly interested. I go on.)

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The girl in the middle, laughing, was his girlfriend, she was a pilot too. On the left is Amelia Earhart, the president of the female flying group called The 99’s.”  (I hear an audible WOW. We’re getting somewhere.)

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“And this girl is the other main character, and she was a show girl, dancer, and actress. The picture is a clip from a 1931 movie she appeared in called Women of All Nations. Not much of a film, but she had a closeup. Oh, that’s Bela Lugosi in the turban.” (Now I hear a ‘that’s amazing.’)

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“Yeah,” I agree. “And it’s only the first book. In book two, he ships out to the Pacific, and she becomes a professional ice skater in a Sonja Henie Ice Show.”

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(I reach for the second book, “Figure Eight.”). Here he is with the head of Eastern Airlines, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. You know, the WWI flying ace?” Now they want to know the price, and would I take a debit card?

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“Would you like me to sign the books?” They would. And I thank the purchaser, and ask for feedback on Amazon.

What is nice is that all teachers share an innate sense of wonder. My natural fascination with the story easily connected to like-minded listeners among the professional educators circling that hall.

And that’s my pitch. I let the two main characters sell the memoir because they were nothing short of amazing.

Plus I , too, happily made a donation for each book sold to the IEA Children’s Fund.

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books are available at www.river-of-january.com, or on Amazon.