The Arrogance of Now

Each year I prepared for two major wars, the finale if you will, of second semester US History. With a combined sense of dread, and anticipation, I led the kids through the causes, and progression of the Civil War (with 10th graders), and WWII (with my Juniors). 

A lifetime of study in these eras, especially Antebellum America, tells an anxious story, as two passionate belief systems came to blows. Sophomores learned that our nation, a democracy born in such promise, plunged into the abyss over America’s original sin, slavery.

Meanwhile, for Juniors, the failures of the uneasy peace that followed WWI shaped a broader corrosion. The world after 1919 disintegrated into deadly factions, underscored by exaggerated entitlement, racial hate, and lust for revenge.

Much like America’s 19th Century plunge into the breach, the 20th Century also debased human life, sliding into scapegoating, unthinkable cruelty, and massacre. This record is hard to face, let alone study. 

Real monsters masqueraded as heads of state; Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and the War Lords of Japan. All, to varying degrees, convinced regular people that the “worth” of others was suspect, and targeting civilians an acceptable strategy. Yet, as awful as both conflicts were, it’s hard not to stare, and to hopefully recognize the signs when hate again emerges as a justification for horror.

The heresy of exceptionalism, normalizing violence on the vulnerable, and extremism, unleashed evil on the world. Andersonville Prison, Fort Pillow Massacre, the Rape of Nanking, Bataan, the Warsaw Ghetto, and death camps. More than one a student wondered aloud, how could that happen?

In increments.

These signs are clear again. Those same pre-conditions have resurfaced, right now, here in our communities, states, and nation. 

A white nationalist parade in Charlotte that kills one, where there were “good people on both sides.” Normalized daily murders of people of color, and incendiary rhetoric that ends with an attack on the US Capitol, killing five. All offenses excused and minimized by a once great political party, that has forsaken its moral underpinnings. 

The only difference between the Proud Boys and the Brown Shirts is the Brown Shirts didn’t wear Carhartt and flannel.

This endless playlist has looped over repeatedly, cursed by the “blind arrogance of now.” But dear reader, now is then, and deluded people do not change with time. The descent into barbarity is more predictable than exceptional. 

When reasonable folks are manipulated by the chorus of the Big Lie, the era doesn’t matter. Society inevitably falls into depravity.   

Gail Chumbley is a career history educator, and author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Long Weekend

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A former student posted pictures yesterday of a cadet event at West Point. In a formal ceremony he and his classmates were presented with gold class rings in what looked like an annual military tradition. According to the post these rings were made from gold melted down from deceased former cadets, and shavings from the remains of the Twin Towers. A moving and inspiring affair for sure.

Parades on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, The Fourth of July, festooned with waving flags, highlight the modern veneration Americans feel for their warriors, past and present. But this honor and respect wasn’t always held for our fighting forces. In fact from the close of World War One in 1918 until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Americans across the country roundly rejected and criticized anything to do with the armed forces.

As I go about the Northwest, speaking on “River of January,” folks are consistently surprised with the contempt the public held for soldiers and sailors in the book’s setting. The central figure in the memoir, Mont Chumbley shared with me before his death that at the time he enlisted in Norfolk Virginia, signs appeared in city parks warning, “dogs and sailors keep off the grass.” And it is that quote that draws stunned reactions from listeners.

The killing fields of World War One dragged on for three bloody years until America joined on the side of the Allies. Woodrow Wilson, the sitting President betrayed his earlier campaign promise of, “He kept us out of the war,” quickly changing his mind about Europe. He ultimately asked Congress for a declaration of war in April, 1917 to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” This idealist Chief Executive sent American boys across the Atlantic to remake the world in the image of America’s republican system.

American soldiers, “doughboys,” weren’t in any way ready to deploy, quickly activated and barely trained. Still the recruits and draftees were promptly loaded onto troop ships landing in time to stave off a final German offensive. Gung ho and naïve, US forces made the difference almost at once, charging enemy trenches in blind innocence, with a faith in their youthful invincibility. The exhausted, war-weary combatants, particularly the German “Huns,” soon collapsed, requesting an armistice in November of 1918, ending hostilities.

World War One had unleashed unthinkable horrors in tactics and weaponry. Foul sewage-filled trenches, poison gas, machine guns, aerial bombing, torpedo launching u-boats, tanks, barbed wire, and “no man’s land,” sickened the American people. An outraged sense of being duped into war by big business and self-serving politicians became universal.
Beleaguered President Wilson attempted to salvage purpose from the unspeakable carnage with his “Fourteen Point” peace plan, including his “League of Nations,” a forerunner to the United Nations. Citizens universally rejected Wilson’s efforts to remake a peaceful world. In fact, Americans rejected any form of internationalism whatsoever. War was pointless, and the nation resolved to never venture abroad again, period.

An attitude of isolation gelled and hardened into popular opinion for years to come. Any boy who joined the service was considered a no account scoundrel with no ambition, or self respect. It was in this hostile atmosphere Mont Chumbley bucked popular opinion choosing to join the Navy and ultimately fly airplanes.

It came as no surprise that his family vehemently opposed his enlistment plans. The entire clan closed ranks, certain the family name and reputation was at stake, and the boy could not be permitted to sully the rest of them. And that is only a single anecdote of one family in a nation appalled by anything military.

All three branches faced draconian budget cuts in the 1920’s, with more slashed during the Great Depression. Military leaders hustled to find ways to justify their shrinking budgets before Congress. Military planners were met with answers such as that concluded by Congressman Gerald Nye. Results of Representative Nye’s study determined the US only entered the World War to enrich munitions manufacturers and bankers. The Navy had already taken an earlier hit when a moratorium was placed on building any new battleships. America didn’t need them anymore, the country would never go to war ever again.

And that attitude persisted from 1919 to 1939 until Hitler’s blitzkrieg shattered the peace. But even then the US did not involved itself, even as England stood alone before the Nazi onslaught. Instead Congress passed Neutrality Acts tying the President’s hands to help the English. American entry into that war didn’t occur until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor two years later, in December of 1941.

The “Long Weekend” starved America’s military for twenty years. That Mont Chumbley managed to join at all, and managed to fly the few aircraft the Navy possessed is nothing less than a miracle. That farm boy from Virginia overcame immense barriers; stiff family opposition, social ridicule, and crossing an immense chasm to become a Navy pilot.

But he did.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both are available in hard copy at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.

Any questions? Reach me at gailchumbley@gmail.com

Splendid Little War

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Precise beginnings to recognizable endings, that is how American wars are recorded and remembered. ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’ to Yorktown, Fort Sumter to Appomattox, Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima; all in sequential 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 approach has its limits, failing to consider the intricate causes, and lingering effects that set the stage for the next war. Here is an example from the past that isn’t commonly recalled—The Spanish American War (1898).

The island of Cuba blazed in revolt. Throughout the 1890’s local freedom fighters, including Jose Marti and Maximo Gomez, struggled to end 400 years of Spanish conquest. Alleging atrocities at the hands of their colonial oppressors, of burning villages and starving civilians, rebels monopolized banner headlines across America. Enterprising publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst mobilized their own forces, dispatching droves of journalists to the war-torn island.

Reporters soon filed embellished, sensationalized stories, and circulation quickly boomed. Hearst illustrator, Frederick Remington sailed to Havana, promptly cabling his boss that he had found no war. Hearst famously, and cynically countered, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war.”

The resulting flood of salacious, skewed features gave birth to the “Yellow Press,” of tabloid journalism. Facts didn’t trouble these news editors, they were too busy raking in profits. American newspaperman also found assistance in the Cuban rebels themselves. Ensuring that America would intervene in the struggle, Cuban insurgents torched acres and acres of American-owned cane fields. Absentee-American sugar planters, losing revenues, railed for war, accosting McKinley to act. 

As the last US President to have experienced battle, William McKinley hesitated to draw America into another armed conflict. But, in the face of fiery Cuba, the pressure grew fierce. Jingoists like Theodore Roosevelt, impatient to flex American muscle, demanded immediate action.

Still McKinley hesitated, understanding, what the young could not. A veteran of the Civil War, the President grasped the real cost of war, measured in blood, treasure, and humanity. Nonetheless, 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,” this conflict, contested at the dawn of the 20th Century, reaped endless bounty for mainland business interests.

The US annexed: Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, Guam, and the Philippine Islands in the Pacific.

To many, this step into world affairs proved worth every penny and every drop of American blood. The pace of American factories to produce goods far outstripped domestic consumption. Overseas markets quickly absorbed stockpiled goods, and in turn secured further demand. Besides, it was argued at the time, if America didn’t move quickly Great Britain, Russia, Japan, or France would gladly take over.

However, expansionist quickly faced an unexpected moral and legal dilemma. Were the native people living in these newly-American owned possessions protected by Constitutional law? Should the US government follow mainland custom, and promise eventual statehood for these far flung islands? Prior Indian policy provided no guideline, as islanders were in the majority, not residing in small, isolated pockets. 

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

In the aftermath, Pacific and Caribbean islands became US territories, but Cuba did not. After ‘liberating’ the island from Spain, decorum prevented an out and out American takeover. Still, the embattled island could not be set free–too much had been expended in the conflict, and Cuba was too valuable.

In 1898 the Teller Amendment established a US military installation at Guantanamo Bay, followed in 1901 with the Platt Amendment, authorizing extended American control of Cuban affairs.

In the far Pacific, the McKinley administration opted to annex the Philippine Islands, rather than granting Filipino independence. This decision backfired triggering a bloody, colonial uprising. American Marines hunted resolute guerrilla insurgents in sweltering Filipino jungles; both sides perpetrating horrific atrocities (six decades before a similar war in Vietnam). American businessmen had designs on nearby China, and the Philippines offered deep natural harbors for passing American Vessels. 

The US soon plunged into a world-wide race to carve up China. American business and political interests demanded an equal share of the Open Door to Chinese markets. By 1899 this multi national intrusion exploded into another bloody revolt, the Boxer Rebellion.

Young Chinese outraged by foreign exploitation; the trade in opium, the depletion of gold to pay for the opium, opium addiction, and western missionaries insisting on ‘saving’ the Chinese became too much. In the three year struggle 100,000 perished, foreign and Chinese.

In the end, there is no end. The hunger for colonies quickened into a global frenzy. An international arms race ensued, navies competing to outstrip their rivals for dominance. Countries with few colonies jumped into the fray scooping up whatever low fruit remained. Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy, relatively late on the imperial scene, headed into the Balkans and to 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 placing historic events, but with war there is only an endless sweeping pendulum.

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 Kindle.

To Capture War

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I came of age during the lengthy era of the Vietnam War.

This so called “police action” began quietly as a post-WWII policy challenging Communist expansion. Vietnam had been divided as had Germany, China, and Korea, leaving a divide of western leaning democracies pitted against Communist dominated systems. America’s commitment to the Vietnam conflict officially began in 1959, with US aid to the South, and officially ended with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Said another way, I was a preschooler when Ike dispatched advisers, and in my first year of college when Nixon ordered troops home.

Though almost moot today, opinions vary on why this war became so universally unpopular. One assessment claims the intense media coverage, particularly on American television, soured the public on the war, while others claim support declined when the draft expanded to middle class, college-bound sons. Not that it matters. In retrospect, whether soldiers were poor or affluent, the draft sent them hell in Southeast Asia.

The view that more affluent Americans across the country grew alienated, does hold some merit. the days, weeks, months, and years of guerrilla assaults, deadly fire fights in the jungle, and the daily tally of “body counts,”* drained public support for this sweltering nightmare.

I recall many evenings washing dishes from dinner, watching a little black and white Sony portable tv. The network didn’t seem to matter; Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, or Frank Reynolds, all showed the same harrowing footage. Sweating soldiers slogging through a blur of elephant grass, the wounded medevaced onto thundering Huey’s, then wrapping up with an updated casualty count.

The Vietnam War was not presented through paintings, photographs, or sanitized movie newsreels. Instead the American public, including this growing girl from Spokane, Washington, absorbed the unfolding drama as a grim reality program, years before that term was coined. And that little 10 inch window to the world told me, as young and unsophisticated as I was, that this war was awful. That war is altogether an awful ordeal.

Film crews exposed the jarring horror of  surgical personnel splattered with blood, fighting their own war to save lives. The desperate Marines being interviewed while under assault at a stone wall in the ancient Vietnamese capitol of Hue; the massacre at My Lai, all of it awful. Americans watched firsthand their native sons give what Lincoln called “the last full measure.”

So many years have passed, and this “little girl” is now officially a graying Grandmother. Yet, as I type, my  recollections of fifty years ago remains vivid. And I know that, at this very moment, young people in battle zones face the exact same hell as the lethal jungles of Vietnam. And current American commitments have dragged on far longer than my childhood.

Still, the human cost of war has not changed–not one bit. And though the the draft is inactive, and the American public distracted, the price of conflict remains the same for those young souls presently 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 captures the true degree of awful, using no film crew, 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.
 
*Covid 19 deaths are currently presented in the same visual manner. Grim statistics take a toll.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.

Strike Up the Band-a few more hours!

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River of January‘s Free Kindle Weekend!

Enjoy a read on the house compliments of Kindle. Available from Saturday morning through Monday night.

When you’re done tell a friend, and say something nice on Amazon Reviews!

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January. Also available on Kindle.

The Meat Grinder

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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.

How Much is Too Much

In my first draft of River of January, I spent a lot of time explaining or telling about the historical backdrop of the book.  It was easy to do because I have been an American History teacher for thirty three years.  I felt I couldn’t tell enough about the impact of World War One on Americans, or how greed brought about the Crash of 1929.  It was boring.  One deadly, long, dreadful lecture.

Fast forward three years.  Since those early efforts the blah-blah factor has been chopped back significantly.  Still some nod to the era is needed to demonstrate how significant the achievements of Chum and Helen actually were.  For example, Chum burned to join the Navy in 1927, but he had no support from his extended family.  If I hadn’t explained the prejudices of the time, his difficulties enlisting would make no sense.

It was a tough pill to swallow when I realized my audience didn’t need to know everything I know.  Even more so, all that detail becomes tedious, I can hear a reader complain, –enough crap, get on with the story!  So I did.  But, without the historical background some of the episodes would be incomplete.  And some of the details are fascinating.