Archive for the ‘history’ Category

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Number Seventy-two

November 11, 2017

As the Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick played out on TV last month, I found myself glued to the screen. It exploded with images of fierce battles and the great social upheaval both in Vietnam and the United States. An amazing assemblage of reminiscences of soldiers and TV clips from the news gave such depth to this complex subject. There was much I didn’t know and much I couldn’t know not having been there myself. But there was also much I remembered of that time, and as I sat riveted, I couldn’t help but to think back.

During high school, only snippets of our growing involvement in Vietnam entered my consciousness, some from the news and some from a few teachers who spoke of it. It was a far-away occurrence, one of little importance to most  teens whose minds were on more immediate concerns. That all changed once I reached college.

My freshman year began in the fall of 1966 as the crescendo of protest was building on campuses throughout the country. I began to pay attention to the news stories which grew more and more prominent. I heard the protest songs that were the soundtrack of those times: Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” Richie Haven’s “Handsome Johnny.” Back home the “silent majority” made their voices known too. It was a period of extreme social tension and moral reckoning for us all.

I had always believed in the Kennedy ideal manifest in his inauguration speech: “ask not what your country can do for you but rather what can you do for your country.” Ever since I became aware of the Peace Corps during high school, joining had been my goal. It would be my way of contributing to my country and a world that clearly had great need. That dream came into greater focus during college, especially when one of the upperclassmen I admired joined. My correspondence with him overseas only whetted my desire more. I gathered up all the brochures I could get my hands on and then finally in the beginning of my senior year sent in my application.

That year also brought about the first draft lottery, and I was part of the pool of 19 to 26 year olds involved. Numbers would be drawn based on one’s birthday. The draft order would be established from low number to high. The fate of each rode on the luck of the draw.

On December 1 of 1969, I can still remember the anxious souls milling about the hallways in the dorm awaiting the results of the lottery. Those who drew numbers above two hundred were considered to be safe. I got number seventy-two.

I proceeded with my plans to enter the Peace Corps undeterred. Although this would not excuse me from the draft, it was a commitment I had made to myself to honor the spirit of Kennedy’s service ideal. I knew I would be a better teacher than soldier, and to serve in the interests of peace took precedence in my mind over participating in what was widely considered to be an ill-advised and unjust war. My letter of acceptance into the Peace Corps arrived on April 13 just before my senior year drew to its tumultuous conclusion with the Kent State shooting and its aftermath of violence on my own campus.

I arrived in the Philippines in 1970. During my service there, I received my draft notification. The best the Peace Corps could do was to have my induction postponed until I finished my two-year tour.

When I arrived home in 1972, two significant events occurred. I discovered that my draft board had violated their own rules while drafting me when I had been overseas thus exempting me from being inducted. I then discovered through a routine medical test that I had been born with only one kidney which, had I not already been exempted, would have classified me 4F and unable to serve.

A few months later, in January of 1973, Nixon announced an accord had been reached which would end our involvement in the fighting in Vietnam. This closing chapter was painfully depicted in the documentary, those final weeks tainting what was to be “peace with honor.”

I think about those of my generation who ended up going to Vietnam, those who did so out of a sense of duty, and especially those who were drafted out of small town or inner city America. I met some of these while in the Philippines, mostly young guys who had never been out of their state no less half way around the world fighting a war they didn’t understand. I could hear in their conversations a sense of unreality of their situation. Most of them sought escape at the bottom of a bottle, some worse.

There is still much debate about the legacy left by this conflict. However, whatever conclusion each individual believes, there can be no doubt that this war left many scars, scars in those who fought, in the families of those who fought, and in a nation that was shaken to its core.

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In Fourteen Hundred Ninety-Two

October 9, 2017

As school kids, the chant “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” rang out in classrooms all across the land each October. One of the first encountered among the pantheon of heroes we celebrated, we learned how Christopher Columbus bravely sailed across the Atlantic to discover the New World in spite of the fear that anyone who tried would fall off the edge of the Earth. We colored pictures of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Some of us even got the day off from school.

Thus Columbus was installed as an icon of American lore. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, the mythology overshadows the reality. Though largely undeserved, this grandiose image has carried forth from childhood into the adult American psyche.

It is a question of worthiness, for here is a historical figure who, at closer examination, didn’t really do what he is given credit for having done. Of even greater concern is what he did do, which was to inflict abominably cruel mistreatment on the indigenous people he found in the Caribbean islands that he accidentally stumbled upon.

When Columbus made landfall, he erroneously thought he’d circumnavigated the earth and reached the Indies by sailing westward. His mistake become forever manifest in the name he gave to the people he found who would henceforth be called “Indians.” He “discovered” islands which had already been inhabited for centuries. His goal of finding the westward passage in actuality resulted in failure. Additionally, falling off the edge of a flat Earth was not even a consideration. At the time Columbus sailed, the knowledge that the world was indeed round was widespread, something known since the time of the ancient Greeks and long recognized by observant sailors everywhere.

As a matter of fact, the Columbus expedition was not even the first to accomplish a cross-Atlantic journey. That honor goes to Leif Erikson who accomplished the feat over 400 years earlier, though in actuality, neither arrived at mainland America. Ericson’s Viking exploration in the 11th century brought him across the North Atlantic to Greenland and Newfoundland thus making him the first European in the “New World.”

Once Columbus had arrived in the islands of the Caribbean, his quest focused on gold and other resources that would result in his and his backers’ enrichment. In trying to accomplish this end, abysmally cruel treatment of the native people transpired, the record about which is clear based on well-documented firsthand accounts of the atrocities. The senseless brutality perpetrated upon the native people — rape, enslavement, dismemberment, beheading, and mass murder of men, women, and children — is indefensible, especially in view of his Catholic faith which he had been mandated to spread.

Today Columbus Day is misguidedly billed as a “celebration of Italian culture.” Many Italian-Americans rail at the suggestion of reevaluating Columbus and his dubious fame, viewing it as defamation of an Italian hero. This overlooks several salient facts, not the least of which is that his actions were far from heroic. Italy did not even exist as a country until 1861 — Columbus hailed from the Republic of Genoa — and he sailed under the flag of Spain, so calling him an “Italian” hero is a stretch.

Celebrating the Italian culture (or any other, for that matter) in America should not revolve around any one person — particularly not this one. Italian-Americans already have so much about which to be proud as key constituents in the building of our nation. The hollow honor bestowed upon Columbus isn’t needed to justify this pride. The reality of what Columbus did is far from the image created after the fact, and it is hardly something worthy of acclaim.

 

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No Ordinary Afternoon

November 21, 2013

That Friday afternoon in November started out to be an ordinary one for most Americans, I suspect. It certainly was for me. I sat in Miss Pemberton’s typing class, an unfocused high school sophomore concerned with a great number of things, none of them typing.

Then the announcement came over the school’s intercom. The President had been shot. An atmosphere of surreality descended over the country. During the following days, a strange collective trance seemed to envelop us fueled by the backdrop of a constant stream of TV reportage.

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. This ranks as one of those rare events that occur — the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the attacks on 9/11 — that profoundly affect the entire society. They grip us and create haunting memories that we can’t help but carry with us. For the generations that have come since this happened, it is perhaps only history. But for those who were old enough to be aware on that day, it is much more than that. We remember — where we were, what we saw, what we felt.

The killing of the leader of a major nation is always of great consequence; that the country was ours — the mighty United States of America — made it even more so. The shooting happened in public view at a time when TV coverage had become widespread. The victim was young and charismatic, and his death seemed to signal an abrupt change in the national psyche and a loss of innocence.

There will be much public reflection on what transpired the afternoon of November 22, 1963. Television will revisit the old black and white footage. The famous Zapruder film of the shots striking the President in his open limousine will be replayed. The perspective of important people will be aired. But it is each individual’s own recollections of that afternoon that sustains the impact of this date.

Certain images remain clear in my own memory. Exiting through the halls of my school and seeing — for the first time — teachers with tears in their eyes. Watching my classmate Marty Altschul walking home alone down Prospect Avenue, his steps slow and his lanky body slouched in sorrow. Feeling the somber mood that exuded almost palpably from the expressions of every person encountered.

The heart of the football season was upon us. My high school team, at that time rather pathetic, had only one winnable game on its schedule. That game against the even more hapless Cliffside Park Raiders happened to fall on that Saturday. The game was cancelled as were virtually all other scheduled events that weekend, athletic or otherwise. Instead, our eyes were fixed in disbelief at our TV sets. The madness continued as the country watched accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, surrounded by Texas Rangers as they escorted him from the jail, shot. It became increasingly difficult to make sense of what was going on and why.

The funeral procession captivated the mournful soul of the American people, a veiled Jackie maintaining her composure with her children at her side, the riderless black stallion skittishly following the caisson with the flag-draped coffin, the constant thrumming of the drums.  Our sorrow crystallized as we watched Kennedy’s son, not yet three years old, salute as the casket rolled by. We now faced an unsettled future, our confidence shaken, the possibilities — real or imagined — of Camelot shattered.

Much has been written about the sudden end to the flawed presidency of JFK and the subsequent controversy surrounding his death. That is not what makes this afternoon resonate still after half a century has gone by. Rather, it is the way in which this most disturbing and tragic event touched each individual on what was, by any standard of judgment, no ordinary afternoon.

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Tick, Tick, Tick

December 7, 2011

Today is December 7. It is 2011, and I fear “the day that will live in infamy” that transpired seventy years ago may be in a coma. So it is with the interminable list of other such infamous days from Cannae to Borodino to Antietam to Hiroshima.  This is a shame because, for many reasons, these are days that should not be forgotten. We should honor the fallen and acknowledge the sacrifice of all who served, but it should also be yet another reminder of the far deeper issue of war itself.

On this day in 1941, Pearl Harbor joined the list. The primary American base in the Pacific suffered a massive surprise attack by the Empire of Japan. Never before had such an attack occurred on American territory. Never before had America suffered such a loss of life and property in a foreign attack on its soil. This was the original  9/11.

And much like 9/11, the way it happened would read like a novel had it not been true. The series of fateful events that included miscues, missed opportunities, incompetence, and indecision on both sides set off a chain of events with effects that resonate until this very day. At least, for those who care to remember.

Those Americans who lost family members are no doubt aware as are those who were plunged into war as a result of this day. Their ranks are dwindling rapidly, though. Those Americans of Japanese descent are also aware, for one of the greatest breaches in American justice crashed upon them in this day’s aftermath. Their ranks are dwindling as well.

That leaves the rest of us. So why should we care? It’s history. Times have changed.

Perhaps we should be more in tune with history.

America and indeed the whole world have seen a cycle of war repeated for as long as there has been history. People have suffered devastation at the hands of other nations because of greed, power, xenophobia, misunderstanding, and fear. National, ethnic, and religious groups have been vilified to justify their oppression or destruction. The only thing that changes is the time and the place. The lessons that should have been learned from these past experiences are many. Humankind has not been a very good learner.

I realize the need to protect oneself is sometimes necessary. But the lessons are more elemental than knowing one’s enemies and keeping vigilant; the way to peace is the final realization that it is not us versus them but rather us versus us. The huge task of eradicating the artificial boundaries between the people of Earth is the critical need; how to accomplish it is the ultimate problem.

And what now? A few moments spent reading a newspaper or watching the news should answer that. How many “hot spots” do we need? How many areas of the globe on the verge or already immersed in violence must be present?

There are those who say it is in our nature as humans to do this. Maybe they are right. Others hold onto hope that the inhabitants of this small blue planet will some day come to their senses. I pray they are right. But as science and technology create more numerous and powerful weapons than have ever before existed and nationalistic or religious dogma have fanned hatred, perhaps hope is the only weapon that we have to counteract them. But this hope must turn into commitment and then to action to halt our march toward the potential annihilation of our species. It is up to us, to all of us, to make this decision. How much time do you think we have? The answer to this question is mostly ignored or avoided in fear of what it might be. That is a shame too, for the very future of the world may just be at stake.