Why we do it

from Flight to Arras

by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, (1995), Penguin Books

p. 23
image of the book, Flight to Arras
I am working at my trade, when it comes down to it. What I am experiencing is no more than the physical pleasure of acts that are nourished with meaning and sufficient unto themselves. I feel neither a sense of great danger (my anxiety was very different when I was dressing), nor any sense of a grand duty. The conflict between the West and Nazism is compressed here into the scale of my actions, my actions on handles and levers and valves. That is how it should be, just as the sexton's love for God becomes the love of lighting candles. The sexton walks with a steady step through a church that he scarcely sees, and is content as he sees the candlesticks blossoming one by one. When they are all light, he rubs his hands together. He is proud of himself.
pp. 24-5
For my part, I feel no particular burden. I no longer wish to get out of this mission, though I thought earlier that I did, saying to myself: "The intercom will be out of order. I'm really tired. I'll be able to get some sleep." But I also knew deep down that there is nothing to be gained from a failure to fly but a sour kind of discomfort, as if a coming of age has failed to happen ... There is nothing to be gained from a failure to fly.
pp. 96-99
And so I am coming home. 2/33 Squadron is my home. I understand the people who share my home. I cannot misjudge Lacordaire. Lacordaire cannot misjudge me. I can feel this common identity. It is a truth remarkable in its presence: "We are the men of 2/33!" Just these words are enough to bind together the loose fragments ...

The profession of a detached witness has always filled me with horror. What am I, if I am not a participant? I need to participate in order to be. My nourishment is in the quality of my comrades, a quality that is unaware of itself because it doesn't care a damn about itself, and not through humility either ... Nothing can destroy this fellowship ... so I savour the professional obligations that forge us into a common body. I love 2/33 Squadron. I do not love it as a spectator, discovering a fine spectacle. To hell with the spectacle. I love 2/33 Squadron because I am a part of it, because it nourishes me and I play my part in nourishing it.

And now, coming home from Arras, I am more than ever a part of my Squadron. I have gained another bond. I have strengthened within me that feeling of community which is to be savoured in silence ...

I have been up there to seek once more the proof of my good faith, in the skies over Arras. I have committed my flesh to that endeavour. All my flesh. I committed it when loss seemed certain. I gave everything I could to the rules of the game ... In other words, the right to participate. To be bonded. To commune. To receive and to give. To be more than myself. To accede to that sense of fullness which is growing so strongly within me. To experience the love that I am experiencing towards my comrades, that love which does not come surging from somewhere outside, which does not seek expression - ever - except, to be truthful, at farewell dinners ... My love for the Squadron has no need of words. It is formed only of bonds. It is my very substance. I am one with the Squadron. That is all there is to it.

why we do it | 1914-1918 | 1956-1975 | officership | serendipity | a book | reasonable doubt | Baghdad - 1924

random thoughts | ponderings | lists of lists | Arab Bridge


Farewell to WW1: From memory to history

Dec 17th 2009 | From The Economist print edition

With the deaths of Harry Patch, at 111, and Henry Allingham, at 113, the last memories of fighting on the front in the First World War have gone

Other wars have happened since. Some have taken millions of equally young and untried lives. Some have been fought in conditions - whether Russian snow, African jungle or Vietnamese swamp - that have been as trying and as terrible. Many, perhaps almost all, have been every bit as futile.

Yet the war which Harry Patch and Henry Allingham represented, as the last two fighting British servicemen, holds a different place in the common consciousness. In both Europe and in Canada the war that was fought from August 1914 to November 1918 is the Great War, whose barbarity and senselessness were felt to set a high-water mark for all the wars that followed. (In America, the civil war holds that place; but there too the single survivor from the Great War, Frank Buckles, still campaigns for a proper memorial.) Indeed, there were meant to be no subsequent wars. This was surely the last, convulsive gasp of the practice of resolving international disputes by soaking the ground with blood.

The fact that it was not has made no difference. It remains a live wound. In Britain its chronology still overhangs the national curriculum. Its poems and songs - such poems, such songs, as if war's horror and nonsense had never been articulated before - still lodge in people's heads. Yet for men like Mr Patch and Mr Allingham, who were there, the sheer overload of the war - on senses, mind, spirit and body - was so immense that for decades they had nothing to say. Only when they passed 100, under gentle nudging from other people, did they break their silence. The words tumbled out then, unable to be suppressed. In the end, said Mr Allingham, though oblivion was what war deserved, "it seemed more disrespectful to ignore what had gone on than to talk about it. They wrote a book each, bending close to the page to append a spidery signature; they gave talks to schools, colleges, servicemen's associations, in voices that had almost worn away. Frail as birds, wrapped up as something precious and irreplaceable, they let themselves be wheeled to windswept beaches and cenotaphs. Journalists were received with spry, straight-backed politeness; and when they left the old soldiers continued to sit, erect but far away, with the sun gleaming on their medals.

With remembering, they brought back nightmares. Mr Allingham, in the dark, misstepped again into the vile hole where he could feel, against his groping hands, the floating carcasses of rats and parts of human bodies. He tried to haul himself out of the stinking water, belly-flopping over the muddy edge, but fell in again and again, up to his armpits. Mr Patch in his nursing home saw the linen cupboard light flash on, opposite his room, and cried out. He thought it was the explosion of the shell that had killed three of his mates in C Company, leaving nothing to find, and had sent into his abdomen a jagged chunk of shrapnel that was cut out without anaesthetic, with four men holding him down.

He hadn't wanted to fight. His brother had been at Ypres, the first huge battle of the war, and had told him about the dirt of the trenches - dirt, rather than danger. He didn't like the sound of it, but was conscripted all the same. He was 18. Mr Allingham, by contrast, had no warning of what the war would be like. He was one of those who rushed to join up at the start, in August 1914, roaring on his Triumph TT motorcycle up to Pall Mall to volunteer as a dispatch rider. He, too, was 18. His mother had tried to stop him; but everyone, he remembered, was full of patriotism, eager to fight, especially if it meant they could quit some dead-end job. It was adventure. The gay, oblivious rush of the world to this war compounded its dreadfulness for subsequent generations, but Mr Allingham added a corrective. He remembered the streets thronged with people who were torn between excitement and dread. And he recalled the "real shock" when the first casualty lists came in for the British Expeditionary Force, showing 90,000 killed by Christmas. This was war on a scale outside anyone's experience.

The eagerness, therefore, was short-lived. Yet the technical side of the job - it was essentially seen as a job, for the government, for pay - brought both men satisfaction. Mr Patch was taught to fire one of the new Lewis guns, lying flat on the grass with his cap shading his eyes. (No recruit went without a cap in those deferential days.) He was put in charge of parts. He grew to like the gun's speed, lightness and accuracy, which let them hobble the enemy with a shot or two or "give him a burst", as needs must. Manning the Lewis gun was team-work; to protect himself, he was issued with a Webley revolver. From the start, however, he tried not to use it.

Mr Allingham, meanwhile - having fallen in love with flying ever since he had watched an aircraft slowly circling as a boy - learned to fly Avro biplanes and Sopwith Schneiders, looking for German ships off the east coast of England. No sooner had flying been invented than it was turned to belligerence. His craft were just "motorised kites" made of fabric, wood and wire, with open cockpits, so that he needed to smear his face with Vaseline or whale-oil before going up. Like Mr Patch he had a Lewis gun, which at first had to be fired through the propeller. He also had an Enfield rifle. Two carrier-pigeons, in a basket, took the place of a radio; there was no parachute. "Ally" had his picture taken beside his craft, a hand casually in a pocket, proprietorial and proud. One man was in the trenches, one circling above: the ancient foot-slogger, the modern moth.

In a war of many stages and theatres, the defining battle was Passchendaele on the Western Front, where both men fought. Mr Patch was a "Tommy", or foot soldier, the last of them to survive; Mr Allingham was a spotter and retriever of crashed planes. Three months of 1917 were consumed in moving five miles across Flanders, at a cost of 300,000 lives. Both men remembered, more than anything, the mud: "sticky, gluey mud", "mud crusted with blood", in which men sank and horses drowned. The rain was almost continuous. Mr Patch, in his sodden khaki, stood in a foot of water in the trench. In old age he visited the battlefield, now tidied and grassed over. Staring out from his wheelchair, he murmured: "Mud. Mud. Mud."

Their next most vivid memory was of noise. Before an attack, the big 18-pounder guns would fire in succession "like non-stop claps of thunder. It took your breath away. The noise was ferocious. You couldn't hear the man next to you speaking," said Mr Patch. But beneath them came fainter sounds that were much more terrible: the cry of "Stretcher-bearer!" from desperate men. When the guns ceased, the cries went on. Often they had to be ignored. The trenches had their own smell: an appalling stench of latrines, soldiers' feet, rotting cadavers and the creosote that was applied to stop infection. Mr Allingham, visiting briefly as he moved by army transports from one crash site to the next, was overwhelmed by it. Mr Patch, in his three-month stint, almost got used to it, so that he could discern the subtler perfumes of pipe-smoke and Woodbines (the pipes smoked upside-down, so as not to show a light). Both men remembered the smell of hot candle-wax trickled down the inside seams of jacket and breeches to kill the "blinking lice" that nested there, "each with its own itch", as Mr Patch said; though Mr Allingham, in those days when his fogged eyes were sharp, once saw the lice processing along a drying line, and knew they would soon be back.

Their guns and aircraft were kept scrupulously clean, oiled and ready; they saw to it themselves. By contrast, they were bone-weary, filthy and underfed. Mr Patch would try to sleep on the firing-step of the trench: "You could have a doze. Not much more." At first and last light he was obliged to be awake, in case of surprise. He was glad to see the sun going down or coming up, because it showed he had lived another day, or another night. Mr Allingham became expert at rough-sleeping, often under lorries: groundsheet and blanket spread on the mud, boots together as a pillow. Rats as big as cats pattered over both of them, bloated with feeding on the eyes and livers of the dead.

"No wonder the rats survived," Mr Allingham would say. He was more surprised that he himself did. Everything was short. When his boots fell apart he took some, not without doubt and deliberation, from a nameless corpse; they served him well. Starving, he scooped up the ubiquitous plum-and-apple jam (neither plum nor apple, it was said), on crusts of stale bread. For both men, this was the taste of the war. Mr Patch drank his water from old kerosene cans and said that, after a time, he could tell whether Shell or BP had been in the can before. In his kit-bag, along with his bayonet, his ammunition, his gas-mask and spare clothes - 60 pounds of gear, which made the men look like hermit crabs, Mr Allingham said, when they moved from trench to trench - was tinned stew, bully beef and square white HP biscuits so hard that they were often thrown away. One day Mr Patch watched two dogs tussling over one, fighting to survive. But, he wondered, "What the hell were we fighting over?"

The world left behind

Parcels and letters from home reached the lines with surprising regularity. Mr Patch's mother always sent him two packets of 20 cigarettes and an ounce of tobacco, a precious treat. The home he dreamed of in the trenches was Combe Down, near Bath, where his father was a stonemason and his brothers worked at bricklaying and cabinet-making. Green Somerset hills, where he skated on frozen meadows, scrumped apples and hunted for birds' nests in the hedges. The boy Harry would creep along the vegetable trenches, clogging his boots with mud, to get at gooseberries without his mother seeing. But "Somerset people are not warlike," he said once, his soft voice still carrying the burr of the place. "It is not something we can make up. Why should I go out and kill someone I never knew?"

The war poets, too, painted this world, of girls making daisy chains and men with horse-teams ploughing, the tranquil river meadows and the deep-leafed woods. It stood in dreadful contrast to the reality they stared at: the trees as stark sticks, all branches and leaves shelled away, in a landscape criss-crossed by duckboards and pitted with shell-holes like the surface of the moon. Mr Allingham's transports sometimes slithered into these, and had to be dragged out with chains. Back home lay a land of birdsong; but now the dawn chorus, as Mr Patch remembered it, was machinegun and small-arms fire directed into the morning mist, to ease the fear of waiting. Some called it "early-morning tea". Even Mr Allingham, a city boy from Clapton in London's East End, whose boyhood was spent playing cricket between lamp-posts and hawking horse-manure from door to door, longed for the England of gardens and fields. Once, visiting the Flanders office of a church mission, he saw a bowl of roses freshly sent from home and found himself crying.

Between salvaging bits of aircraft from the mud, Mr Allingham would read and re-read the small-print Bible his fiancée Dorothy had given him. English wild flowers were pressed between the pages. Mr Patch, in the thick of battle, automatically recalled the lessons heard on Sundays: Moses on Mount Sinai, the Good Samaritan. But surrounded as he was by "devils coming up from the ground" and "hell upon this earth", he soon lost all his faith in the Church of England. What he clung to in the end was his memory of a young Cornishman, torn open by shrapnel from shoulder to waist "and with his stomach on the ground beside him". He asked Mr Patch to shoot him, but died first, murmuring "Mother!" It was not a cry of despair, but of surprise and joy. He had seen her; she was there. Death, of which Mr Patch was scared "all the time", was apparently not the end.

Epiphanies like these enabled him to cope, after a fashion. From day to day, black humour helped more. The shell that killed his mates was a "whizz-bang", no sooner whistling over than exploding: "And you'll see all the wonders of no man's land/If a whizz-bang/Hits you." A Mills bomb, the first segmented grenade, was a "pineapple". Cigarettes were "coffin nails". At the front, Mr Patch suppressed his terror by making up saucy endings to the nursery rhymes he had learned at home, under the apple trees. Mr Allingham, for his part, sang, and went on singing to the end of his days, in a voice that was gradually fading and cracking like a record on a gramophone, the bitterly comic songs that fixed this war in the public mind: "Take me back to dear old Blighty! Put me on the train for London town! Take me over there, Drop me ANYWHERE..." He sang to tell himself he was all right; and to keep down the worst of his memories, of pilots he had known consumed in seconds by crashing or merely landing planes, holding up their charring arms through the flames. Death was so commonplace that nothing was mentioned. "You'd just hope it was quick," he said.

An acorn's words

In old age both men had an urgent message, so urgent that it almost exhausted their small supply of breath. "War's stupid," said Mr Allingham. "Nobody wins. You might as well talk first, you have to talk last anyway." "T'isn't worth it," said Mr Patch. "War isn't worth one life." They did the job they were asked to do - "for 18 pence a flippin' day." And they knew that the German enemy, too, were fighting under compulsion. From the first day, Mr Patch made a pact with his mates on the Lewis gun that they wouldn't shoot to kill, only to wound. As far as he knew, he kept his pledge. Even the German who tried to bayonet him in no-man's-land was only to be brought down with bullets in the leg. Similarly Mr Allingham, billeted with a German family after the Armistice, gave them the two precious oranges he received from Dorothy for Christmas. "We were all victims," said Mr Patch.

At 110 Mr Allingham went to Germany to meet Robert Meier, aged 109. For his birthday, Mr Meier - who was to die three months after they met - had been photographed grinning broadly in the spiked helmet of a Dreckfresser, literally a mud-eater, a German infantryman. He had last worn that gear on the Western Front. Chicken soup and oatflakes, he said in his sprightly way, had kept him going since. Side by side, the two old men were wheeled to the local war memorial, where they laid a wreath and, for a long, gentle moment, shook hands.

Mr Patch, too, went abroad at 106 to meet Charles Kuentz, aged 107. He took a bottle of Somerset cider; Mr Kuentz, who was to die the next year, brought a tin of Alsatian biscuits. Mr Kuentz had fought at Passchendaele, some few hundred yards from the British lines. He had been conscripted at 19, straight from grammar school, and he too, until the age of 100, had refused to talk about the war. They went together to the German cemetery at Langemarck, where 44,000 Germans were buried, and Mr Patch laid a wreath. He had got better at doing that; on the first occasion he'd been asked to he had simply sat and cried. At Langemarck, on impulse, he picked up an acorn from the ground and gave it to his "enemy". "Now we are friends," said Mr Kuentz.

They were silent after that, staring out over the graves. They had no common language, but one common thought. That war was hell; that they wished it would never happen again, but knew it always would; and that though it hurt almost too much to remember, they owed it to the millions of dead never to let the world forget.

why we do it | 1914-1918 | 1956-1975 | officership | serendipity | a book | reasonable doubt | Baghdad - 1924

random thoughts | ponderings | lists of lists | Arab Bridge


A little history most people will never know.

Interesting Veterans Statistics off the Vietnam Memorial Wall

  • There are 58,267 names now listed on that polished black wall, including those added in 2010.
  • The names are arranged in the order in which they were taken from us by date and within each date the names are alphabetized. It is hard to believe it is 36 years since the last casualties.
  • The first known casualty was Richard B. Fitzgibbon, of North Weymouth , Mass. Listed by the U.S. Department of Defense as having been killed on June 8, 1956. His name is listed on theWall with that of his son, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, who was killedon Sept. 7, 1965.
  • There are three sets of fathers and sons on the Wall.
  • 39,996 on the Wall were just 22 or younger.
  • 8,283 were just 19 years old.
  • The largest age group, 33,103 were 18 years old. 12 soldiers on the Wall were 17 years old.
  • 5 soldiers on the Wall were 16 years old.
  • One soldier, PFC Dan Bullock was 15 years old.
  • 997 soldiers were killed on their first day in Vietnam ...
  • 1,448 soldiers were killed on their last day in Vietnam ...
  • 31 sets of brothers are on the Wall. Thirty one sets of parents lost two of their sons.
  • 54 soldiers attended Thomas Edison High School in Philadelphia. I wonder why so many from one school.
  • 8 Women are on the Wall. Nursing the wounded.
  • 244 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War; 153 of them are on the Wall.
  • Beallsville, Ohio with a population of 475 lost 6 of her sons.
  • West Virginia had the highest casualty rate per capita in the nation. There are 711 West Virginians on the Wall.
  • The Marines of Morenci - They led some of the scrappiest high school football and basketball teams that the little Arizona copper town of Morenci (pop. 5,058) had ever known and cheered. They enjoyed roaring beer busts. In quieter moments, they rode horses along the Coronado Trail, stalked deer in the Apache National Forest. And in the patriotic camaraderie typical of Morenci's mining families, the nine graduates of Morenci High enlisted as a group in the Marine Corps. Their service began on Independence Day, 1966. Only 3 returned home. The Buddies of Midvale - LeRoy Tafoya, Jimmy Martinez, Tom Gonzales were all boyhood friends and lived on three consecutive streets in Midvale, Utah on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh avenues. They lived only a few yards apart. They played ball at the adjacent sandlot ball field. And they all went to Vietnam. In a span of 16 dark days in late 1967, all three would be killed. LeRoy was killed on Wednesday, Nov. 22, the fourth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Jimmy died less than 24 hours later on Thanksgiving Day. Tom was shot dead assaulting the enemy on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
  • The most casualty deaths for a single day was on January 31, 1968 ~ 245 deaths.
  • The most casualty deaths for a single month was May 1968 - 2,415 casualties were incurred.

For most Americans who read this they will only see the numbers that the Vietnam War created. To those of us who survived the war, and to the families of those who did not, we see the faces, we feel the pain that these numbers created. We are, until we too pass away, haunted with these numbers, because they were our friends, fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters. There are no noble wars, just noble warriors.

This was sent to me by a fellow who also served.

why we do it | 1914-1918 | 1956-1975 | one story | officership | serendipity | a book | reasonable doubt | Baghdad - 1924

random thoughts | ponderings | lists of lists | Arab Bridge

The Body Escort

by George Masters in the New York Times, 25 July 2017

"I came back from 13 months with the Marines in Vietnam. But my last assignment was the hardest."

The gravestone of Lance Cpl. John Michaels, in Moscow, Penn. Niko J. Kallianiotis for The New York Times
The gravestone of Lance Cpl. John Michaels, in Moscow, Penn. Niko J. Kallianiotis for The New York Times

In late October 1968, I came home from Vietnam. With six months to go before the end of my four-year enlistment, I was assigned to the Marine Corps Supply Depot, Philadelphia. In late December I sat at a desk addressing envelopes when my sergeant walked over to tell me to report to the first sergeant’s office.

I looked at him.

He said, "You got orders."

"Orders for what?"

"Body escort. The first sergeant will give you the details. Why don’t you get down there and see him."

It wasn’t a suggestion. I was heading for the door when he said, "You can refuse the orders."

"I can?"

"But I didn’t tell you that."

I drove down Broad Street with a can of beer between my legs. I turned up the radio and ran two red lights. The Marine sentry at the Navy Yard waved me through. I found the red brick building and parked behind it. I finished a second beer and tossed the can onto the floor of the back seat.

Five Marines had been summoned, all of us recently returned from Vietnam. The first sergeant led us in to his office. For 15 minutes he explained the detail, then handed us our orders. Each of us was to escort a Marine killed in Vietnam to his place of burial.

I looked at my orders and saw Moscow. I thought, "Damn, I’m going to Russia?" I looked again and read: Moscow, Penn. The first sergeant never mentioned anything about refusing the orders.

In a room, a flag draped coffin sat on sawhorses. The coffin was empty. A captain who had never been to Vietnam briefed us on procedure and protocol. He passed out pay vouchers, airplane tickets.

I said, "Sir, what if the family doesn’t want me there?"

The captain chewed his lower lip and eyed the ribbons on my chest. He said: "That rarely happens, corporal. But should that turn out to be the case, you’re to consult with the funeral director, and then call the telephone number on your orders to receive further instructions. Any other questions?" Grateful to be finished, he shook our hands and wished us luck.

I spent the afternoon getting polished and pressed. I got a haircut. That night was New Year’s Eve. In the mostly empty barracks, I played a game of solitary pool and watched the war on television. I was asleep before midnight.

The next morning, a Navy van dropped me off at the Philadelphia airport. The sky was the color of dirty socks and smelled of snow. As I walked to airfreight, the cold concrete squeezed up through my shoes.

In a small, glass-walled office, a fat man in overalls sat at a desk. Telephone wedged between his head and shoulder, he smoked a cigar and shuffled papers. I knocked. He swiveled in his chair, saw me and motioned me in.

I waited for him to get off the phone. It was warm in the office and blue with smoke. The girl on the Playboy calendar wasn’t cold. I took off my gloves and flexed my hands allowing them to thaw. My blood was still thin from the tropics. The man hung up the phone and looked at me.

I said, "I’m here to pick up …"

"Oh, sure," he interrupted and pushed away from his desk. He stood and put on a coat. "Come on," he said.

I followed him across the freight warehouse to a coffin zipped in heavy gray plastic. "Paperwork’s there," he said.

I unzipped the plastic window and took out the manifest. Lance Cpl. John Michaels and I were flying to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre airport.

I said, "The plane leaves at one, I want to make sure he gets on all right."

The man nodded. "Yeah, it’ll get on, O.K. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, no problem."

I said, "I want to watch him put aboard."

"You can’t - " he stopped and looked at me, and our breathing clouded together. "Sure," he said and removed his cigar. His voice softened. "You can do that." He told me where to be and when. I thanked him.

The passenger terminal was crowded with the holiday. People were hugging hello and goodbye as parents lugged children and presents. I wanted a beer but settled for coffee.

When the time came I stood beneath the airplane, to one side of the cargo hatch and waited. I stamped my feet to keep warm and felt disrespectful. It’s his last ride, I told myself, stand still and take the cold.

Lance Corporal Michaels came out on the baggage train like cargo. The men handled the coffin carefully. After he was lifted into the plane’s belly, I walked up into the plane and took my seat. Before take off I stared out the window and tried to think what I would say to his family. If our positions were reversed, what might he have said to my mother and father and sisters? It could have been me in the coffin. Better him than me. No. Yes. I left it alone.

In Harrisburg, where the plane went first, I got off and stood beneath the plane to make sure Lance Corporal Michaels didn’t get unloaded by mistake. We took off into the premature darkness of a winter afternoon. Below, the countryside became increasingly patched with snow.

It was dark when we landed. Outside the terminal, behind a chain-link fence, a small crowd waited to greet the passengers on our flight. A pleasant, red-cheeked man in a black hat and overcoat stepped forward. He said, "You’re the escort for the Michaels boy?"

"Yes, sir." I searched the faces behind him.

He introduced himself as Harold Snowdon, the funeral director. We shook hands. He said, "We’ll be taking the car out to the airplane as soon as the passengers are off."

I nodded. He introduced me to his assistant and the driver. Snowdon said, "They will drive the body to the funeral home." He shivered and rubbed his gloved hands. "Why don’t we wait inside?"

We headed for the terminal. I said, "Is the family here?"

"No, they decided it would be better if they came in the morning."

I took the cold air sharply through my nose. The small terminal was crowded, harshly lit and warm. After several minutes, Snowdon said to the driver, "I think we can take the car out now."

Lance Corporal Michaels was loaded into the hearse, and I helped remove the plastic case. Snowdon and I unfolded the flag and draped it over the steel coffin. I watched the hearse drive across the tarmac until I could no longer see it.

Snowdon and I left the airport in a silver gray Lincoln Continental. Snowdon assured me that Lance Corporal Michaels would be safe and well taken care of.

I said, "What about the family?"

"They’re good people. The father works for the post office, the mother works in a dress factory. There’s a brother, but he’s too young to understand. The family has decided it is best not to have him come to the home. Naturally they’re very upset; but they’re good people."

"A lot of open land," I said, looking into the night.

"Used to be coal mining country."

The Lincoln was smooth and quiet and I treasured the heat. Snowdon said, "The father — he and the boy weren’t getting along. Nothing major, father and son quarrels, that sort of thing, but he blames himself for all this."

I said nothing.

Snowdon put me up at the Scranton Holiday Inn at his expense. I started to explain about my pay vouchers but he would have none of it. In my room I was hungry but couldn’t eat. Tired but unable to sleep, I watched Johnny Carson and drifted off.

The next morning, Snowdon picked me up at the hotel. The funeral home smelled of flowers, freshly vacuumed carpet and furniture polish. My gut was somewhere up in my chest. Alone in a room with the coffin, I met Lance Corporal Michaels. Viewable from the chest up, he was young and handsome in dress blues. Very young, and someone had applied too much makeup to his face.

I tried to recall his face. Dirty and unshaven, maybe? Perhaps I’d recognize him if he was wearing a helmet and a cigarette between his lips. I saw my reflection in the coffin glass, my face overlapping his. It shook me.

Later that morning, the Michaels family arrived. Grief played with the introductions. It muted conversations and turned up the crying. I was lost. I wanted to be anywhere else. Right then, back to Vietnam would have been just fine. I assumed the position of parade rest and stood my watch.

The young Marine was viewed and prayed over for three days. Friends and family came and went. They cried, coughed and whispered. They stared at me.

One of the Marine’s uncles walked up to the coffin and said to me: "Why him? Huh? Can you tell me that, Mr. Marine? Why Johnny and not you?" He rocked back and forth. He got louder. "So what makes you special?" I glanced into his bleary eyes and then stared over his head until several relatives came up and led him away weeping.

That night, some of Lance Corporal Michaels’s cousins and his girlfriend took me out for pizza. They apologized for their uncle’s behavior. I spent a lot of time looking at the neon beer signs on the walls. I listened to boyhood stories about John Michaels. The walls of the pizzeria were closing in. I picked at pizza, had a couple of beers and avoided their eyes. I told them I had to be getting back to the hotel. They insisted on one more round and ordered it. They toasted John Michaels and his girlfriend started to cry. I drank the beer and waited for it to be over.

Lance Corporal Michaels was buried on a freezing morning with snow on the ground. Mrs. Michaels walked between her husband and me and held on to keep from slipping on the ice.

The Marine honor guard rifle volleys punched holes in the frozen air. The bugler played "Taps" and it was over. No press, no television coverage, no talk of heroes.

Back at the funeral home, Mrs. Michaels hugged me hard. Her eyes were red. Mr. Michaels, his face gray, shook my hand and thanked me. Snowdon drove me to the airport and I don’t remember flying back to Philadelphia.

Several weeks later I received a letter from the Michaels. They thanked me for all I had done. Alone in the barracks, I read the letter for a second time and punched my wall locker. And then I punched it again.

George Masters served in the United States Marine Corps from 1965 to 1969.

why we do it | 1914-1918 | 1956-1975 | one story | serendipity | a book | reasonable doubt | Baghdad - 1924

random thoughts | ponderings | lists of lists | Arab Bridge

As I see it - Assault on Officership

An op-ed piece in the MOAA Magazine on 21 March 2013 By Col. Steve Strobridge, USAF (Ret)
Having spent my first three active-duty years as a training officer and commander at Basic Military School at Lackland AFB, Texas, I was appalled at the recent scandal involving multiple sexual assaults on basic trainees by their instructors.

A couple of years ago, I was amazed that a flag officer was allowed to retire (at a lower grade) after being found to have intimidated a subordinate officer’s wife into having a relationship with him.

More recently, I was surprised to hear a senior officer’s conviction for sexual assault had been overturned by the flag-officer convening authority.

I’m shocked that significant numbers of females deployed to a combat zone report having been assaulted by their own brothers-in-arms — in some cases by their superior officers.

My female military friends say I’m naïve.

And DoD’s own statistics seem to confirm that.

According to DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, about 19,000 servicemembers a year experience sexual assault, and the vast majority go unreported, in large measure because the victims believe nothing will be done or are afraid of retaliation or being labeled a troublemaker.

Only 8 percent of reported cases end up going to trial.

That seems a pretty low number, even considering the "he said, she said" potential.

DoD leaders say they’re trying to establish a military culture that calls on bystanders to play a more active role in preventing sexual assault. A new public-service video features a male voice saying, "Preventing sexual assault is part of my duty."

No kidding. Have we sunk so low that we have to remind people in uniform that tolerating a felony is intolerable?

Apparently so. Not long ago, Congress had to pass a law specifying that people found to have committed sexual assault must be separated from service, because that didn’t always happen.

That’s a failure of officership, pure and simple.

One of the first tenets of leadership is officers take care of their troops — ALL of their troops.

Overlooking or making excuses for a felony is a failure of officership. Worse, it’s an assault on the core tenets of officership.

Is it naïve to believe convicted felons should go to jail and that it’s wrong to reward a convicted felon with a military retirement rather than expulsion from service?

Is it naïve to think officers - especially senior officers who are supposed to be examples of leadership - can’t be exempt from that rule?

Wouldn’t strict and consistent enforcement of that rule be the best possible reminder of officers’ primary leadership responsibility?

Copyright Military Officers Association. All rights reserved.

why we do it | 1914-1918 | 1956-1975 | officership | serendipity | a book | reasonable doubt | Baghdad - 1924

random thoughts | ponderings | lists of lists | Arab Bridge


the modern world makes it harder to discover what you didn't know you were looking for

An op-ed piece in the St. Petersburg Times published 26 March 2006 by William McKeen, chairman of the University of Florida department of journalism

There's an art to finding something when you're not looking for it.

In my freshman class at the University of Florida, I require the 240 students to subscribe to the New York Times Monday through Friday. I haven't even finished announcing this in class the first day, when the hands shoot up. "Can't we just read it online?" they ask, the duh? implicit.

"No," I say and the eyes roll. They think I'm some mossback who hasn't embraced new media.

"Why not?" Challenging, surly, chips on the shoulders.

"Because then you would only find what you're looking for." Appropriately weird, elliptical, professor-like response.

I'm just doing my job: being baffling and obtuse, trying to make people think. By the end of the semester, I hope they get it. An online "front page" offers maybe a half-dozen stories and teasers for a few more - all in all, a poor substitute for the splendor of a good daily newspaper. Readers need someone to sift through the news and decide what's significant enough to go on the front page. That's how editors earn their big bucks. But it's the other stories, the secret stash in the business section, the sports section or on the obituary page, that stop you and make you read.

Nuance gives life its richness and value and context. If I tell the students to read the business news and they try to plug into it online, they wouldn't enjoy the discovery of turning the page and being surprised. They didn't know they would be interested in the corporate culture of Southwest Airlines, for example. They just happened across that article. As a result, they learned something - through serendipity.

Serendipity is a historian's best friend and the biggest part of the rush that is the daily magic of discovery. It's one of those small things that make life worth living, despite all the torment, pain, tragedy and stifling Interstate traffic.

Serendipity is defined as the ability to make fortunate discoveries accidentally. There's so much of modern life that makes it preferable to the vaunted good old days - better hygiene products and power steering leap to mind - but in these disposable days of now and the future, the concept of serendipity is endangered.

Think about the library. Do people browse anymore? We have become such a directed people. We can target what we want, thanks to the Internet. Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find - with an irritating hit or miss here and there - exactly what you're looking for. It's efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding. Inside, the book might be a loser, a waste of the effort and calories it took to remove it from its place and then return. Or it might be a dark chest of wonders, a life-changing first step into another world, something to lead your life down a path you didn't know was there. Same thing goes with bookstores. We can shop online so easily, but there's still the shipping thing for those of us who are impatient, and so a lot of bookstore traffic is made up of those who can't wait for UPS. Or heck - maybe it's the coffee. Those modern book supermarkets bring coffee and pastries into the equation, something Amazon.com hasn't quite figured out how to duplicate, though I suspect they're working on it.

It's all about time. So many inventions save us time - whether it's looking for information, shopping for clothes try www.llbean.com or checking what's on television. Time is saved, but quality is lost. When you know what you want - or think you do - you lose the adventure of discovery, of finding something for yourself.

In another context, Thomas Paine once wrote: "The harder the conquest, the more glorious the triumph. 'Tis dearness only that gives everything its value." Too true, Tom. You may have been talking about the struggle for basic human rights and maybe I'm talking about sorting through the bargain table for boxer shorts that don't ride up and instead finding socks with Stratocasters embroidered on the ankle, but we are on the same philosophical page. Looking for something and being surprised by what you find - even if it's not what you set out looking for - is one of life's great pleasures, and so far no software exists that can duplicate that experience.

Technology undercuts serendipity. It makes it possible to direct our energies all in the name of saving time. Ironically, though, it seems that we re losing time - the meaningful time we once used to indulge ourselves in the related pleasures of search and discovery. We're efficient, but empty.

Except for matters of life and death - and shopping at Wal-Mart - there's an emptiness in finding something quickly. (We all want to minimize time in Wal-Mart, don't we? Life is too short to spend too many of its precious moments in that particular hell.)

Serendipity has enriched my life intellectually and emotionally. It's even stepped in and surprised me, giving my career new trajectories. Years ago, when I dissertation on campus riots after the Kent State shootings, I was focusing on a particular antiwar demonstration at the University of Oklahoma. Interviewing my sources nearly 20 years after, I found some of their recollections sharp and others uncertain. I was talking this over with a couple of friends when our conversation was interrupted by a rarely seen colleague who happened to drop into the lounge at that moment. "Say," he said. "Excuse me for interrupting, but that riot you're talking about - did anyone tell you that I filmed it?"

And indeed he had, as a young photojournalist. He gave me a copy of his film, and it confirmed those memories and gave me a sense of the scope of the event. (Modern historians are a lucky tribe. What if Edward Gibbon had a home video of Caesar's Fall of the Roman Empire? Maybe it wouldn't have taken him 12 years to finish the damn thing.)

Serendipity has continued to play a part in my work. A few years back, I got a publisher's contract for a book, Highway 61, to be based on a long road trip I from from the Canadian border to the French Quarter. I kept meaning to spend the months before the trip doing research, getting prepared, efficiently setting up interviews with people along the road. But life intervened. I was busy with work and falling in love. So when my grown son and I hit the road with no plan at all, I was terrified. What if nothing happened? What would I write about? We took our free-fall trip, following the path of the Mississippi River, and serendipity intervened. People walked up and introduced themselves, as if part of a cast of lunatics required in the telling of a good road story. And the plot also presented itself, quite by accident: a long-distance divorced father helping his son bid goodbye to childhood. We were both a little startled by the moments of truth we shared in the front seat.

We made another discovery on that trip. The world of music - a world so important to both of us - suffers from a lack of serendipity. My son is a member of the download generation, which finds its music online. I grew up in a world dominated by that great and subversive force of the 20th century: radio. Fifty years ago, when we were just beginning to cast off the elements of American apartheid, it was relatively easy for our society to enforce racial barriers - separate schools, separate stores, separate neighborhoods. But the music that traveled in the air, via radio waves, did not observe Jim Crow boundaries. White kids, alone in their rooms, tuned their radios at night and heard the music of black America. Black kids found The Grand Ole Opry and learned for themselves about that old, weird America.

The result in my childhood was a serendipitous exposure to music that no amount of downloading can duplicate. As a kid, I'd turn on the radio and hear Frank Sinatra, followed by James Brown, followed by the Beatles, followed by the Supremes - and lots of other people. Music could astonish me. But now, with downloading, it has lost that ability. We miss the element of the chance encounter with musical genius. We have to be told of such genius or hear about it second-hand. One effect is that it's balkanized the audience. We don't have the sense of community. My older children, in their 20s, envy my generation. "We'll never get to fall in love to the great music you had," my oldest daughter once told me.

It's an odd paradox. The audience today is larger and the choices are enormous - and yet more turns out to be less. We have hundreds of choices on television, but will we ever feel the moment of global community we felt staring at that box, watching a man named Armstrong walk upon the moon? Or will we ever, en masse, have a moment like that time the world met the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show? Will the world ever shed so many tears as we did watching the funeral of President Kennedy? We had three choices then and have 300 now. Likewise, in music: We are so formatted now that stations stratify the market, making it unlikely you will ever hear music you do not expect to hear.

The modern world is conspiring against serendipity. But we cannot blame technology. I've met this enemy, and it is us. We forget: We invented this stuff. We must lead technology, not allow technology to lead us. The world is a better and more cost-effective place because of technology, but we've lost the imperfections inherent in humanity - the things that make life a messy and majestic catastrophe.

We must allow ourselves to be surprised. We must relearn how to be human, to start again as we did as children - learning through awkward and bungling discovery. Otherwise, when it's all over and we face the Distinguished Thing, we will have led extremely efficient but monstrously dull lives.

Some years back, Tom Wolfe came to my university and I hosted him for a week. I don't drop his name merely for effect (though it's only two syllables and shouldn't hurt much). It's just that I'll never forget something he told me. On the last night of his visit, we found ourselves alone together at dinner, talking about our children. Though he's 20 years older than me, we were at the same stage: ushering our children into adulthood. I told him that I didn't really understand the profound depth of love until I became a father. And he said that he had married late (at 50) and had children soon after. He said, "And I think, "My God, I could have missed this.' They opened up a door in my heart that I didn't even know was there."

And I realize that serendipity has also been lost in matters of the heart. Now, we plug a list of characteristics into a Web page in search of our True Love. We no longer allow for the chance encounter at the bookstore (we're shopping online, remember?) or sitting next to someone new in church or simply looking into someone else's eyes and feeling the eureka of discovery. We check off the qualities of this idealized other half, as if ordering from a Chinese menu. Matchmaking Web sites have replaced human conversation. (I tried the online thing once, and all I got in return was a stalker. She even wore camouflage.)

Not long after that conversation with Tom Wolfe, a door opened in my heart. I was living my dull, directed and orderly divorced-guy life and one day looked up and was struck by the thunderhammer of love. I wasn't looking for her, but I found her. I had long since given up on the concept of remarriage. Yet, five years later, I am remarried and I am again waist-deep in the adventure of fatherhood. I now have a messy, aggravating and utterly inefficient life - and every day is a bouquet of surprises. I wake each morning, put on my socks and shoes, and face a new day of wonder and discovery. Why deny or refuse such a gift? If I had been looking for it, I would not have found it. It was serendipity, that ability to make fortunate discoveries accidentally, that opened that door in my heart.

And to think: I could have missed this.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

Of course, as in everything, not everyone agrees

why we do it | 1914-1918 | 1956-1975 | officership | serendipity | a book | reasonable doubt | Baghdad - 1924

random thoughts | ponderings | lists of lists | Arab Bridge

Social media: In praise of serendipity

Social media should encourage chance encounters, not customised experiences

A book review in The Economist, 09 May 2017 on #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. By Cass Sunstein.
LAST June Facebook announced a change to its newsfeed. Henceforth it would rejig the way stories were ranked to ensure that people saw "the stories they find most meaningful". But what does "most meaningful" actually mean? Posts from family and friends, apparently, as well as those users you frequently "like". Your newsfeed should be "subjective, personal and unique", Facebook went on, promising to work on building tools to give users "the most personalised experience".

Cass Sunstein, a law professor at Harvard University and Barack Obama’s former regulation tsar, is one of Facebook’s dissatisfied customers. "Facebook can do better," he writes in "#Republic", his new book about democracy in the age of social media. Mr Sunstein is disturbed by some aspects of ultra-customised information, yet he shows himself a master of restraint in his criticism. He clearly wants to influence Mark Zuckerberg and other tech titans without alienating them. Although Mr Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, perhaps he can still pick up the occasional book by a Harvard professor—along with his new honorary degree.

In some ways, "#Republic" is a kind of Democracy 101, a review of the basic requirements for those who may have skipped the course. These requirements include, among other things, that citizens be exposed to a wide range of ideas and perspectives—even, and especially, those they would not choose to see or hear. Unplanned, chance encounters—with a protest as one wanders down the street, or a competing argument aired on the evening news—help guard against "fragmentation, polarisation and extremism". They ensure that people are not hearing only an echo of their own voice. They reduce the likelihood that people will be stirred to extremes, such as terrorism. And they promote shared information and experiences, making it easier to solve problems and govern in a heterogeneous society.

This is the positive side of the free- speech principle, Mr Sunstein writes. It means not only forbidding censorship, but also creating a culture where people engage with the views of fellow citizens.

In the digital age social media function as the public forums where ideas are exchanged. But when people filter what they see—and providers race towards ever greater "personalisation" in the name of consumer choice—democracy is endangered. People live in separate worlds. Even hashtags, meant to help users find information on a certain topic, lead them to different bubbles. Democrats use #ACA and #blacklivesmatter; Republicans use #Obamacare and #alllivesmatter. Partyism might be said to exceed racism in America, Mr Sunstein argues. Whereas in 1960 only 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats said they would be "displeased" if their child married outside their political party, by 2010, those numbers had reached 49% and 33%, a far higher percentage than those who would be "displeased" if their child married outside their race.

Mr Sunstein wants an "architecture of serendipity" to combat these forces: that is, media that promote chance encounters and democratic deliberation like the public forums of old. Facebook might design "serendipity buttons", he suggests, allowing users to click for opposing viewpoints or unfiltered perspectives. Conservative news sites could feature links to liberal sites and vice versa, alerting people to material beyond their usual sources. A site like deliberativedemocracy.com—the domain is not yet taken—could offer a space for people of divergent views to discuss issues. Democracies should take their cue from Learned Hand, an American judge who said the spirit of liberty is that "spirit which is not too sure that it is right".

It is not just up to Mr Zuckerberg, then, to foster a culture of curiosity and openness. Citizens must demand it, Mr Sunstein argues, and they must seek out those serendipitous encounters. "#Republic" is full of constructive suggestions. It should be required reading for anyone who is concerned with the future of democracy—in Silicon Valley and beyond.

why we do it | 1914-1918 | 1956-1975 | officership | serendipity | a book | reasonable doubt | Baghdad - 1924

random thoughts | ponderings | lists of lists | Arab Bridge

Reasonable Doubt

New York Times 29 July 2006

Thursday marked the 350th anniversary of the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam in which he had been raised.

Given the events of the last week, particularly those emanating from the Middle East, the Spinoza anniversary didn’t get a lot of attention. But it’s one worth remembering — in large measure because Spinoza’s life and thought have the power to illuminate the kind of events that at the moment seem so intractable and overwhelming.

The exact reasons for the excommunication of the 23-year-old Spinoza remain murky, but the reasons he came to be vilified throughout all of Europe are not. Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the Creator’s partiality to its beliefs and ways. After the excommunication, he spent the rest of his life — he died in 1677 at the age of 44 — studying the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he drew are still of dismaying relevance.

The Jews who banished Spinoza had themselves been victims of intolerance, refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. The Jews on the Iberian Peninsula had been forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the 15th century. In the intervening century, they had been kept under the vigilant gaze of the Inquisitors, who suspected the “New Christians,” as they were called even after generations of Christian practice, of carrying the rejection of Christ in their very blood. It can be argued that the Iberian Inquisition was Europe’s first experiment in racialist ideology.

Spinoza’s reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.

Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason. Reason must stand guard against the self-serving false entailments that creep into our thinking, inducing us to believe that we are more cosmically important than we truly are, that we have had bestowed upon us — whether Jew or Christian or Muslim — a privileged position in the narrative of the world’s unfolding.

Spinoza’s system is a long deductive argument for a conclusion as radical in our day as it was in his, namely that to the extent that we are rational, we each partake in exactly the same identity.

Spinoza’s faith in reason as our only hope and redemption is the core of his system, and its consequences reach out in many directions, including the political. Each of us has been endowed with reason, and it is our right, as well as our responsibility, to exercise it. Ceding this faculty to others, to the authorities of either the church or the state, is neither a rational nor an ethical option.

Which is why, for Spinoza, democracy was the most superior form of government — only democracy can preserve and augment the rights of individuals. The state, in helping each person to preserve his life and well-being, can legitimately demand sacrifices from us, but it can never relieve us of our responsibility to strive to justify our beliefs in the light of evidence.

It is for this reason that he argued that a government that impedes the development of the sciences subverts the very grounds for state legitimacy, which is to provide us physical safety so that we can realize our full potential. And this, too, is why he argued so adamantly against the influence of clerics in government. Statecraft infused with religion not only dissolves the justification for the state but is intrinsically unstable, since it must insist on its version of the truth against all others.

Spinoza’s attempt to deduce everything from first principles — that is, without reliance on empirical observation — can strike us today as quixotically impractical, and yet his project of radical rationality had concrete consequences. His writings, banned and condemned by greater Christian Europe, but continuously read and discussed, played a role in the audacious experiment in rational government that gave birth to this country.

The Declaration of Independence, that extraordinary document first drafted by Thomas Jefferson, softly echoes Spinoza. John Locke, Spinoza’s contemporary — both were born in 1632 — is a more obvious influence on Jefferson than Spinoza was. But Locke had himself been influenced by Spinoza’s ideas on tolerance, freedom and democracy. In fact, Locke spent five formative years in Amsterdam, in exile because of the political troubles of his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Though Spinoza was already dead, Locke met in Amsterdam men who almost certainly spoke of Spinoza. Locke’s library not only included all of Spinoza’s important works, but also works in which Spinoza had been discussed and condemned.

It’s worth noting that Locke emerged from his years in Amsterdam a far more egalitarian thinker, having decisively moved in the direction of Spinoza. He now accepted, as he had not before, the fundamental egalitarian claim that the legitimacy of the state’s power derives from the consent of the governed, a phrase that would prominently find its way into the Declaration.

Locke’s claims on behalf of reason did not go as far as Spinoza’s. He was firm in defending Christianity’s revelation as the one true religion against Spinoza’s universalism. In some of the fundamental ways in which Spinoza and Locke differed, Jefferson’s view was more allied with Spinoza. (Spinoza’s collected works were a lso in Jefferson’s library, so Spinoza’s impact may not just have been by way of Locke.)

If we can hear Locke’s influence in the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” (a variation on Adam Smith’s Locke-inspired “life, liberty and pursuit of property”), we can also catch the sound of Spinoza addressing us in Jefferson’s appeal to the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” This is the language of Spinoza’s universalist religion, which makes no reference to revelation, but rather to ethical truths that can be discovered through human reason.

Spinoza had argued that our capacity for reason is what makes each of us a thing of inestimable worth, demonstrably deserving of dignity and compassion. That each individual is worthy of ethical consideration is itself a discoverable law of nature, obviating the appeal to divine revelation. An idea that had caused outrage when Spinoza first proposed it in the 17th century, adding fire to the denunciation of him as a godless immoralist, had found its way into the minds of men who set out to create a government the likes of which had never before been seen on this earth.

Spinoza’s dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic at this moment, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago. And imagine, too, how much even sorrier our sorry world would have been without it.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author, most recently, of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.

why we do it | 1914-1918 | 1956-1975 | officership | serendipity | a book | reasonable doubt | Baghdad - 1924

random thoughts | ponderings | lists of lists | Arab Bridge

Reasonable Doubt

while on a trip from Syria through Iraq in 1924

from Road to Mecca

by Muhammad As’ad, 2001, Louisville, KY. Fons Vitae; Enfield Airlift

image of the book, The Road to Mecca
pages 207-209
Of its former magnificence and splendour nothing remained in Baghdad. … The immense heat impressed its sign on every appearance and made all movement sluggish. The people walked slowly through the streets. They seemed to be of heavy blood, without gaiety and without grace. Their faces looked somber and unfriendly from under black-and-white headcloths …
But a great strength was apparent in these men; the strength of hatred – hatred of the foreign power that denied them their freedom. The people of Baghdad had always been obsessed by longing for freedom as by a demon. Perhaps it was this demon which so somberly overshadowed their faces. Perhaps these faces wore quite a different look when they met with their own kin in the narrow side lanes and walled courtyards of the town. For, if you looked more closely at them, they were not entirely without charm. They would occasionally laugh as other Arabs did. They would sometimes, like other Arabs, trail the trains of their cloaks with aristocratic nonchalance in the dust behind them, as if they were walking over the tessellated floors of marble palaces. They let their women stroll over the streets in colourful brocade wraps: precious, veiled women in black-and-red, blue-silver and Bordeaux-red – groups of brocaded figures gliding slowly by on noiseless feet … [ellipsis in original]
A few weeks after my arrival in Baghdad, as I was strolling through the Great Bazaar, a shout reverberated from one of the dusky, barrel-roofed passageways. From around a corner a man raced by; then another, and a third; and the people in the bazaar started to run as if gripped by a terror of which they, but not I, knew the reason. … From far away, somewhere deep in the bazaar, came the muffled roar of many voices. Again something whizzed and whined, and this time there was no possibility of mistaking it: it was a bullet … [ellipsis in original] In the distance a faint, rattling sound, as if somebody were scattering dry peas over a hard floor. It slowly approached and grew in volume, that regular, repeated rattling: and then I recognized it: machine guns … [ellipsis in original]
Once again, as so many times before, Baghdad had risen in revolt. On the preceding day, the twenty-ninth of May, 1924, the Iraqi parliament had ratified, much against the popular will, a Treaty of Friendship with Great Britain; and now a nation in despair was trying to defend itself against the friendship of a great European power … [ellipsis in original]

why we do it | 1914-1918 | 1956-1975 | officership | serendipity | a book | reasonable doubt | Baghdad - 1924

random thoughts | ponderings | lists of lists | Arab Bridge