Today is Remembrance Day, but given multiple recent gruesome mass grave discoveries at Residential Schools across Canada, it feels inappropriate to tether my remembrance to abstract concepts like “glory” and “nation.”
The sordid things this nation has done in the name of the Queen, briefly a King, the dollar, or both, can & have been told better elsewhere. We’re a young country that despite a long history of Indigenous exploration, as well as a more recent one tethered tightly to Europe, like our subarctic regions, still feels barely explored. So instead I’ll be giving brief bios of men who served their counties & served them well.
This is W. D. Ehrhart, an author, poet & Vietnam veteran. He enthusiastically signed up to serve in Vietnam, later telling Ken Burns that he thought it would be a chance not only to prove his manhood but to “be the star of his own little John Wayne movie.”
We’ll get more into W. D. Ehrhart later, but you know something?
I like not knowing what the “W” or “D” stand for. Sure, I could Google it, but that’s no fun. It’s kinda like how the letter “W” means nothing to W. Axl Rose. It’s just a W. And who could forget lil’ H. W. in There Will Be Blood? Paul Thomas Anderson never tells us what the H. & W. stand for. Leave it our imaginations.
Anyway, by the time Ehrhart was approached by his current boss in the History Department @ Swarthmore College, he asked if maybe he could change topics. He’d still be fine with teaching some courses on the Vietnam War, but the fact that he was doing these lectures and writing these books meant that he never really got to ;eave ‘Nam. He was stuck there. He asked if he could do some research & writing on the Korean War (which is kind of the black sheep of American wars. Many people, myself included, know very little about it.)
Everyone knows about WWII. The name Hitler has become so synonymous with “evil” that there is something called Godwin’s Law, which, according to Wikipedia “is an Internet adage asserting that as an online discussion grows longer (regardless of topic or scope), the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches 1. In less mathematical terms, the longer the discussion, the more likely a Nazi comparison becomes, and with long enough discussions, it is a certainty.”
For example, if someone says, “we can’t accept every single immigrant who applies for U.K., American, or Canadian citizenship. If the process of emigration is not enacted with due diligence, ie thorough background checks, you might be letting people into your country who shouldn’t be there?”
“What do you mean ‘shouldn’t be there?’”
“Well, for example, do you think that the architects of the Rwandan Genocide should be allowed to not just stay here for a few weeks, but apply for citizenship to stay here permanently?”
“That sounds like something Hitler would say.”
“No, I’m saying we should people like Hitler out of the country. People who were involved in mass murder.”
“I can’t believe how much like Hitler you sound right now.’
Everyone knows about ‘Nam too, probably because there was so much competing media back then, TV stations gunning for exclusive footage, newspapers fighting for their own little scoops, that a significant portion of the American public in the late 1960s and early 1970s knew what was going on, on a day-to-day basis, it Vietnam. (Save for the secret missions into Cambodia to kill guys like Kurtz, or course.) There even exists something called The Vietnam War Almanac, which lists every casualty. injury, & action and which day it occurred on.1
The Korean War, for some reason or another, just seems to have eluded the American imagination. Maybe the American public was sick of war. But the success of films like Paths of Glory (1957), From Here to Eternity (1953) and The Caine Mutiny (1954) belies that notion. Perhaps, coming too soon on the heels of such a dramatic victory, a war that, if lost, could have changed the entire world into the Greater German Reich, people only wanted films about wars whose outcomes were certain, and in the United States favour.
This is Wilfred Owen (1893–1918), one of the most important poets of The Great War (WWI was only named that way retroactively. It was originally, & perhaps tongue-in-cheek, dubbed “the war to end all wars” by H.G. Wells.)
Wilfred Owen enlisted for service on the first day possible. Back in those days, newspaper offices had radios posted outside their office, in order to report the weather and, occasionally, and throngs of people, from London, England to Sydney, Australia to Toronto, Canada to New York City waited outside the offices of their newspaper of record2 to hear the news they’d been longing for.
When the headline “LADIES & GENTLEMEN, WE ARE AT WAR WITH. GERMANY!” was read out over the P.A. system, people were literally dancing in the streets, including one young private named Wilfred Owen, who’d read John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps & wanted to test his mettle & might against he Germans. He’d charge into battle with the famed British stuff upper lip.
When WWI broke out Americans were still pursuing an isolationist policy, which is geopolitical terms means “getting your shit together before you are ready to face the world & say “Okay! We’re a real country now, ready to do some serious business. We’ve got iron, timber, copper, ore, all ready for export. We’ve got a standing army, which should not be taken as a sign of aggression but rather one of preparedness.”
Canadians & Australians were more surprised than the English. Despite being part of the Commonwealth, old England liked to keep things on a “need to know” basis. And the assassination of some archduke hardly seemed like ingredients for a global disaster.
But in Britain, news of the war had been brewing for far longer. By 1914 there was a pro-militaristic movement calling themselves “The White Feather Girls.” These woman would approach men on the street and ask him why he was not fighting for his country. If his answer proved unsatisfactory, the girls would hand him a rose, explain to him that it was as a sign of cowardice, & calls him all sorts of mean things til he toddled off.
But if the man pulled off his greatcoat to show a soldier’s uniform, revealing that he was, in fact, “for the game,” he’d be poked and prodded and positively surrounded by delightful squeals & kissed on the cheek. Perhaps he’d even get a blowjob, but that would come later, trousers come off when the blinds are drawn, sort of thing.
What’s worse? Feeling ashamed? Or being unable to feel ashamed because you’re dead?
I’m sure their intentions were pro-England but public embarrassment is a very powerful motivator to get people to something they don’t want to do. There’s a terrific story in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried called “On the Rainy River” in which an enlisted man from Minnesota who has two weeks to report for duty heads north on Highway 72 to a place called the Tip Top Lodge, which “just eight or nine tiny yellow cabins clustered on a peninsula that jutted northward into the Rainy River.”
The place was run by an eighty-year old man named Elroy Berdahl.
“All around me the options seemed to be narrowinh, as if I were hurtling down a huge black funnel, the whole world squeezing in tight. There was no happy way out. The government had ended most graduate school deferments; the waiting lists for the National Guard and Reserves were impossibly long; my health was solid; I didn't qualify for CO status—no religious grounds, no history as a pacifist. Moreover, I could not claim to be opposed to war as a matter of general principle. There were occasions, I believed, when a nation was justified in using military force to achieve its ends, to stop a Hitler or some comparable evil, and I told myself that in such circumstances I would've willingly marched off to the battle. The problem, though, was that a draft board did not let you choose your war.
Beyond all this, or at the very center, was the raw fact of terror. I did not want to die. Not ever. But certainly not then, not there, not in a wrong war.”
Right across the river was Canada. O’Brien knows this. Berdahl knows this. Both know that the other knows that they know. All O’Brien had to do was swim twenty feet across a shallow river into a country that wouldn’t be too keen on deporting him to go fight a water even it didn’t support, despite a long Canadian military tradition in both WWI & WWII, up to Iraq and Afghanistan.
And, in the great Hemingway Tradition, the two men, O’Brien and Berdahl will speak all week without grunting a word. And on the sixth day, the last day the two of them are in the boat, fishing, O’Brien breaks down. Because he knows he can’t run. The shame would be worse than dying.
“One morning the old man showed me how to split and stack firewood, and for several hours we just worked in silence out behind his house. At one point, I remember, Elroy put down his maul and looked at me for a long time, his lips drawn as if framing a difficult question, but then he shook his head and went back to work. The man's self-control was amazing. He never pried. He never put me in a position that required lies or denials. To an extent, I suppose, his reticence was typical of that part of Minnesota, where privacy still held value…[s]imple politeness was part of it. But even more than that, I think, the man understood that words were insufficient. The problem had gone beyond discussion.”
So on the last night as the kid is trying to write his parents a letter explaining why he can’t go to Vietnam, he stops & crumples the paper, finishes his beer, & goes to bed. When he wakes up Berdahl’s black pick-up isn’t there but on the kitchen table is an envelope full of $250 that says: EMERGENCY FUND on it/
“He knew,” O’Brien writes. “The old man knew.” And the old man knew he couldn’t the kid what to do. He just gave him some money in case he got himself into a jam up there in that rough ragged terrain of Canada. He leaves the money & begins the long drive south home, where he’ll pack this things and go to war. “The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.”
That’s an interesting perspective, don’t you think? That it’s cowardly to be cowed and pressured into doing something you don’t wanna do? Something that could kill you or maim you? Or even make you go insane?
Well, those white feather girls sent unknown scores of British boys too proud to be thought of at cowards overseas to be killed. There’s a great article here about the growing militarism in pre-WWI Britain, band how it was problematic (of course, anyone espousing such a hardline in the early 1930s would’ve been seen as a virulent Anti-Nazi. By 1950 this same man would be lionized with a hometown bronze statue., which reminds me of a recent quote (and I do mean recent, from Bob Dylan)
“Everybody changes the past in their own way. It’s habitual, you know? We always see things the way they really weren't, or we see them the way we want to see them. We can't change the present or the future. We can only change the past and we do it all the time.”3
One of the most prominent White Feather Girls was a young poet (a lady poet was a poetess in those days) named Jessie Pope, whose most famous poem is this:
Who's for the Game?
Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?
Who’ll toe the line for the signal to ‘Go!’?
Who’ll give his country a hand?
Who wants a turn to himself in the show?
And who wants a seat in the stand?
Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much-
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?
Come along, lads –
But you’ll come on all right –
For there’s only one course to pursue,
Your country is up to her neck in a fight,
And she’s looking and calling for you.
In stark4 contrast to Pope’s jingoistic doggerel, which claims the worst that could happen if you went to war was that you might “come back with a crutch” or some other minor wound. The “red crashing game of a fight” implies war-like hand-to-hand combat, not gentlemanly boxing. This photograph shows a line of men leading each other to an unknown location. They’ve been blinded by mustard or chlorine gas. Some never even had a chance to fire their rifles. They just happened to be standing beneath a place that dropped its payload of unbreathable, blinding chlorine. And that was that, insofar as their participation in the war.
Pope’s ignorance of gas warfare, which took the sight and destroyed the lungs of whole generations of German, American, Canadian, Australian, Austria-Hungry, Russian, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Greek, & French men, is not her fault. She didn’t invent gas warfare. She simply made war out to be something it wasn’t. A game. A game has rules. A game has stoppages for injuries. A game ends after a period of fixed time. Some British boys went mad from lack of sleep as the Germans bombed them day & night, day & night, turning the Tommies into a zombie army.
Consider the difference between Pope’s lighter language “red crashing game of a fight” & her worst possible consequence hobbling home on “crutches,” to what Own relates here, in first person present tense, almost like you are there, but thank God you aren’t:
Dulce et decorum est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The final line is Latin and translates into “It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland.”
Compare that horrifying image of the man who didn’t get his mask on fast enough in Owen’s “gas poem, done yesterday.” I admire the man his courage. I admire his rather casual attitude towards his own considerable powers of creation. Perhaps it was best he did die young, rather than be plagued by “dreams [in which] he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”
In the loose & limber language of Pope, war is merely a “fight” on a larger scale. Life and death are not at stake in a “game.” Yet Pope says as much in her poem’s very own title. “Who’s for the game?”
Men too terrified to be called cowards, to stay home and say “fuck your war.” How many of those men read Pope’s words and felt emboldened by a cause, a call, an outstretched hand that asks you to sign. And if you die, will that same hand sign your death certificate?
No. A rubber stamp will do that job. To remove humanity from each aspect of war is the only way to win it. He who hesitates, thinking the enemy might be in agonizing death throes, is he whose brains are shot out by that very same man. A soldier cannot afford empathy. Tit for tat.
You killed me. So now I’ve killed you. That’s the story in Owen’s “Strange Meeting” where the man h e killed yesterday kills him today and brings him down in a clayish substance saying “Let us sleep now. . . .”
War is not a game, Miss Pope. Or at least, it’s not one you walk away from.
Stefan Zweig, author of The World of Yesterday and The Royal Game, left Germany in good time and moved to Brazil. But his increasing despair about the fate of the world (I, personally, do not think it insignificant that he committed suicide mere months after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour, which occurred on December 7, 1941. Zweig’s The World of Yesterday: Memoires of a European has been called the most famous book on the Habsburg Empire. It certainly showed just how changed the world had become. The book is famous for its depictions for the openly sexual licentiousness of denizens of the city of Vienna in the dying days of Franz Joesph I of Austria, as well as startlingly accurate in terms of streets and road signs and boulevards, given that Zweig had moved to Brazil and hadn’t seen Vienna in decades.
If only Zweig had held on a few more years, to see the defeat of Germany. He could have gone home. Of course, you can’t go home/ It may have broken his heart to see what awaited him there. The ruins of war or the vulgarity of modern architecture.
If only Wilfred Owen had convalesced for one more week
William Faulkner once wrote: “[N]o battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
I’m sure those who took airplane tours above London in summer 1945 came to the same conclusion. Wait, we won?
Yep. You won. The nation still stands. Just barely, but she stands.
Poor Wilfred Owen. A poet of his power and grit would have been so welcome in the tumultuous years that were to come. He thought he was fighting The Great War. The was to end all wars. And then? From his Wiki page: Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war.
He missed it by a fucking WEEK.
UGH. Anyway, I am grateful for the sacrifices Own took, but I do want to give the impression that it’s only tragic when a good writer died. All deaths are tragic, especially in war.
Sometimes in war, gallows humour is the only way for these men to stay sane.
“Where’s Sgt. McLeish?”
“He lost his head.”
“What? Another one came down with ‘battle fatigue?’ Bring him in here right now! I’ll straighten him out. That yellow-bellied sonuva…”
In walk two troops carrying McLeish’s head on a with expressions as emotionless as the man they carry. Each man holds an ear, supporting the pale face of McLeish from beneath with their hands. “At ease, McLeish.”
Respectfully, the soldiers placed McLeish’s head on the couch. “Dismissed, lads.”
As they hurried down the hall they could hear the crazed, manic laughter of their commanding officer. “I hope he’s not losing it too,” one of them says. And out they walk into London, the capital of the nation that allegedly won the war, and take in a panorama “vast and ruinous,” as George Orwell once put it.
Most of “the few,” the members of the R.A.F. who managed to not get killed by the Luftwaffe, were discharged and went home, provided their homes still stood. If their specific homes no longer stood, homes would be assigned them by the War Department. The infantry, most men of blue collar, went back home to work and drink.
It was too soon in the late 1950s to make “funnies” about the war. England was grey and gloomy and still on rations well into the Sixties.
Then John Cleese showed up in the 1970s with his Monty Python cohorts and his beloved sitcom Fawlty Towers.
Cleese was born October 29 1939, just as the German were pulverizing Poland. But he would grow up to perform some of the best post-Chaplin Hitler-impressions the world had ever seen.
In Episode 6 of season 1 of Fawlty Towers, a show in which John Cleese’s constantly admonishes his staff “Don't mention the war!” yet keeps inadvertently doing so himself.
Like Wilfred Owen, W. D. Ehrhart, signed up to go to war on the first day possible.
Now, just like Owen reading Pope’s alleged “poetry” and signing up to serve his country, W. D. Ehrhart had spent his final year in high school history reading about what the Viet Cong were doing to those poor innocent South Vietnamese people. In one of the Ken Burn’s interviews Ehrhat (and I’m paraphrasing here) admits that Vietnam was his chance to star in his “very own John Wayne movie.”
This clip below is one of the best interview I’ve ever seen regarding the Vietnam War, which is significant because future was will be fought in areas where separating combatants from non-combatants, non-combatants from detainees. The man in the interview, author and lecturer W. D. Ehrhart does such a fine job of explaining the difference between these categories that I’ve left it to him.
Furthermore, it didn’t seem to matter how much clearing his company did, the next day, on the very same road, they’d run into snipers & mines, snipers & mines, “until you begin to think…these South Vietnamese we’ve been living among all year never seem to step on the bombs. They must be the enemy.”
Another fact gobmacked me: “I saw four armed Viet Cong soldiers my first 8 months in Vietnam. And yet our Battalion during that period of time sustained 75 mining & sniping incidents per month…over half resulting in casualties. And you begin to think: these people are the enemy.”
W. D. Ehrhart was told in high school that “the Viet Cong terrorized the South Vietnamese population. They forced them to fight them Americans under pain of death. What I began to understand in Vietnam was, they didn’t deed to do a thing like that. All they had to do was let a [US] marine patrol go through a village. And whatever was left of that village…they had all the recruits that they needed.
‘I began to understand why the Vietnamese didn’t greet me with open arms. Why they in fact hated me. But of course that didn’t change the fact that my friends were getting killed & injured every day and only place yo focus own anger and fear was on those civilians that were there.
So the longer we stayed in Vietnam the more V.C. there were! Because we created them. We produced them.”
Check it out:
Ehrhart comes to 3 important conclusions within 2 months of being in Da Nang:
1. What was going on here was not what I’d been told
2. What was going on here was nuts.
3. And I wanted to get out.
So it is fascinating to see how quickly this young man, only 18 years old when he was deployed, expecting to “liberate” the South Vietnamese people from the Viet Cong, speak about how disappointed he was upon his arrival. There were no people tossing him flowers and kissing enthusiastic about showing his courage and fighting for country, could become so disillusioned that for the final 8 months of his tour, completely shut down emotionally & just focus on staying alive.
Ehrhart: “We had stumbled upon a very large cache of Viet Cong weapons & ammunition.” Turned out Stars & Stripes, the American daily newspaper troops received, were printing total fiction. At one point Ehrhart mentions locating a cache of V.C. weapons and ordnance. Their little action made it into the Stars & Stripes, saying Ehrhart’s crew had “set the Viet Cong back by at least four months in our area.”
“Within a week of that article appearing, so…ten days since the incident the bridge 110 metres in front our compound, was dropped by Viet Cong sappers.5
In one of his more passionate outbursts, Ehrhat throws his hands up. “Nobody told the Viet Cong they’d been set back four months! And yet this is what [people were] reading back home in The United States. I could see that the war went on day after day after day after day, interminably, the the same pace, no matter what we did.”
And this proved true. America pulled outta Saigon in 1975, & that was that.
Below is the last of the Americans waiting, trying to rush the helicopter before South Vietnam falls, and GTFO.6
“C’mon c’mon c’mon. I don’t wanna die!” Yeah, but you will. Maybe not today. Ever see that movie The Seventh Seal? In it, a knight named knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) returns home from the Crusades to find his homeland destroyed by plague. Then, on a beach, he looks up & sees this man. “Who are you?” he calls out.
But even the ultra-serious personification of death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal isn’t above the the temptations of the royal game. Block challenges Death to a game of chess. If Death wins, Block dies. If Block wins, he still dies, just at a later, unknown date. Knowing this is the best deal he’s likely to get from death, Block agrees, and the two men sit down at he chessboard. The game continues slowly over the course of the film which covers about a week of time.
Here’s a still from the final scene of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal as Death personified leads them, sickle in hand, in The Dance of Death,
And here’s a bunch of gung-ho let’d-get-the-huns soldiers on a ridge taking by a photographer called Irwin Shaw. Isn’t it kinda creepy how similar the two are?
And there he, she, or it is. Death. We’ll all see you. Not soon, I hope.
Here’s an interesting tidbit of trivia: Kurt Vonnegut, WWII veteran, survivor of the firebombing of Dresden, and author who wrote Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, & many more, along with John Irving, who made extensive use of The Vietnam War Almanac while writing A Prayer for Own Meany, were the first (though not the only) people to walk out of the debut of Brian de Palma’s Scarface. Vonnegut flinched during the chainsaw scene. He’d seem enough carnage to last him an entire lifetime. Irving did not serve in Vietnam, because he was a father. I can’t prove it, but I believe that America’s militaristic. attitude was the reason Tim O’Brien’s (a Vietnam Vet who fictionalized his experiences in 1978’s Going After Cacciato, won the following year’s National Book Award for fiction over John Irving (who did not serve and was in fact a house-husband while writing his finalist for the National Book Award, The World According to Garp.)
I am not knocking O’Brien. I like the book he wrote & I like The Things They Carried (1990) even more. But The World According to Garp (1978) is generally regarded as one of the best books of the 20th Century, up there with Catch-22, To the Lighthouse, On the Road, Sister Carrie, The Sound & the Fury, Fortunate Pilgrim, Invisible Man, The Tunnel, The Recognitions, The Sun Also Rises, and The Great Gatsby.
O’Brien’s entry, well-wrought as it may be, is simply a book of less freight and heft. A book should not have to feature an actual war to contain some of the worst elements of war, for those elements reside within us, within the human heart,
In London & NYC it was the Times, in Toronto the Globe & Mail, in Sydney The Sydney Morning Herald
Bob Dylan quoted by Mikal Gilmore in “Bob Dylan: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone. March 6 2017.
I almost wrote “stark-raving,” so mad this war turned people against war in general. Before WWI basic horsemanship was a requirement, as was swordsmanship, for a soldier. Anybody can pull a trigger. Anyone who can drive a Jeep can transport troops.
Sappers was the slang term for dynamite experts & explosive technicians. They blew shit up. The dynamited bridges, disrupting communication lines, was well as logistical stuff like food and drink for the soldiers, who were burning & dying on the wrong side of the line.
GTFO is a 2000s internet term meaning Get The Fuck Out