Thursday, December 30, 2010

Legends of Our Time

I’ve just finished reading The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade by Peter Carroll. The book tells the tales of some of the 2800 Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain against the fascist revolt led by General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Carroll, who served as official historian for the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) organization, had access to a great deal of source material, some of it previously unpublished, and took advantage of the opening of Soviet archives in the 1990s to examine materials long unavailable to historians. His focus is unique, detailing the lives and struggles of the men and women involved during, but also before and after their service in the Spanish Civil War. What emerges is a collection of biographical vignettes, lives in brief, which also serve to reveal the history of the radical movements in the United States from the Great Depression to Gulf War I.

Carroll is, of course, dealing with a limited sample, primarily composed of the people who remained politically active or who returned to such activism after a period of time, and the reader is well advised to remember that perhaps the majority of Spanish Civil War veterans who returned to the US (some 930 died in Spain), became depoliticized and often unconcerned with VALB or other organizations. It is well too to remember what I consider to be perhaps the most fascinating element of the late 1920s through the mid 1940s: the astonishing belief in the power of ideology and political systems to change the world for the better. The Great Depression seemed to reveal a fatal weakness in the traditional Western capitalist system, and most national political systems appeared to be incapable of ameliorating the suffering of their citizens. People began to look for alternative systems, and found them in the radical movements of the Left and Right.

What is difficult for the modern American reader to understand is the depth of belief among those involved in these radical movements, and the unity of purpose imposed by socialist, communist, and fascist party structures. The political cynicism that is so common today was often wholly absent among the primarily working-class followers of the radical movements. These men and women saw communism or fascism as solutions to the problems of their nations and the world, and truly believed that these political systems would really work, if everyone just got behind them. They were possessed of a socio-political naivety that is almost incomprehensible to the modern reader. And their views were widely held. Think about it: when was the last time you heard of 2800 Americans volunteering to go and fight in a war that the US government actively avoided involvement in? When was the last time you read about American citizens defying the State Department to travel across the Atlantic and sneak into a country in order to fight against a cause that they found abominable?

Readers Mine, between 1936 and 1939, elements of the armies and air forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy deployed in Spain on the side of their fellow fascist Franco, while the US, UK, and France held to neutrality laws that insured that the forces of the legally and democratically elected republican government of Spain would not receive the support and weapons necessary to defeat these fascist forces that in less than four years would plunge the world into the largest, most horrific conflict in human history. Arrayed against these forces was a small Spanish Republican Army, bolstered by International Brigades composed largely of radical leftists, with some support from the Soviet Union. And in the XV International Brigade were 2800 Americans, many of them communists, who chose to stand up to Hitler and Mussolini and Franco when their government would not, because they believed that people working together could make a better world than dictators, and they were willing to put their very lives where their mouths were.

Oh, I’m not saying that the American Communist Party and the Lincoln Brigadiers were angels. Their party line came from Moscow and Stalin more often than not, and duplicity and secrecy were standard operating procedure in party politics, but the individuals who risked everything to fight in Spain by and large did so because they truly believed that it was the right thing to do, because the Spanish people should be allowed to determine their own fate and their own government. They were naive, and young, and they were defeated, coming home to take up their lives again, many fighting bravely in World War Two in the US Armed Forces, only to face the terrific persecution of the Second Red Scare and McCarthyism, and eventually to emerge as the elder statesmen of the protest movement, working for the Civil Right Movement and protesting the Vietnam War. They are remarkable people, though now all but passed from the earth. They will not pass from memory though. In the words of La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibarruri, in her farewell address to the survivors of the Lincoln Brigade in 1938:

“You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Other Decembers

There’s a rest stop at mile marker 100 on I-85 southbound in North Carolina, roughly between the towns of Thomasville and Lexington. Once upon a time these were furniture factory towns turning out tons of beautiful wood pieces every year. People came from across the country to shop the outlets and factory stores for everything from end-tables to bedroom suites, and enjoyed the local BBQ in bustling Southern downtowns. Today most of the factories and outlets are deserted, and there are more empty storefronts than not. Like a lot of industry in North Carolina, furniture making has gone elsewhere, or gone so upscale that you don’t need many people to produce the few pieces you sell every year.

But back to the rest stop, where you can stretch your legs, grab a Coke and some Cool Ranch Doritos, use the facilities, and pop your back after a few hours on the road. While you’re there, you can also visit the North Carolina Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Yes, Readers Mine, at the rest stop. Just a little bit beyond the bathrooms and vending kiosk, there’s a brick walkway leading down in a series of broad steps to a kind of tumulus of banked earth formed into a grass-covered toroid, open at one end. Here there is a low stone dais over-flown by the national, state and POW/MIA flags:

“Dedicated to the 216,000 North Carolinians who served and the over 1600 who were killed or missing in the Vietnam War.”

I was there on a chilly fall day, when most of the leaves had already blown off the trees, and the wind was enough to make me turn up the collar on my pea-coat and pull my watch cap down over my ears. It was mid-afternoon, and the rest stop was moderately busy, but there wasn’t a soul in the memorial. Inside the earthen walls, the memorial is a great circle with a brick walkway running around the circumference, small brick benches placed here and there and a central field of grass already turning yellow-brown in preparation for winter. At the far side of the enclosure from the entrance is a brick wall, maybe 10 feet high, and inscribed on the inside bricks of this wall are some 1620 names, arranged alphabetically. At my feet as I stood before the wall were more bricks, these inscribed with the names of the 100 counties of North Carolina, all of which had sent native sons and daughters to war.

It wasn’t exactly quiet there – I-85 was just a couple of hundred yards away – but the sounds of the interstate and of kids released from cars to expend some of their built up energy was muted by the earthen walls. About as peaceful as you’re going to get in such a setting. I found out later that the land for the memorial had been donated by the state’s Department of Transportation, which went some way towards explaining the location. Plus, I’m sure, the same state crews who take care of the rest stop also tend to the memorial grounds, so the memorial may well be more sustainable over the long run than others. Still. An interstate rest stop. Oh, there’s a big statue-memorial in the state capital, Raleigh, but this is the official state memorial. At a rest stop.

I’m really not one to get overly emotional at memorials (though I defy anyone to make the long walk down the length of Maya Yeng Lin’s national Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C. and not be moved), but I think it’s good that there are such places. Good to remember those who served and those who died or disappeared, perhaps especially so in the days before the all-volunteer military and in a war that seems so horrifically pointless. I admit I’m a bit irked at the placement of this memorial. It seems… disrespectful somehow. I could be wrong. In fact, being at a rest stop on a major North-South route may well bring the memorial more visitors than it would get otherwise. Probably does, as a matter of fact.

I’d like to think that the reality would be different though, that people would want to travel some distance to visit the memorial, take the time to make a deliberate trip and stand before the wall, read some of the names. I’d like to think that we’re better than we are, and that we’d make a point of remembering and, yes, honoring the people whose names are on those bricks, and all the rest who, thank God, don’t have to be listed on bricks or in polished black stone because they made it back home alive. That maybe we’d take a minute to ponder what causes or interests are really worth 1620 lives, and dedicate ourselves to the proposition that such bloody currency only be spent with the greatest reluctance, most meticulous care, and deepest grief.

In December of 1968, there were 540,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines deployed in Vietnam. By the time the last serviceman was withdrawn in 1975, some 58,000 Americans had died there.

To absent friends, past and present.

Good luck, and Godspeed.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Buffy's Been Good To Me

Well, after working hard for two whole weeks, my good intentions here were shot to hell for a solid month and more. What can I say: the end of the semester is a dumb time to try to develop a new weekly writing habit. However, there’s some good motivation for developing this habit in the coming months, so I’d better get started.

First off, it’s my great pleasure to announce that I have been asked to take part in The Great Buffy Re -Watch of 2011. To sum the idea up, every Tuesday in 2011, the lovely, talented, but sadly, Canadian Nikki Stafford will host various guest writers to blog on an average of three episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The pool of talent Nikki has put together is really impressive (okay, besides relative unknowns like me and this English bloke at a pub), and includes scholar-fans/fan-scholars from Slayage and the Whedon Studies Association, writers on sports, popular culture, feminism, life, the universe, and everything. There will be single writer posts and team-efforts, including one by Mockingbird and me in August. Long time readers of this blog (all three of you) will already know about the handy-dandy link to Nik at Nite under “Solomon’s Blogs” at left, and I’ve just told everyone else about it. Use it and grab your Buffy DVDs or redo your Netflix queue and join in on the fun.

In other news, it seems I’m to be published! Watcher Junior: the Undergraduate Journal of Buffy Studies, has graciously accepted my essay “’We Just Declared War’: Buffy as General” for publication next year. This, Readers Mine, is the time on Sprockets when we dance! The essay started out as my first presentation at an academic conference and has morphed into my first published work. Kinda makes me wonder what the world’s coming to -- ah, bullshit -- I worked hard on that piece, had a blast every step of the way, and hell yeah it’s getting published!

Finally, on the home front, I’m wrapping up the semester with a pleasing average, and Mock’ and I have gotten the tree up and the various boxes of Christmas décor down from the attic, and she is merrily distributing them about the nest. I’ve got to hunt down our Christmas duck, though I’m considering trying Cornish game hens this year with a recipe from a book given to us by Librarian Who, and I am looking forward with great longing to actually being home for a month before resuming my academic adventures.

Good year, 2010. Really, really good year.