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|Posted on August 27, 2018 at 2:52 PM||comments (10)|
This past weekend, I attended a memorial service for a professional colleague, a man for whom I developed a great personal respect during the years we worked in the same department. After I left the Savannah River Site in 2007, I didn't see him for years afterwards. When I encountered him at a restaurant in 2013, we chatted as naturally as if we'd encountered each other in the hallway at work.
It was a rude shock to pick up the Sunday newspaper on a recent Sunday morning and see this man's obituary. He was seventy-three, no longer young, but no an old man as we understand that term nowadays.
I already knew that he was trained as a professional soldier, a West Point graduate in the fabled Class of 1966 (h/t: Rick Atkinson, The Long Gray Line). He did two tours as an infantry officer in Vietnam. Arguably, though, his greatest gifts were as a servant and teacher. Good teachers are, above all else, good servants. My mother was one and I can recognize the characteristics of those who successfully blend both roles.
The associate pastor of the church where the service was held gave a lengthy meditation on how his life embodied the principles of servanthood. But it was the eulogies by his daughter and son that pulled back the curtain on the man's deepest beliefs and actions. The word that kept popping into my mind was "integrity," i.e., wholeness, a personal character in which all the pieces fit together. He was of a piece, whether showing a North Vietnamese prisoner how to eat with a fork, or memorizing a lengthy lecture in Spanish to be delivered to a group of Latin American officers in Panama.
His family hosted a reception at the Rye Patch, one of the historic Winter Colony homes in Aiken. I made my way through a throng of other mourners to speak to his wife and children. When I introduced myself to his daughter, I said, "Your dad was the epitome of 'an officer and a gentleman.' But I can see one fault with him: He hid his light under a bushel.
She smilingly disagreed with me, reminding me that to serve others was her father's way of living up to the West Point motto, "Duty, Honor, Country." He just didn't want to be singled out for praise for living his life in accordancee with his values.
No one could have a better epitaph.
In memoriam, Lt. Col. (Ret.) John M. Jenkins, Sr., 1944-2018
|Posted on May 3, 2018 at 2:44 PM||comments (14)|
Those of us who were around during the 1970s might remember the chant of some critics, "the personal is political." While not true in the sense that such critics intended, I've come to believe that there is a certain amount of enduring truth in this chant. Case in point: my efforts at writing historical fiction.
I've been laboring for five years, off and on, at completing a historical novel with the working title The Vials of Wrath. This work is to be the first in a series of four or five novels exploring some of the titanic changes in the Western world since 1900. I've found that an approach that seems to be working currently is to look at historical events in the light of personal crises. Of the characters introduced so far, each wrestles with events that cause us to wonder, Is it me or is the world going crazy? In fact, there are personal upheavals that prefigure some of the events that were to shape the world in this most destructive of centuries.
I'll keep my readers up to date on how the work is going. I have two other projects underway at the same time, which may have priority, depending on circumstances. Still, I'd like to introduce some of the individuals who've captured my imagination:
* Wilhelm and Friedrich von dem Bruch, young Prussian officers who try to make sense of their brother's suicide, while struggling with their father's harsh morality.
* Egbert Pfeffer, a railroad worker who believes in the brotherhood of man, and who struggles to keep this belief in the face of storms that threaten to sink it forever.
* Martin Salzmann, a clergyman who wonders whether the values that have guided him through life are no longer relevant.
* Alexander Lavrentiyev, a Russian officer whose love of Mother Russia is at war with his belief that the government of Nicholas II has put the country on a path to disaster.
* Raoul Pagès, a French officer whose insider knowledge of his nation's strengths and weaknesses sets him at odds with the "conventional wisdom."
Other players will shortly make their entrance onto the stage. I must confess that my educator's mindset is making it difficult to keep the plot on track, without veering into the trackless wilderness of preachiness or didactic madness. I pledge to make the best effort possible.
|Posted on August 14, 2013 at 3:32 PM||comments (92)|
A young Prussian officer faces a mortal confrontation with an unforgiving father, whose brutish behavior is fed by the acquiescence of his younger sons.
Thus begins my novel-in-progress The Vials of Wrath. This will be ready for electronic publication late next year or in 2015. It's one of a series of novels about the extraordinary upheavals of the twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of ordinary people. It's a reminder to all of us that we, as free men and women, bear the responsibility for our own words and actions. Too much of the history of the last hundred years has been warped by the actions of those for whom human freedom and dignity are mere words, to be disposed of when inconvenient. The series of which it is a part is my testimony in favor of the human race and the greatness of which we are capable when we remember who we are.
|Posted on June 15, 2013 at 2:55 PM||comments (129)|
In Europe, they have war cemeteries. Perhaps this is because the major European nations got into the habit of fighting wars before they coalesced as nations. Ironically, the building of Lenin's Tomb in the 1920s was one of the first "national" cemeteries (as contrasted to war cemeteries or royal crypts) created to enshrine a particular concept of nationhood. While no one shares Lenin's eminence, during the Soviet years burial at the Kremlin wall was the equivalent of interment in Westminster Abbey or the Yasukuni Shrine. It's now lost that status, at least for a time. Boris Yeltsin is buried in Novedevichiy Cemetery, several miles from the Kremlin, and Mikhail Gorbachev will be buried there next to his wife when he passes on.
On June 15, 1864, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton signed an order to establish what is today Arlington National Cemetery. For a nation which sometimes seems not to have much consciousness of its own past, this was a real step forward. I confess that Arlington is one of my favorite places to visit in Washington. I have friends buried there; when I pay them a visit, I always run across the tomb of someone eminent. While Arlington is not the oldest of our national cemeteries (we in South Carolina can brag that the one in Beaufort is older), it serves as a repository of national memory. Tourists flock to the Kennedy grave sites, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, and the Iwo Jima Memorial. Each of these is a commemoration of something significant from our nation's past.
One expects major events to happen in Arlington. Five years ago, we were in Washington for Memorial Day. My wife and I were exploring some previously unvisited parts of the grounds, as were numerous. When from the loudspeakers issued the strains of "Hail to the Chief," everyone stopped, even those nowhere near where the President was about to perform the traditional wreath-laying ceremony. If George Washington or Robert E. Lee had ridden up at that moment, we'd have been astonished, but not entirely surprised.
This is the time of year that commemorates establishment of the U.S. Army. On this date, George Washington was called to command of the newly formed Continental Army during the Revolution. As the nation's senior service, the Army presence is overpowering on this ground. Each service has its ceremonial units, its cherished commemorations. At Arlington, the line between war cemeteries and national cemeteries vanishes, all under the watchful eyes of "First to fight for the right." Happy Birthday, U.S. Army.
|Posted on May 16, 2013 at 4:18 PM||comments (98)|
On this day in 1920, Joan of Arc was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, thus belatedly undoing the nefarious role of Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, in her condemnation. "Justice delayed is justice denied," one anonymous commentator has noted. It was certainly delayed in her case; she was burned in 1431. In fact, the church had already semi-officially recognized her position of particular honor in France, when it approved the placement of her statue (along with St. Louis) over the entrance to the Sacré Coeur. In fact, France had been the object of some disapproving glances from the Vatican ever since the Revolution. It doesn't stretch credulity too far to note that Joan's canonization may have been an effort to anchor the position of the church in the hearts of Frenchmen. Certainly the ordeal of France from 1914 to 1918 was arguably the most trying time since the Hundred Years' War.
Still, Joan may be an inconvenient heroine for the French. She emerged from provincial obscurity just at the moment when France was nearly prostrate from war and internecine strife, with the rightful king (in her eyes) declared a bastard by his own father. Fourteen years before she famously picked Charles VII out of a mob of courtiers, France's nobility had led its armies to disaster at Agincourt. It should have inspired humility in the hearts of its great families that a peasant girl could revive the spirits of a nation. Any such sentiments were short-lived.
The fact that France had prevailed in the Great War and was unquestionably victorious may have inspired the church's belated homage to the Maid of Orléans. Austria-Hungary, the church's favored child in the recently-ended war, had broken apart. Italy was still in bad odor with the church because of its forcible seizure of Rome in 1870. Perhaps the church believed that the "eldest daughter of the Church" could still be won back to its traditional allegiances by honoring France's favorite daughter as a saint.
I can recall seeing Joan's gilded statue in the heart of Paris adorned with wreaths and bouquets on the anniversary of her death in 1974. The floral offerings had special messages, most of which beseeched Joan's assistance for France in its troubles. That was something even Frenchmen of skeptical disposition could appreciate. Perhaps it's only in times of great trial that most of us can appreciate the contributions of the humble, even of the non-heroic. If they in their times could do it, why can't we?
|Posted on April 29, 2013 at 3:56 PM||comments (5)|
On this day in 1945, U.S. troops liberated the oldest of the Nazi concentration camps - Dachau, located just outside Munich. My father-in-law was one of those GIs. Here, the historic past joins hands with the personal past. In 1962, when he was again stationed in Munich, my mother-in-law and my wife got the chance to take a tour of Dachau, albeit in a much cleaned-up form. Maj. Lea refused to go with him, saying something to the effect that he'd already seen it.
My father, who was a POW in Germany for twenty-one months, always lists this day as his personal liberation day. On April 29, 1945, the U.S. 14th Armored Division freed him and twenty thousand or so other POWs at the Moosburg camp north of Munich. However, for most of his POW days, he resided (if that's the right word) at Stalag Luft IIIC, in Sagan, Germany (now part of Poland). In WW2, the further east you went, at least in Europe, the worse it got. While Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen were horrific, they didn't hold a candle to what the Red Army troops who liberated Treblinka, Maidanek, or Auschwitz saw. Those were the real death camps, the ones that had only a single purpose: to either exterminate the untermenschen outright or to work them to death. The POWs at Stalag Luft IIIC were unaware of those horrors as well, although many of them knew that Hitler had ordered the killing of all Allied POWs. By early 1945, there were enough Germans who knew the war was lost to make disobeying Der Fuehrer thinkable.
Yale historian Timothy Schneider's book Bloodlands makes a compelling case that the extermination camps were just one of the ways that the rulers of Eastern Europe adopted to rid themselves of their political opponents and others deemed worthy of death. The full truth about all of the places where humanity was violated during the years 1918-1945 will probably never be known. What we know, however, is enough. If, at the beginning of the twentieth century, people still believed in progress, we who live in these latter days owe it to the dead to remember the devils that sometimes lurk beneath the surface of ordinary life. The world can no longer claim innocence of humanity's demonic potential.
|Posted on April 9, 2013 at 4:01 PM||comments (92)|
"O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention." Shakespeare's lyrical introduction to Henry V gives no hint of the heights of invention (or depths of misunderstanding) that can baffle anyone who seeks to learn about the Hundred Years' War from reading The Bard's ginned-up tribute to a king who was a thoroughly unlikeable man. Today is the six hundredth anniversary of Henry of Monmouth's coronation. While England had won great victories over France at Crecy and Poitiers, none would be greater, none more unproductive than Henry's triumph amidst the mud of Agincourt.
A brief review of the facts: The Hundred Years' War resulted from a dispute over whether, after the failure of direct succession in the Capetian line of French Kings, the crown should go to Philip IV's nephew, Philip VI of Valois, or his grandson, Edward III of England. In the war that resulted, the English could win battle after battle, but could never assert effective control over the French heartland, even with the support of renegades like John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. The practical effects of repeated English efforts to gain control of France led to a long period of misery for the hapless French who got in the way of this collision of giants.
The most notorious instance of Will Shakespeare's glossing-over of the brutal facts of war comes in Act IV, Scene VII, when Fluellen laments the killing of the English boys left to watch the baggage-train during the battle. In response, Henry says, "I was not angry since I came to France until this instant." He may have said that. If so, he demonstrates a lack of self-knowledge that is stupefying, even for a king. The hapless citizens of Harfleur, as well as thousand of French peasants whose fields were trampled down by the English, might have disagreed.
As I tell my students every semester, history is full of ironies. While the English had not since the twelfth century had anything like a queen regnant (the so-called Empress Matilda), they were perfectly ready to make war on France to secure the right of succession that descended through a maternal line. England escaped the miseries that it inflicted on France from 1337 to 1453, although not entirely. In the War of the Roses, Henry VI, briefly heir to the thrones of both France and England, would prove unequal to the task of securing his own throne. Happy coronation day, Henry of Monmouth. 'Tis a pity you didn't live to see what a mess your victory was to make of your own family.
|Posted on March 19, 2013 at 11:13 AM||comments (6)|
On this day in 1687, the Sieur de La Salle, noted as "the first European to navigate the length of the Mississippi River" was murdered by his own men when exploring near the cost of what is today Texas. It was an ironic end for a man who had already defied death by exploring a river noted for its many treacherous bends, shallows, and bayous.
One of my former bosses was fond of noting that, in any endeavor, one can tell who the pioneers are by the fact that they are often found lying face down, with arrows in the back. At least La Salle's name is recorded. The real "unsung hero" in this instance is the first man or woman who decided that the Mississippi valley would be the cradle of its own unique civilization and acted on that belief. Certainly Louis XIV and his ministers had no appreciation of what La Salle had done a few years earlier. The Sun King would shortly thereafter launch the War of the League of Augsburg, which would leave France much poorer, with little in the way of territorial gains as compensation. With a fraction of the effort expended to grab territory contiguous to France, the French might have built settlements that could have given them a firm hold on one of the great waterways of the world.
My professors at the University of Florida and at Yale reminded their students that speculation about "what might have been" is useless for serious scholars. As a writer, though, I'm sometimes tempted to craft my own alternative versions of the past. Harry Turtledove and others have made profitable careers out of this pursuit. I suppose it's an homage to my teachers that my efforts at writing historical fiction have focused on the actions of the unsung heroes whose actions could have provided the fulcrum for great historical movements. My work-in-progress Soldiers of Night and Fog takes this approach. I don't know if I'll be able to pull this off. It's well worth the effort, at least in my mind.
|Posted on February 10, 2013 at 3:39 PM||comments (1)|
Today marks the day in 1763 when the Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years' War, or the French and Indian War as we Americans call it. This was a classic example of an agreement that ended up biting both Great Britain and France, the two main belligerents.
On the surface, Britain ran the table. It got Florida from Spain, seized effective control of India, and expelled France from Canada. France was the big loser. So far, the main story holds up. In fact, France entered the war with a humongous debt problem. Losing the war made the problem much harder to deal with. In fact, the Bourbon kings had turned to finance ministers who tried expedients rather than dealing with the main problem, the fact that so much of France's wealth was effectively off-limits to taxation. This dubious practice continued until, a quarter-century later, Louis XVI had to call a session of the Estates-General, which hadn't met since 1615. We all know how that turned out.
The treaty was also a poison pill for the British. Early wars between Britain and France hadn't required the dispatch of significant numbers of regular troops from the UK to the American colonies. That changed with the Seven Years' War. The problem of how to pay for the care and feeding of those redcoat regiments led King George III and his ministers to try a series of expedients, from the Stamp Act to closing the port of Boston to all commerce. We also know how that turned out.
All this goes to show that great wars can so jumble the field that it's hard to tell the winners from the losers. War is a double-edged sword. Peace treaties may be double-edged also.
|Posted on January 22, 2013 at 4:42 PM||comments (7)|
On this day in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called for "peace without victory" in World War I. It was a last forlorn hope to fulfill the campaign promise on which he had recently won a narrow re-election victory: "He kept us out of war." In less than three months from this speech, the U.S. was nonetheless at war.
Even discounting the benefit of hindsight, it would seem logical for such an appeal to have won a more receptive audience among the leaders of warring Europe. Why didn't it? This can never be known for certain, but almost certainly one factor was the common belief that only victory could redeem the rivers of blood that both sides had already shed. Great Britain believed that its naval blockade of Germany would force the Germans to sue for peace. France was planning yet another ill-fated offensive that would assuredly throw "Les Boches" out of France. Germany's armies were entrenched in seemingly impregnable positions on the Western Front, while Austria-Hungary was shielded from invasion from the south by the granite wall of the Julian Alps.
The Allied Powers would shortly have occasion to rue their dismissal of Wilson's initiative. The overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in Russia lay only five weeks in the future. It was this (perhaps more than anything else) that motivated the Germans to believe that unrestricted submarine warfare would tip the balance in their favor. That proved to be the fatal miscalculation that forced Wilson's hand.
What is perhaps more remarkable is that Wilson persisted in his hope that a peace without imposing vindictive terms on the losers might lay a foundation for a lasting international order. His actions have gained much criticism over the ensuing decades, much of it justified. Yet when we consider the long-run cost of a peace that was achieved without victory followed by a deeply flawed peacemaking process, his actions look much better in posterity's eyes than do those of many of the critics.