Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Toast to the Bards

Pete Seeger has been there as long as I can remember, like that cousin or uncle who lived somewhere else but would show up from time to time – often rather unexpectedly but always welcome in the end even if sometimes you had to first recover from the surprise.  He seems to have even then been well-established as the paterfamilias of the folk scene that was still around as I became musically aware back in the 1960s and the bonds are still there to be seen if you look just a little bit.  I went to see Inside Llewyn Davis recently and it was a trip back in time.  I also realized that I need to clean up my MP3 player and set up a good folk music playlist.

But the bond I didn’t recognize until it hit me between the eyes as I read through the various print and online articles about our lost troubadour is that he came by it honestly and his reach goes back even beyond his own lifetime.  Almost ironically as we ponder this in 2014 – 100 years from the date of the beginning of the First World War in Europe – I learn that Pete Seeger had an uncle among the soldier poets of that war.

His name was Alan Seeger.  Born in New York City in 1880, he went to Harvard University, graduating in 1910.  Already a poet at Harvard, he moved back to New York City adopting a bohemian lifestyle there before relocating to Paris.  When war was declared in 1914, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion – 2e Régiment étranger (the United States not entering the war until 1917).

As a soldier of France, he was killed by German machine gun fire on July 4, 1916 at Belloy-en-Santerre  during the early days of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  I’ve known perhaps his most famous poem for years and it was apparently also a favorite of President John F. Kennedy, “I Have  a Rendezvous with Death” but never made the connection to the author of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” before now.

I Have a Rendezvous with Death

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear:
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

The Aisne (1914-1915)

We first saw fire on the tragic slopes
Where the flood-tide of France’s early gain,
Big with wrecked promise and abandoned hopes,
Broke in a surf of blood along the Aisne.

The charge the heroes left us, we assumed,
What, dying, they reconquered, we preserved,
In the chill trenches, harried, shelled, entombed,
Winter came down on us, but no man swerved.

Winter came down on us. The low clouds, torn
In the stark branches of the riven pines,
Blurred the white rockets that from dusk till morn
Traced the wide curve of the close-grappling lines.

In rain, and fog that on that withered hill
Froze before dawn, the lurking foe drew down;
Or light snows fell that made forlorner still
The ravaged country and the ruined town;

Or the long clouds would end.  Intensely fair,
The winter constellations blazing forth---
 Perseus, the Twin, Orion, the Great Bear—
Gleamed on our bayonets pointing to the north.

And the lone sentinel would start and soar
On wings of strong emotion as he knew
That kinship with the stars that only War
Is great enough to lift man’s spirits to.

And ever down the curving front, aglow
With the pale rockets’ intermittent light,
He heard, like distant thunder, grown and grow
The rumble of far battles in the night, --

Rumours, reverberant, indistinct, remote,
Borne from red fields whose martial names have won
The power to thrill like a far trumpet note,--
Vic, Vailly, Soupir, Hurtelise, Craonne…

Craonne, before thy cannon-swept plateau,
Where like sere leaves lay strewn September’s dead,
I found for all things I forfeited
A recompense I would not now forgo.

For that high fellowship was ours then
With those who, championing another’s good,
More than dull Peace or its poor votaries could,
Taught us the dignity of being men.

There we drained deeper the deep cup of life,
And on sublime summits came to learn,
After soft things, the terrible and stern,
After sweet Love, the majesty of Strife;

There we faced under those frowning heights
The blast that maims, the hurricane that kills;
There where the watch-lights on the winter hills
Flickered like balefire through inclement nights;

There where, firm links in the unyielding chain,
Where fell the long-planned blow and fell in vain—
Hearts worthy of the honour and the trail,
We helped to hold the lines along the Aisne.

Champagne, 1914-1915

In the glad revels, in the happy fetes,
  When cheeks are flushed, and glasses gilt and pearled
With the sweet wine of France that concentrates
  The sunshine and the beauty of the world,

Drink sometimes, you whose footsteps yet may tread
  The undisturbed, delightful paths of Earth,
To those whose blood, in pious duty shed,
  Hallows the soil where the same wine had birth.

Here, by devoted comrades laid away,
  Along our lines they slumber where they fell,
Besides the crater at the Ferme d’Alger
  And up the bloody slopes of La Pompelle,

And around the city whose cathedral towers
  The enemies of Beauty dared profane,
And in the mat of multicolored flowers
  That clothe the sunny chalk-fields of Champagne.

Under the little crosses where they rise
  The soldier rests.  Now round him undismayed
The cannon thunders, and at night he lies
  At peace beneath the eternal fusillade…

That other generations might possess—
  From shame and menace free in years to come—
A richer heritage of happiness,
  He marched to that heroic martyrdom.

Esteeming less the forfeit that he paid
  Than undishonored that his flag might float
Over the towers of liberty, he made
  His breast the bulwark and his blood the moat.

Obscurely sacrificed, his nameless tomb,
  Bare of the sculptor’s art, the poet’s lines,
Summer shall flush with poppy-fields in bloom,
  And Autumn yellow with maturing vines.

There the grape-pickers at their harvesting
  Shall lightly tread and load their wicker trays,
Blessing his memory as they toil and sing
  In the slant sunshine of October days…

I love to think that if my blood should be
  So privileged to sink where his has sunk,
I shall not pass from Earth entirely
  But when banquet rings, when healths are drunk,

And faces that the joys of living fill
  Glow radiant with laughter and good cheer,
In beaming cups some spark of me shall still
  Brim toward the lips that once I held so dear.

So shall one coveting no higher plane
  Than nature clothes in color and flesh and tone,
Even from the grave put forward to attain
  The dreams youth cherished and missed and might have known,

And that strong need that strove unsatisfied
  Toward earthly beauty in all forms it wore,
Not death itself shall utterly divide
  From the beloved shapes it thirsted for.

Alas, how many an adept for whose arms
  Life held delicious offerings perished here,
How many in the prime of all that charms,
  Crowned with all gifts that conquer and endear!

Honor them not so much with tears and flowers,
  But you with whom the sweet fulfillment lies,
Where in the anguish of atrocious hours
  Turned their last thoughts and closed their dying eyes,

Rather when music or bright gathering lays
  Its tender spell, and joy is uppermost,
Be mindful of the men they were, and raise
  Your glasses to them in one silent toast.

Drink to them—amorous of dear Earth as well,
  They asked no tribute lovelier than this—
And in the wine that ripened where they fell,
  Oh, frame your lips as though it were a kiss.

Champagne, France, July, 1915

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Pete Seeger (as performed by Peter, Paul, and Mary)

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone, long time passing?
Where have all the young girls gone, long time ago?
Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone for husbands everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the husbands gone, long time passing?
Where have all the husbands gone, long time ago?
Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Thanks, Peter – thank you for everything, Alan .

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

THE STORY OF AN ELF by John Steinbeck (complete with eyewitnesses!)

I'm sure that almost everyone will recognize the name of the author and novelist John Steinbeck, although most of you will not recognize the name of John Steinbeck the war correspondent. Nevertheless, like many others in those years, John Steinbeck went to war but with pad, pencil, and typewriter in North Africa and Italy - and later he would do it again briefly in Vietnam.

Fortunately for those of us who did not have the chance to read his original reports during World War II, a collection of them has been published as "Once There Was A War" by in fact several publishers over the years. I had the great fun over the past year of reading this collection and especially enjoyed Steinbeck's articles when I realized that I had the opportunity to read his 1943 exactly 70 years from the date of their original publication. The collection makes for a great read and I enjoyed them so much that I want to share one of these with you since it seems very appropriate for New Years Eve as we pass from 2013 into 2014. I've in fact found this exact same story already on the internet via several websites including one for a newspaper that carried the original publication.

If he were here with us now, telling this story to us over our beverages of choice, he might begin with those immortal words, 'no shit, this really happened'. Steinbeck comes pretty close to that in this column and I have attempted to further validate for you his list of eyewitnesses (barring the British Consul in Algiers who I can't identify and one journalist whose name apparently has escaped the notice of today's internet). Without further ado, I turn you over to Mr. Steinbeck.

THE STORY OF AN ELF by John Steinbeck

Monday, November 1, 1943

--This story would not be written if there were not witnesses—not vague unknown men, but Quentin Reynolds and H.R. Knickerbocker and Clark Lee and Jack Belden, who was hurt at Salerno, and John Lardner and a number of others who will come clamoring forward if anyone doubts the facts here to be presented.

The thing began when a British consul met Quentin Reynolds in the hall of the Alletti Hotel in Algiers. The consul was a small, innocent, well-mannered man who liked to think of the British and Americans as allies and who was willing to make amicable gestures. In good faith he asked Reynolds where he was staying and in equal good faith Reynolds replied that he had not yet been billeted.

“There’s an extra bed in my room,” the consul said. “You’re welcome to it if you like.”

That was the beginning, and what happened was nobody’s fault. It was just one of those accidents. The consul had a nice room with a balcony that overlooked the harbor and from which you could watch air raids. It wasn’t Reynolds’ fault. He accepted hospitality for himself, not for the nine other war correspondents who moved in with him. Nine is only a working number. Sometimes there were as many as eighteen. They slept on the floor, on the balcony, in the bathroom, and some even slept in the hall outside the door of Room 140, Alletti Hotel, Algiers.

It was generally agreed that the consul should have his own bed, that is, if he kept it. But let him get up to go to the bathroom and he returned to find Knickerbocker or Lee or Belden, or all three, in it. Another thing bothered the consul a little bit. Correspondents don’t sleep much at night. They talked and argued and sang so that the poor consul didn’t get much rest. There was too much going on in his room. He had to work in the daytime, and he got very little sleep at night. Toward the end of the week he took to creeping back in the middle of the afternoon for a nap. He couldn’t get his bed then. Someone always had it. But a three in the afternoon it was usually quiet enough so that he could curl up on the floor and get a little rest.

The foregoing is not the unbelievable part—quite the contrary. It is what follows that will require witnesses. It was during one of the all-night discussions of things in general that someone, perhaps Clark Lee, perhaps Dour Jack Belden, suggested that we were getting very tired of Algerian wine and wouldn’t it be nice if we had some Scotch. From that point on this is our story and we intend to stick to it.

Someone must have rubbed something, a ring or a lamp or perhaps the utterly exhausted British consul. At any rate, there was a puff of blue smoke and standing in the room was a small man with pointed ears and a very jolly stomach. He wore a suit of green leather and his cap and the toes of his shoes ended in sharp points and they were green too.

“Saints of Galway,” said Reynolds. “Do you see what I see?”

“Yes,” said Clark Lee.

“Well, do you believe it?”

“No,” said Lee, who is after all a realist and was at Corregidor.

Jack Belden has lived in China for many years and he knows about such things. “Who are you?” he asked sternly.

“I’m little Charley Lytle,” the elf said.

“Well, what do you want, popping in on us?” Belden cried.

The British consul groaned and turned over and pulled the covers over his head. Knickerbocker has since admitted that his first impulse was to kill the elf and stuff him to go beside the sailfish in his den. In fact, he was creeping up when Charley Lytle held up his hand.

“When war broke out I tried to enlist,” he said. “But I was rejected on political grounds. It isn’t that I have any politics,” he explained. “But the Army’s position is that if I did have, heaven knows what they would be. There hasn’t been a Republican leprechaun since Coolidge. So I was rejected pending the formulation of an Elves-in-Exile Battalion. I decided then that I would just make people happy, soldiers and war correspondents and things like that.”

Reynolds’ eyes narrowed dangerously. He is very loyal. “Are you insinuating that we aren’t happy?” he gritted. “That my friends aren’t happy?”

“I’m not happy,” said the British consul, but no one paid any attention to him.

Little Charley Lytle said, “I heard some mention made of Scotch whisky. Now it just happens that I have----“

“How much?” said Clark Lee, who is a realist.

“Why, all you want.”

“I mean how much money?” Lee demanded.

“You don’t understand,” said little Charley. “There is no money involved. It is my contribution to the war—I believe you call it effort.”

“I’m going to kill him,” cried Knickerbocker. “Nobody can sneer at my war and get away with it.”

Reynolds said, “Could we get a case?”

“Surely,” said little Charley.

“Three cases?”


Lee broke in, “Now don’t you strain him. You don’t know what his breaking point is.”
“When can you deliver?” Reynolds asked.

Instead of answering, little Charley Lytle made a dramatic and slightly ribald gesture. There was one puff of smoke and he had disappeared. There followed three small explosions, like a series of tine depth charges, and on the floor of Room 140 of the Alletti hotel in Algiers lay three cases of Haig and Haig Pinch Bottle, ringed with the hot and incredulous eyes of a platoon of thirsty correspondents.

Reynolds breathed heavily the way a man does when he has a stroke. “A miracle!” he whispered. “A miracle straight out of the middle ages or Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Dour Jack Belden has lived a long time in China. On top of a basic pessimism, he has seen everything and is difficult to impress. His eyes now wandered out the arched window to the sweltering streets and the steaming harbor below. “It’s a medium good trick,” he said. “But it’s a cold-weather trick. I’d like to give him a real test.” He ignored the growl of growing rage from his peers. “If this so-called Elf could produce a bottle of say La Batt’s Pale India Ale on a day like this, I’d say he was a comer—“He was interrupted by a slight fall of snow from the hot and fly-specked ceiling. Our eyes followed the lazy white flakes to the floor, where they fell on a box of slim-necked bottles. The snow swirled and spelled out Courtesy of Canada in the air.

I think Jack Belden went too far. He said lazily, “But is it cold?”

Reynolds flung himself forward and touched the neck of a bottle. “Colder than a (two words deleted by censor),” he said.

That night there was an air raid, and even the British consul enjoyed it. And anyone who doesn’t believe this story can ask any of the people involved, even dour Jack Belden.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

“I Need the COIN Cart in here, STAT!!” - Lessons on Counterinsurgency from the Human Body

A Commentary upon the program presented by General Stanley A. McChrystal (ret.), and Kristina Talbert-Slagle

General McChrystal and Dr. Talbert-Slagle gave an interesting presentation December 19 at The Brookings Institution on “Lessons on Counterinsurgency from the Human Body.”  The concept they presented, that the process of fighting an infection like HIV/AIDS in the human body offered parallels and insights into fighting a counterinsurgency campaign in a nation-state, is not new but neither was their presentation a waste of time.  The metaphor imagining a nation or society as a human body or biological organism dates back to the Renaissance.  As recently as the 1950s, officials spoke of fighting off the infection of communism in the USA and abroad.  Nevertheless, it may be that by the power of PowerPoint they presented this notion more effectively and thoughtfully than it has been in the past.

Right at the beginning of their presentation I really appreciated Dr. Talbert-Slagle’s comment that the body is a system of systems, an important concept for understanding both the human body and the body politic.  What the metaphor also offers is a clearer picture of the two-pronged approach that is the basis of counterinsurgency – one line of effort confronts the infection itself while the second line of effort addresses the challenge of maintaining and increasing the body’s strength to better fight off the infection.  This translates into a military effort against the insurgent combat arm and another line of effort to strengthen the current political/social/governmental institutions.

Their presentation included many references to Afghanistan and a lesser degree to Iraq, although I personally saw an even better match with Ireland from 1916 to 1923, a focus of my own recent research.  Ireland in this period is an excellent model which also highlights several additional and useful elements of the infection/insurgency metaphor.

For example, one reason the British authorities were not more alarmed over a possible rising during 1914, 1915, and into early 1916 was the proliferation of armed marching groups in Ireland that had been active over these years.  The British authorities were aware of the Ulster Volunteers, MP John Redmond’s Irish National Volunteers, MacNeil and Pearse’s Irish Volunteers, James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians Rifles.  Of these, the most dangerous were actually the smallest – Pearse’s Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army.  These would actually turn out for the Easter 1916 Rising.  Within the infection metaphor, each of the marching groups represented a separate infection.  This multiplicity of active “infections” served to mask the activities of the others making it harder for the government to make a timely diagnosis of which was the real threat requiring treatment.

Another critically important parallel between COIN and fighting infection is the need for the active participation of the patient.  Both geopolitical and medical experience suggest that it is critically important in counterinsurgency for the population and their leadership (in government and otherwise) to buy in to the COIN effort, just as the medical patient must take an active role alongside his or her doctor in deciding upon an effective course of treatment.

One questioner interjected an interesting issue when he noted that the earliest cases of HIV/AIDS occurred among gay men and that the associated stigma delayed serious action by the medical world, politicians, and society at large for several years.  While this point was acknowledged but not elaborated on during the presentation, I believe that a similar problem of stigma can be identified in connection with a state confronted by an insurgency.  Insurgencies almost always emerge in failing or failed states seriously troubled by corruption and poverty and related increases in violence and criminal activity, among other factors.  These and other signs of the breakdown of the state stigmatize that state and reduce the willingness of other governments and their electorates to be associated with the regime now targeted by an insurgency.  The troubled nation and its population have become “the other” – distinct and separate from the “us” of the US and the Western world.

The association of the metaphor and the already noted situation in Ireland gave rise to another thought as I pondered the implications of the metaphor.  Following the defeat of the Easter 1916 Rising, the British quarantined the infection by executing 16 people they identified as ringleaders and imprisoned almost 1,500 others identified as participants.  Although the situation in Ireland did not then worsen, it also did not return to the pre-Rising “normal”.  About a year later, Britain began releasing its prisoners and allowing them to return to Ireland.

These returning prisoners were in fact even more determined to win Ireland’s independence after their year in prison.  They returned with greater cohesion, unity, and purpose than before. In effect, Britain now faced a super-bug in Ireland, resistant to the treatments used in the past.  Ireland suffered a relapse as a new, more violent, prolonged conflict now broke out.  Finally, in 1922, Britain and Ireland signed a treaty ending British rule in Ireland.  Medically, what had happened over the period 1914-1922 was that the patient and physician had disagreed upon the proper course of treatment and neither really anticipated the dangers of reinfection by a new stronger (more virulent?) form of the ‘virus’.

What the two speakers have presented to us is not a solution to the challenges of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare. They have revived and improved a metaphor that will help many people better understand the issues and challenges of counterinsurgency. The better both patient and physician understand the challenges and each other, the more likely they will successfully treat the disease.