Farewell to all that

I am writing this on Sunday, the fifteenth anniversary of the September attack on the World Trade Center. I have chosen not to watch television or noodle on the Internet, because I’m on vacation in Inverness, and I always use vacations to get away from the yammering that is usually my  constant companion.  But I did listen to the radio on my way down to get coffee, so I heard one of what I imagine were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of reverent tributes to the people in the towers. Sigh.

I don’t mean to suggest that the events were not tragic. Of course they were. They were also shocking, and they made the entire country feel less safe. Usually we are secure behind our oceans; if we want a war — and we often seem to — we go find it on another continent.

But the truth is, 9/11 was not that big a deal in California. Some of us had relatives caught in the horror of that day, but most of us didn’t. We Left Coast people are used to the idea that American history happens someplace else. It happens in Boston or New York or Philadelphia, Fort Sumter or Fort Ticonderoga or the battlefields of Gettysburg. The media are based in New York, as are the banks.

We are far from the action; we have our own action, but that’s different.  So after a few years, the memory of that day begins to fade. We were not there to hear the noises, see the smoke, smell the unspeakable odors. The crumpling of the towers became like the fall of Saigon or the attack on Pearl Harbor, historical tragedies that were part of our common narrative.

But September 11 seems to have grown in the national memory rather than fading away. And I have come to see the memorials on that day in a more sinister light. It’s part of an epidemic of forced patriotism and the militarization of the police departments and the perfunctory thanking of every member of the military for their service — even as we cut basic social services that helped their families stay healthy and get them an education.

It seems like we want a war.

It seems like the whole world wants  war.

 

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I have been reading To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild, an account of World War I concentrating on the  stories of the men and women who welcomed the war and the men and women who opposed it. There were a lot fewer people in the latter camp. Patriotic fervor was high, and many people thought that war would have a “sanitizing” effect on their country, a welcome blast that would (of course) end inevitably in victory.

The coming of the war was not a surprise. The assassination of an archduke provided a useful excuse for a rickety Austro-Hungarian empire to invade Serbia, and for the Kaiser of Germany to help his great friend Emperor Franz Joseph, and also to invade Russia and Belgium. Then France joined in to protect virtuous Belgium, and Britain came aboard, and Italy, and the Ottoman Empire joined the Germans, and oh what fun they all had.

They invented modern warfare.  Modern warfare meant that civilians were now fair game. How many dead? Depends on how you count. Some nations disappeared, and with them the records of the dead. The great flu epidemic of 1918 was a direct result of the war; shall we count the 50 to 100 million who died from it? The Russian Revolution came about because of the war; shall we count the 50 million killed by Stalin?

The United States is already at war. One day last week, we made bombing runs in six separate nations.  We have the most powerful army in the world; our military budget is $610 billion. That’s more than the next nine nations combined. Does it seem like we’re preparing for war kinda maybe?

The carefully fueled outrage that followed 9/11 led directly to the war in Iraq as well as the war in Afghanistan, alleged home of arch-villain Osama bin Laden, who was eventually found and killed in another country entirely. The President has awkwardly but constantly bragged of this feat, although it did nothing in particular to advance the cause of freedom. Revenge, it turns out, is not all that sweet.

We lost over 3000 people in Iraq; we lost 3000 people when the World Trade Center collapsed. Does that seem useful? A total of 35,000 died in Iraq, a jingoistic invasion to search for imaginary weapons of mass destruction. Utterly pointless.

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Innocents die. That is the nature of modern warfare. In the towers or in the villages; innocents die. And yet mankind seems addicted to conflict. Too much peace makes the armies restless;  too much peace makes the politicians restless.

And, not to be too cynical about it, war is a money-making proposition. The fixers, the smugglers, the arms-makers, the civilian consultants all make hay while the sun dims. To the victors go the spoils, of course, but some of the vanquished make out pretty well too. The drumbeat of profit is a more lasting motivation than the bugle call of patriotism.

Here’s my personal opinion: We are one well-timed assassination away from chaos. Suppose an Islamic extremist kills Putin; suppose a North Korean operative kills the American president, or one of the presidential candidates. Or suppose an emboldened China decides that Hong Kong needs a lesson in discipline. Or the Kurds and the Turks, or the Saudis and the Iranians — everyone gets drawn in, and…it can happen here. It has happened here; four hundred thousand Americans died in World War I, even though they had to cross an ocean to get there.

So you will forgive me if I do not wax patriotic about the Twin Towers. Forgive me if I look away when football field-sized flags are unfurled. Forgive me if I support our troops by fervently hoping that they do not die. I am sorry that the institutions supporting peace are so weak and the institutions supporting war are so strong.  I am sorry for it all.

It’s a foggy afternoon here. Tomales Bay is calm. The oak tree has blue-gray leaves that match the sky. I’ve been tending a fire in the fireplace all afternoon. I am enjoying the blessings of peace. But somehow, improbably, the human animal desires more. It desires blood.

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Photography by Tracy Johnston

Long distance help by Michelle Mizera

 

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56 thoughts on “Farewell to all that

    1. A warrior would agree with everything you wrote. A true warrior is willing to defend, but not to start a fight. As t. Jefferson said, “the military shall stand at the border with the guns pointing out.” That is profound.

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  1. Jon,
    I love your musings.
    I look forward to your email blog as from a dear friend.
    Maybe it is because you speak my language and do it more poetically.
    Cindy

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Right on; my thoughts exactly. As a retired chemistry teacher, I have heard that WWI started only when ammonium nitrate, used for explosives and fertilizers, could be made from the nitrogen in the atmosphere. It was the work of Fritz Haber, a German-Jew. Fascinating history; check it out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Haber

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    1. Prior to learning to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, there were other less convenient sources. Notably guano. Peru, Bolivia, and Chile went to war in the 19th century over control of guano rich Pacific islands. Another source of nitrogen then know was animal skeletons. The reason the American west is not littered with buffalo skeletons is that most of them were shipped by railroad to New Jersey where they were ground into bone meal for fertilizer.
      I also like the allusions in your title, Jon, to Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to All That,” and Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” Both classics of the Great War. Another volume from the grunt p.o.v. is “The Great War and Modern Memory,” by Paul Fussell.
      The good old USA PATRIOT Act, pace Sam Johnson the first refuge of scoundrels it turned out.

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  3. Excellent piece, as usual. I agree with 99% of what you say. It doesn’t affect your argument, but I do feel called to correct a few points of history. You say that the assassination of the archduke was a “useful excuse … for the Kaiser of Germany to help his great friend Emperor Franz Joseph, and also to invade Russia and Belgium. Then France joined in to protect virtuous Belgium…” Actually when the Kaiser saw the way things were going he tried desperately (although unsuccessfully) to get the Austrians to relent. But as Barbara Tuchman made so beautifully clear in The Guns of August, all these countries were committed by a web of alliances and treaty commitments, and by the time the shooting started it was too late to withdraw. Germany attacked France because a pre-existing mobilization plan required taking out France if war came with France and Russia together; France came in not to protect Belgium but because she was attacked, but also because she was committed to join a war against Russia. Russia was obliged to come in to defend Serbia. And so on. Austria (and perhaps Turkey) were the only powers with real freedom of action in 1914.

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  4. I feel so much less alone when I am listening to you Jon. It is hard sometimes to not feel as if my perspective in this crazy world is shared by no one else. Then I read something from you like this, and see the comments from others and breath easier, knowing that the whole world is not deluded. Just most of it…

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  5. I am in Bologna, Italy on vacation. Today we toured the main plaza area which includes a large memorial to the WW2 resistance fighters killed. We also saw a plaque to local volunteers killed in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. Everyone seems to want to honor those lost to war, the monuments are in every town, in every country.How do we change the culture to honor more those who keep us from going to war? I have 2 sons and I would leave the US with them before I would send them to fight. There is nothing that can be decided by death and war anymore. Only more death and greater loss.

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  6. Thank you for this. The most memorable and meaningful conversation I ever had with my father was during the Bay of Pigs. In WWII, he had witnessed the foundering then sinking of three fuel-less battleships off the Phillipines in the midst of Halsey’s Typhoon, where he served on a fuel tanker, helpless against the storm.

    When I sat with him in his big leather chair that October, scared that the world was coming to an end – it didn’t help that I had just read On the Beach, he comforted me, not with false assurances, but with a candid conversation about what war does to man, mankind, and the earth itself, how wars were inevitable because of mankind’s need for power and all that goes with it, and that the only way to feel secure was to do what I could to get and stay educated, and to know that as long as he and my mother were alive, they would do everything under their power to protect me and my brother. He said he knew Kennedy was an intelligent and thoughtful man, had good counsel, and that his course of action would be as wise as possible under the circumstances.

    I can’t say that I felt good after that conversation, but I will forever be grateful to Dad for holding his 11 year old daughter on his lap when she needed comfort and the lesson he taught so eloquently.

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  7. Thank you for putting into words what I am feeling.

    I’m 78. My grandfather was a pacifist (who truly believed “thou shalt not kill” and never ate meat, never wore leather) had only been in the U.S. for four years when he was part of a delegation that met with President Wilson urging him to create a path for conscientious objectors as WW I broke out. He was a brave man who paid for his pacifism. It was devastating to him when all three of his sons (including my father) volunteered to fight in WWII. But one of his grandsons received C.O. status during Vietnam, and all of his grandchildren have taken part in non-violent protests in the U.S. (five of us did jail time for standing up for justice and against violence).

    So here we are – on the verge of destroying our beautiful planet – manipulated in the name of patriotism to create yet more war, more violence.

    I still teach in a Community College. I teach a course for teachers called Peace Education. And I wonder it matters.

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  8. Love the sentiment, albeit the point of view, our point of view, left coast, The North American bubble, belies what the world currently endures. We were in Paris and Istanbul this Spring, and the talk on the ground is of the war America is currently waging, that no peace candidate is likely to emerge from our next election. They all considered Clinton a war candidate in the same breath they dismiss Claribell.

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  9. Each day it is more difficult to even get out of bed – not because of physical problems but of a reluctance to let the current world in.

    I wonder if we ever had collective Reason.

    One presidential candidate is an embarrassing and perplexing symptom of a collective lunacy, and yet…

    We write, we vote, we talk, but on many days it seems all we can do is go back to bed.

    “Beware of stupid people in large numbers.”

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  10. Thanks for that Jon. Those are the feelings I’ve had since right after 9/11. I saw a rush to war and hatred far out of proportion to the crime. Two wars to catch a small band of terrorists? Why not use the CIA or interpol. I think that we’d already been in a third world war if Obama wasn’t so determined to limit the violence. Patriotism is a dangerous seduction.

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  11. Courageous, John. I always thought the attack on the Twin Towers was the same level of tragedy as the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, by a homegrown terrorist, a right wing white man. And we are in Endless War. Welcome to 1984 and it’s constantly shifting enemies.

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  12. There is one group of us that doesn’t want war and those are the folks who have been to war. Thanks to the abolition of the draft and the all-volunteer armed forces those folks are becoming a vanishingly small portion of the population.

    I was born just before the end of WWII. Combat veterans were everywhere for me growing up. Everyone knew dozens of them. They were our teachers, Scout leaders, civic figures and the business community. When I went off to college 1/3 of the whole university was enrolled in ROTC and most of those served on active duty. Today I have no family and no friends who have served in the past 20 years.

    This “outsourcing” of the burdens of war has changed the way our people and many of their leaders think, and I believe the change has not been for the better.

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    1. Nick, my wife and I totally agree. You and I might share a birth date. It was my Scout master and family doctor who told me, as a teenager, of battle in a way that I still have pictures in my mind of a buddy suddenly gone and mud and wire and metal. Mostly I remember those 2 men’s faces, their voices, as they spoke. I was fortunate (I think) to not have been a soldier. Lost friends who were.

      That there is no longer a citizen army in our country, and that our police are being made non-civilians, fosters an ease with which we use the term “war” and send our troops and machines and guns everywhere in our/its name.

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  13. > four hundred thousand Americans died in World War I

    Fact check: that should be WW II. The total dead for WW I was 116,500.

    But woo hoo. Reducing huge numbers of individual lives to columns and rows in a spreadsheet. Once again you have said everything more eloquently than I ever could.

    David

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  14. As a pacifist, I agree with everything you wrote, Jon. We just accept War. I don’t think that many believe that Peace is even a possibility.
    As a right-coaster, with many people I know living or working in NYC who were directly affected by 9/11, it is hard not to, at least, honor their feelings and memories of pain. And I do, even without being sucked in to any of their continuing need to have revenge on SOMEBODY…
    It is all very personal to them. And I guess I want to honor their losses. I can do that quietly, I don’t need to fly a flag or claim to be a patriot to do that.

    (From My own FB post…this makes it personal)
    My friend David posted this on FB yesterday. It was heartbreaking to read, a very poignant moment… so many police and fire personnel were overwhelmed and traumatized on 9/11.
    David wrote:

    “I had a play in rehearsal in New York on 9/11. I phoned my director to see what was up. He said this, “I was in Brooklyn, but I could see the smoke rising from Manhattan. There was a cop standing there, so I decided to ask him what was happening. I didn’t see at first that the cop was sobbing and holding a cell phone to his ear. When he could get a word out, he said, “I’m listening to my friends die.'”

    ~~~~~~~~~
    “I’m listening to my friends die.” I can’t imagine…The same kind of devastating thing so many soldiers experienced during every war, everywhere.

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  15. Sad but true. No wonder The Star Spangled Banner has become so controversial these days. Is it a tribute to those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice, or is it a call to battle?
    Toss the coin and let the games begin already.

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    1. The SSB is A) a godawful song that B) reads like a drunk looking for a fight. Especially A): cliched lyrics and stolen + impossible-to-sing melody. Terrible in every way a song can be terrible. America (the kinda, sorta Beautiful) is much better, but not violent enough to meet the USA’s RDA of testosterone.

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  16. Yeah. What you said. I couldn’t agree more; I almost wish it were otherwise. When I think of all the god-awful things that have been done since then, by us as well as others, it’s enough to make one weep and/or shout with rage.

    On another note, were you by any chance staying in the Inn at 10 Inverness Way? I ask because it’s a favorite place of mine and my husband’s’ but I’m sure there are many other equally peaceful places to stay out there on the other side of the fault.

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  17. Thank you once again for saying what so many of us feel, and saying it in such a simple and poignant way. For the first time in my life, days go by when I do not turn on the TV. My weather forecast is limited to looking out the window. Too disheartened to risk feeling even worse about this war-diseased world, the brutalized children, the hopeless parents, the old people dying with little hope that a kinder, more decent world will follow their passing. And, to be truthful, the tv screen is dark because I am too unwilling to see That Face.

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  18. I went to a Giant’s day game a few years ago, and when the SSBanner was played, I stayed seated and kind of hid from it all. After the banner (sung as gospel romance with words of war), the guy next to me who had stood, asked me, not in a hostile way but just enquiring politely, why I didn’t stand. I told him why: “Because there are baseball players on this field making 10 million dollars a year to fucking play baseball, and right now there are war-injured soldiers back from our stupid-ass war who die before they can get treated by the VA hospital. That’s why.” The guy patted me on the shoulder and said, with sadness, “I understand. I understand.” Here we are in a momentous presidential election, and all the candidates are talking about is what an asshole the other person is. Rather than the most important issue facing the country (the world!) which is the encouraging, aiding, conducting, killing and displacing, and destabilizing World War III.

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  19. Each day of my life – and I am 58 years old – I read of, hear of or witness one example after another of man’s inhumanity to man. Well, if man actually was created in God’s image, as so many will have us believe, it certainly doesn’t speak too highly of this so-called God.

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  20. Thank you thank you thank you. It does me some good to realize I’m not as alone as I feared in my beliefs. And to see the comments here really helped too.
    Love the phrase Left Coast.
    Reading you is soooo satisfying, yet I anticipate eagerly your next offering.
    Thank you Jon.

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    1. Dear Mr. Auberjonois,
      I was so thrilled to see your post! I was in high school drama classes (Aunt Abby in Arsenic and Old Lace!) when ACT came to San Francisco. Our family joined Friends of ACT and helped tidy up the Geary Theatre. I became such a fan of you and your wife. My father had a big crush on her, and I on you! Your performance in Tartuffe is indelible. Charlie’s Aunt was memorable, too. I have so enjoyed following your career over the years and am delighted to be reminded again what joy you have brought to my life!

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    2. Dear Rene,
      I also remember your Tartuffe and Charlie’s Aunt fondly. Per Jon, perhaps we could change the classic line to “America, where the nuts come from.” In any case, I’m delighted that you’ve had a long and fruitful career. Whoever cast you, notably Robert Altman, always chose wisely.

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  21. OH Jon. What a painful posting. It’s painful to think on what you’ve here written. More painful still to think of this view, your view, and now that you’ve articulated it, I will say my view, too and realize how marginalized that view is. So many bullies out there, noising THEIR views, those ones that bully and dominate our lives.

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  22. Thank you all for your kind comments and recollections. Yeah, Judith, it is hard to believe things that are outside the mainstream if wisdom on these matters. I just think: It ain’t as hard as dying young and senselessly.

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  23. Agree with everything you said. I have a feeling that if Hillary were way ahead in the polls, the wise but sad column wouldn’t have been written — at least in the tone I heard. And for me, the overwhelming black cloud is not Trump –wackos like him have been fairly common [think Mussolini], just not as rich — but the fact that so many Americans are distraught enough to ignore all common sense, all sense of proportion, all sense of…citizenship, and see him as savior. Keep writing, Jon. And please don’t use that word >farewell< again. Makes me nervous as hell, as I think you may know.

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  24. Sure you don’t want to lace tales of Coxey’s Army, MacArthur’s rolling over the Bonus Army, The Million Man March, Mario Savio’s gear speech, County Joe’s I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag and outtakes from Laugh-In and Bonanza into you rambling 9/11/ cocktail?

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    1. I’ve been thinking exactly the same things lately. It does seem like the whole world is armed for combat, especially here where half of the world’s privately owned arms resides. Add to it the precariousness of the economy where the over-inflated bubble called Wall Street laughs nervously. It is like a pyramid of sand being added to grain by grain. No one can predict when it will collapse but we know that one last grain will bring it down.

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  25. Dear Jon,

    I’ve just read this and a couple of your recent posts. Sitting here looking out at the Bay (from the Marin shore looking East) I find tears on my cheeks and a desire in my heart for moments – and more – of peacefulness for us all.

    I deeply appreciate that you open us to live more fully as each of us may choose to do amidst all this wonder and pain.

    And, I envision your readers, especially commenters, spread out from your typewriter all around. They hearten me in their very existence and by their writing a community that helps each of us to be brave and to do acts good and meaningful.

    Glad to find you again. It’s been 6 years since I last commented.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Stalin took power in 1929, 11 years after WW I ended. So you can hardly count his millions of victims as WW I casualties.

    Larry Jacobs

    PO Box 261

    The Sea Ranch, CA 95497

    larryjacobs@pacbell.net

    CONFIDENTIALITY – This email and any attachments are confidential and may also be privileged. If the reader of this email is not the named recipient, please notify me immediately and do not disclose the contents to another person, use it for any purpose, or store or copy the information in any medium.

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  27. The San Francisco Bay Area was not unscathed by the events of 9-11. Many people forget about United Flight 93, where 40 civilians – most of them Bay Area residents – attempted to stop the highjacking and attacked the terrorists, causing the plane to crash in Pennsylvania instead of the White House. I understand many of them phoned home, leaving their love on answering machines as the plane crashed. While the federal government debates an appropriate park in Pennsylvania, Union City has chosen to build its own memorial to these (imho) true heroes. I wonder if I’d have the guts to jump a terrorist. I wonder what I’d say to my home answering machine as the plane goes down. Might be worth a trip next year. http://www.93memorial.com

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  28. Great column, uh, post. I’m originally from NYC and waited four hours to learn that my parents were alright; they live in lower Manhattan, I used to work in tower 2, etc. I was upset, very much so. But the then-“president” started a watch-me-daddy! war against Eye-Raq, Obama’s managed to keep Gitmo open, and anyone unwilling to ass-kiss the police and military is suspect. How many times the US has talked itself into wars!, against countries, poverty, drugs (certain ones, anyway), whatever’s in the way.

    Unfortunately, this country is still very young, an adolescent in nation-years. Adolescents are, by nature, foolish and stubborn… and so we are. Or as H.L. Mencken said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” It’s sad to see what people in the US and elsewhere fall for, and sad that it’s not unexpected.

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