Category Archives: History

Thanksgiving in the Midst of a Pandemic

As we prepare for Thanksgiving tomorrow, let us look back on what it was like in the United States during the last Thanksgiving celebrated during a pandemic. The Spanish Flu was raging in November 1918. They were coming to the end of the worst of the second wave, and like this year, many government leaders and health officials encouraged people to have small Thanksgiving gatherings. Did they listen? What can the Spanish Flu pandemic teach us for Thanksgiving 2020?

Thanksgiving 1918 took place during a deadly pandemic. The pandemic began in February 1918 (possibly as early as December 1917, at Camp Greene, North Carolina) and lasted until April 1920. It infected 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time – in four successive waves. The first wave lasted from March to July 1918 and was relatively mild. The second wave was much deadlier, beginning in August and receding in December. The third wave started in January 1919 and lasted through July. It was less severe than the second wave but still much more deadly than the initial first wave. The fourth wave hit in January 1920 and continued until April of that year. While it was called the Spanish Flu, it is believed that it mutated to become one of history’s most dangerous pandemics in the United States. Due to World War I, many countries engaged in wartime censorship and suppressed reporting of the pandemic; however, newspapers were allowed to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain, such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII, and these stories created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit.

On Thanksgiving 1918, a thankful nation celebrated with particular enthusiasm, though many Americans, like today, lived under various phases of quarantines and face mask orders. Millions mourned loved ones. And health officials in many cities issued the same holiday warning: Stay home and stay safe. As Thanksgiving rolled around, some cities celebrated the relaxation of flu-related restrictions—partly due to opposition campaigns by retailers, theater owners, unions, mass transportation companies, and other economically stressed stakeholders. Washington, Indianapolis, and Oakland, California, had lifted restrictions days before, and San Francisco was on the brink of lifting its mask mandate. In some cities, Thanksgiving rituals brought a welcome sense of normalcy. Many Americans returned to religious services, performed charity work, and went through with planned football games, parties, and performances.

However, not all was well. On November 27, the day before Thanksgiving, St. Louis reported its highest new daily case count since the epidemic began, and Buffalo, New York, reported its largest jump in daily cases since the lifting of its pandemic ban weeks earlier. Both cities subsequently cracked down on public gatherings, limited the number of passengers on streetcars, and ordered those cars to be ventilated and cleaned. The month before, the pandemic was blamed for killing 11,000 in Philadelphia. The epidemic ultimately claimed an estimated 675,000 American lives, probably a tremendous underestimate since it did not include countless deaths involving preexisting conditions. The pandemic was raging in the fall of 1918. Yet on November 28, 1918, the United States celebrated Thanksgiving. In his annual Thanksgiving proclamation, President Woodrow Wilson didn’t even mention the flu, which he later contracted himself while in France for the WWI Peace Conference.

COVID-19 is casting its long, persistent shadow over Thanksgiving 2020, but for various reasons, the Spanish flu didn’t have a similar effect in 1918 on Thanksgiving or the subsequent holidays. That likely had consequences later. The Great War had ended two and a half weeks earlier. It appeared to be a good reason for giving thanks. In the minds of many Americans, they had a lot for which to be thankful. The war was over, and they were still alive. This year, we have the defeat of Donald Trump for which to celebrate. A dark period in American history is coming to an end, but I digress. In November 1918, the flu continued to kill people worldwide, but it appeared to be in retreat. By Thanksgiving, people were anxious to forget a pandemic that they didn’t understand in the first place.

COVID-19 and the Spanish flu appear to have at least one thing in common: they both induced certain degrees of denial, but in so many other ways, they are as different as Thanksgiving 1918 and Thanksgiving 2020. The most significant contrast is in ferocity. In October 1918, the flu claimed as many lives as 4,500 in a week, and 13,500 in the September-through-December period in Philadelphia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far, just under 2,000 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 in the city. In Pennsylvania, nearly two-thirds of coronavirus deaths have occurred in nursing facilities. The Spanish flu’s favored targets were people 20 to 40 years old. In all, the virus infected 25 percent of Americans. 

Philadelphia’s infamous Liberty Bond Parade of September 28, 1918, was attended by 200,000 people and featured march king John Philip Sousa. It was a major superspreader event, and deaths spiked within 72 hours. On October 3, Pennsylvania ordered all theaters and saloons closed, and Philadelphia added schools and churches to the list. But it was too late: During the week that ended October 19, 4,500 were dead. By the first week in November, the flu virus seemed to be winding down, and even though massive crowds gathered to celebrate the war-ending Armistice on November 11, the aftereffects were not as dire, but the number of cases did rise. In the week that ended November 23, the city did report 103 deaths. That did not stop Thanksgiving.

Just as cases rose after Armistice Day celebrations, they rose again after Thanksgiving. Dallas, Minneapolis, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Seattle saw surges. Omaha relaunched a public health campaign. Parts of Cleveland and its suburbs closed schools and enacted influenza bans in early December. On December 6, the St. Paul Daily News announced that more than 40 Minneapolis schools were closed because of the flu, below the headline “SANTA CLAUS IS DOWN WITH THE FLU.” Health officials asked “moving picture show” managers to exclude children, closed Sunday schools, and ordered department stores to dispense with “Santa Claus programs.” On Christmas Eve, health officials in Nebraska made influenza a mandatory quarantine disease, and fines ranged from $15 to $100 for violations. Approximately 1,000 homes in Omaha were placarded, meaning their occupants could not leave for at least four days after the fever had subsided. By January, influenza fully engulfed the United States in the third wave of the pandemic. The virus spread throughout the winter and spring, killing thousands more. 

During the war, sustaining morale was seen as the most important goal of the government, and that “no bad news allowed” spirit lingered after the war. People had lived through rationing and had watched loved ones die in front of their eyes. Every day already was a hardship experience, and people were reeling on an everyday basis. In short, Americans were ready for a break and were thinking they could finally step back from the height of scarcities. The New York Sunwrote of families welcoming returning military personnel they didn’t know into their homes for dinner.

The flu, however, did not go away. It experienced a resurgence in December, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the first six months of 1919, “influenza” deaths were matching the annual totals for each of 1915, 1916, and 1917. Experts believe that it would not have lasted as long as it did or been as deadly if people had been keeping to themselves. It would be impossible to precisely know what effects mitigation efforts would have had on the flu’s spread. Still, we can see today that in areas where governments imposed greater mitigation efforts, COVID-19 was better contained, and infection rates were lower. Like today, in 1918, the nation had no organized response, leaving it to states and local governments. Some cities in the West did have mask ordinances, as did Atlanta. But when he shut down theaters and saloons, the Pennsylvania health commissioner did not address masks or physical distancing, mentioning only the importance of getting fresh air and exercise.

The response or lack thereof wasn’t surprising since people were apt to view what was happening as a “flu,” with which they were familiar, not some exotic plague. While some Americans don’t know anyone who has been affected by COVID-19, that is becoming a rarer occurrence. COVID has had such an inordinate impact on people of color, the marginalized, the elderly, and Americans do not want to acknowledge the vulnerable in our society. That’s part of the reason Donald Trump was so successful with his followers. Like him, they do not care about others and refuse to wear masks or social distance even though it has been proven effective in preventing the mask wearer from spreading the virus to someone else.

Given that so many fatalities are occurring among people with preexisting conditions, we need to look at what that means for the health of the United States. We would be wise now to turn our attention to fighting the likes of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. The state of American healthcare has proven to be an issue during this pandemic. Rural areas with no hospitals and few doctors in the county are suffering greatly. Poverty and poor health conditions are a significant problem in this country. Rather than merely bracing for the next pandemic, we have numerous public health priorities that need to be addressed.

We do have things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Donald Trump and many of his cronies will be leaving office on January 20. We can still hold out hope that John Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock will win the January 5 runoffs in Georgia and give Democrats control of the Senate. If that happens, we will see the death nail in the coffin of Trumpism, at least for two years. Also, if you are reading this, it means you are alive. We will get through this pandemic, but we need to remain vigilant. That means we need to avoid unnecessary travel and gathering. I know it is disappointing for many Americans, but we can get through this so that we can celebrate many, many more Thanksgivings. The better part of valor is to stay home and stay safe so that we can have more to be thankful for next Thanksgiving.


November

Edward Thomas in Uniform

November
By Edward Thomas

November’s days are thirty:
November’s earth is dirty,
Those thirty days, from first to last;
And the prettiest thing on ground are the paths
With morning and evening hobnails dinted,
With foot and wing-tip overprinted
Or separately charactered,
Of little beast and little bird.
The fields are mashed by sheep, the roads
Make the worst going, the best the woods
Where dead leaves upward and downward scatter.
Few care for the mixture of earth and water,
Twig, leaf, flint, thorn,
Straw, feather, all that men scorn,
Pounded up and sodden by flood,
Condemned as mud.

But of all the months when earth is greener
Not one has clean skies that are cleaner.
Clean and clear and sweet and cold,
They shine above the earth so old,
While the after-tempest cloud
Sails over in silence though winds are loud,
Till the full moon in the east
Looks at the planet in the west
And earth is silent as it is black,
Yet not unhappy for its lack.
Up from the dirty earth men stare:
One imagines a refuge there
Above the mud, in the pure bright
Of the cloudless heavenly light:
Another loves earth and November more dearly
Because without them, he sees clearly,
The sky would be nothing more to his eye
Than he, in any case, is to the sky;
He loves even the mud whose dyes
Renounce all brightness to the skies.

About the Poet:

If the war goes on I believe I shall find myself a sort of Englishman, though neither poet or soldier’

– Letter to Walter de la Mare, 30th August 1914

Philip Edward Thomas (3 March 1878 – 9 April 1917) was a British poet, essayist, and novelist. Scholars consider him a war poet, although few of his poems deal directly with his war experiences. His career in poetry only came after he had already been a successful writer and literary critic. In 1915, he enlisted in the British Army to fight in the First World War and was killed in action shortly after arriving in France.

Thomas thought that poetry was the highest form of literature and regularly reviewed it, but he only became a poet himself at the end of 1914 when living at Steep, East Hampshire. He initially published his poetry under the name Edward Eastaway to disguise his identity due to his fame as a critic. Robert Frost, who was living in England at the time, encouraged Thomas (then more famous as a critic) to write poetry, and their friendship was so close that the two planned to reside side by side in the United States. Frost’s most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” was inspired by walks with Thomas and Thomas’s indecisiveness about which route to take.

Thomas enlisted in the Artists Rifles in July 1915, despite being a 37-year-old married man who could have avoided enlisting. He was unintentionally influenced in this decision by his friend Frost, who had returned to the U.S. but sent Thomas an advance copy of “The Road Not Taken.” Frost intended the poem as a gentle mocking of Thomas’ indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their many walks together; however, most audiences took the poem more seriously than Frost intended. Thomas similarly took it seriously and personally. The poem allowed Thomas to be decisive and enlist.

Thomas was promoted to corporal, and in November 1916 was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant. He was killed in action soon after arriving in France at Arras on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. To spare the feelings of his widow, Helen, she was told the fiction of a “bloodless death,” i.e., that Thomas was killed by the concussive blast wave of one of the last shells fired as he stood to light his pipe and that there was no mark on his body. However, a letter from his commanding officer Franklin Lushington written in 1936 (and discovered many years later in an American archive), states that in reality, the cause of Thomas’s death was being “shot clean through the chest.” W. H. Davies, the Welsh poet and Thomas’s close friend, was devastated by his death and immortalized him in a poem, “Killed in Action (Edward Thomas).”

Killed in Action (Edward Thomas)
By W. H. Davies

Happy the man whose home is still
In Nature’s green and peaceful ways;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.

And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.

But thou, my friend, art lying dead:
War, with its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, with many more:
The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.

Thomas is buried in Agny military cemetery on the outskirts of Arras. He did not live to see Poems (1917), a collection of his poetry published under his pseudonym, Edward Eastaway. In just under two years, he had written over 140 poems. On 11 November 1985, Thomas was among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. The inscription, written by fellow poet Wilfred Owen, reads: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”


Honoring LGBTQ+ Veterans

American model and actor Max Emerson and his boyfriend, Army veteran Capt. Andrés Camilo, at the American Military Partner Association National Gala, 2019*

While military service often demands sacrifices from those in uniform, historically, LGBTQ+ veterans have faced a unique set of challenges. Many of these veterans, following a call to serve, meant keeping their private lives entirely private, fearing that exclusionary policies would hold them back or end their careers altogether. There are an estimated 1 million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterans in the United States. 

LGBTQ+ soldiers have always been part of the American military. In an era before gay marriage or open pride, military men fell in love, formed passionate friendships, and had same-sex encounters. Due to social and official discrimination, though, most of their stories have gone untold. But in the case of one of the military’s founding heroes, homosexuality was always part of the story. Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian military man hired by George Washington to whip the Continental Army into shape during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, is known for his bravery and the discipline and grit he brought to the American troops. Historians also think he was homosexual—and served as an openly gay man in the military at a time when sex between men was punished as a crime. Benjamin Franklin recommended von Steuben to Washington and played up his qualifications. He also downplayed rumors that the baron had been dismissed from the Prussian military for homosexuality.

Von Steuben may have been one of early America’s most open LGBTQ+ figures, but he was hardly the only man whose love of other men was well known. And though he was to have helped save the American army, his contribution is mostly forgotten today. Even with an exception like von Steuben, few LGBTQ+ service members have served openly in the military until recently. However, exceptions were always made for LGBTQ+ individuals as long as they generally remained discreet and deemed useful to the US military. Since the Revolutionary War, homosexuality was grounds for discharge from all US military branches until 2010. During World War II, the military began enforcing specific policies based on sexual orientation. Homosexuality was a disqualifying trait as soon as the military added psychiatric screenings to its induction process. During the war, the blue discharge became the “discharge of choice” for homosexual service members — which, though neither honorable nor dishonorable, prevented former service members from utilizing the GI Bill and held extremely negative connotations, often preventing veterans from integrating back into civilian life.

Still, LGBTQ+ individuals continued to serve while in the closet. After World War II, members of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest LGBT (gay rights) organizations in the United States, protested the US policy against gays serving in the military. They believed they should be able to serve their country in any capacity, whether it be in government or the military. They felt that service in the military would lead to more acceptance for gay men. However, that would change during the Vietnam War. Young gay men rebelled against early organizations like the Mattachine Society. Young gay men had to choose whether to reveal or conceal their homosexuality when they came before the draft board because with the draft board being composed of local citizens, this could mean being outed to friends, neighbors, or parents. The dilemma faced by gay youths polarized the gay liberation movement, and young gay men joined in on the antiwar protests. With the Vietnam War and the draft still very much a reality, gay rights groups turned their backs on the issue of military service because they did not want to be drafted. However, the government also turned their backs on the ban and forced many gay men who were drafted to serve, deciding that they needed the manpower more than they needed to uphold the ban on military service. When personnel shortages occurred, the US military was all too happy to allow LGBTQ+ individuals to serve, particularly gay men. 

The LGBTQ+ rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s once again changed positions and advocated for LGBTQ+ individuals to serve in the military. They raised the issue by publicizing several noteworthy dismissals of gay service members. Sgt. Leonard Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time in 1975. In 1982, the Department of Defense issued a policy stating, “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” It cited the military’s need “to maintain discipline, good order, and morale” and “to prevent breaches of security.” In 1988, in response to a campaign against lesbians at the Marines’ Parris Island Depot, activists launched the Gay and Lesbian Military Freedom Project (MFP) to advocate for an end to the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the armed forces. 

In 1989, reports commissioned by the Personnel Security Research and Education Center (PERSEREC), an arm of the Pentagon, were discovered in the process of Joseph Steffan’s lawsuit fighting his forced resignation from the US Naval Academy. One report said that “having a same-gender or an opposite-gender orientation is unrelated to job performance in the same way as is being left- or right-handed.” Other lawsuits fighting discharges highlighted the service record of service members like Tracy Thorne and Margarethe (Grethe) Cammermeyer. The MFP began lobbying Congress in 1990, and in 1991 Senator Brock Adams (D-Washington) and Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-California) introduced the Military Freedom Act, legislation to end the ban entirely. Adams and Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colorado) re-introduced it the next year. In July 1991, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, in the context of the outing of his press aide Pete Williams, dismissed the idea that gays posed a security risk as “a bit of an old chestnut” in testimony before the House Budget Committee. In response to his comment, several major newspapers endorsed ending the ban, including USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Detroit Free Press. In June 1992, the General Accounting Office released a report that Congress members had requested two years earlier, estimating the costs associated with the ban on gays and lesbians in the military at $27 million annually.

During the 1992 US presidential election campaign, the civil rights of gays and lesbians, particularly their open service in the military, attracted some press attention, and all candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination supported ending the ban on military service by gays and lesbians. Republicans did not make a political issue of that position. In an August cover letter to all his senior officers, Gen. Carl Mundy, Jr., Commandant of the Marine Corps, praised a position paper authored by a Marine Corps chaplain that said that “In the unique, intensely close environment of the military, homosexual conduct can threaten the lives, including the physical (e.g., AIDS) and psychological well-being of others.” Mundy called it “extremely insightful” and said it offered “a sound basis for discussion of the issue.” The murder of gay US Navy petty officer Allen R. Schindler, Jr. on October 27, 1992, brought calls from advocates of allowing open service by gays and lesbians for prompt action from the incoming Clinton administration.

President Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 on the promise to allow all citizens to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation. Clinton called for legislation to overturn the ban but encountered intense opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress members, and portions of the public. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) emerged as a compromise policy. On December 21, 1993, the Clinton Administration issued Defense Directive 1304.26, which directed that military applicants were not to be asked about their sexual orientation. The full name of the policy at the time was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue.” The “Don’t Ask” provision mandated that military or appointed officials will not ask about or require members to reveal their sexual orientation. The “Don’t Tell” stated that a member may be discharged for claiming to be a homosexual or bisexual or making a statement indicating a tendency towards or intent to engage in homosexual activities. The “Don’t Pursue” established what was minimally required for an investigation to be initiated. A “Don’t Harass” provision was added to the policy later. It ensured that the military would not allow harassment or violence against service members for any reason.

Fast-forward to the 2008 US presidential election campaign. Senator Barack Obama advocated a full repeal of the laws barring gays and lesbians from serving in the military. Nineteen days after his election, Obama’s advisers announced that plans to repeal the policy might be delayed until 2010 because Obama first wanted “to confer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his new political appointees at the Pentagon to reach a consensus, and then present legislation to Congress.” As president, he advocated a policy change to allow gay personnel to serve openly in the armed forces, stating that the US government has spent millions of dollars replacing troops expelled from the military, including language experts fluent in Arabic, because of DADT.

In December 2010, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a bill repealing DADT, and President Obama signed the repeal into law on December 22, 2010. Restrictions on lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members ended in 2011. In 2016, the Obama Administration lifted the ban on transgender people serving in the military. However, under the Trump administration, transgender individuals have been banned from serving in the military. On July 26, 2017, Trump announced on his Twitter page that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed “to serve in any capacity in the US Military.” At the time, close to 15,000 transgender troops serve in the military, and Trump’s ban was denounced by former military leaders, Members of Congress from both parties, and the American Medical Association. 

For 234 years, the United States had anti-LGBTQ+ policies that prevented many thousands of brave, talented soldiers, sailors, and marines from stepping up to serve in national defense. Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals can now serve openly in the military, and once the Biden administration enters office, transgender individuals will once again be able to serve in the military. Just as we owe so much to heterosexual servicemembers, LGBTQ+ service members have not only sacrificed their lives for this country but, for most of its history, had to serve in silence. On this Veterans Day, let us not forget the millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterans who have served in the United States military.

*The nation’s largest LGBTQ military event of the year, the American Military Partner Association National Gala celebrates and honors our modern military families for their service and sacrifice.


The Unknown Soldier

Sergeant Aaron Lopez-Stoner, assigned to the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), conducts his last walk at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, January 15, 2017. (Staff Sergeant Terrance D. Rhodes/US Army)

The Unknown Soldier
By Melvin B. Tolson

I was a minuteman at Concord Bridge,
I was a frigate-gunner on Lake Erie,
I was a mortarman at Stony Ridge,
I fought at San Juan Hill and Château Thierry,
I braved Corregidor and the Arctic Sea:
The index finger brings democracy.

These States bred freedom in and in my bone—
Old as the new testament of Plymouth Bay.
When the Founding Fathers laid the Cornerstone
And rued the thirteen clocks that would not say
The hour on the hour, I nerved myself with them
Under the noose in the hand of the tyrant’s whim.

I’ve seen the alien ships of destiny
Plow the sea mountains between the hemispheres.
I’ve seen the Gulf Stream of our history
Littered with derelicts of corsair careers.
I’ve heard the watchman cry, “The bars! The bars!”
When midnight held the funeral of stars.

I saw horizontal States grow vertical,
From Plymouth Harbor to the Golden Gate,
Till wedged against skyscapes empyreal
Their glories elbowed the decrees of fate.
These States bred freedom in and in my bone:
I hymn their virtues and their sins atone.

The tares and wheat grow in the self-same field,
The rose and thorn companion on the bush,
The gold and gravel cuddle in the yield,
The oil and grit and dirt together gush.
The Gordian knot to be or not to be
Snares not the free.

My faith props the tomorrows, for I know
The roots of liberty, tough-fibered, feed
On the blood of tyrants and martyrs; the judas blow
Tortures the branches till they twist and bleed;
And yet no Caesar, vitamined on loot,
Can liberty uproot!

I am the Unknown Soldier: I open doors
To the Rights of Man, letters incarnadine.
These shrines of freedom are mine as well as yours;
These ashes of freemen yours as well as mine.
My troubled ghost shall haunt These States, nor cease
Till the global war becomes a global peace.

__________________________

World War I—known at the time as “The Great War”—officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France. However, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”

Veterans Day, which is tomorrow, originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance, and Nov. 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938. Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans—living or dead—but especially gives thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.

__________________________

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a monument dedicated to deceased U.S. service members whose remains have not been identified. It is located in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, United States. The World War I “Unknown” is a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the Victoria Cross, and several other foreign nations’ highest service awards. The U.S. Unknowns who were interred are also recipients of the Medal of Honor, presented by U.S. presidents who presided over their funerals. The monument has no officially designated name.

Dozens of countries have a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These tombs are a monument dedicated to the services of unknown soldiers interred at the monument and to the common memories of all soldiers killed in war. These tombs can be found in many nations and are usually high-profile national monuments. Throughout history, many soldiers have died in war with their remains being unidentified. Following World War I, a movement arose to commemorate these soldiers with a single tomb, containing the body of one such unidentified soldier.

Many of these Tombs of the Unknown are usually guarded by honorary sentinels at all times. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, the tomb guards are soldiers of the United States Army. It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Fewer than 20 percent of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those only a fraction pass training to become full-fledged Tomb Guards. The soldier “walking the mat” does not wear rank insignia, so as not to outrank the Unknowns, whatever their ranks may have been. Non-commissioned officers (usually the Relief Commander and Assistant Relief Commanders), do wear insignia of their rank when changing the guard only. They have a separate uniform (without rank) that is worn when they actually guard the Unknowns or are “posted.” The duties of the sentinels are not purely ceremonial. The sentinels will confront people who cross the barriers at the tomb or whom they perceive to be disrespectful or excessively loud.

__________________________

About the Poet

Melvin B. Tolson (February 6, 1898 – August 29, 1966) was an American poet, educator, columnist, and politician. As a poet, he was influenced both by Modernism and the language and experiences of African Americans, and he was deeply influenced by his study of the Harlem Renaissance. Known for his complex, visionary poetry, Melvin B. Tolson was one of America’s leading Black poets.

Tolson was born in 1898 in Moberly, Missouri. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1924 and a master’s degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University in 1940. In 1947, Liberia appointed him as poet laureate. He is the author of numerous works, including the poetry collections Harlem Gallery: Book One, The Curator (1965), Libretto for the Republic of Liberia(1953), and Rendezvous with America (1944), and the plays Black Boy (1963) and Black No More (1952).

Tolson had a vibrant teaching career. In Marshall, Texas, he taught English and speech at Wiley College, where he led an award-winning debate team. From 1947 to 1965, he was a professor of English, speech, and drama at Langston University, a historically black college in Langston, Oklahoma.


El Douche vs. Il Duce

They could almost be twins.

Massive personality defects ruled out listening to other people.  Narcissistic to a degree, he presented himself to his subordinates and to the public as all-knowing—he could reel off an array of statistics (not all accurate) —and all-wise.  A master of the media of his day—newspapers and state-controlled radio—he ruled on the basis of intuition and extemporization.  He acted on the spur of the moment, always sensitive to the need to be seen as other leaders’ equal.  Rarely did anyone ever try to talk him out of a chosen course, and when they did so they failed.  You couldn’t reason with him. He made bad choices, disregarded warnings his country was not up to the demands he was making of it, and turned a blind eye to economic realities.  Many of the failures and setbacks were his fault—though not all of them.  Had he lived to write his memoirs, he would no doubt have railed against incompetent generals and inadequate subordinates.  That would have been a smokescreen. You might almost think I was writing about Donald Trump, but in fact, this is a description of Benito Mussolini.

Following Donald Trump’s release from his three-night stay at Walter Reed Hospital to relieve symptoms of the coronavirus, he flew back to the White House (WH) on Marine One, exited the military helicopter, and ascended the steps leading to the WH second-floor balcony. Once there, he instantly removed his face mask as he turned to the flash cameras and camcorders below. Occasionally visibly gasping for air, he posed in the style of Benito Mussolini with an arrogant gaze and his head held high.

This current El Douche has much more in common with the actual Italian Il Duce than readily meets the eye and ear. While many of the social, political, and economic conditions differ today in the United States from Italy during the first half of the last century, some parallels persist. Trump rises to the level, and possibly surpasses, Mussolini’s arrogant swagger and all-consuming narcissism and sociopathy though I suspect Mussolini would beg to differ. Both figures are legendary for their predatory womanizing and frequent extra-marital affairs. 

Both leaders had trouble telling the truth in their utterances and their consciousness. Not letting the facts get in the way is the basis of both their political strategies. According to Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” In Mussolini’s case, he came to believe his lies; it’s difficult to believe Donald Trump actually believes his, but he just may be so deluded that he does. Both could be placed into the category of “Machiavellian” in their single-mindedness, scheming, conspiracy-driven, unscrupulous, and vicious actions to advance their careers and enact their policies. To them, the ends justify the means no matter who gets hurt. It’s all about power and machismo.

Trump, however, differs significantly from Mussolini in terms of interest and achievement in intellectual pursuits. Mussolini prided himself on his scholarly endeavors and command of multiple languages. He acted on strong ideological beliefs. On the other hand, Trump acts on concerns for winning at all costs regardless of ideological positions. The only book he has admitted to reading was a book of Adolf Hitler’s speeches. While he claims to love the Bible, Trump cannot tell you a single thing within the sacred text.

Even though he is amoral and shows no signs of being a Christian, Trump received enthusiastic support from evangelicals who claimed he was the modern-day King David, a flawed womanizer who God is said to have loved anyway. Evangelicals also support Trump over his stance against abortion rights. As a socialist youth, Mussolini declared himself an atheist and railed against the Catholic Church. After taking power, Mussolini began working to pander to the Catholic Church to gain wider support. He outlawed freemasonry, exempted the clergy from taxation, cracked down on artificial contraception, campaigned for an increased birth rate, raised penalties for abortion, restricted nightlife, regulated women’s clothing, and banned homosexual acts among adult men. Despite having many mistresses, he also put in place harsh punishments for adultery. In 1929 Mussolini signed an agreement with the Vatican under which the Church received authority over marriage and was compensated for property seized decades earlier. Similar to evangelicals today who support Trump, Pope Pius XI referred to Mussolini as the “man whom providence has sent us.” 

When Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States, the man who called himself a “populist” lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Over three million more voters did not support the draconian policies and vile language he uttered during the campaign. But White ultra-nationalist, fascist leaders, evangelicals, and many of their followers supported the Trump candidacy and celebrated his victory. For example, a white nationalist conference held on November 19, 2016, at the Ronald Reagan Building headlined by neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, greeted attendees with a tribute to then-President-elect Trump shouting “Hail Trump! Hail victory!” from the stage. Then, before all in attendance, Spencer gestured in a traditional Nazi straight-arm salute.

Another example is when Trump defended the white nationalists who protested in Charlottesville saying they included “some very fine people on both sides,” while expressing sympathy for their demonstration against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In August 2020, Trump addressed the baseless, far-right QAnon conspiracy theory saying he didn’t know much about the online community and its followers other than “they like me very much.” In response to a question about the conspiracy community, Trump added, “I heard that these are people who love our country.” When a reporter partially summed up the conspiracy theory to him — that it revolves around a false narrative that Trump is leading a secret, government-led charge against pedophiles, cannibals, and satanic worshippers — Trump responded: “Is that supposed to be a bad thing?” Trump said, “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.” He’s willing to do anything to stay in power. And, let’s not forget he refused in the first presidential debate to denounce white supremacists and instead told the violent far-right, neo-fascist and male-only Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

Once identifying himself as a Democrat, but never unequivocally disavowing himself from white nationalists, Trump has transformed himself into the mouthpiece of the extreme far-right wing of the Republican Party. Once a staunch socialist, Benito Mussolini was denounced by the Italian Socialist Party for advocating Italy’s involvement in World War I which countered the Party’s stance on neutrality. Mussolini severely transformed his political stance, and later, he became one of the chief architects of the fascist movement. Before his election, Trump had tapped Steve Bannon, former editor of the far-right Breitbart News, as his campaign director, and before firing him, elevated Bannon into the White House to function as his chief policy advisor, a position that does not require Senate confirmation. Bannon once boasted that Breitbart News serves as the mouthpiece for the so-called “alt-right,” a less odious and misleading term for white nationalists.

As President, Trump rolled back many of the rights and protections that minorities have tirelessly fought for over the past decades: affordable and quality health care, reproductive rights, voting rights, citizenship rights, anti-torture guarantees, rights of unreasonable search and seizure, rights of assembly, disability rights, LGBTQ+ rights in the military, free speech and freedom of the press rights, freedom of and from religion while attacking marriage equality. Now, with the Senate confirmation of the conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court seemingly imminent, he has the chance to continue these policies through the courts long after he has been driven from office.

Trump’s continual cries against “Islamic jihadist terrorists” as the number one threat to our nation (even as the FBI says racially-motivated violent extremists in the U.S. are the primary national threat). He issued presidential executive orders banning travel into the U.S. by six majority Muslim nations, called for U.S. Muslims to be placed on a “national registry,” and should be under surveillance to track their movements. These acts de facto “racializes” Muslims. I would not put it past Trump to call for passbooks, like in Apartheid South Africa, for American Muslims and others whom Trump deems a threat to him and his supporters.

Before becoming the Italian fascist dictator, Mussolini believed nationalism superseded class distinctions as opposed to a focus in socialism on class struggle which he had previously accepted. He argued that a vanguard of elites must lead society which would ultimately suppress democracy, and that the state must control “proper linguistic and racial confines.” Though Mussolini’s theories on “race” centered on the culture of a people as opposed to Nazism’s reliance on biology, he did assert a “natural law” thesis that “stronger” people had the right to dominate the “inferior.” Remember, Trump and his father Fred refused some years ago to rent their properties to black people, and too, his racist representations of Mexican people who attempted to come into the United States across the border.

Later, serving as Italy’s youngest Prime Minister in 1922 at the age of 39, Mussolini helped establish the secret police, outlawed labor strikes, and facilitated a one-party dictatorship. Favoring the wealthy classes and forming a virtual oligarchy, he passed legislation making it easier for privatization, deregulation of business and industry, and the dismantling of labor unions. Trump has proposed and forwarded similar policy directives including using the military to keep him in power and sending government agents into cities to attack and detain protesters without due process. Will his apparent parallels with Benito Mussolini hold – and even strengthen – during his presidency, or will he pleasantly surprise us by pivoting to become a healer of the national wounds he cut into the body politic throughout his career up to now? We all know Trump will never be a healer, only a divider. His divisive and derogatory nature is what seems to energize him.

If you are interested in further comparisons between Benito Mussolini and Donald Trump, look no further than their sons-in-law: Galeazzo Ciano and Jared Kushner. Both had similar privileged backgrounds before they married the daughters of Mussolini and Trump. Their fathers-in-law elevated them to positions in the respective administrations, and neither appeared to be qualified for their elevated stature. While there are many similarities, in contrast to Kushner, Ciano attempted to act as a moderating voice in Mussolini’s ear by warning the Italian leader their military was utterly ill-equipped for any serious and possibly prolonged war effort. He attempted to serve as a voice of reason throughout Italy’s doomed involvement. In response to questioning his authority, Mussolini summarily ordered his son-in-law’s execution on the charge of treason on February 6, 1943, before Mussolini was ultimately rounded up and killed by Italian socialist partisans. Kushner, likely, won’t succumb to the same fate, as he continues to act as Trump’s lapdog. He pushed forth Trump’s policies of denying the COVID-19 pandemic’s seriousness and even went so far as to attempt to block aid to “blue states.”

When affairs were going well, Mussolini considered Ciano a trusted advisor. As conditions increasingly deteriorated, and as Ciano advised a different course – specifically for his father-in-law to sign a separate peace with the allies to spare the country needless loss of life and devastation — Mussolini only distrusted Ciano more and accused him of treason. Trump has shown he will do the same thing to his cronies if they displease him as Jeff Sessions, Michael Cohen, John Bolton, and many others did. The Trump administration has been a revolving door of people as Trump dismissed one after the other for the slightest disagreement.

The lesson of this history?  Choose your leaders with great care, for they can do real and lasting damage.


“Chanson d’automne” (“Autumn Song”)

Autumn Song
By Paul Verlaine – 1844-1896
Translated by Arthur Symons

When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and long

Pale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours toll deep.
My thoughts recover
The days that are over,
And I weep.

And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.

Chanson d’automne
By Paul Verlaine – 1844-1896

Les saglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

About the Poem:

“Chanson d’automne” (“Autumn Song”) is a poem by Paul Verlaine (1844–1896), one of the best known in the French language. It is included in Verlaine’s first collection, Poèmes saturniens, published in 1866 (see 1866 in poetry). The poem forms part of the “Paysages tristes” (“Sad landscapes”) section of the collection.

In World War II lines from the poem were used to send messages from Special Operations Executive (SOE) to the French Resistance about the timing of the forthcoming Invasion of Normandy. In preparation for Operation Overlord, the BBC’s Radio Londres had signaled to the French Resistance with the opening lines of “Chanson d’Automne” were to indicate the start of D-Day operations under the command of the Special Operations Executive. The first three lines of the poem, “Les sanglots longs / des violons / de l’automne” (“Long sobs of autumn violins”), would mean that Operation Overlord was to start within two weeks. These lines were broadcast on June 1, 1944. The next set of lines, “Blessent mon coeur / d’une langueur / monotone” (“wound my heart with a monotonous languor”), meant that it would start within 48 hours and that the resistance should begin sabotage operations, especially on the French railroad system; these lines were broadcast on June 5 at 23:15.

In 1940, Charles Trenet made changes to the words of the poem in order to change it into a song. There has been speculation that it was the popularity of his version that led to the use of the poem by SOE.


Presidential Health

In the last week since Trump was released from Walter Reed, there have been speculations about the effects COVID-19 may have had on his mental health. Part of the speculation has been because his doctor was caught lying to the press and the number of lies Trump and his administration routinely tells. All of the lies naturally have a lot of people questioning the truth about Trump’s health. The problem with someone lying in almost everything they say makes it hard to believe them even when they may be telling the truth. Think of the fable, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Of course, Trump is not the first president to lie about his health, and he is unlikely to be the last.

The most significant issue is that we are only now beginning to understand the long-term effects of COVID-19. COVID-19 has been compared to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic since it began spreading around the world. Luckily, medicine has progressed considerably since 1918, and it is unlikely to cause the number of worldwide deaths that the Spanish flu caused. Five hundred million people were infected with the Spanish flu, which was one-third of the world’s population at the time. Estimates of deaths range from 17 million to 50 million to as high as 100 million. Hopefully, an effective vaccine will be found before too long, and millions of lives will be saved.

Just as with Trump contracting COVID-19, the president of the United States also caught the Spanish flu in 1919 while at the Paris Peace Conference. Several members of the American delegation got influenza, and, like COVID-19, influenza can be transmitted before symptoms appear. Some of my readers may know this, but the United States’ involvement in the First World War is my academic specialty. So, I am very familiar with Woodrow Wilson and the Paris Peace Conference, which was an integral part of my master’s thesis. However, I am embarrassed to say that I had not previously known that Wilson contracted the Spanish flu. I knew he had a stroke while trying to convince Americans to support the United States joining the League of Nations, but there is much more to the story.

On Thursday, April 3, 1919, Wilson suddenly fell ill. White House physician Cary Grayson noted he was seized by “violent paroxysms of coughing, which were so severe and frequent that it interfered with his breathing,” followed by such other symptoms as high fever. Grayson tried to keep the illness secret, but word leaked out that Wilson was sick, and Grayson lied, insisting Wilson simply had a bad cold. Afraid of another leak, Grayson wrote a note to be hand-delivered to Wilson’s chief of staff, which said, “That night was one of the worst through which I have ever passed. I was able to control the spasms of coughing, but his condition looked very serious.”

Like the 1918 flu virus, COVID-19 impacts virtually every organ in the body, including the brain. Most problematic are cardiovascular and neurological impacts. For COVID-19, cardiovascular complications, including stroke, are so common that some experts consider this and not the lung, the primary problem. And according to a study in Annals of Neurology, 25 percent of patients have some neurological dysfunction, and 7 percent have “impaired consciousness.” Another study in Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery found 36.4 percent of patients to have neurological symptoms. In 1918, it was much the same. The single most comprehensive study of the 1918 pandemic concluded, “The effect of the influenza virus on the nervous system is hardly second to its effect on the respiratory tract. … From the delirium accompanying many acute attacks to the psychoses that develop as ‘post-influenzal’ manifestations, there is no doubt that the neuropsychiatric effects of influenza are profound.”

For Wilson and the world, the effects were indeed profound. He became paranoid, convinced he was being spied on. Herbert Hoover, who was at the time, was in charge of the American food relief efforts for the devastated Europe, believed Wilson’s mind lost “resiliency” and its ability to reason clearly “in coming to conclusions.” Others made similar comments. Nonetheless, after five days in bed and too ill to go out, Wilson insisted on rejoining the peace negotiations. British and French Prime Ministers David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau — whose nickname was “the tiger” — came to his room. They, too, found a different man. Lloyd George commented on Wilson’s “nervous and spiritual breakdown in the middle of the Conference.”

Nothing in Wilson’s prior history suggests he would compromise on any principle. Before his illness, he had insisted upon “peace without victory,” his Fourteen Points, and supporting self-determination around the world. But over the next few days, he gave way on almost every point to Clemenceau and agreed to a peace deal that punished Germany and preserved other nations’ imperial ambitions. Historians agree that the treaty contributed significantly to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the start of World War II. A few months later, Wilson’s influenza attack very likely contributed to his debilitating stroke while campaigning across the country to get the support of the American people for the Versailles Treaty.

Today, the case mortality for a 65 to 74-year-old man — Trump is 74 — is 3.1 percent and somewhat higher for those who required oxygen, as Trump did, so the odds of recovery are strongly in his favor, especially given his immediate treatment with remdesivir and experimental monoclonal antibodies, and now dexamethasone (treatments most Americans do not have access to). But recovery may leave him not only fatigued for an extended time but also with an increased chance of stroke or neurological impacts. Since being released from the hospital, Trump’s judgment has been more in question than ever. Trump could just be desperate because he is behind in the polls, and thus he has increased his efforts to give credence to his base’s wild conspiracy theories. His recent appearances on Fox News and Rush Limbaugh show him seemingly more unhinged than ever. Whatever is going on with the president’s health may take years, if ever, for us to find out the extent of his COVID-19 infection and its effects. Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure, we cannot allow him to get reelected.


Two Poems about Rain

The Rainy Day
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) is best known for “The Song of Hiawatha.” He also wrote many other celebrated poems. And then there’s ‘The Rainy Day’, which isn’t numbered among his most famous. But it is one of the finest poems written about rain, so deserves a few words of analysis for that reason alone.

Rain and misery are two certainties in life, at least in the New England that Longfellow knew so well. Longfellow’s poem uses the rain/misery connection to offer a misconception about life. In the first stanza, Longfellow talks of the rain and wind outside. He uses the second stanza to discuss the internal, miserable weather raging within his heart. For the final stanza, he shifts from simply describing his mood to the authoritative, as he commands his heart to be of good cheer and remember that, although it may be raining now, the sun is still shining behind the clouds, though he can’t currently see it. When we’re miserable or sad, it can be very difficult to recall happiness, to remember what’s now out of sight. In his penultimate line, we find the most famous line in this poem: ‘Into each life some rain must fall.’ Misery is part of a common lot of humanity. Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying, “When it rains look for rainbows when it’s dark look for stars.” Longfellow might have been well-advised to listen to Wilde’s advice.

There Will Come Soft Rains
By Sara Teasdale

(War Time)

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Unlike the majority of Teasdale’s war poems, “There Will Come Soft Rains” has not been entirely forgotten. Three decades after its initial publication, in the wake of World War II, Ray Bradbury featured the poem as the foundation of a similarly post-apocalyptic short story, also titled “There Will Come Soft Rains,” in his 1950 novel The Martian Chronicles. In his re-appropriation, Bradbury portrays a future world that has been destroyed by mankind’s heedless progress, in a gruesome fashion that I don’t want to discuss. Bradbury’s story shares with Teasdale’s poem the terrifying insight that mankind is no longer connected, organically, to the natural world. The only species capable of mass, mechanized, self-destruction, humans are utterly alone, detached from a natural world that no longer even notices we are there. Imported into the futuristic world of 2057, Teasdale’s words become bitterly ironic. As early as World War I, Bradbury implies, mankind had been warned.

The poem awakens that old sentimental longing to return to a state of deep connectedness with nature. It even deploys a set of familiar stylistic markers that seem to have been borrowed directly from a nineteenth-century aesthetic economy. The poem’s alliteration, for instance — “whistling their whims,” “feathery fire”— and the sing-song rhymes— “ground/sound,” “night/white,” “fire/wire,” all evoke a sense of comforting gentility. But this veneer of conventional sentimentality merely heightens the profound impact of nature’s heartlessness. The poem’s sweet, sentimental quality and its tranquil, idyllic descriptors are deceiving. Ultimately, all of our sentimental feelings about “frogs” and “wild-plum trees,” as well as the language through which we have constructed those myths of a connection to nature, are tossed, mockingly, back at us. The reader is led to believe that the “soft rains” will signal our own renewal and that the birds will sing to celebrate our salvation. 

The poem challenges those idyllic fantasies with the reality of a natural world dominated by indifference, motivated only by its own survival, and oblivious to the existence or extinction of man. However, Teasdale locates a kernel of hope in this harsh vision. Devoted exclusively to its own survival, nature, in Teasdale’s conception, proffers no comfort to mankind, but can, nonetheless, provide the key to our own preservation. Rather than a retreat into an irrecoverable, idealized past. Teasdale was influenced to write this poem by reading Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species. In such, she was urging her audience to adopt the ways of nature—to focus more whole-heartedly on their own survival.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” first appeared in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in July 1918—less than two months after the passage of the Sedition Act. Meant to strengthen the provisions of the already-repressive Espionage Act, the Sedition Act of May 16, 1918, was designed to quash American opposition to the war, outlawing “virtually all criticism of the war or the government.” Following its passage, anthologies and magazines continued to publish a small number of anti-war poems, but only if the poems were strategically nonspecific in their critique and refrained from offering a political alternative to the war. This climate of censorship casts a different light on the apparent obliqueness of Teasdale’s anti-war poems. Rather than a limitation, their historical imprecision might be what enabled their circulation at the height of World War I. It is possible, in fact, that Teasdale’s cultivation of a demure, “poetess” persona might have, contradictorily, enabled her to publish anti-war poetry more freely.


Losers and Suckers

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Weedon E. Osborne
United States Navy (Dental Corps)

By now, I think we’ve all heard the president’s disparaging remarks about veterans. In an article in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that numerous witnesses heard Trump make excuses for not visiting the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in 2018. Trump was to visit there on November 10, 2018 to mark the armistice’s 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. This coincided with the 243rd birthday of the Marine Corps. One of Trump’s excuses was the rainy weather might mess up his hair, his fucking hair. It looks like shit on the best of days, and he’s worried what a little rain might do to it! Officially, he said, “the helicopter couldn’t fly” and the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there. All of the other world leaders drove there, but Trump couldn’t be bothered, saying, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.”

While many of you might not know about the importance of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, most of you know I’m a World War I historian. I want to tell you why that cemetery is significant. It is located 53.5 miles outside of Paris (roughly an hour-long drive) and contains the headstones of 2,289 soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) mostly from the Battle of Belleau Wood, and the larger campaign in the Marne Valley. One of those “losers” was Lt. Weedon Osborne of Chicago, a Medal of Honor recipient. His citation for the medal reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while attached to the Fifth Regiment, United States Marines, in actual conflict with the enemy and under fire during the advance on Bouresche, France on June 6 1918. In the hottest of the fighting when the Marines made their famous advance on Bouresche at the southern edge of Belleau Wood, Lieutenant (j.g.) Osborne threw himself zealously into the work of rescuing the wounded. Extremely courageous in the performance of this perilous task, he was killed while carrying a wounded officer to a place of safety. By his exceptional fortitude, inspiring initiative, and selfless devotion to duty, Lieutenant (j.g.) Osborne reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country. 

Osborne was obviously no “loser.”  He had “exceptional fortitude, inspiring initiative, and selfless devotion to duty,” which Donald Trump does not. He selflessly sought to aid the wounded during the Battle of Belleau Wood, and was killed while carrying an injured officer to safety on June 6, 1918.

Alongside the Battles of Fallujah, Khe Sanh, Chosin, and Iwo Jima, the Battle of Belleau Wood occupies a hallowed place in U.S. Marine Corps lore and history. Every U.S. Marine knows the famous quotes from the Marines fighting in the 1918 battle: “Retreat, hell we just got here!” by Capt. Lloyd Williams who received three Silver Star citations and a Purple Heart, and “C’mon you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?” by Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daley one of only nineteen men to have received the Medal of Honor twice.

The battlefield of Belleau Wood lays about five miles west of the town of Château-Thierry the site of another AEF battle. Looking at the strategic context in early 1918, Belleau Wood was only a small piece of a major campaign that saw the American forces help French and British armies stem the onslaught of the massive German Spring Offensive. On March 21, the Germans launched their attack along the Western Front in France. This was made possible because a peace treaty with the new Russian Bolshevik government had freed up German units deployed on the Eastern Front. The German leadership hoped the influx of 50 divisions could overwhelm the Allied forces in France bringing the war to an end before millions of American reinforcements could cross the Atlantic. The Spring Offensive nearly reached Paris coming close enough to shell the city. The loss of Paris would have likely resulted in a German victory in WWI. However, while the German offensive made significant gains in the first few weeks of the battle, they began to falter by May during the Aisne Offensive. The German assault was weakened because American units like the 2nd Division and its 4th Marine Brigade joined the fray to stop the Germans at the Battle of Belleau Wood. 

After three weeks of intense combat, a report announced the 4th Marine Brigade’s success with the message, “Belleau Wood now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.” The French government renamed it Bois de la Brigade de Marine to honor the incredible sacrifices and fierce struggles there and awarded members of the 4th Marine Brigade the French Croix de Guerre. Although a victory for the Americans, the Battle of Belleau Wood exacted a heavy toll on the 4th Marine Brigade. Of its complement of 9,500 men, the brigade suffered 1,000 killed in action, and 4,000 wounded, gassed, or missing equaling a 55 percent casualty rate. 

General Pershing, commander of the AEF said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle.” Pershing also said, “the Battle of Belleau Wood was for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy.” The battle had been brutal. “It has been a living hell,” Lt. Clifton B. Cates, 24, a future Marine Corps commandant wrote to his mother. “We were shelled all night with shrapnel and gas shells. [….] It was mustard gas and a lot of the men were burned.” It was a battle that changed the Marine Corps. “For all intents and purposes, the old warriors of the U.S. Marine Corps were virtually wiped out,” wrote historian, George B. Clark.

In a separate conversation on the 2018 trip, Trump referred to the 1,811 soldiers and Marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed. Trump also asked aides, “Who were the good guys in this war?” He couldn’t understand why the United States would intervene on the side of the Allies. While I realize the U.S. entry into WWI is complicated and controversial, Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points stated the principles for peace that were to be used for negotiations to end World War I, and are a good starter for understanding the entry of the United States into the Great War. The ideas expressed by Wilson’s Fourteen Points included free trade, open diplomacy, national self-determination, and the League of Nations; ideas which remain as relevant today as they were a century ago. Wilson transformed the primary objective of American foreign policy from isolation to internationalism. 

Trump could learn a lot from Wilson, whose vision of a world made safe and prosperous by the collective action of all nations, is a cornerstone of U.S. diplomacy. Instead of looking to Wilson for his positive attributes, Trump is more closely aligned with Wilson’s negative characteristics. Wilson tolerated no dissent during the war, and authorized serious violations of Americans’ civil liberties in his quest for victory. Playing to his base, Trump has incessantly targeted the most vulnerable. His anti-immigrant measures began with the Muslim ban. He has separated families, detained individuals who posed no threat to others or risk of flight, sought to deny asylum because they were directly contrary to the statute, and attempted to rescind protected status for the Dreamers. 

Sadly, Wilson’s zest for humanitarian justice did not extend to African-Americans. He supported segregation in government departments and did little to stop the waves of anti-black violence and race riots that swept over the land during his administration particularly in the years after the war. In the present day, Trump praised white supremacists in Charlottesville as “very fine people” and referred to African countries as “shitholes.” His Justice Department sought to back off from consent decrees requiring police to treat their citizens with equal respect and dignity. And he has done nothing to help ease the current racial tensions in the United States instead fanning the flames of his conservative base by disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement.

For those who might not believe the allegations in The Atlantic article, look at the statements he’s made about military personnel in interviews and speeches. He has no respect for anyone who might do something selfless because he cannot fathom doing something that would not benefit him personally.  To quote The Atlantic article:

“He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself,” one of Kelly’s friends, a retired four-star general, told me. “He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation.” Kelly’s friend went on to say, “Trump can’t imagine anyone else’s pain.”

Retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis shared The Atlantic article on Twitter and described the military’s cemeteries as “sacred shrines to those who have given everything.” Stavardis suggested the lack of denials by John Kelly and retired Marine General Jim Mattis, Trump’s former Chief of Staff and Defense Secretary respectively were notable. Senior and former military leaders have struggled with how to respond to a report that Trump referred to U.S. service members killed in combat as “losers,” as the president attacked the allegations as “fake news.” The only thing fake here is Trump’s patriotism.

Trump lacks empathy when he lashes out at critics. Instead, he reaches for petty insults. His contempt for service and heroism extends to events throughout history. Trump finds the notion of military service challenging to understand, and volunteering to serve especially incomprehensible. Remember, the president has never served in the military but claims his attendance at New York Military Academy was an equivalent to military service. He also made the idiotic statement comparing his efforts to avoid contracting sexually transmitted diseases to the Vietnam War saying it constituted his “personal Vietnam.”

And if you still think he’s not lying when he denies the allegations in The Atlantic article, he can’t even tell the simple truth about the 2018 trip. Trump told reporters over the weekend he “called home” to Melania at the time and told her how upset he was for not being able to visit the cemetery. Trump claimed, “I spoke to my wife and I said, I hate this. I came here to go to that ceremony. And to the one the following day which I did go to. I feel terribly. And that was the end of it.” The truth about this is he couldn’t have “called home” because Melania was on the same trip and was scheduled to attend the cemetery visit with him!

And what did Trump do instead of visiting the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery? He spent hours on that Saturday afternoon holed up watching television inside the U.S. ambassador’s residence. Later that night, Trump and Melania had dinner with French President Emanuel Macron. He could watch TV and have a fancy dinner, but he could not be bothered to visit a cemetery for soldiers who died in one of the United States’ most significant battles in World War I. He is a total disgrace. He needs to be voted out of office along with all of those who have supported him, because, without the Senate’s support, he would not still be our president. 

While I find Trump’s remarks and lack of empathy for our military men and women deplorable, I find it even more upsetting that Fox News and his rabid base do not believe The Atlantic article could contain any truth. Saturday, my mother called. I think you know by now she is a loyal Trump supporter. After asking me if I had called her because she had three phone calls she couldn’t answer and doesn’t know how to use Caller ID, she began to tell me, “I just told your sister that we need to pray that Donald Trump is reelected.” To which I, in turn, brought up the allegations in The Atlanticarticle. Her response was, “You don’t believe that mess, do you?” I told her, “Why wouldn’t I believe it? Considering what he has said in the past about veterans, and especially since he called John McCain a loser.” His base doesn’t care what he does as long as he is part of the Republican Party. 

My mother is not the only one to claim The Atlantic article is fake news. Saturday evening, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro called the claims “absurd,” and Greg Gutfeld, another Fox News host, called the Atlantic’s story “a hoax” and “a scam” that was “created in a lab.” However, Fox News seems to be divided on whether the claims are valid. Fox’s national security correspondent, Jennifer Griffin, confirmed the allegations. Conor Powell, a former Fox News foreign correspondent, backed up Griffin’s report saying, “Jennifer is a straight shooter and always pursues reporting with the goal of uncovering the truth.” Anchor Neil Cavuto then endorsed Griffin’s work. “Jennifer, you are a very good reporter,” he told her. Then, addressing his audience, he said, “She’s pretty scrupulous when it comes to making sure all the I’s are dotted, all the t’s are crossed.” Senior Political Analyst for Fox News, Brit Hume tweeted, “This is bullshit. Jen plays it straight and always has.” Hume’s tweet was in response to a tweet by Steve Milloy, a Fox News contributor, who claimed Griffin was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe, just maybe, some Fox News enthusiasts and Trump supporters will see the light and realize the article was not a hoax.

Let’s vote for someone who cares about our veterans. Someone who is the father of a veteran. Vote for Biden on November 3, 2020. 

P.S. I felt this post was more important and timely than my usual Tuesday poetry post. The poetry post will be postponed until tomorrow.


Happy Labor Day

Labor Day is celebrated each year on the first Monday in September. It was born amid violence and unrest over oppressive working conditions. For many, Labor Day weekend signals the end of summer and an opportunity to host a barbecue or head to the beach one final time. This year, I pray that the barbecues and beach trips will be done with socially-distancing. I fear it won’t be, and there will be a major spike in COVID-19 cases. 

This usually festive national holiday—celebrated every year in the United States and Canada on the same day—has revolutionary origins. Labor Day was originally commemorated through parades, political speeches, and labor union activities but was born amid rising unrest over oppressive working conditions—and a massive strike that threatened to turn violent. It feels strange to celebrate Labor Day when so many are out of a job because of the pandemic. This year, we not only need to celebrate those who keep our country running, but also, we need to remember those who aren’t able to work right now.

By the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had made working life miserable for people around the world. In many places, workers labored for at least 12 hours a day six days a week in mines, factories, railroads, and mills. Children were especially exploited as cheap laborers who were less likely to strike. Sweatshops locked workers in small, crowded spaces, and punished them for talking or singing as they worked. Outrage at these conditions galvanized the burgeoning labor movement, which organized strikes and rallies in the 1860s and 1870s. In addition to shorter workdays and safer conditions, workers fought for recognition of their contributions.

In the wake of a printers strike in April 1872—which saw 10,000 people march through the streets of Toronto to appeal for a shorter work week—Canadian cities began to host annual parades in honor of workers. Ten years later, the U.S. followed suit. On September 5, 1882, New York City union leaders organized what is now considered the nation’s first Labor Day parade. Ten thousand workers marched along city streets in an event culminating in a picnic, speeches, fireworks, and dancing. Organizers proclaimed the day “a general holiday for the workingmen of this city.” They continued to host the parade in the years after, and in 1884 the event was fixed on the first Monday in September.

More than a century after the first Labor Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers. Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” But McGuire’s place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. What is clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.

New York’s Labor Day parade wasn’t an official holiday. Participants had to take unpaid leave. The movement to declare Labor Day an official holiday began in the late 1880s. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to designate a Labor Day holiday, followed later that year by Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Yet the first Monday in September wasn’t the only option for celebrating workers’ rights. An alternative had emerged in 1886: May Day.

May Day, which is now observed in countries across the world, is also called International Workers’ Day, but actually originated in the U.S. On May 1, 1886, in what came to be known as the Haymarket Riot, workers flooded Chicago streets to demand an eight-hour workday. The demonstrations lasted for days, punctuated by scuffles between workers and police. On May 4, after police ordered a crowd to disperse, a bomb detonated. Seven police officers and up to eight civilians were killed. The perpetrator was never identified.

In 1889, an international gathering of socialists in Paris officially declared May Day a holiday honoring workers’ rights. Although it gained steam internationally and was backed by some U.S. labor unions, President Grover Cleveland feared May Day “would become a memorial to the Haymarket radicals.” He pressed state legislatures to select the September date instead. By 1894, about half of U.S. states had adopted Labor Day.

It would take another clash in the American Midwest to make Labor Day a federal holiday. On May 11, 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company, a railroad car manufacturer near Chicago, went on strike to protest their low wages and 16-hour workdays. On June 22, members of the powerful American Railway Union (ARU) joined their struggle by refusing to move Pullman’s cars from one train to another, thus crippling rail traffic across the country. In Washington, D.C., politicians sought to placate the labor movement. At the time, federal legislation to designate Labor Day a public holiday had been languishing in Congress for 10 months after U.S. Senator James Kyle, a Populist from South Dakota, had introduced it in August 1893. To appease the strikers and their supporters, the Senate quickly passed the bill on June 22, the same day the ARU joined the Pullman strike. The bill passed the House four days later and President Cleveland signed it into law on June 28, 1894. Although the holiday is often described as a conciliatory gesture at a time of crisis, Cleveland was hardly an ally to the Pullman strikers. On July 3, just days after signing the bill, he ordered federal troops to Chicago to end the boycott. Furious strikers began to riot, and on July 7, national guardsmen fired into a mob and killed as many as 30 people.

In spite of its bloody aftermath, the creation of a Labor Day holiday made waves. In Canada, Prime Minister John Thompson also faced mounting pressure from the labor movement. On July 23, 1894, less than a month after the U.S. bill had passed, Thompson followed Cleveland’s lead in designating the first Monday in September an official holiday for workers.

But the holiday did not improve conditions for the people it sought to honor and was little more than lip service from politicians. As the U.S. House Committee on Labor said in its 1894 report on the legislation: “So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as a useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.” It would take another 44 years for the U.S. to set a minimum wage, mandate a shorter workweek, and limit child labor with the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

Whatever the intentions, the creation of a holiday devoted solely to workers was nonetheless an important achievement for the labor movement. “Labor Day marks a new epoch in the annals of human history,” wrote Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, in the New York Times in 1910. “Among all the festive days of the year…there is not one which stands so conspicuously for social advancement of the common people as the first Monday in September.”

On a more personal note, Labor Day is a depressing day for me this year. It falls on the birthday of a friend of mine who died; he was one of the few people I could tell anything to and not be judged for it. That means a lot because I internalize a lot of stuff that I really should talk to friends or family about, but sometimes I just fear that I will be judged for my feelings. When things are really bothering me or even when I have exciting news, I don’t want those things to be trivialized, and I have had that happen a lot. I am also not a perfect person, but I don’t like to be beaten up over my imperfections. My friend never did any of those things, and I miss him so much. It’s been nearly five years, and while things have gotten better, I still miss him tremendously.

This year also marks the first year that my town is not having its annual Labor Day Weekend celebrations. Usually, the town square is filled with carnival-like games and food trucks, and constant live entertainment can be heard all over town. Yet, this year, it is so quiet. The weekend always culminates on Labor Day with a parade. Honestly, there isn’t much to the parade. It’s your average small-town parade, except that the entire Corps of Cadets at my university marches in the parade in their uniforms. If you combine all the other parade groups and floats together, they wouldn’t equal the size of the Corps. It is by far one of the most impressive sights in town as they march in perfect unison down the street. I will miss seeing the Corps this year because they are quarantined on campus in an effort to keep them safe from the pandemic. It will just be a quiet Monday here for me, at least that’s the plan.