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Lewis Milestone (1895-1980)

Z. Snow Film Notes

Mostly remembered for his war films, especially one masterpiece which helped set a new standard for Hollywood in the early sound years, Lewis Milestone was a true motion picture pioneer who deserves more credit from historians. After working as an assistant, editor, and screenwriter for Howard Hughes, the Russian-born Milestone made his mark with a series of silent comedies followed by one of the most brutal, brilliant, and emotional anti-war flicks of all time. By that point a two-time Oscar winner, the difficult but frequently inspired director avoided settling down at any major studio; instead he bounced from producer to producer while making fast-paced comedies, sexy melodramas, and superior literary adaptations throughout the Great Depression. Although Milestone made a number of patriotic war movies during WWII, leftist beliefs and Russian heritage led to his ‘graylisting’ by the early fifties; for the last two decades of his career, this capable craftsman…

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I first wrote this as an op-ed for Canada papers, but thought it worth running as the year runs down. “Canada deserves its image as a haven, however clouded. And if it yet again embraced its role as a refuge from militarism, we would all be the richer for it, on both sides of the border.”

I Ain't Marchin' Anymore

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Two hundred years ago, Canada had been fighting off invaders for nearly six months; with First Nations allies,  U.S. forces had been defeated at Detroit and Queenston.  In addition to the invaluable coalition with Native forces including the great Tecumseh, the invasions failed in part due to the refusal of some brave soldiers to participate. If they had crossed the border, some might doubtless have remained in Canada afterward and sought refuge  — just like an intrepid crew of American soldiers has done since the illegal Iraq war began.

This past fall, Kimberly Rivera became the most high-profile Iraq resister to be denied sanctuary by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who refused to acknowledge that she’d be arrested when she crossed the border. Many, if not most, Canadians supported her expulsion, saying what former Prime Minister Trudeau’s “refuge from militarism” was never meant for deserters, especially in these days without official…

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Unstuck in time again, in a good way

It’s been forever, I know. I should have at least updated my other shop’s cheers as Sotomayor became a Justice, especially the soulful essay about how she, a wise Latina herself, felt during that confirmation ceremony. But given the demands of that other shop (go look! Make comments!) and that I’ve been writing the last two chapters of my book simultaneously, I’d made a conscious decision not to blog until I was done. Well, not completely conscious, or else I’d have put up one of those “Gone Fishin”signs.

But last week I finally went to this convention, which I’ve described to friends as “like going to a party where fully half your characters are there to answer the questions you never asked.” Veterans for Peace, founded in the wake of the collapse of the Nuclear Freeze movement, and containing many of the folks I’ve now been writing about for years.It began with a rousing statement from Rep. Donna Edwards (above), who like me isn’t a veteran, but who may as well be: her father was career military, and she remembers when her father was stationed in the Philippines and “if we wanted ice cream, we had to go all the way to  Quezon City” because in military facilities, including the huge Clark Air Force Base,  “all the hangars and freezers were filled” — she choked up — “with the caskets of young men and women who had died in Vietnam.” That told her, she said, “When we ask our young people to sacrifice, it’s our responsibility to get it right.”

I remember when Edwards was “just” the director of the National Network Against Domestic Violence, and we were working together on military issues: that one, like many of the issues jostling in  my brain and this book, was challenge and enriched by the information streaming everywhere last week.

coxMuch was  super-informal, with benefits: e.g. I warned Paul Cox (right), who I’ve known nearly 15 years now, that he was a star of my Vietnam chapter, and as a bonus he let me see and upload some 1969 photos he’d just got hold of.  (They proved what I’d always guessed: he was even more of a babe at age 19 than now.)

ellen_barfieldWRLAfter dropping by the Women’s Caucus — where I also got to check in at the long-pervasive issue of military sexual abuse and homophobia— I got to interview Ellen Barfield (U.S. Army 1977-1981, now on the board of War Resisters League.) Barfield told me about being stationed in 1980 at Camp Humphreys, in South Korea, when her unit and many others were suddenly put on lockdown during the Kwangju Massacre.

barfieldportraitWe were put on high alert; the combat troops were given orders, and up in our unit we started getting riot training.” she told me.  Asked by fellow officers if women should participate, she and other women said hell yeah, we’re soldiers too — but matters never got that far. “That’s as close as I ever came to combat,” Barfield reflects now. “But – it wouldnt have been combat, it would have been killing civilians!” Already a Nation reader who’d been struck by the grinding poverty she saw in Korea, she set about upon leaving the Army to learn more about U.S. involvement in backing up Sung’s repressive government. “People are kept for so long from knowig their history,” she told me.  She learned a lot from members of the then-newborn VFP such as former CIA Asia specialist aideChalmers Johnson and Brian Willson, who’d lost his legs protesting U.S. aid to repressive governments.

plow8bBarfield was soon drawn in by the nuclear-freeze movement, just as Philip Berrigan and the rest of the Plowshares movement were getting arrested  at nuclear plants all over the country: Barfield was soon doing the same at the PANTEX plant near her hometown of Amarillo, Texas, and has been a “soldier for peace” ever since. I learned some of the latter story from a panel on nuclear-weapons issues, where a hikabusha (survivor of Hiroshima) asked through a translator what the  U.S. was doing to teach its children about nuclear weapons.

At panels on The GI Rights Hotline and on active-duty resistance, I learned more about the still-ongoing cases of current resisters such as Agustin Aguayo (above), and of those in exile fighting for asylum, like Andre Shepherd (below), whose German support network includes a woman who’s been doing this work on and off since the Vietnam years.I didn’t think then — but do now as I write this – that if I had stayed at CCCO a mere year longer, I might never have felt able to leave.

Despite the friendliness of the members of Iraq Veterans Against War, though, I was perhaps too shy about the IVAW workshops, fearing they were tired of me already — something I regret and don’t, now.

johnjudgeBecause on my way out of town, I touched base with John Judge — who  has been doing this work literally since I was two years old, including with the G.I. Project of  VFP’s vibrant predecessor. John described for me what he witnessed when  Vietnam Veterans Against the War was  neutralized  by the Red Squad in 1974,  “destroy[ing] the single most visionary and effective peace group in history.”   (I’d already written about these events here, drawn from documentary evidence).

wintersoldier_bannerWhen the RU moved into VVAW’s Chicago headquarters (note the North Vietnamese star at the center of the logo), so did posters and newspapers with appropriately “militant” headlines, such as: VVAW BATTLES V.A. THUGS. A civilian volunteer named John Judge, who watched the transition, was astounded. “Were they really advocating physical violence against medical personnel?”

The transition did, Judge added, have its comic elements: “They came in with these handlebar mustaches and sideburns, like Stalin, and these flannel workshirts.” Romo and his RU peers also told Judge to stop reading a pop history book in his bag, because We only read Marx and Engels here. “I told them, Those books are 150 years old now.” But the new regime also purged any members they deemed not “correct,” which included many who had been working triple time to help the new veterans get what they needed.

The January 1975 issue of THE VETERAN, whose “Vets Fight V.A” article was just before the “Victory to the Indochinese,” was also its last until 1996. The closer RU got to its goals, the more complete the damage to an organization once powerful enough to scare Nixon.

road_from_ar_ramadi_coverThat conversation with John stayed mostly comic/elegiac.  We did touch on the question I’ve since been trying, separately, to sort out: if the same has already begun to happen to IVAW, perhaps under the influence of it outgoing board president Camilo Mejia, the brilliant young scion of Nicaragua’s revolution? I mention the latter fact in full respect; Mejia (with whom I share a literary agent!)  grew up in the fullness of a poet’s revolution, and his father, Carlos, wrote the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s national anthem. His speech last Thursday was compelling, as when he noted that the U.S.’  unfortunate Asian land war had left room for all the democracy movements south of the border.

But my concern was rooted in more than Camilo’s charisma: rumor has it that while I was worrying about ANSWER (Workers’ World Party) and World Can’t Wait (RCP) leeching off the younger group, I was too distracted by their sideshow to see the steady recruitment tactics of this group, only a few years younger than RCP and hipper/younger/jazzier in its presentation.

It’s not a meaningless question: dissenting soldiers are already being marginalized every minute. I hope those rumors are incorrect, but I’m not that optimistic.But my job now is to find out what actually happened, and to tell that story as honestly as I can.

(p.s. Thanks so much to Gerry Condon, whose comment below helped me correct some errors born of hurry and 50 percent humidity. That’s part of what this blog is for.)

Or, how I can still be “new” in a town when…..

It’s true that I’ve  had a longstanding not-so-secret crush on the City of Brotherly Love (and sisterly affection) for more than ten years, a side grace note to my torrid love affair with the city of my birth. New Yorkers (and I’ll likely call myself one till I die) like to feel with Colson Whitehead that “I was born here, and thus ruined for anywhere else…..” The first Pelham in the subject line is Pelham Bay, the Bronx neighborhood from which I [was] sprung.

But I’ve always had  a soft spot for small cities, and when I first got to know Philly I was living in San Francisco, which is even smaller, and came here because my organization had an office here. Philly struck me as a cross between Baltimore, where I once moved to heal from divorce, and that other colonial town where the Lenape first met Europeans.

It is also true that I actually moved away from Manhattan, to which I moved in 2000 an exultant new lover, nearly a year ago. The circumstances even made the papers. But it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that we felt able to look for an apartment here — and less than a month ago, had the incredible luck to find a place in Mount Airy, not the first Philly nabe I fell in love with (that honor goes to Old City) but a place that already feels almost as much home as did Washington Heights/Inwood, where we lived for six years, or my long-cherished Mission District. (Those two years in Greenwich Village were dreamy, but always felt borrowed.) I do feel a little like a stereotype, being so happy about the food co-op, the lesbian-owned bookstore, but there we are.

Boy_with_SquirrelMount Airy, where we live now, is none of those places: it’s completely itself. Its history is slightly younger than NYC’s, though settled first by Germans in the 1680s (and first called by the English “Beggarstown,” which feels kind of appropriate for us if not the actual neighborhood). The major street nearest to me also bears the name of Pelham, an estate owned by the Revolution’s hardest-working artist (or someone else in his family). We don’t live in one of the nabe’s stained-glass beauties, but a Victorian that has its own deep charm

I’m writing this now as a transitional post between this and my other site, Incredible Panic Rules. The former is about to be swallowed whole by the book I’m working on finishing; I wanted to feel more free to include quieter observations, like how it feels to be reunited with a cat or why I’m beginning to suspect that I’m actually in Berkeley.

six years on, we are all conscientious objectors

A month or so since I posted and I’m still speechless. More soon, I promise.
Meanwhile, there are all sorts of important things to say on the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but for now I think I’ll just let a poet say it, again. In 2003 I quoted Yeats, but now let’s let Edna say it. (Above is one of the guys whose story is still trapping mine. Like LBJ, I seem to be unable to get out of that war.)

Conscientious Objector

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

Edna St. Vincent Millayedna_st_vincent_millay

Guest blog: also a definition of "straight ally"

Dan Savage’s comment on Salon: “Straight people can’t hear it.”  Ouch.

Prejudice arises from lots of things, but persecution is driven by fear.  All the real problems around both women’s rights and gay rights seem to me to come from what I’m afraid I’ve taken as a gvien:  straight men fear women and gays.  The fear has a wide range of intensity and expression, from blushing and stammering, to denigrating jokes and stereotypes, to murder, but it’s still fear.  And we have influence in society out of all proportion to our numbers.
If we’re going to act justly, we’re going to have to lose the fear.  And that requires, somehow, convincing even nice, decent people like me that the fear is neither natural, nor necessary.  Talk about a transformation!  If we do it, though, it will change the exercise of power.
Of course you both know all this, and have for a long time.  Me, I’m just noticing a bunch of people, some of them best friends, who seem to be turning to hear something I can’t quite.  Maybe I should try to find out what it is.
Courtesy of my dear friend Walter, who I’d written with the Savage quote I reproduced in the last post. Friends like him keep the world making sense.

older cities of dreams

Which of these venerable, beloved by artists (and thus too costly for most), old streets came first?

Philly’s Old City, where I sit now (in a cafe I already love)?

Or its jealous cousin in my hometown?

I suspect the latter, due to the Dutch assault on the Lenape land predating the days of William Penn.

However, both bow down to their ancestor above, in the country of *my* particular forefathers. I’d love to live there too.