Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 21, 2014

The return of Stefan Zweig

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Jewish question,literature,war — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Counterpunch April 21, 2014

Madness and War

The Return of Stefan Zweig


When a publicist from IFC invited me to a press screening of Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise” (the film opens Friday in NY), I could not resist. Leconte was one of my favorite directors and I considered his “Ridicule” a masterpiece. Since IFC described “A Promise” as a tale about a young man of humble origins taking up a clerical post in a German steel factory at the beginning of WWI, it sounded as if Leconte had returned to the concerns of “Ridicule”, a film that pitted a minor aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France against the snobbery and authoritarianism of Louis XIV’s court. It seemed all the more promising (no pun intended) given the screenplay’s origins as a Stefan Zweig novella titled “Journey into the Past”. I was aware that there was something of a Stefan Zweig revival afoot, reflected by Wes Anderson’s homage to him in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and new editions of his fiction and nonfiction work from both New York Review of Books and Pushkin Press, a boutique publisher specializing in fine literature.

This much I knew about Stefan Zweig. He was the quintessential fin de siècle author from the quintessential fin de siècle city—Vienna. He was a pacifist who opposed WWI and a Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He was also connected to a wide range of intellectuals and public figures, ranging from the Zionist Theodor Herzl to Richard Strauss, the German composer who had an ambivalent relationship to the Third Reich but who stood by Zweig when it came to including his librettist’s name in a programme. He was particularly close to Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler and Romain Rolland, three other key figures from fin de siècle Vienna. After relocating to Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide together. Like fellow Jew Walter Benjamin, he succumbed to despair.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/21/the-return-of-stefan-zweig/

January 19, 2013

So what the fuck was Humphrey Bogart doing in North Africa anyhow?

Filed under: Africa,Film,war — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Back in the late 50s the only way you could see a movie on television was to turn on the CBS network. With the Early Show, the Late Show, and the Late Late Show, you got to see just the kinds of films that are the staple of the Turner Classic Movie cable station today. Today I stumbled across a TCM screening of the 1943 “Sahara”, one my favorite movies from way back when. Written by CP’er John Howard Lawson and starring Humphrey Bogart as a tank commander in Libya during WWII, I always felt like standing up and cheering when the dirty Nazis surrendered to the outnumbered allies, a small band of men assembled from the “united nations” fending off Nazism. There was a Brit, a Frenchie, some Yanks, a North African, and an Italian prisoner who eventually gave up his life to help his captors. Like most CP’ers in Hollywood, Lawson really knew how to spin a tale that would get people rallying around the stars and stripes.

The only problem was figuring out what the hell Humphrey Bogart was doing in North Africa. After reading chapter seventeen of James Heartfield’s “Unpatriotic History of World War Two”, a book that I would nominate for Isaac Deutscher Prize of 2013 if I were on the jury, I will never be able to see “Sahara” in the same light.

Bogart plays Sergeant Joe Gunn (sounds like a Tarantino character?), whose tank crew has been attached to the British army to gain experience in desert fighting. The film opens with the British in general retreat after Rommel’s forces overran Tobruk, a seaside city on Libya’s eastern border to Egypt.

At a bombed out field hospital, Gunn picks up a motley crew of soldiers from other countries including a Sudanese with an Italian prisoner named Giuseppe played by J. Carrol Nash, an Irish actor who had perfected an Italian accent. We used to watch Nash in “Life with Luigi” back in the 1950s, a show that might be described as the Italian version of “The Goldbergs”. Nash’s role in “Sahara” is to personify the inept Italian army that had no heart in fighting. Made in 1943, the film reflected the state of Italian fascist politics. Mussolini was tossed aside that year and a new Italian government took up the fight against the Nazis, but eventually showed more grit in suppressing the local CP partisans who had dealt the deathblow to Mussolini.

Rex Ingram, an African-American who was the first to receive a Phi Beta Kappa Key from Northwestern University, plays the Sudanese soldier. As might be expected, his first acting role was in “Tarzan of the Apes”. Wikipedia comments drily: “He made his (uncredited) screen debut in that film and had many other small roles, usually as a generic black native, such as in the Tarzan films.”

Apparently Ingram’s notions of Black theater clashed with those of the Communist Party, as related in Mark Naison’s “Communists in Harlem During the Depression”:

Shortly after the performance, the company announced plans to stage additional full-length dramas based on a “program of social realism.” The movement toward a black theatre of protest posed difficulties for black artists. “Social realist” drama had numerous cliches and conventions: e.g. the conversion, the crisis and the obligatory concluding strike —that made it difficult to portray human relationships that were not explicitly political. Such difficulties increased in a black setting where writers and their left-wing critics often felt compelled to emphasize the theme of black-white unity and to counteract popular stereotypes of black behavior. When an artist portrayed blacks as criminals, religious enthusiasts, or hedonists, no matter how accurate that might be in a particular setting, s/he risked the displeasure of Communist critics. Such a fate befell Rex Ingram. At a theatrical benefit for the ILD [International Labor Defense], Ingram’s company put on a play called Drums Along the Bayou, which portrayed the radicalization of black workers in Louisiana and their rejection of voodoo for Communism. The final scene, in which the “previously superstitious” workers began “shouting Communist slogans” and the voodoo drums beat a new “supposedly Communist rhythm,” horrified Daily Worker writer Alice Evans:

The treatment, presenting Communism for the Negro as a sort of sublimated voodooism, full of hysteria and drum beats, is very dangerous, in that it confirms the vicious capitalist myth about the Negro as a jungle creature instead of a human being. Thinking of the fine self-control, remarkable discipline, and quiet reasoning power of Negro workers, proved in hundreds of struggles it becomes extremely regrettable that Rex Ingram should have given us so frenzied a picture of Negro conversion to Communism.

The CP’s arrogance toward Rex Ingram should give you an idea of what a mixed blessing their hegemony represented. While far more capable of reaching workers and Black people than their Trotskyist rivals, they took such advantage of their power that they eventually turned their friends into enemies. No better example can be found than Richard Wright.

Despite the ability of Lawson to craft a movie that was made to order for the CP’s wartime needs, it was not so long ago when he was going through the same kind of travails as Ingram. Wikipedia reports:

During the 1930s, leftists accused Lawson of having a lack of ideological and political commitment. New Playwrights Theatre associate Mike Gold attacked him in The New Masses on April 10, 1934, calling him a “A Bourgeois Hamlet of Our Time” who wrote adolescent works that lacked moral fiber or clear ideas. Lawson responded a week later in The New Masses in the article “‘Inner Conflict’ and Proletarian Art” he cited his middle-class childhood as the reason why he could fully understand the working people. He also recognized that his prosperity and Hollywood connections were suspect in the fight for workers’ rights. Due to the criticism, he joined the Communist Party and began a program of educating himself about the proletarian cause. He would soon travel throughout the poverty-stricken South to study bloody labor conflicts in Alabama and Georgia.

In “Sahara”, Bogart’s small group of democracy-loving fighters stand off a much larger Nazi force who have become weakened due to a lack of water. When Bogart offers to exchange guns for water from the oasis he commands, they refuse. Ultimately the elements get the better of them just as it did in the invasion of Soviet Russia and they surrender en masse to the good guys.

But what the fuck were the Brits doing in North Africa to begin with? Let me turn the microphone over to James Heartfield:

In Western Europe, neither Britain nor Germany were willing to cross the channel – bombing each other’s cities, and attacking ship the Axis and the Allies’ respective armies did not meet on their own soil, but in North Africa. Italy’s bid for African Empire ended in ruins. Germany’s overtures to Arab nationalists added to the Empire’s troubles. Once the British Army had regained control over the Middle East, they could face the threat of Rommel’s Desert Army. Europeans would vent their hatreds in other people’s countries.

Britain had assembled an army of 630,000 British and colonial troops under Auchinleck, outnumbering Rommel’s men by three to two. Auchinleck had 900 tanks to Rommel’s 560 but were still being out-foxed. Pressed to take on the German, Auchinleck in February of1942 threw the War Cabinet into despair when he said he needed four months to get ready. In the end he was told to strike before 15 July or be relieved of command, which he did. But still Rommel fought back, taking Tobruk after intense fighting on 20 June. The next day, wrote Ribbentrop’s press officer,

Rommel entered the city of Tobruk at the head of his combat group. He found a pile of ruins. Hardly a house remained intact … the harbour installations and the streets had been transformed into a maze of rubble.

Thirty three thousand prisoners were taken, among whom were fully one third of all of South Africa’s armed forces.

Once Italy entered the war in 1940, trade in the Mediterranean was called to a halt by attacks on shipping, which undermined Middle Eastern economies. A Middle East Supply Council under E.M.H. Lloyd struggled with shortages of tea, coffee, spices, sugar and grain. In June 1941 Lebanon’s rich cereal harvest was broken up by the Allied invasion of Syria, so that by the winter the Middle East was without grain and close to famine. There were riots in Damascus. Allied authorities ordered all grain be sold to a control board for distribution, closing – in some cases burning – local mills. The Allies taxed the Middle East heavily and put a freeze on wages and salaries, just as prices were rocketing.

In October and November of 1942 the British Eighth Army – now under the command of General Bernard Montgomery – and Rommel’s Afrika Korps fought their decisive battle at El Alamein. At the same time American and British forces landed to the west, catching the Axis forces in a pincer movement. The Axis surrendered on 14 May 1943, with 275,000 taken prisoner. For nearly three years the Axis and the Allies had been avoiding a direct confrontation over their own territory, by hitting at each other in North Africa, but the surrender brought that phase of the war to an end. In September 1945 Sir Edward Grigg, Minister Resident in the Middle East summed up the British position:

the Middle East is no less vital to Britain than Central and South America to the United States, or than the eastern and western glacis of the Russian land mass to the Soviet Union … It was not for nothing that we sent to Egypt in 1940, when this island was in imminent jeopardy of invasion, the only armoured division of which we stood possessed. It was no mere accident that the whole face of the war began to change after our victory, two years later, at Alamein.

November 30, 2012

Columbia University President: opposition to WWI is treason

Filed under: Columbia University,war — louisproyect @ 10:03 pm

I have begun reading Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s “The Untold History of the United States” upon which the Showtime series is based. I can’t recommend it highly enough and will be posting a longer piece on Counterpunch the first chance I get. In the meantime I want to share this June 7, 1917 article with you that is excerpted on page 6 of the book, in a chapter dealing with Wilson and WWI. Simply jaw-dropping stuff.


Nicholas Murray Butler

New York Times June 17, 1917
Tells Alumni Columbia Rejects All Who Resist Government

President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University, in an address at a luncheon of alumni held in the university gymnasium at the close of the commencement exercises yesterday, denounced members of the university who resist the Government in time of war.

“Virtue and valor are so general among American youth,” he said, “as to be in danger of becoming commonplace, while vice and cowardice shriek out their horrid heads in ways that, at least for the moment, attract and often enchain public attention. For every instance of failure to rise to the high plane of patriotic duty and loyal service there_ have been here a hundred, yes, a thousand, instances of a splendid and a contrary sort.”

“So long as national policies were in debate we gave, as is our wont, complete liberty of assembly, of speech and of publication to all members of the university who, in lawful ways, might wish to influence and guide public policy. Wrongheadedness and folly we might deplore but were bound to tolerate. So soon, however, as the nation spoke by the Congress and by the President declaring that it would volunteer as one man for the protection and defense of civil liberty and self-government, conditions sharply changed. What had been tolerated before became intolerable now. What had been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason.

“I speak by authority for the whole university—for my colleagues of the Trustees and for my colleagues of the Faculties—when I say, with all possible emphasis; that there is and will be no place in Columbia University, either on the rolls of its Faculties or on the rolls of its students, for any person who opposes or who counsels opposition to the effective enforcement of the laws of the United States, or who acts, speaks, or writes treason. The separation of any such person from Columbia University will be as speedy as the discovery of his offense. This is the university’s last and only word of warning to any among us, if such there be, who are not with whole heart and mind and strength committed to fight with us to make the world safe for democracy.”

Ambassador James W. Gerard of the class of 1890 also made an address at the luncheon in which be brought the alumni to their feet with applause as he said: “Nothing this country has in life, property or honor will, be worth while if the German Empire wins this war.”

February 1, 2012

Is Iran conspiring to terrorize American citizens?

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Iran,war — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

James R. Clapper: liar and war profiteer

Today’s Washington Post has an article alarmingly titled “Iran, perceiving threat from West, willing to attack on U.S. soil, U.S. intelligence report finds“.  My first reaction was to say to myself, “Uh-oh, here we go again.”

The article has a link to testimony before Congress by one James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence who states:

The 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States shows that some Iranian officials—probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime. We are also concerned about Iranian plotting against US or allied interests overseas.

This, of course, is just one more example of what Malcolm X called turning the victim into the criminal and the criminal into the victim. With the assassination of one Iranian scientist after another carried out by America’s cat’s paw in the Middle East—the Mossad—one must appreciate Iran’s willingness not to retaliate in kind, despite the allegation about the “2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador”.

The N.Y. Times was a bit more skeptical than the Washington Post when it came to this plot, describing its architect as follows:

But Mansour J. Arbabsiar, 56, the man at the center of an alleged Iranian plot to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington, seems to have been more a stumbling opportunist than a calculating killer. Over the 30-odd years he lived in Texas, he left a string of failed businesses and angry creditors in his wake, and an embittered ex-wife who sought a protective order against him. He was perennially disheveled, friends and acquaintances said, and hopelessly disorganized.

Mr. Arbabsiar, now in custody in New York, stands accused by federal prosecutors of running a global terrorist plot that stretched from Mexico to Tehran, and that was directed by the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Many of his old friends and associates in Texas seemed stunned at the news, not merely because he was not a zealot, but because he seemed too incompetent to pull it off.

“His socks would not match,” said Tom Hosseini, a former college roommate and friend. “He was always losing his keys and his cellphone. He was not capable of carrying out this plan.”

Reminiscent of Judith Miller’s articles in the N.Y. Times, it is shocking that the Washington Post can ignore the obvious improbability of such a plot when it writes:

As described by U.S. officials in October, the convoluted scheme was to rely on assassins from a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the killing at a restaurant in Washington.

U.S. officials said the plot was devised by an Iranian American with ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. But the plan was foiled when the would-be operative mistakenly hired a paid informant of the Drug Enforcement Administration to carry it out. Iranian officials have denied any role in the plot.

It was “so unusual and amateurish that many initially doubted that Iran was responsible,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in Tuesday’s hearing. “Well, let me state for the record, I have no such a doubt.”

One of course would understand why Dianne Feinstein would “have no such a doubt” since she supported Bush’s war in Iraq back in 2002 based on the same kind of trumped up “intelligence”. As the 9th wealthiest member of the Senate, it might be expected that she would be gung-ho for wars in the Middle East. Her husband Richard Blum is the CEO of the Perini Corporation that is a prime military contractor as investigative reporter Peter Byrne revealed in an article titled “Senator Warbucks“:

As chairperson and ranking member of the Military Construction Appropriations subcommittee (MILCON) from 2001 through the end of 2005, Feinstein supervised the appropriation of billions of dollars a year for specific military construction projects. Two defense contractors whose interests were largely controlled by her husband, financier Richard C. Blum, benefited from decisions made by Feinstein as leader of this powerful subcommittee.

Each year, MILCON’s members decide which military construction projects will be funded from a roster proposed by the Department of Defense. Contracts to build these specific projects are subsequently awarded to such major defense contractors as Halliburton, Fluor, Parsons, Louis Berger, URS Corporation and Perini Corporation. From 1997 through the end of 2005, with Feinstein’s knowledge, Blum was a majority owner of both URS Corp. and Perini Corp.

While setting MILCON agendas for many years, Feinstein, 73, supervised her own staff of military construction experts as they carefully examined the details of each proposal. She lobbied Pentagon officials in public hearings to support defense projects that she favored, some of which already were or subsequently became URS or Perini contracts. From 2001 to 2005, URS earned $792 million from military construction and environmental cleanup projects approved by MILCON; Perini earned $759 million from such MILCON projects.

Obama’s Director of National Intelligence has the same cozy relationship to the military industry as reported by McClatchy, a publisher that stands hand and shoulders over the newspapers of the big bourgeoisie as indicated by their receiving an I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence in 2008. Their reporter filed a report on July 26, 2010 titled ” Clapper’s ties to contractors now loom large” that describes the same sort of incestuous relationship:

Four months after James R. Clapper left his federal job as head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in June 2006, he joined the boards of three government contractors, two of which had been doing business with his agency while he was there.

It was not the only revolving door entered by Clapper, who is now President Obama’s nominee to be director of national intelligence.

In October 2006 he was hired full time by DFI International, which was trying to boost its consulting with intelligence agencies. In April 2007, when he returned to public service as the chief of the Pentagon’s intelligence programs, DFI paid him a $50,000 bonus on his way out the door, according to his financial disclosure statement. Five months later, DFI landed a contract to advise Clapper’s Pentagon office, though company officials say they do not recall collecting any revenue from the deal.

There was nothing illegal or unusual about any of those moves in Washington, where former officials frequently land jobs with private contractors.

Now, however, Clapper is poised to become intelligence chief at a time when Congress is asking questions about the explosive growth of private contracting in the $75 billion U.S. intelligence operation. With lawmakers calling on the Obama administration to reduce the outsourcing, a logical question is whether a veteran of the close alliance between government and contractors — Clapper strongly defended the practice in response to a Washington Post series last week — is best-suited to bring that system to heel.

Not only is Clapper someone with a vested interest in war profiteering, he is also an old card at fabricating “intelligence”. In 2003, Clapper ran something called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. In that capacity, he assured the world that the weapons of mass destruction that were not found in Iraq because they had been spirited out of the country before the inspectors could locate them as the NY Times reported on October 29, 2003:

The director of a top American spy agency said Tuesday that he believed that material from Iraq’s illicit weapons program had been transported into Syria and perhaps other countries as part of an effort by the Iraqis to disperse and destroy evidence immediately before the recent war.

The official, James R. Clapper Jr., a retired lieutenant general, said satellite imagery showing a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq into Syria, just before the American invasion in March, led him to believe that illicit weapons material “unquestionably” had been moved out of Iraq.

“I think people below the Saddam Hussein-and-his-sons level saw what was coming and decided the best thing to do was to destroy and disperse,” General Clapper, who leads the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, said at a breakfast with reporters.

This was even too much for agency spokesman David Burpee, who said “he could not provide further evidence to support the general’s statement.”

One of the things I have stressed over and over is that President Obama is essentially carrying serving as Bush’s third term. I should add that if Mitt Romney replaces Obama next year, he will be carrying out Obama’s second term. As Kurt Vonnegut put it in “Slaughterhouse Five”: “And so it goes”.

In 2007, Clapper was nominated by President George W. Bush to be Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and approved without objections by Democratic Party legislators. So it is no wonder that he was Obama’s choice to run National Intelligence this year. He really knows how to pick ‘em.

October 11, 2011

Another Depression, another Occupation

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street,war — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

In 1932, three years after the stock market crashed and when the U.S. was in the throes of the worst depression in history, WWI veterans occupied a parcel of land not far from the White House to demand payment on the bonuses that were owed them. They were supposed to get paid for the difference between their military pay and their civilian wages according to legislation passed in 1924 but would have to wait until 1945. Since many were unemployed and destitute they demanded immediate payment.

Like today’s OWS, this occupation captured the country’s imagination and led to a political polarization. With Herbert Hoover still in the White House, there was little to expect in the way of justice but probably few of the veterans expected what eventually took place, a full-scale military assault led by General Douglas MacArthur that included six tanks. Under MacArthur’s command were Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. This was obviously a major offensive.

After an initial foray with fixed bayonets and adamsite, a vomit-inducing gas, Hoover called for a halt to the assault that MacArthur ignored, stating that he was trying to put down a Communist insurgency. At this point in his career, MacArthur showed the kind of defiance of civilian authority that would lead to his firing by Harry Truman years later.

In the video clip below, pay close attention to the orator in white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and suspenders. That is none other than General Smedley Butler!

The Bonus Army movement raised some of the same themes now being heard at OWS rallies. On June tenth, just a month before the men were attacked, their leader Walter W. Waters wrote an article in the NY Times (the paper was reasonably favorable toward the movement) using language that might sound familiar to you. He wrote:

We realize that the hue and cry is being raised by our opponents that payment of the bonus would be “class” legislation. But is not Federal assistance to broken-down railroads and defunct banks “class” legislation of a sort? Of course, the point is raised that assistance to industry is assistance to the working man.

Then, as now, there were certain problems that the occupiers had with the “Marxist-Leninist” left. Today that left is generally sympathetic to the movement but has no clue how to engage with it, a function unfortunately of seeing every mass movement as something to “intervene” in rather than become integrated with organically.

Back in 1932, the left was pretty much synonymous with the Communist Party which was deep into its “left turn”. A June 18 NYT article titled “Reds Urge Mutiny in the Bonus Army” that was not far from the truth. The CP urged the men to go back home and join with the working class in a fight for unemployment insurance. While the party’s call was cloaked in ultraleft rhetoric, it was clearly missing the point of the action, which was to implicitly put the rulers in Washington and their Wall Street funders on the defensive.

A week after the Bonus Army had been driven from its encampment, the CP held a press conference where its leaders demonstrated unbelievable stupidity. The lead paragraph of a July 31 1932 NYT article states: “The Communist Party, at its headquarters here accepted responsibility yesterday for the demonstration that resulted in the Bonus Army riots in Washington.” Speaking for the party leadership, William Z. Foster said:

Under the banner of the world Communist party, fight imperialist war, defend the Soviet Union, make Aug. 1 the beginning of a gigantic struggle for the defense of the right of workers.

Rally behind the election fight of the Communist Party. Oust the Hoover-Wall Street government. Forward to the workers’ and farmers’ government.

Can you imagine that this was the largest party on the left? Using rhetoric that evoked the “social fascism” mindset of the German CP, the CP labeled Walter Waters as a “stoolpigeon” who was following Mussolini and Hitler.

In the same way that Obama’s election in 2008 brought hope that social justice would be served, so did FDR’s election in 1932 raise the country’s spirits. Surely, someone who would become famous for his New Deal achievements—at least in the hagiography of American liberalism—would see a way to meet the request of the Bonus Army. As it turns out, FDR was as opposed to granting the veterans’ demand as Hoover. The only difference between the two was in the rhetoric they used. Hoover opposed it for obvious plutocratic motives while FDR opposed it because it would divert resources from the New Deal. In other words, the two presidents were playing the same game that Bush and Obama would play 76 years later in tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum fashion.

As part of “the Hundred Days” that marks the onset of the New Deal shortly after taking office, Roosevelt pushed through the Bill to Maintain the Credit of the United States Government. Better known as the Economy Act, the bill drastically cut federal expenditures through a 400-million-dollar reduction in veteran pensions and benefits. If Obama had taken the advice of the Nation Magazine and Salon.com to create a new New Deal, this is a piece of legislation he surely would have embraced.

In an odd role reversal, the Veterans of Foreign Wars—nowadays a bastion of reaction—took FDR to task from the left. The Economy Act in their eyes demonstrated the continuing influence of “Big Business” and “Wall Street”.

With its ranks dominated by men who were suffering from the impact of the Depression, the VFW’s magazine Foreign Service did not mince words. In an April 1933 editorial titled “Blood Money”, they wrote:

It is apparent that the veteran has been forced to bear the burden of a depression that was caused by his enemies—the predatory interests that have their hands in the public till. The money that will be withheld from the disabled veteran…can only be regarded as blood money.

This is the same mood that can be seen among the veterans participating in OWS today even if in this instance the anger is directed more at Sean Hannity than the president.

By April 1933, the VFW had FDR pegged in pretty much the same terms as Paul Street had Obama pegged early on. While some pundits viewed FDR has having been duped into supporting the Economy Act, the VFW saw him siding openly with big business and nothing but a continuation of Hoover. Since the Economy Act had removed 501,777 veterans and their dependents from the pension rolls, the pain must have been excruciating. In the VFW magazine, the reference was from that point on to “the new deal” rather than the New Deal.

While the VFW has gone through an evolution obviously, the American Legion was not much different in 1933 than it is today. It supported the Economy Act and its leader Louis A. Johnson spent as much time at the White House as some labor fakers do today.

The VFW published Smedley Butler’s speech to the Bonus Army seen in the Youtube clip above under the title “You Got to Get Mad”. Butler agreed to go on a speaking tour to promote the veterans’ demands that year. A Roosevelt supporter in 1932, Butler was now angry at the administration’s cozy alliance with “Big Business”.

Under the impact of such activism, FDR was forced to back down but not without resistance. Congress, where Democrats held majorities in both houses, passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act in 1936 authorizing the immediate payment of the $2 billion in WWI bonuses over the President’s veto.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from the original occupiers, it is that you have to rely on your own power in the spirit of Frederick Douglass’s words: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Even if such demands are still pending!


Stephen R. Ortiz, The “New Deal” for Veterans: The Economy Act, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the origins of New Deal Dissent, The Journal of Military History, April 2006, Vol. 70, no. 2

October 4, 2011

Steven Pinker = Hobbes + Pangloss

Filed under: evolutionary psychology,war — louisproyect @ 7:54 pm

Steven Pinker: bad hairdo, worse ideas

Whenever a prominent sociobiologist (I prefer this term to the more nebulous “evolutionary psychology”) like E.O. Wilson, Jared Diamond or Steven Pinker comes out with a new book, you can expect it to arrive with a big splash—getting a front-page review in the Sunday Times Book Review, interviews with Charlie Rose, and all the rest. The reception will be overwhelmingly favorable because the message of such thinkers is deeply conservative, namely that biology is destiny. What is the point of struggling for a classless society if greed and aggression are hard-wired in our genes?

Get set for a barrage of fawning reviews of Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that is basically an expansion of the chapter in his “The Blank Slate” that deals with violence. Pinker adheres to a Hobbesian view of society, one in which the state is necessary to curb the kind of wanton violence that apparently was much worse in primitive societies than it is under capitalism.

You don’t have to waste your money on this book in order to get a handle on Pinker’s views. John Brockman (described once by Wired Magazine as a onetime hippie, Warhol groupie, and feminine-hygiene marketing guru) is a literary agent whose clients include some of the most prominent sociobiologists, including Daniel Goleman, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond. He also publishes Edge Magazine, in the latest edition of which you can find a lecture by Steven Pinker that is a short-form version of the new book.

This doctrine, “the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”),” he writes. “But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.”

Pinker’s lecture begins with a glance at how bad things used to be:

In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, “[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.” Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world.

But after the fashion of Voltaire’s Pangloss, Pinker discovers that we are living in—or rapidly approaching—a time of the best of all possible worlds:

Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.

In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.

He also takes exception to notions of a “noble savage”:

The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”). But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.

As opposed to such foolish notions, Pinker asserts that Hobbes got it right:

The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don’t strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation.

I was first exposed to Pinker’s dubious ideas in The Nation Magazine, of all places. In a November 18, 2002 review of “The Blank Slate”, Steven Johnson takes heart in Pinker’s curious mixture of Hobbes and Pangloss:

Contrary to what its critics say, evolutionary psychology does not threaten our ability to assess and transform our social and cultural landscapes. Quite the opposite–understanding the particular channels that we’re prepared to learn can throw into sharper relief the achievements of culture. Knowing something about our reproductive drives and our tendencies toward violence makes the extraordinary drop in murder and birthrates experienced by many Western countries over the past few centuries all the more impressive.

At the time I questioned the wisdom of such a review:

For all of Pinker’s animosity to radicalism and Marxism in particular, there is very little evidence that he understands how historical materialism deals with the question of human nature. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace its development through the years, suffice it to say that Marxism views the nature-nurture relationship dialectically.

It does not really challenge the existence of biologically determined traits, but simply places the whole question of equality, justice and freedom in a materialist context. In other words, revolutionary socialism strives to create the conditions in which all human beings can reach their full potential. Within the context of such a challenge, Pinker’s “Blank Slate,” with its discussions about the difference between the appearance of male and female brains (according to Pinker, they are “nearly as distinct as their bodies”) seems little more than “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” geared to readers of the New York Review of Books.

The next time Pinker showed up on my radar screen was in the course of a commentary on the Yanomami science wars. Like Jared Diamond, who hailed colonialism “pacification” of the Papua New Guineans, and Napoleon Chagnon, the sociobiologist who viewed the Yanomami as “fierce” based on cherry-picked evidence, Pinker was committed to the view that hunting-and-gathering peoples were even more violent than they were depicted in Tarzan movies. About such characters, I had this to say:

Jared Diamond makes an identical argument to Pinker’s in his book “The Third Chimpanzee”, even going as so far as to accuse the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall as prototypical Nazis. In the infamous New Yorker article, he states “the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.” So violent were the PNG tribesmen that when the British colonizers arrived, they supposedly were grateful for being delivered finally from bloody Hatfield-McCoy feuding that never came to end. At least that’s Diamond’s argument.

When people like Pinker or Diamond write about the brutal hunting-and-gathering societies, they do so very selectively. Our ancestors came into existence two million years ago. Since the evidence for how early ancestors lived is quite scanty, there is a tendency for sociobiologists to project their own schemas backwards into a period with little regard for archaeological evidence. Trying to explain warfare in terms of Darwinian adaptation (what people like Pinker call environment of evolutionary adaptation or EEA) is very problematic as Gould pointed out in a NY Review article:

But how can we possibly know in detail what small bands of hunter-gatherers did in Africa two million years ago? These ancestors left some tools and bones, and paleoanthropologists can make some ingenious inferences from such evidence. But how can we possibly obtain the key information that would be required to show the validity of adaptive tales about an EEA: relations of kinship, social structures and sizes of groups, different activities of males and females, the roles of religion, symbolizing, storytelling, and a hundred other central aspects of human life that cannot be traced in fossils? We do not even know the original environment of our ancestors—did ancestral humans stay in one region or move about? How did environments vary through years and centuries?

For my money, there is no better antidote to Pinker’s Hobbesian/Panglossian worldview than the articles of Rutgers sociology professor Brian Ferguson, who is one of the leading critics of Napoleon Chagnon. Particularly useful is “The Birth of War” (Ferguson’s articles are archived at http://dga.rutgers.edu/~socant/ferguson.html#articles), an article that is clearly informed by a historical materialist viewpoint. He writes:

Over the millennia, tribal warfare became more the rule than the exception. As the preconditions for warfare (permanent settlements, population growth, greater social hierarchy, increased trade, and climatic crises) became more common, more tribal peoples in more areas adopted the practice. That development in itself spread warmaking to other groups. Once ancient states arose, they employed “barbarians” on their peripheries to expand their empires and secure their extensive trade networks. Finally, the European expansion after 1492 set native against native to capture territory and slaves and to fight imperial rivalries. Refugee groups were forced into others’ lands, manufactured goods were introduced and fought over (as with the Yanomami), and the spread of European weapons made fighting ever more lethal.

When I began studying war in the mid-1970s, I was trained in an approach called cultural ecology, which argued along the lines that Steven LeBlanc does today. Population pressure on food resources-land, game, herd animals-was seen as the usual cause of indigenous warfare. In some cases the theory did work. Among the peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast prior to the depopulation of the nineteenth century, groups fought to gain access to prime resource locations, such as estuaries with good salmon streams. But in far more cases around the world, such as that of the Yanomami, warfare could not be linked to food competition.

Today, under the rubric “environmental security,” many nonanthropologists who work on issues of international security embrace that ecological view. Recent outbreaks of violence, they argue, may be rooted in scarcities of subsistence goods, fueled by growing populations and degraded resources (such as too little and eroded cropland). But when you examine the cases for which that interpretation seems superficially plausible-the conflicts of the past several years in Chiapas, Mexico, for instance, or in Rwanda-they fail to confirm the “ecological” theory.

We anthropologists are just beginning to bring our experience to bear in the environmental security debate. What we find is that if a peasant population is suffering for lack of basic resources, the main cause of that scarcity is an unequal distribution of resources within the society, a matter of politics and economics, rather than the twin bugbears of too many people and not enough to go around.

Anthropology can offer an alternative view on such terrible disasters as the Rwandan genocide or the civil wars in the Balkans. case studies of modern-day conflicts show that a broad range of factors may be interacting, including subsistence needs and local ecological relations, but also political struggles over the government, trends in globalization, and culturally specific beliefs and symbols. Moreover, when hard times come, they are experienced differently by different kinds of people. Who you are usually determines how you’re doing and where your interests lie: identity and interest are fused. Once a conflict gets boiling and the killing starts, all middle grounds get swept away, and a person’s fate can depend on such simple labels as ethnic, religious, or tribal identity. The slaughter of Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 is only one of the latest examples of that horrific effect. But such differences are not the cause of the conflict.

My view is that in most cases-not every single one-the decision to wage war involves the pursuit of practical self-interest by those who actually make the decision. The struggle can be joined over basic subsistence resources, but it can just as easily erupt over goods available only to elites. The decision involves weighing the costs of war against other potential hazards to life and well-being. And most definitely, it depends on one’s position in the internal political hierarchy: from New Guinean “big men” to kings and presidents, leaders often favor war because war favors leaders.

The question of subsistence resources is key. When primitive people fought each other, it is not because they are aggressive by nature but because of a need to gain access to the means of reproduction like water, food and land. The irony is that while capitalism made such struggles outmoded through its technological breakthroughs, but only raised them to a higher level since a fraction of society—the bourgeoisie—became bellicose in its need to monopolize the very means of production that allowed a peaceful and abundant society to prevail. Instead of fighting over water, food and land (ironically, the environmental crisis placed this on the front burned once again), the fight became one over natural resources need for manufacturing (especially oil) and markets for manufactured products.

Pinker’s belief that peace is becoming universal also does not take into account that violence is only partially a function of what happens on the battlefield. The fact that we have not endured anything like WWI or WWII in the past 65 years or so has to be weighed against the continuing violence of daily life in the Third World, which is not that visited so much by a bayonet but by hunger.

Two years ago U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told those gathered at a three-day summit on world food security: “Today, more than 1 billion people are hungry. Six million children die of hunger every year — 17,000 every day, he said.” (http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/11/17/italy.food.summit/) Just add up the number of dead children since the end of WWII and you arrive at 390 million casualties of the war on the poor. You might not have trench warfare, but the quiet death of a child in Peru is just as brutal. The guns that prevent Peru from descending into Hobbesian anarchy might be regarded as a necessary evil by Pinker, but to the mothers and fathers of those children that is of little consolation. When the Shining Path, by no means a perfect liberation force, decided to take up arms and challenge a system that condemned so many of its citizens to an early death, the voices of “peace” and “civilization” urged its destruction. Fujimori brought peace but it was the peace of the graveyard.

Like Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker is a public intellectual serving the interests of big capital. His targeted readers are suburbanites and the urban middle class that has somehow avoided the biggest blows of the Great Recession, the PBS contributors whose worldview is shaped by the News Hour and who will probably stick with Obama in 2012.

They like the idea that World History is moving toward a better place despite those evening reports about bad things happening in Zaire or Somalia. They are reassured by knowing that no matter how bad these things are, they were much worse 500 years ago than they are today—at least based on what Pinker reports. Of course, it matters little that others like Basil Davidson found an entirely different continent before colonialism, one that was a lot more livable despite the obvious small-scale battles over land, water and hunting grounds. And if the restive natives ever decide that they can do better by themselves than the enlightened colonist or neo-colonist, there is always the UN Blue Hats to sort things out in Hobbesian fashion.

September 24, 2011

Did World War Two end the Great Depression?

Filed under: economics,financial crisis,war — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

When commentators continue to refer the most recent financial crisis as “the Great Recession”, they are obviously invoking the other crisis qualified by the adjective “great”, namely the one that began after the stock market crash of 1929. The intractable nature of the current slump has many economists invoking FDR’s New Deal even as the reality sank in long ago that Obama was much more like Herbert Hoover than FDR.

Now some economists—either professional or amateur like me—question whether the accouterments of the New Deal would have had any real impact at all. And one of them has dared to suggest how the Great Depression ended in terms conveyed to me as a new recruit to the Trotskyist movement in 1967, namely that it was WWII rather than the CCC, etc. that was responsible for the recovery. In a November 10, 2008 op-ed column titled “Franklin Delano Obama?”, Paul Krugman wrote:

What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.

Harry Magdoff made the same argument in an open letter to an economist whose article included a sentence that troubled him: “Today’s neo-liberal state is a different kind of capitalist class than the social-democratic, Keynesian interventionist state of the previous period.” In questioning the value of Keynesian interventions of the sort that are found on a daily basis in places like the Nation Magazine, Harry concurred with Krugman:

The onset of a marked recession [in 1937-38] after years of pump-priming startled Washington. Questions began to be raised about the possibility of stagnation in a mature capitalism, the retarding effect of monopolistic corporations, and other possible drags on business. These concerns faded as war orders flowed in from Europe, and eventually they disappeared when the United States went to war. The notion of the “Keynesian Welfare State” has tended to disguise the fact that what really turned the tide was not social welfare, Keynesian or otherwise, but war. In that sense, the whole concept of Keynesianism can be mystification.

Of course, America’s recovery after the start of WWII was in itself a perverse confirmation of the need to adopt Keynesian stimuli, which was the point of Krugman’s column. Liberal economists advocate deficit spending to stimulate the economy but prefer that it be used to build bridges rather than bomb them.

As Randolph Bourne put it during WWI, “war is the health of the state”. While he was writing about the ideological conformity that takes place during war, you might as well extend that to the health of the economy as well. For the entire 20th century and continuing into the 21st, military spending has served in a bastardized Keynesian fashion to keep the system afloat.

Indeed, the late Lynn Turgeon—a long-time subscriber to Michael Perelman’s PEN-L mailing list—wrote a book titled “Bastard Keynesianism: The Evolution of Economic Thinking and Policy-Making” in 1996 that had an introduction with the lead sentence: “The economics of World War II represented a thundering validation of Keynesian economics, as expounded in Keynes’s General Theory”. Indeed, it didn’t really matter which economist a war economy named as its chief guru, as long as it put into practice the kind of massive state spending that was synonymous with Keynes. As Michael Perelman once put it in a message to the post-Keynesian Economics mailing list (now defunct), “Like Lynn Turgeon, I was impressed with Silverman, Dan P. 1997. Hitler’s Economy: Nazi Work Creation Programs, 1933-1936 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). The book suggests that, if you filter out the racist elements, Hitler’s economic policy were, in effect, a clearer version of the New Deal.”

Apologists for the capitalist system would obviously be troubled by any attempts to connect WWII with the end of the Great Depression since it leads to a political conclusion that condemns the very system they believe in. If it takes millions of dead soldiers and civilians to produce a recovery, isn’t that in and of itself an imperative to overthrow that system?

One strategy is to debunk the notion that the war did lead to a recovery. Two pillars of the establishment—Brad DeLong and Lawrence Summers—have made such an attempt in a 1988 Brookings Institution paper titled “How Does Macroeconomic Policy Affect Output?” They write:

By the time World War II began and the government began to exert command over the economy, more than five-sixths of the Depression decline in output relative to the trend had been made up. It is hard to attribute any of the pre-1942 catchup of the economy to the war. Neither the federal government’s fiscal deficit nor the surplus on trade account became an appreciable share of national product before Pearl Harbor.

Christine Romer, who was quoted in a new book to the effect that the Obama White house was a male chauvinist pig sty dominated by men like Lawrence Summers, agreed with DeLong and Summers in a 1991 paper titled “What Ended the Great Depression” that begins:

Between 1933 and 1937 real GNP in the United States grew at an average rate of over 8 percent per year; between 1938 and 1941 it grew at an average rate of over 10 percent per year. By any prewar or postwar metric these rates of growth are spectacular, even for an economy pulling out of a severe depression.

In the December 1994 Journal of Economic History, J.R. Vernon answers the claims of Summers, DeLong and Romer in a paper titled “World War II Fiscal Policies and the End of the Great Depression”. While no Marxist (and not even a radical by any appearances), Vernon makes some essential points. To start with, he stresses that more than half of the recovery took place between 1941 and 1942—in other words when war spending had geared up. Government purchase of goods and services ticked up by 54.7 percent in this one-year period and continued to increase as the actual war began. Furthermore, in examining Romer’s figures, he comes to the conclusion that by the fourth quarter of 1940, only 46 percent of the recovery had been accomplished.

In a way, all of this is moot for several reasons. To start with, even if Romer, Summers and DeLong were correct there is no possibility of a New Deal inspired recovery is in the works. If there is anything that the Obama presidency has demonstrated, it is that Herbert Hoover rather than the New Deal inspires it.

And if you take Krugman at his word that a world war could do the trick, it is precluded by the nuclear facts on the ground. American capitalism had no compunction about blowing up most of Germany and Japan in the course of preparing for postwar reconstruction led by American investments, but in the epoch of the hydrogen bomb only the cockroach will be left to do business.

May 3, 2011

He must have attacked them with a dialysis hose

Filed under: war — louisproyect @ 10:07 pm

May 3, 2011 2:25 PM
How did bin Laden resist Navy SEALs without a weapon?

According to the White House, Osama bin Laden was shot to death during a raid on his compound when he “resisted” the raid team.

Also according to the White House, bin Laden was not armed when confronted by the raid team.

Which raises the question: How did bin Laden resist the raid without a weapon?

Asked about this issue at his briefing Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said “resistance does not require a firearm.” He declined to elaborate further.

Reporters pressed Carney, who noted that the SEAL team had been prepared to capture bin Laden if possible. (White House Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan said at a briefing Monday that “if we had the opportunity to take bin Laden alive, if he didn’t present any threat, the individuals involved were able and prepared to do that.”)

He then said the team “met with a great deal of resistance,” adding that many people in the compound were armed.

Carney said the raid led to a “highly volatile firefight” and said those involved in the raid “handled themselves with the utmost professionalism.”

“He was killed in an operation because of the resistance that they met,” said Carney, who referred further questions to the Pentagon. “We are trying very hard to provide as much information as we can,” he added.

Carney also said one of bin Laden’s wives was in the room with bin Laden when the raid team arrived. He said she rushed a member of the raid team and was shot in the leg — but not killed. Carney did not provide any detail about the actions taken by bin Laden when the SEALs arrived.

Asked to provide clarity on the issue on Monday, all a senior official would say is that “more details may emerge.”

The White House initially claimed that bin Laden used a woman as a human shield and was “firing behind her,” but it later changed its account of what took place

USA chant falls flat

Filed under: war — louisproyect @ 9:59 pm

Code name Geronimo

Filed under: Jihadists,pakistan,war — louisproyect @ 1:50 pm

The code name for Bin Laden was “Geronimo.” The president and his advisers watched Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, on a video screen, narrating from his agency’s headquarters across the Potomac River what was happening in faraway Pakistan.

“They’ve reached the target,” he said.

Minutes passed.

“We have a visual on Geronimo,” he said.

A few minutes later: “Geronimo EKIA.”

Enemy Killed In Action. There was silence in the Situation Room.

Finally, the president spoke up.

“We got him.”

–NY Times, May 2, 2011

* * * *


The Big Question: Who was Geronimo, and why is there controversy over his remains?

By Guy Adams
Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Why are we asking this now?

The US government has been dragged into a bizarre legal battle between descendants of the Apache leader Geronimo and a secret society of Yale students called Skull and Bones, whose members allegedly raided his grave during the First World War. Yesterday, the Justice Department asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed in February, on the 100th anniversary of Geronimo’s death, seeking to recover the legendary warrior’s remains and re-bury them near to his birthplace in the Gila Wilderness of southern New Mexico.

The legal action, by 20 descendants of Geronimo, claims a group of Skull and Bones members, including George W Bush’s grandfather, Prescott, took his skull from Fort Sill in Oklahoma in 1918. The artefact has allegedly been stored in a glass case at the organisation’s clubhouse in New Haven, Connecticut ever since. The Justice Department became involved because Barack Obama and his defence secretary Robert Gates are named alongside the Skull and Bones society as co-defendants, due to the fact that Geronimo was initially buried on public land.

So who was Geronimo?

For much of his lifetime, Geronimo was considered the greatest terrorist in America. These days, he’s feted as a fearless guerrilla fighter, whose famously brave troops were the last American Indian force to hold out against the United States.

Born Goytholy, meaning “the one who yawns,” he took up arms when his wife, children and mother were massacred by Mexicans in 1851. His nickname stems from daring retaliatory raids, when he led men on cavalry charges, often into a hail of bullets. Legend has it that victims would scream a plea to St Jerome (hence “Jeronimo!”) as they died.

Geronimo evaded capture for more than three decades. Though wounded countless times, he was never defeated, and his men are perhaps the most effective light cavalry force in military history. They numbered no more than a couple of hundred at any one time, but are said to have killed more than 5,000 enemies.

Why did he fight?

Geronimo was a member of the Chiricahua Apache tribe whose homelands in the deserts of New Mexico were annexed first by Mexico and later by the United States during its expansion into the south-west during the 19th century. His insurgency was part of a wider rebellion by Native Indians against their treatment by white settlers, who carried out what in modern terms might be called ethnic cleansing: removing tribes from ancestral territories and (in some cases) placing a bounty on their scalps. Geronimo’s success was down to old-fashioned derring-do, and sheer good luck. Because of repeated close shaves with mortality, many followers believed he was resistant to bullets. His men were adept at using their opponents’ technology – including rifles and pistols – against them.

How was he captured?

After more than 30 years the US General Nelson Miles tracked Geronimo to Arizona. The rebels were exhausted after decades on the run, and their number had dwindled to just 36 men, many of whom (including their leader) had taken to heavy drinking. In the autumn of 1886, Geronimo negotiated a tactical surrender, agreeing to lay down his arms on condition that his followers would be allowed to disband and return home to their families. But the US reneged on its promises, and promptly took Geronimo and his troops into custody. They spent seven years in prison in Alabama before being transferred to Fort Sill, where they lived out the rest of their days in a form of open prison.

What became of him?

Ironically, Geronimo’s fame only grew during his year in captivity. He became a local celebrity, charging visitors to Fort Sill to have their photo taken with him, and keeping a stock of autographed cards and other souvenirs to sell to tourists. In old age, he was constantly interviewed (for a small fee) by the US press, and took part in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Circus, where performers recreated his most daring battles. He was a star attraction at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, and had a prominent place in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905.

Having embraced capitalism, Geronimo also took up the white man’s religion, converting to Christianity saying he believed it to be “better than the religion of my forefathers.” He joined the Dutch Reformed Church in 1903, but was expelled four years later, apparently for gambling. He died in 1909, at the age of 79.

What happened to his remains?

Three members of the Skull and Bones society, including Prescott Bush, were stationed at an artillery school at Fort Sill during the First World War. In a bizarre prank, they are rumoured to have dug up his grave, and taken his skull and femurs back to their alma mater.

Why does this matter?

Although unproven, the alleged desecration of Geronimo’s grave carries significant political baggage. Like Chief Sitting Bull, who defeated General Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn, Native Americans view him as a symbol of their people’s righteous rebellion against white colonialists. Geronimo is also firmly embedded in the US psyche as a symbol of bonkers bravado. Paratroopers shout his name after leaping from aeroplanes, apparently as part of a tradition that began in 1940, when they prepared for their first mass jump by watching the film “Geronimo.” In a scene based on one of its subject’s many narrow escapes – and mimicked by generations of schoolchildren – the movie’s hero yells his own name as he leaps from a cliff into a river to escape capture by approaching soldiers.

What is the Skull and Bones?

Adding to the intrigue is long-standing public fascination with the Skull and Bones society, an organisation of privileged Yale Students whose alumni include both Presidents Bush and John Kerry. The club, founded at the Ivy League school in 1832, selects 15 new members each year. They are sworn in at the “Tomb,” a windowless campus clubhouse which is purported to hold the skulls of a range of famous figures, including Che Guevara. During the initiation ceremony, recruits are apparently required to kiss the skull of Geronimo, which is said to be held in a glass case near the door, and take a solemn oath to support fellow members.

Since the society is secret – it has never clarified the exact contents of the “Tomb” – some regard it as vaguely sinister. Others say it is a harmless networking organisation. In this respect, it is perhaps best described as an upmarket version of the Freemasons.

What happens next?

The lawsuit by Geronimo’s descendants was filed in a federal district court in Washington DC, and seeks: “to free Geronimo, his remains, funerary objects and spirit from 100 years of imprisonment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Yale University campus at New Haven, Connecticut and wherever else they may be found.”

Presuming the case isn’t immediately thrown out – and the political ramifications of doing so would be enormous – the court’s immediate next step must be to determine if the Skull and Bones society really does own Geronimo’s disputed skull.

Does the Skull and Bones society really have Geronimo’s skull?


*The Skull and Bones has repeatedly refused to discuss the skull, still less surrender it for DNA testing

*A letter written in 1918 by a society member says it gained possession of it

*A history of the society written in 1933 claimed that Prescott Bush ‘engaged in a mad expedition’ at Fort Sill to obtain Geronimo’s skull


*Geronimo’s grave was miles from where Prescott Bush was stationed

*The exact location of Geronimo’s grave was unmarked at the time of the alleged theft

*Historians say that, while the Skull and Bones may very well have a Native Indian’s skull, it is unlikely to be that of Geronimo

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