Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 10, 2007

Kanan Makiya

Filed under: cruise missile left,Iraq,war — louisproyect @ 7:31 pm

Except for rascals like Christopher Hitchens and Oliver Kamm, most of the pro-war “left” has reversed itself (George Packer, Johann Hari)–without of course abrogating the right of the US to act as world’s cop when the cause is supposedly just (Afghanistan, Darfur, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, etc.) There is also a group that still supports the invasion but keeps a low profile. You will not find them on talk show circuits repeating George W. Bush’s talking points slathered over with references to Camus, Orwell and Koestler. Mostly they have retreated from the public scene and shake their heads at the catastrophe that resulted from “poor planning” and other blunders.

The New York Times Magazine gave a platform to one of them last Sunday: Iraqi intellectual and former Trotskyist Kanan Makiya, who is the author of a number of books with scholarly pretensions that provided fuel for the invasion in 2002 and 2003. In one of Judith Miller’s pro-war propaganda pieces written on January 12, 2003, she described Makiya’s touching faith in George Bush’s promises:

None of the Iraqi participants were willing to discuss precisely what Mr. Bush said. But Kanan Makiya, a professor at Brandeis University and a leading Iraqi intellectual, said he was “deeply reassured” by what he called “the president’s intense commitment to a genuinely democratic post-Saddam Iraq” and by Mr. Bush’s determination to press forward not only with “removing Saddam from office, but reconstructing Iraq after a military conflict.”

“Mr. Bush was clearly aware that Iraq was not Afghanistan, and that it has the human and financial resources needed to support democracy,” Mr. Makiya said.

Miller lost her job but Makiya’s career–at least in the US–did not suffer any consequences for such boneheaded statements. He is a professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. My advice to people trying to decide where to send their children to college is to take this place off their list.

Not only has Makiya’s political fortunes taken a turn for the worse, so has his health:

Makiya’s life is no longer what it was. In 2003, on returning to Iraq, he reunited with his sweetheart from high-school days, married and took her back to Cambridge. He also found out he has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, the same disease that killed Edward Said, the Palestinian-born Columbia University professor and Makiya’s intellectual nemesis.

While it would be impossible to prove this, one wonders if living in such a heavily polluted environment such as Iraq might have led to Mr. Makiya’s cancer. In Houston, Texas, there are 56 percent more incidents of childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia for families living in close proximity to the petroleum refineries. Since George W. Bush and his cronies are responsible for the woeful state of both Texas and Iraq today, there is some irony in Makiya being so afflicted.

Said never rested a moment in the final years of his life when he was battling leukemia. He did everything in his power to expose the lies that people like Makiya were churning out on behalf of the Bush White House. In a article that appeared in the November 28, 2002 Al-Ahram titled “Misinformation about Iraq“, Said directed his fire against Makiya:

The most complete version of his plans for Iraq after an American invasion that derive from his current employment as a resident employee of the US Department of State, appears in the November 2002 issue of Prospect, a good liberal British monthly to which I subscribe. Makiya begins his “proposal” by enumerating the extraordinary assumptions behind his arguments, two of which almost by definition are unimaginable. The first is that “the unseating” of Saddam should not occur after a bombing campaign. Makiya must have been living on Mars to imagine that, in the event of a war, a massive bombing attack would not occur even though every single plan circulated for regime change in Iraq has stated explicitly that Iraq would be bombed mercilessly. The second assumption is equally imaginative, since Makiya seems to believe against all evidence that the US is committed to democracy and nation-building in Iraq. Why he thinks that Iraq is like Germany and Japan after World War II (both of which were rebuilt because of the Cold War) is beyond me; besides, he doesn’t once mention the fact that the US is determined to bring down the Iraqi regime because of the country’s oil reserves and because Iraq is an enemy of Israel. So, he starts out by making preposterous assumptions that simply fly in the face of all the evidence.

The New York Times Magazine article was written by Dexter Filkins who might be described as Judith Miller lite. Along with the equally detestable Michael R. Gordon, they have been writing article after article trying to prove that Iran is behind all the troubles in Iraq. Filkins also served as a conduit for Pentagon propaganda in earlier articles blaming al-Qaeda for the insurgency in Iraq. Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post reported that the military had made a “selective leak” about al-Qaeda leader Zarqawi to Dexter Filkins. The article, making much of a letter supposedly written by Zarqawi and boasting of suicide attacks in Iraq, ran on the Times front page on Feb. 9, 2004. In other words, just the kind of reporter to rely on for an accounting of Makiya’s sins.

Filkins and Makiya alike can hardly avoid talking about the catastrophe that George W. Bush has wrought.

In the buildup to the Iraq war, Makiya, more than any single figure, made the case for invading because it was the right thing to do — to destroy an evil regime and rescue a people from their nightmare of terror and suffering. Not for oil, Makiya argued, and not for some superweapons hidden in the sand, but to satisfy an obligation to our fellow human beings.

If it sounded idealistic, Makiya went even further, arguing that an American invasion of Iraq could clear the ground for Western-style democracy. Years of war and murder had left Iraqis so thoroughly degraded, Makiya argued, that, once freed, they would throw off the tired orthodoxies of Arab politics and, in their despair, look to the West. “The removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein presents the U.S. with a historic opportunity,” Makiya told a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington in October 2002, “that is as large as anything that has happened in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.” Two months before the war started, in a meeting in the Oval Office, Makiya told President Bush that Iraqis would greet invading American soldiers with “sweets and flowers.”

Now, of course, those dreams are gone, carried away on a tide of blood. The catastrophe in Iraq has thoroughly undermined the idea of democratic change in the Middle East. It has undercut the notion, sustained by the successful interventions in the Balkans, that American military power can achieve humanitarian ends. And it has made Makiya and the others who justified the invasion look reckless and naïve.

Filkins alludes to Makiya’s early Trotskyist connections:

Makiya, who is 58, made the toppling of Saddam Hussein his life’s work, the focus of an idealistic vision that guided him through a life of exile. In the musty yearbooks of Baghdad College, the Jesuit high school where Makiya studied, the photo shows his eyes afire: dark, focused and looking upward. As a student at M.I.T., he strummed Woody Guthrie folk tunes on an old guitar. Makiya threw himself into the Palestinian cause, signed on as a Marxist and then beat a long path back to a philosophy of democracy and human rights.

There are more details about Makiya’s youthful indiscretions in Democratiya, an online magazine that describes itself as pushing for the “renewal of the politics of democratic radicalism.” If your idea of “democratic radicalism” is finding excuses for military interventions in the 3rd World, you are welcome to it. Makiya was interviewed by fellow scoundrel Alan Johnson, who at one time served on the editorial board of New Politics, a “third camp” magazine, before jumping with both feet into the New Labour pro-war camp. Johnson was recently heard from touting the reputation of Henry “Scoop” Jackson, better known as the Senator from Boeing. In answer to Johnson’s question about his background, Makiya includes this information:

I became very active in the anti-war movement, which was burgeoning in the United States. And I was very active in supporting the emerging Palestinian Resistance Movement. I passed through the Nationalist Palestinian groups and I ended up in the Marxist one. All of this happened very rapidly. Within a span of a year I became a Marxist and was attracted to Trotskyist politics. The great influence on me was Emmanuel Farjoun, a member of the Israeli Socialist Organisation, Matzpen. He was also a student at MIT, much older than I. He had enjoyed a socialist training from day dot having grown up in a left socialist kibbutz. It was a revelation for me to meet an Israeli who was critical of his own society. He explained a) basic socialist principles which, of course, were completely new to me, and b) the nature of Israeli society, which was also a revelation for me. We became very, very close friends, almost brothers, for the next twenty-five years. (We fell out over the Iraq war but that’s another story. That’s sad, very sad.)

I started to soak up books and I became active in the Socialist Workers’ Party, the American section of the (Trotskyist) 4th International. I moved to Britain in 1974 and I became active in the International Marxist Group (IMG). I recall there was a Lebanese Trotskyist organisation, remnants of an Iraqi Trotskyist organisation, and some Egyptian and Tunisian Trotskyists. I spent a lot of time in those countries meeting those people, going backwards and forwards to Lebanon. I was a full time political activist.

I have no memory of Makiya but this explanation for his departure from the movement rings a bell:

The Iran-Iraq war broke out. Our former comrades were being imprisoned or killed in Iran. We both left organised Trotskyist politics around that time on the issue of the Iraq-Iran war. The left was saying it was a war with a good side and a bad side. We were saying a plague on both your houses because this is an ugly, nasty war that is not going to lead to progress for anyone, so victory for either side would be a step backward.

Alan Johnson asks him, “Did you find any support for that view among your comrades?”

Kanan Makiya replies:

There were individuals. Bob Langston, I remember, from the Socialist Workers’ Party. Jon Rothschild and others were very sympathetic. But their sympathy was not shared by the leadership. Afsaneh and I resigned over it. We wrote a huge document that explained the whole thing, in the usual fashion.

If I were more of an archivist than I am, I’d try to track down the document. Frankly, I can’t remember the debate or much of the SWP’s politics on Iran. This much I can remember. The Militant newspaper did tend to play up the “radical” side of the Iranian revolution and splashed news about it across the front page, including a big headline about why the students in Iran were justified when they seized the US embassy. One of our comrades, a rather outspoken and narcissistic individual, insisted on selling this newspaper rather aggressively to coal miners after being on the job less than a month. She was forced to leave the job after a rightwing miner hurled a cinder block at her from above.

I have much better memories of Jon Rothschild and Bob Langston. I first met Jon in 1969 when he came to New York from about a year in Paris working with the JCR, the youth group of the French section. Jon had adopted the style (black leather jacket and Gaulois cigarettes) and politics of the Europeans, both of which I found resistible. Langston was quite a bit older and really very intelligent. He was one of the party’s experts on economics and heir to an oil fortune. Every Militant article he ever wrote was stamped by his fecund and original mind, a trait that the party would assiduously avoid as the “turn” deepened in the 1970s.

In trying to explain to Johnson why he broke with the left, Makiya betrays a certain unfamiliarity with Trotsky’s core ideas:

I feel the left that I came from has almost become nationalist. This language of relativism has translated itself into, ‘Well, even if the regime of Saddam Hussein is so nasty, why should we go and liberate it?’ Now that is something you would have got from an American isolationist, back in the old days. You would never have got it from somebody on the left. The positive element which I carried from the Trotskyist movement, from the writings of Trotsky himself, was an internationalist spirit. It was more alive in me, I think, than in many of those who claimed Trotsky’s mantle, but did not practice that internationalism. It is a very sad state of affairs. The left has turned against its own internationalist traditions and thrown away its own universal values. The older left was able to cross boundaries and think across boundaries. That was its strength and its weakness.

If Makiya thought that Trotsky was an “internationalist” in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, or Paul Wolfowitz for that matter, nothing can be further from the truth. The idea that an imperialist power can impose its will on a colonial country in the interests of social justice and democracy is utter nonsense. In the beginning of the war in Iraq, there was much talk about how the neoconservatives were latter-day Trotskyists, in the style alluded to by Makiya above–including an article by Jeet Heer that appeared in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper. I answered this absurd claim as soon as I heard it:

Jeet Heer: As evidence of the continuing intellectual influence of Trotsky, consider the curious fact that some of the books about the Middle East crisis that are causing the greatest stir were written by thinkers deeply shaped by the tradition of the Fourth International.

In seeking advice about Iraqi society, members of the Bush administration (notably Paul D. Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President) frequently consulted Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi-American intellectual whose book The Republic of Fear is considered to be the definitive analysis of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule.

As the journalist Christopher Hitchens notes, Makiya is “known to veterans of the Trotskyist movement as a one-time leading Arab member of the Fourth International.” When speaking about Trotskyism, Hitchens has a voice of authority. Like Makiya, Hitchens is a former Trotskyist who is influential in Washington circles as an advocate for a militantly interventionist policy in the Middle East. Despite his leftism, Hitchens has been invited into the White House as an ad hoc consultant.

My reply: If Makiya’s “Republic of Fear” has anything to do with Trotskyism, except the fact that the author spent some time in the movement as a youth, then one presumes that Saul Bellow’s racist screed “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” must also be linked with Leon Trotsky as well, since Bellow also spent a brief time in the Trotskyist movement. For that matter, one might link orthodox Judaism with Trotskyism since Isaac Deutscher and I were both bar mitzvahed and ate kosher through adolescence.

Other than the fact that Kanan Makiya spent five minutes or so in the Fourth International, there is absolutely nothing to link him to the intellectual and political traditions represented by Leon Trotsky. Consider the interview he gave to an Argentine journalist on September 23, 1938 in which he defended a “fascist” Brazil against a “democratic” Great Britain:

In order to understand correctly the nature of the coming events we must first of all reject … the false … theory that the coming war will be a war between fascism and “democracy.” … I will take the most simple and obvious example. In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of that conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally — in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains in Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship.

Or the letter wrote to an English comrade on April 22, 1936 which not only defended feudal Ethiopia against capitalist Italy, but was full of praise for the Negus, ie. Haile Selassie, who made Saddam Hussein look like Martin Luther King Jr. by comparison, and contained the remarkable formulation that “A dictator can also play a very progressive role in history”.

Indeed, the Trotsky of history has much more in common with the reviled Ramsey Clark and WWP than he does with the Cruise Missile “leftists” Heer falsely linked him with.

 

October 2, 2007

Ruminations on WWII

Filed under: Film,war — louisproyect @ 8:37 pm

UPDATE: Apparently, Ken Burns justifies the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Just around the time I watched Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima,” I decided to take in as much of Ken Burns’s PBS series on WWII titled “The War” as I could bear. As should be obvious from my review of Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” I am no fan of WWII nostalgia.

Ken Burns

Turning first to Ken Burns, I must add that I not a fan of his work in general. I found his PBS series on Jazz to be problematic as well. All in all, I find that his documentaries tend to wrap their subjects in a kind of hagiographic gauze. Whether he is dealing with Duke Ellington or some marine who killed a bunch of Japs (as the interviewees are wont to say), you feel as if you are being introduced to a demigod. “The War” is co-produced by Ken Burns and Sarah Botstein, the daughter of Bard College President Leon Botstein, who also worked on “Jazz.”

I managed to watch most of three episodes of “The War”. It is a mixed bag, with the kind of hero worship found in “Band of Brothers” but focused on ordinary soldiers rather than the top generals. It also describes WWII as a cataclysm rather than a glorious adventure. Finally, it zeros in on the racism directed at Black and Japanese-American soldiers.

When the highly respected Black historian John Hope Franklin went to enlist, he found out that he would not be treated on a par with white soldiers, he had the following reaction:

I went down to the recruiting office, the Navy and volunteered. I volunteered in response to the call that they made specifically for men to man the offices. The young recruiter for the navy said, ‘What can you do?’ I said, ‘Well, I can run an office. I can type. I can take shorthand if that’s needed.’ I said, ‘And, oh, yes, I have a Ph.D. in history from Harvard.’ And I wondered what he was gonna say. He said, ‘You have everything but color.’ And I said, ‘Well, I thought there was an emergency, but obviously there’s not, so I bid you a good day.’ And I vowed that day that they would not get me, because they did not deserve me. If I was able — physically, mentally, every other kind of way, able and willing to serve my country — and my country turned me down on the basis of color, then my country did not deserve me. And I vowed then that they would not get me.

Senator Daniel K. Inouye, who lost his right arm during WWII, describes the prejudice that he had to put up with: “I was angered to realize that my government felt that I was disloyal and part of the enemy, [an] enemy alien. “And I wanted to be able to demonstrate, not only to my government, but to my neighbors that I was a good American.” Meanwhile other Japanese-Americans joined the army straight out of the concentration camps they and their families had been herded into.

(Originally, Burns only had plans to tell the stories of the African-American and Nisei minorities. When word filtered out to the Latino community, there was a hue and cry. The final version of “The War” does include testimony from Latinos.)

Episode one is titled “A Necessary War” and is probably the most repugnant in the entire series. It is focused on the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and is filled with all sorts of really ugly characterizations about the Japanese. In keeping with the almost total refusal to engage with the historical causes of WWII, the program guide states:

For most Americans finally beginning to recover from the Great Depression, the events overseas seem impossibly far away. But on December 7, 1941, their tranquil lives are shattered by the shock of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and America is thrust into the greatest cataclysm in history.

Well, the attack on Pearl Harbor might have been a shock to the average American but not to the corporate elite and military brass who understood that the Japanese had almost no alternative except to go to war after the US decided to put a stranglehold on oil. Then, as now, oil had a way of making nations go to war.

If Burns was following convention in describing Pearl Harbor as a bolt from the blue, there are alternative interpretations. Chapter four of Michael Zezima’s “Saving Private Power: the hidden history of ‘The Good War'” targets the myth that “The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise”:

The build-up to Pearl Harbor began two decades prior to the attack when, in 1922, the U.S., Britain, and Japan agreed that the Japanese navy would not be allowed more than 60 percent of the capital ship tonnage of the other two powers. As resentment grew within Japan over this decidedly inequitable agreement, that same year the United States Supreme Court declared Japanese immigrants ineligible for American citizenship. This decision was followed a year later by the Supreme Court upholding a California and Washington ruling denying Japanese the right to own property. A third judicial strike was dealt in 1924 with the Exclusion Act which virtually banned all Asian immigration. Finally, in 1930, when the London Naval Treaty denied Japan naval hegemony in its own waters, the groundwork for war (and “surprise attacks”) had been laid.

Upon realizing that Japan textiles were outproducing Lancashire mills, the British Empire (including India, Australia, Burma, etc.) raised the tariff on Japanese exports by 25 percent.

Within a few years, the Dutch followed suit in Indonesia and the West Indies, with the U.S. (in Cuba and the Philippines) not far behind. This led to the Japanese (correctly) claiming encirclement by the “ABCD” (American, British, Chinese, and Dutch) powers.

Such moves, combined with Japan’s expanding colonial designs, says Kenneth C. Davis, made “a clash between Japan and the United States and the other Western nations over control of the economy and resources of the Far East and Pacific…bound to happen.”

Burns not only leaves out these dimensions, he treats the Philippines practically as American territory–which, come to think of it, it was. The episode guide states that two interviewees, Corporal Glenn Frazier and Sascha Weinzheimer, are “caught up in the Japanese onslaught there, as American and Filipino forces retreat onto Bataan while thousands of civilians are rounded up and imprisoned in Manila.” The PBS website describes Weinszheimer as follows:

Sascha Weinzheimer was born February 7, 1933. The daughter and granddaughter of wealthy planters with extensive holdings in California and the Philippines, she lived with her sister and brother, father and mother, uncle, aunt and cousins on a vast sugar plantation in Canlubang, Laguna Province, on the island of Luzon, an hour and a half from Manila.

Her reaction to the Japanese conquest of the Philippines and her subsequent loss of the family plantation reminded me eerily of “Gone with the Wind.”

But Ken Burns is not interested in trying to figure out what caused the war. His goal is to mine the stories of hitherto obscure fighting men and their wives and lovers for personal drama. The war becomes a kind of rite of passage in which young men become adults. You are initiated by killing Nazis or “Japs” rather than enduring tribal scars or some other test of your manhood. This seems like an awful waste considering the cost in life and treasure.

When Burns was interviewed by Fox News, he tried to draw comparisons between WWII and the current war in Iraq. He said that he was not interested in making a political statement about the first war, but did note that there was a sense of national unity then that cannot be found today. As he put it, we were all in the same boat and all the oars were moving in the same direction in WWII. Whatever Ken Burns’s attitude toward the war in Iraq, there is no doubt that “The War” will reinforce all the worst prejudices in American society. If the US had a right to control resources in Asia in the name of democracy against “evil dictators”, why should it not have the same right today?

Clint Eastwood

Comparisons between WWII and Iraq were also inevitable after Clint Eastwood came out with “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”. The first film was interpreted as an attack on the lies surrounding the invasion of Iraq. Three Marines who were photographed hoisting the flag on Mount Suribachi turned out to have been involved in a staged presentation that was deemed more effective for propaganda purposes. When they went around the country promoting war bonds, they began to resent being exploited. Newsweek connected the dots:

Watching Eastwood’s harrowing film, which raises pointed questions about how heroes, and wars, are packaged and sold, it’s hard not to think his movie is a commentary on today. Images of Jessica Lynch pop into your brain. And when Sgt. Mike Strank (Barry Pepper), the unit’s leader, is killed by friendly fire, your thoughts turn to Pat Tillman, the ex-football star whose death was initially rewritten to suit the mythical role the military, and the media, had decided he must play. “When people ask me if this movie is applicable to today,” Eastwood told NEWSWEEK, “I say, ‘Well, you know, everything is …Everyone’s distorting things, just as they distorted them then’.”

“Letters from Iwo Jima” is also a departure for a director once associated with the Republican Party in Hollywood, alongside John Wayne, Charlton Heston and other such luminaries. It takes the same battle that is depicted in “Flags of Our Fathers” but makes the Japanese the protagonists. Not only that, there is a key scene in which American marines kill a couple of Japanese prisoners since they feel that escorting them would be too much of a burden. It takes a considerable amount of nerve to describe this kind of brutality since it goes against the grain of traditional accounts of American behavior during the war, at least in a literature that excludes Howard Zinn or Michael Zezima.

However, I could not help but think that this is a bit like trying to break down an open door in some ways. Despite a spasm of anti-Japanese hysteria in the 1980s, when the American auto industry began to decline under the impact of Toyota and Datsun imports, the image of the sneaky Jap belongs much more to the immediate postwar era. By the 1960s, Japan was considered a staunch ally of the US and exemplified “our values.”

Wouldn’t it be great if Clint Eastwood or some other Hollywood mover and shaker decided to make a movie from the point of view of the Vietnamese? Even though the Cold War has pretty much collapsed, there is still residual hatred directed toward the Vietnamese. Since “Letters from Iwo Jima” takes place mainly in caves, the same technical experts could work on a production of a film based on Tom Mangold’s “The Tunnels of Cu Chi,” an absolutely riveting account of how the NLF fought from tunnels dug deep beneath the ground. For years at a time, men and women combatants only saw daylight when it was time to engage the American enemy. A NY Times review of Mangold’s book states:

Nothing more fetid could be imagined. Penetrating the Cu Chi tunnels was like traversing the pit below a latrine. There were water baffles, like those of a flush toilet (to prevent the spread of chemical gases). Filled with human detritus, the baffle had to be passed by the tunnel rat. Tunnels were back-angled with V-twists, trapdoors (tension-balanced to hand grenades) often stacked with decaying bodies (the Vietnamese tried to recover all wounded and dead to confuse American body counts). Scorpions and poisonous insects infested the walls.

Air in these chambers was often too foul to breathe. The Americans tried to pump the tunnels full of chemical irritants, but the gases sometimes proved fatal in the close confines. Dynamite blasted the tunnels and bulldozers plowed them up. Casualties on both sides were heavy. But again and again, a few Vietnamese with tin bowls and pans gouged out new tunnels.

And if the Vietnamese are not sufficiently evil, there are always the Iraqi Sunnis who can provide a challenge to the plucky film-maker. I am sure that Paramount or Universal Studios would be happy to pony up 20 or 30 million dollars for a movie that is from the point of view of somebody who fights with Fida’iyyi Saddam (Saddam’s Martyrs) or similar groups.

Jacob Proyect

Thinking about all this prompted me to go through my father’s WWII memorabilia that is stored in an old Goetz Country Club beer box that I inherited after his death in 1970, along with some underwear. My father was like one of the characters interviewed by Ken Burns, but probably would have turned down the opportunity to talk about his experiences. He was lucky to get out of the war without any serious wounds or even getting killed, considering the action he saw. Like the veterans of other wars, the only scars appeared to be mental.

My father’s Bronze Star

Looking at my father’s honorable discharge for the first time ever, I see that he was awarded four bronze stars for participating in campaigns in the Rhineland, Ardennes, Central Europe and Southern France. I could only find one bronze star in the box and that was from the Battle of the Bulge. The citation states:

For Heroic Achievement

Bronze Star Medal

is awarded to

Staff Sergeant Jacob Proyect, 32 048 069

S/Sgt Jacob Proyect, 32 048 069, Hq Hq Co 3d Tank Bn, U.S. Army. For heroic achievement against an enemy of the United States in Belgium on December 19th, 1944.

During the siege of Bastogne, Belgium S/Sgt Proyect, a mess sergeant, traveled several miles of infested enemy territory over a route being fired on by heavy artillery, mortar and automatic-weapons to deliver water to a unit that was surrounded. After distributing the water he volunteered to evacuate a wounded officer over the same route to Monte, Belgium. Both missions were successfully completed. The outstanding courage and personal concern for the comfort of his comrades in arms reflects great credit upon himself and the military forces of the United States.

Everything went downhill for my father a few years after returning from the battlefields of Europe. He met my mother in early 1944 when he was staying at her mother’s house in Kansas City, Missouri. She used to put up Jewish soldiers over the weekend and provide a kosher meal. My mother fell in love with his uniform and married him without delay, just like the people interviewed in Ken Burns’s film. Unlike them, they were not really a match and the marriage went sour in no time at all. I had the misfortune of being born while he was in Europe and having reached the age of six months by the time he returned. As has been noted by some psychologists, it is very difficult for fathers to bond with their children if there is this kind of time lapse. In my case, it was especially difficult because I was far too brainy and far too neurotic for his tastes. Over the 25 years that I knew him, I doubt that more than several hours were spent in conversation.

If he had lived longer, I would have developed a different kind of relationship with him as I became older and more self-confident. I would have loved to talk to him about the war, especially in light of the memorabilia that he considered important, including a newspaper photo of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. It is contained in a scrapbook along with clippings about the progress of the war in Europe, as well as the Charter of the United Nations.

In a letter to my mother from Paris that contains a smidgen of French mud, he writes that the people “were sick and tired of the Boschies but not all Frenchmen are friendly.” He has come across “batches of them that I’d hate to trust as friends of the allies–they look hate and distrust at us.” In Ken Burns’s film, all the French are seen greeting the Americans like the Iraqis were supposed to–according to Dick Cheney’s interpretation of the world. I am sure that my father was running into the reality of Vichy France, a regime that reflected the French bourgeoisie’s ambivalence toward Nazism. However bad the Germans were, they could never be as bad as the Bolshies.

Like other members of the “greatest generation,” my father regarded life in the 1950s as a gift from heaven. There was enough peace and prosperity to compensate for a loveless marriage and a peculiar bookish son. As the 1960s wore on, he became less and less happy about the way things had turned out. His modest little fruit store was being crushed by the supermarket and the Catskill Mountains were no longer attracting the Jewish masses from New York.

I wonder now what he would make of American society, with its ceaseless wars, obscene class differences and racial animosity. Probably he would have remained silent since he had too much invested in blood to challenge the prevailing mythos. If there is anything I have inherited from him, it is a stubborn independence. That quality has allowed me to continue on my quixotic path for the past 40 years or so. That inheritance is worth a lot more to me than WWII memorabilia and some underwear.

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