If This Be Treason

The Book of the Week is “If This Be Treason: Your Sons Tell Their Own Stories of Why They Won’t Fight For Their Country” by Franklin Stevens, published in 1970. This book is about American men who received draft notices, but were against the Vietnam War. The threat of being sent to fight in a war in which they didn’t believe took a terrible psychological toll on these men and their families– who were neither wealthy nor influential enough to keep them out of it. They explain not only why they were against the war, but how they kept out of it.

The men implemented all sorts of strategies for at least temporarily rendering themselves ineligible to fight on physical or psychological grounds:  consuming an excessive number of salt pills, increasing one’s weight to 250 lbs or more, reducing one’s weight to 105 lbs or less, eating soap to get an ulcer, cutting off a limb, faking a condition such as:  insanity, transvestitism or homosexuality; or claiming one was a sleepwalker. Some other ways to stay away from the military were:  qualifying for a deferment by getting one’s wife pregnant or staying in school, enrolling and paying tuition at a school where one did not actually have to attend classes, or becoming a teacher or other government worker.

Some men found out about a draft-resisters’ organization located (ironically) in the United Nations area in New York City, where they learned how they could flee to Canada.

Other men were sent to jail for refusing to fight.

Some men applied for conscientious objector status, claiming they should be exempted from military service because they believed participating in a situation in which people might die at their hands, was wrong. “A conscientious objector had a better chance of being acquitted for draft dodging by a jury because every case of offenses against the draft law that demands a jury trial adds a burden to the judicial system and thus increases pressure against the draft and the war.” Unfortunately, it took a very long time before sufficient pressure forced the United States to pull out of the war in disgrace.

Some readers might consider this subject matter controversial and disturbing, but as long as history repeats itself, this subject merits discussion.

Personal History

The Book of the Week is “Personal History” by Katharine Graham, published in 1997.

The autobiographer was born in June 1917. She grew up in a large, wealthy family, in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Mount Kisco (upstate New York). She attended private schools. At high school dances, “Of course, no boys were allowed so all the girls put on evening dresses and corsages and danced with each other.”

The autobiographer’s father, Eugene Meyer, a business tycoon, purchased the Washington Post in 1932. In 1942, she wed Phil Graham, and took his name. Over the next ten years or so, they had four children (a daughter and three sons) who survived to adulthood. In 1946, her husband was named publisher of the Post. In 1963, she experienced serious personal problems that led to her taking over the paper.

Two of the Post‘s journalists, the infamous Woodward and Bernstein, were the first to seize upon the story of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel (the 1972 campaign headquarters of the Democratic party) by Republican party operatives. Over the next few years, the paper proceeded to reveal the corruption present in the Nixon administration with regard to the president’s reelection and the start of the Vietnam War. The story was extremely complex. The paper was at once courageous and foolish for casting aspersions on the Federal government. For, the Washington Post Company owned television and radio stations, in addition to print publications. These media holdings found themselves the victims of retaliatory action when it came time for the FCC to renew their broadcast licenses.

Lawsuits were launched in connection with the scandals over whether news articles published by the Post, were revealing State secrets that would compromise the national security of the United States. Many people thought the government was simply trying cover up its own embarrassing conduct. As is now evident, the post-Nixon decades saw history repeat itself many times over both in terms of similar scandals and overzealous classification of documents.

There occurred a mid-1970’s debilitating four and a half month strike of the many unions on which the Post had become too dependent through lax management. Before disgruntled workers walked out, some sabotaged the printing presses and thereafter waged a campaign of telephone threats and physical violence on picket-line crossers. Graham got right down in the trenches, moonlighting alongside non-union executives to get the paper out. She also achieved several female “firsts” and provided various examples of how being female subjected her to treatment males would not have experienced.

The Post had its ups and downs through the years.  In early 1991, Graham handed down leadership of the Washington Post Company to one of her sons.

Strength In What Remains

The Book of the Week is “Strength In What Remains” by Tracy Kidder, published 2009. This is the biography of a man named Deo who miraculously survived the genocidal violence that spilled over from Rwanda into Burundi in 1994-95.

Deo grew up in the latter nation, where his family, of the Tutsi tribe, did farming and herding in the mountains near Lake Tanganyika. In the 1970’s, the Catholic church owned and operated his one-room schoolhouse. His parents, who believed in education, could ill-afford the school tuition of one dollar. They were able to buy him a pencil but not a pen.

The Germans and later, Belgians (colonizers of Rwanda and Burundi) engendered hatred between the Hutus and Tutsi tribes.  In 1995 in Burundi, a two-month killing spree led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.  During that time, Deo was attending medical school in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, far from his home. He found himself in a traumatic and dire situation; traumatic in that he witnessed gruesome scenes, including those of deteriorating corpses of humans and cows lining the roadside, and dire, in that there were hostile soldiers everywhere, seeking out people who looked like Tutsis, pursuant to their facial features  (similar to the way Nazis sought out Jews during the Holocaust) and torturing and murdering them. Over the next decade, Deo was able to overcome his seemingly overwhelming difficulties and fulfill his dream.

Burundi’s people continued to suffer long after the violence was over. There was poor regard for human rights, especially among those injured in the tribal warfare who were indigent. (A lot of those lucky enough to survive, were rendered indigent by the tribal warfare). In the late 1990’s, hospitals had a special section for patients who could not pay their medical bills. They could not be discharged until they paid up, during which time they were given neither care nor food. Family and/or friends were expected to assist them. In addition, the bodies of deceased patients could not be released to their families unless the bills were paid.

This blogger found Deo’s story remarkable and suspenseful. However, she is giving the author the benefit of the doubt with regard to a few ambiguous passages in the book, attributing them to a bad editorial decision. The passages occur in the first half. In the middle, the author explains that over the course of two years, Deo told him his story, and I’m sure that the account of his escape suffered here and there from memory’s usual additions and subtractions, and there was no direct way to verify a lot of it…” This warning should come at the very beginning so that native New Yorkers will not question the geographic accuracy of the following passages, referred to above:

 

“On a day in his sophomore year he was riding the subway home from Columbia [University] and remembered that he hadn’t talked to Claude [in Burundi] for weeks. He got off at 125th Street.” [The story says that Deo was an undergraduate, attending classes at the Morningside Heights campus, not the medical school, and at the time, he was staying with people downtown]

“He figured he needed only twenty dollars a week for subways to and from Columbia, and sometimes he could save part of that by walking from lower Manhattan to the campus up in Harlem.” [same comment as above]

“Deo pushed the grocery cart down the sidewalks of Eighty-ninth Street. There were times when he felt crushed by the height and humiliated by the splendor of the buildings in this part of New York.” [West or East 89th Street? This is an important distinction to New Yorkers.]


The Case of Joe Hill

The Book of the Week is “The Case of Joe Hill” by Philip S. Foner, published in 1965.  This is the story of the grave injustice perpetrated against Joseph Hillstrom (“Joe Hill” was the American-English translation).

In the early 1900’s, American managers of industry had politicians on their side and violent opposition to unions was commonplace. In 1914, the Swedish-American was wrongly accused of murder, and because he was a member of a vilified socialist labor organization, “International Workers of the World,” local authority figures (and possibly the Mormon Church) in Utah– where his trial was held– conspired to convict him.

He was a well-known, prolific writer of socialist songs. Despite the legal funds and political support from solidarity-minded labor groups around the world (support that included an urgent appeal to President Woodrow Wilson), the trial ended badly for him.

This account is reminiscent of the book, “Big Trouble” by J. Anthony Lukas, published in 1997, a 1905 case in which two union activists were wrongly accused of murder and denied due process, too.

Casting With A Fragile Thread

The Book of the Week is “Casting With A Fragile Thread” by Wendy Kann, published in 2007.  This is the engaging memoir of a native white-skinned Rhodesian.  She describes the familial and financial hardships she and her two sisters faced growing up with an absent mother and a risk-taking father, in a nation undergoing radical political change.  In 1980, Rhodesia came to be ruled by Robert Mugabe, a dark-skinned dictator, who allowed the country to be ravaged by his previously oppressed countrymen.  Read the book to learn how the author put her difficulties behind her.

Street Without A Name

The Book of the Week is “Street Without a Name” by Kapka Kassabova, published in 2009.  This autobiography describes the brand of Communism the author experienced as a child in 1970’s and 80’s Sofia, Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian historical events that interested her.

It was an unspoken, dirty little secret that the Communist lifestyle was actually inferior to that of the West. The Bulgarian government told the people that “Politburo comrades were heroes of the anti-Fascist resistance” and “the labor camps were for enemies of the people.”

The author’s mother branded Bulgaria’s leader and his cronies “idiots in brown suits.”  The State oversaw all academic, athletic and musical events, such as a contest called the Olympiads, in which grade-school kids competed in different subjects.  At ten years old, Kassabova was convinced that the West consisted of drug addicts, criminals, capitalists and dreadful child labor, based on one story:  Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”

Her parents both worked in the field of engineering, which placed the family in the middle class. Even so, the family lived in a third-class (out of four classes) concrete neighborhood where blocks were numbered. At the furniture store, there was a three or four-month waiting list for shelves and beds, that only afforded one the opportunity to physically fight for the desired items when the delivery truck arrived at the store in the wee hours.

One time, when the author was eleven, her father met someone from the Netherlands through his work, and invited his family to go “camping” with his own, on the outskirts of Sofia.  The Dutch visitors arrived in a recreational vehicle (RV), while the Bulgarian family had brought a hard-to-obtain, shabby military tent.  (As an aside, the cost of the RV equalled about twenty years’ worth of the author’s mother’s income.)  The Dutch were horrified by the disgusting state of the toilets, and the “rubbish and dogs everywhere.”  The Dutch, in addition to their sparkling new vehicle, brought Western goods, including Gummi Bears, chocolate biscuits, juice in little cartons, and one of ten varieties of potato grown in their home country.

The Kassabovas knew their standard of living under Communism was way overrated by their government but they could not leave Bulgaria– until the Berlin Wall fell.  Even then, they had to complete a ton of bureaucratic paperwork and wait years.  During such time, the author’s mother underwent a stay in the hospital, where there were newspapers instead of sheets, and soap and towels had to be provided by patients themselves.  The author’s father paid a large bribe to the head doctor so as to see the patient emerge from the hospital alive; during Bulgaria’s transition to capitalism, there was more corruption than before– which is saying a lot.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s perspective on her life and birth country.

Lieutenant Birnbaum

The Book of the Week is “Lieutenant Birnbaum: A Soldier’s Story:  Growing Up Jewish in America, Liberating the D.P. Camps, and a New Home in Jerusalem” by Meyer Birnbaum, published in 1994.  This is the autobiography of a memorable character. He rose quickly through the ranks of the U.S. Army during WWII, though not without trouble.

In one incident, he was court-martialed for practicing his religion.  Religious law dictated that Birnbaum wear a yarmulke all the time, including meal times.  An Army rule prohibited the wearing of a “hat” while eating. Birnbaum’s  attorney was incompetent, so Birnbaum defended himself at his hearing.  He argued that a phrase in the oath he took upon his military induction indicated that his religion was more important than his patriotism:  ” …to serve God and my country …”  He was acquitted.

Read the book for further adventures of this clever military officer.

Reckless Courage

The Book of the Week is “Reckless Courage” by William Fuller with Jack Haines, published in 2004.  This book focuses on a family living in Stavanger, Norway during World War II.  It also provides a bit of Norwegian history.  One of the family’s sons, Gunnar, a teenager, risked his life needlessly to irk the enemy in various little ways, out of anger against the German occupation of Norway.

Before getting to the heart of the story, this blogger would like to convey some information about the Norwegian education system (at least during WWII):  Students in a given class had the same teacher for their entire seven years in elementary school.  Almost all of the teachers were men, and teaching was a highly regarded profession.  Most schools started every morning with a Lutheran prayer and hymn.

When Russia invaded Finland in late 1939, Norway sympathized with Finland, as “Norwegians felt a special closeness with the Finns, who they saw as hardy like themselves, not soft and effete like the Danes and Swedes.”  October 1942 saw the Gestapo abducting Norwegian Jews– half of whom were assisted by various good-samaritan groups and individuals, in escaping to Sweden.

On more than one occasion, the aforementioned Gunnar, without being caught, was able to relieve German soldiers of their firearms when they had let down their guard.  There was a close call, however, when an officer at the hotel where Gunnar worked, threatened to search Gunnar’s house.  The teen was shaking in his shoes, as, “In his basement were a machine gun, three pistols, ammunition and a few grenades thrown in for good measure.”  Luckily, the officer did not follow through on the threat.

Read the book for more of Gunnar’s adventures and interesting thoughts on how the course of the war was changed by various incidents.