Tag Archives: history

How’s This for Perspective?

jrussellcoffey.jpg  Last December (as in 2007) an interesting milestone of modernity was passed.  Actually, it was a certain individual who did the passing.  To wit (via USA Today):

J. Russell Coffey, the oldest known surviving U.S. veteran of World War I, has died. The retired teacher, one of only three U.S. veterans from the “war to end all wars,” was 109. More than 4.7 million Americans joined the military from 1917-1918.

Mr. Coffey lived a full, rich, and needless to say long life.  If he had his druthers–and he doesn’t–none of us do–he’d be remembered as a father, teacher, and community member, not someone who happened to spend a few months in boot camp in the fall of 1918.  But those months made him a WWI veteran, and so he gets remembered.

My father (b. 1920) saw Civil War veterans marching in parades when he was a boy.  I often tell my students that we distort history when we insist on dividing it up into decades.  Those little slices of time exaggerate difference over continuity, and lead us into silly journalistic conceits such as “What will the nineties be like?  Will we reject the greed and conformity of the Reagan era, and return to the dissent and commitment of the 1960s?”  Perhaps you recall those musings from the tail end of the eighties.

Instead, we should think in terms of generations (not cohorts, such as “boomers” and “millenials”–another ignorant journalistic conceit that precludes understanding and tries to make news where there is none) and lifetimes.  When we do so, time collapses.  My father speaks with men who have living memories of Gettysburg and Antietam and the Grant administration, and a new writer named Mark Twain everyone was excited about, and who lived when the idea of human beings flying was just science fiction and for whom the very idea of dropping a bomb from 30,000 feet in the air on a city filled with civilians and old folk and infants suckling and children and their pets would be unimaginable,  a sign that the society doing so was in the grip of a barbarism so elemental and disturbing as to escape the limits of description.  And my father tells me, and I tell my students, and they, in turn, are merely a couple of lifetimes from the Civil War.

Mr. Coffey was 109 years old when he died in December.  He was born in 1898, the year of Teddy Roosevelt’s Cuban escapades.  Sigmund Freud, Pablo Picasso, and Adolf Hitler were all unknown in the US.  People owned horses.  Many had their own cows for milk.  There was no such organization as the NAACP, the frontier–or should we say the Indian Wars–had ended that decade.  The population of the United States was a little more than 76 million people.  Coffey would have known dozens, if not hundreds, of people who had seen Abraham Lincoln, heard him speak, shaken his hand.

Abrahm Lincoln, spring or summer of 1860

Let’s speculate.  Imagine that, as Mr. Coffey was being born in 1898, another 109 year old American was passing away somewhere.  That American would have been born in 1789.  The ratification of the Constitution.  George Washington becomes the first president of the new nation.  The Mexicans in California, the Sioux on the plains, and countless others go about their business and live their entire lives without giving a thought to the restless, aggressive people even now gathering strength to the East.  It is the year of a revolution in France.  No one speaks of “terror” yet, at least as an “ism.”

French hair-style, c. 1789

1789.  Two lifetimes–long ones, granted–ago.


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Boys In Boats

The news from the Persian Gulf about the interchange between Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the US Navy stirred some memories.

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll recall the Tonkin Gulf incident of 1964.  US Navy patrols were subjected, we were told, to open aggression on the high seas; ie, North Vietnam’s Navy fired on one destroyer and later supposedly targeted them with torpedoes that missed.

LBJ, heading into an election and challenged by Goldwater for not being tough enough with Communists, struck back, and also received a resolution in Congress giving him a free hand in Vietnam.  This became the legal basis of the Vietnam War.

Later it was learned that the torpedoes never happened.  And that we weren’t on the high seas, but in waters the North Vietnamese claimed.  And that we were there providing intelligence support to the South Vietnamese Navy that was conducting sabotage.

But that only came out later.  At the time it seemed to fit a familiar narrative:  The US, minding its own business, is suddenly and without provocation attacked by a hostile nation.  Why?  Because they’re violent.  Irrational.  Savage.  They’re Asian (remember Pearl Harbor?)  They’re Communists (remember Korea?)

We seem to always be on the receiving end of these behaviors.  It’s deep in our DNA as a nation:  Remember all those years, peacefully settling the frontier, and all those crazy Indians who came swooping down tomahawking farmers and their families?

Of course, from the Indian perspective, these settlers were the avant guard of a threatening empire.  Unlike the Spanish–who sent in the military to subdue the Indians and then followed with settlers–and unlike the French–who found a way to cooperate with the Indians–the English and then the US sent out settlers.  When tensions over land, or game, or whatever finally exploded, we then went out and exterminated them.

On several occasions the US has managed to arrange events to fit this narrative, thus making the people more amenable to whatever war ensued.  There was WWI, where American merchants continued to trade with the British and French, leading to submarine warfare from the Germans. 

Prior to the War with Mexico, Polk–who had promised to get California and resolve the Texas issue one way or another–sent troops to the “border” (again, on land Mexico claimed as its territory).  Mexico, fearing an invasion, sent its own troops.  And there, stumbling around, afraid, anxious, hot-headed, the predictable happened:  young men with guns sometimes fire them.  An American was killed.  Polk was outraged at this unprovoked aggression.  He had his war.

Now we have three carrier groups–each about 15 vessels–buzzing around in the Persian Gulf.  Opportunities for incidents abound.  Should be fun.

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