The Broad is Back!

September 30, 2017

Heading for a Fall of Massive Proportions

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln quoted the synoptic Gospels when he stated, “A house divided against itself will fall”. At the time, the Abolitioist Movement was growing, Dred Scott had been implemented, and the nation faced a decision: would slavery be outlawed everywhere or nowhere? It had to be one or the other.

His contemporaries were not happy with the speech or him. It was too radical, not good politics. It lost him the election to the US Senate, too.

In hindsight we see the speech as political prophecy. Three years later, America was in the midst of a bitter, violent civil war, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. We like to pretend it’s all over, done, settled, but one look at America today, and I think we can see it’s not.

So here we are, 152 years after the end of that war, 151 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and pretty much we’re still seeing a house divided.

I have never seen the US this polarized in my entire life. Granted, I’m not ancient, but I remember my Republican grandfather swearing that Kennedy stole the election. I remember the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, assorted Clintongates, the GWB election, the start of the Iraqi War. Those were pretty rough times in the US.

Although I very much remember the anger and the hatred spewed by the non-Left members of my family and our neighbors, I don’t remember severed friendships, threats of violence. I heard about violence, but not around us.

Perhaps we were just as polarized, but the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle has changed the world. We hear about everything moments after it happens. It’s not that we’re more polarized; it’s just that we know how bad it is.

Forty years of poor education in large parts of the US has also lead to a nation that is unable to critically think. That’s not me being elitist (though when did elite become a bad word?). That’s from a career college professor. Much of my teaching has been in urban community or four year colleges. Currently, I’m teaching the exact same demographic I started teaching in 1988.

My students today are as bright, as talented, as lovely as the students I had then. Not all are wonderful to be around, but on the whole, I teach good people. But the students today are far less prepared to be in college. Their math, reading and writing skills are hovering somewhere between 8th grade and 10th grade. I’m a writing teacher, but if you need to figure out your grade, you need to know math.

They are ill prepared for college and ill prepared for life. And they know it after about the first three weeks of college. The plaintive cry of “why didn’t I learn this in high school” is heard almost every week. I tell them they might have just forgotten, but anyone in education can tell you just how poorly American secondary schools doing.

I don’t want to make this about education–it’s about polarization and our house being divided–but I also see daily proof that education is a major part of our problem. People can’t think. People won’t think.

They also have lost the ability to listen, to reason, and to have civil debates. This is also a topic I’ve written about in the past. Slap my face and call me Cassandra. No one listens to me.

The current president is not popular, especially here in New York City where I live. But it wasn’t too long ago that I was living in Tennessee, surrounded by his supporters. There are many who do not think his actions are racist or bad for America. We can say “that’s because they are racist” but that’s not the whole story.

He’s also called an illegitimate president because he lost the popular vote. He’s not the first, and until the Constitution is changed, he probably won’t be the last. To those who argue that he lost, I say, by three million votes. The final popular vote for the top two candidates was 62,980,160 to 65,845,063. But that translated into 304 electoral college votes to 227. We all know the numbers.

Three million sounds like a lot of votes, but according to the US Census Bureau, the US population in 2016 was 323.1 million, so that’s a less than 1% margin of the population. Of total votes cast it was about a 2.1% difference.

That’s almost half a nation’s voters supporting him. Sure, we can say sexism or Russian influence (and they are valid, Russia seeming more valid by the day), but we also have to address the fact that we are a nation ruled by fear mongering, hatred, and hysteria.

So right now, two sides of the country are at each other’s throat. I know young people who won’t even discuss politics anymore because it’s become dogmatic, intolerant, and personal.

Every day my twitter feed and even the news sources are full of ad hominem attacks against anyone who makes a point or an opinion known. If one of my freshmen tried that, I’d send the paper back with  “take this out–poor logic” in red letters. Actually, many of my freshmen do try this, because it’s what they see around them daily.

Many of the people I know are only able to do the same. I’m not claiming I’m better, but I do think I try harder to listen to people. When they spew hate, I’m more apt to ask why they think that then to spew back.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings are so deeply ingrained in me that I find it repulsive when I respond with hate. I’m human. I think bad things. I’ve said bad things. But at least I know what I’ve done.

Most people on earth are not horrible, soul less, evil, inhumane. In fact, they are very human. We’re not a very nice species. Racism is evil, but if they knew better, they’d do better. So let’s teach instead of firing back hate and insults. Education doesn’t always change minds, but hate doesn’t ever change a mind. Love can change minds. Love can open doors. Oh, I’ll just say it: love can move mountains.

I am, by nature, a Pollyanna, a Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, a person who is going to believe the best will happen. But I’m also a student of human nature and of history.

We are on a collision course in this country, and we’re pretty much split down the middle. There are nuances, of course, but the polarization is stretched pretty far and pretty tight. It is read to snap.

I do not want to see civil war, violent revolution, or an armed civil rights battle.

But I see it coming.

May 30, 2016

Memorial Day Tears

One of the guys I went to HS with, Anthony Tormey, who, after a career in the military went on to found and currently is CEO of the Leader Development Institute, did a post on facebook of the young men from our hometown who died in Vietnam.

One of those young men, who died in 1968, is buried right next to my dad, who died four years later.

As an 11 year old girl, who was pretty much traumatized by war reports and body counts on the nightly news, seeing that white military headstone, alone on a gentle hill, made me sad. I realized he was only 19. That was “grown up” to me, but still I knew it was too young to be dead.

And so every time I’d go to the cemetery to see Dad, I’d say hello. He was PFC Kenneth R. Totten. And every Memorial Day I pray for him, this unknown young man.

I soon grew older than he ever did. Now my own son is older than he ever was, but still I pray, and still I say hello when I am back in my hometown and go visit Dad’s grave.

Today Anthony said he googled about the local men killed in action, and only found a picture of one, Capt. Edward Starr, a handsome young man, also too young to die, not yet 30.

Then I googled, too, and found a memory page to young Kenneth Totten. His friends and relatives had posted–they called him Kenny. Makes sense for such a young guy.

But then I saw a picture, and all of a sudden, this young man who had been a part of my life for 44 years, sprang into focus. I burst into tears. Now he is a real person to me.

He’s so handsome in his Marine blues. So damn young.

Kenny, your sacrifice is remembered and praised and mourned.  When I pray for your eternal rest, I add my prayers may no more babies have to die in war. A futile prayer as long as humanity stays the way it is, I know, but I am the eternal optimist.

Rest in peace, sweet boy. And thank you for your sacrifice.

The picture is from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund


November 11, 2013

Thank You For Your Service 11/11/13

Filed under: war — by maggiec @ 8:16 am
Tags: , , , ,
“Freedom does not come without a price. We may sometimes take for granted the many liberties we enjoy in America, but they have all been earned through the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many of the members of our armed forces.” ~ Charles Dent
It’s Veterans’ Day in America, Remembrance Day in the UK. It used to be Armistice Day to mark the end of WWI.  Funny, sometimes I forget how to spell, so I just looked up armistice to check the spelling, and I learned that it means “a temporary suspension of hostilities by agreement of the warring parties; truce”.  How sad. Temporary.
Sad, because it was true, of course. “The War to End All Wars,” “The Great War,” temporarily ended in 1918 only to be picked up again in 1939. And since then, Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Gulf I, Gulf II, and countless other hostilities have claimed the lives and energies of countless military personnel.
And before the wars of the 21st century, America’s soldiers go back to the Revolution.  That’s 237 years of service.
But wars need soldiers, and many heeded the call.  A heartfelt thank you to the men and women of the US Armed Forces on this day when we remember their sacrifices.
In my childhood, Vietnam was being fought. Due to the unpopularity of that war, its veterans were treated abysmally, and many continue to suffer needlessly.  I think the reason I’m so adamant that we support our vets comes from seeing people I knew so angry, damaged and defensive.  I had only a child’s understanding, but I know it was frightening and sad.  We can not let that happen again.
Thank a vet, help a vet.  Not just today, but any time you can.

September 11, 2013

Remembering Once Again

The title of my blog, The Broad is Back, comes from the fact that once upon a time, when I lived overseas, I wrote a weekly essay called A Broad Abroad.  A large part of the impetus for that blog was the 9/11 attacks. I’d been living abroad for six years at that point, and no other thing in that time made me feel more alien or more homesick than the attack on New York (and Washington and the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, but I’m a New Yorker. My dad was a construction worker on the Twin Towers. I’m partial, I must say,)  The first Broad essay went out on September 11, 2002.

So because of this, I really wanted to post today.  Last night the president addressed the nation about the situation in Syria. As one tweeter mentioned, he was addressing a “war weary nation.” so he’s garnering less support than he’d like for a military option.  I’ve written about my ideas on Syria earlier in the month.

Last night, in response to a tweet of mine about how bombing wasn’t going to help the situation, a friend whose opinions and mind I respect, asked “but are we supposed to ignore it?”

My facebook wall answer was “We ignore plenty that goes on in the Middle East. Atrocities happen all the time. Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds living in Iraq in 1989 and we ignored it just fine because he was our ally then. We cherry pick what we (as a nation) react to instead of giving a concerted unified reaction of “this is not acceptable behavior”. Up to last summer Assad was being treated as a friendly ally by the West, even invited to Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Queen’s Golden. Some people complained, but most people ignored it. And I do believe if we’re gonna have a UN, we need to let the UN work. The problem is, the UN has no authority, so it’s basically failing its mission. Great IDEAL, lousy reality. The Syrian people, who are the ones being attacked by Assad, don’t want an American military strike. I do think what they want should count if we’re ostensibly helping them.”

To another friend I responded, “Not saying they aren’t worth the uproar. It [the gassing] is wrong. But why start publicizing dead children NOW? They have been being killed for a while. And why is it America’s problem? Why not defer to the UN? Oh, yeah, because the UN has no authority, legal or moral. Why all of a sudden is this a US security problem?  Every Syrian I speak to, who all have or had families on the ground in Damascus, does not want military intervention in terms of bombing. They are terrified that it will make things worse. And since they are on the front lines, in their own country, don’t they get a say? Or is the US so paternalistic that we know what’s best for everyone? Assad feels confident because he’s gotten away with it for so long.”

So basically, that’s my take on the situation. I find I’m much less censored on facebook than I am here. But I’m feeling tired and disgusted with the government’s hypocrisy. It ignores bad things until it is expedient to address them. Realpolitik, but wrong.

But how does this all tie in with 9/11? Well, it’s all inextricably linked, of course.  The idea of a military strike right now is abhorrent to me. But I’m one person, but I’m one person with a pen, metaphorically speaking, and I’m gaining the confidence I need to share ideas.

But what I really want to talk about today is not the future, but healing the past. In fact, what follows is mostly what I wrote on my “crunchy granola” blog. I try to keep that apolitical, but I am who I am. Opinionated and trying to pay attention.  BUt for me, the healing is more important.

“It’s when we start working together that the real healing takes place… it’s when we start spilling our sweat, and not our blood.” ~David Hume

From the building I teach in, I can see the construction of the new Freedom Tower in New York City. I walk through a construction zone in the bottom of the old World Trade Center to reach my train.

Sweat is spilled every day. Downtown New York is being rebuilt from the ground up, even more shiny and bold than before. This is what’s bringing healing to many. Not the talk, not the debates. The reconstruction.

People like me can not not remember. Even though I lived abroad 12 years ago, I am still a New Yorker. It was all too close to home.

I had a friend, someone I baby sat when he was a boy, who worked in the Pentagon. At the American Church in Geneva, which I attended. our priest’s brother was missing.  All too close to home.

I had students from America and some from Saudi Arabia in the same class. They were all terrified. The memories of the next day are actually more poignant to me than the first day. First we had shock, but then we had aftermath, even in Geneva. Students far from families needed mothering more than teaching.

What I remember best are the hugs. There were so many hugs. Barriers were broken because hugs were needed. Faculty hugged students, co-workers hugged one another, friends clung a little tighter.  I remember the shock and fear, but I remember the love best of all.  For me, that was the overwhelming reaction.

Oh, there were a few ugly incidents, but they were overshadowed by the positive.  Love started the healing process, and it continues.  There is still a nasty, nasty scar, but the healing is in process.

Someday people will forget. Impossible, people tell me. But I teach. I ask my students every December 7th, “what’s today”? Most have no idea.  I mention Pearl Harbor and they say, “oh, yeah, I learned that in school.” So they remember, eventually, but the healing is pretty much complete.  The youngest of those who were alive and old enough to remember are close to 80 now. Within two decades, there will be no living memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Because I teach so close to Ground Zero, on the day itself I used to have students write a narrative of their memories.  At first students loved this. They were a little edgy being there, and many said they found it cathartic.  But  I stopped two years ago because the essays I got were mostly variations of, “I don’t remember much, but I was in my second grade class.”  For my current students, it’s just something the grownups talked about.

So today in America we remember. But we are healing, which is the most hopeful thing of all.

August 30, 2013

And So We Sit and Wait

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” ~George Orwell, 1984

The events in this prescient novel written in 1949 were to have happened almost 30 years ago.  While the dystopia of the novel is not yet fully blown, I read these words, and I want to weep. In my country, ignorance has become strength and war may as well be peace for so many people appear unperturbed that we’ve been in a constant state of war since 2001.

I remember exactly where I was when news of the first airstrikes against Afghanistan broke. I was in a church. It was in Switzerland, and I was with a room of mostly women from many different countries, predominantly American and British, but from all over the world.  “Viet Nam” was muttered by more than one person, and I thought, “No, not again. It couldn’t.”

Just a month earlier we’d faced 9/11. Many of my students were seriously frightened that they had just seen the start of WWIII. But when the Afghanistan War started, they were no longer afraid. They were angry.

Just two years later, I was in a different country, Sweden, when the Iraq War started. Let’s just say that reaction in Sweden was far from positive. I don’t have pleasant memories of that time. Sometimes when tempers flared, people would forget that I am not the US government, nor am I even a representative of the government. Water under the bridge.

But again, WWIII was mentioned in passing.

And now we wait and watch what will happen in Syria. More than one person has mentioned WWIII, as if another World War is inevitable. As if “the war to end all wars” never happened. Oh wait. Never mind. Not counting the Cold War, the US was embroiled in another war five short years after WWII ended.

My tone is may sound bitter today, but I’m actually not feeling bitter. I’m feeling sad. I’m an unrepentant child of the 60s and early 70s. I do believe all that peacenik stuff people called “Commie”.  It’s out of fashion now, but as John Lennon, a powerful voice in the peace movement, said, “If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliche that must have been left behind in the Sixties, that’s his problem. Love and peace are eternal.”  But we seem to have lost our way, John.

These days, I teach many vets and even active service people. I have nothing but the utmost respect for them.  They don’t start the wars. They just fight them. As Gen. Doulgas MacArthur said, “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”  I mostly agree with him, of course. My soldiers write things to me that break my heart. They tell me what they’ve seen, what they’ve done, what they’ve experienced. I can not even imagine, but I am privileged to carry their stories. If I can relieve their burden one iota, I will do it gladly.  One student wrote to me: “I like reading poetry in your class because it’s the only time the guns in my head stop.”  I would read poetry with him for hours if I could.

But of course, it’s the civilians I worry about. War is cruel. A student this morning told me of a bombing near a Syrian school.  Children.  But children have always had the worst of war.  Still, things have been insane and dangerous in Syria for too long now, and something has to change.

So this compounds my sadness. The peacenik, the mostly pacifist, can’t see a way to calm things. Do I think attacking Syria will help? No.  But this is too big for me. I can’t think.  But I can pray, which is what I seem to do best these days.

The UK House of Commons voted to not support a military intervention in Syria, and I’m wondering whether the US Congress will have the same opportunity.  According to an article on CNN, “More than 160 members of Congress, including 63 Democrats, have now signed letters calling for either a vote or at least a ‘full debate’ before any U.S. action.”  But Congress is in recess until September 9th. Yes, I can see the White House waiting till they are all back. Yes. Sure.

This situation is changing rapidly.  So we sit and wait and see. And nothing is worse than waiting.

May 27, 2013

We Must Remember

Filed under: heroes,military,New Broads,soldiers,war — by maggiec @ 10:20 am
Tags: , , , , ,

It’s Memorial Day in America, a day to honor those who fell fighting for America. When I was growing up this was a solemn occasion, and most of the time I was marching in a parade with the Girl Scouts, laying a wreath at one of the many memorial sites dotted through my town.

My family was full of veterans, but we were a lucky family. The last one to die was my grandmother’s fiance, killed in France in 1918. The man she ultimately married was torpedoed more than once during WWII but lived to tell the tale, as did all the uncles, aunts and cousins who have served all the way through Afghanistan and Iraq.

But all those who had served had lost someone, and as children we were not allowed to forget that. Yes, there would be a barbecue later in the day, but not until the solemn rites were fulfilled.

I don’t march anymore, but I do remember every year.  These days, our society has a troubled relationship with our armed forces and war in general. There are good reasons for questioning some of America’s latest wars, but never have I doubted the sacrifice of those who did go, who heeded the call and paid the ultimate price.

But as long as there are wars and our men and women are dying, I can not forget. I hope that in the future, generations will forget the horror of war and the war dead will be nothing but lines in a history book like the dead Peloponnesians are to us today.

But until then, I believe deeply that we must remember. It is only by remembering the sacrifice and the dead that people will remember the reality that is war. It’s not just like the videos. There are humans involved in the battles, not just avatars.

The day will come, someday in the far distant future, perhaps, when humans will stop fighting and realize that war is not the answer.  I tell myself this, and sometimes I actually believe it.

But as long as days like Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day are seen only as times for fun or shopping, this will never happen. The dead mean nothing to too many. And that is one of the most important reasons we must remember. So that those who died will not have died in vain.  So that there will finally, ultimately be a “war to end all wars” that doesn’t mean we destroy each other in a nuclear or biological disaster.

A time when we realize that peaceful engagement can and does work.


The first half of this essay is self-plagiarized from my other blog, Patchouli Haze, but I wanted to expand the themes here.

March 30, 2013

Childhood flashbacks

Filed under: children,New Broads,war — by maggiec @ 1:05 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Last night, I frightened myself by reading the news about North Korea threatening South Korea and the US. I was mad at myself for feeling fear, but I’m a Cold War baby. We drilled for nuclear attacks in my grammar school. Who remembers sitting under desks? Or filing out in the hall, lined up, faces to the wall, arms over heads to protect us from falling debris?

I actually thought about where I’d go if the bombs were coming.  We knew there would be a warning.  I remember discussing it with my best friend, Katherine, when we couldn’t have been more than 10.  I couldn’t decide if I’d rather be home or at church. I didn’t think God would specially protect me in church, just that if I had to die, it would be good to die in a church, praying.  Closer my God to thee and all that.

As a teen and college student, I remember being chilled by Doctor Strangelove and The Day After. Then I was positively shattered by Threads, a 1984 BBC mock-documentary about a nuclear bombing which was much more realistic than any Hollywood production. In college I protested nuclear arms, and in many ways the threat of nuclear war marked my childhood and young womanhood.

The Cold War ended shortly after my son’s birth, but Pandora’s Box was still open. “Renegade states” either had nuclear capability or were trying hard to get it.  Frankly, I don’t want any country to have it, my own included, but so it goes. “Poo-too-weet,” as Vonnegut wrote.

Today I seem to be the only one I know worrying about North Korea if Facebook is any indication. Maybe I’m the only one saying anything.  Tomorrow is Easter, and there’s a lot to do. Maybe I’m just avoiding grading papers so irrational fear is better than grading.

Or perhaps it’s the post-9/11 sensibilities at work.  We’re constantly reminded that we may be attacked at any time. Our large bags are searched, I can say “if you see something, say something” in two languages (Si ve algo, diga algo), police are very visible in crowded places. When I go to Penn Station or Grand Central to catch the subway, there are machine gun toting soldiers paroling.  Usually I’m quite blase about it, but every once in a while, there’s a frisson of fear.  But for the past 10 years, Americans, especially New Yorkers, are used to living under threat. And most of the time, we totally ignore it.

But I’m not enjoying the memories seeing the articles are dredging up. This is one of the downsides of living back in America. Living in rural Sweden, I felt mostly untouchable. No one attacks Sweden!  Living in Geneva, where I lived for the actual 9/11 attacks, also felt very safe. Everyone has money in Switzerland, good guys and bad guys alike. No one is going to attack the banking state, not even terrorists. They need money for arms the same as everyone else. At least that’s what we told ourselves, and we believed it.

I know this fear of war is nothing new. We’re bellicose creatures humans.  Nuclear war is scary, but really, getting hacked apart by a claymore doesn’t sound much better.

Funny where the mind wanders.  This started as a short little post for another blog I write, my “crunchy granola” positive thinking one.  This isn’t so positive, and it got a tad out of hand.  I realized this slightly longer look at Americana belonged here.

The sun is shining. I’ve lived through saber rattling before. (Once memorably in Taiwan when the ROC was threatening to invade, I had a five year old and a leg broken in three places. Americans were leaving in droves, but I was confident we’d be fine.) And that’s what this is, saber rattling. And having written down my fears, I’ve greatly managed to dispel them.  Thanks for listening!

April 10, 2012

In Memoriam: The Bataan Death March at 70

My father’s uncle, Thomas O’Connor, or the Chief, as he was known to the family, lied about his age to get into the US Navy just before the outbreak of WWII. At 17, he was shipped overseas. Shortly afterwards, he was captured by the Japanese and became part of the infamous Bataan Death March, which started 70 years ago today.

The following account was written by my father’s cousin, Al O’Connor, who was a boy of eight when the war broke out. He and my dad lived with their Grandmother O’Connor, Thomas’s mother, so Al was on the scene for much of what happened, but of course, his memories are those of a child.

With his permission, I have pasted together two emails he sent to younger members of the family, but when I read them, I realized that even though this is the oral history of a family, this is something that needs to be kept alive and shared with interested people.

I haven’t edited his language, so some might find his term “Japs” offensive. I left it in because on some levels, he went back to that young wartime boy as he wrote this. The Japanese were America’s enemies, they had his uncle, and hatred simmered.

According to Al, the Chief had such hateful memories of all things Japanese that he wouldn’t even eat rice pudding for the rest of his life.

My memories of the Chief are all good—a tall fair man who smoked turkeys in a converted oil barrel. Quiet, red-faced, nice to me, but probably not one to cross. He died in 1990 when I was pregnant with my son, so I missed his funeral. He would have been in his mid-60s. So young, but since he survived Bataan and lived another 48 years, that was a ripe old age.

And now, my cousin, Al O’Connor


The Chief was a crew member aboard a submarine tender, the U.S.S.Canopus. Imagine being aboard a submarine tender in the middle of Manila Bay when some bad guys started a war! You are aboard a ship that is not only a floating arsenal with torpedoes and ammo for deck guns but also a floating supermarket! A ship made to resupply submarines at sea, loaded with clothing, munitions and food! This vessel had cargo of frozen meat, vegetables and dairy products. The Canopus was a floating super market! The wise Captain of this vessel, after a few air attacks, wisely chose to play dead. He flooded a few compartment to give the ship a list, then he arranged to burn rubber to make black smoke. The result was to appear as a derelict in the harbor, bent over and smoking. The result was no more air attacks!
Now imagine how Tom felt when ordered to go ashore and act as infantry. Tom told me how when the Japs attacked his position he tossed a hand grenade which was tossed back at him (he did not hold it long enough before tossing). It exploded and he wound up with shrapnel in his rear end, which was removed when the war ended.
Information [about the Chief’s time as a POW] is sketchy. Grandma O’Connor [his mother] did receive a telegram advising her that Tom was a prisoner of the Japanese. During the war, she received at least three post cards from Tom via the International Red Cross. These cards were a multiple choice type card. Check the box and sign it. I am well, Not well, I am hospitalized, that type of stuff, can’t recall it all. It was very vague but there was a space where the prisoner could write a sentence. Tom wrote, “I am well, and in as good shape as Arthur Barret.” Grandma took that to mean he was on the thin side. Also during the war there was a time when Grandma got a phone call from somewhere from a HAM Radio guy telling her he had intercepted a radio broadcast from the Japanese who had allowed some prisoners to speak on the radio. One of them was Tom and his message was a sort of Hello Mom, I’M ok.
Tom was moved from the Philippines to Osaka, Japan. Prisoners were stuffed into the holds of three ships with little food or water; it was like an oven. Two of the ships were sunk by our forces as they were not marked as POW ships. The Japs did not open the hatches so the prisoners went down with the ships; a few that did get out were gunned down in the water by the Japs.

Once in Japan, Tom was put to work as a lumberjack. He told me about a day when a young Jap boy on a bicycle rode by where the prisoners were doing some work on a bridge. The boy was so intent on looking at the prisoners that he misjudged where he was headed and wound up in the drink. Tom dove in the river and saved the buy. After that, the Japs gave Tom a Red Cross Parcel of which they had a warehouse full.
As the war was ending, B-29 bombers after their runs would sometimes fly low over the POW camps and drop canned fruit on the prison along with vitamin pills. The understanding was that if the cans fell inside the wire it was for the POWs, outside the wire it was for the Japs. Tom told me he saw Japs lying on their bellies lapping at a can of peaches that had burst open when it hit the ground.

Back in the Philippines, Tom had escaped once with another fellow. They floated on a log to another Island on a foggy night but were picked up by a Jap patrol boat and returned to camp. The POWs were doing well on the vitamins dropped to them by the B-29s. The Japs who were always hungry and malnutritioned noticed this and demanded their share of vitamins. So a prison Industry was born. The prisoners made vitamin pills out of plaster from the walls of their huts and sold them to the guards for food.

When the day of liberation arrived, the Jap Commander called an assembly of all the Prisoners and announced, “The war has ended and Gentlemen you are free”. American Paratroopers descended on the camp to maintain order. Tom was amazed at them, big, healthy guys in uniforms he did not recognize. Nothing like the skeletal POWs! On the way home on a Hospital ship, they were fattened up, had medical and dental attention. When Tom came home he was in a Marine uniform instead of a Navy uniform. I never knew why. After the war Tom spent some time at a Naval Hospital. Eventually he returned to active duty in the Navy as a Chief.


So, that is a slice of the story of my great uncle, Thomas “The Chief” O’Connor, former POW and survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March.  There are no details of the actual march as that was something that I was told he never spoke of.  In fact, I’m surprised and pleased that my cousin Al has so much detail.  My father would have known these things as well because he was there on the scene with Al, but my father died when I was a child, when he was 39, so almost all of his memories are lost to us. And my younger aunts and uncles were either infants during the war or were post war babies. As with many families, bad times were not really spoken of once they were past, so thanks to Al, we have these stories, but he was just a boy, and there aren’t many older than him who are left. It might be a cultural stereotype, but I do know that the Irish are very good at burying the bad.  This might work well for family sanity, but it’s a great loss to history.

There are very few of the survivors left now, as so few survived, and of those who did, many faced health problems in connection with their imprisonment, and even the youngest would be in their 80s now anyway. But the world needs to remember. And I offer my thanks to the sacrifice of those who died and those who lived, which by all accounts, was the much harder path.  Theirs was a blood sacrifice that must never be forgotten.

I’m proud of my great uncle, both for having the tenacity to survive, but also for being human enough to save a child, even the child of his enemy. To me, that speaks to his character more than survival.

Because of Uncle Tom, I’ve grown up knowing a little about Bataan, but I fear it’s being forgotten.  World War II, something very real to me growing up in the 60s as I was surrounded by a family of veterans, to my students is nothing more than a war from the middle of the last century, no more real to them than the Civil War was to me.  This is the nature of history. For my Virginian grandfather the War of Northern Aggression, or the Civil War to history books, was a real thing to him, though born 25 years after its end, as he was surrounded by those who had lived through it.

To learn more about Bataan, PBS provides some details and memories in the show The American Experience and there are a number of US history sites on line with information.  A news story from a memorial yesterday gives words of a few survivors who gathered in Sante Fe.

May 6, 2011

Nice to know humans don’t change

Yesterday I wrote about the death of bin Laden. Do I believe he’s dead? Of course. Do I need a picture? No, and frankly, I don’t want one. I don’t think they should be released not because they might upset Muslims and incite terrorists. I don’t want them released because it will upset me.  My high school history textbook had a small black and white photo of Mussolini hanging by his feet. It still haunts me. Pictures of lynched African-American men in America’s south haunt me. So a close-up color shot of a high-powered rifle bullet to the head? I’ll pass.

And frankly, people who want to doubt are going to doubt. Even if the photos are released, and the president has vowed not to release them, there will be those who cry “Photoshop”. So really, releasing them isn’t necessary.

The kill has been confirmed by Al-Qaeda itself. I don’t really think Al-Qaeda cares about Obama’s approval ratings. I don’t think its leadership has an interest in making the US look “good”.  Of course, my mind can do paranoid and conspiracy as well as the next guy’s. Maybe bin Laden is still alive, and well, the US is lying to make itself look good and Al-Qaeda is lying to reenergize itself. They haven’t been as popular as late, you know. They had no role in the liberation movements that have been happening throughout the Middle East. This is a perfect way to drum up support, having their leader be “dead”. But truly, I don’t think so.

Conspiracy theories have been around as long as there have been people. Do governments lie? Yes. Can governments be fully trusted? No. Should they? No. But does that mean everything that a government does is bad because, by definition, governments are evil and everything said is a lie? No.

During war, bad things happen. Soldiers are trained to kill and are rewarded for doing it well.  Decisions are made in less than an instant and unless I was there, I am not going to second guess a soldier’s actions in the heat of an attack. As George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” I don’t like that uncomfortable truth, but there it is. I live in a world in which violence is used by nations on a regular basis. As an idealist, I wish that weren’t so. But as a thinking human, I know it is. I can work to change it, but in the meantime, battles rage.

Do I question the legality of the raid? Yes. The US did violate another country’s sovereignty to carry it out.  Do I understand the realpolitik thinking behind the decision?  Of course. I do think the US should be above reproof not because it’s the US and what it does is inherently “right,” but because its actions are right and proper indeed. On the other hand, this “War on Terror” has changed the art of war . No longer are the combatants clearly defined. War against a thing and not a nation? How can this work? Obviously not well, at all. But the world is changing, so the rules of war are changing as well.  How can the old rules work when the board and players are radically different?

And humans like to think we’ve changed, too. We  are civilized and compassionate. We have learned much about violence and how it’s a bad thing. Yet we still want the world “safe for democracy”. We want our peaceful comfortable lives. We want to “fight the good fight”. As long as no one dies, is injured, is damaged in any way.   People want Al-Qaeda gone. They want the terrorism to end. We send soldiers to fight, searching for the terrorists and those soldiers die or are injured. And people are shocked.  What part of “going to war brings death” are they confused about, I wonder.

We are constantly shocked and outraged about “women and children” and “innocent civilians” being killed during attacks. I don’t want to see children killed, or women, or civilian men, but since when is it a surprise that it happens? Once upon a time wars might have been taken place in battles outside a town or city on a field, but even when the fighting was mostly hand-to-hand, civilians got caught in the crossfire.  Children went to battle on a regular basis. If family legend is true, my own great-grandfather was in the Crimean war at the age of 10, sent as a bugler, but still on the battlefield. 

I am not saying these deaths are right or are to be accepted. What I’m saying is why the shock? What do we expect? A bloodless war?

We want it all–all the benefits of war without the drawbacks. This would be great if we could figure out how to stop human beings from resorting to war, but we can’t. Why? Because human nature doesn’t really change.

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