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Or, My War and Louis Lepke
By Donald Wetzel
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1986 Donald Wetzel
All rights reserved.
Here at the Florida beach resort where I work — a place lovely in blazing full summer with its variously naked young boys and girls variously burning — here, soon, in a cooler season, the Four Hundredth Engineers will gather to hold a reunion. Veterans of World War Two. My contemporaries. Men and their wives; no kids. Here to remember the war.
I do not look forward to it.
Their local representative comes by the desk now almost daily. It's beginning to seem that our one hundred and twenty rooms won't be enough, and he's concerned. I'm concerned. I'm concerned about a motel full of drunks. Tactfully I mention this to him, and he's hurt. "We're most of us too old for that sort of nonsense," he tells me.
Okay. If he says so. Too old for burning, too, I suppose. Just here to remember the war. Jesus.
A large table is to be set up where war mementos can be displayed. Mementos; his word, not mine. Memory aids. I can't quite imagine them. Blasted brains and guts in formaldehyde? Unlikely. Old cannon? Gas Masks? Rusty bayonets? Why not, simply, the jawbone of an ass?
That table bugs me.
When World War Two ended I was still a young man.
Now, I find it difficult to remember that large numbers of adults with whom I come into daily contact, those thirty-six or younger, were not yet born when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Simply that they are adults, I suppose, it is my stubborn error to assume that a haunting memory of those years must be as much theirs as it is mine, no matter that I lived then, and they did not.
Those of my generation — who became adults as our world became entrapped in violence, committed everywhere to war — those at all of my anti-war persuasion, will understand the persistence of my error in this regard. The global convulsion of which we were a part had to do, indeed, with the whole human tribe, with time and generations yet to come; and it seemed that we knew it.
And perhaps it is for this reason that often, even yet, foolishly I will assume that members of a generation that can look back no further than to the Beatles or to Viet Nam still must know what I know.
I lived when Hitler lived.
I saw him on the theater Movie Tone News; I heard him speak. It seemed clear to me that the man was mad. Even so, when first told about the death camps in Germany, I did not believe it could be true.
But it was true that at that time in America, a restricted notice on a real estate sign more often than not meant simply, No Jews. I remember asking my uncle — I was seventeen or eighteen and should not have had to ask — about the meaning of such signs as they began appearing in our neighborhood. We were driving somewhere, and I was in the rear seat of my uncle's Packard. I addressed my question to the back of his head. It was as though the answer issued from a rock; nothing about the man moved, so rigorous, so rigid was his approval; "It means," he said, "no Jews."
This was in the early days of World War Two, before America was a part of it. It was then that in the eastern village where I lived, increasingly I heard among my contemporaries and even more among our elders the telling of ugly racial anecdotes having to do with Hitler and the Jews; a refugee Jew was, "A kike on the hike from the Reich." There were jokes even about crematoriums.
So it was that in the end, well before America entered the war, I had come to believe that the German death camps quite likely were real at that.
Actually, the people of our village, good middle class Christians by and large, were not half so worried about Hitler and Mussolini — who was said to have made the trains in Italy run on time — as they were about Stalin and the communists, as though the Russian hordes were practically at our shores.
In the circles in which I moved I saw no real concern about the fate of Europe's Jews at all.
In no way then was the situation analogous to pre-Viet Nam war days. Patriotism was in vogue. The flag was in. At the start, it was said by our leaders that it was Europe's war and not America's; but all the same the national pulse rate quickened; the voices of old men grew strident.
Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, came forward to affirm that there was nothing wrong with America that Hitler could make right. This was considered laudably white of him.
Ernest Hemingway armed the Pilar and went fishing for German submarines off the coast of Cuba, maintaining that never before in modern history had there been a more justifiable war.
The American clergy, also — to a man, it seemed — knew a just war when they saw one.
Among the intellectuals, only the pro-Russian left protested our drift toward involvement in the war, and this only until Russia, also, became at war with Germany.
Such genuine dissent as there was came from groups considered more pro-German than antiwar — isolationists, America Firsters, with Charles Lindberg being one of their more prominent spokesmen, to the almost total denigration of his status as an American folk hero — but such dissent faded quickly once America was at war.
The voice of the pacifist remained, but we were heard, it seems, mostly among ourselves.
In our village I argued — as though with trees and stones — that the enemy was war itself.
I had read Tolstoy, Emerson, Thoreau; Shaw's Arms And the Man; I was familiar with Randolph Bourne's chilling hypothesis that war was the health of the state. I knew of Gandhi and Nehru.
At that time, however, I was not a member of either the War Resister's League or the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was not aware that an organized pacifist movement existed in the United States. I most definitely was not a political activist. My interests lay elsewhere.
Still I argued publicly and with mounting conviction that modern war was an insanity. I began to be heard. In the village that had been my home since birth, great cold spaces opened up around me. I was considered to be unnatural, treasonably strange; surely a coward.
My cousin hurried off and joined the Marines, beating the draft. He spent the war in a control tower of a military airfield somewhere in the south, in Mississippi, I think. He came home on Christmas leave in his Marine dress uniform, an American fascist. He spoke admiringly of the Germans, contemptuously of 'niggers'; called Jews kikes and cowards.
I raged at him.
He said nothing.
He was afraid I might become violent.
Certainly I must have seemed strange to my cousin.
I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector.
There were not too many of us then.CHAPTER 2
By my late teens, I was more into poetry than politics, but to the extent that I was political at all, I considered myself a New Deal Democrat. (I am — an anachronism, perhaps — a New Deal Democrat still.) The New Deal was new then, the great depression still a vivid memory. It was, in fact, a time, long overdue, of a genuine and necessary economic and social new deal for America's poor and underprivileged, embodying legislatively many economic and social reforms long advocated by Norman Thomas and the American Socialists.
That Franklin Delano Roosevelt was largely responsible for the enactment of most of the New Deal legislation is an irony, in that no American president ever spoke more literally in the true and innate accents of America's most wealthy and privileged social class, by whose members, indeed, Roosevelt —" that insane cripple" — came bitterly to be considered a traitor. When he died there were wild celebrations on Wall Street.
For myself, through all of Roosevelt's years as an American president, I kept waiting for him to talk like an American, but he never did. He talked like a gay upper-class Englishman. War, as he said the word, became "waugh". Which he professed to hate. But which he did not appear to hate at all. I don't know if other of my contemporaries have remarked on it, but it seemed obvious to me that, increasingly, Roosevelt got off, as they say, on the war.
If war may sometimes be considered — as it has been — capable of calling forth the best in a man, this was not the case, in my opinion, with Franklin Roosevelt. More and more as the war continued it seemed to me that he spoke and behaved as a man with his eye out most of all for his place in history; that less and less was the here-and-now of a world at war, and of its dead and dying, real to him. Born to wealth and privilege, war-time commander-in-chief of the world's most powerful military forces, three times the presidential choice of the American voter, I suspect that toward the end when still again he addressed — by radio and at figurative fireside — his national constituency, familiarly, as, "My friends ..." he meant in truth, "You peasants; you simple tools; you clods."
Which, if it seems unfair conjecture, harsh judgment, was still the way I understood it then, hearing as the war raged on, his voice, so civil, so damned prep-school proper, speaking of a monstrous war in progress as though of a war already done and won and safe in history.
Whatever; I was a young man then and for better or worse not to be numbered among those persuaded of the wisdom of our leaders, or as to the deadly nature of one's duty in such a time.
As a writer — or as one who thought to be a writer — neither was I blown away by the content of Winston Churchill's wartime rhetoric, even as I granted its eloquence. I had heard, recorded — and more than once — his famous call to courage to the British people in which, gravely, he promised them only, "... blood, sweat and tears ...," a promise which seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, a most modest and unreal assessment of the carnage to follow.
It can be said as well, I believe, that Churchill also got off — quite considerably — on the war.
It seems obvious that he did; as witness the staggering length and breadth of his memoirs.
Which is not to dispute his talents as politicians, orator, man of letters. No question but that he could make the English language serve his will as could no one else in public life at that time. He was a master of the carefully crafted phrase, as well as at speaking extemporaneously, although in this last his way with the bottle sometimes was apparent.
But I felt then, and I argue now, that Churchill in fact had a proclivity for speaking noble-sounding nonsense, such stuff as can make the memory even of a war all too soon seem pleasant, warm, uplifting; as today there are those who speak, in Churchillian hype, of "Britain's finest hour ...", as though the wartime slaughter of London's poor — bombed, disembowelled, dismembered like cattle — can, with one drunken phrase, become indeed a part of something fine.
Later, in the sixties, there was a musical group, a rock group — British, I believe — called, Blood, Sweat And Tears.
And so much for lines that endure.
As a young man little impressed by slogans or symbols and of no great wealth or attachment to things, I failed to share in the popular American sense of trepidation in regard to the Russian bear. I had, in fact, no opinion of Stalin other than to understand that he was a dictator, and as with Roosevelt, Churchill and Hitler, was no Gandhi. I simply distrusted him, as I then distrusted, and still do, all those who have the military might of nations at their command.
Whatever; if the times then were not so ominous with threat as they are now, they were bad enough. It was a time of world-wide war, of genocide, of great cities under bombs, of the deaths, as casualties of war, of civilians — men women and children alike — by the tens of thousands ...
... and of the nuclear bomb yet to come ...
... with our writers writing war propaganda ...
... our artists painting war posters ...
(Ben Shahn telling me, years after, of working on a poster of an uplifted hand sinking beneath the waves, the poster bearing the legend, "Someone talked!", and of later — the head of the government agency for which Shahn worked being a Coca-Cola executive on leave — painting a bottle of Coca-Cola in the clutch of the drowning man's hand, Shahn not altogether persuaded, although he had done it, that it was the duty of the artist to aid and abet the waging of a war.)
It was a time of American-born Japanese being imprisoned in American concentration camps ...
... of, "Hey, bud, don't you know there's a war going on?" Or, "Is this trip necessary?" ...
... and of business as usual, for all of that ...
... A time, even so, of patriotic fervor when my aunt would announce, in all seriousness, that if God could give his only begotten son to the save the world, she could give hers to save America ... and would be outraged at my suggestion that while my cousin's life quite likely would never amount to much, it wasn't hers to give ...
... when Gold Star mothers were the envy, not all too secretly, sometimes, of mothers of soldiers not yet nobly dead in battle ...
It was a time when my father disowned me, legally, in writing ...
... a time when teenage girls from the better families were giving themselves to teenage soldiers from just about anywhere ... an orgy of giving, of patriotic fucking, in which through no virtue of mine, I was not to take part, becoming, as I became adult, pacifist, and thus peripheral, outcast, not quite knowing how or why I became pacifist, but mostly I suppose from believing, if not in God in his heaven, in some real and actual relevance, here on earth, of means to ends.
I must acknowledge, of course, that I did not then — war or no war, pacifist or not — spend all my waking hours worrying about the state of the world. I was young, and life was mostly a wonder to me, as still it is.
But as I grow older, a writer, I will say this of war and the bomb; more and more now is it difficult for me to write much about anything else.CHAPTER 3
As a young man I boxed amateur for a few years and was much impressed at the amount of damage a hundred-and-twelve-pound young man could inflict with his fists upon another hundred-and-twelve-pound young man. The first time I knocked an opponent unconscious I thought I'd killed him; he went down on his face, arms at his sides; rolled to stare up at me with sightless eyes, while I stood there, terror-struck, staring down at him. Some time after that when I, as was inevitable, was myself knocked senseless in the ring, I carried around for several days afterward a kind of minor thunder in my head, a booming rhythmic heartbeat which I acknowledged as a message of sorts: This sport is a bunch of shit.
So having toyed with and tasted in this fashion the gut experience of death administered and death received, my concluding point of view on the manly art of self-defense became my view on war; this by a tortured intellectual process involving considerable hypotheses on the nature of man and his institutions, of personal right and wrong, of the relevance of means to ends; with frequent searchings of my most private conscience, (how, here in the small dark world of my unshared bedroom, how for Christ sake can I be right and all those others wrong?) a process I marvel at in retrospect, honoring it still, even as I now acknowledge how goddamn unnecessary it was.
And it was this view on war — and ultimately the absolutest and therefore criminal nature of my support of this view — that some forty years ago led me to make the acquaintance of one Louis Lepke Buchalter, considered by many to be the leading murderer, in the private sector, of his day.
We met in prison.
Simply stated, a pacifist, a war objector, I was there for refusing — emphatically — legally to kill people, while Lepke was there in large part for having killed people, illegally and for a profit, quite possibly by the dozens.
(We had in common, perhaps, a certain tendency to excess, although only in retrospect does this occur to me.)
At the time, all I knew about Lepke was Walter Winchell's characterization of the man as the feared head of an underworld organization known, to Winchell anyhow, as Murder, Incorporated; while all that Lepke could have known of me at first, through the prison grapevine, was that I was a kook, a conscientious objector, a crazy pacifist, with this being all we knew in advance of one another — but enough — on that first day in prison when me met.
Such strangers; I remember most of all how little was said. I would suppose that when the first black met the first white, there must have been first between them a silence, a silence of incomprehension, mute surmise; did the senses deceive? Were the differences, or the similarities, most to be believed? And which mattered?
I think that first long silence between Lepke and me was of that sort. Who the hell, for real, is this?
Some kind of man?
It was so with me, anyhow. And it might have been so with Lepke. He wasn't dull, or stupid, or without the capacity to wonder.
Excerpted from Pacifist by Donald Wetzel. Copyright © 1986 Donald Wetzel. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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