Monday, December 30, 2013

Reclaiming Art and History

Long before the carnage of modern wars, there was a clash of civilizations in which mangled armies were left to die in appalling conditions, into which an extraordinary woman waded and challenged military traditions to provide better aid for wounded soldiers. That’s the background to a recent piece of art restoration and detective work.

Hearing about the Combat Paper project, a close acquaintance of Vietnam veteran Walt Nygard gave him a weathered copper plate etching found during upgrading an old building. The faintly visible scene focused on a figure in a long dress bent over someone in a bed, surrounded by gaunt faces of what seemed to be Scottish soldiers in 19th century British uniforms.

“Florence Nightingale,” Nygard surmised, as several war veterans inspected the ancient relic during a Combat Paper workshop the other day at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey studio in Branchburg, NJ. “Crimean War,” interjected another vet. “Looks like a Scottish kilt,” said a third, pointing to a faint tartan swatch in the postcard-size etching.

“Let’s see if these smudges can be cleaned off,” said a fourth vet, as an impromptu work team gathered around, offering advice on cleaning the tarnished metal and preparing it for transferring an inked image to a piece of Combat Paper made of  military uniforms from recent wars. The crew of art restorers included veterans of US wars in Southeast Asia, Somalia and Iraq. Their common bond was striving to improve upon ways of assisting military veterans cope with war’s imprint on their lives.

“Wow, look at that!” said one of the vets, as the inked image virtually leaped from the paper it was printed on: Florence Nightingale at work in a roomful of severely wounded soldiers. The viewers were pulled into the long ago war in Crimea, circa 1854.

A quick Internet query filled in much of the history:  “… nothing could have prepared Nightingale and her nurses for what they saw when they arrived at Scutari, the British base hospital in Constantinople. … More soldiers were dying from infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera than from injuries incurred in battle,” according to “The no-nonsense Nightingale quickly set to work….

“Based on her observations in the Crimea, Nightingale wrote Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army, an 830-page report analyzing her experience and proposing reforms for other military hospitals operating under poor conditions. The book would spark a total restructuring of the War Office's administrative department, including the establishment of a Royal Commission for the Health of the Army.” However, the bio notes, “Nightingale had contracted ‘Crimean fever’ and would never fully recover. By the time she was 38 years old, she was homebound and bedridden, and would be so for the remainder of her life. Fiercely determined, and dedicated as ever to improving health care and alleviating patients’ suffering, Nightingale continued her work from her bed.”

Decades later, around 1930, American artist Robert Riggs—who’d served with a Red Cross unit in World War 1—created a stunning lithograph illustration of Florence Nightingale ministering to wounded soldiers, the very image on the copper plate that found its way to a Combat Paper workshop.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Community Counters Exploitative Movie

Ramapo Mountains at Ramapo College

Just in time for Christmas, the season of brotherly love, comes a Hollywood film that, according to one reviewer, takes its marquee-star hero on a revenge mission into “the backwoods inbred portal of hell that is Bergen County, New Jersey.”

That’s how New York Magazine reviewer David Edelstein describes the center piece of Out of the Furnace, a newly released feature film directed by Scott Cooper. It features Christian Bale as a Pennsylvania steel worker who journeys after his brother, an Iraq war vet who disappeared into an underground fighting ring in some dark corner of Jersey.

“A movie like Out of the Furnace needs an especially sadistic psychopath to hold our interest, and it has one in Woody Harrelson as a man called Harlan DeGroat. He organizes brutal fights, deals drugs, and kills people in the rough hills of Bergen County, New Jersey,” Edelstein notes. “… a glance this morning at the local headlines confirms that its denizens are fighting mad over Cooper’s use of family names of current Ramapogh Native Americans — in particular DeGroat and Van Dunk. I don’t blame them a bit for thinking they’ve been slimed.”

That review, and an incendiary one in the New York Post that seemed to relish rehashing malicious myths about natives of the Ramapo Mountains, were cited Wednesday in a panel discussion at Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ. A promontory on the mountain ridge across the Ramapo River from the state college is Stag Hill, which hosts the headquarters of the Ramapough Mountain Lenape Indians.

“Elements of this movie bring back stigma not only for the people, but the mountains, which impacts this college,” said Professor Michael Edelstein, an organizer of the panel discussion. The gathering of about 150 people included students, faculty members, college President Peter Mercer, Mahwah Mayor William Laforet and other community leaders, Chief  Dwaine Perry and several other members of the tribe.  

Laforet recalled growing up in Mahwah when youngsters taunted and tussled with each other over ethnic backgrounds. “We didn’t know better,” he said. But, he added, things have changed in Mahwah, a former farming and factory town that’s now the upscale suburban hub anchoring the northern end of the jam-packed Route 17 commercial corridor that defines modern Bergen County.

“This is the first time that I can recall that this community has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ramapough Mountain Indians,” said Laforet, who earlier this month held a news conference with Chief Perry to denounce the Hollywood movie. “This is a moment in our history.”

“The movie is nothing more than a sensational attempt to generate money by degenerating and insulting part of our American culture,” Laforet said December 6 on WCBS Radio. “This type of stereotype only serves to foster hostility, intimidation and bullying.”

At the same news conference, Perry questioned the motive for making such a film: “Why the hatred? Why the reliving of what is obviously racism and bigotry throughout history toward the [Ramapough] people.”

Neither Laforet, Perry or other speakers at the Ramapo College forum bought the filmmakers’ assertion that the movie was “not based upon any particular person or group of people,” as stated by a spokesperson for Relativity Media, the film’s production company. Judith Sullivan, an attorney working with the tribe, noted that the film “lists seven characters as Jackson Whites”—a mythical name for Ramapo Mountain natives that’s been circulated in newspaper and magazine articles for generations. “As a lawyer, I cannot believe this film was approved by the legal department.”

“This movie clearly has been aimed at us,” said Vincent Mann, chief of the tribe’s Turtle Clan. Even before this film came out, he recalled, he was accosted by three teenagers who drove up to the tribal community center on Stag Hill looking for “Jackson Whites.” Asked where they learned about this name, the boys said “they found out about it on Weird New Jersey,” a website that promotes state oddities.  

 Perhaps the most impressive speaker on the panel to address the “hillbilly” stereotyping of Ramapo Mountain people, which I encountered as whispered “fact” when I first moved to New Jersey in 1965, was Richard DeGroat Thomas, chief of the tribe’s Marten Band in Staten Island, NY.

“I’m not one of the people in the [New York] Post who eat squirrels. I design multi-million dollar buildings,” said Thomas, a Columbia University-trained architect, who was wearing a beaded buckskin jacket. Thomas said he saw this film in California, while visiting his children, who work in the film industry.

He said the best way to counter such a “negative” movie is to do “something positive.” In a discussion with audience members, who broke into groups to propose actions to take, Thomas said he’d like to see a movie about the real traditions and real lives of members of his tribe.

“I think events like this are very important,” said a student at the table where I was sitting. Another student asked if the college had a Native American minor—and if not, why not. Furthermore, she added, “college tours should explain the origins of the college’s name.”

Another audience member said New Jersey public schools should teach more about the Lenape Indians, the ancestors of the state’s remaining Native Americans. “And when you meet people using these stigmas, immediately address this,” he added.

This reminded me of a recent discussion at a veterans’ art workshop sparked by news articles about this film. A veteran from the Jersey City area recalled that, during the Vietnam war, his Army reserve unit had to lay over in Mahwah during a convoy to a training camp in New York State. The soldiers were warned not to go into the nearby hills, because that’s where the fearsome “Jackson Whites” lived. So some of the troops, of course, snuck off to the nearest bar in the area—and nothing happened, he recalled.

Another Vietnam vet, who grew up near Mahwah, interjected, objecting to the “Jackson Whites” myth-making. “I knew a lot of those guys,” he said. “They’re like you and me.”

Well, Vietnam veterans know a bit about negative stereotyping. The list of Hollywood movies depicting crazed Vietnam vets engaged in gratuitous, gruesome violence is long. Indeed, one of those films—starring a Hollywood icon trying to save a fellow vet from a Pennsylvania mill town who disappeared into suicidal Russian roulette matches in a mythical part of Vietnam—is the model for Out of the Furnace, according to reviews.

“Remind you of The Deer Hunter much? It should. Out of the Furnace, simmering with Rust Belt malaise, echoes Michael Cimino's epic about Pennsylvania steelworkers and Vietnam,” notes Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers, whose gee-whiz commentary utterly misses the point, the underlying elements of egregious exploitation.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


"Remains of Fatal Crash"          watercolor by Jan Barry

I arrived in Vietnam just before Christmas 51 years ago, assigned to an aviation unit in America’s secretive war in Southeast Asia. Casualties in these special ops missions were seldom recorded in the news or elsewhere. Working on art to plumb the origins of disturbing dreams that still propel me out of bed, I’ve been painting an unforgettable scene in Vietnam in 1963.

Years ago, I wrote a poem, titled “Casualties,” that described this scene in detail:

Eyeballing the remains
of one of our planes
recovered from a mountainside,
a bunch of us stand
in the gaping space
where the propeller, engine,
instrument panel, and
windshield had been—

contemplating the miracle
of the copilot stepping unharmed
straight out onto the ground,
while the pilot was fatally
wrapped around a tree,
still strapped in his seat.

Lt. Rhinehart’s take off
from a hole in the jungle
uphill against the ridge’s rise
nearly scattered six Special Forces
troopers and their jump gear
plus the crew chief
through the mangled trees
behind his corpse.

“Lucky thing the lieutenant
only killed himself,”
muttered Sgt. Bowen, the chief
mechanic, through a clenched cigar
jutted into the wrecked cockpit.

“Nineteen years in the Army—
and Wright’s resigning,”
someone said of the copilot.
“Said he’d be damned if he’d die
in this damn campaign.”
Resigning a year short of retirement
provoked respectful silence.

“I'm hanging it up, too,”
Thomson, the crew chief,
barely 19 years old,
abruptly announced.

“Third crash,” he spat,
a grimace aging boyish cheeks,
his suntanned left arm
pinned in a sling.
“The jackass who dreamed up
flying Canadian bush planes
in the god damned tropics
can kiss my ass.”

Monday, December 2, 2013

Legacy of Winning Hearts and Minds

As one of the editors, publication of a collection of poetry by war veterans was a major highlight of my life in 1972. How it fit into the larger poetry scene and the arc of American life I'll leave to others to determine. A very interesting perspective by a British writer who recently explored the legacy of that poetic act is conveyed in the current issue of War, Literature & the Arts.  

Here is an excerpt from “And the fire still burns”: Vietnam War Poetry, Moral Witness, and Winning Hearts and Minds by Adam Gilbert.

"Forty years after its publication, Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans remains one of the most compelling, insightful, and moving accounts of the American war in Vietnam. A key work of witness of the twentieth century, this poetry anthology of over one hundred pieces, written by thirty-three contributors, testified to the disaster of what was then America’s longest war. Although the current conflict in Afghanistan has now claimed that grim record, and along with its sister war in Iraq has generated a fair amount of debate, the war in Vietnam is still America’s most controversial and contested military campaign. Winning, and the body of “Vietnam war poetry” that it helped to establish, presented a searing critique of the war by those who had fought in it, a critique that continues to offer a valuable opportunity to understand and examine “America’s policies and attitudes towards Asia through the eyes of the men who implemented them.” This article presents an overview of the history and legacy of “the seminal anthology against which all future Vietnam war poetry would be judged”, and outlines how the collection can be viewed as a particularly powerful and perceptive case of moral witness. Four decades on, now is an appropriate moment to consider the legacy of Winning, to see where it came from and where it led to, and to start to come to terms with its profound and enduring moral significance.

"Whilst interesting and penetrating analyses of Winning can be found in works such as Michael Bibby’s Hearts and Minds: Bodies, Poetry, and Resistance in the Vietnam Era, Subarno Chattarji’s Memories of a Lost War: American Poetic Responses to the Vietnam War, or Lorrie Goldensohn’s Dismantling Glory:Twentieth-Century Soldier Poetry, the actual story of its publication, placed in a literary-historical context with particular attention given to its antecedents and successors, has not been investigated as thoroughly. The fullest account of the anthology’s publication, Caroline Slocock’s “Winning Hearts and Minds: The 1st Casualty Press”, is a helpful description of the painful publishing process faced by the collection, but does not give much consideration to what came before or after. Furthermore, since Slocock’s article was released in 1982, it did not have the benefit of being able to assess the long-term legacy of the anthology. This study utilises the material available to Slocock and brings the story up to date with additional information from the newly accessible Jan Barry Archive at La Salle University and recent interviews with some of the key poets. By examining the forerunners and descendants of Winning, as well as the volume itself, we can begin to appreciate the importance of its role in the history of Vietnam war poetry. ..."

To read the full article: