"The dark valley through which we have marched together."

After…I dunno, like eleven years, I’ve finally finished reading The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (amazon | indigo) by Piers Brendon. I picked it up along with Richard Evans’ The Coming Of The Third Reich (which I talked about in February) to help make sense of the interwar period and run-up to WWII, just as I had read The Guns of August to set up WWI.

Where Evans wrote a micro look at how the Nazis came to power in Germany, this book was the macro history of the rise of dictatorships in Italy, Spain and Russia, and of imperial militarism in Japan. It also chronicled the weakness, hesitation and indifference of France, Great Britain and the United States. There wasn’t much information here that was new for me, but Brendon managed to artfully tie together all the moving parts, giving a greater sense of the rise of fascism in the 30s around the world. Highly recommended if you’ve always wondered, as I did, how the world came to such a conflagration.

Now, as I did when delving into the first war, I’ll turn to my uncle’s book A Short History of WWII to understand the events of the war itself. I’ve read the book twice before, but if following this same pattern for WWII has the same effect on my understanding that it did for WWI, I’ll have a better grasp of what the battles meant. If, as von Clausewitz said, “War is a continuation of policy by other means,” I’ll have a better grasp of what the policy was in the first place.

Time: the revelator

Yesterday a friend asked, via Twitter, “Where were you 45 years ago today?” I hadn’t quite woken up yet so it took me a second to place the date: November 22. It was 45 years ago yesterday that JFK was assassinated.

History has a funny way of messing with your perception of time, particularly when something is still very much part of popular culture the way that Kennedy (and his assassination) is. That event always feels much older to me than how I perceive 45 years. While it happened before I was born, it’s not as if I’m unfamiliar with it…I’ve consumed a lot of films, documentaries and books about that assassination. In fact, when I thought about it yesterday, I found it mildly surprising that I was born only 12 years after John Kennedy’s assassination. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before, and the two events seemed decades apart in my perception.

That thought stayed with me as I continued to read the first pages of Richard EvansThe Coming Of The Third Reich (amazon). He’s currently describing how antisemitism was alive and well, even fairly organized, in Germany in 1908, well before the start of even the first world war. 1908…that’s 100 years ago. It won’t even be for another six years that we hit the first anniversary of the beginning of WWI.

WWI seems like a big marker. We’re all taught so much about it that, to me, it seems like the starting point of what we perceive as ‘recent’ history; anything beyond that is just labeled history, full stop. I used to think recent history was whatever had transpired in the past hundred years or, when I was younger, whatever had happened earlier in the current century. WWI was that milestone for me, and probably for my father too, but I suspect it won’t be long until it fades and WWII becomes the new starting point. That’s strange for me, as I’ve been reading so much about WWI lately that it’s far more prominent and memorable, if that’s the right word, to me. History is delineated in our perceptions not by years, but by milestones, and their prevalence in our minds tricks us about their age.

Another example: it seems equally hard for me to believe that Nevermind by Nirvana was released 17 years ago as it is to believe that the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is still nearly four years away.

The Man From Athabaska

A Robert Service poem, one which I first learned by hearing Country Joe MacDonald’s musical version:

“Oh the wife she tried to tell me that ’twas nothing but the thrumming
Of a woodpecker a-rapping on the hollow of a tree;
And she thought that I was fooling when I said it was the drumming
Of the mustering of legions and ’twas calling unto me;
‘Twas calling me to pull my freight and hop across the sea.

And a-mending of my fish-nets sure I started up in wonder,
For I heard a savage roaring and ’twas coming from afar;
Oh the wife she tried to tell me that ’twas only summer thunder,
And she laughed a bit sarcastic when I told her it was War:
‘Twas the chariots of battle where the mighty armies are.

Then down the lake came Half-breed Tom with russet sail a-flying
And the word he said was ‘War’ again, so what was I to do ?
Oh the dogs they took to howling and the missis took to crying,
As I flung my silver foxes in the little birch canoe;
Yes, the old girl stood a-bubbling till an island hid the view.

Says the factor, ‘Mike, you’re crazy! They have soldier men a-plenty.
You’re as grizzled as a badger and you’re sixty year or so.’
‘But I haven’t missed a scrap,’ says I, ‘Since I was one and twenty.
And shall I miss the biggest ? You can bet your whiskers — no!’
So I sold my furs and started … and that’s eighteen months ago.

For I joined the Foreign Legion and they put me for a starter
In the trenches of the Argonne with the Boche a step away;
And the partner on my right hand was an apache from Montmartre;
And on my left there was a millionaire from Pittsburgh, U.S.A.
(Poor fellow! They collected him in bits the other day.)

Well I’m sprier than a chipmunk, save a touch of the lumbago,
And they calls me Old Methoosalah, and blagues me all the day.
I’m their exhibition sniper and they work me like a Dago,
And laugh to see me plug a Boche a half a mile away.
Oh I hold the highest record in the regiment, they say.

And at night they gather round me, and I tell them of my roaming
In the Country of the Crepuscule beside the Frozen Sea,
Where the musk-ox run unchallenged and the cariboo goes homing;
And they sit like little children, just as quiet as can be:
Men of every clime and color, how they harken unto me!

And I tell them of the Furland, of the tumpline and the paddle,
Of secret rivers loitering, that no one will explore;
And I tell them of the ranges, of the pack-strap and the saddle,
And they fill their pipes in silence, and their eyes beseech for more;
While above the star-shells fizzle and the high explosives roar.

And I tell of lakes fish-haunted where the big bull moose are calling,
And forests still as sepulchers with never trail or track;
And valleys packed with purple gloom, and mountain peaks appalling,
And I tell them of my cabin on the shore at Fond du Lac;
And I find myself a-thinking: Sure I wish that I was back.

So I brag of bear and beaver while the batteries are roaring,
And the fellows on the firing steps are blazing at the foe;
And I yarn a fur and feather when the marmites are a-soaring,
And they listen to my stories, seven poilus in a row,
Seven lean and lousy poilus with their cigarettes aglow.

And I tell them when it’s over how I’ll hike for Athabaska;
And those seven greasy poilus they are crazy to go too.
And I’ll give the wife the ‘pickle-tub’ I promised, and I’ll ask her
The price of mink and marten, and the run of cariboo,
And I’ll get my traps in order, and I’ll start to work anew.

For I’ve had my fill of fighting, and I’ve seen a nation scattered,
And an army swung to slaughter, and a river red with gore,
And a city all a-smolder, and … as if it really mattered,
For the lake is yonder dreaming, and my cabin’s on the shore;
And the dogs are leaping madly, and the wife is singing gladly,
And I’ll rest in Athabaska, and I’ll leave it nevermore,
And I’ll leave it nevermore.”