Dona Nobis Pacem: Stephen Crane’s War Is Kind

–Introduction to 7 October 2016 Podcast–

This week we continue our exploration of war poetry en route to the November elections as a kind of active debamboozling of the individual mind away from our barbaric and apish instincts to conquer and coerce (mislabeled as flag-waving “patriotism”) and towards a recognition of our common humanity and our distinct American ideals—the legacy of non-intervention in foreign affairs.

Where large democratic societies exist, the word “conspiracy” has a half-life of about forty years before “conspiracy” destructs, evidence is revealed, secrets are leaked, official stories implode, responsible parties die off, documents are declassified, and conspiracy transitions into “historical truth.” Though not a conspiracy theorist, I am a full-on skeptic where it concerns government reporting and intelligence releases. One has no other choice under an imperial regime, shifting by turns between fascism and socialism, than to adopt such a stance when faced with citations from the press departments of the “Leaders of the Free World.” Government reports are ad hockeries intended for pacification of the masses in times of turmoil, which buys the State time to engineer new stories. These reports are not evidence of thorough investigations aiming at truth and revelation, since there are people to protect, jobs to secure, records to redact, and secrets to secret away in State Department vaults.

I am reminded of other historical conspiracies later revealed as historical truths by the recent declassification of the 28 pages from the original 9/11 intelligence reports, which were finally revealed after much protest by libertarians on 15 July 2016. In these recently released 28 pages, we discovered the depth of Saudi Arabia’s complicity in funding and abetting the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, tying the terrorists directly to Saudi intelligence and the royal family—chief American allies in the Middle East and the War on Terror, irony of all ironies. Disinformation, peddled with blatant misinformation in the fog of war, has led us into a willful destruction of the Middle East first under the Bushes, and secondly—as we now know, in large part thanks to intelligence defectors now libeled as traitors (viz. Wikileaks)—under the bloody reign of terror prosecuted by Obama and his bloodthirsty Secretary of State, who unleashed chaos in Libya and Syria, and peddled arms to the most significant forces of terrorism now plaguing the free and unfree worlds.

I begin today’s podcast in this strange, roundabout way, since the age of American interventionism in foreign affairs was born shrouded in conspiracy; and the same format for intervention, centered upon sinking ships and tangled foreign alliances, repeats as a refrain throughout the Twentieth Century. And in order to understand today’s readings from Stephen Crane’s War Is Kind, we must first understand something of the backdrop in which it appeared.

In 1896, America had just recently emerged from a fiery presidential election between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, which was an election centered primarily upon monetary policy—a concept foreign to our post-Nixonian era where we no longer think in coins and metals, but in fiat paper currencies and government debts . Throughout that turbulent election, the Cuban revolution was in full sway between Cuban revolutionaries looking for independence from colonial rule and their imperial Spanish overlords. There were telling rumors of discontent with America’s longstanding policy of neutrality and independence from interventionist foreign wars rumbling throughout the country. Many Americans had business investments in Cuba, and on both sides of the rebellion; and these interests manifested in discordant pleas for intervention on behalf of the poor revolutionaries or restraint from intervention in order to protect the Spanish system that previously existed in Cuba. The plea was for military might to stir up the market or pacify the rebellion in order to do what free trade could not do by abstention from aggression and coercion.

Amidst the conflicts, the Cubans were looking for a way to capitalize upon America’s inherent sympathy for the “little guy” and they sought a means to cause American investors in Cuban trade to pressure the government into siding with the Cuban revolutionaries. After McKinley defeated Bryan, and the republican (and originally non-interventionist) McKinley assumed office, popular agitation for the Spanish-American War kicked into full gear. McKinley remained dedicated to a non-interventionist stance for a good while, even as the progressive cry for war arose as a political power within his own administration with the likes of the irascible Teddy Roosevelt, who was at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Then the perfect excuse for intervention was provided as a reaction to the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor off the coast of Cuba on 15 February 1898.

Irresponsible and hawkish agents in the press spread wild speculation that the ever-villainous Spanish Catholics had torpedoed the USS Maine, despite the fact that Spain had no reason whatsoever to tempt America into joining the conflict between the empire and its rebels. If anything, nothing would so have upset Spain’s attempt to liberalize its imperial stance than third-party intervention. However, this was the high age of the yellow press; a populist press given to wild speculation, irresponsible headlines, and shoddy fact-gathering. This was a press that was a direct forebear to our contemporary national cable media and cheap online purveyors of clickbait under scare-mongering, sensationalized headlines. Nothing has ever been so profitable for the Press as a good war; and newspapermen were champing at the bit to send America off to Cuba for its first primetime imperial action. The yellow press was a press that was not, perhaps, far outside the norm of local American news making, except that the sensationalism and pettiness characteristic of local newspapers was now internationalized, now spurred onward by imperial hopes, and now burned fiery hot for some great war to break the peace of the times and to scatter the world’s tyrants with entry of a new Jacobinical order. The information war waged most violently between William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, both of which were committed to intervention abroad and direct confrontation with the decrepit Spanish empire.

Political parties, and particularly the Democrats, switched quickly into military mode as a reaction to the alleged attack upon its naval vessel, and most especially after an American investigation into the ship’s sinking contradicted a Spanish report faulting an internal explosion and found that the explosion had come from without the ship, probably from a mine. Conspiracy theories abound upon this subject and studied, scientific investigations differ in attributing causation even to this day. The anticapitalistic and anti-economic Cuban counterrevolutionaries in 1961 tore down parts of the official monument to the USS Maine in Havana during their regression into socialistic serfdom, and added the following inscription to fuel to the conspiracies of the Marxist conquistadors: “To the victims of the Maine who were sacrificed by the imperialist voracity and their desire to gain control of the island of Cuba.” According to Castro’s devoted bowdlerizers of history, the sinking of the USS Maine was an inside job, engineered by the U.S. government to allow America an inroad into the conquest and possession of Cuba. Half of that equation was somewhat correct; though the original impetus to war was largely little more than a bellicosity and public impatience with free trade–the restive spirit for a fight and self-pleasing virtue signalling of American exceptionalism now granted funding by McKinley’s protective tariff hikes. In 1974 Admiral Hyman G. Rickover completed the first comprehensive audit of the evidence in favor of an alternate version of the sinking of the Maine from what the military originally provided in 1898 and the second decade of the Twentieth Century. Rickover concluded that the explosion was likely the result of the ship’s reliance upon bituminous coal, which releases combustible gases, and that a spontaneous combustion resulting from the ignition of those gases likely led to an explosion when a fire reached the ship’s munition storage, which was placed directly below the crew’s quarters. The sinking of the Maine was the key event—though not the final catalyst– that swung Congress into action to greenlight the war against Spain in Cuba, where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders of San Juan Hill rode into action.

A young Winston Churchill, as Christopher Hitchens wrote in Blood, Class, and Empire, got his first taste of giant democracies thirsting for war on the Cuban theater of war; and an ailing Stephen Crane, stricken with tuberculosis, found himself one of America’s top paid journalists, reporting candidly upon the wars progress while traveling amongst the soldiers in Cuba, looking for the next column to earn his daily bread. At the age of twenty-one, Churchill found himself in Cuba, and not a little unlike a younger, foolhardy George Washington during the French and Indian Wars, exhilarated in the fact that he “on that day for the first time…heard shots fired in anger, and heard bullets strike flesh or whistle through the air.”1

It is ironic that in 1974 we would find that one of the first expansionist and imperial wars that roused a relatively peaceful and non-interventionist American republic (though prone to internal strife) was likely based on misinformation and probable disinformation. For only 12 years earlier, in the Gulf of Tonkin, just off of the coast of North Vietnam and within the waters that the country claimed as its own, it was reported that two violent run-ins with North Vietnamese vessels had resulted in a deadly confrontation. On 2 August, 1964, the USS Maddox fired three warning shots at North Vietnamese torpedo vessels approximately 8 miles from the shore before, reportedly, the Vietnamese vessels attacked with torpedoes. The Maddox returned fire, damaging the attacking vessels and killing about four Vietnamese sailors. The Maddox reportedly suffered only a single, insignificant bullet-hole in the side of the vessel, having successfully maneuvered around the torpedoes. The second run-in involving the Maddox with Vietnamese vessels, which sparked a response from the American government, occurred two days later. During rough seas and bad weather, the Maddox fired torpedoes at what appeared to be two approaching vessels—seen only via radar—and reported sinking them both, but without visual confirmation of either the actual ships or their sinking. That same day, it was reported by the National Security Agency that another sea battle occurred between North Vietnamese vessels and American forces. Within thirty minutes of the second skirmish with the North Vietnamese, LBJ declared his intention to retaliate. Congress backed his response. It is telling that only after the second encounter that Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to allow the ever-conspiring LBJ to move forward with anti-communist military actions in Southeast Asia, opening a path to the Vietnam War.

Much later, evidence was found that these ships fired on the second encounter were actually “Tonkin Ghosts”—or radar blips, and not actual ships—that evidenced no such confrontation had ever taken place on the 4th of August. Some even deny that the first encounter ever took place. In a 2003 documentary (The Fog of War), the Secretary of Defense at that crucial time during the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, Robert McNamara, confirmed that the first run-in with North Vietnamese vessels had sparked no response from the Defense Department. The Vietnam War was launched in the fog of war, where misinformation and disinformation blended to bring to bear upon the world’s stage bad actors dressed in patriotic outrage, prosecuting vengeance for phantom offenses, uncaring as to the truth behind the allegations and to the viability of the proposed resolutions. The Tonkin resolution begat a new legacy of declaration of open and idealistic war—war without a particular target but the ideas in the mind—that was to plague America for half of a century going forward. A regrettable legacy we see revived again in our own age’s War on Terror—another vague, shifting, borderless, Orwellian, objectiveless war on ideas and facts with which the yellow press is complicit in poisoning the stream of information between bad actors (the State) and the people at home and abroad oppressed by their high-minded overlords.

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Stephen Crane was born in 1871, and he lived a brief and prolific 29 years before succumbing to tuberculosis during this age of American imperialism. He is most remembered for The Red Badge of Courage and a short story (“The Open Boat”) recounting the thirty hours he spent adrift in a lifeboat when he abandoned ship en route to Cuba after his ship, the USS Commodore, struck a sandbar off the coast of Florida and sank. During the Spanish-American War, Crane was employed as a journalist first for Blackwood’s Magazine to cover the preparations for war from Cuba, and afterwards sent stories and sketches back home for the chief papers of the yellow press: Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and later William Randolph Hurst’s New York Journal.

Crane’s personal opinion with regard to the war rebounded between a boyish fascination with battle and his rational terror of the new era of massive guns and munitions. As Willa Cather later recalled, Crane revealed to her that he “led a double literary life; writing in the first place the matter that pleased himself, and doing it very slowly; in the second place, any sort of stuff that would sell.”2 It seems that his poetry, dark, cynical, brooding, wistful, and hopeful by turns, was that which pleased him most and developed slowly—only finding publication as he neared the end of his short life.

In 1899, months before his death, Crane published his poetic reflections upon war in a small book of poetry entitled War is Kind, which contains the eponymous poem and other poetic reflections upon war and death, most of which go without title. Crane generally wrote in free verse without any structural features. War is Kind is a collection of poems that has not earned its due diligence amongst critics. It is, perhaps, too caustic. It is difficult to reconcile Crane’s employments as a yellow journalist, not quite anti-war in character and sometimes praising the “heroic” character of the fearless Rough Riders, with the tone of his poetry, which is incredibly cynical. The volume is largely neglected, perhaps, because it is too inflammatory; too much outside of Crane’s prose character; too much a relic of the days in which Americans like Mark Twain viewed foreign intervention by America (now, the Leader of the Free World) as a great social evil where the Philippine-American war quickly turned popular opinion against foreign entanglements regardless of high-minded intentions to free the world from slavery and oppression; too much a product of the times when dark tales of American impropriety in the East sullied the romantic picture of the casualty-light ten months in Cuba; too much a reminder of a time when anti-Imperial leagues were more than rhetorical virtue signals—when the people understood that America’s destiny was internal greatness and peace through commerce, and that the world outside was a vast wasteland of terrible ideals, bad principles, bad governments, shiftless alliances, bloodthirsty “democratickal gentlemen,” and bloody tyrants. America had no business consorting with such ilk in any governmental capacity; for the same imperial legacy would turn America’s attention from the romantic picture of the Cuban liberation to the Moro Crater Massacre only 6 years later in the Philippines, when American troops squared off against disparate Muslim peoples who had fled their villages to erect a stronghold in an extinct volcanic crater to evade the rule imposed by their new American governor—a veteran of the Spanish-American War. The crater had served the Moro people as a traditional refuge when prior Spanish oppression had been too extreme to weather in the villages. There, within that blasted crater, 750 American troops killed between 800 and a thousand Tausug villagers, with only six Moro tribesmen reportedly surviving the fray.

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An infamous photo appeared in the newspapers back in America; a photo of American troops posing over a hillside and a crater heaped with Moro dead—amongst whom numbered a great many women and children. The impact back home was felt immediately; the news confirmed that anxious prickling of the conscience that even the Jacobinical imperialists looking to evangelize democracy and freedom had feared would result from foreign entanglements: that pessimistic truth that no people can be liberated but that they liberate themselves and prep themselves to maintain that liberty with a culture that prides itself on private property and economic freedom; that timeless truth that no free people can bully natives into civilization without breeding resentment at the bullying as tyranny, regardless of the motivation; that civilization is hard-won, and that free peoples must take care first to live as exemplars, and not to make examples of others. The dark side of America’s imperial endeavors warranted a resurgence of criticism of the Treaty of Paris struck at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War—the very treaty that had ceded the Philippines to the care of the United States.

I have always viewed Crane’s War is Kind as a seamless whole, and not as a bunch of lines tagged onto the title poem; a kind of deep, ironic, sarcastic, soul-plumbing, stream-of-consciousness exploration of war from the dispassionate third-party viewpoint not swept up by sentimental views of a fatherland; a viewpoint tempered by a man whose job it was to sift facts from fictions, events from non-events, and humanity from overly patriotic sentiments—and to make it entertaining. At times parable, at other times caustic—these reflections are mementos of Crane’s views on purposeless wars, executed for national prestige and “fetless” romanticism in the fog of war by a network of conspirators, romantic youths, and unprincipled statesmen. The poems are the passionate expression of ideals and ideas that were notably absent from Crane’s newspaper articles in the yellow press. They are evidence of Crane’s double literary life; his brooding alter-ego, which felt much more than his cold personality sometimes conveyed to his acquaintances.

We find, perhaps, the perfect portrait of the Spanish-American War. And we find, in its utter darkness, cynicism, and pessimism the darkening horizon of the new American enterprise—the vast American Peril that came to define the Twentieth Century—arriving with news of the cruelties and injustices visited upon the tribes of the Philippines, who bucked at American overrule, though not themselves an admirable or freedom-loving people. Crane died of tuberculosis before the Moro Crater Massacre; but he wrote as if he could see intimations of that horror awakening from abroad.

In this collection of nameless poems, we find candid men beating skeptics over the head with wooden rods; arrogant, self-important statesmen standing upon a pile of skulls and dead children, declaiming how virtuous they are in defending decency while pursuing war for its own enjoyment in killing; a world in which newspapers, coming of age in the era of the partisan yellow press divorced from skepticism and truth, are a game; a game played for the benefit powerful men (a crash of flunkeys steeped in million-dollar deals, prosecuting war for profit) and the easily-duped readers back home, who are content to seek enjoyment in the warring of newspapermen peddling disinformation as if they were disputing over the artfulness of rival works of fiction; a wayfarer looking at a path lined with barbs and blades, and reflecting with—what in our own age seems something outside of common sense—the sensibility to determine that, “Doubtless there are other roads.” And nearing the close of the collection, we are treated to a parable of flowers, where only the strong are justified for their co-optation of resources by military might, grabbing up the “waste spaces” of the earth in lustful flower-grabs, rather than pursuing free trade through peaceful exchange. And we see a child, a would-be tutor, outraged by this universal norm of brutish imperialism, reflecting after reproach by his stately mentor that only the strong should prevail that, “the stars are unseated by this towering wisdom.” Indeed, the stars were unseated, as America entered into the Twentieth Century to the peril of its past with a new central bank, a new moneyed elite, and the rise of the military-industrial complex, fresh on the heels of America’s first anti-imperial resurgence. The moneyed elite had had to find a way to circumvent the people’s disgust with the new international American State; they’d had to entrench their interests in banking and finance as public institutions through the erection of central banks and paper monies established by law, fed by the income tax, propped by monopoly patent, prepped for more conspiracy, bad actors, and fruitless European wars—which only bred more wars in the negotiations reached by one-sided treaties and armistices.

The Constitution had to be reformed and amended to bring to bear its hybrid, paradoxical form of limited local government and international socialism illimited; our unique brand of American fascism.

We have much to learn by reflection; by dwelling in the spaces between Crane’s poems. His is a poetic debamboozling of the intellect most needed today; in an age riven by disinformation peddled by an all-powerful, all-consuming global media that is the triumph of the yellow press; in an age where war profiteers commandeer the State at nearly every level and pursue international alliances, rather than retreating back to local governance; where the Deep State is too entrenched to prejudice the people away from the military-industrial complex’s feeding trough and the socialistic minions that secure their grip upon human society; where bad actors in the State Department are applauded for their “experience” (all of it inhuman, cruel, corrupt, and bad), and are ushered to the highest offices in America to continue their legacy of bad acting. Where all-powerful states no longer prosecute the massacres all by themselves, but instead prefer to arm feuding tribes and to turn them against one another to secure American interests, which are in the interest of nobody but the powerful elites in government and their wealthy donors.

In the second part of today’s podcast, we will encounter yet another international conspiracy involving the same players, an older Winston Churchill and a conflicted William Jennings Bryan, in a new but strangely familiar imperial saga under the new Progressive presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Churchill and Bryan were men tested by America’s first imperial war for moneyed elites in Cuba, but found themselves divided by the more recent heart-rending conspiracy of international interests centered around the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. History seems to have looped in only the most disheartening way, and the lessons of old were not learned. Woodrow Wilson’s recent erection of a central banking cartel and the enshrinement of the federal income tax (16th Amendment) in 1913—the fulfillment of two key Communist Manifesto planks (the 2nd & 5th)—had been achieved, and American government was changed, changed utterly for the worse. But I shall leave further word of that heartbreaking incident until after our brief intermission.

1 Hitchens, Christopher. Blood, Class, and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship. Nation Books: New York, 2004. 187.

2 Cather, Willa. “The Stephen Crane I knew.”

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