Writing

TOWARDS THE END of my training at Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, a senior officer addressed our class one morning on the subject of arrogance. He was for it. To be more accurate, he opined that arrogance was a necessary quality in a successful infantry officer. He had a point. When artillery shells are exploding around you and hot lead fills the air, it takes a peculiar form of arrogance to stand up as though you alone know what is to be done and say, “Follow me!” 
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Fortunately, war has a way of winnowing away incompetent officers. Those who lead the troops into battle – as opposed to senior officers who send men into battle – and do it poorly, tend to die first. Unfortunately, war has a way of winnowing away the unlucky ones, too, even though they may be competent.

Writing has its own way of winnowing away authors. Novels fail long before agents, publishers, critics, and the reading public have a crack at them. Those who are not arrogant enough to believe that someone might actually read their stories, simply fail to complete them. It is believed that there may be hundreds, maybe thousands of unfinished stories for every one that is completed and submitted for publication. If so, countless unfinished manuscripts must be collecting dust in every attic and hope chest. 

Some subscribe to the view that manuscripts languish unfinished because of the author's lack of endurance. Granted, writing is hard work. In my life, I have worked at manual labor, as a sailor and as a soldier, as an office worker and a computer programmer, as an artist, and as a writer, and as a business consultant and a teacher. Writing is the most exhausting. Once I unleash the characters in my head they take over the body. Unbound by normal human needs for rest and sustenance, fictional characters can deplete a body's resources with impunity. Indeed, I have, on occasion found myself typing gibberish because my hands have become numb, and my fingers failed to press the keys in response to the commands of my brain. Once, I over-strained my eyes and couldn't look at television, read, or work for three days until colorful geometric shapes stopped dancing in front of my eyes. However, through it all I have completed my novel. So, it would seem that endurance is a necessary quality in a writer, especially one who writes as laboriously as I do.

I've also been blogging. Now, there's a real act of arrogance. I've been adding an average of two postings each week, and people are coming in growing numbers! Are they coming to be entertained? Informed? Annoyed? Who knows, few respond. They simply lurk. I'm not surprised. I lurk on many blogs myself. 

Some may argue that maintaining a blog requires far more arrogance than writing a novel, because a blog is more often than not a fount of opinion. I disagree. Every novel is riddled with opinions or it isn't worth reading. My first novel, Rebels on the Mountain is full of them. In my opinion: (1) Fidel Castro won the revolution in Cuba despite the fact that he was not a very good military leader; (2) people excuse their shortcomings by supposing that all others harbor the same failings; (3) U.S. Leaders are rarely in command of foreign relations – they barely react to them; (4) white Americans have more self-inflicted wounds from racism than they have inflicted on black Americans; (5) Che Guevara was a humorless sociopath who used ideology to camouflage personal vendettas; (6) … need I go on. Why would I write a novel if I didn't have opinions to offer? 

Some argue that arrogance is a personality defect or , worse, a sinful attitude. I argue that little would be accomplished without it. Every great edifice is a monument to man's arrogance. Every great undertaking to cure a disease, conquer a frontier, defeat an aggressor, build an industry, excel in sports or the arts, or lead a nation is the supreme act of an arrogant man or woman. To volunteer in response to any call to action requires the assumption that the individual matters and can make a difference. How does that not fit the definition of arrogance – an attitude of superiority.  
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Enoch Pratt
I grew up in a city that benefited greatly from the arrogance of one man, Enoch Pratt. Surely he was a superior man. The fruits of his industry allowed him to endow the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Shepherd-Pratt Hospital, and the Pratt Institute. Imagine the arrogance of him attaching his name to each of these gifts to the citizens of Baltimore. How many other cities have benefited from the largess of arrogant men such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J.P. Morgan? These are the men who created the supereconomy that catapulted a nation to preeminence in the modern world. Their efforts allow even the poorest Americans to live better than the vast majority of the world's population. They also created libraries, museums, theaters, schools, hospitals, and parks as monuments to their arrogance – monuments that we and our progeny will continue to enjoy for generations to come. 

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to arrogance. It is called hubris. Countless men and women have fallen victim to it. Political leaders, popular icons of the arts, and all others who rise to their positions through popularity without apparent talents and ability to sustain them, are especially vulnerable. The hubris of Adolph Hitler led him to inspire the greatest war of aggression in modern times. The hubris of recent leaders of the U.S. Congress led them to disclaim the Constitution repeatedly in recent sessions to excuse the legislation that they adopted. 

Hubris is particularly virulent when people rise to prominence in one field and then attempt to expand their sphere of influence into areas for which they have no talent or expertise. Elected officials attempting to dictate the minutiae of personal lives when they were chosen to administer governmental operations, and actors becoming proponents of revolutionary ideologies, are two of my favorite examples of applied hubris. As a writer, I must pause to take special note of the L. Ron Hubbard, a pulp fiction author who founded a religion on his science fiction fantasies. Now that's hubris on an epic scale.

Pausing here to reflect, I can imagine the congregants of Scientology accusing me of hubris. It's possible that I am guilty as charged. This whole piece is, after all, simply my opinion and I'm just arrogant enough to post it. 
 
 

Writing

"HOW DO YOU sculpt a horse?” a man asks an artist in an old parable. “It's easy,” the artist is purported to have answered. “Start with a rock and chisel away everything that doesn't look like a horse.” I feel that this is the method I used in writing my first novel, Rebels on the Mountain. During the first two years, I wrote approximately a quarter million words. In the past six months, I have been chiseling away to free the story trapped within all that excess verbiage.  
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Obviously, I'm no Mickey Spillane. In an interview a number of years before his death, I heard him describe his process. He dictated his stories to a stenographer who made fair copies and mailed them to the publisher. He completed the dictation for each story in about a week. Given the fact that I've waited until my sixty-eighth year to create my first novel, I doubt if I have enough time left to live to develop that level of proficiency. Still, I hope to write more than one book. I have two planned for the protagonist, Nick Andrews, who appears in Rebels on the Mountain, as well as one based on my experiences in Vietnam during the war.
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“I'm a commercial writer, not an author. Margaret Mitchell was an author. She wrote one book.” – Mickey Spillane

I might make it. Look at Louis L'Amour. He started writing novels late in life, at about age 40 – still a young man compared to me. Yet, he was able to turn out more than a hundred novels and collections of short stories. I know – I read them all.

Although I have just completed my first novel, I am not a novice to storytelling. I've been writing and telling stories since my late teens. A half of century of writing advertising copy, documentary film and radio scripts, press releases, technical journals, a novella and a computer guide, has given me some facility with the craft. I created short children's stories that I narrated in my daughter's elementary school classes. It wasn't until after I retired from the daily grind of earning a living, that I had time to turn my hand to a novel.

Hopefully, my next novel won't take as long. I believe that I began to discover my voice as a novelist towards the end of writing Rebels on the Mountain. It is a voice planted in my head during my teenage years by the greatest storyteller I ever knew, Dunaway Walker. Dunaway was a teacher of Greek, Latin, and rhetoric at an exclusive prep school for boys in Baltimore. No, I wasn't allowed anywhere near the place – not with my academic record. I met Dunaway at the Baltimore Yacht Club, where he was a member and the Sea Scout group to which I belonged kept their boats.

We cruised the Chesapeake Bay with the yacht club fleet and Dunaway frequently rode with us. His vessel was laid up for repairs just as frequently. During these cruises, the fleet visited other yacht clubs and coastal towns all over the Bay. There usually was a cocktail party and dinner for the yacht club members while the Sea Scouts explored other opportunities for fun and mischief ashore. However, almost every evening ended with Dunaway holding forth in the aft cockpit of one yacht or another while we and the yacht club families sat on the surrounding docks and catwalks being entertained by his stories. His endurance was legendary. He would continue into the wee hours of the morning so long as someone kept his beer refreshed.

During my last year as a youth member of the Sea Scouts, I was the Boatswain – Senior Crew Leader. As such, the duty fell to me to emcee the annual community dinner celebrating the anniversary of Boy Scouting, and to invite a guest speaker. My choice was obvious.

Dunaway enthralled the audience that evening. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Explorer Scouts, and Sea Scouts as well as their parents, grandparents and siblings remained enraptured by his performance from beginning to end. Even the toddlers seemed happy to listen to his sonorous voice though they could not possibly comprehend the content of his tales. One of my greatest regrets is that recording equipment was not as popularly available and portable as it is today. I would love to hear his voice again.

You may well wonder at the connection between the spoken word and the written story. However, that is the connection that I am attempting to forge – that is the voice that I hope to develop as a novelist. Although I don't have recordings of Dunaway Walker's tales, I hope that there is still a strong enough echo of his voice in my head to guide me in this journey. Then, instead of sculpting a tale, I may come to simply tell it.
 
 

Vietnam

IT SEEMED TO ME in the days of the Vietnam War, that those who served were being judged as guilty of fighting an unjust war as well as fighting it unjustly. After all, as Charlotte Keys opined in an article in McCall’s magazine in 1966, Suppose they gave a war and nobody came“There is no moral validity to any part of any law whose purpose is to train people to kill one another.” Therefore, the peace movement argued, the government had no right to indenture its citizens to fight in any war, just or unjust, and those of us who served were immoral. Is this argument valid? 
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Consider the following example: You are threatened by a man with a knife and you have a loaded gun and the knowledge of how to use it. However, your stricture against killing prevents you from defending yourself, and the man takes your life. Have you acted morally? Or, have you abetted the crime of murder in failing to defend yourself when you had the opportunity and the means to do so? Those of us who believe that murder, not killing, is a crime, would defend ourselves with whatever means and opportunity available to us. Failure to do so is considered suicide.

States are nothing more than aggregations of individuals and, as such, have the same moral rights and obligations as individuals. International law agrees that the head of state – the President, in the case of the United States – has the right and obligation to protect the lives and property of his citizens wherever they may happen to be in the world. Indeed, heads of state may act to provide such protections without declaring war. In fact, such acts are not considered to be war.

Thus, if the state has the same right to self-protection as do individuals, do the individuals have the right to empower the state to indenture them in service to kill? Simply, yes. “We the people” surrendered a portion of our individual rights to form a government for the purpose of “providing for the common defense.” We gave them that right “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” We surrendered our right to refuse such service so that we could survive both individually and as a nation.

Well, we were called and most of us went. Some went more readily than others. We went happily in the early days of the war, prepared to hold the line on Communism. Later, when American resolve began to flag, we went reluctantly. Still, most of us answered the call. Others, like Mrs. Keys' son either went to Canada or went to jail. Interestingly, these latter citizens had alternative forms of service available to them as conscientious objectors, but some refused to serve even in this limited capacity. They preferred to enjoy their liberty without making the sacrifice. Even worse, they damned those who made the sacrifice on their behalf. Theirs was hubris of epic proportions.
 
 

Cuba

DON'T GO RACING for your passports yet, but restrictions on travel to Cuba have been eased, a little. Permission will be granted in certain narrow circumstances: travel for medical or agricultural business sectors, or education and religious purposes may be allowed. More importantly, you be able to fly there directly from New Orleans International Airport. It's not much, but it's a crack in the wall.
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For me, it's time to get the book ready for publication. No more fussing with the details. That's the problem with perfectionists. It's never good enough. That's the way I've always been with writing projects. I just won't let them go until someone drags them out of my hands. Well, someone has gotten a good hold and is dragging this one away.
I'm guessing that any major change in U.S.-Cuban relations will have a marketing impact on Rebels on the Mountain. I have dreams of people reading it while sitting on the beaches in Cuba or cruising the Caribbean just as they read Michener's Hawaii on the beaches of Waikiki.

I've promised the publisher that I'll have the manuscript in his hands next week. Of course, if it isn't there, I'll blame the delay on my wife. She's now editing it.
 
 

Vietnam

JUST AND UNJUST Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations was written by Michael Walzer, a peace activist during the 1960s. I recommend it highly because it is the perfect foil to my assertions in this blog, that the War in Vietnam was misjudged by the people like the good professor – well-intentioned people intellectualizing away the fundamental truths about humanity to create a moral construct that has no application in reality. Unfortunately, when they prevail, as they did in concluding America's involvement in Vietnam with an ignoble retreat, people suffer and we learn that the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.
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I invite you to join me reading Professor Walzer's opinions and, hopefully, we will better understand war and peace. There are choices to be made and we should arm ourselves with truth so that we are better able to make the correct ones. How much wisdom is to be found in his book? We will see.

The Issues

In his preamble to Just and Unjust Wars, Professor Walzer enumerates five central issues:

  1. “What is the value of sovereignty and territorial integrity to the men and women who live with a particular state's territory?

  2. “How much killing is 'systematic killing'?

  3. “If a war is justified, who should fight it?

  4. “If a state or group of states (or the United Nations decides to intervene how should the intervention be conducted?

  5. “In planning and conducting the intervention, what kind of peace should the invading forces seek?”

I propose to review Professor's Walzer's commentary on each of these issues in succeeding postings to this blog. 

Idiot's Guide to Arguing

Before we begin, I think that it would be instructive to look at his basic premise. Walzer tells us, “I want to account for the ways in which men and women who are not lawyers but simply citizens (and sometimes soldiers) argue about war, and to expound the terms we commonly use.” This is a most ambitious goal. Despite the fact that I debated in college and was trained in the art of legal arguments, I have had little success arguing with anyone throughout my 68 years.

Also, I can't wait to see how the professor intends to expound on the terms we commonly use in arguing about war. However, I must admit to a certain admiration for Professor Walzer's strategy. After all, he who defines the terms controls the debate. 

Ex Post Facto

For me, Professor Walzer's most illuminating premise is when he talks of crimes, he is “describing violations of general principles or of the particular code: so men and women can be called criminals even when they cannot be charged before a legal tribunal.” That explains why Vietnam veterans were treated as criminals even though they had not committed any crime, why we were prisoners in our own homes and communities, why we were excoriated and assaulted relentlessly. I believed for many years that we were all being tarred with the same brush wielded against those who actually committed actionable crimes in the combat theater. Now I learn from Professor Walzer that we were guilty of acts that the peaceniks felt ought to be crimes. They felt that we ought to be punished and they were more than happy to provide the punishment. Their judgment went beyond the principle that a person could not be charged with a crime ex post facto – one that was declared criminal after the act was committed. They felt we could be charged with a crime even though the act was criminal in their opinion only.

Let me state emphatically that I would fight to the death to defend Professor Walzer's right to his opinions. I may even agree with him on many points – as may yet be seen in succeeding postings on this subject. However, I vehemently oppose anyone's right to inflict their opinions upon another as the peace activists of that era assailed us.

This should be interesting... 
 
 

Sea Scouts

"WHAT DO YOU call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who only speaks one language? An American.” – Yes, it's an old joke, but a very real problem as I wrote Rebels on the Mountain.

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... as a fourteen year-old Sea Scout, I participated in a demonstration of language training techniques being developed by the Army Spy School at Fort Holabird, Maryland. I was one of a group of Boy Scouts who were taught the rudiments of Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Persian, then tested. Military intelligence services needed foreign language experts and were vastly disappointed in the products of the American school system. I can relate.

I studied Spanish in high school for three years. (Okay, so I failed the first year – another of my battles with teachers.) Basically, I don't believe that any of my teachers had ever so much as visited a Spanish-speaking country. Although their command of the language was academically correct, I came to learn that they had no understanding of the idioms used in any country.

My first job after graduating from high school (yes, I really graduated – no one wanted to take a chance on having me in their classes another year), was as a laborer where I worked with two other college hopefuls, one from Ecuador and the other from Guatemala. They laughed when I attempted my high school Spanish on them, and spent that summer teaching me how to speak correctly. They immersed me in Spanish, refusing to speak in any other language.

During that summer, the new dictator of Cuba, Fidel Castro, made frequent appearances in American television and I attempted to listen past the translator to see if I could understand him. I couldn't. My friends at work explained that Cubano was nothing like the Spanish they spoke. Not only was his speech more rapid than theirs, but also, he used different idioms. I have often wondered through the years what they would have thought of my Spanish had I been allowed to cruise to Cuba when the opportunity presented itself the previous summer, and had I learned Spanish there. Imagine what my Spanish teacher would have thought!

Ultimately, the experiment at Fort Holabird was another failure. It took a few more years for the Army to figure out the system my friends used that summer – total immersion. The Defense Language School at Monterrey has employed that system far more successfully than any other in teaching languages. Interestingly, my eldest son became a military intelligence linguist. He not only attended the Defense Language School, but also, has taught there.

Note: Can you pick out the author in the photo above clipped from a 1958 edition of the Baltimore Sun? I'm the only one in a Sea Scout uniform.  
 
 

Cuba

AS I RESEARCHED Cuba in preparation of writing Rebels on the Mountain, I was reminded of the general lack of interest in Latin America evinced among Americans. Indeed, had I not studied Spanish in high school, I expect that the area south of the United States would have remained terra incognita to me. I suspect that my lack of knowledge was not unusual among my countrymen except for those of Hispanic origins. The lack of congeniality between North America and its Latin neighbors attests to a similar ignorance among those representing the United States, especially the U.S. State Department.
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Disinterest in Latin America does not appear to have historical precedent. One of America's earliest foreign policy statements, the Monroe Doctrine, established the premise that the United States had vital interests in all of the Americas and that it would consider any further attempt to colonize in the Western Hemisphere an act of aggression. 

Cuba, especially, has been on the American mind ever since the United States came into existence. References to it frequently appear in the writings of our founders. Not only was the island nation considered a valuable piece of real estate sitting on the front porch of North America, but also, it had great strategic value. Just as England served as the staging point for the invasion of Western Europe during World War II, Cuba is perfectly situated to support an attack on America's underbelly. Indeed, one is tempted to think our founding fathers prescient – could they have foreseen the island's strategic importance as a base for offensive missiles? 

Unfortunately, Anglo prejudices of racial and cultural superiority, especially vis-à-vis Hispanics and native American populations, has precluded congenial relations with Latin American nations in general. Its prejudices vis-à-vis those of African extraction has had an even more detrimental effect on relations with the Caribbean nations, especially Cuba, inasmuch as most of the population there has at least some black African ancestry. For example, Washington and Adams feared that Cuban independence would have a significant impact on the slave owning colonies of the American south, and they discouraged any such insurrection on the island. In the late 19th Century, an American army, including Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, usurped a native victory over the Spanish, believing that the Cubans were incapable of governing themselves. Then, in the mid 20th Century, as America wrestled with its own demons of racial bigotry and discrimination, Castro rose to lead a successful revolution against the puppet of American businessmen and mafioso who used their influence in Washington to insure continued support for their puppet Presidente, Fulgencio Batista. They seemed convinced that the corrupt dictator, himself a mulato, was easily managed and could help insure that the status quo would be maintained and their profit streams would continue uninterrupted. 

Thus, in writing Rebels on the Mountain, I had to confront these prejudices head on. It seemed to me that placing my protagonist in an interracial romance and marriage was the best literary device for accomplishing this.
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Once upon a time, long ago, as a high school junior, I had the temerity to write an essay advocating the mongrelization of the races as a method of alleviating the pressures that led people to war. Actually, I not only proposed racial intermarriage, but also, intermarriage of people of different faiths and nationalities. I left no stone unturned in my proposal to create a new world order in which all people would be denied any source of social affront. In truth, I didn't use the word “mongrelization.” I wasn't aware that was the term that the Ku Klux Klan applied to my great idea long before I thought of it. Of course, they were adverse to mongrelization and would harry interracial couples mercilessly. Imagine, then, the reception I received when my 11th grade history teacher had me read my essay wherein I announced my proposal for an internationally accepted and enforced law that no two persons of the same race, religion, or nationality would be permitted to marry and bear children.

It was, of course, a childish idea, but the brouhaha that followed was not quickly forgotten or forgiven. My father was especially upset with me. 

Younger readers of Rebels on the Mountain may not get it – what is the big deal about interracial couples? Well, it was a very big deal in the mid 20th Century. Such couples were not tolerated anywhere in the United States, especially in the American South. I remember a young soldier from the church where my family worshiped, who returned from Japan with a war bride. They were fairly ostracized from the congregation though no overt harm was done. Had he returned with a black bride, I am not certain that they would have dared showed themselves in the church. Remember, we're talking about a church in Baltimore – not the deep South, but Maryland was a slave-owning, plantation state in its early history.

Interestingly, Fidel Castro and his most infamous commandante, Che Guevara, had no black African ancestry. However, they were idolized by their followers who were mostly black or mulato.They were well educated in a land of the illiterate. Both came from privileged families in a land of poverty. I worried over this relationship greatly while both researching and writing Rebels on the Mountain. In the end, I could find no definitive answer and had to speculate. What was the source of the visceral connection between Castro and the Cuban people that allowed him to succeed so quickly and completely?