Hopeless But Optimistic

Last summer I took my God Daughter to see Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot (not even knowing that the words were G.I. code for “What The F. . .”.) I figured Tina Fey would be funny and I would be interested in whatever the movie said that sounded real about Afghanistan, while my God Daughter would like the humor and the explosions. Turned out we both liked the movie – it seemed to me a brutally honest and insightful portrayal of what’s going on there, and plenty of laughs and explosions were worked into the credible plot.

A month or so later I read a book that also seemed like an honest and insightful portrayal of our effort in Afghanistan, with the ironic title Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying Through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan by a journalist who had recently been embedded with the troops there for the second time. I asked the author, Douglas Wissing, if he felt the WTF movie was a good reflection of that complex scene and he said he indeed thought it was.

Wissing came on my WFYI – (PBS) radio show in Indianapolis, “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour,” to talk with me and my Co-Host, Will Higgins of The Indianapolis Star, about “Writing from Dangerous Places.” (Will had written from Iraq a few years ago, I had written from Israel and Jordan in 1956.) It turns out that Higgins had offered to loan Wissing his body armor when he went on his first tour to Afghanistan, but Doug has a larger frame than Will and it didn’t fit. I learned that all reporters going to our Middle East wars are required to have body armor, which costs about $250 and feels like it weighs a ton (I tried it on and almost sank to the floor.)

After reading the personal, up-close account of politics, battles, American soldiers and Afghanistan citizens in Wissing’s book, I could easily understand the “Hopeless” part of the title, but it was difficult to discern the “Optimistic” aspect. As best as I could judge, the greatest optimism expressed by the people of Afghanistan was that the American troops would soon be leaving.  That was also the most cause of optimism among the troops.

An anecdote Wissing shared on the radio show seemed to sum up the irony of even our efforts to understand what’s happening in Afghanistan. Both Higgins and Wissing remarked on how well fed – maybe even over-fed – the G.I.s were in these foreign wars. Both remarked that they had gained weight on their tours of reporting duty from the good and plentiful food the troops were served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an effort to capture the feelings of soldiers, Wissing noted graffiti on the walls of latrines in G.I. camps. He recorded in his journal one chilling message scrawled in an army latrine: “I am going to die.” Returning to the men’s room in that same camp a few months later, he looked again for that haunting message, and this time he realized he hadn’t seen all the letters in the final word. On closer examination, he saw that the message said “I am going to diet.”

Some die, some diet, some are wounded in body and mind and soul. The main source of optimism I found in Wissing’s thorough and engrossing first-hand report was the hope that our seemingly endless war in Afghanistan war might finally end.

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A Book for Our Times!

April Smith, accomplished novelist and TV screenwriter, has published a new novel that is unsettlingly relevant for our time. Home Sweet Home (Knopf) tells the story of suspicion leading to tragedy in the era when Senator Joe McCarthy was spreading fear of Communists in our midst. A family of liberal Democrats from New York go west in hopes of getting a new start in a place of wide open spaces and friendly, supportive neighbors who respect the old values of hard work and honest dealings. They pick a town in South Dakota because the father’s old Air Force buddy lives there and will help them get started. Things go sour when it turns out the old Air Force buddy has lied to the locals, puffing up his war stories to sound more heroic, and the newcomer calls him out.

A dark stain of mutual distrust runs through the story of newcomers from a different background making a success of their lives in the new landscape, and the family is smeared as “Reds.” Showing how prejudice and hatred can be carried down through successive generations, it is the family of the children who are senselessly murdered. The novel was inspired by a true to life case of the “Red Scare” era of the 1950s.

As passions mount and divisive politics trouble our own time, this book is a dramatic warning of what can come of overly-aroused feelings on sensitive national issues. Simplistic labels that denigrate whole categories of humans – not only based on skin color and ethnicity, but even because of political beliefs, can lead to personal tragedy and national disgrace. This novel is a family story, a mystery, and a warning.

– Dan Wakefield

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A Memory of The Emmett Till Murder Trial

51omoemumsl-_sx331_bo1204203200_A new book, EMMETT TILL: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled The Civil Rights Movement, by Devery S. Anderson, is the best and most complete account of the harrowing story. The author called me several years ago while doing research for the book and apologized: “I’m sure you get a lot of calls and emails about this, and I’m sorry to bother you, but you are the only one who was at the trial who is still alive.” I was twenty-three when I went to the Mississippi Delta and covered the trial for The Nation magazine. I had no idea that the story would  become so relevant more than sixty years later that three movies, as well as a spate of new books on the trial, are being produced.

I was sent by The Nation magazine to cover the Emmett Till Murder trial in Mississippi in September of 1955.  It was the first major “race” story after the Supreme Court Decision banning desegregation in the schools, and reporters from all over the world were there. The trial lasted one week, and it only took the all-white jury an hour and seven minutes to decide the “not guilty” verdict that was a foregone conclusion.  Reporters heard later that the reason it took so long was that the jurors had a hard time figuring out how to complete the form that gave their decision to the judge. The last lawyer summed up his case for the defense by announcing his faith that “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you men in this jury has the courage to set these men free.”The two Anglo-Saxon men charged with murder had come at night to the house of Moses Wright, asking for “the boy from Chicago” who had violated local standards by whistling at a white woman.  The body of that boy – fourteen-year-old Emmett Till – was found in the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. He was tortured before he was killed. I summed up the aftermath of the trial in the first sentence of my story:

14emmetttillbefore_2534273093The two Anglo-Saxon men charged with murder had come at night to the house of Moses Wright, asking for “the boy from Chicago” who had violated local standards by whistling at a white woman.  The body of that boy – fourteen-year-old Emmett Till – was found in the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. He was tortured before he was killed. I summed up the aftermath of the trial in the first sentence of my story:“The crowds are gone and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”

“The crowds are gone and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”A crowd was gathered on the lawn outside the courthouse during the trial, and the crowd itself was segregated. There was a Princeton student from Mississippi who was defending his state from the negative attention it was getting in the press. He said the image of Mississippi as an exotic place that seemed full of bizarre characters and dark doings, was merely fictional, expressed in the imaginative writing of William Faulkner, who was born and lived most of his life in the nearby town of Oxford. Lowering his voice, as if to explain the reason for what he felt was the novelist’s distorted vision, the student said “Mr. Faulkner, he drinks a good deal.”

tillmurdertrial1A crowd was gathered on the lawn outside the courthouse during the trial, and the crowd itself was segregated. There was a Princeton student from Mississippi who was defending his state from the negative attention it was getting in the press. He said the image of Mississippi as an exotic place that seemed full of bizarre characters and dark doings, was merely fictional, expressed in the imaginative writing of William Faulkner, who was born and lived most of his life in the nearby town of Oxford. Lowering his voice, as if to explain the reason for what he felt was the novelist’s distorted vision, the student said “Mr. Faulkner, he drinks a good deal.” This “explanation” seemed as bizarre as everything that happened that week. In some tragic way that trial, with the white perpetrators set free, seems doomed to be repeated in different guises in different parts of the country, decade after decade, year after year, like a national nightmare from which we can never seem finally to wake.  It’s been a long time since New Yorkers and others up north could smugly blame the South for being the exclusive province of prejudice. Hate, fear, and bigotry have no boundaries.

This “explanation” seemed as bizarre as everything that happened that week. In some tragic way that trial, with the white perpetrators set free, seems doomed to be repeated in different guises in different parts of the country, decade after decade, year after year, like a national nightmare from which we can never seem finally to wake.  It’s been a long time since New Yorkers and others up north could smugly blame the South for being the exclusive province of prejudice. Hate, fear, and bigotry have no boundaries.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield