— Dedicated to the Victims of Vicksburg —
“It’s not that there must be art even in war, ladies and gentlemen; rather there must be art especially in war, for it is while we are at war that we most need to remember our humanity.” — Art Historian and WWII Veteran Peter W. Guenther, 1920 – 2005
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As my regular readers already know, I believe that weather has become a weapon of warfare, which is being waged against my beloved South like another Northern invasion. The headlines today could be mistaken for those of the Civil War and its aftermath:
Mississippi River Shut!
New Orleans Threatened!
South to be Reconstructed!
Rich Banks Seize Poor Land!
Those interested in the reason for this season of our Southern discontent — and several others in the New Millennium — can find my analysis by clicking my byline above. What’s below, though, is from my first-year Iraq War correspondence, a letter I wrote to my beloved mentor, Professor Peter W. Guenther. I was watching the waning sun as the Mississippi slowly rolled by from my right to my left, encamped on the high bluffs of Vicksburg. It waa my first Ghost Troop mission, a long-range reconnaissance patrol, disguised as a lengthy bicycle tour. I pedaled from the Sabina River, which divides Texas from Louisiana, to the Atlantic Coast of Georgia, home of Fort Stewart and the bleeding Third Infantry Division. There I would go to the Marne Chapel, seeking the truth about the Battle of Baghdad; I would receive it and a death threat, from a devil posing as a chaplain.
It took me 22 days to travel the thousand miles eastward across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. The days were warm and the nights were cool, and the lush, rolling hills blew the sweet breath of magnolia and gardenia, jasmine and honeysuckle. It was all enchanting, and like every soldier on his way to his first engagement, I dreamed of coming home a hero. W. Leon Smith, publisher of The Lone Star Iconoclast, wrote about what happened next in Captain Courageous Witnessed: Dr. Kelly Assassinated! The title is undeserved, but the details are accurate. — EHM
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Sunday, April 27, 2003 – Vicksburg, Mississippi
Dear Professor Guenther,
When I last wrote I had vaguely formed a plan of reaching Vicksburg, my bridge across the Mississippi River, by Saturday. Happily favored by a westerly wind, I arrived on time yesterday afternoon.
It is now high noon on the Sabbath, and I rest as Grandpa Moses commanded, sitting in an abandoned church yard on the banks of the rolling river, still looking at the fence I crossed yesterday (a minor adventure itself, but the tale will keep). My Bible is before me, and I have just finished reading the creation myth in the first chapters of Genesis. Have you ever noticed that there He is one of “the gods,” like unto whom the serpent urges Eve to become? Then later in the same chapter, He says (presumably to the other gods) “Look! That bad serpent gave the humans too much power, so I’ve put a curse on the whole bunch! And furthermore I’ve thrown them out of Eden so they won’t figure out how to live forever by eating life-fruit as well as smart-fruit! And I’ve put a couple of cherubim out there as guards to kill them if they try to come back. From now on they’ll just have to grind it out in a concentration camp called earth!
Do you know who He reminds me of, sir? He reminds me of Thor! Or of Zeus, or Chronos, or Ouranos! He is the kind of god who doesn’t take any crap from anyone! When he decided the world was too far out of line (later in Genesis), he sent a flood that was much more efficient than the Totenkopf SS at destroying humanity, then started over again with a master race, the children of the good Noah. (I’m a bit too much of a student of myths to make much of a religious man, I’m afraid.)
Do you remember the Sodom and Gomorrah story, where His scouts send home a bad report about those folks’ behavior? He zapped the whole district, which presumably included the unfortunate collateral damage of women (though the lustful ones, of course, deserved death) and children. It had been done elsewhere, of course, by Wotan and Thor because a town they visited was rude to them while they were traveling incognito. The same thing happened to Zeus and Hermes, and they had to zap a town or two, let me tell you!
Of course there are differences in the myths. The Norse and Olympian gods let one husband and wife get away from the zapping. God let Lott and his wife go – along with their daughters, I must add. But Lott’s wife looked back when she was told not to and turned into a pillar of salt. I thought it was a beautiful portrayal of Lott’s lost love, much as the loss of Eurydice by Orpheus, who looked back when he shouldn’t have, and thereby damned his wife to remaining a shadow. Orpheus, though, went around lamenting with his guitar until even the women had heard enough and killed him to shut him up! Lott made out better, I suppose: He started drinking a lot and having sex with his daughters.
“God moves in mysterious ways,” say my Brother Baptists, who have tried for over forty years to Christianize me, “and God bless those of us who know His ways, and God damn anyone who doesn’t!” Pure fire and brimstone…
But you have long recognized that hellfire awakens a lazy audience, professor. I remember how you would show our auditorium full of students the Last Judgment scenes sculpted into Medieval churches.
“It’s sometimes difficult to imagine the ecstasies of heaven,” you would say as you clicked a slide, say, of the doorway of the cathedral in Autun. Heads would sag towards navels at the rows of pious saints admiring the Lord in celestial solemnity.
“Oh, are you ready for a change of scene?” you would ask. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is hell.” Heads bobbed up and chuckles erupted, and you finished ‘em off by adding “It’s easy to think of interesting things to do in hell!” You clicked a new slide and a new scene appeared: Stone demons were devouring and deflowering the lost sinners on the wrong side of the outstretched arms of Christ. We howled with laughter and you smiled like Mephisto. Such a showman, my dear professor!
It occurs to me that, as travelers often do, I’ve made camp on the foundations of a demolished church, a place of pilgrimage. You explained to me a couple of decades ago that in digging beneath the foundations of European churches, archaeologists often discovered pagan ruins. Would Grandpa Jung say that I’ve discovered an archetypical notion of sanctity? I’m sorry to be troubling you with my radical ideas and questions, but every devil should get his due, and you helped me to think such aberrant thoughts in the first place!
Today I will practice my tae kwon do, which is the single activity that makes me feel closest to what most people would call religion. It teaches me the humility of daily pain – a true student of martial arts should become stoic towards the complaints of the flesh. It teaches me that there is a unity of physical and mental called Chi, and that faithful practice will reveal it to me in greater degrees, as I achieve greater harmony. It teaches me mercy to others, My teacher, Grandmaster Yu Yong Kyu (the Flying Dragon), is emphatic in his prohibitions against fighting. Himself a veteran of the Vietnam War, where he spent five years with South Korean Special Forces, he considers violence in a civilian context (such as a brawl in a bar) a demeaning failure for a martial artist. An accomplished martial artist seldom has to resort to his art.
I had a tangible occasion to practice what I preach a few months ago, as I walked to a nearby forest for a stroll with my friend and dog, Dexter, a large, docile Labrador Retriever. His leash was in my left hand, and my walking cane (stout and effective, in the hand of an expert) was in my right.
As we trod the last hundred yards of road leading up to the trees, I saw a black man come from behind some bushes and stand out at the curb. Since this gentleman was on my left, Dexter (all hundred pounds of him) was on a leash between him and me. He had mistaken the purpose of my walking cane, which he took as a sign of incapacity, but which I find to be a wonderful way of carrying a three-foot hardwood weapon without upsetting anyone. I was quite prepared, if the young man had made an aggressive move, to strike him on any number of places to incapacitate him.
As Dexter and I neared him, his right hand, hanging at his side, clicked and glinted with steel. He had pulled a switchblade! Your admiring black belt had a willing victim. He had pulled a short-range weapon against an opponent about six feet away and shielded by a large dog! To add to his predicament, his intended victim was a martial arts expert with a medium-range weapon. His arm continued to hang down as he turned the weapon this way and that to give it an impressive glint, not knowing that he wouldn’t have time to lift it an inch before a cylinder of oak shattered his skull.
It didn’t happen, thank God. Instead of killing him I burst into laughter. He was so inept that he was ridiculous. Between chuckles I told him that his was a very, very pretty knife, but that I thought he should put it away. I pride myself on having said all this with continuing good humor, not ceasing to chuckle until he timidly slipped the knife into his breeches pocket and went home, more like a petulant twelve- than a predatory twenty-year-old. I think that my reaction had convinced him that he had made the unfortunate mistake of trying to mug Thor. It was such good comedy that I remained benign as he turned away. Of course, the entire time I was chuckling I remained ready to give him a demonstration of tae kwon do, hapkido and stick weapons.
It’s hard having someone else’s life in your hands, and I can see why gods do such a messy job of dealing with us foolish mortals.
A pleasant postscript to my merciful moment: The young man’s uncle is a man of dubious reputation as a gangster, but as is so often the case with such men, a sense of honor. The next time he saw me he greeted me politely, said that he knew I was a martial arts teacher, and had spared his nephew. Then he presented me with a gift: a formidable, spiked dog collar for the ever-affable Dexter, the kind of collar one usually finds on a fighting dog in Northeast Houston or a fashionable young person. He said he was grateful because most white men – especially the police – would have killed the young man, given the same provocation. My experience in working with the police (five years) tells me he’s right, and I think it’s a pity. Dexter still wears the collar.
I’m sorry that this war has cost you some of your friends, professor. I know that you, like any one who served in the front lines of World War II, have lost many friends before, but each war seems to claim more, no matter who started it and for what, and the loss can never be easy so long as we are human.
Tomorrow I will ride through the Vicksburg battleground and cemetery, site of the successful Union siege in our Civil War. I’m interested in what those veterans will have to say to me.
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- Message from the Editor, Matt Engelman
- Captain Courageous Witnessed: Dr. Kelly Assassinated!
- “Amerika Über Alles” — Our Nazi Nation (Re: PWG)
- LACMA “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany (PWG, Editor)