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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Studyin' War

A novel set in 1960s Biafra: I I want to tell you about it but to come at it obliquely, from a distance that is temporal and cultural as well as geographic, in the way I’ve been thinking about it since reading the last heart-breaking page, looking for a historical context to connect it, somehow, to my own experience. How else to enter into another’s experience if not by means of connections? And yet, the distance always remains.

One friend of mine gets upset when people say that the American Civil War was “not about slavery,” but the other day a bookstore customer made the not-over-slavery claim, and another of my friends said that her very good friend, a black Southern professor, agrees with this view. Slavery or something else? What else? Preservation of the Union vs. two separate countries—but why did the South want to secede in the first? States’ rights, not slavery? But wasn’t it the right of states to allow slavery that was the key issue? “I’ve read that the causes were economic,” someone else remarks, and that reminds me of David R. Montgomery’s claim in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations that growing crops with slave labor had already become unprofitable by the time of the Civil War because cotton had worn out the land, and so the only way owners of large numbers of slaves could continue to make money was by selling slaves, and that the only way to insure a continued market for slaves was to have new states in the West open to slavery. So, economic? Yes, but that involves slavery, too. I don’t see how economics or states’ rights or self-determination issues leading up to the Civil War can ever be separated from slavery at that time in American history.

Of course, I am a Northerner. And no historian....

I see clearly that from the personal point of view, whether it’s a private foot soldier or a general with an Academy background, the Civil War could well have been “not about slavery.” Individuals’ reasons for fighting, their personal values and ideals, are often very different from what emerges in the larger, impersonal picture history presents. How many soldiers ever go to war to secure a market, whether for slaves or silk or spices or oil or whatever? They go for love of king or love of country, out of a sense duty and gratitude for freedom, for honor and glory, for adventure, for family honor, to defend or free themselves or others—all manner of different reasons.

When the Civil War question comes up, I often want to object, “The war was over a century and a half ago! Why do we have to keep fighting it?” Yet I understand, too, that human beings have a hard time agreeing to disagree and that the truth of a nation’s history is something important to every citizen. Who are we as a country? Our history is a big part of how we answer that question.

This is a circuitous route to take to get to Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The time of the novel is the 1960s; its sections move back and forth between the early and the late Sixties. In the early Sixties, Biafran independence is a dream for certain of the characters, notably Odenigbo and his university colleagues. Odenigbo’s houseboy, Ugwu, can read and write, but his education takes leaps and bounds once he joins Master’s household. Beautiful Olanna comes from a privileged background and is much more concerned with her love affair than with politics, while her twin sister (not identical) Kainene is the practical one, absorbed in the family business, securing contracts and making money. Kainene is an irreverent cynic with little patience for Olanna’s romantic acquiescence. And finally there is Richard, a foreign white man who comes to call himself Biafran. Is he? Can he be?

Roughly two-thirds of the novel takes place with these characters living their day-to-day pre-war lives. They love each other, argue with each other, have affairs and hurt each other. There are problems with parents and in-laws and disagreements between friends. Ordinary life, in other words. For a while you might think the author is taking an easy way of presenting Sixties life in Nsukka and Port Harcourt, even while you marvel at her surprising, lovely turns of phrase. But then comes war, and with it comes fear, rumor and food shortages, horrible deaths, evacuation, repeated moves that bring ever-worsening conditions, refugee camps, starvation, and because you have had time to come to know the people involved, the violence and famine are no longer abstract concepts or news stories from far away but personal tragedies. The author has led you to the truth of war.

Who is telling the story? Which story or stories will be told? Why was this war fought? What is the official story today, and how does it differ from that of Adichie’s novel?

Asked why she chose the Nigeria-Biafra war for the subject of her novel, the author responds:
I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men and women and children enrages me, because I don’t ever want to forget.

What is it that should be remembered—from any war? There could be so many answers, but here is a passage from Adichie’s novel that says a great deal about personal experience:
...The bombing was louder and closer. The ground pulsed. She felt nothing. She was floating away from inside herself. Another explosion came and the earth vibrated, and one of the naked children crawling after crickets giggled. Then the explosions stopped and the people around her began to move. If she had died, if Odenigbo and Baby and Ugwu had died, the bunker would still smell like a freshly tilled farm and the sun would still rise and the crickets would still hop around. The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with a frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die. Until Biafra won, the vandals would no longer dictate the terms of her life.

The individuals in this story take many different journeys, some parallel but each one unique, as in life. The ending left me shaken. And then, immediately following Half of a Yellow Sun, I read a book of nonfiction by a Norwegian Journalist, ├ůsne Seierstad’s A Hundred and One Days, a report on her time in Baghdad leading up to the arrival of American troops in 2003. What was happening on the ground before the Americans arrived? Did the population support Saddam Hussein? Once again, there are no easy answers and no one attitude shared by everyone Seierstad meets. Like the Adichie novel, most of the “action” comes late in the book, and one thing is clear: the cost of freedom was very high for the people who call this place home.

Northport had an unusual Veterans Day program this year. Retired Congregational minister Grafton “Mac” Thomas had the idea and wrote the script and was joined by three other local men. The four together made a presentation on peace for students and the general public. I only heard about it afterwards. Wish I’d been there. Northport is full of surprises.


Gerry said...

Every war has been much on my mind of late. The several we have going on right now, the ones before that, and the ones before that, and the ones before that. I will spare you my latest bitter rant on the subject. I believe I will read Half of a Yellow Sun, but perhaps not quite yet. Next up is trying again to make sense of Rwanda.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, pick up a copy of this week's NORTHERN EXPRESS, the one that just appeared in Traverse City today (and will get to Northport tomorrow), and read the letter from the veteran about the original intention of Veterans Day. It popped my eyes wide open. How easily we forget and let history slip away!

BB-Idaho said...

In my opinion, the argument about
Civil War causes began in the years prior; southern politicians
(and their newspapers) led the move to the alternative 'states rights' position. One needs only read the proposal of confederate
general Cleburn about freeing any slave who would fight for the south (it was rapidly suppressed), or visit the oldest sections of many cemeteries in the upper midwest. In the worn marble you can make out "GAR" and "He fought to free the slaves". Again, just
opinion, but the Civil War was built-in, the
practice of slavery in the original
colonies and the unsuccessful attempts to address it by the founding fathers.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for weighing in on this debate, BB. Meanwhile, for Gerry and anyone else who’s interested, a veteran from Grass Lake has written to the Northern Express this week to say he thinks “Veterans Day has been subverted from its original intent and is now just one more tool that is used to build the myth that the solution to conflict is military action.” He recalls that November 11 was proclaimed Armistice Day by President Wilson to show “sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations” and that a Congressional resolution in 1926 called on Americans to observe the day “with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.” That was, as I understand it, the focus of the Northport remembrance ceremony last Friday.

BB-Idaho said...

I would agree that Veteran's Day has been subverted. What holiday
hasn't? World War I consisted of
four years of carnage in which a
generation of Europe's young men
was lost. This plaintive celtic tune sums the frustration of the 'War to end all wars'...

P. J. Grath said...

Here's another perspective, sent to me by e-mail:

"Lovely posting on what looks like a beautiful book. —I remember the war against Biafra and the Ibo people. I didn't really know what was going on—I was still in high school, and we didn't have the internet—but I got as much as that it was like Vietnam, that the U.K. and the U.S. were willing to back slaughter in broad daylight, in front of all the world, for power, basically for oil. Images of starvation, which is to say of the starved, were commonplace in the news, but there wasn't much about who was causing the starving. Bad Africans, one somehow thought. Some things change, some don't—the U.S. is now doing the same in Somalia (has been ever since invading and overthrowing the government there some years back), and you'd never know it.
"It's uncontroversial that the South had every bit as much right to secede as did the original Colonies, say what you will about that right from some higher point of view (from which then one would also have to consider the Colonies). —Amusingly, a freer hand with the Indians, which is to say a bloodier one, was one of the Founding Fathers' causes. —It's uncontroversial that the North's motives were imperial, unrelated to ethics. (Of course many individual Northerners were abolitionists and fought from that motive.) —It's uncontroversial that slavery would have ended anyway, due to the needs/"needs" of a new industrial economy, including new forms of agricultural production. —Serious, informed historians have claimed that once Reconstruction collapsed, the condition of Southern blacks reverted to worse than under slavery. I'm not sure everyone agrees on this, but even if it was just some sort of a trade-off overall, the war becomes a senseless abattoir, as I believe, and the U.S.'s learning exercise for the mechanized, total warfare that then became a national trademark—Philippines, the Great War, and beyond—which once more is uncontroversial.
"The Nigerians continue to suffer in the same enterprise, as you know. Bad things happen to people—individuals, groups, villages—who show insufficient enthusiasm for the process of extraction and subjection.
"There are people who still favor the term Armistice Day, even using it at the risk of getting funny looks, for the reasons you touch on. Although for all I know, all the others are something like 80 years old.
"Your posting makes me extra sorry that you are not nearby, helping me to read books."

My friend's final line is too generous, but I couldn't leave it off. Thank you, Steve, both for thoughtful analysis and compliment.

dmarks said...

""It's uncontroversial that the South had every bit as much right to secede as did the original Colonies"

I strongly disagree with this argument. The South seceded in order to further oppress a very large proportion of its citizens. A group which had absolutely no say in the matter of secession. Which turns to dust any idea of the legitimacy of the Southern secession.

While women could not vote and the Indians were being wiped out in the late 1700s, the American Colonial secession had nothing do to with desires to further deny women or Indians their rights.

P. J. Grath said...

Reminding us once again there there is very little that is uncontroversial in an open forum.

B. Komar said...

"Congressional resolution in 1926 called on Americans to observe the day “with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.”

Quite an unpopular view to express in the teachers' lounge, but I've often thought it would make much more sense for students to be in school learning about these things than taking the day off to sleep late and play video games. (I feel similarly about Presidents' Day, MLK Day, and Casimir Pulaski Day, which is a holiday here in the Chicago area.)

P. J. Grath said...

Bettie, do your kids get Nov. 11 off school? Ours don't here. The peace assembly was held up at school.

P. J. Grath said...

From Steve again by e-mail, as he couldn't get his comment to post:

"I tried to post this —

"Greetings to dmarks, and I'll start by apologizing for a poor choice of word. On reflection I wouldn't have said "uncontroversial"! From what you say I doubt that our sentiments are very different. But we do disagree on what is solid fact, and I'll try to explain ... I was careful to say *as much* right, since in my own view the right of the Colonials was very far from clear. ... The desire to stick it harder to the Indians than the British were allowing is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. ... The South in 1860 was ~60% white, and one can assume that this sector was strongly secessionist—the other ~40% presumably strongly anti-, had anyone asked them. Around 1776 the free Colonial population seems to have been roughly equally divided Loyalist-neutral-Secessionist. The percentages here do not favor their right to secede over the South's—moreover, quite apart from the likely sentiments of the Indians (who would tend to favor the British as the somewhat lesser of two great evils) (to this day the Canadians admire Tecumseh as one of the saviors of their country), the black population was overall far from secessionist. The rebel side felt that the British could cramp their slavery style too, and many blacks fought with or otherwise supported the loyalists. Also, many opposed both the British and the state the rebels were planning to form, should they win. (Great book coming out on all this by Alan Gilbert.) So—what was behind my statement was the extremely questionable logic of secession 1776, nothing good about the South ... In terms of how these things are viewed legally, I doubt that the South comes off much worse than plenty of other secessions/absorptions that are, for whatever it's worth, called legitimate. But that's again a reflection of my dim view of the state agents in many comparison cases; Croatia is just one recent, nasty example; in a previous day the separation of Texas from Mexico was a vicious bit of work ... A very legitimate secession of a *de facto* colony was Cuba; right now Flanders is in something close to *de facto* secession, and that seems legitimate. —So I hope I'm at least being clearer. And we seem to care about the same things. So — kind regards.

"But it kept disappearing. Apparently I'm supposed to start a blog of my own if I want to add to a thread? Anyway, the disappearance happened when I tried to finish filling out the requirements.

"Slightly frustrated . . ."

P.J. again with advice on leaving comments: If I'm leaving a comment that is important to me on someone else's blog, I'll often compose it in Word and then copy and paste it into the comment block. I learned the hard way that losing carefully composed comments is a real possibility. Don't know what the problem is. Anyway, thanks again Steve. Your reply clarifies your original comment considerably. said...

I humbly submit that you are all discussing war and peace as "theoretical" concepts, and that it is for that reason that everyone skips from the "great war" to Vietnam, with no mention of Hitler and WWII. A desire for peace by the allied nations was soon to be called "appeasement" as Hitler went from Austria and the Sudatenland to Chechoslavakia and finally Poland. Had he been stopped -- had war been declared when Hitler took over the Sudatenaland (which was before he had sophisticated weapons and a well-disciplined army) instead of after he invaded Poland -- not only would fewer allied lives have been lost during the war, but fewer German ones....

When is it not acting in the name of peace, and when is it appeasement in the flagrant disregard of justice? This is a much more difficult subject than "make love, not war" would make one believe.... Fighting Hitler earlier would be to make love BY first waging war, and sometimes that's the only way.

And to talk of the price of freedom as being very great, I say, "yes: anything worth having is difficult, and freedom is worth it." I remember people complaining about Spain, saying that it was so nice under Franco, with clean streets and no fear of Gypsies, etc., and now it's so dirty and you always have to be on the lookout for thieves; well yes: freedom is messy, has problems, trains don't run on time, streets are dirty, but it's freedom: not without it's costs, but free.

So in Iraq they used to dip protesters under the Bathists they used to dip "enemies" in hot oil; now that should no longer happen (we'll see), and that alone is worth the sacrifices for freedom.

After the war in Afghanistan had supposedly been "won" a journalist -- Geraldine Brooks, I think -- asked some women whether they would now remove their veils, and they said, "First we'll wait to see whether the US stays; they don't always stay...." It broke my heart....and I have to acknowledge how wise these young women were....

And finally: no, that white man will never be a Biafran in ways that Americans can never understand. My ex-husband's parents were Jewish refugees who fled from Germany to Lahore India in 1937; Michael was born in Lahore, and in 1948, Lahore went from being In India to being in Pakistan. The Jews were expelled from Pakistan when the Iatollah Kohmeini came into power in Iran. Michael is not an Indian and not a Pakistani, not a Brit: only a place like the USA will allow him to "claim" a place for himself.

I was born in an American Refugee Camp in Berlin Germany and lived in Germany until I was 5. My birth certificate is in German. Yet my efforts to get a Euro passport as a German citizen failed (last year) because Germany will not grant citizenship to Jews born in Germany between 1945 and 1951....

The world is a tribal place, and as long as that's so, and as long as there's no strong-arm nation able to keep the tribes in line (ie: the Soviets in Yugoslavia) there will be war, like it or not. Some wars shouldn't be, but some definitely should. Trouble is, it's sometimes hard to know the which is which before the fact....

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, Helen, for these important reminders. An observation was made near the end of Seierstad's book by an Iraqi who said they (Iraqis) had all been paralyzed by fear, afraid even to speak out against tyranny, let alone try to resist it. But of course the military might was all against them, as it was against the Biafrans and the Jews.

I can see that this thread may continue for a while. Thank you all for commenting and for maintaining a civil tone. These are matters for anguish and heartache.

dmarks said...

for steve, I thought Cuba's status was an actual colony not a de facto one until the Spanish American War.