One of Clint Eastwood’s best films is a 2008 low-budget work titled “Gran Torino”, about a one-time soldier and retired auto worker named Walt Kowalski who lives as a recent widower in a Michigan working class neighborhood in transition. Every description of the film I’ve seen always attaches the label “racist” or “bigot” to the Kowalski character, played by Eastwood himself, who somehow miraculously “evolves” into a different person after a long life as another person. That absurd description is neither accurate or revealing. Rather, it reflects in those assigning such ignorant labels a learning process far less based on accurate history, sociology, anthropology, or even common sense, than on stupid politically correct dictate. (I see it as just another embarrassing manifestation of the self-serving women who rule, run and populate the humongous American public K-12 forced indoctrination school industry.) It reveals an “educational” process much more concerned with imparting what to think than teaching how to think – by mindlessly imposing today’s ‘thought police’ standards on the past in a determined effort to censor free speech and rational analysis, in America. Besides, a careful observer would notice that there are many different ethnic groups portrayed in the film, and they all invoke various forms of ethnic stereotypes and slurs; no one is rushing to label them “racists” or “bigots” who “evolve”. Such brainless labels, of course, also reveal very small people who think the world began with their arrival, and that nothing worth even thinking about happened on planet Earth before that glorious moment.
Eastwood’s film is a lot like life itself. It’s a sort of everyday human puzzle, offering occasional subtle nearly imperceptible clues to the man, certain seeming incongruities, that require the conscientious observer to check further, and to think for themselves. His story drops fading breadcrumbs along the way, breadcrumbs for the smart observer to pick up, check out and follow back to the much fuller, and even more worthwhile, story. Those who don’t know how to think, are too lazy to make the effort, who only know how to parrot the herd, will inevitably reach the wrong conclusions, and be the far lesser person for it. This may come as a surprise to some, but as a responsible American man I see the world very differently from the way privileged American women see that same world. So does Eastwood, and Kowalski. Furthermore, like the other two, as a life-long active participant who actually earned on his own merit in the trenches all that he has and is, I actually know that world.
Kowalski, like Eastwood, is a member of the Silent Generation, a very small group of Americans born between 1920 and 1945, between the Greatest Generation and their Baby Boomer children. Like Eastwood, Kowalski was born into and grew up in a tough working class immigrant family during a period of great social and economic adversity for all Americans, a period that included the graveyard aftermath of World War I, the violence of Prohibition, the poverty of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, the devastation of World War II — all in succession during their early formative years. Both Kowalski and Eastwood then served honorably as young US Army soldiers during the Korean War before trying to find their places in the world. (See Footnote #1.) Too small in number to have much impact of its own, the Silent Generation tended to draw its values from the slightly older Greatest Generation. It also found itself in a position to observe the monumental gulf between World War II’s hard-working Greatest Generation and its 80,000,000 spoiled-rotten Baby Boomer children. Those differences were truly staggering. (“Greatest versus Boomer”.)
“Try not to become a person of success, but rather try to become a person of value.” – Albert Einstein.
Ethnic Prejudices In The Caldron
Kowalski is also a second generation Polish immigrant, a rather large ethnic group that was for several generations the undeserved brunt of very common and widespread slurs, jokes and discriminations usually associated with deficient mental abilities. Such slurs and jokes almost always grew out of language barriers or heavy accents, and nothing else, but the discriminations almost always grew out of very intense competition for scarce jobs. Complicating his ethnicity was the fact that his roots were also Catholic, as were those of the Poles’ two major rival immigrant ethnic groups of the time – the Italians and the Irish, both of which are also represented by key supporting characters in the film. During the century from 1830 to 1940, heated competition among those three large immigrant groups in America, most often in very tough mining or steel towns, port docks or manufacturing plants, was usually very intense, often marked by frequent rather bloody fist fights, brawls and labor wars. The competition was also quite noticeable among rather vaguely defined but distinct urban ethnic communities. The animosity between the Irish and the Italians dated from around 1900 when large numbers of southern Italians began arriving and started to crowd the Irish, who had arrived earlier, for hard labor jobs. Generally, the Italians viewed the Irish as “slick shysters”, while the Irish viewed the Italians as “dumb thugs”. Due more to numbers than anything else, the Poles usually came out on the short end of the stick. Much of this mutual animosity among the Irish, Italians and Poles gradually dissipated by mid-20th century through such endeavors as serving together in the armed forces and then, after World War II when money and jobs were plentiful, creating and building the modern American material bounty and national infrastructure, including suburban communities and 75,000 km of super-highways.
A member of the Silent Generation born during the privations of the 1930s with a name as blatantly obvious as “Kowalski”, a name as common in Polish as is Smith or Jones in English, had to have spent most of his life trying to overcome ethnic slurs and labels like “Dumb Polack”, usually wrapped around some mean joke for the amusement of others. Most often there was an economic reason behind the slurs, especially jobs. One of the things that Kowalski would have grown up with were anti-immigrant hate groups focused around the auto industry in Detroit, Lansing and Ohio during the 1920s and ’30s. The largest of these hate groups, the Black Legion, with a membership of over 30,000, was a militant organization that had split off from the Ku Klux Klan, and its members included even third- and fourth-generation immigrants who considered themselves “more American” than the more recent arrivals. In the 1937 Humphrey Bogart film “Black Legion”, the secret society’s principal targets were hard-working Polish and Irish first- and second-generation immigrant auto workers, and the group’s terror tactics included vicious lies and rumors, floggings, house burnings, kidnappings and even ritual murder. Using tactics that in most cases had been imported with immigrants from other countries, members of these secret groups could be right there next to you on the assembly line, living right next door, waiting to strike according to the group’s organized strategy. The Bogart film depicts actual events occurring over a long period subsequently confirmed by major criminal conspiracy investigations; such violence targeted against specific competing immigrant groups, especially the Irish and Mexicans, was not uncommon in most regions of the US throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The adversity faced in America by millions of Famine-Irish immigrants fleeing British-imposed atrocities in their homeland during the century between 1830 and 1940 was especially egregious – thanks in no small part to the rabid bigotry the Brits, with their perverted concept of “entitled” aristocracy and nobility, steadily imported to, and fanned in, America, especially by those long established in the upper classes. Except for black slaves, no ethnic group suffered more, or accomplished more, in America than did the Famine-Irish.
Americans today, who are accustomed to a government eager to use other people’s money to lend a very generous hand to struggling groups, have difficulty understanding such violent turmoil so common in the American past. It wasn’t until after World War II that the Greatest Generation began making government “safety nets” a part of the American social landscape. That past prior to around 1940 was essentially a time of “every man for himself” for whatever they could claw for themselves out of an extremely tough and mostly unforgiving and often even bloody environment in which any meager assistance came only from their own similarly struggling ethnic religious communities and families. America was rapidly importing many people from almost every ethnic group in the world, and most of them bought their own historical and emotional baggage, plus a really huge range of languages, cultures, traditions and beliefs, along with them into a roiling caldron. Italian immigrants, for example, unknowingly brought with them from Sicily to America in the late 19th to early 20th century the Black Hand, which went onto become America’s most far-reaching and deadly criminal enterprise – the Mafia. The Black Hand began its rise in America by preying on those same Italian immigrants. (Today a similar dynamic exists with the extremely vicious, violent and huge Mexican gang MS-13, which preys across the US mainly on the many millions of illegal Mexican aliens in America.) All forms of conflict were always inevitable. Time would be needed for tempers to temper in the American experiment, for such great diversity to meld into one strong and uniquely American blend under one set of rules – and to begin exporting the lessons and rules that worked.
Such constant adversity was so much a part of daily life, and became so intense during the Great Depression when jobs were so scarce, that men like Kowalski developed at a very early age a whole litany of ways to quickly sound out those they met, to save time, cut to the chase. If he was going to be on the receiving end of bigotry, then it was best to get it quickly out in the open where it could be dealt with. There was just nowhere to run, no group or agency from which to expect help. People who can think know that it’s a lot easier dealing with overt truth than covert deception. The target of discrimination is always at a disadvantage when others hide their true feelings and opinions, for whatever reason. In America you overcome the disease of prejudice on the basis of demonstrated merit, by your own visible behavior, by using intelligent reasoning to undermine the basis of the prejudice head on, in the open; you do not impose censorship that merely drives it underground, untreated, festering, where it can grow, metastasize. You criminalize specific overt acts; you do not stifle freedom of thought, censor freedom of speech, pervert freedom of the press. This is why freedom of speech is enshrined in our Constitution as a Fundamental Human Right. Censorship is thus antithetical to America, accomplishes at best little more than subliminal disgust, anger, contempt – which, in turn, only increases the prejudice. If it’s driven underground by censorship, then it also remains an excuse for failure to advance, by shifting the blame from “me” to some nebulous unobservable “someone else” that is “proved” whenever some idiot says something stupid. The entire social structure becomes murky, fake, paranoid, full of real or imagined minefields. If your self-esteem is so pathetically fragile that it might shatter if subjected to criticisms spoken by others, then you need to invent another species to define yourself. “Thought police” who demand censorship are those with weak positions seeking to impose their views on others, ensure their views are never challenged, and keep alternative views from gaining an audience. Censorship is the way “special” people admit that they don’t measure up, aren’t interested in measuring up, and need double standards to protect fragile and unstable egos and maintain advantageous status. Such censorship thus perpetuates the status quo. It’s a simplistic “solution” that attacks only the overt symptoms, not the underlying causes, in a simple-minded “whack-a-mole” approach usually taken by those who don’t know how to think.
Besides, who wants to associate with people who are always imposing their own self-interested rules on everyone else? If nothing else, it just gets incredibly tiring, something (and someone) to be avoided whenever possible. Men of Kowalski’s time wanted to know exactly where they stood with others, without a lot of mandated politeness and required lies (“politically correct” thought police censorship), so they could focus on what had to be done to overcome or circumvent it and move on. One of the most widely used methods of getting things out in the open was ethnic baiting – invoking common slurs intended to quickly take the measure of the man being met. These tactics were universal – common to all of the many different ethnic groups struggling to climb their way up in American society. How one reacted to such slurs would determine the subsequent course of the relationship. Such methods were so common, learned at such an early age and so automatic that Kowalski would have retained them through his tough boyhood years, through his time in the Army, through his valiant service in the Korean War, through his many years on the assembly line, and all the way to retirement. It was the essential “seasoning” in the “melting pot” that put the veneer, the grit, on the man, an American man.
Those ethnic baiting tactics were a part of where he came from and who he was, part of his very identity as a Polish-American. They do not indicate a “racist” or a “bigot”, but rather a man who himself had lived and survived a whole lifetime of ethnic discrimination by using a variety of important verbal self-defense mechanisms – in a society that placed a very high value on freedom of speech. If anything, these tactics indicate a man very attuned to ethnic and cultural differences. Much more than most hyper-protected Americans today, Kowalski knew and understood human diversity, because it was something he dealt with every day of his life, right out there on the table in front of everyone. As the film shows, today remnants of those earlier rough dynamics remain in the barber shop and on the construction site as friendly banter, fading reminders of a time when life in America was very different, much more difficult. When Kowalski was growing up, that Italian-American barber and that Irish-American foreman were members of his own Polish-American group’s most intense ethnic rivals, and he theirs. Still, in a certain déjà vu, processes very similar to those from Walt’s youth are now being repeated among working class immigrant groups like the Hmong and the Mexicans, each trying to stake out their own identity and place in the grand scheme of things. The great difference is that it is now incredibly easier to come to and survive in America, so a lot of the animosity today is fostered by special interest groups, lobbies and politics, and maintained by violent gangs, political policies, propaganda and censorship, seemingly in perpetuity, mainly for extortion and vote-buying purposes. Thanks to “feminism”, victimhood is now the biggest racket in America, a perpetual way of life. Since “victimhood” absolves one of personal responsibility, it quite naturally becomes self-perpetuating. Many now seem unconcerned about rising above such animosity, preferring to wallow in “victimhood” forever, never considering that, in doing so, they naturally incur, in a natural self-perpetuating human dynamic, the very animosity they condemn. “You reap what you sow.”
In Kowalski’s time, the overriding objective for all such immigrants was to survive and overcome, to out-live the adversity, to prove yourself, to gradually just blend in, to become ‘American’, and move on and up, on their own merit. Usually, for most of them, the only way to do that was to grow a very thick skin while standing your ground, on your own. You learned the rules and mastered the process, and then you beat the jerks at their own game. Besides, since there was no going back, what other choice did one have? Especially for men, up until after the blood and dust of World War II had settled and faded, America was one really tough arena, no place for whiners, both on the job and off. It was precisely that toughness that made the nation great.
(During World War II and Korea you could actually watch the changing attitudes toward long-time American ethnic adversaries among soldiers fighting side by side. For example, during WW II, Polish-Americans in uniform were no longer identified by their former ethnic nationality (Poland = “Polack”), but rather more warmly with a nickname closer to their actual surnames (Kowalski = “Ski”), surnames of individual persons which were often lengthy and rather difficult to pronounce, much less spell, correctly by other Americans. It was all part of “me” and “my group” gradually becoming “we” and “us” through mutual acceptance based on demonstrated merit and equitable contribution to the greater good. The same dynamic was repeated later among those various racial groups fighting together under the same conditions in Korea. It’s pretty difficult worrying about petty sensitivities when you and everyone with you is trying really hard to stay alive while someone else is trying really hard to kill you all. The US military, despite popular beliefs, has always been the nation’s best incubator for rapid social change, for dissipating ethnic and racial animosities, simply because the effort inherently requires equitable sharing of responsibility in order to achieve mission success – and anything short of mission success has never been acceptable in the US military. This was most especially true where most young men once served – in the Army or Marines infantry, as American ground soldiers. “We will succeed, as one, or die trying, together.” But that effort requires very competent leaders who prove themselves in a strict meritocracy under one set of very clear rules applicable equally to everyone. If you can’t play under one set of rules for everyone as an equitable member of the team, then you won’t be on that team for long; there was zero “entitlement” in the US military.) (This began changing in the late-1970s, when American women began dictating changes in a peacetime US military to better accommodate what they wanted for themselves through a plethora of double standards, so that a tiny few could earn vicarious self-esteem for all of our “special” women, regardless of the impact on either the institution or the men who filled it, rather than first earning their place equitably.) Life is tough; deal with it.
The Forgotten War
By the time we meet Kowalski, he is far more disappointed in his own spoiled children and clueless grandchildren and heartbroken that his wife has just died and left him alone among the airheads, than he is about the strange family of Hmong refugees living next door. The Hmong are just one more irritant closing in on Walt’s remaining life. If anything, the Asians next door bring back bits and pieces of nearly faded memories of his own experiences as a young man long ago. American men of Kowalski’s age know things about him that perhaps most others today do not, and especially things associated with a very deadly and forgotten war.
Five years after the end of World War II, the US military was still occupying peacetime Japan trying to help that country rebuild and reshape its society, when suddenly in June 1950 massive communist forces from North Korea attacked South Korea across the “38th Parallel” to quickly capture Seoul and then advance further south throughout most of the country. (As reference, the straight line 38th parallel also runs across the US, from about 13 miles north of San Francisco to about 60 miles south of Washington DC. It also runs about 50 miles south of Lisbon Portugal, right through Athens Greece and across the Tibetan Plateau.) To buy a little time, two small US Army units of about 400 men each, mostly new infantry recruits, were sent in and instructed to take up blocking positions south of Seoul to try to slow down the communist advance; both units were rapidly decimated by tanks and massive infantry. So the “last ditch” position for the Americans was a port city in the southeast. As a quick blocking reaction around the perimeter of that port, the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division was hurriedly sent on very short notice from Japan to Pusan South Korea, a huge port in the southeast that would be absolutely critical for landing further defensive forces under United Nations auspices. This was accomplished very rapidly since Pusan was only about 150 miles (241 km) across the strait from Japan, but with almost no preparation for the infantrymen of the under-strength 1st Cav.
From the moment of its arrival in early July 1950 the US Army’s 1st Cav was engaged in constant deadly battle non-stop for the next twenty months, first to establish and protect a defensive perimeter around Pusan and then “breaking out” of that perimeter in mid-September to drive north right through the North Korean army. Dedicated to freeing the Korean people from militaristic communist occupation and oppression, the men of the 1st Cavalry continued to grind north, slowly but steadily pushing back the communist forces, all the way back across the “38th Parallel” to P’yongyang North Korea and then on all the way to the Yalu River on the border with China, 435 miles (700 km) from Pusan. The 1st Cavalry fought all that distance beside the South Korean 1st Infantry Division. But no sooner had the two exhausted infantry units reached the Yalu River border, which effectively also freed North Korea of communist oppression, did China join the remaining North Koreans with very heavy ground forces of its own – including 300,000 soldiers – flooding south into North Korea. What remained of both badly depleted “UN” units were heavily clobbered by the Chinese 115th and 116th divisions near the Yalu River. Both units at the peak of their exhaustion, almost on their last breath, were sitting ducks for far superior fresh forces roaring in for the kill. Before it was relieved and sent back to Japan in January 1952 the 1st Cavalry again sustained heavy losses to superior Chinese forces in and around Unsan North Korea. During those 20 months, the 1st Cavalry sustained 3,811 soldiers killed and 12,086 wounded – more than 3/4ths of its strength. Eight of its soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor, authorized by an Act of Congress and usually presented by the President, most often posthumously. Casualties for South Korea’s partner 1st Division were equally catastrophic, and its men equally distinguished.
Kowalski reveals that he was with the 1st Cavalry for three years and that he has owned his 1st Cavalry cigarette lighter since 1951, so it’s highly likely that he was drafted before age 20 along with many other young men of the Silent Generation (too young for WW II duty) for post-war peacetime occupation duty in Japan in a depleted combat infantry division still slowly replacing very heavy WW II losses. Then in July 1950 he suddenly found himself in the Korean War where he obtained the lighter, fought on the ground and mostly on foot all the way north to China, concluded his service back in Japan, probably returning to the US in late-1952, and has quietly carried the memories of his twenty months in hell for the remainder of his life. (PTSD and its association with combat experiences wasn’t invented until the 1970s. See Footnote #7.) Kowalski was awarded the very impressive Silver Star, the nation’s third highest military award, for his valor in combat. As is common of American soldiers, he never reveals why he was awarded that Silver Star; for an infantryman the medal speaks for itself.
Over 88% of 341,000 foreign “UN” military forces – over 300,000 men – assisting South Korean forces in the Korean War were American soldiers, and total “UN” forces, which included South Korean forces, were under American military command. President Truman chose to label the rapidly unfolding and on-going events in Korea a “police action” rather than a “war”, since America had just finished a global war at stupendous cost and then reduced its military strength by over 80%, and the Greatest Generation was NOT inclined to get involved in yet another damned full-scale war started by more lunatics on the other side of the world. But Korea was, indeed, a “full-scale war”, and potentially an exceedingly dangerous war. (See Footnote #4.)
A war pretending to be a “police action” never approved by Congress had been won by military field commanders. And as soon as it was won, the country was invaded by another country in the same manner that Germany had invaded Poland, that Japan had invaded the Philippines, catching those military commanders with out-manned forces too exhausted to resist. But this second war, which arose out of a “police action”, was not a war, either. To save face the politicians decided to keep calling it a “police action” and seek a political solution – which meant that absolutely nothing was accomplished except truly enormous death and destruction and the permanent loss of half a country that was depending on Americans to save them.
The Korean war cost the lives of 44,692 American soldiers during three years of relentless hostilities. Almost another 8,000 US soldiers are still officially “missing” in action, which means their bodies have not been recovered. This would bring the total death toll to over 52,500 – almost one of every five men serving. Another 92,134 American men were wounded. Thus, the total US casualty rate for the Korean War was about 48%; one of every two men were either killed or wounded. Part of the anger carried inside ever since by American Korean War veterans is due to the fact that the war was never concluded, that it was only stopped in place by a political armistice, a “cease fire”, that drew a line through a culture and divided it into two halves not far from where it began, and that a state of war continues to exist today, 58 years later. (See Footnote #4.) Other Americans, then busily building modern America, hardly aware that a major deadly war was underway, never even welcomed those soldiers home. Most of that was actually due to the way the US Army operated. Throughout the 20th century, the US Army would commit large combat units to wars and then rotate men in and out of those units at the beginning and end of their individual service tours, usually two or three years, or as necessary to replace casualties. (During WW II, those who did not become casualties served until war’s end.) American men thus went off to wars, and returned home, as individual soldiers, as interchangeable spare parts, not as complete fighting units that lent themselves to things like parades. Guys would drift out of communities one by one, disappear into long wars, and then two or three years later those who survived would drift back in, one by one, mostly unnoticed. (The core professionals of the Regular forces – the “standing Army” the public rarely sees – just kept on marching wherever they were needed, as long as they could.)
The war in Korea, a war that saw such a massive waste of human life, did not result in a clear decision, was simply frozen in place by politics, and quickly faded from the popular memory, eventually becoming America’s “Forgotten War”. But it was never forgotten by the men who fought it, who witnessed its colossal carnage and massive destruction, who lost so many of their comrades – American and Korean and others, too – and still somehow survived the countless bloody battlefields of Korea. Most of those men never even mentioned the war, or their own role in it, to anyone afterward. A lifetime later, two huge armies today still face each other on constant alert across a narrow muddy “demilitarized zone” between the two halves of Korea. Finally bringing the Korean War to an end is just one more item in a very long list of “unfinished business” that is the most glaring legacy of the Baby Boomer generation, Kowalski’s own children, children who have no end of “answers” for everyone else while accomplishing nothing but negatives themselves. Today, the Korean DMZ is just one of many dozens of dismal places around the globe where American soldiers stand guard, mostly forgotten at home and barely tolerated locally.
The second deadly half of the 1st Cavalry Division’s long bloody slog north was for naught. Still, Kowalski’s Army experiences exposed him directly to Asian cultures in Japan, Korea and China. Although admittedly not under the best of circumstances, that exposure was considerably more than the vast majority of Americans ever experience, and far more intense, far more “up close and personal”, than any civilian could ever imagine. He then came home and went to work assembling automobiles on manufacturing plant lines, the plentiful, and desperately defended, union jobs now offering good pay and benefits to everyone willing to work hard regardless of ethnic background. It was the dawn of a new era in America, an era when a bountiful churning economy fueled by technology and babies ushered in a climate of routine work schedules and easier labor replacing violent competition for dangerous jobs often marked by injury and death. America was suddenly changing into a very different world almost overnight. Other Americans now cushioned by growing Greatest Generation workplace laws and “safety nets” didn’t want to even think about anything uncontrollable elsewhere that might once again pull the rug out from under them and send them all back to the constant misery of their youth. After World War II members of the Greatest Generation had immediately dedicated themselves to catching up on what life had until then denied them – making families with lots of kids and giving those kids everything they could possibly want, a fevered dedication to children that drove the greatest economic and building boom in history. Kowalski’s honorable military service (at $2.00 a day) justifiably earned him a slight edge in landing one of those jobs, as well as in securing a mortgage on a decent new home for his family that he maintained and protected for the rest of his life. To do this, he had to keep and maintain that job, but finally, life was good. All he had to do was apply constant hard work and sensible planning to assure a decent future for his family while steadily paying off the loan on their home. And this he did for the second half of his life.
A New Cycle Of Ethnic Dynamics
Yet, by the time we meet Kowalski a half century later, we are confronted with a man who has survived an extremely difficult life to arrive at what seems to be little that is worthwhile, just a bunch of very spoiled younger Americans who don’t have a clue, who don’t do anything, make anything, anymore, who constantly whine about the most petty of life’s impediments. For a man who paid so dearly for what little he has, everything around him now seems an affront, including an absurd young priest barely out of school presuming to lecture him about life. Even more recent arrivals in his own neighborhood don’t seem to have the same pride in earned ownership that he does, don’t seem to care about maintaining the tended appearance of their homes and surroundings. This was once a decent, clean and tidy community that his generation had built out of nothing.
Kowalski knows better than most that those with the least invested in what America has to offer are always those most willing to just give it away, allow it to crumble, fall apart, be wasted. (If it didn’t cost you anything, if it was all just handed to you for simply showing up, what do you really care about what happens to it – as long as it keeps taking very good care of you?) He also knows that the easiest way to deal with standards you can’t meet is to denigrate the standards, to gradually lower them – something at which even his own sons excel, sons who have become silly caricatures, empty shells, signifying nothing. There before them stands a real man, a hard-boiled survivor who took whatever life threw at him and kept marching, mostly in stoic silence, doing his part for family, community and nation. But all they see is a grouchy old guy set in his ways who won’t “change with the times”, who won’t move on and leave to them whatever he had managed to acquire. If you can’t measure up to the standards, just belittle those who set them, or, even worse, don’t even try to understand what it took for them to get as far as they did, or why. To label Kowalski a “racist” or a “bigot” is to do him a grave injustice, but this is entirely expected of those shallow and ignorant younger Americans who are quite naturally so much the object of Kowalski’s disdain, his disgust. Such people have learned what to think, but not how to think, and in a life that is far too easy, where the standards, even in schools, have been steadily dropping for forty years. Just look at what they have allowed to happen to the community in which they grew up so healthy and spoiled. And, worse, the kids don’t stand for anything except mindless compliance with contemporary politically correct dictate and free goodies forever at minimum effort. They have become useless humans, doing little more than taking up space in the bounty they were handed for free, unwilling to even care for and maintain that bounty for their own children.
Kowalski, now retired and alone, sits on his porch with his aging dog and surveys his neighborhood. Here and there, and especially in his own house, are signs of a once well-kept community now slowly falling into disrepair, unkempt, uncared for, a microcosm of his whole country, the country he risked so much to defend, worked so hard to build. Still, it’s also nearly impossible not to notice that there’s a severe shortage of adult males in the neighborhood, in the Hmong community, as well as an abundance of boys without direction, trying to make up their own rules.
The Hmong refugees in Michigan are in America primarily because they had fought fiercely and loyally with US soldiers against communist forces in the highland jungles of Vietnam and Laos – just like South Korean soldiers had fought with Kowalski long ago. After US forces were withdrawn from Southeast Asia, just like those former allies in Vietnam and Cambodia, around 1973-76 the greatly out-numbered and out-gunned Hmong allies in Laos were simply left to fend for themselves against insurmountable odds. As powerful communist forces flooded into their ancestral homeland, those still alive had no choice but to either stand and die or withdraw and fade into the jungle to escape. This, too, was a legacy of the “anti-war” Baby Boomer generation: monumental ravages inflicted on the peoples of three whole countries – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (a legacy which they later repeated in their own Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya). (The Baby Boomers now have an unblemished forty year record of running away from tough problems everywhere, and their children have fallen right in behind their example. Why would Kowalski NOT be disgusted with the whole lot?) Eastwood’s film gives credit to Lutheran charities for assisting in eventually removing these Hmong from certain slaughter at the hands of enemy forces in Laos and from squalid overcrowded refugee camps in Thailand to sanctuary in America. But many other Hmong refugees were eventually bought to America through the efforts of retired or separated members of the CIA and the US Army’s Special Forces (“green berets”), professional veterans of the long war in Southeast Asia with whom Eastwood himself has long been closely associated. Many of those refugee groups were rather short on men, casualties of that incredibly deadly war in Southeast Asia. Much more than most contemporary immigrant groups to America, the Hmong fully earned their tickets well before arrival, mostly in the form of the blood of husbands and fathers, sons and brothers.
Sue, the very smart, wise and perceptive young daughter in the Hmong family next door, despite her youth, is not at all intimidated by Kowalski’s tough demeanor. She probably sees in him glimpses of the tough stoic American men of the CIA and Special Forces who lived and fought for fifteen years (1961-75) beside the Hmong forces they trained, supplied and supported when she was a little girl, until they, too, were pulled out. Without hesitation, she drives right through his veneer to quickly arrive at the man’s core, where she feels quite comfortable, thank you. She knows exactly what he’s doing with his harmless ethnic slurs. She is very fast to take the measure of him using similar ethnic baiting tactics, and wins his respect in very short order. This is a man who reacts to behavior, to actions, to substance, not to packaging or cheap words or dictated lies. Immediately reaching the same conclusion he would have reached when he himself was her age, he sees that Sue is a fighter, not a whiner, that she has depth and grit, too. Any woman that young who can see the inherent injustice, especially in America, of “the girls go to college and the boys go to jail” is indeed someone of very special value. She understands instinctively, probably as an integral aspect of her culture, the great importance in such matters of appropriate adult role models. Since Sue has such obvious worth and perception, perhaps her shy younger brother may also be more worthy of Walt’s time and trouble than he had surmised. And Sue confirms that suspicion.
As custom expects of Asian families, Sue passes on what she has learned of Walt to her grandmother, the family’s widowed matriarch, which explains the old lady’s willingness to commit her grandson to his direction, while stubbornly retaining her outwardly disdain of the man, the timeless immigrant dance, equal parts pride and fear. Kowalski is obviously a man with useful things to teach a boy, not the least of which are how to take pride in his home, acquire and care for tools, how to fix things, earn respect and trust from those in positions to help one advance with honor in America, but also planning, accomplishment, structure, rules, standards, about successful masculinity in American society. Even in two vastly different cultures, some fundamental values are, in fact, universal, and worthy, despite the perversions imposed on contemporary American culture, especially with boys – who learn mostly by example, rather than by cheap words.
“There is only one way to avoid criticism. Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” – Aristotle
A Proper Ending Of A Long Struggle
Kowalski knows that he is nearing the end of his life and that he doesn’t have much time left to salvage something of value out of it all to leave behind, to give it all some worthwhile meaning. A long hard lifetime of always doing what was expected of him – as boy and man, as citizen and soldier, as husband and father, worker and provider, taxpayer and voter – certainly hasn’t netted him much, not even sons who appreciate his long journey or even his values. There can be no doubt that he also had to endure a lifetime of incessant nagging from his wife and whining from his children. He keeps and protects a classic American car he helped assemble with his own hands for the Ford Motor Company as a tangible link to the past, to a time when life actually seemed worthwhile and the future a steady improvement. Kowalski comes from a time before the Baby Boomers and women’s lobbies, when things like trust and respect had to be earned, could not simply be demanded as birthrights, when it was well understood as part of the culture the different ways in which boys and girls learn to become men and women, the different ways they use and develop and educate their brains, and he respects things that his own children don’t even understand, that those who are quick to label him a “racist” or “bigot” don’t understand, either. These are the kinds of avariciously shallow people who believe that a father is not for knowing, for learning, for understanding, but rather as just a source of free material gifts for “me”, that they exist solely for telling you all the nonsense you want to hear even though you haven’t earned any of it. It only takes Kowalski a couple of hours attending an extended family gathering next door for him to conclude that, “I have more in common with these gooks than I do with my own spoiled rotten family.”
And in Kowalski’s frame of reference, he is absolutely correct in that assessment.
This is what the Silent Generation’s Clint Eastwood is all about — when Americans actually stood for something, and backed it up with brave actions and meaningful results. There was no time, or stomach, for childish whining, for wallowing perpetually in self-proclaimed “victimhood” solely to avoid an equitable share of the burden. This man Kowalski believes in personal responsibility, high standards, setting the right example, hard work to earn income, acceptance of human differences, Stoicism, wise use of earnings, willingness to sacrifice for justice and a better future, pride in home ownership, earning respect and trust, making a productive contribution to society, team work, building the fruits of one’s own labor, contributing rather than taking, doing your share for all of us, service to nation, traditional family roles, appropriate gender role models, participatory membership in community, executing a well-considered plan, rising above all the petty bullshit, .. and much more. Like most real men of his time, Walt didn’t do a lot of talking. This masculine man always led quietly from the front, by his own example, as real men do, as all real leaders once did.
“Ethos antropoi daimon.” – Heraclites, Greek philosopher, ~500 BC. (“Character is fate.” – Man makes his own destiny through his choices and his values.)
Perhaps Kowalski would have been quite happy spending his life collecting sea shells on a beach. But he didn’t. It’s not so much about pursuing something that you like as it is about pursuing something that provides your life with meaningful purpose, beyond yourself. It’s far more about “us” than it is about “me”. A life lived without purpose, no matter how difficult or easy, is not a life worth living, or dying. It’s just going through the motions of a fake existence, signifying nothing. Just what is it that the stories behind that cigarette lighter, behind that Silver Star, behind the men of South Korea’s 1st Division and America’s 1st Cav, behind the multi-ethnic crew that worked together to assemble that classic 1972 American muscle car at the end of the Greatest Generation’s dynasty, now frozen in time, … had taught Kowalski about life and purpose?
Just look around you; all that you see is NOT a “gift from God”, just for “me” to take and waste. It’s a gift from real men like Kowalski, men who set the standards, for all of “us”. No one could ever say that there was a spark of narcissism in any of them.
Walt Kowalski found a solution to his dilemma. In the end, the man skips completely over his Baby Boomer sons and their children, who never bothered to learn anything about life in America before their own miraculous arrival on the scene, to pass his American Man legacy on to far more worthy immigrants from Asia – through an act of bravery in service of the greater good. Kowalski remained true to the man he always was; he was a hero in life, and a hero in death. Beneath the veneer, Walt Kowalski always stood for something, in both Korea and Michigan, and that something, forged in the tough caldron of life in America, had real value. Above all, this man had always stood for personal responsibility, for accepting, even embracing, his adult responsibility for himself and for others. Despite their very different backgrounds, fellow traveler Ernest Hemingway would have enjoyed sharing a bottle of smooth absinthe with Walt Kowalski; he had lived his life as a man, above the rabble, and the conclusion was all splendidly on his own terms. His whole life had earned him that final honor. For a modern man, a good death is hard to find. By his example, Walt’s American Man legacy is now in the heart and hands of an equally worthy immigrant from Asia; it remains to be seen if he will rise to the challenge, embrace the code, and give his own life some worthwhile meaning, some worthy purpose, too.
“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” – Horrace Mann (1796-1859), American politician and educational reformer, considered the “Father of the Common (free public) School Movement” in America.
P.S. Although he certainly could have, Walk Kowalski does not chose the “Dirty Harry” “solution” and use a “Colt 45 Magnum” to “blow your head clean off” and “make my day”. Walt uses his brains to engineer an approach that invites the bad guys to hang themselves; all they have to do is be customarily stupid and take the carefully prepared bait, right in front of the whole neighborhood. As Clint Eastwood knows very well, Walt Kowalski, although just as much a very brave American man, is a far better, and smarter, role model than Dirty Harry ever was. (See Footnote #3.) (Also note that, today, there is no logical reason at all why an equally brave American woman could not have carried out the same “solution”, provided she also accepted her just responsibility for others, and found a worthwhile purpose, beyond pathetic “me”.)
P.P.S. Smart guys know that the bigger the brawn, the smaller the brain. Dumb brutes of all stripe are a dime-a-dozen, usually trying to compensate for some major shortcoming of their own, so use your brains (but keep some brawn in reserve). (Big guys can just use size and muscle to force their way through, and lose; smaller guys have to develop and use their brains as a work-around, and win.*) And those on the receiving end of bullies, of either gender, who think it has something to do with themselves, get over it; insecure dumb brutes will go after me as quickly as they’ll try to intimidate you. The trick is to make sure they don’t try it a second time. I’ve always found it more effective if you deliver the first lesson in private. Stand your ground, on your own principles. Four-star General James Mattis, known affectionately to his Marines as “Mad Dog Mattis”, recently retired after 41 years of military service. Most of his famous quotes were intended to instill a fearsome fighting spirit in his men during war, and, as such, were a little more pungent than they could have been in more polite company. They also belied the man’s intelligence, knowledge and expertise. Two of his famous admonishments, however, have definite and much wider applicability: (a.) “The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.” and (b.) “You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force; engage your brain before you engage your weapon.” Semper fi.
* This principle applies not only to individuals, but also groups and even whole nations. For example, the level of intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, insight and forethought among those appointed to chart and implement America’s role in the larger world took an immediate drop after the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the emergence of America as a SINGLE super-power around 1992, and has steadily declined ever since. “We’re so strong, we can just use the people’s military and money to simply bully our way through wherever we want to go. Who’s going to stop us?” These marginal thinkers in American “foreign policy” – including politicians, diplomats, academics and the vast chattering class – are gradually learning that smaller players out there can use their brains to demonstrate that it’s not so easy at all for those who rely too heavily on bully power.
(To view the crux of the matter from a different angle, see “Free As A Bird – Something’s Gotta Give“)
Note, April 2013: This article has remained consistently popular ever since I first posted it, and that popularity extends to many countries around the world. Based on e-mails that readers have sent me, there seems to be some similarities in the questions that readers have about the Kowalski character and the role of that character in a range of cultural, historical and generational factors running through the story. Those similarities remain relatively common among young people across a wide range of cultures. I’ve never taken the time to learn what others have written about the film, so I really can’t explain such common threads among my readers, except to suspect that a few good teachers here and there are using the film as an effective teaching tool – which is a good thing. There is a lot more going on in this story about an average “guy next door” than one would notice at first glance, and many of those dynamics are universal, so the story has valuable lessons to teach us all. To me, the most valuable lesson is to be reluctant to accept things on face value, on what the “group think” says, without taking a closer look, doing your own checking, your own thinking, and then reaching your own conclusions. With humans everywhere, things are rarely what they seem at first glance. That’s one of the things that makes life so rich and fascinating, and dangerous.
Walt Kowalski was a Polish-American working class hero of the Silent Generation. He was made of the same stuff as another Polish working class hero named Leopold Socha. Socha’s story, and that of those who made him a hero, was told very well by Poland’s Agnieszka Holland in her 2011 film “In Darkness” (“W ciemności“). Socha made his mark in Lvov 1943-44, and somehow managed to survive, only to die shortly thereafter saving his young daughter from a run-away Russian Army truck. Both of these men marched to a different drummer, and in the end neither Kowalski or Socha could ignore the responsibility that was there, inside their souls. Unnoticed men in life, that sense of inescapable responsibility is what made them stand far above those around them. (Lvov is today Lviv in Ukraine.)
By the way, I’ve encountered real bigots and racists and sexists all over the world, and, trust me, there is no requirement anywhere that they can only be white, heterosexual, male and American – the world’s safest target. That self-serving notion, so very popular among small-minded people in the West of very limited experience, is just asinine. (Is there a law somewhere that says there’s one minority group which everyone else can hate and vilify and censor and blame and discriminate against with impunity?) These unfortunately are universal human traits that exist in varying degrees among ALL groups on the planet – regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, or any other artificial label those groups use to define themselves. Those who concern me most in America are those, especially women, who “raise” and “teach” boys, who absurdly think that they are somehow immune from such traits, who perpetually hide behind some theoretical “victim” status so as to avoid their just responsibility for themselves and for others. All a thinking person has to do is consider that simply defining oneself is to exclude others, to set them apart, make them different. There is nothing at all wrong with this; it is what happens next in one’s own mind that’s important, and the mind can go anywhere – most especially if it’s improperly educated, and never challenged. The biggest problem with American society is that its majority privileged women have never been placed on the defensive, never been held accountable, either objectively on their self-serving emotional beliefs or on the results of their equitable contribution to all of us. All they ever do is make demands of everyone else, ad nauseam.
Footnote #1: The 1st Cavalry Division And Related Stuff.
Footnote #2. Kowalski’s Code.
Footnote #3. Kowalski The Man.
Footnote #4: The Korean War.
Footnote #5. Korean War Veteran Buried.
Footnote #6. The Pied Piper of Saipan.
Footnote #7. PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder).
Footnote #1: The 1st Cavalry Division And Related Stuff.
Special Services. During the Korean War, in 1951, Clint Eastwood at age 21 was drafted into the US Army and assigned to military duty with Army Special Services, based at Fort Ord, California. Fort Ord was also the home of the 7th Infantry Division, which saw duty after World War II in Japan and Korea very similar to that of Walt Kowalski’s 1st Cavalry Division.
(Special Services, created in 1940, is a specialized military branch providing recreational and morale support to members of the American military wherever they are deployed, mainly through entertainment (movies, live shows, books, newspapers, magazines, etc.), physical activities, crafts, travel and similar routine recreational services. They are the military people who also work with United Service Organizations (USO), the non-profit civilian organization created in 1941 to arrange and provide a range of higher-level programs, services and live entertainment to military members and their families. The Special Services branch was racially integrated from its inception.)
US Army Racial Integration. By 1950 all Army combat units were still very severely under-strength, WW II losses not yet fully replaced. Worse, Congress had reduced overall US military authorized strength by 80% at the end of World War II. Army veteran President Truman (a junior artillery officer in WW I France) had ordered a reversal to racist President Wilson’s federal civilian and military racial segregation order. Truman’s reversal order (Executive Order 9981, July 1948) seemed prescient; it enabled Army units that had been arbitrarily segregated for the previous 35 years to quickly double-up in order to survive the war in Korea. Once again US Army units were integrated, as they had been since the Civil War, and black and white soldiers fought side by side all the way north to China.
Human Intelligence. While the 1st Cav and other Army units were holding the eastern port of Pusan, General Douglas MacArthur (commanding US Forces Pacific, including those in occupied Japan) was planning a spectacular landing at Inchon on the western coast of Korea, near Seoul. The landing plan was deemed “absolutely impossible” by most military experts since it depended on taking advantage of just a few hours of high tide in what was otherwise a huge marshy region along the northwest coast of South Korea. If his forces were unable to pull it off without flaw, the entire force would find itself bogged down and easy targets for enemy forces. In order to gain the intelligence necessary for that surprise landing, a single Navy lieutenant (Eugene Clark) was secretly sent ashore with instructions to contact two South Korean military officers and recruit and train a small team of agents to gather the necessary intelligence. The information the lieutenant was able to provide over six days via radio to the 260-ship US naval fleet off-shore was critical to the success of the 75,000-man ‘Landing At Inchon’ – with almost zero casualties and executed so rapidly that communist forces could not react quickly enough. The Inchon Landing, which had to be very precisely timed with tides due to low sea depths, took place on 15-19 September – two and a half months after the US Army landings at Pusan began in early July. By the time the Pusan Perimeter on the east was secured, MacArthur was ready with his landing on the other side of the Korean Peninsula at Inchon. The “break-out” from the Pusan Perimeter coincided with the surprise landings at Inchon. Inchon was secured, Seoul liberated, and North Korean forces were withdrawing back north within two weeks. North Korean forces had deemed such a landing as so improbable that very few forces were placed in defense of the region. The role of human intelligence in that very daring Inchon beachhead operation was critical to its success and to the liberation of South Korea.
The 1st Cavalry Division. The 1st Cavalry, formed in 1921, was later a mechanized, now an air assault, infantry division, which has a black horse’s head on a yellow background for its unit patch. Based at Ft Hood, Texas, the 1st Cav, one of the US Army’s most decorated combat units over the past century, now operates as nearly independent combined arms battalions in a brigade structure. This means that the division’s subordinate brigades are deployed and withdrawn as complete fighting units, not as individual soldier spare parts in a huge organization. (1st Cavalry personnel often wear those black “cowboy” Stetson hats, now common to all US Regular Army cavalry (air assault) infantry units, worn by Robert Duvall, as the fictional ‘LTC Kilgore’, in “Apocalypse Now”.) The 1st Cav is a Regular Army front-line combat infantry unit, and, as such, expects high casualties in war. Unlike in the past when American infantry soldiers were quite young, single and draftees paid almost nothing, today they are more likely to be older, much better paid volunteers, married and have children. Ft Hood, Texas, is a huge sprawling home to more than 25,000 soldiers from all over the country, their families, and many thousands of civilian employees who support base operations. Like most such large permanent military bases in America, they are nearly completely self-contained cities of 50,000 or more souls of all races and religions. Such bases are mainly for training and replenishment, but also a place where American soldiers can relax with their families between foreign deployments and feel safe in familiar non-threatening surroundings.
Smaller Combat Units. The US Army is now transitioning to a concept that breaks all huge combat divisions down to smaller and more mobile regimental- or brigade-sized units that are rotated as complete fighting units – which is much better for unit cohesiveness and effectiveness. And we no longer call them inanimate “troops”; they now have a sentient human identity. The aristocracy’s drafted “troops” of Gettysburg, San Juan Hill, Little Big Horn and Meuse-Argonne have faded into history; they are now volunteer soldiers, and those who can make it a career are educated first-class professional soldiers, the world’s best.
Horse Soldiers or “Troops”. The 1st Cavalry Division’s category designation of ‘cavalry’ takes its title from the “horse soldiers” or “troopers” dating back over 2800 years, to the period of ancient Greece. Horse soldiers (or troopers) are infantry soldiers who go into battle astride specially bred and trained horses according to the type of their designated service. Alexander The Great was a master horse soldier who led many cavalry battles, from the front. So was Julius Caesar, who led his Roman legions against the Galls all the way to Britain, Marcus Aurelius, the Roman philosopher-emperor-soldier, and America’s greatest leader, George Washington, the American Revolution commanding general and first President. General Robert E. Lee, the American Confederacy’s commander, was also an expert horse soldier. Even the great American tank commander, General George Patton, was a master horse soldier. The first recorded use of horses in warfare involved the Sumerians in 2500 BC – over 4,500 years ago. But during WW II war horses gave way to tank warfare and were permanently replaced by various types of motorized vehicles such as armored personnel carriers (APCs) (thus the “mechanized” designation), and, during Korea and Vietnam, helicopters. The helicopters are used for “air assault”. (The term “troops” is thus a hold-over from the aristocratic World War I – a century ago, the last time soldiers used horses in war and died needlessly in large numbers under inept command. Today its use seems to give those using the term a delusional sense of superiority over “dumb expendable cannon-fodder” in American soldier uniforms.)
Irish-Americans And The American West. The division patch of the 1st Cav, with a black horse’s head on a yellow background, evokes an image of a 19th century trooper’s horse on America’s Great Plains. This image pre-dates the division, to a famous earlier period in American history and to one of the chief players in that history. Many have seen cavalry (or “horse soldiers”) in old American western movies, some even starring a young Clint Eastwood. The most famous such cavalry unit in the ‘Old West’ was the 7th Cavalry Regiment, formed as an independent unit shortly after the American Civil War in 1866 to protect pioneers and railroads moving west across the Great Plains. (A regiment in the US Army can consist of from 3,000 to 5,000 men, usually formed as five or so battalions, each commanded by a LtCol.) Most of the members of the 7th Cavalry were first-generation Irish-American veterans of the American Civil War. That regiment was also known as the “Garyowen“, which is the name of the very old Irish tune that also became the unit’s marching tune. Many other first-generation Irish-American veterans of the Civil War were at that time also busy building the Transcontinental Railroad across the Great Plains. The 7th Cav Regiment also always had in its ranks a significant number of black soldiers, mostly former slaves, and also employed many Native Americans as scouts. Ten years after the 7th Cav was formed, 268 of its men, in a small battalion-sized unit, died under the command of LtCol George Custer at the Little Big Horn River in eastern Montana. Often depicted in Hollywood movies, in true or fictional stories, in reality 45 men of the 7th Cav were awarded the Medal of Honor during its first 24 years between 1866 and 1890; 24 of them, all junior enlisted men, died at Little Big Horn in Montana. The 7th Cavalry Regiment, which had become legendary for the bravery and resilience of its tough troopers who ranged throughout the American West, as well as for its very strong Irish-American heritage, later became part of Walt Kowalski’s 1st Cavalry Division in 1921. While they have been retired from the battlefield, military horses are still used by the US Army for various types of important ceremonial events, such as the funeral procession for US Navy veteran hero, and Irish-American President, John F. Kennedy.
This is an authentic version of the original “Garyowen” by the US Army Strings, complete with Irish pipes and fiddles, often heard in old US Western movies. The tune originated as a drinking song (“Eóghan’s Garden”) in Limerick, Ireland, and became famous through the 5th Royal Irish Lancers of the British Army in the 18th century. It was adopted by New York’s Irish-American 69th Infantry Regiment (the “Fighting 69th”) in 1851, and by the 7th Cavalry Regiment in 1866. In 1981 it became the official tune of the mighty 1st Cavalry Division.
(During the American Civil War, Custer had aptly led cavalry forces that placed him at Appomattox for the surrender of the South’s great General Lee. Also at Appomattox were the still potent remnants of the Irish-American Fighting 69th. Among those who died with George Custer against far superior and better armed Native American forces at Little Big Horn was his younger brother, Thomas (a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor for bravery during the Civil War), another of his brothers, a nephew, and a brother-in-law.)
(Most of the horses used by the 7th Cavalry Regiment were hardy mixed-breed stock taken from wild in the American West and trained as disciplined cavalry mounts of remarkable stamina and endurance in return for excellent care required by military regulations. One, a gelding with the ironic name of Comanche that had been with the 7th Cav since its inception, was wounded several times in battle before managing to also become the lone survivor of Little Big Horn. The horse was found severely wounded two days later, nursed back to health, and officially retired by military order with full special benefits, first at Ft. Meade, Maryland, and then at Ft. Riley, Kansas, until he died of natural causes in 1891. Comanche was one of only two horses in US history to be given a military funeral with full military honors, the other being the famous riderless ceremonial quarter horse, Black Jack, who usually paraded at Arlington National Cemetery with cavalry boots reversed in stirrups.)
Footnote #2. Kowalski’s Code. A few of my younger male readers have asked me some pretty complex questions about Walt Kowalski. I don’t wish to make this more complicated than it needs to be. After all, it’s just a movie with a good story. But for those guys seeking a deeper understanding of the Kowalski character, who somehow know that they were never meant to fit neatly and compliantly into the stupefying mold that modern women designed for them in their own self-serving image, Hemingway is a very good place to start. Know that “feminists” of a generation ago took exception to Hemingway primarily because his female characters are too masculine. (Today, of course, they take exception because his male characters are too masculine. Think about it.) It is true that Hemingway’s principal characters, as intelligent masculine men who think and decide for themselves, do not have a “feminine side” any more than “feminists” lay claim to a “masculine side”. (The relentless drive of American women to a self-serving “uni-sex” entity is simply a bigoted campaign to emasculate males, starting with vulnerable little boys, to mold them in their own “special” image, primarily because they are unwilling to meet Kowalski’s responsibility standards in the interest of “equality”. The last woman in America who demonstrated any affinity for something weightier than narcissistic “feminism” was Ayn Rand, a half century ago, and she was born in Russia.) But the best portrait I ever saw of the man behind the pen showed only a muscular fist grasping the stem of a beautiful red rose; you just knew that the owner of that fist was Hemingway. There was always much more to this man Hemingway than most others assumed, too. Still, understand that there is also heavy philosophy involved here, just beneath the surface, and that a real appreciation of Hemingway will invite further study of philosophers like Sartre and Nietzsche, which is definitely not an easy task. Hemingway floats on the periphery of a philosophy known as existentialism, so I’d ground myself well in Hemingway’s works before proceeding further. His are usually very good stories in themselves, while also offering the reader of good flavor of fascinating history and geography.
(There is absolutely nothing about Hemingway’s code that says it is for men only, but most privileged American women (“feminists”) prefer to ridicule it rather than try to measure up to it – and, of course, they teach the same cowardly nonsense to their young. “If it’s too hard, then it’s just nonsense.” This “thinking” is also a major reason why so many loser sons hate their estranged fathers, girlishly blame their fathers for their own shortcomings.)
(Those of you who are fans of classic American cult movies might remember another Kowalski, a younger guy who makes a living delivering cars between cities in the American West whose story is told in the film “Vanishing Point” (USA, 1970). As the film’s main character proceeds from Denver to San Francisco in a white super-charged 1970 Dodge Challenger 440 Magnum, police in Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California try to stop him – for nothing more than speeding on straight, flat, open roads. There’s something about American men and muscle cars, and freedom. It turns out that this Kowalski is also a US Army Vietnam Vet who was awarded the Medal of Honor, a former hero police officer, and had also tried his hand as a race car driver and motorcycle racer. Early in the film there is a brief dream scene of two cars passing each other in opposite directions, and as they pass, Kowalski’s car vanishes. This Kowalski, too, lives to a code and decides his own fate, but you have to be a Kowalski to understand his story.)
If you do decide to pursue the subject further, do not rely on “interpretations” of the works of these two philosophers. Instead, read what they themselves wrote and apply it yourself to your own life experiences. (With Sartre, an excellent place to start after Hemingway is “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger”) by the French-Algerian Albert Camus. If you can, I recommend that you read Camus in his original French.) Those who have sought to “interpret” the works of such men as Sartre and Nietzsche in the context of contemporary culture invariably miss the original intent and end up turning it to mush. This is primarily because such overarching philosophy (including religious philosophy) was effectively superseded in western culture early in the twentieth century by the rising purely psychological theories advanced by Freud and simultaneously also by behaviorism (and, of course, by “feminism”), which, in sum, essentially made the self (“me”) the center of the universe. (Such theories were quickly embraced by the self-involved Baby Boomer generation, beginning with the marketing industry and eventually infecting the entire politics industry. More than anything else, “feminism” riding on Freud and advanced by “marketing” and political propaganda, made pathetic narcissism the foundation of the American “belief structure”. It’s all fake, meaningless, nonsense, built on stupid mandated lies serving “very special me”. A friend of mine calls this self-serving American belief structure “farts in the breeze”.)
Americans today spend all their time addressing bouncing baubles that pop up in front of their faces, and almost always baubles in isolation. An overarching philosophy enables the thinking man to place those baubles into proper perspective and context as parts of a whole, a continuum, and to give that whole, that continuum, some understandable structural context that makes sense. I happen to believe that a useful philosophy enables logic to better balance emotion in sound decisions for the greater good, but you may reach a different conclusion. You do not have to accept all of the philosophical theories of such thinkers as Sartre and Nietzsche, or even Kierkegaard, nor should you, but if your interest gets you this far, you will definitely find in their work constructs enabling you to better understand your own condition in the world, and perhaps plot a way forward that makes better sense to you. A good way to do that is to take the Jesuit approach, and pick apart such constructs piece by piece, all the way down to the last element, and then see if you can re-construct it piece by piece and see if it still stands. If nothing else, the intellectual exercise will teach you how to think, and far beyond what you might believe is possible, which in itself is a good thing. (If you are one of those infantile “special” people who believes that it’s all about whining “me”, and that “self-fulfillment” means the “right” to pick and choose and demand only those goodies you like while leaving the hard stuff to “someone else”, disregard this footnote.)
Or, for another option, check out “Marry Me“, posted separately, and take note of Item #14.
“Personality is ripe only when a man has made the truth his own.” – Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55), Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, and religious author who is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher. (I happen to believe that those who only want “My Truth” to be in possession of fake personalities, signifying nothing. Think about it: There’s a Big Difference between the truth and my truth.)
Belief structures such as religion and philosophy have fallen significantly in stature in western culture since the rise of the Baby Boomers, and replaced largely by such inane substitutes as sports teams, political parties or cliques, cults and empty herds united in social media. For a thinking man, none of these are adequate substitutes for a belief structure larger than the self that can serve to guide a man’s course through life and give it substance, meaning, purpose, a way to judge himself against a worthy standard beyond the mundane. Even as a professional Irish-American soldier, I’d have to say that, much more than anything else, including a religion, it is an unwavering abidance to a philosophical belief structure that has gotten me this far, and on a steady keel. My life is solely the sum of decisions I have made, as a thinking man. The conclusion of my story should thus be on my own terms, as a thinking man.
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
The Riddle: “Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The western summit is called the Masai “Ngà-ja Ngài,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 short story of Harry Street’s journey does not offer a solution to the riddle, but a Paris bartender in the 1952 film based on the story gives it a stab. “Perhaps he took the wrong trail and followed the wrong scent. And so he got lost and died.” Harry Street mulls it over and replies: “That’s a very sensible solution, Emile. For him … and for me.”
(I read many of Hemingway’s works while he was still alive (his death coincided with my interest and involvement in the election of Jack Kennedy), so my understanding of his works is probably different from today’s readers. Hemingway was describing a world that I knew and understood, a world that was mine as a player. The world has changed significantly since then, so people tend to put a different “spin” on things they themselves did not experience first-hand. Much has been written about the women in Hemingway’s life, mostly exaggerated by contemporary “feminists” typically revising the past to suit their wants of today, but my estimation was always that those women (mostly privileged Bryn-Mawr types) were minor set-pieces to Hemingway’s mind. He was simply a man who thought beyond, or very differently from, what those women were capable of experiencing, or fully understanding. His best muse, of course, was the journalist Martha Gellhorn, a woman of rather impressive talents and energy and independence of her own. I always felt that the mistake they both made was to marry (during WW II). I think the relationship would have produced much more favorable and lasting results for each if they had remained close friends and occasional lovers. I think that in that situation they each would have pushed and encouraged and dared the other to even greater self-realization. Gellhorn marched to her own drummer, and it was a beat or two off from Hemingway’s. But Hemingway also suffered with his own demons (and a gradually progressing illness), and seemed to need a constant, reliable and unquestioning woman to provide his anchor, in the background. He didn’t find her until the end, but Gellhorn had long earlier moved on, and it was no longer so important.)
(Notice that Kowalski does not own a cell phone, or any of those other devices that now rule the lives of so many, that keep them perpetually “connected”, that do all of their thinking, tell them what to believe and what to ridicule, that decide what goes on in their own brains. Kowalski is much freer than most today to rule his own life, to think for himself, to make personal discoveries, with enough quiet time of his own to actually think, to contemplate, to reach independent decisions and plan a good course. He is not constantly bombarded with the idiotic, the mundane, the petty, with bouncing baubles, with herd mentality. (There are times when I believe those little toys are actually the bane of our times. A desktop or laptop used for an hour or so in the evening is fine; the rest, in the final analysis, is just useless, and often counter-productive, nonsense, best used to briefly amuse infants in cribs.)
Footnote #3. Kowalski The Man. The following, in response to e-mails, concerns American society, which is a perversion unto itself. Walt Kowalski did NOT become a different person; he never changed one bit from the man he always was, beginning in his very early teens. Despite the privations of his youth, when he was a boy, Walt Kowalski had a very good masculine role model available in his immediate environment. That role model was most likely his first-generation Catholic Polish-American father.
Despite the self-serving delusions of women, boys and men don’t “evolve”, don’t “re-invent themselves”, cannot be “re-shaped” into some other “ideal” after marriage, don’t become someone else to meet the demands of others. Nor do boys or men “create themselves”, right there on the street corner all by themselves, as is the totally absurd presumption of today’s women (so as to avoid their just responsibility). This asinine notion is just as idiotic as that which holds that both genders are the same, that they both can be conveniently lumped into some perverted “uni-sex” entity (“just like glorious me”) – until women decide that they want to be different and “special” and served and worshipped by the other gender. (Just consider the “logic” of that insanity.) For the record: There is zero “special” in equal; the only “special” people in America are all under age ten. Just because women don’t want to measure up to what they expect of men is no excuse for turning them into copies of “me” while they are still boys, i.e., lower the standards for everyone.
Only entities who don’t know who they are or what they stand for, who have no real understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong, who really believe in nothing, who are as malleable as mush, “evolve” – which means they shift with whichever breeze blows in their favor at any given moment and thus are devoid of substance, unworthy of trust or respect. Only a fool would ever rely on such a worthless jellyfish, for anything. They are usually those most eager to change the rules, to suit themselves, damned anyone else affected.
Men are created by the behavioral examples with which they are presented by those older role models around them between the ages of 7 and 12, even (and ever more increasingly) if that role model is one or more women. Boys learn life’s most valuable lessons, their most basic values, through observations they make and conclusions they reach about the behavior of those with the most impact on their lives between the “age of reason” (7) and their early teen years (13). What those others at that time say is almost totally irrelevant, inconsequential, to what they do, what examples and lessons their behavior conveys. Assuming their physical and psychological lives from birth up to age 7 have been just as carefully and conscientiously nurtured as for girls (which definitely is no longer a given in our sexist society), the next few years will lock in stone the men they will become. After age 12 they will test the limits as far as they can, be as rebellious as possible, try to “bust out”, explore as many other options as presented, but by age 25-30 they will return to the equilibrium established in them by their role models between 7 and 12, and remain there for the rest of their lives.
Core value development is very different from the subsequent educational process, which involves learning and using ever more, and more complex, information. Core value development establishes the fundamental superstructure which all subsequent experiences and acquired knowledge will augment, and how it will augment it. It establishes a male’s view and understanding of masculinity, his values as a person, his sense of responsibility for himself and for others, his interpersonal relations, his perceptions of gender and sex, his sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, of what’s fair and what’s unfair, of what’s equal and what’s “special”, of what’s earned and what’s taken, his opinion of lying and cheating, his understanding of trust and honor, his very identity as a thinking and acting human of the male species. There is no more important period for the shaping of men than these few early years. Men do NOT “create themselves”; they are created by the important examples displayed by others at a critical moment in their lives.
In their own interests, women and society may impose ever more constraining rules on what men may and may not do and say, but this does not change “the person inside”, what goes on in their heads, what they really believe and value; it just requires them to lie ever more convincingly, to better hide the anger, to marginally function inside ever more confining boxes demanded by women. In our society women ever more increasingly create the boys and men eventually presented to their daughters, for better or worse. Ever more increasingly those men are created by women in their own image, by the example of their own behavior. In very many cases, I can’t stand them any more than their daughters can; in their values, they are just like their mothers.
If anyone is interested in understanding the world in which Silent Generation men like Walt Kowalski drew their American Man values, check out the excellent 1955 film “Bad Day At Black Rock“. In that tense little story, Spencer Tracy plays recently disabled World War II veteran John Macreedy, who comes alone to a tiny Arizona desert town looking for a Japanese-American man named Kumoko. The year is 1945, the war has just ended, and memories are still vivid. Kowalski and Macreedy are two very different men yet still somehow quite average Americans, and it’s easy in such stories to overlook their previous similar experiences, even in different parts of the world. There was always something about quiet American combat veterans and their sense of justice that set them apart; you just had to know how to pick up on the clues, and the overarching philosophy in which those clues appeared. One clue in the “Black Rock” film that is usually overlooked is Scottish-American Macreedy’s use of judo. While some judo-like maneuvers were then a part of basic Army training, Macreedy uses a more advanced style with little effort and full control, and obviously knows just how far to go to avoid killing his opponent – which was not an objective of Army training. Who taught him that? Also, Macreedy served in World War II Europe, so why is he seeking a man with a Japanese name?
(Try to overlook a couple of minor errors in the film, such as a Jeep that could be operated with one hand. The ubiquitous WW II Jeep, even those sold commercially in the US, had only an easily repairable manual transmission – which required two hands and two feet to operate. In 1955 those making the film should have known that, especially since one of the actors, Lee Marvin, was himself a US Marine combat veteran who had fought in the Pacific, another, Robert Ryan, was a US Marine drill sergeant and boxing champion, and a third, Ernest Borgnine, served ten years in the US Navy, including during all of WW II. For the record, the older Spencer Tracy had served in the US Navy throughout World War I. All of these men KNEW Jeeps.)
“The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965), a story of men dealing with survival after their plane crash lands in the desert, also offered an interesting mix of actors. The full cast:
James Stewart, of Scotch-Irish heritage, held the highest active military rank of any Hollywood actor in history. During World War II, he served in the US Army Air Forces, rising to the rank of colonel. After the war, he continued serving in the US Air Force Reserve, ultimately becoming a brigadier general.
Italian-American Ernest Borgnine joined the US Navy at age 18 and served for ten years until leaving at the end of WW II in 1945.
Irish-American George Kennedy enlisted in the Army during World War II, served under Gen. George S. Patton in Europe and went on to serve 16 years, both as a combat soldier, and in his later years, as an Armed Forces Radio and Television officer.
Englishman Richard Attenborough served in the Royal Air Force during World War II as a sergeant and flew on missions over Europe filming from the rear-gunners position to record Bomber Command sorties.
Australian Peter Finch enlisted in the Australian army in 1941, served in the Middle East, was an anti-aircraft gunner during the Bombing of Darwin, and was discharged in 1945 at the rank of sergeant.
German Hardy Krüger was drafted into the German army in 1944 at age 16 and posted to an infantry regiment until war’s end.
Scotsman Ronald Fraser served as a lieutenant in the Seaforth Highlanders in North Africa during WW II, and
Scotsman Ian Bannen served in the British Army as a corporal during WW II.
But probably the best American Man icon was actually left to us by a women who used her experiences growing up in a small Southern town during the Great Depression to create a fictionalized account of events during a brief period when she was still a little girl. It was the author’s one great work, fully worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 1961, and it gave to the world a timeless universal hero in straight-forward uncomplicated prose. The book is rather unique for American women in that it was not about the author, but rather about her widowed father, a man she named Atticus Finch in her novel. This quiet man’s great bravery stemmed from his “natural” matter-of-fact approach to doing the right thing, not even considering other possibilities, even if his course meant risking everything to go up against the emotional herd mentality of the time. His every decision, his every word and action, stood out loudly as an example for everyone to emulate, especially his own son and daughter. In the years after its publication many have sought to twist the novel to suit their own motives, to make it into something that it was not, but from my own experiences in that world twenty years later, the story rings true. The novel’s title is “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, this is also the last account by an American woman that didn’t seek to belittle the men in her work, to instead create deeply flawed, superficial or ridiculous caricatures of almost no substance existing nowhere but in self-serving fantasy. (Sadly, Harper Lee corrected her mistake with a 2015 sequel to the original.) One of the most concerted objectives of the young Baby Boomers, both men and women, during the 1960s and 1970s was to vilify their Greatest Generation fathers. For some people, when the standards become too hard to match, it’s easier to just destroy those who set them, so as to set new standards and make “me feel better about myself” for doing much less. That’s why Atticus Finch, existing for all time on the printed page, is so important. Some standards DO remain constant, and universal.
(There is nothing about Atticus Finch that could not also describe an American woman, provided that she, too, with zero fanfare, fully subordinated her rights and embraced her just responsibility in the world.)
Of course, many other Polish-Americans have made small and large contributions to the United States of America. One of my favorites was a guy named Edward Pulaski, who was born in Ohio in 1866 shortly after the American Civil War. He later traveled west and worked as a miner, railroad worker, and ranch foreman before joining the nascent US Forest Service in 1908 and settling in Wallace Idaho. (Wallace is about 85 air miles (138 km) from where I now make my own home in the Rocky Mountains of northwest Montana.) Ed Pulaski became a hero of the Great Fire Of 1910 (“Big Burn”), the largest forest fire in American history (over 3,000,000 acres or 1,214,057 ha) when he managed to save the lives of 45 of his 50 trapped firefighters even as he suffered some bad burns himself. That wildfire engulfed mostly national forest land, but in that region of America, national forest land is almost all of the land. (Black soldiers of the US Army’s 25th Infantry Regiment (“Buffalo Soldiers”) also became heroes of that fire when they managed to evacuate the residents and then save the town of Taft, Idaho, using a “back-burn”.) Ed Pulaski later popularized and refined a great hand tool that is today known to firefighters all over the world – the Pulaski – even as he spent the rest of his life fighting for financial aid for firefighters injured or killed in that and subsequent forest fires. (I keep two well-maintained Pulaskis handy in my garage.) After his death in 1931, Pulaski had a 5480-foot (1670 m) mountain near Wallace named after him, and today forest firefighting is a major industry in the US that is very well equipped, and paid.
Footnote #4: The Korean War. American participation in the war in Korea was never authorized by the people’s elected representatives in Congress, but rather by the United Nations Security Council; Democrat President Truman committed US forces unilaterally to what he called a “policing action” authorized by the UN, and one that easily could have ended in nuclear war. Very busily building the American infrastructure, most Americans never fully realized that there was a very real possibility of global nuclear war over the Korean War, a possibility that set the American strategic thinking for the entire “Cold” War for forty years thereafter. At the time when the 1st Cav was withdrawn from the front, when huge Chinese forces surged south, President Truman had, in fact, secretly authorized General MacArthur to use nuclear weapons against both North Korea and China, were that to become necessary to avoid losing South Korea to communist forces. Already “the physical destruction and loss of life on both sides was almost beyond comprehension, but the North suffered the greater damage due to American saturation bombing and the scorched-earth policy of the retreating UN forces” overwhelmed by the massive Chinese forces. Air Force commanders, who dropped far more bombs on Korea than they dropped during all of World War II, even began complaining that they’d run out of tactical targets to destroy. Truman also requested and received from Congress really huge funding to prepare the US homeland for the possibility of nuclear war; most such massive construction was undertaken in secret, unknown even to the American public. (Fanning fear for profit and self-aggrandizement was not yet in vogue.) And it was all over a “police action” never authorized by Congress, never even discussed among the American people.
Unfortunately, when General MacArthur grew a bit too verbally bellicose about using nuclear weapons in communications with members of the US Congress, President Truman relieved him of his command – which came as a great shock to Americans long accustomed to regarding the general as an unassailable national hero, a great leader whose knowledge and understanding of the Pacific and Asia was unmatched. (The five-star general was allowed to retire, for the second time, at age 71, after a half century of service, mostly overseas.) The return from many years of wars of General MacArthur to the halls of Congress and his famous speech of farewell to the American people were very extensively covered on American television, probably the first great national event of its kind so broadly televised live, and almost every American was transfixed by the closest TV set. Dry eyes were hard to find, especially among men who had served under him during World War II in the Pacific. (I remember the members of four other families near my home crowding into our living room to watch the TV my dad had just brought home a few days earlier, shortly before he died.) The famous general’s long career had not been without controversy, but he still stood as a giant American icon. However, though Truman did relieve MacArthur, he never withdrew his authorization to use the nuclear weapons, and the general’s staff had selected 26 targets for those weapons. This, even though America’s allies, more fearful of the strong Soviet Russian influence and support behind the war, strongly urged Truman to proceed more cautiously. But while Truman could indeed fire America’s most respected and admired general, no one could fire Truman. (And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Truman himself had been a military officer, one who had served in World War I France.) Truman’s poll ratings, however, dropped through the floor, to around 22%, and many thought that perhaps MacArthur would replace him as President. MacArthur chose not to run. So did Truman.
Negotiations then began with the North Koreans but dragged on for years, while many thousands of men died on both sides in a relentlessly brutal, deadly and destructive war increasingly fought over very small pieces of ground, often no more than a hill here, a creek there, while the major lines remained largely static. Neither side seemed willing or able to mount a sufficiently strong offense against the other in order to achieve a decisive outcome. The communist side was nearly exhausted, barely running on fumes, but on the “UN” side the will to aggressively pursue the war to a conclusion was simply absent. Diplomats and politicians and assorted other talkers took over, and the nuclear weapons were never used. The war became simply a stagnant stalemate of constant bloody death, on both sides, until finally one day the guns fell silent, but were never unarmed. Only Stalin’s death in Moscow in 1953 allowed negotiations toward some settlement to finally move forward. Stalin had regarded Chinese and North Korean forces as their surrogates steadily draining US resources against them rather than against the Red Army, a process which, in his mind, would eventually make his own objective of global domination easier. Stalin had therefore fully supported the Chinese and North Koreans in their deadly struggle with the West, and most especially with the Americans, on the Korean Peninsula. Stalin’s successors soon relaxed that strategy somewhat, which signaled to the Chinese and North Koreans that it was time to reach some settlement.
Throughout, the South Koreans were unceasingly amazed that America was so willing to sacrifice so much of its blood and treasure in a strange land far away, and they were determined to make certain that their own soldiers stood ever strong with their American brothers – even as they themselves suffered unimaginable hardships. The Americans reciprocated by ensuring that South Korean forces were supplied, supported, cared for and even medivaced exactly as were the American forces, and that as much resources as possible were devoted to assisting the South Korean public. It was a monumental effort.
But just consider: One Democrat sitting in the Oval Office elected to unilaterally commit the US military to a foreign “police action” citing authority granted by an unelected foreign entity, without consulting the American people much less their elected representatives in Congress – a “police action” of no consequence to the security of the nation that very easily could have enveloped the nation in global nuclear war killing countless millions. Isn’t that what kings and other dictators do? Wasn’t America created in direct opposition to such arrogant monarchy dictate? (When he fired MacArthur, was Truman more concerned that his secret authorization to use nuclear weapons would become public knowledge than he was with MacArthur’s rhetoric? Where does a President derive such incredible imperial power of no direct consequence to the nation’s security? Under which circumstances?) And that war, which paused where it began, continues today. This is what became known as the “Truman Doctrine”.
Ever since World War II, American politicians, military geniuses all, have proven themselves very adept at (1) committing the US military to wars, and (2) wasting American soldiers in lost causes, over and over again. What those politicians have never learned is (1) following the US Constitution’s provision of having wars declared by Congress, and (2) directing their military forces to victories. It’s difficult to find in history an example of another country losing so many wars in succession over just 70 years. America has become very good indeed at wasting the blood of her best citizens for nothing. The only two of 13 American presidents since WW II who knew what they were doing in military matters were President Eisenhower (1953-61) and President George H.W. Bush (1989-93).
Any country that produces such colossally inept political leaders has no business sending its military forces beyond its own borders.
President Truman had been a junior artillery officer veteran of World War I in France. Do you know what “buy the farm” means? Few today really do. It comes from American soldiers serving in WW I (1914-1918). While their own pay was pennies, the surviving families of those who died in that war could collect $10,000 in the soldier’s group life insurance policy, which was a really large amount at that time – enough to pay off the mortgage and “buy the farm” back home. A soldier thus “bought the farm” by his death. (It was a voluntary lump-sum policy, at affordable premiums.) And very many of the tens of thousands who died in that war did just that, more than adequately setting up their families and descendants for a decent future in America. These were American men. That WW I $10,000 maximum Soldier’s Group Life Insurance policy, with its affordable premiums, remained unchanged through World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War – until after the Draft ended in 1975, even as its value in buying power steadily declined through inflation to much less than half its original worth over 60 years earlier. By the end of Vietnam and the Draft, you’d need at least ten times that amount to even begin thinking about paying off the mortgage and “buying the farm”. But drafted soldiers, mostly single young men, were still paid all of $2.00 for each day they managed to stay alive in Vietnam, so why would a “grateful nation” bother to increase the maximum insurance policy they could buy? (That princely sum of $2.00 was all of two-thirds of the $3.00 that desperate men were paid to work a day with hand tools 2,000 feet down in the West’s hard rock mines a whole century earlier – and its value had declined by over half since that time. It’s hardly surprising that legions of “long suffering” American women were not demanding their “fair quota” of such jobs in the hallowed interest of “equality” – until almost all such formerly very common brutal jobs had faded into history by around 1970. And American women have never stopped complaining about the very comfortable and safe jobs they found after 1970. It’s what they do. Of course, it’s only their version of “history” that counts.)
Korean War Veteran Is Buried Six Decades After He Disappeared
By DEREK WILLIS, New York Times, 19 February 2013
The passengers aboard Delta Air Lines Flight 2125 didn’t get up when the plane taxied into its gate at Baltimore-Washington International Airport earlier this month. They didn’t retrieve their bags from the overhead bins. Instead, they looked out the right side of the aircraft, where an honor guard and black hearse were waiting to escort the remains of Army Corporal James R. Hare home, the final portion of a journey that spanned nearly 7,000 miles and six decades.
There was applause as a staff sergeant in dress uniform, who made the trip from Atlanta, disembarked and headed to the baggage and cargo unloading area. A group of pre-teenagers headed to Washington on a church trip clustered around the plane’s windows, watching the six members of the honor guard come to attention and march over to where a flag-draped coffin was coming down a conveyor belt. Some passengers went inside the terminal, where more people lined up against the windows around the gate, watching as the coffin was placed into the hearse.
Corporal Hare, a native of Cumberland, Md., was 19 when he was reported missing in action on Feb. 13, 1951, near the South Korean town of Hoengsong. Chinese forces had carried out an attack against elements of the United States Army’s 2nd Infantry Division and South Korean units that resulted in more than 11,000 casualties, according to an Army history. Corporal Hare’s capture and death from malnutrition was reported by an American soldier returned in a 1953 prisoner exchange, the Department of Defense reported. (Note that Corporal Hare died from mistreatment as a POW, not at all uncommon for American soldiers throughout history.) An obituary published in the Cumberland Times-News gave his date of death as April 30, 1953.
The process of identifying Corporal Hare began nearly 20 years ago, when North Korea gave the United States 208 boxes of commingled remains from the Korean War. The process to separate and identify remains can be painstaking and take many years to complete. In Corporal Hare’s case, military forensic scientists used mitochondrial DNA donated by a brother and sister — Corporal Hare was one of 15 children — to help identify him, although the process required additional evidence to positively identify the remains because mitochondrial DNA is not specific to an individual. Often that other evidence can come from documents or research by the Defense Department, which conducts interviews with veterans and has an arrangement with China’s People’s Liberation Army to allow access to archives that may help in the identification of missing service members. Corporal Hare was the sixth missing American soldier to be accounted for in January; five were from the Korean War, and two of those also were among the remains turned over by North Korea two decades ago.
On Feb. 13, 62 years to the day after he was reported missing, Corporal Hare was buried at Wesley Chapel Cemetery in Levels, W.Va., where his parents are also interred.
(Note: Corporal Hare’s home town is in the Appalachian Mountains of western Maryland between and near the borders with West Virginia and Pennsylvania in the small city of Cumberland. This is the coal mining region, about 80 miles (130 km) from Gettysburg Battlefield, where my Famine-Irish ancestors got their foothold in America. My dad died in 1952, between the date Corporal Hare went missing and the date he was reported as “killed in action”. America’s efforts to find and bring home its soldiers who have fallen all over the globe on behalf of others for the past two centuries remain unabated. It’s one of the things that makes American soldiers different, even soldiers directly descendant from the Famine-Irish.)
Footnote #6. The Pied Piper of Saipan. During WW II, as the US military fought its way westward across the vast Pacific, the war became a series of incredibly intense battles on small islands. The islands were important because they enabled the US to move forward its supply lines and depots, and also to establish forward bases for airplanes and ship repair facilities. The concentration of so much destructive military power in such tiny spaces led to very high casualties on both sides, and each island became a very intensely waged assault against very determined defending forces. Islands like Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa became enshrined in American history primarily because of the determination of American men to keep going in the face of such massive carnage. The fact that the defending Japanese forces and local populations had been taught that the Americans would do unspeakable things to them made the possibility of surrender very remote, so the battles usually lasted until the defenders and many of the local populace were totally destroyed, very often in underground or mountain bunkers, caves and tunnels. Such was also the case on the island of Saipan – until one unique American man was able to achieve something truly remarkable.
Guy Gabaldon (born 1926) was one of seven children of a Mexican-American couple in East Los Angeles who at age 10 earned money by shining shoes on Skid Row during the Great Depression. When conditions for his family became untenable, Guy at age 12 moved out of the home and joined a multi-ethnic street gang to survive. He was soon taken under the wing by a Japanese-American family (the Nakanos family) he came to regard as his own. From the three generations of the Nakanos family under one roof he learned about Japanese customs, culture, language and heritage. He also attended Japanese language school daily with the Nakanos children, in addition to American public school.
At the outbreak of WW II the Nakanos family was sent to a relocation camp in Arizona, and Guy found himself again on the streets. He eventually found work in a cannery in Alaska while two of his older Japanese “brothers” joined the US Army for service in Europe. On his 17th birthday, Guy was able to use his language skills to overcome a disqualifying ear problem to join the US Marine Corps. He received basic training at Camp Pendleton, was assigned to the 2nd Marine Division and posted to Hawaii as an interpreter with an intelligence service company in 1943.
By then the US was planning for a full scale invasion of the Japanese mainland and knew it would be incredibly costly, with an estimated one million American casualties. The capture of Saipan was considered essential for the establishment of airfields which could accommodate the B-29 Superfortress bombers needed to support the planned invasion. Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands about 125 miles northwest of Guam, is about 3800 miles west of Hawaii and 1400 miles to the southeast of Japan’s Okinawa on the southern approach to the Japanese mainland. The US plan, known to the Japanese, was to take Saipan, then Okinawa, and then Japan.
On 15 June 1944, an armada of 535 ships carrying 127,570 US military personnel, which included Marines from the 2nd and 4th Divisions, began the invasion of Saipan. As the invasion went badly for the Japanese, they were ordered by their superiors to kill seven US soldiers for every man they lost, or commit suicide. The Japanese military code held that surrender was a disgrace that would tar their families for generations.
But incredibly Gabaldon began bringing in prisoners on the very first day that he arrived on Saipan. “I went out on my own… I always worked on my own.., and brought back two prisoners using my backstreet Japanese.” His Japanese was obviously much better than he had thought. Still, Gabaldon was reprimanded by his commander for leaving his post. However, the next night he went out and did it again. He carefully approached a cave, shot the guards outside, moved off to one side of the cave, and yelled in Japanese, “You’re surrounded and have no choice but to surrender. Come out, and you will not be killed! I promise you will be well treated. We do not want to kill you!” In the morning he returned to camp with 50 Japanese prisoners. Convinced of his skills, Gabaldon from then on was permitted by his commanding officer to act on his own without interference.
On July 7, 1944, after spending a night near Saipan’s northern cliffs, Gabaldon secretly listened to thousands of Japanese troops and civilians preparing for a large “banzai charge.” Gabaldon quickly reported the information, which enabled the US Marines to prepare an overwhelming defense. The attack was disastrous for the Japanese, and the survivors returned to their rear positions. The next day Gabaldon captured two more guards and convinced one of them to return to his cave with an offer of surrender. Shortly thereafter, a Japanese officer appeared and walked forward. After speaking with Gabaldon, the officer accepted Private Gabaldon’s conditions of surrender and handed over his sword. Over eight hundred soldiers and civilians then surrendered to Gabaldon, who led them to the American lines and turned them over to the US military authorities. Gabaldon continued to capture (or persuaded to surrender) more Japanese soldiers until he was wounded in a machine gun ambush. In all, the Marine PFC at age 18 was credited with the capture (surrender) of 1,500 enemy personnel. Arranging peaceful surrender was a lot more productive than killing people. Guy Gabaldon was able to make maximum use of what he had learned from his Japanese-American family, even if he was actually a Mexican-American Marine.
His commanding officer, Capt. John Schwabe, noted that he had single-handedly captured more than ten times the number of prisoners taken by Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Alvin York in World War I. For his exploits, Gabaldon, who was 5’4″, 130 lbs (162 cm, 59 kg), became known in the Marines as “The Pied Piper of Saipan” and was awarded the Silver Star, which was later upgraded to the Navy Cross Medal. His story became public in 1957 when he appeared on ‘This is Your Life’, a popular television program aired by NBC in the 1950s. The show presented the life stories of entertainment personalities and “ordinary” people who had contributed in some remarkable way to society. His exploits were also the basis for the 1960 Hollywood film “Hell To Eternity”. Mexican-Japanese-American Guy Gabaldon lived to age 80 and died in 2006. Semper fi.
Footnote #7. PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). It’s common today for young people to bring up the subject of PTSD, especially with military veterans. There is nothing in the film to indicate that Kowalski had any negative residual psychological effects arising from his wartime experiences. Kowalski is angry, disgusted, with his society in general – because of what has become of that society, not because of any of his own wartime experiences. He had undergone such experiences because he had lived in a time when it was expected of him as a man, and he had actually believed that his society was worth such sacrifices. PTSD is not a factor for the Silent Generation’s Walt Kowalski.
(See Footnote #4 to “Sexual Offenses In The US Military” for a brief discussion of military medical and social research, including of PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder).)
The reader might also like to look over the post titled “August 1969 – The Dividing Line”.