Monthly Archives: February 2013

Thinking about the unthinkable.

Some of the comments on the post below — not the one about Sandra Dee’s Kwanzaa cake, which, thanks for asking, was a huge hit at my Superbowl party! — got me thinking about one of the challenges Eric and I faced when we taught our WWII class last fall, a challenge that also haunted me while I wrote my book: how to keep an audience from becoming inured to an endless litany of stories about atrocities and war crimes.  Because really, by the time I was writing lectures about 1942-44, or detailing, for the umpteenth time, what happened to the human remains taken from the Sand Creek killing field, the parade of horribles became pretty overwhelming. And the last thing I wanted was to leave students or readers thinking, “Oh, please, not another concentration camp/firebombing/brutal purge/case of cavalrymen hacking off their victims’ genitalia. I’m so over this. It’s time to check facebook!”[1]

In our class, we tried two different tactics.  First, we made sure that in several of our lectures we didn’t talk very much about body counts or the horrors of war.  Instead, we spent our time discussing what was happening on the home front, in one case by considering an era in which Daffy Duck exhorted Americans to do their patriotic duty by paying their federal taxes:

And second, we slowed our pace and scaled down.  That sounds counterintuitive — and, honestly, I’m not sure it worked.  But the idea was that by week seven, the students were overwhelmed by numbers and images:  millons dead, cities incinerated, bodies mutilated.  So we dropped our pace and lingered in Anne Frank’s apartment in Amsterdam, revisiting that iconic story, or examined the campaign rhetoric leading up to the 1944 election in the U.S.:

Yeah, we showed a bunch cartoons.  And then we pivoted back to the horrors of war.

In the book, I employed a different tactic:  I maintained my focus on atrocities and depredations, because I think that’s how memories of Sand Creek have most often been shaped through the years.  But, as the pages and horror stories began piling up, I started to approach those subjects obliquely.  For example, there’s a long section of literary history, in which I examine Helen Hunt Jackson’s Century of Dishonor and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  Then, in another instance, I explain how a successful effort to repatriate the remains, held by the Smithsonian Institution[2], of some of Sand Creek’s victims played an important role in the National Museum of the American Indian’s creation story.

As in the case of the World War II class, what I was trying to do with these sections of the book was pull off something like a literary sleight of hand:  having readers look elsewhere while I continued writing about the importance of the bodies desecrated at Sand Creek.  If appropriate cartoons had been available to me, I probably would have used those as well.

Which leads me to the image below.  Matthew Booker linked to this yesterday:


The image, which appears to have been printed in either Time or Life in 1944, is captioned:

Phoenix war worker Natalie Nickerson penning her Navy boyfriend a thank you note for sending her a Japanese soldier’s skull he gathered as a souvenir while fighting in New Guinea.

As with the anecdote about Congressman Walter presenting FDR with a letter opener fashioned from a Japanese soldier’s forearm, I think this image shocks me from my usual torpor by taking a well-known fact — that bodies were profaned by American and Japanese soldiers fighting in the Pacific theater — and placing it in an unexpectedly genteel context.  In the first instance, a congressman gifts President Roosevelt with a carved ulna[3]; in the second, an attractive woman pens a thank-you note to her boyfriend for the lovely skull he sent her as a present:  “Thanks, sweetie!  When I fill the cranium with geraniums, it really brightens the apartment right up!”  In the end, it’s the juxtaposition of the unthinkable with the everyday that brings me up short, forcing me to reconsider, with fresh eyes, something horrible that I already knew well but, numb to its implications, typically glossed over.

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This is the cake I’ll be curating for my guests today. I will, of course, alter it slightly, frosting it with an image of Ray Lewis cradling a sheep in his arms. And then, as the good Lord smites down the wicked Niners, I’ll take comfort in the thought that Sandra Lee might be the next flotus.*

* From Michelle Obama to Sandra Lee? A synecdoche for an empire in decline.

FDR did not touch it but lit a cigarette.

Eric Rauchway and I taught a World War II class last quarter.  Actually, because of of some health issues on my part, Eric did almost all of the teaching by himself.  But we wrote the lectures together, and here’s what I learned about WWII:  it totally sucked.  No, seriously, it might have been a “good war,” but it was unrelentingly awful.  In that vein, I present you with the following delightful anecdote from the June 26, 1944 edition of Time Magazine:

Most Americans were horrified to learn that among the souvenirs which U.S. servicemen have sent back from the South Pacific there have been a few Japanese soldiers’ skulls. They were also shocked to read last week (in Drew Pearson’s Merry-go-Round), that Pennsylvania’s Representative Francis Walter presented Franklin Roosevelt “with a letter-opener made from the forearm of a Jap soldier killed in the Pacific. He apologized for so small a part of the Jap’s anatomy. F.D.R. did not touch it but lit a cigaret.

First, I’m uncomfortable with that spelling of “cigarette.”  What’s up with that?  And second, having just written a book (yes, I have a new book!*) in which atrocities committed by American soldiers feature prominently, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  And yet, I am — if only because it was Congressman Francis Walter who handed FDR this entirely appropriate gift.  What, Congressman Walter, you couldn’t afford a necklace made of ears for the president?  Or perhaps an iconic lamp shade fashioned from human skin?  I think I need a cigaret.

* Check the sidebar.