Saturday, November 19, 2011

Breaking free of the hunter-gatherer mentality

Pervasive in the Occupy movement is the assumption that relative inequality of wealth -- as opposed to the absolute amount of wealth (on the low end of the spectrum) that some possess -- is per se a problem. This is atavistic thinking, a leftover from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. If one member of the tribe goes out and gathers all the nuts and berries within walking distance and refuses to share, the whole tribe suffers. If the idea that inequality of wealth can be acceptable seems counterintuitive, it is because we evolved to our present state before most of the activities that generate wealth were invented.

This insight comes courtesy of my husband, aka The Hoosier Gadfly.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

More war stories - Charley Wyle, American soldier in WWII

It's Veteran's Day tomorrow. Time for more war stories about my father, Charley Wyle, in WWII. In some of these, I will be quoting or paraphrasing interviews my husband (the Hoosier Gadfly) did with my father some years back.

First, a couple of corrections to my last post. It was not Doc but Charley's other close buddy, a G.I. named Frank, who was killed in the explosion that wounded Charley -- only two weeks before the war ended in Europe. Doc, a medic, was killed while trying to save a wounded American soldier. Also, the large rifle Charley carried was not a grenade launcher, but a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), a sort of light machine gun.

A related point: my father was very, very nearsighted. He was supposed to be on "limited duty" because of his eyesight. Yeah, right. (His unit, very much including Charley, fought their way through Europe and took part in the Battle of the Bulge.)

At some point before deployment to Europe, Charley's unit was stationed in the desert, possibly in Death Valley. It was very hot in the daytime, but cool at night. One morning, hours before reveille, Charley awoke and realized that a rattlesnake had joined him in his sleeping bag for warmth. He knew that if he moved at all, he might startle the snake into biting him. Accordingly, he lay absolutely still for perhaps two hours. (You may infer that my dad has considerable willpower.) Finally, people started to wonder why he hadn't gotten up, and someone saw the snake and killed it.

Charley's unit was the "Rainbow" Division of the 42nd Infantry, a National Guard unit from the rural south. They did not immediately take to this undersized Jewish foreigner. That changed once they got into combat and saw how tough and determined Charley was. Charley was, as he later put it, imbued with an all-consuming fury. He saw himself as an "Angel of Death" sent by God to destroy the Nazis. (Charley was and is an atheist. He has repeatedly assured me that yes, there can be atheists in foxholes, as he was one. How he reconciled atheism with the idea of a divine mission, I couldn't say.)

After Germany surrendered, Charley volunteered for the (eventually unnecessary) invasion of Japan. Japan surrendered while he was back in the U.S. awaiting that deployment. At that point, while Charley was awaiting discharge, he was assigned to guard German POW's. The prisoners were from the Afrika Korps, and had been captured early in the war. They had not experienced defeat. They were cocky. Their other guards -- who, unlike Charley's comrades in arms, had not experienced Dachau -- had nothing much against the prisoners. The prisoners were supposed to pick cotton, but the guards did not insist. Some guards would hand a rifle to one of the Germans and let him watch the others while the real guard took a nap. When Charley showed up, he took rather a different view of his role. The prisoners were defiant. Charley explained that they might be able to overwhelm him eventually, but he would kill quite a few of them first, and who wanted to be the first to die? They picked cotton.

Charley was naturalized while in the Army. He had first entered New York Harbor as an immigrant at the age of 16, literate in English but unable to understand the spoken English of the customs agents, and mortified by that failure. The second time he sailed into that harbor, he was a returning soldier and an American citizen, greeted by a banner welcoming him and his comrades home.

Charley summed up his wartime experience as follows: "We were defending all that was good in the world against evil. It was the most climactic experience of my life. I feel better about participating in ending the horror than anything else I've ever been involved in, tiny as my contribution was."

Thanks, Dad. Happy Veteran's Day.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Rambling about my father

My father, Charley Wyle, is in the hospital again, with a recurrent gastrointestinal problem, and I feel like recounting some of his war stories, what with Veterans' Day coming up. I'll probably post others when the mood takes me. There are plenty to tell.

My father and his immediate family escaped Nazi Germany when he was about 15. They spent a year or so in Palestine waiting for their U.S. visa to be in effect, and then came to New York. Once this country entered the war, my father and his next-youngest brother Bert wanted to enlist, but they were viewed as German nationals, absurdly enough, and had trouble doing so. Eventually they finagled their way into the army. Bert became a medic with a glider company. (I use the term "company" without being at all sure it's the right one. I have only the vaguest notion of what constitutes a platoon, company, or any other military unit.) My dad ended up in the infantry.

Since he was 5'6" and scrawny, they gave him the largest available rifle. I believe it was a grenade launcher. As he had no sense of direction, they made him a scout.

A stubborn democratic idealist, he took great exception to the custom of having enlisted men used as servants in the officer's mess. He was almost court-martialed. After a painful personal struggle, he conceded, but he was never reconciled to the idea.

It was in the army that my father first met someone who convinced him that he had a fine mind and should do something with it after the war. His friend "Doc" was older, and well educated. Doc was killed by a mine or bomb that exploded just next to my father. My father had only minor injuries, enough to earn him a Purple Heart.

My father's unit helped to liberate Dachau. They were there early enough that German concentration camp staff seen dead in the well-known photos were still alive. Some of Dad's comrades in arms gave pistols to the prisoners and told them to do whatever came naturally.

Late in the war, when a few German soldiers here and there were just starting to surrender, my father and two other soldiers got separated from their unit and stumbled on a German company(?), about 200 strong. As they hid behind trees, one of the others suggested they start shooting. My father strongly disagreed, pointing out that they would be immediately slaughtered. Instead, he stood up and shouted in German that the Germans were surrounded, and that their only possible chance of surviving the day was to surrender and lay down their arms. They did. Three American soldiers herded 200 prisoners back and presented them to their second lieutenant. The lieutenant asked my father if he thought he could do it again. Dad said he could try. He was sent on several missions to talk Germans into surrendering, and succeeded. The lieutenant got a Silver Star. My dad got bupkes. But he knows what he accomplished.

That's all for now.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Caroline Cooney, Unflinching Moralist of YA Fiction

I enjoy reading YA fiction. One of my favorite YA authors is Caroline Cooney. I don't know how I first discovered her, but she's remarkable.

What most interests and impresses me about her is her moral focus. I've found no other author besides George Eliot who so clearly forces us to confront the irrevocable nature of bad choices. In one of her novels, where youthful thoughtless irresponsibility leads to the death of an innocent bystander, she periodically repeats the line, "She is still dead." It's like the tolling of a bell, the obsessive chant of a guilty conscience.

In Cooney's books, if you take a big risk, it may kill you. If you screw up, it may kill someone else. You may start the day as a regular kid and end up ruined, or ruinous -- or heroic. The other side of her moralist's coin is everyday people -- naturally, young people -- rising to the occasion, astonishing themselves and those who supposedly knew them well.

Many of Cooney's young characters also ponder explicitly religious questions, often experiencing estrangement from and reconciliation with God. My lifelong interest in religions -- the interest of an agnostic outsider -- means that I enjoy these journeys. But it is Cooney's nonreligious explorations of moral choices that move me more, and linger with me longer.