January 28, 2023

Native species and invasive ideas

invasive species lighthouse Port Hope

Today’s headlines remind me again of passages in Vasily Grossman’s epic novel “Life and Fate.” Grossman was born in Ukraine and reported the major battles for the Red Army in World War Two. His reporting followed the brutality of Stalingrad to the death camp of Treblinka. Grossman used Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” as his model for writing “Life and Fate.” Many passages are delivered as a straight right hand: “Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” The KGB arrested Grossman’s novel and tried to block publication for two hundred and fifty years.

A year ago the trees around this lighthouse reminded me of another passage in “Life and Fate.” The emerald ash borer, first discovered in China, turned the forest into death camps for the ash trees. The invasive species attacked and killed more than one hundred million ash trees throughout the United States. These trees were in the dying stage last year and now their demise is complete, an invasive species creating a Bloodlands of death as Hitler and Stalin in World War Two. Dozens of tree stumps surround the lighthouse. Grossman wrote of the battle taking place out of sight in the northern forest, comparing it to the life and fate of the human race. Competing concepts of what makes a human, the native species defending the motherland against invasive ideas. Obedience demanded of Stalin versus fascism of Hitler versus liberty from both.

The invasive species failed to kill one hundred percent of the trees here. There were survivors, emerging from the ashes with resilience strengthened in the struggle against the invasive species. The exposure killed many but survivors held promise for the future growth of the forest.

In World War Two, America fought for liberty with a segregated military. Eisenhower, MacArthur, and many officers opposed Truman’s order to end segregation. The official end to segregation of the military came not with dramatic scenes as in Selma and Bloody Sunday in front of cameras, but far out of sight, on a four hundred mile march in temperatures that dropped to forty below zero. The land in North Korea was desolate as the northern forest. These black and white soldiers surrendered the fight from a military sense. A far greater battle took place in their minds. Survivors from the all black and white infantry units slept together in piles to keep from freezing to death. The North Koreans and Chinese used savage tactics to divide and break the minds and willpower of the POWs. Many of the prisoners were veterans of World War Two. They had witnessed the hardship and death of Vasily Grossman’s war. But one incident in the prison camp galvanized both black and white prisoners. James Thompson writes in “True Colors”: “I had been through some of the most vicious circumstances during World War Two, but I had never witnessed a circumstance where a man put his raw personal courage against almost certain death…all for the sake of dignity. God, I admired that! Someone once said it is better to die with dignity rather than live without it. Apparently, Sergeant Riley had made his decision.”

The prisoner camp commander ordered Sergeant Riley to kneel. “Riley kneel!” The guards beat Riley brutally to kneel. The camp commander screamed, “Riley kneel! Damn you kneel!” The guards beat the American POW to a bloody pulp but he kept getting up, refusing to surrender his dignity. Both black and white POWs, with tears in their eyes, shouted for Riley to stay down. “Why doesn’t the big moron kneel?” shouted one American POW. “Stay down you bastard! Stay down goddamnit!” a white POW shouted. “Stay down Riley!” shouted the black POWs. “Then, almost like a beautifully trained chorus the entire assemblage took up the chants in unison. Stay down Riley! Stay down Riley! Stay down Riley! Stay down Riley! Stay down Riley!”

James Thompson, from Detroit, was the only black POW among the “forgotten 33.” He retired from the army in 1967 as a Command Sergeant Major and wrote his slender memoir “True Colors” in 1989. He wrote, “The Chinese were artisans at blending fact and fiction to their own advantage. However one thing they kept misreading was the American spirit. Given all the ills America had, we as a people become one family when put upon by an outside common foe. I don’t think the Germans  or the Japanese understood this during World War Two. I know damn well the Chinese and Koreans didn’t during the Korean conflict. Sergeant Nelson Riley was only a symbol of an American’s resolve to win…to be free. This is the same resolve that saw America through two world wars. This is the same resolve that had sustained black Americans since the days of slavery.”


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