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The Lucky Coin: How a Vietnam War memento is helping American military return home safe from overseas deployment


The Lucky Coin

How a Vietnam War memento is helping American military return home safe from overseas deployment

 

photos by Bill Sitzmann

story by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June edition of Omaha Magazine (https://omahamagazine.com/articles/the-lucky-coin)

 

 

In the aftermath of the 1969 Tet  Offensive, U.S. Marine Pat Peterson found a Vietnamese coin on the ground while serving a tour of duty in the Vietnam War. The date on the coin was 1966—the same year he graduated from Holy Name High School in Omaha. That persuaded Peterson to adopt the memento as a personal good luck charm. He carried it with his dog tags.

As the runt of his infantry squad, Peterson was often lowered by his ankles to inspect openings in underground tunnels. If he saw mounds of steaming hot food below, the tunnel was in active use by Viet Cong. Then they would pull him out and toss grenades inside. One time, after the grenades dropped, screaming women and children fled from the other end of the tunnel. That image—and other horrors—seared into his mind.

He battled post-traumatic stress from Vietnam for the rest of his life. But Peterson was a fighter; he endured, even surviving a bout with cancer.

The coin got Peterson safely home in 1970. He punched a hole in it and wore it on his keychain. He threw himself into veterans affairs. Two decades elapsed before he passed the coin to another serviceman going off to fight in the Gulf War.

So began a tradition that saw him give the coin to deploying servicemen—always on the condition they bring it back. They all did.

Homecoming and a Funeral

The last recipient to return with the coin was National Guardsman Cody Rauch, who carried it to Iraq and Afghanistan while deployed with the U.S. Army.

Now, the coin is in the hands of its latest recipient, Air Force officer Dave Shonegal.

Rauch returned the coin to Peterson in 2017. The coin’s owner passed away the following year. Peterson was 70 when he died from a brain hemorrhage in December. Rauch came to pay his respects. At the reception following the funeral at Holy Name Church, he said, “It got back to its rightful owner in time, and that’s what’s important.”

Rauch also recounted his part in the coin story. He was on leave between tours when, by chance, he and his mates ended up at Nifty Bar on the Radial Highway. The neighborhood watering hole was such a regular hangout for Peterson that a brass plate with his name engraved in it is screwed into the bar at his traditional spot.

The two men met as strangers. By the time the gregarious Peterson swapped war stories with Rauch, and everyone had washed down salutary beers and shots, they were buddies. Peterson offered his coin with the usual stipulation, “Bring it back in one piece.”

“Do you mean bring myself back in one piece, or the coin?” Rauch asked Peterson.

“Hopefully both,” Peterson replied.

Rauch accepted.

Supporting Fellow Soldiers

Peterson’s concern for active duty or retired military extended to serving as a Veterans of Foreign Wars post commander (VFW Post 2503) and as a volunteer services representative at the VA Hospital.

“He was very active in everything veterans,” says Teresa Burks, Peterson’s longtime partner who has worked as a nurse at the hospital for 32 years. “He cared deeply about veterans. He would come to the hospital for a veterans service meeting and stay there for two hours afterward just going around talking to people. ‘Hey, are they treating you right? Anything I can do?’ It was pretty cool.”

Although Teresa and Peterson never married, her son Jed Burks considered him his stepfather. Jed’s children called Peterson “Papa Pat.”

Peterson’s devotion to loved ones was rivaled only by his commitment to fellow vets.

“He would go to the end of the world to especially help another military member,” Jed says. “If he couldn’t help you, he knew enough people to direct you to whatever you needed. It didn’t matter.”

Peterson proudly wore his patriotism—bedecking himself and car with American flag symbols. His father Bernie Peterson was a wounded World War II veteran.

“You knew from way down the road that Pat was coming your way,” recalls Jed, whose oldest daughter may be entering the military in a year.

Peterson’s goodwill went beyond vets.

“He seemed to hone into people who needed help,” Teresa says. “If he knew of someone having trouble paying their utilities, he would give them some money. If somebody asked him for two dollars, he’d give them two dollars even it was his last two dollars. He was very generous.”

When it came to vets, no request was too much.

“He made sure, if anybody had surplus medical equipment, he’d get it to the VA—wheelchairs, walkers, canes,” she says.

Peterson and a fellow Marine veteran, Nick Sloan (who died in 2015), organized an annual Marine Corps birthday party at Nifty that packed the joint. The Nov. 10 bash celebrated the birth of the Marine Corps.

The Coin’s Journey Continues

The coin tradition was another aspect of Peterson’s giving.

“I thought it was a huge rite of passage to send it off with somebody else and then to get it back,” Teresa says. “I thought it was beautiful. He didn’t brag about it or anything. If he heard about somebody going, he would approach them and ask, ‘Can I give this to you as long as you bring it back?’ He felt like it was a good luck charm. But it wasn’t something he kept to himself—he shared it. It was part of his nature to care and share.”

At his standing-room-only funeral Mass, Teresa shared the tale of handing the coin off to those bound for overseas duty and her desire to continue the tradition in his memory. A nephew, Eric Peterson, knew a friend, Dave Shonegal, who was set to leave for Afghanistan in March on his sixth deployment. The nephew connected Shonegal with Teresa.

Dave Shonegal, who currently has coin

Dave Shonegal, the current keeper of the lucky coin

“She asked me if I wanted to keep on the tradition,” Shonegal says, “and I told her, ‘I’m honored to even be asked to do something like this. I’ll gladly accept this, take it on my trip, and bring it back.’

Shonegal is the coin’s seventh recipient in a tradition now spanning multiple generations, different military branches, and various theaters of war.

Teresa entrusted it to Shonegal on Feb. 16 at a going-away party at American Legion Post 374 in Millard.

The legacy he inherited is not lost on him.

“We’re talking 50 years. I don’t think I’ve heard of anything like this that longstanding, especially getting passed onto strangers,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy, but at the same time really cool. A responsibility comes with it. It’s now my responsibility to carry on this tradition. There’s a  little nervousness about that. I don’t want to be the one that loses it after all these years.”

Shonegal says the legacy will continue after his return from deployment.

“It’s something I hope that, even after I give it back, continues for as long as it can—until we’re done deploying or there’s just nobody left to give it to,” he says. “It’s a really neat story and something I really feel needs to be shared as much as possible.”

Teresa agrees.

“I feel honored, absolutely honored,” she says, “and very, very proud. Pat would be proud.”

She says it was important for her to convey to Shonegal what kind of man Peterson was “because he’s carrying a piece of Pat with him.”

“I told him, ‘I want you to know who you’re carrying,’” she says.

The Legacy of a Lucky Coin

Shonegal is sure he and Peterson would have made fast friends.

“He was for the vets, and I can always stand with a guy like that,” Shonegal says. “That’s really where I feel like I’m heading. When I hang up the uniform, my next purpose is to help veterans in many of their situations.”

Jed learned about the coin in the wake of  Peterson’s death, and it only confirmed what he already knew about his stepfather.

“Learning about the coin was awesome,” he says, “but it didn’t change anything for me because that was him. Not one part of the story of the coin surprised me because he always went above and beyond the call of duty to pay it forward to military members.

“For me, it embodied what Pat was about—taking care of people. That good luck coin got him through Vietnam, and that’s why he passed it on—to take care of others. For me, it showed that even when you’re done [serving], you’re not done. You still take care of your brothers and sisters in the military. It’s a family.”

Inspired by Peterson’s example, Jed began practicing mindfulness.

“I’ve changed a lot of things about myself as far as showing more gratitude, telling people I’m proud of them, thanking them for being part of my life—things that Pat did and that I didn’t tell him enough,” Jed says.

He’s also taken a cue from Peterson’s charity.

“There have been multiple times when I thought, I wish I could help, but I can only do this,’” he says. “Well, why not only just do that? Maybe that’s more than enough. To me, it might be small, but to somebody else it might be huge.”

Meanwhile, Teresa is keeping Peterson’s legacy and wishes alive through the coin. After traveling around the world multiple times, surviving dangerous treks, and escaping so many life-and-death firefights, she says there is still plenty of life left in this memento from the Vietnam War.

“It was very important to him to keep it going, so I’m not going to let it go,” Teresa says.

She suspects many of us carry a protective token.   

“Maybe you don’t know what your good luck charm is,” she says. “If you do, hold that piece dear and share it with others.”

An internment for Pat Peterson is pending at Omaha National Cemetery. The date was not confirmed when this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press.


This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Vietnamese coin

In their own words – The Greatest Generation on World War II

May 2, 2017 2 comments

Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is the second of two stories I wrote for that issue that I’m posting on my social media. Omahans Shawn Schmidt and Jill Anderson are putting aside their divergent political beliefs to collaborate on a documentary, “48 Stars,” that tells personal stories of World War II through the words and eyes of veterans and others who lived through that epoch. 

 

In their own words

The Greatest Generation on World War II

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com

Members of the Greatest Generation tell their own stories in a locally produced documentary, 48 Stars. The in-progress film features personal testimonies from World War II veterans.

War buff Shawn Schmidt conceived the project. His co-director is Jill Anderson. The Omaha filmmakers are unlikely collaborators. He’s a holistic health care provider and former race car owner-driver. She’s a singer-actress. He’s unabashedly patriotic. She’s not. But they’re both committed to telling authentic stories of resilience.

They met while she was a patient under his care. After sharing CDs of her Celtic music, he was taken by her rendition of “Fare Thee Well.”

“It was not just the music, but Jill’s voice. That song fits everything this film has to say about that generation,” Schmidt says. “They’re disappearing, and the interviews we did are like their final swan song. It gave them a final chance to have their say about their country, their life, where America is today, where America is going.”

Originally hired as music director, Anderson’s role expanded. Filmmaker Aaron Zavitz joined the team as editor and creative consultant.

Forty-plus interviews were captured nationwide, mostly with veterans ranging across different military branches and racial-ethnic backgrounds. Some saw combat. Some didn’t. Civilians were also interviewed about their contributions and sacrifices, including women who lost spouses in the war. Even stories of conscientious objectors were cultivated. Subjects shared stories not only of the war, but of surviving the Great Depression that preceded World War II.

With principal photography completed, editing the many hours of footage is underway. The filmmakers are still seeking funding to finish the post-production process.

The film’s title refers to the number of stars—representing states—displayed on the American flag during World War II. Each interviewee is framed with or near a particular 48-starred flag that inspired the project. Schmidt rescued it from a junk store. On a visit to Pearl Harbor’s war memorials, he had the flag raised on the USS Arizona and USS Missouri.

He grew up respecting veterans like his late father, Richard W. Schmidt—a Navy Seabee in the Pacific theater. His father died without telling his story for posterity.

“It dawned on me I could interview other veterans and have them hold this flag, almost like a testimonial to what this piece of fabric is about,” Schmidt says.

He added that combat veterans’ accounts of warfare teem with emotion.

“There’s a distinct difference in energy, pain, and identification with their country and flag from the ones who did not have to kill. The ones who did kill are still hurting, and they’ll hurt till the day they die,” he says.

Whatever their job during the war, Anderson says, “There were discoveries with every new person we talked to. It’s humbling that people trust you with some of their most soulful experiences and memories.”

Schmidt says, “They opened up with stories sometimes they’d never shared with their family. I think, for a lot of them, it’s a catharsis.”

There are tales of love and loss, heroism and hate, improbable meetings, close calls, intersections with infamy, history, and fate.

Not all the attitudes expressed are sunny. Some folks became anti-war activists. Others returned home to endure Jim Crow bigotry.

Anderson says the film intentionally depoliticizes the flag: “It can’t be about God and country or honoring glory because that doesn’t match with the testimony.”

Schmidt feels an urgency to finish the project. “The generation that has the most to teach us is leaving,” he says.

He won’t rush it though.

“It’s a serious responsibility,” Schmidt says. “[The film] needs to honor these individuals who gave their time, and it’ll be done when it’s exactly right.”

Visit 48stars.org for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.

 

The tail-gunner’s grandson: Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

May 2, 2017 3 comments

Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is one of two stories I wrote for that issue. It tells the story of the late Wendell Fetters through the eyes of his grandson, Omaha filmmaker Ben Drickey, who accompanied his grandfather on a trip to Europe visiting the sites of some intense and bittersweet wartime experiences. The emotional trip gave Drickey, who was there to document it all, a new path for this life’s work. His footage of that experience brought things full circle for his grandfather and gave his family the precious gift of an intimate look back into the past.

 

 

The tail-gunner’s grandson

Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com

Filmmaker Ben Drickey’s lifelong fascination with history turned personal in 2001. That’s when he documented his grandfather’s return to Germany, revisiting the sites where the U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman crashed and was captured during World War II.

Drickey’s video of the emotional trip has only been seen by family, but the project inspired him to make video production his career after years working with still photography and politics. Today, he creates documentaries and branded film content through his studio, Torchwerks.

Growing up, Drickey was spellbound by family patriarch Wendell Fetters’ stories of being a tail-gunner on a B-26 Marauder flying with the 9th Air Force, 391st bomb group.

On an ill-fated daylight bombing run during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 23, 1944, his plane crossed the English Channel and delivered its payload over the Ahrweiler bridge. Enemy artillery and fighter flak killed the left engine, igniting a fire, but the crew bailed out before the plane went down.

Fetters’ chute pitched him into a tree. The impact broke an ankle, but he cut himself down. Alone, injured, and afraid, the 20-year-old Iowa native took a sun reading and hobbled west behind enemy lines in sub-zero cold and snow. Two days later, militia captured him. A family housed him over Christmas, and he spent the next four months in a POW camp before the war in Europe ended. After a stay-over in England, he came home to resume his life. He worked, married, and raised a family.

Ben Drickey of Torchwerks

Fast forward nearly six decades. Drickey was attending a family reunion, where he learned of his grandfather’s plans for returning to Germany to visit the plane’s crash site. German amateur historian Hermann Josef Stolz found its debris and used a piece stamped with identifying information to trace the plane’s manufacturer, bomber group, and crew. He invited Fetters to come pick through remnants.

“The rest of us were totally intrigued and we quickly realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Drickey, who, along with his mother, two aunts, and an uncle, joined his grandparents on the summer 2001 trip. Drickey went as a video documentarian even though he was strictly working as a still photographer at the time.

“I had no formal experience creating a moving image. I borrowed a friend’s camera and pirated a copy of Final Cut Pro. But I just knew I had to go do it,” he says.

With Stolz as guide, the Americans traveled to the site, where a cross memorializes the remains of the pilot, Jack Haynes, who died in the crash.

Even all this time later, Drickey says, “pieces of fiberglass, aluminum, and rubber” are strewn about. “I was picking up things to take home.” He displays one piece on his desk in the Mastercraft Building.

He says his “ecstatic” grandfather “was like a little kid being reunited with something from his past.”

The Americans next went to the nearby two-story wood and stucco farmhouse of Josef Hayer, the man who—at age 14—first arrived on the scene of the 1944 crash. Hayer had salvaged things from the smoldering debris. Among his finds was a tailpiece with a yellow triangle on a canvas peak.

“It was the first time on our trip where my grandfather was presented with the past in such a dramatic way,” Drickey says. “You could see on his face the memories just flooding back.”

Fetters then wanted to return to Eisenschmitt, the village his captors paraded him through to the home he was billeted in. He recalled a tannenbaum atop a table and framed photos of two German Army conscripts hanging on a wall. He was fed dinner and slept in the barn, then he was taken to the rail depot for transport to the POW camp.

After nearly giving up the search for the home all those years later, Fetters noticed a familiar landmark. Sure enough, just beyond the hill sat the house. Through translation, the elderly woman occupant said she remembered that war-torn Christmas when an American airman was brought to the house. She was 9 years old then. She recognized Fetters standing before her 56 years later.

She explained that the uniformed men in the photos were her brothers, and the pictures still hung in the same spot. She invited Fetters to see for himself. He refused.

“My grandfather said, ‘No, no, no, let’s go,’” Drickey says. “He went to the car and wouldn’t come out. He was visibly shaken. We didn’t know what to do, but we were standing there in awe reliving this history with him.”

As the visitors drove off, the woman hurried behind clutching oranges as a gesture of friendship. She handed them to Fetters. A family meeting ensued. Fetters held firm. Drickey explained he’d come too far not to go back, so he did.

“In my business, I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission most of the time,” Drickey says.

He filmed inside the house and interviewed the woman, one of many interviews he conducted for the project.

The experience gave him a career path and archived a precious family legacy.

“I’m so glad I did it. It was such a learning experience for me about myself, my eye, and my ability to capture an image,” he says.

“So many things happened on this trip,” and Drickey says he can only appreciate them all by re-watching the footage.

His grandfather lived to see the video. “He thanked me for taking the time to do it,” Drickey says. “He was very pleased it will live on past him.”

Drickey has gone on to produce slick corporate videos, commercials, and short films. He also worked as cinematographer on the feature film It Snows All the Time, but nothing compares to that first personal project.

His grandfather—the airman who also served in the Korean War—passed away July 31, 2015.

Visit torchwerks.com for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

Hot Movie Takes Saturday – FIVE CAME BACK


Hot Movie Takes Saturday – FIVE CAME BACK

©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Five Legendary Filmmakers went to war:

John Ford

William Wyler

Frank Capra

George Stevens

John Huston

Five Contemporary Filmmakers take their measure:

Paul Greengrass

Steven Spielberg

Guillermo del Toro

Lawrence Kasdan

Francis Ford Coppola

 

When the United States entered World War II these five great Hollywood filmmakers were asked by the government to apply their cinema tools to aid the war effort. They put their lucrative careers on hold to make very different documentaries covering various aspects and theaters of the war. They were all masters of the moving picture medium before their experiences in uniform capturing the war for home-front audiences, but arguably they all came out of this service even better, and certainly more mature, filmmakers than before. Their understanding of the world and of human nature grew as they encountered the best and worst angels of mankind on display.

The story of their individual odysseys making these U.S, government films is told in a new documentary series, “Five Came Back,” now showing on Netflix. The series is adapted from a book by the same title authored by Mark Harris. The documentary is structured so that five contemporary filmmakers tell the stories of the legendary filmmakers’ war work. The five contemporary filmmakers are all great admirers of their subjects. Paul Greengrass kneels at the altar of John Ford; Steven Spielberg expresses his awe of William Wyler; Guillermo del Toro rhapsodizes on Frank Capra; Lawrence Kasdan gushes about George Stevens; and Francis Ford Coppola shares his man crush on John Huston. More than admiration though, the filmmaker narrators educate us so that we can have more context for these late filmmakers and appreciate more fully where they came from, what informed their work and why they were such important artists and storytellers.

 

 

The Mission Begins

As World War II begins, five of Hollywood’s top directors leave success and homes behind to join the armed forces and make films for the war effort.

Watch The Mission Begins. Episode 1 of Season 1.
 

Combat Zones

Now in active service, each director learns his cinematic vision isn’t always attainable within government bureaucracy and the variables of war.

Watch Combat Zones. Episode 2 of Season 1.
 

The Price of Victory

At the war’s end, the five come back to Hollywood to re-establish their careers, but what they’ve seen will haunt and change them forever.

Watch The Price of Victory. Episode 3 of Season 1.

 

Ford was a patriot first and foremost  and his “The Battle of Midway” doc fit right into his work portraying the American experience. For Wyler, a European Jew, the Nazi menace was all too personal for his family and he was eager to do his part with propaganda. For Capra, an Italian emigre, the Axis threat was another example of powerful forces repressing the liberty of people. The “Why He Fight” series he produced and directed gave him a forum to sound the alarm. A searcher yearning to break free from the constraints of light entertainment, Stevens used the searing things he documented during the war, including the liberation of death camps, as his evolution into becoming a dramatist. Huston made perhaps the most artful of the documentaries. His “Let There Be Light” captured in stark terms the debilitating effects of PTSD or what was called shell shock then. His “Report from the Aleutians” portrays the harsh conditions and isolation of the troops stationed in Arctic. And his “The Battle of San Pietro” is a visceral, cinema verite masterpiece of ground war.

The most cantankerous of the bunch, John Ford, was a conservative who held dear his dark Irish moods and anti-authoritarian sentiments. Yet, he also loved anything to do with the military and rather fancied being an officer. He could be a real SOB on his sets and famously picked on certain cast and crew members to receive the brunt of his withering sarcasm and pure cussedness. His greatest star John Wayne was not immune from this mean-spiritedness and even got the brunt of it, in part because Wayne didn’t serve during the war when Ford and many of his screen peers did.

Decades before he was enlisted to make films during the Second World War, he made a film, “Four Sons,” about the First World War, in which he did not serve.

Following his WWII stint, Ford made several great films, one of which, “They Were Expendable,” stands as one of the best war films ever made. His deepest, richest Westerns also followed in this post-war era, including “Rio Grande,” “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Searchers,” “The Horse Soldiers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Another war film he made in this period, “The Wings of Eagles,” is another powerful work singular for its focus on a real-life character (played by Wayne) who endures great sacrifices and disappointments to serve his country in war.

Even before the war Ford injected dark stirrings of world events in “The Long Voyage Home.”

 

Five-Came-Back-Netflix-Capra-Spielberg-Coppola-Guillermo-del-Toro-Patheos-Netflix

 

William Wyler had already established himself as a great interpreter of literature and stage works prior to the war. His subjects were steeped in high drama. Before the U.S. went to war but was already aiding our ally Great Britain, he made an important film about the conflict, “Mrs. Miniver,” that brought the high stakes involved down to a very intimate level. The drama portrays the war’s effects on one British family in quite personal terms. After WWII, Wyler took this same closely observed human approach to his masterpiece, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which makes its focus the hard adjustment that returning servicemen faced in resuming civilian life after having seen combat. This same humanism informs Wyler’s subsequent films, including “The Heiress,” “Roman Holiday,” “Carrie,” “The Big Country” and “Ben-Hur.”

Wyler, famous for his many takes and inability to articulate what he wanted (he knew it when he saw it), was revered for extracting great performances. He didn’t much work with Method actors and I think some of his later films would have benefited from the likes of Brando and Dean and all the rest. One of the few times he did work with a Method player resulted in a great supporting performance in a great film – Montgomery Clift in “The Heiress.” Indeed, it’s Clift we remember more than the stars, Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson.

 

netflix-five-came-back-bg-1-1

 

 

Frank Capra was the great populist director of the Five Who Came Back and while he became most famous for making what are now called dramedies. he took a darker path entering and exiting WWII, first with “Meet John Doe” in 1941 and then with “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946 and “State of the Union” in 1948. While serious satire was a big part of his work before these, Capra’s bite was even sharper and his cautionary tales of personal and societal corruption even bleaker than before. Then he seemed to lose his touch with the times in his final handful of films. But for sheer entertainment and impact, his best works rank with anyone’s and for my tastes anyway those three feature films from ’41 through ’48 are unmatched for social-emotional import.

Before the war George Stevens made his name directing romantic and screwball comedies, even an Astaire-Rogers musical, and he came out of the war a socially conscious driven filmmaker. His great post-war films all tackle universal human desires and big ideas: “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane,” “Giant,” “The Diary of Anne Frank.” For my tastes anyway his films mostly lack the really nuanced writing and acting of his Five Came Back peers, and that’s why I don’t see him in the same category as the others. In my opinion Stevens was a very good but not great director. He reminds me a lot of Robert Wise in that way.

That brings us to John Huston. He was the youngest and most unheralded of the five directors who went off to war. After years of being a top screenwriter, he had only just started directing before the U.S. joined the conflict. His one big critical and commercial success before he made his war-effort documentaries was “The Maltese Falcon.” But in my opinion he ended up being the best of the Five Who Came Back directors. Let this list of films he made from the conclusion of WWII through his death sink in to get a grasp of just what a significant body of work he produced:

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Asphalt Jungle

Key Largo

The Red Badge of Courage

Heaven Knows Mr. Allison

Beat the Devil

Moby Dick

The Unforgiven

The Misfits

Freud

The List of Adrian Messenger

The Night of the Iguana

Reflections in a Golden Eye

Fat City

The Man Who Would Be King

Wiseblood

Under the Volcano

Prizzi’s Honor

The Dead

That list includes two war films, “The Red Badge of Courage” and “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison,” that are intensely personal perspectives on the struggle to survive when danger and death are all around you. Many of his other films are dark, sarcastic ruminations on how human frailties and the fates sabotage our desires, schemes and quests.

I believe Huston made the most intelligent, literate and best-acted films of the five directors who went to war. At least in terms of their post-war films. The others may have made films with more feeling, but not with more insight. Huston also took more risks than they did both in terms of subject matter and techniques. Since the other directors’ careers started a full decade or more before his, they only had a couple decades left of work in them while Huston went on making really good films through the 1970s and ’80s.

Clearly, all five directors were changed by what they saw and did during the war and their work reflected it. We are the ultimate beneficiaries of what they put themselves on the line for because those experiences led them to inject their post-war work with greater truth and fidelity about the world we live in. And that’s really all we can ask for from any filmmaker.

 

Holocaust stories


Holocaust Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

In the late 1990s a man I never heard of before, the late Ben Nachman, called to encourage me to start interviewing and profiling Holocaust survivors living in and around Omaha. Ben was a retired Omaha dentist who lost his entire extended family to the Holocaust. He set about a life’s mission to record survivor stories and that journey led him to amass a large collection of books on the topic, to befriend researchers, to become an official Shoah Visual Archive interviewer and to enlist me to capture and publish individuals’ stories. I ended up telling some two dozen Holocaust stories, mostly about survivors but also about rescuers, educators and scholars. I also wrote about Ben’s passion for doing the work he did in bringing Holocaust stories to light. Ben introduced me to many remarkable individuals. Thanks to him I was privileged to share the testimonies of survivors,  the heroics of rescuers who saved others and the depths of experiences that shaped the Holocaust.

Several years ago the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha acquired some of these stories for visitors to read on its website. In this post are links to those stories and to other Holocaust stories I have written.

Founded in 2000, the Institute has a goal to ensure that the tragedy and history of the Holocaust is remembered. The nonprofit organization provides appropriate, fact-based instruction and materials to students, educators and the public to enhance Holocaust studies in the hope of inspiring communities to create a more just and equitable society.

The IHE has reached hundreds of teachers and more than 100,000 students in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas with its educational resources, workshops, survivor testimony and integrated arts programming. The Institute also supports Holocaust survivors in our community.

For more information about the Institute’s work, visit–

http://www.ihene.org/

 

 

Leonard Thiessen social justice triptych deserves wider audience

January 21, 2017 2 comments

There is a compelling social justice triptych by the late great Nebraska artist Leonard Thiessen that should be more widely seen. Every year around Black History Month I encourage folks to visit the worship space that houses the piece for the express purpose of taking in the powerful images and ideas expressed in the work. The piece is called “Crucifixion” and it can be found affixed to a wall just inside the sanctuary at Church of the Resurrection, a small but mighty Episcopal faith community at 3004 Belvedere Boulevard directly across the street from Miller Park and just northwest of 30th and Kansas. The blended congregation is a mix of African-Americans, Caucasians and Africans.

The Thiessen work is not like anything you’d expect to find there or in any worhsip place for that matter. “Crucifixon” juxtaposes jarring, disturbing scenes of lynching, gas attacks, warmaking, want, industrialization and propoganda with the crucified Christ. Passages drawn from scripture proffer warnings about sins against our fellow man and being led astray by false prophets. These abnomitions are leavened by promises of recknoning and salvation. Thiessen created the triptych many decades ago but it is still relevant today in its rumination on things that instill fear and conflict in the hearts and minds of human beings and that cause us to look to a redemptive Higher Power for mercy and justice.

The words that appear at the bottom of the panels read:

“In time of peace, men suffer from drouth and want. Fear not, for I am with thee. I will bring they seed from the Earth.”

“They are made with machines, slaves of other machines. Be strong, fear not, your God will come with recompense.”

“Other men incite them to persecution and destruction. Keep ye judgment and do justice for my salvation is near.”

“From all sides their faith is confused and confounded. Behold, I create new heavens and a new Earth and the former shall not be remembered.”

The artist created “Crucifixion” in memory of his aunt, Wilhemina Berg, who was a member of the former St. John’s Church before it merged with St. Philip”s to create Church of the Resurrection,  The work is an example of Thiessen’s ability to employ and transform classical forms into modern interpretations. The piece is regarded as one of Thiessen’s most important.

In an interview shortly after his retirement, Thiessen said he had worked to “break down the idea that the arts were the prerogative of the elite. Nowadays the arts, like boating, skiing, tennis and wines, are all for the person in the street.”

Thiessen spoke four languages and was particularly known for his wit, often trying to slip puns past his editors at the Omaha World-Herald, for whom he was an art critic. Over the years, he taught at many area institutions, including Creighton, UNL and UNO.

He is classified as belonging to the period as the First Nebraskans, an era in Nebraska’s art history from 1901 to 1950 when the various forms of modernism were flourishing.

His vision and passion for the arts in Nebraska laid an influential foundation.

A good way to see the triptych and get a sense for the church where it’s displayed is to attend a service there. The 10 a.m. Sunday service is an intimate experience animated by the choir most Sundays and the guest band ReLeaseT the third Sunday of the month. On Feb. 26 come to Soul Food Sunday for some great eats. But whenever you come, make sure you see the triptych.

Link to the Church of the Resurrection website here:

http://coromaha.episcopal-ne.org/

 

triptych2

 

Link here to a Museum of Nebraska Art page devoted to Thiessen:

https://mona.unk.edu/collection/thiessen.shtml

Here is an extended bio of the artist copied from the MONA page:

Leonard Thiessen was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. His family was small and his paternal ancestry had roots to the Swedish and German pioneer settlers of Grand Island, Nebraska. For a very short time, the family lived in Grand Island where, as a boy, Thiessen was employed in the mail department of The Grand Island Independent newspaper. His parents, Charles Leonard Thiessen and Jean Louise Berg Thiessen, together with his mother’s favorite sister Wilhemina, were all involved in various creative endeavors and had a profound influence on Leonard’s development. His father worked in the printing industry and introduced the young Leonard to the trade. Jean was a talented self-taught artist in her own right who produced on-edge felt mosaics that are fine examples of early 20th century fiber art. (MONA has seven pieces of her work in its collection.) The Thiessens were involved in Omaha’s music, dance, and theater groups and deeply connected to the neighborhood Episcopal Church. They were not wealthy but had many friends in the community and had an impressive social calendar.

Thiessen attended Omaha’s Miller Park Public School and St. John’s Protestant School and graduated from Central High School in 1919. His school years were privileged with experiences that helped to foster his development as an artist. While in high school, he decided to follow formal study in the visual arts and began to draw cartoons and illustrations for the school newspaper. During his teen years, he worked as an office assistant for an architectural firm in downtown Omaha, a job that offered a perk that proved helpful to his future employment. During his free time, Leonard would sit and read the collection of architectural books found in the office. After graduation he worked for the Omaha Bureau of Advertising and Engineering editing illustrations and photographs for an agricultural livestock catalog.

He attended the University of Omaha (now University of Nebraska at Omaha) for three semesters in 1921 and 1922 studying journalism and fine arts and producing illustrations and graphic layouts for the University newspaper The Gateway. During this time, he worked as a gallery assistant for the Art Institute of Omaha which was located on the top floor of the old public library building designed by Thomas Kimball. Thiessen became disillusioned with the University’s conservative art courses and left Omaha to continue his studies in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln from 1925 to 1926. He was not interested in “serious painting” and majored primarily in design and architecture. His professors were the artists Dwight Kirsch, Louise Mundy, Francis Martin (a contemporary of the portraitist J. Laurie Wallace), and Emily Burchard Moore. In the 1920s, Lincoln, Nebraska was an incredibly fervent environment. Some of Thiessen’s circle of friends and classmates included artists as well as writers and intellectuals among them Katherine “Kady” Faulkner, Louise Austin (who had studied in Munich with Hans Hoffman), Mari Sandoz, Weldon Kees, Loren Eiseley, and Dorothy Thomas. In the late 1920s, Thiessen pursued a highly successful commercial career as an interior designer and decorator with several design and architectural firms in Lincoln and Omaha. Additionally, he did freelance work and began to receive commissions as a mural painter. Later he studied at the museums of New York City, Boston, and Miami with his Aunt Wilhemina.

In 1929, while on a trip to Paris, Thiessen learned of the stock market crash in the United States and decided to stay in Europe. He enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris where he studied drawing and painting for one summer and later moved to London to study at the Heatherly School of Art. While in London, Thiessen studied wood engraving and graphics. In 1932, he applied and was accepted at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and studied with Otto Skold who later became the director of the National Museum at Stockholm. At the Academy, Thiessen studied the classical manner, graphic arts, and the traditional forms of fresco and mural painting. He described himself as a “designer of interiors and mural painter in the Middle West, U.S.” Taking several short breaks in between his studies to return to the United States, he finally received his diploma in 1938. While in Sweden, Thiessen made a trip to Tallin, Estonia, to sketch the local architecture.

After returning to the United States in the late 1930s, he found that demand for interior decorators had fallen with the depression. He used his charm and talent to persuade the editors of the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star to allow him to write an arts review column. He became the Omaha World-Herald’s first art critic and his now legendary column first appeared in 1939 and continued on and off for the next 30 years.

He had exhibitions at Morrill Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1938 and Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum in 1940. He also resumed his friendships with artist Milton Wolsky and Alysen Flynn. Later he accepted a position in Des Moines as Iowa’s State Director of the Federal Artists and Writers Program of the Works Projects Administration in 1941. The program employed 300 people and Leonard supervised over 100 individuals in eight departments. Thiessen left Iowa in 1942 to join the Army and was officially promoted to the Office of Intelligence in 1944. Because of his training in architectural design and graphic arts, Thiessen was particularly suited for the position of draftsman in the intelligence department. He studied and made reports of pertinent visual data, maps, and serial photos during the war. He was stationed in Kettering, England, the place that would become the subject of many of his works on paper.

In the 1950s, Thiessen made another trip to London, returning to the United States to serve two years as director of the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art in Augusta, Georgia. In the 1960s, Thiessen took several other trips to Europe and returned to Nebraska where he immediately continued his involvement with the Omaha World-Herald, the Joslyn Art Museum and the Sheldon Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. By this time he was recognized as the authority on Nebraska’s developing art history and served as editor of the catalogue, Nebraska Art Today, by Mildred Goosman, curator at the Joslyn Art Museum published in 1967. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Nebraska Arts Council becoming its first Executive Secretary (a position now known as Executive Director) from 1966 to 1975. In addition, he taught classes at Isabella Threlkeld’s studio in Omaha for eight years. He became a close friend and professional colleague of the professors at Kearney State College (now University of Nebraska Kearney) and encouraged the establishment of the Nebraska Art Collection in the 1970s. He served on the board of the Museum of Nebraska Art for over ten years and was one of its founding members. In 1972 Thiessen received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Creighton University and was honored with the first Governor’s Arts Award in 1978. His work can be found at Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln; Kansas Wesleyan University, Salina; the Alfred East Gallery, Kettering, England; the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art, Augusta, Georgia; and in many private collections

Thiessen lived in Omaha, Nebraska, for most of his adult life. He eventually converted two upstairs rooms of the now famous house on Stone Avenue for his studio. Artwork dominated both floors, much of it his own. Thiessen remained a bachelor his entire life, and had an amazing number of friends and colleagues from the various Nebraska arts communities. He was respected by many prominent Nebraska artists who honored him by making him the subject of their work including Kent Bellows, Bill Farmer, Larry Ferguson, Frances Kraft, Paul Otero, John Pusey, and John Thein.

Leonard Thiessen died March 27, 1989.

The Museum of Nebraska Arts holds 109 works by Leonard Thiessen in addition to archival material.

Researched and written by Josephine Martins, 2002

NOTE: Biographical information was derived from a variety of sources, including unpublished biographical notes by William Wallis, 2001,  a recorded interview with Thiessen by Gary Zaruba, 1983 and compilations by COR member Keith Winton.

Homegrown Joe Arenas made his mark in college and the NFL

March 5, 2015 1 comment

As much as I enjoy writing about the arts and artists, I equally enjoy writing about athletics and athletes.  I finally caught up with a former football great from Nebraska, Joe Arenas, who has never really gotten his full due.  If the name isn’t familiar, it’s because his professional and college exploits happened about 60 years ago.  And though he was a very fine player – so good that he is still among the NFL’s all-time leaders in career kick return average – his jack of all trades verstality as a returner, running back, receiver, and defensive back made it hard for him to really stand out except as a returner.  When you come right down to it, how many returners other than maybe Gale Sayers, Travis Williams, Brian Mitchell, Eric Metcalf, and Devin Hester really made a dent in the national consciousness?  Sayers was of course a great running back in addition to being a great returner.  The other thing working against Arenas was that he had two future NFL Hall of Fame teammates, in Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny, who got most of the offensive touches out of the backfield.  Before playing pro ball Arenas starred in the single-wing at then-Omaha University, where again he did a little of everything.  In the single-wing Joe played a half-back spot in that offense but he did everything a quarterback does.  Before he ever played college ball Joe served as a U.S. Marine in World War II.  He was wounded at Iwo Jima.  My story about Joe for El Perico newspaper refers to the fact that Arenas was among a small number of Hispanic football players who made a mark in the game.  I also reference how Omaha U., which today is the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is where another athlete of color, Marlin Briscoe, played quarterback in an era when that was very rare at a predominantly white university. What I didn’t mention in the article is that a third athlete of color with local ties, Wilburn Hollis, played quarterback at two mostly white institutions, first at Boys Town and then at the University of Iowa.  I was delighted to find Joe a still vital man in his late 80s.

 

 

Milton Kleinberg: Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of memoir

November 7, 2014 2 comments

Holocaust survivor stories come in every conceivable variety, just like the people and lives behind them.  I’ve had the privilege of telling many such stories in the course of profiling survivors who settled in Nebraska after World War II or later.  Each story, each survuvor, is distinguished by elements that make them singular.  I thought I had heard and read it all when it comes to these sagas but then along came Milton Kleinberg’s story.  There may be more dramatic or traumatic tales but I can’t imagine one that covers as much time and distance as his tale.  It is epic in terms of sheer scale yet it’s also achingly intimate.  I don’t pretend to capture more than just the surface of his story in the following Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) article, but it should give you a sense for the aamazing rc of his surivival experience.  For a full appreciation of what he endured, you must read his book Bread or Death.

 

 

 

20141001_bs_4865Milton Kleinberg

Milton Kleinberg

Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of memoir

Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
November 5, 2014
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a child in Poland, Milton Kleinberg got caught up in a little known chapter of the Holocaust when he and his family were among Jews exiled to Soviet labor camps. The forced journey took them from occupied Poland to the siege at Stalingrad to the vast wastelands of Siberia. To be uprooted, thousands of miles from home, was awful, but it also meant being beyond the reach of death camps.

The 77-year-old native of Poland and longtime Omaha resident endured many hardships. Forced to travel on foot and by train, he was confined to warehouses, barracks, and institutions. He witnessed starvation, disease, suicides, beatings, executions. He weathered illness, injuries, predators. The epic ordeal spanned thousands of miles and many years. He experienced things no child should face. To defend himself and others he took actions no one should have to take.

His saga continued after the war in displaced person (DP) camps. After reinventing himself in Milwaukee, he went years not saying anything about his odyssey, not even to his wife and children. After moving to Omaha in his middle-years he still kept quiet. Keeping silent is not uncommon among the survivor community, for whom the trauma of loss is difficult to relive.

“When I came to America I made a pledge to myself I was going to put this behind me, that I was not going to dwell on the past, and that I was going to start a new life,” Kleinberg says. “My whole attitude was that the past was the past and I didn’t care to look back.”

Then circumstances conspired to break his silence. His grandchildren visited Holocaust sites and pestered him with questions. In applying for Social Security benefits he discovered his birthdate was different than what he thought it was. A genealogical search turned up two step-sisters, with whom he shared a father. The women posed more questions.

Always alert to anti-Semitism and to events in Israel, which he’s visited several times, he’s grown concerned by the rise of militant, extremist elements around the world. Finally, he decided, he should recount his story. In 2010 he self-published Bread or Death. He gave it to friends and relatives as well as clients of his successful business, Senior Market Sales Inc., which employs more than 170 people.

This past year he expanded the book with the help of professionals, including Institute for Holocaust Education staff who developed a teacher’s guide, a glossary, study questions, and historical background sections. IHE develops Holocaust curriculum for schools state-wide.

Released in August, the new edition is available to schools and youth-serving organizations as an educational tool. IHE executive director Liz Feldstern says Kleinberg’s made a valuable contribution to understanding the Holocaust survivor experience.

Bread or Death adds another important voice to understanding a narrative that affected millions of people in millions of different ways,” Feldstern says. “Anne Frank has become the voice of those who went into hiding. Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi are the voices of Auschwitz. Gerda Weissman Klein is the voice of the death march. Hadassah Rosensaft is the voice of the DP camps. Perhaps Milt Kleinberg will be the voice of those deported to Soviet labor camps.”

The memoir completes an obligation Milt felt to himself and his family.

“I wrote the book as a legacy for my children, grandchildren, and siblings that were born after the war,” he says. “Everyone had bits of information on what happened during the war. I was the only one with all the pieces of information. I could connect all the dots. So, I have written it all down.”

“Milt has fulfilled his responsibility admirably to share his story and break a lifetime of silence so that others can learn from that history…and hopefully not repeat it,” Feldstern says.

Milton M. Kleinberg shortly after arriving in America

Though reticent most of his life about his own experience, he’s never shied from confronting anti-Semitism. While residing in Milwaukee he actively opposed a neo-Nazi group there through the Concerned Jewish Citizens of Wisconsin, a group he helped form.

“We decided we were going to respond to the Nazis rather than stand silent or lay down. Some of us had learned hard, tragic lessons and sacrificed far too much to allow these haters to get a foothold in our city, in our neighborhood.”

It wasn’t the first time he stood up. He and his wife, Marsha, co-hosted a Milwaukee radio program. They bought the air-time for themselves in order to present and comment on Jewish news.

His book is a cautionary tale of what occurred as the world slept. It may help ensure another holocaust doesn’t happen in this new era of hate.

“After what happened to me and my family and to millions of Jews in the war, I simply would not keep silent about things I perceived to be wrong.”

Ultimately, Bread or Death is a testament to how a life well-lived is more powerful than any retribution.

 

 

Milton Kleinberg Omaha Magazine Cover Story

 

 

Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latino screening of her film “Rebel”

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

A hybrid documentary employing dramatic elements explores the fascinatiing story of Loreta Valezquez, a Cuban immigrant who posed as a man to fight and spy for both sides in the American Civil War.  Noted filmmaker Maria Agui Carter will discuss her film Rebel after a 7 p.m. screening at El Museo Latino in Omaha on Sept. 25.  This is my Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) story about what drew Carter to the project and what she’s discoverd and surmised about Loreta, a woman she greatly admires.  The film has been airing on PBS.

NOTE: Filmmaker Maria Agui Carter is pictured in the second photogaph below.

 


 

 

 

Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latino screening of her film “Rebel”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Award-winning filmmaker Maria Agui Carter has much to say about her new film Rebel, the story of a Latina who posed as a man to fight and spy in the American Civil War. Agui Carter will discuss the film, which recently aired as a PBS special, and its protagonist, Cuban immigrant Loreta Velazquez, following a 7 p.m. screening on September 25 at El Museo Latino, 4701 South 25th Street.

An immigrant herself, Agui Carter is an independent filmmaker based in Mass. and founder of Iguana Films, a film and new media company making Spanish and English language works. She’s a graduate of Harvard University, where she’s been a visiting artist-scholar.

In a director’s statement and answers provided via email, she details what led her to do the 12-years-in-the-making project.

“I’m a history buff, I look for interesting characters, especially women and Latinos, in American history,” she says. “I came across an original copy of Loreta’s 1876 memoir in Widener Library (Harvard).”

Agui Carter found powerful themes in those accounts that speak to her experience as a Latina storyteller, immigrant to the U.S. and feminist.

“I felt uniquely qualified to tell the story. I’m fascinated by the question of citizenship and national identity, having been brought here as a child undocumented and raised ‘underground’ by my mother. I felt growing up I was deeply American, but I did not have the citizenship status.”

Loreta’s story touches on issues of gender, race and self-determination Agui Carter identifies with.

“I identify with Loreta and sympathize with her painful struggle to find acceptance within her community. Loreta presents a Latina’s and a woman’s perspective on a time period and a war we usually think of as exclusively black and white. But this is less a story about the Civil War and more the story of a complex woman who reinvented herself to survive the impossible circumstances in which she found herself. And that reinvention of self is a quintessentially American experience that resonates with so many Americans – that idea we are not what we are born, but what we make of ourselves.”

Agui Carter’s fllm answers and asks questions prompted by the memoir. “My film is a detective story trying to understand the woman, the myth and the politics of how we understand our own past.”

From the time Loreta published her memoir until now, her story’s been marginalized and contested, even called a hoax.

“She was attacked as a liar and a fraud by an unreconstructed Ex-Confederate general. Jubal Early, who read her memoir and thought her story preposterous. He was quite powerful and publicly dismissed her story. Subsequent generations generally followed his lead.”

mariaaguifull

To unravel the mystery, Agui Carter consulted historians, who informed her some 1,000 women disguised as men fought in the Civil War. They confirm Loreta fought under the name Harry T. Buford at First Bull Run and was wounded at Shiloh. At some point Loreta became a spy, first for the Confederacy, then for the Union. She went by many aliases, including Laura Williams and Loretea DeCaulp. Agui Carter’s hybrid documentary uses actors to dramatize certain scenes.

“We don’t know all the exact details of her service, nor that of the other documented women who fought disguised as men because they were hiding their tracks and identities,” she says.

As for why Loreta did what she did, Agui Carter says, “She had just lost her family and as a young girl she had dreamed of being a hero. it’s a complicated and deliciously twisted plot. ”

The filmmaker admires what Loreta did in carving out an unexpected, emancipated life and sharing her journey with the world.

“Her book popularized her story of a woman who broke the rules and social boundaries that, post-war, so many were trying to reconstruct. By writing her memoirs, she allowed others to imagine that they, too, might choose their own fates and go against the grain. This was considered dangerous at a time when men were returning from war and expecting the women to go back to their old roles.

“She refused to be bounded by the strictures of her time. She imagined a world for herself and went out and created it, regardless of what people told her she couldn’t do. She made the impossible possible for herself.”

Agui Carter has authored a new play, 14 Freight Trains, about the first American soldier to die in Iraq – an undocumented Latino. It has reverberations with Rebel and her own family’s experience.

“My mother married a Vietnam veteran who applied for citizenship for my mother and myself. War is a terrible, painful, transformative thing and yet people believe in this country enough to put their lives on the line for it, including generation after generation of immigrants. This is a profound experience and I am drawn to these stories of people who would believe in something so much they would risk their lives for it.”

She’s working on turning Loreta’s story into a narrative action feature..

See Rebel free with museum admission. Due to limited space, reservations are advised. Call 402-731-1137.

For more about the film and Loreta’s story, visit http://rebeldocumentary.com.

Retired warrior, lifetime scholar John Nagl became U.S. Army counterinsurgency guru

September 30, 2013 1 comment

If war is hell, then where does heaven or spirituality come into the picture during armed conflict?  The question is apt when considering the career of retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl, who squared his strong faith with his extensive combat and military strategy experience while becoming the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency guru.  The Omaha native is a graduate of his hometown’s Creighton Prepatory School , where the Jesuit education he received gave him values and philosiphies that have guided him through war and peace.  Read my cover story profile of Nagl that will be appearing in the new issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  In it, he reflects on his roles as a man for others, a patriot, a military strategist, a combat leader, and a scholar and educator.

 

 

John Nagl

 

 

Retired warrior, lifetime scholar John Nagl vecame U.S. Army counterinsurgency guru 

by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.the reader.com)

 

Two years since the U.S. pulled troops out of Iraq Americans still slog it out in Afghanistan — a full 12 years since its start. The dual wars for which so many paid a heavy price will forever be analyzed by the likes of Omaha native John Nagl, managing editor of the official U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counter insurgency Manual.

The retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel was not only a military wonk under General David Petraeus but a warrior for whom the wars the U.S., waged in the wake of 9/11 were both object lessons and hard realities.

Millions of people have been touched directly or indirectly by the conflicts. Thousands of combatants and hundreds of thousands of noncombatants have died, many more have suffered physical damage and emotional trauma. The material costs run into the trillions. The intangible costs are incalculable.

Nagl is well aware that America and the world is sharply divided on the question of whether the wars were just or unjust, necessary or unnecessary, moral or immoral. Weighing such questions is nothing new for Nagl, who is steeped in Jesuit values gleaned from his education at Omaha Creighton Prep. He was a Golden Boy who graduated West Point, became a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford. He served in both the first Gulf War, where he led a tank platoon, and the Iraqi Freedom campaign, where he led armor regiments.

Like some Templar Knight on a crusade this warrior-scholar has been imbued with a sense of nationalistic duty to defend his country from all enemies and with a faithful devotion to do God’s will as he sees it.

Nagl found no contradiction serving his fellow man and doing combat. He’s comfortable too squaring his humanist ideals and Christian faith with having influenced the Army’s adoption of controversial counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques.

“The sense of being a man for others, your life being a gift and it being your responsibility to invest that gift wisely for the greater glory of God, for the furthermost of his purposes here on Earth, that’s part of what certainly drove me to West Point and to a career in the military,” says Nagl, who was near the top of his 1988 West Point class.

Long on a rising star track in the military industrial complex – he received the George C. Marshall Award as the top graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College – he seemingly went “rogue” when he advanced the use of COIN strategies in his master’s dissertation. He borrowed his work’s title, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, from a T.S. Lawrence observation about the difficulties of responding to insurgencies.

“I read that and I thought, man, that captures it, I now understand how hard this kind of war is. And then I went to Al Anbar (Iraq) and tried it and it was a whole lot harder than I thought it was.”

 

 

The Reader Oct. 3, 2013

 

 

 

The impetus for his infatuation with COIN was the U.S. military’s dominance of Iraqi forces in the Gulf War and his conviction that future enemies would avoid direct confrontations.

“I became convinced the military might of the United States which had cut through the Iraqi army, the fourth largest in the world, like a hot knife through butter, was so overwhelming that future enemies wouldn’t confront us conventionally in force on force, tank on tank battles, they’d fight us as irregular warriors, as insurgents and terrorists.”

Nagl was a voice in the wilderness, due in no small part to the fact that “after Vietnam,” he says, “we consciously turned away from counterinsurgency as a nation and as an army, and pretty much literally burned the books and decided we weren’t going to do that anymore.” Yet there was Nagl calling on the ghosts of wars’ past.

“I was very lonely in the mid-1990s doing that. Everybody else was studying the revolution in military affairs and Shock and Awe and the idea that the U.S. military would triumph rapidly using precision weaponry. I was convinced that wasn’t the case.

“It was a discouraging time. Nobody was interested in counterinsurgency until after the attacks of September 11th (2001), when suddenly everybody was interested in counterinsurgency.”

Nagl’s dissertation found a publisher and his advocacy of COIN that before fell on deaf ears got the attention of a well-placed general, David Petraeus, who embraced Nagl’s writings. Petraeus, who’d been a professor of Nagl’s at West Point, eventually became the lead commander prosecuting the war in Iraq, where he changed the rules of engagement, partly through the use of COIN tactics in the field.

“It was the first time I felt I’d found someone in a position of authority who really understood the need. He was the right guy in the right place at the right times,” Nagl says of Petraeus.

 

 

 

 

 

Nagl, who was twice posted to the 24th Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, contributed to a new counterinsurgency field manual and tested out his theories in combat.

“I was sent to Iraq to do the research and to conduct counterinsurgency in Al Anbar in 2003 and 2004. We were rediscovering lessons consigned to very dusty bookshelves and I was just the guy who’d blown the dust off of those books. And then having read the books I tried to implement it in a particularly challenging place and quite frankly failed pretty miserably, so that when I came back from Al Anbar I wrote a short piece about how I thought I’d done, calling it, Spilling Soup on Myself. That became the preface to the paperback version of my dissertation.

“One of the criticisms I make of myself in that preface is that there’s sort of a blithe sense in my book that once you understand the principles it’s comparatively easy to apply them and, boom, everything will work out. Yeah not so much, not so much…Conventional combat is hard enough but counterinsurgency is conventional combat cubed. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life.”

During Nagl’s 2003-2004 deployment he became an Army celebrity.

“A journalist named Peter Maas embedded with my unit wrote a very substantial New York Times Magazine piece called ‘Professor Nagl’s War’ that popularized some of my ideas to a pretty big audience.”

He says his profile was also enhanced “being at the center of the storm” as military assistant for then deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon “as the Iraq war was going rapidly downhill in 2005 and 2006.”

 

 

 

 

 

As COIN became in vogue as a new approach his reputation as a counterinsurgency guru got him invited on the Charlie Rose Show and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Nagl’s a natural for the media to glom onto. He’s handsome, articulate, passionate. He can banter with the best. He cuts a dashing figure in or out of uniform and embodies the whole “be all you can be” slogan with aplomb and panache.

On Charlie Rose he took part in a roundtable discussion about Vietnam, Iraq and counterinsurgency that he says “was intellectually stimulating and engaging and I hope helpful to the American public.”

The Daily Show was a different experience entirely,” he notes. “The field manual had been published by the University of Chicago. I was back at Fort Riley, Kansas and was literally running a machine gun range when I got a phone call from someone purporting to be from the show asking if I could come on later that week. I didn’t believe it really was them. Well, it really was, and I said yes. Then I had to convince the Army to let me go. The Army actually cut orders, it was official business, so I wore my uniform.”

Nagl’s sure what proceeded was “the funniest discussion Jon Stewart has ever had on camera about an army field manual.” This hawk’s appearance on a show synonymous with cool, anti-establishment satire, he says, makes his “credibility go way up” when talking to student audiences. “They don’t care I’ve been shot at in a couple of wars, but trading words with Jon Stewart, that is an honor right there.”

COIN strategy came under sharp criticism within and outside senior military command beginning in 2008, He retired from the Army that same year.

In his immediate post-Army life he served as president of the Center for a New American Security from 2009 to 2012. This summer he assumed the headmaster role at the exclusive all-boys Haverford School in Penn., where his son Jack started the 6th grade.

After his Army retirement there was speculation he’d left because he found his path for advancement blocked due to his close association with counterinsurgency. He denies it.

“My retirement had nothing to do with having been passed over. I hadn’t been. If I had been, I wouldn’t have been positioned to continue rising up the ranks,” he says.

He adds that his retirement also had nothing to do “with counterinsurgency strategy falling out of favor,” adding, “It hadn’t when my retirement was announced in January 2008 or when I retired in October 2008.” In fact, he argues, counterinsurgency “was still ascendant in 2009 when the President twice increased force levels in Afghanistan to conduct COIN.”

No, it turns out Nagl walked away from the service he loves for, well, love. He and his wife Susi Varga, whom he met at Oxford, have a young son together and she wasn’t so keen on being an Army bride.

In an email, he wrote, “The decision was a personal one that was perhaps inevitable when I fell in love with a Hungarian Oxford student of literature and the arts and brought her on repeated tours to Kansas. The Army life had relatively little appeal for her and never really let her find her footing and spread her wings. I’m hoping that our new life together at the Haverford School will provide soil in which she flowers.”

That doesn’t mean he’s made a complete break with the military world, which after all was all he knew for more than two decades.

“I miss the Army every day. I loved being in the Army, being part of an organization that has global reach, that is composed of talented, dedicated young professionals, that boasts such a proud history, that makes history. I like to think that I’m still helping my army and my nation as a civilian – writing, educating, serving on the Defense Policy Board and the Reserve Forces Policy Board. But I still miss strapping on my tanker boots every morning.”

During his time in the military he did his best to both live the Jesuit motto “for the greater glory of God” and to train for and wage war. He says the two things never posed a moral conflict for him.

“I never saw any conflict between being a product of a Jesuit education and serving in the U.S. military. The Jesuits taught me the difference between jus ad bellum and jus in bello; the first, whether a war is fought for a just cause, is the business of politicians. How that war is fought, or jus in bello, is the business of soldiers. The first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, was clearly a just and necessary war, fought to free a conquered people and restore international order, and it was fought in a just manner.

“My second war, Iraqi Freedom, I did not then and do not now believe was necessary. However, it was fought according to the laws of war on our side, and we punished violations of those laws that did occur. I also worked to help the Army fight it more wisely and cause less harm to the Iraqi people through the writing of the U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.  The Jesuits must have thought that on balance, I worked Ad majorem Dei gloriam (For the greater glory of God) as they named me Alumnus of the Year for 2012 and included my rank on the award.”

Though the haze of war is full of tragedies and atrocities, Nagl holds to the classical warrior’s view that duty to country and God are the same. This fervent patriot and devout Christian swears allegiance to both.

“Military service is completely compatible with the values I learned at Prep. Some of the finest men for others I have ever known were those who laid down their lives for their friends that we could all live in peace and freedom. We must build a country that is worthy of their sacrifice.”

As a military academy product and teacher (he taught at West Point and the Strategic Studies Institute at the United States Army War College), Nagl knows Army history and thus takes a long view of things when it comes to COIN.

“Counterinsurgency is always going to be messy and slow, but if you’re trying to defeat an insurgency, it’s the least bad option. I’ve always said counterinsurgency is hard, that it’s not guaranteed to work by any means. What I always ask the skeptics is, ‘What do you recommend instead?’

“And the fact is with the American withdrawal from Iraq, the pending continuing drawdown in Afghanistan, the United States has decided not to engage itself in what we call big footprints –, tens or hundreds of thousands of American troops counterinsurgency-camping. But we’re still engaged in supporting insurgencies in places like Syria and supporting countries fighting against insurgencies not just in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in the Philippines, Somalia, Yemen, the list goes on.

“So it isn’t that insurgency and counterinsurgency have gone away but America’s not convinced you get what you pay for, and that I think is a fair question.”

 

 

 

 

 

In many ways, the beat goes on in the places where Nagl and his fellow soldiers saw action.

“Big footprint counterinsurgency continues in Iraq but it’s Iraqi troops rather than American troops who are conducting that campaign. We were able to build up the Iraqi forces and tamp down the fires of sectarian conflict sufficiently to pass that one off to Iraq and say, ‘Good luck guys,. over to you.’

“The campaign in Afghanistan is more complicated. Afghanistan has never been as important a country for U.S. interests as Iraq was

and the real epicenter of this struggle is not Afghanistan at all, but Pakistan, which is the current home of Al Qaeda central, what remains of it, and I believe still today is the most dangerous country in the world for the United States. The biggest global threat we face comes from Pakistan.”

When it comes to military affairs these days Nagl is an interested and well-informed bystander. As closely as he still observes what’s happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, he’s more concerned today with leading a school and preparing its students than with war analysis and strategy. At Haverford he feels he’s found a real home.

“In a lot of ways it’s a secular version of Creighton Prep. It’s a K-12 with about a thousand boys, with a great history. It started in 1884, a hundred years before I graduated from Prep. When I visited the school there were two things engraved in the fabric of the school that really sang to me. One was over the gymnasium and it said a sound mind and a sound body in Latin and those are principles I believe in pretty strongly.”

He says engraved just over the entrance of the upper school building is Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena quotation, whose credo of service and action is one that Nagl’s lived by.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

“To fight the world’s fight, I believe in that responsibility,” says Nagl. “The Jesuits taught me that, my mom and dad taught me that. So it really seemed like this was a place after my own heart.”

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