The Long Shadow of World War I

Martha Downer Slusser, who stayed home with four children while her husband, Thomas Harry Slusser, went off to fight WW1. T.H. Slusser saved his letters home and later published them in a book called “Letters to Her”.

One hundred years ago, my grandfather was leaving his wife, his four small children and his law firm to join the “war to end all wars”.

The trenches where he would soon serve had been dug nearly two years earlier. On July 12 and 13, 1917, the Germans began bombarding allied troops there with mustard gas. Nearly one million French soldiers had already been killed. Conditions were so horrific that several French Army mutinies had already occurred.

Thomas Harry Slusser didn’t have to go to France. At 36, he was too old for the first draft, and his children, aged two to nine, entitled him to defer military service even after that. Still, he signed up, spent four months at the Fort Sheridan officer’s training camp, then sailed overseas on Jan. 7, 1918.

T.H. Slusser’s 1907 law school graduation photo.

Seven months later, the Chicago Evening American printed a front-page story calling him a hero and running his photo under the headline, “Wife and Four Children Couldn’t Keep this Soldier at Home.”

A century later, one might wonder why not?

The T.H. Slusser I knew was patriotic, iron-willed, and high-minded, rather like President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had won the 1916 election vowing to maintain neutrality, but Germany’s actions — atrocities in Belgium, the sinking of the Lusitania, unrestricted submarine warfare — dragged him inexorably toward war. Duty and honor must have similarly pulled my grandfather toward Europe’s eddy of blood, but I suspect that there was more to it.

By the time the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Wilson and his administration were openly questioning the loyalty of German-Americans. The attorney general approved a plan to use volunteers to gather information on German immigrants and native-born German-Americans suspected of disloyalty. From that volunteer group grew the American Protective League, a vast network of 200,000 untrained, amateur detectives. The APL functioned as a semi-official, but often uncontrolled, branch of the FBI’s forerunner, the Bureau of Investigation.

Although my grandfather was a fifth-generation American, sometimes having a German name could be enough to prompt the APL to investigate one’s private affairs.

Chicago, where my grandfather’s law firm was located, was also home to Chicago ad executive A. M. Briggs, the man who created the APL. The town was a hotbed of anti-German sentiment: Lubeck, Frankfort, and Hamburg streets were renamed Dickens, Charleston, and Shakespeare. German Hospital became Grant Hospital. Famed conductor Frederick Stock, who was born in Germany, was forced to step down from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra until he finalized his naturalization papers.

Across the nation, German-Americans were dragged out of their homes at night and forced to kiss the flag or sing the national anthem. Thousands were forced to buy war bonds. Fearing sabotage, the Red Cross barred those with German surnames. Churches were vandalized. Employers received telephone calls asking if they still had “that German spy” on the payroll.

Like the African-American Buffalo soldiers and the Japanese-Americans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, German-Americans were subjected to “friendly fire” from fellow citizens. Having sworn to uphold the constitution when he was admitted to the bar, my attorney grandfather must have keenly felt a need not just to profess loyalty, but to prove it.

By June 1917, the first American division reached France. By year’s end, 175,000 Americans were serving there; 18 months later, the American Expeditionary Force numbered nearly two million men.

 T.H. Slusser was among them. He became a commander in the First Light Infantry on November 27, 1917. His unit joined the 126th Infantry in the Aisne-Marne offensive in Alsace, then marched with Army of Occupation in Germany after the armistice on November 11, the day that would become my birthday 33 years later.

In its 1918 article, quoting an army field dispatch sent from “somewhere in France”, the Chicago Evening American reported that “Lieutenant Thomas Harry Slusser and Lieutenant Otto H. Buder of Kalamazoo, Michigan “distinguished themselves by charging across an open field swept by machine gun fire.”

As PBS has aired “The Great War”, I have reflected on how much WWI shaped the world we live in today. Bellicose leadership and conflict abroad can still inspire hatred and violence at home. Today, while our allies have reason to question our nation’s commitment to live up to Woodrow Wilson’s call to “make the world safe for democracy,” I believe that most Americans still aspire to that noble goal.

WWI had an important effect on me too. Had my grandfather not survived his machine gun charge 100 years ago, I wouldn’t be writing this column today. My father wasn’t born until 1925, six years after Thomas Harry Slusser returned from the trenches of France.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on July 20, 2017

Lives of the Rich and Infamous

I don’t “get” this country’s fascination with the rich and famous. Years ago, I spent a summer living with former in-laws at the top of Coldwater Canyon above Beverly Hills. On our outings, my beloved mother-in-law would elbow me and eagerly whisper, “Look, that’s Warren Beatty!”

Or whoever.

I couldn’t care less then. I still don’t now. It’s easy for me to obey the Aspen etiquette that calls for leaving celebs unrecognized and undisturbed, because, frankly, I’m not impressed.

After working for more than a decade in big-city public relations, I of course understand that the cult of celebrity is real, that if you want attention, few strategies work better than a celebrity endorsement. But I’m genuinely put-off by name-dropping. I wouldn’t cross the street to meet Kim Kardashian, who seems to be famous mostly for being famous and pretty… shallow!

That’s the rub. Popular culture’s fascination with the rich and famous extols shallowness. It celebrates exactly the wrong things: personal aggrandizement, conspicuous consumption, gold-plated greed. Too often, when media focuses on the rich, it’s also focusing on the infamous—people who profited by exploiting those less powerful, by damaging the shared resources of the earth or stealing from future generations.

Evidence of that is all around us: The West is riddled with thousands of abandoned mines, like the Gold King, poised to spew toxins into our rivers, even though those who profited from them have long since died. Computers are indispensible, but avalanches of toxic e-waste, the “effluent of the affluent,” are poisoning families in India, China and Lagos. Cheap, fashionable clothing is fun, but quite likely to have been produced by kids who are little more than slaves. (According to UNICEF, an estimated 158 million children worldwide, aged 5 to 14, are engaged in child labor, not counting domestic service. While kids work in mines, on farms and in brothels, a surprisingly high percentage of them produce textiles and clothing.)

While I can list a few billionaires who arguably earned their fortunes by doing something that benefitted mankind, and add others who later contributed megabucks to making the world a place where our children’s children’s children will want to live, that list is not long: Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, creators of the “Giving Pledge” which encourages the wealthy to give half of their net worth to philanthropy definitely make the list. Nationally, perhaps David Rockefeller, Eli Broad, George Soros, Ted Turner, Oprah and Michael Bloomberg would merit inclusion. Locally, philanthropist Jim Calaway makes the grade.

None of us is without sin, and I don’t mean to pick apart how these philanthropists made their money in the first place. I too have benefitted from the system: from being white, from being born in the U.S., from educated parents, from ancestors who emigrated here largely prior to 1800.

But I hold out the hope of change, of redemption, maybe even a survivable planet for coming generations. And I think that begins with celebrating the right things.

In a recent TED talk, Pope Francis said, “there is this habit, by people who call themselves ‘respectable,’ of not taking care of others, leaving behind thousands of human beings, or entire populations, on the side of the road… How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion…”

That hit home. I seldom want to read news about the astonishing medical advances being made—gene therapy that reverses blindness, bionic limbs, brain-implanted sensors that prevent seizures—because I fear that these therapies will be reserved for the wealthy and further widen the gap between the rich and poor. (Given the “health care” bills recently put forth in this country, which define “access” mostly in terms of ability to pay, that future may be only a year or so distant.)

Pope Francis called for us to overcome what he called a “culture of waste.” He applied that term not only to food and goods but primarily to “the people who are cast aside by our techno-economic systems which, without even realizing it, are now putting products at their core, instead of people.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has similarly said, “The stark economic inequalities of today’s world… are not only morally wrong, but sources of many practical problems, including war, sectarian violence, and the social tensions created by large-scale economic migration.” His conclusion: “Wealth should serve humanity, and not vice-versa.”

Maybe we could start by lionizing wealth that serves humanity, rather than mere ego?

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on May 18, 2017


National Security: Mending Fences Versus Building Walls

Last week, lured by abnormally-early spring weather, I started repairing the stone walls that enclose my raised garden beds. This spring task was memorialized by Robert Frost in “Mending Wall,” a poem that talks about two neighbors rebuilding the wall between their farms. Their task, Frost mused, must have been be “a kind of outdoor game” because the wall was unneeded:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.

Do they?

My passport bears stamps from 38 countries. I have paced the medieval walls of Conway in Wales, built by Britain’s invading King Edward to cow the Welsh. I have walked along Hadrian’s Wall—what’s left of it—built by Romans to keep the Scots at bay.

Walls of Troy as restored by Saddam Hussein.

I haven’t seen the Great Wall of China, erected to protect the Chinese Empire from invading northern tribes. Nor have I seen the Walls of Troy. Those

beautiful blue-tiled walls, depicting dragons and aurochs, were restored (none too accurately) by Saddam Hussein. I missed both of those walls because they were located in places that didn’t feel safe or friendly when I wanted to go.

Historically, great walls have seen mixed success. A wall has kept North and South Korea separated for 60 years. But the Maginot Line didn’t work. And while the Great Wall of China has stood for 2,300 years, it didn’t keep the Manchu invaders out.

Most famous walls were contentious constructions, built to keep someone out.

The Berlin Wall, by contrast, was built to keep someone in. During its 28 year span, about 5,000 East Germans tried to escape over, under and around it. One man careened a sports car through even before the Berlin Wall was finished. Refugees got under the Wall by tunneling or by slithering through a pre-existing sewer system. They escaped by diverting trains and stealing tanks. Thomas Krüger purloined a light plane from an East German youth military training organization and flew it to a British Royal Air Force base. The RAF later trucked the disassembled plane back, emblazoned with humorous slogans like “Wish you were here” and “Come back soon!”

Destruction of the Berlin Wall.

The last person killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall was Winfried Freudenberg, whose homemade natural gas balloon crashed in March 1989. If only he had waited! East Berlin opened the border eight months later, and the Wall’s official demolition began the next summer.

All tolled, the solid Berlin Wall claimed 136 lives—only .01 percent of the nearly 11,000 who have died crossing this country’s porous boundary with Mexico.

The 1,989-mile US-Mexico border is defined by a series of short walls that lie within a “virtual fence” scanned by sensors and cameras. In January, our President called for hiring 5,000 more officers to beef up the force that monitors the current wall. None of those new hires are on the job yet, but last week, John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, announced a 40-percent drop in illegal border crossings. That drop occurred during January, a month when crossings usually increase. (Winter is the safest time to cross the scorching and slaughterous Sonoran desert.)

I think people are avoiding our border for the same reasons I stayed away from Saddam Hussein’s wall: Fear. Reproof. Maybe that’s why legal visitors are staying away. The Global Business Travel Association has estimated that since the election, the US travel industry has lost $185 million due to a “Trump slump”.

If the new wall’s job is to bar “illegals”, it won’t work any better than the Berlin Wall worked with Thomas Krüger. That’s because around 40 percent of illegal visitors simply fly in and overstay their visas.

While the president’s talk is cheap, his wall isn’t. An internal Department of Homeland Security report estimates its cost as high as $21.6 billion.

As Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

 I’m hoping that the “something” isn’t just me. Or the endangered Mexico gray wolf, or the last jaguar, or the 111 other species compromised by the wall. Or the Tohono O’odham, Native Americans who refuse to have 75 miles of wall cutting through their families and sacred sites. Or the Texas landowners who are furious about being cut off from their own farm and ranchland.

I’m hoping that the “something” is also the GOP, which just might hate billion-dollar bloated budgets even more than foreigners?

I’m hoping. Because the way I see it, we humans have usually been safer mending fences than building them.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on March 16, 2017.