Appropriate Appropriation?

Recently my wife and I had the opportunity, on a cold and windy day, to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City to view the exhibit: Through the Eyes of Picasso. This collection featured originals and reproductions of Picasso’s work, as well as cultural artifacts from around the globe, many from Picasso’s own collection, which influenced his work.

I was struck by the ways in which Picasso often misunderstood these items. Taken out of context, for example, he interpreted fertility symbols as erotica. It would seem that Picasso understood these works through his own lens, adapting them to his needs. They inspired work that would be totally foreign to the original cultures; yet Picasso’s works have come to be regarded as masterpieces of Western art.

Shemagh2That was all very interesting, but the moment that stayed with me occurred just as we were stepping out of the exhibit. A young lady, an employee of the museum, probably in her twenties, stopped me as I was leaving to comment on my scarf. You see, as it was cold and windy outside, I was carrying not only my coat, but also a shemagh (also known as a keffiyeh): a red and white Arab headscarf. The young lady commented on the beauty of my scarf; at a glance she observed that it looked as though it had been handmade in Iraq. I was a bit taken aback: my interpreter had bought it at the local market for me during my deployment to Kirkuk. For me it was a token of our friendship and a reminder of one of the noblest things I have done in my life, as well as a toasty warm scarf! The young lady continued to explain not only how she was able to identify its origins, but also how it differed from the ones produced in her homeland of Palestine.

It was fascinating to learn more about my shemagh, but even more rewarding to see how deeply this object affected the young lady: for her it was more than a warm scarf–it reminded her of home.

This got me thinking—was I, like Picasso, appropriating a cultural artifact about which I had little or no understanding? After much thought, I would have to say, “No.” It is true that I was wearing an object with significance to another culture. The difference, I believe, is that this was NOT an artifact I scooped up from a dealer who had exploited a foreign culture for profit. This was a personal item I acquired at the source: I spent over two years of my life in Iraq, and developed an appreciation for Iraqi culture. I worked closely with my Iraqi counterparts, and trusted many of them with my life. At the end of that period I understood what T.E. Lawrence meant when he wrote about standing somewhere between two cultures: fully belonging to neither.

My shemagh has deep meaning to me; it may not remind of home, but it reminds of people and places that impacted my life and made me who I am. So, I will continue to proudly wear my shemagh. Yes, it belongs to another culture, but it is also a part of me.

Nelson-Atkins; Through the Eyes of Picasso: https://www.nelson-atkins.org/events/through-eyes-picasso/

Robert Krenzel Facebook Author Page:  https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor/

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook Page: https://m.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

Endangered History: The Sutfin Farm

I have visited a lot of old battlefields. My career as a soldier, and my frequent personal travel, took me to many places where history was made.

In Germany I walked in the footsteps of both Roman legionaries and Napoleon’s Grande Armee. I have gazed across the field at Waterloo, down from Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, and into the Crater at Petersburg. I have seen century-old shell craters at Verdun and felt the sand on Omaha Beach. With my fellow officers I even stood in awe on the spot where our regimental forebears of the Greatest Generation broke through the German lines at Bastogne.

In some cases these locations were well-preserved, as though time stood still; Antietam is such a place. Sometimes monuments and natural activity have altered the landscape, as at Gettysburg. But almost always there a sense of reverence: a subconscious nod to great events of long ago. Rarely have I been appalled by what I saw in one of these places: until the Sutfin House.

The Sutfin farmhouse was built in the early 1700s; the Sutfins were apparently peaceful people, just trying to extract a living from the fertile New Jersey soil. Until, that is, the British Army marched past in June, 1778. The family wisely hid their valuables and fled. The next day, on June 28th,  the Continental Army marched by the Sutfin Farm and attacked the British rear guard at Monmouth Courthouse, just down the road. In the seesaw fighting that followed, the Sutfin home was at the epicenter of the biggest artillery duel of the American Revolution. It was an anchor for the British right flank at the climax of the battle, and it bore mute witness to the Continental counterattack at the close of the battle. Today it remains a key point of reference in understanding the flow of the battle.

Sadly, the years have not been kind. The Sutfin house today is a dilapidated, graffiti-covered abomination. It broke my heart to see what has become of what should be a historic landmark.

Sutfin Farmhouse

The Sutfin House on the Monmouth Battlefield. Photo taken on May 29th, 2017: Memorial Day.

I do not accept the status quo. I am hereby resolved that in some way Gideon Hawke and his series will work to protect and restore both the Sutfin House and the Monmouth Battlefield. It is not much, but is the least I can do to honor the memory of those who were there, and perhaps restore some of that missing sense of reverence.

 

Friends of Monmouth Battlefield: http://www.friendsofmonmouth.org/

Monmouth Battlefield State Park: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/monbat.html

Robert Krenzel Facebook Author Page:  https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor/

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://m.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

Over There: One Soldier’s Perspective on other Soldiers’ Wars

FT-17-argonne-19181Last week I was able to catch much of the live stream of the ceremony marking the Centennial of America’s entry into the Great War. It was wonderfully done, reflected multiple perspectives, and offered insights into the impact that moment had on America and the world. The ceremony wrapped up with a rousing rendition of “Over There.” As I hear the lines “We’ll be over, we’re coming over,” I realized I had tears in my eyes. I wondered, “How could a hundred year-old song move me to tears?” I suppose the reason is because my own experience of war gave me at least a little glimpse into what was in store for the young men and women headed “Over There.”

To be clear, between the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan I never set foot in a trench. (Well, that’s not entirely true: in Kosovo I stood in a two-foot deep decoy trench the Serbs dug to draw attention from the well-camouflaged foxholes they had prepared in the woodline nearby.) I never huddled in a shell crater, never endured a sustained artillery barrage, never dodged machine gun fire while negotiating a barbed wire obstacle, was never gassed, and never had my tank break down or get mired in front of the muzzles of several enemy machine guns. That was not my generation’s experience of war.

Our experience was very different. Several years ago I had the great honor of delivering a Posthumous Bronze Star Medal for Valor to the family of a fallen soldier with whom I had served. Before the ceremony I chatted with a few WWII 10th Mountain Division veterans, and I remarked that their accomplishments in Italy were an inspiration to today’s soldiers. I was surprised by the humble reply: “Are you kidding me? We got there in January and the war was over in May; then we were done! You people today go over there for a year, and then you go back over and over again. I don’t know how you do it.”

So it would seem every war is horrible in its own way, and each participant’s experience of war is different. There are moments of horror, but in the midst of the violence and chaos, many, if not most, participants also find moments of valor, excitement, and exhilaration. These highs and lows leave a lasting imprint, and the longer one is exposed to them, them more imprints are left. I think that is true for all wars.

I suppose the most important thing to remember is that when a soldier comes back fromBob and Junood “Over There,” a little bit of “Over There” comes back HERE. Some return better people than when they left. Some returned shattered by their experiences. For most, it is somewhere in between. I can only imagine what went on the minds of veterans of the Great War; I know that I carry a bit of my wars with me wherever I go. If I move over when I pass a broken-down car on the side of the road, it’s to give me room in case the car explodes. If I duck during the weekly tornado siren test, it’s not because I was startled, it’s because in Afghanistan sirens meant a rocket was inbound. If I spend an hour and a half on the phone with someone I’ve not spoken to for years, it’s because at one time he and I were ready to give our lives for each other, and that is a bond that will never be broken.

There is another complicating factor for me: while my military service is over, my wars go on. The dirty roadside where I found my first IED (to be fair, it found me) is still in the hands of Daesh. There is still fierce fighting in Afghanistan. American service members are in harm’s way every day…and I have a son who is seventeen years-old. A hundred years ago he would have been in the target age group to go “Over There,” and I still worry that someday he is going to decide to follow in my footsteps. Maybe that perspective is really why I had tears in my eyes last week.

I did not serve in the Great War and I did not serve in the American Revolution; I can’t claim to know what soldiers experienced in those wars. But I did serve in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan and I am beginning to understand what I experienced in those places. When I write about Gideon Hawke’s involvement in the American War for Independence, I hope that my involvement in other wars can help illuminate some universal experience of war. Perhaps people will better understand what it means to go “Over There.” If so, then perhaps I will have truly accomplished something.

Robert Krenzel Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

Historical Figures Great and Small

A great challenge and joy of writing historical fiction is learning about historical figures, both great and small, and working them into my novels. Sometimes I only know them as names on a centuries-old roster, but those names represent real people who once participated in monumental events.

Gideon Hawke is a fictional character. His name, description, and character traits are all products of my imagination. Ruth Munroe is a fictional character, but her surname has roots in Lexington, Massachusetts. By contrast, Andrew Johnston was a real person. I know absolutely nothing about the real Andrew Johnston…aside from the fact that he was one of the original members of Thompson’s Rifle Battalion/the 1st Continental Regiment, he was promoted to sergeant , and [SPOILER ALERT…READERS MAY WANT TO AVERT THEIR EYES] eventually he became an officer, reaching the rank of First Lieutenant on May 12th, 1779. Everything else about him, from the image in my mind to the description on my “character chart,” is fiction, roughly based on my limited knowledge of Johnston’s life and times. Fictional Andrew Johnston is one of my favorite characters; real Andrew Johnston was one of the “winter soldiers” who stayed with Washington during the bad times; through his stubbornness and determination he helped keep the dream alive.

I have recently enjoyed getting to know a few other real characters, all of whom appear in Gideon Hawke #4: A Constant Thunder.

  • Lieutenant Colonel Richard Butler. Butler grew up in his father’s Pennsylvania gunsmith business, and prior to the war was very active in trading with Native American tribes. He was held in high esteem by, and spoke the languages of, several nations, so in the early years of the war he played a key role in keeping some tribes from going over to the British side. He was later commissioned in the Continental Army. A physically strong, hot-tempered man, and pre-war friend of Colonel Daniel Morgan, he served as Morgan’s second-in-command in the Rifle Corps during the Saratoga Campaign. He will play an increasingly large role in Gideon’s life.
  • Captain James Parr. Parr was another original member of Thompson’s Rifle Battalion. When Morgan formed his rifle corps, Parr joined it, commanding the company drawn from the 1st Continental/1st Pennsylvania Regiment. I know very little about Parr aside from his service record. One thing I do know is the tantalizing fact that in the summer of 1777, in small-scale skirmishing, he was personally credited with killing four enemy soldiers in close combat, running at least one through with his sword. Clearly he led from the front! Parr and Gideon will get to know each other very well.
  • Lieutenant Ebenezer Foster. Ebenezer Foster hailed from southeast Massachusetts. He joined the militia in 1777 and served in the Siege of Boston, being involved in the fortification of the Dorchester Heights in March 1776. Commissioned as an officer in the summer of 1777, his service ultimately took him to the Hudson Valley, where he joined Dearborn’s Light Infantry Battalion. Dearborn’s unit worked under Morgan’s command in support of the Rifle Corps. Together, these two units made an incredibly effective team, whose impact at Saratoga was far out of proportion to its numbers. But the price these units paid, especially the Light Infantry, was very dear indeed. In A Constant Thunder, Ebenezer Foster and Gideon Hawke are boyhood friends who meet again in the shadow of great events.

It gives me pause when I realize that I am appropriating the names of people who fought in the great struggle for Independence. I pray that I do them justice. I cannot pretend to be delivering true-to-life portrayals, but I can say I do my best with the information I can find. Perhaps by shedding new light on their names I am at least helping to keep alive their memory I am certainly expressing my gratitude for their toils and sacrifices.

Robert Krenzel Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

100 Years On: America Slides Toward the Great War

 “He kept us out of war.”

-Woodrow Wilson Re-election Campaign Slogan, 1916

“The world must be made safe for democracy.”

-Woodrow Wilson to a special session of Congress, requesting a Declaration of War, April 2nd, 1917

One hundred years ago public opinion in the United States was nearing the culmination of a seismic shift. When the First World War broke out in 1914, popular opinion was overwhelmingly against American involvement in “Europe’s war.” Two years later, President Woodrow Wilson successfully campaigned for re-election based on his record of achievements, especially his maintenance of American neutrality. But less than six months after the election, Wilson was the leader of a united nation, asking for Congress to declare war. What happened in those few months?

What happened was that Germany made a number of strategic decisions that made war with the United States a near certainty. The year 1916 had been a costly one for Germany: its effort to bleed France to death at Verdun had proven futile, the months-long battle on the Somme had sapped away even more blood and treasure, and there had even been setbacks on the Eastern Front with Russia going on the offensive. While Germany was still strong, some of its allies were growing shaky, and the long-term strategic outlook was bleak. As long as France and Great Britain were being sustained by American loans, food, and war materials, it seemed unlikely that the balance would swing Germany’s way. In Berlin, a return to unrestricted submarine warfare seemed worth the risk: if Germany could starve Great Britain into submission it could win the war.

Sinking_of_the_Lusitania_London_Illus_News

Sinking of the Lusitania

So, what was ‘unrestricted submarine warfare? Simply put, it was what you probably think of when you hear the term “U-Boat:” it means submarine crews attacking merchant ships without warning. By the rules of maritime warfare, warships were supposed to warn merchant ships, and allow the crews to abandon ship, before sinking them. For a vessel as small and fragile as a submarine this was a risky proposition. If the merchant ship had a hidden deck gun, or if it could alert a nearby friendly warship, the tables would quickly turn on the German U-Boat crew. In 1915 the outrage caused by the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania had caused the Germans to suspend unrestricted warfare. In 1917, the benefit seemed to outweigh the cost. Fully aware that the United States might declare war once its ships started sinking again, the Germans tried to minimize the effect of US entry with a very clumsy diplomatic maneuver: the Zimmerman Telegram.

Knowing that Mexico still resented its loss of territory to the United States resulting from their 1848 war, German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram to the Mexican government offering it American territory (from California east into Colorado) if it joined the war on the side of the Central Powers. British intelligence intercepted the telegram and was only too happy to pass it along to the Wilson Administration. This telegram, coupled with the sinking of several American merchant ships in March, 1917, turned the tide of public opinion.

Many Americans had been uncomfortable with Germany’s perceived atrocities, such as its invasion of Belgium, execution of civilians, bombardment of cultural sites, espionage and sabotage in America and Canada, incitement of labor riots in the United States, introduction of weaponized poison gas, and Zeppelin raids on London. With the rapid-fire events of January to March 1917, discomfort changed to outrage. On Main Street, USA, it seemed that in spite of America’s strict policy of neutrality (a neutrality Germany would dispute) Germany was deliberately picking a fight. And, so the thinking went, if the Germans wanted a fight, then by God they were going to get it.

National World War I Museum–Learning materials on America’s Entry into the War: https://www.theworldwar.org/us-enters-war

Robert Krenzel Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

Tedious but Enlightening Research

As I have said before, one of the great challenges of writing historical fiction is GETTING IT RIGHT! While it was a treat to visit the Saratoga Battlefield, research is not all fun in the sun!

For the first three novels in the Gideon Hawke Series I was fortunate enough to find print books with rosters of the actual units to which I assigned Gideon Hawke. Those days are over! In Book 4, A Constant Thunder, Gideon and a few of his comrades decide to join Morgan’s Provisional Rifle Corps. In doing so they march into a unit for which records are scarce! We know a great deal about the exploits of Morgan’s Riflemen, but rosters are difficult to come by, and the sources available are often incomplete or contradictory. The most helpful source I have been able to find is a list of participants in the Battles at Saratoga prepared by Heritage Hunters of Saratoga County, NY. It is a lengthy list, not quite complete, but it provides basic information on known participants. For example:

WRIGHT, Barrick             NY

             Drummer, Capt. Wright’s co., Col. Van Cortlandt’s regt., from 14 Jan 1777 to Jan 1782. 

So, I went the tedious exercise of pouring through tens of thousands of names looking for the phrase: “Captain James Parr’s co.; Col. Morgan’s Battalion.” I don’t think the list is quite complete: I only came up with 32 names, including Captain Parr, a sergeant, a corporal, and a few dozen privates; other sources claim Parr marched with a few lieutenants and 50 enlisted men. There are also a few discrepancies in the assignments of a few other members of Morgan’s Rifles: in one instance, Private Timothy Murphy is listed as belonging to Captain Hawkins Boone’s Company, but other sources indicate he was in Parr’s Company. While there may be a few inaccuracies, I am confident I have gotten a feel for the actual men who marched north in August, 1777 to reinforce the Northern Department against Burgoyne. This was a long and tedious exercise, but it had unintended benefits. You see, an exercise like this yields fertile ground for an author with an imagination. Here is one example:

CHURCH, John                   CT          

              Served under Gen. Arnold; helped Arnold from his horse when he was wounded at Saratoga.

Additional military information: Served under Arnold at Quebec, 1775. Other: He was born 1755 in Chester CT; died 1834 in Winchester CT. He married Deborah Spence, 1780; they had at least one son, Isaac who married Sylvia Maria Clark and one daughter, Lucy, who married Asa Gilbert Olds.  He was placed on pension in 1832, for over nine month’s actual service as private in the Connecticut troops.

Now, I have walked on the very spot behind the Breymann Redoubt where Benedict Arnold was wounded, so Private Church and I have trod upon the same ground, albeit separated by 239 years of time. For me having this bit of information makes Private John Church a fascinating and familiar character. I am not quite sure how yet, but I am certain he will have a cameo in A Constant Thunder.

More importantly for me, reviewing this list of names has brought me closer to the subject matter by making Saratoga very much more personal. I did not originally want to engage in such a tedious task, but once I did I stumbled upon poignant entries such as this:

EASTMAN, Joseph             NH

              1st N. H. Regiment.  Died 30 Oct 1777 of wounds received at Saratoga.

This entry provides very little information about Joseph Eastman, other than his name and unit, but I know enough about the clashes at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights to know that on both occasions the 1st New Hampshire Regiment went toe-to-toe with the best the British Army had to offer, and it covered itself with glory. I also know enough about those battles and about 18th Century medicine to deduce that Private Eastman fell on October 7th, 1777, and endured over three weeks of agony before succumbing to his wounds. I also found hard evidence confirming that the regiments heavily engaged at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights paid dearly for their role. The list is replete with members of units like the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd New Hampshire Regiments, Dearborn’s Light Infantry, or the Albany County Militia, who suffered many killed or mortally wounded on September 19th and October 7th, 1777.

It is my sincere hope that in some small way A Constant Thunder will help preserve the memory of soldiers like Drummer Wright, Private Church, and Private Eastman: Americans who fought in fields many miles from their homes, and who in many cases gave what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”

Many thanks to the men and women who did the inglorious work of preserving, compiling, and organizing these data, helping to preserve the legacy of the Americans who fought their fledgling Nation’s independence along the banks of the Hudson in 1777.

Heritage Hunters of Saratoga County, NY: American Participants at the Battles of Saratoga: http://saratoganygenweb.com/sarapk.htm#Top

Robert Krenzel Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/