Monday, May 29, 2017

. . . And The Great War

I know that some of you may not be very familiar with World War One, aka The Great War. I know that it may seem obscure and unintelligible, most especially to my American friends who are taught more or less nothing about it in school. The United States played a significant role in the war, but that role was (relatively) brief, and American casualties were (relatively) much smaller than that of other countries.

BUT, it is still an utterly fascinating period, when warfare--and medicine--were becoming recognizably modern. Obviously, medicine constantly evolves, but times of war seem to really accelerate the pace, or at least put the changes into focus. I've done quite a bit of research on Civil War medicine, which saw advances particularly in plastic surgery. Still, medicine was still very basic by modern standards. Just fifty years later, however, the field of medicine was almost unrecognizable. Germ theory had revolutionized the way medicine was conceived of at its most basic level. Not only was it finally clear what caused diseases, we could even see the little monsters. And with that knowledge, infections could, with careful attention, be prevented to some degree. Surgery improved by leaps and bounds and the danger of post-surgical infection went down dramatically thanks to simple sanitization. There were new anesthetics and antiseptics, and drugs like cocaine were used to alleviate pain. Blood tranfusions became viable and common (which, by the way, plays a major part in one of my WIPs). Doctors were more professionalized, and scientific research was more regularized. X-rays (even mobile x-ray units) came into use to spot broken bones and other internal problems. Motor ambulances and trains got the wounded to hospitals quicker.

But there was still one major problem: while doctors knew what caused disease and had tools to fight the advent of infection, there was nothing much they could do once an infection set in: there were no antibiotics. It was a paradox. They knew what was wrong but couldn't fix it. It wouldn't be until penicillin was discovered in the '40's that we would have effective antibiotics.

In any case, the Smithsonian put on a small exhibition about medicine in the Great War, and it is fabulous:

For being so small, it packs a punch. The website provides beautiful images, and you can zoom in close for magnificent details. I went to the National Museum of American History to see it myself, but you get a great view from your living room computer, too. The exhibit talks about how enlistees were measured for physical and mental fitness before they could join the ranks, about women in the war and professional training for medical personnel, and about the care of wounds and the wounded. I was interested in the role of women in the war, since one of my characters is a VAD nurse. The Smithsonian happened to also have several ladies' uniforms on display as part of a different exhibit. No VAD uniforms; VADs were British, and the exhibit was about the American experience of the war. These uniforms were from various organizations, such as the Army Signal Corps. Here's a link to that exhibit. The x-ray machine looks like something from Jules Verne, and the medical chests and belts really bring home the reality of what the medical officers were facing. It can be hard, staring through a glass case, to put the objects in context and really understand how they were used and the stories they tell. 

My favorite part, though, and the reason I made the trip to the museum, was to see the hypodermic needles. Yes, hypodermic needles. They were in use by the time of the Civil War, but they weren't all that widely used. By the time of the Great War, they were ubiquitous. The reason I particularly wanted to see a WW1 syringe was that a syringe plays a major part in that same WIP that involves a VAD. It's filled with cocaine because the male main character has a bit of a habit. I realize that's somewhat cliche, but the context is very unusual, and so is the use of the syringe. But it any case, I geeked out just a little bit and took some pictures.

This was a fun side-trip for me, and it was a reminder that no matter how many times you may have been to a museum, there's always more to see, especially when it's a museum like the American History Museum here in DC.

Hypodermic needle, shown here without the case it comes with. Click here to see the Smithsonian item details

Per the Smithsonian website: Hypodermic syringe kit: US Medical Department around 1918: U.S. medical officers carried hypodermic syringe kits on their belts with potent drugs such as morphine, strychnine, and cocaine to combat pain and shock.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Why the Civil War Happened (And Why it Matters)

I am not a particularly political person. Or maybe I should say, I follow politics obliquely, and I have opinions, but my opinions are somewhat all over the place. I'm ambivalent about most issues--I sympathize with both sides. I also hate confrontation, so I never (ever) talk politics. If you ask me, I'll tell you something like the above.


But when you start saying shit about the Civil War that is not only nonsensical but does untold damage to progress being made recently in a very important area of popular and historical consciousness, well . . . well, I get angry.

Recently, President Trump said the following:

TRUMP: [Jackson] was a swashbuckler. But when his wife died, did you know he visited her grave every day? I visited her grave actually, because I was in Tennessee.
ZITO: Oh, that's right. You were in Tennessee.
TRUMP: And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. They love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee.
ZITO: Yeah, he's a fascinating...
TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that -- he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There's no reason for this.” People don't realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don't ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
Um, holy shit, guys. Holy, effing shit. The level of wrongness is mind-blowing. Let's begin picking this apart.

I think it's okay to bypass the first part. Jackson did love his wife, Rachel. He literally fought duels with people who bad-mouthed her, because her marital status wasn't exactly free and clear when she married Jackson, and that fact haunted her the rest of her life. In fact, Jackson blamed her detractors for hounding her to death. And I'm sure people in Tennessee love him. Hey, he's an interesting and charismatic, if controversial, figure.

The last paragraph, though. Whew. Let me count the ways that this is wrong, factually and on a larger, theoretical level.

1. JACKSON WAS DEAD DURING THE CIVIL WAR. DEAD. Deceased. No longer with us. Pushing up the daisies. Six feet under. He'd kicked the can, given up the ghost, gone on to a better (worse?) place. [Insert the parrot skit from Monty Python.] He WAS NOT SAD ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR because he WAS DEAD. Dead, dead, dead.

2. Yes, we would have still had a Civil War. There were many reasons for the war, most of them much, much bigger than one man. Now, back in the 1830's, when Jackson was president, there was the Nullification Crisis and he told South Carolina to sit down and shut up because he loved the effing Union and he would personally shoot everyone dead in the entire state if that's what it took to keep them from seceding. And, yes, the bullying worked. However, that obviously did NOT solve the underlying issues, and the next twenty years only deepened the divide. Not even Jackson's considerable force of will could have prevented war. Even if he'd bullied the states into staying, it would have only postponed the reckoning, because SLAVERY. That's why. BECAUSE SLAVERY. Yeah, that little thing. You know, SLAVERY. More on this below. The fact is that even if he had been alive--and he wasn't--he couldn't have stopped the tide of war.

3. He was a very tough person. Yes, yes he was. He carried a bullet in him most his life and fought (and won) several duels. He defeated the British at New Orleans. Tough guy. But . . .

4. He had a big heart. That, sadly, is debatable and probably untrue. You see, Jackson was a slaveholder (SLAVERY), which is a black mark against him (though, in my opinion, not actually enough to condemn his entire legacy and/or erase him from the historical record like some people seem inclined to do). Oh, yeah, and there was THE TRAIL OF TEARS. To be fair, I don't think he meant to send all those people on a death march, but that was what happened when he forced them off their land in defiance of the Supreme Court. (The Court told him he couldn't evict the Cherokee, and legend has him saying, "Mr Marshall has made his ruling, now let him enforce it".) Yeah, he was "tough" in this instance too. Tough enough to cause the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Cherokee. How delightful. Big heart, right?

5. People don't ask that question, but why was there a civil war? Again, holy eff. I mean, holy effing eff. There are tomes and tomes and tomes about the causes of the Civil War. There are entire conferences devoted to that topic. It is discussed in classrooms across the country (I hope, at least!). People are discussing this in a major, massive way, and they are relating it to the problems that still plague us today, because these things are related. Just because a certain someone isn't aware of it doesn't mean it's not happening. Now, given the breathtaking level of historical idiocy in this country, I'm afraid that not enough people ARE aware of this crucial (VITALLY IMPORTANT) discussion. Some people have gotten the entirely wrong idea about the causes of the Civil War or just don't care. But there is a discussion, a massive discussion that is ongoing and relevant to today's politics.

6. Why could that one not have been worked out? You'll forgive me, but this requires some more colorful cussing. I'm going to go and yell a bit and come back. Why could "that one" not have been "worked out"? Jesus.

What is "that one"? I'm guessing this means the causes of the war. Why couldn't the causes have been resolved in a way other than war? It's a very basic question, and not without merits for someone who knows nothing about history or the war (like, say, an elementary school kid). "That one" is not exactly one thing, but let's be clear: SLAVERY. The causes of the Civil War are not as simple as they may seem (though, still, SLAVERY). As Lincoln said, both sides had some blame in the sin of slavery.

However, the cause was slavery. Now, you may hear differently from some people, and you might hear hedging and side-stepping. States-rights, some might say. The right to do what? Own slaves. Differences in culture and economy. Caused by what? The slave economy. There are ancillary repercussions to slavery that caused rifts in and of themselves, but they basically all lead back to the original sin of SLAVERY.

So why could that not have been "worked out"? This makes two implicit assumptions: that people didn't try very hard, and that there was, in fact, a way to work it out. People did try. Starting with the Constitution, very intelligent men and women attempted to address the slavery issue. The Constitution shunted the problem down the road with the overly optimistic hope that slavery would die out naturally and/or that future generations would be able to solve the problem. Well, future generations tried and failed. There was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. With every compromise, passions heated, and the rhetoric intensified--it didn't solve anything, it just bottled things up until at last it exploded.

You see, astute people understood that confining slavery to a certain place or granting more and more "rights" to slaveholders wasn't going to fix anything. There are many complex reasons why, but essentially, there cannot be a country divided between free and slave states. The slave holders can't keep their slaves in check if the slaves have somewhere to run, and no state is truly "free" if slave-holders can bring their slaves into that state and even purse their escaped slaves into that state. Slavery demands an entire political and social framework to uphold it, or it become untenable.

Now, let's look at an example of an attempt to work it out: Kansas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 organized Kansas as a territory on the basis of popular sovereignty. The people of the territory would get to decide whether it would be free or slave territory. The result? A small-scale civil war, in which people flooded in from slave and free states in order to sway the vote. They set up rival governments and had rival constitutions, and there were battles and sieges and massacres.

Sometimes, there is no compromise.

Or, as Abraham Lincoln put it, "I believe the government cannot  endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved--I do not expect the house to fall. But I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. "

7. SLAVERY. For God's sake, slavery. This is so important to where we stand today as a nation in regards to race relations. Essentially, this is the only rebuttal needed to the nonsense uttered by the president.

Don't believe me?

How about this, from the Confederate Constitution: "In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States."

Or this, from the vice-president, Alexander Stephens: "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. "

No, but please, tell me about how this could have been worked out.