Crash Course, From the Good War to the Forever War
By H Bruce Franklin
Rutgers University Press, 2018
315 pages Hardcover
Bob Dylan’s enduring “Masters of War” is the anthem of our times. We have been living with war all our lives. Vietnam was the defining experience for my American generation — whether we fought there, lost loved ones there, supported or fought against that vicious war. World War II and Korea were central events for the generation before ours.
The overt and “covert” United States wars in Latin America tore us apart and in the case of Cuba brought us to the verge of nuclear Armageddon. The post-9/11 wars have shaped our lives and done terrible harm to people far from the US. Yet the condition of being “at war” has become horribly “normalised”, as if it were just a matter of whim when the next bullet, bomb, missile or drone will strike. Or when the next persons will die.
We may have become desensitised to how truly abnormal these wars are, or should be. Now this war-condition seems permanent, no end in sight: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Palestine, Africa — on and on and on. The war-fog of propaganda and lies — and roiling emotions — unanalysed, can obscure our vision and understanding.
It is important to hear from alert critical voices who have shared this experience. H Bruce Franklin, speaking through Crash Course, is one such voice. This is an extraordinary book about a long American life, lived and recalled with clarity and purpose. It is filled with surprises and self-reflective lessons — brilliantly focused.
I had a surprise myself when I was invited to visit Franklin some 18 years ago at his summer holiday rental on the New Jersey shore. I knew his published works on prison writing, science-fiction, Herman Melville, marine ecology. And I knew of his heroic and costly stance against the Vietnam War. Though a tenured professor, cultural historian and award-winning scholar, Franklin had been fired in 1972 by Stanford University for leading protests against the war. Years later, Rutgers University hired him as a distinguished John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies, and he taught by his own insistence at their inner-city Newark campus. He is now retired emeritus.
While it was pleasant chatting with Franklin and his wife — famed Cuban history scholar Jane Franklin — what I most clearly remember about the visit is being taken out in a very small boat into the Long Beach Island ocean bay, where Bruce nonchalantly stood up in the wave-rocked skiff, expertly baiting and casting, and catching so many fish that nearby tourist fishing boats began to follow us around the bay.
As Crash Course reveals, Franklin is no stranger to small craft on rocking seas. He worked on a tugboat crew in New York harbour before starting his academic career.
During my visit, Bruce and Jane recalled years of harassment by the FBI. They guided their children’s education to prepare them to defend themselves in future rough times.
Franklin has weathered rough seas and times of war: World War II, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Latin America and now the endless US-fuelled “Forever War” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and countless countries in Asia and Africa, and a new version of Cold War with Iran and China and, perhaps once again, Russia.
Franklin has lived a life of conscious resistance, and through his stunning memoir addresses the vital questions of our times. This book is an intense course in cutting through the fog of myth and propaganda to make sense of modern history.
At the start of Crash Course, Franklin explains why, at the age of 80, he was prompted to write this book: “I remembered that since early childhood America’s wars had been defining the historical periods of my life ... But living in the Forever War, it was getting harder and harder to tell one war from another, or even to count the number of ongoing wars, much less figure out when they began.”
Franklin is no armchair academic observer of wars. As he tells us, he was an engaged combatant as a 1950’s Air Force officer, “flying in Strategic Air Command operations of espionage and provocation against the Soviet Union as well as launches of full-scale nuclear attacks ... that were recalled while we were in flight just minutes before it would have been too late.” He came close to the edge of Armageddon, as did the rest of us alive at the time, though so few of us knew it. He recalls his own reaction to Stanley Kubrick’s later fictional film depiction of this hidden horror: “The critics seemed to think Dr. Strangelove was an over-the-top absurdist satire. I thought it was pretty realistic.”
In this smoothly written, engrossing memoir, Franklin brings readers along on his personal odyssey of discovery and public commitment. Eye-opening, and research-backed revelations fill this book: about little-known nuclear-war dangers — how close and how often we have come to the brink of world destruction — and about the falsity of Cold War and “War on Terror” claims, and the very direct and effective resistance to US imperialism that has long existed among US workers, including many in the military.
Bruce and Jane have been life-long comrades in struggle and self-analytical education — and moved from being self-identified “concerned liberals” to determined revolutionaries, learning along the way from the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin and from profoundly impactful encounters with Asian and European and other resistance fighters. This personal and political growth is deftly and clearly explained in this book, which often reads like a powerful suspense novel, but is decidedly grounded in fact.
This book should be read widely, particularly by younger people. For myself, this book — read recently alongside Bob Woodward’s Fear, Seymour Hersh’s Reporter and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies — helped bring my own life and public history into focus.