Edward G. Nilges, “Study for Edward Joseph Nilges”, 3 September 2010. Pencil, pen and wash on paper.
The drawing reveals that the “garrison cap” is actually very complex, full of hidden folds and fissures despite its starched, military tailoring, even as the men of the 442nd were forced to see the earth of Italy in a new way…simply to find a way to dodge German bullets and return German fire.
The folds at the top are a miniature mountain: the piping rounds the left top of the cap like a redoubt.
The way the light falls. When I was a kid, we saw in movie theaters and on analogue TV actual light from the past, delivered using varying levels of chemicals and voltages in an indeterminate, fuzzy way. There were not “bits” nor false, sado-masochistic precision.
Grownups’ faces, as I stared up in wonder, were full of marvelous secrets and knowledge. Books and ideas were discussed by lamp-light and there was no TV or it was cold.
Older men who seemed to be wise and who looked like Gentile J. Robert Oppenheimers, would admonish my father, who would treat them with respect. They’d discuss Truman, with his Stetson hat just like Grandfather. They’d not dare to discuss music or art as being beyond their remit as doctors, lawyers and engineers, and not homo, but they’d listen to Sibelius and go to museums.
And, they buried my uncle here in a solemn Missa Pro Defunctis of which all I knew was an enormous purple shroud, emblazoned with the Sacred Heart, taken in color by another uncle, a camera buff.
Us kids seemed to be ornamental, best seen not heard, like prewar British kids in JG Ballard’s account of life in Shanghai. Booze was a part of this, creating a sort of barrier. It looked good, tasted awful.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
I thought these lines were by a first rater, a Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. But they are Victorian attempts of one Lawrence Binyon to speak for a still-Victorian Britain that was in shock, the sort of shock that takes years to absorb.
My point in this painting is to simply and quietly remove all signs of patriotism. For one thing Edward thought that the patriotic speeches on board the ship that took him to Europe and hell were at best funny in such a grave affair given that which confronted him. For another, WWI style patriotism (Wall Street beating the drum so as to recover the money Britain owed, Germans hanged alongside blacks, Joe Hill killed in the Pacific Northwest pour encourager) was out of fashion with Edward’s generation.
It was replaced by a moral seriousness which beggars description up to the liberation of Paris. But when Edward died, in April of 1945, the war was beginning to revert to a Great Power struggle. The Soviet Union had done the heavy lifting and taken horrendous casualties while American and British generals had to minimize casualties like George McLellan in the Civil War.
The war in Europe was kaput, but the Germans dug in arount Mount Folgorito hadn’t gotten the word. The Nisei were deliberately sent to unfashionable sectors and Edward had to get out in front of some seriously brave Asians.
But for the commanders, it was all about limited Russian influence, an attitude that helped start the Cold War, since the Russians had secured a traditional Russian goal fair and square and felt entitled. Therefore, as in Afghanistan and in Iraq today, lives were thrown away.
There was also a quiet struggle going on between Britain and America; America was trying to destroy the Empire through action and Harcourt of the Royal Navy had to go cap in hand to Nimitz to retake Hong Kong.
It was all about the power in America of WASPs who’d gone to Princeton but needed Catholics who were required at this time by the Church to go to Catholic universities to do the dying.
Catholicism had had a counter-reformation in Italy and therefore the south of Germany from where Nilgeses come from, but no grassroots Enlightenment comparable to German Protestant Pietism. Primitively the Counter-Reformation was a crude Enlightenment especially as regards Jesuits. But then a silence settled upon the Catholic lands of the south of Germany.
Even in the fifties and until about 1966 the priests told us what, was what.
But at the same time, middle class families need to be “practical”. The kid (like me) who took the Catholic thing seriously would have been medicated had medication been in fashion, because earning a living without being a priest meant being in the world of loud guys in loud shirts who told dirty jokes. And if you were saving yourself for Holy Matrimony and looked cute…you might be gay, and that was the end of the world as far as you were concerned.
Therefore I looked at the pictures in my Protestant friend’s basement and then went to Confession. It was all rather wearying.
A Weberian split (as in Habermas’ reading of Max Weber) occured, and society became polytheistic, remaining so today. I mean, by 1959 it was kwazee nuts (see Mad Men on TV). On the one hand, as Helen Gurley Brown relates, women were getting their underpants pulled down in offices…and were expected to ignore this and be “good”. Pregnant women were smoking up a storm.
…and us kids were sitting in class with the priest telling us about the Virgin Mary and how our impure thoughts would really gross her out.
Whence the sentimentality of the Binyon poem, creating a world of lost masculinity for the survivors, the too young, and the men in the rear wit the gear: Hong Kong writer Martin Booth rather tastelessly and rather viciously recounts his mother’s castrating words to his father, who was a sort of Royal Navy clerk in the war.
I believe that the best way to handle what is now called “post traumatic stress” is to start pointing fingers at the clowns that caused your stress. Barry Romo of the (Chicago) Vietnam Veterans Against the War has a flat full of books about the causes, course, and consequences of that war.
For this reason, I cannot celebrate Ed’s innocence. Indirectly Binyon communicates disgust and a survivor’s self-hatred, and a death wish where death at 29 means, in Catholic theology, a ticket to Heaven as long as you followed the mechanics of Confession.
Van Johnson played an anti-Japanese racist in a 1954 film about the 442nd and he is no innocent, screwing an Italian girl on the way to the front. He learns from the Nisei men in his command. My uncle wasn’t like that: but (TS Eliot, Little Gidding)
…what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Ed’s ghost knows all about the 1960s. How the materialism of the 1950s and the shock of the assassination of Kennedy turned American Catholics away from their church: how they disavowed “liberation theology” and thought themselves “real Americans” only to be deliberately manipulated, and satirized as “puritans” in the grim ethics of the “sexual revolution” by the real Puritans, who always like to make whoopee before returning to telling the rest of us we’re damned.
A ghost is silent. Hamlet’s father was the exception that proves this rule. The ghost looks with amusement since he, and not I, went up that mountain.
The question in this painting is whether there will be compassion and forgiveness in the Finale. At this point, it’s still not quite a likeness, having too much goddamn Eisenhower. Of course, the purpose of military dress is to make different men the same.