a journal of modern society & culture

Review: Bruce Franklin: Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War. Rutgers University Press, 2018

Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” remains the anthem of our times. We have been living with wars all our lives. World War II and Korea were central events for the generation before us. Vietnam was the defining experience for my American generation—whether we fought there, lost loved ones there, supported or fought against that vicious war.

The overt and “covert” US 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 subsequent lives and those of folks younger than us and done terrible harm to people far from America. Yet the condition of being “at war” seems to have become horribly “normalized”, 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 desensitized 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 – unanalyzed, can obscure our vision and understanding. It is vastly 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 visited Franklin some eighteen years ago at his summer vacation rental on the New Jersey shore. I had written to him while researching a magazine article and Franklin invited me to visit him in person. 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, he had been fired in 1972 by Stanford University for leading protests. Years later, Rutgers University hired him as a distinguished John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies, who taught by his own insistence at their inner-city Newark campus. He is now retired emeritus. I was delighted to be so kindly invited to meet him in person.

While it was pleasant chatting with Bruce 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. Bruce took that in stride with a grin. As Crash Course reveals, Bruce Franklin is no stranger to small craft on rocking seas. He worked on a tugboat crew in New York harbor—one of the most dangerous jobs there is—before starting his academic career. Over a dinner of grilled bluefish, Bruce and Jane Franklin recalled years of harassment by the FBI and noted that they had guided their children’s educational paths so that the young Franklins were prepared to defend themselves in future rough times.

Howard Bruce Franklin has weathered rough seas and times indeed, and they have all been times of war: World War II, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Latin America and now the endless American-fueled “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. And the war within America between the forces of reaction and repression and those of progress. Franklin has long been on the progressive side.

Now in his mid-eighties and retired from a long and distinguished teaching career, Professor Bruce Franklin has lived a life of conscious resistance, and now he has done us all a great service by gifting us with this stunning memoir. In it, Franklin addresses the most vital questions of our times. This book is indeed an intense course in cutting through the fog of myth and propaganda to make sense out of confusing modern history. It’s a course none of us can afford to skip. On the very first page of Crash Course, Franklin declares his own self-analytical epiphany at age 80, which prompted him 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.”(p.1)

Franklin is no armchair academic observer of these wars. As he tells us, he was an engaged combatant as a 1950s 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.” (p.3) 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.” (p. 156)

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 American imperialism which has long existed among American workers including many in the military. The Franklins—both Bruce and Jane, who have been life- long comrades in struggle and self-analytical education—moved from being self-identified “concerned liberals” to determined revolutionaries, learning along the way from the writings of Marx and 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 actual fact.

Crash Course proceeds chronologically, with periodic instructive flashbacks and links across decades. Chapter 1 begins with Franklin noting the drumbeats of war building in 2014 against Syria and Russia and declaring his own war weariness, and the deep fatigue he observes among the American public in general, especially among those directly impacted by the wars. Then, Franklin tries to recall any memory of “an America at peace with the world”. He decides that he recalls that condition just before World War II when he was a child in Queens, New York attending the 1939 World’s Fair and then again on August 14, 1945 when Japan’s surrender was announced and he rode in a celebratory motorcade through Flatbush, Brooklyn, though he qualifies his recollections: “And even these were arguably mere childish illusions.” (p.3)

Then Franklin quickly takes us into an extended lesson on the history of American connivance in the French attempt—including the shocking use of former imperial Japanese and Nazi troops– to re-colonize “Indochine” which preceded covert and then overt US military invasion of Vietnam. He provides a fine review of how the US war on Vietnam developed and how pernicious and deceptive “myths” grew out of it: “Soon Vietnam became not a people or a nation, and not even a war. ‘Vietnam became something that happened to us. America became the victim of ‘Vietnam,’ which was some kind of crippling addiction or disease, or, to use Reagan’s term, a ‘syndrome.’” (p. 13) Franklin introduces a concept of national “cancerous myths”—developed though out this challenging book, with psychosexual implications that he cites as explanations for the ongoing war fever in America. (pp. 14 ff.) Among the myths he cites are those which led to the Bush-era “yellow ribbon” campaign and the continuing widespread marketing and display of black -and- white MIA/POW flags. (pp. 15 ff.), which he identifies as “a myth of imprisonment.”

Chapter 2 is a detailed history of “how America lost World War II” by putting into practice “the fascist doctrine . . . of the terror bombing of civilian populations,” and thus succumbing to the very fascism which the war was fought to oppose. (p. 30) Franklin describes how efforts by himself and others to publicize this analysis met with the harshest government opposition. Chapters 3 and 4 take Bruce and Jane Franklin through the years of the Korean War and the 1950s McCarthy years of fear of the Red Menace. Ironically, Bruce worked during those years in a NY City photo-developing shop run by self-declared communists, and later as an officer in the US Air Force doing training exercises and later flying missions meant to menace the USSR. Franklin clearly and with subtle humor savors this irony in view of his later political awakening and commitments. Later in this chapter, Franklin thematically links the 1950s persecution of Paul Robeson to the 1970s COINTELPRO attacks on himself and Jane which include his being fired from a tenured Stanford teaching job.

Chapter 5 is an extended exploration of the history of labor conflict and what Franklin labels “class war” on American waterfronts. His own experiences on tug boats and his intense reading of Melville are woven together convincingly to show readers how Franklin’s social consciousness grew in those years. A reader will never view the movie On the Waterfront in the same way after reading this chapter. Chapter 6 is titled “Thirteen Confessions of a Cold Warrior”, while Chapter 7 is “Wake Up Time.” Franklin moves from anti-communist American military combatant to anti-imperialist writer, demonstrator and educator, and it’s a fascinating story. The photos included in this book help drive home the drama, including one of Jane toting an unloaded carbine at a 1972 press conference.

Chapters 8 and 9 take the Franklins through years in Europe, extended close contacts with Vietnamese and other revolutionaries, and then back to the USA where they engage themselves in struggle as determined militants. Chapter 10, “The War Comes Home”, concludes the book with a brilliant explanation of how active resistance to the Vietnam war—by American soldiers and sailors, by the Franklins and their comrades and by very large sectors of the American public—has largely been erased from contemporary American awareness. And of how that knowledge must be restored, because only by knowing true history can we have hope to “find our way out of the Forever War.” (p. 274) Crash Course is a big step in that direction.

This book should be read widely, particularly by younger people wondering where their own lives, and their country, has been and may be heading. For a slightly younger contemporary of Franklin’s, like 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 and should help other readers examine their own. Crash Course is a very good course of study. I recommend it most highly.

 

Bill Nevins is a retired teacher and a writer living in New Mexico. He is a Gold Star parent.