There is a saying by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the year of 2014, people aged 65 years and older represent 9% of the U.S. population. Of those, persons aged 80 to 100 who have memories of World War II number roughly half of that, or 4.5%. I am one of those persons.
When I married in 1956, I inherited my husband’s history along with my own. He had spent the years of his childhood during World War II hiding from German occupation forces in the French "free" zone, unoccupied by the Nazis, in the Auvergne, in the town of La Bourboule. It was the setting later on of Max Ophul’s film, The Sorrow and the Pity, a film based on some of the historically documented events of World War II.
In my own childhood, I lived with my parents, both of whom had immigrated to the United States in the early 20s, both of whom had never experienced a World War, or lived under Nazism. But as I lay in my child’s bed in 1944, when an unidentified aircraft overflew Manhattan, I shook with a fear so intense, my father—not my mother—actually took me into his own bed to comfort me.
Why did I know that fear, the fear that comes when one is under bombardment? I knew that fear because throughout my childhood, I was aware of a horrifying World War happening on another continent, and, because my mother spoke French, I could imagine France under warfare. Almost every night I had a recurring dream. It went like this: it was always dark. I was out of doors in the night when I began to hear a droning, a sound coming from the sky. I knew it was a spinning, fiery projectile and as it hurtled out of the heavens, I knew it was seeking me out and would explode when it struck me, exploding me into oblivion.
It was not difficult to inhabit my husband’s history as well as my own: if I had not been there geographically, I had certainly been there in spirit, and my spirit had come face to face with that level of fear. I am now a member of a small percentage, some of whom still remember what living under occupation is really like. In France of 1940-45, it was easy: you recognized the occupier on the street with his immaculately shined boots, his uniform with its medals and insignia (not dissimilar to the formal army uniform of the United States), the swastika armband and headgear insignia; and the language with its harsh, guttural sounds, and its high pitched tenor which made your skin crawl. Even blind people lived in fear. But what if….
What if your occupier speaks the same language., with the same localisms you use that corrupt your own way of talking: expressions like “bottom line,” “impacted,” "go ballistic," and so on. What if he (or she) looks like you? Wears the same clothes, clothes you only wear on formal occasions: dresses, pearls, two and three piece suits, red power ties, wingtip shoes, matching Vuitton handbag and high heals, nylon stocking or pumps? You rarely hear how much his $200 dollar haircuts cost him, or the $400 dollar bottles of Chateau Lafitte he keeps in his own Texas wine reserve at Austin’s most exclusive restaurant. What if he calls his mansion a ranch, what if he gets a sychophantish press to photograph him chopping wood, just like your Tennessee daddy used to do on cold mornings? What if she wears the $4,000 shoes she bought while the black population of New Orleans was swimming for its life? The occupier looks just like you. You’d even think the occupier was one of yours if you didn’t know the price tag.
When the scales began dropping from my eyes, I was a naïve novelist aged over 50. I believed my editor at Viking-Penguin was my friend. She wore pearls and lived on the Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I still believed it, but to a lesser degree when she wanted me to change a reference to Marian Wright Edelman and her advocacy for the children of the poor—even though she herself had just given birth. I knew for sure when my UK editor at Viking-Penguin asked me how it felt to be an unsuccessful novelist. I told him it felt exactly like Viking had paid a pittance for the book (which won four major prizes and nominations), a state of affairs where they saw no reason to promote it effectively. From then on, my eyes have been exfoliating.
By now the exfoliation is pretty much complete: I have turned my attention away from fiction, and focused more and more on the big picture. Fashion—and language—aside, what does an occupied country really look like? Here are a few of the conditions which provide my litmus test:
1. High-minded rhetoric: health! sports for all! humanitarian aid; fulfillment of obligations to the international community, etc.
2. Total surveillance of the population: NSA, the listening devices Nazis called “big ears”
3. Control of communication infrastructure: telephone, internet
4. Appointment into office of acquiescent rulers, often referred to as presidents or Führer
5. Control of the judicial system to reinforce the status quo
6. Trigger happy law and order: Nisour Square, Ferguson , Katin Forest
7. Punishment of non-violent dissent by teargas, fines, imprisonment, and torture, and summary execution: Jenin, Oakland Occupy, Oradour sur Glane (look it up)
8. Sale of publicly owned infrastructure by public officials to private interests at bargain basement prices; upward movement of wealth to the elites at popular expense
9. Positioning at the highest government levels of corporate heads, media moguls, millionaires, bankers, and technocrats: Google, Krupp
10. Media control of populations by use of fear and promotion of fear of the “enemy,” fears of “terrorists,” fear of epidemics, fears of “the other” whether black, gypsy, Jewish, Mexican, Moslem
11. Corruption of oversight agencies charged with upholding public safety: EPA, NRC, FDA, FCC, PUC, etc.
12. Extraction of natural resources with no provision for the population to consult or benefit: fracking, Nigerian or Ecuadorian oil
13. Trade agreement support for use of pesticides, genetically modified plants, fish and animals. mandatory siting of fracking wells, oil pipelines, oil “bomb” transport trains, etc.
14. Use of battlefield munitions in urban streets (and in the air): tanks, high frequency sonic devices, drones, mine sweepers, helicopter overflights
In France, in 1940, '41, '42, '43, '44, and as late as '45, there was opposition. It was called La Resistance. It did not sign petitions, it did not organize marches in the streets, it did not carry signs, it did not stand silently at nuclear reactor, or concentration camp gates. It did not boycott or divest. It did not snuff the fires of the crematoria. It took the position that you can’t negotiate with a brick wall.
The U.S. peace movement is dedicated to strict non-violence. Many realize that the military buildup of domestic police is calculated to squelch our resistance. Let us watch then when Darren Wilson’s verdict is handed down, possibly this week.