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General News    H3'ed 7/21/15

Tomgram: Engelhardt, A Message in a Bottle from My Mother

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Here's a description from her publisher -- she wrote and illustrated children's books years later -- about her role at the Stage Door Canteen. "During the war, she was chairman of the Artist's Committee of the American Theatre Wing. She helped plan the murals, which decorate the Stage Door Canteen and the Merchant Seaman's Canteen. Miss Selz remembers setting up her easel and turning out caricatures of servicemen. Some nights she did well over a hundred of these skillful, quick line drawings and many servicemen still treasure their 'portraits' by Selz."

Imagine then that, on the April night when she drew Les, that "lady" might also have sketched another 100 or more soldiers and sailors, mementos to be sent home to family or sweethearts. These were, of course, portraits of men on their way to war. Some of those sketched were undoubtedly killed. Many of the drawings must be long gone, but a few perhaps still cherished and others heading for estate sales as the last of the World War II generation, that mobilized citizenry of wartime America, finally dies off.

From photos I have, it's clear that my mom also sketched various servicemen and celebrities on the set of The Stage Door Canteen, the 1943 home-front propaganda flick Hollywood made about the institution. (If you watch it, you can glimpse a mural of hers at the moment Katharine Hepburn suddenly makes a cameo appearance.) In those years, my mother also seems to have regularly volunteered to draw people eager to support the war effort by buying war bonds. Here, for instance, is the text from a Bonwit Teller department store ad of November 16, 1944, announcing such an upcoming event: "Irma Selz, well-known newspaper caricaturist of stage and screen stars, will do a caricature of those who purchase a $500 War Bond or more."

While my father was overseas, she also mobilized in the most personal of ways. Every month, she sent him a little hand-made album of her own making ("Willie's Scrap-Book, The Magazine for Smart Young Commandos"). Each of them was a remarkably intricate mix of news, theatrical gossip, movie ads, pop quizzes, cheesecake, and cartoons, as well as often elaborate caricatures and sketches she did especially for him. In the "March 1944 Annual Easter Issue," she included a photo of herself sketching under the label "The Working Class."

I still have four of those "scrap-books." To my mind, they are small classics of mobilized wartime effort at the most personal level imaginable. One, for instance, included -- since she was pregnant at the time -- a double-page spread she illustrated of the future "me." The first page was labeled "My daughter" and showed a little blond girl in a t-shirt and slacks with a baseball bat over her shoulder. (My mother had indeed broken her nose playing catcher in a youthful softball game.) The other is labeled "Your daughter" and shows a pink-cheeked blond girl with a giant pink bow in her curly hair, a frilly pink dress, and pink ballet slippers.

Inside one of those little magazines, there was even a tiny slip-out booklet on tracing paper labeled "A Pocket Guild to SELZ." ("For use of military personnel only. Prepared by Special Service Division, Eastern Representative, Special Project 9, Washington, D.C.") It began: "If you start worrying about what goes with Selz, here is your reference and pocket guide for any time of the day or night." Each tiny page was a quick sketch, the first showing her unhappily asleep ("9. A.M."), dreaming of enemy planes, one of which, in the second sketch ("10 A.M."), goes down in flames as she smiles in her sleep. The micro-booklet ended with a sketch of her drawing a sailor at the Merchant Seaman's Club and then, in front of the door of the Stage Door Canteen, heading for home ("11:30 P.M."). "And so to bed" is the last line.

I know that my father wrote back fervently, since I have a letter my mother sent him that begins: "Now to answer your three letters I received yest[erday]. No. 284, 285 & 289, written Apr. 26, 27, and 29th. It was such a relief to read a letter saying you'd had a pile of mail from me, at last, & also that the 1st of the Scrap-Books finally reached you, & better yet, that you enjoyed it."

For both of them, World War II was their moment of volunteerism. From 1946 on, I doubt my parents ever again volunteered for anything.

People-less Wars

Here's the strange thing: the wars never ended, but the voluntarism did. Think of it this way: there were two forces of note on the home front in World War II, an early version of what, in future years, would become the national security state and the American people. The militarized state that produced a global triumph in 1945 emerged from that war emboldened and empowered. From that moment to the present -- whether you're talking about the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, the intelligence services, private contractors, special operations forces, or the Department of Homeland Security and the homeland-industrial complex that grew up around it post-9/11 -- it's been good times all the way.

In those seven decades, the national security state never stopped expanding, its power on the rise, its budgets ever larger, and democratic oversight weakening by the decade. In that same period, the American people, demobilized after World War II, never truly mobilized again despite the endless wars to come. The only exceptions might be in the Vietnam years and again in the brief period before the 2003 invasion of Iraq when massive numbers of Americans did mobilize, going voluntarily into opposition to yet one more conflict in a distant land.

And yet if its "victory weapon" robbed the planet of the ability to fight World War III and emerge intact, war and military action seemed never to cease on "the peripheries." It was there, in the Cold War years, that the U.S. confronted the Soviet Union or insurgencies and independence movements of many sorts in covert as well as open war. (Korea, Tibet, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Libya, to name just the obvious ones.) After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, the wars, conflicts, and military actions only seemed to increase -- Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, Iraq (and Iraq again and yet again), Afghanistan (again), Pakistan, Libya (again), Yemen, and so on. And that doesn't even cover covert semi-war operations against Nicaragua in the 1980s and Iran since 1979, to name just two countries.

In the wake of World War II, wartime -- whether as a "cold war" or a "war on terror" -- became the only time in Washington. And yet, as the American military and the CIA were loosed in a bevy of ways, there was ever less for Americans to do and just about nothing for American civilians to volunteer for (except, of course, in the post-9/11 years, the ritualistic thanking of the troops). After Vietnam, there wouldn't even be a citizens' army that it was your duty to serve in.

In those decades, war, ever more "covert" and "elite," became the property of the national security state, not Congress or the American people. It would be privatized, corporatized, and turned over to the experts. (Make what you will of the fact that, without an element of popular voluntarism and left to those experts, the country would never win another significant war, suffering instead one stalemate or defeat after another.)

In other words, when it comes to war, American-style, the 73 years since Irma Selz sketched that jaunty young Coast Guardsman at the Stage Door Canteen might as well be a millennium. Naturally enough, I'm nostalgic when it comes to my mother's life. There is, however, no reason to be nostalgic about the war she and my father mobilized for. It was cataclysmic beyond imagining. It destroyed significant parts of the planet. It involved cruelty on all sides and on an industrial scale -- from genocide to the mass firebombing of cities -- that was and undoubtedly will remain unmatched in history. Given the war's final weapon that took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, such a war could never be fought again, not at least without destroying humanity and a habitable planet.

My mother welcomes me into a world still at war, July 20, 1944. My birth announcement drawn by "Selz."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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