Archive for category Personal memory

Getting to the future history of ISIS

US EmbassyOttawabarriers

U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. Photo, Google Eearth

“One day those barriers will come down.”  I was referring to the big concrete, jersey barriers surrounding the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa.  Since they took up a lane of traffic in the downtown area, they were the target of criticism by the city’s residents whose commutes were delayed.  This security precaution was needed, though, as the Embassy building stood wedged in between two busy streets.

I had added this phrase to the Ambassador’s remarks for the ceremony we were planning to mark the fourth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.  History was my guidance, specifically the memory of Ronald Reagan at the Brandeburg Gate in 1987, demanding that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the wall separating East from West Berlin. Reagan’s remarks seemed preposterous at the time, a sound-bite that would have no effect on the Soviets, even if Gorbachev had been pursuing seeking an opening with the west at the time.

A young speechwriter named Peter Robinson had inserted the “tear down the wall” words into Reagan’s speech, admitting decades later in Prologue, the National Archives magazine, that he practically stole them from a German woman at a dinner party.  She had told the gathering, “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika, he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall.”

Robinson included those words in his drafts, and, he encountered resistance in the clearance process throughout the bureaucracy, all the way up to the most senior levels.  The State Department and the National Security Council objected, preparing as many as seven of their own drafts.  Robinson recounted that the objections clustered around that phrase: “It was naïve. It would raise false hopes. It was clumsy. It was needlessly provocative.”   These words had the potential to derail progress; now Gorbachev could never tear down the wall, or he would seem to be acquiescing to Reagan’s demand.  But, it was the one line in the speech that Reagan himself liked, and it stayed in.

That line did become the sound-bite for the speech, an in-your-eye poke at the Soviet Union.  Initially, it was nothing more than that, a throw-away line designed for one evening’s news.  Its perception as naïve vanished when three and a half years later, the wall did fall, torn down not by Gorbachev, but by citizens on both sides of the barrier.

Most of all, Reagan’s phrase articulated the unthinkable.  We had lived with the Berlin Wall for decades; the Cold War and nuclear threats for longer.  That was our present, and we lacked the vision to imagine a different future.  Call it naïve or grandstanding, a one night line, but Reagan had painted a future that did not have to be a continuation of the present.

Back in Ottawa, the phrase in the Ambassador’s speech seemed naive as well.  Inside the Embassy we debated whether to use the image, with our security officers adamant that it would only remind residents about the barriers and their delayed commutes, opening up again the clamor for their removal.  We ended up using it, but fourteen years after 9/11, the jersey barriers still surround the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa.

The attacks in Paris last Friday mean that the prospects of removing those concrete barriers are further away than at any time since they were installed.  Those attacks mean there is no alternative right now other than to ramp up security, to work with our partners in defeating the threat that ISIS poses.

Yet, my memories of Ottawa and the lessons of the Berlin Wall speak to our present situation, instructive in helping us imagine a different future.   Those barriers will not always be there. ISIS will one day take its place in history books alongside the Barbary pirates. Does anyone really doubt that?

But there are alternatives right now, different from turning our back on our values, on the very ideals that we time and time again forget in moments of crisis.  As we imagine how historians will write about this era in 50 or 100 years, do we want that narrative to compare our gut reactions to refuse entry to refugees from Syria and elsewhere with our failure to accept Jewish refugees in World War II. They are fleeing Syria because of ISIS, because of unending war.  Historian might compare our willingness to trample on privacy and free speech rights with the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 or the Sedition Act of 1918 or Joe McCarthy in the Cold War.

Historians in the future might also identify the impact of our enduring values that still hold out hope to those beyond our borders.  Yes, the failures to live up to those ideals are real, but so are the tools to reveal those failures and to seek redress.  We have to remember it was these ideals, much more than Reagan’s six words, that ultimately led people to tear down the Berlin Wall, in their pursuit of a different way of life, of an open society, with opportunities and freedoms.  We need confidence in those ideals to lead the way towards the alternative vision that ISIS paints.  Call me naïve.

This post originally appeared on History News Network

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Preserving a school in Africa

The woman we came to know as Adele grabbed the photo.  Her loud exclamation in Fang, the local language, provoked a burst of laughter among the gathered villagers.  I leaned over to our host, Gaston, for an explanation.  He had passed around the photos we brought, and he told us that she wanted to take the picture home.  It was a black and white photo of a young Peace Corps volunteer playing an African drum, seated next to a village chief, circa 1964.


Jarry Anderson in 1964 with a Gabonese village chief

Those in the open air shelter recognized the young man as Gerard, who had led a team of seven similarly fit, young men in 1964 to the village of Doumandzou to build a primary school.  The group of villagers gathered 50 years later to meet us, a small group of volunteers who had come back to Gabon to fix up the school that had fallen into disrepair.  We brought with us a handful of photos that Jerry (Gerard in French) Anderson had sent us to see if there were memories and traces of the group of seven who had spent less than a year in the village.  To our surprise and delight, there were.

Adele had been about ten years old when the group of seven descended on her house, which her father turned over to them for their lodging while they built the school.  If there was any doubt to her memory, Adele later rattled off the names of four of the volunteers, matching the list Jerry had sent us – Thomas, Etienne (Steve), Robert and, of course, Gerard.  The others in the group were John, James, and Bill.

We were in Doumandzou as part of a small project we had dreamed up after a reunion of volunteers who had been in Gabon in the 1970s.  We launched a non-profit and called it Encore de la Paix, a play on the French for Peace Corps (Corps de la Paix.)  With a fiscal sponsor taking care of tax deductions for us, we started fund-raising for the materials to fix up the school.  All told, we raised about $20,000 from friends and family members and Citibank Gabon.  Paying our own way over, we descended on Doumandzou in January 2015.

Fifty years after they were built, the school and the two teachers houses were indeed in dire need of repairs.  The laterite foundations and cement block walls still stood, but much of the wood for the doors and windows had fallen victim to the weather and insects.  The tin roofs had come off most of the teachers’ houses, exposing the interior to rain and wind.  Few of the vertical wooden planks remained in the school windows, replaced by temporary boards and tin to keep the village goats from hopping into the classroom at night for shelter.  Nothing similar was done on the houses that had been vacant for years, so goats had taken over that space, as evidenced by the layers of their excrement on some of the floors.  The forest was rapidly moving to take over the houses, with vines and trees running through them, along with carpet-like moss on the floors.

Fifty years is a long time, and while the school showed signs of age, the memories of the villagers for the seven volunteers remained fresh.  Besides Adele, a jovial elderly man named Essame Obame Pascal, introduced himself as the mason for the original construction.  Even people who had no first-hand recollection of the seven knew that the spring on the north side of village had been discovered by Robert, one of the original group.  The spring still runs today, and its clear, clean water provides cooking and drinking water to those willing to make the short walk down a steep hill, and back up again balancing a heavy bucket on their heads.  Gaston, who was a young boy when the school was built, is trying to pump the water up from the spring to a cistern where it can meet village needs more readily.

IMG_0112Working on the school, we felt at times like archaeologists, and, as we scraped, tore away, demolished and pushed back nature, the stories of the earlier volunteers came through in the construction itself.  One day, while in one of the classrooms making the cement bricks for the new windows, I looked up at the wall, and noticed large figures behind where the blackboard had stood.  We had taken down the blackboard a few days earlier and had been walking around the classroom, sweeping and cleaning it out, but had not focused on the painted message.  I saw a number, and then a few more, and then put them together, realizing it was the year “1965.”  Next to it were the initials “JA” which we knew right away were Jerry Anderson.  There were two more initials, a “P” and either a “C” or a “D.”  Since PD made no sense to us, we concluded it was PC, for Peace Corps.  Not hieroglyphics or traditional symbols, but still a message to us from 50 years prior.

On another day, a bulldozer owned by the Chinese logging company in the next village, came through, and offered to clear away the encroaching brush of the forest around the school and the teachers’ houses.  As the dozer pushed the forest back 50 yards or so, a tin fence appeared; then we noticed that the fence had a roof.  We thought it was a shed, but Adele told us that it had been built by the earlier volunteers for the teachers’ houses.  Upon investigation, we saw it was an outdoor latrine, still serviceable and relatively clean.  With further clearing by villagers to push back some of the garbage strewn about near the school amidst the growth of plants, bushes and trees, yet another latrine was uncovered, this one built for the use of students at the school.  Inside was an old, wooden brick mold, used by the 60s volunteers to make their cinder blocks.

To those of us who served as volunteers, Peace Corps was more than just a job, or a development project.  It was about a connection to the people in the communities where we served.   Halfway through the project, I received an e-mail from Jerry Anderson, who was as surprised as we were that the villagers remembered so much.  Most Peace Corps volunteers readily acknowledge how important the experience was to us, how it reshaped our lives.  It was always harder, though, to assess the impact of our presence on the communities where we lived and worked for two years.  Those in the village remembered Jerry and his group; they attributed the school, the houses, the latrines and the fresh water spring to them, but also remembered them as real people, as friends.

61aThese schools in Gabon stand out.  More than for their slightly different design, they stand out for the memories attached to the buildings, for the short periods of intense contact, visible reminders that Americans lived and worked side-by-side by Gabonese in their remote villages.  The schools are the visible reminders of a moment when the U.S. once reached out to the world with the optimism and energy of a President who realized a vision to engage and learn about the farthest corners of the world.  In those places, far from the view of aid agencies and embassies and politicians, these buildings also testify to the open-armed hospitality of the hosts, who, by welcoming these strangers, tolerating our errors, and teaching us, made us all realize our common humanity.   These are buildings — and ideals — worth preserving and renewing.

The author sharing photos of the early volunteers with Adele

The author sharing photos of the early volunteers with Adele

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This Place Really Matters – The Movie

filmstillYou’ve read the thesis on preserving the old Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the articles below. Perhaps you even saw the review in the Berkshire Eagle.  Now the full-length movie.

OK, maybe you haven’t read them.  But the film project took up a big chunk of the past few months when otherwise I would have been writing blog posts, about Iran or the Pope, gun control or incarcerations, trails or demolitions in the Berkshires.

The movie is complete so the plan is to pick up on these short pieces.

How did this involvement in a full-length movie (84 minutes) come about?  Not that I knew anything about filming, certainly nothing more than home movies of children.

The e-mail requesting someone to document the preservation project of the 1876 Victorian Gothic public library building in central Pittsfield was copied to me.  Had I known the full extent of what was involved I might have shied away, but a casual “yes, I’d be interested” turned into a Master’s Degree thesis and a movie.

The architects leading the project were interested in a film documenting the project, but I was interested in getting graduate credit.  The breakthrough came from Pittsfield Community Television (PCTV) that offered equipment loans and training and a lot of storage space on their server.

The architects (Bill Gillen and John Krifka from Ford-Gillen in Amherst MA) and the contractor (Mike Mucci from Allegrone of Pittsfield MA) encouraged me to attend and even film their meetings, allowed me access to the worksite and repeatedly gave of their time and documents to understand as much as a layperson could the complexity of the work involved.

The movie, This Place Really Matters, has been broadcast on Access Pittsfield PCTV the past few weeks and is available through their on demand feature.  And now you can watch it on YouTube right here:

If you can only watch a little, proceed to about minute 50 for dramatic footage showing the reason why the state went to such time and expense to fix the structural problems of the building.

When we think of preserving historic buildings, the first ones that come to mind are usually the buildings that we failed to save, that were demolished and lost to only the archives.  Here, though, is a success story that deserves to be celebrated and remembered.

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E-mails, history and diplomats

Imagine the conversation that Hillary Clinton had with her Information Technology people when she started her job as Secretary of State.  First of all, she probably didn’t have one, but her staff did, on behalf of her wishes.  “The Secretary does not want to have an official account on the State Department system,” they would have said.  “She will use her own private e-mail and server for her electronic communications.”

Loyally, like most in the Department, the professional IT folks nodded and went to work to MAKE IT HAPPEN.   Their concerns, if they voiced any at all, would have fallen in the security arena.  What they likely did not say was anything about the need to keep a historical record.

The reality is that for most of the communications coming from the Secretary’s office, she relied on her staff who probably all had official accounts, as well as their own private mail.  As Gail Collins points out in her op-ed in the New York Times, the former Secretary’s reference to 60,000 e-mails during her tenure turns out to be roughly 40 a day.   It’s not inconceivable that her many staff churned out more than that on her behalf in ten minutes.  All of those messages are, we can assume, on the official system.

The problem with the exclusive use of private e-mail that many of her would-be detractors are focusing on is, incredibly, Benghazi, and then security.  However, by deciding what the public should and should not see, the former Secretary simply leaves to the imagination what will not see the light of day.  Ms. Clinton says it is personal material, and undoubtedly there are plenty of those.  Likely there are also messages related to her past and perhaps future status as a politician, interacting with the large retinue of friends and donors, responding to their requests for favors, small and large.  Not unusual for any politician holding any government office.

Surely Ms. Clinton or someone on her staff must have realized the historic value of her documents, if only for her memoir that she was sure to (and did) write.  Why save documents only for her book?  She makes the claim that her business e-mails to those in the Department could be accessed through the recipients, but she did not send e-mails to just other State Department officials.  Further, if her staff were using official accounts in sending e-mails to carry out her instructions, it is unclear who would know which of these messages were valued for the historic record.

It’s not just the absence of the former Secretary’s communications that presents a challenge to future historians.  While no one is suggesting this as a reason for her foregoing the State Department server, the chilling effect of leaks (such as Wiki-leaks or Snowden cases) on official communications is taking a toll on the written record.  Rather than write cables, the use of e-mail is more pervasive and when the issue is very sensitive, phone calls are taking over as the medium of choice.

With Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade in 2013.  Photo, department of State

With Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade in 2013. Photo, department of State

What Secretary Clinton’s private e-mail use also encapsulates is the broader issue of how the Department of State does not take full advantage of its own history in the conduct of the country’s foreign relations.  To their credit, it was staff in the Office of the Historian that first brought this issue to light, in seeking to gain access for its archives to these documents.  That Office and their on-line presence, through its series on Foreign Relations of the United States, has made available 450 volumes of primary source documents that have been declassified and, most recently, has begun to include material from other foreign affairs agencies.   These represent an invaluable resource for scholars of U.S. foreign policy.  However, it is mainly academics who mine these documents for their research.  Based on my experience in the Department few of us working the multitude of issues confronting the nation in our overseas relations, drew on that resource.  We did not have the time, the inclination, the skills to mine those documents as another source of “intelligence” to analyze the countries or the topics we were handling.  The fact that the Historian’s Office is located in the Bureau of Public Affairs is a tip-off that its focus is external, not to inform current foreign policy issues.  Perhaps the Bureau of Intelligence and Research where reports could be made for policy makers?

Our military devotes incredible effort and resources to learning its own history, and values history in its academies and its in-service training.   They read the communications of soldiers in the preparations for battle as well as on the battlefield to understand the decisions taken.  Our diplomats deserve the same attention to their history, to equip them to understand the complex, messy terrain of our relations around the world.


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After Sonos, what’s next?

One of the running conversation games played in my house goes like this:  which generation has seen the most amount of change in its lifetime?  The discussion usually happens after watching some old episode of Seinfeld where Jerry’s doing body building by lifting his cell phone, or some photograph of a professional football player from the 1950s whose physique makes him look like a chess player, rather than a linebacker.

This time, though, it occurred when we bought the latest music delivery system, a Sonos system about the size of a shoebox with a speaker and no other components.  No wires, no amp, no discs or tapes or records. 

My own history with recorded and broadcast music starts with the small AM transistor radio and graduates to the Hi-Fi record player capable of playing both 33 rpm albums and 45 rpm singles.  My grandfather had a contraption that could record voices on a disc, and he seemed to favor 78 rpm discs.  There were several drawbacks to these, most notably that you had to stand up and walk over to the record player to turn the record over or to skip a song that you didn’t like. 

That you had to listen to all the songs on a record or actually move to skip the one you hated helped sell me on my first tape recorder.  It was a small reel-to-reel machine that could handle tapes of roughly 15 minutes.  These I used and re-used for my own personal playlists.  The low-tech way of recording was to stick the little mic up to the speaker of the record player, but that changed when we were able to master the wire audio in and out connections.  But, I get ahead of myself as I haven’t even touched on cassette tapes or even everyone’s favorite anachronism, the 8-track cartridges. 

One advantage of record playing albums still survives to this day.  We pretty much learned how to read by poring over the album liner notes, that were actually written in a type size you didn’t need a magnifying glass for.  You didn’t have to go to a screen to find information about the artist, and you could easily follow along with the lyrics that were often printed on the album cover or sleeve.

The transfer to stereo music — bigger and bigger speakers, with components for an amplifier and a tuner for radio — was about the last music technology that I actually cared to try to keep up with and understand. Hauling one of these to college or to yet another apartment required a small U-Haul.  I can actually remember where I was when I heard my first compact disc, as if it was equivalent to remembering where I was when Kennedy was shot or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.   The quality of sound, with no scratches or distortions, and the lack of a needle or tape head picking up the sound made this a true wonder.

To lose the needle was hard enough to fathom; to lose the actual physical thing the music was stored on came next as recorded music leapt from CD to IPOD and phone and file sharing.  Hello Napster and ITunes, goodbye Tower Records.  

It’s good business for the industry as people end up scrapping all the components and all the records and tapes they own every 5-6 years.   Then as hip-hop music picks up on record scratching for its edgy, urban sound, we end up looking for the old records and players we used to own, and then going out to buy those again if we no longer have them buried away in our attic or storage units. 

All this makes for pretty dramatic change in the course of one life.  Still, my wife is not convinced that this is evidence of more change in our lifetime than in our great grandparents’ who witnessed the arrival of recorded music with the invention of the gramophone in the 1870s.  This shift took a medium that could only be enjoyed live into one that allowed for repeat performances on demand.  What my generation experienced was not so fundamental, since it just changed the nature of recorded music, its delivery system.

So, to ponder this more fully, I’ll go to my phone, find the Sonos App and decide whether to tap into my hundreds of purchased songs on my computer, my account with Pandora for their thousands of songs, or any of thousands of radio stations around the world.

Several generations of music delivery; photo the author.

Several generations of music delivery; photo the author.

It’s a far cry from listening to Cousin Brucie on WABC-radio.



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