Guest Post: Neil Verma on the First Casualty of War

My friend Neil Verma is a Harper Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago, where he teaches a sequence of classes in media aesthetics for undergraduates.


March 22, 2011

My friend Neil Verma is a Harper Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago, where he teaches a sequence of classes in media aesthetics for undergraduates.

His first book, Theater of the Mind: American Radio Plays, 1937-1955, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press. The following essay draws on that material and is based on a recent talk he gave at The Paper Machete in Chicago. He also studies aesthetics and history; film noir and radio drama; the prose of James Agee; and the rhetoric of the unforeseeable. --Churm


First Casualty
By Neil Verma

“In war, the truth is the first casualty.” That venerable old chestnut comes from a 1917 speech against World War I by California Senator Hiram Johnson. Turns out that Senator Johnson borrowed it from Samuel Johnson, who wrote something like it back in 1758. And some say that Dr. Johnson acquired it from Aeschylus.

Maybe the first casualty of “the first casualty of war” is the claim to saying so first.

Of course, “the truth” isn’t some nice old vase that gets busted in a rush for the pistols. It’s lost in the nothing of war. Ernie Pyle said this of the soldiers among whom he later died: “In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory – there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.”

Maybe wars make truths. The lesson of Senator Johnson’s War seems to be that we ought to negotiate more sincerely. Johnson died on August 6th, 1945, the very day that America dropped an atom bomb beginning the end of World War II. What was the lesson of that war? The opposite of the first: negotiation shelters the ruthless. So there are the two lessons of the horrible wars of the 20th century – obvious, inconsistent, unusable. Santayana said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. But the past is so contradictory that those who know it inside and out will probably end up repeating it anyway.

Last weekend was the eighth anniversary of the Iraq war. That’s surprising because it’s tough to remember it had a beginning between surges and standdowns, and that this war is not the other one or the new one. The age of total war became an age of constant war, wars that wander, accumulate, intersect. So the Iraq war seems old, but only dimly so; the name “Operation Iraqi Freedom” sounds like a video game they only made for Playstation 2.

The beginning of any war is baffling. If you had been listening to the radio on December 7th, 1941 – a date to live in infamy, but not yet – you would have heard little solid coverage of battleships sunk and aircraft destroyed, even of the 2,400 Americans that were really the first casualties of war. On the dominant medium of the day, news spread more like rumor than fact. Walter Winchell reported on the attack in volleys of verbiage that exceeded 200 words per minute, making Pearl Harbor sound like a flashy Broadway premiere. NBC didn’t see fit to pre-empt a radio play called “Island of Death” on Inner Sanctum Mysteries. When WOR New York interrupted a football broadcast to give emerging details, the station received complaints from disgruntled listeners for spoiling the game. Network bosses braced for the Army to take over the airwaves, but a month later all they got was a federal directive about the size of a church bulletin.

In a year, everything would be different. Shows as diverse as Lights Out! and Young Widder Brown coaxed the public into donating 38 million pounds of kitchen fats to manufacture pharmaceuticals. Americans listened to programs like You Can’t Do Business with Hitler, Womanpower and Spirit of ’42. Psychotic Nazis were on the loose on The Strange Dr. Weird and civilians served in Stella Dallas and Joyce Jordan, Girl Interne. Appeals to join the Marines ran on Cavalcade of America, while Mr. District Attorney and Hop Harrigan told teens to join the Ground Observer Corps (“to watch the coasts”) or the Air Training Corps (“so you’ll know what to expect”). In the first half of 1942, Superman captured four submarines, rescued an airplane in mid-air and defended a Cairo hospital from bombers, while reminding parents about the nutritional value of Pep cereal and encouraging youths to “turn in scrap to slap the Jap.” In 1942 CBS claimed to have aired 6,471 war plays, 4,158 news shows, and 3,723 announcements. In 18 hours on September 21st 1943, radio star Kate Smith raised the modern equivalent of half a billion dollars in war bonds. Americans knew World War II in how they bought and horded, how they fought and complained, but especially in how they listened. They had it in their bones.

Back to December 7th, 1941. That day, America’s most famous radio writer, Norman Corwin, was on a train to Washington D.C., working on a script to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. It was an hour-long special to air on all networks live, starring Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles, a dozen Hollywood stars, two orchestras and Franklin Roosevelt. Arriving with an unfinished script, Corwin wrote in the Library of Congress after hours, alone in the dark. A week later, his script aired, reaching some 63 million listeners out there in their common solitudes.

He called it “We Hold These Truths.” Here it is.

As art, it’s godawful cloying. But as a broadcast, it’s unparalleled. Corwin oscillates scenes of wartime Washington with 18th century America, analogizes grease-grimed blacksmiths and revolutionary widows with patriotic autoworkers and progressive urban reformers, and dissolves historical figures into vast human pluralities. America appears as a garrison of included people, born to receive and pass on their Rights, a purpose with neither beginning nor end, neither center nor edge. It’s the nation as Depression-era artists alone saw it: in Alfred Kazin’s words, “a gallery of photographs, an echo of the people’s talk, a storehouse of vivid single impressions.” Voices are ever-accumulating to speak a truth that is ever-amplifying: a set of rights that Corwin called the “incubation of invincibility.”

Variety praised the program’s “many-paced, many-shaded reading” while Time called it a “touchstone for future patriotic programs” and enshrined Corwin as radio’s “wonder boy.” They say that Jimmy Stewart left the performance studio weeping. And why not? Corwin was doing something that Dr. Johnson, Aeschylus and Santayana said was impossible: making truth the first hero of war rather than its first victim, repeating the past not as a failure of knowing it, but as the very measure of its durability.

We couldn’t do that today. Not because we have no patriots, we do. Not because we have no truths, there’s plenty. It’s because our wars are miraculously designed to present no inconvenience for the vast majority of us – there’s no scrap drive, no victory garden, no Kate Smith. It’s too easy for too many of us to obsess over the lies that justify wars rather than to help atone for their results. What if the reason we hold on so hard to “the first casualty of war” is to ignore its second, third, fourth, fifth? That’s a disturbing idea.

The other reason we couldn’t make something like “We Hold These Truths” eight years ago or today is we have no apparatus to amplify shared truths, to get them into our bones. It’s ironic. In our generous abundance of media, we have no place in which Americans talk to all of themselves about all of themselves. There’s no app for that. Nowadays we’re more like those football fans bitching about missing the game. But maybe that’s more honest than the naïve mysticism of Corwin’s play. Even in the 1940s that idea couldn’t last. Like anyone else who could be accused of leftist sympathies, artistic seriousness, or both, Corwin was drummed out of the broadcasting industry in the late 1940s, and his aesthetic didn’t persist – turns out that folks liked The Strange Dr. Weird better than the incubation of invincibility.

Norman Corwin is still with us today. He’s approaching his 101st birthday, having outlived both his accusers and the accusers of his accusers. I once asked him what he missed about writing radio. Corwin said he believed deeply that the human voice held it’s own truth, it’s own unadorned truth. Just imagine saying something that precious.

I ate it up, naturally.


Contact Neil at nv@neilverma.net.


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