Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An Old Celluloid Soldier Remembers

(The following was in response to the Red Room Website's request for our memories of World War II. As you will see, mine was fought from in front of a TV set and at the movies.)

Captain Flynn: My Favorite CO, a Man I'd Follow into the Jaws of Heck!
“Despite Spielberg’s avowed intent to darken and coarsen the formulas of the war picture, old moviegoing habits die hard: I was practically standing on my seat and yelling at Tom Hanks to kill more Germans, and then, when he had finished killing Germans, to kill more Germans”—Anthony Lane on Saving Private Ryan,  in The New Yorker (August 3, 1998)

I was a strapping, manly six year old when I shipped out for World War II. With only a few scenes of basic training under my belt, I was sent straight into battle, inside the glowing blue foxhole of my family’s RCA TV.

I’ve long forgotten the first battle I fought, or what non-movie theater it took place in. Most likely it was in the Pacific:  Objective Burma where I served under eternally evanescent Captain Errol Flynn. Together, Errol, me and a squad made up to look like Warner Brothers character actors battled our way through the steaming jungles of Burma, a unit in the guerrilla force known as Merrill’s Marauders.

My first battle also might have been Guadalcanal Diary. There, with fixed bayonet, I gung-hoed alongside William Bendix, Lloyd Nolan, Anthony Quinn and Richard Jaeckel, blasting our way across Guadalcanal’s jungle floors (dressed to look like a Hollywood set), shooting Japanese soldiers (disguised to look like Filipino and Chinese extras) out of palm trees.

Those battles over and won, Errol not only pinned a Mauve Heart (a rank below the Purple) on my bony hairless chest, but gave me manly and well-intentioned advice on how to kiss girls, none which helped.

From there, I turned my warrior’s distant gaze . . . let’s see . . . East . . . West? Anyway, I signed right up to join the fight against the Nazi horde besieging Europe where I fought my way through two campaigns, battles so tough, the smell of the popcorn is still with me.

In Attack, I was a private under the command of Jack Palance, Eddie Albert and Lee Marvin during the Battle of the Bugle; in Combat , Vic Morrow and Rick Jason led me and my buddies up from the beaches of Normandy, across northern France, a battle that lasted five years.

Of those two campaigns, Attack was the grimiest and, I must say, the most dysfunctional—Sergeant Palance threatened to stuff a hand grenade down Captain Albert’s throat, then had his arm crushed by a German Panzer. (Guess somebody needed a little R&R!)

Combat was the lengthiest campaign I ever fought in, longer than The Longest Day. For five grueling years, under constant fire from commercial breaks, I marched with Sergeant Morrow’s squad as we machine-gunned and blew up every Nazi in France.

Even after the war ended just a year after D-Day, our squad fought on for glory. We never got out of France, either. My, we must have looked dumber than Stan Laurel when 1949 rolled around and we noticed that most all the other GIs had shipped out stateside! Boy, were we surprised!

Many were the carefree hours I spent fighting in Combat with my squad of pint-sized GIs in schoolyard and forest as we killed more Nazis than attended the Nuremberg Rally. A stream of images of Men Falling Down in the most acrobatic entertaining fashion—why it was just like it they were going to sleep!

What? Of course, they were just going to sleep! How else do grunts like Richard Jaeckel keep showing up in movie after movie!? You get shot. You fall down and go to sleep. You get up again. How simple is that?

And stuff blowing up. Never forget stuff blowing up!

Combat ended, but my craving for action didn’t. I promptly re-upped for my toughest, most dangerous, mission ever--the mission that took me . . . Where Eagles Dare.

Where Eagles Dare was the best two-and-a-half hours I ever spent killing Nazis. Me, Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood huddled manfully together on top of a windswept cable car a million feet above a jagged snowy Alpine Valley. Then, at the top, we scaled another million feet of castle wall, full of grim, single-minded determination to complete our desperate mission . . .  

Rescuing Ingrid Pitt!

Best Reason  Ever to Climb a Castle Wall

With lovely Ingrid in my arms and under the able command of battlefield general Yakima Canutt, Dick, Clint, and I blasted our way to victory, sending another ten thousand Nazis to fiery, glorious, stuntman’s doom.

It was during the Where Eagles Dare campaign that I learned one of my profound lessons: when you go into battle, be sure to take along Ron Goodwin and His Orchestra. It’s the only road to victory!

After the smoke cleared, I turned down Ingrid’s plea for marriage to fight alongside Clint again in the Battle of Kelly’s Heroes. Still, that day comes when a young soldier has to face the fact that he’s becoming an old soldier. War was changing: banana peel humor, Don Rickles spinning Borscht Belt jokes,  hippie Donald Sutherland popping wheelies in a Sherman tank while we really blew apart another ten thousand Nazis  . . . none of it felt like my World War II.

I resigned my commission. Except for a brief mission with the brilliant but erratic General Sam Peckinpah—I found myself fighting on the wrong side and then the German Army ran out of money—I retired to my den, polished my medal and reminisced.

When Spielberg called me back to fight in Saving Private Ryan, I told him “nuts” and was glad of it when I saw it—all those heads flying off, faces exploding, and guts draping over beach barriers like sausages didn’t look like any war I ever fought in.

In fact, this old soldier wonders about some of the younger veterans he’s meeting nowadays: boys who fought in the front lines in Korea and Vietnam, Desert Storm and Afghanistan. It’s a different kind of soldier I’m seeing: blinded, strapped in wheelchairs, limbs blown off, hitting the bottle—and other stuff--too much, crying, yelling and acting crazy like . . . like they’d been through some kind of bad experience!

Too bad you missed my war, me buckos: Don’t believe me? Grab that remote. Let’s go climb that castle wall once again and kick some Nazi butt!

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

(Re-edited 6/1/11)
Photo of Errol Flynn from Jerry Murbach/Dr. Macro Web site

Photo of Ingrid Pitt from Where Eagles Dare fan site.

Thomas Burchfield can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Friday, May 27, 2011

My Dark Muse: Reading "Dracula" (Part 1 of 2)

Over the years, I've grown fond of describing Dracula by Bram Stoker as “the greatest novel ever written by a hack.”
Brother, you should see the looks I get. To some (especially those of uncritical "fannish" inclination), this is another of those Elitist Slurs from a Brainwashed Canon Snob. Maybe, but nothing else I’ve read—or have tried to read--by Stoker is nearly as good, nor has had as such a creeping influence on both western literature and culture, as has this haunting and enchanting novel. (The exception: his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” a chapter cut from the final manuscript for Dracula.)

Bram Stoker was no literary genius in the strict sense. Nor was he a pop culture, Dan-Brown mastermind because Dracula has never really been a blockbusting bestseller. (In fact, I’m always struck by the number of people who know Dracula like a next-door neighbor but have never read the novel. Really, if you read no other horror novel in your life, do read this one; and if you read genre fiction and horror, but haven’t read it . . . Good Lord . . . .)

But, somehow, it is a novel with genius in it, a sinister brilliance that lives separately from its author. Dracula is a novel of unintended vision. A hundred years and thousands of movies, sequels, parodies and post-modern takedowns later, Dracula still stands tall to me, roaring midnight lightning caught in a bottle.

Sure, maybe it has no business being a Member of the Canon, but there it is: a scruffy, baggy, disreputable cousin you have to include in the family photo, maybe just because people still admire him after so much time. Dracula is one of the fundamental texts in genre fiction.

By my eyes, there are four strokes of genius in Dracula, two of which I’ll address in this posting. 

The first stroke of unexpected genius—or ingenuity--is the novel’s structure. It’s an epistolary novel--a collage of diary entries, ship’s logs, letters and newspaper articles; a literary kaleidoscope, dream shards shared through different points of view, linked nightmares from which a reader can’t awaken until Stoker the dream maker is ready to let go. These shifting points of view create a somewhat impressionistic air that enhances both the mystery and power of its unifying central character.

The second stroke of genius is the bursts of energy and color that Stoker splashes across his sprawling lumpy stage. Admittedly, this is not always apparent. The story slows for a while after those four rip-roaring opening chapters, when we abandon Jonathan Harker alone with Dracula’s wives on moon-haunted windswept castle ramparts and fly to England for a little sunshine normalcy to set the stage for the invasive terror about to come ashore.

At this point, Stoker’s weaknesses as a writer become exposed to sunlight; for one, his clumsy way with characterization: Many of his characters seem to make little sense—Quincey Morris, the man of action who accomplishes zip; the grossly entertaining, but equally useless Renfield. (That Dracula would pick a mad man locked up in an insane asylum as his daytime cat’s paw and assistant reflects poorly on the Count’s hiring practices.); Lucy Westenra, the prattling, manipulative bubblehead; and Dr. Seward, a man I wouldn't see for a hangnail.

Possibly the silliest of all is Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, one of the most irritating literary conceits I’ve ever encountered. Van Helsing is a mishmash of unrelated traits who pontificates in a childish Euro-English. Sometimes he’s a Dutch Catholic, sometimes a Dutch Protestant; sometimes noble; sometimes merely crass and always ham-fisted, stiff and lugubrious. For a wise old hero-guide in Joseph the Campbell mode, Van Helsing is a terrible vampire hunter; he even gets at least one character killed.

Stoker also indulges the Victorian tendency to flood the pages with rivers of sentimental turbidity (though after having recently been trapped with Esther Summerson in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, I now feel much more forgiving--at least Stoker’s book is shorter).

Stoker also has certain of his supporting characters speaking in exact dialect. Writing phonetic speech to match a dialect tends to make a character distant and flat, into someone clown-like and infantile. This is why so many readers find this kind of dialogue offensive, no matter how well intentioned. As an example, the monologue of Mr. Swales, an old salt of the sea who befriends Mina Harker and Lucy, is unreadable without translation (First-timers can find one in both the Leonard Wolf and Leslie Klinger annotations.)

Still, Stoker compensates with bursts of great narrative writing throughout. He has a great eye for setting here. He traveled far in his eventful life, but never made it to Transylvania and so gets the geography wrong. Still, his imagined Transylvania is magical—more accurate renderings might well have flattened his tale. He also describes Whitby, the Count’s first beachhead, with pleasing color and homey elements that contribute to the suspense.

Still, for awhile, Dracula’s shadow threatens to fade away and take the novel with it. But mercifully, before too much time has passed, we find ourselves aboard the freighter The Demeter, and Stoker’s passion for his titular character rises again with the storm, as Dracula slowly, teasingly, turns the vessel into a ghost ship.

From here, vivid feverish episodes from unease to full horror roll and blaze across the page: Dracula’s slow stalking of Lucy and the deaths of Lucy and her mother; the tracking of Lucy to the cemetery and her destruction; and though Renfield’s role makes no sense, the episodes with him manage to thrill, disgust, and chill anyway.

(To be continued)

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Blinded By Tears And Time

Every year, I pull from the reading pile a book from the Great Canon, what the Left-Wing Politically Correct (Leftus pcius) once referred to as the work of Dead White Males, an attempt to wrap one restrictive view of art with another straitjacket.

Fortunately, that petty fever passed and besides, I think this is a good idea for all writers—yes, I mean you writing that Da Vinci Code with Zombies sequel--and especially for serious writers who want more than a cult on Amazon.

Most of the time, I end up liking, admiring, even loving these tomes—David Copperfield, Don Quixote, War and Peace and The Complete Fiction of Jorge Luis Borges.

But not always. As I patiently felt my way through Bleak House by Charles Dickens (in a two-volume, illustrated edition from David D. Nickerson & Co., no date, likely the early 1900s), I looked at my bare bedroom wall and sighed.

There is a lot to like. Bleak House opens smashingly, with vivid passages that rival Pynchon's Gravity’s Rainbow in intensity, descriptions of fog that sink into your spongy skin. Dickens’ omniscient narrator (one of two) is passionate, gruff, poetic, angry, often sarcastic, as he describes, with eye-watering detail, fog-shrouded London as it might have been in the 1800s at the coal-smeared dawn of the Industrial Revolution:

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits [islands] and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights . . . .”

Dickens’ narrative hand slowly draws the murk aside to expose the Gordian knot of this baggy, tangled narrative: a court case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a generations-long estate suit that snails through the Court of Chancery, one of Great Britain’s oldest courts, (founded in the 1300s to deal with estate and property matters).

We travel through the cloudy hallways of court and case, through satiric passages that date quite a bit (as satire will do), but the atmosphere is so pungent and palpable that noir fans might pleasurably pull their collars up and inhale the fog as though it were sun-honeyed air—what waits around that beckoning black corner up ahead, that open hungry alleyway? It’s a hard world where menace and danger await every step, from around every red-bricked corner, a noirish dream.

The story congeals even more in Chapter Two, which introduces one of the main parties—and central mystery--to the Jarndyce suit, the distant, imperious Lady Dedlock, a wealthy beauty encrusted on a homely estate in a loveless childless marriage with Sir Leicester Dedlock, 20 years her senior. This couple is truly deadlocked in all aspects of their fashionably circumvented lives.

One day, while looking over some hand-copied transcripts in Jarndyce, My Lady’s frosty facade cracks and melts and she faints away to her room. Why? And what will the Dedlock’s sinister attorney-at-law in Jarndyce, Mr. Tulkinghorn--the real power in the Dedlock family--do to ferret out yet another scandalous Dedlock secret to hold close to his blackmailing heart?

Blackmail is the main plot-pin of this story, which revolves around some mysterious letters which contain the same handwriting that causes Lady Dedlock’s soul to swivet and spin, writing from a dead man’s hand.

As the plot weaves its broad web, branching and doubling back, a huge gallery of colorful characters sweep across the pages, enough, I think, to populate two London suburbs: there is Miss Flite, an elderly lady who’s been driven mad by the Chancery system and keeps dozens of birds, caged like herself, in a tiny grubby room she rents from Mr. Krook, an evil pack rat who possesses documents central to the Bleak House mystery and who, with charming anachronism, meets a hellish fate via spontaneous combustion.

We also encounter Mrs. Jellyby, a self-styled social activist who frets away the days worrying about children thousands miles away, while her own little ones starve at her feet; her presence reveals a surprising qualification to Dickens’ legendary progressivism.

There’s also Jo, the doomed street waif, driven to despair by nearly everyone around him; and, finally, the morally ambiguous, but ultimately good-hearted Inspector Bucket, considered to be the first portrait of a detective in a full-length novel.

My own favorite character is Harold Skimpole, an infuriating. childish, manipulative con man who sponges his way through the world while claiming to know nothing of it—a “helpless child” too “innocent” and “special” to concern himself with anyone’s troubles but his own. His calculating eye makes him complicit in some of the novel’s most criminal deeds. Skimpole’s bright eyes and boyish personality are a perfect disguise for villainy. I looked forward to his every appearance to see what excuse to be an all-around bastard he would conjure next.

Dickens handles the mystery plot entertainingly, too. The moment Mr. Bucket starts investigating the murder that takes place late—quite late—in the narrative, forces gather and the story barrels vividly on to a tragic dénouement.

Still, I have two issues with this colorful but difficult novel. The first relates to Dickens’ uneven style. Magnificent and poetic as it sometimes is, Dickens’ evocation of London fog combined with the fogginess of the story and its whirl of passions too often become an incomprehensible blur. Dickens style, consisting of long incantory sentences strung into multiple clauses, often becomes tangled. The punctuation seems absolutely incorrect in places, with clauses hanging in the middle of nowhere. Some passages I read several times and was still unable to comprehend them (even when I moved my lips).

Whether this was due to Dickensian self-indulgence coupled with 19th-century standards of editing and proofreading can’t be determined here. The edition I read is not only undated, but contains an uncredited introduction and is slackly produced for a hardcover; the pages were poorly cut and trimmed—every ten pages or so, I had to tear two pages along the outside edge to continue reading (probably ruining whatever miniscule collector’s value it had). Repeated Google searches turned up no information on David D. Nickerson Publishers. (Even so, it cheers me to say that the Internet still doesn’t know everything.)

My second—and major--problem relates to the novel’s other main narrator, Esther Summerson, the pivotal character and main key to the mystery of Bleak House.

While I’m not a Dickens maven, I’ve read enough of him—Christmas Carol, Great Expectations and David Copperfield—to be aware that sentimentality in a Dickens novel is a high-running river, as it is said to run high in all Victorian literature. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to allow for this.

But with the impossibly modest and virtuous Esther, Dickensian sentiment bursts the banks to become a life-threatening flood.

Esther is another in the long parade of orphans that are said to populate nearly all of Dickens’ dozen-plus novels. With her appearance, Bleak House runs into major trouble with me. Esther is as sappy and sentimental a creature as I have met in anywhere in decades of reading. Next to Esther and her creator, Charles Dickens, even Bram Stoker writes like Richard Stark.

Dickens starts out having Esther write in baby talk. She’s supposed to mature as the novel progresses, but Dickens has laid a tonal trap from which Esther never really escapes. She seems to love—or make excuses for—everyone who passes by, no matter how awfully they treat her, and every one around. At times she comes off as a distant cousin to the delightfully contemptible Skimpole (or, we used to growl back in the Midwest: “Wouldn’t say ‘shit’ if she had a mouthful”).

From the first pen stroke, Esther’s every word tastes of briny tears, and the drip drip drip never stops. Her narration clouds an already very complex narrative with a distorting lens of weeping and snuffling, crying and bawling, caressing and kissing. Characters fall into each others arms and, thus entwined, collapse across mahogany tables and chaise longues, or crumple in heaps on the floor like rugby scrums.

A Freudian reader might find all this a mite carnal and suggestive of serious boundary issues. Those with a “hard-boiled” outlook, well, you won't make it that far. You won’t have the stomach for it.

Actually, though, I think Dickens just wanted his loyal Victorian-Era readers to cry. And then cry some more. And cry, I guess, they did; even now, Bleak House is called a major masterpiece by many. Vladimir Nabokov, in his lecture notes for the novel (published in Lectures on Literature) stoutly defends Dickens against the charge of sentimentality, calling it “the real thing, keen, subtle, specialized compassion, with a grading and a merging of melting shades, with the very accent of profound pity in the words uttered, and with an artist’s choice of the most visible, most audible, most tangible epithets.”

God bless you VN, but I must resist. Like Steven Spielberg at his worst, Dickens goes much too far by my lights; he seems determined to choke every last tear—unearned or not—from the eyes of his hapless patient readers. Never use a gentle hand, he seems to believe, when a throttling will do.

Of course, it may be just a matter of me, a 21st century man, a product of a computerized, hyper-rational times, peering through the telescope of old literature at a distant age and distant values. The question recalls to me a passage from one of Henry Miller’s lovely autobiographical accounts of life at the dawn of the Industrial Age. Though my memory is unable to pinpoint where, Miller (who was born near the end of the Victorian Era) wrote how emotional the New York males of his father’s era were, how they hugged each when they met and how they wept upon parting. There was no shame in feeling among men, no post-modern, self-conscious jokes about “bromancing.”

After two particularly horrible wars, the Nuclear Age and our relentless sense of dread, it’s fair to ask, how much better and wiser are we now? Literary complaints aside, part of me feels a light brush of regret for not liking Bleak House more than I did.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author,

Thomas Burchfield can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Monday, May 9, 2011

You Never Give Me Your Money

[The following was in response to a Red Room Request for posts on the issue of Writing for Free].

Dear John, the Internet Reader:

We simply can’t go on like this.

I want to break up with you.

You’ve been reading me for years now. For far too long I have labored to send you Winnie-the-Pooh parodies, strangely popular fanboy tributes to movie villains, and essays about nature’s best places to take a soul-stirring walk.

I have made you cry. I have made you frown.  I may even have made you laugh (though for the wrong reasons and only when I am out of earshot.).

And what do you, John, the Internet Reader, give me in return? Oh, you may leave one or two comments on my webpage per week; you may “like” me on Facebook (or do you really only “pity” me? There’s an idea for ya: a “pity” button on Facebook); maybe you visit me five hundred times a week on all three of my main pages, including mostly the Red Room.

But do you ever give me your . . . MONEY!?

You never even give me your funny paper.

Ever since the late 1990s, when San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll—an actual writer who is PAID to write his daily column—suggested to a group of writers that we start an e-mail column to lift us from obscurity’s lonely pit, you have been reading my pearly prose without paying one copper PENNY for the privilege.

 Do you ever send MONEY? Nope, not a even rusty worn DIME. No MacArthur Grants, PEN Awards, not for a PLUG NICKEL. The most CURRENCY I have ever made was for writing squibs for the East Bay Express Best of the Bay 2010 issue.

You know what your casual neglect gets me? Half-hour vacations on the porcelain shores of Lake Burchfield, no thanks to you!

I know what you’re going to say: that I am an Artiste and must remain Pure and Starving in my Cramped Cold Garret, while my darling wife continues her ceaseless labor to bring home a PAYCHECK;

That just because Orson Welles once said he’d pull his pants down on Times Square to draw an audience does not mean I have to drop mine for the same Mercenary Values.

That it would be Wrong and Immoral to Sell Out to The Man, the same Man who PAYS MONEY to the writers of The New Yorker, The New York Times and Teen Beat (which mysteriously rejected my daring trenchant essay “Why Youth is Wasted on The Young.”)

But you, Dear John, the Internet Reader, you who live in Jack Benny Heaven, are Wrong.

As you continue to insist that everything must be free—or so cheap as to be worthless--I only have to point to Peter Straub, Thomas Pynchon and Vladimir Nabokov (who whiled away his later days chasing butterflies around a palatial Swiss hotel oh why oh why is it not me!?), to emphasize that Art and COMMERCE do occasionally meet and I am tired of sitting out in the waiting room scheming how to craft a query letter to Cosmopolitan (“Ten Hot Sex Positions to Try Out in Times Square!”).

And those free essays and articles I’ve been posting and e-mailing for so many years? Over the next year or so, I will be removing them from their various pages, collecting,  repackaging and then reloading them as actual e-books for which you will GIVE ME MONEY if you ever hope to read such sterling feullitons  as “Hiking Turlock” “Fun with Pliers,” and  “The Hotel Bars of Emeryville.” 

If you buy enough of my books online and off—say enough to pay for beer—I may vanish from the Internet altogether. You will have to PAY just to hear my heavy breathing over a Skype connection.

Oh, I may lose a few clicks from getgoodinsurance.com and numberoneweightlossblog.com, but think of the fine beer I will drink with the MONEY you will PAY me!

So this is a kind of good-bye, a farewell, a tear-stained handkerchief waved delicately in the air. 

No . . . no . . . don’t! I hurts me to see you cry! Don’t get mad!

Just break out your VISA, whip out your CHECKBOOK, or hop on down to the ATM. The free ride’s coming to an end, lover. It’s war now and I cannot let you depress the Marketplace—and by implication, the whole economy—anymore.


Your Favorite Online Writer

PS: I hope we can be friends.

Photos by author

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Mad Man's Dreams, Doused

One of Many Things That Osama bin Laden Did Not Like
I had just jumped in the car on Sunday evening, at MacArthur BART in Oakland, when Elizabeth told me that she’d heard over the radio that President Obama was about to announce that Osama bin Laden was dead.

As we watched the president, his voice thick with an uncharacteristic case of nerves, make his announcement, I raised a cold beer and enjoyed a sweet swell of triumph.  No, I am by no means a pacifist and even support the death penalty under stringent and extraordinary circumstances. Still,
the swell quickly sank away as I considered, along with pundits and people everywhere, what unintended crooks in the
river might await us.  Evil’s always there, never sleeps, eyes wide for its next chance.

Since September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden has been called, and likened to, many things, some of them too rude for even this microdot of cyberspace. Among the favorite comparisons have been the monsters of the last century: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Tojo, Pol Pot, and others. Let’s call them the Hitlers. It
makes for a convenient family unit.

For a short stretch, this comparison is apt. Like those monsters, bin Laden was a visionary, his mind blazing with its own special and spectral light. Like the Hitlers, it was all about him and no one else. That would make him a perfect sociopath. Not clinically insane, but morally insane, a
pitiless romantic nihilist, uncaring of the consequences of his actions on anyone but his Great Me. Like a vampire, he fed on the neediness, emptiness and violent tendencies of his mostly young followers.

Like the Hitlers his vision—and that of his band of misery-makers, al-Qaeda and their Taliban collaborators--was whole: It encompassed everyone and left no room for nuances or wrinkles, exceptions or surprises.

What an awful world he wanted, like all idealized worlds. A world where women would be wrapped in chadors, locked behind doors. driven from the world into a foul musty darkness; a world without music and constant prayer, as oppressive as anything cooked up by Stalin’s bureaucracy and as
murderously paranoid and gray. 

(And those beards . . . Lord, my face breaks out when I think about having to grow one.) 

I have little doubt bin Laden identified with the Hitlers, more so than the Allah whose principles he so glibly stated and easily betrayed.

Yet, in important ways, next to those twentieth-century visionaries, bin Laden was really a midget. The Hitlers managed to entrap whole societies under their hypnotic stare. Geniuses of organization, masters of imagery, they played virtuoso riffs on the keyboards of power. 

They fielded gigantic armies to heedlessly hurl themselves against friend and neighbor. They manufactured death on a massive industrial scale, employed hundreds, thousands, even millions of allies by poisoned carrot and by bloody stick. Put together, their regimes likely killed close to a hundred million people, without shedding a tear, only rivers of blood.

Osama bin Laden never even got within a muezzin’s call to prayer. By structuring al-Qaeda the way he did—a network of independent, mostly isolated, cells--he made himself and his “army” small targets that would be absolutely impossible to ever entirely defeat in the way we’re conditioned to think
of. His program of asymmetric warfare helped him win a few battles, in the way that outlaws like Jesse James pulled off a few raids.

 Someone Much Nicer to Know

But he lost his war. Cells of his kind don’t make a conquering army. Despite the cold cape of fear he dragged across the globe, he made no progress toward his goals, except maybe make our societies more oppressive, persuade us to sacrifice more of our freedoms than need be. He awakened the universal tyrant that lies within.

Without a whole nation, without its people and resources, under his command, a few spectacular bloody raids was all bin Laden was ever going to pull off. He was never going to raise the old Caliphate from the ash heap of history or get his bony fingers on Saudi oil or those nukes he always said he was hustling real hard for. Maybe he thought his mass army would raise itself, or the Hand of Allah would wave it into existence, a fundamentalist child’s notion of God, much too popular and
inefficient at best.

His biggest, fiercest dreams never came true. To me, Osama bin Laden may have been no more than a serial killer with a unique delusion of grandeur that he hid behind a great and ancient faith.

Meanwhile, a different kind of revolt seems to be sweeping the Arab and Muslim World, one not borne out of reactionism or nihilism, but maybe, just maybe, borne of decent hope and generous spirit, the Face of God that we want to see. The neo-Cons whine about how America is not controlling events in
the Middle East like we’re supposed to, but what is so much better about this is that al-Qaeda is having no say in it at all. 

(And I love it when bastards like al-Qaeda get their precious little visions smashed to bits, don’t you? Especially one that made an utter loathing of life into its central tenet.)

My last point in comparing bin Laden and the Hitlers is that his passing could mean that species of visionary world-striding tyrant may be devolving out of existence. Our populations have become too huge, too multitudinous and too individualized to rule as a mass. New technology creates more of this individuation, making the goal of swaying the masses even more remote. We’re all little atoms now. There is so much more to do on a Saturday night nowadays than to listen to Hitler shplutter over the radio or watch bin Laden drone from his . . . mansion. People can better make their own worlds now and while this leads to its own kind of trouble—say gathering a quorum to tackle climate change and other emergencies—it may, in the long run, be for the best. 

I hope we can put the Hitler nightmares to rest. There are bigger, more urgent ones, coming our way.

Re-edited 5/7/11; 5/9/11

Photos by author

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.