March 1917; On the Brink of War and Revolution by Will Englund. W.W. Norton.

Will England has marched us through the difficult months leading up to American entry into the Great War. German submarines were systematically sinking our cargo ships hauling industrial goods and food to Britain and her allies. There was supposed to be an exception made for passenger liners, but in May 1915 the Lusitania was sunk off the Irish coast with American lives lost in this great “crime against civilization.”

Or at least that was the judgment of President Woodrow Wilson (1913 to 1921). Wilson had campaigned for the Presidency in 1913 on a peace plank. He would not lead us into the war in Europe, already eight months old and exhibiting its enormous deadliness. In truth the country was as divided about this war as was Wilson’s mind. That encouraged him to make it “the war to end all wars,” and “peace without victory.” His 14 Points and the League of Nations Organization were already becoming, in his mind, the means to that end.

Europeans had endured their share of armed conflict in the previous century, but those wars were short and decisive, often not much longer than the year it took to complete the massive mobilization for war that their military bureaucracies had planned. But this War was proving to be not short and infinitely more deadly. If it were to serve any purpose other than killing and crippling a lot of young men, it seemed important to begin the negotiation process with the country most likely to end the war a victor, Germany.

The Germans had temporarily suspended submarine warfare with an eye toward helping Wilson sell the neutrality that he was preaching. And they were hoping to thwart the deployment of our arms and armies. But that would require a quick victory. Which meant shutting off both from the European conflict.

America was a nation based on strong Anglo-Saxon traditions. But millions of Germans had migrated to this country in the last century, mainly to the Midwestern farm belt. I grew up in a small Iowa town that had a lot of those farmers. They didn’t have a German association in town. They had a Schleswig-Holstein association. Berlin was a small town just north of us; the town’s name was changed to a safer, Lincoln.

Englund spends a good part of a chapter on a famous incident that the British hoped would persuade the U.S. to join them in their war with the German empire. The German Embassy in London had sent a telegram from the German Foreign Mister in Berlin, Arthur Zimmermann, to the president of Mexico, Venustiano Caranza, suggesting that if he would join Germany in the war against the U.S. and the Allies, the Germans would, in turn, help Mexico recover lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, lost in the Spanish American War. And the Zimmermann Telegram – as it came to be known – accomplished its purpose of drawing America into the war.

In addition to the European conflict, the country was divided about both prohibition and women’s suffrage. There was much labor unrest, agitation for an eight-hour work day. All this when Wilson had to deal with a big international crisis. W.E.B. DuBois added the new demands formulated by blacks, particularly in the North. There had been a considerable migration of African Americans out of the South, who were making demands in exchange for their labor and their patriotism.

The dust cover of Englund’s book has two portraits one of President Wilson and one of the Czar of Nicholas II. Although Nicholas enjoyed the real estate that went with the position, he was not fond of his job. Moreover he had surrounded himself with reactionary Russians, who imagined that their Czar’s decisions regarding the Great War were being influenced by his German wife. Russian elites, many of them at least, were inclined to join the Germans. But they also were surrounded by troubles: food shortages, labor unrest, police firing on demonstrators. Radicals stirring up factory workers in St. Petersburg, and mutinies in the navy and army.

Russians had joined the French in their hopes of holding on to territory in Eastern Europe.  They also had territorial gains in mind, provinces dominated by Ukranians, Balts, and Belarusians. On 15 March Nicholas abdicated, breathing a sigh of relief with his release from constant worries.

The Soviet representing the workers issued Order No. 1, which directed the military to obey only orders from the Soviets, not those of the new Provincial government. The Civil War had begun.

Wilson hopes that the Russian Revolution as we now call this turmoil would lead to greater democracy in Russia. Thus it would be the democracies against the Empires. German, Austrian, and Italian.  Russia was no longer a safe bet for the democracies category.

Despite the situation in Russia, Wilson continued to procrastinate – on the “brink” of going to war, and supported by a majority of Americans, but also concerned about the anti-war sentiment. Particularly that was a problem because we had no army; he would have to rely on universal conscription to raise one.  Eventually there would be over two million Americans serving overseas in uniform.

President Wilson had to submit his decision to enter the war to Congress. By then there was considerable support for entering the war. And so we did. Many young American men were eager to get “over there.” My dad, for example, although he never made it. After he volunteered and got his training, he was sent around to bases all over this country to assemble Curtis Jennies that were used in military flight schools.

Florida in World War II; Floating Fortress by Nick Wynne & Richard Moorhead. History Press, 2010.

Two hundred forty-eight thousand Floridians served in the armed forces in World War II. Tampa and Jacksonville shipyards made a significant contribution to the production of cargo ships, 35,000 worked in the yards in Jacksonville.  But Florida’s most significant contribution was the training bases for the army and navy personnel and particularly various National Guard Units from the Southern States in preparation for their departure overseas: Camp Blanding for the army and Camp Gordon Johnston for amphibious warfare. The U.S. was looking beyond immediate needs to the beach landings in Normandy, Okinawa, and other islands in the South Pacific. Not a major industrial state, we, nevertheless, made and/or assembled many smaller parts and components for war materiel produced elsewhere.

Florida had advantages over most states in situating military bases. It was not heavily forested, enjoyed year-round good weather, and relatively good railroad service. The almost 200 military bases in Florida needed infrastructure and that was a big job, mostly finished by mid-war, although as much as possible the U.S. used housing built by the WPA during the depression.

Perhaps the most notable early achievement of the fliers trained in Florida at Eglin Field was their involvement in the Doolittle air raid on Japanese cities in April 1942. Kept a secret, the authors, Nick Wynne and Richard Moorhead claim that it was a big morale booster for the U.S. as well as proving to the Japanese that their homeland and its cities were vulnerable.


A good portion of those army men trained at Camp Blanding were “replacements.” Its official name was the Infantry Replacement Training Center. While the trainees saw a lot of each other, their units were not kept together for the duration of the war or even for all of their training.

Speaking of replacements, part of the production of cargo ships was to replace merchant ships sunk by German submarines off Florida’s coastal waters. There were wooden watchtowers erected so that civilian volunteers could spot German shipping and aircraft. (See Operation Drumbeat; The Dramatic True Story of Germany’s First U-Boat Attacks along the American Coast by Michael Gannon.) So the story goes, German spies and saboteurs buried explosives and money on Florida beaches with the idea of arousing opposition to our entry into WWII. Most of them were eventually caught and executed. The authors give more credence to these stories than did Gannon’s book.

Florida became an important training base for amphibious warfare, and particularly, looking ahead to Normandy, Italy, Okinawa, and other islands in the South Pacific. The landings involved a close integration of all forces under a unified command, especially the Higgins landing craft with a hinged front and used in amphibious landings along the Normandy Coast.

The buildings at Camp Blanding these days are few, but at one time there were literally thousands of barracks and tent-like structures called hutments, which housed six soldiers and their equipment while they were in training. Days off and little to do hanging around the Camp, many of the trainees headed to near-by towns, particularly Starke. And on that road from Blanding to Starke there was a variety of less than “wholesome” entertainments; gambling establishments, bordellos, and “independent” prostitutes.

There were USO (United Service Organization) canteens in Starke and Gainesville that brought GIs and local women together to dance and flirt. The building is still around. It was purchased by the City of Gainesville in 1942 and renamed the Thelma Boltin Center, after the employee that scheduled a variety of entertainments but particularly free movies.

The city of Gainesville purchased the building in December 1942 and eventually it became known as the Thelma Boltin Center. While a USO canteen, it welcomed at least 25,000 soldiers from Blanding. There are also a couple of barracks moved from Blanding to Gainesville that are still around, now being used to house young males attending the University, rather than young men training for war.

Camp Blanding, Camp Gordon Johnston, and their sub camps had one final use in World War II. They were used to house German and Italian prisoners of war. The POWs began arriving in September 1942; the earliest were sailors rescued from sunken German U-boats. By 1943 they were mostly prisoners from Rommel’s Afrika Corps. The transfer to sunny, peaceful Florida was certainly better than the fate of most Germans – civilian and military in the last years of the War. Amongst the POWs from the Afrika Corps were those who wished to keep up the good fight. And the two sets of POWs did not get along, so the camp commanders found that they had to keep them separated.

In 1960 I made my first trip to Germany. Dealing with a malfunctioning motor bike, I had time and opportunity to visit with men working in the equivalent of our road-side repair shops. Several that I talked with had been POWs in the U.S. and they had no trouble deciding which was preferable. We Floridians were hospitable and their backs were soaking up that Florida sunshine.

Silent Sparks; The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis. Princeton University Press, 2016.

As kids we spend evenings, gathering fireflies into jars to make lanterns. Once that wonderment was over, the jars were opened and the fireflies took off.  Depending upon the species, they tended to fly and flash differently, some close to the ground from which they had emerged so recently.

I have never seen    Sara Lewis’s Silent Sparks brings back my childhood memories of summer a firefly in my Florida backyard.

Fireflies are not flies nor bugs. But rather beetles, a very diverse family. Beetles arose some 150 million years ago and today constitute 25% of all species. The Latin names for the two species that Lewis focusses on are Photinus and Photuris. These species were described years ago by James Lloyd an entomologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida.

Lewis describes the complicated metamorphosis of fireflies (sometimes called lightening bugs or glow worms). During their lifetimes, all beetles undergo complete metamorphosis. That requires drastic changes in their physical structures and habits, and in their habitats.

In the northern latitudes they live longest – sometimes one to three years – in their larval state, where they are voracious eaters of snails and earthworms. . They are pupae for a comparatively brief period of two weeks or so, when they rearrange their bodies in metamorphosis to better survive when they emerge in their new, adult habitat – mostly on or near the ground under damp leaf mold in wooded areas or grassy meadows.

The adults exhibit what biologists call sexual dimorphism. Males and females are recognizably different as adults, easy to identify because of the differing shape of their light-producing lanterns. They emerge from metamorphosis with a much distorted male/female ratio of 218/12. That ratio results in considerable female promiscuity.  So a lof of energy must be expended by the male in his search for females of the same species with which to mate.

The males of some species have evolved an ability to synchronize their flashes. The pattern of flashes that they exhibit varies from species to species. Species notification, Sarah Lewis calls it. That would seem to violate evolutionary logic because that synchronization would seemingly be an exhibit of co-operation. Biologists have scurried to put up an explanation for this phenomenon. Lewis favors what is called the “beacon hypothesis.” Together, gathered on a blade of grass or on tree trunks, the males gradually synchronize their flashes and since their flashing patterns vary between species, their beacons better attract the attention of the females of their species, who take up perches nearby.  The females of some species assist the hunt by releasing pheromones.

Entomologists talk about the various firefly species as being reproductively isolated, i.e. they breed only with others of their same species. They are true to their own gene pool. They have species specific signals.

Lewis spends less time in describing their use of “perfumes.” Better is her description of what she calls gift-giving. These nuptial gifts are valuable when nutrients are scarce. Their examination requires a scrutiny of the interior spaces of the male reproductive glands where their sperm is wrapped into packages. Once the “bundle” reaches the female reproductive tract after mating, it is stored in a pouch and slowly digested over the next several days.

How is the male controlling his flash? Chemicals, and it is difficult to explain, the mechanism, but Lewis has it controlled by “light switches.” Here and elsewhere the author lapses into anthropomorphisms and metaphors.

Lightening bugs have numerous predators – spiders and bugs – and they arm themselves against these predators by using poisons, potent toxic steroids. Most do not eat as adults. They do have blood, which is useful for certain medical tests, and therefore they are harvested.

Females of the group, Photuris hunt, catch, and eat male lightening bugs of other groups. The females have thus become femmes fatales.

What seems to be the leading cause of the fireflies’ declining numbers in addition to the harvesting for commercial uses? Light pollution confuses the male’s flashing, so bring back the night. Yard lights: make sure they are turned off when not in use.  Land clearing destroys the habitat for the larvae. Fireflies are not good at dispersing to new habitats and so this is particularly harmful. Pesticides and fertilizer.

In the last section of Silent Sparks, Sara Lewis provides the reader with a field guide for common North American fireflies that might be found in our backyards, including range maps. Helpful, and you might want to take a trip up to the Appalachians to see many of the species.   Or, even better yet to Japan, Korea, and Malaysia to see more of those wondrous worlds.

The One Percent Solution; How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time by Gordon Lafer. Cornell University Press, 2017.

Gordon Lafer’s title is confusing. He doesn’t really think that the remodeling of our public education is a “solution.” Rather his is a description of how “corporations”- but I would say the wealthy – those who are in the top 1% income bracket – are leading us into a very big mistake. They are encouraging us to abandon the public schools in favor of charter and proprietary schools. That ‘experiment’ of opening education to private enterprise is being tried on a city-wide scale in New Orleans.

A Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, has greatly facilitated the flow of millions of dollars into both political parties. But in recent years a disproportionate share has gone to the Republican Party and its candidates. And their opulence has allowed them greater influence over the political process. Lafer has taken notice of that in the subtitle to his book How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time.

One good example is the flow of resources into private schooling. New Orleans joined what has become a major trend in K-through-12 schools, supporting privatization either by issuing vouchers, rewarded to parents with the idea that they can then seek the best education for their kids, or by reshaping K-through-12 instruction so that private schools can compete with the older public school system.

Conservatives have constructed a strategy and rhetoric that turns out to be quite successful. They are critical of the practice of deducting the cost of union dues and various benefits from teachers’ pay.  Or if that is too obvious, some states have required that the employer ask for and be given permission to deduct union dues and the cost of those benefits, but employees should only be allowed to do so if they have received permission from the wage earner, be it teachers and other employees. This would restrict the ability of unions to bargain effectively. “Wage theft” is the polemic used, and barring that practice is “paycheck protection.”

(Lafer points out that there are no such laws requiring corporations to notify their stock holders when they are taking political stands or making political contributions.)

There are efforts within the public schools to create opportunities for corporate America. The money flowing into education from the private sector reduces the influence that public school teachers have over the education they provide. As part of the graduation requirements, many school districts require at least some of public school education to be delivered by digital instruction. That is particularly true of any evaluation, and hence an opportunity for standardized tests and eventually a standardized curriculum. In many school districts, teachers are evaluated, in part at least, by the scores, which makes the tests more important to the curriculum.

There are any number of ironies in Lafer’s evaluation of American education. It has always been considered important that whatever interventions there are by state Departments of Education, they should not discourage the professionalism of the teacher. An apprenticeship should be involved. There is no mention of “student teaching,” which would have been preceded by at least some pedagogical training at an accredited college.

Leaving the school room, if you consider the American work force in total, you will find a market structure that isn’t rewarding improvements in productivity. Lafer notes that from 1973 to 2013 American labor productivity increased by 74.4%. But compensation only increased by 9.2%. Lafer begrudges the corporations (and the richest 1%) their disproportionate gains. He is perplexed, and so will be the reader, by how persuasive the rhetoric is that defends this state of affairs. Why isn’t there some mechanism that would prevent this from happening? Particularly since most everyone would agree that this huge economic inequality leads to political inequality.  Nor have the American corporations, so richly rewarded, created much in the way of new jobs.

Nor has worker productivity benefited wages. The minimum wage is intended to at least boost some wage rates at the bottom rungs of the wage ladder. But the minimum wage looked to be a definite threat to the returns of the employer class. So that was fixed in many states and localities by state and federal legislation that prevents them from creating their own minimum wage – often considerably higher than the federal. Increases in the minimum wage should at least have kept up with the inflation rate.

An employer might want to bestow the category “independent contractor” on you, allowing some greater independence as his employee. But that might deprive her or him of mandatory requirements such as unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, sick leave, overtime, even meal breaks.

Say “no thanks!”

One Long Night; A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer. Little, Brown and Company 2017.

Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night, has a chapter halfway through her book called “The Architecture of Auschwitz,” and I think that a good starting point for any review of her book. The components of Auschwitz and other German camps were already in existence by the 1930s. The Germans had their own needs to house civilians temporarily in camps that would both protect them – though that was not generally the major purpose – but also utilize their labor.

In January 1942, the German bureaucrats who were responsible for devising a solution to a part of that puzzle, the “Jewish question” or Judenfrage, gathered in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. They came up with what they considered to be a ‘final’ solution Endlösung. The question of when and where to send unwanted civilians had been an issue in Germany, the British Empire, and elsewhere since the late nineteenth century. And their death had not been the most important reason for their detention.

The issue of how to treat enemy aliens during a war had been raised back in the Spanish-American War in 1898. There were, at the time, no formal detention centers, and hence no care given to their needs. During our war with Spain, it was decided to use a Naval Air Station in Cuba on Guantanamo Bay.

In the case of Guantanamo, we were concerned about health and safety, mostly. But the whole world was shocked by the British treatment and fate of a population of Dutch farmers in South Africa, the Boers, during the Boer War of 1899. The women and children had been providing support to their men folk off fighting a guerilla war against a brutal British colonial army. The facilities for their detention were inadequate, and the Brits mostly let them die of disease and hunger in poorly provisioned camps.

At the same time, Europeans were meeting at the Hague (1899, 1907) to iron out the rules of warfare including the treatment of civilians.

I don’t want to pick on Britain and the British Empire particularly, but there is the historical record. Back home when war broke out in France and Belgium in 1914, the British began collecting German civilian prisoners then living in Britain and sending them at first to a camp on the Isle of Man, then using defunct jails and a kids holiday camp. Neither had good security, so the ‘national security people’ added additional compounds surrounded by barbed wire. German POWs were also sent to Canada where they were required to perform useful labor. Hence another part of the Hague conventions and the architecture of civilian internment had been added.

There were various classifications for these prisoners: known as Nazi sympathizers, immediate internment. (The Brits were preoccupied with the possibility of espionage risks.) Another classification was just to monitor them, confiscate their cameras. They were restricted in their travel around Britain and Ireland. However, sixty-six thousand enemy aliens not considered in any way a security threat were simply required to register. Many of them were Jewish refugees who had recently arrived in family groups.  Britain was being cautious. Much the same was true of their policies in India.

Of course the Russians had always had their “gulags,” places of extreme neglect and suffering. They also were inadequate for the immediate task of housing of captured German POWs. Also, civilians caught on the wrong side of the Russian Revolution and the collectivization of rural populations were interned into labor camps.

The German involvement in camps for German and Polish Jews is too familiar to require more elaboration. But Pitzer makes the interesting point that those internment camps were generally not initially set up to exterminate unwanted populations. They came to that as European opponents of the Nazi regime in Germany and France – but also Austria and Northern Italy, multiplied and began flowing into whatever facilities were available.

The camps became specialized. Some were purely labor camps, some punishment camps for criminality, camps for women only, but some were extermination camps. All of the “architecture” of Auschwitz-Birkenau had evolved over decades of incarceration, even if their immediate function was not Jewish destruction.

Then there were the Japanese-American internees. Always suspect by Californians, they were rounded up after Pearl Harbor and sent inland, 120,000 of them. Many were citizens with Japanese ancestors. And the internment was blessed by the US Supreme Court in “U.S. vs. Korematsu”, a famous case involving the constitutionality of the action.

We have caught up with the long, sordid history of concentration camps. But one final chapter “The Bastard Children of the Camps,” and Pitzer is not talking about human infants but rather the continued practice of interning civilians. Back to Guantánamo where we have housed those arrested after the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. And then to General Pinochet’s Chili, Kenya, Malaya, Afghanistan, and French Indo-China to look at these “bastard camps”, and also add isolation, kidnapping, interrogation, torturing, and execution, to the “architecture” already described.

At the very end, Andrea Pitzer brings up another question: what to do with the ‘bodies.’ Some German concentration camps were solidly built of brick and are still around to visit, but many are collapsing into heaps of rotting wood. Memory is often attached to physical remains – and monuments of various kinds. Will the loss of those structures also mean the demise of their remembrance?