Friday, July 14, 2017

"We are a pretty sordid lot" -- Quentin Roosevelt


First there is this from the History Channel website:


    On this day in 1918, Quentin Roosevelt, a pilot in the United States Air Service and the fourth son of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, is shot down and killed by a German Fokker plane over the Marne River in France.
    The young Roosevelt was engaged to Flora Payne Whitney, the granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the country’s richest men. The couple met at a ball in Newport, Rhode Island, in August 1916 and soon fell in love, although the alliance between the modest, old-money Roosevelts and the flamboyantly wealthy Vanderbilt-Whitneys was at first controversial on both sides.
    Quentin’s letters to Flora, from the time they met until his death, charted the course of America’s entry into the war. Theodore Roosevelt, incensed at America’s continuing neutrality in the face of German aggression–including the sinking of the British cruise liner Lusitania in May 1916, in which 128 Americans drowned–campaigned unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1916, severely criticizing Woodrow Wilson, who was reelected on a neutrality platform. While he was initially neutral, Quentin came to agree with his father, writing to Flora in early 1917 from Harvard University, where he was studying, that “We are a pretty sordid lot, aren’t we, to want to sit looking on while England and France fight our battles and pan gold into our pockets.”
    After U.S. policy, as well as public opinion, shifted decisively towards entrance into the conflict against Germany, Wilson delivered his war message to Congress on April 2, 1917. At age 20, Quentin was too young to be drafted under the subsequent military conscription act, but as the son of Theodore Roosevelt, he was certainly expected to volunteer. His father, at 58, had expressed his own intention to head to France immediately as head of a volunteer division; upon Wilson’s rejection of the idea, TR declared that his sons would go in his place.
    Before the month of April 1917 was out, Quentin had left Harvard, volunteered for the U.S. Air Service and proposed to Flora. The young couple received their parents’ consent, at first reluctant, only to say goodbye to each other at the Hudson River Pier on July 23 as Quentin set sail to France for training. Over the next year, Quentin struggled with difficult flight training (on Nieuport planes, already discarded by the French as a second-rate aircraft), brutally cold conditions, illness (in November he caught pneumonia and was sent to Paris on a three-week leave) and derision from his older brothers, Ted, Archie and Kermit, all of whom were already on their way to the front. Quentin also suffered from the separation from Flora, whom he urged to find a way to come to Paris and marry him; though she tried, she was ultimately unsuccessful. Despite the pain of separation from his beloved, Quentin was determined to get to the front, to silence his brothers’ criticism and prove himself to them and to his father.
    In June 1918, Quentin got his wish when he was made a flight commander in the 95th Aero Squadron, in action near the Aisne River. “I think I got my first Boche,” he wrote in excitement to Flora on July 11, referring to a German plane he had shot at during a flight mission. Three days later, during the Second Battle of the Marne, his Nieuport was engaged by three Boche planes, according to one of the other pilots on his flight mission. Shot down, Quentin’s plane fell behind the German lines, near the village of Chamery, France.
    Flora Payne Whitney saved every one of Quentin’s letters to her. She became a surrogate member of the Roosevelt family for a time, nursing her own pain and comforting Theodore Roosevelt, who was by many reports shattered by the loss of his youngest son, until his death in January 1919. She would later go on to marry twice, have four children, and follow her mother, the sculptor and art patron Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney, into a leadership role at the famous Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. She died in 1986.

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And there is this personal postscript: 

As I am posting this, I am at the same time watching a documentary film on television about World War II battles. Well, as I combine everything I read and see about the world wars of the 20th century with my memories from 25-year U.S. Navy career, I am left with two questions to which I have no answers, but you are invited to offer your responses:

Why do some people put on uniforms and take up arms in defense of their countries?
Why do others resist and avoid putting on uniforms and taking up arms?







15 comments:

  1. I think men, at least, have a primal urge to protect the tribe and its borders. We all have that tribal loyalty that expresses itself in different ways -- from armed service to business cover-ups.

    As far as resisting...well, the easy answer is fear -- fear of the constant demands of service, fear of getting killed. There is also a lack of attachment to the thing demanding arms to begin with. Take black draft resisters back in the 1960s: if they were denied civil rights, they saw no reason to defend the state denying them rights. There are also deep moral considerations: a man might feel the primal itch to defend his country, but might have a serious moral compunction against killing people -- like a Quaker, or Buddhist. Perhaps he thinks the war is fundamentally unjust, like Thoreau did.

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    1. Stephen, you make some interesting, valid observations. I wonder about this: if no one will fight the battles, what happens to everyone?

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    2. I don't think that's a realistic possibility. If the danger was dire enough, people's survival instincts would kick in. They probably wouldn't be very effective at that point -- imagine Englishers trying to fight the Luftwaffe with their household tools instead of with Spitfires -- but they would try.

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    3. Stephen, see my response re: SEAL.

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    4. It's one thing to be pacifist concerning ourselves but if we think about children suffering torment we most certainly would do what we could to protect them.

      I don't think it is immoral to defend the helpless. I would rather go down fighting then live under a tyrant.

      I mean a real tyrant like Saddam Hussein or Stalin or Kim Jung Un, not imaginary ones conjured up by First World Angst.

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    5. Sharon, I remain pleasantly surprised that the military service continues to function with volunteers and without conscription; that gives me hope about the nobility of American spirit in spite of much evidence to the contrary.

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  2. I would say there are a lot of reasons people choose to join the armed forces, especially in times of war, Tim. But there are also compelling reasons people don't. They may feel that war in general, or a particular war, is wrong, and they don't want to be involved. Or, they may have spiritual/religious objections to war of any kind. The decision to join the armed forces or not is, I think, complicated, and is impacted by perspective, religion, financial or other concerns, and lots of other factors, too.

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    1. Margot, I once presided over a conscientious objector hearing involving a Navy SEAL who had "found religion" and changed his mind about being a warrior. The dynamics were interesting. As I suggested to Stephen, I wonder what happens if no one will take up arms to protect the others when invaders encroach?

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    2. It's interesting that a Navy SEAL would have gotten that far. Certainly the man couldn't have been a coward -- memoirs of "hell week" in BUDS school would rule that out. But it would be suspicious if an ordinary soldier suddenly found religion after being assigned somewhere hazardous.

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    3. Stephen, that was an interesting case. I had no idea about the sincerity of his new-found beliefs (Jehovah's Witness convert), but I took the easy way out to a decision. I reasoned that retaining him in the Navy would get people killed. Notice that I was not concerned about him or his beliefs but about others and their safety. I run into a lot of people who insist war is always wrong; they insist they would never fight even if their own families were in danger. I do not understand those people. I guess I was a pragmatist in the military: war is hell, and war ought to be avoided (i.e., who wants to go to hell?), but -- just as in football -- being on offense is better than being on defense. Does that make sense?

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  3. most volunteers are young, i would say, hence the reference to "canon fodder"; people do seem to become slightly more civilized as they age... well, in some respects anyway...

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    1. Mudpuddle, I'm not sure about your age-brings-civilization theory. I listen to veterans of WW2, Korea, and Vietnam, and many of their perspectives do not suggest the kind of pacifist civilization you would suggest happens to old men. However, I should generalize from anecdotal evidence.

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    2. i'm not sure about it either...

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  4. "while England and France fight our battles"? It is hard for me to see in what sense those battles were then ours.

    I have noticed that the Ivy League tends to turn out for Armageddon: Forrestal, McCloy, various Roosevelts (including Quentin Roosevelt's brother Archibald, supposedly the only soldier declared 100% disabled from wounds acquired in each of the world wars) in the first come to mind; George Schultz, Paul O'Neill, Eliot Richardson, Benjamin Bradlee, John Kennedy in the second. There was notably less enthusiasm after about 1967 among such groups for military service. Was it what they were hearing from their professors, some of whom had helped form the policies that took the US into Vietnam?

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    1. George, I guess the issue is just too damned complicated for my mind. But I am not thinking too clearly today. Hmmmm.

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