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Penn Rhodeen is the author of Peacerunner, an account of a former Connecticut congressman's participation in the Good Friday Accords that ended decades of violence in Ireland.  A shorter version of this essay appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in September 2017.


The headline said “Bravery Wins Bronze Star” but it was the picture that grabbed my attention shortly after I entered the University of Wisconsin Law School, never to let go. It was in the local news section of the Capital Times, Madison’s afternoon paper, on September 29, 1967. It recounted--and memorably showed--the presentation at the American Legion post in nearby Sun Prairie of the medal for combat valor to the family of Thomas Broome, an 18-year-old killed in Vietnam the previous June.


          The photographer was David Sandell. His masterly composition, with its mix of expressions complex and pure, thrust this eternal ceremony of heroism and loss full force into the turbulence of that time and place.  Conflict over the war was already intense at UW and demonstrations over plans for Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm, to recruit on campus would soon ratchet it higher, convulsing university, city and state. But this captured moment, this gathering of family and community, seemed far beyond all of the roiling hawk-and-dove arguments. 


          The man receiving the medal, is Stanley Broome, Tom’s father. He maintained the boilers for Wisconsin Porcelain. He loved his job so much that he was buried in his bib overalls and engineer's cap. Someone slipped a can of Schlitz in there too. The officer gently placing the medal in his hand is Lt. Ron Weindel, soon to return to Vietnam and win his own Bronze Star; he died in his fifties from lung cancer that doctors at the VA told him was probably caused by Agent Orange, the forest defoliant used extensively during the war. 


          The man in the Legion cap is Post 333 Commander Victor Ward. He took pride in his World War II service and his post responsibilities, but for him this event was personal: the Broome family lived just a few houses away from the Wards. He knew Tom from birth.


          Standing behind Ward is Tom's brother John, just turned 17 on September 21 and leaving for the Army in 10 days. He promised his mother that he wouldn’t go to Vietnam—a choice available to a surviving son—but later went because he thought it would somehow connect him to the brother and best friend he missed so much.


          The girl in the pretty dress is Fannie Broome, 13 in May. Her gaze is direct and she looks ready to say exactly how she feels. Her life was never easy: long before losing her brother, she got polio and had to be in an iron lung; neither of her marriages worked out and she died of cancer at 52. But she was spirited, always ready to laugh (it was Fannie who slipped the Schlitz in with her dad) and her friends were many. 


          Sun Prairie mayor Clarence Severson, looking distressed, stands behind Fannie. Tom was the first one from town killed in the war. Streets were named after him and the other two killed over there. 


          In her unalloyed grief, Tom’s mother Alice is like a figure in a Renaissance painting. Her eyes seem focused on nothing visible to us.


          Only John Broome remains today. He lives Poynette, Wisconsin and retired on New Year’s Day, 2012, after a long career in power plant operations. He struggles to fully comprehend his youthful decisions to join the Army and go to Vietnam, and confesses that it took him 30 years to understand how hard those decisions were on his parents. When he came home before leaving for Vietnam, Alice knew right away that he had broken his promise. But all she said was, “You’re going over there, aren’t you?” The night before he shipped out, she wanted to get a drink with him, even though she never drank. They walked over to the tavern on Main Street; she asked him what to order but barely touched the screwdriver he suggested. In Vietnam he was a senior crane operator on major construction projects all over the country and won his own Bronze Star for meritorious service in a combat zone.


          “It’s important to remember,” John says, “that we weren’t the only family that went through this. We were just one of many, in Vietnam and in the wars before and after.” True, of course, but because David Sandell made a work of art from their Bronze Star moment, those who gathered on that late September day 50 years ago will always stand for those who were lost and for everyone they left behind.





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If the notion of a Russian plant with three passports at the head of a major-party presidential campaign--a Republican presidential campaign, no less--strikes you as a little hard to swallow, buckle up.  Because that's what the Russians do.  And it's nothing  compared to the Cambridge Five.

At least, we think there were at least five.  At first they were just two.  Then a third.  And then a fourth was confirmed, and we're pretty sure about number five.  Some say there were a six and maybe even a seven. 

But whatever their number there's no doubt whatever that in the early 1930's the Russians--then constituted as the Soviet Union--recruited a number of disaffected upper-class undergraduates at Cambridge University to penetrate the highest reaches of British politics and pass its secrets back to Moscow.

And boy, did they.  Despite their known Communist affiliations--in the 1930's, Marxism was an accepted,  rational response to the rise of fascism, one shared by Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the American nuclear arsenal--the boys from Cambridge rose fast.  By the time war broke out they were deeply entrenched in the distinctly English intersecting worlds of journalism, diplomacy, and intelligence.   (Unlike the distinctly American intersecting world of money and everything else.)  Guy Burgess, despite his obvious alcoholism and open homosexuality--then a criminal offense--bounced back and forth between the BBC and the Foreign Office, as did the more discrete Donald MacleanAnthony Blunt, whose background as a preeminent historian of French Rococo art somehow qualified him as a counterintelligence agent, joined the security service, MI5 John Cairncross, who'd started out as private secretary to a member of the Cabinet, managed to get himself  assigned to nothing less than Bletchely Park--the hypercerebral, hypersecret codebreaking operation recently dramatized in "The Imitation Game."

The most prominent was  H.A. R. "Kim" Philby, so nicknamed not because he was cute or something, but because he early reminded his friends of Kipling's fictional boy-spy in the Great Game between Britain and Russia.  He parlayed his role as a correspondent for the Times into a major position with MI6, the UK's legendary Secret Intelligence Service.  Through the course of the war he and his fellow spies--and as I said while we've confirmed five there may have been more---used their incredibly sensitive positions to pass the most highly classified British and American intelligence along to the Soviets--rationalizing away manifest treason with the justification that the Russians were, after all, on our side in the war against fascism.

But then all of a sudden they weren't.  With the war over, our gallant Soviet allies became the Red Menace.  And to be fair, acted like it, seizing any opportunity to evade NATO security, especially atomic.  And though Philby and Co. were by this point no longer on the cutting edge of the penetration operation, they had been careless in the past.  So much so that Burgess and McLean--tipped off by Philby, who unbelievably had survived internal investigations into Russian collusion to rise to be head of the British intelligence station in Washington, and to be mentioned as a possible future director of the service--had to flee Britain in the dead of the night.  And even more unbelievably, after their abrupt departure, Philby was cleared of involvement with the Russians.

But there's more.  Even though the public outcry temporarily derailed Philby's intelligence career, within a few years he was using journalistic cover to act as an agent in the Middle East.  When renewed suspicions grew too hot even for him, he boarded a Soviet freighter and surfaced again in Moscow a few months later--where he died decades later, a colonel in the KGB and a decorated Soviet hero.

Cairncross evaded official attention and found his way into a career in academia in the United States.  His involvement in  the spy ring was only confirmed after his death. 

And the fifth man?  Blunt?  He went on to become the Queen's official art historian--Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures was his official title, I kid you not--in which capacity this former Soviet spy received a knighthood.  Though he confirmed his treason after he was exposed by a Soviet defector, the terms of his confession kept it secret for fifteen years and also allowed him to keep his knighthood, his academic honors, and the royal job.  He wasn't publicly outed until 1978, and is the only member of the ring to have suffered the shame of disclosure in his own lifetime and country.  

So why is any of this important?  In part because of consequences that went far beyond wartime involuntary information-sharing.  Philby was close friends with James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's  chief of counterintelligence.  Angleton was so shaken by his friend's betrayal that he came to see spies everywhere, especially within his own agency.  Periodically our own intelligence apparatus was paralyzed by Philby-inspired, Angleton-ordered "molehunts" during which half our agents wre watching the other half and as a result, no one got much done.  Angleton's paranoia, collateral damage from the Russian penetration operation, crippled the agency until his retirement in the mid-seventies--a gift that just kept on giving.

But even more critically, this episode  demonstrates that the ambition of Russia's intelligence operations is exceeded only by its patience.  The Soviets recruited five young men while still undergraduates and cultivated them over more than a decade so that when the opportunity came, they would occupy sensitive roles in the highest levels of British government.  Whatever facts the Mueller investigation may uncover--and for the sake of the Republic let's all hope that our worst fears are unfounded--history teaches us that when the Russians see a chance, they take it.  And once they've taken it, they stay with it.

And most importantly, we should never forget that before he entered politics in a collapsing Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin was a high-ranking officer in the KGB--the same service that recruited and ran the Cambridge Five for thirty years.  So it is neither fantastic nor paranoid to believe that Russian reach could extend to the highest levels of our politics.  It may, however, be optimistic to believe that it stopped with one party, or with politics. 

As I said, buckle up. 






Astonishingly, there exist neither audio nor video recordings of George Orwell--despite his having worked for the BBC.  Here that selfsame network fills that void with a collection of entirely invented newsreels and TV interviews with Orwell, linked here, acted with what would seem to be eerie precision.  It not only brilliantly imagines Orwell's speech and manner, but shows how a child of Empire and Eton grew into a committed democratic socialist who slaved alongside Yorkshire coalminers and took a bullet in the throat fighting fascism in Spain.  Not to be missed. 



Okay, that's a lot of title.  But worth it.

This is an amazing debut novel--wildly imaginative, powerfully written, funny, and deeply humane. However mythic his characters--they include a Nazi interrogator with the power to make women incapable of seeing their own faces and a talking wish-granting hat once owned by the god Hermes--Fentonmiller renders them fully and credibly. Equally impressive is his deft handling of a broad range of time and space--from Weimar Germany to sixties Detroit. This is a book not to be missed. 



"Coal Dust on the Tombstone" reminded me of a story I published some years ago in a now-defunct ezine.  It's a dark little thing based on what I thought was a childhood memory, something I heard told in my father's West Virginia family.  But they all deny knowing about such a thing. Read it, and you tell me what's wrong with me.


When she saw what the dog had in its mouth she screamed so hard that a vessel burst in her throat.  She fainted and fell on her back.  The blood poured into her lungs.  She would have died on the kitchen floor.  But because the mill closed early her husband came home to find her.              

Three days before her baby had taken his own desperate gasps, a dozen all he had in this life. When she stopped crying and fell asleep her husband pried the little body out of her arms and wrapped it in newspapers and twine.  There were five other children still alive in the two rooms of their tarpaper shack past the end of a dirt road near the ridge line.   FDR had yet to bring happy days here again to Osage West Virginia.  Until then  there wasn’t going to be money for a funeral or even spare sheets for a shroud. He went behind the house and up to the treeline. With a summer Appalachian downpour beating on his  back he  scooped out a grave and laid his baby in it.            

When he told his wife what he had done she cried harder than she thought she had tears for.  She swore and swung at him.  Her nails raked his cheek.  Because he was ashamed,  this once he took it.   For days she lay in bed and listened to the rain drum on the tin and plywood and tarpaper above her.   She thought of  the baby sleeping in the mud.  But at last she remembered the babies who had lived and got out of bed. 

Still heavy with birth she waddled into the kitchen.    There was a little window over the big tin tub that was her sink.  She braced her hands on either side of the tub and stared out the window, getting used to sunlight again.  Halfway between the outhouse and the treeline she could see a dog scrabbling in the mud.  It was a colorless medium sized coonhound that someone had got tired of feeding and thrown stones at until it finally got the message.             Blinking in the rain-filtered morning light she watched the dog frantically delve.  Because she liked dogs she smiled a little as it stopped and beat its tail in triumph.    

When the dog planted its hind legs and pulled harder she laughed, expecting a Walt Disney dinosaur bone to pop out of the earth to dwarf the industrious pooch.  

What the dog had in its teeth was a tiny arm, bluish gray.  Just as she recognized it for what it was, her baby was free from the mud.  Teeth now in the abdomen, the dog gave the body one triumphant shake and trotted off with it into the woods.            

After her husband found her she stayed in bed for another long time.  The rain had stopped. She had nothing to listen to except what was inside her head.   The first time she got up her husband came home from the mill to find her filthy with cracked and bleeding nails.  She explained with the utmost patience that she had gone into the woods to find where the dog had buried its bone.            

At first he reasoned with her, and then he prayed over her, and when that didn’t work he beat her until she promised to stay close to the house.  But he came home to find  his yard cratered with shallow pits she had dug with their soup ladle.    

He tied her to the bed that night.  The next day she swore she’d be good. With  five children, the youngest not yet a year old, he figured he didn’t have much choice.  So he let her loose.      

Because there was a lot of work at the mill that week it was late when he got home.  Even though it was midsummer the light had almost faded from the ridgeline as he made his way up the switchbacked trail to the house.  She sat on the unpainted two-by-four steps that were their porch.   He smiled because she rocked a blanketed bundle in her arms.   Their youngest. He thought, she’s getting better.  Still smiling he leaned forward to kiss the child she held up to him.

He spent the rest of his life trying to convince himself that his lips never touched what she had wrapped in the blanket.  Gagging he struck it away.  She screamed and fell on him with teeth and fists.  It took the two oldest to help him tie her to the bed with belts.  

He sent the middle boy to get the county doctor. When the he arrived her head had been beaten in against the iron bedstead.  Her husband explained that she must have done it while he was out in the yard waiting.  

The doctor listened to the story.  Night had fallen long ago and his car was parked at the end of the road,  nearly a thousand yards away.  There was blood on the husband’s  hands.  

Misadventure, said the doctor.  Death by misadventure.    The husband nodded.  In his hands was a baby blanket to which shreds of mangy fur and leathery dried skin still clung.   The doctor left as fast as he could.  As he hurried his feet crunched scattered marsupial bones and a possum’s skull wrapped in a blue bonnet.  


Through some lucky twist of Fate--which by the way now acts through Mark Zuckerberg--this found its way to my Facebook feed.  Both the song and slideshow are tremendously evocative of coal country--in the very first image, the slope of the hills immediately took me home.  

The song was written by Kay Smith Elliott. It speaks eloquently to the hardship and danger that lead not only to the fatalism that I always associate with where I'm from, but  sometimes to madness as well.  




A couple of years ago I was at the Association of Writing Programs annual hootenanny in Minneapolis, enjoying a midafternoon libation at an outdoor table--no really, they have them in Minneapolis, they just bring them inside in September--with the poet Gaylord Brewer.  Dan Reiter, an alumnus of the Yale Writers' Conference from its glory days, walked past.  I asked him to join us.  He did.

"I already don't like this guy," said Brewer.  "He's too good looking.  He a good writer?"

"Yes," I said.

"Damn.  Knew I didn't like him."

I'm very proud of Dan's success and its recognition by Kenyon Review's publication of "Dance of the Old Century."  Read it right now.


The first installment of Emily Hauser's trilogy based on the myth of the Golden Apples is now available in the US.  This is what I said when it first appeared in the UK:

"A brilliant re-imagining of the Iliad, faithful to the original yet completely accessible . . . the two young women at the centre of the drama are faithfully representative of their time and place yet feel compellingly contemporary . . . Emily Hauser has given us a lively new take on a classic."

Go buy it now--don't let hipster sophisticates sneer at you through their ironic facial hair!


Theodore Sturgeon's 1971 short story Occam's Scalpel now appears to be an eerily prescient depiction of our periapocalyptic political reality.  I don't give much away when I tell you the premise.  A billionaire industrialist whose holdings account for a huge portion of global pollution--sort of a one-man Koch Brothers-- has died at an advanced age.   Just before he's fed, Mr. Burns-like, into one of his subterranean furnaces, his lieutenant and successor is summoned by the late tycoon's personal physician.  The latter wants to conduct an autopsy.  The two stand over the corpse.  The doctor gentle draws a shallow incision down the midline of the deceased magnate's wrinkled mug. Gently he tugs at either side.  The skin slides away like Martin Landau's in the initial run of Mission Impossible, revealing that the billionaire is actually a nonhuman.  As the postmortem progresses it becomes clearer and clearer that he's a representative of a species evolved to thrive on exactly what his industries have been pumping into the environment: hydrocarbons and sulfites.  The horrifying conclusion eventually dawns that he is the advance guard of an alien invasion, tasked to terraform--or more accurately, xenoform--Earth into something hospitable to his race through largescale pollution.

The story doesn't end there. But its premise is chillingly consistent with the incoming chief executive's bizarre and unreasoning affinity for the Kremlin Kleptocracy.

Despite his strangely nonhuman mitts, equipped with digits better called handtoes than fingers, Donald Trump is probably from Earth.  (I say "probably" only because his fellow GOP chieftain Mitch McConnell is either a failed effort at human-turtle hybridization escaped from a lab or simply not of terrestrial origin.)  Yet he does appear to be xenoforming the United States into an environment suited to his kind.  That is, plutocrats.  Which explains his attachment to Putin's Russia--a borderline failed state whose economy is now the size of Italy's and whose life expectancy steadily declines--otherwise comprehensible only if our new President is the ultimate mole.

So why does Trump love Russia so?  Easy--it's paradise for rich bullies.  Putin has effectively extinguished any vestige of political or intellectual freedom so that a couple of dozen kazillionaires can rape their one-product petroeconomy and pipe the profits to shell-company-owned real estate in Manhattan or London or Vancouver where they can lounge with their oiled-up Balkan whores without any semblance of journalistic scrutiny.  (Trump has made it clear that America's libel laws need to be "loosened" so he can pursue his "many enemies," and of course he's encouraged the toothless methheads at his rallies to menace reporters.)  And of course in Putin's Russia whatever remains of public opinion is easily manipulated by a kind of fake news that must leave even Breitbart breathless with admiration, for the state can actually manufacture facts to support false news--e.g., the security services blowing up a Moscow apartment building to justify a war in Chechnya and a convenient state of permanent xenophobia and Islamophobia.  (Sound familiar?)

What Trump is driving us towards is the Russification of America, including an economy dominated by fossil fuel extraction, controlled by a cabinet composed of military-industrial oligarchs: Exxon executives (State), Goldman Sachs alumni (Treasury), generals (Defense, National Security); climate change deniers (EPA, Energy) and conspiracy theorists (National Security.)  And it doesn't end there--American life expectancy, like the Russian, is declining, a process that will only accelerate as Obamacare is "replaced" and Medicare and Social Security are "modernized." Little wonder that the American opiate epidemic will soon rival Russian alcoholism as the killer of middle-aged men.  But Trump, unlike Putin, need not establish a stranglehold on the media; he's already far along in the process of rendering it irrelevant by ignoring it outright--Reince Priebus has already said Presidential daily briefings are a thing of the past--or drowning it out in his daily twitter tantrums.

Trump is well on the way to rebuilding America into an alien environment friendly to his own kind.  And he hasn't even been sworn in yet.







I'm not a poet.  So in some ways I lack the vocabulary to praise Clifford Brooks' The Draw of Broken Eyes and Whirling Metaphysics.  But I am a reader, and as a reader I can tell you that this is among the best work of its kind I've read.

The book comprises three sections.  The first two are named in the title; the third is "Gateman's Hymn of the Ignoracium."  In the first two, Brooks explores the everyday in language that's at once lyrical and lively.  There is nothing of the academic in lines like "Kerouac drank double time/because he was lumped in with junkie friends" or "little towns don't wear time well," but everything of the real.  In the third and startlingly brilliant--not to suggest the previous two were anything but--Brooks jumps from the quotidian to the mythic.  He takes on the same subject matter as Dante and Milton, the Great War in Heaven and its eternal aftermath.  In "Gatesman's Hymn," the narrator is a noncombatant--an angel who didn't take sides in Lucifer's Revolt and thus as a neutral sorts out the damned and fits them to apt punishment.  In "Soldiers of the Gateman," we see his emissaries, demons from cultures as diverse as the Persian Zoroastrians and the Algonkians; in "Monsters," he catalogues the torments that child molesters have earned. The section ends with the chilling line, "all your sins are remembered."  This is the strongest element of an already sturdy collection.

Brooks clearly writes his heart out in every line on every page.  We should be grateful that he did.