The Irony of Obscenity

The author, Kurt Vonnegut, Bill Breeden and Howard Zinn get unstuck in time

By James Alexander Thom

What is the most obscene four-letter word?

No, not that. The one you’re thinking of is natural, God-given, and can be good, and productive. It is necessary.

Instead, let’s say, “bomb.”

Bombing is evil, unnatural, and destructive.

Its purpose is to smash man and everything he made into rubble, shattered bone, and burnt flesh. What could be more obscene than that?

James Alexander Thom

No self-respecting god or civilization would invent bombing, or do it.

So, we all do it. And the most civilized countries do it the most. The United States, the greatest country in the world, has done more bombing than any other, by far. We’ve even dropped atomic bombs on cities full of innocent civilians. No other country has ever done that. Yet.

You might ask, “If bombing is so obscene, why are you writing a story about it?”

Well, because I am very old, and have been forced to think about bombing for more than 80 years. 

And in those years, I’ve known and loved some unforgettable bombers and bombees, some famous, some anonymous.

Being the son of an Army officer, my attention was brought to bombings in the world whenever his was: Ethiopia, Guernica, Pearl Harbor, London, ad nauseam.

Aerial bombing, our favorite kind, involved high altitudes. Bomber pilots try to stay as high above anti-aircraft fire as possible. Dropping blockbusters from, say, 15,000 or 20,000 feet up means that anything or anybody below is pretty much out of luck, even if you’re trying for just military targets.

Eventually in bombing wars, the generals soon realize that their bombing will be harder on the enemy if you kill civilian populations, too, as in London,  Dresden, Tokyo, Korea, Hanoi. etc., etc.  

When our bomber pilots finally complained that there wasn’t any reason to keep doing missions over North Korea because there wasn’t anything left standing, I saw their point. That’s really demoralizing to the enemy, when there’s nothing left of your country but rubble and orphans.

So it goes.

“So it goes” was a phrase that Indiana novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., used  whenever somebody died in one of his novels. I knew Kurt, as we were both Hoosier-born novelists. He was the most famous bombing victim I ever knew personally, even though he got out of the firebombing of Dresden with his life (an estimated 35,000 German civilians didn’t) and the fragile remnants of his sanity. As a war prisoner there, he was forced to clean up roasted bodies.

He was left sane enough to hate bombing. One day while the U.S. was getting ready to bomb Baghdad, I said “Good morning” to Kurt on the phone.

“What’s good about it?” came his chain-smoker’s rasp. “I’m over 80 years old and my country is being run by a Dick, a Bush, and a Colin!”

When Kurt got sick and couldn’t come out to give a keynote speech to the Indiana ACLU chapter, I was called in to substitute for him, and our mutual disdain for White House war whoopee became more evident. Kurt recommended some of my anti-war polemics to the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in England, and to one of my favorite American historians, Howard Zinn.  

Howard, like Kurt, was a World War II veteran. He had been an Army Air Corps bombardier, surviving numerous bombing missions over Germany, so he knew a thing or two about dropping tons of bombs from high altitudes.  He didn’t believe in it anymore, as I’ll explain later.  

Actually, I already knew Howard.  I had been put in touch with him by a mutual friend, Bloomington’s activist Universalist Unitarian minister, Bill Breeden. Bill had earned a place in Howard’s book, “A People’s History of the United States,” by being the only American jailed in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal — not for being a part of it, but for protesting against it.  Howard had admired Bill for a protest prank: kidnapping the Poindexter Street sign in Breeden and Poindexter’s hometown of Odon, Indiana, and holding it with a $30 million ransom demand – similar to the bounty given the Contras. Poindexter would later be convicted of five counts of lying to Congress about the Reagan administration’s illegal arms sale to Iran to raise funds for the right-wing rebels fighting the duly elected Nicaraguan government.

Being in touch with both Kurt and Howard, I thought often about them in terms of bombing, of Howard up high dropping explosives, and Kurt imprisoned underground in a German slaughterhouse, stunned by the percussion of bombs above as they incinerated one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Howard never bombed where Kurt was, but the gist is unforgettable.

Sometimes I mentioned that feeling to Howard by phone or email. We eventually talked of it face to face one day when my wife and I visited him at Cape Cod. At breakfast, we talked of war and peace and bombing, and he gleefully autographed a graphic novel of his history book to our mutual friend from Odon, inscribing it “For Bill Breeden, the Holy Clown.” Bill couldn’t have been happier with the epithet.

Then Howard got misty-eyed as he told us about his very last bombing mission in Europe.

“For once, it wasn’t bombs,” he said. “It was food.” 

The Allies dropped huge quantities of provisions in the Western Netherlands, where the occupying Germans had starved much of the population and were starting their retreat back to Germany. It was called “Manna from Heaven” by the Royal Air Force, and “Operation Chowhound” by the Americans. The thousands of food packages weren’t parachuted, just dropped from the bomb bays of Lancasters and Flying Fortresses lumbering in dangerously low and slow.

“I looked down and saw where the people had arranged hundreds of thousands of tulips to spell out: ‘THANK YOU’” Howard recalled.

We’ll never forget the tears on his craggy face as he added: “I guess that was the day when I started turning into a pacifist.”

Howard died a year later, leaving us with that poignant but perfect ending to a story about people bombing and being bombed.                                                                  

Any storyteller should be satisfied with an ending like that, and I was. As I got to be older than either Kurt or Howard did, I would tell the story as a tribute to them.

Then a couple of years ago, there came to me a beautiful epilogue from a beautiful source.

I have a loyal reader in Ontario named Anne Marie. For 25 years or so she has declared herself my “biggest fan,” embellishing her signature with a drawing of a spread-open paper fan. She is a lovely, historically knowledgeable Canadian of Dutch descent, married to a Swiss gent named Rudi, whom she met decades ago when they were attending glider school at Pike’s Peak, Colo. There, she released the tow plane cord at 10,000 feet, and broke a record for rising on the mountain’s updrafts, soaring to 36,000 feet.

I don’t think Howard Zinn in his Flying Fortress ever went that high.

Anne Marie’s mother is 96. On April 29th, 1945, as a starving teenage girl named Marie Cornelia Van der Wal she wrote in her diary, after days of rumors that food was coming somehow:

“I was standing in front of my house near the canal. I saw the first RAF bomber plane come over. They were flying very low. The crowd of which I was a part was very quiet, for this was for most of us a great moment of joy.

“They dropped off their great boxes of food, hundreds of them. It was a strange experience. The plane as a greeting to the people made a turn and flew over our heads.

“No one was silent any longer. People started to laugh and shout to each other. It was like the whole world had changed.”

Anne Marie, remembering my story about Howard’s last mission, sent me that page from her Mum’s diary, from the day when bombers saved them from starvation. 

Bombers! 🐝

James Alexander Thom was born in the Owen County woodlands and has lived here so long, he has moss growing on his North side.

Formerly a newspaper journalist, he has since the 1970s been lauded by historians as ‘probably the best historical novelist writing in America today.’* His life of Tecumseh won the Western Writers of America 1989 SPUR Award for Best Novel of the West. He has been adjudged best national author by the Indiana Author Awards, and recipient of its Lifetime Achievement prize.”

Thom is regularly singled out for his thorough field research and his insights into Native American culture. He is married to Dark Rain, a Shawnee teacher and author, with whom he co-wrote “Warrior Woman.”  His novels have sold more that two million copies, and two became TV films.

A Marine veteran of Korea, Thom formerly was a faculty member of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He is a sculptor, and illustrator of several books.