January 19, 2007

Forget "The Jungle." Read Upton Sinclair on Iraq!

Upton Sinclair has been catching a little ink lately—I should say a few pixels—behind the 100th anniversary last year of his most influential work, The Jungle. I was just forcefully reminded of another work of his with even greater resonance for folks on this list.

A novel he wrote in 1919, entitled Jimmie Higgins, came up in the course of a debate about the anti-war movement on the Maoist Red Flags blog, hosted by the worthy burningman. Turns out the whole book is downloadable for free.

Whew. What a timely sucker it is, for a work fast approaching 90.

The hero (and my namesake), Jimmie Higgins, is a workhorse rank and file member of the Socialist Party in the teens of the last century. To cut to the chase, he enters the US military during WW1 and his unit winds up in the far north of European Russia as part of a US expeditionary force trying to crush the Russian Revolution.

Jimmie meets some Bolsheviks in Archangel. He agitates among his fellow soldiers for ending the US intervention (shades of Iraq Veterans Against the War).

Caught by the brass, he is imprisoned (Lt. Ehren Watada) and tortured (Abu Ghraib) including being subjected to the "water cure" (waterboarding without the plastic), to make him give up names of those working with him.

He resists and is court-martialed, denied his basic rights, snarling in reply:

Ask Colonel Nye there! Didn’t he say "To hell with habeus corpus—we’ll give them post-mortems."

Finally Jimmie Higgins is broken, though he never gives up a single name:

And so it was that Jimmie finally escaped from his tormentors...being a beast he only suffers the pain of the moment. He does not know that he is going to suffer to-morrow nor worry about it. He is no longer one of those who "look before and after and pine for what is not." He is a "good doggie", and when you pat him on the head he rubs against you and whines affectionately.

(Is this not the shameful story of what has been done to Jose Padilla in our name?)

Even as Jimmy Higgins sinks to this less-than-human state, his work has confounded his torturers. On the day after his court martial, posters appear on the base:

"Do you know the true reason your armies are here? Are you willing to die to compel the Russian people to accept your ideas of government? Are you willing to have your comrades tortured to keep the facts from you?"

Word and debate spread among the troops—and beyond:

These same questions were being asked in the halls of Congress back home. Senators were questioning the right of sending troops into a country against which war had never been declared and others were demanding that they be immediately withdrawn. And this news also reached the men and increased the danger.

(The Appeal for Redress)

Upton Sinclair was no great writer, but he was passionate and prolific. This book’s power comes in part from the fact that it is barely fiction. Jimmie Higgins was written and published in 1919, while it wasn't until June of that same year that the 5000 US troops of the so-called Polar Bear Expedition, after a grim ass-kicking by Red Army troops and General Winter and after angry protests back home, were finally pulled out of Russia.

And in part that power comes from the fact that, in many ways, Upton Sinclair could have cranked it out over the last three months.

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