Weapon of Choice

Fake News, Fake Money, and the Invention of America

From Weapon of Choice.

Not much knowledge of history is required to be dumbstruck by the genius of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Its two black stone walls rise from about eight inches to meet at a height of about ten feet. Inscribed in the walls are the names of the 58,272 killed or missing in action in Vietnam — all of them. The stone is highly reflective, so that looking at a name reflects the face of the viewer. But there are no spires, no angels, not even a garden. It’s as if some mining operation swiped away the earth and revealed these slabs as the natural product of a natural process. And yet, the march to something as basic as naming the war dead was anything but natural or inevitable.

It wasn’t too long ago that the corpses of soldiers were shipped to bone-grinders and scavenged for teeth and other valuables. Soon after Napoleon involuntarily took up residence on Saint Helena, commissioned agents scoured the blood-soaked fields of Austerlitz, Leipzig, and Waterloo for corpses of men and horses and anything else that was once living. Corpses by the thousands were sent to the northern European coast, shipped to Hull on the Yorkshire Coast, and loaded onto trains for the fifty-mile trip to the bone-grinders of Doncaster. The London Observer reported on November 18th, 1822:

It is estimated that more than a million bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year … they have been shipped to the port of Hull and thence forwarded to the Yorkshire bone grinders who have erected steam-engines and powerful machinery for the purpose of reducing them to a granularly state … and are there sold to the farmers to manure their lands. … It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment on an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce; and, for ought known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread. It is certainly a singular fact that Great Britain should have sent out such multitudes of soldiers to fight the battles of this country upon the continent of Europe and should then import their bones as an article of commerce to fatten her soil.

isn’t war grand? sure we all died but we got this arc and stuff.

Making use of the corpses of ordinary soldiers wasn’t new but orchestrating a large-scale bone-grinding operation was a mark that industrialization had firmly blossomed in England. A lucky dead soldier would be shoveled into a mass grave; others would be eaten by wild animals or ground into fertilizer. And the Stoke-on-Trent bone china factories about fifty miles southwest of bone-grinding Doncaster were just roaring to life as the Napoleonic wars ground to an end, and these factories consumed a significant amount of bone ash. And as British soldiers marched into the Boer War at the end of that century, dentures were often still referred to as “Waterloo teeth” because they were made from the teeth of the tens of thousands of soldiers who fell on those fields of central Belgium on June 18, 1815.

France’s Napoleonic dead are memorialized in the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (“of the star” is the twelve avenues that radiate out from the monument). The Arc is a traditional monument, an oversized neoclassical mass of bombast lodged in the middle of a city in an attempt to inject gravitas into the whims of some dictator. The Arc was modeled after the Arch of Titus, erected by his brother, Roman Emperor Domitian, who was assassinated by his own court officials and condemned by the next Senate to damnatio memoriae (“damnation of memory” or officially to be forgotten). The Senate considered Domitian to be ruthless, paranoid and fundamentally traitorous to the Roman government. These are the sorts who erected grand arches. The Arc de Triomphe lists battles and generals, but there are no names of soldiers; the names of individual soldiers would have detracted from the message of the triumph of the centralized empire-building nation. Such an argument would rarely have been required, though, because by the time anyone was thinking of building a flamboyant war memorial, the names of the individual soldiers would have been long forgotten, along with the scant records of their existence. After all, why would important people keep records of unimportant people whose destiny was fertilizer?

war is grand, part 2. menin gate.

And yet the practice of erecting memorials to assert credibility (because more often than not, the bigger the war memorial, the less credible the argument), of grinding corpses and making Waterloo teeth, began to quickly decline. By the late 1890s, churches in Britain began to inscribe the names of the Boer War dead on their walls, and West Point erected the Battle Monument on the United States Military Academy’s campus commemorating the Union dead of the Civil War. Unlike the Arc de Triomphe, most of the Battle Monument’s 2,230 names are of ordinary soldiers. The practice exploded after World War One. The British erected the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, commemorating the 54,896 missing British and Commonwealth soldiers who defended Ypres. A few years later, the British completed the Thiepval memorial in northern France commemorating the 72,195 missing from the Battles of the Somme. While both have a similar architectural sentiment as the Arc de Triomphe, Menin and Thiepval list the names of thousands of ordinary soldiers who neither returned from battle nor had a grave. The world had never seen anything like Menin or Thiepval, and the sentiment expressed by these monuments seemed to be something quite new.

modern economic mechanism (the fed) brooding over modern war memorial

Standing on the east end of the Vietnam Memorial, where the wall is still low, one can clearly see the imposing neo-classical building behind it. It’s the Federal Reserve, looming over the Vietnam Memorial, seemingly standing guard over the stone slabs with its multi-trillion-dollar balance sheet (curiously many times the actual number of dollars in circulation). The neo-classical New Deal monument to centralized banking sits between the buildings housing the National Academy of Sciences and the Office of Surface Mining. Trillions of dollars seem like a lot, but what is it? It’s all paper, only worth what the government says it’s worth and what people will exchange for it; by itself, it’s worth nothing. Or, a little more than nothing, because it’s worth the value of a trillion little pieces of paper. It’s actually more obscure, because those trillion pieces of paper don’t even really exist; they just change some numbers on a computer screen. And so the edifice of modern finance stands guard over the edifice of modern military commemoration. It’s one radically modern idea standing guard over another radically modern idea, and they both are the unintended children of a uniquely American interpretation of the printing press.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was controversial when announced; critics derided it as a gash and the secretary of the interior refused to issue a building permit. It was black, morose, unadorned. Eventually the Memorial got its permit and a compromise memorial, a statue of three soldiers, was built nearby to satisfy those who wanted something conventional. But now the stone gash has gained not just acceptance but admiration; it is the apogee of a young history of naming the war dead. Menin, for all its interest in memorializing the ordinary soldier, still has a foundation of awe built upon the architecture of a traditional mausoleum. And the names are only in lieu of corposes the British couldn’t locate. Whereas Menin acknowledges the dead in the context of a traditional nineteenth century memorial, the Vietnam Memorial elevates the dead. At Menin, the names of the dead are part of the memorial; at Vietnam, the names are the memorial. There is nothing else. And its lack of spires or angels or color or bas relief scenes of heroics — its lack of anything but names is not only something different from the bone-grinding Waterloo-teeth days of the Arc de Triomphe; it’s the opposite.

vermeer’s milkmaid. or, the invention of the individual. it would take a few centuries for war memorials to catch up.

One mark of the transition from grinding the bones of ordinary fallen soldiers to memorializing them is immortalized in the Statue of Liberty, who holds the flames of freedom high to enkindle the world. Lady Liberty’s head is encircled with a halo of seven rays, signifying that the torch is to ignite freedom on all seven continents. She holds a tablet of the law inscribed with a date — JULY IV MDCCLXXVI — and the chains of feudalism lay broken at her feet. The chains are often not noticed, and they are positioned to be hardly noticeable, but the broken chains of feudalism are one sign that ordinary soldiers might no longer be pulverized for fertilizer and dinner plates. Another mark of the transition is in the Northern Renaissance and illustrated by Vermeer’s interior portraits of the mid-seventeenth century. The Geographer, The Astronomer, The Milkmaid, The Girl with the Pearl Earring — they don’t have names, but perhaps that was the point. They are ordinary people, doing ordinary things. While the Italians adorned their renaissance with angels and cherubim, the north memorialized the ordinary. The conflict of culture was clear by the seventeenth century. But the beginning of this transformation began much earlier, back in a time when The Geographer would have been certain that the world had but three continents.

The names of the war dead on the Vietnam Memorial died with paper money in their pockets, a birth certificate and perhaps a high school diploma in their mother’s kitchen drawer, and now are watched over by the Federal Reserve. We find a clue in the chains of feudalism broken at Lady Liberty’s feet, and we travel back, through prison sentences and executions and through the mysteries of people who believed in things that yet existed in an attempt to understand how The Geographer, The Astronomer, The Milkmaid, and The Girl with the Pearl Earring would never again die unknown and could live a life recognized.

The spirit of Vermeer’s interiors — an unknown painter capturing a moment in time of unknown people — lived on in the ship Love and Unity as it left Rotterdam for Philadelphia in May 1731, sailing with about 160 German Protestants. After months at sea and with no land in sight, water, rats and mice were being sold on board at high prices and the storage chests of the dead and dying were plundered for food. Then, ten months into the deadly gasp for opportunity, long before they could see anything other than sea, the few who remained alive could smell something so pungent it overtook the stench of death that lingered below deck. The first sign of the Mundus Novus was something new to these northern Europeans. It was the miraculous scent of pine trees piercing the omnipresent odors of decay and salt water signaling that some rough Eden was within 150 miles or so. After a year at sea, they arrived in Philadelphia with only 34 of the 160 still alive. The Geographer, The Astronomer, The Milkmaid, and The Girl with the Pearl Earring had heard about the horrors of the Atlantic crossing, so who would voluntarily enlist in such a journey?

Arthur Young, a well-known English agricultural writer of the late eighteenth century, observed that those “who emigrate are, from the nature of the circumstances, the most active, hardy, daring, bold and resolute spirits, and probably the most mischievous also.” The people who left Europe were often escaping something — grinding poverty or political and religious oppression — but sometimes they weren’t. Not all immigrants were blatantly oppressed or egregiously poor. Vermeer’s Rotterdam from which the Love and Unity sailed was not exactly a crucible of persecution. And still many more who suffered poverty and oppression never left Europe. What caused so many to stay in Europe while others chose to risk the always dangerous and often deadly Atlantic crossing to unshackle themselves from the chains of feudalism for the scent of pine and the chance to stake their claim to an untamed piece of land? Those who left were invariably some combination of adventurous, impatient, restless, rebellious, anxious, cantankerous, and alienated from their culture. And yet these brave or stupid souls were likely fairly certain that they were leaving behind a culture and web of civilizing institutions for a land that likely had none and so knew that their success or failure probably rested entirely within themselves. It was perhaps an indictment of that culture and those institutions, an act of soft treason against the world into which one was born, but it was more likely an affirmation of the growing confidence in individual agency.

anne talbot, newly minted individual.

Anne Talbot graces the cover of this book. She’s twenty-three years old, the eldest of seven, and grew up near the woods of Nottingham forest outside of Sheffield, England. Her father, John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, was hacked to death a few years earlier by the Yorkists outside of King Henry’s tent; Henry was captured, and the War of Roses continued. Anne sat for her portrait while visiting Bruges (now part of Belgium) for a wedding. The Duke of Burgundy was marrying the sister of Anne’s King. That king was Edward, the first Yorkist king and the leader of the small group who killed her father.

What’s remarkable about the painting isn’t the hat, though it is remarkable for its muted sophistication; it was the original chic, so much so that art historians cannot quite date it and just a few decades later the Italian owners of the portrait assumed the woman was French — an early example of a presumption of French fashionableness. Most startling about the hat is the chinstrap; this was not something woman wore. Anne is being exceptionally bold by wearing a remarkable muted feminine hat with a male attachment. The chin strap is a conspicuous mark of rebellion.

Anne’s dress isn’t remarkable either; not exactly standard but nothing unusual. Her hairline — plucked or shaved like her eyebrows — was also standard. But noticeably unusual is that Anne is in a common room, as if she just walked into an average sitting room and sat down. Her dress communicates wealth, the chinstrap rejects convention, and the dingy room mocks social expectations.

Unmarried good women of Anne’s time and place didn’t look directly at the viewer; it was impolite and suggestive. Yet here is unmarried Anne looking right at you, and she knows you’re looking at her. One can find portraits of a person looking at you, but that person is often Jesus Christ, son of God. Anne wasn’t the son of anyone. She is the daughter of the recently deceased Earl of Sheffield and present subject of her father’s killer. Anne fights back the only way she can — mildly annoyed, man’s chin strap, dingy room — by transforming into an individual and transforming the resulting agency into a response.

Anne Talbot, and not the Mona Lisa four decades later, is the first portrait of an individual in full. She’s not praying or bowing or supplicating or commemorating. There is nothing to this painting except for a young woman looking straight at the viewer. Jesus looks straight at the viewer in recognition of your soul; Anne is recognizing her own, and the Reformation thundered in the distance.

Individual agency and living a life recognized had been filtered through centuries of feudalism. Feudalism was an answer to life’s three great questions: why are we here, how shall we organize ourselves, and what shall we do with our days? Unlike marxism, feudal organization was not concocted by a banditti of ruffians in a castle tower (in Thomas Paine’s phrase). It was a generally and globally accepted natural resting position of societies, and its primary virtues were security and order. In feudalism, the sole true earthly owner of real estate is the king; all others are tenants with lords as tenants-in-chief. To maintain order and ensure that the tenants-in-chief do not sell land that is putatively owned by the king (or, technically leased to the king by God), the land was held “entail” by the lords. Entailed estates could only be granted to direct heirs; they could not be sold, divided, left to illegitimate or indirect heirs, or, typically, even used as collateral. This feudal order built on land ownership was persistently but cautiously threatened only by the Roman Catholic Church. By the tenth century, the church had assured the lords of Europe that before God, all souls are equal. This persistence gradually rid Europe of pervasive Roman slavery, as Europeans could not justify treating other Europeans as inhuman — the church had assured the lords that even the poorest Europeans had souls. And so slavery became serfdom and with it some meager legal standing amongst the civil authorities. Despite this, most Europeans who wore silk or ermine were convinced that those who tilled the soil were less, and that the soil could be improved with their bones.

The route that the subjects of Vermeer’s dimly lit interiors of ordinary people took to being named — each and every one — on a monument that was then the edge of civilization was circuitous, through the monetary policies of Sumerians and Mongol khans, small riverside villages in German towns, seemingly countless days spent in dark cells and trans-Atlantic ships, and seemingly endless numbers of adventurous, impatient, restless, rebellious, anxious, cantankerous, and alienated Europeans braving an unknown horizon to restart their lives at the edge of civilization by creating their own reality purpose-built to elevate the individual. In some ways, this is the biography of an idea, but defining the idea as a singular thing that exists within the limitations of a few words of a definition is neither easy nor accurate. The story is more the biography of potential — the potential of a collection of related ideas, of pieces of related machinery, of related dreams that launched a rough Eden into an empire. To be reasonably accurate, the story won’t be purely chronological or consistently well-connected; it will be a mosaic of starts and stops, dead ends and seeming success that often results in bonfires or jail or the gallows or the creation of new nations and new identities. The story finds its culmination in a boy born in a remote Connecticut village, charged with the awesome task of developing these peasants’ weapon of choice — a weapon potent enough to finally and firmly repel the feudal forces of history and memorialize the names of the dead who died trying.

About Nathan Allen

Founder of Xio Research (A.I.), Applied Magic (A.I.), and Andover (data). A.I. strategy and development leader at IBM. Academic training is in intellectual history; his most recent book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense…. Lectures on historical aspects of media, privacy/law, and power structures (mostly). Previous book: Arsonist.




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