Letters - Autumn 2009

Response to Our Summer Issue

By Our Readers | September 1, 2009


The Acting President

Matthew Dallek’s analysis of the Reagan myth (“Not Ready for Rushmore,” Summer 2009) captures well what many of us have viewed as a problematically selective institutional memory when it comes to our 40th president. Reagan has become now more symbol than man. It’s worth remembering, however, that the making of the Reagan myth is more than a posthumous phenomenon. If Reagan’s funeral three decades later was a “legacy-building event,” then surely the release of the hostages on his first day as president in 1981 was a “legacy-starting event.” I recall hearing my father tell the story of the rescue of the American hostages in Iran in highly dramatic, even mythic, terms, as early as 1984. Such cachet is rarely afforded so early to a president who takes the oath during such a time of national anxiety.

Jason Allen Ashlock
New York, New York

Matthew Dallek contends that Ronald Reagan’s  accomplish­ments as president have been greatly exaggerated. Though his point is well taken—Reagan, after all, has the benefit of being ranked by those who were alive during his presidency, unlike highly effective presidents of a century or two ago—Dallek’s argument loses credibility because he presents transparently ideological opinions as fact. As a historian, he should have been more prudent in not doing so.

Constantinos E. Scaros
Cliffside Park, New Jersey

I grew up in Communist Poland while Ronald Reagan was the president and saw firsthand his impact on the events there that initiated the fall of Soviet-backed Com­­munism. It was not Mikhail Gorbachev who inspired and aided Solidarity; it was President Reagan and the United States, as well as Pope John Paul II. Without Reagan, the events in Poland would never have happened.

Karolina Fraczkowska
Lawrenceville, New Jersey

Brother’s Keeper

I read with  mixed emotions Bethany Vaccaro’s moving article, “Shock Waves,” (Summer) about the horrific injury her brother suffered in Iraq. As a nation, we commit young men and women to combat without under­standing the cost-benefit calculus of sacrifice. Each soldier who dies or is grievously wounded—friend and foe alike—is a child, sibling, cousin, spouse, or parent whose death or disabling injury will devastate scores of others, now and for generations. As a Vietnam War combat veteran who cares deeply about our country’s commitment to the lifelong needs of young warriors today, I pray that Vaccaro becomes an activist advocating for their ongoing care. They desperately need her powerful voice and compas­sionate spirit so they will not easily be forgotten.

Jim Holbrook
Salt Lake City, Utah

On the Ground in Ramadi

John B. Renehan’s description of the moral complexities and compromises necessary when operating with the on-the-street government of Iraq (“The Devil You Know,” Summer) clarifies one’s own recognition of moral necessity, but, more than that, I find myself surprised by his description of the extent to which his soldiers, young though they be, have come to a similar understanding of the moral issues, such that they volunteer for this particular type of service. Renehan’s differentiation between the opinions of the soldiers once in Vietnam and those now in Iraq is most illuminating, and suggests optimism for the future.

John Forester
Lemon Grove California

Working Knowledge

Mike Rose’s “Blue-Collar Brilliance” presents a story that has been repeated thousands of times—stories such as that of my father, who, with a sixth-grade education, and basically raising himself after his parents died when he was twelve, built a small business, the success of which was helped in part by acquiring at least basic competence in Yiddish, Spanish, Polish, and English to add to his native Italian—and my mother, who, after my father died, kept the household together and, among other things, helped to send two of us to medical school. Similar stories were a common occurrence in our small, blue-collar, Brooklyn neighborhood. While SAT may stand for skill at testing, they had their SAL—skilled at life.

John Dente
Wilmington, Delaware

I agree with and appreciate the article “Blue-Collar Brilliance.” Even in a world of infinite perceptions, we still need to rethink many of our basic conceptions about society. Mike Rose is right in creating awareness of the intelligence of blue-collar workers. They may not have all of the education that professional white-collar workers have, but they do have their own unique skills and intelligence.

Jason Carr
Austin, Texas


In his article on the French and English in Canada (Summer), Witold Rybczynski refers to the novelist Hugh McLennan’s characterization of the communities as “two solitudes,” and the phrase has been frequently cited by those commenting upon the seemingly interminable tensions between Francophone and Anglophone Canadians. Its real import, however, is one of comple­men­tarity rather than opposition. More than mere harmony, in fact. McLennan was quoting Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote in a 1904 letter to Franz Kappus that “love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”

John Edwards
Antigonish, Nova Scotia

On and On

I started reading Mark Edmundson’s essay in the Summer issue and thought: This is really great! This is exactly how it is; physiognomy issues aside, bores go on and on, nattering about things that are of no conceivable interest to anyone but themselves. His response to Bore #1 is a little weak, but I happily read on, buoyed by the Groucho anecdote and the gathering anti-bore momentum. But soon the pace slows, the style turns pedantic, and the focus starts to shift, suspiciously, toward—the author. The fire is dying quickly, so I check the length of the piece—and think, no, it can’t possibly go on that long—but it does. From the Dalai Lama to Hiroshima, it meanders on and on, and does exactly what it rails against—and there is no way to put this delicately—it bores. Big time. The article is not so much about bores as it is about the author. We seldom fail to describe ourselves when we criticize others. This is not to say that I did not enjoy reading the piece. I did, and found the self-referential aspect curiously illuminating.

Peter Palffy-Muhoray
Kent, Ohio

Battlefield Preservation

Christopher Clausen’s “Sesquicentennal Excess,” (Summer) contends that the National Park Service (NPS) is bent on erasing evidence of later commemor­ations at Civil War battlefields and restoring them “as nearly as possible to their pre­conflict condition” to convey the illusion that (quoting Faulkner)“it hasn’t happened yet.” Having spent 33 years as an NPS historian, I must take issue with this misunderstanding of NPS battlefield preservation policy.

Generally, the NPS seeks to preserve or restore terrain, vegetative cover, and structures so a battlefield will resemble its appearance at the time of the battle. It’s harder for visitors to understand the conduct of a battle if what were then open fields are now overgrown with trees and other vegetation. But the NPS will certainly not obliterate any material evi­dences of the battle, which are especially valued, nor will it remove later commem­orative monuments adding their own layer of history to the battlefield.

Clausen suggests that Antietam National Battlefield will look like “a playground where reenactors can live out their fantasies.” He need have no fear of this outcome. Sharing his attitude toward battle reenactors, I’m happy to report that the Park Service’s policy against simulated warfare in the parks—adopted after Civil War Centennial reenact­ments at Manassas and Antietam—remains in effect.

Barry Mackintosh
Lincoln, California

Brian Boyd Responds…

to William A. Dirks’s letter in the Summer issue regarding Boyd’s Spring article, “Purpose-Driven Life”:

Criticism requires more than ignorance and bluster. William Dirks thinks he can convict me of inconsistency: “Yet when it suits [Boyd’s] rhetorical purpose, he does not shrink from asserting exactly the opposite, that in fact arrived ready-made at the moment the first living organisms appeared, before there had been time for any such preliminary stages of variation and selection. ‘Maintaining such a highly improbable and functional arrangement of matter [i.e., life] became life’s first purpose.’ Boyd thus willfully implants a deeply rooted, well-formed purpose within the very first life forms.”

But I write nothing about the first replication being a “deeply rooted, well-formed purpose.” At this stage, it is a minimal purpose, but evolution starts, as Darwin writes, from “so simple a beginning.” What we would recognize as emotions connected with survival evolved on earth only over three billion years later. Dirks shows he is simply unaware of the long process of chemical combination and recombination into more and more complex prebiotic molecules until the first fully self-replicating molecule formed, and then evolved over time into more efficient self-replication. He simply does not know how much it has evolved beyond Darwin—no wonder, when he has such a mental gag reflex at the very word evolution.

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