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The Fifth Columnist

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There’s an old saying in politics that when your opponent is burying themselves, stay the hell out of the way – if anything, hand them a shovel. As our president has been writing his political epitaph this summer, I’ve been reading a lot of books and working on my tan, yet I’ve been roused from my torpor by another stupid outrage by our So-Called President* – the half-staff / full-staff / half-staff bullshit that took place after the death of John McCain – yet another example of how Trump is utterly unsuited for leadership. Senator John McCain died facing down cancer like all adversity in life, with honor, dignity and courage. John McCain was, by any calculation, an American hero and Donald Trump’s pettiness is only heightened in contrast to this great man’s service to Country. McCain quoted his hero in his autobiography written with Mark Salter, The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations (2018) where the only man who could live up to this hero’s life was a fictional character:

‘The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it,’ spoke my hero, Robert Jordan, in [Ernest Hemingway’s] ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.‘ And I do, too. I hate to leave it. But I don’t have a complaint. Not one. It’s been quite a ride. I’ve known great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war, and helped make a peace. I’ve lived very well and I’ve been deprived of all comforts. I’ve been as lonely as a person can be and I’ve enjoyed the company of heroes.

In journalist Virginia Cowles’ autobiography Looking For Trouble (1941) she recounted her voyage from rural Vermont to the heart of the fight against Fascist Spain in 1936, along with another hero, Martha Gellhorn from New York City, she and other like-minded war correspondents took the plight of Republican Spain against Francisco Franco as the call to arms that it most certainly was. Gellhorn was married to Ernest Hemingway from 1940 to 1945 after meeting together at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, stumbling distance from Hemingway’s American home (Southernmost in the nation). They would fall in love and go to Madrid, huddled beneath Fascist bombs while writing, drinking whiskey and getting laid. For Hemingway, it was the stuff of novels, most notably For Whom the Bell Tolls, but also the subject of one of his lesser known works, The Fifth Column (1938), his only play – and a failure at that, on Broadway and beyond. Regardless of the criticism and bad box office, the play did popularize a nifty catchphrase, yet it turns out the phrase actually comes from a Spanish General, Emilio Mola, under Franco he was pressing the siege on Madrid in the Spanish Civil War with four columns of Fascist troops and he was quoted in newspapers of the day taunting the Republicans holed up in Madrid – Gellhorn and Hemingway not now among them – predicting a clandestine ‘Fifth Column‘ of subversive troops, working from within the government of Republican Spain, would rise up and form a cadre of saboteurs to confuse and stun Madrid into submission (which happened in 1939) and the resulting Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War. The Second Spanish Republic lasted eight short years, until 1939, when Franco and Mola finally signaled the Fifth Column of Madrid to seize power. The Spanish King Alphonso, retired to exile in 1931 when the Republican cause finally abolished the monarchy, only to watch Spain join in an unholy alliance with Catholic Spain, CEDA (Right-Wingers) and the Falangists (Spanish Nazis) – to which this infant liberal democracy was no match.

When did the Republican government begin to crack? In 1934 Alejandro Lerroux was Prime Minister of Spain, with a center-left coalition of radicals working with Niceto Alcalá-Zamora retaining a parliament in Spain that was holding up against the Fascist right movements seen sweeping across Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary and Poland. Before the wars, the so-called original ‘Red Terror’ and ‘White Terror’ purges that preceded both the Bolshevik Communist Revolution in Russia and the Civil War in Spain were commensurate in casualties: 100,000 men, women and children died in each terror campaign, one following a World War, the other ushering in another. Russian involvement in pre-war Spain has, since the fall of Communism in the 1980’s, been revealed to be far more extensive than was ever known during the rule of Franco and the beginnings of the Spanish Civil War, idealized in Hemingway’s great novel, was really the opening battle between East and West, where the Catholic, conservative ‘center’ of Spain was drawn into the grip of Fascism as a result of the encroachment of Soviet Russia on their once-proud soil. After losing Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam and Cuba to the United States in the Spanish-American ‘War’ in 1898, Hispaniola suffered a massive insecurity complex, ripe for demagoguery, and it turns out that the Russians were deeply involved in Spanish governments, meddling one might say, since the First Comintern in 1919.

When Spain’s first dictator, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, was executed in 1936, becoming Franco’s convenient rival/dead guy to the cult of personality that Generalisimo Francisco Franco would later become; of the Fascists to arise from WWII, Franco was one of the few who survived all the way up until the 1970’s. This I know because Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update told me that “Generalissimo Francisco Franco… Is STILL dead.” Another convenient dead guy for Franco (dictators seem to have a lot of convenient deaths happen around them) was the ‘accidental’ death of Spanish coup planner Segusmindo Casado – think of these dead Spanish Fascists as the Ernst Rohm and Gregor Strasser of ‘Night of the Long Knives’ fame – used for their ability to wield terror on the street-level, eliminated by politicians when these thug factions were incorporated into the federal government. Not that these Fascists were missed much by the world, however the reactionary, right-wing terror groups that arose from this fertile soil of hatred and distrust, sewn by Russian Soviet intervention, has always sought to hate and distrust more than the Reds.

In Russia, Marxism birthed two great cults of personality – Lenin and Stalin – and when the untested Soviet Communist system of government failed after these totalitarian dictators died, their cults of influence faded and the resulting power vacuum was filled by Autocrats. Franco and the Spanish people, their culture and country torn to shreds after the Civil War, wouldn’t see the rise of Fascism as any sort of ‘victory’ – and it ended with a thud when the ‘Caudillo’ finally died on November 20, 1975. As many Spaniards died in the 1930’s as Americans died in our Civil War in the 1860’s, however many more innocent women and children died in the Spanish Civil War. Russia had taken a keen interest in a proxy war against Germany and the capitalist West in Spain and the Comintern, looking to extend Communism worldwide, was less interested in winning a war than spreading communism into Europe and beyond.

George Orwell, the great writer of Animal Farm in 1945 and his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, written just prior to his death in 1949, served in the Republican cause in a faction of the Soviet delegation in Spain, the POUM, and was also an associate of Hemingway, Gellhorn and Cowles. More a loner than the others, Orwell felt the sting of Fascism a bit more perhaps, shot through the neck in 1937 by a Falangist sniper. The stink, pain and futility of war wasn’t lost on Eric Blair, the man behind the pen name ‘Orwell,’ and while Hemingway was back in Key West, writing his novel about the battles in Spain, Orwell was taking the fight against the rising tide of Fascism that swelled across Europe just after WWI to heart. The POUM, the Soviet unit in which Blair fought, was considered by Soviet Communists as a Trotskyist organisation and was subsequently outlawed – the POUM labeled ‘objectively’ Fascist by the Soviets. When Orwell escaped Spain in 1937, he and his wife had to flee by train, diverting to French Morocco for a short stay before returning to England. On July 13, 1937, a deposition was handed up to the British Tribunal for Espionage & High Treason charging the Orwells with ‘rabid Trotskyism’ and being agents of POUM, just as the Soviets had accused them. Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War led to Homage to Catalonia (1938), perhaps the greatest single piece of war journalism ever written. In 1943 Orwell wrote in the essay Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War:

…[O]fficial war propaganda, with its disgusting hypocrisy and self-righteousness, always tends to make thinking people sympathize with the enemy. Part of the price we paid for the systematic lying of 1914-18 was the exaggerated pro-German reaction which followed. During the years 1918-33 you were hooted at in left-wing circles if you suggested that Germany bore even a fraction of responsibility for the war. In all the denunciations of Versailles I listened to during those years I don’t think I ever once heard the question, ‘What would have happened if Germany had won?

The disinformation of war, in this, the war that ushered in World War II, made certain that the Western powers would stand by, meekly, as Fascists, not yet strong enough to achieve their goals of world domination, were emboldened by the appeasement offered by Britain the United States and France in response to their provocations. Long before Neville Chamberlain handed Hitler his ‘get out of jail free’ card after the British capitulation after the occupation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, the story really went back to 1923, the Catholic monarchy of Spain, led by King Alphonso VIII, stumbled into the Rif War. Think of the Rif as Spain’s Vietnam, only in Spain, an entire monarchy was ousted instead of a political party. It turned out that the king, an armchair general extraordinaire, was coaching his generals into the mountains of Morocco, where his once-proud Spaniards were being mercilessly massacred by the Berber resistance. Told about the slaughter by his advisors while golfing (you couldn’t make this shit up) King Alphonso was quoted as saying, “Chicken meat is cheap.” Cue the street revolts, leftist-fueled labor strikes and widespread civil unrest until the leftists in Spain met at the famous Pact of San Sebastián meeting, the first meeting of all Spanish Republican factions, which brought Lerroux, Manuel Azaña, Alcalá-Zamora and all the Spanish Republican interests that initially coalesced around the idea that the king had to go in favor of a parliamentary system. The leadership vacuum surrounding the resulting failed coup, where impatient Spanish General Fermín Galán jumped the gun and started the glorious rebellion three days early on December 12, 1930, in the Jaca Uprising and the ill-advised advance on Huerta, Spain – which ended in disaster. The military dictator Primo de Rivera stepped into the void, with King Alphonso’s complete support, and he ran Spain further into the ground until overall misery and substandard living conditions forced the Second Spanish Republic into being in the Spanish Elections of 1931.

For as much is Hemingway didn’t have Eric Blair’s passion to defend democracy on the front lines in the Spanish Civil War, he did recognize the importance of the Spanish Civil War and what it meant for the world. The refrain and title of Hemingway’s novel is based on a poem written by the British cleric John Donne, which makes the case that when one person dies – even the most ‘insignificant’ among us – we all die with them. Do not cry for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for you. Hemingway was there in Spain with Martha Gellhorn, the first female war correspondent of all time, his wife – and the reason he found himself in Spain in the first place. Since A Farewell to Arms (1929), his paean to WWI, Hemingway had struggled to regain his voice as a writer and he was catapulted into the middle of world events as he and Gellhorn were on the front lines once again, this time Hemingway writing the greatest war novel of all time.

Endre Friedmann was born in 1913 in Budapest, Hungary, fleeing the Radical Right at 18 to Berlin, then fleeing the Nazis at 20 to Paris, where he would meet Gerta Pohorylle, later known as Gerda Taro. Together they began working as Robert Capa, a pseudonym, from Friedmann’s nickname ‘Cápa,’ Hungarian for ‘shark.’ Endre and Gerta couldn’t have chosen a better name, sounding slightly American (and not at all Jewish), as both Friedmann and Pohorylle wanted to remain alive and work in Europe. Fearless, Robert Capa was a legend in photojournalism and together they set the standard by which all combat photographers strive to meet. Starting his career as a print journalist, Capa found more work as a shutterbug – and his knack for being at the right place at the right time gave him a ticket to the most awesome, awful spectacle in human history: WWII. His collaboration with Taro is the stuff of legends, Taro dying on the front lines in Spain while documenting the atrocities of war. Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his work by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, no less in 1946, Robert Capa would go on to be the inspiration for Jimmy Stewart’s character in Rear Window (1954) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. There’s a famous Supreme Court case about the rights to the story, but have you ever wondered why Hitch chose a photographer as his hero in this classic film? Capa, like the character in the movie, owned a Greenwich Village bachelor pad and as a side story, Capa broke Ingrid Bergman’s heart – her lover, he never got over the loss of Gerda Taro – and his playboy style wouldn’t allow for the traditional nuclear family Bergman so desired. Hitchcock famously longed for Bergman, yet her eye, as in the film Casablanca (1942), was drawn to real men, not players – men who took a stand and fought for what they believed in, men like John McCain. As art imitates life, Capa was both the widower of a heroic martyr as well as the unattainable, heroic combat photographer with his baggage full of contradictions.

Capa was the real version of a movie hero, his bravery tested time and again in the War to End All Wars. His photography was fluid, most often his subjects in motion, signaling action and purpose. You can see glimpses of his genius in his first professional photos of none other than Leon Trotsky in 1934, and later this style would capture what was once considered the greatest war photo of all time: the Falling Soldier (1936). I say once considered because the moment the photograph was clicked, camera thrust high above his head while bullets whizzed, the authenticity of Capa’s image has been called into question. The  Falangists were the first to doubt the unquestionably powerful image of a Spanish Republican soldier, wearing garb reminiscent of a worker-soldier in Soviet Revolutionary-era posters, moments after he’s struck by a bullet. The image is stark, the man contorted and falling, representing something very important for both sides in the Spanish Civil War. For Republican Spain, International Communism and left-leaning liberal democracies, the image represented the common man, standing up to Fascist tyranny. To Fascist dictatorships, the Catholic Church and most right wing political parties in Europe, Capa’s ‘photo’ was a fake. On the cover of Time Magazine in 1937 (Capa would have a lifelong association with Time, Inc.) his photograph crystallized the sentiments of the Spanish Civil War and the World War to follow.

It wasn’t until years later, in the 1980s that a trove of Robert Capa’s negatives were found in the possession of a Mexican General. The story of the discovery of Capa’s negatives was made into a movie called The Mexican Suitcase (2008) and it was while examining Capa’s original, unchosen series of photos shot at or near the same location and time of the Falling Soldier image that strange similarities, inconsistencies and flat-out conundrums abound. Were the Falangists right? Were they correct when they labeled the Time cover ‘propaganda’ and staged for the cameras? Capa swore to his grave that he took the image (was he protecting the memory of Gerda Taro?) and that Fallen Soldier was not staged. To this day, we really don’t know, but what we know for certain is that Robert Capa would go on to distinguish himself as one of the bravest men that has ever lived. My opinion is that the image is real. Whomever the man (most agree it was a communist partisan with a Soviet-funded unit) he was killed by Fascists while fighting for what he believed in. The Fascists who killed him believed that killing him was a good thing. It was an image of good versus evil, with the brutish reality of what it means to fight in combat – build your courage, go over the hill, get cut down by bullets – the usual ‘glory’ of death in battle.

The engine in the machine of death that would become WWII was primed in Europe, on the Iberian Peninsula, while the world played proxy games in the not-so dark shadows. Hemingway and Gellhorn, Cowles, Capa, Orwell and a few other Western essayists, journalists and photographers were onto the big story of the Spanish Civil War, however so many more were asleep at the switch. Communist influence in Spain and the world over has resulted in various levels of reactionary, right wing response and to admit otherwise is to stick your head in the sand. A small benefit of America’s isolationism prior to WWII meant that writers and cultural historians would represent liberalism in Spain’s Quixotic fight against Fascism, and Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 were tales told of totalitarianism – and his chosen pseudonym was obviously spot-on as ‘Blairian’ doesn’t quite have the gravity of ‘Orwellian’ now, does it? The color of totalitarianism in Blair’s writing was red, not white, however and Orwell’s work as a journalist was personally motivated by his experience with the authoritarian Soviet state. In Spain, Orwell saw for himself the corrupting influence of hard-line Soviet Communists, bent on spreading their working man’s creed as stridently as any bible-thumping Evangelist, ruining the alliance of left wing fighters in Spain because they weren’t sufficiently pro-Stalin. This rift was inflamed by a disinformation campaign in Spain that Orwell recognized as something entirely new:

Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened.

October 26, 1967, U.S. Navy airman John McCain was flying his twenty-third mission when he was shot down by a Russian-made SA-2 missile. After being captured and tortured mercilessly for years, McCain was finally released from captivity on March 14, 1973 and returned to an America torn apart by the war. As the Washington Post‘s Max Boot wrote yesterday, “The GOP’s embrace of Trump and rejection of McCain are emblematic of the atavistic tribalism, ideological extremism and authoritarian cultism that the senator spent his entire life combating. We “weaken our greatness,” McCain wrote in his farewell statement, “when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,”

We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before, we always do.

–  American hero, Senator John McCain

John Underhill
August 30, 2018


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