Forum, May 13: Remembering Two American Heroes

Saturday, May 12, 2018
Remembering Two American Heroes 

One consequence of our current divisive politics is, for me, a renewed appreciation of the people whose lives and deeds made our nation possible.  This summer, two heroes from the Upper Valley will reach important memorial dates, and I’m hoping all of us will give them a moment’s contemplation, and thanks. 

One hundred years ago, in August 1918, an American sculptor from Plainfield named Harry Thrasher lost his life on the battlefields of France. Thrasher  was in France with a group of artist/soldiers who specialized in camouflage. His death was noted and mourned by many of his artist colleagues and also by the selectmen of Plainfield, who named Thrasher Road in his honor. Among the beautiful works he left behind were bas reliefs and sculptures, several in America’s leading museums. He also worked for Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and spent some time assisting with the Shaw Memorial. Which brings to mind this:

One hundred and fifty-five years ago, a West Point graduate named Haldiman Sumner Putnam led his troops (the 2nd Brigade, including the 7th New Hampshire) onto the parapets of Fort Wagner in the harbor of Charleston, S.C. The Second Battle of Fort Wagner, as the engagement was known, became noteworthy (if not very well known) as the battle in which Col. Robert Gould Shaw was killed, while leading his exceptional African-American troops (the 54th Massachusetts; remember the movie Glory?)  As all of us know, the Shaw Memorial, which honors that amazing soldier, was sculpted in Cornish by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and erected in front of the Statehouse in Boston. What’s less well known is that Col. Haldiman Putnam, born in 1837 next to Trinity Church in Cornish, died while trying to rally his men on a different part of the fort’s wall, just a short time after the death of Shaw. Because Putnam’s body could not be carried off the field, his epaulettes were cut from his uniform and brought home to his family. His last remains, like those of Shaw, were unceremoniously dumped in a pit by the Confederates, and then lost forever when the sea rose and carried off Fort Wagner.

These are the heros, two among thousands, who have fought so that we might have a republic. As ashamed as I am of what passes for civic leadership in the Capitol and White House these days, I am determined to honor these people who have lived their lives so that we might have the blessings we share as citizens of this country.

Peter Hoe Burling


The Great Wall of Trump 

Given Donald Trump’s penchant for plastering his name on every available surface, perhaps his real motive for building the border wall is to have his name associated with something that can be seen from outer space.

Unfortunately, even the Great Wall of China, at 13,000 miles, is no more visible from space than a human hair viewed with the unaided eye from two miles away.

As someone put it, Trump’s comparatively short 2,000-mile border wall is a second-century solution to a 21st century problem. After only 20 years, Hadrian’s Wall bisecting England was irrelevant, and not even China’s Great Wall kept the Mongols out for long.

There also are logistical problems with Trump’s $70 billion wall. Along the Rio Grande, the international border actually shifts over time, following the river’s deepest channel. If building it in the middle of the river isn’t feasible and Mexico won’t build it on its bank, it will have to be built on the American side, where it would prevent access to the river for 1,200 miles, straddle Big Bend National Park, somehow seal off two huge reservoirs, adversely affect dozens of endangered species and virtually cede the Rio Grande to Mexico, thus reducing the size of Texas.

Mexico isn’t jumping at the chance to pay for the wall, and Trump’s alternative plan, to slap a tariff on Mexican goods, would mean that America would end up financing it by paying more for those goods. Trump can, of course, plunder his bloated military budget to build it, but considering all the military surveillance technology developed during our Middle Eastern wars, doesn’t the U.S. already have the capability, with our sophisticated listening devices, motion-detection equipment and drones, to protect our border for a lot less than the Great Wall of Trump would cost?

If he’s serious about reducing murders and rapes in the U.S., wouldn’t it be cheaper to create citizen review panels to review all those recent police-involved deaths? Or how about just building a wall around Harvey Weinstein?

Stephen Willbanks


Staying True to Others’ Humanity 

Soon after reading about the sadistic career of Donald Trump’s nonimee for CIA director, I came across George Grinnell’s brief history of Groton School as it raised our leaders-to-be:

“If a First Former showed disrespect to a Sixth Former, he was summarily tossed down the second floor dust chute. More severe cases of disrespect were punished by ‘pumping.’ There was only one bathtub at Groton and it was not used for bathing. … The disrespectful lower Former was ordered into the Senior Prefect’s office, then taken to the bathtub, where he was “pumped.” Before the boy drowned, he was rushed over to the infirmary and pumped out.

“This practice had to be discontinued when irate parents of one boy threatened to bring charges of attempted murder … and likewise the practice of tossing disrespectful lower Formers down the second floor dust chute was also discontinued because of broken bones; but both practices had been in use to enforce discipline when Franklin Delano Roosevelt and my father attended Groton.

“Beneath the angelic guise of Christianity lay the reality of ruthless submission to the hierarchy.”

I personally compare Trump’s CIA nominee with my true hero, a Mormon soldier named Alyssa Peterson who was fluent in Arabic, super-patriotic and trained to be an Army interrogator. In Iraq she tried for two days to follow orders to translate for sadists in Army uniforms. She then took her own life. The date of her death is in my calendar each September. We don't have to be Gandhi or King to stay true to the humanity of those we have victimized.

Robert Spottswood