Serving Systems

Screen shot of video of Walmart shoppers in Minnesota today.




My son and I were looking up facts about WWII’s Pacific Theater, because we had been talking about my father’s service there. It is always a shock to re-encounter the scale of that war, especially the loss of lives, materiel, vehicles, vessels, labor, and natural resources. If you have ever been on a naval vessel you know the hard, heavy feel of it; the stench of diesel; the crammed-in purpose. They are being-dense vessels, and to think of the forces needed to destroy them is sobering.

I think we saw that 11 destroyers and five carriers alone were lost in that theater. When I pull up the Wiki page for US total ship and boat losses for the war, the numbers are staggering—hundreds of purpose-built craft, and all their sailors, lost forever. Yet somehow the world moved on after the war, including the families of those men and women. My feeling has been at times, even on leaving Hiroshima: What’s the point, we can accommodate anything.

Facebook must have seen I was searching the topic. Today it fed me several WWII history posts. One of them was a color photo of Hitler with 13 Luftwaffe aces in dress uniforms, at his place in the Alps. The text points out that just eight of the men before Hitler were responsible for “1,486 aerial kills.”

Someone left a comment on the site: “Are we trying to proudly spread positive images of the ‘aces’ of 1944 Nazi Germany visiting the Commander in Chief? Just reading the description of those Air Force officers and their ‘accomplishments’ makes me feel full of rancor and disgust. To me it smacks of cheap Julius Streicher propaganda.”

I feel disgust too, at the photo, and some fear, and it is a relief to feel the emotion. Though some will say the men were warriors and were (obviously) good at their deadly work, as an American father I can too easily imagine my family living then, and my losing a son over some European field. The Nazi officers served evil, madness, the purest waste. I do not care if they were clever pilots, that they were decorated, or were thought to have honor. Imagine how their roles served to extend and expand that war, and how Hitler must have gloated. Imagine what might have been for the men they killed, and future generations that may have profited from those lives. I start to long for the time machine that would put me in their midst while they were gathered in one place.

The question has been on my mind since I was a soldier, then a student, corporate cube worker, teacher, writer: What system do I serve? Furthermore, how does it profit from me? And what do I gain—and others lose—by the association? When I see Americans in the streets, claiming allegiance with Nazis and other such movements, I am glad to still feel disgust.

Today would have been Emmet Till’s 79th birthday. As you know, he was tortured and murdered at the age of 14, on a trip to see family in Mississippi, after a white woman claimed he accosted her in a grocery. She admitted later she lied about those details. His murderers were tried but acquitted. The jury knew they were guilty.

“This is what institutionalized racism looks like,” human-rights attorney Scott Horton wrote on social media today, about the Till case. In one sense, he meant something very contemporary: What system do you serve?

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.