First Sentences

“The navy-gray paint of the trawler was faded and chipped, spattered with the excrement of gulls that jostled and shrieked overhead when the catch was good.” Kirk Wallace Johnson, The Fisherman and the Dragon: Fear Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast.

“The Pacific is the loneliest of oceans, and travelers across that rolling desert begin to feel that their ship is lost in an eternity of sky and water.” Earl Derr Biggers, The Black Camel.

“It was midmorning on Saturday, September 16, 1922, a warm but partly cloudy end-of-summer day, described in local forecasts as ‘unsettled,’ when Pearl Bahmer and Ray Schneider found the bodies.” Joe Pompeo, The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder that Hooked America on True Crime.

“It was the sort of sound you hear in the distance and mistake for something else: a dirty steam barge puffing along the River Spree; the shunting of a slow locomotive under the great glass roof of the Anhalter Station; the hot, impatient breath of some enormous dragon, as if one of the stone dinosaurs in Berlin’s zoo had come to life and was now lumbering up Wilhelmstrasse.” Philip Kerr, If the Dead Rise Not.

“The review, titled ‘A Scandal!’ fit right in on” Jeff Kosseff, The United States of Anonymous: How the First Amendment Shaped Online Speech.

“When you entered the executive offices of Mercury Pictures International, you would first see a scale model of the studio itself.” Anthony Marra, Mercury Pictures Presents.

 “Every Friday in the late afternoon, as the sun gives way to dusk, a series of loud sirens pierce the air of a densely packed village located in a suburban town in the Catskill Mountains fifty miles north and slightly west of New York City.” Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers, American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, A Hasidic Village in Upstate New York.

“They had been married for thirty-one years, and the following spring, full of resolve and a measure of hope, he would marry again.” Scott Turow, The Burden of Proof.

“Amidst the leafy quietude of East Thirty-Fifth Street in Marine Park, far from the hipsters or the merchants of twee, there is a spectacle as unique and unlikely as a Hollywood stage set.” Thomas J. Campanella, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City.

“It was either Thomas Jefferson—or maybe it was John Wayne—who once said, ‘Your foot will never get well as long as there is a horse standing on it.’” Erma Bombeck, The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.

“Lanah didn’t understand their language, but when the foreign men started tossing out catcalls, their meaning struck home.” John Wood Sweet, The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America.

Replace Them

I first became aware of the “great replacement theory” (or sometimes the white replacement theory) from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017. If you remember, some of those “good” people chanted “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” In October of 2018, the shooter who killed eleven congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue indicated that his belief in the great replacement theory precipitated his actions. The terrorist who killed twenty-three people at an El Paso Walmart in August of 2019 left a manifesto with references to the theory. The killer of ten at a Buffalo Tops supermarket in May of 2022 was a believer in the great replacement theory.

But not just those who pull the triggers promote the theory. The smirker Tucker Carlson had shows with the great replacement theory as its centerpiece, and that woman later at night on Fox who always looks as if she is about to insist that she is not really lost had monologs supporting the theory. And elected representatives have also voiced tenets of the theory.

The basic idea of the great replacement theory is that the government and the “elites” are seeking to undermine or replace the political, cultural, and economic power of “traditional” white Americans by immigration policies that welcome nonwhite immigrants. Often the assumption is that powerful Jewish people are behind this conspiracy, and the theory has been associated with antisemitism as well as white supremacy.

Many see the Frenchman Renaud Camus as the father of this movement. In his 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement, he contended that with the coming of Muslim immigrants to France from Africa and the Mideast, white Europeans “are being reverse colonized by Black and Brown immigrants, who are flooding the Continent in what amounts to an extinction-level event.” (I am guessing that Camus is not a French football fan. France’s national team has many players—perhaps half—with dark skins. Its star is Kylian Mbappé who was born in Paris, but his father came from Cameroon and his mother is of Algerian origin.)

I doubted whether any of the great replacement proponents at Charlottesville had read, or even heard of Renaud Camus, and I was at least slightly amused that these American “patriots” were unaware that they were following a foreign polemicist — a Frenchie no less — in their promotion of America First. However, I modified my views after reading The Fisherman and the Dragon: Fear, Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast by Kirk Wallace Johnson.

The book chronicles the “shrimp wars” along Galveston Bay around 1979. Vietnamese people who had fled their country after the Vietnam War settled on the Texas gulf and trawled for shrimp. For a host of reasons, shrimping there was in decline, and many of the white shrimpers resisted, often violently, this competition. The Ku Klux Klan was soon involved. It is a disheartening story in many ways, but I learned that the KKK and its supporters believed, or at least they said they believed, that the government was settling the Vietnamese refugees in this part of Texas with the intended goal of “replacing” the whites. Apparently, the American great replacement theory predates that Frenchified stuff. Can we take pride in that?

KKK leader Louis Ray Beam, Jr., is a major figure in The Fisherman and the Dragon. He is also at the center of a book I read a couple years ago, Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Belew convincingly contends that the modern paramilitary right wing was spawned by the Vietnam War. Many returning Vietnam veterans felt betrayed by their government and that war’s outcome. They began to militantly reject and question the federal government and advocated force to right the perceived governmental wrongs.

Johnson’s book supports Belew’s thesis. Many of those who used violence and threats against the Vietnamese shrimpers were Vietnam vets, including Beam, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service as a helicopter door-gunner. Belew’s work highlights not just this unintended consequence of one of our wars; it also highlights our failure to comprehensively analyze our wars’ aftermaths. Instead, we cling to myths about them.

During the half time of a recent college basketball game, the Wounded Warriors organization honored a brace of veterans from each of the competing schools. The men and women had all been deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq. I joined the others in Barclay Center in clapping for them. Our country had said volunteers were needed, and they had responded. For that they should be honored. But the announcer also said that they had fought for our freedom. I did not applaud that line. I don’t feel freer because we invaded Iraq. Instead, there is a good chance that the world was made more unsafe by our actions, but we don’t carefully analyze the consequences of our military actions. Most appallingly, we seldom consider the thousands upon thousands of civilian deaths or the million or more refugees caused by our recent wars.

We do hear a bit about personal consequences for veterans of our most recent wars—PTSD, out-of-proportion opioid use and deaths, increased suicides, increased domestic violence, shorter life expectancies, employment problems. But when we have Wounded Warrior ceremonies or the like, we seldom mention these consequences.

Our wars have had a huge effect on our national debt and budgets. When it is said that this country cannot afford to do something—better healthcare or broadband or whatever, how often is it pointed out that perhaps if we had not fought our last war, it might be different?

Belew’s book, however, presents an especially timely issue. Consider that disillusionment from Vietnam led to distrust by veterans of the government and the rise of right-wing paramilitary groups. Veterans of our Afghanistan War also feel an alienation from the ending of that conflict. What consequences will flow from that?

Let’s not just mouth platitudes that our wars protect our freedoms. Let’s have an honest accounting of all the consequences of our wars. We should have in our collective consciousness and in our discussions all those results whenever our leaders again consider engaging in armed hostilities.