Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"We Are the Dead" by Henry Kuttner

In the 2002 anthology The American Fantasy Tradition, today I read Henry Kuttner's quite short story, "We Are the Dead."  From the first page it is obvious what will happen in this story.  A Senator and some bussinessman are walking in Arlington National Cemetary; the businessman is urging the senator to vote for some foreign policy legislation which the senator thinks is too aggressive.  Kuttner does not define the bill in any way, except to suggest that the businessman will make money if it is passed.  Then a ghost rises from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and convinces the Senator to oppose the bill.  The End.

This story was published in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War and not long after the 1936 remilitarization of the Rhineland and the Italian conquest of Ethiopia.  1937 also saw the resumption of full scale war between Japan and China.  So it is not surprising that war was on Kuttner's mind.  It is also not surprising that Kuttner thought getting involved in some war was a bad idea, nor that he wanted to blame any war the U.S. got involved in on U.S. businessmen and not on German Nazis, Italian Facists, or Japanese imperialists; the 1930s are generally seen as a period of isolationism among Americans, and it is typical for people to blame wars, or U.S. participation in ongoing wars, on greedy businessmen.

The story, though not very good, raises some interesting questions.  1) Though everybody always says they are against war, I think that most people nowadays think of World War II as "the good war" and that most people who bother to think about it lament the fact that the U.S., Great Britain and France didn't do something earlier to stop the aggression of the Axis powers.  Kuttner in his 1937 story seems to be urging exactly the course people now deplore: that the U.S. stay out of any trouble that might be taking place in Europe or Asia.  Does this change our view of the story or of Kuttner?  Would we feel the same about the story if it was published shortly before U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, which we are all expected to think was a tremendous immoral blunder, instead of shortly before World War II, which we are all expected to think was the greatest enterprise of the American people?  2) The focus of the story is on vague undefined legislation that might enrich U.S. businessmen while getting foreignors to hate the U.S.  Did Kuttner have any specific legislation or businessmen in mind?  The gross misbehavior of Japan led to U.S. trade embargoes on Japan, but I think those embargoes occurred after the story was published.      

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