“In the realm of totalitarian kitsch,” Milan Kundera wrote, “all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage back-drop and gives a look at what lies hidden behind it.”
I was now fully outside the compact mass, yet so indoctrinated was I in my Party, by my very birth, that I was able to give the answers without even being asked the questions. I was on automatic pilot. I was able to dissemble without truly being aware of it. My anger and my fear combined to protect me against my new enemy, my former self. I became impossible. Just say one word of criticism of the Comintern, the leadership, the line, and I was down your throat. I hated the very idea of giving up my nest, my mass, my friends. Doug would look pained, shrug, walk off. Joe might very well kill me. If Oscar Hunter, my political commissar—Mickey Mickenberg had by now called the commissariat at the front “comic stars”—knew what had happened to me, he said not a word. We carried on as before. Besides, suddenly we all had something to be exhilarated about; the great Republican offensive had begun in the center front for the relief of Madrid, victory after victory almost daily. There! It could be done. Followed by despair, for the Nationalist army had retreated in orderly fashion, then turned and regained all the territory it had lost.
The beds in the Murcian hospitals were again ﬁlled to overﬂowing. New smashed faces, more torn limbs, renewed screaming in the night. I began to help Oscar by making visits to wounded comrades, looking into their harrowed eyes with sympathy, with soft-spoken kind words. These were my comrades, the fallen, how could I ever leave them? It didn’t help when the thought sneaked in that among the enemy men also visited wounded comrades, commiserated with the fallen, the broken.
And now there was Joe Gordon with yet another wound, a chunk of shrapnel in his thigh. Not quite the same Joe. Still ebullient, voluble, obscenity followed by obscenity, the world was ﬂicked and he was fucking the world. He was meaner than ever before. Nastier. The shits were shittier, the incompetent even more incompetent. A new American battalion, he said, the George Washington, had shown up the ﬁrst day outside the walled town of Villanueva de la Canada. Fully armed, supposedly fully trained, they had entered the line and were immediately hit with heavy ﬁre. What do they do? Bunch up just like we did at Jarama. The enemy behind the walls of the town must have roared with laughter. Decimated them, cut them in half. New riﬂes, brand-new machine guns thrown helter skelter, and those still standing ran like hell. The same old story. In the end, he said, we took the town, the old Lincolns, what was left of us, the Washingtons, too, what was left of them, the Franco-Belges, and the XIIIth Brigade. Yeah, and the English, but ﬁrst they did something loco. On their ﬂank, the Moors shielded themselves with villagers and the English stopped shooting, didn’t want to kill the villagers. They took a lot of losses until they began shooting back. We took a lot of prisoners.
What followed were almost three weeks of war on the sunbaked manche, sleeping side by side with scorpions—you get hit by one of those and it’s worse than a bullet — ﬁghting the enemy in front of walled towns, in the hills, in the woods, those fucking Moors can ﬁght, the enemy retreating real military-like. And the aerial bombings were hell. Who said that, war is hell? Still, we kept pushing on, he said. The only thing that kept us going was Steve Nelson, now there’s a pol. And, Joe said, a crooked smile scribing his tough face, I got cited for bravery. Of course. He was indomitable. He was not alone.
The doctors told him they were leaving the shrapnel in his leg, it would stop hurting. They gave him a cane, told him to go about his business. We sang songs again, Stormy weather, Yes, we have no bananas, Life’s just a bowl of cherries, Oscar joining us, laughingly telling us he was the only Negro in the world who could neither sing nor dance. Who cared? Oscar gave us a pass and we hitched a ride to Albacete with Phil Bard and his committee, come to see how the Americans were doing in Spain. Joe regaled them with war stories, skipping all the bad stuff. They wouldn’t understand, Billy, they’re just petit bourgeois fucks. Somebody oughtta tell Stalin about all these jerks leading us, he’d have their heads. No doubt.
In Albacete we met Doug; leaner, more reclusive, terser, drinking manzanilla — Spanish brandy — and drinking too much, his eyes red. After we embraced, he said, It was tough, very tough, bad. The enemy’s good, don’t run that easy. He had a wound in the ﬂeshy part of his shoulder, it was all right, he would live. Saw Mickey Mickenberg, the meanest of the lot. The fucking comic stars don’t leave a man alone. Know why we’re called the Abraham Lincoln battalion? Because we, too, were assassinated. Those guys, pointing with his chin, Joe, Doug, and he shook his head in admiration. He was older than most of us by seven, eight years, and taller, too, his face lean and furrowed, his eyes little and mean, his thin lips pursed in anger. He seemed always to be angry, yet was fast with a quip, an anecdote. He could make us laugh, then have us sit up with awe as he recounted a battle scene, telling us about ourselves, heroes, giants, in a war movie. He reserved all his venom—and he was brimming with venom—for the comic stars, the incompetent commanders, the boy scouts, commonly called asslickers. We’d be playing cards, drinking manzanilla, and he’d lie down on one of the beds and sleep, ignoring the noise, the chatter. I’ll be tired till the day I die, he said. Three weeks of sheer torture. I don’t know why any of us are still alive. If not for Nelson, we would have quit, every one of us.
They were battle-weary veterans. I felt like a hanger-on, living the war through them. They babied me because of my wound, made an effort to make me feel one of them. I was no longer a believer. No matter what, they still believed. Hy Stone—a lieutenant, I think, in the infantry, a quiet man who’d lost two brothers to the war— Joe, Doug; they would be believers till the day they died. Not Mickey.
Daily we met in a room on an Albacete side street rented by Stone, a fellow named Rappaport, a dapper man who had been a business agent for the restaurant workers union before coming to Spain, and Yale Stuart, a tall good-looking guy who was later to lose an arm during the Ebro offensive. It was there we played cards, drank brandy, and when Joe could get us to cooperate, sang pop tunes. One morning, Doug, Joe, and I arrived at the room—I no longer remember where we slept during those days — and only Hy Stone was there. It could be others were there and soon left. Doug had his bottle of manzanilla brandy with him and was taking little sips. He was now rarely without the bottle, yet he never slurred his words, never showed symptoms of drunkenness, was always himself, spoke quietly, tersely. Suddenly that morning he began to talk about Oliver Law, he just seemed to have to get it out, and when he stopped for a sip, Joe picked it up. Thus, they altemated in telling me that awful tale of woe, how they’d killed Oliver Law at Mosquito (Mesquite, really) Crest. Life or death, Joe said.
As my friends told me this harrowing tale, I could feel their hurt, and I was right there with them, still feeling my own hurt. When they concluded and were at last silent, Doug handed me the bottle and told me to take a swig, it would help. As I laced my nerves with the sharp brandy, Hy Stone, who lost his second brother to the war in one of the ambushes Law led them into, said, I thought we agreed not to tell anyone. Joe then asked me to promise to keep their secret.
Doug, it appeared to me, was suffering from guilt. Joe, it is true, was not; still, he had to get it off his chest, both of them had to. Its weight was heavy; they were believers, real ones, no wavering for them, and who better to tell than me, their closest comrade in the battalion. Raskolnikov talked to the organ grinder Joe and Doug talked to me. Hy Stone, despite himself, conﬁrmed the story.
The three of them were skeletal—there hadn’t been much food to go along with the ﬁghting and steady aerial bombardment — and deeply tanned from the murderous sun of the manche, even Doug was darker, but it is their eyes which to this day I can still see, lit up from inside their skulls, very bright, wild, savage, stripped of any civilized patina. Men at war. Joe and Doug made me run around with them, drink a lot, go to bordellos. I found it hard to keep up; then they would remember I was still suffering from my wound and would park me in a pleasant cafe near the bullring and order me to wait there for them until they returned and we could go eat a late Spanish supper at about eleven at night.
Savage as they were, they were elated to be alive. As I say, Joe sported a cane to help him as he limped around, and Doug simply ignored the wound in his shoulder. Hy Stone came out clean, never wounded. I never got to know him well, he was a steel-spined bolshevik, tight-lipped, mouth clamped shut, as far as I’ve heard, to this very day. I left my friends after a week or so to return to Murcia. We kissed and parted, Doug, Joe, and I. Hy Stone had retired from the fray early, and I saw little of him.
While I was in Albacete I received word from John Murra that Bill Lawrence wanted to see me in his ofﬁce. Murra had been wounded at Cordoba, I think, and was then Lawrence’s aide. Bill and I shook hands; I asked him if he’d heard from Malya, and he said, never mind. He went straight to the point. I was a little scared. Ruby Kaufman, he said, told me you received a letter from Lovestoneite friends. What’s that about? Yes, I said, Jackie Friedman brought it with him when he came to Spain. He ran into Ruby and asked him to pass it along to me. Jackie was given the letter by his father, Sam, one of the Painters Union leaders. Sam got it from old friends and comrades who became Lovestoneites. I knew them from the Communist Coops. Their son Natie used to play ball with me. They just sent regards and wished me well. Nothing else. I still have it, you want to read it? No, Willie, he said, smiling, and Bill Lawrence had a nice smile, reassuring. Just keep your mouth shut, don’t talk too much. Malya still talks about you. She’s all right.
That was the end of it. Except when I saw Ruby Kaufman next, I told him he was a prick. I told him that in front of Joe and other of his cronies and he was abashed, got red in his Uriah Heepish puss.
Bill Lawrence was a decent sort and treated me kindly; still, he was a Communist functionary possessed of bolshevik steel, and when some twelve men who’d been in Spain more than the promised six months went AWOL from the front and showed up at his Albacete ofﬁce pleading for repatriation, he lost no time, placed them under guard and shipped them right back to the front via truck. They were allegedly tried and never seen again. Document 49 from the Comintern archives, addressed to Lawrence and shown to me by the historian Harvey Klehr, after mentioning the trial but not specifying the results, says anent those results, “Some questions may be raised in regard to the international complications which may arise. It appears to me [not identiﬁed] inevitable that the international press will get hold of it.” Of what?
No one seems to know exactly how many Americans were executed in Spain for desertion or whatever. My estimate would be at least twenty. But I note that in all the American wars since the Civil, involving some sixteen million men under arms, only one man was executed for desertion! What we Americans lack, of course, is bolshevik steel.
One morning while I was still in Albacete, Joe asked me to join him and an American comrade, who suffered from a head wound, on an errand to the I.B. headquarters to get our comrade a raincoat. For some reason I couldn’t go. Later Joe told me that while there, trying to ﬁnd exactly what it was our comrade needed, who should enter, red-faced, his mammoth beret bouncing on his big head like a giant ﬂapjack, but our supreme commissar, André Marty. He began to scream at them and at the others there for similar purposes, calling them a bunch of Trotskyites, what were they bothering about, there was a war on, etcetera, etcetera. Joe kept calm, grabbed the arm of our comrade, and pulled him out of there in a hurry. As much in a hurry as he could, burdened as he was with our comrade, a cane, and a limp. Son-of-a-bitch, Joe muttered to me; that was all, just plain son-of-a-bitch.
Another afternoon, when_]oe went to have his blind eye examined— it was causing him pain — Doug and I spent a quiet afternoon at a café drinking manzanilla, merely sipping it slowly. He told me he missed Ray Steele, who had been killed, I think, at Jarama. Ray had become the ﬁnest machine gunner in the battalion and asked to be sent to the new officers training school that had been set up. (First I learned of it.) His application had been rejected because he refused to join the Party. His contempt for Tony DeMaio, the battalion strongarm, was patent. Doug warned him to conceal his contempt, but Ray refused. Yearning badly to become an oﬁicer— he no doubt would have been a great one — he said he would join the Party. Immediately he was instructed to get ready to leave for the rear. As he readied his pack in his trench bunk, he was hit in the head by a bullet, and died instantly. It was Doug’s belief that Tony DeMaio shot Ray Steele. That Wobbly bastard was not going to be an officer in our battalion. When I asked Doug how sure he was, he merely shrugged.
Tony DeMaio, according to rumors, scuttlebutt, sworn testimony, became sort of an evil Everyman. It seems he was everywhere at one and the same time. He was seen in Barcelona in front of the American consulate, on the lookout for American deserters, or in Valencia, nabbing deserters in a cafe, and at the same time at the front, waving his pistol at laggards during battle. Who knows? It is known for certain that he was made commandante of the International Brigades prison at Casteldefels. It is also known for certain that many I.B. men were executed there. For desertion? For drunkenness? For cowardice? For Trotskyism or Anarchism or POUMism or Francoism? Two Jews for consorting with “Gestapo agents.” When, many years later, DeMaio returned to Spain, this time as tourist, Pete Smith said the ﬁrst place he wanted to see was his old command post, the killing ﬁeld at Casteldefels. There was an indoor cistern that ran from bottom to top of the castle tower. It is said that Tony DeMaio, when angry at a prisoner’s refusal to confess guilt, would throw the man into the cistern and watch him drown. The graﬁtti etched by prisoners on the walls of the dungeon cells read Long Live Lenin, Long Live the Revolution, Long Live Stalin, Long Live the Republic, Long Live Liberty. My only experience with Tony was in Villanueva de la Jara when I saw him punch a man down because the man had asked simply enough after some unimportant vote, Why does everything need to be unanimous? Several of us stepped in to stop the beating. At that time we still didn’t know what DeMaio’s appointed task was. We merely knew him as a bruiser of a boy with the face of a Donatello angel.]ohn the Baptist perhaps. He vociferously denies all the above. How can you possibly not believe a man who denies vociferously?
In the early 1940s, when I became reacquainted and then close friends with Mickey Mickenberg, he told me about the fragging of Oliver Law in the same details as related by Joe and Doug. He also added two details they had not mentioned: who it was that actually put a bullet into Law’s gut (does it matter now?) and that Law lay dead for a couple of days, no one wanting to bury him. Strangely, and for the life of me, I can’t now remember whether Mickey was a participant.
Unconsciously, am I protecting him? If he wasn’t, then either Joe or Doug told him, since they were close friends of his. Mickey also told me that when he was in Madrid shortly after the close of the Brunete offensive, he ran into Bob Gladnick and told him about it. Gladnick has conﬁrmed that.
On April 22, 1983 — I marked the date—when I visited Randall Pete Smith, who called, himself a closet anti-Communist (we had become sort of sub rosa friends), then the official historian of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (sic), he told me Nelson had done an in-house investigation of Law’s death, and two vets had conﬁrmed my version, and that Nelson ﬁnally said, Yes, Law was a mistake, but no one pissed on him as he lay dying, as I had reported. It would be nice to believe that.
An ofﬁcer’s runner who was alongside Law when he was hit has said it never happened, he was there. I wonder if he had a criminologist with him at the front to examine Law’s body in order to determine where the bullet came from. Since he was so close to Law, I wonder if he can tell us who, as Law lay dying, expropriated his handsome John Brown belt and shiny, custom-made Spanish boots.
In July of 1986, at the time of the ﬁftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Paul Berman interviewed me for the Village Voice. I told him, among other things, about the Law killing. After it appeared, both of us were called racists, and the newspaper and Berman were picketed by members of VALB and the Communist Party. Twenty-three members of VALB, headed by Steve Nelson, and including Hy Stone and the above-mentioned runner, attested in a sworn statement to the Voice that Joe Gordon had not fought in the Brunete offensive; ergo, my story was false. Berman produced proof from the Lincoln battalion’s own records that not only had Gordon fought in the Brunete offensive, but he had been cited for bravery, as Joe himself had once told me.
Perjury is, of course, a universal vice, though most people try to keep it to a minimum; for the totalitarian mind, however, it is oxygen, impossible to live without.