The Death of All that’s Holy

What’s holy in here? Man on the Moon? Hell yes, America landed a man on the Moon and returned him safely to the earth. I think that’s holy. And we did it inside the decade some crazy president said we should. In answer to his call, we produced the scientists, the engineers, the mathematicians, the mechanics, the technicians, the trainers, the designers, and the astronauts who pulled it off. We were something. That crazy president with his crazy ideas? Some nut blew half his head off. That nut was trained by the US military, the same outfit that gave us most of our first astronauts.

Landing a man on the Moon and getting him back home was a good thing, a sacred thing. But it wasn’t just an American effort. We had help from a few Nazi war criminals we “captured” and brought to America. Men who profited off the deaths of human slaves. Oh, they said they didn’t know about it, but they knew. They worked people to death in underground tunnels to build the V2 rockets. They aimed them at England. They killed civilians at the behest of Adolf Hitler. They watched their slaves die from exhaustion and torture. And then asked the Nazi government to please send them some more because they had more rockets to build and more English civilians to kill.

But back to the Moon. Man, that was a thing I loved America for. For all our faults, stupid wars, hypocrisy, and racism, I loved America for the Apollo program. I still do. I love that we gushed out into the great unknown and that we pulled it off. But, dammit, we did it with the help of Nazis, some of the lowest scum this planet ever produced.

When I was a wide-eyed pale kid with breathing problems, I wrote a letter to Alan B. Shepard, the astronaut, the first “free man” to make it into space. Well, if you define “into space” as a tiny, suborbital hop off the coast of Florida and into the ocean a few miles away. But then he was grounded because of weird problems with his inner ear.

But the famous astronaut was able to get some top-flight medical help for his ear problem, and there he was, a few years later, on a moon mission of his own. He took the time to send me back a letter with a signed photograph. I loved that picture and letter. I have no idea what happened to them. They’re lost, somewhere back there, along with whole big patches of my childhood.

Which Americans got to go into space? Who got to go to the Moon? Look at them. You’ll notice the similarity. They’re all white and they’re all men. Non-Caucasians and non-males need not apply.

(By the way, those evil, godless commies sent up a woman back in those early days – the 12th person to make it up. Of course, they sent people up in spacecraft that weren’t quite ready, killing more than a few, so much so that to this day I have a sneaky suspicion Yuri Gagarin wasn’t the first human in space, he was just the first one to make it back alive.)

The Moon landings were said to be an accomplishment “for all mankind.” Back then, humanity was represented as “man-kind,” as men (white men) were the default human form, with women being a secondary offshoot. You can see the attitude in some of America’s founding documents: “All men are created equal.” However, it might have struck some as silly to include women back then, given that we weren’t going to let them vote.

But still, an accomplishment, don’t get me wrong. Human beings walked on the Moon. They did it with computers dumber than the cheapest smartphone. They landed in a ship with such thin skin you could’ve accidentally kicked a hole in it with your boot.

And then I learned about Werner von Braun, the brilliant engineer who led the effort to build the rockets that got us up there. The former Nazi. The war criminal. So, while I still love what we accomplished, I have what you call mixed feelings. Sadness that a holy thing was desecrated and tarnished right from the get-go.

See, near the end of World War 2, we grabbed a bunch of Nazi rocket scientists because we knew the commies would be our next enemy, even though they helped us beat the fascists. We didn’t care what these Nazi engineers did. We knew they killed Jews. But a few thousand slaves tortured, worked to death, and disposed of wasn’t as important as beating the commies.

So, we grabbed von Braun and some of his friends, brought them to America, and did that quintessentially American thing – we whitewashed their histories and turned them into heroes. We sold people a myth that they were “forced” to work on the Nazi rocket program, that they had no choice. Sorry, that’s not true. They willingly built the rockets. They willingly improved them. They willingly did their jobs well killing English civilians. And when their “workers” died from exhaustion and lack of nutrition, they continually requisitioned the government for more.

And make no mistake. The Nazi rocket men were brought here not to get us into space, not to get us to the Moon, but to build missiles so we could bomb millions of people out of existence without having to put American pilots in jeopardy to do it. And yeah, the Soviets were doing the same thing. The Space Program was just a by-product.

We used the promise of spaceflight to sell the death missile program. Why do you think they spent so much time showing us retro-futuristic homes on the Moon, space stations, buxom maidens awaiting us when we landed on Titan? They wanted us to be excited. They wanted us to forget that the rockets were made to deliver death to our enemies on a scale that would make the worst mass murderer blush. American taxpayers would pony up the dough because getting out into space and beating the Russkies to the Moon was sexy. We closed our eyes and pretended that’s all the rockets were for.

So how do I reconcile this? How do I reconcile my awe at the Moon landing, my memories as a young boy allowed to stay up late so I could watch it on TV, with the fact that it wouldn’t have been possible without Nazi war criminals like the ones we hung at Nuremberg?

I can’t. I don’t know what to tell you.

I’ve been to Auschwitz. I stood in the remaining gas chamber, a dark, evil, compressing place, where you can still hear the screams and smell the smell of death. And see the happy little Nazis doing their duty for God and country realizing that this gas chamber was too small, that they couldn’t kill Jews fast enough, so they built bigger ones a few miles away.

That’s history. Ugly history.

So okay. Parts of the space program are holy. I take nothing away from the pioneers who went to the Moon, the ones who were first in orbit, willing to fly in dangerous machines that killed some of them. I take nothing away from the people in the back rooms who did the math, designed the machines, and laid out the programs, although some of them got their due too late because their skin was the wrong color or they had non-male sex organs.

What else is holy to me?

Well, America in World War 2. We were on the right side. I think of the men who went to Normandy, who climbed off the boats, those true antifa soldiers, knowing that half of them were going to be shot and blown to bits. And they did it anyway. Why? Because they had to. Because it was their job.

Dwight Eisenhower is good, too. Mostly because as we liberated the Nazi death camps, he made sure local Germans got a good, up-close look at what they had supported, at the smells they smelled in their little towns when the bodies were burned, even as they tried to claim they didn’t realize what was going on and they certainly wouldn’t have supported it if they had. Just what country had they been living in for 12 or 13 years, hmm? Weren’t they paying attention when the leaders they ravenously applauded spewed rabid hate against Jews? I love Eisenhower for making them look at it. He didn’t just make them look at it, he made them bury some of the bodies.

But later, Eisenhower was okay with spending lots of money (though he later complained about it) building up our own death missile programs to defend against Russia, the allies without whose help Nazi Germany might still exist. We were afraid of Russians. And they were afraid of us, which is why they spent themselves into bankruptcy building up their death missile programs. And as they spent more, we spent more, and as we spent more, they spent more. Each side just had to be able to kill a few more million people than the other to feel safe.

But at least the argument was worth it. Something about competing economic systems. That was certainly worth working out how to kill millions of people.

I know what you’re thinking. “You sure are taking a crap on everything that made America great.” I don’t mean to, but none of what I’m saying is untrue. I still love that we landed humans on the Moon. I still love that we defeated the Nazis. I love this country. I love its ideals, even though far too often we don’t really mean the words we say.

Is there anything left that’s good? Well, Abraham Lincoln. Probably the closest thing to a holy man in modern history. There’s an aura around him that can’t be sullied. If anyone deserves hagiographication, it’s Lincoln. Sure, some argue he only freed the slaves because it was politically expedient to inspire the North to keep funding a bloody war. But I don’t think that’s all of it. We forget that there were people who really believed it was wrong to enslave another human being, just as there were those who really believed that Black people weren’t people at all and deserved to be enslaved.

Is there anything else that’s sacred? Aaron Copland’s music, especially in his later years. His “Fanfare for the Common Man” was a direct response to Hitler. He pioneered an American form of orchestral music that paid homage to the wide-open spaces of the American West as settlers moved out to make the land their own.

Uh oh. Trouble there. The settlers were taking the land from people who had the nerve to live there before we arrived. But that’s not Copland’s fault. Is it?

So, is there nothing unsullied? Is there anything that remains wholly holy about America, land that I love? Here at what may be the end of our democratic experiment, the sad, slow dawning that our democracy was NOT built on solid ground, that it can be shaken if not toppled so easily?

I don’t know. We’re a country made from human beings, after all. Humanity is as noted for producing Bach as we are notorious for designing extermination camps.

Maybe all our country can hope for, maybe all we as individual human beings can hope for is to do a little more good than evil. Just a little. Just enough to tip the scales.

Good night. Good night to the sacred that may never have existed in the first place. Good night, Abraham. Good night, Dwight. Good night, Aaron. Good night, country that landed a man on the Moon, wherever you are.