Privilege and Sacrifice

September 15, 2021 at 7:09 pm (By Amba) (, )

Much of my time in Chicago has been spent rereading the journal and letters of my uncle,* Alan Gottlieb, who died in a Naval Air Force training accident in Vero Beach, Florida, in 1943, two months to the day before his 23rd birthday. (I had read them decades ago, but remembered only highlights.) My mom wants to include his voice in an appendix to her memoir, the very purpose of which is to gather the lost—including two suicides, whose names were never spoken again per Jewish tradition—back into the ongoing family.

Alan’s death has been handed down as a tragic accident and a noble, if wasteful, sacrifice. To my surprise, as I read his thoughts and his voice danced to life in me, I came to see it, instead, as both a totally routine budget item of war and a kind of heroic, quixotic suicide. I wrote in my journal about his.

I went through Alan’s journals almost word for word, inhabiting his lively voice and immersing myself in his living presence to the extent that I began to struggle in protest as I was pulled toward the inexorable falls of his fate, No! No! Don’t extinguish this light! but it already happened almost 80 years ago! Mom grieving it again as if it was something I accompanied and comforted her in rather than something I instigated (at her behest, to get Alan’s voice into the memoir). I typed out passages into the new computer, and there were things missing that I remembered: a kinesthetic description of standing on the pedals of a dive bomber during a run; a paradox about the “constructively destructive” use of his new skills in war. I rummaged in the disorganized files (so like mine) and found both, one among letters a girl friend (not girlfriend) had given his mother, the other on file cards typed out by Dad, perhaps the best saved of faded or damaged letters. (How did he do it?)

Two things became clear. One was that if Alan hadn’t died as and when he did, there’s a high chance he would’ve died as a dive bomber pilot working off a carrier, the role he was training for. Those guys were the next thing to kamikazes. Even dying in training as he did was commonplace; he’d lost several friends in crashes before his. I told David it was as if they (the masters of war) were just throwing handfuls of flesh into a spinning fan blade. . . . The second is that Alan chose this self-sacrificial role. If his death was in part the Navy’s fault, it was also his own. He was being groomed for leadership and could have saved himself for that role. Should he have? He would have been a liberal leading light, a Jewish Kennedy, surely a senator, maybe even the first Jewish president—he was WASPy-looking enough. 😜And, in the supremest of ironies, he might well have been assassinated. His loss was anyway an early falling spark in that arc that led us to this dark place.

It’s easy to fall into fantasies of “the best and the brightest,” to flatter oneself that the loss of a sensibility so gently reared, so cultivated and self-cultivated, was a bigger loss than the closing of any anonymous consciousness that never was incubated in the Ivy League or singled out by the spotlight of Eleanor Roosevelt’s attention. But that was exactly what Alan felt obliged to escape. He had an early sense of the injustice and also of the emasculation of “privilege.” He felt he had to put himself at physical risk both to purge himself of that and to stretch himself, to break out of that coddling and self-congratulatory confinement.

I can relate.

The biggest paradox of all for me is that *he could only be my uncle dead. If he had lived for however much longer, the world would have been shifted the millimeter or more it took for a different sperm to meet a different egg at a different time and place, and someone else would exist in my place—in all our places.

It might have been better that way. But this is what we’ve got.

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