Code Talkers

November 24, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The code word for America was our mother Ne-he-mah.”

“I enjoyed serving my country and my people.” - Chester Nez

Protecting our country is an act of honor and bravery. Every one of those citizens who sign up for the arduous task of defending America is worthy of mention. Just within my own life, I have come to listen more closely to those veterans who are familiar to me. And I have discovered that each person contains a wealth of stories, information, humility, kindness and complexity. Soldiers lives are littered with disruption. Constant movement and change juxtaposes the often monotonous routines of the armed forces. I would love to highlight every single one of them. Since this is not feasible, then I will simply say that we are grateful and honored to be Americans. Thank you for your service.

The month of November celebrates two extremely important pieces of American culture: both Veteran's Day and Native American history and heritage. As I have been studying languages for some time, I felt it might be interesting to revisit the Code Talkers. While most of these men have passed away, their legacy is still palpable. In a very short time, they wrote the beginnings of their own language and used it to then create an unbreakable code. This code helped America win both the first and second World Wars.

According to the National Museum of the American Indian, “More than 12,000 American Indians served in World War I – about 25 percent of the male American Indian population at the time.” The use of a code dates back to World War I in which 14 Choctaw soldiers helped the U.S. against Germany. Then, in 1941, the U.S. government once again struggled to create encrypted codes safe from enemy eyes. Philip Johnston, son of missionaries and fluent in Navajo, proposed the idea of using the native language to the U.S. Marine Corps. The original program enlisted 29 code talkers who created and memorized the code. There was no written record to ensure that the code would be kept private. Therefore, the men created an alphabetical code based upon common Navajo words so that it could be easily memorized. For example, “[T]he Navajo words 'wol-la-chee' (ant), 'be-la-sana' (apple) and 'tse-nill' (axe) all stood for the letter 'a.' One way to say the word 'Navy' in Navajo code would be 'tsah' (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)." The code talkers were deployed to the Pacific and as the program grew, more than 400 code talkers would join their forces.

The Diné word for warrior is naabaahii. The warrior tradition is an important and respected part of Navajo culture. Chester Nez (a Code Talker from World War II) said that “a warrior is someone who cares for and protects the area that they are from, protect the country” and that he was proud to be a part of this tradition. These warriors created a code that changed the face of the war. The code was kept secret for 23 years and then declassified in 1968. After its declassification, the code talkers were asked for interviews and information. The National Museum of the American Indian reminds us how difficult and complex it may be to understand a soldier's life. They write, “Like all soldiers, Code Talkers carry many memories of their war experiences. Some memories are easy to revisit. Others are very difficult. Some veterans do not really like to discuss these memories, while others can more comfortably recall them. They remember how fierce and dangerous some of the fighting was. Some remember when their fellow soldiers were wounded or killed. They remember the noise and the violence of war. Others recall being prisoners of war. Sometimes they have more pleasant memories of different cultures and places that they had never seen before and probably would never see again. They also remember how their American Indian spirituality was important to them during the war.”

As the generation of Code Talkers fade, it is important to dedicate some time in becoming familiar with the multiple ways in which they served. They bridged two worlds, both Navajo and American, in order to create a better society for all of us. There are many ways to support local veterans, from donations to programs. We can all find ways in which to serve those who have best served us.

For more on the code talkers, visit the National Museum of American Indians:

To find the Navajo Code Talkers dictionary, visit:

October Discussion Review

October 27, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In most cases, letter writing became fashionable only after the establishment of a postal service. However, state business has been conducted via the written letter since the beginning of formal governments. Our most recent Quarterly Discussion focused on six different letters from the likes of Seneca all the way up to George H. W. Bush. We looked at Leonardo da Vinci's job application in the form of a letter to the Duke of Milan. We discussed Gandhi's letter to Hitler. We wondered about Plutarch's letter to his wife upon the loss of their child. These letters are rich with details about time periods, but also about the human condition. I am so grateful to the people who dedicated time out of their day to chat with me about the curiosities and random features of these letters.

 "Man Writing a Letter" by Gabriël Metsu - National Gallery of Ireland, Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons.

"Man Writing a Letter" by Gabriël Metsu - National Gallery of Ireland, Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons.


The discussion hit upon many fascinating ideas that are still relevant and resonant. For example, Seneca's letter XLVII is often described as his letter regarding “Masters and Slaves”. There is much more to this letter, however, which addresses friendship in general. He asks that we care for others rather than expect something from them. His insistence that fortune changes often and without warning is a universal message, affecting everyone from emperors to slaves. In this letter, he asks that we value character, not utility. Plutarch, likewise, places importance on virtue. In his letter to his wife, he admonishes societies that seek pleasure rather than virtue. His idea of happiness has nothing to do with temporal or momentary enjoyment. Instead, he writes, “For you have often heard that felicity depends on correct reasoning in a stable habit, and that the changes due to fortune occasion no serious departure from it and do not bring with them a falling away that destroys the character of our lives.” A “stable habit” ensures that reason and virtue weigh all actions.

And these two ideas – virtue universally applied coupled with Plutarch's warnings – bring me to the Gandhi's letter to Hitler. In 1940, Gandhi proposed a path of non-violence to one of the world's the most violent men. I find it striking, but also completely appropriate, that Gandhi should write a direct appeal to Hitler. Gandhi claims that violence is “nobody's monopoly”. He further explains that violence always tries to outdo itself, so someone will get a bigger, better system, regardless of all of your preparations. In other words, these means come to a fruitless end. Gandhi proposes non-violence instead, which he claims is a force that, “if organized, can without doubt match itself against a combination of all of the most violent forces in the world.” One of the participants in our discussion noted the amazing complexity of the following argument. Gandhi proposes non-violence, but also says that he will not use non-violence to fight the British rule in India. He suspends all non-violent efforts. He claims that the British have overextended themselves and does not want to detract them from war efforts. It is astounding to think that, after a lifetime of protest and at a time particularly suited to his success, he would set aside political differences. He must, of course, make it clear to Hitler that he will not be a tool in Hitler's destructive agenda. In other words, Hitler's community will never include India, despite the fact that Gandhi desperately wants his country's freedom. The fact that he sets aside his entire life's agenda makes me believe that Gandhi understood the stakes.

However, some participants also questioned Gandhi's naiveté. And this question plagues me. Is Gandhi naïve in addressing Hitler? Or is it exactly to his point? I think that Gandhi's modus operandi seeks to always address others with respect and humility. He achieves this tone -even!- in his letter to Hitler. Two things that I wonder. First, is the divide between complete pacifist and one bent upon destruction too great? Are they simply incompatible notions, so much so, that a mind devoted entirely to one of those principles will not be able to identify with or understand the principles of the other? Also, non-violence has never been tested against something as drastic as total annihilation. Would a non-violent solution have worked quickly enough to counter something like the Holocaust? It seems that talking about colonization, while problematic, divisive and destructive, is not the same thing as talking about Hitler's vision of purity. Are we talking about different degrees of the same thing, or entirely separate things altogether? In other words, I wonder if Gandhi was indeed a bit naïve in the sense that he simply could not imagine destruction on the pace and scale that Hitler imagined. Of course, this question remains unanswerable. I find it important, however, that this letter is available for the historical record, if for no other reason than it demonstrates a great generosity and the willingness to communicate. He writes, “We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness.” Gandhi separates the man from his actions, which creates space for reversal or change. Unfortunately, Hitler disregarded the appeal.

If history is to offer us any roadmap for the future, it is well worth our time to step into letters from the past. Many thanks to those who spent time opening my eyes to the layers hidden within these letters.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Shakespeare's Henry V

April 14, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

When reading historical documents, it may be easy to forget the more mundane effects that occur when two cultures collide. However, Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth paints an example of this exact thing. In the play, the actual collision is often thought to take place in the battle between France and England, however it is actually through details of everyday life that Shakespeare exemplifies the angst of cultural divides. Shakespeare frames this combination of two cultures very well in his dramatic interpretation of the life of Henry the Fifth. Having just discussed both the text and the BBC's version of Henry the Fifth, I owe much of my rambling to a continued conversation from our film series. I am indebted to those participants for having inspired so much continued thought about this play.

To say that Henry the Fifth is a history play is not entirely true. It is, however, a well-developed sketch of a young king taking possession of land in France. In combining two empires, Shakespeare incorporates the French language directly into the text which offers an accurate portrayal of the experience. In addition, he includes characters with accented speech and he foregrounds a variety of ethnicities. Shakespeare also incorporates the classic technique of a chorus, a practice which stems from ancient Greek theatre, which helps to introduce the scenes and move through both time and place.

Henry the Fifth begins with an introduction from the Chorus, which frames the play. The film brilliantly portrays this as a voice-over narrator who renders commentary on the action. At the end of the film (spoiler alert!), we find out that the Boy is actually the narrator. For me, this creates an astonishing and brilliant use of the Chorus. In this case, the frame becomes the actual lens of the Boy as he has seen and lived through these times and with these characters. As an actual witness to their pranks, emotions, jokes and lives, he becomes an authority and a sage. In Henry IV, Part 2, it was Henry himself who sent the Boy to wait on Falstaff. So, it is very fitting to use his particular lens to navigate both Falstaff's death (at the beginning of the play) all the way through to Henry's own death. Throughout the play, the Boy attempts to separate himself from characters he finds unworthy (such as Pistol and Bardolph). He takes the audience a step closer to understanding honor and virtue through the life of Henry the Fifth. Therefore, his view of the battles and the politics becomes extremely important.

The film begins and ends with Henry V's funeral. The audience immediately understands the transitory nature of life, even the life of this great king, who died at the age of 44. It is somber to note that his young, French wife has an infant. At the end of the film, she kisses the infant and carries him away from Henry's casket. This moment follows closely on the heels of the courtship scene (which ends the text). Therefore, it accentuates the painful separation which comes so close upon the actual union. Shakespeare understands that everyone identifies with life, death and love. The final scene of Henry the Fifth surprises us with Henry's tenderness and care for Katherine, which itself comes close on the heels of the fierce battle scenes. Henry presses Katherine to speak English, but while she struggles with the language, she does not struggle to show her interest in Henry's proposal.

I am not surprised to find that Shakespeare writes brilliantly both in English and in French. Shakespeare uses French in a way that is, again, universally unmistakable. First, in a scene with Katherine and Alice, her attendant, Katherine attempts to learn a few English words. The scene beautifully demonstrates what it is like to learn a foreign language. In addition, it walks the audience through Katherine's excitement and nervousness represented by her approach to English. Then, in the end of the play, Shakespeare combines French and English as Henry V asks Kate to marry him. This documents, of course, a real experience in these communities which often clashed. Even the reader must change the manner in which they approach these sections of text. This abrupt language change clearly communicates the experience of fracture, but also of the fact that some experiences are universal and require no translation.

Plays often shift linguistic paradigms and there are many bridges to gap. In other words, the text of a play is not meant to stand alone on the page, but to be read out loud, acted and imagined. The addition of French is only another way of expressing the idea that we are always translating outside experience into personal experience.

Once again, I thank the group for a wonderful discussion of Henry the Fifth. I look forward to our next film course in the fall. For more information on the film series, email

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Honor in Richard II

December 9, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

Last week was the first of four scheduled discussions of Harrison Middleton University's film course on The Hollow Crown series. Ben Whishaw portrays Richard II in Shakespeare's play by the same name. In it, Bolingbroke (Henry IV) steals the throne from Richard II. Shakespeare grants beautifully sad speeches of longing to Richard as he falls from grace. Whishaw delivers these lines with excellence. As the play progresses, the viewer comes to understand Richard's fragility and gentle nature. The movie reinforces his character while brilliantly adhering to the text. It also delivers a host of excellent actors, rich landscapes, costumes and settings.

More than all of these excellent traits, however, the viewer sees the development of Richard's complex character. The struggle for honor begins from the very first scene when Richard's path undeniably intertwines with Bolingbroke's (the future Henry IV). As soon as Richard banishes Bolingbroke, their honors are joined. It seems clear that from this point forward neither can be totally honorable, but also that they must gain honor only at the other's expense. Cleary, Richard does not understand the meaning of honor at the beginning of the play. When Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason, Richard does not fully grasp the severity of the situation. Further, when Bolinbroke and Mowbray agree to settle the dispute via joust, King Richard intervenes at the last possible moment. In other words, in their moment of glory (or death), Richard has stolen their ability to attain honor. It is unclear from the play and the movie, why exactly he stops the fight. When he speaks to them in his private tent, Richard decides that banishment is the best course of action. Richard's behavior thus far is highly irregular for a king. It is not until the third act, after Bolingbroke returns with an army, that Richard begins to understand the frailty of his position.

It is true that Richard was unconventional, and by all accounts, not a very good king. He was a bit amoral, proven by the fact that he wished for Gaunt's death (his own uncle), in order to take his money and land without a fight. Furthermore, he drained all of England's funds without replenishing the source of money. At the very least, people were dismayed at his leadership, but until Bolingbroke returned with an army, Richard was the unquestioned, divinely appointed king. One could say that Richard's lack of honor was his undoing.

Ironically, then, Bolingbroke's intense desire to maintain his reputation and honor, causes destruction of another kind. It is nearly the inverse of Richard's lack of care regarding reputation. For one, reputation has been maintained via integrity and struggle. For the other, divine rights have always granted him position, title, money and prestige. Richard did not struggle and therefore, does not understand the cost of its loss. And yet, with his fall, Richard fully grasps what he could not previously understand. In that fall, then, Richard attains a kind of honor only possible through a struggle of this kind.

In beginning to comprehend his loss, Richard claims that the grasp for honor reaches through a hollow crown and cycles endlessly. Richard says,

“For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings:/ How some have been deposed; some slain in war;/ Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; / Some poison'd by their wives; some sleeping kill'd;/ All murder'd: for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits/ Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,/ Allowing him a breath, a little scene,/ To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks,/ Infusing him with self and vain conceit,/ As if this flesh which walls about our life/ Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus/ Comes at the last and with a little pin/ Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”

A little too late, Richard realizes power's fragility and his own mortality. Richard mistakenly assumed that honor was his without the need to grasp at it. Death sits atop this crown, no matter who wears it. As he fully comprehends the weakness of his situation, he understands the shame that he is to bear and in bearing it, gains a bit of honor.

In a later scene, Richard is forced to publicly crown Bolingbroke. Here, the viewer sees Bolingbroke's hand grasp the metallic crown in the same way that it grasps a sword or lance. He fights and in fighting gains reputation and prestige. This honor is different from Richard's, yet bound up in the same name, in the same hollow circle, adorned and empty, death lurking. King Henry IV comes to find that he cannot trust others and that fighting now defines him. In handing the crown to Bolingbroke, Richard says,

“Here, cousin, seize the crown;/ Here cousin;/ On this side my hand, and on that side yours/ Now is this golden crown like a deep well/ That owes two buckets, filling one another,/ The emptier ever dancing in the air,/ The other down, unseen, and full of water:/ That bucket down and full of tears am I,/ Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.”

This image of a bucket balancing in the air can be filled by anyone, as Richard now knows. Bolingbroke believes that honorable leadership will grant him peace and stability. He does not envision the damage that he has caused by unnaturally usurping the throne and, moreover, by causing such a rift within his own bloodline. And yet, if Bolingbroke had not tried to reclaim his lands and possessions, he would be bound by dishonor and poverty. All this because Richard did not see the repercussions of an argument of treason, and because he could not stomach the fight between two kinsmen.

These two characters, these two opposites, beautifully demonstrate honor's fluid nature. To be human is to err. Shakespeare uncovers an important truth in the comparison of Bolingbroke and Richard: that our fortunes are bound inexorably with one another's. Bolingbroke's path is set in motion by an unthinking Richard. And Richard gains honor only in his fall at the hands of Bolingbroke.

You will not regret dedicating some study to these plays. If you have the time, please join us for our next discussion of Henry IV, Part 1, on January 12, 2017. Email for more information.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.