Excerpt: “War Dances”

The following story is an excerpt from Sherman Alexie’s recent collection of short stories, Blasphemy.


Published by Grove Atlantic Press, Oct. 2012

After the surgeon cut off my father’s right foot — no, half of my father’s right foot — and three toes from the left, I sat with him in the recovery room. It was more like a recovery hallway. There was no privacy, not even a thin curtain. I guessed it made it easier for the nurses to monitor the postsurgical patients, but still, my father was exposed — his decades of poor health and worse decisions were illuminated — on white sheets in a white hallway under white lights.

“Are you okay?” I asked. It was a stupid question. Who could be okay after such a thing? Yesterday, my father had walked into the hospital. Okay, he’d shuffled while balanced on two canes, but that was still called walking. A few hours ago, my father still had both of his feet. Yes, his feet and toes had been black with rot and disease but they’d still been, technically speaking, feet and toes. And, most important, those feet and toes had belonged to my father. But now they were gone, sliced off. Where were they? What did they do with the right foot and the toes from the left foot? Did they throw them in the incinerator? Were their ashes floating over the city?

“Doctor, I’m cold,” my father said.

“Dad, it’s me,” I said.

“I know who are you. You’re my son.” But considering the blankness in my father’s eyes, I assumed he was just guessing at my identity.

“Dad, you’re in the hospital. You just had surgery.” MORE

Replay: Live Chat with Sherman Alexie

Poet and writer Sherman Alexie joined us for a live chat on April 16, 2013, to answer readers’ questions about his poetry and books, his creative process and being Native American. You can replay the chat below.

Sherman Alexie (Credit: Alton Christensen)

Born on a reservation in Washington state, Alexie has been navigating the boundaries in American and Native American culture for two decades. He is the author of 22 books, including The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, War Dances, winner of the 2010 PEN Faulkner Award, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a PEN Hemingway Special Citation winner. Smoke Signals, the film he wrote and co-produced, won the Audience Award and Filmmakers’ Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. MORE

Excerpt: Kill Anything That Moves

Read the introduction from Nick Turse’s book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.

Hardcover, 370 pages, Metropolitan Books, List Price: $18.40

On January 21, 1971, a Vietnam veteran named Charles McDuff wrote a letter to President Richard Nixon to voice his disgust with the American war in Southeast Asia. McDuff had witnessed multiple cases of Vietnamese civilians being abused and killed by American soldiers and their allies, and he had found the U.S. military justice system to be woefully ineffective in punishing wrongdoers. “Maybe your advisors have not clued you in,” he told the president, “but the atrocities that were committed in Mylai are eclipsed by similar American actions throughout the country.” His three-page handwritten missive concluded with an impassioned plea to Nixon to end American participation in the war.

The White House forwarded the note to the Department of Defense for a reply, and within a few weeks Major General Franklin Davis Jr., the army’s director of military personnel policies, wrote back to McDuff. It was “indeed unfortunate,” said Davis, “that some incidents occur within combat zones.” He then shifted the burden of responsibility for what had happened firmly back onto the veteran. “I presume,” he wrote, “that you promptly reported such actions to the proper authorities.” Other than a paragraph of information on how to contact the U.S. Army criminal investigators, the reply was only four sentences long and included a matter- of-fact reassurance: United States Army has never condoned wanton killing or disregard for human life.”

This was, and remains, the American military’s official position. In many ways, it remains the popular understanding in the United States as a whole. Today, histories of the Vietnam War regularly discuss war crimes or civilian suffering only in the context of a single incident: the My Lai massacre cited by McDuff. Even as that one event has become the subject of numerous books and articles, all the other atrocities perpetrated by U.S. soldiers have essentially vanished from popular memory. The visceral horror of what happened at My Lai is undeniable.

On the evening of March 15, 1968, members of the Americal Division’s Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, were briefed by their commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, on a planned operation the next day in an area they knew as “Pinkville.” As unit member Harry Stanley recalled, Medina “ordered us to ‘kill everything in the village.’” Infantryman Salvatore LaMartina remembered Medina’s words only slightly differently: they were to “kill everything that breathed.” What stuck in artillery forward observer James Flynn’s mind was a question one of the other soldiers asked: “Are we supposed to kill women and children?” And Medina’s reply: “Kill everything that moves.” MORE

Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln

The following excerpts are from Frederick Douglass’s third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1892.

Excerpted from the chapter entitled:

Portrait of Frederick Douglass; University of Texas

My efforts to secure just and fair treatment for the colored soldiers did not stop at letters and speeches. At the suggestion of my friend, Major Stearns …I was induced to go to Washington and lay the complaints of my people before President Lincoln and the Secretary of War and to urge upon them such action as should secure to the colored troops then fighting for the country a reasonable degree of fair play. I need not say that at the time I undertook this mission it required much more nerve than a similar one would require now. The distance then between the black man and the white American citizen was immeasurable. I was an ex-slave, identified with a despised race, and yet I was to meet the most exalted person in this great republic.

It was altogether an unwelcome duty, and one from which I would gladly have been excused. I could not know what kind of a reception would be accorded me. I might be told to go home and mind my business, and leave such questions as I had come to discuss to be managed by the men wisely chosen by the American people to deal with them. Or I might be refused an interview altogether. Nevertheless, I felt bound to go, and my acquaintance with Senators Charles Sumner, Henry Wilson, Samuel Pomeroy, Secretary Salmon P. Chase, Secretary William H. Seward and Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana encouraged me to hope at least for a civil reception. My confidence was fully justified in the result.

I shall never forget my first interview with this great man. I was accompanied to the executive mansion and introduced to President Lincoln by Senator Pomeroy. The room in which he received visitors was the one now used by the President’s secretaries. I entered it with a moderate estimate of my own consequence, and yet there I was to talk with, and even to advise, the head man of a great nation. Happily for me, there was no vain pomp and ceremony about him. I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln. He was seated, when I entered, in a low armchair with his feet extended on the floor, surrounded by a large number of documents and several busy secretaries. MORE

Your Book Recommendations for President Obama

Before the holidays, Bill asked you what book you’d recommend President Obama read as he embarks on his second term. Your suggestions ran the gambit, with authors ranging from John Steinbeck to civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander to A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh. In the slideshow below, we included 25 of your recommendations that came out during Obama’s first term that he may not have had the chance to read yet. We also included five classics you recommended that the president may want to revisit.

Book Excerpt: This Is How You Lose Her

From the short story entitled “Otravida, Otravez

I am pregnant when the next letter finally arrives. Sent from Ramón’s old place to our new home. I pull it from the stack of mail and stare at it. My heart is beating like it’s lonely, like there’s nothing else inside of me. I want to open it but I call Ana Iris instead; we haven’t spoken in a long time. I stare out at the bird- filled hedges while the phone rings.

I want to go for a walk, I tell her.

The buds are breaking through the tips of the branches. When I step into the old place she kisses me and sits me down at the kitchen table. Only two of the housemates I know; the rest have moved on or gone home. There are new girls from the Island. They shuffle in and out, barely look at me, exhausted by the promises they’ve made. I want to advise them: no promises can survive that sea. I am showing, and Ana Iris is thin and worn. Her hair has not been cut in months; the split ends rise out of her thick strands like a second head of hair. She can still smile, though, so brightly it is a wonder that she doesn’t set something alight. A woman is singing a bachata somewhere upstairs, and her voice in the air reminds me of the size of this house, how high the ceilings are. MORE

Replay: Live Chat with Junot Díaz

On January 3, 2013, we hosted a live chat with Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author Junot Díaz. He answered questions from BillMoyers.com readers about his short stories and novel, the literature classes he teaches at MIT and the art of writing fiction.

Junot Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. His most recent book, This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories, was released last fall.

Power Reading: Nominate a Book for President Obama

Books Viewers Recommended President Obama Read Before His First Term in 2008
Four years ago on Bill Moyers Journal, Bill asked viewers to send in book recommendations for President-Elect Barack Obama. Thousands of you sent in suggestions and Bill enjoyed reading the many thoughtful e-mails about novels, poetry, biographies and books about history, politics, and other subjects. He dedicated air time on a subsequent Journal episode to excerpt the best emails, which included recommendations for Naomi Klein‘s The Shock Doctrine, Howard Zinn‘s The People’s History of the United States, Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Nickel and Dimed, Al Gore’s Assault on Reason (The Inconvenient Truth) and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. (You can view the entire list at the Journal archive website.)

We know President Obama took you up on at least one of them. Some of you may recall that he was inspired by Goodwin’s book that described Lincoln’s selection of a presidential cabinet as he was putting together his own, choosing former presidential rivals Joe Biden as vice president and Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

So we’re asking again: what book would you like to see President Obama read before he takes the oath of office for the second time? Share your nominations below or on Facebook, and Bill will share his with you by the end of the year.

Audio Chat: Chrystia Freeland on the Perils of Plutocracy

Chrystia Freeland

On Wednesday, Nov. 28, BillMoyers.com hosted a live chat with Chrystia Freeland about her book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. Use the player above to replay our discussion.

Ms. Freeland answered some questions that we at BillMoyers.com had after reading Plutocrats, and also responded to questions that readers submitted through our Facebook page, Twitter and in the comments section of this website about the personality types of today’s self-made oligarchs, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the economic consequences of the world’s wealth being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Discussion Guide for Plutocrats

Several weeks ago we announced that Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, by Chrystia Freeland, is the first book we’re reading in our book club.

Freeland will be doing a live chat with us on Tuesday, November 27 at 7 PM ET, in which she will be available to answer your questions.

In the meantime, here are some questions for you to use to guide your own book club discussion of Freeland’s book.

1. What surprised you most about plutocrats?

2. The book gave several different scholars’ perspectives on income inequality — some think it is terrible, others don’t. Some even celebrate inequality. Did the book leave you with the impression that rising income inequality hurts social mobility?

3. When the original Wall Street movie came out in 1987, bankers made $2 to $3 million a year and that was thought of as an exorbitant amount of money. Now, the super-rich can expect to earn $20 to $30 million a year. In fact, those making $5 or $10 million probably don’t feel like they are making enough. As overheard at a Manhattan dinner party, an elite wife commented: “You know, the thing about 20” — by this, she meant $20 million a year — “is 20 is only 10 after taxes.” Do you think the Gordon Gekkos of today are the same as those of the Reagan years, or are they different?

4. If you were a plutocrat, would you feel victimized by President Obama’s rhetoric and policies?

5. Breaking down the politics of income disparity: the left blames it on sociopolitical change (decline of unions, lower taxes for the rich), while the right blames it on deep structural factors (globalization and technology). Why do they take such different stances and where is the root of the problem? What do you think the biggest driver of growing income inequality is?

6. Why are Americans reluctant to talk about income inequality? Why wasn’t it a bigger issue in the 2012 presidential race?

7. Why are there so few female plutocrats?

8. Is Venetian-style crony capitalism inevitable in the United States?

9. Given the growing economic power of the plutocrats, how can the state, and state servants like regulators, be independent?

Thanks to Chrystia Freeland for her help in developing this discussion guide.

Book Club: The Culture of the New Super-Rich

As part of our new book club, we’re working our way through Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, by Chrystia Freeland.

Last week, we used Plutocrats and other sources to draw some similarities between the first Gilded Age and the plutocracy we’re seeing re-emerge today. But in Chapter Two of the book, Freeland points out one notable difference: Many of today’s rich work, hard. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were a notable few at the top who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps:; many were born rich and just became richer. Freeland quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald: The rich of his time knew what it was to “possess and enjoy early.”

Freeland writes that today, the story is different. “Fat cats who owe it to their grandfathers are not getting all the gains,” economic historian Peter Lindert told her. “A lot of it is going to innovators this time around. There is more meritocracy in Bill Gates being at the top than the Duke of Bedford.”

That was just one part of Chapter Two that stood out to us. What about Plutocrats surprises or interests you? Let us know in the comments — and keep reading!

We’re looking forward to hosting a discussion with you next month, when author Chrystia Freeland will join us to answer your questions and talk about the book. (We’ll announce the date soon. Like us on Facebook to get updates on Book Club activities.)

Moyers Book Club: Plutocrats, by Chrystia Freeland

We’ve noticed in comments here and on Facebook that many of you have been inspired to read books written by Moyers & Company guests. We think it’s wonderful (and so do our guests!) — so wonderful, in fact, that we’ve decided to start a Moyers Book Club. First up: Chrystia Freeland’s new book, Plutocrats.

Over the next three weeks, we’ll post book reviews, interviews, discussion questions and other related content to this Book Club blog. In the fourth week, we’ll present a live chat with the author in which you — and your entire book club — can ask questions and share your thoughts with the author. We’ll start over with a new book each month or so.

Sound good? Good!


Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, by Chrystia Freeland MORE

Book Excerpt: Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats

Bill recently interviewed author Chrystia Freeland on Moyers & Company. Her book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, was published last week and is the inaugural book in the Moyers Book Club. Read an excerpt:

“The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford. What were the luxuries have become the necessaries of life. The laborer has now more comforts than the farmer had a few generations ago. The farmer has more luxuries than the landlord had, and is more richly clad and better housed. The landlord has books and pictures rarer and appointments more artistic than the king could then obtain.”— Andrew Carnegie

Branko Milanovic is an economist at the World Bank. He first became interested in income inequality studying for his PhD in the 1980s in his native Yugoslavia, where he discovered it was officially viewed as a “sensitive” subject — which meant one the ruling regime didn’t want its scholars to look at too closely. That wasn’t a huge surprise; after all, the central ideological promise of socialism was to deliver a classless society.

But when Milanovic moved to Washington, he discovered a curious thing. Americans were happy to celebrate their super-rich and, at least sometimes, worry about their poor. But putting those two conversations together and talking about economic inequality was pretty much taboo.

“I was once told by the head of a prestigious think tank in Washington, D.C., that the think tank’s board was very unlikely to fund any work that had income or wealth inequality in its title,” Milanovic, who wears a beard and has a receding hairline and teddy bear build, explained in a recent book. “Yes, they would finance anything to do with poverty alleviation, but inequality was an altogether different matter.” MORE