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Much More Than Gangsters and Guns. Boardwalk Empire's Richard Harrow and the Real Faces of War

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TV critics have argued that we are in the midst of a "golden age" of episodic television with shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Sons of Anarchy. Boardwalk Empire should be included in that list, but the show's playing with both "pulp" and "serious" storytelling conventions have caused it to run afoul of those "expert" viewers who watch television for a living.

Boardwalk Empire is one of the most literate shows on television, and a great example of "the hidden history" that was the post World War One era made real for contemporary audiences. Will most viewers sit back and reflect on how that era's changing norms of race, gender, ethnicity, nationalism, and "Americanness" were formed in the crucible of the 1920s? Unlikely.

Boardwalk Empire has gangsters, booze, violence, nudity, and sex. The challenge of making "socially relevant" popular culture is that a creator has to appeal to the lowest common denominator among the public while still trying to hold true to the rule--consciously or subconsciously--that all "art" is trying to say "something" about society.

Boardwalk Empire's Richard Harrow is one of the most interesting and complex characters on television. Facially disfigured during World War One, he is quite literally the horror of war brought home to the public. As alluded to repeatedly by Boardwalk Empire, he is like the Tin Man, or perhaps some other type of misunderstood monster, with a heart of gold, amazingly loyal, loving, fragile...and who also happens to be a very efficient killer.

Harrow is a device through which the writers of Boardwalk Empire are able to comment on violence, the human soul, and the lost generation of World War One. He carries his scars on the outside; the other characters on Boardwalk Empire wear their's inside. Harrow's soul is damaged. But, it is not corrupted. With few exceptions, he is the most "beautiful" person among the characters on Boardwalk Empire even while many of those "normal" people often shun him, pitying Harrow, and commenting on his facial injury in order to demean him.

World World One made too many men like Richard Harrow.

I worry that the viewers of Boardwalk Empire may admire Harrow's deftness at killing, but remain willfully ignorant of the real people who suffered similar (and worse) injuries.

World War One maimed and broke human bodies on a scale not seen before in human history. As a result, artists were needed to make an effort at fixing those broken bodies.

These doctors and surgeons would be the founding mothers and fathers of plastic surgery. The Smithsonian website and magazine has a wonderfully written and moving piece on the soldiers who suffered facial injuries during World War One, and the great humanitarians who tried to help them return to some type of normalcy.

While I wish that the Richard Harrows of World War One were a fiction, sadly, such injuries were all too real:

Stage by stage, from the mud of the trenches or field to first-aid station; to overstrained field hospital; to evacuation, whether to Paris, or, by way of a lurching passage across the Channel, to England, the wounded men were carried, jolted, shuffled and left unattended in long drafty corridors before coming to rest under the care of surgeons. Multiple operations inevitably followed. "He lay with his profile to me," wrote Enid Bagnold, a volunteer nurse (and later the author of National Velvet), of a badly wounded patient. "Only he has no profile, as we know a man's. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips—the nose, the left eye, gone."

...Today, the only images of these men in their masks come from black-and-white photographs which, with their forgiving lack of color and movement, make it impossible to judge the masks's true effect. Static, set for all time in a single expression modeled on what was often a single prewar photograph, the masks were at once lifelike and lifeless: Gillies reports how the children of one mask-wearing veteran fled in terror at the sight of their father's expressionless face. Nor were the masks able to restore lost functions of the face, such as the ability to chew or swallow.  

The voices of the disfigured men who wore the masks are for the most part known only from meager correspondence with Ladd, but as she herself recorded, "The letters of gratitude from the soldiers and their families hurt, they are so grateful." "Thanks to you, I will have a home," one soldier had written her. "...The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do."

By the end of 1919, Ladd's studio had produced 185 masks; the number produced by Wood is not known, but was presumably greater, given that his department was open longer and his masks were produced more quickly. These admirable figures pale only when held against the war's estimated 20,000 facial casualties.

World War One was a source of collective national trauma for the European powers. And just as individual human beings often repress emotional pain, the collective national psyches of the British, the French, and other nations did the same after World War One:
Those patients who could be successfully treated were, after lengthy convalescence, sent on their way; the less fortunate remained in hospitals and convalescent units nursing the broken faces with which they were unprepared to confront the world—or with which the world was unprepared to confront them.

In Sidcup, England, the town that was home to Gillies' special facial hospital, some park benches were painted blue; a code that warned townspeople that any man sitting on one would be distressful to view. A more upsetting encounter, however, was often between the disfigured man and his own image. Mirrors were banned in most wards, and men who somehow managed an illicit peek had been known to collapse in shock. "The psychological effect on a man who must go through life, an object of horror to himself as well as to others, is beyond description," wrote Dr. Albee. "...It is a fairly common experience for the maladjusted person to feel like a stranger to his world. It must be unmitigated hell to feel like a stranger to yourself."

Following the Civil War and through to the first part of the 20th century, the United States had what were then called "ugly laws". These laws forced the poor, as well as the physically and mentally handicapped away from the public gaze. Coloured by contemporary norms surrounding race, gender, and sexuality, "undesirables" were not fit for the Public.  

Here, it is important to signal to how the very notion of "the Public" is an artificial one. The concept is bounded, contested, and fought over by elites and the populace. What counts as "public opinion?" Who is a "real American?" Are there "real" and "fake" parts of the "public?"

On matters of war, the American people have been insulated from its consequences because a relatively small percentage of the public have either direct or indirect contact with members of the military. Moreover, the American military is a volunteer force. Because there is no draft, the American people can further ignore the human consequences of how elites send young people to die because the latter "chose" to enlist. The volunteer military is a cure-all for national responsibility or a sense of linked fate and public outrage over foreign misadventures.

The news media which has been co-optated by the Pentagon through managed "embedding" does not show the coffins with dead soldiers coming home in a steady stream. The corporate news media also do not highlight those veterans who cannot be helped with the marvelous technology that can "rehabilitate" amputees so that they can live a "normal" life.

In total, this censorship is a type of contemporary "ugly law".

In America today, there are Richard Harrows. The mass media, with few exceptions, ignores them. When writers such as Steven Salaita call out false patriotism and sloganeering cowardly warmongering--and how such public speech norms and values help to create men such as Richard Harrow--the messenger is attacked as being "Un-American" and a "traitor".

Representative democracy creates a (necessary) distance between the public and those who vote to send their children to war. Perhaps, the decision to send a country to war, as may still be made in Syria, is dependent upon not showing its citizens how military conflict maims, breaks, and ruins the human body, soul, and mind.

If there was a national referendum where the faces of men such as Boardwalk Empire's Richard Harrow, or armless and legless soldiers known as "basket cases" were shown on the ballot next to the voting box marked "yes" or "no" on going to war, would a people still throw their children away in such pursuits?

I am cynical. Propaganda is so refined in the 21st century that the dream merchants would probably find a way to manufacture consent under the empty lie of a banner and slogan which reads that the United States only fights wars to "protect American values".

 

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