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For What It's Worth: Fighting Futility

Updated: Sep 7, 2019

To be good, and to do good, is all we have to do.

- John Adams to dis daughter Abigail “Nabby” Adams, March 17, 1777

"Write something, even if it's just a suicide note."

- Gore Vidal

Forgetting, ironically, must involve some effort of remembering since one always has to remember there was something to forget. “There are remises or storage places where you may leave or store certain things,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in his memoirs. “This book,” he says. “Contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.” Hemingway was young and idealistic when he decided he wanted to write honestly. “All you have to do,” he said to himself. “Is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” He always made an effort to dedicate himself to the truth. He was no different when reporting on the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s. The setting of which served as the inspiration for his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was in Spain that liberals of all backgrounds were called upon to fight the Fascist rebels led by Francisco Franco. Even from the United States an international brigade was assembled called the Abraham Lincoln Battalion led by Robert Hale Merriman. Merriman’s strength and courage greatly impacted Hemingway when they met. So much so that the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls is loosely based on him. Despite its historical relevance, the Spanish Civil War is rarely spoken of when it comes to modern fascism, and is mostly forgotten. But given the mankind’s tendency to form a convenient narrative, why would anyone care?

The creation of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion was the first time American troops were racially integrated since the War for Independence.

The Abraham Lincoln battalion was nearly wiped out. Robert Hale Merriman was fatally wounded in combat. The Catholic Church has made a significant (and very successful) effort to wipe the memory of its support for fascist Spain from history. Not to mention Franco ruled for four decades with basically no serious international intervention until his death in 1975. He had no dreams of a universal order or expansionist ambitions and was therefore left alone. He won and the good guys lost. Despite Franco’s isolationism and perverted wisdom, he was hardly the first of his kind, and surely not the last. The Spanish Civil War was only a short and bitter conflict in western civilizations love affair with fascism.

Hemingway learned a lot from this fight. One of his biggest takeaways was that the fight against evil, even if futile, is worth it. That kind of bravery and integrity is mostly lost on today’s politicians. Money has replaced ideas, stalemate replaces compromise and complacency has replaced action. All of this has given rise to many actual Neo-fascists such as Hungary’s Viktor Obran, who our own American president rolled out the red carpet for recently, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Robert Hale Merriman and his wife Marion. Marion would enlist in the fighting herself after seeing her husband wounded.

“He [Putin] prefers opponents who sit around their apartments, sipping vodka and complaining to one another about how hopeless it all is,” writes former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. And that is what many of us have become in this New World Order; unwilling to stand up to futility and apathy, drowning in the hopelessness of the situation sipping vodka and complaining to each other at our Summer barbecues. My own father and hundreds of other faithful civil servants fought futility on a clear September day eighteen years ago. The weight of fear and broken steel were negligible when it came to seizing the day for humanity, and immaterial when compared to the burden of being a good person. His valor is not my own, I know. His actions only set the standard of fighting for what is right in my own heart. Futility derives from the heart. It is born from choice. It comes from our indecision, our motives, our timing. You decide when it exists, and when it is extinguished. It is when you say “it’s going to be me or you” instead of “me and you” that it finally takes hold. As humans we do not have much access to our free will, however the access we are allowed should be utilized to its full potential.

Ernest Hemingway in Spain during the Civil War.

If my late father’s sacrifice had not instilled in me some sense of ambitious integrity I probably wouldn’t be writing this. Do I always do the right thing? No. Do I do the right thing most of the time? Probably not. But I try, and I think that effort counts. It doesn’t mean I’m trying to be lazy or cynical. It’s just accepting that imperfection is inevitable and often beautiful, and doing your best to improve the world in spite of that. “The world is a good place and worth the fighting for,” Hemingway writes in some of the last lines of For Whom the Bell Tolls. He doesn’t say it was a perfect place. He doesn’t even say it was a great place. The world is a good place, and worth the effort. And in the end the effort can be all that matters.


- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

- Fascism: A Warning by Madeline Albright

- For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

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