War is…What?
The Edge (Students Online), Dec. 1998

By Brett Allan King

Sixty years ago several thousand Americans went to Spain to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Among them were countless teenagers—and what they saw changed them from American teens to war-hardened, world-minded adults.

George surveys the rocky terrain. its never-ending sameness punctuated with olive trees and German corpses.

The fascists have lost Villanueva de la Cañada, and this is the price. Hitler’s willing emissaries lie there under the bombed out machine gun nest, their bodies blown open. As flies feast on the fresh stench of death, defenders of the Republic contemplate their temporary victory.

“What a tragedy. These were once babies, lying in their mothers arms,” George sighs. “Just little children…and here they are, lying dead under the Spanish sun, flies crawling around in their bodies.”

Today, Nazis — volunteers for the Condor Legion; yesterday, one of his own. Just that morning, they bid farewell to the barely cold body of John Bowman. Some faceless gunman put a hole in him, and to bandage him seemed naive child’s play. George helped Joe Young, his corporal, drag John to a shady spot. Castile knows two seasons: Nine months of winter, three months of hell. This is hell, when the dry, searing stillness is an inconquerable enemy, where the only refuge is the shade of an olive grove or shadows of a rocky ridge. Here, on a battlefield thousands of miles from home, they watch their friend die. One less man in the Washington Battalion, one less man in the global fight against fascism.

So, General Franco and his foot soldiers want revolution. An assault on a
government legally elected by the people. Well, ¡No pasarán! They shall not pass!…and as they rise in resistance, the people will have their own revolution. That is why George came to the fight — in solidarity with the Spanish workers and their own agrarian revolution.

He sees them as his train traverses the semi-arid plains of Castile, with its homes of brick and rock and its dilapidated castles. All the soldiers have. Sun-worm peasants in black berets, ordinary folk in the fields, raising their calloused hands in clenched fist salute. That clenched fist says it all. “We are with you. We will no longer tolerate oppression. Land for those who work it!

Throughout Spain, wherever victorious, Communist and Anarchist workers’ militias are seizing the reins of power. In cities, factory workers now rule the factories. In the countryside, campesinos are rising up against the traditional landowners and farming collectively. George and his comrades-in-arms, when their shoddy rifles are at rest, help the peasants harvest their wheat.

That’s right. George Cullinen, class-conscious worker. George Cullinen, merchant seaman. George Cullinen, French prisoner en route to Spain. George Cullinen, member of the Fifteenth International Brigade: George Washington Battalion, Third Section, First Company. George Cullinen, terrified would-be casualty for the anti-fascist cause.

George Cullinen, American youth.

A country is fighting itself. Brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. Nacionales versus republicanos. On one side, the insurgent military, the church, the landed aristocracy, the fascist Falange Party … on the other, an unlikely alliance of Communists, Anarchists, and the center-left government of the Republic.

If all these Spaniards are doing such a remarkable job of killing on another, why do they need the help of outsiders? It’s not just about Spain, people say. It’s about Adolph Hitler in Germany. It’s about Benito Mussolini in Italy. The Germans are assaulting Jews. The Italians have invaded Ethiopia. And now, with their blessing, Francisco Franco has gathered his military elite in North Africa to launch an attack on the Second Republic — a government elected by the people. But here, the people are fighting back. Ordinary Spaniards have risen up against aggression in a fight that affects all. Is it not the duty of all lovers of democracy to come to their aid?

Germans, Italians, and Moors from Spanish Morocco have joined the fight to spread fascism to this corner of Europe. Where Western democracies turn a blind eye, volunteers from more than fifty countries have rallied to the cause. Close to fifty thousand brigadistas will pass through Spain — or will rest here eternally — by war’s end. On both sides, foreigners are dying on soil that may be Spanish, but for a conflict that belongs to the world. Where governments will not tread, individual men — and women — are risking their lives.


The Spanish can’t say Ruth her way.

“Luz,” she hears them say. La enfermera Luz…The nurse of light.

Luz, we love you like a mother,” the soldiers say repeatedly.

“Why are boys my own age saying they love me like a mother?” she wonders, not knowing that this is the greatest compliment anyone can pay her.

But the love of her comrades is not enough. Neither Brooklyn nor nursing school have prepared Ruth Davidow for the Ebro front.

Luz, you’ve got to be an anesthetist,” the doctors insist.

Biting on the stick between her teeth, she tends to the incoming stream of casualties. Air from bomb blasts whooshes in with a fury so awesome that eardrums will explode. The solution: a stick. As the fascists fire shots across the Ebro River, volunteers carry another bleeding comrade into the cave. Covered in blood and mud, Ruth and the doctor apply the anesthetic and prepare to operate.

“Don’t let the pupils dilate,” says the doctor, “They’ve got to contract.”

“His pupils are still dilated,” she yells.

“Just wait.”

“One’s still dilated.”

Minutes pass.

“His pupil…”

“This can’t be,” interrupts the doctor.

“Yes, it is.” Then suddenly, Ruth looks at the boy and looks at the doctor, half laughing, half incredulous.

“He has a glass eye!”

Ruth and other medics with the Medical Community for Human Rights might be able to keep the other brigadistas on their feet. If fighting spirit is stronger than firepower, the Brigades might help win this war. But if war is the sum of its parts — shoddy weaponry, short supplies, and ill-prepared volunteers — there isn’t a fighting chance. The nurses aren’t trained for war. Neither are the soldiers.

“And half of the so-called men were children — but I mean literally children, of sixteen years old at the very most. Yet they were all happy and excited at the prospect of getting to the front at last,” writes an aspiring journalist who fought with the P.O.U.M. Anarchist militia after Franco’s assault in ’36, “(their) shouts were meant to be war-like and menacing, but which, from those childish throats, sounded as pathetic as the cries of kittens. It seemed dreadful that the defenders of the Republic should be this mob of ragged children carrying worn-out rifles which they did not know how to use.”

This man fighting among children is the English writer George Orwell. He would leave Spain after the P.O.U.M. militia was crushed, when pressure from Moscow and Madrid melted the militias into a new Popular Army.

“(I wondered) what would happen if a Fascist aeroplane passed our way,” he says, “whether the airman would even bother to dive down and give us a burst from his machine-gun. Surely even from the air he could see that we were not real soldiers?”

War is not a time for children to be children. Nor is it a time for women to stay silent in the shadows of men.

Spanish women are fighting, sometimes with sticks, sometimes with the guns of their dead husbands.

In Madrid, the fiery speeches of La Pasionaria have made her the spiritual mother of the defense of democracy, a beacon to women the world over.

“It is better to die standing than to live on your knees,” the anti-fascist leader bellows to enthusiastic crowds, as they wave the red, yellow and purple flag of the young Republic.

Carrying these words to action is Capitán Lola — a woman. She followed her husband into battle in the all-Spanish Fifth Regiment, the Communist brigade of Enrique Lister, formed for the defense of Madrid. Her husband is now dead, but her male comrades have voted her into power. Ruth Davidow, daughter of American labor and fighter for the American left, has followed her convictions to the Ebro front, and is now one of the handful of foreigners serving under the command of Capitán Lola.

Even as a target of fascist bullets, Ruth refuses to fire a weapon in return.
“I’m a pacifist. I refuse to hold a gun,” she insists. “It’s against everything I stand for.”

The bombing is endless. Every few hours Franco’s forces come over and bomb the bridges used to transport the wounded. But engineers are prepared. Five minutes after the attack, they’re out rebuilding. In another fifteen minutes, ambulances are crossing again. There is no stopping them.

“This is what Spain really stands for,” Ruth muses. “The ones operating in this shelter. The people being bombed and going on and moving the wounded. The whole thing is very symbolic of how we had to come, no matter what. No matter what.”

This thought will stay with her for the remainder of her days.


Leaving the dead Nazis behind, George and the corporal wander the streets of this small Castilian town, in search of their battalion, which had left them behind.

It’s almost in accordance with some master plan: every town has its central plaza, its predictable design. Buildings with red tile roofs frame narrow streets where children play, where black-clad, bread-bearing widows slog along, stopping only to talk with one another. Every town has a Roman Catholic church.

The master plan has changed for Villanueva de la Cañada. The buildings are scarred with bullet holes and bombs. The children aren’t playing and the widows are many. There is no bread. There is no church.

The village church is destroyed, bombed out. Bricks and shrapnel christen the wooden pews with the new reality. The clergy are gone with the nacionales. The last time he was in a church, George was a young seminary student. Now he’s sifting through the ruins, where he finds documents the fascists left behind. He and Joe take these into Battalion headquarters.

The new objective, they learn, is nearby Brunete. Snipers in the village have made it nearly impossible to enter the town, so they’ll have to go around. The nearby ridge is occupied by the fascists, heavily armed with their big gun emplacements and machine guns. The Spanish have their own name for it, but for the men of the Fifteenth, this is Mosquito Hill.

Aided by their fellow Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the men advance toward the fascist stronghold. George has volunteered as a stretcher carrier — a grueling job, and one he’s likely to perform given the enemy’s material advantage. As they advance slowly toward the hill, the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire pierces the air. Then come the deafening blasts of mortar fire.

When a man is gunned down, George rushes to his aid. This fallen man turns out to be one of the commanding officers, a heavy-set man who George cannot begin to help on his own.

“He must weigh about 200 pounds,” he cries.

Three other volunteers come to his aid. They lift the bleeding man and begin to edge him toward safety, dodging bullets all the way. Then comes a buzzing sound from above.

Cyril Sexton sees the fascist fighter planes as they launch their attack on the aggressors at Mosquito Hill. He and the British Battalion are closing in, several hundred yards behind the Lincolns and the Washingtons, safe from the full thrust of the attack. All they can do is watch the slaughter.

“I’m sure glad it’s not me.” Cyril shakes his head, in a mix of anxious pity and relief. “They got bombed unmercifully. They really got a knocking this time.”

George and the other stretcher bearers continue to transport their adjutant to safety. He is wounded seriously and his life depends on it.

The bombing is so heavy that men can only dig in and hope not to be annihilated. The bullets continue to fly. His comrades continue to fall. The tanks that ushered them in can only go so far. George’s own leg is injured and infected, but all he can think about is getting this man to safety.

Drenched in sweat, their hearts pounding, the weary stretcher-bearers finally get their friend to the medics in the rear guard. They have risked their lives to save his. The rest is up to the doctors.

The two-word verdict burns like a piercing bullet.

“He’s dead.” says the doctor.

Something in George clicks. Some would call it momentary insanity. Some would call it a horrible brush with reality. Tears stream from his eyes. He screams incessantly. The grief is unbearable. The horror of war has finally torn his very soul.

The physical and emotional injuries shall soon take George Cullinen from Spain. But the experiences of those months, the courage of a people rising up in the face of tyranny, will inspire him for a lifetime.

“For several months, large blocks of people believed that all men are equal and were able to act on their belief,” Orwell would later write. “The result was a feeling of liberation and hope. No one who was in Spain during the months when people still believed in the revolution will ever forget that strange and moving experience. It has left something behind that no dictatorship, not even Franco’s, will be able to efface.”


Sixty years later, they’re still fighting.

Franco won the war in 1939 and ruled Spain with an iron hand until his death in 1975.

Before the fall of the Republic, both George Cullinen and Ruth Davidow returned to the United States, where they have been involved in activist causes ever since.

Cullinen returned to Europe to fight in World War II. Now, at eighty-four, he organizes the Vermont International Film Festival, which showcases activist works from around the world.

Davidow went on to become a professor of nursing at the University of California. At eighty-five, she is a radical independent filmmaker, currently working on three documentaries.

When Franco came to power, many brigadistas went on to fight other causes. Some occupied places of honor in the Eastern Bloc. Those in the West adjusted to long lives as dissidents. Davidow recalls the 1950s witch hunts of McCarthyism, when the FBI came to her house and critics accused her of receiving “Moscow gold.” Despite the magnitude of the struggles to which they eventually graduated, all got their political training wheels
in Spain.

Towards the end of the war and in hopes of diffusing the conflict, Spanish president Juan Negrín ordered the dissolution of the international brigades. In October 1938, the brigades left Barcelona where Congressional deputy Dolores Ibárruri, “La Pasionaria,” bid them a passionate farewell:

“You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and universality of democracy. We shall not forget you. And when the olive tree of peace once again extends its branches, return! “

In November 1996, both Cullinen and Davidow — along with about 350 other Volunteers of Liberty — returned to Madrid. where they received official recognition of their sacrifice: honorary Spanish citizenship.

Copyright by Brett Allan King and/or publication in which story first appeared
Do not reprint without permission  

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