B. Wayne Quist has been writing for over 40 years in the fields of national security, political science, and history. In addition to God’s Angry Man: The Incredible Journey of Private Joe Haan, which was selected as SLR’s February Read of the Month, Wayne co-authored The Triumph of Democracy Over Militant Islamism (2006) and Winning the War on Terror (2005). Recognized as a popular speaker on the subject of militant Islamism, Quist also lectured at the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Forum.
Recently, Quist took time to discuss his latest work with SLR contributor Christopher Bundrick.
What further plans do you have for Joe Haan’s notebooks?
Joe’s hand-written journals, poems, and essays, as well as his Army medals, war records and other war memorabilia are located in the Millersburg Schoolhouse Museum in Millersburg , Minnesota. The museum is owned by a local non-profit organization, the Christdala Preservation Association (http://www.christdala.com), and the school is where my mother (Joe’s sister) taught during the 1930s when Joe was indentured to the brutal farmer.
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans (formerly the National D-Day Museum) has indicated interest in displaying some of Joe’s wartime poems in its collection, along with a display of Joe’s poem “Resting on the Corpse of Friedrich Hofmann,” the Friedrich Hofmann identity papers, and photograph. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington , DC would be an appropriate recipient for Joe’s album containing pictures of the Gusen Concentration Camp that document atrocities he witnessed in May 1945.
You’ve written a lot about political science and history. How was it different to write about something so close to your usual subject matter but also so personal?
Living so closely with Joe while writing this book was a bittersweet, emotional experience but many treasures were unearthed in the process—rare pictures of Joe’s mother (my grandmother), long-lost and forgotten letters, Joe’s journals, his earliest memories of “small hands on a coffin gray,” his war records and medals, Joe’s “Memories of Death” essay written as he shared a foxhole with a dead German soldier for three days in France in the fall of 1944, the Gusen concentration camp photographs, and the German soldier’s war diary.
But digging deeply into our family history was also uplifting, and because I am so much like Joe in so many ways—people say we looked alike—and because I echo so many of his deepest thoughts and feelings on so many subjects, this book is undeniably about me as well. Once I started writing, the book seemed to flow by itself as Joe came to life through many precious memories and documents.
There has been a real swelling of interest in World War II and WWII veterans over the last ten years or so. What do you think about that and what do you think Joe Haan would think about it?
Joe would have taken great interest in the World War II sagas of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, especially the “Band of Brothers” series based on the Stephen Ambrose book. Joe read widely about the war and as he grew older, he re-connected with several of his World War II buddies who remembered him with respect and admiration. I applaud the tribute we are paying to the Greatest Generation today and hope Hollywood will tell Joe’s story to the world in a film.
It seems like Joe Haan lived in a very interesting time. How do you think he would have fared today?
Joe would have railed against the ravages of the defining issue of the first decade of the 21stcentury— radical, militant Islam and its resurgent attacks against the West in the name of god. Joe would have been appalled, but not surprised, at the rise of al Qaeda and its modern-day Inquisition that demands “death to non-believers.” Throughout his life, Joe denounced the cruel rigidity of religious dogmas that had shackled people for centuries, compelling them to take “religious” actions—burning and beheading non-believers, offering themselves as martyrs in the name of god and their religion.
In the preface to his poems Joe wrote, “I owe one apology only, and that is to the devil, for lacking the ability to be more severe in my criticism of all organized religion.” Today’s beheadings and atrocities in the name of god would have compelled Joe to write even more profound statements. But while being strongly “anti-religion,” Joe had a deep-down, self-aware spiritual nature, one that was divined from experience and sensitivity to the natural world around him, one that transcended religious boundaries.
Joe spoke like an Old Testament prophet, unbounded by convention, and in many ways his early life resembled the biblical story of Joseph sold into slavery. Joe was appalled at the persistent tyranny of human stupidity and ignorance that plagued the world for thousands of years. To Joe, chief among these tyrannies was religion. Joe firmly believed that to live and survive as a species, mankind must adapt and evolve in what he called the “cosmic shooting gallery of life.”
He also had a dry wit, saying, “My polytheism dictates to me, a god in every galaxy…..” and to his final days, Joe proudly proclaimed that he was “god’s angry man.” Joe’s story transcends our current time—it is a deeply spiritual saga of a lonely, self-educated prophet who was denied nearly every basic thing growing up—an everyman’s victorious struggle for survival.
What, ultimately, do you hope readers take away from Joe Haan’s story?
The story of Joe’s life can inspire others to overcome adversity through determination, education, and keen observation of nature. Joe was a common man, but he faced uncommon experience throughout his life and developed an uncommon vision of the world. Readers will recognize and understand that the trials and tribulations of life, regardless how difficult or adverse, can be overcome through education and an appreciation of Joe’s remarkable lessons of survival and achievement.
Joe would say, “Suffering makes men think; thinking makes men wise” and because of his experience at the orphanage and on the farm, he came to describe himself as “god’s angry man.” Joe was angry because of human ignorance and every type of injustice and tyranny. He believed that the goal of society should be to bring education to the masses and strike a blow for the freedom of the human mind. These words were written in each of his “Little Blue Books” and he revered the words of Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “I have sworn…..eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”