Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Remembering McNamara's Catharsis: A Mortal Man Cast Into A Giant's Role

The dust-up over Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Bush-Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates recalls to mind two other secretaries who were as controversial as Gates was circumspect.  Herewith excerpts from a July 2009 post.
With the death yesterday of Robert S. McNamara, the JFK-LBJ era defense secretary and Vietnam War architect, my thoughts segue quickly to another vilified defense secretary and another unnecessary war. I speak, of course, of Donald Rumsfeld and Iraq.

The similarities between the two men are stunning, but there is a big difference that sets
them apart.

Like Rumsfeld, McNamara was a control freak who thought he had all the answers, pushed policies that lacked the crucial element of common sense, surrounded himself with sycophantic acolytes, did not take kindly to dissenting generals, was a technocrat who worshipfully embraced sophisticated weaponry, projected an unshakable faith that he was doing the right thing, communicated poorly in public forums . . . and turned out to know jack about how to run a war.
And like Rumsfeld, was forced out or quit depending upon whom you talk to.
But in a major departure from Rumsfeld's modus operandi -- at least to date, from what we know of his forthcoming and unapologetic memoir and in all likelihood for all time -- McNamara had a catharsis some 15 years before he laid on his death bed.
That catharsis took the form of In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, a candid reflection that exploded on the haunted members of my generation -- whether they be Vietnam era veterans like myself or antiwar activists -- like a long forgotten Claymore mine.
McNamara has never explained the circumstances of his catharsis, that point at which he realized his manifold failures as defense secretary and the immense suffering, death and deprivation that he and LBJ were responsible for. One can only assume that it did not come to him in the middle of the night a la Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, but rather in a drawn out metamorphosis befitting a man of his intellect and analytical skills.
McNamara never actually apologized for his role in the Vietnam debacle, but clearly was haunted by it, and his mantra became "We were wrong, terribly wrong."
Rumsfeld, of course, has not apologized and it is difficult to foresee that he will ever do so. But is he too haunted by Iraq?
Nearly 16,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam when McNamara left the Pentagon in 1968; by the time the United States finally withdrew in 1975, the number stood at over 58,000.
Nearly 3,000 Americans had been killed in Iraq when Rumsfeld bailed; the number now stands at over 4,000. And continues to grow.
* * * * *
Apropos to the Bush torture regime and the time in which we live, a question is being asked anew: Was McNamara a war criminal?

McNamara never answered the question directly, but did have this to say in Erroll
Morris's The Fog of War documentary in the context of his work as a young officer evaluating the effectiveness of Army Air Force missions over Japan for General Curtis LeMay, many of which were firebombings that wrought enormous death and destruction:
"I don't fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The U.S.-Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history -- kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time -- and today -- has not really grappled with what are, I'll call it, 'the rules of war.' Was there a rule then that said you shouldn't bomb, shouldn't kill, shouldn't burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night?
"LeMay said, 'If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals.' And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"
McNamara was onto something, while I cop to historical context and draw on my knowledge of World War II, Vietnam and Iraq, in trying to answer the question without resorting to the Welcome to the Platinum Tier of Hell indictments ricocheting around the blogosphere.
The War in the Pacific had to be fought. Oh, and paybacks are a bitch. The sadism that the Japanese inflicted on Americans and their allies, as well as disregard for the lives of their own infantrymen, fliers and subjugates invited the Yankee payback.

The history of the Vietnam War is less forgiving on whether the conduct of McNamara, as well as LBJ, was criminal.

That history did not begin with the defeat of the colonial French army at Dien Bien
Phu in 1954, but rather all the way back in 1947 when a young Ho Chi Minh all but begged the U.S. to support him in a nationalist independence movement and was blown off. U.S. troops began to trickle into Vietnam under false pretexts and the Johnson administration shifted from rationale to rationale and strategy to strategy before Richard Nixon finally conceded defeat in 1975.

Furthermore, and as McNamara admitted in In Retrospect, he knew that the war was futile, if not wrong.
In all three wars, "mortal men [were] cast into giants' roles," to use historian Max Hasting's term. Can it be that McNamara was not a war criminal as an advisor to LeMay but was regarding Vietnam?
Yes, despite his candor about the former and contrition about the latter. Can it be that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are war criminals as regards Iraq? Definitely.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why Christie's Unconvincing Victimhood Won't Matter Where It Counts

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is not the first bully to make a name for himself in politics, but then our memories are awfully short.  After all, we already have forgotten revelations during the 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney's star turn as a gay-bashing high school bully.  And face it, Dick and Liz Cheney are so passé.

I happen to think that Christie is a narcissistic egomaniac, but will emerge relatively unscathed from the Scandal of the Moment.  This despite the probability that once the emails between deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and other staffers, which were heavily redacted before being released in conjunction with Christie's Mea Culpa Tour last week, are released in full, they will show the governor was well aware of if didn't actually help engineer one of the more breathtakingly vindictive political paybacks in memory: Plunging the George Washington Bridge approach at Fort Lee, New Jersey -- one of the nation's busiest bridges and the key car-and-truck link between New Jersey and New York City -- into four days of gridlock.

So why do I think that Christie will, in Jersey street parlance, get a slide despite his unconvincing efforts to portray himself as the victim (his variation on Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" defense was a real howler), the likelihood of criminal charges being filed against some of his aides, and the drip-drip-drip of revelations about Christie's numerous other forays into retributive justice, as one pundit called it?

Because 2016, when Christie will make a run for the Republican presidential nomination, is as distant as Alpha Centauri, or for that matter Romney's 1965 exploits, in our 24/7 news cycle world.  Besides which, bullying -- as exemplified by right-wing demagogues like Rush Limbaugh -- has become so much background noise in our toxic, hyper-partisan environment.  Bullying is the new normal, as it were, and it will matter little that the pugilistic governor didn't come clean all at once, which is likely the case, than allow the cover-up become bigger than the crime, because the media will soon move on to fresh outrages.

Finally, the Republican Party desperately needs Christie.

I continue to believe that while Teahadists are powerful beyond their numbers, they have painted the party into an ideological corner that pretty much guarantees increasing national irrelevance.  A Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum or Ted Cruz has zero chance of beating Hillary Clinton.  GOP donors, primarily those on Wall Street who lack the fascist tendencies of the Koch Brothers, will shower Christie with money, and maybe -- just maybe -- the lessons not learned from Romney's 2012 thrashing will sink in.

While the stars might have to be aligned just so for Christie to get the Republican nomination, only he is capable of giving Clinton a run for her money.  This is because many of the policies and points of view the governor espouses are in sync with voters in general, if not right-wing Republicans, including those all-important Independent women.  These include gun control, immigration reform, Medicaid expansion, gay rights and, yes, good old fashioned compromising.
Why do so many Republican officials today use their power to hurt people?

Surprisingly, I have yet to read of anyone making a connection between the GW Bridge gridlock in early September and the shutdown of the federal government from October 1-16, although much talked about and anticipated as Christie's elves carried out their dirty work, which among other things slowed emergency responses and may or may not have resulted in a death, as well as making tens of thousands of people late for work and school.
And as sleazy as New Jersey politics are historically -- the Sopranos . . . er, Garden State is perhaps the most corrupt; yes, even more corrupt than Louisiana -- political paybacks usually take the form of envelopes stuffed with cash, not outright thuggery.
It's sick.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Bones, Hypocrisy & More: Musings On The Year Of The Banana Peel

I have lived a long and healthy life save only for a fairly minor stroke some 13 years ago and the obligatory middle-aged guy hernia repair, but recently had a run of bad luck that left a big hole in the year just passed.

It began back in May when I was walking our brother-sister chocolate Labradors, who weigh about 100 pounds each, on a country road near our mountain retreat.  They spotted a neighbor whom they adore and tore off to say howdy.  Although I was holding their leather leashes loosely (try saying that three times fast) and I'm a big dude, their rocket-like acceleration lifted me off my feet, spun me around, and I crashed into an embankment, fracturing my left humerus. (That's the arm bone right below the shoulder.)

The good news is that it was a clean break that an orthopedist recommended be allowed to self heal with the temporary use of an arm sling followed by an exercise regimen, as well as his admonition to look out for "banana peels," situations that might get me in trouble before I had fully regained arm strength and balance.

The bad news is that a banana peel in the form of an area rug with an upturned corner presented itself in late July.  I took the bait and kicked the corner over, going ass over tea kettle and shattering my left femur (that's the hip bone). 

I came home after two weeks in a rehab hospital and began in-home occupational and physical therapy.  Then in early October, not more than six hours after being discharged from in-home PT and having discarded a walker and become accustomed to the assistance of a cane, a second banana peel presented itself in the form of an uneven and poorly lit driveway surface.  I became tangled up in the cane getting out of a car and went down, refracturing the femur, this time so badly that I initially needed to use a wheelchair to get around.

After three additional weeks in a rehab hospital, I again underwent in-home OT and PT, eventually discarded the wheelchair and then a walker, and am greeting 2014 with my old friend the cane once again in hand, which has prompted pal and inveterate wag Joe Gandelman to comment that, after all, I was "always raising cane, so what's the big deal?"
* * * * *
Beyond the obvious -- Look out for banana peels, stoopid! -- I take away a couple three lessons from my experience.

There is nothing quite like having a sense of one's own mortality to put things in perspective, as my fellow blogger Ron Beasley does here with brevity but eloquence.
I was damned fortunate.  The injuries could have been worse, I might have liked painkillers and become addicted to them, and could have been among Our Great Country's 45 million uninsured.  

(Despite my shame at being one of Mitt Romney's 44 Percenters, in my case a veteran who is sponging off the system despite having loyally contributed to it for 50 fricking years, Medicare has covered almost all of my medical expenses, and what it hasn't -- one measly ambulance ride and wheelchair rental -- has been covered by a reasonably priced AARP supplemental policy.)

And I was reminded of how wonderful my friends are.  Beyond the Love Of My Life, who has worked me harder than my excellent therapists on their off days and been endlessly supportive in the face of my mood swings, friends who have had not dissimilar boo-boos have kept reinforcing that I had to work through the pain, dammit!

* * * * *
Albert Einstein's genius extended well beyond theoretical physics, of course, and his observations about temporal matters are legendary.  My favorite: "Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous."

That truth was slammed home in December when in the space of 72 hours two gravely ill sisters of a dear friend passed away, the older sister, we are sure, waiting until her younger sibling was on her deathbed in order to be able to join her.  Then a friend of My Love's family for eight decades also left the material world, reminding us in his last Christmas missive with his typical wisdom that "While email is quicker, cards last longer."

We will be grieving for some time.

* * * * *
Not that anyone has noticed, but my blogging output in 2013 dropped to a fraction of what it has been in the past, and I won't be setting the world on fire this year, either.  

Beyond that banana peel thing, the reason is simple: Having done the writing gig for many years, the feeling of "been there, wrote about that" has become overpowering.  Besides which, how many times can you call Republicans feckless nitwits?  Or write that Our Once Great Country has gone to hell in a hand basket.

There also is my creeping disenchantment with Barack Obama despite his signal accomplishments, including being reelected in the first place, as well as the Affordable Care Act, advancement of gay rights, courageous if vain fight for meaningful gun control, and vowing to talk to our enemies instead of merely wagging our johnsons at them. 

Having told myself and written endlessly that expectations were way too high after Obama's historic 2008 victory, my expectations still were way too high, which makes the disappointments of the last five years -- the president's tepid renouncement of the Bush Torture Regime and endorsement of the NSA's civil liberties gangbang being chief among them -- even more unacceptable. 
* * * * *
Most Telling Statistic of 2013: Some 70 percent of the laws enacted in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre weakened gun control.
* * * * *
Who would have thunk that someone as deeply cynical as I am about the Roman Catholic Church ("the world's largest criminal enterprise," as I have put it), would be applauding the Holy Father, whose scathing putdown of the greedy capitalists who are responsible for so much of what ails our society, is spot on. 
Not that Rush Limbaugh and Paul Ryan, let alone the vile banksters for whom ripping off the Have Nots has become the norm, should be shaking in their Louis Vittons over Pope Francis's radical manifesto. Still, their ways will eventually catch up with them, even if it is as belatedly as when St. Peter tells them to take a hike.

But the big story of 2013 was not so much the cage match over the Affordable Care Act than the underlying reason it is so bloody necessary: Our profoundly dysfunctional health-care system, notably the out-of-control pricing that make getting sick twice to three times as costly than in other industrialized nations where care and mortality statistics are much better than ours.

There were two notable journalistic efforts during 2013 to hammer home that reality -- Steven Brill's "Bitter Pill," which took up an entire dead tree edition of Time magazine in March, and a year-long series by Elisabeth Rosenthal in The New York Times, which she summarizes in "Health Care's Road to Ruin."

Both also are reminders of the importance of investigative journalism, something many newspapers and magazines have abandoned because it is not profitable. And tends to piss off advertisers.
* * * * *
Could it be that Barack Obama will be the last so-called common man to serve as president?  While that would be an immense downer, it would come as no surprise given how the super rich, their skids greased by Citizens United and other Supreme Court rulings favoring the plutocracy, have pretty much taken over national politics.
* * * * *
That sound you hear is the world's tiniest violin, which I am playing in eulogizing the end of the error . . . er, era of George W. Bush's 2002 Every Child Kicked in the Behind education initiative.

As is beyond apparent, teaching kids to do well on standardized tests, the underlying premise of the initiative, was bound to be a disaster, plunging American students even further behind those in most developed countries in math, science and reading.  The Obama administration is now pushing something called Core Curriculum learning, which . . . hold onto your smart phones, kiddies, stresses teaching children how to learn.

* * * * *
Finally, I have some advice for capitalists, politicians and mere mortals in the New Year who remain opposed to government-supported and subsidized health care: Go find a banana peel and step on it.