Vietnam

Last of the Cold War Warriors

Senator John McCain, 1936-2018. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Even the tempests of Caliban’s island must pause at the passing of John McCain.

Writing about the three great Liberators of the Americas—Bolívar from Venezuela, San Martín from Río de La Plata, Hidalgo from México—José Martí once taught us:

Men cannot be more perfect than the sun. The sun burns with the same light with which it heats. The sun has spots. Ingrates talk only about its spots; grateful ones talk about the light.[1]

As a resident of Arizona, I have had occasion to witness John McCain’s services to his constituency with punctilious efficiency and graciousness. The tag of “maverick”—an unfortunate banality that often diminished the complexity of the man—has led commentators in the last few days to praise his memory as follows: “I disagreed with him on many issues, but …,” usually followed by a lengthy encomium. I will add my voice to this chorus of praise and condemnation. I will write, reducing “a person’s entire life to two or three scenes,” not only about my disagreements with John McCain, but also about the good that should not be interred with his bones.[2]

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They Came for the Children

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British Women and Children Interned in a Japanese Prison Camp, Syme Road, Singapore, 1945, by Leslie Cole. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Somewhere in Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, the Irish Sage reminds us that when a stupid man does something he is ashamed of:  he always claims it is his duty to do so. In our miserable times, when a shameless man or woman does something dreadful that they enjoy, they always claim the law commands them to do so, even when no law exists to that effect. And when they engage in acts of perverted humanity, actions that can only arise from the diseased topographies of the soul, they claim—in an inversion of the classic serial killer excuse—that God made them do it! (more…)

Enough? Playing with Nuclear Fire

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North Korea’s ballistic missile – North Korea Victory Day – 26 July 2013. (Credit: Stefan Krasowski)

The Editorial Board of the New York Times hit the nail on the head of the North Korean missile crisis in its editorial of February 1, 2018, “Playing with Fire and Fury on North Korea.” After reviewing recent developments that suggest Trump is inclined to risk what is likely to be a devastating war with North Korea, the Board ends its editorial with perspectival flourish:

The United States has been at war continuously since the attacks of Sept. 11 and now has just over 240,000 active-duty and reserve troops in at least 172 countries and territories. Enough.

Indeed, one wonders if there can ever be enough in an ongoing sixteen-year-old forever war spanning the globe. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: The Death of Fidel Castro and the Scarface People

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Circus poster showing battle between Buffalo Bill’s congress of rough riders and Cuban insurgents. (Library of Congress)

Sic semper tyrannis! I will not celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. Dictators abound in the world; their deaths should be met with a silent shrug. What joy is there in the tragedy of a people still shattered, a country lost in childhood, and another failure in the centuries-old struggle of Cubans for liberty and equality? Let those who will dance on graves wave flags, honk horns and jump in the streets as a rite of passage.

Rather than spit on a corpse, I choose to recall memories of another Old Man—what he did, and what he meant to us. (more…)

Puerto Rico: Dance Under the Storm (Part II: Borinqueneers)

Painting depiction of the U.S. 65th Infantry Regiment's bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War, by Dominic D'Andrea, 1992. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

Painting depiction of the U.S. 65th Infantry Regiment’s bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War, by Dominic D’Andrea, 1992. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

The illustration pictures the (all Puerto Rican) 65th Infantry Regiment in action. In 2014, President Barack Obama presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the fabled “Borinqueneers” in recognition of their military service in Korea (the word Borinquen derives from the ancient Taíno name for the island).

In The Docile Puerto Rican and Other Essays 1953-1971, René Marqués once argued:

We are docile. If we were not, Puerto Rico would have obtained its national sovereignty in the 19th century…. Puerto Ricans can be antisocial, defiant, non-conformist occasionally and even heroic as individuals in some cases, but we are certainly docile as a people.[1]

History belies such a categorical judgment by one of Puerto Rico’s greatest playwrights. From the first Taíno insurrection by Agueybana el Bravo (the Brave) in 1511; to the repulsion of repeated British and Danish invasions under the Spanish colony; to the slave rebellions of the 19th century; to the legendary insurrection against Spanish rule in 1865 known as the “Grito de Lares”; to the Puerto Rican participation in the Cuban Wars of Independence in 1895; in all conflicts Puerto Ricans have demonstrated the same fighting spirit that animated the Borinqueneers during the Korean War. (more…)

End of Empire

"Four Horsemen of Apocalypse," by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Four Horsemen of Apocalypse,” by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like Gabriel sounding the trumpet for the Final Judgment, or like an unwanted guest who names the rope in the hanged man’s house, Francis I stood before our Clown Congress and spoke the names of four American warrior saints. If our legislators would know them, or come to know more about them, they would realize that the Pope was urging upon us the consequences—in the course of time—of following the words of these Four Riders of the Apocalypse.   (more…)

Walls

Great Wall of China at Mutianyu. (Credit:  Ofol / Wikimedia Commons)

Great Wall of China at Mutianyu. (Credit: Ofol / Wikimedia Commons)

I.  Great Wall of China

“WE FOUGHT SOUTH OF THE WALLS…”

Last year we made war for the Mulberry Brook’s springs,

This year we make war for the Garlic Stream’s bed,

We have washed our swords in Antioch’s waves,

We have grazed our mounts on the Pamirs’ snows,

For thousands of miles our expeditions go

Till the Three Armies’ men are worn and old,

But the Huns look on killing like tilling their fields,

White bones all they grow on their yellow sands! (more…)

Vietnam 50 Years

Beach activity at Da Nang, Vietnam during landing of United States Marines of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade in March of 1965. (Credit: United States Marine Corps (Official Marine Corps Photograph #A183813))

Beach activity at Da Nang, Vietnam during landing of United States Marines of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade in March of 1965. (Credit: United States Marine Corps (Official Marine Corps Photograph #A183813))

Fifty years ago the U.S. ground war began in South Vietnam. Among the finest documentaries about the conflict is Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974). Following is an excerpt from a scene in the film:

LAMENT OF A VIETNAMESE FATHER FOR HIS DAUGHTER 

My 8 year old daughter was killed, and my 3 year old son.

Nixon murderer of civilians.

What have I done to Nixon so that he comes here to bomb my country?

My daughter died right here. She was feeding the pigs. (more…)

The Cuban Thing (Coda: Fly Away)

Douglas DC-6B, N6522C, Pan American World Airways (PA / PAA), August 1964. (Credit:  Ralf Manteufel / Wikimedia Commons)

Douglas DC-6B, N6522C, Pan American World Airways (PA / PAA), August 1964. (Credit: Ralf Manteufel / Wikimedia Commons)

Here is the story I promised in my last post. This is the way I wrote it in my unpublished book about Cuba, The Gospel of Scarface:

On 1 January 1961, exactly two years after the triumph of the Revolution, a lone Cuban refugee arrived at the Miami airport with one suitcase full of carefully bought new clothes and $5 in his pockets. He also carried with him the written address of relatives of a friend who were willing to put him up for his first few days in a new country. Wishing to save his money, he began to walk on the modern American highway leading out of the airport.

A police car stopped him. “You cannot walk on the freeway here.”

“I don’t have money for a taxi,” he replied in his broken English learned in night classes.

The policeman called a taxi cab. Did he have enough money to go where he wanted to go?

“$5 will be enough,” said the cabdriver.

When the cabdriver left him the fare had added up to $4.35.

When my father tells this story of his arrival to the U.S. he throws his hands up in the air in amazement and wonders, without self-pity, at the impossible situation that he faced starting a new life in a new country without friends, without a job, and with only 65 cents. But always the story resonates with a clear, silent message which is the reason why he tells it, an irreducible moral made all the more powerful by the fact that it is left unspoken: if ever you find yourself with only 65 cents, put your money in your pocket, keep on walking, and remember that you are a free man.

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Through Heavy Lenses

Photo of Jonathan Winters performing one of his routines on the television program NBC Comedy Hour (formerly known as the Colgate Comedy Hour).  (Credit:  NBC Television)

Photo of Jonathan Winters performing one of his routines on the television program NBC Comedy Hour (formerly known as the Colgate Comedy Hour). (Credit: NBC Television)

My colleague, the maestro Jeff Thomson—an astounding painter and scene designer—is fond of re-enacting an old comic skit by the great Jonathan Winters. Winters plays an army general who is giving a speech for his troops before going into battle:

“I wanted to be with you, but they need me here. However, I will be observing through heavy lenses.”

Like Winters’ general, we are fond of using other people—sometimes foreign, but local to the theater of war—to fight our wars. We arm them, provide them with a meagre subsistence, praise them with idealistic rhetoric, and send them into battle while we watch—judgmentally—through heavy lenses. This cynical strategy usually ends up badly for the combatants. (more…)