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Unpreventable?

December 7, 2016

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The war that we have carefully for years provoked                                                                                         Catches us unprepared, amazed and indignant.
— Robinson Jeffers from the poem “Pearl Harbor”

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a date that President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed “will live in infamy.” On this day in 1941, Pearl Harbor, the primary American base in the Pacific, suffered a devastating surprise strike by the Empire of Japan which resulted in the death of more than two thousand Americans and crippled the critically important Pacific Fleet, plunging us into World War II.

Never before had a foreign attack of this magnitude occurred on American soil causing such loss of life and property. This was the original 9/11, another day that caught us unprepared, amazed, and indignant. And much like 9/11, the way it happened would read like a novel had it not been true. There occurred a perfect storm of unusual circumstances and missed opportunities by the United States, and Japan’s shocking triumph resulted.

Months before, a meeting proposed by Japan’s Prime Minister Konoye to “solve the unsolvable” never happened. Despite the urging of Joseph Grew, the American Ambassador to Japan, the State Department did not share his optimism that such a meeting would prove fruitful and disregarded the viewpoint that Japan’s desperation over the U.S. embargo and sanctions would drive them to war. Prince Konoye subsequently resigned, General Hideki Tojo became both Prime Minister and War Minister, and seven weeks later Pearl Harbor felt the result.

The Japanese government had intended to convey a declaration of war thirty minutes before the attack was to have begun. However, officials at the Japanese embassy in Washington had taken too long to decode the document thus unintentionally delivering it two hours after the fact.

Normally, the entire fleet would not be present in the harbor at one time, a common safety measure taken by the Navy. On this day, though, the entire fleet was in, all concentrated in a small area, providing a perfect target.

Normally, in each of the warships enough compartments would be sealed off making them water-tight in case of attack to prevent the sinking of the giant vessels. That coming Monday an Admiral’s inspection had been expected, so the compartments were left open to facilitate his visit, a decision that had dire consequences.

At 6:40 on the morning of the assault, the crew of the destroyer U.S.S. Ward spotted the periscope of a submarine headed for the entrance to the harbor. It dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the sub. This information was radioed to Headquarters. It should have been a red flag precipitating an immediate alert. No alert was issued.

At 7:02 the radar station, manned by young and inexperienced personnel, detected a massive flight of airplanes 132 miles from the island and approaching rapidly from the north. Lt. Kermit Taylor, a pilot only on his second day at the station, made the assumption that it was an expected flight of American B-17 bombers from California. In actuality it was the 183 Japanese aircraft bent on delivering a knock-out blow to the American military might in the Pacific. No action was taken.

At 7:55 the first wave of torpedo planes swept in, and the devastation began. During the next two hours, the lightning strike planned by the Japanese — one they thought would entail an intense battle from which most would not return — was successful beyond their expectations.

Could Pearl Harbor have been averted? After 9/11, the same haunting question was asked. More importantly, what about the next Pearl Harbor, the next 9/11? Is complete preparedness even possible?

As former CIA operative and writer Charles McCarry noted, “Richard M. Helms, the first director of Central Intelligence to rise from the ranks, was fond of saying that the CIA had been founded to make sure that there would never be another Pearl Harbor. Underlying this mission impossible was the wishful supposition that an America that knew everything could prevent anything.”

It is doubtful that there could be an America that knows everything. It seems unlikely both because of our free society and expectations of privacy as well as the logistical improbability of such a herculean task. And if that is the case, then the very idea that America can prevent anything is untenable.

So what are we to do? Yes, we must insist that our government, military, and police remain vigilant. The same should be expected of the citizenry. But beyond that, the need to be proactive in eliminating the root causes of the animosities that would rise to such a level of aggression is paramount, another seemingly impossible mission. However, it is one that must be attempted, for not to do so condemns us to a future of Pearl Harbors to come.

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A Question Of Peace

November 17, 2016

The world has been mired in a cycle of war repeated for as long as there has been history. Nations have suffered devastation at the hands of other nations because of greed, xenophobia, misunderstanding, and vengeance. Political, ethnic, and religious groups have been both victim and perpetrator, and vilification of targeted groups has been used to justify their oppression or destruction as the instigators of violence take advantage by exploiting the emotions of the populace. The only thing that changes is the time, the place, and the method.

The lessons that should have been learned from this shared human past are many. Humankind has not been a very good learner.

I understand the need to protect oneself, and knowing one’s perceived enemies and keeping vigilant seems prudent. But each act of aggression by either side of any discord only foments further acts in response. Hatred begets hatred, violence results in more violence, and neither has ever led to any true resolution. The seemingly interminable chain must somehow be broken.

The continuous conflict that has afflicted mankind is deeply ingrained. The question is this: do we as a species intend to live in a perpetual state of combat, or do we find a way to peacefully resolve our differences?

It boils down to a question of tolerance. The intense animosities that have arisen between races, religions, nations, and tribes foster the endless fighting and even the perverse desire to eradicate the opposing group. The focus is always on some disparate aspect of the other group that develops into a seemingly insurmountable barrier.

However, our commonalities as humans vastly outnumber our differences, and the perpetrators of aggression need to be convinced to abandon the old ideologies to which they cling that justify their desire for dominance. The huge task of eliminating the manufactured boundaries between the peoples of Earth is the critical need; how to accomplish it is the ultimate problem. It will take a concerted effort by all who believe a lasting peace is both necessary and possible in order to attain this.

And why now? A few moments spent reading a newspaper or watching the news should answer that. How many atrocities inflicted on the innocent can we bear? How many areas of the globe balanced on the precipice or already immersed in armed aggression need to exist? How many threats of potential escalation into the ultimate conflagration must weigh upon us?

There are those who say it is in our nature as humans to do this. Maybe they are right. Others hold onto hope that the inhabitants of this small blue planet will some day come to their senses. I pray they are right. But as science and technology have created more numerous and powerful weapons than have ever before existed and nationalistic or religious dogma have fanned the flames of hatred and increased the will to use them, it will take more than hope alone to counteract this madness. This hope must turn into commitment and then to positive action in order to halt our march toward the potential annihilation of humankind.

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Remembering Those Who Served

November 11, 2016

 

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Today is Veterans’ Day, a commemorative holiday that should be of great significance to us all. But I wonder about the emotional connection that seems to be missing for far too many Americans.

I believe several factors have contributed to this. The mood of the nation has soured on military involvement abroad. More significantly, the advent of the all-volunteer army has insulated the vast majority of Americans from those who now are put in the position of fighting in our name. We all seem to forget when it is somebody else’s parent or sibling or child who is in harm’s way.

But for some Americans, this is a day that cannot be ignored. These Americans are the ones who have served in war. They are the fathers and mothers, the sisters and brothers, the husbands and wives, and the sons and daughters of those vets. This day is a time to acknowledge the sacrifices they have made, something in my opinion that should be done at every opportunity, not just on one day.

Since its institution as a holiday in 1919 to commemorate the November 11, 1918, cessation of fighting during World War I — supposedly the “war to end all wars” — there have been numerous occasions for American soldiers to be called upon to take up arms. World War II. The Korean War (or Korean Conflict for those who like to overlook reality). The Vietnam War. The Gulf War. The Iraq War. The War in Afghanistan. And if history is any indicator, there will be others yet to come.

We need to pay tribute to these Americans who have heeded that call even if we are not one of them. We need to think about those who went to war and returned forever affected by their experience. We owe them that much.

If you are not a veteran of war, if you have not been sent away from your home and friends and family to a strange and hostile far-off land, then you can’t know what it’s really like. You have not had to experience the often random and brutal death and destruction that is part of war. That is understandable. But you can do something to open your eyes to the realities that others have lived through on your behalf.

Read what those veterans who have served have written about these realities. They wrote what they did to try to get you to understand — at least a little bit — what it was like to be there, and what it is like to carry the scars, both physical and emotional, back home again. Read the poems of Yusef Komunyakaa about the soldiers’ perilous life in the jungles of Vietnam or those of Brian Turner who writes with such insight about the trials of serving in the Iraqi desert or the accounts of Owen West in The Snake Eaters, of Nathaniel Fitch in One Bullet Away, of Donovan Campbell in Joker One. The time and location may differ from war to war, but the essence of the experience remains the same. Whether you agree or not with these or any other wars, the people who are sent and who must make the sacrifices deserve your attention.

Talk to a veteran, at the very least to express thanks for his or her service. Talk to their family members to perhaps gain some perspective on the situation in which they have found themselves. Do something positive to aid a vet who is in need, or contribute in some way to those organizations which are already doing so. Check out their websites. Help in whatever way you can, even if it’s making a small donation.

So today on this Veterans Day, recognize the veterans who are undoubtedly around you. Pay attention to their stories in whatever form they present themselves. Remember their stories on normal days as well because their normal days in many cases have been forever changed. Though it is, I believe, our obligation to do so, I believe we should once again look at it as a privilege to remember and honor those who have served.

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Rigged

November 9, 2016

In perhaps the greatest irony (and there were many) of this Presidential election, Donald Trump’s concerns about a “rigged” election came to pass, though not in the manner that he foresaw. For the second time in the past five elections and the fifth time in our history, the candidate who had the most votes did not win.

Why? Because of the presence in our “democracy” of an archaic system called the electoral college. In this system, the principle of one person one vote is in actuality circumvented.

So why do we have this system in the first place?

One must go back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 for the answer. The founding fathers had thought about a variety of different methods of electing the President, most of which did not involve any direct vote by the people themselves. When they settled upon the electoral college, part of the reasoning was to provide a degree of participation by the population. Tweaked in 1804 by the 12th Amendment and then again by the 23rd Amendment, the system remains essentially the same in that the deciding vote is that of the electoral college and not the popular vote. In this system, it is which states a candidate has a simple majority in rather than the more logical simple majority in the entire nation. It is even potentially possible in the current system to win a Presidential election with under 30 percent of the popular vote.

The 2000 election illustrates the inequity of this process. Before the Florida vote was finalized, Al Gore led George W. Bush in the nation-wide popular vote. He also led in the electoral vote 265 to 246. But a difference of a mere 537 votes gave Florida — and its 25 electoral votes — to Bush, and thus the entire election. How does this make sense?

Perhaps it is time for a change.

Just such a change was considered during the 91st Congress. A resolution proposed a direct election based on the popular vote with the provision that a run off would be required if no one received over 40 percent of the vote. In 1969 the House of Representatives passed this resolution, but the Senate did not.

I, for one, believe such a change is long overdue, not just because of the result of this particular election or any other, but because if we are to truly be a democracy, no other system makes sense.

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Let the Buyer Beware

November 3, 2016

My seventh grade Latin class gave me my first exposure to the phrase caveat emptor — let the buyer beware.

This is a warning that has been necessary since the earliest days of civilization, a call for the consumer to be careful, for what they think they are getting may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Why? Because there have always been those unscrupulous individuals amongst us who try to sell us something that can’t possibly live up to their sales pitch, or worse, that is patently defective.

It is exactly that warning that is needed this election because there has arrived a snake oil salesman promising to cure all our ills the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time, if ever.

His name is Donald Trump, and he is selling himself as a savior who will lead the aggrieved to their promised land. He is not. He is a false prophet who has a lifelong history of serving only one entity: himself.

And just what would you be getting with Donald Trump?

A man who has no real allegiance to the Republican Party. He has switched party affiliation five times over the years to suit his own needs. The only allegiance Trump has ever displayed is to himself.

A man who used five deferments to avoid serving in the military, yet he demeans former prisoner of war veteran John McCain and disparages the Kahn family whose son sacrificed his life in service to his country.

A man who brags of sexual conquests, who committed adultery, who dumped a loyal wife of twelve years because — in his words — she no longer appealed to him sexually after bearing his children, and who has a history of questionable behavior towards women in general.

A man who boasts of his fabulous wealth (though he is in actuality only #156 on the list of American billionaires) as well as his manipulation of the system to pay little in tax money (unlike Warren Buffet, #3 on the list, and most likely you).

A man who has used undocumented immigrants to work on his buildings, Chinese steel to build them, and other people’s money to finance them (losing billions of it in the process).

A man who claims to be the champion of the working man but has a long record of stiffing vendors and contractors.

A man who thinks he knows more than generals though he has never been in war, a man who thinks he knows more than those who have experience in serving the public — something he himself has never done, a man who thinks he is the only one who can solve all the complex problems of a nation when he could not solve problems in the very business enterprises he ran.

A man who uses mockery, slander, and innuendo as campaign tools and lawsuits as a personal weapon.

A man whose path to the White House has been built on the flimsy foundation of “reality” show notoriety, hollow catch phrases, big promises lacking few details of how they will be achieved, and slick commercials rather than any substantial or relevant qualifications or achievements.

That is what you will be getting.

So let the buyer beware. Don’t fall for this promise of an “easy cure,” for there will be no refunds and no returns. What you will end up with is one very bad case of buyer’s remorse.

And the entire country will end up paying for it.

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The Price They Paid

October 23, 2016
the great irony of America

the great irony of America

America has historically been a land of immigrants from the advent of the Pilgrims right through the present. This country is still seen by many people all over the world as the best hope for a better future, but it has always come with a price.

In spite of the altruistic welcome by Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty which says “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me…,” each new immigrant group is often met with disdain, misunderstanding, distrust, and often outright hatred. This has been true for virtually every nationality and ethnicity, and it was no different for the Italian immigrants who flocked to these shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The indignities began with many instances of violence. Between the years of 1870 and 1940, only African-Americans suffered more lynchings than the Italian immigrants. The dubious distinction of the largest mass lynching in American history falls to the Italians in 1891.

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This occurred in New Orleans after the police chief was shot and killed right before he was to testify against a group of Italian dock workers. The chief reportedly whispered “the dagos did it” before he died. The city reacted by rounding up Italian men indiscriminately. As related by the New Orleans Times-Democrat, “The little jail was crowded with Sicilians whose low, receding foreheads, repulsive countenances and slovenly attire proclaimed their brutal nature.”

Nine Italian men went on trial for murder, and all were acquitted. However, a mob stormed the prison, shot nine of them in their cells, and then dragged two more out and hanged them. A subsequent investigation excused the actions of the mob, something that caused the government of Italy to sever diplomatic relations with the United States.

There are far too many examples of the brutal manifestation of the ill feelings directed toward these newcomers. In 1920, the Italian neighborhood in West Frankfort, Illinois, was attacked by mobs. People of all ages were dragged from their homes and beaten, and entire blocks were burned. The railroading and ultimate executions of Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts became emblematic of the treatment of Italians by the biased American establishment.

Other more subtle forms of ill will had to be tolerated during the slow process of assimilation. There was rampant discrimination in housing and hiring, and students had to survive the negative attitudes and limited expectations prevalent in the schools. Being of Italian descent also meant suffering the disrespectful slurs that unfortunately befall all immigrant groups, from blatant name-calling — wop, dago, guinea — to crude ethnic jokes and innuendo.

When I was young, I remember my very Teutonic aunt making what I interpreted even in the innocence of my youth as disparaging comments about my Italian American mother. I don’t really know exactly what she said or even if I understood it fully, but it was clear by her facial expression and the tone of her voice what was going on. My mother just laughed it off as a joke, but I could tell that this was not the case. She never spoke much about such treatment until I was an adult. It became clear from her brief anecdotes that being Italian had its social drawbacks and that one would be commonly subjected to being called derisive names.

Popular culture often reinforces the worst of the negative stereotypes of any group, and so it is for the Italian American. From the spate of mobster movies that gained popularity from the older shoot-em-up Capone type films to the more recent Godfather and Goodfellas and the widely acclaimed TV series The Sopranos, such criminal activity has long been associated with this population, the majority of whom had nothing to do with it. Later “reality” shows such as Jersey Shore focused on those sensationalized attributes also widely accepted as part of the Italian American identity. Do these exist? Yes, they do, but they are certainly not universally applicable to all people of Italian heritage, nor are they limited to this one group.

So during this Italian American Heritage Month — as in every other commemorative month — some reflection is called for. Those of us who have descended from any group of immigrants regardless of origin should remember the price our predecessors had to pay for their entry into this new society. It would behoove us, it seems, to apply these lessons to our treatment of those who are now going through the same trials as our own ancestors.

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Remember your own beginnings…

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Look Behind the Curtain

October 9, 2016

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Donald Trump is a great businessman. Just ask him. After all, he made billions. Better yet, he will be able to use his incredible acumen to help the rest of us.

But is Donald Trump really a great businessman? Sure sounds like it. Until you look behind the curtain, that is.

The supposed success of Donald Trump is an illusion being perpetrated by none other than Donald himself. Do people believe him? Apparently quite a few do. Then again, in the famous words of P.T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

To understand Trump’s “philosophy” of business (and, apparently, politics), one must go back to his mentorship under the ruthless New York lawyer Roy Cohn in the 1970s. Cohn had gained fame during the witch hunt that was the McCarthy hearings, taking great pride in ruining lives, demeaning his adversaries, and freely making things up to suit his cause (sound familiar?).

In 1973, Trump hired Cohn when he and his father needed to defend themselves against a federal lawsuit for racial discrimination in housing. In spite of a mountain of incriminating evidence, Trump claimed he was the victim, and Cohn went on the offensive with a massive $100 million lawsuit. The case ended up with Trump being forced to settle, but he learned several lessons from Cohn during the process: use lawsuits as a weapon when attacked, never admit wrongdoing, and even if you lose in actuality, claim victory anyway. Trump did not forget what he learned.

In 1987 Trump embarked on the biggest deal of his life, acquiring the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City. The casino and hotel were both huge and lavish, and Trump spent over a billion dollars on the project. Marvin Roffman, a financial analyst, wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal in which he outlined the unsustainable risk of this enterprise, saying he didn’t believe the company could cover the debt incurred from the loans and the gigantic payroll.

Trump, employing Cohn’s old methodology, threatened a lawsuit against Roffman’s firm unless he apologized or was fired. Roffman refused to back down and was subsequently dismissed by his intimidated firm. By that winter, as Roffman had predicted, the now Trump Taj Mahal found itself in deep financial trouble.

Trump had borrowed tremendous amounts of money — dangerous amounts, according to financial experts. He had bought the Plaza Hotel, an airline, and several casinos in Atlantic City. He overextended himself, and when the businesses did poorly, disaster struck. He blamed everyone but himself for the situation.

Trump and his companies owed over $3 billion, much of it to the banks from whom he had so freely borrowed. In a meeting organized by the bankers, Midlantic National Bank vice president Ben Berzin reported that Trump didn’t seem to comprehend the size of the problem or have any ideas how to resolve it.

“As for being a CEO, in understanding numbers, in understanding the ramifications, it doesn’t seem like he took economics or accounting in college,” Berzin remarked.

In the end, the bankers decided that rather than foreclose on the properties involved, it would be of more value to keep his name on the buildings but remove him from a position of decision-making power as CEO. They gave him a $450,000 a month allowance to continue only in the role of a promoter. After all, as Berzin commented, “He’s the P.T. Barnum of the 21st century.”

With the casinos still deeply in debt, Trump went in a new direction by turning to Wall Street. His enterprises became publicly traded on the stock market with Trump as the pitchman. At their high, the DJT stocks sold at $35 a share, though their final value sank to a dismal $1.60 a share.

Insiders looked at Trump’s stewardship of a publicly traded company “like leaving a kid locked in a candy store.” He paid himself a $44 million salary for “services” and was reimbursed millions more for a private plane, a helicopter, and “administrative costs.”

Trump personally made tens of millions of dollar a year while the stock prices dropped. Three times the company filed for bankruptcy, and investors lost billions. He never earned any profit for his shareholders, and many pensioners were set back severely because of the performance of these stocks in which their retirement funds had been invested.

Though the failure was his, he took neither the loss nor the responsibility. When asked by a reporter about the financial problems, he smirked and asked, “Why do you say they’re problems?” He described it as a success and blamed the shareholders themselves for their losses.

In light of all this, how did the widely held perception that he’s a great businessman proliferate? After leaving this financial mess behind him, he began selling his well-known name. He raked in the profits for doing no more than allowing his brand to be put on other people’s buildings. Those walking by would see the Trump name on properties and assume that they must be another part of his vast empire. They were not.

Then in a masterstroke of showmanship, he brought his act to television with his show The Apprentice. In a controlled environment that made him look knowledgeable, in-charge, and all-powerful, he had a ready-made audience of potential voters seeing him in nothing but a favorable light. Though called “reality TV,” it bore absolutely no connection to any reality that would impact anyone in the country outside of himself and the cultivation of his image.

Now we are seeing the fallout of these years, both in his ability to even be able to run for the office of President in spite of having no relevant experience or qualifications of substance as well as in the controversies now coming to light, the most prominent being his unrevealed tax return information. According to him, his avoidance of paying his fair share of taxes is “smart,” and his defense is that it was legal. Perhaps so, but that does not make it admirable or acceptable. At best it is selfish; at worst it epitomizes the callous indifference of a wealthy and arrogant manipulator of the system.

So you want to vote for Trump? Go ahead, it’s your prerogative. But don’t do so because of his self-trumpeted prowess as a businessman, for it simply is not true.

Just like in the Wizard of Oz, go look behind the curtain, and all you’ll see there is the little man who controls the illusion.

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