Thursday, May 10, 2007
Then, as Now--One Year Later
Editor's Note: Exactly one year ago on May 12, 2006, Postscripts was launched with a combination of high hopes and trepidation. The most pressing question at that time was the miasmic Iraq War, begun, we were told, to retaliate for the 9/11 attack. To mark the first anniversary of the inception of Postscripts, we are republishing this very first posting, originally titled "Then, as Now: The Grim Parallelism of Two Wars." The text has been revised only by the addition of one year to each pertinent date statistic. We regret to record that during the intervening 365 days, more than 900 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died, senselessly sacrificed on the altar of vainglory. Like an immature adolescent, our stubborn and willful president has dug in his heels, determined to expend still more blood and treasure to leave this unnecessary war as his legacy to his successor. Sadly, his name is already stained beyond redemption. Here now is the text of that first piece, as meaningful today as it was one year ago:
We are now in the fifth year of our misadventure in Iraq. A major campaign in our so-called "global war on terror," it has had a singular lack of success. Instead of pursuing and capturing Osama bin Laden, the criminal who had everything to do with the terror that befell this nation on Sept. 11, 2001, we attacked Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with that foul deed.
We are again bogged down in a never-ending war for which we have neither a plan for victory nor a plan for extricating ourselves. Torn between support for our brave troops and a growing conviction the game is not worth the candle, public opinion in favor of the war in Iraq has dwindled. Military leaders, sensing an American military presence there lasting at least until 2010, now privately refer to it as "the long war," a name that brings back memories of our bitter involvement in Vietnam.
Then, as now, a supine Congress was seduced into authorizing a war through presidential deception. Forty-three years ago it was a trumped-up attack on two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Four years ago it was Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction plus a trumped-up conspiracy between fundamentalist Osama bin Laden and a secular Saddam Hussein that did the trick.
Then, as now, the administration defended its policies in spite of increasing evidence that nothing was going according to plan, that strategy was being improvised as we went along. Then, as now, we were told there was "light at the end of the tunnel." We must "stay the course." We cannot "cut and run." We would be dishonoring those who had died if we did not stay and take additional casualties.
Then, as now, thousands of fighting men and women were sacrificed because leaders who had never served in a shooting war or had even made an effort to serve in the military, were proclaiming that victory was just over the horizon. To suggest exploring any other course of action was unpatriotic, if not treasonable,
Then, as now, advisors were only too ready to pronounce our mission as accomplished. Walt Rostow, a professor from MIT serving as head of the National Security Council, repeatedly predicted the imminent collapse of the Vietcong insurgency. Two years ago, Vice President Cheney speaking of the violence in Iraq, told the American people, "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."
In Vietnam, American divisions trained and equipped to throw back Warsaw Pact armies pouring westward through the Fulda Gap in central Germany found themselves facing wily guerrilla fighters in an impenetrable tropical jungle. In Iraq, the small, highly mobile attack force we fielded to defeat Saddam's tenth-rate army in an arid desert found itself undermanned and unable to cope with a fierce insurgency armed with apparently limitless improvised weapons.
Then, as now, it was impossible for military leaders to speak frankly about the ill-defined policy our unprepared forces were valiantly trying to carry out. In 1966, retired Gen. David M. Shoup, former Marine Corps Commandant, who was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in World War II, called the Vietnam war a mistake and was criticized for questioning the leadership and military decisions of commander in chief Lyndon B. Johnson, and defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, while our troops were fighting and dying there.
Testifying before Congress, he said that the government's contention that Vietnam was vital to American interests was "poppycock"; in his view, the whole of Southeast Asia "was not worth a single American life." General Shoup expressed the growing feeling of many Americans when he said, "I believe that if we keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-soaked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own." He added, "If unfortunately their revolution must be of the violent type, because the 'haves' refuse to share with the 'have-nots' by any peaceful method, at least what they get will be their own, and not the American style, which they don't want and above all don't want crammed down their throat by Americans."
Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, hero of Korea, braved the same fate in a 1971 article in the authoritative journal Foreign Affairs. He wrote, "It should not have taken great vision to perceive that no truly vital United States interest was present and that the commitment to a major effort was a monumental blunder." Recently, a handful of retired military officers of flag rank spoke out against the conduct of the war in Iraq and the lack of clear-cut goals. They were met with a barrage of criticism for not having spoken up when wearing a uniform and quickly silenced.
Then, as now, we proclaimed that our aim was solely to bring the almost magical curative powers of democracy to a part of the world that had never known it and to restore a nation of longtime antagonistic elements. In Vietnam, our announced aim was to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, only to discover this could not be accomplished if we were at the same time killing innocent civilians, destroying their villages and despoiling the countryside.
In Iraq, our vaunted reconstruction program to repair and reconstruct what we have damaged has stalled because of poor planning and widespread corruption. We have discovered that an occupying power cannot prevail over a sullen population if entire neighborhoods or even whole cities must be destroyed to root out insurgents who see us not as saviors but as invaders and occupiers.
It took 58,000 American deaths and 150,000 wounded in Vietnam before we concluded that our leaders did not have a clue about their goals nor the courage to extricate themselves from the morass into which they had plunged us. Although undefeated in battle after battle, in the end, we did indeed ignominiously cut and run under the pressure of public opinion.
Future historians will see many parallels between Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush: An immoderate yet insecure ego, a limitless capacity to wield the power of their office without inhibition and a stubborn aversion to altering a course of action once it was decided upon. Lacking their predecessors' ambivalence, which sprang from their keen sense of history, both also lacked their predecessors' capacity for reflective thinking, especially about the consequences of their decisions.
Three decades ago Robert McNamara, a genius at statistical analysis and architect of the Vietnam debacle, was forced to admit defeat and give up the post of defense secretary. Paul Wolfowitz, university professor and author of our failed Iraq policy, similarly gave up his post as deputy secretary of defense when the promised happy throngs of welcoming Iraqis never materialized, replaced by shadowy, vengeful insurgents. Interestingly, as if to reinforce the parallelism of Vietnam and Iraq, both McNamara and Wolfowitz were rewarded with the same new post: the presidency of the World Bank.
Our folly in Vietnam had many sources. Chief among them was the illusion of American omnipotence--a conviction that America could impose its will anywhere in the world. Senator J. William Fulbright properly called it "the arrogance of power," a term eerily echoed today by our actions in the Middle East.
What we failed to understand then was that the problems and conflicts affecting other nations could not be solved simply by the application of American force. Nor could a solution be achieved with American know-how or America's good intentions and by imposing our unique brand of democracy, the latter painfully shaped from the Anglo-Saxon tradition over more than two centuries. Ironically, these very same delusions are now responsible for our entanglement with the tar baby that is Iraq.
Government exists for the benefit of its citizens. We should not be spending blood and treasure in a vain attempt to instill democracy elsewhere if, at the same time, we diminish it here at home. Human casualties are bearable only when they serve a purpose. They become a bitter price to pay when it turns out they were sacrificed for nothing.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Thank You, Jimmy Cannon!
Jimmy Cannon, one of the greats of American sports writing, was a self-taught high school dropout. His colorful, almost poetic style is a reminder that some of the best reportage in American newspapers can be found in their sport pages. He would occasionally put together a column of opinions, laconic observations and pet peeves he titled "Nobody Asked Me, But . . ."
Born in 1909 in what he described as "the unfreaky part of Greenwich Village," Jimmy Cannon was the streetwise son of a minor Tammany politician. A dropout from Regis High School, he got his start in journalism at 16 as a copy boy on the New York Daily News. Within ten years the ambitious copy boy had risen to become a general interest reporter. Next he jumped from the Daily News to William Randolph Hearst's New York American, which hired him as a sportswriter. His beat eventually included not only baseball stadiums and boxing rings but Broadway and the world of "delicatessen nobility"--bookmakers, touts, horse players and talent agents who hung out at such watering holes as Toots Shor's, Lindy's, the Stork Club and El Morocco.
Jimmy Cannon's writing career spanned 37 years. Almost entirely self-educated by keen observation and voracious reading, Canon was an obsessive writer, a former drinker who "drank more coffee than Balzac." One of his colleagues, W. C. Heinz of the old New York Sun wrote, ""His column was his whole life. He has no family, no games he plays, no other activities. When he writes, it's the concentration of his whole being. He goes through the emotional wringer. I have no idea what Jimmy would do if he weren't writing that column, he'd be so lonesome."
In an era when sports writers only wrote about what they saw happening from the press box, he revolutionized sports coverage by going into the locker room to get to know athletes and to learn their view of what happened. In 1959, his salary was $1,000 a week, making him the highest-paid sportswriter in America at a time when a buck was a buck. Ernest Hemingway was a fan of his writing. "I don't know anybody who takes his job more seriously or with more confidence," he noted.
"If you saw him play, you'll never forget him," Jimmy Canon wrote about Joe DiMaggio. "No one ran with such unhurried grace. His gifts as an athlete were marvelous, because they were so subdued. Here was an outfielder who followed the flight of the ball with a deft serenity as though its progress had been plotted by a chronograph, concerned only with the defeat of awkwardness." The day, a fabled black pitcher was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame after years of discrimination, he wrote, "the ceremony was mean and sour. Baseball was apologizing to Satchel Page for what it had done to him."
Of all sports, Jimmy liked boxing most, although he admitted that it was "the red light district of sports." Jimmy Cannon called Joe Louis "the greatest heavyweight I ever covered. The hands were quick, and a left hook or a right hand, would stun the other guy, and then he would put the combinations together with a rapid accuracy." Of Louis, always correct, stolid, and unfailingly polite, Jimmy said, "He is a credit to his race--the human race." Of Rocky Marciano, who "bled for his fame," he wrote, "He stood out like a rose in a garbage dump in a sport that is too often tainted by corruption and greed."
Lifelong bachelor Jimmy Cannon lived in the Hotel Edison on West 46th Street and ate regularly at the Stork Club and Toots Shor's. Later he moved to an apartment at 440 East 56th Street, and frequented P.J. Clarke's on Third Avenue at 55th Street. I would run into him there. My favorite beat-up Irish gin mill was the less-crowded and scruffier Glennon's across the avenue to which the overflow from an overcrowded Clarke's would retreat. At Glennon's, the publican behind the bar wore a vest, and his politic loyalties were no secret. Over the cash register, a framed photo of a regal Queen Elizabeth sported a black eye.
Jimmy had given up drinking about the time of the Second World War. Drafted early, he served in the Army for five years, three of them as a combat correspondent for the newspaper Stars and Stripes. "That was a long time ago," was how he would sum up an incident recounted from the past. He once mused, "Combat soldiers are the loneliest people in the world. What a man does in a period of war, he carries around inside him forever."
Returning to sportswriting in 1946, his glory days came on the old New York Post, where he would remain for thirteen years. This was long before Rudolph Murdoch got his grubby mitts on the paper and made it a travesty of the phrase "fair and balanced reporting." The Post's liberal politics made a better match for Jimmy's working-class view of the system. After 1959, his final stint was on the New York Journal-American, a merger of Hearst's afternoon and morning papers. It folded in 1966; thereafter Hearst's King Features Syndicate handled his column.
I was one of Jimmy's many fans. Another was Frank Sinatra. So enamored was the singer and actor of Jimmy's writing that he had his New York Post columns and those of Murray Kempton, another writer he admired, airmailed to him regularly in California. A projected Cannon collaboration with Sinatra on his autobiography never materialized. "I told Frank up front," he said later, "that if I was going to write it for him, he had to tell me everything. He didn't want to do it that way, and that ended the project."
Short and chunky as a fire plug, Jimmy was unathletic himself. Like most New Yorkers, he enjoyed walking the city's streets and studying people. "I like my life as a columnist," he once said, "A columnist is always permitted to get off his chest what is bothering him. I have no need for a psychiatrist." Tough and opinionated to the end, Jimmy died in 1973 of complications brought on by his bad habits--cigarettes, gambling, dames, hard living and hanging out in late-night bars (where he drank no booze, only coffee). I attended the Mass of the Resurrection for him at St. Patrick's Cathedral. I never saw so many grown men with tears in their eyes.
In 2004, almost 31 years after his death, writer Jimmy Cannon was belatedly honored with the Associated Press sports editors Red Smith Award for lifetime achievement. Years after his death, perhaps figuring that people would have forgotten Jimmy, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch shamelessly appropriated Jimmy's title of "Nobody Asked Me, But . . ." for his own New York Daily News column without so much as a nod in Jimmy's direction.
Some of Jimmy's observations were memorably pithy: "If Howard Cosell was a sport, it would be Roller Derby," is one I recall. Jimmy had the map of Ireland for a face. Thus, his complaint, "I don't like Boston because all the men look like me." He wrote, "I am always amazed when I see anyone eating a cheese sandwich without mustard." And how about his "People in bus terminals look tired even before they start the trip." Or "England produces the best fat actors." Among his other memorable observations were:
"I have more faith in brusque doctors than oily-mannered ones."
"Guys who use other people's coffee saucers as ashtrays should be banned from public places."
"It's almost impossible for a girl to be homely if she wears a gardenia in her hair."
"I've never seen a circus clown I thought was funny."
"I can't remember ever staying for the end of a movie in which the actors wore togas."
"The trouble with the big leagues is that there aren't enough big leaguers."
"Fishing, to me, has always been an excuse to drink in the daytime."
"Baseball isn't statistics. Baseball is DiMaggio rounding second."
So, with a tip of the hat to Jimmy Cannon, lonesome poet of the metropolitan night, gone from our midst now more than three decades, a newspaper writer like no other before or since, we inaugurate a new addition to Postscripts: occasional commentary in the Jimmy Cannon tradition, appropriately titled, "Nobody Asked Me, But . . ." Look for the series to start soon in these pages.