Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Adventures of a Greeting Card

Jerry Seinfeld once joked about buying a greeting card for his girlfriend. On the front was a soft-focus picture of a man and a woman having a picnic in a field of daisies. Inside, Seinfeld wrote, "Here's another couple having a more meaningful relationship than us."

It was 1999, the worst year of my life. (May Fate not mistake my matter-of-factness for certitude - it was the worst year of my life so far.) My army career had taken a turn for the worse and I found myself in love with a serial philanderer. And I could see no way out.

On the very few occasions when convention - like Valentine's Day - gave me a pretext to express the depths of my feelings for her. I used the most deceptively simple way to express it - in a greeting card.

I have no difficulty putting into words what I feel, especially when the feeling is oceanic. But, as in Rilke's definition of Great Love, my feelings so completely overshot their mark (a quite common and stupid woman) that the only way she could possibly grasp something of what I felt was by couching it in the impersonal, non-specific platitudes of a greeting card.

It fell on a Sunday that year, so neither of us was working. We went out together in the evening to either Bennigan's or Chili's or Old Chicago - some suitably horrible eatery that eliminated all chances of intimacy. We sat down in a booth, just the two of us. The food was a pretext, but after the forgettable meal, I pulled out a card in its envelope and, smiling, held it out to her across the table.

She tried to smile, nearly cracking her cheeks as she did so, opened the envelope and took out the card. As usual, the only pretense at something personal were the few words I inscribed before an after the printed message that was probably shared on that day by tens of thousands of people: "Dear So-and-so" (I withhold her name out of sheer spite.) and "Love, Danny."

Thus ambushed by my inconvenient sentiments, she moved her eyes down the card, like it was tombstone. She put it down at her elbow, said Thanks, held out her fingers across the table to me and told me she had to go.

I asked for the check, put enough cash on top of it, and we stood up and left. Several blocks down the street, she asked me if I had remembered to pick up the card. I hadn't - it was hers. I was driving, but I knew it was useless to turn around. She had places to go. . . .

The waiter collected the card, with the check. It probably waited at the cashier's until closing time for someone to claim it. However much she didn't want it, I didn't have the heart to take it back.

Friday, February 8, 2013

How My Dad Won the War

The 70th anniversary of the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad has just passed, and much is being made of the Russian contribution to the defeat of Hitler. Stalingrad was the turning point of Hitler's fortunes not only in Russia but in the greater war. The German invasion of Russia, called Operation Barbarossa, was Hitler's biggest blunder. He sought the natural resources that Russia possessed, but another expressed aim was what he called "Lebensraum" - living space for an expanding population of Aryans. Had he contented himself in the Summer of 1941 with the extent of his conquests (in Europe: Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, France, Hungary, the Balkans, and Greece) and left his non-aggression pact with Stalin intact, who can tell what the map of Europe would look like today?

Because of the outcome of the war, with America and Soviet Russia emerging in spontaneous competition for world domination in the form of a potentially apocalyptic nuclear arms race, the dimensions of Russia's contribution to the Second World War has been overshadowed or deliberately minimized. Because of their campaigning in support of a "second front" during the war, many people - including Charlie Chaplin - were branded Communist sympathizers and black-listed in the increasingly paranoid
post-war era.

But at least since the end of the Cold War there is no longer any doubt that the Russians played a decisive role in the destruction of the Third Reich. In a speech given by Vladimir Putin to veterans of the war at the Kremlin, he said, "It is our common duty to keep the memory of this great battle and do everything in our power to thwart politically motivated attempts to rewrite history and hush up the role of our country in crushing Nazism." I think it is probably a greater duty not to get caught up in revisionist hysteria, as Oliver Stone demonstrates with his new documentary series for Showtime, Oliver Stone's Untold History of America, which he co-wrote, produced and narrated.

Since the beginning of his career, Stone has been highly critical of official histories. The Vietnam era, in particular, has dominated his imagination because of its refusal to find a satisfactory explanation. What he learned there is something no one else wants to understand. He sees another Vietnam lurking in every move the Pentagon makes. However much he is probably right, that what the American military needed to learn from Vietnam (the destructive uselessness of war) it either forgot or ignored, Stone's fixations are marginalizing his commentary and his work.

In his latest venture, Stone is once again downplays, if not trivializes, the importance of the United States in the Second World War and tries to make Soviet Russia the real hero. The latest estimate is that 27 million Russian soldiers and civilians died in the Second World War. This statistic come closer to Mark Twain's definition of one of the three kinds of lies. It is both irrefutable and meaningless. Given his alignment with certain Latin American Marxist leaders, it isn't surprising that Stone's portrayal of Stalin is, on the whole, suspiciously favorable. One could argue that only an absolute ruler like Stalin could've focused the people and the nation's economy on resisting and ultimately defeating the Germans. But the war only reached Russia when Hitler decided to break his Non-Aggression Pact with Stalin. That Pact was one of the reasons why many European and American communists abandoned the Party. According to the 1939 Pact, Germany invaded Poland from the west, while Russia attacked from the east. Stalin's order to have an estimated 22,000 Polish officers executed in Katyn Forest in 1940 was his attempt to decapitate the Polish ruling class. Many of the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler's SS in Russia were given dress rehearsals by Stalin's secret police throughout the 1930s. Of the millions of Russians who perished in the Great Patriotic War, as it became known, sorting out how many were brought about by the Germans and how many by Stalin is impossible. Even the military accomplishments of the Red Army came about only in the face of casualty figures that any other army would regard as catastrophic. The Russian army was ill-equipped underfed and often pressed into combat at gunpoint. If the Germans hadn't killed them their commanders would.

Stone is unabashedly a political leftist. He is a friend of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. He is anti-Capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist - all of the old enemies of Marxism. But his favorite anti-ism appears to be anti-Americanism. The Red Army's destruction of Hitler's Lebensraum fantasy, and their ultimate destruction of what was left of Berlin, remains impressive. But it was an army made up of oppressed, faceless and voiceless instruments of Stalin, and they were defending their motherland. Of all the Russian soldiers who perished, not one had fallen in North Africa, Italy, France, or on Midway, Guadalcanal, Saipan, the Solomon Islands, the Philippines, Iwo Jima, or Okinawa, to name only a few of the places, so far from home, where Americans fought and died for the liberation of people and places they couldn't otherwise have identified on the globe in their grade school geography class.

The Red Army won back their country, and then pursued the Germans through the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, which Stalin's NKVD promptly annexed, extending revolution through conquest. Where the American army had come as liberators, the Red Army arrived as merely a different brand of oppressors. The sheer number of rapes in eastern Germany was staggering. But, as a stoical witness said of it, "better a Russian on your belly than an American over your head [in a bomber plane]."

Today, there are no memorial cemeteries from the war in Tunisia or Italy or France or in the Philippines containing Russians, unless they were Russian-American immigrants. During the war, the French pilot and author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry found himself in a convoy of troop ships crammed with American soldiers bound for North Africa. There is an outside chance that my father, a US Army MP, was aboard one of those ships. In “Letter to an American Friend” (1) Saint-Exupéry wrote:

I left the United States in 1943 in order to rejoin my fellow flyers of "Flight to Arras". I traveled on board an American convoy. This convoy of thirty ships was carrying fifty thousand of your soldiers from the United States to North Africa. When, on waking, I went up on deck, I found myself surrounded by this city on the move. The thirty ships carved their way powerfully through the water. But I felt something else besides a sense of power. This convoy conveyed to me the joy of a crusade.

Friends in America, I would like to do you complete justice. Perhaps, someday, more or less serious disputes will arise between us. Every nation is selfish and every nation considers its selfishness sacred. Perhaps your feeling of power may, someday, lead you to seize advantages for yourselves that we consider unjust to us. Perhaps, sometime in the future, more or less violent disputes may occur between us. If it is true that wars are won by believers, it is also true that peace treaties are sometimes signed by businessmen. If therefore, at some future date, I were to inwardly reproach those American businessmen, I could never forget the high-minded war aims of your country. I shall always bear witness in the same way to your fundamental qualities. American mothers did not give their sons for the pursuit of material aims. Nor did these boys accept the idea of risking their lives for such material aims. I know - and will later tell my countrymen - that it was a spiritual crusade that led you into the war.

I have two specific proofs of this among others. Here is the first.

During this crossing in convoy, mingling as I did with your soldiers, I was inevitably a witness to the war propaganda they were fed. Any propaganda is by definition amoral, and in other to achieve its aim it makes use of any sentiment, whether noble, vulgar, or base. If the American soldiers had been sent to war merely in order to protect American interests, their propaganda would have insisted heavily on your oil wells, your rubber plantations, your threatened commercial markets. But such subjects were hardly mentioned. If war propaganda stressed other things, it was because your soldiers wanted to hear about other things. And what were they told to justify the sacrifice of their lives in their own eyes? They were told of the hostages hanged in Poland, the hostages shot in France. They were told of a new form of slavery that threatened to stifle part of humanity. Propaganda spoke to them not about themselves, but about others. They were made to feel solidarity with all humanity. The fifty thousand soldiers of this convoy were going to war, not for the citizens of the United States, but for man, for human respect, for man's freedom and greatness. The nobility of your countrymen dictated the same nobility where propaganda was concerned. If someday your peace-treaty technicians should, for material and political reasons, injure something of France, they would be betraying your true face. How could I forget the great cause for which the American people fought?

This faith in your country was strengthened in Tunis, where I flew war missions with one of your units in July 1943. One evening, a twenty-year-old American pilot invited me and my friends to dinner. He was tormented by a moral problem that seemed very important to him. But he was shy and couldn't make up his mind to confide his secret torment to us. We had to ply him with drink before he finally explained, blushing: "This morning I completed my twenty-fifth war mission. It was over Trieste. For an instant I was engaged with several Messerschmitt 109s. I'll do it again tomorrow and I may be shot down. You know why you are fighting. You have to save your country. But I have nothing to do with your problems in Europe. Our interests lie in the Pacific. And so if I accept the risk of being buried here, it is, I believe, in order to help you get back your country. Every man has a right to be free in his own country. But if and my compatriots help you to regain your country, will you help us in turn in the Pacific?"

We felt like hugging our young comrade! In the hour of danger, he needed reassurance for his faith in the solidarity of all humanity. I know that war is indivisible, and that a mission over Trieste indirectly serves American interests in the Pacific, but our comrade was unaware of these complications. And the next day he would accept the risks of war in order to restore our country to us. How could I forget such a testimony? How could I not be touched, even now, by the memory of this?

Friends in America, you see it seems that something new is emerging on our planet. It is true that technical progress in modern times has linked men together like a complex nervous system. The means of travel are numerous and communication is instantaneous - We are joined together materially like the cells of a single body, but this body has as yet no soul. This organism is not yet aware of its unity as a whole. The hand does not yet know that it is one with the eye . And yet it is this awareness of future unity which vaguely tormented this twenty-year-old pilot and which was already at work in him.

For the first time in the history of the world, your young men are dying in a war that - despite all its horrors - is for them an experience of love. Do not betray them. Let them dictate their peace when the time comes! Let that peace reassemble them! This war is honorable; may their spiritual faith make peace as honorable.

(1) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "Letter to an American", 1943.

Monday, February 4, 2013


While I once followed sporting events with enthusiasm, like the Super Bowl, underway as I write this (14 hours ahead of New Orleans), I have never been much of a sports fan. To use a politically incorrect adage, I don't have a dog in the fight. I don't even have a dog. Since I can never seem to stay in one city, or indeed in one country, for long enough to grow attached to the place, I have no home team to support.

One of the things I heard from a reporter after the broadcast of the Oprah interview with Lance Armstrong was that Armstrong was the biggest liar in the history of sport. I watched bits of the interview, and I agree with the consensus that it wasn't revelatory enough. But honestly, compared to liars like Albert Speer or family of dictators - the great leader, the dear leader, and the young leader - in North Korea, Armstrong is small potatoes.

Watching Armstrong's try at coming clean made me think of athletes from my childhood whom I considered worth looking up to. For some reason, I saw the faces of baseball players - the haggard faces of Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays at the same age as Armstrong, nearing the end of their careers. We remember athletes of old because they were winners, but also because they showed us the cost of winning. Everyone who watched Mickey Mantle's career had to wonder how much greater he would've been if he hadn't had to contend with so many injuries in his career. And I will never forget seeing Willie Mays after his retirement selling used cars in a TV commercial. Most athletes never seem to make plans or save money for their retirement and find themselves at mid-life, with no other skills and no learning, wondering what to do with the rest of their lives.

It would be easy to argue that Lance Armstrong did nothing wrong. To listen to some people, he did everything right. He was a phenomenal winner. Isn't that the object - the be all and end all - of sport? Of all athletes, I am most dubious of the ones who always seem to win by a mile and whose prowess appears effortless.

Standing in the wings of a ballet performance is unsettling when you watch dancers, poised and elegant onstage, gasping for air on arrival in the wings, bent double in pain or exhaustion. Athletes aren't required to maintain such composure. It's a common sight to see football players hobble off the field with a pronounced limp or breathing from an oxygen mask. Tennis players can often be seen on their backs during the match and have to be treated at court-side.

But other athletes have been known to conceal sometimes serious injuries from their coaches and teammates to prevent them from being benched. Not letting the team or the fans down has driven many athletes to "play through" their injuries and their pain. Playing through his pain wouldn't have helped anyone racing against Lance Armstrong.

I remember when I lost whatever interest I had left in baseball. It was in the middle of the obscene homerun derby between Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire as they raced to break Roger Maris's single season homerun record. (McGwire's distended forearms made him look like Popeye.) Not long afterward, both Sosa and McGwire admitted to steroid use. Bonds, who now holds both the single season and career homerun records, continues to deny that he ever doped. Maris wasn't alive to witness the breaking of his record, but Hank Aaron was, and still is. In 2010, McGwire admitted, "I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era." He claimed to have used steroids to recover from injuries. The loud and clear message that these dirty athletes send to the rest of us is, Performance Enhancing Drugs work, and can make you into a superman.

Major League Baseball claims to be on top of the problem of doping now and assures fans that the game is clean. For me, the sport, like cycling, is in tatters. The history of cheating in sports must be as long as the history of sports. As long as there have been competitions to find out who could run the fastest or jump the highest or the farthest, there have been people who used unfair advantages to win. All the talk about sportsmanship has seemed to me like Christian love - a fine idea, but utterly impracticable.

The use of PEDS is merely the latest - and certainly not the most insidious - example. Armstrong, and every other cheater, reminds me of the scene from The Dictator, in which Sasha Baron Cohen, as Admiral General Aladeen, is running on a track, grabbing other runners one by one and pushing them to the ground so he can cross the finish line first. As silly as it is, the scene could stand as a metaphor for sports.

I have always thought it was ridiculous to attribute virtues to athletes merely because of their physical abilities. Just because a basketballer can toss a ball through a hoop with great alacrity and consistency does not make him a better man. (It does, however, make him a great deal wealthier, thanks to a culture in which function and reward are light years apart.) And I emphatically reject the repellent view that sports teaches life-lessons to children. Life is not a struggle in which everyone is an opponent.

Armstrong will probably be obliged to cough up the stacks of cash that were given to him through misguided charities. All of his endorsement earnings are his, fair and square. Anybody dumb enough to look for their heroes among athletes deserves being taken to the cleaners.

(Super Bowl update: I'm not watching.)