Remembering the Great War

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As the world prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I on November 11, 1918, director Peter Jackson accepted a daunting commission: to create a documentary that would honor the soldiers who fought in the trenches, using the original footage that was filmed 100 years ago.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war. Jackson would not interview modern historians about the significance of the war or provide any scripted narration. Instead, Jackson would bring these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

The result is a magnificent piece of work, both in the story it tells and in the technology Jackson used to tell it. This is a film made entirely in the editing room.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war.

To create the storyline, Jackson and his team reviewed over 600 hours of interviews with survivors, conducted during various commemorations of the War to End All Wars. Jackson then began selecting portions of the interviews, taking a snippet here and a snippet there, until he was able to cobble together a narrative line that begins with young 16- and 17-year-old boys sneaking off to lie about their ages in order to join the army; follows them into the trenches, villages, and battlefields; and ends with the survivors returning home, many of them injured, many of them “loony” (an earlier term for PTSD), and many of them (according to one of the narrators) facing employment signs that said “Army veterans need not apply.” Their remembrances, told with voices that are cracked with age, are moving and authentic. No historian’s expertise could tell their story better.

Once the storyline had been established, Jackson reviewed 100 hours of footage from the war, selecting the best scenes to match the narration. Much of the footage was third- or fourth-generation, meaning it was a copy of a copy of a copy, each generation becoming less and less crisp. Much of it was either too dark or too light to be viewed clearly. And all of the movements were jerky and unnatural as the filmmakers had to crank the film through the camera by hand, trying to keep it steady at approximately twelve frames per second, which is only half the number of frames per second that we are accustomed to seeing in today’s movies.

And here is where the magic begins. Jackson used computer technology to add frames to the footage, smoothing out the action and making it feel as normal as any film you would see today. Then he colorized the film, using actual uniforms, tanks, and other artifacts from his own considerable collection of WWI memorabilia to help the artists get the colors just right. Next he enlisted professional lipreaders to figure out what the men were saying in the footage, and hired voice actors from the actual regions of each regiment, so the accents would be authentic. He added sound effects made by recording actual tank movements, mortar explosions, bayonet affixions, and other background noises. Finally, he created a natural musical score largely based on whistling and other natural music of the battlefield. The result brings these antique films to life. We simply forget that cameras couldn’t do this 100 years ago.

Jackson brings these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

I’m not usually a fan of colorization; while it does make a film feel more natural for modern viewers, it neutralizes the skillful play of shadow and contrast designed deliberately and carefully by directors of the ’30s and ’40s. They knew what they were doing, and they did it well. However, in this film the colorization is a masterful addition. It brings out details in the film that in black and white were hidden or completely lost. Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

We also see how terribly young these soldiers were, marching off to war and grinning for the cameras. Although we never know their names, Jackson edits the footage so that several of the men come into view several times, and we begin to identify with them. We see not only the war, but how they lived, what they ate, how they slept, and even how they played. And in many cases, we are seeing them just before they died. It is a sobering, respectful, and impressive film.

They Shall Not Grow Old is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it simply asks us to consider the cost of war — not in the billions of dollars that are spent, but in the millions of lives that are lost. The title of the film is based on a selection from Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance called “For the Fallen,” which has been used as a tribute to all who die in war:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

Lee Teter’s painting “Vietnam Reflections” pays a similar tribute to the fallen, but from a different perspective, that of the grieving survivor. It depicts a man, clearly a veteran though he wears no uniform, mourning at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, where the names of all the fallen are etched on a long, low wall deliberately situated below ground level. His head is bowed in quiet anguish, his arm outstretched and his hand leaning heavily against the wall, willing it to reach inside and touch his comrades on the other side. Unseen by him, because his eyes are closed, several soldiers seem to be standing inside the wall, their reflections ghostly as they reach out, hand to hand, to console the man who, having survived the war, continues to carry its burdens. His guilt is understood by the clothing Teter chose to give him. He is dressed in a business suit; the soldiers wear army fatigues. A briefcase rests on the ground beside the veteran; the soldiers carry field kits. The businessman’s hair is flowing and tinged with gray; theirs is dark and crew cut. The fallen soldiers shall not grow old, start businesses, or have children.

 Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

And therein lies the survivor’s grief. “We that are left grow old,” as Binyon says in his poem, but survival is neither a reward nor a relief. It is a burden. Age does weary them, and the years do condemn.

No one knows the true story of war except those who experience it, and even then, it is a private, individual grief that none of them can truly share or understand. Consequently, using the voices of the actual soldiers to tell their story was a brilliant narrative strategy for They Shall Not Grow Old. They speak next to one another, but not in conversation with one another. The viewer remains enveloped in the currency of the story and simply observes their experience without explanation, editorializing, or the distraction of a modern historian’s modern interpretation.

The film is moving and impressive, but you’ll have to find it on Netflix or another platform because its theatrical release was limited to just December 17 and December 27. And that’s a shame, because the moment when Jackson switches from the jerky, original, black and white footage to his colorized and edited version is breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see it on a full-sized screen. If you do see it, make sure you watch the director’s cut with Peter Jackson’s interview explaining how he did it. It’s like listening to a magician’s reveal.


Editor's Note: Review of "They Shall Not Grow Old," directed by Peter Jackson. WingNut Films, 2018, 99 minutes.



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Beyond Relativism

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Not to Praise, But to Bury

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As another elder statesman dies and the nation is caught in the grip of another bout of panegyrics, it’s worth stepping back to concentrate on the individual lives that they touched during their time in the halls of power. For George Herbert Walker Bush, specifically, that means considering also the plight of Keith Jackson.

In 1989, Jackson was a high school senior in Anacostia, southeast DC, living in one of the worst zip codes in the country. Like many of his peers, Jackson was a low-level drug dealer, one of the smallest cogs in a larger machine, like the Baltimore towers in The Wire. Crucially, he had reached his 18th birthday when the federal government started setting him up for a presidential publicity stunt.

See, George Bush, seemingly desperate to prove he was man enough to live up to his successor, wanted a set piece to kick off his own extension of Reagan’s War on Drugs. So his staff came up with the idea of busting someone for selling crack cocaine—still the drug warrior’s enemy of choice—in the shadow of the White House.

Bush demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts.

DEA agents offered up Jackson as a patsy. He’d been on their radar for months—so if selling drugs in and of itself was really such a big deal, they could have grabbed him at any point (and then he’d be replaced by another young slinger with no other prospects, and then another, ad infinitum). No, he was only worth it if he could be sacrificed for a higher purpose, like making a weedy, “wimpy” Massachusetts desk-occupier look like a tough guy. That purpose in hand, the undercover DEA agent on Jackson’s case asked him to meet at Lafayette Park, promising an extra premium to lure Jackson to Northwest DC, where black residents of the city almost never went. (As a measure of how stratified and segregated DC society was at the time — not to mention how complete the failure of the educational system — when the undercover DEA agent asked Jackson to meet him in the park across from the White House, Jackson didn’t know where that was until piecing together that it was “where Reagan lives,” and he was hesitant to make the trip because one thing he did know is how much greater the police presence would be in Official DC.)

The purchase took place on September 1, and on September 5 Bush was holding up a plastic baggie of crack cocaine during a White House address, noting that it had been “seized” (not bought) just across the street. He demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts. He got all of those things, often in connection with mandatory minimum laws that eliminated judicial discretion in sentencing (and which perpetuated a nonsensical divide in sentencing between powdered and crack cocaine, the burden of which fell almost entirely on the black community).

If George Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it.

Keith Jackson was one of those who fell prey to a mandatory minimum. The DEA arrested him, not at the sale for whatever reason, but immediately after Bush’s speech. After his first two trials ended in hung juries, a third trial saw him convicted and sentenced to a legally-mandated decade in prison without parole. The judge in the case, uncomfortable with the mode of Jackson’s entrapment, urged him to ask the president for a commutation. But Bush had almost immediately washed his hands of the matter: facing criticism from a variety of sources including even those had a stake in the Drug War’s continuance (like the head of the city’s police union), Bush said, “I cannot feel sorry for [Jackson]. I’m sorry, they ought not to be peddling these insidious drugs that ruin the children of this country.” And so, for the crime of selling 2.4 grams of crack cocaine to another consenting adult in a place where there had been no recorded drug busts in the past, Keith Jackson served almost eight years in prison.

What happened to him after that point is not known. One doubts that Bush ever dwelt on Jackson or any other of the thousands affected by yet another surge in the War on Drugs—young men and occasionally women losing their futures to ruthless sentencing guidelines and the economic incentives of incarceration, or often just their lives to police enforcement or to the criminal turf wars that invariably follow the artificial limiting of a highly in-demand substance. Add in the families and communities that depended on this suddenly absent and incarcerated generation, and it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions.

But if Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it, as the Iraqi people had ample opportunity to learn. In the rush to war with one-time American ally (indeed, almost appointee) Saddam Hussein over the invasion of Kuwait, Bush infamously allowed himself to be swayed by the testimony of a supposed refugee of the conflict, known only as Nayirah, who spoke of Iraqi soldiers raiding Kuwaiti hospitals, pulling prematurely born infants out of incubators and tossing them aside to die. By the time it was discovered that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., and the entire thing had been organized by an American PR firm in the employ of the Kuwaiti government, the war was already over — though its repercussions will persist long after our lifetimes.

Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair.

An estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and an unknown number of civilians were killed in that first Gulf War, with the particular highlight of the Highway of Death, in which American forces blockaded and massacred retreating Iraqi forces, as well as any civilians unfortunate enough to be within cluster bomb range. Content with this level of slaughter, Bush called off hostilities the next day—a point in his favor, perhaps, when compared to those overseeing the unceasing carnage of today’s forever wars. But Bush hardly had clean hands before this, having already orchestrated an illegal invasion of Panama. Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair; it will be decades though, if ever, before we learn just how deeply he was implicated.

There’s much else to dislike about the elder Bush and the legacy he is leaving behind, in particular his enablement of many awful people. You can draw a direct line from his campaign manager Lee Atwater and his infamous Willie Horton ad to the race-baiting scare tactics used by Donald Trump. A look at Bush’s administrative appointees reveals many of the big names—Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld — who would go on to botch the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, all the while pushing for ever more wars on ever more fronts. (Which is not even to mention his son who, in signing off on Gulf War Redux, committed what is thus far the greatest geopolitical blunder of the century.) You could talk also about his surrender to the tax-and-spenders on budget issues, or to the Religious Right about gay rights. You could also give him credit where it’s due: for handling the end of the Cold War with flexibility and grace, for committing himself to promoting volunteerism and community service, for not following in the footsteps of his father, Prescott Bush, and signing on to any half-baked fascist coups against the US government.

All this, at least the good stuff, or the bad stuff that various media figures want to recast as good, will be gone over ad infinitum. But when you see the footage of his funerals, when you take in the official outpouring of grief that is increasingly mandatory on such occasions, when above all you hear anyone talking about how George H.W. Bush advocated for a “kinder, gentler conservatism,” spare a thought for Keith Jackson. It’s more than Bush ever did.



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Vietnam Revisited

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I never fought in Vietnam. By the time I was old enough to go, I held a high draft-lottery number and a student deferment, and was never called up. I do remember the war, though. Early on, when Kennedy sent in the advisers, I was in elementary school, and saw the pictures on TV and in Life magazine. When Johnson sent in half a million men, I was in junior high, and we argued about the war in class. When Nixon came to power I was in high school, and we debated it more. When the four protesters were killed at Kent State University, I was finishing my first year at the University of Washington in Seattle. My instructor in German cancelled classes and gave us all A’s so we could go protest. I stood aside, watching the protesters flood onto Interstate 5 and block traffic until the cops pushed them off the exit to what are now the offices of Amazon.

My sentiments on the Vietnam War, like those of most Americans, evolved. In 1975, when South Vietnam collapsed, its government appealing for help and the US Congress and President Ford offering none, I was as coldhearted as anyone. I thought, “To hell with Vietnam.” I had been reading about it, thinking about it, arguing about it since I was a kid. During that time 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what? In economists’ terms, the mountain of corpses was a “sunk cost” — and I was ready to watch the whole damn thing sink into the South China Sea.

I was living in Berkeley, California, when the South fell. I remember standing outside my apartment on May 1, 1975, taking photographs of a parade down Telegraph Avenue welcoming the Communist victory. “All Indochina Must Go Communist,” one banner said. Well, I hadn’t evolved that much. For me the fall of South Vietnam was a day for quiet sadness.

By 1975, 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what?

As a kid in junior high, I had supported the war. Recall the geopolitical situation: Communists had eaten up a third of the world, with big bites in Eastern Europe in 1945–48, China in 1949, North Vietnam in 1954 and Cuba in 1959. They had been stopped in a few places — in Malaya, by the Brits — but once firmly established they had never been pushed back.The Cold War’s rules of engagement were that the Communists could contest our ground — what we called the Free World — but we dared not contest theirs. And the end of that road did not look good.

When I used that argument — and “domino theory” is not a good name for it — no one knew the Communist system was facing extinction. People knew it was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread.

All the old arguments came back as I was reading Max Hastings’ new book,Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975. Hastings, an Englishman, is my favorite military historian; for years I have had his 1987 book, The Korean War, on my shelf, and I breezed through his 752-page Vietnam in a few days. In this book Hastings has undertaken to write the narrative of the war, and not all from the American side, but also in the voices of South and North Vietnam. Hastings reveals that there were arguments and worries on their side as well as ours. Many in the North hated the draft and did not want to trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to fight. Over the years, 200,000 Northerners deserted while in the South. The Northern soldiers also underwent far more privations than the Americans or their Southern allies, living on rice and water spinach (sold in Asian markets here as on choy) and often starving. On one occasion, Hastings says, they killed and ate an orangutan.

People knew communism was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread

Hastings analyzes the assumptions and the strategies of both sides. To the low-level Vietcong, the war was mostly about getting rid of Americans who looked and acted like the “long-nose” French, Vietnam’s late imperial overlords. The cadres tried to indoctrinate the VC in Marxism, but identity politics had the stronger pull.

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side. For a military historian, Hastings makes a key admission when he says that fighting was less important than “the social and cultural contest between Hanoi and Saigon.”

In that contest, the North’s standard-bearer was “Uncle Ho,” the Gandhi-like figure of Ho Chi Minh, who had kicked out the imperialist French. In the South, a society that included landowners, merchants, and bureaucrats who had worked for the French and prayed in the same church as the French, one of the icons was Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. One observer said that Ky, an air force pilot with slick black hair and a pencil-thin moustache, looked like a saxophone player in a cheap Manila nightclub. Writes Hastings of Ky, “He was publicly affable, fluent, enthusiastic about all things American but the taste of Coca-Cola — and as remote as a Martian from the Vietnamese people.”

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side.

South Vietnam was a society rotten with corruption and ill-gotten wealth. “Again and again,” writes Hastings, “peasants were heard to say that whatever else was wrong with the communists, they were not getting rich.” History shows, though, that life is easier in a society in which some are wrongly rich than in one in which the rich are rounded up and shot, leaving everyone else poor. Hastings writes that when the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon, the soldiers were amazed at how much stuff the people had.

The Vietcong were terrorists. They beheaded the village chieftains who opposed them, and sometimes buried them alive. The Americans were told to behave better than that, but with their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm they dispensed death wholesale. American soldiers, Hastings writes, went to war “wearing sunglasses, helmets, and body armor to give them the appearance of robots empowered to kill.” Back at base, “Army enlisted men took it for granted that Vietnamese would clean their boots and police their huts.” And also use the bar girls for sexual entertainment.

Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese still fought and died for their state, and also worked with the Americans. First-generation Vietnamese in my home state are fiercely loyal to the old Republic of Vietnam, and still fly the yellow flag with the three stripes. Apparently they were not a majority of their countrymen, else the conflict would have come out differently.

With their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm the Americans dispensed death wholesale.

As the Pentagon Papers showed, smart people in the US government saw early on that South Vietnam was ultimately not a viable cause. President Kennedy expressed his doubts, but he also believed deeply that his mission was to stop the Communists. “Nothing that came later was inevitable,” Hastings writes, “but everything derived from the fact that sixteen thousand men were in country because John F. Kennedy had put them there.”

Hastings doesn’t buy the theory propagated in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK that Kennedy was on the verge of backtracking when he was shot.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, sent half a million men to Vietnam because he didn’t want to be blamed for losing it, as Truman had been blamed for losing China. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat. For each of these US leaders, the concern was his country’s prestige (a Sixties word) and his own political standing. “An extraordinary fact about the decision making in Washington between 1961 and 1975,” Hastings observes, “was that Vietnamese were seldom, if ever, allowed to intrude upon it.”

Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were focused on the Chinese and the Russians, and assumed they were in charge in Hanoi as much as the Americans were in Saigon. Hastings says it was not so. The Russians and the Chinese were frustrated at the North Vietnamese aggressiveness, and repeatedly advised them to cool it. Within the North Vietnamese leadership, Ho often agreed with his foreign advisors, but Hastings says that policy was set not by Ho but by Communist Party General Secretary Le Duan, “though the world would not know this.”

Nixon saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat.

By Hastings’ account the Americans were not the only ones who made big mistakes on the battlefield. Militarily, the biggest Communist mistake was the Tet (Lunar New Year) offensive of 1968. Le Duan’s idea was to show the flag in all the Southern cities, spark an uprising among the people, and swamp the Southern government in one big wave. In the event, the South Vietnamese didn’t rise. In Saigon, the Vietcong breached the wall of the US embassy, and in Hue, North Vietnamese regulars occupied the town north of the Perfume River for several weeks and methodically executed all their enemies. But everywhere the Communists were driven back.

The Vietcong lost 50,000 dead in Tet and follow-on attacks, five times the combined US and South Vietnamese military deaths. Largely cleansed of Vietcong, the countryside was quieter in the following year, as the North Vietnamese Army built up forces to fill the void left by the defeated Southern guerrillas. Though Tet was a military defeat for the North, the US press played it as a Communist show of strength, thereby tipping the balance of opinion in America against the war. For the Communists, a military defeat became a political victory.

The journalists had played it the way it looked, and it hadn’t looked like a South Vietnamese victory. American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident, which was used in 1964 to justify the de facto US declaration of war. Of the two supposed attacks on the destroyer USS Maddox, Hastings writes, one wasn’t real and the other was “a brush at sea that could easily and should rightfully have been dismissed as trivial.”

For the Communists, the military defeat of the Tet Offensive became a political victory.

In the case of Tet, US journalists inadvertently helped the enemy, but generally the press gave Americans a more accurate picture of the war in South Vietnam than the government did. The press did a poor job of reporting the shortcomings of the North, but it wasn’t allowed to go there. In 1966, when I was arguing with my schoolmates for the war, I repeatedly heard them say that communism would be a bad system for us, but it was a better one for the Vietnamese. If Americans had good reporting from North Vietnam, I don’t think my schoolmates would have said things like that. We anti-communists were right about one thing: communism turned out to be just as bad as we said it was.

The question remains as to what, if anything, America should have done to stop the Communists in Vietnam. Hastings quotes CIA officer Rufus Phillips describing what America did: “We decided that we were going to win the war and then give the country back to the Vietnamese. That was the coup de grace to Vietnamese nationalism.” But if it was wrong to do that in Vietnam, it should have been wrong in Korea, and it worked there, at least well enough to preserve the Republic of Korea. It can be no surprise that Kennedy and Johnson would try a military solution again.

What was the difference? Hastings touches on this question only briefly, mentioning the obvious: Korea is a peninsula with a border just 160 miles long, while South Vietnam had a border with Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam more than 1,000 miles long, perforated in many spots by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the complex of corridors through which the Communists infiltrated the South with fighters and supplies. The warfare on the Korean peninsula was conventional, with front lines; in Vietnam it was a guerrilla contest while the Americans were there, becoming conventional only after they had decided to go. The physical climate was different, too. The Koreas were divided on the 38thparallel, about the latitude of San Francisco; the Vietnams were divided on the 17th parallel, about the latitude of Belize City. All of Vietnam is in the tropics, with attendant cloudbursts, humidity, bacteria, and bugs.

American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident.

And there were political differences. Ho Chi Minh was a hero of national independence; Kim Il Sung pretended to be one, but had a less inspiring story. Also, in Korea the old imperial masters were not long-nosed Caucasians but Japanese.

A penultimate thought. Hastings quotes without comment Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of capitalist Singapore, to the effect that if the Americans had not resisted the Communists in Vietnam, “We would have been gone.” Call this the “domino theory” if you like. It was a view I encountered in the early ’90s, when I worked in Hong Kong for Asiaweek magazine. Our founder and publisher, a Kiwi named Michael O’Neill, maintained that the American effort in Vietnam had stopped the Communists from pushing on to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, China had junked communist economics, and Vietnam, unless it wanted to remain poor, would have to do the same. And that, O’Neill argued, meant that the Americans had really won the Vietnam War, even if they didn’t know it.

Or maybe, I thought, we had lost the war but in the long run it didn’t matter — because the war wasn’t the decisive contest.

Twenty-one years after the war ended, I traveled to Vietnam with my wife and six-year-old son. In Danang I met a group of men who had fought for the South and suffered persecution from the victors. They weren’t bitter at the Americans, nor were the tour guys who drove us to Khe Sanh and were too young to remember. In the North, at Ha Long, I chatted up the proprietor of a tiny restaurant who said that during the war, when he had been a truck driver for a state-owned coalmine, he had lost his house to American bombing. I told him I was very sorry my countrymen destroyed his house.

He shrugged. “I have a better one now.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975," by Max Hastings. Harper, 2018, 857 pages.



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What Do You Make of This?

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Years since the war in Afghanistan began: 17

Percentage of Afghanistan currently controlled or contested by the Taliban (most favorable estimate to the US): 44

Years since the war on drugs began: 104

Percentage of Americans 12 years of age or older who use illegal drugs (2016 estimate): 10.6

Years since the war on poverty began: 54

Money so far expended on the war on poverty (2014 estimate): $22 trillion

Percentage of Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 13

Percentage of African Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 22

National debt, 1970, as percentage of GDP: 35

National debt, 2017, as percentage of GDP: 104

Years served in the House of Representatives (5 samples):

  • Don Young, (R-AK): 45
  • Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI): 39
  • Steny Hoyer (D-MD, minority whip of the House): 37
  • Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, minority leader of the House): 31
  • Maxine Waters (D-CA): 27

Years served in the Senate (5 samples):

  • Patrick Leahy (D-VT): 43
  • Orrin Hatch (R-UT): 41
  • Mitch McConnell (Addison Mitchell McConnell, Jr., R-KY, majority leader of the Senate): 33
  • Diane Feinstein (D-CA): 26
  • Patty Murray (D-WA): 25

Total years of service of politicians just mentioned: 347

Members of Congress proficient in practical mathematics: no known instances




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Is the Libertarian Movement Moving Anymore?

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It’s been a long time since there was a new libertarian book I wanted to read. Or a libertarian argument I itched to join.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence. I think it peaked in the ’90s.

Think back on that time. In 1994 the Republicans rallied against Hillary Clinton’s health insurance plan and took back the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and with a staying power they hadn’t had in 70 years. Bill Clinton tacked to the right, famously saying in 1995, “The era of big government is over.” Whether or not Bill meant it, it meant something that he said it.

Politicians get their proposals from ideas current at the time. If the New Deal was socialistic, it was because in the first half of the last century, socialism was in the air. Similarly, Bill Clinton did some pro-market things in the ’90s that Democrats wouldn’t have done 70 years before.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence.

The reigning ideas had changed. When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from the free-market economists, principally Martin Anderson and Milton Friedman. Starting under Jimmy Carter and continuing under Ronald Reagan, the federal government followed the advice of the economists and ripped away price and entry controls over airlines, trucking, and natural gas. It opened up the telephone industry to competition and removed interest-rate controls on banks. The New York Stock Exchange freed itself of controls on commissions. The Supreme Court freed professionals of controls on advertising. When unions failed to seed themselves in the new tech industries, they lost their grip on most of the private economy.

Under Clinton, the government supported the extension of private property into the radio spectrum and into the North Pacific fisheries for halibut and black cod. Clinton signed the Republicans’ North American Free Trade Agreement and the Republicans’ welfare reform.

In the last half of the ’90s came the dotcom boom. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and others became cultural figures in a way businessmen hadn’t since the 1920s. The Democrats were happy with the dotcom boom. Al Gore even claimed parenthood of the Internet.

When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from free-market economists.

All this was totally unlike the reigning Democratic thought of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s.

And in the ’90s there came peace. For the first time since Adolf Hitler, America had no enemy. That was a new thing, and a wonderful thing.

None of this is hardcore libertarianism, but think of what libertarianism really is. The essence of it is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life. Well, the biggest threat to private life is war. From 1940 through 1973, the military could pluck a young man out of private life against his will, put a gun in his hands and make him bellow, “Yes, Sir!” But even with the draft gone, war still skews thought and feeling. It limits what a society can afford, what it can allow, or even what it can discuss. Remember the time after Sept. 11, 2001.

Libertarians like to say their philosophy is about freedom, but it is a particular brand of freedom. The Left offers a brand of freedom: “Just let us control your work and property, and you can be free of worry about food, shelter, schooling, public transit, sickness, and old age.” The Left dismisses the libertarian’s freedom as “the freedom to starve” — which, among other things, it is. The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face. And if enough individuals crash and burn, people may decide the system that allows it is not worth it. The libertarian’s freedom requires a large dose of self-reliance — and in the ’90s, self-reliance was pushing forward with welfare reform and the most entrepreneurial economy since the 1920s.

The essence of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life.

Regarding self-reliance, the frontier political struggle was for private accounts within Social Security. Here was a proposal to phase down payments out of a common pot under government control and phase in individual accounts under private control. Libertarian purists were prissy about it, because the individual’s control was going to be limited and the contributions would still be compulsory, but these are not realistic people, and nothing was ever going to satisfy them. The limited Social Security “privatization” would have been a big change, a culture-shifting change. The Left sensed how big it was, and denounced it in an emotional fury as a Wall Street plot to make financiers rich. And it wasn’t. I knew who the proponents were. I had interviewed some of them and written about them. I had read their books. They weren’t trying to make money; they were trying to make the world better. The most credible ones, the ones from the commercial world, made an economic case that had to do with individual wealth, not Wall Street’s profits. (For example, see The Real Deal: The History and Future of Social Security, bySylvester Schieber and John Shoven, published by Yale University Press in 1999.)

We forget that in the private sector, individual accounts did push aside “common-pot” pension plans. They’re called 401(k) plans. They increase the individual’s chance to gain and also his risk of loss — a net gain for self-reliance. They were put in by employers, not by employees. But with Social Security, the Democrats appealed to employees’ fear of loss, and the “privatizers” were defeated — decisively. Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s. And those who keep predicting that Social Security will fail are wrong. It won’t. Congress will fix it by raising taxes, probably by eliminating the cap on taxable income. If they have to, they’ll cut benefits in some gentle and technocratic way.

The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face.

It has been years since Republicans talked about private accounts in Social Security. It’s a dead body they don’t want to be reminded of. Donald Trump vowed never to go near it, and he won’t.

The ’90s were the time of greatest libertarian momentum. By my reckoning, they ended with several events.

The first event was the protest against the World Trade Organization in my hometown, Seattle, on November 30, 1999. The Left came out — tens of thousands of them — against trade. I had imagined that the Left had withered away like the Marxian state, but I was wrong. They were here. They would come again in the Occupy Wall Street demos, and in the Bernie Sanders campaign, loud and obnoxious.

The second event was the end of the dotcom boom in early 2000. You can extend the rules of capitalism when there is a surplus of happiness. Not otherwise.

Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s.

The third event was the attacks of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

After the war came another recession, worse than the one before it. Bankers and capitalists were seen to be bad, and Alan Greenspan was ejected from the people’s hall of heroes.

And then came Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.

Can anyone argue that we’re progressing?

Has there been a libertarian moment to compare with the ’90s? There were the campaigns of Ron Paul — which amounted to what? What did they achieve? Paul has not changed his party, as Barry Goldwater famously did. Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party, and into an anti-immigrant, anti-trade, resentful mess. Ron Paul’s son is still in the Senate, but one man does not a movement make. Note the exit of Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona — not a good omen.

George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

So where are we, now? Here in Seattle, with my city council putting a (since-retracted) head tax on Amazon in order to succor the squatters on public land — and passing out tax-funded vouchers to donate to dingbat political candidates — it feels like a socialist moment. I also read in the press that Democrats across the country have turned left, and are toying with such Bernie-style ideas as free college for everyone, Medicare for everyone, and a guaranteed job for everyone. There is even babbling out there for UBI — universal basic income.

For everyone.

Those are all hobgoblin ideas until you think of the typical American Democratic politician we all know trying to define them, sell them, and get the average American to love them and pay for them. I imagine that, and I feel better. I think the socialists are selling something Americans won’t want to buy.

Anyway, I hope so.




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Trump: Right on Iran?

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On May 8 President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). By doing so he isolated the US diplomatically (only Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some small states in the Persian Gulf support US abrogation of the agreement), and drew the ire of globalists, liberals, and the establishment media. But was Trump in fact right to pull out of the agreement?

I should mention that I have advocated détente with Iran since the 1990s. I even published an essay on the subject in Liberty back in March 2007 (“Engage Iran: A Way out of Iraq"). I still look upon the Iranian people as potentially our best friends in the Middle East. Iranians in general are more pro-Western than any of the Arab peoples. Sadly, we derailed Iran’s progress toward a western-style democracy when in 1953 we and the British overthrew the first and only democratic government in the country’s history. The Islamist tyranny that took over Iran in 1979 and still rules there today is the result of the coup d’état staged by the CIA and MI6.

The Iranian people are still potentially our best friends in the Middle East.

Obviously, we can’t turn back the clock. But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome. We did something like this with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, by denying it credits and technology transfers, and by luring it into an arms race it could never win. Trump, by abrogating the 2015 nuclear accord, has begun to take Iran policy in a similar direction.

Despite Trump’s fulminations against the 2015 accord, the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration wasn’t really a bad deal. It ended Iran’s covert program to develop a nuclear weapon. Some 97% of Iran’s nuclear material was removed from the country. The inspection regime was adequate, even robust in some respects. The main weakness of the agreement was that it allowed Iran to resume enriching uranium for peaceful purposes after a 15-year hiatus. Objectively speaking, however, this was not a sufficient reason for us to withdraw from the agreement only three years after it was signed — and particularly so since the other signatories had no intention of leaving with us.

But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome.

A secondary purpose behind the agreement, as the Obama administration saw it, was to promote a thaw in US-Iranian relations, with the hope that before 15 years had passed we would witness the end of the Islamic Republic and the evolution of a moderate, pro-Western regime. It has to be said, however, that the current leadership of Iran has shown no signs of softening its anti-American views. At the same time, the lifting of most sanctions on Iran after the agreement was made provided the regime with some economic relief (the Iranian economy and financial system were definitely hurt by sanctions) — and political relief, too, in that the people felt that their lives would improve once sanctions were removed. The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Moreover, Iran has continued to expand its influence in the region — in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and as supporter of the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Iran’s activities threaten to destabilize the Middle East generally, and are particularly worrisome when it comes to Saudi Arabia, its rival across the Persian Gulf and our most important ally in the Arab world. Although the US no longer needs to import Middle East oil, a crisis in the Gulf or, worse, the collapse of the pro-American regime in the world’s largest oil producer would roil energy markets and indeed the world economy.

Equally important is the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has initiated a program of reform in the kingdom that holds out the prospects of, first, bringing Saudi Arabia into the 21st century and, second, ending the plague of Sunni jihadism that has infected Saudi society and large swathes of the Muslim world. If Prince Mohammed is successful in this, he will have rendered a service not only to his country and the region, but to humanity as a whole. The West has a big stake in his ultimate success.

The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Containing Iran is good for almost everybody – including, ultimately, the Iranian people. The only loser would be the Iranian regime itself. Supporting a reformist Saudi regime against Iranian mischief may help damp down Islamic radicalism and terrorism worldwide. And re-imposing sanctions on Iran, as Trump has done, may be the final straw that breaks the back of a regime beset by enormous economic problems.

I could never be a Trump supporter. His personality, behavior, and many of his policies are anathema to me. He has shown no real understanding of the nuclear agreement that he decided to tear up. That said, abrogating the agreement and reimposing sanctions on Iran seems to me a legitimate geostrategic play which, if it succeeds, will have enormous benefits for the US, the world, and, it is to be hoped, the Iranian people. With his dramatic move on May 8 Trump may very well have stumbled into the right policy.




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Cuba, Race, Revolution, and Revisionism

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When Cuba’s serial and multiple African military interventions began in 1963 with Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence from Portugal, Fidel Castro selected black Cuban soldiers and conscripts to man his liberation regiments. Dead black bodies in Africa were less likely to be identified as Cuban, according to Norberto Fuentes, Castro’s resident writer and — at the time — official biographer, confidant, and a participant in the later Angolan wars.

Cuba’s African — and Latin American — adventures were made possible by agreements reached among the USSR, Cuba, and the United States to end the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. One of those protocols was a promise from the US that it would respect Cuban sovereignty and refrain from invading the island. To Castro, this was a green light to build Cuba’s armed forces for the liberation of the world’s downtrodden instead of having to concentrate his resources for the defense of the island.

Ochoa was the only subordinate who could speak uninhibitedly with, and even kid or tease, the humorless, haughty, and overbearing Fidel Castro.

However, when it came to deploying his black brigades, Castro found himself short of black commanders. Enter Arnaldo (“Negro”) T. Ochoa Sánchez.

Ochoa had been part of Castro's 26th of July Movement ever since its creation, and by March 1957 he had joined Castro's guerrilla army in the Sierra Maestra, fighting against the Batista dictatorship. It was then that Ochoa and Raúl Castro forged a close friendship, one that also led to a certain intimacy with Raúl’s brother, Fidel. According to Fuentes, in his book Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, Ochoa was the only subordinate he knew who could speak uninhibitedly with, and even kid or tease, Fidel Castro — a humorless, haughty, and overbearing caudillo.

Ochoa, of humble Oriente peasant origins, had distinguished himself in the Revolution and during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, subsequently attending the Matanzas War College and Frunze Military Academy in the Soviet Union and rising to the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee. But he really distinguished himself in the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict. Cuba aided Ethiopia in this USSR vs. China proxy war, since both boasted Marxist regimes. Ochoa brilliantly defeated the Somalis in the tank battle of the Ogaden. For that he was dubbed “the Cuban Rommel.”

The problem was that Ochoa wasn’t really “black,” a racial classification that could apply to almost anyone in Cuba, especially if one uses the rule of thumb once common in the United States: that anyone with any black ancestry, no matter how distant or dilute, is black. (This author’s DNA test reveals a 1–3% West African ancestry, a detail not noticeable in his phenotype.) Ochoa is very swarthy, in a Mediterranean sort of way; yet his phenotype fails to show any classic “Negroid” features. It was Raúl Castro who nicknamed him Negro (black) by bestowing on him a promotion to “Black” General. The Armed Forces Minister wanted a black commander for the black troops he sent to Africa because he lacked a qualified, real black general who would realize both his political and his military objectives.

Ochoa brilliantly defeated the Somalis in the tank battle of the Ogaden. For that he was dubbed “the Cuban Rommel.”

Now, Cuba’s armed forces actually did include black commanders, among them General Víctor Schueg Colás (see below) and Juan Almeida Bosque. Almeida was a veteran of the assault on the Moncada Army barracks that launched the 26th of July Movement. Along with the Castros, Almeida was caught, imprisoned, amnestied, and exiled to Mexico after that defeat. He was on the Granma yacht as it landed survivors in Cuba, and he fought against Batista in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Later he was promoted to head of the Santiago Column of the Revolutionary Army. Wikipedia, without any sense of irony, says that “he served as a symbol for Afro-Cubans of the rebellion's break with Cuba's discriminatory past.” In his book Como Llegó la Noche, Huber Matos, third in command of the Revolutionary armies after Fidel and Raúl — though later to be purged — describes Almeida as unsuited for military command, a “yes” man. He says that Fidel kept him purely for his loyalty and as a symbol of the Revolution’s inclusiveness of Afro-Cubans. Almeida was the only black commander during the Revolution. He was Fidel Castro’s token black.

Ochoa took the nickname Negro in stride and probably even affectionately, fully understanding the political rationale behind the dubbing. In this author’s opinion, his attitude towards race (and by extension, Fuentes’ attitude) is pretty representative of one general streak of Cuban racial attitudes. Here is my translation of Norberto Fuentes’ description of Ochoa’s reaction to the moniker:

Ochoa, besides being mestizo, was very obstinate. When anyone alluded to Raúl’s reason for the nickname — that the Minister didn’t have any competent, real black generals — Ochoa would begin to vigorously shake his head. And he would continue this stubbornness even when reminded of General Víctor Schueg Colás — el Negro Chué — as he was generally known: a black Cuban general.

Ochoa responded that “el Negro Chué was not a negro who was a general.”

“And what kind of BS is that, Arnaldo?” asked a member of the group.

“He is a general who is black, and that’s not the same thing as a black who is a general.”

For a second I [Fuentes] thought Ochoa was about to write a second volume to Alex Haley’s Roots. My mind reviewed the list of black Cuban generals.

“And what about Kindelán? And Silvano Colás? And Moracén? And Calixto García? And Francis?” I challenged him.

“None of those are either generals or black,” he declared.

“But then what the fuck are they, Arnaldo?”

“Fictions, my friend. Nothing more than nonsense,” he blithely answered.

If you, dear reader, can’t make sense of that, don’t worry. It’s Ochoa’s way of saying that race doesn’t matter, that race is irrelevant, that concerns about race are nonsense. One Cuban-American academic, quoted in Guarione Diaz’ The Cuban American Experience: Issues, Perceptions and Realities, averring that humor is an essential trait of the Cuban personality, describes the archetypal Cuban as “one who jokes about serious matters while taking jokes seriously.” In that vein, there is a deeper intent in Ochoa’s flippancy that Fuentes, in a stream of consciousness rant, then goes on to elaborate.

The Castros were recapitulating the trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse: shackled by the ideological chains of a monomaniacal dictator and sent back to Africa.

His idea is that Ochoa, in his own irreverent way, was seeking redemption for the tragedy of Cuba’s “stoical, forced, brave, sweet and immense blacks” who had to carry — since 1965 — the full brunt of the Revolutionary Armed Forces’ guerrilla campaigns in Africa, because the Castros believed that dead black bodies in Africa couldn’t really be traced back to Cuba. They didn’t contemplate any POWs.

In Fuentes’ view, the Castros were recapitulating the trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse: two centuries ago, in physical chains across the Atlantic to the Americas; in the late 20th century, shackled by the ideological chains of a monomaniacal dictator and sent back to Africa.

To Ochoa, race was a trivial issue; to the Castros it was an essential component of their revolutionary tool kit in their struggle for universal social justice. When, according to Diaz, Cubans began leaving the island in droves to escape the repressive regime, “the revolutionary government denied exit visas to Blacks more than to Whites to show the international community that Cuban Blacks supported the revolution and did not flee Cuba.”

Castro himself, coming down to Girón, interrogated the black prisoners — just before their sham execution — accusing them of treason both to their country and to their race.

The Castros’ revisionist racial attitude reared its ugly head again during the Bay of Pigs fiasco when the invading members of Brigade 2506 surrendered or were captured. Black prisoners were singled out for extra abuse. They were perceived as traitors since, in the Castro calculus, the Revolution had been fought — in part — for them. Haynes Johnson, in his book, The Bay of Pigs: The Leaders’ Story, adds that “of all prisoners, Negroes received the worst treatment.” They didn’t fit Castro’s Revolutionary narrative, and their presence on the invasion force infuriated him. He himself, coming down to Girón, interrogated them — just before their sham execution — accusing them of treason both to their country and to their race. Osmany Cienfuegos, a Minister in Castro’s government and brother of Revolutionary Commander Camilo Cienfuegos, second in popularity only to Fidel, lined them up against a wall and told them: “We’re going to shoot you now, niggers, then we’re going to make soap out of you.”

One notable exchange during the prisoners’ trial was with Tomás Cruz, a paratrooper of the 1st Battalion. “You, negro, what are you doing here?” Castro asked, reminding Cruz that the Revolution had been fought for people like him, and of the swimming restrictions at some tourist resort hotels before the Revolution (a pathetic concession to attract American tourists).

Cruz, with all the dignity he could muster, responded, “I don’t have any complex about my color or my race. I have always been among the white people, and I have always been as a brother to them. And I did not come here to go swimming.”

Black is White and White is Black

Broadly speaking, in Cuba, race — in this context meaning skin color — is a relatively unimportant issue, on par with other physical traits such as weight, height, pulchritude, hair color, and even disposition. Unlike in the US, where large proportions of black people distinguish themselves from the broader population with distinctive clothing, hair styles, music, linguistic flourishes, political attitudes, and other traits, all kinds of Cubans share cultural values, patois, styles of dress, music, etc. Even religious affiliation, which in the Unites States often makes a visible difference between the races, tends toward a high degree of syncretism, with ancestral roots and beliefs to the fore instead of any racial overtones — a theme that the Castro regime has falsely exploited by preferential treatment of Santeria over other religions, treating it as compensation to a previously “oppressed” race (in Castro’s revisionist ideology). American hypersensitivity to race is unknown in Cuba.

In Cuba, slaves could marry, own personal property, testify in court, and run businesses.

But how did race virtually disappear as a contentious issue in Cuba, while persisting until modern times in the United States — especially considering that the former eliminated slavery 21 years after the latter?

In spite of the awful conditions of the sugarcane fields, slavery under Spanish colonial rule was nothing like what it had become in the United States by the eve of the Civil War. According to historian Jaime Suchlicki in Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond, “Spanish law, the Catholic religion, the economic condition of the island, and the Spanish attitude toward the blacks all contributed to aid the blacks’ integration into Cuban society.” After all, the Spanish had lived for centuries under the comparatively tolerant rule of Moors.

In the American south, negritude — to any degree, i.e., the notorious “one drop rule” enacted in several states — equated skin color with a deprivation of rights. In Cuba, slaves could marry, own personal property, testify in court, and run businesses. One 18th-century observer noted that many had become skilled craftsmen, “not only in the lowest [trades] such as shoemakers, tailors, masons and carpenters, but also in those which require more ability and genius, such as silversmith’s craft, sculpture, painting and carving.”

Joining the US became a nonstarter during the US Civil War when Cubans realized how badly Negroes were treated in the South.

Additionally, Spain’s liberal manumission policy “resulted in almost 40% of African-Cubans being free in 1792,” reports Andro Linklater in his book on the evolution of private property, Owning the Earth. The diverging legal and social attitudes toward race in Cuba and in the US presaged future developments in each country. The paradoxical contrasts are striking. Whereas Reconstruction in the US institutionalized policies that had grown more nakedly racist since Independence — equating skin color with the presence or absence of rights and talents — the opposite was true in Cuba. Under the influence of the Catholic Church, the fundamental humanity of Africans was uncontroversially established early on; slavery and skin color were philosophically separated. In the time of Cuba’s Wars of Independence, Antonio Maceo, an Afro-Cuban, became second-in-command of the rebel armies.

At about the time of these wars, a notable segment of Cuban intellectuals favored the Texas model: declare independence from the colonial power and petition the US Congress for admission to the Union. The idea was so popular that the proposed Cuban flag was modeled on the Texas flag: a single star on the left, stripes on the right, and the whole rendered in red, white, and blue. However, joining the US became a nonstarter during the US Civil War when Cubans realized how badly Negroes were treated in the South. It wasn’t just the exploitation of slaves (which also happened in Cuba), but rather the contempt for dark skin color that denied a person’s humanity.

Cuba has always had an amorphous racial climate, one mostly misunderstood or puzzling to Americans. Racism, in the sense of hating or fearing a person for his skin color, is unknown. Skin color was never an impediment to respect. But skin tone snobbery (rarely surpassing trivial tut-tutting or even semi-serious priggishness) was not uncommon. Color gradations, like degrees of body mass index ranging from the skeletal to the morbidly obese, extended into categories of people Americans would consider “white,” with the too-pale also looked at askance, as if they were anemic and rickety.

Fulgencio Batista, while president, was denied membership in the Havana Yacht Club: he was considered too swarthy; although his son, Jorge Luis, was admitted. That he didn’t take the rejection personally and, as a dictator, did not take reprisals, is inconceivable to an American. Instead, the president donated a marina to the Havana Biltmore Yacht & Country Club, as swanky a venue if not more, and, voila! he and his family became members of that club.

Racism, in the sense of hating or fearing a person for his skin color, is unknown in Cuba. Skin color was never an impediment to respect.

This nonchalant — politically-correct Americans might say insensitive — attitude is related to Cubans’ tendency to nickname everyone, even strangers. A person with epicanthic folds will be called Chino, a very black man Negro, a fat person Gordo (my own nickname after immigration), a starkly white-skinned person Bolita de Nieve (Snowball), a skinny woman Flaca, a large-nosed man Ñato, a full-lipped person Bembo (hence, Negro Bembón for a full-lipped black man), a pug-nosed man Chato . . . You get the picture.

But the irreverence also gets manifested post-ironically, in the same vein as Ochoa’s nonchalant whimsy: a very black man might be nicknamed Blanco or Bolita de Nieve, a fat woman Flaca (skinny), and so on.

My favorite example of this is Luis Posada Carriles’ nickname. Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile militant, is considered a terrorist by the FBI. He is generally thought to be responsible for the bombing of Cubana flight 455 in 1976, which killed 73, including 24 members of Cuba’s National Fencing Team. In addition, Posada Carriles is said to have been involved in the planning of six bombings at Havana hotels and restaurants during 1997. His rap sheet is much too long repeat here. Posada Carriles’ nickname? Bambi.

But I digress. Overtones of Americans’ racial (a term I hesitate to use, as you’ll see below) attitudes are making inroads into the Cuban-American experience. One white Cuban-American informant admitted to being fearful of and avoiding groups of black men after dark in the US, a behavior that had never crossed his mind back in Cuba. Would one call his reaction in the US “racism”? I wouldn’t. I’d call it adaptability based on experience, a phenomenon that black economist Thomas Sowell has explicitly addressed in his writings.

The Color of Culture

Americans, both black and white, are quick to cry racism in any untoward exchange between people of different hues when someone is being a boor or a snob or experiencing a misunderstanding or, more often than not, when mild ethnocentricity is at work. Ethnocentricity . . . a big word that simply means the tendency of most people to exercise a preference for congregating with like-minded, like-speaking, like-dressing and like-looking people — people they can easily “relate to.” Expressed hierarchically, people’s instinctive loyalty is first to their family, then to their clan (extended family), town, state, religion, in-group, political party, culture, nation, etc. One can see this in the popular slogans “buy local” and “buy American.”

Imagine you’re a small business owner looking for a sales rep. You interview two applicants, one black and one white. The white applicant is sloppily dressed, needs a shower, doesn’t speak clearly, and seems distracted. The black applicant, on the other hand, is fully engaged, is dressed smartly, and seems keen to join your operation. It’s a no-brainer — the black applicant has more in common with you; skin color is not a factor.

We all share a tendency to look at other cultures solipsistically: we see through the lens of our own values, evaluating people according to preconceptions originating in our own standards and customs.

Now imagine the opposite scenario: The black applicant displays plumber’s crack, reeks, and is unintelligible; while the white wears a coat and tie, speaks in your local accent and displays overwhelming enthusiasm. Again, a no-brainer, with skin color again not a factor; instead of that, it is shared values that determine your choice.

Ethnocentrism does, however, have its extremes, the ones you’ll most often come across in a dictionary, without the nuances of an Anthropology 101 course. The first — and one that we all share to some degree — is a tendency to look at other people and cultures solipsistically: we see through the lens of our own culture and values, evaluating other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of our own milieu. More extreme is the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own ethnic group or culture — an attitude that, taken to an absurd limit, can breed intolerance, chauvinism, and violence.

The Origin of Races

What is race? One doesn’t need to understand race in order to be a racist or accuse someone of racism. Contrary to popular opinion, skin color is not a determining factor of race. H. Bentley Glass and Ching Chun Li were able to calculate from blood group data that North American Negroes have about 31% white ancestry (cited in Stanley M. Garn and Charles C. Thomas, Readings on Race [1968]). For practical or political reasons, biologists and physical anthropologists are divided as to the validity of the concept.

First, the more practical biologists. In biology, race is equivalent to variety, breed, or sub-species. In a nutshell, it is incipient speciation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, race is “a group of living things connected by common descent or origin” — as uncontroversial and far from the whole-picture definition as one can dream up. But to understand race one first has to understand species.

Contrary to popular opinion, skin color is not a determining factor of race.

A species is a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, just below genus — yet even this is by no means a simple or clear-cut concept. Think of horses, donkeys, mules, Jennies, zebras and zorses (a horse-zebra hybrid); or dogs, wolves and coyotes. These animals can interbreed, with various rates of fertility success, but do not normally interbreed in the wild. To account for this, the classic definition of species was amended by the addition of a qualifier, that the group of organisms in question must not only be able to interbreed but must also do so regularly and not under extraordinary or artificial circumstances.

To further complicate things (or was it to simplify?), Ernst Mayr, one of the 20th century’s leading evolutionary biologists and taxonomists, formulated the theory of ring species (aka formenkreis) in 1942 to explain a natural anomaly in the distribution of closely related populations. According to Wikipedia, “a ring species is a connected series of neighboring populations, each of which can interbreed with closely sited related populations, but for which there exist at least two ‘end’ populations in the series, which are too distantly related to interbreed, though there is a potential gene flow between each ‘linked’ population.”

The term ‘ring species’ is a vestigial remnant of some of the first ring species identified, but the populations need not be in a ring shape. Examples include the circumpolar Larus herring gull complex, Ensatina salamanders, the house mouse, trumpet fish, drosophila flies, deer mice, and many other bird, slugs, butterflies, and others. Most natural populations are bedeviled by such complexities, including our closest relative, Pan troglodytes, among whom the East African subspecies shweinfurthii is separated by the Congo River and half a continent from the West African variant verus.

Gould believed that the concept of "race" had been used to persecute certain human groups to such an extent that it should be eliminated.

So that brings us back to race, or incipient speciation. Charles Darwin, in Origin of Species, identified the speciation process as occurring when a subpopulation of organisms gets separated from the larger group, fails to interbreed with them, and interbreeds strictly with itself. This process increases the smaller group’s genetic complement while reducing — again, within the smaller group — the larger group’s greater genetic diversity. The eventual result may be that the smaller group becomes distinct enough to form a new species. This part of the process is labeled “genetic drift.”

Two other factors usually contribute to speciation: genetic mutation and adaptation (through natural selection) to a new environment or way of life. Here “adaptation” does not carry the sense of individuals “getting accustomed to” a new situation but rather the sense of individuals carrying genes that are detrimental in that situation dying before they procreate — in time deleting those genes from the smaller group. This is called “natural selection.” After a subgroup separates from the main population and before it becomes a new species…this is when the term “race” properly applies.

But Darwin understood the limitations:

Certainly no clear line of demarcations has as yet been drawn between species and sub-species — that is, the forms which in the opinion of some naturalists come very near to, but do not quite arrive at the rank of species; or, again, between sub-species and well-marked varieties, or between lesser varieties and individual differences. These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage.

Of course, a race may never become a new species; it may well, for any number of reasons, reintegrate back into the main population — which brings us back to human races and the more political anthropological concepts.

Some experts, the late Marxist paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to the fore, believed that race, as applied to humans, was unhelpful, even invalid. He believed that the concept had been used to persecute certain human groups to such an extent that it should be eliminated. And forget “variety” (humans aren’t flowers) and “breed” (they aren’t dogs) and “subspecies” (the Nazis’ use of unter ruined that prefix).

On the other side stand the Physical Anthropologists (Stanley Garn, Paul T. Baker, Bentley Glass, Joseph S. Weiner, et al.) with the late physical anthropologist Carleton S. Coon, who pioneered the scientific study of human races under the Darwinian paradigm of adaptive and evolutionary processes.

Coon divided Homo sapiens into five races with origins in some distant past, distant enough that genetic and phenotypical differences appeared: the Caucasoid, Congoid, Capoid, Mongoloid and Australoid races. These had diverged not only because of genetic drift, but also as adaptations to their local conditions. The oldest races were the darkest: African Blacks, Australoids and Papuans; while whites, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians diverged later. Skin color varied according to sun exposure. For example, northern European climates favored fair skin to improve Vitamin D synthesis, while dark skin was a shield from Vitamin D overdose. However, in extremely hot and sunny climes such as the Sahel, too-black a skin would tend to heat a body too much, favoring a more swarthy tone. Along the lands of the upper Nile, tall, lanky bodies helped radiate accumulated heat.

When sickle-cell anemia was discovered in white populations, it clinched the notion that racial adaptations were responses to local environments and independent of adaptations such as skin color

On the other hand, the Inuit were physically well adapted to extreme cold: compact bodies to conserve heat; little facial hair to prevent frozen breath condensation that might freeze the face; lightly protruding noses to protect it from freezing; epicanthic eye folds to reduce the area of the eyes to the elements and yellow or yellow-brown skin. The yellow skin likely evolved as an adaptation to cold temperatures in northern Asia. The yellow color resulted from a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, visible through translucent outer layers of skin.

A more recent adaptation was lactose tolerance, which apparently evolved in whites, permitting adult consumption of milk following the domestication of cattle about 6,000 B.C. But one of the most curious adaptations was sickle cell anemia, a debilitating genetic disease that nonetheless provided partial immunity to malaria to the carrier of one allele. First discovered in black African populations, it was first considered a Negroid feature. However, when it was discovered in white circum-Mediterranean populations, it clinched the notion that racial adaptations were responses to local environments and independent of other adaptations such as skin color — a curious vestigial association from more unenlightened times.

Coon’s classifications — mostly unbeknownst to him because the later fine points post-dated him — were already a mélange built on a vast diversity of prehistoric Homo: neanderthalensis, sapiens, denisovans, floriensis, erectus, habilis, etc. Some scholars define these as separate species, others as separate races. I would argue that it is impossible to define an extinct species within a genus from bone remains alone. (Conversely, albeit ironically, modern skeletal remains often yield their race.) DNA researcher Svante Päävo, one of the founders of paleogenetics and a Neanderthal gene expert, has opined that the ongoing “taxonomic wars” over whether Neanderthals were a separate species or subspecies as the type of debate that cannot be resolved, “since there is no definition of species perfectly describing the case.”

Human evolution, ignoring all the tedious debates, continues to surprise us.

Luckily, some Neanderthal DNA has been sequenced and it was discovered that Sapiens includes some of those brutes’ genetic material — about 2% — in northern European populations. In our history, studies suggest there may have been three episodes of interbreeding. The first would have occurred soon after modern humans left Africa. The second would have occurred after the ancestral Melanesians had branched off — these people seem to have thereafter bred with Denisovans, 90% of whose genetic material is extant in modern Sapiens. The third would have involved Neanderthals and the ancestors of East Asians only, whose percentage of Neanderthal genetic material nears 20%.

One difficulty with Coon was his overly distinct racial categories. To some degree he realized this, even while recognizing many subraces, racial mixtures, and incipient formenkreis (before the phenomenon had a name). The problem was that these incipient races kept interbreeding at their verges (and even farther afield; consider Vikings, Mongols, and Polynesians), and accelerating racial mixture after 1500, when human populations began interbreeding willy-nilly, because of globalization.

And that, dear reader, is why Gould and others eschew human racial classifications.

Meanwhile, human evolution, ignoring all the tedious debates, continues to surprise us. The April 21 issue of The Economist reports the discovery of a new human racial variant in the Malay Archipelago. The Bajau people spend almost all of their lives at sea. “They survive on a diet composed almost entirely of seafood. And . . . spend 60% of their working day underwater . . . They sometimes descend more than 70 meters (240 feet) and can stay submerged for up to five minutes . . . They have lived like this for at least 1,000 years.” The evidence suggests strongly that these astonishing abilities are genetic, the result of mutations and natural selection.

The Bajau spleen, an organ that acts as an emergency reserve of oxygenated red blood cells, is 50% larger than those of neighboring populations — “a difference unconnected with whether an individual was a prolific diver or one who spent most of his time working above the waves on a boat. This suggests that it is the Bajau lineage rather than the actual activity of diving, which is responsible for a larger spleen,” continues The Economist.

There is nothing in any of this to suggest that race should be used for political purposes by governments and demagogues — Hitler, Castro, and others.

DNA analysis tells a similar story: a series of Bajau genetic mutations controls blood flow preferentially to oxygen-starved vital organs; another that slows the build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream and one that controls muscle contractions around the spleen.

What to make of all this? Human racial differences, both behavioral and phenotypic, exist and are worth studying: for medicine, forensic science, DNA studies and just for basic scientific knowledge. Genes are not destiny; they encode broad parameters for modification, in the uterine environment, through nurturing, and now through technology (for better or worse). There is nothing in any of this to suggest that race should be used for political purposes by governments and demagogues — Hitler, Castro, and others.

Will Americans in general ever achieve Arnaldo Ochoa’s insouciance about race? We can only hope. After a Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, segregation, and Civil Rights, we’re now experiencing a heightened sensitivity in the finer details of race relations — probably a good indication of the tremendous progress that has been made in the fundamentals.




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Run for the (Sea)Wall

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Every Memorial Day for the past 30 years a now-grizzled convoy of Viet Nam vets astride choppers swarms the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Groups of two, ten, twenty and more, hailing from every corner of the continent, converge at minor and major crossroads into a host of hundreds of thousands. This grassroots commemoration is known as the Run for the Wall. It was started in 1989 by two vets on Harleys. By last count the run numbers 350,000.

At the nation’s capital, Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force; enlistees and draftees; non-coms and warriors; enlisted men and officers, relatives and sympathizers; WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Afghanistan, Iraq, and, yes, Bay of Pigs vets (everyone is welcome) — all long in the tooth, mostly hirsute, amply girthed and outfitted in Harley Davidson garb — cry like spurned orphans as their fingers graze the black granite of remembrance searching for the names of long lost comrades. The tears are contagious. Onlookers mist up or avert their gaze in respect and abide the circumstance.

The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

This past Christmas Eve, an entirely different group of vets commemorated its 55th anniversary of freedom. On Christmas Eve, 1962, the last of the 1,113 Bay of Pigs POWs of Brigade 2506 were released after nearly two years of incarceration in Fidel Castro’s prisons. My cousins Carlos “Cachorro” León Acosta and Armando “Armandito” Lastra Faget, both 19, were the first to taste liberty that day. For Carlos, that was the night he was born again.

The Brigade had signed up to liberate Cuba from Castro’s communist fist. For a variety of reasons, and in spite of inflicting nearly 5,000 casualties on the Castro troops and suffering only 67 combat deaths, the Brigade was unable to achieve its goal.

Contrary to the narrative Fidel Castro has popularized — that the Bay of Pigs operation was a US CIA invasion manned by mercenaries — the true nature of that debacle has seldom been put into words. This is mainly because the freed prisoners were sworn to press silence, to avoid offending either the Castro or the Kennedy government and imperiling nascent and fragile agreements between the two countries. The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

In contrast to Castro’s narrative, the true version is that the Bay of Pigs invasion was part of a civil war in which one side was supplied with arms, money, and training by the USSR, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, while the other side was supplied with the same kit by the US, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. If anyone doubts this version, let him examine the event’s rules of engagement, to which both sides scrupulously adhered: US forces never fired a shot at Castro’s combatants, and Castro’s forces never attacked offshore US support ships. Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

The Bay of Pigs was the second climax in a Cuban civil war that began on March 10, 1952 when Fulgencio Batista wrested control of Cuba in a coup. Immediately, a variety of disparate groups declared resistance to the new regime, Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement being only one of many. The first climax in these civil wars was Castro’s triumph over Batista on December 31, 1958.

Within four days of Castro’s victory, a nascent resistance — reading the writing on the wall and unrelated to the Batista regime — declared against Castro. The Bay of Pigs invasion two and a half years later was the second climax in the ongoing civil war.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful.

The Bay of Pigs veterans are dwindling in numbers, many having added their eternal energy toward Cuba’s liberation. Only 550 are left. My cousin Armandito died in 2010. The latest to pass away was Maximo “Ñato” Cruz just a short while ago, on November 26. Cruz was an exceptional hero, the leader of F Company, 2nd Battalion, who distinguished himself in combat during the Battle of the Rotonda to such a degree that he received the only battlefield promotion during the fight.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful. All of the exile and resident anti-Castro groups have renounced violence in achieving their aim of a free and democratic Cuba.

To commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs veterans’ release, a small group of vets and vets’ relatives — in sincere flattery and imitation of the Run for the Wall ride — participated in a real (pedal) bike ride from the Bay of Pigs Memorial in Little Havana to Key West — as close to Cuba as possible. We called this our Run for the (Sea)Wall. Here’s my account of the journey.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized. Ubiquitous are Cuban coffee (espresso brewed with sugar), Cuban sandwiches (roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles stacked between sliced French bread and ironed in a plancha, a waffle press-like flat grill), and black beans (as a standard side in nearly all restaurants). We heard Spanish more often than English, though everyone, except for the very recent arrivals (mostly Venezuelans), speaks both languages and uses them interchangeably. Unlike immigrant enclaves elsewhere, south Florida is no “enclave” of struggling refugees lacking in skills, knowledge, or financial nous and isolated from its native residents. On the contrary, the mélange is dynamic, inspiring, and surprisingly free of cross-cultural frictions.

My wife Tina and I left Boca Raton on fully loaded bikes in a drizzly dawn, aiming first for Miami. We’d been staying with my Venezuelan cousin, Marta, who’d finally gotten her green card two years ago. Our next destination was Key Biscayne, 72 miles away, where another cousin, MariCris — a Cuban this time — would put us up at her corporate condo.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized.

We reached Key Biscayne in one day, and on the next met with the president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, Humberto “Chino” Argüelles, and a handful of veterans and family members at the Casa, the museum and headquarters of Brigade 2506. I was presented with a Brigade 2506 emblem and flag. One 82-year-old vet, Emilio “Ernesto Guerra” Martinez Venegas, had not been a member of the invasion force. Instead, he’d been a key participant in the subsequent infiltration programs, had been captured, and had spent 15 years in Castro’s prisons.

After touring the Casa and meeting with some of the veterans, we proceeded to Calle Ocho’s Bay of Pigs Monument, where — over the noise of traffic and tourist passersby — I explained the purpose of our ride: “Today we don’t mourn [the fighters’] defeat; we celebrate their freedom.” Our ride was "in remembrance of the patriots who gave their life, fortunes, and honor for Cuba’s liberty. Today we are all Cubans. Viva Cuba Libre!”

Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.

One passing Danish tourist, captivated by the event, offered to photograph our entire group in front of the monument. Carlos, a veteran paratrooper of the Bay of Pigs (and the cousin earlier mentioned) handed over his camera. Afterward, the Dane asked Carlos if he’d fought “on the Cuban side.” The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public. Carlos, momentarily baffled yet no stranger to such ignorance, just answered “Yes.”

He then offered to take his family members to lunch. I suggested Versailles, the iconic Cuban exile restaurant where the movers and shakers of the Cuban community had met for years to impress one another, argue politics, and concoct financial and insurrectional plans. He gave me the same look he’d given the Danish tourist, saying, “Versailles’ food is no longer what it used to be; Cubans no longer go there; it’s a tourist magnet with long lines. I know a better place.”

He led us to a Spanish restaurant full of old Cubans — all of whom he knew — taking advantage of the $12.95 set lunch, and introduced Tina and me to all of them. He flirted with the waitress — he was a regular — and she reparteed back. After she took our order, Carlos leaned over and said, “She’s Russian.” The fortyish blonde was the daughter of minor Russian functionaries once assigned to Cuba, where she’d grown up and learned Spanish.

The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public.

After a delicious meal of caldo gallego, merluza a la plancha and flan, we went to Books&Books in Coral Gables. It’s the flagship of south Florida’s best book store, and a microcosm of south Florida’s intellectual milieu. Books&Books is old fashioned: huge, rambling, encyclopedic — with books arranged thematically, irrespective of language, on the same dark oak shelves — liberal with easy chairs for tome dipping, and hosting a sophisticated coffee and snack bar. The staff is multilingual, knowledgeable, and very helpful. Apparently, the many customers in the aisles were unaware of the “death of the independent book store.” (And yes, they carried my book, Closing the Circle: A Memoir of Cuba, Exile, the Bay of Pigs and a Trans-Island Bike Journey. Whew!)

The next day we saddled up early and headed for the Florida Keys, along Miami’s M-path, a dedicated bike trail under the city’s elevated tramway. Carlos met us partway on his bike for a photo op along a defile of Royal Palms, the Cuban national tree. Because of injuries acquired at the butt end of a rifle from a sadistic guard in Castro’s Modelo Prison, Carlos has to lay down his bike, step into its triangular frame, lift it up, and step out of the frame to straddle the bike in order to mount it. Afterward we joined him for breakfast at the Rinconcito Cubano, an unassuming breakfast and lunch joint where, again, he knew all the patrons and waitresses and introduced us to them all.

Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga.

By lunchtime we reached Homestead, home of the Air Force base that welcomed the freed Bay of Pigs prisoners back on that Christmas Eve in 1962. Alina Lastra, sister of my late cousin Armandito Lastra, met us along the dedicated, tarmacked bike path. Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga. Again, we took pictures — this time with the Brigade 2506 flag and a rendition of the MAGA hat with “America” replaced by “Cuba.”

But now we faced the Everglades’ aptly named Overseas Highway, a single traffic lane each way, with a divider, over 20 miles long, connecting the tip of Florida to Key Largo over swampland and sea. But that is merely the first key in an improbable island chain that stretches 113 miles to Key West (Cayo Hueso). Luckily, the shoulder was six feet wide — wide enough to shield us from the impatient, albeit 55 MPH controlled, continuous traffic. Boring and stressful!

Key West was first connected to the road grid in 1928, with a couple of intermittent ferries. All the bridges along the way, including the famous seven-mile bridge, were completed and open to traffic in 1938, when FDR toured the finished highway. We did not enjoy the amenities of his tour, but after a 64-mile day, we were relieved to find a motel on Key Largo and indulge in a pricey blackened Yellowtail dinner.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

Of course, winter’s cold seldom finds the Florida Keys. New Year’s Eve welcomed us with 70 degree temperatures under bright sunshine in the morning. Hurricane Irma debris lined Highway 1 and sometimes blocked the adjacent bike path, a dedicated trail that often included its own connecting bridges separate from the vehicular bridges. Fishermen, some with tents and BBQs, lined these long bike and pedestrian spans. At times we had to dodge colorful iguanas, which otherwise mostly sunbathe on abandoned abutments and supporting berms, scurrying away when troubled.

Fifty-two miles to Marathon Key. Our tiredness and the isolation of our motel shielded us from the New Year's celebrations — raucous in a population given to no-shirts, no-shoes, and lots of recreational boozing.

* * *

Over the years Key Largo and Marathon Key have played a little-publicized but outsized role in US-Cuba relations. After the serial imposition of progressively stricter US embargos on the island, the Castro nomenclatura found itself in want of both luxuries and specialty technical apparatus. Even when these items could be obtained through convoluted schemes involving passthrough countries or ingenious smuggling, little foreign exchange was available to pay for them. So Fidel — or someone close to him who provided plausible deniability to the Comandante en Jefe — came up with a two-part idea implemented by the De la Guardia twins, Tony and Patricio, heroes of the Angola war, with popular (second only to Fidel) General Arnaldo “Negro” Ochoa, also from the Angola (and Somalia) war playing a supporting role.

Some funds for the operation were generated by charging Colombian drug runners a safe passage fee when traversing Cuban territorial waters. These funds were laundered by Fidel’s criminal asylee, Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier. Another part of the scheme involved stealing luxury yachts from Florida marinas. Since these were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued. As Nobel-nominated author Norberto Fuentes, best friend with Ochoa and Tony De la Guardia, relates in his book, Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, the yachts were then employed in the “Caribbean Express,” smuggling Marlboros, specialty arms, and technology obtained through the services of shady Florida arbitragers and go-betweens. The delivery, loading, payment, and shipping took place on Key Largo and Marathon Key. Everyone involved skimmed and squirreled away thousands of dollars (the principals, hundreds of thousands of dollars) — insurance policies, commissions and brokerage fees being frowned upon in socialist Cuba.

Since these stolen yachts were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued.

In 1989, for reasons that I can’t — yet — quite understand, Ochoa, the De la Guardia twins, and author Fuentes, all intimates of the Castros, were purged in a series of show trials reminiscent of Stalin’s in the 1930s. The charges had to do with drugs; the ostensible reason was the Castros’ desire to improve their image before international opinion. But there were other, murkier reasons, all too complex to elaborate here.

Ochoa and Antonio De la Guardia went to the firing squad. When Raúl Castro announced the verdict to Cuba’s rubberstamp constituent assembly, he was drunk and tearful and wore a bullet-proof vest; Arnaldo Ochoa was one of his best friends. Norberto Fuentes was saved through the special pleading of Fidel’s friend, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer. Fuentes now lives in Miami surrounded by his Castro-era memorabilia, in the same building as my cousin Carlos’ son. Fuentes and Carlos were schoolmates before the Revolution.

And the stolen luxury yachts? These became part of the fleet that takes rich tourists out on exclusive fishing excursions around Cuba.

* * *

The run down to Key West, at 48 miles, was our shortest — and most expensive, with a basic Best Western room costing over $300, not untypical of Key West prices. Carlos tells a story of impetuously driving down to Key West 30 years ago on New Year’s Eve for his honeymoon. At the first likely lodging he encountered, he inquired about a room. The attendant asked if he had a reservation.

“No,” answered the newlyweds. The attendant immediately began laughing. Carlos avers that, to this day, the man is still laughing. He adds that every subsequent motel they tried — even as they then began driving back to Miami — was fully booked. Nevertheless, we had our Best Western room and at 5 p.m. headed for El Siboney, a popular Cuban restaurant only two blocks away, hoping to avoid the crowds that are given to much later, Latin eating habits. Still, Tina and I — by now our small group had been reduced to just the two of us, for a variety of reasons, most having to do with age, health and the holidays — had to wait in line.

End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.

Then, on January 2, at dawn, we packed up and headed the three blocks to the monument that marks the southernmost point of the US and declares in bold print, “90 Miles to Cuba.” It was a blustery day with tourists already posing before the giant faux buoy for pictures. We waited our turn. Then we posed our bikes before the monument, unfurled the Brigade 2506 flag, and recited José Martí’s La Rosa Blanca:

Cultivo una rosa blanca                            I cultivate a white rose
en junio como en enero                              in June as in January
para el amigo sincero                                 for the sincere friend
que me da su mano franca.                        that proffers his open hand.
Pero para el cruel que me arranca             But for the knave that rips out
el corazón con que vivo,                             the heart that gives me life,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo,                              I cultivate neither thistle nor nettle,
cultivo la rosa blanca.                               I cultivate a white rose.

I then pivoted towards Cuba, saluted the Castros with a single finger, folded our flag, and headed back to Boca.

* * *

After enduring nearly two years in Castro’s prisons, 240 out of approximately 1,400 Bay of Pigs veterans enlisted in the US military. Most fought in Vietnam. Both operations ended in defeat. Both sets of vets were widely spurned upon their return to the United States. But that attitude is finally changing.




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Collateral Allegory

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Hostiles is an elegant and moving western that challenges viewers to look beyond the western genre to examine something larger and more contemporary. It begins in the way many great westerns have: a wide-angle shot of blue skies and golden prairie zooms in to a homesteader’s cabin, where the inhabitant, Wes (Scott Shepherd) is working in the yard and his wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is teaching a grammar lesson to their daughters. When a band of Indians swoops over the horizon, Wes rushes his family out the back door while he stays to fend off the attackers — who are soon tracking Rosalie through the woods. Her fear is palpable. We are in the trees with her, hiding under the log, terrified of being caught.

Cut to the next scene. We hear the offscreen wails of a woman and see a closeup of our hero, Captain Joe Blocker. We know he’s our hero because this is Christian Bale in an Army uniform, and we are certain that he has arrived to rescue Rosalie. But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here; his men are rounding up a family of Natives and dragging them off to the local fort. This juxtaposition of brutal attacks on two peaceful families of opposite backgrounds sets us up for a film that is going to challenge our social, cultural, and political values.

But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here.

Blocker has been working most of his career on the western frontier, rounding up Indians and bringing them to Army stockades. About to retire, he is given one final assignment: by order of the president (who is concerned about public opinion), he must take a dying Cheyenne chieftain (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana, where they will be allowed to remain. Blocker doesn’t want to do it; it goes against everything he has done throughout his career. But he’s an Army man. If his commander tells him to dig a hole just to refill it tomorrow, he’ll do as he’s told. He doesn’t have to like it.

The rest of the film is a typical trail-ride western, with the typical conflicts among the troops, attacks by the enemies (both white and red), bouts of bad weather, and pensive conversations under the stars. There’s even a discreet romance. And the acting is first rate, especially by Bale and Pike.

"Hostiles" is a parable, all right, but not of the American West.

But it’s hard to watch a “typical western” about cowboys and Indians these days; our sensibilities bristle at the way indigenous people have been treated and portrayed. Mainstream reviewers don’t seem to know what to say about this movie. One wrote, “There's a good movie here, but it's buried by too many attempts to be something it's not, most egregiously some kind of great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” Well, excuse me for disagreeing, but I think the “something it’s not” is a “great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” And if you think that’s what it’s about, you’re going to be confused by the ambiguity of the tone and the characters.

Another reviewer wrote that it “works as a contrived but effective parable of the American West, [with] its painful legacy, and small measures of redemption.” Hostiles is a parable, all right, but not of the American West. The American West is being used here as an allegory of the Middle East. Its very name should offer the first clue; “hostiles” is the word modern soldiers use to identify the enemy. And Hostiles is a subtle parable about modern war.

Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get

We see officers obeying orders simply because “that’s my job.” We see peaceful families suffering the collateral damage of a prolonged war. We see “good Indians” and “bad Indians” representing the difference between good Muslims and jihadist Muslims. We see soldiers ravaged by PTSD and torn by the guilt of having killed. We see other soldiers struggling with the realization that in one circumstance killing is considered murder, but in another it’s considered heroic. Most of all, we see the importance of judging individuals by their character and their actions, not by their label or their group. Hostiles asks us to focus on what makes us human instead of what makes us enemies. Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get. Sometimes truth is that self-evident.

The body count for Hostiles comes close to that of a Quentin Tarantino movie (or Hamlet, for that matter) but without the gratuitous blood and guts of Tarantino. It’s tense and suspenseful because we care about the characters, but there’s a distance from the killing, just as there is a distance between these broken and dysfunctional characters. The pace is slow at times and the story is somewhat predictable. But what it subtly says about the personal, psychological ravages of war is important. And the final scene is so exquisitely moving and perfectly acted, it’s one of those moments in film that you never forget. Well worth the two and a half hour trail ride, just to get there.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hostiles," directed by Scott Cooper. Entertainment Studios, 2017. 134 minutes.



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