Monday, May 30, 2022

The Lives They Lived

On Memorial Day we remember and honor the sacrifice of the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country. It is entirely appropriate that we do this. Memorial Day is even more poignant today as through the war raging in Ukraine, we are reminded on a daily basis of something we often take for granted, the ravages of war and the price that sometimes needs to be paid to maintain justice, democracy and liberty over the forces of oppression.

It is just as appropriate in my opinion, to remember and honor the people who through no fault of their own, get caught up in war. 

From my last post: 

Up until a couple months ago, the people of Bucha were going about their lives just as we do here, going to work, taking their kids to dance class, walking their dogs, doing the grocery shopping, in short, all the mundane things we do every day and take for granted. 

I wrote those words on the morning of Saturday, May 14. Later that day, a bunch of people were going about their lives on the east side of Buffalo, New York, when everything would change for them in the span of roughly six minutes, which to those who survived, must have seemed like an eternity.

The people shopping at Tops Grocery Store that tragic day were not caught up in a war between nations, but in a shooting war just the same. The man who killed ten Americans and wounded many more that day, is an avowed white supremacist who targeted his victims because they were black. He is by every definition of the word, a terrorist. 

Today is Memorial Day, May 30, 2022. I wrote the words you just read last weekend. My original intention was to devote a post to the victims of the Buffalo massacre.  But as I pointed out in the previous post, just like Rome, my posts aren't built in a day. In this case, I didn't know exactly which direction to go. Should I devote the post to the myth that we live in a "post-racial" America; should I write about the evils of white supremacy; should I write about the cancer of gun violence in this country; should I write about gun control or the lack of it; or should I write about the pandora's box of other issues that horrific crime brought up?

AP Photo/Joshua Bessex

In the midst of contemplating all this, the Buffalo tragedy was all but eclipsed by an even deadlier mass shooting, this one at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Last Tuesday, May 24, two teachers and 19 students, mostly fourth graders, died, and several more were injured but managed to survive.

I've checked the archives of this blog and after practically every mass shooting in our country, I wrote about my frustration over our nation's inability to come to a compromise over the issue of gun control. Frankly it shouldn't be that difficult, I don't think any reasonable person should object to things like background checks and registering gun owners. We do just that for automobiles. And how on earth can it be legal for an 18 year old who can't legally buy a beer, to walk into a store and buy a high powered military grade assault style weapon, whose bullets cause catastrophic damage to human tissue and organs which makes survival of a wound to the head or torso unlikely, and are capable of indiscriminately killing as many people as the amount of time it takes to pull the trigger? Frankly I don't think any private citizen should be allowed to own a weapon such as this, after all, lawn darts are illegal. I understand that neither automobiles nor lawn darts are specifically mentioned in the Constitution, (neither are assault weapons), but if you are against things like registering guns and gun owners, what part of the words "well regulated", the first words of the Second Amendment, don't you understand?

Don't get me wrong, I don't think for a second that even if the courts eventually override the Second Amendment, (which will never happen), would we see an end to these mass shootings. They have sadly become imbedded into of our nation's fabric, and anyone who wants to carry one out badly enough, will find a way. Besides, thanks to our supremely misguided and foolish interpretation of the Second Amendment, there are currently more guns than people in this country, and even if guns were banned, there would still be plenty of them around. 

And as long as we continue to permit these weapons of mass destruction to be manufactured and sold on the open market, there will be more and more of them available to young men (and I suppose women too) with a chip on their shoulder, to kill us and our loved ones. 

As I mentioned before in this space, there are many issues that need to be addressed if we intend to seriously tackle the issue of mass shootings which are an epidemic in this country and nowhere else. Mental health certainly is a big one, as is improving school security. 

But those are complicated and expensive fixes that are often fraught with peril and questionable results. Were it not for the obstinacy of a minority of people in this country, the pure greed of gun manufacturers and sellers, and the cowardice of the politicians they have in their deep pockets, the same cannot be said of controlling guns. As we saw at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas last week, "good guys with guns" even if they are fully trained professional police officers, are sometimes no match for a guy toting a military grade weapon who is prepared to die. 

Getting rid of these weapons, or at least taking them out of the hands of people who have no business with them in the first place, is the very least we could do to honor the lives of those we lost this month and in the years since Bill Clinton's ban on assault style weapons was allowed to expire by Congress in 2004.

We could and should do something about this but unfortunately we won't. If nothing was done after Sandy Hook, Connecticut where even younger children and more of them, at Christmastime no less, were slaughtered, sadly nothing will be done now. 

This is a war as well, and unfortunately the good guys are losing. 

I wasn't going to go into all of that, after all, what's the use? So I'll stop my rant for now. Instead I thought on this Memorial Day, I'd devote this post to the victims of guns in our country, especially to those who died so tragically in Buffalo and Uvalde this month. 

Here are their names, their ages, and links to part of their stories:


Eliana “Ellie” Garcia, Eliana "Ellie" Garcia.

Amerie Jo Garza, 10 , Girl Scouts Honor 10-Year-Old Uvalde Victim Who Died Calling 911

Eva Mireles, 44Texas teacher Eva Mireles died shielding students: daughter.

Margus D. Morrison, 52  Margus Morrison, a 'jokester' who loved to smile, celebrated at service.

Heyward Patterson, 67 Heyward Patterson, Buffalo shooting victim, a man of worship.

Alithia Ramirez, 10Uvalde victim Alithia Ramirez remembered for her kind heart.

Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez, 10Jackie Cazares and Annabell Rodriguez were cousins and best friends. They died together in the Texas elementary school shooting.

Maite Rodriguez, 10 Mother of child killed in Texas: "Her favorite color was green".

Alexandria Aniyah Rubio, 10'There Is an Emptiness.' Uvalde Shooting Victim Lexi Rubio's Great-Grandfather Remembers Her 10 Years of Life.

Aaron Salter, 55 Aaron Salter Jr. remembered for heroic action in Buffalo mass shooting.

Geraldine Talley, 62 Celebrating the life of Geraldine Chapman Talley

Eliahana Cruz Torres, 10 Softball, Baseball Teams Honor Little Leaguers Killed in Uvalde Shooting.

Rojelio Torres, 10, 10-year-old shooting victim Rojelio Torres was an "intelligent, hardworking and helpful person," his aunt says.

Ruth Whitfield, 86  Oldest Buffalo massacre victim Ruth Whitfield honored at funeral service.

Pearl Young, 76  Remembering the victims: Pearl Young

We remember the dead on this day but should be ever mindful of the survivors who had to fight for their lives while personally witnessing their neighbors, friends, family members, colleagues and classmates and teachers being mercilessly slaughtered. 

We especially remember and honor those whom the dead left behind, their parents and grandparents, their children and grandchildren, and all who loved them. 

Then there is the collateral damage, much of it only to be revealed in the future when we least expect it.

And finally there is our troubled nation turning against itself, becoming less United every day.

If an act of home-grown genocide and nineteen dead fourth graders and their teachers can't bring us together as a nation, I'm afraid nothing will. 

This Memorial Day as much as anything, I'm mourning the loss of my country.

But all is not lost, I'm sending thoughts and prayers. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

We Will Never Forget, or have we already?

Today as I begin writing this, just to give you the reader a sense of how long it takes to write these blasted posts, it is May 4. I mention that also to point out that today, May 4, is Star Wars Day. 

May the Fourth be with you, get it? 

And I mention that to say while listening to the radio this morning as is a part of my normal routine, Morning Addition on NPR to be exact, I came in on a bizarre piece on the movie Star Wars, where the reporter talked about the movie in a strange, robotic voice. Come to think of it I thought, maybe it was an actual robot, it's kind of hard to tell these days.

As I missed the intro to the piece, to answer that burning question, I went to the Morning Addition page of the NPR website, and discovered the piece was actually the original NPR review of the original 1977 Star Wars movie (or Star Wars IV: A New Hope, if like my children, you were born during or after the prequel era), made by their film critic at the time, Tom Shayles.

The web page reminded me of some of the other stories I heard this morning. One was about the late American artist Jean-Michele Basquiat, and another about NASA planning to return Mars rocks to earth and the possibility of bringing alien life back with them. On the web page I discovered other stories I missed, or at least didn't pay attention to, one about a Stradivarius violin up for auction that is about to bring in beaucoups bucks, and another about a Nebraska family who called the police "after they heard a noise upstairs." Haven't the slightest idea.

If you happen to be reading this in the distant future, that is to say, after the current news cycle, the big story of today is the leaked majority opinion of Justice Samuel Alito, probably signaling the Supreme Court's overturning of the landmark Roe vs Wade decision of 1973. Overturning precedent and taking away established rights that people have enjoyed for almost a half century is no small deal, not to mention the chaos that will follow in the ruling's wake. The issue reasonably dominated the airwaves today as it no doubt will for quite a while.

I dealt with the issue of abortion in this space after the appointment of Justice Amy Comey Barrett in 2020.

What I found strange about today's Morning Edition page is that you had to dig deep through the lineup of stories they covered today to find anything about the war in Ukraine when just a few days ago, this war all but dominated the airwaves, as well as the print and cyber media.

That discovery left me with even more questions about it than I had just yesterday. One of them is why should I be appalled that we were subject to news about Star Wars and things that go bump in the night in Nebraska rather than the war? The other question is that of all the hideous acts of inhumanity happening all over the world all the time, what exactly is it about Ukraine that seems to touch our hearts so much in the West more than the others?

I can answer the last question, at least for myself in one word: Bucha.

Like Oak Park or Evanston, Illinois, Bucha is, or was, a suburb of a major metropolis (Kyiv). I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois and currently live a couple blocks from Evanston. Up until a couple months ago, the people of Bucha were going about their lives just as we do here, going to work, taking their kids to dance class, walking their dogs, doing the grocery shopping, in short, all the mundane things we do every day and take for granted. 

The tragedy of Bucha has been so widely covered, I don't need to describe the unspeakable barbarism that has taken place in that town since Putin's criminal war started to go bad for the dictator's much over-rated army. In fact, I wouldn't know where to begin or think I could even bring myself to write about it. But in case you need a reminder, here's one.

I look at stories like this, then look at my family and think to myself, that could be us.

Chicago has a large Ukrainian community, even a neighborhood called Ukrainian Village. I have Ukrainian friends and while I've never been to Ukraine, I have been to Russia, three times. My father was Czech and his daughter, my half-sister Eva is currently living amongst Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic. There is quite a bit of familiarity for me with that part of the world. 

For those of us in the West, the tragedy of Ukraine hits home in many ways.

In other words, we can relate.

It grieves me to say that because atrocities like the one that took place in Bucha and the rest of Ukraine are not unique or even rare. Yet we hardly give most of them the time of day because they happen in what for us are remote places that in our minds, see the pain, hardship and suffering of war on a regular basis. And it's that constant reminder of pain and suffering around the world that forces us to take a break from it every once in a while, just as we're apparently doing with Ukraine now.

Perhaps it is right then, to step back from this war if just for a moment, and reflect upon and grieve for the people of Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Sudan, The West Bank and Gaza, and all the other parts of the world too numerous to mention here, that bear witness to war crimes and depravity of all sorts on a daily basis. 

Which brings me to my next question: what inspires soldiers to commit horrendous atrocities against civilian non-combatants including the elderly, small children and their mothers?

Russian soldiers have a long, well-deserved reputation for doing just that. It is speculated that the bad behavior of Russian soldiers throughout the ages stems from historically incompetent and corrupt leadership in their military. It is said that rank and file members of the Russian military are treated like cattle by commanders, little more than cannon fodder. If that is true, and I suspect it is, it stands to reason that if soldiers are treated like animals, they will behave like animals. It's also speculated that the Russian people themselves have for so long been mistreated and abused by their leaders, that an almost pathological acquiescence to authority has become part of the national psyche. The following is from an article on the war crimes committed by the Russians in Ukraine found on a website devoted to the American Military:

The blind obedience of Russians is evident not only in the Russian military but also their population at large. It has been pounded into them since birth, producing a compliant and docile bio-robot that does as ordered, regardless of whether it is immoral or illegal.

Perhaps there might be something to that. 

OK what then explains the My Lai Massacre? I'm old enough to remember the aftermath of the most horrific incident that took place during the Vietnam War that was ever made public.

On March 16, 1968, an American infantry company was led into an assault of a Vietnamese village, Song My, a place suspected of harboring, aiding and abetting enemy combatants (the Viet-Cong). One of the small communities within Song My was a hamlet named My Lai. The order given by commanders was to destroy the village and everything inside it. 

When the American soldiers came upon the hamlet, they found no trace of Viet-Cong fighters, hardly any weapons, nor any men of fighting age, just elderly people, young women and their children. Among the soldiers, there was some disagreement over the interpretation of their orders, but the order was clear as a bell to the lieutenant who led them into the town. He commanded his men to kill everyone in the village. It was no simple execution; many of the victims were raped and tortured before they were killed. The systematic violation and killing of the inhabitants of My Lai went on for several hours; there are even reports that in the middle of it all, the soldiers, members of Charlie Company, took a break for lunch before resuming their orgy of rape, torture and murder.

In case you don't remember My Lai, think I am exaggerating or even relaying fake news, here is an account of the My Lai Massacre from a website devoted to preserving and defending the culture of the United States Army, which pulls no punches in describing the atrocity.

And here is the account of one of the few heroes of My Lai, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson who was piloting a helicopter above the hamlet when he witnessed the slaughter first hand. Thompson landed his craft between living villagers among the corpses of their family members and neighbors in a ditch, and the U.S. servicemen hoping to finish them off. He got out of his craft to tend to the survivors and ordered his men to fire upon their fellow servicemen if they tried to interfere. Thompson, his crew and the crews of a couple other helicopters summoned by Thompson, managed to fly out a handful of survivors of the massacre to safety. 

No one knows exactly how many Vietnamese civilians were raped, tortured and murdered in cold blood by the Americans that day, but estimates range somewhere between 300 and 500, comparable to the number of residents of Bucha raped, tortured and murdered by the Russians.

Officer Thompson immediately reported the actions of his fellow servicemen to his superiors, and they to theirs. Every step of the way up the chain of command, officers, including a 31 year old Major Colin Powell, did everything in their power to whitewash the report. 

It would take the efforts of another helicopter crewman, gunner Ronald Ridenhour who after his tour of duty, began a letter writing campaign to President Nixon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several U.S. congressmen, detailing the carnage he observed (he was not present at the time of the massacre), and personal interviews he conducted with witnesses and participants in the event. Most of those letters as well proved fruitless. Only three legislators, Mo Udall and Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Edward Brooks of Massachusetts, paid heed to them. 

Udall brought the issue to the attention of the House Armed Services Committee, who passed it on the the Pentagon.

Once the news became public, nearly two years after the event, the Army backpedaled and court-marshaled 14 officers and enlisted men, most of the officers being charged with the coverup. Only one conviction resulted out of all that, Lieutenant William Calley Jr., the officer mentioned above who took the command from his direct superior to mean kill all those present. Calley was sentenced to life in prison but that sentence was reduced after then President Nixon ordered a re-opening of his case. He ended up serving four years of house arrest before being paroled. Calley at this writing is still alive. Despite apologizing and expressing sorrow for the fate of his victims, many of whom he personally killed, to this day he refuses to take full responsibility, claiming he was just following orders. To anyone with a sense of history, those words should send a chill up the spine. 

If Calley is to be believed, who then is responsible? I'm not a veteran, much less a veteran of combat. As disgusted and appalled as I am by all this, I find it difficult to pass judgement on soldier-perpetrators of war crimes. Please hear me out. My question is this: are war criminals average human beings who commit deplorable, evil acts after they themselves have been witness to and victims of the horrors of war, or are they simply deplorable, evil human beings who use war as a pretext to commit those acts? 

I reckon those questions can only be answered by these men themselves and their maker. If they belong to the first group, that is to say, those with consciences, the ones lucky or perhaps, unlucky enough to have survived the war, have to account for their actions as long as they live. For the others well, I suppose they'll just have to hope for the best when they die. 

The real perpetrators of war crimes, are those who wage war in the first place, the proverbial old men who send young men off to kill and die in their wars.

My last question of the day (as you can probably guess, not the same day as the day I started writing this piece), is why do we as a people keep supporting these old men who send our children into war? We know that Vladimir Putin has no time for a free press and has done his utmost to ban all news in the slightest bit critical of him in his country. Instead, the Russian people are treated to a barrage of articles like this one fully expressing the party line titled appropriately enough: "What Should Russia Do With Ukraine?" The article answers that question by urging more of what we saw in Bucha, expanding Putin's brand of terrorism to all parts of Ukraine. If you're interested, here is the article in its original Russian without the extra commentary. 

But is the lack of an objective press an excuse for ignorance?

As I pointed out in my last post, it's impossible to have any idea of how many Russians (if any) truly support Putin's war. I think one might safely assume that a good number of Russians have enough critical judgement to reject articles like this one outright as pure rubbish. One hint is the fact that in an attempt to portray Ukrainians as Nazis, in an article running about 2,500 words, the word "Nazi" appears either alone or embedded in another word 89 times. One could read an entire history of World War II and not encounter the word that many times. Not to mention that the article has a rather suspect interpretation of history that could be refuted by an eight-year old child.

It wouldn't be far-fetched to assume that a good number of Russians do support Putin and his war, despite knowing full well his public explanations for it are unadulterated bullshit. Look at this country. In the November 2020 election, more people cast votes for Donald Trump than for any other candidate in the history of American presidential elections, with the exception of course of Joe Biden that same election. They voted for Trump despite knowing that he pledged during his presidency his unending loyalty and allegiance to Putin and his regime. They did it despite his attempts at extorting Volodymyr Zelenski, threatening the Ukrainian president by tying the sale of much needed arms to Ukraine in exchange for his obtaining dirt on Biden. When he was impeached for that undeniably brazen and illegal act, his supporters claimed it was merely a political "witch hunt" to discredit their man.

Then more than a year after the election, a good number of his supporters still cling to the belief without a single shred of evidence, that Trump actually won the 2020 election. And they continue to support him despite the fact that he tried to overthrow our government by leading an insurrection in a desperate attempt to remain in power.

Unlike Russians, we Americans cannot use the excuse, at least not yet, of not having access to all sides of the story. 

The moral of all this is that people will believe anything they want to believe.

That is the scariest part of all.