Sunday, July 18, 2010

Letting Go

I never got to say goodbye to my father. One moment he was, and then he was not, in the space of time it took to write those words. And that event, it seems, was only important to me, for the world didn't even note his passing.

"Here is wisdom: for he that increaseth knwoledge, increaseth sorrow." You probably don't recognize that; if not, go read Ecclesiastes. It's the most beautiful book in the Bible, and a rather surprising inclusion. It is, after all, far from a hopeful work. But it resonates with me on a level that is difficult to explain, for it encapsulates the last lesson my father ever taught me. Whatever comes after this life is neither Heaven nor Hell, but the eternal silence of the grave.

Perhaps that is why there is such a nihilistic streak to my soul, or maybe it's just the frustration of the warrior-poet with no war to fight. Born of haunted blood from a haunted land, the ghosts of my Irish forebears dog my steps and plague my dreams. Show me a lost cause and I'll show you an Irishman in the thick of it, swinging away until the bitter end. When the British took away our own country, we went off and built another, yet never lost that ache in the soul unique to us. An Irishman may be predisposed by blood to never say goodbye, I don't know. But it does seem to be a theme in my life.

There was a girl once, who came into my life just when I needed her the most, who saved me from myself. I never got to say goodbye to her, when she left my life just as suddenly as she had appeared. Moments in time, almost three years of them, preserved forever in memory but never to be again. Whoever said that it was better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all was an ass. Better by far to be numb than to live with the exquisite ache of loss, that void that can never be filled.

It's been almost twenty-five years since I last saw my best friend. We didn't part with a goodbye, but with a "see you later," never guessing that later actually meant forever. He saved my life once, too, and how do you repay a debt like that? One moment he, too, was here, and the next he was lost to time and life, a fading whisper in the wind, a ghost of a memory.

A friend of mine died a while ago in the cold, bitter mountains of a distant, bitter land, and the world didn't notice his passing, either. He traveled a long way to die, so it seemed only fitting that I travel a long way to say goodbye. But it was far too late for words, and all I was left with was the crushing knowledge that I should have been there for him, but I was not. The dead have wisdom for us, but we don't want to listen.

I never got to say goodbye to my mother who, like my father, was and then was not. I worked for several years to keep her alive, and the last words I had with her were spoken in anger. I loved her, but I couldn't say it, and I will bear both those burdens on my soul until the day that I, too, am no more. Time wounds all heels, and I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.

In one form or another, I spent my entire adult life helping people, but when I was the one who needed help, I found out just how alone I really was. Poetic justice, I suppose, for a life not worth living. I've known my entire life what I was running from, but never where I was running to, and in the end discovered I was in a head-long rush to nowhere. There's some irony for you.

Letting go is the hardest thing in the world to do, for in a very real sense it means saying goodbye to the things that make you you. The comfort of an immutable past is seductive, safe, but holding on to it blinds you to the future. I can't change my past, yet perhaps I can finally say goodbye to it, for the first time in my life. The man I was is dead, and I'm not sure yet if I'll mourn that fact or not. It may be too late, but perhaps now I can be the man I should have been.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

And the McChrystal Ball Says . . .

Oh, Stanley, you have got to be one of the dumbest brilliant people I have ever heard of . . .

Just in case anyone out there has retreated under their personal rock again and somehow missed it, President Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan today. Yeah, sure, offically the General "resigned," but let's face it, he was fired. Only when someone reaches that level of Government service and screws up, they're not publicly fired, they're resigned. Everybody involved gets to save a little bit of face that way, and at least some pretense can be made that the dirty laundry isn't being aired in public.

Now, let's also be clear on this from the outset: the President had no choice but to fire General McChrystal. What the man did ranks right up there with what MacArthur did that forced Truman to "resign" him. And what did McChrystal do? He shot his mouth off, and allowed his staff to shoot their mouths off, in front of a Rolling Stone reporter.

Nor should anyone make a mistake about this: the article in Rolling Stone that caused the President to fire General McChrystal was an out-and-out hatchet job from beginning to end. If you haven't read it, you really should; it is a classic example of an ill-informed reporter with an ideological agenda. To say that the author has an unflattering opinion of not only McChrystal and his staff, but of the military in general, would be an understatement. The article in question is, in tone, denigrating of the General, the people, and the institution.

On the flip side, the mind boggles not so much at the fact that McChrystal would allow a reporter, any reporter, that kind of access, but that he would, frankly, be dumb enough to allow his staff to speak that way in front of a reporter, whether or not they believed those conversations to be on the record or not. Look, it is an article of faith in the military that it is every soldier's God-given right to bitch about anything and everything, and if we were going to be completely honest, there probably wasn't anything quoted in that article that isn't being said by the troops out on the sharp end of the stick. But those are the bits of dirty laundry that you just don't air out in public.

Everyone has an opinion, but when an opinion becomes corrosive to the chain-of-command, they need to not be aired. There was nothing in that article, aside from a single snarky comment about the Vice President, that was directly attributed to General McChrystal. The problem was, however, that McChrystal allowed his staff to make those corrosive comments and, just like a politician's staff, a General's staff speaks ex cathedra for their commander. If McChrystal's staff felt comfortable enough to make the comments quoted in the article, then it is an almost sure bet that he shared those opinions.

So, the President made the only choice he could have, both to preserve the idea of good order and discipline within the military, and to once again reaffirm the notion of civilian control over the military. The President also made a good choice in dual-hatting General Petraeus as both CentCom commander and commander of our forces in Afghanistan. And the net effect of all of this?

We're still going to lose the war in Afghanistan.

The President has stated it on multiple occasions in the past, and he stated it again today when he announced McChrystal's resignation: the war in Afghanistan is vital to our national security. But he has also stated on multiple occasions in the past, and again today, that he will withdraw our troops from that country next summer. And that is why we are going to lose the war.

Does anyone else see the contradiction inherent in those two statements? If winning the war and stabilizing Afghanistan is vital to our national security, how can you then possibly say that you are going to withdraw the troops in less than a year? That would be like announcing on June 6, 1944, "Well, if we're not done by December 6, 1944, we're packing up and going home." It just doesn't make sense to say, on the one hand, that we're going to "relentlessy pursue the Taliban" and "strengthen Afghan capabilities" and then set an arbitrary end date, regardless of conditions on the ground.

The President has, in fact, told the enemy that if they only hang on until the summer of 2011, they've won. That one, single act of setting the withdrawal date renders any other initiative the President tries to institute in that Theatre moot. You can not apply diplomatic pressure on th enemy because, again, you've already told them that all they have to do is hang on until your withdrawal date. And any military pressure you try to apply is, in the end, just a waste of your soldiers' lives. Is it any wonder, then, that the soldiers might have a diminished opinion about their political masters?

Afghanistan itself is a classic example of what the military lovingly refers to as "mission creep." Our involvement there has expanded, almost inevitably, well beyond just toppling the Taliban to the State Department's favourite activity, "nation building." The problem there is that Afghanistan is never going to be a Western-style, liberal parliamentary democracy, which is what the State Department and liberals like the President want. No matter what we do - or don't do, for that matter - Afghanistan, in the end, is going to be what it has always been: a collection of provinces ruled by local strongmen who pay nominal alleigance to a weak central government that, in effect, bribes them to play along.

That is a hard thing for people whose political theories have been shaped by events that reach back through the Ages of Reason and the Enlightenment to roots that spring from Magna Carta to accept. Then again, those vast areas of the globe that don't trace their origins back to Western Europe have never played by those rules to begin with, which is also a difficult idea for people raised in our liberal society to accept. That is, nonetheless, the reality of the world we live in.

Any "solution" that we come up with to the "problem" of Afghanistan has to take that reality into account, or it is stillborn and doomed to failure before it even starts. Which is, again, why we are going to fail in Afghanistan, regardless of what General McChrystal did or did not say in front of an ideologue reporter from Rolling Stone, or what ideologues on either the Right or Left choose to beat their chests over as a result of that article.

There are those among us, who seem to get their History from the likes of CNN or MSNBC, who say that it is impossible to win a war in Afghanistan - indeed, that was a not-so-subtle subtext to the article in question - and smugly point out that no one has ever won a war in that sad, little country. But that isn't quite true. Yes, neither the Soviets nor the British at the height of their empire won in Afghanistan, but on the other hand, the Mongols and Alexander the Great did. What the latter had that the former did, and we do not, have was both the will and the understanding of the country to win. Nor did they set an arbitrary deadline on winning.

But, really, Stanley . . . you should have kept your mouth shut and reined your staff in.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

This is How You Remind Me

There once was a man named Clarence.

I actually know very little about him, other than what I gleaned in brief encounters, moments in time forever preserved in the fragile amber of my memory. He was the maitre'd of the restaurant in the Pearson Hotel, a one-time Chicago landmark that was long ago demolished in an act of economic greed, replaced by The Water Tower Place.

Clarence was probably the first Black man I ever met, and certainly the first Black man that I can remember clearly. In the days that I knew him, the Pearson was in decline, fading away as it lived on the echoes of past glory. The word threadbare comes to mind, yet that isn't really a truly accurate description of the place. Decrepit might be a better word, from the lush carpeting to the dark paneling of the walls to the crystal chandeliers, mute witnesses to a time that was rapidly fading away as another time replaced it. But a kind of quiet dignity oozed from every pore of that building, the same kind of quiet dignity with which Clarence carried himself.

My parents used to take my brother and I to the Pearson every Sunday for brunch, something they did even after we moved from our apartment at 222 E. Chestnut, a few blocks from the hotel, to a brownstone a block away from Grant Hospital in Lincoln Park. Some days it was a somewhat informal affair, but mostly it was a gathering of what I suppose could be called the "movers and shakers" in the city. But what I remember most of those brunches - other than a weird aversion to scambled eggs - was Clarence, dressed in his black tuxedo and white gloves. For whatever reason, perhaps because of that dignity and genuine warmth that the man exuded, I always greeted him with a big hug, a gesture he always willingly returned.

To say that I was a rambunctious child would be something of an understatement. The business of adults was excruciatingly boring, and despite my mother's best attempts, the concept of children should be seen and not heard never quite sank in. I remember one Sunday, when the brunch consisted of about twenty couples seated at a long table, that I mortified my parents by deciding to entertain myself with getting on the floor and crawling under the length of that table.

My father started to get under the table to retrieve me but Clarence, ever attendant to his guests' needs, beat him to the punch, so to speak. Tuxedo, gloves and all, he got down under that table and crawled after me, the two of us knocking knees with the best of them.

Mostly, though, when Clarence noticed the terminal ennui getting to me, he would go out of his way to find things to entertain me and give the adults a break. Sometimes he would take me back to the kitchen, where the chefs and waiters would watch me; other times, he would take me into the ballroom, and let me bang away at the keys of an old grand piano. And sometimes, he would sit down at another table with me, and just talk.

In the late 1960s, a time when racial tensions in this country were coming to an explosive head, he taught me more about race relations than anyone else ever did, merely by being who he was. A man, after all, is a man, and it is the content of his character that defines him, not the colour of his skin. Whether he knew it or not, that was the lesson he taught me every time I saw him, perhaps one of the most important lessons I ever learned.

I have no idea what ever became of Clarence. Time went on, and old traditions fell into disuse, left behind as memories of an almost mythical simpler time. But I still think of him from time to time, and I treasure his memory not just because it is a part of a lost childhood, but because I look back with adult eyes and see that lesson. The world would, I think, be a better place if we all had had a Clarence, and I can think of no better epitaph for any man than that.