Saturday, March 26, 2005

Kyrgyzstan: Where is it?

In recent weeks we've been overwhelmed with news about a civil uprising and the toppling of the government in Kyrgyzstan. (Journalists had it easier with the country's former name, the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic, but I assume its inhabitants are happier having been unleashed in 1991 from the Kremlin's rule.)
Most Americans probably never heard of the country, nor could they find it on a map. As a lifelong geographic buff, my own familiarity with the country has been based largely on old TV travelogues showing nomadic, Mongol-looking horsemen galloping across the Central Asian plains against the backdrop of huge mountain ranges. But my image of the Kyrgyz people has been sharply altered by the latest TV and newspaper photos showing urbanized people in Western garb conducting a political rebellion.
The Kyrgyz people have a special place in history as descendants of one of the marauding hordes of Mongol tribes against whom China built its famous Wall for protection some thousand years ago. The nomadic Kyrgyz later migrated to the southwest. In the 1860s and 1870s, their nation, now about the size of South Dakota, was annexed by Czarist Russia along with the lands of such other Central Asians as the Tajiks, Kazakhs, Turkomen, and Uzbeks.
Like these other Turkic-speaking peoples, most Kyrgyz are Muslim. Many living in the nation's northern region, however, still practice totemism, a form of animism, tracing back to their Mongol roots.
The Kyrgyz did not have a written language until 1923 when they adopted the Arabic alphabet. They quickly shifted to Latin script and then finally, under Soviet Russian pressure, adopted the Cyrillic alphabet. The Russian influence undoubtedly explains why most Kyrgyz--like their fellow Turkic-speaking Central Asians--have names with Slavic suffixes.
The country's frequent alphabetical switches may account for its high rate of illiteracy. Curiously, however, its recently ousted president had been a prominent physicist in the former Soviet Union.
Much of the Kyrgyz population of about 5 million is comprised of nomadic herdsmen. The result has been prolonged conflict with the country's minority Uzbeks, who tend to be farmers. There is apparently less ethnic tension with another minority group, the Russians, who make up at least 10% of the population. Russian is considered a second official language.
Today Kyrgyzstan has the distinction of being the only country in the world that houses military bases of both the United States and Russia.

Monday, March 21, 2005

60 years later: A last hurrah for WW2 vets

After World War 2 ended in 1945 many ex-GIs set up what can best be described as "alumni associations" for the outfits in which they had served. Serving in the same regiments, divisions, Air Corps groups, naval vessels and other military units, the men had bonded emotionally and had become close-knit groups. Having shared the same wartime experiences, they wanted to retain a fraternal relationship as civilians. Similar groups were organized for men who had engaged in the same battles or had served in the same war theaters.
I have always been disappointed that my own outfit, the 903rd Signal Co. Depot (Aviation), did not set up such a fraternal postwar group. One reason was its unusual history. After being activated in Oklahoma, the company was shipped to Egypt in late 1942, where it was attached for a while to the British 8th Army. Some of its men were in combat--an uncommon experience for the telephone linesmen and repeatermen, radio operators and repairmen, truck drivers, supply clerks, cryptographers, and radar repairmen who made up the outfit. (In Iraq, of course, such support troops are being routinely exposed to combat.)
In early 1944 the company boarded a ship at Port Suez, thinking it was being shipped back to the U.S. Instead, the outfit landed in Bombay. Shortly after, I was one of about a dozen 19-year olds, newly arrived in India, who joined the under-strength 903rd in Bihar and Bengal provinces to which the company had been assigned.
Over the next year, those who had served in Egypt began to be rotated back to the States and fresh troops periodically arrived to replace them. This is why the company lacked the cohesion that would have it easier to set up a postwar civilian outfit. I was stationed for much of my overseas duty at the Bengal Air Depot, about 60 miles north of Calcutta. The 893rd Signal Co., the same type of unit as the 903rd, was also based there. The two companies lived and worked closely. I became friends with several of the men in the 893rd, and we remained in contact after being discharged from the Army.
The 893rd was shipped overseas as a group and remained pretty much together for two years in India. They enjoyed a camaraderie that led easily to setting up a postwar fraternal organization. Over the past 60 years they have had annual reunions, have published a bi-annual newsletter, and in recent years even set up an Internet web site. In effect, I became an honorary member when two of my 893rd friends had me added to the group's mailing roster. I am regularly invited to their reunions (I have not attended any), and I receive their newsletter. Interestingly, I recently learned that one of the 893rd men I knew well in India is New York Senator Chuck Schumer's father. (I recently met Abe Schumer, the Senator's father, when he visited my community in New Jersey.)
About 15 years ago I became aware of the existence of the China-Burma-India Veterans Assn., only after seeing its emblem on some one's auto bumper. I am now a member of the association's Gold Coast "basha" in south Florida, where I have a winter home. (A "basha" was a primitive structure that functioned as a military barracks throughout the CBI.) I attend monthly luncheons when they are scheduled in Palm Beach County, close to my home in Boynton Beach. None of its members had been based near me in India, but I enjoy reminiscing about our common wartime experiences in an exotic region that produced culture shock for young American soldiers unacquainted with the Orient. My wife loyally accompanies me to the luncheons and is probably wearied listening to wartime tales that she has often heard before. Our camaraderie is marked by a frustration that we served in an almost forgotten theater of war which never received the public attention of the European and South Pacific campaigns. But we are confident that we had a critical role in the CBI that led to Japan's defeat and the end of a horrible war.
Sixty years after the end of WW2 the veterans groups are now sadly facing a last hurrah. The youngest of the WW2 veterans is at least 79 or 80, and this year will be the last time for organized reunons. The charters of the 893rd Signal association, the CBI Vets, and most of the other WW2 veterans groups provide for their disbanding in 2005. Facing a foe more formidable than any foreign enemy--old age--the WW2 veterans organizations are folding up across the country.
Stubbornly, however, one Florida CBI basha has voted "to extend our charter to 2007 and hopefully beyond." I wish them good luck.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Jewish refugees from Muslim lands

A major grievance of Israel-bashers is the plight of Palestinian Arab refugees from what is now Israel. The most credible figure is that about 600,000 of them fled or were otherwise displaced. What is overlooked is that at least as many Jews fled from Muslim countries to the new Jewish state. Most of the Palestinian Arab refugees, who with their descendants reportedly now number about 4 million, have never been absorbed by their fellow Muslims. Instead, they have been kept stateless and used as a political tool to delegitimize Israel's very existence.
In contrast, the Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran have been successfully assimilated into Israel. Indeed, they and their descendants now account for about half of Israel's Jewish population.
The most impressive evidence of their successful integration is the current makeup of Israel's political leadership. Both the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, and the defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, were born in Iran. The new chief of the Israel Defense Forces, Gen. Dan Halutz, is the son of immigrants from Iraq and Iran. The foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, was born in Morocco. The former IDF chief, Yitzhak Mordecai, was born in the Kurdish region of Iran. Other members of Israel's cabinet have family roots in Yemen, Egypt and Syria.
I often wonder whether the political leaders of Iran and the Arab countries are aware that so many of their Israeli counterparts have such intimate links to the Muslim world. And do they recognize that their countries' traditional persecution of Jews helped create and strengthen a new nation that they still regard as an enemy?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Hurray for me, screw you

That seems to be the Bush Administration's motto as it continues to screw the average working stiff at the expense of the very wealthy. The latest example: cutting spending for the health care of military veterans. The Administration's new budget imposes new hospital fees, higher prescription drug co-payments, and other spending cuts in veterans benefits. (And this at a time of mounting combat losses in a war that should never have been fought.) The new budget also reduces benefits for poor preschoolers in the Head Start program and rental assistance for poor disabled and elderly individuals.
The cutbacks are the direct result of the refusal to roll back tax cuts for the very wealthy. Meantime, the Administraton continues to ruin the economy with a skyrocketing national debt load, to rape the environment, and to take money away from state programs. In short, the Administration is practicisng crony capitalism. New York State's attorney-general has had to prosecute corporate abuses that Bush's Justice Dept. continues to overlook. The Administration is more concerned about the welfare of its corporate benefactors than the welfare of the average low- and middle-class American.
The irony is that these same mainstream citizens are the ones who voted Mr. Bush into office. It continues to amaze me that these people don't know who their friends are. Apparently, they are more concerned about guns, gays and God than in their own best interests and the general welfare of the nation at large.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Flag waving and tax griping

I've always seen a strange and hypocritical correlation between obsessive griping about paying Federal income taxes and excessive flag-waving patriotism. This linkage is a benchmark for those on the right wing of the political spectrum. It is personified by the likes of such politicos as Tom DeLay, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, and his allies. To these super-patriots the very idea of raising taxes or of revoking tax cuts is as repulsive as castor oil. Providing the intellectual underpinning for the tax-bashers are the ultra-conservative think tanks--the American Conservative Union, Cato Institute, National Taxpayers Union, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Union, and the Club for Growth.
What also binds most of these individuals and organizations is the kind of chest-thumping patriotism that considers opposition to the Iraq war as traitorous and advocacy of such social issues as welfare, workers rights, abortion rights, gun control, and civil rights as dangerous radical ideas. They slur political opponents as unpatriotic if not disloyal.
Don't get me wrong. I don't love paying taxes any more than the next guy. But where do we get the revenue to pay for such critical public needs as homeland security, military defense, highways, airport safety, regulation of vital industries, etc.? Certainly not by tax-cutting during wartime and by transforming healthy budget surpluses into mountainous national debt that will burden generations to come..

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