Monday, June 25, 2007

MEMOIR: How my parents learned where the Army sent me

There is a tendency for the Bush Administration to over-react to what are conceived to be national security threats. Perhaps the reason is to compensate for the blunders committed before 9/11--the failure to acknowledge warnings of imminent terrorist actions, the failure of the CIA and FBI to coordinate intelligence data, and the failure to recognize the presence of Al-Qaeda agents in this country.

There is no question that the current threat of extremist Islamic terrorism is genuine. But some of the government responses since the 9/11 attack have been ineffectual, if not irrational.

For example, Washington's color-code hysterics that warned about imminent acts of terrorism were false and confusing. The official warnings provided no guidance on what individual citizens were supposed to do, and they wasted the resources of local authorities struggling to respond to the erroneous warnings about the threat.

Another example of the absurd anti-terrorist policies is the system of airport security checks on passengers. To assure political correctness, the checkers avoid passenger profiling, which would be a logical security tool.

After all, we do know what the 9/11 terrorists looked like, and we have good ideas about the appearance and behavior of those who are still serious terrorist threats. This knowledge, however, does not necessarily conflict with intelligence findings that Al-Qaeda has instructed members of its sleeper cells here to assume mainstream American identities and lifestyles as much as possible.

Instead of focusing on truly suspicious airport passengers, the inspectors also routinely check out WASP-looking old women, physically-disabled persons in wheelchairs and other obvious innocents, ordering them to take off their shoes to examine whether explosives are concealed in them.

These nonsensical post-9/11 security tactics remind me of some equally irrational World War II security policies. I remember being on a troop train in late December 1944, traveling from St. Louis, Mo., where I had received infantry training at Jefferson Barracks, to Camp Patrick Henry, Va., a staging area for the Hampton Roads port of embarkation.

Our destination was kept secret from the troops aboard the train. Only when we arrived at the camp were we told that we were in Virginia. But we were not allowed to inform our families. When I phoned my mother in New York, she naturally asked where I was. As I was about to answer her question, some one monitoring outgoing phone conversations cut me off before I could respond. I have always wondered what military benefit our German and Japanese enemies could have gained by knowing I was in Virginia.

After several days, we finally shipped out aboard a British luxury liner, the HMS Empress of Scotland, that had been converted into a troop ship. I estimate that about 5,000 troops were crammed into the vessel. As the ship moved out to sea, all the troops were ordered below decks so that we could not look at the port's "strategic facilities."

I assume that the reference was to such sites as anti-aircraft installations, oil depots, and cargo-handling facilities. If there were any spies among the U.S. troops aboard the ship, I question how they could have possibly communicated what they saw to the enemy, assuming that they knew how to identify facilities that were truly strategically important.

After a month at sea, interrupted by a brief stay in Capetown, South Africa, our ship landed in Bombay, India. As I recall, it was at least a year before we were officially allowed to write home that we were in India. Our outgoing mail was heavily censored by our outfit's own officers. I used to wonder who censored their mail and whether they could tell their families where they were.

Was it really that significant to the Japanese to know that soldiers like me were now in India? I had been trained in the Signal Corps as a Teletype operator and cryptographer. (The Jefferson Barracks infantry training was to supplement these occupational skills.) I cannot imagine that this knowledge would have affected Japan's strategy to invade eastern India or its efforts to block the shipment of U.S. military supplies to China.

By a strange happening, I wandered into a Bombay synagogue while on a day's leave to visit the city. The result was that I was soon able to avoid the restriction and to let my parents know where I was.

A section of the synagogue, which had been founded by Iraqi Jews, was devoted to a community center. Several ping-pong tables were set up in it. When he saw me come into the room, a man named Harry Zussman challenged me to a game.

I don't remember who won the game, but Harry and I quickly became friends. I was stationed for about a month at a U.S. Army replacement center located at an RAF base outside Bombay. While awaiting assignment to an operational outfit, I was frequently allowed to visit the city, where I arranged to meet Harry and spend time with him.

He was a British Army sergeant who had been seriously wounded during the British retreat from Burma. After recovering from his wounds, he was assigned to be a drill instructor in the British-officered Indian Army, also based outside Bombay. The assignment was apparently a sinecure that allowed him lots of free time to come into the city.

When I told him that I was frustrated by my inability to let my family know that I was in India, he said that his outgoing mail was not censored. Harry, who was a native of London who spoke with an engaging cockney accent, volunteered to write to my parents in New York, informing them that he had met me in Bombay.

My mother responded to his letter and shipped him a fruit cake and a kosher salami to show her appreciation. They soon became wartime pen pals, particularly after discovering that their respective parents had originated in the same Czarist Russian province.

Many years later, my wife and I visited London while on a European tour. The first thing I did in London was to check the local telephone book, seeking Harry's name and number. I was disappointed that I did not find him listed. I wanted to thank him for for enabling my parents to know that I was serving in India. It was information that was far more important to them than it could have possibly been to the Japanese.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Rachel Carson: I knew her when...

I recently became aware that this is the centennial of the birth of Rachel Carson, the world-famed science writer and ecologist who was cited by Time Magazine as "one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century." Carson, who crusaded against the use of chemical pesticides in her classic book, The Silent Spring, was a pioneer in the rise of the environmental movement.

The centennial of her birth is being commemorated with observances around the country. The event has a special meaning to me because I knew and worked with Rachel Carson when she was unknown except to a small circle of colleagues. Over the years I was fascinated to watch her become an international celebrity, and I felt a vicarious sense of satisfaction that she achieved such great fame.

I knew her for only the 13 months during 1948 and 1949 when she and I were both employed in the Division of Information of the U.S. Dept. of the Interior's Fish & Wildlife Service. We both bore the same civil service job title, "information & editorial specialist (press & publications)".

But our professional status differed markedly. Carson, who was then 41, had a master's degree in zoology. She had been with the agency since 1936 as a writer and expert in marine biology and wildlife conservation. I was a 23-year old war veteran fresh out of journalism school and had no scientific credentials.

I had been hired for the government job in an unconventional manner. The information division's director, a onetime newspaperman who had formerly been the chief game warden in Alaska, spotted a situation-wanted ad that I had placed in Editor & Publisher, the newspaper industry's trade publication.

He apparently was impressed by my ad and hired me to write press releases about the agency's operations even though I had no background in wildlife matters. Indeed, my sole exposure to wildlife stemmed from childhood visits to the Bronx Zoo, which was located close to my home.

I was "displaced" from the job a year after being hired when the Civil Service Commission belatedly discovered that I lacked permanent civil service status. I was replaced by a man who was given preference as a "disabled" war veteran. (After six months Army service he had been discharged because of stomach ulcers; I had served three years, most of it overseas.)

While my job was writing press releases on such matters as the latest census of whooping cranes and trumpeter swans--both nearly extinct birds--the "harvesting" of Alaska fur-seals on the Pribilof Islands, and Federal duck-hunting regulations, Carson was in an adjoining office writing more detailed booklets on related subjects. The booklets were published by the U.S. Government Printing Office and were regarded as the "bibles" of the wildlife conservation movement.

Carson was a shy, spinsterish woman, and I never really got to know her very well. But she became my personal technical adviser as I consulted her regularly about the specialized matters that figured in my press releases.

Her FWS booklets were written in the bland, unadorned style that characterizes Federal Government publications. I never recognized her enormous talent as a gifted, poetic writer until 1951 when I read The Sea Around Us, which was serialized in The New Yorker before being published as a book.

The book explored the enormous mysteries of the sea, a subject with which she had become enchanted as a marine biology student in Woods Hole, Mass. It was written in an extraordinarily radiant style that I never imagined could be linked to scientific material. It won the National Book Award and sold more than 200,000 copies in hard cover.

I later learned that before achieving fame with her books, Carson was a prolific but unpublished writer of poetry. This clearly explained her ability to turn scientific matter into lyric prose. It was a talent that was not called for in the booklets she wrote for the Fish & Wildlife Service. In her private writing, however, she used this unique ability to present intricate scientific material in clear poetic language, captivating readers and stimulating their interest in the natural world.

That exceptional talent was displayed again in 1962 when her masterpiece, The Silent Spring, appeared, serialized again in The New Yorker before being published as a book. Her success with The Sea Around Us had induced her to resign from the Fish & Wildlife Service a decade earlier to devote herself to full-time private writing.

The Silent Spring argued that the profligate misuse of synthetic chemical pesticides was endangering human life and posed a severe hazard to the environment. Carson developed the idea for her book when a friend complained that pesticide spraying had killed the birds in her yard as well as the intended insects. Subsequent research revealed that long-lasting pesticides caused immense damage, including human physiological changes.

The book provoked a prolonged controversy with the chemical industry and agricultural interests who challenged Carson's claims. She was attacked as an alarmist, but her argument was so compelling that it led to the the creation of the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, a government ban on the use of DDT, and widespread public concern about water and air pollution.

Carson died in 1964 at the age of 57 after a long battle with breast cancer. I have always considered it a privilege to have known and worked with her.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

How the 2008 Presidential election shapes up

Here we are 17 months away from the 2008 Presidential election, and we have already been swamped over the past half-year by candidacy declarations, polls, campaign speeches, debates, and excessive political punditry. I cannot recall when there have ever been so many candidates running for the Presidency over so lengthy a period of time. When the actual voting finally takes place next year, I fear that much of the electorate could be too weary to go to the polls.

The major reason the campaign is dragging on so long is the candidates' need to raise cash to pay for soaring electioneering costs. The media--and particularly the cable news channels--also benefit from the prolonged campaigning. It provides lots of raw material to fill TV's air space between commercials and copy for the print media.

Last January I declared that retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a Democrat, was my favorite candidate. As a non-politician with distinguished military and diplomatic credentials, I thought he would have elevated the level of campaigning and, if elected, would have provided the kind of world-class Presidential leadership that has been absent since 2001. Clark has failed to obtain much financial support and to attract significant media attention, however, and I am disappointed that he is not running.

As a registered Democrat, my current favorite is Al Gore, who has yet to declare his candidacy. There is considerable pressure on him to enter the race, for he would be a formidable candidate. Need I remind any one once again that he received more popular votes in the 2000 election than George W. Bush?

If Gore does not decide to run, the Democrats are blessed with an exceedingly impressive lineup of candidates. But none of them would be as strong a candidate as Gore. I wonder whether the two leaders in the Democratic polls, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are as electable. Sadly, I am uncertain that American voters are ready to accept a woman or an African-American as President.

Aside from the gender and racial issues, both have other handicaps. For reasons that I have never understood, there is a widespread, almost pathological hatred of Hillary. (What other Presidential candidate since "Ike" Eisenhower ever enjoyed such first-name public familiarity?) Perhaps it is a matter of the envy of other women of her success and the resentment of reactionary men that a female should aspire to become President of the United States.

Although I recognize that she is as well-qualified--maybe more so--as her Democratic opponents, I am unenthusiastic about her candidacy. I admired Bill Clinton, but I am turned off by what I regard as a dynastic, Clinton-overkill quality to his wife's candidacy. I would prefer to see a fresh face in the White House.

Obama is one of the most charismatic and exciting new politicians to appear in years. But I believe he lacks the gravitas and political accomplishments to qualify him to become President in 2008. Maybe it's because I'm an old grouch, but his boyish persona would make me uncomfortable that a guy almost young enough to be my grandson is sitting in the White House.

If Gore does not enter the race, I think that the Democrats' most electable candidate would be John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and John Kerry's running mate in 2004. I have confessed to my wife that I am bewitched by Mrs. Edwards, a charming and brilliant lady who would be a valuable campaign asset.

The other serious Democratic candidates--Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden and New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson--are all excellent, experienced men well suited to be President. Each one would be a better President than any of the 10 announced Republican candidates--or actor/politician Fred Thompson, who at this writing is expected to throw his hat into the race.

That Thompson has suddenly become a major factor in the election demonstrates that the Republican establishment lacks enthusiasm for any of the party's formally-announced candidates.

Their anxiety over winning next year is so palpable that Thompson seems to be regarded by so many Republican stalwarts as a political messiah. He probably would be a better President than any of the other Republicans seeking their party's nomination.

I once admired John McCain for his maverick qualities. But I cannot understand his unrealistic call for more troops in Iraq at a time when we should be withdrawing from the civil war there. I am also disappointed by his pandering to his party's religious right wing, which unfairly demolished him when he sought the Republican nomination in 2000.

As a panderer he is outclassed by Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts favored gun control, embryonic stem cell research, and the civil rights of gay men and lesbians and of women seeking abortion. As a Republican Presidential candidate, however, he has found it necessary to reverse his position on each of these controversial issues. I was especially amused that he "outed" himself as a fervent hunter and suddenly joined the National Rifle Assn.

In contrast, Rudy Guiliani has shown great courage in sticking to his positions on these sensitive issues, and I admire him for that. But I think the importance of his leadership role as New York City's mayor after 9/11 has been exaggerated, as has his expertise on terrorism. And, at the risk of sounding naive, I am offended by his exploitation of these issues in his run for the White House.

In fact, some New York police and fire officials have criticized him for locating the city's crisis management center in the World Trade Center and for his failure to assure that the two departments operated on the same radio wave lengths. Their inability to communicate during the 9/11 attack had disastrous consequences.

Thompson, McCain, Romney, and Guiliani are regarded as the "first-tier" candidates for the Republican nomination, and the others are highly unlikely nominees. During the past two Republican TV debates I was impressed by Jim Gilmore. He came across as a smart and articulate politician with relatively moderate social and economic views (for a Republican). Moreover, he had an outstanding record as governor of Virginia. But he is not as well known nationally as his first-tier rivals. I would not be surprised, however, to see him selected as the Republicans' Vice-Presidential nominee.

Only 17 months to go until the election. Meanwhile, it's a great time for political junkies like me.


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