Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The last hurrah

I've never been much of a joiner. But two organizations to which I have belonged have had a very special meaning for me. One was the CBI Veterans Association., a national organization of men who served in China, Burma and India during World War II.

The other was an informal group of guys who had been in the 893rd Signal Co. in India and had banded together after the war as a sort of alumni society so that they could keep in touch as civilians. I was an honorary member of the group.

I have been a member of the CBI Veterans Association's local "basha" in south Florida, where I have a winter home. A "basha" is the official designation of the organization's local units. Instead of setting up "posts" like the American Legion and VFW, the CBI vets named their local units after the flimsy, grass-thatched structures that served as U.S. military barracks in India.

For many years, I have attended the basha's luncheon meetings, where we enthusiastically reminisced about our experiences in the CBI. Forced to listen again and again to the same stories from grizzled old men trying to recall our youthful adventures in exotic lands, I question whether my wife--or the other wives in attendance--shared our enthusiasm about the luncheon meetings.

Although I was never assigned to the 893rd Signal Co., my own outfit, the 903rd Signal Co., was stationed together with the 893rd at the same base, the Bengal Air Depot, a U.S. Army base in Titagharh, a village about 60 miles outside Calcutta. We lived and worked together for more than a year, and many of the men in the two outfits became close buddies.

The 903rd had been stationed in Egypt before it arrived in India in the spring of 1944. I had landed in India a few months earlier and was assigned to the company, which was under strength. Over the next year, there was considerable personnel turnover in the outfit as the men with lengthy overseas duty were shipped home and were replaced by newcomers to India.

The 893rd was a far more cohesive group, however, whose members had been together for many years. When the war was over, they decided to create a sort of alumni club so that they could keep in touch. Over the years, they held annual reunions and published a newsletter.

I had many close friends in the 893rd. As a result, I was considered an honorary member and was put on its mailing list. I was invited but never attended its reunions. I always looked forward, however, to the newsletter to learn about the civilian lives of men I had known as fellow soldiers.

For a half a century, I corresponded with several of my 893rd friends, and visited two of them while on business and vacation trips to California. Sadly, I learned of their deaths in the newsletter about ten years ago.

A more cheerful newsletter article reported that another 893rd alumnus, Abe Schumer, whom I had known well, was the father of New York's Senator Chuck Schumer. I found a picture of Abe in a box of wartime photos at home. I mailed the picture to the Senator and was delighted to receive a phone call from his father.

By coincidence, Abe had been planning to visit a former Long Island neighbor who now lived in my New Jersey community. He called me when he arrived at her home, and we had a delightful chat comparing notes on how we had fared since the war so many years ago.

Last year the national CBI organization's quarterly newsletter stopped coming in the mail. Nor did I receive announcements about 893rd Signal Co. reunions and the luncheon-meetings of the national association's Florida basha.

For me, the silence represents the last hurrah for my fellow World War II veterans who served in the CBI. We're now old men, and there are obviously not enough of us still around to maintain our "alumni" groups, which had enabled us to reminisce about our wartime experiences in China, Burma and India. At least, we will no longer be boring our wives with our exotic tales of adventure.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Palestinians' self-inflicted wounds

Israel is about to observe its 60th anniversary as an independent state. If the Palestinians had accepted the United Nations partition of the former British Mandate territory into separate Arab and Jewish nations, they would also be celebrating an independence anniversary.

Instead, the Palestinians rejected the partition. They immediately went to war, supported by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, in an attempt to destroy the infant Jewish state. In a historic military miracle, the vastly outnumbered Israelis soundly defeated the Arabs and acquired territory that significantly increased the size of their tiny new state beyond the UN-established borders.

Thus, while the Israelis are celebrating their 60th anniversary of independence, the Palestinians will be observing the anniversary of the UN partition resolution as a day of mourning, which they call the "Nakba," Arabic for "catastrophe."

In a bizarre historic twist, the autocratic-led Palestinians now bear the international image of victimhood, despite the Arab aggression. But Israel, a democratic nation almost wholly composed of refugees, and their descendants, from centuries of persecution in Christian and Muslim lands, is widely defamed as an aggressor occupying foreign territory and and oppressing its inhabitants.

The 1948 war produced hundreds of thousands Palestinian refugees, very few of whom were allowed to settle as citizens in the countries of their former Arab allies. Meantime, equal numbers of Jews who had lived in Arab and other Muslim countries since ancient times, were also forced to flee. They fled primarily to the new state of Israel and were immediately absorbed as citizens. From their ranks have come an Israeli president, defense minister, army chief of staff, and other Israeli notables.

Abba Eban, the late Israeli statesman, once declared that the Palestinian leadership "never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Their rejection of the 1948 partition has been followed by other missed opportunities for the creation of Palestinian statehood.

During the next 19 years, Egypt and Jordan ruled the West Bank and Gaza--territories that were allotted to the Palestinians by the UN partition. The Palestinians, apparently content with Arab governance, did not clamor for independence. Those who may have sought independence were presumably ignored or imprisoned.

Israel acquired control over the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 in a war initiated by Egypt, Syria and Jordan. In an extraordinary historic event, the Israelis offered to return virtually all the territory it had captured from the Arabs in return for diplomatic recognition and a peace treaty. But the response, declared by the 22 Arab countries at the famous Khartoum conference, was "no"-- to negotiation, recognition or peace.

During the Clinton Administration, at a conference at Camp David, the Israelis again offered to withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank in return for assurances of military security and recognition of their right to exist. Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, rejected both the offer and an opportunity to make compromises.

Three years ago, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. Foreign financial aid quickly began to pour into the territory, providing an opportunity for the Palestinians to establish a flourishing mini-state that would be a model of responsible and peaceful statehood in case of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

In a demonstration of what Israel could expect in terms of security and peace in case of further withdrawals, Gaza quickly descended into political chaos and became a base for rocket assaults on neighboring Israeli civilian communities.

Israel has essentially deviated from the historic pattern in which nations that start and lose wars pay the penalty of territorial loss and possible population transfers. After defeating the Arabs in four full-scale wars and suffering prolonged wars of attrition, the Israelis have offered to return territories acquired in warfare in return for peace and security. They have been consistently rebuffed.

Since Hamas took control of Gaza, Israeli civilian populations have been hit by a growing wave of terrorist attacks. In responding to the terrorism, Israel is once again defamed as the "bad guys." In a strange interpretation by the Israel-bashers, perpetrators of terror directed at civilians are presented as "victims," and the targets of such terror are seen as perpetrators reacting "disproportionately."

The suggestion that both Hamas and Israel are to blame for bloodshed is like saying that a would-be victim who fights off a mugger is as responsible for the violence as the assailant.

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