Sunday, June 22, 2008

Who's the real flip-flopper? Obama or McCain?

The Republicans and political pundits of all stripes have been dumping on Barack Obama for his decision to opt out of public financing for the general election and to thus avoid the spending limits that come with it. He has abandoned his earlier pledge to preserve the publicly subsidized restrictions on election spending.

The reason is his extraordinary but unexpected success in raising enormous sums through small-bore donations on the Internet.

Obama now rejects public election funding, he says, as a means to contend with the Republicans' ability to raise money through separate party funds and through such sleazy shadow groups known as the 527s. One such group was the notorious Swift Boaters, who were instrumental in Sen. John Kerry's defeat four years ago.

Sen. John McCain has joyfully attacked Obama as a flip-flopper for abandoning the public election financing law which McCain himself helped enact.

But Obama is an amateur as a flip-flopper, compared to McCain. Moreover, Obama's switch on public election financing is certainly not as significant as McCain's ideological reversals.

In his second bid for the Presidency, the Arizona Republican senator, once regarded as a fiscal and social moderate, has embraced the Bush Administration's reactionary economic and social policies.

McCain opposed the Administration's 2001 tax cuts because, he argued, they favored the rich. Now he intends to retain the tax reductions if elected President, and will seek further tax cuts that will benefit high-income tax-payers.

After opposing reductions in capital-gains taxes, McCain voted in favor of them in 2005. The following year he voted to repeal the estate tax, a measure that he had also formerly rejected.

During the 2000 election race, McCain denounced Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, Religious Right movement leaders, as "agents of intolerance." Now he vigorously seeks the support of Evangelical Christian right-wingers.

Once an outspoken critic of corporate influence in Washington, he initially retained a staff of powerful Washington lobbyists to run his Presidential campaign. Only after widespread criticism of the lobbyist's prominent role did McCain reluctantly dump a few of them.

In short, McCain is pandering to the very same special interests that he once opposed so fiercely.

And Obama is a flip-flopper?

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Did you know my father in India?"

During the three years that I have published this blog, I have written extensively about my World War II experiences serving with the Army in India. Those of us who served in what was known as the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations have long been frustrated by the widespread ignorance that there were American soldiers stationed in that part of the world during the war.

I am unaware of any authoritative estimate of the number of U.S. troops that were stationed in the CBI. My best guess is that there were probably about 300,000. In terms of manpower, resources and press coverage, the CBI therefore has taken a historic back seat to the wars waged in Europe and the South Pacific.

Now, as the number of surviving CBI veterans is shrinking, I am discovering that there are countless descendants of deceased CBI vets who are eager to learn about the wartime experiences of their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

I have received dozens of responses to my blog's CBI references making such inquiries about deceased family members. The writers hope to learn whether I might have known their fathers in India. Sadly, I have yet to recognize any of the names provided.

Just the other day, for example, I received an e-mail message from some one identifying herself only as "Connie."

"My father, Robert Vernon Paris, also served in India during WWII," she wrote. "I would love to talk with anyone who knew him."

Obviously, it is very highly unlikely that anyone reading this blog would have known Connie's father. But I have become reluctant to casually rule out the possibility. That's because of my extraordinary experience with a story I told on this blog about a fellow journalist, now deceased, with whom I had traveled to Europe many years ago on a Pentagon press junket.

I was astonished to receive e-mail messages from the man's daughter and son, both inquiring about their father, just as Connie has done about her father. My journalist friend and his wife--both of whom were Soviet Russian emigres--had died when their children were teen-agers.

The son and daughter evidently had only limited knowledge of their parents' backgrounds. My blog posting suggested that I was quite familiar with them. The result of their inquiries was a lengthy phone conversation with the daughter in which I informed them of details about their father's life that were unknown to them.

The situation with Connie's inquiry about her father, Robert Vernon Paris, is far more complicated. Even if I did know her father in India, which was very highly unlikely, I would be unable to respond to her. She is evidently unaware that, unless the person commenting on a blog posting is identified by full name and address, it is impossible for the blogger to get back to the writer. She failed to identify herself more fully.

There are many valuable sources available on the Internet. Google shows at least 80 web sites devoted to the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. Many contain official historical data. Others are produced by the children of deceased CBI vets as poignant memorials to their fathers.

Connie would have a far better chance of locating some one who knew her father in India through these web sites than through the wartime memoirs that I publish in this modest blog.

I do hope that she will succeed in her search. Time is running out. There will soon be no one around who could possibly have known her father during a war that has become almost forgotten except by those of us who were there.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

MEMOIR: My first visit to Florida was no vacation

For the past 17 years, my wife and I have spent the winters in Florida. And 55 years ago, we spent our honeymoon in Miami Beach. But my first visit to Florida was no vacation and certainly not as pleasurable as subsequent visits to the state.

I first came to Florida in April 1943 for a three-month tour of Army Air Corps basic training in Miami Beach, a city that had been virtually taken over by the military. (A similar wartime conversion occurred in Atlantic City, N.J., where another Air Corps basic training center was established.) The resort hotels became "barracks" for the troops, virtually all commercial enterprises in the area were closed, and civilians became a rare species on the streets.

About a week before my arrival in Miami Beach, I had been inducted into the Army in Camp Upton, N.Y. with a group of 18-year olds from my neighborhood in the Bronx. I was separated from most of them because there weren't any empty beds available in their barracks for me and a handful of other inductees. We were assigned to a barracks across the street from the main group.

After a frenzied routine of being tested, inoculated, and given uniforms, the men in the main group were shipped to Camp McCall, N.C. to be trained as glider-infantrymen. When I came home after the war, I learned that they had later been assigned to the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Sadly, I also learned that almost half of them were killed or wounded in action in Europe.

The handful of us who were unable to get beds with the main group at Camp Upton wound up in Miami Beach. We were greeted by an Army colonel who, with a straight face, announced that we had been "scientifically selected as the cream of the crop for the Air Corps." The colonel was evidently unaware that we had come to Miami Beach only because there had been no beds for us in a barracks at Camp Upton. It was my initial exposure to military nonsense.

Although we were now living in a famed resort area, the Air Corps command did its best to create a harsh military environment. Military discipline was strictly imposed on us. We spent our days doing close-order drill, learning how to use a rifle, doing calisthenics, doing KP and guard duty (I was never sure what we guarding against), and performing all the other elements of Army basic training. When not in training, we were usually restricted to quarters.

As I recall, such Hollywood celebrities as Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable were attending an officer candidate school in Miami Beach while I was there.

Many of the trainees were housed in what had been luxurious hotels. But I was assigned to the Hotel Madrid, a seedy, rat-infested hotel on Fourth Street between Collins Ave. and Ocean Drive. During a visit to the South Beach several years ago, I could not find a trace of it.

I shared a hotel suite with three other trainees. One of them was a farm boy who had never lived in a house with running water. Our suite was carefully inspected almost daily. Unfortunately, the inspections often occurred on days when the farm boy was the last one to use the toilet.

He obviously didn't know, however, that the toilet had to be flushed. The result was that all four of our suite's occupants were punished because of his ignorance. Our punishment was to scrub the hotel lobby floor with a toothbrush, an activity that did nothing to enhance our military capabilities.

A far more meaningful means to prepare us for warfare were regular forced marches, armed with a rifle and carrying a heavy field pack on our backs. We marched northward for at least 10 miles on what was then a barren, empty beach. After the war, the territory developed into what is now Bal Harbour and other upscale, postwar resort communities.

Our destination was a firing range where we practiced the use of various weapons. We began with the Lee-Enfield rifle, a World War I weapon whose fierce recoil made more modern rifles seem so much easier to fire. We bivouacked in pup tents, a problem for me because I had trouble properly wrapping an unopened pup tent around my back pack. On one visit to the bivouac area, a man in an adjoining tent was bitten by a coral snake and died.

As the basic training period ended, we had the option of selecting what the Army delicately calls a "military occupational specialty" before being shipped for advanced training to a more conventional military base. Those with some college education were invited to apply to become aviation cadets and trained as pilots, navigators or bombardiers.

I had only a year of night school college and applied to become an aerial gunner. But I flunked the color blind test and was rejected. I never understood why my inability to distinguish certain shades of blue from green would prevent me from shooting down enemy aircraft.

Before my induction, I had worked briefly as an office clerk at the U.S. Office of War Information. I was an accomplished touch typist, a skill seemingly regarded in the military as almost as vital as firing a rifle. That's probably why I was transferred to the Signal Corps at Camp Crowder, Mo., to be trained as a Teletype operator and cryptographer. (I was never called upon to use those skills while I was stationed overseas; but that's another story.)

I never saw Florida again for another decade. My return to the state was made under far more happy circumstances than my initial say there. This time I came with a bride on a honeymoon, and with no thoughts about close-order drill, rifle ranges, bivouacs, guard duty, KP, and forced marches. I had other matters on my mind.

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