Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Racism colors views, fuels controversy over Trayvon Martin case

One of the tragedies of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case – and there are many of them, believe me – is that it has revealed, once again, the seamier side of the American mindset, particularly when it comes to the concepts of justice and “mob rule.”

To be sure, there are certain points about the case that everyone seems to agree on.  Trayvon Martin, a 16-year-old adolescent was shot and killed by 26-year-old volunteer community crime watchman George Zimmerman on the early evening of February 26, 2012 in a gated community in Sanford, Florida.  There was a confrontation of some sort, there was a scuffle, and Zimmerman did fire a single shot from a pistol he was licensed to carry, a shot which killed the teenager.

Unfortunately for those of us who have been following the case from a long distance, the whole sad incident is still shrouded in a fog of uncertainty.  Very few people in the gated community actually saw what happened, and like many similar occurrences in which several persons witness an event, there are several different versions floating around in the media and in cyberspace.

Some of the eyewitnesses (or, in some instances, ear-witnesses) have stated that Martin was merely walking home from a nearby convenience store when a hyper gung-ho Zimmerman overzealously “racially profiled’ him, followed him around in a SUV and eventually killed him after a short scuffle that he started. 

Others say, however, that Martin wasn’t as innocent as his family and many others have made him out to be and that it was he who attacked Zimmerman, forcing the older man to use his gun in self-defense.

Because I do not know all the facts about the case and must therefore adhere to the legal concept of “presumption of innocence,”  I will not speculate about which scenario is true  and wait for the trial before I decide whether Zimmerman is guilty of murder or not.

\What I can write about, however, is how easily the racially-charged mob mentality  that lurks beneath the surface of “civilized” American society can rise in every community and cause a great deal of havoc.

Although it is true that many white racists have latched on to the notion that Trayvon Martin was no angel and have portrayed him as a “thug” because (a) at the time of his death the teen was on suspension from his Miami-Dade high school for various infractions and (b) because his Facebook profile features several photos of Trayvon in “thug-like” poses.

Obviously, the pro-Zimmerman (Zimmy to many commenters now) tend to try and avoid sounding like racists, but even in “mainstream media” outlets with Internet discussions the “Trayvon was a thug” narrative is still expressed, as in this post on the Washington, DC-area TV ABC station WJLA Channel 7:

May 16, 2012 - 10:59:29 AM
Of course Zimmy confronted him, thats what he was supposed to do you nutcase.. you think he should just sit there and eat twinkies? Play pocket pool? He saw a young thug acting suspicious and didn't want him to get away and stash his stolen items while the Popo was on da ways. So then the young thug with his head full of Rap music decided he was going to be a badass, and got himself shot. Dats da ways I sees it. Zimmy may be a bit of a wannabe crusader, clean up the neighborhood kinda mentality, but no way he just walked up and shot the kid, he could have done that from a distance.

Black racists, however, aren’t shy about expressing their own divisive and ill-considered views.
Back in March, the radical group that calls itself the New Black Panther Party offered a  $10,000 bounty for the capture of George Zimmerman.

As The Two-Way blog on National Public Radio said at the time:

The Orlando Sentinel reports that Mikhail Muhammad announced the reward during a protest on Saturday, and when a Sentinel reporter asked if he was inciting violence, Muhammad said, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."

Nationally the shooting death has brought up questions about whether Zimmerman, who was on a Neighborhood Watch patrol, profiled Martin and whether Sanford police's failure to arrest Zimmerman had to do with racism.

The New Black Panther's bounty just heightens that narrative.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the New Black Panther Party has been rejected by the Black Panther Party of the '60s and '70s. The SPLC says the group is "a virulently racist and anti-Semitic organization whose leaders have encouraged violence against whites, Jews and law enforcement officers..."

The Sentinel also reported that the group "called for the mobilization of 10,000 black men to capture Zimmerman."

As a result of the New Black Panthers’ ill-considered actions and the posting of his family’s address on the Internet, George Zimmerman is hiding at an undisclosed location whileout on bond awaiting trial, while his family has been reduced to living like fugitives because of death threats.

According to an article in the website NewsMax, the Zimmermans have left their Sanford home and travel from place to place incognito:

 Tensions over Trayvon Martin’s shooting death are so high that George Zimmerman’s parents and ailing grandmother have had to go into hiding.

Robert Zimmerman, George’s father, told the Miami Herald the family is moving from hotel to hotel, where they stay under assumed names and always pay cash to avoid being recognized.

“It’s unimaginable,” said the older Zimmerman, 64, a retired magistrate. “Our lives will never be the same.”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War (2003 Review, Unedited)

Gulf War book is among the best on the subject

 Written: Dec 15 '03
    Pros:Reads like a Tom Clancy novel.Cons:Maybe there ought to be a revised edition with comments on Gulf War IIThe Bottom Line:If you like well-written military history books that read like novels, this is worth reading!
    13 years and two Administrations ago, the entire world watched as the first President Bush marshaled a global coalition to confront Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and gave him an ultimatum: leave Kuwait by Jan. 15, 1991, or we'll force you out. Three months had passed since Iraq had invaded its tiny but rich neighbor, claiming the Kuwaitis were slant-drilling into Iraqi oil fields just across the border.

    In reality, as Rick Atkinson points out in Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, Saddam was strong-arming his way out of repaying loans made to Iraq by Kuwait and other moderate Arab countries during his disastrous war with Iran. He may have also been angered by OPEC's lowering of the price of crude oil, which reduced badly-needed hard currency for his moribund economy. In a classic case of what novelist Tom Clancy calls "armed robbery writ large," Saddam followed Hitler's example of trumping up claims on a neighboring country, massing a huge army on its borders, then invading.

    While Atkinson (The Thin Gray Line, An Army At Dawn) focuses on the events of the war itself, he carefully explains the almost Byzantine turns of American foreign policy toward Iraq. In the mid-1980s, Washington, worried that Iran would defeat Iraq, provided Baghdad with limited intelligence assistance and looked the other way when other countries (such as France, Brazil, and the USSR) sold Saddam sophisticated weapons. Only after the 1987 USS Stark incident, when an Iraqi Mirage "accidentally" fired an Exocet missile at a U.S. frigate in the Gulf and killed and injured several sailors, did U.S. policymakers start looking at Saddam as a potential adversary. But until 1990, official policy in Washington was to try to coax Baghdad into joining the fold of civilized nations in the so-called post-Cold War "new order."

    In fact, as Atkinson points out, Washington's desire to establish better trade and diplomatic relations may have given Saddam the "green light" to invade Kuwait. The White House, for instance, censured the Voice of America for airing reports about Iraq's repressive government, and Ambassador April Glaspie's comment in July 1990 that the U.S. had no intentions to intervene in "Arab-Arab" disputes further reinforced the Iraqi dictator's view that America was a post-Vietnam "paper tiger" and would not lift a finger to help the Sheik of Kuwait.

    Crusade is intensely fascinating and detailed. It is incredibly well-written, enabling the reader to get both the Big Picture and see the war through the combatants' point of view. It's no exaggeration to say that it reads like a Clancy novel; we get not only personality sketches of H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the "CINC" of Central Command and overall commander of Desert Storm and his chief lieutenants (Charles Horner, "Buster" Glosson, Cal Waller, Fred Franks), but we also get vivid descriptions of the intense aerial and ground battles that became known as Operation Desert Storm.

    Atkinson also deals with the unexpected aftermath of the Persian Gulf War -- the short period of national high-fiving after the liberation of Kuwait that gave way to disillusion. In a matter of months, President George Herbert Walker Bush went from being a popular wartime leader to being booted out of the Oval Office in the 1992 election. Saddam Hussein, meanwhile, crushed not one but two post-war revolts (encouraged but not supported by President Bush) and withstood nearly 12 years of sanctions and sporadic air and missile attacks as he defiantly thumbed his nose at three American Presidents. (Now that he's in U.S. custody, maybe he isn't feeling so cocky, but that's another story.)

    The Wild Blue: A Book Review

    When most people think of the American strategic bombing offensive against Germany during World War II, usually they see in their imagination the graceful lines of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force. Hollywood epics such as Twelve O'Clock High, Command Decision and Memphis Belle reinforce our collective memory of the Flying Forts taking off from Britain on their perilous daylight raids over Hitler's Third Reich, risking life and limb and machine to destroy Germany's industrial capacity and help hasten the end of the war. 

    While the B-17 did, indeed, contribute to the Allied victory in Europe, its dominant role as the U.S. Army Air Force's strategic bomber was a creation of public relations and the media's attention on the "sexy" Flying Fortress. The true workhorse of the daylight bombing campaign over Germany was the ungainly Consolidated B-24, aptly given the name Liberator. 

    As the late Stephen E. Ambrose wrote in The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45, the B-24 was built in greater numbers than the more well-known B-17 (over 18,300 in all) and served in every theater of World War II where American forces were engaged. It had fewer machine guns than the B-17 (10 to the 13 on the Flying Fort), was harder to fly but could carry more bombs and flew slightly faster than the Boeing plane. It was ungainly, with its twin rudder tail and high-mounted Davis Wing, but it did its job well and did much damage to the enemy war effort. 

    But although much space is devoted to the plane and its effects on Hitler's Reich, Ambrose focuses on the pilots and crews that flew the Liberator on hair-raising daylight raids on German targets. His narrative is centered on the wartime career of George S. McGovern, a 22-year-old B-24 pilot who hailed from the state of South Dakota and would, almost 30 years later, run for the Presidency against Richard Nixon. Although Ambrose writes about other B-24 pilots and crewmen, McGovern's evolution from air cadet to bomber pilot flying from Italy over Nazi-held Europe is the heart of this well-written and mesmerizing book. 

    The Wild Blue also sheds some light onto the almost forgotten Italian campaign and the efforts of the Fifteenth Air Force to mount daylight raids over German targets in Austria, Romania and southern Germany. The D-Day landings in Normandy, the stunning Battle for France and the seemingly unstoppable advance of the Allies in Northwest Europe grabbed most of the headlines after June of 1944, and the public relations focus on the Britain-based Eighth Air Force relegated the Italian campaign to almost a backwater status. It is fitting that Ambrose's last major work pays a long overdue tribute to the Fifteenth Air Force and the pilots and crews who flew across the wild blue skies to help liberate Europe from Nazi rule.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2012

    Another Sneak Peek at Save Me the Aisle Seat II: The Hurt Locker Review

    The Hurt Locker (2009)
    There is, apparently, a simple rule-of-thumb (at least for those folks who keep track of these things) that war movies, no matter how well-made they may be, simply do not attract huge audiences to theaters in times of war.

    Certainly, people who are old enough to remember World War II and its immediate aftermath can make a good case that this is not always the case and that many of them, whether they were adults or kids at the time, watched movies such as Air Force, Back to Bataan, Guadalcanal Diary, Sahara, The Flying Tigers and A Walk in the Sun, not to mention the various newsreels and government-produced propaganda films.

    That having been said, movies about America's post-World War II conflicts made while the bullets were flying and the soldiers, sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and Air Force personnel were in harm's way often flopped or were less-than-critically acclaimed.  (John Wayne's The Green Berets may be liked by fans of the Duke, but it was neither a big hit nor a "critics' favorite" when it ran in theaters back in 1968.)

    In most cases, many producers and directors often wait several years after a conflict ends before attempting to dramatize it, as did Ed Zwick with Desert Storm in 1996's Courage Under Fire and Clint Eastwood with the Grenada invasion in 1985's Heartbreak Ridge.

    Unfortunately, the highly-controversial Iraq War  and the Afghanistan branch of the War on Terror have turned off the average American movie watcher to war movies in general and especially movies about Iraq and Afghanistan.

    This, of course, is the biggest reason why Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is one of the least watched Best Picture winners in recent memory, grossing less than $17 million worldwide at the box office.

    Written by Mark Boal, who also wrote the story for In the Valley of Elah, The Hurt Locker is a (mostly) apolitical movie which eschews the usual look at an average infantry unit and focuses instead on the specialists who have perhaps the most dangerous duty of all: explosive ordnance disposal.

    Set in the early stages of the Iraqi insurgency after Saddam Hussein's fall from power, The Hurt Locker wastes no time in getting the viewer into war-torn Baghdad and a small bomb disposal team led by Staff Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce).  Thompson is aided and protected by two other GIs – Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who provide necessary technical support and – with their rifles and other weapons – covering firepower should the insurgents decide to engage in a firefight.

    The insurgents, though, know there's no way they can beat American soldiers in a stand-up fight, so they have turned to bomb makers trained either by Al Qaeda or Palestinian terrorists with decades of experience to create Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) which can be planted in cars or buried in streets or on the sides of Iraq's desert-spanning road networks.

    Thompson, Sanford and Eldridge are obviously masters of their craft, approaching IEDs with all the caution, patience and adherence to protocol the Army and long experience have ingrained in them.

    For all that, no matter how careful Thompson is or how well-made his protective armored suit is, the bomb makers have gotten their hands on some of the ammunition the first American invaders failed to secure earlier in the war – in this case, several 155 mm shells hooked up to wires and a remote detonator.

    Before our eyes, then, something goes wrong while Thompson tries to defuse this devil's toy of an IED and the squad leader is killed.

    His replacement is Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner), a skilled ordnance disposal technician who is the antithesis of both the man whose job he "inherited" and Sgt. Sanborn, who thinks the "newbie" is a reckless cowboy who's bound to get himself - and maybe the whole team - killed.

    This contrast in personalities - and the film is really great at highlighting characterization without sacrificing suspense or action - is really stark, and it makes for really fascinating dramatic situations no matter where the two men may be.

    Of course, as the movie's protagonist, Renner's SFC James may tick off the more conservative (technically, not politically) Sanford, but the man is highly skilled and has an unnerving sixth sense of what the bomb makers are up to.

    He's also, like many of the real soldiers who have fought in America's overseas wars, a man who can find the time and compassion to reach out to the civilians President George W. Bush intended to liberate from Saddam's despotic rule when he called for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

    Borrowing the theme of the Caring GI from many movies about World War II and other conflicts, writer Boal and director Bigelow show the viewer James' attempts to befriend an Iraqi boy he nicknames "Beckham" (Christopher Sayegh) because of his prowess with a soccer ball.

    Such thematic material has been used before with varying degrees of dramatic success, including the mawkish scenes between Jim Hutton and Craig Jue in The Green Berets, but here it is done extremely well and becomes one of the film's most poignant elements.

    My Take: The Hurt Locker, unlike many films about either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, is mostly apolitical (there are songs by Ministry, a group known for not supporting former President Bush's agenda, in the soundtrack) and does not delve into the "rightness" or "wrongness" of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  It simply plunks the viewer into those soldiers' world nose-first and neck-deep, with fleeting but revealing looks at the enemy bomb makers who, in their own minds, are as professional and dedicated to their cause as the Americans are.

    Admittedly, I missed The Hurt Locker when it was in wide release in 2009 and purchased it only after it earned its five Academy Awards - Best Director, Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing and, of course, Best Picture.   I had not seen any of the other Iraq War movies (Stop-Loss, The Green Zone), for one thing, and I was really curious to see a movie by Kathryn Bigelow, a woman who has broken the mold by being a director of "thinking viewer's" action pictures rather than the clich├ęd romantic comedy or conventional drama films that women are "supposed" to direct.

    While it will take some time before this movie earns its premature title of "Operation Iraqi Freedom's Platoon" and finds a more willing audience, The Hurt Locker is truly one of those Oscar-winners destined to have a sterling reputation as a film which really deserves its awards.   It's extremely well-made, looks authentic as hell ( it was shot in next-door Jordan ) and it is both a riveting character study of smart men under pressure and a suspenseful, heart-pounding action movie.

    © 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved