Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday Reading

Getting It Right This Time — Charlie Pierce on Memorial Day.

It is Vietnam that hangs thickly over our ostentatious public displays of affection for The Troops. It is a determination to Get It Right This Time. However, there is at the heart of it a fundamental misunderstanding of what we got wrong. The returning Vietnam veteran was treated abominably. But, in fact, if you want to find the people who did the Vietnam generation the most damage, don’t look to the hippies. Look to the institutions staffed and run by what the Vietnam guys used to call, contemptuously, “the Class of ’45,” the people who ran the VA, and the VFW posts, The Greatest Generation, who looked down on them as losers and who stiffed them on their country’s obligations. In actual fact, it was the remnants on the antiwar Left — the people who ran the G.I. coffeehouses and the like — who first took them seriously on issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and the lingering effects of Agent Orange. Those were the people who paid The Troops of that time the most basic tribute there is — taking their human problems seriously. The problem was not people shouting “babykiller” and those mythical expectorations that author Jerry Lembecke put paid to years ago. The problem was that the government abandoned them. The problem was that the community of other veterans abandoned them. And that went on for years. Ronald Reagan famously called their war “a noble cause” and then shut down all the out-patient psychiatric services that the VA finally put in place. What you did was noble, and now sleep on the sidewalk. Then, in the popular culture, the crazed Vietnam vet became a staple of American entertainment until sensitive vet Jon Voight went down on Jane Fonda in Coming Home and, even there, we had Bruce Dern, the living embodiment of Crazy in American motion pictures for four decades now, playing Fonda’s rigid, nutball husband.

Now, for the veterans of the two wars of the past decade, we’re giving them all kinds of favors and goodies and public applause, and maybe even a parade or two, overcompensating our brains out, but, ultimately, what does all the applause mean at the end of the day? We are apparently fine with two more years of vets coming home from Afghanistan, from a war that 60 percent of us say we oppose. But we support The Troops. Will we become a more skeptical nation the next time a bunch of messianic fantasts concoct a war out of lies? Perhaps, but we support The Troops. Will we tax ourselves sufficiently to pay for what it costs to care for the people we send to one endless war and one war based on lies? Well, geez, we’ll have to think about that, but we support The Troops.

The Yankee Comandante — David Grann tells the story of William Alexander Morgan, the American who fought for Castro and was executed by Castro.

For a moment, he was obscured by the Havana night. It was as if he were invisible, as he had been before coming to Cuba, in the midst of revolution. Then a burst of floodlights illuminated him: William Alexander Morgan, the great Yankee comandante. He was standing, with his back against a bullet-pocked wall, in an empty moat surrounding La Cabaña—an eighteenth-century stone fortress, on a cliff overlooking Havana Harbor, that had been converted into a prison. Flecks of blood were drying on the patch of ground where Morgan’s friend had been shot, moments earlier. Morgan, who was thirty-two, blinked into the lights. He faced a firing squad.

The gunmen gazed at the man they had been ordered to kill. Morgan was nearly six feet tall, and had the powerful arms and legs of someone who had survived in the wild. With a stark jaw, a pugnacious nose, and scruffy blond hair, he had the gallant look of an adventurer in a movie serial, of a throwback to an earlier age, and photographs of him had appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. The most alluring images—taken when he was fighting in the mountains, with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara—showed Morgan, with an untamed beard, holding a Thompson submachine gun. Though he was now shaved and wearing prison garb, the executioners recognized him as the mysterious Americano who once had been hailed as a hero of the revolution.

It was March 11, 1961, two years after Morgan had helped to overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista, bringing Castro to power. The revolution had since fractured, its leaders devouring their own, like Saturn, but the sight of Morgan before a firing squad was a shock. In 1957, when Castro was still widely seen as fighting for democracy, Morgan had travelled from Florida to Cuba and headed into the jungle, joining a guerrilla force. In the words of one observer, Morgan was “like Holden Caulfield with a machine gun.” He was the only American in the rebel army and the sole foreigner, other than Guevara, an Argentine, to rise to the army’s highest rank, comandante.

After the revolution, Morgan’s role in Cuba aroused even greater fascination, as the island became enmeshed in the larger battle of the Cold War. An American who knew Morgan said that he had served as Castro’s “chief cloak-and-dagger man,” and Time called him Castro’s “crafty, U.S.-born double agent.”

Now Morgan was charged with conspiring to overthrow Castro. The Cuban government claimed that Morgan had actually been working for U.S. intelligence—that he was, in effect, a triple agent. Morgan denied the allegations, but even some of his friends wondered who he really was, and why he had come to Cuba.

Remotely Interesting — Leonard Pitts, Jr. remembers the man who changed channels.

We are gathered here today to memorialize a man who revolutionized our lives.

So what did Eugene J. Polley do? What was the nature of his great leap forward? Did he invent the PC? Did he invent the cell phone? Did he invent the Internet?

No. Eugene J. Polley invented the wireless remote.

You young’uns won’t remember this, but back in the day, when you wanted to change channels you had to actually get up from the couch and embark upon an arduous trip five, six, sometimes even seven feet across the living room where you would manually turn a “dial” until the desired channel sprang into view in all its black and white glory.

While you were up, someone would always ask you to adjust the rabbit ears (ask your dad about the rabbit ears) to get rid of the snow (ask your dad about the snow). Then it was a long trudge back across the living room to the couch where your evil sister had taken your seat and wouldn’t give it back no matter how nicely you threatened to drop her Chatty Cathy (ask your mother about Chatty Cathy) down the sewer, leaving you no choice but to shove her and then she punched you and then mom started yelling and didn’t want to hear how it wasn’t your fault, and next thing you know, you’d been sent to bed early and you didn’t even get to see Gilligan’s Island that night.

Not that your humble correspondent is holding a grudge or anything.

Anyway, Polley — who died of pneumonia last Sunday at 96 — was an engineer for Zenith. In 1950, the company had released a remote control that attached to the set by a cord. One can only guess how many customers twisted how many ankles before Zenith decided this was not a great idea.

Five years later, Polley fixed this. His remote, which looked like a glorified hair dryer, operated by sending light beams to receptors on the set. Now, the idea of a set that changed channels by responding to light had its own flaws. It was not uncommon to open the blinds and suddenly find Huntley and Brinkley on the screen where Cronkite had been a moment before (ask . . . well, you know).

Plus, the wireless remote was initially a luxury item. Only those with an extra $100 to spend could enjoy the convenience of sampling all their entertainment options (CBS, NBC, ABC) from the comfort of their chair. Kids whose parents were not “made of money” were stuck at the mercy of their evil sisters and had to figure out ingenious ways of changing channels without surrendering their prized seat on the couch. Little brothers were good for this.

Doonesbury — Helping hand.