A BEAST BY ANY OTHER NAME (continued)
We can’t seem to stay out of the Artvoice letters page. Take the first letter from each sentence in the body of the letter, and see what word is spelled…
A BEAST BY ANY OTHER NAME (continued)
We can’t seem to stay out of the Artvoice letters page. Take the first letter from each sentence in the body of the letter, and see what word is spelled…
Wimble-do’s and Wimble-don’t's
by James R. Miller
As the competitive fortnight at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club heads reluctantly into its final weekend, we would do well to catch our breath for a second and reflect on the whirlwind of tennis intrigue we have seen thus far.
On the women’s side of the draw, we have seen Anna Kournikova publicly chastised by John McEnroe of all people after she lost her cool during the press conference after her habitual first-round exit. Beyond that we have seen groundless accusations of steroid abuse bandied about between players (usually directed by the losing player in the direction of the winner, it should be noted). And, as yet another Venus-Serena major final appears to be more and more of an inevitability, there has been the usual press ponderings of collusion between the Williams sisters in the event they should end up in the final together.
Meanwhile, on the men’s side, we have seen something like 97% of the seeded players bow out by the quarterfinals, leaving tennis fans with a decimated field and leaving British tennis fans with the sense that they might actually bring home a winner this year.
So, in the interest of cooler heads prevailing, here then are a few Wimble-do’s and Wimble-don’t's for both the betting and non-betting man as the tournament goes through its final pairings.
DO bet on Anna Kournikova retaining her status as the women’s tennis tour’s reigning sexpot vixen, despite ongoing speculation as to whether she’ll ever actually win a tourney and foolish talk about the impressive physical attributes of the batch of up-and-coming young tennis players from former Soviet-bloc countries. Slovak Daniela Hantuchova may have longer legs than Anna, but her face is definitely a stumbling point and besides, she’s all but helpless against Serena as well. Even more importantly, last I checked Anna still had Daniela beat by a helluva lot more than a mile on the all-important internet download scale (overpowering the Slovak upstart by a score of something like 11,000 to 341 on Google Image Search hits alone).
DON’T bet on local favorite Tim Henman finally capturing a home-court title for the long-suffering British fans just because just about every other likely challenger has already lost under mysterious circumstances. By my reckoning, he’s still going to have to get through the dreaded Lleyton Hewitt and a Richard Krajicek who’s playing at or very near his 1996 championship form. Henman might get lucky and take one of those two, but there’s no way in hell he’ll get them both. Suffice it to say that Pat Cash has vowed to wear a dress on BBC television if Henman manages to pull it off, and as a former champion, he probably knows a thing or two about how things are likely to turn out.
DO bet on Venus going through her sister like a knife through butter in the inevitable Williams-on-Williams final. The elder sibling has lost something like 5 points in the past several weeks after all. Serena caught a bit of break in that she won’t face Capriati in the semis, but she’ll still not be in good enough form to top her over-achieving sister.
DON’T bet on the aging Sampras retiring just yet, notwithstanding statements to the contrary from the likes of former champions such as Boris Becker. Pete may in fact be finished in terms of competitive tennis at the very top level (indeed, some would point to his heart-breaking U.S. Open loss to Hewitt last year as the final straw that broke the champion’s back), but a competitor of Sampras’s caliber will not be willing to hang it up for good without giving it at least one more go.
DO, however, bet on Monica Seles finally hanging up her tennis dress with the thoroughly-stretched-out midriff section. She’s finished and she knows it.
But whatever you do, DON’T come crying to me when you lose your nest-egg after placing some foolish bet based on the advice provided herein. Any wishy-washy nitwit who bets serious money on professional tennis deserves everything he gets.
Born and raised in Hamburg, James R. Miller is currently completing post-doctoral work at London School of Economics.
Naked Appeal For Tobacco Ads
Like most decent, God-fearing people, we here at the BEAST were horrified when we saw for the first time the gruesome warning labels on the outside of Canadian cigarette packs. Those pictures of open bleeding brains are a real drag, so to speak, on the smoking experience. Not only that, but it seemed to us that they represented a terrible offense against fact. After all, everyone knows that smoking is not only not bad for you, but that studies have shown it increases the average human life span by up to 26 years. Here at the BEAST, far from banning smoking in our office, we actually require our employees to smoke, knowing full well that a healthy worker is a productive worker. Our new policy resulted in a 483% reduction in sick days in just our second month, and one of our interns, Lucas Fox, even grew two inches in June after beginning our four-pack-a-day regimen of Camel non-filters.
So what were the Canadians thinking? How could they be so callously indifferent to the health of their citizenry? We at the BEAST decided to investigate. We called sources in Ottawa and learned that the warning labels we now see on Canadian packs of cigarettes are actually much milder than the ones they had planned to force on the tobacco industry. It turns out that it was only due to the heroic efforts of industry lawyers that the Canadian government was forced to settle on the bloody-brains photo as a political compromise.
We did some string-pulling and obtained copies of Canada’s original cigarette-pack warning photos. As you can see, they make pictures of human strokes look like Harry Potter posters:
A GROUPIE LASHES OUT
I was happily reading your little paper for the first time, pretty much enjoying it until I came to the Bar-Dak. Most of it is pretty accurate except for the jeers comment made about Desiderios. I was there for that cover of Billy Joel’s “Pressure” and thought it was pretty good. Now, I may be biased because I know the band and know how hard they work to play in this shitty city with all it’s shitty bars filled with nothing but POOP! It’s just a shame you had to go and ruin a perfectly good reading experience with a shallow, idiotic comment such as that. I may have to be forced to use this issue as liner for my cat’s litter box so they can defecate on it.
Uh-uh, no way. We’d like to go along with this defending-your-boyfriend’s-honor thing, but seriously… If we start giving a thumbs up to Rage Against the Machine versions of Billy Joel, what’s next? Ice Cube versions of Kenny G? Black Flag plays “Songs of the Humpback Whale?” No way. There’s a line in the kitty litter, baby, and beyond it– neither thou nor thine shitty band shalt cross. Have another doughnut and leave us alone.
Bravo on bringing a soviet intelligence trick to the American indie newspaper business. Your vicious skewing of Moses takes advantage of Artvoice‘s predictable strategy to ignore you in print.
Entities at war become more like their adversaries.
Trust us: if Russian intelligence ever got around to taking on the American indie newspaper business, we’d end up with some pretty strange goddamn newspapers. But we appreciate the compliment. Incidentally, Artvoice hasn’t completely ignored us in print (see inside).
I’VE GOT A GREAT IDEA
This is just what Buffalo needs!
Call an ace an ace and a spade a spade. I’m sure with the way things are in Buffalo you will have subject matter for the rest of your life.
Don’t be lured in by that whacko phony Frank Parlotto. I’m sure he’ll be knocking on your door soon.
Keep up the great work!
Former Buffalonian now down south.
P.S. Do you have any connections at HBO? I’ve got a great idea for an un-reality show….
Dear Former Buffalonian,
Can we call an unsolicited inquiry an unsolicited inquiry? We don’t have any friends at HBO and we’re not TV producers. Too many people out there ruin perfectly good letters by asking us for something at the end. Here is the proper way to end a letter to the Beast: “P.S. I own a chain of lingerie stores and would like to buy a full-page ad.” You see the difference? It just leaps off the page, doesn’t it?
ANAIS NINCOMPOOP, II
First off, thanks for the plug. For the young and struggling literary pornographer, Beast bests Oprah every time. In token of my sincere appreciation I’d like to offer you a comped signed review copy of “Lofting.”
(I’m sure you’d prefer a transfer of funds to your Bahamian account, and I’d like a Charlie Rose interview; life’s a bitch.) As you no doubt suspect, my novel’s larded with obnoxiously obscure literary references. On the other hand, it’s also chock full of lovingly rendered scenes of debauch, each ending with a graphically portrayed facial jizz pop–and so should appeal to your refined Just-East-of-Middle-European sensibilities. And, yes, my biography is a total fabrication.
Fat, Frustrated, and Pathologically Hirsute in Cleveland
We’re not sure in what capacity, but we’re pretty sure we need to have you working for us. Give us a call sometime and we’ll work something out. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Incidentally, how did you know about our account in the Bahamas?
YOU GOT IT
CheezWhiz Beasts, the very least you could do is turn your vile, mean-spirited, rag into a daily. I mean… really… what do you want me to do… read the Buffalo News?
Annoyed… but happily so,
Yes. We want you to read the Buffalo News. Where the fuck is the hate mail? Get with it, Buffalo!
WE SURE WILL
I work for a local Buffalo nonprofit, a great deal many political types are in and out of our doors. I am an avid Onion reader. I Love the Beast. Wanted to do a story on the “crucifixion” actors that have been gracing our highways and skyways, but needed an outlet. How can i get involved? Writing, reporting, or any other form of malarky i can offer, just let me know.
You ever think about opening a chain of lingerie stores?
SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
Congratulations on your new sheet. Nicely done, gentleman. Yet I must admit that you are remiss in that your first issue completely ignored Buffalo’s Serb Community. Not one fucking piece on Serbs in Buffalo. Not a feature. Not an editorial. Not even a bloody restaurant review.
I know from reading your other sheet, that you are not typical Shqiptar loving American Ustashe. So I am waiting here for an explanation. Patiently.
May i remind you that one of the direct descendants of Gavrilo Princip was Buffalo’s first Serbian orthodoxpriest? But will you write an article about that? Probably not. No, you would be sooner to write some item about Catholic priests buggering children without mercy. Wouldn’t you?
I am a busy, busy man, however if you need me to contribute the occasional contribution to your sheet, I would not refuse to consider it. I expect more from you men. Don’t make the same mistakes I made.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand Jr.
Hard not to like a letter that totally insane! We promise, we’ll extensively cover the Buffalo/Serb angle in the next issue. Thanks for the heads-up, Duke!
BEAST PAGE 3 GASTROPOD
Name: Limax Maximus
Length: 2-5 inches
Turn-ons: Grottoes, basements, Red Clover, twisting around other slugs as part of a hermaphroditic mating ritual, squeals of human revulsion
Turn-offs: Salt, boots, robins; slugs who talk too much about their careers
How I became the BEAST page 3 gastropod: Completely by accident. I was moving along through a crack on a sidewalk in East Buffalo when I run into this girl I know who used to date Vincent Gallo. We get to talking, and next thing I know she’s telling me that Vince knows these guys who’ve got a new newspaper going and need a page 3 gastropod. We exchange numbers and a few phone calls later, I’m setting up a shoot in Allentown. To be honest, I never thought I’d get the job, because I heard from pretty good sources that they were also interviewing Arion lusitanicus. But hey, here I am.
Future plans: I’d like to get into mime. It’s something I developed a passion for as a child and would really love to get back to. I do a great “invisible wall” routine. But if that doesn’t pan out, I’ll probably just go back to doing catalogue work and eating shingle fungus.
How I want to be remembered: As a slug that gave its all. Buffalo, I did it for you. And when it’s over, I’ll have no regrets. You can count on that.
Forget the Pledge of Allegiance. Forget Elizabeth Smart. Where in the world is Jose Padilla?
In a sequence of events that should turn every American literally white with terror before the awesome power of our media apparatus, a former gang member-turned-would-be terrorist was dug up out of a pit after being held illegally for a month, offered to the entire world as public enemy number one for about ten minutes, and then tossed back into purgatory, apparently to be officially forgotten for the rest of eternity.
Ask anyone, even the people you’re sitting with right now, what associations come to mind when you mention the name Jose Padilla. In 100 cases out of 100, the answer you’ll get will run along the following lines: terrorist, suspected Al-Qaeda member, ringleader in a plot to explode a “dirty bomb” in Washington. As for visual images, the only one ever offered for anyone to recall later on was the notorious mugshot, a single grainy picture of a clearly nonwhite person that on June 11th was plastered on the front page of every major daily newspaper in America, as a crude but chilling portrait of the Dark Threat looming over our good society.
All of this is the frightening result of the continuing union between a ruthless, space-age propaganda machine and a pliant consumer population with an attention span of about eight seconds. Because the Padilla story will never be revisited, neither the accusations we associate with his name, nor the emotional effect of the mugshot image, will ever be undone. We all bought the story– but should we have?
Even the most cursory review of the timeline of the Padilla story reveals that, far from being a simple story of a foiled terrorist plot, this was in fact a masterpiece of orchestrated propaganda, a brilliant manipulation of the biography of a common criminal for a variety of dramatic political objectives. From Willie Horton to Iran-Contra to Watergate, the lessons of almost every major political snow job of the past quarter-century were mined to yield a bag of tricks used flawlessly and compellingly for three short weeks.
Here is a timeline of the Jose Padilla story, stretched out to cover a period slightly longer than fifteen minutes:
May 8: After returning from Pakistan, Padilla, an American of Puerto Rican descent who now calls himself Abdullah al Muhajir, is “detained” by the FBI. No charges are filed, but he is nonetheless transferred to a jail in New York, where, in clear violation of the law, he will remain in custody without a charge until June 9.
No word of Padilla’s arrest is leaked to the media at this time, and there appears to be no hurry to make the matter public. He is simply an anonymous person rotting quietly behind bars. But a few seemingly irrelevant events would soon coincide to push Padilla to the surface.
The first development was an earlier May 1 ruling by a New York Federal Judge named Shira Scheindlin, who on that date released a Jordanian-born college student named Osama Awadallah. Awadallah had been held in jail for three months without a charge on the grounds that he had lied to investigators about knowing one of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Scheindlin ruled that “Relying on the material witness statute to detain people who are presumed innocent under our Constitution in order to prevent potential crimes is an illegitimate use of the statute.”
The judge’s ruling declared Minority Report-style policing illegal. In order to detain someone, even as a witness, Scheindlin ruled that the detention had to be in connection with a crime already committed, not one that the suspect might commit in the future.
This statute applied directly to Padilla, who, as fate would have it, was being held within Scheindlin’s jurisdiction. Whether or not his case would be made public, it was fairly clear that Padilla would eventually have to be moved.
The second thing that took place was a May 30 announcement by John Ashcroft that the Justice Department would now follow new rules in determining how investigations into the lives of individuals might occur. The new set of rules threw out the old standard of “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity, and allowed agents to conduct fishing expeditions for up to a year into the private lives of individuals.
The third thing that happened was the emergence of a whistleblowing FBI agent named Colleen Rowley, who on May 21 sent an open letter to FBI Director Gary Mueller outlining a series of bureaucratic oversights that led to a failure to pursue valid leads on terrorist activity prior to September 11. Rowley would eventually testify before Congress on June 6 and 7– in other words, on the Thursday and Friday before news of Padilla’s arrest was made public.
What Rowley was alleging was that American field intelligence agents were working fine as is (among other things, Rowley described her Minneapolis office’s frantic attempts to obtain permission to arrest would-be shoe-bomber Zacarias Moussaoui as early as August, 2001) , and that the real security gaps were caused by bureaucratic incompetence in the agency’s upper echelons. Her testimony, which made front-page headlines all across America, directly contradicted the earlier assertions by Ashcroft that what was needed were vastly expanded police powers of the type he proposed in his May 30 announcement.
BEAST readers may recall that at the end of that week of June 7, and throughout that weekend of June 8-9, the Bush administration briefly came under fire for apparently failing to act in the face of serious terrorist threats last summer.
All of that ended when, on June 10, John Ashcroft announced from Moscow that the United States had Padilla in custody. On the heels of accusations that it had previously failed to prevent major acts of terrorism, the Bush administration was suddenly announcing… that it just had prevented a major act of terrorism.
It was significant that the foiled plot Ashcroft revealed involved a weapon far worse than a jetliner crashing into a skyscraper; the prevention of a radioactive “dirty bomb” explosion suddenly turned, as Joseph Heller might have called it, the black eye of Rowley into a big fat feather in the administration’s cap. In the blink of an eye, the Rowley story disappeared from the newspapers.
It may seem gratuitous to point out that just thirteen years before, George W. Bush’s father waved the face of a menacing-looking black inmate named Willie Horton at voters at the very moment his poll numbers seemingly approached the point of no return. But I don’t think it is. People like John Ashcroft know exactly what they’re doing when hand out a grainy mugshot of a convicted Puerto Rican murderer to the national press, and announce that this is the face that was plotting to nuke Washington. Not the kind of thing that is going to inspire a reasoned response from most middle-class Americans.
It also may seem gratuitous to point out that a) Bush’s father’s administration once withheld documents from Iran-Contra prosecutors on the grounds that they would compromise national security b) Dick Cheney has withheld documents pertaining to the Enron story on the grounds that they would compromise national security, and c) that Bush himself withheld what it said was proof of Osama bin Laden’s guilt in the Sept. 11 bombings, on the grounds that it would compromise national security. But I don’t think so here, either.
On June 14, the Bush administration announced that Padilla– an American citizen– would not be tried in a criminal court, or even given a military tribunal. The reason? Evidence offered in public might compromise national security. If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, it’s probably a duck– and the administration’s decision not to try Padilla looked very much like an excuse to avoid admission that there was not much in the way of evidence against their suspect.
Padilla, meanwhile, had been declared an “enemy combatant” by Bush on June 9, and moved from New York to a military detention center at the Charleston Naval Weapons center in South Carolina. Soon after his detention became a public matter, the administration issued a series of seemingly insane statements about their intentions regarding their American suspect.
Donald Rumsfeld came right and made a flat announcement: “We’re not interested in trying him at this time.” Other Bush spokesmen told reporters that Padilla would remain in jail “until we’re done with Al-Qaeda.” Due process, the right to face one’s accuser, all of this was tossed out the window in this series of alarmingly casual statements by Bush officials.
This unprecedented rollback in civil rights scored scarcely a blip in the national media, however. About the strongest statement that the press could muster on the matter was a blase filler line like this one at the end of a June 11 Reuters story:
“Civil rights groups have criticized the way the government was treating [Padilla].”
The lack of uproar over Padilla’s detention was presumably due to the fact that the suspect himself appeared impossible to sympathize with; it was hard to think of Padilla’s experience applying to any of us, since none of us were flying around the world, meeting with Al-Qaeda officials, and plotting to explode radioactive bombs.
Then again, maybe Padilla wasn’t, either. Just days after his detention was made public, the government quietly leaked word through a number of channels that the Padilla threat was maybe not all it was cracked up to be.
On June 11, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz even told CBS: “I don’t think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk.”
A day later, government officials admitted that they had no physical evidence linking Padilla to a bomb plot– no bomb materials or even documented attempts to obtain bomb materials, no diagrams, not even a chemistry textbook.
Soon after that, it came out that most of the government’s case against Padilla rested on information given to them by Abu Zubaydah, a former Al-Qaeda operative who had been feeding U.S. investigators with a steady string of warnings and doomsday predictions– none of which ever came to pass– ever since his capture in late March. Zubaydah’s status as a Guantanomo songbird had become the stuff of such legend that even before the news of the Padilla’s arrest was made public, observers began to question the information he was feeding us.
Even a dumb reactionary glossy like Time magazine was confident enough to be publicly skeptical of Zubdayah. Here is that magazine’s assessment of him on May 24, two weeks before the Padilla story broke:
“How do we know if he’s telling us the truth? This is, after all, Zubaydah’s last dance: as long as he keeps tossing out things, stringing us along, he’s useful, privileged, treated with respect by his interrogators, like a Cold War era captured agent. Once that’s no longer true, his life will turn very, very nasty. Zubaydah has every reason to lie, to throw his captors off the trail, to sow fear and doubt, to poke the U.S. so that his al-Qaeda fellows can observe how we react.”
The Bush administration was now enthusiastically taking the word of admitted Al-Qaeda operatives to throw Americans in jail.
The flimsiness of the case against Padilla did not make the papers much. Not that it would have mattered. They could have given both sides of that story equal time, and Padilla still would have lost out. “Case Against Padilla Called ‘Circumstantial’” is no match, effect-wise, for “Suspect in Dirty-Bomb Plot Held.” Once you let a genie like that out of the bottle, you can’t ever get it back in, even if you want to. And the national press made it clear that nobody wanted to.
The political benefits provided to the Bush administration by the Padilla business were both obvious and not so obvious. The immediate benefit, obviously, was in defusing the Rowley story. But a more abstract benefit was Padilla’s usefulness in providing another excuse to expand police powers. I would bet the Rigas family’s offshore holdings that before this year is over, the Bush administration will use the Padilla story to make an explicit connection between urban American street gangs (read: poor nonwhite criminals) and terrorism.
The mere thought of this should send chills up every black or Hispanic spine in America. After 9/11, the government now has the power, the mandate, and the obvious inclination to make the drug war look like a silly frat prank. And as long as every network and 500 newspapers are lining up to help the cause, they will be unstoppable.
Where do you draw the line? How do you define the difference between a foreign enemy and an American with rights? The answer is that, after Jose Padilla, there is no line anymore– and no one now can really pinpoint when and how it disappeared, since none of our journalists covered its passing.
Blood is Bountiful
The responses to our corporate fan letters keep pouring in. As the Fourth of July weekend approached, it seemed like there was plenty of love to go around on all sides:
Dear Bounty© people,
Thank you ever so much for making such wonderful paper towels for my domestic use. Over the past 18 months, I have used your magnificent products to sop up everything from orange juice to blood to turpentine and have found that THERE REALLY IS NO CLEANUP JOB THAT IT TOO TOUGH FOR BOUNTY©! It really is the Quicker Picker-Upper! Keep up the good work.
P.S. Please pass these comments on to the people directly responsible for designing Bounty© paper towels and continuing to ensure that no finer product is available anywhere. Their important work should not go unrecognized. Were it possible, I should like to shake their hands and say, “Well done,” but for now, these somewhat impersonal electronic words shall have to do.
Thanks for your nice comments about Bounty, Kevin! We love to hear from our loyal Bounty fans, and I’m sharing your compliments with the rest of the Bounty Team.
I’m sure it’ll make their day!
USA Bounty Team
A lot of people are confused about what your name means, but not me! I know it means just one thing– GREAT ICE CREAM!!!
I have been out of jail now for thirteen months and am doing great. Thanks to Haagen-Dazs ice-cream, I know: I WILL NEVER HARM A CHILD AGAIN!!!
Thanks again for making a great product, and don’t ever be ashamed of your wonderful SCANDINAVIAN HERITAGE!
Dear Mr. Taibbi,
Thank you for taking the time to contact us about Haeagen-Dazs(R) Ice Cream. We appreciate your kind and thoughtful comments.
At Nestle, we are dedicated to you and your family throughout every phase of your lives. Your feedback is valuable to us, as it helps us to improve our products and services.
With more than a century of experience making the food your family loves, we are committed to providing you with products that live up to your high standards for taste, quality, nutrition and enjoyment – in short, “the very best.”
Thank you again for your feedback. We appreciate your loyalty to our products and hope to exceed your expectations in the future.
Consumer Response Representative
Dear Regal Cinemas!
You make the best moviehouses, and you always show the really good movies too. I love when my mommy takes me. The seats are so comfortable I want to live there. (The poor grades are for when you were out of Jujyfruits!)
Kevin, age 12
[Note: The Regal Cinemas online comment card included 20 separate categories (broken down into four separate subcategories) to be judged on a 4-rating scale from "excellent" to "poor." Our 12-year-old Kevin rated all of the them "excellent," except for two "poor" marks on "Selection of Concessions" and "Availability of Product" under "FOOD SERVICE." Actual comments, however, were restricted to a maximum of just 255 characters. The online comments form for AMC Theatres, meanwhile, asked for a 5-point rating of 13 separate categories and offered no space for individual comments at all.]
Dear Mr. McElwee:
We have received your comments regarding your visit to our Elmwood Regal Center 16 location. I have forwarded your comments to the district manager for his review with and congratulations to the theatre manager.
On behalf of Regal Entertainment Group, I would like to thank you for taking the time to let us know of your pleasant visit to our theatre. It is always a pleasure to hear from happy customers. I am sure the staff at our Elmwood Regal Center 16 will be happy to receive a copy of your comments.
Once again, I thank you for your time and consideration. We value your patronage and look forward to your next visit.
Customer Relations Associate
Dear Arm and Hammer,
I’m a loyal customer who’s writing to tell you that you have the coolest logo in the world!!! It’s like an arm with a hammer in it!
I use your baking soda for a variety of purposes, both hygienic and culinary! I use it to make my teeth whiter, and I even use it to make a GLISTENING WHITE CAKE FROSTING!!!
Sometimes I get so happy, I just want to turn over a box of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda onto my head!
Thanks for everything!
[Eds. note: Arm and Hammer did not send a written reply, but did send us a coupon for a free box of Baking Soda product--perhaps to turn over onto our heads. See illustration...]
Looking Back on the Cheney Presidency
It was five days ago today that the Dick Cheney presidency ended, yet the event still remains firmly embedded in our collective memory. There are few among us who will ever forget where we were during those amazing two hours and fifteen minutes of Cheney’s reign in the White House–and as we head into this historic fourth of July weekend, the time seems ripe for us all to look back and try to make some sense of those distant but compelling events of June 29, 2002.
Who among us will ever forget the stirring sensations of 7:08 a.m., when Cheney, as he glared out the Oval Office window in the direction of the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, shifted in his seat, snorted, and tugged at an irritating fold in the inseam of his trousers, as he awaited news of the administration of anesthesia to George Bush?
Or what about the electrifying drama of 7:16 a.m., when, after inexplicably sitting mute and with his mouth open for the first seven minutes of his presidency, Cheney suddenly lunged and pulled open the top drawer of Bush’s desk, to see what was inside?
Most historians today agree that future generations will likely look beyond what is now considered the key event of the Cheney presidency — the notorious “enormous dump” of minutes 47-62– and find a deeper meaning to his rule. Many observers, like Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believe that Americans will eventually remember the Cheney era as a time of relative prosperity and optimism, particularly since it came at time when most of us were still asleep and, as it was still early in the morning, largely free of any immediate pressure to feign sexual interest in our wives.
The world was at peace during the Cheney era. Across the earth, men treated each other with kindness and decency as never before. In a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, a German businessman asks for a check–and gets it. Sao Paolo, Brazil, 7:36 EST: a man catches a fish. Mexico City, the same time: two hookers brush their teeth. Ten minutes later, in Kyoto and Archangelsk, respectively: a bicycle goes unstolen and an icicle falls thirteen stories, striking only a cat.
Harmony was the order of the day in the Cheney era. Motorists everywhere stopped at intersections and then moved on again, seeing that the light had turned green. At Wimbledon, part of one-half of the fourth round of the men’s draw played to near-completion. In France, a nation faced an afternoon. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. We were all a little bit younger, and a little more gay. It was a time when the president of the United States could stare at a notepad for twenty minutes, convinced that he had spelled the word “containment” wrong; it was a time when a slug could crawl almost six feet.
We knew who we were during the Cheney era. When we woke up that morning, our wallet was still in our pants. There were still three beers left in the fridge–two Genesees and a Molson. It was still too early in our lives to sort out what had happened the night before, and how this fat girl with a mole had come to be sleeping in our bed, and wearing our Motley Crue T-shirt. It was time when there was still a chance to get her the hell out of there before our friends found out, a time when you could still hope to promise her breakfast at Le Metro, and instead push her out of the car in the parking lot at Jim’s Steak-Out. The reality of 10:37 a.m. and 12:42 p.m., when she was still there and still flipping through your photo albums, had yet to set in. And the nightmare of Tuesday, July 2, when you yourself called her up late at night and asked her to come over, using the back entrance, was as yet a distant and seemingly unreal possibility.
Today, we now know that this golden age came cruelly to an end when endoscopist James Butler clicked off his head-lamp and pulled his scope out of the colon of George W. Bush. Twenty minutes after the procedure ended, our elected president awoke, and the Cheney era galloped off on its august steed, vanishing into the muddy prairie of history. How will we remember this time? What profound emotions will those memories set astir? We at the BEAST only wish we knew, and like the rest of you, we can only wait–and let time cast its vote.
While Allentown geared up for its street festival, police held their own block party on the lower West Side
By Matt Taibbi
They stopped traffic in part of Allentown last weekend. Some of you might have noticed. For about a block in every direction at the intersection of Allen and Elmwood last Sunday, the streets were closed off for nine hours while the Artvoice festival played itself out. There were dozens of bands, heavy sales of crafts and trinkets, lots of licensed food and beverage vendor activity, not a whiff of unfriendliness or ugly behavior… in short, it was exactly the sort of polite, carefully run, business-friendly event that passes for a rollicking cultural celebration among upper-middle-class white people these days. Although I cannot count myself among them, I heard that there were many people in attendance who enjoyed themselves that day.
Probably very few of those people, however, were aware that there had been another block party of sorts in that same area just a few days before. On the morning of Wednesday, June 27, in the heart of a predominantly Hispanic section of the lower West side, police blocked off traffic on West Avenue between Maryland and Virginia for the surprise launch of a new city initiative called Operation Clean Sweep.
There were a lot of people on West Avenue that morning, but none of them were dancing or selling pottery. Mainly they were city, state, and federal officials, although a few television reporters were also there. The list of attendees was actually quite long. It included the Buffalo Police, Parole Officers, U.S. Marshals, the Fire Department, Social Services representatives, Animal Control, Building inspectors, and representatives of a number of public utilities, including Niagara Mohawk and Adelphia cable.
“There were so many people that I got blinded,” said Gladys Polidura, 43, who lives on the block.
“I can’t even tell you how many of them there were,” said her neighbor, Alicia Perez, 33. “I couldn’t count them. There were that many.”
Alicia Perez said her daughter was frightened by all the visitors Perez wasn’t talking about the people on the street. She was talking about the ones who were in her house. Operation Clean Sweep, modeled after a similar program in Rochester called Project Uplift, is a door-to-door “outreach” program, ostensibly designed to help improve the “quality of life” in what are generally referred to euphemistically as “troubled” or “blighted” neighborhoods.
The way it works is that a police officer knocks on every door on the block, identifies himself, explains that he is accompanied by a variety of agencies that are there to answer questions and help improve the quality of life in the neighborhood, and then ultimately asks if one or more of the helpers might come in.
The city claims that the agencies were there solely to assist people–to answer safety questions, to fix faulty gas lines, to install new sprinklers, clear debris, cut grass, and to listen to complaints about delinquent landlords and building repair problems.
Were they there for any other reason? The city says no.
Most of the residents of West Avenue think they city’s lying about that.
In describing what happened last Wednesday, they say that it’s hard not to conclude that if Operation Clean Sweep is not first and foremost a law enforcement fishing expedition, and an elaborate attempt to get around search and seizure laws, then it is doing a very poor job of not looking like either or both.
What is Clean Sweep? On television, it looked like a ribbon-cutting; it even had the Mayor there to kick things off and shake a few hands.
It looked a little different from the business end of it.
* * *
WEST AVENUE between Maryland and Virginia is located squarely in the middle of what is generally considered a somewhat nasty part of the lower West Side. You can drive through the intersection of Maryland and West at almost any hour and see some fairly obvious (if low-key) drug-dealing going on. Just this past February, there was a shooting at the corner of Maryland and West, in the second of three broken-down yellow tenement houses on the east side of the street at the end of the block.
The “three yellow houses,” which many of the people who live on the block believe were the real target of Clean Sweep, have a notorious reputation in the neighborhood–apparently a deserved one, as even some of the people who actually live in those houses told me.
“These houses should be burned to the ground,” said a tenant in the third house, who asked not to be named. “They’re total rat holes.” He took me into his apartment and showed me around, and he was right; the walls were literally rotting in there. It was hard to imagine anyone actually living there for any length of time, and one could imagine any responsible building inspector reasonably wanting to check the place out.
A man named Pete who not long ago moved into the second house said that his new home had recently been the site of drug-dealing on a scale he’d never seen before. “It was like McDonald’s,” he said, pointing out the door and around the corner. “They used to just line up here. Over 20 billion served, you know.”
The three yellow houses are the black eye of the block; ask anyone in the neighborhood, and you’ll hear stories of crack and heroin addicts roaming the backs of the houses at night, tricking going on in various floors, all kinds of sordid stuff. A beat cop working his very first day in the neighborhood could figure out pretty quickly that the yellow houses were the problem spot on the block, and it probably wouldn’t take very long to find probable cause to get into one or all of them.
As reasonable a target of police attention the three yellow houses might appear to be, the rest of the block appears that unlikely a target. There’s a well-maintained, cool-looking clothing store called JT’s Inner-City Sportswear across the street from the yellow houses, whose owner, Juan Morrero, maintains that the street is a decent-enough place to do business. If anything, Morrero said, it’s the police that scare his customers away.
“I had a guy come down here from uptown just to check out my store,” he said. “He comes in here, buys a couple hundred dollars worth of clothes, and the instant he gets out of the store, the cops stop him, search his car, find a bag of weed, and take him to jail for the night.” He laughed. “The guy told me it was nothing personal, but he’s never coming back here again.”
After the clothing store, the rest of that side of the block is lined from one end to another with family-occupied houses, most of which are owner-occupied and in decent enough repair. The majority of the people I spoke to on the street were middle-class, had jobs and appeared to take care of their properties.
That’s not to say that the block doesn’t have certain striking geographical features. The family houses on the West side of the street are nearly all occupied and owned by Hispanics. On the east side, after the yellow houses, there is a vacant lot and then there are two more homes, both of which are occupied by white tenants. The tension between the two sides of the street is obvious and palpable, and admitted readily by residents on both sides.
“They don’t like the way we live,” said Carlos Velasquez, owner of 88 West, a house located directly opposite the two white-occupied houses. He pointed across the street. “It’s because we’re out here on the porch all the time. But that’s Puerto Rican culture, man. We like to be out on the porch.”
Valerie Niederhoffer, a white woman who lives in one of those houses Velasquez was pointing to, explained her view on the matter when asked why she thought the city had chosen this particular block to launch Operation Clean Sweep. “I think they wanted to send a message,” she said. “They wanted to send a message that these people live in a city, that this is Buffalo, not some third world area, some zone protected by…”
“Poverty,” she concluded, taking a moment to choose the right word. All of these tensions would come to the surface when the Clean Sweep circus showed up last week, as both sides of the street differed sharply on what the city was doing there, why they had come, and, most notably, who was responsible for bringing the official parade to this particular spot.
* * *
IT DOESN’T TAKE a lot of digging to conclude that Clean Sweep’s official mandate does not make a whole lot of sense. It is being sold to the public a nothing more than an outreach program, designed to help clean up neighborhoods and assist residents with problems of home upkeep. But everywhere you look, you find the roots of the program in city and federal anti-drug operations.
The program was originally conceived by an organization called Save Our Streets, whose coordinator, Tiffany Perry, describes her agency as “a task force comprised of city, county, and federal agencies” whose “primary function is to deal with drug-dealing on residential properties.” Although she stopped short of calling Save our Streets a law enforcement task force, she conceded that law enforcement makes up a large part of the organization, and that it includes participation from the Buffalo Police, the Sheriff’s department, Parole and Probation officers, the U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and the District Attorney’s office.
It goes without saying that this is a strange collection of people to be worried about poor plumbing, unmowed laws, and building code violations.
I asked Perry why West Avenue in particular was chosen as the inaugural site for Clean Sweep.
“Well,” she said. “There’ve been a lot of complaints on that block.” About what?
“Well,” she said. “I deal with drugs. There have been a lot of complaints about drugs. And other complaints…”
I pointed out the apparent contradiction; you choose a place because there are complaints about drugs, and then you say you’re there to clean up yards and do fix-it work.
“Well,” she said. “That’s what we deal with. We deal with drugs. I get involved with other issues, but drugs are prevalent.”
A few minutes later, Perry backtracked, and insisted that there had been other complaints on the block, among other things concerns about the decrepit state of the vacant lot on the east side of the street. And when I asked her directly if it was reasonable to conclude that an operation launched by an organization whose primary mandate is about drug-dealing in homes, responding primarily to complaints about drug-dealing in homes, was in fact acting with the primary aim of doing something about drug-dealing in homes, she insisted that I had the wrong idea.
“This is a community outreach program. That’s all,” she said.
Then there was the other question. If this was not a law enforcement operation, why did it need to be a surprise?
“It has to be a surprise because…” she began. “If people know about it ahead of time, they…” She paused. “Well, it just works better as a surprise,” she concluded finally.
Then there is the question of the personnel makeup. It is obviously very difficult to understand the presence of U.S. Marshals and parole officers in terms of “community outreach.” When I asked Common Councilman Brian Davis, whose Ellicott district includes the West Ave. block, why there needed to be parole officers involved in the operation there, he appeared uncomfortable.
Davis, a black Council member who has only been in office for six months, seems in interviews to be a genuinely nice and well-meaning man who approves of the program on the whole, while being embarrassed by certain aspects of it. On the parole officer issue, Davis’s explanation was that the officers were there “to see if there were any of their…clients were there, and to ask them if they had any questions.”
It seems to me that if you have questions for your parole officer, you can ask them in your meetings with him–which, of course, if you are on parole, you have to go to.
When I asked Perry why parole officers and U.S. Marshals (whose normal law enforcement mandate in neighborhoods like this is usually confined to helping serve eviction notices and locating fugitives) had to be involved, she replied that they were there “to assist with security. These workers don’t know what they’re getting into in these neighborhoods.”
But if Buffalo police are already there, why do you need U.S. Marshals for security?
Perry answered that U.S. Marshals, being part of the task force, were unusually positioned to provide security for the operation as it continues in different regions of the city. The Buffalo police, on the other hand, are broken down into individual precincts, which makes it harder for the same officers to participate in the operation in different areas. In order to have officers with experience involved, she explained, it was convenient to make use of U.S. Marshals.
No fewer than six Hispanic West Ave residents that I relayed this explanation to had the same one-word response: “Bullshit.”
Beyond the holes in the official explanation for the operation, there was the actual operation itself, which resulted in a series of incidents that a majority of the street’s residents said were impossible to explain as “helping” and “assistance.” Among them:
There were other stories. According to Avilez, police chided her about what kind of food she was feeding her two and a half year-old child.
“They were like, hey, why are you feeding your kid an egg?” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. I mean, who are these people to come in and tell me what to feed my children?”
Her neighbor, 19-year-old Erian Rivera, laughed at the story. “I don’t know what they eat in the suburbs, man, but we eat different food,” he said. “We eat red beans and rice. I don’t know what they want us to eat.”
Nearly everybody on the Hispanic side of the street had the same answer when asked what Clean Sweep was all about.
“They were looking for something,” said Rivera.
“They were looking for drugs or something,” said Gladys Polidura.
Oliveras: “They do this because they know Hispanic people have no power.” “They just wanted to take a look around, it’s all about the complaints from the other side of the street,” said Carlos Velasquez.
“They do this,” said 19-year-old Juan Olivera, “because Hispanic people don’t have a lot of power, and they know we can’t do much about it.”
Erian Rivera, left, and Juan Oliveras, right.
I told several people about Niederhoffer’s remark that the police were trying to send a message that this was “not the third world.”
“If this isn’t the third world,” said Jessica Ramirez, “then why are you violating my rights? This is America. You can’t do things like this. They say they’re helping people, they’re cutting cable and gas, and looking in people’s houses. It’s not right.”
* * *
AS IS OFTEN the case in stories like this, the gravest insult came not in the operation itself, but in the press coverage that followed it.
A day after the operation was concluded, The Buffalo News ran a story on the front page of the Metro section. Written by reporter Brian Meyer, the piece was entitled, amazingly, “Residents Praise Clean Sweep.” Here is the lead to that piece:
“Residents of the Lower West Side are praising a new program that aims to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods by attacking blight, housing violations, and other nuisances.”
After reading the piece carefully, I called Meyer with a question. I asked him if he had actually interviewed anyone at all who lived on the block that was the subject of Clean Sweep.
Meyer, who on the phone sounds like a dental hygienist, answered in a nasal voice that he had, indeed, interviewed a West side resident named Lucy Lopez. I’d already asked people on West about this Lucy Lopez. The typical response: “Who the fuck is Lucy Lopez?”
So I asked Meyer who Lucy Lopez was. As it turned out, she didn’t live on that block. She was just a resident of the area–not the street that had been visited.
After a painful five-minute conversation, Meyer eventually admitted that he had not interviewed a single person who actually lived on West Avenue, between Maryland and Virginia, or had been visited by police during Clean Sweep.
Most of the residents of the neighborhood, who sensibly do not read The Buffalo News as a rule, had not seen the article. But when I showed them Meyer’s piece, they were nearly all incredulous.
“It says what?” asked Sean Gonzalez.
I showed him the article. “Just read the headline. ‘Residents Praise Clean Sweep.’”
Gonzalez shook his head. “Lying-ass motherfucker,” he said.
The News never interviewed any “Residents” on West Ave.
I told him I’d compose a letter to the editor of The News on the neighborhood’s behalf, which would state that it might have been nice if the paper had actually interviewed any residents that had been subjects of Clean Sweep before concluding that they praised it. The next day, he and twelve others–everyone I could find on the West side of the street–signed it. Carlos Velasquez even added his social security number next to his signature. “Tell them that they can check up on me if they like,” he said.
* * *
CLEAN SWEEP might very well be legal, and fall short of the usual definition of an improper search. But one doesn’t need a lawyer to see that this is, to use the language of the neighborhood, some seriously fucked-up shit–and that the primary offense here was psychological, not legal.
Ask yourself how you’d feel if you woke up one morning, looked out the window, and saw an army of cops, marshals, dogcatchers, representatives of the utilities whose bills you might be late in paying, fire inspectors, parole officers, even the goddamn Mayor loitering outside your house. Then think about how you’d feel if one of them knocked on the door, and asked to come inside.
Even Councilman Davis admits that part of the purpose of Clean Sweep is to leave residents with lasting memories of this visually impressive spectacle.
“It gives folks something to think about,” he said. “If they are criminal-minded, criminal-elemented [sic], some of the individuals, I think it will make them think twice, because they don’t know when this is going to come.”
That’s “help”? That’s “assistance”? They have another name for it in most countries.
I asked Davis if he was aware that there have been other “Operation Clean Sweeps” in American history. One was a helicopter search-and-destroy mission in the Hau Nghia province of Vietnam in 1966; in that one, American pilots provided
cover while South Vietnamese troops bulldozed rural villages. Then there was the Indonesian Operation Clean Sweep of 1999, in which U.S.-trained members of the elite Kopassus unit of the Indonesian military entered regions of East Timor in disguise, and massacred sympathizers of the East Timor independence movement.
Not exactly the kinds of associations you want people to have when you’re talking about surprise visits by government officials with armed escorts into poor neighborhoods.
The original “Operation
“No kidding,” Davis said. “Maybe we should have called it ‘Clean Up.’ ” Maybe.
Everyone knows that there are problems in inner-city neighborhoods that need to be fixed. It’s how you go about fixing them that’s the issue.
Here’s how the city tried to fix economic depression downtown: it offered millions to help Adelphia cable build a new skyscraper.
Operation Clean Sweep is what they’ve thought up for poor neighborhoods. I’d be angry, too.
Books That Was In Nam
By John Dolan
by Michael Herr
Everything We Had
ed. by Al Santoli
Random House 1981
Once A Warrior King
by David Donovan
by Robert Mason
We Were Soldiers Once…And Young
by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway
Harper Perennial 1992
Mel Gibson’s Vietnam movie We Were Soldiers just hit New Zealand, so I’ve had to deal with endless commercials of that sagging beagle-face of his, carefully smeared with artificial dirt and smoke, rallying the troops in a laughable attempt at a Southern accent. Having seen The Patriot, featuring Mel doing a similarly rotten Carolina accent as he ran around chopping up Redcoats with a teeny little tomahawk, I think I’ll skip his remake of Vietnam.
But it did send me back to reread the book Mel bought to use as the basis of the film: We Were Soldiers Once…and Young. It seemed like a good occasion to review some of the innumerable Vietnam memoirs I’ve bought over the years.
Yes, chillun, I am old enough to remember that once upon a time, nice people didn’t even want to talk about Vietnam, let alone read about it. Now how did it git so’s they don’t hardly wanna talk ’bout nuthin’ else? Gather ’round the fire and I’ll tell you all about it.
Avoiding Nam was pretty much a fulltime job for sensible Americans of the 70s. It didn’t look like fun yet — not when it was actually happening. That took several years and about a thousand war memoirs. At the time, it looked like a remarkably uninteresting war, with wretched losers from inland America standing around the paddies twitching nervously, wondering whether the water buffalo in the next field was going to whip out a Kalashnikov and start shooting.
That changed very slowly. The first book to make Nam seem cool was Michael Herr’s Dispatches. This was the first Nam book taught at universities (I encountered it in a course at Berkeley). Herr wrote as one of the college boys who didn’t fight. He was there to watch, write, and make a name for himself. He wrote guilty erotica, and spoke for the smart guys who got themselves deferments but always wondered what they would’ve done if they’d gone: “You know how it is, you want to look and you don’t want to look. I can remember the strange feelings I had as a kid looking at the war photographs in Life…”
Since the deferred guys were the core of the teaching pool at most American universities, they tended to assign Herr’s book, and it became one of those “instant classics” which make it more for demographic than artistic insights. Herr’s book was a first draft of Apocalypse Now, with Hendrix soundtrack and quick cuts between cool gore and Saigon lies. It doesn’t read particularly well now; there’s too much caution there, like someone trying to do Hunter S. Thompson after halfheartedly inhaling one tiny line of speed. But then that’s always the way to crack the upscale porn market: just a little whiff of the really hard stuff, enough to grab the safe people. After all, the safe, guilty males of the Nam era had two advantages over the ones who went: they had graduated to teaching jobs and could force large numbers of students to buy the book — and they were alive.
Herr’s book came out in ’77, two years after the fall of Saigon. It was a while before anybody wanted to hear from the losers who’d actually gone and fought in Nam. It took a lot of concerted lying, in films like Deer Hunter, to erase all those images and persuade the home folks that the enterprise had been a noble one.
In strictly literary terms, this great lie was of some benefit, because there are few genres as rich as the war memoir. Virtually anyone who saw combat and has a decent memory can write a decent book about it — and Vietnam, a war characterized by thousands of small skirmishes, was richer in incident and gore than an inner-city basketball tournament. When next you hear that rough voice asking, “War — what is it good for?”, you tell it: “First-person memoirs, that’s what!”
Everything We Had
By 1981, the memoirs were coming fast. The first and in some ways still the best was Everything We Had, a collection of oral reminiscences by 33 vets who’d done everything from nursing the wounded to slitting throats with Bob Kerrey and his pals. I’d still recommend this book as a starter-kit for the prospective Nam fan, because the 33 voices offer something for virtually everyone. Parts of the book are very funny, as when Gayle, the cute li’l nurse, recalls her answer when asked if she’d serve on a ward for Vietnamese casualties: “And I said, ‘No, I would probably kill them.’ and she said, ‘Well, maybe we won’t transfer you there.’” And they say the Army has no heart!
By the early 80s, it was not just cool to’ve served in Nam; it was glorious. It was, in fact, the only sort of martial glory available (Grenada didn’t quite carry the same “cachet,” as they said in the Reagan era.) Every Vet still alive and compos mentis — and some who weren’t — headed for that early-model KayPro or Northstar keyboard to turn his ranting into cash. They were a little confused at first, having been shunned and pitied as they dragged their way from halfway house to detox to medium-security institution…but slowly a canny ambition shouted down the voices babbling in their addled heads with the news that the war stories which had driven the wife and kids to move out with no forwarding address were now box-office boffo.
And damned if many of them, fingers trembling on the keyboard, one hand on the Jack Daniels or rolled-up twenty, didn’t hunt-and-peck out some quite good books.
This high literary output was a delayed gift of the utter lack of strategy which doomed the American enterprise in Vietnam: a war which consisted largely of sending small contingents of infantry out into the jungle to find the enemy, usually by getting ambushed, is bound to be a military disaster — but equally bound to produce an extraordinary number of fantastic combat tales. As Walter puts it in Big Lebowski: “Me and Charlie, eyeball to eyeball.” Throw in the treachery of the South Vietnamese, the social and racial bombs going off non-stop back home, the feeling of abandonment, the music — greatest soundtrack of any war ever — and you had the elements of better stories than more intelligently-conducted wars could ever yield. (If there were any true aesthetes worthy of Oscar Wilde’s mantle, they’d've agitated for the continuation of the war at all costs. Alas, dreary Utilitarian ethics have conquered us so thoroughly that not a single voice urged the continuation of the war as the greatest performance art of the century.)
I’ve read a dozen of these memoirs, and enjoyed almost all of them. They come in all flavors. There’s the raunchy defeatism of F. N. G., which describes a “fuckin’ new guy” entering an infantry squad after Tet, when the Americans had pretty much given up trying to win and were fighting a strange, highly mobile but essentially defensive war. Then there’s Once A Warrior King, describing one very conservative Virginian’s relatively straightforward war, working with a fiercely anti-VC village in the Delta. This is Greene’s Quiet American told by the quiet A. himself, as it were — and he tells a good story. It’s the food I remember best, in that one: the long descriptions of roasted rat with fish-sauce. That’s one of the delights of war and prison memoirs: you can count, in these solidly grounded stories, on some excellent descriptions of meals good and bad. (The POW memoir, combining the genres, often yields the most mouth-watering descriptions of all; if you want a book full of the delight of eating, read Brendan Behan’s one good book, Borstal Boy.)
The best of all these might be Chickenhawk, the story of a helicopter pilot who was, as Martin Sheen says of “Chef” in Apocalypse Now, “…wound up a little too tight for Vietnam.” Robert Mason, the pilot-narrator, takes the reader in and out of so many LZs, hot, cold and medium, that you develop a veteran’s wince everytime his slick starts descending toward the purple smoke.
One of the many delights of Mason’s book is that it describes the battles for the Ia Drang — the same campaign glamorized in We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, the book Gibson filmed. The campaign, which is depicted as a noble, though doomed, strike for freedom in We Were Soldiers…. doesn’t come off so well in Mason’s memoir. In fact, he and his fellow pilots seem to have done something the generals in charge of the operation didn’t do: read the books about earlier French campaigns against the Viet Minh in that same valley. Mason and his drunken buddies end up predicting the failure of the campaign while their superiors are still sending home the sort of communiques which did so much to cement the American Army’s reputation for…er, “emphasizing the positive,” let’s say.
We Were Soldiers Once… And Young
But Mason’s topper, his most brilliant passage, comes at the very end, in the epilogue summarizing his messed-up return to civilian life. Here’s the superb two-paragraph conclusion, describing his next move after the early drafts of his Nam memoir had been rejected and he’d failed in everything he tried since getting back to The World:
“What did the desperate man do? I can tell you that I was arrested in January, 1981, charged with smuggling marijuana into the country. In August 1981, I was found guilty of possession and sentence to five years at a minimum-security prison. I am currently free as of February 1983, appealing the conviction. No one is more shocked than I.”
Just roll that last sentence over on your tongue. “No one is more shocked than I.” Now there is a meal. Even the fussily correct grammar, that annoying “…than I” rather than the colloquial “than me” or “…than I am”; so perfectly droll, such a change from the Nam dialogue in which every other word is “fuckin’ “. And the grand historical irony, that the junked helicopter jock should become desperate enough to sell his one skill to the only people who wanted it, the drug dealers, designated New Enemy of the Reaganites. And the timing! Mason’s manuscript got four rejections in the years leading up to 1981, when the memoirs started appearing. A little later, and he’d've been cool. But that would have been disastrous. To go to prison for piloting a helicopter full of drugs, albeit unworthy boring drugs like marijuana, even as that great war-dodging hypocrite Reagan shoved his leathery grin in front of the flag — ah, It’s a fate better than death.