Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day in the United States of Amnesia

“I think they had a plan from day one; they wanted to do something about Iraq. While the World Trade Center was still smoldering, while they were still digging bodies out, people in the White House were thinking: ‘Ah! This gives us the opportunity we have been looking for to go after Iraq.’”

-Richard Clarke, George W. Bush's counterterrorism adviser

Each Memorial Day, Americans fly flags and express gratitude for veterans who have sacrificed on our behalf. But while the day is filled with rituals and ceremonies honoring vets (as it should be), discussions about what role our military should play abroad or how veterans are treated when they return home are cordoned off by the rules of polite society. 

Yet is there a day more appropriate to discuss the fate of our troops than Memorial Day? 

If not today, when the spotlight is on our often-invisible volunteer forces, then when?

Many Americans are reflexively allergic to looking back, but we can't move forward until we've absorbed the lessons of the past. When assessing the challenges of today's veterans, from homelessness to PTSD to head injuries to healthcare accessibility to suicide, the elephant in the room is the invasion of Iraq, a large-scale, unilateral war of choice that eclipsed and then prolonged the more limited multilateral effort against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. 

The cheerleaders of the Iraq invasion (the few that remain) continue to claim that Bush/Cheney didn't really want to invade Iraq, that they were convinced of the necessity by flawed pre-war intelligence which inflated Saddam's WMD threat. But the mass of evidence and testimony from repentant administration officials shows that
Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld had their eyes on Iraq well before 9/11, which gave them the political capital they needed.

Bush’s first Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, said the administration began planning an invasion of Iraq within days of W’s inauguration, in January of 2001. In March of that year, Dick Cheney's secret Energy Task Force met and discussed "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts," displayed hereVanity Fair reported that the "US Was Targeting Saddam 'Just Days after 9/11.'" 

As early as February of 2002, more than a year before the supposedly reluctant invasion, special operations personnel and Predator drones were secretly being moved from Afghanistan to Iraq. 

In July of 2002, while George W. Bush and Tony Blair were publicly claiming that they wanted weapons inspections in Iraq to run their course before taking military action, British officials had the infamous meeting captured in the Downing Street Memo, in which "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy [invasion]." 

That fall, the Bush Administration preyed on the American public's post-9/11 fear and vulnerability with an orchestrated media campaign to manufacture a case for war. Not coincidentally, this campaign began in the run-up to congressional elections in which the Republicans sought to regain control of the Senate by turning the media focus to national security issues. 

Asked why the administration had waited until September to make their case for pre-emptive war, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told the New York Times, “From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." 

The next day, the Bush Administration's principals fanned out to media outlets to parrot lines about the purported threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

The effort culminated on February 5, 2003, when Colin Powell made a long list of false accusations about Saddam Hussein's fictitious WMD ambitions and connections to al Qaeda in a speech to the United Nations. Though much of the intelligence cited was based on questionable sources - including single sources who hadn’t even been interviewed by U.S. intelligence - Powell told the world, "every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." Powell’s Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson, who had helped craft the speech, later referred to Powell's U.N. presentation as "the lowest moment of my life."

A study of the media offensive by the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity found that
key members of the administration (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz) had made 935 false statements to the press. In the words of Scott McLellan, the second White House press secretary, the administration's p.r. campaign was nothing but "propaganda. 

After ignoring last-minute peace offerings from Iraqi officials, the Bush Administration got their war on. The campaign of fear and fabrication which was the Iraq invasion's original sin was compounded by dire consequences, including but not limited to:

-The transmogrification of the rare national unity and near-universal international support the U.S. had after 9/11 into raw divisiveness domestically and ill will internationally

-The destruction of some of the the world’s oldest, most precious antiquities throughout Iraq

-Astonishing human suffering (four-five million refugees and up to [and maybe over] one million dead civilians

-The abandonment of Afghanistan (at the very moment when the U.S. had a big coalition and could have built on the military victory there to help create a safe, civil society), which re-empowered the Taliban when they were on the ropes and dragged the conflict out to the present and beyond

-4,804 dead American troops and many times that injured physically and/or psychologically 

-The over-extension and diminution of the American military through multiple tours and deployment of National Guard members for combat purposes (which robbed New Orleans of badly needed Guardsmen after Hurricane Katrina)

-An exacerbation of tension with Muslims worldwide and increase in terrorist recruitment, the very thing the Bush Administration was claiming to counteract in Iraq 

The direct long-term costs of the Iraq invasion - which was initiated not long before the U.S. treasury was starting to absorb the staggering costs of Baby Boomer retirement - are up to six trillion dollars

The opportunity costs of the invasion of Iraq are immense. Every dollar spent on this ill-conceived adventure has robbed us of a dollar for the elemental priorities of a civilized society back home while the war was going full bore, and now, as Republican Paul Ryan and his ilk (many of whom supported the invasion) use the budget deficit as an excuse to take the budget ax to programs for both those who need assistance most - the poor, elderly, and disabled - and for the struggling, shrinking middle-class. 

Across the pond, the right-leaning Economist brought in the recent 10-year anniversary of the invasion with an honest, reflective piece titled "Anniversary of a mass delusion." But the anniversary came and went with little fanfare in the States. Mainstream media (who'd served as the Bush Administration's biggest enablers in the fall of 2002) tended to mention the story in passing, without context, alt-left outlets preached to the choir for a day or two, right-wing media continued to spin fairy tales, and most Americans went on with their lives as if it had never happened. Welcome to the United States of Amnesia. 


Jeff Heaton is making sure people in his neck of the woods don't forget. Inspired by the Pentagon's ban on photos of soldiers' coffins to bring the costs of war out into the open, Heaton
a view of the Crosses of Lafayette from the BART station
along with Louise Clark, now deceased) erected a memorial to the Iraq War's fallen troops on Veteran's Day 2006, just days after George W. Bush had suffered a rare moment of accountability at the polls. 

With the help of volunteers, Heaton and Clark started the Crosses of Lafayette with fifteen crosses on a high-visibility hillside across from the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Lafayette, California, a wealthy suburb of San Francisco.
Not long after, vandals removed the crosses and the death toll sign (pictured 
in this article). Unbowed, the founders of the Crosses of Lafayette put their display back up, after which the Lafayette City Council stepped into the fray. 

Taking a restrictive view of the 1st Amendment, the council forced Heaton and Clark to reduce the size of the sign tabulating the total number of troop deaths in Iraq (which later included troop fatalities in Afghanistan), and pre-empted similar local efforts by limiting the number of signs citizens could put on their own land.

Despite these initial hiccups, the Crosses of Lafayette live on, and have now been seen millions of times by commuters going to and from San Francisco

Walking up to this moving memorial across sun-parched grass, one is overwhelmed by a
feeling of loss. The loss of the individual soldiers' lives and all the potential those lives held, the loss felt by children who will never see their mother or father again, spouses who will have to raise children alone, and parents who see a being they raised and nurtured from infancy stolen from them in an instant.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on us. The best way to celebrate Memorial Day is to learn from the mistakes of the past, give troops the care they need when they return from the field of battle year-round, and keep tomorrow's men and women in uniform out of harm's way unless all peaceful means of self-defense have been exhausted.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ray Manzarek (1939-2013)

I originally listened to the Doors in an attempt to impress my first crush, but ended up getting hooked. Decades later they're still one of my favorite bands, primarily because of Ray Manzarek's inventive Fender Rhodes organ voice, which set them apart from the mass of pop-oriented and guitar-centric R & B/acid rock acts of the time. 

Manzarek had serious chops rooted in classical, jazz, and the blues he heard growing up in Chicago. The Doors had no bassist for most of their career, so Manzarek played both the bass lines and the keyboard parts that defined the band's vibe. And when Jim Morrison was out of commission, Manzarek handled vocals too. In just about any other band (i.e. a band without a one-in-a-million charismatic front man), Manzarek would have been the natural leader. 

Ray Manzarek is best known for "Light My Fire" from the Doors' debut album, in particular the instantly recognizable melody line that opens the song and the mesmerizing two-minute solo which starts at 1:14. Here he explains how this timeless tune originated in Bach, Coltrane, Latin music, and "Hey Joe."

The keyboard work on "When the Music's Over" (off the Doors' second album, "Strange Days") packs a serious wallop, as can be seen in the live version below, from Copenhagen, 1968. The introduction is sublime. Manzarek begins on keys, adds bass, builds the tension for Jim Morrison's cathartic howl from hell, then slaps down big, bright chords as the full force of the whole band comes in. Throughout the rest of this epic number, Manzarek conjures a hypnotic bass line and the dark organ sound that glues everything together.  

The original incarnation of the Doors didn't last long, about six years from formation to Jim Morrison's death, but they went out on a high note with "L.A. Woman," released in 1971. Among the many great cuts was "Riders on the Storm," a song that had extensive FM radio airplay despite its seven-minute length. Manzarek graces the opening with resonant notes that fall softly, in perfect sync with the rain. He brings this delicate tone to the solo, which starts quietly at 2:41 and escalates into a blues fury. Manzarek closes the song by trading watery chord fragments with guitarist Robbie Krieger as the storm rages in the background.



Few bands last five years, let alone forty-five. At 100,000,000 albums sold and counting, the Doors - and Ray Manzarek's distinctive keyboard stylings - promise to be around for a while. 

Wherever Ray is, I am forever indebted to him for the countless hours of bliss he gave me. If there is a heaven, Ray Manzarek is sure to be first chair, filling the clouds with celestial sounds. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A couple months ago I came across an alluring re-post from in my Facebook feed. 

Usually I "x" a post out as soon as I digest the contents, but this time I went to the unfamiliar site's home page to poke around when the video was done, and I've been grateful ever since.

Open Culture's mission statement reads as follows:

"Open Culture editor Dan Colman scours the web for the best educational media. He finds the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & movies you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between." 

Among the abundance of riches are:

-University certification programs and 700 online courses in art, classics, film, history, literature, philosophy, psychology, and many other areas of interest

-Courses for forty different languages and a wealth of K-12 educational resources

-160 textbooks, 400 e-books, and 525 audio books which include everything from Aesop to Austen to Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and David Sedaris 

-525 movies ranging from Chaplin to Hitchcock to Welles to Kurosawa to noir 

-125 "Great Science Videos"

For those seeking a quick fix, Open Culture's home page has daily video posts with contextual explanations. Yesterday, a video of Duke Ellington's "Symphony in Black" was 
featured. The accompanying write-up revealed that the short was both Billie Holiday's first appearance on film and "one of the earliest cinematic explorations of African-American culture for a mass audience." At the bottom of the post were a sampling of Open Culture's endless network of cross-references:  links to a short documentary about Billie Holiday; a video of Holiday singing the classic "Strange Fruit"; and a clip of Duke Ellington performing in France for Joan Miró (whose painting "Siesta" appears above).  

With the amount of information we process, it can be easy to forget new website discoveries. Fortunately, Open Culture sends out a daily email which allows you to explore these cultural nuggets at your own pace.  

In just the past week the daily emails have included:

-"Jimi Hendrix’s Final Interview on September 11, 1970"

My favorite post was the viral "Astronaut Chris Hadfield Sings David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity' On Board theInternational Space Station" below, which reflects the limitlessness of space - and the Internet.

                                       (Click on box in lower right for full screen)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Luna Lee transforms "Voodoo Child"

I treat Jimi Hendrix with a certain amount of reverence. As an electric blues guitarist, I am forever in awe of the sounds Hendrix coaxed from an off-the-rack Stratocaster with the help of volume, pedals, ace engineer Eddie Kramer, and (especially) a willingness to try anything. Then there was the raw emotional intensity of his unbridled solos, which bring to mind a skydiver free-falling out of an airplane, and the intricacy and care of his rhythm playing. Not to mention his soulful singing voice, original songwriting, grasp of the studio-as-an-instrument philosophy, and jet-fueled live performances. 

In 1993, I eagerly bought "Stone Free:  a Tribute to Jimi Hendrix" upon its release, but when I played the disc on my home stereo I was alternately indifferent to or aghast at the interpretations, other than the Jeff Beck/Seal version of "Manic Depression." 

I took "Stone Free" back to the music store that night for a return, but was told that profound disappointment and dishonoring the dead weren't sufficient grounds for a refund.

Since that time, Stevie Ray Vaughan's versions of "Little Wing" and "Voodoo Child" were the only Hendrix covers I've heard that pricked up my ears.

Until now. 

I was recently introduced to Luna Lee in my Facebook feed. Luna plays gayageum renditions of songs by American guitar virtuosos Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Stevie Ray Vaughan - and Jimi Hendrix.

Backed by a drum-and-bass track (and dashes of rhythm guitar and synth) Lee here breathes new, exotic life into one of the heaviest tunes ever recorded, "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." 

Lee has also done intriguing covers of Hendrix's "Bold as Love" and Little Wing" (Stevie Ray Vaughan's version), and Vaughan's "Scuttle Buttin.'"

**Click here for Luna Lee's YouTube station