Category Archives: writing

missing cairo

Like everyone else, I’ve been mesmerized this whole month by events in Cairo : by the stirring scenes from Egypt, careening from the January 25 Facebook-organized protests, with hundreds of thousands converging in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere to demand that their leader relinquish power after 30 years; to the harsh, government-inspired “Days of Rage” of February 2; to Friday’s “Day of Departure,”with redoubled protests and open negotiations for the future.

It’s 21 years since my only visit (sob!) to that part of the world. My Cairo memories are mostly blurred (nowhere near as vivid as those of the masseuse who befriended me at Sharm-el-Shaikh, or what I still call “the Pyramids of New Jersey”). I do remember its insane traffic and brutal smog, and like everyone else felt the reports of the smog clearing this week (due to cars being replaced by bodies) a harbinger of something good.

Of course, I went off to find the women in this story, to post them at my other shop.

The names most often associated with these world-changing events were, of course, those of prominent Egyptian men, such as President Hosni Mubarak, nuclear scientist and popular opposition figure Mohammed el-Baradei, Army strongman and vice president Omar Suleiman and Mohamed Beltagui of the Muslim Brotherhood. On today’s chat shows, you’ll likely see those names tossed around as Middle East experts try to predict the future.

But what we’ll most remember is the women’s leadership that has evolved right alongside these protests —including human rights activist Nawal al-Saadawi, who speaks above about her return to Egypt years after being imprisoned and exiled by successive Egyptian regimes. Hundreds of images like these adorn the Women Of Egypt Facebook page. “The country’s sisterhood,” notes the Los Angeles Times, “has sparked a movement within a movement.”

Much more here,, including tons of video and Mona Eltahawy laughing in Bill Maher’s face.

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A national crisis, now hyper-local

Notice: I am neither dead nor AWOL. Just busier than ever, with a suddenly-really-pending deadline, new blogging at Guernica, and reporting for Newsworks.org – the web portal of WHYY, my local PBS/NPR station.

Here is the very first story I ever pitched to WHYY’s Alan Tu, back in September, Given my background in sussing out tenant stories in Manhattan, I knew quickly that there had to be a story in our slice of the national foreclosure crisis. It’s a story about predatory lending, about neighborhoods, and about a pioneering legislator who figured out 30 years ago what to do about all this.

The story’s also a phoenix: it sat in the pending pile, right behind breaking news, until the city suspended all foreclosures AND I happened upon the perfect interview subject. I hope it absorbs and amuses some folks.

Now to my follow-up story, and to cutting my book manuscript by two-thirds.

Wolf in the Heart: Why journos love war

If I’d been nattering here as much as on Facebook, you’d have heard more than you care to about my interview with former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas. But I’m pretty happy with how it came out. At the bottom, click to read it at Guernica Magazine, and maybe throw in your two cents?

Wolf in the Heart

Chris Lombardi interviews Evan Thomas, September 2010

The historian and departing Newsweek editor on how he (like Remnick and Keller) caught war fever after 9/11, the obsession with being a man, and how his dad glowed in Navy whites.

In the October, 2001 “Talk of the Town,” New Yorker editor David Remnick called George Bush’s post-9/11 speech “reassuring.” Despite the fears of some, he explained, “taken as a policy pronouncement of sorts, it pointed in the right direction.” Even as it became clearer that the “policy pronouncement” was signaling war in two countries, many, if not most, writers and editors were as much participants in the preparations as observers. By April 2002, the New York Times’s now-notorious Judith Miller was deep in her dance with Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, reporting enthusiastically on the “important new discoveries” of weapons of mass destruction. The New Yorker again chimed in with similar reporting by then-staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, whose 2002 stories led with graphic details of the gas poisoning of Kurds in 1988. “In five years,” Goldberg wrote in October, 2002, “I believe that the coming invasion of Iraq will be remembered as an act of profound morality.” So adamant was The New Republic’s plumping for war that editor Peter Beinart recently felt the need to write an entire book, The Icarus Syndrome, bemoaning American war hubris. Also caught in the fervor was Newsweek’s Evan Thomas.

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Newsweek, which emblazoned “God Bless America” on its post-9/11 cover and followed that issue with articles in the coming weeks entitled “A Fight Over the Next Front” and “Blame America at Your Peril,” became perhaps the most visible of the Ernie Pyle-wannabes. By December of 2001, Thomas, an editor-at-large who announced last month he will be leaving the magazine he joined nearly twenty-five years ago, was on CBS calling Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “a great war leader,” and by March 2002 his byline was on a story about a “growing consensus” in the Bush administration that “the next target” in the war on terror was Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. All this less than twelve months before the magazine’s “Shock and Awe” cover breathlessly reported the devastation that resulted.

Seven years later, all of the media outlets above have recanted some of what they published back then, even as the buzz for a new war with Iran threatens to repeat the cycle (with participation of some of the same personnel, such as Jeffrey Goldberg, now with The Atlantic). Beyond a few journalism-ethics seminars, few have tried to examine why they did it. Thomas, who now admits that he and the others were in the grip of “war fever,” has turned to history to help himself understand what that means.
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My open letter to Rielle Hunter

Dear Rielle,

I’m glad you went on “Oprah” this week. Ever since you burst onto the national consciousness in 2008, I’ve been wondering about you — the former Lisa Druck, now a Southern Californian named Rielle, and since last year the mother of a lovely toddler who looks just like former senator and presidential contender John Edwards.

Back then, I had a pretty good idea of who you were, and, paradoxically, none at all. Here on the WVFC website, I wrote about what your story brought to mind: “We Could All Be Elizabeth Edwards.” Like many women, I first heard the unfolding tale with that brilliant attorney and cancer survivor in mind, and felt sick. “We all could be Elizabeth: we all could see something we’ve fought for splintered in a second, because of others’ stupidity or our own. As midlife women, we curse what our bodies can no longer do or be or look like…” Or the fear that crosses the heart that someone newer and shinier can walk into your relationship and upend it.

It’s been nearly two years. For a while you were easier to ignore, what with the tawdry details spilling out of all the political press or the memoir of former Edwards aide Andrew Young, who once claimed to be your child’s father. As soon as Elizabeth finally filed for divorce, protecting her children, it was easy to decide you were none of my business.

So why turn to that hour with Oprah and your Hollywood-lovely face? Maybe because as much as I think I could have been Elizabeth, I also know I could have turned out more like you.
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Roman Polanski: The 1970s Are Over, Thank God.

! CML07pride This week’s arrest of Roman Polanski felt weirdly unsurprising. It fit somehow with all the flashbacks to 1969 the media’s treated us to this year — as that TIME cover put it, “From the Moon to Charles Manson.” What will the 1970’s reminiscences be like, one wondered? Maybe like this.

But who really remembers 1977? And what does anyone really remember about Polanski’s arrest?

I actually remember that time pretty vividly. I was fifteen years old, and in some circles at my high school, relationships with older men were all the rage. They meant we were cool, outre, too daring for dating. (Not for me, mind you, though I still hoped to grow into it.) When the tabloids shrieked about Polanski’s statutory-rape conviction, I even blithely wrote an op-ed in my high school journalism class about how such “relationships” shouldn’t be illegal, even if the girl in question was 13 years old.

Of course, like most opinion writers then and now, I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I certainly didn’t know that the girl had told a grand jury that she was given Quaaludes and then raped, that she’d said no and asked to go home, that Polanski pled guilty to a lesser charge and then fled before final sentencing.

My main excuse now for my blitheness then is that I was fifteen, and that it didn’t last long. I’ve never been able to see a Polanski film. and cringed every time he won another award. Knowing the traumatic facts of his life, from the Holocaust to the Manson murders, plays differently with me: it can explain, perhaps, but it’s the opposite of an excuse.

This week, I was floored as news reports kept saying that Polanski had been arrested “for sex with an underage girl,” without explaining what had happened; at the sudden movement to “Free Polanski,” giving the perp what Slate’s Elizabeth Wurtzel calls “a genius exception for rape.” Even Whoopi Goldberg made my old mistake: “Things are different in Europe,” she said, and besides “It’s not rape-rape.”

I have no doubt that Goldberg has since been shown the grand jury testimony, but what’s her excuse for talking before she’d done the research? It’s on TheSmokingGun.com, for godsake.

Or she could have paid attention to Kate Harding on Salon.com’s Broadsheet column. In Reminder: Roman Polanski raped a child,”

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Unstuck in time again, in a good way

It’s been forever, I know. I should have at least updated my other shop’s cheers as Sotomayor became a Justice, especially the soulful essay about how she, a wise Latina herself, felt during that confirmation ceremony. But given the demands of that other shop (go look! Make comments!) and that I’ve been writing the last two chapters of my book simultaneously, I’d made a conscious decision not to blog until I was done. Well, not completely conscious, or else I’d have put up one of those “Gone Fishin”signs.

But last week I finally went to this convention, which I’ve described to friends as “like going to a party where fully half your characters are there to answer the questions you never asked.” Veterans for Peace, founded in the wake of the collapse of the Nuclear Freeze movement, and containing many of the folks I’ve now been writing about for years.It began with a rousing statement from Rep. Donna Edwards (above), who like me isn’t a veteran, but who may as well be: her father was career military, and she remembers when her father was stationed in the Philippines and “if we wanted ice cream, we had to go all the way to  Quezon City” because in military facilities, including the huge Clark Air Force Base,  “all the hangars and freezers were filled” — she choked up — “with the caskets of young men and women who had died in Vietnam.” That told her, she said, “When we ask our young people to sacrifice, it’s our responsibility to get it right.”

I remember when Edwards was “just” the director of the National Network Against Domestic Violence, and we were working together on military issues: that one, like many of the issues jostling in  my brain and this book, was challenge and enriched by the information streaming everywhere last week.

coxMuch was  super-informal, with benefits: e.g. I warned Paul Cox (right), who I’ve known nearly 15 years now, that he was a star of my Vietnam chapter, and as a bonus he let me see and upload some 1969 photos he’d just got hold of.  (They proved what I’d always guessed: he was even more of a babe at age 19 than now.)

ellen_barfieldWRLAfter dropping by the Women’s Caucus — where I also got to check in at the long-pervasive issue of military sexual abuse and homophobia— I got to interview Ellen Barfield (U.S. Army 1977-1981, now on the board of War Resisters League.) Barfield told me about being stationed in 1980 at Camp Humphreys, in South Korea, when her unit and many others were suddenly put on lockdown during the Kwangju Massacre.

barfieldportraitWe were put on high alert; the combat troops were given orders, and up in our unit we started getting riot training.” she told me.  Asked by fellow officers if women should participate, she and other women said hell yeah, we’re soldiers too — but matters never got that far. “That’s as close as I ever came to combat,” Barfield reflects now. “But – it wouldnt have been combat, it would have been killing civilians!” Already a Nation reader who’d been struck by the grinding poverty she saw in Korea, she set about upon leaving the Army to learn more about U.S. involvement in backing up Sung’s repressive government. “People are kept for so long from knowig their history,” she told me.  She learned a lot from members of the then-newborn VFP such as former CIA Asia specialist aideChalmers Johnson and Brian Willson, who’d lost his legs protesting U.S. aid to repressive governments.

plow8bBarfield was soon drawn in by the nuclear-freeze movement, just as Philip Berrigan and the rest of the Plowshares movement were getting arrested  at nuclear plants all over the country: Barfield was soon doing the same at the PANTEX plant near her hometown of Amarillo, Texas, and has been a “soldier for peace” ever since. I learned some of the latter story from a panel on nuclear-weapons issues, where a hikabusha (survivor of Hiroshima) asked through a translator what the  U.S. was doing to teach its children about nuclear weapons.

At panels on The GI Rights Hotline and on active-duty resistance, I learned more about the still-ongoing cases of current resisters such as Agustin Aguayo (above), and of those in exile fighting for asylum, like Andre Shepherd (below), whose German support network includes a woman who’s been doing this work on and off since the Vietnam years.I didn’t think then — but do now as I write this – that if I had stayed at CCCO a mere year longer, I might never have felt able to leave.

Despite the friendliness of the members of Iraq Veterans Against War, though, I was perhaps too shy about the IVAW workshops, fearing they were tired of me already — something I regret and don’t, now.

johnjudgeBecause on my way out of town, I touched base with John Judge — who  has been doing this work literally since I was two years old, including with the G.I. Project of  VFP’s vibrant predecessor. John described for me what he witnessed when  Vietnam Veterans Against the War was  neutralized  by the Red Squad in 1974,  “destroy[ing] the single most visionary and effective peace group in history.”   (I’d already written about these events here, drawn from documentary evidence).

wintersoldier_bannerWhen the RU moved into VVAW’s Chicago headquarters (note the North Vietnamese star at the center of the logo), so did posters and newspapers with appropriately “militant” headlines, such as: VVAW BATTLES V.A. THUGS. A civilian volunteer named John Judge, who watched the transition, was astounded. “Were they really advocating physical violence against medical personnel?”

The transition did, Judge added, have its comic elements: “They came in with these handlebar mustaches and sideburns, like Stalin, and these flannel workshirts.” Romo and his RU peers also told Judge to stop reading a pop history book in his bag, because We only read Marx and Engels here. “I told them, Those books are 150 years old now.” But the new regime also purged any members they deemed not “correct,” which included many who had been working triple time to help the new veterans get what they needed.

The January 1975 issue of THE VETERAN, whose “Vets Fight V.A” article was just before the “Victory to the Indochinese,” was also its last until 1996. The closer RU got to its goals, the more complete the damage to an organization once powerful enough to scare Nixon.

road_from_ar_ramadi_coverThat conversation with John stayed mostly comic/elegiac.  We did touch on the question I’ve since been trying, separately, to sort out: if the same has already begun to happen to IVAW, perhaps under the influence of it outgoing board president Camilo Mejia, the brilliant young scion of Nicaragua’s revolution? I mention the latter fact in full respect; Mejia (with whom I share a literary agent!)  grew up in the fullness of a poet’s revolution, and his father, Carlos, wrote the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s national anthem. His speech last Thursday was compelling, as when he noted that the U.S.’  unfortunate Asian land war had left room for all the democracy movements south of the border.

But my concern was rooted in more than Camilo’s charisma: rumor has it that while I was worrying about ANSWER (Workers’ World Party) and World Can’t Wait (RCP) leeching off the younger group, I was too distracted by their sideshow to see the steady recruitment tactics of this group, only a few years younger than RCP and hipper/younger/jazzier in its presentation.

It’s not a meaningless question: dissenting soldiers are already being marginalized every minute. I hope those rumors are incorrect, but I’m not that optimistic.But my job now is to find out what actually happened, and to tell that story as honestly as I can.

(p.s. Thanks so much to Gerry Condon, whose comment below helped me correct some errors born of hurry and 50 percent humidity. That’s part of what this blog is for.)

For D-Day anniversary: the voice of one who knows (Updated 6/9)

normandyIMG

I first met Knox Martin two years ago. For one of my first Chelsea Now stories, I wrote about his “Venus” mural on 19th Street and the West Side Highway, since obscured by Jean Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue condominium complex. When I learned Martin, still fighting for his new anti-war mural “Killing the Whales,” was a veteran of Omaha Beach, I knew I had to talk to him for the book; we sat in his Washington Heights apartment, where he showed me the clipping at left – which was the only way his mother knew, in 1945, that her younger son was alive.

Below are some highlights of what he told me, which my paper published that August for the 60th anniversary of the war’s end.

You mirror your dad, pioneer aviator William Knox Martin, in that you’ve embraced both art and science.

Yes. My father’s uncle was putting him through art school at the University of Maryland, when he walked out of his house one day and saw this thing flying through the air. Very primitive—the airplane had just been invented in 1906. And he said, “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

I was going to be a scientist, too. I went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, a school known for graduating scientists. I was doing a lot of drawing while at school and was drawing for a WPA project. I was also an avid reader. I was so advanced, I dropped out of the school because I thought, I’m not learning anything here I don’t already know. My father then died, and my uncle asked me to come to Virginia.

You were 19 when Pearl Harbor was hit. Did you know right away that you were going to war?

I knew it was coming: I was an early reader. I read the paper and thought, How can this be, about Hitler? We were at a wealthy family’s house in Scarsdale, N.Y., where the owner was for Hitler. When everyone was out on the lawn, I took every piece of furniture and wrote “Death to Hitler” on the bottom of each one. Then when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, It felt like a deep wound.

I didn’t go in right away. After my father died in 1941, I went to work for the Northwest Railroad, traveled through Virginia and Ohio. In the morning, you’d see for miles upon miles telephone wires glistening with spider webs. And the people were unbelievable! Living in pre–Civil War lives! But then I got into a fight with a supervisor and came home to New York. And everyone was in the service.

Why the Coast Guard?

My stepfather was a commercial fisherman, so we grew up around boats. He’d been in the reserves for years, so they made him head of this boat pool at Ellis Island.

Enest, Knox, Morris Martin (WKM's sons)We did boot training at Manhattan Beach, marching, gas masks, everything. Then we put in for a sub chaser and were sent to Mystic, Conn., to one of the most beautiful ships in the world: the 83-500. It was dark like a submarine, would submerge and turn itself upside down, depth charges underneath and rockets on the bow. We did this “bombing run” practice in Florida. They said there were German submarines in South America, but fortunately we never met one.

Normandy—it was an armada, you said.

We’re crossing the Atlantic and as far as you could see: cruisers, battleships, every kind of craft. The water was just full of ships. And the sky was blackened by planes going over, wave after wave after wave.

The Germans had a fantastic machine gun, and guys were dying everywhere all over the place—the water was littered with bodies. The invasion was threatened by a storm, so they made a harbor by sinking ships—a breakwater, 40-some-odd liberty ships. None of us slept for two nights; we were frazzled and hysterical and crazy. Then came that morning on the beachhead, lit up like the Fourth of July. There was this feeling, of being one organism with one goal, to get up on that coast and crush this thing: tyranny.

I do have to say, one of the greatest things was the atom bomb on Hiroshima. They had this little island—I saw it—where the Japanese fought to the last man. They would have done it; millions would have died. And before the bomb was dropped, the Russians were coming from the North, ready to invade. You would have had a Berlin wall of Tokyo.

You were discovered as an artist in a veterans’ hospital!

The first day when I came back, my mother greeted me—the tears. She was happy to see me but then said, “Your brother Morris, he’s gone. He was killed flying over Japanese waters.” How could this smart, great guy be gone? It wasn’t that I was divorced from reality, but the meaning of things changed, and I began to draw again. A guy came by the hospital on a project to work with “wounded veterans.” His name was Victor Kandel. I showed him what I was doing, and he said, “Hey, you’re a real artist. I would advise you to take private lessons.” So, I went to the Art Students League on the GI Bill.

In those days, everyone there was a Communist. It was my opinion that we were next going to fight the Russians. My uncle was in military intelligence: I knew what Stalin had done—how many mass graves. They would ask me, “Knox, why don’t you join the Party?” I said, “Ask me again, and I’ll see you in a rifle sight.”

Your mural, the one you’re still fighting to get made, was started as a statement about the Vietnam War.

Here’s what happened. The war starts; we’re after the Commies. It was great! Hit the Communists! Then, all of a sudden, on Sunday afternoon, what do you get on the TV? The war. It’s not an abstraction. A girl, a civilian, running from napalm. One guy, another civilian, sitting at a table, a soldier shoots him in the head. We all burst into tears. That’s why there was protest at all.

The young Knox Martin at the Art Students League

After my so-called success with the 19th Street piece [“Venus”] in 1972, I did the first maquette for this [current] mural. I tried to get it done everywhere. I figured I’d done the other one, Geraldo Rivera on the scaffold, and it would be a slam dunk! But—nothing.

You thought you had it this time, after Community Board 2 said yes and Cape Advisers [the developer of Jean Nouvel’s project] agreed to pay for it.

Two years of work, hundreds of people involved, and this one person—Michelle Cohen [of Art in the Schools] said, “This can’t be built now, or in the future.” She said, “It is not the content, not your credits.” What is it, then? Silence.

When I first talked to her, the first words out of her mouth were: “We have no funds.” I came up with the funds, and she said, the building can’t be touched for four years. I said, “The contractors working on the school say now’s the time to do it, not when the park is finished.” She said, “It’s dangerous for students.” I said that it’s on the back wall, away from the students. She said, “You can’t hang from the scaffolding; it’s too dangerous.” I said, “I’ll get a very slim cherry-picker, not me the fat guy.” She said, “Not on DOE property!” I don’t know her real objections, but it’s not over.

Any last words? Overall connections between the artist and the veteran?

After 9/11, maybe we’ll see the world waking up from 5,000 years of religious wars.

This is the infancy of Planet Earth. You don’t join a group, an army. Just be kind, look around you, and you straighten yourself out! You become a light unto yourself.

Look below for the rest of Knox’ D-Day story.