Iraq and Afghanistan: Told you So!

Is there anything more obnoxious than the phrase "I told you so"? Well, get ready, because I did and I'm going to flaunt it.

Remember when the second Gulf War began back in 2003? At the time, I was teaching at a Western Massachusetts college that isn't UMass or Smith, where I'm found these days. Old G. W. Bush timed his war perfectly. The nation had moved beyond wallowing in post-9/11 sorrow and was ready to exact revenge, even if we had to invent a few enemies. There were all manner of nationalistic threats, militaristic songs on the radio, and bellicose promises of God's own justice floating about. Back then I warned that this sort of jingoism was dangerous. I told you so.

The USA, at the time, had already been at war in Afghanistan since October 2001. I didn't support that war, but at least I understood it. Unlike Iraqis, the Afghani Taliban really was connected to 9/11. I recall a friendly debate with a Quaker friend downtown holding a "War is Not the Answer" sign. "You're right," I said to her, "But we can't stop this one. It's too much to expect Americans to turn the other cheek over 9/11." I added, "We will regret going there." Told you so.

Iraq, though, was a farce and I told you that it was a put-up job. I knew from reading U.N. reports there were no weapons of mass destruction, and any damn fool knew that Bush's insinuation that Saddam was connected to 9/11 was stupid. I engaged those who were that stupid and told that not even Bush believed that. Told you so. I also said that Saddam was a paper tiger and that analogies made to Hitler were really dumb, so yes, I told you so on that one too.

Here's another thing I recall. The school in question decided to hold a rally in support of American troops being sent to Iraq. Some people asked me for my support. I said no. I told them that I wanted a rally for those opposed to the utter madness of sending Americans back to Iraq. I didn't support the first Gulf War and certainly wasn't going to endorse the second one. Numerous members of the community excoriated me as unpatriotic. I told them that the patriotic thing to do was to work toward reversing the decision to send troops to Iraq. I also said, stridently, that the U.S. would not see a repeat of Gulf War I. Un huh. I told you so. 

When President Bush declared, "mission accomplished" on May 1, 2003, my response was "Hah! I don't think so." When war-maddened Sunshine Patriots–often led by third-rate Country singers who've never been any closer to combat than they'd been to a cow–started trashing civil liberties, I announced we'd look back at these episodes in shame. Told you so.

The polls caught up to me in 2010, but I held my tongue. Then an August 1, 2014 AP poll showed that 78% of all Americans now think the war in Afghanistan was a failure; 80% think the same about Iraq. More than half think the situation will get worse in each country. I can't hold it back any longer. If you wonder why no one informed people that things weren't going to go well, my response: I told you so.

Sick of hearing this yet? Imagine how pleasant it was when I was being trashed back in 2003-04. I earned the right to be smug because at least I told you so.


Life Itself Documentary Superior to Memoir

Directed by Steve James
Magnolia Pictures, 116 minutes, R (language, brief nudity)
* * * *

Life Itself is a documentary film based on the memoir of film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013), a man who did much to bridge the gap between serious criticism, fun, and mainstream tastes. To his detractors, Ebert and longtime TV partner Gene Siskel were showboats who pandered to the public and dumbed down the movies, but that’s not the way Ebert’s champions see it. Among those who credit Ebert with lifting them from obscurity are Ramin Bahrani, Werner Hertzog, Errol Morris, and Martin Scorsese. Indeed, such is the critic's greatest power. The hoi polloi is predisposed to view any manner of pap and crap if it has a boffo box office star or big-money advertising hype behind it. What a good critic can do is alert the public of treasures lingering in obscurity.

Roger Ebert was a very, very good critic. As the film reveals, his talent emerged early. The opening of a piece Ebert wrote on the 1964 death of civil rights workers in Mississippi for the University of Illinois student paper is the most eloquent I’ve ever heard on this American tragedy. In 1975, Ebert was awarded the very first Pulitzer Prize ever given to a film critic and with good reason–few have ever written about nuanced things with Ebert’s approachable grace.  It also came easy; Ebert could knock off a publishable review in less than a half hour.

Director Steve James–perhaps best known for Hoop Dreams–gives us a warts-and-all look at Ebert, whom we first meet shortly before his death from complications related to the thyroid cancer from which he suffered the last decade of his life. Ebert wanted his demise to be documented, in part because of the secrecy with which Siskel masked his own cancer struggles before passing away in 1999. Watching Ebert isn’t for the squeamish. He had no jaw, as in none. In his final years, his unsupported bottom lip drooped down about four inches and one could see straight through his mouth to his neck. He could neither eat nor drink by mouth and needed to be suctioned several times per day, a grueling process also shown on film.

Ebert was a great writer, but blog readers will recall that I did not think his memoir was a great book. Its structure was uneven, the chronology was disjointed, and there were few logical connections in the book. James’ script upstages the memoir by revealing many of the missing links. It’s also a needed corrective to the near deification of Ebert that emerged in his later years. James fashioned order from Ebert’s hodgepodge memories and gives us enough chronological narrative to give those vignettes context. What emerges is a portrait of a complex man, at once mercurial and brilliant. Like other Chicago icons–Mike Ditka, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel–he wasn’t a native, rather a Champagne-Urbana lad who landed in the city determined to reinvent himself. And so he did, but in bad ways as well as good. James spent considerable time (with Ebert’s full cooperation) plumbing Ebert’s struggles with alcoholism.

He also shows a few of Ebert’s other unflattering traits, such as his obsession with large female breasts and his equally outsized ego. Ebert’s one movie script was for a Russ Meyer boobaganza film and Ebert stubbornly defended the brilliance of both the script and Meyer until his death–judgments hardly anyone else shares. His prickliness also led to epic battles with rival and TV co-host (from 1975-1990) Gene Siskel, who was one of the few who could match Ebert’s ego and fierce intellect. Eventually the two titans became close friends, though their relationship was never easy, as Siskel’s widow Marlene reveals.

The most likable character in this documentary is Ebert’s widow, Chaz, the African-American lawyer he married in 1992. (Ebert also briefly dated Oprah Winfrey.) Chaz was the love of his life, his partner in numerous ventures, and his literal voice for the last few years of his life. She has been active in maintaining the film festival Ebert started (which is oddly omitted from the film).

Documentaries about complicated people inevitably leave us wanting. We learn far more of Ebert’s quarrels with Siskel than of their reconciliation and friendship. The dispute that led both to bolt from Sneak Previews to Disney in 1982 flies by too fast and and Ebert’s blended family–especially granddaughter Raven– is so delightful we wish James had lingered on it for a bit longer. We find out what other critics think of Ebert, but not what he thought of them. Then we remember: Ebert was complex and there’s just so much that can be said in a few hours. A hearty thumbs-up to Life Itself.  Rob Weir


Spies to Cuba: The Real Obama Scandal

He said it, but he sure as hell didn't mean it!
Still have stars in your eyes for Barack Obama? If so, get thee to an ophthalmologist. Forget the crazy-as-a-loon stuff: Obama's birth certificate, the Obama-is-a-Muslim madness, the Benghazi bullshit… Here's one you can and should pin on him: beginning in 2009, Obama authorized (not so) covert activities in Cuba. Using the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as a front, Obama sent poorly trained young folks from Costa Rica, Peru, and Venezuela into Cuba to spy, foment rebellion, and set up propaganda arms (like a Cuban Twitter account).

Of course it all unraveled. You don't sent boys to do the jobs of trained spooks. Must I say it again? The Castro/Communism/Cuba paranoia is way past its sell-by date. Everything about the USAID scandal reeks of ineptitude of the highest magnitude. When I voted for Obama in 2008, I had high hopes that an intelligent man would take the Oval Office. Guess I was wrong.

Forget impeachment–no U.S. laws were violated–but I wonder how Obama could keep a straight face when collecting his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. That one's going to go into the books as the biggest Nobel farce since Henry Kissinger's.

Let's not sugarcoat this–the Cuba spy operation is very, very bad. In 1961, President Kennedy authorized the Bay of Pigs operation–a complete fiasco in which sixty-eight erstwhile liberators of Cuba died. It too was stupid and Kenney should have never green-lighted it. He at least had the excuse that it made some 'sense' in the Cold War era and it was plan he inherited from Eisenhower. Obama has no such excuse, and there may well be loss of life associated with Obama's arrogance. Now that the lid has been blown off a plan involving USAID, every Western humanitarian worker, exchange student, missionary, and foreign-based scholar is at risk. He's made the "spy" tag plausible for every thug looking to seize Western hostages. Congratulations, Mr. President, you've just placed Doctors without Borders physicians, Fulbright scholars, Peace Corps volunteers, legitimate USAID workers, Red Cross personnel, Oxfam activists, and religious charity staff in jeopardy.

Obama's damage to US ideals isn't the worst in recent memory, but his humanitarian credentials have been shredded. Here's my list of the six worst presidential misadventures since 1960 in order of egregiousness:

            1. Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964): President Johnson withheld critical information from Congress, which never asked for the details. This marked America's entry into Vietnam combat operations, which did not end until 1973. It cost 58,000 American lives and untold numbers in Vietnam.

            2. Invented Weapons of Mass Destruction (2001-present): George W. Bush's inept reading (or lie–take your pick) of what Saddam Hussein did not hold. This led to the Gulf War in 2003, Saddam Hussein's removal from power, and Iraq's descent into hell. We are still paying for this war, literally and metaphorically. 4,489 Americans have died there and the current price tag is over $1.57 trillion dollars. Iraq's costs are incalculable. Bush should have been impeached.

            3. Watergate (1972-74): Nixon's attempt to trash the U.S. Constitution resulted in two years of national angst–at a time in which nothing could get done to head off hyperinflation, deindustrialization, or the energy crisis. Nixon was rightly impeached.

            4. Iran Contra (1985-87): What a tin soldier and colossal liar Reagan was! As Oliver North later revealed, Reagan was just playing dumb during the hearings–he knew all along about the illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contras and personally authorized weapons' sales to Iran. Between Reagan and Bush II, the US effectively made arch-enemy Iran the region's superpower. It's a minor injustice that Bush wasn't impeached; it's a major miscarriage of justice that Reagan wasn't. His contempt for the rule of law matched Nixon's.

            5. Obama's Cuban spying.

            6. Bay of Pigs. This one ranks under Obama's scam/scheme because at least those involved knew they were being placed in harm's way.

            Dishonorable Mention: Nixon's "secret bombing" of Cambodia (1969-70); the CIA's involvement in overthrowing Allende (1973—Nixon again); Gulf War I (1990-91–George H. Bush's attempt to make the world safe for monarchy); deregulation under Reagan/Bush (1981-93–giving America's wealth to pirates). Special Blockhead Awards: US Congress for trying to impeach Clinton in 1998 and Clinton for being such an ass he encouraged it.

So if you look at the above list, Obama's only the fifth biggest idiot in the past fifty years. Is that what you thought you were getting in 2008? The Democrats are headed for a major fall in November and odds are against them for holding the White House in 2016. Say goodbye to what's left of the Great Society after that. Guess whose fault that will be? Thanks for nothing, Barack.