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War Weary

Isolationism is a dirty word, especially when spat by jingoists like former vice president Dick Cheney and Texas governor Rick Perry, for whom any caution regarding the commitment of U.S. forces to foreign conflicts is downright unpatriotic. But I’m hardly alone among Americans in feeling pretty damned isolationist right about now. The dogs of war are barking and biting in Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, Syria and yet again in Iraq, and it seems a live possibility that the United States might become militarily involved in one of those places. Or maybe elsewhere: Iran? Nigeria? Korea? Plus, international tensions are running so high and the threat of regional destabilization is so great, especially in the Middle East, that the thought of some calamitous, multination conflagration has again become imaginable. Meanwhile, the pundits bloviate about Americans’ current “war weariness,” as if this reluctance to see U.S. troops again deployed abroad were merely an emotional response to our country’s drawn-out, costly and ultimately unsatisfactory involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 13 years. In fact, war weariness is a highly rational state of mind—and its genesis, I think, goes back before 2001. Looked at with a clear and unsentimental eye, American military history for the past half century has been an almost unrelieved disaster. This is an appropriate moment to reflect on this unpleasant, perhaps blasphemous truth, since it’s the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which led the United States into a deepening, eventually massive involvement in the war between North and South Vietnam. What exactly happened in the Gulf of Tonkin 50 years ago is even now unclear: Did North Vietnamese patrol boats attack an American warship unprovoked, or was the engagement intentionally engineered by the U.S. Navy? Were there two such attacks (on August 2 and 4), or was the second just a figment of the Johnson administration’s propagandistic imagination? No matter. What’s important is that President Johnson and his cohorts used a trumped-up report of North Vietnamese aggression to push Congress to pass a bill—often referred to as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—giving the executive branch carte blanche to conduct a full-scale war in Southeast Asia. A decade and nearly 60,000 American deaths later, we lost that war. Since then, the overall track record of the U.S. military has been lousy. It’s true that American forces accomplished their objectives in a couple of brief forays against tiny, weak nations (Grenada, 1983; Panama, 1989). And some special operations (killing Osama bin Laden, combating Somali pirates) have been effective. But where the situation has been more complicated or the mission larger, the outcome has usually been either horrible—as in the “peacekeeping” operations in Beirut in 1983 and Mogadishu in the early 1990s—or horribly unresolved. That lack of resolution is tragically obvious in Iraq and Afghanistan, but even the United States’ most “successful” war of the post-Vietnam era—the Gulf War of 1991—had a highly ambiguous result. Yes, the U.S. and its 30-odd allies easily booted Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait, but then the American military demurred—not chasing the Iraqis back to Baghdad and not toppling Saddam’s government. The Bush II administration, even more duplicitous than Johnson’s, had us back in Iraq, again fighting Saddam, a dozen years later. It’s no discredit or dishonor to the men and women who’ve fought America’s recent wars to say that those wars have mostly been ill-conceived, poorly planned misadventures. I’m not a pacifist, and I know that the course and outcome of even the most justifiable war are not certain. I even believe that isolationism is not, finally, a morally or politically tenable position. But I’ll accept that dirty “isolationist” badge for now. I’m not ready for another American war. And I don’t know when I would be. I am—quite rationally—war weary. Photo courtesy of Everett CONNECTS_Gulf-Tonkin-Incident

by James Waller

Aug 1, 2014

Jackie O’s Monumental Legacy

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would have been 85 this past Monday. This benchmark is somewhat of a tempus fugit jolt for us baby boomers who were just kids when the 31-year old first lady began appearing on every magazine cover. Hillary Clinton was and is a bigger player on the global stage, and Betty Ford was a louder voice for social causes, but Mrs. Kennedy left her mark with grace and style that even the ruthlessly social-climbing Nancy Reagan couldn’t approach. The privileged and well-bred socialite, who the press and the rest of the world took the liberty of calling Jackie, dazzled just about everyone the moment her husband took office. As the president quipped on a 1961 state visit to France, “I’m the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” Jackie put her passions and talents to work renovating the White House, transforming the mansion that she once said “looks like it’s been furnished by discount stores” into a showplace for Americana. On Valentine’s Day 1962, millions of television viewers watched her give CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood a tour of staterooms newly fitted out with American antiques and art. We might titter at the whisper-voiced beauty breathlessly exclaiming in her finishing-school elocution, “It just seemed such a shame when we came here to find hardly anything of the past,” but the show was a memorable event. It was the first time most of us had ever seen the interior of the White House or spent time with the alluring and cultured first lady. She could also be delightfully candid off-camera; she once said that first lady sounded like the name of a saddle horse. Mrs. Kennedy’s tour introduced us to the wonders of what came to be known as historic preservation, something of an anathema in that era of superhighways and glass bank towers. New Yorkers experience Jackie’s considerable legacy every time we walk through Grand Central Terminal. By 1968 the landmark, like Pennsylvania Station before it, was slated for demolition to make way for a steel tower by modernist architect Marcel Breuer. Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called Breuer’s scheme a “gargantuan tower of aggressive vulgarity,” and if his Whitney Museum of Art is an example of his power to brutalize a cityscape, she was right. The usually retiring and private Jackie went public with her dismay, claiming that we were letting “our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments.” She and a group of like-minded preservationists took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court, setting a precedent that has saved dozens of other historic structures around the country. So next time you find yourself rushing through that soaring Beaux Arts railroad terminal, slow down long enough to pay homage to this legend who did her part to make sure we don’t “all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.” Photo courtesy of Everett CONNECTS_Jackie-O

by Stephen Brewer

Jul 31, 2014

Through a Glass, Darkly

It hurts me when people who’ve never landed foot in Baltimore casually declare that the city, my hometown, is “so depressing” when seen through the windows of an Amtrak train. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this, or how wounding it always feels—because it’s true. At such moments, I have trouble mumbling a word in the city’s defense. It doesn’t matter how historically important Baltimore is. (Today, by the way, is its 285th birthday.) It doesn’t matter that the crab cakes at Faidley’s Seafood in Baltimore’s Lexington Market are unequaled anywhere on the planet, or that the Orioles have lately been sitting at the top of the American League East standings, or that Johns Hopkins Hospital is probably the best place in the country to go if you have a brain tumor. It doesn’t matter that the Baltimore Museum of Art houses the world’s finest collection of Matisses. Or that Babe Ruth was born there—or Michael Phelps, or Philip Glass, or Thurgood Marshall, or Parker Posey, or Divine. It doesn’t matter that Jeff Koons spent some time at art school there or that Dashiell Hammett learned about detective work by gumshoeing Baltimore’s backstreets. Or that the city gave America the shopping center, the sex-change operation and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It doesn’t even matter that quite a bit of Baltimore—hidden from Amtrak passengers who are just passing through—is lovely and not at all depressing. What matters is the view from the train, and what it means to me. Traveling south by rail, you enter Baltimore from the east side, and what you mostly see is dereliction: endless blocks of broken-down row houses, many abandoned. Though not so visible from the train, the inner city’s west side—where I grew up—is just as blighted, just as appalling. The murder of Baltimore’s working-class neighborhoods was a complicated crime, with multiple perps. And it took a long time to accomplish. (The gifted but unsung Baltimore artist Jacob Glushakow was already documenting the destruction way back in the 1950s.) Sure, parts of the city survived and are even flourishing. But great swathes of east and west Baltimore will never be resurrected—in fact, the city government has simply been leveling them. And so, in those moments when I should be sticking up for the city, I’m actually in mourning for my Baltimore. And as one often is in the presence of a corpse, I am unable to speak. Photo courtesy of Flickr CULTUREMAP_Good-Morning-Baltimore

by James Waller

Jul 30, 2014

Voyaging With Jenny Lewis

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen: Jenny Lewis has a new album, and it’s everything her fans could have hoped for. The Voyager is her first solo album in six years (her most recent release was I’m Having Fun Now, a collabo with her boyfriend, Johnathan Rice), and it follows the breakup of Lewis’s band, Rilo Kiley, the death of her father and a severe bout of insomnia. According to Lewis, the new album “tells that story: the longest night of my life and the journey to finally getting some rest.” The album, produced by Rice, Ryan Adams, Mike Viola and Beck, sounds more like Rilo Kiley than Lewis’s previous two solo efforts—Rabbit Fur Coat and Acid Tongue—which both have an alt-country edge. That’s all well and good, but if you long for a new Rilo Kiley record as much as I do, The Voyager will feel like a welcome return home. In celebration, here are five videos to get you pumped for more Jenny Lewis in your life. Before she was a singer, Lewis was an actor, appearing in several TV shows and films, including The Wizard, with Fred Savage, and this gem from 1989: Troop Beverly Hills, starring Shelley Long. Here’s Lewis and her fellow Wilderness Girls singing and dancing their hearts out in an attempt to sell cookies. Troop Beverly Hills wasn’t the only film that tested Lewis’s singing skills. She gave us a hint of what was to come in Foxfire, which also stars a young Angelina Jolie. Next, here’s a fantastic rendition of Rabbit Fur Coat opener “Run Devil Run,” as performed by Lewis and the Watson Twins on Later…With Jools Holland. Back in November the L.A. Philharmonic got together with many special guests to perform songs from Beck’s book of sheet music, Song Reader. Lewis and her friend Anne Hathaway sang his ballad “Last Night You Were a Dream.” Finally, here’s the official music video for “Just One of the Guys,” from The Voyager. Though the song’s lyrics are fairly serious, the video, starring Hathaway, Kristen Stewart, Brie Larson and Tennessee Thomas, will make you giggle. And covet Lewis’s Care Bear–esque rainbow pantsuit. The Voyager is out today. Photo courtesy of Flickr CONNECTS_Jenny-Lewis

by Emily Burns Morgan

Jul 29, 2014