Sunday, May 27, 2018

Six Seconds

For Memorial Day . . . 

Excerpt from speech by Lt Gen John Kelly on November 13, 2010:

Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, left, and Cpl. Jonathan Yale were killed April 22, 2008, by a suicide bomber in Ramadi, Iraq.
(Corporals Jordan and Yale)

[O]n April 22, 2008, two Marine infantry battalions, 1/9 “The Walking Dead,” and 2/8, were switching out in Ramadi. One battalion was in the closing days of its deployment, the other just starting its seven-month combat tour. Two Marines, Cpl. Jonathan Yale and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, 22 and 20 respectively, one from each battalion, were assuming the watch at the entrance gate of an outpost that contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines.

The same ramshackle building was also home to 100 Iraqi police, our allies in the fight against terrorists in Ramadi – known at the time as the most dangerous city on earth, and owned by al-Qaeda.
Yale was a dirt-poor mixed-race kid from Virginia, with a wife, a mother and a sister, who all lived with him and he supported. He did this on a yearly salary of less than $23,000. Haerter, on the other hand, was a middle-class white kid from Long Island. They were from two completely different worlds. Had they not joined the Marines, they would never have met each other, or understood that multiple Americas exist simultaneously, depending on one’s race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, education level, economic status, or where you might have been born. But they were Marines, combat Marines, forged in the same crucible, and because of this bond they were brothers as close – or closer – than if they were born of the same woman. The mission orders they received from their sergeant squad leader, I’m sure, went something like this: “OK, take charge of this post and let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass. You clear?” I’m also sure Yale and Haerter rolled their eyes and said, in unison, something like, “Yes, sergeant,” with just enough attitude that made the point, without saying the words, “No kidding, sweetheart. We know what we’re doing.” They then relieved two other Marines on watch and took up their post at the entry-control point of Joint Security Station Nasser, in the Sophia section of Ramadi, al Anbar, Iraq.

A few minutes later, a large blue truck turned down the alleyway – perhaps 60 to 70 yards in length – and sped its way through the serpentine concrete Jersey walls. The truck stopped just short of where the two were posted and detonated, killing them both. Twenty-four brick masonry houses were damaged or destroyed. A mosque 100 yards away collapsed. The truck’s engine came to rest 200 yards away, knocking down most of a house down before it stopped. Our explosive experts reckoned the blast was caused by 2,000 pounds of explosive.

Because these two young infantrymen didn’t have it in their DNA to run from danger, they saved 150 of their Iraqi and American brothers in arms. When I read the situation report a few hours after it happened, I called the regimental commander for details. Something about this struck me as different. We expect Marines, regardless of rank or MOS, to stand their ground and do their duty, and even die in the process, if that is what the mission takes. But this just seemed different.

The regimental commander had just returned from the site, and he agreed, but reported that there were no American witnesses to the event – just Iraqi police. If there was any chance of finding out what actually happened, and then to decorate the two Marines to acknowledge their bravery, I’d have to do it, because a combat award requires two eyewitnesses, and we figured the bureaucrats back in Washington would never buy Iraqi statements. If it had any chance at all, it had to come under the signature of a general officer. I traveled to Ramadi the next day and spoke individually to a half-dozen Iraqi police, all of whom told the same story. They all said, “We knew immediately what was going on as soon as the two Marines began firing.” The Iraqi police related that some of them also fired, and then, to a man, ran for safety just prior to the explosion. All survived. Many were injured, some seriously. One of the Iraqis elaborated, and with tears welling up, said, “They’d run like any normal man would to save his life. ”What he didn’t know until then, and what he learned that very instant, was that Marines are not normal. Choking past the emotion, he said, “Sir, in the name of God, no sane man would have stood there and done what they did. They saved us all.” 

What we didn’t know at the time, and only learned after I submitted both Yale and Haerter for posthumous Navy Crosses, was that one of our security cameras recorded some of the attack. It happened exactly as the Iraqis described it. It took exactly six seconds from when the truck entered the alley until it detonated. You can watch the last six seconds of their young lives. I suppose it took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about what was going on once the truck came into their view at the far end of the alley. No time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should do. Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: “Let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.” It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time, the truck was halfway through the barriers and gaining speed.

Here the recording shows a number of Iraqi police, some of whom had fired their AKs, now scattering like the normal and rational men they were, some running right past the Marines, who had three seconds left to live. For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines firing their weapons nonstop. The truck’s windshield explodes into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tear into the body of the son of a bitch trying to get past them to kill their brothers – American and Iraqi – bedded down in the barracks, totally unaware that their lives at that moment depended entirely on two Marines standing their ground. Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder-width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could. They had only one second left to live, and I think they knew. The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God. Six seconds. Not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag, or about their lives or their deaths, but more than enough time for two very brave young men to do their duty.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Brendan's Death Song

A little change of pace from the usual Red Hot Chili Peppers style, Brendan's Death Song, from their 2011 album I'm With You, is about Brendan Mullen, a long time friend of the band who gave vocalist Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea their first break in 1983.  Brendan was managing an LA club at the time, liked their demo tape, and booked them as an opening act.

Mullen remained friends with the band over the years and was in the midst of working on a documentary on the Chili Peppers when he died suddenly from a stroke in October 2009, which was also the day the band began work on I'm With You.  On receiving news of Mullen's passing, the band started jamming and eventually came up with this song.

At about the 2:50 mark of the video you can see a photo of Brendan on the hat of one of the mourners.  The lyrics mention "Kateri", a reference to Kateri Butler, Brendan's companion the last sixteen years of his life.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Too Many Tears

I first saw Buddy Guy perform at the Fillmore East in the fall of 1968.  There he was coming down the aisle at the Fillmore playing the guitar behind his back.  He remains one of the great showmen of the classic blues.

Too Many Tears is from the 72 year old Guy's 2009 album, which features many fine collaborations but this tune is the standout.  On my first listening the female vocalist brought me up short; what a great voice, but who was it?  I went to the tiny print on the CD and discovered it was Susan Tedeschi of whom I'd never heard.  Too Many Tears made me a fan and I've since enjoyed many of her recordings, both solo and with her husband, the amazing slide guitarist, Derek Trucks.

That's Derek playing slide on this cut.  Enjoy. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Death Of Stalin

How do you make a comedy featuring a man who murdered millions of people with the aid of his willing accomplices?  By making it a very dark comedy.  There are some laugh out loud moments but most of its funniest moments also prompt flickers of horror.  The Death of Stalin manages to remind one of the deaths of millions but avoids lingering on the crushing reality in an effort to focus on the how ridiculous it all was.  It is also not a political film, portraying Stalin's reign in personal, not ideological terms, though for those who know the full history of those terrible times it is a searing indictment of communism.

Verdict of History:  A very good film.  It often feels like an episode of The Sopranos, featuring Stalin's Politburo as Tony's made Mafia men.  Outstanding casting, particularly Simon Russell Beale as the cynical and loathsome Laventri Beria, Jason Isaacs as World War Two hero Marshall Zhukov, and Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, underestimated as a clownish peasant by his colleagues but who would ultimately triumph over them all.

Many of the most absurd scenes in the film are historically accurate, or at least, mostly accurate.

Stalin was left to lay unattended on the floor for hour after his stroke, because even though the guards outside his room heard him fall to the ground they were too scared to violate his instructions to not enter the room.

Once discovered, the still living dictator lay for several more hours in a puddle of his own urine as terrified Politburo members debated over what to do next.

After the daily drunken evenings at Stalin's dacha outside Moscow, Khrushchev really did come home and dictate to his wife what jokes Stalin liked and disliked so he could review the notes in the morning when he was sober.

Molotov (played by Michael Palin) really did denounce his own wife when Stalin ordered his arrest and Beria really did release her after Stalin's death.

The opening scene in which Stalin wants a recording of a Moscow orchestra recital, inducing panic on the part of the producers really happened.

Laventri Beria was truly as loathsome as portrayed, and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) as stupid.

The Death of Stalin has been banned in Putin's Russia.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

If I Were A Rich Man

Fiddler on the Roof had its Broadway opening on September 22, 1964 starring the incomparable Zero Mostel as Teyve the milkman in a play based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, set in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia during the first decade of the 20th century.  Fiddler ran for a then-record 3,242 performances and Zero's performance set the template for every future Tevye.

For Mostel, Fiddler was his third, and biggest, theater success of the 1960's, beginning with Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play Rhinoceros in 1961, followed by A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962.  In a reversal of the plot surrounding Mostel's role as a failing Broadway producer in Mel Brooks' 1968 debut film, The Producers, investors in Fiddler made $1,574 for every dollar invested.

My parents took me to see Fiddler when Zero was still in it and I still remember the event (which I believe was mandatory for every Jewish family in the New York metropolitan area because so many of our families emigrated from that part of Russia amidst the turmoil of those times).  There is nothing on YouTube from the original Broadway cast but I found this from his appearance at the Tony Awards show in June 1965.  You can see for yourself what a force of nature Zero was onstage.  It's also the reason he was not cast in the film version of Fiddler.  The director felt that anytime Mostel was onscreen he would draw all the attention to himself to the detriment of the other performers.

Fiddler on the Roof continues to be performed around the world.  It is particularly popular in Japan which at first glance seems odd but the author of a recent article in Tablet explains:
Fiddler opens with a song celebrating tradition, but the bulk of the show is about the difficulty of maintaining those traditions—and, perhaps, the futility of trying—in the face of a modernizing culture. And it ends with the family, filled with a mix of hope and fear, taking off for whole new world(s) where the old rules don’t apply and the new rules, if there are any, are not yet clear.

So maybe Fiddler resonates in Tokyo not only because it’s a family drama about fathers and daughters, or a universal tale about modernity, but because Japanese history does, in fact, include a chapter about dislocation from a sepia-toned “old world” and an uncertain journey to a “new world” where the traditional rules no longer applied. Tevye and his daughters had to leave Anatevka and even move across an ocean to find their new world. The Japanese stayed put, but the new world came to them just as surely, with the same uncertain mix of hope and fear.