Sunday, December 14, 2014

WHAT PRICE DEMOCRACY?



By Arthur H. Gunther III
Just months after World War II ended in August 1945, the Nuremberg trials began with impressive agreement among four of the Allied nations that those who commit atrocities in war are to be held accountable, that “following orders” is no excuse. Pity that such unanimity against horror -- war is the ultimate “atrocity” -- did not prevent the world conflict in the first place, the one that came after World War I, “the war to end all wars,” but such is the politics, often of convenience, among countries. Yet it can be said the Nuremberg trials of the Axis Powers participants were a moral watershed. Pity, again, though -- and again for the rationale of “convenience” -- that the 1945 moral purpose is now tainted by the U.S. in its deliberate sanctioning of sophisticated torture by CIA operatives and associates in the name of preventing terrorism.
That the operatives are also free of any crime since they were “following orders” is an insult to those men and women, children, Holocaust victims and civilians who lost their lives or suffered physical and emotional trauma during World War II. That horrible time owed surviving humanity a higher moral plain, and the Nuremberg trials set the stage. Pity, again, that a key actor left the stage and marched into the same shadows of rationalization to justify the end, by whatever means. Civilization is not civilized if such thinking endures. And torture is just that, be it by megalomaniacs or those “defending” democracy. There is no democracy if it is tainted.
A key principle at Nuremberg was that following orders -- or even interpreting orders that results in torture and depravity --  does not wash. The Nazis were guilty of ordering, encouraging, enabling “war crimes,” or as the charter establishing the “International Military Tribunal” stated in part: “War Crimes: namely ... murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war ... .”
Following that reasoning, torture, which surely includes water-boarding, threats to kill detainees’ relatives and mock executions, all cited in the recent Senate report on CIA operations involving suspected terrorists since 9/11, is inhumane, is criminal.
While this is not new controversy -- the U.S. Justice Department had investigated for some years and said it had insufficient evidence to convict anyone -- a democracy employing such interrogation is guilty of ignoring human rights in the name of protecting same, a moral impossibility.
There will be some -- many, perhaps, who conclude that avoiding future mass attacks on this soil justifies obtaining information no matter the means. Others, perhaps purists, including myself, contend that either you are a democracy and adhere to its humane principles or you are not. I do not want my flag saved by mock executions or shocking someone standing in water. I would rather fight -- even die -- to save that flag, with other “citizen soldiers.” Even die but keeping values intact to the finish.
To what end, this torture? The information gained is necessarily suspect given the way it was obtained.  And the $300 million or so spent in the CIA interrogations was squandered while Detroit went bankrupt, while our middle class was (is) losing jobs,  when there was so much need to assist Americans.
The Founding Fathers believed  in universal rights,  in human dignity, that the government later defined by Lincoln as that “of the people, for the people, by the people” must be directed by the people, that it cannot behave as it pleases. Our recent government has done just that, and with utter shame. What price democracy?
    The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, December 8, 2014

HUMANITY IN WAR


By Arthur H. Gunther III
     In war, the human story trumps the “sturm und drang,” the storm and stress played out by the good guys vs. the bad guys. If not for the human element, each side might just as well blow up the other, for war is never the solution. It is inhumane.
      And so it was about 70 years ago, just before a war-weary world readied as best it could for Christmas and Hanukkah or had already observed holidays of peace amidst chaos, that the last major German offensive of the War, “Unternehmen Herbstnebel,” the Ardennes campaign, now so famously called the “Battle of the Bulge, began. There would be many stories of humanity, reported and not, in the largest sustained fight on the western front, which continued for three weeks with much life lost and thousands of casualties. 
    Before the Bulge and after, a related American push to secure the Hurtgen Forest on the Belgian-German border also raged with exceptionally deep loss for a campaign later criticized as tactically unnecessary. It would prove to be the longest fight between U.S. and German forces in World War II.
     It was in the Hurtgen where an exceptionally reaffirming story of sacrificing humanity unfolded. There, on Nov. 12, 1944, German Leutnant Friedrich Lengfeld, 23, died of severe wounds sustained while attempting to pull an American soldier out of a minefield. A plaque was set in the Huertgen military cemetery, proclaiming in both German and English: “Here in the Hürtgen Forest, on Nov. 12, 1944, Lt. Friedrich Lengfeld, a German officer, gave his life while trying to save the life of an American soldier lying severely wounded in the 'Wilde Sau' minefield and appealing for medical aid." The lieutenant’s memorial is the only known one for a German soldier placed by opponents in a German military cemetery.
     That an act of such compassion and bravery by Lt. Lengfeld and then, even with the great horror of the Bulge and the terror of the Hurtgen (where artillery fragments rained down on troops), that one enemy would honor the other side, reveals once again that war can never kill God’s purpose, which is, of course, humanity.
    The writer is a retired newspaperman whose Uncle, Winfield Gunther, lost three fingers to Hurtgen artillery “rain” on Feb. 10, 1945, his son’s birthday. This essay may be reproduced.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

THANKSGIVING


   By Arthur H.Gunther III
ahgunther@yahoo.com
Thanksgiving -- the traditional American one -- and any gathering in any nation among any people at any time that seeks to express individual and community gratefulness for their bounty, however small, is affirmation that we do not live by bread alone. That we can celebrate such awareness by breaking bread is further proof of thanks.
     When I was a child, my family’s Thanksgiving was simple and as expected in a blue-collar household where Thursday’s holiday was followed by Friday’s work: The day had special significance. That I had just one surviving set of grandparents made the moment even more of an anchor.
     The day in Spring Valley, N.Y., at my grandparents’ home, offered the fine, deep smell of slow-cooking turkey, though I never ate that, preferring American cheese, I am afraid. But I enjoyed cranberry sauce, without which there would have been no Thanksgiving, and my Nana’s well-mashed potatoes, which tasted just right, particularly so on this occasion.
     The windows, single pane, were clouded by condensed water, for the house was very warm with the oven and the people. My brother and I made circles on the glass and looked up and down the quiet streets of Summit and Ternure, just as my father and his brother had done years before.
     After the main course, there would be the homemade apple pie and a cake from Tancos Bakery downtown that my father had picked out for the day. Usually a lemon variety.
     The dessert would come a bit later, for dishes had to be cleared and hand washed, and our stomachs were full anyway. I spent the time waiting by getting awfully comfortable in my gramps’ recliner, next to a big standard floor lamp with a bright, 100-watt bulb. The stack of Saturday Evening Post magazines awaited, and I usually got through three.
     Dessert came, and while the adults had their usual conversation, I went back to the chair cocoon, happy that I had experienced yet another Thanksgiving in that wonderful 1914 house, in a very small town where my dad grew up, where I went to school, walked to school, where I had friends and where adult cares, challenges and the highs and lows and promise of all that were yet far off.
    Like I said, a traditional Thanksgiving, for no matter how you celebrate the day or something like it, no matter where you are, what happened on your “thanksgiving,” especially as a child, if you were so fortunate, eventually makes the man, the woman of you.
     But, first, it gave you precious childhood memory.
    The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@yahoo.com
This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, November 10, 2014

'THE WAR TO END ALL WARS' AT 100 YEARS


By Arthur H. Gunther III

If, at the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of each year, from 1918 on when “The War to End All Wars” was over, you would toll a bell 20 times a minute for the 37,468,904 total in casualties, it would take more than 30,000 years to somberly do so.
Today, on the 100th anniversary of Great Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, and also the date that the United States said it would not get involved, but eventually did, the dead, the wounded, those with “shell shock” must not be recalled simply as numbers. Why didn’t this First World War prevent all others?
In one of the costliest battles of the 1914-1918 conflict, the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, the British suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day. When it was all over and just six miles gained for the Brits, there were 1,219,000 dead and wounded. And that does not include the emotionally afflicted, people who in World War II we would term suffering from “battle fatigue” and now, as the wars continue, “post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
War does not end because greed is always with us, greed of nations, individuals, the military-industrial complex that profits so well. War does not end because of power and false pride, nations who are really little children taking affront in what begins as a playground insult and escalates into utter horror, as happened when the dominoes toppled in 1914. The entangling alliances of that time over Belgian neutrality and world trade, culture, ethnicity, old hatreds, were the excuses to rally patriotism. Soon enough, the voices of the eager volunteers became the shrill cries of the brave as they went over the top, and as quickly, the deep stillness of the forever graveyard.
War is folly, and in the end it creates little that could not have been gained by compromise and common sense, long before madmen such as Hitler have a foothold that can only be broken by war.
In “All Quiet On the Western Front,” the famous post-war novel by  Erich Maria Remarque,  which details his fellow German soldiers' physical and mental harm during the war and  the isolation and detachment from ordinary life when back home,  the character “Kropp” says, “"It's queer, when one thinks about it ... we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who's in the right?”
     And, “We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from the true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left.”
     Now, 100 years later, the long trenches of the Marne, Passchendale, Verdun, so many other battlefields, still echo in history with their artillery fire, machine guns, death and madness, for war never disappears. The great still is indeed today’s all quiet on the western front, 2014, but the battles are stirring elsewhere.
      On this centennial of the beginning of a war meant to end it all, and, coincidentally the half-century mark of America’s accelerated effort in Vietnam, a nation with whom we now trade, the bells must continue to toll, for nations are ruled by men, too often by the folly of such.
    As in “All Quiet ...”:  “While they (the pontificating teachers and politicos) continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one's country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.”
    The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.


Monday, November 3, 2014

TWO WHO MATTERED MUCH


By Arthur H. Gunther III
     Many personalities and almost that number in characters passed through my Editorial Page desk at the old Journal-News in Nyack, N.Y., 1978-2006. Like a farmer pleased with a bumper crop, I was always provided with a fertile field of human emotion, accomplishment, sadness and elation for commentary. To a man, to a woman, to a child, all these people’s  stories made you feel humble, for the tales of the human world are life itself, no matter the age, place or time.
      So many unknown among us achieve without notice. So many suffer from this ailment or weight upon shoulders but get the job done. And so many do good, paying their own relative fortunes of whatever sort forward. Their stories are largely left untold.
     Editorial pages, which may soon no longer exist, the victims of cost management in the shrinking print media, traditionally have heralded the extraordinary who die in office, who have served the people. But the journalist writing those pieces, him(her)self usually a bit jaded by the hoi polloi and more attuned to the common folk, really chew better on testimonials for the ordinary achiever whose praise would otherwise be unsung.
     And, so, we come this day to two such people, presented here in appreciation and respect, not on an editorial page but at least in words. While both were Rockland County, N.Y., people upon death, each could have lived anywhere in the world for their kind are in every community.
     My first person of note is Albon Platt Man IV of Palisades, a community volunteer and peace activist for most of his 95 years. Albon was a most articulate fellow, precise in speech and manner, and a stickler for correct grammar and word usage. Yet his kindly ways nudged his criticism rather than applying it hammer-like. He spent a total of 45 years in two publishing and editing jobs. 
     He was a local historian who helped publish books for the Historical Society of Rockland. He volunteered in many community ways, including at a home for the developmentally disabled.
     Admiration for Albon Man comes easily, but for me it is anchored by his sacrifice for his beliefs. As a young man and then as a retiree, he opposed war, and he walked the talk by serving three years in prison for refusing induction into the U.S. Army. 
     When I was asked by the Historical Society to collect 100 of my newspaper essays and Albon and the late Associated Press writer Jules Loh edited them into a book, Albon asked me which was my favorite. “A fraternity of life and death,” I said, which was commentary on the World War II film, “Saving Private Ryan.” Though a pacifist, Albon, a man of dignity and great empathy, also understood “the fraternity of battle death,” of brothers in war but beyond it. In a way, I was talking about the ultimate peace. Albon knew. It is both the warrior and the peace-maker who can end all war and instead concentrate on the good the world can offer.
     Albon Man contributed much in his own ways. I have rarely met such a principled, selfless person.
     My second person of note is Jean Kathleen Sammes Gardner, a longtime Nyack resident who was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England (what a wonderfully sounding location). “Top girl” at Reigate County School, Jean volunteered in the London Civil Defense Corps, helping manage underground subway stations filled with residents during the Nazi “Blitz” bombings. Later she was in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force where she was a radar reader in top-secret work. She met her husband, Harvey C. Gardner, an American, and moved to Nyack in 1953.
     Jean was an ardent community activist, fighting particularly for Rockland parkland and the Hudson River.
     Our paths met at a stop sign of sorts in the later 1990s when I editorialized that Nyack might remove some of the large oak trees in upper Memorial Park so that the Hudson could be better seen and more directly linked to the village proper.
     Jean, in a reply worthy of Winston Churchill’s bulldog stance against the Axis, quickly set me right. The trees had been there since just after World War I, when they were planted, each one of them, in memory of the men fallen in that “War to End All Wars.”
    I felt humbled. I felt ashamed. I vowed to research better. And I still stand up straight when I hear Jean Gardner’s name, as if a schoolboy chastened in proper fashion.
     What gifts we have on this earth when we meet such people as Albon Man and Jean Gardner.
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.
     

Monday, October 20, 2014

RETURNING TO EARTH


By Arthur H. Gunther III
      Whether it is worry about family finances, or county government, the state of the nation or the world, the realization that we are but specks in time can put things in perspective. Quickly, the headache that comes with self-absorption is gone, and life can exist in the greater scope of existence.   
     No, this is not day-dreaming gone wild or too much pre-bedtime wine but the effects of the Internet, that remarkable portal to information, which has shrunk the world and perhaps the universe, too. Another way of expanding our limited outlook.
     Working the Net recently, a teaser appeared on a story about the NASA's onboard Mars rover Curiosity Mastcam recording of what looks like a petroglyph, the stick figure which has appeared since cave days all over the world. And now on a planet far away.     
     Of course, it could be coincidence that the rock on Mars has an indentation which  simply looks like a petroglyph, but is it also coincidence that stick figures from continent to continent, thousands of years apart, are so very similar? 
     In those times, despite what 2014 smart phone users might believe, there was no Internet to spread the message, to promote copy-catting.  Not even newspapers or books or TV. No Facebook or Twitter.
     So, was civilization more advanced than now? Or were we (are we still) visited by others not of this world, who left (leave) their mark? Or did we advance and then horribly put the world into a dark age from which we are still emerging, rebuilding technological greatness? 
     Ah, perspective. It can bring you back to earth. Or is it the other way around?
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

A POLICE OFFICER'S RESPONSE


 On Aug. 18, I offered an essay, "It's a two-way street," which argued that policing is a super tough job, and the officers deserve respect while being trained to know the community. It also  expressed concern about using military equipment and what I described as para-military clothing. Joe Badalamente, a retired New York City police officer, writes an articulate response in my space today.
 
By JOE BADALAMENTE
Thank you for your recent column about the police. Although I have been retired for nine years, your words struck a chord. Even after all that time, I still feel very much a part of “the police” in general, and the NYPD, specifically.
I spent twenty years with the NYPD, from 1985 to 2005. My field training took place in Brooklyn before I was transferred to the Central Park Precinct in July '85, a little more than a month prior to the murder of Jennifer Levin by Robert Chambers.
Although I agree with the spirit of your argument, and again, very much appreciate any support of police, I must take issue with a couple of points. Regarding salaries, I'm not sure how you define the Northeast, but I'm pretty sure outside of the immediate New York metro area, cops aren’t pulling down anywhere near Orangetown and Clarkstown money. I'm currently working as a financial investigator at a large bank, and my 29-year-old team lead is making roughly 125k after only two years, with only an undergraduate degree from SUNY. A 20-year veteran of the NYPD at the rank of Police Officer can’t come close to this without putting in a ton of overtime; not to mention cops in hundreds of small towns from  Boston to DC. It seems living in places such as Rockland, Westchester, Bergen, Nassau and Suffolk counties skew the public's perception of police salaries.
Perception is a great lead in for my second point: Your opinion of cop’s uniforms. In 1995, the once and future NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton brought back the department’s original dark blue uniform shirts and issued us nine-millimeter handguns. The confidence that one-two punch instilled in the rank and file was exponential. We no longer looked like bus drivers (not that I have anything against them!), nor felt so outgunned. The nine millimeter’s 16-round capacity afforded us a better chance in any potential gun battle -- reloading a fresh magazine into a semi-automatic weapon takes much less time than fumbling with a speed loader, the “fast” way to reload a revolver. Numerous cops over the years and around the world have been killed while reloading during firefights.
As for the combat-style boots you mentioned, on patrol, support is the most important thing, whether trying to catch a perp or fighting with one. As for uniform pants, I’ve never seen camouflage on a city or Rockland cop, so I can’t speak to that. However, the paratrooper/cargo type pants are utilitarian, containing many more pockets than standard uniform trousers. Having spent most of my career on patrol, pockets are important; it is quite difficult to reach into the front pockets of regular uniform trousers while wearing a gun belt; the cargo-style pants’ leg pockets come in very handy for the average patrol officer to stuff their memo book, extra pens, flashlight or what have you. (I know it’s leading with my chin to those who think all cops are corrupt to go on about the importance of pockets for police, but I’ll take that chance!)
The “demilitarization” of the police is something I keep hearing and reading in wake of Ferguson. Yet, at least in the NYPD, it is the Emergency Services Unit that utilizes such equipment, and they are called in when appropriate, such as when people are rioting and looting. Patrol cops are ill equipped to deal with rock and bottles being thrown at them. Helmets are needed, as are armored vehicles when the rocks suddenly turn into Molotov cocktails. Or would people prefer numerous police officers going on sick leave with injuries caused by these projectiles?
I find it difficult not to devolve into sarcasm here, but it amazes me how everyone is an expert on police tactics now because they watch “Law & Order" and “Blue Bloods,” or the latest ill-researched blockbuster churned out by Hollywood.
You seem to imply that civilians “feel” a certain way in reaction to how a cop might be outfitted; frightened, intimidated -- perhaps non-verbally bullied? Yet, society tells us how one “feels” when walking towards a group of kids whose pants are hanging below their asses, baseball caps turned sideways, toothpicks in their mouths and cursing up a storm, or seeing a bunch of bikers with ZZ Top-type beards outside a bar, or a couple of want-to-be Tony Soprano-types hanging in front of a social club in Bensonhurst is “profiling?” Aren’t you or your theoretical law-abiding citizen profiling any particular officer because he or she prefers to wear boots and paratrooper/cargo pants? Isn’t it more about your perception than about what a particular officer may or may not be trying to project?
A historical note; in the late ‘70s, leather jackets were taken from the NYPD because some felt it made them look like the Gestapo. The city even went so far as to change the names of groups of precincts from Divisions to Areas in an attempt at demilitarization. Yet crime continued to soar in and around the five boroughs through the ‘80s into the early ‘90s, until the aforementioned Bratton was brought in. Of course, the improving economy and Roe vs. Wade’s 20th anniversary dovetailed in with CompStat and the new weapons and uniform changes, all of which may or may not have had something to do with crime stats falling off a cliff. (And let us not forget how Rudy Giuliani took the credit for it all!) Lest I digress,  my main point is that the  confidence created by our being outfitted with more stylish uniforms and modern weaponry created a much more professional and potent police department, which played a major role in the drop in crime, in my not so humble opinion.
I know first-hand that no department, no officer is perfect. There are many problems in policing, including blatant racism, that interfere with how the public should be serviced. But like any other group on the planet, it is a small percentage of cops who tarnish the image of the rest. All I ask is for people to keep this in mind while consuming and digesting the so-called news.