Month: June 2018

rokIt is sometimes called the forgotten war, the conflict which remains in the background as World War I, World War II and Vietnam take center stage as the wars that defined the United States Military and U.S. foreign policy.  Unbeknownst to many Americans, the Korean war never officially ended.  An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 bringing a halt to the firing from all sides. But the armistice did not permanently resolve the conflict and to this day the 38th parallel, instituted after World War II, remains as the dividing line between the Communist North and the Democratic South.  Recently, U.S. President Donald J. Trump attended a peace summit with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.   Washington claimed the summit a success but only time will tell if the Korean War will officially come to an end and peace is finally obtained.  For veterans of the conflict, feelings run deep and mixed thoughts on the summit are bound to exist.  Two years ago, a veteran of the war close to my family died after several years of declining health.  Curiously, he never spoke of the war, preferring to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself for more than 50 years.   And as he went to his grave, he took with him, knowledge of the war and memories that most people would never want to have.  But the questions still remain, what caused the conflict and why did war wage for three years? Furthermore, why did the fighting eventually cease?

Author T.R. Fehrenbach (1925-2013) served in the Korean War and was later head of the Texas Historical Commission.  In 1963, this book was published, ten years after the fighting had ceased.  His memories are crisp and the reporting second to none.  He takes us back in time as history comes alive, letting us step inside the war beginning those fateful days in June, 1950 when the North Korea People’s Army invaded its southern neighbor.  Under the direction of Kim Ill Sung (1912-1994),  North Korea initiated the opening salvo in a war that claimed over two million lives.   News of the invasion sent shock waves through Washington and President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was faced with a decision that would change the course of history.  On June 30, 1950, he ordered ground troops into South Korea to assist the Republic of Korea Armed Forces (ROK).  At the time no one could have imagined what lay in store.

From the beginning the story pulls the reader in as Fehrenbach recounts the Japanese occupation of Korea and the long-lasting effects of Japanese rule on Korean society. In fact, to this day, influences of Japanese culture can still be found in Korea.  Following the falls of the Japanese Army in World War II, Korea found itself in a position to chart a new course.  But similar to Germany and Japan, the country became a pawn in the chess match between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Unsure of what to do with South  Korea, the nation remained in a vulnerable position until the North made its move.  And once the fighting began, the speed picked up and refused to die down.  North Korean and U.N. forces lead by the United States, engaged in deadly combat that saw casualties climb exponentially on both sides.  but what was clear from the beginning as we see in the book, is that Korea was an entirely new type of conflict for America.

Savage is the adjective that comes to mind to describe the fighting between opposing nations and ideologies.  Beyond brutal, the Korean conflict was akin to hell on earth for all of its participants.  And just when we think that the war might swing in the favor of the U.N. forces, the war takes a darker and more dramatic turn as the People’s Republic of China enters the fray changing the scope and the rules of the Korean War.  At the time China enters the story, the fighting has already claimed thousands of casualties.  But it is at this point that the battle reaches a higher and more deadly level.  Quite frankly, the world stood on the verge of the next holocaust.   Today we know that did not happen.  But why? America had the troops and the money to fund the war but what was it that held back the United States from entering into a full-scale ground assault?  The answers are here and this is the crux of the book.  Following World War II, American attitudes towards war began to change and Korea was the first testing ground for the gaining influence of politics over armed conflict.

What I liked most about the book is that aside from the statistics of casualties and the descriptions of the deaths that occur in the book and POW internment camps is that Fehrenbach explains how and why events progressed as they did and also why Washington was committed to fighting on a limited scale.  The fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was still fresh in the minds of nations across the world.  President Truman gave the order to drop the bombs and I believe no one doubted his willingness to use them again if necessary.   Whether he would have eventually given the order is unknown as his time in office came to an end and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower succeeded him.  But for the new president, the conflict still raged and opinion towards the war had become negative.  And while peace did come during his term, the body count climbed up until the very last day.

The story of the Korean War is one that is rarely mentioned in textbooks and never discussed today.   But this book by Fehrenbach truly is a classic study of the war.   In a meticulous and chronological order, he tells the story from start to finish and along the way, incorporates relevant parts of American society and world history into the story.   Although not a “textbook” in the classic sense, the book very well could be for it gives a concise explanation for the causes and effects of the war and how it was eventually resolved. If you are interesting in expanding your knowledge of the Korean War, this is the perfect place to start.

ISBN-13: 978-1574883343
ISBN-10: 1574883348
ISBN-13: 978-0028811130
ISBN-10: 0028811135
ASIN: B00J3EU6IK

Investigative Report Korean War

20180619_235509I have often wondered why my uncle and many other veterans that I have met, were sent to Vietnam.   He and others never speak of the war, choosing instead to internalize their memories and feelings.  But from the few things about being Vietnam that my uncle has told me,  I cannot image what it was like to be fighting a war in a jungle 13,000 miles away from home. Today he is seventy-two years old and his memories of Vietnam are as sharp today as they were when he left the country to return home.  And there is a part of him that still remains in Vietnam, never to leave its soil.    He is one of five-hundred thousand Americans that served in a war that claimed fifty-eight thousand lives.

The reasons for America’s involvement in Indochina have been muddled and in some cases omitted from discussions.   Secrecy became the standard method of communication in more than one administration in Washington as the United States became deeper involved in a conflict with no end goal in sight.  Daniel Ellsberg gained fame and infamy when he revealed the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the country.   The New York Times later published a review of the documents and today it is available in the form of a book titled The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War.  The book is enlightening and contains a trove of information regarding how and why decisions were being made in the White House as control of the government passed through several presidents.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) published his own memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.  The book has its fans and critics. McNamara has often been blamed for the war and the vitriol towards him was so strong that in later years he declined to talk about the conflict.   True, he was a participant in the events leading up to the war, but many other players had a hand in the game which became deadlier as time went on.  To understand their roles and the policies enacted, it is necessary to revisit the  complete history of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina.  David Halberstam (1934-2007), author of The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy, conducted his own research into the war’s origins and the result was this New York Times bestseller that is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Halberstam admits that he knew Ellsberg and in fact, he reviewed the Pentagon Papers as he wrote the book.  In addition he conducted hundreds of interviews but was careful not to reveal any of their names.  When Ellsberg was indicted and had to stand trial, Halberstam was subpoenaed to give testimony, unaware then of how Ellsberg came into possession of the documents.  But what started out as a look at the life of  former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), grew into this definitive account of the reasons for the Vietnam War.

The book follows a carefully guided timeline and the story of Vietnam begins in China before moving on to Korea and eventually Southeast Asia.  These parts are critical for they set the stage for foreign policy decisions in the years that followed and explain many of the mistakes that were made.  As President Eisenhower winds down his time in office, a new young Catholic Democrat gripped parts of the country as he declared himself the next person to occupy the White House.  By the time John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) took office, the road to Vietnam had already been paved.  It is at this point in the book where the pace picks up and never slows down.   The concept of the best and the brightest came to Halberstam as he thought of a phrase for Kennedy’s cabinet of intellectuals who were set on reshaping Washington in the image they believed was right to push the country forward.  One by one he introduces us to all of the characters that have a role in the story, tracing their origins and helping us to understand how they reached their positions in the government.  Some of them are as mysterious as the country’s then paranoia about communism taking over the world.  But as they come together, something still is not quite right and Vietnam becomes the issue that will not go away.  And for the thirty-three months Kennedy was in office, the American involvement would grow in Indochina but the nation had not yet entered a war.   The growing crisis however, had begun to cause a rift in the White House and the deception employed by those loyal to the military and war hawks is eye-raising and chilling.  I also believe that it helps explain Kennedy’s murder in November, 1963. We can only guess what would have happened if he had lived.  There are those who strongly believe we would have withdrawn from Vietnam. I believe that is what would have happened, probably sooner rather than later.  But Kennedy was gone and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, inherited the nightmare of Vietnam.

As Johnson settles in to being the new Commander-In-Chief,  Indochina becomes a thorn in his side and he becomes conflicted with the decisions he will eventually make.  This part of the book is the crux and the key to the final push by the military for a war.  Many of Kennedy’s cabinet members continued to stay and at first worked under Johnson.  But as time passed and the ugly truths about Vietnam came back from Saigon, they would fade out as Johnson led the nation down the path of escalation.  Halberstam is a masterful story-teller and the scenes he recreates from his research are spellbinding.  Nearly everyone in the book is now deceased but as I read the book I could not help but to scratch my head at their decisions and actions.   The warning signs of Vietnam loomed ominously large but tragically were ignored or discounted.   Washington suffered from a tragic twist of fate: although it had the best and the brightest in Washington, they still made mistakes that literally made little sense. And that is a central theme in the book. The war’s architects were all brilliant individuals with endless accolades yet they failed to understand what was considered to be a peasant nation far away from home. Many of them would suffer in one way or another.  For Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam eventually became the final nail in the coffin that sealed his chances at reelection.

During the reading of the book, I also noticed at how Halberstam explained the actions of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong.  In order to understand why Vietnam became a stalemate, it is not just necessary to understand the failures of Washington, but the strategy of Ho Chih Minh and the generals under him.  The small peasant nation took on a colossus and refused to give up. And the battles of  Vietnam changed warfare and showed the world what many believed to be impossible.  Arrogance and in some cases, racist beliefs laid at the base of some foreign policy decisions regarding the war.  History has a strange way of repeating itself and the repeated warnings from the French fell on deaf ears as American troops landed in a place many of them knew nothing about.  Looking back with hindsight, the critical failures are clearly evident and although Halberstam shows us how we became involved in Vietnam,  we are still baffled about why.  How could so many minds filled with so much knowledge make such rudimentary and baseless decisions?   The answers are here in this book in the form of official cables that withheld information, overzealous military advisors, an unstable South Vietnamese government, National Security Action Memos and the idea that the United States could solve any of the world’s problems.   This book is a must-read for those who are interested in the history of the Vietnam War.

ISBN-10: 0449908704
ISBN-13: 978-0449908709

Investigative Report

galeanoLatin America is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.   The Iguazu Falls, Andes Mountains and Patagonia attract millions of visitors annually.  The beauty of these and other sites across Latin America stand in stark contrast to the poverty that can be found outside of major cities and sometimes within.  In between major railway stations and ports exist slums that remind us of the severely uneven distribution of wealth throughout the continent.  Speaking from personal experience, most Americans would be shocked at living conditions that still exist in Latin America to this day.   But why does a continent with a history that goes back several hundred years  and is home to beautiful people, beautiful languages, great foods and beautiful scenes of nature, continue to suffer from poverty, corruption and exploitation.

The key to understanding the current state of these and other Latin American affairs, is to revisit its history.  Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) has done just that in this eye-opening and best-selling study of Latin American history that was first published in 1971.   The edition that is the subject of this review was re-published in 1997, and contains a foreword by Isabel Allende,  a cousin of the late Chilean President Salvador Allende (1908-1973).   On September 11, 1973, Allende died on a self-inflicted gunshot wound as opposition forces engaged in a CIA-backed overthrow of the government.  Isabel currently lives in California and is a naturalized United States Citizen.

Galeano starts by revisiting how Latin America came into existence from a continent of indigenous people to one in which Spanish is the dominant language.  The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean marked a distinctive change in the course of world history and although he never set foot in North America,  Columbus is still considered by many to be the person that discovered what is today the United States. In recent years however, the holiday of Columbus Day has been replaced by Indigenous People’s Day or in others not acknowledged.  In Central and South America, the arrival of the Spanish explorers would have a profound impact and set the stage for plunder, murder and exploitation that engulfed the continent.   Next to Columbus are the stories of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) and Pedro de Valdivia (1497-1553), explorers who would spend their last days in South America.    And as Galeano re-tells their stories, the reader might want to make notes of names, dates and places as the story comes together like a puzzle.

While the tragedy of exploitation and violence played out, not all voices were content with Spanish domination and the extermination of South America’s inhabitants.  Tupac Amaru (1545-1572) and Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) also appear in the book and it would be safe to say that an author would find it impossible to discuss Latin American history without recounting their extraordinary and short lives.   However their efforts proved to be ineffective against the rush of colonization that dominated the southern hemisphere.  And it is at this point in the book that Galeano turns up the heat as we learn how natural resources became a gold mine and and the populations of the Carribean, Central American and South American nearly disappeared as a result of warfare, famine and disease.  World superpowers sank their teeth into the Latin American cash machine and have never let go.

The grip of foreign control has proven to have disastrous effects on politics, producing revolutions and widespread practice of the coup d’état.   Leaders who leaned left and sought to reclaim industries exploited by foreign corporations were quickly dealt with through American foreign policy.   Those who did play the game were rewarded and tolerated through the Good Neighbor Policy and other shady practices.  The climate of distrust and violent overthrow of the government has never left Latin America.  The current events in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Argentina are prime examples of the volatile political climate that continues to exist.  And all the while, foreign corporations continue to reap enormous profits as they move around offices and politicians like pieces on a chess board.

Galeano provides a staggering amount of information in the book which is sure to shock the reader.   But this book is key to understanding why Latin America has developed so many third-world countries. It would be easy to blame those countries for their own failures.  But what we know is that after a colonizer has left the colonized, it is immensely difficult for those nations to find a permanent path of success.  This was beautifully explained by Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) in his classic The Wretched of the Earth.   The future is bleak for many Latin American nations as inflation rises and the IMF becomes more reluctant to give out loans.  Poverty continues to increase giving rise to protests, crime and strikes.  What we see today is a manifestation of what Galeano calls “five hundred years of the pillage of a continent”.

If you have never traveled through Latin America, I implore you to do so at least once.  I firmly believe that there are many great things that are unfamiliar to those who live in the northern hemisphere. I have had the privilege of visiting  Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.  Chile is next on the list.  Through my travels, I have met many people who have become a permanent part of my life and I am eternally grateful for having met them.   Galeano died on April 13, 2015 after a battle with lung cancer but he left behind important works and this masterpiece which has been translated into more than twelve languages.  This book has proven to be the companion guide every person needs in order to understand many of things that will be seen in Latin America, including the current presence of open veins.

ISBN-10: 0853459916

ISBN-13: 978-0853459910

Investigative Report

curtisHis voice was unlike any other I have ever heard.  My grandparents, aunts and uncles played his music regularly and his songs are recognized as part of the soundtrack to the continuing movement for equality carried on through Black Americans.   His hits We’re A Winner and Keep on Pushing are some of most iconic songs from that era and a testament to the skill and passion of the late Curtis Lee Mayfield (1942-1999).   Along with his group, the Impressions, Mayfield helped redefine music as we have come to know it.  His soundtrack for Super Fly is legendary and next to Isaac Hayes, the music therein was the cream of the crop for the Blaxploitation films that became the norm for African-American stars. And although he has been gone for nearly nineteen years, his music sounds as if it were recorded yesterday.  On the surface, the beard, eccentric clothing, glasses and guitar tuned to F sharp gave the image of a musician larger than life.  But how much of his personal life do we, his fans, know? And what was the real Curtis Mayfield like?

Todd Mayfield is one of the late star’s ten children and together with Travis Atria, he tells the story of his father’s life.  Early in the book, Mayfield points out that to date, there is no biography that captures the full story.  Well that is until now.  Drawing on family history, music records, interviews with those who knew his father and his own recollections of his time with his dad, Mayfield has written the definitive biography of his father’s life that ended at only fifty-seven years of age.  I am sure that many rarely known facts are revealed in the book and the information about Curtom records and Curtis’ working relationships with other stars of that era are great material for music fans with a thirst for knowledge. On a personal note, I wonder what would have happened if Donny Hathaway had worked more with him but both are no longer around to give their thoughts.  The book is also a look back at the racial climate that blanketed the United States during the era of Jim Crow and even after the Civil Rights Movement and the later Civil Rights Act of 1964.  These events weighed heavily on Curtis and throughout the book we see how he deals with the injustice he witnesses while making hit music that would outlive him and nearly all of the greatest leaders during that time.

Although the biography is written by Curtis’ son, there is no strong bias either for or against him. In fact, Todd does a remarkable job of pointing out his father’s flaws and the times where he took the wrong path in life.  The love he had for his father is undeniable but as he points out in the book, Curtis could charm anyone but at the same time be one of the coldest people you could meet.  And like all musical genius, there is that fine line between genius and insanity. As a songwriter, Curtis composed some of music’s biggest hits, many of which are still in rotation today.  I think that if people knew just how many songs he wrote during his career, they would be speechless.  But for all of his highs, there also lows, some of which are regrettable.

I imagine that for Todd, it must have been difficult to reveal some of his father’s worst traits that remained hidden behind a carefully molded public facade. But I believe that in order to write the story of his father’s life as it should be told, he could not have done it any other way.   Drugs, domestic violence, infidelity, paranoia and selfishness were some of the many parts of Curtis, a multi-dimensional figure whose genius at music was at odds with his aloofness and vindictiveness as a husband and father.  But like all great stars, the world sometimes appears through a different lens revealing a lifestyle that is foreign to the average person.  Tours, albums, studio sessions, family demands and personal insecurities are the staples of every great artist’s life and Mayfield was no different.

Interestingly, as I made my way through the book, at times I loved Curtis and at other times was scratching my head in disbelief.  I was shocked at some of the antics he pulled and the violence that took place.  But regardless, I never lost my fondness for the man whose music I play when I am in the need for some good music that reaches deep down into the soul.  And while I wish some parts of the story did not exist, it was imperative to remember that underneath everything, he was a human being with his flaws.   As the story moves to Wingate Field in Brooklyn, there is bad omen that hangs over the book. By this point his life, Curtis had slowly begun his downward spiral and the freak accident that took place on August 13, 1990, changed his life and music forever.  The remaining years of his time on earth as told here by Todd, was heartbreaking to read. However, in spite of everything that happened to him, Curtis never lost his spirit and his positive outlook was nothing short of inspiring.  Sadly, he did not live to see his children move up in the world and keep on pushing or his grandchildren, but he left a legacy that will remain with his family and fans for life.  This is the story of the life of Curtis Lee Mayfield.

ISBN-10: 1613736797
ISBN-13: 978-1613736791

Biographies