Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Iraq War: the fear of Victory

I would like to propose a daring thesis: the Bush Administration does not want a truly decisive and comprehensive victory in the war in Iraq. I base this thesis in view of the facts that, despite the localized successes of the U.S. troop surge in the Baghdad area, there have been no attempts by the Bush Administration to alleviate the enormous strains placed on U.S. forces committed to Iraq brought on by the desperate need for more U.S. forces to serve in Iraq if the Bush Administrations goals of creating a democratic regime and crushing the insurgency are to succeed.

Even though the troop surge has achieved certain tactical successes, the American military has been stretched to the breaking point and is fast approaching a crisis point which could potentially break our forces ability to fight effectively in Iraq. The question is why hasn’t the Bush Administration (in light of its fantastic statements that any pullback in Iraq would bring on more 9/11’s and that Iraq is the front line in the War on Terror) hasn’t insisted on restoring conscription which would automatically alleviate the manpower shortages in the military and greatly reduce the ungodly strains (and that is the proper word for it folks) placed on U.S. Army reserve units which have been forced to endure multiple deployments to Iraq and crippling physical and emotional losses?

If the Bush Administration really is telling the truth about the potential dangers that a withdrawal would bring then why hasn’t it petitioned the Congress and the American people on the necessity of re-instituting the draft in order to insure that there are enough troops in Iraq to crush Al-Qaeda and the insurgency while standing ready to combat terrorism in other parts of the world?

If the crisis facing our country is so potentially horrific then the Bush Administration’s refusal to provide the military with the necessary manpower to meet its impossible objectives is tantamount to a dereliction of duty by the Commander-in-Chief. If a defeat in Iraq truly means mortal danger for America then the Bush Administration must do what was done during the Civil War, World Wars One and Two: restore the draft. If the Bush Administration truly wants victory then it must be prepared to take the political risks involved in achieving that victory. Restoring the draft would be an honest step in achieving that victory. The fact that the Bush Administration has failed to do so can only mean that there is no substance to its repeated cries of “wolf” during the past four years of bloody war in Iraq. It can only mean that the perpetuation of our military involvement is based on more darker, cynical, and ignoble motives rather than defense of our country and defense of freedom. It can only mean that our armed forces, if pushed to the breaking point by our present strategy, will be defeated not by the insurgency but by the political cowardice of its Commander-in-Chief.

Personally, I hope the draft is never restored. I have two nephews: one who is draft age right now and another who will be in six years. I do not want them or any young person to be conscripted to fight in a needless, senseless war fought in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy, and for the worst reasons known to humanity.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Elton John: Sixty Years On

I should have written this blog entry five months ago but, as John Lennon once wrote, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Elton John was my first pop idol. The Beatles had broken up long before I became aware of rock and roll and so it was Elton John who became my beau ideal. The music business has changed enormously (and in many ways not for the better) in the past forty years but Elton in his heyday (1970 to 1977) achieved a stardom that will never be equaled. He (along with his fellow songwriting partner Bernie Taupin) has given the world a collection of music that is ageless, relevant, entertaining, emotive, and inspirational. In the movie of history, Elton John wrote the soundtrack for the 1970s.

I ask myself what it was about Elton that turned me into a devoted fan. Obviously it was the music but what was it about the music? Looking back at it all it was several small but vital factors which, when put together, combined to tip the scales of the human heart in adoration of his work.

First of all, he was (and remains) a magnificent keyboard player. Before Elton John, rock and roll’s best keyboardists were Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Elton brought the piano back to prominence in rock and roll. The melodies he unleashed upon the world were unprecedented and have never been surpassed since. If you listen to Burn down the Mission, Funeral for a Friend/Loves Lies Bleeding, and Don’t Let the Sun Go Down you are listening to a grandmaster piano player playing with vim, vigor, and a natural sense for going for the jugular vein of the soul.

Next was his voice. Elton’s vocal abilities have always been astounding. No other artist could offer so many personas with his singing voice. Elton’s vocal talents run the gamut of emotions: melancholy, wistful, humorous, bitter, intense, insanely humorous, and incurably romantic. He could sing gospel, country and western, rock and roll, pop, and classical music. He could sing like a southern redneck or like the English gentleman he is today.

And then there was the way he interpreted Bernie Taupin’s inimical lyrics. It’s ironic that Elton had the courage to allow someone else write his words for him. His partnership with Bernie Taupin could have easily foundered on the rocks but he believed in Taupin’s lyrical genius when others didn’t; still, it was tough going. Elton and Bernie Taupin met in 1967 but it took them three years before they achieved stardom. Please name another artist willing to sing songs titled No Shoestrings for Louise, First Episode at Hienton, Madman across the Water, Texas Love Song (with the immortal chorus which goes “God damn it, you’re all gonna die/Oh God damn it! You’re all gonna die”). And yet Elton John did…and quite wonderfully too.

And let us not forget Elton John the performer. Even when his albums (remember those things?) were no longer selling for a time (1977 to 1982), Elton never let the side down when it came to performing in concert. He could perform with a band or by himself and always his presence filled the halls, arenas, stadiums, and studios with something the world had never seen before or since. What other performer before or since could sport such outlandish costumes or garish eye-glasses or gaudy platform shoes or wigs or hats? Elton symbolized the conspicuous excesses that defined the Seventies and yet was not trapped in them. When Elton appeared onstage with some over-the-top outfit you couldn’t help but smile and enjoy the spectacle (my favorite Elton John costume were the gargantuan boots he wore in the film Tommy where he played the Pinball Wizard—Elton agreed to play the part only if he could keep the boots). He made you want to dress up the same way as well. (I speak from personal experience. When I was kid I would have given anything to have worn Elton John’s insane costumes. I still have the same dreams). Whereas some of today’s stars use excess as a means of separating themselves from the public…with the predictable results and ensuing bad publicity Elton somehow evaded the snares and traps such gaudy imagery could have caused him. Even better was the fact that when you saw Elton on the stage, you were seeing and hearing the real thing. No lip-synching for him. A couple years ago Elton made some waspish remarks about Madonna (and others of her ilk) lip-synching in concert—which drew a harsh response from Madonna) but Elton was right on the mark. Elton never let packaging overcome his professionalism. He always delivers the goods.

But, most important of all, is Elton John the man. Fame and stardom brought Elton John enormous riches and adulation but it also brought those special problems and temptations that devil celebrities. Elton has had his demons: drug, spending, sexual, and eating addictions; moments of insane rage—which biographer Philip Norman called “Elton’s Little Moments” and yet Elton never allowed his weaknesses to ultimately destroy him as it destroyed so many others (Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, etc.) Elton survives, endures, and thrives because he still has that inner celestial fire called conscience. He has always striven to do the right thing. His appearance at Live Aid and other charitable concerts; his tireless work to overcome A.I.D.S. all speak of that character. I remember seeing him in 1987 performing at an A.I.D.S. benefit concert in London. Elton couldn’t sing because he had throat surgery but he could still play the piano. What he did was provide background music while British pop star Kim Wilde (and her brother Marty) performed a heart-wrenching interpretation of Elton’s hit Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word. (That performance was, in my opinion, one of the finest cover versions of an Elton John song I would give anything if I could find an MP3 file of that performance). His performance at Princess Diana’s funeral in Westminster Abbey is another example of this.

Elton John is now sixty years old yet his star has not faded nor will it ever fade. He remains revered by fans of all ages. His life and career are what he makes of it. He remains one of my favorite rock idols and, for that, I am very glad.

Take care! Captain Fantastic (and the Brown Dirt Cowboy too!)

Friday, August 10, 2007

Barry Bonds: The Pursuer becomes the Pursued

For the fourth time in the last twenty-two years the breaking of a famous Major League hitting record has been sullied by the tarnished image of the player who broke the record. The breaking of Ty Cobb’s record of most lifetime hits by Pete Rose, the breaking of Roger Maris’ single season home run mark by Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, and, now, the breaking of Henry Aaron’s lifetime home run record by Barry Bonds, are obscured by the dark shadows cast by the above-mentioned players.

It’s moot to argue whether Bonds’ record should be allowed or not. Considering the disgraceful silence Major League Baseball has displayed regarding the steroid question it’s unlikely they will disavow the record since it would almost certainly mean an admission that Major League Baseball has deliberately turned a blind eye to the blatant use of steroids by players. (Another key point baseball fans should remember was that another major factor in Bond’s surpassing of Aaron’s home run mark was the deliberate policy decision made by Major League Baseball to allow the ball itself to be loaded up from 1995 to 2002. The fact that the ball was juiced, coupled with the use of steroids are the vital underpinnings for the obscene surge in home runs during that time period. If the ball hadn’t been juiced then Bonds might hypothetically be still pursuing Aaron’s record. It was also the reason why Maris’ home run record was eclipsed as well).

Indeed when contemplating Bonds’ milestone I am reminded by something I had when I was a little boy. I used to have a book titled Great Receivers in Football History. In that book there was a chapter on NFL receiver Billy Howton (who played for the Packers, Browns, and the Dallas Cowboys in the 1950’s and 1960’s). Howton broke the record of Green Bay Packer legend Don Hutson for most receiving yards in a career. Hutson was there to witness Howton breaking the record and after the game he went into the locker room to congratulate him. Howton was basking in the glow of breaking the record and he told Hutson, “I did it. I broke your record!” And Hutson said, “That’s right and, one day, someone will come along and break your record.” To which Howton gave Hutson a look of understanding and comprehension—and as it turned out, Huston was right. Howton’s mark has been surpassed many times and, if memory serves me correctly, Jerry Rice now holds the record for most receiving yards.

But the point is this: Bonds may reign now as the all-time home run king but there are other players who are primed and ready to stalk his steroided carcass. While all eyes were on Barry Bonds, it should be noted at Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez has become the youngest player ever to hit five hundred home runs. A-Rod has been having a splendid season in what has been a superlative major league career. Although there are other active players with more career home runs than A-Rod they are all in the twilight of their careers and will not pass Barry Bonds. A-Rod still has many years to go and, barring an unforeseen injury or scandal that could derail his career, A-Rod—if he’s willing—has the potential to break Bond’s lifetime mark and remove the stain cast upon the record by Barry Bonds.

And if A-Rod is unwilling or unable to surpass the mark then there is another player in whom I possess the highest confidence in his capability to become the all-time baseball home-run king: Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies. A-Rod may be the youngest player ever to reach five hundred home-runs but Ryan Howard just broke A-Rod’s mark of becoming the youngest player ever to reach one hundred home-runs and if Howard continues his magnificent slugging (despite missing a month due to injury, Howard is close to hitting forty home runs this season) it is quite possible that Ryan Howard will break A-Rod’s mark of becoming the youngest player ever to reach five hundred home runs and if he reaches five hundred home runs then the next obvious step is to go after Barry Bonds or A-Rod if the latter surpasses Bonds’ mark.

I refuse to give in to despair. Instead I seek comfort in observing baseball’s future and their names are Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Howard.

Play Ball!