Thoughts on the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics just concluded.  So many things happened, some of them even having to do with sport, that I thought a few longitudinal observations might be in order.

(Full disclosure: the only sports I watched were Alpine and Nordic skiing, speed skating, and curling.  Therefore, I received much of my information second-hand.  I’m sure a lot of folks enjoy the bobsled event, but four people crammed into an ugly oblong box and sliding down the ice to cross an invisible line within hundredths of a second of their competitors just doesn’t appeal to me. Unless the bobsled is Jamaican.)

Here are some suggestions for improving the Winter Olympics.  You may wish to take some of these with a grain of salt:

  • Russia and China should be kicked out of the games for 20 years.  If after 20 years they’ve gotten their act together, they can then rejoin the party.  And I don’t mean the Communist Party.
  • The figure skating age limit should be raised to 18.  Why are little girls skating out there, anyway?  At first I thought the Russian silver medal winner, 17-year-old Alexandra Trusova, was bawling because her teammate, 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, was scolded by her Politburo coach after a disastrous performance. Then I discovered she was upset because “Everyone else has a gold medal, everyone, but not me!”
Silver medalist Alexandra Trusova with dripping mascara (Getty Images)
  • If you have to have little girls skating in the Olympics, at least make sure they receive adequate food and water.  Anorexia shouldn’t be a prerequisite for competition.
  • Flags are really important in the Olympics. Since the U.S. right wing loves flags so much, our conservative athletes should be permitted to add their own flag to the stars and stripes during ceremonies. There’s the Don’t Tread On Me flag, the thin blue line flag (I think that’s what it’s called), and a couple other unmentionables. Let the rest of the world see how regressive America really is!
  • Bring back some old-timers for us old-timers.  You know, a senior category.  Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Janet Lynn, Katarina Witt, Tonya Harding, and Nancy Kerrigan are all still alive.  It would be fun to see them back in action. Roll them onto the ice, give Harding a hammer, and let ’em mix it up. And to spice things up, throw in that corrupt French judge from 2002.
“Insert Race Card Here. KA-CHING! Here’s Your Entitlement Receipt” (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
  • Keep race and the race card out of the games.  After speculation that Russian medal favorite Valieva might be denied a medal due to ingesting trimetazidine (she was actually denied due to stress), U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson tweeted that the only reason she herself was barred for smoking pot in the summer Olympics was her “skin color.”  Longitudes, however, feels it has more to do with Sha’Carri’s stupidity than her skin tone.  Getting stoned is okay, Sha’Carri, but when you compete for your country, give the bong a break.
  • United States, lighten up on coverage of our sports stars. Media saturation of Mikaela Shiffrin, top U.S. athlete in the winter games, caused her to DNF in three events and finish 9th and 18th in two others. Even the White House press secretary pressured her. You U.S. talking heads did the same thing with male skier Bode Miller. There are other attractive female skiers out there besides Mikaela Shiffrin. I’d like to suggest Lara Gut-Behrami and Dorothea Wierer.
  • Since the U.S. usually does poorly in the biathlon (cross-country skiing combined with target shooting), give us Yanks a break and revise the target.  A human shape with a bullseye over the heart would be more appropriate to our unique culture of gun violence.
  • Add a triathlon event.  The athletes have to downhill ski, then speed skate, then perform in an ice dancing competition.  The last event would be especially fun to watch.
  • Judges, keep a sharper ear on the music selected for figure skating.  Although 99 percent of people are probably unaware, part of Alexandra Trusova’s program (see mascara above) included “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by the Stooges, Iggy Pop’s old band.  It’s a fantastic rock song, but more appropriate for an opium den than a women’s girls’ skating program.  What’s next, Spinal Tap’s “Sex Farm”?

I hope my above suggestions prove useful. I’m sure I’ve offended at least one person with them: bobsled fan, Communist, prepubescent girl, senior citizen, social conservative, social justice warrior (SJW), gun nut, flag waver, feminist, French skating judge, or oblong box. But as I see it, if I haven’t offended at least someone, then I’m not doing my job.

Iggy Pop (photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

“A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam”—Book Review

Fifty years ago this June 9, John Vann died when the helicopter he was riding in crashed in central Vietnam.

The anniversary coincides with my reading Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book (published 1988) about Vann and the Vietnam War.  This monumental work is 800 pages-worth of small print.  As with after my reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (click here), I figure all that labor deserves to bear some fruit, even if only a few dried raisins on WordPress.  Thus, my review.

Who was John Paul Vann?  He was a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who arrived in Vietnam in 1962 soon after the Kennedy administration began sending military “advisors” there.  Vann was one of a handful who early on criticized U.S. strategy.  He left the army in cloudy circumstances but returned to ‘Nam in 1965 as a civilian U.S. Operations Mission (USOM) director right when Gen. William Westmoreland and the Johnson administration began ramping up America’s failed war with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

John Vann

Vann tried to convince Washington that the U.S.-built Diem regime in South Vietnam was corrupt; that Diem’s army (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN) was afraid of confrontation; that the American-backed Strategic Hamlet Program (isolating Vietnamese hamlets with barbed wire to repel the Viet Cong) was counterintuitive; that U.S. commanders were fudging the numbers; and that America’s war-of-attrition strategy would ultimately fail.

Neil Sheehan was one of the first American reporters in Vietnam.  He covered the war for its duration, first as a UPI correspondent, then as a reporter for The New York Times.  Sheehan and other Vietnam journalists, like David Halberstam and Peter Arnett, admired Vann.  Vann didn’t bullshit the reporters.  He told it like he saw it, warts and all, despite the career risk.  He exhibited a professional courage unusual for most Vietnam-era military and civilian protagonists.

Before writing this book, Sheehan was most known for obtaining the Pentagon Papers from RAND Corporation “whiz-kid” and a former protégé of Vann’s, Daniel Ellsberg.  Publication of a portion of the Papers in the Times revealed among other things that four presidential administrations, primarily Johnson’s, had systematically lied to and misled the American public about their intentions in Vietnam.  The Pentagon Papers became a First Amendment cause célèbre.  Sheehan died January 7, 2021.

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Sheehan writes in a direct, declarative style undoubtedly honed by his years as a wire reporter and war correspondent.  He doesn’t succumb to the temptation of hyperbole.  There are no exclamation points or sarcasms, despite the black-comic nature of what he observed in Vietnam.  Because he was there, he occasionally uses first-person narration.

Neil Sheehan (photo Frédérick Reglain/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Once—in an exchange so staggering it beggars belief— Sheehan managed to discuss the war with Westmoreland, the second of three commanding generals. He politely asked the general about the extraordinary number of civilian casualties.  The civilians—South Vietnamese peasants, including women and children—were ostensibly those whom the U.S. was trying to save from Communism.  They were being killed, maimed, and made homeless by U.S. bombs and artillery shelling.

Westmoreland responded: “Yes, Neil, it is a problem…but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?”

Vann’s story parallels the war’s history.  He’s the human focal point of the book; however, he’s far from a choirboy.  He was a philanderer who exploited his family-man status to burnish his own résumé.  He manipulated people and lied to them, even young and vulnerable girls, victims of Vann’s pathological sexual hunger.  Vann amply contributed to a familiar by-product of the war: illegitimate pregnancies, abortions, and child abandonment. Sheehan uncovers more than one dark secret about Vann’s past.  The “bright shining lie” of the book title, taken from a direct quote by Vann about the war, has a double meaning.

Sheehan weaves Vann in and out of the larger story of America in Vietnam. He touches on a chilling capture and imprisonment of Vann’s partner Doug Ramsey, buried in the jungle for seven years.  He covers the significant Vietnam War battles: Ap Bac, Ia Drang, Khe Sanh, and the Tet and Easter Offensives. Vann tried to direct the first major confrontation at Ap Bac as an advisor to the incompetent ARVN.  It backfired.

When it became clear that full American intervention was required (total withdrawal was rejected, of course), the military strategy proved stupid and unnecessarily brutal. Westmoreland convinced the Johnson administration that a war of attrition would prevail, rather than Vann’s policy of South Vietnamese pacification (winning rural ”hearts and minds” through security, arms, training, and social reform). It was a “stomp-them-to-death” policy of bludgeoning the enemy with relentless matériel and manpower from the air and in the jungles, and it was a total cul-de-sac. After the war crescendoed with the 1968 Tet Offensive, President Richard M. Nixon continued these bludgeoning tactics by invading Cambodia (secretly in 1969, not-so-secretly in 1970) and with the 1972 “Christmas Bombings.”

Ho Chi Minh, 1946

The U.S. mistakenly tried to transfer WWII tactics to the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. There was little attempt to understand Vietnam history, culture, or Vietnamese soldiers’ perfection of guerrilla warfare for over 1,000 years. (The French had failed here, too.) Additionally, due to its monomaniacal hatred of Communism, the U.S. could not recognize that Ho Chi Minh and his followers were Nationalists first and Communists only second.

By the second decade after World War II, the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the U.S. armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity…American society had become a victim of its own achievement.  The elite of America had become stupefied by too much money, too many material resources, too much power, and too much success.

“A Bright Shining Lie,” page 285

Vann didn’t waver from his position on how the war should be fought.  Like everyone else in those innocent years of the early 1960s, including reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam, he believed that America had a moral obligation to “stem the Red tide” in Southeast Asia.  But while Halberstam, Ellsberg, ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and much of the rest of the world eventually recognized the folly of that tragic conflict (McNamara secretly), Vann clung to it like one of his many sex partners, and still believed, at least publicly, that it could be won.

A one-time dirt-poor Southern cracker, in Vietnam Vann transformed himself into ”The Most Interesting Man in the World.” He embraced President Richard M. Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization (gradually transferring combat roles back to South Vietnam), which incorporated Vann’s pacification ideas. Nixon in turn gave him smiles and pats on the back. He both finagled and earned stars to put on his résumé. His fighting instincts and courage were beyond reproach. He found a home in that land of atrocities and waste. Reading this book, one gets the impression he’d have been content if the war continued forever.

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Vann’s June 1972 burial at Arlington National Cemetery was a who’s who of principal players in the conflict, civilian and military.  Sheehan was there.  When he looked around and saw the faces, it struck him how Vann’s scarred life and tragic death were a metaphor for the war itself.  Vann’s funeral, in fact, was the genesis for Sheehan’s book.

William Westmoreland

(Spoiler Alert)…Vann’s discarded family was at the funeral, too.  Afterwards, they met with Nixon in the Oval Office.  Nixon was to award Vann a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Vann’s second of four sons, Jesse, had just been drafted.  Earlier that day he’d torn his draft card in two and placed one half on his father’s casket.  He intended to hand the other half to Nixon.  He was talked out of doing this only at the last second.

The president had been alerted to what Jesse might do.  After Jesse reluctantly shook hands with Nixon, the president offered a muffled “Thanks.”  He’d been saved from embarrassment.

The image of an uncomfortable Nixon greeting a 21-year-old boy whom he’d tried to send to Vietnam—a boy whose father had just been wasted by the war Nixon was prolonging—is hard to stomach.  But it happened.  There’s a photo of the Vann family with Nixon in the Oval Office.

Of the eleven people lined up for that photo, Nixon is the only one smiling.

A Salty Side Trip to Key West

Some places are more “salty” than others. Not surprisingly, they all have a close relationship with water…with the fringes. Key West, Florida, U.S.A. is one of them.

Key West is the southernmost island in the chain of islands that dangles like a string of pearls off the southern tip of Florida.  My wife Lynn and I visited last month while scouting retirement locations on the mainland (see previous post).

Residents call their tiny speck in the ocean the “Conch Republic.”  (Conchs are small, meaty, edible monstrosities that find homes in those shells you hold to your ear to hear the ocean.)  In 1982, after a stress-inducing U.S. Border Patrol roadblock, locals became angry and seceded from the United States.  Sort of. It was a mock secession, but residents use the incident now to boost tourism.  Key West even flies its own micro-nation flag. These folks obviously have a great sense of humor.

For such a small place, Key West has a lot going for it.  Here’s a quick tour:

L to R: Dave, Robin, Lynn, Anonymous

We stayed with friends Dave and Robin at the condo they rent every year.  I met this super-friendly retired couple while hiking the Appalachian Trail last year.  (Their permanent home is in the mountain village of Hiawassee, Georgia.)  Although we only had a brief meeting on trail, we hit it off. They invited us to stay with them, and now we’re like old friends.

The first night the four of us ate at Half Shell Raw Bar, where I satisfied my craving for seafood with raw oysters and conch fritters.  The following morning, Dave and I hiked around the island for several hours while Robin and Lynn hung out at the condo.

Then Lynn and I embarked on a whirlwind (hurricane) tour of tourist spots.  First we saw the Harry S. Truman Little White House where, beginning in 1946, President Harry Truman spent 175 days of his presidency.  His famous desk plaque that says “The Buck Stops Here” is on one of the desks.  Other presidents, dating to William Howard Taft, have also stayed here…some, like 45, who pass the buck more than others.

Truman Little White House

Next, we had nachos and Key lime pie (a KW essential) at the original Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Duval Street, which ranks with Bourbon Street, Times Square, and Court Street at my alma mater (Ohio University) for party spirit.  Although I’m closer to Deadhead than Parrothead, food is what mattered at this moment, and Buffett’s came through for us (largest pile of nachos—a veritable food castle—I’d ever seen).  Also, friendly service by an actual lifetime resident…a Conch, not a recently arrived Freshwater Conch.

(NOTE: authentic Key lime pie is always pale yellow, never green.  Don’t get the wrong color!)

The next stop was the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A.  We actually hit this place by accident while strolling around.  The spot is identified by a large, concrete, buoy-type structure painted an ugly red, black, and yellow.  (The structure was vandalized this past New Year’s Eve by two drunken tourists who couldn’t get laid).

Musician Jimmy Buffett…
…and Margaritaville. Anyone seen a shaker of salt?

It’s important to know that this is not the southernmost point of the U.S., merely the contiguous U.S.  (The true southernmost location in the U.S. is the south tip of the island of Hawaii.)  It’s also worth noting that the concrete buoy is designed merely for tourist purposes.  (The actual southern tip of Key West is a half mile west at the Naval Air Station.)  Also, while advertised as only “90 miles from Cuba,” the distance is actually 94 miles; four miles is a lot of ocean to dog-paddle.

Tourists lining up at false southernmost point

As John Lennon sang, “Just gimme some truth.”

But I guess a lot of people choose to ignore truth, because they dutifully line up in sweltering heat to have their photo taken while posing next to this large, ugly, recently vandalized, painted cement buoy.

Continuing on, we passed the Key West AIDS Memorial at White Street and Atlantic Boulevard near Higgs Beach (one of two sand beaches on the island).  Key West has long been known as a community sympathetic to gays, and the memorial has engraved names of 1,240 people in the Florida Keys who died from complications of AIDS.  It was the first municipal tribute to AIDS victims in the world.

Speaking of profound tragedies, further down is a memorial to Africans who in 1860 were rescued by the U.S. Navy from a Cuban-bound slave ship, the Wildfire.  Despite their rescue, over 300 died from disease and malnourishment and were buried in a mass grave beneath the sand.

I found these last two memorials more interesting than the Southernmost Point. And, of course, there were fewer people.

***

The following day, Dave joined me in a jaunt to the Ernest Hemingway House on Whitehead Street.  Here’s where one of America’s greatest writers lived from 1931-39.  “Papa” wrote several long and short works here, including his popular short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“You might as well take my last cent,” a disgusted Hemingway said as he thrust a penny at his second wife, Pauline.  She’d recently built a pool that was two-and-a-half times the cost of the property.  (Guess she thought this was cute, because she preserved the penny in concrete.)  And lazing and prowling around the property are dozens of six- and seven-toed (polydactyl) cats.  It’s still speculative that the felines are descended from a Hemingway cat named “Snowball.”

A writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.

Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway study. He wrote in a separate annex.

Southern-Gothic playwright Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also lived in Key West, though we missed a visit to his house.  We also need to someday submerge ourselves in the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum.  Fisher was an American treasure hunter who, in 1973, discovered the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which had sunk in Florida waters in 1622.

That’s about it, mainlanders.  Hope you enjoyed the tour, and next time you eat Key lime pie, make sure it’s not green.

Coastal scene, Key West