Tag Archives: protests

On Memorial Day in Normandy, Evidence of What We Won–and Lost

Photo: Eisenhower National Historic Site, National Park Service

On June 5, 1944, the eve of the largest invasion in history, General Dwight Eisenhower visited the English airfield where paratroopers were preparing to take off for their drop into France. “Quit worrying, General,” one of the soldiers told him. “We’ll take care of this thing for you.’’ The following day, 175,000 men landed on the beaches and fields of Normandy.

For children growing up in Washington, D.C., shushed into silence behind the blackout curtains while our parents bent over radios bringing the long-awaited announcement of the attack, it was all beyond  comprehension–save that every little boy was climbing into a tree to pretend he was flying his Spitfire over the Channel, or parachuting into the French countryside.

At age seven, I was one of those boys. Last week I had the good fortune to meet another member of my generation, whose experience of D-Day was something quite different. His name is Pierre Bernard, and he is retired to his family’s farm in the village of Maisons, a stone’s throw from the beaches that became the site of what the French call the Débarquement. In the spring of 1944, Pierre was twelve; with his parents and siblings, he worked the farm and waited for the Allied troops to arrive and free them from Nazi occupation. When that day finally came, Pierre recalls, the Germans simply vanished. British and then American troops soon passed through the village, moving quickly inland. His family was luckier than many others: Some 12,000 French civilians were killed during the battle for Normandy, along with more than 75,000 troops on both sides.

Today, long retired from his job as a cook in Paris, Pierre oversees a bed and breakfast in his old stone farmhouse. He’s never learned to use a computer, so his daughters help arrange who is to come, while Pierre, along with his two dogs, goes out each morning to bring back fresh baguettes and croissants. He serves them along with the jams and pates he makes himself, and sits quietly at the head of the family table, contentedly watching his guests eat breakfast.  And he’ll gladly trade war stories with a visitor who, like himself, is too young to have fought, but old enough to remember.

Normandy today still inspires awe at the courage of the men who stormed Fortress Europe: Omaha Beach, so wide and unprotected; the cliffs of Point du Hoc, higher and steeper than I could have imagined. But by now, the genuine remnants of the war—half-buried German bunkers, wrecked ships, and thousands of well-tended graves—are outnumbered by nostalgic renderings of the real thing: Army surplus stores are filled with Eisenhower jackets, berets, and rucksacks (many of them supplied by German companies). Towns compete for tourists–and a place in history—with tanks on their village squares and little museums dedicated to every aspect of “Jour J.” In Sainte-Mère-Église, where an American paratrooper famously got caught on the church steeple, a dummy is suspended from a parachute to commemmorate  the event. Then there are the British and American visitors tearing around in rented World War II jeeps, windshields down, and even a half-ton olive drab truck.  They look far too young to be veterans; too young even to have been alive at the time. The men and women who fought that war are fast disappearing (some 850 U.S. WW II vets die every day, according to the VA), and those who lived through it as children are now well into our old age.  

I was struck by how different Pierre’s old age in France is from mine in the United States—not because of anything that happened during the war, but because of what happened afterwards. In the postwar years, along with most other European countries (victors and vanquished alike), France implemented guaranteed pensions as well as national health care. Under a social welfare system that epitomizes what’s derisively referred to in the U.S. as the “Nanny State,” the average worker in France retires at age 60 on a full pension with complete medical care and various tax breaks. (And that’s after years of working 35-hour weeks, with two-month vacations.)

And what about aging Americans–including the waning ranks of the “greatest generation” that came before mine, who helped free the French and the rest of Europe, and then financed the continent’s recovery through the Marshall Plan? What can we expect? The most minimal of public pension systems, which was created before the war and has been under attack ever since; a private pension system that is now a shell of collapsing structures; personal savings decimated by Wall Street; and a partial and increasingly expensive health care system. More and more of us plan to work quite literally until we die–that is, if we can manage to keep our jobs, since we have little protection against age discrimination and no job security of any sort. In America, the war fought by “Citizen Soldiers” made our world all too safe for wealth and corporate power, often at the expense of the very men and women who won it.

In France, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has been chipping away at the Nanny State. His latest scheme—to raise the retirement age to 62—brought mass demonstrations across the country last week, and threats from the still-powerful unions. But even if Sarkozy’s latest initiative succeeds, as it well may, France’s elders will still be better off than their American counterparts have ever been.

Here in the U.S., we face a political juggernaut—most recently manifested in Obama’s “debt commission”–intent on cutting Social Security benefits, raising the costs of Medicare, extending the formal retirement age from 65 to 67 and beyond, and further tying our retirement and that of future generations to the vicissitudes of the securities markets through 401Ks and IRAs. Few voices are raised in protest against this attack on old-age entitlements. In fact, it seems to be one of the only true examples of bipartisanship in American politics, now that the Democratic Party, which once fought to build what social safety net we have, has collapsed into the arms of Wall Street. I expect it will progress with no more difficulty than “welfare reform,” in which another Democratic administration gutted our meager provisons for the poor.

In a Washington Post op-ed last Sunday, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks declared that “America’s new culture war” is a “struggle between two competing visions of the country’s future. In one, America will continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise–limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution.” If only this were remotely true.  In fact, that battle was lost long ago—if it was ever fought at all.

Perhaps I only imagine that Pierre’s life is more tranquil than mine because he enjoys the security that comes with “European-style statism,” while my own well-being remains “determined by market forces.” But I don’t think so. Sixty-six years ago, as a small boy playing pilot in the lush green trees of a Washington spring, I could not have guessed that Pierre, waiting in his farmhouse nestled in the hedgerows of Normandy for the jeeps and tanks of the First Army, would someday become a symbol not only of my country’s greatest victory, but of its saddest defeat.

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Aging Right Wingers Revolt Against AARP

Today is the day that over-50 Tea Partiers across the country are supposed to burn their AARP cards to protest the group’s support for health care reform. At least, that’s what one right-wing blogger is encouraging them to do. As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, self-described “Tea Party Patriot” Sam Mela announced the “1st Tea Party Winter Fest for Health Care Freedom & AARP Card Burning”:

The Tea Party Movement is initiating a nation-wide AARP Card Burning, on the first day of winter, December 21, 2009. This is in response to AARP’s duplicitous stance in support of Congress’ attempted thievery of ample health care away from the American people. This response is being called for due to the fact that Congress has turned a deaf ear to the will of the American people, one of the most vulnerable groups of our society, our American Seniors….

Don’t forget your lighters, AARP cards and any other AARP printed material/mailings; home made cards a/or signs…you could even dress up like Santa, or his elves, Scrooge, Tiny Tim, whatever your favorite Christmas character…don’t forget your cameras & video recorders! If YOU don’t send this message NOW, the die will be cast!

It seems unlikely that more than a few stragglers will turn out in Santa suits today to torch their membership cards (and a good thing, too, since as one of my readers pointed out, the cards are plastic). When a West Virginia Tea Party organizer called for a day of AARP card burnings earlier this month, the only reports were of a half-dozen protesters huddled around a fire in the state capital.

That hasn’t stopped Republican politicians from picking up the battle cry. John McCain recently urged AARP members to trash their cards both in Arizona speeches and on the Senate floor. (To his credit, he told them to cut the cards in half and send them back to AARP, rather than burn them.) 

Though AARP has lost tens of thousands of members over the health care reform issue, that’s a tiny fraction of its 45 million total. President Obama and Democratic senators have been making much of AARP’s support for the reform legislation, leading Sam Mela, in a post yesterday, to lament the fact that “in terms of Public Relations and Public Perception, the AARP has been able to steamroll over the Tea Party movement, without encountering even token resistance, although it would have been a simple matter for the Tea Partiers to neutralize them at any time.”

Yet the behemoth group itself seems worried about losing the PR war in what they say is the most divisive issue it has ever encountered. At a press briefing in October, one AARP executive said that despite expending significant resources, it had been unable to unite its membership, while another declared, “We face a communications challenge.” A conservative  group, the American Seniors Association, is exploiting the opportunity, offering half-price memberships to anyone who mails in their cut up AARP card. And polls consistently show the strongest opposition to health care reform comes from the over-65 crowd. 

Although, unlike most reporters covering the subject, I am a member of the age group in question, that doesn’t mean I get what this resistance is all about. Or rather, I understand there being resistance–but it’s for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been critical myself of AARP for their cozy, lucrative partnership with the health insurance industry. And I get testy when I hear about big cuts to Medicare, knowing that the “reform” will only increase the profits of insurance and drug companies. But the reform bill throws seniors a few crumbs, which is about all it does for anyone else. And it’s no threat at all compared with the Republican dreams of remaking Medicare on a privatized model, along the lines of Bush’s Part D prescription drug program. 

Beyond these details, there’s the strange fact that all this resistance comes from right-wing old folks, who enjoy the only single-payer health care program this nation has ever known. As another reader of my previous post pointed out, “Courage would require that they burn their Medicare Cards and renounce that socialism rather than a meaningless protest against a non-governmental organization.”

Like the now-famous town hall geezer who told his Congressman to “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” there’s some pretty nutty self-contradiction in the comments I’ve seen on the AARP revolt. One response to Sam Mela’s card-burning blog post attacked the organziation for being both a left-wing front and a corporate stooge: “I never have trusted this socialist orgainization that makes it money off of insruance commissions on its members.”

There’s half a grain of truth in this analysis. But somehow, it’s the red menace part that always seem to stick, while the real enemies of decent, affordable health care get a free pass.  In the end, I guess, it all boils down precisely the way it usually does in America: While a divided citizenry haggles over crumbs, the private companies take the cake.

Iran: The Protests in the Streets–and Their Cold War Precursors

As demonstrators continue to protest what was clearly a corrupt election and possibly a stolen one, police are responding with “water cannon, batons, tear gas and live rounds,” according to the BBC today. For those who want to follow what’s going on in Tehran’s streets, I’m listing some sources for breaking news and ongoing updates. With the government trying to effect a news blackout, this is first-hand reporting on the fly–and at considerable risk to those providing it. 

Tehran Bureau, which describes itself as “an independent online magazine about Iran and the Iranian diaspora,” is running this Twitter feed, describing developments as they happen.

My old colleague Laura Rozen is constantly updating a series of news links on Iran on The Cable, the blog she runs for Foreign Policy. It includes on-the-scenes reporting from Tehran Bureau and other on-the-ground sources, as well as a roundup of the best reports from more traditional Western and local new sources, official statements, and the like. 

There are also plenty of clandestine videos being released on YouTube and elsewhere, most of them shot on cell phones, showing the beating, tear gassing, and shooting of protestors. This one, sent to me by an Iranian reporter, reportedly shows how the Ahmadinejad regime prepared stacks of fradulent ballots before the election even began. 

For members of the Silent Generation like myself, all of this will bring back memories of 1953, when a coup overthrew nationalist premier Mohammed Mossadegh. While the images are familiar, however, the situation is quite different: Rather than a homegrown democratic movement, the 1953 coup was engineered by the CIA, aided by British intelligence. At the height of the Cold War, the West could not tolerate the leftist Mossadegh, especially seeing that he intended to take over the oil business from the international corporations.

iran 1953The two events are not entirely disconnected, however. The CIA-engineered coup reinstalled the despotic Shah of Iran, which in turn led more or less directly to the Islamic Revolution and the repressive regimes of today. In addition, the destructive history of American meddling inevitably affects the U.S. government’s response to the current uprising. 

The Obama administration is under pressure–mostly from the right–to make a more aggressive response to the situation in Iran. But American support for the protestors–or for Ahmadinejad’s rival Mir Hussein Mussavi–is tantamount to the kiss of death. As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the New York Times: “If we overtly take sides, the regime could well react with a massive and bloody crackdown on the demonstrators using the pretext that they are acting against an American-led coup.” Or, as he might have said, another American-led coup.