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Bringing it home
Thursday, April 10, 2008
A NEWS EDITORS' DREAM came true over the past two days, inevitably giving us gavel-to-gavel coverage. It wasn’t exactly the (original) O J Simpson trial or the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings – but what a showcase all the same!
Not only did we have the top US military man in Iraq, plus the man more arguably at the storm's center - the top US civilian coping with the political morass that military tactics haven't solved and couldn't - both coming home to tell their story on Capitol Hill. We also had all three contenders for the topmost office here at home taking turns to question the visitors, with competitive degrees of insistence.
Yesterday's House Committees couldn't match the kleig-light wattage of Tuesday's Senate appearances by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker (together above left) when Senators Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama all jolted notepad pencils and camera zoom-buttons into action every time they spoke. The Associated Press couldn't resist sending the boil-it-down headline: "Petraeus faces next President" to its more than 7,000 media subscribers.
But gleeful news editors got little that was new, with the Administration servants saying exactly what was expected -- in essence that whatever "progress" they may claim in Iraq is still "fragile and reversible", and that the current draw-down of US troops is to be followed in July by "a period of consolidation". Their message was a choreographed lead-in to today's confirmation from George W Bush of the so-called "pause" in troop withdrawal, plus his nod toward the overstretched weariness of our soldiers, by cutting their tours from 15 to 12 months.
For their part, the president's hopeful successors provided little new, either - with McCain predictably endorsing the witnesses ... Obama pressing them, unsuccessfully of course, for a withdrawal timetable ... and Clinton pressing, too, for a new policy - to no great effect. She gratifyingly but also unsuccessfully demanded (as this column has been requesting) details of the long-term "Agreement" currently being negotiated between Iraq and the US. It's not a "Treaty", you note, because that word would trigger Congressional involvement, something this Administration wants to avoid at all costs.
Perhaps the whole testimony scenario was simply overscripted as well as over-stuffed with stars. At the end of it all the only really striking media moment came when - again to no great surprise - cameras swung, jostled and largely failed to capture the man who rose from the audience to chant "Bring them home, Bring them home" before being ejected by Capitol police.
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I’M GETTING VERY TIRED OF THE BEIJING OLYMPICS’ SUPPORTERS, not least pontificating sports commentators in all media, complaining about the Olympic Flame being “dishonored” by the protests against its relay through London, Paris and most recently San Francisco.
Do these pious upholders of what they claim is a noble long tradition, asserting the “above politics” Olympian ideal of international harmony through athletics, really not know the real origins of the Flame’s trek from Mount Olympus in Greece to the site of the Games? That the much-ballyhooed trek of the torch is a practice that actually originated, not in ancient, venerable history, but with Adolf Hitler - and was orchestrated by his mediameister Josef Goebbels - for the 1936 Berlin Olympics? That the torch (seen back then, above center, being carried through Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate) was routed through countries that Hitler already had his beady eye on, notably Czechoslovakia and Austria.
There were (or has it been forgotten?) protests against that journey just like this week's, especially from demonstrators who converged on the streets of Vienna to condemn the torch's totalitarian destination. Two years later, the protestors got their summary punishment for "dishonoring" the flame. Nazi Germany occupied Austria.
FAMILY, FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES HAD THEIR CHANCE TO SAY GOODBYE this week to photojournalist Dith Pran (above right), but that job-title far from does him justice. When his death at 65 was announced on March 30th, the international reaction was huge and heartfelt. This deeply unassuming man had lived a phenomenal life.
His funeral in New Jersey, blessed by orange-robed Buddhist monks, recalled that long journey … from his being a highly-prized “fixer” during the Vietnam War for visiting western journalists to his native Cambodia, later exclusively for Sidney Schanberg, then of the New York Times … to saving the lives of some of those reporters, Schanberg included, when the murderous Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975 … to sharing the honor of the Times’ 1976 Pulitzer Prize, at the officially cited winner, Schanberg’s own insistence … to disappearing into the regime’s forced-labor system for four and a half years, continuously starved and often tortured … to amazingly effecting his escape, riddled with malnutrition and malaria … to ending up with his already evacuated family in the United States and beginning work as a Times photographer … to vigorously campaigning through the rest of his life against genocide, for out of a population of 8 million the regime had killed 2 million of his fellow-Cambodians.
Schanberg’s 1980 account of the story, in the Times’ Magazine under the headline, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” led of course to the compelling book of the same name and the unforgettable film, The Killing Fields. (Extracts from it are used to illustrate the Times’ video obituary, viewable here.)
Along with my wife (who like many others, enjoyed a warm sustaining friendship with Pran) I observed a telling vignette at the funeral home’s door.
An official stopped all of us westerners who arrived early, saying that the hour before the funeral was an hour for the family only. “I’m family,” said Schanberg. The official, a little nonplussed at Schanberg’s clearly non-Cambodian appearance, asked: “What relation are you?”
Schanberg replied “I’m his brother”. And walked in to say goodbye.