Biden, disasters, Military, politicians, politics

A comparison of presidential condolences…

This morning, I read an article in the Washington Post about the father of one of the Marines who died last week in Afghanistan. The father, whose name is Mark Schmitz, was at Dover Air Force Base, waiting for his son’s remains to be repatriated. Schmitz’s son, Jared, was 20 years old when he perished. Schmitz was reportedly angry, and initially didn’t want to speak to Joe Biden. He didn’t vote for Biden, and he blames the president for the fact that his son died.

But then Mr. Schmitz changed his mind, and he and his ex wife did speak to President Biden, just days after losing Jared to a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Schmitz said he “glared” hard at the president, so Biden paid more attention to Schmitz’s ex, speaking of his son, Beau, who died in 2015. I suspect that Biden might have thought that reminding the grieving family members that he’s lost a child, too, was his clumsy attempt at empathy.

Naturally, Mr. Schmitz didn’t want to talk about Beau Biden. He wanted to talk about Jared, who died much too young. And Schmitz is pissed off at Biden because his son is gone. He said to Mr. Biden, “Don’t you ever forget that name. Don’t you ever forget that face. Don’t you ever forget the names of the other 12… And take some time to learn their stories. ”

According to Schmitz, Biden’s response was “I do know their stories.”

Schmitz did offer “kudos” to Biden for one thing. Biden pulled out a card that he carries in his breast pocket that shows the number of Americans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the end of the card, Biden had written “Plus 13.” Schmitz was apparently glad to see that Biden wasn’t totally full of it, even if his comments seemed “scripted and shallow”. Schmitz also recognized that the meeting must have been very hard for Joe Biden. Schmitz said:

“It had to be one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. You make some calls, here’s the aftereffect. It’s got to be difficult. I’m not saying it was easy at all. But you can’t run up and hug someone as if you had nothing to do with it. It’s not going to work that way when you’re commander in chief.”

Other people were a lot angrier at Biden. One person said she hoped he burned in Hell. Roice McCollum, the sister of Ryan McCollum, one of the fallen, said this to the Washington Post:

“He cannot possibly understand… My dad and I did not want to speak to him. You cannot kneel on our flag and pretend you care about our troops. You can’t f— up as bad as he did and say you’re sorry. This did not need to happen, and every life is on his hands. The thousands of Afghans who will suffer and be tortured is a direct result of his incompetence.”

As I read this account of the “tough” meeting Biden had with the families of the mostly very young American servicemembers who died in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help but remember an incident from October 2017 involving Donald Trump. On October 4, 2017, there was a deadly ambush in Niger, and two weeks after the event, Donald Trump made phone calls to family members of the fallen Soldiers. One of the calls he made was to Myeshia Johnson, widow of La David Johnson. La David Johnson was one of four Army Soldiers who had died in the ambush.

Prior to making the phone call, Trump was advised by former Marine General John Kelly, who lost his own son in Afghanistan when the 29 year old stepped on a land mine. Kelly told Trump a story about how his best friend, Joe Dunford, was Kelly’s casualty officer, and said something along the lines of this:

Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. 

In my 2017 blog post about Trump’s interaction with La David Johnson’s family, I wrote:

It seems to me that if you are two guys in the military, brothers in arms, as it were, it would make sense to say something like what General Kelly’s friend and casualty officer said. People who serve in the military understand that there is risk when a war is going on. They can talk to each other about the business of war, because they have a concept of it. They understand the job; they’ve been through the training and indoctrination; and saying something like “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do…” makes sense. However, I don’t think the same thing is true for family members of the fallen.

In the course of Trump’s phone call intended to express condolences to Myeshia Johnson, he forgot La David Johnson’s name. He told Mrs. Johnson, who was pregnant at the time, that her husband “knew what he signed up for… but it hurts anyway.” And then Trump said, “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do…” If memory serves, Trump also repeatedly referred to La David Johnson as “your guy” to his grieving wife.

I don’t know why La David Johnson joined the Army, and I certainly don’t know what his wife knew about her husband’s motives for serving. Maybe he wanted to be a Soldier because of a sense of duty, or maybe he just wanted the money and benefits. Maybe it was a combination of factors that influenced him to join. But I am willing to bet that Johnson would have preferred to have been with his wife and children to being in Niger. Even if Johnson actually did prefer to be working in Niger, as a spouse, I sure wouldn’t want to hear that my husband preferred a war zone to being at home with me. I’ll bet Mrs. Johnson didn’t want to hear that, either.

When Mrs. Johnson later complained about how tone deaf and insensitive Trump’s phone call was, Trump didn’t apologize. Instead, he tweeted “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”

Meanwhile, Myeshia Johnson said that Trump’s phone call had made her feel worse. She said, “… I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said he couldn’t remember my husband’s name.”

As people condemned Trump’s graceless handling of the Niger ambush, Trump took the opportunity to throw shade at past presidents. He said, “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls – a lot of them didn’t make calls.”

Now… I’m not saying that the families of the fallen who met with Joe Biden are wrong to be angry. I’m sure that a lot of them didn’t vote for Mr. Biden, and they think Donald Trump would have handled leaving Afghanistan better. They see Biden as “weak”. He has a very different personality than Trump has. He doesn’t come across with as much charisma, force, or bluster. They perceive Biden’s less flashy personality as less effective, and they blame Biden for “fucking up” the exit from Afghanistan as he ended America’s longest war.

Personally, I am shocked that only 13 Americans have been lost, so far, in the departure from Afghanistan. I think if Trump had been in charge, the fallout would have been much worse. Moreover, I am impressed by the number of people who were successfully evacuated from Afghanistan. According to the Washington Post, over 124,000 people have left Afghanistan alive. Yes, we did lose 13 Americans last week, and that’s a terrible thing. And there’s nothing anyone can say or do to make the families of those who died feel better. But, I do think Mr. Biden’s attempt at offering condolences was much better than Trump’s attempts to comfort the bereaved.

Some people seem to have forgotten that Donald Trump has historically had no empathy for other people’s pain and suffering. I remember what he said about the late John McCain, who was captured and tortured in Vietnam. Donald Trump, who never put on a uniform because of his “bone spurs”, called John McCain a “fucking loser”. Trump also said of McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

Trump also memorably referred to members of the military as “losers and suckers”, having canceled a trip to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018. At the time, Trump falsely claimed rainy conditions had made it impossible for the helicopter to fly, and the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there. The truth is that Trump was worried about his hair getting mussed in the rain, and he didn’t think honoring the American war dead was important enough to risk messing up his hair. According to an article written by Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic:

In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.

As I read about people who are angry at President Biden because 13 Americans died at an airport suicide attack in Kabul, then they criticize Biden’s attempts to express condolences and apologize, I can’t help but wonder how they would have reacted to Trump in the same situation. People died during the Trump administration, too. I wonder if Trump would have met personally with those family members, having remembered each and every servicemember’s name and story. I wonder if he would have pulled out a card with the names of the fallen written down. I also wonder if there would have been more dead servicemembers sent home.

The United States has been engaged with Afghanistan for 20 years. A lot of money, time, and talent has been wasted on a country whose people are still living in a different era. It was time for the conflict to end. I don’t think there was a way to win in this situation. It was bound to be messy.

Many people, safe at home, are blaming Biden. Some are also blaming military leaders, claiming that they should have recognized the threats and addressed them. I guess it’s only natural to try to second guess what people do and the decisions they make in a war zone. I just wonder if people ever stop and think about it longer than a minute.

My husband spent thirty years in the Army. He never went to Afghanistan, but he did go to Iraq. Bill never talks about what should have been done in Afghanistan, in spite of his experience. He can’t speak to what should have been done, because he wasn’t there. Most of the people who are criticizing the president and the military don’t have a concept of what was going on in Afghanistan, beyond what was in the news.

I get that the families of the fallen are grief stricken. I understand that many of them preferred Trump to Biden, and this is a great opportunity for them to cement their hatred of Biden. But, as the wife and daughter of military veterans, I can’t help but notice the difference between Biden’s style of presidential condolences and Trump’s. I think I would much prefer Biden’s clumsy attempts to comfort– talking about his son, Beau, and compulsively looking at his dead son Beau’s watch– to Trump’s tone deaf attempts– forgetting the names of the fallen, bickering with widows on Twitter, and falsely claiming that he cares more than other presidents did in similar circumstances.

In my view, Donald Trump would not have done any of this better. It probably would have been an even bigger fiasco. More people would have died, and fewer would have been evacuated. And when it came time to comfort the grieving, history shows that Trump would have probably really fucked things up even more.

I have never served in the military myself, but I have been surrounded by veterans my whole life. One thing I’ve learned is that everyone who serves knows that there’s a chance they could be killed. That’s something that comes with the territory of military service. But, if you think about it, there’s a risk in everything we do. Hell, nowadays, just breathing can get you killed.

I’m glad that the people who met with Joe Biden had the chance to look him in the eye, speak to him, accept hugs from him, or even tell him they hope he rots in Hell. Under Trump’s watch, they would have probably just gotten a phone call at the very most, with glib cliches about “knowing what they were getting into” and “dying doing exactly what they wanted to do…” coupled with forgotten names, awkward stammering, and no chance to respond.

Joe Biden didn’t kill those people who died in Afghanistan last week. They were killed by a terrorist. The young man who strapped 25 pounds to explosives to himself, went to the gate, and blew himself up for his god is the one who did the killing and maiming. If anyone should be blamed for those senseless deaths, it’s that guy, and people like him. The last military plane left Afghanistan this morning. Thank God for that. I hope we don’t ever go back. I congratulate Joe Biden for finally ending our 20 year war with Afghanistan… and for having the courage, humility, and decency to meet with the people who are grieving the tragic loss of their family members.

There’s a stark contrast in Biden’s sense of duty compared to Trump’s… Again, from my blog post from 2017, regarding La David Johnson’s death:

La David Johnson was laid to rest yesterday.  His devastated widow was there with the children and Sergeant Johnson’s other loved ones.  Mrs. Johnson kissed her husband’s casket goodbye as she clutched two folded American flags. 

Trump, by contrast, was playing golf, as usual… and, ever classy, he posted on social media as mourners were preparing for the funeral…

What a tragic disaster this man is.

Think about it.

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Ex, musings

Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man…

Every once in awhile, when the weather is rainy and dark and Bill is at home, we like to have a leisurely breakfast while listening to music. This morning, it was a live album I bought by the late Allen Toussaint. Released in 2013, Songbook is just Allen on his piano, playing wonderful music. Although I’ve been exposed to Allen Toussaint’s music all of my life, I never bothered to listen to him just by himself. The closest I came was in 2007, when Bill gave me The River in Reverse, an album Toussaint made with Elvis Costello the year after Hurricane Katrina wiped out Toussaint’s home and recording studio in New Orleans.

I loved The River in Reverse. We were living in Germany the first time when Bill presented it to me. In those days, I had an elliptical machine that I used sometimes in a futile attempt to burn fat. We set it up in the mother-in-law suite in our house, along with a TV and an old school stereo with a cassette and CD player. I think it also had a USB portal, but in those days, I wasn’t USB savvy. Anyway, even though I loved The River in Reverse, I never explored Allen Toussaint further until recently.

I have Keb’ Mo’ to thank for re-introducing me to Allen Toussaint. I recently purchased a second copy of his wonderful live album, The Hot Pink Blues. I already had that album from iTunes, but thanks to upgrading to Catalina, my music library is a bit fucked right now. I have a Bose speaker that works well with Amazon Music, so I’ve found that it’s easier to just buy another copy from Amazon of the albums I really love. Allen Toussaint’s Songbook was a suggestive sell… and I’d probably been drinking (I’m really great at “drunken downloads”). So I downloaded Songbook and it was the musical backdrop for us this morning after I listened to Allen’s thirteen minute version of “Southern Nights”. By the time he’d finished, I was a bit weepy. I had to share it with Bill, who also got verklempt listening to Allen Toussaint describe his childhood in Louisiana. Bill and I both come from rural southern roots, so the story he told resonated with us.

No story telling in this version, but you can hear Toussaint’s evocative piano playing. I compare it to Pat Conroy’s vivid writing style. Allen Toussaint doesn’t even have to sing. The piano playing tells the story. Bill is distantly related to the late Glen Campbell, too. Glen Campbell made “Southern Nights” a huge hit.

I was also made emotional by Toussaint’s lovely piano playing. Playing piano was effortless to him and, I could tell, making beautiful music was a passion and a joy for him. I was thinking about what a privilege it must be to have the power to make total strangers misty at the beauty of music you’ve made. I have had a few people cry when I’ve sung, but they’re mostly people who love me anyway. I never met Allen Toussaint when he was alive; I never made it to a single one of his shows. But listening to his music this morning felt very intimate. I could relate to where he’d been. He made me cry.

Allen Toussaint was fortunate enough to die at a “good age”… and he didn’t spend weeks sick and dying in a hospital bed. Instead, he played his last concert in Madrid, Spain, then died of a heart attack in his hotel room. He left behind a treasure trove of wonderful music that still makes people feel things and sometimes get a little weepy.

Bill and I love to sit around, drink wine, and listen to great music, especially when the weather sucks. We’ve had some great conversations this way. Fortunately, we have compatible tastes in music and he’s very open minded to hearing new things. He’s often told me I greatly expanded his musical repertoire, which was not an experience he had with his ex wife. She liked Top 40 and pop country, and ridiculed Bill for liking alternative and grunge music. She claimed he was just trying to be “hip”. Instead of being a unifying thing, music was something to fight over in their relationship.

Ex would use music to belittle Bill. She’d play songs as a means of showing what kind of man he should be. He can’t stand listening to “To Really Love a Woman” by Bryan Adams or “Strong Enough” by Sheryl Crow, because those were songs Ex ruined for him. Or she’d make up insulting lyrics to hit songs as a means of putting him down. It got to the point at which Bill would respond in kind. Like, when she’d sing “Never Gonna Get It” by EnVogue, he’d respond with “Really don’t want it.” Or he’d hum “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull when she was around.

I don’t think music should be used as a weapon. I love it too much to use it to hurt other people.

As we were talking over Allen Toussaint’s music this morning, the subject of conflict came up. Bill doesn’t like conflict, which has led him to a lot of trouble. Some of the problems he’s had come about due to not wanting to fight have been very serious. For instance, on the day he married his ex wife, he knew the marriage would fail. He had voices in his head telling him he shouldn’t marry her. They even fought on their wedding day. But instead of disappointing his ex wife by calling off the wedding, they married and spent almost ten rocky years together. It’s taken years to mostly undo the mess, which has affected a lot of innocent people.

As we were talking about how sometimes fighting is the right thing to do, I was suddenly reminded of a classic hit from 1979. Written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler, “Coward of the County” was made famous by Kenny Rogers, who sang as if he was the uncle of a young man named Tommy whose father died in prison when he was ten years old. Tommy’s father told him not to get into trouble. He didn’t want his boy to die in prison. He made Tommy promise to “turn the other cheek” and avoid fights, even when he really wanted to knock the hell out of someone. Tommy faithfully honored his promise to his dad, and let others walk all over him. Everyone in the county called him “Yellow”.

Then one day, the “Gatlin boys” came calling. They assaulted and gang raped Tommy’s girlfriend, Becky. When Tommy found his love battered, bruised, and shattered by the three brothers’ brutality, he was torn between wanting to avenge Becky and stop people from calling him “Yellow”, and honor his promise to his father that he would stay out of trouble. Tommy makes up his mind, goes into town, and puts all three Gatlin brothers out of commission. It’s not clear if he used his fists or a firearm, nor do we know if the boys were killed or just knocked out cold. Then Tommy says that he’s always tried to walk away from trouble when he can. But sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.

A classic song… even though one of the songwriters supposedly had a feud with the legendary singing group, the Gatlin Brothers. The legend goes that songwriter Roger Bowling said, “Fuck you, Gatlin.” to Larry Gatlin when he congratulated Bowling for winning an award for one of Kenny Rogers’ other hits, “Lucille”. Interesting story.

I couldn’t resist playing it for Bill, who smirked and said, “It’s kind of a cheesy song.”

I disagree. It’s 40 years old and still resonates. As Bill pointed out, they made a movie out of it. There’s a lot of truth in the lyrics, too. Sometimes you have to get in a minor conflict now to avoid a major one later. It would have been better if Tommy could have been more assertive when he was younger. Maybe those Gatlin boys wouldn’t have had their way with Becky. Maybe Tommy wouldn’t have had to dispatch them in such a dramatic way. We wouldn’t have been left with such a classic song or story, either.

After listening to the song, Bill agreed it wasn’t so cheesy after all. Especially as we face down another week here in Germany.

We finished our coffee and Bill took Arran for a walk. Now he’s at AAFES looking for board games to play and a jigsaw puzzle for us to do today while he cooks a rib roast for dinner. I think it’s going to be one of those “easy like Sunday morning” days… even though “Easy” isn’t really a happy song, is it?

So glad I grew up in the 70s and 80s, even if it does mean I’m getting old.

It’s amazing how music can help you solve your problems. It relieves stress, lubricates conversation, makes you move, and even helps you cry when you need it. What a gift it is to have wonderful music to listen to on a rainy Sunday. I bought a bunch of stuff last night and this morning, so we’ll probably have some great conversations today.

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