Well, what with post-election posturing and legerdemain the order of the day, 40% of Filipinos living on less than a dollar a day, the population growth rate out of control at 2.36% per annum and a doubling of population by 2030 guaranteed, and given that my Pearl productivity quotient ain't what it used to be, I figure it's about as good a time as any to get back into the fray. It is, after, mudslinging season in both the Philippines and the US, and there is much at stake on both sides of the orb.
While the situations in both countries are laced with absurdity, at least in the Philippines you sort of know what to expect (dagdag bawas (add-subtract, add-subtract), flying voters, that sort of thing, see Barrel of Monkeys, 2004 Edition). Perhaps surprisingly, things appear to have gone relatively smoothly/cleanly by historical standards and none of the doomsday scenarios have come to pass (knock on wood). Sure, the guns, goons, and gold were deployed here and there and there was the inevitable vote-buying and fraud, but it wasn't the highly organized, wholesale election-stealing of the Marcos era, just the usual suspects doing their trapo song and dance. Looks like PGMA will be elected pending the interminable vote canvassing, although FPJ was recently flitting around the island of Mindanao proclaiming himself the winner and some of the shadowy figures in the background would like nothing better than to shake loose another major bout of civil unrest.
In other words, mostly good news for the country, and certainly better than the alternatives, although the political risk consultancies still have red flags on the Philippines until the election mess resolves itself. The problem is that even if we skate through the transition, GMA is legally elected with something resembling a mandate, and major unrest is averted (none of which are certainties), the new President faces one heck of a mess and had better show some unprecedented leadership and vision. If not, the Philippines is in deep doo-doo indeed.
Meanwhile, the US race is playing out in the context of the GWOT ("global war on terrorism," a key concern of POTUS - the President of the United States in State Department cable jargon), abject failure in Iraq, and events at Abu Ghraib that go beyond shocking, not to mention a growing deficit and debt burden that represent a major albatross for future generations of Americans. The Dubya style involves seemingly random elements of Texas swagger (smile when you call me that, Pilgrim), Alfred E. Neumann (What, me worry?), and Dr. Strangelove (Slim Pickens riding bucking bronco style on the A-bomb as it drops from the B-52 bomb bay, waving his hat and shouting "Yah-hoo!").
Most American ex-pats whom I talk to are thoroughly disillusioned and feel that the administration is completely out of touch, including some pretty hidebound conservatives. Makes you wonder about the 21st century status of truth, justice, and the American way, which was never all it was cracked up to be anyway (see The Wild West and the American Psyche). Also makes you wonder how in the world the American people can still support the guy, even though the country is going to hell in a handbasket and folks around the world hate us now more than ever (and we weren't exactly winning any popularity contests before 9-11).Rock-and-Roll Soundtrack
Like most members of my generation, my reference point for evaluating what's going on in Iraq is none other than the Vietnam conflict - the Nam - the Nam of Victor Charlie, Khe Sanh, Tet, Hue, Willy Peter, Jolly Green Giants and Spooky, Uncle Ho, pungee stakes, My Lai - the Nam of Proud Mary, the Doors, and boots made for walkin.' The Nam soundtrack was rock-and-roll round the clock, with Radio Saigon and the Armed Forces Radio Network pumping out the Freda Payne (Deeper and Deeper) and Archie Bell and the Drells (Tighten Up). That soundtrack helped keep me sane during the year I spent hunkered down in a radar van somewhere in the jungle near Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base (NKP), I believe it was the same year that John Kerry was plying the waters of the Mekong River.
My job was to watch hypnotic blips on a screen, abstract representations of very real B-52s out of U-Tapao and Andersen (Guam), F-111s out of Takhkli, and F-4s out of Udorn and Korat. The BUFFS ("Big Ugly Fat F***ers," aka stratofortresses) were normally outfitted with 84 500-pound bombs or 42 750-pound bombs, although the Strategic Air Command, not content with that level of incineratory power, often augmented things further by attaching 24 extra 750-pound bombs on racks attached underneath the wings, a firepower that ensured that any humans in the "bomb box" below would be transformed into Krispy Kritters. Sometimes the ordnance consisted of nape and CBU (i.e., napalm from the friendly folks at Dow Chemical that burned the flesh off while living human beings ran screaming through the night, not to mention sucking the air out of your lungs, and Cluster Bomb Units, nasty little things filled with shrapnel to impart maximum human damage).
Those BUFFs, or at least the ones flying from Guam, were often refueled in flight by KC-135 tankers based at Clark. The Philippines was strategically located and provided a central transit point and logistics base, with Subic serving the needs of the Navy and Clark those of the Air Force (I myself was among the thousands and thousands of GIs who passed through Clark in transit to Vietnam). Originally named Fort Stotsenberg after a colonel who died in 1899 while fighting in the Philippines (speaking of Nam parallels), the base originated when Teddy Roosevelt signed an executive order designating 7,700 acres for military use, with expansion to 156,204 acres in 1908. Other key events in Clark history include the first planes being based there in 1912; renaming to "Clark Field" in 1919; the surprise attack by the Japanese on December 8, 1941 that destroyed dozens of planes on the ground, leading up to evacuation by the Americans on Christmas Eve; the arrival of the first group of American POWs in 1973; the use of the base as a staging area for Vietnamese refugees after Saigon fell (1975) (over 30,000 refugees and 1500 orphans went through Clark); and the lapsing of the bases agreement and eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. (See Left by the Ship for commentary on the Amerasian children left behind by the Americans).Apocalyptic Reflections and Spooky Quagmire Parallels
Recently I have found myself relaxing at night by revisiting the classic repertoire of Vietnam flicks (i.e., Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July), most of 'em for the umpteenth time. Last night, for example, I settled in with my popcorn and headphones to watch Apocalypse Now Redux, the director's cut that includes some 49 digitally remastered minutes that almost helps the film make sense; I was particularly pleased to see a restored and expanded "French Plantation" scene that fills in a few mysterious plot gaps and highlights the bizarre, absurd nature of the war. The soundtrack itself has always sent shivers up and down my spine, particularly Jim Morrison's haunting voice starting and ending the flick with "The End." Although I've never been a huge opera fan, there's something about the Air Cav zeroing in on Charlie's Point with Ride of the Valkyries heralding imminent death and destruction that resonates, and I've long since internalized the zen absurdity of Kilgore (Robert Duvall) as he proclaims "Charlie don't surf" and "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
Nam was also the first war televised into our homes, grainy images of battle and wounded men intruding into our consciousness, our smugness and sense of invincibility gradually giving way to a painful realization that something was out of whack. Early on, our incipient anxieties were somewhat moderated by the calming voice of Uncle Walter, whose voiceovers somehow managed to take the sting out of the visual images. But even Walter could not remain supportive after the Tet Offensive in early 1968; after his visit to Vietnam after Tet to see things on the ground he joined the skeptics, leading LBJ to lament that "If I've lost Cronkite I've lost the nation" and contributing to Johnson's subsequent decision to withdraw from the 1968 Presidential race.
Anyway, I find the parallels to Iraq downright frightening. Rumsfeld looks a lot like McNamara, and I bet that a content analysis of his statements to those made by the Pentagon in 1967 would show remarkable parallels. Bush himself resembles LBJ in his paranoid us-versus-them approach (just substitute "global war on terrorism" for "cold war" and "Al Qaeda" for "commie pinkos"). However (and I never thought I'd say nice things about LBJ), at least Johnson wrestled with the moral implications of what was going down and suffered psychologically as he tried to find an exit route. Bush shows no signs of ever having given any implications, moral or otherwise, much thought.