Saturday, February 13, 2010

American Ships, Sailors and Soldiers: A history of Sea Power and disaster relief

"The Great White Fleet" Comes to the rescue in Italy, 1909

America's leading role in emergency assistance following last month's devastating earthquake in Haiti and the huge numbers of US Navy ships, sailors and soldiers sent to help has been lauded worldwide.

But there is always one critical jackass who gets it all wrong and finds it easier to broadly criticize a response to a huge crisis rather than helping solve its problems.

The jackass in this case is a well known Italian politician, Dr. Guido Bertolaso. He is Italy's national civil defense director and their special envoy to Haiti. A few days after the Haiti quake Mr. Bertolaso made a quick visit and immediately issued scathing criticism of the effectiveness of the entire relief effort to the international press before his superiors could call him quickly back home.

He particularly singled out the US-led efforts calling them a "pathetic" failure. His blistering remarks included an observation that America, "... when confronted by a situation of chaos, tends to confuse military intervention with what should be an emergency operation, which cannot be entrusted to the armed forces."

You bet Guido. You seem to know even less about your own country's history than many politicians your age here in America know about ours. The irony is that you must have missed reading about the big historic commemoration in Italy in 2009 recognizing America's military relief efforts there after a terrible Southern Italian earthquake in 1909.

Doctor Bertolaso was twice put in charge of Southern Italy's massive garbage crisis in 2007 and 2008. For months on end mountains of garbage in and around Naples remained uncollected, putrefying in the summer heat and displayed in photos on the front pages of the world's newspapers. The problem still is not totally solved. So Guido knows an "utter failure" when he sees one.

Here's a quick history lesson for everyone about the effectiveness of the American military in earthquake relief. I found a scholarly article by Prof. Jeff Matthews, an expat scholar, historian and teacher who has lived with his wife in Naples, Italy for decades. His English language, web based, "Around Naples Encyclopedia," has a worldwide following.

His latest article, reprinted below, spurred me to present this iHandbill article about the historic connection between today's American military help in Haiti and our much earlier help in Italy.

The Great White Fleet & the Messina Earthquake
On July 27, 1909, the New York Times reported that “The first baby born in a new house in Messina was named Theodore Roosevelt Lloyd Belknap Palmieri”! This was Mr. & Mrs. Palmieri's tribute to those American politicians and diplomats who had organized the relief effort in aid of the city of Messina, Italy, devastated by a powerful earthquake on the morning of December 28, 1908. The quake killed about 60,000 people and destroyed much of the city. (Some estimates of the number of dead are as high as 200,000.) In the months following the quake, US aid was considerable and—to explain the “new house” in the above quote—included the building of 1,500 frame houses. The rest of the name: Teddy Roosevelt was US president at the time of the quake; Lloyd C. Griscom was the US ambassador to Italy; and Reginald Rowan Belknap was the US Naval Attaché in Italy.*

American Relief Troops in Messina, Italy 1909

The early aid was immediate and direct. It came in the form of ships from the US Great White Fleet, which was circumnavigating the globe and, at the time of the quake, found itself in the “home stretch,” as it were, of a cruise of 43,000 miles—16 modern warships, employing 15,000 men—in a brash display of young US sea power. The cruise lasted from December, 1907, through February, 1909, and was under the command of Admiral Charles S. Sperry. The Great White Fleet went from Hampton Roads, Virgina, around South America and up to San Francisco; then, across the Pacific to Australia, the Philippines and Japan, and then across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, west across the Mediterranean, through the Straits of Gibraltar and back home across the Atlantic.

The fleet was in Egypt when it received news of the Messina earthquake. The flagship, Connecticut, with support vessels, arrived in Messina on January 9, 1909, with thousands of pounds of food, medicine and temporary shelters for survivors. About 17,000 persons were pulled from the rubble, their lives saved by the heroic efforts of the combined search and rescue crews of the US ships and of vessels of other nations that were near Messina at the time of the quake. The US ships docked at the port of Naples during operations, and their presence is noted in the January issues of il Mattino, the Naples daily newspaper. The fleet stayed until late January and then left for home. In January, 2009, 100 years after the fact, ceremonies were held in Messina to commemorate the international effort that helped the city through the tragedy. I really do wonder what happened to Theodore Roosevelt Lloyd Belknap Palmieri. I hope he had a fine life.

Jeff Matthews

One of 1,500 sturdy wooden frame homes built in Messina with US Aid
Thanks to "Around Naples Encyclopedia"

*see American House Building In Messina And Reggio: An Account Of The American Naval And Red Cross Combined Expedition (1910) by Reginald Rowen Belknap, pub. G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Obama's Change and the Bush Mess : Have We Forgotten to Remember?

The montage of photos above is not a cheap humorous poke at George W. Bush. It is, instead, a montage of reminders of who ran this country into the ground for eight years as our president leaving a Gordian mess for someone else to deal with.

How could we so quickly forget those almost daily blunders, gaffes, petulance and national disgraces we endured? George W. Bush has all but disappeared inside his tony gated community in Dallas. The mess he is responsible for has not disappeared and blame for it should not be craftily assigned to the new occupant of the White House.

It seems to be human nature for us to want to forget times that were embarrassing, damaging and disappointing. And after the Bush legacy turned out to be a jaundiced irresponsible house of cards, it seems easier for many to develop near hysterical rage at the mess itself rather than at those responsible for it.

Bush's historic damage could be a national rallying point, like the ruins of the twin towers, pulling us together to work for national change with patience, sacrifice and understanding. instead the damage itself has turned into a cheap political blame game. A kick-me sign for the angry and deluded.

Eight years of Bush, Cheney, and the cynical political puppetry of Karl Rove succeeded in driving a deep polarizing wedge into the heart of this country. Bush projected to the entire world an "our way or the highway" tough guy attitude. Great sound bites, but his "way" made a mockery of truth, reason, and the law.

Sadly, that "join the posse and let's go shoot up the bad guys" invitation was simple and appealing to lots of Americans. And it still is to a certain group. Suddenly it seemed, we were off to round up and hang Saddam Hussein before you could say "there ain't no weapons of mass destruction."

Unfortunately, the Bush folks with their "shock and awe" invasion had not gotten around to figuring out how to pay for that war. They later decided the US would use its big credit card, expecting the Chinese and other foreign buyers to buy our debt to pay for it. Mission accomplished ... again.

At the end of the eight year commute from Crawford, Texas to Washington D.C. huge piles of lifeless post-Bush toxic fat cat Wall Street gambling debt began smell and grow. Leaders of the party that happily allowed it to happen began to deny they caused the problem and that somehow it was all the new administration's fault for recklessly spending so much money and trying to "do too much."

The funereal visage of Republican minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, sternly casting the blame on the new president is pure Republican looking glass politics. Obama and and his political HAZMAT team hit the ground his first day in office trying to deal with with a sea of red ink and the fiscal flotsam swirling around in it. A grave potential for another great depression loomed. Welcome to the Oval Office.

But those who sanctioned their party's role in letting Wall Street bring our nation to the brink of a major depression immediately began loudly blaming the new leadership for all the problems. That kind of old, cheap political role-reversal tactic should make concerned Americans very angry. But chaos, loss of income, and an almost adolescent expectation of some sort of instant fix makes many reassign blame somewhere, anywhere.

A large majority was eager to welcome the new "Change We Can Believe In." But before the outgoing tenants could leave town, eight years of hidden party trash and dirty Wall Street linen that had been stuffed out of sight burst the seams of the White House for all to see. It was important to the outgoing leadership that the new tenant somehow be blamed for the irresponsible, out of control problems.

Kentucky Senator McConnell and the unified "No" vote chorus he conducts began immediately to try to fix the new horse race. Using latent and not so latent racism present in so many of their party, as well as so-called independents they began a steady attack on the messenger, Barack Obama. Easier to blame the black president whom so many already refuse to accept as "their president" for not having cleaned up everything his first year in office than to pitch in and help with the clean-up. Just say no.

Americans who had been unconcerned about buying things with money they did not have, and who gleefully expensive bought houses for nothing down like there was no tomorrow were now suddenly losing homes, jobs, savings. Suddenly they are all upset and concerned about the economy and want someone to blame. Memories of eight years of suffering Bush and Cheney abuses have drifted to the edges of today's short memory span, it seems.

The new guy, and all his highly intelligent advisers are telling Americans how tough things are with no sugar coating. Obama explains, in detail, the depth of the problems and calls for tough change. Instead of using vapid four word sound bites that sound so good, Obama tackled the unexpected problems he inherited head on, while also repairing America's tattered international image. The harsh reality of it all seems to many to be "change they don't want to believe in." Everything is now grim and uncertain.

Those in a blind state of denial include many of Obama's own majority party Democrats who, much like Senator McConnell, want to ignore reality so they can fight for their narrow political interests just like the elephant was not in the room.

Playing a blame game will not haul us out of the huge mess we are in. Taking a minute to reflect on the montage of photos above might, however, help us remember where a majority of this mess came from and why a majority voted for change. But change rather than sound bites requires a lot more of Americans. Health care for all Americans has been shoved aside for more than 70 years because it requires dedicated support and buy-in. Genuine Republican support in drafting a National Heath Insurance plan could have made that a reality. But it was easier to vote no and play like we are on an all expense paid weekend in Oz. But the curtain has been pulled back.

President Obama clearly believes that a positive American spirit will ultimately prevail. A majority of Americans clearly still want the change they voted for and should not let a small but loud populist uproar from pontificating short-sighted dour losers drown out reason and resolve.

The natural instinct has always been for progressive and truly involved Americans to pitch in and be part of a solution to tough problems. Throwing blind tantrums and brewing up more anger at feel good tea-parties is good only to fill the endless dead space of side-show cable TV.

Photo montage by Larry Ray