When the hell did we stop helping?

Kevin Long
Kevin Long's picture

I’ve never smoked a day in my life, but I have an old cigarette case. It’s nickel, I think, and brass-plated, or at least brass-colored. My wife found it in a thrift shop a decade ago, and got it for me because it only cost a buck, and she figured I’d like the historical significance of it. I used it as a wallet – just an affectation I picked up during the Swing Revival days – its insides made a good money clip, I didn’t need to worry about my ID or credit cards getting bent, and, I dunno, it just felt sorta’ swanky. Now that I can no longer work, I seldom wear a suit, so I’ve gone back to a conventional wallet.

Since most of us have grown up in the softpack filter-tip era, odds are you’ve never seen one of these things outside of an old movie. They were made of solid metal, and were about the size of a skinny hip flask, say about 3.5 inches wide, a bit under 5 inches long, and about a quarter inch thick. Just about the perfect size – just like a hip flask – to fit in the inside coat pocket of a man’s suit.

Generally, they were spring loaded. You’d push a little button on one side, and it would pop open like a book, with one side sallower than the other. The deeper of the two sides held about 12 or 14 cigarettes, and there was a little spring clip at the hinge that held them lightly in place so they didn’t go flying out all over the place when you opened it. It is a surprisingly elegant accoutrement for a filthy and suicidal hobby. Mine is 66 years old, and it still smells of tobacco and menthol.

I *know* it’s 66 years old because it says “Air Lift” on the lid, and has a very detailed engraving of East and West Germany. The West is in much darker, prettier brass with 22 cities labeled on it, and arrows leading from them to Berlin, which is in the blander, less-pretty east. There’s a picture of a generic looking plane that may or may not be a DC-3 with US Army Air Corps logos on it. This was a souvenir some enterprising West German engraver made for some anonymous GI back in 1948. I presume there were a billion of these things floating around, but this is the only one I’ve ever seen, and it’s beautiful.

The Berlin Airlift was probably the first really high-profile bit of brinksmanship in the Cold War. Germany was still occupied and divided. Berlin itself was in the Soviet quarter of the country, but it, too, was a divided city, the western bits controlled by the Allied occupation, completely surrounded by the Soviets who only barely tolerated them. Berlin became an easy way for a disgruntled East German to escape to the west. This angered the Soviets, and on top of that, they just wanted the whole damn city anyway.

Eventually they decided to force the issue. They cut off all roads into and out of the city, refused to allow people to bring in supplies, and attempted to starve West Berlin into surrender or evacuation or whatever.

Rather than simply roll over, the US responded by loading all those surplus bombers we had laying around with crates full of food, medicine, clothes, fuel, water, and other supplies. We’d fly over the city, drop our payloads on parachute, and fly back out. The Soviets never fired a shot, and neither did we. The entire resources of The United States Air Force, Europe (“USAFE”) were dedicated to keeping West Berlin warm and fed for eleven months – damn the expense – and finally the Soviets just gave up and re-opened the roads.

We were good people then.

In China, when Japan surrendered, at the end of World War II, we did the exact same thing: We took bombers, loaded them up with emergency supplies, flew into china, and air-dropped the stuff. There were millions of staving peasants, and they needed help right then, not in a week, or six weeks, or six months, or a year, they needed it right then. We had the ability to do it, so we did it. You can catch a glimpse of this in the final act of “Kingdom of the Sun” by Stephen Spielberg.

There were other places and times when we did this sort of thing, not because we had anything in particular to gain from it, but because we were good people, and this is what good people did: They helped out folks in emergencies. Militaries are really good at moving masses of people from one place to another really quickly, and moving supplies, so it follows logically that we’d use ours for that. You know, what with us having had the largest military in the world since 1945 and all.

So I’ve been watching “Jericho,” which is not a very good show, and about halfway through the first season some Russian bombers fly over and start dropping crates on parachute. The crates are full of food, seeds, water, medicine, fuel, and a diesel-powered electrical generator, as well as thousands of sheets of paper that say “Don’t Fight! China is your friend!” and had a picture of a happy Chinese family holding out handfuls of food. I started to get ever so slightly choked up. Then the moment passed.
Afterwards, I wondered why.

Then I saw my “Berlin Airlift” Cigarette case on the bookshelf (It’s pretty, so I keep it where I can see it, even though I don’t use it anymore) and I knew.
Think about the hurricane that hit the Philippines last year. Think of the thousands dead and the tens of thousands of others injured, ruined, and desperate. Think of all them with bodies laying in the streets, people carrying their dead kids around in their arms to keep them from getting eaten by dogs, people with no water or food, disease spreading. Think about the US Marine Corps general who said “We only have six days to save these people.” Think about all the power, the planes, the ships, and the resources the US has.
Now think about what our response was.

It certainly wasn’t the Berlin Airlift, I can tell you that. “Little and late” is a polite way of putting it. “Better than nothing” I guess, but it was a bandaid on a sucking chest wound, and we could have done so much more. And we OWED them more. The Philippines and the US have a history. We owe them.
Roll the clock back further to the Chernobyling of Japan in 2011, during which our response to our greatest ally in Asia in their greatest moment of need was nothing short of cowardly. Yes, I understand there was radiation involved, but our military is trained to deal with that, right? And you don’t need to LAND or even get particularly close to hot areas to drop crates of supplies. God knows we had the planes, the ships, even the boots on the ground. We didn’t.
Roll the clock back further to Haiti, only a couple hundred miles from the US. We flew in supplies, but got held up at the airport, which couldn’t handle the capacity of traffic, and then got held up at the border driving supplies into the country.

I remember watching this on the news, and I could not fathom – and I can still not fathom – what the difficulty was. We are the fucking United States of America! We have 162 Bombers! We have 718 large cargo planes! We have enough of a strategic food reserve to keep the US running at present rates for six months in the event of a famine. Haiti is only two hours away by jet. What’s the freakin’ holdup?

Their airport isn’t big enough? We’re the fucking United States, since when do we need a fucking airport? Just fly low and slow and drop the crap from crates! “Well, we don’t know who’d get what, and it’d all be confusing, and some people would try to take advantage and it’d be chaos and…” Fuck you! It’s already chaos! Babies are dying! Since when is it EVER better to do nothing than to save people’s lives? You know what else we could drop in? A few airborne rangers and marines to guard the crates and help distribute food and help digging people out of the rubble. How hard would that be? How hard would that be? Honestly? And we didn’t. We just screwed around with an airport and got hung up at a border and eventually sent ships in to help days later, when we could have had assistance falling from the air before the end of the first day if we’d wanted to.

If we’d wanted to.

Or maybe we couldn’t. Maybe we're just too damn disorganized and stupid. Roll the clock back to Katrina, and New Orleans. There is no excuse for what happened there. Some people blame it on Bush, some people blame it on the local government, some dipshits blame it on the poor people who didn’t leave when they’d been warned, never knowing or caring that it was the end of the month, and their welfare checks hadn’t come in, so how, exactly, were they going to pay for getting out of town, exactly? God, I hate people who think like that. “Well, I’ve got a job, and I’ve never been caught in a hurricane, so obviously I know what’s best for everyone else….” Yeah, fuck you Mayor McCheese. Fuck you and your mother, both. And shut the hell up.

And through that whole thing, insofar as I can tell, the idea of using the USAF and our massive stores of food and fuel and medicine to pull a Berlin Air Lift to save one of our own cities – inside our own country – never occurred to anyone. Never once. I don’t care who’s fault it was, fault is not the problem. The problem is that the answer was under our noses the whole time New Orleans lay dying, but no one thought to ask the question.

This is a situation that would have taken our grandparents and great grandparents about ten minutes to grasp, same as with Berlin in 1948, and the response would have been just as fast, and just as effective. But us? We can’t seem to get our shit together to do anything. Not in disasters in our own country, not in the Indian Ocean, not in Hati, not in Japan, not in the Philippines, not in whatever this year’s disaster is, not in whatever next years’ disaster is. We’ll throw bandaids at it to make ourselves feel better, eventually, but actually really put our muscle into saving lives?

No, we don’t do that anymore.

When the hell did this happen? When did we stop being the ones who helped because it was the right thing to do? And why?

We were a good people once. We did this kind of stuff without debate BECAUSE we were good people.


I’m not so sure…

Kevin long is the somewhat manic-depressive head writer of http://www.kevin-long.com who's a guest writer here at Republibot. You should check out his website. It's generally more upbeat than this article would make you believe.