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To Live and Die in LA, and Iraq

Michael Winship

"If Hitler's still alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical."So said the great comic writer and Broadway veteran Larry Gelbart, meaning there are fewer more hellish and excruciating tribulations in the arts than suffering through the birthing pains of a live show with songs as well as dialogue.

Gelbart's line had a weird, double relevance for me last week. I was out of town, in Los Angeles, co-producing a work of musical theater. About Hitler.

Sort of. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, it's actually a play about one of the Third Reich's most tragic and poignant victims, the young painter Charlotte Salomon. She was killed at Auschwitz in 1943, leaving behind a remarkable body of artwork.

The last days before our opening were a mix of panic, excitement, dread and anticipation. There were four preview performances, the quality of which varied greatly as various kinks and dings were hammered out in what's a very tech-heavy show, with three projectors flashing images from Salomon's art and complicated music and light cues. Think of the theatrical equivalent of flying a helicopter under a collapsing bridge or simultaneously rubbing your stomach and patting your head while jogging and singing "O Mia Babbino Caro."

Electrical mishaps, bruised egos, strained voices and nerves heightened tension. The potential for disaster was never far away: Ford's Theater was mentioned more than once. In the end, though, it worked. We had a successful first night. "I think we may have dodged a bullet," my friend, co-producer and show director Louis Fantasia muttered. And so far, with previews and four actual performances under our belts, audiences and critics have been kind.

But despite the last few days' total immersion in the make-believe of the stage, reality was never far away, even in the fantasy world of southern California, where, as the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote, "the American dream came too true." This past Sunday was the 15th anniversary of the acquittal of the Los Angeles police who beat Rodney King, a verdict that triggered riots, looting, 54 deaths and racial panic across the cities of United States.

Little has changed since, according to UCLA political scientist Franklin Gilliam, Jr. "The premature death rate for African Americans in LA is still nearly 10 times that of whites," he wrote in Sunday's Los Angeles Times. "And Latino and African American median family incomes are, on average, about half those of whites."

The television set at Louis' house meant Iraq was never far from our minds either. Tuesday, May 1, we were reminded, marks the fourth anniversary of President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" address aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, a piece of theater if ever there was one.

The ship was anchored just off San Diego, a quick helicopter ride away, but you'll remember the White House opted instead for the "Top Gun" flight suit and tailhook landing in a Navy Viking jet. As Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian would exclaim, "Acting!"

Last week, there were televised hearings in the House exploring the exploitive, deceitful manipulation of both the "friendly fire" death of football star Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch in Iraq, turning both events into cheap media theatrics. And there was Charlie Rose's PBS interview with the president. "Can you imagine a circumstance in which you would have to say, we did our best, good men and good women sacrificed their life, but we can't in the end do what we want to do, and we have to leave?" Rose asked.

"No," the president replied. "I can't imagine that, because I believe that with time, this Iraqi government is going to be able to reconcile and move forward."

Reality check: for American troops in Iraq, with more than a hundred dead, April was the deadliest month of the year The Washington Post reported more than 60 Iraqis "killed or found dead" on Monday alone.

The morning after I got back to New York, Louis sent me another op-ed from the LA Times, this one by Niall Ferguson. Since the Iraq war began, the historian wrote, "More than 3,100 Americans have died there, the equivalent of 100 Virginia Techs. Nearly 25,000 have been wounded in action, many of them gravely. And that's nothing compared to the number of Iraqis who have been killed as the country has slid into civil war. Fatalities among the civilian population are running about 3,000 a month. The Brookings Institution's latest Iraq survey carried one statistic that froze my blood: According to a recent poll, one in four Iraqis has personally experienced or witnessed the murder of a family member as a result of violence since the U.S.-led invasion."

Monday, the State Department released its annual global survey of terrorism. In 2006, there was a 25 percent increase in terrorist attacks worldwide, with a 40 percent increase in deaths from the previous year.

The Post noted a 91% increase of such incidents in Iraq: "Of the 14,338 reported terrorist attacks worldwide last year, 45 percent took place in Iraq, and 65 percent of the global fatalities stemming from terrorism occurred in Iraq. In 2005, Iraq accounted for 30 percent of the worldwide terrorist attacks."

While maintaining that the Iraq invasion brought down "an abusive totalitarian regime with a history of sponsoring and supporting regional terrorism," the report admits that the war "has been used by terrorists as a rallying cry for radicalization and extremist activity that has contributed to instability in neighboring countries."

That latter finding was echoed and amplified by former National Security Council terrorism expert Richard Clarke. "Of course, nothing about our being 'over there' in any way prevents terrorists from coming here," he wrote in last Wednesday's New York Daily News. "... Investing time, energy and resources in Iraq takes our eye off two far more urgent tasks at hand: one, guarding the homeland against terrorism much better than the pork-dispensing Department of Homeland Security currently does the job; and two, systematically dismantling Al Qaeda all over the world, from Canada to Asia to Africa...

"By choosing unnecessarily to go into Iraq, Bush not only diverted efforts from delivering a death blow to Al Qaeda, he gave that movement both a second chance and the best recruiting tool possible."

As a result, for terrorists, all the world's a staging area and all the men and women merely targets. We should plan our exit, and soon. As any good actor knows, timing is everything.

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.

© Copyright 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers

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