Showing posts with label military. Show all posts
Showing posts with label military. Show all posts

11 October 2017

The Devil Loads Empty Guns


Back in the late Bronze Age, when I was a kid going to summer camp, the NRA was a sportsmen's organization. They taught firearms safety, and sponsored marksmanship competitions, and published The American Rifleman, which was pretty much the only gun magazine available, aside from maybe Shotgun News, which was basically classified ads. I learned to shoot at Camp Chewonki - I was ten or eleven, if memory serves - and I was awarded the NRA pins and patches for whichever level I got to.  I think Sharpshooter, that first year. We shot prone, sitting, kneeling, standing. Single-shot .22 bolt actions. Paper targets at fifty feet. Ten rounds. You needed to score in the black. I want to emphasize, though, that riflery was one of a mix of activities, swimming, canoeing, lanyard-weaving, woodcraft. They wanted to keep us busy, that critical mass of boys.
My dad let me buy my own .22 when I was fourteen. He was from Ohio, he'd served in the war, and like a lot of people his age, it seemed perfectly natural for kids to learn basic shooting skills. How not? He and I shot up a lot of tin cans.

I went in the military, then, with a little preparation, and qualified Expert on the .30 caliber carbine. Now, the .30 carbine is a lightweight compared to the M-14 the Marines were still being issued at the time, or the M-16 the Army had transitioned to, and they were shooting at distances out to three hundred yards, but still. Iron sights on a little gun that fired what wasn't all that much more than a pistol load? I thought I did okay.

In the years since that first .22, I've had a few other guns, a couple of single-actions, cowboy guns, a couple of auto-loaders. One of the things I've always liked about guns is their simplicity of function. I'm no good at working on cars, I couldn't take a carburetor apart, but guns are straightforward, mechanically, like a watch. The single-action Army, for example, a design that dates to 1873, has six moving parts, with three springs. There aren't that many more in a .45 auto, the 1911. Guns you can drop in sand, or salt water, and they'll still operate. That's why they were military-issue.

This is prologue. I'm telling you so you know where my sympathies lie. It's a familiar story. Anybody of a certain generation, or anybody with a certain background, is going to say more or less the same thing. They grew up in a culture where hunting and shooting were part of the metric. It didn't make you a nut. Of course, this is also a culture where military service was often the norm. So, it depends on your attitude toward that. If you can't see yourself in uniform, you might be unsympathetic. Same with guns. Or broccoli.

But my actual question here is, What the heck happened to the NRA? How did they shape-shift from a generic bunch of hunters and recreational shooters, back in the day, into this pack of rabid crazies? (Exaggeration for effect, of course, but that's how they're perceived by many.) The answer is that there was a coup, at the national meeting in Cincinnati, in 1977.

Forty years ago, a dissident group led by Harlon Carter waged a floor fight, and voted the NRA board of directors out of office. Carter's platform was simple: on 2nd Amendment issues, there's no room for compromise. Compromise means erosion, and the end result of gun control can only be confiscation and tyranny.

This is how the argument continues to be framed. If the gun-control advocates suggest banning high-cap mags, to take an example, 2nd Amendment absolutists say this is gradualism, a wolf in sheep's clothing. They've got a point. Once you start loosening the bricks in the wall, you hasten its collapse, and gun rights people simply don't believe it, when you tell them these are just common-sense measures. They know your real agenda is getting rid of guns, period. And when you come right down to it, there are people whose real agenda is getting rid of guns, period. It flies in the face of reason and experience to say that isn't true. So the problem isn't just the gun guys. The problem is that both sides believe themselves to possess the True Cross, and Satan rules their adversaries.

Where do I stand, personally? Like more than a few gun guys, I'm for gun control. But the dialogue, if you can call it that, is owned by the extremes, and what's in short supply is trust.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

25 May 2017

The Paths of Glory...


Graves at Arlington on Memorial Day.JPG
Arlington Cemetery,
Wikipedia
  • "Fear prophets and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them." -Umberto Eco 
  • “The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war's appeal.” Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
Memorial Day is the United States' official holiday to remember all the people who have died serving in our armed forces.  It's also a good day to remember all who have died in war, period.  And not just in the United States.

Now, this may sound strange to you, but one thing I would like to see is happen is the United States reinstate the draft. Personally, I believe EVERYONE should have to serve in the military, men and women alike.  My reasons are many:

(1) When only 1% of the citizenry serve in the military, and all are "volunteer", then the citizenry as a whole seems to be remarkably unconcerned about what wars, "unofficial" wars, etc., we're in.  The Middle East conflicts have seen military personnel - often "part-time" National Guard - serving 3, 4, 5+  tours of duty, and nobody seems to care.  It's someone else's child, someone else's family, and they volunteered.  Let them go where they're told.  Especially since it's somewhere "over there".  I find this unhealthy.

(2) If everyone serves in the military, then maybe certain politicians won't talk patriotism out of one side of their mouth and then yank promised veterans' benefits away with both hands.  And other things...

(3)  If we're going to police the world, then by God I think we should draft everyone, and let everyone in on what it's like to serve.  Training, education, and a greater knowledge of the world around them.  Mark Twain:  “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

(4) Recurring statements from recurring politicians (who do not/ have not/ will not ever serve) that seem to openly want / long for/ plan for war.  Again, going back to #1 - we have to stop taking our military for granted.  We have to recognize that it's real blood that is shed, real lives that are lost, real minds / bodies that are damaged, sometimes irreparably.

(5) The other side of it is that we appear to be developing a certain (small?) percentage of the military that seems to be increasing in disdain, distrust, and dislike for the non-military majority. I've been told that American civilians in general are unfit, immoral, and slothful.  (From the Walrus and the Carpenter: "I deeply sympathize." Sometimes.) As one said to a judge once, "We throw these people over the fence."  The judge replied, "Welcome to the other side of the fence." And this important:  the military is there to defend the BOTH SIDES OF THE FENCE.

Bill O'Reilly at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia (cropped).jpg
Bill O'Reilly - Wikipedia
I do believe that we take war too casually in this country, mainly because (post 1812) our wars have always (with the exception of the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11) been on someone else's soil.  (This includes the "American Indian Wars" which were all fought on what was, at the time, Native American land.)  There is an American tendency to downplay European distaste for war, European steady pursuit for diplomacy, as "liberal", if not downright cowardly. During the buildup to the Iraqi invasion, Richard Perle stated that European nations "do not have the most courageous of instincts," implying that America must intervene in inter-national affairs because Europeans are afraid to.  (Citation on NBC)  Back in December of 2005, Bill O'Reilly said "I understand Europe. They're cowards." He went on to add,
"...by and large, the European population is soft and afraid. ... They won't confront evil on any level. It is anything goes, just leave me alone. Give me my check from the government and leave me alone." (Citation on MMFA)  It's a fairly constant theme on Breitbart as they quote Neil Farage, Geert Wilders, and others among the alt-right.  

But as one response put it, "Europeans are not cowards - It's that we know war."  And they do.  The following is a list of European wars over the last 200 years:

1789-1795 - The French Revolution (the real beginning of the 19th century)
1802-1815 - The Napoleonic Wars (fought both in every country in Europe and around the world - the War of 1812 was a subset of these)
1819 - August 16 - Great Britain - "The Peterloo Massacre"
1820 - Revolts in Spain and Naples.  Crushed.
1825 - Decembrist Revolt in Moscow.  Crushed
1824-1830 - The Greek Revolt v. Ottoman Empire.  Won (because the Congress of Vienna backed it)
1830 - Serbian Revolt v. Ottoman Empire.  Won (because the Congress of Vienna backed it)
1848:  Europe went NUTS in 1848.  Some of the major armed conflicts were:
  • Revolt in France; king flees; Louis Napoleon Bonaparte is elected, then becomes Napoleon III in 1852, & launches a series of imperial wars on the continent...
  • Berlin revolt.  Crushed.
  • Viennese workers & students revolt in Austria.  Crushed.
  • Czechs revolt vs. Austrian Empire.  Crushed.
  • Milan & Venice revolt vs. Austrian Empire.  Crushed.
  • France invades & occupies Rome at the request of the Pope (they stay until 1870)
1849 - Magyars of Hungary revolt vs. Austrian Empire.  Crushed
1853-1856 - Crimean War.  Russia v. Ottoman Empire, France & Britain.
1854 - Spanish Revolution
1859 - Piedmont (Italy) v. Austrian Empire.  France joins Italy and beats Austria.
WWImontage.jpg
WW1 Montage - Wikipedia
1864 - Danish War (Prussia v. Denmark).  Prussia wins.
1866 - Austro-Prussian War (Austrian Empire v. Prussia).  Prussia wins.
1868 - Spanish Revolution (Italian king put on Spanish throne)
1870 - Franco-Prussian War (French lost; Napoleon III deposed)
1871 - Communard revolt in France.  Crushed.
1876-1878 - series of Serbian-Ottoman (Turkish) wars
1899-1902 - Boer War (Great Britain v. South African Boers).  Britain wins.
1905 - Bloody Sunday Massacre in Russia.
1912-1913 - Balkan Wars.  (sort of a preview of WW1)
1914-1918 - World War I ("The war to end all wars"...  but it wasn't).
1936-1939 - Spanish Civil War (a definite preview of WW2)
1939-1945 - World War II

Infobox collage for WWII.PNG
WW2 Montage - Wikipedia
There are reasons to pursue diplomacy when you have seen war on your home soil at least every decade for over 150 years.  There are reasons to want peace and unification when entire generations of young men have been wiped out time and again (see the list above). When cities have been bombed to rubble, and refugees have numbered in the tens of millions (WW2).  There are reasons to try to figure out what acceptable risks are when you have seen an entire continent explode, and 38 million people killed (civilian and military), over the shooting of one man in Sarajevo (WW1).  And to pursue civil accord, liberties, and responsibility when you've seen an entire continent almost drown in darkness, and almost get destroyed by war, after racist fanatics took over a government and then decided it was time to take over the earth (WW2).

Warsaw, post WW2
Wikipedia
And wars don't just end with everyone going home to a wonderful family reunion.  The scars last a long, long, long time. (Trust me on this: I lived in the South for years, and my mother was Southern.  The Civil War has not yet been forgotten and forgiven, on either side, and that was over 150 years ago. And don't even get me going on the Greeks and the Turks:  my grandfather was still furious at the Turkish invasion of Constantinople... Which happened in 1453...)

WW2 left 20 million military dead and 40 million civilian dead, and God only knows how many wounded.  There were also 60 million refugees.  Of those refugees, at least a million still hadn't found homes by 1951. And millions more weren't refugees, but were simply homeless, as whole cities were bombed into rubble, and much of the European industrial infrastructure destroyed.  And this brings up another unpleasant truth:

World War 2 is the reason why the United States became the leader of the free world and sailed into the 1950s on the biggest wave of prosperity we ever saw:  we hadn't been bombed into rubble, we hadn't lost our infrastructure, we didn't have a huge refugee population to resettle.  Our factories were at top production, when there were barely any left running anywhere else on the planet.  For years, we were the sole supplier of almost everything, and we grew very very rich.  That specific kind of economic boom will never happen again, no matter what any politician tells you, and thank God for it:   it was based on the absolute misery of most of the rest of the world.

Sadly, these lessons may have to be relearned, especially if certain parties in Europe and elsewhere have their way.  But maybe they will continue to remember, even if we do not.  They know how bad it can get.  We can only imagine.  Thank God. May it always stay that way.







30 May 2016

Where Have All The Heroes Gone?


Memorial Day 2016

I guess I noticed it more in the Sunday Comics. Our newspaper only had one comic strip that even mentioned the True Meaning of Memorial Day. OVER THE HEDGE by Michael Fry and T. Lewis. Thank you gentlemen. They mention "Remembering Our Fallen Heroes" With the last frame showing an American Flag. Two other strips mention BBQ or grilling in the back yard. Okay, maybe the other comic strips remembering the Fallen Heroes will be in tomorrow's papers. A lot of people only take the Sunday paper and everything shows up much better in color print.

When did this just become a day to grill out doors, buy a new mattress or travel on the first official day of summer? Maybe I'm just getting too old and a little cranky. But I remember when all the comics would do something special to bring up the fact that the day was set aside to remember those we've lost in war.

We still are involved in wars going on all over the Middle East. Undeclared wars for sure but American Military young people, male and female are still coming home in body bags.  Maybe nowadays we don't like to think about war. Congress won't even bring it up for debate. Almost every town and many big cities usually had a parade. I guess I'll check on the news tonight and see if any parades took place.

I was born in 1939. Okay, you do the math. For the next few years War was almost all people talked about or thought about. I was a teen in the 50s the time of the Korean War and a young mother during Vietnam. But people still talked about it. Young people protested it. Young men burned their draft cards and fled to Canada. Then the first Iraq war happened and suddenly the military was honored again. But our now those wars have been going on so long that maybe people have become complacent and jaded.

One of the first big memories of my dad happened when I was six years old and living with my grandparents in the Houston area. We actually lived ten miles from the Houston City limits. I was home from school, first grade, because I had chicken pox. My mother worked at the Consolidated Aircraft factory in Ft. Worth and it was too difficult to be absent from your job. In fact, you could be fired if you were absent without a doctor's written excuse.  Mother sent me to live with my grandparents for a few months.  I was mostly over the pox but had not gone back to school yet.

 Suddenly, my grandmother said, "There's a Yellow Cab driving up to the front of our house."
I ran to the window and saw this tall man in an Army uniform getting out of a taxi. My grandmother threw open the door. "Tommy Barrow, come into this house." It was my dad. I don't remember much about what we said or how the whole visit went although I'm fairly sure he spent the night. I do remember looking at my arms and legs and seeing all these little pale pink spots. I thought my chicken pox had come back. But I was assured it was only my excitement that made the pox shine through.

 I also remember my grandfather and I driving with my dad out to the Dallas/Ft. Worth Highway. My dad had on his uniform again and he kissed me good-bye. He was going to hitchhike to Ft. Worth and in a couple days be off to the China Theater. Dad only stood there about five minutes when a car stopped to give him a ride. Folks back then would nearly always stop for anyone in the Military. This was long before we ever thought about stranger danger and hitchhiking by bad people.

 My dad was lucky in many ways. He had been to college and could type so he was usually assigned to be an officer's aide or secretary (or whatever they were called.) Like being "Radar" in the TV show. And wasn't out on the battlefield. He did tell me a few years before his death that he was in charge of setting up a medical mobile unit in India. These were the forerunners of MASH. It meant that he wasn't in grave danger. It also meant that my father came home.

Today is the day we honor those fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines who never got to come back home. These are our TRUE HEROES and many of us shall never forget them: NEVER.

07 August 2015

Biker Gangs & the Military


Myth has it that the Hell's Angels MC was started up by a group of military pilots in the years after World War II ended, however the current H.A.'s dispute that version of their origin. After some historical checking on their part, they claim there were several aviation units in WWII that used the name Hell's Angels as their unit's designation, but none of those were the guys who started the motorcycle gang. Myth or reality, it's not the past we have to worry about. Instead, we should be concerned with the current relationship between motorcycle gangs and the members of our nation's military, and where this relationship is going.

Several motorcycle gangs across America are now actively trying to recruit members of our military services. Why is that, you ask? Because people with military training have a multitude of skills that gangs can utilize to make their criminal endeavors stronger and more efficient. Weapons and explosives are two areas of expertise that gangs can turn into immediate use in their bids for territory and dominance in the environment of motorcycle gangs, or to make inroads into illicit business enterprises run by other criminal organizations, and even to make money from legitimate businessmen.

Other military skills such as combat tactics, communications and security also help the gang to tighten up their game, making it harder for a rival gang to compete against them. It can also make it more difficult for law enforcement to catch them in their criminal acts and then bring them successfully to trial.

For some military members back from deployment in a hostile country, a motorcycle gang offers the allure of continuing the excitement and adrenaline. An "us against them" mentality of being part of a special group. And, with the structured chain of command set up in most motorcycle gangs, it's a familiar type of leadership situation for the serviceman to transfer into.

Naturally, our military leaders have strong concerns about their people joining the ranks of any criminal organization. If it can be proved that a serviceman has an affiliation with a banned group, then he or she can be subject to discharge.

To avoid the appearance of an open affiliation, at least one gang, the Sons of Silence MC, has allegedly created a subgroup known as the Silent Warriors. This subgroup, according to two sources close to the SOS MC, is made up mostly of active members of the military. What can a Silent Warrior do for a 1% motorcycle gang? Well, for one thing, being an active member of today's military requires that person to have a clean record with law enforcement. And what does it take to purchase a firearm these days? Right, a records check. His clean record makes it easy for a Silent Warrior to conduct straw purchases of firearms for the gang.

As is necessary for their duties and training, members of the military have access to assault weapons, ammunition, explosives and detonators, night vision googles, ballistic vests and other equipment desirable for fighting against other groups. Of course when the military realizes that equipment has gone astray, they take follow-up action. For instance, our local army post locks down the entire fort while they search for the missing items. But, since the army also has other important matters to tend to, at some point, whether it is days or weeks, the lock down is lifted and the fort opens up again even if the stolen or "misplaced" items have not been located.

From time to time, agents from the Army CID, the ATF or other law enforcement agencies will conduct undercover operations to arrest those personnel who attempt to remove military equipment and weapons out through the back door. Unfortunately, it's impossible to catch every violator or to retrieve every stolen item. Some of those goods still get out to various criminal organizations, to include those motorcycle gangs which are actively pursuing them.

So what's the answer?

Good question.

11 June 2014

Treading Water


[I was of two minds whether to post this at all, since it's bound to piss people off on both side of the divide, but it's really more a piece about politics, than in itself political. You're welcome of course to take issue with me, but I'm not trying to tell you how to vote.]
The biggest mistake John Kerry made in his campaign for the presidency was not to slap down the Swift Boaters right away and call them out as liars. (Not that Kerry had any particular qualifications to be president, other than coveting the job since he was an underclassman at boarding school, but you could say the same about Mitt Romney.) The point is that the Swift Boat 'controversy' should never have gotten legs, but Kerry thought the story would dry up and blow away. He woefully underestimated the venom of his opponents, and the shelf life of a Big Lie.

We've been seeing a page out of a similar playbook, lately, and it's equal opportunity. Bush was roundly detested by the Left, and Obama is violently disliked by the Right. Not to rehash the rights and wrongs of going into Iraq, or the disputed failures or successes of affordable health care---I'm talking about three things that have recently dominated the news cycle: Benghazi, the VA scandal, and the prisoner exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

I might as well be clear about my sympathies. Maybe all the facts really aren't in yet, but I think Benghazi is a Republican fever dream. Of course, the real target's Hillary Clinton, and Obama's just collateral damage. The questions raised are what Ambassador Stevens was doing there in the first place, without adequate security; why CIA apparently didn't put State in the loop, that they had contractors in Benghazi; and whether the attack was mounted as a planned terror operation, not a popular demonstration that got out of hand. There's also the issue of whether air support could have been scrambled in time, but that's a non-starter. The fleet commanders in the Med say it would have taken a good two hours to get their planes in position over the target area, and without ground observers to call in fire, you wouldn't know who you were dropping ordnance on. You can research this on your own, and look at the after-action reports. The plain fact is that it was a security failure. It's not a cheap shot, either, to point out that Congress cut the State Department's budget for protective services. In other words, there's enough blame to go around, but I think that game has been pretty well exhausted, and the only purpose of a select committee is to keep the story alive, and to try and make HRC the goat.

On the other hand, the VA scandal is all too real, and a shameful lapse. It may go back to the Bush administration, but it came out on Obama's watch, so he owns it. It's unfair that Eric Shinseki had to fall on his sword, but that's how it goes. Jack Kennedy reportedly said to his CIA director Allen Dulles, after Bay of Pigs, that if this were Great Britain, and a parliamentary system, I'd have to resign. But it ain't, and your head has to roll. This is the hard fact of duty. We hang on princes' favors. Nor is Shinseki entirely blameless. The VA system is enormous. It serves eight million vets, at last count, and its budget numbers in the billions. Gen. Shinseki couldn't possibly be a hand's-on manager, but as they say in the military, you can delegate authority, but not responsibility. I have to say that my own experience with the VA health care system, here in New Mexico, at both the Santa Fe clinic and at the hospital in Albuquerque, has been first-class. I can't speak for other people, but I got timely treatment, I was respected, and there was remedial follow-up. The hospital food sucked, except for breakfast, and even then the coffee was terrible, but what do you expect?

Let's talk about Sgt, Bergdahl, though. This is the one that really gives me a cramp in my bowels. These are the facts as we know them. Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban in 2009. He was held captive for almost five years, and for much of that time, there was no proof of life. In the end, we made a deal. Him for them. Was it honorable, or honest? We got him back. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a former Afghanistan commander, has said that that's the point. You don't leave a guy behind on the field. (I doubt, too, if Stan McChrystal is much of an Obama fan. The guy fired him.) What else do we know? There's been some selectively-released information, some of it from unnamed DoD sources, muddying the waters.

The most damaging charge is that Bergdahl deserted his post. Then, when his unit sent out patrols to find him, it got guys killed. The train of thought, here, leads from dereliction of duty, meaning it was his own damn fault he got picked off by the guerrillas, to the suggestion that he didn't deserve to be rescued. It wasn't worth the cost, and Bergdahl's got blood on his hands. This is pernicious. The trending storyline seems to be that if you discredit Bergdahl, then everything that followed is the fruit of a poisoned tree. We should have written him off, and anybody who advocated a recovery effort was being careless with men's lives. WTF? No responsible commanding officer or platoon sergeant in the field would sign their name to this. It would damage morale and unit cohesion, for openers, and probably end up getting you court-martialed. You don't abandon your people. It's the first rule of war.

Then there's this whole other narrative. John McCain and Nancy Pelosi – strange bedfellows, they – complain that the oversight committes weren't put in the loop. I'm sorry, but no. That's utter baloney. Trading the guys from Gitmo, and these same five guys, by the way, has been part of the conversation since late 2011. And why is McCain stepping on his dick? He's on record as supporting a trade for Bergdahl the last two-and-a-half years, and all of a sudden he claims he never did. It beggars the imagination, spreading snake oil on troubled waters.

Last but not least, the mantra that We Don't Negotiate With Terrorists. Hello? This is more hooey. Even the Israeli government, who despise Hezbollah, sat down with them to cut a deal for IDF prisoners captured in Lebanon, and released hundreds of suspected terrorists in custody to get their soldiers back. And who in fact were we negotiating with? Not the Taliban leadership, but a subset, the Haqqani network, a CIA client during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and now deeply enmeshed with Pakistan's spook shop, ISI, the very same who admitted no knowledge of Osama bin Laden's safe house in Islamabad. We've been in bed with these dirtbags for years---"I'm shocked, shocked"---and turned a blind eye to both criminal activity, like the drug traffic, and support for terrorism (India suspects ISI involvement in the Mumbai attack, for example).

What are we supposed to make of this? I guess there might be some smoking gun to the Benghazi story, although I don't believe it myself. And for sure the VA health system mess is way beyond damage control, or maybe even repair. It's a complete management failure. But fitting Bergdahl for the noose is something else again. There must be enough ways to poke a stick in Obama's eye, people who think he usurped the presidency, and he's dangerous for America, or just in over his head---not that people of a different political persuasion didn't think the same of George Bush---and I don't why I'm surprised these people have no shame, but it sticks in my craw. It's humiliating. We deserve better. Years ago, during the Red Scare of the 1950's, and the rise of Joe McCarthy, my dad remarked to a friend of his that McCarthy represented the worst product of democracy. This being liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, she said, "Isn't it terrific that it's embarrassing a Republican president?"

Makes you wonder, really, about whose ox is being gored. I think we start with the political process, and what we actually hope to accomplish by it. Politics is the art of the possible, not scorched earth. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

10 June 2014

A Place In History


I was telling my son a few months back about a story idea that had occurred to me.  It would draw from my days in the army when I was stationed in what was then known as West Germany, or the Federal Republic.  He listened politely, then observed with a snort, that I was writing a "historical."  With that single word I suddenly realized that my earlier life had entered the slipstream of history.  It was a sobering thought that carried with it undertones of pending mortality--my pending mortality.
"Smartass," I replied, my ancient and inflexible brain unable to come up with a pithier rejoinder.  This was the same son who had been born in Germany, though he recalls very little of our time there.  And since this piece concerns itself with history, it is worth noting that Robin gave birth to him at Landstuhl Military Hospital while survivors of the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut were being cared for there.  Two hundred and forty one marines died in that attack, an incident I would later be moved to write about in a story titled, "Ibrahim's Eyes." 

Later that evening, I unearthed some photographs from that time and place.  They were pre-digital and had acquired a yellowish patina.  The people captured in these snapshots bore a strange resemblance to my own family and myself.  I was relieved to note that other than the deep lines in my face, my hair having gone completely gray, and a sagging neckline, that I had hardly changed since these pictures were taken.  I was about the same age then as my son is now.  The time was the early 1980's. 

In one photo, my family and I stand beneath a sign for the town, or stadt, of St. Julian, holding an infant of the same name, the male heir and aforementioned future smartass.  We look healthy and happy even though we are in a strange land through no desire of our own.  The assignment was for three years--the army would involuntarily extend it by six months (I was that necessary to the effort).  We knew no one and were a very long way from our families.  Letters took a long time to transit the mighty ocean, and phone calls to friends and loved ones were hideously expensive for a G.I. supporting a family of five.  I would spend weeks away on training maneuvers.  Still, we managed to make a great time of it, for which I mostly credit my imaginative and indefatigable wife.

My father had also been to Germany courtesy of the U.S. Army (more history), having arrived on Normandy Beach on D-Day and fighting his way into the Fatherland.  Naturally, he had some assistance in this--I believe a cook accompanied him.  It was funny to think of myself there so many years later.  The barracks my unit was assigned to had been formerly occupied by Nazi troops; our artillery range established by the same.  Even so, there were many, many differences between our visits--the most obvious being that no one was actively shooting at us.  The main threat was now the Soviets and their allies.  Both the East Germans and the Czechoslovakians manned the borders between the American and Soviet spheres, while the West Germans, and us, manned our side.  I'm not sure that the Germans loved us exactly, but they liked us a lot better than the alternative.

That being said, there were radical groups within the Federal Republic that were dedicated to the expansion of communism throughout the west, and by any means possible.  Two of these, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (they called themselves the Red Army Faction), and the RZ, or Revolutionary Cells, could be extremely violent.  Throughout the late sixties, seventies, and eighties, they were responsible for a number of bombings, murders, kidnappings, bank robberies, and airline hijackings.  They trained and networked with several middle-eastern terrorist groups; their ideological brethren in Italy and France, and received money and logistical support from the East German Secret Police, the feared Stasi.  They succeeded on several occasions in bombing American military bases; killing and wounding both soldiers and civilians.  They were no less savage with their fellow Germans.  We were cautioned to examine our cars, if we owned one, before putting a key in the ignition.  That seemed good advice to me.

Meanwhile, I functioned as an intelligence analyst assigned to the 8th Infantry Division Artillery.  Not very glamorous or exciting.  My vast knowledge of Soviet tactics, equipment, weapons, and training, however, were largely responsible for discouraging the Russians from doing anything foolish.  They realized early on that they were simply outclassed.  You may recall that the Iron Curtain would crumble altogether within a few years of my arrival in Europe.
My Soviet Counter-Part

Now, a few decades later, I contemplate fashioning a novel out of that distant time and faraway place.  Even to me, it now seems as if this were another world altogether--quaint, if somewhat dangerous.  The Soviet Union no longer exists, and its demise led to the birth (or rebirth) of dozens of nations.  Germany has been reunited.  Czechoslovakia has been disjointed; the face of Europe made completely foreign to my time there.  Yet, I was there and an actual participant.  And though it did not appear unique to me as I was living it, it became history even so.

Shortly after I wrote this, the Russian Bear reentered the world stage in the Crimea and is growling at the Ukraine.  Perhaps my experiences are not so remote in time as they seemed.  History keeps happening and I'm expecting a call from Washington any minute now, "Dean...we need you...we need you now!"



Switching focus here: As most of you know, Dale Andrews was injured in the line of duty, so to speak, and is now on hiatus.  We have discovered that to replace him required the talents of not one, but two, able-bodied writers: Stephen Ross and Jim Winter, both of whom have graced us with their talents of late.  They have graciously consented to share the yoke on a semi-permanent basis.

Next Tuesday, June 17th, Stephen, through the miracle of the internet, will appear among us all the way from New Zealand.  Or at least his blog will.  Stephen will probably remain in his native land.  But I don't know, as I have heard that his people have harnessed powers that the rest of us can only dream of.  Jim, who is an Ohioan, and speaks a dialect of our language, will share his thoughts with us on the following Tuesday, June the 24th.  From there on out, Tuesdays will rotate between the three of us.  Please give our new co-conspirators a round of virtual applause, and tune in on Tuesdays for exceptional, and once again international, entertainment!

28 May 2014

Lifers


I'm writing this over the Memorial Day weekend, which is perhaps coincidence, and perhaps not. I was prompted to it by an exchange I had with my pal Michael Parnell. We're both vets, but our service is a generation apart, me back in Cold War Berlin, Michael a few years ago in the Sandbox. The age difference aside, there's a common thread.

The second thing was a widely-circulated post on Facebook, where a young woman said that people join the military because they can't get into college. I know we shouldn't take this too seriously, but as you can imagine, her comment excited a NSFW barrage. She's an easy target, for sure, but instead of just calling her a dumb bunny---I'm softening the kind of language that was actually used---it might suit us better to address her misinformation with a more reasoned response. So here goes.

After the Civil War, the U.S. Army drastically downsized, and the men who stayed in were widely thought to be the dregs. It didn't help that a lot of the enlisted personnel were Irish, who already had a name for being drunk and undisciplined. John Ford makes a running joke of this in FORT APACHE, for example, but the truth is darker. Marcus Reno, a major under Custer at the Little Bighorn, was later reprimanded and dismissed from the Army. The proximate cause was drunkenness, but he had a long history of conduct unbecoming. Reno was a poster boy. There were other officers unsuitable for command, just as there were many more who attended to duty, but the damage was done. In the public eye, the prevailing wisdom was that people chose a military career because they were losers, or scoundrels, or unfit for any other life.

Something similar happened after the First World War, when again the services were severely reduced, and more than a few senior officers doubted America's readiness to fight another war. Not that anybody wanted another war. The general sympathy was Isolationism, and our foreign policy contracted along with our military capacity. This isn't to say we should have kept millions of men under arms, but it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to demonstrate our vulnerability. The world was wider than we liked.

On the other hand, the Second World War brought a change in attitude. My own feeling is that it's because the country was totally mobilized to meet the threat. Afterwards, when guys like my dad came home to pick up their lives, neither did they turn their backs on those who chose to stay on active service. One of our neighbors on the block, when I was a kid growing up in Cambridge, was an Army colonel named Trevor Dupuy. West Point, Burma campaign. He was taking a post-grad course at Harvard (and later taught there), but the point is that nobody in my dad's circle found any fault with Dupuy's making the Army his career, or thought any the less of him for it.

Viet Nam. Another turn of the wheel. The doubts set in early. I went into the Air Force in '64---partly to avoid the draft, I admit---but the climate was different. Most of the guys my age I knew were only too happy to stay in school and take the college deferment. They didn't want to be cannon-fodder. Who could blame them? The issue that arose, though, was that too many of them thought the military was for slackers and fools, or anybody dumb enough to buy the snake oil. It was a shitty war, of course, and the political divisions on the home front were savage. If you didn't live through those times, it's hard to conjure up just how fierce it got. And memory is selective. It's convenient to forget that quite a few GI's who came back alive from combat were treated with contempt by some.

I have an embarrassment of my own to confess. I got to Berlin in March of '65, after nine months of Russian language school. I was nineteen. Like most kids that age, there wasn't anything you could teach me. Open ass, and insert head, in other words. Here, though, a word of explanation. It was a spook shop, and a highly selective crew. Smart, analytical, independent thinking encouraged, a specialized skill-set. Not too many made the cut. But we were too smart for our own good, or at least I was. The first time I met my NCOIC, a master sergeant named Ernie Soto, he didn't impress me much. (Which is of course the cart before the horse. It was my job to impress Ernie.) I was too full of myself to read him right.

We called them Lifers. We, meaning first-term enlisted. They already had a couple of enlistments under their belt, or they wouldn't have made senior NCO rank. But we were young punks, and to us, anybody who'd re-upped and stayed in the service was an also-ran or a has-been. It's not like you don't run across time-servers and goldbricks, they come with the territory in any line of work, and once in a while you get saddled with a real bum, but mostly, that's the exception. NCO's do the heavy lifting. They know the mission, they have the authority and the responsibility. And in Berlin, particularly, they were the pick of the litter. Ernie Soto, for instance, was one of the first two candidates selected for the Boston University master's program, which was extremely competitive, so no matter what I thought of him, he was no dope.

Here's what you learn about these guys. When you get to know them better, you find out they're not all cut from the same cloth. And if you ask them why, why go career, why not something better?---to your way of thinking---they come up with an oddly evasive set of answers. Good benefits, and I can retire on half-pay after twenty, one of them might say. Someone else will tell you: my family travels with me, I get free dependent housing, it covers school costs for the kids. Or a more straightforward, thoughtful answer. It's fascinating work, and how else would I get to see Germany, or Japan? All this is true, and you can see the appeal, but here's what you don't hear from them. It's an obligation. It matters. I make a difference.

Because, in the end, it's not about creature comfort, or benefits. It's about duty. They might not put it this way. That's too cornball. You say it out loud, it sounds self-important, or suspect, and overly conspicuous. You're some kind of big deal, advertising yourself.

6912th Security Squadron, Berlin, a short list. Jim Nelson. Ed Allen. Mick Amos. Tom Hill. Dean Hanson. Lifers, by choice. My respects.  


DEG - Tempelhof, late 1960's - photo: John Clay














http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

19 December 2013

The Bubble Reputation


I've been re-reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies" because I want to, because I love her writing style, and because I'm really looking forward to the third volume.  But it's made me think about reputation and how it changes over time.
There was a time when Teddy Roosevelt was that madman only one heartbeat away from the presidency - now he's Theodore Rex.  In his own time, Harry Truman was considered an average numbskull - if not downright impeachable, especially for his opposition to General Macarthur and Big Mac's idea of bombing China - but after Watergate, Merle Miller's transcripts of Harry's "Plain Speaking" became a best-seller, and his salty speech and down home ways proved his integrity in a corrupt world.  Every American reader of "Life" Magazine from the 1920s through the early 40s knew that General Chiang Kai-Shek was democracy's one great hope in China; but after WWII, with China gone Communist, his brutal takeover in Taiwan, and his constant demands for money (and nukes), he became widely known as "General Cash-My-Check."
File:Chiang Kai Shek and wife with Lieutenant General Stilwell.jpg
Chiang Kai-Shek, his wife, Mei-ling Soong, and General Stillwell, who called CKS "Peanut" -
and not affectionately.
File:Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01.jpg
Thomas Cromwell
File:Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project.jpg
Thomas More
And there have been the various cases of rehabilitating the infamous.  Richard III - was he the evil, murderous, usurping crookback of Thomas More's little black pamphlet (although there's no proof that the sainted More wrote it) or the misunderstood, suffering, good king of Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time"? For that matter, was the martyred saint Thomas More the gentle, mild-mannered public servant of unshakeable integrity and equally unshakeable convictions of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons", or was he the hard-core persecutor of Protestants, advocating deceit, torture, execution and extermination for all "heretics" that both Foxe's "Book of Martyrs" and Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" present?  And that, of course, leads to Thomas Cromwell, generally presented - until Mantel's work - as a villain:  unscrupulous, ambitious, jealous, greedy, predatory and ruthless.  Or was this the perfect way to make him the perfect foil for St. Thomas More?

Much of reputation depends on timing.  Histories aren't written in a vacuum, nor are plays, novels, movies, television shows.  There are reasons behind what is written.  Sometimes we know what they are; sometimes we don't.  Sometimes we're too close to know, and it will take later people to figure it out.

For example, there's an ancient historian named Plutarch, who wrote biographies and histories back around 100 CE:  "The Lives of the Noble Romans and the Noble Greeks", and "On Sparta."  They are major sources for historians about the ancient world - especially Sparta, which wasn't known for writing down much of anything.  There are only two problems with Plutarch's work:  his biographies were written to show the influence of character on lives and destinies - and he didn't believe people could change.  And "On Sparta" reeks of nostalgia for a society in which everyone was equal, honest, brave, above sordid things like money and greed and luxury.   And the question is, why did Plutarch - writing 500 years after Sparta was dead and gone - write so admiringly of a society that was totally dedicated to war AND based on one of the most horrifyingly brutal slave-owning regimes in a world that has known some pretty bad ones? Good question.  Well, one answer might be that he was writing during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, which saw the greatest military expansion of the Roman Empire:

File:Roman Empire Trajan 117AD.png
The Roman Empire under Trajan - most of the known world of the day
An ideal time to promote military societies, wouldn't you say?  And slavery (Rome was 50% slaves under Trajan; at its height, Sparta was 90% slaves).  But, since all that military conquest was flooding Rome with goods and citizens were wallowing in excess luxury, let's go back to the good old days, when men were men and fought simply for the honor of it, and the greater good of their polis.


File:Richard III earliest surviving portrait.jpg
Earliest known
portrait of Richard III
File:King Henry VII.jpg
Henry VII
Going back to that early pamphlet on Richard III - rumored to be Thomas More's - it was written specifically to blacken Richard III irredeemably, and to make everyone absolutely ecstatic that Henry VII and the Tudors had come in.  It was a political document, and needed, because Henry Tudor had no legitimate claim to the throne.  He was the grandson of a Welsh bowman, Owen Tudor, who (perhaps) married the French widow of Henry V, Catherine of Valois.  No royal blood there, at least, not English royal blood.  His mother, Margaret Beaufort was the descendant of the House of Beaufort, who were all the descendants of John of Gaunt (son of Edward III) by his mistress Katherine Swynford (the steamy details were the scandal of Europe for 25 years, until he - amazingly - finally married her).  In other words, he had damned little English blood in him, and most of it was illegitimate.  There were still legitimate Plantagenets and Yorks around who had much better claims to the throne.  So when Henry VII finally won the throne of England at the Battle of Bosworth Field, he immediately married his 3rd cousin, Elizabeth of York, got her pregnant as quickly as possible, and declared himself king as of the day BEFORE the battle, making everyone who fought him traitors, and eminently executable.  And he had his court historians - Polydore Vergil, Thomas More, and John Rous - write histories of England that made Richard III, killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, to be the most evil, implacable king who ever lived. Maybe he was.  But then again, maybe he wasn't.

Yeah, like this is serious history
And so back we go to the Tudor era, which keeps getting rewritten. For many years, Elizabeth I was all the rage - or Mary Queen of Scots (who I consider one of the stupidest women in history).  And most of the popular stuff - HBO's "The Tudors", and many novels - are all centered around Henry VIII and his enormous appetite for women, which gives everyone a chance to show what they can do with codpieces, tight bodices and hoisted skirts.  But the serious stuff today is all on the men of Henry VIII's reign - parsing and reparsing Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey.  I am not sure why.  Is it that Cromwell was a blacksmith's son made prime minister, the American Dream writ large on an English stage, minus the execution at the end?  Is it that we all want to be Thomas More, integrity and sagacity combined?  Or that we're tired of saints, and want to hear about the common man?  Or we're sick of religious zealots, and want to hear how to stop them?

NOTE: My next blog is New Year's Day, and I will be doing a review of our own Janice Law's new novel, "The Prisoner of the Riviera".  I started it last night and I can tell you this much: - it's really, really good…

03 February 2013

Eye in the Sky


by Leigh Lundin

Drones part 1: Eye in the Sky

If you don't know the acronym UAV, you're so out of date! Predator drones and the overhead gadgets police use to spy on your backyard barbecue are called UAVs– unmanned ariel vehicles– UAV, for short.

unmanned Predator drone
Those drones we've read about in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq? They were developed for use in combat territories, not against our own citizens. But once out of the bag, did anyone seriously expect they wouldn't be deployed here at home?

I'm torn, partly from techno-geek attraction, partly because I don't like putting soldiers in harm's way, but partly because I don't like the idea of killing from the heavens. But now we face another factor– unarmed drones are being deployed against American citizens. Not only can they violate your air space, they can violate your personal space.

Since 9/11, civil liberties have been pouring down the rathole of 'homeland security', most notably from the Orwellian-named US PATRIOT Acts I and II. They've been stripping basic rights when you weren't looking and now we have one more way to spy– against ourselves. Wasn't this what we were taught was so evil about other governments?

That's not to say I don't think domestic drones can have a positive purpose, but without well defined rules, expect them to be misused and abused. Cases have already surfaced of drones spying on ordinary citizens going about their own business on their own property.

The Little Plane that Couldn't

Like boys with the latest R/C plane, our local law enforcement is delighted with their new toy. While issuing solemn assurances to the press they won't use drones to observe security precautions of, say, Mrs. Trudy Boomdacious tanning by her pool at NÂș 31 Sunkist Lane, they can hardly contain themselves until they can go out and play. Hey, I can't blame them.

But, as we learn from time to time, high technology is beyond some officials. From our Texas reader Vicki comes this article by Jim Hightower about Montgomery County's new flying gadget. When showing it off, it seems the sheriff dragged out all his goodies including a Bearcat troop transport with full swat team. It looked great, but unfortunately, the sheriff's department hasn't learned how to drive… or at least fly.

Yep, they crashed their spanking new drone.  The little plane committed suicide when it smashed into their armored transport.

Hightower reports the Bearcat survived, but not the Constitution.

Boys and Their Toys
child predator

But wait! There's more!

The drone that grew out of R/C toys has itself become a toy. On Amazon, people like me of twisted mind and sense of humor have been piling on the review comments. Warning: I said twisted, for example:
"At last! A Child Predator!"

"With my son's birthday fast approaching, I simply couldn't fathom what to get him. Last year we had purchased for him the Home Waterboarding Kit and buying him the same present two years in a row just seemed wrong...fortunately I found this! I love to watch the maniacal gleam in his eye as he imagines seas of Pakistani women and children before him and screams 'Death from above!'. It reminds me of all the joy I got from the My Lai Massacre playset I had as a child. Shock and awe!"

"(My son) just loves flying his drone around our house, dropping Hellfire missiles on Scruffy, our dog. He kept saying that Scruffy was a terror suspect and needed to be taken out. I asked him if Scruffy should get a trial first, and he quoted Lindsay Graham, Senator: "Scruffy, you don't get a trial!" I was so proud. I think I'll buy him some video games that promote martial law for Christmas."

"I just have to say that the educational value of this toy is GREAT. I just tell my son: This is what the West is using to kill the Rest. We fly these wonderful planes carrying bombs and we drop them on people we sort of think are terrorists and other people…"

"Not very educational, as the software is point-and-click, and the targets' death screams all sound the same. Not durable either, since they tend to crash between smoking, charred corpses."

"This is the best toy ever. Finally, I can pretend that I'm a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize!"
Oops, I'm droning on and on…