Saturday, December 18, 2010

O Christmas Tree

This holiday season brings to mind holidays of the past, particularly those I celebrated while serving in the military.

I graduated from high school at mid-term and enlisted in the Marine Corps infantry in February of 1975. I finished boot camp and infantry school in time to be on Okinawa by September, just after my 18th birthday. I had never been away from home during the holidays, but obviously, I would be away from home for this one.

We generally spent three to five days a week in the field. Vietnam was over, but not long over. Marines who conducted the mission to rescue the crew of the SS Mayaguez in Cambodia returned to Okinawa shortly after I arrived on the island. There was still plenty of reason to train, but this Christmas training was also a good way to think of something other than being away from family and friends during the holidays.

That is the reason I spent my first Christmas Eve in the Marine Corps in the field as a lance corporal firing 81mm mortars. We had a night shoot scheduled that evening. We'd finish the shoot, sleep in the field that night, then return to Camp Schwab in the morning for a Christmas meal in the mess hall.

The night shoot was fairly routine, but we needed to stay focused to continue to improve. In combat training, as it is in combat, everything done at night is much more deliberately performed since normal daytime visual cues are diminished. You can take nothing for granted. 

With an 81mm mortar, you don't normally have the opportunity to see your target, so you set stakes - aiming stakes - out in front of the mortar positions, all on a base heading or direction from each gun. At night, we attached unidirectional lights to the stakes so we could see them from the guns. Others in a fire direction center had targets plotted on maps and plotting boards and they called gun sight settings down to the gun squad leader via wired land lines. The squad leader called out the settings to the gun crew in the gun pit and gunners applied the settings to the sights and manipulated the mortars to align them with the aiming stakes with the new settings. The ammo men passed the ammo forward and handed it - one round at a time - to the assistant gunner who dropped each round down the mortar tube, again, one round at a time. Once the round hit the bottom of the tube, it struck the firing pin which ignited the propellant that launched the round down range.

When we fired at night, we generally fired a number of illumination rounds to light up the target area. These were shells that burst in the air to release a bright phosphorous ball suspended from a parachute. If all eight mortars in the platoon fired illumination rounds at once, it could light up a huge swath of land.

So, that night, had engaged a number of targets and finally exhausted all of our high explosive ammunition. We still had a few illumination rounds left, but our platoon leaders had a plan for them. With eight guns on line, they gave instructions for the two middle guns to fire illumination rounds. A few seconds later all eight guns each fired a round, then a few seconds later the two guns next to the outside most guns fired. A few seconds later the next two interior guns fired, then the next two fired, continuing until all pairs of guns working to the middle of the gun line had fired a round. Finally, one of the two middle guns traversed slightly to the middle and fired one more round.

As the illumination rounds burst over that dark windless Christmas Eve night, two then eight then two at a time, we saw that we had created a phosphorous Christmas tree dangling several seconds from parachutes. Five dozen Marines in the field that night admired the display in silence until the light was extinguished and the parachutes settled to the ground.

It doesn't seem like much, but it is was kind of neat to us. That was a nice Christmas.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

SimNation Under the Tree

In 1989, SimCity, a city-building simulation computer game, was released. The point of the game was to get the player to design and create a city by adding buildings, creating power grids, establishing transportation systems, adjusting the tax rate, zoning property, and more. The player could expect to encounter a number of calamities like floods, earthquakes, plane crashes, fires, and more. In some cases, these disastrous occurrences could generate other hardships that the player had to deal with.

As the player played, he or she needed to establish a tax basis, a zoning plan for the kind of growth that would encourage and support production and consumption, and make growth decisions his city could afford to purchase and maintain.

In light of the budget and spending battle underway in the Congress, it occurred to me that it would be great if there was a simulation our Congressmen could plug their proposals into to see what exactly they should expect in the way of outcomes of all of this spending they seem to love. If I was a game designer, I'd create that game and call it SimNation. Congressmen could plug in a set of beginning parameters: the GDP, inflation rate, unemployment rate, and so on. Then, he or she would plug in their budget values and see how it plays out. If the Congressman overspends, they can watch the budget deficit add to the national debt and watch it go through the roof. Or they might get concerned they'd lose the game and make better spending decisions.

I don't know if there's enough logic in the universe to make that kind of game work. Even if Congressmen won't be finding a SimNation under the tree this Christmas, I would really like to start the new year in the belief our our representatives will begin to game their decisions out so our kids and grandkids don't get stuck with it all they've been creating.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It's (Not) Crying Time Again

I don't have a problem with guys getting emotional at times. If the tears are genuine, they sometimes and in certain circumstances show a depth of passion and feeling that words don't adequately describe. There are other times when it doesn't matter what the tears mean to the crier because they hold an entirely different meaning to others who see them. When people want empathy, they'll indulge the tears; when they want leadership, they don't want tears, they want to see you pound the table instead.

Representative John Boehner, the Speaker of the House-in-waiting, is taking some heat over his most recent well-publicized bawling episode. The videos and pictures of Rep. Boehner are getting a lot of air time; they show this weekend's watering, aired on 60 Minutes, as more than a chin-quivering, moist-eyed moment of sensitivity. They show him in a complete teary breakdown.

I don't believe for a second that Mr. Boehner's tears are contrived so I don't fault his sincerity. What I fault is - well - his sincerity, or at least the way he reveals it. He's obviously touching on a stimulus when he lowers his guard and speaks from the heart, but his adversaries are taking chisels to those little emotional fissures. By now, he should see it coming; he should know better than to show so much of himself to people he knows are going to rip him apart for it. By the time the beating over this latest tearful event passes, I hope he realizes his emotions need to find a different conduit. Rather than speak from the heart, he's going to need to speak tactically and think and act from the heart. The cynics out there aren't going to care how much he cares. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters to any of us is whether he got the job done or not.

I remember toward the end of the Jimmy Carter term there was a lot of sentiment out there that he wasn't much of a president, but he sure did care. Well, no one cared if he cared or not. He was elected in the first place because people thought he cared. There came a time when we needed to see the proof because the country was in trouble. We needed to see him lead and motivate a country that was losing its confidence. The American people finally got bored with Carter and made him a one-term president, turning instead to Ronald Reagan who was as passionate as they come, but tough as nails too.

So, if I was giving Mr. Boehner advice, I would suggest he recognize that everyone who will ever care if he cares already believes he does. All of the rest are going to need to see the hard evidence. As Mr. Carter's experiences teach, when you're in a position of responsibility, it doesn't matter how much you care if you don't produce results. It will soon be time for him to get tough, kill the water works, and get busy producing those results.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Justices Give the Framers a Do-Over

This morning, Justice Stephen Breyer took to the Sunday news shows to promote his new book, "Making Our Democracy Work." In the course of his interview with Fox's Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday," Justice Breyer indicated the Founders never intended for as free an application of the right to bear arms as many citizens today insist upon.

He said that James Madison, in writing the Second Amendment, wrote the right to bear arms into the Bill of Rights more out of an interest in getting the Constitution ratified than an interest in granting citizens the right to bear arms. Justice Breyer hinted that Madison was more interested in appeasing the states than he was in granting this right since the states never would have ratified the Constitution without it.

Well, Justice Breyer is probably right, but it's not exactly an OMG revelation as much it is a DUH moment. Most of the men we know as the "Framers" of the Constitution were not only opposed to adding the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, they were opposed to adding the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights as well.

Framer Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 84 that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary and even dangerous. He believed the Constitution inherently granted all of the rights that were needed and that with specific powers granted to the government there was no authority written into the Constitution that would deprive individual and states rights.

Ultimately, the Federalists gave in to the Anti-Federalists and to some rights-friendly Federalists like Jefferson and agreed to work immediately on a Bill of Rights once the Constitution was ratified. The truth is the states would not have ratified the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. Including the entire Bill of Rights - all ten amendments - was thus an appeasement to the States (and to the people too).

So, by Justice Breyer's logic, the Framers would not have supported even old favorites like the First and Fifth Amendments because they too were appended to the Constitution to appease the States.

That's the danger of referring exclusively to the words of Framers like Hamilton and Madison when interpreting the intent behind the Constitution's words. There are several parts of the Constitution - important parts like the Bill of Rights - that the Framers were generally and specifically opposed to. Many of these were added not because the Framers wanted them, but because the people wanted them.

Supreme Court justices like Justice Breyer have been too reluctant to cite the intent of the people in the framing of our Constitution and have relied on the words of the Framers, even when Framers' arguments didn't carry the day when our government was formed. In doing so, some of today's justices ultimately do something not even the Framers did in their day: write law based only on Framers' intent.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Failing Aviator

When I was flying in the Marine Corps, we talked quite a bit about "compartmentalization." Compartmentalization for a pilot involved recognizing the many stressors in one's life and understanding what it takes to cope with them while at the same time keeping them isolated from all that needs to happen in preparing for and conducting a flight.

A psychologist lecturer gave a presentation called "The Failing Aviator" in which he discussed compartmentalization and coping with a group of aviators at an aviation safety event.  During his presentation, he talked about relationships and how coping poorly with the stress and strain in relationships and failing to compartmentalize those home issues could pose a danger not just in the cockpit but also in the relationship.

He told about the Marine Corps F-18 pilot whose wife would wear him down about the late nights flying, the uncertainty and danger of his job, not wanting to be left a widow, not being able to handle the separations, and so on. This went on for a while until finally, she pleaded with him to give up flying for the sake of their marriage.

After much delay and clearly taking all of this baggage into the air with him where he was undoubtedly dangerous to himself and others, he walked into his Commanding Officer's office and laid his wings on his desk.  He gave it all up: all of the training and hard work, all of the prestige, all of the honor associated with his profession, all of it.

Well, the now-former F-18 pilot and his wife couldn't hold it together in their new life and they divorced.  He was working elsewhere on the base waiting out the end of his service obligation and she went on her way...sort of.  It turns out some time later she was back at the officer's club dating an F-18 pilot.  Ultimately, she married that F-18 pilot.

It turns out she only thought she couldn't handle the late nights, uncertainty, deployments, and so on.  What she couldn't handle was not being married to the kind of guy who embraced those kinds of challenges, overcame them, and found ways to help her through them as well.

There's a moral to the story that probably doesn't need explaining. Over the years, I've found, however, it doesn't simply apply to relationships at home, it also applies to relationships at work and at play. We are who we are and we are either alright for the people we're with in the aggregate - the good and the bad parts of us - or we're not. We can't always change parts of ourselves without affecting the rest of ourselves.  We need always to challenge ourselves to ensure the changes we make really make us better and don't just make us different. "Different" has its bad sides too.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Compromisers and Horse Traders

The Federalists believed the Articles of Confederation, our first constitution, made the national government too weak. Thus, they pushed for a new constitution. The Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, believed the constitution that was proposed to replace the Articles of Confederation would make the national government too strong and would essentially create a monarchy.

After a near-civil war over the issue of a proposed new constitution, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists came together with a compromise. The Federalists would get their constitution and the Anti-Federalists would get a bill of rights that amended the Constitution and limited the power and authority of the government in favor of the rights and responsibilities of states and individuals. The Constitution was ultimately ratified and the Bill of Rights became the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

That was the compromise that set the standard for all government compromises in this country. The compromise that produced the Constitution and the Bill of Rights gave the Federalists a republic in place of a vulnerable confederation of independent states, and it gave the Anti-Federalists the limited government and the individual and states rights they sought.  The compromise didn't cause either side to subjugate their values to the agreement; instead, it struck an improbable balance between concerns for liberty on one side and security on the other.  They argued, they fought, they walked out on each other, they wrote articles and pamphlets on the other's positions, but ultimately, they made it come together.

The difference between the compromise that produced our Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the compromises the government makes now is there is simply not enough friction in the debate today to create imaginative outcomes that preserve our values. There is not enough toiling over the principles.  I suspect the absence of that fruitful friction is caused by too much reliance on power, expedience, and prerogative, and not enough faith in principles, honor, and duty.

There is a vast difference in the quality of public policy produced by men and women who brood over our national values and our societal fabric and what we end up when they settle on policy by simply divvying up pet projects and issues. Their horse trading has produced ear marks, deal-making, and bi-partisanship that have broken the bank. We need less bi-partisanship and more non-partisanship. We need less horse trading and more compromise.  I don't believe we'll solve our most serious problems in this country until they figure it out.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Seat of Irrelevance

Most polls have Congress' approval rating hovering below 25% and its disapproval rating somewhere around 70%. I believe those marks are representative of two general sentiments: first, of those who pay attention and really don't like the job Congress is doing, and second, of those who don't have a clue and chime in against Congress because it seems to be the thing to do.

For those of us who are paying attention, we need to continue to vote our representatives out of office if they fail to represent us as they should. We ought to set high expectations and take our representatives to task when they don't meet those expectations.

For those who aren't paying attention and just like to bellow about Congress, I don't know what to say except this is a great time to start paying attention.

In the past two years, we've seen the Executive Branch move on its agenda at a feverish pace with barely a hint of dialogue and debate in the halls of government. Sure, the media has had its day with most of the issues, but we haven't seen the classic struggle of ideas or the clash of philosophies between branches of government that the Founders envisioned when they structured our system of separation of powers.

I think it's healthy for the Executive to pull and strain at the limits of its authority, but I also think it's healthy for the Congress to fight it at every step of the way when it does. In fact, I think it's unhealthy for the Congress not to fight Executive power grabs because we can't afford an irrelevant Congress. And the Congress needs to be on its toes, even at the risk of seeming combative, because the Executive can always move more quickly than the Congress.

In my mind, policy change that happens too fast for the Congress to comprehend also happens too fast to be properly assimilated into the culture of the nation. When the Executive moves too fast and fails to collaborate with the Congress, our representatives have no choice but to either rubber stamp "yes," or to pound the table with a persistent "no." Even a speedy compromise discredits the Congress because it lacks the struggle of ideologies and values that makes representative republics work. I much prefer gridlock and inaction over rule by decree, and the last midterm election indicates most Americans agree.

In the last election, people essentially became disgruntled with the "Party of Yes," while the Executive bemoaned the "Party of No." I think most of us want both to be parties of participation and engagement within limits of the Constitution whether they agree with each other or not. When our elected representatives become irrelevant in deference to the Executive, the people become irrelevant. We aren't going to be satisfied with that.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Of Atheists, Criminals, and Fools

The two candidates had been friends for years and had a long history of setting aside politics in favor of finding common ground for the benefit of the people whose interests they represented. They were intelligent, courageous visionaries although they had quite different temperaments and philosophies in many ways. While they were different in many ways, they seemed always to find a way to get along. They got along, that is, until they decided to run for the same political office.

During the campaign, one claimed that the other had such a weak character that he had neither the "firmness of a man" nor the "sensibility of a woman," asserting in very clear terms that his character had a decidedly hermaphroditic quality.

Not to be outdone, his opponent accused him of being a mean-spirited low-life whose mother was a "mixed-breed Indian squaw." His description of his father was equally insulting.

As the barbs amplified, one candidate claimed the other was a fool and a criminal while the second labeled the first as an atheist and a coward.

Finally, one of the candidates hired a henchman to smear his opponent which he did quite well. The other candidate said he wouldn't lower himself to that tactic. The hired political thug did such a good job his man won the election by a hair. While the operative's tactics were effective and damaging, they were also so slanderous that he ended up in jail for spreading them around. When the political muckraker was released from prison, he wasn't feeling the love from his former compadre, so he wrote a number of articles in which he claimed the successful candidate was having an affair with a woman who had given birth to five of his children! 

Isn't it difficult to imagine the President and Vice President of the United States locked into such a bitter and vicious political battle against each other, particularly since they had long been friends and political allies? It's hard to imagine, but it did happen. President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson eventually restored their relationship with each other, but it must have seemed a distant possibility during the presidential campaign of 1800.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Golden Thread

Mankind was created with a certain capacity for creativity and vice, the ability and prerogative to enjoy the rights bestowed by God and to deny those rights to others. If we were living under the thumb of a despot some 234 years ago, we might recognize the disharmony between the government and economy imposed on us and the natural rights God entitled us to. In our sense that we have been disenfranchised from our natural rights, we might seek to break away from the despotic rule.

After years of progressive degradation of our exercise of our natural God-given rights, we might sense an incremental approach is no longer an option. We might finally choose to make a decisive stand. We might make a singular declarative statement that is bold not just in what it asserts in the face of power, but even bolder in the fact that there would be no turning back from it once done, and even bolder still in the abundant awareness that affixing our names to it might also inscribe our own death warrants and financial ruin. If we were to set words to that kind of declaration in 1776, they might be words like these: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness.”

It might also be that in the crucial decade during which we toiled under that despotic rule there were other minds at work on recognizing the alignment between man’s unalienable natural rights and his right to freely exercise commerce to attend to his well-being. It might be that we would recognize that the irony of free enterprise is that with each actor in the marketplace – producer, merchant, and consumer – acting in his own self-interest a special friction is generated that creates an equilibrium of quality, quantity, and price in a fair market. If a person were to set these ideas to text in a written work, it might be published as “The Wealth of Nations,” written by Adam Smith - oddly enough - in 1776.

Mankind was created with a certain capacity for creativity and vice, the ability and prerogative to enjoy the rights bestowed by God and to deny those rights to others. If we were living under the thumb of a despot some 234 years ago, we might recognize the disharmony between the government and economy imposed on us and the natural rights God entitled us to. In our sense that we have been disenfranchised from our natural rights, we might seek to break away from the despotic rule.

After years of progressive degradation of our exercise of our natural God-given rights, we might sense an incremental approach is no longer an option. We might finally choose to make a decisive stand. We might make a singular declarative statement that is bold not just in what it asserts in the face of power, but even bolder in the fact that there would be no turning back from it once done, and even bolder still in the abundant awareness that affixing our names to it might also inscribe our own death warrants and financial ruin. If we were to set words to that kind of declaration in 1776, they might be words like these: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness.”

It might also be that in the crucial decade during which we toiled under that despotic rule there were other minds at work on recognizing the alignment between man’s unalienable natural rights and his right to freely exercise commerce to attend to his well-being. It might be that we would recognize that the irony of free enterprise is that with each actor in the marketplace – producer, merchant, and consumer – acting in his own self-interest a special friction is generated that creates an equilibrium of quality, quantity, and price in a fair market. If a person were to set these ideas to text in a written work, it might be published as “The Wealth of Nations,” written by Adam Smith - oddly enough - in 1776.

It might be, then, that after a subsequent decade during which the consummate battle for the natural rights of men is waged, a government is formed in the wake of victory. With a notion to preserve the ideals for which the war was fought, maybe we would establish a Constitution that observed those principles articulated in 1776. It might be against the backdrop of the previous two decades of struggle that the words of the Preamble of the Constitution take their significance: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

But while the Constitution would limit the powers of the federal government to include only those specifically enumerated to it, it would achieve ratification only with the understanding that the Congress would immediately begin work on a Bill of Rights that would place additional limits on the prerogatives of government over its citizens and the states. We would be certain that the tyranny of a king would not be replaced by the tyranny of cynical elected "representatives."

That Bill of Rights would prevent the government from establishing a religion and prevent it from prohibiting citizens from exercising their own. It would guarantee free speech, assembly, petition to the government, and speedy trial. It would prevent the federal government from denying any citizen the right to life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Finally, it would reserve to the people or to the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government in the Constitution. Such a Bill of the Rights wouldn't change the Constitution, it would complete it. If that was our task in 1791, we might include our Bill of Rights as the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Maybe more than any time in recent memory, we have reason to reflect on our origins as a new Congress is seated next month. We have reason to remember the vision and values of our Founders, those who inspired them, and those who were inspired by them. We have reason to remember their sacrifices and the early struggles to craft a government that would lend credence and nobility to it all. We have reason to see the golden thread that connects the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution and to the Bill of Rights and to challenge ourselves to weave the thread into our vision and plans for the future. Maybe we will have the courage to make the sacrifices necessary to preserve for our posterity the ideal for which so many have given everything.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Pre-Existing Outcome

With the new Congress about to be seated, the health care issue is sure to come up again. The issue is worth another look before the fur really starts flying.

First of all, I'm not an insurance guy, but I think I get how it works...I take out a health insurance policy so my medical bills can be covered in case I get sick or hurt. An insurance company will write an insurance policy on me if it believes it will make more money from my premiums and their reinvestment of my premiums than they pay out for my medical bills. That's fair enough. They take a risk on me and their confidence in my good health. I'm fine with that. We both hope I'm a good risk, but for different reasons. I'm fine with that too.

In an odd twist of irony perhaps, I hope my insurance company is REALLY good at minimizing its risk exposure because if I ever need to collect on my insurance, I want it to have PLENTY of money available to pay up. I want them to be very successful and profitable. But since they're speculators, they might write a policy on me today and I might get hit by a truck tomorrow. Their loss (mine too, I suppose), but they took a chance on me. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.

Let's say I've been plodding along without health insurance because I think I'm bullet-proof. Then, let's say that during a softball game that I'm really too old and out of shape to be playing, I keel over with a heart attack. Thankfully, it doesn't kill me, but it does scare me enough to inspire me to go shopping for health insurance once I get out of the hospital. I have to admit that I'm not going to be too surprised if I can't find a company to write a health insurance policy on me at that point. If I was honest, I'd admit it would make no sense for them to cover me if I have a pre-existing condition since they won't make enough from my premiums to pay my bills before next week's doctor's visit. The only way they could do that would be to either charge higher premiums to healthy people or to bundle my coverage with a group or family plan. Charging higher premiums to healthy people wouldn't be a competitive option at all, so the group plan is looking better. There's no way I should expect the company to write a policy simply for the honor of promptly paying my bills. Seriously.

Well, no one likes to see or hear about people not being able to get health insurance. This is America; people should be able to get all the health care they need, shouldn’t they? How do people who don't have health insurance get their health care paid for?

If I get into a car accident and I’m rushed to the emergency room, they’re going to take care of me. At some awkward moment, they’re going to ask me how I’m going to pay, but let’s say I can’t. I don’t have a job and I don’t have any money. Are they going to roll me out into the street? No. They’re going to care for me and they’re going to “eat” my costs. I say they’re going to “eat” those costs, but no one in business really eats losses if they know what they’re doing. They’re going to pass those losses on to their other customers (patients). What happens then? When the guy down the street goes to that hospital to have his appendix removed and he gets that beefed up bill for medical services, he’s going to turn it over to his insurance company. Is the insurance company going to eat it? No, they’re going to spread the cost out amongst their policy holders. So, under the current health care system, who pays for indigent health care? One or more of the following: People who get sick, their employers, or their insurance companies.

So, we have to wonder why there is such a push in some corners of the government for health insurance for all, including those with pre-existing conditions, when we must know it's a failing business proposition for insurance companies. With no way to protect their risk assessment models and earn a profit, these companies would surely fail under severe anti-entrepreneurial mandates. If insurance companies fail, where would we be then? Well, I guess we could require everyone to purchase government health insurance to go along with their government health care. Maybe the government will save us...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Power and Prerogative

One day when I was in the 7th grade, we students were reading aloud from our reading books in my English class. I wasn't much for volume and enunciation, and my teacher didn't seem to care much for that. When my turn came to read, I read like I always did and as usual, she told me to speak up.

Well, I didn't speak up enough to satisfy her so she did something it looks like I might never forget. She had me go outside to the far end of the playground and read my passage from out there in a voice loud enough for her and the class to hear from inside. I suppose her expectation was that by humiliating me like that I would get out there and bellow like a bull elephant. That didn't happen.

I went outside as directed, read my passage, and headed back inside. Apparently, my teacher couldn't hear me, so she sent me back outside where I did the same thing again. I wasn't too happy about all of this, so I wasn't quite in the right frame of mind to learn the valuable lesson she was trying to teach me.

I don't remember how many trips I made out to the far end of the playground to read that passage that day, but I do remember that with each trip out there, I was more and more certain that she would get tired of sending me out there before I'd get tired of making the trip. As far as I was concerned, she did all of the harm she could to me on my first trip outside. After that, I was pretty much running the show.

Believe it or not, that little incident taught me something important. When I think of power and prerogative today, I think of that teacher and that incident. It occurs to me today that at various times and in various situations, we all have some degree of prerogative, but we shouldn't always exercise it.

It also occurs to me that how a person exercises his or her prerogative says an awful lot about their character. For a person with a little bit of power, one key difference between a leader and a bully is that a leader exercises his prerogative out of necessity, and a bully exercises his prerogative out of personal gratification. That realization has helped me in every professional role I've held in my life.

Who says you can't learn from a bad teacher?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Politics & Military Quagmires

The word "quagmire" is thrown around quite a lot these days in an attempt to relate our current conflicts to Vietnam in a negative way. For many critics, Vietnam is the poster child for quagmires, and the use of that term is a discrediting stigma.

In my view, Vietnam is still very much misunderstood, which means that we are probably less than a generation away from seeing a good bit of folklore about the war become recorded history. Vietnam was a quagmire in the minds of many because it required the protracted commitment of our military forces and there were no "legitimate" strategic benefits from our involvement there. Critics saw Vietnam as a perpetuation of the military industrial complex's insatiable desire for conflict with which to fuel its engine. I think there is much more to it that than that, but I admit that my sense of that war is not as cynical.

In my mind, what made Vietnam a quagmire - to the extent that it was - were the limitations placed on ground commanders by leaders in Washington who did not want to provoke the Soviets by bombing shipping assets in places like Haiphong Harbor and those who did not want to "expand the war" by bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia and Laos, although major Vietcong combat resupply routes ran through those areas. There were many, many other decisions made like these that had the same effect. The bottom line is in spite of the fact that our military forces in Vietnam were very capable and highly successful in every major engagement, they couldn't win the war because of a failed war execution agenda in the United States. Put another way, we were successful on the tactical level but we failed at the strategic level.

Yesterday, I wrote that we need to give commanders in Afghanistan all of the support and resources they need to win the war there. I also wrote that if a war is important enough to commit troops to, then it is important enough to go at whole hog. That is because in failing to go in aggressively to win, we are potentially left with tactical successes and strategic failures. As owners of the world's most potent military force, we should never forfeit US military lives and prestige in that way.

Afghanistan is different from Vietnam in many ways, but it is similar in some ways too. In Afghanistan, we're pursuing a coy and clever enemy who fights at his pleasure on ground with which he is very familiar and comfortable. That's a similarity to Vietnam. One huge difference is that the terrain in Afghanistan is so prohibitive for movement, our troops can easily transition from tactical advantage to extreme tactical disadvantage in an hour, simply by moving from one place to another 1000 meters away. Those scenarios always exist for troops on the ground and they did exist for our infantry in Vietnam, but in the mountains of Afghanistan, it is an inherent and persistent reality.

In Vietnam, US forces often employed a tactic to reduce their vulnerability referred to as "reconnaissance by fire," which could include any number of actions involving directing firepower at a target, but the general idea was to discover the enemy by flushing him out or provoking behavior with weapons fire so you didn't have to physically expose your troops to get the same outcome. You can use direct fire weapons such as rifles and machine guns or indirect fire weapons like mortars, artillery, grenade launchers, or air support to draw the enemy out.

In Iraq, insurgents employed a reconnaissance by fire tactic in a sense by incrementally escalating potentially threatening gestures toward troops in order to learn more about our rules of engagement. If our enemy knows that our rules of engagement are not to fire until fired upon, for instance, the enemy can maneuver to an extreme physical advantage before opening fire and overwhelming our forces. If our enemy knows that our rules of engagement call for the use of air support near non-combatants only if our troops are under imminent threat, that leaves those enemy forces a whole lot of options, including laying hit-and-run ambushes from amongst non-combatants.

A year ago, a Department of Defense report called for better training for air and ground forces to reduce civilian casualties. There is a practical purpose for taking another look at our approach to the use of air support, not the least of which is the fact that an injudicious use of firepower of any kind is unnecessarily wasteful of limited resources and the fact that it's hard to win the hearts and minds (another Vietnam reference) of the local population if you're bombing the neighborhood every day unnecessarily at the first sign of danger.

It is good and important to ensure our people are not using unnecessary force, no doubt. We don't want - and our combat forces don't want - to call for the big hay maker at the first sign of enemy contact all of the time. That can also become a predictable behavior that our enemy can use to his advantage because he will learn to simply hunker down until the barrage or hail of gunfire passes and pop back up at the sight of infantry. A good use of suppression is almost always most effectively employed when immediately followed by the exertion of swift infantry force before the enemy can recover his composure and bearings. So, you can't just toss bombs and rockets then stroll through the rubble and count the bodies. You have to be much more thoughtful about it in terrain like our troops are operating in in Afghanistan.

I lay all of that background to get to this point.

When US Army General McChrystal took command in Afghanistan he issued a directive to troops in Afghanistan to avoid firing on buildings where insurgents might be hiding amongst non-combatants unless our troops are in imminent danger. That and other measures were intended to create a "civilian surge" to improve relations between US forces and Afghans. (In Vietnam, "civilian surge" would have been called "win the hearts and minds.")

But there is a potential problem with this rule of engagement: In an environment where reconnaissance by fire might be prudent when moving into exposed terrain and where enemy guerrilla tactics will lay ambushes from amongst civilians, we need to be careful not to handcuff our ground forces so that they expose themselves unnecessarily because their situation does not meet the "imminent danger" criteria. To many at home in the United States, the difference between "imminent danger" and "reasonable danger" might seem minor, but to in the legal language of the times, the word "imminent" literally places our troops on the brink of lethal hazard.

We need to be careful not to develop strategies like this in Washington that will reduce our combat effectiveness on the scene and create a tactical quagmire for our troops on the ground in Afghanistan. We should remember that the Soviets were utterly brutal in Afghanistan when they were there, but they still found themselves lured into traps that were sprung by virtue of the predictability of their tactics.

We need not to find ourselves embroiled in the same mess. As I wrote yesterday, we citizens need to watch out for our military people abroad and listen for signs that we are incrementally slipping into a strategy dictated from Washington that is predictable, excessively cautious, impractical, and imprudent. If that is where we go, we could again see our forces fighting for their lives under a strategy that is designed for political expedience, not military success.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Suicide Pact?

I heard this on the radio tonight: "We're a nation of laws, but at the same time, our Constitution isn't a suicide pact either."

My take: True. Treacherously slippery, but true.

Right War, Wrong War

We all remember the terror attacks of 9/11. We also remember that in the immediate aftermath of those attacks President Bush declared a Global War on Terror which essentially broadened the potential battleground in the campaign on terror beyond the rugged countryside of Afghanistan.

We remember the suspicion that Iraq produced or possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). We had reason to believe it had them. The Iraqis had used them on the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq War, they had used them on the Kurds in their own country in recent memory, weapons inspectors were obstructed in their efforts to get to the bottom of the issue in Iraq before being tossed out of the country on a number of occasions, and we now know from Saddam Hussein's own mouth that he intentionally led the United States to believe Iraq had these weapons because he wanted Iran to believe they had them. That turned out to be a significant and tragic gamble for him.

So, we attacked Iraq on the pretense that it was a legitimate target in the War on Terror.

We should also remember that when the U. S. and coalition forces attacked Iraq in 2003, Iraq was still under obligations compelled by the Desert Storm cease fire agreement, but ever since the end of that war when Iraq agreed to keep its aircraft and weapons out of the air, the Iraqis launched missiles and anti-aircraft artillery fire at American aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone over Iraq. The United States bombed Iraqi targets in response, but it didn't deter them. Therefore, Iraq was a legitimate battlefield with or without WMD; it had not abided by the conditions under which we agreed not to expand Desert Storm beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait into Iraq.

So, the United States vanquished what was once the fourth most powerful military in the world and got busy helping the people of Iraq build a democratic republic with rights for all, hopefully to be relatively free of the tyranny of its own government. As we begin to pull back from our physical commitment to that country, Iraqis are rejoicing their new sovereignty as American troops have withdrawn from large population centers and have turned combat operations over to Iraqi control.

Shifting gears a little to the point of this posting, since the beginning of the 2008 Presidential campaign, the issue of the "wrong war" in Iraq versus the "right war" in Afghanistan has been raised repeatedly to the point that now it's virtually a catch-phrase. Now that we have nearly completed the "wrong war," we are turning our full attention to the "right war," some would have us believe...

Here's my two cents' on the "wrong war" and the "right war."

I believe that the "right war" and the "wrong war" are the same war. The campaign is being waged against a stateless enemy, so we have to think a little bit outside the box. Since terrorists aren't bound by borders, what is the point in being drawn into a battle within borders that might spell failure for us by virtue of the terrain and the operating environment? Why should we fight an enemy in the rugged unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan where they would have the tactical advantage when we can draw them to a fight on terrain that is more to our liking in a place like Iraq? In the end, we get rid of a dictator who is hostile to us and threatens us repeatedly, the people of his country finally have a voice in a new government, and we are in a better position to shape the battlefield on which we engage the broader enemy.

Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) is well-known for having advised his guerrillas to "move through the people like a fish moves through water." We battle guerrillas using these tactics by leaving "fish" aground by "draining the swamp." In fact, former-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld made a reference to draining the swamp with regard to the anti-terror operation.

However, I don't believe our strategy was to drain the streets of Iraq - the swamp - of sanctuary for terrorists with the hope of isolating them. I believe our strategy was to  flood the swamp (Iraq) with the hope of attracting terrorists to a battlefield of our choosing. We flooded Iraq with American troops and an opportunity for terrorists from all over the world to take the Americans on head-on. And they came to the battle: homicide bombers, snipers, IED bombers, drive-by shooters, kidnappers - the works - and we defeated them all while restoring the promise of a better future for Iraqis.

If we hadn't done it that way - stage the battle in Iraq - and if we had instead, taken the fight into Afghanistan immediately, I believe we would have had the same jihadist response that we had in Iraq, but on a much more difficult battlefield. Jihadists would have flooded into Afghanistan to fight the Americans as they flooded into Iraq, but the fight would have been much different and difficult for us there. It's hard enough as it is.

American military strategists are very familiar with the legions of warriors who have passed through Afghanistan over the centuries unable to conquer the land or the people who lived in its unforgiving terrain. We are very familiar with the experiences of the Soviet military in that country in the late 1970s which, at the time, was the other superpower in the world.

No, I think we did the right thing in going to Iraq and I do not think we really went into Iraq only for the reasons we were told. I also believe it would have been a dreadful tactical error for the American government to announce that this was its strategy because the mere announcement of it would have caused it to fail.

So, now we're wrapping up the "wrong war" in Iraq and we're committing more fully to the "right war" in Afghanistan. I think the time is right to leave Iraq because two things have happened there: (1) the Iraqi government is fairly stable, and (2) all of the swamp creatures who would come to Iraq to fight us there have been pretty well defeated. Now we go to Afghanistan to fight a much less numerous and formidable foe than we would have fought in that country had we begun our work there.

The news coverage of the fighting in Afghanistan is dreadfully poor. The media has bought into the idea of identifying our troops as NATO troops rather than American troops; the result is the American people are almost totally detached now from any sense of the progress and casualties of the war. I don't think that's good at all. The American people should have an accurate, unsensationalized impression of how the war - this "right" war is proceeding. (Isn't it odd that we know almost nothing about how this "right" war is going?) We should know our civilian leaders are prosecuting the war diligently and are not squandering valuable military lives, material assets, and tactical and strategic advantage:

(1) Do not get drawn into battles on ground not of our choosing. Guerrillas in Afghanistan are and have always been extraordinarily patient - much more patient than we Americans are. We need to fight them on terrain and terms of our choosing on our time.

(2) We need to avoid making timetable commitments. These guerrillas will do two things in response those kinds of plans: (1) they will wait us out, (2) they will be ready for us to act hastily on poor ground.

(3) We need to ensure troop strengths are more than adequate to get the job done. If commanders on the ground ask for more troops, they need to have them.

(4) We need to fight all-out. Any limitations we place on our use of tactics and weaponry will cost American lives. If we are not prepared to go in with the full force of our military, we need to just turn around and come home. The American people need to listen for cues that will tell them whether we are really committed to victory, or if we're willing to accept a strategy of limited engagements on ground of the enemy's choosing. If so, we need to be aware that this is the opposite strategy of the one that worked in Iraq.

This is the time for the American people to pay very close attention to the war. Listen to what the generals are asking for and pay attention to the Administration's response. It is more important to fight this war the right way than it is to merely know it as the "right war."