Thursday, December 15, 2011

I’m Dreaming…

imageIt might surprise some of you who know me that I’m taking a position on this issue, but as a guy who isn’t afraid to muster up an opinion once in a while, I must do what I must do. I’m writing today about the insensitivity shown in some of the songs that are played on the radio and in the stores this time of year every single year.

We are now fairly well established in the 21st century and we’re supposedly far enough along in our cultural development as a free-thinking inclusive society that we should be able to avoid offending those who are different than we are during this holiday season. It’s high time we recognize the effects of regional distinctions and the fact that aspects of this time of year that one group can celebrate might be sources of irritation to another.

Seasonal tunes like “Deck the Halls,” “Silver Bells,” and “The Chipmunk Song” are fine, but I heard a song on my radio today that really crossed the line. Of course, I’m talking about the callous lyrics of the classical cultural chorus, “White Christmas.”

We live in a nation where not even one-third of our fellow citizens will see as much as a 50% chance of snow this Christmas. Yet, the other two-thirds of us must suffer through the taunting strains of that song.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,
Just like the ones I used to know.
Where the treetops glisten,
And children listen,
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.

White Christmas, glistening treetops, and sleigh bells in the snow… Why do those of us who do not have snowy Christmases need to endure the seemingly endless onslaught of references to winter wonderlands, dashing through the snow, and let it snow, let it snow, let it snow?

So, I say let’s take the snow out of the national celebration of Christmas in recognition of our multicultural sensitivity, our diverse national climate, and the fact that most of us will not see one single flake of the stuff.

And one last thing… Have a Merry Christmas – whether you see snow this year or not – and enjoy a great start to a very Happy New Year.

[Of course, I wrote this as a tongue-in-cheek jab at the idea that we should take religion out of Christmas for the sake of those who aren’t Christian. Clearly, if we observe only those events that resonate with everyone, we wouldn’t observe any events at all.]

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Big Fish Eaten By Bigger Fish

imageMaybe you saw the news story the other day about the 9-year old 4th grader who was suspended from school for telling a friend that he thought his teacher was cute. The principal decided to impose a suspension on the student for “inappropriate behavior” for making that comment which she said was a form of “sexual harassment.”

The principal obviously lost sight of what sexual harassment really is and why it’s a problem when it occurs. Sexual harassment is intimidation or coercion with sex in some manifestation – physical, verbal, body language – used as the lever. It’s not supposed to be a tag you place on innocent remarks made by people who intend no malice and are in no position to exert their will on others. Contorting a young student’s harmless observation that he thinks his teacher is cute and representing it as “a form of sexual harassment” goes way too far.

I do think I know where that kind of overly strong reaction comes from though. These days, there is so much required of school officials as they’re expected to protect the school environment from all manner of real and perceived hazards, offenses, insults, and more. Everything in a school setting takes on so much more significance than it does just about anywhere else.

What’s more is that the failure of a school teacher, administrator, or other official to act on these kinds of events can cost them their job and expose them to the scorn of everyone who reads about their failure to take action on the front page of the newspaper. Ironically, the public is often the first to be outraged by the kind of overreaction this phenomenon sometimes spawns while it also seemingly lays the groundwork for it in advance by being so quick to call for heads to roll.

So, I understand the principal’s position. As a principal, she had to make difficult and consequential decisions every day, and she had to be alert and prepared to pounce on incidents that cross the line.

However, while I understand her position, I do not agree with her decision. The problem with her choice of discipline for the student was that it was neither just nor proportionate. Instead, it bordered on cowardly.

She seemed to me to be much less interested in administering justice than she was concerned about how the student’s remark and her response to it might be perceived by the public and others who might second-guess her. She seemed less interested in issuing a proportionate response than she was in covering her tail (and that reference to her tail is not intended to be a form of sexual harassment, by the way). She simply didn’t want to be on the wrong side of the decision.

But she was getting paid to do much more than simply make decisions though; she was getting paid to lead and to discern the many and diverse shades of the issues she encountered, and make insightful and balanced decisions about them. It’s not too much to ask adult leaders like her to use their heads and a little courage while they’re at it.

Well, this would normally be a good place to insert a concluding paragraph, but we’re not yet at the end of the story. The rest of the story might help explain the culture that made the principal’s overbearing response such a comfortable and logical one for her.

As poor as the principal’s decision to suspend the student was, and as stubborn and entrenched as she remained after she had a chance to reflect on it, I think the school board’s decision to force her to retire or face termination for suspending the student was equally poor and self-serving. When you get right down to it, they really didn’t let her go because she suspended that student; they let her go because the board was embarrassed by the public reaction to her decision to suspend him.

Just as the principal should have stepped back a bit and made a fair decision about how to handle the student without regard for the political implications, the board should have done the same thing with her. Neither of them did that, and the result is that neither of them rendered a just decision. Neither decision was inspired by a sense of justice; both were motivated by a desire to placate real or potential outrage, even if the outrage was itself disproportionate. If the standard was justice – and it was – then both parties failed. The principal failed the student, and the school board failed the principal.

As for the school board, it should have called the principal in for a private session away from all of the turmoil and emotion and encouraged her to reconsider her decision to suspend the student. Hopefully, she would have gotten the message and made a course correction (and an apology). If she didn’t get the message, I would have told her to reverse her decision. If she didn’t, then I would have fired her for insubordination and let the next principal correct the decision.

So, now the student is back in school and he’s still stuck in the classroom with that cute teacher, the principal is out of a job, and the board has flexed its muscles. The news will eventually die down once the buzz over this blog posting finally subsides.(!) And then what?

In the end, no one will have won and no real good will have come of this. That hollow, dissatisfied feeling all of them will experience will be the residue of cowardice and injustice, and they will have earned it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What’s Wrong with Tebow?

imageMany don’t know that in addition to being a premium football player in high school, Tim Tebow was also a very good baseball player, named to the all-state baseball team as an outfielder after his senior year of high school. I remember watching him play for Ponte Vedra Nease High School the year my son and nephew played for the Florida high school baseball championship. Tebow’s team played in the semi-finals and lost to the team that our team ultimately defeated in the championship game. Even as a senior on the baseball team, Tebow was someone most Florida high school sports fans were already familiar with.

He had already drawn a legion of ardent supporters, but as his college career took shape, he also found a smattering of detractors.

imageI have to say I had mixed feelings about him when he played in college. I appreciated his competitiveness and his burning desire to win, and I admired his adherence to his values. What didn’t always sit well with me, however, was what I took for a penchant for over-playing the part. He seemed to wear too much on his sleeve, and I guess I’ve tended to take that sort of thing as somewhat over-cooked and contrived. Today, I don’t know if that’s accurate or fair to him. It might be that that’s just how he knows to express himself when it comes to the really important things in his life. I think I have to give him the benefit of the doubt on that. People need to have a sense of commitment to the important things and be willing to be thoroughly attached to them. That’s hard to fault him for.

As he began the transition to a professional football career, he attracted a good many doubters, probably for the first time in his life. When this football season began, I gave him only a slightly better than zero chance of starting for the Broncos this year. I’m not a pro scout, but I didn’t know how to disagree with all of those experts who had so much to say about what was wrong with his arm motion, delivery, and so on. At one point, he was the 3rd string quarterback, just a hair away from perhaps being cut from the team.

Now that he’s starting every game for the Broncos and the team’s original #1 quarterback has been cut, we’re seeing some things you just don’t find on the stat sheet anywhere other than in the “W” column. There’s a lot to like about a pure competitor like him.

Here’s a guy who won the Heisman Trophy in college who doesn’t exactly dazzle the crowd with gaudy stats now, but he does seem to win. And he’s a leader at a time and in an arena where we just don’t see enough of that.

Instead, we see so many celebrities who don’t know how to behave with their wealth and notoriety that we really don’t know what to make of a guy like Tebow. We can’t make sense of it so we criticize him, thinking there’s something wrong with him.

Shouldn’t he be spewing foul language, partying into the night, and getting into trouble? Tebow apparently didn’t get the memo. He kneels on the ground to pray during make-or-break field goal attempts, literally in front of God and everyone. He speaks like a guy who seems wise and mature in many ways while still coming across as naïve and untarnished by cynicism. He has taken immense heat in the media for being such an overt Christian, yet he doesn’t waver. There’s much more that is unconventional about this athlete than his arm motion and delivery, that’s for sure.

For what Tebow lacks in textbook quarterback skills, he more than makes up for in genuine leadership qualities and character. While the experts continue to be befuddled by his success, I have to say I’m pulling for him because he really does seem to be a good guy, he stands by his convictions and core beliefs in the face of criticism, and he knows how to take guys who are often mostly famous for being too much into themselves and help turn them into winners.

There might be plenty wrong with Tebow as a technical quarterback, but there is also plenty right with him as a man and as a leader. It’s the latter that will have the greatest influence on those around him and if that’s how his professional football career is remembered, that isn’t all bad either.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Lesson of Bambi

imageIt’s funny what you think of when you’ve been sitting in a tree all day waiting for a deer to come along. Yesterday was one of those days. With a big moon in the sky at night, there weren’t a lot of reasons for deer to wander around during the day time. On top of that, the wind was swirling and gusty. Being a nervously paranoid animal in the first place, deer aren’t exactly comforted by all of the scents and sounds in the woods on those kinds of days, so they tend to sit tight until the sun goes down. But there I sat anyway just in case I was wrong.

I have seen deer just about every time I’ve been out this year so far, but in most cases it’s been a doe with a young fawn. The late season fawns have lost their spots, but they’re still wearing kind of a rusty brown coat. In a few weeks, they’ll start picking up some black and darker brown that will darken their coats. I’ve always had this thing about shooting does with young fawns. In passing on the shot, I have just had this sense that I’d really be killing two deer because the predators would get to the young deer without mama there to take care of it.

That happened again Saturday. Mother and fawn came out in front of me and weren’t 20 yards in front of me at one point, totally oblivious of the immensity of my humanitarianism.

Well, as I sat there in that tree yesterday being buffeted around by the wind, I started thinking back to all of those deer I’ve been passing on, probably five or six this season already. On one hand, I thought I had done the right thing. On the other hand, I thought I’m not giving a weaned deer enough credit; many say a weaned deer can make it just fine on its own without its mother.

At one point as I sat there in that tree alone arguing with myself over whether I should be shooting those does or not, my mind went to the Disney classic movie “Bambi.”

As I remember the movie, it starts offimage with Bambi’s mother being shot by an evil hunter while Bambi was still a spotted fawn. Bad day for Bambi, but it wasn’t the end for him, was it? No, Bambi wasn’t immediately set upon by predators and disease. Instead, he was befriended by rabbits, a skunk, an owl, and other forest critters who really stepped up to help Bambi cope. They became Bambi’s friends. As the Disney site boasts, “with the help of pals Thumper and Flower, Bambi learns about the wonder of nature and the power of friendship and family.” Those were some pretty darned good friends poor little Bambi had.

Ultimately, Bambi grew up, became a really nice buck, and sprouted a proud rack of antlers that would have made a nice fixture over someone’s fireplace.

As I sat there in the tree yesterday, the real lesson of Bambi settled in on me. It wasn’t that man is evil and likes to hurt cuddly animals like deer. The lesson was that even though man can seem evil sometimes, even when he’s just putting food on the table for his family, things in the forest seem to turn out okay anyway. Sure, Bambi lost his mom early in the movie, but he gained his independence, some interesting friends, and a really awesome set of antlers.

The next time I see a doe with a young fawn, though, I’ll still pass even if it means the little guy won’t get to meet cool, talking forest friends like Bambi did. It’s just hard to put much stock in cartoons, not even the classics.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Compromised

lonetreeClayton Lonetree was a Marine sergeant serving as a security guard at the United States Embassy in Moscow in the early 1980s. It was a particularly sensitive post during the Cold War, one the Marine Corps exercised a good amount of care in filling.

As one might expect, being an embassy security guard in the Soviet Union in those days was an isolated and difficult position, especially for a young 25-year old.

But Sergeant Lonetree was up to the task when he was selected for it, and he remained good for it right up to the point that he met a Russian woman while on liberty. He probably didn’t realize she had noticed him long before he noticed her.

Although Sergeant Lonetree had been warned about situations like these, he couldn’t believe the warmth and companionship he found in the Russian woman was a ruse. She seduced him, then she blackmailed him, sending his life and his aspirations into a sudden and dramatic tailspin. Before it was over, Sergeant Lonetree had sold blueprints of the embassies in Moscow and Vienna and revealed the names of intelligence agents working in the Soviet Union.

He sold out his country, not because he dreamed of being a spy or because he set out to betray the nation he served. He did it because he was duped, sucked in, ensnared by a female Soviet agent who understood that all she had to do was establish a forbidden relationship with the young Marine and turn it against him.

Such a relationship was forbidden, not because the U. S. government had something against young Russian women or because it wanted to meddle in the private love lives of its Marines. It was forbidden because the government understood how minor indiscretions by people in sensitive positions are easily leveraged against them and against the interests they’re supposed to protect.

It was a well-worn caution for everyone who served on active duty in those days not to allow yourself to become compromised. One’s integrity was guarded not only for reasons of character, but also because agents have a way of exploiting small indiscretions and threatening to turn them into humiliating revelations if not kept quiet by “small” favors that ultimately crescendo into larger ones. It worked on Sergeant Lonetree.

Ultimately, he was caught, then he was court-martialed and convicted of espionage. He was sentenced to 30 years in Leavenworth, reduced in rank to private, awarded a dishonorable discharge, and fined $5,000.

The Commandant of the Marine Corps petitioned the Secretary of the Navy for some leniency because the impact of his betrayal was relatively low and because he was not a traitor but a young man caught up in “the lovesick response of a naïve, young, immature and lonely troop in a lonely and hostile environment.”

Ultimately, Lonetree’s sentence was reduced to 15 years. In the end, he was released after serving 9 years, but the scar of the dishonorable discharge and the brand of “traitor” persist.

I remember the Lonetree case because I was a Marine while he was on trial, and the whole thing was an embarrassment to all of us. His betrayal of our country was an affront to our Marine Corps culture and all that we stood for. Still, though, we understood how wicked the trap he was caught up in was. No one believes it can happen to them until it does.

I think of him every time officials of our government get caught up in sex scandals and I hear the media, pundits, and citizens defend them on the grounds that their sex lives are “private matters.”

When I hear about their sexcapades, I don’t think about their wives; that’s where this is a private matter for them to sort out. I also don’t think about the sleazy details because they always sound terrible and unflattering when aired out.

I do think about how they’ve disappointed thousands of people who expected and deserved better of their elected representatives.

But I think most about Sergeant Lonetree and how easily he was compromised with so little to be bartered and used against him by the spies who “owned” him. He wasn’t wealthy, he wasn’t married, and he didn’t have property or a famous name. He was a simple Marine. He was quite unlike our sophisticated millionaire politicians who seem to have so much more to lose than he did, but then again, in some ways he seems very similar to them.

I think of Sergeant Lonetree, then I consider how easily compromised a politician with access to secrets, a vote, and a microphone with which to sway others would be if he was to be dumb, arrogant, and careless enough to e-mail nude photographs of himself to women he’s never met. It would be a cinch to turn that kind of guy, almost too easy.

I think about how easy it would be to get to such a politician if he was foolish enough to make a “pass” at someone under a bathroom stall door, or have sex with an intern in his office or a House page in his apartment, or patronize high-class escort and prostitution services.

What would such a politician give in exchange for a well-kept secret? And once the blackmail is taken, what would he give to keep two secrets quiet? At what point does it stop being a question for him and start becoming a process, a normal way of doing business?

I don’t care what these guys do in their private lives, but I do care about how easily compromised they are and how oblivious they seem to be – or would like us to believe they are – about the prospect of it. Moreover, sex isn’t the only way our officials become exposed to blackmail, and our foreign enemies aren’t the only ones they have to worry about doing it to them.

It doesn’t take much for a compromised official to become corrupt beyond repair (and counseling). Until we realize what these “private” issues and poor choices really mean to us, we’ll continue to deserve the government we get.

I hope we catch on soon.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Service and Self

troopsThere’s a piece posted on foxnews.com, originally broadcast on the Fox News Channel the other day, about a military father who’s facing foreclosure on his home (“Hero Faces Foreclosure”). The story begins with the words, “All he wants to do is welcome his son home from a tour of duty in Iraq.”

To be clear, there is nothing about his military son’s service, his experiences in Iraq, his financial contribution to his father’s domicile – nothing – that links his service to his father’s financial position. The story was clearly an attempt to leverage for sympathy the military tour of duty of the son of a guy who’s enduring a foreclosure experience he shares with thousands of other Americans.

The father has been fighting with his bank over his attempt to take advantage of the government’s home mortgage modification plan. Somehow, his son’s military service – which has no bearing on the issue – has become woven into the story.

For the benefit of those who might read this and not know, let me make a disclosure, lest they think I’m being cold-hearted about what I’m going to write here.

I retired from the Marine Corps after 24 years and served combat tours in four different conflicts. Both of my sons are Marines. The oldest has deployed overseas twice and his brother deploys in the fall. I understand what I’m going to write about as both, a service member and a father of service members.

With that out of the way, let me say that there is absolutely nothing about being the father of a deployed military person that should suggest your responsibility to meet your debt obligations are different from everyone else’s.

Let me take it a step further. Unless a military person’s deployment causes him or her to fail to meet an obligation, he or she shouldn’t expect to be excused from it. The military hierarchy itself expects its members to be financially responsible. When there are extenuating circumstances that arise beyond the service members’ control due to their service, the military hierarchy does a pretty good job of advocating for them, but it otherwise expects members to stand on their own feet and meet their obligations.

There are also a number of excellent laws in place to protect vulnerable military members such as the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act. While not perfect and complete, the government does a pretty good job of keeping deployed military people from being exploited.

I don’t care much for well-intended efforts in the media and among politicians to take up for military members when it wasn’t the military person’s service itself that caused the hardship. Doing so makes our military people seem whiny and inept, and the vast majority of them are not. It also has the potential to diminish the public’s perception of the military person’s ability to balance military duties with everyday civilian issues and challenges when the vast majority are more than capable of handling them.

I would advise military members and parents of military members who complain too much about not being appreciated at home that their complaints are really off target today. Today’s military members are not fighting the “Forgotten War” that our Korean War veterans fought, and they’re not being mistreated when they return home like many of our Vietnam veterans were. Americans have come a long way in that regard.

Especially considering today’s climate at home, I would also counsel military members and their parents that too many complaints about not being appreciated is unbecoming of a person who truly understands the nobility of service and sacrifice. Fussing too much about one’s service (and giving) tends to diminish the sense of good in what’s been done. Parents should also understand that complaining about their service member’s circumstances – whatever they are – detracts from the virtue of what their children have done.

Service is what it is, and it is valuable in and of itself whether it’s appreciated or not. The only things that can diminish the good in service are actions that make it cease to be selfless.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Poor Memory

Six_Day_War_Terrritories_2The President has joined the chorus of voices calling on Israel to cede the territory it seized during the Six Day War in 1967. From the Israeli perspective, the events leading to and after that war have proven decisively that those pre-1967 boundaries were not part of an equation for peace.

The President’s new policy is a dramatic departure from American policy that’s been in place since the war.

In the past, American leaders have considered the epic abuse the Jews endured at the hands of the Nazis before and during World War II, and have been comparatively less sympathetic to the territorial claims of the Palestinians whose loyalties were aligned with the Nazis.

In the past, American leaders have recognized that Israel has been the traditional homeland of the Jews since the time of Moses.

In the past, American leaders have recalled that the Allied victory in World War II against the Axis powers led the United States to facilitate and support the United Nations charter that established Israel.

And in the past, American leaders have remembered the significance of 1967 and 1973, and the decades of skirmishes, ambushes, rocket and mortar attacks, and car bombs in the history of Israel and Israeli national security.

After World War II, the small stretch of land we know today as Israel became a logical and legitimate spoil of war for the Allies to do with as they saw fit. They chose to press for the repatriation of the Jews to their traditional homeland in the eastern Mediterranean.

It seems today that Americans have a poor and politically expedient memory. Anyone wanting to understand why our allies find us an inconsistent partner need not look much farther than the President’s statement on Israel over the past couple of years, punctuated by his call for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders.

Will the Israelis agree to his demand? Of course not. History shows that would be disastrous for Israel’s sovereignty. But let’s focus on 1967 since that’s the year the President has decided was the pivotal year in the discord in the region.

The year 1967 found Israel nearly 20 years old when Egyptian President Nasser said in a radio broadcast, “The existence of Israel has continued too long. We welcome the Israeli aggression. We welcome the battle we have long awaited. The peak hour has come. The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel.”

On May 30, Jordan signed a defense agreement with Egypt in preparation for war. Iraq moved troops and armor into Jordan the following day. Six days later, Iraq joined the growing military alliance.

Take a moment to look at the map above. Every nation that bordered Israel except for Lebanon had taken up offensive military positions around Israel by the end of May, 1967. That left only the Mediterranean Sea at Israel’s back.

Then, the international waterways that provided trade and travel access to Israel were closed in the face of Israel’s announcement that doing so would be considered an act of war. When Egypt would not stand down, Israel attacked. That was June 5.

Israel very quickly destroyed over 400 enemy aircraft and took the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza in the south. Jordan began firing artillery at Jerusalem in the heart of Israel right away. After warning Jordan’s King Hussein to cease fire and withdraw, Israel captured the West Bank and Jerusalem.

While that was happening, Syrian artillery based in the Golan Heights in the north, pounded civilian targets in northern Israel. So, after dealing with Egypt and Jordan, Israel turned its attention to the Golan Heights, capturing it too. Six days after the start of the war, Israel agreed to a cease fire on June 10.

True to form, a UN resolution called for negotiations and for an Israeli withdrawal from lands captured during the war.  On June 19, 1967, under American pressure, Israel offered to return the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights for a peace settlement. The plan did not include the Gaza Strip and it called for a demilitarization of Sinai. Egypt and Syria refused to negotiate with Israel, so Israel held onto all of it.

The chief reason governments and non-governmental entities in the region have refused to negotiate with Israel over the years is because they’ve not recognized Israel’s right to exist in the first place. The thinking is that if Israel doesn’t exist, any negotiation with them is pointless, even if it means not negotiating for the return of the spoils of war.

In October of 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a war against Israel: the Yom Kippur War. The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal into the Sinai Peninsula while the Syrians came into the Golan Heights on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish religious calendar. The Israelis were caught off guard and suffered heavy losses early in the fighting before rallying. By the time a cease fire was agreed to, Israel had retaken the Golan and crossed the Suez to cut off the Egyptian army. In the end, around 2,700 Israeli soldiers and 8,500 Arab soldiers had died in the fighting.

The freeze thawed a little in the 1970s as Egypt became the first to negotiate with Israel. Then, as part of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, Israel withdrew from the Sinai, and peace has endured between them since then. The President of Egypt at the time was Anwar Sadat. Sadat had led Egypt into the Yom Kippur War six years earlier, and now finally settled for peace. For signing the peace agreement with Israel, Sadat won the Nobel Peace Prize and was later assassinated.

In 1993 and 1995, Israel signed the Oslo Agreements that created the Palestinian National Authority and allowed it to govern areas of the West Bank and Gaza that Israel evacuated for them. Palestinians have launched rocket and missile attacks on the Israelis from the West Bank and Gaza persistently since then.

As the Israelis see it, the equation is very simple. Its neighbors have used certain bordering areas from which to launch attacks several times over the past 60 years. Their experience instructs them that those pre-1967 borders did not prevent aggression against them between 1948 and 1967 and, in fact, made them more vulnerable to a quick conquest should they be late to the fight. Again, history has not shown those borders to be a part of the formula for peace between Israel and its neighbors. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that.

mexico 1847I wonder how the United States would react if China stood up in a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and insisted the United States return to its pre-1847 borders and cede all or part of ten western U.S. states to Mexico. What would we say if the Israeli prime minister made a speech in which he insisted the United States return Puerto Rico and Guam to Spain claimed after the Spanish-American War?

Wars have consequences, and they should have consequences. World War II had consequences for those who sided with Nazi Germany. The Six Day War had consequences for those who surrounded and threatened to attack Israel. The Yom Kippur War cemented those consequences. The failure of the various entities to make peace with Israel since its inception has had consequences as well.

Unless we’re willing to hold ourselves and every other nation in the world to the same standard in the way conquered lands are disposed of, we need to step back from our insistence that Israel return to its 1967 borders.

To ask Israel to take a chance on peace by pulling back to borders it considers indefensible is to ask them to take a chance on annihilation. Why would they do that, and why would we ask them to?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Science, Religion, and Politics

galileoOnly 400 years ago, Galileo turned the religious and scientific worlds on their ears when he publicly asserted the heliocentric theory – the theory that the Sun was at the center of the universe – as a scientific certainty.

Up to that point, the generally accepted view was that the Earth was at the center of the universe. The Church held that God would not have positioned His most important creation anywhere other than at the center of everything else He created.

The Church’s frame of reference was a group of Biblical passages that seemed to lend weight to geocentrism: Joshua 10:12 taught that Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still (thus the belief that the Sun moved). Then, there were Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30, “…the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved,” Psalm 104:5 “…the Lord set the Earth on its foundations, it can never be moved,” and Ecclesiastes 1:5 “…the Sun rises and the Sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.”

Until Galileo came along, certainly before Copernicus, science wasn’t what it yearns to be today. Before them, hypotheses were considered legitimate if they were consistent with observations of reality – if they “saved the appearances” – rather than whether they actually equated to reality. Some would argue that environmental and climatic sciences have returned to the old “appearances” model, less interested in truth than in appearances.

The problem between Galileo and the Church wasn’t as it is often portrayed: that the Church interfered with science by taking on and ultimately excommunicating Galileo over his heliocentric theory. The fact is that Galileo started it. He took the Church on and insisted that it correct its Biblical teachings on the basis of his yet unproven theory that the Sun – not the Earth – was at the center of the universe. It wasn’t enough for him to establish new science or to redefine it. He wanted the Church to essentially admit the Bible was wrong; the Church would have nothing of it.

The fight that ensued stirred up a massive political hornet’s nest that thrust science into theology, a course of events that neither party could or would remove itself from once it gained steam.

Moving ahead to April of 1975, Newsweek magazine ran an article that, today, is absolutely fascinating. The article made a rather powerful emotional case for doing something urgently about the global cooling phenomenon. The concern was that if something wasn’t done, there would be famines, flooding, tornadoes, and more.

Then, 30 years later in 2007, a politician – former Vice President Al Gore – came along, establishing himself as an uncredentialed expert on global warming. The concern over global warming – just as it had been with global cooling 30 years earlier – was that if something wasn’t done, there would be famines, flooding, tornadoes, and more.

Today, the discussion has shifted again and we’re now talking about “global climate change.” I suppose the new position acknowledges that the climate is intermittently warming and cooling, but whatever it’s doing at a particular time, it’s wrong and humans are causing it.

Moving forward again, a Vatican scientific committee recently released a report parroting a widely discredited prediction on the likelihood that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. What’s noteworthy about the Vatican’s release of this report isn’t only that it supports a widely discredited theory, it’s that just 3 years ago, the Pope himself decried and discouraged the doomsday-theorizing that has characterized the climate discussion over the past 30 years.

The Pope said in 2007, “It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.”

It’s time for the scientific community to clean up the science on this climate change issue and not allow it to remain tainted by politics and religion. I know that’s difficult since science relies so heavily on government patronage, but there needs to be integrity in their work. We can’t keep swinging from one extreme position to another, each with “undeniable” evidence that supports its conclusions until the next “factual” position hits the scene. A fact in science is supposed to mean something.

There is no room for politics in determining sound science, so there is also no room for polls and consensus in determining the legitimacy of science either. The truth doesn’t depend on opinion for its substantiation.

There is little role for religion in arguing science either. The pulpit should be reserved for bringing people closer to God. If handled well, religion can teach the multiplicity and vastness of God’s creative plan and power, and science can help provide vivid examples of that plan and power. As St. Ambrose wrote about the Galileo affair, “To discuss the nature and position of the earth does not help us in our hope of life to come.”

My greatest concern is that when the lines guarding the integrity of the scientific method are breached, we’re left without a faithful distinction between what constitutes social activism and dogma and what constitutes science and fact.

We are repeating the mistakes of the skirmish between Galileo and the Church. The lesson from that fiasco should have been that we cannot ask the whole of society to undergo radical cultural changes without the benefit of scientific proof to justify them, and rather than posturing, scientists should busy themselves with “proving.” Rhetoric and posturing helped delay by 150 years the good science that ultimately proved Galileo’s theory to be correct. We should not make that same mistake with our understanding of our climate.

Bad science on the climate change issue will leave us ill-prepared and ill-adapted for whatever future the climate does hold for us. The science is already in on one simple reality: if we fail to adapt to our changing environment, we will succumb to it. At this point, it could be fairly said that the human race cannot afford more politics and religion on the subject; instead, we need better and more complete science.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fuji

fujiI was talking with one of my sons today and we ended up discussing things you do that don’t seem like much when you do them, but they’re things you’re glad you did later in life. It would be nice if you could see them coming.

As we were talking, I remembered the time I climbed Mount Fuji in Japan with a group of other Marines. We were deployed there from Okinawa and had been operating at the base of the mountain. It was July 4, 1976 and we thought it would be cool to climb it to celebrate the day.

Mount Fuji isn’t a difficult mountain to climb, there’s just a lot of it: a little more than 12,000 feet of it. A lot of Japanese successfully make a pilgrimage of the climb every year. You can climb it in about eight hours if you follow a trail. It’s certainly no Denali.

Climbing Mt Fuji July 4 1976 2We didn’t want to follow a trail, so we just started from our camp and walked straight up. We started early in the morning and climbed up the cinders all day long. As the end of the day approached, we ran into some weather; it was mostly hail, rain, and wind and it pounded down into our faces as we looked up to climb.

We didn’t quite have a plan for that. About half of our group decided to head back down the mountain, but the rest of us continued on. Not long after we split up, we came across an abandoned building that appeared to be intended as a shelter. It had three walls and, of course, the one that was missing was the one the weather was coming through.

Climbing Mt Fuji July 4 1976 4There was an elevated platform inside that seemed to have been designed for sleeping on so we huddled up on that.. We didn’t have blankets so we slept in the cold and wind. It was just cold and windy enough to make sleeping difficult, but it was better than being outside.

We woke up early the next morning and continued the climb as the cinders turned to a little bit of snow resting on top of the cinders. We reached the summit – the crater – at about mid-morning. Looking back down on Japan on that clear day was quite a sight. We walked around and took some photos before heading back down. The trip down was much faster.

Climbing Mt Fuji July 4 1976 3Like I said, the climb wasn’t a major feat, but it was one of those things you don’t get many chances to do. I’m glad we did it. More importantly, I’m glad we didn’t turn around and head back down the mountain when we ran into the bad weather. If we had, that might have been the last time I ever talked about Mount Fuji. It doesn’t seem likely I would have been fond of remembering the time I climbed half a mountain and gave up on the other half.

I suppose avoiding regrets like that has been a big motivator for me in negotiating the challenges and obstacles I’ve encountered over the years.  I think I’ve recognized for a long time that failure sometimes comes with taking risks, so I’ve not spent as much time worrying about or fearing failure as I’ve thought of ways to overcome those challenges and obstacles. I think I’ve been more afraid of quitting or giving up, and what it might turn me into if I headed down that road.

There’s a lot to be said for climbing the other half of the mountain. We do it – or face the decision to do it – all the time. Oftentimes, the consequences that lay beyond the decision not to press on are more lasting than the effects of having tried and failed.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Photograph

llama

Whether the United States government should release the bin Laden death photos is still a topic of discussion in the news and among commentators. Personally, I don’t think our government ought to release them, but not for the reasons we’ve heard.

1. We don’t want to release the photographs because we don’t want incite terrorist violence against Americans.

Boy, we sure don’t want to plant the seeds of violence in any terrorists minds, do we? None of this global war on terror business would exist in the first place were it not for a wave of unprovoked violence against Americans right here in our own country. Yet, we seem to be persistently concerned about offending a group of people who take grave offense, even when none is given or intended.

No, I think we’re looking at that all wrong. In my mind, the bin Laden take-down was about as unequivocal a statement about the cost of messing with us as we’ve made in a while. Why don’t we just strum that chord for a while?

We seem so eager to lurch into a whiplash-inducing 180-degree turn from an all-bowed-up “do you want some more of that?” to a hand-wringing “I hope we haven’t offended anyone.” We’re Americans and we need to stop feeling guilty and self-conscious about that. At this point, I’m not nearly as interested in knowing when the terrorists have been offended as I’m interested in when they’ve had enough and are ready to call it quits. But that’s probably not going to happen right away.

2. We don’t want to release the photographs because that’s not who we are as Americans.

I am about tired of the sanctimonious preaching about things we don’t do because “that’s not who we are.” Well, if it wasn’t just a little bit of who we are, we wouldn’t be talking so seriously about it, would we?

What I object to is our recent tendency to take indecisive half-measures or act timidly, then rationalize it by saying we won’t do more because “that’s not who we are as Americans.”

Really? We probably ought to come to grips with who we are before someone comes along and makes us into who we don’t want to be.

Who we are are the people who didn’t forget what happened to 3,000 people most of us didn’t know ten years ago. Who we are are the people who got our skivvies wadded up over those murders and invaded two countries so we could flush out the scum who had anything remotely to do with it. Who we are are the people who committed hundreds of thousands of our best young men and women to battle in strange lands to either kill the terrorists where they stood or capture them so they could be locked up in a cage in Cuba. That’s who we are.

We’re the people who say we got involved in two “wars of choice,” but haven’t quite gotten around to choosing to get out of them because we don’t seem to be over 9/11 just yet. That’s who we are.

And I’m fine with that.

So, here’s why I think we shouldn’t release the photos.

1. I don’t care if bin Laden’s cohorts ever believe he’s actually dead.

If the terrorists don’t believe bin Laden’s dead, let’s leave them wondering. Let them wonder why it’s been so long since his last video or why it’s been so long since he’s been over to watch some television. Memo to bad guys: He’s made his last video, and he isn’t coming over.

2. When the enemy is likely to imagine the photos are worse than they are, why mess with that?

Why would we even entertain the thought of proving something to the terrorists that they can only now imagine. I would guess the photos look pretty bad, but I doubt they’re worse than many terrorists have imagined them. I’d like for the terrorists to hold that image in their minds for a while.

3. Even if we publish the photos, there would be a lot of people who would swear they were doctored.

Shoot, in about 30 minutes (maybe 35), I could take a photo of a cock-eyed llama and make it look like bin Laden with a bullet in his head – and an arrow too – and so could the 14-year old kid living down the street. It would be only minutes after we released the photos before the first accusations that they were fakes would come rolling in. There’s no point in inviting that.

4. There’s no  real good in showing the photos.

What would be the value of distributing the photos? What would it accomplish?

How many of us can view a photograph of a dead bin Laden and know what it really is other than a dead terrorist? How many of us would look at that photograph and envision the young American who stood face-to-face with bin Laden before pulling the trigger, and fully understand what it took to deliver that shot? A photo like that commands respect, not for bin Laden, but for those who risked everything to make it possible. I just don’t see the value in distributing it.

So, while I agree with the decision not to release the photos of the dead bin Laden, I wish our reasons for not releasing them were more stout. Our reasons for not releasing them ought to reflect the momentum we’re riding, and not betray a regression back to self-loathing. This momentum is hard-won, and we shouldn’t give it away.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Loose Lips

looselips1Today, I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with both, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Senator John Kerry in saying that I believe there has been too much discussion of the prelude to and execution of the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

I think it’s enough for us to know that it was pulled off by American special forces and, as I wrote the other day, that it was completed in accordance with the law and the rules of engagement for the mission. That’s it.

We don’t need to know what unit flew the helicopters, we don’t need to know from where they launched their mission, we don’t need to know how many flying back-up helicopters they had, we don’t need to know what kind of covering air support they had, we don’t need to know about the extent to which electronic interdiction was employed in the area. We don’t need to know any of that. It was a secret military operation and it needs to stay classified that way until the either the tactics or the enemy become obsolete.

Little bits of information, including the kinds of aircraft we used and the fact that weather forced a postponement the night before can provide insight on origins, routes, and go/no-go launch and execution criteria.

We shouldn’t discuss our intelligence-gathering, our safe houses in the area, our reconnaissance, surveillance, and intelligence assets in the area, our considerations and concerns, and I’m not even crazy about publishing the rules of engagement (ROE) for the mission.

looselips2The ROE can tell a lot about the psychology, concerns, and limitations of the government and of military commanders on missions like these. That’s a lesson we should have learned from Vietnam and even more recently from our experiences in Afghanistan.

When we publicly announce what we will and won’t do operationally, we hand the enemy a huge gift. When we say, for instance, that we won’t target enemy elements in populated areas, we immediately find that our enemy moves right into those areas. They start setting up anti-aircraft batteries and mortars at mosques and shrines and in neighborhoods. We have to be careful with even the most innocuous-sounding information because it can be pieced together and molded into real insight.

Just as we were able to piece together bin Laden’s whereabouts from interrogation products gleaned from prisoners, including the nickname of one of his couriers, we should realize our enemy can learn a lot about our intuition and thought process from that information. In a lot of ways, we’re better off when our enemy doesn’t think we’re so clever.

Personally, I see a lot of benefit in not saying anything at all about bin Laden’s killing, not even to say it happened. Let’s let the incident simmer and let it froth up a bit. When we’re asked about it at a press conference in a couple of weeks, we can say, “Yeah, we killed him. We said we were going to, didn’t we?” Next question.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pawn Stars

pawnstarsMy brother and I finished our visit at our Dad’s gravesite in Bullhead City, Arizona and made our way back to Las Vegas for a Sunday morning flight back to Pensacola. On our way to the hotel, we decided to visit the pawn shop that is the scene and setting for the cable television show Pawn Stars.

We looked and looked, but didn’t see anything that we couldn’t live without. The prices seemed a bit steep.

When it gets right down to it, it’s still a pawn shop. They’re in business to buy things for less than they’re worth and then sell them for more than they’re worth. Actually, I guess if someone is willing to pay the price they’re asking for an item, it must have been worth that price. Let me correct myself to say they were selling things for more than they were worth to me.

There were a lot of people in the place and a good number of spectators (like us) outside taking pictures. I doubt the owner ever expected people to be standing outside of his pawn shop taking pictures of it when he started that business.

I did see a piece of carved estate elephant ivory tusk there that I liked, but they wanted $300 for it and wouldn’t come off of that price. I have one very similar to it that I bought at a consignment shop some time back.

The one I bought was listed at only $50. I looked it over carefully and could tell it was ivory and worth at least twice that. After studying it a little more, I pretty much decided they didn’t know what they had. It was carved out of about a 12-inch length of tusk and was mounted on a block of ebony.

I asked the lady at the counter if she could tell me something about it. Her response was ironic and funny in light of yesterday’s visit to the pawn shop. She said, “Well, I’ll tell you this isn’t Pawn Stars; it’s not a piece of ivory you’re going to get for a steal.” I said, “Oh, okay” and walked away back to where I found it.

I studied it some more with my cell phone flashlight, checking its grain to see if there were any inconsistencies, and there weren’t. So, I went back out to the lady at the counter and told her since it wasn’t anything special, I’d like to see what she could do with the price. She said she’d let me have it for $40, so I bought it.

She was right. That wasn’t Pawn Stars.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Yellow Footprints

mcrdThere’s no moral to this story; it’s just a reflection, a reflection of my first day as a recruit at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) in San Diego, California. While absolutely none of this was funny at the time, it is all kind of amusing to me now, and I remember it like it was yesterday.

I grew up in a small community in southern Illinois – Newton, Illinois – where people generally knew each other or at least knew of each other. It was – and is – a nice town. It’s the kind of town that still holds a fall parade where tractors and marching bands own the streets. People sit along the curb in their chairs while the kids play along the street. The people there cherish the tempo and lifestyle, quietly aware that if everyone lived that way, it would be a much better world.

I wasn’t exactly setting any academic records in high school so I needed a change of pace and some way to transition to a successful track somewhere, somehow. I had thought about the military, but I didn’t want to go overboard with this whole transition thing. I wasn’t sure I would be cut out for the military life and I didn’t know which branch of the service to enter. I was very certain it wouldn’t be the Marines because I was pretty sure I couldn’t make it there.

However, when the Marine recruiter called and asked if he could come over for a visit, I said yes. Almost as soon as he stepped through the door, I was in awe. I was still pretty sure I couldn’t get there from where I was in my life, but I was willing to listen. After some kind of black magic and other trickery, he had me thinking I could make it and I decided right then I wanted to become a Marine. I was caught up in all of it and had apparently separated myself from the reality that there was no way I could make it through Marine Corps boot camp. I wasn’t a very big or fit guy at the time. I didn’t run, I wasn’t strong, and I wasn’t very focused. All of that was going to change soon enough though.

I signed the papers in September of 1974, just after my seventeenth birthday and finished my high school work in January. I took a few weeks to do some fishing and camping, but came back to Newton in February in time to take a Greyhound bus to the recruiting center in St. Louis.

I spent the night in a so-so hotel in a not-so-good part of town. I didn’t get a lot of sleep because I was afraid of missing my wake-up time. It turns out I couldn’t have missed it because this sorry hotel seemed to have invested in a wake-up ringer that could have awakened the dead. They obviously housed a lot of recruits because it was not quite a gentle wake-up call.

My instructions were to get up early at a time they gave me and report to the recruiting center for processing. I had the sense that it would be a pretty quick evolution since I already had a physical and signed a bunch of papers and this was the military, known for its rapid efficiency. But I was wrong. I got there early and waited and waited. Then, we did a little something and waited and waited some more. That happened all day long until suddenly near the end of the day everyone flew into action to process us out of there and get us to the airport for an airplane to San Diego. What appeared to be wasteful inefficiency turned out to be a well-conceived plan. Very clever.

They gave me all of the paperwork for the group in a large yellow envelope because my last name came first in the alphabet among those headed out to San Diego. There were probably a dozen of us. It turns out where my last name fell in the alphabet dictated a good bit of my perspective over the next three months since we did almost everything in alphabetical order. We lined up for shots in alphabetical order and we even slept in alphabetical order. I got a good look at the back of Private Dibble’s head over that period.

We took off out of the airport in St. Louis en route to San Diego. I wasn’t nervous, mostly because I was too clueless to be nervous. However, as we made our approach into the airport in San Diego, the flight attendant pointed out the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and the Naval Training Center which bordered the airport over the intercom. As I looked down on the base which looked eerily serene and darkened except for the street lights, I suddenly felt claustrophobic. As we filed off the airplane, the flight attendant told us recruits, “good luck,” and she seemed to mean it. Those were the last kind, warm words I heard for three months.

We got out into the airport and went looking for the Marine Corps liaison at the airport. It was after 10 PM and there weren’t very many people there. We found the Marine liaison standing behind a podium near some doors that went to the outside. I took my large envelope of documents to the podium to let the liaison know we had arrived.

As I walked up, the Marine was looking down at some papers he was working on. I rested my elbow on the podium and told him the group from St. Louis was there. Without looking up and without raising his voice, the Marine told me to get my elbow off of his podium. He added some other words that seemed to double the sense of how serious he was about me needing to get my elbow off of his podium. I got the message immediately. I got my elbow off of his podium. I suddenly wished I had heeded my Dad’s words to stand up straight and “don’t lean on that.”

He told us to wait outside and the bus would be along shortly. Some other groups of recruits came outside as we waited. Almost on cue once we had a bus load, a white school bus with, “U. S. Marine Corps” stenciled in small letters on the side pulled up.

When a sergeant came flying out of the bus yelling and screaming at us, I thought, “What am I doing here?!” I almost felt like the guy from Shawshank Redemption who, on arriving at prison, cries out, “I don’t belong here…” I didn’t cry though. In fact, I didn’t say a word. I was all ears.

The sergeant yelled at us to fill the bus from back to front, from left to right. He said it so fast, you really had to be listening.

One of the guys from St. Louis was a red-headed kid who must have been somebody in his JROTC unit because he couldn’t stop talking at St. Louis, on the plane, and at curbside while we were waiting for the bus about how he was going to breeze through boot camp. Well, he might have been better off attending to his listening skills because he jumped on that bus and promptly sat in the middle of it. That’s not what the sergeant told us to do, and he went tearing back up on that bus and all you could hear was the sound of that sergeant barking in this guy’s ear, then the red-head quickly shuffling to the back of the bus. Welcome to boot camp.

The rest of us got on the bus. If there were any doubts about how we were supposed to do that, the red-headed guy’s experience clarified it for us nicely. The bus started rolling and we made our way over to MCRD on what was probably the loneliest bus ride of my short life. I had never felt more like I was being led to the wolves. I was right about that.

yellowfootprintsWe arrived at MCRD, and just as there were instructions about how to get on the bus, there were instructions about how to get off the bus. This time, we were to stand on a column of yellow footprints. These yellow footprints were painted with feet at the position of attention because although we didn’t know what that was, we needed to be at it.

We got on the yellow footprints and the place was swarming with DIs, or at least it seemed to be. The time was around midnight and they told us to drop everything we had in our hands. I had that envelope with those papers, but I dropped it and never saw it again. One poor soul brought a beach ball. He must have had a recruiter with a sense of humor. Since he was coming to San Diego, he must have thought he was going to get some beach time. That got him some unwanted attention right away.

I was standing behind a guy who had long hair and a beard and he could not have looked more out of place there. While I was pretty fixated on not being the next red-headed guy, I couldn’t help think, “this is going to be interesting” about the guy who stood in front of me on those footprints.

He looked out of place, but that was about to change. Those yellow footprints were located in the heart of the recruit reception activity. Just to our right was the barbershop and it was open for business. The very first thing we did after getting on those yellow footprints was file into the barbershop for a haircut that couldn’t have lasted longer than 15 seconds. There were half a dozen barbers and they took no time at all to cut all of those heads of hair.

Just before the guy in front of me, the one with the long hair and beard, was supposed to head into the barber, he suddenly fainted right there on his yellow footprints. As the DIs and a medical corpsman attended to him, I moved quickly around him and went in for my haircut. When I came back, he was gone and an empty set of yellow footprints remained.

A short while later, though, he returned with his hair cut off. He still had his beard. He received the same express haircut I got, but as he stood in front of me, I could see he had these remnants of his long hair here and there that the barber missed. He looked like one of those old dolls that most of the hair had fallen out of (with a beard). He was very pale and not looking good at all. I remember thinking this guy’s not going to make it. It turns out he graduated from boot camp in my platoon as a squad leader with a meritorious promotion. Shows you what I knew.

So, whatever you looked like on the bus was not what you looked like back on those yellow footprints after that haircut. The red-headed guy from St. Louis was an exception.

The red-headed guy was still the red-headed guy and he was proving to be quite a DI magnet. He wasn’t doing anything right and they absolutely were on him the entire evening. Our next stop was an issue line where we were given our toiletries. Somehow, he messed that up too and the DIs hauled him outside where we could hear them giving him the business. I couldn’t understand what they were yelling, but I thought they were going to send that guy out of there that night the way things were going. I, on the other hand, suddenly found the focus that had eluded me all of those seventeen years.

squadbayWe finally made it to bed. I have no idea what time it was, but I was ready for a good night of sleep. I didn’t sleep much the night before and a long day capped off with the trauma of being at MCRD with a lot of DIs who apparently had no idea of what an “indoor voice” was made me very tired. We were bunked in an open squad bay, which means it was a very large room with rows of double bunks with aisles between the rows.

I got to sleep immediately, but it seemed that almost as soon as my eyelids hit my cheekbones, the lights came back on and someone was throwing a trash can down the aisle. There’s nothing quite like that sound, and it sure gave the impression they really wanted us out of bed and standing at attention at the foot of our bunks right away. They counted us to make sure we were all still there then they gave some instructions for us to go to the head (restroom) to shave. We did it in shifts. Half went to the head while the other half stripped bunks of the sheets and blankets. As soon as the beds were stripped, it was time to rotate: the guys in the head came shuffling out and the other half went shuffling in.

marchWe ran back out to our bunks and put our civilian clothes back on and ran outside. We assembled in a kind of a military formation and walked – because we didn’t know how to march – in that sorry formation. It was still dark outside, but as we made our way over to the mess hall – now called a dining facility in the military – we could see other recruit platoons who had obviously been there a while because when they marched, it sounded like one heel: thump, thump, thump, thump. That was something. That might have been the only time the DIs let us gawk. Everything they did was as though they were one, in perfect unison. Everything we did was evidence that we had a long way to go. The DIs had a colorful way of telling us how far we had to go yet.

We filed into the mess hall and it was all business in there too. Once we got to the serving line and grabbed a tray, the mess men behind the serving line kept saying, “keep the chow line moving, privates, keep the chow line moving.” If the chow line stopped moving, there was trouble because the DIs saw that too. Of course, the yelling of “not fast enough,” “what are you looking at,” and “no talking” were echoing throughout the mess hall. I was near the end of the chow line so I was one of the last to get my breakfast. That didn’t work out so well.

Thinking I should get a decent meal that morning so I would have enough battery juice to make it through the day, I grabbed some scrambled eggs, some hash browns, and a pastry. I should have stopped at the scrambled eggs and hash browns. I shoved that stuff in my mouth as fast as I could because almost as soon as I sat down, we were getting a countdown for when we needed to be finished. By the time we were told to get out of the mess hall, I still had that pastry sitting there. I started to get up, but one of those multi-eyeballed DIs spotted that pastry on my tray.

He told me I wasn’t going to waste his Marine Corps chow. Everything seemed to belong to these DIs and they seemingly took everything personally – my Marine Corps chow, my Marine Corps barracks, my Marine Corps dirt, my Marine Corps formation – and we seemed to always be messing up their Marine Corps things.

So, I was not going to waste his Marine Corps chow. I dropped back down in my seat and my new friend, the DI, was right on me yelling at me to get this thing eaten. I stuffed as much of that pastry in my mouth I could without gagging – throwing up right then would not have been good – and tried to chew, but it wasn’t going anywhere. It just seemed to get larger and mushier and more impossible to do anything with. I finally got the whole thing in my mouth and was still trying to chew it when he yelled at me (in his outside voice) to get out of there. I must have chewed that ball of grease and dough for an hour, but I finally got it down. That was the last pastry I ate in boot camp.

We got back to the barracks and cleaned the place up then went to get our uniforms. Once again, we became someone different (except for that red-headed guy). We looked nothing like military guys in those green uniforms though. It was pretty clear that we were just civilians dressed up – poorly, I should say – in military uniforms. The uniforms smelled like mothballs and were dark green because they’d not yet been laundered. We looked terrible, but at least, in our eyes, we were starting to look like we belonged there.

phoneA little while later, we went to a place where we boxed up all of our personal belongings and shipped them home. The Marine Corps would issue to us anything we would need from that time on. Then, we went over to the phone center where we were allowed to make a quick phone call home. There was a script taped next to the telephone that went something like this: “This is Recruit Doss. I have arrived safely at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Please do not send me any food or bulky items in the mail. I will contact you in 3 to 5 days by postcard with my new address. Thank you for your support. Goodbye for now.”

That’s when it really settled on me that I now belonged to the United States Marine Corps. What happened from that time forward was entirely in my hands and in the hands of a few drill instructors.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Visit with Dad

DadI’m in Arizona today with my brother, Michael, to visit our father’s grave site. Not everyone would understand why we would make such a trip to do that, and I’m not sure if I can do a great job of explaining it.

I won’t go on too much about him here. I wrote about him in January in this blog. If you’d like, you can read it by clicking HERE.

Today, I thought I’d relate a little different story.

I was on a deployment to the Mediterranean aboard the USS Guam in early 1988 when I received a Red Cross message that Dad had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and that his prognosis didn’t see him surviving the duration of my deployment. My squadron commander didn’t hesitate to let me to go ashore in Italy to catch a hop to Rota, Spain in order to catch another aircraft to the United States so I could fly to Arizona to see him.

It was about Easter time and all of his kids and young grandkids were there to visit as well. It was nice.

Dad had given me a commemorative decanter of whiskey when I enlisted in the Marines in 1975 on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps. The decanter was in the shape of Tun Tavern, oddly enough, the first recruiting station of the Marine Corps. I had carried that decanter around with me from duty station to duty station over the course of my Marine Corps career because it was my Dad’s hope that when I left the Marine Corps, he and I would celebrate by drinking that whisky down.

He had served in the Marine Corps during Korea for three years before leaving to go to college. He ended up becoming quite successful in private life, but he always lamented not staying in the Marine Corps. I think he was able to sort of experience a Marine Corps career vicariously through me, though. Celebrating its conclusion was going to be special for him.

As my visit with him was drawing to a close and I needed to get back to Europe, I knew I probably would never see him alive again. I had four months left to go on that deployment. I put my uniform on for the trip back then grabbed my things to leave his house for the airport. As we stood toe-to-toe for a final hug goodbye, he reminded me that he had always said it was not fair for a dying person to make deathbed requests, but that he had one to make of me anyhow.

Of course, I stepped up to it and he told me what it was. He asked that once I retired, I put on my dress blue uniform and visit his gravesite and drink the whisky from that decanter with him. I didn’t say anything…because I couldn’t. I stood there in his house in my uniform and I was afraid if I said anything, I’d start bawling. That wouldn’t do. Instead, I hugged him long and hard until I had my composure together.

When we separated from the hug, he stepped back and deliberately looked at me from head-to-toe then back up again as though he was trying to memorize every inch. Then, he looked me in the eye entirely stoically and snapped a Marine-perfect salute to me. Well, Marines don’t salute indoors unless they’re “under arms” (with a weapon or on duty), but I carefully placed my cover (cap) on my head and returned his salute.

We hugged again and I walked out through the door to the car. I watched him for the last time as we drove away.

I made my way back to Europe and rejoined my squadron. We performed a number of exercises in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Tunisia, Spain, and Israel and then it was time to head back to the States. As we made our way back across the Atlantic and approached Bermuda, I received another Red Cross message that my Dad had passed away. We were only two days from getting off of the ship.

My CO asked me if I wanted to get off at Bermuda or stay with the ship to North Carolina. I knew I wouldn’t get to Arizona much sooner via Bermuda than if I waited an extra day, so I told him I’d like to stay with the ship. Normally, a pilot who has experienced a death in his immediate family is promptly removed from the flight schedule because his focus isn’t quite balanced, but my CO asked me if I’d like to fly a helicopter off the ship on the fly-off day as I normally would. I thanked him for the consideration and told him I would really like to stay in the mix and fly one off. So, I did.

I rejoined my family and we flew to Arizona the following day for Dad’s visitation and funeral.

Another ten years passed before I finally retired. In that time, I had flown missions in four conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, so a lot of water had passed under the bridge. After I retired, I purchased a business franchise and that involved some training in San Diego. I decided that while I was in San Diego, I’d travel to Bullhead City, Arizona to close the loop with my Dad.

Dressed in my blues and carrying a little camping stool and that Tun Tavern whisky decanter, I found my Dad’s grave site where I sat and drank that whisky with him. Once I said my goodbyes, I drove off and headed to the local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) post. A detachment from that post had graciously served as ceremonial escorts and pall bearers for my Dad’s burial ten years earlier.

I walked in – it was a Saturday night so the place was full of people – and I sat at the bar there in my uniform. I drank a beer and made a little small talk with patrons who weren’t used to seeing a Marine officer’s uniform in there. Then, I took my metal “life member” VFW membership card out of my wallet on plunked on it on the bar. Everyone within earshot recognized the sound; it meant someone was buying a round of drinks. The bartender asked if I was aware of what that meant and I said that I was. I bought everyone a round of drinks and when they had their drinks, I offered a toast to them and to my Dad. The band that was in there that night played a countryfide version of the Marine’s Hymn and I left. What a day that was.

My visit with Dad today wasn’t quite the same as that because that was a very unique and special occasion. I doubt I’ve offered a very good explanation of why I felt compelled to travel to Arizona with my brother to visit his gravesite today, but maybe you have a sense of the depth of the relationship my Dad had with his family. That relationship has still not ended. Maybe that’s the explanation I’m looking for.

Rough Landing

vrs1There’s an adage that “any landing you walk away from is a good landing.” That sounds cute, but no pilot really sees it that way if it involves leaving a broken aircraft behind. By now, we all know that the American forces who raided bin Laden’s compound experienced a rough landing and left the remains of a helicopter behind. You might have heard that the helicopter likely crashed due to a phenomenon known as “settling with power” while some other explanations have suggested that it might have been a “high, hot” landing scenario. I thought I would try to explain how that kind of thing happens in case anyone is interested.

You probably already realize that helicopters fly by producing lift with their rotors. The helicopter is controlled by the pilot’s manipulation of three controls: the cyclic which raises and lowers the nose of the aircraft and rolls it to the left and right, the pedals which move (or yaw) the nose (or tail) of the aircraft to the left or right, and the collective which generally has a mechanical linkage to the fuel control to increase power and to the rotor blades to change the angle at which they cut through the air. A higher angle on the blades increases lift with an increase in power, and vice versa.

As a helicopter flies, the rotor blades move the air downward, producing lift. When the aircraft is within one rotor diameter of the ground, it gains as much as a 10% boost in lift from that downward airflow against the ground. The helicopter I flew in the Marines, for instance, had a 51 foot rotor diameter, so we began to pick up some ground cushion within about 51 feet of the ground.

vrs2When the helicopter is close enough to the ground to gain some ground cushioning, the airflow presses against the ground and tends to dissipate out to the sides. However, when the aircraft is farther from the ground outside of that “ground effect,” the airflow actually creates a vortex that tends to circle back around and exert a downward force on the rotor blades. When that happens, the lift produced from the rotors is neutralized. The helicopter needs lift to stay in the air, so when rotor lift is neutralized, the result is that the helicopter “settles.”

In most flight profiles, the aircraft is able to either fly past that vortex by being past the vortex by the time it circles back around or it can descend faster than the vortex can circle back around and influence the rotors adversely. However, at certain airspeeds and rates of descent – in the helicopter I flew it was 700-1000 feet per second rate of descent and less than 40 knots of airspeed – that vortex can keep up with the helicopter and actually force the helicopter to the ground. This is called the “vortex ring state.” Since the aircraft settling is not caused by the aircraft being underpowered, the settling that occurs is known as “settling with power.”

Here’s the problem: When a pilot encounters the vortex ring state and the aircraft begins to settle, the intuitive thing to do is to increase power (since the aircraft still has power to spare) in order to slow or stop the rate of descent. However, since it is the rotor thrust that is forcing the helicopter down, increasing power actually makes the situation worse. The pilot should actually do what is not intuitive in that situation and lower the nose toward the ground – essentially dive toward the ground – and decrease power. The idea is to decrease the rotor thrust with the collective while lowering the nose with the cyclic to pick up some speed so you can fly out of the vortex. The result is normally an aborted landing or a “wave-off” because the landing zones where this is normally encountered are too confined to save the approach. The pilot has to do this right away when he enters this condition because if he doesn’t, the rate of descent will be too much to overcome and he will crash.

The way you keep from having this happen to you is by staying out of the vortex ring state in the first place. In certain circumstances, especially combat situations where the flying tends to be a bit more aggressive, the flight profile invites the vortex ring state and it’s more difficult to stay out of it. The pilots who were selected to fly that mission into the bin Laden compound were very likely quite experienced and knowledgeable about aerodynamic phenomena like the vortex ring state, so that shows you how insidious it is.

This is how a combat scenario can make it easier to enter the vortex ring state: As I wrote earlier, the vortex ring state relates to rates of descent and airspeed. When a pilot makes an approach into a confined area like a walled compound, he needs to take a relatively steep angle on the approach to the landing zone. The angle – or glideslope – is a product of vertical and horizontal distance covered over time. In other words, the faster the helicopter is traveling over the ground, the faster it needs to descend in order to hit the landing spot.

Remember the vortex ring state occurs at airspeeds below a certain speed, say 40 knots. If I’m flying into a 20 knot headwind, my airspeed indicator will read 20 knots faster than I’m traveling over the ground. So, if I’m flying at a groundspeed of 40 knots with a 20 knot headwind, my airspeed indicator will show 60 knots. A headwind enables me to keep my airspeed up even with my groundspeed – the speed I’m traveling over the ground – relatively low. Remember, the pilot controls his glideslope by managing his groundspeed. Normally, the pilot can count on a little bit of headwind to enable him to stay above the airspeed where the vortex ring state occurs while he manages his groundspeed to control the glideslope until he gets close enough to the ground to break up the vortex with ground effect.

With many highly “choreographed” raids where surprise and speed are important, the pilot’s wind is not always favorable. If the door or ramp of the helicopter needs to be right at the main ingress point of the building they’re attacking, he might need to orient his approach to put that door or ramp in just the right location. That might mean accepting a tailwind that makes it more likely he’ll enter the vortex ring state if he’s making a slow steep approach to the landing zone.

Sometimes, the terrain and wind can funnel the sound of the aircraft to the enemy so you might end up approaching the landing zone with a crosswind. With a true cross wind the effect of the wind is negligible on the main rotor, except that what you see on the airspeed indicator is also the speed you’re traveling over the ground.

Now, let’s say the pilot is lucky and has the right wind all the way, including a nice headwind on the glideslope. He carries a steep profile into the landing zone so he doesn’t hit the walls surrounding the compound, but as he nears the ground, the wind that he’s had this whole time suddenly disappears because it’s blocked by the walls. He immediately goes from a very favorable flight profile to a very dangerous one just as he’s trying to land.

To make matters worse, depending on the strength of the wind, the wind that gets deflected by the wall can create its own vortex. A moderate wind tends to rise up just in front of a vertical obstacle, then come back down as it seeks the wind stream again, sort of like water rushing around a rock in a stream. This can result in a down force wind acting on the helicopter right as it comes into the landing zone. This is sort of what happens in a thunderstorm microburst.

I hope this explanation has been clear enough.

Let me say one more thing about the vortex ring state. When it comes to combat assaults where surprise is key, you only have one shot at the landing zone or you risk losing the element of surprise by taking a wave off. When this pilot started feeling himself getting caught in the vortex ring state (if that’s actually what happened), the only way to have gotten out of it would have been to wave off and try the landing a second time. Even if he could have executed the wave off without hitting the wall on the opposite side of the compound, he could have ruined the entire mission by not staying with that approach that was forcing him down. It’s ironic, perhaps, that he might have endangered American lives and the mission by preventing the crash with a wave-off since the element of surprise would have been lost with only half of the ground force in place by the time he circled back around to land. That is always an important element.

Very quickly, the “high, hot” scenario was also mentioned. I don’t know if the news source intended to pair the “settling with power” potential cause factor with the “high, hot” explanation, but they are often confused as being related or the same. They’re not the same.

The high, hot scenario relates to the fact that at higher altitudes and hotter temperatures, the air density is lower. Since lift is produced by moving a volume of air with the rotors, a lower air density in “high, hot” situations means that more power might be required to produce that lift than normal. It is possible to require more power to land than the aircraft is capable of producing, especially if the aircraft is also heavily loaded with troops and equipment.

On a raid like this, it is possible for the air density at your origin to be considerably less than at your destination. In planning missions, you typically make an educated guess about the destination air density. When operating in the field, you might even be making educated guesses at both ends of the trip because of a lack of meteorological equipment. The difference between the point of origin and destination in that case is that you know right away whether you have enough power to take off at your origin before you do it, while you don’t know for sure that you don’t have enough power to land at your destination until you try it.

I don’t know which, if any, of these factors played a role in the helicopter mishap at the bin Laden compound, but I do know that any experienced helicopter pilot will admit that “there but by the Grace of God go I” when it comes to things like this. These phenomena can reach out and grab even the best and luckiest of pilots, but when being good and lucky aren’t enough, you get to make the news.