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 evoke feelings of being left out 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 regionally-biased lyrics of the classic 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 multi-regional 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.

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.

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 long trip to the desert to do that, and I’m not sure if I can do a great job of explaining it, but I’ll give it a shot.

I was on a deployment to the Mediterranean aboard the USS Guam in early 1988 when I received a Red Cross message letting me know 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 whiskey down.

He had served in the Marine Corps during Korea for three years before leaving to go to college. He always lamented not staying in the Marine Corps, but I think he was able to sort of experience a Marine Corps career vicariously through me, though. Celebrating my career’s 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 that 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 my parents' home for the airport. As we stood toe-to-toe for a final hug goodbye, he reminded me that he had always said that it wasn’t 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 if, once I retired, I would put my dress blue uniform on, visit his gravesite, and drink the whiskey 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 that if I said anything, I’d start bawling. That wouldn’t do. Instead, I hugged him long and hard until I was sure that I had it together.

When we separated from the hug, he stepped back and studied me from head-to-toe then back up again as though he was trying to memorize every inch and feature. Then, he looked me in the eye entirely composed, came to attention, 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 with him standing there holding his salute, 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 traveled back across the Atlantic and approached Bermuda, I received another Red Cross message, this one advising me 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 squadron to North Carolina. I knew that I wouldn’t get to Arizona much sooner via Bermuda than if I waited an extra day, so I told him that I’d like to stay with the squadron on board 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 that I would really like to stay in the mix and fly one off the ship. 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 from the Marine Corps. Once I retired, I purchased a business services 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 dress blues and carrying a little camping stool and that Tun Tavern whiskey decanter, I found my Dad’s grave site where I sat and drank that whiskey with him. Once we had our time together, I said my goodbyes, got back into the rental car, and drove off 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 the middle of Arizona. 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 that 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 got involved and played a countryfide version of the Marine’s Hymn. What a day and what a memory that was.

My visit with Dad today wasn’t quite the same as that because the earlier visit was a very unique and special occasion. I doubt that 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.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rules of Engagement

panettaIt looks like the worst part of the mission to take down Osama bin Laden will be the politics that follow. In the three short days since we learned of the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, we’ve heard that bin Laden was killed because he fired at our SEALs and we’ve heard that he was killed as he appeared to be going for a weapon. Now, we’re told he wasn’t armed. That bit of insight has lit up the “wait just a minute” crowd.

CIA Director Leon Panetta has added to the confusion by telling us the raid was a mission to kill bin Laden, “The authority here was to kill bin Laden, and obviously, under the rules of engagement, if he had in fact thrown up his hands, surrendered and didn’t appear to be representing any kind of threat, then they were to capture him. But they had full authority to kill him.”

Now, the White House press secretary is trying to explain it all, and he’s not doing a very good job of it.

The problem is there is an important philosophical difference between the statements, “he was killed because he posed a threat,” and “he was killed because that’s what we sent our guys in there to do.”

In the first instance, the implication is that in spite of our best efforts to take him alive, he put up a fight and was killed as a result. That’s the justification for killing a criminal.

In the second instance, there is no implication. The mission was to kill him because he was an “unlawful combatant,” and the mission and the action were thus warranted. There’s no need to discuss the causal elements that led to his killing because the only one that matters is the fact that he was in the compound and didn’t surrender immediately.

Clearly, the White House press secretary and others have had a difficult time reconciling bin Laden’s killing with the Administration’s political position and the Justice Department’s legal contention that Al-Qaeda and the other terrorists we’ve been fighting are criminals who should be processed and tried criminally, not handled through the military judicial system.

Ultimately, someone will ask, “How do you issue an order to kill a man who you would have read rights to and treated as a criminal if he had surrendered?” He’s either a combatant who you go in hard against, or he’s a criminal to whom you give every opportunity to surrender.

Surely, it’s understandable that the media now has so many questions about whether bin Laden was armed or put up a fight. The media has bought in to the Administration’s argument that these guys should be treated like criminals; therefore, they’ve reasoned that maybe bin Laden should have been given a greater opportunity to surrender.

Under the law of armed conflict, based on the Geneva Conventions, there are two types of combatants: lawful and unlawful. An “unlawful combatant” is someone who participates in hostilities outside of the authority of a government. Their very existence and every action in combat inherently violate the law of armed conflict. So the law regards them as legitimate targets who can be killed on sight or tried as war criminals if they’re captured.

On the other hand, “lawful combatants” operate under the authority of a government and are immune from prosecution for their legitimate acts in combat. Regular soldiers in uniform are lawful combatants.

Regardless of what has been said to this point and regardless of what is said going forward, it is clear bin Laden was considered an unlawful combatant, not a criminal, when the rules of engagement were approved and issued for that raid.

In that light, a successful raid on that compound had but one anticipated outcome, and it was that outcome that the Administration spontaneously rejoiced in when they heard the words, “Geronimo, EKIA,” signaling that the mission was accomplished and that bin Laden was dead (EKIA = “enemy killed in action”).

In my mind, rather than try to explain the circumstances in the compound that led to bin Laden’s death, the White House press secretary ought to simply answer the media by saying this: “Our forces acted in compliance with their rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict. We are not going to dissect and second-guess them here from Washington as though any of us in this press room are qualified to do that. We need our forces to be bold and courageous and to comply with the law and their rules of engagement. Beyond that, we leave it to the respective military units to critique the details so they can assure success should we need to do this kind of thing again…and we might.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Retrospective

nvgThere’s an awful lot of talk about the celebrations in the streets in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden. There’s even a quote circulating that’s been attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” The implication is that Dr. King preached against the kind of celebrations we saw in America’s streets Monday night.

It appears that the person who originally posted the quote on his Facebook page got it right, but a subsequent poster misplaced the quotation marks which had the effect of distorting the original context of his words. The original poster led with his own words, “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy,” and finished with Dr. King’s words that began, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate…”

The context of the words as originally delivered by Dr. King was entirely different than they’ve been characterized these past few days. He wrote them in his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, and he repeated them in several speeches under a similar heading and purpose. It was his last book, and he wrote these words with the intention, in part, of taking on the Black Power movement that sought to renounce the non-violent approach to the struggle against racism that Dr. King had advocated.

So, his reference to exchanging hate for hate was a rebuttal to the idea of fighting violent racism with more violence. It had absolutely nothing to do with the just action of a nation seeking to eliminate an ongoing threat to the safety and security of its citizens.

As for the people, most of them young people, who were raucously celebrating the news of the death of bin Laden, my own view is that they simply had no perspective on which to base their reaction to the news. I think their lack of reference to this kind of victory led them to react as they might to any victory. Mostly, I consider it a fairly naïve response, not evil or mean by any means. Certainly, I wouldn’t put it on par – as some have – with the street celebrations of gratuitously violent actions perpetrated by terrorists in the Middle East.

This nation has endured great heartache and turmoil in the shadow of 9/11 and I think its citizens are entitled to rejoice in a victory against the evil that perpetrated it. I believe the reaction might have been a bit more contemplative if the celebrants had had more skin in the game or if they had had more experience with these kinds of things. While skin and experience do enrich our collective perspective as a nation, I don’t think it’s terrible that we live in a country that has the luxury of having highly trained and disciplined military people who make it possible for us not to be so thoroughly experienced at reacting to this kind of thing. The reflection will come in due time for most of those people.

By contrast, I’m quite sure the military people involved in this raid didn’t celebrate bin Laden’s killing nearly as much as they celebrated the success of the mission and the fact that they suffered no casualties. That’s what was important to them, even if bin Laden did have it coming to him for 9/11. As ostentatious as the celebration was for some here in the States, those military members will mark the passing of the event in much more subdued tones as they proceed relatively anonymously to the next mission.

For those still troubled over bin Laden’s demise, it’s important to remember it was bin Laden’s poor choices at that compound that night that determined his fate. When they tell you to give up and get on your face, they do mean it. Now he knows.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Props

bin LadenI remember in the days after 9/11, President Bush told the leaders of the world’s nations that they were either with us or against us. Leaders of unfriendly nations stepped right up to make it clear they wanted none of that wrath, but one guy who didn’t get the memo was Saddam Hussein.

I agreed with the invasion of Iraq not because of weapons of mass destruction, but because Saddam Hussein was an evil man who had spent the 12 years after the end of Desert Storm trying to shoot our aircraft down in violation of the agreement that brought an end to that war and permitted him to stay in power. I felt that reason was enough, especially in light of the fact that Saddam was clearly in the “against us” camp.

Tactically, I believed there was great potential and considerable value in bringing the terrorist rats out into the relative open in Iraq rather than try to track them down in the prohibitive terrain of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union proved that a powerful military force can get decimated through attrition in those mountains so the change of scenery to ground of our choosing made sense to me. We killed and captured a LOT of terrorists and other bad people in Iraq and took an awful lot of the stuffing out of terrorist initiative through our action there. That fact is often overshadowed and diminished by political discourse.

I would say that I was a bit disappointed that President Bush didn’t follow up more on his with us/against us ultimatum with other trouble-makers out there. In many ways, we held to the status quo with Iran, Syria, and terrorist elements in other nations in the Middle East, sort of reverting back to the pre-9/11 “don’t make too many waves” line of thought. I believe we should reserve the prerogative to send in special military units and make surgical strikes when it suits us. We should leave the bad guys wondering, insecure, and paranoid.

When President Obama ran for president, I remember him saying he thought we should fly into Pakistan if that’s what it takes to get who we’re after. Since it was the peak of the political season, it was hard to tell if that was a promise or merely rhetoric. Other things he’s said and done since then left me doubting.

However, I believe the President’s decision to send special operations forces in to Pakistan to take bin Laden down was nothing short of courageous. There is risk in war and it is often the case that the dirtiest work has to be done in person by people on the ground. It would have been easier and safer to have ordered an air strike on that compound, but we’d have been left right where we’ve been these past ten years trying to figure out if recordings really are his voice and whether he survived the attack.

The option he chose was very risky because there are a lot of ways the mission could have failed. I think it’s important for the American people to consider the fact that the President’s decision would have been as courageous had it failed as it is now that it succeeded. We have a tendency to judge the character of these kinds of decisions only on the basis of whether they succeed, and I think that’s the wrong approach. It’s an approach that discourages bold decision-making.

I say that because the killing of bin Laden puts us at an important point in this struggle against terrorism and terrorists. I believe it’s important we hold onto the offensive and be willing to act just as decisively wherever and whenever threats emerge. Our military is more than up to the task.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Qaddafi Soup

Muammar Qaddafi is a terrorist and he has been one from the day his regime began 40 years ago. He had his hands all over the Lockerbie Pam Am Flight 103 bombing in 1988, and we should have taken him out as soon as it occurred to us that he had a role in it.

When Qaddafi started clamping down on insurrectionists in his country, we attempted to strong-arm him into stepping aside by suggesting we might re-open the Lockerbie investigation and bring charges of crimes against humanity against him. The idea was that we had the goods on Qaddafi and if he didn't back away from defending his regime against the rebels, we would go after him in international court. That not only made us look weak, it showed us to be hypocrites in our outrage over the atrocity on Pan Am 103. How in the world do we withhold our vengeance over the murders of Americans over Lockerbie until - and only until - Qaddafi compounds the crime by killing his own people? That made us look so obviously unprincipled. I don't get it.

If we were going to re-open the Lockerbie investigation, we should have done it LONG before this latest unrest in Libya. Qaddafi read our weakness correctly. He didn't buy the not-so-veiled threat, and he didn't cave in. In fact, he ramped up his operations against his opponents until they were nearly on the ropes.

We continue to say he MUST step aside, but he hasn't. We put strong words out there, but everyone knows we're not going to commit the resources to seeing it through. Finally, when Qaddafi put aircraft in the air against his opponents, the Europeans took the initiative to limit his ability to do that. That's where the no-fly zone came from.

So finally, the President went to the UN to get a resolution for military action, but didn't go to our own Congress. We feel better about bombing Libya because the Arab League called for action, but we didn't check to see what our own Congress thought about it. To be clear, I think the War Powers Act might not survive a Constitutional challenge and I'd support a President testing those waters sometime. However, I will NEVER support the idea of a President consulting with everyone BUT our Congress. There's something wrong with that. Why is he playing the populist with the Europeans and the Arab League, but can't bring himself to take the issue to the people's House in his own country?

So, before the first Tomahawk missile took flight, Qaddafi took cover. He'll stay under cover until the bombings stop. In the meantime, his forces will continue to fight the rebels and he'll survive unless we get lucky and happen to drop a bomb in his pocket. If he lays low, he'll probably outlive our interest in the bombing campaign.

The reason we found Saddam Hussein in his hidie hole was because we had people on the ground blanketing the area. Still, they were lucky to find him. The reason we haven't found Osama bin Laden is because it doesn't matter how many people we put on the ground, there are endless places for him to hide. The reason Qaddafi will probably survive is that we won't go in after him. I don't want to put troops on the ground in Libya, but I think I'd like Qaddafi to wonder if we might. Why do we feel so compelled to tell him how far we're willing to go?

If we want to go after someone, I would rather we just did it rather than think up a reason to do it that we might never be willing to use again in a similar scenario. We have plenty of reason to go after him without it. If the reason we're bombing Libya is that Qaddafi is taking brutal military action against Libyan citizens, would we take the same action against Iran, the Sudan, Somalia, China, or North Korea?

I also think we need ask ourselves how far we would be willing to go in our own country if we were besieged by a highly effective, well-armed and organized insurrection here. Wouldn't we put our jets in the air and bomb our domestic enemies if that's what it took? I think - and hope - we would. Every federal political and military official in our country has sworn an oath "to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." What do we think that really means? Qaddafi's war with a mortal enemy is not the reason I would have used to go after him. We should remember it's been only 140 years since the Battle of Gettysburg in the Pennsylvania countryside.

We are now participating in a massive bombing campaign, but we say we're not doing it because we want regime change. Ironically, we're bombing him so he'll stop bombing his enemies. That logic doesn't sound entirely congruent. We want regime change, but we say we're not going to try to get regime change by bombing him. What?! That doesn't sound very congruent either. We can't seem to consistently define our principles, mission, or objectives.

Again, I don't have a problem with going after Qaddafi, but I don't agree with how and why we say we're doing it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Final Exam

In December of 2008, George W. Bush was President, Barack Obama had just been elected President, and I was a high school Honors American Government teacher. I stumbled across the final examination I gave them just before Christmas break that year and thought I'd share it here. It seems relevant today in light of today's volatile international political and economic climate, and a national economic climate that includes a national debt that is 34% higher than it was in 2008.

My students did very well on the exam, but I wonder how their elected officials today would do on it.

Here it is:

Looking back to the collapse of the Roman Empire, Rome's economy had been declining for centuries. Rome had grown wealthy on the proceeds of its territorial expansion, but when expansion ended after Rome succeeded in bringing stability to its frontiers, this source of new wealth and economic growth also ended. Lacking new sources of income from expansion, manufacturing, expanding exports, and so on, Rome's capitalist economy contracted. In order to pay their armies and other costs of government, the emperors debased its coinage (diminished its true value by diluting its inherent value while maintaining that the coinage held the same value in the marketplace). To escape the resulting inflation, those who still had money invested in real estate, which, unlike the money at the time (because of debasing), held its value. Inflation and an overreaching tax burden ruined much of the middle class.

The Cato Institute (a free-market think tank) says that the emperors later "deliberately overtaxed the senatorial (or ruling) class in order to render it powerless. To do this, the emperors needed a powerful set of enforcers -- the imperial guard. Once the wealthy and powerful were no longer either rich or powerful, the poor had to pay the bills of the state. These bills included the payment of the imperial guard and the military troops at the empire's borders. Since the military and the imperial guard were absolutely essential, taxpayers had to be compelled to produce their pay. Workers had to be tied to their land. To escape the burden of tax, some small landowners sold themselves into slavery, since slaves didn't have to pay tax and freedom from taxes was more desirable than personal liberty. Since the Empire wasn't making money from the slaves, the Emperor Valens (368) declared it illegal to sell oneself into slavery."

Ultimately, Rome collapsed fully and Europe fell into the Dark Ages.

Roll the calendar forward 1,500 years to today. Times are difficult. As of December 3, the national debt was $10.6 trillion with $412 billion spent in 2008 on interest on the national debt. In 2008, we spent $700 billion on health and human services, $660 billion on social security, $640 billion on national defense, $61 billion on education, $60 billion on the Office of (Government) Personnel Management, $56 billion on transportation, and billions more on other items. Congress has a reputation for misspending the public's money on "pork barrel" items. Congressmen contend that since they represent their districts in Congress they need to send the budget money home to help their part of the country (which they would equate to doing their part to help the country).

The Brookings Institute (an independent research and policy institute) reports that fifty different governmental units share in the responsibility for planning and delivering aid to foreign countries with dozens of often overlapping broad objectives ranging from narcotics eradication to biodiversity preservation. The United States currently sends more than $100 billion overseas to the developing world in government and individual contributions. Major cornerstone industries in the U.S. are in jeopardy of collapse. The government is considering additional massive bailouts of these industries and businesses which will create a financial burden on your children and grandchildren, but they might also relieve pressure on the economy today. Everyday Americans and new businesses are having difficulty borrowing money because of faulty credit policies of the past. Fuel prices are unpredictable and we are at war to defeat terrorism and stabilize the world's largest oil producing region.

We haven't yet begun to sell ourselves into slavery, but there are undoubtedly difficult times ahead. The speed and complexity of communications and technology not only produce great things quickly, they also accelerate calamities and cause government action to ripple rapidly through the country (and the world), and not always with the desired effect. Events that once took centuries to occur in Ancient Roman times transpire in mere months and years today.

We need leadership now. We need it today. We need a leader who will be bold and will seize the initiative. We need a leader who can and will make difficult and maybe unpopular principled decisions. We need a leader who will break the mold of contemporary politics and establish a new benchmark in American history while holding onto this country's founding principles and the visionary values of the framers of our Constitution. We need a leader who realizes that these times require a standard bearer who possesses astounding moral courage: the willingness - the eagerness - to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. That leader is YOU.

In my capacity as your instructor, I have vested in you the power to fix it all and I have appointed the great Roman philosopher, orator, and statesman Cicero to be your chief of staff. His advice to you is the same as the advice he gave Roman leaders in 55 BC, "The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome (the U.S.) becomes bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance."

Your Assignment:

Write an essay reacting to Cicero's counsel in the context of current political and economic events in the United States using your knowledge of at least THREE of the Six Principles of the U.S. Constitution:

(1) Popular Sovereignty
(2) Limited Government
(3) Separation of Powers
(4) Checks and Balances
(5) Judicial Review
(6) Federalism

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Caliphates - 9. From the Ashes of Corruption

Muhammad Leads Early Muslim Warriors in Battle
Beginning with the war and turmoil that surrounded the Prophet Muhammad's rise to the leadership of the Muslim faith, Islam has proven itself anything but benign, anything but placid for a significant part of its history.  The final dozen years of the Prophet's life were spent at war, and the caliphates that followed stayed true to that example.

With the ascendency of the First Rightly Guided Caliph Abu Bakr, Islam won over conversions by force throughout Arabia. The Second Rightly Guided Caliph Umar, however, took Islamic expansionism to a new level as he spread the young Islamic caliphate to include Jerusalem, Egypt, Algeria, Syria, and Persia. The caliphate retracted somewhat under the Third Rightly Guided Caliph Uthman ibn Affan as he tried to harness the multitude of cultures that fell within the Islamic caliphate. The Fourth Rightly Guided Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib had struggled with the fact he believed he should have been caliph all along; then, when he finally assumed the mantle, his brief reign was plagued by civil war against the eventual leader of the Umayyad Caliphate, Mu'awiyah.

The fact that Ali wasn't named the first caliph after Muhammad's death, in spite of being a blood relative and son-in-law of the Prophet, stung him and his followers and formed the basis of the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that has persisted ever since. That rift has characterized every significant interaction between Muslims in the 1,500 years since Muhammad's death.

Ali and his clan have reclaimed some of that lost prestige, however, by the fact that Shiites revere him today as the First Imam and they also regard eleven of his descendants as exalted Imams as well. His two sons were the Second and Third Imams, but they were also the second and third Imams to be assassinated. It turns out the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Imams were also assassinated while the Twelfth Imam is believed to be hiding either in caves or in a well awaiting the chaos that will usher his return to preside over the Worldwide Caliphate with Jesus at his side. Ali's sons, Hasan and Husayn, are the two Imams to whom modern-day "Sayyids" - like Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Sayyed Ruhollah Khomeini - trace their ancestry.

The Umayyad Caliphate
The Umayyad Caliphate made Caliph Umar's territorial expansion look miniscule by comparison as it spread from the near side of China in the east and as far west as modern-day Spain and Portugal. The rise of the rival Abbasid Caliphate forced the Umayyads westward until they finally melted into the scenery. Finally, the Ottomans arose in Turkey and reclaimed much of the former glory of preceding caliphates and added a new dimension, sea power. It was the presence and power of the Ottomans that motivated the King of Spain to send Christopher Columbus into the Atlantic to find an alternate route to Asia. The Ottomans collapsed in the early 1900s under the weight of atrophy, stagnation, and strife from within the Muslim ranks.

The radical Wahabbists arose in Arabia and expanded northward as the Ottomans declined into "corruption." The Muslim Brotherhood emerged in the 1920s out of aggravation over the - well - corruption of Islam under the Ottomans and others who sought to reform Islam in Egypt. Muslim leaders in the Middle East sided with the Germans in World Wars I and II and it cost them. Their ill-chosen sympathies re-labeled the map of the Middle East and set back the efforts of the more fundamental Muslim elements to establish a foothold. It also led to the establishment of the State of Israel and the repatriation of Jews to the region in 1948. Islamic states have been in a state of war with Israel in some degree or another ever since.

In spite of their claim to the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad, the Shiites have struggled to convert the majority Sunnis or to assert themselves as the leaders of the Ummah in a significant way. They have been outspoken and assertive, they have fought their enemies to the death - often the enemy's and their own - and they have endured in spite of never having really run the show in any of the caliphates for any significant amount of time, compared to the Sunnis. They have always been there though, never rising to significant regional power, but never really letting anyone else have all of it either. The Sunnis, on the other hand, have often risen to great power but have always seemed to lose it through some level of complacency - military, political, and religious. They have shown the world vivid examples of meteoric expansion and of unfathomable free fall.

The Uprising in Egypt
But there is a relatively new movement, now forty years old, underway today led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as it attempts to unify the Islamic faith by insisting the age-old differences between Sunnis and Shiites are "merely differences of opinion and interpretation and not essential differences of faith." Clearly, Muslims have felt otherwise for a long time. Differences in the Hadiths the two groups have written and used to interpret the Koran give divergent views of Islam that tend to indicate the divisions aren't so superficial. How monumental is the task to have the two groups set aside the points of faith and politics that have kept them at each other's throats for centuries? If that effort is successful, how consequential will it be?

In Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt
While those in the West have looked at the rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa and chalked them up to economic strife and overbearing governments, examples involving the more moderate governments in Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates give us a reason to look twice. The one thing the governments of Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia all have in common is they have not exactly been the darlings of the Islamic movement because they've tended more toward secular government than the Islamic ideal would have it. Some of these governments are no-kidding corrupt, but if corruption and tyranny were all spontaneous triggers, we'd see more radical Islamic governments fall with them. Ironically - but perhaps understandably - protests against the most tyrannical of the Islamic governments are getting very little press.

Just Doin' Some Editing
Meanwhile, the media celebrates the rebellions in Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere as purely democratic movements. The lead on TIME's special "The Middle East in Revolt" proudly proclaimed, "After decades of living under oppressive dictatorships, the people of the Arab world are rising up to stake their claim to democracy." Popular voices in America suggest we should hope the people of nations like Egypt have the opportunity to live in democracies, and live in them whatever their imperfections. No less than the personage of Muqtada al-Sadr prefers a democratic Iraq, in a manner of speaking. But he is a dedicated advocate of Islamic democracy. Again, democracy whatever its imperfections, even if it's an Islamic democracy...

Of course, the good people in America and elsewhere might not be so eager to embrace these movements if they realized that an Islamic democracy is another term for Islamic theocracy where Islam is the state religion with Islam in varying degrees as the only basis for the law. Many waiting in the wings to take over in these troubled nations favor strict Islamic law - Sharia law - an Islamic democracy in the extreme. It would replace the oppression of the dictatorships TIME refers to with the oppression of a democracy of a kind the West is not very familiar with.

The OIC Flag with the Words
"Allahu Akbar" written in Arabic Script
The OIC, with its call for Islamic unity appears to be leading the way among the new Islamic thinkers; it's apparent it enjoys a growing influence in the Muslim world. In spite of its moderate-sounding goals and apparently innocuous principles, it also advocates an Islamic democracy and Sharia law. It seems to have mastered the art of equivocation when it comes to speaking of democracy, human rights, and corruption as well.

We remember from the history of the Umayyad and Ottoman Caliphates that the chief criticism of them from dissident Muslims was that they were "corrupt." The critics considered them corrupt because they believed they weren't pure and true to the faith. The Mubarak government in Egypt was corrupt in the same way. It was corrupt in the Western sense of the word too, but the corruption that gave fundamentalist Muslims the most concern was the corruption of the faith in the Mubarak government, the same corruption shared by all of the Egyptian kings and presidents since the fall of the Ottomans. But the Ottomans before them had become "corrupt" as well.

The fact is any Islam-centered government that does not institute Sharia or make Islamic law a significant part of governance is corrupt as is any democratic government that is not an Islamic democracy. Christianity and Judaism are corruptions of God's law and are corrupt Abrahamic religions in their eyes. It must amuse them when Westerners say things like "Muslim extremists have tried to corrupt a peaceful religion" because we clearly don't understand "corruption" as they do.

Secretary-General of the OIC
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu
The OIC's equivocation extends to its position on human rights as well. While it establishes one of its principles in its charter, "to adhere to [its] commitment to the principles of the United Nations Charter," it has also adopted in its Cairo Declaration on Human Rights a purely Islamic perspective on human rights as being guided solely by Islamic Sharia law. So, when it speaks of human rights, it does so within the context of Sharia law. Many in the West see relatively little emphasis on comprehensive human rights in Sharia Law.

But the OIC presses on without blinking an eye as it uses its seat in the UN delegation to advance its agenda. While the eyebrows of some are raised in curiosity and skepticism, others seem painfully indifferent. Muslim leaders waiting to carry the torch are paying attention though. Muqtada al-Sadr is paying attention and clerics who've recently made a home in Cairo's Tahrir Square like Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi are paying attention, and the Muslim Brotherhood is paying attention as well.

We hear a lot about the Worldwide Caliphate these days, but you know, a worldwide caliphate is a tall order unless a regional caliphate is already in place in the Middle East from which to establish a base. So, if one was interested in heeding the lessons of the past caliphates, how one would go about establishing a regional caliphate today? Surely, any successful strategy would have to include Muslim unity to preclude the persistent undermining of the caliphate. One might also remember the difficulty of assimilating diverse populations under nuanced rules of society and government by maybe allowing for self-government but under common plan or a charter. In planning a strategy for a broader caliphate that all Muslims envision, shouldn't one begin with existing Muslim majorities that are ripe for political reform and "democratization?"

If one were to construct a regional caliphate, one might proceed as I've described here while winning a free pass from the West through an incremental strategy designed to weaken Western resolve and light the fires of appeasement. Keying on the notoriously short and self-indulgent attention span of Westerners and their recent affection for multiculturalism, perhaps a regular drumbeat of calls for tolerance of Muslims in the West, punctuated by persistent and violent attacks designed to soften the resolve of the people would be effective. Is it possible to wage a campaign to have a culture essentially assimilate into its immigrant population rather than the other way around? It depends on the culture's ability and willingness to make key distinctions and understand the basis for its own exceptionalism.

But the OIC is counting on the world not to make those distinctions as it unhesitatingly brings its campaign to combat "Islamophobia" to the United Nations floor. The OIC doesn't address the catalog of actions and events in recent history that have precipitated negative feelings toward Islam; instead, it approaches the negative sentiments toward Islam as though they are unilaterally in need of reorientation and re-education. It's as if the perceptions are what need correction. That's easy to understand, however, when one remembers they also frame definitions of human rights in the context of Sharia law. When opposition to the OIC and organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, and concern over the democratization - Islamic democratization - of the Middle East become tantamount to Islamophobia, we'll know the campaign is doing well. When that happens, opposition to the idea of an Islamic theocracy in the place of a democracy or a representative republic will probably amount to nothing less than hate speech.

Organization of the Islamic Conference Member States
It might well be that a regional caliphate is already under construction. A map of the OIC's member states would make for a pretty good caliphate, particularly if the less desirable leaders of some member nations were replaced by new "democratic-minded" leaders. Following a model that considers the errors of the past, it wouldn't take much imagination to see a caliphate in the form of an Islamic confederation suddenly emerge one day. It happens that the OIC map includes every nation formerly included in previous caliphates except three - Israel, Spain, and Portugal - and adds a dozen more.

While it is in America's interest for Americans to study the past and pay attention to current and future events, that hasn't quite proven to be our strong suit. Even if we won't do that though, let's not ignore the observations of those from the past who knew Islamic radicalism isn't a passing anomaly of an otherwise benign religion. While certainly not all of its adherents are radicals and fundamentalists, it is the radicals and fundamentalists who are and have been defining the faith and developing its global strategy. The fact is moderate Muslims have more friends among the people on the streets of America than they have in the fiery centers of the Middle East. Again, though, the moderates aren't charting the course and they're not changing it either.

While many try to explain that dichotomy by claiming the radicals are a recent aberration and that the history of the Islamic movement has been truer to the moderate form, we should look back to the observations Winston Churchill made during a military campaign in the Sudan. He recorded them in his book, "The River War": "Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science - the science against which it had vainly struggled - the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome."

He wrote those words in 1899, long before 9/11.