Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tunis

In the history of Tunisia, it's been ruled by all of the major players in the area because of its strategic location in North Africa on the Mediterranean Sea. The Romans, the Carthaginians, the Muslims, and the French all had their turns there. It was a contested area in World War II as well, the site of famous tank battles involving Rommel and Patton. Today, Tunisia is an Arab Islamic nation and an ally of the United States.

With that country in the news a lot here lately, I've been thinking back on when I was there in the late 80s. The United States had good relations with the government (and still does now, I believe) so we were able to train there in the Tunisian countryside west of the capital, Tunis. We had completed a week of training there and the U. S. Ambassador to Tunisia was on our ship for a visit. He needed to get back to Tunis so I was assigned to fly him there the night before we pulled up the anchor to move to another part of the Mediterranean to train. I filed an international round-trip flight plan from the ship to Tunis for two helicopters.

We took off from the ship just before sunset and headed toward Tunis. As we approached the city, we contacted the international airport for permission to land. We advised them we were on an international flight plan and they cleared us into the area. We landed at the airport and let the ambassador out.

As he rode away in a consular vehicle, I called for takeoff clearance. It should have been a routine matter since the return trip was filed on the same plan as the flight into the country, but for some reason, there was suddenly no sign of a flight plan for us. We weren't going to get anywhere arguing with them on the radio so we taxied over to the main terminal so we could file a flight plan back out of the country to our ship. (You would think it would have been easier to get out of the country than it was to get in, but such was the nature of getting things done over there sometimes.)

I asked my wingman to join me and leave his helicopter running with his copilot at the controls. I left mine running in the capable hands of my copilot. We walked into the terminal to find the flight planning office so we could get a plan filed and get on our way.

When we walked into the terminal, people swarmed us. It was a little alarming at first, but they were just curious about us as we stood there in our flight gear trying to figure out where we needed to go. They came up to us - right up to us - and were tugging on our flight gear: our oxygen bottles, our flashlights, everything strapped to our vests, asking if they could have them and asking to see our helmets. We shook them off as politely as we could and made our way to the planning office and filed the flight plan. With a flight plan filed, we were back in our helicopters fairly quickly and were able to take off without further incident.

It's not an exciting story since the episode in the airport wasn't really a big deal, and we made it back to the ship within an hour and a half or so easily enough. I'm telling it here because with the events happening in Tunisia and Egypt right now, I'm reminded of how much different most of the rest of the world is from the United States. Most of those people had probably never seen - or touched - a U. S. Marine before so I suppose we were a bit of a novelty. Still, we take so much for granted.

Things that are spectacular in most of the world are routine in our country, and yet, we still complain and wait for someone to make things better for us. We easily forget what made us great, and I'm sometimes concerned that our failure to realize how America is exceptional is going to cause us to forget what it will take to keep us that way. It is so easy for us to shrug hard times off and say, "American always comes back" without realizing America has never come back without good people making it happen. So, as the people of Tunisia and Egypt seem to be clamoring for freedom from overbearing governments, I hope we take notice of their yearning for freedom and all of the responsibilities and challenges that go with it, and remember how important those things were to us once.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dad

The other day, I was telling someone something my Dad used to say when it occurred to me I've done that quite a lot over the years. As often as I've gone to that well, you'd think he lived a hundred years. But he didn't. 

He died of cancer about 22 years ago when he was just over the age of 53. Actually, he was 53 years and a little less than 6 months old when he died. I'm particularly conscious of that today because I sit here at this computer 53 years and a little less than 6 months old, keenly aware he wasn't as old as he once seemed. Where he once seemed to have lived a long and full life, my perspective on that is a little different now for obvious reasons.

He did do a lot of living while he was with us. He was born in Watsonville, California in 1935, the son of a former Texas public school superintendent, turned labor leader in the bloody lettuce strike in Salinas, California in 1936. My Grandfather's obituary records that as the strike was heating up, he pulled my Uncle Smitty out of school because the school put students to work on a project making clubs for the volunteer police force to use against my Grandpa's striking members. As difficult as it must have been for a former school superintendent to make such a protest, as a leader, he seemed to know he had a greater duty.

Once the union was all but broken in the aftermath of the local government's response and the violence of the strike, he moved his family away from all that turmoil and ended up in the Arkansas Ozarks where Dad did most of his growing up. His Mom taught school there and his Dad turned to farming. His Mom was a tough one too. Dad told us once of the time he put a snake in her desk drawer when she was his teacher. He sat there at his desk patiently until she finally opened the drawer to retrieve something. She looked into the drawer, calmly closed it, looked up at him, and motioned him outside where she whipped his butt without saying a word. He said she didn't know for a fact that he had put it in there but knew he must have been involved, and that was enough. He was guilty on all counts.

Once he was old enough, he left the farm and the hills and enlisted in the Marines during the Korean War. He met my Mom while he was stationed in California after the war and they ran off to Arizona to get married, in part because he figured his family wouldn't be too keen on him marrying an Italian Catholic girl. He might have been right about that. After struggling immensely with the decision whether to leave the Marines or go to college, he left when his three year enlistment was up and he went to college in Chicago to become a chiropractor. Mom and Dad didn't have money so they moonlighted for the railroad to make money for school and to live on. I guess all of that wasn't difficult enough so they had three kids while he was in college too. I was (and still am, I guess) the oldest of what eventually became four of us.

He graduated from college and moved to southern Illinois with the family where he built a practice from the ground up. He was successful after working his tail off to get there, but I never had the sense that we had money because our parents refused to spoil us that way. Dad's lessons were often hard and he was decisive - tough love, no doubt, but love nonetheless, and always values-centered. He was very concerned we would become immersed in the negative aspects of the 60s culture if we weren't grabbed by the ears and steered in another direction. The lessons have lasted well beyond that era and sure have been valuable along the way for me, in spite of my own efforts to the contrary here and there.

He was a good neighbor in his community. A good number of his patients couldn't consistently pay the going rate for his services because they were farmers who sometimes hit hard times with the weather, corn blight, or any of a number of other difficulties farmers faced sometimes. He probably came by his affection and affinity for farmers honestly with his father's history with growers and pickers in California and his own upbringing on a farm. He often accepted produce for payment from farmers who had trouble paying. He didn't feel he needed to have his pound of flesh in the deal; he wanted merely to exchange value for value, in part because of the basic value proposition. He also knew the people in our community worked hard and they wouldn't accept something for nothing. He figured he'd get his some day, but it wouldn't come without a dose of goodwill first. We ate relatively little of the food he accepted as payment because there was too much of it. Instead, he gave most of it away to other patients and friends who needed it. It was an interesting economy he was operating there.

Dad was a good man in other more subtle ways too. He didn't have a prejudiced bone in his body. We didn't have many non-whites where we grew up, but we still had many lessons in fairness and the evils of racism in our home. He told us we came from such a mixed up lot that we couldn't afford to be prejudiced against anyone. It's probably true of all of us if we think about it. It just never happened in our house and I suppose that's why it's been so easy for my parents' kids to grow into adulthood blind to the trivialities of skin tone and be able to judge ourselves and others on a more substantial basis.

He was really pretty simple in most ways, and he had a sense of humor. He's the guy who took my brother and me snipe hunting and we still somehow trusted him enough to go into the woods with him to go mushroom hunting after that (but we did make sure he got out of the car with us after that). Before he took us snipe hunting, he went as far as to show us photographs of snipe in the encyclopedia to prove they were real before leaving us in a farmer's field miles away from any other living soul. We eventually figured out he wasn't chasing snipe to us and we walked back to the house where we found him playing cards with friends and my Mom. My Mom. She was almost as much to blame. The lesson? Trust, but don't be ignorant about it.

He used to take us frog hunting too. We started out in a jon boat, hunting on rivers. Then, we took to the lakes and ponds near home. He always seemed to have a scheme for improving our game. He had the idea that we ought to hunt frogs from a canoe so we could sneak up on them better; never mind all of the jostling that goes along with frog hunting and the possibility that someone - or all of us - could end up in the water. Ending up in the water didn't happen until his next generation of frog hunting schemery when he thought my brother and I should wade in after them and not bother with a boat at all. That got more interesting than we preferred at times, but we went along with it anyway. Such was the nature of trust in our house. You trusted your parents, except when it came to snipe hunting.

There was another facet of him too. He was in a local burger place in our home town one day when a truck hauling a chemical tank overturned outside. As dangerous vapors wafted through the homes along the street, he and a friend rushed into the houses and pulled the residents out. Years later as we speculated on what had caused the cancer that killed him at such an early age, I learned that he and his friend from the chemical spill died within just a few months of each other with the same cancerous affliction. He never complained or lamented any of it. Not all of his lessons came with words. I learned that when you serve or give, you do so the right way. You do it nobly. You don't complain about the hardships and sacrifice involved because whining and fussing about it drains the good right out of whatever you've done.

So, he was a good Dad and he had a lot of important things to say and teach in his 53 years and just under 6 months. It's funny how you can spend a lifetime trying to live up to a standard, and as you do, you continue to lean on the words and examples that guide you along the way. They seem to live inside of you. When I step back from it now, I see I'm admiring the wisdom and goodness of a man who lived his entire life in fewer days than I've been alive, yet I still draw on the lessons that younger man taught me.

I guess it's a reminder that it's best to find wisdom where it is rather than where your vanity says you should be willing to find it. It's not always found in the older, the wealthier, or the more prominent. We find it in a lot of places. I look at my own wife, sons, brothers and sister, nephews and nieces, the students I taught, the Marines I served with, and the people I work with every day and I see that I've learned and continue to learn so much from them, even when I haven't set out to do it. It seems if you don't get caught up in who the teacher and scholar are in this whole thing, it's easier to make the most of what you end up with.

That's probably the big lesson - one of many - from my Dad. Learn and don't be afraid to learn from anyone or anything. Do it right and you'll be in a better position to give back more than you ever received. As I said at his funeral - admittedly after a bit of a struggling to choke out the words - "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others."

My Dad did not put his lamp under a bushel and I am thankful for that. While we don't have him here physically any more - and I wish we did - we do still have his lamp on its stand. It continues to give light, so I guess I'll just keep on telling folks what my Dad used to say and let that light burn on a bit longer.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Big River

The largest and bloodiest battle in 1952 during the Korean War was the Battle of Triangle Hill. Chinese Communist forces in defensive positions on Triangle Hill and nearby Sniper Ridge fought back American and South Korean forces for 42 days as they attempted to seize the tactical advantage on the high ground and drive the Chinese army back.

While the Chinese suffered some 11,500 killed and wounded during the battle, compared to 1,500 U.S. and 4,500 South Korean casualties, the Chinese held the ground and the Americans and South Koreans ultimately retired from the battle without securing a victory. For the American and South Korean forces, the battle at the center of Operation Showdown was a failure in spite of the losses they inflicted on the Chinese because they failed to take the ground. The battle became a symbol of Chinese perseverance against the American imperialists to the Chinese faithful.

Although the Battle of Triangle Hill isn't exactly a household name among Americans today and wasn't even well known during the war, it's a much different story for the Chinese, even today. The battle, known in China as the Battle on Shangganling Mountain, became the subject of a number of major motion pictures in China and was memorialized in the theme song from one of those movies, "Battle on Shangganling Mountain." The song, originally titled "A Big River" came to be called "My Motherland," clearly in recognition of its rousing patriotic - and distinctly anti-American - lyrics and context in the movie.

The Chinese Communist Party used the movie and song as a rallying cry against America for several decades; while the movie has apparently faded in the Chinese memory, the song is still quite familiar throughout the country.

In advance of Chinese Chairman Hu Jintao's visit to Washington last week, Americans were witness to some jostling between the Americans and the Chinese. The Americans pressed for a level trading field, asking the Chinese to protect American trademarks and patents.  The Chinese trotted out their new stealth fighter that some experts believe was built on technology the Chinese lifted from an American F-117 stealth fighter that was shot down over Serbia in 1999 in order to flex a little muscle. The Chinese own a significant share of American debt and the U. S. government asked the Chinese government to stop overvaluing its currency which, in essence, drives up our debt and the cost of Chinese goods dramatically while driving down the value of American exports in China. China's response was that the world needs to go away from the U. S. dollar as a monetary basis and begin using the Chinese yuan instead.

So, that was the setting when Chairman Hu arrived in the United States and was treated to a rare and elaborate state dinner in his honor at the White House. To lend texture to the evening, the White House invited Chinese pianist Lang Lang to perform at the White House. Lang Lang isn't an American of Chinese descent, he's a Chinese citizen.

Lang Lang took to the keyboard at the White House and began his set before breaking into the theme from "Battle on Shangganling Mountain," "My Motherland." While the lyrics weren't sung, Chinese on the other side of the world knew them well: "When friends are here, there is fine wine / But if the jackal comes / What greets it is the hunting rifle." In the song, the "jackal" is the United States.

In 1951, U. S. General Douglas MacArthur quite publicly insisted on advancing the Korean War into China, but General Omar Bradley testified before Congress that the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed such a strategy would commit America to "the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and the wrong enemy." As Lang Lang's performance at the White House generates a buzz in China, more than one Chinese internetnick has written the performance was, "the right place, right time, right song!"

In the eyes of Chinese who watched Lang Lang's performance back in China, it was clearly a propaganda coup and an insult to the United States, even if Americans didn't catch on. After the performance, Lang Lang recorded in his blog, "Playing this song praising China to heads of state from around the world seems to tell them that our China is formidable, that our Chinese people are united; I feel deeply honored and proud."

So far, Americans are taking neither notice nor offense to the performance. Many who have noticed, particularly those in the media, maintain the performance wasn't a problem because the lyrics weren't sung and that as a piano piece, the significance of the words millions of Chinese have found anti-American inspiration in are diffused.

As our country flails in a fatal spiral of self-consciousness about American exceptionalism these days, uncertain of the belief that there is something about the United States that makes it unique and special, the Chinese are buoyed by their own ravenous nationalism.

Does it matter that Lang Lang performed the ballad that so many Chinese citizens know so well on the piano or sang it at the top of his lungs?

Would it matter if a person walked to the microphone at a Martin Luther King event and whistled "Dixie" if he didn't sing the words? Would it matter if a British guest of the Indian government hummed "God Save the Queen" at an independence commemoration? No words spoken, just the melody. Would it be okay if I boasted of the American victory at Iwo Jima in English to a Japanese veteran of that battle if he didn't speak English?

A moderate (and obviously anonymous) Chinese professor confessed some embarrassment over Lang Lang's performance, "Suppose for a moment that Obama was invited to a banquet in China, and he invited an American artist who had performed in China for many years to play an American war song against China, what kind of reaction do you think the Chinese government and people would have? ... I think the American government still doesn't know the background of this song -- if they knew, wouldn't they be offended?"

The professor seems to recognize that the performance wasn't okay. He seems to understand the measure of an offense isn't in the extent to which it is taken, it's in the extent to which it is given. Perhaps he knows that while we Americans remain oblivious to the offense and its implications, it's still there and quite meaningful to others who see our indifference as abject weakness.

The problem as I see it isn't simply that offense was given. The problem is that as Chinese nationalists gloat at our gullibility and the absence of our own nationalism, we are proving them right by our dull noncommittal and lack of savvy about the scene swirling around us. The problem is that as China sings and salutes its durability and courage in the face of its American adversary, we stand by politely and tap our foot to the tune.

The joke's on us. I hope we catch on soon.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Honors System

U. S. Navy Captain Owen Honors, recently skipper of the USS Enterprise, has received some unwanted press over the past few days. Captain Honors is a 1983 graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, a fighter pilot, and a former instructor at Top Gun, the Navy's Fighter Weapons School. Finally, he achieved the highly coveted command of a United States aircraft carrier. Today, all of it - and more - are gone.  

The American people today know that Captain Honors liked to make videos that, depending on your perspective, were either amusing spoofs or they were evidence of a cavalier abuse of power. By all accounts, Captain Honors had a distinguished career, so the question arises: did he deserve to be relieved of his prestigious command and perhaps forced to retire from the Navy?

Opinions run the gamut. On one hand, some say his antics were bigoted and contrary to the values of American society today. On the other hand, some say there's a locker room manner that runs through many combat units not intended for public scrutiny because - quite simply - the public wouldn't understand it. Some say military people like Captain Honors are defending our country and we should cut them some slack; others say service is no excuse for this kind of behavior.  

Somewhere in the middle, however, are those of us who think enough of our military people that we believe they deserve better leadership and if they are themselves leaders, that they should be better leaders than Captain Honors' example illustrated. Many of us understand that there is in fact often a locker room aspect in some combat units, but we also know it exists without showing disrespect for one's comrades. We recognize that combat readiness is not improved by the degradation of our military's most valuable asset, the people.

It's a mistake for a leader to think just because his subordinates laugh at his antics, that they necessarily respect him for them. It's healthy for the leader to remember that sometimes people laugh because they're amused at the caricature of the leader, not because they think he's a great guy. That can undermine the entire leadership apparatus.

Leaders are sometimes confused over the nature of referential power too. The leader with referential power tends to derive his power from being well-liked and respected; however, "well-liked and respected" can be opposite sides of the same coin for a leader. Where some leaders try too hard to be well-liked, thinking they will thus be respected as well, they miss the subtle yet important fact that more effective and trusted leaders seek to become respected through their example first and let the likability chips fall where they may. It's through that contagion of example that the respected leader might also be well-liked.

So, when it gets down to it, it's not enough for a leader to be good at what he does and be crafty and clever socially, he also has to be worth following. It's on that basis that trust is developed; when the times get tough, people don't follow leaders they don't trust no matter how much they might like them or might be entertained by them.

Captain Honors seemed not to learn along the way that the schtick that probably made him the life of the party when he was a midshipman and a junior officer does not pass as leadership when in command of young men and women who need to admire and trust their leaders. While there's no point in denying a leader's "B" side - most of us have one - it's important not to let any of our narcissistic tendencies undermine that little bit of mystique that all good leaders must have. 

The videotaped toilet humor that showed Captain Honors plucking a candy bar out of the toilet and eating it (as if it was something else) was pretty harmless. Even the video montage of him dropping f-bombs was immature, but not harmful to the crew. Where he crossed the line in my book is seemingly not appreciating the fact that his sexual banter, enactments, and antics amounted to sexual harassment of female members of the crew, even if they took no offense. The sexual context of some of the videos like his "Chicks in the Shower" clip is only part of the problem. The fact that he forced the issue with comments like, "Over the years I've gotten complaints about inappropriate material during these videos, never to me personally but gutlessly through other channels" is bullying at a minimum and puts the "harassment" in sexual harassment. It creates a threatening and hostile environment, and it always harms combat readiness, not because of the sexuality but because of the hostility toward people who are powerless in the face of it. That's where his superiors lost confidence in him as a leader.

So, we return to the original question: should Captain Honors have been relieved of his command with his military career all but over? The answer is, "yes." Ironically, if he's as good an officer as his seniors have believed he was all along, he knows the answer is yes too.