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 na├»ve 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.