Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Poor Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Science, Religion, and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fuji

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Photograph

llama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m fine with that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 9, 2011

Loose Lips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pawn Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was right. That wasn’t Pawn Stars.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Yellow Footprints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Visit with Dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rough Landing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope this explanation has been clear enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His Two Cents’ Worth

oliver_northIn the summer of 1977, I was a Marine infantry sergeant about to turn 20 years old when I applied for a commissioning program that – if selected – would send me to college for an education and give me an officer’s commission when I graduated (as long as I made it through OCS). The problem was that I had been deployed quite a lot and didn’t have the opportunity to get any off-duty education to bolster my resume. Since the program was very competitive, I didn’t know what to make of my chances.

I applied and when the screening board released its report from Washington, I learned I was named an alternate. That was encouraging, but there was no chance they’d call on the alternates since this was such a sought-after opportunity.

As the following summer rolled around, I was in a spot. The unit I had been with since late 1976 was about to deploy to the Mediterranean, but I didn’t have enough time left on my enlistment to go. At that point, I planned to get out of the Marine Corps the following February. So, I was transferred to a different battalion in the same regiment: Third Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.

I was going to have to be bounced again within about six months as that battalion prepared to replace that other unit on deployment. So, rather than put me in charge of a squad or a platoon, my company commander asked me to clean up the company training program.

As the training NCO, I was responsible for maintaining the training records and scheduling the required training for our Marines. The problem was that there had been no record-keeping so I had to start something up from scratch. The company had already failed an inspection and was due for a re-inspection soon. It was a fairly tall order, but I got it straightened out and that made a lot of people happy. My battalion operations officer was so happy with the results that he asked me to show my system to the other training NCOs in the battalion.

About once or twice a week, I needed to go to the battalion headquarters to deliver our training schedules and firing range and ammunition requests. About every other trip over there, the operations officer stopped me and shot the breeze with me about nothing in particular. We weren’t getting to be good buddies or anything; he was just being a good officer.

He was a captain filling a major’s position, but he had been selected a year early for promotion to major. Everyone said he was going to go all the way since those kinds of early promotions were rare. He was a decorated Vietnam veteran and was very good with enlisted Marines. He proved that with me several times.

One day, he asked me what my career plans were. I told him that I had applied for a commissioning program the year before and didn’t quite make the cut. I told him I had thought about reapplying that year, but that his operations chief had taken a look at my high school grades and told me not to bother. Since I was none too impressed with those grades either, I couldn’t really argue with his assessment.

By this point, the captain had been promoted to major and he told me to disregard what the operations chief had told me and that I needed to get working on that application. He knew that my academic record was stunningly weak and that I hadn’t had the opportunity to remediate it with off-duty college work during my time in the service, but he knew that my military record was pretty stout. I had been promoted early to every rank as a Marine in the field and he was able to gather an impression of my administrative potential.

He told me to get my application together and that he would sit on my battalion review board to get me started in the right direction.

Once all of that was done, he called me in and gave me some advice. He told me to hand-carry my application to every colonel and general who needed to endorse it. He said if I needed to camp outside of their offices to get a timely and favorable endorsement that I should do it. Then, he said that once all of those endorsements are in place, I should call the education office in Washington and speak to the director, who was a major. I didn’t exactly run around talking to majors in those days, so his advice seemed a bit dramatic, but I followed it. He told me to tell the director my application was on the way and that I would be calling in a few days to ensure it arrived. Then, he said I should give them a week to review it, then call them back to see if I needed to add anything to the application. He said that by the time that third call was finished, they’d know I was serious.

I don’t know if that advice made the difference, but it sure didn’t hurt. I needed all of the help I could get to dig my way out of the hole I had put myself in in high school so I was willing to follow good advice wherever I found it.

A few months later, I learned that I had been picked for the commissioning program.

Some years later after I graduated from college and was commissioned, I saw a national magazine – Time, Newsweek, or one of the others – that showed a shadowy figure with the caption “Swashbuckler-in-Chief.” The person wasn’t specifically identified on the cover, but I recognized the vague image as my operations officer from 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines: Oliver North.

He went on to become very well known as a central figure in the Iran-Contra affair and he has dabbled in politics and is now a prominent political and military commentator. He came to Pensacola once on a book signing tour and I stood in line with his book to have him autograph it. I finally reached the front where I re-introduced myself to him. Of course, with many miles and years passing by us since the last time we had talked, he didn’t remember me from Adam’s housecat, but he was quite gracious in trying to piece it together. He signed my copy of his book, “Rob – Semper fi – Oliver North.”

He was one of many Marines I served with who helped me find success in the opportunities that I encountered. As helpful as his advice was, I think I found even more value in seeing the importance of taking the initiative and of remaining determined to succeed in spite of the discouragement we often find along the way. From what I’ve seen of him since, it wasn’t just a lesson he encouraged, it was an example he set for thousands.

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.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Serving with B. C. Collins

I was thinking about a Marine I once served with the other day and I thought I would share some memories here. His name was Staff Sergeant Bryant C. Collins. Those who could refer to him by something other than his rank called him B.C. I wasn't one of those people as I was just a 20-year old sergeant when I met him, and I didn't have anywhere nearly enough stature to try to presume to be that familiar. He had been awarded the Navy Cross - the nation's second highest award for valor in combat - in Vietnam. With a little more than two years of peacetime service under my belt at that time, my credentials didn't compare.

He checked in to my unit - G Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment - as my platoon sergeant. We were the weapons platoon, a platoon that operated the company's M-60 machine guns, light anti-tank weapons, and 60 mm mortars. I was in charge of the mortars.

I met him almost immediately when he arrived. After he took care of the administrative parts of checking in to the company, he introduced himself to me and said, "let's go get lunch." I asked him where he wanted to go - there weren't a lot of options - and he said we should go get something off base. We got in my car and drove into the heart of the bad part of Jacksonville, North Carolina. He wanted to go to a bar called "Sissy's." It surprised me a little at the time, but as I got to know him later on, it seemed to make more sense. I thought, "Well, they probably have those bar pizzas or something there." Once we got there, it seemed to be kind of a reunion for him. We didn't order pizzas; we ordered beer. We had to be back at work in an hour so we drank a beer for lunch then went back to the base. It was a different era then, but still, that was a first for me. It seems that era passed quickly because I never did it again.

SSgt Collins was almost always chomping on a cigar, and when he wasn't, he looked like he should be. It had been a dozen years since his service in Vietnam and age was catching up with him in some ways, I guess. He wasn't overweight according to Marine Corps standards, but he was "husky." My company commander, a captain who wasn't a Vietnam vet, clearly was not a fan of SSgt Collins. That sentiment went the other way as well.

He put SSgt Collins on the military appearance program, a program that existed back then to try to redistribute the body weight of Marines who weren't overweight, but still didn't look entirely prototypical in a uniform. I didn't think much of the captain putting him on the MAP program; there just seemed to me to be no benefit in pushing this guy in this case.  SSgt Collins was a bona fide war hero, and was within 4 years of retiring at 20 years. SSgt Collins was a man of substance, and I considered the hard time he got from the captain to be part of a flawed peacetime mind set. Of course, I could only guess what a proper wartime mind set might have been, but it seemed to me the captain didn't know either and should have stepped a little more lightly.

In the captain's defense, the Marine Corps needed to complete a transition from the Vietnam era to a new age and mind set. It was a difficult time, and something really did need to happen. There were a lot of problems in the military then with big time racial issues, hard core drug use, and outright crime. At the same time, you had the warriors who had distinguished themselves in combat who had to adjust to something new to them: peacetime. What do you do with the heroes who might not be as eager to reform and change to a culture they've never known and might not fit in to?

The reforms turned out to be exactly what the Marine Corps needed because there were so many cancerous issues out there that threatened national security in the long run, but you hated to see heroes get swept to the side in the process. It turns out that happens in every age. Wars are very hard on military culture and there is always a need to regroup and refocus after they end. Maybe that sounds odd, but the result is a more fit and ready force the next time it's needed. The reforms the military endured after Vietnam set the stage for the military culture that has been so successful and responsive these past 25 years or so.

At the same time, knowing and serving with SSgt Collins did an awful lot to prove to me that not everything is black and white. Here was a living legend who tended to tell people what was on his mind. His solutions to problems tended to be quite uncomplicated and direct. He didn't mind telling superiors where they were wrong in their thinking while talking through that cigar (which was probably irritating to them). He would give them the benefit of one "look, captain..." before giving up on them as being someone who didn't have the sense to know better. He was often right, but obviously, the officers couldn't put up with that.

He was entertaining to be around, that's for sure. We had a "bosses night" at the NCO Club one night. Bosses night is where we would invite our "bosses" who wouldn't normally be allowed to come to our NCO Club to have a few drinks with us. Staff Sergeants normally went to the Staff NCO Club and officers went to the Officers Club. Etiquette had it that the officers didn't stay too long or they'd risk seeing something they would later wish they hadn't. True to form, not long after our officers left, we were told to leave the club because of some offensive outrage perpetrated by one of our group that I won't go into here.

SSgt Collins was in stride that night and had the idea that we - our Company Gunnery Sergeant who had served with SSgt Collins in Vietnam, SSgt Collins, and I - should go to the Staff NCO Club at the neighboring Marine Corps Air Station. The problem was that I didn't have enough rank to be there.  SSgt Collins had a solution: he took his Staff Sergeant stripes off of his collar and pinned them on my collar in place of my Sergeant stripes. I was 20 years old then and I looked like I was 15. I was already very young for the rank I had, and looked it. There was NO WAY anyone would believe I was a Staff Sergeant. I had never felt so awkward and uncomfortable in my life. I felt like I was just a step away from the brig the whole time we were in there.

Thankfully, we got out of there without stirring anyone up. I don't think anyone was fooled though. We had one "old" guy (who was probably all of 32 years old at the time) with no rank on his collar and a young guy with way too much rank on his. It was kind of an interesting mix of "you can't be serious" and "well, at least you made an effort to make it look good." I'm not sure anyone would have taken my escorts on anyway; they had both been around and looked like it.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to serve with B.C. Collins. I learned a lot about leadership and people by being around him. Having served with him ultimately made me a better officer too. He was a passing breed in his own time, tragic in his battle against obsolescence in an emerging era, yet undeniably heroic. I was happy to see the day he got promoted to gunnery sergeant. While his "paper" in the peacetime Marine Corps might not have been nearly as good as it was in his wartime service, it seems someone at the top realized the value guys like him brought to the rich heritage of the Marine Corps and the legacy they leave every generation to guys like me. Heroes always add value, and the Marine Corps seems to maintain a culture that ultimately understands and rewards that, in spite of the few who don't always get the memo.

Take a look at his Navy Cross citation HERE. The Marine officer whose body the young Corporal Collins carried off of the battlefield that day was 1stLt Frank Reasoner.  1stLt Reasoner was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his own actions that day.