Sunday, March 26, 2017

Obsessed With Ribbons: Civilian and Military

For Illustration Only! This is what four ribbons looks like on a conference badge.
I actually merit no ribbons!

The selection of possible ribbons.

Today I worked in the registration area at an engineering conference.  I helped people find the ribbons they were supposed to wear as conference participants.  Most of the participants knew which ribbons if any they were supposed to wear.  Most people wore none.  The most common ribbon was "Speaker" followed by "Fellow."  

But about one in twenty were entitled to multiple ribbons. Most had been doing this for years and knew which ones they should wear, but at one point a group of four men and women showed up who were very excited about their multiple ribbons and upset that the ribbon "Chair" was not available.  Each of these avid ribbon wearers were the Chair of something and were upset that ribbon was not on the ribbon table. 

Since I had no useful information about where they could get their Chair ribbons, they looked for the manager of registration to see if there was a not a special stash of Chair ribbons in a secret place.  Then they discussed the order of their ribbons and how many each person was entitled to. I did not laugh out loud, but I am sure the smirk I wore was visible.  

In the Army there are a few soldiers obsessed their awards who make sure they receive every award they are entitled to.  Most soldiers are indifferent and take awards very lightly.  But a few want to be sure they receive every award of the Pennsylvania Recruiting and Retention Medal if they have met the requirements for that particular medal.  

In the Army every soldier is required to display all medals they have earned and for which they have orders, so some soldiers become expert in their ribbons because it is part of proper wear of the uniform.  

At an engineering conference, no one is required to wear ribbons, so the men and women who were hoping to add four or five ribbons to their badge can't say they have any reason except badge vanity. Of course, vanity can show up anywhere: in the Army, at an engineering conference, or on the runway at the Academy Awards.  I just thought it was funny to see ribbons for "Speaker" and "Fellow" and "Chair" treated like a Bronze Star Medal, and Air Medal, or a Croix de Guerre."

Friday, March 24, 2017

Yes, I am Judging You

When I tell a civilian that I and every sergeant is a judgmental bastard, they think I am being funny.  I am not.  When I was a sergeant in the Army it was my job to glance at a soldier and infer from his wear of the uniform how much I could trust him and how much he really understood his duties.  And when I recognized a fault it was my job to tell that soldier to correct the fault and check that he did.

One sergeant I served with said, "I tell them how they are fucked up and how to un-fuck themselves."

In any area of life in which experts are in close contact with amateurs, the experts will be judging the amateurs. Expertise is tough to come by. It takes hard work.  If Malcolm Gladwell is right, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a skill.

Because written communication has become so much more common and so much more public on social media, I read people saying that their grammar doesn't matter.  It is their brilliant thoughts we should pay attention to.  Soldiers believe this rubbish too and say so on social media.  Although they will judge another soldier when one insignia 1/16th-inch out of place, they somehow think their idiotic self-expression gets a pass. It doesn't.

I cannot look at a badly worn uniform without judging the wearer. I cannot look at an ill-constructed sentence without thinking it is the careless expression of muddled thoughts.

Friday, March 17, 2017

My Summer Vacation will be on This Blog!

On June 7 I fly to Europe. By the 9th I will begin a bicycle trip from Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia that will cover more than a dozen countries and end in St. Petersburg, Russia. Along the way I will be visiting Holocaust Memorial sites and the sites of some of the fiercest battles in world history as the Nazi Army was pushed from defeat in Stalingrad all the way back to Berlin.

I was going to make a separate bicycle trip blog, but every place I go on this trip was overrun by the Nazi Army then liberated by an Allied Army. In addition to the World War II connection, is my own service in the Cold War.  If all goes as planned my last stop in Europe will be at Land of Kanaan in Darmstadt, Germany, where my friend Bruder Timotheus is a Franciscan Brother. Before he was Bruder Timotheus, Senior Airman Cliff Almes was my roommate for several months in 1978 when we were both stationed in Wiesbaden, West Germany.

After Darmstadt, I fly to Israel then  return home.  I have the bike. I have the plane tickets. Now I start working on the route.

Another thing I will be working on is getting visas from countries that did not require them until January 20. Now they do. Five countries on my route in easter Europe require Americans to get visas this year, because America is denying visa reciprocity to them.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Russia and America: Destined to Conflict, Religion

Russia and America cooperated in World War II because both were threatened by a common enemy. But like our alliances with other wretched dictatorships, it was an alliance of purpose, not based on any fundamental agreement. The Cold War immediately following World War II is proof enough that the Soviet Russian empire and America had little in common but a mutual desire to beat the Nazis, then to beat each other at every turn.

Now influential people in our government, led by Steve Bannon, dream of a white empire that will stand against the Muslim world. They assume that being a white Christian means some sort of common political goal and heritage.  Even in the West you would be wrong to say this. From the late Roman Empire until the 19th Century, Christianity was a state religion in much of the west and in direct conflict with religious freedom for nearly all of that time. The Reformation and the subsequent wars of religion all the way to the terrorism in Ireland in the 20th Century show that unity is not Christian political virtue.

And Russia throughout its history has very little in common with the west except a Christian label. Even the way that Russia became a Christian nation is utterly different than in the West.  In Rome, Christianity was accepted over time after waves of persecution.  The sheer number of Christians eventually led the government to accept the followers of Jesus. The Christian label on the Roman Empire came as that Empire collapsed.

In Russia, Vladimir the Great interviewed representatives of the leading religions in the world around the year 988: Islam, Western Christianity, Judaism and Eastern Christianity all made a presentation. Vladimir picked Eastern Christianity because the head of the Church was the head of the state. The monarch and the head of the Church were the same person for nearly half a millennia, but even after the prelate was separated from the monarchy, the Church was an organ of the Russian state.

In Russia, half the population was effectively in slavery until 1863. Russia never had an Enlightenment. It never had a Reformation.  From 1863 until 1917, Russia had a Jim Crow sort of freedom for its serfs, but then the Communist Revolution enslaved most of Russia more deeply than the Tsars. The state Church was abolished, but Anti-Religion became as much required as the former state religion.  Now under Putin, religion is fashionable again, but it is state religion, with rising repression of other faiths.

The Founding Fathers of America were unified in their commitment to Enlightenment principles and in their disdain for state religion. America has stood for religious freedom since well before it became a nation.  The idea that we are natural allies with a repressive regime with a state religion because it is white and has a Christian label is ludicrous.

Russia is in a slow, grinding process of becoming a fully authoritarian state with a state Church. America is still the favored destination in the world for people who want to practice their religion freely, or to be free to not practice religion at all.

In World War II America and Russia made an alliance to stop the Nazis, but were in a global fight for dominance as soon as that war ended.  The white supremacist dream of a global white alliance is simply a sick vision that will turn into a nightmare, especially for those who treasure freedom.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ten Years Ago: The Decision to Re-Enlist

Over the next few months I will be writing about why I re-enlisted at 54 years old after more than 23 years as a civilian. Ten years ago next month is when I actually began the process, but for several months before I was thinking about re-enlisting. Congress raised the enlistment age to 42 at the end of 2006. That gave me a window to re-enlist before my 55th birthday.


Ten years ago this month, I had a good job, four kids at home, an amazing beautiful wife, a nice home, a nice life and I had just about convinced myself to call a recruiter and re-enlist.

At the time, in my mind, I wanted to do something for an undefined greater good.  Joining the Army National Guard seemed like something I could do for the state, the nation and I might even like it.

In half-dozen years preceding my re-enlistment I had tried volunteering for organizations that help the community. My wife was a hospice volunteer, a kidney donor, and a dozen other great things.  I raced my bike and rode 10,000 miles a year.

When I volunteered, the main difficulty was my fellow volunteers.  They were so nice. They wanted to be sure was happy volunteering. They agonized over the best way to do everything. And they drove me nuts.

The Army would not care how I felt, not care if I had scheduling conflicts and not care if I was happy. That sounded wonderful.

In retrospect, all this sounds crazy. But at the time, I really was on the way to convincing myself I was doing a good thing by re-enlisting at 54 years old.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Israel and Singapore: Best Small Armies Surrounded by Muslims

In the late 90s through 2002 I made a dozen trips to Asia with Singapore as the destination or one of the stops on the way from Europe to Australia or Hong Kong.  I always brought my bicycle. I rode at odd hours of the day or night.  Singapore is the farthest point in the world in the Northern Hemisphere from the the Northeastern U.S. so I was always dealing with jet lag.

Singapore is so well lit everywhere on the main island that I seldom bothered with bike lights.  I would ride out to the airport before dawn or in the evening.  Sometimes I would see a sight like the one above: a Royal Singapore Air Force jet fighter screaming into the air on full afterburners. At the time I was visiting, their main fighter was the F-5, now it is F-15s and F-16s.

Singapore has one of the best equipped, best trained militaries in the world.  It boasts the largest air force in Southeast Asia with more than 100 fixed wing fighters, plus helicopters including Apache Longbow attack helicopters and transport aircraft. The Singapore navy has new submarines and destroyers. This small, rich nation spends 20% of its annual budget on the military. The $12 billion annual expenditure is about the same as neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia combined, though they have nearly 300 million people.

Singapore shares a lot in common with Israel:

Singapore has a population of six million and a land area about 2/3rds of New York City.

Israel has a population of 8 million and the area of New Jersey.

Both countries have the same motivation for their armies: they surrounded by nearly 300 million Muslims.

This summer I will be visiting Israel for the first time. I might see fighters scramble there if I am riding a bicycle at dawn or dusk.

These two small countries are young, surrounded and have the two best armies for their size in the world.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Jefferson Library and the Fall of Rome

Inside the Library of Congress is the Jefferson Library--the 4,929 books Thomas Jefferson owned and read during his long life. His library includes books in English, French, Italian, Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew that I saw.

As I scanned the titles, I thought of the brave and brilliant men who founded America: Jefferson was a Colonel in the Virginia Militia and served in the Revolutionary Army. George Washington was the Commander in Chief of the colonial armies and our first President.

The greatest leaders of the Rome were also brilliant and brave men, notably Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus and the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, maybe the greatest of all.

Many historians place the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. when the last Roman emperor, Romulus, disappears from the historical record.  But parts of the empire held together for another century under the rule of illiterate barbarians. The empire that was once ruled by Marcus Aurelius who wrote philosophy during his campaigns on the frontiers of the Roman Empire, was finally ruled by men who could not read.

The thousand-year Roman empire existed for another century under the barbarian emperors. In just over two centuries America has descended from a man of letters to a man of twitter.

I hope we last another century.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Courage and Fear: Weapons for Wives

Five years ago I was eating lunch in the Aviation Armory at Fort Indiantown Gap.  I sat with a Blackhawk helicopter pilot and a Chinook helicopter flight engineer.  Both are Iraq veterans who flew many combat missions. Both are tall, strong men who regularly scored the maximum on the physical fitness test and were very good at their respective jobs.

They both live in rural Central Pennsylvania. The topic of conversation when I sat down was rapid opening cases for automatic pistols.  They were discussing the relative merits of biometric locks versus RFID locks. They were talking about the relative merits of the gun case each had put in their bedroom for themselves and also for their wives while they are away from home.

Both men own more than 20 guns which they keep locked in elaborate gun safes.  But the pistol case was for immediate access in case of a home invasion.  Neither man wanted his young children to have any access to the guns, but did want to be ready to defend their homes and for their wives to have access to the gun in a moment.

 So I asked, "Have you or your family ever been threatened or your home robbed?"

Both answered No.

They kept talking about gun cases and their wives proficiency with weapons. Neither of the wives seemed very interested from what I could gather.

Courage in one area does not displace fear in another.  Both of these men happily went to war.  One of them deployed twice, the other at least three times to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  But they genuinely believe their isolated, rural homes west of the Susquehanna in the middle of Pennsylvania must be defended with high-tech weaponry.  By their own admission, they are defending themselves and their homes from a threat that they have never seen or experienced in their lives.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Courage and Fear: My Father on Fist Fights and Doctors

The ideal of the courageous person is one who can and will face any threat and pain in any situation with equal grace. That ideal person could go to war, find out they have cancer, or get a root canal with equal and undisturbed equanimity. Senator John Glenn and Major Richard Winters seem the closest to the ideal of hero who is brave in every circumstance.

But most real people don't work that way.

My father was a professional boxer.  Every time he stepped into the ring, he knew he was going to be hurt.  But he climbed between the ropes, raised his hands and got punched by another guy who could hit--hard.  The courage that got him in the ring led him to enlist in the Army and serve through and after World War II.

But he was afraid of doctors and hospitals.  His fear was partly inherited from his Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. For a Jew to enter a Russian hospital in the 19th Century meant they had the most dire illness.

Dad lost that fear of doctors in the last decade of his life when doctors and hospitals became a regular and familiar part of his world. He had a brain tumor removed when he was 66. During the next decade he had colon cancer and related problems, then the kidney cancer that finally took his life at 77. In that last decade of his life he faced surgery and recovery again and again.

On the other hand, there are certainly people who are afraid of nearly everything. Some people are hypochondriac, agoraphobic or so swallowed by fear that they can barely function.  The characters Woody Allen plays are close to the inverse of John Glenn and Dick Winters.

To re-cast a nerd joke:  Courage is non-linear, so is fear.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Russia and America: Destined to Conflict

Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and wrote one of the most important books on America and American politics ever written: Democracy in America. In its nearly 1,000 wonderful pages is Tocqueville's assertion that conflict between America and Russia would dominate the 20th Century. It is not the point of the book at all, but a very French grand prediction about the future, that turned out to be right.

Tocqueville wrote this when America was just 24 states, when Mexico included the territory from Texas to northern California including what is now many of the states of the southwest.  A that time, Russian owned Alaska and a big chuck of western Canada.

In 1831, when Tocqueville visited America, Andrew Jackson was President. America and Russia were both big and crude and isolated when compared with the major European countries, especially as regards slavery.  America enslaved millions of Africans under terms and conditions harsher than any of the Ancient empires.  Russia enslaved more than half of its population. The Russians freed the serfs a year before America freed the slaves, but both countries oppressed the newly freed people in a way that made their lives poor and wretched, but not entirely hopeless.

And in that hope is the permanent conflict that makes America so different than Russia: over the past 240 years, America has steadily moved to give equality to more and more people.  Over the same period, Russia enslaved the majority of its population, granted limited freedom for the years between 1863 and 1917, but then crushed its own people more harshly than most of the worst dictators in history until the communist government fell in 1991. Freedom lasted from 1991 to 2012 when Vladimir Putin returned to power after ruling from 2000 to 2008.  Now press freedom is gone, elections are rigged and political oppression is widespread.

I believe the growing oppression in Russia means that Russia and America cannot be close allies. America makes alliances with oppressive governments, but our closest allies like Great Britain, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea and many NATO states is based on our shared commitment to real democracy and freedom.  For the US to be a close ally of Russia would mean either the US would have to become authoritarian or Russia would have to be as free as America, Britain and Europe.

One strong indicator of the oppression in Russia is the rate at which scientists, artists, writers and journalists have left Russia since 2012. When a regime becomes authoritarian, the smart and creative people leave.  They are always the targets of authoritarian leaders. Many Russians come to America to escape Putin's increasingly oppressive regime. If the Russians stop coming here and go elsewhere in Europe, it will be because they perceive America as tending toward authoritarian government.

We have never been at war with Russia despite nearly a century of open hostility. Until now, the leaders on both sides have managed to keep a lid on the conflict between our nations. But America is not in any way the natural friend of Russia. Our Constitution and government were built on Enlightenment ideals and the best of the governments of Rome and Athens.  Russia by contrast has a history that is a millennium of tyranny with just a few years of freedom. Russia is part of Europe, but never had a Reformation, never had a Renaissance and never had an Enlightenment.

America should keep its democratic allies close and keep Russia at arms length.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Barracks Talk, Locker Room Talk and Old Soldiers

A few short years ago, when I was 59 years old, I was assigned to a field barracks in Northern Michigan with a unit I had never trained or deployed with.  The young men in the barracks were mostly mechanics and mostly under 25 years old.  The barracks was not full so I had a bunk to myself off in a corner.

One evening I was reading in my bunk. Five young men sat in a circle in the middle of the floor and began sharing stories with the topic, "Worst [sex] in my life."

I tried to keep reading but left the building after storyteller really got going.  I could read in the mess hall.  I stayed away for an hour. When I returned they were still going and the group now had eight story tellers.  I went to the duty shack near the airstrip and stayed there for a while. After another hour, they had exhausted their deep well of bad sex, the group broke up, and I returned to my bunk.

On fitness tests and obstacle courses, on the firing range and waiting in long lines, I was just another enlisted man from the day I re-enlisted in 2007 until I was discharged last year.  I trained with the 20-year-olds, suffered in heat and cold with them, marched with them, and joked with them.  But when a group of young men decided to impress each other with stories of their love lives, I was not invited, nor were any of the the other men in the second half of their lives.  I was as old or older than their Dads. Despite their obvious delight in perverse stories, they would have thought it actually perverse if a man my age was bragging about sex.

When I first enlisted an old Air Force Tech Sergeant in my unit who was an alcoholic would occasionally talk about sex in front of the young airmen, but we all thought he was disgusting.  He retired the following year and we thought about having a retirement party the day after he left.

I thought of this last year when America elected a guy who at 59 years old bragged to a 33 year old about grabbing pussy.  His defenders said this was just "locker room talk." It is, but not for men at the end of their sixth decade of life.  No soldier near my age in a 40-man room in a field barracks or a 77-man tent in Kuwait ever spoke that way.

He is President now, but the way he spoke on that Access Hollywood bus was not locker room talk.  It was not barracks talk. It was an arrogant old man bragging to a man half his age.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Volunteer Army Consolidated Mess

Consolidate Mess line, or German prisoners marching out of Stalingrad?

In almost every way, I liked the draft Army and the Cold War Army better than the 21st Century Army, but that is not true of food.  More specifically, that is not true of the way the food was served at Fort Carson, Colorado, in 1975-76: The Consolidated Mess!

In the consolidated mess, up to 4,000 soldiers were expected to eat lunch and return to their duty—which meant eating lunch in two minutes or just skipping lunch altogether.  The cost cutting wizard who decided to subject an entire brigade to the rotten routine for food delivery should spend a thousand years in Purgatory in a metal pan on steam table—stuck and burned on the bottom, cold and squishy on top. 

My father was a company commander in World War II.  The mess sergeant worked for him and cooked the food for his men.  That mess sergeant worked for his commander, not for a faceless Army bureaucracy.  One odd thing about the consolidated mess operation is that we all came to appreciate our own mess sergeant and the battalion mess.  When we went to the field, our mess sergeant fed us. It was the same when moved en masse to West Germany for Brigade 76.  The food in the field was from a battalion kitchen with our mess sergeant making and delivering our food. 

But the best food I ever ate in the military was in Iraq. So I have to give the modern Army that. MREs are ten times better than C-rations and the food on Camp Adder was the best I ever had in the Army.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

One Last Haircut: World War II Vet Shares a Story After Forty Years

Elias King learned to cut hair while serving as a gunner’s mate on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II.  When I met him in 1982, he was planning to retire and sell his barbershop.  After getting my hair cut a couple of times in his shop, I could not believe Elias would ever retire. In the days before talk radio, he was the local source for the true conservatives that were the core clientele of his shop. 

He was loud and funny and had opinions that the John Birch Society might think were too far right.  He did not think women should work outside the home unless they were widows and their families abandoned them.  For Elias, the Soviet Union was the enemy, forever. America needed to stop them everywhere. 

I got a hair cut there once a month just before my Army Reserve weekends.  I was close to thirty years old at the time, and by age, any of the customers and barbers could have been my Dad.  Elias liked me because I served during the Vietnam War, then Cold War West Germany and was a tank commander in the Army Reserve. “Too many young cowards won’t serve the country anymore,” he said.

King was against divorce and sex outside marriage in any way.  He was against welfare, government programs, government regulations, and he knew the federal income tax would destroy the country.  But he was also self-deprecating and funny when he stepped off his conservative soapbox. 

In May 1984, I came in for a haircut just before the shop closed.  I told Elias it would be my last haircut for a while because I was leaving the Army Reserve.  I did not tell him I was going to grow a beard and let my hair grow out. He was about to close up, which he did promptly at six because, “Mother (his wife) has dinner ready.” But he stayed to give me the haircut.

He told the other barber he could go. It was just Elias and me. Before he started cutting my hair he turned the barber chair so it faced away from the mirror instead of toward it. He was talking, but I could not see his face. He had never talked about the war before, but today he started talking about fighting off air attacks at Leyte Gulf and what it was like when his ship got hit.  But then he abruptly switched to talking about a long Pacific cruise to visit liberated allied ports just after the end of the war.

“I do believe the things I say about marriage,” he said. “But that cruise was the best days of my life.”

He said they stopped at Singapore and “Mamasan was waiting at the bottom of the gangway. She had a baby on her back and would suck your dick for four bits (50 cents).” He described wild sex with women across Asia. “I love the wife, but even when she was young, she was not…” he stopped talking. The scissors stopped.  “I never strayed once, young fella,” he said.  “Near forty years, I still think about that cruise.”

After he finished my haircut he started sweeping up. I took out my wallet. He waved me off. I thanked him. It was years before I saw him again. He was retired. I saw him outside the shop. I stopped and said hello, but am not quite sure he recognized me.  I liked Elias King.  He died a few years ago. There was a big obituary about him in his local paper. It mentioned his war service and the victory cruise after the war. “…the best days of my life,” said the young gunner’s mate who learned how to cut hair.

[Elias King is a pseudonym]

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"...No Time for That, Gussman:" Book Report 2016, Fiction

Lt. Col. Scott Perry, Blackhawk Pilot, Battalion Commander, in Iraq, 2009

In December of 2009 Scott Perry, my battalion commander, burst into my office in his headquarters.  He was sending me on a mission the next day. When he finished the instructions he gave me, he looked down and saw a copy of "Aeneid" on my desk. We had a brief exchange that shows why fiction dropped from its high place in the world to its niche place in the busy, media-saturated world of the 21st Century.

"I've got no time for that Gussman," Perry said. "I've got so much to read, I just don't read fiction."

I knew that night the officers were having a movie night. So I asked him, "Which documentary are you watching tonight?"

"Documentary?" he said. "What are you talking about. We're watching Godfather, Part 2."

"You mean you watch fiction, you just don't read it."

"Shut up Gussman. Be on the ramp tomorrow at Zero Seven."

Most people stop reading fiction with the last book they were assigned in school, whether that was high school or college.  Fifty or more years ago, fiction writing provided entertainment for many people, but it movies, TV and digital games are eating away at the place of fiction in the world of entertainment.

But not on my booklist.  The category I will comment on for this post includes 15 of the 50 books I read last year. Although, 14 of the 15 books I listed in the "War" category are fiction and 3 of the 6 "Faith" books are fiction.  So really, 32 of 50 books, or 2 out of 3, are fiction.

Just to stay with the numbers, 10 of the 15 in this category were written in Russian or by a Russian-born author in English, so I have lately been more than a little obsessed with Russia and Russian literature.

My favorite story on this list "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Leo Tolstoy should have been on the Faith list, at least for its effect on me.

This wrenching story begins with the announcement "Ivan Ilych is dead" then moves back to the time just before Ilych becomes fatally ill. As fiction the story is wonderfully told. As faith literature, it says a life devoted to material gain is pathetic. But many stories say that. The real beauty is in the character of Ivan Ilych's servant Gerasim. The good man Gerasim cares for his master while Ivan's wife and daughter go on with their lives and Ivan's friends go on with theirs.  Then there is the final agony Ivan suffers going from this life to the next.  From the first time I read this, I felt I could understand how suffering could be used for good and why we humans are never allowed to see beyond this life.

Another view of the spiritual life was Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.  This fast moving story follows the main character from the day he defied his father, denied his fortune and struck out on his own, through many adventures, poverty, riches, deep love, self loathing and finally throwing off materialism.  I could have put this book in the Faith category also, but it was more of an adventure that happened to be concerned with the spiritual, than a spiritual journey that was an adventure--as was Narcissus and Goldmund.

Early in the year I read Lolita. I had never read a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, only essays.  The story is obsession from beginning to end, played out in kidnapping, murder and a wretched end for the protagonist.  It is beautifully written and in its own way as creepy as a horror novel.

Hamlet is my Shakespeare for 2016.  I can't remember how many times I have read, seen and listened to this play.  Ophelia's death hurts every time; the slaughter at the end never bothers me the same way.  But my favorite scene is the speech to the skull, "...alas poor Yurick...."

Turning to Russia, is the beautiful novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which is where I will begin next post.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Band of Brothers: Book and Video

One of my favorite memories from the 1-70th Armor barracks in Wiesbaden, West Germany, was the night we watched "The Green Beret" starring John Wayne on the dayroom TV.  We hooted, hollered, and threw rolled up socks and popcorn at the TV for most of the two hours. The "Green Berets" may be the worst war movie ever made. As a rule, soldiers make fun of war movies or angrily say, "That shit is wrong...." then explain why.

But not the HBO series "Band of Brothers." Soldiers I knew who thought "Saving Private Ryan" was bullshit after the first 15 minutes or who were shushed making smart-ass comments during the "Hurt Locker" had not one bad thing to say about "Band of Brothers."  In the nine years I served in the Army National Guard between 2007 and 2016, I never heard anyone disparage the 10-part series about Easy Company 2-506th Airborne.

I saw the video several times. I finally read the book. I finished it today. The book is well-written and tells the story accurately, filling in details that could not be easily included in the fast-moving video--like Dick Winters decades-long anger about a trip to America General Taylor (101st Airborne Commander) took during the Battle of the Bulge.  Although the book is very good, the video series is better.

The video follows the book faithfully, but the actors add a dimension the book cannot.  They can give life to the relationships among the men that author Stephen Ambrose can only report.  There is a terrible beauty in the video that only the finest fiction can portray in print.

Usually if there is a book and a movie/video, my recommendation would be read the book first. But in this case, I would recommend seeing the video series first, then read the book to fill in details.

Then watch the video again, which is what I am going to do.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Blood and Money: The NATO Alliance

NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been in the news for months. For the first time since the organization was created, an American President has questioned the value of NATO and accused member nations of not paying their fair share.

No one in the world is less able to make that accusation than the current President. Whatever the state of their monetary payments, most of the 28 member nations of NATO have fought in America's wars. And their men, some of them draftees, have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our Draft-Dodger-in-Chief, who avoided the Vietnam War, feels free to attack allies who sent men to die in wars we started.

The issue with NATO should be blood as well as many.  The NATO charter includes a mutual defense clause, what is essentially a "Three Musketeers" clause:  All for One and One for All. The ONLY time that clause was invoked was on September 11, 2001, when NATO nations came to our defense.

An honorable man would know that when men serve and die for you, you owe a debt of honor. Only a coward would reduce that debt to money.  Character is Destiny, said Aristotle 2,500 years ago. He is still correct.  Only a man who let another man serve in his place could see NATO as another "Let's Make a Deal" transaction.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Of Course I am Happy! I Know Who the Enemy Is!

In October 1976, I was on patrol on the East-West German border at Fulda. I saw Soviet tanks on the other side of the border.  We had arrived from Colorado less than 48 hours before and had a full combat load of 63 cannon shells on board our M60A1 tanks.

I was scared. But I was also happy. I knew who the enemy was, where the enemy was, and what I was supposed to do if the enemy attacked.  

This morning, a good friend asked me about how I was handling the news since Friday. I told her about going to the march in Philadelphia on Saturday and to the "Tuesdays with Toomey" protest in Philadelphia yesterday. I told her about some of the stuff I had been posting on social media.  She thought I looked happy, a lot happier than she expected.

I said, "Of course. I'm a soldier. I know who the enemy is. I am happy."

It's true. The hypotheticals are over.  Trump is not a candidate or a president-elect.  He is a Birther who discredited President Obama for five years every chance he had.  He has given the head of Breitbart News an office in the White House.  Our President, not some guy, is whining about crowd size at his inaugural and instructing his press secretary to lie.

This is not a drill.  I am a citizen. I am a patriot who actually served in our nation's wars. I am ready to fight.

And I am happier than I have been for months!

Have a nice day!

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Rommel Effect

On social media and in news commentary, there is near universal agreement that making General James Mattis Secretary of Defense if a great thing for America and the Trump Regime. Not only is Mattis arguably the best living general in America, maybe in the world, but he is also seen as willing to stand up for what is right.

But the meteoric rise and fall of the World War II German General Erwin Rommel shows that great generals can make ultimate defeat worse. And it shows that soldiers are lousy conspirators.

The common view of the first year of World War II is that the British and French armies were routed and defeated in six weeks by a superior German armored force using Blitzkrieg tactics. The truth is, the invading Germans were outnumbered and outgunned by the defenders of France. They won because Erwin Rommel commanded 7th Panzer Division at the front of the invading German Army carrying out a brilliant invasion plan.

The British and French had a combined 3,000 tanks, all of which had cannons capable of destroying any of the German medium tanks in the invasion force.  The Germans had 2,000 tanks, hundreds of them armed with just machine guns.  But the Germans concentrated nearly all their armor on a 20-mile invasion front, while the British and French spread their tanks from the Swiss border to the English Channel.  Rommel punched through the allied lines. He personally waded into rivers when his engineers were making bridges for his tanks.  Rommel broke through the allied lines and captured huge formations.

Without Rommel carrying out a brilliant invasion plan by General Heinz Guderian, the allied army could have stopped or slowed the German advance and dragged out the war in France. The great early success of Rommel, Guderian and the German Army led Hitler to invade Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Four years later when Allied armies were back in France after D-Day and Soviet armor was in Poland headed for Germany, Rommel joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. Rommel took his own life after being caught.  Honorable soldiers are lousy conspirators.

General Mattis could be great for America. His job is to make the American military the best weapon possible. He could make the American military an even better fighting force. But Trump, not Mattis decides who that weapon will be pointed at, just as Rommel fought where Hitler told him to.

Generals decide HOW to fight, not WHO to fight.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Report 2016, Part 6, Politics

Of the fifty books I read in 2016, just four are in the category Politics, but every book about war is to some extent about the politics that leads one nation to fight with another.

The first book I read on politics was New Czar: Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers.  This long, thorough book traces the entire life of Putin and the improbable path to his present place at the among the top world leaders.  He has been on top of Russian politics for all of this century, all the more amazing because he was truly as another biography calls him The Man Without a Face by Masha Gessen. Masha Gessen's book is on my list for 2017.

Boris Yeltsin picked Putin for leadership in 1999 partly because Putin was the only man in Yeltsin's government who was not on the take. The year before, Putin's house burned down. While it was burning Putin ran back in the house to get a briefcase with 5,000 rubles in it.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many top government officials were taking millions from the failing economy for themselves. If Putin would risk his life for just 5,000 rubles, he could not have millions stashed in Switzerland.  But the corruptions of power corrupted Putin as power corrupts everyone. And now Russia is ruled by an authoritarian government keeping some appearance of democracy.  Putin now is reputed to have more than $30 billion stashed in overseas accounts.

In the spring I re-read The Prince by Machiavelli.  I just got a new translation and will be writing about that later in the context of military leadership. I use the Prince to keep score on the leadership of Presidents.  In a few months it will be interesting to compare Presidents Obama and Trump on how they followed (or not) Machiavelli's council.

In the Fall as it began to look as if Trump had a chance to win, I re-read Why I Write by George Orwell.  In the main essay of this short book, Orwell says that everything he writes will be to bring about Democratic Socialism in Great Britain. Orwell lived only a few years after this essay was published in 1946, and his dream never came pass.  At the end of this volume is "Politics and the English Language" Orwell's most famous essay describing the language used by "Big Brother" in Orwell's book 1984. The whole text of the essay is here.  In the past 30 years since I first read the essay, I heard echoes of Newspeak in many political statements.  But now, the time of Newspeak has fully arrived.

Which brings me to A World Split Apart, the dual-language edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's address at Harvard in 1978.  Solzhenitsyn had recently come to America, exiled from the Soviet Union for his books chronicling the horrors of Soviet life.  Yet his address is not a grateful refugee basking in freedom after a decade in a Soviet GULAG after heroic service in World War II.  Solzhenitsyn says the west has sold its soul for materialism and crushing its own soul for comfort and wealth.  He lived in seclusion in Vermont for almost 20 years, then returned to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

This year, I will be reading Machiavelli and a biography of Putin as I noted above.  I will also be reading about the years leading up to The Holocaust. Every genocide begins when some minority is declared non-persons by the majority.  All through history mass murder and deportation begin with revoking rights, then revoking citizenship. I will be looking for that in 2017, because that is where the next war will follow.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Forty Years Later: U.S. Armored Brigade from Fort Carson Reinforces Europe

Today an Armored Brigade from Fort Carson, Colorado, arrived in Poland as a show of force to Russia.  More than three thousand mechanized soldiers will spread across Poland and the Baltic States as well as Romania, Moldova and Hungary to the south.

The unit deployed is the 3rd Armored Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, including 1st Battalion, 68th Armor.  

Forty years ago, in October 1976, the 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), including 1st Battalion, 70th Armor was sent to Wiesbaden, West Germany, as a show of force against the Soviet Union.  I was a tank commander in Bravo Company of the 1-70th Armor.  

Today's news was certainly deja vu for me. Forty years ago and today, troops from Fort Carson waving a finger in the face of the Russian/Soviet leader.  One big difference is that all the countries where the 3rd ACT, 4th ID will be training are places that were under Soviet control 40 years ago.  

In a further coincidence, after I left active duty, I joined an Army Reserve Armor unit: Company A, 6th Battalion, 68th Armor.  All of my service in armor was in these two units.  Now they are together in former Soviet states, resisting Russia.