Friday, April 21, 2017

Riding in Hong Kong: Hostile Buses, a Big Hill

[Before my ride from the Adriatic Sea, to the Black Sea, to the Baltic Sea this summer, I will be writing about the places I have ridden around the globe that may be more dangerous than where I will be riding in June and July.]

Hong Kong island viewed from Kowloon on the mainland

Between 1998 and 2001 I made a half-dozen trips to Hong Kong.  Usually the trip to Hong Kong was just a stop on a longer trip from America, to Europe, to Singapore or Perth and then through Hong Kong on the way back to America.  My first trip to Hong Kong was early in 1998, less than a year after Hong Kong was re-united with China.  I was told to be very careful that the bustling center of free enterprise in Asia was going to be more subdued under Communist rule.

They were so wrong.  This vibrant city pasted against a cliff on an island just south of the mainland was more alive 24 hours a day than any city I have ever visited. In every way it was an exciting and dangerous place to ride a bike.

The city itself is mobbed with traffic, much of it buses. The two main types of buses are the lumbering double deckers and the screaming minibuses. The turbodiesel engines of the smaller buses seemed always to be at full throttle.

The real bicycling challenge though was above the city.  I usually was in Hong Kong for just two or three days. Each day I would ride from the city up the mountain to Victoria Peak on Stubbs Road and Peak Road.  These long, steep roads were a series of switchbacks that rose above the city passing the houses of Hong Kong millionaires. English-language academies nestled in the trees along this road.  After the long climb up, I had a blazingly fast descent.  As I dropped off the mountain into the city I carried some of the speed from the descent and hit the six-lane Hennessey Road at more than 35 mph.
After descending the mountain on a two-lane road, I was in heavy traffic on Hennessey, between  lumbering buses and darting motorbikes.  One day, I came down the mountain and started to pass a big orange bus in the right lane. The bus was two stories of flat steel on its left side.  Hong Kong, like most former British colonies has right-hand drive. The middle lane was empty when I passed the back end of the orange bus, but then another double decker started turning into my lane. The mid-afternoon sun disappeared as the distance between those buses disappeared.  I pedaled liked I was in the final sprint in a Tour de France stage.  As I passed the bus on the left, the driver looked at me and kept moving right.

In China, bicycles a lower class transport.  Worse, Asia has no tradition of chivalry, so ties in traffic go to the bigger vehicle.  I shot past the orange, slower bus and swerved in front of it to escape being crushed.  I kept pedaling and did not look back till I passed under a yellow light and the buses had to stop.

I was so jazzed, I went up the hill again. Too much adrenaline to waste.

A Hong Kong Double Decker Bus

The Double Decker Buses own the Hong Kong streets

While I had the occasional near miss with a double decker bus, I had daily trouble with the minibuses. These buses are often full beyond their 26-passenger capacity. These 10,000-pound vehicles are powered by a 3-liter turbo diesel engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission.

From a traffic light, I would pull rapidly away from these overloaded buses, pissing off the driver who hates all bikes. I would get a great sprint workout riding as hard as I could while hearing the turbodiesel screaming behind me, the driver shifting at max rpms to have the best chance of squashing me under his wheels.  But he and I both knew, someone would want to get out of the bus before he could complete his plan to make a spandex smear on a Hong Kong Boulevard.

The Evil Minibus

Despite the evil buses, I loved riding up and down from the Peak.  There is a cable car that goes straight up mountain and beside it an old Army trail with a 35% grade.  Hong Kong is crowded, beautiful and an amazing place to ride.

Looking down to Hong King and Kowloon from the Cable Car

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Dante's Inferno in Iraq: A Podcast

This post is just a link to a podcast on Sectarian Review. The podcast is about the Dead Poets Society Book Group I led on Camp Adder, Iraq.  Also on the podcast is a professor who teaches Dante every year.

That group started almost eight years ago in July 2009.  Here's the link.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Ten Years Ago Today: Cold War Soldier Does the MEPS Duck Walk

Doctor at MEPS shows recruits how to Duck Walk

Ten years ago, I woke up at 0400 (4 a.m.) with about 40 other recruits to take the physical and the other tests that would allow me to re-enlist.  Everybody except me and one other guy were between 17 and 20 years old.  I sat with the other Old Guy at breakfast. He was 29 years old, I was 53. We were the old guys.

During that day at MEPS (Military Enlistment Processing Station) we got blood tests and probes stuck anywhere they would fit.  I knew all that was coming. But my big worry was the duck walk. We had to squat down and walk across a room, about 20 feet, in a squat, with our hands on our hips.

At the time I re-enlisted, I was an avid bicycle racer. I was in shape, good shape "for my age." But the Duck Walk worried me. I might be in good shape for my age, but the Duck Walk is easy for any reasonably fit 18 year old, not so easy for those of us over 50. As it turns out, it was not so easy for my new 29-year-old friend.  We lined up with a half-dozen kids in the third Duck Walk wave and waddled across the room.  The other old guy and I grunted, struggled, wobbled but finally made the distance. We were slowest finishers by a lot.

The Duck Walk Outdoors

We passed. We high-fived each other and made the kids laugh, and whisper about WTF the old guy was doing enlisting.

After the needles, latex gloves, turning and coughing and eye charts, we got dressed and went to another part of the building for the aptitude test.

This was the third time I had taken the entrance exam. In 1972 when I first enlisted in the Air Force, and again in 1975 when I re-enlisted in the Army, I took the test. Back then it was on paper. Today it was on a computer.  By the time we left the test room and returned to the waiting area, we knew the results.  No waiting.

When I walked back to the testing room, the Navy Chief Petty Officer in charge of the test stood up, walked around his desk and shook my hand in front of the group.  He said, "You just got the highest score of anyone we tested this year.  Congratulations! You qualify for any job in the Army, Hell, any branch of the service based on these scores."

Then he added, "But at your age, there are damn few schools that will take you. But good job!"

I thanked him.  He was right.  Everything good in the military has an age limit.  But I knew that coming in. I was just happy I passed the Duck Walk.  Now more paperwork.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Chemical Weapons: Feeble in War, Powerful Against Civilians

Nearly a hundred civilians died in agony this week and hundreds more will be crippled by a Sarin gas attack in Syria.  Murdering unprotected civilians is the most effective way to use chemical weapons.  Since they were introduced 102 years ago, they have been a failure on the battlefield, but a terrible success against civilians.

German Captain Fritz Haber gave the command to release chlorine gas from hundreds of cylinders at Ypres in April of 1915. At that moment, chemical warfare became part of the horrors of trench warfare for the remainder of World War I.

Chemical weapons were not used in World War II, or subsequent wars, except the Iran-Iraq War in the late 80s. Military leaders soon found that chemical warfare is less effective than kinetic (bombs and bullets) warfare.  With the additional problem that the winners often cannot occupy the territory they take.  An area contaminated with Sarin or other nerve agents will take weeks to decontaminate.

While they are not very effective against trained, protected soldiers, chemical weapons work very well against civilians, particularly in cities.  Closed, crowded spaces are perfect for chemical weapons. Subways, meeting halls, sports arenas are all perfect places to use chemical weapons.

In 1977, one of my additional duties as a tank commander in West Germany was CBR NCO. I was the Chemical, Biological, Radiation Weapons Sergeant for our unit.  Each month I gave and hour-long class in a different weapon of mass murder and how to survive.  Although we tank soldiers had a better chance of surviving than ground troops, everyone knew that in a war with gas and nukes and weaponized bugs, we were going to die.

At the end of each class I would yell, "On your feet!"  The room stood up and I presented the doomsday scenario of the month.  What should we do if our position is hit with a nuclear weapon? Or what should do if we are attacked with artillery shells full of nerve gas, the kind that will kill you even if you get a drop on your skin?

The soldiers answered in unison, "Sergeant Gussman, we will put our heads firmly between our legs and kiss our ass goodbye!"

We walked out laughing, but no one thought these weapons were anything but terrifying. They still are.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Ten Years Ago: Re-enlistment Paperwork

At Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 2009 running the Army Physical Fitness Test
in a gas mask. My official job was Chemical Weapons Decontamination Specialist.

In the last blog post, I finally made the call to begin the re-enlistment process. After calling the recruiter, I pulled together all the documents I could find to confirm my prior service, scanned them and sent them. 

Two days after the call, I was the dog that caught the car.  I thought, “What now?!!”  What was I going to do if I actually got back in the Army. I thought about volunteering for some sort of chemical weapons job.  Most everyone dislikes chemical weapons in principle and in practice.  Wearing a gas mask and chemical protection gear is somewhere from uncomfortable to horrible.

But the fact that most people don’t like the chemical weapons branch made it attractive. It fit with the idea that I was replacing my failure at community service with Army service.  

Part of my thinking in re-enlisting was that I would join a Type A group of people in community service.  I had tried volunteering with local charitable groups. I failed. The people who run food pantries and women’s shelters and adoption support groups are really nice people. 

They drove me nuts.

When I volunteered, I just wanted to do something useful: Stack boxes, sort cans, something. But volunteering with nice people means a lot of hand-wringing. Also in the first years of the new century the economy was good. It was artificially good as it turns out, but in 2007, the economy seemed good, the terrorists had not attacked again.

I wanted the organization I volunteered for to have a goal and fight for it.  The Army was in two wars and needed soldiers.  The change in recruiting age that would allow me to get back in was proof the Army really needed soldiers.  By simply showing up I could definitely do one thing that I had done in 1972: Show up.  If I was in the Army, the Army needed to recruit one less soldier. 

So if things worked out and I got back in, I would volunteer for chemical weapons protection of some kind.  But first I had to get in.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Ten Years Ago Today: Cold War Soldier Starts Re-enlistment Process

The Night Before Basic, Killing Brain and Lung Cells

On January 31, 1972, I flew to Texas to begin basic training. On April 2, 2007, ten years ago today, I called Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Askew, recruiting sergeant for the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, and began the process of re-enlisting after 23+ years as a civilian.  I was 53 years old at the time, about to turn 54.

In the Spring of 2007, The Surge in Iraq was in full swing and recruitment for the Army was down a lot. The economy was good, Congress would not even consider re-starting the Draft, so in late 2006 Congress raised the maximum first-enlistment age for the Army from 35 to 42 years old.

The program was a failure and was rescinded three years later. But that failed program allowed me to re-enlist.  The maximum enlistment age for soldiers with prior service is the enlistment age plus the years of prior service plus a one-year waiver.  I needed all of that.

I called three recruiters before I called Kevin. He was the first one to pick up the phone. I told him about my education and prior service before I told him how old I was. He did not hesitate. He asked for all the papers I had that would confirm my prior service dates. He thought there was a good chance I could get back in, but only as an enlisted man. I told him that was fine. At my age, there were very few programs I could be retrained in, and despite my education, nothing as an officer. I was way past the maximum age for officer and warrant officer programs.

Because the other recruiters did not answer the phone, I decided to go with the Aviation unit, which led to the one regret I had for the rest of my time on this enlistment. I should have gone back to an armor unit.  I really did miss tanks themselves, few things are more fun than speeding across open country in 55 tons of armor, or firing the tank's main gun.

Few places in the Army have the same camaraderie as a tank.  Except for crews with a platoon leader or commander, everyone in the tank is an enlisted man. I flew a lot of missions on Blackhawks and Chinooks. There was banter among the crew chiefs, door gunners and flight engineers and there was banter int he cockpit, but the divide between the officers and enlisted men was clear.  The tank crews I was part of were a team of more or less equals. We were all enlisted, even if only one of us was in charge.

April 2, 2007, was Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter.  The irony of signing up to go to war on the night before Good Friday was not lost on me.

At the time I was keeping my plans to myself. I did not want to worry my family, friends, co-workers or anyone else in my life with a crazy plan that had, as I saw it at the time, a low chance of success.

As it turns out, my enlistment plans would hit a Himalayan speed bump on May 9, 2007, but that is for a later post.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Bullets, Bikes and Rotor Blades: Random Motion, Perfectly Predictable

Bullets rip from the barrel of modern rifles at more than 3000 feet per second.  Tanks fire armor-piercing shells that travel nearly twice that speed, just over a mile a second.  Rotor blades on helicopters sweep the air at a constant speed, but a small  change in the pitch (tilt) of the blades causes the ‘copter to rise, drop, hover or hurtle through the air at more than 100 knots.

Each of these complex motions is almost perfectly predictable moving through an utterly random medium: air.  The atmosphere, from sea level to stratosphere, is nothing but randomly moving molecules.  The molecules of air are vanishingly small,  so each cubic foot of air has about 30 sextillion molecules (3 with 22 zeroes) of air in it at any moment.

Since air is mostly nitrogen and oxygen, most air molecules are just under a millionth of a millimeter long. These tiny particles move in random directions: up, down, left, right and everything in between at speeds around 1000 miles per hour at room temperature and normal atmospheric pressure. 

And yet.

The collective motion of hundreds of trillions of individual molecules is so predictable that a 95-pound artillery shell fired from a 155mm cannon can hit within meters of a target ten miles away.  A 105mm tank cannon firing a practice SABOT round can make  will punch a perfect 40mm hole within inches of the middle of a one-meter circle a full kilometer away. In 1976, my gunner made a smiley-face triangle with three rounds while we were zeroing our main gun. 

If random motion meant changes in wind resistance, gunners would never be able to fire with inch-perfect accuracy.

Every week I coast down a ¾-mile-long hill. At the top of the hill are two big wind-power generators.  A mile away from the hill I check the direction the blades are facing and their speed. I know before I get to the hill what my speed will be at the bottom within less than 5mph. The difference comes from how much draft I get from other cyclists.  In the distance down that hill, my bicycle and I pass through 15 cubic feet of air for every foot we move down the hill.  So from top to bottom the bike and I pass through 50,000 cubic feet of randomly move molecules of air, billions of sextillions of molecules of air.

And yet.

The motion is perfectly predictable.  Any single molecule of air might be racing ahead of my bicycle at 1000mph or it might get passed by a bullet or a cannon shell. But the collective motion of all those molecules is wind resistance. And wind resistance is as predictable as electrical resistance in a wire fluid resistance in a pool of water. 

The world is full of randomness at every level from atoms to stars and yet the universe is so stable that the greatest theories of science are based on permanency across millennia of time and light years of space. 

This is beauty we are immersed in every day. 

If we could see air molecules move, it would look like the tracers from a hundred monkeys firing a hundred machine guns while swinging through trees. 

Nature is often this way. A surprise. Not at all what we expect and somewhere beyond amazing. 

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.