Saturday, October 12, 2019

Conferences and the Delight of Meeting New Friends

I went to the 12th Annual Conference on Racism and Antisemitism at The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. I was only able to attend the second day of the two-day conference, but I heard some great talks and even watched a controversy play out on stage. 

But the best part was lunch. 

I knew no one at the conference. The weather was cool and clear.  Outside the hall where the conference was taking place, the organizers set up a tent and picnic tables.  I sat at one end of an empty table. A small group was at the other end of the table. I introduced myself, but they were talking in hushed tones about the woman who left the stage in protest. 

So I ate my sandwich as the tables filled up.  Then a group of five formed around me. I introduced myself as a Hannah Arendt Fan Boy--not an academic like most of the conference attendees.  To my right was a quiet man who is a professor of history.  To my left was Anna, a history teacher at a Bard-affiliated high school, a lawyer, an activist, and executive director of the The Conversationalist. Opposite me were two women about my age, Ellen and Kate.  Eventually Kate left and her seat was taken by Amy who was the moderator of the panel with the controversy.

Through most of the lunch we did not talk about the conference, but about our different experiences of being Jewish in America. We had an especially lively discussion of when Jews became white. Kate was the only one who was not Jewish, but she grew up Irish-Italian Catholic post World War II. Her parents and family on both sides experienced discrimination both for religion and background when Irish and Italian Catholics were not quite white.

Ellen and I were the same age and grew up near big cities so could talk about being part of the big exodus of Jews to the suburbs after World War II.  A half-million Jews served in uniform in World War II. The GI Bill made it possible for many Jews to buy suburban houses and get a college education.  A million African-American soldiers served in uniform in World War II. They had very little access to GI Bill benefits, especially housing and education.

Anna's parents came to America from Russia in the 1970s. We talked about how different the experience of immigration was for blue-collar Jews like my grandparents in the early 20th Century and for her parents in the 1970s.  Her parents speak Russian and identify as Russian. My grandparents and uncles spoke Yiddish and in no way identified with the Tsarist Russia they escaped. 

Amy filled us in on the controversy on stage which has no explanation I can make simple. 

I enjoyed the presentations, especially the deep dive into "The Great Replacement" conspiracy theory. The four panelists traced the origins of this particular Anti-semitic conspiracy to post-World-War-II France.  It has been thoroughly debunked for anyone outside the lunatic world of the Alt-Right, Fox News, and the Trump White House, but inside those asylums it is a current threat to white nationalism.

When the torch-carrying Nazis at Charlottesville chanted "Jews will not replace us" they were quoting The Great Replacement conspiracy.  The murderer of Jews in Pittsburgh believed the same. 

As good as the presentations were, lunch was the most fun.  Laughing and sharing stories and insights with bright people in lovely place is in its own way as good as life gets. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Continuing my 2017 Trip Across Israel and Europe

This map is posted on the former East-West German border 
where I served as a tank commander 40 years ago.

If all goes well, I will ride the length of Israel.

On October 22, I am going to resume my 2017 trip across Eastern Europe and Israel.  My last trip began in Eastern Europe followed by the World War II battlefields of Normandy. Then I went to Israel and finally a side trip to the oldest Formula 1 race track, the street circuit in Monaco.

This trip I will begin with World War II battlefields and a Formula 1 racetrack, then go to Israel and finish the trip in Eastern Europe, places I did not get to on the last trip.

A long time ago in 2013 when Donald Trump was just a Birther and a failing reality TV personality, I started learning Russian and planned a bicycle trip across Russia to retrace the route my grandfather used to escape the Tsar's Army in 1914. Grandpa walked from Odessa on the south coast of Russia to Helsinki on the Baltic Sea between August 1914 and the spring of 1915.  I was going to ride north across Russia, about 1,300 miles sometime after I retired.

Then Trump got elected. Steve Bannon had an office in the White House and America was looking bleak.  I changed the trip to ride across Eastern Europe visiting the worst of the Holocaust sites and then visit Israel. I had never been there.

I managed to visit 20 countries on that trip, but I could not ride as much as I hoped (I was on the way to knee replacement which happened six months ago) and did not make it to the Baltic States or Russia.  On that trip I had not planned to visit World War II battlefields, but took a day to do that in the middle of the trip.

So this time I will visit more battlefields, spend more time in Israel, and visit the countries I missed on the first trip, particularly the Baltic Sea states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and end the trip in St. Petersburg, Russia.

I want to see the countries where the Holocaust was the worst and learn more about them. I want to know their path of recovery from such horror.  And I want to see more of Israel. A vibrant Jewish state is so important in the global fight against anti-Semitism. 

Railroad cars on a siding between Auschwitz and Buchenwald
Concentration Camps where Jews were delivered from 
across Europe. As they left the cars they were sorted into
groups of those who were slave labor and those who were killed.

Bernard-Henri Levi said if it were not for The Holocaust, there would be 50 million Jews living in the world now instead of 15 million. Two years ago, Nazis marched openly in Charlottesville and the President refused to condemn them. Anti-Semitism is a plague that is not going away and, for me, learning about how The Holocaust happened is part of making sure it never happens again.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Kill a Commie for Mommy: Hating the Enemy During the Cold War and Before

On the rifle range in Basic Training in 1972 our drill sergeant 
yelled, "Kill a Commie for Mommy." 

Wars we lose have a lot in common.  One thing that America's lost or losing wars have in common is very restrictive Rules of Engagement: ROE.  In World War II there were no rules of engagement: see the enemy, kill the enemy.

But in the late stages of the Vietnam War, and throughout the Iraq War, Afghanistan War, and other conflicts in the War on Terror, there are rules about who, what, when and where American soldiers can fire at the enemy.

My job in the Air Force was live-fire testing of missiles from the Sidewinder all the way to the Minuteman.  We made sure those missiles were ready to shoot down a MiG or obliterate a city.

In the Army, I trained my tank crew to make one-shot kills of Soviet tanks at up to a mile distance.  There was no ROE. If the Soviets crossed the border we were to kill them. They were the enemy, the identifiable, uniformed enemy who was going to kill us if we did not kill them.

When we had an enemy, we had a goal: Defeat the enemy.

I wrote on the New York Times "At War" blog about how having an enemy, or not, affects marching songs.  In the 1970s when we marched, we sang about killing Commies. They were the enemy.  The current marching songs have no enemy.  Current marching songs also have no sex. For those of us who marched in the 70s and before, the idea of marching songs scrubbed of sex is as strange as those without enemies.

All through my professional life, in or out of the military, my best work was when I had a goal--and a leader with a clear idea of what winning looked like. 

The wars we won--World War II and the Cold War--had an enemy and a goal: Victory. 

The current wars are a mess because the goal is murky.  When the American military goes to war, we should be fighting to win.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

In War and in Life, Love and Loss are Never Far Apart

I wrote about this soldier ten years ago, September 2009, when I was deployed to Iraq for year with 28th Combat Aviation Brigade.  I re-read this post and decided it says something I never want to forget.  

The deepest love must face the possibility of loss. The alternative is to avoid love, which is the greatest loss of all:

One of the administrative sergeants I run into once in a while was a Marine for 10 years before joining the Army National Guard. He is aloof and old enough that no one bothers him very much. He mostly keeps to himself, but will occasionally burst into a lecture about safety, security, the political situation in Iraq or how this war should be fought. His outbursts, like the lid sliding off a boiling pot, show that the heat has been building for a long time and finally he explodes. An early commentator on the Iliad wrote about Achilles saying, "An angry man never thinks he has spoken enough" and this sergeant proves it.

Today I was waiting for some other soldiers and had some time to sit and listen to this sergeant talk about his last deployment. It turns out the reason he keeps his distance and thinks about security issues goes back to his deployment three years ago. He was also on a large base then, but worked with people who went on convoys. For the most part he did not eat dinner, but one of the guys on convoy was a particular friend, another ex-Marine, so he would always change his schedule and eat dinner when his buddy was on base.

One day the aloof sergeant got the word that his dinner buddy got killed in a mortar attack. As he described it they were great friends, "And I decided I was not going to let that happen again. I'll talk to people but I don't want to care that much have them taken away. I still think about all the plans he had for his family, to travel--all gone."

The alternative to love is self-protection, keeping others at a distance so they won't hurt you by leaving. It's a choice we all make to some degree, to risk love or draw back.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Chinook Landing on a Roof in Afghanistan Honored in Original Art

On 10 November 2003 the crew of Chinook helicopter 
Yankee 2-6 made this landing on a cliff in Afghanistan.

Artist Larry Selman immortalized the event in a limited-edition print.

When I deployed to Iraq in 2009 with an Army helicopter brigade, nearly all the soldiers in our unit and every other unit were younger than me—a generation younger than me. But not the pilots.  Some were young, but many more were in their 40s and 50s.  Larry Murphy, a Chinook helicopter pilot, was one of the very few soldiers older than I was.  I was 56. He was 58. 

On Wednesday, 5 September 2019, Larry was honored with the unveiling of a painting commemorating an amazing bit of flying he and his crew did in Afghanistan in 2003.  Larry was deployed with a company of Chinooks and supporting equipment to Afghanistan. The tour was supposed to be a year and was extended to 16 months. The Chinook company was made up of soldiers from the Pennsylvania and Connecticut Army National Guard did not leave Afghanistan till 2004. They were in support of several companies of soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, New York.

On 10 November 2003, Larry and the crew of Chinook helicopter Yankee 2-6 received an additional mission to pickup prisoners while they were on a resupply mission. These missions are a routine part of combat operations in Afghanistan.  But this mission was different. The prisoners had to be picked up from the side of a steep mountain at an elevation of 8,500 feet above sea level.  There was no place to land an aircraft with a 52-foot-long fuselage that is almost 100 feet long from tip to tip of its massive twin rotors. 

The pickup point was a shack on the side of a cliff.  Larry and the crew landed rear-wheels-only on the roof of the shack with the tail ramp lowered.  With the back of the helicopter on the shack roof, Larry and the other pilot, Paul Barnes, could not see the shack or any other close-in visual markers. From the cockpit, the pilots could see down the cliff to the valley 2,500-feet below.  The flight engineer James Duggan, crew chief Brian Kilburn and door gunner Margaret Haydock guided the pilots from the side and rear of the aircraft.  

Although technically a landing in the sense that the rear wheels were on the ground, the pilots were carefully keeping the full weight of the 25,000-pound (empty) helicopter from resting on shack, and keeping the front of the helicopter stable and level while the prisoners were brought aboard.

As soon as the prisoners were on board, the big helicopter returned to base. 

Five years ago, I was in a Chinook helicopter on Fort Indiantown Gap that landed rear-wheels-only on a cliff.  Twenty soldiers in full battle gear ran off the ramp and set up a security perimeter.  As the soldiers left the aircraft with their gear and heavy weapons, the weight of the aircraft dropped by 6,000 pounds, but the pilots held the helicopter level and steady.  I was looking out the door gunner’s window near the front of the aircraft. I saw nothing but sky above and rock-strewn valley hundreds of feet below.  I had heard about the roof landing since I joined the unit in 2007. It is amazing to see. It is more amazing to feel.

Larry Murphy signing prints at the Aviation Armory on 
Fort Indiantown, Pennsylvania  

The print by artist Larry Selman is available on his website.

In the years since the landing, the photo (above) has become an iconic image for Army Aviation, so much so that people question if the landing really happened. answered the question: True. From their site:

I’m sure all of you have seen many choppers make some daring moves, but this one is spectacular. Hope you enjoy it. This attached shot was taken by a trooper in Afghanistan. Pilot is Larry Murphy, PA National Guard. Larry is a Keystone Helicopter Corp. EMS Pilot employee called to active duty. I must state that this is a “unique” landing operation. I understand that this particular military operation was to round up suspects.
We have some super reservists and National Guard folks out there in addition to our volunteer troops. God bless them all.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Attacking NATO Allies is Stupid and Dangerous

The Malmedy Massacre, 17 December 1944

Seventy years of peace and prosperity after centuries of nearly continuous war is an amazing treasure that no one should take for granted. Yet here we are with a fool in the White House who loves dictators and hates the the Allies who have kept the peace in Europe since the end of World War II.
Yesterday, September 1, 2019, is the 80th Anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.
Beginning 9am yesterday, I watched the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Belgium at the Spa Circuit that is located in the southeast corner of this small country that has suffered so many invasions. The track is just four miles from Malmedy where Nazi troops massacred 84 American prisoners on 17 December 1944. Spa is 35 miles from Bastogne where American soldiers were surrounded and held out in the last major Nazi attack of World War II.
Belgium is at the center of the European Union and the headquarters of NATO, the treaty organization at the center of peace across Europe since the end of World War II in 1945.
As I watched the race, I was more aware than usual that a French driver in an Italian car is leading a British driver in a German car. Drivers from Germany, Finland, Italy, Canada, Mexico, Poland, Holland, Russia, Australia, Spain follow the leaders. The series is now owned by Americans, though there is currently no American driver.
The 21 races are held in 21 countries on five continents. Ten of the races are in NATO member countries. Part of the reason these races and every other world sport can exist is more than 70 years of peace under NATO.
NATO held the line against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. I served in both the Air Force and the Army off and on since 1972. The Cold War is the only clear victory in my years of service.
When I hear, see and read the President trashing NATO, I get ill. Europe has never been safer and more peaceful than the last seven decades and the foolish, shallow, friend of dictators in the White House is squandering this achievement.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Massive Fire Bombing of Stalingrad

On 23 August 1942, Nazis dropped thousands of bombs and thousands more incendiary bombs on Stalingrad at the opening of their attack.

The horror of fire bombing cities, slaughtering civilians in terrible infernos, was how the Nazi army began its attack on the city of Stalingrad.  The Luftwaffe flew 1,600 sorties on Sunday, 23 August 1942, dropping 1,000 tons of bombs and incendiary devices on the ill-fated city.

The dense black cloud from the fires rose more than two miles into the air above the ill-fated city. The fire could be seen to the horizon in every direction. 

I just read a long account of the raid and its aftermath in the novel Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman.  A reporter and correspondent throughout the war, Grossman arrived in Stalingrad the day after the massive raid. He spoke to witnesses and saw the aftermath of the bombing.

I love the book and have written about it other parts of it hereStalingrad is Volume I of a two-part, 1,800 page novel about the central battle of the war in Russia. It is the War and Peace of the 20th Century. 

I read Volume II Life and Fate three years ago. Volume I was not available in English until this year. For those interested in the war from the Soviet perspective, it's a great book.

Conferences and the Delight of Meeting New Friends

I went to the 12th Annual Conference on Racism and Antisemitism at The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard Colleg...