Saturday, June 25, 2016

Who Avoids Our Wars? The Rich, The Entitled



Watch News coverage of Trump rallies, and you will see Trump supporters portrayed as white, poor and stupid.

There certainly are Trump voters who are poor and stupid, but I have not met them. I have only seen them on the News. 

The Trump voters I know personally have college degrees, are very wealthy, and believe the world started falling apart in the 60s and 70s when they were kids.  The college degrees of the Trump voters I know are technical and professional.  I have not met a Trump voter with a degree in arts or literature.

I recently met a tall, energetic engineer named Tom. He is retired but still works as a consultant.  He owns a dozen cars, eight of them show-quality American muscle cars of the 60s and 70s.  He has a home that would house a village in much of the world, no kids, and enough garage space for his entire car collection. 

He has lived in Houston for more than 30 years, but grew up in suburban Chicago.  As a high school student in the late 60s he was bussed to a different suburban school as part of affirmative action—desegregation.  He hated it.  He seethes with resentment when he talks about it almost 50 years later.

He says he is a minority in his adopted city of Houston and is angry that cars with Mexican license plates can drive his streets.  He is angry that Houston is not a majority white city. When he says Make America Great Again he means make it white again. 

He is also a very proud, technically trained guy who does not own a cell phone or a laptop computer.  He has two landline phones and a desktop computer.  On that computer, he runs high-tech simulations for his consulting work.  So he is not against technology, he is against people who do not understand technology having access to technology.  He is very proud of not needing the technology that others around him depend on.  He uses paper maps.  He sends email on his desktop computer and does not need to check his desktop constantly as smartphone users do.

Like Trump, he wants America to have a strong military, and just like Trump, he did not serve in that military.  He went to college.  When he graduated, the draft was near its end. He got the deferments he needed and did not volunteer--though he is happy to bomb, drone or invade. He isn't going.

After college, Tom got a good job and started a lucrative career while those who served in the military earned $168 a month and delayed the start of their less lucrative careers.

He mentioned that in 1960s Chicago he was subjected to many Polish jokes. He remembers with some pain what it was like to hear jokes about Poles.  He does not remember the 50s and 60s as an era when every racial slur was part of normal speech.  

Part of Tom’s resentment is that political correctness has removed hazing ethnic groups as an acceptable part of American life.  He was subject to terrible Polish jokes for years.  He should be able to treat the latest waves of immigrants the way he was treated. 

Tom is resentful and without mercy.  Anyone who thinks “education” will fix Tom and people like him is just wrong.  Tom is rich, privileged, smart and is perfectly happy with 11 million deportations, a Muslim ban and overturning any and all civil rights.  Like Trump, the rich and comfortable life Tom has enjoyed for half a century made him more sure that he deserves everything he has.   


Friday, June 24, 2016

Who Fights Our Wars? Volunteers




This week my family and I volunteered at GAIN, a ministry that sends food, clothes, seeds and other supplies to refugees around the world.

On Tuesday and Wednesday I was sorting clothes with a guy named Bill.  He is a retired soldier who enrolled in ROTC the same year I enlisted in 1972.  Bill retired after 22 years of active duty.  He served in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down then went to the Gulf War and retired in 1993.

We talked about living in Germany, eating C-Rations and starting our military careers during the Draft.  Both of us like the draft Army better.  His fist command was a mechanized mortar platoon. Bill told me about one of his draft soldiers who was a math whiz and could set up accurate fire with his "Four-Deuce" 4.2-inch mortars faster than more experienced soldiers.

I told him about my gunner who was a mess as a soldier, but a brilliant gunner.  We both liked an Army with soldiers who did not want to serve, but served anyway.

Bill knew David Petraeus when both of them were young officers.  Bill said Petraeus was known as a problem-solver who could fix anything that was screwed up from the time he was first commissioned.
He was, of course, sad about how Petraeus ended his career.  Bill was also sad when I told him that Petraeus was now leading a group with Astronaut/Veteran Mark Kelley to regulate guns. Bill is both very pro-gun and knows how good Petraeus can be with a tough problem.

Bill drove home to Virginia last night, but will be back to volunteer for GAIN. I just signed up as a volunteer for the Petraeus group.  Bill won't be volunteering for that one.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ban Shakespeare!!

Open Culture published a funny Infographic about the way people die in Shakespeare's plays.


I shared the image on my facebook page.  A soldier I know who is against any regulation of guns made the comment "Ban Shakespeare."  

When I read the comment, I knew he was trying to be funny, but he is also part of the culture that is slowly wringing the life out arguably the greatest author ever.

Part of his belief that everyone should have guns comes from his belief that he needs to defend his family and himself from invaders, thieves and dangers that lurk everywhere.  

The chart carefully tabulates the means of every death in Shakespeare, but does not measure the how close the dead person is to his or her murderer.  When you summarize Shakespeare that way, nearly al the deaths are by friends, neighbors, family or coworkers--if I can call members of the kings court coworkers.

And then you get to the terrible irony of many gun deaths in America.  The huge number of guns means that accidents will happen in proportion to the number of guns.

My Army friend conceded that neither he nor any member of his rural Pennsylvania family has ever been threatened with bodily harm by anyone.  So many of the gun owners I know who claim self defense is the reason they have guns cannot point to any incident of threat to themselves or their family.

Many, sadly, know of someone who was accidentally shot by their own gun or by a family member.

My Army friend is nearly my age so he has read Shakespeare.  It was in high school, but he could vaguely remember "Romeo and Juliet" and possibly "Julius Caesar."  His most recent contact with The Bard was watching "Hamlet" the movie starring Mel Gibson.  Don't sneer.  Hamlet is an alienated loner who sees things in the night and is crazy.  Gibson is perfect for the role.

But my Army friend has not read Shakespeare or any other creative fiction in 40 years.  His life is Guns and Prose.  He wants to restore the Constitution and roll back all kinds of rights that do not apply to white males.  And he is defending his family from a threat that has never happened.

He doesn't have to do anything to Ban Shakespeare.  His whole life has made the greatest writer in English, maybe the greatest in world, just a marginal thing for elitists.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Great Dad, Ordinary Dad: So Different for Sons

My son Nigel and I walking to Church

Young boys learn how to be men by watching their fathers.

The son of a house painter who works for his Dad during the summers then joins the family business has comfortable relationship with who his father is and what his father does.  The son learns over years of apprenticeship that he can do the kind of work Dad does. Dad is not pushing him to do something "great."  Nor is the son striving to do something beyond his reach.

I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if I had not tried so hard to be my Dad. I simply did not have the physical ability to do the things my Dad did, so I spent 50 years striving to make up the deficit I felt.  

My Dad, as I have written elsewhere, was a middleweight boxer and a minor-league pitcher for the Reading Phillies.  I have no ability to play stick-and-ball sports, nor did I have any ability to box.  My biggest fight at age 17 was a school-yard fight that sent me to the hospital with several broken bones.  My Dad also dropped out of school at the end of the eighth grade and got a job to help his immigrant family.  When I was growing up, my Dad was a Teamster, a truck driver and warehouseman, who told stories about being a soldier, a boxer and playing ball.  

I knew boxer and ballplayer were hopeless goals for me, but Teamster and soldier were possible.  All through high school I barely passed classes not from lack of ability but because I want to hang with the kids who were not going to college.  My tenth-grade English teacher told me the only reason I passed her class was that she did not want to have me again the next year.  She told me I would never be able to write.  

During that summer, like every summer since I was 12, I swept floors at the warehouse where my father worked, 40 hours a week, Tuesday to Saturday.  During the breaks and lunch, I would sit on pallet and read.  That summer I read a half-dozen popular science books by Isaac Asimov about chemistry and physics and many chapters of Amateur Radio Relay League manual.  Because I was in the lowest level of English courses, it would be a decade before I learned of the magic in The Divine Comedy and 19th Century Russian novels. But if I had known, I would have been reading the Great Books out of love, not for grades.

Though my real interest was in science and literature, I made cars and work the center of my life, knowing that later I could be a soldier and a Teamster.  After high school I got a Teamsters warehouse job.  Six months later I enlisted in the waning years of the Vietnam War. For as long as I could remember, I was sure I was not the son my father wanted, but when I enlisted, a little of the burden lifted.  

When my Dad died 12 years later, I was in graduate school.  After seven years in the military, I got out, went to college, fell in love with Dante and the Russians and finally started the life I should have been pursuing since I was a kid.  Even with a successful career as a writer and a big family, I still felt the haunting feeling that I was not and would never be the man my father was.  I have met other men through my life who felt the same thing.  I know a guy who is a senior editor at the New York Times.  His Dad was leading surgeon, and wanted his son to be a surgeon.  My friend could feel that disappointment until the day his Dad died.  

We talked once about how we could keep from doing the same thing to our sons, and decided it was probably hopeless.  I was very proud of my Dad.  I loved the idea that I was the son of the toughest guy in a Teamsters warehouse with 300 drivers and dock workers.  But I never felt that he loved anything I was doing.

So for my sons, I am cheering when my older son boxes, cheering when my younger son sings and drums, and trying to help them figure out the best school for them to have a job and a life they will like. 

I did not get over thinking about being a disappointment to my Dad until I got home from Iraq.  Until then, I had doubted myself in many ways including personal courage.  But when I stepped off the plane that took us home to America, I decided I had nothing to prove on that score.  

In the 34 years since my Dad died, I have wanted him to meet his grandchildren.  I wanted to tell him about the 30 countries and five continents I visited.  I wanted to convince him I had done something he could be proud of.  But after Iraq, I just wanted to talk to him.  In his words, I wanted to "shoot the shit" about nothing in particular.  Finally, I felt as if my Dad and I could just talk.  And on this Father's Day, I will be thinking about how to make sure my own sons don't have to wait 56 years for that day.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Where Have All the Liars Gone? Killed by Facebook Every One



Of all my memories of basic training in 1972, the two most vivid are marching in the rain at 4 a.m. and listening to the other 39 guys in my platoon tell incredible lies. 

A pimply-faced 19-year-old Lothario told me with no shame at all that a half-dozen cheerleaders were back home in Arkansas or Idaho were pining for his embraces.  We all grew up in during the peak of the “Muscle Car” era in America.  The same studs who left a bevy of beauties each had a Corvette, a Hemi Cuda, a 440 Six Pak Road Runner, or an SS427 Chevelle waiting in the barns and backyards back home for their return.

Their erotic and automotive attainments were even more impressive when you considered that in February 1972 when we started basic, trainee pay had just doubled from $168 to $283 a month.  You would think that young men who could afford six paramours and Corvette would not take a job for $71 per week, even with free room and board. 

Lies that would make Mark Twain blush were as much a part of the atmosphere as the smell of shoe polish in the pre-Facebook military.

At 27 I left the Army, went to college while serving in the reserves, then decided to get completely out in 1984. 


I reenlisted in 2007 after almost a quarter century as a bearded civilian.  I was 54 years old.  Shortly after I was back in uniform we started pre-deployment training for Iraq.  During the first three-week training period we lived in an open-bay barracks, carried M16s and rode to the field in “Deuce-and-a-Half” trucks.  We also formed up and marched in the rain.  Our barrel-chested first sergeant would smile at the soggy soldiers standing in front of him and say, “If it ain’t rainin’ we ain’t trainin’.”

With rain, M16s, and Deuce-and-a-Half trucks just like the old days, imagine my surprise when I was not confronted with a fresh flurry of adolescent lies.

When we were finished with evening chow and returned to our barracks, almost nobody talked.  Everyone had a computer and some kind of music and or video device if they did not have a smart phone. 

In 1972, we shined our boots, ironed our already starched uniforms and talked.  And in those shine and iron groups, the stories got bigger and bigger.

In this new Army we wear no-shine boots.  We wear no-iron uniforms.  The entertainment was what each of us brought.  Soldiers went outside to call girlfriends and wives.  They did not stay inside and tell stories about their love lives.

Everyone under 30 was on Facebook. 

Because of Facebook, no one could lie about girlfriends and cars.  Once someone said he owned a Subaru WRX Turbo.  “F**k You, Douche Bag,” was the response from three bunks down. “That’s your brother’s car.  He would never let your dumb ass drive it. I’m surprised he let sit in it.”

Social Media acts as a lie detector against anyone who wants to brag about cars, women and parties.  I have hundreds of Army friends on Facebook.  I use Facebook to exchange pictures and messages with them. 

The rain, weapons and trucks might have been the same as ’72, but social media completely changed the atmosphere.  No shine boots, no iron uniforms and no lie barracks made Army life very different.  In 1972, forty anonymous young men talking led to competition in telling lies, but it also helped all of us to grow up and develop bullshit detectors while making some good friends.

In 1972, I was a sucker for all the lies about love, cars, and the other big category, dysfunctional families. I was an 18-year-old virgin.  By everything that I heard from the other 39 guys in my basic training platoon, I was the only virgin my age in America.  My parents married eight years before I was born and would remain married until death did them part.  There were no divorced families in my neighborhood.  I had no step-anybody and I knew no more about sex than what I learned from the awkward presentations in 8th-grade Health Class. 

I suspected my platoon-mates were lying or exaggerating, but did not have the experience to judge what they said. My bunkmate saved me from my ignorance.  He was Leonard Norwood from Sawyerville, Alabama, population 53.  He always said population 53 when he referred to Sawyerville. 

Once he saw me listening intently to a story about an evil step mother.  ‘Bama (that really was his nickname) said, “Gussie, he’s just full of sheeeeit.” 

‘Bama and Jersey (guess where he was from) and a few other guys helped me to sort out the stories that had a grain of truth from the NFW (No effing Way) stories. 

Jersey also raised my status within the platoon.  Although I knew nothing of step families and sex, I actually owned a 1969 Ford Torino 428 Cobra Jet with a factory Holley carburetor, Hurst shifter, and positraction.  My father got me a Teamsters job in May of 1971 when I graduated.  I made enough money to buy the Torino five months later.  When I enlisted at the end of January, I left the car with my 16-year-old sister Jean. 

Jean wrote me letters about parking lot burnouts, street races she got in, and scaring the crap out of a hitchhiker.  I read these funny letters to Jersey, ‘Bama and a couple of other friends.  Jersey showed one to the drill sergeant.  For the rest of basic, when Jean would write, the drill sergeant read the letter to the whole platoon.  My blond-haired, blue-eyed sister made it very clear that I really owned a Torino Cobra.  Jean wrote about how she and my Dad were going to drive the car to my tech school in Denver from Boston.  So my car not only existed in the real world, but everyone who went to school in Denver would actually see it. 

It’s not like the reality of my car in any way diminished the stories from the rest of the platoon.  Some felt obliged to explain why they were not bringing their cars to their next bases.  One guy said he was going straight to ‘Nam, after weapons school, so he might as well leave the car home. 

Do I like Facebook Army better than the 70s Army?  At the risk of being just another grumpy old soldier, I like the liars, shined shoes and starched uniforms better. My best friends from the Army in the 1970s are still my best friends.  The shared time talking helped me to find those friends.  During this tour I have hundreds of Army Facebook friends, but I know fewer soldiers at any real depth than I did last time. Part of re-enlisting at 54 years old was to leave the shallow end of life in the civilian world and spend the kind of time together that it takes to have deep friendships. 

But, like me, soldiers of today are fully connected on social media and live their virtual lives even on Camp Adder, Iraq.  We can’t lie to each other about cars and paramours.  When we have a minute, we check our phones.  That’s how life is.



Wednesday, June 15, 2016

ROOMIE! The Cursed Bunk, The Daily Zombie Movie and My Deployment Roommates



Behind me is the "Cursed Bunk" at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

My deployment to Iraq in 2009 began with training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  When we arrived, we were assigned rooms.  I was in a four-man room with Sgt. Nickey Smith, Sgt. Miguel Ramirez and another sergeant who was gone in a couple of weeks.

He was the first of four guys who slept in the "cursed" bunk during the two months we were in Fort Sill.  The first guy was quiet and was suddenly gone.  Some paperwork problem and he got sent home.  The next guy spent a night or two and got reassigned somewhere.  

Then came roommate #3, Specialist Big Dude.  I wrote about him in 2009. He was a really good mechanic, a really good shot, and a really hopeless soldier.  He weighed 335 pounds.  He had anger issues, and he watched a Zombie movie EVERY day.  Really!  He was with us for almost a month and every every Big Dude climbed into his bunk and watched a Zombie movie.  Then he would talk to his wife about the Zombie movie she watched.  They seemed to be very much in love, talking every day and comparing Zombie movie notes.  I had no idea there were enough Zombie movies that you could watch a different one every day--forever.  

After a month, Big Dude got sent home. From what he said, it was weight. We never saw the anger issues.  He was a gentle giant around us.  When he left, Spc. Todd Tarbox moved in.  Tarbox knew that "Roomie" was how college roommates sometimes refer each other.  Once Todd moved in, the four of us started yelling "ROOMIE!" when we saw each other.  We kept this up in Iraq and after.  In the hallway of the Aviation Armory in Pennsylvania, I would see Miguel every other month and yell, "ROOMIE!"  

These sergeants were also needling me for being more part of college culture than Army culture.  I had three daughters in college while I was in Iraq.  Roomie was what they said.  

The culture clash between me and my roommates was not limited to Zombie movies.  Nickey liked Anime movies--with his scars and gang tattoos, I would not have guessed Anime would be his favorite movie genre, but he watched Anime on his time off all the way through Fort Sill, Camp Adder and back to Fort Dix.  Miguel liked horror movies.  One morning he watched SAW 5 before breakfast.  Here is the story I wrote at the time.



Spc. Todd Tarbox

Sgt. Miguel Ramirez on the Fort Sill Confidence Course



Sgt. Nickey Smith on the far right, with three other Connecticut soldiers on Camp Adder, Iraq. Sgt. Shawn Adams is to his left.

Sgt. Nickey Smith (right) at Camp Adder, Iraq.  Sgt. Shawn Adams is to his left.





Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Fast Response, Sad Answer: NO!

Today I got three emails from the office of Congressman Joe Pitts.  One had an attachment of more than a dozen pages explaining exactly why I was not eligible for a military retirement.

I knew why.  So I asked again if I could get a waiver of some kind.  The Army gave me an age waiver to get beck in the Army at 54 then gave me a waiver to serve in a war after Age 60 when I volunteered to go to Afghanistan three years ago.

But no waiver for retirement.

I tried.

The Army said no.


Monday, June 13, 2016

Machiavelli on Leadership: The First Principle of Power, Book 13 (part 2) of 2016



Paul Ryan is getting criticized by leaders of his own party and others for being a hypocrite, endorsing Donald Trump while at the same time saying he is a racist.

Whatever else Ryan may be, he is consistent in following the first and central rule in Machiavelli's The Prince: The leader must take power and keep power, without power he can do nothing.

Ryan made it very clear he is endorsing Trump because Trump will sign Ryan's economic agenda and Hillary Clinton would not.  Trump says he will appoint Conservative Supreme Court justices, Clinton will not.

In one odd potential twist on the outcome of the election, some potential scenarios indicate Ryan will be out of power if Trump is crushed in a landslide.  If Ryan is out of power and out of favor as a result of supporting a failed candidate, his economic agenda has no chance at all.  But if Trump wins and has a Republican House and Senate, Speaker Ryan will have the best chance to put the country on a Republican economic plan.

Machiavelli also says a Leader should do what is right when he can, but not when the right thing will cost him his hold on power.

I have a friend with a conscience who is on the leadership team of a large company.  He was reluctant to become a director, but flattered to be promoted. He finds some of his colleagues on the team really nasty people.  "What do you expect?" I asked. "They are climbing the ladder of power.  Why would you be surprised that they would be the most ruthless people in the company?"

The great thing about reading and re-reading Machiavelli is that when I watch the maneuvering of politicians, I have a rational framework to understand who stabs who in the back and why.

Also, reading Machiavelli is like a vaccine for some of the stupidest political ideas that never go away. Currently, there are millions of people who support Donald Trump of Bernie Sanders because they are outsiders.  It would be funny if it were not so pathetic.  The day after anyone is sworn into office they are not an outsider any more.  They are an INSIDER.  Then they will act to keep power.

The same with Term Limits.  No one who has power wants terms limits, at least not for themselves.


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Just Like Dad, Not in a Good Way: 19 Years, No Retirement


On May 3, I was honorably discharged from the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.  I had 19 years and 21 days of service.  At that moment became "Just Like Dad" in a way that my Dad would never have wished on me.  

My father, George Gussman, enlisted in December 1939, at the age of 33 as a private soldier.  He was at the end of his career as a middleweight boxer and a minor league pitcher and decided to enlist.  He was supposed to be discharged in mid-December of 1941, but there were no discharges after December 7.  The next year, the Army sent Dad to Officer Candidate School, partly because he had warehouse experience and partly because he was so old, 36!  Despite leaving school in the 8th grade, Dad studied hard and got commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant.  He commanded a maintenance company of Black soldiers at Camp Shenango, Pa., then a German Prisoner of War Camp in Reading, Pa., during the war.

After the war, Dad served in the Army reserve till 1958 when Senator John F. Kennedy pushed through something called the "Age in Grade" Law.  At 52 years old, with 19 years of service, my father was out without a pension.  He was too old to be a major, so he was out.  Dad was bitter about that for the rest of his life and never voted for a Democrat or a Kennedy for the rest of his life.

I re-enlisted at 54 knowing I did not have enough years to retire, since the age limit for the Army National Guard is 60.  I should have gotten out with 16 years of service in 2013.  But I stayed three extra years and got so close.  

So I asked my Congressman, Joe Pitts to help me out.  What I am asking for is an exception to the 20-year rule.  Whether that means I serve more or get a reduced pension, I thought it was worth trying to get even a partial pension after 19 years.

 So far Department of the Army passed it to National Guard Bureau and they passed it to the Adjutant General of Pennsylvania.  I have gotten a letter from the Pitts staff at each step.  I will post any updates.

My father was denied an appeal.  I will try to have a better result.


Enlistment Extended for the Duration

My father enlisted in the Army in December of 1939.  His enlistment was for just two years.  He was planning to get out in December of 1941.  In a very early version of the infamous Iraq War policy known as "Stop Loss," Dad was "extended for the duration" of the just declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy.

Dad and thousands of other soldiers in the peacetime Army of 1941 remained on active duty until late 1945 or 1946.

Except for Stop Loss the long Iraq and Afghanistan Wars did not stop discharges after a normal enlistment period of three or four years.  It was another way that these terrible wars were so different from World War 2.

By the time the war ended nearly fifteen million Americans were serving uniform.  Soldiers got leave, rotated home, but the rule was everyone served for the duration.

Among the many things wrong with Iraq, Afghanistan and Viet Nam was the partial commitment.  Even though my Dad never left America, he knew he would be serving until all of our enemies surrendered.

The current war could end anytime between next year and 2024.  I hope if we go to war in the future, we will have an enemy and the whole nation will have a part in defeating that enemy.  

The Greek word that is at the root of Patriotism is Patria--patriotism is a fellowship based on love of country.  In World War 2 millions of families had soldiers serving in the war.  Many of those families ate less meat and sugar and used less gas as part of the war effort.  Wars should have a price--so we can decide whether or notr we want to pay that price.