Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Russian Soldiers/Mothers/Wives Talk About Afghan War


I left the U.S. Army in November of 1979, discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey, after 6-1/2 years of active duty service.  From 1976 to 1979 I was a tank commander in West Germany, waiting for a war that never happened in Cold War Europe.

Less than a month after I got out, the Cold War got hotter when all NATO forces in Europe went on high alert because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. There were worries at the time that this invasion was a feint and the Soviets were about to invade western Europe.  Neither the Soviets or NATO could know the Afghan War would help to bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet War in Afghanistan lasted ten years and became their Vietnam War.  After ten long years, 50,000 dead and hundreds of thousands more wounded the Soviet Union lost that war, as we did the Vietnam War.

The similarities go sadly further.  In her book Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghan War, Svetlana Alexievich publishes interviews with soldiers, mothers, wives, civilian employees, doctors and nurses who served in that horrible war.

"Zinky" refers to the sealed zinc-coated coffins that dead soldiers came home in.  For years the Soviets denied their was a war. Coffins were buried sealed and families were not told how their soldier died.

Alexievich chronicles their experience of war and their return to civilian life.  The "Afghansi" like Vietnam War veterans here were shunned by many people.  They were not consider "worthy" by some veterans organizations, just as Vietnam veterans were considered something different than World War II vets.

Despite everything that was wrong with the war, some of the veterans said, "If I did not go someone else would have to go in my place."  This statement occurred several times in the words of mothers remembering their sons saying this to try to explain why they were going--to their death. According to Alexievich, some men accepted the draft, some were eager to go, some celebrated when a medical problem made them unfit, some bought their way out.  But over and over again were the words, "someone else would have to go."

The book is painful to read.  In fact it is sad even among Russian books.  But it is refreshingly honest. Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in literature last year for the kind of reporting in this book.  She is most famous for interviewing hundreds of victims of Chernobyl.

The nine presidents from Colonel Harry S. Truman, Army artillery officer, to Lt. JG George H.W. Bush, fighter pilot, were all veterans.  John Kennedy and Bush, decorated veterans of direct combat, and Dwight Eisenhower with a long military career culminating in the liberation of western Europe.  No veterans since Bush 41.




Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Proud Draft Dodgers Can Now Sneer at Veterans


I was going to write a different post about working with draft dodgers throughout my professional life from the mid 80s to 2015. During that time, draft dodgers who I worked with were deferential to me or avoided me. Because the men I worked with in multi-national companies, especially energy companies, did not serve, but were Conservatives.  Although it was only my word, I began to think of them as NeverServatives.  Some changed their political allegiance with the election of Ronald Reagan, some were always Conservatives, like Dick Cheney who famously said he had better things to do than serving in the Vietnam War.

But this evening a man driving a black Lexus like the one above parked in front of a local Starbucks in a way that blocked both the handicap ramp in the sidewalk and the fire hydrant.  The arrogant SOB at the wheel of this expensive car jumped as much as a 250+pound man can from a drivers seat when I pointed out the error of his ways.  He was belligerent and said he would knock me into next week, I laughed, told him to take a shot, and then called him a plus-size coward in Army language for blustering and backing off.  I was wearing an Army workout jacket and jeans.

He was very well dressed and said my clothes were out of style--a very schoolyard insult for a 65-year-old rich guy.  I said, "Army is out of style?"  He said, "What are you some kind of local Guardsman or something?"  I realized the way he said it, that he was a draft dodger and thought of the Army National Guard as a way to avoid war, the way it was during the Vietnam War.  Looking in his face, I saw a look I had not seen since the Vietnam War. This draft dodger is now vindicated, at least in his own mind.  When Bill Clinton was elected despite begging to get out of the draft, the Conservatives roasted him--with a huge helping of hypocrisy since they were mostly draft dodgers themselves.

But now draft dodging is "ancient history." The President Elect got elected after bragging about dodging the draft.

Draft dodgers wife returned to the car and they left.

Most of the soldiers I served with in our current wars take for granted that the public is pro-military. But now that someone who sneered at draftees will be in the White House, the military could drop in prestige.  Trump has already trashed Prisoners of War.  Every soldier is a government employee so cutting the size of the military would reduce spending.

When the rich, powerful men who dodged the draft are free from guilt for letting another man serve in their place, then Vietnam Veterans will be Losers again, and the veterans of our recent wars will not be far behind.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Who WILL Fight Our Wars? People of Color


My youngest son Nigel is a very proud member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) chapter at McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pa.  We went to a military ball on Friday night for his chapter and two other chapters in nearby York and Reading.

More than 100 students and their families attended the event which concluded with a really tough drill and ceremonies competition.  Looking around that room, I saw mostly Hispanic boys and girls. Of the 100 or so students, about 75 were Hispanic, 15 were African-American, 8 were Asian and two were white.

These students are training to get a head start into College ROTC programs and become military officers.  Nigel said ten of the students in his chapter are Hispanic, three are African-American and three are from Nepal.  No white kids.  There are three girls in the program, all Hispanic.

At both ends of my career, during the Vietnam War and in Iraq, the active duty military is overrepresented with Hispanics and other immigrant groups and African-Americans.  During the Vietnam War this was the natural result of rich white kids getting deferments while brown kids went in their place.  In a volunteer military, combat service is a fast track to citizenship, or a to job training and college.

Since the Vietnam War and draft dodging became the norm for those with enough money, the American military has had more men and women of color than the population in general.  My son's JROTC program shows the trend is continuing.

The young people at the military ball are tomorrow's military leaders.




Saturday, December 17, 2016

Three Books About Before and After War by Kazuo Ishiguro


[I am reposting this essay because some ten of my posts are getting odd traffic. Just an experiment.]



This summer I have read three more books by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I have just two books to go to read all of his seven novels and a collection of short stories. 

The first novel I read, and still my favorite, is "The Remains of the Day." Like the novels I will talk about below, it is about life in the years before and after World War II.  We see the world change and we see the effects when great men make great mistakes in all of these novels.

In the three novels I read recently, World War II is in the background, but we see very little fighting.  We see lives changed, relationships made and ruined and the horror of war lurking somewhere just beyond the page. 

Ishiguro's first novel,"A Pale View of Hills," is set in Nagasaki just after the War.  The narrator is Etsuko, a young woman who has a troubled friend who is a single mother.  The narrator eventually marries, has children, divorces and moves to England.  The single mother, Sachiko, is erratic and Sachiko's daughter, Mariko, is very strange.

Occasionally characters in the story mention that some part of Nagasaki is looking more lovely than ever.  No one says Nuclear Blast Site, but the park or garden they praise not so long before was the site of the single biggest bomb blast in World War II.  The people of Nagasaki are trying to restore their lives under American occupation and with an invisible hazard no one really understands. 

Was the troubled child a radiation victim? Did the narrator's daughter eventually commit suicide as an adult because of being born in Nagasaki just after the war?  Losing the War, the Bomb, and American Occupation haunt the narrative and deepen the tragedy of this beautifully told story.

The second novel is "An Artist of the Floating World" The first-person narrator is an aging artist named Masuji Ono. The story is set in post-war Japan in an unnamed city.  We hear the story of Ono's life in his memories and through conversations he has with old colleagues and with his family, especially his daughters. 

Ono started as a commercial artist churning out paintings for sale to tourists.  He eventually finds a "master" and spends several years with an artist who paints the pleasure world of Imperial Japan--Geishas and the places they work.  As the war nears, Ono becomes political and is rejected by his master.  Before and during the war, Ono's propaganda paintings have a wide audience, but in the Japan of democracy and US Occupation, Ono hides his paintings and his past.  Again, the war is not at the center but hovers everywhere in the background.  The "Floating World" of the title is the euphemism for the pleasure zones where men gathered for drink and games and women.   

The third book is "When We Were Orphans," is a detective novel set in Shanghai in the years before and after World War II.  We follow the narrator, Christopher Banks, from his childhood in Shanghai in the 1920s through the 1950s and the resolution of the mystery.

Christopher is the child of English expatriates working and living in Shanghai. His best friend is a Japanese boy, Akira, whose family is also in the expatriate community in pre-war Shanghai.  When Christopher is nine, his parents disappear, first his father, then his mother.  Christopher goes to England to live with relatives and grows up to become a great detective.  On the eve of World War II, Christopher returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery of his parents disappearances. 

Through Christopher Banks we see China torn by the communists and the nationalists and the horrible atrocities committed by both.  We also see the beginnings of the Japanese invasion. The return of Akira to the story was the most implausible moment of an otherwise brilliant book. 

As with "The Remains of the Day" each of these books present the atmosphere of the period before and following World War II from a very different perspective.  For people like me who are interested in war and its effect on history, these books show how profoundly wars change the lives of those who survive the war, especially those on the losing side.   

Monday, December 12, 2016

Recruiter Update and ASVAB Scores are No Help for Old Men


On Friday last week, I visited Army National Guard Recruiter SFC Doug Kicklighter.  We were talking about one of my sons possibly joining the Army.  Doug also let me know that I had mixed apples and oranges on the scores I used in my previous post on drill sergeants and recruiters.

A recruit must have and AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test) score of 31 or better to enlist.  But that score is on a 99-point scale.  I said it was on a 160-point scale like all the individual scores on the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery).  So the 31-point minimum is out of a possible 99, not 160.

Of the ten scores that make up the ASVAB, the one most often referred to is the GT (General Technical) score.

A GT score of 110 or above allows a soldier to qualify for any job in the Army.

I took the ASVAB test on April 18, 2007, to re-enlist after a 23-year break in service. I was 54 years old.  When I finished the test at MEPS (Military Enlistment Processing Station) in Mechanicsburg, the Navy Chief overseeing the computer-based test stood up and shook my hand.  He congratulated me and said, "You have the highest score of the year so far. These kids here right out of school can barely pass and here you are, a man your a.......I mean a gentleman like yourself outscores all these kids."

A few minutes later he walked over to me and said, "You know Mr. Gussman, with a GT score of 141 and an AFQT of 99 you qualify for just about any school the military offers."  Then he smiled and said, "But at your age there ain't any schools will take you. Good luck.  Damn good job."

He shook my hand again.

Age discrimination is legal in the Army.


Monday, December 5, 2016

Drill Sergeants and Recruiters: Enemies Forever!


Drill Sergeants and Recruiters:  Enemies Forever!

In popular culture around the world, drill sergeants or training sergeants are powerful and terrifying. 

Recruiting sergeants, on the other hand, are the sales reps of the military: deceptive, pliable, apt to promise much and deliver little. 

These two types of sergeants are in permanent conflict, but the real power, surprisingly, is on the side of the smiling recruiter, not the screaming drill sergeant. 

The job of recruiters is to fulfill their quota of new soldiers, the raw material the drill sergeant then turns them into the soldiers who will be the army for the months and years to come.  

For the drill sergeant to do the best job, the recruiter should entice fit, smart, eager, aggressive teenagers well brought up by loving parents.  These new soldiers will be mentally and physically ready to become the best soldiers on the planet, striving with each other to be the best at running, shooting, studying, cleaning and crawling through the mud.

This ideal situation very occasionally happens, such as in the first months after America declared war on Japan and Germany in 1941.  Many of the best young men in country from the very poor to the very rich signed up before they were drafted.  Those drafted, for the most part, did not resist the draft and these brave young men defeated Germany and Japan within less than four years.

Take away the draft and the recruiter has to entice soldiers to enlist.  In an eternal truth of military recruiting in free countries, the better the economy, the harder the recruiter’s job.  Currently, the U.S. economy is good enough that the military is advertising enlistment bonuses.  I read an article earlier this year about the Army relaxing height and weight standards and adding more training to slim overweight soldiers down.  On Facebook recently, I saw a recruiter passing the word that if you did not pass the aptitude test, contact him, there may be a waiver.

For recruiters, the lower standards are, the more bodies they get in the bus for basic training.  

Drill sergeants then have to take whoever steps off the bus and turn them into soldiers.  Lower standards mean they spend more time trying push the bad soldiers up to the level of barely acceptable when they could be making the good soldiers better.  

When I re-enlisted at age 54 in 2007, the Army raised its maximum enlistment age from 35 to 42, which meant I could get back in with eleven years prior service and a one-year waiver.  By 2010, the Army changed the age back to 35.  It turns out enlisting over 40 does not work out for most people.  

At the same time, the Army relaxed some of its education, aptitude and criminal standards because recruiting was so difficult in the good economy of 2007.  By 2010, the economy sucked and recruiting was easier.  

When recruiters met their quotas with old and less qualified recruits, the drill sergeants had to deal with pushing people who should not be there through their training schedule.

Eventually, lower standards entering the military mean lower standards in the military.  When my Army National Guard unit mobilized for Iraq 40% of the soldiers flunked the fitness test.  That is crazy.

When I saw that the Army might accept lower aptitude scores, that was really scary.  The cut-off score now is 31 on a scale of 160.  The aptitude score roughly correlates with IQ scores.  Can 31 really be acceptable? Can LOWER than 31 be acceptable?  I don't think so.  


Saturday, December 3, 2016

Does the Economy Suck? My Army/Civilian Pay Comparison Says YES!


In the early 1983, I was a 30-year-old Army Reserve tank commander and a dock worker at Yellow Freight Systems in Lancaster, Pa.  For a drill weekend, I earned $180.  At Yellow Freight I earned $12/hour with full medical, dental and even retirement if I had stayed longer.

Thirty years later in 2013, I was an Army National Guard sergeant and earned $360 for a drill weekend.  My Army pay had doubled.  Yellow Freight's Lancaster terminal closed years ago.  But similar work in the Lancaster area pays $12/hour with fewer or no benefits.

In the 1980s, major trucking companies employed thousands of workers to transfer freight from one truck to another.  Computers now consolidate freight in a way that needs far less handling and far fewer workers.

Most of the soldiers I served with in the 68th Armor in 1983 had blue collar jobs and earned a decent living, as I did, with their hands and backs.

Many of the soldiers I served with in the Army National Guard 30 years later were unemployed or underemployed. Some had volunteered for multiple deployments to get a year of full-time benefits and full-time pay.

By 1985, I had finished college and had a white collar job at Godfrey Advertising.  I think the economy has been nothing but wonderful all of my life.  I made a $1.60/hour for my first full-time job selling toys at Sears in Burlington, Mass.  When I enlisted in the Army, I earned $283/month.  By the time I left active duty in 1979 as a sergeant, my base pay was $5,000/year.  When I was in Iraq in 2009 my pay at the same rank had almost quadrupled.

When I started at Godfrey Advertising I was making just under $20,000/year. Twenty years later I was a consultant with a six-figure income.

But the blue collar workers I worked with before I entered the professional world are making the same or less now than they did in the 80s, and with less job security.  In the middle of the 20th century into the 80s, the American economy allowed almost everybody to make a living.  Today's economy is skewed to the educated.

When I got back from Iraq in 2010, the state of Pennsylvania gave every returning soldier six months of medical care.  They did it because half the soldiers returning from deployment had no medical coverage when they left active duty.

Capitalism pays for what it values.  It is clear that 21st century America does not value blue collar workers.  

Friday, December 2, 2016

Deer Pays Tuition for a Semester at Penn State

1976 Chrysler Newport, 2-door with 400 CI V8 engine.

The first deer I killed in Pennsylvania payed a full semester's tuition for me at Penn State Harrisburg.

When I left the Army in 1979, I needed a car.  High gas prices made gas guzzler used cars ridiculously cheap.  So I bought the car in the picture above for $800.  This 22-foot-long, six-passenger car got 9 milers per gallon in town, maybe 17 on the highway at 55mph on cruise control.

A year after I bought it, I was driving north on PA Route 230 at night when a deer jumped from the side of the road into the path of my two-ton car.  The white-tailed doe flipped into the air.

I stopped as fast as I could and walked back to the carcass.  Within a minute, a blue pickup truck pulled of the road and stopped ten feet from the deer and I.  Two big guys in coveralls got out.  They looked at the deer, looked at me and said, "You want that?"

"No," I said.

The one on the right picked up the deer, carried it to the bed of the truck and tossed it in.  The guy on the left nodded, walked back to the truck, climbed in, and they drove away.

The next morning I took the car to the local Chrysler dealer.  They gave me an estimate for $710 for cracked plastic and chrome on the right side, plus a damaged headlight mount.  Insurance pays in full for collisions with deer.  I replaced and aimed the headlight, used duct tape to repair the body damage, and used the insurance money to pay for most of my $850 tuition the following trimester.

You could say I paid deerly.......