Saturday, January 28, 2017

Band of Brothers: Book and Video


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 27, 2017

Blood and Money: The NATO Alliance


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

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

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

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




Wednesday, January 25, 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And I am happier than I have been for months!

Have a nice day!

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Rommel Effect


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generals decide HOW to fight, not WHO to fight.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Report 2016, Part 6, Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, January 12, 2017

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



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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Obama's Gonna Take Our Guns



With just nine days left till the inauguration of Donald Trump as President, the current President has less than nine days to take away our guns!  He needs to get those black helicopters revved up really soon if he is going to complete the campaign promise that he never said, but "everyone" knows. By everyone, I of course mean the listeners of Alex Jones and Breitbart News. Also Glenn Beck in 2009 and the always reliable rumor monger and current lover of Russia Sean Hannity.  Fox News did not come out and say it, but......

Eight years ago, I was getting ready to go to Iraq.  The inauguration of Barack Obama was just days away and many of the soldiers I would deploy to Iraq with at the end of January 2009 were quite sure "Obama's gonna take away our guns while we are in Iraq."

Those soldiers still have their guns, but they did not leave their conspiracy theories behind when they returned to America. Every few months on training weekend or during annual training in the summer, I would hear an intense conversation about how the confiscation would actually happen.  Sadly, one occasion was the days after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Another was the re-election of the President in 2012.

Part of my military experience from January 1972 to May 2013 has been rumors and conspiracy theories.  I was in the Air Force testing missiles, including the Minuteman missile, during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War when there were rumors that the war would go nuclear while the Israelis were losing. I was in the military when President Nixon stepped down and when Saigon fell. I had just left the military when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan which was supposed to be cover for a Soviet invasion of Europe.

Crazy rumors are just part of the atmosphere of the military. But the "Obama taking our guns" rumor has hung stuck like a barnacle on a battleship. Part of the persistence was the Birther lie pushed by the TEA Party and then by the President Elect.  Alex Jones could already be telling his gullible minions that President Obama will still carry out the confiscation somehow even after leaving office.  Maybe a cabal of Kenyan socialists is waiting and ready in black helicopters......



Sunday, January 8, 2017

Book Report: The Complete List

It's taking so long to write about my books in 2016, I thought I would pass along the complete list by category.

WAR

A Canticle for Leibowitz Miller, Arthur M. Jr.
A Pale View of Hills Ishiguro, Kazuo
An Artist of the Floating World Ishiguro, Kazuo
From the Front Line Grossman, Vassily
Grunt Roach, Mary
Hero of Our Time Lermontov, Mihail
Iliad Homer
Life and Fate Grossman, Vassily
Odyssey Homer
Periodic Table, The Primo, Levi
Sin Prilepin, Zakhar
The Lover Yehoshua, A.B.
The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard's Story Dovlatov, Sergei
When We Were Orphans Ishiguro, Kazuo
Zinky Boys Alexievich, Svetlana


SELF HELP
Elements of Style



Strunk and White
Mastermind:  How to think like Sherlock Holmes Konnikova, Maria
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength Baumeister, Roy F.

SCIENCE
Does Altruism Exist?
Wilson, David Sloan

POLITICS
New Czar: Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin


Myers, Steven Lee
Prince, The Machiavelli, Niccolo
Why I Write
Orwell, George
World Split Apart, A

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander
MEMOIR
Watermark


Brodsky, Joseph

LANGUAGE
English Grammar for Students of Russian


Cruise, Edwina
Russian Verbs of Motion for Intermediate Students Mahota, William
Schuam's Russian Grammar
Levine, James S.
Student Activities Manual for Golosa, Book Two Robin, Richard
Голоса: A Basic Course in Russian, Book Two Robin, Richard

FICTION
A Foreign Woman


Dovlatov, Sergei
Dead Souls Gogol, Nikolai
Eugene Onegin
Pushkin, Alexander
Fathers and Sons Turgenev, Ivan
Hamlet  Shakespeare, William
Il Etait Une Fois 
Savigny, Francois
Lolita
Nabokov, Vladimir
Nocturnes Ishiguro, Kazuo
Notes from Underground Dostoevsky, Fyodor
Oil and Water Lazos, PJ
Russian Short Stories Various
Selected Poems Brodsky, Joseph
Siddhartha Hesse, Hermann
The Death of Ivan Ilych Tolstoy, Leo
День без впанья, A Day Without Lying  Токарева, Виктория

FAITH
Gospel According to Mark, The


Focant, Camille
Laurus Vodolazkin, Eugene
Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer Lewis, C.S.
Mark Beavis, Mary Ann
Narcissus and Goldmund
Hesse, Hermann
New Testament Mark
The Greek New Testament Mark

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Book Report Part 4: Trump and Obama and Machiavelli




On November 8, starting at about 7 p.m., almost 63 million Americans were showing signs of depression and disbelief.  Me included.  As the night went on it became clear that a reality TV star, the most famous avowed racist[1] candidate since George Wallace of Alabama, was going to become the 45th President of the United States.

WTF? 

Almost no one predicted it, even among the 60 million voters who decided “grabbing them by the pussy” was just something a 59-year-old man would say while wearing a microphone.  But Niccolo Machiavelli saw clearly how that Tangerine Tornado would sweep away all opposition and take the most powerful job in the world.

In his most famous book, The Prince, Machiavelli describes what works in politics, not how the world “should be.”  Machiavelli says the Prince (Leader) must “take power and keep power, for without power he can do nothing.”  While the world wondered what Trump really wanted, he kept charging forward and won.  And now he has the power. 

Trump beat 16 Republican opponents in the primaries before beating Hillary Clinton. How did he beat all of them?  Machiavelli says, “If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.” Trump lashed out at his opponents and kept at them until they gave up. Since he could not crush his toughest opponents all at once, he attacked them separately. He made temporary alliances with some, and then crushed them later. 

Ted Cruz fell for this like a bass snapping at bait.  Machiavelli says, “Since love and fear can hardly exist together, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” Trump kept Cruz close with flattery, then crushed.

Trump’s method points to the way he is likely to govern. When Cruz and others on his own side get out of line, he will attack them mercilessly, either by himself, or with his attack dogs at Breitbart, supplied by Steve Bannon.  As President Barack Obama leaves office, it is clear that one of his great failures was trying for years to get the Republicans to work with him.  Obama made deals, then the Republicans would back out or defy him.  Trump will not present his back to be stabbed as Obama did.  Trump may end democracy, but Congress will lose when they challenge him.

Trump told so many outright lies at his campaign rallies that even his most strident critics had trouble keeping track of the outrageous things he said. Yet Trump continued to flourish.  Why?  Men are so simple and yield so readily to the desires of the moment that he who deceives will always find those willing to be deceived,” says the writer of The Prince.

Trump followed exactly one of the warnings from Machiavelli that President Obama flouted.  Machiavelli says that the people’s money should be spent in small amounts with great fanfare. President Obama gave away hundreds of billions of dollars to save the economy from depression in 2009. He took no credit.  Many people who owe their jobs to that bailout have no idea they were part of a government rescue program.  Obama’s people said, “We don’t spike the ball.” Sounds admirable, but the loss of the House, the Senate and many state governorships could have been slowed or avoided by taking credit for the way that money was spent.

When Trump saved several hundred jobs Carrier Corporation was sending to Mexico, he took full credit.  In addition, Trump used money from Indiana taxpayers for part of the package.  Machiavelli said the Prince can and should be generous with other people’s money.

For me, re-reading The Prince every four years allows me to keep score on politicians at every level.  With few exceptions, those that defy the advice of Machiavelli bring themselves down.  Machiavelli says that the Prince who touches the women of his subjects will be despised.  I could see this in the reaction to Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comment.  At the time Trump said it, he was not in a political office.  Trump’s response was to attack Bill Clinton for women he slept with while in office, whether in the White House or the State House in Arkansas. Trump could effectively make the case that he was a private citizen and not subject to the same rules.  And 60 million voters clearly accepted that premise.

At just 68 pages of text, The Prince can read in a few hours and provide fun for a lifetime. 

Next post I will discuss the other political books I read in 2016.



[1] Beginning in 2011, Donald Trump rode the Birther lie to political prominence.  There is no reason to be a Birther except to discredit the President on racial and religious grounds. Every Birther is a racist.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Book Report, Part 3: Books on Faith




The last post was about a book that combined worldwide nuclear war with faith among the few survivors.  It was a bridge of sorts between the 15 books I read about war and the books I read about faith. In this essay, I will discuss seven the books I read in 2016 about faith and religion. 

The first book on faith I read this year was the novel Laurus about a Russian healer and mystic. We follow Laurus from his apprenticeship to a healer near the end of his life, through love and loss, to Laurus finding that he is now a healer himself, a greater healer than his mentor. Then the story takes a long and funny detour. Two thousand miles away, the son of an Italian merchant comes to believe he must travel to rural Russia and find this Laurus in order to know when the end of the world will be.  The Italian goes to Russia, takes Laurus on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the tale takes even stranger twists from there. Laurus is a great story, and a picture of the harrowing reality of a truly spiritual life. 

Which led me to re-read Letters toMalcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C.S. Lewis.  Since I first read Mere Christianity in 1977 in Germany, I have read or re-read at least one of Lewis’ 40 books every year. Reading Laurus made me feel shallower than a pie plate spiritually and Malcolm pointed right at one of my weaknesses. 

In the fall I read four books for an ancient Greek language class. They were (1) The Gospel of Mark in Greek in a recent edition, The Gospel of Mark in English in Richmond Lattimore’s translation, and two commentaries by Michel Focant and Mary Ann Beavis. In Greek, the words of Jesus are at once more harsh and more clear than any English translation could convey.  Jesus turned down every form of power and riches offered Him. He healed and fed the poor. He publically condemned to rich and powerful.

While I read these unambiguous words, millionaire TV preachers notably James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, Jr. endorsed a candidate who brags of sexual conquest, of having riches, power, and fame, and of having no need of forgiveness—the center of the Christian message.  The health and wealth heresy is now mainstream, the public religion of America.  But you can’t find a word of that in Gospels. 

On Wednesday night, I help out with an English as a Second Language (ESL) ministry at my Church.  In one class I asked the students about studying their Holy Books.  One of the students was from India, one from Ethiopia, one from Afghanistan.  They each said it was strange that in America you could “study” the Bible in translation.  In no other religion could someone be considered as studying a Holy Book if they did not know the language of the Book.

I could tell the students the only writer of the New Testament who was a native speaker of Greek was Luke. The other half dozen were GSL (Greek as a Second Language) writers.  And all of the words of Jesus were spoken in Aramaic or Hebrew, so even the Greek New Testament is a translation of the His words.  By the time you read the words of Jesus in English it has been translated twice: once by the Apostle who heard Jesus speak and translated His words to Greek, then a second time when the Greek was translated to English.  I had a co-worker who learned Aramaic before he learned Greek because he wanted to be able to get a sense of what Jesus said in His language.

The last book in the faith group is Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse.  This lovely book follows the life of two young men who are novices in a monastery at the beginning of the story.  One leaves, one stays but their lives remain intertwined until the prodigal comes home and dies in the arms of his life-long friend.  The book really captures the devotion and drive that leads to a life of faith and how that devotion and drive can be turned to art.  This book is in many ways unlike Laurus, but alike in the intense, lifelong and sometimes funny spiritual journey of the main character(s).

The next post will be books on politics.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Report, Part 2, Nuclear War and a Monastery


Before I turn from war to peace, I will add one more book to the war list in which the war is seen only in its effects. That book is A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I re-read for the fourth time this year.  The book is set in the Utah desert in an Abbey hundreds of years after “The Flame Deluge” of the 1960s, a nuclear war. Most of the world was killed. Those that survived had mutant children, the misborn. 

Shortly after the nuclear holocaust, the world turned on the scientists and intellectuals who the survivors believed caused the war.  One of the scientists, before being killed, called the mob “Simpletons.” They took the name as a badge of honor, like the Breitbart followers who embraced being “Deplorables.”  They called themselves “Simpletons from Simpletown.” They burned books as well as killing the learned. They ushered in the “Age of Simplification.”

Some of the survivors started hiding books. The Church hid books in monasteries in the desert.  One of the people who hid books was a nuclear scientist named Isaac Edward Leibowitz.  He was eventually caught and martyred—hung over a burning pile of books.  The Abbey was named for Leibowitz who has been nominated for sainthood when the book opens. 

The book follows life in the Abbey from that time until civilization is reborn. This darkly ironic book is one of my favorites.  With nuclear threats in the air, mistrust of intellectuals common and Deplorables now a moniker for millions, this 1950s book seems sadly contemporary. 

Curl up and wait for the mushroom cloud.  You won’t be disappointed! The New Yorker published a long and thorough review of the book and how it came to be written.



SPQR and America

Senatus Populusque Romanus The Senate and People of Rome Some of the soldiers I served with in Iraq talked about getting an SPQR tat...