Monday, February 27, 2017

Courage and Fear: Weapons for Wives




Five years ago I was eating lunch in the Aviation Armory at Fort Indiantown Gap.  I sat with a Blackhawk helicopter pilot and a Chinook helicopter flight engineer.  Both are Iraq veterans who flew many combat missions. Both are tall, strong men who regularly scored the maximum on the physical fitness test and were very good at their respective jobs.

They both live in rural Central Pennsylvania. The topic of conversation when I sat down was rapid opening cases for automatic pistols.  They were discussing the relative merits of biometric locks versus RFID locks. They were talking about the relative merits of the gun case each had put in their bedroom for themselves and also for their wives while they are away from home.

Both men own more than 20 guns which they keep locked in elaborate gun safes.  But the pistol case was for immediate access in case of a home invasion.  Neither man wanted his young children to have any access to the guns, but did want to be ready to defend their homes and for their wives to have access to the gun in a moment.

 So I asked, "Have you or your family ever been threatened or your home robbed?"

Both answered No.

They kept talking about gun cases and their wives proficiency with weapons. Neither of the wives seemed very interested from what I could gather.

Courage in one area does not displace fear in another.  Both of these men happily went to war.  One of them deployed twice, the other at least three times to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  But they genuinely believe their isolated, rural homes west of the Susquehanna in the middle of Pennsylvania must be defended with high-tech weaponry.  By their own admission, they are defending themselves and their homes from a threat that they have never seen or experienced in their lives.



Saturday, February 25, 2017

Courage and Fear: My Father on Fist Fights and Doctors



The ideal of the courageous person is one who can and will face any threat and pain in any situation with equal grace. That ideal person could go to war, find out they have cancer, or get a root canal with equal and undisturbed equanimity. Senator John Glenn and Major Richard Winters seem the closest to the ideal of hero who is brave in every circumstance.

But most real people don't work that way.

My father was a professional boxer.  Every time he stepped into the ring, he knew he was going to be hurt.  But he climbed between the ropes, raised his hands and got punched by another guy who could hit--hard.  The courage that got him in the ring led him to enlist in the Army and serve through and after World War II.

But he was afraid of doctors and hospitals.  His fear was partly inherited from his Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. For a Jew to enter a Russian hospital in the 19th Century meant they had the most dire illness.

Dad lost that fear of doctors in the last decade of his life when doctors and hospitals became a regular and familiar part of his world. He had a brain tumor removed when he was 66. During the next decade he had colon cancer and related problems, then the kidney cancer that finally took his life at 77. In that last decade of his life he faced surgery and recovery again and again.

On the other hand, there are certainly people who are afraid of nearly everything. Some people are hypochondriac, agoraphobic or so swallowed by fear that they can barely function.  The characters Woody Allen plays are close to the inverse of John Glenn and Dick Winters.

To re-cast a nerd joke:  Courage is non-linear, so is fear.


Friday, February 17, 2017

Russia and America: Destined to Conflict

Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and wrote one of the most important books on America and American politics ever written: Democracy in America. In its nearly 1,000 wonderful pages is Tocqueville's assertion that conflict between America and Russia would dominate the 20th Century. It is not the point of the book at all, but a very French grand prediction about the future, that turned out to be right.

Tocqueville wrote this when America was just 24 states, when Mexico included the territory from Texas to northern California including what is now many of the states of the southwest.  A that time, Russian owned Alaska and a big chuck of western Canada.

In 1831, when Tocqueville visited America, Andrew Jackson was President. America and Russia were both big and crude and isolated when compared with the major European countries, especially as regards slavery.  America enslaved millions of Africans under terms and conditions harsher than any of the Ancient empires.  Russia enslaved more than half of its population. The Russians freed the serfs a year before America freed the slaves, but both countries oppressed the newly freed people in a way that made their lives poor and wretched, but not entirely hopeless.

And in that hope is the permanent conflict that makes America so different than Russia: over the past 240 years, America has steadily moved to give equality to more and more people.  Over the same period, Russia enslaved the majority of its population, granted limited freedom for the years between 1863 and 1917, but then crushed its own people more harshly than most of the worst dictators in history until the communist government fell in 1991. Freedom lasted from 1991 to 2012 when Vladimir Putin returned to power after ruling from 2000 to 2008.  Now press freedom is gone, elections are rigged and political oppression is widespread.

I believe the growing oppression in Russia means that Russia and America cannot be close allies. America makes alliances with oppressive governments, but our closest allies like Great Britain, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea and many NATO states is based on our shared commitment to real democracy and freedom.  For the US to be a close ally of Russia would mean either the US would have to become authoritarian or Russia would have to be as free as America, Britain and Europe.

One strong indicator of the oppression in Russia is the rate at which scientists, artists, writers and journalists have left Russia since 2012. When a regime becomes authoritarian, the smart and creative people leave.  They are always the targets of authoritarian leaders. Many Russians come to America to escape Putin's increasingly oppressive regime. If the Russians stop coming here and go elsewhere in Europe, it will be because they perceive America as tending toward authoritarian government.

We have never been at war with Russia despite nearly a century of open hostility. Until now, the leaders on both sides have managed to keep a lid on the conflict between our nations. But America is not in any way the natural friend of Russia. Our Constitution and government were built on Enlightenment ideals and the best of the governments of Rome and Athens.  Russia by contrast has a history that is a millennium of tyranny with just a few years of freedom. Russia is part of Europe, but never had a Reformation, never had a Renaissance and never had an Enlightenment.

America should keep its democratic allies close and keep Russia at arms length.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Barracks Talk, Locker Room Talk and Old Soldiers


A few short years ago, when I was 59 years old, I was assigned to a field barracks in Northern Michigan with a unit I had never trained or deployed with.  The young men in the barracks were mostly mechanics and mostly under 25 years old.  The barracks was not full so I had a bunk to myself off in a corner.

One evening I was reading in my bunk. Five young men sat in a circle in the middle of the floor and began sharing stories with the topic, "Worst [sex] in my life."

I tried to keep reading but left the building after storyteller really got going.  I could read in the mess hall.  I stayed away for an hour. When I returned they were still going and the group now had eight story tellers.  I went to the duty shack near the airstrip and stayed there for a while. After another hour, they had exhausted their deep well of bad sex, the group broke up, and I returned to my bunk.

On fitness tests and obstacle courses, on the firing range and waiting in long lines, I was just another enlisted man from the day I re-enlisted in 2007 until I was discharged last year.  I trained with the 20-year-olds, suffered in heat and cold with them, marched with them, and joked with them.  But when a group of young men decided to impress each other with stories of their love lives, I was not invited, nor were any of the the other men in the second half of their lives.  I was as old or older than their Dads. Despite their obvious delight in perverse stories, they would have thought it actually perverse if a man my age was bragging about sex.

When I first enlisted an old Air Force Tech Sergeant in my unit who was an alcoholic would occasionally talk about sex in front of the young airmen, but we all thought he was disgusting.  He retired the following year and we thought about having a retirement party the day after he left.

I thought of this last year when America elected a guy who at 59 years old bragged to a 33 year old about grabbing pussy.  His defenders said this was just "locker room talk." It is, but not for men at the end of their sixth decade of life.  No soldier near my age in a 40-man room in a field barracks or a 77-man tent in Kuwait ever spoke that way.

He is President now, but the way he spoke on that Access Hollywood bus was not locker room talk.  It was not barracks talk. It was an arrogant old man bragging to a man half his age.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Volunteer Army Consolidated Mess

Consolidate Mess line, or German prisoners marching out of Stalingrad?

In almost every way, I liked the draft Army and the Cold War Army better than the 21st Century Army, but that is not true of food.  More specifically, that is not true of the way the food was served at Fort Carson, Colorado, in 1975-76: The Consolidated Mess!

In the consolidated mess, up to 4,000 soldiers were expected to eat lunch and return to their duty—which meant eating lunch in two minutes or just skipping lunch altogether.  The cost cutting wizard who decided to subject an entire brigade to the rotten routine for food delivery should spend a thousand years in Purgatory in a metal pan on steam table—stuck and burned on the bottom, cold and squishy on top. 

My father was a company commander in World War II.  The mess sergeant worked for him and cooked the food for his men.  That mess sergeant worked for his commander, not for a faceless Army bureaucracy.  One odd thing about the consolidated mess operation is that we all came to appreciate our own mess sergeant and the battalion mess.  When we went to the field, our mess sergeant fed us. It was the same when moved en masse to West Germany for Brigade 76.  The food in the field was from a battalion kitchen with our mess sergeant making and delivering our food. 


But the best food I ever ate in the military was in Iraq. So I have to give the modern Army that. MREs are ten times better than C-rations and the food on Camp Adder was the best I ever had in the Army.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

One Last Haircut: World War II Vet Shares a Story After Forty Years


Elias King learned to cut hair while serving as a gunner’s mate on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II.  When I met him in 1982, he was planning to retire and sell his barbershop.  After getting my hair cut a couple of times in his shop, I could not believe Elias would ever retire. In the days before talk radio, he was the local source for the true conservatives that were the core clientele of his shop. 

He was loud and funny and had opinions that the John Birch Society might think were too far right.  He did not think women should work outside the home unless they were widows and their families abandoned them.  For Elias, the Soviet Union was the enemy, forever. America needed to stop them everywhere. 

I got a hair cut there once a month just before my Army Reserve weekends.  I was close to thirty years old at the time, and by age, any of the customers and barbers could have been my Dad.  Elias liked me because I served during the Vietnam War, then Cold War West Germany and was a tank commander in the Army Reserve. “Too many young cowards won’t serve the country anymore,” he said.

King was against divorce and sex outside marriage in any way.  He was against welfare, government programs, government regulations, and he knew the federal income tax would destroy the country.  But he was also self-deprecating and funny when he stepped off his conservative soapbox. 

In May 1984, I came in for a haircut just before the shop closed.  I told Elias it would be my last haircut for a while because I was leaving the Army Reserve.  I did not tell him I was going to grow a beard and let my hair grow out. He was about to close up, which he did promptly at six because, “Mother (his wife) has dinner ready.” But he stayed to give me the haircut.

He told the other barber he could go. It was just Elias and me. Before he started cutting my hair he turned the barber chair so it faced away from the mirror instead of toward it. He was talking, but I could not see his face. He had never talked about the war before, but today he started talking about fighting off air attacks at Leyte Gulf and what it was like when his ship got hit.  But then he abruptly switched to talking about a long Pacific cruise to visit liberated allied ports just after the end of the war.

“I do believe the things I say about marriage,” he said. “But that cruise was the best days of my life.”

He said they stopped at Singapore and “Mamasan was waiting at the bottom of the gangway. She had a baby on her back and would suck your dick for four bits (50 cents).” He described wild sex with women across Asia. “I love the wife, but even when she was young, she was not…” he stopped talking. The scissors stopped.  “I never strayed once, young fella,” he said.  “Near forty years, I still think about that cruise.”

After he finished my haircut he started sweeping up. I took out my wallet. He waved me off. I thanked him. It was years before I saw him again. He was retired. I saw him outside the shop. I stopped and said hello, but am not quite sure he recognized me.  I liked Elias King.  He died a few years ago. There was a big obituary about him in his local paper. It mentioned his war service and the victory cruise after the war. “…the best days of my life,” said the young gunner’s mate who learned how to cut hair.


[Elias King is a pseudonym]

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"...No Time for That, Gussman:" Book Report 2016, Fiction


Lt. Col. Scott Perry, Blackhawk Pilot, Battalion Commander, in Iraq, 2009

In December of 2009 Scott Perry, my battalion commander, burst into my office in his headquarters.  He was sending me on a mission the next day. When he finished the instructions he gave me, he looked down and saw a copy of "Aeneid" on my desk. We had a brief exchange that shows why fiction dropped from its high place in the world to its niche place in the busy, media-saturated world of the 21st Century.

"I've got no time for that Gussman," Perry said. "I've got so much to read, I just don't read fiction."

I knew that night the officers were having a movie night. So I asked him, "Which documentary are you watching tonight?"

"Documentary?" he said. "What are you talking about. We're watching Godfather, Part 2."

"You mean you watch fiction, you just don't read it."

"Shut up Gussman. Be on the ramp tomorrow at Zero Seven."

Most people stop reading fiction with the last book they were assigned in school, whether that was high school or college.  Fifty or more years ago, fiction writing provided entertainment for many people, but it movies, TV and digital games are eating away at the place of fiction in the world of entertainment.

But not on my booklist.  The category I will comment on for this post includes 15 of the 50 books I read last year. Although, 14 of the 15 books I listed in the "War" category are fiction and 3 of the 6 "Faith" books are fiction.  So really, 32 of 50 books, or 2 out of 3, are fiction.

Just to stay with the numbers, 10 of the 15 in this category were written in Russian or by a Russian-born author in English, so I have lately been more than a little obsessed with Russia and Russian literature.

My favorite story on this list "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Leo Tolstoy should have been on the Faith list, at least for its effect on me.

This wrenching story begins with the announcement "Ivan Ilych is dead" then moves back to the time just before Ilych becomes fatally ill. As fiction the story is wonderfully told. As faith literature, it says a life devoted to material gain is pathetic. But many stories say that. The real beauty is in the character of Ivan Ilych's servant Gerasim. The good man Gerasim cares for his master while Ivan's wife and daughter go on with their lives and Ivan's friends go on with theirs.  Then there is the final agony Ivan suffers going from this life to the next.  From the first time I read this, I felt I could understand how suffering could be used for good and why we humans are never allowed to see beyond this life.

Another view of the spiritual life was Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.  This fast moving story follows the main character from the day he defied his father, denied his fortune and struck out on his own, through many adventures, poverty, riches, deep love, self loathing and finally throwing off materialism.  I could have put this book in the Faith category also, but it was more of an adventure that happened to be concerned with the spiritual, than a spiritual journey that was an adventure--as was Narcissus and Goldmund.

Early in the year I read Lolita. I had never read a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, only essays.  The story is obsession from beginning to end, played out in kidnapping, murder and a wretched end for the protagonist.  It is beautifully written and in its own way as creepy as a horror novel.

Hamlet is my Shakespeare for 2016.  I can't remember how many times I have read, seen and listened to this play.  Ophelia's death hurts every time; the slaughter at the end never bothers me the same way.  But my favorite scene is the speech to the skull, "...alas poor Yurick...."

Turning to Russia, is the beautiful novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which is where I will begin next post.

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