Tag: #politics

Indoctrination.

Or entertainment?

Well, here we go again.  Yet another retrospective on a film I saw while trapped, eyes wide open, on the flight to Greece last spring.  It was the wildly popular and critically acclaimed, The Shape of Water.  The possessor of the ultimate in Hollywood’s Good Housekeeping Seal of PC approval, it won Best Picture at the 2018 Academy Awards.  Not to mention cleaning up in a bunch of other categories.

Oh, that I could have slept.  Or, with apologies to Mrs. Browning, How do I dislike thee?  Let me count the ways.”

Creative?  Or an assemblage of weary PC tropes?

For the few of you that may have missed it, the story revolves around a sexually intimate relationship between a young, mute cleaning woman, Elisa, and a lizard like sea creature.  Only in Hollywood.

But, I have to confess, right off the bat, that I’ve probably made my first mistake.   Bestiality probably isn’t a weary Hollywood stereotype.  Yet.  But give it time.  With the success of Shape, who knows what kinky delights show biz, even now, is conjuring up for us?

The really bad guys.

As everyone knows, a gang of bad guys is de rigueur in a red blooded Hollywood production.  And, in the case of Shape, the gang is-horror of horrors- a 1950’s era nuclear family:  husband, wife and a couple of kids.  And believe me, there’s plenty not to like about the Strickand family.

The husband, an Army Colonel, is a knuckle dragging Cold Warrior whose preferred method of “interrogating” the sea creature is chaining him up and poking him with a cattle prod.   Now, if you’ve followed this blog at all, you know I’m no fan of our bloated military:  here and here.  But the depiction of Strictland’s character is nothing more than a one dimensional caricature of the villain in a black hat.

The wife?  A ’50’s era house wife whose bouffant hairdo matches her empty head.  And the chubby, boob tube watching kids?  Put it this way:  the world would be a be a better place if these brats were both unseen and unheard.

But the most serious charge against the Strickland mob? They’re heterosexual.  And exemplars of “white privilege”.  So, in the all seeing eye of Hollywood, there’s no need for a trial: the entire gang is guilty by definition.

And the good guys?

No, that’s not a trick question.  It’s as easy as is seems.  Figure out who the bad guys are.   And then look for their opposites.

In père Strickland’s case, it’s Giles, the sensitive, oppressed homosexual who helps Elisa free her sea creature lover from the clutches of Colonel Strickland.

And the antipode of Strickland’s wife?  The sensitive, oppressed black cleaning lady who joins forces with Elisa to let my sea creature go“.

I like movies.  Just not this movie.

As you’ve gathered by now, I watch quite a few movies.  Most often Netflix choices while I’m working out on the elliptical in our basement.  Movies are among the most transparent windows into our culture that are available to us.  But the movies that I usually favor tend to be years, even decades, old.  Give me Hollywood’s Golden Era almost every time.  And movies made during the Golden Era are, perhaps, most revealing in showing how far Hollywood has fallen.

And Shape is, indeed, transparent.  Transparent in its distortion of institutions like marriage and family that have served as the bedrock of civilization for millennia.  Transparent in its contempt for the regard that most Americans still, at least in theory, have for these institutions.  And, therefore, transparent in its contempt for most of its audience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Decline And Fall

750x450 northern lights

North To Alaska!  I’m goin’ north, the rush is on.

In fall of 1975, after graduating from CU Boulder with a European history degree, I headed North to Alaska to find my fortune.

An intrepid friend of mine, Jimmy Gray, had done it.  A few years before, he’d gone to Alaska’s North Slope and gotten a job working on the oil pipeline.  Like everyone, I knew the working conditions were brutal:  long hours, isolation, frigid temperatures. But, working on the pipeline paid more than almost anything else someone like me could do.  And, if you didn’t blow it, in a year or two you could have a sizable nest egg.

And, that’s what Jim did: his few years on the pipeline gave him a financial kick start on life.

But, for me, no dice.  By the time I got to Anchorage, for every unskilled job opening on the pipeline, there were at least 10 applicants cooling their heels in the union hiring hall waiting for a call that never came.

So, I went to plan B.  First, driving bus for the Anchorage school district.  And then, when school let out, driving taxi around Anchorage during the night shift-it was still dark at night when I first got to town.

The land of the midnight sun.

500x600 decline fall

Ever tried to work the night shift and then sleep during the day?  It isn’t easy; if I got five hours of sleep after driving taxi for twelve hours at night, I felt lucky.

So, I had plenty of time to read.  And I spent most of that time reading the second volume of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  It’d belonged to my dad; his neat, cursive signature is still just inside the cover of both volumes.

Originally published about the time of the American Revolution, the book spans centuries and thousands of pages.  While modern scholars may quibble that it’s outdated, to a babe in the woods of history like me, it was a work of astonishing scholarship.

The man on the white horse.

At this point, decades on, do I remember much of what was in those thousands of pages? Not really.

But I do remember this much: the vaunted Roman Legions, which had originally conquered most of the known world during the time of the Republic, played a big part in bringing down the Empire.  Why?  Because the Legionnaires and their generals that had started out being the servants of the Republic wound up being the corrupt and cruel masters of the Empire.  They were better at court intrigue than at keeping the barbarians at bay.  Again and again, they made and unmade emperors. Sometimes in a matter of days; 193 AD is known as The Year of the Five Emperors.

And the very size of the empire became it’s Achilles heel.  With a frontier that stretched over thousands of miles and three continents, border incursions and wars were never ending.

History repeating itself.  Except on steroids.

Now, the American empire dwarfs the Roman empire.  And we suffer from many of the same distempers.

In eastern Europe we poke the nuclear armed Russian bear by pushing NATO right up to the Russian border.  In the South China Sea, rather than minding our own business, we delight in bearding nuclear armed China.  And this is not to mention our perpetual wars in the Middle East.

But, astonishingly, our own southern border remains a leaky sieve to a region rife with drugs and the murderous gang warfare that has left nearly 300,000 dead.  And anyone who has the temerity to suggest that the border be walled off is “racist”.

But did you see the news?  Trump is pulling US troops out of Syria.  Now, if he could just man up and do the same in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Those tribal, dark-age regions have been at war with one another for millennia.  And there’s nothing we can do to stop it.  So, yes, Virginia, I guess there is a Santa Claus.

For the love of money.  Blood money.

Our enormous military establishment has very little to do with national security.  And much more to do with money.  We spend more on arms than the next seven nations combined-several of whom are our allies.

And now the military is proposing that we spend morelots more.  Enough so that we can not only continue, indefinitely, to fight the low intensity wars in the Middle East that have become back page news.  But also to “rearm” to fight major conflicts against countries like Russia and China.

So, the defense contractors and their lobbyists will be on easy street.  As will the generals and admirals.  And their obedient political pets in the US House and Senate.

But what happens if we, the people, dare try to turn off the spigots?  Who knows?  But when a general on a white horse-or tank-comes riding into Washington, DC demanding that the gravy train start rolling again, don’t say you weren’t warned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just because we can . . . does it mean we should?

The Island of Dr. Moreau

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Ever heard of vivisection?  It comes from Latin words meaning “alive” and “cutting.”  It’s the practice, in other words, of cutting living creatures.  Sounds pretty creepy.  And for that reason, the term’s largely fallen out of use.

But the word can also refer to what many of us have experienced as the beneficial effects of surgery.  What, after all, is surgery except “cutting” on “living” creatures?

But when H.G. Wells uses the term in his unsettling, 1896 science fiction novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, vivisection takes on a much more sinister meaning.   At it’s most basic level, the story describes Moreau using vivisection in a series of cruel experiments to “uplift” animals to something approaching a “human” state.  In other words, changing a creature into something it wasn’t meant to be, something unnatural.

Now, Before Our Very Eyes . . .

Vivisection is back in the news.  And, for our purposes, high school sports.  Articles and reports abound (here and here) about males “deciding” they’re females.  And then going out and cleaning up in sporting competitions against real females.

It’s true, for a number of reasons, most of these male to female “reassignments” don’t involve surgery.  First, surgery’s expensive (up to $50,000 and not typically covered by insurance).  It also looks pretty gruesome-but, to be fair, to an untrained eye like mine, most surgeries probably look about the same.  Nonetheless, in 2016 there were about 1,500 male to female surgeries.

Chemical reassignment via hormones is probably more common-but the changes are less comprehensive, limited to things like muscle mass and facial hair.

The Sports Problem.

750x450 girls soccer silhouette

My problem with all this “gender reassignment,” at least in regards to high school sports, is that I don’t want my granddaughters to be forced to compete against what are really someone’s grandsons.  Like this state champion track star who if, with “her” square jaw and mustache, is a “girl,” then I’m a monkey’s uncle.

If my granddaughters take after their parents, they are likely to enjoy sports.  But to throw them in against boys, who are naturally bigger and stronger, in sports like soccer, lacrosse, and track isn’t just unfair.  It’s dangerous.

And it becomes outrageous when kids, whose birth certificate identifies them as a “male” can simply, on their own say so, declare themselves “females.”  To what end?  So they  can compete on a playing field that’s not just tilted?  But pitching wildly.  And then perpetuate the fraud by scooping up college scholarships which, under Title IX, are intended to be awarded to women?  (Don’t get me wrong-I’m not a big fan of Title IX. It’s resulted in the elimination of some 400 college sports programs that mainly attracted men.  That is, real men.)

Which makes me wonder:  how’s the #metoo movement going to handle this ploy to make women go to the back of the bus?

The Conceit Of The Far Left.  And Right.

The 20th century was the bloodiest in history.  Millions died at the hands of governments in the grip of savage ideologies which were determined to remake human nature in their own, brutal image.  The Nazi’s Übermensch.  The Soviet’s New Man.  The penalty for failing to fit the mold?  Death.  On a mass scale.  Thankfully, though the cost in blood and treasure was high, those cruel idols were overthrown.

However, now, well on into the 21st century, it seems the lesson of the impossibility and undesirability of fundamentally reshaping human nature has yet to be learned.  Except, this time, rather than concentration camps, gas chambers, and the Two Minutes’ Hate, individuals are remaking themselves. With vivisection.  Or chemicals.  Or the bare assertion that they are what they aren’t.

But It Doesn’t Stop There.

Did you see this story?  If you accept it, North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-Un, has spent billions attempting to clone an army of “super soldiers who will obey his every command.”  The article goes on to say that the hermit nation has a long history of human cloning experimentation.  Kim is also trying to insure his own immortality by cloning himself.

And Kim isn’t alone in the pursuit of super soldiers.  It’s an arms race that many, much more “advanced” nations, including ours, are engaged in.

And you thought Dr. Moreau was crazy.

So, just because we can, does it mean we should?  And even if “we” decide we shouldn’t, how do we keep this genie in the bottle if the “we” doesn’t include us all?  Will my grandchildren be forced to compete against “super” kids not just for athletic prizes?  But also for places in college?  And the work force?

Or, God forbid, on the battlefield?

Gimme Shelter.

Sunset photo of Colorado State Capital buildingProject Sanctuary At The Winding River Ranch.

Rand Case.  Now there’s a name you don’t hear everyday.  And neither had I until I met Rand during my last door to door campaign for the Colorado House about four years ago.

Of course, after doing it thousands of times, I pretty much had my line of front porch patter down cold:  small business owner, Colorado native, all three kids graduates of Cherry Creek schools, a son that served eight years on submarines.  Something, almost invariably, made a connection.

In Rand’s case, it was the Navy and submarines:  he’s a graduate of the Naval Academy. And served on subs.  And, for good measure, he’s also a Colorado native: grew up in the profoundly land locked little tourist town of Grandby, just south of Rocky Mountain National Park and west of some of the most rugged peaks on the Continental Divide.

Not Just War Weary.  But Actually Doing Something About It.

But by then in my political life, when I met someone with a military connection on the campaign trail, I usually couldn’t refrain from saying something about my weariness of our endless wars. The broken bodies.  The broken minds.  The broken families.  And for what purpose?  To enrich defense contractors and to justify Congressmen’s boasts about bringing home that tainted defense “bacon.”

And that’s probably why Rand also told me about Project Sanctuary.   Run by and for veterans, it’s an organization that recognizes, as it says on the website, that “The whole family serves, and the best way to ‘support the troops’ is by supporting the entire family.”  Rand serves as board secretary.  Most of the other board members are vets as well.

True Grit.

But the real impetus for the organization came from registered nurse, Heather Ehle, who, in 2007, saw the need, set up a card table in front of a local grocery store, and began asking for money for 6 day family retreats.  The retreats focus on three aspects of the lives of returning vets:  assessing the need for help, reconnecting families at the 6 day retreats, and offering up to 24 months of ongoing support.  All services are free of charge.  In their effort to take soldiers from “combat ready to family ready,” they now offer programs all across the country.

My wife and I had our first in person exposure to Project Sanctuary at their annual fund raiser.  Heather, I’ll confess, spent a good deal of time in the spotlight that evening.  And the program planners seemingly lost track of the maxim that the “brain can absorb only so much as the rear end can endure.”  Heather, especially, was a bit too much for my wife.

But it was also clear that Heather was a hero to the many vets and their spouses in attendance that night.  Moreover, who but someone endowed with enormous self confidence and grit, could raise an organization from nothing to one that has now impacted 1,000+ families in just over 10 years?

KP.  Babysitting.  And PTSD For Kids!

So, I decided to volunteer for a retreat-the 149th since PS began.  But I started by dipping my toe in the shallow end at a nearby retreat at the Winding River Ranch, just outside Grand Lake, Colorado.

Initially, I thought I might be helping with cooking-something I’m pretty good at.  But fortunately, they had that covered.  Cooking three meals a day for 50 some people for 6 days is no mean feat.  So I did KP:  putting out food for the cafeteria style meals, washing dishes, sweeping floors after meals.  You know, the glamorous stuff.

And, while parents were in sessions where heavy topics like Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were discussed with trained counselors, I helped babysit the younger kids.  Sharon Harris, a licensed play therapist, did a great job coming up with diverting games that usually managed to sneak in a lesson about family team work or some similar moral.

It was heartbreaking to learn that there was a session for kids to help them cope with the PTSD that’s sunk its claws into their families.

When the lights went out at 9 pm, I slept the sleep of the righteous.  Despite a stuffy, far from luxurious room and a roommate I’d never laid eyes on before.

Husband Caregiver.

Two of the little kids at Winding River were beautiful, blond twins who rode in the back seat from Georgia with their parents who, after going through the program themselves, were now back as volunteers. Although you wouldn’t know it if you saw him on the street, the father’s among the walking wounded.

At breakfast one morning, I had the opportunity to speak with the wife-who described herself as a “husband caregiver.”

“How,” I asked, “is the care you get from your local Veterans Administration?  The VA hospital they recently built here has been a scandal.  About a $1 billion over budget and years behind schedule.  Has President Trump’s effort to introduce choice into the VA helped?”

“The choice program might be a good idea” she answered, “but it’s still snarled in red tape.  The GP we’re assigned to has about 7,000 patients.  There’s no was they can keep up with it.  And with that kind of workload, there’s a lot of turnover among doctors.  That’s why,” she concluded, “PS is so important to us.”

Walton’s Warriors.

Bonnie Walton was another PS staff member that I met.  When I started speaking with Bonnie, I had no idea of why she was on staff.  So I asked.

“Because my husband, Brian, and I went through the program. And it was great.  But, despite that,” she concluded, “he ended up committing suicide.”

Talk about a gut punch.  And Brian is only one of what the VA estimates could to be up to 20 service members per day who commit suicide.  But there is some hope; Brian is the only Project Sanctuary graduate who has taken his life.

And, to try to make sure that Brian is the last veteran that kills himself, the organization started Walton’s Warriors.  Although the program is multi-faceted, it’s built around “peer mentors”: vets who’ve wrestled with the same demons that have lead so many to despair and death.  Who then volunteer to be trained and ready to help others.

“Get Out Now!”

Colorado House of Representatives

When I served in the Colorado House, the Iraq and Afghan wars were still raging.  And the vet suicide issue was rapidly making its way to our attention.

In response, a bill was introduced that set up a state program providing “early intervention” mental health services for returning vets.  For obvious reasons, it was one of those bills that got unanimous support.  Members lined up to speak in favor; the phrase “early intervention strategies” was uttered repeatedly.

But while I had every intent of voting for the bill, I sat at my desk, stomach churning, a scowl on my face.  I was debating whether I should speak.  And what I should say.

Finally, mind made up, I got in line to take my turn at the mic.

When I got there, I first turned to my left to thank the sponsor, Dave Young.

“But,” I went on, scanning the entire chamber now, “how about this as an early intervention strategy?  GET OUT NOW!”  With that, my “speech” was done.

The Colorado House of Representatives operates under certain rules of decorum.  One of those is that members and spectators should observe a respectful silence when we are in session.

My fellow legislators observed the rules after my little talk.

But before I’d left the podium, a small group of spectators, above me and to the left, erupted in cheers and clapping.  I still don’t know who they were.  But the Speaker of the House, presiding over our deliberations from just behind me, immediately gaveled down the gallery, crying “Order, order!”

The Real Question.

So, here we are, nearly 20 years on from 9/11.  And we’re still not entirely out of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Not to mention all of the world’s other hot spots where our military’s presence will probably do no more to insure this nation’s peace and security than all the blood and treasure we’ve squandered in the Middle East.

And even when we do finally get out, the horses have already left the barn-and we’re not gettin’ ’em back: the vets whose lives and families have been shattered.  Whose wounds, both mental and physical, have left the VA hideously overtaxed.  And have left organizations like Project Sanctuary to pick up the pieces.  Whose efforts, although valiant, are little more than a drop in the bucket.

So what’s the real question?  Just this: Have we, finally, learned our lesson?  Yes, it may be an old saw, but we can’t be the world’s cop.  Nor, and just as importantly, does much of the world want us to be.

America, it’s time to come home.

It’s All Greek To Me. Part I.

Greece - Swalm 1

On As A Passenger.  Off As Cargo.

I just returned from my trip to Greece.  As you may remember from a previous post, I went with Dean, an old friend.  A few, quick reflections.

Go If You Can.  And, For My Money, A Good Touring Company Is Worth It.

We went with Road Scholar, a pun that says a good deal about the sort of people who sign up for the trips this company leads around the world: retired college professors, libriarians, and such like.  But there wasn’t a final exam on the vast amount of information that our extremely knowledgeable and friendly Greek guide, Eleni Petroutsou, imparted to us during the course of the week we spent with her bussing around the mainland. And then continued aboard the smallish ship, Aegean Odyssey,  cruising from island to lovely island for the following week.

Greece sunset view

No, the real exam came months earlier:  our bank accounts.  And it was a tough one.  On more than one occasion I heard the old gag, “We’re spending our children’s inheritance.” But, since I estimate that at least 60% of our 30 some Road Scholar participants were retired government workers (Dean estimated more like 90%), they might just as well have said, “We’re spending the inheritance of the children of the taxpayers who are so generously supporting us.”  But who would snicker at that?

Your Required Reading.

Well in advance of the trip, the company sent us a hefty list of suggested books on Greece.  I ordered most of them.  And read most of those. Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi left me cold.  So did Mary Renault’s The King Must Die, which surprised me given its exalted reputation.  Of these two books, I followed the sage advice that I heard somewhere not long ago, “There are too many good books to spend time on ones you don’t like.”

By now, you know I’m a sucker for history.  A couple of the books I’d recommend would be Modern Greece, What Everyone Needs to Know and Introducing the Ancient Greeks, From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind.  

Modern Greece was particularly interesting.  Like many others, I suppose, I’d imagined that Greek history ended pretty much ended 2400 years ago with the close of the classical Golden Age and didn’t start again until the financial crisis of 2008.  Wrong.  Before winning its War of Independence from the Ottomans in 1821, Greece endured 400 years of Ottoman/Turk occupation.  While our guide Elani did her best to play things down the middle, there was little question as to where she stood in regards to Greece’s long and glorious, but at times, tormented history.

For those really interested in cramming, here are some of the others:  The Parthenon, Athens, The Greeks, An Illustrated History, Greek Mythology, A Traveler’s Guide.  (I gave this one a pass also; seemed like a bunch of implausible fairy tales.  Although our expert guide made a good case that these apparently anarchic stories often go a long way toward explaining the more obscure aspects of the prehistoric Greek world.)

On my own, I also took the new Kindle my wife gave me for Christmas for a spin, rereading Zorba the Greek (the first time was decades ago).  I should have listened to my own better angels and quit long before I reached the bitter end; talk about unbridled nihilism.   Why this book is so widely praised is a mystery to me.  Well, not really.  It must be for many of the same reasons that Hollywood cranks out so many profitable stinkers.

And the worst of it?  It didn’t even have the courtesy to lull me to sleep on the excruciatingly painful and interminable flights to and from Zorba land.  Airlines!  Where they keep making the seats smaller.  And the people bigger.

Cruisin’

On the last day of the trip, I was savoring breakfast on the sun drenched fantail of the Odyssey in the port of Piraeus.  You know, my usual morning fare: an unlimited selection of eggs, meats, fruits, cereals, cheeses, grilled vegetables, juices, desserts, etc., etc.

Now, does that goofy headline make sense?  “The kind of cruise where you get on as a passenger.  And get off as cargo.”  Remarkably, however, when I fearfully stepped on the scale on my return home, I actually seemed to have lost a bit of weight.  Guess that airline food is good for something.

That morning was also a last chance to visit with some of my fellow Scholars. Among them was a woman, Kristen, from Telluride, Colorado.  She and I had a tenuous connection through my cousin’s daughter, Denver chef Carrie Baird.  Carrie was a near finalist in this year’s Top Chef Colorado show.  At least one episode had been filmed in Telluride.  Kristen had seen some of the shoot.  You heard it here: six degrees must be a reality.

As we lingered over breakfast, a cruise ship about the size of a small-correction, medium-sized city shoe horned it’s way into port and pulled into a slip to our right.  The monster towered above our heads and took at least five minutes to lumber past us.  Lilliputian by comparison, I don’t doubt that our vessel would have been able to cut neat figure eights in the leviathon’s swimming pool.

And that was the beauty of the Aegean Odyssey.  Plenty big enough for all the creature comforts.  But small enough that our relatively modest passenger manifest didn’t completely overwhelm the equally smallish, quaint island villages where we made landfall.

And Eleni wasn’t just a smart cookie.  She also had sharp enough elbows to make sure that we got into town, saw the antiquities, and did our scholarly thing ahead of the leviathons’ mobs that usually followed so closely on our heels.

 

 

 

 

Our Strategy For Ending Our Endless Wars?

The Peace Of Exhaustionmilitary bomb disposal

If you, like me, have osteoporosis, you know that weight-bearing activities help prevent your bones from melting away.  So, I’ve started taking short walks once, and even twice, a day.  Retirement does that for you.

Often, I’m strolling around our neighborhood.  Thus, in addition to building stronger bones, I’ve  been reconnecting with a few neighbors whose kids, like ours, have grown up and moved away.  Young kids, between school, Scouts, sports and their other activities are often the glue that holds suburban neighborhoods together.  True, random encounters during neighborhood walks are less “sticky” than regular kids’ activities-but at least they help.

On two recent walks, at virtually the same location, I ran into a woman walking her frisky, English sheep dog puppy-thankfully on a leash.  I recognized her from some long ago connection with our kids, but, of course, I couldn’t remember her name.  To make matters worse, she, of course, remembered mine.

“Hi, Spencer,” she led off, restraining the lunging dog.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” I replied.  “But, please forgive me.  You’ll have to tell me your name.”

“Christy,” she said with a good-natured smile.  “Our sons were in Scouts together.  How’s Byron?”  Not only my name, but my son’s to boot!

“He was in the Navy on a sub for eight years,” I replied, “and then used that job as a springboard to get a job at Google.  How’s your son?”

“He’s in the Navy too,” she replied.  And then, very matter of factly she added, “He works in EODU.”

“EOD . . ?”, I asked, squinting quizzically as the sun declined in the west.

“Yes,” she replied, her lips still smiling, but a shadow falling over her face, “Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit.”

Great-the bomb squad.  You know, The Hurt Locker, a movie about the EODU guys in Iraq that I had to turn off at the thirty minute mark-I couldn’t bear it.

“Lord, have mercy,” I said, “where’s he deployed?”

“Well,” she responded, “right now he’s in Florida for training.”

My mind pretty much went blank after that.  I just remember thinking as I finished the walk home, “How does the woman ever sleep at night?”

Who’s Fighting All These Endless Wars For Us?

Yes, I know that Christy’s son, like all of our service members, volunteered for the military.  But that begs the question: why did they volunteer?

Because they’re patriotic?  No question-and God bless ’em.  But is it right to be fighting endless, dubious wars halfway around the world in the interests of what threatens to descend into mere displays of chest thumping jingoism at NFL games?  And how long before the patriotism well runs dry? And all that’s left is cynicism?

Or is it because Christy’s son and his buddies are adrenaline junkies?  Certainly possible.  Or just bored?  Also possible.  But maybe it’s because they need a job.  Any job.

Frankly, that’s what I suspected.  At least until I began doing the research.  But it turns out that, at least from what I was able to glean up through about 2008, enlisted recruits were more likely to come from middle and upper class neighborhoods rather than poor ones.  And since wealthier recruits are more likely to be white, the same data showed that whites are disproportionately bearing the burden in terms of fatalities and casualties.

Christy’s son fits right into that demographic.

The Army Is Too Big

The active duty strength of the U.S. military is nearly 1.5 million soldiers.  Over a third of those are in the Army.

Such a gargantuan force may have made sense when we were squared off against the former Soviet Union in Germany’s Fulda Gap during the Cold War. (Unless the Europeans, as can be easily argued, should’ve been defending their own countries.)  No longer.  All the men, women, equipment-and expense-required to sustain a force of this size is a classic example of the truism that generals are great at planning to win the last war.  But are much less capable, as they’ve amply demonstrated in the “War on Terror,” at winning the next one.

A few things can be said with confidence about our half million man Army:

  • It’s a standing, professional army.  And, as such, and as many of the Founding Fathers warned, they are more likely to become a law unto themselves. And a threat to the rest of us and our liberties.
  • Second, the great bulk of them are doing, in effect, garrison duty.  In other words, they have lots of time on their hands.  Not to mention, lots of very nasty weapons.  And, as the old saying has it, “Idle hands are . . . “

Although written before 9/11, this article by Tom Ricks, who’s won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of defense issues, is a thoughtful look at the growing, worrisome gap between the military and the nation that it’s called on to defend.  With considerable justification, the military perceives much of our society as alien and very different, increasingly decadent and ill-disciplined.

Now, with the advent of the War on Terror, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the gap between our military and civilian worlds has done anything less than grow to a yawning chasm.  While we party-hearty on the home front, soldiers, during interminable deployment cycles, get their legs blown off.

While lengthy, you should read the Ricks article for yourself.  Among other things, it points out that military’s top brass has, increasingly, disregarded the historic taboo on inserting themselves in the political realm. Which, heretofore, has been the exclusive province of our elected, civilian leadership.

Further, relative to the population at large, the military is also much bigger than it used to be.  In 1933, it numbered about 240,000-a mere one-sixth its current size (the U.S. population has only doubled in the same interval.)

In the past, the military shrank dramatically at the conclusion of a conflict.  For example, within two years after the end of World War II, total U.S. armed forces went from over 12 million to about 1.5 million, a cut of nearly 90%.  In contrast, when our last “major conflict” ended, the Cold War, the force only shrank by about 35% from 2.1 to its current 1.5 million.

Again, unlike in the past, when the military was seen as a temporary interruption of “real” life, our all volunteer force nows looks upon the profession as a career.  Many of them have families to support.  Like employees of any other large organization, how will they take to “downsizing”-should it come to that?  Talk about having a tiger by the tail.

You think an uprising of disgruntled, “laid off” soldiers couldn’t happen here?  Think again.  It already has.  And not that long ago.

In 1932, during the depths of the Depression, a “Bonus Army” of over 43,000 veterans descended on Washington demanding immediate payment of a “bonus” from service in World War I. Technically, the money wasn’t due until 1945.  The reliably ham-handed President Hoover refused the demand.  When the vets ignored orders to disperse, Hoover called in the troops and the protesters’ “Hooverville” shanty town was burned to the ground.  Two marchers were killed in a clash with infantry, cavalry, and tanks.

Not long ago, I chanced to sit next to the furniture magnate, Jake Jabs, at the Capital Conference, a wonky policy confab for the hoi polloi on international affairs in Washington, D.C.  It won’t surprise you that I managed to steer the conversation toward the subject of our endless wars and the size of the military.

“The Army has all these men and equipment,” I began, “often lying around doing nothing.  You know,” I continued, “how business owners hate to see idle equipment.  Why would it be any different for the military and our politicians?  To me, it must be a constant temptation to put it to use.  And what do you use it for?  Fighting wars.”

“You’ve probably got something there,”  Jake replied, who, for all his zoo animals and “ah shucks” mannerisms, is smart like a fox.  “I sure do everything I can to keep my trucks out on the road.”

What makes us think it’s any different for our enormous, professional and standing army?

The Army Is Too Small

The great majority of the fighting that is now being done in the War on Terror is being shouldered by special forces, elite units that total about 70,000 soldiers, a mere sliver of the Army’s overall force of 1.5 million.  According to a recent Time Magazine story, at any given moment, about 8,000 of these troops are deployed in 143 countries, or nearly three-quarters of the world’s nations.

While in the past these units were a supplement to conventional forces, that’s no longer the case.  In small, specialize teams, Washington tells us that these soldiers are doing tasks that sound innocuous: “nation building,” “training” foreign troops to defend their own nations, winning “hearts and minds” through diplomacy.  (By the way, how did that “Hearts and Minds” thing work out in Vietnam?)

The reality, according to former Navy SEAL and now Virginia Congressman, Scott Taylor, is very different.  “They’re not ‘trainers’ and ‘advisors.’  That’s bullshit.  They’re constantly engaged in kill-or-capture raids against known terrorists.  They’re combat boots on the ground, everyone of them.”

Of course, making war on most of the world is a big job for 8,000 troops.  Or even 70,000. Regardless of how good they are.  One result is an endless war for them.  Sargent Major Chris Faris, who was profiled in the Time article, was a member of the Delta Force.  He was home for a total of 89 days between 2002 and 2011.  Before yet another 6 month deployment, his 18 year old daughter asked him if he remembered the last birthday he was home for.  “No,” Faris answered.  “I was 10,” she said. Before walking out of the room.

Not surprisingly, endless war is taking its toll on the nation’s toughest soldiers.  In 2017, 11 special operators were killed in four countries.  That’s the most deaths that have occurred in that many countries since the Special Operations Command was established in 1987.  Despite comprising less than 5% of the total military, they are now suffering virtually all combat casualties.

The disfunction attendant on this non-stop war has led the Pentagon to create a task force to address family crises, alcohol abuse, and suicide.  There is an open investigation into the murder of a Green Beret by two Navy SEALs and and the killing of civilians in Somalia by special operators.

Michael Repass, a retired general who formerly commanded special forces in Europe, says it best: “Our special operators aren’t just frayed at the edges,” because of their constant deployments, “they’re ripped apart at the damned seams.  We’ve burned through this force.”

To make matters worse, the tactics of choice for special operators, drone strikes and covert night raids, have probably inadvertently killed thousands of civilians across several countries, according to Andrea Pasow with Human Rights Watch.  How that magnitude of collateral damage has anything to do with making this country safer, rather than simply enraging our opponents and spurring terrorist recruitment, is a mystery to me.

Am I suggesting that the solution to these pervasive issues is to expand the force of special operators?  Absolutely not.  Rather, we should dramatically shrink the scope of the wars we’re fighting.

Unfortunately, our politicians haven’t had their bellyful of war yet.  Instead, according to Time, the latest brain storm is to shift the “training” function of foreign militaries to conventional U.S. forces by creating “Security Force Assistance Brigades.”  And how long, one wonders, before these brigades, like their special forces brethren before them, morph into “combat boots on the ground?”

Come Home, America

My son-in-law served two tours in Iraq with the Marines.  When I saw him recently, I told him about Christy’s son with the bomb squad.

“Yeah,” he responded, “we had those units with us once in a while.  But they could never keep up with the demand when I was there.  One time, I heard that a unit’s commanding officer got impatient for the bomb disposal team to show up.  So, he ordered one of his regular guys to go over and pick up a suspicious object and move it out of the way.  The guy,” he continued, “took about 10 steps and vanished in a cloud of black smoke.  The officer,” my son-in-law concluded, “was dismissed.”

Google tells me that it’s 5,966 miles from New York City to Iraq.  The bulk of that distance is over the Atlantic Ocean. The distance from Los Angeles to Beijing over the Pacific Ocean is even greater:  6,248 miles.

While our current crop of politicians seem to be ignorant of the significance of these elemental facts of geography, our Founding Fathers weren’t.  In The Federalist Papers: No. 41, James Madison wrote,

“Being rendered by her insular situation and her maritime resources impregnable to the armies of her neighbors, the rulers of Great Britain have never been able, by real or artificial dangers, to cheat the public into an extensive peace [military] establishment.  The distance of the United States from the powerful nations of the world gives them the same happy advantage.”

Correct me if I missed something, but last I heard the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are still there.  And, like 18th century Great Britain, America’s vast, watery moats are dominated by our unrivaled naval power.  We’re impregnable to a seaborne invasion.

So why do we maintain an army of 1.5 million and spend more on the military than the next 8 nations of the world-combined?  

Is it to protect our southern border?  Obviously not.  The invasion of illegals continues apace, the Wall remains unbuilt, and our D.C. elites, of all political stripes, have repeatedly demonstrated they couldn’t care less.  In fact, they cheer it on.

So we use our vast military power to invade and “manage” the rest of the world.  As if poking hornets’ nests in 143 countries is “management.”  When, in reality, it can’t be anything other than a costly exercise in the futility of making more people mad at us.

And when will it end?  Who knows.  But perhaps what’s in store for us is not real peace.  But a twilight peace of exhaustion.

My Name In Bright Lights

The Social Problems That Must Not Be Named750x450 stage lights

It happened on the morning of February 11, 2010.  I was walking from my parking spot on the grounds of the state capitol (one of the few perks of being a member of the General Assembly) to my business office on the other side of Broadway.

As I walked, I looked up to see the headlines crawling across The Denver Post building.  While I don’t remember the exact words, it said something like this: “Swalm: Dems bristle at his anti-poverty remarks.”  I made that walk many times during my eight years in the House; it was the only time my name made it into those bright lights (they’ve since gone dark).

The dust up came over an obscure bill dealing with a change to a state tax credit that redirected tax refunds from citizens who had paid the taxes in the first place. To low income Coloradans-some of whom may not have paid any taxes at all.  The Democrats who argued in favor of the bill said it was an anti-poverty measure.  I was particularly agitated because the ballot measure that created the tax originally contained a provision that any refunds would be shared by all taxpayers.  This bill overturned that voter expectation.

But what got the Dems worked up was my arguement that a transient, relatively insignificant tax refund would do virtually nothing to address the underlying causes of poverty.  And that what was really needed was a fundamental shift in attitudes among poor people around the issues of out of wedlock births, divorce, education, and employment.

As I worked my way down those talking points from the well of the House, more and more of my Democratic colleagues, their faces a picture of horrified astonishment, rushed from their seats to follow their Speaker, Terrance Carroll, to the front of the chamber. Where they gave voice to their outrage.

Carroll, who is black and was born in poverty to an unwed mother, thundered at the mic, “Representative Swalm’s comments are an insult to every single person who lives in poverty, who works their butt off every single day just to keep their head above water.”

Don’t Have Kids Out Of Wedlock

Note that Speaker Carroll didn’t argue that my facts were incorrect-they’re not.  Just that they’re “insulting”.  And, therefore, shouldn’t be discussed.  Why?  Because they’re politically incorrect. A classic example of hate facts-realities that the politically thin skinned, usually liberals, declare out of bounds for discussion because they put a favored group in a bad light.

Well, hate facts be damned.  I’m more concerned about the welfare of kids than I am about offending unwed mothers-who, after all, are adults.  Or should be.

The outcomes for illegitimate children, by virtually every meaningful measure, compare unfavorably with those kids born into families with a married father and mother.  Poverty, to be sure.  But that’s just the beginning of the bad news:  infant mortality, lower academic performance, emotional instability, criminality, drug use-all these, and more, significantly worse for children born to unwed mothers.

Does this mean that every child born out of wedlock is destined for failure?  Of course not.  Speaker Carroll is an obvious exception.  But it does mean that the odds of success are stacked against them.  And, unfortunately, those odds are rapidly getting longer as the percentage of kids born out of wedlock explodes, rising from 10% forty years ago to over 40% now.

These are the figures for the population at large, but across various ethnic groups the statistics often tell an even more disconcerting story.   Among whites, 30% unwed mothers; blacks, a catastrophic 77%; hispanics 60% (and the fastest growing segment); Asians 27%.  And, even in the few years since my name crawled across The Denver Post building, these numbers have gotten worse.

Don’t Get Divorced-In The Absence Of Abuse Or Infidelity

Elizabeth Taylor was the Hollywood star who, infamously, was divorced 8 times.  One anonymous wag said that she would often wake up in the morning, stretch luxuriantly, and say, “I feel like a new man.”

Such marital chaos might make sense, at least financially, for a woman pulling down a cool $1 million per film. But for the average person, especially a woman who winds up with custody of children, divorce is usually a financial tsunai from which she will probably never recover.  The numbers are daunting: 37% of households headed by a single woman are likely to be in poverty as opposed to just 9% of those headed by a married couple.  Marriage, in other words, drops the likelihood of child poverty by 82%.

The extent to which Hollywood glamorizes the social cancers that gnaw at our nation’s vitals are virtually limitless:  sex, violence, drugs, etcetera. Pick your poison.

But the example set by scantily clad starlets and their hunk, “husband of the month,” and which they wear on their arms like so many oversized baubles, is perhaps the most damaging.  Treating marriage like Kleenex might work, after a fashion, in La La Land.  And you have money to burn.  But for the average woman, who takes her cues from what she sees on the silver screen, it’s a prescription for financial disaster in her very different, very gritty reality.

Get A High School Degree

How’s this for a news flash?  “It doesn’t cost a dime to get a high school degree.  And,” I told Jessica Fender, the former Capitol beat reporter of the now much diminished Denver Post and whose story was translated into the bright lights,  “a high school degree goes a long way toward getting a person out of poverty.”

Again, the facts are there:

  • On average, someone without a high school degree earns about $25,000 annually and faces an 8% unemployment rate in the job market.
  • A high school degree?  About $35,200 annually and a 5.8% jobless market.  That’s a 40% jump in earnings and a 20% improvement in job prospects.  For a degree that doesn’t cost a dime.

Of course, it goes without saying, the higher the level of educational attainment, the brighter the earnings and job prospects.  But at least to begin, let’s begin at the beginning-a high school degree.

Get A Job.  Even A Minimum Wage Job. And Stick With It.

You might think that this one is the “duh” factor:  having a job reduces the chances of poverty.

Unfortunately, however, it’s not as simple as it may appear, given the bewildering array of welfare type programs, and their complex eligibility rules, that came into existence with the “war on poverty.”

For example, one of the issues we repeatedly discussed in the legislature was the “cliff effect“-the circumstance where a welfare recipient would lose some or all of their benefits if their job related income went above a certain level.  And, as a result, the family would actually be better off financially without a job than with one.  Crazy.  And, trust me, you really did have to be something like a rocket scientist to calculate the impact of job earnings on eligibility for things like low income tax credits, food stamps, child care assistance, and health care coverage.  It’s like three dimensional Chinese checkers.

This isn’t the place to try to resolve the cliff effect puzzle, an issue that has bedeviled policy makers ever since it gained prominence as a result of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform efforts in the ’90’s.  Nonetheless, any solution should encourage work and avoid penalizing marriage.

But far more important than welfare in alleviating poverty is a robust economy.  As President Kennedy once said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”   And this is particularly true of low income people.

In the late 1990’s the unemployment rate fell to about 4%, the lowest it had been in three decades.  That “tight” labor market raised wages across the board, but especially for low income workers.  For instance, the unemployment rate for blacks is typically two to two and a half times the rate of whites.  Which means that if the white jobless rate can be lowered by 1%, the black unemployment rate may fall by as much as 2%.  For black teens, whose unemployment rate is about 6 times higher than whites, each 1% drop in the white jobless rate may translate into a 6% drop for unemployed black teens.

Colorado is fortunate in that its current unemployment rate, at 3.1%, is less than the 4-6% that economists usually term “full employment.”  Which translates into rising incomes for all.  But especially those in poverty.

To Solve These Tough Problems, We Must Be Able To Talk About Them

I’m certainly not the first to spark a heated response by discussing these issues.  That distinction may belong to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a brilliant and daring sociologist who was a lieutenant in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Moynihan was responsible for what became known as the controversial, but still to this day influential, Moynihan Report.  Or, officially, The Negro Family:  The Case For National Action.

In it, Moynihan, initially set out to prove what, as he described it, “‘everyone knew’: that economic conditions determine social conditions.  Whereupon, it turned out that what everyone knew was evidently not so.”  In other words, the poverty that bedeviled most black families wasn’t causing black families to fail.  And that, instead, the implosion of the black family was the cause of it’s poverty.

As it did for me, Moynihan’s conclusion set off a firestorm of controversy. And charges of racism.  Nonetheless, Moynihan persisted.  As do I.

If political correctness is allowed to stifle a frank discussion of these politically charged issues, what hope is there?  The facts are clear that rates of out of wedlock births are not just a calamity for the black and Hispanic communities.  They affect everyone.

And it’s not as if there’s no hope.  As recently as 1950, the illegitimate birth rates for whites (about 3%) and blacks (about 18%-and much lower than the current 30% among whites) were at least within hailing distance of one another.  The historical evidence is clear:  black families can remain intact and succeed, even in the face of the often intense discrimination they faced before the enactment of civil rights legislation.

It’s not without reason that Pope John Paul II said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”  The Pope was a wise man in many ways.  But not least in his understanding of how strong families can be an “anti-poverty” strategy par excellence.  As well as inoculate people against many of the other social pathologies that beset us.

A War Like All Others.

750x450 ancient greeceThose Who Can’t Learn From History, Are Condemned To Repeat It.  But Why?

An old friend and I are planning a cruise to the Aegean islands this spring.

I’ve known Dean for decades.  First, back in the ’80’s, when we were brought together by our mutual loathing for rail mass transit.  But 21st century Denver’s unreasoning lust for a 19th century technology won out in the end:  FastTracks, as we predicted, is billions of dollars over budget and decades behind schedule.  The long, miserable track record of other failed projects like this around the county made no difference to voters.

But why?  Because they swallowed, whole hog, the Chamber of Commerce’s line of light rail BS.

Somewhere along the way, however, I lost track of Dean.  Which isn’t really the right way to put it.  I had it from a usually reliable source that he had actually died after a long bout with prostate cancer.

But then one night, as I was opening mail in my “campaign headquarters” (my grown son’s former bedroom), what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a check from Dean to help fuel one of my runs for the Colorado House of Representatives.  “What,” I thought, “a check from beyond the grave?!”  No, of course not; the guy I met a few days later for breakfast, while, like me, somewhat worse for wear, was no ghost.

In any event, we’ve booked a cruise this spring to see Greece and the Aegean islands.  So, I’ve been boning up on my Greek history.

Athens, Sparta And The War That Doomed Greece.

One of the books I’ve listened to is Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).  Considered one of the two fathers of the study of history, Thucydides was an Athenian and an eyewitness and participant in the events he described.

In effect a civil war, it was fought with the savagery that is typical of internecine conflict.  Its conclusion marked the end of Greece’s Golden Age, and left its two primary combatants, Athens and Sparta, burnt out husks of their former selves.

The other father of history, Herodotus, also a Greek, chronicled the earlier Persian Wars (499 to 449 BC) that pitted the overwhelming might of the Persian empire against a ragtag band of Greek city states led by Athens and Sparta.  Against all odds, the Greeks prevailed and the nascent idea of democracy was not strangled in its Athenian crib.

As the Peloponnesian War began, Athens was near the pinnacle of its influence, wealth, and matchless cultural achievements.  But from a scrappy democracy, imperial pretensions were beginning to appear.  What had been the “coalition of the willing” that had banded together to turn back the Persian threat a mere 18 years earlier, was now a restive Athenian empire: the Delian League.  Athen’s increasingly heavy-handed treatment of League members provoked its rival, Sparta, and contributed to the outbreak of the war.

Initially, Pericles, the Athenian statesman and general, persuaded his fellow citizens to adopt a defensive strategy, withdrawing behind the “Long Walls” that connected the city to Piraeus, the nearby port where its battle tested and nearly invincible navy lay could launch raids against Spartan territory.

More than Athen’s equal on land, Sparta pursued a scorched earth policy, squeezing Athenians into their walled city where they watched their olive trees and vineyards being ravaged.  But the Athenians, with their control of the sea lanes, could securely resupply themselves.

Stalemate: both sides settled in for a grinding siege.

Athens:  Democracy to Bullying Imperial Power.

But the crowded conditions behind Athen’s walls caused a devastating plague to break out in the war’s second year.  Thousands perished, including Pericles and most of his family.  Thucydides himself contracted the disease, but survived, writing about it in gruesome detail.  Social order collapsed, since most Athenians believed they were doomed anyway.

Remarkably Athens was able to rebound from this calamity.  Over the next 15 years, and with increasing ruthlessness on both sides, the war dragged on inconclusively.

Until Athens, in 415 BC, under the generalship of the brilliant, but unscrupulous Alcibiades, launched a massive sea borne invasion of Syracuse.  Like Athens, Syracuse was a democratic a city state.  It’s crime was that it was a Spartan ally.

The invasion ended in disaster for Athens, with its fleet at the bottom of the Mediteranean and the entire expeditionary force either slaughtered or sold into slavery.  While the war dragged on in desultory fashion for years thereafter, the ending was a foregone conclusion: ruin for all of Greece.  The way was cleared for Alexander the Great to subjugate the entire peninsula.

But why?  Because Athens had gone from the birthplace of democracy. To a bullying imperial power.

America, Israel And Our Unnecessary Wars.

The United States has now been fighting wars in the Muslim Middle East for nearly 20 years.  We’ve kicked over more hornets’ nests than you can shake a stick at: Afghanistan. Iraq. Libya. Syria. Yemen.  All fruitless.  All enormously expensive.  All blood soaked for both us and our opponents.  All with no end in sight.

But why?  To make the world safe for Israel.

The Jewish dominated, neoconservative movement has played an enormously influential role in American foreign policy since at least the 1960’s.  Although it’s tenets have varied based on the needs of the moment, in recent years the primary focus of neocons has been Israel and the Middle East.  The movement has deep roots in the Jewish American community.  It grew out of the Jewish monthly magazine, Commentary, originally published by the American Jewish Committee.  The American State Department, rife with neocons, has become a virtual low-level department in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs when it comes to the Mideast.  When Israel says “Jump,” our State Department asks, “How high?”

President Trump’s appointment of David Friedman, an Orthodox Jew, to be the US ambassador to Israel does nothing to dispel this perception. Friedman is cut from the same extreme right wing cloth as Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Friedman’s Senate confirmation hearings were contentious, with a number of Israeli and American Jewish groups opposing it.  Friedman denounced his Jewish opponents in what can scarcely be described as diplomatic terms:  they are “far worse than kapos”-Jews who betrayed their fellows in the Nazi death camps.  While Friedman later attempted to walk back this language, his liberal Jewish critics weren’t mollified.  Several Jewish members of Congress opposed the nomination, as did five former US Ambassadors to Israel, who declared him “unqualified.”

No more helpful was the President’s recent announcement that the US embassy will be moved to Jerusalem.  Nearly every former US ambassador to Israel thought it was a bad idea.

The Israel Lobby.

And when not actually in government, Israel also exercises enormous influence over our foreign policy through a network of organizations described by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of the Harvard School of Government in The Israel Lobby.  According to the authors, “No lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.”

Of course, Mearsheimer and Walt have been accused of anti-Semitism.  Anyone who dares criticize Israel is, in the view of the Lobby, anti-Semitic.   It’s the perfect weapon for shutting down any reasoned consideration of what would be America’s best interests in the Middle East.

Why Not An Honest Broker?

In 1956, Israel, England and France invaded Egypt and took control of the Suez Canal after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the waterway.  While the invasion was a military success, it was a diplomatic disaster for the three allies.

Under President Dwight Eisenhower, America was not yet in thrall to Israel; “Ike” played the crisis down the middle.  The three aggressors withdrew from Egypt.  The canal, which Egypt had blocked with sunken ships, was reopened.  America still had the standing to act as an honest broker in the Middle East.

No more.  In virtually the entire world, we are viewed as Israel’s handmaiden, its useful idiot.  Is it an accident that we are fighting wars with so many Muslim countries that surround the state of Israel?  And which consider nuclear armed Israel (although Israel is coy about its bomb) a threat to their existence?

Is America First?

One of the main reasons I was an early supporter of President Trump was that he promised to put “America First.”  Is it surprising that some Jewish scholars, commentators, and organizations have criticized the President for even suggesting that Israel be moved down the pecking order?  Unfortunately, with our never ending Mid-East wars, it appears that the Lobby is continuing to have its way.  And that Israel is back in the position to which it has long been accustomed: “We’re number one!”

Hail, Caesar!

LGBTTQQIAAP. Or something like that.

I am so over radio talk shows.  I’m not a sports talk guy, either. And while I enjoy classical music, it definitely plays second fiddle to a good recorded history or novel while I’m on the road.

I’m currently listening to Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland.  Though it was pretty much chosen at random from the library’s shelves, I got lucky.  (Some reviewers, of course, like the book, some don’t.)  While it’s impossible for an untutored amateur like me to keep track of the enormous cast of characters that turn up over the course of 14 CDs, the gist of the story is pretty straightforward:  ancient Rome’s first several emperors after the fall of the Republic were, on the whole, a very unsavory bunch.  And even though it’s been 2,000 years since they ruled the world, their names still have the power to conjure up a rogues’ gallery of cruelty, treachery and deviancy: Caligula, Nero, Tiberius.

The catalogue of crimes and sins run the gamut:  parricide, matricide, and and pretty much any other of variation of “cide” that you’ve heard of-and probably some you didn’t even know existed.  Incest was endemic.  (And probably goes a good way toward explaining the madness that keeps turning up like a bad penny in the dynastic line.)  Pederasty?  No big deal.  Nero, in a rage, kicks his beautiful, pregnant wife, Poppaea, in the stomach, killing her and the baby.  Seized with remorse, he has a young boy who looks like Poppaea made into a eunuch and marries her(?) with great pomp and ceremony.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Nor was virtually any other deviant sexual coupling out of bounds.  One book reviewer says that Holland, certainly no prude, “can’t quite bring himself to describe them in full.”  That’s a mercy-since there’s plenty that’s not left to the imagination.

Holland also makes it clear that he shares his ancient sources esteem for the “simple, republican virtues” that were rapidly giving way in the face of the degeneracy and luxury of the empire.   In doing so, he thus gives these monsters credit for at least this: they were moral agents.  In other words, they were capable of acting in reference to right and wrong.  They weren’t mere puppets hanging from the strings of their genes or hormones.

Now What?

So, where do we stand now, 2,000 years on?  Is moral agency an archaic notion that must give way to puppetry?  Increasingly, especially in reference to our sexuality, the answer seems to be, “Yes.”  The evidence?  LGBTTQQIAAP.  A bewildering array of initials that would tax the imagination of even the most creative of Rome’s sexual free thinkers:  Lesbian.  Gay.  Bisexual.  Transgendered.  Transexual.  Queer.  Etcetera.  And so on.  And so forth.

Must all these exquisitely fine gradations of what, for millennia, have been seen as abnormal expressions of human sexuality be granted moral immunity because, as their advocates contend, they’re genetically hard wired into our DNA?  Which is another way of saying, at least in regards to our sexuality, we’re no longer moral agents?  Apparently so.

But what does this say about us as people in a larger sense?  Who can doubt that sex plays a central role in who we are as humans?   But, if our sexual conduct is beyond our control, can we still be considered the only creature whose defining characteristic is the capacity for rational thought and action?  And, if so, where does it all end?

Two potential resting places come to mind.

First, what we do with ourselves.  But isn’t it obvious that we are already well beyond this stopping place?  Old taboos are viewed, at best, as quaint.  And, more realistically, hurtfully repressive.  What is LGBTTQQIAAP, if not an affirmation of this?

When I was in junior high, our gym teacher taught us boys a sex-ed class.  While we squirmed in discomfort next to our fathers, the teacher soberly warned us about the dangers of masturbation.  Now, kids that age are introduced to, and not discouraged from exploring, all manner of previously unexplored frontiers of sexuality.   At Ivy League campuses BDSM clubs are officially sanctioned.  And what takes place beyond the “hallowed halls” of academia I will certainly leave to your imagination.  The instinctual animal reigns supreme.

And then, of course, there’s what we consensually do with others.  And this certainly seems like a secure stopping place.  It definitely should be.  It’s the clear message we are getting from the outrage being expressed over the sexual harassment scandals currently so rampant in high places.

But how do we restrain the animal instincts of people when the culture teaches that, at least when it comes to sex, we aren’t moral agents?  You tell me.  And if your response is that we need to make the laws tougher, I don’t agree.  There aren’t enough cops or prisons.  And do we really want to live in a sexual police state?

I sat through more than one sexual harassment training session when I served in the legislature.  They’re about as close to a bad joke as you can get.  If an adult who has the moxie to get elected to office isn’t smart enough to have a grasp of the principals of decency that a kid should have learned in grade school, heaven help us.  (Which is, in actuality, where we should be looking for help.  But to even suggest such a solution would probably be considered, in many quarters, worse than the illness itself.)

Otherwise, we might just as well revert to the practice of having malefactors go to the black board in front of the class and write, 100 times, “I will not harass that woman over there. Or do something worse.”   Which public humiliation would, no doubt, be a far more effective deterrent than sprinkling platitudes over an anonymous training course.   Nonetheless, even I will concede this for an indoctrination session:  while we don’t need to be told the difference between right and wrong.   We do, occasionally, need to be reminded.  

What’s Next?

“Predictions,” as Yogi Berra famously said, “are difficult, especially about the future.”  Nonetheless, I’ll go out on a limb.  Or, rather, two limbs.  You decide which is more likely.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is among the best known dystopian predictions of what the future holds for us as sexual beings.  It’s the world of the feelies. And shaming if one isn’t sufficiently sexually freewheeling. And the dream world of soma.  Are these predictions any more outlandish or disheartening than what we’ve seen come to pass in reality?  Probably not, given that we live in an era when same sex marriage has become, in remarkably short order, about as American as apple pie.  And an era where, like the few, stubbornly retrograde dissenters in Brave New World, to question what has become the new, conventional wisdom about things sexual is to risk being consigned to the outer darkness.

But nothing grows to the sky.  The pendulum swings.  There is another limb, even in popular culture.

Consider Ground Hog Day; it sketches out an alternative, more hopeful vision.

Counted among the finest comedy films of all time, it features Bill Murray, a self -centered, low life weatherman who, trapped in a time warp, is condemned to relive the same day, over and over.  But who eventually comes to understand that to live, he must die to self.  The turning point shows Murray, arms extended, throwing himself to his death from a tall building.  When he rises the next day, he begins living for others rather than just himself.  And rather than trying to manipulate the film’s beautiful and virtuous romantic interest into his bed, he wins her heart through acts of service.  Before the credits roll, they are planning their wedding.

Another film that represents a tender, green shoot pushing into our our burned over sexual landscape is Blast From The Past.

Also a comedy that packs a punch, it features a hilarious, perfectly “square” family that locks itself into a bomb shelter under Los Angles in the mistaken belief that the Cuban missile crisis resulted in nuclear armageddon.  When they emerge 35 years later, their cute suburban tract home has been over run by porn shops, irradiated, “mutant” prostitutes who “can be whatever sex you want,” and lowriders that lurch down LA’s mean streets.

Adam, the son who was born just as the family went into the shelter, is sent on a mission to get enough supplies to last until the mutants kill each other off.  He meets the foul mouthed, but reluctantly honest Eve, and hires her to help him navigate the many perplexities of la la land.  Including getting a non-mutant wife.  Eve scoffs at the idea of marriage, asserting that “Everyone is divorced. Just talk to my divorced parents.  Talk to my divorced brother and sister.  Everyone knows that marriage bites the big one!”  She does, however, concede that she might be able to “help get you laid.”

As the movie progresses, though, Adam’s relentless courtesy and old fashioned decency takes its toll on Eve’s cynical, thoroughly modern heart.  Near the end, Eve is fingering her wedding ring in a house that is a replica of the suburban home where the story began.  Except it’s out in the country, situated in a new Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve share with his parents.

Eve reflects that, “Adam says that this is simply how things work.  First, the parents take care of the children and then the children take care of the parents.  He says, historically, that’s how it works.  Whenever Adam gives me such obviously incorrect information, I just smile and look out the window.  Why spoil his dreams?  They’re such wonderful dreams.”

Dream?  Or Nightmare?

Because I know how to use Google, rather than because I was able to labor through James Joyce’s Ulysses, I know that it contains this line: “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”

So, as the Romans would say, quo vadis:  which way, America?  Toward an admittedly less than perfect dream of a man and a woman committing to life together where, in the sometimes fiery crucible of marriage and family, they learn that life’s most important lesson is to die to one’s self? And live for another?  It’s not easy.  It’s not meant to be.  But it’s been designed to help prepare us for something infinitely better.  A place where the dross that can make this life, at times, a nearly unbearable nightmare, is finally left behind.  For a joy that surpasses our wildest imaginings.

Or will we settle for something far less?  Where, by indulging the insatiable, apparently infinitely variable demands of our sexual selves, we are merely preparing ourselves to be gluttonous beholders of our own distorted image in a nightmarish house of mirrors from which there is no exit.

The Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight

navy chief petty officersWe were recently on a family vacation in Cape Cod.  And when I say family, I mean family.  There were 10 of us in a house we rented a few blocks from the beach.  A lot of togetherness.  But we still had a great time-although when it came time to leave, I was ready.

Marleen and I had flown into Boston a few days ahead of the rest of the crew to take in some of the city’s sights.  One of the things we did was walk most of the Freedom Trail; a sidewalk tour that takes you past many of the locations where key events that led to our break with the Mother Country occurred. Well worth doing next time you’re there.

An unexpected bonus along the way was to witness snatches of the advancement ceremonies for an incoming class of Navy chief petty officers.  At intervals, we would see men and women in uniform, sometimes in formation belting out a spirited rendition of Anchors Aweigh, sometimes lounging around waiting to move on to their next rally point.

Prominent in the news when we were in Boston was the most recent of the four sleek Navy ships that have been involved in collisions with lumbering commercial vessels.  And which have resulted in the deaths of numerous sailors since the first of this year.  The latest incident, involving the destroyer the John S. McCain, resulted in the Navy ordering an “operational pause” for the entire U.S. fleet of 277 vessels to review safety procedures.

uss constitution

I ruminated on this alarming record during our remaining days in Boston, which included a visit to “Old Ironsides.”  Officially known as the USS Constitution, the beautiful three master looked her best, having just come out of dry dock following a two year restoration.  By then, our son, Byron, had joined us as we toured the ship.  Byron is our “Navy guy,” having served with distinction during his eight year career helping to run the reactor aboard the ballistic missile submarine, the USS Nebraska.

By the time we got to the beach on Cape Cod, we were joined by our son-in-law, Haden, who is the family’s “Marine guy.”  He did two tours in Iraq; the second was agonizing for our daughter, Lauren, who was all but engaged to him during his deployment.  “All but” because Haden is the kind of guy you would want your daughter to marry; he called and asked my permission when he got home.

At one point on Cape Cod, when the three of us were together, I asked Byron about the Navy chief advancement ceremonies Marleen and I had seen.  “I don’t know a whole lot about them,” he answered, “but given that they were going around seeing the sights in Boston, I expect that they have something to do with naval heritage indoctrination.”

“I’m sure,” I continued, taking the conversation in a different direction, “that you guys have seen the news about all Navy vessels that can’t seem to keep track of where they’re going and run into merchant ships.  I’m thinking of writing a post on my blog and calling it ‘The Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight.'”

“I wouldn’t do that,” said Haden.  “With all the wars and deployments the military is stretched pretty thin.  I wouldn’t want to be in the military right now.”

I could have guessed what Byron would say:  “I agree.”  By the time his commitment was up, he couldn’t wait to get out.  In addition to the frustrations of military bureaucracy, exhausting, long watches were a way of life, even in the reactor space.

But despite their qualms, I decided to go ahead.  If the news stories are right about the military being overextended, and I don’t doubt they are, shouldn’t it be talked about?  Especially since, as it so obviously is, a life and death issue?

And, yes, the title of this post may be irreverent.  But is it inaccurate?  Despite spending trillions of dollars, has the U.S. military been on the winning side of a major conflict since WWII?  You decide.  Korea?  Seventy years on and it’s threatening to explode into an unprecedented calamity.  Vietnam?  You’re kidding.  Grenada?  I said “major.”  The Cold War?  Perhaps.  Unless we “succeed” in provoking Russia, a nation with a vast nuclear arsenal, into a shooting war. As so many of our warmonger Washington politicians seem to want.  Afghanistan and Iraq?  Out and out disasters.

Dwight Eisenhauer, President and Supreme Commander of Allied forces in the last major war we won, warned the nation in his farewell address of what he called the “military industrial complex.”  It’s an iron triangle of defense contractors looking for lucrative arms deals, Congressmen who want to bring home pork barrel projects for their districts, and a top heavy military bureaucracy out to aggrandize itself.   In 2015, the U.S. spent more on the military than the next seven nations combined.

Judging, in short, by this record, the U.S. military seems better at spending money-than winning wars.  Perhaps not too surprising.  Since when did “complexes,” rather than armies, win wars?

When we got home, I discussed the Navy’s problems again with a friend who, over the years, has repeatedly astonished me with the depth and breath of his knowledge; he may be the closest thing to a polymath that I know.

“You know,” he said, “there is another problem in the Navy that’s been largely buried.  It’s not just that tired sailors are falling asleep when they should be standing watch.  There’s a lot of sleeping around since Obama mandated that the Navy go coed.  Pregnancies are way up. That means ships are short handed.  And,” he continued, “it’s a politically incorrect thought crime to even notice it.  Obama did his best to deep six the story.

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I attend a men’s Bible study most Wednesday mornings.  We’re currently making our way through the books of Samuel in the Old Testament.  A central figure is King David; one of the episodes in the book, known to most school children, is that of David and Goliath.

Our gifted teacher, Rich Pilon, (a Navy vet, by the way) has said repeatedly that a central theme of the story is, “Leadership matters.”  There are abundant examples in the book of the disastrous consequences of poor leadership at the highest levels:  corrupt priests whose selfish miscalculations result in slaughter and national humiliation.  Lustful kings, including David himself, whose misdeeds shatter families and nations.

The problems in our military aren’t, for the most part, caused by the Navy chiefs that Marleen and I saw along the Freedom Trail in Boston.  Like so many others in our all volunteer force, they are no more than cogs in the wheels of a dysfunctional military Borg.

Our political leaders too often see these sailors as tools to allow them to brag to the folks back home about all the jobs they’ve brought to the district.  And use them as petri dishes to try out misguided social experiments in the cause of political correctness.  And then abuse them by entangling our nation in endless, futile wars at a terrible cost to our soldiers and their families.

Defense contractors and lobbyists look on them as little more than a justification for their fat, steady paychecks.

And our top heavy military brass?  Well, I won’t say it.