Tag: #usmilitary

Join the army. Go to distant lands.

5280 Magazine cover

Making War Cool

Meet exotic people. And kill them.  Even for women!

5280 magazine is the cool magazine for Denverites. Which, if you believe our press clippings, is among the coolest cities in the nation.

The magazine’s usual beats are Colorado’s pricey ski resorts. The latest and greatest on Denver’s foodie scene.  All things culture.  The groovy health trends. The best Colorado workouts (and those are different from the best Iowa workouts how?).

But, because I tend to come down on the cranky, old curmudgeon side, I usually don’t pay much attention to the publication when I see it in the checkout line.

But the November cover picture made me take a second look.  An attractive woman, in full battle rattle, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, her helmet tucked under her arm.  The headline?  “On The Front Line:  Embedded With American Female Combat Soldiers In Afghanistan.”  And, even before I’d read the first line of the article, I picked up a copy.

Why we fight.  Who knows?

9/11.  Does anyone besides me have trouble remembering the third two numbers in that now talismanic combination of digits?  They’re 01.  Or, to put it in plain English:  September 11, 2001.  That’s nearly 20 years ago.

And still we fight on in Afghanistan.  The human toll is staggering.  Over 2,300 dead U.S. soldiers.  (And, as of a few of days ago, 3 more.)  More than 20,000 maimed and wounded.  Countless others dead by suicide as a result of the mental trauma of war.  Who knows how many families shattered by repeated deployments.

And dare I mention the toll on the Afghan people? While estimates vary in the fog of war, the number of killed or wounded Afghanis ranges in the hundreds of thousands.  And we wonder why so many Afghans have made common cause with the Taliban?

Making war cool

So now 5280 puts out a puff piece that makes this conflict look like the latest front in a noble struggle for equal rights for women.  Rather than a ruinous war that will, at some point, inevitably result in this country finally admitting that the conflict can’t be won.  And, like the Soviets once did, coming to our senses and leaving.

It’s astonishing that in this lengthy article there is only the briefest mention of what these women, who serve in an artillery unit, actually do:   [Her] “greater concern had less to do with gender and more to do with the actual job she was carrying out: She was killing people.”  This particular woman reconciled herself to this grim reality with the thought  that, “If I didn’t like the idea of killing people I shouldn’t have joined the Army-because that’s what the Army does.”

So, join the Army and grow to like killing people?

Bleeding Air Force blue

Picture of Mariah

Making War Uncool

While writing this post, I happened to meet a young woman named Mariah.  Twenty seven years old, her appearance reminded me of the woman on the cover of 5280: striking red hair pulled back in a severe bun.  But while she also shared the military background, the rest of her story is anything but cool.

A self described “Air Force brat,” her dad put in 30 years in the service.  While she was still an infant, the family was transferred to Buckley airbase in Aurora, where she grew up.

Her dad was deployed repeatedly.  “Which,” according to Mariah, “was pretty negative; my mom had severe abandonment issues. However,” she continued, “it was a also a benefit because there was no abuse at home while dad was gone.”   Domestic violence, as is well known, is a risk of multiple deployments.  So is divorce; Mariah’s parents separated after 30 years of marriage.

To escape an intolerable home life, Mariah enlisted in the Air National Guard after high school; the Guard provided her with the financial resources to make the break.

But as her LinkedIn profile reveals, it’s been anything but a smooth flight.  While she’s earned an I.T. degree and become an articulate writer, she’s also flirted with suicide.  And had a run-in with the law.  Which resulted in a seven month jail sentence; something to do with sending an ugly email to a counselor that violated a restraining order.  Which, in turn, caused her to lose the V.A. benefits she’d been awarded as a result of the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) she says she suffered at her father’s hands.  An appeal’s pending, but with the V.A.’s enormous claims backlog, who knows how long it’ll be before her case is resolved?

Darkness, darkness, be my pillow

And now, with winter closing in, homelessness.  How she manages is hard to fathom.  Crashing on friends’ couches some nights.  Sleeping in her car others.

I’ve suggested several possible resources in the Christian community with which I’m familiar.  Also some in the secular world that I became acquainted with during my service in the legislature.  Do they have room for her?  Has she applied to get in?  I’m not sure.  At one point, she described the shelters with which she’s familiar as “sketchy.”  That’s easy to believe.

Go west, young woman. Go midwest

She expressed her determination to move to the midwest, where the cost of living is lower.  Given Denver’s fevered economy, it’s not difficult to imagine that a place like Des Moines would be cheaper.  But I had to ask: “Does it really make sense to go to an entirely strange city to start over?”  She had a ready answer: “I can’t take the chance of running into my dad. And,” she says, “the criminal justice system in that part of the country tends to be more lenient than it is here.”

So, just another chapter in an old American story?  The one about those who are sufficiently adventurous (or sufficiently desperate), to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.

Or something more sinister?  A tale about yet another desperate attempt to escape the pity of war.

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.

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!”

All Fall Down: The American Way of War

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It’s As Lethal To Us As It Is To Our Enemies

Let me say up front that I’m a Clint Eastwood fan.  But to the extent he’s a publicist and apologist for American wars of aggression, count me out.

When I was a kid, Rawhide was a staple on our TV-but what’s really stuck with me is the theme song: “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’

Then there was Eastwood as the ultra-tough, cigarillo chomping “Man With No Name” in the Spaghetti Westerns.  My junior high school buddies and I use to love climbing aboard an old Denver Tramway bus, dropping a dime in the fare box, and riding downtown to watch Clint gun down Eli Wallach at the elegant Paramount Theater.

I took a break from Eastwood during his Dirty Harry period. Although I can’t remember for sure, I imagine that I thought that I was too sophisticated by then for films that resolved all problems with a magnum .45 revolver.  The boycott continued with the orangutan (?!!) in the Every Which Way franchise; too silly to even give it a thought.  It was years before I seriously paid attention after that.

The movie that got me back on the band wagon was Gran Torino.  And, of all places, it happened at the YMCA camp at Estes Park during a retreat for men at my church.  Led by a gifted pastor, Rich Pilon, we watched the film. And then discussed its significance, including the obviously Christian symbolism as Eastwood, arms outstretched, dies in a hail of bullets to save a family from the savage predations of a criminal Hmong gang.

Sure, the film was imprinted with Eastwood’s trademark violence.  Or, rather, threat of violence-he doesn’t shoot anyone.  But it was far more than that.  It was thoughtful.  And thought provoking.  At multiple levels.

And best of all for me?  It touched on some of the taboos, like the high rates of black crime, which the rest of Hollywood so often misrepresents as the fault of a racist judicial system.  Imagine seeing this Gran Torino scene featuring black thugs in your typical Hollywood film.  You can’t-because there aren’t any.  (Interestingly, the cowardly, white “wanna be” thug in the scene is Eastwood’s son, Scott.)

Shooting Ourselves In The Foot.  Or Worse.

My most recent encounter with an Eastwood film was in our basement where, while working out on the elliptical, I happened to catch some snatches of American Sniper between flipping back and forth to avoid commercials.  The title alone was a dead give away: the war in Iraq.

I came in very near the end of the picture.  Scenes follow in rapid succession.  The lead character, Chris Kyle, is visiting maimed soldiers in a hospital.  He’s working the spotting scope for legless soldiers in wheel chairs at the rifle range.  He’s horsing around with a big pistol in the kitchen.  He’s bidding his wife and two little sons goodbye at the front door.  A foreboding shadow falls across the wife’s face.

At that point, I turned it off.  I couldn’t bear to watch what I thought would be the inevitable conclusion:  suicide.  According to a recent VA study, 20 veterans a day die from suicide.  More active service soldiers are succumbing to suicide than are being killed in combat.

And, sure enough, when I turned it back on a few minutes later, it’s Taps, the grieving widow, and the honor escort to the cemetery.  A suicide for sure, I thought.

Nonetheless, I put the film at the top of my Netflix list and watched it without commercial interruptions-but in segments that lasted only as long as I could endure the  elliptical.

There’s nothing understated or subtle about the harrowing combat scenes of this film; the bodies pile up like cordwood.  Mostly, of course, they’re anonymous Iraqi insurgents-for whom most of the audience feels no sympathy.

Our sympathies are reserved for the relatively few American casualties.  And, above all, for Kyle’s wife, Taya, as she endures four interminable deployments while trying to raise the kids of a father who is more often absent than not.  For obvious reasons, the marriage is on the rocks for a good part of the film.  And, sure enough, studies have shown that lengthy deployments significantly increase the risk of divorce among military couples.

This is a great film.  But almost certainly not for the reasons that made it the highest grossing US film of 2014.  And the highest grossing war film of all time. Or Eastwood’s highest grossing film to date.  No, the money is mostly about the shoot ’em up, the gripping suspense and the heart tugging human interest.

The Ripple Effects of Failure

No, this is a great film, because hidden in plain sight, it tells a story that cries out to be told: the calamity the war in Iraq has been for all involved.  America.  Iraq.  The US military.  And, perhaps most importantly, for the last vestiges of the notion that our country remains a limited republic.  Rather than a hideously overextended empire that is infected with all the vices that, if God is just, will inevitably lead to its fall.

The human costs to this country are almost unfathomable.  And are prominent in the film.  Nearly five thousand dead.  Tens of thousands of amputees, countless traumatic brain injuries and cases of mental illness, including suicides.   The enormous psychic toll extracted from the spouses, children and families of these physically and mentally maimed soldiers is a harrowing subtext of Sniper.

It’s almost obscene to set these human costs against the ruinous financial expense of our military adventure in Iraq.  But to fail to do so would be to ignore the elephant in the room of the movie.  Credible estimates from the CBO and others run as high as $3 trillion.  Most of which, of course, is borrowed.

While the film doesn’t touch directly on the financial burden of the war, it can be inferred from all the high tech, high cost weapons that constitute the American way of war. And which figure so prominently in the movie.  But while gold plated weaponry hasn’t won the war,  it sure has fattened the wallets of defense contractors and their lobbyists.  And allowed Congressmen to boast about “bringing home the bacon” when their district lands one of these lard laden plums.

Despite the undoubted courage of the American soldier, the film also makes clear it that we are no closer to “winning” now than we were when we first invaded Iraq fourteen long years ago.  (Even the ham-handed Soviets had the good sense to get out of Afghanistan after 10 bloody, futile years.)

And, this, despite the fact that the US is fighting an enemy that, relatively speaking, is armed with cheap, nearly stone age weapons: AK-47s, hand held rocket-propelled grenades, and improvised explosive devices.  But, more important than any weapon, an enemy also recklessly determined to defend his family, home, religion and country.

But if the human and fiscal cost of this interminable war has been high for this county, it pales by comparison with the price that Iraqis have paid.  Again, this is not a topic Sniper dwells on; but, once more, it’s hiding in plain sight.  Massive military and civilian casualties are the inevitable byproduct of the extraordinary violence that American weaponry rains down in a conflict largely fought in a densely populated urban setting.  And there are more than enough gory scenes of “collateral damage” in the film to drive home the point.

While estimates of Iraqi casualties vary wildly in the fog of war, they fall somewhere between 100,000 and 1.2 million.   It’s beyond doubt, moreover, that many of these casualties are non-combatants: women, children and the elderly.  Add to this the untold misery of the millions of Iraqi refugees and displaced persons that have been generated by the war, and to describe the conflict as a “calamity” is an understatement.

The Federalist Papers is the Rosetta Stone for understanding the US Constitution.  The catalogue of evils the Founding Fathers ascribed to standing, professional armies is well documented in the book: my edition has no less than 10 entries under the “standing armies, fear of” heading.  Among them?  The crippling expense.  The threat to liberty arising from the danger that citizens will come to look upon the military not as their protector, but as their master.

But what is most tragically ironic is that the book convincingly makes the case that this country doesn’t even need the gargantuan military establishment on which we now spend more than the next 8 nations combined.  

Why?  Because last time I looked, the map shows that this country is still surrounded by massive oceans.  In the Federalist No. 8, Alexander Hamilton argues that our situation is comparable to Great Britain’s which, due to the much narrower seas that border it, hasn’t been successfully invaded since the 11th century.  And, therefore, requires no more than a robust navy and and a small army.

Of course, I know that in the jet age we need an air force to protect us from intercontinental bombers.  And, even more importantly, an airtight missile defense given the world’s nut jobs, including the one in North Korea.

But why does a bloated, exorbitantly expensive military like the one with which we are currently burdened make any sense unless we’re enamored of playing the bumbling world cop?  Or we just like picking fights?  Or feel compelled to provide material for horror films like American Sniper.

So, hey, how’s this military industrial complex thing working out for us?  Not so well?  I agree. The catastrophes that have befallen our misadventures in Vietnam to Afghanistan and now Iraq amply prove the point.  The Soviets learned their lesson. Why can’t we?  Or, if we’re too proud to learn from the Russians, can’t we at least heed the advice of our Founding Fathers?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

– – – – – – – – – –  – –

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.

 

 

 

 

Into the Swamp

Capital Washington DC

I had breakfast with Joe Rice last winter; it had been quite a while since we had seen one another.  We served together in the Legislature for two years.  While we didn’t always see eye to eye-he’s a Democrat-Joe was a good legislator.

But he was also, perhaps, foolhardy at times.  He sponsored the bill to raise car registration fees for highway improvements.  It was an end run around TABOR, the provision in the Colorado constitution that requires voter approval for tax increases.  Drivers-voters, in other words-hated it.  So they threw Joe out after only one term.  I never quite figured out why Democratic leaders allowed Joe, who represented a very competitive district, to carry the bill.

But, then again, Joe’s a Colonel in the Army who’s done several tours in Iraq.  I don’t imagine that angry voters put much of a scare in him.

Over breakfast, Joe suggested that I apply for the 2017 Capital Conference in Washington.  I did, was accepted (I suspect that Joe had his thumb on the scale on my behalf), and so, I  recently found myself in the D.C. swamp.  When they describe the place as a swamp, it’s both literally and figuratively true:  while the temperature was in the 90’s during the conference, with the humidity, the heat index said it was in the 100’s.  By the time we finished the three block death march from our downtown hotel to the Capital, men were sweating through their suit coats.

The figurative swamp is harder to describe.  Let alone understand.  And that’s just what Washington politicians and bureaucrats, no doubt, intend: like mushrooms, they do their best to keep the rest of us in the dark and under a pile of manure.  Nonetheless, here are a few thoughts.

The event was co-hosted by Colorado’s two U.S. Senators, Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner.  At the opening reception, we got a load of happy talk by members of our Congressional delegation about how bipartisanship guides “the important work” of what gets done in Washington. While I’m sure that many of those at the conference like to think that’s how things operate, I suspect that a good deal fewer really believed it.  Especially given the toxic nature of politics in our country these days.

Questions about “why can’t Washington get anything done?” were common.

For my money, Senator Bennet gave the best answer:  “It’s supposed to be hard to get things done,” he replied.  “That’s the whole point of the separation of powers and the checks and balances set out in the Constitution.”  I expect what attendees really meant when they asked the question is, “Why aren’t they passing the legislation want.”

Conspicuous by their absence were questions about how much longer we are going to be fighting bloody, costly wars all over the world. Wars that, if nearly 20 years of futility is long enough to judge, we aren’t going to win and which are doing little more than kicking over more hornets’ nests.

Madeline Albright, the former Secretary State, was one of the speakers.  It’s not infrequently that I suffer from delayed intelligence.  And during the brief Q&A following her talk that the syndrome hit me again: I didn’t think of asking the war question of someone who was pretty well qualified to address the issue until the opportunity was gone.

But during a break I did have the chance to pull Senator Gardner aside and ask him, “How much longer are we going to be fighting all these crazy wars?”  I have a bit of an in with Cory; he and I served two years together in the Colorado House.  “I’ve talked,” I told him, “with several other people here at the conference and we just don’t get the point of these endless wars.”  Although I didn’t mention it to Cory, a couple of the people at the conference who agreed with me was a prominent Denver businessman who has made a fortune selling furniture and a Fountain rancher whose missing finger tip was mute testimony to his work around farm equipment.

“Spencer,” Cory responded, his face clouded over with its characteristic intensity,  “if you knew what we know, what we hear about in our secret briefings here at the Capital” (he gestured vaguely to his left), “you would understand.”

No, I’m sorry, I don’t understand.  Our government has had us continuously fighting wars for over 16 years and they can’t tell us “Why?”  Preposterous is not a strong enough.  Given the staggering costs in terms of broken bodies, minds, and families, inexcusable is probably more like it.

Unfortunately, however, the hits just kept on coming.

On the next day, we were addressed by the South Korean Ambassador to the U.S., Awn Ho-young.  He touted, of course, the warm relationship between his country and the U.S.  He highlighted the bloody price American G.I.s played in saving his country from communist aggression when the North swarmed across the 38th parallel in 1950.  “When we were invaded,” said the Ambassador, “we were the poorest country in the world.  We badly needed your help.”

It got creepy, therefore, when Mr. Ho-young to told us how important it is that the close military ties between his country and the U.S. be continued.

“Now,” he boasted, apparently not recognizing how weird his argument was, “South Korea’s GDP is just behind Japan’s-and we’re gaining on them quickly.”  But if that’s true, why do we still have nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea?

Is the ambassador anticipating a military confrontation with Japan?  Hardly.  It’s North Korea’s nut job dictator, Kim Jong-un, as we hear in the news almost daily, that’s rattling the saber.  But by comparison with North Korea’s 90 pound weakling economy, South Korea’s is now a muscle bound Charles Atlas.  And the same is true when you compare the two nations’ populations, military expenditures, and per capita GDPs.

The signature campaign issue that propelled President Trump to a stunning upset victory was his promise to build the Mexican wall to defend the U.S. border.  Not defend a Korean border half a world away from our shores.

Would it make sense for this county to have a robust missile defense system to protect the continental U.S. from the North Korean dictator’s insane threats?  Absolutely.  But the 30,000 U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula probably look like no more than a tempting target to the mad man.  Especially given that the newly elected South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has suspended the deployment of a U.S. antimissile system in South Korea that could defend our troops.

How weird is this?  Putting thousands of American lives at risk for a country that refuses to give them the tools to defend themselves?

For my money?  Come home America.  And quit letting establishment political hacks in the Washington swamp, both Republican and Democrat, keep dragging us into costly, bloody, futile wars.