I went to work as a very small cog in our uncle’s great green machine in January 2003. America’s war in Afghanistan was already more than a year old by then. I worked every day from then until now as part of an organization “at war,” even if the rest of the country wasn’t. Even on days when it didn’t seem to be, Afghanistan was always in the background of everything.
I’m not a grand strategist and don’t intend to pass myself off as anything other than someone who has done some reading and existed, tangentially, on the far extremity of the fight for the last two decades. There are too many people whose real world experience and voices should be rightly amplified as we come to terms with the debacle that ends our benighted involvement in Afghanistan.
Having grown up seeing the grainy images of the fall of Saigon – taken three years before I was born – I never imagined I’d see an echo of that moment played out live on the weekend news. How we could so badly bungle this “final act” of the long war, how we could have squandered so much blood and treasure, and how it went to shit so very quickly can and should haunt this generation of bureaucrats, soldiers, and statesmen as an example of what happens when we get it exactly wrong.
These last couple of days have got me feeling some kind of way. I don’t recommend it.
I’ve been fortunate to visit Pearl Harbor twice. The first time was as a 20 year old college junior who snuck away from an Association of American Geographers conference for a morning tour. I was 20 years old and even though I was a history major and avid reader of all things World War II, I didn’t know a damned thing. I wasn’t in a mental place to be ready to understand what I was seeing. That’s made all the more pointed when I look now at the last American survivors of that attack 75 years ago. They were all in their mid-teens then.
The second time I got the chance to stand a few feet above the water of Pearl Harbor on the memorial that straddles the shattered hulk of the Arizona I was pushing 30. I’d done a lot more reading and lived another decade of life. It was enough to give me a far different perspective of that place and its history than my earlier visit. The slow, steady trickle of oil rising from Arizona. The leis floating on the next tide. The rusted out stubs of turrets still still defiantly holding their own above the waterline.
Pearl Harbor is an active naval base; still – maybe more than ever – the hub of America’s presence in the Pacific. It’s also a monument to a time very nearly gone from living memory when the the entire world went to war. More importantly, it’s a sacred space. Sanctified as Lincoln said of an earlier battlefield of an earlier war, by the “brave men, living and dead, who struggled here… far above our poor power to add or detract.”
You owe it to yourself, if you can, to find your way to these places where America poured out the flower of its youth in defense of liberty and giants walked upon the earth.
At this very hour 72 years ago the English Channel between the south of England and the Normandy coast was churned by the largest naval armada ever assembled. From the massive battleships to the tiniest landing craft, these ships carried the flower of Allied youth – the best trained and equipped army that was ever sent to war. All these brave souls knew their mission and more importantly they knew that if they weren’t killed in the crossing, a few short hours later the ramps of their landing craft would drop and they would face an enemy who was entrenched on the high ground and who had years to prepare his defenses.
On beaches named Sword, Gold, Utah, Juno, and Omaha, those ramps dropped and soldiers bled and still they fought on to overwhelm the German defenders. They established a toehold and then a beachhead in Occupied Europe. Then they fought through another fifteen months as liberators rather than conquerors.
That’s what our grandparent’s or great-grandparent’s generation did to ensure freedom and liberty weren’t extinguished… So when a student today, tucked comfortably on a college campus, says they need a safe space or a trigger warning or protection against micro-aggression, honest to God I can’t for the life of me understand what their pansy asses are whining about.
If I’m rolling my eyes I can only imagine what their long ago counterparts crossing the last hundred yards of open water into the teeth of hell might think.
The usual answer to that question, logically, is “at the beginning.” If time was an unlimited resource that might be the right answer here too. As it is not, the best I can manage in one sitting is to try racking and stacking the approximately 87,241 things that are banging around my head this evening.
At various points today I’ve pondered the issues of securing the boarder, the virtue of allowing 100,000 Syrians to take refuge here in the states, the war in the 21st century, national responsibility and imperial power, how much more “presidential” Mr. Hollande sounded this afternoon than did our own president, and how many of my countrymen wish to remain willfully blind to the real dangers abounding in the world in which we live. Any one of those could fill a volume – a blog hardly gives space to lay out the thesis.
Then there’s the other thing. The one that we usually leave unsaid. The one where just about anything we say out loud is bound to devolve into a shouting match between people who have diametrically opposing points of view on any subject that even sniffs of controversial. More importantly, before I delve into those waters, I have to ask the question of whether or not I have the energy to even endure being a third party to the argument.
You’ve caught me here on a Monday night, so the answer is an overwhelming no I do not. If push comes to shove, I’m not even going to try convincing you that my points of view are valid and worthy of consideration. I can only trust that you know your own mind as well as I know my own and that you’ve made whatever decisions you feel are best for you.
I’m never quite sure if anything that’s on my mind is worth saying out loud – or if any of it cuts through the rest of the electronic noise that assaults us each day. As you might have guessed, I’ve certainly got my opinions. Perhaps, on a night when my head isn’t particularly addled I’ll spell out some of the specifics and see if we can get a proper argument going.
From the Pentagon today, POTUS commented that “Ideologies are not defeated with guns but better ideas and more attracting and more compelling vision.” It’s a nice sound bite. It also has, at it’s core, at least a kernel of truth. The United States and her allies rolled back fascism and communism in the 20th century in part because democracy tends to be a far more appealing rule set for most people.
That being said, though, we should probably note that it took one hell of a lot of guns to make that vision a reality and shove the Wehrmacht off the Norman beaches and chase them back across the Rhine to destroy their ability to carry on the war in the German heartland. It took a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons to just barely keep the peace in the second half of the past century. It took a vast (and extraordinarily well-armed) navy to maintain the sea lanes for global trade.
Democracy may not take root from the tip of a bayonet, but bloody history has proven that it virtually never gets carried forward in any other way. We’ve certainly got a more compelling and attractive vision than some wannabe throwback to the 8th century, but if we’re afraid to crush that ideology into tiny bits and then salt the earth from which it sprung, we’d might as well send off a note to the enemy and ask if they’re ready to just hug it out.
The wellspring of modern civilization is under daily assault and if we continue to do nothing other than talk a good game, well, I’m not sure we even has such a compelling national vision these days. Without a real vision for what the world should look like and the firepower and willingness to back that vision up, we’re just whistling past the graveyard of fallen world powers. As for me, that’s company I’d prefer not to be in since we can avoid it.
At some point the civilized world is going to have to wake up. They’re going to have to wake up and face the fact that the only way we win the Global War on Terror is to kill the terrorists. Hunt them down and kill them where they live, where they run, and where they hide. It’s not the job of days or weeks. It’s not the job of years. It’s a job that will only be completed out over decades and generations.
I have no quarrel with people of faith, but I have every quarrel with a small group who douse their hostages in gasoline and then set them alight. I have every quarrel with a group who believe beheading aid workers will put them in good stead with their version of an Almighty. I have every quarrel with those who publish videos of those acts online as a valedictory. I have every quarrel with those who think now is a time for talking, or appeasement, or retreat in the face of these barbaric attacks.
I’m finished with compromise. I’m finished with pretending that this lot is just another irritant in a world full of troubles. Wrestling these into submission is the war that will define the 21st century. It’s time anyone with even the barest shred of humanity stop pretending we can continue to allow these blood-soaked savages to coexist in our world.
1. Capitulation. I’m appalled that a corporation with the size and resources of Sony Pictures folded like a rag doll when faced with what basically scales up to nation-state level cyber bullying. Personally, I would have put The Interview on every screen possible, made it available for free online, and publicized the hell out of it at every step – a full page ad in the Sunday New York Times unequivocally stating that Sony will not be intimidated or extorted. I’m even more alarmed at the silence coming out of our political leaders in Washington. At first blush this was a cyber attack directed against a private company, but what it really was is an attack on intellectual property every bit as real as an attack on a US flagged ship on the high seas or a missile targeted at one of our cities. Hacking carried out at the behest of a foreign power should be treated as seriously and responded to with as much fury as a conventional attack on American soil. If cyber is going to be the new frontier, we’d damn well better start defending it instead of showing cowardice in the face of the enemy.
2. Story Time. I’m sure all your family traditions and legends of Christmases past are very important to you. The memories undoubtedly fill you with happiness and joy. As someone who’s only a step or two removed from being a complete stranger, however, your stories don’t do much for me besides make me wonder why the hell I’m sitting here listing to you tell me about mid-century Christmas in the American heartland. It’s not so much that I don’t care about Christmas as it is I don’t care about *your* version of Christmas in 1964. It’s a distinction that some people seem to have a much more difficult time making than they really should.
3. Cuba. The Cold War’s over. We won. The very best thing we can do for the hungry and oppressed people of Cuba in the 21st century is welcome their island country into the warm embrace of the Monroe Doctrine, normalize relations, open two or three Atlantis-style resorts, a few casinos, and turn the place into a tourist destination. Some day in the not too distant future the Brothers Castro are going to be dead and I’d rather our interests have a leg up then find themselves looking in from the outside.
If you want to get a read on my opinion about enhanced interrogation versus torture, I can only refer you to the Epistle of St. William to the Atlantians, in which he states in part:
“War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out… I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success… When peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.”
– Major General William T. Sherman in his letter to the Mayor and City Council of Atlanta, dated September 11, 1864
Sherman knew a little something about getting the job done without getting too squeamish along the path to victory.
Let’s take a minute and look at the headlines tonight: Ebola is loose in the United States for the first time in recorded history, they’re protesting for democratic reforms in China, Europe’s economy appears to be at stall speed, and it wouldn’t take much more than a stiff wind to push ours in the same direction, the Secret Service is letting armed felons within arms reach of a sitting president. In general, civilization seems to be beset and besotted at every turn.
I’ve never been a dues-paying member of the Tinfoil Hat Society, but I do think the world we live in bears a closer look. Two things immediately jump to mind: 1) It doesn’t matter if it’s the local station, the cable networks or the internet, bad news makes people want to look and generates revenue from advertising sales; 2) Most of the asshattery I see in the world more or less confirms my preconceived notions about people as a group; and 3) Just by virtue of the law of large numbers, even paranoid people have to be right occasionally.
I could probably get a thousand new views a day if I gave this site over to ranting and raving about global conspiracies. The fact is, after having spent my adult life in public service I have my doubts about any organization being able to pull together a grand scheme to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids. More importantly, I throughly doubt their ability to do it in anything approaching secrecy. I mean I’m not allowed to build a 10 slide PowerPoint briefing without soliciting input from at least 14 other people, so you can understand how I might doubt the ability of an unknown global organization to rig the economy, unleashing a pandemic, and engineer a catastrophic war between East and West in complete secrecy.
I tend to think the long laundry list of things that go wrong are attributable to not much more than our collective bad decision making catching up with us. It feels like a simpler and more rational explanation than a transcontinental conspiracy bent on controlling everything everywhere. I’m pretty sure I’m right about that.
Then again, my assumption of being right won’t keep me from picking up a box of latex gloves, a few bottles of alcohol, and some surgical masks. Just in case.
As a blogger I’ve found that some posts are obligatory. In November we talk about being thankful. In December, about the gathering together of family and friends. In July, of patriotism and love of county. Arbor day, however, is optional for most of us. Today, almost as far as the eye can see, is a celebration of Veterans Day. While I’m not taking anything away from those tributes to the men and women who served, after seven years of blogging, I’m just not sure I have anything new to say on the topic. That’s certainly not intended as a slam against any veteran, but a simple admission that I’m just not that creative – which is why I’ve obviously decided to take this in a different direction today.
Starting today, I’m going to try to avoid the obligatory posts or at least make them something other than the usual. How successful I’ll be at that kind of outside-the-box posting remains to be seen, but there’s nothing wrong with a challenge now and then to keep things interesting.
In keeping with that theme, I want to take you back to a world before Veterans Day; to the spark that ignited the world and led us to where we are today. I had a passing conversation last week with someone who bemoaned the fact that World War I is fast becoming another forgotten war, but Veterans Day traces it’s historic roots back to those bloody trenches, so it feels like an apt topic for today.
Don’t worry, this is just a suggestion, not a history lesson. I know World War I feels like a far away time and place now that it’s almost 100 years removed. Still for those who care to look, it’s jam packed with lessons about how great powers blunder their way into total war. The Guns of August isn’t all inclusive, but he’s a hell of a primer about what led Europe to war in 1914. It’s also surprisingly accessible for all you non-history majors. If you’re at all curious about what led us to Veterans Day, it’s about a good a place to start as I can recommend. Go ahead and pick up a copy from your favorite bookseller and see what I mean.