Friday, October 01, 2004

Debating Points

Last night’s presidential debate was better than I expected. John Kerry and George Bush debated the substance of the War in Iraq. They laid out two contrasting visions of the world. I thought the discussion was meaningful and well focused. Bush argued that the war was the right war and that the invasion could not be delayed. Saddam Hussein would have been “tougher, stronger” had the US waited. Kerry lamented Bush’s lack of “patience”. Bush insisted that he made the right decision (“that’s what you do when you’re president”) and all we need is to be resolute. He distorted Kerry’s positions far more than Kerry did Bush’s. Kerry’s questions and reservations about the war came across as sincere and consistent.

John Kerry stood his ground and made a strong case for himself. Kerry was Bush’s equal throughout. He never wilted. He was resolute. Kerry stood up for his anti-war actions, placing them in the context of keeping faith with the troops, and reminded Americans that he has had a substantive career in the US Senate and his command of information and detail was far better than Bush’s. Kerry spoke boldly and firmly: No long term US designs on Iraq; No new bunker busting nuclear weapons. Bush talked about core values but those values added up to little more than “Trust me. I know. Don’t question me.” Kerry, on the other hand did not speak about core values directly; his ideas and words illustrated his values, much to his advantage.

Kerry sounded false only one time. He refused to call the war a mistake as he did in 1971 speaking about Vietnam, although “mistake” was the logic of everything he had about Iraqup to that point. Instead of insisting that Iraq isn’t a mistake, Kerry should have said something like, “If we don’t get our act together, it may well be a mistake and if it is, another generation of veterans will be asking ‘Why?’ I know what that’s like”. As it was he stammered bit and didn’t sound convincing. The moment passed bit Kerry missed one of his best opportunities for a knockout punch. Will Saletan addresses this very well in

But the question of the war’s value and purpose was clearly in play. Bush said that a commander-in-chief who cannot say “wrong war, wrong place, wrong time” and retain any credibility with the troops. “What would they say?” he asked. Well, Mister President, the troops would say “We’re screwed” which is what they are saying now. They already know the real story. I think they would welcome a commander-in-chief who has a handle on reality. I think they would welcome a commander-in-chief who understands what is happening to them at the end of the “pipeline”. I know I would have welcomed that kind of honest leadership when I was in Vietnam during 1971. As it was, the only ones speaking the truth then were John Kerry and his fellow Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Bush definitely looked under attack. He gripped the podium often and at times seemed to be ducking behind it. He paused and stammered often as he collected his thoughts. His uncertainty was especially apparent on nuclear proliferation as he tried to recall his administration’s policies and accomplishments in that area. It was clear that nuclear proliferation is not a subject that he spends much time thinking about. But despite his poor performance, Bush did not wilt. He stood his ground, although less convincingly, I thought, than Kerry. Where Kerry was articulate and thoughtful, Bush often fell back to his stump speech buzzwords: “offense”, “mixed messages”, “resolve”, “hard work”.

The debate presented two very different pictures of America in the world. Bush promised to lead America on “offense”, a word he used often. Bush’s America acts on its own for its own purposes, regardless of what the world thinks. Kerry offered a vision of America working with and through other nations, not relinquishing the option to take strong action when needed but recognizing that world opinion does count, especially when the issue is preemptive attacks. Bush dismissed the idea of a “global test” which he described as merely an attempt to court favor.

Kerry also looked and sounded very strong on nuclear proliferation as the most serious threat facing this nation and the world. Jim Leher barely finished his question before Kerry responded and began listing the danger of weapons grade materials loose in the world and the failures of the Bush administration to effectively control nuclear materials. Bush was left, not quite speechless, but certainly at a loss for words. His answer was “me too” but without a lot to show he means it.

The debate was significant for me because it demonstrated why John Kerry better represents my values and the kind of world I want my generation to pass on the future. He spoke America as part of a world community. He rejected any long term designs on Iraqi territory or resources. And he highlighted the hypocrisy of the US seeking to reduce weapons of mass destruction even as we develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. The debate was clearly the most substantive that I can recall. I wonder how Vietnam would have turned out had such a debate occurred in 1968 or 1972.

Kerry was clearly at his best last night. He’s back in the game but it’s far from over.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Morning Thoughts

The first few days of fall here in Phoenix bring the promise of cooler, more pleasant weather. Morning before sunrise is wonderful right now. The air is cool, mostly crisp. Last night’s storms added just a little humidity so it feels very nice. But even the evenings are becoming more tolerable. Once the sun goes down, the temperature drops; I can walk outside without feeling like I’m in an oven. I always considered October to be the most hopeful month in Phoenix, with daytime temperatures dropping to the double digits and knowledge that the Big Heat is gone for about six months.

Not that this summer has been at all unpleasant. Even when temperatures were at their highest, I was far more comfortable than in previous years. I’m sure that part of my reaction was due to the fact that I avoided being outside for any length of time between noon and sundown. Whatever I had to do outside got done in the morning starting at 4:00 am. Afternoons were for sleep and inside activities.

I think, too, that my perspective has changed. Two years ago I spent July and August walking from Virginia to New Hampshire. The heat, the humidity and the the effort needed to keep walking wore me out physically and mentally. I found the east coast summer to be every bit as ugly as a Phoenix summer. So now that I am back in the desert, this summer doesn’t seem so bad. I won’t complain.

One of the things I most enjoy about Phoenix summers is getting up early, well before dawn, and walking. If I’m going to be outside, before dawn is the time to do it. The city is wonderfully quiet. Few others are about, offering me a rare opportunity for solitude. The streets are empty–I can cross at will and don’t have thundering traffic noise to drown out the mourning doves calling and roosters crowing. I saw a coyote loping down the street one morning. Another morning I saw a screech owl. Once the sun is up the wild creatures disappear. The houses have a snug, comfortable feel; their occupants still asleep in their beds. Safe in their own space.

The sky above still glimmers with stars (some stars, at least); Venus shines brightly in the eastern sky before sunup. Saturn is now well above Venus. It’s a time to remember my place in the universe (very small, wholly insignificant) and the miracle of my being (completely improbable), a time to remember all the blessings of life. Everything is possible in the morning.

Walking in the morning also takes me back to my AT thru-hike experience. During much of that hike, I was up before sunrise and walking at first light. I did it to beat the heat at first, trying to knock off as many miles as I could before noon. But walking in the early morning was so pleasant that I began to look forward to those first few hours when the light was soft, the day still cool and I was alone on the trail. So it’s not surprising that I adopted the same strategy for Phoenix summer heat.

The morning is a time to let my mind wander, to not concern myself with affairs or politics or current events. It is a time when I can marvel at my good fortune, at being alive, in good health and among good company. What more can I ask of life?

Night Moves

Sleeping during my 2002 Appalachian Trail thru-hike was as much a matter of attitude as it was a reality. Maybe more so. I slept intermittently most nights, waking every few hours. Finding a comfortable position on my 48" sleeping pad and moving about in a sleeping bag usually required some conscious effort. Each time I moved I had to deliberately re-arrange my body to find a position that I could hold for my next hoped for stretch of unconsciousness. But holding any position was tricky. Only two positions, left side and right side, really worked for any amount of time but even those positions stressed my leg muscles after a while and I would have to move. Lying flat on my back avoided the stress but sooner or later I felt compelled to roll over to one side or the other, which then created to soreness that would force yet another move.

All this activity and semi-conscious calculation meant that I slept fitfully. Nonetheless, I was sufficiently rested to walk 10 to 20 miles most days. That’s where attitude came in. Rather than worry about lying awake and missing sleep, I redefined my night time experience as rest. If I wasn’t asleep, at least I was not walking, not carrying a load and able to recognize the time in my sleeping bag as a respite from the day’s hard work. “Going horizontal” I called it. After a few weeks on the trail I knew that simply relaxing my body totally would provide the rest and enough sleep to get me to the next camp.

Successfully adjusting my attitude required that I fill my mind with soothing thoughts to keep from worrying about not sleeping and the many other demons that waited to haunt me in weak moments–small injuries, business affairs, finances and the like. My favorite mantra, especially later in the hike, was to list all the shelters where I had stayed along the way. I remembered the bus routes of my childhood, my long list of Grand Canyon hikes, anything that would pleasantly occupy my mind until I drifted into unconsciousness. It worked.

I slept best in cool weather when I could bundle up in my sleeping bag. Hot weather was not at all conducive to sleeping, especially in the humidity from late May through August. Luckily, those months had the shortest nights. Darkness did not completely fall until 9:00 p.m. in the summer, dawn broke around 5:00 a.m. Even with the extra daylight, I would still be horizontal by 8:00 or so, especially if I had a sufficiently early camp. If the weather was dry I could roll up my tent fly so that I would have maximum ventilation but on wet humid nights, my tent could be stifling. Sleep was iffy those nights.

However sporadically I slept, I welcomed the relief from the day’s chores. I crawled into my tent every night glad that I would not be walking for the next eight or so hours, happy for the chance just to lie still (relatively speaking) for a while.

I slept much better in my tent than I did in shelters. The ground was always softer than the wood floor of the shelter. My tent was my room, a place where I was all by myself. The solitude relaxed me since I did not have to worry about disturbing other hikers during the night. I could get up to pee, make all the adjustments I needed to stay comfortable and spare shelter companions my abrupt spasms during sleep. Those spasms sometimes caused my feet to slam the shelter floor which resonated like a kettle drum. I never woke up screaming during my hikes but always worried that I might (I’ve unnerved a couple hiking partners that way over the years). If I snored (very likely if I fell asleep on my back), no one would be close enough to be bothered. Sleeping in a tent was always preferable to a shelter unless it was raining.

Hours sleeping–or at least, being horizontal–were rivaled only by the hours walking. I had not thought too much about sleep in preparing for my hike other than to make that time as comfortable as possible with an inflatable pad, good sleeping bag and tent. As the miles passed I soon recognized the delicate balance between the two activities. Walking carried me toward my goal. Sleep allowed me to rest up for each day’s effort. The sleeping gear that weighed down on me during the day gave me comfort during the night. And my ability to relax in varying states consciousness throughout the night gave me the energy to get up and walk again the following day.

It was all a matter of perspective.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Advice for Kerry

Today’s Washington Post reports on its poll results showing Bush leading amid doubts about Kerry. The story quotes one undecided voter:

Rachelle Hinrichs said she is still making up her mind,..... She is bothered by Bush's environmental policies, described his tax cuts as silly and worries about Iraq because she does not want her brother, who already served there, to go back. But she described Kerry as someone who "keeps trying to act like a man of the people, but he's not like us."

No, John Kerry is not like most of us. He is from a well to do family, is married to one of America’s largest fortunes, has spent all of his life in economic security and served in the highest levels of American government for over two decades. Most of us don’t have that experience. Rachelle is right that Kerry needs to just be who he is. John Kerry is an honorable, thoughtful man who has experience and judgment to serve as president. And he is like us in a couple of important ways. He served in combat, a distinction he shares with all veterans. He is the grandson of a Jewish immigrant who lived the American dream. In many important respects, John Kerry is “more like us” than George W. Bush. Kerry may be rich but Bush is richer, from a family that have been rich much longer. Bush isn’t much like Rachelle either.

Although most people say they do not know what Kerry stands for, he has made serious proposals for health care, environmental protection, reducing dependence on foreign oil and Iraq. The press and public perceive little difference between the candidates on Iraq but fail to remember that Bush’s current Iraq policy follows proposals Kerry first presented during the Democratic primary campaign. Kerry has a solid platform, on Iraq, on the economy, the environment, health care, energy to name only a few. But he’s not getting the message out. The Republicans have set the agenda and Kerry responds; they can wear him out by sending him to all sides of the court and confusing his message.

That’s why Kerry needs to be himself. He has the experience. He has good ideas. He has good judgment. He can offer thoughtful (my favorite presidential quality) solutions to the problems confronting this nation. He is at least George Bush’s equal. With 35 days to the election, it’s time for John Kerry to prove why he should be President of the United States.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Walking Back from Vietnam

Flashbacks. I’m having flashbacks, reliving my Vietnam war experiences. It’s actually only the second time since leaving Vietnam but, coming only a couple years after the first, it’s unsettling. The presidential election campaign triggered this flashback. My first was also the result of an external event–my 2002 long distance Appalachian Trail hike. That’s not to say that Vietnam wasn’t on my mind since I was there in 1971. It was. But for most of those years, I diverted my attention with family, career and life’s many interesting activities. On the Appalachian Trail, though, I had plenty of time to think. This year’s presidential campaign is all about Vietnam, past and (although many Americans don’t want to believe it) present. I couldn’t get away from Vietnam in 2002. I can’t this year either. And the memories and emotions are flooding back.

My current flashback is the War on Iraq. How can I, a combat veteran, not pay attention to the war?. These guys are going through what I did. Worse, actually. It sucked then. It sucks now. There are times in a nation’s history when war may be unavoidable. It still sucks but not quite as much. Iraq is no such time. Neither was Vietnam. I hoped that America would remember the trauma and destruction of that ill-conceived war. But that lesson is ignored and another generation of American soldiers will live with the tragedy of a pointless war for the rest of their lives. I hope some good comes of their effort but each day’s violence renders that hope, never particularly realistic, more unlikely.

Watching events unfold in Iraq reminds me why Vietnam was such a mistake. America’s ideological rigidity, arrogance and ignorance of Vietnamese history and culture led us into an unwinnable war. Even if we had “bombed ‘em back to the Stone Age” or “unleashed” our military, any conceivable victory by American forces would have been only temporary; Vietnamese nationalism would have found another way to assert itself in the long run. That’s how they’ve fought foreign invaders for centuries. Looking at Iraq, I see the same forces at work. Iraq has a strong nationalist identity, compounded by longstanding religious and ethnic conflicts. What it does not have is a democratic tradition. History tells me that the United States, acting alone and using force, is not likely to construct a legitimate government in such a nation. I learned that lesson three decades ago, at considerable personal cost. Seeing it ignored by a president and advisors who missed that lesson really pisses me off.

My first flashback did not cause this kind of anger. In fact, it lanced my anger about Vietnam service. Participating in a war that I knew was wrong always made me doubt my moral courage. I have been angry at my country since that time for forcing that choice upon me. Hiking the trail day after day gave me time to review that part of my life in some detail–what I thought and believed, how and why I chose to go into combat. I finally concluded that I did okay. I survived, didn’t kill anyone and served honorably in a difficult situation. My willingness to kill for a cause I did not support still troubles me. I had hoped to dodge combat when I enlisted. But I ended up in combat anyway and did what I had to do. I didn’t get myself or anyone else killed. Like so many in combat over centuries of history, I was very lucky.

Actually, I was pretty proud that I survived but I never could say so because combat was such an evil thing to do. Instead, I went hiking. That allowed me to demonstrate that same strength and determination in a more benign activity. Ironic, then, that my way to avoid my combat experience took me on a path that would lead me back to it. Hiking was not an escape. It’s something I wanted to do for its own sake. But every day on every trail reminded me at some point of jungle patrol. The memory was not traumatic, just there. I knew it would accompany me while I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t expect to come to terms with my combat experience on the trail but the constant thought helped me realize that my choices were the best I could do at the time. I learned to forgive myself and my country.

Once I realized (somewhere in central Virginia) that it I was not evil, my anger wilted. Vietnam stayed on my mind but the memories were much tamer and gave me a chance to mellow out. I recognized how I benefitted from my service, even the combat. Combat showed me the horror and despair of war on civilians and soldiers alike. That is the ultimate lesson of Vietnam: War Sucks. It’s a sensibility and empathy for others that is central to my humanity. Combat taught me to backpack and took me through some of the most spectacular places I had ever seen. I’ve been out walking ever since, adding much adventure and richness to my life. I came back an anti-war veteran, able to speak with experience and authority in debates about America’s policies in the world. I earned a masters degree on the GI bill and, in one of life’s great ironies, I now receive largely free health care from the Veterans Administration. I did okay.

Instead of angry, I am sad about Vietnam Yeah, I was lucky, but it was a high price to pay, especially for the Vietnamese who suffered heavily from American weapons and tactics. We all would be better off without that experience. I wish it had been otherwise. History cannot be changed, only understood or ignored. That’s why this year’s flashback angers me so much. I can live with the sadness for what can’t be changed but I am angry at George W. Bush for the choices he’s made in Iraq, choices that did not have to be made. His choices clearly demonstrate that he does not understand war or the history of the region he proposes to remake in America’s image.. If he did, he would have been far more reluctant to launch an unprovoked attack in a region where American motives are highly suspect. His poor judgment comes at the cost of defending America against real threats. Americans are willing and able to sacrifice to protect this nation (others, too). That sacrifice should not be wasted. George Bush is wasting America’s most precious resource and destroying America’s good name in the process.

He needs to take a hike. A long one.