Monday, January 20, 2020

Post-Vietnam Assault Weapons Blues

For the second time in three years heavily armed individuals are gathering in a Virginia place that has special meaning in my life.  This time the place is Capitol Square in Richmond where I worked eight years as an analyst for the General Assembly. On August 12, 2017 they gathered in Charlottesville where I spent six years in college and graduate school.  That gathering erupted in violence and death.  This year, authorities seem to have locked down the area far better than in Charlottesville so perhaps the day will end with no one injured or killed.

My unease with these gathering is not based on my differences with Second Amendment advocates about legislation regulating firearms.  Same-same with the opponents of removing Confederate monuments from places of public honor in Charlotttesville.  Protesting or against policies and making one's views known to policy-makers is as old as the idea of America itself.  I've exercised that right plenty of times in my life and won't deny the same to anyone else, regardless of my differences with them.

What disturbs me is the open display of weaponry, especially assault rifles with magazines in place (and maybe  a round in the firing chamber).  The weapons are legal but seeing groups armed to the teeth marching on city streets where I once lived represents an acceptance of violence that I would rather not have in my life.  Our wars are bleeding into what should be places of domestic tranquility.

The assault rifles and other military hardware disturb me because I know what they are for--to kill people, lots of people.  I carried an M-16 in Vietnam.  My job was to put out a high rate of fire.  If my and my buddies' bullets were insufficient, then we'd call in helicopter gunships to rake the area with rapid fire miniguns, grenade launchers and aerial rockets.  For many years after Vietnam I found solace in the absence of that weaponry.

Not so much any more.  Weapons are everywhere and mass shootings are a common occurrence.  When my office began having active shooter training I felt like I was back in the jungle on the alert for ambushes.  Actually, I had that feeling even before we had the training since I was already figuring out how my ambush training could be put to use if our office was ever attacked.

So seeing all of the weapons on display in Richmond today and Charlottesville in 2017 leaves me sad.  I have many fond memories from living in both places.  None of those memories included weapons and violence.  Those years sure helped me put Vietnam behind me.  But Vietnam is never too far behind.  On days like this and that August 2017 day in Charlottesville it catches up with me.

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Monday, December 30, 2019

2019 Best Books

Best books for me means the best ones that I read in 2019 regardless of publication date.  My fare is roughly equal fiction and non-fiction but when I review my notes from the year, the non-fiction stands out.  It's not that the fiction was less engaging than the non-fiction--I don't recall any fiction selections that were bad or terribly disappointing--it's just that the non-fiction seems more significant in retrospect.  The fiction works that do stand out tend to be historical and, not surprisingly, parallel the topics I explore in my non-fiction reading.

Here are my best selections and the notes I made after reading them.  The notes are not reviews but rather my attempt to boil down the complex issues and plots into a single paragraph.  I tend to write the notes quickly and without a great deal of editing.  I corrected  the ones I could find but don't be surprised if some escaped my editorial efforts.


The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Daniel Ellsberg (2018)

Daniel Ellsberg pulls the curtain away from America’s history of nuclear war planning. As a Research fellow at the RAND Corporation he was privy to the workings of the nuclear war machine. What he found was sobering: authority to launch a nuclear weapon/strike does not rest with the President of the United States alone. Instead, various subordinates have that authority under certain circumstances which, although defined, are still open to interpretation. Ellsberg also found that the operational logistics of handling nuclear weapons ere so daunting that actual training was limited. In other instances, security procedures were routinely subverted for convenience. The book also examines how killing people in genocidal numbers came to be acceptable military strategy during WW2. Ellsberg concludes that the US and Russia both have an actual Doomsday Machine: “...a very expensive system of men, machines, electronics, communications, institutions, plans, training, discipline, practices, and doctrine—which , under condition of electronic warning, external conflict, or expectations of attack, would with unknowable but possibly high probability bring about the global destruction of civilization and of nearly all human life on earth.”

The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth-Century North America and the Caribbean, Gerald Horne (2018).

The title sums this book up neatly. In fewer than 200 pages Professor Horne demonstrates how slavery was inextricably linked to the beginnings of capitalism in the 17th Century as European powers began to shake off the feudalism and monarchy. A newly-emergent merchant class began to assert its rights to the profits colonialism fueled by slavery. Without slavery most colonial enterprise would have not been profitable. With slavery colonial enterprise was always at risk of slave rebellion and needed to forge a white identity against what was always a larger population of African and indigenous slaves. Merchants asserted their rights using Enlightenment ideas of individual freedom and liberty—to engage in and profit from economic activity, including slavery—against monarchs. The white identity and Enlightenment ideals found a home on the North American mainland and in what Professor Horne call the successor regime in the United States after 1776.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe (2019)

Focuses on the Provisional IRA (Provos) who, beginning in 1969, conducted a campaign of violence and terrorism against the British occupation of the six northern Irish counties that remained part of Great Britain after the British finally recognized independence for the rest of Ireland in 1921. The Provo radicals carried out cold-blooded actions throughout Northern Ireland and occasionally in Great Britain itself, all justified on the basis of creating a free, independent and unified Irish state. Author Patrick Keefe introduces the reader to the key persons—the Price Sisters, Gerry Adams and many others—who took up arms against the British. Say Nothing is not a hagiography. Keefe does not idolize them or romanticize their violence. He lets them speak their own words and offers background and context for the decisions they made. Excellent history of The Troubles for anyone not familiar with that violent period of Irish history.

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb (2018)

Lots of history and biology chronicling the role of the beaver in the natural world. Beavers are builders and water managers, industrious and as relentless as the water they work so very hard at controlling for their own survival. Beavers were active throughout North America before the European immigration and their works were evident in most every watershed. Centuries of trapping and expansion have dramatically reduced beaver numbers and brought the remaining beavers into conflict with humans who largely consider beavers to be a nuisance. Goldfarb presents a convincing case that beavers can improve watersheds, water retention and vegetation if managed in ways consistent with their nature. He describes a number of successful (and some still in the development stage) projects that have enabled beavers and humans to coexist to the benefit of both species. Eager is factual and well-written, drawing the reader into the life and challenges faced by North America’s largest rodent.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present, David Treuer (2019)

David Treuer writes that Native America has managed to survive the depredations, genocide and loss of land that followed European contact. He reports that America’s indigenous peoples and their myriad cultures have been profoundly changed by that experience but have also adapted to new ways of living and found ways to integrate their culture and traditions into their new environment. Treuer’s history recounts the various policies—often developed with little or no input from native people—that attempted to address the “Indian problem” after killing them off directly was no longer an option after the massacre at Wounded Knee. He also describes the many ways that tribes and individuals resisted the intent of the policies while learning from and adapting to them. Treuer does not ignore the very and other problems still endemic in Indian Country but is optimistic that America’s native peoples and their cultures will survive.

The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor America’s First Black Sports Hero, Michael Kranish (2019)

In the latter decades of the 19th century Americans became aware of, enamored of and finally obsessed with the bicycle. The popular enthusiasm for this new form of transportation gave rise to innovative manufacturing processes and demands for improved roads that later became staples of the automotive age. The enthusiasm made bicycle racing the most popular sport in America. Marshall “Major” Taylor was a black teenager who had a few opportunities to develop his skills as a cyclist that caught the eye of a white mentor who helped Taylor become a national champion despite racial bias that earned him the hostility of the cycling establishment. The World’s Fastest Man recounts the Taylor’s determination to race despite the odds and his success in becoming the recognized champion of his era. The book conveys both the challenges of bicycle racing in those early years and the pervasive racism that infected America and its sports establishment. It’s an interesting and engrossing story.

Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation, Michael Powell (2019)

Canyon Dreams follows the Chinle, Arizona Wildcats in the 2017-2018 basketball season as they seek an elusive state title. The focus is on the game, coach Raul Mendoza and the players but the book covers a lot more ground than the game that gives the arc to the story. Along the way Michael Powell, who lived on the Rez when his wife worked there as a midwife, explores Navajo culture, the land that defines the people, the hardships of life in an unforgiving environment and the challenges facing young Navajos as they forge themselves into a basketball team and try to imagine what life will offer them after graduation. Powell has a good feel for the people and the land which is reflected in his writing.


Novel without a Name, Duong Thu Huong (1995)

The story of the other side in the Vietnam War. Instead of American soldiers in the throes of war, the reader follows Quan, an NVA or VC (it’s not exactly clear which) unit commander as he deals with the rigors of war and his own growing uncertainties after 10 years at war. The novel doesn’t include much actual fighting but rather focuses on life at war in the jungle and the relationship among village friends who have all gone to war. Duong Thu Huong knows of what she writes; she led a Youth Brigade at the front during the war and chronicled the Vietnamese resistance to the Chinese invasion in 1979. The story is anchored in the reality of fighting a war against an enemy that is stronger—conditions in the jungle camps are far more primitive than the most rudimentary American firebase. It also has a somewhat of a mystical feel, Quan finds himself in dreams with ancient figures and the ghosts of his past as he deals with the reality of his present.

Trinity, Louisa Hall (2018)

Fiction. The life of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb, as told by fictional characters who knew him at different times in his remarkable life. Beginning with the security agent tailing him during an unauthorized trip in 1943, through his post-war celebrity, loss of security clearance during 1950’s anti-Communist hysteria to his final year, the narrators explore the facts of Oppenheimer’s life as they observed and speculated about the man, his secrets and his legacy as the father of a weapon of mass destruction. Mixed in with the historical fact and speculation are the various narrators’ own stories and how those stories interact with their understanding of the main character. Trinity gets the history right and presents it in a well-structured and easy to read narrative.

The Huntress, Kate Quinn, (2019)

Taut, well-crafted tale of a Nazi war criminal, Night Witches and an American family caught in the middle. Beginning in 1946 when Annalise Weber enters Daniel McBride’s antique shop in Boston and charms him into marriage the story centers around his daughter Jordan’s suspicions that her new stepmother may be a former Nazi. It moves between Boston and Vienna where a British journalist turned war crimes investigator Ian Graham and his American partner Tony Radomovsky are tracking down Nazi war criminals, including one known as “the Huntress” and takes the reader into Russia’s far eastern reaches where a young Nina Markova learns survival skills and longs to escape her primitive life, to become a pilot and defender of the Soviet Union against Nazi invaders. The multiple subplots gradually weave into a single compelling narrative that includes Jordan’s desire to escape the conventional expectations of women in the 1940s, Ian’s quest for his brother’s killer and Nina’s wartime experience as a member of the Soviet Union’s female bombing regiment known as the Night Witches. All of the characters are well-developed with unique personalities and fears, Jordan and Nina especially. Topic is fascinating, the plots and flow are entirely believable and the work is well based-on history. Makes for a compelling read that becomes difficult to put down as it moves to its conclusion.

The Undertaker’s Assistant, Amanda Skenandore (2019)

Set in 1875-76 New Orleans, The Undertaker’s Assistant follows Effie Jones as she returns to Louisiana following her escape from slavery during the Civil War and learning surgical procedures as an assistant to the Union officer who sheltered her during the war and embalming when she returned with him to Indiana. Effie was a child at the time of her escape and has no memory of her parents or other family but a quick learner whose earliest memories are of battle and the broken bodies that passed through her surgical tent. In New Orleans she quickly finds work with a Unionist embalmer and slowly begins to discover herself and the world around her. Effie is drawn, reluctantly and cautiously into Republican politics of late Reconstruction Louisiana which leads to a romantic attraction of one of its leaders. Along the way, she slowly and awkwardly learns how to function in an established yet changing society. Well-developed characters, enough historical background and local color to give the story depth and context and good knowledge of 19th century mortuary techniques make this a lively and fast-paced read.


Wednesday, August 29, 2018


Lead sentence intoday's Washington Post: “Republican candidates appear to be coalescing around a central line of attack for the midterm elections, describing their Democratic opponents as protesters at odds with American patriotism.”

Since we seem to be celebrating all things 1968 this year, I guess it shouldn't be surprising that Republicans are resurrecting Richard Nixon's most cynical and divisive ploy—branding dissenters as un-American and haters of our sainted troops. The WP story quotes the newly nominated Republican Senate candidate in Arizona, Martha McSally characterizing her (also newly nominated) Democratic opponent, Kirsten Sinema, as a protester not a patriot because she opposed US military action after the 9-11 attacks. “While we were in harm’s way in uniform, Kyrsten Sinema was protesting us in a pink tutu and denigrating our service,” McSally, a retired Air Force colonel, said.

That strategy worked for Richard Nixon against both Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. George W. Bush and Karl Rove were equally successful with a similar strategy in 2004 against John Kerry. In the latter two of those elections Republicans were able to redefine decorated war veterans as anti-American and disrespectful of American forces serving in combat because they questioned America's war in Vietnam.

So, once again, the stage is set for another election filled with lies and distortions. The WP article cites the additional example of Ted Cruz of tarring his opponent for US Senate in Texas, Beto O'Rourke, for disrespecting the American flag and veterans by defending the right of black athletes for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. Republicans don't have much to offer the electorate these days, so it makes sense for them to divide the nation with whatever weapons are available. Using false patriotism as a cudgel has worked before, so why not try again.

The strategy is cynical. As a veteran I don't see where my military service gains or loses meaning based on how people choose to participate or not participate in civic rituals. Like the American War in Vietnam itself, what I did in the Army contributed nothing to America's safety or security.  It has no inherent meaning beyond the hard-earned knowledge that comes from experience and whatever I could do to help my buddies stay alive.  We lost the war and yet our freedoms were not curtailed or destroyed by our victorious adversary.  Far more dangerous threats to our freedoms are the politicians like Richard Nixon, G.W. Bush and now Martha McSally, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and the many others who brand dissenters as beyond the pale.

It's funny, too, that these proud defenders of American freedom object when we exercise those rights for purposes which they disapprove. Apparently the freedoms that our troops defend are only supposed to be exercised in certain ways. “Freedom isn't free,” I am often told but those same “patriots” decrying protest and labeling protesters un-American leads me to think that only certain freedoms are allowed.

And that is not freedom at all.


Monday, August 27, 2018

Out of the Haze. For Now.

Olympia had a slight trace of rain last night. Not much by Pacific Northwest standards but most welcome. In late August Washington is pretty dry; the last rain I can recall was the brief shower that hit the Subdued Stringband Jamboree two weeks ago. Along with the dryness, which is normal, Olympia has experienced days of unhealthy air due to smoke from western wildfires. Last week was especially bad with air quality reaching very unhealthy levels.

Yesterday was an antidote to all of that. Brisk winds blew throughout the day, clearing the away the last remnants of smoky haze. By evening a very gentle mist was in the air under, just enough to barely feel but enough to release that sweet feel of newly-dampened earth. Just days before walking and breathing felt unpleasant. The trace of rain that fell during the night heightened the effect. For the moment at least breathing deeply feels like inhaling life itself.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Subdued Musings

What impressed me most about the 2018 Subdued Stringband Jamboree was its professionalism, musical diversity and relaxed ambiance. For an all-volunteer effort, the Jamboree was well-organized to host and entertain some 2,000 people. Tent's, RVs and various other structures filled the campground at the Deming Logging Show (essentially a fairground and campground dedicated to all things logging) along with two performance stages, some smaller performance spaces where music continued into the wee hours after the stage amplifiers went quiet, food vendors, information booth, merchandise tent and a first aid station.

All of that was simply the infrastructure that allowed the music to go on. And go on it did. The music began at 5:00 pm Thursday and went on through the night, only shutting down near dawn and beginning again later on Friday morning. Friday was much the same and rolled into a 9:00 am opening on Saturday that featured performances by the Bellingham Circus Guild before continuing into another full day—and late night—of music. More music than I could sit and listen to but even if I wasn't directly watching the stages, I could always hear the sound. It was pervasive and engaging even at a distance.

The Subdued Stringband Jamboree had plenty of strings and traditional music but the program was far more diverse than the name implies. I heard everything from the hard-edged rock of Kitty and the Rooster to the divine three-part vocals of the Hothouse Jazz Band, the amazing guitar-accordion work of the Ditrani Brothers and Alexis P. Suter's gospel-blues. Other bands and individuals I noted included the Louis Ledford, Kenny Roby, the Crow Quill Night Owls, Petunia, Robert Sarazin Blake, Sabine Shannon, the Sweet Goodbyes, Baby Gramps, the Sons of Rainer, Corwin Bolt and the Wingnuts, and the Hot Jazz Scandal. Along with the usual guitars, fiddles, mandolins and there were trumpets, trombones, tubas, saxophones, clarinets, washboards and keyboards.

Most of the musicians were from near by Bellingham, Washington and other parts of the Pacific Northwest. A few came from other parts of the country. One thing all of the musicians had in common was their profieciency and professionalism. None were well-known (to me, at least, but all knew how to put on a good show. From the laconic to the exuberant, they played and sang like seasoned performers, even as they changed line-ups and joined other performers for a set. I was amazed at their ability to simply sit down with another band and play seamlessly with them. Some of that may be due to familiarity; most have known each other for years in the region but even so, the musical interplay was impressive.

The professionalism was enhanced by a fine sound system on both the Flat Stage and the adjacent Slanted Stage. Instruments and vocals sounded clear and crisp throughout the viewing area. Right in front of the stage the sound was and all-encompassing presence that shut out the rest of the world and, as noted earlier, the sound carried across the entire campground.

The Flat Stage was the main stage venue for the Jamboree. It was spacious and well-lit. The speakers were hung from towers on either side of the stage and hidden behind fabric. Just below the stage was an elevated walkway that allowed kids (of which there were plenty) to get up close to the music and the musicians. Occasionally one would steal the show for a few moments. The Slanted Stage was just to the left of the Flat Stage and was the venue for acts while crews changed out gear and did sound checks on the Flat Stage. The Slanted Stage—so named due to its slanted roof—was a much smaller structure and a tight fit for a few acts but the sound was no less than the Flat Stage.

The whole affair was relaxed an informal with few barriers between musicians and the crowd. I could wander into crowd standing in front of the stage to see and hear the musicians up close and let the sound wash over me. Or I could place my chair higher up on the hill to watch from a less ear-splitting distance. Over the three-day event I had the opportunity to meet and talk to the musicians. One was camped next door, another group was a few spaces away. As a rule, I stay away from crowds but at the Jamboree I mingled and met many people. We were all connected by the music, the shared experience of creating an ephemeral community on a hot August weekend. I can't remember ever feeling so at ease in such a large crowd as I was at the Jamboree.

My Jamboree experience continued into Sunday where I volunteered as part of the clean-up crew. It gave me a real appreciation for the leel of effort and organization needed to pulloff this event. In less than eight hours the campground transformed from a tightly packed community of a few thousand complete with substantial structures and support services to an open field with a few camps still scattered about along with some gear and trash bags awaiting pick-up. The stage that was the center of the community was deconstructed in a few hours. All that remained in that space was the orange boom lift used in the process. By the following day all traces of the 2018 Subdued Jamboree would be gone from the Deming Logging Camp.

And in 2019, it will all happen again.


Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Art of War

This week has witnessed the escalation of Donald Trump's trade war against the world and the selection of John Bolton, a man who is comfortable with idea of actual shooting wars against Any US adversary, as National Security Advisor.  Neither action bodes well for Amreican economic security or influence in the world.  The trade war minimizes one of the most effective tools for avoiding actual shooting wars.  Trading with other nations establishes relationships that typically preclude military conflict.  Trading partners are more likely to seek to resolve disputes with diplomacy than attacking each other.  Trump's trade war turns that relationshp on its head by asserting that US interests are superior to all others.

Same-same with soon-to-be National Security Advisor John Bolton who takes the America First concept all the way to military action against any nation that does not accept American hegemony.  Fifteen years after cheerleading the disastrous US invasion and occupation of Irag, Bolton insists that the US military action n was correct and beneficial.  He will most likely encourage Trump's innate militarism.  In comparison a trade war seems like nothing of consequence.

In fact, a trade war is war.  Armies are not shooting at each other but the logic is the same.  In either case one nation believes that its interests are so threatened by one or more other nations, that it must agressively assert its interests to the detriment of those others.  The means differ--tarrifs versus armed force--but make no mistake, the point is to take something from another unilaterally without mutual consent.  War also means the other may retaliate and begin an escalating cycle of hostility and resentment.  Throw in ill-informed, nationalist politicians pandering to their base and it's easy to see how trade wars can morph into actual shooting war.

Donald Trump thinks trade war is "easy to win?"  John Bolton thinks war is always the answer

I do not see this ending well.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

Today, 16 March 2018, is the 50th anniverasry of the My Lai Massacre, perhaps the most notorious of America's shameful acts in our war against Vietnam.  Not an anniverasry to be celebrated but one that should always be remembered.  The nation was shocked when freelance reporter Seymour Hersch broke the story 18 months later.  Our national consciousness did not admit that American soldiers could flat out just murder as many as 500 people.  I guess by now we've come to some gudging recognition of that disturbing fact. Still, we prefer to blame it on a few "bad apples" and ignore the environment in which atrocities occur.

The enviornment for My Lai was mass violence.  As documented by journalist Nick Turse in 2008 the US launched "Operation Speedy Express" in the Mekong Delta in December 1968.  By the time it ended in May 1969, the operation claimed " enemy body count of 10,899 at a cost of only 267 American lives.  Although guerrillas were known to be well armed, the division captured only 748 weapons." 

A "Concerned Sergeant" wrote multiple letters describing official command policies that had led to the killings of thousands of innocents, what the sergeant described as a "My Lai each month for over a year."  The investigations that followed documented the systematic murder of civilians but resulted in no prosecutions.  Three decades later, fllowing up the Concerned Sergeant's letters and declassified military records, Turse investigation painted a "...disturbing picture of civilian slaughter on a scale that indeed dwarfs My Lai, and of a cover-up at the Army’s highest levels."

Add to that the hail of bombs, bullets, artillery, and defoliants dropped on Vietnam in the by American forces during our war there.  Some of that ordnance continues to maim and kill to this day. 

It is right and proper to remember My Lai.  Equally important is to remember the totality of American violence unleashed on Vietnam and the many victims.