Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Book Review

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)

I first read Lucky Jim in 1967 in a sophomore English class. It was the first and only assigned reading that caused me to laugh out loud. The story centers on Jim Dixon, a lecturer at a regional British university shortly after World War II who knows he is out of place but feels he has no other options. So he puts up with an insufferably pompous professor and his equally insufferable wife and son as well as the jilted Margaret who has somehow claimed him on the rebound. I won't go into details--I can't really do the story justice--but I will say that 40 years later I still laughed out loud.

One detail I will quote at length is Dixon's hangover early in the story:
Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move,spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyballs again. A dusty thuddng in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
Who wouldn't?


Milo Minderbinder in Iraq (or Nigeria)

Apparently entrepreneurial initiative is alive and well among US troops in Iraq. At least according to this email that came in the other day.

My name is SSG Dewayne Pittman, I am an American soldier in peace keeping force in Iraq, I am serving in the military of the 1st Armored Division in Iraq, as you know, we have new president Barack Obama since then our duties are not as it again.

We managed to secure funds from the war zone. The total amount is US$ 12 Million dollars in cash. We want to move this money to you, so that you may keep our share for us till when we will come over to meet you. We can no more moving this money place to place here in Lraq any more, we want to move this money to you. We will take 60%, my partner and I.You take 40%. No strings attached, just help us move it out of Iraq. We plan on using diplomatic courier and shipping the money out in large boxes, using diplomatic immunity.

If you are interested I will send you the full details, my job is to find a good partner that we can trust and that will assist us. Can I trust you? When you receive this letter, kindly send me an e-mail signifying your interest including your most confidential telephone/fax numbers for quick communication also your contact details. This business is risk free. The boxes can be shipped out in 48hrs.

SSG Dewayne Pittman

Boxes of cash in the mail! Sounds almost as good as my 401K these days.

[If you are not familiar with Milo Minderbinder, read about him here.]

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George Rawlings, 1921-2009

One of my political heroes, George Rawlings, died this past week. You probably never heard of him--his highest public office was serving in the Virginia House of Delegates in the mid-1960's--but for a few brief months in 1966 he turned Virginia politics upside down. In that year he defeated long time Representative Howard Smith for the Democratic nomination, ending the career of one of the state's most entrenched conservative politicians who had used his position as chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee to block civil rights and other progressive legislation. and

Rawlings' victory was a harbinger of change in the Old Dominion. That same primary saw challenger William Spong defeat Senator A. Willis Robertson, another entrenched conservative icon, while another challenger almost took out Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr., appointed in the previous year to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of his father, Harry Sr who had dominated Virginia politics during the previous four decades.

At the time of his unprecedented upset, I can't say that I knew much about Rawlings. Back then, I was still a Young Republican; Democratic politics wasn't something I cared much about. Being a Virginia Republican in those days meant being a perpetual outcast and, more importantly for my personal evolution, progressive and liberal. It meant opposing a seemingly all-powerful political organization.

All of this is ironic since I became a Republican as a white teenager in the south outraged at the liberal Democratic welfare state and civil rights legislation. A generous interpretation of those years would be to say that I was experimenting with ideas. A less generous description would be that I was an ignorant asshole. These days I would say that those years were part of an evolution, although I still wince when I recall them.

Rawlings did not win the general election; he was crushed by a Republican who benefited from conservative shock and outrage at the loss of their icon. But the change that that was taking place in Virginia was very real and led me to the progressive ideals that have been hard-wired into my psyche ever since.

I can't say that I really appreciated Rawlings' achievement at the time. I certainly do now.

Godspeed, George.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Solder Thoughts

A post-action analysis of the Israeli invasion into Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, tells a lot about the mindset of soldiers. Reading it, everything the Israeli Defense Forces did made perfect sense. As one General said, “"The other side understands that firing rockets is not worth it and we will make sure it remains that way." When you are fighting for your life, you do all you can to prevent the danger at hand but also look to keep it from happening again. For Israel, that logic requires a counter-attack with even greater force, again and again until the attacks end.

We did pretty much the same in Vietnam. Since our adversary had the home field advantage, we applied as much brute force to wreck that home base as we could. If ever a nation can be said to have warred against the land as much as against an enemy, it was US forces in Vietnam. Our aerial bombardment, artillery and chemical assault turned large swaths of Vietnam into wastelands and gave birth to a generation of deformed children.

My unit operated in a similar, if much smaller scale, manner. Virtually every encounter with NVA or VC ended with airstrikes or artillery. It seemed, like the Israeli General says, that we wanted to make sure that the other side knew that it was positively and totally insane to come anywhere near us. From a soldier’s perspective, the violence and mayhem of combat is not only sensible but necessary.

My inner grunt agrees fully. As a soldier, I have two responsibilities: to support my unit by performing a variety of assigned duties and to protect myself and unit members from harm. What keeps us alive is good. What absolutely destroys the enemy and renders him incapable of further harm is even better. An Israeli major mater-of-factly explains why he destroyed a house that offered no evidence of immediate threat,

"A suspicious house between two platoons? I could not leave it. We took risks to avoid civilian damage, but we tried to make the risks as low as we could. I needed to complete my mission and bring my soldiers back to their families."

To a soldier in the extremes of combat, everything is suspicious unless known otherwise. In circumstances where time does not afford a definitive answer, the logic is to just eliminate the possibility, “ to light it up". Uncertainty and hesitation kill. Fuck the other stuff.

The article clearly reflects the satisfaction of IDF leadership and achievement after the debacle of the 2006 Lebanon invasion. The fact that Hamas put up no serious resistance certainly contributed to Israeli tactical success but it appears that after 2006, IDF was fully cognizant that its opponents could be well organized and prepared for attack. Unlike civilian organizations (or even the militaries of nations not facing immediate, existential threat), the IDF has little or no margin and must learn from its experiences quickly. The same holds true for the individual soldier: learn or die. It’s that simple.

But all this is tactical and operational. It bears little relevance to the broader problem: the hatred and animosity that puts two societies at such a deadly impasse. Most soldiers will tell you, “That’s above my pay grade”. It most certainly is but the issue is no less important. Moreover, that issue will render any tactical success largely irrelevant. Which is why Israel will only be secure when its neighbors no longer hate it. As long as Palestinians consider Israelis to be 20th century ”crusaders” who have displaced the legitimate rights of the indigenous population, Israel will find no security. Continuing to dispossess Palestinians will do nothing to reduce that hatred.

In the run up to the 1967 Seven Day War, I recall hearing Israel arguing that it lacked defensible borders and was threatened by vastly larger Arab armies on all sides. Forty years on, Arab armies are no longer a threat but Palestinian resistance will deprive Israel of its longed-for secure borders. Only two options offer solutions. One is a Final Solution where one side wholly destroys the other, an act of genocide that would be a pyrrhic victory even if it were possible. The other solution are the two societies to come to terms with each other. In the meantime war will continue, sometimes furious, sometimes episodic but always.

And soldiers will continue to be soldiers, doing what they can and what they must.

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