Saturday, July 03, 2010

A Flash from the Past

The other day I noticed someone came to this site by searching for "Firebase Mace". Mace was the rear area for my battalion in Vietnam and I probably mentioned it somewhere so this humble site showed up.

That led me to search for "Firebase Fontaine", the forward base for my battalion. I helped build the motherfucker when my company came out of the bush after my first mission. Sure enough, it showed up on a several sites. This site is especially good. It includes photos taken by a member of Bravo Company 2nd Battalion 8th Cavalry (I was in Alpha Company) and shows Fontaine exactly like my photos. The site also does a good job of bringing the viewer in-country, moving ever farther away from normalcy.

A couple captions refer to action on February 7, 1971. On that day one of Bravo Company's platoons walked into a NVA headquarters bunker complex and lost six men killed. Bravo's third platoon came to their immediate relief. My company was close enough to hear the firefight and we expected to be sent in to assist. I sure as hell thought I would hith the shit that day but as events transpired, the powers that be choppered another company in from the firebase. Apparently we were not close enough.

The photos show life in the bush pretty much as I remember it. Some details differ. I could have sworn our radios were PRC 77's. The captions here call it PRC 25. We both agree about the "prick" part though. For all its weight, I still liked carrying the radio over carrying ammo for the machine gun. The radio was more informative.

Labels: ,

Never Ending Vigilance

Yesterday's Washington Post reported what I call the Drama of National Security, detailing the round the clock vigilance of American national security officials from Leon Pannetta to Janet Napolitano. It followed the flow of information and decisions from around the world to the highest echelons of the US government and the president. The story is certainly a positive one for the Obama administration. It tells the nation that this administration is on target, 24/7.

What the report lacks is a realistic context for all of this drama and watchfulness. Instead we learn only that officials struggle with the "details of plots that realize the nation's vague, yet primal, accumulation of all the dangers hidden in the dark" Among the dangers is "growing terrorism activity at home". Not to mention two wars and CIA operations that are "some of the most aggressive actions in the agency's history". In the end, it all comes off as "Be afraid, America, but also be confident that your country will protect you".

But if I read the story carefully, though, it undermines the rationale for large scale, extended military operations, the hallmark of US foreign policy for the past decade. Defense Secretary Robert Gates describes the "actual physical threat" to America these days as "worse than the Cold War", his worst nightmare a "terrorist with a weapon of mass destruction." His nightmare may be possible but his theat assessment is complete hyperbole. The physical threat to America was far greater in the Cold War where we faced an adversary with the capability to wreak wholesale destruction on much of what is now The Homeland. Gates' terrorist with a weapon of mass destruction is at best, a one-off attack, a ghastly possibility but not the stuff of Cold War Armageddon.

And like the 9-11 attacks, which was Saudi nationals, organizing in Germany and learning to (sort of) fly in Florida, Gates' nightmare can originate just about anywhere in the world. Not necessarily Afghanistan or Iraq where America has poured blood and treasure since 2001. And not something at which main force military units are particularly adept. Fighting terrorism, real or imagined, is not something happening in any of America's two military wars and agressive CIA operations.

Joint Chief chairman Michael Mullen further demonstrates the futility of the wars. He is fighting an "evil that doesn't believe in anything we believe in", people who "don't value civilization". As Ranger Against War has consistently pointed out, a successful military operation requires a defined objective. Fighting evil and bringing our idea of civilization are not the stuff of clearly defined objectives.

No wonder they call it the Long War.


In contrast, look at the objectives for another high pressure, round-the-clock operation: figuring out how to cap the Deepwater Horizon blowout. These guys know when they will win. The well will be capped well before an entire undersea reservoir of petroleum spews into the world's oceans.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Nurses

One of the everlasting consequences of my year in Vietnam is an insatiable fascination with that war, especially its less well-known stories. When I saw an ad for Officer, Nurse, Woman: the Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War I snagged a copy from the library. The role of women in that war has been largely ignored; they were a very small proportion of the approximately 2.5 million who served. Their role was very circumscribed.

Most were nurses. Their experiences first came to my awareness through Lynda Vandevanter's Home Before Morning: the Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam . That account made me realize that being an infantryman was not as difficult as a nurse. I didn't see the daily carnage and wrestle with the constant choices and death that medical staff dealt with. Vandevanter's tale was indeed harrowing.

It was also highly controversial. Other nurses savaged Vandevanter for her story, claiming that it was false, that it slandered all nurses, that she was simply too weak and immature to fulfill her professional obligations. The Amazon link has one very, negative review of both the book and Vandevanter personally. If you read that one, read this one too.

Officer, Nurse, Woman puts the story in a more realistic perspective. Author Kara Dixon Vuic put a LOT of effort into researching her topic, all of which shows in the detail, balance and care with which she tells the story. Vuic's account presents the Army Nurse Corps in the context of its military history and role while also exploring the impact of changing concepts of gender relations and its impact on the nurses who served in Vietnam. Along with all that history and context, though, Vuic gives voice to the women and men (up to 30 percent of Vietnam nurses were men at a time when male nurses were rare in civilian practice).

In the end, those stories are what make the book work so well. For me, Vietnam is the many stories of the many who served. That so few were women is all the more reason to hear their experience of war.


The Tunnel Experiment

A major financial and transportation project in western Washington is replacing the earthquake damaged and still vulnerable Aslaskan Way Viaduct along the waterfront in downtown Seattle. The State's preferred solution, which it seems intent on ramming into reality, is a deep bore tunnel at a cost of about $2 billion. The tunnel will be a marvel of engineering, incorporating the latest of technologies, according to the plans.

The tunnel alternative is controversial. The existing viaduct is a remnant of mid 20th century urban design that cut cities off from their waterfronts with concrete walls and constant traffic. Replacing viaduct will affect not only Seattle's physical environment, it will define the nature of transportation in Seattle in the 21st century. Even if the tunnel weren't so very expensive, it is problematic for many reasons.

But it IS massively expensive--$1.96 billion. Project managers assure the public that likely overruns fit within the $415 risk and inflation factor built into the estimate. But even if the project is within budget, it still consumes hundreds of millions of dollars that would build a lot of transportation infrastructure in Washington at a time when money is very tight.

Where the project finally goes south for me is the high investment in technology as the solution. I'm skeptical of technology in the short run (except maybe for computers and communications). In the short run technology is experiment and hypothesis. Technology is more effective in the long run, where that experimentation and resulting experience build a strong and reliable knowledge base. Experimenting is essential but as a Washington taxpayer, do I want to invest in a $2 billion experiment?

Technology is further suspect in my opinion. BP's Deepwater Horizon well is another technological gamble. Think missile defense. Think especially about America's perpetual wars. In all of these endeavors, technology is supposed to give us the advantage. In effect, all it gives us is the ability to be massively destructive and wasteful. We usually pay dearly in the process.


Just because I didn't work this into the commentary is no reason not to celebrate the fact that I figured out how to post a video on my blog. Think of it as a reminder that Nature Bats Last.

(I see that I need to work on formatting but for now I don't care.)

Labels: , ,