Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Researchers rejoice. I feel compelled to write something up for all the folks out there who are into doing historical research, for whatever reason. In case anyone has missed this trend, over the last couple of years, the resources available online are becoming absolutely amazing. I know historians live in archives, but everyone doing serious research really should spend months exhausting the online possibilities before ever leaving their office. Newspapers, which used to be meat and potatoes for historians, are getting huge coverage from a variety of services.

Accessing these databases might be easier than you would think. Increasingly, public libraries are buying into the programs. You can get a free library card if you live nearby, and if you don't, you can often pay a pretty reasonoable fee to become a member. For example, I spent $20 for a year-long membership to the Mid-Continent Public Libary system over the river in Missouri. Between that system and the databases at my work, I'm doing pretty darn well.

Here are just a few sources that are available through institutions or for personal subscription: JSTOR (which you all already know about); ProQuest Historical Newspapers; Proquest American Periodical Series; Newspaper; Gale Group InfoTrac Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers; and Newsbank, including their Genealogy section that has scans of thousands of newspapers.

Which reminds me. A belated congratulations to good friend Mark, who recently passed his comprehensive exams at Ohio State and is now a Ph.D. candidate who needs to write his dissertation. Way to go Mark--now put those online resources to good use.

Speaking of Mark. The last three Netflix movies were United 93, The Family Stone, and the second Pirates of the Caribbean. Nothing to say about United 93, because it was just a reminder of all that once was, and all that should have been. Pirates of the Caribbean was what it was, only longer. Dear God, two and a half hours rambling about and they still didn't finish the damn story. At least they did their best to make Keira Knightley look like a boy, which works out well because Orlando Bloom looks like a girl. At the rate we are going, in ten years every movie and television show is going to feature a bunch of 105 lbs. hairless androgynes running around in smooth white unitards listening to weird techno music on their color coordinated MP3 players. Turn on your tv, the commercials are already in this bright future.

The Family Stone was a decent if slightly depressing Christmas movie starring Dermot Mulroney and Nelsonville's own Sarah Jessica Parker. The two standouts in the movie are Craig T. Nelson and Luke Wilson. Imagine it, Coach and Frank Vitchard, carrying the show. Two points about this one: first, I've never seen a movie check as many boxes in so short a time as the scene when son Thad Stone walks into the his parents' home. Within about five seconds we find out that Thad is deaf, Thad is gay, and Thad brought his longtime black partner home for the holidays. All Thad needed was a hard-working blind parapalegic Asian midget assistant with a hare lip and a spicy attitude.

Second, the plot revolves around the successful Mulroney bringing the successful Parker home to meet the family for the first time--the latter is hyper nervous and the former is trying to figure out whether he loves her and what he wants from life. Fine, but for one thing, in real life (and pretty much on screen) Mulroney is 43 and Parker is 41. Even if we are to assume they are in their thirties--even Christmas charity can't put those two in their twenties--what thirty year old successful people don't know how to handle themselves when meeting new people? I know some adults with some severe confidence issues, and even they have come up with mechanisms for dealing with challenging social interactions. It was like he was a teenager bringing his date to meet his parents before going out to the Homecoming Dance. You have to be remarkably shallow or incredibly stupid to be thirty something and be so lacking in self awareness and basic social skills.

But that is an indication of a growing Peter Pan mindset in this country. College students make no pretense at acting like they should be adults when they leave school, and video game companies target adults every bit as much as kids. My generation has avoided the Baby Boomer penchant for taking themselves way too seriously, but perhaps at the cost of not taking themselves seriously enough.

On a related note, the campaign to enjoy youth even when youth is over has led to a lot of older single people and couples choosing to put off marriage and having children until it is too late or almost so. I can't help but think of that when never-married forty year olds are acting like teenagers in movies like The Family Stone. Please, if you are older and single or older and do not have children, do not take offense at these comments, because none is meant. I understand that everyone has their own issues, their own reasons for making the choices they make. I just have trouble relating, especially to such movies, because I have made some very different choices, and I am reminded of the results of those choices, relentlessly--and, lucky for me, mostly happily.

Christmas in a new city. NB: I apologize that what follows is going to be the slideshow from hell, but, hey, it is my diary, after all.... (Mark well: NB stands for "nota bene," a Latin phrase used by pointy headed academics to tell people to pay attention to something, and I'm pretty much a pretentious jackass for using it in a blog diary post about taking the kids to into the city for Christmas. Just so you know.)

So we took the kids into the city for Christmas.

The focus of the trip was Kansas City's Union Station, which is connected to hotel/mall complex called Crown Center plaza. (And is across the street from an old World War I memorial and the brand new National World War I museum, about which I will have more at a later date.) The station and the plaza are literally connected--the enclosed walkway goes over a bridge and offers a nice view of the city:

I also took this picture from the walkway, which, if it were in Fargo or Minneapolis, James Lileks would tell you the building's whole history:

Oh hell, fine, I'll look it up, wait a second.... Here we go: Western Auto was a company started in 1909 by George Pepperdine, the guy who founded the university in California, and the building in KC was a headquarters, built in 1915. It started as the Coca Cola building, and obviously did not have the sign then.

Hold on... oh my, there's even a postcard:

Western Auto bought the building in 1951, and the current sign went up the next year. Western Auto put the building up for sale in 1999, and a few years ago it was converted into condominiums. They kept the sign, and I took the picture. Happy?

The same kind history, some real, some manufactured, is everywhere at Union Station, which is a grand edifice, the likes of which we do not seem inclined to build anymore. Here is a shot that unfortunately came out a bit blurry, but gives a sense of the scale of the place:

At one end, where people used to sit and wait for their trains, they've installed a diner to look like what it used to look like when people used to sit and wait for trains, only it didn't look like that. But it could have.

We found jolly Saint Nick, and, unlike the terrified child who preceded us in line, the boys performed with perfect aplomb in the face of the hefty red-clad hirsute elf.

Crown Center and Union Station, knowing how to draw crowds of frothing choo choo-obsessed 2-5 year olds, parents in tow, had about 650 different trains and train displays. A high school choir, boys in tuxes and girls in formal dresses, sang in the lobby, while we visited the displays of trains and gingerbread houses and trains and whole cities and trains and trees and lights and mirth and all that.

The last picture came from outside, and if the boy doesn't look cold, it's because he wasn't. Not at all. The warm weather robbed some of the Christmas atmosphere, but it sure made it easier to go outside with the kids, and take pictures of the ice skating rink and tree, fountain, and obligatory train.

It was so warm even that the younger boy decided to sit on the ground outside to get a little rest, and we didn't mind.

We didn't mind at all, this Christmas in one small part of our new city, a city every bit as nice this season as DC was last year. In some ways, the important ways, better, and not just because the boys made it so, but because the people in the city were better: friendly and polite in the stores, holding doors for each other, smiling as they circled the rink, free from the weight of the worries of the capital and the sad distrust for fellow man that hangs over the District.

Yet they call them rubes of flyover country, these people who live with the peace of a sense of common decency and joy for life. Call them rubes. Call us rubes, as long as ever it is so.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

I'm fighting an illness. I'm not a physician or anything, but it's probably something cool like the black plague or ebola. Sore throat and the occasional chills--classic symptoms of black plague or ebola. Oooooh, maybe it's typhus--not to be confused with typhoid fever, which is just nasty. Typhus is a good one.

The good Hornblower contracted typhus near the end of Commodore Hornblower and barely survived the ordeal. When Hornblower wakes from the prolonged fever and is informed of what ailed him, he thinks, "The typhus. Gaol fever. The scourge of armies and fleets."

In my sojourn through the Hornblower saga, I've happily ignored all the extra u's and misplaced s's, but I just can't get around the British spelling of "jail." Look at it: Gaol. I see Neanderthals roaming the French countryside. Or maybe some sort of Celtic god of head colds. But never "jail." Not for the first few seconds, anyway--the time it takes to catch myself sounding out "ga-owl." Like an idiot.

On tyranny. Fans of Hornblower will recognize that I am nearing the end of the line now. Commodore Hornblower is the third to last in the series, and I finished the penultimate volume, Lord Hornblower, last night. Only Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies remains, but that one belongs to a different era. The first ten books span the Napoleonic Wars, as Hornblower goes from a young seasick midshipman to a famous commodore commanding fleets.

There is much to recommend in the Hornblower books. Most obviously, the writing, history, and nautical science are all first-rate. But that is not all. The books are in so many ways a conscious primer on leadership--how to maintain discipline and how to inspire, how to keep distance and when to let them in close. Some of those lessons are not well-suited to the American mindset, especially in the relationships with servants and the focus on titles. But overall, I imagine that astute aspiring business leaders could get more out of reading Horatio Hornblower than can be gleened out of the thousands of remainder-rack-fodder books on leadership and four years of the standard business degree combined.

From the historian's perspective, Hornblower provides something else: a long view of the tyranny unleashed on the western world by Napoleon. Ten books give a taste, a small taste, of what it must have felt like to be in almost constant war for over twenty years. Even for those who survived, whole lives were lost in campaigns and battles, marches and bivouacs. Men grew old in uniform. They forgot what peace felt like. They forgot what victory felt like. They forgot what hoping for victory felt like.

Imagine the fortitude it took to resist a great tyrant and military genius for an entire generation--to suffer setback after setback, to see heroes fall, and to lose great battles and win great battles and see none of it bring the end any nearer.

Two centuries later, and our war is yet so small. A Napoleon has not emerged from the cauldron of hatred our enemies stir. Maybe it will stay that way. Maybe the war will remain small, and maybe no new tyrant darkens the future. Then we can stay happy and dumb, living our lives as we are, while pundits and officials play politics with our small wars.

Or maybe what seems small now really isn't. Maybe it's just the beginning.

I honestly don't know. But I can't miss the gray peeking through. Gray that wasn't there when whatever this is began. Gray that wasn't there when the plane hit the tower.

An odd entry, as I look back. Sorry for the mood swings. Blame it on the typhus. Time to sleep it off, and prepare for the low-level disaster that will be the game tonight on NFL Network.

Most likely that's it for the week. Have a nice weekend, and watch out for stray gaols.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Family pride. I can't believe I haven't mentioned this yet: my cousin Nikki is a freshman soccer player at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, and on November 20 the Cougars won the National Christian College National Championship. Here is the story (Nikki is the one in the shorts on the left). I hear she played well in the tournament, especially in the semifinals.

This one time in college, I remember, we won a football game, so I know just how she feels. Or maybe not.

Way to go little cousin. That is frickin' cool.

I can't help it. Every night, when we put the oldest boy to bed, I read to him out of a chapter book of some sort. So far we have read him Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book; Jean Fritz, Why Not Lafayette?; the entire Chronicles of Narnia; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; and some of the original Grimm's Tales. We cut off the last because there was a little too much head chopping off, hanging, and cannibalism for two-year-olds--although I'm told that a fully accredited Ph.D. historian from a school you've heard of says scary stories help repress childrens' burgeoning sexuality. Which is awesome.

Anyway, we've been reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and all the little British children are always running around eating treacle tarts and treacle fudges, and treacle this and treacle that. Not knowing what treacle was, but noticing that Derek keeps talking about things having "treacle" or being "treacly"--do a "search this blog" on DCAT, it's excellent--I figured I ought to look it up.

Turns out "treacle" means "cloying sentiment," and is what Brits call molasses. So that solves that little mystery. But in the course of my research, I ran across a little matter of local history from New England. Apparantly, I'm not making this up, in January 1919, there occured the Boston Molasses Disaster, known also as the Great Molasses Flood, when a large molasses tank burst and flooded a section of town, killing 21 and injuring 150. There is even a book about it, called Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.

I can't help it--I find all that really, really funny.

Have a nice weekend, if you can stand the terror.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Thanksgiving went well. My folks came out from Colorado, as did my sister, brother-in-law, and their three kids. They arrived for dinner on Wednesday, and we treated them to some fine Kansas City German potato sausages from a German meat market called Werner's Specialty Foods. We also made potato pancakes--the key is to puree them in a food processor--and baked apples.

Standard stuff on the big day: turkey, ham, sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes, plus bourbon creamed corn, white cheddar scalloped squash, and cheddar rolls. The wife found a great recipe for turkey and ham Cuban sandwiches on ciabatta bread for Friday night, and on Saturday we made pita bread pizzas so the kids could participate.

Through it all the children watched movies and ran around screaming in anger and joy, adults drank bloody marys, wine, and Irish whiskey while playing dominoes, and everyone had a grand time. None of it was stressful--indeed Terrie and I finished just about every little project we had planned before everyone arrived, including refinishing some old kitchen chairs so they matched the table and touching up the paint around the house. We also completed a 2000 piece old-style gold world map puzzle and I made a frame for it out of molding. It is now hanging it what will be the library.

The library. Sigh. The library, now some 2,300 volumes worth, is still mostly in boxes, even as we approach a year in our new home. The reason is that we are building the shelves, and building the shelves means that we have to go to a friend's house in Topeka to have the right tools, and going to a friend's house in Topeka requires having planning and motivation, and having planning and motivation will eternally be a shortcoming of this particular diarist. That said, the process has begun: wood has been bought for the first three shelves, said wood has been cut, and now the pieces must together be put--hopefully in the next week. On it goes.

What I'm reading. Based in large part on my friend JD's recommendation, I just finished reading Gerhard Weinberg's excellent Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders. I won't get into the details of the book, but I found one part of the section on Franklin Roosevelt especially interesting. Weinberg is first a historian of Germany, and so he brings a slightly different perspective to the vision and policies of FDR for the war. This paragraph, from pages 203-204, stood out:

There were, however, critical differences in Roosevelt's view of Japan and his view of Germany. He registered the dissimilarity between and German public that had turned to National Socialism and had become increasingly enthusiastic about it, on the one hand, and the series of coups, assassinations, and provoked incidents be which the militarists had shot their way to power in Japan, on the other. While Japan, therefore, was to lose all imperial acquisitions gained since its war with China in 1894-95, there is not the slightest indication that Roosevelt ever contemplated for Japan the sort of territorial amputations imposed on Germany--at least to a considerable extent with his approval. Similarly, Roosevelt at no time considered dividing Japan into several separate states, a strategy very much part of his thinking about the future of Germany. The literature that attributes all manner of racist sentiments to American leadership in World War II has conveniently and consistently ignored the fundamentally positive view of Japan held by Roosevelt and his advisors as compared with their perspective on Germany.
Roosevelt probably underestimated the extent to which the Japanese people bought into the militarists' program--see, for one small example, Brian Daizen Victoria, Zen at War--but that's the point, isn't it? He gave the Japanese people the benefit of the doubt, and gave the supposedly superior Germans nothing.

Of course the folks who see racism as the driving force will say that FDR looked at the Japanese people as mindless sheep who could more easily be driven than the intelligent Germans who chose to embrace Nazism. Because everything had a racist motive. Because they'll never be satisfied that racism was but one factor in fighting the Pacific war, and on the American side nowhere near the most important one.

What else I'm reading. Looking for some first-rate fiction, and inspired by the folks in Topeka with all the tools, I'm now reading C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower saga. Hornblower, as most know because of the television series, was Master and Commander long before Russell Crowe put on Jack Aubrey's stockings.

The Hornblower books--which I'm reading in order of the sailor's career, not the order of publication (maybe a mistake, like watching episodes 1-3 before 4-6 or reading The Magician's Nephew before The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe)--are fascinating and exciting and well-worth the effort. I've just finished the three books that make up Captain Horatio Hornblower, and at the end of the third book, Flying Colours, Hornblower has become a national hero for his exploits against Napoleonic France, and he is not too happy about it.

Forester writes:

Prospect, and not possession, was what gave pleasure, and his cross-grainedness would deprive him, now that he had made that discovery, even of the pleasure of prospect.
A common lesson, but put well.

Now back to work--completed books and bookshelves beckon. Happy prospects, those.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Our lovely press. Yesterday we had a bit of a dust-up here at my work, as a result of a Thomas Ricks article in the Washington Post on the American advisory effort in Iraq. It seems Mr. Ricks, or at least a researcher named Julie Tate, discovered the long-available interviews run by the Operational Leadership Experiences team at the U.S. Army's Combat Studies Institute in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Good for them. The interviews are an invaluable source on the current conflict, and a wonderful record of the experiences of hundreds of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I heartily recommend that you do some exploring on their webpage, which is here.

Unfortunately, Ricks and Tate chose to use the interviews to cherry-pick quotations that supported a seriously flawed, opinionated, and out of date news story. So, with no humility whatsoever, I helped Mr. Ricks with a rewrite that more accurately reflects the content of the interviews and the latest information on the training effort in Iraq. The original column is in blue, my rewrites are in black.

Flaws Cited in Effort To Train Iraqi Forces
U.S. Officers Roundly Criticize Program

Effort To Train Iraqi Forces Constantly Evolving
U.S. Officers Recount Difficulties, Successes

The U.S. military's effort to train Iraqi forces has been rife with problems, from officers being sent in with poor preparation to a lack of basic necessities such as interpreters and office materials, according to internal Army documents.

The U.S. military’s effort to train Iraqi forces has overcome innumerable obstacles, including early shortcomings in training and shortages in interpreters, according to Army documents.

The shortcomings have plagued a program that is central to the U.S. strategy in Iraq and is growing in importance. A Pentagon effort to rethink policies in Iraq is likely to suggest placing less emphasis on combat and more on training and advising, sources say.

The adjustments and flexibility of the advising program have been central to the U.S. strategy in Iraq and continue to be important. Ever since the end of major combat operations in the spring of 2003, the Pentagon has shifted its focus from combat to training and advising, sources say.

In dozens of official interviews compiled by the Army for its oral history archives, officers who had been involved in training and advising Iraqis bluntly criticized almost every aspect of the effort. Some officers thought that team members were often selected poorly. Others fretted that the soldiers who prepared them had never served in Iraq and lacked understanding of the tasks of training and advising. Many said they felt insufficiently supported by the Army while in Iraq, with intermittent shipments of supplies and interpreters who often did not seem to understand English.

In hundreds of official interviews compiled by the Army for its public history program, officers who had been involved in the early training and advising of Iraqis frankly discussed the difficulties of the effort. Not surprisingly, some team members were not suited to the task. In addition, the soldiers who prepared the advisors had to work from scratch, since Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a closed society and they could not foresee all of the problems with training and advising an entirely new Iraqi military. Many advisors also added that they could have used more and better interpreters.

The Iraqi officers interviewed by an Army team also had complaints; the top one was that they were being advised by officers far junior to them who had never seen combat. Some of the American officers even faulted their own lack of understanding of the task. "If I had to do it again, I know I'd do it completely different," reported Maj. Mike Sullivan, who advised an Iraqi army battalion in 2004. "I went there with the wrong attitude and I thought I understood Iraq and the history because I had seen PowerPoint slides, but I really didn't."

The Iraqi officers interviewed by an Army team also complained that they were being advised by officers junior to them who had never seen combat. The Americans also recognized the problems of working with Saddam’s former soldiers. “A lot of the officers had previous Iraqi Army experience and nothing I saw of the old Iraqi Army was a good thing,” said Maj. Mike Sullivan. “While we think we’re there to better the welfare of the troops and train the troops, the Iraqi officers I dealt with felt that the troops were there to better their welfare.”

Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. military commander for the Middle East, told Congress last week that he plans to shift increasing numbers of troops from combat roles to training and advisory duties. Insiders familiar with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group say that next month the panel will probably recommend further boosts to the training effort. Pentagon officials are considering whether the number of Iraqi security forces needs to be far larger than the current target of about 325,000, which would require thousands more U.S. trainers.

Gen. John P. Abazaid, the top U.S. military commander for the Middle East, told Congress last week that he plans to continue shifting troops from combat roles to training and advisory duties. Insiders familiar with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group say that next month the panel will probably back this ongoing effort. Pentagon officials are considering whether the number of Iraqi security forces needs to be larger than the current target of about 325,000, which would reinforce the importance of the training program.

Most recently, a closely guarded military review being done for the Joint Chiefs of Staff laid out three options for Iraq. It appears to be favoring a version of one option called "Go Long" that would temporarily boost the U.S. troop level -- currently about 140,000 -- but over time would cut combat presence in favor of training and advising. The training effort could take five to 10 years.

Most recently, a military review being done for the Joint Chiefs of Staff laid out three options for Iraq. It appears to be favoring a version of one option called “Go Long” that would increase the number of troops dedicated to training and advising, while slowly reducing the combat presence. This training effort could take five to 10 years.

Despite its central role in Iraq, the training and advisory program is not well understood outside narrow military circles. Congress has hardly examined it, and training efforts lie outside the purview of the special inspector general on Iraq reconstruction. The Army has done some studies but has not released them. Even basic information, such as how many of the 5,000 U.S. military personnel involved are from the National Guard and Reserves, is unusually difficult to obtain.

Despite its central role in Iraq, outside observers have done a poor job in trying to understand the training and advisory program. Congress and the media have hardly looked into the effort, including ignoring publicly available Army interviews and studies.

But the previously unreported transcripts of interviews conducted by the Army's Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., offer a view into the program, covering a time from shortly after the 2003 invasion until earlier this year.

But the readily accessible transcripts of interviews conducted by the Army’s Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., offer a view into the early program, covering a time from shortly after the 2003 invasion until earlier this year.

One of the most common complaints of the Army officers interviewed was that the military did a poor job of preparing them. "You're supposed to be able to shoot, move and communicate," said Lt. Col. Paul Ciesinski, who was an adviser in northern Iraq last year and this year. "Well, when we got to Iraq we could hardly shoot, we could hardly move and we could hardly communicate, because we hadn't been trained on how to do these things." The training was outdated and lackadaisical, he said, adding sarcastically: "They packed 30 days' training into 84 days."

One of the most common issues of the Army officers interviewed was that they had to adjust their limited training experience to the unique conditions in Iraq. Bolstered by the success of advisory efforts in Kosovo, and unaware of the extent that Saddam’s tyranny had degraded Iraqi institutions, the military at first underestimated the language and cultural barriers to the advising effort. According to Lt. Col. Paul Ciesinski, who was an advisor in northern Iraq beginning in early 2005, the initial training was outdated and incomplete. He added sarcastically, “They packed 30 days’ training into 84 days.”

Sullivan, who advised three infantry companies in the Iraqi army, called the U.S. Army's instruction for the mission "very disappointing."

Sullivan, who advised three infantry companies in the Iraqi army, called the U.S. Army’s initial instruction for the mission “very disappointing.”

Nor were the officers impressed by some of their peers. Maj. Jeffrey Allen, an active-duty soldier, noted that all other members of his team were from the National Guard, and that his team was supposed to have 10 members but was given only five. He described his team as "weak . . . in particular the brigade team chief."

A separate internal review this year by the military's Center for Army Lessons Learned, based on 152 interviews with soldiers involved in the training and advisory program, found that there was "no standardized guideline" for preparing advisers and that such instruction was needed because "a majority of advisors have little to no previous experience or training."

An internal review by the Army’s Center for Army Lessons Learned, based on 152 interviews with soldiers involved in the early training and advisory program, found that "a majority of advisors have little to no previous experience or training."

Lt. Col. Michael Negard, a spokesman for the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, the headquarters for training, said he has not seen the Lessons Learned report and so does not know whether the training has been improved or standardized since that report was issued.

After arriving in Iraq, advisers said, they often were shocked to find that the interpreters assigned to them were of little use. Ciesinski reported that at his base in western Nineveh province, "They couldn't speak English and we would have to fire them."

Nor were there enough interpreters to go around, said Sullivan. "It was a real juggling act" with interpreters, he said, noting that he would run from the headquarters to a company "to borrow an interpreter, run him over to say something, and then send him back."

But he was better off than Maj. Robert Dixon, who reported that during his tour in 2004, "We had no interpreters at the time."

The Center for Army Lessons Learned study, whose contents were first reported by the Wall Street Journal, found one unit that learned after 10 frustrating months that its interpreters were "substandard" and had been translating the advisers' instructions so poorly that their Iraqi pupils had difficulty understanding the concepts being taught.

Trainers and advisers also reported major problems with the Army supply chain. "As an adviser, I got the impression that there was an 'us' and 'them' " divide between the advisers and regular U.S. forces, said Maj. Pete Fedak, an adviser near Fallujah in 2004. "In other words, there was an American camp and then, outside, there was a bermed area for the Iraqis, of which we were part."

Advisers also recalled difficulties with interpreters. Ciesinski reported that at his base some interpreters, “couldn't speak English and we would have to fire them.”

Nor were there enough interpreters to go around, said Sullivan. "It was a real juggling act" with interpreters, he said, noting that he would run from the headquarters to a company "to borrow an interpreter, run him over to say something, and then send him back."

Maj. Robert Dixon, reported that at the beginning of his tour in 2004, "We had no interpreters," so they had to use a lot of volunteers in the Iraqi army, “who could speak English pretty well.”

The Center for Army Lessons Learned study found one unit that learned that its interpreters were "substandard" and had been translating the advisers' instructions so poorly that their Iraqi pupils had difficulty understanding the concepts being taught.

Despite these initial problems, most advisers had positive recollections of their interpreters. They “were our lifeblood,” Sullivan said. “When we finally got these guys, we developed real good relationships with them.” Col. Joseph Buche, who commanded a battalion from the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq in 2003, agreed. “One of our great strengths is that we had more than one interpreter per platoon in our [area of operations] up north.”

Replacing basic office materials was one of the toughest problems advisers reported. "Guys would come under fire so they could get computer supplies, paper and things like that," Sullivan said. "It was a surreal experience."

Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, a staff officer with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 who worked with Iraqi units, came away thinking that the Army fundamentally is not geared to the task of helping the advisory effort.

"The thing the Army institutionally is still struggling to learn is that the most important thing we do in counterinsurgency is building host-nation institutions," he told the interviewers, "yet all our organizations are designed around the least important line of operations: combat operations."

Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, a staff officer with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 who worked with Iraqi units, thought part of the problem came from institutional lag within the Army. “The thing the Army institutionally is still struggling to learn is that the most important thing we do in counterinsurgency is building host-nation institutions," he told the interviewers, "yet all our organizations are designed around the least important line of [counterinsurgency] operations: combat operations." But, he added, “Eventually the institutional Army will catch up.”

There are indications that the catching up has already begun. Dixon says of the new training teams headed to Iraq, “They went through a month’s train up of very standardized training, so what we came up with and what they’re going through now is a lot different.” Advisers need to “know how to do training, training management, understand training, those types of things,” said Maj. Jeffrey Allen. “That being said, most of that is done now.”

Advisers found that the capabilities of Iraqi forces "ran the gamut from atrocious to excellent," as it was put by Lt. Col. Kevin Farrell, who commanded an armored unit in east Baghdad last year and this year.

Many worried that the Iraqi units being advised contained insurgents. An Iraqi National Guard battalion "was infiltrated by the enemy," said Maj. Michael Monti, a Marine who was an adviser in the Upper Euphrates Valley in 2004 and 2005.

Some advisers reported being personally targeted by infiltrators. "We had insurgents that we detected and arrested in the battalion that were planning an operation against me and my team," Allen said.

But Iraqi officers may have had even more to fear, because their families were also vulnerable. "I went through seven battalion commanders in eight weeks," Allen noted. Dixon reported that in Samarra both his battalion commander and intelligence officer deserted just before a major operation.

Iraqis also had some complaints about their U.S. advisers, most notably that junior U.S. officers who had never seen combat were counseling senior Iraqi officers who had fought in several wars. "Numerous teams have lieutenants . . . to fill the role of advisor to an Iraqi colonel counterpart," the Lessons Learned report stated.

Farrell, the officer in east Baghdad, said some advisers were literally "phoning in" their work. Some would not leave the forward operating base "more than one or two days out of the week -- instead they would just call the Iraqis on cellphones," he said.

Dixon was grim about the experience. "Would I want to go back and do it again?" he asked. His unambiguous answer: "No."

Yingling came to a broader conclusion. He recommended an entirely different orientation in Iraq, both for trainers and for regular U.S. units. "Don't train on finding the enemy," he said. "Train on finding your friends, and they will help you find your enemy. . . . Once you find your friends, finding the enemy is easy."

In 2004 and 2005, however, the advisers on the ground had to lead the way, despite the difficulties. Ciesinski said, “The biggest thing I can take out of my year there was overcoming the bad start we had and the lack of training we received.”

According to the latest reports, over 320,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained and equipped – 134,000 in the military and 188,000 in the police forces. True, many of the trained units have done poorly; Lt. Col. Kevin Farrell, who commanded an armored unit in east Baghdad last year and this year, said they “ran the gamut from atrocious to excellent.”

But the raw numbers have had an effect as the Iraqis have become increasingly responsible for their own security over the last two years. And even the early advisers were uniformly proud of the successes of their units, despite the rough start.

“I think we did the best we could under the circumstances,” recalled Dixon. “Our battalion did relatively well.”

When asked if his training team was successful, Allen gave an unambiguous answer, “Oh, absolutely.” He added, “I was glad that I was down in the weeds, living, eating and fighting with the Iraqi soldiers. That was the most rewarding experience that I can possibly think of, being in Iraq.”


Have a Happy Thanksgiving. I'll see you next week.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Where I've been. Well, there's only one thing a man can do when he's suffering from a spiritual and existential funk, and it's not going to the zoo to flip off the monkeys. Although that is fun. And rewarding. Stupid monkeys.

No, the only thing a man can do is blog. Blog like the wind. Blog until his whole heart and soul is on the world wide web for everyone to see.

I'm not really in a funk--I've just been busy and preoccupied. I've been following the post-election fallout with a heavy heart--not because the Republicans lost, but because these elections don't mean anything anymore. Trying times are supposed to bring out the greatness in people, especially, I hope, Americans. But I haven't seen any greatness, except at the mid to lower levels of our military.

So a little William Wallace seems appropriate as advice to our leaders:

Men don't follow titles, they follow courage. Now our people know you. Noble, and common, they respect you. And if you would just lead them to freedom, they'd follow you. And so would I.
True, true, true.

But enough of that, we know down which path these thoughts take us. I don't want to buy any more suits.

This world provides distractions. For example, in regards to our friend Mel Gibson, a thought occurs to me about his drunken anti-Semitism "sugar-tits" rant of earlier this year. A lot of people weighed in on both sides about what the precious, delicious alcohol does to an individual when consumed in large quantities. Some say it makes an individual rant incoherent about stuff they don't actually think or believe. Others say the booze releases inhibitions, and allows people to say what they actually think.

There's merit and truth on both sides. I've noticed that some people who have imbibed a few grow more, let's say, friendly than usual. I've noticed that on one or two occasions I've drank one or two gin and tonics and decided that I'm Dean Martin, only to be told later that Barney from the Simpsons was closer to the mark. Everyone knows that liquor changes the equation at bars and clubs, or else some genius would not have invented the phrase "beer-goggles."

Then again, one time when I had a couple gin and tonics and the missus was quite pregnant with our first boy, I informed her, in all seriousness, that our child would be the first black president. So there's that.

I don't have the first clue what Mel was thinking that night.

Another example of distractions. Ohio State vs. Michigan, about which I have nothing to say except that I hope the Buckeyes win, I wish they would win big so it won't be so damned stressful, but I know the game will be close to torture me and everyone else as much as possible. Which is exactly how it should be.

The Game, as it should be known, will follow a party. Not coincide, mind you, but follow. Because the party's not about the game, but rather a little matter of the first birthday of the little brother to the first black president.

How is that for time flying? As of today, my youngest son is now one year old.

What that also means. We are approaching the one year anniversary of moving to Kansas. One year ago, my son Anthony was born in Northern Virginia. Within a week, my parents were in town. Mom and my wife were watching the newborn, and I drove my dad and my oldest into the capital to go to the Air and Space Museum. As we crossed the 14th Street Bridge, I got the phone call offering the job--if I could start within the next few weeks.

I said I didn't think we could do it, what with the new baby and all. When we got home, I told my wife, and she had me call them back. A few weeks later I started the new job. We moved right after Christmas.

And here we are, one year later, days and nights tumbling one after another. Life continuing. Another election, another big game, a first birthday. Days and nights. Nights and days.

At least the view ain't bad.

Go Buckeyes.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

I, for one, welcome our new Islamicist overlords. I've always thought sharia law was the way to go. No doubting what's important in that system. Keeps one grounded, it does.

Kidding, of course. I am very heartened to see that the center held, to see so many good ole' conservative Blue Dog Democrats are making the trip back to Washington. Good for the Jim Webb's, Heath Shuler's, and Nancy Boyda's. Good for the country. Too bad about Harold Ford, though. A good man running with the wrong name in the wrong state for the wrong party. Switch to Republican Mr. Ford, you'll win in a heartbeat, even as a Ford in Tennessee.

I am also very heartened to see that this election has already shaken Republicans out of their lazy complacency. The removal of Donald Rumsfeld had to happen--he had become too much of a lightning rod for every minor setback in the war in Iraq, including from the prowar and military side, which was most important. He did it to himself by insisting on maintaining prewar levels of funding and prewar conceptions of transforming the military, even when September 11 and the situation on the ground in the war had made it perfectly clear that some of these ideas had to change and that we needed to funnel more money into the military. As a result, everytime anything, no matter how small in historical terms, went wrong in Iraq, Rumsfeld was to blame.

I continue to maintain that the war in Iraq has been a success in all historical terms--we've removed Saddam, set up a fledgling democracy, killed lots of fundamentalists, taken remarkably few casualties--and I wonder if the erstwhile critics of the war will notice, or at least have the criticisms blunted, without Rumsfeld to kick around. Hey, it's not that farfetched: how often have we heard about the Patriot Act since Ashcroft stepped down?

Anyway, it will be most interesting to see how Democrats handle the war now that they have some control. They've said they have better ideas and better tactics, more nuance and more tact--now we'll find out. Something tells me that they will be as useless with the reins of Congressional power as the Republicans have been, and they'll blame the president and his obstruction and the Republicans will blame them back and we'll have another election that will swing back and so on and so forth, as it ever has been in times of peace.

Because it's clear that as a nation we do not believe we are at war.

As for me, I'm unconvinced that the "Stick our Fingers in Our Ears and Yell LALALALALALA Doctrine" will work in this fight.

But I do hear that the new season of "Lost" is fantastic and that Britney and K-Fed are hanging it up, so everything should be fine. Really.

Update: I just found a handy little graphic:

Read the chart. Let it sink in. Wonder, like me, how it is even possible that not a single prominent politician in this country has used these figures to question our commitment to fighting this war. Not one.

If there has ever been a more stark example of how the baby boomers have failed in the face of their generation's greatest test, I haven't seen it.

I'm told we're now to refer to K-Fed as "Fed-Ex." Ha Ha.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Some things you should note. A new issue of The New Criterion is available online. Read whatever you can, but take special note of Victor Davis Hanson's review of Mark Steyn's new book and Paul Johnson's article, "The human race: success or failure?"

The November issue of Commentary is available online. Read the whole thing--they are getting serious about Iran. (Unfortunately, we seem to live in a profoundly unserious country anymore, at least when it comes to defending ourselves from a clear and present danger.)

A new issue of the City Journal is partially online. Be sure to read Victor Davis Hanson's "My Bizarre Libyan Holiday."

More articles from the fall issue of the Claremont Review of Books are now available online. Peter Schramm's wonderful, "Born American, but in the Wrong Place," was included for all to read.

Finally, the latest issue of Doublethink is now available online. I immodestly recommend Tom Bruscino's "George W. Bush, the T.R. of Today." The blabbering author goes on and on, but if any of you have the fortitude to make it through, I would love to hear any comments.

It's not Athens, but it's certainly something. My friend J.D.--the spinach dip guy--found a Sports Illustrated profile of Halloween in Athens, Ohio that pretty much captures the experience. Although I seem to remember a little more nudity and quite a few more profane costumes than SI mentions.

Alas, my Halloweening in Athens days are long gone--I can't believe it's already been two years--so now I'm one of those dad-types who takes his wee ones around to gather candy from neighbors and strangers. My wife, aka "The Talented One," has always been a superstar when it comes to designing and making costumes for Halloween. In the past we've been William Wallace and Murron, a rodeo clown and a red devil, Maximus and Lucilla, Bam Bam and Peebles, a caterpillar and butterfly, and a shotgun wedding (when she was pregnant with the Dominator).

With Dominic outside of his womby prison, the focus turned to the kiddos. We weren't very original at first, even if the boy was cute. Year one saw Dominic as a mini-Braveheart to my full-sized (over-sized) (okay...fat) one. Year two saw Dominic as a mini-caterpillar to my full-sized (okay...fat) one.

But now the boy has developed some personality, even some preferences, and since he's bigger and slightly more vocal than little brother Anthony--who, I might add, we call Mad Dog because he foams at the mouth and has absolutely no sense of self-preservation--the Dominator gets to dictate which way the costumes are going. Since he is enamored of, nay, obsessed with, trains in all forms, what better to be than a train engineer? And take the little brother along for the ride?

Of course, any engineer worth his salt is going to need a train, and given my well-established record as a fat William Wallace and fat caterpillar, the lovely wife thought I would make a good engine. She was right, of course.

It was pretty nippy that night, so the boys were well-bundled.

We shuffled around in full costume to ten or twelve houses, until Mad Dog passed out in the passenger car. We took him home so he could help his mother and a then-homeless former Marine pass out candy, I deboarded the engine (which downgraded my costume to "Fat Burglar"), and Dominic and me joined some other kids and dads to hit up a few more houses for free goodies.

The other dads were all students at the Command and General Staff School, and, as always, friendly, thoughtful, and well-spoken. They are all a few years older than me, but as we were making Beavis and Butthead jokes, it occured to me that I have about a ten-year window here in Leavenworth when the students will be from my quarter-generation, when we will be able to talk in late 1980s to early 2000s lingo without missing a beat. I am glad for that--it's always good to be able to tell someone that you used to grab bearclaws two at a time and get them lodged, and have the listener understand.

Anyway, the Dominator played up the whole I'm-just-two-year-old-and-I-need-help thing to the fullest, and, as he was getting free candy, also got an older lady to hold his hand along the way. He's a genius.

It's not Athens, but it's something. Something better.

And I can't wait till next year, when my wife crams my tubby butt into a scale model of the Titanic.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

For the record. I think Senator Kerry was attempting to tell a joke about the president. That he, of all people, should try to resuscitate the "Bush is a dummy" meme is ridiculous. But there it is: I think Kerry was telling a poorly worded and not funny joke about the president.

Here's the interesting part: it doesn't matter, that line has already become an infamous slur on the military. Three reasons for that--two you already know, one will be my little contribution to the story. The first is that the Republicans are selling the hell out of it as an insult to the troops. The second is that Kerry, despite his service, just doesn't have any credibility when it comes to supporting the troops. As you all well know, he burned up the good will earned with his service when he went before Congress and called American soldiers rapists and murderers. Then he followed that up with his comments about our troops terrorizing women and children in Iraq. He's got a long antimilitary record, so it is awfully hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The third point is most interesting and most important. Kerry's silly joke as a slur on the military was, to use the silly phrase, fake but accurate. He may not have been making a crack about the intelligence and education of our servicemen, but it is pretty clear that he and his ilk believe that the enlisted men and women in the U.S. military joined because they are poor, uneducated, underprivileged, and out of options.

It's been the same story throughout American history--the military as a profession has been looked down upon by large sections of American society, even as Americans have respected and rewarded military valor. Congress cut funding for the professional military every chance it has gotten. In the 1840s, Ulysses S. Grant had a street urchin make fun of him in his uniform after he graduated from West Point. By the late nineteenth century, new immigrants were overrepresented in the military because native Americans eschewed soldier work. World War I was supposedly a rich man's war but poor man's fight, and World War II was simply a job to do until the war ended and everyone could get out of the service. Vietnam became in popular imagination yet another poor (and black) man's fight, even though it wasn't.

For a short time, the post-Vietnam, post-draft military had all kinds of problems with recruiting and testing and criminals and all that. The idea had become embedded in some circles that people only joined the military because they are victims with no other choice, and no amount of evidence to the contrary seems to change minds (see below).

Kerry's gaffe will have legs not because of the Republicans or his own shady record with dealing with the military, but because some vocal Democrats are already saying that even if the senator didn't say what we think he said, if he had said it, he would be right. Got that?

For the record II. (In regard to the educational attainment of American soldiers.) I put these links, comments, and numbers in the discussion at Big Tent, but I'm afraid they might be buried, so they are reproduced here for easy reference.

According to a report by the Heritage Foundation:

"The percentage of recruits from the poorest American neighborhoods (with one-fifth of the U.S. population) declined from 18 percent in 1999 to 14.6 percent in 2003, 14.1 percent in 2004, and 13.7 percent in 2005."

"By assigning each recruit the median 1999 household income for his hometown ZIP code as deter­mined from Census 2000, the mean income for 2004 recruits was $43,122 (in 1999 dollars). For 2005 recruits, it was $43,238 (in 1999 dol­lars). These are increases over the mean incomes for the 1999 cohort ($41,141) and 2003 cohort ($42,822). The national median published in Cen­sus 2000 was $41,994. This indicates that, on aver­age, the 2004 and 2005 recruit populations come from even wealthier areas than their peers who enlisted in 1999 and 2003.

When comparing these wartime recruits (2003-2005) to the resident population ages 18-24 (as recorded in Census 2000), areas with median household income levels between $35,000 and $79,999 were overrepresented, along with income categories between $85,000 and $94,999."

"Additionally, in the most recent edition of Population Representation in the Military Services, the Department of Defense reported that the mean reading level of 2004 recruits is a full grade level higher than that of the comparable youth population."
College graduates are not underrepresented among enlistees who become enlisted men and women, because the overwhelming majority of those people are 18-21. Almost no one in that age range is a college graduate, so they are exactly proportionate to the general population. But in that age range, roughly 75% of the general population are high school grads, while 98-99% of those in the military have high school diplomas--meaning they are on average smarter and better educated than the general population.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005, 25.3% of veterans 25 years and older have at least a bachelor's degree, as opposed to 27.2% of the general population.

Over 33% of veterans over 25 have some college or associate degrees, while 26.6% of the general population does. And the number of veterans enrolled in programs towards college degrees is increasing.

Even accounting for no other factors like career choice, the proportion of veterans with at least bachelor's degrees is almost exactly the same as the proportion of the general population. So in no way are college graduates underrepresented in our military--many of them have just put off their education until later.

Oh, and individual veterans make a median income of $33,973 a year, a full $10,000 more than the average nonveteran.

Someone page John Kerry, Michael Moore, Daily Kos, and all the other people I linked above who want to paint our servicemen and women as poor unwitting victims of a distant elite.

They've got it all wrong. Our servicemen and women are the elite.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Defense on offense. The Department of Defense has a new webpage that is kind of bloggy in nature called "For the Record." The page's mission seems to be disputing factual and opinion claims from the larger media about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Good for the Defense Department. Whatever we might think of the war or the way it is being waged, it is a good thing for there to be a place where those who are waging the war can respond openly and clearly to criticisms.

Spread the word, and let's hope they keep it up.

What I've been reading. Among the books I've been reading is a collection of fantasy short stories by Robert Heinlein. Included among those stories is "--And He Built a Crooked House," which originally appeared in print in 1940. The story begins thusly:

Americans are considered crazy anywhere in the world.

They will usually concede a basis for the accusation but point to California as the focus of the infection.
A reminder of an ever growing tradition, lest our friends on the west coast get too excited about their dairy proficiency.

I'm just getting started on Heinlein--in addition to this collection, I've also read The Green Hills of Earth and the fantastic Starship Troopers--and I have already learned that Heinlein had a relentlessly creative mind. But more than that, he was an excellent writer, which is not always the case for science fiction and fantasy.
One "how times have changed" observation from his work: he can't get away from smoking. Just about all of his stories are set in the future from the mid-twentieth century, and no matter how far forward he goes, the people smoke. They smoke indoors, they smoke in spaceships, there is even a story that directly talks about disgarding ashes in a weightless environment. For Heinlein, smoking is almost a writing tick that he can't help but use in describing a scene.

A blogger sat at his desk, hidden among stacks of books and loose papers, a cigarette smoldering in a metal ashtray next to the keyboard. He took a drag and pretended he could write fiction.

I wonder what little things are accepted parts of our everyday life, but will be gone or very different in fifty years.

Another example. Yesterday Ren and I watched football all afternoon on the DIRECTV NFL Ticket. We also ate about three pounds of glorious spinach dip.

Last week, when I wrote my entry about the chili party, I was grasping for some description of the size and shape of the possum in the cornbread. I eventually concluded that the critter was about the size of a pumpernickel round. Which, inevitably, got me thinking about eating pumpernickel, which got me thinking about using the pumpernickel to scoop up some sort of tasty sauce or dip. Which got me thinking about my friend JD's spinach dip, a staple at many gatherings in Athens, Ohio. But ever since a couple years ago when JD moved to the northwest to run around in the rain and get chased by Big Foot, I haven't had the spinach dip.

Later that day, JD sent me an email to congratulate my work on Cleveland '64 that clearly convinced the Browns to get rid of Offensive Coordinator Maurice Carthon. JD also let me know that the hard copies of my little book--which had previously been available electronically online, but now are available for purchase from the Government Printing Office, Amazon, or for free to government or education addresses at this webpage--had arrived at his work.

I took the opportunity to ask JD by email for his spinach dip recipe, and he kindly obliged. And Ren and I watched football all afternoon yesterday and ate about three pounds of dip out of a possum-sized pumpernickel round.

Now did any science fiction writer predict the internet and the way it would change all our lives?

Finally, this has no redeeming qualities. It is profane, disgusting, offensive, and terrible. So of course I pass it on to you, my dear friends. (Thanks to Cliopatria for the tip.)

See you later.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Columns and articles that I found interesting recently.

Victor Davis Hanson, "The Wonders of Hindsight," tells us to suck it up and finish the job. A useful antidote to the "woe is me" stuff coming from all corners about the Iraq war over the last few weeks.

Mark Steyn, "Fear of too many babies is hard to bear," celebrates the birth of the 300 millionth living American the other day. His concluding graph brings this lovely line of truth: "The reality is that in a Western world ever more wizened and barren the 300 millionth American is the most basic example of American exceptionalism."

In Monday's Bleat, James Lileks talked to his dad, did an internet search, and found an incredible story about his great-grandfather's night outside the perimeter on Hoth.

David Brooks, "Where the Right Went Wrong," is a review of Andrew Sullivan's new book on conservatism. More than just a reminder of what we all miss now that the Times hides Brooks behind their noxious firewall, Brooks has once again tapped into a fundamental truth about Americans:

As for Sullivan’s conservatism of doubt, I’m sympathetic. I know only two self-confessed Oakeshottians in Washington — Sullivan and me. And yet Oakeshott’s modesty can never be the main strain in one’s thinking, though it should always be the warning voice in the back of your mind.

Sullivan notes that Oakeshott “couldn’t care less about politics as such, who wins and loses, what is now vulgarly called ‘the battle of ideas.’ ” His thought was poetic, not programmatic.

Well, if you want to sit in a cottage and bet on horses, fine. But if you actually want to govern, such thinking is of limited use. It doesn’t make sense to ask how an Oakeshottian would govern because an Oakeshottian could never get elected in a democracy and could never use the levers of power if somehow he did. Doubt is not a political platform. Hope is.

Oakeshott was wise, but Oakeshottian conservatism can never prevail in America because the United States was not founded on the basis of custom, but by the assertion of a universal truth — that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain rights. The United States is a creedal nation, and almost every significant movement in American history has been led by people calling upon us to live up to our creed. In many cases, the people making those calls were religious leaders. From Jonathan Edwards to the abolitionists to the civil rights leaders to the people fighting AIDS and genocide in Africa today, religiously motivated people have been active in public life. They have been, in their certainty and their willingness to apply divine truths, fundamentalists — if we want to use Sullivan’s categories. You take those people out of American politics and you don’t have a country left.
And finally, Joseph Epstein, "Ugly, Thorny Things," about how facts have outpaced ideas in the modern world.

The point should look very familiar to historians who constantly hear the lament that we need more big idea synthetic narrative accounts and then watch big idea synthetic narrative accounts get torn apart by specialists with all the facts and none of the perspective.

Ideas matter. Big ideas matter bigger. The big idea that is America matters biggest of all. Read these five articles together and see what that means. Read on to see what it means to me.

Gather up everyone. This past weekend we had our annual Chilifest--an event of stupendous proportions, frequented by all the most important players, featuring the greatest colllection of chili and people ever gathered in my garage.

Most of the neighborhood turned out, despite the grinding poverty caused by rising housing costs in the midwest. Carlos from across the street--he's of Puerto Rican descent and a guard at the federal prison--contributed a couple of eight foot tables. Dave and Kelly are also from across the street, but they are from Texas (A&M fans) and he's a student at the Command and General Staff College and she's a social worker. They brought an amazing bacon cheese cornbread and these little bite sized orange blossum muffins. Jim and Kelli (surveyor and elementary school teacher), Kansas natives who live kind of next door to us, brought sausages and a pumpkin roll. Eric does development for Baker University and Lisa is a physician and they came up from the Overland Park area with their infant son and brought Eric's venison chili and sweet potatoe pie. Robin, an editor and master map maker from my work, brought cinnamon rolls. About thirty-five people in all showed up, coming from near and far, bringing various contributions to the party.

I made four pots of chili, and we borrowed a few crock pots from the neighbors to set up a serving table in the garage. Saturday was cold and blustery all day--perfect for chili. Everyone ate their fill while the kids ran around and climbed on the as yet unpacked boxes of books in our someday library. The Kansas natives drank beer and discussed the collapse of the Jayhawks at the hands of lowly Baylor and wondered aloud when basketball season started. I talked fantasy football with our real estate agent's husband, who also happens to be the local fire chief.

Later, when all but Dave and Kelly had left, we half cleaned up and sat around drinking beer and playing dominoes, while their youngest daughter and our oldest boy watched Chicken Little on the TV downstairs. My mom called to see how everything went, and my wife went out to the garage to talk to her on the phone. The wife called us out to the garage, and lo and behold we discovered that a possum, roughly the size of a large round of pumpernickel, was sitting on top of a table in the middle of Kelly's cast iron skillet of cornbread, munching away. Kelly, who is from Texas but has family in Arkansas, announced that she was from the South, and proceeded to try to push the critter off the skillet with a paper plate. The possum, apparently in some sort of bacon-chees-cornbread catatonic state, just looked at her. I grabbed a broom and tried smacking the thing on the ass to get it off the table, but, having found the motherload, it wouldn't budge, and Kelly declared there was no need to hurt the rodent, "cause it wasn't hissing or anything." (She also informed us and it that if it was hissing, she would have put it in a pot and made a stew out of it.) So Kelly grabs the handle of the skillet, flips it over, and starts shaking it, all while the possum is hanging on to its precious corn bread for dear life. Finally, it let go and waddled out of the garage--and then most likely passed out in my lawn like grandpa on the couch at Thanksgiving. We wondered if any of the corn bread could be saved, but the hair and possum droppings were too much for even the Southerner, and we had to sacrifice the rest of the pan to the corn bread gods.

After braving the native fauna, and after closing the garage door, we went back to the beer and dominoes. I lost (because my wife cheats), we put the boy down (well after his bedtime), the neighbors headed home (to put down their own delirious child), and the wife and I hit the sack (to settle into our own chili-cornbread comas). A good day.

In the meantime, the people who used to gather at our Chilifests were once again circled around the pit, or rather pits, as in barbeque pits, at the Ohio Smoked Meat Festival and Competition down in Nelsonville, Ohio. Our friend Robert sent a picture, and all looked well.

We should have taken more pictures at the Chilifest, especially of that damn possum, but our digital camera has finally called "uncle." Not that I'm mad at it, it did fine work for nearly seven years. It even had the charming feature of storing the pictures on 3.5 inch disks--useful once, long ago, when USB ports were still a mysterious portal requiring 750 different drivers and an R2 unit to make them work. Now they don't even put 3.5 inch drives on new computers unless by request, and the kids think the disks are some sort of cheap coaster designed to fit in the front pockets of the flannel shirts of 1990s grungeheads. Damn whippersnappers, with their XBox12s and video IPods and automated parallel parking Lexuses. They don't know how tough we had it back in the day.

So sorry, no possum. But the other picture we didn't take was one of everyone together--that fine tradition of gathering friends at an occasion to remember what you did and who was there. Think of all those pictures, from team photos and family gatherings to parties with friends and posing in front of landmarks on vacation. In my work I've noticed how often our troops gather to take photos to commemorate an operation or campaign. I have many such pictures saved in my computer--pictures full of faces with names known only to those who were there. But that's the point: for those who were there to remember the faces and names and all the times they gathered with friends and family, wherever they might be, on good days and bad.

The Chilifest 2006 has no such picture, but we'll find other ways to remember that good day. And we'll look forward, ever forward, to the next one.

Oh yeah, one more thing. He went back one more time to gorge himself on the free meat (and miss the Chilifest), but one of the friends from Ohio is moving out here to Kansas as of, well, later today.

That's right, as part of my evil plan to move everyone I know to Kansas so we can build a Corleone-esque compound from which to rule the state (or at least eat lots of barbeque), our friend Ren is moving to town to work with the team at the Combat Studies Institute. We couldn't be more excited.

And of course I have a better picture of Ren, but zooming in a putting a circle around his face has a "Hitler in Munich"...

...or "John Wilkes Booth at Lincoln's Second Inaugural"...

...kind of feel. Not that Ren is Hitler or Booth.

Or is he? After all, it is my evil plan.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of traditional art. So of course I was drawn to the article in the recent Smithsonian Magazine called "The Painter Who Hated Picasso." I don't know about all that--I like a lot of Picasso--but Sir Alfred Munnings had it more right than wrong when he said:

I find myself a president of a body of men who are what I call shilly-shallying. They feel there is something in this so-called modern art....Well, I myself would rather have—excuse me, my Lord Archbishop—a damned bad failure, a bad, muddy old picture where somebody has set down what they have seen than all this affected juggling....Not so long ago I spoke in this room to the students, and....I said to those students, 'if you paint a tree, for God's sake try and make it look like a tree, and if you paint a sky, try and make it look like a sky....'


"What are pictures for?" To fill a man's soul with admiration and sheer joy, not to bewilder and daze him."
Unfortunately, the linked article has no images, so here is the Google Image search for "Alfred Munnings." There is much to enjoy there, but this is pretty representative of his landscape work:

As usual, but by coincidence, James Lileks sums up the issue nicely with his riff on the new Denver Art Museum at the end of this Bleat.

Also from that Smithsonian, a short funny article by an intelligent person dealing with a conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy this time was the classic "Oh, everybody knows the moon landings were faked."

What is interesting, from my perspective, about the author's response is that he comes at it from a scientific perspective. Check out his account of the give and take:

"The pictures are all perfect," he said.

"Because there is no air," I replied. "Which means no dust, so that distant objects on the moon still appear crisp."

"But they're perfectly focused."

"The published ones are perfectly focused, sure. Nobody wants to see the astronaut's thumb."

His eyes narrowed. "The flag is flapping. How is that possible when there's no wind?"

"It's not flapping," I said. "It's unfurling. Well, not unfurling, but that's the point—it was folded during the flight, and it didn't unfold fully even after they hung from the flagpole."

"OK, maybe. But those supposed moon rocks"—he did that annoying curly-finger quote thing—"could have easily been faked in a lab somewhere on earth."

"There's no water in them," I said. "Nor do they have compositions that are commonly found on earth."

"But you could make them," he insisted. "In a lab."

I clenched my teeth. "It would take less research to just go get them from the actual moon!"

His nostrils flared. He was coming in for the kill now. "What about...radiation! People can't go through the Van Halen belts. They’d be fried."

"Van Allen belts."


"The Apollo traveled through the Van Allen belts in less than an hour. It would take far longer than that for the exposure to affect them."

I launched into a lecture on relative dosage, my area of expertise. But I didn't stop there. In my fury, my three semesters of college physics resurfaced. I shoved the snack plates out of the way and positioned an olive centrally in the cleared space.

"This is earth," I growled. I snatched four cheese puffs, to represent the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts, then grabbed some Twizzlers and modeled the solar wind and the earth's magnetosphere and the bow shock region.

I started spewing mathematical formulas, not because it was crucial to my argument but to intimidate. "Do you understand?" I finally demanded.
All of the scientific arguments are, or course, correct, but I never would have gone about convincing the conspiracy theorist that way. As a historian, I'm a subject of the humanities, so my thinking on matters such as these leans toward the fallability and inconsistencies of the human condition. Faking the moon landings (and 9/11) would have required a conspiracy so complex, involving so many people operating in absolute secrecy, and run with search perfect competance that it really is beyond the abilities of mankind. Put it this way: faking the moon landings would require more skill than actually landing on the moon.

It seems I'm not alone in thinking this way. Note what finally gives the conspiracy theorist pause in the article:

Finally, my coup de grĂ¢ce: "The Russians."

He knit his brow.

"They had the first satellite, the first man in space, the first spacewalk," I said. "Then America gets the first man on the moon? That's like getting tripped by the other team's mascot. But have the Russians ever said the moon landing was a hoax?"

From now on I will start with this question. He backed away, admitting that perhaps—just maybe—I had a point.
I must say that it is fascinating that this doubter did not believe the American government and the thousands of Americans who worked on the space program, but the Soviet government, long noted for its honesty, seems to get the benefit of the doubt. But leaving that aside, the point of Russian silence on the issue is a very human one. And course, that point has just been added to any argument I have to make at cocktail parties against faking the moon landings.

Not that I go to any cocktail parties. No time for such trifles in a busy life of seeing to the maintenance and cleanup of two high-speed sustenance conversion devices. Time-consumers of all-time, they are. Especially this last weekend, when the cycle of feed-clean-up, activity-clean-up, expunge-clean-up was punctuated by new teeth/developing cold whining and moaning and not sleeping from both machines.

Note to the uninitiated: you know you're in for a long night when the two-year-old points to his right ear and says "Boo boo."

But what amazes me is what troopers they are--when they want to have fun and play, they don't care how sick they feel, they just go have fun and play. In part it is toughness--on Saturday night, the neighbors' daughter (who is two weeks younger than my 11 month old but has been walking for two months already) decided to try to challenge my younger boy's massive melon with a vicious headbutt. It was classic, he was just sitting there while we were talking about his gigantic gourd, and she walks up, cocks her head back, and headbutts him right on the top of the head. And he just looks up, like hey, what was that? All the adults gasped, which made him get scared, and the girl stumbled over to her mom with a large red mark in the middle of her forehead. And that was it--no crying, no complaining, not a mark on the boy. He's got a head like a coconut and he's extremely tough--which is useful because he has absolutely no self-preservation instinct and tries to hurt himself at every opportunity.

But part of the kids playing while they are sick is that they refuse not to play. They might get tired quicker, but dammit, they are going to play. Mind over matter.

I never missed a football game for a cold, whether it be strep throat, the flu, or a sinus infection. I wanted to play the games that bad. Which is approximately half as much as my kids want to play with toy trucks even when they have ear infections. Amazing little machines, they are. I don't miss the cocktail parties at all.

(Besides, I can save my moon landings argument for late on the weekends, when we drink beers around the fire pit in the backyard.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Love it. Like anyone, I hate telemarketers. Actually, I take that back, I hate telemarketing. The telemarketers are poor saps who somehow got into a soul-sucking job. I don't hate them--unless they do not understand what the word "no" means, then they feel the full wrath of me hanging up by pressing the "talk" button on my cordless phone with much vigor. At such times, I pine for the days when we could slam down the receiver on old corded phones, causing the bell inside to issue a long angry solitary peel--the one you imagine the people on the other end can hear (because in the movies that person always jerks his head away, as if someone just set off an air horn in his ear), when the truth is the line just goes dead for them. Yet I'd still rather slam the phone, because no matter how hard I press that button, it still gives me the same old heartless beep when it cuts off the call.

(Note to Battlestar Galactica fans, there's the difference between humans and cylons--a human would know, intuitively, why slamming an old phone is better than hanging up a new cordless.)

Where was I going with all this? Oh yeah, a guy named Tom Mabe has made a little career out of messing with telemarketers. Go to this page and listen to a recent example of how he handled a call he got from a satellite company (which, apropos of nothing, I'm 95% sure is Dish Network [EchoStar], because they are based in the Littleton, Colorado area, right by where I went to high school.) I laughed out loud.

Reading update. Here's the first of a semi-regular feature on something I have read recently.

I am more than halfway through this version of The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle. That means I've read the Adventures and the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, but I have not yet read The Hound of the Baskervilles or the Return of Sherlock Holmes. I'm in an operational pause, and I wish I had The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, but I can say that they are every bit as good as advertised. A very pleasant surprise is that beyond being good stories, the adventures of Holmes often provide little insights into turn of the century Anglo-American society and culture. Two examples stand out in this regard, particularly for their American connections: "The Five Orange Pips," which is a reminder of a time when the Ku Klux Klan had not yet had its second and third incarnations, and was still a mysterious and frightening secret society. And "The Yellow Face," which if I explained why it is interesting, it would give away the story. The links above are to the full stories, so read them at your pleasure.

Sentence I will never write again: Yesterday morning, as I was getting coffee in the downstairs of the office section of Eisenhower Hall, an Armenian army major asked me for a light.

That's what happens when you work where I work.

PAY ATTENTION. What also happens at my work is that we get access to some of the greatest stories you will ever hear. One such story comes from Staff Sergeant David Bellavia, who did some serious fighting in Iraq. His tale is so remarkable that he has now sold his memoir for a tidy sum. Good for him, he has most assuredly earned it. The book should be out sometime next year.

In the meantime, you can get a preview of his experiences from an interview he did with a friend of mine. Here is the abstract to the interview:

The leader of 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, Task Force 2-2 Infantry in Fallujah during Operation Phantom Fury (Al Fajr), Staff Sergeant David Bellavia was recommended for the Medal of Honor, nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross and received the Silver Star for his actions on 10 November 2004 in which he "single handedly saved three squads of his platoon that night, risking his own life by allowing them to break contact and reorganize. He then entered and cleared an insurgent strongpoint, killing four insurgents and mortally wounding another." In this interview, focusing on the entirety of his Phantom Fury experiences and on the intense room-to-room, at times hand-to-hand, combat that characterized that one night in particular, Bellavia offers the ultimate on-the-ground insider's story of this seminal urban operation, which culminated, he said, in Task Force 2-2 combining to put "a lot of pure evil permanently out of business." As perceptive and introspective as it is raw and action-packed, Bellavia's account touches on everything from doctrinal, training and technology recommendations to his warm recollections of his 2-2 comrades: from the battalion commander who, "if you beat in the face with a shovel his expression wouldn't change," and the company commander who was "the most honorable man I have ever met in my life," to the countless soldiers and NCOs who helped make his service "the greatest experience in my life." "War is horrific and ghastly," Bellavia readily admitted. "There are ghoulish images that we all endure and it's impossible to not be changed forever. But only in the midst of the worst mankind can produce can you truly see the beauty of human nature: self sacrifice, true honor, unprecedented loyalty - all the Army values displayed in person. When you have the chance to serve your nation with men and women you trust and love; when leaders two tax brackets above your pay grade carry rifles on the field next to you; and when you see your peers take bullets for you - that environment," he concluded, "would motivate the most ardent anti-victory opponent of this conflict."
Go to the link above, click on "Access this item," read the whole thing, and be thankful that we have people like David Bellavia protecting our country. I know I am.