Pages

December 21, 2014

Rush to Judgment

The Kennedy assassination is perhaps the most studied moment in modern history. The Warren Commission took nearly a thousand pages to arrive at conclusions that were immediately contested. The Zapruder tape has been dissected frame by frame. The events of that day have been painstakingly recreated many times. No event has been examined in more detail, and yet I doubt that anyone would say that the truth is fully known.

The Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote that in war, truth is the first casualty. I would argue that the truth of anything is impossible to know, a truism we ignore at our own peril. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent events in Ferguson and New York, events that more and more seem to have played a part in yesterday's killing of two NYPD patrolmen in Brooklyn.

The specific circumstances of Ferguson and New York have been gone over and over. Like the Kennedy assassination, there were many eyewitness accounts and videos of the events as they unfolded. Yet, after all the testimony both oral and visual, what do we really know? Two black men were involved in physical confrontations with white police officers (although in New York, the on-scene supervisor was not white). Both black men resisted arrest. In both cases, the policemen involved reacted with what turned out to be deadly force. Two men ended up dead in circumstances that no one thinks should have had that outcome. The debate goes on as to who was most responsible for what happened, who could have or should have shown more restraint.

If either side had reacted differently, perhaps we wouldn't be where we are today, dealing with another tragedy. A young man decided to kill the things he hated -- an ex-girlfriend, two cops and finally, himself. The debate will rage over what role the overheated rhetoric stemming from protests in Ferguson and New York played in motivating his actions. We may never know for sure. Clearly, this guy had a lot of problems we have yet to fully understand.

That won't stop the endless speculation on CNN and social media, or in the comments sections of online articles. It's funny how we always are told not to trust the media. But here's the thing: in today's world of Twitter and Facebook, we the people are the media. So, yeah, don't trust the media. Always keep in mind another truism: believe half of what you see and none of what you hear. How often do we need to see initial impressions turned on their head by later insights to remember not to rush to judgment?

We can never know the totality of events surrounding a moment in history, even when we watch events unfold on video. We can never know what was going on in someones head, what totality of life experiences influenced what they were thinking and feeling during a crisis. The truth of anything is impossible to know.

December 15, 2014

Midrash

There's a reason why the Pharisees get such bad press in the Gospels. They were the Christians' chief challengers in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Jews in the immediate aftermath of the Second Destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD. In fact, the Pharisees believed in the primacy of the Golden Rule and placed the highest value on compassion when seeking guidance from scripture. But every story needs a villain, and the Christians conveniently chose their arch-rivals to fill the bill.

As a way of coping with the loss of the Second Temple, the Pharisees continued and expanded a Jewish tradition of looking for new meanings in texts that might help explain what had just happened, a process called midrash. In applying midrash to texts, one skipped past the literal meaning of the words in search of new meanings, new interpretations that would have relevance to present day issues. In her book, "The Bible: A Biography," Karen Armstrong writes: "The goal was never simply to clarify an obscure passage but to address the burning issues of the day."

This wasn't something the Pharisees invented. The idea of reshaping the texts in the Torah to make them more relevant to contemporary audiences had been going on for centuries; nor were the Pharisees the only ones to look for new meaning in old texts. The new kids on the block, the Christians, also undertook to re-examine the Old Testament to find ways in which it presaged the coming of Christ. So yeah, a great deal of effort was expended on rewriting the Bible to fashion a narrative that would explain what was going on, be it the destruction of the Temple or the arrival of a messiah.

There is no better time of the year than Christmas to contemplate the harsh reality that writers don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. The only verifiable fact is that Christ was indeed born. Pretty much everything else we think of when we think of the Nativity -- the manger, the wise men, the virgin birth -- were written into the plot to create links back to the Old Testament in order to bolster the case for Christ as the messiah whose coming had been foretold.

And yet we cling stubbornly to the myth. Why is that? Maybe for the same reason that Hollywood continues to make movies about Moses, a figure who never existed. We need a narrative that explains the ups and downs of life, that connects us to those who went before us, that gives us hope, that somehow makes sense out a world that very often makes no sense at all. Certainly, there is more comfort to be found in the image of the baby Jesus in the arms of his mother than in the enigma that surrounds the riddle of quantum physics. A theory of everything is all well and good, but it doesn't comfort us when we grieve.

We are only human. We still need our gods. We still need our myths. The day that changes is the day we are no longer human. Some might welcome that day. Some might argue that day is much closer than we like to think, that we are well on the way to engineering our successor species. Will our replacements share a creation myth? Will they long for a redeemer, the great programmer in the sky? Or will they sleep a dreamless sleep and awaken to a world governed by algorithms? I for one am glad I won't be around to find out.

November 11, 2014

Flop

So I'm reading this book about Vietnam. Mostly photos, some narrative. The kind of book you flip through without spending a lot of time reading the text. Until you get to page 106. There you find a photo of a letter written by Jim Hart, who was assigned to the 12th Security Police Squad at the Phu Cat Air Base. He was in the Sentry Dog Section. With his partner Flop, Hart patrolled the perimeter of the Air Base. Like all such teams, they grew very close. Inevitably, there came the day when Hart would leave Vietnam. Hart describes the moment he said good-bye to Flop in a letter he left at the Wall:
I didn't want to leave you behind in Vietnam but I had no choice. I told you where I was going and I know you understood. I know you wanted to go home with me, please forgive me. I thought you'd be coming home someday. Had I had any idea the military had no intention of bring you home I never would have left you. The way you looked into my eyes; I really believe you were reading my mind. Coming home was great, but knowing you were still over there bothered me a lot. All these years, I never knew what had happened to you and there was never anyone to talk to who would truly understand what I was going through.
Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows exactly what Hart is talking about when he says Flop understood that he was being left behind by his master. You've seen that look in a dog's eyes when you are leaving, and you've seen the joy they experience at the moment of reunion. To know that moment will never come, to know there will never be that reunion, to know that you are leaving behind a partner who day after day, month after month, gave you total loyalty, total love ... Jesus Christ, how do you deal with it?

If there was ever a more gut-wrenching description of the cost extracted by a war, I haven't come across it. I read the descriptions of My Lai in that same book and was largely unmoved. Maybe unmoved is the wrong word. My Lai is something I don't dwell on, because you have to be willing to ask yourself if on that day, having gone through what the soldiers of Company C had gone through in the days and weeks leading up to the tragedy ... you have to be willing to ask yourself if you would have stood up or stood by. Anyone who says they have the answer to that question just doesn't get it.

If you are wondering what happened to Flop, what it was that Jim Hart found out, well, it's just what you might think if you imagined the worst possible outcome. Left behind by his master, Flop went from handler to handler, each of whom went home and left Flop behind. Finally, Flop had had enough and refused to work with anyone else. The Air Force put him down.

On this Veterans Day, if you want to think about war and what it does to the people who are caught up in it, then the story of Flop is as good a place as any to start. You come to understand that the war never ends. You leave it behind, but it comes home with you, a feeling of unfinished business that hangs over you for decades. No matter what you did, whether you were a grunt or a cook or a boy with a dog, so much is given, so much is left behind, so many wounds to the heart, wounds too painful to talk about even if you could find someone to talk to. We ask too much. Always, we ask too much.

Flop with Jim Hart
 The book is "Not Yet At Ease: Photographs Of America's Continuing Engagement With The Vietnam War," written by David Chananie.

October 11, 2014

Fifty Years After

An article published today in the New York Times takes a look at the controversy surrounding the effort by the Pentagon to stage a 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War. Which raises an interesting question. How do you commemorate a war that was a mistake, a war whose soldiers were branded as drug-addled losers and baby-killers, a war that was detested by a significant percentage of the population, a war that began with a lie and ended in defeat and chaotic retreat? Somehow, a pat on the back and a "thank you for your service" doesn't seem to cut it.

For that matter, whose war will we commemorate? Is it about the men and women who fought in it, the politicians and generals who got us into it and kept us in it, or the men and women who tried to get us out of it? That debate remains robust, judging by the comments that accompanied the article in the Times.

Most of the attention has focused on the web site, in particular an Interactive Timeline that purports to show the key events of the war. The gist of the objections is that the web site is just another attempt by the Pentagon to write a history of the Vietnam War that glosses over unpleasant events such as the massacre at My Lai and underplays what many people see as critical elements of the story, most especially the scope and impact of protests against the war.

There is some meat in the web site, especially the part called Primary Documents, a work in progress that includes many valuable source documents, including extracts from the Pentagon Papers and key diplomatic reports. Anyone seriously interested in learning the history of the Vietnam War should start there. Personally, I found the Interactive Timeline to be a failed effort, at least in this iteration. It's hard to say this without sounding disrespectful, but the decision to include the citations for every Congressional Medal of Honor winner in the timeline seriously disrupts the flow. Better there should be a separate area that lists all the CMH winners, with links to each citation from the related battle or action in the Interactive Timeline. Equally baffling is the lack of links from the Interactive Timeline to the Primary Documents area.

All that is beside the point. The Vietnam War has always been about more than the war and those who fought it. It was also about the changing times during which the war was waged and the changing attitudes of the American people towards their government. A social revolution became a political revolution as opponents of the war took to the streets to protest our involvement in Indochina. No history of the Vietnam War is complete without that chapter, and therein lies the difficulty with a Pentagon-sponsored history. Even fifty years later, it is clearly hard for the military to give anything more than lip service to a movement that at the time was seen by them as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

For me, the reasoning behind the program --"to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War ... for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States and to thank and honor the families of these veterans" -- rings hollow. I'm sorry, but the brutal reality is that the hardest part of being in the Vietnam War was coming home. There was no grateful nation, there were no parades, no flag-waving greeters at the airports. Instead, we Vietnam veterans returned to a decades-long shunning by our peers and by many who served before us. We were the perpetrators of  horrors witnessed night after night, year after year, in the Living Room War. It was there we suffered our greatest defeat.

I had a chat recently with a Korean War vet. I said to him that they were the truly forgotten vets, which he agreed with completely. But all the while I was thinking that there's worse things than being forgotten. If we must somehow commemorate the Vietnam War, then let us do so by facing unflinchingly the hard facts about how we got into the mess, and how we got out of it, and what lessons we learned and have already forgotten. Nothing less will properly do justice to the millions caught up in the war, no matter what side they were on.

October 5, 2014

October Surprise

On October 5, 1968, I left the U.S. of A and headed west -- far west, all the way to where it turns into the Far East -- to begin my tour of duty in Vietnam. In the years after I came home, I would have this vague sense of unease around October, as if I couldn't quite find my bearings or keep focused on things. The shrinks have a name for this: anniversary syndrome. If you think about it, I'll bet you could rustle one up as well.

I am unaffected by it, for the most part. The flame of memory has long ago dampened to a mere flicker. A life has unfolded during the decades after my war ended. Each year pushes the memories further into the vault. But they never quite go away. Somewhere in the deepest part of my brain, nestled among some gnarly old neurons, they wait patiently for their moment to arise.

This year, many things have conspired me to get me thinking about that time in my life. An old friend from college comes for a visit and we go to see the Vietnam Wall. A guy I knew in the 1st Infantry Division gets back in touch after 45 years. Another guy I never met gives me a book about Vietnam. All of a sudden, I'm knee-deep in Big Muddy again, metaphorically speaking, of course.

So maybe it's no surprise that while I was cutting the grass I got to thinking about this guy I knew when I was working at USDA. Vietnam vets rarely talked to anyone about their time in country, and that included other vets. But K. and I worked together and soon enough discovered the big elephant in the room that we both shared living space with.

We would talk, K. and I, or rather he would talk and I would mostly listen.  I had a tour of duty; he fought in a war. My memories were of long shifts in the Tactical Operations Center listening to the war over the radio, spiced with nightly rocket and mortar attacks. His memories were of kicking his way into hooches, M-16 locked and loaded, a shotgun slung over his shoulder, a pistol tucked in his belt, and a knife stashed where he could quickly retrieve it. When he talked of those times, he would get that faraway look in his eyes -- not quite the 1000-yard stare, but close enough to it.

One day he came back from lunch and rushed into my office looking especially wild-eyed. He had been minding his own business when an old lady had her purse snatched. K. chased after the mugger, tackled him to the ground, and proceeded to beat and kick him to within an inch of his life. The cops had to pull him off. I think he was shocked at his own actions, and maybe a little bit scared by it. I tried to talk him through it, but we both knew it wasn't good.

The fact that his personal life was a mess didn't help. He was in a marriage that was doomed by his PTSD, and it didn't help that he was a good looking guy, the kind of guy who drew looks from the girls when he walked into a room. It was such an ego-boost for me when one of them would sidle up to me and want to know who that guy was. Yeah, thanks for asking.

Eventually, things fell apart and K. left town for a new job and a new woman. I never saw or heard from him again. I hope he found a way to live a reasonably normal life, although truth be told, K. always struck me as one of those people destined to live outside the bounds of normal. Then again, I doubt that any returning vet has much luck in finding normal any time soon.

I consider myself to be one of those lucky ones. I have incorporated the good, the bad, and the ugly into a workable 2.0 version of me. It's all good now, except maybe on a crisp October day when the wind blows from the west, the leaves rustle in the trees, and time sends a shiver rolling down my spine and I am that young kid waiting to leave on a jet plane, not  knowing when I'll be back again.

September 23, 2014

1963


If there is a ground zero of my youth, a time when everything changed, then 1963 would be it. In September, I was to begin classes at Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic college in the country. Inspired by the idealism of the New Frontier, I had enrolled in their School of Foreign Service, my hope being to join the diplomatic corps and help President Kennedy save the world. We all know what happened in November of that year, but in June there was another death of equal import. Pope John XXIII, the force behind the aggiornamento aimed at shaking up the Catholic Church, died of stomach cancer, leaving Holy Mother Church in a state of doctrinal uncertainty. The twin pillars of Western civilization -- church and state -- sustained mortal blows in a short period of time, leaving the rest of us dazed and adrift. The dream was gone before I even got started.

That realization came very quickly in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. For days we were preoccupied with the events surrounding the funeral. I was at the Capitol when the wagon bearing the coffin made the final turn and stopped in front of Jackie Kennedy and Caroline and John-John. I can sill see them standing alone on the steps of the Capitol. The months and years that followed only increased the feeling of being abandoned by history. What sense did any of it make now? The idea of going out to save the world for LBJ held little appeal. As the New Frontier segued into Big Muddy, the sense of a disconnect between the dreams I had and the reality I was facing increased.

Equally important was the tumult in the Catholic Church. In 1964, Latin gave way to the vernacular, and the altar was turned around to face the people. These were massive changes back then. I won't pretend that I was deeply religious, but like every generation of Catholics before me, I had been indoctrinated with a peasant version of religion at Sunday School that really got inside your head. Much of that was turned topsy-turvy by Vatican II. What little belief remained was further shaken by the Jesuits at Georgetown, who opened my eyes to a more sophisticated and less certain model of theology than was contained in the Catechism. Eternal truths weren't so eternal after all. This fed into the general dynamic of the times: question everything. I guess it was natural that the first thing I would question was my own sense of purpose in the world.

None of this was helpful in terms of my academic pursuits. Georgetown's School of Foreign Service had a very rigorous curriculum, a mandated triple major in history, government and economics, along with intense exposure to theology and a foreign language in the first two years. The fact that I was not a very attentive student didn't help. I was growing in all kinds of different directions back then, and academics was usually of secondary interest to my exploration of life in the big city.

As fate would have it, I managed to scrape by and get a diploma. (How I passed the final trial by fire of oral comprehensives -- a holdover from the Middle Ages that was dropped not long after I graduated -- is a miracle I have never fully understood.) I was lucky enough to make some life-long friends who managed to endure despite the decade-long tidal wave of social and political changes that swept over our generation. As for my education, the best was yet to come.

It's hard to understand the tremendous upheaval of the 60s unless you were raised in the 50s. The foundation of our early lives was the near-total belief in God and the American Way, best embodied in the Pledge of Allegiance we all had to recite as children. One nation, under God. So simple, so comforting, so solid; yet those rocks upon which we were to build our lives would be crushed by the tumbling tide of history in an astonishingly short period of time.

September 19, 2014

Pig Herder

The Great Frederick Fair is an annual ritual in our household, as it is in most households around here. Whether its the food or the animals or the rides or the shows, there is something for everyone. Country and city come together for a week, sometimes with unpredictable results.

A couple of years ago I was at the Fair with my daughter making our annual trek through the animal barns. Cows, sheep, goats, and pigs were held in stalls awaiting judging at their respective competitions. (Yes, Virginia, there is toenail polish for Guernsey cows.) Each animal class has its own show ring, and there are handlers -- usually 4H kids who have raised the animals on their family farm -- to lead them to the ring from the holding stalls.

We were in one such area near the pigs. Now these pigs weigh in at several hundred pounds, so handling them can be difficult. Such was the case that day, as two teenagers were trying to convince two unwilling pigs to move from their stall to the show ring. They were holding half-sheets of plywood as temporary fences to guide the pigs along. My daughter and I were standing nearby, along with a few other adults and children, as the pigs slowly made their way into the ring.

Suddenly, and with surprising swiftness, the two pigs made a break for it, heading straight towards those of us watching. Seeing as how there were children in the area, I decided to try and block the path of the pigs. One of them saw me standing in his way and paused long enough to allow his handlers to regain control and steer the pig into the ring.

The other pig continued on towards me as I backed up against a half-open gate that led out to another area of stalls and from there ... freedom. We both arrived at the gate together, the pig managing to get its head in the opening before I could completely block it. If you have ever felt several hundred pounds of determined pig pressing against you, then you will understand the urgency of the moment. It was man against porker, but truth be told, it was no contest. Rather than risk having my leg crushed or snapped like a twig, I stood aside and watched as the pig trundled off.

To add insult to injury, someone came up and asked accusingly if those were my pigs. My pigs! Jeez. Not hardly, I replied. Do I look like a pig herder? With that, we resumed our sojourn through the animal barns. I later ran into one of the young ladies charged with maintaining order in the pig barns and asked if our errant porker was recaptured. Yes, she replied, although she declined to provide details. With that, I settled happily into retirement from pig herding.

Part of the Big Loop at the Fair Grounds