Archive for the ‘war’ Category

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Number Seventy-two

November 11, 2017

As the Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick played out on TV last month, I found myself glued to the screen. It exploded with images of fierce battles and the great social upheaval both in Vietnam and the United States. An amazing assemblage of reminiscences of soldiers and TV clips from the news gave such depth to this complex subject. There was much I didn’t know and much I couldn’t know not having been there myself. But there was also much I remembered of that time, and as I sat riveted, I couldn’t help but to think back.

During high school, only snippets of our growing involvement in Vietnam entered my consciousness, some from the news and some from a few teachers who spoke of it. It was a far-away occurrence, one of little importance to most  teens whose minds were on more immediate concerns. That all changed once I reached college.

My freshman year began in the fall of 1966 as the crescendo of protest was building on campuses throughout the country. I began to pay attention to the news stories which grew more and more prominent. I heard the protest songs that were the soundtrack of those times: Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” Richie Haven’s “Handsome Johnny.” Back home the “silent majority” made their voices known too. It was a period of extreme social tension and moral reckoning for us all.

I had always believed in the Kennedy ideal manifest in his inauguration speech: “ask not what your country can do for you but rather what can you do for your country.” Ever since I became aware of the Peace Corps during high school, joining had been my goal. It would be my way of contributing to my country and a world that clearly had great need. That dream came into greater focus during college, especially when one of the upperclassmen I admired joined. My correspondence with him overseas only whetted my desire more. I gathered up all the brochures I could get my hands on and then finally in the beginning of my senior year sent in my application.

That year also brought about the first draft lottery, and I was part of the pool of 19 to 26 year olds involved. Numbers would be drawn based on one’s birthday. The draft order would be established from low number to high. The fate of each rode on the luck of the draw.

On December 1 of 1969, I can still remember the anxious souls milling about the hallways in the dorm awaiting the results of the lottery. Those who drew numbers above two hundred were considered to be safe. I got number seventy-two.

I proceeded with my plans to enter the Peace Corps undeterred. Although this would not excuse me from the draft, it was a commitment I had made to myself to honor the spirit of Kennedy’s service ideal. I knew I would be a better teacher than soldier, and to serve in the interests of peace took precedence in my mind over participating in what was widely considered to be an ill-advised and unjust war. My letter of acceptance into the Peace Corps arrived on April 13 just before my senior year drew to its tumultuous conclusion with the Kent State shooting and its aftermath of violence on my own campus.

I arrived in the Philippines in 1970. During my service there, I received my draft notification. The best the Peace Corps could do was to have my induction postponed until I finished my two-year tour.

When I arrived home in 1972, two significant events occurred. I discovered that my draft board had violated their own rules while drafting me when I had been overseas thus exempting me from being inducted. I then discovered through a routine medical test that I had been born with only one kidney which, had I not already been exempted, would have classified me 4F and unable to serve.

A few months later, in January of 1973, Nixon announced an accord had been reached which would end our involvement in the fighting in Vietnam. This closing chapter was painfully depicted in the documentary, those final weeks tainting what was to be “peace with honor.”

I think about those of my generation who ended up going to Vietnam, those who did so out of a sense of duty, and especially those who were drafted out of small town or inner city America. I met some of these while in the Philippines, mostly young guys who had never been out of their state no less half way around the world fighting a war they didn’t understand. I could hear in their conversations a sense of unreality of their situation. Most of them sought escape at the bottom of a bottle, some worse.

There is still much debate about the legacy left by this conflict. However, whatever conclusion each individual believes, there can be no doubt that this war left many scars, scars in those who fought, in the families of those who fought, and in a nation that was shaken to its core.

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Unpreventable?

December 7, 2016

attack on Pearl Harbor

The war that we have carefully for years provoked                                                                                         Catches us unprepared, amazed and indignant.
— Robinson Jeffers from the poem “Pearl Harbor”

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a date that President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed “will live in infamy.” On this day in 1941, Pearl Harbor, the primary American base in the Pacific, suffered a devastating surprise strike by the Empire of Japan which resulted in the death of more than two thousand Americans and crippled the critically important Pacific Fleet, plunging us into World War II.

Never before had a foreign attack of this magnitude occurred on American soil causing such loss of life and property. This was the original 9/11, another day that caught us unprepared, amazed, and indignant. And much like 9/11, the way it happened would read like a novel had it not been true. There occurred a perfect storm of unusual circumstances and missed opportunities by the United States, and Japan’s shocking triumph resulted.

Months before, a meeting proposed by Japan’s Prime Minister Konoye to “solve the unsolvable” never happened. Despite the urging of Joseph Grew, the American Ambassador to Japan, the State Department did not share his optimism that such a meeting would prove fruitful and disregarded the viewpoint that Japan’s desperation over the U.S. embargo and sanctions would drive them to war. Prince Konoye subsequently resigned, General Hideki Tojo became both Prime Minister and War Minister, and seven weeks later Pearl Harbor felt the result.

The Japanese government had intended to convey a declaration of war thirty minutes before the attack was to have begun. However, officials at the Japanese embassy in Washington had taken too long to decode the document thus unintentionally delivering it two hours after the fact.

Normally, the entire fleet would not be present in the harbor at one time, a common safety measure taken by the Navy. On this day, though, the entire fleet was in, all concentrated in a small area, providing a perfect target.

Normally, in each of the warships enough compartments would be sealed off making them water-tight in case of attack to prevent the sinking of the giant vessels. That coming Monday an Admiral’s inspection had been expected, so the compartments were left open to facilitate his visit, a decision that had dire consequences.

At 6:40 on the morning of the assault, the crew of the destroyer U.S.S. Ward spotted the periscope of a submarine headed for the entrance to the harbor. It dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the sub. This information was radioed to Headquarters. It should have been a red flag precipitating an immediate alert. No alert was issued.

At 7:02 the radar station, manned by young and inexperienced personnel, detected a massive flight of airplanes 132 miles from the island and approaching rapidly from the north. Lt. Kermit Taylor, a pilot only on his second day at the station, made the assumption that it was an expected flight of American B-17 bombers from California. In actuality it was the 183 Japanese aircraft bent on delivering a knock-out blow to the American military might in the Pacific. No action was taken.

At 7:55 the first wave of torpedo planes swept in, and the devastation began. During the next two hours, the lightning strike planned by the Japanese — one they thought would entail an intense battle from which most would not return — was successful beyond their expectations.

Could Pearl Harbor have been averted? After 9/11, the same haunting question was asked. More importantly, what about the next Pearl Harbor, the next 9/11? Is complete preparedness even possible?

As former CIA operative and writer Charles McCarry noted, “Richard M. Helms, the first director of Central Intelligence to rise from the ranks, was fond of saying that the CIA had been founded to make sure that there would never be another Pearl Harbor. Underlying this mission impossible was the wishful supposition that an America that knew everything could prevent anything.”

It is doubtful that there could be an America that knows everything. It seems unlikely both because of our free society and expectations of privacy as well as the logistical improbability of such a herculean task. And if that is the case, then the very idea that America can prevent anything is untenable.

So what are we to do? Yes, we must insist that our government, military, and police remain vigilant. The same should be expected of the citizenry. But beyond that, the need to be proactive in eliminating the root causes of the animosities that would rise to such a level of aggression is paramount, another seemingly impossible mission. However, it is one that must be attempted, for not to do so condemns us to a future of Pearl Harbors to come.

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A Question Of Peace

November 17, 2016

The world has been mired in a cycle of war repeated for as long as there has been history. Nations have suffered devastation at the hands of other nations because of greed, xenophobia, misunderstanding, and vengeance. Political, ethnic, and religious groups have been both victim and perpetrator, and vilification of targeted groups has been used to justify their oppression or destruction as the instigators of violence take advantage by exploiting the emotions of the populace. The only thing that changes is the time, the place, and the method.

The lessons that should have been learned from this shared human past are many. Humankind has not been a very good learner.

I understand the need to protect oneself, and knowing one’s perceived enemies and keeping vigilant seems prudent. But each act of aggression by either side of any discord only foments further acts in response. Hatred begets hatred, violence results in more violence, and neither has ever led to any true resolution. The seemingly interminable chain must somehow be broken.

The continuous conflict that has afflicted mankind is deeply ingrained. The question is this: do we as a species intend to live in a perpetual state of combat, or do we find a way to peacefully resolve our differences?

It boils down to a question of tolerance. The intense animosities that have arisen between races, religions, nations, and tribes foster the endless fighting and even the perverse desire to eradicate the opposing group. The focus is always on some disparate aspect of the other group that develops into a seemingly insurmountable barrier.

However, our commonalities as humans vastly outnumber our differences, and the perpetrators of aggression need to be convinced to abandon the old ideologies to which they cling that justify their desire for dominance. The huge task of eliminating the manufactured boundaries between the peoples of Earth is the critical need; how to accomplish it is the ultimate problem. It will take a concerted effort by all who believe a lasting peace is both necessary and possible in order to attain this.

And why now? A few moments spent reading a newspaper or watching the news should answer that. How many atrocities inflicted on the innocent can we bear? How many areas of the globe balanced on the precipice or already immersed in armed aggression need to exist? How many threats of potential escalation into the ultimate conflagration must weigh upon us?

There are those who say it is in our nature as humans to do this. Maybe they are right. Others hold onto hope that the inhabitants of this small blue planet will some day come to their senses. I pray they are right. But as science and technology have created more numerous and powerful weapons than have ever before existed and nationalistic or religious dogma have fanned the flames of hatred and increased the will to use them, it will take more than hope alone to counteract this madness. This hope must turn into commitment and then to positive action in order to halt our march toward the potential annihilation of humankind.

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