I Saw The World Change In The Blink Of An Eye

It finally happened; I’m at an age when I get to spend time correcting younger people about the misconceptions some older people are giving them about “my” time.

Maybe it’s just me – but I’ve been noting a little surge of questions – and revisionist answers – about the 1980s, lately.

I’ll stick with the question:

I’ll take a run at that.

No, Mr. McGeoch and anyone else with the question – they were even better than most people today credit them for.

Do yourself a favor and watch the movie the movie “Miracle”; the opening montage *brilliantly* shows how depressing US life was in the ’70s.

Here it is.

If you are of a certain age, you can almost feel the depression of that era – the malaise that plagued us for that miserable decade – creeping over you.

We know how the movie – and the game whose story it related – ended; a two hour movie about a one hour game boiling down to one of the most memorable minutes in the history of television:

The decade took a little longer, and was a lot more suspenseful.

It wasn’t just that we bounced back from the economic malaise of the ’70s, and the ’82 recession (as bad as 2008) in a way that seems *miraculous* today. Although to a guy getting out into the world at the time, that was pretty good timing.

No – it was much bigger.

In the ’70s, Communism – the bloodiest dictatorships in history – was at its peak. And while the success of Ronald Reagan’s goal of extincting the USSR has a thousand fathers today, in 1980 literally nobody thought they were going away.

People today think of the Cold War as a cultural punch line – but it was no joke, kids.

I grew up in missile country, during the height of the cold war, between two SAC bases. I grew up very aware the world could get incinerated in minutes if some colonel in Moscow or Colorado Springs had a bad day.

I was *never* going to have kids in a world like that. This was something I knew when I graduated from college. Why bring someone into the world, just to have them die with you, and the rest of civilization? What was the point?

And over the course of that decade, the USSR – the most murderous regime in history – went from being the “other” superpower to…gone.

The threat hanging over all of us and everything we did…


In 1980, the entire American intelligentsia said the Communist world was here to stay. Anyone who says that they didn’t think so is lying.

And yet:

Even his own staff thought it was too reckless. The Democrats? Forget about it.

And even though I was living in the middle of it at the time, I didn’t quite believe it. Even as the Berlin Wall fell…:

…I couldn’t quite believe it.

I’ve cited Miracle; I’m going to drop the other pop culture bomb. Things still hadn’t sunk in for me when I was working at at Top 40 station. This song came out:

It’s “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones. They’re a trite, flash in the pan British post-new-wave band. But it was the only song (other than the Scorptions Wind of Change) about that bit of history. I can’t think of a whole lot of pop culture artifacts about “watching the world wake up from history”.

It’s a trite bit of new wave pop – and I get a catch in my threat when I listen to it, to this day.

Because it came out about the time that the USAF, which had kept nuclear bombers on alert 24/7 for literally 40 years…stopped. Hundreds of missiles got retired.

And it was like someone lifted a steamer trunk full of bowling balls off my chest. I have no idea how to relate that to someone who wasn’t there.

Bob Dylan didn’t have this to sing about
You know it feels good to be alive

Other than perhaps to hope one gets the significance that my oldest was born a year later – into a world that was safe enough to think about it. And for all the jabbering about “revolution” that the generation before mine had inflicted on the world, this? This was revolutionary.

All because of what happened in the ’80s.

I saw the decade in, when it seemed the world could change with the blink of an eye.

And it didn’t end there. With the end of the Cold War, a tidal wave of defense effort turned to civilian uses. All that American ingenuity that had spent the ’70s and ’80s helping tanks hit their targets while driving at 40mph, detecting Soviet submarines hundreds of miles away, went into civilian goods. The GPS in your smart phone started out in smart bombs. Your car’s airbag’s origin story was in the fire detector in M1 Abrams tanks. This blog comes to you via ancient Department of Defense project eventually called the Internet.

It was the “peace dividend”. Bill Clinton (with the invaluable assistance of the last actually conservative GOP Congress forcing him to the right) got to cash it. The economy went on the longest boom in history.

It would not have happened without the events of the 1980s.

That’s the fun, nostalgic part. I spent my late teens and early 20s watching the world wake up from history.

But as another song put it, nothing good ever lasts: Mr. McGeoch’s entire generation grew up knowing little about the era but what they’ve been told by the people who write the memes, who shoot the TikTok videos, write the cultural punch lines – while at the same time benefitting from its results as no previous generation in human history. Two generations have grown up thinking that the world that started in 1989 was the natural order – or, simultaneously better and worse, not having to think about it all that hard.

It’s not. Mankind’s natural state is for the strong to dominate the weak; for those with the will to power to control those without. The moral arc of history is long, but almost always – but for this past 200-odd years – bends toward tyranny and barbarism.

And it can all go away like *that*.

I saw the world change in the blink of an eye” when I was 26.

I’m seeing it change back in a long, slow, masochistic drip drip drip.

Like the seventies – only much more serious, this time. Perhaps because I’m old enough and well-read enough to know the consequences. Perhaps because the people driving us toward what appears to be an even deeper, grayer nadir are not comic book villains in tanks, but people in our own country, with PhDs and blue checkmarks.

It’s game-time…

…against ourselves.

Hope that answers the question.

Crowd Psychology

Imagine this:

It’s the middle of June, 1940. Germany has just conquered all of Europe. The British have just withdrawn their army from the continent, in a miraculous evacuation that was the only redeeming note in a catastrophic defeat.

The army had left virtually all of its equipment – just about everything heavier than a rifle – in France; it would pretty much have to be re-equipped from scratch. The Royal Navy had been badly bloodied. The Royal Air Force, likewise, leaving itself under strength to face the German Air Force in the upcoming campaign to try to bomb the UK either to the negotiating table or into a state ready to be invaded. German U-boats were ravaging the merchant shipping on which Britain depended for not only all of its industrial raw materials and oil, but virtually all of its food.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill went on the radio and gave a speech after the last of the British Expeditionary Force arrived home.

What speech did he give?

He could’ve given a realistic speech – pointing out the sobering facts of the situation, and readying the British people for what was likely going to be at best a disheartening and economy-gutting armistice that left them sitting alone on their island, and at worst complete conquest in the face of an invasion that would certainly follow, if the Navy and Air Force failed.

But no.

Churchill gave a speech that was, if all you cared about was the facts on the ground, utterly unrealistic; he told Britain, and the world, that the United Kingdom would fight to the last inch of ground, and if Britain fell the Commonwealth would carry on the fight forever, until Europe was free again.

It was a little like that poster of a mouse holding up a middle finger at a diving eagle; “the last great act of defiance“ was the caption.

And it was one of the greatest bits oratory in the history of the English language.

And it was completely unrealistic.

But it was leadership.

In 1987, Ronald Reagan had already proved he was the best president of my adult lifetime. His leadership had brought America back from the worst case of emotional depression it had ever suffered, and from an economic downturn every bit as nasty as 2008, but much more short-lived. And after running for office on a stridently anti-Communist message, he had already sent the message that Soviet expansionism was off the agenda, and made it stick.

He was scheduled to give a speech at the Brandenburg Gate – the very symbol of divided Germany, and the high watermark of communism in the west.. It was a time when most political and academic “experts“ in the west expected the Soviet union – the “second world“ – was here to stay; well five years later everyone said the USSR was eventually going to collapse, nobody that anybody was paying attention to was saying it in 1987. They had the worlds largest military, the worlds largest nuclear arsenal, and they controlled a good chunk of Europe and Asia.

Reagan’s advisers urged him to take a moderate, conciliatory tone toward the east Germans, the Soviets, their new (or at least newish) leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the wall he was standing in front of.

To give a “realistic” speech.

 instead, he gave a speech that electrified the resistance in Eastern Europe, that galvanized support for democracy among the downtrodden, and did its part, along with much of the rest of Reagan’s policy, in the downfall of the Soviet union that had a thousand fathers by 1995, but was very nearly an orphan before Ronald Reagan was elected.

It wasn’t “realistic“ to the conventional wisdom of the day. It was leadership.

Donald Trump is no Winston Churchill, and he’s no Ronald Reagan.

This week, he said that he wants America to be “back to work“ by the Easter weekend.

Is this realistic? Maybe not. The experts say it’s unlikely. The legions of not very funny late night comics and blue-checked droogs say the idea itself is risible.. And the whole business of declaring America open or closed is mostly the responsibility of the state governments, and the free market itself. I, myself, plan on working from home (although I am working, knock wood).

But America is a restless, endlessly creative, impatient nation, overstocked with people who are not going to sit on their hands and wait for things to get better; it’s a nation full of people who are descended from people who came from all over the world, uprooting everything they knew, to make things better.

Trump could have echoed the words of the scientists and experts gathered around him. He could’ve lectured the nation like a hectoring schoolmarm, or like Barack Obama. But he’s got a stage full of experts, including his vice president, and more importantly 50 state governors, already doing exactly that.

Trump urging America to “go back to work“ Easter weekend is not the Dunkirk speech, and it’s not the Brandenburg gate speech.

It’s not eloquent, and it’s not going to go down in history.

But it’s leadership..

The economy runs as much on psychology as it does on money, analysis and marketing. It’s trends depend as much on how people are feeling as objective fact. Don’t believe it? Have you checked the toilet paper aisle lately?

The nation’s psyche needs a boost. Trump is setting a tone; the United States is not going to be on sick leave forever. He’s telling a nation with cabin fever that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. When? Maybe Easter, maybe memorial day, but it’s coming.

It was brilliant. It wasn’t scientific. It may not of even been all that well advised.

But it’s what America wants to think, and wants to hear. We’re not stupid, we’ll hash out the details later..

What A Terrorist Wants

SCENE:  December 8, 1941, in the well of the House of Representatives – in an alternate universe.    President Barack Delano Obama is addressing a joint emergency session of Congress.

OBAMA:  Yesterday, December Seventh, 1941, is a day which will live in infamy.

Now, let me be clear:  this attack did not represent the Real Japan.  Japan is an ancient, honorable culture, dating back over 2,000 years; Shinto is a religion of peace, famous for its pastoral scenes and transcendental poetry.

And this attack does not represent the real Japanese people; a people who invented sushi, and baseball, and the number zero, named after their fighter plane.

We know the attackers were the junior varsity; who even knew the Japanese had aircraft carriers?

The lesson of yesterday?  We must not give in to fear, or bigotry, in framing our response to this attack.  We must not let fear drive us to launching an air raid on Tokyo, or a two-pronged offensive through the Solomon Islands, or an island-jumping campaign through the Central Pacific, because that is exactly what the attackers want.  If they force us to attack them, we are playing their game, their way.

We must respond to the parts we control – to the National Rifle Association, which has, through the intransigence of Congressional Republicans,  made it easier for criminals like the attackers to buy bombs than books in Tokyo.

I urge Congress also to accelerate passage of the Affordable Defense Act.

Thank you, and let’s not waste this crisis.

Jack Kemp

There were three people who turned me into a conservative.

Four, if you count Ronald Reagan.  But before I, who grew up very much a liberal, could embrace the idea of conservativsm that Ronald Reagan put out there – and let’s remember that to a liberal Ronald Reagan, especially the version of Reagan that liberals discussed amongst themselves, was a very scary figure –  someone had to soften me up.

The first was Jimmy Carter.  He created a lot of Ronald Reagan voters. And with the “Malaise” speech and his relentless “America Last”-ism, he gave me a good start up the ladder.

The second was Dr. James Blake.  He was the head of the English Department at Jamestown College.  He was also that rarest of creatures – a college English professor who was also a conservative. The son of a New York cop, Blake described himself as a “Monarchist”; whatever, he also made me read Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, and Doestoevskii and Tolstoii and Solzenitzyn and, for that matter, P.J. O’Rourke.  I may have been the last person in Western History to have been pushed up the ladder to conservatism while majoring in a humanity.

But Carter’s impetus was negative; Blake introduced me to the high-level reasons conservatism was not only better, but indeed vastly preferable for intellectual and personal freedom.

But it was Jack Kemp who first connected those ideas to daily life for me; to money, to jobs, to the nuts and bolts of running a government and a society.  While Reagan focused on the big picture – as, indeed, a President and leader should – Kemp tackled the machinery.

In the wake of the Carter malaise, he was one of Reagan and Stockton’s foot-soldiers for supply-side economics. He first filed his tax cut bill – which became known as “Kemp-Roth” when it finally passed, in 1981 – in 1977, long before supply side economics was a household word. Kemp was more than an adherent; he was a pioneer.

Every time in this century we’ve lowered the tax rates across the board, on employment, on saving, investment and risk-taking in this economy, revenues went up, not down”, he said – and, as a major mover and shaker during the Reagan years and George HW Bush’s HUD secretary, he worked to follow through, advocating privatizing public housing (a policy on which Clinton’s HUD boss Henry Cisneros followed through, after carefully rechristening it to get credit for his boss); many of the “welfare reforms” that happened during the Contract for America were ideas that Kemp had been instrumental in not only thinking up, but whose bureaucratic angles Kemp had worked through.  Kemp was the giant on whose shoulders the welfare reformers stood.

Kemp was a native of Los Angeles, the son of a small businessman who went to a small college, mainly because it was his best shot at getting to the pros as a football player.  He was a journeyman quarterback for years…

…he was present at “The Greatest Game Ever Played (before the ’86 Super Bowl)” – the Colts/Giants NFL championship game in ’58 – as a third-stringer on the Giants’ taxi squad. He was cut or traded by five teams before he latched on with the Buffalo Bills, back when the AFL was a separate league.

He led the Bills through a series of great seasons, before and after the merger with the NFL, before injuries slowed him down.  He was drafted to run for the US House in 1971 by the GOP, and he stepped away from his contract with the Bills to run his campaign.

Maybe it was the humble roots, the non-Ivy-League background, the years of struggle and failure before hitting it big, his self-taught nature that made Kemp a face of conservatism for the little guy. I’ve often said that Reagan’s great strength was that he translated Hayek and Friedman into something accessible to pretty much everyone; Jack Kemp turned those ideas into things of substance.  The supply-side claim is not a claim. It is empirically true and historically convincing that with lower rates of taxation on labor and capital, the factors of production, you’ll get a bigger economy.”

And he was always a conservative Republican who spoke to the little guy first and foremost, as befitted perhaps a Rep from Buffalo; There is a kind of victory in good work, no matter how humble“, he once said.

And as I moved to the city and started plying a trade – first as a bush-league conservative pundit, and then as a schmuck trying to make my way, and then again as yet another bush-league pundit, Kemp was consistently a voice and an inspiration to those of us who sought to break the noxious liberal strangle hold on places like Saint Paul.  And like many like me, I took inspiration from another Kemp protege in Jersey City, where Brett Schundler, a Reagan Republican who was very much in the Kemp mold, won three terms as mayor and tranformed his city.  When I’ve said that the Minnesota GOP will never really contest control of Minnesota until we make a play of it in the Cities, I’m echoing Kemp;  There really has not been a strong Republican message to either the poor or the African American community at large“, he once said, nailng one of the enduring chinks in the GOP’s (albeit not conservatism’s) armor.

People say the GOP needs another Reagan.  That’s true to a degree, of course.  But Reagan spoke of truths that are eternal enough that pretty much anyone can remember them; freedom, limited government, security. Reagan took on the world.

Jack Kemp took on mainstreet, one store-owner, voter, program and American at a time.

What the GOP really needs, stat, is a few dozen Jack Kemps; people who can spread the gospel to everyone from the local town hall meeting all the way to the Beltway, and back again.

The Right Of The People

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court of the United States today ruled in the Heller case that the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is exactly what the founding fathers intended; that a right “of the people” means “people”, not “the National Guard”.

The court dealt forty years of erosion of civil liberties and contempt for the law-abiding citizen a sharp kick in the groin with pointy boots. The decision stands as the capstone on one of the most remarkable bits of grassroots politics in American history – a three-decade battle where the nation’s people, black and white and Republican and Democrat, fought their elites first to a standstill, and then came back to an escalating series of victories, starting in the courts of public opinion, extending through legislatures and city councils around the nation, to today.

This ruling euthanizes the DC Gun Ban – which is was, like most gun control measures, a racist concoction intended to keep all those brown-skinned people from running amok in the nation’s capitol, to return us in deed if not in thought to the days when black people had a separate, unequal justice system…

To quote Lyle Denniston of ScotusBlog:

the Court nullified two provisions of the city of Washington’s strict 1976 gun control law: a flat ban on possessing a gun in one’s home, and a requirement that any gun — except one kept at a business — must be unloaded and disassembled or have a trigger lock in place. The Court said it was not passing on a part of the law requiring that guns be licensed. It said that issuing a license to a handgun owner, so the weapon can be used at home, would be a sufficient remedy for the Second Amendment violation of denying any access to a handgun.

The decision opens up possibilities for litigation and legislation on further gun bans, like Chicago’s, and also at least partially ejects US V. Miller from its misbegotten role as definitive precedent on Second Amendment issues.

This is not the end of the war over the Second Amendment, of course. It’s not a complete victory; licensing at the end of the day is conceptually scarcely less odious or abuse-prone than a ban (as we’ve found out in Saint Paul this past year). The orcs still control much; many cities (or at least their governing elites) still pay lumpen, unthinking fealty to the notion that a disarmed, docile citizenry is a safe one.

Some of this world’s people know better…:

…that the only genuinely secure people in this world are the ones that can see to their own security.

Yes, folks – this is serious business.

This is far from the end. Indeed, as Churchill said, it’s the end of the beginning…:

…and much hard fighting remains.

The court did the right thing – and now, this is a battle we Real Americans have to consolidate, extend, and win in the legislatures, City Councils, and in Congress.

The orcs will regroup and try to consolidate and, eventually, make another assault on the God-given rights of the law-abiding American. It is inevitable; it is the way of the orc to feed on your freedom. Softcore fascists like Heather Martens and Wes Skoglund aren’t drying up and blowing away because of this ruling; it remains to us to extinguish the smoldering dung-heap of that whole school of thought, in the legislature, in court, and most importantly in the hearts of people smart enough to know the difference between “rights of the people” and “privileges granted by your masters”.

But we – the Americans who’ve fought long and hard to keep this issue on the national radar, and drive this nation back from the insane nadir of the collectivist seventies – deserve a moment, if only a moment, to relax and enjoy the fruits of today’s victory. It’s a great respite from a dismal political season, and a solid jumping-off point for what comes next.

Enjoy it. I sure am.

To all of you who’ve spent so much time, toil and treasure winning today’s victory, a salute. You’ve earned it.

Tomorrow? Well, it’s back to work. Back to the endless job of putting the enemies of freedom to the rhetorical point of the political pike – one Congressman, one Justice, one voter at a time.

The way we’ve done it all along.

Thank you. And God Bless America.

(Over the top a little? Not really. Oh, I’m doing the endzone happy dance. I’m doing to do the endzone happy dance on David Lillehaug’s neck – rhetorically speaking, of course. Today’s a great day, and I’m going to treat it as such).

Happy Patriots Day!

No, not the football team – the anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride to mobilize the militia against the British, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

By bypassing the mainstream media and taking the word directly to the people, Revere was in a sense the first conservative blogger; indeed, had his horse been named “Blog”, the metaphor would stand on its own.

Sadly, that is not the case.

However, a look through Massachusetts state archives reveals that, like a good conservative pundit in the public eye, Revere stirred up a firestom of controversy.

In the Bofton Ftar-Tribune, columnist Richelieu Sturdevaant wrote:

Patriots of olde have lamented to me that thif is a fad, far cry from the old days in Maffachufettes, where real patriots worked with the Britifh Government!

Zebulon Perry, writing the Maffachufsetf Monitor – a broadsheet funded by British parliamentarian and tax patriarch George Townsend, wrote:

Revere, who riddeth fourth against the lawful Brittifh taxes, is funded by the Sons of Liberty!

Hezekiel Martens, of Citizens for a British Massachusetts, noted:

The righte to keepe and bear armfe is clearly laid down in the Britifh Conftitutione to derive to the Militia, which is the Britifh Redcoatte. Mufkettes kill 1,000,000 Maffachufettef children a year.

Grace Kelleye, writing fo the broadsheet MassRed, wrote:

George Washington is the real fascist. We should all lay down on the roade in front of Mr. Revere.

Lord Jefferey Fleckey of Broadsheet of the Moderatte Royaliste simply wrote:

Revere if fo pwnn3edde

And Otis Coleman of the Ftrib wrote:

Fure, fit a ftupid overfexed filverfmith aftride a faft horfe, and fure, he’ll feel like a ftud. Fo what? He’fe no big cheefe. Af a feventh-grader fitting on my knapfack, sucking on a sucker, fifty yearf ago on the weft fide of Bofton, I faw that.


Happy Patriots Day!

Somewhere in Bosnia, 1996

I crawled through the mud, a G3K carbine in one hand, a handful of slimy, suspect topsoil in the other, as the rain poured down.  The corner of a spare magazine cut into my hipbone as I slithered over a small clump of rocks, and back into a small coulee that led me up the slimy, festering hillside.

The ridge above the airfield at Tuzla was dotted with trees, most of them blasted bare by years of shelling and mortar fire from the Bosnian and Serb sides alike. With only scrubby, ugly shrubs to hold the soil in place, the hillside was slowly eroding down into the valley below.  It was as ugly a place as I’d seen – recently.

BANG.  A loud rifle report split the rain-drenched quiet ahead of me.  “Back on the ball, Mitch“. 

I looked down the ridge to the tarmac 1000 meters away, and my mission was re-clarified; the C130 transport plane, with the crowd of troops and civilians huddled behind a Humvee behind it, pinned down by sniper fire.  Fire from the snipers I was hunting.

Down on the tarmac, I saw a man in camouflage make a run for a dugout by the runway; a couple of SVD sniper rifles, unseen in the scrub not far in front of me, barked almost simultaneously, again and again. The man zigzagged between the geysers of mud that the 7.62mm shots spewed into the air as he dove, head-first, into a slit trench.  He made it, miraculously.

“This is Stain Six…” an out-of-breath-sounding voice yelled over the radio, “Vulture and Vulture Chick are pinned down on the tarmac. We need to get the snipers…”

The snipers’ rifles cracked again, and the voice cut off a second later.  Stain Six – the Secret Service mission leader – was pinned down hard.

I had to find the snipers, and I had to find ’em fast. I was hoping my backup would get there soon.

“Golfball Two One” crackled over the radio, in a thick scandinavian accent – Gohlfboll Turr Vonn. It was Sergeant Janssen, leader of the Danish squad that was my backup, “this is Golfball Tree Two. Ve’re pinned down. Ve can’t help“.

Crap. My backup was backed up. I was on my own.

I crawled through a shallow depression behind the wreckage of an old Serb T-55 tank whose turret had blown off and sat on its roof twenty feet away – and saw my target. Two Serb snipers, they and their long, menacing-looking rifles swathed in ghillie netting, taking their aim. Another man, serving as their spotter, peered into binoculars, muttering in guttural, clipped Serb.

One of them fired a shot, the report echoing across the valley as I used the noise to cover my movement.  I slowly crawled around the rear bogey of the wrecked tank, sizing up the Serb position. Something wasn’t..quite…right…the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

I looked around, my senses heightened by enough adrenaline to restart Keith Richards’ heart…

there. In the woods – another Serb, covering the snipers’ rear, his AK47 at the ready, turning…

toward me.

Our eyes locked. For a split second, we hesitated. I was quicker; my first round caught his AK47 right in the receiver, sending shards of stock and metal slicing into him, slamming his rifle into his stomach like Mike Tyson in his prime. He grunted in pain as he fell behind a log, his rifle twisted and useless.

The snipers and spotter turned, alarmed. The spotter lifted a WWII-vintage MP40 “Burp Gun” toward me as I spun; instinctively, I double-tapped him with two more rounds. He dropped out of sight over the lip of the hill, his peaked Serb army-pattern cap flipping crazily through the air, as I turned to the sniper on the right. Two more shots finished that business. The other sniper, overcome with panic as he tried to turn his bulky SVD toward me, rolled over the lip of the hill, chased by two more rounds that dug up big divots where his chest had been a thousandth of a second earlier, rolling out of sight.  I dove for the lip of the hill, to make sure he didn’t come back up, when every muscle from my butt to my neck clenched tight at the jarring racket of Sergeant Janssen’s squad’s MG3 machine gun, sounding like a jackhammer set to “puree”. They’d got him.

And suddenly, the hill was secure.

I ducked back behind the wrecked tank and grabbed my radio. “Golfball Two One…”, I started…

…and caught the end of another transmission. “…Jaguars eencomeeng; ten secohnds. Ten secohnds. Ten secohnds” a voice in a French accent repeated, seeming oddly disconnected.

Crap. They called in air support!

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the glint off the canopy of the French Jaguar fighter-bomber, and a yellow flash…

…which I didn’t have time to process. I leaped instinctively toward the first hole I could see, diving into a shell crater just as the air around me was rent by the impact of a dozen 2.75 inch rockets, their detonations joining together like ripping metal, thousands of steel fragments lacing the air above my boots in a maelstrom of angry metal that drowned out the French jet roaring overhead.

I poked my rifle out of the crater as the smoke roiled around me. Under cover of the smoke, the radio squawked “Vulture and Vulture Chick are safe. Good job, all”.

Sergeant Janssen“, I thought, peering over the edge of the crater and down the hill, teeth clenched in fear…

…which relaxed when I saw Sergeant Janssen and his eight squaddies; they’d ducked, too. Janssen waved. “Indskrænkette fransker!” he yelled.

I slithered down the slope to his position. “Er der en anden skrive i Fransker?” The squaddies laughed – as much from my atrocious Danish as from the release of tension – and, after they shook off the concussion and the close call, formed up to continue their patrol up the ridge.

Me? I walked back to the base. I safed my rifle as I got to the cut through the barbed wire around the Ukrainian position, waving to the Ukranian UN troops that guarded the perimeter.  One of the privates manning a machine-gun gave me a thumbs-up; they’d been taking fire from the snipers, too.  I returned the gesture as I walked toward the cluster of huts that was the Ukranian enclave, on my way back to the US area.

Their company sergeant-major, Yevgenii Batiukh, a crusty fortysomething who was hard-boiled enough a soldier to make R. Lee Ermey’s “Gunnery Sergeant Hartman” in Full Metal Jacket look like Andy Dick, who’d spent more time in Afghanistan than some Afghans I’d known, stepped out from behind a quonset hut, holding a bottle.

“Доброе утро, Михаил Павлович”, he grunted, his never-smiling face nodding approval.

” Добрbl Джин, сержант батюх”, I nodded back.  The faint outline of a grin creased his leathery jawline.

“В снайпера исчезла, и вашим “первой леди” была в состоянии ходить из самолета в аэропорт!”, he said, with the lift of an eyebrow and a quizzical, ironic smirk that seemed incongruous on his hawk-like sergeant-major face.  Batiukh poured shots of slivovitz into two tin, Russian-pattern canteen cups, and handed me one.  “Как ЧТО происходит?”, he said, eyeing the G3 that hung from its jungle sling around my shoulder.

I grinned back as I slammed the shot. “Я не знаю! Действительно!”.

“поп!”, he said, drawing his finger across his throat, smiling fully this time.

We shared a laugh, and I left him, walking back to my hooch, a converted Serb bureaucrat’s office, looking forward to clearing a couple days’ buildup of mud and worse off of me.

I unlocked and opened the door…and stopped short. Something wasn’t as I left it.  My hand instinctively reached toward my pistol, and I checked out the corners of the room.

I relaxed second later, as I noticed a silk blouse lying on the floor.

I cocked an eyebrow, and walked toward the back room. A pair of jeans hung from the doorknob. I opened the door.

“Hi, Hon”, Marisa said seductively, covers pulled up around her neck. “How’s your day?”

“Rough one”, I grinned, feeling not so rough at all.

She took a bottle of Croatian merlot, poured a glass, and dipped her finger in, licking it suggestively as she set it back on the chair. “I heard the First Lady and Chelsea had a hard time getting out of their plane today”.

I grinned. “Yeah, I heard that, too. Hey, aren’t you supposed to be filming?”, I said as I cleared my rifle’s action and reached to turn down the light.

“I had a day off.  And it looks like you’ve been a…dirty boy…”

UPDATE AND CLARIFICATION: I’m informed that video footage shows I was actually working as a technical writer at at a retail shelf space brokering company during Hillary and Chelsea’s trip to Tuzla, was not in fact a freelance “minder”, did not interact with the Ukranian or Danish armies – indeed, have never been to Bosnia – and had no involvement with Ms. Tomei.

I guess I miswrote…

My bad.

Squadron Leader ‘Jimmy’ James

I was – it should shock nobody – a big geek in elementary, junior and (most of) senior high school. I read. A lot. I had my library card maxed pretty continuously from when I got one – in 1970, at age six – until I graduated from high school.

Mostly, I was a history buff; I read pretty much every bit of history Jamestown’s library offered. Now, in reading as in everything else in life, I’m not as a rule a systematic guy. My style: I’d pick a subject, and go on a jag of from a week to several months reading about it incessantly (not unlike someone we all know). And those subjects were all over the waterfront.

But there were two threads that made the biggest impression on me, then and now.

One was Ernest Shackleton and the “Endurance” expedition of 1916-1919. Shackelton was a British explorer whose ship, Endurance, was crushed by pack ice during a hard Antarctic winter. He led his men for two solid years, surviving on the pack ice and then, as hope seemed to fade, on a couple of nearly-impossible treks across the superhumanly-turbulent South Atlantic, sailing hundreds of miles without sophisticated navigational gear in what amounted to open boats, in a climate where “dead of winter” and “heat of summer” aren’t really all that different. He made it, saving himself and his entire crew, in a feat that borders on mythic. Whenever life’s gotten difficult – or “difficult” – for me, I’ve looked back on Shackelton’s example, put my chin up, and kept on plodding.

My other big reading jones, from age 11 to maybe 16, was escape stories.

There were many, of course; during World War II, tens of thousands of Allied soldiers were held prisoner in conditions that varied from bad to atrocious, even with the protection of the Geneva Convention; all of them fared better than the Russian POWs (the USSR never signed the Geneva Convention, and neither Germany nor the USSR honored its terms with each others’ prisoners); all fared better than the concentration camp and extermination camp inmates, whose fate is a matter of shameful record.

And their stories – full of ingenuity, wit, hope, and above all endless perseverence in the face of near-impossible (and, in the case of concentration camp inmates, brutal and lethal) odds – inspired me, then and now.

Many of the stories should be household names, taught to students in our history classes as examples of the best of humanity. In 1944, the inmates of the German extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland – perhaps a thousand Jews and Russian POWs, there to work the machinery that consumed over a quarter-million lives, plotted to overwhelm and kill their guards and escape to the woods to try to meet the oncoming Soviets. A few hundred made it to the woods. A few dozen survived the German pursuit and the depredations of Polish civilians (who largely hated Jews more than Nazis). The story was made into a pretty good TV movie, of all things, in the mid-eighties, with Rutger Hauer, Alan Arkin and Joanna Pacula.

There was also the story of British Sergeant-Major John Coward, captured near Dunkirk, who escaped from several camps and infiltrated Auschwitz. He testified at Nuremberg.

But the biggest – and best-known – body of work on POW escapes was by three British authors – Paul Reid, Eric Williams and Paul Brickhill. Their work was closely related.

Brickhill, an Australian fighter pilot captured after being shot down over Tunisia in 1943, wrote Reach For The Sky, the story of Wing Commander Douglas Bader – one of Britain’s top aces in the Battle of Britain, despite having two artificial legs. Bader was the subject of many books. Held at a number of camps, including the infamous castle at Colditz (documented in Reid’s Escape from Colditz, among others), where many “high-value” and “incorrigible” habitual POWs were held, Bader still attemped several escapes, despite his “handicap”.

Williams was a navigator on a British Short “Stirling” bomber shot down early in the war. Held in a camp on the Baltic coast of Poland, he attempted several escapes (memorialized in his book The Tunnel); afterward, transferred to Stalag-Luft III near Zagan, Poland, he carried out one of the most ingenious escapes ever, chronicled in his book The Wooden Horse: he and two other POWs built a wooden vaulting horse; the other inmates carried the horse, the inmates inside, to the same spot in the compound every morning. Camouflaged under the spot was a trap door, which led to a tunnel the men dug, patiently, with kitchen knives and condensed milk cans, every day for months. Finally, Williams and his two compatriots escaped. Improbably, all three made it back to the UK – one (Oliver Philpot) via Switzerland, and Williams and his partner John Phillips via Sweden.  All three wrote books – Williams’ is the essential one (and was made into a movie in the UK in 1950, something I expect only Lileks to know…)
Williams’ feat was mentioned in the other major book on the subject, Brickhill’s The Great Escape.  Brickhill’s book – a true story – covered perhaps the greatest POW camp break of all time, which took place at the same camp, about a year later. This story isn’t unfamiliar to Americans; it was turned into a major motion picture in the sixties which, if you leave out Steve McQueen’s role completely (Americans were involved in the beginning of the escape, but were transferred to a US-only camp early in the digging), wasn’t all that inaccurate by silver screen standards.

But don’t forget Steve McQueen’s role entirely. It returns in a bit. Sort of.

The escape itself was epic in scale; the idea was to dig three tunnels – “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry” – from the camp, allowing all 1,000+ inmates to escape. It went well beyond digging, though; the inmates – using jury-rigged, extemporized and smuggled materials – had to forge identity papers, create imitation civilian clothing, escape maps, iron rations for carrying on the road, and routes and tactics to get the escapees from the tunnel exit to freedom, for the POWs. (Brickhill was a POW at Stalag III at the time; barred from the escape by his claustrophobia, he particpated in other preparations).

And before any of that was an issue at all, they had to make the tunnels usable. Public TV’s Nova covered an archaological dig on the site of the old camp a few years ago. The soil in that part of Slaskie is thin, runny sand; Brickhill and Williams both spoke of the difficulties of digging through it, but it wasn’t until you saw it on Nova that you caught the full gravity of the engineering challenge it posed. The sand was a thin, yellow slop, resembling a combination of beach sand and diarrhea. The archeaological crew nearly lost a backhoe down a pit, when the side walls gave way; it would have been hard to build a useful sand castle in that slop. And yet, the Brits tunneled thirty feet down, building tunnels two feet wide and over 200 feet long, shored up with smuggled bunk boards and ration tins. They even built a trolley system on crude wooden rails, to ease the load of hauling the tons of sand – which then had to be distributed around the camp (it looked yellow and muddy until the sun could dry it, meaning that the inmates had to devise elaborate ruses to hide the stuff).

In the end, in March of 1944, 241 POWs entered one of the tunnels (one had been discovered, and the other used to hide sand); before the escape was discovered, 76 got out. 73 were recaptured (two Norwegian and one Dutch pilots made it to the UK); of the rest, 50 were murdered on Hitler’s orders.

I remember that story, like Shackleton’s, whenever I think something is impossible, or just too damn hard.

The above is a long, long lead-up to the actual story of this post.

The four great British POW escape books – Escape from Colditz, The Tunnel, The Wooden Horse and finally The Great Escape – all had one name in common; a young British officer, captured in the early days of the war, who attempted escape more than any known man. Steve McQueen’s motorcycle-jumping wise-cracking Yank in the Great Escape movie was said to have been loosely modeled after the real life exploits of Squadron Leader ‘Jimmy’ James, who passed away last week at age 92. S/L James particpated in the Great Escape – he was the thirtieth man through the tunnel on the night of the big break – as well as many earlier and later attempts. None of thsoe attempts got him back to the UK – he was rescued by American soldiers at the end of the war, as SS guards debated executing him and a group of other POWs that were bein held as hostages.  But all of which made him a legend among British POWs.

James was one of the few to escape execution after the Great Escape, and joined two others at the notorious death camp at Sachsenhausen, from where he made another daring escape by tunnel, only to be recaptured 10 days later.

Read the whole long, fascinating story.

And if you learn nothing else from his example, learn tenacity.

My City Was Gone Different

I’m a relatively rare critter; a conservative who lives in the inner city.  We’ve discussed this before in this blog; there are a lot of things I like about living in Saint Paul.  And there are a lot of things about life in the ‘burbs that I dislike enough to have made the decision fairly simple. 

For me.

On the other hand, I can see why people live in the subs.  And – unlike both liberal new-urbanist utopians who want to change land-use policy to force people back into the city, and urban hipsters who hate the ‘burbs with a diamond-like intensity, and conservatives who want to chide all of us inner-city conservatives out into identical beige houses with nosy neighbors who piss and moan about the length of your grass – I figure “let people live and thrive wherever they want”.  I’m the last person who’s going to force people to do anything, except leave my house if they’re not invited.

Of course, being a conservative, even though I love Saint Paul (but largely detest its government), I find myself duking it out with a lot of “New Urbanist” twaddle (which should be no surprise, given so many of my neighbors are New Urban Twaddlists). 

For those of you who don’t follow the argument – the ideal of the New Urbanists is that the endless expansion of the cities is a bad thing, that a denser, more communitarian society is a better thing, that “sprawl” is the source of many ills, from environmental degradation to obesity to neoconservatism, and that we’d be better off as a society if more of us lived in high-density urban cores, sharing infrastructure and riding together on the bus and smelling each others’ cooking together and sharing “public space”, the better to get to know and love and live with each other.  Or something like that.   

Of course, part of the problem is that many of the so-called “benefits” of state-driven (as opposed to market-driven) “New Urbanism” – like the crime-reducing effects of “eyes on the street” in high-density housing – are buncombe.

But underneath it all was something that really got me wondering; why did New Urbanists adopt the city they did – the traditional Industrial Age city, with a defined “downtown” where most of the people worked, with closely-aligned industrial districts, to both of which people commuted by industrial mass-transit – as its model?  That type of city is a very new development in human society.  They developed in an era – and in the great scheme of things, it’s a very short era – when all of the things you needed for the kind of prosperity that could support a major city,  capital, infrastructure and information, were very centralized. 

Before the advent of mass capital and mass transit, cities developed differently; if you look at cities that first flourished before, say, 1835, they’re very different than later cities (and in the US, all of the major cities, including New York, really took off around or after 1800).  London, Edinburgh, Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin – the great cities of old Western Europe – didn’t really have a “downtown”, per se; there were certainly districts that drew the most attention – but before the Industrial revolution, they were very decentralized things (except for political power, of course); all of them still show the vestiges of their origins.  Particularly, in the era before mass transit, different crafts would coalesce around different neighborhoods in such cities; London and Paris and Basel and Amsterdam had streets and alleys and neighborhoods where the various artisans – goldsmiths, tinsmiths, bagel makers, butchers, brewers, coopers, boatbuilders, wheelrights, and every other kind of trade would live and work (and other merchants – carters and peddlers – would haul the products to other neighborhoods to try to sell for a profit). 

The industrial revolution changed that, moving the mass economy from a distributed peasant-and-artisan system to a centralized, capital-driven system with factories, central banks, and centralized information gathering and distribution.  Which coincided with the development of cities in America, giving most of them the tradition layout of a downtown (where the businesses, banks, government offices and newspapers were), some industrial and warehouse districts (where stuff got built and shipped), and clusters of residential neighborhoods where the entrepreneurs, management and workers lived, and from which they commuted to the downtown and industrial areas via mass transit – railroads, streetcars, subways, whatever.

It’s at about this point that history stopped, for the New Urbanists. 

Of course, that model of industry peaked between 40 and 100 years ago.  After World War II, the car, the TV and the telephone made it possible for people to live farther and farther out from the city core and still have big-city jobs (and connections to big-city things like “culture” and “information”).  That, combined with the native American desire for “elbow room” and a population of men and women that had just spent the best years of their lives living in barracks and riding on troop trains and being jammed into the holds of troop ships, led to the ‘burbs.

Ironically, it’s the New Urbanists who fit the caricature of the conservative – “standing astride history, yelling “stop” – when it comes to how cities work.  They want the world to roll back to about 1900, when cities had dense cores and sparse burbs, and people rode about on streetcars because it was the only practical way to get from, say, 42nd and Nicollet down to the Grain Exchange or the Milwaukee Road yards.

But events would seem to be passing them by – so it seemed to me.  And it’s always good to get some confirmation on this.

I spent a fascinating 53 minutes last night listening to this bit (warning – audio file) by  Joel Kotkin, author of “The City Everywhere: Urbanism in the 21st Century”, a critical look at the errors that drive new urbanism.

A potpourri of his points:

  • There’s a reason that 95% of urban growth is on the periphery
  • Nationwide, suburbs are evolving in a way similar to Hopkins (an old standalone small town that was engulfed in the ’60’s by the Minneapolis metropolis, but kept and is re-establishing its own identity as a city) or Maple Grove (which is building an ersatz urban core and identity of its own) or Bloomington (which has turned the Mall of America into a de facto downtown complete with city offices and services.
  • America’s growth is being led by immigrants – and middle class immigrants are flocking to the ‘burbs.
  • At the same time as this happens, the old-school cities – Boston, New York, San Francisco – have become too expensive for everyone but the wealthy; the middle class simply can’t afford to live on Manhattan or Georgetown or Nob Hill.  Cities, if current patterns hold, will eventually be white upper middle class enclaves interspersed with impoverished ghettoes.
  • The urban sprawl issue will eventually be a non-issue, as the ‘burbs and exurbs (think Forest Lake) and the urban-fringe countryside (think Elko/New Prague) will start to develop as stand-alone urban areas of their own.
  • Urban real estate developers who think that baby boomers are going to desert their suburban manses to live in condos downtown have “drunk the koolaid”.

The whole thing is a fascinating listen. 

The Small War, Part II

Let’s switch to Jeopardy mode for a bit:

ANSWER: “We Can’t Win”.

QUESTION: Choose from the following:

  1. “What did the left say about Vietnam?”
  2. “What did the left say about El Salvador?”
  3. “What did the left say about Afghanistan until the (real) Northern Alliance and the Special Forces rode into Kandahar?”
  4. “What does the medialeft (I conflate media and left on purpose, since in reality they’ve pretty much conflated themselves) assure us about Iraq at every opportunity?”

The answer, if you’re a discerning news consumer, is “all of the above, and then some”.


“Iraq is un-winnable”.

That is one of the left’s great current conceits. It’s only as true as the nation wants to make it, of course; all wars are winnable (or at least loseable by the other guy) – Finland beat the Soviets, at least in regulation time, in 1940 (sudden death overtime brought the Finns a limited defeat and the Soviets a very costly “victory”); British, on the other hand, conquered most of the globe with a laughably-small force; the Colonies beat the British with even less; Britain in turn held out alone against Hitler. Of course, listing these wars like that oversimplifies the issues; each of them, “impossible” as they were by conventional measures, happened for reason that make perfect sense in retrospect.

But the upshot is that there is no such thing as an “unwinnable war”. Of course, all wars can be lost.

The distinction is important, especially when you look at the history of counterinsurgencies.

I remember the NARN’s interview with Steven Vincent, the freelance journalist who made such a name for himself covering Iraq, alone and without a net (and was eventually murdered on his second tour in the country, by criminals in Basra). In our final interview with him – the last interview he gave before leaving for Iraq the second time – we talked about the differences between the approach in the American and British-controlled regions of Iraq. The American zone was, true to “Neocon” dogma, taking the all-or-nothing route; full civil democracy, the whole enchilada, immediately. The British, drawing on centuries of experience ruling huge swathes of the world and immense native populations with a tiny military and civil servant cadre, had a different approach. They made deals with unsavory people to observe, rat out and countervail other unsavory people. They co-opted one group of thugs to smack down another group of thugs. They used, even exploited, criminal disorder to their larger goal – keeping relative order in their sector. Until recently, it worked -very arguably (Vincent was murdered in Basra, along with many other people, after all). They also kept their troops out among the Iraqis of the region, intermingling, buying their supplies locally, walking around without helmets or body armor (unless events demanded them) – and until recently, when the Brits announced their intention to start withdrawing, Basra was relatively peaceful compared to the miasma of Baghdad and Anbar.

They’ve done this – winning “unwinnable” counterinsurgency wars – before. In India from the 1600s through WWII, in the pre-Revolutionary American west, and South Africa in 1900, in Borneo and Malaysia and Aden and Oman in the sixties and seventies, the Brits learned the blocking and tackling of winning insurgencies: isolate the insurgents from the locals by being among the locals, by winning civilian hearts and minds, by co-opting other elements of the local society against the insurgents (including cultivating “friendly”, if often conventionally-unsavory, warlords, in the hopes of taming them when the crisis wanes – as, indeed, they did), and, when and if needed, following the isolated insurgent into the wilderness and hunting him down and killing him, using the minimal British force possible (and relying heavily on the locals to do the dirty work; British history is crowded with colorful characters who went overseas and “went native” leading indigenous troops in the service of the King; the British special forces, the SAS and SBS, are directly descended from such characters).

As Vincent noted, that approach is foreign to modern Americans (and when I say “modern”, it’s because the distinction is important, as we’ll see in a bit); neocons demand “democracy now”; liberals pine for the moral clarity of World War II and, like Jimmy Carter, get queasy at the thought of associating with, even supporting, unsavory, often thuggish, frequently deeply ugly people to defeat people who are not, to the outside observer, a whole lot different.

And when I say the approach is “foreign to Americans”, I mean “Americans who don’t follow this nation’s history, especially”.

Lost in the palaver about the Iraq War – and the inevitable Vietnam comparisons that the left leans on to the exclusion of most rational thought when the thought of war, especially counterinsurgency war, comes up – is that a hundred years ago, the United States was the master of small wars against small, asymmetric groups of insurgents. In winning the American West against the Indians, and then in our first “imperial” wars – the Philippines in the early 1900s, Nicaragua in the ’20s and ”30s, and several others in between and beyond (up through El Salvador in the ’80s), the US won wars the way the British won the same kinds of wars all across their empire for hundreds of years, from India in the 1600s through Aden and Northern Ireland in the seventies (as related by everyone from Robert Kaplan and Max Boot to Robert Nagl:

  1. Keep our troops out among the natives – even in tiny numbers, the act of showing a presence among the civilians makes a huge difference in…
  2. …Cutting the guerillas off from the people. Make it impossible for the insurgents to get supplies, recruits and support (and, commensurately, to exert control through coercion and terror).
  3. Co-opt and exploit local institutions to help you with #2 first – and then build new institutions. This drives liberals (and, it must be fairly said, neoconservatives) crazy; surely, they reason, imposing democracy and human rights immediately must be a better thing – right? Like most ideals, it’s not always true, of course. It was a former Ranger – who’d spent a few years training for this exact kind of warfare – who introduced me to the saying “perfect is the enemy of good enough”. In many parts of the world, the only human right that matters right now is the right to not get blown up, beheaded, shot or gang-raped. Once those are taken care of, one can worry about the more finesseful rights of man.
  4. Build up the local institutions that work. Liberals – and some neoconservatives – grouse about this because it involves “picking and choosing warlords”.

It’s nothing new; we did it in the Philippines in 1900 to great effect; the desert Southwest wasn’t subdued by columns of blue-jacketed cavalry, but by small teams of Apache renegades led by tiny cadres of soldiers on long, unsupported pushes through the desert that made it impossible for the Mescaleros to carry on a regular life in the US. More recently, in El Salvador in the ’80s – a great, and successful, example of this kind of war which was also judged “un-winnable” by the mainstream left and media – there was a choice; between left-wing death squads, and right-wing death squads. The US (and the Special Forces that did the work) chose to support the right-wing death squads, on the assumption (correct, as it turned out) that they would eventually be easier to co-opt, fold into the regular military, and eventually teach the basics of human rights. The solution in El Salvador was messy, imperfect – and remains light-years better than it was during the days of unchecked insurgency, leaving the nation a functional, if imperfect, democracy. Another example – many times in Imperial Grunts Kaplan notes US Special Forces (“Green Berets”) in Afghanistan remarking that their mission is to make the locals – the Afghan Army, as well as the local warlords’ militias – look good. The goal, of course, is to build the stability that’s needed, not just for democracy to take hold (if indeed it can or will), but to deny Afghanistan to the terrorists as a safe haven again.

The good news? Once you get through the job of making the population safe from the insurgents, it can – indeed, say many of the subjects in Imperial Grunts, should – be done with many fewer troops than we currently have in Iraq.

So who screwed up?

And why are the Democrats wrong?

Oh, heck – I guess I’ll make this three parts.

The Small War, Part I

I’m splitting this into two parts; once I started writing, I just couldn’t stop. I have a few things to establish before I get into my post proper.


Statement: Administration 2, Demcrats/media 1.

We’ll come back to that.


For those of you who think I never pay the Demcrats a complement, stand by to have your preconceptions gutted like fish: they got one (and only one) thing right about the Iraq war. I think we are getting to the point where we can fight the war with a much smaller commitment of troops in Iraq. Indeed, we might even be to the point where it might be beneficial to the conduct of the war itself.

Oh, of course the Democrats are wrong about the reasons, meaning and execution of this idea.

But again, we’ll come back to that.


There’s an old saw among those who follow military history…

…and even moreso among those who casually watch people who follow military history: that nations and their militaries always prepare for the last war.

So, it seems, do social movements.

Reading Imperial Grunts by Robert Kaplan a few months back – about the time some Democrats were pushing for a reinstatement of the draft – I saw an interesting parallel.

Kaplan chronicled the complaints of US Special Forces and Marines in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Columbia and the Philippines that the “Big Army” (and Big Navy and Big Air Force to boot) had taken over control of operations in these countries. The problem, they told Kaplan, was that the generals who run the “Big Army” cut their leadership teeth “fighting” America’s last, least-ambiguously successful war – the Cold War (and more ambiguous successes like Grenada and Desert Storm) – who were led in their militarily formative years by men whose main mission was to avoid costly debacles like Vietnam or Mogadishu. The Cold War, of course, was a throwback to the great mass industrial wars of the 20th Century, WWI and WWII; high-tech, involving mass armies maneuvering in mass formations on a global scale, with the survival of entire nations, societies, systems, even the world itself at stake. The US military built at huge expense during that period became unstoppable in its major mission; to decimate phalanxes of tanks bulldozing across the East German border with high-tech tanks, helicopters, jets and artillery that could fight 24/7 in all weather; to interdict fleets of Soviet submarines intent on gutting sea communications with Europe reminiscent of the U-boat wolfpacks with a fleet of over a hundred impossibly-complex hunter-killer submarines; to secure the air over Europe against skies dark with MiGs with technological marvels like the F-15, the Stealth fighter and the AMRAAM missile. It might be fairly argued that just as the US military fought Vietnam wrongly – trying to treat a counterinsurgency war as a mass national crusade – that the Pentagon spent a few years fighting Afghanistan and Iraq the wrong way; trying to bring a Cold-War-era mass army to places more suited to…something else.

On the other hand, the left is also fighting its last wars. Plural.

Vietnam, of course, was the last war of the part of the left led by the likes of Kos and Air America – the reflexive “America Last” crowd. But as powerful and influential as they are in the Democrat party (and moreso in Minnesota’s DFL), they’re not really the most interesting current to examine.

The last unambiguously successful war of the Left was World War II. Led by FDR and Truman, it was the last truly national war; the last one that involved our entire society. More importantly, it was the last (and, in a sense, the first) war in our history to be morally unambiguous. For the first, and probably last, time in history, the good guys (if you leave out that whole “Stalin” thing) wore white (or olive-drab) hats, while the bad guys wore black coal-scuttle helmets. It was a war that paralleled the New Deal and much of how statist liberalism operates; registering and inducting entire swathes of society; imposing an all-encompassing order on the nation’s life; a war in which the individual was subsumed to the national will, in war as in the economy. And of course, like the lefty ideal for so many things (which is realized in so few things), it was…well, not exactly “clean”, but certainly well-defined. It had a definite end; troops marching thirty-abreast down the Champs D’Elysees, Hitler dead in a bunker, a surrender ceremony on the USS Missouri, done deal, no sticky entanglements.

Which, of course, is one of the reasons they are chanting “this war has lasted longer than World War II”. It’s the only model of success they have, when it comes to defending this nation.

And there’s a clarity – to the left – in looking back at Vietnam (from their perspective, at least); to the left, Vietnam was unambiguously wrong, inarguably unwinnable, never anything but wrong for any reason, from any perspective (easier to believe when one filters out that whole “Killing Fields” bit). In a sense, it was the anti-World War II.

The left’s dalliances with running the nation since Vietnam have been much less clear, both positively and negatively, than WWII and Vietnam. Carter’s impotent flailings at the Iranians, Clinton interventions to support humanitarian goals in Haiti, Kosovo and the Balkans, Rwanda and Somalia (although he inherited that involvement from George HW Bush) which tried to paint humanitarian happy thoughts on top of centuries-old ethnic animosities; they wound up treating unsavory people pretty much like other unsavory people without bothering to judge their differences, to very little real long-term effect (to say nothing of at least one famous, if historically minor, disaster in Mogadishu).

So there are, really, four different world views (certainly more than that, really, but I’m going to limit things to the big four) duking it out over the War on Terror right now:

  1. The fringe (and ascendant) far left, which sees all war as unambiguously wrong.
  2. The “mainstream” left, which waxes nostalgic for its own finest hour, the unambiguous moral correctness of wars like WWII, down to the level of even replicating their methods.
  3. The Administration, which after 9/11 embraced a Wilsonian, almost utopian view of the vitality of exporting democracy, seeing this as an unambiguously good thing.
  4. The Pentagon, caught between its pre-1991 status quo as a force designed to fight a huge, high-tech conventional war, its 1992-to-9/10/2001 imperative to “transform” into…something (after 2000, into a force to back up the “neocon” Wilsonian doctrine; before that, to get small fast so Clinton could cash the “Peace Dividend”), and finally after 9/11 the leader in the War on Terror

And of course, the fifth force, the one whose present Kaplan chronicles and whose history Max Boot explored; our “Unconventional Warfare” community, visible in the news today in the guise of General Petraeus and his return to nuts ‘n bolts counterinsurgency warfare, but which has been tinkering with the means to fight exactly this kind of war for half a century, frequently against bitter opposition from the “Cold War” “Big” military.

We’ll come back to that tomorrow.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XL

Tonight was the big night. Sunday, December 28, 1986. It was going to be a huge night on two fronts.

The evening would kick off with my band’s first gig at Williams’ Uptown Bar on Hennepin in Minneapolis.

Then, after load-out, I’d race out to KSTP to do my show. I was going to interview a childhood idol of mine.


When you play in a dinky garage band, it’s easy to dream big. Sitting in your home studio writing music, or standing around in the basement listening to your band’s progress, and especially standing on stage in front of an appreciative crowd (or “crowd”), it was easy to think “next stop, the big time”. The optimism that accompanies the sort of muted arrogance that makes one think that anyone actually cares to hear what you write makes it easy to think, on reading one’s lyrics, hearing one’s practices, and seeing people watching you play, that you’ve got it going on.

But loading-in usually levels that out nicely.

Turns out I was the only driver in my band. The other three guys bused everywhere. And while we didn’t have a lot of equipment by the standards of the bands I’d played in high school (where we had to haul a PA system along with our instruments), there was enough – two guitars and a bass, their amps, a drum kit, and a Crumar T1 organ – and it didn’t haul itself, and it wasn’t going to fit into the back of my Jeep. I’d managed to borrow a van from one of my roommate’s parents, though. I got to the band’s house, and we started hauling our gear out of the stinky basement into the frigid late afternoon.

The good part – it was only about five blocks to the bar. The bad part – we were early.

The headliner that night was a group called “Bathyscope”. The name meant nothing to us – yet. What we did know was that they had a ton of gear – guitars, bass, two keyboard players (whose equipment is always heavy and bulky) and a drummer with a huge kit, and a box packed solid with other percussion instruments and stage props – and bigger pretensions, it seemed, in getting it set up and soundchecked. It took them a solid ninety minutes to get their gear up on stage, soundchecked, and ready to go.

Then it was our turn. As the opener, we were supposed to put our gear in front of the headliners, plug in, and grab a sound-check – if we had the time. By the time Bathyscope got off stage, it was 8:25. We were supposed to go on at nine.

We pulled, hauled and plugged, and got our stuff set up and more or less ready by about ten ’til, and started our soundcheck – a few bars of one of our songs. People were filing into the joint. The Bathyscope people – who looked, except for the drummer, to be distinctly “uptown” by the standards of Minneapolis in the day – were not visibly impressed with our Iron City Houserockers-Via-Lou Reed vibe.

But it didn’t last long. Will, our drummer, stopped in mid-song. I turned – he was frantically fiddling with something under his snare drum. I walked over.

“My hi-hat’s broken”.

Five minutes until we’re supposed to start. Crap.

Our options were two: Borrow a couple of pan lids from the kitchen, or hope someone would come through for us.

Bathyscope’s drummer – a big guy who looked to be in his late teens or early twenties, the only black guy in the room – came up on stage. He and Will conferred back behind the drum kit – and then he reached back to his own rig and grabbed his hi-hat. They turned to moving Will’s broken ‘hat out of the way, and putting his in place.

And we were on. Larry Sahagian, sitting at the sound board, went on the crackly, on-its-last-legs PA system and announced “Ladies and Gentlemen – Tenant’s Union”.


The gig itself – well, it was rough.

Turns out that excitement does make people go a lot faster than they think they are. The tapes we heard after the gig were shocking; it sounded like we were playing 50% faster than we were supposed to. The sound was garbled, my voice sounded like a fractured, out of breath yelp, and we sounded more like four guys playing at the same time than a band of four guys playing together.

The crowd was worse. There was a decent house, about 3/4 full…

…that seemed pretty uninterested in us. The clapping between songs was muted and wan. We weren’t dying – just gravely injured.

Still, I had fun; to me, there’s never been a feeling quite like working a room, even if it’s not perfect. We played ten songs, eight of them mine. And, rough as we were, by about the sixth or seventh song we started finding whatever groove we had; we were loud, (too) fast, and even though things were rough, we had a certain power to our delivery that felt like climbing on a big motorcycle, one that may need a tuneup but still makes the air crackle with power just a little bit.

During the third to the last song – “Five Short Words” – one guy back at the bar stood up with a look of recognition and a broad smile on his face, and started clapping along. I played the whole song directly to him – might as well reinforce success – and filed the guy’s face away for later.

After the tenth song, we were done. There was scatted clapping as we unplugged and started hauling our gear out of the way and Bathyscope started moving theirsinto place.

We hauled our gear out to the van, and sat down to watch.

And figured out quickly why the crowd hadn’t really dug us. “Bathyscope” was a jazz-pop band with very arty aspirations. The lead singer, a (how do we say this in our politically-correct age) aggressively gay guy dressed in an untucked tunic with laurel wreath (!) on his head, danced about the stage like an oversized dwarf from Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge” scene. They set their amps and keyboards (and their stage props) on – I’m not kidding – doric half-columns. The band was modestly tight – the drummer was amazing, and the rest of the band was not great, not bad – and extremely ornate in that music-major-y kind of way. It was very unlike our thrashy din.


As they finished their set, the singer announced “Come see our art next Saturday at the Riflesport Gallery!”

Double Um.

Before we left, I walked back to the bar. The guy who’d been clapping walked up to me.

“That song you did – that was a reference to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, wasn’t it?”

It was.

Six weeks work, and our fan base is a fellow English major and Russian Lit geek.

I also saw Larry Sahagian, who paid us our twenty bucks. “You guys did all right, but you were totally the wrong band to open for these guys”.

Anyway. At least none of our friends had seen us.


We went back to the basement and loaded our gear downstairs. By the time we were done, it was 12:30AM. I had to race out to the station to get on the air. I got there at 1AM – a little late, given the obsessiveness I put into show prep at that point in my “career” – but I got down to it.

Among my various geekinesses as a child and teenager was a fascination with fighter planes and aerial combat. I knew a little bit about many of the world’s classic dogfights. The protagonist of one of my favorite dogfights – a Navy F-4 ace from the Vietnam War that I’d been reading about for years – had just written a book. I had booked him for a phone interview from his home in LA.

After five months of doing the show, I was starting to settle into a bit of a groove. The awkard halting of my first couple attempts at guest interviews had been replaced by a little confidence and a tad of polish – which is damning by faint praise, but whatever – and at least I knew the subject matter for this interview pretty intimately.

The interview went…very well. It clicked as well as the gig had not. I knew the material in the book, and the guest appreciated it. I knew things about his story that, clearly, he wasn’t used to radio interviewers knowing. And the callers surprised me; one of the callers had even served on the carrier, the Constellation, with the guest during the Vietnam war, and added a lot to the commentary.

I wasn’t the only one who thought it went well – I heard the following week from the PR agent that the guest had had more fun on my little show than with any other interview he’d given.

I could have told her that.

I drove home that night – exhausted, cold, and giddy. The music career needed some work, but was off and running. And for the first time since July, I was starting to feel genuinely confident as a talk show host. I felt, for the first time, like I could fill in for any of the daytime hosts, and not embarass anyone in the process.

I could see the top of the world from where I sat in my Jeep.


Postlude: It’s interesting to me, twenty years later, to note that I had one degree of separation with both fame and infamy that night (three, if you count Larry Sahagian, whose band the Urban Guerillas was about to release their proto-grunge classic Attack of the Pink, Heat-Seeking Moisture Missiles.  But for the benefit of those who weren’t marinating in Twin Cities underground music twenty years ago, I won’t count that).

The personable, friendly, good-samaritan drummer for Bathyscope went on to much bigger and much better things. He turned out to be Mike Bland – at the time an Augsburg student, who was gigging for a few bucks on his way to a career as one of the most sought-after session drummers in the business, as well as stints with Prince and the New Power Generation and Soul Asylum.

The author and fighter pilot? Well, he was Duke Cunningham – still a hero, in those days, known for shooting down five North Vietnamese jets, including three on one climactic day, long before his political career and eventual status as poster-boy for Congressional corruption.

I knew ’em both when.

A Modest, Inexpensive, In Your Face Proposal

Virtually everyting that any Minnesotan has ever done is the subject of some memorial or another.

And yet the biggest single event of most of our lifetimes – the event that’s touched the most of us, for the better – goes unmemorialized.

Minnesotans; it is time to build the Cold War Memorial.

Think about it; the tools that brought the end the the Cold War (under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, after America threw off the moldy, defeatist political hairshirt of the Carter years) have been largely discarded, and are availble for a song (often for $1, you haul).

Think of it; we could get a Lafayette class ballistic missile submarine…

or one of these babies…

…and park it on the Capitol Mall as a monument to the greatest war never fought!

And on a memorial wall surrounding it, we could carve the names of the six million Minnesotans not killed in the Cold War!

Let’s get on this!