Courage, America, s’il vous plait

At this writing, the governors of 24 states, all but one of them Republican, have announced they will block the settlement of refugees in their states. It seems clear they don’t have the authority to do that under the constitution they are always on about revering, but it makes for political fodder in a year leading up to a major election. Conservatives contrast themselves from liberals by claiming they respect loyalty and duty above all. Such generalizations mean nothing if you can change the particulars any time a risk is involved.

I don’t generally bandy about words like courage and cowardice; God knows I’ve fallen short too many times in the past. But the bar for the settlement of refugees seems low enough even for someone like me. Yes, there is some risk involved, but relatively little. Only one of the attackers in Paris was identified as a possible refugee, the rest were either French or Belgian citizens. Even that one case is far from clear. The fact that the Syrian passport survived the suicide bomber’s destruction suggests it was meant to be found. French police are looking at the validity of the passport as a result.

In spite of your favorite movie or video game, courage is not a matter of acting without fear; it is acting in spite of fear, because a greater good will result. Surely we Americans, so proud of our toughness, can accept the small risk involved with the settlement of refugees from the very people we are so afraid of.

Actually, it would be comforting, in a weird way, to think all of these governors were simply cowards, but I think their real motivation lies in the realm of politics. The Republican party’s lifeblood is fear. They miss no opportunity to exploit it to their advantage, and this latest move falls right into place alongside their rhetoric about Mexican immigrants. This, to me, is far more despicable than mere cowardice, over which one may have little control.

I’ll keep this short. Do you remember all those veterans you were falling all over yourselves to thank last week? Well, this is your opportunity to step up and accept a small amount of risk, and show what you’re made of. That will make all that gratitude so much more meaningful; it won’t look so much like you were just glad to be off the hook for courage.

Thanks, but no thanks

Another Veterans Day looms, or, judging by my local paper, Veteran’s Week. It won’t be long before we start decorating our front yards with little plastic tanks. People are falling all over themselves thanking anyone they see in uniform for their service. I’m sure by the end of the week, many a doorman will have been thanked by mistake. Although in the case of doormen, the gratitude is probably warmly appreciated.

Every once in a while, someone finds out I served in the military, and thanks me profusely. You might think it’s strange, but I find this irritating. In the first place, I was in the Air Force. As the always insightful (not to say inciteful)  Jim Wright has noted, the Air Force is known for the finest battle-tested high tech espresso machines in any of the armed forces worldwide. In the second place, although I was in during the Vietnam war, I was never sent there; I served in Okinawa and Frankfurt, Germany, not exactly hazardous duty, unless you consider the night life out the back gate. The most heroic thing I ever did was show up at morning Commander’s Call with a hellacious hangover. In one particular case, this was, in fact, cured, when the CO decided we all needed to know what hashish smelled like, the better to turn each other in. The First Sergeant stuck about gram of it on the end of a pin, lit it, and passed it around for us to sniff.

It never made it past the second row, and when questioned, no one seemed to know where it had gone. Those of us in the first two rows especially.

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. As a member of Prime Beef, an elite group of engineers, I participated in several NATO exercises; in particular, I recall one near Thessaloniki, Greece. We arrived and within a few hours had dug our latrines and set up our tents and command post, along with the simulated combat airstrip that was our mission.  Since no actual aircraft were going to land on it, we were essentially done until the exercise was over. Under the circumstances, my commander entrusted me with the most important job that remained unfinished: taking a new 5 gallon jerry can into town, and getting it filled with cheap wine.

This was the late 60s, of course, and I’m sure things are more professional now, but I’m willing to bet these stories would not look all that unfamiliar to today’s troops..

My point here is that this is a far more typical military service experience than the Sgt. Rock stuff people imagine. The usually quoted ratio for support personnel to actual fighters is 9:1. That means 90% of us veterans did no significant fighting; for those stationed in combat zones the ratio probably goes down to about 6 or 7:1, but there are no hard figures to base this on. To be sure, things have changed, and the line between combat and support troops has gotten fuzzier, but not as much as you would think. Those truck drivers you hear about are certainly in harm’s way, but keep in mind that attacking supply lines has been a key military tactic at least since Alexander the Great.

The biggest difference, and a significant one, is the way troops are deployed. Up until Vietnam, troops were in-country for the duration of hostilities. In Vietnam, it was 11-13 months and out; you pretty much had to volunteer to go back a second time. What makes things difficult nowadays is the recurring deployments, arguably more stressful than even the long duration single deployments in the world wars, especially with the increased use of reservists. That recurring shift of perspective is, in some ways, worse than continuous deployments of the past. Still, even in places like Afghanistan, most of that is non-combat, although the constant threat of IEDs, suicide bombings and the like certainly takes a toll.

So, why am I being such a curmudgeon about this? Don’t I think some thanks are deserved here? Well, yes and no.

Apart from the disquieting realization that most of those doing the thanking haven’t the slightest idea what they’re thanking us for, and the suspicion that they’re just happy they didn’t have to do anything for the society they live in, there are other very good reasons.

It’s undeniable that some percentage of veterans have, indeed, endured harrowing experiences. Some of them will suffer from the effects for the rest of their lives. But most will get over it rather quickly, and settle into the routines of civilian life with no visible effects. Some, in fact, will have behaved disgracefully, and deserve nothing. A very, very small percentage will have been genuine heroes, not for ideological, or even patriotic, reasons, but for the personal sacrifices they made in circumstances all but incomprehensible to the rest of us, and I include the majority of veterans.

It’s for this tiny group that I object to the indiscriminate expression of gratitude to everyone who has had any military service. And I guarantee that you will never hear any of these people trumpeting their military experience, or even talking about it.  There’s a meme that makes the rounds of social media every now and then, which states something to the effect that anyone who has served in the military has voluntarily offered up his or her life for the good of the country. I seldom use the word bullshit, but it seems particularly appropriate here.

The Vegan occupation

Something has been happening under our very noses: colonists from the Vegan star system some 25 light years away have been slowly infiltrating our planet.  They kept a low profile at first, but now they openly self-identify.  There are more and more of them; they even have their own restaurants, and even establishments specializing in normal human food now offer Vegan dishes.  The great mystery is how they have managed such a successful migration from such a great distance.

One possibility is that they began their journey thousands of years ago, and are only now arriving, but I don’t favor that.  Vega is a massive star which is only about a tenth as old as the sun.  They’re not that smart.  Besides, immigrants generally are assimilated by the second or third generation, and these have held on to their ethnic cuisine much longer than that.

The only answer is quantum entanglement.  Which means that somewhere on their home planet orbiting Vega, there is a box in which is an identical group of people, living in identical houses, and eating the same gluten-free unfried falafel wraps, drinking the same double venti no-whip soy lattes. 

You can figure out for yourself the implications of that.  For their environment at home to be identical to the one here on Earth, there must be identical humans there.  Which means they have cloned us.  Or are we the clones?  How would we know?

Why, you may ask, would they do this?  Because Vega will last only a tenth as long as the sun, that’s why.  Vegans are apparently quite prudent, and are slowly replacing us with themselves, so as not to be left without a home.

I am posting this on my blog, because I don’t believe they know I’m on to them yet.  But just in case I’m too late, they’ll find they’re not the only prudent ones.  I have appended a copy of this post to the end of the iTunes EULA agreement.

They’ll never find it there.

Notice to Consumers

It has come to our attention that some of you have been seen engaging in activities that have little or nothing to do with consuming.  This, of course, must stop, as it jeopardizes the entire consummation system.  In the 19th century, enthusiasm for consuming was so robust that people were even reported to have died from consumption.  Are we to fail such a heritage?

Even the French have surpassed us.  There is a soup there called consommé which is quite widely used in cooking, even though, judging from the name, it has clearly already been consumed before.  Surely we can do as well or better.

If the general population fails to improve by next Tuesday, all businesses in the US will be forced to not only become French, but to move all operations involving wage earners to an impoverished country … what?  Oh, never mind.  Become French, then.

How red meat is like … red meat

I go through long periods when I just can’t seem to finish anything: poetry, fiction, essays, it doesn’t matter. I work at it. I take notes, jot down ideas, begin paragraphs, sit in coffee shops streaming my consciousness. No matter how promising it looks, or, in desperation, how passable, I just can’t seem to pull the trigger. It’s a log jam (I won’t use the more obvious metaphor, although, as you’ll see, it’s more appropriate).

Then something comes along that just pushes the rest of it through willy-nilly.

For the last couple of days, the news has been all over social media that WHO has declared red meat to be “probably” carcinogenic. Vegan friends are beside themselves crowing, rubbing our faces in it with a vicious glee. There is nothing more likely to raise the hackles of the normal person.

Sometimes, though, it’s better to let sleeping hackles lie. The rest of us might experience that rare motivation to check things out for ourselves, rather than believe the first meme that comes along.

First of all, WHO has also declared the night shift to be probably carcinogenic. It’s not exactly an exclusive category. It’s just a statement of statistical fact; no attempt is made to judge how much of a danger it really represents

In the case of red meat, it seems that daily consumption of more than 100 grams is correlated to a 25% or so (the figures vary, depending on what you’re reading) increase in the incidence of colorectal cancer. “Yikes!” you might say. But what does this actually mean?

For some reason, WHO appears to have conflated processed meats with red meat for this study, so it’s difficult to assess either category by itself. It also appears to have ignored other lifestyle factors, but let’s go with what we’ve got.

The incidence of colorectal cancer in the general population is about .04%. Eating red meat raises your chances to a whopping .05%; that’s right, an increase of .01%.

Friends, you are more likely to die driving to the grocery store to buy the red meat than you are from eating it.

Some rank observations

Why is the lowest rank in the army, which affords its holder no privacy whatsoever, called private? The corporal, at least, seems reasonably preoccupied with bodies. But what is a sergeant? Someone bedecked in serge? A warrant officer, I suppose, is the person in the office which processes warrants, but you’d never know it from their duties.

I get lieutenant; he’s a tenant in a place, and the captain is surely the head man. But if he’s the head man, why are there ranks above him?

To be sure, in the navy, there are fewer ranks above captain, but that’s the navy, always going their own way, doubtless from spending so much time on the bounding main, far from civilization. A friend, and ex-submariner, once told me they left port with 150 sailors, and returned with 75 couples. I guess that explains the ranks of mates; very chummy, these sailors. Perhaps it also explains admirals, presumably persons most to be admired. As for the rest of them (only some of whom are able bodied), they are seamen. Very clear and to the point, much like the airmen in the … air force. Someday soon these basic descriptive ranks will have to be modified to reflect the modern military: seapersons and airpersons.

But above the captain in the army there are majors and colonels before you even get to the highest ranks. Majors, I believe, are self-explanatory, but what on earth is a colonel? Something to do with columns? If so, why is he allowed to lord it over the head man?

The generals, those with the highest ranks, presumably do not have any specific duties, like the lower ranks, with the exception of the lowest of them, the brigadier, who mucks about with brigades. Yet they feel compelled to recapitulate practically the entire officer rank system among themselves, from lieutenant to major, skipping colonels, perhaps because generals get nowhere near any columns except during parades.

Don’t get me started on unit designations; that’s something only a very admiral general could explain.

The long, long silly season

Hard to believe, but it’s still over a year until the election we’re all obsessing about. That’s more than enough time for all the current front runners to fade away, and for new ones to emerge from nowhere. Meanwhile, we’re filling Facebook, Twitter, and, yes, blogs, with not so much political opinion as ad hominem. Never have slings and arrows so thoroughly disdained outrageous defeat. Have at them now, lads, if they disappear, you’ll have missed your chance to smite those who disagree with your clan. Come to think of it, disagreement isn’t even necessary, just designation as the Enemy.

The worst part of all this is the ugly deterioration of discourse in social media. Of course, the bar was never set very high to begin with, but now it’s steadily approaching negative numbers. More like limbo than the high jump. How low can you go?

There’s an insidious dynamic at work, one which, I admit, has affected me at times as well. You make some statement, simplistic because, in the buzz of the moment, you don’t feel like putting in all the nuance, all the exceptions and caveats. Besides, what sells on social media is the punchy one-liner. In any case, you assume your friends will get all that, because they know you so well.

But then, it turns out they don’t. Someone responds with an objection, which itself ignores nuance, the better to firmly repudiate the shallowness of your post. In other words, by this point, the two of you have posted opinions that, although you generally find the gist agreeable, you do not wholly buy into. It could stop right there, and often does. All it takes is one side or the other opting out.

But sometimes, you just can’t seem to leave it alone. You feel wounded; it’s a kind of betrayal for a friend to think you would actually believe such simplicity. How could they, especially since their response is just as trivial? Besides, you’ve thought of a zinger that will stop the whole process by making it clear you have the superior position.

You’re off and running. The “debate” slides further and further into sheer defensiveness, until each of you finds yourself fiercely defending a position you would never have even acknowledged before things got out of hand. Worse, a friendship is threatened over what usually amounts to a difference in nuance.

With any luck, something truly horrific hits the news just then, and the two of you can come together on what dangerous lunatics the other side are.