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.