November 11, 2005
They also serve who only stand and drink
With the end of Veteran's Day only hours away here on the west coast, I want to rush in my family's own WWI story. My Granddad was a participant in that war, but I cannot share stories of the horrors of the trenches in France. Sorry, the WWI stories in our family concern the horrors of the mosquitoes in Panama, which is where the US Army elected to send Gramps when he offered his service.
At left is a photo he brought back from his deployment (click for full size). Apparently, service in Panama did not deprive a young American of good company and beverages. My Gramps is the tall grinning fellow in the sailor hat, back row third from the right. I love this picture; I look at it and just want to be there. I'm sure life was uncomfortable in the jungle in 1917, but these look like fun guys to hang around with.
They were there to guard the new canal, and probably with good reason, but I have not heard that they saw any action down there. Gramps did mention that for a while he flew as an observer in a reconnaissance aircraft, essentially a guy with binoculars in an open cockpit. In that era, any air service was dangerous duty.
Whether you were sent into the bloodiest sector of the front, or to a jungle in Panama to wait for an attack that didn't come, all service is appreciated and honored.
August 11, 2005
Less afraid, more in danger?
I wrote a bit ago about the new centrist blog, "Donklephant" (still can't quite get over either the name or the mascot). Marcus Cicero has contributed another well thought out essay, this time on the question of whether we are safer now that we are post-Cold-War but mid-GWOT, or were we really safer back when the Soviets were the perceived threat. (tip to Michael Totten again, subbing at Instapundit)
I'm traveling and do not have the occasion to comment as I would like to. I'll just suggest you read the essay and add that I strongly suspect that we are less likely to see global Armageddon, but much more likely to see a regional sort of annihilation. Sobering....
August 04, 2005
Our national shame
I'm a proud patriot in a long line of proud American patriots, but I recognize that elements of our national history, our American story, are uncomfortable, even shameful. In years past Americans, great people that they were and are, have done things that in retrospect we wish we could erase from the books. I'm confident that they thought they were doing the right thing, and yet I can see for this perspective that they were in the wrong. It is to our credit that we recognize and admit to these faults and reflect on them.
I haven't the hubris to believe that my generation of Americans are so pure and righteous that there is nothing in our national actions that history will judge harshly. I fear at times that there is plenty. Our efforts to fight global terror will, I hope, be seen as noble and necessary, if a bit flawed in execution, but I am convinced that our shamefully profligate use of energy will bring us scorn from future generations, and rightfully so.
I hate to link to the same columnist twice in a day, but Thomas Friedman has some words on the newly passed Energy Bill that I want to note.
Sorry to be so cynical, but an energy bill that doesn't enjoin our auto companies to sharply improve their mileage standards is just not serious. This bill is what the energy expert Gal Luft calls "the sum of all lobbies." While it contains some useful provisions, it also contains massive pork slabs dished out to the vested interests who need them least - like oil companies - and has no overarching strategy to deal with the new world.
And the world has changed in the past few years. First, the global economic playing field is being leveled, and millions of people who were out of the game - from China, India and the former Soviet empire - are now walking onto the field, each dreaming of a house, a car, a toaster and a microwave. As they move from low-energy to high-energy consumers, they are becoming steadily rising competitors with us for oil.
Second, we are in a war. It is a war against open societies mounted by Islamo-fascists, who are nurtured by mosques, charities and madrasas preaching an intolerant brand of Islam and financed by medieval regimes sustained by our oil purchases.
Yes, we are financing both sides in the war on terrorism: our soldiers and the fascist terrorists. George Bush's failure, on the morning after 9/11, to call on Americans to accept a gasoline tax to curb our oil imports was one of the greatest wasted opportunities in U.S. history.
I haven't thought much about an emergency GWOT gas tax; it certainly would have helped to pay for the war, and it would have been an important signal to the American people and the Saudi's that we "get it." Unfortunately, it is stunningly clear that we don't get it. I've supported this President on many issues and at the polls, but his bred-in blindness about energy policy, and what certainly looks like an ideologically-driven blindness amongst his advisers, is perhaps his greatest failing. Conservatives will scoff to hear it, but in a few decades, when the Islamo-fascists have been suppressed and become footnote in history, the repercussions of American energy and environmental policy in this decade will still be effecting the world, and we will not be fondly remembered for it.
It seems as though only a big crisis will force our country to override all the cynical lobbies and change our energy usage. I thought 9/11 was that crisis. It sure was for me, but not, it seems, for this White House, Congress or many Americans. Do we really have to wait for something bigger in order to get smarter?
It seems so. Sadly, there is every reason to believe that we'll get it.
January 17, 2005
In honor of Rev. Martin Luther King
Rather than post this twice, I'll direct you over to my other blog where I have commented on King. You might also want to read King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail, one of my favorites from his many fine writings and speaches.
December 06, 2004
Sensing the Rhymes in History
"History never repeats itself; at best it sometimes rhymes."-Mark Twain
I found this quote in a history textbook that my daughter brought home. It's classic Mark Twain, funny, and yet deeply true. For all the clichéd sayings about history repeating, it rarely really does. In fact it never really does. There are so many different threads in the multicolored weave of human history that anything close to an exact repetition of a previous pattern is virtually impossible. People change, societies evolve, situations combine in novel ways, and the results can look similar to something we see in our history books, but it's also really quite new.
Of course, that's not to say that the study of history is worthless, and that there's nothing we can learn from our past. I love to read about, write about, and discuss both US and world history. There's nothing quite so fascinating to human minds as the human story, and the past is still the best predictor of the future. The study of history is a wonderful way, perhaps even the best way, to understand our present and where we are going, but it can also lead one astray. The trick is, as Twain implied, not to look for repetitions, but to sense out the "rhymes" in history.
The current conflict in Iraq is an excellent example. Plenty of people, especially during the recent campaign, have wanted to compare this war with our involvement in Vietnam. While there are hints of similarities, events are not lining up for anything close to a "repetition". The Iraqi insurgency has nothing like the level of support that the Viet Cong enjoyed, either within the country or internationally. The US military also fights very differently now than it did in the 1960s, largely because it has studied its history, and learned from it. The participants have evolved, the situation is different, and so, while the story it may look similar and sound similar to an earlier tale, it's likely to end very differently. To paraphrase a popular proverb, "you can't step into the same quagmire twice."
The search for historical repetition is popular sport. Pundits wonder, "is George Bush the Republican Harry Truman?", or "is the 2004 in election a repetition of... (fill in a previous pivotal election)". It's not hard to find a similarities. The truth is, not only does history "rhyme", is rhymes quite a lot. People haven't really changed much down through the millennia. Politics is still the same exasperating enterprise it was in the time of the Greek city states. History is full of little story ideas and personalities that appear again and again. But we argue and debate these comparisons because we tend to make the same mistake again and again; we take them too seriously.
In poetry and song, words that look alike and sound a like can mean very different things and lead to very different things. The same can be said for history's rhymes. That Iraq "resembles" Vietnam in some aspects is informative and interesting, but not deterministic. In fact, the differences between the now and the past are just as informative and interesting as the similarities. Contrasting ideas, and unexpected turns, make for good poetry and lively history.
There really are very few truly "new" things in the world. But just as poets have not run out of ways to combine the finite supply of words, history has not run out of ways to combine human personalities and events. If we can learn to look less for history's repetitions, and sense out, instead, it's frequent rhymes, we will better understand our present, and better appreciate our future.