By Andy Weddington
Friday, 25 June 2010
Before today's topic, a few words about the civilian/military leadership faceoff this week. Though making for good television and radio, Internet, and print media drama, the 'winner' never in doubt.
The clever lyrics penned by Shel Silverstein went something like this,
"...get your picture on the cover of the Rollin' Stone, Rollin' Stone...Wanna see our pictures on the cover, Stone...Wanna buy five copies for our mothers, yeah, Stone...Wanna see my smilin' face on the cover of the Rollin' Stone..."
In 1972 Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show recorded and released Silverstein's "The Cover of the Rolling Stone" on their "Sloppy Seconds" LP. As a single, if memory serves me correctly, the song broke the Top 10. Here it is thirty-eight years later and rumor is it's now the most often down-loaded iTune in Afghanistan. Who would have "thunk"?! No confirmation if yet on the president's iPod or it's the new Oval Office hotline ring tone--waiting on word from Robert Gibbs. An unexpected royalties windfall for Silverstein and the good Dr.--America, what a country!
On a more serious note...
War is raw.
Raw is war.
And casualties span the spectrum of warriors--from privates in brutal mano y mano combat on the battlefield to generals in veiled gentlemanly mano y mano "combat" in the political arena; where civilians, competent or not, reign supreme. So goes our Republic. It must.
Wednesday afternoon the president, fronting a reinforced fire team (Chair Joint Chiefs, VP, CentCom Commander, SecDef), announced acceptance of the resignation of a four-star; who made the mistake of a gold bar. For a gold bar a dumb but understandable and forgivable error. For a four-star an intolerble blunder. An officer promoted nine more times should have known better.
Mr. Obama did what he had to do. His remarks thoughtful, polished, and well-delivered; as always. And this time on target. And, to his credit, arguably the most sensible address of his presidency. Bravo to the speech-writer.
General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. Army--a warrior if ever there was one--is now, by means of fatally falling on his own sword, a raw casualty of war--on the Afghanistan battlefield and the Greater Capitol Region, Washington, D.C., battlefield, too. No real blood drawn but his otherwise stellar career may have a stain impossible to buff or spit-shine out. But, life goes on. And General McChrystal will have armies of admirers ever more. Nonetheless, he, and his staff (for whom he's accountable) were wrong. Back to Dr. Hook's tune--"mind blowing" wrong.
How interesting the general emplaced restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) in theater--subjecting forces to needless injury and death, and then knowingly violated (perhaps a deliberate test?) the centuries old ROE--civilian control of the military--of which he was intimately familiar. Metaphoric death the inevitable outcome with the holler "Medic up" pointless. Ironic? Certainly.
General David Petreaus--who, too, wears Army green and was a member of the fire team plus guarding the podium while the president spoke, was nominated to lead the fight in Afghanistan. The right choice and surely the Senate will confirm him; quickly. May his first order of business be a serious reassessment as to exactly whom on the 'battlefields' of Afghanistan is expendable. Hint: It's not our countrymen in uniform. Nor those in uniform serving alongside them. Fix the ROE.
While those in theater await their new commander and his orders, war rages on indifferent to the hiccup and drama. Want to bet the Marines--in deference to it all--half tuned in with one eye, yawned, shrugged shoulders, scratched their...well never mind, and turned their full attention back to planning, hunting, and killing bad guys; even if somewhat restrained? That is what Marines do. And do exceptionally well. They'll do it even better when unleashed. Count on it.
So, some lighter fare for today. Standby for typical meandering--a few seemingly unrelated detours that somehow miraculously merge at the end and make some semblance of sense; at least to me. Just about anything in life can be tied together--you just have to take a close look. And think.
"The past is never dead, it is not even past."
William Faulkner (1897-1962)
Have you seen the Chevy Chase movies "Vacation" and "European Vacation"? Hysterical. Not as good as the classic "Fletch" but good. The days when Chevy Chase was at his best--a funny guy. Though his politics are misguided and he's dopey, no question a funny guy.
The only reason I mention those movies is I saw them recently and they occurred to me while crafting this Commentary. Seemed like a good opening at the time. If for no other reason than to trigger a flashback for a chuckle. And there will be mention of family vacations shortly. Even when doing final read and edit it seemed like a good opening. But not another word about them. I hope someone laughed thinking about the slapstick antics of Clark Griswold.
Last week I read a book titled "Why Marines Fight" by James Brady. Interesting book. About a third of the way through a name caught my attention. That name--Mack Allen. Then after reading a bit more it was clear why it jiggled the memory. Mack Allen is the father of a friend (and her Marine husband whom I've known since lieutenant days in G 2/6--Golf Company, 2d Battalion/6th Marines--through whom I met my wife at the Naval Academy more than twenty-five years ago--at their wedding). Unbeknownst to me, or at least I don't remember being told, Mack Allen was a Marine and he fought alongside James Brady in Korea. As a private Mack Allen also fought in WWII including the battles for Guadalcanal and Okinawa. Small world? It sure is. Small Corps? It sure is.
In his book Mr. Brady pursued trying to capture why Marines fight. And of his interviewees--all combat veterans--he also asked the more fundamental question of why they'd decided to become a Marine. I thought about that question throughout the entire book, and will address it later.
Now switching gears--again.
A few days ago another longtime friend sent me a dozen or so photographs; taken the day he sent me the email. How amazing technology. How wonderful the photographs. Most included shots of his pre-teen daughter gracing a land on the other side of the planet. One could easily mistake the setting for a mock set at a Disney or some other theme-related amusement park. But the setting is not fake. It's the real McCoy--China.
One photo in particular caught my eye and immediately sparked involuntary laughter. The irony of it. More on that in a moment. First, the collective of photographs triggered memories from my youth that I'd not consciously considered in some time. But I did reminisce for a while after seeing the photographs and scribbling down thoughts for today's story. Fond memories.
What I remembered was family vacations in the mid to late 60s and early 70s. My parents, my four siblings, two dogs, and on at least on one occasion a guinea pig piling in a vehicle loaded to the gills with camping equipment, fishing gear, food, water and more and journeying for four hours via the rural highways and byways of eastern North Carolina--destination Surf City Family Camp Ground, Topsail Island. I think we made the trips in a Rambler, Comet, and for sure many trips in a 1968 two-tone VW van. That any of the cars could even move once packed--with things and people--was, in and of itself, a miracle.
Today, thanks to bigger and better cars and the Interstate, the trip takes two hours; if that. Though saving time you miss the flavor. Too bad. Hurry, hurry, hurry has replaced savor, savor, savor. Whatever happened to the journey being every bit as good, sometimes better, as getting there? So much for the good old days.
From Burlington, I remember passing through the capitol city, Raleigh, on highway 70 and at one of the busy intersections seeing a quite small stone bus stop with roof--my youngest brother wanted to live in it. I remember passing through small towns--Beulaville, Chinquapin, Maple Hill, and Holly Ridge. In those days tobacco was king and there were fields aplenty. I don't remember which, but passing down Main Street in one town was a disturbing billboard proclaiming it as home of the KKK. I can see it as if it were yesterday. It still triggers shivers. Thankfully, those days are gone. And in one of those eye-blink places stopping at a full-service gas station--it might have been Phillips 66--for fuel, a restroom break, and an ice-cold 'coke' from one of the machines that had the vertical-oriented glass window door you opened and pulled the glass bottle out by its neck. Flavor of choice? What else--Dr. Pepper!
I remember the sight and sound of B-52s from the Air Force base in Goldsboro--Seymour Johnson--and their low flight paths. Huge and lumbering along--analagous to our car--a miracle they could fly. And as we neared the coast there were dozens of abandoned air strips--used during WWII--that ran perpendicular to the highway and vanished into the distance; most overgrown and not suitable for much of anything. And I remember the point when the air took on the feel and aroma of the beach alerting us car time was about over. And finally the arrival--first stopping at Thomas Tackle Shop for bait (mullet and shrimp) then crossing the old draw bridge--onto Topsail Island; the only means of getting on the island by car, truck, and motorcycle. Hanging a left and a few miles down on the right turning into the essentials-only--a patch of sand id'ed by a post with a number and a picnic table (there may have been a fresh water spigot)--campground. We pitched a tent. An occasional pop-up trailer pulled in. A motor home--typically of the Air Stream brand--rare.
Sometimes we stayed for a long weekend. Sometimes a week. Sometimes two weeks. Generally, the better the weather and fishing the longer the stay. Many of the details from those trips are long gone from the memory bank--though fragments are coming back as I write, and laughter forcing me to pause. One we all laugh about to this day--an extended family from New Jersey that had pitched camp beside us. The grandfather constantly remarking how "brutal" the heat. If he said it once, he said it a thousand times--with his manner of saying "brutal" comical. His grandson, not more than 3 or 4 years old, was a handful. One day the tyke lost the car keys in the sand. It took a while but the family's panicky search ended happily. Another day the boy wandered off--nowhere to be found. A frantic hour or so later he was found at a commercial fishing pier about a mile south. He had walked along the beach--by himself. When finally in his mother's hands at the campground, and as we witnessed, she firmly grasped his arm, turned him around and firmly swatted his rear end a few times while sternly scolding. He did not cry. He turned around and said to his mother, "You just better calm yourself down." Those were his exact words. I don't remember if we restrained our laughter or not. Probably not. That kid was a character.
And there were other characters. And I remember a pretty girl or two when coming of age and realizing the fairer gender was configured slightly different than my brothers and little sister. There are other memories still about Marines from nearby Camp Lejeune and their spirited liberty antics--exuberance overpowering judgment--on the island. I was considerably younger than even the youngest Marines in those days and kept a distance from them. I don't remember if my parents ever said anything about keeping a respectful distance or not. They didn't have to. But ironic that two of their sons are Marines. Anyway, every once in a while a Marine would have too much to drink and there'd be talk around the campground of one jumping off a fishing pier. With a career behind me, and though it seems a bit crazy, I now realize they were just practicing their amphibious training. Typical Marines.
In those days, Topsail was an underdeveloped surf fisherman's paradise. Heaven. The south end of the island was minimally developed with just enough to support the small community. North of the campground--which was closer to the south end than the northern tip, with the exception of a fishing pier, a rare beach house or two, and deteriorating WWII-era cinder block lookout towers just beyond the high tide mark, there was nothing but nature. A meager two-lane road--often covered with sand--led to the northernmost fishing hole; deep water with big fish. (Today the island is developed--too developed--with another access bridge on the north end. I think my Dad still does an annual dance augmented with a chant summoning a Cat V storm to cleanse the island; restoring it's natural beauty and appeal to surf fishermen.)
Great memories. We fished, flew kites, walked the beach, collected sea shells, once in a while enjoyed an ice cream from the tiny campground store, talked, and otherwise occupied ourselves with island life. Sun burn was a given as tanning lotions and oils were the lubes of choice. Sun block? In those days it was a hat with brim, long-sleeve shirt and something to cover the tops of feet--but donned only after being burned. Game Boys, laptops, iPods, iPads, cell phones, and all this other electronic gadgetry, thank goodness, did not exist. I'd not trade those days or memories for a king's ransom.
Back to my friends photos.
They are posted left. Note the one of the pretty blond--sporting a Marines T-Shirt and Chinese military cap--sandwiched between two Chinese guards. Sixty years ago her Marine grandfather led an outfit harassing and shooting at the Chinese. I could not refrain from laughing at the irony when seeing the photograph. I sent my friend, likewise a Marine, a short note pointing out such. He came back with a laugh, said he'd not thought of it, and offered his Dad would sure get a chuckle out of it were he around to see it. I bet so. My how the world changes. And who knows, the way the world is going the young girl may one day see her son or daughter, a Marine--like their great grandfather, fighting the Chinese. Let's hope not.
It occurred to me how wonderful he has the means and time to take his daughter to China for a vacation. To show her the world. When I was her age such an adventure did not even make the dream list--imagine, a dream too far-fetched to even dream about. Such was life. You don't know what you don't know. And you don't miss what you don't have. Try telling that to some folks these days. Hell, not just "some." Make it "many"--to whom we can thank for a big part of our economic problems. And most of them still don't get it.
Anyway, though similar exotic adventures not only became possible for me later in life they became reality courtesy of the Marine Corps. And though no longer on active duty there are still far away places on the travel list. The dream list.
Now, thinking about Mr. Brady's query, "Why did I become a Marine?" is not so easily answered. Perhaps those days of camping in a tent on the beach at Surf City, the affection developed for house, horse, deer flies and mosquitos, seeing warships on the horizon, Marine helicopters flying the coastline, being intrigued by the retired gunnery sergeant who ran the campground, curious about the dilapidated lookout towers, recalling an old man (who grew up on the island) tell stories of his youth and seeing ships--attacked by U boats--burning on the horizon at night, and the crazy Marines had something to do with it.
Oddly enough, less than a decade after the family heydays at the beach my brother went off to Marine Corps Officer Candidates School via the first six-week increment of Platoon Leaders Class--a commissioning program (since the 1940s) for college students. I met his "recruiter"--an Officer Selection Officer--a Marine captain who made one hell of an impression before so much as opening his mouth. He was about my height, powerfully built, and immaculate in uniform. He, without hype, pitched the Marine Corps. And his flavor was not recruiting but questioning. So much as daring me if having the mettle to cut it in the Corps. I remember thinking if half of what this guy's saying is true, this is what I want to do. I took the dare.
Why did I become a Marine? Those reasons and more. The words to capture the full gambit of reasons and feelings not so easy. It matters not why. I did and my life never to be the same. Ever. Any Marine will say the same thing. And only Marines can understand.
Funny, this Commentary triggered by a friend's vacation photograph--of a young girl innocently sporting a military cap--I did not expect to receive. And so I ramble about ironic photographs, vacations, a book recently read, friends, Marines, and good memories.
Now it's more than 40 years since that first beach trip and 30 years since pinning on the gold bars of a Marine second lieutenant and entrusted with the responsibility of leading infantry Marines. My wish--if only someone had the power to turn back the clock, mend a body that's not what it was when 12 and 22 years old, and grant the opportunity of doing it all again. I'd report at once.
The only thing I'd do differently--more photographs. Though I have no desire to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. Or on the inside for that matter.
Good grief, what in the world was General McChrystal and his team doing? That which many others were and are undoubtedly thinking but have the good sense to remember their oath and maintain their bearing; what professionals do. Enough said.
Though stationed at Camp Lejeune, assigned to the 2d Marine Division, and occasionally visiting Topsail Island to camp and fish, I never jumped--much less considered jumping--from a pier. I am not crazy. Though I led Marines that I was convinced were--these being men of choice to be alongside in a fight. The older I get, the more remarkable these young men, despite their youth and challenging ways, were. The kind of men, like all Marines, who would have, if so ordered, moved forward into enemy gunfire. Which leads to a comment summarizing what Mr. Brady learned when he asked, "Why do Marines fight"? Training, discipline, leadership, and not wanting to let fellow Marines down is consistently what he heard. And his research supported what a gravely-voiced narrator said in a classic documentary about the Marine Corps, 'You will not hear combat troops speak of things like patriotism' or other intangible concepts. I guess that's right. There was no mention of "patriotism" from any of the combat-hardened veterans Mr. Brady interviewed.
I just finished reading "The Lions of Iwo Jima"--a sobering story told by one who helped plan the assault and fought on the inhospitable--caused by nature and by man--island. Major General Fred Haynes, USMC (Retired), then a captain and previously untested in battle, and historian James Warren tell the story of Combat Team 28 from forming the team to training to securing the island. A privilege to share the title "Marine" with the men who took Iwo, and the likes of them on either side of that historic battle. Humbling. This is the kind of book--reinforcing the lesson freedom comes at great cost--that should be required reading in our schools. Why it and more like it are not is downright dumbfounding. The problem with today's "education" system is they're using the wrong damn books.