When do I get to kill somebody?… Presidents and Foreign Policy

Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us. – President John F. Kennedy

A few hours after an inauguration, a newly elected President sits down in the Oval Office while Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Security Advisor hover around with worried faces and wringing hands… Caesar’s advisers wonder how to tell Caesar of the latest, and most urgent, crisis affecting the empire. These advisers probably, at times, act and look like Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Fegelein when the Soviet’s Red Army was moving closer and closer… Hitler later had Himmler arrested and Fegelein shot when all was lost and Hitler’s sanity was no longer present. No one likes to tell the King that his new clothes are absent… but someone has to do it. At that moment, the new President’s advisers inform him that there is a crisis in country X and the President has options A, B, and C. Charts, graphs, and documents provide advantages and disadvantages to all the options. The new President ponders and wonders aloud… “what about the [insert your favorite military force or weapon system]?” Foreign policy gets boiled down to a simple cost-benefit analysis… or a simple and quick… and deadly… pondering on military action. If you are the world’s lone military superpower… why can’t you just use it?

This past Monday, October 22, President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney squared off in their third and final debate and primarily discussed how they would be as the nation’s foreign policy leader and America’s military Commander-in-Chief. They batted around terms and ideas… they talked about how many hulls the US Navy should have… they talked about the difference between the use of advanced military technology… drones are good… and the tried and true methods of history… bayonets are limited. This debate provided a quick, and somewhat questionable, snapshot at how they would be as the man who makes the decision.

George Friedman, in “The Purpose of Presidential Debates,” states that the true objective of debates is:

A debate is not about policy. It is impossible to state a coherent policy on any complex matter in 90 seconds. The debates between Lincoln and Steven Douglas did go far in that direction, but then it wasn’t on national television, and it was for senator of Illinois, not the presidency. That left room for contemplation. It should be remembered that prior to the Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960, there were no debates, partly because there was no television and partly, perhaps, because the ability to debate was not seen as the appropriate measure of a president. 

Debates test one thing: the ability to quickly respond to questions of numbing complexity that are impossible to answer in the time available. They put a premium on being fast and clever but don’t say much about how smart a candidate is. Nor are they meant to, in part because being smart, in an academic sense, is not essential to be president — as many have demonstrated. At their best, debates test a candidate’s coolness under pressure and ability to articulate some thought at least vaguely connected to the question while convincing the viewers that you are both personable and serious.

In other words, debates… debates on foreign policy… allow the voter to view the candidates in a moment when they have to consider some serious and complex shit… and then make a quick decision… a decision that may result in the death of Americans, and the death of America’s enemies. Of course, there is the added level of seriousness… the ultimate level of seriousness… the death of innocent civilians.

Determining the killing of America’s enemies is no easy thing. Being a nation in love with efficient institutions, and a nation with a love for process, [1] modern American President’s have developed a system for targeting and killing its enemies. Today, the Washington Post has reported that over the past two years the Obama Administration has crafted a new process for hunting, finding, targeting and killing terrorists… this new process is called the “Disposition Matrix.” [2]

This Washington Post article states that the Disposition Matrix is a 4 step process:

  1. Agencies [3] compile names of terrorists, building rosters of terrorist organizations and affiliates.
  2. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) generates lists of names based on specific presidential administration criteria. [4] The NCTC send the list of names for review by the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council. [5]
  3. The Deputies Committee culls the rosters of individuals who will be targeted with the President’s approval.
  4. President Obama signs off on the targeted individuals. *actually there is a fifth, and final, step… targeted terrorist is hunted and killed.

This process is “One of the things we are looking at very hard is how to institutionalize a process that will outlive this administration.” [6] This process is an attempt to ensure that the President has a method… a foreign policy method… in defeating America’s enemies. This defeating of America’s enemies is one of the many aspects of a presidency that receives constant scrutiny, evaluation, and criticism.

Rosa Brooks, at Foreign Policy magazine and law professor at Georgetown University, is one who has issue with how the Obama Administration conducts foreign policy. Ms. Brooks calls it a “dysfunctional foreign-policy team.” Prior to Monday’s debate, Ms. Brooks states, in an article, that it was President Obama’s last chance to “… convince American voters to give him four more years.” The article does identify the Administration’s successes, however, it primarily focusses on its shortcomings such as its Middle East initiatives, the escalating violence in Syria, the lack of ending the issues between Israel and the Palestinians, continued war in Afghanistan, and the continued muddiness that is Pakistan.

Ms. Parks recommends some fixes for the Obama Administration:

  1. Get a Strategy.” Like every supposed strategist since the beginning of time… and the thought of every deep thinking strategist since… Ms. Brooks laments the absence of a foreign policy strategy… regardless of it being grand or otherwise. Questioning the existential threat of terrorism is the thought behind this critique and recommendation.
  2. Get some decent managers.” Ms. Brooks believes the national security and foreign policy interagency (WHOLE of GOVERNMENT… WOG… WOG) process is in a constant state of crisis. Seems the modern world… the modern globalized world with its plethora of technology and endless news and intelligence cycles… has caused the Administration to be in a constant flux of reaction instead of proactive action. Would any modern presidential administration be free of this criticism considering the way the modern world works and interacts?
  3. Get some people who actually know something.” Can presidential advisors really know when the clothes are actually invisible or missing? Seems the Obama Administration is run by young and untried campaign aides while experienced experts are sidelined. Seems Young Turks [7] … young and inexperienced whippersnappers… are making important decisions. Ms. Brooks argues that the President is advised by individuals who don’t have the ability to advise on foreign and national security policy.
  4. Get out of the bubble.” Seems not only are Young Turks making decisions, but the National Security Staff runs a “tiny fiefdom” that includes gate keepers such as Deputy National Security Advisors Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes. An “echo chamber” that is familar to President George W. Bush is how Ms. Brooks describes it. Foreign policy and national security has supposedly been watered down to sound bites and talking points.
  5. Get a backbone.” President Obama has sound moral instincts according to Ms. Brooks… but he backs down. This spineless President may order more drone strikes than his predecessor… yet he is cowardly in his interactions with Congress on issues such as closing GITMO. Start thinking about his legacy is Ms. Brooks’ advice.
  6. Get rid of jerks.” On the campaign trail, President Obama famously stated “no assholes,” yet Ms. Brooks feels this has not carried over into his Administration. Seems this administration is full of infighting that spills over into the day-to-day activities. Ms. Brooks feels this is no way to “run a railroad.”

All of these critiques, and recommendations, center around the idea of command climate. Through the use of glib and colloquial terms, Ms. Brooks feels that American foreign policy is rudderless. Arguably, the Disposition Matrix is a step to correct a small portion of the Administration’s foreign and national security policy. Foreign and national security policy criticism and mistakes are not new… even the GOP’s iconic President (Ronald Reagan) was not free of making mistakes.

Al Haig was my dad’s infantry battalion commander in Vietnam… my dad said he was an asshole. Al Haig was President Reagan’s Secretary of State for approximately a year (1981-1982). Haig had a penchant for a certain style of speaking that was defined as “language characterized by pompous obscurity resulting from redundancy, the semantically strained use of words, and verbosity.” [8] It was this Al Haig that infamously said he was “in charge” following the March 30, 1981, assassination attempt on President Reagan.

Al Haig is also infamous for the “Haig initiative.” On the inauguration day, 1981, Secretary of State-designate Haig presented a draft National Security Decision Directive to President Reagan that reorganized how foreign policy was determined. This initiative basically placed the overall responsibility for the guidance and implementation of US foreign policy in the State Department. The initiatives overall intent failed, however, it did result in the President’s National Security Adviser, Richard Allen, losing direct connection to the President, and placed Allen under the supervision of White House Presidential Counselor Edwin Meese III. President Reagan did reinforce the idea that his Secretary of State was the “primary adviser on foreign affairs, and in that capacity, he is the chief formulator and spokesman for foreign policy for this administration.” [9] Following this, there were numerous changes to reorganizing the Reagan National Security Council. One time, Vice President George H.W. Bush was the proposed chair of a crisis management team. Different times saw different attempts at reorganization. The Department of State set up Interagency Groups for the world’s geographic regions, politico-military affairs, and international economic affairs. During the first Reagan Administration, the State Department was both in charge of foreign and national security policy.

In the second Reagan Administration, however, the National Security Adviser and some staff members took an aggressive role in the planning and execution of foreign policy in Central and South America. This aggressive role resulted in the Iran-Contra Affair. Power struggles among Young Turks… and experienced experts had, as some have argued, taken advantage of President Reagan and run roughshod over law and policy.

Presidential debates on foreign and national security policy do not provide specifics, however, they do provide a quick, and somewhat insightful, view on the candidate’s ability to quickly react. One doesn’t learn policy… one learns a bit about personality. This interpretation of personality may provide insight in to what type of advisers and advise the candidate will surround himself with and take. Criticism is easy… even when deserved or assumed. Advisors providing compliments on the emperor’s non-existent clothing is dangerous… emperors assuming the sword is always his best tool are even more dangerous.

Maybe debate questions shouldn’t be so much about policy… maybe they should be more situational and focussed on gauging a candidates quick response and abilities. Foreign and national security policy is complex… 90 second responses from candidates don’t provide the answer… but their ability to think fast and decisively do provide some insight into the candidate’s character.

[1] Even though, a German general supposedly said at the end of World War II “The reason the American Army does so well in wartime, is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis.”

[2] Greg Miller, “U.S. set to keep kill lists for years,” The Washington Post, October 24, 2012, p. A1.

[3] These agencies include the Central Intelligence Agency, Joint Special Operations Command, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Agency.

[4] For example, a target list of terrorist leaders believed to be plotting attacks against US personnel in Yemen.

[5] The National Security Council’s Deputies Committee is chaired by Obama Administration’s counterterrorism advisor (John O. Brennan) and composed of deputy directors from the CIA, FBI, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the NCTC.

[6] An anonymous, but senior, White House official.

[7] Young Turks, originally, were a secularist Turkish nationalist reform party in the early 20th century. Today, the term “Young Turks” means any group or individuals, in an organization, that seek power and prominence.

[8] John Algeo, Fifty Years Among New Words: A Dictionary of Neologisms, 1941-1991,”Haigism,” p.231.

[9] http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/nsc/


Protecting the dumb and inexperienced… the NCO

The sergeant is the Army – General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Deciding to go back into the Army after college was an easy decision. I sought a US Army commission… not because I hated being enlisted or felt some need to wield power over others. No, I sought a US Army commission because my experience with Army officers were not always great. I was a personal driver for my platoon leader… a young lieutenant that didn’t know his ass from his head and never listened to his noncommissioned officers… his sergeants. I wasn’t a sergeant… but I knew the “backbone” of the US Army deserved better officers than this goobernut. I became an officer because I knew NCOs… sergeants… were the US Army… and I knew they deserved lieutenants that understood that.

My dad was a career Army NCO… I often joked with my sergeants when I was a lieutenant and captain that my dad was my first NCO. I understood how it was supposed to work. I understood that the US Army… the US military… is the powerful thing that it is was a direct result of its professional NCO corps. Our allies’ and adversaries’ militaries covet our NCO corps… when one says “professional military” one isn’t talking about its officer corps… one is talking about the NCO corps.

My first NCO that worked directly with me was… what I considered old at the time… a mid-30’s staff sergeant (E6). He was a 13F Fire Support Specialist. He was a forward observer… he was the primary enlisted supervisor of our 4 man team. I was the lone 2nd Lieutenant, he was the lone sergeant, and then we had two privates. We occupied one armored track vehicle that was our home when deployed. I was responsible for what we did… I gave orders… my sergeant ensured we executed those orders. I was a novice… a brand new and green lieutenant… he was experienced… he had been in the Army for over a decade… I had been in the Army for a year. I had been taught leadership and artillery skils… he was the embodiment of knowledge.

I met my first NCO two days after arriving to Germany… in the motor pool supervising the two privates doing maintenance on our tracked vehicle. He was in dirty and greasy olive drab coveralls, a wrench was in one hand and a maintenance manual (-10) in the other. As an NCO, he understood that supervising work meant participating in the work… one can’t be an expert unless one had done the work. My first lesson as a new L-T was immediate… one can’t supervise maintainance unless one could do the maintenance. To this day I can brag that I know how to conduct operator maintenance on a number of Army vehicles… both wheeled and tracked. I know what it is like to be in knee-deep mud and reattach a thrown track (this is when your vehicle loses it track and it takes plenty of ass and sweat to get the track back on and aligned).

I conducted my first initial counseling with my NCO three hours after meeting him in the motor pool. What does a brand new and inexperienced lieutenant counsel a sergeant on? What could I possibly say to this expert? US Army officers spend approximately 1-2 years in a job and then move on (and up) to different jobs. NCOs stay in the same job just with increased responsiblity. My first counseling set the precedent for every initial counseling I gave to every NCO I ever worked with. It was a simple counseling with a simple message that reflected what I adopted as my leadership style.

I am not the expert at this job, you are. I am not going to know everything, and I don’t expect you too… but I do expect you to know more than me. I, however, am ultimately responsible for everything we do or don’t do. I will take responsibility for everything. I will never dime you out… I will place our soldiers and you first. I expect you, as the NCO to place the soldiers and mission first. I expect you to teach, advise, and support me. We are the leadership team of this unit. I expect no less from myself than what I ask of you.

This worked in April 1995 when I assumed a Fire Support Officer position and it worked when I took command of an artillery company (battery) in April 2000. I had five leadership positions in the US Army, one Fire Support Team (FIST), one Combat Observation Lasing Team platoon (COLT), one ammunition support platoon, one howitzer platoon, and one battery. This means I had five sergeants that were my prime advisor and enforcer. It means I had five very intimate marriages… yes the US Army officer and US Army NCO relationship is one of marriage. Both individuals feed off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. From 1995-2001, I spent more time with NCOs than anyone else in my life. I learned… intimately… what sergeants are and what they do for the Army.

I had NCOs correct me when I was lost because I couldn’t read a map correctly. I had NCOs assist me when I made a bad decision… yet they never embarrassed me by correcting me in front of soldiers or other officers. I had NCOs support my quick decisions even when they didn’t agree with those decisions. I had NCOs call me a dumbass when I deserved it without actually saying the word “dumbass” and saying it in such a manner that I learned my lesson and never made that dumbass mistake again. I gained the confidence over the years to correct NCOs when they made mistakes… they were human too… without having to say the word “dumbass” yet conveying the meaning clearly… distinctly. I learned how to lead men because I had NCOs… men… the backbone of the US Army… instruct me on how to lead.

On October 10 of this year, an exemplary NCO died at the age of 92. Command Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley was exactly what NCOs represent and were supposed to be. CSM Plumley fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. CSM Plumley was made famous in We Were Soldiers when Sam Elliot portrayed him… supposedly underplayed him… beside Mel Gibson in the film about the 7th Cavalry Regiment’s November 1965, Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam.

As typical with so many veterans, he told no war stories… yet he was legendary within the US Army. He fought in Italy at Salerno and participated in the invasion of Normandy in World War II. Later he fought with the 173rd Airborne Regiment in Korea. In Vietnam, he was… at the end of his military career… a Command Sergeant Major in the 7th Cav Regt. of the 1st Cav Division. He could get no higher rank… he had reached the pinnacle of his military career serving alongside his soldiers… and the officers he advised and taught… in the Ia Drang battle. The journalist Joseph Galloway made CSM Plumley known to the outside world when he wrote the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young. Galloway stated CSM Plumley was “… actually tougher than …” how Sam Elliott portrayed him in the film. CSM Plumley “… was gruff, monosyllabic, an absolute terror when it came to enforcing standards in training.”

In other words, CSM Plumley was the perfect NCO. CSM Plumley is a man… an NCO… that left a mark on his world. Every enlisted soldier and every officer credit their lives to NCOs like CSM Plumley. These men are truly the backbone of the US Army… for that I… and we… must be grateful.

Whiskers the Cat Hates His Sweater Vest

The glorious colors of Fall… the vibrant plumage of trees in the crisp decay of Summer’s path to Winter. Scattered remnants of foliage occupy ground and dance in the Fall breeze. The slowly descending sun on the horizon marks its path from Summer solstice to Winter solstice. Explosions of colored leaves sparkle in the Fall’s bright and shiny, shimmering sun. Many dream of Halloween treats… Thanksgiving meals… I dream of Amish farmland, Fall Pennsylvania golf, and cat shows.

Amish farmland in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area is rolling and a mix of brown, tan, and remaining Summer green. Broad leaf trees change colors rapidly… one minute they turn from green to a blazing yellow, red, or orange… the next minute they drop and float lazily to the ground. Surprisingly, Fall in Amish Pennsylvania is exactly as you imagine it. Lancaster, Pennsylvania is just like Paris and New York City… you have seen pictures and films that show them in all their glory… when you visit them in person there is no surprise… but there is a comfort in realizing it is exactly how you pictured it. Lancaster is gold, brown, yellow, red, and orange in the Fall… Lancaster golf courses are covered in vibrant colored leaves. Oh… Fall in Lancaster also means CAT SHOW.

A few years ago, my BFF and I travelled to Lancaster to play some Fall golf. Others were invited… but as usual we were told no… their kids and wives had other plans for them. Grown married men who are fathers have a hard time explaining a weekend away for golf when the wife and kids dream of corn mazes and pumpkin picking. Happydingo and Sublimemonkey shrug their shoulders and head off to golf in the quiet Fall season in Lancaster while their friends stand in line and watch their kids pick too-big-for-carving pumpkins.

Chasing golf balls among multi-hued dead leaves is an adventure. Amazingly, white golf balls become hidden treasures among the decay and flotsam of Fall. Every tee shot… every iron shot becomes a personal game of hide and seek. Long pants, long sleeves, and golf wind shirts keep the brisk Fall coolness at bay while you hunt for your golf ball… chilled air makes the ball go farther… yet it just means you must hunt more for that white and elusive entity you call your own. Golf course horticulture allows fairways and greens to maintain a color that says Summer… yet the scattered leaves definitely says Fall. Fall golf in Amish Pennsylvania is definitely a game of small white balls and blowing leaves. Ponce de Leon had better luck finding the Fountain of Youth than we did in finding our golf balls.

Fall Amish Pennsylvania also says cat show. I don’t own a cat… never have owned a cat. Never really trust a creature that is smarter than you. Never trust a creature that can jump higher and further than you… never trust any creature that stalks the nightmares of Halloween. Happydingo owns two… his house is a menagerie of animal hair, turds… and turd eaters… his small beagle has a discerning palate. Wonder how many turds are at a cat show?… We didn’t travel to Lancaster to see a cat show… but Lancaster offered us one.

One of the golf courses we played was also a mini-convention center… Lancaster isn’t that large… nor is it the type of place that needs a large convention center. It is, however, the kind of place that people travel to shop, see leaves die, play golf, and gawk at Amish buggies and beards. Lancaster is just big enough to garner the need for a small convention center for knick-knack shows… farm implement and 4H fairs… oh… and cat shows.

On the first day of golf… Saturday… we left our hotel in the dewy cool morning and grabbed coffee. A quick trip down the main drag of Lancaster got us to our golf course. A marquee at the exit for the golf course announced Fall golf specials and… a cat show. Jackpot! Epic Win! Golf and cat show!

Let me reiterate… I own no cats… I know nothing about them other than they steal a baby’s breath when the baby sleeps… and cats plot your murder all day while you are out working. A cat show, however, spoke of possibility. It spoke of the idea of seeing cats in sweaters… old frumpy women in embroidered sweaters depicting cats… it spoke of single, anti-social people who love evil creatures.

We payed for our round of golf and drove our cart to the first tee as the sun burst over the eastern horizon. Enroute to the first tee box we saw cat enthusiasts unload crates, boxes, tables, chairs, and all the other shit people unload when going to a fair or show. Minivans with personalized tags like “KATLVR” and “CATLDY” slowly crowded the mini-convention center’s parking lot. The crazy cat lady from the Simpsons had arrived in mass.

Again… I don’t own cats… but cats and what a cat show entails were the topics of conversation when we pushed our first tee into the ground… and it was the topic of conversation when we putted our last ball. How much does it cost to attend a cat show? Will cats be on leashes and pranced around a ring for spectators and judges? Will thick-ankled and pantyhosed-legged handlers walk around bragging about their specific breed? Will cat owners sit in the audience and announce proudly when Mr. Biggles of Bigglington Boulevard (shortened to “Biggley”) comes forth and gets judged?

The four-hour round of golf turned into a mix of cursing Fall Amish Pennsylvania leaves for hiding our golf balls and a cost-benefit analysis of what a first time-ever cat show attendance was worth. After numerous hours of kicking golden leaves, we determined that anything less $20 was worth seeing a cat show. Praise to the little plastic baby Jesus… this cat show only charged $5 for entrance… the golf gods had smiled. Along with this cost-benefit analysis, we discussed how we could live with ourselves if we didn’t attend the cat show… was getting to a bar by 2pm more important than seeing Biggley?

So while in golf shoes and the grime that follows a round of golf… this is what we saw and learned about cat shows:

Small Attendance

Cat shows are not like dog shows… at least not like the dog shows you see on television. At most there were 75 – 100 people in attendance. Seems the cat owners/handlers were also the spectators. Mixed in with the owners/handlers was a handful of children ranging from age 6-14… primarily girls… future cat ladies. We couldn’t determine if these kids were someones children or grandchildren… no one seemed to be their parents/owners/handlers. So imagine a small group of cat enthusiasts with a handful of future social outcasts (kids) running around.

Demographically Limited

Yes… cat shows are primarily populated by women… older middle-aged women… your aunt… your grandmother… your odd neighbor lady whose husband died of some weird factory accident. Out of the 75-100 attendees… there were exactly 8 men… yes we counted… yes we included ourselves. There was one small boy around age 6 who seemed as thoroughly confused and awestruck as Happydingo and me. He wasn’t running around with any of the girls… he was sitting on a metal folding chair and eating cake (more on that later).

As Fashionable As You Imagine

Sweaters and T-shirts with cats on them was the number one attire… of course it was. Unfortunately, the cat motif wasn’t cats in hats… or cats doing anything special… basically cat or cats sitting or playing was the standard design. Whatever glorious cat adored shirt or sweater abounding at the show was muted compared to the 3 or 4 women who decided that it was perfectly acceptable to wear an outfit that matched their breed of cat… your cat breed looks like a mini-cheetah?… well then you get a matching shirt, scarf, and pants that makes you look like a 55-year old dumpy cheetah. Your cat is striped like a dangerous jungle tiger… well then you camouflage yourself like a 1960s Vietnamese guerilla in tiger stripe. Oh… the other 6 men in attendance were in tweed jackets including elbow patches… only thing missing was a pipe… fortunately the jackets had an abundance of cat hairs. Happydingo and I were glad/mortified to realize we were the only ones walking around in trousers, golf shirts and shoes, and ball caps… we obviously looked like the weirdest muthafuckas in the room.

Cats Aren’t Leashed

Nope not leashed… not even pranced around. Cat crate is brought to table that has a scratching post… cat is gingerly removed… cat starts scratching… cat ladies ooh and ahh. Tweed jacket men hmmm and mmm. Happydingo and Sublimemonkey stifle laughter… but who are we to judge the spectators/owners/handlers?… we definitely couldn’t judge individual cats and breeds… so we definitely couldn’t judge others. Seems fat cats were not in attendance… seems lean, healthy, velvety-coated cats are the only ones deserving of the prominent scratching post.

They Serve Cake

Seems cat shows are populated by really nice people… exactly as nice as your single aunt who lives alone with a bunch of cats and waits anxiously for your once-year visit… as time and calendar is marked by days, weeks, months… until the sad moment of death. Cat show people greet you enthusiastically… they take your $5 and then provide every detail possible. They don’t bat an eye at your golfing attire… they don’t think twice about your obvious misplacement in a room full of middle-aged women. THEY SERVE YOU FREE CAKE… a cake that had a… wait for it… wait for it… a cat on it. They slice a piece and hand it to you as you enter and gleefully… and honestly… tell you to enjoy yourself.

After an 45 minutes to an hour, we left and headed back to our car and clubs. We said nothing to one another as our plastic spiked golf shoes clicked on the parking lot asphalt. We had glimpsed a world that was unbeknownst to us… we had seen a surreal and parallel universe. The car’s lock clicked unlock… we climbed in and shut the doors. I griped the steering wheel and to no one and to everyone I screamed “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?”… Happydingo didn’t answer… we left in a muted… but happy silence.

“God Bless America” is not the National Anthem


Whenever and wherever the United States National Anthem, “To the Color,” “Reveille,” or “Hail to the Chief” is played, at the first note, all dismounted personnel in uniform and not in formation face the flag (or the music, if the flag is not in view), stand at Attention, and render the prescribed Salute. Military personnel not in uniform will stand at Attention (remove headdress, if any, with the right hand), and place the right hand over the heart.


When the National Anthem is played indoors, officers and enlisted personnel stand at Attention and face the music, or the flag if one is present.

– U.S. Army, FM (Field Manual) 3-21.5, Drill and Ceremonies, July 2003, p. A-2

The United States Army is the oldest of the U.S. military branches… if anyone knows when to render honors to the nation and the colors (flag) it is the U.S. Army. Being the typical OCD institution that it is, it even goes into great detail on when one salutes… salutes anything:

A salute is rendered –

  • When the United States National Anthem, “To the Color,” Hail to the Chief,” or foreign national anthem is played.
  • To uncased National Color outdoors.
  • On ceremonial occasions as prescribed in Part Two, Ceremonies.
  • At reveille and retreat ceremonies, during the raising and lowering of the flag.
  • During the sounding of honors.
  • When the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag is being recited outdoors.
  • When turning over control of formations.
  • When rendering reports.
  • To officers of friendly foreign countries. – FM 3-21.5, p. A-1

So why does Major League Baseball in general, and the Washington Nationals specifically, request me to rise and remove my hat when “God Bless America” is played during the 7th inning stretch? I feel I know my American patriotic history and after a number of years of military service, I also know when to render honors (hand over heart and removal of cap). The playing of “God Bless America” is not one of those times. This little pseudo-patriotic request is a fairly new phenomenon that begun following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. This request, however, is ignorant of facts behind the song “God Bless America.”

Is MLB and the Nationals aware that Irving Berlin wrote the song while serving in the Army in 1918 and that he changed the words “to the right with the light from above” to “through the night with the light from above” because he feared it might be considered a call to the political right? Is MLB and the Nationals aware that Berlin revived this song in 1938 as a peace song… not a call to arms… but a song about praying for peace? The original first verse is:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,

Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,

Let us all be grateful for a land so fair.

As we raise our voices in solemn prayer.

It seems we have come to a time and place where nationalism and ideology have crept into our sporting venues. World Cup soccer… Olympics… these are moments when nations’ have their flags prominently displayed… sporting nationalism is usually reserved for the world’s stage… yet MLB has decided to bring it out and wave it around in the 7th inning stretch.

I am not the first nor the last to notice this odd attempt at forcing patriotism, seems a New York man won a law case against the NY Yankees after they kicked him out of Yankee stadium in 2009 for going to the restroom during the playing of “God Bless America.” Nationalism, patriotism, and ideology seemed to get all mixed up when we think about our American Pastime.

I do not and will not stand during the 7th inning during the playing of “God Bless America.” It isn’t that I am not patriotic, it is just that I am educated enough and possess the experience to know that I don’t have to display patriotism at the whim of some profit-driven enterprise that we call “sports” and the MLB. Today it is “God Bless America” and tomorrow it will be “Yankee Doodle Dandy”… and then I will be all sorts of confused and wondering if I should remove my hat that would obviously have a feather in it.

things that go bump in the night

October has always been my favorite month… it is my birthday month… Fall is in full bloom… the air is fresh, yet sprinkled with the smell of dead and decaying leaves. The warm fall sun is sprinkled among gun-metal grey days. When the sun shines, there is a sparkle… when the grey sky crowds in there is a dullness. As a child, I imagined the calendar began in October. The school year had started and in full swing by October. Holiday stickers of pumpkins, turkeys, and tiny Santas decorated classroom walls. My young mind just assumed the world revolved school calendars. To this day I visualize a semi-oval calendar with the fall months starting on the lower right side… all the other months fall in a counter-clockwise pattern. I have no idea why I have the calendar going counter-clockwise… but I do… October has the wonderful position of 4 o’clock.

October is also a scary month. All Hallow’s Eve incorporated pagan harvest and honoring the dead festivals… ghosts, goblins, and skeletons had to come from somewhere. Throw in some candy… mix thoroughly and you have a month rich in oranges, yellows, bone white… and bloody red. I was a fan of Halloween candy as a child… now I prefer a good bourbon and the sunny side to October… but I am still a big scaredy cat.

Speaking of being a scaredy cat, for the past 6 years I have lived in downtown DC. For those of you with geographical knowledge of DC, I owned a condo in Logan Circle, rented an apartment in Chinatown, and I know reside in a neighborhood a few blocks southwest of Dupont Circle. Logan Circle and Chinatown were notoriously loud. Police and ambulance sirens… drunken 20-somethings… revving cars and motorcycles. The constant background heartbeat sounds of a major metropolitan area. Living in the city mixed residential with commercial… abodes with major thoroughfares that throbbed like bloody veins. I learned to sleep with the background noise of city life. Phone conversations with friends and family always included some question from others asking if my building was on fire or if I was about to be arrested… I never understood their questions… I had grown use to the sounds.

Now I live on a quiet ivy covered street… my new apartment sits at the back of a 1910s brownstone… two floors providing a little hermit crab like existence with views of alleys and neighbors’ cars… it’s called “urbanscape.” The most noise I hear now is my three neighbors who pound the building’s stairwell with almost running feet. If I didn’t know better, I would assume that my neighbors are three big-footed teenagers. Besides pounding stair noises… my apartment is dead quiet… eerily dead quiet. I am in a state of constant wondering and fear… there is something unearthly to the quiet in my apartment.

For the first week I slept with my grandmother’s quilt pulled up to my chin as if it was a protective shield against the night creatures hunting me in my deathly quiet apartment. Night after night I lay there in my bed listening for the creaky noise of the blood sucker coming to render me undead. Grown men fears turned child-like… childish horrors revisited with a vengeance. Finally the horrible happened… a loud bang resounded in my downstairs living room. I was half asleep when the night creature made their presence known. I snapped awake… but knew better than to jump from my bed… I intended to lure the creature into confidence… I wanted the blood sucker to know that he had not given himself away. Better yet, and more realistically… I wanted the potential human burglar to think that they had not awakened me. In my heart I knew it wasn’t a human burglar… I knew it was a night creature.

Finally after a few minutes of silence… me not moving in my bed and the night creature frozen in mid-step below… I got up. With quick ninja like movements I jumped from my bed nekkid… with my nudeness dangling I retrieved my pistol from its hiding place and slowly crept to the staircase leading to the living room. Do you turn on lights and ruin your night vision… but illuminate the night creature? Do you keep it dark and hope that your night vision compares to the blood suckers? Questions moved through my head as I stepped down the stairs in a semi-combat pistol stance… old knowledge of identifying targets while moving crept back into my body and mind…. a quick scan of the living room revealed that no boogey man or burglar existed.

My apartment has new carpet… put in prior to my moving in… it has yet to settle and flatten. My golf clubs and golf bag sit in a corner of my living room… since I use them often I don’t waste time in putting them in closet. My golf bag had fallen over due to carpeting. No night creature… no boogey man… no burglar. I returned to bed relieved and convinced I had once again bested the quiet night.

Yet… I know… I know… the night creature waits for me to drop my guard. Grown-ass man or not… October is when the dead and the undead lurk and I am ready… I am nekkid and I am armed.

The Rolling Waters of the Jordan River

Roll Jordan

Roll, roll Jordan, roll

I want to go to heaven when I die

To hear Jordan roll

– negro spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll” (performed here by the Black Gospel Quartet)

I discussed an old and mutual friend this morning over coffee with a good friend. I didn’t personally know this old friend… an old friend that had passed away recently at the age of 82. My coffee mate had known this friend personally though… my coffee buddy had this old friend of ours as his graduate advisor in college. Our old friend was Dr. Eugene Genovese. Dr. Genovese was the author of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974)… the seminal and foundational academic tome on slavery.

As an undergraduate history major at Middle Tennessee State University, I had taken a class on the antebellum South in my senior year. This was a time before the Internet, so I had no access to the class’ syllabus or book list. I walked into Dr. Hunt’s class as a soon to be graduating senior and soon to be commissioned U.S. Army officer… I assumed I knew my world… I assumed I knew my cultural history as a Southerner… I assumed I understand how to think holistically… I assumed I was educated… I was wrong.

I was amazed that the syllabus and book list were fairly short… seems we were going to read some book with a title of an old negro spiritual… something about slaves. I knew that the antebellum South was primarily based on slave labor… I knew that even in the early 1990s, slavery was still a topic that could divide a room. Politics and religion are so often seen in black and white terms… slavery literally was a black and white term… slavery was all entangled in politics and religion… but I couldn’t fathom how I was about to be educated. Immediately after all my classes that day… a mix of history and literature (I have a minor in American literature)… I ambled to the campus bookstore and began buying my books. Upon spotting and lifting Roll, Jordan, Roll, I knew I was either going to sink or swim with this giant… this dense… this intense… book on my chest. It is one of those heavily researched history books that is nothing but tiny print, page upon page of end notes… and paper that is extremely thin so the publisher could keep it all in one volume. This was a book that I would either get or not get… there would be no middle ground.

College for me had been an early mix of beer, fraternity parties, young ladies, a short hiatus of military service, and then a return to college for second go around that included nose to grindstone studying… I had half-assed my way out in 1990… and now in 1992 I had to make up for lost ground. This final class on antebellum Southern history had been nothing more than a quick decision of needing one more history class to graduate… and an interesting title. Colonial American and Civil War history had been mainstays in my college education… now I was going to learn about that period between these two eras… I was about to learn how politics, religion, and economics are interwoven… I was about to learn an important life lesson… I was about to learn about connecting the dots.

Dr. Genovese was a Brooklyn-born Italian, he was a youthful communist… a communist that was booted from the party… later he was booted from military service for being a communist… a bad communist, but a communist nonetheless. Arguably, Dr. Genovese examined the society of slavery because of his political and idealistic views on society and the working classes. Dr. Genovese wasn’t new or unique… the rise of American politics and capitalism following World War II made a lot of men iconoclasts and wonder about the fairness in the workplace and voting booth. Later in life… again in no unique way… Dr. Genovese moved away from the ideals of his youth and sought solace in the personal dogmas of the Catholic Church… a private story of the prodigal son.

I was unaware of Dr. Genovese’s politics when I began reading Roll, Jordan, Roll. I was completely unaware of how to comprehend the magnitude of his research. I was unaware that I was going to learn how to read and think critically… Roll, Jordan, Roll taught me how to learn.

Roll, Jordan, Roll showed how Dr. Genovese viewed the antebellum South as an internal and closed system that united the white and paternal Southern society that economically and physically exploited slavery… and in the end, dehumanized the slaves themselves. Christianity was shown as the way both slaves and whites survived and justified their positions and life. Whites… primarily slave owners and white Southern society as a whole… viewed Christianity and the Bible as the source of their paternal responsibility to protect, train, and use the slaves like “little children,” whereas slaves used Christianity as source of solace and resistance. Dr. Genovese placed paternalism at the center of the master/slave relationship… paternalism… Christian-based paternalism… allowed slave owners to view themselves as benevolent and justify their use of slavery as an economic tool. Politically, paternalism gave this “peculiar” institution of slavery a benign feeling in response to the growing abolitionist movement.

Roll, Jordan, Roll provided me personally with information to fill the gaps of my knowledge of my Southern… my white Southern… history. It provided information on why there was the institution of slavery, it provided information on how slavery existed within a society that held the Bible in such high regard. Roll, Jordan, Roll was the first time I saw the direct… almost linear… connection between economics, religion, and politics. Roll, Jordan, Roll showed me how the lust for power… the dominating desire for power… can make men not worry about something as inhuman as the enslavement of their fellow-man.

This giant book… both literally and figuratively… showed me that there is no vacuum within the world of men’s interactions. There is no clear black and white divide between right and wrong… there is no simple thing in life. Roll, Jordan, Roll showed me that life is full of nuances… full of complexity. Roll, Jordan, Roll taught me that I would have a lifetime of education… that education neither starts nor ends with school… this book taught me that I would spend a lifetime of learning… Roll, Jordan, Roll pushed me out the front door and out into the world.

I didn’t know Dr. Genovese personally… but Dr. Genovese was (and is) an important person in my life. When thinking about college… I like to joke about beer consumption and chasing tail… but really, I think about how it was the first time that I got questions answered. College… Dr. Hunt… and Dr. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll taught me that one must dig deeper and that one must never accept any standard or rote answer to any question. Dr. Genovese, I still have your book… I still thumb the pages… magical words that gave me more insight than any fictional novel. Dr. Genovese… thanks. Dr. Genovese, I hope you have heard the mighty Jordan River roll and a mighty host of a choir… a choir of mixed colored faces… rejoice in a rousing rendition of an old negro spiritual as you cross the wide and rolling waters.