Skim Reading the 2015 National Security Strategy

So gather round young warriors now
and saddle up your steeds
Killing scores with demon swords
Now is the death of doers of wrong
Swing the judgment hammer down
Safely inside armor blood guts and sweat – Metallica, “Four Horsemen

One of the first things you learn when writing “academic” papers for the federal government is how to organize content. Unlike, true academic papers…there isn’t necessarily a result or finding…or “truth” that followed extensive research. Instead, numerous federal government “academic” papers are nothing more than extension of politics and used as a policy tool to provide guidance in the best of circumstances…and at a minimum, point of view of the political entity that is releasing the paper.1 Federal “academic” policy papers are organized in a manner that provides the senior writer/researcher an opportunity to provide an succinct “executive” summary or introduction.2 This executive summary/introduction is the true narrative that tells the story of the paper and lays out how the rest of the paper will be organized…not surprisingly, numerous users of these documents quietly grumble and assume that the executive summary is written first…and the rest of the paper is organized and written in a manner to support this up-front narrative.3

With the release of the new National Security Strategy, the Obama Administration has provided its “guidance” and its point of view on how to secure the nation…until the next President is elected. The new President will bring in their own advisers who will in turn shape and mold the National Security Staff4…who will then “research” and release a new strategy. Interestingly, within days of the Obama Administration’s release of the 2015 National Security Strategy, it has been announced that President Obama intends to ask Congress for war powers that will focus on the Middle East and terrorism (primarily ISIS), it will be limited to 3 years, it will authorize the use of ground troops, and it will be geographically-limited. These 3 factors are significant and will be the subject of speculation among the media, national security thinkers, and academia for the next couple of weeks.5

Like all political documents, the new strategy has critics and supporters…naturally this typically falls along party lines. Criticizing and trumpeting a policy document are two of the easiest things to do in DC…you either point out how it is wrong and doesn’t support your point of view; or you show how the document supports your point of view…usually this done in a quick and superficial way that never identifies or discusses the nexus of the strategy with policy. Critics and supporters act…and write…as if the strategy is a standalone document that is neither a development on past strategies nor a document that signals a shift of policy. In other words, anyone can do this with little knowledge of national security or without a holistic view of policy. This last point about holistic policy is the reason so many national security thinkers lament the end of the Cold War…without a single enemy…it is extremely hard to have a Grand Strategy.6

Those of us that take the time to read the strategy fall into three general categories: individuals who work within the national security field (me)7, those that report on national security issues (media), and academia. I label these groups, in order, as craftsmen (using the strategy as a tool), observers (use the strategy as a form of news), and abstract thinkers (use the strategy as way to philosophically think about “security”). Unfortunately all three categories miss important points…and definitely do not take a holistic approach to the reviewing, using, and reporting on the strategy. This post is no different. This is nothing more than a summary of how the strategy is organized and how it reflects the policy goals of the Obama Administration…any other deep thought is internal only.

Quickly…through a couple of readings, and an internal debate…I have found that the organization of the new national security strategy is really the best way to understand it. Up front it is obvious that the primary writers…the National Security Staff…understand U.S. foreign and national security policy through the Terry Deibel lens. Terry Deibel was a professor at the National War College for over three decades, and wrote what we graduates of the college fondly call the “Deibel Bible” on American foreign policy. The new strategy’s table of contents reads like the basic concept of Deibel’s Bible: there are four basic national interests that all nations hope to attain, and will, if successful, attain. These are security, economic prosperity, value protection at home, and value projection abroad. You too can be a successful National War College graduate if you learn and understand this simple foreign policy tenet.

The new national security strategy is written in the manner of Deibel. The second paragraph of the strategy’s introduction identifies the recovering and growing American economy as a focal point…this is the very first point the strategy drives home…all things security-related point to this. Second, the strategy’s first 3 main “chapters” are entitled Security, Prosperity, and Values. The final chapter (other than the Conclusion) is the International Order…like a true Western Liberal Democratic government (not to be confused with the American bastardized definition of “liberal”), the final main point of the strategy is a discussion that resembles a Masters in International Affairs thesis by focussing on the concept of Institutionalism.In a world where America sees itself…along with the vast majority of the other nations…as the global leader, Institutionalism is the way we try to get other nations to follow our lead, and if they don’t…it is the way we use our allies to bring the lost sheep (like Iran) back into the fold.

After the Introduction, the strategy discusses Security. It is here that the following are briefly…and some might argue, superficially…discussed:

  • National Defense;
  • Homeland Security;
  • Terrorism;
  • Prevention of Conflict;
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction;
  • Climate Change;
  • Access to Shared Spaces;9 and
  • Global Health.

Arguably, some of these are what can be categorized as Democratic Party issues, but like all discussions of the post-Cold War world…WMDs, terrorism, defense, and homeland security take center stage.

Following Security, the strategy goes into Prosperity and discusses in order:

  • Economy;
  • Energy Security;
  • Science, Technology, and Innovation;
  • Global Economic Order; and
  • Extreme Poverty.

Like Security, specific political entities have specific views on the economy and what affects it…and how to grow it. Nothing new here move along.

Values is the last main chapter that follows Deibel’s model, and it reads as if Deibel had written it himself…obviously a disciple did:

  • Live Our Values;
  • Equality;
  • Emerging Democracies;
  • Civil Society and Young Leaders; and
  • Mass Atrocities.

Of all the national interests identified by Deibel, “value protection” and “value projection” seem to lead to the most shadowy and grey because the idea of “values” is more personal in nature than say the idea of “national defense.” Agreed there is a discussion on how to execute national defense…or what are the nation’s national defense priorities…but unlike “values”…there is no core debate on what the term means. Not wanting to sound redundant, but values become subjective and each person values the concept of “values” differently.

As noted earlier, the strategy ends with a discussion on international affairs and the idea of Institutionalism. Here the Obama Administration continues to try to pivot toward Asia10…but Europe still drains security thought11…and the constant and bothersome Middle East comes in third…finally, South America is given an obligatory nod.

This simple method of examining how the new National Security Strategy is organized is just one way to determine what the Obama Administration intends to focus on as it completes its second term. As with any “to-do list”…those things at the top receive the majority of resources…and this on the bottom get nothing more than a constant rewriting on the next list…sorry South America, but we will have to get to you later.

Unlike the strategy and its conclusion (which is nothing more than a restating of everything said before it), this blog post has no true conclusion…my organization skills are lacking and the best I can do is say that sometimes my skimming skills (perfected in Tennessee public schools) are proficient enough to allow me to digest a new national security strategy and come away with the feeling that there is nothing really new here. The new national security strategy reads like a laundry list of what the Obama Administrations wants to focus on. How this strategy is interpreted, internalized, and used by others within the government, Congress, and other nations is still something to be seen. Obviously, this strategy is something that us craftsmen, reporters, and academics are consuming. Its real importance is, at best, a matter of conjecture.

1. This is not necessarily a bad thing…national strategies are one of the prime ways a presidential administration informs the government, Congress, the media, and the public of its policy.

2. The President usually signs the first page or at the end of the introduction to show that he “read” the document and agrees that they are responsible for its content. I have no doubt President Obama has read and agrees with this document.

3. Top down management is the hallmark of any large political institution.

4. In 2010, and prior to the release of the last National Security Strategy in that year, President Obama combined the National Security and Homeland Security staffs. Prior to 2010, and since its inception with President George W. Bush’s first administration, the Homeland Security Staff was a separate entity.

5. I am not willing to bet on how successful President Obama will be on this attempt to have Congress grant him these war powers…but it will be interesting to see if these self-imposed limitations on the war powers will be help or hinder its congressional approval.

6. Grand Strategy is the term to identify the nation’s long-term and overarching priorities. Not surprisingly, in the short history of America, there has only been one period that the U.S. had anything as close to a single Grand Strategy and that was the Cold War. Arguably, the modern world with both modern and old issues…and globalization causes strategic thinkers to feel as if there is no unifying factor among all the security issues America faces…this is probably why individuals with ADHD have a hard time as strategists. This is also why the Obama Administration tries so hard at the beginning of this strategy to point so definitively at the economy…if you can’t have a Grand Strategy, you might as well act like you do.

7. Specifically, I focus on national homeland security policy, and generally on how it meets and compliments (or contradicts) with national security policy.

8. Basically for this discussion, Institutionalism (Institutional Theory) is the International Affairs concept that nations will act according to normative standards of the collective group or members of the international order instead of individual needs. The give and take among nations is governed by its participation or non-participation in international orders or institutions, and like individuals…nations give up certain individual interests for collective goals or interests…which is seen as a better long-term option. This of course is a gross oversimplification.

9. “Shared Spaces” is the term given to areas that the world is connected through or shares…such as cyber, space, air, and oceans. The U.S. Air Force calls the air (and probably some ocean) as “The Commons” and even uses the strategic phrase “defending the commons.”

10. Just like General MacArthur had hoped the US would at the beginning of the 20th century. 

11. Thanks Russia.

Leather Suits, Impersonating White People, and Mr. T: Eddie Murphy (and Richard Pryor)

…and this place used to be segregated…now a 22 year-old black man is on stage talking about how big his dick is. – Eddie Murphy, 1983, Delirious, Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall, Washington, DC.

I knew Eddie Murphy wore a red leather suit…a definite 1980s badass look…in 1983 for his stand up comedy concert Delirious because I had the cassette tape…and Eddie was on the cover in the red leather. I, however, never saw Delirious in a theater or on VHS when it came out…yeah back in the day this how you saw these types of comedic stand-up shows…unless you were lucky enough to have HBO…which meant your parents were very open-minded and assumed to be “rich.” I lived out in the “county” on my family’s farm…so HBO…and cable in general were not available. Interestingly, my parents didn’t get cable until I had gone off to college in 1988…which resulted in my parents being two of the most limited cable viewers ever…they had cable but they watched nothing but cowboy movies and TV shows…Gunsmoke was the reason my parents got cable. I did, however, have a cassette tape of Delirious. This cassette of Eddie Murphy’s amazingly funny…and extremely crude show provided me insight into a world where an extremely talented black comedian could say the word “fag” and “faggot” without a bit of worry…in 1983 you could still openly mock homosexuals and you could use the word “faggot” with impunity.

I did not see Eddie Murphy’s Delirious on a television until 1988 when I went to college. By 1987, Eddie Murphy had firmly established himself as an SNL alum and had so much celluloid exposure that there were even bad and unseen Eddie Murphy movies…which unfortunately he continued to make into the 1990s. Seeing Eddie Murphy’s Delirious in 1987 (or 1988…I can’t remember exactly but I am sure I watched it with a beer or six) added a unique perspective to an act that had been nothing more to me than Eddie Murphy’s voice on cassette which alternated between Mr. T, Michael Jackson, Eddie’s dad (who seemed to have a significant drinking problem), and a stereotypical…and angry…black woman. Now Eddie Murphy’s voice was visually-coupled with a younger version that wore a red leather suit…and black shoes that seemed to make the outfit look a little odd. My parents…while watching Gunsmoke…never knew that down the hall their son was listening to a black comedian mocking everything and everyone. After finally seeing Eddie Murphy’s red leather-clad routine…I giggled at the idea of how my very white parents would have gone bat shit crazy if they knew what I was listening to on my boombox.

1983’s Delirious was Eddie Murphy’s second show to make it to VHS…his first show, Eddie Murphy, was filmed a few years earlier when he was a new to Saturday Night Live. To this day, Eddie Murphy is ranked (by fans) as the number 1 SNL actor ever…which makes complete sense considering how the fans of 1970s SNL had moved on to real jobs, retirement planning, and basically becoming husks of their former cool selves, and how every SNL actor since Eddie Murphy has done nothing more than attempt to replicate Eddie Murphy’s comedic and financial success…and have failed miserably.

When Eddie Murphy was touring in 1983 and providing SNL fans his stand-up routine…Eddie Murphy had just finished filming 48 Hours and Trading Places. Couple these two movies with Eddie Murphy’s iconic SNL’s impersonations of Gumby, the Little Rascal’s Buckwheat, and an angry black Mr. Robinson…and you have a very talented young man who was at the beginning of a very exceptional comedic and pop culture career. Interestingly, it wasn’t until recently that I realized that Eddie Murphy had recorded Delirious in Washington, DC, at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall.

I am not sure if Eddie Murphy’s leather suit in his 1987 stand-up movie Raw (filmed 4 years after Delirious) is blue or purple. It is covered in paisleys and has matching shoes…which looks far better than the black ones he wore with the red leather suit in 1983. His hair is cut in what appears to be a Ultramagnetic MCs high-and-tight ‘fro. Eddie is wearing unsnapped racing gloves. In three words…Eddie Murphy is SMOOTH AS SHIT…and unfortunately I had never seen this film until a few week’s ago. Somehow, I had gone from Delirious on cassette to Delirious on VHS (and watched in my college dorm room) to nearly 25 years later…and then one boring evening I decided to watch Raw while eating dinner. Even in 2015, Eddie Murphy’s 1987 show seems unbelievably funny…crazy intelligently funny. Even with dated 1980s pop cultural references, Raw is a fantastic example of how the 1980s was all about looking and acting bigger than one may have actually been…but Eddie Murphy in 1987 wasn’t acting big or rock star-like. Eddie Murphy in 1987 was the MAN…Eddie Murphy had truly reached a pinnacle in his career.

Eddie is so fucking smooth, that the beginning of Raw is a short clip of Eddie as a small boy performing for his family (that includes a very young looking Samuel L. Jackson1) and telling extremely rude jokes that obviously embarrasses his parents…Eddie doesn’t give a fuck. In 1987, Eddie Murphy shows us he has always been an attention freak. This ability to mock himself shows Eddie Murphy’s security in knowing who he is and how he performs. Following this clip is footage of Eddie taking the stage.

Madison Square Garden is packed…surprisingly the director, Robert Townsend,2 inserts shots of fans talking about how much they love Eddie Murphy…these clips show primarily white women gushing their interest in the leather-clad comedian. As soon as these lily-white clips end, Eddie mounts the stage like a rock star. Late-1980s rock/rap instrumental music informs the crowd that pop culture icon is coming out. Eddie is a badass…Eddie knows who the fuck he is…Eddie knows he is on top of the world…Eddie walks out to a darkened…rock show dark…MSG with a grimace…and immediately goes into a piece about avoiding Mr. T at Hollywood parties in the preceding 4 years due to Mr. T’s supposed desire to kick Eddie’s ass for material Eddie used in 1983…basically Eddie Murphy impersonated Mr. T…a gay Mr. T… BA Barackas didn’t think too highly of this I guess.

In 1987, Eddie Murphy had been in 3 big films3 since leaving SNL…Beverly Hills Cop, The Golden Child,4 and Beverly Hills Cop II. Eddie is the top comedian in the world in 1987. Eddie Murphy is shitting pure comedic gold as he struts around the stage mimicking Mr. T, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, numerous generic white guys, and black women. Impersonation is the first place Eddie begins his routine…and he maintains it in perfect form throughout the whole MSG show.

Eddie Murphy is a rock star in 1987 because Eddie Murphy was a early 1980s rising star (and eventually the star) of SNL…Eddie Murphy had done Trading Places and 48 Hours...Eddie Murphy had rocked Washington, DC, in his Delirious show…and Eddie Murphy did this all because he could impersonate people.

Seeing Delirious and Raw again in 2015 is an endeavor that is full of trepidation and fear of seeing Eddie Murphy as an earnest young man who may be nothing more than a bad version of impersonations he had perfected on SNL. Watching these shows in 2015 had me wondering if I was going to come away from them with the same feeling I get when I see pictures of myself from the fall of 1987 when I was a senior in high school and rocking the worst mullet seen at my high school…the mullet was the official hairstyle of Tennessee in 1987. Seeing pictures of me from the fall of 1987 makes me cringe…my mullet is a sad attempt to look way cooler than I ever was…this mullet is made even worse by the fact that almost every picture of me in 1987 shows me wearing an acid-washed Jordache jean jacket. Watching Delirious and Raw in 2015…when saying “faggot” is completely (and correctly) inappropriate…could have been a horrible trip down memory lane that could have left me feeling as confused as I get when I see my 1987 mullet and jean jacket wearing self…basically I looked like an ugly teen lesbian with horrible fashion sense. I was worried seeing a 1983 and 1987 Eddie Murphy would leave me as embarrassed.

Unbelievably Delirious and Raw stand up to viewing without embarrassment. Instead of me sitting there in front of my TV wondering how I could have found Eddie Murphy funny, I found myself delightfully entertained…and with a sore belly from laughing. I know that mocking homosexuals is wrong…and I am willing to bet Eddie Murphy knows this now too…but fortunately Eddie Murphy’s comedic genius is obvious even though the 22 and 26 year-old Eddie Murphys’ juvenile mocking of homosexuals.

What comes through decades after these shows were filmed is that Eddie Murphy’s talent at impersonation and his ability to exaggerate the common idiocy of famous and generic people is a talent that few other comedians can do. Eddie Murphy’s genius is on par with George Carlin, yet Eddie Murphy doesn’t attack the public in general…which George Carlin perfected and uproariously presented with quick wit and sharp intellect…Eddie Murphy mocks, impersonates, and jokes about specific persons (Mr. T, etc.) or specific characters. Eddie Murphy presented the stereotypical black woman that so many of us knew…or didn’t know but suspected…in such a manner that it becomes obvious that Eddie Murphy isn’t mocking this “typical” black woman…instead Eddie Murphy shows his fear (and respect?) of this woman. Mrs. Murphy, Eddie’s mom, was a woman that all of us learned to fear…especially her gunslinger ability to hit her kids with her thrown shoe…and Mrs. Murphy became the foundation for the stereotypical black woman character that Eddie Murphy perfected.

Arguably, Eddie Murphy in Raw has matured…or at least participated in relationships with a few women…when he took the stage in 1987. In Raw, Eddie Murphy attempts to tackle male-female relationships in a way that is both insightful and obvious. True comedic genius is shown through the ability to take the ordinary and experienced and turn into a comedy monologue that not only portrays the truth…but expands the truth to the point of the humorously accurate.

Eddie Murphy has moved on and nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Dreamgirls in 2007. Like the rest of us, Eddie Murphy has moved away from the 1980s and grown up a bit. Eddie Murphy has had a successful career that built easily upon SNL, tons of buddy films like Beverly Hills Cop, and Delirious and Raw. As obvious as Eddie Murphy’s taste in leather suits changed, matured, and developed…from obnoxious red to glamorous and badass purple/blue…it is also obvious that the 1983 Delirious Eddie Murphy had transformed into a little bit older 1987 Raw Eddie Murphy who bounded the MSG stage in complete badassness. Eddie Murphy was a rock star in 1987…in 1987 he was Guns-n-Roses…in 1983 he was Ratt (or pre-Theater of Pain Motley Crue)…in the four years between 1983 and 1987, Eddie Murphy had grown from an up-coming shock rock band to a full-fledged genre-busting megaband. Like another 1980’s Eddie of iconic stature,5 Eddie Murphy had come of age.

I can’t really comment on Eddie Murphy’s fashion sense…again I was the 17 year-old sporting the mullet and Jordache jean jacket when Eddie Murphy was bounding the MSG stage in purple/blue leather. I can, however, state that aside from realizing that “faggot” is completely unacceptable, Eddie Murphy’s comedy is still something to be seen with wonderment. Go back and watch any number of other comics who took the stage in the 1980s and you will be hard pressed to find no more than a handful that were not only funny then…but funny now. Eddie Murphy excelled at bringing a Richard Pryor-type routine6 to a primarily white audience. Eddie Murphy not only made it acceptable to laugh at the unacceptable through his use of words like “faggot,” Eddie Murphy had made it acceptable to laugh at a black man impersonating a black woman…which now is so common place that the word “Madea” immediately makes us think of boring comedy that has become the Hollywood norm. Eddie Murphy had brought a type of comedy that had not been fully integrated into the full American comedy show fan base that used cable as the means to widen their view of the world. Eddie Murphy truly made a difference.

*Note: Since writing this…but not editing it…if you call me skim-reading it as “editing”…I have seen Richard Pryor’s Live and Smokin’. This is the first time Richard Pryor was filmed on stage doing “comedy.” It is 1971 and filmed at The Improvisation Club in New York. “Jarring” is what best describes my initial reaction to Richard Pryor’s “routine.” Richard Pryor had no routine planned…instead he had a list of things he was going to talk about. This show begins with Richard Pryor talking about how it was a bad day to be filming a show because he hadn’t done any coke previous to the show. Couple this with how casually Richard Pryor lights a cigarette with a match…which he just drops to the floor after lighting his smoke, and what you have is the true view of what Richard Pryor did for black comedians. Redd Foxx may have been doing dirty jokes…but only black people were listening to him. Richard Pryor, in 1971, is obviously in front of a primarily white audience…even though you never see any member of the audience…and Richard Pryor isn’t so much as telling jokes as much as he is speaking the “truth” as he saw it. Richard Pryor openly mocks the white audience…and they respond as you imagined white people would respond to a black guy mocking them in 1971. There is nervous laughter…there are a few boos…and (most importantly) you hear very little real laughter. This crowd did not find Richard Pryor and his mocking of whites funny. Especially jarring was the way that Richard Pryor actually looks and acts a little hesitant or embarrassed to be there…it is almost as if he knew he was crossing a line…he was being the first black to openly mock whites…in front of whites.

When Richard Pryor crossed that line…he completely goes way over that line. Richard Pryor admits to loving white people…because he likes to “fuck white big-titted blondes” and that he has sucked dick…and then when silence follows he asks the crowd “none of you have sucked dicks before?” This is obviously a first…Richard Pryor had gone where no one had gone before in front of white audiences. Interestingly, the more I watched the more I realized that Richard Pryor wasn’t embarrassed or hesitant…Richard Pryor was purposefully working the crowd…Richard Pryor was saying shit that needed to said…and he knew that the full effect would only be felt if it was slowly and softly presented. Richard Pryor’s impersonation of white guys is spot on…and no one in the audience was ready to laugh at it…again, Live and Smokin’ isn’t a comedy routine…Live and Smokin’ is a black man saying things that needed to be said. When Richard Pryor says “I’m not black, I am Puerto Rican. I tried that negro thing for 23 years and realized it had no upward mobility…” Richard Pryor is ripping a gauze or film off of 1971 race relations.

At the end, I realized Richard Pryor laid the ground work for Eddie Murphy. In 1971, Richard Pryor doesn’t get a laugh when he impersonates whites…but 12 years later Eddie Murphy gets a roar of laughter for it. Eddie Murphy’s quote at the beginning says it all…once we were a segregated nation…then Richard Pryor began (in 1971) talking about fucking white women and this laid the foundation for a 1983 Eddie Murphy to talk about how whites think black guys have big dicks. As crude or base this may seem…this is what progress looks like.

1. Samuel L. Jackson plays Eddie’s uncle and is definitely the most fly muthafucka in the living room…SLJ finds Eddie’s routine unbelievably funny.

2. Robert Townsend is an African-American which makes the primarily white fans in the intro clips even more interestingly odd.

3. Eddie Murphy had also been in Best Defense which is obviously a movie none of us had ever heard of.

4. The Golden Child is a movie I remember to this day and contains one of my favorite comedy scenes…one which I still quote to this day.

5. Eddie Van Halen turned from axe grinder in a skirt-chasing band that was overshadowed by megalomaniac frontman…to aging virtuoso that still is recognized as one of the greatest guitarist of all times. If that isn’t enough to establish Eddie Van Halen’s bono fides, then the mere mention of his marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Valerie Bertinelli…who was probably every 1980’s teen boy’s first lust…should seal the deal. 

6. Richard Pryor was one of Eddie Murphy’s influences…and even though Richard Pryor had gotten some commercial crossover success with such terrible roles as the one he had in one of the Superman movies…but Richard Pryor’s comedy albums and shows were still sort of off-limits to white audiences in the 1980s. It would take the advent of Blockbuster and later Netflix to bring Richard Pryor to white America’s attention…and by then he was either not touring or was dead.

All’s Well That Ends Well: Torture by a “Strong” Nation

Oft expectation fails, and most oft there

Where most it promises; and oft it hits

Where hope is coldest, and despair most fits… – William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well (2.I.145-47)

Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT) (United Nations, 1984, 1987), which was signed by the United States in 1988 and ratified in 1994, defines torture during interrogation as:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession…when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity (p. 1)

Study after study shows that torture does not work and affects the victim as much as the torturer…don’t take my word on it…go do a minute Google search and you will discover that people will say and admit anything…real…fake… when electrodes are attached to the scrotum or they are subjected to an almost real sensation of drowning (waterboarding). For thousands of years men for personal or governmental gain have tortured other men. For thousands of years the results has been a mixed (and electrocuted) scrotum bag of maybe the truth…maybe the false…maybe a “dear God I will tell you whatever you wanna hear just don’t pull another fucking fingernail out with your pliers!”

Senator John McCain…a victim of torture by the North Vietnamese while a POW recently stated on the floor of the Senate:

“They [Americans] must know when the values that define our nation are intentionally disregarded by our security policies, even those policies that are conducted in secret…They must be able to make informed judgments about whether those policies and the personnel who supported them were justified in compromising our values; whether they served a greater good; or whether, as I believe, they stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good.”

What if the reported 119 individuals tortured by the CIA (according to the upcoming Senate report on CIA torture) gave one good lead? Would it be worth it? Would 5 good leads on planned terrorist attacks was the result of this torture? How does one do a cost-benefit analysis of torture? To conduct such an analysis one would need to further know what information was gained through CIA torture, and how that information was used. Unfortunately, when the giant report (with numerous parts redacted due to classified information no doubt) I feel that we will not see the benefits or leads that led to thwarted torture, instead we will read how torture victim after torture victim said whatever was necessary to save themselves. The ones…the CIA, the President(s), the military…are the only ones who will truly know how beneficial this American government-sanctioned torture was.

In the end, if the torture has led to some leads that stopped a terrorist attack…then a majority of Americans will stand happily by and sleep peacefully knowing that they are protected. But what is the cost of being secured by men who will do evil in their idea of “defending freedom?” Is America, the unilateral doer of all things globally, truly a strong nation?

Philip Bobbitt states that the War against Terror has some widely and tenaciously held assumptions:

  • that terrorism has always been with us, and though its weapons may change, it will remain fundamentally the same – the weapon of the weak seeking to wrest political control from the strong;
  • that because terrorism will always be with us, there can be no victory in a war against terror;
  • that because there is no enemy state against which such a war can be waged, the very notion of a “war” on terror is at best a public relations locution, like the “war on drugs” or the “war on poverty”;
  • that terrorism cannot be an enemy, the subject of warfare, because it is a method, a technique, even if a sinister and brutal one;
  • that because terrorism is only a means to an end – that is, because it is not distinguished by the pursuit of any particular goal – “one man’s terrorist is another’s man’s freedom fighter”;
  • that the root causes of terrorism lie in conditions of poverty, economic exploitation, neglect of health and education, and religious indoctrination that must be reversed before a war against terrorism can be won;
  • that terrorism is best treated as a problem of crime, by law enforcement officials, and not as a matter for defense departments, which are inappropriate when there are no battlefield lines or armies to confront, and when the context requires constabulary forces and political measures;
  • that if, on the other hand, terrorism is indeed a matter of warfare, there can be no place for the Geneva Convention or other rules of law in war that are applied to conventional conflicts;
  • that good intelligence provides the decisive key to defeating terrorism;
  • that terrorism will not flourish in democracies;
  • that more power governments gain, the weaker the civil liberties that belong to the public;
  • that terrorists “win” if they are able to force governments to enhance their powers of detention, surveillance, and information collection  or if the citizenry significantly modifies its everyday behavior;
  • that twenty-first century terrorism is the result of a clash of international cultures when medieval and backward worlds confront modern secular societies;
  • that confronting hostile states can only make the Wars against Terror harder to win because it diverts resources and wins fresh adherents for the terrorist enemy;
  • that the threat of terrorist attacks comes from the states of the Middle East or failed states in remote regions;
  • that if the jihadist movements are defeated, the threat of terror will subside, at least for the foreseeable future;
  • that terrorists will be confined to low-technology weapons for the foreseeable future;
  • that because they will be so confined, terrorists therefore pose at most a modest threat to the stability of modern societies;
  • that we should address this threat by concentrating on the likeliest assaults rather than preparing and organizing for the remote possibility that terrorists will pull off a truly catastrophic attack;
  • that the forces required to deal with terrorists are completely unrelated to the forces required to deal with natural disasters;
  • and, above all, that Wars against Terror really have nothing to do with such state-centric activities as ethnic cleansing and genocide or the proliferation and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction or nonpolitical events like power outages, tsunamis, famines, and other civilian catastrophes.1

The first striking thing about these numerous assumptions Bobbitt makes is the focus on “strong” versus “weak.” With this in mind, one must look at the historical context of the Peloponnesian War…as recounted to us by Thucydides. Athens…rich, imperialistic, philosophical…went to war with Sparta…militaristic and conservative. Two Greek poleis (city-states)…one a naval power (Athens…based on its rich sea trade) and one land power (Sparta…based on its history of young male conscription for its Hoplite infantry)…went to war basically over the age-old desire for societies/states to be the hegmonic power within their area of influence. Though a weak connection, one may argue that America now sits as the Athens of our age…while numerous states orbit within our sphere of influence while rogue nations and terrorist organizations represent Sparta with its strong defense of conservative ideology and their just or unjust feelings of being ignored and treated unfairly by America and its allies.

Terrorists execute prisoners, torture captives…and the Western world is aghast…how dare the “weak” resort to brutality. America tortures terrorists to ensure it gets the information and intelligence needed to protect itself from the barbaric hordes assaulting the Piraeus2 docks and the Phaleric wall.America, like Athens, views itself as a “strong” nation, and as Thucydides states in the Melian dialogue: “…as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”4

What has happened is that the CIA and the presidential administrations “supervising” it have viewed itself as a strong nation and conducted torture and a war against terror with hubris. History is written by victors as the saying goes…and as Shakespeare says all’s well that ends well. We shall see if America’s flagrant disregard to the effectiveness of torture (and potentially the use of drones) will allow it to keep its allies close at hand and its enemies at a distance. Arguably, the strength of America lies in the citizens that take an interest in the actions of its government and approves or disapproves through the ballot box.

1. Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars For The Twenty-First Century, pp.5-7.

2. Piraeus was Athen’s port and its access to its trade.

3. Phaleric Wall was a defensive line that ran southwesterly from Athens to the sea just south of the Piraeus port.

4. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, p. 352. Melos was an Greek city-state that had refused to join Athens alliance against Sparta…Athens sent emissaries that were executed…thus Athens returned with an army and made the Melians submit because they were weak.

Veterans’ Day…One Suffering and Musing Comrade to His Father and Comrade-in-Arms

“I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them, And the white skeletons of young men-I saw them; I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war; But I saw they were not as was thought; They themselves were fully at rest-they suffer’d not; The living remain’d and suffer’d-the mother suffer’d, And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer’d, And the armies that remain’d suffered.” – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

“…he was veteran proud, tried and true, he fought till he was black and blue, didn’t know how he made through the hard times, he bought our house on the G.I. Bill, but it wasn’t worth all he had to kill to get it…” – David Allen Coe, “If That Ain’t Country”


Since 1990 I have always made one call on Veterans’ Day…to my father…a fellow soldier…a fellow comrade-in-arms. We would always exchange our typical greeting of “thanks for your service” and then we would discuss what our plans were to celebrate. Some years my father mentioned some parade or event he was going to attend or participate in…and as he got older he just plainly responded with “I’m gonna go ride one of my horses.” I always made an attempt to get a tee time and play golf. For me I prefer to celebrate my holiday doing something devoid of Veterans’ Day references or meaning. Both of us dealt with our status as veterans in different ways…yet both of us laughed and said it was “our fucking day and we could do what we wanted.” We rarely worried with what others might think of our Veterans’ Day plans. We felt no need to explain ourselves. I usually shun Veterans’ Day events…and definitely avoid any sales greedily associated with the a day meant to honor me and my fellow military veterans.

Both my father and I come from a long line of men who have served. My maternal grandfather was a field artilleryman in World War I and came home blinded in one eye from a German mustard gas attack. I had an uncle who stormed the sands of Iwo Jima. I have a cousin who served in Panama and Desert Storm. My mom had a cousin who was a POW during the Korea War. There is even a Reese buried in confederate grave who left his home and hearth to fight for a lost cause. Soldiers and veterans all…my dad’s and my military service were just two more links in the long chain of our family’s service to our nation.

Tomorrow I won’t be making any calls. My father passed away a couple of weeks ago. Since then I have been busy planning his full military honors funeral at the National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina. I won’t be thanking him for his service tomorrow…instead I will continue filling out paperwork to ensure that he is interned at a National Cemetery with the honor he deserves.

I enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 1990 due to being kicked out of college due to way too much beer and not enough college classes. My dad joined the U.S. Army because he was the son of a Alabama sharecropper and his future without military service would have been nothing more than scraping by. Each of us decided to serve because we needed something to better us…to educate us…to teach us how to be men. The Army gave me an undergraduate degree (G.I. Bill) and a Masters degree. The Army gave my dad a life to provide for his family and eventually he got a college degree. Both of us had moved from humble beginnings to men who had accomplished much…and much of it was a direct result of our military service.

One of the things my dad and I used to laugh about was how our military service had given us a lifetime of stories. The kind of stories that were best described as “shit you couldn’t make up.” One of the very first experiences I had…the moment I realized Toto and I were no longer in Kansas…was when I got my first mess hall meal (chili mac of course)…standing outside in the cold rain at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and I turned to the private next to me and asked him where he was from. The reply I got, to the best of my knowledge, was “Baahstan”…I had just met my first Irish-American Southie…I had just just experienced a hallmark of military service and that is how the military throws you in with a bunch of other guys from a million small towns and big cities…places you’ve never been to…or heard of.

One of my dad’s favorite stories was how he used to pull guard duty along the razor-wired fence separating East and West Germany (Fulda Gap) in the late 1960s and how he would exchange cigarettes with East German soldiers he would pass as each of them walked by on their different sides of the fence. In his own small way, my dad participated in military diplomacy at a very critical moment in the Cold War.

As Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, dead soldiers are “fully at rest-they suffer’d not.” I am now my father’s suffering and musing comrade…and I have no one to call to tomorrow and thank or be thanked. Most of us veterans are quite content to quietly go about our holiday and do what brings solace to our hearts…we appreciate the “thanks” and we appreciate the parades…but in the end we all quietly carry our memories and experiences that only our fellow comrades understand.

To all my veteran friends and comrades-in-arms…thank you and I look forward to mustering with you in that final bivouac we all go to when our suffering here ends.

His Autumn: Thoughts As My Father Dies

…and gathering swallows twitter in the sky. – John Keats (last line of “To Autumn”)

The poet John Keats was supposedly “half in love with easeful Death,” and expressed the Romanticism longing for the unattainable. Easeful death is one of the most unattainable of life’s trials. In his poem “To Autumn,” he displays this longing for the unattainable by describing an imaginary ode to the autumn season and telling it of its beauty. Spring represents youth, summer equals young adulthood, autumn is the time of one’s old age, and finally, winter is death. Keats attempts to remind autumn that it too is beautiful. Specifically he writes:

 “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou has thy music too,”

Old age and the coming of winter hangs on the horizon like a dark and barely illuminated cloud. This darkened mass hangs low and foreboding. Cold and crisp winds whip through a tree-shrouded valley. Yellow and red leaves prepare to dance upon the wind as their dying anchors break the bond between limb and leaf.

My father is in the last moments of his autumn as I type this. His rasping breath, his personal death rattle, reminds me of the sound those dying autumn leaves make as the wind shake them…the call of approaching winter. My father’s bond between life and death is coming loose…he is about to float and fly on the wind and be tossed and turned until he drifts lightly to the ground…dust to dust…ashes to ashes…

I sit by his side. I listen to his autumn song. I have silenced my own summer tune. These days, I rarely hear the melodies of my spring. Now is the time for me to hear is last words…his last breathes…his last moments calling out to the hills in joyful noise.

My personal collection of life songs are bound to his. The man I am is the man he raised me to be. All that I have…all that I have gained is a direct result of his teachings. I know my own autumn and winter wait before me…my own personal dark cloud waits beyond his…but now is not the time for me to think of that…now is the time for me to sing my father’s song.

The oldest child of Alabama sharecroppers went on to be a man who owned his own land. A man with no real vocation went on to retire from two professions. A high school drop out who eventually got a college degree. He was an army veteran, with two tours in Vietnam, who found solace and peace in the lives of his children and grandchildren as he settled into his autumn.

My father taught my sister, his grandchildren, and me how to drive…how to ride horses…how to accept responsibility…how to live life as true to ourselves as possible. This man was a true raconteur…this man taught me the art of storytelling. This man never met a stranger…this man never left a person untouched. His smile and crystal blue eyes were infectious. His hands were always hard and calloused from a lifetime of work…yet never were they firm when he touched you. My father may not have been a man of great means…he was a great man.

As I watch him die…as I stand witness to his life and heritage…I feel both a torment and a peace at his passing. His was a great run…his was a life worth living…his life was a glorious masterpiece to be sung in all the seasons.

My father was not a man of poetry. My father was not one to lose himself in literature or the arts…yet he was a man who found beauty in nature, animals, and small children. He may not have ever read or heard of Keats…yet I know he would have completely understood the Romanticism ideal of longing for the unattainable. My father has easily accepted his death though…Keats would have been envious in the manner in which my father approached this final cool days of his autumn.

The last audible words my father spoke to me were “take my boots off”…he laughed as I went to his feet and pretended to remove boots. I guess you don’t need boots when you join the gathering swallows and twitter in the skies.

Selling of Southern Exceptionalism


1. the condition of being exceptional; uniqueness.
2. the study of the unique and exceptional.
3. a theory that a nation, region, or political system is exceptional and does not conform to the norm.
On any sweaty swampy summer Saturday in South Carolina you can watch the wonderful diversity of the South (in reality the diversity of the whole east coast mainly north of South Carolina) mingle and move among the concrete and asphalt that defines and represents “vacation” in the American Southern mind. Myrtle Beach being the prime example of this vacation ideal of the South at play. Along the last paved road running approximately north to south before the sand, one can see high rise beach hotel after beach hotel…with a sprinkling of beach stores and pancake houses. Here where the ocean meets the sand, millions of visitors come to play golf, get sunburned, and consume calorie after calorie of extremely unhealthy food. During the winter, Canadians come down with pasty skin and shorts (even though local South Carolinians are bundled up and bitching about the cold). Late spring through late fall, however, the wonderful mix of the New South converges on Myrtle Beach to eat fried seafood and drink lemonade sold from young (and extremely thin) Russian girls who seem to have been seduced by the beaches as much as the tourists.
Myrtle Beach, unfortunately, is not the easiest place to get to though. It doesn’t have an interstate, and it takes exactly (with typical traffic and no more speeding than 5mph over the posted speed limit) 1 hour and 25 minutes from I-95’s exit 181. Arriving by plane would seem to be the next best choice…but due to the average airfare and the constant merger of major airlines…places like Myrtle Beach can become even more remote. Getting to the beach, the sun, the waves, the golf, the young Russian girls, and the seafood is a true test of a tourist’s determination. Determination though is something that comes easily to the New South tourists.
 Before reaching the Myrtle Beach exit on I-95, tourists (primarily from the north…what resident south of Myrtle Beach is going to travel north to the beach?) cross the North Carolina/South Carolina state line..and they cross with great expectation. If they are new to this trip, they have been seeing sign after sign of a politically incorrect Mexican (Pedro with his mustache and sombrero) extolling the magnificence of place called South of the Border, or SOB for short. SOB started as a beer stand in 1949 and found remarkable success due to the bordering North Carolina county being dry. From there it has grown into a mecca of kitsch and crap. Gas, food, t-shirts, and fireworks are the primary SOB products.
Not only do Myrtle Beach bound tourists stop…but the constant summer caravan of families driving south toward Georgia and Florida clutter SOB’s parking lots. The New South’s tourist spots are not only populated by the actual families born and raised in the South, but it is populated by the families of mid-Atlantic and northern states heading south to enjoy the actual and perceived pleasures of the South and its sandy coast. SOB doesn’t just represent the capitalistic achievement of kitsch but it represents the wonderful, automobile-obsessed, American society that has been running at full speed since the 1950s. One can debate what is truly representative of America…but it seems that a good number of us Americans are quite enthralled with the idea of being represented by cheap crap that is sold at decent prices and displayed in such shops as SOB’s “Hats of the World”…and as my stepson so non-sarcastically informed me was not an actual museum of hats from around the world, but is instead warehouse-sized store that allows you to purchase hats that range from sombreros to beanie caps with propellors.  He wanted to ensure that I was not disappointed…and disappointed I was not. SOB, its hats from around the world, and all its crap entertained me fantastically. Truly, this was a way station for those from near and far as they conducted their annual pilgrimage to the South…the almost religious mecca we Southerners have sold to ourselves and the rest of the country.
 This selling of the South, and its assumed exceptionalism, is almost equal to the way in which Hollywood in the 1950s sold America overseas through its completely inaccurate cowboy movies. This is extremely evident in the fact that the number 2 largest group of visitors to Big Bend National Park in Texas is Germans…and the reason is that the very idea of America to a large part of world is the myth of the American cowboy in the wild west. It doesn’t get more wild west like Texas along the Rio Grande River. As in the mythical selling of America in the 1950s, and the melon-scratching endeavor of trying to explain or describe America…in the 1950s or today…the mythical selling of the South is extremely hard. Defining, with geographical or cultural borders, as nebulous as the South is at best enigmatic.
Defining the South’s borders is a debate of much conjecture and mainly opinion. The South can be reasonably argued as the region below the Mason-Dixon Line, or the former member states of the Confederacy, or areas with a larger than the national average consumption of grits. Additionally, it is hard to define the South geographically and culturally considering the three major historical periods of the American South has experienced. There is the colonial period to the 1930s…by far the longest period and the most enduring in mythical resonance with both modern-day Southerners and others…frontiersmen, plantations, and inbred mountain hollow (pronounced “holler”) cabin dwellers. Then there is the period from the beginning of World War II to the 1980s or so. This period truly opened up the South to the rest of America due to the federal government’s ability to acquire and build cheap military bases, the national interstate system, and the nation’s desire to finally bring them po’folk up from their backwoods ways. This is also the period when the feds decided to go into the Blue Ridge mountains and forcibly remove families and communities so a national park could be formed. Finally, the era of the New South, which is identified with its supposed corporation friendliness by being non-uni0nized and the selling of lake/river/ocean front property to “from elsewheres”…individuals who are not of Southern born and bred heritage but who have flocked to the South in a quest for warmer weather, cheaper prices…to stretching retirement dollars, and economic opportunity.
As the grandson of an Alabama coal miner (maternal) and an Alabama sharecropper (paternal), and the son of two parents born and raised in South just as it was being opened up at the end of World War II, I am intimately aware of the Southern ideal…regardless of the fact that I was raised as an Army brat until I was 13 and 6 years of those 13 were in Germany, I was raised Southern…but being an Army brat is by far more Southern than any other geographical distinction. The Army is known for being, at least mythically and somewhat culturally, a subculture of predominately Southern habits. Many a soldier from someplace other than a southern state tasted grits for the first time upon entering the Army. This of course being, again, due to the Department of Defense’s decision to build and maintain a large number of military bases in the South. Local farmers and their crops…and their tastes was the grocer of the Army in the 1950s and 1960s, thus generations of non-Southern soldiers were introduced to grits.
My Southern bonafides are further enhanced considering the number of places in the “South” I have lived…which based on your own opinion…are either genuine Southern states or, at best, border states with a familiarity to the South. These states include Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and Washington, DC. Yes DC is Southern…any city that is within sight of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plantation (now turned)…Arlington National Cemetery…is Southern. This is not even taking into account the prevalence…and marketing…of Southern cuisine restaurants or the city’s location on a swamp. DC is Southern in everything except the ability to hunt and going mud din’. Honestly though, the very nature of arguing for or against DC’s inclusion in the South is a prime example of how hard it is define the South.
The South can’t even truly claim some of its supposed cultural icons… such as barbecue, farming, and country music. Kansas City…a metropolis situated at best in a border/battle state…is known for its barbecue. New Jersey…not even anywhere close to be considered Southern…is a farming state. Finally, Canada and California have populated country dials with their very not Southern sound. If Southerners can’t claim their cultural icons…what can really define the South?
Seems the South and Southerners (imagined or otherwise) have sold itself and its exceptionalism…its specialness and we have all bought it. Imagining or creating a reality is nothing new…especially in the South. Margaret Mitchell imagined the South in her fantasy novel Gone With the Wind…as the Cambridge History of the American Novel states “The South exists as a place of imagination for many writers.” Not only has the South been a place of imagination for writers in the past, but today publications such as Oxford American (published in Arkansas) and Gun & Garden  (published in South Carolina) extol the real and imagined views of the South. Interestingly, Marc Smirnof…a Californian started Oxford American, and the publisher and chairman of the board of the Gun & Garden are both Southerners (South Carolinians) who (as Roy Blount Jr said) had “gone up north” to learn their professions before returning to the South as part of the modern era of the New South revivalism.
Page after page of these well-written, and highly entertaining magazines provide a glimpse of how the South is being sold…and not just by Southerners but Southerner wanna-bees…I am looking at you Mr. Smirnof. Between the pictures 0f and articles on “shrimp gumbo reimagined” and Jack White’s (most definitely not a Southerner considering his birth in and place among Detroit’s punk rock scene) mounting of Nashville’s music throne, there is an endless supply of advertisements for companies and products that sometimes have actual roots in the South. The New South is where not only is lake/river/ocean front property is sold to the highest bidder, regardless of their origins, but the New South is where Southerners will allow anything considered “Southern” to be held aloft as it is some special item or religious totem worthy of examination and exultation. Not only are these Southern “artifacts,” like a biscuits and gravy recipe…and trust me my mother’s biscuits and gravy should be exulted…held aloft, but they are presented in such a marketing manner that they resemble an advertisement about how good we got it down here more than the actual Southern artifact it is. Somewhere along the line we have traded the popular…yet undignified…stereotype of the Barney Fife and Bo and Luke Duke for the imagined Southern stereotypes portrayed in glossy magazines that mix good writing with advertisements for Fiats…I Shit You Not…there is an ad for a Fiat car on page 57 of the latest edition of Oxford American, and the last time I checked, the definition of Southern did not include the ownership…let alone the driving…of a Fiat. (says the guy who drove a 1972 yellow MG Midget in high school…in Tennessee in the mid-1980s)
Of course, owning and driving a Fiat in the South is a perfect example of how you really can’t say what is or isn’t Southern. In the end, the South and Southern is based more on imagined than the realities of our everyday experiences here in the South. It is impossible for me to define the South based on the my limited view (at the time) of my upbringing or life in Fayetteville, Tennessee (my ‘home’town), and comparing it to my wife’s upbringing in Wahalla, South Carolina (they filmed Deliverance there nearby if she hasn’t told you…but she probably has) is near impossible…and as far as I can tell, what these two places have most in common is a distinct small town appeal (or repulsion)…of course that is not truly Southern either considering the number of small towns (with their appeal and repulsion) across America.
 On second thought, driving a Fiat is definitely not Southern by anyone’s definition and that shit is wrong…plain wrong. Unfortunately, what we have is another situation where the imagined place of the South (within the minds of writers and everyone else’s) gets mixed with the reality modern economic necessity…which results in Fiat ads within a magazine that bills itself as “The Southern Magazine of Good Writing.” What we got here in the South is exactly what everyone has in every place and region…people trying to make living, raise a family, and lead an existence that (hopefully) means something to them without being bothered too much…as they drink their sweet tea granita…I have no fucking idea what that is, but here is the online article on it in this month’s Gun & Garden….so obviously it is Southern and all us Southerners drink it…right?

Normandy France Smells Like Lavender and Apple Cider

Normandy, France, smells like lavender…it is grown prolifically. Lavender blooms late May through July in Normandy. The fields, that were once fenced in by hedgerows pop a subtle but beautiful purple…it makes the surrounding grass and trees glisten bright green. Truly stunning to see. The beauty of these lavender fields hide a deeper secret though…a bloody secret. These grand fields of light purple were once the battlefield of Normandy in June 1944.

Lavender field in France
Lavender field in France

Normandy also smells like apples…actually apple cider, because it isn’t until the fall that the apple harvest comes in. I was in Normandy in late May 1997…so the apple trees were still growing small yellow apples…nowhere near ripe…but the smell of apple cider competed with lavender. Seems the Normandy French enjoy apple cider as much as they enjoy decorating their homes and fields with lavender. Every village seemed to have an apple press and cider house. Here is a older, but well-written New York Times article that discusses the sparkling ciders of Normandy and Brittany. Reading it makes my mouth water for apple cider.

Apple trees in Normandy
Apple trees in Normandy

When you are in Normandy you stop and visit the medieval tapestry makers of Bayeux. Castles…made of stone didn’t do very well when it came to insulating from the heat and the cold…primarily the cold. If you lived in a castle…and had enough money…you would buy grand wool tapestries to hang on the walls…they were more than beautiful tapestries…they were way to ward off the cold and an early death of you and your family. When you travel through Bayeux…you go and see the tapestries that have remained.

Bayeux tapestry depicting William the Conqueror's victory at the Battle of Hastings (1066)
Bayeux tapestry depicting William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings (1066)

Some drive further afield in Normandy and see the Cherbourg peninsula. Driving tiny French backroads smelling of lavender and apple cider…small but swift streams are covered with stone bridges. It is glorious in a peaceful, idyllic way. One suddenly understands why the French beret isn’t so odd…and apple cider, baguettes, and cheese seems to be the perfect lunch. Further west you get into Brittany, less populated and with even smaller roads. You really have only one reason to visit Brittany and that is to see le Mont Saint Michel.

Le Mont Saint Michel was originally a small church built in 709AD, followed by an expansion in the 10th century, and finally becoming a monastery in the 13th century. During the French Revolution, the secularist government used it as a prison and troops of the Revolution went through and removed the head off of every Christian statue. This monastery sits upon a rock out in the Bay of Brittany and parking signs (in multiple of languages) inform you that if you park in certain areas at certain times…you might return after your visit to find you car underneath water. Le Mont Saint Michel is breathtaking and full of historical significance. It is a perfect side day trip after you have soaked in the lavender fields of Normandy.

le Mont Saint Michel, Brittany
le Mont Saint Michel, Brittany

But if you go to Normandy…you go for only one reason really. You go to Normandy to walk the D-Day invasion beaches, you go see monuments erected to American soldiers in the villages of Sainte Mere-Eglise and Sainte Lo. You go to see the old and decaying German bunkers (both artillery and machine-gun) of Point-du-Hoc. As beautiful as the lavender fields are, as wondrous as the smell of apple cider, and the stunning beauty of old medieval monasteries are…you are truly there to marvel at the major military operation known as “Overlord”…the Allied invasion of the Fortress Europa. Here in Normandy you marvel at beauty…but in your heart and head…you feel sad…you cry and wonder how such a beautiful place could have been the location of so much death and violence.

All the pictures above are beautiful…but in reality…this is what Normandy looked like to me:





Of course these were not the actual landscape and images before me as I was in Normandy…but this was what I say in my mind’s eye. The death, destruction, and violence of the Allied invasion. As I traveled from place to place soaking up the French spring sun of May…I had a disconcerting feeling that it was all a mirage…a film or layer lain across the landscape to hide the ugly beneath it. All of this ugliness though is removed when you enter the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer…a garden of stones and sculpted hedges and trees. The cemetery sits on a bluff above Omaha Beach…where the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed and got chewed to pieces…literally…by German machine-gun fire.


It was on Omaha Beach that (then) COL George A. Taylor, commander of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, famously told the huddled men under his command

“There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”

When you stand on Omaha Beach and you look up at the bluff…where COL Taylor’s men and thousands of other men lay buried…where the Germans were dug in and waiting, you think only one thing…”my God, how did they fucking have the guts to actually exit their landing crafts and storm this beach?” Part of it was training, part of it was the Allied decision to use the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions. Both were filled with privates with no combat experience…young men who had no idea what they were about to face…and veteran NCOs and officers who knew exactly what they were about to face. The 29th Infantry Division (The Blue and Grey) was a National Guard division with young men from the mid-Atlantic and the 1st Infantry Division had exited the North Africa campaign over a year before and sat in Britain re-arming and getting its ranks filled with fresh soldiers. No one but the senior Allied leaders truly knew what these young men were going to face…in the end, they did get through the stormy waves…across the mine and concertina-wired beaches…up the bluff…and began the long deadly march across Europe. But before they entered Germany…or Belgium…or Holland…or Paris…they had to cross over a hundred yards of bare beach under withering fire…sheep to the slaughter.

I attended the Memorial Day ceremony at the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. I was thanked by a crying French woman…and lavender and apple cider scents hung in the air.