Tag Archives: War

Death Comes For Three Friends: Why Not For Me?

Death.  Now there’s a topic that will always attract attention!  Just the word is enough to set the mind to working, sometimes changing the topic and sometimes creating fantasies to explain how we don’t fear death.  In the end, however, only a person terribly sick in body or sick in mind ever welcomes death.  Or perhaps I’m employing a cheep trick designed to attract readers to my blog by writing of death; a hook to snag the curious fish and pad my ego with the numbers of those who take the bait.  Huh, Why didn’t I think of that sooner?  No, really, all joking aside.  If you feel that I am playing some sort of self-aggrandizoing game I urge you, dear reader, to go elsewhere.  I am writing about death because it is something common to all of us and something that I have seen my share of.  I sincerely hope that those of you who press on will derive something positive from the activity.

Death is something that is very common; as common as life, and we see life all around us.  The streets and buildings of our cities and towns are filled with life, and if you try to reserve a camping space at a state or federal campground on short notice in my Pacific Northwest you will quickly feel like there is way too much of it.  We are surrounded by life in our families and friends, as well as in our workplaces.  In our yards life explodes as flowers and vegetables and ornamental shrubs and trees, if we are of a mind to cultivate them, and life explodes as weeds if we should chose the opposite.  In the mountains and in the countryside and even in the driest of deserts, if you know where and when to look for it, life abounds.

It is very easy for most of us to shut death out of our view as we cruise, totter, stumble, careen and otherwise navigate our way through life.  All of us have to deal with death at the end of things however, and just about all of us have to deal with it along the way.  A tree you planted might have been killed by beetles; a disappointment.  A beloved pet who loved you as you loved it for many years as you grew up begins to piddle on the carpet, struggles to get from its bed to its food bowl, finally quits eating and dies one night on your dinning room floor.  Father/Mother in heaven, how much pain, and how much I loved that cat!.  One or more of your parents finally runs out their course on this beautiful but broken planet and goes to join their parents who died before them.  Yes, it happens to us all, so unless you are better at deceiving yourself than I have been you have tasted the bitter cup of death and know that it is a cup that we all are destined to drink.  I hate death, but it is common to us all and therefore deserves to be spoken of.  In fact, perhaps it’s sting may be softened if we would speak of it more often and deny it some of its mystery.  A devil known is always better than a devil which is not.

But death is a big topic and I do not write of big topics.  I am a storyteller and propose to write about three particular deaths and how those people were related to me, and perhaps what impact their death had on me.  I had experienced the deaths of pets while a child; the almost obligatory death of goldfish and parakeets which I could not keep alive no matter how I tried, and a couple of cats who’s death by automobile and disease gave me a good deal of heartache.  And I saw more than my fair share of death in the war in Vietnam, but in that case we knew it was coming.  When people shoot at you and launch things that explode on impact into where you are working/sleeping/hiding, death sometimes happens.  Hell, it happens a lot!  That’s the point of war!  But the thing is that you expect it.  Death is not a surprise visitor in the night.  Rather, death always has a place set at the table in such situations, and frequently arrives to share an unpleasant meal.

In fact, I did not begin to develop a true sense of the randomness and injustice of death until I returned home from Vietnam.  In very short order after my return I learned that three friends who had never left the safety of the United States of America had died while I was away at war.  Three people whom I had known for one year, three years, and nearly all my life were gone by the time I turned twenty one.  That shook my soul and contributed to some degree to a very nihilistic and pleasure-driven personal philosophy that guided my life for many years.  I propose now to write of these three people.  Their deaths impacted me in many ways and contributed to my living as if death could take me before the sun rose the next morning, and I must confess that the way that I lived certainly increased that possibility.  But that was not my friend’s fault.  They were people who lived their short lives and died without the least intent of injuring me.  I will therefore write a celebration of their lives, and thereby celebrate the victory that my puny literary endeavor gains over that old worm Death, who has deluded himself into believing that he is the winner in the end.

I met Kathy Hustead at a house that she was sharing with three young women, one of whom was an old friend from my neighborhood.  I was on leave for a month between my two tours of duty in Vietnam and Cynthia Orgulson invited me over to drink some beer and smoke a joint or two at her place.  I went to that house and the party began, and before the evening had ended I had formed a very interesting bond with Kathy, and a very uninspiring relationship with Olivia, the young woman who had first secured this living space and thought of herself as the alpha female.  I usually get along well with people but we did not click at all, and I quickly departed from that house but my connection with Kathy remained intact.

We did a lot of things together for the rest of that month, which was odd if you think about it.  Kathy had a boyfriend, and we never elevated our relationship to what you could call romantic.  It’s not that I inhabited some lofty. shining tower of platonic indifference; I would have pursued a romantic relationship with Kathy in a heartbeat!  I knew that this was not likely to happen but enjoyed her company so much that it didn’t seem to matter.  And Kathy sensed the genuine enjoyment that I felt of Kathy for Kathy’s sake, and not for what I could get out of her, and returned my affection in her own way openly and honestly.  We both knew that I would go back to war in a dwindling number of days and that my odds of coming home in a box were such that deep attachment was a dangerous thing, so we developed a more superficial attachment that was all the same thick and strong, like the cables on a great suspension bridge, and we swore that we would renew our friendship as soon as I should return to America alive and released from the military.  I hoped that Kathy was thinking “Who knows what a year might bring?”  I certainly was thinking just that thought.

Three years earlier I met Doug Barnett on the hight school diving team.  I had always loved diving off of the boards at swimming pools and had become pretty good at doing flips and ‘corkscrew’ dives and gainers and a host of other maneuvers, mostly at the Navy pool which my veteran father had access to and at the municipal pool near Balboa Park in San Diego.  Doug and I were thrown together on the junior varsity team for Hoover High because we both loved diving, and because we both couldn’t quite achieve the gymnastic perfection required to truly compete at a varsity level, so for us junior varsity had to do.

We certainly did know how to have fun though.  Our practices included a good deal of goofing off and experimenting with new dives, which often ended up in painful ‘belly flops’, and we loved to climb up on the three meter board, or high board as we called it, and practice wobbly and ill-advised dives from that height.  We buckled down as best we could when competition with other teams rolled around, but our skill level was limited and a second or third place was the best that we could ever seem to muster.

When we weren’t competing or practicing, Doug and I were hanging on to the edge of the pool, trying to avoid the cold spring wind that rose up from the canyon below and blew directly at the San Carlos Country club, who generously allowed our very working class school to base its program there.  On competition days we had to stand perfectly still on the board, waiting for a judge to blow the whistle that told us it was time to begin our dive.  I froze my wet, skinny little cojones off standing in the wind on that board, and frequently didn’t care how well I scored on a dive as long as I could quickly get back into the warm water of the pool.  Any other time we would be in the water of not very far removed from it, laughing and talking about our dreams (mostly girls) and the lives that we meant to pursue when we graduated.

Before graduation day came Doug and I made plans to get together when he got back from a trip that he was going to make to see his father in Wisconsin.  Doug’s family had been broken up by some trauma that he never shared with me and he struggled to remain involved with both of his parents.  The split had been ugly, and so it would require the emancipation that Doug’s eighteenth birthday would provide to enable him to journey the fifteen hundred miles to visit with and strengthen his relationship with his father.  Doug swore that he would call me when he returned, and I believe that he probably did so.  I was not there when he called however, for I had joined the Army to seek adventures where I might find them before Doug could return.

I knew Jo Herrera for most of my life.  I met Jo, or Josefina, in kindergarten and we were friends all through elementary school.  Jo’s family was Mexican but her parents were very proud that they had retained their Spanish heritage.  Jo invited me to her house to begin learning the Spanish language when we were very young, the first or second grade I think.  I didn’t stick with it because tadpoles and playing tag with the other neighborhood boys and other such pursuits eclipsed learning a second language from a girl who was in all ways very average.  We liked each other but in the most innocent and prepubescent manner, and by the time I began to develop an interest in girls in the later years of elementary school La Donna and Willie, who were very pretty, had captured my heart, attention, and fantasies.  Jo remained a friend, but very much on the margins of my attention.

We went to different junior high schools and so I didn’t see Jo for three years.  Then, in 1964, we were reunited at Hoover High School.  Time had been very kind to Jo.  In those three years Jo blossomed into one of the most beautiful girls that I have seen even to this day.  Jo’s was not a painted-on beauty either.  She just quietly went through her days giving light to every room and situation into which she walked.  In our senior year Jo was elected homecoming queen.  I think that the vote was as close to unanimous as one can get at a high school with nearly three thousand students.

A big part of Jo’s beauty was her personality.  She really didn’t seem to know that she was beautiful, or if she did know it she didn’t act as if it really meant anything.  Jo was often seen hanging out at school with people she had known for years even if they weren’t ‘cool’, didn’t have letters in football, basketball, or track, or didn’t have cars.  Jo really was our queen.  The popular kids deferred to her for he beauty and accomplishments, and the rest of us loved her for her humanity, and in our wildest dreams thought that she might someday be interested even in one of us.  Jo was special, there is no doubt about it.

When I got home from Vietnam I set about making contact with my old friends, and was for the most part successful.  My life was rocked however when I went to look for Kathy, Doug and Jo.  Kathy married her boyfriend who was a stock car racer.  She was sitting in the stands one evening watching a race when one of the drivers lost control of his car, flipped over and over, and landed in the stands right on top of her.  Killed her instantly.  Doug was involved in a drug deal that went bad and took a knife blade to his neck.  He lingered for a while but finally, mercifully, died of the knife stroke that had changed him from a laughing kid on a diving board into an insensate vegetable with decubitus ulcers.  Jo developed an aggressive cancer of the ovaries or cervix or something down there and died quickly.  None of them saw their twenty first birthday.

I did see my twenty first birthday.  Now why the hell is that?  I heard bullets whistle over my head (they don’t ‘whang’ or ‘ping’ or any of that Hollywood ricochet bullshit.  They make an evil, fluttering whistle sound as they go over your head or past your ear, and you love that sound;  it means that you are still alive).  I heard rockets explode scant yards away from where I stood, saved from blast and shrapnel by the aluminum walls of buildings, sandbags, and the bodies of other soldiers who stood between me and the point of impact.  I saw men drop on the field of battle, or hanging from their harnesses in the door opening of a Huey helicopter, and bodies of enemy soldiers plumping up under the burning Vietnamese sun like roadkill in the middle of a country lane.  How, I asked myself, did I come back from that hell to resume my life when these friends had theirs taken from them for no damned good reason at all?

I will not pretend that I pondered these questions deeply.  I was far to stoned to do anything like that.  I was twenty one and the fact of my survival of the war had in many ways trumped the self-doubt and insecurities that I had felt as a child.  As a result I tackled life with an irreverent and egocentric gusto in which I felt wildly empowered to seek gratification of any want that I felt as quickly as I might once I was aware that I felt it.  Still, the memory of these three friends and their tragically shortened lives haunted me in brief, unexpected moments of sober reflection.

In later years those memories have come to haunt me even more.  Perhaps Twain was right in his short work “The Mysterious Stranger”.  Perhaps Kathy and Doug and Jo were spared painful and unloved lives and slow, agonizing and unnoticed deaths by their early exit from the world of the living.  Perhaps.  Mark Twain was a pretty good writer, and could use his noodle.  But I call ‘bullshit’ on that.  Death is not natural after all.  Death was not a part of the plan.  Death is the peculiar province of a certain son of a bitch who is frequently portrayed as having horns and hooves and a pointy tail and, well, you know the picture.  Death shouldn’t be.  Kathy and Doug and Jo should not have died, and I should not feel guilty that i didn’t.  And I no longer feel the least bit guilty about that.

I hope that my three friends have found peace.  I don’t believe in a God who takes pleasure in barbecuing His victims so I know that I have a good chance of this hope being true.  In any case, I have survived my own folly long enough to finally understand that we are given a time to be on this planet, and if we live long enough to learn some wisdom along the way we should share it with those who come after us in the hope that we might bring some clarity to them, and make their passage through this life a little easier.  It is this that I hope I have accomplished by writing this story.  If I have failed in that, at least I hope that you have been entertained.

What To Do About ISIS

The United States is leading a solid coalition in a war of air power against ISIS in the Middle East.  Our nation, which is often slandered by people around the world, is nevertheless the one taking the lead there.  China is absent, as is Russia.  India also is nowhere to be seen.  Brazil?  Not present.  Germany and Japan are restrained by post WW II constitutions which limit their overseas military activities.  Other Western and, importantly, some Arab states are adding small contingents of jets and pilots but it is America which is doing the heavy lifting.  Again.  But as troublesome as air power can be, there will be no ultimate victory unless an effective ground force takes the battle into the teeth of ISIS.

Therein lies the rub.  The Kurds, who field an effective and cohesive ground military force, have a limited scope.  They are not going to extend their military reach far outside of traditional Kurdish lands.  The Turks have given no indication that they intend to have anything to do with the chaos below their southern border; to the contrary, they have gone so far as to prevent Kurds from crossing that border into Syria to defend Kurdish territory in that fractured state.  The Syrian government’s military forces have been inadequate to wrest control of territory away from ISIS and Iraq has no functioning military to speak of.  No other Arab state seems at all willing to commit ground forces into the fray, and so ISIS will absorb the punishment delivered from the sky but will not be defeated.

The upshot of all of this is that the defeat of ISIS will require the insertion of ground forces from somewhere outside of Syria or Iraq and probably outside of anywhere else in the Middle East as well, and I see no likelihood that such a ground force could come from anywhere other than the United States of America.  Cobbling together a ground force including countries other than only the U.S. would require the coalition-building capabilities of a George H. W. Bush, and it would be to the credit of President Obama if he could accomplish such a feat.  Whether the President has the skill or the stomach for such a policy is not at all certain.  ISIS will be calculating that he does not.

Over the years I have grown weary of the criticism that my country has endured over it’s various foreign policy initiatives.   I accept that we are not perfect and that policy, tactical and strategic mistakes have occurred, but the thrust has always been to right a wrong, in my opinion.  As a result of that constant criticism, from within this country as well as without, I have been tempted to say “To heck with it.  Let’s return all American military personnel to American soil and let the world do what the world wants to do, and when the next earthquake or genocide or gobbling up of a weak state by a strong one comes along say “Go ask the Russians for help.”

But I can’t do that.  Russia and China and India don’t care if Yazidi men are slaughtered and the women are made sexual slaves (the real war on women).  No skin off of their nose.  Maybe there is no skin off of my nose either, but I know that we have the ability to stop it, and if we do not use than ability then I believe that we are complicit in the wrong itself.  That makes me a reluctant interventionist.  What about you?  Do you care about the victims of ISIS?  Do you care enough to do anything about it?  Am I wrong to care?  We should have a conversation about this.  We are talking not about abstractions but the lives of very real people.  That should mean something to us.

The Problem With ISIS

The President of the United States has addressed the nation regarding his intention to respond militarily and diplomatically to the threat represented by a group known, among other names, as ISIS. ISIS is an armed faction in the Middle East fighting in both Syria and Iraq which has amassed a record for brutality which stands out sharply in an area where brutality is a commonplace. They have slaughtered Christians, Yazidis and Shi’a Muslims, men, women and children. They have raped and enslaved women and girls. They have imposed a harsh, joyless rule in whatever unfortunate area that has fallen under their control. And as a final straw, they have mercilessly beheaded two American journalists who posed no threat of any kind to them and released videos of the acts to the world. The American people and the President had seen enough, and now an action plan has been announced.

The President says that he is going to hit ISIS from the air wherever they are, whether in Iraq or in Syria. Air power will be used in concert with ground actions and also when targets of opportunity present themselves. Fundraising activities for ISIS will be sought out and interrupted and efforts will increase to prevent would-be jihadis from reaching the Middle East or returning home after having once having gotten there. There are other parts of the plan I’m sure, but that is the broad outline and I am generally supportive of it. If there is one thing that we have learned in the past decade or two however, it’s that we should take a hard look at any proposal of foreign military activity in order to be as certain as possible that we will not be caught off guard by real time developments as that policy is being implemented. This post is my view of the dangers lurking behind the President’s stated policy.

One of the biggest obstacles to victory will be the need for a ground army for our air power to support. The Kurds have shown themselves to be capable and courageous fighters and with U.S. air support and shipments of weapons have pushed back the ISIS advance in the areas near Kurdistan. But there lies the problem; the Kurds have little incentive to leave their homes to go fight ISIS for an Iraqi government that has never been all that supportive of Kurdish ambitions for autonomy. Outside of some contested territory such as the city and environs of Kirkuk, there is small likelihood of Kurdish military projection much further afield. Why would a Kurd be willing to fight and possibly die to liberate Tikrit, Fallujah, or Ramadi when the people of those cities and areas have certainly shown no great love for the Kurds and their dreams? Short of a promise by the new Iraqi government of real Kurdish autonomy and retention of Kirkuk in exchange for Kurdish military cooperation far from Kurdish lands, I see little likelihood of significant ground military help against ISIS in the West and North of Iraq from that quarter.

Iraq does have an army, but it is an army that dissolved in the face of rag-tag ISIS fighters who were on foot and in a few pick up trucks, and left tanks, military vehicles, artillery and the like and fled in disarray. Any reorganizing and training of this force will take time and a new leadership will have to rise up which will command the respect of their troops, which is essential for success on the battlefield. Americans are leery of open-ended military operations which take a long time, so something more cohesive than the Iraqi army as it is currently constituted will be needed in order to begin effective ground operations for U.S. air power to support.

The most efficient auxiliaries to the Iraqi army are the Shi’ite militias. These armed groups remain after the sectarian violence of the middle of the last decade, and many Shi’ite men are under arms and with decent leadership. Also, Qassem Suleimani of the Iranian Quds Force has been in Iraq training and advising Shi’ite militias, and it is rumored that some Iranian soldiers may be within their ranks as well. These militias present a more effective military force than the army but they will be useless in Anbar Province or much of Northern Iraq because the Sunni tribal leaders in those areas are not at all likely to welcome a Shi’ite military force into their lands. Such a scenario is far more certain to drive the Sunni’s further into alliance with ISIS than wean them away. A truly integrated Sunni/Shi’ite force with sufficient air and logistical support could possibly accomplish such a feat, but no purely Shi’ite military force can be used for such a purpose.

An option for initiating quick military pressure against ISIS lies in convincing Jordan, Saudi Arabia, possibly Egypt and Turkey that they have an interest in participating in the destruction of ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with regional leaders in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as I am writing this post, to try to wring assistance and support from those countries in the struggle against ISIS. Sunni combat troops would be the ideal commitment by these leaders, but I see very little likelihood of that. Use of their airspace or provision of military and humanitarian supplies is more like what Sec. Kerry will leave Jeddah with, but we can always hope for more. I would love to be surprised by Arab and Turkish military action. Sunni combat troops from Arab countries would be the most likely to receive acceptance from the Sunni tribal leaders in the areas currently under ISIS control, and the most likely to treat people there with respect and, most important, most likely to go home when the job is done and leave the people there alone.

The final fly in the ointment, and it is a big fly, comes from Syria. The political center of ISIS’s phony “caliphate” lies in Syria, and to effectively strike at the heart of ISIS requires that we strike them there. Striking ISIS in Syria will not necessarily be an easy task however. Syria sort of has a government, led by a man only slightly less ruthless than ISIS. This man, Bashar al-Assad, has an army and potent allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran and, more important to the issue at hand, a fairly effective air force. Mr. Assad, through the brutality which he has displayed against his own people, has forfeited any claim to the leadership of Syria. Assad therefore thirsts for the U.S. to treat with him in hopes that such an action would confer upon him at least an aura of legitimacy. President Obama thankfully will not do that, but that in turn sets the stage for the Syrian Air force to engage American jet fighters over Syrian territory.

The implications of such an engagement are troubling. American pilots are no doubt more than a match for their potential Syrian opponents, but as one very wet and disgruntled Japanese naval officer once said after he was pulled out of the water following a successful B-17 attack on his destroyer, “Even a B-17 will get lucky sometimes.” Even a Syrian pilot might get lucky sometimes too, and the repercussions of that would complicate matters to no good end. In an effort to insure the safety of other U.S. and perhaps allied pilots we would now have to render the Syrian Air Force and anti aircraft facilities impotent, and that would represent a huge escalation of the President’s announced plan.

And then there’s Russia. Syria is and has for forty years been a client of first the Soviet Union and now Russia. The connection between the Syrians and the Soviets/Russians runs deep, even to the point that the U.S. and Soviet Union nearly stumbled into a nuclear war in 1973. The Syrian and Egyptian armies had been pushed out back by the Israelis in the Yom Kippur war and were being soundly thrashed and in danger of total collapse. The Soviets intended to intervene to prevent the destruction of those armies and only decided against it after President Nixon, in the midst of his Watergate nightmare, told Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that to go forward with that project would lead to war between the superpowers. Nixon meant it and Brezhnev figured it out, and war was averted.

The Russians today are still wedded to the Assad regime, and have stated that any violation of Syrian air space or attacks upon Syrian soil without the consent of the Assad regime would be illigitimate unless sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, a body in which the Russians have a veto. American incursions into Syrian air space, bombing of Syrian targets, downing of Syrian jets or disabling of the Syrian Air Force and air defense systems would give Russia cover to gobble up more of Eastern Europe and then be able to say “what’s the difference?” Further complicating things is the statement by the main Western-backed coalition of anti-Assad forces that they would be happy to coordinate with American power against ISIS, but only if the campaign is extended to include strikes against Assad’s forces, and on and on it goes.

In the long run this is going to be a nasty and dangerous business. ISIS will fight to retain what it has and the ground combat forces needed to engage them are currently weak and unconnected. The military, diplomatic and law enforcement assets needed to successfully engage our enemy will have to be deft, persistent, and daring in equal parts, and willing to pursue this policy to a successful end however long it takes. That could get messy, friends might prove to be fleeting, and politics domestic and foreign could (and probably will) rear their ugly heads. No matter. It’s a dirty job that has to be done, and the sooner we start the better.