Saturday, September 30, 2017

A STANDING QUESTION


Full disclosure:

I am not a sports fan.  I have never been a sports fan.  The last football game I attended was in college (more from curiosity than Oregon Ducks loyalty) and my last baseball game was circa 1986 with a huge Padres fan.

So: with the current flail about NFL players breaking league rules about decorum, behavior, and patriotism—and the so-called leadership ignoring those rules—what might a flat-footed asthmatic have to add to the discussion?

Well, read on.

It’s always seemed peculiar that we Americans attach so much significance to anything as trivial as a ball game.  I assumed that it’s a residual of WW II when President Franklin Roosevelt decreed that The Boys of Summer would continue playing, though many baseballers entered the service, voluntarily or otherwise. 

Not true.

According to ESPN, the national anthem was inserted into the national pastime on an impromptu basis, during the seventh-inning stretch of Game One during the 1918 Cubs-Red Sox World Series.  Typical of those days, and maybe due to the Great War, a band it struck of The Star-Spangled Banner, prompting fans to render traditional honors. The Sox took the series in six games, but the greater significance endures. 
        
Some intriguing facts have emerged from the shadows of the politically-induced protests among multi-millionaires who think that a sporting event has any relevance to national policy.  The results reveal feckless management, owners and coaches, to industrial-grade hypocrisy.

What does the national anthem have to do with the NFL's alleged motivation of protesting police brutality?

Nothing.

However, the NFL knows a lot about both the police and brutality.  On average one player is arrested a week, on charges including murder, assault and battery (women feature prominently), substance abuse, and weapons charges.

Where’s the outrage?

The players and coaches who “take a knee” blather out of both sides of their mouths, insisting that their disrespectful (and prohibited) behavior represents some sort of social-justice statement while claiming to Support The Troops.

Batguano.

If in fact the NFL ath-a-letes (as a high school coache pronounced it) need to get their own house in order before presuming to instruct the rest of us on anything.

Here’s info from the FBI Uniform Crime Statistics:

The leading cause of death among young black males is…young black males, around 90 percent.  Two years ago blacks killed about 6,000 other blacks.  Police killed 258, and it’s certain that not all of those were racially motivated.

Drug use and sales, addiction, casual violence (remember The Knockout Game?), criminal career paths, all are part of the African-American environment.  And guess what: neither the police nor The Man are instigators.  Black America has self-selected for endemic crime and cultural disintegration.  As black economist Thomas Sowell noted, before the 1960s most black children grew up in two-parent families.  In this decade, nearly three-fourths of black babies are born to single mothers, versus about 15 percent for whites.  Absent male parents and guidance, young blacks are set adrift in the urban jungle.

However, looking for white guilt produces at least one significant hit: Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.”  Whether due to na├»ve optimism or calculated cynicism (LBJ feared that Republicans would get “the nigger vote”), white liberals created the welfare state that plagues millions of black citizens trying to create a life amid chaos.

Where from here?

It turns out that the National Basketball Association also has requirements for decent behavior during pregame ceremonies.  More than that, the NBA (which has even more black players than the NFL) enforces its rules.  Evidently there’s little if any tendency among basketball players or coaches to “take a knee.”

That’s because the NBA, unlike the NFL, has mature, principled leadership.

NFL’s hypocrisy is eye-watering.  Players are prohibited from professing their religiosity; from showing support for slain police officers; and even from dancing-prancing in the end zone.  But Colin Kaepernick was famously photographed in a scrimmage wearing cops-are-pigs socks.  Nothing happened.

Kapernick was born to an unmarried nineteen-year-old, never knew his biological father, and grew up amid White Privilege as an adoptive third son.

Radio host Dennis Praeger has a description for such people:

Ingrates.

How the flail may affect game attendance remains to be seen.  But for now, many fans are fed up.  Facebook pages contain ads for cut-rate prices on remaining season tickets, and others show fans burning team banners and jerseys.

According to a Rasmussen poll this month, one-third of American adults are less likely to watch professional football.  Meanwhile, 12 percent say they’re more likely, leaving half unaffected.

Final analysis: the NFL’s 1,500 or so players are blessed with physical gifts that few of us will ever know.
But professional football is among the worst organizations to tell the rest of us how to think or behave.  Aside from decades of accepting routine criminality, many of its members lack the emotional equivalency of their on-field prowess, and I’ll go so far as to say that the ath-a-letes in my college dorm seemed to wear their IQs on their jerseys.  Some of them had no business in college—they were in essence professional players supported by the alumni, since the football program paid off big time.  Want womens’ sports?  Want new band uniforms?  Want a new chemistry lab?

Football, baby, football.

Meanwhile, consider the all-time college and NFL poster child:

Orenthal James Simpson.

Meanwhile, this month by far the best-selling NFL jersey is Steelers lineman Alejandro Villaneuva’s.  He stood alone during last week’s national anthem because, unlike the huge majority of footballers, he’s not only an Army veteran but he survived three tours in Afghanistan.

Which reminds me:

Here in Arizona I’m still asked if I’m related to Cardinals player Pat Tillman, who left a lucrative career to become an Army Ranger.  He was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 under still-mysterious circumstances.  I don’t know that I’m related to Pat (we both had Ohio connections) but I certainly relate to his choice of nation over self, though he came to question the war. 
Another connection to football is much closer.  My late-great friend Joe Foss, a WW II Medal of Honor aviator, became governor of South Dakota and launched into other public arenas.  In 1959 he founded the American Football League, and remained until the dawn of the Super Bowl era in 1966.
Joe’s memoir was titled A Proud American, and as a combat veteran he would be appalled at what became of professional football.    

Despite what Joe brought to the NFL, the organization never returned the sentiment.  When Joe died in 2003 there was talk of dedicating the next Super Bowl halftime to his memory.

It never happened.


Which, considering the counter-culture emphasis of The Big Show, may be just as well.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

ENDANGERED SPECIES


In the century since World War I, nearly 1,450 American pilots have been accorded the status of fighter ace— credited with downing at least five enemy aircraft in aerial combat.  Most flew American planes in American uniform.  Some did not, serving with France or Britain in the world wars, although some of those transferred to U.S. service.  But all who had American citizenship were eligible for inclusion in the vaunted roster of aces.

The first U.S. ace was Raoul Lufbery, leading light of the famed Lafayette Escadrille in 1916-17, composed of idealists and adventurers who took war into the third dimension over the Great War’s western front.  After 16 victories he died in action as a major leading the equally famed 94th “Hat in the Ring” Squadron in 1918.

The last U.S. ace was then-Captain Steve Ritchie who, with two back-seaters in his F-4 Phantoms, downed five North Vietnamese MiGs in 1972.  He continued flying high-performance jets after retiring as a brigadier general.

As of this writing, the American Fighter Aces Association (AFAA) counts only 46 survivors.  The current top gun is Air Force Colonel Clarence “Bud” Anderson, our last living triple ace well known for his Mustangs named Old Crow.  His book, To Fly and Fight, still is one of the best aviation memoirs yet written.  Next in line is another P-51 pilot, James L. Brooks with 13 victories in the Mediterranean Theater.

Two other Mustang jockeys round out the remaining double aces.

About twenty Navy aces survive from 373 since World War I.  The most senior is Rear Admiral E.L. “Whitey” Feightner, now 95 years young.  A Wildcat-Hellcat ace of 1942-44 vintage with nine victories, he also flew solo demonstrations with the Blue Angels in the 1950s.

The remaining Marine from 120 of all time is Dean Caswell who was rare among flying leathernecks in scoring his seven kills as a carrier aviator.

Of 41 U.S. aces in the Korean War, three survive including Lieutenant General Charles “Chick” Cleveland, current AFAA president.

While AFAA only recognizes those with their hands on the stick and throttle, three F-4 Phantom back-seaters logged five kills over Vietnam in 1972.  The first was Navy Lieutenant (JG) Willy Driscoll, Lieutenant Randy Cunningham’s radar operator flying from USS Constellation. 

Two Air Force “GIBs” (Guy In Back) were Captains Chuck DeBellevue, who shared four of Ritchie’s kills plus two others; and Jeff Feinstein who participated in five victories.  After the war DeBellevue and Feinstein became Air Force pilots.

Since America ended its Vietnam combat in early 1973, air combat has been extremely rare.  Only 56 shootdowns have been credited to U.S. airmen in those 44 years, including 37 in Operation Desert Storm during 1991.  The highest individual score in that period is three, credited to an F-16 pilot over Yugoslavia in 1999.

Despite the dearth of aerial combat, America continues buying new aircraft dedicated to the air superiority mission, at appalling prices for questionable return.  All three services worship at the stealth altar, purchasing trouble-plagued “low observable” fifth-generation jets that suck the economic oxygen out of the room for more useful types.

The Air Force’s F-22 Raptor overcame many and varied problems after years of post-delivery trouble shooting, but acquisition was limited by mounting costs.  That has not been a concern with the tri-service F-35 joint strike fighter, the most expensive military acquisition ever.  Now in its 21st year, the Lightning II program still is incapable of matching “the brochure” in any of the variants for the Air Force, Navy, or Marines.

It would make vastly better sense to slash or even cancel the ghastly expensive stealth programs and spend some of the savings on upgraded versions of existing “fourth generation” fighters: Air Force F-15s and F-16s with naval FA-18s.  The stealth mission generally can be handled by far less costly electronic countermeasures which, unlike stealth, can be added on to existing airframes.  But with corporate welfare a continuing mandate in the D.C. political swamp, any such policy change appears nearly impossible.

One of the selling points for stealth fighters was the technical advantage that presumably would offset “the enemy’s” superior numbers.  Which enemy remains unknown with collapse of the Soviet Union 27 years ago.  Since Vietnam the one-day record for U.S. aerial victories remains 11 scored by the Navy and the Air Force in three separate engagements on May 10, 1972.

The last time American jets downed 15 hostiles in one day was in June 1953.  The last time American fighters claimed more than 20 was on August 15, 1945—the last day of World War II.

Thus, at this late date we have seen the era of the American fighter ace come and go in barely half a century.  The breed’s 56-year epoch from 1916 to 1972 was only extended by a decade with crowning the last Israeli aces in 1982. 

So where does that leave the American fighter ace today?

It’s a near certainty that there will be no more U.S. aces.  Even now the next-generation air superiority fighters are being touted as remotely-controlled drones capable of inhumanly high-G maneuvers, cyberly linked to god’s-eye observers.  It’s a nifty concept that requires perfect coordination and uninterrupted data-link connectivity.

Incidentally, the Iranians have already demonstrated the ability to hijack our drones in flight.

Meanwhile, America’s dwindling inventory of air-combat warriors provides dual benefits to their services and to the nation.  They represent an irreplaceable link to our airpower heritage, harking back to the dawn of military aviation when anemic engines lifted fabric-covered wings into hostile skies.

The aces also afford a precious perspective that saw technology expanded almost beyond reckoning.  Much hype has been touted about “the greatest generation” of WW II veterans, an indefensible assertion when compared to the Republic’s founders.  But the WW II generation surely provided the greatest airmen, who learned to fly in 80-knot biplanes and finished their careers in Mach 2 jets.  No comparable advance is possible.

So here’s all honor to the American fighter ace, the storied “knight of the air” whose gift of air superiority typically began as a starry-eyed kid inspired to follow his mentors into the contrail country.


We shall not see his like again.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

DUNKIRK

The summer’s smash movie hit is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a micro-focused telling of the British Expeditionary Force’s near-miraculous evacuation from France during nine days of May and June of 1940.  The precursor to The Battle of Britain provided some 338,000 allied soldiers standing by to repel the expected German invasion.  (The fact that Adolf Hitler lacked the will and the ability to force an amphibious assault was little realized then—or since.)  Although perhaps 40,000 French troops fell into captivity, the cost could have been much worse.

Certainly Nolan is a significant film maker.  Including the enormously successful Batman franchise, his movies have won seven Oscars among 26 nominations, earning more than $4 billion.

What’s little realized is that the Dunkirk saga frequently has been filmed over the past 75 years, including a major portion of the wartime drama Mrs. Miniver directed by William Wyler, and Briton Leslie Norman’s 1958 solid docudrama, likewise Dunkirk.  Additionally, the 1969 epic The Battle of Britain begins with Dunkirk’s beach strewn with abandoned British gear.  (Incidentally, Ridley Scott of Alien and Black Hawk Down has announced his intention to remake “BoB,” to the delight of warbird enthusiasts everywhere.)

There’s also a major Dunkirk segment in Ewan McEwan’s 2001 romance, Atonement.  It’s still cited by film students for its impressive five-minute single take with a tracking shot along the crowded, event-filled beach.

When surveys indicate that about one-third of Britons know that the Battle of Britain occurred in WW II, and that Germany was the enemy rather than an ally, Dunkirk offers a teachable moment—or 106 minutes, ek-chually.   Nolan does a nifty job of educating his 21st century audience as to where Dunkirk is, thanks to German propaganda leaflets dropped over the shrinking Allied lines.  Essentially, the rough map says, “You are here and We are everywhere else.”

Nolan is known for non-linear story telling, and Dunkirk is no different.  The opening scenes are oddly labeled “one day” and “one hour.”  You do not have a sense of time, partly because the three parallel stories (land, sea, and air) alternate day and night, back and forth within the span of a few minutes of real time. 

Though told as an integrated trilogy with a handful of significant characters, we don’t get to know many of them.  Their names are seldom if ever revealed, the major exception being George, the youngest son of the boat owner (well portrayed by Mark Rylance) who’s among the first to set out for Dunkirk.  The lead character is a sympathetic British private played by Fionn Whitehead, who according to internet sources is 20 or 21 years old.

The film fails in a major way: you have no idea of the immense effort by naval and privately-owned vessels in a daringly successful operation.  Some 860 British and allied ships were involved, with more than 200 lost.  About 700 private vessels participated, making an essential contribution ferrying soldiers from shallow water to the ships farther offshore.  Nobel Prize laureate John Masefield described the massive, hastily organized evacuation as “the greatest thing this nation has ever done.”  The film gives almost no indication of the magnitude of the achievement that was Operation Dynamo.  

Hans Zimmer’s musical score has drawn lavish praise but I admit—I don’t get it.  Some recurring passages often are discordant and repetitively long.  A couple of them reminded me of the muted flugelhorns (or whatever) accompanying the Great War poison gas attack in 1969’s Fraulein Doktor.

The studio I attended had Dolby Stereo—unfortunately.  It’s just too damn much.  After the shockingly unexpected burst of gunfire at the start, the repeated effects are overwhelming, including the screaming sirens on radio-controlled Stuka dive bombers.  (Which, by the way tend to drop from a banked turn which does dreadful things to accuracy.)

Aviation buffs eagerly anticipated the aerial combat sequences, which generally are well done.  The in-flight Spitfire pilot close-ups were accomplished by modifying a Russian-built Yak trainer’s front cockpit with a Spit type canopy and windscreen while the actual pilot flew off-screen from behind.  Usually it works, although some shots with wingroot-mounted cameras clearly show a Yak rather than a Spit.

Some operational procedures are violated for the sake of drama.  Though the Spitfire canopy could be locked open or even jettisoned, Nolan ignores reality (and common sense) in having a pilot ditch his shot-up fighter with the canopy shut.  Guess what?  The impact jams the “hood” almost fully closed, and the aeroplane begins to sink.  For some damn reason the movie squadron threw away the regulation crowbar clipped to the access door on the left side of the cockpit…

At the end of the movie one of the RAF pilots has exceeded his fuel supply and must set down along the French coast.  At that point two inconsistencies arise.  The pilot could land ashore near the British force or he could ditch or bail out for pickup by the hundreds of evacuation smallcraft offshore.  Not a bit of it: he lands far down the beach, away from thousands of friendly chaps, AND HE PUMPS HIS LANDING GEAR DOWN.  Having accomplished that entirely unnecessary evolution, he climbs out, wields his flare gun, and fires it into the cockpit.  The Spit burns as shadowy Germans emerge from the gathering gloom.

Throughout the movie we never get a clear view of a German.

The producers had access to three Spitfires and a Spanish-built Messerschmitt 109, the Merlin-powered Ha-1112.  For reasons unstated, Nolan decided against computer graphics to produce a realistic formation of German bombers with shoals of fighter escorts.  Instead, each aerial encounter pits a solitary Heinkel 111 with the duty “Messerspit” occasionally doubled as leader and wingman.

The Heinkel is a large-scale radio-controlled model, which serves well to its capability.  But in the film the Luftwaffe continually sends lone bombers to Dunkirk, escorted by one or two 109s—a problem that should have been solved with some basic computer graphics.

Meanwhile, pegging the trivia meter:

Camouflage and markings buffs (and there are legions of them) note the LC squadron code letters on the three Spitfires.  But “London Charlie” was never assigned to an operational squadron, being used by the base operations flight at RAF Feltwell in Norfolk.  For obscure reasons, none of the Spits have individual letters—just a blank space on the fuselage. 

A questionable historical aspect is the German submarine torpedo that sinks one ship loading troops.  No account of Dunkirk that I've seen references any U-boat activity during the evacuation, which certainly is understandable.  The water depth offshore likely would render subs far too vulnerable.  

I’d give Dunkirk three stars out of five.  However, the movie I attended previewed a promising release with Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour as the wartime Winston Churchill, and other WW II themes are forthcoming including Pegasus Bridge, the British commando raid preceding the D-Day landings, and the Spielberg-Hanks miniseries about the U.S. Eighth Air Force.


In short, World War II isn’t dead and it isn’t dying.