Saturday, December 19, 2009


This month marks the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Hawaii (12-7-41) and America’s official entry into WW II. (The U.S. was conducting covert, illegal operations in the North Atlantic and Asia but that’s beside the point for now.) There’s nothing noteworthy about the number 68, but since we’re losing about 2,000 WW II veterans a day, perhaps it’s time for some comparisons.

The Pearl Harbor attack killed 2,402 Americans including 57 civilians. The 9-11-01 attacks claimed 2,973 victims (nearly all civilians), plus 19 perpetrators. Other than the fact that both events were surprise aerial attacks upon U.S. territory, there appears little in common. Perhaps the most cogent assessment is that whereas the Japanese had their own airplanes (350-some carrier aircraft), al Qaeda had none and therefore appropriated ours.

If there’s a major similarity, both incidents involved significant failures of intelligence. And what was known was not well disseminated to the operators who needed it. There is almost zero reason to doubt that it could happen again.

I’ve asked a comparison from people who were alive during both events, and the results are surprising. Two friends who flew against the Japanese said they know where they were on December 7, but they do not recall their reactions. They’re atypical; most people know exactly what they were doing when they heard and what they felt, though not everybody believed it. (Aboard the carrier Enterprise that morning, a chief petty officer waved a $100 bill—serious money back then—seeking anyone who thought the reports were true. There were no takers.)

You’ll get conflicting opinions as to which attack caused greater surprise, but the majority seems to side with 9-11.

On its face, 9-11 should not have surprised anyone as much as Pearl. The years before 1941 involved rising tension as the Roosevelt administration sought to influence (or to extort via embargos, depending upon one’s perspective) Tokyo’s aggressive behavior in China. However, there had been no overt Japanese actions against America other than the accidental bombing of a gunboat in China in 1937, so there was little reason for John Q. Public to anticipate what happened in Hawaii.

Contrarily, there was a long-long record of conflict with Muslim factions dating to the Republic’s dawning. (The Barbary pirates and all that.) More recent clashes with Iran, Iraq, and other Islamic entities provided ample reason for concern. Hijacking airliners was so common that passengers were warned not to resist: do what you’re told and (probably) everything will work out.

So: if there was a two-century record of conflict with Islam, why did 9-11 cause greater surprise? Probably because of the audacity involved: hijack not one but four U.S. airliners and fly three of them into targets in New York City and Washington, D.C. rather than a territory 2,300 miles offshore. (In late 1941 few Americans had ever heard of Pearl Harbor.)

Additionally, nearly every living American actually saw 9-11 unfold. I may have been among the last to know because that morning Dad and I were putting the ranch fire truck to bed for the winter. But those who missed the initial reports saw the World Trade Center impacts again and again and again and…well, you remember. Pearl Harbor was experienced via radio and newspapers, and only later via newsreels.

However, if you switch the question and ask which event provoked greater anger, my nonscientific survey shows Pearl, hands down. It’s hard to describe the visceral rage that the sneak attack on Oahu prompted in The Greatest Generation, even allowing for the fact that the “sneaky” part was unintended (Japanese diplomats couldn’t decode the war order from Tokyo for timely delivery in Washington.) The fact that the attack came amid “peace negotiations” only turned up the gas under that white-hot flame. Admiral Yamamoto almost certainly never said anything about awakening a sleeping giant, but the sentiment surely pertained.

The post-attack responses also offer vivid contrasts. Franklin Roosevelt and California Attorney General Earl Warren—icons of liberal Democrats—tossed 120,00 people of Japanese descent into detention camps, about 2/3 being U.S. citizens. They stayed behind wire for the duration. The “exclusion zone” included most western states, but in Hawaii, with 150,000 people of Japanese ancestry, fewer than 2,000 were detained. Go figure.

If you fast-forward to the Tehran hostage crisis of 1979-80, past 9-11 to today, there’s very little similarity. That’s because the virulent virus of political correctness has had five decades to take hold. While American diplomatic and military personnel were held by Iranian zealots for 15 months, U.S. celebrities were shouting “Re-straint! Re-straint!” (I remember TV thespian Howard Hesseman, among others.) But it isn’t just Hollywood libs. After the Fort Hood massacre (see my previous post) the Army chief of staff said his main concern was avoiding backlash against Muslims rather than allowing soldiers to defend themselves.

The foregoing is not to ignore people on the opposite fringe. In my city of Mesa, Arizona, an imbecile took “revenge” for 9-11 by murdering the first person he saw wearing a turban. The victim was a Sikh, not a Muslim. When police cornered the murderer he emerged with hands up, declaring, “Don’t shoot—I’m an American patriot!” That patriot is doing life without parole.

Meanwhile, in a severe reversal of the WW II sentiment, the U.S. Government has gone so far hard-a-port that it prohibits measures against possible Muslim terrorists lest it result in racial profiling. Never mind that Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and most other faiths (including atheists) do not send their followers on suicide bombing missions.

Does the foregoing mean that we should suspect every Muslim, as some Americans did so many Asians after 12-7? No, of course not. After all, we need Muslims to help conduct the war on terror, which already has lasted twice as long as WW II, with no end in sight.

Somewhere there’s a middle ground between unjustly imprisoning people who resemble the attackers—and prohibiting logical precautions toward likely individuals on the other.

But Somewhere exists other than in the United States of America.

Such is the lesson of 12-7 and 9-11.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The United States Army is a soft target but the solution to the problem is a hard sell.

Rant Mode ON:

At Fort Hood, Texas, on November 5, a Muslim zealot or a crazed army psychiatrist (take your pick) went on a shooting rampage, killing 13 people--mostly soldiers--and wounding 30 others. After perhaps 10 minutes he was shot and wounded by civilian police hired by the Department of Defense. (Reportedly a SWAT team arrived half an hour later.) One of the responders was wounded herself, but fortunately she will survive.

The Fort Hood massacre was unique only in the body count. Remaining in a state of denial for years, the United States Army has ignored lethal assaults by soldiers and civilians sympathetic to our enemies:

In Kuwait in 2003 a Muslim GI “fragged” 16 of his comrades with grenades and rifle fire, killing two. He was sentenced to death but his case has been on appeal since 2006. No military personnel have been executed since 1961.

In 2007 federal agents arrested six Muslims in New Jersey who planned an attack on Fort Dix, based on knowledge gained in pizza deliveries.

In June 2009 a Muslim civilian shot two soldiers at an Arkansas recruiting office, killing one.

Before anybody jumps on the anti-profiling soapbox, listen up: We should not suspect every Muslim in the U.S. armed forces. If we’re going to pursue the global war on terror, we need Muslims for their cultural knowledge and language skills. Some of them are better soldiers and better Americans than many Christians, Jews, and atheists.


The situation goes way back. In 1985, after four marines were executed in a San Salvador restaurant, a naval aviator asked some admirals why officers in nonflying billets were denied smallarms training. He considered the situation “demeaning to military professionals.” No explanation was forthcoming.

Lapse-dissolve, fast forward:

Post 9-11; after nine years of a two-front war against radical Islam; after repeated attacks within our own borders, WHEN WILL THE ARMY WAKE UP AND DO AWAY WITH PREDATOR ENHANCEMENT ZONES?

Apparently not anytime soon.

Some perspective: The Fort Hood toll exceeds the KIAs of 14 Coalition countries in Afghanistan since 2001, and it’s more than 17 of the 24 allied nations have lost in Iraq since the invasion in 2003.

That’s why it’s called the Global War on Terrorism!

Fort Hood’s commander addressed a news conference the night of the attack. Responding to a question about soldiers being armed henceforth, he said that measure was not being considered, adding, “This is our home.” The implication being that decent people do not own weapons to defend their homes. He noted that additional military and civilian police patrols would be deployed.

Here’s what the general’s policy means in flesh and blood terms:

An unarmed military policeman said, "I told him (the killer) stop and drop your weapons. I identified myself as police and he turned and fired a couple of rounds at me. I didn't hear him say a word... he just turned and fired."


A judicial officer quoted in an internet circular was present. He said, “I’ve been trained how to respond to gunfire, but with my own weapon. To have no weapon, I don’t know how to explain what that felt like.”

HE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO KNOW WHAT THAT FELT LIKE! In a self-respecting army, he wouldn’t have to.

We the People pay an enormous amount of tax dollars to maintain a professional army. Our soldiers (and marines and sailors and airmen) are not half-trained conscripts, though some cynics have noted that many are half-trained volunteers.

The problem is administrative, not tactical. By definition, the military is a control-freak institution. Consequently, officers (read: careerists) seek to control circumstances that might affect their careers, so they impose bureaucratic limits upon potential solutions. The unimaginative among them—the huge majority—default to school solutions. In the Fort Hood case, the school solution is cops: civilian contractors and MPs patrolling more than before. A spokesman said that (excepting police) anyone transporting a weapon on base must keep it unloaded and out of reach.

Apparently nobody at Hood has broken out of the school solution box: allowing soldiers to carry weapons. Says a retired NCO, “They’ll start strip searching troops arriving on base before they allow any of them to carry guns.”

The army needn’t arm everybody. Let’s face it—many of our troops have no business "packing" because they lack the training and/or the disposition for it. But many others are fully capable of carrying rifles and pistols with routine safety. After all, nearly everybody in the Israeli Army carries weapons off duty. The internet shows pictures of teenaged girls in green, hanging out at the post exchange or riding public transportation with unloaded M16s or Galils. Totally safe, ready to respond.

Obviously, if the Israelis can do it, so can we. The difference is that Israel lives 24-7 with a combat mindset. To an extent so does Switzerland. America does not, and never has.

Besides additional police patrols, the army is addressing the situation with counseling, which we hope proves helpful but certainly pegs the irony meter. After all, the “suspect” in the shooting is a psychiatrist produced by the same system that enabled the massacre in the first place!

Our suggestion to The Army of One: allow competent soldiers to carry their issue weapon on base, unloaded with a full mag available. Yes, some guns may be lost or stolen. Yes, some idiot will pop a round that might hurt or even kill somebody. So what? We lose nearly 2,000 people in DoD every year: over one-quarter through accidents and negligence. But how many firearms accidents does it take to offset 13 KIAs and 30 WIAs on one of the world’s biggest military bases? How often do we sustain 40 combat casualties in one day?

However, since service politicians may be trusted to place their perceived personal interests ahead of the troops (witness the nine-year Tailhook witch hunt), we may not trust many star-wearers to Do The Right Thing. Consequently, what’s required is a DoD directive requiring combat-trained troops to carry on base, and permitting qualified individuals in uniform off base to carry openly or concealed. Absent that, we’ll see more of the same.

In closing, consider an old military maxim: “A commander may be forgiven for being defeated. He may not be forgiven for being surprised.”

On November 5, Fort Hood and the U.S. Army were surprised. Forgiveness will depend upon the state of mind of the bereaved survivors. Meanwhile, it remains a hard sell to change the army’s policy favoring itself as a soft target.

Rant Mode to STANDBY.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


A late-great friend of mine, a dedicated warrior, observed that war is a full-contact sport. He was right, of course. Combat is graded pass-fail, and sometimes you can do everything right and still flunk the course.

However, in the 21st century, some people believe that all human endeavors should be graded on a curve—or not graded at all. It’s indicative of the declining standards and feel-good attitude that infected humans in recent decades. Outcome-based education is but one example: “educators” concluded that since lower-performing kids’ self esteem might suffer if some were designated “winners,” the solution was to give everybody a trophy or an attaboy just for showing up.

That’s bad enough. Unfortunately, now the grade-on-the-curve philosophy is being applied to courage.

Earlier this year Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of California opined that too few Medals of Honor are being awarded in the Global War on Terrorism. As of this month, since 2001 six men have received the nation’s highest award for valor in Iraq and Afghanistan: three Army, two Navy, and one Marine. All those awards were posthumous.

“We haven’t given one (Medal of Honor) to a living person yet,” Hunter says, “so does that mean not a single living soldier, sailor, airman or Marine has committed an act of valor and something so courageous that he’s earned the Medal of Honor?”

Hunter certainly is qualified to comment on the situation: he’s a Vietnam combat veteran with extensive military-affairs experience on The Hill. But as a former soldier and experienced politician, he must know that the military awards process has been broken for approximately forever.

I’m unusually familiar with the Medal of Honor: I’ve been privileged to number seven recipients among my friends and several more among my associates. In writing two books on the subject, some patterns emerged, and chief among them is that frequently people receive medals for doing their job. It started under political influence in the Civil War and continues so today. The problem is systemic: if it were ever going to be fixed, it would have been corrected decades ago. Witness Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye’s receipt of the Medal 55 years after WW II with 20 of his friends: the nation’s highest award handed out by the bucketful. (Never mind that his 442nd Regimental Combat Team already was the most-decorated outfit of the war.) Or even a century later: among Bill Clinton’s last official acts was presenting the Medal to Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson. In 1898 Teddy had led his Rough Riders up Kettle Hill in Cuba—a commander who commanded his troops, nothing more. In fact, nearly all Spanish-American War medals were awarded for lifesaving rather than direct combat.

Yes, some partisans claim that waivers for the statutory time limits are justified because of lost paperwork or perceived injustices, but it still boils down to politics. Think about it: when the President of the United States receives the Nobel Peace Prize for two weeks in office, the value of other awards become diluted by commonality and lowered standards. That situation should not apply to the Medal of Honor.

The thing about the Congressional Medal of Honor Society is that it does not get to select its members. Those eligible for membership are first approved by the U.S. Government, and the numbers are declining steadily. Currently there are fewer than 100.

Which brings us to the lack of living recipients. It’s obvious that neither the Bush nor Obama administrations would tolerate walking-talking heroes who might say something, um, impolitic. There is no smoking gun for such a policy—no signed directive saying, “There will be no more living Medal of Honor recipients.” But clearly that’s what’s at work. (In contrast, during the Vietnam debacle, the loathsome Lyndon Johnson used to tell an aide, “Trot me out a hero. I need to make a speech.” LBJ knew all about working the system: the citation for his WW II Silver Star was an outright fabrication.)

Mr. Hunter recommended that current Medal of Honor recipients serve on a panel to provide the Department of Defense recommendations for combat awards from the Silver Star upward. It’s a good idea. Though the veterans’ recommendations would be nonbinding, at least there could be a semblance of consistency in the awards process, assuming DoD pays attention.
However, a problem persists: the nature of the GWOT is different from previous wars. By far the greatest number of combat casualties is due to roadside bombs. Obviously, that situation does not lend itself to the kind of action that produces Medals of Honor. The MoH citations thus far all involve direct action against hostile fighters, not IEDs.

Rep. Hunter says, “I’ve got guys telling me stories about killing terrorists with their helmets, knifing them, getting in fistfights with them when they’re out of ammunition,” he said. “That sounds like old-time warfare to me.”

Agreed. But every war/feud/conflict involves people killing people mano-a-mano. The point is, that’s what soldiers do. Killing the enemy in and of itself is not “above and beyond the call of duty,” the operative phrase in MoH citations.

But there’s duty and there’s duty. I am slightly acquainted with a former Army sergeant who, in 2004, with other GIs he entered an Iraqi house full of goblins and covered the withdrawal of several wounded soldiers. Then he returned to pursue other enemies and, though shot in one shoulder, he emerged after killing five jihadists, the last by using a personal knife. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor but received a Silver Star—apparently because he survived. Certainly The Big One has been awarded for far, far less. (In the 1930s an aged general received the MoH for “a life of splendid public service.”)

So let’s not further dilute the Medal of Honor by awarding it on some sort of quota system. Instead, let’s recognize the unusual nature of the current “conflicts” and retain the standards intended for America’s most cherished decoration—whether the recipients are living or dead.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Why Do We Fly?


Why do we fly? More particularly, why do we enjoy it so immensely? What is it about being off the ground that so completely absorbs so many men and women?

I asked a sampling of my aviation friends why they fly.

First, some ground rules. As much as some of us revel in The Glory of Flight, it isn’t about scenery. Anybody with an airline ticket can look out the window and marvel at God’s wondrous vista: sun-drenched clouds sprayed orange-yellow or brilliant white against cerulean blue; an aerial palette to etch in the retina of one’s memory forever.

That’s not flying, it’s sight seeing.

Now, I grew up flying behind round engines that flung oil on my goggles. I would not trade that experience for anything. But is sitting in an open cockpit, subjected to the elements in all four seasons, really the essence of flying?

For some the answer is not only Yes but Hell Yes. For others, a canopy and a heated cockpit are part of the Experience of Flight.

For purists, Pure Flight means gliders. No artificial propulsion; just God’s wind over manmade wings; you can hear and feel the airframe working, talking to you. Sailplanes truly are craft of the air.

Then there’s helicopters, which are a whole ‘nuther subject entirely. I like helos; I really do. While I’ve only played with three types (Huey, H-3 and H-52), they were just plain fun. Even with a stability augmentation system as in the ’52, a chopper is a lively, active mount not entirely unlike a horse. Here’s a comment from a long-time friend who earned a poor but honest living pulling jet pilots out of Haiphong Harbor: “A hover takeoff might not quicken the pulse like a burner go, and certainly we're not as speedy, but the thrill is there on an overwater hover or a destroyer flight-deck landing. Same boys, different toys.”

As in any endeavor involving humans, there’s a strong element of competition. One of the most accomplished airmen I’ve ever known has ratings for almost everything but multi-engine jet seaplanes, and he says, “My passion for flying is a combination of the freedom I feel in flight and my love to compete. In the Navy it was to be the best carrier pilot I could be. To win the best landing grades for an entire combat deployment was a high point for me. I want to compete with others to win every dogfight, to have the best bombing scores, to be the only one to get aboard on a pitching deck when the rest of the recovery bingos to the beach, to lead a strike against a difficult target, to challenge myself to keep the needles centered on an ILS to minimums.”

Some airmen seek perfection in three dimensions. This comes from a former military, commercial, and current private pilot: “Flying is fun and satisfying because there are perfect ways to do every part of it. I seriously doubt if anyone has ever flown an absolutely perfect flight, but if you are worth a damn, you are always trying. When you get something absolutely right, it is righteous. Throw in the accompanying elements of danger and competition, and the results can be wildly exhilarating. I am sure that a bullfighter might make the same claims on his profession, except when he is finished, he is left with 2,000 pounds of pot roast. And I doubt that any Grand Prix racer ever felt about his mount as this aviator does. Airplanes have souls, and they lend their ‘drivers’ a certain ethereal class lacking in more vulgar brawls. A wrecked airplane is always a tragedy in ways that a wadded-up dragster is not.”

A highly-experienced commercial pilot says, “To me, going somewhere, anywhere, represents adventure and romance. Flying yourself there increases this by an order magnitude. To do a first-rate job of flight planning, followed by a first-rate nav job, is what makes flying. Given a few hours of instruction, even a chimp can drive an aeroplane through the air (I know someone who has done it). But planning the trip and doing the nav is what brings the satisfaction to me. I will admit to smiling at making a good landing, or a smooth ILS approach, but you have to have done the other stuff right to get to that point."

A former Air Force colonel says, “There is nothing more satisfying than making a good landing under tough conditions. When I was a C-47 IP at Wright-Pat, I had a temporary copilot, indignant that he had to fly in a Gooney Bird. We came back from Boston in rotten weather, lots of ice with snow piled on both sides of the runway several feet high. It was minimums, and I flew a GCA and broke out in blowing snow and a cross wind, and then touched down so softly that you couldn’t feel it--one of those landings where the oleos take time to compress. When we had shut down, the copilot looked over and said, ‘Clutch player,’ and got up and left. It made my day.”

There’s more than just flying. A highly-experienced performer and instructor explains, “There are many nuances to the enjoyment of flying, from experiencing the sunrise at altitude to the type of people you get to associate with, to subtle pleasures such as the smell of high octane fuel or the fumes from a jet engine, but I believe that the essence of the appeal of flying is its element of danger. It is not fashionable to believe that flying is dangerous, and statistically it may not be, but the fact is that leaving the ground at relatively high speeds is ipso facto dangerous. To buttress my argument, look at the popularity of air racing and aerobatics, where the danger level is higher. So in short: aesthetics plus danger.”

To me, there is no single reason for flying--it’s a smorgasbord of attractions. It’s the art of flying, controlling a machine in three dimensions rather than two, perhaps best exemplified by the rarity of a perfect three-point landing. But it’s also navigation: predicting with precision the point in place and time when that machine would arrive where I intended it to. And perhaps most of all, it’s the shared experience with like-minded men and women. A parachutist once said that he didn’t especially relish sky-diving “But I like to be around people who like to jump.” Certainly that applies to those who fly airplanes.

Yet for all the introspection and thought, one response stands out. It comes from a long-longtime friend, a former Air Force officer who loved P-38s, made ace in a Mustang, moved on to “One Oh Deuces” and spent a couple thousand happy hours flying C-47s really low, doing things he still cannot talk about. He spoke for legions of aviators when he said he loves flying “Because I do it better than most people.”

I cannot add anything to that sentiment, and would not presume to try.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why Do We Shoot?


I like to shoot. More specifically, I enjoy hitting a target, but surprisingly few marksmen ever ask: why?

The question first occurred to me while testing a new rifle from a field position. I had just hit a 12-inch plate three for three at 880 yards. At that moment my father drove up, and apparently I still had the silly grin on my face because he asked, “What’re you smiling about?” His own smile belied the practiced grumpiness in his voice.

With ill-disguised false modesty, I related my triumph in the blandest terms possible: something about proving the new 168-grain handloads. Warning me not to wear out the barrel, Dad drove off, leaving me to savor the moment.

As I packed the Robar custom rifle in its case, I realized that I felt an odd ambivalence. Certainly I was happy with the gun, with my handloads, and with my performance. But I couldn’t help wondering: why I felt so good. It was something more than simply hitting a relatively small target at half a mile. Part of the reason obviously was the immediate feedback: I knew instantly whether I’d been successful. But what was it about ringing the gong three times in a row that felt so rewarding?

Unable to answer the question, I began trying to dissect my marksman’s emotions. The deeper I delved into the subject, the more complex it became. Clearly I needed help—a larger sampling.

In 1997 I began taking an informal poll, asking dozens of marksmen from various disciplines why they liked to shoot. What is it about hitting a mark with some type of projectile that is so appealing? After the first few responses I realized that some restrictions were necessary if the survey were to hold any value. I began narrowing the focus, eliminating generic responses such as “It’s fun” or “I like the challenge.”

At that point we began getting nowhere fast. When shooters were asked to be more specific, the inevitable response was a prolonged silence preceding, “I’ll have to get back to you.”

One important factor emerged early: concentration. As one national champion said, “When I’m shooting I can’t think about anything else. I have to focus on what I’m doing, and that’s relaxing for me.” Any serious marksman agrees: mortgages, appointments, and politics simply vanish for the duration of the shot or series of shots. Shooting is, therefore, relaxing.

“But,” exclaim the antgunners, “so is golf or tennis or tiddlywinks.” Which may be true, as shooting holds some of the attraction found in other accuracy games, but there’s a sensory difference: “Like golf except louder,” according to a Florida pistol competitor. An Arizona attorney agrees: “The stronger the stimulus the stronger the response.” Another Arizonan flatly explains, “I like recoil.”

Others cited less tangible reasons, such as the California instructor who eloquently replied, “I enjoy the rich history that goes with skill at arms, as well as appreciating the engineering genius that gave birth to these artifacts. My involvement in shooting makes me feel part of the continuum of history and gives me a greater appreciation of the deeds of historical figures.”

However, two key factors emerged from the poll: distance and control.

Shooting has to do with action at a distance: “You do something here, something happens over there,” says a civilian marksman. A military professional agrees: “Man is a control freak. Not only does he wants to be in control of himself, but also over everything he can manage…even at extended ranges.”

Control—especially self control—is a recurring theme. A Marine sergeant explained, “I think it has to do with man overcoming and controlling the forces or laws of nature. Taking that a step deeper, I’m sure some would say that it all boils down to control.”

Almost as important as common denominators such as control were the omissions. Several respondents listed more than one factor but nobody cited hunting as a major reason for enjoying shooting. While many shooters are hunters, not all hunters are recreational marksmen. Even conceding that filling the stew pot is rewarding for many people, it has little to do with the specific attraction of shooting well. The Spanish philosopher Jose’ Ortega y Gassett wrote in Meditations on Hunting: “One does not hunt in order to kill; one kills in order to have hunted.” Clearly the same applies to our survey: thousands of accomplished shooters have never used a firearm to kill anything.

Similarly, the few references to power seemed to belie the old claim that firearms represent a surrogate for sex. Presumably the subject had been put to bed (so to speak) over seven decades earlier when Sigmund Freud wrote in General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, “A fear of weapons is a sign of retarded sexual and emotional maturity.” Apparently Dr. Freud, who almost certainly was not a shooter, understood what marksmen know empirically: shooting is a mental exercise. The payoff occurs above the neck, not below the belt.

So: how do we summarize the survey? Clearly there are a variety of reasons for shooting, and many (perhaps most) are separate from the practical applications of self preservation. Very few marksmen directly addressed the initial question: what is the attraction of striking a mark at a distance?

To a large extent, the question answers itself. Shooting by definition involves conquering distance. (Remember: “You do something here; something happens over there.”)

However, nobody conquers distance with accuracy unless he conquers himself; that is why marksmen invariably are “control freaks.” They possess the motivation and the discipline to control their equipment, their bodies, and—most of all—their minds. Fully 40 percent of my respondents cited control of self or their environment as a primary reward for shooting.

In the end, perhaps the answer can only be found within ourselves. Each marksman has a personal reason for his pursuit, and each finds satisfaction and accomplishment within the parameters he (or she) sets for himself. In the end, that is enough.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Nuke Season


What does baseball have to do with atom bombs?

A whimsical baseball movie was the 1949 Ray Milland offering, It Happens Every Spring. It’s an enjoyable tale about a college professor who invents a formula that repels wood, making it impossible for a batter to hit a ball coated with the stuff. The title refers to the annual onset of spring training.

That’s a lot like The Nuke Season. It happens every August with the anniversaries of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since we’re now into this year’s Nuke Season, I’ll address the matter.

(Caution: if facts do not matter to you, skip this Rant. Some people prefer emotion to facts.)

Inevitably The Nuke Season features the following:

The bombs were unnecessary since Japan was about to surrender.
Truman only wanted to impress the Soviets.
Racist America used nukes against Asians but not against Germans.
A demonstration should have been made before destroying a city.
Blockade was preferable to bombing.

None of the foregoing assertions bear examination, to wit:

As British historian Max Hastings noted in Retribution (2008), "The myth that the Japanese were ready to surrender anyway has been so completely discredited by modern research that it is astonishing some writers continue to give it credence.” In researching Whirlwind, my upcoming volume on air operations over Japan, I found a wealth of Japanese testimony supporting Hastings’ conclusion. In 1943 Prime Minister Tojo admitted there was no viable plan to win the war, but hostilities continued. Admiral Onishi, the kamikaze master, asserted in March 1945 that the war had just begun. And a general staff officer told POWs that the war would last at least until 1948.

Furthermore, the war cabinet’s actions give 0.00 credence to the notion that Japan was about to surrender. Tokyo rebuffed the allies’ Potsdam declaration calling for capitulation, and then sought intervention by the Soviets, who already planned to invade the Kurile Islands! There is no documentation that any of the eight men ruling Japan (including the emperor) stated before Hiroshima that they would have surrendered under any circumstances—not even when some were on trial for their lives. None stated that Soviet entry--plus some guarantee of the imperial system--would have moved them individually, must less triggered the necessary set of actions within the cabinet, that would have ended the war before the nukes were released. Two weeks before Hiroshima, Tokyo’s ambassador to Moscow said the best possible outcome was capitulation, perhaps with some guarantee of the emperor’s status—a situation rejected by the foreign minister and known by U.S. intelligence at the time.

So: if Tokyo was “about to surrender anyway” why did Hirohito have to over-ride his warlords?

Harry Truman’s presumed intention to cow the Soviets with the nukes is another unsupportable contention. As commander in chief his first obligation was to the American forces facing a horrific invasion. Forcing Japan to surrender soonest was Job One, and any geopolitical fallout (!) was a tertiary concern if it was ever discussed at all.

I encountered the “racism” mantra in college, and it still arises from the moldy PC pond. No less an authority than Malcolm X (!) stated that America would not use nukes against whites—a bald lie when the entire Manhattan Project was spurred by the German nuclear program. Colonel Paul Tibbets’ 509th Composite Group originally was instructed to conduct a dual strike: Germany and Japan. But “the weapon” was not available until July 1945, over two months after Germany surrendered. (When I noted that fact, the tweedy prof merely scrawled, “Are you sure?” and gave me a B+.)

Dropping a demonstration bomb was considered but rejected on at least two counts: it might be a dud, which would only reinforce Tokyo’s resolve; and there existed material for only two weapons at the time. Besides, there were in fact two demonstrations before Japan surrendered: at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That leaves blockade which, short of invasion, was the only option other than declaring peace and going home. But as my colleague Rich Frank has observed, blockade would have killed more people than the two A-bombs. Precious time would have passed, with at least hundreds of thousands of Japanese starving to death, plus perhaps millions more dead in Asia. As it was, perhaps 100,000 died there every month from famine, disease, and Japanese brutality. I have yet to see any critic even mention that fact. And it does not count the American KIAs sustaining a blockade—a cost that nuke critics seem willing to ignore.

So, here’s the deal:

You are Harry Truman in early August 1945. You have responsibility for ending a war that has killed nearly 400,000 Americans, with many thousands more to die in an invasion. Your military is divided on the subject: the Army under the megalomaniacal General Douglas MacArthur favors invasion while the Navy, which understands the human cost, opposes it. You know from intelligence sources that Tokyo is nowhere near capitulation. The daily cost of hostilities runs in the thousands

You face an enemy unlike any in American history. You have seen the films of mothers throwing their infants off Saipan’s cliffs and jumping after them. You know that Tokyo is impervious to civilian suffering: after Curt LeMay’s B-29s burned down one-seventh of the city and killed at least 85,000 people one night in March, the war cabinet never flinched. You know that the government has closed schools and conscripted most of the civilian population into “volunteer” resistance units.

Now your scientists present you with the supreme weapon with the potential for convincing the samurai zealots in Tokyo to “bear the unbearable.” If you decline that option and the invasion proceeds, eventually the parents of tens of thousands of GIs, Marines, and sailors will demand to know why you sent their sons to their deaths. You may or may not be lynched, but you definitely will be impeached.

What do you do?

It’s the lingering question whenever The Nuke Season rolls around.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Tillman's Rules of Writing


I’ve given it a lot of thought over the years (well, OK, decades) and I believe there are only three factors in writing. In order of importance they are Clarity, Brevity, and Style.

Obviously, Clarity is Job One because writing’s purpose is to communicate. But as others have lamented, the language of King James, Shakespeare, Hemingway and Churchill (not to mention PJ O’Rourke) has fallen upon hard times. For reasons that no human can explain, corporate English has mutated into an arcane, convoluted, downright ugly entity. I’ve sat through a military briefing in which a board of admirals talked to one another in their Beltway argot, actually using inane phrases such as “event-driven human value chain.” I have absolutely no idea what an event-driven human value chain might be. Obviously neither did the speakers.

But the problem is far more widespread than merely in corporate environs. Consider the following passage from a best-selling 1980s novel. (Character’s names have been changed to protect the offender.) “Bob asked George if he thought he was getting fat.”

Go ahead: tell us who asked what of whom. But that’s not merely the fault of the author; it betrays an indifferent publisher. The editor could have retrieved the passage thusly: “Bob asked George if George thought Bob was getting fat.” That’s awkward but crystal clear. “Bob asked George if Bob was getting fat” is less confusing but still wordy.

How about: “Bob mosied up to George and asked, ‘Hey dude, am I getting fat?’”

Brevity is Job Two, and it often suffers as well. If you can say it in eight words instead of eleven, why not? Consider the order that launched Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of Nazi-Occupied Europe. The entire document, issued by the Combined Chiefs of Staff in February 1944, comprised 578 words. In eight paragraphs it designated General Dwight Eisenhower supreme allied commander in Europe, and in 68 words assigned his specific task:

“You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces. The date for entering the Continent is the month of May, 1944. After adequate Channel ports have been secured, exploitation will be directed towards securing an area that will facilitate both ground and air operations against the enemy.”

You can hardly say it more efficiently.

As we’ve learned to our cost (fiscal and otherwise), brevity has been exiled from the U.S. Government. In the 1980s the Department of Defense fought and lost the Paperwork Reduction War, and today it’s even worse. At present the proposed health care bill runs 1,017 pages—another of those massive documents that nobody bothers to read before approving.

Style is important, but IMO it’s not as important as Clarity or Brevity. If I see a common problem with new writers, it’s the tendency to concentrate on how they phrase their message rather than how well they communicate it. Most scribes want to be considered stylish, “irregardless” of how they accomplished Job One and Job Two.

Then there’s punctuation. My sympathy goes to the possessive apostrophe, because it’s so widely flogged and abused. For reasons that nobody can explain, it is inserted before the letter S where totally unnecessary. The following was noted years ago in an Arizona trailer park: “Tonight’s movie: My Hero’s Have Alway’s Been Cowboy’s.”

You can’t make up stuff like that. But Birmingham, England, has decided to rid apostrophe’s (!) from its lexicon entirely. According to the BBC, the formerly “St. Paul’s Square” now is “St Pauls Square”—evidently periods were banned as well.
Calculated nitwittery: it’s here to stay.

For all the abuse heaped upon The Mother Tongue, it retains its luster (“lustre” in Birmingham). The following observation comes from a longtime colleague who made a poor but honest (and extraordinarily colorful) living in the U.S. State Department. I had made passing mention to English as the lingua franca of technology (try saying “carubetor” in Hindustani), prompting Bart to declare:

“Actually, there's more to the adoption of English as a ‘lingua franca’ than technology. (By the way, did you notice that we use ‘lingua franca’ as meaning a world-wide understandable language? Of course, French use to be the diplomatic language and lingua franca means literally "language of the Franks [French]". But no more). Many languages--French being the principal exception-- simply incorporate English technical words into their own vocabulary. Russian, Mongolian, Japanese, and most Romance languages are replete with such terms.

“But that doesn't explain why English is now the common shared language for science, business, diplomacy, tourism, etc. The real reason is that English is practically unique in one very important respect. Even though English has more words than any other language (more than 400,000 and growing by thousands of words a day), it is the ONLY language that will permit someone to make themselves understood if they can master 500 simple words and only three or four basic grammar rules. No other spoken language comes close. That's why English is the most taught foreign language world-wide. It's the mandatory second language in Russia, China, Japan, and most of South America.”Those of us whose native language is English are truly fortunate.”

Incidentally, Bart’s first foray into international discourse occurred while strapped into the rear seat of an F-4J Phantom, seeking local indigenous personnel on his radar scope, the better to launch an AIM-7 Sparrow. He didn’t need a degree in English to accomplish that mission, but it surely helped..

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Favorite Books I Have Written

When I’m asked what’s my favorite among the 45+ books I’ve written, often I toss off a response “Whatever one I’m writing.” But the fact is that authors write for one of two reasons (or both): enjoyment and money. I’d have to say that I enjoy making money!

Here’s some thoughts on a few of my favorites.

Sentimental favorite: the first, of course. The Dauntless Dive Bomber of WW II (Naval Institute Press 1976.) It began when Dad and I were restoring then the world’s only airworthy SBD, and the book is still in print 33 years later.

Commercial favorite: my first novel, Warriors, (Bantam 1990) coauthored with my late-great friend, Cdr. John Nichols. Saddam Hussein became our chief publicist when he invaded Kuwait a few months later, and ours happened to be one of only two Mideast thrillers on the market at the time. It sold extremely well until Bush 41 called off the war.

Most influential book: a tossup between On Yankee Station (Naval Institute 1987), again with “Pirate” Nichols, and What We Need (Zenith 2007). OYS was adopted for the Air Force and Marine Corps reading lists (the Navy thought it was too critical) and WWN still generates discussion about our military priorities.

My best writing: “Flame on Tarawa,” in Steve Coonts’ Victory anthology (Forge, 2003).

Easiest long book to write: Dauntless: The Novel (Bantam 1992). I’d spent 20 years researching the Pacific War for other books and wrote 90,000 words in about four months. Of course, it helped that I had flight time in the airplane.

Hardest to write: Wildcats to Tomcats (Phalanx, 1995). Working with Wally Schirra, Zeke Cormier, and Phil Wood was downright fun. But they were fighter pilots—rugged individualists--and I think it took about eight years.

Closest to a definitive history: Clash of the Carriers (NAL 2005). The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot was the subject of only 3 or 4 previous books in 60 years, and the sources I used could not be duplicated today. That’s why I’m glad I wrote Clash when I did, while enough veterans were still living.

Shortest definitive treatment of any subject: TBD Devastator Units of the US Navy (Osprey, 2000). The much-maligned Douglas torpedo plane was a better machine than conventional wisdom allows, but its combat career was so brief that I had a hard time meeting the 35,000 word requirement.

Most overlooked: The Sixth Battle (Bantam, 1992), a techno-thriller postulating a clash with the post-Soviet navy in the Indian Ocean. I wrote it with my brother, who did most of the research. Wargamers absolutely love it but the novel received little promotion.

Some books that are so good I wish I’d written them:

Billy Gashade by Loren Estleman
Guadalcanal by Richard B. Frank
Taking Flight by Dick Hallion
Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by Jim Hornfischer
The First Team series by John Lundstrom