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..