Monday, December 27, 2010


The 17th of this month was the 107th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first powered flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Wright Brothers Day (official since 1963) is separate from National Aviation Day, established in 1939 on Orville Wright’s 68th birthday. Both events are variously ignored or the subject of pro-forma proclamations from the duty politician occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (Incidentally, August 19 also is National Potato Day. Honest.)

National days of observance proliferate like weeds after a rain shower. Frankly, many of them alternate between absurd and irrelevant, usually the result of some pol seeking favor with a particular constituency or special interest group. During the Reagan administration a search for The National Dance included such esoteric candidates as the hula and the polka.

Now, I hasten to note that I have absolutely nothing against the polka. In fact, the stout Wagnerian wife of a Luftwaffe fighter ace swept the hangar floor with me (and other pilots) at Abbotsford, B.C. one evening to the accompaniment of accordions and other Lawrence Welk instrumentation. But while they may polka frequently in Milwaukee, did you ever dance the hula in the contiguous 48? Me neither.

Finally in 1982 The Gipper declared the square dance as The National Folk Dance, which at least has some claim to being uniquely American. (Besides, in the 6th or 7th grade, it was about the only way boys could hold hands with girls, however briefly, without garnering sneers or suspicion.) However, Ronnie’s effort was only for a two-year period, and a couple more states still need to sign on before it becomes official. (Wisconsin and Hawaii remain notably absent from the process.)

So what does The National Folk Dance have to do with the Wrights? Glad you asked. You see, we are burdened with Vice President Joe Biden. (Stay with me—this is headed somewhere, honest.)

In October, bloviating at a Democrat Party fund raiser, Biden declared, “Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, 20th century, and 19th century has required government vision and incentive.”

Forget the airplane for a moment. Let’s consider independence from Britain, the assembly line, the light bulb, the automobile, the telephone, television, machineguns, banana splits, Cherry Coke, personal computers, and…oh hell. You get the idea. There’s a bunch of excellent reasons he’s called “Slow Joe.”

For a more reasoned/reasonable assessment, consider this statement from 2000: "The Wright Brothers created the single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing. The airplane became the first World Wide Web, bringing people, languages, ideas, and values together."

That statement came from Bill Gates who—contrary to what Slow Joe may believe—had far more to do with inventing the internet than Algore. Or for that matter, more than about 60 percent of Delaware voters can absorb.

But I digress.

Please consider the accomplishment of the Wrights, two self employed bicycle mechanics who, lacking a high school diploma between them, solved the riddle of the ages: human flight. And they did it in about four years.

Neither of Bishop Wright’s boys were dullards. Wilbur, in fact, planned to attend Yale before a hockey accident derailed his plans for higher education. But considering how things turned out, undoubtedly that puck in the face was a Good Thing.

In those early 20th century days, somehow the Republic struggled along with six cabinet posts (State, Treasury, Justice, Agriculture, Interior, and newly established Commerce) plus the Army and Navy departments. Notably absent were Labor, H&HS, HUD, Transportation (!), Energy, Education, Veterans and Homeland Security. It goes without saying that more than a century ago the Wrights and, for that matter, Henry Ford, got along just fine without federal watchdogs at Transportation or Education. But I’ll say it anyway. Orville and Wilbur, considerably predating outcome-based education, could read, write, and cipher without federal guidelines, and undoubtedly most of their classmates could immediately identify the USA on a world map. Reportedly two-thirds of the current crop cannot.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Wrights’ achievement was not merely producing a workable flying machine, but the way they went about it. They started with the advantages of intense curiosity and native intelligence, sufficient not only to question the conventional scientific wisdom of their time, but to find it wanting. That was an enormous intellectual achievement, for it forced them to confront their idol—the late-great Otto Lilienthal—and their mentors, engineer Octave Chanute and Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley of the Smithsonian Institution.

From there, the Wrights began a patient, methodical approach that involved invention and innovation. Lacking a wind tunnel, they built one. Lacking sample airfoils, they made and tested 200. Lacking a lightweight engine for their aeroplane, they had one built to their specs. Furthermore, they were the first to recognize that a propeller also is an airfoil, and their design was nearly 90 percent as efficient as props on current lightplanes.

Note to Slow Joe Biden: Orville and Wilbur invested entirely their own funds—around $20,000 ($450,000 today)—and succeeded where Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley of the Smithsonian Institution failed spectacularly after 16 years of effort. Moreover, Langley received $63,000 in U.S. Government funds ($1.65 million today)—about 85 percent of his total support.

In fairness, the brothers did derive some benefit from their tax money. They received important data from the Weather Bureau, and the hardies at the lifeguard station also proved helpful.

The Wrights are not faultless. Their bitter patent disputes, notably with Glenn Curtiss, retarded aviation progress until the First World War. In that period America’s gigantic lead in aviation diminished and soon disappeared with Europe dominant after 1908.

Wilbur, four years junior to Orville, died in 1912 at age 45. Orville passed away in 1948, age 76. Now, considering what they represent—the American genius for innovation and their effect upon shrinking the world—isn’t it time they get more recognition than a single day that’s often ignored? Surely air travel is worth more than National Potato Day—and a damnsight more than Slow Joe Biden can appreciate.

Friday, November 19, 2010


(Excerpted from my speech delivered to the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force in Mesa earlier this month.)

This month is Veterans Day, honoring all our military personnel, past and present. Currently some 24 million living Americans have worn the nation’s uniform. But only one of those surviving served in WW I, known at the time as The Great War.

Did you know that WW I officially ended last month? The current German government made the final $94 million payment required under the Versailles Treaty, 91 years and another world war (and a half-century cold war) after 1919. The Nazi government had renounced the treaty in 1933, and payments didn’t resume until after WW II.

A bit of background on the holiday.

On the first anniversary of the Great War armistice President Woodrow Wilson (of whom more later) issued a proclamation observing the occasion. Congress made Armistice Day a national holiday in 1938, and it became Veterans Day in 1954.

About 4.7 million Americans served in the Great War, of whom roughly one quarter went to Europe. Some 116,500 Yanks died in the war, including 53,500 killed in action while 3,350 were listed missing. Another 204,000 were wounded. It was the first war in which enemy action caused more casualties than disease. Only 20 years before, 385 Americans were KIA fighting Spain while more than 2,000 died of other causes.

Several hundred WWI servicemen still remain MIA, but a handful are found occasionally. Last year some French researchers turned up the remains of an American who was identified by the marksmanship badge on his uniform. He was a Marine NCO, 29 year old 1st Sergeant George Humphrey, killed in September 1918. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery this summer.

For so important an event, the Great War has received precious little attention. There has never been a national memorial to Americans who served and died in WW I, and obviously there never will be. In 1931 the District of Columbia erected a handsome memorial to those residents who died in the war, but it’s fallen into disrepair. There’s a fine museum in Missouri which receives little public notice.

Not many people today ever knew WW I combat veterans. We were fortunate to know some Great War airmen when the Champlin Fighter Museum existed from 1981 to 2003. Three of our favorites were aces but completely different kinds of people. Two of them were really sweet old gentlemen. Bob Todd had been shot down and captured flying a Camel with the 148th Aero Squadron while Ray Brooks of the 22nd made ace in a SPAD. On the other hand, Ken Porter of the 147th was a crusty old balloon buster who served in the same pursuit group as Frank Luke. Ken once was asked about the knights of the air nonsense, and I’ll always remember his reply. “Son, if you ever found yourself in a fair fight, it meant you fouled up.” Only he didn’t say “fouled.”

I knew of a couple of Great War aces who didn’t get along. We liked to think that it involved a dispute over cards or mademoiselles but we never learned why. Apparently it was a postwar feud because they flew in different organizations in different areas.

A local WW I pilot was Gordon Collinson of Scottsdale, who flew SE-5s in No. 41 Squadron RAF. I once asked him about early dive bombing and he said that his squadron dived diagonally across a road or bridge because that increased chances of a hit. Any Thud pilots in the audience? That’s exactly the way it was done in North Vietnam, unless LBJ’s rules of engagement required our guys to get shot at more effectively by the enemy.

Everybody knows about Frank Luke—or thinks they do. The definitive account of his brief career and famous last mission was published in 2008 by a colleague of mine, Stephen Skinner. The Stand is an intriguing story, especially once the political background is understood. Luke was of course a maverick, but he was by far the most successful balloon burner in the U.S. air service. Because it was essential to destroy the German balloon line for the St. Mihiel offensive in September 1918, he was given wide latitude by his group commander, a fact resented by his strict squadron CO. It’s said that had Frank returned from his last flight he would have been court martialed but more likely he would’ve been transferred from the 27th to the 94th Aero Squadron where CO Eddie Rickenbacker was more supportive.

Actually, there was another Arizona ace, SPAD pilot Ralph O’Neill from Nogales. He died in 1980.

In 1918 the U.S. population had just topped 100 million. Arizona, 48th and last of the continental states, had about 300,000 people. Arizona figured in America’s eventual entry into the war, however remotely. In 1917 the German foreign minister wrote the Mexican government suggesting an alliance: an invasion of the U.S. southwest with a settlement involving return of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to Mexico proper. It was an absurd idea: Mexico remained in a state of chaos after the revolution.

Today, the conventional wisdom holds that Germany started the war. But the record shows room for latitude. The event was precipitated when a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated the archduke of Austria-Hungary in July 1914. The Serbs made all manner of conciliatory offers but Vienna was determined to have war and refused to settle. Russia began mobilizing in support of the Serbs, which brought in Germany as an Austrian ally. Look at the telegrams between the Kaiser and the Czar—they were both Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, and the Czar and King George of Britain looked more like twin brothers than cousins. The exchange went, “Dear Nicky” and “Dear Willie.” Had Russia stood down, Germany would lack reason to go to war, but could not permit Russia’s huge manpower to mobilize first. Consequently, Britain and France jumped in and the rest, as they say, is history.

Eighty years later a coauthor of mine, noting events in Bosnia, said, “How can you expect peace in an area where they built a monument to the guy who started the First World War?”

It was an entirely unnecessary war that killed perhaps 16 million people, and aggravated the influenza pandemic in 1918-19. Wilson had been re-elected in 1916 on the basis “He kept us out of the war” but then committed America to the conflict the next year at least partly because of heavy U.S. investments in France and Britain. Winston Churchill later said that absent America’s entry, there likely would have been a cease fire in 1917 because the French army mutinied and the Brits couldn’t maintain an offensive by themselves. Therefore, America’s entry probably cost many more lives than would have been lost after the middle of 1917.

Whatever the geopolitics, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the origin of Veterans Day, and urge you to remember the doughboys, airmen and sailors who served during “the war to end all wars.”

Friday, October 29, 2010


I’ve written about 550 articles for more than 60 publications worldwide, but one magazine stands out. Let me tell you about it.

One morning in 1984 firearms guru Jeff Cooper called, suggesting that I talk to Bob Brown of Soldier of Fortune about the Bren Ten pistol that Jeff was promoting. Since I had contributed to SOF and participated in its shooting matches, I ventured that I’d like to hear more.

Next thing I knew, that Yosemite Sam voice was in my ear. “Tillman? Brown. I guess you heard from Cooper. Are you interested?”

The details were, um, intriguing. I would go to El Salvador with an SOF team to initiate the Bren Ten to combat, then return (!) to write an article about it. As Bob later admitted, "Cooper and I had three criteria: we needed a good enough shooter, we needed a good enough writer--and we needed somebody dumb enough to do it. So we said, LET'S CALL TILLMAN!"

Much as I appreciated Jeff and Bob’s confidence (I was less certain of their rationale!), it never happened. The Bren was plagued with 10mm ammo and magazine problems which were only solved after the El Sal option lapsed.

Nonetheless, that nascent episode represented Soldier of Fortune in microcosm: a hands-on approach to innovative, front-line journalism.

SOF popped its first literary cap in July 1975 with a format that set the trend for the next three decades. Robert K. Brown is a former Special Forces captain and Vietnam vet with a master’s in political science and jump wings from half a dozen nations. He’s also a natural entrepreneur who saw a niche and moved to fill the void.

The magazine began on little more than a shoestring and a hunch. Living in Boulder, Brown perceived an unfilled market and presold 4,000 subscriptions which paid for the printing of the first issue. Billed as “The Journal of Professional Adventurers,” SOF caught on almost immediately.

SOF recruited a network of free lance correspondents who provided on-the-ground coverage of conflicts from Rhodesia to El Salvador to Afghanistan to Burma and many intermediate stops. Consequently, military intelligence operatives began subscribing (or taking home copies in plain brown wrappers) because Bob’s boys in the bush covered events that the mainstream media overlooked.

Bob Brown believes in participatory journalism—the kind that Geraldo can only dream about. SOF provided the U.S. Government with its first AK-74, obtained in Afghanistan, and fetched home with 5,000 rounds of 5.45mm ammo to boot.

A few SOFers like to portray themselves as knuckle-dragging mercs, but that’s for show. Some are deceptively accomplished: one owns a law degree from Harvard; another used more C4 explosive than anyone outside the U.S. government. The byword is professionalism. For instance, a 1983 report describing the work of a 12-man SOF team in El Salvador covers 47 pages including weapons maintenance, ambush doctrine, and field medicine. But one of the salient recommendations was geopolitical: “It is suggested that the Government of El Salvador would gain more support in North America if more publicity were given to the fact that in a nation of 5 million people, one province has had 90,000 individuals who have fled communist areas. Aid given to these and other displaced persons by the government should also be publicized.”

The ultimate authority on RKB is, of course, RKB himself. He never expressed it better than in a 1986 editiorial: “For the last decade, I’ve been humping a rifle and a camera around the world’s combat zones. I’ve hunted terrorists with the Rhodesian African Rifles and fired up a Russian fort in Afghanistan with the mujahadeen. I’ve searched for POWs in Southeast Asia and survived a Sandinista rocket barrage alongside Nicaraguan contras. Between firefights, takeovers and insurgencies, I manage to put out a magazine.’

With a wealth of military experience, SOF staffers essentially became the bow wave of today’s “private military contractors” but frequently worked for expenses--or less. Often as not, Bob’s teams were up front, alongside the host-country nationals, rifles in Condition One and grenade pins straightened. Training “local indigenous personnel” was a big part of what Brown did in Special Forces, and he pursued that goal with relentless determination.

Some SOF correspondents appeared fearless, and some paid the ultimate price. In the first 25 years, four who braved the most dangerous missions died in the line of duty, whether as free-lance journalists or free-lance mercs: George Bacon, III, in Angola; Michael Echanis in Nicaragua; Lance Motley in Thailand; and Colonel Robert MacKenzie in Sierra Leone.

Certainly the magazine has drawn its share of controversy. It has consistently outraged the left by publishing Rhodesian Army recruiting posters, to offering a $25,000 in gold to a defector from Cuban intelligence, to a $1,000,000 reward for the defection of a Nicaraguan MI-24. All the while training the Contras and Salvadorian Army.

In the 1980s SOF was sued for running ads from individuals linked to criminal activities. Most of the suits were dismissed and one was settled out of court, leading to a suspension of work-for-hire advertising.

Behind the front-line reportage and splashy news coverage, SOF did something more: it supported Vietnam veterans as no other publications ever have. That may seem natural since Brown and so many staffers are former Nam vets, but the thread is deeply woven into the magazine’s fabric. The 25th anniversary issue said in part, “Overnight, SOF offered Vietnam vets the recognition they deserved, a home in a sense, a meeting place for like souls. Like a banner, it acknowledged their sacrifices and continues to do so, loudly and loyally.”

The sense of camaraderie was evident in the first SOF convention I attended in the 1980s. Seated beside me was a former Green Beret officer who confided, “Being with these guys is the best I’ve felt about myself since Vietnam.”

In 1985 the magazine’s 10th anniversary drew congratulatory messages from a wide spectrum: Fleet Marine Force Atlantic, the USAF media office, Vietnam Veterans Coalition, U.S. senators, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others.

Now, 25 years later, SOF and RKB are still going strong, headed for a fourth decade of reporting from the world’s hot spots, with a style and all its own. Bob Brown sums up his philosophy with the motto: “Slay dragons, do noble deeds and never, never, never, give up.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Question: Does freedom of expression include a “right” to lie?

Answer: Yes, it does.

In 2007 Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act, making it unlawful to falsely state he has been awarded a military decoration. The law was enacted after decades of phony “war heroes” claim to hold everything up to and including the Medal of Honor. The act prevents falsely claiming verbally or in writing to have received “any of the service medals or badges awarded to members (of the armed forces) the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration, or medal, or any colorable imitation of such item.”

Yet earlier this year a Colorado judge deemed the Stolen Valor Act to be unconstitutional on the basis of “free speech.”

The jurist is District Judge Robert Blackburn, who declared the law “troubling” and somehow contrary to “well established First Amendment doctrine.” You have to go a long way around the block to arrive at the destination the judge desires, because his ruling cites higher court decisions regarding public depiction of pornography and animal cruelty.

Previously the federal government had filed dozens of cases against individuals who misrepresented their military records. The offenders include veterans as well as people who have never served in the armed forces. So how does anyone justify a blatant misrepresentation made public by appearance, speech, or writing?

Presumably the “Go ahead and lie” concept relates to the old (old) stricture against shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Consequently, pettifogging lawyers for the wannabe heroes have adopted a “no harm, no foul” argument, asserting that absent any harm, there should be no offense. By extension, that line of “reasoning” holds that people should be free to lie without accountability.

The “Go ahead and lie” crowd ignores an intrinsic contradiction. The U.S. Government produces and awards military medals to service members deemed worthy of the decorations. (The fact that everything from the Medal of Honor on down has been awarded according to vastly different criteria is a separate issue.) Since We The People create and present military medals, it’s entirely appropriate and logical that We the People can and should state under what conditions those items may be worn or otherwise claimed. Limiting their display or claim to individuals who have actually earned them represents no form of discrimination against imposters, nowaynohow. Anybody with two gray cells to rub together understands that concept.

Military imposters are everywhere. It’s almost epidemic proportions, leading to web sites containing the names of fakers. And thereby lies another inherent contradiction: most phonies want to be known under their own names, otherwise what’s the point? So at least part of the problem is due to na├»ve/gullible/stupid people who accept fakes at their word rather than spending two minutes on Google. After all, this is The Information Age.

Yet liars and fakers persist. One of the most successful was the publisher of Arizona’s largest newspaper. For years he passed himself off as an Air Force pilot, complete with mess dress uniform and miniature medals. Finally in the 1980s he was exposed by one of his own reporters.

A Californian got away with absurd claims to naval aviation heroism for years before he died. His Powerpoint presentation showed “him” with “his squadron.” The photo was immediately recognizable: it was lifted from a book by a colleague of mine. The “lanky gentleman” of email fame was a total fraud: his name appeared in no documents covering the ships or squadrons he claimed. Yet he deceived school teachers and his local paper, which ignored irrevocable evidence of his lying and refused to correct a fawning obituary.

In Florida during the 1990s an individual passed himself off as “Colonel John C. Meyer,” high-scoring fighter ace and recipient of three Distinguished Service Crosses. A model shop run by babes in the Everglades presented him replicas of “his” airplanes and showed his picture on a web site. The teeny-weeny problem was, four-star General John C. Meyer had died in 1975. When the modelers were confronted with the facts—they didn’t believe me at first.

Other fakes persist despite being easily disproved. I’ve met a Jewish gal who claimed she flew F-4 Phantoms in the Israeli Air Force but didn’t know that delta-winged aircraft bleed energy in turns. I’ve met an overweight (read: semi-obese) “sniper” who claimed he’d been in combat three years previously.

So where do we stand with the Colorado case?

Prosecutors said they would appeal Blackburn’s ruling, and undoubtedly it will take years to shake out, if at all. Defenders of the truth default to the emotional level: permitting imposters to get away with their claims denigrates the service and sacrifice of genuine military personnel. That’s undoubtedly true, but it should not obscure the black-white ethical concerns.

Meanwhile, Blackburn’s “Go ahead and lie” decision represents the continued erosion of traditional/historic values in this nation. Another generation will grow up amid greater confusion about right and wrong, increasingly confused as to when it’s alright to lie and when it’s not. So here’s a quick reference for the ethically challenged:

(1) Lying is wrong.
(2) Liars should be held accountable.
Next subject.

Monday, August 23, 2010


In military aviation, a callsign is the hook upon which radio communication is suspended. There are all kinds of callsigns: for units, bases, ships, control centers—and Sierra Hotel aviators. The latter draws by far the most attention, as per the 1986 movie Top Gun with “Maverick”, “Goose,” “Viper,” and “Iceman.”  The film was a live-action cartoon but it did popularize naval aviation—and the callsign culture.

Recently callsigns made the news when a naval officer objected to the suggestions made by his Norfolk squadronmates. Some highly un-PC monikers were thrown about, questioning the individual’s masculinity. Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a naval flight officer, seemed skeptical, claiming he had never heard any uncomplimentary callsigns in his forty years of experience.


In truth, “callsign” has become a synonym for “nickname.” The ensign in Norfolk is an administrative officer and therefore not eligible for a genuine callsign, which is intended for in-flight transmissions.

Obviously callsigns didn’t exist before airborne radios. Squadrons and bases had code words-cum-callsigns from the 1930s but the practice of a specific pilot adopting a callsign apparently originated in the Italian Air Force in World War II. A piloto rose to squadron command and thereby adopted his academy nickname: Gato. Seems that as a cadet he had accepted a dare to skin and eat a cat.

In the U.S. Navy individual callsigns apparently emerged circa the early 60s. Veterans (read: survivors) of those days recall that division leaders began using their nicknames to identify their four-plane flights, thus “Punchy” was accompanied by Punchy Two, Three, and Four. However, squadrons retained their formal callsigns, followed by each airplane’s side number. “Old Salt 301” belonged to the skipper of Attack Squadron 163, but each squadron in the air wing had a dedicated “CAG bird” with the wing commander’s name painted thereon. Known as “double nuts”, it would be “Old Salt 300” or, for the lower-numbered squadrons, perhaps Charger 100 and Hunter 200.

Many callsigns are inevitable. All Rhodes are “Dusty,” every Lane is “Shady,” and any Gibson is “Hoot.” The skipper and executive officer are "CO" and "XO" while the ordnance warrant officer always is “Gunner.” But most names are far more esoteric. A quick scan of the The Hook magazine over the years produces some notable monikers: Barf, Cuddles, Dirt, Gonzo, Loaf, Manhole, Rattler, Speedface, and Talent. The reasons behind each make diverting speculation.

Probably the most astute comment ever made on the subject was penned by the late aviation photographer George Hall who said, “If pilots were allowed to pick their own callsigns there would be as many ‘Killers’ at Ramstein as there are McDougals in Edinburgh.”


Fact is, many callsigns are the result of a screwup or embarrassment. An aviator called “Hook” likely failed to lower his tailhook prior to a carrier landing attempt.  One friend, an Eagle driver, confides that he was dubbed "Skippy"--something to do with a blonde, a jar of peanut butter, and mucho tequila. Other names are so blatant that it’s mildly astonishing that they ever got painted on airplanes. “Master” Bates leaps to mind.

A kickass Cruasader pilot (and future MiG killer) chose a self-deprecating callsign. He said, “The other guys wanted to be Warrior or Gladiator but I could beat them one on one so I wanted to humiliate them with the most disgusting name I could think of. That’s how I became ‘Rat.’”

Some official callsigns just don’t make the cut. Two Navy wing commanders from 1965 were “Earlobe” for CAG-7 and “Smoke Tree” for CAG-16. The recipients declined such mundane monikers: Harry Gerhard opted for “Cobra” while James Bond Stockdale used “Zero Zero Seven.”

In the Air Force, callsigns frequently are rotated among units, either as some wings are disbanded or to confuse potential enemies. For instance, “Killer” has been assigned to units flying A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s at three separate bases. “King” is even more eclectic, being used by USAF and USN fighters, surveillance planes, helos, and transports. “Magic” has been used by allied forces from the Netherlands to Japan.

Then there’s “Tiger.” A-10s, B-1s, C-130s, KC-135s, E-2s, F-15s, F-16s, H-53s, and P-3s. But even that is exceeded by no fewer than 20 “Vipers,” only half of which refer to F-16s. If you’re curious, check this impressive site:

Some unit callsigns are more involved than it may seem. For instance, Air Force transports usually have five-letter callsigns such as “Heavy” or “Amway.”

One of the most enduring callsigns is “Horseback,” the radio handle of Colonel Don Blakeslee commanding the fabled Fourth Fighter Group in England in 1944. Just the ticket for a unit flying Mustangs!

However, other callsigns become politically unacceptable. Consider Navy helicopter squadron HS-2, known throughout the Tonkin Gulf as “Chink.” A friend of mine piloted Chink 69 to a spectacular rescue in Haiphong Harbor in 1967, receiving a well deserved Silver Star in the process. But today that’s verboten—probably considered as offensive as “Gook.” Sometimes we’re permitted to slay the enemy but perish forbid we should ever insult him!

Some other favorites: Bison (325th FW), Bronco (A-10s and F-16s among others); Busy Bee (VA-146), City Desk (VF-154), Feedbag (VF-191), Ghost Rider (VA-164), Rampage (VAQ-138) and Showtime (VF-96).

Readers are invited to submit their favorite callsigns in the comments section. If you have trouble signing on (as many do) just drop me an egram and I’ll insert it later.

“Shooter” sends.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


For many years now, the United States Navy has been an organization in search of a mission. Despite the absence of a blue-water threat in the world, the Navy remains structured to fight a Cold War that ended 20 years ago. Even in its reduced size (about 285 ships and submarines) America’s navy still matches or exceeds the combined strength of the Russian and Chinese fleets. Thus, for the foreseeable future we do not need more of the same.

So what do we need?

Well, since Vietnam (37 years ago), nearly all the Navy’s fighting has been done by aviators and SEALs. With rare exceptions they operate well above the high tide mark—frequently hundreds of miles above it. So If we’re going to add anything to the fleet, it should probably be minesweepers, because poorly-funded navies do well with those low-cost “weapons that wait.” In order to meet that threat—and the potential for hostile submarines—we can do with fewer superfluous gadgets like ballistic missile subs and stealth airplanes.

Speaking of which...

Naval aviation has nailed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the institutional mast, staking carrier air’s future on an extremely expensive, overly sophisticated machine that refuses to meet design criteria or budget limits.

There’s also problems with ships and manning. Through most of the 1990s, about 3.5 percent of ships failed inspection. From 2005 onward, the figure approached 14 percent. Consequently, fewer of our current vessels are available to deploy, which reduces prospects for building toward the Navy’s goal of 312 or so. The problem has persisted for years, apparently with little prospect of improvement. In other words, the cause is systemic.

Then there’s women in submarines. Die-hard seamen are vehemently opposed to putting females aboard subs, a topic floated (excuse the phrase) during the 1990s tenure of Frank Kelso as CNO. A “bubblehead” himself, he was all in favor of putting women in combat aircraft but was far less enthused about having them in his part of the navy—the noncombatant part. The last time American submariners torpedoed an enemy ship was 1945, so perhaps the women in subs thing is overblown. As long as subs remain passive vessels (deterrence and surveillance) any untoward “gender-related” events presumably will be minimized.

There are also serious problems with the Navy's culture, not least of which is the annual Midway Night. Each June the service commemorates the 1942 battle that ended Japan’s strategic offensive in WW II. And each year the chief of naval operations makes a suitable oration—or not. In 2009 the CNO delivered a speech about the battle without once mentioning Japan. Honest. This year he did marginally better, uttering The J Word once while citing Midway and a dozen other Pacific battles.

Political correctness is alive and well in Uncle Sam’s Navy.

Then there’s the Marine Corps, which sailors call Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children, among less printable endearments. Currently a move is underway in Congress to rename the naval bureaucracy the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps. Even some former Marines (reputedly there are no ex-Marines) are unenthused about the idea. As a retired leatherneck general once said, “Of course the Marines are party of the Navy—the best part!”

Hower, many Marines (read: every single one I know of) were outraged when the politicians decided to name a ship after former/ex marine and pork-producing congressman for life John Murtha, who declared Marines in Iraq guilty of murder before the facts were in. But hey, such is politics. That kind of stink can stick to any surface, including Marine Green. A correspondent wrote, “As a Former Naval Person, naming anything above a self-propelled garbage scow for the late Rep. Murtha is an abomination.”

More consequential is the Marines’ obsolete fixation on making opposed amphibious landings—something neither they nor apparently anyone else has done since the middle of the last century.  Here’s what detectives call a Clue:

Are you old enough to remember Inchon and Wonsan in 1950? Me neither. But when you have a bunch of expensive widgets that you haven’t used in 60 years, you probably don’t need new ones, let alone the old widgets on hand. Yet the Marines and their lobbyists keep pushing for a new generation of amphibious assault craft.

Finally, there’s the ridiculous trend toward admiral inflation.

The May issue of Naval Institute Proceedings contains the annual roster of Navy flag officers, with some 330 listed in more than 16 pages. That represents a 53% increase over the 2006 figure of 215, or a 13 percent Annual Admiral Inflation Index (AAII) pro-rated over a four-year period! Now, Congress approves flag officer billets based on actual, perceived, or manufactured needs from year to year. Friends remaining on active duty note that increased requirements for joint command billets account for much of the AAII, but cannot possibly explain (let alone justify) one appalling fact: With a nominal 285 ships and submarines, we now have approximately 1.15 admirals per vessel. Anybody care to guess the response from the shades of Bull Halsey, Ernie King, or Arleigh Burke? It sounds more like a Gilbert and Sullivan opera than a self-respecting military service.

I have a suggestion: Starting with the next fiscal year, each star wearer will receive a form to be filled out and returned to the Superfluous Admiral Reduction Board (SARB). The form will read: "I should be retained on active duty for one more year because..." (Fill in the blank in 25 words or less. Bonus points for brevity.) The SARB shall be composed of three chief petty officers, three junior officers (one each O-2, 3, and 4), and three civilian taxpayers, all chosen at random. Each admiral's answer will be rated pass-fail, with a two-thirds majority necessary for retention. Cost of the process will be more than offset by immediate retirement of the superfluous star wearers--an astonishing example of a program actually turning a profit.

The Navy might even assign one of those extraneous admirals to check this space for additional solutions. Certainly the price is right.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Arizona has been in the news lately, most of it critical and some of it vicious. Seems a lot of people, including those with no right to be here, have declared the 48th state to be racist, fear mongering, xenophobic, and probably fattening.

But there’s more.

Recent legislation has ended the requirement for adults to gain a permit for discreet carry in most places, and authorized such carry where liquor is served--as long as the patron does not imbibe. Both proposals drew entirely predictable bleating: blood in the streets and on the bar room floor. It is ever thus with firearms legislation, despite decades of evidence to the contrary. In fact, history demonstrates that CCW either diminishes violent crime or has no effect—the latter from the National Academy of Sciences in 2004.

Here’s a bit of Arizona lore.

In 1910, two years before statehood, Arizona Territory was represented at the national rifle matches in Ohio. However, the team had no flag for the event, and there wasn’t much time to produce one. So, aboard the eastbound train, the captain of the rifle team consulted with Carl Hayden, who became the state’s senior senator. Mrs. Hayden plied needle and thread to produce Colonel C.W. Harris’ design, and the first time the red, yellow, blue and gold emblem took the breeze was oe’r the snapple-crack of musketry.

Arizona has been gun country ever since—probably with more national and world-class shooters per capita than anyplace on earth.

Now, on to immigration.

Senate Bill 1070 passed with a 70 percent approval rating among all Arizonans, of whom about one-third are of Hispanic ancestry. Since the politically-inspired hysteria began, 1070’s statewide approval dropped to 52 percent (based on tourism fallout) before climbing again. Meanwhile, liberals immediately demanded a boycott of Arizona, to the extent that some brain-dead critics swore off Arizona Iced Tea—a product of New York. Those benighted souls didn’t stop to think (!) that Hispanics would suffer disproportionately from a boycott. Not to mention that LA gets ¼ of its electricity from Arizona…

The boycott is based on two factors: lies and ignorance. Contrary to what you’ll hear, SB 1070 neither permits nor encourages cops to confront any swarthy individual and demand “Your paperss, pleeze.” And oh BTW: if you travel in Mexico you are required to have your paperss on you at all times. In Guatemala gendarmes with submachine guns ask just that of gringos and others. Additionally, the manufactured Papers Crisis is totally disingenuous: I had to show ID the last three times I checked into hotels in New York and New Jersey.

Here’s the bill. Read it yourself and you’ll be way ahead of those who oppose it, including the Attorney General of the United States.

There’s a symbiotic relationship between immigration lies and immigration ignorance: the ignorant base their attitudes on the lies they’ve heard. A Californian called a Phoenix talk show saying she knew that 1070 permitted police inquisitors to demand papers BECAUSE SHE HEARD A LAWYER SAY SO ON TV.

The president of the United States said pretty much the same thing—be careful taking your kids out for ice cream, remember?

Plain fact is: those who oppose 1070 side with lawbreakers, many of whom commit ultra-violent crimes here. It’s called Illegal Immigration because coming here illegally is, well, illegal.

Now as for the polls: In 2008 John McCain barely won Arizona with 53% of the vote while Obama got 45%. Even using the lowest 52% approval of SB 1070 (a figure widely exceeded nationwide), a goodly slice of Obama voters reject his opposition to enforcing the laws he is sworn to uphold. That means all the laws: you don’t get to pick and choose.

It’s not about race or profiling: it’s about sovereignty. Among those who understand that concept is a retired Arizona Department of Public Safety officer who wrote the Republic: “Once a police officer has taken his oath of office, he swears to uphold the laws of the State of Arizona and to protect the Constitution of the United States of America. He has no choice and can't decide which laws he wants to enforce and which ones he won't.”

Speaking of the Constitution, Article VI, Section 4 says that the federal government is supposed to protect states from invasion. It's a national security issue. When the Mexican Government approves and the U.S. Government ignores the northward movement of 2,500 or more illegals per day, that is an invasion.

With millions of illegals not only permitted but encouraged to invade, what are the long-term results? One is an institutionalized culture of scofflaws: with favored groups permitted to decide which laws they will follow, you can fill in the blanks as to the effects downstream. You could make a case for American citizens being permitted to ignore specific laws when aliens are allowed to do so for decades. It’s called Equal Protection Clause. If you don’t have your copy of the Owner’s Manual at hand, look here: .
There’s also the immutable rule of economics. Illegals impose enormous financial costs upon Arizona and other states: health care, education, “entitlements,” and law enforcement. When the nation faces unprecedented government-imposed debt, the argument for supporting people with no right to be here falls even farther astern.

Since the reasons against illegal immigration are so clear, we’re left wondering why so many Democrats oppose enforcement. The reason is obvious: illegals already vote (illegally) and may have decided some elections. In 1997 “B-1 Bob” Dornan stated that he lost his California congressional seat for that very reason. But if people need to show legitimate ID to vote—as they do to cash a check—some Democrat seats become shaky.

And those seats look shakier. A USA Today/Gallup poll shows that 90 percent of Americans consider controlling our borders “extremely or very important” and another 21 % “moderately important.” A CBS poll shows 51% believe the Arizona law is “about right” while 9% say it doesn’t go far enough: 60% in all.

Are those majorities “racist”?

Depends on how much objectivity you retain, doesn’t it?

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Well, it finally happened: Obamacare and the further socialization of America were passed on March 21—a Sunday, when many Americans still believe no work should be done, least of all in Congress.

The disastrous outcome of a multi-trillion dollar medical program is inevitable. There are not enough doctors, nurses, hospitals, labs, or clinics to accommodate another 30 million government-mandated patients, and there’s no money to pay for it. The “progressives” in congress purchased, bullied, and forced their agenda upon a population that devoutly does not want the program. Never mind: the tone was set by the chairman of the House rules committee—a disbarred judge who said on camera “There aren’t any rules because we make them up.”

How’s that Change You Can Believe In working for you?

That question, incidentally, is not aimed at “progressives”. It’s aimed at those who are most responsible for the miserable present and disastrous economic future that our progeny will inherit.

I’d speaking of you Republicans.

I know what I’m talking about because I used to be one of you. For four generations my family was GOP: state senators, mayors, precinct committee members. True believers and worker bees.

No more: not since the early 90s. The reasons are many and varied, starting with the moral cowardice and lies of the Bush 41 (“Read my lips”) administration, followed by the limp campaign of Bob Dole. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a Dream. Bob Dole had a Pulse.

What some GOPers considered a narrow reprieve in 2000 only set the stage for the fiscal irresponsibility of Bush 43 and his acolytes in congress who spent like, well, like Democrats. The same GOPers who invaded Iraq without a Plan B. Dubya declared “Mission accomplished” upon deposing Saddam’s regime but still was mired in Iraq when he left office nearly six years later.
That was predictable, folks.

Fast-forward to 2009 when pundit Dick Morris asserted that conservatism was not going to be saved by “the knuckleheads and morons who run the Republican Party.” He didn’t specify the time servers, hacks, and wimps comprising the GOP “leadership” because he didn’t have to. Instead, Morris announced that he was starting a fund raising campaign on his own to target the Democrats most needful of retirement in the next election.

So don’t blame the Democrats. They’re simply being what they are—socialist ideologues with no more than passing acquaintance with American values. But We The People spoke on November 4, 2008, and now we’re stuck.

One of the most overlooked stories of the GOP primaries that year was the Arizona primary. McCain—the party’s handpicked carpetbagger who likely became Senator For Life—failed to win a majority in his “home” state. (Actually he doesn’t have a home state, being born in the Panama Canal Zone.) That should have told the country club set that maybe the professional POW wasn’t the one to tackle the Democrat varsity. But it didn’t. Instead, we were treated to what many Arizonans and others expected: a weak, wimpish campaign that not even Sarah Palin—the only outsider in the race—could offset.

How wimpish was it? Well, since you ask, I’ll tell you. In Lakeville, Minnesota, on October 10, the GOP candidate said, “My friends (he’s forever addressing people as My Friends), you have nothing to fear from an Obama administration.”

McCain, who hasn’t felt the need to answer constituent mail in years (come to think of it, in decades) is running ads emphasizing his “character.” Of course, they don’t mention his reputation in the Navy, and maybe they have a point. After all, personal ethics became irrelevant the day Bill Clinton was re-elected. But neither do McCain’s ads allude to the fact that he was the only GOPer in the Keating Five financial scandal.

But let’s not dwell on McCain, who parlayed 5 ½ years in Hanoi into at least 28 years in DC. He’s largely irrelevant, as is his party, which has been reduced to sideline status. He’s a symptom, not the disease.

It’s more instructive to ask how we came to the present disaster. As noted above, we cannot blame the Democrats, who promised “fundamentally to change America.” They meant what they said and they said what they meant. Get used to it.

Instead, look closer to home, Republicans. Look in the mirror.

If you were among the rheumy-eyed GOPers who supported a known weak candidate and vapid campaigner, a so-called “maverick” who was forever reaching across the aisle to his “friends” (that word again) on The Other Side, you’re to blame.

You gave us John McCain, who was never going to beat the tough-as-nails, victory-at-any-cost Chicago machine.

That was bad enough. But you Republicans have taken a major step toward destroying the future of America, and whatever inspiration it drew from the inspiring past.

It’s likely that the GOP will reclaim the House and maybe even the Senate this year. But that only has the potential to slow the Demo Express, not necessarily to reverse it. After all, the Republicans squandered most of their historic opportunity after the 1994 Contract With America and wound up setting the stage for the current debacle—and then allowed the Demos and the state-run media to rewrite history about the mortgage crisis.

There’s only one reason for optimism. The country-club Republicans had their run, and consistently bungled it. With nobody else named George Bush to put on the ticket, and with Bob Dole still selling Viagra, the field is open. I predict that Sara Palin is not going to be a candidate—she has too much baggage and too little to offer besides a spunky persona. But you won’t save the Republic with spunk. If it’s to be saved at all, it’ll be done with someone burning a fire in the belly; someone beyond the recycled cast of Usual Suspects.

So whatever happens this year and in 2012, just remember one thing: you shouldn’t blame the Democrats.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Deterrence is much over-rated. In fact, it seldom works at all.

However, much of America’s current military strategy still emphasizes deterrence. For instance, the Navy mission statement specifically includes “deterring aggression” while the Army’s “posture statement” cites deterrence.

The Air Force seems more focused: its mission statement mentions flying, fighting, and winning.

It goes without saying that every war and “conflict” in the long, sanguinary history of the human race was the result of failed deterrence.

The Roman general Vegetius said “Let him who desires peace prepare for war.” His oft-quoted statement may be interpreted two ways. It may be seen as advocating deterrence, but it can also be taken otherwise: a nation prepared to fight a war can more easily shorten the feud. Nevertheless, despite possessing the world’s greatest army, Rome was tackled by a succession of enemies including Carthage, the Celts, Epirus, Teutons, and Visigoths.

Let’s fast-forward and take a quick look at deterrence in the XX century.

Britain’s Royal Navy was the greatest afloat, both in size and capability. Yet that naval dominance failed to prevent Germany from starting both world wars within 25 years of each other. Even after the example of the Great War, with a naval blockade that choked the Kaiser into submission, Adolf Hitler went to bat a second time, knowing that his own naval construction plan would not peak until 1948.

Sometimes efforts at deterrence don’t merely flop: they boomerang. As in Unintended Consequences. No better example exists than President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1940 decision to move the Pacific Fleet from California to Hawaii in an effort to stay Tokyo’s aggression. Instead, all he achieved was to place his fleet within striking range of the Imperial Navy, as America learned to its cost one Sunday morning. Some conspiracy theorists have concluded that’s just what FDR had in mind, since he was not otherwise going to get an isolationist America motivated to join the fight.

Despite the enormous reduction in all branches of the U.S. military after WW II, America still possessed the strongest navy and air force on earth. Neither fact impressed Kim Il Sung, who started the Korean War and ended in a tie. The absurd conduct of the Vietnam War requires no elaboration.

In 1982 Britain’s military capability far exceeded Argentina’s, but the ruling junta was unimpressed. Presumably safe 8,000 miles from England, the Argies seized the British-owned Falklands/Malvinas, and expected the fait accompli to stick. It didn’t, of course: Britain dispatched a task force to the South Atlantic and, in one of the unlikeliest wars of the century, drubbed the macho men in Buenos Aires.

There’s a sexual aspect to deterrence. The Latinate machismo of the Argentine generals led them to underestimated Margaret Thatcher. But the Bush Leaguers also fumbled badly (read: avoidably) in 1990 by sending a female ambassador to Iraq, dealing with a Muslim despot who had knifed his way to the top.

Technological superiority also is over-rated. Continuing PR for the enormously expensive F-22 Raptor stealth fighter contends that its awesome capabilities will deter aggression (from whom it is far from certain, but let’s not digress.) That’s a baseless assertion on its face. Not even the world’s finest fighter aircraft ever prevented a war, nor could it. Otherwise Hitler would have been awed by the Supermarine Spitfire; Kim by the F-86 Sabre; Ho Chi Minh by a double dose of F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusader; and Saddam by the F-14, -15, -16 and -18! We all know how well those worked out.

So…when has deterrence succeeded? The default response is the 50-year Cold War in which the West and Soviet bloc both possessed the power to incinerate each other with thermonuclear bombs, and therefore consented to wars on the periphery. The Soviets were far more astute in their handling of peripheral conflicts, allowing fellow travelers to do most of the fighting and dying while America bled in Korean snows and Asian jungles.

Since it’s almost impossible to prove a negative, we continue to speculate upon other successful examples of deterrence, which necessarily remain unknown. But logically we may conclude this: any wars averted by respect for the potential enemy were far smaller than the world wars, and likely smaller than middling exercises such as Desert Storm.

The lesson should be obvious: deterrence only works against enemies with the same mindset as one’s self. After all, the Soviets were merely evil; not crazy. That’s why the Bushido-drunk warlords in Tokyo strapped on a nation with an economy nearly six times their own, twice the population, and the inventor of the airplane, submarine, machinegun, and mass production. And a bunch of other stuff.

North Korea and North Vietnam were well aware of America’s vast military superiority but reckoned they could beat us because they did not fear us. Saddam Hussein knew all about the U.S. military—he had received covert assistance during his eight-year war with Iraq. But he attacked Kuwait, which provided much of our oil because he did not respect us.

Now we’re entering the tenth year of a cultural/religious war with enemies who do not fear death, let alone the United States Government. There’s no reason they should. The mullahs in Tehran look at America and they see the simpering face of Jimmy Carter.

In the open-ended war against “terrorism” (read: radical Islam), there are still thousands or millions of American who Just Don’t Get It. This month’s peace rally in Washington, D.C. included twenty-something twits (and older twits) who obligingly bleated for the cameras: “We just need to get along with everybody.”

Well, Sweet Cheeks, here’s a flash for you. It takes two To Get Along, but it only one to fight.

America needs to learn the old-old lesson: a pound of respect can buy a ton of deterrence.

Friday, February 12, 2010


It’s curious how the Pacific half of the Second World War turned on various winds, both literal and figurative.

“East wind, rain” was the coded message for the attack on Pearl Harbor to proceed, but not even the divine wind of the kamikazes could reverse the literal firestorm that descended upon Japan in 1945. Additionally, nature’s cyclonic winds figured in the Western Pacific, most notably with “Halsey’s Hurricane” which ravaged the Third Fleet in December 1944.

But a biblical reference struck me as particularly significant. Hosea 8:7 says, “They have sown the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind.” Certainly that statement applied to Imperial Japan, which received immensely more violence than it perpetrated. Therefore, I took Whirlwind as the title of my current book, the first one-volume study of all allied air operations over the Japanese home islands. It’s due next month from Simon & Schuster.

Aside from the fact that it hadn’t been done before, I wanted to address the multi-faceted operations of the U.S. Army Air Forces, the Navy and Marine Corps, plus the British Royal Navy. The complexity of the subject was daunting, but I had been interviewing veterans since the 1970s and had a stack of references from previous projects. Nearly half of the men who contributed their recollections are now deceased, which was all the more reason to gather additional material while still possible. About 2,000 American WW II veterans die every day, and I was acutely aware that Whirlwind would be among the last volumes written with significant contributions from those who lived the story.

Today it’s hard for some people to grasp the magnitude of the capacity for destruction in the era before nuclear weapons. Yet on the night of March 9-10 1945—five months before Hiroshima--325 B-29s burned down one-sixth of Tokyo and killed at least 85,000 people. Major General Curtis LeMay’s bombers flew—literally—in the face of airpower orthodoxy by dropping incendiaries instead of explosives over an enemy capital, at low level, at night. Here’s a description of the results, excerpted from Whirlwind:

“As the sky over the city became superheated, huge amounts of air were sucked upward through multi-story buildings in the ‘stack effect,’ draining the cool air from ground level to feed the insatiable stack. As more and more ground-level air was drawn into the conflagration from farther afield, the storm naturally spread of its own predatory accord.

“A fully-developed firestorm is a horrifically mesmerizing sight. It seems a living, malicious creature that feeds upon itself, generating ever higher winds that whirl cyclonically, breeding updrafts that suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere even while the flames consume the fuel—buildings—that feed the monster’s ravenous appetite. Most firestorm victims do not burn to death. Rather, as carbon monoxide quickly reaches lethal levels, people suffocate from lack of oxygen and excessive smoke inhalation.

“In Tokyo that night some citizens felt that hell had slipped its nether bounds and raised itself through the earth’s crust to feed on the surface. People fled panic-stricken from searing heat amid the demonic roar of flames, the crash of collapsing buildings, and the milling congestion of terrified human beings. Some survivors found themselves suddenly naked, the clothes burned off their bodies, leaving the skin largely intact.

“In those frightful hours humans watched things happen that probably had never been seen on earth. The superheated ambient air boiled the water out of ponds and canals while rains of liquid glass flew, propelled by cyclonic winds. Temperatures reached 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, melting the frames of emergency vehicles and causing some people to erupt in spontaneous combustion.”

Excepting the two atom bombs, the fiery destruction of Japan’s urban-industrial areas is the best known aspect of the multi-service air campaign. (For a look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, see my August 2009 entry, “The Nuke Season.”) But there was far more. After the daring innovation of the Doolittle raid in April 1942, metropolitan Japan was immune to air attack until November 1944—a precious two and a half years squandered by Tokyo’s warlords. Meanwhile, U.S. Army and Navy fliers began the long-range “Empire Express” missions from the Aleutians to the Kurile Islands in 1943.

Three months after China-based B-29s began flying, U.S. Navy carrier aviators launched against Tokyo and environs in February 1945. They returned frequently, not only attacking factories and airfields, but shipping. Ironically, their repeated strikes against immobile Imperial Navy warships produced far less benefit than two days’ attacks on lowly coal ferries, without which Japanese industry was further starved. Then in the last four weeks of hostilities, British carriers joined Task Force 38, completing the allies’ dominance of Japanese airspace.

Meanwhile, some B-29s diverted from strategic bombing to drop mines in coastal waterways—a tremendously successful campaign that enhanced the submarine war by choking off more vital imports.

In March 1945 the B-29s gained fighter escort as 7th Air Force P-51s began long-range missions from newly-captured Iwo Jima. Flying single-engine aircraft on 1,500-mile round trips, almost entirely over water, marked a new dimension in military aviation. Some fighter pilots were then on their second or third combat tours. Said one ace, “I fought the Germans for patriotism and the Japanese for fun. Next time I’m fighting for money.”

Nor was that all. With the conquest of Okinawa that summer, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps squadrons routinely attacked targets on Kyushu and Honshu. From nearly every direction, Japan was beset by an unstoppable destructive machine, from the sea and the sky—America’s patented way of war.

Yet Tokyo’s doom-focused war cabinet refused to yield. In fact, some hardliners insisted the killing would continue into 1948. So finally, the specter of a radioactive cloud cast its ghastly shadow over a national ash heap, and Japan’s living god finally exercised his imperial option, ending the dying. Thus, the ravenous beast called the Second World War-- which had scoured three continents and claimed more than 50 million lives--succumbed to the ultimate violence, and at length the monster was slain.

Imperial Japan, which had sown the wind, truly reaped the whirlwind.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Heroism 101: What It Is, What It Isn’t

The demise of Tiger Woods as a “sports hero” recalls the similar dismay attending O.J. Simpson’s tumble from grace in 1994. While there’s worlds of difference between a serial philanderer and an accused murderer, both address the American public’s growing inability to distinguish between heroism and celebrity.

For starters, there’s no such thing as a sports hero, and there never was. After 61 years on Planet Earth and a couple of dozen Tailhook reunions, I know a hero when I see one. But first let’s define out terms.

The American Heritage Dictionary: “A man noted for feats of courageous nobility of purpose, esp. one who has risked or sacrificed his life.”

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “Any man admired for his courage, nobility or exploits, especially in war.”

Genuine heroism involves sublime accomplishment at risk of one’s life. Unless the penalty for failure in an endeavor involves death, dismemberment or torture, we should call it something else, because it is not heroism.

Having known a dozen or so Medal of Honor recipients, I realize that there are degrees of heroism. The individual who finds satisfaction in risk taking, or even enjoys it, surely may be a hero. But he is less heroic than someone who conquers his fear and, with a feeling of dread, accomplishes the same feat. A few personal examples:

Two friends of mine—Bob and Steve—drove their 140-knot helicopters into the teeth of North Vietnam’s air defense network to rescue downed aviators in Haiphong Harbor.

Another friend—Jim—not only survived seven years of torturous extortion as a POW in Hanoi, but emerged with his self-respect intact.

I won’t even attempt to mention the fighter pilots, especially of the 1942 era. They repeatedly engaged in aerial combat, handicapped by inferior equipment or lopsided odds, or both.

However, heroism is not limited to the profession of arms. Consider John, an eastern Oregon deputy sheriff who twice entered a burning house, alone, to retrieve the occupant who had collapsed from smoke inhalation.

The point is this: Every one of those men is a genuine hero. Had they failed in their efforts, they would have died or suffered other extreme consequences. That, by definition, is what makes them heroes.

And while we’re at it, let’s consider the more passive kind of heroism inherent in tailhook aviation. I refer to naval flight officers who willingly put their one and only lives in the hands of often younger, less mature pilots—not once or twice but hundreds of times. And I will remind sportscasters of the teenagers who comprise those on the flight deck, “the gang on the roof.” In one of the most lethal working environments on earth, the aircraft handlers, fixers and “shooters” whose average age runs around 20 accept death or maiming as the penalty for one second’s inattention.

But none of those fliers or flight deck personnel regard themselves as heroic. They consider the enormous risks of their calling as merely routine. That attitude in itself is heroic.

Among my naval aviation friends, four carry lasting reminders of the risk inherent to their calling. One lost his right arm, another lost an eye, one is permanently crippled and the fourth cannot use his right hand. (The F-8 Crusader, though one of the finest fighters ever, was terribly unforgiving.) Yet none of them has ever uttered one syllable of self pity. Contrast that with the professional victims of our society who make careers out of their misfortune.

To label any athlete as “heroic” is to dilute the meaning of the term and to insult the genuine heroes. O.J. was certainly a fabulous running back; I saw him play Oregon State in 1967 when the Beavers defeated USC. Later, he enhanced his reputation with more gridiron “heroics.” But he was extremely well paid and cared for. The cost of failure was trivial; it merely meant his team didn’t make the playoffs that year.

By contrast, in Navy Air the cost of failure is permanent, irrevocable. The “routine” of seabased aviation is laced with risk in a manner completely unknown to surface and submarine operations. From startup to shutdown the potential for disaster is unremitting for some or all of those involved—all the time. Ships tend to float perpetually. Aircraft will not fly indefinitely.

At some point, somebody is bound to ask, “But what about moral courage?” Well, what about it?

Let’s briefly consider the relative scale. In the nine-year outrage the world now knows as “Tailhook” we witnessed the near-total collapse of moral courage in the nation’s civilian and uniformed leadership, from the White House downward. Men who had regularly demonstrated physical courage in the course of their naval careers were unable to meet the same standard when faced with political adversity. It was far-far easier to scapegoat a civilian-run organization that never had authority over military personnel than to hold the suits and stars accountable.

Therefore, it may be true that moral courage is rarer than the physical variety. But what does that say about the mettle of individuals and institutions? What is it that turns operational heroes into Beltway sheep? And more to the point, what does the current crop of ordinary heroes make of their superiors who today burn incense at the altar of political correctness rather than be accused of “racial profiling” toward terrorists?

However you answer that question, I think that everyone in the business will make one plea: From now on, can we please have some perspective in our definition of heroes?