In Remembrance of the Ordinary

On Memorial Day in 2006 I went to the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France. It was partly cloudy and cool with a deep blue sky, as days at the beginning of European summers often are. Speakers in French and English remembered U.S. war dead from the First and Second World Wars. Then two buglers at opposite corners of the grounds played the haunting sound of Taps separated by a single measure. As the last note floated across white stones, four F-16s performed the missing man formation, one aircraft pulling into the vertical as if climbing toward heaven. I can never endure such an assault on sense and emotion without shedding a tear.

The Lorraine American Cemetery contains 10,489 interred and 444 more memorialized as still missing in action. Most of them died in the fall of 1944 as the Allies pushed the Germans back toward the Rhine. In November, the U.S. Third Army liberated the towns of Metz and St. Avold before turning north to the Ardennes Forest in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. Both towns’ mayors were on hand to lay wreaths and show a gratitude that still runs deep. We mingled with locals, but in a particularly moving display of unity, also in attendance were many Germans who came to recognize the sacrifice represented by the serenity of 114 acres of French countryside. That sacrifice is something I often consider, particularly around this time of year.

The essence of “sacrifice” is that nothing is asked in return, and so I am never one to lament a lack of attention on such things during Congressionally-declared three-day weekends. The essential part of liberty is that one can choose to do as one wishes. But on this day I think about those in cemeteries like Lorraine and those I have known who have given, as our greatest president said, “the last full measure.” I think of my friend Paul “Z” Ziemba whose crystal eyes melted girls’ hearts and who on one dark night in Texas flew his B-1 into the side of mountain. I think of Bryson “Moose” Phillips who had just had a son and who, after achieving his goal of becoming an F-16 demonstration pilot, misjudged a maneuver and crashed into the trees near Kingsville, Texas. And I think of my friend and mentor Dillon “McFly” McFarland, possibly the most naturally talented aviator I’ve known, who on a day not unlike that day in France, flew his perfect airplane into the salt flats of Utah because rain the day before turned it into a mirror reflecting the deep blue he and I loved to traverse.

Because I have witnessed it, and because I know that fatal mistakes take those we know far too often, I also know that death in war or the service of our nation is rarely heroic. Treating it only as such masks the ultimate costs of war and its preparation. It attempts to glorify that in which there is no glory. It also misses another point entirely.

What gives meaning to the tens of thousands of white headstones all over the world is that they do not represent the final resting place of heroes. They represent an idea we lose touch with only at our great peril—that ordinary men and women just like you and me, when necessary, are capable of summoning the courage to do the extraordinary. When I hear the last note of Taps drifting like a mist, feel in my chest the roar of a jet engine I will forever long for, or recall the image of a cross reflected on the water of a salt flat, that is what I know.


Destroyer of Worlds

President Obama is about the become the first sitting president to visit the site of the first use of nuclear weapons. He will deliver an address on nuclear disarmament. Let’s assume two things that should not need to be stated. First, a world without nuclear weapons is better than one with them. Second, a sitting president as deliberative and intellectual as the current office holder knows there is no sense in publicly reassessing the causes and rationale for the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. There are those who will disagree with one or both of these assumptions. In the first case they set themselves against the canon of International Humanitarian Law (also called the “law of war”) and the arc of history that says indiscriminate weapons and those that inordinately kill innocents are unlawful and have been at least since Grotius secularized Just War theory. In the second they are so trapped in their own perceived cult of personality that objectivity has taken its leave.

We will, no doubt, experience the talking point that our president is on another “apology tour.” Being caught up in such nonsense will rob those so inclined of an opportunity to witness that historical arc and appreciate their position in a world that no longer must follow the script of our Cold War architects. They will also miss a highlighting of the stark contrast now taking shape on the future of U.S. nuclear policy; non-proliferation and pragmatism on one side, isolationism and proliferation as a replacement for American military and diplomatic might on the other. You might be surprised which side is which.

As part of the “less than 1%”—that percentage of our population actively serving in uniform—I trained for nuclear war. I know how to unleash the heat of a thousand suns from the belly of a fighter plane. I have friends who can describe Russian cities in detail, the targets on their “strike line,” though they have never been there. I have also stood at the famous site of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It was raining. Fitting. In the cold and wet I was trying to explain to two young boys what it all meant. I have yet to find the words.

The development of the Atomic Bomb was a technological marvel urged on by great minds. Some, like Einstein and Oppenheimer, later regretted it. Others, like Edward Teller who I was fortunate enough to meet, were unapologetic to the end. Historians will continue to debate whether its use hastened a victory or only punctuated an inevitability. It is beyond doubt that U.S. use of nuclear weapons at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki affected the future lives of everyone on earth. For some because of the stand-off between great powers that so clearly delineated freedom from tyranny. For others it was far more personal. A brother’s first relationship might never have been; the woman’s mother was in an internment camp in Japan scheduled for “liquidation” just days after that fateful week in August of 1945. Coming of age in a time when our species first discovered a means to its own end has shaped and connected us all.

Nuclear disarmament would be a human triumph on the order of the technological one that wrought these weapons. There is no more appropriate thing for a U.S. president to do than to urge the world to give up that which must never be allowed to be used again. There is no better place to do so than in the shadow of the skeletal dome that no longer holds out the rain.

Robert Oppenheimer’s words from the Bhagavad Gita after the successful test in remote New Mexico haunt me still. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” We now make the case that it does not have to be so. If a U.S. president has the courage to state such at the original ground zero, we ought to have the courage to listen intently and consider it.


Campus Carry and Campus Safety

The governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, made a decision last week on whether our youth, studying at public colleges, ought to be allowed to carry a firearm with them to class. He vetoed a bill called House Bill 859 that would have made Georgia the ninth state with such a law. The bill would have required those who planned to practice this new right to be at least 21 years old and have a Georgia Weapons License. That means they would have had to undergo registration, fingerprinting, and a background check. There is no training required to receive a Georgia Weapons License. HB 859 was widely supported by the gun lobby and by those who remember a different time in America when it was not uncommon for there to be shotguns on window racks in pickup trucks on high school and college campuses everywhere. I sometimes pine for those days too, but this is not that time, and the rationale for those weapons is not at all the rationale for these.

According to Atlanta Journal Constitution coverage, officials at various state colleges are on record as opposing this action citing students’ maturity and public safety concerns. Not surprisingly, proponents also cite student safety as a key issue for the measure. Both cannot be correct.

There have been numerous campus shootings at U.S. colleges over the past decades. It is at least debatable that had students been allowed to carry guns at Virginia Tech, for instance, it would have led to more or less carnage. It is beyond doubt however that if Virginia had such a law in place, it would not have stopped the beginning of that rampage. The first two people to die were killed in their dormitory. HB 859 did not allow weapons in dorms, fraternities or sororities, or at sporting events. Do not the majority of violent crimes, particularly assault cases, occur where students live? There is an interesting dichotomy in the messaging, and possibly the motive, of the lawmakers.

As a senior military officer, it was often my job to preside over planning and execution of dormitory inspections on bases where the most popular contraband discovered was weapons—mostly knives, throwing stars, and other martial arts paraphernalia, but often enough guns of various kinds. Weapons, even for that portion of America’s youth that is trained for and regularly does the bidding of the nation in war, are not normally carried on stateside installations and are certainly not allowed in the dorms no matter the age of the individual. The reason for this is, to those honest enough to confront it, obvious. The greater access to weapons, the greater likelihood that someone will come to an unfortunate and violent end by their means. Study after study shows this correlation, even when researchers control for robberies and various demographic data (see 2007 Harvard School of Public Health and 2013 Boston University School of Public Health). Military leaders understand this, even though they are surrounded by those whose job it is to expertly wield deadly force in combat. The leaders of Georgia’s universities know this, and they are surrounded by those who would require absolutely no firearms training whatsoever.

Even in light of the veto, there still remain important questions for those who supported the bill. If student safety was the rationale, why exclude the environment where most crime occurs? Why, if having a gun makes us all safer, would they not allow students to arm themselves everywhere? Such questions are difficult to answer with any degree of logical consistency. This is why the governor rightly took so long to consider the issue and eventually vetoed it. We can be fairly certain many more of us will now live with his decision.