Trial by Fire, Glass, and Steel

I wrote this one week after September 11th, 2001. Seventeen years later, I have to say the jury is still out on the questions I posed and desires I stated back then. I did not know the loss of morality my country would willingly take on. I did not know how such good will could be so wantonly squandered by men of low character in some of the highest offices of the land. I did not foresee my service’s willingness to mortgage its future for political expediency or to forsake the identity and capability it alone could provide for the nation. I am saddened on this day every year both for the loss of innocent lives and for our seeming inability to make ourselves better because of it. In reflection, I offer the following….

At 8 o’clock on the morning of September 11, 2001, my wife’s best friend woke me with a phone call. It was the second time she has been the first to call with terrible news. The first was during pilot training. In calling to find out if I was all right, she told me that a jet from my base had crashed and killed its two pilots. This time she called to tell me of the event of our generation. I didn’t know it, but I woke to a different world.

I watched with amazement as two airliners plowed into the sides of the twin World Trade Center towers. I watched with terrible wonder as those towers fell to the ground and, like every other American, questioned if this was all just a bad dream. It was not.  Since then I have watched the news almost constantly over the past few days while I try to wrap my mind around this singularly distinctive event in the history of this country and the world as a whole.

The pundits and unofficial spokesmen for America began almost immediately trying to put a face on what will be remembered on the same level with world-altering events like the murder of Archduke Ferdinand, Pearl Harbor, and Hiroshima. Such comparisons sprung to the lips before anyone took the time to consider the effects. Our leaders stood strong; they spoke strong words. Retaliation. It didn’t take long for that word to emerge.  Recently the responses have become more measured. There is a subtle warning tone, and only time will tell if the public is capable of receiving it. This will not be quick or easy. It will not be clean.

Our country has been attacked. There are those that say we are now at war. I submit that we have been at war for a long time. We were distracted by a celebrity murder, the questionable sexual practices of a president/general/Supreme Court nominee/congressman, and the rise of the next boy band or augmented teen song goddess. In our shallowness we failed to see the depth of hate living among us. In our summertime schoolyard daze following the end of the “evil empire” and the victory of the Cold War, we failed to understand that our need for expediency in our too-busy lives would become the chink in the armor that killed thousands this terrible Tuesday. It saddens me to hear a radio announcer say the National Anthem has new meaning. It hasn’t changed; we have. Where was the outrage and lasting national resolve when over 200 Marines lost their lives in Lebanon? Where was it when our embassies were attacked and hundreds of Africans died? Where was it when our ships could not find safe harbor in Yemeni ports? Where was the outrage and resolve the last time the World Trade Center was bombed? We are fickle, and we should have seen it coming.

America is an enigma. We complain like spoiled children and protest for our own pet issues. We are apathetic about politics and world events. We drive to work never looking out the side windows of our cars, totally self-absorbed. Yet we project our ideals across the globe. Our military patrols hostile skies and waters. Our charity finds its way into the third world, and we want everyone on the planet to have the freedom we have. “Let freedom ring,” goes the familiar refrain.

Those responsible for this act are smiling at their apparent success. They toppled two of the greatest buildings ever engineered by man. They killed thousands of innocent civilians. I’m certain they are relishing our despair. They are fools. They smile while their God weeps. In times like these I want to believe in heaven and hell and think their journey on the river Styx is filled with a foreboding anguish before an eternity in the worst kind of hell ever conceived. But I believe instead they are in the black vastness of death from which there is no return and no end. I hope that in the instant before they ceased conscious thought, in that fractioned moment between life and death, they knew they had failed…their heaven just a myth. If it is so, it makes their crime against humanity all the more potent. Individuals claiming every religion on earth have at one time or another killed or attributed death in the name of their god. Even today two of America’s so-called spiritual leaders, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, blamed this disaster on God’s revocation of his protection over us for any number of our own “evils.” Words from the jawbones of asses. What an imbecilic destruction of all that could be good. I heard a line I will never forget this morning.  It was spoken by a Muslim cleric who said, “terrorism knows no religion.” Even I would say “amen” to that.

I have been heartened this week by our greatest national commodity–the intangible American spirit. While it’s true we may worship our heroes to the point of absurdity, perhaps it’s because there are just so many. Steely-eyed firemen seemingly without fear; the possibility that several passengers put others above themselves and wrested control of a doomed aircraft; officers, enlisted men and women, and civilians in “safe” desk duty at the seat of our nation’s military might. All snuffed out by a few misguided extremists. Had they studied their enemy and its history even superficially, they would have seen their folly. The terror bombing of the great Zeppelins, V-2 and blitz attacks on London, and even the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive on Nazi Germany all miserably failed in their quests to destroy the morale of the populations below. Terrorism on this scale is similarly doomed. In fact it can do nothing but strengthen, or awaken, a nation’s resolve. Terrorism on any scale should forever do the same. I have played the famous scene at the end of the movie “Tora, Tora, Tora” over and over in my mind’s eye this week. Admiral Yamamoto standing on the deck of his battleship, Yamato, having just successfully attacked Pearl Harbor says the line no historian was there to record, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.” I hope our enemies have considered that real possibility. Perhaps they would wake in a cold sweat if they had rational thought.

Our nation seems to be rising to the occasion history has once again dealt us. The time of national distraction and petty bickering must now end if we are to answer the call of destiny. The free world is feeling our pain and recognizing the task ahead. For a people used to seeing its flag burned in demonstrations across the globe, pride swelled in seeing it waved in the streets by people of many nationalities. For the first time the Queen’s Royal Guard played our national anthem at Buckingham Palace as Brits waved the flag of their former colonies. Over two hundred thousand Germans stood outside the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, one-time symbol of the divide between good and evil, and memorialized the victims. All of Europe observed three minutes of silence at the exact same time. From that small instant in time came the most poignant moment of all. The citizens of Sarajevo stood still and silent in reverence for our dead. This city once split along ethnic lines and nearly destroyed by civil war, this place that held the pity of the world stood in somber reflection for the greatest city on earth. Such is the depth and meaning of this tragic event.

It is perhaps a sign of character that America is so slowly stirred to violence. We do not long for nor relish war. We come late to most unless prodded by extreme events. Such an event has occurred; America is handmade for the coming fight, a true struggle of good versus evil. It is how Hollywood would cast us and how we have cast ourselves many times over. America: the knight in shining armor, the man in white, the defender and protector of a world sometimes unaware of our hopes for it. We have faced the evil of tyrannical leaders bent on world domination in the First World War. The evil of genocidal and imperial systems in World War II. The evil of a world united against their will under the weight of an iron curtain. The evil of denying the very freedom we represent based solely on the color of one’s skin. We have fought them all. We have prevailed. It is time to prevail again.

There are no glory-days ahead. Theater newsreels will be silent. Our papers will not discuss large and noble campaigns. This war will not be fought on conventional terms but in the shadows by clandestine means. The cleanliness of cruise missiles and the majesty of battleships cannot root out faceless culprits under the protection of rogue states, or a militant without regard even for his own human life, or the nice man living next door and walking in your park who decides to fly an airliner into one of the tallest buildings in the world. I wonder where it will take us. The Vietnamese fought for over fifty years to expel all western influence from their country. Can we fight such a protracted war or will our need for expediency once again outweigh our sense of security at the airline ticket counter? Will individuals continue to be stirred to action and refuse to be victimized or will we roll over back into our slumber and apathy? Will a Latino who reports on the suspicious acts of a man of middle-eastern descent be accused of racial profiling, or will he be lauded for his attention to detail? In the most litigious country on earth and one that prides itself on the rule of law, can we stomach trial by silenced firearm on the edges of civilization? These are the challenges that confront us as we beat our chests in public and cry in solitude.

I went to work that day because I could not afford to do nothing. A trip that normally takes 20 minutes took an hour and half. Though in uniform and with the proper ID, my car was searched by security forces and sniffed by a military working dog. As I busied myself with menial tasks, I was ordered in a frantic moment to my commander’s office. “The boss wants to see all the F-16 pilots.” There were three of us. The rest were kept at bay by the enormous security measures at the gate. The Wing Commander entered the office followed by my group commander. He said a few haunting words, then we ran from the office to our planes. Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in the cockpit, engine running, waiting for the order to launch and take down a civilian airliner not responding to air traffic control. In a lucid moment spent considering my task and listening to my own breathing over the intercom, I knew my world had forever changed.

I suspect the whole world has changed. Our answers to the questions above and our actions in these first few years of this new century will define my generation. They will likely define the legacy of America and the free and civilized world. I hope that like our fathers and grandfathers before us we are up to the task. I hope that our country and our world will stand behind us, resolute and unwavering, for it is now up to us to decide whether irrationality and senseless acts of waste and destruction can win over civilization and the inherent freedom of man.

 

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Making America Irrelevant Again

There was a time when the United States of America was an irrelevant nation, a loose collection of colonies bordered by a geographic and psychological ocean on one side and an unforgiving and foreboding wilderness on every other. It had beaten a world power with the aid of another in one of history’s many lessons on imperial overreach, but it remained virtually ungoverned, deeply in debt, and in no way meaningful to almost any other nation. Things are starting to look very similar to those times again.

The U.S. pulled out of the international agreement that had stopped Iran from enriching uranium and making fissile material that could be used in nuclear weapons. It did so in favor of reenacting a sanctions regime similar to the one in place—but lacking the force of the world’s will—when Iran came so far along the nuclear path as to cause alarm. It’s important to understand these statements. Before this agreement and for decades after the revolution that ousted a monarch and brought on a terroristic theocracy, much of the developed world supported sanctions on Iran that crippled its economy. Under the most recent sanctions regime that included Russia and China, Iran was still able to engineer or acquire tens of thousands of centrifuges, gain access to nuclear material, and create enough enriched uranium that many thought Iran was only several months to a few years away from its first nuclear test. As a means of inhibiting nuclear activity, the sanctions were an abject failure. Iran’s nuclear program was stopped in its tracks by a diplomatic agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. The plan restricts Iranian nuclear activities to peaceful uses. It has an inspection regime overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s foremost authority on nuclear inspections. It has compliance timelines out to 25 years (you’ve no doubt heard fewer) and requires Iran to unequivocally state that it will never pursue nuclear weapons. It has not been read by almost anyone who claims to understand it as “the worst deal in history.” It is—was—an agreement between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and the EU. It is now—still—a plan between all of those save one, the increasingly irrelevant nation called the United States of America.

Our country is in retreat on the world stage, and all of those who complained bitterly about that perception during the previous administration are strangely silent about the mounting evidence of the reality now. It is entirely possible that the willingness of this administration to follow through with campaign promises tested only on applause meters at rallies is based on the lack of reaction from the rest of the world on early administration decisions. It is probable that lack of response is simply apathy for what the United States now says and represents.

Policy wonks on the left and right made dire warnings about various causes this administration has pursued. Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Trade partnership is anti-free-trade and would cede vast economic territory to a near-peer competitor; it would have catastrophic impacts on access to a market larger than the EU. Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord would cede the moral high ground of the world’s largest and most dynamic economy leading other large and developing economies to pursue growth at the expense of considered resource expenditure and without regard for the future peril of climate change already manifest among many populations. Announcing intent to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would cause a break down in the tenuous Middle East Peace Process and would affect western nations’ relations with the Muslim world. Those warnings would have been accurate in a world that relied upon U.S. leadership, but that is no longer the context of America’s place in the community of nations.

World leaders are on record saying they ignore the president’s favored form of communication. The TPP is a sealed deal at the exclusion of the U.S. and on terms more favorable to China. Other nations recommitted themselves to the Paris Accords and were heartened by many U.S. state and local governments who rejected the administration position and began efforts to meet accord milestones on their own. The Middle East shrugged at the notion of an embassy in Jerusalem (after this was initially written, violence broke out in protests leading to the deaths of approximately 60 Palestinians by the Israeli military). No one with a degree of rationality has any hope for a solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The peace process is at an impasse and has been for decades as Palestinians continue to allow terrorism to foment in their territories and the Israelis continue the policy of annexation through settlements that is tantamount to benign ethnic cleansing. Mexico and Canada do not seem particularly concerned as they eye the future of trade in North America and are exhibiting absolutely no fear of the “great negotiator.” That both are also in the TPP probably adds to their sense of ease in the matter. What the administration and its cheerleaders miss is that this lack of world reaction to these pronouncements is not a failure of the policy establishment that predicted cacophony. It is not evidence of “elites” and “experts”—now pejorative terms amid the din of right-wing media—being out of step with “real Americans.” It is not evidence of the unilateral dominance of the world’s only remaining superpower. It isevidence of a world that no longer cares what the United States says or does. This once great power is now the boy who takes his ball home in the absence of getting his way only to find, as he sits looking out the window wistfully, that lots of others also had a ball, and the neighborhood games function just as well—perhaps better—without him.

Tehran could not have been given a bigger gift. The Iranians now get to welcome other members of the Joint Committee as those diplomats plead to determine what it will take for Iran to stay in the agreement. The Islamic Republic is now in a position of dictating more desirable terms as prerequisite to honoring the agreement, as the rest of the world would very much like them to do. Certainly, there will be consequences as the unconfirmed former UN ambassador and current National Security Advisor along with cabinet officials work to rebuild the sanctions regime. They should look to recent history to determine the probable efficacy of such actions. First is the aforementioned fact that Iran’s nuclear program came into being under near world-wide consensus on economic sanctions. Second is the experience of the U.S. and Britain in attempts to control Saddam Hussein’s Iraq between the first Gulf War and the second.

The world signed on to constraining the actions of Saddam’s militarism in the aftermath of Desert Storm and then the gassing of Kurds and slaughter of the “Marsh Arabs.” Economic sanctions preceded military actions in the form of two “no-fly zones” meant to keep the Iraqi armed forces from moving equipment into protected areas. Multiple—eleven by the end of 1999—UN resolutions restricted Iraqi actions and placed limits on economic activity. By the year 2000, only two nations remained— the U.S. and the UK. No other military forces enforced the no-fly zones and even French oil companies eventually had contracts on Iraqi oil fields. The sanctions, still fully in effect, were defunct in reality. Saddam ignored most démarches throughout the long engagement and moved military equipment at will under the ever-present eye of U.S. and British forces. He did so under one Democratic and two Republican administrations. When others are willing to pursue economic gain and opportunity, not even the largest economy on earth can exert the force required to compel compliance. That is the lesson no one in this administration or its backers care to acknowledge.

The U.S. can go it alone on many things, but it cannot inflict harm on economies of other nations when there are multiple outlets for economic activity and the rest of the world is willing to trade under the nose of U.S. institutions and law. Certainly, there is power in U.S. influence over financial markets and its favored status in holding the world’s reserve currency. The U.S. will have power to seize assets and create financial hardship on those entities who trade through U.S.-controlled institutions and in U.S. dollars. For this reason, there is a great deal of uncertainty on what this withdrawal does to certain companies. Boeing and its 140,000 workers worldwide just lost out on $19 billion in aircraft sales. That will not play well in Seattle or Chicago where Boeing airplanes are built and headquartered. Airbus, the European conglomerate aircraft maker, also had lucrative contracts with Iran following the implementation of the JCPOA. Total, the French oil and gas giant, did so as well. Both have a U.S. presence as do several other affected companies. Some Airbus aircraft are built in Alabama. This is bad for those workers too, but these are problems corporations will solve (though Alabama’s airplane builders will not be a part of the solution). Airbus will create a subsidiary that has no ties to U.S. markets and that trades in currencies other than the dollar. Perhaps Dubai or Singapore exchanges will handle the coming enormous deals. The Euro will rise in value and esteem because of this and other ill-thought U.S. actions on trade. London’s seat as one of the world’s financial centers will become more secure, even as it attempts sticky negotiations with the EU on “Brexit.” The Pound Sterling will likely rebound over the next year in reaction to this news and other Republican protectionist policies. China has long sought to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency in favor of the Renminbi. As mothers of invention go, the necessity of creating avenues to avoid U.S. law and sanctions is a pretty good motivator for countries to begin to consider a financial system outside the U.S.’s realm of influence. To be sure, some of these manifestations are long off, but many will be almost immediate.

These inevitabilities highlight Administration disciples’ strange view of American leadership. Leadership is not simply doing whatever the hell it is the voters of Michigan think they like. Leadership is exerting influence on others to make them willfullyact in a manner that is most beneficial for the maximum number of entities. When others understand that you do not have any influence to exert, that you are no longer credible in communicating the path of maximum benefit, then you have lost the ability to lead. You can no longer act as a positive role model, and you can certainly no longer compel others to bend to your will…except through the use of brutal force. And then you have done nothing to alter their mentality or values; you have succeeded only in making them act—temporarily—against their will. These are now the two paths open to the United States. First, irrelevancy caused by bluster masquerading as decisiveness. Then the intoxicating fallacy of brutality disguised as justice, an act that may bring acquiescence but only of the kind cloaked in hate. One must hope the latter does not inevitably follow the former.

Before Jefferson sent warships to Tripoli to take on the Barbary Pirates, no one thought much of the U.S. as a world power. Fifty years after settling its own internal affairs with cannon and musket, our country took its first steps into what would come to be called the American Century. Doughboys cemented a revolutionary legacy of self-determination. Only a quarter century later the U.S. built the international order on those principles and assumed its place as the “indispensable nation.” Washington and Adams did not have Jefferson’s luxury. The country was incapable of acting on the world stage. All three would be in awe of what we became, and they would recognize where we are headed once again. I think they would be saddened. They would recognize this decline is not a hand dealt from the deck of history. It is choice. A choice borne of a deep misunderstanding about the nature of leadership, the power of example, and the recognition of sovereignty beyond our own shores. They would recognize its cause as something they were deeply concerned about and warned us of from across the centuries—the fundamental idea that good governance requires extraordinary depth of character, understanding, and contemplation by leaders willing to put the country before self.

Make America Irrelevant Again. It doesn’t look very good on a hat, but it was always the inevitable consequence of governing by slogan pretending to be policy.

Principle and the Politicization of the American Classroom

March 14, 2018 is likely to usher in a new landscape in American discourse, a possible sea change in the way we engage on certain issues. But the change is not that our youth have found their voice or that they are finally the ones who may change the national conversation on gun violence or that there is some slim hope that we can crawl out from under the overbearing boot of the gun lobby. It is not that perhaps rational humans can discuss the intricacies of a Constitutional phrase the avowed “originalist” justice threw out to suit his own view of a personal right. It is not that we may be ready to address the rationale for ordinary citizens to own weapons originally and solely designed for war. No, these are not the coming change in the tide of community activism. All of these could have come about without what is planned for this day by high school students across the country. The sea change, cheered on by the left and tacitly approved by numerous institutions of higher learning that will not allow attendance records for this act to blemish would-be candidates’ admission prospects, is none other than the politicization of the American classroom. Forgive them all, for they know not what they do.

Certainly, it is heartening to watch a segment of our population, often looked down upon for their supposed self-indulgence, roundly and loudly disproving all of that. It is heartening to know that a new generation, most of whom cannot even vote, are willing to step into the breach where so many cowardly adults—the great concentration of whom are in DC and state capitols across the country—have failed in a sworn duty to uphold public safety. I am in awe of some of the students who have spoken in intelligent and coherent ways about what can and should be done to address our nearly unique problem in the developed world. Leaders are being made, as they so often are, in the midst of a crisis. Those leaders, based on what we see now, are poised to solve issues our current set of leaders have simply given up on. What should give us all hope is that their chances of success are aided immeasurably by the fact that they will outlive all of the failed generations that came before. Yet the actions planned for March 14th should strike fear in the heart of anyone committed to principle and precedent.

When thousands or millions of high school students walk out of classrooms for 17 minutes tomorrow—in remembrance of 17 innocent lives and in support of public safety policy to mitigate the threat of future school shootings—they will walk back into a classroom where there can no longer be any expectation of education separated from ideology, politics, or the “strongly held beliefs” of their peers or those placed in positions of authority over them. They will have said, in a most public way, that school classrooms are places for political activism and should no longer be sanctuaries of objective fact and critical thought. The giddiness of those on the left so cheering this action by an apparently awakened youth have not considered the consequences of this act or their support for it. That is a shame, but it is not surprising in a country more respectful of the concept of ends justifying means than of a logically consistent and deliberately considered life.

I have recently engaged with school administrators about a middle school Social Studies teacher displaying a “Make America Great Again” hat in his classroom. Soon to be discussed with the same administrators is the playing of Christian “praise music” during class. These are preposterous actions perpetrated by teachers on unsuspecting students of diverse backgrounds and beliefs who deserve far better treatment. There are ethical issues with both and perhaps Constitutional issues with either. But if it is appropriate for students, on school time and property, to protest a lack of support for the sanctity of their near-adult lives, is it not also appropriate for them to take school time and protest in support of the sanctity of what some may consider unborn lives? If it is proper for students to demand legislation on weapons limitations from the school grounds, then it is equally proper for those who feel threatened by what they consider to be a lifestyle choice to protest the position of authority an LGBTQ teacher has over them in that same environment. What constraints can there possibly be for a teacher who decides to explicitly state his support for the campaign and the man—not the office—of the eventual president? What of a student whose deeply held beliefs compel her to audibly and publicly pray during each class, unwillingly conscripting her peers into religious theater and trampling on others’ freedom of conscience? The answer, of course, is that there can be no constraint, once the precedent is set, until the Supreme Court hears the multitude of cases that will surely propagate from this seemingly justifiable and “inherently good” act.

There are spaces in our shared lives that we should reasonably expect to be apolitical. Our military is so both because of law and because of the deep professionalism and cherished sense of commitment to the principles most eloquently described by Samuel Huntington in his seminal work, The Soldier and the State. Public venues where there is limited choice in companionship, such as the pressurized tube of an airplane or cramped public transportation, are places where one should not be subjected to the loudly professed views of others. Church sanctuaries should be similar spaces, though increasingly they stray far from the noble concept the term “sanctuary” once described in more brutal yet chivalrous times. And public schools should also be places where young citizens of every different creed, color, and orientation should not have to face the politics of others except as they relate to the objective study of the complex histories of our multi-faceted nation.

Do not misunderstand. These are places where everyone should be able to discuss, in the Socratic way, the issues of our times in an effort to understand the country as it was and as it is. I make no case for the supposed “safe spaces” cropping up across campuses nationwide; they are no friend to our sacred rights so clearly enumerated in the 1st Amendment. A learning environment is by necessity a place where beliefs are questioned and uncomfortable topics lead to a deeper understanding of our human condition. These laudable goals are not the point of focused political activity, particularly those expressions framed as protest and activism. No student—right, left, or otherwise—should have to be exposed to the purely political rantings of whoever speaks loudest or for this singular moment has captured the national conversation. No student should have to endure a one-sided display from an authority figure of a dark and often disturbing presidential campaign. They should not be forced to listen to praise music. And they should not protest on school property and during school time what some will believe is support for curtailing other, equally enumerated Constitutional rights. This protest flings wide the school doors for all manner of protests based on all manner of ideologies. That is good for no side and for no one at all. If the first casualty of war is truth, surely the first casualty of blind activism is principle. You, your students, and the country will surely suffer the consequences.