Monday, April 03, 2017

A Noble and Right Republic

One hundred and seventy years ago, this week, an American army, under the command of General Winfield Scott, marched westward out of the Mexican coastal town of Vera Cruz.  Their destination: Mexico City.  

The American siege of Vera Cruz included the first large scale amphibious operation ever conducted by United States military forces and reduction of what was considered the strongest coastal fortress in the Western Hemisphere at the time.  Vera Cruz thereafter provided the vital port, opposite the Mexican capital, through which U.S. military forces flowed men and material for the campaign that culminated in the capture of the "Halls of Montezuma" and the capitulation of Mexican forces nearly six months later.

The war with Mexico had commenced officially nearly a year before.  The war was a culmination of years of tensions with Mexico over expansion of the American Republic westward on the North American continent.  The war has been portrayed, by the most vehement of its detractors, as naked American imperialism against a hapless neighbor.  The truth is that the War with Mexico was closer to a war of liberation than a war of expansion.

Mexico's leader, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, a former brigadier in the Mexican army who had been instrumental in the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy established following Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821, had repealed Mexico's constitution of 1824 and declared himself dictator.  The 1824 Constitution of the United States of Mexico, while not a completely faithful copy of the governing document of the nation to their north, did in fact include protections of the natural rights of man similar to those included in the U.S. Constitution.  The 1824 Constitution had created a hybrid confederation/federation that allowed considerable governing autonomy to Mexico's twenty or so states and territories.

Settlers moving west into the Mexican territory of Texas took advantage of this governing autonomy and basically thumbed their noses at the relatively weak central government in Mexico City.   Furthermore, Mexico had actually invited settlers to immigrate into Mexican lands -- specifically to areas that would provide a buffer between Mexico and hostile "native" American tribes.  The emigrating "Anglos" weren't stupid and they settled in great numbers in safer and more fertile eastern parts of the Texas territory.

In response to what Mexicans began increasingly to perceive as a threat to Mexican control of their northern territories, Santa Anna's setting aside (in May of 1834) of the 1824 Constitution, on the surface, was designed to help bring those immigrants to heel.  In practice, it also stripped Mexican citizens south of the Rio Grande of protections of their natural rights.  Santa Anna's dictatorship became what all dictatorships become -- the accumulation of power in the hands of one man to the detriment of the lot of all others.

The most untold part of this is that not only did Anglo Texans rebel against Santa Anna's dictatorship, but several Mexican states south of the Rio Grande did, as well.  Santa Anna put down the rebellion in the latter and, then, in 1836, marched on Texas.  The defeat of a wing of the Mexican army (commanded by Santa Anna), at San Jacinto, resulted in a treaty (later repudiated by the Mexican congress) recognizing Texas' independence.     

But, Texas and Mexico continued to differ over the boundary between the two.  In fact, Mexico persisted in the assertion that all of Texas was still Mexican territory and Santa Anna was determined to reclaim it.  Tensions continue to fester, particularly following formal admission of the Republic of Texas as a state in the United States of America in December of 1845.  Both sides increased forces and fortifications along the intervening frontier amid Mexican threats to invade and reclaim Texas territory.

The spark that finally lit the fuse to war was the ambush and destruction, in late April of 1846, of a small U.S. Cavalry patrol, under the command of Captain Seth Thorton, by a large Mexican force in the disputed territory north of the Rio Grande. Newly inaugurated President James K. Polk seized on the "Thorton Affair," declaring to Congress that, "American blood has been shed on American soil."  Polk asked for and a received a formal declaration of war from Congress.  A flood of volunteers swelled the relatively small American Army over the next several months, and by summer's end enough forces were available to begin offensive operations to seize territory south of the Rio Grande.

By late winter in 1847, Mexican forces had been defeated in Northern Mexico, and the campaign to carry the fight to the Mexican capital began at Vera Cruz.

While far more volunteered to fight than could be enlisted, the war did have its political detractors.  It should be noted, however, that most of the war's dissenters were far more worried about the acquisition of southern agricultural land that would strengthen the power of southern "slave-holding" states, than they were against a war to free their neighbors from dictatorship.

Perhaps most disappointing to the Colonel is that while the treaty that ended the war did cede the United States territory that would become California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming (half of the total territory then claimed by Mexico), the United States could have very easily taken ALL of Mexico and admitted ALL Mexican states into the Union.  The latter course of action was favored by Polk's political party, the Democrats.  Opposition to annexation of all of Mexico by the other party -- the Whigs -- was primarily based on the concern for tilting the scale decidedly in favor of then "slave-holding" states (all states had slaves).  So, President Polk compromised and took only the northern half of Mexico.

Consider, for a moment, the ramifications of that compromise.

It certainly forestalled, and perhaps pre-ordained the ultimate result of, the cataclysmic civil war that engulfed the nation within a generation.

But, imagine the strength of an American Republic that, by the end of the 19th Century, had not only stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific north of the Rio Grande, but included territory stretching far into the tropics of Central America.

And, imagine the millions who would be living in freedom, safety, and prosperity far above the standard in which they find themselves today -- many of them living in failed states so unable to provide even the most basic of those natural human rights that mothers in those crime-ridden states are desperately sending their children, often unescorted, north to the United States.

Expansion of a republic to provide freedom, safety, and prosperity to millions is the most noble, and right, of intentions by which a republic can be motivated, and by which it can be measured.   

Friday, March 31, 2017

Hope on a Rope

The Colonel can't get into this time of year without remembering where he was during one of the best times of his life.

In the early Spring of 1988, the Colonel, then a captain of Marines, was in command of a 200-man reinforced infantry company designated the dedicated "heli-borne" force of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit -- Special Operations Capable (26th MEU-SOC).  That unit, trained to execute sea-based raids, was embarked on LPH-2, USS Iwo Jima.

The Iwo was a storied ship, named for the most storied battle in the Corps' history.  She was an accomplished ship, as well, having participated in combat operations during Vietnam, as well as wide-ranging forward deployments throughout the Western Pacific. Perhaps her most famous mission was recovery of the Apollo 13 crew at the splashdown completion of their jinxed mission.

By the time the Colonel and his company went aboard her, the Iwo was also getting a bit long in the tooth.  She had been the first of her kind -- an amphibious assault ship built from the keel up to carry and launch aircraft in support of the Marine Corps' vertical assault modus operandi.  Launched in 1960, the Iwo Jima was showing its age; but, was manned by a great crew and fully capable of getting it's embarked Marines to the fight. 

Those were heady days for the Colonel.  He was at the head of 200 of the most hard-charging young men you could imagine.  The Colonel spent a lot of energy telling them just how great they were and just how important their mission was as forward deployed representatives of the greatest Republic on earth, but they were largely self-motivated, and, if truth be told, actually motivated the Colonel far more than he motivated them.

As the "heli-borne force" for the 26th MEU-SOC, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines was trained and ready to receive a mission, plan its conduct, and launch in a mix of CH-46E and CH-53E helicopters within 6 hours.  Raid missions for which they were prepared ranged from airfield seizure to in extremis hostage rescue.

One mission in particular sparks synapses in the Colonel's brain-housing group more and more these days -- Long-Range Ship Reinforcement.  

On station in the Mediterranean Sea area of operations, wherein the Colonel and his merry band of brothers were deployed, the United States maintained a small fleet of civilian-crewed, un-armed, RORO (roll-on, roll-off) ships crammed to the gunnels with vehicles, gear, and supplies to outfit and support a large Marine force that would fly into a friendly or captured airfield (thus the "airfield seizure" mission referenced above) and marry-up with that equipment.  The powers that be were, rightly, concerned that those unarmed ships were plum targets for enemies of US interests.  So, in the event of a credible threat to those ships, a small force of Marines (armed to the teeth) would fly in air-refuelable CH-53E Super Stallions for several hours, over empty ocean, and reinforce the threatened ship.  
There was teeny tiny problem, however.  Those ships didn't have any place for that great big helicopter to land.

So, the Marines, ever-adaptable, came up with a solution to getting a helicopter-load of Marines, and their weapons and gear, out of the helicopter when there was no way to land.

They called it "fast rope."  

"Fast-roping" is not rappelling -- where the one "on rappel" is attached by a snap-link or carabiner to a slender line.  Instead, fast-roping can be likened to sliding down a pole in a fire station.  Except the pole is a thick rope attached to a hovering helicopter; and, the helicopter, while hovering, ain't exactly stationary.  Neither is the deck onto which the fast-ropee is fast-roping

Oh, and because ships have all kinds of stuff sticking up on them well above the deck, the helicopter dumping its load of Marines via fast rope has to hover several stories (sometimes 60 feet or more) above the ship.  

The ship continues to sail.

The helicopter continues to hover/fly in concert with the ship.

The ship rocks, pitches, and rolls like a..., well..., like a drunken sailor still on sea legs.

The fast-roping few, with gear and weapons slung on shoulders and backs, grasp the thick rope in gloved hands, clench their boots on the rope, and slide down.


The life-expectancy of gloves and boots in a fast-roping outfit is quite short.

Sometimes shorter than a single slide.

In the picture above, a Marine is fast-roping out of the "hell hole" of a CH-53E helicopter.  

Shuffle up to the gaping square opening in the floor of a helo hovering over a moving, rolling, pitching ship onto which you will now slide down a rope, with 80 pounds of gear on your back, and you will understand the appellation, "hell hole."

In fact, you will probably have several other four letter names on your lips.  The Colonel will leave that to your imagination.

Helicopter pilots, while justifiably proud of their ability to hover over, and maintain station with, a moving, rolling, pitching ship, are not overly fond of doing it for extended periods of time.

Thus the "fast" in fast-rope.

At, say, 60 feet, and with a frantic helo crew-chief yelling, "go!, go!, go!," because a frantic pilot is screaming into his headset, "get 'em out!, get 'em out!, get 'em out!," the fast-roping Marines are literally leaping into thin air with often the most tenuous grasps on the rope.  

And, there's a Marine right below them, still on the rope.

Now, imagine the scene at the bottom of the rope.  

There will be heapage, and great, curse-filled, scrambling.

Oh..., and the rotor wash of a CH-53E Super Stallion hovering at 60 feet approaches the wind speed of a Category 4 hurricane... 

Man, the Colonel misses those days!       


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ten Years in Mississippi

This week marks a very important anniversary for the Colonel and his Lady.  It was ten years ago, this week, that they closed on the sale of their home in Florida and closed on the purchase of the sweetest plot of land on the planet.

What makes it so sweet?

Well, for starters, it belongs to the Colonel and the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda.  That makes it special all by itself.

They put their names on the place.  They call their little slice of heaven on earth, situated at the shallow northern end of deep southern nowhere, Egeebeegee.

Nope.  That's not an Anglicized spelling of a word in the language of the former temporary tenants on the land.  

There might be more of a nod than not to the fierce Chickasaws, who displaced the mound-building Mississippians, who themselves displaced some other previous temporary tenants.  But, the name Egeebeegee has no real indigenous roots.  

It's just the Colonel's and the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda's initials -- spelled somewhat phonetically.

The Colonel stresses the word "somewhat" because he believes several of his former English teachers surveil posts hereon and he hopes that qualifier will insulate him from the heat of their correction in case he has used the word "phonetically" incorrectly or has used passive voice when he should be using active voice or is failing to punctuate correctly or is abusing conjunctions and gerunds or is Faulknerizing his writing with run-on sentences that stretch for pages and cover more information in a single sentence, while the sun arcs slowly to rest, than most writers pen into a plethora of paragraphs, and, with no thought of the payment for the crime, breaks rules set down by ancestral English teachers, whose authority, like the passage of minutes on a clock whose keeper is a monk with the sole job of winding the clock, is unquestioned, even by the most questioning soul on his journey under that arcing sun, measuring his steps in cadence with the clock whose monk never fails to rise with the sun and attend to his clock-winding duty, and...           
(There, that should keep Mrs. Corbett busy for a while!)

This week, the Colonel and the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda have been reminiscing regarding the changes they've seen aboard Egeebeegee since their arrival.  Ten years in one place is an amazing achievement for a couple who together and between them have nearly three score domiciliary stops on this globe before coming to rest at long last here at the shallow northern end of deep southern nowhere.  

In ten year's time, one can actually watch a tree grow -- amazing!

In ten year's time, one can mark the seasonal arcs of the sun, by the same landmark, enough times to finally prove the theory.

In ten year's time, acquaintances can become friends.

In ten year's time, an abode can become home.

In ten year's time, one can accumulate, without worry that one's accumulation will exceed the limits on one's PCS orders.

In ten year's time, one can build, repair, (note Oxford comma -- and it ain't the Tuscaloosa comma for good reason) and rebuild the bridge across the stream that divides the Colonel's vast holdings in half. 

In ten year's time, one can plant, and feast on the fruit of, an orchard.  

So, here's to the Colonel's ten years in Mississippi.  Ten more, please.