Saturday, November 18, 2017

Sweet Commands

Martha Cannon used to say, speaking of her son-in-law, "When I couldn't run him off, I adopted him."

The Colonel didn't need adopting -- he had very special parents doing a great job of raising him already -- but, Miss Martha saw the connection between her daughter and the Colonel and decided she would also lend a hand in shaping the young man who would probably end up becoming her son-in-law.

Martha lost the love of her life a year ago and came to live with the Colonel and the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda.  She passed peacefully in her sleep early this morning and awoke in the arms of her Savior and looking into the eyes of her husband of 61 years. 

Four decades ago, when the Colonel took off with Miss Brenda, Miss Martha held his face in her strong hands and simply said, "You love my daughter."  

It wasn't a question.  It wasn't a request.  

It was a sweet command. 

Miss Martha was never demanding, but she was the master of the sweet command.  And, nobody dared disobey -- not out of fear, but out of tremendous love for a lady who never gave anyone a reason not to love her. 

The Colonel first became aware of an irresistibly cute and shy Brenda Cannon when they were barely 15.  It may not have been "love at first sight" but it was definitely not long after first sight that the Colonel, young as he was, decided that the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda was someone to lay claim to for a lifetime.

When the Colonel met the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda's beautiful mother, the deal was sealed.

The comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda's parents were not so sure.  In fact, they strongly counseled her to keep the Colonel at arms' length.  It was wise counsel.  But, to the Colonel's good fortune, Miss Brenda picked him to be one of the very few things on which she ever disagreed with her parents.

Jack and Martha Cannon were the Colonel's in-laws from the 31st of July in 1976.  But, they were more than just "in-laws."  Because Miss Brenda loved him with all her heart, they did too.

Miss Martha was a small-town girl from rural West Tennessee.  She went to work at Sears in Memphis right out of high school and there caught the eye of a stock-boy working his way through school at Memphis State.  Jack Cannon set his heart and mind on meeting (and marrying) the dark-haired beauty and finally finagled a date by inviting her to church.  They were married not many months later and parents of twin daughters within a year.  The next two decades took Martha far from Tennessee, following Jack's career as an Air Force pilot  --  Texas, Florida, Washington, Hawaii, New York, California, New Jersey, Tennessee, Panama...

Martha moved and set up household for her family more times than most folks take a trip out of state.  She kept her daughters safe and secure while Jack flew around the world representing the United States and helping keep the world safe for democracy.  She supported her husband's demanding career without question and with evident pride.  

When Linda and Brenda left home for college, Martha immediately opened her home to more children -- serving as a foster mom for dozens of children.  At her church in Panama City, Florida, Martha served as a pre-school Sunday School teacher for two generations of children, one of whom later became the Colonel's daughter-in-law.

To her grandchildren and great-grandchildren she was known as "Memaw," a name that everyone in the family, young and old, used with great affection.    

When Mr. Jack passed last year, the wise and courageous Miss Martha came to live with the Colonel and his bride.  What a blessing that year has been!  Caring for Miss Martha consumed each day, and enriched each one as well.

Compassionate, humble, positive, wise, devoted...  there's a whole dictionary of noble descriptions for this wonderful woman, and all the words in the world won't fill the hole in the Colonel's heart this morning.

Love you Memaw!                 


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Best Kept Secrets of an SLJO

Thirty-five years ago -- give or take a couple of weeks -- the Colonel, then a first lieutenant, was aboard a ship anchored in the protected waters of an Indian Ocean atoll called Diego Garcia.

The Colonel was then the junior officer on the staff of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (today called a Marine Expeditionary Unit) embarked on one of the U.S. Navy's BUGS (Big Ugly Gray Ships).  As the junior officer on that staff, the Colonel had a long list of written primary and collateral duties; none of which superseded his unwritten duties as SLJO --[descriptive expletive deleted] Little Jobs Officer.  [descriptive expletive deleted] little jobs were often menial tasks that senior officers considered beneath the dignity of an enlisted man, but requiring the industry of a junior officer shamelessly protective of his career and willing to do anything to stay in the good graces of his superiors.

[descriptive expletive deleted] little jobs often popped up as events or requirements for which the aforesaid senior officers had failed to plan, and for which the time of the most junior and least experienced officer would not be considered a waste.

Assignment to these pop up [descriptive expletive deleted] little jobs often started the same way, but rarely ended like this one:

"Lieutenant George, come here!"

"Sir! It's Lieutenant Gregory."


"My name is Lieutenant Gregory, sir."

"Wha... who?  Where is Lieutenant George?" 

"Sir, there is no Lieutenant George."

"Sure there is!  Short, skinny, balding, smart-[descriptive expletive deleted] with a budding Napoleon complex."

"Uh..., that's me, sir.  Lieutenant Gregory."         

 "Whatever, lieutenant...  What are you doing right now?"

"Well, sir, I was writing the operations report that you told me had to be on your desk by noon, and...

"That's not important right now.  Got another job for you.  There's a C-141 leaving from the airfield ashore in three hours.  Be on it."

"Aye, aye, sir!"  The Colonel (then still a lieutenant) spun on his heel and headed for the door.

"Wait a minute, George!  Where are you going?"

"It's Gregory, sir... I was headed ashore as directed." 

"Gregory?  What happened to Lieutenant George?"

The Colonel (then a lieutenant beginning to believe his anonymity meant he'd achieved his terminal rank) stood quietly at the position of attention and waited for further instructions.

"Take this binder, lieutenant.  The C-141 is going to Perth.  When you get there, go to the Parmelia Hilton and set up everything for our Birthday Ball.  The binder has everything you need to do -- follow it to the letter.  We'll be there in a couple of weeks, and..."      
"Perth, Australia, sir?" 

"Don't interrupt me, lieutenant!  Yes, Perth, Australia.  Do I need to send a lance corporal along to supervise you?"

"No, sir."

"Fine.  Listen carefully.  This is the most important job you'll ever have while assigned to this staff, and..."

"Sir, I thought you said that being assigned as the liaison to the Sultan of Oman's Land Forces for last month's exercise was the most important job I'd ever have..."

"Stop interrupting!  You didn't get that assignment -- I gave that mission to Lieutenant George.  Where is he by the way?  He would do a better job with this."     

"Sir... I'm Lieutenant George."

"Thought so!  You're not going very far in this man's Marine Corps if you can't remember your own name.  Now, when you get to the Parmelia Hilton, follow the checklist in this binder to the letter.  Do not deviate.  Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"We've already made reservations for you.  Get going."

"Aye, aye, sir!"

Twelve hours the front desk of the Parmelia Hilton in Perth, Australia:

"G'day, sah!"

"Huh..., yeah, I'm Lieutenant Gregory, U.S. Marines.  I believe I have a reservation..."

"Hmmm, we have a reservation for a Lieutenant George..."

"I'm Lieutenant George..."

"Right, mate.  No worries.  Could'a sworn you said 'Gregory'.  We've been expectin' you!  Here's your room pass.  Our Events Coordinator will ring you up in the morning."  

A bell rung, a porter grabbed the Colonel's bag, and a long elevator ride and a short walk later they were opening the door to his room.

Only it wasn't a "room."  The Colonel has paid onerous mortgages on spaces far smaller.  He followed the porter back down to the front desk.

"Excuse me.  About my room..."

"Sorry, sah.  Is there a problem with it?"

"No... I mean... yes..., I mean..., I'm afraid you've given me the key to the wrong room."

"So very sorry, sah!  Let me check that...  No, sah.  That's the right room."

"But, it's not a "room..."

"Well..., no, sah!  It's our best suite..."

"Hold on there, now, partner!  There ain't no way my per diem is gonna pay for two weeks in that suite!"

"Oh, no, sah!  It's complimentary!"

"Yeah, I know it's nice.  But, I can't afford it."

"It's complimentary, sah.  On the house.  Y'know, mate... free."  

"Even the fruit basket and bottle of wine?"

"Compliments of the house, mate."

Twelve hours, a fruit basket, a bottle of Western Australia's finest, and a long nap on a very long bed later, the Colonel's phone rang.  It was the Events Coordinator.  The Colonel showered and shaved, and lugged his thick binder down to her office.

Before the Colonel could start wading through the hundred or so pages of checklists, the Events Coordinator opened her own binder, "We've taken the liberty of organizing your event along the lines of the events your organization has held here for the past twenty years or so.  Everything is arranged.  Unless you have any additional requirements, all that is required from you is your signature on the contract."  

The Colonel quickly leafed through the Event Coordinator's binder.  It was identical to his.  

The Colonel signed the contract,

Thomas E. George 

Lieutenant George had a very nice, all-expense-paid, two-week stay in Perth, Australia.  And, that's all Lieutenant George has ever had to say about that...

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Earning the Lessons of War

Ninety-nine years ago, the guns fell silent.

For four years, mostly along a line that ran across Belgium, Luxemburg, and France from the Channel to the Swiss border, an incessant roar of artillery and staccato chatter of machine guns had filled the air.  From any listening point along that line the din of war was rarely ever squelched. 

Now, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month -- 11 A.M. on the 11th of November, 1918 -- the only sound along the front was a ragged cheer from men long at war finally at peace.

The Great War was over -- the fighting ceased by an armistice later codified by a treaty of peace.  However, the pain and suffering, political disorder, and technological change wrought by the conflict would endure for, and impact, generations.  

The war had literally bled white an entire generation of European men.  Apocryphal, yet telling, is the belief that of the plaques honoring the war dead of each graduating class at the French military academy Saint Cyr, there is one that simply says "The Class of 1914."   (In reality, only three quarters of the class died in the WWI; but, that is, in itself, emblematic.)   

The horrors of this first "modern" war defy comprehension.  The slaughter wrought by the mismatch of ploddingly antiquated battlefield doctrine and galloping technological advances boggles the mind.  Nearly 11 million soldiers (and half that number of civilians) died.  Life in the trenchworks was a horrid existence -- vermin and disease sat to a soldier's left, death by shrapnel or gas to his right.  To leave the trenches and assault forward meant crossing ground churned by shell and swept by machine gun fire.  Advances were often measured in mere yards.  Casualties dwarfed any previous war's toll. 

The killing fields of France, scarred still by the detritus and designs of war, were sown with seeds of monstrous destruction from which sprouted literal death and maiming for years to come.  Mines, unexploded shells (many filled with poisonous gas), and barbed wire entanglements continued to claim victims for decades after the fighting ceased. 

Even the 1919 Treaty of Versailles -- the treaty of peace forced on a politically, if not militarily, shattered Germany by the victorious Allies -- contained its own clutch of eggs in which poisonous offspring incubated in the heat of national humiliation, and from which slithered serpents of deception and destruction to wreak even greater pain and suffering on future generations.   

The world of 1919 was a place much different than it had been in 1914.  Empires, whose hereditary monarchs once ruled far-flung colonial possessions and commanded respect and admiration on the world stage, now lay headless and shrunken corpses in the back-alleys of history.  In their place, upstart empires led by commoners stoking the flames of ideology (democracy, socialism, nationalist socialism, and militant religious nationalism) flexed their newly fledged wings and flew about picking over the abandoned territories like so many buzzards over carrion.  From this witches' brew of humiliation and populism, new, more deadly, conflicts arose. 

Many of the military strategists who fought in the Great War (Pershing and his Operations Chief -- Fox Conner; one of the Colonel's military heroes -- prominent among them) saw clearly the certain future world war.  Pershing and Conner had argued in late 1918, as the German army retreated from the Allied offensive made possible by American reinforcements, and the German people recoiled in revolution at the great slaughter, that the "unconditional surrender" of the German army should be demanded; but, the Allied supreme command (French) considered unconditional surrender by the Germans unrealistic.  The Allied offensive was reclaiming ground held by the German army since the beginning of the war, but the German army was still very much an effective fighting force.   As the toll of the war mounted on the German people, revolution brewed.  Kaiser Wilhem, support lost among both his people and the army, finally abdicated on 9 November.  The new German regime immediately sued the Allies for an armistice.  Half a year later, the civilian leaders of the victorious powers -- France, Great Britain, the United States, and Italy -- wrought (and forced on Germany) not just a treaty of peace, but a severe punishment that included devastating reparations, humiliating territorial concessions (Japan got Germany's colonies in China and the Pacific -- setting the stage for a future war in the Pacific), and unrealistic military limitations.  

Pershing and Conner opposed the harsh punishments imposed on Germany by the Allies in the Treaty of Versaille.  Conner saw clearly that the humiliation of who he considered "the strongest people" in Europe would blowback with another even larger war as a result.  Over the next two decades, Conner made it a point to prepare his proteges (Marshall, Eisenhower, and Patton, among many others) for the coming second world war he was certain would spring from the stipulations of the treaty. 

America -- never keen to enter the war in Europe -- quickly settled back into isolationism; and worse, unpreparedness.  In Fox Conner's mid 1920's assignment in charge of the U.S. Army's logistics, he was appalled to find that the Army's entire budget for one year was less than what was spent to keep the AEF in the field for one week.  Ammunition stocks were aging and dwindling at an alarming rate.  The Army's manning dropped precipitously in the twenties and thirties -- to less than a third the number that Pershing and Conner considered the minimum to keep a nucleus of prepared forces to meet the next threat and train a rapidly swelling wartime force.

(Such unpreparedness was, unfortunately, an American habit.  When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, it had a relatively modern and effective navy; but the American army was miniscule.  The Spanish army in Cuba dwarfed the standing American army -- Spain had nearly 200,000 men in Cuba, armed with modern weapons.  In order to invade and "liberate" Cuba, a volunteer army was quickly raised.  Fortunately, Spain quickly grew tired of the fight and sued for an armistice -- although it's main force in Cuba was still effective.  The Colonel believes that had Spain really wanted to hold on to Cuba, and its other Caribbean territory, Puerto Rico, it could have easily done so -- within a half dozen weeks of landing on Cuba, tropical diseases had swept the American invasion force and reduced its fighting efficiency by 75%.)         

Clauswitz, one of history's most profound students of the nature of war, maintained that war was not a failure of politics and diplomacy, but was itself an extreme extension of those interstate activities.  By logical extension, preparedness for war strengthens a nation's diplomatic hand.  America's ability to exercise the influence in world affairs won by great sacrifice in 1918 was squandered by myopic populist politicians and nearly nonexistent a decade later.

Of the lessons of war Conner's mentorship imparted on the generation of military leaders that saw America and her allies through to victory in the next great war, the maxim that while weapons, doctrine, terrain, and weather change -- human nature does not, is perhaps the most salient.  Conner taught this maxim to prepare Marshall and Eisenhower to expertly conduct the coalition-building required to make many allied nations fight as one.  While that was indeed the competency that Marshall and Eisenhower needed most, there is a greater, big picture lesson for our Republic.

War is the one certain constant in the nature of man.  Denial of this fact places a nation at existential risk.  Peace is ephemeral -- out of humanity's grasp by God's design.   But, freedom and relative security is attainable -- at cost.

Ninety-nine years ago the guns fell silent.  The Colonel's maternal grandfather was one of a million American fighting men whose voices joined the chorus of cheers that swept the lines at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  The sacrifice those men -- and those like them in generations before and after -- laid on the altar of freedom must be remembered.  It also must animate us to internalize and apply the lessons of war.  

There is no more fitting tribute to an American veteran than to earn, through respect and preparedness, the freedom and security for which they fought.