Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I Don't See You

The pimply-faced mouth-breather at the concession stand handed over our 3D glasses and gushed unbidden, "It's the best movie I've ever seen! I've watched it ten times now! You guys are gonna love it!"

Had it not been that the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda was on my arm, the Colonel might very well have succumbed to the overwhelming desire to set the vocal chords on "stun" and subject the errant youth to a brief, but effective, lesson on a select number of points. The comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda's ever-so-slightly tightened grip on the Colonel's arm indicated that she had detected the tremor in the Force that often foretells a curmudgeonly blast from yours truly.

I cooled my jets.

However, after watching "Avatar" and then closing my eyes for an extended strategic planning session, the Colonel awoke this morning with jets at full military power, and the beneficiary of the resultant pedantic post will be you, gentle reader, instead of the public school product pushing concessions at the multi-plex. While the electrons comprising this missive are ordered for his consumption, I doubt the young man's ability to apply the fifth grade level reading and comprehension skills required to plow through it. But, the Colonel has always harbored a fondness for lost causes...

First, the Colonel cares not one wit about the "experience" of some adolescent whose digestive tract is still processing what his mother fed him for breakfast before pushing him out the door and pointing him toward the bus stop to join the other neighborhood punks-in-training beginning their matriculation at Che Guevara Elementary School. Just give me my bucket of stale and outrageously overpriced popcorn and my watered-down and outrageously overpriced fountain drink, and point mutely toward the Men's room so that I can prepare to sit still through a long and outrageously overpriced movie. If you must speak, restrict your vocalizations to short, intelligible utterances laden with information and respect--not necessarily in that order.

Second, the Colonel wonders to what better use the several hundred dollars you spent on repeated viewings of this movie could have been put. Oh, I don't know, maybe some suspenders to help keep the waistband of you trousers from sliding down around your thighs. Or, maybe a hat with the bill on the front. Or, maybe a haircut.

Third, the Colonel would like to know against what films you applied your cinematic comparisons to arrive at the erroneous conclusion that this is the best movie of all time. "Caddy Shack" was more original and had a better plot than this tree-hugging homage to anti-capitalism. "Avatar" has some really neat special effects, but contains little novelty--most of the movie was lifted from other films. Even with the few remaining synapses firing in the amorphous goo laying fallow in the recesses of my brain-housing group, the Colonel was able to detect and identify scenes and devices plagiarized from "Aliens," "Star Wars," "Dances with Wolves," and "Starship Troopers," to name only a few.

On a positive note, the Colonel appreciates Cameron's allusions to the evils of mercenary armies in the service of corporations. These re-United States sully the good name of our people with the allowance and employ of such mercenary outfits as Xe (aka, Blackwater).

It has always been the Colonel's position that the United States military should be used to do corporations' bidding--they pay for it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Give ME a Teleprompter, Please!

The Colonel really wishes everyone would lay off of our president regarding his use of a teleprompter. Frankly, the Colonel longs for the day when technology catches up with the dream of a memory chip behind the ear and a personal HUD ("head-up display" for all of you Mississippi State and LSU grads) to guide my every spoken word. Programmed to prompt the statistically most effective and least inflammatory responses to the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda's every query, the Colonel's quality of life would dramatically surge into the upper 90's as measured by daily tracking polls.

The Colonel can only imagine the soaring heights to which his familial popularity would rise once his off-hand remarks and scattered-brained utterances are disciplined and scripted for the most effective delivery. And with the behind-the-ear memory chip implant providing pronunciation and diction cues (appropriate to the audience), there would be no more of the verbal stumbles and monosyllabic guttural utterances that otherwise characterise and dominate this Marine's speech.

One fervently hopes that second and third generations of these devices would even provide faithful speech replication--nothing like the flat-toned computer speak by which Steven Hawking currently communicates. These devices will, if the Colonel's happiest dreams come true, have the ability to pick up even the slightest of the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda's whispers in other rooms, accurately interpret their hidden meanings, and provide an automatic reply calculated to satisfactorily answer in a soothing-toned voice replication, thus negating the need for personal constant monitoring and attention to the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda's communication network. The Colonel can only imagine the marital bliss thereby provided.

The Colonel's communication with non-familial contacts would also benefit from the envisioned technology. The heretofore unintelligible utterances of bored store help would be instantaneously translated and winnowed for what tiny bits of useful information might exist in their verbalized breath expulsions. An answer of thanks would be generated and produced for the Colonel, obviating the need to actually personally reply. This might actually save the Colonel from the legal action sure to be incurred if he acts on the overwhelming impulse to grab the offending mouth-breathing public school product by the stacking swivel and... Anyway, you get the idea.

Teleprompters for all, I say.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ode to Anas Platyrhynchos

It has been a season to remember. For the uninitiated, the sport--nay, Calling--that is duck hunting, seems a foolish pursuit at best. When one who has never been hears of the 0-dark-thirty reveilles, the wind-chilled boat rides, the frozen-fingered handling of dozens of decoys, the back-killing hours standing in thigh deep water, the expense of guns and ammunition, and the often empty-handed result of all of these rigors, they need no other confirmation that their friend is three or four shells shy of a full box. And in more years than not, with birds in short supply, and those warier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, the hunter himself comes to the same self-evaluation. But, then, just about the time a duck hunter is ready to enter a seven-step program to wean himself from the addiction, there are seasons like this one that provide the rush that hooks him deep in his soul and leaves him longing for the next season's fix.

For the Colonel, there may not be many sights in this world whose thrill compares to that of a brace of greenheads turning and dropping altitude toward the decoys, wings cupped into the wind. Well, there is the sight of the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda after a couple of hours absence. And, there is the sight of a sleepy-eyed grandson toddling towards you for his morning hug. And, okay, there's the thrill of seeing the Rebels run on to the field for the first time in September. But, other than that... a duck on the downwind approach, gear down and wings cupped, in the soft light of a early winter just doesn't get much better than that.

The past several seasons here at the northern end of southern nowhere have been marked by low water and even lower numbers of ducks. We persisted though, trekking to isolated pockets of flooded timber in all but forgotten patches of cypress swamp. Sometimes we saw a few ducks. Most often not. Our trips became as much social outings as hunts; our cold, wet, birdless misery bonding us; our watch phrase ever the refrain, "maybe next year we'll have enough rain to flood the lake and the hunting will be better..."

And then, heavy rains came early this fall, washing away the bitter disappointment of a once buoyant Rebel football season aground on the rocks of reality, filling the lake to overflowing and our hearts with the hope of flocks of mallards escaping the ice up north and finding wet room to raft and loaf. A month ago, we were living the dream. There were birds in abundance, some of which even turned their heads to our plaintive reeds and circled our spread. And some of those thrilled our hearts, and the hearts of ammunition manufacturers, with the wind dance that brought them into range of our guns.

Yesterday, the first day in a nearly a week that we could get back on the lake--thunderstorms and waders don't mix--we motored to a spot that provided the perfect protection of calm water in a strong west wind and expectantly went through the well-rehearsed drill of donning waders, throwing decoys, hiding the boat and then hiding ourselves. We waited. No birds. Our ducks were gone--probably further south.

Stupid ducks, who needs 'em?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Surf's Up

"Bait and switch" is an effective short-term tactic, but it is a hopeless long-term strategy. We've all been its victim in a store--responding to a ridiculously low price advertised on the Bettermade 1000 only to find that the store is fresh out when we get there, "But, we have plenty of the Bestmade 2000 and it is really a much better value than the Bettermade 1000."

When applied to the prurient playground of politics, "bait and switch" takes the form of either comely specific campaign promises made with no intention or ability to keep, or nebulous rabble-rousing rhetoric that stirs the heart but has no soul. This deceit is not a recently discovered political art form, but has been in existence for as long as man has interacted with man. Moses recorded in Genesis, perhaps the first known broken campaign promise--the apple, as delightful as the fruit of its consumption seemed in the abstract, did not produce the constituent contentment its consumption promised.

This barely-reconstructed rebel doesn't often offer praise for yankees. However, the Colonel is heartened that the good people of Massachusetts demonstrated this week that even the most closed-eye constituency can be roused from its for granted-taken slumber. But, the Colonel is also aware that the results of Massachusetts' US Senate special election to fill the seat formerly held by Miss Kopechne's last boyfriend are not as insignificant, nor as earth-shattering, as the two political parties would have us believe. True, the results are newsworthy--much more so than most of the tripe that passes the lips of newsies--but, our assessment of them must be tempered by the adage attributed to Tip O'Neil that "all politics is local." In reality, the Democratic candidate, once she secured her party's nomination, believed she had the election sewed up in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1 and whose electorate went for H in a landslide barely 14 months ago. When Coakley's campaign awoke to slipping poll numbers, a rash of ham-handed missteps and electorate-insulting gaffes left her wide open to the Republican's deft counterattack.

While the Colonel does believe that an element of anger and disgust at the bait and switch tactics of the Obama administration provided some momentum away from the Democratic column in the Massachusetts senate race, as well as the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, the politicians positioning themselves to catch the wave should not mistake the message. As much as the brokers of power and purveyors of political pablum would have us believe, American political sentiment, on the whole, is not particularly policy-driven. We might say that we want our government to take care of this personal need or to do this or that for us, but, when our government intrudes into our lives in order to provide the service, we react as we nearly always have since 1775--with anger.

What we Americans really want, and for which our Constitution so adeptly provides, is government responsive to our desires for the freedom and opportunity to achieve our personal goals. We want government that provides physical security. We want government that ensures a level playing field. We want government that does our business in the open, so that we can supervise those we have chosen to serve us. We want government that does not take us for granted. Promise us "a chicken in every pot" if that is what gets you elected, but don't tell us how to cook it.

Sadly, the Colonel is afraid that the message coming out of Massachusetts, and Virginia and New Jersey, will be misinterpreted as policy-driven by politicians whose hubris prevents them from accepting that they are there because we put them there. Politicians with personal agendas will attempt to ride the current wave of popular sentiment to the left or to the right, showing off to the crowd on the beach, padding their personal power bases--and their pockets.

The Colonel hopes that real American leaders will emerge to harness the current productive wave of popular political sentiment before it turns into a destructive tsunami of violent popular expression.

But, hope is not a strategy, nor an effective course of action.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What We Owe Haiti

Were it not for Haiti, the dirt poor nation from which heart-rending pictures and descriptions of earthquake destruction are filling our news, the United States might not exist in any form near what we know today. Certainly the United States should respond to the need of this hemispheric neighbor with the massive and immediate aid that only the United States has the capacity to provide and the means to deliver. Whether that aid will significantly improve the lot of the Haitian people in the long run is another question. However, that is besides the point. The United States owes its very existence to the actions of the ancestors of present day Haitians.

The history of Haiti is perhaps one of the most interesting of all of the lands in the Western Hemisphere. The island of Hispaniola, on the western end of which sits Haiti, was occupied by the Arawakan Taino when Columbus and his crew of misfits and mercenaries blundered ashore in 1492. Within a few generations, due to European diseases and depredations, the Taino all but ceased to exist on the island. The gold and silver, after which the Spanish scoured the island, turned out to be much more prevalent on the New World mainland and the majority of Hispaniola was largely abandoned and left to serve as a base for Caribbean piracy.

While British and Dutch brigands also used Hispaniola, it was French pirates who established the first permanent settlement on the nearby island of Tortuga. In 1652, King Louis XIV commissioned an official French settlement on Tortuga; and in 1664, the French West India Company took over administration of the Tortuga colony and claimed control of the Western portion of Hispaniola. In 1697, Spain ceded this part of the island to France. French plantation owners imported West African slaves to work their fields and by the end of the 18th Century maintaining the over half a million laborers in Haiti accounted for a third of the Atlantic slave trade.

To maintain control over a slave population that outnumbered them 20 to 1, French planters employed the most ruthless and inhumane methods imaginable to discipline and terrorize their charges. Tens of thousands of slaves escaped to the interior where they formed their own communities, supported in large part by raiding their former masters.

On the heels of the revolution that plunged France into bloody chaos, slaves on Hispaniola began a rebellion in 1791. The French attempted to regain control of the island by declaring emancipation in 1793. Turmoil at home and war with Great Britain resulted in French neglect of their colony and former slave leaders filled the power vacuum. The most prominent of these, Toussaint Louverture, led an army of former slaves in turning back a British invasion, and by 1801 had brought the entire island under his control.

Meanwhile, Napoleon had seized power in France, and in 1802 sent a huge force to reclaim French control of the island. His intent was to rapidly subdue the island and then use it as a base for invasion of North America via New Orleans. For all his military genius, Napoleon never did quite learn to take the environment into account when embarking on one of his campaigns (see his experience in Egypt and Russia). Within a year of landing on Hispaniola with the mission of re-enslaving the black population, nearly half of the forty thousand French troops were dead from malaria and yellow fever. The remainder of the French invasion force was destroyed by the former slave army and they declared their independence on January the 1st, 1804.

As Napoleon's dream of Western Hemisphere conquest died, he attempted to salvage what he could and sold his claims in North America to the United States in order to finance his ongoing war with Great Britain. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 more than doubled the territory of the United States and allowed the great westward expansion that changed the former colonials into masters of nearly an entire continent. Were it not for the freedom-fighting former slaves whose descendants are clawing their way out of the rubble in Port-au-Prince today, our nation might very well be nothing more than an asterisk in European history.

Of course, the re-United States paid Haiti back in the early 20th Century by sending Brigadier General Smedley Butler and a brigade of Marines to sort things out for them. But that's grist for another post.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Ice Age Accoutrements

A rare snow fell here at the northern end of southern nowhere this week. With the white stuff still filling the air, the Colonel layered up, grabbed his trusty musket, and headed out into the storm to conduct a security patrol of the back forty. I enjoy the change of scenery winter brings to the landscape. I like the long, stark views afforded by the leafless woods--even more, the dramatic change wrought by a blanket of snow and ice. I was ostensibly looking for deer or a pesky coyote, but sighted snowy memories instead.

Standing next to a tall cedar as the snow swirled, the Colonel's mind drifted back to other cold, snowy adventures. Thirty years ago, this January, a brash young Lieutenant Gregory was volunteered to attend the Mountain Leader Course at the Marine Corps' base in the Sierra Nevadas. There, in a month's time (amazing, the Corps' economy), this thin blooded southern boy was transformed into an Arctic Warfare "Expert." So tagged (erroneously, at best), I became a member of a small cadre of Marines tasked with leading the transformation of a jungle-fighting Corps into a force capable of fulfilling our Cold War mission of engaging the Godless Soviets on the flanks of the NATO main effort. One said flank was Norway.

When I returned to the swamps of Camp Lejeune from the mountains of northern California, the "word" was our battalion, Second Battalion, Second Marines (2/2), was scheduled to participate in an exercise in Norway in the coming fall. In preparation for subsequent deployments to Norway, battalions would go to Minnesota or Wisconsin to train and prepare for their arctic adventure. To prepare for our upcoming Norway deployment, the Second Marine Division sent us to the Mojave Desert--at the height of the summer. There's just nothing like 18 hours a day of sunlight and 115 in the shade to get you in the mindset to handle 18 hours a day of darkness and 20 degrees in the sunlight.

Luckily for the Marines of 2/2, and this one in particular, our exercise, Teamwork '80, took place in central Norway, before the snow began to fall.

Not a week after our return to the relative warmth of coastal Carolina, I was summoned to the battalion operations officer's office and told that I had been "volunteered" to join a small cadre of "officers with arctic experience" charged with preparing the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines for their imminent deployment to north Norway for the aptly named exercise, Cold Winter '81. In preparation for this exercise 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, 1/6 received a couple of weeks of "classroom" instruction (provided by yours truly and three other lieutenants) at Camp Lejeune, and three weeks of field training at Camp Ripley, Minnesota before boarding amphibious shipping and sailing for Norway. The instructor cadre, of which I was a part, flew to Camp Ripley a couple of weeks ahead of time to set up the field training, and then flew to Norway a couple of weeks ahead of the arrival of the ships bearing 1/6.

During all of this "advanced party" partying, we American Marine arctic warfare "experts" got some very valuable training from the Royal Marine Commando, Captain J. J. B. Lear, who was assigned as to the Second Marine Division as part of an ongoing exchange program. Lear, a giant of a man with cauliflower ears from years of rugby scrums, knew his stuff. The Royal Marines had been exercising in Norway for decades and Lear put us "experts" through a crash course designed to impart as much of his knowledge as possible in the short amount of time he had available. Most of the arctic survival lessons I can still bring to mind are accompanied by the visage of Lear's face and the cockneyed, "Got it? Right, then!"

Reassigned as 2/2's assistant operations officer upon my return from Cold Winter '81, I was given the task of preparing the battalion for it's participation in Teamwork '82, this time in the same northern Norway training area in which 1/6 had floundered and frozen in inadequate clothing and equipment. I was as determined, as any brash lieutenant could be, to right all the wrongs of poor preparation and outdated clothing and equipment foisted on 1/6, and prepared a plan for 2/2 that included some equipment requirements currently not available in the Division.

Most of the clothing and equipment we Marines were still using in the early 80's was Korean War vintage, and it hadn't been very effective in the winters of Korea, for that matter. What we needed, in my not so humble opinion, were the much better arctic clothing, tents, sleeping bags and mats, and stoves used by the Norwegians and Brits, and I dutifully submitted a report to my boss saying so. He passed it to our battalion commander, who drug me along on an office call to our Division Commanding General, then Major General Al Gray. General Gray had been an enlisted man in the 1st Marine Division in the bitter cold days of the Korean War, and was revered as a tough, no-nonsense Marine. My battalion commander had served with Gray before and after brief pleasantries between the two, the general turned to me and said "Well, Lieutenant?"

I handed a one page summary of my brief, which included a laundry list of cold weather clothing and equipment requirements, to Gray and launched into my spiel. I had barely begun, when the general huffed and pitched the piece of paper back across the desk at me. He growled something to the effect of "We didn't have all of this stuff in Korea, and we did alright...," to which I responded with some inanity about the number of cold casualties exceeding that from enemy fire at the Chosin Reservoir. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my battalion commander blanch, and then saw Gray's face redden. But, I was committed and figured that since I had just clinched achievement of my terminal rank, I might as well leave my lance embedded as high up in the windmill as possible.

"General, if you are serious about this Division being able to survive and fight in Norway, we need this equipment." I stole a glance at my colonel and he was glaring at me like I had just dropped trou and mooned the CG. When I looked back at Gray, he too was glaring at me, and I figured I had better shut up--reaching terminal rank is one thing, being beaten to death for my insolence by a couple of combat veteran Marines is something else entirely.

After a stony silence that stretched past what seemed like several chow calls, and during which my, vastly, superiors maintained glares that threatened to set the sparse hair on my head on fire, Gray turned to my colonel and dismissed us with promises to find what we needed and instructions about the proper care and feeding of his lieutenants.

Turns out General Gray was already several miles down the ski slope ahead of us. He knew what we needed, and he got if for us. By the time I made my next trip to Norway in 1987, the Marine Corps had, in the words of a Royal Marine officer who saw our new cold weather clothing, "cornered the market on Goretex." By the time Gray and the next couple of Commandants that succeeded him were done, the entire Marine Corps was outfitted in state of the art individual gear and clothing that made moving and surviving in arctic conditions much more effective.

A wind gust blew light snow in my face and broke my reverie. In the long cold walk back to the big house I tried to think about something warm. The hottest thing I could envision was the butt-gnawing I received from my colonel all the long walk back to our battalion area after leaving Gray's office.