Poem for Combat Pilot Veterans

It is Veterans Day.

When I was in Ireland back in May/June, I learned that, despite being part of the UK at the time, Irish men were exempt from the World War I draft. Nonetheless, quite a few volunteered. The most dangerous job was surely that of pilot. William Butler Years wrote a poem about these volunteers: “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” The first few lines…

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;

In our risk-averse age it is difficult to fathom how anyone would have volunteered to serve in combat in World War I, let alone volunteer to get into a machine that most pilots would today consider far too dangerous to take around the pattern.

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U.S. southern border versus Syrian northern border

Facebook is alive with outrage regarding Donald Trump’s scaling back of our military involvement what will soon be the 9th year of the Syrian Civil War.

The same people who demanded the abolition of ICE and the pulling back of armed U.S. forces patrolling the U.S. southern border are demanding that armed U.S. forces patrol the Syrian northern border. The people who advocate for a wave of migration from Central America into the U.S. are opposed to a wave of re-migration of Syrians currently in Turkey back across the northern border into their original home (map from the BBC, which says “Turkey launched the offensive in northern Syria a week ago to push back from its border members of a Syrian Kurdish militia called the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and create a ‘safe zone’ along the Syrian side of the border, where up to two million Syrian refugees can be resettled.”

Readers: Is Trump wrong? Should we spend the next 10-20 years patrolling the Syrian border and trying to keep our NATO ally Turkey (population 80 million) from doing what it deems prudent in its immediate neighborhood?

[If Elizabeth Warren prevails in 2020, will she solve both of these problems by relocating U.S. Border Patrol forces over to northern Syria?]

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Are American interests harmed when the Syrian government governs Syria?

My Facebook feed is now 99 percent hysteria regarding the U.S. policy shift in Syria. Trump has decided to scale back involvement in the Syrian civil war, now in its 8th year. My friends who identify as Democrats are demanding continued U.S. military action (none has demanded a 600-ship Navy yet, but I remain hopeful!). Note that none of these folks are actually in the military or young enough to join, so they take no personal risk by advocating that others fight.

From a recent New York Times article:

The Syrian government had been almost entirely absent from the northeast since it withdrew or was chased out by armed rebels. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia that worked with the United States to fight the Islamic State, soon became the region’s overarching political force.

If Syrian government forces can reach the Turkish border to the north and the Iraqi border to the east, it would be a major breakthrough in Mr. Assad’s quest to re-establish his control over the whole country.

In other words, while complaining that some Russians may have purchased a Facebook ad falsely asserting that Hillary Clinton was an elderly tax-and-spend Democrat, we have been supporting a group trying to carve off part of another country and run it for themselves.

(I recognize that Bashar al-Assad may have shortcomings as a leader, but he has a challenging task and it is unclear that the Syrian government is worse than a bunch of other governments worldwide. If it is legitimate for us to help an armed rebellion against Assad, shouldn’t we also be helping armed rebellions all around the world?)

Readers: Plainly it would be better if Syrians were more like the Costa Ricans and the Syrian government were more like the Costa Rican government. But, given that Syrians are not like the Costa Ricans, does it make sense to be continuously outraged that the Syrian government is not like the Costa Rican government? What are we buying with the money and American lives spent over the last eight years in Syria?

Is it enough to say “Because terrorism”? Why is it obvious that some government other than Assad’s would do a better job of discouraging Muslims in Syria from waging jihad? None of the September 11 jihadis were from Syria and, in fact, all came from countries whose governments we have supported.

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Drone attack on Saudi Arabia proves we shouldn’t build big expensive Navy ships?

Back in March, I wrote “Robot kamikaze submarines shaped like blue whales render navy ships useless?” and asked “Does it make sense to spend $billions on these Navy ships that could be attacked by robots?”

A reader responded “Forget about submarines, anti-ship missiles probably make every surface ship a sitting duck in a war.”

Does the recent drone attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities (Guardian) prove this reader’s point?

They had the latest and greatest air defense systems says “Did U.S. Missile Defenses Fail During Saudi Oil Attack?”:

The attack revealed the limits of Saudi Arabia’s seemingly sophisticated air-defense system. Riyadh in recent years has spent billions of dollars building up six battalions of U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missiles and associated radars. The Patriots didn’t stop the recent attack.

A ship doesn’t have a better air defense system than what the Saudis had, does it? If not, why would we want to spend $10+ billion on a Navy ship when it can be wiped out by a relatively weak adversary, such as the Houthi rebels that are blamed for this attack on the Saudis?

(Also, why should the U.S. fight with Iran over this? Saudi Arabia is not a member of NATO, right? China is not going to deploy its military on one side or the other of this fight. If it doesn’t make sense for China to weigh in, why does it make sense for us?)

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Gitmo costs $13 million per prisoner

The NYT took a rare breather from its study of Donald Trump and calculated that U.S. taxpayers spend $13 million per prisoner per year at Guantánamo Bay (story):

The 40 prisoners, all men, get halal food, access to satellite news and sports channels, workout equipment and PlayStations. Those who behave — and that has been the majority for years — get communal meals and can pray in groups, and some can attend art and horticulture classes.

The prison’s uniformed staff members also include a Coast Guard unit that patrols the waters below the cliff top prison zone; Navy doctors, nurses, psychological technicians and corpsmen; a unit of Air Force engineers; lawyers, chaplains, librarians, chaperones and military journalists. Each has layers of commanders who oversee their work and manage their lives at Guantánamo.

In 2018, Congress approved spending $115 million on a dormitory-style barracks complex to replace trailer housing for 848 troops. But no contract has been awarded, construction has not yet begun and Navy spokesmen could not provide the target completion date.

So there are at least 848 troops to guard 40 prisoners?

Readers: What’s a good comparison for this $13 million/year cost? A high-end hotel in Havana is about $150/night or $54,750 per year. Add another $45k for room service and each prisoner is costing the equivalent of 130 hotel rooms with food.

[Separately, how can the NYT know that the 40 prisoners are “all men” unless the reporters have recently queried each one regarding his/her/zir/their current gender ID. Is the NYT making cisgender-normative assumptions?]

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New Englanders: Father’s Day weekend at the tank museum

New England’s latest museum to open is the American Heritage Museum in Hudson/Stow, Massachusetts. It is run by the long-established Collings Foundation, which owns priceless warbirds and classic cars, but shows off a new collection of armored vehicles.

It is a great museum any time (passionate and knowledgeable volunteer guides bring the machines alive), but especially great this coming weekend when they’re having the “Tanks, Wings, and Wheels” event.

[It is currently not simple to buy a membership at the front desk, so if you want to get an annual membership, sign up via the web site.]

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The great storm of 1950

Some miscellaneous items learned from reading On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle by Hampton Sides.

Impressed by hysterical headlines regarding today’s weather?

The same day the Chinese delegation arrived in New York, an unusually powerful storm system began to form across the eastern third of the United States, one that would temporarily divert the attention of the Truman administration from the looming conflict with China. The storm started with an Arctic cold front that fingered down through Ohio and eastern Kentucky. Across Appalachia, the mercury dropped from the fifties to the teens within a few hours. By the next day, as the cold air mass barreled toward the east, a vast pocket of warm, wet Atlantic air from the Carolinas began to wrap underneath it. The storm had become an “extratropical cyclone.” Huge amounts of snow began to fall across Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. In one town, deep in the hollows of West Virginia, fifty-seven inches of snow fell in just over a day. On the east side of the front, gale-force winds began to buffet New York and New England, cutting electricity from more than a million households. Manhattan recorded a peak gust of nearly a hundred miles per hour, and surging seas breached the dikes at LaGuardia Airport, flooding the runways. The nasty weather forced the Chinese delegates to stay inside their Waldorf-Astoria rooms for two days. The event, which continued to rage through Thanksgiving weekend and beyond, would affect twenty-two states and would kill 353 people. On some of the worst-hit highways, National Guardsmen were brought in to remove snow with tanks and flamethrowers. Newspapers called it the Storm of the Century. Whatever it was, the cyclone was an anomaly that would be studied for decades. “The Great Appalachian Storm of 1950,” as it would officially become known, was the costliest and most destructive storm then recorded in U.S. history—a wintry vortex that few saw coming, and few understood even after it had arrived.

We nearly blew up Canada:

The following day, November 10, [1950] an even weightier event took place that would again disturb Truman’s concentration. That night, a Boeing B-50 Superfortress took off from Goose Bay Air Base, in Labrador, Canada. Flying over the St. Lawrence River, the heavy bomber ran into trouble. First one and then another of its four engines failed. Protocol required that the pilot immediately jettison his cargo—and so he did, right over the river, not far from the city of Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec, 250 miles northeast of Montreal. The cargo in question happened to be a Mark IV atomic bomb, a revised version of the “Fat Boy” that had obliterated Nagasaki five years earlier. The crew set the squat, five-and-a-half-ton device to detonate at an altitude of 2,500 feet. Mercifully, the bomb was missing its plutonium core, so no nuclear reaction occurred. But the resulting explosion was massive nevertheless, and it rained more than a hundred pounds of moderately radioactive uranium over a wide arc of the Quebec countryside.

American and Canadian officials immediately moved to cover up the accident, telling reporters that what residents had heard was merely a five-hundred-pound “practice” bomb—conventional, not atomic—that had been intentionally and safely detonated. Not until the 1980s would the United States Air Force acknowledge that this was a case of a lost nuclear bomb—there would be several during the Cold War—an incident category known in military parlance as a “broken arrow.”

The Chinese and Russians subscribed to their own version of our Domino theory:

At the Zhongnanhai, the former imperial palace in Beijing, Mao Zedong was in secret deliberations with his advisers about the Korea situation. Mao was eager to enter the war. “Another nation is in a crisis,” he reportedly said. “We’d feel bad if we stood idly by.” His foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, having recently returned from a series of meetings with Stalin at his dacha on the Black Sea and gaining his tacit support, concurred. Mao decided to assign the command of China’s armies to Peng Dehuai, a veteran officer of the civil war and an old comrade from the days of the Long March. Peng accepted. “The U.S. occupation of Korea, separated from China by only a river, would threaten Northeast China,” he argued. “The U.S. could find a pretext at any time to launch a war of aggression against China. The tiger wanted to eat human beings; when it would do so would depend on its appetite. No concession could stop it.” In characterizing the prospect of an American presence on the Yalu, some of the Chinese commanders employed a hypothetical analogy: The United States would not countenance a scenario in which the Chinese invaded Mexico and marched right up to the Rio Grande and the Texas border. That, in reverse, was precisely the situation here. Peng and Mao agreed on a strategy to entrap the Americans—an enemy that, they fully realized, had far greater firepower. Peng wrote, “We would employ the tactic of purposely showing ourselves to be weak, increasing the arrogance of the enemy, luring him deep into our areas.” Then Peng’s far more numerous armies would “sweep into the enemy ranks with the strength of an avalanche” and engage at close quarters. This strategy, Peng thought, would render “the superior firepower of the enemy useless.”

From Mao’s perspective, this was a confrontation decades in the making. American imperialism, which the Chairman viewed as merely an extension of the old imperialism of the European colonial powers, had been thwarting China’s progress and intervening in her internal affairs for more than a century. He viewed American meddling as a pernicious force, going back as far as the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the disruptive role of American missionaries deep in China’s hinterlands. The United States had actively and openly subverted Mao’s revolution, supplying arms and assistance to Chiang Kai-shek. Now, from their base in occupied Japan, the Americans appeared to be expanding their sphere of influence throughout Asia. When the defeated Chiang decamped to Taiwan and Mao threatened to attack him there, President Truman had sent the Seventh Fleet to guard the Strait of Taiwan—an action Mao viewed as an affront.

When trying to persuade Stalin to join him in ejecting the United States from Korea, Mao had warned the Soviet dictator that “if the Americans conquer all of Korea, both China and the Soviet Union will be threatened—like teeth getting chilled through broken lips.”

Being in the Chinese military was not a status symbol:

Most of Mao’s soldiers were powerless and desperately poor young men. They came from the lower echelons of an ancient society that did not particularly value the individual and had traditionally viewed warriors as an expendable class. (“As you do not use good metal for nails,” went an old Chinese proverb, “so you do not use good men for soldiers.”)

Mao and Harvey Weinstein had some things in common, including the bathrobe:

The fifty-six-year-old paramount leader of the newly minted People’s Republic of China, having triumphed over Chiang Kai-shek the previous year, was anxious to consolidate his power and flex his muscles on the world stage. Ruthless, paranoid, a devotee of the ancient military philosopher Sun Tzu, and a cunning strategist himself, he was a powerfully charismatic man with odd habits and obsessions. To the alarm of his security police, he was infatuated with the idea of swimming in all of China’s major rivers, including the mighty Yangtze, as a way to imbibe the spirit of China. Otherwise, Mao rarely showed himself to the public and conducted much of his state business by his pool, deep inside the palace complex, often wearing a terry-cloth robe and slippers. … Mao refused to pay attention to schedules or conventional expectations about time. He followed no rhythm, circadian or otherwise, and his staff was perpetually perplexed by his erratic habits and spasmodic bursts of energy. Mao also had an apparently unslakable sexual appetite and believed that orgasms directly halted the aging process. To ward off impotency, he received frequent injections of an extract made from pulverized deer antlers. Although he was married, he had his staff secure him beautiful young women to sleep with—sometimes as many as a dozen liaisons in a single day. He had hideous teeth, rendered dingy brown from chain-smoking and his refusal to practice the most rudimentary oral hygiene—he would only rinse his mouth, once a day, with dark tea.

There was an assassination attempt on Truman:

Collazo and Torresola were Puerto Rican Nationalists, tied to cells that were attempting to foment a violent insurrection and assert independence for the island. The two men believed that only a sensational act would bring attention to their movement. They were also angry about the Korean War, and the contradictions they saw in the fact that so many Puerto Rican soldiers had joined the U.N. effort to fight for freedoms they themselves did not enjoy on their home island. … It was the largest gunfight in the history of the Secret Service. Two men lay dead or dying, and three others were wounded. Twenty-seven shots had been fired in less than two minutes.

More: Read On Desperate Ground

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Remembering the Marines who fought in Korea

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle by Hampton Sides is a sobering Memorial Day read.

The book tells the story, from the American point of view, of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

As with the World War II history that I recently read, the author is not a fan of Douglas MacArthur. He sets an arbitrary date for recapturing Seoul even if it means destroying the city in order to “liberate” it:

As the Marines began to probe the outlying precincts of the city, the human cost of MacArthur’s deadline became more apparent to [Major General Oliver Prince] Smith. He felt the September 25 date was contrived—little more than a political gimmick designed to win headlines. Smith reckoned that his Marines could probably take Seoul by the twenty-fifth, but only by laying waste to large sections of the city, pounding it with artillery, bombing it to cinders. Seoul would be badly scarred, and the civilian death toll could be terrible. Smith knew that there were other, less destructive ways to take the city. Alpha Bowser insisted that the Marines could capture Seoul “with hardly a brick out of place.” They could encircle it, cut the enemy’s supply lines, and methodically ferret out the defenders, block by block. But this kind of fighting would take more time than MacArthur was willing to tolerate. So the big guns were brought forward, and the ritual of “softening up” targets across the city began. This, of course, was but a euphemism for a devastating bombardment that could only strike terror in the hearts of Seoul’s residents. General Almond was pleased to note that the enemy would be pounded to pieces. That a city might be razed in the process appeared not to trouble him.

After destroying a city, MacArthur destroys an American army by ignoring intelligence regarding hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers who’d crossed over into North Korea and falling right into a trap set by Mao.

The new plan was for most of Smith’s division to hasten forty miles up the coast, then turn toward the northwest, across the plains and into the Taebaek Mountains—the extensive range that forms Korea’s spine, the so-called dragon’s back. They would move up a narrow road that twisted for more than seventy miles into the highlands, toward a large man-made lake that, according to the old Japanese maps the Americans were working from, was called the Chosin Reservoir. Upon reaching its shores, Smith’s men were to keep marching for the Yalu, which was another hundred miles to the north by way of a patchwork of roads. [MacArthur’s deputy Edward] Almond called for maximum speed, much as he had during the battle for Seoul. From the start, Smith was suspicious of Almond’s plan. Among other things, it meant that his division would be strung along a narrow mountain road for nearly one hundred miles, in a long train of men and vehicles. They would move along this single artery, relying on a supply chain that the enemy could sever at any point. In this desolate country, there were no airstrips, no functioning rail lines, no other ways to receive reinforcements or evacuate casualties. They had only one road in, and, should anything happen, only one road out. The more they progressed, the more they would stretch themselves—and the more their survival would depend upon this fragile umbilical cord.

Upon reaching the village of Sudong, about twenty miles inland at the base of the mountains, one of these patrols met a unit of South Korean troops and found them positively rattled. They reported that they had just engaged in a firefight with the Red Chinese—more commonly referred to, among American commanders, as Communist Chinese Forces, or CCF. When asked how large a force they had encountered, the South Koreans would say only that there were “many, many.” But the South Koreans had captured sixteen prisoners and, upon interrogating them, had learned that they were from the 370th Regiment of the 124th Division of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—Mao’s army. They claimed they had crossed the Yalu River in mid-October. These Red soldiers were surprisingly forthcoming with information; they seemed to have nothing to hide. It was almost as though they wanted the U.N. troops to know who they were and where they had come from. They freely indicated that they were part of a much larger Chinese force, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

[MacArthur’s intelligence chief, General Charles] Willoughby quickly concluded that the Chinese prisoners at Sudong were merely “volunteers,” part of a token force of zealous Communists, probably from Manchuria, who had picked up their weapons and, in piecemeal fashion, streamed down of their own free will to help the North Koreans.

It was a fiction that MacArthur seemed entirely willing to believe, one that provided sufficient cover for him to continue advancing toward the Yalu. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had given him carte blanche to keep on going—unless and until he saw evidence that the Chinese had officially entered the war. And here it was, evidence as clear as one could ever expect to find. MacArthur’s response was to accept Beijing’s propaganda at face value.

At least one American politician appreciated the risks:

young senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy, … he accused Truman of being in league with known Communists and charged that the Democratic-held White House had presided over “twenty years of treason.” McCarthy would say of Truman: “The son of a bitch should be impeached.” McCarthy inveighed against the Truman administration’s creation of a “Korean death trap,” saying that “we can lay [it] at the doors of the Kremlin and those who sabotaged rearming, including Acheson and the President.”

The late fall temperatures in the mountains (about 4,000′ high) of North Korea fell to -25F and were accompanied by high winds. It was time for General Song Shi-lun to implement Mao’s published strategy:

The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.

I don’t want to ruin the suspense, but here are a few high points:

  • the Chinese beat us despite our overwhelming superiority in weapons and equipment
  • aviation was critical to avoiding a complete disaster; General Smith had made building a mountain runway big enough for the DC-3 a top priority
  • the Marines fought tenaciously despite frostbite and every kind of wound

Tempted to despair over today’s headlines?

According to the Pentagon, 33,651 Americans had died fighting in the war, as did 180,000 Chinese. An estimated 2.5 million Korean civilians lost their lives.

I recommend this book as a way to remember the sacrifices of American soldiers in conditions that are unimaginable to a modern-day civilian.

More: Read On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle

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We spent nearly 60,000 lives and more than $1 trillion on the Vietnam War to stop Communism…

… yet today it seems that a larger percentage of the U.S. economy is government-run than is “Communist” Vietnam’s.

Something to think about on this, the 44th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon?

From Heritage Foundation:

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam remains a Communist dictatorship characterized by repression of dissenting political views and the absence of civil liberties. … All land is collectively owned and managed by the state.

“Communist,” right? Since 1986, about a decade after the U.S. was defeated, the Vietnamese have been running what they call a “Socialist-oriented market economy”. What does it cost?


The top personal income tax rate is 35 percent, and the top corporate tax rate is 22 percent. Other taxes include value-added and property taxes. The overall tax burden equals 18.0 percent of total domestic income. Over the past three years, government spending has amounted to 29.4 percent of the country’s output (GDP)

How about the U.S.? From the same foundation:

The top individual income tax rate is now 37 percent, and the top corporate tax rate has been cut to 21 percent. The overall tax burden equals 26.0 percent of total domestic income. Over the past three years, government spending has amounted to 37.8 percent of the country’s output (GDP)

The above numbers are understated because they don’t include state income taxes, e.g., the top tax rate for someone living in California is over 50 percent (37 percent federal plus 13.3 percent state). But even before state taxes are considered, it seems that the U.S. has a larger percentage of its economy run by the government.

Related:

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Was there a golden age of religious coexistence?

“Religious Minorities Across Asia Suffer Amid Surge in Sectarian Politics” (nytimes), first three paragraphs:

The deadly attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday highlighted how easily religious coexistence can be ripped apart in a region where secularism is weakening amid the growing appeal of a politics based on ethnic and sectarian identity.

In India, the country’s governing right-wing Hindu party is exploiting faith for votes, pushing an us-versus-them philosophy that has left Muslims fearing they will be lynched if they walk alone.

In Myanmar, the country’s Buddhist generals have orchestrated a terrifying campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s Rohingya Muslims.

(the reader who did not scroll to read the entire article would infer that Muslims were the victims of the recent sad events in Sri Lanka, according to the NYT.)

This is the “news” section of the paper, not “opinion.” There is an implicit factual assertion that there were some good old days of religious coexistence. Everyone in Asia had one of those “coexist” bumper stickers:

Is this assertion true? The “two-nation theory” that led to the partition of India (millions killed and/or displaced) started in the 19th century.

Has secularism “weakened” in the region since 1947 when 14 million people were displaced on the theory that Muslims should not have to live among Hindus?

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