James Suroweiki makes a brilliant case for The Wisdom of Crowds
. He opens his book with the tale of a scientist wandering the English countryside until he comes upon a county fair where a bull is being raffled. The prize goes to the person who most accurately guesses the dressed out weight of the animal. Not how much it weighs on the hoof, but rather how much meat will it produce after it is butchered.
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Well, the good folk pay their money, record their guesses on lottery strips, and the winner is announced after the bull is butchered. The scientist asks for and receives all the lottery tickets. They aren't of any good use to anyone else any more. Upon analysis he discovers an interesting fact: The average of all guesses is closer to the actual weight than the guess than won the prize. In other words, the sum of expertise (or rather, experience) of all those people – including butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers as well as tinkers, tailors, soldiers, and spies – is greater than the most expert among them.
The remainder of Suroweiki's book goes on to examine this hypothesis in greater detail. He includes other examples and scientific proofs that seem to convince us that it's true.
If we are smarter as a group than any individual, why isn't our country working? We're a democracy, aren't we? Well, no, actually, we aren't. We're a representative republic. We just happen to elect our representative's democratically,
and we don't seem to be doing a very good job of it.
I better digress a moment. You may not agree with my assertions that the country isn't working and that we don't elect good representatives. Okay, let's examine that. We have accumulated debt well beyond our ability to repay. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concurs. They postulate that the United States won't even have an economy within approximately twenty years and Congress has not even attempted to address this issue. They have failed in their most basic duty, to pass a budget, for the past several years.
Governmental units are filing bankruptcy. Stockton, California, a city of 300,000 is the most recent to fail. Other cities and states have obligations, especially pensions for public employees, that they have no discernible means of paying. The nation's most vibrant economy, the State of California, is a hopeless mess.
So, the people that you and I elected to represent us, have led us down this path. Furthermore, we reelect them almost without exception to lead us over the edge of fiscal disaster that they have brought us to. Why do we do that to ourselves?
Are term limits the answer? Seriously, I don't believe so. To me, term limits appear as a collective admission in which we throw up our hands and say, “We can't help ourselves. We just can't stop voting for the same cretins who have done this to us.” And, what if a good person gets into office? Term limits would force us to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
How about public financing campaigns? Sure. There's something else we can't afford. But, why not. After all, who can resist a glitzy ad? Who can resist the siren call of a celebrity campaigning for a candidate? Regardless of who finances the campaigns, who is going to protect us from our own inability to look past the appeal of the verbal virtuosos who run for office and the intellectuals who they call on for advice?
So, does all of this belie Suroweiki's hypothesis that there's wisdom in the crowd? I don't think so. Rather, it appears that we have been deluded by the seeming wisdom of intellectuals and surrendered our sovereignty to them.
If you look back at another book I recommended in an earlier posting in this blog, Intellectuals and Society
by Thomas Sowell, you'll learn how this has happened. We were misled into believing that the intellectuals have more and better information on which to base their decisions. As Professor Sowell puts it: “...intellectuals are so preoccupied with the notion that their own special knowledge exceeds the average special knowledge of millions of other people that they overlook the often far more consequential fact that their mundane knowledge is not even one-tenth of the total mundane knowledge of those millions.”
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Sowell is not anti-intellectual and neither am I. Sowell is commenting on those intellectuals who produce only ideas: Historians, journalists, philosophers, and the like. “Intellectuals are often extraordinary within their specialties – but so too are chess grandmasters, musical prodigies, and many others. The difference is that these other exceptional people seldom imagine that their extraordinary talents in a particular endeavor entitle them to judge, pontificate to, or direct a whole society.” The problems we suffer today have largely resulted from the fact that we have allowed the intellectuals to advise us in areas in which their expertise is no more special than ours.
Yes, intellectuals are uncommon “...that is, [they are] saying things that are different from what everyone else is saying.” However, as Sowell explains, “Beyond some point, being uncommon can mean indulging in pointless eccentricities or clever attempts to mock or shock. Politically, it can mean seeking dramatic ideological 'solutions' instead of prudent trade-offs.”
It's time to get over them. Intellectuals have given us the world's greatest failures: Nazism, Fascism, and Communism, all attempts to insure equality of outcome. Intellectuals in America and other Western nations were among Hitler's and Mussolini's greatest supporters. Stalin, Mao, and Castro, too. Interestingly, some of history's greatest murderers.
On the other hand, we have seen Americanism work. Liberty to rise or fall on our own merits has produced the wealthiest nation in history. Only under capitalism has a middle class come into existence and thrived. Well, at least it did until the intellectuals began "improving" it.
But what about poverty? No one has spoken more forcefully than the community of intellectuals against poverty. Sowell observes, “Yet virtually none of the intellectuals who have been preoccupied with poverty for years has shown any real interest in the actual reduction of poverty through market mechanisms in China, India, or anywhere else. It did not happen in either the way they predicted or the way they preferred – so it was disregarded, as if it had not happened at all.”
Sowell pounds on the message above all others. Intellectuals avoid facts that do not agree with or support their world view. Furthermore, intellectuals in the journalistic community hide these facts from the rest of us, helping to explain why we remain fascinated with intellectuals and the politicians who espouse their ideas.
We must have faith in ourselves and our collective wisdom to make our own decisions. Millions of free men and women making millions of decisions every moment, decisions based on their own self-interest will correct the economy. We need to choose representatives to all elective offices who will return that power to us. We are collectively smarter than any individual.
I WILL NEVER forget my first day in the Army at the Fort Jackson Reception Center, filling out forms, a mountain of them. We were ushered into a large hall filled with old-style student's desks, the ones with an armrest and writing surface on the right side that left-handed writers would have to twist themselves uncomfortably to find a way of using them. underneath was a small shelf to hold their books.
We were told to stand by the desks and keep our hands in our pockets to prevent us from touching anything. Our forms were wrapped in a rubber band with two No. 2 lead pencils on top. Sergeants patrolled the room ready to jump anyone who attempted to touch them while the Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge (NCOIC) stood at the front repeating threats to anyone who removed his hands from his pockets.
Step-by-step we were directed to place the forms on the shelf below us, sit down, remove the top form only and place it in front of us, fold our hands on top of the card, and not write anything until we had been instructed on the proper method of providing our name, date of birth, Social Security Account Number, and home address. After three recitations of these instructions, we were allowed to proceed with those items only. Annoyed at being treated like an idiot, I took my pencil in hand and began to comply. Feeling the eyes of others on me, I looked to my right and found the person there looking confused and following my every action. I often wondered if he even copied my information rather than providing his own. To my left, another man was holding his hand aloft to ask a question. Then and there I came to understand the Army and its ways.
One of the forms we filled out that day was the request for Home Town Releases that would allow the Army to provide stories to our home town newspapers whenever we completed training, were advanced in rank, or deployed to a new unit. We quickly learned to rescind this permission when anti-war activists began harassing the families of servicemen and women whenever one of these stories were published.
The most insidious form of harassment came in the form of official looking but counterfeit notices of death that were sent to the families of servicemen and women stationed in Vietnam during the war there. Thus, a program designed by the Army to create good will for them turned into a nightmare for our loved ones.
I never denied the right of anyone to dissent with the policies of our government, but I would gladly harm anyone who abused our families in this manner.
THOSE WHO SERVED "in the rear with the gear" took a lot of flak from their brethren in combat even though the rear areas in Vietnam, unlike previous wars, were planted in the middle of the combat theater, and every perimeter was a front line. Regrettably, there wasn't any distinction when we returned home (if we were lucky enough to return). We were all "baby-killers" to the antiwar movement.
Still, the attitude of combat soldiers towards support troops was sometimes understandable. It was motivated partially by envy and partially by real REMF (Rear Echelon Mother F**kers) who didn't have the common sense to remember that they were there to serve the combat soldiers. There were times when support units failed to deliver the guns and butter that the combat soldier needed to fight effectively. Then there were some who were simply mean-spirited SOBs who demanded respect that they did not deserve. These are their stories as I experienced them.
Helping the wounded
An Avoidable Death
As I discussed in my posting on the Rules of Engagement
, our division headquarters at Camp Bearcat enjoyed the rare privilege of free unobserved fire in all directions at any time of the day or night. However, there was a rubber plantation to the south of us that had been excluded from this free fire zone by senior officers who, rumor had it, enjoyed the society of the plantation's French owners. Their wishes prevailed until we lost a patrol there. The patrol was denied artillery support when they came under attack by a large concentration of insurgents who were using the plantation as a sanctuary.
Our new division commander, a former artillery officer, was not pleased and ordered all division artillery to fire TOT (Time on Target – a tactic where cannons of all calibers fire in a specially calculated sequence to have their munitions arrive on the same targeted area at a specific time). We sat atop the berm surrounding the base camp that day, cheering the flight of rubber trees as they were thrown into the air by the massive explosions. I have no idea if we did any damage to the enemy that day, but it is clear that they were served notice that their sanctuary had ended.
Exchanging salutes is a sign of respect, not only for enlisted men to show respect for commissioned officers, but also for these officers to show respect for the men under their command. The ritual is initiated by the enlisted man or junior officer whenever his path crosses that of a senior officer while not under cover (not under a roof, inside a building or a covered porch).
I never had occasion to reprimand a soldier for failing in his duty, but I was riding in a jeep with a senior Adjutant General's officer at our brigade headquarters at Dong Tam, home of the Mobile Riverine Force, when we passed a young soldier who was the very picture of a man returning from combat. He was not physically wounded, but the scars of battle were clearly visible. He was obviously bone tired, dragging his weapon behind him. His helmet was gone, thus violating the general order that a soldier always be “under cover” when not under cover – that is wearing a regulation hat or helmet when out-of-doors. His flak jacket was open and his web belts were loosely hanging from his shoulder.
This soldier obviously did not see us as we passed and failed to salute. The senior officer ordered the driver to turn around so that he could go back and berate the young man for his lapse of duty. I tried to hide in the back of the jeep. The driver passed the soldier and pulled to a stop whereupon the senior officer jumped out. I remember the young man looking dazed as he slowly absorbed the fact that his way was blocked by a senior officer, and then slowly raising his hand to salute as the man began berating him for his lapse in military etiquette. The driver stifled a laugh when the soldier explained his actions by saying that he was not accustomed to saluting an officer who had over-taken him from behind and drove past. The officer bellowed that the infraction occurred as we first drove past in the opposite direction.
It was obvious to the driver and myself that the soldier simply had been unaware of the first passing as he was too focused on reaching his bed or maybe getting a hot shower and a meal. We could only speculate on how many of his buddies had been killed or injured in the action he was returning from, and we were embarrassed to be in the company of a senior officer who could not ascertain these simple facts for himself.
The story of this incident soon became common knowledge when we returned to division headquarters, not that I had any part in spreading it, of course.
A Combat Veteran Turned REMF
Although I served as a staff officer at division headquarters, I had the opportunity to put my training as an infantry officer to good use when I was given command of one of our base camp reaction force platoons. However, before this posting was made, I was asked by a friend to accompany him one day as he led his platoon on a mission. Our company commanding officer (CO) was an infantry officer who had served nine months with one of the division's battalions before commanding the 9th Administration Company. While there, he lost most of his men in an ambush.
My friend had received his commission via the ROTC program and served in the division finance office. He had some basic combat training, however, he knew his limitations when he was called to assemble his platoon and rally with the rest of the company at the midpoint of our southern perimeter. There we learned that two Vietnamese civilians had grabbed a case of ammunition, scaled the berm, and headed for the rubber plantation about a quarter mile away. The guard on duty at the bunker about a hundred yards distant merely observed and reported the theft.
The CO deployed us in two lines facing each other and perpendicular to the berm. One line, consisting of two platoons stretched from the berm to the farthest wire tangle about two thirds of the distance to the tree line. My friend's platoon was positioned about a quarter mile from the first line, also perpendicular to the berm. Let me pause to clarify the deployment – you may not believe what you just read. Yes, we had two groups of heavily armed men facing each other and separated by about a quarter mile. The ground between was filled with concertina wire and barbed wire tangles. The ground was clear of vegetation but shallow trenches could have concealed someone. If anyone popped up between us, the firing would have commenced and many of us would have been wounded or killed by “friendly fire.”
Let me also clarify the fact that, in all probability, the Vietnamese who stole the ammunition had escaped into the tree line long before our deployment – at least I hoped they had because I didn't want anyone to pop up and start the shooting.
My advice to my friend was to keep his men low to the ground and tell them to keep their heads down if the shooting started. Don't shoot back otherwise they would only encourage their own men to keep shooting at them.
Rubber plantation without grass
I decided to get out of there and see if I could do any good. I had heard that a road paralleling our berm was somewhere about a mile deep into the rubber plantation, and I felt that if we moved quickly enough, we might be able to reach it before the two men carrying a heavy case of ammunition between them. Thus, we could lay an ambush before they got there. I had my friend radio the CO for permission and took four volunteers with me into the rubber plantation.
Tall grass filled the area around the trees and I led the men in single file through it. I was moving quickly to get ahead of the men we were seeking until I came upon what appeared to be an eggplant growing wild in the grass. I stopped. Suddenly, I realized that I could come upon anything hidden in that grass unexpectedly. It gave me pause, especially considering that I had no radio or pre-arranged support. Oh, what the hell, I continued as soon as the men following me caught up.
We hadn't gone far after that when a runner sent by my friend reached us and said that we better turn back. The CO had spotted movement in the rubber plantation and was bringing the whole company on line to “recon by fire.” Think about it. Do you have the picture? We were that movement.
Thank God, my friend was paying attention and sent the runner. We escaped the fire zone just moments before the whole company, including to M60 gunners, opened up.
I was hopping mad; literally, I was jumping up and down in front of the CO while he stammered some lame excuse about forgetting me and my volunteers. Noticing that I had torn my pants leg and cut myself on some barbed wire during my headlong rush to get away, he offered to recommend me for a Purple Heart. That only made me angrier.
Luckily my friend pulled me away and the CO was soon sent home. One less Mother F***r to contend with.
These men, the officers who denied artillery support for men in combat, who demanded rituals of respect when they were not warranted nor deserved, or who did not have the courage to face a man while assassinating his character; these were Mother F***rs. There were others.
WHEN IT CAME to strategies for winning the war in Vietnam, the only thing certain was change. Changes in the political winds back home. Changes in commanders in Vietnam. Changes in enemy strategies and tactics. Changes in the seasons. Winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese was one of those fleeting strategies that came and went with these changes. The objective was to win the support of the civilian population, support that would translate into denying sanctuary for the enemy and encourage civilians to report enemy activity with greater alacrity. The tactics of this strategy included civic action programs such as MEDCAP (Medical Civic Action Program) visits, that I believe were sometimes effective. Propaganda programs, especially those without substance, were, at best, counter-productive.
Medics provide care at Vietnamese Village (click to enlarge)
My involvement in civic action came in a remote village somewhere between Camp Bearcat and the Mobile Riverine Base at Dong Tam on the Saigon River. A sergeant, three enlisted men, a Vietnamese interpreter and I, crowded into a single jeep to visit this village. We had built them modern latrine facilities that the Viet Cong countered by lobbing mortar rounds the night before our visit. We arrived to find the village chief comforting a mother holding a child who had suffered a grazing head wound from a piece of shrapnel. We sent mother and child back to the hospital at our division headquarters accompanied by my sergeant and one enlisted man to drive. That left me with two enlisted men and the interpreter, and about thirty members of a Popular Defense Force (PDF) platoon. We mounted a patrol to check the perimeter of the village and its rice paddies to insure no enemy was lurking nearby.
The PDF was a ragtag group of local militia dressed in odds and ends of uniforms. Their weapons were equally eclectic. One carried a Browning Automatic Weapon that was as long as he was tall. I spent several minutes with him examining it. It was the first of its kind that I ever held, and I am something of a gun nut. However, I was concerned with these men about whom I knew nothing. I arranged them in a double file with my men and I in between. I whispered to them that if we got into a firefight, they were to keep an eye on the PDF.
Durian tropical fruit (click to enlarge)
The village chief and I conversed with the help of the interpreter as we swept the area. He wanted to expand the area they were farming, but could not effect his plan unless we altered the boundaries of the free-fire zone encircling his village and its holdings. Unfortunately, I had not come prepared with a map to chart this area and had to make notes that I could later use to explain his plan at our tactical operations center. Fortunately, my interpreter was a farm boy. Many of the interpreters who served our forces came out of Saigon and could not relate well to issues in the rural areas. He stopped often to examine the crops and explain them to me, giving the village chief the impression that his concerns were receiving a fair hearing. At the end of the day, when my jeep returned with a bandaged infant and its mother, as well as my sergeant and driver, we shared a moment with the villagers. The chief offered me a durian; a great honor, according to the interpreter, as it is considered the king of fruits in Asia and could fetch a significant price at a Saigon market.
When opened, it emitted a strong odor like fried onions to me; like gym socks according to one of the enlisted men. The interpreter demonstrated proper etiquette, by dipping his fingers into a pasty substance that filled cavities in the fruit and licking it with gusto. I dipped a fair portion and smelled it gingerly. I sensed all eyes on me and felt committed to taking the plunge. My expression elicited cheers, laughter, and applause. It tasted to me like fried onions, very sweet and very delicious (I have always enjoyed onions in all forms).
I think that we won a few hearts and minds that day, if only temporarily.
Seriously. I read a review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the movie and the book, and the author wrote, “I would give Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 5 stars just for freshness alone. I mean, Abe Lincoln killing vampires? Yeah, that could have gotten real corny, real quick. It didn’t.”
To be fair, I believe de gustibus non est disputandum [Latin: To each their own]. However, the next paragraph of the review gave me the creeps.
“There has always been something creepy about Abe Lincoln. His life was marred by tragedy, his wife was obsessed with the occult, and he was freakishly tall and gangly [sic]. This book centers his creepiness in a way that any history buff can appreciate; Grahame-Smith 'vamps' up the real life events of Lincoln’s life in a big way. Not only does he 'revamp' Lincoln’s personal history, he rethinks America’s! After reading this, you’ll forever perceive slavery in a different light. A darker light.”
This struck me wrong on several levels and I'm probably going to upset more than a few readers as I explain. So, hang on. It's going to be a bumpy ride.
Abraham Lincoln is only creepy to a child who hasn't been taught history properly. Yes, his life was marred by tragedies, not the least of which was his wife's odd behavior. She also came close to bankrupting the family with her extravagant purchases in New York, ostensibly compensating for those other tragedies that she and her husband shared. Lincoln, on the other hand, somehow found the inner strength to console others with his compassion and humor. I suppose that could sound creepy to someone who might be narcissistic.
Lincoln also had an uncanny ability to inspire the best in others. A young man whom Lincoln saved from the gallows for sleeping on guard duty following the Union rout at the First Battle at Manassas (Bull Run), went on to sacrifice his life heroically while saving others at a later battle. With his dying breath he begged for his comrades to inform Lincoln that he repaid his debt. I suppose that would sound creepy to someone who didn't understand the true meaning of valor and self-sacrifice to a higher cause.
Abraham Lincoln might also sound creepy to someone who hasn't been taught to revere their country. After all, it was Lincoln alone who championed the cause of keeping the nation whole. His cabinet was unanimous in their opinion that the South should be allowed to secede. Of course, had they had their way, there would have been no “arsenal of democracy” to help free nations defeat fascism and communism in the Twentieth Century. There would be no free world to lead the fight against terrorism and religious fanaticism in the Twenty-First Century. I suppose that sounds creepy to an intellectual who believes that there is nothing special or exceptional about the United States.
Ultimately, I am left to wonder why anyone, any woman would want to “revamp” Lincoln. The only plausible explanation I can come up with is that the author of this review is like one of the girls I knew in high school who liked the bad boys. My wife complains bitterly when I mention this. She wasn't one of them. But there were many girls who liked the boy who appeared dangerous. Anthropologists have hypothesized that females are attracted to dangerous males based on primitive desires to feel safe protected by such a man. That seems like a reasonable explanation for the behavior of primitive peoples. By extension, this may explain the current fascination with vampires who are, after all, the ultimate bad boys. However, there are more, like my wife, who understand that primitive behaviors don't necessary succeed in a modern world.
In an episode of Modern Family, ABC's popular sitcom, Alex Dunphy, the smart daughter, entices a group of geeks to do her a favor by flaunting her femininity. Haley Dunphy, the sexy sister who is attracted to stereotypically virile though dumb men, is taken aback that Alex can manipulate boys. Alex explains, “One day, your boyfriends will be working for my boyfriends.” Yes, it may be creepy to consider that brains will win over brawn, even vampire brawn.
Which brings me to the creepiest part of the review that set off this rant.
“In some places, this book is scarily convincing. Seriously, that gut feeling that Honest Abe was up to no good in his downtime will only intensify once you finish reading. It may not have been vampires, but *something* just might have been going down in the White House.”
“Scarily convincing?” Are you kidding? News Flash: Vampires are not real!
“...something just might have been going down in the White House?” Well yes, as a matter of fact. Starlets were going down under John Kennedy. Interns were going down under Bill Clinton. The economy is going down under Barack Obama.
But, for the love of all that is decent, let us revere the memory of one of the few good men to occupy the White House. If your teachers failed to teach you that lesson, I can recommend a few good books.
Oh, and as must be obvious to anyone who follows this blog, I am a history buff and no, I don't appreciate anyone's attempt to “revamp” Lincoln, nor do I need the metaphor of vampires to understand that slavery was and is an evil practice.
For want of a serif a reader was lost. It's true. People magazine published its first edition using a sans serif font to typeset the body copy. Despite the nascent fascination with celebrity, few people did more than scan the photos. The publishers quickly corrected that mistake.
Click to enlarge
Unfortunately, it's the same mistake I see repeated in many websites and printed matter. Writers untrained in the graphic arts are selecting fonts that appeal to them. They're selecting sans serif fonts, notably Arial (a knockoff of Helvetica that Microsoft contrived so they wouldn't have to pay licensing fees to the people who held the design rights for this popular font). They like the look. It seems contemporary.
The problem is that they aren't seeing the finished typeset piece the way that readers see it. Writers are evaluating their typeset text on the basis of an ill-defined, subjective value and ignoring the most important criteria – is it readable? It's an easy trap to fall into because it's easy to overlook readability when you have already read it, probably numerous times. It's your baby. You have it memorized.
You should be evaluating your typeset text from the point of view of someone who hasn't yet read it.
So, what's a “serif,” I hear you cry, and why is it so damned important? I'm glad you asked...
The earliest handwriting wasn't accomplished with a pen or a pencil. It was written with a brush. Now, anyone who has ever painted their living room knows that a brush leaves bristle marks at the end of a stroke. The bristles don't all magically rise together when you raise the brush, and the last ones leave traces of their late departure. There are two ways of preventing this. You may reverse the stroke and leave a blob at the end or you may pull the brush to the side. It's obvious that the first choice is unacceptable, it leaves a mess. The second choice leaves a nicely squared off end with a little tail in the direction that you pulled the brush. In typography, this little tail is known as a “serif.”
Every letter in a font is composed of “strokes.” There are “risers” and “descenders” as well as “bowls” and “ligatures,” “spines” and “stems.” There is no need for a serif where two strokes intersect. One stroke covers the other. However, any stroke that terminates without overlapping another stroke needs a serif.
Click to enlarge
Modern fonts created with phototypesetting and castings that didn't necessarily require a serif to square off the ends of strokes and designers began developing new font families without serifs known as sans serif. [“Sans” – French: without]
Modern word processing programs usually come equipped with a wide selection of fonts, both serif and sans serif. It's a trap, one that I hope I can help you avoid.
Keep these simple rules in mind:
- Always use serif fonts for body copy – anything more than a paragraph.
- Use serif fonts for headlines and headings only – just a few words.
- Choose no more than two fonts for any website or printed matter – one serif and one sans serif. Make sure they look good together (ask your wife or girlfriend for help in choosing them if you are of the masculine persuasion).
“But, I really like Ariel and no one ever complained before,” I hear you cry.
I could respond by assailing you with my qualifications garnered from a former life as a designer and creative director, then tell you to sit down, shut up, and do as I say. Or, I could add another thousand or so words explaining why serif fonts are more readable. Then, using all bold and upper case type, pronounce like the voice of doom, “That which is readable is more likely to be read!”
The truth is, I'd rather keep this in the realm of friendly advice and stop now. I've grown bored writing this, probably as much as you've grown bored reading it.
Good luck, and happy typesetting.
I BECAME POLITICALLY aware at a very young age. You may find it hard to believe, but I have conscious memories of the Eisenhower/Stevenson run for the presidency in 1952 when I was just nine years old.
Why did Stevenson shoot his dog?
He stepped on its tail and it ran down the street howling, “Ike, Ike, Ike.”
Those were more civil times.
Something happened since then. The lines between Republican and Democrat faded, and ideology replaced politics. Although members of the two major parties may have disagreed over the means and methods to achieve national objectives, they seemed to agree on the objectives. Security. Liberty. Equality? Not so much. At first blush, it may seem ironic that the party who filibustered in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1966, has since championed special entitlements purportedly to offset past injustices that arose from racial discrimination. However, politicians have played musical chairs with issues so often that its hard to distinguish which party accomplished what.
Historically, the American population has always seemed to divide itself into thirds. For example, only a third of the Americans supported the rebellion against British sovereignty over the colonies. Another third were Tories. Support for the “rebellion” to secede from the Union also amounted to a third or less of the population, and a third supported the fight to preserve it.
What of the other third? In both cases, the remaining third of the American population was more concerned with avoiding the fight and focusing on more mundane issues such as “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Things are pretty much the same today. Neither of the two major political parties can claim the support of more than a third of the registered voters. Probably far less than one third participate in Tea Party gatherings or Occupy Movements. The remaining third appear content to sit on the sidelines and watch “you and him duke it out.”
I suppose this is why I remain content to sit on the sidelines with them and have declined to state a political affiliation. I don't care to get involved. That's not to say that I don't have an opinion. It just seems that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are interested in hearing it. I know. I've spoken out and written to elected officials of both parties to no effect. They simply place my letter in a pile of those who “agree” with them and respond with a plea for money or they place it in the “other” pile and respond with a letter of hope that we can still be friends and find other areas on which we agree. Both letters, of course, are pumped out of the same word processor.
Believe it or not, there was a time when no member of Congress would allow the sun to set on an unanswered letter with a response that they personally dictated. Imagine that!
Certainly, progressives don't want to hear my opinion. Whereas conservatives seem content to let me blather on and pretend to listen respectfully, progressives become annoyed. They tell me to shut up and if I don't, they avoid me.
Also, not joining either major political party does not make me part of the center. Sitting on the fence just makes you a good target. In fact, "governing from the center" is a joke. Imagine two sides arguing over whether or not to build a bridge. One is for it and the other is against it. What is the centrist position? Build the bridge just half way?
There also used to be a time when I could discuss politics rationally with friends, family, and neighbors. Disagreements could be passionate but never heated. I'm sure that those times resembled the eras long before the Revolution and the Civil War. However, the rancor that I'm hearing these days is beginning to sound more like the enmity that I have found in diaries and editorials that were published in the days just prior to those conflicts.
However, as I stated before, it's not about politics any more. There's a fight going on over ideology. One side won't be happy with America until they “change” it, and the other wants to return it to “what it was supposed to be.” Now, I know that some will jump in here and think that I am casting aspersions at President Obama because I mentioned “change.” The truth is that I can't see where he has “changed” all that much. Things seem to be pretty much business as usual in Washington since he took up the mantel of President. Indeed, progressive leaders are among those complaining most bitterly that he simply hasn't acted “progressive.”
Roberto Unger, a progressive firebrand and President Obama's former advisor at Harvard Law School, now advises "Don't Vote For Obama."
Does Professor Unger look like a man who is prepared to debate. His body language and stern demeanor tells us that he is a man with a message that we must believe. Seriously, doesn't he resemble a TV evangelist preaching hellfire and damnation? Why? Professor Unger is an intellectual. He has spent a lifetime studying the law and becoming expert in a small segment of it. However, he is confident in his wisdom in matters far beyond his narrow sphere of expertise.
Most people don't debate anymore. Most people don't even want to listen to one. Indeed, the attempts at Presidential debates that we've seen in recent decades resemble a debate about as much as television news reporters resemble real journalists. It's sad. I long for a good debate. Unfortunately, people are quick to attack those who so much as hint at disagreeing with them. Did you notice how quick I was to defend myself from personal attack in that last paragraph? Rather than offer proofs of their own positions, they dismiss their opposition with personal attacks.
Anyone care to debate?
OUR TWO MOST popular shows on Armed Forces Radio and Television Network (AFRTN) in Vietnam were Vic Morrow's Combat and Bobby, the Weather Girl
. I suppose that my friends and I liked Combat because it portrayed a better war. Bobby, the Weather Girl
, was the funniest show on the air.
Bobbie getting soaked as she predicts rain
I was happily surprised to find that Bobby has been memorialized on the World Wide Web. You can find more than a half million links on Google
. There are even YouTube
Interestingly, the weather girl that you'll see in the clips is not the same one I watched in 1967. It's the same person, but not the same performer. The girl I watched looked like a deer in the headlights whenever the camera first turned on. She glanced frequently off-camera where, we supposed, her handlers
were attempting to distract her; to help her relax. They dressed her in tight sweaters, and when she attempted to point to the DMZ, we were riveted somewhere further south.
I had guessed that she was a Red Cross employee, inasmuch as there was scant reason for young women to be in Saigon at the time. I was glad to learn that she wasn't. (Few who have served in combat theaters remember the “doughnut dollies” with any great affection – but that's the subject for another posting). Bobbie was a Red Cross volunteer, which set her apart from the “paid” girls.
I hope that you'll click on the links that I've provided and learn that Bobbie was an exceptional individual as well as a brave young woman. Stumbling on her story has been one of the greater rewards of building this memoir.
WHENEVER I FLY out of John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, I take a moment to ask the person seated next to me if this is their first time taking off from there. I think it's only fair to warn newbies. The take off path from John Wayne passes over expensive estates that were built when the airport served small private planes. The land owners became upset when jet airliners began buzzing their homes and they lobbied successfully for "noise abatement" rules. Thus, taking off from John Wayne is something like being launched from an aircraft carrier. Fast acceleration. Steep climb angle. Power back until we reach the coast. The plane feels as though it is about to fall from the sky like a stone when the pilot pulls back on the throttles. I wish someone had paid me a similar courtesy of warning me the first time I flew in a Caribou.
Caribou landing (click to enlarge)
I had never heard of STOL before I rode in a Caribou, and I only rode in it once. Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) is an important feature in a fixed wing aircraft in combat operations. Long, shallow glide paths expose aircraft to ground fire as they leave and approach runways. Then there's the problem of finding anything like a long runway in the combat theater. Unfortunately, no one explained this to me before I took my ride.
Caribous were operated by the Army during the early years of the Vietnam War to transport medium-sized loads of troops, supplies, and equipment, farther and faster than large helicopters. The Air Force was upset because it felt that the Army was infringing on their mission with the Caribous, and took possession of them in exchange for permitting the Army to provide their own rotary wing (helicopter) support in tactical situations.
Granted, my one and only experience in a Caribou was not the optimum flight to judge. I was the sole passenger on a flight carrying mail to the Mobile Riverine Base at Dong Tam. I was trying to watch the scenery from a small round porthole during takeoff when the cargo shifted and pushed me away. They were just bags of paper and the cargo master apparently was not concerned that there was anything delicate inside. He had forgotten about me.
Forget seat belts; there were no seats. I had hitched a ride on the runway and was invited to make myself comfortable among the bags. I have flown in many small twin-engine propeller-driven aircraft and the Caribou in flight is no more or less comfortable than them. The most alarming aspect of the trip was the landing and my problem could have been alleviated with a little warning.
Dong Tam did not enjoy free-fire around its perimeter and the Viet Cong were able to infiltrate quite close and take pot shots at approaching and departing aircraft. Thus, our pilot choose to begin his descent directly over the airfield. He simply dipped the wing and pointed it at the ground, and we began a rapid spiral. The cargo shifted violently, capturing me in its flow towards the downward most porthole and pressing my face against it. Now I had a view.
Prepared to meet my maker as the ground approached, I was surprised when we suddenly leveled off momentarily. My relief was short-lived as the pilot then pointed our nose at the ground. At least, I thought, he would die before me.
My second surprise came when he applied full power to the engines. Unbeknownst to me, he had reversed pitch on the propellers and they were now braking our descent. It felt as though a giant had tied a rope to the tail of the aircraft and holding us aloft like a yo-yo. The load of mail now shifted forward with me in its grasp and I was pressed against the bulkhead separating the cargo bay from the pilot's compartment. There is no doubt in my mind that he was imagining my plight and laughing manically as we plummeted those last few feet.
Our crash was averted when we leveled off and landed with a thump. I don't believe that the airplane rolled forward more than its own length before coming to an abrupt halt, not too dissimilar from running into a brick wall.
I was tempted to walk back to Camp Bearcat.
THE VIETNAMESE PEOPLE had a proud tradition spanning centuries, of defeating invaders. Many coveted the abundance of their home. Chinese. Japanese. French. These aggressors gained toeholds for a time, but all were ultimately defeated, until the Communists came. Although the international community ceded the northern half of their country to the Communists, the Vietnamese were able to withstand their incursion into the south with the aid of the United States. Only after the Americans abandoned them were the Communists able to occupy their land. The helicopter was the tool that made the difference. It provided mobility in a land where all other armies had been mired in rice paddies, jungles, and precipitous mountain terrain.
Wing of Huey's arriving at Camp Bearcat (click to enlarge)
I lived under the flight path between El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and Camp Pendleton when we first moved to Orange County, California. I surprised my family and neighbors when I named any helicopter that flew near our home simply by the sound of its rotors. The reason was simple. The Marine Corps is still flying most of the same rotary wing aircraft today that I heard every day during my thirteen month tour of duty in Vietnam, and every one of them had a distinctive sound.
I flew in three of the four principal helicopters to serve the Army in Vietnam. My son, who studied aerospace engineering in college, cringes when I tell him of my adventures in helicopters. He believes that they are inherently unsafe close formations of thousands of precision parts all destined to fly apart without warning. To be honest, I never thought of them that way.
I got to know several helicopter pilots in Vietnam. Most were young enough that their parents probably were fearful of allowing them to drive the family car. I can only imagine their fright if they had seen their sons piloting aluminum eggshells over hostile territory.
Distinguished Flying Cross (left) and Air Medal with "V" Device for Valor (right) - Click to enlarge
Working in Awards and Decorations, I had the opportunity to document the courage of many of those helicopter pilots and crews. The division commanding general was authorized to award the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with V-device (for valor) when merited. Air Medals were also awarded without v-devices for persons who accumulated enough hours flying in combat operations. I accumulated the necessary hours flying as a substitute door gunner to relieve exhausted crews as well as on routine trips to outlying brigade and battalion base camps. I believe that every grunt remembers those men and their magnificent flying machines with great affection for bringing much needed supplies and ammunition or carrying away the wounded in the heat of battle. There were no foxholes in the sky.
I cannot tell you anything about these aircraft that is not covered far better in other websites. I will limit my posting to my experiences with them.
UH1-D Huey (click to enlarge)
The most ubiquitous of all helicopters, the Huey was a magnificent feat of aeronautical engineering. It greatly simplified flying for the helicopter pilot allowing him to focus more on the mission than the mechanics of flight. It also reduced the time needed to train pilots. Contrary to my son's belief, I can only imagine the safety record of this aircraft. Thousands were flown on thousands of missions with very few mechanical failures.
Weight was the aircraft's enemy. Everything unnecessary was removed, including doors. Passengers sat on canvas seats slung between a simple pipe frame. We sat on our flak vests to keep from being shot in the ass from ground fire. The skin of a helicopter is only slightly thicker than a few sheets of aluminum foil.
We flew at low altitude between base camps to draw fire. Seriously. It was an efficient way of learning if the enemy was operating in the area. On my first mission as a door gunner I was told to watch behind the aircraft. The Viet Cong would duck at the sound of our approach, then stand up and watch us after we passed overhead. You had to snicker when you saw them popping up out of their hiding places after we passed.
My scariest flight during my tour of duty was probably the time I was returning to Bearcat on a Huey with just one other passenger, an elderly Vietnamese gentleman. Our pilot was a warrant officer who looked to be all of nineteen years old; his co-pilot couldn't have been more than eighteen. It was probably the first time either had been allowed out alone (or they might have hot-wired the thing). They were playing grab ass with each other at about 3,000 feet when the aircraft suddenly twisted. I'm not sure if we were hit by a sudden cross wind or if one of the pilots had hit the foot pedal that controls the stinger (the little propeller in the rear that keeps the helicopter from gyrating at slow speeds). I don't think the old man made it home with clean underwear - I didn't.
My second scariest flight was while escorting a briefcase containing $40,000 in MPC
from Bearcat to Dong Tam. An F4 Phantom fighter jet dove directly in front of us. Obviously, neither pilot saw each other and ours dove to the right just as the Phantom dropped some large bombs and climbed away. Chunks of mud the size of sofas occupied the airspace we had just vacated. Of course, I was more concerned with the briefcase falling out the door at that time. Yes, I caught it.
Chinook raising a cloud of dust (click to enlarge)
This was our heavy lifter. It was banned from landing near buildings for fear that the downdraft from the rotors would blow them over. It is no surprise that it took its name from the winds that blow off the eastern slope of the Rockies. I once saw a garage blown across a road when I lived in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was surprising smooth in flight. The counter-rotating blades made a stinger unnecessary.
USAF O-1 Cessna Birddog (click to enlarge)
I remember one evening just before sunset when I was on guard duty and a pilot landed his 0-1 Cessna Birddog on the small airstrip that we provided for the Air Force spotter planes along our base camp perimeter. He was hopping made about the potholes. The division's aviation battalion had agreed to avoid this airstrip, but sometimes operations at the base camp airfield were so busy that helicopters had to use it. The Chinooks blasted potholes into any unprepared surface. Our laterite roads were no match for the force of its downdraft.
Chinook door gunner
I only flew in a Chinook once. I had to get to My Tho to deliver some classified documents. Checking in with flight operations, I learned that there weren't any aircraft headed there, but a flight of three Chinooks were headed for Dong Tam where I might pick up a ride to my destination. As I ran onto the airfield, I saw a large group of men loading into two of the aircraft. I decided to head for the third one, and became its only passenger. On the flight there, we suddenly peeled away from the other two and began descending. Watching over the shoulder of one of the door gunners I could see that we were about to hover over a fire base to hook onto a load while Viet Cong were attacking. As I turned back to pick up my flak vest and weapon off the seat, I almost stepped through an open hatch where the crew chief was operating the winch. Luckily, he grabbed my ankle and steered me away. (I can only imagine that I am part of another “stupid lieutenant” story in someone's memoir.)
OH-23G Raven (click to enlarge)
I have mentioned previously about one of our most decorated airmen, Captain Dale R. (Jack) Spratt in another posting. The one pictured here is the aircraft that I rode from Dong Tam to Camp Bearcat with Jack Spratt at the controls.
Captain Spratt was famous for flying low - some claimed that he had to ascend to get over the rice paddy dikes. As he explained it to me, the engine was far too powerful for the airframe. He assured me that it would never be certified by the FAA for use in the civilian world. That engine sat right behind you head. It was a piston engine without mufflers and assaulted your eardrums with a dreadful noise that made conversation impossible if you weren't plugged in with a headset.
Cobra (Click to enlarge)
The Cobra was introduced into the theater of war about the time of the Tet Offensive in January, 1968. I saw my first one shortly thereafter. It landed in front of our division headquarters building near my office. I gave my men a break and we walked over to see it. One of our Assistant Division Commanders, Brigadier General William B. Fulton, went for a ride. We enjoyed watching the crew chief attempting the stuff the general who must have been well above six feet into a cockpit designed for a much smaller man.
The Cobra was an experiment – a successful experiment. It was the promise of better aircraft to follow including the AH-64 Apache. I know that the Marines love their Cobras, but I bet they wish someone would give them the budget to buy the more advanced gunships.