February 20, 2013

Iwo Jima - "The birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere"

There have been plenty of reminders the past few days about the 68th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, but an old friend of mine passed along another reminder...one about the extraordinary eulogy given by Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, a Navy Chaplain with the 5th Marine Division, at the dedication of the Division cemetery on Iwo, March, 1945. It is often referred to as second only to the Gettysburg address in its power, poetry, timeless message of love and compassion for one's fellow man, and commemoration of both the nobility and terrible loss that accompanies battle. Here it is as it was read into the U.S. Congressional record not too long ago:

"Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends, men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us, men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the man who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may now rest a man who was destined to be a great prophet, to find the way perhaps for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate the earth in their memory.

"It is not easy to do so. Some of us have buried our closest friends here. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. No, our poor power of speech can add nothing to what these men have already done. All that we can even hope to do is to follow their example, to show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war; to swear that by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of the human will, their sons and ours will never suffer these pains again. These men have done their job well. They have paid the ghastly price of freedom.

"We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in this war. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor, together. Here, no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here, there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination, no prejudices, no hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

"Any man among the living who fails to understand that will thereby betray those who lie here dead. Whoever of us lifts up his hand in hate against a brother or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves to the rights of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have paid the price.

"When the last shot has been fired, there will be those whose eyes are turned backward, not forward, who will be satisfied with wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departed comrades, this too we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man. Its fruits of peace must be enjoyed by the common man. We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of miners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers, the right to a living that is decent and secure.

"When the final cross has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit will be more important than peace. To those who sleep here silent, we give our promise: We will not listen. We will not forget that some of you paid the ultimate price for men who profit at your expense. We will remember you as you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground.

"Thus do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us again. Thus do we consecrate ourselves to the living to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear, this shall not be in vain. Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere."

Semper Fidelis

February 16, 2013

Living Off Our Children - Lying To Ourselves

I was recently asked to review the President's "State of the Union Address" (SOTU) for any specific implications for the U.S. Defense budget. I'd intentionally avoided watching it during the live broadcast because I knew I could skim all the news/commentary that would follow to gather the salient points and I had better things to do with my time than watch the political theater that is the SOTU. Given my task, however, I had to actually read the speech which only served to validate my decision to skip the live broadcast. That said, my project served as a useful mechanism to assemble a variety of budget-related items I've been tracking for some time. Most recently, of course, has been the flood of materials focused on the pending sequester. It seems more likely than ever that sequestration will occur, so the Defense Department has sent all the military Service Chiefs and various Defense officials to Capitol Hill to regale Members with their assessments of the effect sequestration will have on military readiness and national security. Short story - we're in for some very lean years, reduced military readiness, and a steep hill to climb should we ever need to mobilize forces in large numbers. (I'll work on a future post that gets into some of the detail on this subject.) 

All this aside, the SOTU address did underscore (unintentionally) why we have arrived at sequestration in the first place, why it is a relatively minor plot point in a much larger saga, and why commentators of various sorts have a rather dim view of our future days. It really comes down to this: our collective unwillingness to be honest with ourselves is sowing the seeds of our destruction. Our national budget, flights of fancy like the SOTU, Congressional ineptitude in matters of fiscal responsibility, the corrosive effect of hyper-partisan bickering, and the complicity of the American public in the massive fraud being perpetrated against future generations combine to make 'solutions' unlikely. Am I without hope? Of course not. Anything is possible and America has shown an amazing ability to overcome extraordinary challenges. But we are caught in a terrific current that is sweeping us to a very bad place and we seem unable to commit ourselves to the effort necessary to escape.

As part of my little project, I put together the above graphic to illustrate aspects of our budget situation and the relative amounts of various elements associated with the budget that hopefully provide perspective. The rancorous debate over "cuts" mandated by the sequester are the fiscal equivalent to arguing over who gets the bigger deck chair in which to relax while the ship is sinking under you. As written, the sequester requires a reduction in federal spending of $1 trillion over a ten year period, meaning $100M per year each year for the next decade. As written, 50% of the reductions are levied against Defense spending (with military personnel accounts exempted) while the other 50% is applied to all other spending. Consider, however, that our federal spending outpaces revenue by 50%, meaning we take in only two-thirds of what we spend (roughly: income=$2.3T, spending=$3.4T) so we go $1T further into debt every year. With this in mind, sequestration would lower the amount of money we're spending that we don't actually have from $1,000,000,000,000 to $900,000,000,000 per year.

Hmmm...I think that means we're still accumulating massive new debt each year. 

It also means the amount of money we have to spend to service that debt -- the interest paid on the debt -- increases over time. Add to this all the new promises we're making: health insurance coverage for pre-existing medical conditions; adding 11-15 million previously-illegal-immigrants to the pool of people eligible for government benefits; federal subsidies to 'green' industries; opting for more expensive energy technologies (wind, solar, biofuel, etc.) over less expensive coal and nuclear; funding 'high-speed rail' at phenomenal costs in dollar-per-passenger-mile...the list is quite long...and you quickly outpace the rate of anemic growth the commercial sector is experiencing. Not a pretty picture.

What should catch your eye, however, is the big arrow in the background showing 'total unfunded obligations.' This is the reality that things like sequester, policy speeches, federal budgets, and public demands completely ignore. The $80 trillion I used is a rough average of many estimates available for review ($62T, $84T, $100T, $144T to cite just a very, very few). Variations in estimates result from what one considers an 'unfunded liability." Most estimates center on the ever-increasing cost of health care insurance coverage. But as one includes deferred maintenance of national infrastructure, obligations associated with public sector pension plans, assumptions of future deficit spending, the cumulative effects of inflation and compounded interest on debt, etc. you can quickly reach extraordinary levels of debt that are implicit in our current spending patterns.

My favorite estimate comes from Niall Ferguson, a British economic historian who takes the same approach to analysis/commentary of economic policy that Victor Davis Hanson does with his commentary on socio-cultural and foreign-military affairs...approaches rooted in the lessons of history. Ferguson estimates that the total of 'unfunded liabilities' facing the U.S. amounts to a staggering $238 Trillion, basing his conclusion on the "difference between the net present value of federal government liabilities and the net present value of future federal revenues" plus the "unfunded liabilities of state and local governments". In an article of his entitled "Why the young should welcome austerity," published last summer, Ferguson makes some trenchant observations: 
     "These mind-boggling numbers represent nothing less than a vast claim by the generation currently retired or about to retire on their children and grandchildren, who are obligated by current law to find the money in the future, by submitting either to substantial increases in taxation or to drastic cuts in other forms of public expenditure.
     "In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790, Edmund Burke wrote that the real social contract is not Rousseau's contract between the sovereign and the people or "general will", but the "partnership" between the generations.
     "Society," says Burke, "is indeed a contract. The state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."
     "In the enormous inter-generational transfers implied by current fiscal policies we see a shocking and perhaps unparalleled breach of precisely that partnership.
     "We blame the politicians whose hard lot it is to bring public finances under control, but we also like to blame bankers and financial markets, as if their reckless lending was to blame for our reckless borrowing.
     "We bay for tougher regulation, though not of ourselves."

Put another way, our inability to discipline our current 'wants' will not only bankrupt us in our present time, it will consign our children and their children, for generations to come, to lives lived in austerity...and it just doesn't have to be that way. We are methodically and relentlessly breaking faith within our generation, with those who preceded us (who built the wealth and opportunities implicit in our system that we are now squandering), and with those to come. The consequences will be much greater, more deeply penetrating and far broader in their scope than the price of gas at the pump or the availability of a doctor to tend an illness. They will include damage to the mutual trust and relationships, the implied societal framework of unspoken agreements, that undergird the success of a nation. Our government is incapable of addressing this problem. It will be up to the People. Do we have it within us?

February 11, 2013

Real Heroes

There isn't anything one can actually add to this story; I know I can only comment on it. It's a bit lengthy but if you take time to read anything this week, please read this. Movies, television, the 'web', water cooler stories all regale us with tales of derring-do, swashbucklers and secret agents who always hit their mark, survive all manner of explosions, rarely take a hit themselves, and come out the vaunted hero in the end. This tale sheds light on the gritty reality of real heroes...and one real hero in particular. Our political, entertainment, sports, and even business worlds are filled to overflowing with chest-thumping, attention seeking, wealth motivated egoists. This story talks about the type of men who go into harm's way for all the right reasons, do their job in the shadows, who shun the limelight, and for 'thanks' get a nice plaque and a pat on the back on their way out the door. This story speaks to the real cost of such service, a cost born not only by the man himself, but by his family as well. True professionalism in service to one's country calls upon people to sacrifice, to share great burdens others are unable or unwilling to shoulder, and to do what must be done even when...especially when...such acts go unnoticed, unacknowledged, and unrewarded in ways most people seek and expect. Yes, among those who share such service there is a bond and an understanding no one not of that circle can truly appreciate. But even with that type of brotherhood buoying the spirit, the true warrior must continue to should a great burden largely alone. It's the nature of the beast. This story reminds me of a observation always attributed to George Orwell: “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Though he didn't actually say this, it makes a very important point. We are blessed that people like The Shooter are willing and able to undertake the tasks they do on our behalf. I just wish we did as good a job taking care of them as they do of us. I pray that his days ahead bring him and his family the peace he seeks. 

"The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden... Is Screwed," By Phil Bronstein, Esquire Magazine

February 1, 2013

Women in Combat

A week ago, Secretary of Defense Panetta announced that he had decided to repeal the restriction on women serving in combat units. Stating the obvious, there were howls of derision and near-apocalyptic warnings on one side of the spectrum while at the other end long-time advocates for such a change cheered themselves hoarse. (A handy quick-reference source for a good sampling of the arguments pro- and con- can be found here.) Those in favor cited the American principles of 'equality' among people, 'equal opportunity' to serve one's country, and 'equal opportunity' to compete for promotion to the most senior levels of leadership within the military Services regardless of gender. Those opposed raised a host of issues from the physical ability to perform tasks associated with combat units, to whether 'unit cohesion' would be damaged by the introduction of women, the impact of readiness issues stemming from different biological traits (pregnancy, etc.), the frictions that accompany mixed-gender settings, and whether performance standards would be lowered to ensure women would 'succeed' even at the potential risk of lowering the combat effectiveness of a unit. 

From all the statements I've read issued by senior leaders in the Department (both civilian and military), I take it as a 'done deal' that women will indeed by allowed to serve regardless the findings of the various studies now underway in the Army and Marine Corps. The Administration has committed to making this happen and the Services will salute smartly and get it done. Personally, I think it's a very bad idea for reasons that include some of those already mentioned by critics but mostly for a reason I've not heard raised at all in the current debate. I've posted below some thoughts I shared with friends/colleagues earlier this week on this issue. Before jumping into it, however, I just want to be clear that I have the deepest respect for the women who do serve our country in uniform, whether in the military services, law enforcement, as firefighters, or other 'first responder' professions. In my three decades of service to our country, I have had the distinct honor of serving with or around some of the most capable and professional women imaginable. Whether here at home, while deployed aboard ship, or serving in combat zones abroad, the women Marines I've worked with more than held there own right alongside their male colleagues. But I hope you see the larger point I try to make below. Without further ado...
Secretary of Defense Panetta’s decision to open the “combat arms” career field to women has stirred a hornet’s nest of response both in vigorous support and horrified opposition. Having served a career in uniform as a U.S. Marine, in peace and war, and remained involved in the Defense community for several years since retiring I have my own thoughts on the matter. They derive from two pillars: maximizing effectiveness in combat (get the dirty job done as quickly and effectively as possible) and acknowledging in our policies what I think to be key values-based cultural issues. 

Women involved in combat actions incidental to war are one thing; committing women to offensive combat actions intentionally, especially in ground actions, is quite another...and I don't mean having them drive a truck along an IED-strewn road or conducting the myriad tasks necessary to sustain combat ops in a theater of action. Women have participated in "war" in one form or another as long as people have fought. They have certainly suffered the nastiest effects of war wherever it has occurred and have been at the forefront in 'cleaning things up' when all the shooting stops - getting a society back on its feet, dealing with the devastation imposed on families, shouldering the burden when the men don't come back from the front, etc. In my mind, there isn't any question about whether women can endure, or have endured, in such settings nor whether they have the ability to pull a trigger as well as any man or have the stamina to hold up under extended hours of hard work under arduous conditions. Examples abound across the field of human endeavor. Even in ground actions there have been notable examples. One of the most effective snipers in WWII was a Russian woman (one of over 2000 Russian women who served as snipers) who tallied an extraordinary toll of dead Germans (309). But is this really the point? For me, it isn't. The real point, in my mind at least, is how a society views warfare and the extent to which it willingly commits its population to undertake some of the most horrible tasks imaginable. 

In Spielberg’s classic film “Saving Private Ryan” there is this heart-wrenching scene in which one of the soldiers looking for Ryan finds himself engaged in a brutal hand-to-hand fight with a German soldier. He ends up dying as the German gets the upper hand and slowly shoves a big fighting knife into his heart. Most combat actions take place at extended ranges via rifle, artillery, and aerial-delivered fires. But the whole purpose for ground forces in war is to 'locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver or repel his assault by fire and close combat.' At some point, it gets close and personal, and brutish, and very, very physical. 

Current cop shows on TV featuring 'hardened but vulnerable' female detectives and SWAT team members, news footage of young women serving in the 'front lines' in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the now-ubiquitous drone of 'drone ops' convey the sense that the combat-of-old just isn't the way it is in the 21st Century. Poppycock. Mankind has always searched for ways to 'touch the enemy' with effect and from increased distances. But mankind has also learned that ultimately it comes down to who owns the terrain and successfully imposes his will on his opponent. What our most brutal enemies will conjure-up is what will eventually happen on a battlefield - i.e. brutal treatment of a captured female for effect. Just look at the reporting out of Syria about rape being systematically used as a weapon. The same thing has occurred in other conflicts, of course, and is now occurring with nauseating regularity among the 'brush wars' raging in western Africa 

Various commentators have observed that cultures or countries can be assessed or judged by how they treat their women. Some societies dominated by “Islamic fundamentalists", for example, tolerate and even espouse beating their women and denying them the most basic rights, respect and dignity. That says something. What can be said for a culture that willingly and completely unnecessarily commits its women to the brutality of “waging war” on their fellow Man for the purpose of showing how 'equal and just’ we can be?

I'd prefer no one had to undertake the task. But history plainly shows that odious regimes and vile individuals arise from time to time that can only be stopped by force. Given this, I'd prefer to showcase our better cultural nature, apply as effectively as possible the resources (meaning 'people') best able to complete the job as quickly as possible, and thus bring the crisis to a close. "[Most] effectively", "best able", and "as quickly as possible" in such situations typically call for the aggressive application of violence against one's enemy when lesser measures fail...as they often do. Why lessen our odds for success, and trumpet as an “achievement”, that we’re happy to have even more of our society participate in the harsh, ugly practice of killing the enemy all for the goal of ‘leveling the career playing field’ or showing just how 'equal' we can be?

Whatever supposed gain we might achieve by the change in policy, I think we will have lost something much more important in this exercise. We won't notice it immediately, of course, but it will have an effect on who we are as a people.