South Dakota Top Blogs

News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, August 30, 2010

Dear God, please save me from your followers.

A Facebook post by a young man in Denver celebrating his birthday today.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Coming home from Iraq

When one enters the military, one loses most of the freedoms and rights that civilians enjoy.  On some occasions, one has the right to dissent, but needs to be damned careful about what is said and how it is said.  Officers do not have the right to criticize or express low opinions of Congress, the President, or any other member of their command.  Gen. McChrystal is a case in point.  Enlisted men can bitch on their own time, but anything that is insubordinate or disloyal can subject them to severe discipline.

In battle situations, effective commanders draw upon the experience and knowledge of veterans in the field, but most battle orders come from the top down and the grunts just follow orders.  When ordered, they simply carry out the jobs they were trained to do.  And any obstinacy or delay in carrying them out will be seen as a failure to obey orders or insubordination.  No matter what a soldier may think of the way a task is set up, he or she is obligated to do it.  This is a necessary fact of military life.

The reason for rigorous discipline in the American military is rooted deep in the experience with the militia.  The militia was anything but well regulated.  Lincoln, for example, was elected as commander of his company of Illinois militia during the so-called Black Hawk War.  That honor was more a testament to his political savvy than to his aptitude as a military leader.  He did not learn those latter skills until he was President facing the Civil War.  That militia created one of the most embarrassing episodes in military history during an occasion named Stillman's Run.  The men were encamped one night during their pursuit of Black Hawk and were enjoying their ration of whiskey.  Their commander was named Stillman.   Some of Black Hawk's scouts approached with a white flag to ask for a meeting.  When some of the militia saw Indians approaching, they panicked and opened fire on them.  The small party that had been sent to accompany the messengers opened fire in return to protect the messengers, and the militia ran in all directions, many of them not stopping until they reached some white enclave where they could hide in basements and fortified barns.  They said they had been besieged by thousands of Indians and put all of northwestern Illinois in a state of panic.   The place in Illinois where this mass demonstration of cowardice and incompetence took place was called Stillman's Run.  Now it as been benignly renamed to Stillman's Valley.  However, that bit of history provides the reason why military actions are assigned to a professionally trained and maintained military, not a militia. 

A soldier's primary task is to carry out orders, and no time or circumstance is allowed to debate the wisdom or appropriateness of those orders.  In America, the military must depend on the people who order them into action to have determined whether the wars declared are just and valid, whether the battle plans are competently drawn, and whether the necessary equipment and support for the actions is provided.

During and after Viet Nam, soldiers were vilified for the actions they carried out.  The civilians who so abused and castigated them did not grasp that whatever the soldiers did they did under orders and would have received severe punishment if they disobeyed them.  There are always cases in war where some soldiers go too far and commit war crimes, such as My Lai in Viet Nam.  But even then, the ultimate responsibility falls--or at least it should--on those who are commanding the troops.

The troops are coming home from Iraq.  Many of us protested this war as the country was preparing for it.  At the time, we thought it was not justified and, as it draws down, are more convinced that American lives and resources were needlessly wasted.  But the troops went there and carried out the mission set for them.  The problem is that when one criticizes the war on Iraq, some people say we are not supporting our troops.  We support our troops.  Even though we thought this war served no  purpose and would only worsen the situation in that area of the world, we provided them the equipment and support they needed, hoping that the battle would come to a quick conclusion.  It didn't.

The troops carried out their orders magnificently, for the most part.  Even though many of us think the war was irrational because Iraq was not a threat to us, the troops served under that pretext and deserve all the respect and honors we can bestow on them. 

Any anger and resentment should be reserved for those who propelled us into the war and so botched the whole affair. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Try a little empathy

The Washington Post's Chris Cilizza has picked up on a Herseth Sandlin ad:

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Wisconsin truck bomb: forty years later, the same old thing

Monday, August 24, 1970,  3:42 a.m.

I was trying to sleep in my cabin in a pine forest along the Wisconsin River between Spring Green and Lone Rock.  This is where I went on most weekends to get away from weekday worries, devote attention to practicing forestry and enjoying nature, and try to find some peace in a very turbulent time to write and work.  We were spending an extended weekend in the forest before I returned to my home and got ready for college classes to start up.  At that time, college campuses were not peaceful places. Protests against the Viet Nam War made it hard to keep students and many faculty focused on course work.  In May of that year, four students were killed and another nine wounded by National Guard arms fire at Kent State.  The pine forest was where I  came to work, but the distractions were increasingly difficult to get away from. 

I heard a very distant rumble, like thunder that morning.  For some reason it was a disconcerting sound, because it seemed to break all the patterns of nature.  The pine lands are in Sauk County, the Sand County of Aldo Leopold's  Sand County Almanac.  Storms are fairly frequent and welcome because they were quickly absorbed by the sandy soil and helped the pine trees to thrive.  But this early morning, there  were no follow-up rumbles, and as the sun came up, it shined on a blue, clear day.

Sterling Hall where the bomb was planted.
During breakfast that morning, a radio newscast informed us that Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin, forty miles away, had been blown up by a Ford van packed with a fertilizer-diesel fuel bomb.  One man, a post- doctoral researcher, who was working in the physics lab had been killed.  I felt a kinship with the man because we were both in Wisconsin doing academic work, but I was able to do mine from a briefcase and a portable typewriter, while he was in the lab that morning trying to finish up some experiments before he left on a late summer vacation. I was doing what he was preparing to do.

Although I knew many people at the University of Wisconsin, I did not know this man, but I could relate to the all night work sessions as one tried to get caught up and arrange to spend time with one's family.  I also knew the kind of work he was doing.  At the University of Iowa, I knew many of the graduate students and researchers in physics.  When I stopped for a brew, it was usually at the place near the physics building where they hung out, and a man who commuted with me for a time was pursuing graduate work in physics.  I stopped by the physics building to pick him up and often chatted with the students and professors there.  I understood the intensity and nature of the work they were doing.  When this man was killed at the University of Wisconsin,  I felt a strong sense of loss to his profession and to his family.

But there is another aspect of the Viet Nam War protests that this incident reveals.  That is how obscenely stupid some of the protests were.  This was the most obscene and stupid.  I, like many people in the U.S., was uncertain about the Viet Nam, until the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that got us into the war was revealed as an utter fraud. Sen. Wayne Morse was opposed to the resolution saying that the incidents that were the basis for declaring war never happened, and that the reports from navy commanders whose ships were involved said as much.  As time went on, academics were conducting teach-ins and journalists were probing documents which indicated that the U.S. really had no military business in Viet Nam.  The opposition to the war caused Lyndon Johnson to withdraw as a candidate for president, and the turmoil mounted.  When Daniel Ellsberg leaked Pentagon papers to the New York Times in 1971, after the U. of Wisconsin bombing, the lying and deceit that got us and kept us in the war in Viet Nam was documented.

The outrage was justified. We had been deceived and betrayed.  And young men were being drafted and fed into the killing machine that eventually took more than 50,000 American lives for no valid reason.  What is worse is that returning veterans were despised and publicly abused for serving as required by law.  Eventually, the veterans were acknowledged and honored.  But Viet Nam left a stain on the country that is seldom acknowledged, except among veterans when they are with each other.  That stain is a distrust of the democratic processes driven by a civilian population that could be so duped and blithe about sending so many to their deaths. 

That was a big factor in making the war protests so stupid.  The protesters were abusing the wrong people.  And that is what made the U. of Wisconsin bombing so obscene.  The target was an Army laboratory in Sterling Hall.  The bombers made no distinction between the people who contrived the war and the people ordered under penalty of law to carry it out.  And they obviously gave no thought to the fact that totally innocent people could be in that building.

Of the four bombers, three were eventually caught, tried, and convicted.  One of those has died.  And a fourth has never been caught.  These people are of the same mentality as those who plant truck bombs in Iraq or crash airplanes into New York skyscrapers and Pentagon offices.  They do not bring peace.  They are a major part of the war.  They keep wars going. 

They were obscenely stupid.  And so here we are again in another war contrived on  false information and "supporting" those who die in it. 

In the past 40 years since that truck bomb ripped through an August morning at the University of Wisconsin, we have learned nothing.  And young people are being sent to die, not for our freedom, but to satisfy the need for blood of those who want war, no matter how unjustified. 

Elections decided on gams

Which set will you vote for?

That's Noem on the left and Herseth Sandlin on the right.  If you're really undecided this ought to help.  If you're into reading leg language.  I think.

This photo gives me some pangs.  It was shot by a Melini Mara on assignment with the Washington Post, and is part of the photo gallery from the Mama Grizzly-Palinesque story that is giving bloggers tizzies and twiddles.  An associate who knows I once edited news photos asked me what it was supposed to accomplish.. I said if a photographer turned this into me or any editors I know, we would have reprimanded him for wasting time and film on trying to get an ass shot, which we would not print.  I don't know if we would have printed a gam shot.     Beyond the leg language angle,  I don't know what the picture is demonstrating.

Another photo, however, was very telling.

Yep, say a couple of state legislators who have cloak room lockers near Noem's.  She never issues a good morning, but is always peering down her nasal apparatus in that manner. 

Now this shot might help. 

Politics as you don't want to know it

My printer cartridges went dry in the middle of a job I was trying to get in the mail  on time.  I rushed out the door to go to Target, where I buy cartridges.   My spouse's car was pulled in behind mine on the driveway, so I took it rather than jockey cars around.  No big deal.

I rushed from the parking lot and headed for the door  to Target.  Just as I reached the door, this  vapid-faced woman, of the kind pictured in news photos with tea bags dangling from their hat brims, put her leg out in front of me to block my entrance.  When I stopped, she said, "You are an Obama supporter?"

I said, "Yes, I have been"

She said, "Do you know he lies?"

"About what?" I said.

"Have you  asked the lord?" she said.

Here is where I  had trouble.  I can read and write and speak in Old English, which has some of vilest, most colorful expressions of any language.  I have been an Army drill instructor and can f-carpet-bomb with the  best of them.  Some of my arse chewings are legendary.  And I can say cutting things, on occasion, without resorting to profanity.  Even though this old creep probably deserved a dressing down that  would put some color into her dull face,  I had a more pressing mission. 

I said, "No, not lately," as I stepped around her.

She said, "That's your problem."

As I left the store with the printer cartridges,  I wondered how she divined that I was an Obama supporter.   I am not of that ethnic color which might cause one to conclude that I am one of those people Glen Beck says is part of an anti-white racial conspiracy.  But as I looked for my car and remembered that I was driving my wife's, I saw the "Women for Obama" and "Herseth Sandlin" stickers in its back window.   I purposely do not put any kind of stickers on my car, because some people prowl parking lots looking for confrontations and I tend to respond with impromptu dissertations on how ugly, stupid, and offensive they are with highly embellished language,  and I am too old to fight or run very fast.  My body is aged but my mouth is a contender. 

Anyway, this old bat seems to represent what politics has become for a large portion of the people.  I have even thought of moving to Alask---oh, shit, is there no place to go to get away from them? 

Washington Post explores the cliches of South Dakota

The headline reads

In South Dakota, Democrats' own 'mama grizzly' vs. 'the next Sarah Palin'

Monday, August 16, 2010

The legacy of racism

During the 2008 election campaign, I did a couple of  posts about the racial comments and attitudes I encountered about Barack Obama, making special note of the fact that many came from Democrats.  A black executive I know commented that if we elected a black president, long suppressed racial hatreds, resentments, and prejudices would erupt like dandelions after a spring rain.  They did. Last summer, as the so-called tea party movement gained momentum, racial signs and slogans were in the front lines of the demonstrations.  People insisted that they were protesting Obama's policies, not reacting to his racial makeup. But it was impossible to miss the racial stereotypes and derogation as the point of the message sent from those demonstrations. 

There are some white supremacists and others of the KKK mold who openly use the First Amendment to express their hatred of blacks, Jews, Latinos, gays, and the entire liberal establishment.  Most people get livid, however,  when someone suggests that they display a racist tendency.   They react to any challenge that things they say may have a racial bias, as if one were accusing them of raping  corpses, their parents, or babies.  The hypersensitivity about racism is testimony to the efforts to stigmatize it, but those efforts have succeeded only in curtailing the open display of it, not in doing much to  limit the practice of it.

When people in Aberdeen mounted a protest against the building of the Northern Beef Packers packing plant, they did so because of the "kind of people" it would attract to the community to work.  In this blog, I commented, as did many other people in the community, that the opposition to the plant on the basis of the ethnic groups likely to come to work in it branded the community as racist.  I received a letter of rebuke from one of the  movement leaders saying that my accusation of racism was unfair, but that statistics showed that in communities where Latinos live, the crime rates are higher than where they don't.  I did not bother to reply, because the idea that factors other than race are involved in crime rates is not an idea that is manageable to those who prefer to think that criminal tendencies are a matter of ethnic heritage.

The larger discussion about race incorporates juvenile logic.  Actually the puerile absence of any logic.  When charges  of racism are made, a common response is to insist that the other side is racist.  Andrew Breitbart put up a contorted and contrived video clip of Shirley Sherrod giving a speech as a direct response to the NAACP resolution asking the tea parties to rebuke the people who used their events as racist platforms.  If anyone cares about accuracy and precision in language, it is important to note that the resolution asked the tea partiers to repudiate the racist insults; it did not say that the tea parties were racist as organizations.  But who cares about what is really said, as long as you can contort someone's words into an accusation that can be used as the  pretext for outrage?  Breitbart put the video up as evidence--contrived and phony as it was--to show that racist statements occurred at a NAACP event.

The Obama administration panicked and fired Shirley Sherrod for what appeared to be reverse racism.  Despite the fact that Breitbart and his cohorts are known to manufacture evidence  (the California attorney general has definitively debunked as fraudulent the videos that brought down ACORN), people in the administration swallowed the bait and acted hastily to show that they were on the right side of the racist issue.  Sherrod's firing is a sign that people who should know better have been put into a state of agitation by the political climate that has changed to one of dangerous hostility since Obama's election. Her firing was an act of cowardly appeasement by people who have been rendered stupid by the racial toxicity that pervades the land.  They fell prey to what amounted to an insanely puerile taunt that "they (the NAACP) are racist, too."

Many of us thought the election of our first black president might be a signal that the old racial hatreds and resentments were finally behind us.  Pundits talked of post racial America. Hardly anyone considered that a black president might revive old hatreds or that a campaign would be launched to portray Obama, all at once, as Nazi, socialist, communist, racist, liberal and every negative condemnation people associate with the n***** word.  A few like my black executive friend, however, knew that racism was not dead; it lies beneath the surface straining to boil up.   Obama's detractors are trying to show what happens if you let a n***** take over the White House.    The incoherence of all those conflicting epithets arises from the desire to humiliate Obama and his kind and put them in their place.  The stigma of being called racist precludes use of the word n-word, so they call him every other thing that is regarded by them as detestable.  The point is to prove his detestability, and that of anyone like him or who supports him.  It's called parallel attack.  The attackers are loathe to use the n-word, and protest that they are only disagreeing with his policies.  So they deride his policies, his character, his personality, his birthright, his education--all those things that could be used to justify their designation of a n*****, even though they use only the euphemisms they can muster.    What undercuts the claims of intellectual legitimacy of the attacks is that they are for the most part made up.  They are juvenile accusations that have little basis in fact.  They are the expressions of petulant temper tantrums, not words that name any actual  facts.

 The new racism tries to portray the liberation of blacks from racial oppression as a communist plot.  Its racist strategy is not to attack them them directly with racist pejoratives, but to malign and slander, at least in conservative eyes, the organizations that have promoted racial equality and fought discrimination.  The NAACP is not just a fixation of Breitbart's but is a target of  parallel attack by conservative factions that say it is the cause of all the problems that beset the black community.  In a video being circulated on conservative web sites (you can view it here), the racist propaganda distorts  the history of slavery by contending that the slaves were liberated only to be re-enslaved by the "progressive, socialist" organizations, such as the NAACP.  The new racism revives the old McCarthy era hysteria of 60 years ago and marries it to the racial stereotypes with which it portrays African America. 

For those of us who live in a state where the very landscape is a monument to racism, it is difficult not to hear racial motives in every ad hominem word.  In fact,  the ad hominem ploy is the telling feature of the political debate.  When attacks on policy are not credible,  a person is attacked. In this state where the "Indian Wars" are still fought, verbally and politically, racism is a huge political force.  South Dakota has nine of those geographical divisions called reservations, (click the word for a native take on it from The Republic of Lakotah) which were conceived as detention  camps in which the great genocide campaign we refer to as Indian Wars would be brought to a conclusion.  The idea was to herd the Indians onto the poorest, least productive land in the region and let them languish.  No sooner had the Treaty of 1868, which ceded the Indians all of West River in the state, been signed than its systematic abrogation began.  The Indians were subdued through starvation by slaughtering off the bison.  Now the process could be continued by putting them on reservations that could not produce food in sufficient abundance.  South Dakota is one of the states that is politically and geographically shaped on racist policy.

The legacy of racism is a two-sided weapon that cuts both ways.  The Indian Wars began in Minnesota in 1862 when white agents embezzled and pilfered away the goods they were to deliver to the Indians.  The Indians concluded that perfidy and treachery was a racial characteristic of the whites, and they embarked on a slaughter of all whites who encroached on the land they believed was theirs.   White American reacted by launching the thirty-year campaign we call the Indian Wars.  The the armed conflict of the Wars ended, for the most part, in 1890 at Wounded Knee.  The hate propaganda which fuels wars continues.  

A large and defining theme of American history is its struggle with racism and the allied strains of ethnic, religious, and political hatreds.  The nation's early years as the Constitution was hashed out involved the arguments  and expressions of concern about the status of slaves.  John Jay said, "To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused."  Patrick Henry predicted,  "I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil."  The ideas that would eventually abolish slavery and work for another hundred years to establish racial equality for African Americans were an ancillary discussion during the  making of the Constitution.  Indians were not a consideration, except for the clause that gives Congress the power to regulate commerce with them.  Their sovereign status as discrete nations excluded them from rights as American citizens until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, which declared that any Indian born in the United States was a citizen with all the rights that pertain.  But as with the Emancipation Proclamation, the declaration of law does not produce automatic changes in the minds of the people.

It took a century after the abolition of slavery to address the issue of segregation and the corrosive customs of racial discrimination.  Until the past year, we seemed to be making progress regarding African Americans.   Native Americans have not been much of a consideration in examinations of America's race-based systems of oppression.  The fight against Jim Crow is an intense one that is now centered in the White House.  But the recognition of American Indians as equal is an issue that has been tabled to White Clay, Nebraska.  Equality is displaced by schemes for making money off of a people we have impoverished and for finding excuses to maintain that oppression.

Therein lies the two-edged aspect of racism.  Racism breeds racism.  It makes the oppressed view their oppressors as inherently malignant.  I am acquainted with two families of tribally enrolled people who have moved off the reservation into white towns because their light-skinned children are the objects of vicious racial discrimination by traditionals. Their light skin makes them despised and distrusted by people who have been consigned to the concentration camp environment.

Anti-white racism does exist and even grows more virulent with the years in the ghettos, the barrios, and on the reservations.  But ghettos, barrios, and reservations are not the creations of the people who reside in them.  They are the creations of their oppressors.  For the people who live in those circumstances, the histories of slavery, Indian wars, and racial suppression are written into their everyday lives.  It is impossible to get over something that determines the quality of daily life.

The American genius has been in its ability to confront the denials of its verbal promise of freedom, equality, justice, and opportunity.  That genius is currently on hold.   The regressives regard anyone who uses the right to seek redress of grievances or who points out denials of that promise as "America haters and bashers."  They want to take America back--all the way  back to Jim Crow, McCarthyism, the great bigotries and exclusions of the past.  All in the name of getting the budget under control and fighting "socialism."  They  want to re-establish those "Christian" principles of not sheltering the poor, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick.  All such bunk is communism.

The significance of the election of 2010 is that it will indicate which values prevail.  It will decide whether our legacy will be to surmount racism or let it rule once again. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Age of Belligerence, the exultation of stupid

The Dakota Day, which is among the few cerebral blog sites originating in South Dakota, has  a series of articles about an Afghanistan veteran soldier who is home on leave.  The soldier expresses his attitudes and thoughts on Facebook with some vicious derogation of the President and minorities, which The Dakota Day reproduces in a sanitized version.

Follow up articles at The Dakota Day take up the issue of verbal decorum.  Because the soldier is an enlisted man, he is not subject to the discipline applied to officers who exhibit disrespect and hostility toward the command, military and civilian--as was the case with Gen. McChrystal.   His effusions were a breach of ethics not a violation of military law.  Sam Hurst ponders if the soldier represents a culture that has grown in the professional military, and there is no doubt that attitudes and rituals of bravado fostered by an inbred military are partially what is on display.  The public attitudes toward those who serve has changed radically since Viet Nam, when soldiers were the objects of verbal abuse and derision.  The change to an adoration of militarism was demonstrated when then-Congressman Bill Janklow spoke at the dedication of Aberdeen's huge flag in Wylie Park by plagiarizing  a poem that circulates on the Internet which states that it is the soldier, not the minister, poet, reporter, lawyer, or demonstrator who is responsible for our freedoms.  This tome of glorification is an affront to history because it denies all the thinkers and the many fronts on which the struggle for freedom has been fought.  But it is evidence of the worship of militarism that marks the nation's slide toward fascism.  Real fascism, not inchoate notion of it with which some charge Obama.  It is a form of patriotism contrived to distract from the deceptions that got us into Iraq and turned Afghanistan into a morass of death and despair.

The Facebook posts begin with the soldier's observation:  America is by far the greatest country ever and english is the onlky real language. everyone else can go eat a d**k. 

The first response is from a Soldier's Friend:  Welcome home buddy boy!!!

Then an apparent high school classmate responds:  Hey [Soldier], I love your passion but maybe you should learn to spell in english before you dictate how everyone else should live.

And then the string goes into the expressive mode that is the verbal currency of Internet dialogues: Hey [Classmate] maybe u should be one to go eat a d**k and actually do something for the good of this country then come talk to me. I just got done fighting for this country so I'll say whatever the f**k  I want. U prolly voted for the worst president ever too Obama I bet so u can suck my nuts

That level of inspiring lyricism sets the tone of what follows.

However, the Facebook posts are as representative of the culture that the Internet displays and propagates on blogs and social networks as of military cults.  The real significance of the exchanges is in the degradation, not the profanity, of the language.  They represent a regression into ignorance, mindlessness, and stupifaction that is a large part of what the world of blogs and social networks is about.  That corrupted and deteriorated language is the currency of those media,  The Internet did not create the cult of the stupid, but it reveals it and propagates it into a customary form of expression.

Out of deference for the respect owed those who serve our country, no one points out that the soldier's rant is illiterate.  The classmate points out misspelling, but the typographical error is not the symptom of the illiteracy.  The phrases from which any cognitive content is absent, the incompetent, incoherent sentences, and the clumsy crudity evidence a dysfunctional mode of expression.

The obsession with mastication of male genitalia has some psycho-social implications:  If you don't like this country, the soldier tells his classmate, quickly leave it, but suck my d**k first.  The idea is that any criticism of the country is unpatriotic and subversive, and the First Amendment really applies to those, such as the soldier, who malign, insult, and abuse those they regard as unpatriotic.  This is a common theme in the mindset of those who call themselves conservatives. 

The irony in the exchange strikes with a vicious impact.  While the soldier claims  to fight for freedoms and the American values of equality and justice,  he denies the exercise of those freedoms to others and verbally banishes those who do not agree with him or suit his fancy to another country. As the soldier launches his verbal assault against his classmate, he becomes progressively more strident and vicious as his compatriots line up behind him to contribute to the taunts.  It is the old playground bully syndrome, which plays itself out time and again on Internet forums.  A bully taunts someone he sees as an object for torment.  As the less bold bullies line up behind him to gain  some sense of consequence and power, he is more emboldened in his insult and abuse.  This is a ritual with which every teacher is familiar and, if at all concerned and competent, tries to disrupt before the bully culture forms itself into established cliques.  But there are barriers to such intervention, and the result is the cultural pathology demonstrated on this Facebook exchange.  It also reveals that the soldier's attitudes and conflicts with his classmate do not originate with his military service, but date back to their high school days.

The rage and malevolence exhibited by the soldier is often encountered in the military, as the primary job of the basic infantry-man--the human weapon platform--is to do those things for which hatred is part of the mental equipment.   My time as a soldier was during the Cold War when a large part of the job of those who worked overseas, in addition to our primary jobs of defense, was to represent America's better side and to demonstrate to our host countries that we were there to keep in check totalitarian aggressors and nuclear war and to protect and support those people who sought the freedoms and advantages we enjoyed.  Our cadre in the guided missile battalion was composed largely of seasoned veterans of World War II and Korea.  They were men who had survived combat and were deeply committed to the mission of peace.  We had plenty of those who lived in a state of  belligerence and hostility, but they were generally "reassigned" to duties that kept them out of view and in reserve for such time as their attitudes and aggressive proclivities would be useful.  While we worked at maintaining our missiles and our skills in a  ready state at all times, we also trained extensively in basic combat techniques.  Even then, those soldiers devoted to belligerence were neither respected, nor trusted.  They did not represent the purpose and integrity of our military.  On the other hand, we had men who were so damaged by war that they could barely function, but were kept on until they could retire with honor.

A man assigned to our battery had been the sergeant major of the U. S Army in Europe.  He  bore the burn marks over his body from being trapped in a burning tank and his campaign ribbons would fill a wall.  He had been busted down to the  rank of corporal.  He did some perfunctory work on communications equipment by that time, but we saw little of him during the day.  Each night at 5 p.m. he came into the Enlisted Men's Club and had a beer a half, which would raise the blood alcohol level he maintained enough to the point that he would black out and crash to the floor.  Each night we dutifully picked him up and carried him to his bunk.  We were protective of this man and greatly saddened by what his service to his country had cost him. 

This situation demonstrated by the soldier of the Facebook exchanges complicates the obligations we Americans have to our military service people, especially those who have served in combat.  We found that the care and treatment of our physically wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan was deplorable, and much has been done to improve their treatment.  We are still floundering around with how to treat those who have been psychically damaged by combat and the war environment.  In my time, being "shell-shocked" was something that happened to sissies.  Now we call it post traumatic stress syndrome, and are just beginning to acknowledge that it is something that deserves study and treatment.  We have a moral obligation to help and treat those who have incurred  injuries, both physical and psychic, in our service.  And  that includes those who may have entered the service with those pathologies that make them dysfunctional.

At this time, we have some valuable information about the effects that a war environment has on those who must endure it.  Two books currently on the best seller lists are particularly instructive in understanding the psychic casualties of war.  One is With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge.  It is the memoir of a young marine in the South Pacific during World War II.  Sledge, who was a biology professor, did not publish the account until 1981, but it has become a classic.  The Marines and Army had 9500 casualties from the battle at Peleliu.  However, the most devastating aspect of that battle was that strategists later said that Peleliu was not a strategic target and the battle did not have to be fought.  Sledge and his fellow soldiers had to deal with the fact that 9500 of the troops they served with lost life and limb in a  battle that the command decided had no consequence.  Sledge writes about the raging hatred one has to work up to effectively fight the enemy, and when that need for that rage and the fight is called into question, he must find some way to deal with that sense that all the sacrifice may have served no real purpose.  He finds solace in the training and sense of purpose he received from the "old breed," those officers and enlisted cadre who instill a sense of  purpose that helps him maintain a dignified humanity in grossly dehumanizing circumstances.  The bonds of friendship he forms with other marines are what sustain him.

The book is important not only for giving a realistic portrayal of war but for giving an account of the psychic battle E. B. Sledge fought to preserve his own soul.

The other book is one just released this summer, War, by Sebastian Junger, a writer for Vanity Fair, who was embedded with a platoon in a remote outpost in Afghanistan.  He gives a penetrating account of what war does to the men who fight it:  “It’s a miraculous kind of anti­paradise up here: heat and dust and tarantulas and flies and no women and no running water and no cooked food and nothing to do but kill and wait.”  This book, too, gives an account of psychological battles men must fight to try to  stay whole.

War destroys the better angels of the human psyche.  It turns people into pack animals that use fang and claw to fight and subdue each other for no purpose other than a degraded survival.  Wars have to be fought when the values of liberty, equality, and true justice are threatened, but we are in two wars now that have little justification.  The invasion of Iraq was totally unnecessary.  Afghanistan has turned from a war of liberation into a war of constant "killing and waiting."  There are more effective ways our treasure, our talents, our people could be deployed.

The young soldier Facebook fighter  from Rapid City will most likely return to active duty after his rest and recuperation leave.  The America he portrays as serving in his Facebook exchanges is not the America most of us who have served have in mind.  We are aware of why our ancestors left their home countries in the Old World and came to America to help build a nation based on liberty, equality, and justice.  The "greatest country ever where english is the only language" the young soldier conceives is not the country of our better angels, but of the demons with which we do constant battle to realize the promise of America.  E.B. Sledge makes the comment that if the country is good enough to live in, it's good enough to fight for.  When people invite us to leave because we do not accept their angry intolerance and belligerence as the values that guide us, it does make us wonder if this is the country where we want to live--and serve.

E. B. Sledge found fellow soldiers who showed him the alternatives to accepting a degraded level of existence imposed by war.  Perhaps the Rapid City soldier will find some representatives of the "old breed" of soldier who will show him the way.  But we all have the responsibility to muster our better angels and offer ways out of the degradation of hate, anger, and horror that war imposes.  That may mean that we might have to pick up those so afflicted off the floor and carry them to bed each night in the hopes that they can find rest and healing.

For most of us, the America we serve is not found in the words of blogs and social networks.  The America we work and fight for is the one that takes up Lincoln's challenge:  "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Caterpillar crawls into the Hills

Bob Mercer was about the first news person in South Dakota to note that Caterpillar, Inc., will have an engineering and design center up and running in Rapid City by October.  This is probably some of the most important news for the state since the National Science Foundation selected the Homestake Goldmine for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory.

The story is still breaking on the South Dakota media, although I received notice of the press release from Caterpillar late yesterday from a journalism organization I belong to that sends out daily summaries of breaking stories.

None of the stories I read in either the national or state media went beyond the press release, although the Rapid City Journal did, apparently, interview the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology who made some comments promoting his institution, claiming that an alumnus who works for Caterpillar was involved in the decision to create the Black Hills Engineering Design Center.  The press release makes note of Rapid City's diversity of resources as a reason for situation the Center there, and the educators suggest that the attraction is that the company can tap directly into SDSM&T  graduates to fill the staff for the facility.  The problem with that explanation is that the research and development organizations, both corporate and government-sponsored, rely on talent from many institutions and geographical backgrounds for the critical development of products and services.  Caterpillar has two other engineering design centers.  One is in India, reflecting Caterpillar's place in the global market.  The other is in Champaign, Ill., the site of the huge University of Illinois campus, and about 90 miles form Caterpillar's corporate headquarters in Peoria. 

If Caterpillar hopes to attract major talent for its research and development projects, it may have its eyes on the people that will be coming in to work with the DUSEL facility, now called the Sanford Underground Laboratory.  The Black Hills have long been noted as being a nice landscape and geographical environment in which to work, but the limited culture and intellectual climate has been discouraging.  The prospect of the DUSEL and the people it will attract has changed that. 

Within recent weeks, Caterpillar has also expanded its interests in mining with a new venture centered on that activity in North Carolina, and with the expansion of its underground imaging technologies, with the acquisition of a company in that field.

Those rapidly developing fields of science and engineering may well make the Black Hills their center.  It's like rocket science.  Only more difficult. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States