Archive for October, 2007

Bombing Japanese Aircraft Carriers

October 31, 2007

I know a man who personally dropped a bomb on a Japanese aircraft carrier. He dropped it at sunset on a summer’s day in 1944. Actually, it was sunset at altitude; he lost the sun as soon as he began his dive. That is quite clear in his memory, he was in sunlight until he pushed the stick and began the bombing dive. It got darker as he dove; all the better to see the tracer shells coming up at him from the carrier. Another thing that is quite clear in his memory is that it was a long way back to his own carrier, it was dark; and, assuming he and the other pilots could find it, they would run out of fuel about the time they got there. dauntless.jpg

That was 1944. They got back to the carriers by dead reckoning. No long distance radar beams to guide them, no GPS to tell them precisely where above the earth’s surface they were or where on that vast Pacific Ocean their carriers were. And it was dark. Twilight does not last long in the tropics. The sun goes beneath the curve of the earth and darkness follows almost immediately.

The ships were running without lights, of course. To turn on lights was to attract Japanese submarines as blood attracts sharks. But Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher didn’t much care. Those were his pilots out there and he would get them home if he could. Not only did the carriers turn on landing lights, every ship in the vicinity lit up like Christmas. They even sent up their own bursting shells so the pilots could see them. My friend at first thought he was seeing lightning on the horizon it was so bright. Fortunately, there were no Japanese submarines in the area.

Nonetheless, he did not have enough fuel to land and had to ditch in the ocean. But, as he tells it, that was no big deal; a ship picked him up and deposited him on his carrier the next day. All in a day’s work. He never mentions mental discipline or sheer physical courage.

But people died that day and on all other days of that war and he remembers the ones he knew and the ones he didn’t; friend and enemy alike. Sometimes he remembers them so much he cries. War will do that to a person. Which, I suppose, is why real combat veterans aren’t much interested in the nice theories and ideologies and stories about war of those who have not experienced real combat.

Presidents ought to be required to go to Arlington National Cemetery when they make their speeches telling us why the nation needs to go to war. The people who order our troops into combat— and those who stand on the sidelines and cheer — should be ordered to talk to my friend. I know he would agree that war is sometimes necessary, but people die in wars and he remembers.


Completely Surrounded

October 31, 2007

“Is there some other way to be surrounded,” you may ask. Watch for Bullwinkle’s question in this video, provided as a Halloween present to my many reader.

For Halloween tonight in our house, we will greet trick or treaters as Snidely Whiplash and Nell Fenwick. Don’t remember them? Well, here they are:

And yes, we are back from the Grand Canyon and are suffering from a terrible case of writer’s block. Note the use of “we” which someone once said can only be used by royalty and people with tapeworms, neither of which applies to me. Still, I try to avoid the narcissistic tone of so many blogs. Therefore; we hope to conquer – as conquer we must, as conquer we shall – this case of writer’s block and return to frequent posts here.

The Trumpet in the Orchestra of Evolution

October 27, 2007

We live beneath a bird highway.  Every year thousands of Sandhill Cranes use the highway to fly back and forth to summer breeding grounds and winter feeding grounds.  They mark the changes of summer to autumn and winter to spring for us.  We use them to keep track of our lives.  cranes-and-moon-1-of-1.jpg

We heard the first cranes of this year’s autumn today and thought of these fine words about cranes from Aldo Leopold:

When we hear his call we hear no mere bird.  We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.  He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.  The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.

Off to the Grand Canyon

October 20, 2007

Maria and I are off to the bottom of the Grand Canyon for a week of hiking, camping and reflection. Which is just another way of saying that no new entries will be posted for a few days. The internet does not reach to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Nor does electricity , except at Phantom Ranch and we won’t be going there.

We hope to spot a California Condor or two, some other interesting birds and no Grand Canyon rattlesnakes.

We’ll be taking a small, light camera and hope to return with a few good photos. But we’re not holding our breath. The Grand Canyon is huge and does not reduce well to two dimensions. Even the eleven dimensions of string theory seem too few to encompass the place and very few photographers can ever hope to do it justice.

For those of you who know me personally, you know that Maria is not the name of the woman in my life. But don’t worry. I’m not taking a mistress to the Grand Canyon. Maria is my walking stick. I almost lost her once, so I named her; hoping that I would not walk off and leave something that I had gone to the trouble of naming. So far, it’s worked. I was on a camping trip with my young children the last time I left her. We trudged back to the site where I thought I might have left her but she was not there. We were sitting on a log, the three of us, and I was trying to be philosophical about the whole thing; explaining to the kids that the stick was important to me because of all the miles we had shared but that it was not good to be too attached to anything in this life when three Texans came by. I mention that they were from Texas only because like almost all Texans I have ever known, they were friendly. I told them that I’d lost my walking stick and one of them showed me his carefully carved walking stick which he had carried with him for as long as he could remember. It had a name which I forget but I remember him. I told him what my car looked like and asked him to put my walking stick under it if they happened to find it on their hike.

The next day we returned to the trail-head, my son ran ahead to the car, looked under it and found the walking stick there.

She is hickory wood and named for the wind.

The 12 Captains

October 19, 2007

Twelve captains of the United States Army weighed in last weekend on the subject of the Iraq War.  All are veterans of Iraq and all have reached the conclusion that it is time for the United States to shut up or put up.  (My words, not theirs.)  By that they mean that we either need to get out of Iraq or start up the draft so we have enough soldiers to send to Iraq to do the job right.  Since starting a draft is a political non-starter, the fundamental conclusion of these “boots on the ground” is that there is going to be a blood bath when we leave, no matter when we leave so there is no reason to keep American soldiers dying merely to delay the inevitable.

You can read their op-ed piece here.

I have passed the “12 Captains” on to friends who are conservative and one who is retired military and am waiting for responses.  I’ll pass those along when and if I get any.

Whales, Dolphins and National Security

October 17, 2007

Today we’ll talk about whales, dolphins and national security. The Navy, attempting to perfect its ability to identify and locate precisely submarines of other countries, has developed a very loud, very long range sonar. It seems to work well, unless you count the hundreds of whales and dolphins it kills. The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) is involved in a long running lawsuit against the Navy trying to stop the program. By and large the NRDC is winning in the lower court.bkdlone1.jpg

Until recently, the Navy denied that its sonar had anything to do with the beached whales and dolphins, some of whom appear to have died from the bends resulting from panic-driven rapid rises to the surface of the ocean. Now the Navy has agreed to fund a two year, six million dollar study attempting to learn how the loud sounds affect some whale species.

Hendrick Hertzberg writes about this in his New Yorker column which you can read here. We take the liberty of quoting him briefly:

Whales live in a world of sound. A large part of their brains, which in many species are larger than ours, is devoted to processing sound. We don’t know how they subjectively experience the processed sound, but it is reasonable to speculate that their experience of hearing is comparable in depth, detail, and complexity to our experience of vision. (They may be able, for example, to “see” inside each others’ bodies, giving them an analogue of the nonverbal communication of emotion for which we use gesture and facial expression.)

Hertzberg concludes the national security need for that kind of sonar is over.

Any real solution would have to be international, involving some serious diplomacy aimed at a new kind of arms control. The cat-and-mouse games played by submarines may have made a certain kind of sense during the Cold War, but what is the point of them now? Russia is annoying, but it is no longer our mortal enemy. The Chinese have no desire to bury us, except under piles of sneakers and kitchen appliances. Al Qaeda’s navy, as the Cole incident showed, consists of the odd motorboat. The terrorists have no submarines. Perhaps the immense sums still spent on naval toys whose strategic rationale is obsolete could be redirected to teaching the relevant personnel, humans and dolphins alike, to speak Arabic.

I doubt that sonar is obsolete. It ought to be, but so too should be war and it isn’t. Ships that can be sunk or incapacitated by small inexpensive weapons may be obsolete. Battleships certainly are, aircraft carriers probably are; but submarines are not. The nation needs an advanced sonar system but it needs one that doesn’t kill whales and dolphins. Our wars are not their business after all and we share the same planet. At the least, it seems the Navy should not turn on their blaring, whale-killing sonar absent a true national emergency and that is unlikely to arise from terrorists possessing submarines.

Photo Credit: Photo: Nan Hauser & Hoyt Peckham, CCRC

Magpies, Al Gore and Global Climate Change

October 14, 2007


I’ve been gone for a few days and out of touch with the world. But I knew that Al Gore and the scientists who study global climate change would receive the Nobel Peace Prize while I was gone. A Magpie told me. Actually, the Magpie only told me that Al Gore and the scientists are right: The climate is warming and faster than it ought to. I figured the rest out for myself. blackbilledmagpie12.JPG

Magpies, in many mythologies, are messenger birds; able to transcend time and space and communicate with worlds unseen by us. They can fly to the heavens and receive messages which they bring back to earth. They’ve been in North America since long before humanity arrived here. Their range was once as extensive as that of the bison. They followed the great bison herds as they ranged throughout the current western United States.

The Magpies, now that I look back on it, have been telling me for years that the climate is warming. But I need to back up a bit. My family – for three generations now – has been the privileged custodian of an old cabin in a canyon of the southern Rocky Mountains. The cabin itself is more than 100 years old and the trees which were used to make it probably another century older than that. When I first made the annual pilgrimage I was a baby and have no conscious memory of the Magpies. But, by the time I was eight or nine years old, I delighted in seeing them. We lived outside their range and so saw them only during our summer vacation as we approached the cabin. In those days, the northern extent of their local range was about 20 miles south of the cabin.

But over just the short span of my life, the Magpies have moved north and, more important, up into the Canyon. Unless you look back more than four decades, the movement was imperceptible. But now the Magpies live a mere six and a half miles from the cabin. They have reduced their range 15 miles north and 1000 feet upward. The Magpie I saw yesterday was further north than I have ever seen one and was at least a mile further up-canyon than last year.

The only reason for their movement is that the climate here is warming. Magpies don’t do well when temperatures rise to 35 degrees centigrade (95 Degrees Fahrenheit) for more than an hour or so a day. They move upward to cooler temperatures to stay alive and are well adapted to colder temperatures. The only reason for the speed of the Magpies’ upward move is that the earth is warming faster than it would be without Homo Sapiens Sapiens adding carbon dioxide to the air at breakneck speed. It may be news to humans, but not to the Magpies. They’ve known for a long time.

Religion in American Life and Law, Part V

October 10, 2007

The next stop in our quick survey of religion in American life and law is the religious debate about slavery. Every major church in the United States split apart over the issue. The Presbyterians were first in 1838, followed by the Methodists in 1844 and the Baptists in 1845. These were long-lasting splits. The Presbyterians did not fully reunite until 1983; the Methodists not until 1939; and the Southern Baptists – of whose churches only 11% were allowing Black members as late as late as 1968 – did not formally renounce its defense of slavery until 1995. Here is a brief sampling of the religious views of some ministers supporting slavery.

One of the more famous of the religious defenders of slavery was Benjamin Morgan Palmer, the first leader of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America which split from its northern brethren in 1837-1838 over slavery.byrd2.jpg Here is Palmer in 1863 on the question of slavery and the Civil War, “The question of negro slavery being the occasion at least, if not the cause, of these commotions . . .” Calling the Civil War a “commotion” is an understatement of biblical proportions. Slavery, according to Palmer, “. . . may be discussed in the light of divine revelation or in the light of the law of nature or in the light of the political and municipal institutions of the countries where it exists.” And any attempt to interfere with slavery where it exists is, “immoral in itself and revolutionary in its tendency.”

And, should you think human freedom is an argument against slavery, listen to the Reverend Palmer, “The common impulse of the soul towards freedom is no evidence that restraint is wrong.” Because slavery, the good Reverend held, actually existed meant that it was, “. . . allowed by God, considered and treated in His law, regulated by His providence wholly indifferent as concerning His grace.” Because God and Jesus allowed slavery to exist, slavery was part of the Great Design and it was, “for ever the duty of the South in the discharge of a great historic trust to conserve and transmit the same.” The South must, “contradict and rebuke the insufferable arrogance of those who assume into their hands the prerogatives of Divine legislation.”

Palmer wasn’t alone. Another preacher, George Fitzhugh, published a little pamphlet calmly called, “Cannibals All! Or, Slaves without Masters.” In it, Fitzhugh promised to, “to treat the subjects of Liberty and Slavery in a more rigidly analytical manner.”

Or there was Thornton Stringfellow. He was rigidly analytic. Here is his outline for his discussion of the Bible:

I propose, therefore, to examine the sacred volume briefly, and if I am not greatly mistaken, I shall be able to make it appear that the institution of slavery has received, in the first place,

1st. The sanction of the Almighty in the Patriarchal age.
2d. That it was incorporated into the only National Constitution which ever emanated from God.
3d. That its legality was recognized, and its
relative duties regulated, by Jesus Christ in his kingdom; and
4th. That it is full of mercy.

After establishing that the Hebrews tolerated slavery, Stringfellow asks, “. . . whether Jesus Christ has abolished it, or recognized it as a lawful relation, existing among men, and prescribed duties which belong to it, as he has other relative duties; such as those between husband and wife, parent and child, magistrate and subject.” I’ll leave it to you to imagine how Stringfellow answered his own question.

But, since he was apparently the best known of the religious defenders of slavery, let’s get back to Reverend Palmer. He spoke to the Legislature of South Carolina in 1863 and published a pamphlet of the speech. palmetp.jpg (Today he would have started a blog.) The legislators in attendance first learned that, “The negro race, for example, has never in any period of history been able to lift itself above its native condition of fetishism and barbarism.” The “commotion” of the Civil War resulted from, “. . . the fashion of the world to go periodically mad upon some wild scheme, which contrives to enlist in its support a misdirected religious zeal. This is far from being the first instance where a religious fanaticism has stirred the depths of the human heart, and brought the world in fearful collision with the grand and fixed purposes of Almighty God.”

Slavery, you see, was, “. . . clearly ordained of God, and that there is no more sin intrinsically in it than in the subordination of parent and child, I feel no compunction of conscience in the holding of slaves.” Slavery would continue until, “God will sufficiently indicate [its end] by evincing his aptitude for a new and independent career.” But since God talked to him, “I confess frankly that I have no expectation of such a result.”

Into that religious swamp stepped Abraham Lincoln.

Blogging and Self-Esteem

October 8, 2007

Blogging can be lonely work. Sometimes you wonder if anybody is reading your writing which you are working so hard at. If you want to write for public consumption you either have to do a blog or write a book. And writing books which don’t get published can adversely affect your self-esteem . After all, if all you wanted was to write for yourself, you could keep a private diary. But that can be depressing too. See what I mean in this New Yorker cartoon.

Clarence Thomas, Redux

October 7, 2007

The bitterness exhaled by Clarence Thomas in his new memoir continues to be noticed.  Here are two more insightful op-ed pieces.  The first, which you can read here, is by Frank Rich and the second, which you can read here, is by Maureen Dowd.  See if you figure out who “A” is before you get to the end.

Here too, is my piece about the book from earlier this week in case you missed it. Of course, I am probably just one of those “left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony” that Clarence Thomas rails at, so I wouldn’t pay too much attention if I were you.