It’s a good thing, I believe, to remember the dead — especially in a culture that trivializes death. We shunt it aside to the fantastic realms of video games and movies, and call it by other names when we do it to old people and unborn infants, and all of this is a way, I think, of grasping life in the wrong way, in a way that reveals the underlying belief, for many of us, that our lives are about our gratification.
That’s such a big word for an experience that is so very small. Gratification is as far removed from joy as hunger is from a great feast, and yet we forsake the latter in pursuit of the former because joy, like a feast, requires sacrifice.
So it’s a good thing to remember those who gave their lives in sacrifice for others. Think on them, and if you like you can light a candle or mutter a prayer, a prayer that you and I and the rest of the world will, if only for a slender day, give ourselves over to loving someone other than ourselves, which means the great sacrifice of setting down our hurts and lusts and grievances and entitlements, all of which are chains with heavy anchors, but which we gather to us like treasures. But today, if only for today, what say we lay them down?
Our armed forces have become exquisitely sensitive–toward Nidal Malik Hasan and Ahmed Hashim Abed, and one wonders who else. Such sensitivity comes at a price, of course. But for now, at least, that price won’t be paid by those who set the policy.
The SEALs would’ve been better off if they’d just shot the guy dead.
This looks good.
“Brothers at War is an intimate portrait of an American family during a turbulent time. Jake Rademacher sets out to understand the experience, sacrifice, and motivation of his two brothers serving in Iraq. The film follows Jake’s exploits as he risks everything–including his life–to tell his brothers’ story.
“Often humorous, but sometimes downright lethal, Brothers at War is a remarkable journey where Jake embeds with four combat units in Iraq. Unprecedented access to US and Iraqi combat units take him behind the camouflage curtain with secret reconnaissance troops on the Syrian border, into sniper ‘hide sites’ in the Sunni Triangle, through raging machine gun battles with the Iraqi Army.
“Ultimately, the film follows his brothers home where separations and life-threatening work ripple through their parents, siblings, wives, and children. Brothers at War is a rare look at the bonds and service of our soldiers on the frontlines and the profound effects their service has on the loved ones they leave behind. For more information please visit – www.brothersatwarmovie.com.”
The film is executive produced by Gary Sinise (CSI: New York, “Lt. Dan” in Forrest Gump), who said, “The media took the 15 people of Abu Ghraib and made them the face of the military. This [movie] is a true portrait of our military and their families.”
Thanks to the best wife in the world, my Valentine’s Day gift arrived three days early. Last night I was privileged, along with a couple hundred others, to spend some time with General Charles “Chuck” Yeager.
General Yeager has long been a hero of mine. He was one of many reasons I entered Air Force ROTC in college. His exploits, as portrayed in [The Right Stuff](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Right_Stuff_(film), kept my friend Matt and I up late into the night on more than one occasion. When she learned he was going to be in town as part of a fundraiser for the C.R. Smith Museum, my wife thought I would enjoy attending, and oh, was she ever right.
We watched a 20-minute clip from a DVD about the general, and then he spoke for about an hour and a half, discussing his experiences from World War II onward, and taking questions from the audience.
Some of his recollections and observations that I can remember, in no particular order:
* General Yeager has flown nearly every aircraft in the Air Force inventory, and myriads of planes that never made it in to service.
* His favorite jet currently in American service is the F-15E. Given his opinions, one can surmise that he believes taxpayer resources would have been better spent upgrading and improving this aircraft, rather than investing in the F-22 and F-23. He referred to the F-22 specifically, as well as the F-16, as “great for air shows,” but not so great for modern air combat.
* In October of last year, he went to France and flew the Airbus A380. General Yeager was very impressed with the “hotel with wings” (his words), and its stability. He told us of the flight tests he took part in with the water drums loaded throughout the fuselage (to simulate passenger and equipment weights), and how they would be moved about to change the plane’s center of gravity, and the 380 would take it all in stride.
* During the Airbus visit, he was reunited with some of the Maquis resistance fighters who’d sheltered him for three months after he was shot down over southern France. “There’s not many of them left; they’re all older than me.”
* He’s convinced France is the second-best country in modern aviation, behind the United States.
* He lamented the consolidation of the aircraft industry in the U.S. When he was a test pilot, flying 25-30 different aircraft each month, the Defense Department could choose from myriad contractors: Lockheed, North American, Grumman, Corvair, Rockwell, Boeing, Bell, Martin, and McDonnell Douglas. It was extremely competitive, and the country was rewarded with the best possible aircraft for the best possible price. Now the industry has contracted to only three players, and these companies are free to “fleece” the government.
* On shooting down a Me 262 during World War II: while on a mission, Yeager’s squadron encountered several 262s, but none engaged the P-51s. While passing over a particular area, the squadron came under antiaircraft fire. While spying where the flak was coming from, Yeager noted the guns were protecting a small airfield, and he saw 262s on the ground. He also saw a 262 coming in for a landing. He then lined up behind the 262 and destroyed it; “not very sportmanslike, but what the hell” was the general’s sentiment. He noted with amusement that an antiaircraft battery at the end of the runway had turned its gun on him, now racing down the length of the runway about six feet off the deck, and, missing his Mustang, was hitting its own hangars at the opposite end of the field.
* He thought Tom Wolfe’s portrayal of him and the Air Force in The Right Stuff was accurate; “pretty much how it really was.” On NASA, the German scientists who helped build the rockets, Vice-President Johnson: not so much. “There was a lot of embellishment.” (Yeager was a technical adviser for the movie, and flew several of the featured aircraft for the film.)
* Regarding the early period of space flight research in the U.S.: the Air Force owned the space program. They were in charge of all the training of pilots-cum-astronauts, ran the test facilities and aircraft, all on a miniscule budget. They did all of this with nary a mention in the press. Then Sputnik went up, Eisenhower made space a priority, NASA was born out of NACA, and the place became a bureaucratic and budgetary mess “and has been that way since.” I gathered that he thought it outrageous that each of the original Mercury astronauts got his own press agent. Yeager has a very strong opinion about the space program, from which one might surmise that today it would be a very different, and likely much more successful, animal if it were still under the Air Force’s purview.
* He does not regret ever going into space. He is especially proud that the men who came through the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, of which he was the first commandant, were among the Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle astronaut crews.
* Though he retired from the Air Force in 1975, he continued to test fly for the Air Force. His payment was a dollar a year. When presented with the offer, Yeager says his only response was “I don’t have to pay for the fuel, do I?” He’s also performed test flights for many private companies, including foreign ones (viz: Airbus, above).
* Regarding his selection to fly the X-1: his dad was a natural gas driller in West Virginia, and as a 12 year-old, Yeager would help his dad repair dome regulators, which lowered the pressure of the gas so it could be more easily sent through pipes, atop drilled wells. Part of the gas system for the X-1’s rockets included the same type of dome regulators. Yeager contends “In some ways, I knew the X-1’s fuel system better than the guys who designed and built it, because I grew up with it.” His background knowledge factored in to his selection.
* After three months in southern France, the Maquis resistance managed to get Yeager across the Pyrennes into Spain. Spain was neutral at the time, along with Switzerland and Sweden. Combatants who ended up in these countries were expected to pretty much ride out the war there. Spain had no petroleum resources of its own at the time, and due to the war, was having difficulty importing it. The U.S. agreed to an exchange of petroleum for several pilots, including Yeager, who had ended up there. The general joked, “Now I don’t know how many barrels each of us was worth…”
* Improvement in technology aside, Yeager is indignant over the number of troops injured and killed by IEDs over the past few years on Iraq. He told us about how the Air Force used to assist the troops on the ground in the removal–via detonation/destruction–of roadside mines during Vietnam. (This involved the Bird Dog observer aircraft spotting and marking new disturbances in the ground alongside the roads, with ground attack aircraft following, strafing the marked positions.) He rhetorically wondered why something similar wasn’t being done in Iraq, and contends it’s because those running the war for the various services didn’t serve in Vietnam.
* His last flight in a military jet of any kind was on 18 September 2007. Looking back through old flight logs, he discovered his first official flight in a military aircraft of any kind was 18 September 1942. He was obviously pleased with this 65-year run of flying military aircraft.
* He’s a modest man who doesn’t look at his accomplishments in the same light as the rest of us. One can understand that; living in the moment, you oftentimes fail to appreciate it for what it was at the time it happened. Yeager contends that he was simply in the right place at the right time, with the right set of skills.
Given that General Yeager’s 86th birthday will be on Friday, the 13th, a cake was brought out and the entire audience sang “Happy Birthday” to him. He thought it was a kick. He mingled briefly afterward, and had a slice of cake. There was no official signing or greeting line; the general either hadn’t planned to, or was too tired, to sign books and other items. All perfectly understandable.
It was disappointing to not be able to greet General Yeager personally, shake his hand, and thank him for his decades of service. But I am not disappointed in the overall experience. It was fantastic! If you ever have the chance to meet with General Yeager or hear him speak, do not miss such an opportunity with an authentic American hero.
Much love and thanks to Kelly for making last night possible for me! I love you, sweetheart!
Obama’s busy expanding all of the rest of the government except for its primary, Constitutional mission: defending the nation.
With several friends serving our country in the armed forces, I can only pray they continue to have jobs until they are ready to leave the service.
Reducing our troop strength solely on the basis of trends in violence also misses the critical point that the mission of American forces in Iraq is shifting rapidly from counterinsurgency to peace enforcement. The counter-insurgency fight that characterized 2007 continues mainly in areas of northern Iraq. The ability of organized enemy groups, either Sunni or Shia, to conduct large-scale military or terrorist operations and to threaten the existence of the Iraqi government is gone for now. No area of Iraq today requires the massive, violent, and dangerous military operations that American and Iraqi forces had to conduct over the last 18 months in order to pacify various places or restore them to government control. Although enemy networks and organizations have survived and are regrouping, they will likely need considerable time to rebuild their capabilities to levels that pose more than a local challenge–and intelligent political, economic, military, and police efforts can prevent them from rebuilding at all.
American troops continue to conduct counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has not given up, and against Iranian-backed Special Groups, which are also reconstituting. U.S. forces support Iraqi forces conducting counterinsurgency operations in the handful of areas where any significant insurgent capability remains. But mostly our troops are enforcing the peace.
In ethnically mixed areas, American troops are seen as impartial arbiters and mediators. In predominantly Shia or Sunni areas, they are seen as guarantors of continued safety, destroying the justification for illegal militias. American brigades also play critical roles in economic reconstruction, not by spending American money but by helping Iraqis spend their own money. American staffs help local Iraqi leaders develop prioritized lists of their needs, budgets to match those priorities, and plans for executing those budgets. American troops support the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that mentor Iraqi provincial leaders and help local communities communicate their needs to the central government. American soldiers provide essential support to Iraqi soldiers and police working hard to develop their ability to function on their own.
Indeed, American combat brigades have become the principal enablers of economic and political development in Iraq. When an American brigade is withdrawn from an area, there is nothing to take its place–all of these functions go unperformed. Clearly, then, the number of brigades needed in Iraq should be tied not to the level of violence but to the roles the Americans perform and the importance of those roles to the further development of Iraq as a stable and peaceful state.
[Emphasis added. –R]
“[L]et us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us re-consecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.” –Dwight Eisenhower
It is said that generals always fight the last war. But when David Petraeus came to town it was senators — on both sides of the aisle — who battled over the Iraq war of 2004-2006. That war has little in common with the war we are fighting today.
I may well have spent more time embedded with combat units in Iraq than any other journalist alive. I have seen this war — and our part in it — at its brutal worst. And I say the transformation over the last 14 months is little short of miraculous.
The change goes far beyond the statistical decline in casualties or incidents of violence. A young Iraqi translator, wounded in battle and fearing death, asked an American commander to bury his heart in America. Iraqi special forces units took to the streets to track down terrorists who killed American soldiers. The U.S. military is the most respected institution in Iraq, and many Iraqi boys dream of becoming American soldiers.
We know now that we can pull off a successful counterinsurgency in Iraq. We know that we are working with an increasingly willing citizenry. But counterinsurgency, like community policing, requires lots of boots on the ground. You can’t do it from inside a jet or a tank.
Over the past 15 months, we have proved that we can win this war. We stand now at the moment of truth. Victory — and a democracy in the Arab world — is within our grasp. But it could yet slip away if our leaders remain transfixed by the war we almost lost, rather than focusing on the war we are winning today.
The following landed in ye olde e-mail inbox earlier today, penned by talk radio host Laura Ingraham:
Megan pulled a three-ring binder out of her bag and showed me a photograph of herself and her husband. Young–they’re both 21–with big smiles on their faces and obviously wildly in love. “That’s what he looked like,” she said with a somber face, “He was such a cutie-pie, always buying me little stuffed animals and writing the most thoughtful notes the entire time he was in Iraq.” Then she showed me the photo of her husband receiving the Purple Heart on Wednesday from President Bush at Bethesda Naval Medical Center. As President Bush pinned the medal on Mike, he lay unconscious in the ICU, having suffered a traumatic brain injury caused by a piece of shrapnel that pierced his temple.
“This is my Mike now,” she said, rubbing her eyes. He is completely blind and to alleviate a terrible cranial pressure build-up, doctors had to remove the front of his skull. Since being wounded several months ago, Mike has never regained consciousness and suffers from terrible seizures. “That’s my guy,” she repeated, before she went on to tell me about how they met and fell in love.
For whatever reason, I kept thinking about the fact that some person somewhere carefully assembled the IED that would eventually maim Mike and many others. They are often packed with nails, hunks of lead and screws to cause maxim human suffering. When they explode, the contents rip through flesh and bones, shattering countless dreams in the process.
How to comprehend this level of evil and the physical and emotional agony it causes? This young woman and her husband should be out buying their first Christmas tree together, going to parties, raising a glass to their future. When I asked what she was doing for the holiday she said, “I’ll be here with Mike. I would never want him to be alone on Christmas.” They had been married for about three months when Mike was wounded.
In these days before Christmas, Megan and other military wives and moms gave me a precious gift. They reminded me that true love requires sacrifice–sometimes seemingly unbearable, heart-wrenching sacrifice. They are living out their love in big and small ways. Many have moved thousands of miles to relocate to the hospitals where their husbands, wives, sons, and daughters are being treated. This takes an enormous emotional and financial toll, yet they do it for love. When they are not at the hospital bedsides of their wounded warriors, they sit for hours a day in waiting rooms across the United States, hoping for good news–or at least no more bad news. They pray with each other, cry with each other, and yes, even manage to laugh with each other as they hope for a day when they can return to “normal life.” Yet for the families of our most seriously injured troops, they know they will have to get used to a “new normal,” much different from the life they knew before.
As we are about to celebrate Christmas spending time with our families and friends, let us all do our best to live up to the true spirit of this season–and make it a time filled with love, faith, gratitude, hope, charity, and, yes, let’s try for some peace on earth. Let us remember the military families and our wounded heroes who will spend this Christmas at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Brooke Army Medical Center, Bethesda Naval Medical Center and other medical facilities across the nation. As we rush around stressed out because we “haven’t found the perfect gift” for so-and-so, these families hope and pray for gifts that cannot be wrapped up: a hand that squeezes back, a smile, the first step on a new prosthesis, or a positive medical report.
They need our prayers and support at Christmas and every day. Please give what you can to any of the wonderful organizations that support our bravest and their families.
So, what am I thankful for this year….?
My wife. Those who know me know that she has to put up with a lot on a regular basis. However, when I injured my left foot earlier this year, a ton of extra stuff fell to her to take care of, and she’s been absolutely wonderful. I love you, sweetheart.
The little phisch. Our little man is a never-ending source of joy–and frustration, but that’s just part of parenting. That smile of his just lights me up any time, and his laugh is the best sound I’ve ever heard. He’s a gas to play with, and it never ceases to amaze me when I see his mind at work on something. Being his dad is the greatest job I could ever have, and has given me a larger appreciation of the love my own parents have for me.
My folks. I had a perfectly normal childhood. My parents, while strict at times, were never abusive in any manner, and I always knew I was loved. I grew up in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, with lots of other kids my age. My folks provided everything I needed, and more. They made sure I went to college without incurring a large financial debt. Since I’ve left the nest, they’ve been a source of encouragement and help in ways I never imagined.
My family. My sister, my grandmothers, my aunts, uncles, and cousins whom I’m lucky to see even once a year. We may not all talk often, and see one another even less, but it’s nice to know that when we do get together, after a few minutes of catching up, it’s pretty much just picking up from wherever we last left off. My life would be more shallow without them.
My friends. I have friends in this nation from coast to coast, and from the far north of the 48 states down to their southernmost. I am blessed to have quite a few right here in my little corner of the world, and more in many other corners. You have all enriched me in some way, and I’m thankful to know you.
The men and women of the United States armed forces. I’m proud to count members from the prior category in this one as well. Thank you all for your tireless sacrifice on behalf of the rest of us. You are never far from our thoughts and prayers. May those of you in the line of fire return home safely upon the successful completion of your mission. In the mean time, watch your six, and God bless.
God. You have made all things possible. You have blessed me in ways far beyond my understanding and worth. You offered Your own Son in my place, so that I might have a place in Your kingdom forever. I am humbled that You, the Creator of all things, would deign to know the number of hairs on my head, much less want to be my friend. All of the above things for which I am thankful are gifts from You, and I am eternally grateful.