Okinawa

I am writing this from roughly the middle of the East China Sea on a twenty hour sea passage from Shanghai to Okinawa.  Actually, I’m not going to Okinawa but to Ishigaki-Jima which is a part of the Okinawa chain of islands which are, in turn, are part of Japan.

I don’t want to insult anyones intelligence by dwelling on what you already know, but, if you, like me, missed this part of the world in your world geography class, a little context might be useful. Okinawa is a chain of 150 or so islands midway between Japan and Taiwan, and lies, as I previously indicated, in the midst of the East China sea.  Of the 44 islands which are inhabited, a population of 1.4 million is sustained.  Of these, approximately 26,000 are affiliated with the various branches of the U.S. military.  A quick calculation will yield the fact that our military comprises almost two percent of their total population.  This is supportive of the notion that Okinawa is of some great strategic importance to U.S. interests.  In fact, our assets in Okinawa have played a role in virtually every military encounter we’ve had in this half of the world…including Iraq and Afghanistan.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Human existence in Okinawa is dated to the early Paleolithic era.  Surely you can pin that down.  If not, take solace that there is ample evidence of an agricultural society on the islands dating to the 8th century.  I suspect they lived pretty much in peace, perhaps struggling to keep food on the table and the wolf from the door for the next 700 years until the Chinese of the Ming dynasty seized the opportunity to embrace them as a tributary.  That is to say, they made them pay for the right to be dominated by a foreign country.  This went on for a hundred years or so until the Tokugawa regime of the evil empire of the north saw what a good thing a tributary country could be, and when the Chinese weren’t looking, took over their role.  This remained the status quo until the Japanese decided a more formal relationship was in order and annexed Okinawa in 1872.  No, this doesn’t mean that Okinawa got the same status as other prefectures of the Japanese empire.  It was more of an ugly stepchild kind of relationship which got worse, much, much worse during WWII.  Let me elaborate.

It is Okinawa’s lot to be geographically situated in a location which lends itself to both offensive and defensive strategies of war.  Japan used it to great effect in its efforts to expand its domain in South East Asia.  It was also seen as a substantial line of defense against the inevitable effort of the U.S and allies to encroach on Japanese space.  The U.S., on the other hand coveted Okinawa as a jumping off point for their ultimate invasion of the Japanese mainland.  In addition, it’s proximity to Japan made the job of our B-29’s much easier.  So there you have it…the set up for the momentous Battle of Okinawa which began in April of 1945 and raged on, and on, and on for 82 terrible bloody days.  It’s informative to know that the Japanese referred to the battle as “Tetsu No Ame” or the Typhoon of Steel.  You can easily imagine why.

I won’t try to detail the to and fro of the fight.  I will only say the the battle was substantially in doubt until the very end.  The Japanese had clearly drawn a line in the sand, and as it turns out, the line was clearly marked in the blood of their own soldiers, the civilian population of Okinawa as well as U.S. troops.  The U.S. suffered over 14,000 KIA’s, and the Japanese army reported 77,000 killed including almost 50,000 of the good citizens of these formerly peaceful islands.  It was the intensity and barbarity of the Japanese defense that marks this battle as different from others in the Pacific campaign.  In a word, the Japanese were getting desperate, and they would, and did, do things that can only be characterized as barbarous.  They used civilians, (men, women, and children) as human shields to deter the artillery of the U.S. forces.  They formed military units of middle schoolers, 12-15 years old, and used them as fodder in set piece battles.  Perhaps the act that most defies our understanding is their program of handing out grenades and encouraging, even ordering. civilians to commit suicide in the face of the enemy.

The outcome of the Battle of Okinawa was important on many levels.  It gave the big lie to the invulnerability of the Japanese in defense of their homeland.  It also gave us the highly desirable forward air base and jumping off point for further prosecution of the war, however we might proceed.  Most importantly, though, was the prima facie evidence it offered of the inhuman ferocity which could be expected in any invasion of the home islands.  In fact, many historians now say that it may have been the crucial body of evidence that turned the tide of the strategic argument for use of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Indeed, in the after analysis of the Battle of Okinawa, the casualty estimates for an invasion of the home islands was raised considerably at a time when the American appetite for additional war casualties was rapidly waning.

I dunno why Truman ultimately decided on the use of the “Bomb”, but I do know that it changed the course of history, not just for the culmination of WWII, but for all time for all mankind.  I suspect that the Battle of Okinawa was part of the calculus.

 

Genteman Farmer

I never really thought much about the land…the land from which we draw sustenance.  I know that most of us have a connection through our ancestors.  Somewhere in our lineage are those who at some time or other have scratched a living from the land, but few of us have actually pulled a cultivator behind a tractor to prepare a field for planting or even mowed a pasture.

Until I retired from the corporate world, my connection to the land was tenuous at best.  As a restless teenager, I used to visit an aunt and uncle in the panhandle of Texas who were honest-to-god cotton farmers. They lived in a small frame house just north of Lubbock; some irrigation wells, a few tired tractors, and a rolling bank loan were the principle assets of their “family farm.”  I remember best that we had cantaloupe with every meal, and that all the males wore overalls.  I discovered the relentlessness of farming by having to change irrigation pipes every four hours throughout the day and night.  The tediousness of the farm was occasionally relieved by driving thirty miles to Lubbock to go to the drive-in movie.  While I enjoyed these brief contacts with the land, I was always more than ready to return to the city.

Then, in one of my college summers, a friend’s father offered me a temporary job on their sheep ranch in west Texas.  It sounded good, even vaguely romantic in the abstract, but the reality was well beyond my worst expectations.  For a few weeks I was a “dauber” on their shearing crew.  As you might imagine, the dauber is the low man on the totem pole of sheep-shearing crews, and I’m pretty sure that sheep shearing, as a whole, is pretty far down the job chain as well.  My job was to daub hot pine tar on the small cuts inflicted on the sheep in the shearing process.  Modesty precludes me from telling you the reaction of a freshly shorn sheep after being so rudely daubed with hot pine tar, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t pretty and was very smelly.  That particular contact with the land did more to increase my motivation to get the sheepskin that comes with a college degree than all the lecturing and hectoring I had endured previously.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, I fell in love with a farmer’s daughter.  Well, actually, at first I didn’t know I was in love and I didn’t know she was a farmer’s daughter.  She was just a beautiful girl that tugged at my heart.  Even then, my connection to the land, I mean the-real-honest-to-god farmland, was not only through my wife, but also through my ambition to succeed in business.  Yes, I talked vaguely with my father-in-law about the economics of the cattle business (not very good), and the importance of having roots in the land (very good), but it didn’t seem a part of my world or what I wanted my world to become.  It’s important to note, I think, that my father-in-law never owned more than fifty-seven acres.   I’m absolutely certain he never made more than a few thousand dollars a year, nor worked less than eighty hours a week.  In spite of those facts, he was also amongst the happiest of the human race.  I should have had a clue then, but, of course, I had none.

Fast forward three decades when I came face to face with the rest of my life.  I had, in defiance of fairly long odds, achieved business and economic success well beyond my greatest expectations.  I was faced, in a modest way, with the “man on the moon syndrome.”  That is to say, if I can land on the moon or achieve substantial business success, what then, can follow?  I thrust about for a time, doing this and that, trying to hold on to my past, but finally, with a startling clarity, I concluded that the rest of my life was not likely to be like what had come before. I needed, I wanted, I had to have something entirely different to give the rest of my life meaning.  The options whirled through my mind…politics, public service, charity…all had their allure.  And I got more advice than I could reasonably deal with.

One loose weekend, S. (my darling wife, Sandra) and I visited the old home place.  A kind of “going home” for her and a lost weekend for me.  We stayed at the small ranch house that situated itself where the home place used to be.  I walked the land, all fifty-seven acres of it, remembering the years now gone, the bird hunts, the fishing trips, and the conversations with my father-in-law, Tilt, about the value of the land.  I don’t mean the economic value, but the value that only comes with generations of ownership, and the sweat of honest labor.  I recalled the still vivid memory of my last walk with him over the land.  He was at the end of an energetic life, plagued with a virulent cancer that would end his days within weeks.  As we walked and talked over the land, land that was a part of the original acreage that came to the Lyday family through an 1835 land grant from the Republic of Texas, land that was part of his very being…he confided to me a lie.  His lie, of course, was a lie of circumstance.  My wife, her sister, and Tilt’s wife had all been urging him to sell the land, his land, the land of his fore bearers…in order to defray the expense of his illness and to provide some measure of financial security for his wife when he was gone.  He said to me, “Gary, the women have been on me to sell the land, and I’ve told them I will.  But, son, I didn’t tell them the truth.  I could no more sell this land than I could sell my soul.  I’m not ever gonna sell this land, and I hope, when it’s yours, you won’t either.”  That small lie of Tilt’s made little impact on me at the time.  But, in a way, it allowed me to peek into a window of his soul, and like all voyeurs, I was a bit embarrassed or maybe puzzled by what I saw.  How could a few acres of dirt be so important, so meaningful that he would forego a small measure of financial comfort in the last days of his life and some security for his wife after he was gone?  This question stayed with me, always in the back of my mind.  Only years later did the answer begin to reveal itself to me.  Not arriving in a coherent whole, but in bits and pieces.  A layer at a time, perhaps.

My interaction with the land, if you can call it that, began with a search.  I wanted more from what had been a very good life.  And in my search for something more, I wanted to see if the land could provide for me what it had provided for Tilt and so many others.  S. and others who know me well say that I am merely restless.  Never satisfied with what I have now or know now.  And they are right.  At my core, I believe that there are only two states in life.  One is either growing or one is dying.  The status quo is no damn good, and I wasn’t ready for dying just yet.

On the other hand, I believe that the first and maybe highest obligation of wealth is to preserve it and use it for the benefit of one’s own family, and if possible, share it with others wisely.  I’m not inclined to risk it all on a toss of the dice, but a bit of risk makes life a lot richer.  Let me fast forward to a recent conversation. When I’m in Dallas, I invariably join a group of friends for an early breakfast at Dallas Country Club. The talk runs the gamut…sports, politics, family, and business. I  was talking about my efforts to make the farm a paying business proposition, and one of the group asked about my financial objective for the farm operation. I replied that I thought I could get it up to about $500,000 per year in about three years if things went right . He chuckled a bit and retorted that I could probably do that playing gin rummy at the club and with a lot less effort.  I thought for a moment before answering, then explained that it wasn’t really how many zeros followed the significant digit, but the importance of there being a clearly measurable goal, and being involved in something that had meaning to me now and in the future.

So I started buying land (without regard to ultimate purpose) to add to the fifty-seven acre “home place” that S. had inherited.  My only guidelines were that the land I bought should be contiguous to the land we already had…and, ideally, it would be a part of the same land that the Republic of Texas used to woo Sandra’s ancestors.  There was no business plan, there was no conservation plan.  My only plan, if you could call it that, was to get as much land as I could and then figure out what to do with it.  The results were predictable.  I got the land I wanted and had no idea what to do next.  Raise cattle?  Plant a crop?  Buy a horse?  Get a tractor?  Well, I did all of those things and, over the years, I sorted it all out.  What worked and what didn’t.  What we enjoyed doing and what was plain drudgery.  Within three years, I had zeroed in on breeding Egyptian Arabian Horses, growing hay, and preserving the natural habitat.  I had even been recognized as Farmer of the Year by the local chamber of commerce…but perhaps their selection was influenced more by my donations to the chamber rather then my perspicacity as a farmer.  Along the way I planted hay fields, bought tractors and assorted other farm equipment, bought and sold cattle, built barns, built lakes and roads, fenced paddocks, stocked farm ponds, and met and learned to appreciate others who did this for a living and did it well.  I’ll paraphrase the old saw, “The way to make a small fortune in farming is to start with a large fortune.”  I was well on my way to that “small fortune” in farming.

What I had not anticipated was that I really, really enjoyed what I was doing.  I commented to another of my DCC coffee klatch colleagues that, “Getting on a tractor and baling hay, or performing any of the other seemingly mundane tasks of farming, was one of the few things I had ever done where I could look look behind me and see exactly what I had done and how well I had done it.”  I’ve known others of my ilk who experienced the same thing…leaving the race and stress of the office behind, rushing to the farm/ranch/acreage  in a three-piece suit, mounting the brand new Kubota tractor and attaching the bat wing shredder, then mowing a seven-acre pasture.  Is it the smell of the just mown grass?  Or is it the sense of doing something outside of our comfort zone and doing it well?  Maybe it’s just the personal satisfaction of connecting with the land as our forefathers and their fathers before them had done.

I recently had the wonderful experience of driving through part of our land with my daughter and two of my granddaughters.  I was showing off a bit I guess.  I wanted them to see and appreciate the work that S. and I had done to create a “wildlife management area.”  We had cleared the land of the scrub brush and invasive trees.  We planted native grasses, pollinating plants, legumes, wildflowers and flowering trees.  All designed to make our land a hospitable place for the local fauna and flora.  For the deer, wild turkey, butterflies, birds of all kinds and even the bobcats and raccoons who populate the area.  I had my wildflower photo portfolio with me and was able to name most, if not all, of the wildflowers in bloom.  My granddaughters were pleasantly curious and asked polite questions.  My daughter, however, was frankly surprised.  Surprised that I had the interest and knowledge to create something so inconsistent of her image of me.  To her I was the business guy in the three-piece suite, always on the way to a meeting or the airport. She asked how and why I had become interested in this nature thing.  I didn’t have a good answer.  But now, as I think about it, I suspect the seeds of a relationship with the land is somewhere deep within all of us.  Some are precluded from realizing it due to the circumstances of their lives.  Others like me, at some point in their life, have an opportunity to make a connection on some level, long hidden, to nature’s world.

As I make my way through my eighth decade, I am delighted to continue to discover other dimensions of my connection the land and to nature.  Planting and watching a field of wildflowers grow, or harvesting my own mess of purple-hulled peas, or watching a newborn colt take it’s first uneven steps, or baling a few bales of hay from a pasture you planted.  I believe that’s what my father-in-law was trying to tell me when he said, “Son, I’m never gonna sell this land.”

 

Cruise Junkies

I’ve written at some length about cruise etiquette (or lack thereof). You can find it in my blog, Thinking Allowed in the archives for Jan 20, 2009 at a post entitled Cruising at the Bottom of the World.   I’m now convinced that entire sociology texts could be written about this subject, and further I’m hereby positing that the social norms of any particular cruise are heavily influenced by the demographics of the instant cruisers. To wit: our recent ten day cruise of the western Caribbean.  Let me explain.

The demographics and the resultant on-board groupings are determined by several factors.  Obviously the cruise itinerary, including the ports of embarkation and debarkation are high on the list of things that may sway the composition of the cruisers.  For example, our most recent cruise departed from Barbados which retains its strong historical linkage to the British Empire; thus, our ship was chock-a-bloc with Brits who had just spent a few days in their very own tropical England away from the real England before boarding.  Odd thing about traveling Brits, wherever they go they tend to congregate at places pretending to be what they just left at home.  You know, the pretend pubs and eating establishments serving poor imitations of steak and kidney pie or bangers and mash.  Other Europeans, Germans and Italians, most particularly, tend to gravitate to this type of trip as well because, well, I guess it’s because they’ve had to live cheek by jowl with the Brits for so long, in good times and in bad, that they are more comfortable with them than say, Americans or Russians.

If you’re good at geography and history you’ll know that the various island groupings of the Caribbean were colonized and pretty well plundered by European powers of the day, and we still see the evidences of that particular dark part of recent history.  The French (St. Barts), the Dutch (St. Martins), Cuba (Spain), Barbados and others (UK), Aruba (the Portuguese) all still seem to maintain a curious form of proprietary interest and a feeling of home-away-from-home in these tropical enclaves.  Having said that, while, as I indicated there were plenty of Brits aboard, there was nary a citizen of Portugal in sight, even though Aruba was one of the highlighted ports of call.

Time of year also is a significant influence on who our shipmates will be.  This particular trip was in mid-March when there is both school holidays and an absence of sun in the British Isles and continental Europe. From my own time living London, I can assure you that anyone with two nickels or two euros to rub together was making a mad dash for a holiday in the sun.  The Algarve in Portugal and the Costa del Sol, the typical landing spots for these sojourners, were still evidencing the last vestiges of winter, and even North Africa, which the more adventurous European traveler might gravitate towards, did not have enough steady sunshine the get the highly sought after one week body burn.  So the Caribbean it is.

Certainly the $$$ of the cruise selects out or in certain of the economic strata.  With tariffs starting out high and reaching the nosebleed level very quickly, one is not likely to be confronted with the average punter from the corner pub.  As this particular cruise was offered by one of the “luxury” brand names and was “all inclusive,” both the net worth and the age of the guest tended toward the high end of the range.  The “all inclusive” in cruising lingo can have a myriad of meanings, but certainly they all convey the right to quaff all the booze you desire with no additional cost.  This, of course, leads to some interesting social outcomes.

Oh, I haven’t mentioned one additional factor which tends to have an out-sized effect on the dynamics of the crowd.  Singles.  While singles are discriminated against economically (they have to pay a fifty percent premium for their right to not share a room with a spouse or significant other), they also get some special treatment.  Every cruise that I’ve been on has escorts to entertain the ladies among the singles crowd.  You know…they chat them up during the single’s cocktail hours, become bridge partners with needed, and, most importantly, they dance with them whenever the band strikes up.  Which is pretty often.  I dunno what the single guys do for social interaction as there are no female escorts, at least none that I could detect.  We’ve actually met some delightful solo travelers along the way.  I remember fondly an elegant lady of indeterminate age whose husband had been a small town vicar, but had recently deceased.  She decided to see and meet the world and was doing quite well at it.

Then there are the smokers.  Yes, they are still here amongst us but, admittedly, in smaller numbers…except for the Italians.  Cruise rules are now pretty strict about where one can take a puff, but they do have their designated areas.  One table on the pool deck was entirely devoted to this pursuit and was dominated by a gaggle of Italians that created a haze of blue smoke over their area.  They smoked and drank wine and smoked…morning, noon, and night.  I never saw them do anything else or or off the ship.

So there you have the demographic segmentation of a spring cruise in the Caribbean:

  1.  The Americans, who are everywhere and, for the most part, behave fairly well.
  2.  The Euros (Brits, Germans, Italians, and a scattering of Scandinavians).  Who are eternally looking for someplace like home. Oddly, the French don’t often join the European gaggle.  It’s not that they don’t cruise, they just don’t cruise on ships where the predominant language is English.  So French!
  3.  The Singles (discussed above).
  4.  The Smokers (also discussed above).
  5.  The Gays.  More on them later.
  6.  The Lifer Cruisers.  These people have been everywhere and most places twice.  And love to tell you about every place they’ve ever been, and then tell you again.

I referred above to the gay demographic, who I must say, are always amongst the friendliest and most well behaved of all.  Indeed, on this sailing though the western Caribbean, S (my darling wife, Sandra) and I met and socialized with a delightful gay couple who owned and operated a retail bakery in Ohio.  The curious thing is, without an exact accounting, it always seems that their numbers aboard ship are disproportionate to their presence in society at home.  I know I’m on the verge of getting in deep sociological waters here, but I wonder if it’s that they like to travel more, have more money, or just that they have an innate sense of adventure.  Or, maybe they’re not different at all.

Come to think of it, perhaps it’s in the nature of cruise ships.  To be diversified that is.  And perhaps that’s what appeals to me.  Where else could one – meet and talk to the widow of a vicar from England embarking on her first trip abroad – inadvertently insult the private secretary to Prince Phillip (to which I plead guilty) by suggesting that the concept of a royal family was well past its sell-by date –  initiate a long term friendship with a compatible couple from Santa Fe – engage on the periphery of a Brit and American discussing heatedly the merits of warm vs. cold beer – enjoy watching an elegant, older Spanish woman dancing the tango with a ship’s escort – meeting a young Japanese couple who spoke no English enjoy strolling the deck hand in hand – or watch as a wheelchair bound octogenarian satisfies a life long ambition by having the deck crew lower him to touch his seventh continent.  It is a form of socializing by force majeur.  You are thrown together with a few hundred people from around the globe, and with whom you will share the next 7, 14 or 21 days in the luxurious setting of a sea-going vessel and visiting pre-selected sites that you will now share in common.

Oh, btw, one of our very favorite things to do is to take advantage of the maitre d’s capacity to seat you at a table of eight complete strangers, and enjoy (or not) ninety minutes of food and conversation that you would never experience anywhere else.

One last thought about the Caribbean in general and the western Caribbean in particular.  There are real people there, living or struggling to live real lives.  The glamor of the ship and the all inclusive resorts fades very quickly and not very far from the water’s edge.  That is both the charm and the sadness of the islands.

My favorite experience this trip was in a small port village on the north side of the Dominican Republic.  There was really nothing there, at least from a luxury cruiser’s perspective. No great native restaurants, no shopping for local designer goods, not even a good t-shirt shop.  But as the driver we had hired for a couple of hours was showing us what there was to see, I saw a small, somewhat dilapidated baseball stadium off the main road.  I asked the driver to stop.  There were a number of young Dominicans practicing.  I mean seriously practicing.  I walked over closer to the field with a camera and asked the nearest young man if I could take some photos.  “Si,” he said.  He spoke little English and my Spanish is pathetic.  But somehow we talked for a while about baseball, and he asked me what America was like.  I answered as best I could.  We shook hands as I departed, and I thought… Maybe this is why we travel.

 

 

 

 

Vietnam: The Longest War

Let me start by saying I am not a Vietnam Veteran, nor am I an historian or political scientist… but I am a veteran of the Vietnam era who was never shot at, nor did I ever shoot at anyone.   I served in the U.S. Army from February of 1966 to March of 1969, an span that history suggests was at the height of the war and a time in which public sentiment turned against the war.  I should also say that I’m pretty sure I would not be where I am today except for the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War is my war.  The war of my generation.  The war that killed and maimed, and psychologically damaged hundreds of thousands of men of my age.  The war that became known as the worst foreign policy disaster in the history of America.  The war that was fought by common men who fought with uncommon valor, and who thought that their sacrifice, their heroism was not only in our national interest, but also a critical element in a larger fight against the spread of communism.  Of course, sadly, they were wrong.

One might think it unusual that I would be writing of Vietnam when Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are dominating current news cycles and presenting serious new challenges for our policy makers and our military.  You’re right, I probably would not be writing this piece if our small town in Northeast Texas were not preparing to host an exhibit of the Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  I was asked to present a lecture on the history of the Vietnam War as a part of a month-long program honoring Texas Veterans of the War.  My preparations for this lecture stirred long dormant memories and feelings about the War and my small part in it.  I spent a year training to lead men in combat, presumably  in Vietnam and another two years in a classified project to field computer systems to support combat division in the field. Unlike most of my colleagues, my most dangerous assignment was safely navigating happy hour on Friday at the Officer’s Club.  Now all I can do is reflect on the meaning of what happened in a part of the world that few knew about, and even fewer cared about.

Historians would have us believe that the passage of time provides an opportunity to achieve greater clarity and deeper knowledge of important events, but in many ways the Vietnam War is not so far removed.  People are still suffering from damage done to their bodies and their minds by this War.  New information is being unclassified even today.  The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC wasn’t dedicated until 1982, and it was only in 1995 that the U.S. gave full diplomatic recognition to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  When I visited visited Vietnam in 2010, I was told by a member of the Vietnamese Parliament that the United States was only rated 11th in foreign direct investment in Vietnam.  Billions to fight a war and now only meager investment in their burgeoning free-market economy.  Now, in 2017, we are 7th after the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong.  Go figure.  Perhaps, then, this is exactly the right time to look back at the ongoing tragedy of Vietnam, as we are yet again faced with strategic and military decisions for which the consequences will not be known for decades, and the costs will be with us forever.

One of the many oddities of what we call “the Vietnamese War” and the Vietnamese call “the War of American Aggression,” is that it has no beginning.  No official beginning, that is.  I’m tempted to say that at least the antecedent, if not the start, was in 1950 when Truman turned his back on Ho Chi Minh’s entreaties of alliance, and supported instead our friends the French who wanted nothing more than a return to the pre-war colonial domination of Vietnam.  Actually, it was in 1945 that we suffered our first casualty – an OSS officer killed by the Viet Minh.  Others would say the war started in 1955 when Truman established the Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam (MAAG-V).  Maybe it started when JFK sent the first organized U.S. military force to Vietnam in 1961.  Or did it start on August 7, 1964 when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized Lyndon Johnson to use “conventional forces” in pursuit of our objectives in Vietnam.  Certainly the war was well underway when LBJ agreed with General Westmoreland’s request to commit forty-four combat battalions to Vietnam.  I’m not sure that the start date for the war makes much difference now, but the parallels with what has been happening in the Middle East are obvious.

The end date of the war is a little clearer, but not by much.  The Paris Peace Accords, for which negotiations began in 1968, were finally signed by the United States and North Vietnam on January 27, 1973.  Note that the government of South Vietnam did not sign, nor were the Accords ever approved by the U.S. Senate.  Another one of those pesky Executive Agreements that we’re still arguing about.  In June 1973, the Congress did pass the so called Case-Church Amendment, which prohibited further combat operations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The legislation allowed us to continue bombing until August 15, which we did.   On April 29, 1975 two marines serving in the protection detail at the U.S. embassy were killed. On April 30, 1975, one day later, the last Americans left Saigon. You tell me when the war was over.  All of this just to try to get to the alpha and omega of the war.

CAUSES 

It’s a challenge to rationally discuss the cause of a war, when even agreement on when it started is so illusive.  But I must at least try.  Let me give you the punch line first.  As you might have suspected, there is no single cause of the war in Vietnam, but there were major events that contributed to the tragedy.

  1. The failure of French colonialism in Indochina. (1893-1954)
  2. World War II and the rise of Ho Chi Minh
  3. The Cold War, including the pervasive fear of communism, the Theory of Containment, and the so called Domino Theory.

Each of these has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly writings, and no, you will not be burdened here with more of the same.  I will only say that in looking back, what now appears to be irrational fears of communism, and that leading us to a strategy of stopping the spread of communism (Theory of Containment), were the principal villains in the decision to commit our country to a military and economic adventure that ultimately failed at such an  extraordinary cost.  You will be more familiar with the Domino Theory, which held that we must draw the line on communism in Vietnam, or else the whole of Southeast Asia might collapse under the nefarious weight of the commies.

I suspect, but don’t know, of many among us who could extemporaneously define the principle tenets of communism, but those of you of a certain age can certainly call to mind the John Birch Society, and Nikita Khruschev pounding his shoe on the podium at the United Nations and shouting, “We will bury you!” or words to that effect.  We can also call to mind the witch hunt for communists in the government, the Army/ McCarthy hearings which peaked in the 1950s,  and the blacklisting of artists who might have had “relationships” with some dirty commie organization or person.  Yes, we were afraid of the communists, and their rhetoric and their missiles in Cuba and elsewhere.  We hated the Berlin Wall, which was built by the commies, and what it stood for, and we knew that communism had to be stopped in its tracks.  And we would do whatever it took anywhere in the world, and evidently, regardless of the cost.

So the principle rationale for our “intervention” in Vietnam, as reported in a detailed foreign policy analysis by the American Institute of American History, and validated by every serious look at our strategy, was as follows:

  1. A communist takeover of South Vietnam would open the way to communist expansion elsewhere in Asia.
  2. This, in turn, would cause our allies and our adversaries (read USSR) to question the credibility of the United States’ commitments around the world, and
  3. Would invite further aggression and endanger other U.S. alliances.

So you see, we had to do it.  We had absolutely no choice but to commit the blood and treasure of our Commonwealth to the jungles of Vietnam.  Or did we?  A CIA report on the consequences of losing in Vietnam, published September 12, 1967 (we were already thinking about losing?), was finally declassified in December of 1993, and said in part: “Losing…would not permanently damage the U.S. position in the world by opening the way to a devastating chain of communists takeovers or destroying US credibility….further it would not unduly embolden the USSR to mount new insurgencies.”  

What?  Our own national intelligence service opined in 1967 that losing to the dirty commies in Vietnam really wouldn’t be such a big deal…tactically or strategically?  Yet still we forged ahead anyway  We spent more lives and more money; divided our country into war and anti-war factions; the Chicago convention riots; shooting college students at Kent State, and on and on and on.  All for a war whose rationale was fallacious and whose outcome was so disastrous for so many.  Even Robert McNamara, who some would say was the chief architect of the strategy of “containment,” commented with the benefit of hindsight, “…The ideology of a generation of policy makers and a flawed set of policies, more than anything else, explain why the U.S. intervened in Vietnam and ultimately failed.”  An understatement if I’ve ever heard one.

COSTS 

Oddly, the number crunchers who do so well in other endeavors, don’t seem to prosper in times of war, for the truth is that no one really knows how much the war cost.  Well, maybe it’s not so odd, given that the beginning and end dates of this war is rather a moveable feast.  Believe it or not, I’ve seen estimates of the direct military costs that range from $173 billion to $770 billion.  Hmmm?  Quite a spread, wouldn’t you say.  The indirect cost estimates range from $250 billion to $1 trillion.  Who knows what the bean counters put in the indirect pot, but I know for sure what they don’t include.  They didn’t include my brother Craig, who died thirty years after cessation of hostilities from a failed liver transplant necessitated by cirrhosis of the liver.  I’m no doc, but even I can trace his failed liver to the alcoholism and dope addition he brought home with him from eleven months in-country.  Btw, the numbers above are U.S. costs only.  Who knows what the costs were for our allies, much less our enemies.  We surely need another indirect cost category that would input all the lives lost and damaged in the war.  I’ll give you the particulars below, but suffice it to say that these costs, to me, are incalculable.  To put a number on it would be, well, so horrible that I can’t even contemplate it.  So I’ll not even try, but I will remind you of my friend, bunkmate and comrade-in-arms, Charlie Grizzle, about whom  I wrote in a previous blog entitled http://garyjfernandes.com/in-memoriam.

In short, Charlie was one of those people that you just knew would succeed at anything he did.  But Charlie was killed less than sixty days after he joined the 5th Mechanized Infantry in Vietnam.  Sadly, we will never know what he would have done in the life he did not lead.    There is clearly a cost to our society in his death, but I don’t know how to put a monetary value on it.

CONSEQUENCES

These run from the general to the very specific.  Let me give you a few you might not have thought of:  the draft was replaced with an all volunteer military; the voting age was reduced to eighteen; the War Powers Act was adopted; the monetary cost and related debt of the war initiated a cycle of inflation that plagued our economy; the morale of the military plummeted; our foreign policy tilted toward nationalism and isolationism; the Democratic party was split and its effectiveness undermined; Nixon was elected, leading ultimately to Watergate; the liberal reforms of the Great Society were weakened; trust in government institutions reached a nadir; and the massacre at My Lai and other acts committed in the name of war diminished the moral superiority of the U.S.  I’m sure you could think of others.  All of this before we even get to the KIAs, wounded, missing,   those with PTSD, agent orange victims, drug addicts, and those who suffered and still suffer from a potpourri of emotional and mental distress.  Not a pretty list to be sure.

The death toll of U.S. citizens in all our wars is difficult to contemplate, and toll of deaths related directly to combat in Vietnam is only fourth in a long list behind the Civil War, WWII, WWI, and just in front of the Korean War.  But for deaths related to a failed foreign policy to contain communism, and authorized by legislation relating to a fake event called the Tonkin Gulf Resolution,  the Vietnam War is the leader by far.  Pinning down the exact number of deaths is surprisingly difficult.  Should the death toll include “friendly fire” deaths (yes), suicides (no), training deaths in-country (yes), training deaths in the U.S. (no), ex post facto deaths, i.e. agent orange or other war-related wounds (no).  You see what I mean.  The Vietnam Memorial has 58,315 names etched on its granite face today, but it started with 58,191.  Another reputable source puts the number killed in Vietnam at 58,520.  And that’s just deaths for United States military.  We also suffered 303,640 wounded, of which 74,000 became quadriplegics or double amputees.  If you were to add the 6,000 or so of our allies that were killed, the military deaths of the Republic of Vietnam, Viet Cong and North Vietnam, and then topped it off with the Vietnamese civilians who died, you get pretty quickly to about 2,000,000 men, women and children who died as direct result of the war.

Was it worth it?  Of course, not.  Today, if you were of a mind and had some loose change or an unlimited credit card, you could  buy some fake or authentic Louis Vuitton luggage or a Mercedes Benz sedan in Ho Chi Minh City or even in Hanoi.  Or you could stay at a globally-competitive five-star resort at Hoi An or Nha Trang, or Danang…all of which were scenes of fierce combat not that long ago.  I looks much like the invisible hand of capitalism at work.  Is this what we spent our precious blood and treasure for?

So much for containing Communism.

N.B. I was in Washington, DC last week for a board meeting and was rewarded with a free morning.  After a trip to the Apple store in Georgetown to get yet another iWatch charging cable, I was drawn again to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.  I was early so I didn’t have much competition in finding the wall location of several of my friends.  As I stood in silent sadness, a veteran volunteer approached me and asked if I needed help.  I tried to speak, but couldn’t.  He put his arm around my shoulder and shared my grief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Writing

The urge to write has always lurked in the recesses of my brain, and at various times manifestited itself in different, even unusual, ways. My first writing outputs were of the write-on-command type. You know the kind. Five hundred words on the Ural River Valley, or an essay on the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. The subject, form, and length determined by someone else. I wrote because I was required to in order to satisfy some other requirement, such as a class assignment. Indeed, I got pretty good at it… not only for myself, but for others as well. I found I could knock out a paper on almost any topic (typed, double-spaced, with one carbon copy) at five bucks a page. Footnotes were extra. That may not seem like much, but then again it didn’t take much time, and very little thinking, and as a struggling college student, I needed the money.  BTW, it didn’t hurt that I was an enthusiastic, if not great, typist.

I didn’t write much during my time in the Army.  Hell, I didn’t even think very much.  One of my buddies was the head of the Officer Records Unit and, as such, had responsibility for awards and citations. One little known fact is that almost everyone who serves time in the military as an officer gets some kind of medal for something, whether or not it is deserved.  The key is finding someone who can write the request in the way and the vernacular the Army demands.  My buddy had been a football player in college, so you can understand why he needed help getting these things written using the militarily approved words and phrases which would virtually assure approval.  That’s where I came in.  I could, and did, pitch in to write Requests for Award that would almost certainly result in the approval of award for, say, a Good Conduct Medal.  I don’t know why, but I didn’t even charge for this writing (if you can call it that) service.

In the early years of my business life, the only writing I did was technical documentation of computer programs or systems.  This was truly a horrible experience.  If you have ever read any of this genre, you’ll agree that the only worse form of writing is that contained in small print in insurance polices or directions on how to set the time and date on a Japanese digital watch.

Thankfully, I wasn’t a very good technician so I was moved into sales and thereby my first introduction to writing fiction.  I guess it really wasn’t fiction except in the sense that very little written in most sales reports or proposals is fact based.  Ultimately I found myself in the lofty environs of the executive suite, and my writing began to take on a different, more serious form.  I was, for the first time, expected to communicate matters of some business import in a clear and concise way.  Something, which I was, at this point, wholly unprepared to do.  I wrote memoranda by the bushel, business letters, strategy documents, and assorted other matters of little consequence.  Remember now, this was in that long ago era before Twitter and even before email, and although Al Gore might not admit it, it was before the internet.  Stenographic ability was one of the primary attributes that I sought in hiring for my office.  Does anyone do shorthand anymore?  I guess you could call this writing from need.  It was part of the job.  I still have some of the letters I wrote during this period of my life, and they are indeed, perfect specimens of the ilk.  One of the principles of business writing, I was taught, was to avoid adjectives at all costs, and never, never allow a superlative the light of day.  Try writing anything without adjectives and see what you get.

Writing because I wanted to write came upon me slowly, and the urge tended to be stronger on a long airplane flight after a couple of glasses of wine.  I experimented with haiku on the fourteen-hour flights to Tokyo, and sonnets on the DFW-LHR run.  I even struggled to emulate e.e. cummings on my periodic coast-to-coasts.  Nothing quite stuck, although I still have some notebooks with evidence of my puerile efforts.  I tinkered with descriptive writing for a while.  You know, How to Pour a Root Beer Without the Fizz  Overflowing.  In vain, I tried character sketches.  Yikes!  And finally I wrote, ad nauseum, numerous, mostly boring, monologues about business meetings.  Yep.  A very odd subject, but that’s what I did then.  I attended business meetings.  Wow.  That had to be high on the list for the most uninteresting stuff ever written.  It was not fun to write and certainly wasn’t fun to read.  So you can see that my writing resume was more than a little spotty.

I had always traveled a lot.  Business and pleasure.  Alone, with colleagues or with family.  I usually kept a sort of travel journal.  Nothing formal, just notes on my observations and questions.  I still have them all, taking up most a shelf in my home office. But when Darling Wife S. and I undertook our long delayed trip to the Golden Triangle of India in January of 2007, I sought to memorialize my observations and to inform friends and family about our travels there.  I published a series of ten pieces about various aspects of this wonderful journey.  Frankly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed writing them, and delighted that they seemed to be appreciated by those who read them.  This reaction caused me to attempt my first non-travel blog in February of 2007.  At the time, I was using a standard piece of software from Apple, which only required that I select a template and start typing.  And type I did.  Only later did I migrate to the more sophisticated realm of Word Press, themes, and plug-ins.

As I now look at those early pieces, I can see that I was searching for a style that fit both my interests and capability.  It turned out that I loved the research required to write about a location or a subject of interest about which I knew little.  And it seemed my best and most interesting writing was not straight prose, but prose with a strong dose of satire with a lot of tongue-in-cheek.  I found that when I tried for humor, humor eluded me.  It only came when I wrote as I felt.  At one point I started to worry about grammar and sentence structure.  Perhaps the best writing advice I got was not to worry too much about split infinitives or beginning my sentences with a conjunction, but to write more or less as I spoke.  I also developed some of my own rules.  Always double-check sources.  The tendency today is to rely solely on Wikipedia or other such web-based, free-content, collaborative sources.  Unfortunately, I found they could be wrong or misleading too.  I also became a stickler on attribution.  Oddly, it’s okay to steal someone’s idea, but you just can’t steal their words.

I’ve wondered if I could write if I had too.  You know, to earn a living.  I doubt it.  I write because it gives me pleasure. I love the process of winnowing ideas to find the ones I want to write about.   I love the research to get my facts. I enjoy the struggle to present the facts in an orderly, but interesting way.  I love setting the historical context.  And finally I love the idea that I’m communicating with people who may or may not know me, or I them, about things that have meaning to me.

And finally, I think, I love to write because it is a time-tested way to leave a personal record of what I thought about and how I thought about it.  Those of us in the final quarter (if not the two minute drill) of our lives, often spend an inordinate amount of time and energy seeking to rationalize our existence.  To justify our time on this planet.  For me, writing is the perfect remedy.

I think I’ll start on another blog right now.