Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Driving the Bus

“Party leaders and thinkers should take note: It’s easier for a base to hire or develop a flashy new establishment than it is for an establishment to find itself a new base.”
—Peggy Noonan, in her Wall Street Journal column on March 4
Have you ever read about what is going on in some other country and then shaken your head and wondered to yourself, what kind of crazy people live in that place?

That has been happening to me for a while now, but the thing is that the country in question is mine.

I really don’t mean to be that annoying guy who moves abroad and then starts looking down on all the people who didn’t move abroad with him. It’s just that there’s something disorienting about feeling like the place you came from has been going through major changes without you. And it’s not that I have been cut off. When I went to school for a year in France at the age of 20, then I was cut off. Back then my only contact with home was through letters (my mom was a loyal correspondent but hardly anyone else ever wrote), a student subscription to Time magazine and the rare splurge on a copy of the International Herald Tribune (now the International New York Times) plus whatever I could glean from the French media. Phone calls rarely happened because they were extremely expensive and, at that point, things like email, the world web and social media were but vague science fiction concepts.

Needless to say, none of that is true anymore. Now I live in the illusion that I am immersed in North American culture and information. Because I now live in the future, I can potentially watch nearly any TV show or hear any news broadcast or read any newspaper or magazine in the whole world. Because of time zone differences, I sometimes even know about news in my home town before the people living there do. But being exposed to media from a place is not at all the same as being and living in that place. This is because, while the media throw light on reality, they also distort reality. I sometimes find myself assuming that people in, say, Seattle are completely consumed with some issue because I have read about it—only to get a sudden reality check when I actually communicate with people in Seattle and find out that thing is not on their radar at all.

Never before, however, have the media turned out to be so completely useless and misleading as in the case of the Donald Trump presidential candidacy.

Because I make a point to read opinions from various points of the political spectrum, I had myself deluded that I have a pretty full understanding of what is going on in U.S. politics. Not even close. And Trump was the tip-off. When it comes to most controversial movements or people, there are always commentators for and against it. To get a fuller understanding, you just read opinions from both sides, right? But when it came to Trump’s candidacy, I realized that no one I was reading supported him. Moreover, the so-called political experts kept saying—and are still staying—that he has peaked, that he can’t go much further, that his moment is nearly over. And yet he keeps winning primary elections hand over fist and seems all but certain to get the GOP nomination. But don’t worry, because the same geniuses who repeatedly told us he could never get the nomination are now telling us he can never win the presidency.

This all amounts to a pretty good indication that there are an awful lot of people out there whose thinking is not be represented by any of the numerous and diverse (or so I thought) writers I was following. Despite all my rigorous efforts at scanning the political horizon, the Trumpistas had managed to sneak up on me. How did that happen?

Many of us, led by the media, tend to think of our country as divided mainly into two camps. Either you are “liberal” or “conservative” or, alternatively, you are part of a mushy middle group that doesn’t pay much attention and/or is prone to move a bit to one side of the center or the other. Basic common sense, if we think about it, will tell us that the breakdown in sociopolitical views is a whole lot more complicated than that. We only (lazily) think of two major ways of seeing politics because we have a rigid two-party system, so media coverage in the U.S. gets funneled into an either-or template. There are strong institutional reasons why 163 years have passed since the last time a politician who was neither Democrat nor Republican occupied the White House. When a different way of thinking begins to spread, it can only get noticed by the media if it makes a serious attempt at co-opting one of the two major parties. And something is now very close to taking over the Republican party. Think of the major American political parties as the only two buses in an entire city, and the only way for you and your friends to get where you want to go is to take over a bus from someone who isn’t currently driving it anywhere most people want to go. GOP establishment, your bus is about to be hijacked.

Journalists who insist on referring to Trump supporters as a “wing” of the Republican Party or “the GOP base” are missing the point because they cannot see outside of the two-party prism. An awful lot of those Trump people have not supported either major party in years. More current or former Democrats than people seem to think are being drawn in. This is something new that is happening. You cannot explain Trump by matching his stated positions to public opinion. His stated positions are all over the place and self-contradictory. People are not voting for him because of where he stands on this or that. They are voting for him because he is the only candidate in this election who seems likely to actually make a major change. What change? Any change. (Sorry, Bernie, this is more about visceral emotion and personality than actual ideas.) Anything, say the Trumpistas, has to be better than the way things are headed now.

So if the media are useless at understanding the Trump thing, where to turn? Camille Paglia, writing on seems to have some kind of handle on it, and The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto at least can look at the phenomenon analytically. Everyone else, on both left and right, seems to be driven insane by Trump and cannot see him objectively. There is a major notable exception, though. The one commentator who seems to have sussed him out and even predicted his future moves and success is an unlikely one. It is Scott Adams, creator of the brilliant workplace comic strip Dilbert, who writes frequently about Trump on his blog.

It is not always easy to tell when Adams is being serious or when his tongue is in his cheek. His posts often read like support for Trump, yet he insists that he actually disagrees with The Donald on most issues and is only praising his phenomenal persuasion techniques. Basically, Adams’s point is that Trump is a genius at manipulative marketing and that explains his past, present and future success. He seems convinced that Trump is likely to become president.

That’s really hard for me to get my head around. Lately I prefer to occupy my brain by pondering what will happen in ten or twenty years when all these young Bernie Sanders supporters, who think socialism is a great idea, become dominant in American politics.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

History Lessons

“Iran test-launched two ballistic missiles Wednesday emblazoned with the phrase ‘Israel must be wiped out’ in Hebrew, Iranian media reported, in a show of power by the Shiite nation as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Jerusalem.”
—Associated Press, March 9
In my previous post I worried that, as we get further removed by time from the horrors of World War II, we may be collectively forgetting the lessons of that war and other catatrosphic military conflicts. That, of naturally enough, prompts the question, so what are the lessons we were supposed to have learned?

And there’s the problem. We are human beings. And one of the things we human beings do is to put interpretations on history that reinforce things we already believe or things that we sincerely want to be true. So what about historians, that is, people who are trained to look at history with a degree of academic rigor? They certainly give us a fuller and more objective understanding of the past, but at the end of the day historians are also human beings and, let’s face it, lessons are ultimately subjective anyway. As the world evolves and major events like World War II recede further into the past, our perspective changes.

When I was studying political science as a graduate student back in the 1970s, the academic thinking was that the way to avoid major wars was to integrate societies as much as possible—economically, politically and personally. The idea was that the more economic interests or political responsibility or citizens on the ground that nations had in each other’s countries, the more they would see it as not in their own self-interest to attack or invade. An attempt at international integration was made after World War I with the ill-fated League of Nations, but the idea really took off after the Second World War with the founding of the United Nations and a multitude of private and government-sponsored international organizations. And maybe it worked—at least to the extent that we have not had World War III yet.

The notion of economic ties being a deterrent to war got refined to an interesting point in 1996 when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously posited that fast food franchising could be a barometer of potential international violence. He noted, “Countries with McDonald’s within their borders do not go to war with other countries with McDonald’s within their borders.” Regardless of one’s feelings about Big Macs as cuisine, there was something reassuring about this observation. On one level it gave one a warm, fuzzy feeling of a world united in love of burgers and fries. On another level it made sense because, if a country was economically modern and stable enough for a corporation like McD to take a risk on it, then it must be steady and reliable enough not to be a candidate for military misadventure.

The McDonald’s theory held for eleven and a half years after Friedman’s column. Then Russia’s incursion into the former Soviet republic of Georgia put the lie to it.

My immersion in German history during my visit to Berlin last month brought a more traditional view of world conflict to my mind. I was reminded that much of modern European history consisted of powers like France, Germany and Russia being paranoid about one another and sometimes taking preemptive action to gain strategic advantage. Ultimately that instability brought about the two world wars. How did that instability end? World War II ended with a new bipolar world dominated by the United States on one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. Those countries’ military dominance discouraged any major threats to the new world order. Henceforth the only wars were smaller local ones, sometimes involving proxies of the superpowers. You might not care much for American and/or Russian hegemony, but it did make for a fairly stable world for quite a few years.

But what about now? The collapse of the Soviet Union has put Russia back into something like its traditional paranoid state. This has played out in its incursions into former Soviet republics as well as testing American weakness wherever it can find it. The American weakness narrative has been bolstered by U.S. military pullbacks and cutbacks. In the always volatile Middle East, the Obama administration has tilted from the Saudis and their allies toward the Iranians, shifting a longtime pillar of regional stability. A religiously motivated wildcard, Iran has been conceded recognition of its right to nuclear power in exchange for delaying the exercise of that right for a decade. Meanwhile, in response to economic dereliction on the part of western governments, nationalist populism is on the rise in both America and Europe—something not entirely unlike what preceded the two world wars.

If you’re a pessimist, this is all very worrying. If you are an optimist, you can just sit back and enjoy your burger and fries and take comfort in the belief that surely the world has become way too civilized for another widespread war.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

War and Remembrance

 On the 6th of March, we took off for Berlin. This was an interesting day. First, these other groups resented us leading them. Here was this crew coming from somewhere else and taking over as lead crew. Even though they put their command pilot with us, they still resented this outside crew coming in to lead them. I don’t know who made this decision, but they put us in as deputy lead for the Second Air Division. We were flying off the right wing of the lead plane. The command pilot was in the lead plane, but we had instructions that if the conditions were going to be undercast when we got to Berlin, they would give us the green light to take over the lead and we were to bomb on radar. The reason for this was that they wanted their plane to be in the lead and we were just there for that emergency condition. We were just approaching Berlin when we got the green light to take over the lead. The plan was that, if we had to take over the lead in an undercast situation when the other bombers couldn’t use their Norden bomb sights, we were to zero in on the target, open the bomb bay doors, and bomb. The other planes opened their doors when we did and then bombed when they saw us release.
 To me it was quite obvious it was clear over Berlin. It had been undercast just before at the initial point. We didn’t have much time to take over the lead. You need to set up your automatic pilot and warm up the bomb sight. I told my bombardier, “I think it’s clear enough to bomb visually.” It would have taken fifteen minutes to get the bomb sight ready and get the gyros going to full speed. All the time, we were approaching Berlin. We had our bomb bay doors open, and our radio navigator said we were about right over the target. With radar, you have to use a lot of imagination and a lot of guessing. He said it’s time to drop the bombs. I told the bombardier, “Toggle the bombs” (drop the bombs). He couldn’t drop the bombs for some reason. I think he was just scared. He wasn’t my regular bombardier. I told Satterland, my co-pilot, “Salvo them!” Right between the pilot and co-pilot, there was a red handle that allowed you to salvo your bombs in an emergency. He did it, then we turned the lead back over to the lead ship. The flak over Berlin was really heavy. I still have a piece of the flak that broke the glass above my head and lodged in the seat behind me.
 It turned out we were the first B-24 over Berlin.
--Richard A. Larson, recalling a 1944 Eighth Air Force bombing mission over Germany
To my daughter, World War II seems like ancient history—something that happened after, say, the Trojan War and well before her birth. In terms of distance in time, it is for her as the Spanish-American War is for me.

To me, however, the Second World War seems recent enough if only because my father participated in it. He never spoke much about the war. Men of that generation tended not to. If he was haunted by demons because of what he experienced or what he saw or the friends he lost, we never really heard about it. He did have the piece of flak he mentioned in the quote above, and we were impressed by it. It made for an exciting story, like something we might see in the movies or on television, but it never really sank in that it was something that had actually trully happened and that he had come so close to winding up as one more casualty of that war. Sixty-eight of 750 B-24’s and B-17’s did not come back from that March 6 mission over Berlin. In the course of the war, the Eighth Air Force suffered some 26,000 casualties—accounting for half of all the Army Air Force casualties and exceeding the number of marine casualties in the Pacific theater. That was certainly more serious stuff than anything I was up to at the age of 24.

B-24 and crew
Richard A. Larson (rear left) and crew in front of their B-24 Liberator

If I was at all nervous about flying to Berlin a couple of weeks ago, mere hours after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, I only had to remind myself that I had it infinitely better than Dad did on his flight to Berlin.

Making my first visit to Berlin—or, for that matter, to Germany—was strange in that it was the first time in my life that I was in a place that I knew with total certainty that my father had bombed. That knowledge never left my consciousness during the entire visit. Every time (and there were many) that a placard or a person mentioned an important site that had suffered damage during World War II, the question ran through my mind, did Dad drop that one? I thought of the fear that civilians must have felt at the sound of the planes and the bombs. On the other hand, I knew that Dad and the other servicemen had to be pretty scared too. And, as we encountered the legacy of the many horrific atrocities of the Nazi regime, there was some satisfaction in knowing that Dad had played a part in ending it.

Berlin blackout poster
Poster admonishing Berliners to maintain the blackout
in the face of Allied bombing during World War II

Because the man I grew up with had participated in the war, I was also very conscious of how recent all those events were. In the grand scheme of things, World War II was just a moment ago. Centenary observances in Ireland these days are a frequent reminder that a scant century ago the country where I now live was caught up in an armed rebellion that was soon followed by a bloody civil war.

In fact, the more time passes, the more I find astounding that history seemed to pivot so dramatically after 1945. As Berlin’s marvelous museums teach us, European history and, indeed, all human history seem to consist of one war after another, punctuated by fitful and temporary periods of relative peace. Yet there has been no widespread conflagration on the scale of the world wars for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Has the human race (suddenly and quickly) evolved to the point where the only wars are now small regional ones? Or sporadic attacks against civilians by terrorists who hide in major cities? Have we really become so enlightened that we will never again see the devastation wrought by supposedly civilized nations like that which was launched in 1914 and 1939? Or is it the case, as I sometimes fear, that because people are now living longer and thus generations endure longer, it just takes longer for new generations to forget—or never learn—the lessons of the past?