Aug 4, 2016

Best-selling author Sebastian Junger’s newest book ‘Tribe; On Homecoming and Belonging,’ has been published at a most appropriate time. 

Where do people belong these days? Where do you go when times are tough? The answers used to be easy; during the Depression, churches and extended family helped those in need.WW2 gave us the brotherhoods of Leathernecks, Swabbies, GI’s, and Flyboys, who morphed postwar into either the white collar Corporation Man or the blue collar Steelworker, Autoworker, Craftsman. But the unifying factor was that everyone belonged somewhere; everyone counted to someone, everyone was a member of some sort of tribe.

However it’s different today, Junger says. Western society is changing, and not for the better. There is an upheaval today as technology, capital, and communications have converged to break down traditional society in ways that affect people’s sense of self-worth. Post-WW2 America equates personal success with wealth, so while Trump rants about trade pacts and jobs lost to China, and Hilary promises the biggest jobs program since WW2, no one discusses the more serious problem of how technology and robotics are permanently eliminating entire industries, which marginalizes those left jobless.

‘Tribe’ has a most interesting premise; that the smaller and simpler societies of the Indian tribes of long ago and the combat veterans of today, enjoy a more rewarding life than the ordinary civilian. Both offered something unique: a chance to prove one’s worth to those you deem important; an opportunity to measure yourself against those who came before you. People are accepted as-is, so long as they contribute to the common good.

However today there’s no longer a clear path to acceptance, Junger writes. The fast food and cashier jobs that taught teens a work ethic are disappearing as companies install self-service lanes. Varsity sports are on the decline, the sweat and training needed to set a personal best has been replaced by participation awards and team hugs. Even the coming-of-age first driver license has lost its importance as Millennials would rather text Uber than go through the aggravation of maintaining and driving their own car. The result is a society that makes it difficult to earn job experience and denigrates the value of competition by emphasizing feel-good events where preparation is an option. 
This is a healthy society?

More difficult is finding an opportunity to become a man in a world where courage is considered an anachronism. When challenged on sacrifice by Khizr Khan, father of Army Captain Humayan Khan (KIA-Iraq), GOP presidential candidate Trump proudly replied ‘Oh I sacrificed a lot; I’m a businessman who worked long hours.” Really? Working late is not remotely the shared sacrifice of Iwo Jima, Khe Sanh, Fallujah, or the thousand other battles and firefights where American boys became men.

It’s interesting to note, Junger observes, how people seem to respond more favorably to tragedy than to pleasure; people clearly  remember where they were on 9/11, how they helped friends and strangers during Hurricane Sandy or Oklahoma tornadoes. During the London Blitz, Junger documents, suicide and depression rates dropped precipitously as Londoners fought to maintain normalcy in their lives. Germany’s civilian morale was equally strong; despite the horrific Allied bombing campaigns that targeted civilians, their industrial production increased significantly.

Are we stronger when we all pull together, as the Londoners proved to be? The Marines and Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan would say so; they know where they belong. They know the discomforts and other issues caused by deployment are more than balanced by the comradeship they found, the work ethic they honed, and maturity they earned. Sebastian Junger has raised important questions in his book ‘Tribe’, now how do we use it to start a national debate to find the answer for the rest of us?

 Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging”                                                                                             by Sebastian Junger
Grand Central Publishing, 2016

Jul 15, 2015

The US - Iran Nuclear Treaty

It's far more involved than the superficial news bytes we see on the television

1-First, it's not just a US-Iran deal. On the US side was the UK, French, Germans, Russians, Chinese; the treaty has worldwide favor. Equally important is that all these countries have been honoring Obama's embargo, which is what forced the Iranians to sign. Had he held out for the harsher terms the GOP is now demanding, the Iranians would not have signed – and our allies indicated they would not continue the embargo if they felt the US was being unreasonable. A key part of the embargo was China refusing to buy Iran's oil; losing their best customer was what caused their economy to collapse.

2-While most of the Middle East is Sunni, Iran and Iraq are Shia; that puts Iran in conflict against the Sunni's, regardless of security or economic issues. While both are Muslim, there's a huge difference between the two; the Shia believe they need to proselytize, while the Sunni's are not so in-your-face.

2A-It's also a Saudi vs Iran fight for military influence in the Middle East. While the Saudi's have money, they and their OPEC allies lack the will to fight. Yes they buy billions of dollars of our weapons, but they lack cojones to use them. Note how the Iranians have troops in Iraq fighting ISIS (which complicates the Sunni-Shia problem, since we, the Saudis, Jordanians, and UAE are fighting ISIS also) while the Sunni's fight by airstrikes. Also, the Saudi's, etc al remember the Iranians marching thru Iraqi minefields during the Iran-Iraq War...that sort of motivation beats technology every time when the fighting is door-to-door.

3-Israel. Not the Israeli Defense Force of the 1950's-70's. The IDF got their ass handed to them in 2006 by Hezbollah,and last year the vaunted Israeli Intelligence missed 200+ tunnels being dug, so they responded by shelling civilians. On the wrong end of a 20-1 population disparity, Israel needs to realize they need to co-exist by more than sheer firepower.

No one is asking Israel to stand-down, but Iranian PM Rouhani has put his life on the line signing this deal, so maybe Bibi needs to take a step back and see if the Iranians perform. Plus 60% of the Iranian population is under age 25; they have ZERO interest in sanctions, war, etc. They – like the Israeli kids who also don't want to fight (and claim the religious exemption so they don't have to serve), want a normal life. Two issues here: if the Israeli's won't defend their own country, why should we defend it for them, and 2-the Arab armies are not ganging up on Israel any longer; Israel's biggest problem is internal, as they debate if they're a Jewish country or a democratic country.

4-Who's the big dog economically? Back to Saudi vs Iran: The Iranian people are proud of being Iranians, they work hard, and built a successful country centuries prior to oil. It's called the Persian Gulf for a reason. The OPEC countries, who hire foreigners to do their work, don't have this mindset. Basically they've wasted the 37 years since Ayatollah Khomeni sent Iran back to the stone age, and now they're scared of what the Iranians want to accomplish economically after all their years of isolation. And they outnumber the Sunni's by 8-10 to 1.

5- The GOP's concerns are more anti-Obama rhetoric than truth. Sanctions don't come off until the centrifuges are decommissioned, and other nuclear equipment is destroyed or turned over. The Iranians need to do a lot of things first...all which the GOP forgets to mention in their continued anti-Obama frenzy,

5A-If Bibi and the GOP want to tackle a real nuclear threat; let them look to Pakistan. A failed state where Nigerian-levels of corruption fuels Taliban and Islamic extremism and their ISI plots against India, the US, and the civilized world...let's not forget they have 60+ nuclear weapons now, along with missile delivery systems that can reach Saudi Arabia, Israel, and most Indian cities. Iranian weapons in 3-5-10 years? The Paks have nucs now.

6-America's role? I'm not sure. Sending troops is not an option (hear that, GOP?), but maybe we beef up our existing Middle Eastern bases and do more joint training. But I do know if the GOP halts this treaty, the EU and China will abandon the embargo, trade with Iran, and doom us to the role of the odd uncle ranting from the sidelines as the game goes on without him.

Oh, it'll be interesting.

Jul 4, 2015

Immigration & America; July 4, 2015

This week's foray by The Donald into the immigration debate made me step back and think "what makes someone an American?" Is it an accident of birth? Having a special skill? Or is it an attitude?

Immigration didn't use to be a political issue; short of leprosy or lunacy, basically everyone was accepted. In the 19th Century's human waves of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were my grandparents, who came to the New World for a chance for a better life.

My maternal grandmother was Mary Inez Ryan, a Roman Catholic from Ireland's County Limerick, and we grew up listening to her stories of leprechauns and banshees. She married Joseph Mendell, whose German-Jewish father changed their name from Mendel upon arrival here. My dad's parents were also immigrants, Louis Ljubon from Budapest married Bavaria's Aloysia Woelfl. Both families settled in northern New Jersey, struggled through the Depression, and like so many others after Pearl Harbor, both my mom and dad enlisted in the Marines. Afterwards they were part of the first G.I. Bill class at Montclair State Teachers College and worked hard to give us kids a better life and more opportunities. That makes me a 3rd generation American; the proud grandson of immigrants.

With so many decades of immigrants come so many immigration stories... on one of my Afghan embeds I met Maj Tuan Pham, USMC, a Vietnamese refugee whose grandfather and father were killed by the Viet Cong. His mother and sister fled Vietnam as 'boat people,' and eventually got Pham out...he's a hard-charger who understands the values of sacrifice and hard work. While his family story is certainly  more interesting than mine, it's similar in that it started with folks looking for a better life, making their way to America, working hard, giving back, and helping build that which we call "The American Dream".

Since 9/11 there have been some 60,000 immigrants who became Americans through their service in the Armed Forces. The ranks of the Marine Corps, for example, are filled with young men and women with fascinating accents who are "giving back" to their newly adopted country. Some of them "give back" a lot; Trump would be horrified to learn that Mexican-born Marine Sgt Rafael Peralta's last act was to roll onto a grenade in Fallujah, sacrificing himself in order to save the lives of the Marines behind him. Then there's Sgt Michael Strank, one of the five Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. He was born Mychal Strenk, in Jarabenia, Czechoslovakia, and learned English in a tough Pennsylvania steel town.

His fellow flag-raisers included Rene Gagnon, the son of French-Canadians who were working in a New Hampshire textile mill, and Ira Hayes; a Pima Indian born in Arizona. One wonders of Hayes's thoughts on immigration; probably not much; he considered his fellow Marines to be his adopted family.

Strank was killed on Iwo, three days after that famous photograph was taken; Peralta died in Fallujah . Other countries should have immigrants like these two.

They're the strength of this country, this blend of steel workers, farmers, and shopkeepers who arrived here with little more than an ill-fitting suit and a fierce determination to "do better." They helped build America by learning the language, working hard, and in believing America to be a 'melting pot' and not a 'mosaic;' they blended together and gave this country a mind-set that equated hard work with success.

Unlike the faux-patriotism espoused by those who are only seeking publicity; Strenk and Peralta understood that patriotism was something that was to be practiced as opposed to harangued. On the morning after Pearl Harbor, college boys were racing farm boys to enlist, and by 1945 America had 12 million men and women under arms. Everyone volunteered; my ex-wife's father forged his father's name to the paperwork and joined the Army underage -- he grew up quickly as he first fought in Italy and later in the Battle of the Bulge. Young Americans like Peralta did the same, enlisting – like many- after 9/11.

That's real patriotism. Everyone pulled together for the common goal of protecting the American way of life that their parents and grandparents worked to offer them.

That's what makes today's immigration debate so frustrating. Most of the illegals quietly work hard, taking the dirty jobs that most American citizens refuse. Sure many of them arrive not speaking English, but neither did my Grandfather Ljubon or Mychal Strenk. America is still a country of opportunities for those who want to work, and given the opportunity, look at how Sgt's Strenk and Peralta have become a part of American history.

Maybe being an "American" is an attitude rather than an accident of birth. Since people today aren't digging the Erie Canal or building the transcontinental railroad; today's settlers are instead working in an Iowa meat-packing plant or cutting lawns in Bucks County, PA. Hard work never hurt anyone Grandpa Ljubon used to tell me; and as Grandpa's Strenk, Peralta, and Pham surely told their boys; with hard work you can accomplish almost anything.

So raise a glass to our 239th birthday -- with more hard work and immigrants like these, we'll be celebrating 239 more.

Happy Independence Day.