Monday, November 20, 2017

SPQR and America

Senatus Populusque Romanus
The Senate and People of Rome

Some of the soldiers I served with in Iraq talked about getting an SPQR tattoo.  "The Senate and People of Rome" was the motto of the Army of the greatest and longest lived empire in the ancient world. Although it's demise can be dated around 472 A.D. it arguably continued through the Roman Church and the empire in Constantinople through the present day.  The Roman form of government had a revival in the high regard our Founding Fathers had for Rome and its government.  The founders of America were sophisticated, multi-lingual men who thought Paris the center of civilization. They were men of the Enlightenment who thought theocracy and fundamentalism just as misguided as we think it is today.

I thought about the tattoo as I started yet another book by Hannah Arendt, a collection of her essays titled Between Past and Future. The introductory essay begins by saying the title is a description of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings.

Janus, the god of beginnings looking forward and back

Janus is the god of the daybreak, of the first day of every month and the first month of the year: JANU-ary.  The doors of the temple of Janus (the "Gates of Janus") were closed in times of peace and open in times of war.

The essay reminded me that the early leaders of Rome, as well as emperors as late as Vespasian,  closed the doors of the temple of Janus with a great celebration marking victory.  The gates were, of course, opened when the Roman army marched to war.

The soldiers in Iraq who thought of getting the SPQR tattoo saw the American Army in Iraq and Afghanistan as a revival of the Roman Army, making us the modern legions of that Army.  With armies, ships, aircraft and space vehicles circling the globe, America is a more global army than Rome could ever have dreamed of.

The soldiers did not know, nor did I at the time, that the SPQR tattoo was not for native Roman soldiers, but for mercenaries, slaves and gladiators.  Tattoos were not for citizens and were considered something for the low classes. 

The Roman government brought the idea of justice for all citizens of an empire into practice for the first time in human history.  That government relied on both law and tradition to continue and thrive for most of a millennia.  It thrived with men like Marcus Aurelius, for me the best of all the emperors, and survived horrors like Nero.

America has not closed the Gates of Janus since August 1945 with the defeat of Imperial Japan shortly after defeating Nazi Germany. With the Cold War beginning in 1947 followed by the Gulf War and the War on Terror, we may never close The Gates of Janus again.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Cold War Hero Who Served After 1991

Armand Lattes, Professor Emeritus of the University Paul Sabatier, Toulouse

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the world faced a plethora of problems. In retrospect, the world did not handle the demise very well. Russia and the other former Soviet states were broke and in collapse and armed with uncountable Weapons of Mass Destruction.  

In the 1940s and 50s, before the Soviets had nuclear weapons, their counter weapon to American and European nukes was nerve gas and other chemical weapons.  The Soviets manufactured thousands and thousands of tons of chemical weapons and stored them for the Doomsday attack.

In 1992 these undropped bombs and unfired shells were rusting and leaking in storage across the former empire that had no money.  If these chemicals leaked into waterways and into the air, illness and death would spread through and out of the former Soviet Union. 

The answer to the problem was a massive, long-term decontamination program.  One of the chemists who volunteered for this dangerous work was Professor Armand Lattes of the Univeristy Paul Sabatier in Toulouse. Every September from 1992 until I met him in 2006, Lattes flew to secret sites in the former Soviet Union and worked with international volunteers to neutralize this terrible stockpile of weapons.  Lattes continued his unheralded work for several years after we met until his  retirement.  

I kept in touch with Armand in the years since and still hope to visit him and his wife Isabelle at their home in Toulouse. I almost made it to Toulouse on my trip around Europe last summer, but never got to that part of France.  

When we hear of the latest terrorist attack on the news, we know that dozens more attacks were foiled by law enforcement working secretly to disrupt the terrorists.  Armand and the men and women he worked with saved countless lives and the world itself from the disaster of chemical weapons leaking into the air and water or being stolen and used by terrorists.  

Armand did his part to keep the weapons of the Cold War from killing after the demise of the Soviet Union.



Saturday, November 11, 2017

Why is Veteran's Day Today? Who is a Veteran?






Almost 20 years ago when I had been a bearded civilian for more than a decade and was still almost ten years away from re-enlisting, I worked for a company with offices on five continents.  I went overseas every month for the three years I worked there.  In 1999, I was talking to one of my co-workers about my upcoming to several countries in Europe in mid-November.

I told her I would be in Paris, then Belgium, then I would have a meeting in Dusseldorf on the 11th before flying on to Singapore.  She said, "You can't meet on the 11th, it's a holiday."

"Not in Germany," I said.

Armistice Day, as it is know in Europe, is celebrated by all those on the winning side in World War I, it is a regular work day in Germany.

She didn't know that Veteran's Day is when the Armistice that ended World War I was signed in Versailles.  At 11 minutes after the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, the war officially ended in 1918.  So the observed holiday can be moved, as it was this year, to give government and other workers a day off, but the actual holiday is the 11th of November.

Until 2009, I did not consider myself a veteran.  I had served during the Vietnam War, but not in the war. I served in the Cold War on the East-West border, but that war stayed cold until it ended.  It wasn't until I deployed to Iraq in 2009 that I became an actual veteran.

Murrie Hubbard, the only other person from my 1971 Stoneham High School class to enlist during the Vietnam War, went straight to Vietnam and was a civilian again by 1973.  He was a veteran. I tested missiles in Utah, I was not a veteran.  Four decades later we both are veterans.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Field Guide to Flying Death: MAD--Mutually Assured Destruction


The 60s was the heyday of “Mad Magazine” and MAD as the centerpiece of our Cold War strategy. MAD—Mutually Assured Destruction—became the plan to preserve the future of the world once the Soviet Union first tested a hydrogen bomb in 1953. 


The US and the Soviets amassed so many nuclear weapons during the 50s and 60s that using them could only result in the destruction of the entire world, as we know it. 

Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear war remains in the unthinkable category, but for the fundamentalists who see the world as the stage for their own particular apocalypse, the unthinkable is not so unthinkable.

The Russian Federation still controls thousands of nuclear weapons, but the danger has shifted away from the Cold War scenario of one of the superpowers attacking the other. Then the world worried about living under the threat of a Superpower nuclear war.  Now the world worries about nations and terrorists who don’t care about MAD setting off a nuke because they want to kill everybody who does not see the world as they do. 

In the midst of Cold War, Hannah Arendt wrote the book “On Revolutions” talking about the rise in revolutionary thinking from the Reformation through the American and French Revolutions to the permanent state of revolution that characterizes the modern world.  We can no longer rely on MAD to constrain the nuclear arsenal. Superpowers cannot divide the world into client states they can control. 

MAD will not protect us. The overwhelming nuclear arsenal we have is not a threat to someone happy to die to bring on their personal apocalypse, or to the thug in charge of North Korea who will happily sacrifice his people on the altar of his own ego. 

In a world of revolutions, our security agencies have to doggedly keep track of all existing nuclear weapons to make sure a terrorist never gets one. 

I liked the Cold War draft army I served in better than the current all-volunteer army and, I admit, I liked the MAD world a lot better than the current threat of a nuke delivered in a truck or a shipping container.  




Saturday, November 4, 2017

My Last Tanker Nickname: Oddball



Donald Sutherland as Oddball, a tank commander in the movie "Kelly's Heroes"

I got my last tanker nickname more than a decade after I earned the nickname Sgt. Bambi Killer.  I got that nickname on a business trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2000.  The company I worked for just bought a company in Brazil and I was part of a team that went to Brazil to introduce ourselves to the people who ran the business.

Sao Paulo has traffic that makes Los Angeles look like Omaha, so the local managers sent a limo for the four of us. This meant we could be more comfortable on the three-hour 20-mile trip from the airport to downtown. 

At the time I had a beard and still had a lot of brown hair.  Among the local staff people who were waiting to meet us was my now long-time friend Ivan Porccino. Ivan speaks five languages and was assigned as our interpreter.  When we got in the car, Ivan introduced us to the driver and said we would be in Sao Paulo for a few days. The driver said, “I love America. I learn English watching American movies.”

So we talked about movies. The driver mentioned he loved “Kelly’sHeroes.” Bob Lee (Robert E. Lee, no kidding, but he went by Bob) our CEO said, “Neil was a tank commander back the 80s.” The driver turned, looked at me again and said, “Oddball! You are Oddball!” And so I was. For the rest of the trip and the rest of the time I worked for that company, I was Oddball, especially to Bob Lee.




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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Field Guide to Flying Death: ICBMs


A Trident ICBM launched at sea.

The name of every type of missile describes how far it flies. So an ICBM, or Intercontinental Ballistic Missile can travel at least 3,400 miles carrying one or more warheads.  The standard American land-based ICBM, the Minuteman III, can fly 8,100 miles before releasing between one and a dozen individual warheads on target. 

On Friday, Vice President Pence visited the Air Force Base in Minot, North Dakota.  His visit was a reminder as subtle as a fart at a funeral to remind North Korea just how many missiles we can send their way and turn their leader into Kim Jong cinder. 

Minot is the center of a missile launch area spread across the northern tier of America with 450 missile carrying thousands of nuclear warheads. Minot also is home base for B-52 bombers, the main aircraft of the U.S. nuclear bombing force since the Eisenhower administration. 

Our arsenal of ICBMs and other nukes is so overwhelming, Pence and his audience of Minot airmen were aware that if North Korea attacked America or its allies with a nuclear weapon, the response would not likely come from the America’s land-based missile and bomber fleet.  Lurking in the oceans somewhere Polaris submarines armed with Trident ICBMs are already on station, within range, waiting for the order to counter attack if North Korea fires a nuclear weapon. 

My first job in the Cold War U. S. Air Force was live-fire testing of missiles.  I was assigned to the Aging and Surveillance branch of Air Force Systems Command on Hill Air Force Base, Utah.  Every Thursday (except Thanksgiving and Christmas week) we unit fired one stage of a three-stage Minuteman missile.  The missiles were randomly selected.  They were pulled from their silo and shipped to Utah.  On the test range we froze them, baked them, put them in an altitude chamber, shook them and finally bolted them to a test pad and lit them up.  The test range was on the west side of the Great Salt Lake. On a clear day, you could see the cloud from firing in Ogden and Salt Lake City on the east side of the lake. 

We made sure the missiles were ready to fly to target. 

Armies win or lose wars for any number of reasons, but in modern war, the difference between winning and losing is often the reliability of the weapon.  Testing those missiles meant American missiles were ready. 

In 1973, at the same time I was on a team test firing every missile from Sidewinder wing rockets to ICBMs, Israel was hit with a surprise attack by three Arab armies who outnumbered Israel 100 to 1.  Israel repelled the invaders and won that war for many reasons.  But one reason was weapon readiness.

Taking tanks as an example, when Jordan rolled its Soviet-made tanks toward Israel across the Golan Heights, one in four of those tanks broke down before getting to the battle.  For every hundred Syrian tanks, only 75 made it to the fight.  Israeli tanks were ready to fight.  It really fucks up your war plans if a quarter of the tanks don’t even shop up, and it affects moral. The other crews are wondering if their tank will break down.  There are few targets easier to hit than a tank sitting still in a battlefield.

The missiles in U.S. subs and silos are tested to make sure they are ready if needed.  As many failed North Korean tests have shown.  The short life of a launched ICBM is full of stress and strain. 

When Trident, Minuteman or other ICBMs launch, they begin the half-hour-long trip to a target on another continent or just very far away.  The three-stage Minuteman is in boost phase for five minutes, flying out of its silo on the North Dakota prairie to target. By then end of boost phase, the three-stages have burned their solid fuel and fallen away.  The warhead has accelerated from 0 to more than 15,000 miles per hour and has broken through earth’s atmosphere, flying in space.

In the launch phase, the rocket is subject to an average of 5gs of acceleration with two big jerks when one stage burns and falls away and the next stage lights up. The skin temperatures on the missile zoom up from 70 degrees to hundreds of degrees as speed approaches 15,000 mph. As the final stage burns and separates the warhead bursts out of the atmosphere into space, buffeting the warhead at the same time it rapidly cools as it leaves the atmosphere. 

The warhead is now in ballistic phase, coasting at 15,000+ mph to re-entry and target.  (Ballistic, in popular usage, is the opposite of its real meaning.  If you are interested, I explain here. )  If the U.S. launched a Trident Missile from somewhere in the some ocean it would now be flying thousands of miles in 10 or 20 minutes toward its target. 

Less than 100 miles from target, the terminal or re-entry phase begins.  At this point the warhead drops back into the atmosphere heats to thousands of degrees from re-entry friction then delivers one or a dozen warheads to target.  The already baked and frozen warhead heads to thousands of degrees and shakes with hundreds of gs of vibration as it drops back into the upper atmosphere.

American missiles are thoroughly tested for this horrendous ride. Even so, solid fuel missiles are big cans of gunpowder designed to burn rather than explode.  I have seen, and almost been killed by, missiles that blow up when they were supposed to burn. But when they reach their target, ICBMs are apocalyptically deadly.

One Trident ICBM with eight warheads could turn North Korea into a wasteland. Each Polaris submarine can carry 24 Trident missiles.  Each of the multiple warheads are hundreds of times more powerful than the nukes dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.  And one submarine fully loaded with Trident missiles can deliver 192 warheads on target.

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Friday, October 20, 2017

Real Senior Moment and a Book About the Iraq War



I just had a real senior moment about a book about PTSD. The book, Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel will be released soon as a movie.  Here's the trailer: 


On Thursday of this week, I was talking the professor in a writing class I am taking. He asked if I read much about the Iraq War then mentioned the book Thank You For Your Service.  I wrote down the title. 

But 20 minutes later, I realized the book sounded very familiar.  Three years ago, I read the book.  Worse still, I reviewed the book for Books and Culture. The review is here. So I wrote back to the professor with proof positive I am 64 years old! 

It is a good book about the worst parts of service in Iraq. 



SPQR and America

Senatus Populusque Romanus The Senate and People of Rome Some of the soldiers I served with in Iraq talked about getting an SPQR tat...