War

On this Memorial Day it is altogether fitting and proper that we remember and honor the sacrifices of those service men and women who died in service to our country.  This is of course a doubly important day for Veterans like myself who “survived” when some of our fellows did not.  I lost three Marines in my Communications Platoon in 1969 and 13 of my fellow classmates at the USMC Basic School in Quantico lost their lives in Vietnam.

CIMG0177

Plaque at the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, Virginia honoring classmates from my Basic School class who died in Vietnam.

Words to Ponder

Last week the President gave a speech in Hiroshima.  The news reports I saw only published snippets of what he said. I also saw various comments on the Internet both pro and con so I took the time to read the entire transcript to decide for myself.

I was impressed by the thoughtful approach the President took to the timely (a mad man in N. Korea has nukes) and extremely important (the end of civilization as we know it) issue of nuclear proliferation.  President Obama rightfully pointed out that Hiroshima was a warning that the course of warfare has changed forever and raised the stakes so dramatically that it is imperative that we work diligently to keep the peace to the extent it is humanly possible.

There was certainly no apology as some might have you believe, rather there was an acknowledgement of what every soldier already knows:  That war is hell and it impacts civilians as well as military.

President Truman made the difficult decision to drop the bomb knowing that in doing so innocent women, children and even some American POWs would die.  He made the difficult decision to end the war that had already cost at least 60 million lives worldwide and prevent even more deaths that would surely have resulted from a full-blown invasion of Japan.

President Obamas talk was not, however, about Hiroshima per se, but rather about the larger issue of the consequences war itself (Which in this case Japan initiated) and what we (People of the world) can do to prevent, or at least limit, it in the future.

On this Memorial Day we would do well to think deeply about why these men and women we honor today died.  We must think about war.

My War

I can neither adequately explain nor can I fully understand why we were in Vietnam.  At the time I enlisted I believed that we had some sort of obligation to defend this small country from invasion and subversion by communist backed forces supported by China and Russia.

The prevailing argument for US involvement was to prevent the communists from taking over southeast Asia one small country at a time – the domino theory.  I remember counter arguments saying basically that we had no real interest in Vietnam and nothing to gain by fighting for the South Vietnamese regime.

I thought at the time (1967) that “helping the little guy”was actually was a more honorable reason to get involved than fighting a war for our own gain.

More important to me personally than the political arguments for fighting was the sense of obligation.  My great-great grandfather had fought with the 54th Ohio Regiment in the Civil War and was captured in the Battle of Chicamauga and spent some time at the dreaded Andersonville Prison in South Georgia as a POW.  My grandfather was a dough boy and fought in Europe in WW1.  Dad served in the Army Air Corps in WW2 and I had two uncles who served in Korea.  I had two cousin who had served in Vietnam  already.

It was my turn.  I left college and my girlfriend (Marianne), and enlisted in the Marines.

I won’t go into a long drawn out war story about boot camp, OCS,

and what it was like in Vietnam  – maybe in another post.

My purpose today is not to talk about me, but rather to the larger issue of War and why we should think about it today on Memorial Day.

My reasons for joining the Marines are relevant to this larger issue in that, like all soldiers in all countries and in all wars, I faced complex and vary confusing questions about “why” we were fighting and risking our lives.

Who Will Stand up to Bullies?

A friend of mine recently took his college age son to the American Cemetery at Normandy.  He reported that it was an extremely emotional visit.  His son also shared with him that many of his contemporaries in college express very strong and clear opinions that war is always wrong and that the United States is primarily an aggressor and the cause of the problem.

I too have heard these arguments and find them overly simplistic.  It does not help that they are often delivered with a heavy dose self-righteous indignation.

As the President also pointed out in Hiroshima, there are important reasons why we must be prepared to respond militarily.  He reminds us quite eloquently that throughout history there are those who have used military force against innocent people stating,

“On every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war, whether driven by scarcity of grain or hunger for gold, compelled by nationalist fervor or religious zeal. Empires have risen and fallen. Peoples have been subjugated and liberated. And at each juncture, innocents have suffered, a countless toll, their names forgotten by time.”

I am proud to have served in the military and believe that, although we have at times made serious, sometimes horrific mistakes, “Most of the time”, the United States has used it’s military power appropriately. The vast majority of men and women that I came in contact with over 29 years of military service are thoughtful people who try to do the right thing.

I believe even more strongly that it is folly to pretend that there are not evil forces in the world that must be stopped and stood up to.  Military action by it’s very nature guarantees death for some.  Some would say “the lessor of two evils is still evil”, to which I would respond, “Yes, but less evil is still better than more evil.”

As individuals and as a nation we don’t always get good choices and sometimes military action and the military service and loss of life that goes with it is necessary.

The answer to the “why” question related to war is not simple.

False Bravado

On the other end of the spectrum from those who believe that the US is always wrong going to war are people who talk about going to war like they were going to a sporting event.

Macho trash talk about “carpet bombing”, “kicking ISIS’s ass”, and loose talk about the use of nuclear weapons sickens me.  Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly but carry a big stick” has always resonated with me.

When a Veteran who has been in combat speaks about “kicking someone’s ass”  I figure he/she has earned the right to do so.  However, when a politician spouts out bellicose chest-beating bullshit about war or military tactics they know nothing about, I cringe.  Unless they or their own sons and daughters have served, they best speak reverently and very cautiously about war and the death that will accompany it.

Worst of all is the draft-dodging Donald Trump who “loves our veterans” but mocked and belittled John McCain and, by extension, all POWs to include my great-great grandfather by saying “I don’t like people who get captured, OK”.  POW’s may have survived their war without dying, but they also have experienced a type of hell that none of us can imagine.  To Donald I can only say, “Shut the fuck up asshole!”

Guess I got that off my chest.  Pardon my language, but the old Marine in me comes out when I get riled up about people disrespecting the sacrifice of others.

President and General of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower had good advice for us when talking about war,

“Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.”

Words Matter

The fact is that words about war do matter and need to be considered very carefully and thoughtfully.  In World War 2 one of the slogans was “Loose Lips Sink Ships”, meaning that talking about anything related to the war effort could be important intelligence that could give our enemies an advantage that would ultimately cost the lives of our soldiers, sailors, or Marines.

Today a similar situation exists in today’s war against terrorists when Americans with access to the world media inflame the situation by purposely aligning all Muslims with the fanatical terrorists who have killed ruthlessly across much of the world.  ISIS has killed way more of their fellow Muslims than they have Christians or Americans. Driving a wedge between peace loving Muslims and the US by equating “Islam” with “terrorists” feeds right into the hands of the these mad men who would love nothing more than to position their ruthless power grab as a religious war.  The Muslim world must ultimately play the dominant role in solving the problem of extremists, and we need their support.   “Political correctness” in the use of words about war makes perfect sense to me – it saves American lives.

The Dead

So where do the people we honor and remember today come in?

I think we do them the highest honor by recognizing not only their bravery and sacrifice, but also that we as citizens of this great nation must be engaged in the discussion of when and how we use military power.

When considering war we need to ask ourselves “why”.  This discussion should be conducted with the upmost clarity and seriousness.

Talk softly and think deeply when you visit their graves today.

Values

In my previous blog post titled “Goals” (You can scroll down to see older posts) which was prompted by talk about New Year’s resolutions, I bemoaned the realization that “goals” don’t help me that much when facing the more nuanced decisions I face in life.

I concluded in that “goals” post that I needed something more than just goals to help me make tough decisions. I do have some touchstones or directional guideposts that I can use to help me make decisions. One word for these touchstones is “values.”

The word “values” is way over-used and often misused to represent a code (e.g. “family values”) or equated to absolute universal truths. To me “values” are very personal and they are neither universal nor absolute.

I have always had trouble with absolute rules in life because there is always at least one exception to every rule. Values provide a flexibility and interpretation that hard and fast rules don’t allow. They point me in a direction without tying my hands like an absolute rule that forces me to make a choice that just does not seem right.

Where Do My Values Come From

My parents both died last spring at age 92. They pretty much lived by the Ten Commandments although I never heard either one say that they did. Even my Dad the Presbyterian minister rarely mentioned the Ten Commandments. Both Mom and Dad focused more on the New Testament teachings of Jesus to love one another, help the poor and sick, and “to do unto others” as they would have others do unto them. They did not so much preach as they walked the walk. They left the talking to others. They led by example. That they were Christian never had to be said. Dad never wore a clerical collar or ever introduced himself as “reverend”, just as “Jim.”

The Ten Commandments and teachings of Jesus seem pretty much on track, and certainly they influence me and my values, however, as a career soldier and Marine, that whole thing about not killing people and loving my enemies did pose a conundrum for me.

I was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout although not exactly a stellar member, only making it to the rank of 2nd Class. I was in it for the fun and the camping trips. But I did retain some of the Boy Scout Oath and it seems to mostly ring true even today: A scout is brave, loyal, respectful, kind, courteous, helpful, etc.   Seems like they were on to something although they also included a rather loaded commandment to be “morally straight” which I have trouble accepting on several levels.

Superman had a pretty clear mission of fighting for truth and justice which seem admirable, but he also added in “and the American Way”, which, like “Morally Straight” is pretty hard for me to wrangle in. These kind of “coded values” can be whatever one wants it to be and they can be used to justify otherwise bad behavior and hatred.

So as helpful as these lists of rules and descriptions of right and wrong may seem, they don’t answer all questions and I find I have to pick and choose. None are absolute, save perhaps, “love one another.”

Just Do the Right Thing

“Trust your gut, Jim.” At various times I have heard that phrase from friends, counselors, bosses, and from family members trying to help me make a decision. I am sure that they all meant well, but this approach does not help me to decide the really hard choices.

Some decisions, even though they may cause you physical or financial pain or inconvenience, are pretty clear. I don’t commit felonies and I pretty much obey the lessor rules, like not butting in line. I will wait at the corner until the “white man walking” lights up, even if others have looked both ways and gone against the orders of the “red hand”.

These are not the kind of decisions that confuse me and they are not what I am talking about in this post even though there is clearly a relationship between these “rules of the road” and underlying values like fairness, safety, citizenship, etc.

Competition Sucks

What I am most troubled by are really tough things to decide, the ones which involve competing values:

“Should I sit in my easy chair, read the paper, drink coffee and savor the moment, or write that thank you note to someone who has helped me recently?”

“Should I give the homeless guy a buck or follow the advice to not further enable an addict?”

“Do I “Follow my dream/passion”, as is a popular theme lately, and thereby, put myself first; or do I do what needs to be done for a greater good, something I am good at even if it is not something I truly enjoy?”

When “values” compete I have a hard time deciding what to do.

The Chicken or the Egg?

Cognitive dissonance is a term I remember from grad school – not sure exactly what course, but hey, it stuck somehow. Shrinks and marketing gurus use cognitive dissonance to describe the phenomenon of people allowing their actions, not their values, to drive their future decisions.

The text book example I remember is a big purchase decision on something like a car. If you are trying to choose between one that has a higher safety record or one which has better mileage you may be stuck (dissonance) between these two values – safety and economy.

Once a choice is made, however, people then change the relative importance of that value to fit their action. So, if you choose the “safe” car, you now value safety more than economy. You are now more likely to not only say that, but to make a similar choice in the future.

An example might be Volvo purchasers who tend to stick with “safe” cars in the future, or Prius owners who go with high mileage or hybrid cars. The act of buying a Prius makes you value efficiency more. The cart is now in front of the horse.

How is This Working For Me?

For identifying values to live by this concept of cognitive dissonance creates the whole chicken or egg discussion. I think that many times in my life I have adjusted my values to match the decisions I have made previously.

When I did not squeal on classmates in HS who had cheated on tests or committed various acts of vandalism, I certainly justified this by saying (at least to myself) how much I value loyalty.

When I joined the Marines, patriotic duty became relatively more important value than the “Thou shall not kill” commandment.

When I moved to a new suburb outside Atlanta for “good schools” the value of education for my children became more important than value of supporting integration and ethnic diversity.

Whether the decision is ultimately “a good one” or “a bad one” I still have justified these decisions, at least initially, by changing my value system so that my values were “in sync” with what I had done. In cases where the decision turns out to be really “bad” in the long run, it is very helpful that “forgiveness” is one of the key elements of Christianity – we all need an out.

And So the Point Is?

As I look back, sometimes my values have helped me to do the “right” thing, sometimes not. Often what seems “right” changes over time. My values don’t seem to have changed radically, but they have evolved. I am pretty sure that most of you reading this have had similar experiences about decisions you have made in your lives.

So after all this, I have to conclude that I can’t really look totally to a set of “values” alone to help me figure out what to do in a tough situation. I really have to go to a higher source for the answers:

What’s it all about Alphie?

Fear

“We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” FDR

“There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment.” Hunter S. Thompson

“Yea, though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for I am the meanest mother-fucker in the valley.” Senior Drill Sergeant D.C. Curran, USMC Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC 1967.

It is difficult to pick up the paper (Yes, I still read real papers) or watch, read, or hear anything on TV, radio, or the Internet without coming across the growing idea that fear is a primary driver of our national and world politics and culture.

In this posting I won’t try to evaluate fear politics on the global or national level. While these are vitally important issues, there are plenty of opinions on these matters available from way too many sources already.

And I won’t try to tell anyone else what they should or should not be afraid of. If I did so I might offend some of you, and I have no desire to do that. And of course, I don’t have the answers to those questions about other people anyway – I doubt anyone does.

But I can share with you my answers to the question I have often asked myself: “What are you afraid of Jim?”

Fear drives behavior. For the cave man it was either fight or flight. Do we have better options? Are we “running” or “fighting” needlessly when there is no real danger to us personally. Saber toothed tigers were pretty clearly dangerous. Today, the dangers are more nuanced and less clear.

There are many dangers out there that need to be acknowledged by a wise person. I do strive to be wise, although many would say I have only gotten as far as being recognized as a “wise guy.”

So it is prudent to periodically review what I am, and am not, afraid of because fear drives behavior. Fear can hold me back and keep me from being a better person and achieving meaningful goals. Fear can also save my butt.

Sometimes there is Real Danger, but “What can I do?”

Living in Seattle I am fully aware of the cataclysmic potential of “The Big One.” A megathrust earthquake will occur one of these days in the Cascadia Subduction Zone just off the Washington State coast. The San Juan De Fuca plate will suddenly slip further under the North American plate.

All hell will break lose all along the southern BC, Washington, and Oregon Coasts. The last time this happened in 1700 it caused a magnitude 9 earthquake.  Whole Salish Nation villages all along Washington’s coast and in the Puget Sound disappeared forever.  A huge tsunami crossed the Pacific and pounded Japan.  For point of reference, magnitude 9 would be 10 times stronger than the largest earthquake ever in California including the one in San Franciso in 1906.  It could happen here at any time, and you do not want to be in Seattle when it does.

I am aware that this might happen, but when? And what am I supposed to do now? Leave town? FEMA advises stocking up 3 days of supplies but this does not seem to be much help when the entire region will not have clean water or electricity for months.

Am I better off just getting crushed at the outset or starving to death in the post-apocalyptic mess that would be left? The threat of a megathrust earthquake is very real but I don’t know what I can do about it. So I just hope it happens another 200 years or so from now and, although it is a very real danger, I am not really afraid of it. It does not change the way I live day-to-day.

Other real dangers fall into this category: meteors hitting earth, untreatable pandemics, nuclear annihilation, lightning strikes, drunk drivers hitting you head on with no warning, rare forms of cancer, being killed by an Islamic terrorist, or by some other a wacko with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in a movie theater. There is not much I can do to limit the risk of these events and really, these things will either happen or they won’t.

The risk of any of these terrible things actually happening to me personally on any given day are pretty remote. So I don’t really worry about them much and, therefore, I am not really afraid of them. They don’t influence my behavior very much if at all. They don’t dominate my life.

What am I afraid of?

There are some dangers for which I find fear is a useful ally. This would include some of what I consider “common sense” observations of dangerous situations. For these dangers I allow fear to drive me to take action and/or change my behavior: I no longer drink and drive. I stay away from dark alleys in questionable neighborhoods. I quit smoking and don’t add salt to food. I try not to engage with obviously aggressive people (alone or in gangs) on the street or on the road. I take lots of showers when I am in “tick” country. I no longer run on ice or at the pool or with scissors. I don’t get very near the edge when there is a long way to fall. I am a cautious fellow and I do not have any desire whatsoever to participate in any dangerous sports like wing suit base jumping. I am not a risk taker when there is a clear and present danger.

My biggest fear personally right now is for my son Josh. The uncertainties surrounding his long term and current medical and mental status are daunting and sometimes seem overwhelming. Right now this fear of the unknown overrides all other fears and as such, drives most of my behavior. This crisis situation will hopefully not be the case much longer for Josh and then I can get back to being afraid of other things.

On a lessor scale I am also afraid of my own tendency to overeat and drift towards red meat, deep fried anything, and ice cream. In this case I know the danger/health risks and can make a difference, but I don’t take the steps I should to protect myself. Maybe I should be more afraid here – it might motivate me to do better.

I am afraid of this category of “more present” real dangers, and I try to take actions to avoid them. They do impact my behavior, and I think my “fear based” responses are rational.

Things that don’t scare me at all.

I try very hard not to react or, more to the point, over-react, to those things that are really not at all a danger to me personally. There seems to me no reason to be afraid of things that are really not dangerous.

Included in this category of “non-dangerous” things for me are almost all people I have ever come across except for the aforementioned aggressive types and the NVA (North Vietnam Regular Army) we Marines were fighting in Vietnam. They were actually trying to kill us so yes, I was afraid of them.

I have no general fear of any of the following: Mexicans, Muslims, gays, lesbians, Syrians, immigrants, homeless, bi-sexual or transgender persons, communists, socialists, African-Americans, Arabs, Asians, or for that matter, not even the most feared people of all, the Canadians.

When I left Vietnam I was lucky enough not to have had PTSD and was no longer afraid of the NVA. I would love to go back to Vietnam and actually meet some NVA, especially any who fought in I Corps where I was. Any fear I had of them then was circumstantial, they were serving their country, I mine. The NVA were dangerous then not because they were Vietnamese, but because we were on opposite sides and in a war zone.

Also included in this ‘no fear’ category for me are most of the organizations that I will ever come in contact with: the police, COSTCO, Pacific Medical, organized religion, the IRS, the Republican Party, the Sierra Club, unions, big corporations, committees of all kinds, the dentist, lawyers, or even telemarketers. I may not like them all equally, and some may be annoying as hell, but I see no clear or present danger to me personally from any of them. Therefore, I am not afraid of them. They don’t limit me nor do they dominate my life/thinking.

It’s not all about me.

Well, enough about me and my fears. As noted before, this is by no means a prescription for others. Fears will rightfully be different for every person. I personally have very little fear of ISIS, but many service men and women deployed in the middle east daily face a very real clear and present danger from ISIS or other terrorists. They should be afraid.

Maybe you too can ask yourself these questions:

     “What am I afraid of?”

      “Why am I afraid?”

      “What am I not afraid of?”

      “Am I really in any clear or present danger?”

      “Do these fears limit me or dominate my life/thinking negatively?”

Peace and love to all,  

Jim

Goals

Goals

It’s that time again: New Year’s Resolutions.  These are promises made to be broken – proof positive of a fundamental flaw in one’s character.

This year I bought myself a Fitbit for Christmas.  This wrist band device counts steps taken with a default goal of reaching 10,000 steps a day.  This number is supposed to be a good rule of thumb for a minimum amount of daily exercise.  Now the pressure is on.  Will I meet my daily goal?

I am ambivalent about the value of goals.  Of course, I am ambivalent about many, if not most, things, hence the name of this blog “The Middle Ground”.

Like many of you, I have a “to do” list that never seems to get shorter.  Even now that I am retired my list is way longer than the time or money available to satisfy it.  I plug away at the list and occasionally “Check one off.”  But I am not sure if I am actually achieving what I should.  Am I meeting my goals?

So I do see some value in having quantifiable or at least identifiable goals.  Did I get it done or not?  How many times did I actually do what I said I would?  Is there more that I should be doing?

Goals can also help me in making daily choices about how I spend my time and money.  I can ask myself, “Which choice will get me closer to my goal?” Often having a goal sets up a “yes” or “no” choice that is easier  for me to make.

The Fitbit keeps me honest by actually counting the steps I have taken.  I may think I have done a good deal of exercise, but then I push a button and see that I am significantly below my 10,000 step goal.  This goal motivates me to get off my butt and take an evening stroll.

And yet there are things that bother me about goals.

People and organizations I have known or been a part of set goals using metrics that are easy to count: Quarterly sales, enlistments, re-enlistments, revenue, income, repetitions, miles, pounds, membership, and even attendance in church.

Yet even the best metrics always seem to miss something qualitative.  I know skinny people who don’t look healthy; I’ve seen revenue manipulated to influence quarterly performance/stock prices; I’ve seen that money alone does not buy peace of mind or happiness;  and I have even known people who go to church regularly who are really not good people.   The goals may have been met, but all was not as it should be.

Setting goals seems to force me into comparing myself with others.  “Ryk lost 50 pounds, surely I can lose 25.”  Comparing myself to others then sets up a competitive situation.  Being competitive (and winning) is great fun in games and pretty much mandatory in war, but in all other aspects of life I find collaboration and cooperation much more effective, productive, and rewarding.

Goals that involve “beating” someone else just don’t give me satisfaction. Competition also makes me a loser.  Even if I “win” more than I lose, I am still a loser at some point.  Why be a loser at all?

Even the most successful businesses don’t really “beat” the competition, they find markets where there is no competition and offer goods or services no one else has.  They didn’t “win” the game, they invented a new game.

You can’t really set a goal when there is nothing previous against which to measure.  You kind of know success when you see it. That’s more like having a vision than a goal. 

People who have made a significant difference in our world in my life time such as Bill Gates, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Einstein, have been innovative and have stretched old limits, but there successes were not exactly “goal based”.  They did not even know the limits of their personal impact, so how could they have defined a goal?  Value based, yes.  Goal based, no. 

And having multiple goals makes for more difficult decision making: “Do I keep my budget goal for the month or buy this fitness device that will help me with my weight loss goal?

Of course I could set a singular goal like an Olympic athlete does.  Then the decisions would be easier, but I fear becoming very one dimensional which I have become at various times in my life.  I don’t look back on those times fondly.

“So which is it Jim, goals or no goals?”

I plan to continue to use goals and “to do” lists but not beat myself up if I don’t make them.

Oh, so just want to be let off the hook if you don’t make your goal?”, you might ask or, “You must be willing to settle for mediocrity?”

Hmmm, those are good questions.

The school book answer (and a pretty weak one) is something like, “I will review my goals periodically and adjust them based on new circumstances and updated information.”  I have used answer that in the past but it never really seemed quite honest.  It is basically a BS answer.

A better answer has something to do with focusing on values and having a moral compass.  I’ll work on that answer and get back to you in a future post to this blog.

Take CARE Always,

Jim

Hi, this is Jim Simpson. I am starting a blog called “Middle Ground”.

Hi friends,

I am starting a blog which I intend to use to share thoughts and ideas I have with a wide range of people I know.  People I don’t know are welcome too.  One of my favorite sayings is “For every difficult or complex problem there is an easy solution…and it is wrong.”  There are many sides to virtually all important questions and I tend to be “in the middle” on many if not most of them.  I am pretty “gray” in my thinking and find few things that are “black or white.”  That being said, I hope to use this blog to learn and to share.   More soon.

Jim