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(NOTE: The story began here)
INTERLUDE - SAUDI ARABIA 1991
The story was told to me by a friend who was there.
The Command Center for Desert Storm is a furious hub of activity, with everyone focused on the goal of liberating Kuwait and ending forever the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the region and the world. One fine day however, a pair of Saudi nationals were infuriated to find contraband on a desk - a Bible left out in plain site by one of the infidel pigs trying to defend the sacred Saudi
oil soil. Outraged, they called for justice to be meted out swiftly. But to avoid an international incident the perpetrator was quietly returned to the US on the next available plane. The following day everyone stationed in the center had a Bible sitting out on their desk.
My first thought on hearing this story was that this was an amazing display of faith and solidarity among brothers-in-arms, then I realized the more likely reality of the situation; everyone was looking for that plane ticket home. There's a great line in the movie version of MASH; Duke, watching the MPs drive off with Frank Burns in a straitjacket, turns to Colonel Blake and says:
"Fair's fair, Henry. If I ___ Hot Lips and jump Hawkeye Pierce, do I get to go home, too?"
There is no Stella Lager in Saudi. The Saudis do not want beer or Bibles in their country; if you're going to be given the honor of shedding your blood on their sand you will do so without otherwise defiling it with your filth.
Or, stated officially, the Kingdom has many customs and traditions that we will respect to the utmost.
Regardless of the motivation of those who placed their Bibles on their desks that day, the event raises questions. Do the Saudis so fear the power of the Book? Do they think that nothing of their religion or lifestyle can thrive in its presence? Are they worried that the Word, left to spread unchecked through the kingdom, could transform it in some way?
Strange behavior for a people convinced of both their rightness and their righteousness.
What kind of angry people might a country lacking Bibles and DemocracyWhiskeySexy produce?
BARKSDALE AFB, SEPTEMBER 11 2001
Images are beamed into the ops center; the towers are smoking like chimneys over the furnaces of Hell. Damaged but not yet fallen. No one knows and everyone suspects what's going on. Osama Bin Laden is not unknown to us. The guy I share an office with is hanging up the phone; he was talking to a buddy at the Pentagon.
"Learn anything?" I ask him.
"He hung up...he said 'I've gotta go, the whole building just shook'.. and he hung up."
Ten minutes later that's on TV too.
There's been very few times in my life where I've experienced any real overwhelming emotion. Especially that powerful sense of...grief, for want of a better word. The sort that moves through your body like a mild but numbing electric shock, that causes a tremor in your soul, a lump in your throat and yea, that inexplicable response from the tear ducts. I don't care who you are and how tough you think you are you too will experience that feeling if you get to look in person at the little chairs in the Oklahoma bombing memorial. When I first heard of the memorial and saw photos I didn't get it...chairs? Then I saw it in person.
You approach and pass the makeshift memorials outside (at least you did in 2000) and this is hard to take. Teddy Bears for the kids who will never grow up, pictures of mom and dad... this stuff even in memory rips my heart from its spot in my chest and jams it somewhere in my throat. And this is just the warm up, tough guy.
Once in the ground of the memorial you first approach the chairs from a little distance. For me I had to walk a little closer before I was paralyzed at the sight and the reality and the mind numbing thought of all those kids...
Remember that day? I remember seeing that on TV (who doesn't?) and thinking immediately it was the Arabs but then immediately dismissing the thought. It wasn't right. This wasn't their kind of target. There's no way to explain that hunch, it was just there. And when I heard a TV reporter relay a rumor about a swarthy middle-eastern type having been spotted near the scene I knew it wasn't an attack from that quarter; to this day I can't say why. I knew knee-jerk reaction when I saw it. Then add this: Arabs, when they commit these unspeakable acts, take credit almost immediately. Their motive is not destruction of buildings; their desire is to inspire terror and thus fulfill their quest for some twisted version of glory in the eyes of their perverted version of god. This requires loud claims of responsibility immediately following each new act of degradation, each new lowering of the bar to a point where humans were previously convinced that none of their fellows could sink.
Is this then, our vulnerability? Our tragic faith in the fundamental goodness of humankind? Despite innumerable warnings from God and man through history we will choose to believe in the best intentions of our brothers. And we will concern ourselves for the well being of people who would gladly take up arms against us if it would raise them one half step above their current station in life, or guarantee them a spot in the fast lane of the heavenly highway.
I have been to Oklahoma City, long before the bombing. It's a great town; I could retire there and live out my days in peace among wonderful people. I could live in peace partly due to the fact that although OK City represents everything that the Muslim fanatic would want to blow up, that many of them long for the day when they can put that town to the sword too, that it's way down on the list.
But not for an American. An American would intuitively grasp the significance of striking in the heartland. And an American did, and was caught and was put down like a dog.
But it's a strange dichotomy, isn't it, that people want safety and to believe their town is worth destroying? That an enemy of all that is right and good would surely want to target us first, would they not? I recall from cold war days (and have seen it discussed in blogs) those who would make an imaginary count of Russian Missiles aimed at them. "Well, we've got the plant that makes widgets for Army Doohickeys, so I know they've got us in their sights! We'll get nuked early on when the balloon goes up!"
It's bizarro bravado born of human pride. The same thing happened along the west coast to start WWII - the Japs are coming right here! And the same thing happened all over America in the wake of 911.
Everyone knew that their kid's soccer game was the obvious next target.
OK City had the mark of a domestic attack. The slims are neither subtle nor cagey enough to strike the heartland; they don't get it. But when I saw the second tower struck, live on a giant screen on an operations center wall, I knew it for what it was, we all did. Go time. Have you seen the one with the Eagle sharpening his claws, with the words "The terrorists have won the toss and elected to receive" written bold?
I can tell you this, for those who could not do something, I feel your pain. The one thing that kept me going was that I at least knew I would be a small part of the pay back.
Here then, is America on the cusp of the millennia; star-spangled glory and the hope for the free world. A nation still rising from a barbarous past and cloaked in a mantle unwanted by some and nearly too heavy to bear; Beacon of Freedom, Arsenal of Democracy, Chosen of God, and Dispenser of Infinite Justice. Bane of evil; unimpressed by bravado of those who would bring us down; we choose our own destiny. Scarred but not scared, neither fearless nor afraid, a force to be reckoned with, and unbending to the will of any man or nation that would have us fit their personal definition of what we should be. We are the greatest nation in the history of the world. Imperfect? Yes. Nazi Germany was more focused, Saudi Arabia is more unified. Without sin? Hardly, that barbarous past will still require some attention and many will never be willing or able to move on. Show them all the pity we can. Little else should they receive.
We are Rome and not Rome. We are right and wrong, we are the best and the brightest and the worst of the world today. We are not half measures. We are frequently extreme, and here voices of temperance are often shouted down.
We are the dangerous hope for the future of mankind.
And everything that makes us great makes us a target for the petty. Our perhaps misguided faith in fellow man renders us attractive to friend and vulnerable to foe. Our fantastic success as a nation, summed up for some perhaps by the concept of Democracy Whiskey Sexy, is seen as absolute failure by others. Our ability to worship as we choose is an intolerable evil for many.
We want all the things that make us a target. And in spite of those misguided and vocal few who would oppose us from within, we are indeed willing to fight to preserve those many things, those blessings of liberty, for ourselves and our posterity.
We are imperfect. We are not to be underestimated.
Yesterday I stood in the shadow of an edifice of ancient Rome. A massive structure, a surviving gate from an ancient wall around a fortified city on the edge of the Empire. And nearby stands a Cathedral, and within are examples of the greatest works of the hands of men of the past thousand or so years.
Civilization, greatness, and glory. Higher purpose. Things beyond the transient life on earth of any single human. An unbroken line runs from that ruined gate through that man-built house of God to us. Our civilization, refined in a Rome that allowed that Church to thrive. Our civilization, preserved by that Church through dark ages, even while human weakness ran rampant through the walls of that same house of God.
Ironically a line that stretches even farther back, through the pyramids and then to Ur.
Our civilization, and all that which brings us hatred from our enemies and jealousy from our friends.
Though I would prefer you not to, I will defend your right to trivialize it should you choose to sum it all up with Democracy, Whiskey, Sexy.
As perhaps in further evidence of the dichotomy of our greatness, I will defend the rights of those misguided few who would oppose my defense of their rights.
And to them, and to those who would shout of moral equivalence or that we are "different but not better" I can say only this: I am a realist, with no time for your world of make believe. Sleep well.
And tonight as the sons of Saddam go to sheol, those heroes of the American left, those premier citizens of old Iraq who enjoyed more whiskey sexy then the rest of their country combined, I will continue to wonder if that man on the roadside watching the US forces roll unstoppable down a righteous and swift path towards Baghdad spoke longingly of his deepest desire or trembling at his greatest fear.
THE DESERT NEAR CAIRO, 1987
Did I mention the heat? Did I mention the sand?
Did I mention that everyone had a copy of a little red book? A just-published paperback called Red Storm Rising. It was everywhere. Speculative fiction, but Clancy got it right. And we were Clancy's military and damn proud of it. Light years from the low point of doubt on the brink of despair to which the seventies brought us; exemplified by the wreckage of a helicopter at a lonely spot called Desert One. By 1987 we knew we were the best; and three years later we would prove it beyond all doubt in the sands of Iraq and Kuwait, although one year before that we would realize our greatest triumph, the breaking of the Berlin Wall.
One of Clancy's unlikely heroes in that book was a weather officer, an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. Yes, the military has its own weather people, both up front and center and in the rear with the gear. More accurately, actually, with the commander. Of course, weather, as much as anything, brought about the tragedy of Desert One. An unforecast dust storm rendered the area inhospitable to military operations. Rumor has it that the commander of the Air Force Global Weather Center lost his job over that.
Weather for Egypt in 1987 was hot.
Weather in Korea forever was too hot in summer, too cold in winter, and too rainy in the rainy season.
Baghdad in 2003 is also hot. In March a dust storm would briefly halt the advance of the Army and Marines. However, there's a big difference between this and Desert One in that this event was forecast well in advance and thoroughly planned for; very focused ops would continue where the weather would allow. Still this didn't stop an overly excitable media from gleefully making it's first attempts at depicting a "quagmire". (Not until the rescue of Jessica Lynch would they take a brief pause from bashing the planners. Soon thereafter they would even attack that great moment with vigor.) In a similar vein in 1990-91 the media and their "experts" would claim repeatedly that US "high tech weapons" would prove useless in the blinding sands. The assumption was we had learned nothing since 1980. We had, but Tom Clancy was the only person writing about it.
We know the Desert. We were learning it thoroughly in 1987 and for several years prior. We know the weather of the Desert and we use it as best we can to our own very lethal advantage.
"War is a matter of vital importance to the state; a matter of life or death, the road either to survival or to ruin. Hence, it is imperative that it be studied thoroughly.
Therefore, appraise it in terms of the five fundamental factors and make comparisons of the various conditions of the antagonistic sides in order to ascertain the results of a war. The first of these factors is politics; the second, heaven; the third, terrain; the fourth, the commander; and the fifth, doctrine. Politics means the thing which causes he people to be in harmony with their ruler so that they will follow him in disregard of their lives and without fear of any danger. Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, fine days and rain, and change of seasons. Terrain means distances, and refers to whether the ground is traversed with ease or difficulty and to whether it is open or constricted, and influences your chances of life or death. The commander stands for the general's qualities of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness. Doctrine is to be understood as the organization of the army, the gradations of rank among the officers, the regulations of supply routes, and the provision of military materials to the army...
...If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete."
THE DESERT NEAR CAIRO, 1987
"Where's the weather guy?"
"Anybody seen the LT?"
Panic mode is near. A few folks are scrambling, more will be soon.
"He's got three minutes..."
The briefing to the Commander will commence in three minutes, and the weather guy is always first.
"If he don't show up on time we start without the sumbitch."
Meaning if he doesn't show up on time he will be a sumbitch.
We are, after all, in a relatively small tent city. This mission brief like all the briefs before it has been scheduled well in advance. There are no traffic jams or flat tires or alarm clocks to worry about on the way to work. It's one of the great benefits of being deployed.
I turn to the guy beside me. Quietly: "Where is he?"
"Hiding in the shitter, finishing his charts."
"He should of had 'em done..."
"It's weather. It changes."
"Yea, okay, sure." Check watch. "One minute."
The field latrines are wonderful here. By wonderful I mean nowhere near wonderful. Wooden frames with canvas hanging from them surround a hole in the ground beneath a long wooden bench with four holes cut into the top of it. A great equalizer as the lowest ranking guy can find himself elbow to elbow with the commander if his timing is just right. Not the place you would want to work by choice, but our intrepid weather officer just needs a little more time.
The Weather NCO is standing by to brief in his place, but he hasn't been able to find the briefing charts. Suspicion is that he knows exactly where the LT and his charts are but his lips are sealed.
The tent flap parts and the LT hurries in, poster boards under his arm. The boards go on to an easel in front of an array of camp chairs and he stands at parade rest beside it. Occupying the chairs are the top dogs from each section. Within this tent life or death decisions will be made.
The First Sergeant: "Gentleman, the commander."
Everyone in the tent stands.
"Be seated..., as you were..., good morning!" The boss enters and sits. ""Little trouble in the latrine this morning, LT? I know how you feel. A few weeks of this food does that to a guy."
Laughter through the tent, not too loud. The LT, sheepishly, smiling, "Yes sir."
"Well, if you're okay now then go ahead."
Stronger voice now: "Yes sir." and the briefing begins on time, like clockwork. "It's hot." More laughter, but then everything turns serious. There's a big mission tonight and weather may be a factor with a possibility of fog for takeoff.
Now nobody's smiling. Visibility below one half mile is a no go for takeoff, at least for exercise purposes.
The Boss: "So how bad will it be?"
LT: "Should be okay, but just by a skosh. Intermittent conditions could bring us down briefly..."
"Got it. Thanks. Anyone else with questions for the LT?" Of course there are not. If there were questions to ask The Boss would have asked them. Still a brief silent pause before "Okay then, Intel is up. Watcha got?"
And like magic a different LT is now up and briefing. Weather briefs the obstacles nature will throw in the way of the mission, Intel briefs their expectations of the intensity of the enemies opposition to our activities. Since this is an exercise, the Intel portion is scripted, but everyone engages in a bit of "make believe" for the sake of reality.
"So you are telling me those SAM sites are likely gone?"
"And you don't think the bad guys moved more in overnight..."
"We don't think they had anything in range that wasn't already dedicated..."
"But they did have some they could have moved if they wanted?"
"Yes sir, but..."
"It's a WAG, LT, I know. Good enough. Your efforts are appreciated. You're doing great stuff"
A WAG is an acronym for a Wild-Ass Guess.
"WAGS are us, sir" Says the LT as he pulls his last chart from the easel.
"You and the weather guy both" adds The Boss.
"Sir," pipes in the weather LT, "we do SWAGS."
Heads turn to the weather guy, now in the back of the room.
"Scientific wild-ass guess..."
Brief laughter, then "I think it's more art then science, LT. Okay Chuck, maintenance issues. Go."
The maintenance officer has a slightly easier job here, his information is concrete. A busted helo is a busted helo, and there is an art and science to explaining to The Boss why something that was broken yesterday is still broken today.
It's the weather and intel part that throws the degree of uncertainty into operations. Those in the know understand this uncertainty is there. Decisions, nonetheless, must be made. This is a responsibility of command, this is "why they get the big bucks". No one anywhere expects a perpetual one-hundred percent accuracy from the weather forecast. It's guidance, and anyone with a vague grasp of chaos theory knows a small part of the things that can go wrong.
The degree of uncertainty vanishes only in hindsight. A weather forecast, like intelligence analysis, is not "bad" before the fact. It is a known best guess. An attempt is made to bridge a chasm of ignorance with as many facts as possible, but rarely if ever, is that bridge complete. Usually a leap of faith is required, and until the leap is actually taken the length of the gap is not known.
"In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a scarce man, brave, hated, and scorned. When his cause succeeds however, the timid join him, For then it costs nothing to be a patriot." -- Mark Twain
If only that were still true! Because the gap is always there. A timid or cowardly person would never take that leap. A vulture would immediately heap scorn on any heroic failure, but now these same vile cowards would even criticize a successful jumper after the fact. Those who must jump should pity the timid (who may gather their courage and make the jump themselves having seen the example) and simply ignore as best as possible the reprehensible actions of the rest, except as they may influence the decisions of the hesitant. That their poisonous taunts could paralyze a generation or more is unacceptable to any person of true courage. But perhaps among the wise the brave one's example is the best counter to this.
And that is true of every decision made in life. Leaders know when to jump, when to wait, and when to jump even though waiting seems the more attractive course.
Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt said it best.
"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
The Nile Delta is close enough that fog forming there rolls in to our location. We are now officially "socked in", a pre-dawn grey world where visibility is near zero.
Sound travels though. Right now the sound of a large aircraft running up its engines while sitting on the end of the runway nearby drowns out everything else. This mission is weather delayed. Take off should have occurred a few minutes before, but visibility of at least one half mile is required before this plane can launch. The fog is lifting, but too slowly, and we are just approaching one-quarter mile now.
The plane is a C130 Gunship, a classic old bird modified for special ops. This is an exercise, a training mission, but still important, and dependent on several things all happening simultaneously. Delay is unacceptable.
A weather observer is standing near the runway. Everything now waits on his call. He holds a radio and is in constant contact with the aircrew and the ground control. Calls to him are repeated and of increasing urgency.
"Weather one, ground, vis check?"
"Ground, weather one, still holding one quarter..."
Repeated again and again until
"Weather one, ground, now?"
"Lifting a little, but still officially..."
Then a change in the pitch of the engine sound, and the plane is accelerating down the runway. Never seen but heard, roaring off into the Egyptian sky.
No more time to wait for Allah to will the fog away...
The observer returns to the weather station and begins to fill out the form that documents the "official" weather at takeoff. Anything less then one half mile in this form could be evidence of wrong doing on the part of the air crew, but would certainly absolve the observer of any culpability should something have gone wrong.
Someone else enters the tent "I can't see my hand in front of my face out there. What's the visibility? I can't believe those guys took off..."
"Just a skosh over a half mile at takeoff."
"You gotta be kidding me."
"It went back down just after they launched."
The weather observation is now fully documented, "on paper" and official. The observer starts making coffee. Hot water over instant coffee from an MRE.
"Hope it lifts before they come back." Says the visitor.
"Probably will." Says the observer. Takeoffs are easy, landings are tougher, but all planes that launch do return to the ground. "Sun will be up before then and burn this off. Want some coffee?"
PANMUNJOM, KOREA, 1990
Just past dawn. The only fog is in my head, having been in the happy mountain club a few short hours before. The weather in Seoul is good too.
Which is a blessing for the guys in the formation near by, practicing and prepping for the big Dog-and-Pony show for the VVIP visit.
The visit that I know has been cancelled. Weather in Seoul is good, weather here is good, but somewhere in between the weather is below minimum acceptable for helicopters to transport a VVIP.
Or so I'm told. Weather is a handy reason to change plans, isn't it? Weather is a great excuse for delays too. The force of nature reduces the need to punish a person for whatever went wrong. Or eliminates any need to further explain a last minute change of plans.
Still, a big disappointment for the guys in the formation. And for their commander, who I must now inform that his big day in the sun has been cancelled by clouds somewhere else. This is the front line though, the tip of the spear, so his disapointment will only be in relation to the lost time that could have been spent on other activities.
One makes concessions though, for the Secretary of Defense. Surely he'll have other opportunities to visit the DMZ, but I'm sure the Honorable Mr. Cheney is equally disappointed, probably more so. But I imagine he's a pragmatic man, one who knows all to well the occasional and inevitable setbacks and obstacles that weather and intel will throw in the way of operations.
And seemingly always will be. Some things never change.
As for me, I wouldn't trade my time on the DMZ for anything.
But now it's time I get breakfast then it's back on the road for a nice long Humvee ride to Seoul.
EPILOGUE: AN AIRPORT IN AMERICA IN THE 21st CENTURY
The airline employee looks me in the eye and hands me back my ticket and tells me my connection is delayed due to "weather in Dallas." An amazingly brazen effort in these days of internet and 24-hour cable weather. Everyone gets a weather brief now. The weather in Dallas is fine, was fine, and will be fine for the foreseeable future.
"ohhh..." I say. "Okay." What point in saying more? Choose your battles carefully. Those are indeed wise words to live by.
"We're sorry for the inconvenience sir."
"No problem, no hurry." I say, and proceed to my gate. I've brought along a book to read anyhow. Lately it seems I never have time for reading.
Clancy's latest perhaps. Light reading, to be sure, certainly nothing as dramatic as this:
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."
Teddy Roosevelt again. Speech before the Hamilton Club, Chicago, April 10, 1899.
Some things never change...