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The Problem With War Elephants

Posted by Bob Kohm on September 15, 2010

War elephants enjoyed a short vogue in the military history of the Mediterranean World , most famously in Hannibal’s Crossing. The very smell of the snorting, thrashing mountains of military might scared the hell out of even seasoned battle horses and caused outright panic amongst tightly ordered battle-lines from Sicily to Persia. Elephants held the potential to be a tremendously powerful weapon in an era where victory depended on maintaining a common front, but for all its power it had a major problem. The problem with the war elephant was that it was a danger to everyone on the field, not just the army putatively controlling it– war elephants released on the battlefield were as likely to inspire panic or trample holes through friendly lines as they were those of the enemy.

Ring a bell?

The GOP, party of the elephant, has for the past two years deployed to political battlefields its own snorting, thrashing mountain of militancy and might– the Tea Party. With the end of the 2008 campaign, it became clear that there was an undercurrent of serious dismay in American politics that the newly out of power GOP needed to tap into in order to regain political traction. After an orgy of disparagement against then-Governor Palin by the RNC regulars, it similarly became apparent that Ms. Palin had an uncommon staying power on the battlefield and that she would not be easy to corral. The logical thought was to energize and, more importantly, weaponize that staying power by connecting it to the undercurrent of anti-government feeling that was already present. The Republican War Elephants had been enlisted.

When the 2009 Congressional Session broke for its traditional summer recess, the GOP released its war elephants onto the battlefield. Across the nation the usually dull array of town hall meetings were set and held in home districts, but with one difference this year– they would be discussing an extremely expensive health care bill that had been demagogued by Sarah Palin and others in the newly emerging Tea Party movement as “socialist” and “unAmerican”. Into this fray were spurred the elephants, trampling headlong into town hall meetings nationwide, shouting down the speakers, panicking the supporters of the plan and the general populace with bellows of “Death Panels”. While the elephants were upon the field no order could be maintained, no line could hold. It was impossible to refute them for the sheer fact that their energy and their volume drowned out any response either in the meetings or in the media.

At the time, the war elephant looked the perfect weapon for the RNC. They made the mistake that so many generals from the Persian Wars to the Punic Wars had made before them– they thought that they could control their elephants. As we’ve come to see, they were wrong.

The 2010 midterm elections are the most critical battlefield the GOP has fought upon in more than a decade, facing the prospect of continued Democratic rule for the next six years if they fail to make an inroad into the President’s party’s control of the House & Senate. It is a year where a disciplined assault on the Democrats should produce large scale wins for the Republicans and, indeed, it appeared that the GOP was on course to precisely that goal in the spring. Bad things started happening, though– first in isolated incidents in places like Nevada, but then more frequently in spots the nation over. The war elephants of the Tea Party continued to break loose upon battlefields where their use was never intended and the panic they spread reached far beyond the Democrats in the lines and struck deep into the heart of the GOP establishment. Over the past few days we’ve seen Republicans all but abandon their hopes for a Senate takeover with the elephantine demonstrations of the Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint endorsed O’Donnell campaign in Delaware, culminating in the destruction of the GOPs party line in last night’s primary. New York GOP stalwart Rick Lazio was trampled into paste by Carl Paladino in the Gubernatorial Primary. In New Hampshire and even more chaotic battle of the elephants has broken out, with Jim DeMint backed Ovide Lamontagne still looking as though he might defeat Sarah Palin backed Kelly Ayotte in a case of elephants crashing into each other and giving the Democrat, Rep. Paul Hodes, bolstered hopes of picking up the retiring and oh so establishment Judd Gregg’s seat. With Sharon Angle off in the deserts of Nevada explaining why Social Security should be dismantled and Rand Paul continuing to be a gaffe factory (albeit a poll leading one) in Kentucky, the unpredictability and, more importantly, uncontrollability of these elephants unleashed by the GOP may prove once again why uncontrollable beasts are so dangerous to bring onto the battlefield; they are the embodiment of the law of unintended consequences.

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Posted in American History, American Politics, Cultural Phenomena | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Is the Sky Our New Limit?

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 17, 2009

I was at our pool club the other day when I heard a man of about 40 say those immortal words to an unruly child– “Back when I was a kid, we wouldn’t have dreamed of disobeying our parents!”. After my kids and his were out of earshot, I conspiratorially mentioned to him that back in my day I wouldn’t have dreamed of obeying my parents if I thought there was any chance of getting away with it, giving us both a chuckle at being the newest members of the I’ve Become My Father Club.

We often get lost and wallow in nostalgia when things aren’t quite the way we want them to be in the present; it’s probably our most commonly used emotional crutch and one we’ve all been indoctrinated in by the universal “back in my day…” musings of our forebears. Generally the facts don’t hold true to the sentiments– things weren’t really so peachy under Reagan or Kennedy or Roosevelt or Wilson when you get right down to it, no more or less so than they are in whatever present their names and eras were invoked.

There is at least one realm, however, where I can’t escape the belief that things were oh so much better in the early 60’s, and that is the sense of man’s unlimited potential. Watch this video and tell me if you can recapture that spirit right now if you lived through these events, or if you can even imagine it if , like me, you didn’t.

Billions of words have been spilt upon the 60’s, of course, and so I’ll limit mine to remarking how amazing the changes embodied in those 10 years were, from the unbridled hope and dreams of the early years to the tumult and despair of the ending years.

Space exploration seems the perfect metaphor for the dialing back of our dreams that happened during those years. The Kennedy proclamation that we were going to do the extremely difficult, that we were going to the moon within the decade, is the kind of proclamation that today would be immediately obliterated under the weight of words from the blogosphere, from the media and from the Congress. The discussion of going to Mars hasn’t captured the popular imagination– in fact, it isn’t something that most kids would even know was on the table.

The problem seems to be that we’ve become enamored of the incremental rather than the revolutionary. Kennedy proposed something that skipped so many steps as to be breathtaking– he didn’t get lost in the ephemera of cost benefit analysis or the reality of the many steps between the speech and the landing– he boldly declared an endgame and demanded a  process that would get us there rather than implementing a process that could someday find its way beyond our gravitational pull. In this instance Kennedy wasn’t a man invested in escaping the bonds of gravity, he was  a man who simply didn’t care to be bound.

Since July 20, 1969 we have been gripped by what we think of as reality but which might be more reasonably classified as a miasma of doubt. The day that Armstrong and Aldrin stepped upon the fine powder of a world beyond Terra was the day that an instantly fossilized footprint was laid in the lunar sand, not the day that our first bold steps towards the galaxy were laid. They were the high water mark of an era of hope which receded with the liftoff of the LEM back to the lunar orbiter, an era which, to be fair, had ended years before Apollo 11 ever lifted off. In the resounding roar of the engines of that Saturn V were the echoes of the post war ear of dreams, sounding across the Florida swamps and triggering not the vague stirrings of nostalgia for a distantly remembered past but the desperate grasp for one tantalizingly just out of reach, a ledge grabbed for an instant after the teeter became the fall.

The fall ended in a vat of goo that softened the landing but has clung to us and restrained our reach. The space program sank into the sludge that the rest of our country was submerged in as lunar landings became passe and the next great adventure, Skylab, never really became anything but a punchline. What started to pass for leaps forward weren’t manned strides out into the solar system but hobbled paces like the robotic probes and then the Space Shuttle. Each of those could have been important steps if they were indeed steps towards a goal, but in truth they weren’t. As dramatic as reaching out and landing on Mars for the first time could have been, Viking was an anti-climax– a robot that took a few pictures and died, fulfilling its limited design specs. Even the Space Shuttle was an anti-climax, literally a space truck that delivered satellite cargo into low orbit and landed to be refit for its next cargo delivery. At least it looked like a space ship, to an extent. It couldn’t go to the moon, it couldn’t take us to Mars, but at least it wasn’t just a conical tin can atop a rocket. It was something but, honestly, was never a huge reach. It led to the construction of a failed orbital station that has proven to be not even the modest next step it was supposed to be, a breakthrough-possible lab and perhaps construction station for extra-terran missions, but rather an expensive, orbiting Edsel that holds a very few people in orbit for a few months at a time.

To my mind the one bright spot, the one glimpse in my lifetime of the possibility of man as embodied by the reach into the sky beyond our own, was Hubble. Hubble allowed us not so much to dream as to wonder why we suddenly weren’t, a glimpse into the heavens and perhaps literally into Heaven, a Heaven of unsuspected and unimagined delicacy and grace where even the greatest celestial furnaces burning with a heat beyond the imagination of Dante were objects of breathtaking beauty. Hubble made us ask once more what was out there and reawakened in some of us a desire to find out, even if that quest led beyond our lifespan and into a dreamed future. It literally made the nebulous tangible.

Perhaps as important was the fact that we were able to service and improve Hubble over the years, demonstrating that space wasn’t outside of human reach but was in fact a place we could work, a realm in which we could do what we as humans fundamentally do– manipulate our environment. Four times we reached out to service and improve Hubble, recognizing the fundamental worth to mankind of dreams. Our waking eyes saw the costs and limits of space, but in the never-ending night of orbital space our dream continued to project its images into our lives.

That we had to debate the mission that extended the life of Hubble earlier this spring epitomizes the battle between those two existences, that of our budget conscious day and our limitless night. The bright lights of night won out, with caution and pessimism thrown to the wind and the mission, one of extraordinary difficulty and more than what some considered acceptable risk, executed perfectly. That the mission happened proves that the dreams live and that their value has won a column in the often seemingly heartless spreadsheet of our existence.

We have not overcome our incremental and limited existence, either in space or in our national life. The replacement for the Shuttle is a return to the conical tin can atop the rocket, a huge disappointment for most who love space and see a role for man in it, but one which may yet surprise and take us to a place where we touch the dream instead of merely glimpsing it on the fringes of consciousness. Private space travel seems to be becoming a reality, even if the suborbital flights of the Rutans of the world are a return to the days of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd. It must be recalled that we went from Kitty Hawk to space in a span of 58 years; who knows how little time it might take the visionaries of the private sector to catch and exceed the realities of NASA, the ESA, the Russians and the other governmental space players even starting from the notional point of the 1961 push into space.

I refuse to consider the sky our new limit. I can only hope that others will, too.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, History, Space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Rap on The Lack of MRAPs

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 10, 2009

CNN reports this morning that IED bombings have increased by 1000% in Afghanistan over the past month, a shocking number but perhaps not a shocking development given the likely migration of skilled bomb makers from the Iraq front of the war to the Afghan one. The use of improved IEDs employing shaped charges and molten jets to defeat armored vehicles seems to confirm this suspicion.

With the recent introduction of thousands of Marines to the theater and the southern offensive which is being undertaken by the Corps, hits against extremely vulnerable Hummvees are on the rise. The Hummvee was a Cold War design, made to shuttle officers and equipment around the conventional battlefields of Central Europe, not the guerilla deserts and mountains of this war. It’s manifest deficiencies for this type of war were made crystal in the midstage of the Iraq Campaign, with the rush to deploy MRAPs (Mine Resistant, Ambush Proof) heavy vehicles  as replacement for the Hummvees that were getting blown away with alarming regularity.

So, why have the Marines deployed without sufficient MRAPs even with the certain knowledge that Hummvees are a death trap for the Marines using them? The standard line echoes Donald Rumsfeld’s line about fighting with the force you have rather than the one you want– we needed the Corps in there now and they, as they always do, met that call and deployed light. The real truth, though, is a bit more complex.

The first element is that MRAPs are wildly expensive relative to the mission that they are designed to carry out– light hauling, command mobility, patrol, and reconnaissance. The Hummvee did that job at less than $200,000 per copy (albeit, not well…); the average MRAP’s tag is well north of $1,000,000. Given the huge fleet of these “light” wheeled vehicles an army needs– they’re literally the commuter cars of the force– that is running into very serious money. Complicating that is the rush to design, build and deploy these monsters– the production infrastructure is still being built up and production capacity dialed in; it is hoped that by December we can crank out 1000 of these things per month, but right now we’re looking at a number closer to 50 per month. They’re also a bitch to move around– they’re heavy, big, and unwieldly; you can move many fewer on a standard transport than you could Hummvees.

That doesn’t bring us to the biggest problem of MRAPs in Afghanistan, though– the fact is that they don’t work well there in the craggy, mountainous terrain that they’ll have to handle. As I mentioned, these things are hulks with poor visibility. Imagine driving a Hummer H1 along, say, the Pacific Coast Highway– it’s a twisty narrow road, high on a cliff and your vehicle is extremely wide and has crappy visibility. Sound like fun? Now make the road narrower by two thirds, put it much higher on a cliff, make your visibility much worse and add bombs, RPGs, and other infantry nastiness to the mix. MRAPs are both necessary for operations in Afghanistan and a nightmare for operations in Afghanistan.

Financially, logistically, and strategically we are not at a point where we can simply redesign vehicles for every theater of operations we operate in; the sad fact is that to fight in Afghanistan we’re going to have to accept a higher level of casualties from IED until we can find a better way to deal with the IED threat.

Posted in Afghanistan, American History, terrorism, Warfare | 1 Comment »

The Things History Forgets

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 8, 2009

There is an amazing story running at Wired Magazine today (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/07/luna-audio/) detailing what may be the greatest story of the Space Race era– one that I’d never heard before.

The Space Race is one of the most detailed chronicles in modern history, both in the popular culture realm (The Right Stuff comes immediately to mind) and in countless tomes of historical works. We know all about Sputnik and Explorer, about Laika the Soviet space dog and Able and Baker the American space monkeys, about Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard. The early years of the race were tit for tat, an exchange of feats and breakthroughs that pitted the US & Soviets in a tight race for the ultimate high ground. When John Kennedy announced that America would go to the moon within ten years the race actually ratcheted up even as it went a bit more covert, especially on the Soviet side of things. I don’t need to tell you these things, though– you know them, and that’s the point. We all know just about all there is to know about the drama of the early years of space exploration.

Oh, except for the fact that the Soviets tried to upstage the Apollo 11 moon landing by putting their own unmanned lander on the lunar surface first while Apollo 11 was in lunar orbit and then again while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface, with the Soviet lander ultimately crashing close to the Tranquility Base site that our own lander was sitting on.

According to the story (and the accompanying original audio recordings) astronomers at a British observatory were monitoring transmissions from the moon when they discovered that a Soviet orbiter, Luna 15, had dramatically changed its orbit while Apollo 11 was in orbit and then, after the landing, had made a radical change to get very close to the lander. Apparently that day a “reliable rumor” emerged from Moscow that Luna 15 would land, retrieve lunar rock samples, and return to Earth, demonstrating not only that the Sovs were the equals of the Americans but that they were far ahead in robotics and, presumably, in humanity as they could do what we did without putting lives at risk. It all went awry, however, on July 21st with panicked broadcasts from a Soviet mission control center that Luna was landing but was coming in much too fast, according to Wired & the recording. Luna smashed into the lunar surface and was obliterated, ending what could have been the most dramatic chapter in the competition.

As fascinating as the story of Apollo 11-Luna 15 is, what interests me even more is how this story was lost to history for 40 years. The recordings of the events, monitored at Jordell Bank Observatory in the UK, were put in the ever-popular drawer and lost. There was no problem of classified materials, no effort to obscure the facts, no cover-up. History, in this case, was simply misplaced and stumbled upon 40 years later when someone was doing research for a tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, a story that could have been radically different.

When a story that we know so well, that was so well documented can have an unsuspected component of the magnitude of this one you have to question all events in human history and accept the concept that even the best known history may not accurately reflect the facts in their totality. The temptation to question the history of events that would have shown a strategic benefit to obscure– the story of FDR knowing that Pearl Harbor was coming would be a good example– gets new life in light of something like this, and the saw that victors write the history gains emphasis. That history, especially military and security history, can be intentionally obscured, distorted, or had false emphasis placed upon aspects of it is no secret; that benign history can be so greatly impacted by simply tossing something hugely important in a drawer and forgetting about it for decades is breathtaking if not, perhaps, surprising to the historian.

The Race to the Moon almost had a dramatically different– and largely unsuspected– outcome. It has often been said that history is a guide, but it is also an area as worthy of reasearch as science and mathematics; just as man has confronted in the past unique and challenging situations, so to do we now and shall we do again. Knowing how we actually met those situations informs how we can do so the next time we are faced with one, and that is a road map worth having.

Posted in American History, History, NASA, Space | 1 Comment »

An Even Happier St. Patty’s Day

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 17, 2009

On this day, a day that all of America takes on the green of Ireland, we have a little present for our Irish brethren across the sea– we’re goign to teach you a bit about real football. President Obama has just named Dan Rooney– yes, that Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers– as the Ambassador of the United States to Ireland. Not only do you get a prince, you get one who knows the difference between soccer and football!

Posted in American History, American Politics, European Union, Obama Cabinet | 2 Comments »

Where Are the Wizards?

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 17, 2009

It has been said that the line between magic and technology is located where the common person can look at a system and have no idea of not just how it functions, but why it functions. I cannot build an internal combustion engine (hell, I can barely change a spark plug), but I can look at one and figure out how it works, at least in broad strokes. Looking at a circuit board, however, isn’t going to provide and spark in my brain that will tell me how the computer I’m writing this on works, how my 46″ big screen is showing Handy Manny at this moment, or how I can talk to someone in Peru or Vietnam by dialing 13 digits into the phone the board may have come from. It is complex beyond my ability to ascertain, and I must simply rely upon it to work, to reply upon others to provide the networks upon which it draws, and to build be a new one when this one fails. Before it was retired in April of 2008, Air Force pilots had to rely upon their computers to make constant adjustments to the flight surfaces of their Stealth Fighters to keep the unaerodynamic Nighthawks in the air. Think about that– is there a higher presumed expert on the science and craft of flying than a trained US Air Force pilot? Even their skills and expertise could not keep an F-117 in the air; they had to rely upon a system with more expertise than they could ever hold. The trust inherent in relying upon these gadgets and systems of gadgets is awesome when you consider it, especially in those cases when even the “experts” are outside of their capacity in understanding and manipulating them, as in the Air Force example.

But is that trust warranted?

Much like my laptop and the Internet (series of tubes…?) themselves, our financial system is complex beyond simple understanding, even by the “experts”. The derivative nightmares that have crashed our economy were not the product of a bunch of execs sitting in a room trying to come up with a better way to make money but rather the end product of extraordinarily complex mathematical formulae that redefined risk in a way so out of keeping with realistic definitions of the concept as to have made these bundled junk loans look like an asset worthy of investment. Take those instruments and throw them into a milieu that sees incredibly complex markets interacting with complex personal decisions and trending, with overseas financial and security needs and philosophies, with complex logistical realities mandated by our “just in time” systems of inventory management amongst a host of other complexities and intangibles. Once you’ve done that, take a look at some of our experts on that overarching economic system– say Alan Greenspan, Paul Krugman, Larry Summers, Zhou Xiaochuan, and Daniel McFadden– and understand that they have wildly divergent opinions of not only how to fix the system but in fact on how the system works and exists at all.

This is a system so complex that, although we rely on it for fundamentals such as food delivery, power generation and medical care, nobody does completely– can completely– understand it. We are assured by many “experts” that they have a handle on this thing, that they can tame and manipulate it to our universal benefit, that they can shield us from its temper tantrums and benefit us from its soaring successes… they think.

The same is true of so many systems in the world in which we live– can the President be expected to understand and process the self-interests of the many nations on the planet when they are all just guessing at their own self-interests? And if we can not hold that expectation, then are we prepared to accept that judgements made on war and peace are made in a manner that must ultimately be accepted as uniformed?

We are at a point in our societal evolution where our artificial systems have merged with natural systems with ultimately unpredictable and uncontrollable outcomes becoming more the norm; it has long been a favored chestnut of science fiction writers, but the reality is truly emerging now into the public consciousness as a result of the financial crisis. What the implication of that will be for the future remains to be seen, but we cannot get to that point until we accept the concept that experts on these systems are not wizards and that while they can make educated guesses, they cannot speak with the authority that an expert on civil engineering can speak on bridge construction; to take anything they say as a firm prediction of probability may be a stretch; taking them as gospel is insanity.

It seems we have extended and expanded our reality right back to the point of trial and error. Welcome to the Nineteenth Century, circa 2009.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, Economy, education, Mathematics | 3 Comments »

Sometimes There’s Never a Right Time

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 12, 2009

I had an interesting email exchange the other day with a friend who just returned from his second tour as the commander of first an infantry platoon and then an infantry company in the Afghan Theater of the war. We were discussing the resurgence of the Taliban, their improving tactics and the general difficulty of fighting in Afghanistan when the quality of our own troops came up.

As a commander, he is quite satisfied with the quality of men and women that he commands in the field; morale is showing some frays over the issue of multiple combat tours that always seem to get extended just when people start to believe they’re about to go home, but that’s been true of America’s wars for a century. While on the topic of morale, I broached the third rail of personnel issues for the Army, especially– soldiers who are gay.

Don’t ask, don’t tell has become a punchline in the military and the popular culture both. Only fools believe that gay and lesbian personnel aren’t a part of every company, every ship’s crew, every squadron; simple math tells you that the demographic distribution of gay Americans mandates that gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are members of every sizable unit of our Armed Forces. More commonly known amongst military personnel as “Ask, Don’t Tell” for the way the program is actually administered, the policy has been exposed to the hypocrisy that lies at its foundation over the past several years of war, which have seen dismissals from the service under the Don’t Ask rubric decline from the pre-war years– when the military needs specialists who happen to be gay, it seems, they don’t quite pursue their dismissal with the vigor that they do in peacetime.

My friend is sympathetic to the overall cause of openly integrating the force, but he falls back on a common refrain amongst even progressive military thinkers on the topic– you don’t do anything that might cause upheaval within the ranks during time of war. On the surface, that is a seemingly eminently logical point. Wartime is not the time for social engineering, it is a time for boosting morale and getting maximum performance from the troops. Anything that distracts from that goal is an unwelcome distraction, indeed. Why dispose of a policy that, if flawed, has kept something of a lid on the entire situation for fifteen years now?

The liberal knee jerk response is “Because it’s the right thing to do”, of course, and in a vacuum they are right– we know that segregation and bigotry is a fool’s errand as witnessed by the racial segregation our own nation experienced between the Civil War and Civil Rights. Outside of that vacuum, though, that argument isn’t nearly as compelling– even Abraham Lincoln dispatched with a cherished founding stone of our nation, the writ of habeas corpus, due the the exigencies of the Civil War itself, so “because it’s the right thing to do” doesn’t carry as much weight during this time of war due to precedent.

That dismissal, though, is countered to an extent by the excesses of the current war that have found protective coloration in precisely the habeas corpus argument; Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques”, extraordinary rendition, denial of lawyers and “new” interpretations of the Geneva Convention as it relates to the definition of “prisoners of war” are all beneficiaries of the Bush Administration’s willingness to relax not only our Constitution but also our uncodified standards of conduct. We were collectively complicit in that relaxation, of course– it is far too easy to wash our own hands of culpability and assign the blame to an unpopular President while forgetting that he was elected by the people to represent us and that, truthfully, many of us were so outraged and so angry in the time following 9-11 that even though we may have talked about how much we hated what Bush was doing we went ahead and re-elected him with an even larger share of the vote. American Democracy has eroded as a concept due to the excesses of the Bush Administration, but we can at least stop it from eroding to the point of football, where all ills are blamed on the quarterback even if the fault lies with the coaching staff or the defensive line. Yes, I am amongst those who spoke out against the Bush policies as did many people, who worked or gave money for Kerry and Obama, who worked to elect progressive Congressmen and other elected officials, but I am also an American and that is the overarching reality of all of our lives– we are part of a collective, part of a nation, and we must see reflected in our own eyes its flaws as well as its benefices if we are to be honest with ourselves.

So too, then, must we recognize that there will never be a right time to deny rights, dignity, responsibilities and privileges shared by most Americans to any subset of Americans based on parochial beliefs or even what some might see as demonstrable facts. We are one people in blame as we are one people in right, and as one people it is beyond our honest ability to deny rights ostensibly shared by all to the few. Amongst those responsibilities and privileges is the ability to serve our country in uniform if one so chooses, a right and privilege currently denied any homosexual who chooses to live as themselves rather than in the closet. Yes, allowing openly gay members to serve in the military may cause some minor disruptions in the force structure, but we already have a much larger issue of integration to inform us as to what we can expect– the largely seamless integration of African American soldiers into “regular” units of the military during the Truman Administration. Naysayers predicted catastrophe as a result of unit integration– remember, this was a time when legal integration was still very much a reality in the American South, so making the military much less ready to accept black troops than it is to accept gay troops today. The predictions of mutinies, readiness level declines and other dire events never came to pass, of course, and assuming that they would today over integration of openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines is rendered even sillier given that history.

The military command structure itself has implicitly said this by reducing the number of dismissals for homosexuality during the war. The generals & admirals have spoken– dismissing gay troops would cause a greater force disruption than leaving them in place in many cases, as witnessed by the hesitance over the last four years in particular to make a dismissal cases against homosexuals, especially those serving in the technical, intelligence, and language sectors of the military where these men and women serve not only with honor but hold skills and talents integral to the successful waging of the current war.

There will never be a right time to integrate and accept openly gay troops into the force structure– there will always be a compelling argument made by those whom the layman is afraid to challenge on military grounds. The military, however, while being the ultimate guarantor of our safety is also the servant of the people of this nation, not the other way around. Those people must accept that there will never be a right time to deny basic rights to their peers; it is that peer relationship, that we are all Americans under the Constitution, that easily trumps any social, racial, or biological subset we may belong to with the exceptions for cause that are codified under the law (denying felons the vote, preventing the mentally insane judged a hazard to others from owning firearms, and the narrow like).

If a man or woman is willing to protect, defend, and honor their fellow Americans then we are not, as those Americans, too, in a position to deny them. To do so is to redefine the meaning of America in a direction which we have travelled too far and too easily these past seven years. It is time to reclaim our identity, and to do that we must accept that identity is a broad one that embraces all with a birthright to it.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, History, Human Rights, Social Justice, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Shopping and Death on Long Island

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 10, 2009

I have friends, most of them female, sitting shiva in houses across Long Island. They’re losing an old friend, and I feel

The Temple of Shoppig on the Island

The Temple of Shopping on the Island

for them. While they adorn themselves in black designer outfits and pin rended bracelets to their breasts in mourning their husbands are trying to look sad and support them… but they’re all really sneaking downstairs to the family room, smoking cigars and toasting the departure with good whiskey when they say they need to pee.

The object of so much depression is the victim of the recession, not cancer or too much cholesterol. As the recession deepens it has become apparent that even the most sacred of cows is not immune from the abattoir’s knives, and, if you live or ever have lived somewhere between Montauk and Paramus you may have heard the bellowing and bleating coming from the stall in which Fortunoff’s has been dispatched, the dearly departed friend that has called the congregation to mourn together.

How to explain Fortunoff’s to those who haven’t  resided in the NYC Metro area…? OK, imagine a gigantic brownish concrete cube sitting along a road that can only be described as Dante’s Suburban Circle of Hell, then fill its parking lots with Mercedes, with BMWs, with Jaguars and most importantly of all with Cadillacs, lots and lots of Cadillacs, more Cadillacs than you’d see even in Fort Lauderdale around early bird dinner special time in mid-February.

Within the cube, cryptically referred to as “The Source” by its marketing team and by the come-latelies who have only known it as the flagship of “The Source” mall instead of as the stand-alone temple to Long Island taste it was for so many years, are enough high end baubles and textiles to make Martha Stewart not only need to change her foundation garments but to replace them with fine damask panties sewn from materials in the drapery department. Diamond rings available for $5,000 in Manhattan were consumed here like potato chips despite their $8,000 price tags;  sets of china destined to be eaten upon once a year and to otherwise reside in the future dusty basements of affluent newlywed shared floorspace with $3700 espresso machines. If time is money, the watches offered within the tens of yards long display cases cost too much to be bothered with keeping it– anyone who could afford them could surely afford to buy more time when needed.

The floors were packed with ladies, more in Yves St. Laurent or Gucci than in Dolce & Gabbana, ogling multi-carat emeralds, checking the time before their lunch reservation on their Cartier watches. For a store that doesn’t sell clothing but only housewares & jewlery the fashion parade was astounding. On the rare occasion that a man wearing a wedding ring was seen walking the broad aisles alone in any months other than November or December, you could be sure that he had recently been busted with either his secretary or his wife’s best friend; the number of zeroes on the price tag for the bracelet in his sweaty palms was a dead give away as to which.

All that being said, Fortunoff’s was an institution; whether it was so in the tradition of Dix Hills and Bedlam or in the tradition of Harrods is a fairly debated point. It followed the trajectory of New York and ultimately Long Island consumerism– when it started early in the century it was a Mom & Pop cookware store in Brooklyn that grew up and moved to the Island with its clientele (ever wonder how Lynbrook got its name? Reverse the syllables and you have your answer…). With the comfort and affluence that came with suburban life, Fortunoff’s became the much tonier forerunner to the Linens’n’Things that fill the market for housewares today– you wouldn’t dare to think of buying your draperies, your dishes, your bathroom tchotskies anywhere else for fear that Myrna might find a Macy’s label on something when she was rifling your linen closet while ostensibly using the powder room during a fondue party. With the Long Island boom of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties it became an excuse not to trudge all the way into the Diamond District of the city to buy extraordinarily expensive jewelry, completing the nightmare existence of Fortunoff’s for Long Island’s salary men. In time it came to be the arbiter of social standing– if you didn’t keep your wedding registry at Fortunoff’s it denoted you as someone whose friends couldn’t afford the finer things for sale on Long Island, the kiss of social death and surely the wrong way to start off in married life amongst the doyennes of Garden City or the Five Towns. It simply wouldn’t do, it just wouldn’t do at all.

Now, as Long Island’s unbridled economic consumerism seems as far away as the booms that the Concorde used to shed over its beaches, Fortunoff’s long run as the hub of that consumerism has come to an end, leavign a void to be occupied but never filled by Costco, by Macy’s, by Kay Jewelers down the road at the mall. Fortunoff’s is no more, and if you think I’m overstating the case, you should have seen the obituary given Fortunoff’s by last Sunday’s New York Times Long Island Section, complete with lofty quotes from the mourners beset by woe at the loss of their dear friend.

If Fortunoff’s was a temple to greed, excess, and AMEX Gold Cards during its lifetime, though, it was a 100,000 square foot torture chamber for the unlucky kids dragged from their peaceful WiffleBall and ATARI existences to serve at the altar. As one of the victims of sporadic Saturday trips to the Westbury flagship store, I have but one good memory amongst the pain of debates about draperies on the third floor and the endless circling of the kitchen department on the first– for some reason, one never adequately explained or even hinted at, there was an authentic Japanese pachinko machine set smack in the middle of a sea of Royal Doulton and fine Limoges China. Playing with its silver balls, watching them bounce through the pins, was the one thing that provided solace to the souls of the children called there to witness the acquisitive orgy taking place before the gaze of the twin gods Cuisinart and Patek Phillipe… and, in an exercise in cruelty that was the epitome of Fortunoffs to the nine year old boy, they put the god damned thing in the middle of an acre of breakable, wildly expensive dishes. That little boy wearing a CHIPS t-shirt, ToughSkins jeans, tube socks and Pony sneakers still cries out from within the man– Damn you, Fortunoff’s, damn you to liquidation!

Still, though, the passing of any chapter into history, no matter how cherished nor how silly, deserves respect. To those who will miss Fortunoffs, to my parents and the parents and grandparents of my friends, to my brother and sister-in-law, to the legions of little old ladies who struggle daily under the weight of the jewelry they bought there in better times… wanna head a bit down Old Country Road to Ben’s and toast the old girl with a Doctor Brown’s Black Cherry and a half sour from the relish plate, maybe a pastrami on rye? That much I can do for a store and an era in retailing the likes of which we will likely never see again.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, Economy | Leave a Comment »

Quote of the Day, Tuesday February 17

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 17, 2009

“It is ironic that the United States should have been founded by intellectuals, for throughout most of our political history, the intellectual has been for the most part either an outsider, a servant, or a scapegoat.”— Richard Hofstadter, former Columbia University professor and historian

It’s a day that seems richin irony. What can I say?

Posted in American History, Quote of the Day | Leave a Comment »

Ecomonic Warfare or Fiscal Porn?

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 10, 2009

But at this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life. It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money which leads to even more layoffs. And breaking that cycle is exactly what the plan that’s moving through Congress is designed to do. –Barack Obama

Yesterday, Barack Obama finally got back to doing what he does best– taking his case to the people of our nation and rallying them behind policy positions that previous administrations of both stripes have considered to be “above” them, too complex to understand and thus not worth attempting to explain. Suffice it to say that you never would’ve seen George Bush (pick your iteration…) in front of a large crowd of politically unscreened citizens handed microphones to ask questions after being given a straight assessment of the problems facing our economy and the extraordinary tasks that need to be undertaken to quell them. Yesterday in Indiana and today in Florida, however, that is exactly what we have and will see Barack Obama do. Lest you think that these were randomly chosen locales, recall that Indiana and Florida were two of the toughest Red states that flipped to blue in the election, a clear reminder to the Senate and House of who they’re dealing with, politically.

Some of the questions he received yesterday were extremely critical of him and his administration– one was delivered by a woman who identified herself as “…one of those who think you should have a beer with Sean Hannity”– but they were handled with aplomb and humour as the cost of doing business for a President who knows that he will have to deal with detractors head on to gain the trust of a nation. Like him or not, that’s a refreshing…wait for it… change.

Last night Obama went before reporters for a live prime time presser and again handled everything thrown at him, acquitting himself well and making yet another strong case for his particular vision of a stimulus package and the steps needed to fix the economy.

Obama and his aides are not fools– they understand that despite the losses of the Republican Party and the seeming rejection of its philosophies by the voting public, there is still an aftertaste of the conservative fiscal policies that the Bush Admin and the House Republicans, in particular, have  told America that they were practicing for the better part of the last decade. There is a seductiveness to talking about tax cuts and limiting government while ignoring the larger issues that drive the economy and the nation; it’s fiscal porn. Why talk about having to free the liquidity of the credit markets when you can talk about the bliss of a paycheck less encumbered by taxes or the pleasures of getting government “off of your back”? The GOP has engaged in this quite literal application of bread and circuses and has done so well– give the people some extra bread in their weekly take-home while keeping them diverted with asinine wedge issues like gay marriage and putting the Ten Commandments on public property and they conveniently forget to take a look at what Fannie & Freddie are doing. It’s undeniable– and undeniably sad– that this formula has worked politically so well for so long.

What Barack Obama has been giving us, literally, is the opposite of fiscal porn– it is depressingly honest at times, featuring quotes like the above and a constant reminder that “the party is over” or “this is the worst financial crisis we’ve seen since the Great Depression”. Obama is treating us as adults and partners, not only in the problem but in its solution. Not only is this the right thing to do– our grandparents handled the Germans and the Japanese, I think we can handle Goldman Sachs and sovereign wealth funds– it is also the politically smart thing to do. As noted by David Gergen last night on CNN, last week saw the Admin focus entirely on policy and working the hallways at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. They were effective in doing so, getting a fixable stimulus package through the House and then saving a better bill in the Senate, but they also allowed public support for the bill to erode. They gave people like Jim DeMint, Lindsay Graham and Mitch McConnell the media floor to rally against what they saw (often mistakenly, sometimes correctly) as excesses in the bill passed by the House and attempted to make the bill a referendum whose choices were Nancy Pelosi’s “San Francisco Power Bitchery” or the Debbie Does Taxes myth of Republican fiscal responsibility featuring their promise about going down on taxes and the double penetration of cutting spending while shifting focus to social issues.

When given the choice between someone with a plan, an actual way to move forward on a problem, and someone who tells you that the best thing to do is either nothing or, worse, admits the problem and then tries to hand you another that has the illusion of being easier to solve, the choice is clear. Obama has a proactive plan of attack that he’s willing to talk about and allow scrutiny of; he’s been honest enough to say that his plan will sometimes lead into blind alleys or need to be adjusted along the way, and that pain will be felt by all as we move forward. What he describes and the way he describes it is very much akin to a war; the comparisons to FDR have already been made ad nauseum, but it is impossible to not note here the latter-day Fireside Chat ethos of Obama’s town hall events this week and his general willingness to tell us we’re in for a bad ride for the next few years– but also that there is an end to the ride in sight in the distance. The war that Obama describes isn’t a war in the sense that Mr. Bush forced us to grow accustomed to; the war that Mr. Obama lays out has clearly defined goals, a frank assessment of risks and challenges, and a strategy to overcome them. It is also explained as war without fait accompli as a component– in this war, the enemy will fight back and will even win battles. We start this war much as we did World War Two– under attack, shocked and dazed, with an enemy in the field that will be initially superior to our efforts to fight it. We are also uniquely suited to grow in strength throughout the fight and overwhelm the problems facing us as long as we do so in a progressive (little “p” progressive, note) fashion that has us methodically building a foundation and then laying successes atop it until the overall fight is won. We started World War Two with crappy and far too few airplanes, a Navy that needed to be built from the keel up, and tanks that were ten years out of date but with a strong base from which to fix those problems. We start this war similarly challenged, with a fiscal sector in chaos, with corporations running out of date models, with too few and patently lousy tools to manage Wall Street, but with the ability to fix those problems with some discipline and some reassessment and realignment of our priorities.

Obama is our Roosevelt; Geithner & Summers our Marshall & Eisenhower. The fight will be long, but it is on. If that doesn’t sound like fun, though, Ann Coulter is going down on your tax bill over at FoxNews LateNight. Your choice.

Posted in American History, American Politics, CongressCritters, Economy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

What Didn’t Happen on 9-25

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 2, 2009

With the change in Administration we’ve heard an awful lot about what George W. Bush’s sole saving grace is supposed to be: that America was not attacked again for the seven years following 9-11. I’m still left to wonder why.

If we posit that the 9-11 attacks were a sophisticated and complex operation requiring the coordination of scores of attackers, logisticians and money movers then we similarly must posit that al Qaeda was, at least at that time, a sophisticated and complex organization capable of organizing the strikes.

Yet on 9-25 no bombs went off in subway cars or on buses.

al Qaeda was able to attain flight training within the United States for several hijackers. They were also able to coordinate an attack in Afghanistan two days before 9-11 to kill the leader of the Northern Alliance by infiltrating two fake photojournalists into his heavily guarded camp and killing him with a bomb concealed within a working minicam.

Yet on 9-25 no men with simple assault rifles attacked a shopping mall.

The African Embassy bombings were carried out simultaneously on August 7, 1998 in Kenya & Tanzania, using sophisticated explosives mounted in trucks. Although the bomb didn’t penetrate the Embassy perimeter in Dar es Salaam, the truck in Nairobi effectively destroyed the American embassy while the Dar es Salaam truck killed 11 and wounded 86.

Yet on 9-25 nobody staged an attack on a school. In 1999 two teenagers carried out a massacre in a school in Colorado. In 2007 a single student killed 32 at Virginia Tech.

In October of 2000, al Qaeda staged the attack on the USS Cole, blowing a 40 foot hole in an American warship and killing 17 American sailors.

Yet on 9-25 nobody staged an attack on an apartment building.

I’ve always been at a loss to understand what al Qaeda was thinking in the planning of the 9-11 attacks and in their aftermath. The twin attacks in New York and Washington were obviously large scale attacks made to demonstrate that the United States could be attacked and attacked in spectacular fashion. Think back to those dark days on September, 2001; remember how jumpy we all were and how fear had taken hold beneath the veneer of resolution and the layers of outrage that we all wore.

What would’ve happened if two weeks later, just as we all started to get back into our work-a-day routines, a series of low tech, simple operations had been carried out? A suicide bomber detonates himself on a Cleveland bus, as has happened so many times in Israel. A couple of days later a bomb goes off on a BART train in San Francisco. These aren’t sophisticated attacks; if you have the online skills to find this blog you also have the skills to find a site that will show you how to build a simple backpack bomb and carry out this attack. Suddenly going to work is something we fear.

A few days later two men with assault rifles or submachineguns walk up to a schoolyard at recess and mow down the students. The reload twice before the police arive and a hundred kids die. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had a more sophisticated plan requiring far greater logistical overhead. Now we’re afraid to send our kids to school.

A Saturday or two later a pair of gunmen walk into a mall and open up at the foodcourt during lunchtime. Maybe a third lobs a hand grenade or some simple IED into Macys. Now we’re afraid to shop or maybe even go anywhere that people congregate.

At three o’clock Sunday morning a truck bomb goes off after having crashed into the lobby of an apartment building. If Tim McVeigh and Timothy Nichols can pull it off with some diesel and some fertilizer, we can agree this isn’t something that takes much sophistication or planning– this isn’t Pearl Harbor we’re talking about. Now we’re afraid to sleep, and the country is paralyzed.

And none of these things happened in the weeks after 9-11. They aren’t the products of some great strategic mind, redolent of subtlety and deep thought. They don’t require massive transfers of money or logistic support. Highly trained operators– like men capable of piloting a commercial airliner– are not required. None of these attacks happened, despite the screaming obviousness of the logic that dictated them.

Attributing the failure of these attacks to happen obviously doesn’t go to American intelligence or law enforcement efforts– there is no reasonable way, even today, to prevent two or three guys with SMGs from walking into Roosevelt Field or Mall of America or Tyson’s Galleria or the elementary school down the street from your house. So, does this mean that al Qaeda either didn’t have the vision or the capability to pull off these attacks? Or did al Qaeda not have the desire to press their attack and shut down America?

I have my own theories about why al Qaeda didn’t reel in the fish after getting it to take the bait and after setting the hook, but the reality is that without bin Laden or al Zawahiri in custody and talking we are likely never going to know why our country literally dodged the bullet that any rational foe would’ve fired into us in the weeks following 9-11. The nightmare scenario was there for the taking, and was available at low cost and with no special effort made to pull the trigger. After the massive attacks of 9-11, every pinprick attack that could have come in the following weeks would have registered as sledgehammer blows. It didn’t materialize.

If we cannot answer why these attacks didn’t happen beyond saying that President Bush had no influence on them, should we really be crediting ex-President Bush with further spectacular attacks not happening? I don’t have a yes or no answer to that. Neither should history, despite what the George W. Bush Presidential Library will eventually be telling us.

Posted in American History, American Politics, Bush, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Islamists, terrorism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A New Priesthood

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 26, 2009

The story of my academic life in middle & high school was my distaste inability to “show all work”. Arriving at a correct answer was never a problem for me, whether it was in algebra or trig, biology or the rudimentary computer science we studied back in the dark ages of the mid-Eighties. Showing all work though– there was nothing more frustrating than getting back a math exam with an 80 on it when every damned answer was correct but I had neglected to adequately translate my thought process in reaching that answer into a discernible, codifiable process. Actually there were a couple of young ladies who were considerably more frustrating, but that’s life as a teen-aged boy.

It’s that inability to show work, though, that intrigues me right now. I employed all of the standard dodges– what does it matter as long as I’m right, who will ever need this crap anyway (a mantra I recalled a couple of years back while trying to lay a triangular pattern of tile in my entryway), blah blah blah. The good Franciscan Brothers were, if you’ll pardon the phrase, hell bent on getting us to show all work.

They were, however, not quite so interested in process and practice in the humanities. Yes, there were papers to do in some of the Social Studies classes and essay questions on some of the Lit tests, but there were a surprising number of multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false types of questions, too. For some reason the approach and execution of the thinker are less important in those topics, at least to the minds of some. The answer was adequate.

I’ve learned to appreciate, if not always execute, the description of systems over the intervening years. Its inherent value becomes apparent as one progresses through life, as the need to apply flexible process to rigid situations exerts and unveils itself. It is curious, then, that as we proceed further into an age in which we are told that mathematics and science are the raisons d’etre for education that very knowledge of process in falling by the wayside.

As computers run our algorithims and processors compute our runs, one can actually make the case that the display of work is an anachronism.  I play a game at a free site that requires deducing by eye the end results of a gravitational field– the math behind it is mind-boggling to me, but simple enough that whoever created the game gave away the result for free. Perhaps the time has come then when not only do we not need to show work, but we, the general populace, can not.

Why, then, is the Navy still teaching navigation by sextant at Annapolis? It’s an arcane and extraordinarily complex process involving taking sightings on the sun and stars. It is a technology surpassed what, five times over before we even reach GPS… yet it is still relevant. You must have the technical knowledge to navigate your ship if your systems are down, and, int he world of Academy graduates, the basic knowledge of taking a sighting and computing your position off of it underlies so many other integral processes that you need it to formulate the next generations of technology.

Those Middies with their deep knowledge are still a pace behind the diminution of process, however. There’s is a complex but approachingly ancient technology, whereas mathematical knowledge now proceeds into areas that support technologies beyond the understanding of most. Anyone can explain the construction of the internal combustion engine, even if you can’t build one yourself. Explain to me, however, how the computer you are reading this on is engineered and is working, or how the signals generated by the buttons I’m pressing are translating into the blog you’re reading somewhere else in the world right now. Yes, of course we all know the basics– integrated circuits, binary code, etc.– but the workings, the actual workings? Show all work with your answer.

It is very current to talk about societal divides– the digital divide, the economic divide, racial divides, education divides. I think they’re all about to be superseded.  We face a knowledge divide, a mathematical divide that can really only be described in the language of mathematics that itself forms the divide, thus becoming an intractable problem for the majority of the planet. While we all enjoy the fruits of mathematics– your Wii, your car, your bank account or the box you’re reading this on– we can’t describe its workings and have reached a point where it is both too complicated to do so for the majority of the planet… but also not necessary to do so either.

There are those in the world who can still show all work. Are they ascending to a different societal plane, a new priesthood that directly communes with the divine technology? The Maya priests were the leaders of their society because they understood the comings and goings of the sun and concocted a societal construct around that knowledge. Are we not doing the same with our technology?

Posted in American History, Autobiographical, Cultural Phenomena, education, History, Mathematics | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Silver Nomads in the Purple Tunnel of Doom

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 22, 2009

I understand security needs. I understand logistics. I even understand that when an event is as large as the Inauguration of Barack Obama, there are going to be problems.

What I don’t understand is how Terry Gainer, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate, is being allowed to blatantly lie about the way yesterday’s Inaugural was carried out in the streets surrounding the Capitol.

Terry Gainer is the bad penny of security here in the Capital; he was the number two at the Washington Metropolitan Police, roundly acknowledged as one of the worst major metropolitan police forces in the nation. Later, he became the Cheif of the Capitol Police, the force that polices the Capitol campus and its environs. The reviews for him there were, and I’m being nice, less than stellar. Now, at the Senate in what should be a fairly ceremonial post as the Sergeant at Arms, he’s still flapping his gums authoritatively about things he knows little about and has no control over.

The golden tickets in Washington this week actually came in many colors; amongst them Orange or Blue got you a seat on the Capitol pediment, Purple got you into the standing area closest to the Capitol, Silver got you into standing areas clustered right in front of the Capitol. The purple tickets were handed out to senior staff of the various Obama state organizations and to the guests of Congressmen; silver were the tickets of the folks who had good connections and those who were insanely lucky enough to get a ticket from their local Representative.

For some those tickets of purple and silver were as good as gold; for perhaps as many as 20,000, however, the alchemy of the Secret Service turned them not just to lead but nearly to arsenic. According to Sergeant-at-Arms Gainer, however, there were a few thousand people “inconvenienced”, for reasons that he’s given at various times as “overcrowding”, “counterfeit tickets”, “everybody unexpectedly showing up”, and a few other whoppers.

My party of six all had silver tickets and, in theory, did everything right. We set a 4am alarm here in Alexandria, about 25 minutes from the Capitol by rail. We were on the street in DC by 6.20, better than five hours in advance of the ceremony. We grabbed a cup of coffee at Union Station and set out for what we anticipated to be a semi-chaotic but ultimately rewarding process.

For a while things made sense– there were immense banners and signs color coded to the tickets, clearly illustrating where to go from Union Station. For some reason they petered out at the Purple Gate, leaving the Silver group, by far the largest of the officially ticketed hordes, to wander in search of bafflingly sparse officials to guide them.

The Purples had problems, too. At the corner of First Street and Louisiana Avenue the mob was forming. Unpublicized amongst the official calls to arrive at the Capitol insanely early, the Secret Service had decided to not open any gates until nine o’clock. What needs to be understood is that in addition to preventing access, they also prevented outflow. Streets all over the area were closed by the Secret Service to prevent people from moving freely in the secure zone– they had basically created a very small, steel mesh bag and kept pouring more and more people into it without regard for safety.

That bag’s largest node on the north side of the National Mall was First Street NW between Louisiana Avenue & D Street, a span of roughly a block and a half. By 7am, that area was literally a wall of humanity. As the Purple ticket holders arrived to find the gates still locked, they quickly overmassed the designated holding area and someone– whether it was the Secret Service, the Army, the Metropolitan Police, the DEA, or one of the many other police authorities and agencies out there– decided to have line up on First Street. They filled it in no time flat. The problem was that according not only to the instructions on the back of the tickets and some of the officials on the street, the Silver people were supposed to head up First to D and make a left to reach their access point to the Mall at Third & D.

As we attempted to do as we were instructed with several thousand of our closest friends in tow, we ran into the wall. It appeared to be an impossibility– First Street was literally packed from curb-to-curb and from Louisiana to D with people who couldn’t lift their arms due to overcrowding. We found a uniformed Secret Service agent and asked him what to do– his advice was to head up First as it was our only option. We trusted the positive mood of the day and the good humor of the people and, with a chanted mantra of “Excuse me”, waded into the fray. After nearly 20 minutes that saw us progress about a half block into the one and a half block corridor a river of people were pushing their way back towards Louisiana with the incredible news that D Street was closed by the Secret Service and that people were being told to go back to Louisiana Avenue. After a few moments of disbelief and then finding a low wall to climb and confirm that D was indeed closed, we retreated.

After a twenty minute slog back through the still condensing crowd, we made it back to Louisiana. We could see another line hard against the walls of the Department of Labor at Second Street and, having nowhere else to go we tried again to wade through an increasingly hostile crowd of Purple People to get to it. This time, to cross a span of about 100 feet took fifteeen minutes. Things were getting much worse, and we were becoming the Silver Nomads upon the Purple Sea.

Finally reaching the other side of the Purple line, we headed for the Department of Labor only to find that line was also composed of Purples and that there was no access to Silver portals there, either. A police officer walking 20 feet overhead on the walls of the Department of Labor advised us to head for the tunnel that runs under Labor and out to D Street. We got to its mouth and saw what looked an awful lot like hell. The tunnel stretched off in a straight line far into the distance, with an intersecting tunnel to the left, through which the line stretched in a solid, unmoving wall of people at least a half mile long and ten abreast. Seeing that there was no way we could ever negotiate it, we again retreated. That tunnel, in which thousands of, again, Purple ticket holders were trapped until after the ceremony, has come to be known as the Purple Tunnel of Doom across the blogosphere.

We came back to the area aroudn the labor department and were told by a Secret Service agent to, incredibly, head back up First Street but to stay by the left-hand walls. We debated if he was insane or not and found a police officer who opined that he was… but told us to go back to the tunnel. A Military Police sergeant dressed head to toe in camos told us to do something completely different and impossible– it had become clear that none of the authorities were talking to each other. We headed back into the First Street blender, sticking to the left wall.

Suffice it to say that over the next hour and a half, as we inched forward towards D Street literally through the bushes, shrubs, railings and grates that abutted the walls of the buildings to the left side, our arms pinned to our sides and with no ability to turn our bodies at most times to the left or right no real progress was made. The sheer weight of those behind us caused forward motion not because D Street was open, but because the mass of people was being further and further, almost impossibly, compressed.

At 9.40, the Secret Service succumbed to that inexorable pressure and opened D Street to a single file line of people coming up our left wall. We had seen people injured, we had seen brave medics and doctors– not in an official capacity, mind you, but just members of the mob– fight their way backwards to help them. Finally, after nearly two hours in the blender, we emerged onto D Street and a wide open street. The Army told us to move to Third and D, the marked Silver portal, and head in. It wasn’t to be.

Reaching Third Street, we were confronted with a security cordon manned by the DC Metropolitan Police. An officer helpfully told us to ball up our silver tickets and throw them away– the Secret Service had set up Silver gates in places that they weren’t supposed to causing more chaos, with two of those gates– according to the cop– “exploding”. All Silver portals were closed and we were told to head down Third to reach the general public viewing areas back on the Mall. That advice lasted for all of 100 feet– the Army had put up steel fences across Third Street and declared that only Parade ticket holders could cross there, despite the fact that the parade wasn’t going to happen for five hours and the huge mass who had broken free of First Street was filling the space. We headed back the way we had come only to find the Secret Service telling us to go back again tot he steel fences. The Army told us to go back to the Secret Service and tell them to stop sending them people. Chaos, again, reigned.

We fell back on the DC police strongpoint and they gave us the one decent bit of information we had all day– they were opening the Third Street Tunnel, which runs under the mall, to pedestrians to get to the other side of the city. Heading underground into the massive freeway tunnel that runs beneath the Capitol precincts, we walked about a mile and came out to reassuring signs once again directing us to the Silver portals on that side of town. It was 10.15am, the ceremony started at 11.30, and we were finally going to get in. The energy and laughter of the early morning had returned.

We then turned the corner and saw the Silver line. We walked on, trying to find its end. It changed direction every block, stretching around buildings, up streets, across open spaces. As a longtime DC area resident who has been through his portion of Presidential event security screenings, this line was at least– at least– three hours long. We were finally, inexorably defeated. We grabbed a vantage point at 6th & Maryland along a Jersey wall with a blocked view of the Capitol six blocks away and no chance of hearing anything and sent out a scouting party to figure out how to get onto the Mall in the general area. That was impossible as well– at seventh street the police told us that 14th was the next access, but it was closing as we spoke– 23rd street, on the other side of the Washington monument and with no view of the Capitol over a mile away, was the new access and it would likely last only a few minutes.

Our party splintered shortly thereafter. My wife and I headed for the plaza in front of the Native American museum, which had no speakers but had some view of the Capitol. We waited to see Obama walk out onto the Capitol Platform, took some great pictures of people in trees trying to see, and headed for the subway knowing that if we stayed we’d hear nothing and face equal chaos on the way out of town.

We were frustrated, yes, but we were also exhilarated– we had shared the moments of history in a crowd that was, for the most part, buoyed by the day and that had maintained decorum in what easily could have been a stampede and trampling situation. The people we felt bad for were those who had paid more than the $1.85 we had paid to reach the ceremony– we felt bad for our random Irishman who was denied entry by the poor planning and lack of communication amongst the authorities, whom we were told by a Metropolitan police sergeant were not in radio contact– the Secret Service had denied access to their radio net to the other agencies, even though Secret Service had overall control of the streets. We felt bad for the little old ladies who had waited a lifetime for this, who had made the trek from the Deep South at great cost to see history– and were denied. We felt bad for the disabled people who we were told, again by Metro PD, were literally upended and thrown from their wheelchairs at the Disabled entrance when the crowd broke free and charged the gate. We felt bad for the women hit by a train when she was forced from the platform at Gallery Place by the crowds.

So, Terry Gainer, Sergeant-at-Arms to the Senate, today I call you a liar in addition to being incompetent. To the Secret Service, a group I’ve always admired, I hand the shame and despair of those who wandered through the crowds, who got stuck in the tunnels, who came to experience history, not your ludicrous lack of planning and cooperation.

History was made on Tuesday. Only the good humor of the mob kept tragedy, rather than annoyance, from sharing that stage.

Posted in American History, American Politics, Autobiographical, Events, Jerks, Just Annoying | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Jesse James… Polka Dancers?

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 12, 2009

The things you learn watching kid’s TV. While enjoying surviving an episode of the Backyardigans tonight with the kids while Beth was at her Inauguration training session, I was amazed to see two of my least favorite things– animated, amorphously shaped talking animals and polka music– combined into one story. As luck would have it, our heroes were cast in a story about frontier days in Wyoming– they had to escort their worm friend, Sherman, to the Cheyenne Polka Palace for a surprise party. Gack… but wait a minute… was the polka really a relic of the Old West? Demanding accuracy in all things, I had to find out.

Let’s just say that when Jesse James pointed his six-shooter at the feet of a rival and drawled “Dance, pahdner”… he was firing off rounds to the mental soundtrack of the Beer Barrel Polka.

Have I said “Gack” lately? Wyatt Earp dancing with some saloon girl to the strains of oompah music? Billy the Kid getting the Jenny Lind Polka stuck in his head? For the love of god.

Yes, in the end our Western soundtrack wasn’t some proto-Merle Haggard tune or a lonely guitar playing into the night but rather that cherished touchstone of all things Cleveland, the polka. Amazing that Sergio Leone missed that, eh? The Good, the Bad, the Ugly… the Polka.

Posted in American History, Just Annoying, Movies, Music | Tagged: , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

 
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