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Posts Tagged ‘Army’

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.

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

Now Where Did I Leave That Nerve Gas…?

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 10, 2009

It would be comical if it weren’t so terrifying– after a year of the Air Force misplacing, mis-shipping, and basically mishandling nuclear weapons to the point that generals are getting fired and entire command structures are being redone, the Deseret News (Salt Lake City) disclosed on Sunday that–oopsies!– the Army may or may not have had a slight accounting discrepancy with the amount of nerve gas it’s storing for destruction at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah.

Any sensible military would’ve put half of the USAF command structure in front of firing squads this year, but as it turns out that would violate OSHA or some such regulation. In America, instead, we’re forced to retire to lucrative positions with defense contractors the dopes who send nuclear detonators to Taiwan and watch planes under their command fly around the US with “We thought they were test dummies but– oopsies!– were actual strategic weapons” bolted to the wings of their aircraft.

The scary thing isn’t just that those events happened, it is the reason why they have happened– crappy training and discipline. The two great separators between the US military and all others have traditionally been level of training and sophistication of weaponry. The US spends more money training its enlisted and especially officers than any other military in the world. For that investment, we theoretically get a force that can be trusted to think for itself, to carry out complex orders using sophisticated systems, and generally not to trod upon its own penis with combat boots. Guess what we’ve been stepping on of late? Lax standards and under-trained staff officers have been the proximate cause of all of the Air Force’s strategic weapons blunders this year; reviews have found QA checklists unchecked, officers who have no clue what is in the procedural manuals for handling nuclear weapons that they’ve allegedly been drilled on, weapons handlers who can’t tell a detonator from helicopter batteries. We’ve spent years pumping money into the Russian military to secure their arsenal and agonizing over the possibility of them misplacing a few nukes; anybody taken a look at Minot AFB or, I don’t know, under the carpet at the O club at Barksdale?

Lapses in training as it pertains to nuclear materials are a huge fear we have with Pakistan; it is unthinkable that it should be occurring within the US force structure. One has to wonder if the suddenly crappy training being given to our nuclear weaponeers isn’t the result of the financial pressure being exerted on DOD by the ongoing wars. Clearly strategic nuclear weapons are not the priority that they were in the darkest days of the Reagan-Evil Empire era’ s it possible that the USAF is pulling training dollars and competency out of the strategic arsenal in favor of spending with direct application to this war? It seems a reasonable assumption, especially given the unconscionable screw-ups going on. One more little gift from Mr. Bush’s war that keeps on giving even after the mission is accomplished, I suppose.

Now we see that the Blue Boys aren’t the only ones who can’t be trusted with a WMD– the Army may or may not know how many tons of deadly nerve agents they have or have destroyed or have shipped to god knows where. The United States went out of the chemical warfare business in 1985 when the Congress voted to destroy all stockpiles of US chemical warfare agents. Nearly a quarter century later we’re still in the process of doing so as the things are damnably hard to safely dispose of, requiring highly specialized incinerators. We still have stockpiles of artillery shells, bombs, rockets, spray tanks, storage tanks, mines, and the like mainly sitting out in the Utah desert at Deseret, at a handful of other sites in the nation (eight, according to GlobalSecurity.org), and offshore on Johsnston Atoll in the South Pacific… at least as far as the Army knows. 

We now know that the Army doesn’t actually know for sure– oopsies!– just how much nerve agent it has destroyed at Deseret or indeed how much they ever had or were supposed to have. They are putting the blame on accounting problems and tell us that they are “reasonably sure” they’ve gotten everything destroyed that they were supposed tot destroy by this point and know how much is left. Are you reasonably assured by that? 

Here in DC a few years back we had a bit of first hand experience with this issue– it seems that during the World War One era chemical weapons research was conducted in what is now the Spring Hill neighborhood of the city and on what is now the campus of American University. Due to some accounting errors and forgetfulness, nobody realized that when Spring Hill and AU were built that there were not only buried storage pits of toxins under the sites but also the odd unexploded mustard gas shell or six hundred. Nobody realized this until, in December of 2000, someone noticed that kids were getting sick at an AU childcare facility. Soil samples revealed huge levels of arsenic, which led to some digging and then an odd metallic clink when a shovel hit an artillery shell–oopsies!– still full of gas, which led to half the neighborhood being dug up and a boatload of munitions and toxins cleared. At least we know that what’s going on at Deseret isn’t a new problem, I suppose.

We are the kings of sanctimony when it comes to responsible stewardship of WMDs, which we absolutely should be– the things are a wee bit dangerous. Lax disciplinary standards and poor training are antithetical to the lowest infantryman in our system; that they seem to have become prevalent amongst the highest security areas of our military structure is unacceptable.

To have this emerge now, of all times, with Dick Cheney still predicting nuclear and chemical attacks against out cities… well, it does make you wonder just how sloppy we’ve been, doesn’t it?

Posted in Nuclear Weapons, terrorism, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 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 »

 
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