Archive for the ‘History’ category

Confederate Flags: Separating Symbols from the Conflicting Underlying Values and Beliefs and How We Resolve Them.

July 14, 2015

How do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our

closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

There has been much heated conversation recently on the appropriateness of Confederate symbols, their role and place in society today. Notably, I was surprised by the political actions of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to remove any state flag from the Capital Grounds that incorporated the Confederate Battle Flag. While politically advantageous for her, it is a federal overreach into States self-determining their own flag. This is different than the issue in South Caroline where the Confederate Army Battle Flag was flow separately from the South Carolina State Flag and was appropriately retired last Friday. (As an aside, it is not without precedence that non-US elements be incorporated into state flags; the Hawaiian state flag includes the British Union Jack showing the bond between the Native Hawaiians and the British government)

Unfortunately, by focusing on the symbol, we are overlooking a critical part of the discussion. Removing the symbol does not resolve the underlying tensions and conflict represented. Strongly held opinions and beliefs do not suddenly evaporate. There will still be Southerners that refer to the “War of Northern Aggression.” There are still racial tensions that exist through perceived and actual inequalities on both sides. That is the hard underlying issue that removing a flag does not settle. Perhaps now was a politically expedient time to achieve a long-time goal of some groups to do so—but that is not the item to explore here. Would the removal of the flag from the grounds of a state capital have suppressed online discussions groups where like-minded people discuss pro-confederacy beliefs and heritage. No. Further, suppressing the right to free speech and association would have only caused the discussions to occur in another way and violated free speech protections. It is unlikely that removing the flag would have averted the tragic shooting in South Carolina.

Placing this is sharp relief, it was not uncommon during the 1970s and 1980s for citizens to publicly burn US flags to express displeasure with government actions, policies or positions. The act of burning the flag, essentially removing a copy of it from existence, did not cause the source of conflict to go away. The tension of opposing views did not disappear: Vietnam, Middle Eastern conflicts, social issues, etc. The values the flag directly represents–and via association as a symbol of America the county’s values–did not disappear. Pushed further, the British 1814 sacking of Washington DC and burning of the United States flag reinforced American resolution and willingness to fight for the values the flag represented. The removal of the flag did not remove the deeply ingrained beliefs articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

The American Civil War showed ideological divisions between races, states and people within the United States. There are painful awkward moments in our individual and collective history. While not in any means attempting to compare them, ignoring them does not heal or resolve them. They still exist and shaped us as individuals and as a country. Further complicating an emotionally charged topic, symbols can take on ideologies that may not have been intended upon their inception as later causes borrow or otherwise revise the original belief.

Undoubtedly there will be discussions about the role family values did or did not have in the upbringing of the young man who murdered participants in a bible study. I believe that gets closer to the issue but is not the issue. It is not that any particular set of values, family or otherwise, are right or wrong. The crux is: how do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

We see this friction in another way today: American politicians and their mandates from increasingly homogenous constituencies politicians themselves created when favorably redrawing voting districts. Divisive monologues, not real conversation, ensue that fails to resolve the questions at hand but serves to further articulation of one’s beliefs. We see this on many topics: abortion, federal tax philosophies, foreign policy, social programs including health insurance subsidies. These are manifestations of the underlying beliefs and values of the participants.

These fights degrade into political procedural maneuvering, withholding funding for approved programs, grandstanding in public forums, and other political manipulations. Essentially it is a fight for one ideology to impose its will over another and achieve power and control. In American politics, the victory is to codify it in law and then protect it by influencing the judicial process through the selection of favorable nominees.

Again, this is not limited to just the United States. We see this same primal fight to impose one’s will and beliefs on another in other contexts internationally. In the conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, with ISIS and ISIL we see the same actions clad in religious values. We see the same murders in houses of worship over differences in these beliefs manifested as shootings and bombings at mosques during religious services. There are the civil conflicts in Egypt and Syria, the Greek debt negotiations. It returns back to the same question: how do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

Maybe the first question is how does this resolve at the lowest common denominator in our lives with our spouses, children, friends, co-workers? Do we force our will on others? In what areas or topics? Do we open ourselves to listen to the other perspectives secure in the knowledge that the act of listening does not mean we abandon our own perspectives? Do you give a positive example for others to follow?

Graphic T-Shirts: Remembering the Cost of Wars as the Survivors Perish

June 30, 2015

In the current fashion cycle colorful t-shirts claim space in casual wardrobes across many demographics. Sometimes they have nature-oriented artwork while other times they hail a sporting team’s victory. Some advertise a brand name preference, a favored musical group, or an institutional alliance. The writing could be good-natured, quirky or simply intended to bring attention to the wearers themselves. Occasionally rhinestone-encrusted, cultish or confusing , the clothing is always making a statement, intended or not.

Yet traveling between gates at a U.S. airport, I observed a teenager wearing a t-shirt with a large faded American flag and the phrase “Back-to-Back World War Champs” surrounding the graphic. The patriotic boast viscerally stunned me and my emotions moved from astonishment to shock and then disbelief.   Over the next hour it transformed into dismay as it seemed disharmonious with the upcoming anniversaries marking the end of wars.

July 4th gives birth to the United States of America (Independence Day) and celebrates the freedoms won after the eight years of bitter, guerilla-style civil war within Great Britain’s claimed territory.  (April 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783.)  This is followed on November 7th with Armistice Day, also called Remembrance Day or Poppy Day, which marks the end of World War I and more than four years of trench warfare.

The disharmony stemmed from unstated teachings in my youth that a war’s end is not a prideful bragging contest. Celebrations on Independence Day tend to focus on American values articulated within the Declaration of Independence. I do not recall ceremonies invoking inflammatory language— “Dear Mum, We sure stuck it to you! Love, Uncle Sam” —as one might witness in drunken brawls between rivals after a game.

The Instruments of Surrender in both the European and Pacific theater—and the resulting treaties and agreements—followed suit and pointedly avoided the inflammatory, draconian concessions and punitive terms the winning Allies forced after World War I with the Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919). These prizes extracted by the war’s victors were among the contributing factors to the unrest which bred World War II.

Maybe that was why the t-shirt bothered me—it cavalierly dismissed the cost of war. Perhaps further on the heels of another recent post graphically reviewing the causalities of World War II it struck a raw nerve.

Now in fairness, graphic t-shirts are not always philosophical, eloquent or fair; it could just be a t-shirt. True to form though, it made a statement and provoked a reaction as I looked deeper:

Those of the Lost Generation fought in World War I and those of Tom Brokaw’s coined Greatest Generation fought in World War II. As the last survivors of World War II perish from old-age, are we slowly losing this perspective, context?

Then we will lose those from the Korean War (the Silent Generation) and those who fought in Vietnam—also called the War of Southeast Asia. (This included both the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomer Generation.) These servicemembers have different memories of war for they serviced but lacked the popular support and focus found in previous American military conflicts. The clarity of the lessons learned is more muddied.

In a world of rapid communication, instant gratification and seemingly short-attention spans marked more by sensationalism than fact, how do we remember and lessen the chance of repeating these lessons when we lose the physical human link to the past?

A Graphical Look at World War II Losses on The 71st Anniversay of D-Day

June 6, 2015

For some time I have been drafting a post that took a macro, numeric view of war losses during the 20th and 21st centuries.  After reading several good histories on the Pacific Theater in World War II–including With the Old Breed by Eugene B. Sledge–and learning more about the Eastern Front in Russian, I was brutally shocked by the number of Russian soldiers and civilians killed.  I sought context within that war and across others.

I offer a nod to Neil Halloran who eloquently developed the video on the link below with World War II.  The visual depiction is stunning.

Today is the 71st Anniversary of D-Day.  More American lives were lost on Omaha Beach in Normandy France than the entire 13 year conflict in Afghanistan.  This is not to minimize any loss, but rather to put into sharp relief the sacrifice, brutality and lost than many today have no conception of.

– A humbly grateful American

Political Calculus: Commentary on American-Cuban Relationships and Rome

January 5, 2015

President Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba shows a cunning piece of calculated politics. Announced after the November elections and before the Republicans take control of both houses of Congress, it creates a dilemma for Republicans.  While the president has authorization to establish diplomatic ties, Congressional approval is required to lift the embargo.  Attempts by Congress to reverse course will probably infuriate and frustrate the minority voters empowered by the reestablishment of ties.  Statisticians and pollsters will assess what material affect the renewed times will have on the 2016 presidential election in this critically conflicted and contested state.

The political posturing has already begun:

Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American Republican, will be incoming chair of a key Senate Foreign Relations panel and said he was committed to doing all he could to “unravel” the plan. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both set to hold senior foreign policy positions, said the policy shift reflected “America and the values it stands for in retreat and decline.”1

It is not a large extension to see a Democratic Party response that spins this as a return to strong-arm George W. H. Bush era isolationist thinking.  Undoubtedly much sports-game-like debate for TV personalities will ensue. My sense is the more this is fought, the more favorable the outcome for the Democratic party.

What puzzles me is why there is such adamant opposition to establishing an official mechanism for official communications between countries? While the negotiation of diplomatic privileges can be a diplomatic tool in and of itself, just because an official communicate channel exists, does not mean America will agree to or capitulate on every point raised by Cuba. (As opposed to self-serving TV soundbytes by non-involved, under-informed politicians from both parties that are not official US government communications or positions.  It appears to be another example of politicians trying to unduly force influence over the Executive Branch which Constitutionally holds that responsibility and the State Department which enacts it.)

Isolation with Iran and North Korea does not appear to reach the desired ends. It would be intriguing to understand the nuanced reasoning as to why a lack of official diplomatic channels is part of the United States’s strategic interest? For example the communication between President John F Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis assisted with its resolution.

Rome’s Involvement

This does offer an insight into the thinking of Pope Francis–his interest in both Latin and South America and his willingness to become actively involved establishing reconciliation and world peace. It does cause one to speculate what other conversations are being faciliated elsewhere in the world; more likely in the Russia / Ukraine conflict, less likely in the Korean standoff or with China given the religious proclivities of those countries.

As a parting thought, in hindsight, it was curious that negotiations and communications were keep secret for the purported 18 months.  With the crossing of a non-responsive US based private plane in Cubian airspace( that this (1) was not considered an incursion by Cuba and (2) occurred during these negotiations and (3) raised little public discourse on the matter that involved a degree of inter-county communication and trust.  I sense the response may have been different two or three years ago.



  1. Reuters, “U.S., Cuba restore ties after 50 years,” December 17, 2014. Retrieved December 17, 2014.

Observations of Saudi Arabia’s Price War on Oil Producing and Consuming Counties and the Repeating of History

December 17, 2014

In the tangled web of globalization and politics there is a striking convergence of several topics: the falling price of oil, the Russians in Ukraine, the Syrian Civil War, and military dimensions of uranium production in Iran. While dangerous and naïve to presume that these complexities and nuances can be simplified to short explanations and answers, there are themes that can be distilled.

The Saudis (and others in the Arab world) would like to see the fall of both the Bashar Hafez al-Assad regime in Syria and the containment, reduction of Iranian influence in the Middle East. From an international perspective the Iranian, Syrian and Russian governments share a complex solidarity. Intriguingly three of these economies are heavily based upon oil production. The Saudi’s are seemingly conducting economic war to intentionally enact a multi-faceted strategy focused on domestic security and economic prosperity by creating favorable regional stability.

By maintaining excess oil supply the Saudis are overtly working to force the price below the fixed costs of the shale oil producers. The overt end objective is to either (1) degrade the global shale oil production capacity by making shale oil uneconomical or (2) force firms into insolvency thus eliminating this competing sub-industry. Further for conventional oil producers–such as OPEC members and Russia–it is also forcing the price of oil to unprofitable levels for. This is an excellent example of Darwinian principals applied to commerce; this is economic war.

The question is whether both segments, the conventional oil producers and the shale oil producers, will be caught in the economic purgatory of negligible profit and/or an unrelenting (subsidized) contest of wills as parties produce below their variable costs. My sense is governments with economies dependent on oil production will capitulate or fail before commercial interests.

The covert—though transparent yet deniable—part of the strategy is to influence behavior changes for governments, specifically Iran and Russia. These economies are meaningfully dependent upon conventional oil production which is suffering the same economic losses as shale oil producers. By direct extension the national budgets are dependent on these ineffectively diversified economies. Sun Tzu in his legendary Art of War would describe this as attacking the opponent’s strategy (Iran and Syria) and disrupting his alliances (Russia and Iran) by causing attention to be focused on the domestic unrest and turbulence caused by the falling oil prices it helped orchestrate. As economic difficulties increase social unrest, authoritarian governments must increase focus and resources on the primarily objective of maintaining governmental and military control within its national borders. The reality of finite resources predictably accomplishes this at the expense of a country’s international initiatives. A reduction in Russian and Iran backing of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad in Syria would increase the probability of a Saudi-friendly government in that key Middle Eastern country. These actions combine to increased regional stability.

At this point, Saudi Arabia deems this level and method of destructive economic activities to be in its best interests. The gambit appears to be the short-term economic losses will be outweighed by both (1) increased security and (2) long-term profitability due to temporary or permanent reductions in global conventional and shale oil production capacity.

In their aims the Saudis’ find a willing ally: the United States. The Americans are willing to provide additional distractions by focusing on the Russian military incursion into Ukraine. The resulting economic sanctions are savaging the Russian economy, macro-economic policy and national budgets. The UN and EU backed economic sanctions on Iran and the resulting P5 +1 negotiations with Iran are choking off needed (and decreasing) oil revenues while creating inflation.  (The P5 +1 is comprised of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States—plus Germany.) Further by providing non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels this proxy effort both opens another vector. These efforts are in the strategic interests of both the United States and the Saudis as they seek the avenues to most effectively achieve the desired ends.

Mohamad Bazzi has an analysis on the Saudi’s game of blink here that opens the consequences of Saudi actions.

So what are the economic damages caused to the United States due to the falling oil prices? The Saudi’s creation of an uneconomical business environment for US shale oil producers may lead to consolidation or reduced output from this completing resource; however, the general trend is undeniable. As the finite supply of commercially-viable conventional oil continues to diminish, freemarket forces are increasingly incentivized to find alternatives as the recoverable conventional oil supply appears to exhaust itself over the next half century. The expansion into shale oil production is an inevitable result of these freemarket forces. These forces will take the form of new technology or methods for producing the same resource or will be an alternative product.

There is a noticeable void in the global conversation about the Saudi strategy and oil consumers: China.

China has the world’s second largest economy. During the current period of development and expansion, the economy is tremendously dependent on raw materials, energy, human labor, food, and capital. It has taken concrete steps to secure its economic future by aggressively asserting contested claims to territorial waters to secure needed resources.  Further it is forging closer economic with Brazil, Russia, India, Iran and Australia to avoid the resource starving the United Stated and the Allies applied to Japan in World War II. Additionally these claims help create a geographic buffer zone, also considered vital to China’s interests.  In the P5+1 negotiation with Iran China seeks regional stability and limiting Western encirclement of its borders.

For a country that values face and harmony, this creates a conundrum. The drop in the oil prices is creating favorable negotiating positions with its suppliers (e.g. Iran, Russian, India, other OPEC countries) and creating economic stability. However, a by-product is permitting the expansion and solidification of Western and American influence in the Middle East. Historically China, like Russia, views this as a destabilizing threat to Communist Party’s monopolistic governing power.

Current day proclamations by Russian President Vladimir Putin about the re-emergence of a Cold War may be far more true that initially realized. There are ramifications beyond heightened Western-Russian military tensions with purported NATO airspace incursions by Russian aircraft. While the scenarios are not identical, there are themes from 1989 (Germany and China) and 1991 (Soviet Union) that are echoing across today. The method and the venue have changed, but these deeper fissions and philosophical differences are being fought with no less fever today than over the last 100 years across the Middle East, Asia, the Atlantic and the Pacific.

When Divided We Stand, United We Fall

February 17, 2014

“The American system of government is adversarial in nature but not a win-at-all-costs system.”

-Anonymous Atlanta Lawyer at a Leadership Conference

It surprised me last December when Congress passed a budget for fiscal year 2014 with such little drama.  Albeit it was almost three months into the fiscal year, which started October 1st, but after the reckless inaction in recent years, it was a marked improvement.  That occurred again last week with seemingly normal legislation to increase the debt ceiling.  After Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, voted to increase the borrowing authority of the United States causing the measure to pass, several in his party changed their votes before the official count to support him.  Those are telling shifting winds in a political party that recently shutdown the government over similar financial controversies.  (Further it is a particular option to change your vote after one knows the outcome before the final recorded vote; one can vote against and decry something beneficial to their district as often happened with government spending during the recession of recent past.  Alas that is another post.)

What has caused the recent drastic shift in political calculus for both parties; over the last few years Congressional dysfunction is seemingly both politically and personally beneficial.  And it is still present.  As political brinkmanship again threatened a politically dramatic show of wills over the country’s financial solvency, the reversal of reductions in military retirement pays—at no small cost to the country—sails through nearly unanimously.  I do not recall those cuts passing with such unanimity in the weeks prior.

It was at a conference on Ethical Leadership many years ago that a local litigator offered a beautiful insight.  The American system of government is adversarial in nature but not a win-at-all-costs system.

If politics is the gaming of a political system, the current sitting Congress, and those of recent years past, would well heed this lesson.  Which Congressmen fail to understand and heed that divided we stand, united we fall?  There is no shame in not winning or getting one’s way.  This country gives freedom to the minority voice.  What is does not offer is permission for the minority to hijack the process until their way is met.  There is a greater good that is seemingly lost in the reckless pursuit for individual interests.  What comes to mind is the colonial America cartoon by Benjamin Franklin of a rattlesnake chopped into pieces.  Each piece was labeled as a state and the picture carried a simple caption: “Join, or die.”  Today’s snake contains more pieces in a world not less fraught with dangers.

From the outside, I prefer relationships in which the other is more predictable and less self-centered than the one I currently share with my representatives in government.

So it again returns to us.  Do we permit this hijacking by any political party?  Do we trust those that represent us or not; if not, we deserve better.  Do we hold them accountable or do we permit ourselves to tolerate an abusive relationship?

IEDs and Suicide Bombers on American Soil: Perspectives on The Boston Marathon Bombing

May 14, 2013

The Boston Marathon on Bombing on April 15, 2013, created an uncomfortable reflection for Americans as one of her citizens and a legal resident detonated a bomb at a public event.  This is not the abstract bombing in a Middle Eastern country but something disharmonious with American life.  While some compare this to the hijacking and subsequent crashing of four airplanes on September 11, 2001, I believe there is a meaningful difference, an awaking of an awareness that Americans are not familiar with.

The mainstream press has focused on the meaning of the day—Patriot’s Day—and other events that have occurred in proximity: the Branch Davidian siege at Waco, Texas; the shootings at Columbine High School, the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  While this may be coincidental or intentional it neglects the underlying lingering feeling:

law enforcement is not widely prepared to handle

suicide bombers or improvised explosive devices detonated

in public places on non-military targets

There is training for hostage situations, yet bombing civilian targets on American soil–either planned, executed or unfolding— is the stuff of movies to most civilians.  The concept is foreign, removed from daily life and something not well understood.  It happens in countries whose general population struggles with the basic levels of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs.  Images of sandy curbless streets with a mule and cart come automatically to many American minds.  This is a distant cry from manicured wealthy Bostonian suburbs, MIT’s campus and Harvard Square.

Not since the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta has an improved explosive device (IED) been successful detonated at a large public U.S. venue.  What I see is the beginnings of an American understanding of the uncertainty and insecurity that are routinely felt in some other countries.  In Iraq and Afghanistan this type of violence is commonplace.  The same American media outlets that offered unrelenting coverage in Boston also seemingly announce daily another foreign car bombing, suicide bomber or shooting of law enforcement or military personnel.  The stories detail the civilian casualties and wounded then fade into the background for many Americans as they lack any relation to their daily lives.

Perhaps it takes place in the disputed territories between Israelis and the Palestinians.  Maybe it is a violent interpretation of one’s religion.  The slippery word martyr may be applied.  These attacks may be ideologically part of an organization desiring political change.  It could be grounded in sectarian warfare, as with the Sunnis and Shiites.  Maybe it is a single individual or a small group.  These individuals may be self-motivated or directed into their actions through coercion or manipulative teachings

Ultimately, the perpetrators of violence—and their motives, the targets, the means, the rationale and the desired aim—are not fully congruent or cognizant within traditional Western logical frameworks.  Essentially it is guerrilla style tactics generally focused on non-military targets.  This non-traditional form of protest or furthering of one’s aim is executed with varying levels of sophistication: from amateurish to chillingly calculated.  Since they do not adhere to the international and (generally) recognized rules of war, the ordinary western citizen struggles to reconcile how this can happen within his country.

This brings uncertainty to the basic need of physical security and safety for any human.  This is particularly unsettling to Americans where this is generally thought of as a Third World concern or in a country engulfed in civil war.  (The United Kingdom is a glaring exception to this as numerous bombings since the 1970s are claimed by Irish individuals or groups and target civilians).  These fears include:

  • How can I protect myself against an unknown threat?
  • It may happen to me?

This is not a new or unknown problem.  Ultimately there is not a perfect way to prevent all types of violence.  There was an interesting social commentary in the movie Minority Report—both the attempt to create a society without violence and the manipulation of such a society to selfish ends.  This juxtaposes with the shootings in schools and public places in the last year further flaming the perennial gun control debate.  Yet the bombing in Boston seems more raw.  (Click for a recent gun control perspective)

This dilemma invariably leads to difficult conversations about at what cost is security desired within the society.  Just like the citizen trying to understand why this is happening, there is not a neat, simple answer to this very amorphous problem:

  • What is considered reasonable safety?
  • To what degree are individuals responsible for their own safety?
  • What is the responsibility of the government?

In the end, in an open society there cannot be an expectation of perfect security.  Garrison Keeler, on A Prairie Home Companion, offered a folksy Dr. Seuss Butter-Battle-Book-esque commentary that ended with elderly grandmas owning assault rifles.  Constant escalation based out of fear is not the answer.  Conversely neither is irrational elimination of firearms out of similarly rooted fear.

The words of Franklin d. Roosevelt are well heeded now:  “The only things we have to fear is fear itself.”  As we soul search and consider these questions our fear should not govern decisions redefining our freedoms.

A Time for the Somber

May 1, 2013

I wrote the thoughts below in the days after Osama bin Ladin was killed by US Special Forces.  My original thought was to publish it soon after the emotional noise passed.  I have since grow concerned about the level of publicity being focused on the inner workings of covert US military units, especially the US Navy Seals.  Clandestine special units work best when they are just that; however, this does not exclude the absolute necessity of civilian oversight.  I am disappointed by the recent spate of books and movies that add a romanticized Hollywood spin to the harsh truths of that profession’s actions.   The opening moments of Spielburg’s epic movie Saving Private Ryan, offered an unvarnished look at combat’s brutality to both the Greatest Generation–who fought–and those that have followed.  We seem to be losing the humbleness that generation has shown us in the pursuit of profit.  “Nobody wants to fight, but someone better know how,” is a quote from long ago.  When we must, it should be short, focused and decisive.  These are my thoughts as the second anniversary of his death approaches.


May 3, 2011

I watch the news with a mixture of confusion.  There are celebrations by the uninvolved, criticism from usual corners and passing praise from political enemies, the bravado of those not involved garnering recognition.  I read the words used to describe the killing of Osama bin Ladin.  I hear the fashionable contemporary phrases of “9-1-1” to reference the horrific events in fall 2001 that forever altered my generation.  I watch government officials, describing with astonishing forthrightness, operational details and capabilities in apparent efforts to show transparency.

The unvarnished story is not glamorous.  The US deployed a venerated clandestine team to accomplish a difficult task within a defined set of parameters across international borders.  This mission included the capture or killing of a specific individual.  He was shot, his body removed and buried.

Elaborations to fill airtime and hyperlinked articles will embellish this thread.  These will be furthered by news agencies striving to stay current and be relevant in today’s society.  A new phrase or two will be grasped upon by audiences who crave details with the instantaneous sense of understanding provided by social media.

Are we collectively seeking the meaningful details?

I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which his body, a man violently ideologically opposed to the US, was cared for.  “A society can be measured by how it treats its dead,” it was once said.  If the United States wishes to lead by American values, the respectfulness and sensitivity shown to honor the Islamic traditions is noteworthy.  Irreconcilable debates will ensue over its exactness by an unsatisfiable few.  I wonder what the moderate majority sees?

It is not what we do when it is easy, but rather when hurt and in a position of strength, that shows our true mettle. Practicing these values when convenient to “win hearts and minds” is shallow, hollow.  If American values are cherished, are they ingrained in our actions, our intentions, as a whole?

In a world of violent games, graphic movies, and instant connectivity, what has the gravity of this action imparted to us?  Were our actions consistent with our stated aims and our values?

I believe yes.

The Differing Interpretations of Freedom of Speech: A Cultural Perspective

February 15, 2013

Originally I wrote this piece about the different interpretations of freedom of speech as the Arab world grappled with an American low budget film insulting the Prophet Mohammed.  Other acts that come to mind include: the accidental burnings of the Koran in an American prison in Afghanistan; the opinions expressed by the hence jailed female band in Russia drawing the ire of Putin and the Duma; the conflict between China and Tibetan monks.  The list of conflicts goes on.  What underpins them?


September 2012

There is an intriguing conversation between the limits of freedom of expression, speech, and the sacredness of religion.  Even framing who the sides are within this noisy discussion is difficult.  Saying it is fundamentally a difference between geographic thoughts (Eastern vs. Western) or religions (Islam vs. Judaism and Christianity) seem to be incorrect.  Perhaps it is a cultural difference, but it seems to be more complicated than that.  The essence appears to be differences in legal frameworks that are cultural and religiously influenced.

The United States is following its rule of law that permits freedom of expression.  There are checks and balances within its system (e.g. libel and slander) that permit those who are the object of untrue negative speech to defend themselves.  Conversely, the law of Islamic countries is generally Islamic law, the moral law and customs of the religion, and also called Sharia.  At the time of this writing it is unclear to me if blasphemy–speaking ill of venerated religious texts, objects or customs–is explicitly defined or implicitly referenced within the Quran.  My cursory research says no, that this is a secular law perhaps initiated to protect non-secular interests.

There seems to be a greater undercurrent to the friction here:  What is the role of religion in government?  In the United States the protection of freedom of speech and religion is more important than making illegal the act of disparaging a religion or its components.  Countries following Islamic law seemingly hold protection of the religion above personal freedom of speech.

These opposing viewpoints seem as strongly entrenched as those expressed in Roe vs. Wade (US Supreme Court, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).  For example, Emad Abdel Ghaffour of the Salafist Nour Party in Egypt called upon the United Nations “for legislation or a resolution to criminalize contempt of Islam as a religion and its Prophet”1

In the United States, the first freedom the first amendment grants is prohibiting state sponsorship or censorship of any religion.  Thomas Jefferson, like many founding fathers of the United States, held the strong belief there should be a separation of church and state.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.2

There have been various legal decisions in Brazil, Russian and elsewhere for the inflaming video to be censored on Google’s YouTube.  But as history has taught us, Chinese or Iranian exercises of Internet censorship are unlikely on a global scale.  If a video is squashed on one website, it will appear on dozens more.  Perhaps a more rational perspective is this.  As globalization continues and moral and value codes clash, how do we resolve these differences?  Historically there is much bravado and harsh words that may elevate to physical violence as each side vies to be the alpha.  Through this perceived or actual dominance it tries to exert its might to force its perspective upon another who is unwilling to accept it.

To put that in stark terms, the United States extends its belief of the First Amendment to its international relations.  Not only is it legal to burn the United States flag (U.S. Supreme Court, Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989)) the government does not call on other counties to arrest those that do in protest.  Yet there are other governments that express a different perspective.  Negative comments about them are attempted to be suppressed both in that country and others.  That sits decidedly improper to much of the Western world’s thinking.

These vast legal differences and perspectives are being superimposed over the Internet today.  The Internet was built by the Americans and incorporates its values and freedoms.  Its resilient decentralization is directly contrary to the level of centralization and control some counties wish to exert on its population.  Who is right and who is wrong?  That would depend on each side’s moral code for what each perceives to be right.  Can both sides agree to disagree in a civil manner?  Will either find an ultimate authority to arbitrate the dispute?  I sense there is a deeper emotional unease that causes the violent reactions to the issue du jour.  Once addressed, the level of global misunderstanding and angst will lessen.

1. Reuters, Egypt Salafi urges U.N. to criminalize contempt of Islam, Sep 22, 2012, 4:19pm, Retrieved from

2. United States Constitution, First Amendment

Reflections: The USS Missouri

December 3, 2011

As I approached the Navy checkpoint to Ford Island on January 7, 2010, I was still trying to fathom that an island existed in the middle of Pearl Harbor, HI. This great harbor appeared too small to hold the history this area proclaims. This day I was to witness one of its treasures, the USS Missouri (BB-63), travel from dry-dock to its moorings. My US Air Force sponsor sat next to me as we crossed the bridge and I caught sight of the Arizona Memorial. My thoughts wandered back to the ceremony, a scant thirty days prior, commemorating the heroism and losses of that day.

Before embarking on this trip I researched the USS Missouri’s history. It was the last of four Iowa-class US battleships built and is the only one remaining. She was ordered on June 12, 1940, commissioned June 11, 1944 and decommissioned March 31, 1992. The nickname, The Mighty Mo, pays tribute to the strength of the vessel and the men with whom she earned 11 battle stars. She saw three wars: World War II, the Korean War, and the Gulf War. Perhaps the Mo is attributed to MO, the abbreviation for Missouri, as the last four battleships were named after states. Perhaps this attribution is to another meaning lost in common memory but cherished by those that served with her. Should our memories lose these details that bring richness to life, may we not forget the larger points and meanings of history past. As I read more, I saw through adult’s eyes, not the child of high school history class, the furious naval and air battles across the Pacific. Stepping back further to view World War II as a whole, I saw the cost of conflicting ideologies struggling for co-existence or supremacy.

My grandfather was a P-38 pilot, 34th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. The European theater, with the Army and Army Air Corps, is my primary reference for World War II. Milton Bradley’s abstract simplification provided enjoyment as a child; however, it and my readings could not prepare me for the massive physical scale of sea power. The brutal effectiveness of the naval maneuver “Crossing the T” took new meaning as Mo’s silhouette came to bear. The ship’s narrowness was surprising to me. Its relative size can be read about but did not prepare me for a ship almost the length of three football fields yet only about 100 feet wide. Watching the USS Missouri slide into its mooring awed me in a way the static monument cannot.

The primary, traditional armaments of the Iowa-class battleship, the 5” and 16” guns, had been augmented with modern defensive and offensive firepower for deployment to the Persian Gulf before being decommissioned. My childhood’s four-peg representation insignificantly describes the raw military power for which only the Stratofortress seems a timely, adequate comparison.

Scheduling for the day did not permit an on-ship tour to view the plaque commemorating September 2, 1945. This day marked the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender in Tokyo Harbor and the end of World War II. I plan to return and walk through the history, spoken and not, steeped into the teak deck. On that visit I hope to view it beyond that of a tourist inundated with tidbits, the needles of a single tree. I hope it is with a reverence for, and a desire to explore, the forest of difficult choices made during that time. Do I display that responsible decisiveness in my life today? Do I willingly get lost in an endless thicket of instant distraction? Do I understand the lessons learned and paid for with the lives of millions? As the world becomes increasingly interdependent, these questions wander about my mind.

The age of the Battleship may have ended due to the advancement of airpower, newer technology and a changing world. As I scan the harbor, the Navy’s new weapons sit in the shadow of what once defined naval power. The USS Missouri is a small part of the ingenuity, determination and mettle of Brokaw’s Greatest Generation; the greatest tribute I can provide is to carry the baton of their values epitomized through actions. Eleanor Roosevelt held in her wallet a prayer whose eloquence summaries that charge for me: “Dear Lord, lest I continue in my complacent ways, help me to remember that someone died for me today. And if there be war, help me to remember to ask and to answer “am I worth dying for?”

As I leave Ford Island humbled, I catch sight again of the Arizona Memorial now silhouetted with the USS Missouri; The Mighty Mo’s bow stands watch over the fallen Sailors, guns raised in silent salute. I am struck by the honor paid both to the beginning and end of the US military involvement in World War II: a stark reminder of the cost and strength of the American spirit. May we never forget the words of Thomas Jefferson: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” What do I choose to do today with that freedom?

– A Grateful American