Thoughts on the end of the war in Iraq

Members of the last group of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry, are the last U.S. troops to leave Iraq as they cross the border into Kuwait. (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times / December 17, 2011)

Nine years of war. Nearly 4,500 American troops killed, scores of thousands more who will suffer a lifetime from their wounds and memories. More than 100,000 Iraqis dead. Hundreds of billions of dollars spent.

On the TV news I watch the last US troops exit Iraq into Kuwait and think, what was that all about? The waste sickens me.

I remember a few years ago stopping at a restaurant off the freeway near Riverside.  A popular family restaurant crowded with locals and travelers on a Saturday morning.

As I waited for a seat, I noticed a display near the cash register, where every customer pauses.  Photos of a young man surround an American flag. Here he’s a high school football player. There he is smiling and waiting tables at this very restaurant. In one he proudly poses in Army uniform with his parents, the restaurant’s owners.

A framed letter from the young man’s commanding officer says what a fine soldier he was, how popular he was in his platoon, and how he died in combat.

It’s the closest I ever got to the real cost of the war in Iraq.

Because of the all-volunteer military, few Americans serve or even know anyone who serves in the armed forces.

Our military men and women, serving deployment after deployment in Iraq, Afghanistan, are also members of the one-percent, as distant as the rich and powerful.

I bet people see who that shrine in the restaurant today don’t give it a second thought. Too soon, young people will say, “Iraq? Where’s Iraq? Was there a war?”

Flashman’s reaction following the Battle of Alma in the Crimean War comes to mind.

The camp ground was littered with spent shot and rubbish and pools of congealed blood — my stars, wouldn’t I just like to take one of our Ministers, or street-corner orators, or blood lusting, breakfast-scoffing papas, over to such a place as the Alma hills – not to let him see, because he’d just tut-tut and look anguished and have a good pray and not care a damn – but to shoot him in the belly with a soft-nosed bullet and let him die screaming where he belonged. That’s what they all deserve.

Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser

My favorite anti-hero in all literature is Sir Harry Paget Flashman.

In George MacDonald Fraser’s brilliant series of historical novels, Flashman is a self-confessed coward, libertine, and scoundrel.

Sir Harry is also the most decorated soldier in Victorian England, lionized in the press as a hero of the British Empire.

Flashman has one redeeming virtue, at least for historians: he is a reluctant eyewitness and scrupulous reporter of major events worldwide in the nineteenth century, including British military engagements from the Khyber Pass in the First Afghan War to Rourke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War, the American Civil War, Mexican revolution, and the Boxer Rebellion in Imperial China.

Flashman survives Custer’s Last Stand, survives another famous last stand: the slaughter of Elphinstones’ army at Gandamack, survives Chinese Gordon’s ill-fated mission to Khartoum, and through luck and cowardice squeaks by numerous other infamous massacres around the globe.

Crimean War soldiers, 1855

Flashman unwillingly sees action  in the Crimean War. Thousands of British soldiers perish from cold, exhaustion, and disease, far more than die in action.

And for what?  The reason given by the British government for its involvement in the Crimea was a long way from its real and deeper aims. Sound familiar?

Despite Flashy’s best efforts to avoid duty, he participates in as pointless and stupid a waste of lives and money as our misadventure in Iraq, though the Crimean War (1853-56) didn’t drag on for nine freakin’ years.

Flashman’s fictional memoir (and GMF’s extensive research; the book’s footnotes expand on Flashy’s observations) reveal the horror of the Crimea War and incompetence of Britain’s military leaders.

Flashy doesn’t flinch from telling the truth. I wish we had someone like him to report on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I owe a great debt to George MacDonald Fraser. Through the dozen or so Flashman books, I’ve learned a great deal about the  British Empire. This knowledge is relevant to world-changing events as they enfold today.

Afghanistan, China, India, Russia, Africa, Europe,  even the US,  are all locales for Flashman’s adventures and insightful commentary. George MacDonald Fraser connects our world to the extraordinary people and events of the nineteenth century.

George MacDonald Fraser knew war. He saw action in Burma during World War II. In one attack, the men to his left and right were killed.

The Flashman Papers are also great entertainment, and have kept me up late many a night reading and laughing.

For example, Flashman rode in the Crimean War’s famous Charge of the Light Brigade. In fact, as George MacDonald Fraser writes it, Flashy is responsible for instigating that military blunder.  As the brigade forms, a hung-over and terrified Flashman loudly farts, startles his horse, and triggers the senseless charge against entrenched Russian artillery.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d ?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson: The Charge of the Light Brigade

Our hero Flashy can answer Tennyson’s question, Was there a man dismay’d?

Come to think of it, a fart is as good an excuse to start the insanity as the Bush administration’s bogus claim of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Or any war.

Biography of the fictional(?) Sir Harry Flashman


Embarrassment, humiliation preserved in family photo albums

Awkward Family Photos

Families are like fudge – mostly sweet with a few nuts.
~Author Unknown 

Martina Strong has assembled eye-popping examples of excruciatingly embarrassing family photos. She used Pinterest, an online pinboard.

Just what the world needs: this family

Mom? Dad? Both?

After scrolling through photo after photo of spectacularly tactless, sometimes painfully hilarious, often what-were-they-thinking? family shots, I’m grateful my family never posed in such epic bad taste.

But judge not lest ye be judged. You may have a few skeletons in your family album.

As a teenager, I discreetly showed my middle finger in a photo of a nice family gathering. Forty-five years later I’m still trying to live that one down.

Then there’s my high school yearbook photo. But who doesn’t have an embarrassing high school yearbook photo? At least they air brushed out my zits.

My yearbook photo isn't quite this humiliating

But nothing I’ve ever seen compares to the uber-embarrassing photos, and lots of them, at Awkward Family Photos.

Check it out. And hope a family member hasn’t posted that photo of you (you know the one I mean).

The cowboy path to a meaningful life

One of the many regrets of my life is I never found a path to a meaningful life.

Not that I ever looked very hard.

Like many people, I get caught up in day-to-day existence, stumble through life. Lots of distractions, don’t you know. Not the least of which is my pesky cat, climbing all over my computer and bookshelves, trying to get my attention.

As Dante says at the start of Inferno, “Midway in the journey of our life, I woke to find myself in dark woods, having lost the correct path.” At least I woke up. Many people never wake, never face the reality of their lives, have no self-awareness.

My regret of years lost in a pointless, wasted life resurfaced when I came across this website: Center for Cowboy Ethics & Leadership.

How do we find meaning in our short lives? 

Cowboys have a  simple answer:  Every one of us, as an individual, is responsible for what we do, for who we are, for the way we face and deal with the world, and ultimately, for the way the world is.

A meaningful life requires GOD, Good Orderly Direction

Maybe it’s not too late for me to take this path. Time to saddle up!

Yeah, I’ll get right on it.

Right after I check out the latest crazy photos on Is Anyone Up?, see what Sasha the cat wants, take out the trash, and check what’s on TV — maybe those relentless, bothersome zombies on Walking Dead. Now there’s some people who lack self-awareness!

As I said, too many distractions. As my favorite philosopher Blaise Pascal says, “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” Distractions are a detour from the path to a meaningful life.

What does Sasha want? Maybe I should be paying bills rather than working on my blog. Money. I should be doing something that makes money.

Also on the website is this illustration, which the website claims is an actual photo. Anyway, I think it’s inspiring. Especially helpful for someone lost in a dark forest, paralyzed with the seeming futility and meaninglessness of life.

We can all be heroes in our own lives

From the website…

Titled “Hero of the Storm,” this extraordinary photograph really
says it all. Just look at this image and ask yourself: What kind
of person does it take to get up in the middle of the night,
saddle up his horse and set out into a raging blizzard — all
to rescue a calf he doesn’t even own? This cowboy is simply
“doing what has to be done” with no regard for his own comfort or safety.

This kind of ties into a Nicely Said post I’m writing. The theme is how the culture we live in and our emotions — more than anything else — shape our  behavior, the decisions we make, who we are.

We may think that what we believe and do is largely under our conscious control. We may believe that we should try to increase this control by the conscious exercise of reasoning and will power. But are we just fooling ourselves?

Do social and subconscious powers actually control more of our lives than we think?

Could explain why people make irrational, even self-destructive decisions.

My favorite Pascal quote has an answer:
The Heart has its own reasons that Reason itself cannot understand

Why is the cowboy willingly risking his life to save someone else’s calf? (And what about the cowboy’s poor horse?)

Why did the first responders on 9/11 rush into the burning World Trade Center towers?

Why does a soldier willingly give his life to save his comrades?

Self-sacrifice is the subject of an excerpt I’m using in my Nicely Said posting from WAR by Sebastian Junger, a book about an American platoon’s experience in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in 2007 and 2008.

Talk about “doing what has to be done” regardless of cost, one of the platoon’s members in Junger’s book is  Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, a soldier who risked his life to stop Taliban fighters from kidnapping a fallen comrade.

In 2010, Pres. Obama presented Giunta with the Medal of Honor for the actions Junger relates in heart-pounding detail.

If any of this interests you, vote for the Nicely Said post in the poll you’ll find in my Dec. 3 post, Writer’s Block.

My cat Sasha is bugging me. She must be fed NOW! Which is how I translate that long, loud MEOW!

Sasha’s green eyes flash with impatience. She lives in the now — no past, no future. A creature ruled by her appetites. Like the zombies on the Walking Dead. Like most people.

Gotta go.

Hey, you walkers, get a life! Have you ever questioned your mindless consumer existence?

Steve Has Writer’s Block!

My brain is constipated. I know what I want to say, but I can’t seem to get the words out, to finish the job.

I’m stalled on several posts I’ve been writing forever (or at least the last three months).

Here’s what I’m working on, ever so slowly . . .

What’s In A Word: Chico, the Barking Spider
Definition of barking spider: What farts are blamed on when there is no dog available.

My friend John Gallanos didn’t invent the barking spider excuse, but he did name the barking spider Chico. Someone farts, just say “Chico!”

I reminisce about John, now 20 years gone (included in my memories are surfing in El Salvador, a close encounter with a shark, and John playing the piano at Santa Monica’s Fox Inn, home of Foxy, The World’s Fastest Beer Drinker).

More about farts, including a restriction on public farting placed on US Marines in Afghanistan. Afghans are not amused by Chico.

See my page, For Marines in Afghanistan: be careful where you fart 

A new posting about Homonym, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

With such words as aye/eyeI,  boarder vs. border, hair/hare/heir. A really great list with homonyms I bet you’ve never thought of.

Then eye… excuse me, I… I digress  into puns. Got a list of great puns that show up in business slogans, like the radiator shop: A Great Place To Take A Leak, the electrician: Let me remove your shorts, and the gynecologist: Dr. Jones At Your Cervix.

I’m working on a great list of business slogan puns.

Puns, of course, depend on homophones and confusingly similar words.

A new post under my blog’s category of Nicely Said
When I come across something I think is particularly well written or well said, or that I admire for the writer’s creative choice of words, effective syntax, and clarity of thought, I like to share them with you.

This one starts with a great quote from The Social Animal by David Brooks:

“We are emotional beings with a cognitive side, not cognitive beings with an emotional side.”

And includes a startling excerpt from WAR by Sebastian Junger, a gripping book on an American platoon’s experience in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, and  something about angry fish in America’s aquariums as a metaphor for our nation’s obesity epidemic.

But I do tie it all together rather nicely, at least as far as I got.

It’s not the fish, it’s the aquarium… change the aquarium!

Fight the obesity epidemic by changing the social and emotional environment, not demonizing individuals.

It would help if I focused on just one post and finished it, instead of trying to write three posts at a time.

I’m also my wife’s caregiver, and Lizzie is having a difficult time now. Hasn’t left me much time for writing. And Lizzie’s suffering weighs on my mind.

Help Steve Focus. Help Him Squeeze Something Out.

So few people comment (or visit this blog), your opinion will carry tremendous weight.

There, I’ve empowered you. And you didn’t even have to camp out and Occupy Steve of Upland!

While you’re at it, you could also send well wishes to Lizzie. I’ll pass your message along. She’d like that. Lizzie rarely gets to talk to anyone except me and her doctors.

In the meantime, for all you word lovers, my sister Bonnie sent me a link to an entertaining, very creative blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

This post on Hyperbole and a Half cleverly illustrates a common grammatical mistake — condensing the phrase a lot down to one word, alot.  Take a look, it’s alot of fun!

You could also click at the top of the column to the left and see all my postings for Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words.

I’m going to check on Lizzie. Then I’m going to my library, sit down, and  see if I can do something about my mental constipation. Maybe Chico will show up to help, who knows? Cheers!