Serendipity

After graduation from college I decided to take a year to clear my head and decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I took a job teaching at a private school for boys in New York and discovered that I loved teaching — but I wanted to teach at a higher level where, it seemed to me, I would be better challenged. And I also decided to teach philosophy because I loved it and  it would keep my mind alive. The problem is that I had no money. I applied to several graduate schools and was accepted, but I simply didn’t have the money to attend. So, flat feet and all,  I decided to join the Army.

At the time I was working at a boys camp in Maine during the Summers and the plan was to join in the Fall, after camp was over. But an older man who also taught at the private school had asked me to join him and his family at Big Wolf Lake in Upper New York before going off to the Army. I spent a few days with him and his wife and children who surprised me one morning by offering to finance my first year of graduate school! I kid you not. After that I was to be on my own, but at least this would allow me to get my foot in the door. How gracious! How generous! I was stunned! I immediately called the Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Northwestern where I had been accepted and asked if it was too late to join the Fall class. He assured me it was not and welcomed me aboard. The die was cast.

Needless to say, I considered myself the luckiest person on the face of the earth and I packed up my belongings in my used Volkswagen bug and left for parts unknown. “Go West, young man!” After a successful first year I was granted a University Fellowship that paid my way for the rest of my graduate career. But to add to the remarkable events of those years, in my second year I took a course in Plato’s late dialogues and met my wife. She was an undergraduate whose advisor allowed her to enroll in an upper-level philosophy course to fulfill a university requirement. After meeting her and falling in love with her I knew for certain that I was the luckiest man alive. We married soon thereafter and have been together ever since — through thick and thin.

I have often thought about how tiny things that seem at the time to be insignificant turn out to be the most important things in our lives. I might have gone into the Army (can you imagine??) or I might have decided that a trip to Big Wolf was a bit out of my way. After all, my family was in Richmond, Virginia — which was in the other direction. Or my wife might have selected a different course to fulfill that requirement — she was a Latin major and thought she ought to know a bit about Greek philosophy! Go figure. There were courses available to her other than an upper-level philosophy course about an ancient Greek’s obscure thoughts.

Have you ever had such remarkable things seemingly turn your life around? It does make you wonder sometimes. Call it luck or call it serendipity!

Disobedient Soldier

America has a proud tradition of civil disobedience. From Henry David Thoreau who went to jail rather than pay a tax to support slavery to Martin Luther King Jr. who went to jail in protest over laws in Alabama that he was convinced were discriminatory. The  latest in that line appears to be a young Army private named Bradley Manning who is facing a court-martial for leaking confidential and classified material. As Manning sees it, he was simply trying to alert the American public to the atrocities their armies were committing in Iraq and Afghanistan where he perceived a “bloodlust,” what he called a “total disregard for human life.”
As we are told by HuffPost, in a 35 page document he read prior to his court-martial he said he was disturbed by the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the way American troops treated the populace; he did not believe the release of the information he downloaded onto a thumb drive would harm the U.S.

Bradley Manning (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Bradley Manning
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Manning went on to say, “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”  In a word, he saw his act as an act of patriotism that would draw attention to a situation he thought his fellow Americans would abhor. In his statement, for example, he claims he saw films of American soldiers who killed 11 men, including a Reuters photographer, and they seemed to be exhibiting the same sort of delight as a group of young boys “torturing ants with a magnifying glass.”

The key to civil disobedience, as King noted, is to draw attention to an unjust law while at the same time showing a willingness on the part of the disobedient to respect laws in general. As King said in his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,”

“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. . . . One may want to ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all'”

The difference between Manning’s case and that of King or even Thoreau is that Manning did not disobey a civil law; he is a member of our armed forces and it will be argued that as a private in the Army he has an obligation to follow orders and not put the nation at risk by leaking thousands of classified documents. One could counter that the war in Iraq (as St. Augustine would argue) was an unjust war and that Manning is on solid moral grounds. Still, he is in the military and it is doubtful that Manning will escape the harsh judgment of a military court that will have what it regards as the nation’s best interest in mind — and future military discipline as well. They will want to make an example of this man, it seems, and he is facing the very real prospect of life in prison.

But the parallels with Thoreau and King are striking and one does wish the young man could be tried in a civil court by a jury of his peers. In the end, though, the moral high ground that Martin Luther King always sought no longer seems to be a concern in this “war on terror” that really isn’t a war at all but is a nightmare in which we seem to be lowering ourselves to the level of the very people we are protecting ourselves against.

Life Lessons From Sports

I must confess to my weakness in loving to watch Division I football (basketball, not so much), despite the fact that I am fully aware that what I am watching has nothing whatever to do with education and is almost certainly antithetical to the goals of education.

Having said that, I was watching the Army/Navy game on Saturday, December 8th when I was witness to one of those rare moments when one begins to think that there may be some sort of justification for sports in our colleges — even at that level. And I am aware that the service academies are a special case of Division I sports since those men and women are not vying for a spot on a professional sports team roster.

Army was working its way down field with just over a minute to play in the game, behind by 4 points, They had been hanging on to a 3 point lead until just minutes before when Navy scored a touchdown and took the lead. Now they were in Navy’s “red zone” on their way to a score. It appeared as though Army might be about to beat Navy for the first time in ten years. Not only has Navy dominated Army during that time, they have usually trounced their arch-enemies from the banks of the Hudson river. But this time it appeared things would work our for the Black Knights. Not so.

The Army quarterback muffed a hand-off to his halfback and the resulting fumble allowed Navy to run out the clock. The Army quarterback sat on the sidelines, head in hands, sobbing uncontrollably — which teaches us two things: (1) American TV loves to see car crashes, horrible hits, and grown men cry (the cameras lingered long and close to the sobbing man), and (2) important lessons can be learned from sports. Life isn’t always about winning; it’s also about losing — and when we lose we need to figure out how to deal with it. And in learning how to deal with we grow.

These are important lessons — trite as they may seem — especially in a culture where everyone is told he or she is a winner and there are no losers. Those lessons, repeated often in school and at home, on the TV, in songs, and in books on the shelves, have convinced us all that we deserve only the best. Ironically, this attitude leads to frustration and disillusionment when the person so informed comes face to face with reality. It can even lead to violence we are told. This is why sports are still very important in this culture: for the most part they are more honest than the rest of what is going on. There are winners and there are losers. The losers have to learn to “suck it up”  and move on.

Because of this, those who would turn sports into just another exercise in self-esteem should shut up and find honest work. The trend in kids’ sports to keep no score and award all participants a trophy of some sort is dishonest. It’s more of the same old Bullshit. In team sports kids learn about cooperation and working hard to achieve a goal. There are rules and penalties for breaking the rules. Kids also learn about competition which is perhaps not a good thing in itself (the jury’s out on that topic), but it is the way of this world. And if kids don’t learn about competition early on and also learn that winners are rewarded and losers are not, they will eventually come face to face with the harsh reality of the workplace and the world “out there” where that’s simply the way things are. And that can be traumatic.

In the real world we do lose occasionally and hopefully we learn from those losses. That’s how people grow. To maintain the fiction that everyone is a winner and there are no losers is telling kids lies that will hurt them deeply later on when they learn real-life lessons.  Sports are one of the few places left where kids can find out for themselves what life will be like later on, though they do need reminding that these are only games (as do we all).

Protecting Our Country

I have blogged about the reluctance of the Republican party to allow any cuts in “defense” spending — in spite of the fact that 60% of the budget they have pledged to cut to shreds is spent on the military in one form or another. In this regard a recent paragraph from a blogger friend jumped out and I thought it worth passing along:

Last year, the U.S. Army made an unusual request to Congress: Stop sending us tanks. That plea was issued after legislators ignored the Army’s objections and approved a defense appropriations bill that included $255 million for 42 new M1 Abrams tanks. With 2,300 M1s already deployed around the world, and 3,000 more sitting idle at a base in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, the military said it simply didn’t need any more tanks. But Ohio politicians pushed for the extra M1s, so as to keep open an 800-worker tank plant in the state. “A lot of lawmakers stuff funding into defense bills that could benefit their district,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, whose district is home to the tank plant, insisted that he supported the program for reasons of national security. “I think it’s in the best interests of the U.S. to defend our country,” he said.

Clearly waste in the Department of Defense is beyond our comprehension. Another article I read recently (also here) spoke about the waste of $5 billion by the Army attempting by trial and error to find camouflage that would protect the troops around the world — and make them look as “cool” as the Marines. Their camouflage, it turned out, made them more visible in every possible environment! They were unable to find the proper color combinations while the Marines simply went to Home Depot and looked at paint swatches and found the colors they wanted and had a material made in those colors which was then made into camouflage that works remarkably well — saving the taxpayers millions of dollars in the process.

I dare say there are many more stories like this that will never leak out as politicians are unwilling to turn a critical eye on “defense” spending since (as the above paragraph suggests) it would translate into a “weaker” country. Obviously defense spending is really less about defending our country than it is about defending special political interests. In any event this “weak” country would presumably result from a scheduled “sequestering” [reduction] of the military (which is opposed by Republicans in Congress (despite the fact that it would save the country $1.5 trillion over ten years). Our “weak” country would look something like this: it would only have 426,000 soldiers in the Army, only 1,512 fighter planes, only 230 ships in the Navy — not to mention the tanks alluded to above that are sitting and getting rusty and the tactical weapons we dare not mention. The question needs to be asked: what on earth is going on here? Just who are we defending ourselves from? It should be from the fat-cat politicians who talk about “national security” while they bed down with the corporations that make millions from selling defense equipment and weaponry.

Revenge is Bitter

There is more news from Kabul these days following the bizarre shooting of sixteen civilians by an American soldier recently. The story begins: KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan lawmakers expressed anger Thursday over the U.S. move to fly an American soldier accused of killing 16 civilians out of the country to Kuwait, saying Kabul shouldn’t sign a strategic partnership agreement with Washington unless the suspect faces justice in Afghanistan.

And more recently  we read: “In a near-simultaneous announcement, the Afghan Taliban said it was suspending nascent peace talks with the United States seen as a strong chance to end the country’s decade-long conflict . .  .”  This was predictable. But leaving aside for another time the tempting conspiracy theory that this soldier went “berserk” in order to purposely scuttle the talks with the Taliban, let’s turn our attention to the first story as it raises more pressing issues.

In one sense, the removal of the soldier from Kabul makes perfect sense in light of the fact that the Army wants to deal with its own. It always has and probably always will. But again given the unrest in the region and the attempts by this country to smooth over ruffled feathers following not only this incident, but also the recent burning of the Quran by American troops, the move to fly the soldier home seems unwise. In the Quran incident 30 people were killed and Afghan troops killed 6 American soldiers, an incident that was followed by anti-American demonstrations in the streets. These events, coupled with the fact that the U.S. would love to leave Afghanistan in relative tranquility (!), make clear the diplomatic dilemma.

If the shooting had happened in this country, I dare say there would be a huge outcry about the “criminal” being moved elsewhere. We would want to satisfy our blood lust. The families of those slain in Kabul feel the same way. Now whether or not we approve of revenge and blood-lust, it is a fact of life. We all share that urge. Law is simply a civilized way of channeling that urge. But it doesn’t satisfy on the visceral level. So we can understand the outrage the families are expressing in Afghanistan, even if we cannot condone it.

The Army has not ruled out the possibility that the soldier will be tried in Afghanistan, but one suspects this is merely rhetoric to sooth the outrage that is being expressed. What will be interesting is the question of whether he will be given justice in Kuwait or whether there will be an outpouring of sympathy in this country for the soldier who is mentally unstable and was at risk in a country brimming with hostility. Again, it’s a question of understanding, not condoning. By no moral standards can we condone what this man did. But we can understand why he might have done it under the circumstances, and we can certainly understand the outrage from those who want the man tried in the country where he committed the crime.

But the end result of this latest “episode” in Afghanistan simply proves that McGovern was right all along and that Obama should never have gotten himself more deeply involved in a country where chaos reigns. When will we ever learn?