Sunday, October 27, 2013

Good Morning Justin...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 27 October

James Madison  1788 Salesman of the Year

Good Morning Justin…

It is interesting to note that when George Washington became the first President of the United States there were only eleven states under the new union.   North Carolina ratified the Constitution the next year and Rhode Island came aboard in 1790.  Despite the reputations of luminaries like Washington and Benjamin Franklin backing the new government, there were many who believed the delegates to the Philadelphia convention of 1787 had overreached their authority in proposing a new Constitution, instead of modifying the existing Articles of Confederation.  What they were confronted with in 1788 was the framework for a single nation to replace the loose confederation of states, and a compact between the people and their new government that laid down rules for which ordinary citizens could govern themselves.  This fledgling foundation for democracy, untried since the ancient Greeks, was the first step in a difficult and, often painful, experiment in representative government – an evolving process that continues even today. 

Getting three hundred million people, of widely varied perspective and passionately held beliefs, to come to an agreement on a single course of action will always be a challenge, requiring persistence and patience from legislators of extraordinary talent.  Democracy, within the rule of law, is not governance through good will and comforting voices of reassurance.  It is an on-going family argument, a confrontation involving both individuals and groups, upholding with strong convictions their diametrically opposed views.  The strength that underlies good government is the recognition that nothing constructive is accomplished without compromise.  This means that people on both sides of the bargaining table, having finally struck an agreement, come away with the feeling that they somehow gave away too much for the cause of stability and the pragmatic goal of achieving what is ultimately possible.  We can only feel frustration when we believe with all our heart we should be celebrating a clean-cut, unmistakable victory.  Clearly, democracy is a dreadful means of managing this enormous, overly complex enterprise we call the United States of America.  I am open for alternative suggestions. 

They must, of course, retain all the guarantees of personal freedom and restraints on abusive power that I have long ago come to take for granted.  That means Democrats and Republicans forever eye one another and sound the alarm over any attempted shenanigans, Congress puts a lid on the White House while the White House threatens vetoes of acts by Congress, and the Supreme Court reigns in the excessive passions of all our elected officials while those same representatives of the people decide who it is that is going to reign them in. 

You can thank, among our founding fathers, the likes of James Madison for this Gordian knot approach to governance.  Any Federal action of consequence requires a near avalanche of certainty by legislators.  Either they are convinced they are working the will of the people or they feel justified in defying the will of their constituents and vote their conscience, knowing full well they may be swept from office at the next election.

We don’t often idealize our representatives in Washington.  After all, they generally share the same traits common to many of us, for better or worse.  The one thing that does set them apart, though, is that they are willing to stand before us and go on public record in declaring what it is they believe… usually.  It sometimes pays to be a bit slippery on the details if you plan to make a career in politics.  Showing up every election Tuesday with a majority of voters behind you requires a talent most people don’t have.  Being a politician means you need to bring diverse groups together into what is often an unlikely alliance.  It is up to you to find a binding common interest powerful enough to override the many conflicting goals these groups have amongst themselves.  It can mean something comparable to locking a constituent into buying a Kia when their heart was set on a Beemer.  It’s about persuasion and it’s sleight of hand.  Believe it or not the founding fathers knew all this.  They also were politicians.  They were asked to fix the old Articles of Confederation and, instead, they got the voters to drive off the lot in a brand new, gleaming U.S. Constitution.  Now that’s talent.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

October Odds and Ends


Good Morning Christa…

How can this be?  Donna has lived happily forever in her small, eccentric address near the shores of the Pacific.  I can’t imagine there is anything comparable available for her, anywhere.  How does she feel about grits, white lightening moonshine and the passionate rants of southern secessionists?  No, I don’t see a walk among Spanish moss and beneath magnolia a likely option for her, either.  She needs an attic room sturdy enough to hold her boxes of rocks, clocks and assorted bargain store treasures.

I want to soon see 12 Years a Slave.  I suspect my reaction to it will be much like how I felt about Schindler’s List – it’s the most wonderful movie I hope to never see again.  I rarely go to the theater, though.  Like Blue is the Warmest Color, this will probably be a movie I can wait to purchase when it is released on DVD.

You are, indeed, your neighbor’s keeper.  You take your Christianity seriously while I simply buy the book.  It gives me a good feeling while I read Christ’s teachings.  Too bad I can’t seem to schedule the time to turn his words into actions.  Is it possible I can find my way into Heaven with a grade of Satisfactory Intent?

I hear you.  You have the same reservations I have about political writing.  I want to approach issues with a broad brush and resist falling into the trap of dogmatism or of nitpicking to death the workings of government minutia.  I don’t want this to be about personalities but I certainly appreciate the bigger than life characters that are attracted to the bright beacon of power.  They are an absolute feast, and as a group they are generously seasoned with every possibility of human strength and foible.  They are all emperors without clothes, preening and pontificating, espousing sometimes equal parts wisdom and nonsense, and everyone, all the while, naked as jaybirds before the microphones and cameras.

Of course, I don’t expect to always meet my goals.  Goals are like the bull’s eye on a target.  Any number of reasons can have me land wide of the mark.  It can be as simple as drinking over-cooked coffee or not feeling loved by my dog.  Even words intended as a measure of reasoned thought are tirelessly inflected with the soft tramp of yearning for something more.

Winter cold has arrived.  Yesterday was the first morning with ice on the windshield.  If you’re an insect that has somehow survived this night you are certain to be finally serious about writing your last will and testament.  The curtain has dropped with a sudden, sharp thud on one more season of sunshine and frolic.  Most of us here have by now unpacked our heavy coats, gloves and thick stocking caps.  A few of the wealthier neighbors among us have undoubtedly booked passage destined for a lovely new spring south of the equator.  I’m thinking two weeks in Fiji will make for a splendid port of call.  Bon voyage, everyone.  Bon voyage!


Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Party Divided

Fight for the Republican Party

Congressman Bill Shuster

Small government activists like Matt Kibbe, CEO of FreedomWorks, expect Democrats to freely spend taxpayers’ money on big government solutions to contemporary problems.  They don’t expect, and won’t tolerate, Republican politicians in Washington pushing for passage of money bills that attract Democratic support.  One such Republican is Bill Shuster, a Congressman from the 9th District in Pennsylvania, now is his seventh term.  Shuster chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is the focus of conservative criticism for working with Democrats to produce HR 3080 – authorizing $8.2 billion over a period of ten years to finance Army Corps of Engineer waterway projects.   According to Shuster the bill actually saves money by cutting red tape and reducing bureaucratic logjams, replacing an antiquated, inefficient process of maintaining the nation’s inland waterways and harbors.  Additionally the bill saves $12 billion, according to its backers, by deauthorizing a number of previous projects.   The measure passed Wednesday in the House by a 417 to 3 vote. 

The most egregious sin for Tea Party types was Bill Shuster’s  voting ‘ yes’ on the bipartisan plan to restart the government and raise the current debt ceiling but plans had already been made to run a more conservative candidate against him in the upcoming 2014 Republican primary.  Art Halvorson, a commercial real estate broker, is the individual with the best chance of unseating Shuster next year.  His views fall in line with Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s beliefs that the Republicans need not have caved to the Democrats had they remained united in both the House and Senate.  Halvorson feels the long-term good of the nation would have been better served by continuing the fight even if it meant breaking through the debt ceiling.  From his perspective there were sufficient funds to continue paying the interest on the nation’s debt.  Former Republican Representative Jim Ryun of Kansas has endorsed Halvorson and his Washington based fund-raising organization, The Madison Project, has already spent money on TV ads in the district, attacking Shuster as a big-spending establishment insider that just doesn't get it.

Anticipating a likely primary challenge next year Congressman Shuster has amassed two million dollars to date in his campaign war chest.  He is not without powerful friends and he continues to be a magnet for large cash donations from trade groups and big business.  The US Chamber of Commerce has continuously supported Shuster’s efforts as chairman of the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  They are on record as saying he is committed to the best interest of business, encouraging new opportunities for private investment and working to decrease government regulation.  But what seems good enough for companies like Boeing Corporation and US Steel are, to Shuster’s detractors, just more of the same pork-barrel politics Washington has been guilty of ever since Franklin Roosevelt swept into office in 1932.

The coming contest for the Congressional seat representing the conservative countryside around Altoona, Pennsylvania is just one of a number of likely primaries that may well determine the direction of the Republican Party for years to come.  Will it continue as the party of business, whose economic interests sometimes come in conflict with the passionate impulses of grassroots Republicans, or will it purify itself of moderating voices and work vigorously to shift the center of power back, once again, towards the states?  What is clear is that the Republican Party cannot afford to break into two parties, both competing on a national level for the same conservative vote.  This is not the first time a national party has waged a war within its own ranks, between those most concerned with ideology and others who placed greater importance on electability.  It was Bill Clinton’s 1991 campaign for the presidency that forced a fractured, left-leaning Democratic Party back toward the center because party leaders came to recognize that a glass half-full was better than having no glass at all.  It is likely that Republicans, prior to 2016, will come to the same understanding.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Good Morning Jacob...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 20 October

I think I can...

Good Morning Jacob…

Ninth grade woodshop was a tight ship with Mr. Gilbert at the helm.  Our class was an elite crew as roll call started at seven each morning sharp, one hour before everyone else in the school.  Anyone late had to deal with Mr. Gilbert’s large flat cherry wood paddle, carefully designed with numerous holes drilled through the flattened portion of the bat to minimize drag and maximize sting.  You’d expect nothing less from the school’s premiere woodshop teacher. 

Most of the class made it a point of never being late but it might surprise you to know how many times a student had to brace himself, legs spread, rump up, and hands clenching the narrow sides of the doorsill.  The experience always left the recipient’s face flushed a deep red.  Mr. Gilbert was never apologetic.  For him this stern discipline was a rite of passage into manhood, nothing more or less.   For the student it was a point of honor not to fuss or quibble about such things.  Simply take your seat and feel proud you took it like a man.

If you managed to catch that time-suspended moment of news worthy crisis, you would have wanted to laugh at the ease Dan Feighan’s left pinkie finger separated from his hand and looped across the room.  It’s not like we all hadn't been warned countless times about the table saw.  You always use the doohickey to push your work through and pass the blade.  But there’s nine months to the school year and even in Mr. Gilbert’s shop class the boys have their quota of grab-ass.  This time it was just a matter of Dan caught up in conversation with Steve about Tricia being really hot and who could possibly care about her acne.  Who’s paying attention for you when your mind is visualizing her tight sweater on these cool autumn days?  God knows Steve wasn't.  He about blew a snot-bubble given his surprise.  Dan was stunned at first, and then overcome with concern that some idiot might next step on his freshly scrubbed, pink finger.

Mr. Gilbert’s first instinct was to grab the cherry wood paddle but, instead, he yelled for someone to bring him the first-aid kit while he went over to collect up the orphaned finger.  Somehow everyone figured it was time to power down all the woodworking tools.  Shop class was finished for the day.  Guaranteed by the end of lunch recess everyone in the school would know something about the incident in First Period Shop.  Certainly the recounting would have to be gorier than it actually was because, truth be known, the amount of blood spilled was a bit disappointing.  For story-telling purposes the level of emotion displayed was also unsatisfactory.  Gilbert’s shop was one mostly silent with dumbfounded curiosity, save for a couple of muttered wise-ass remarks coming from the back of the group and some smothered laughs. 

“Shut up and go sit in the classroom,” Gilbert said.  “That goes for you too, Frank.  You've got a smart mouth.  I’ll deal with you later.”

So now we’re all feeling culpable in some way or another, including Mr. Gilbert.  He’s already figuring on having to explain to Mr. Bates, our prissy principal, how this outrageous incident could possibly have occurred.  Damn it all to Hell!  Mr. Gilbert knew good and well he would shoulder all the blame.  No telling what else they’ll want to pry into.  You’d think Bates lived on Mt. Olympus.  Ninth grade boys and power saws are everywhere.   Let Bates handle this class.  Limbs would be flying off the walls. 

Feighan’s parents were talked out of having his finger reattached.  It would be more trouble than it was worth.  It’s not like he was destined to be the school’s quarterback or something.  Besides, he was right-handed.  He should consider himself lucky.  Mr. Gilbert left him alone.  He let all of us off the hook.  After roll call the following day he merely glared at the class and told us the remainder of the week would be a refresher course in shop safety.  That was punishment enough.  We all looked at Feighan, certain he should get the worst of the cherry wood paddle.  It was a fine paddle.  It had a comfortable grip and a well-balanced design.   We all admired the workmanship.  Hanging there from the shop wall it somehow epitomized the best Ninth Grade Woodshop had to offer.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Who's Afraid of Obamacare?

Public Enemy Number One

I have a friend in the area that spent many long hours for many long years working at the Philip-Morris factory near here.  The income he received provided his family a life of health and comfort and, thanks to the generous pension plan he got when he retired, he lives very well now.  Tobacco was a great provider for many of its people so long as you didn't use its product.  Charlotte, North Carolina became the financial center of the south because its banks were the premiere lender to the makers of the cigarette brands that became household names nationwide.

What was the mission statement of firms such as Philip-Morris, R. J. Reynolds and Liggett & Myers?  Judging by its product I would guess it was something on the order of ‘encourage people to inhale the smoke of burning leaves’ and, of course, strive to capture the largest market share of this portion of the population.  On the face of it you wouldn't think there was much promise to this business model.  After all, who gains any pleasure from inhaling smoke?  It would seem to appeal to the fringe elements of society – maybe people that pierce their tongue or tattoo their face would voluntarily try coughing with the aid of smoke. 

It’s all so ridiculous were it not for the pleasurable sensation that comes from inhaling the tobacco ethers.  Too bad smoking turned out to be so addictive.  Too bad it was also discovered to be such a hazard to one’s health.  I really miss being able to light up a hard-pack Marlboro red with my morning’s coffee.   What a shame this pastime turned out to be so flawed.  I can’t begin to appreciate the scale of tragedy its consequences brought to so many people.  But then every human enterprise has its downside.  Aircraft fly us quickly about the globe but a few of these flights end in disaster for all aboard.  Automobiles have given us unimagined personal mobility but they, too, have their dangers.  Computers and the internet have brought a revolution to human communications and, yet, some people have succumbed to spending much of their life in a virtual world.  The experiences of human life are both extraordinary and challenging.

Everything about the human enterprise has its challenges.  The greater the possibility a human endeavor has to enhance the individual lives within mankind, so then greater is the challenge likely to be.  No complicated work derived from human minds and hands is ever born into perfection.   Someone dreams a grand idea and then it’s given shape through our time-honored process of trial and error.  Can you name one example of great human ingenuity that didn't begin rough and didn't require a series of subsequent improvements?  I can’t think of anything – certainly not a program providing affordable health care for all.  Poor Barack Obama, what could he have been thinking?  Have you tried to enroll in an insurance plan on, yet?  It’s a disaster.  The site can’t handle the load.  Sure, the state exchanges seem to be working but the Federal site is swamped with people that think they need this product.  Apparently they haven’t been listening to their state government officials that won’t offer the service because… why?  Death panels?  It comes between you and the doctor you don’t already have?  You would prefer waiting for hours in expensive hospital emergency rooms for your care at the tax-payer’s expense.  Maybe you like the idea of being able to get insurance at the same premium rate as everyone else despite having a pre-existing condition but you don’t like the method of paying for it.  What a shame it is that perfectly healthy people also have to purchase health insurance.  Of course, the private health insurance companies that administer the program would soon go out of business if there wasn't available to them a large revenue pool to cover their expenses.  Funny, but isn't that how car insurance works?  People that don’t have wrecks shouldn't have to purchase insurance for their automobile.  It’s another example of government overreach.  Maybe the real problem with Obamacare is that it’s just going to be too difficult.  We can’t do it.  It’s not worth the effort.  Let’s dwell more on simpler, more profitable achievements like bottling beer, building slot machines and rolling cigarettes. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

John Boehner and the Republican Caucus

State of the Union 2011

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on right now in the wake of the government shutdown and the crisis of the debt ceiling.  The newly written Senate deal roughly ends in 3 months and there is fear that we will soon be faced, once again, with the kind of experience we just witnessed.  Let me give you my interpretation of events that provides the basis for my reason why I don’t believe Congress will soon repeat this episode.

We all know Speaker Boehner has been dealing with a rowdy caucus that has, on a number of occasions, undermined his preferred strategy to produce legislation.  He is a very experienced politician and he knows a lot can happen in a very short period of time to change the political equation.  Speaker Boehner knew his Tea Party wing of the Republican Party was spoiling for a fight – about the debt, about deficit spending, about Obamacare.  He also fully appreciated the upcoming 2014 elections were still just over a year away.  I suspect Boehner took a calculated risk and determined on a course of action that would cause him great personal pain but could also result in greater discipline and cohesion among his House Republicans – improving their chances of maintaining their current majority.  This certainly seems a real stretch given Republican approval ratings at the moment.  Disastrous Republican results at the polls may still come about if they don’t choose a change in course.  Republican members of the House need to repair their image by presenting a cohesive, disciplined message that highlights achievable solutions while muting tirades of righteous indignation.   How do they accomplish this?

First, Speaker Boehner has vastly improved his standing with his own caucus.  Despite suffering a painful political loss the members of Boehner’s caucus rewarded him Wednesday afternoon with a heartfelt standing ovation.  He has stood with them to the last moment and it has reduced their suspicions of him as to his Conservative credentials.  They respect and admire him for his loyalty to them and for his allowing them to take a course that, he knew all along, would result in this humiliating outcome.  The Republican House Class of 2010 is, for the most part, made up of political novices.  They've shown passion but little political sense.  This was a lesson Boehner felt they needed to learn and, he gambled, they could get away with receiving a real shellacking because there’s plenty of time for new battles to wage and opportunities to win back voter sympathy.  But this would require a Republican caucus stung by defeat and as a result, its members would give Boehner a new-found respect for his judgment.  They would more likely be willing to take his advice in future confrontations with Democrats and the White House.

Second – government funding ends in January and the debt-ceiling will need to be raised in February.  Washington will not likely repeat the experience suffered in October, 2013.  2014 is an election year.  Voters will punish repeat offenders at the polls; so will big money Republican contributors.  This is not to say some Republican Congressmen won’t leave the Reservation and take to the war path.  They can be tolerated.  But they won’t be allowed the keys to the car and steer the Party’s course.  The Republican Caucus will remain just as hard-headed conservative in their instincts as they are now but they hopefully will bring greater reason and discipline to their argument.  They will more carefully choose their battles.  They will more likely consider the advice of legislators experienced in dealing with the Senate, the White House, the media and outside political groups.  If so they could be more persuasive but far less entertaining.

From past experience we can all feel cynical about the upcoming negotiations between House and Senate conferees.  What can they possibly accomplish that any number of past Blue Ribbon committees could not?  Once again, it is likely to end in more gridlock unless both parties find advantage in compromise – or at least appear to give more concern for the nation’s welfare than in energizing their political base.  Previous panels, having distinguished members, have tackled this country’s most difficult issues and their subsequent recommendations have been largely ignored by Washington’s lawmakers.  What's so different now?  Maybe it’s the mood of Washington and the nation.  Following the degrading dust-up we've all just endured may have made us receptive to a reasoned, more cooperative approach to settling our issues.  We've been battling among ourselves as though we view our fellow countrymen as this nation’s enemies.  At some point the anger has to subside if we are ever to accomplish anything constructive.

I see that Paul Ryan will be among the House Republican conferees and Patty Murray will be among those representing Senate Democrats.  These are two, highly regarded, respected legislators.  They are among the best of a new generation of this country’s political leaders.  They don’t grandstand.  They are thoughtful.  They have firm convictions but they are also willing to listen.  They both believe we are a vibrant, dynamic nation with a great future ahead of us.  I like their optimism.  I am hopeful.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Good Morning Jessicca...

Letter to my Daughter
Sunday, 13 October

Being Normal

Good Morning Jessicca…

No one is normal.  We all say it.  We all know it’s true.  We just don’t realize how much it is true, especially when it comes to ourselves.  Well, maybe when it does involve ourselves we might actually have a good appreciation just how off we really are.  Does it matter?

Luke crushed his cigarette and took a good long look at Janet.  He could take his time examining her now because she was wrapped up in one of those sexy shows she liked to watch on TV.  She was writing him again and he knew it.  There was no point in talking about it.  The conversation never went anywhere and he always wound up feeling like an idiot after all was said and done.  It was a no win for him and he knew she somehow always felt a triumph savored, afterward.  She had gotten through.  It was never fair.  He hated her.  He hated her now, for the moment.  Later he would just resent her.  It would simmer until he loved her again.  She was a snake charmer to him.  He would feel all kinds of pissy, a smoldering rage on the back burner, barely steaming, and she would burst out saying something that would use one of her made-up words.

“So, what’s doing in the way of groks tonight, Boobie?”

He glanced at her.  It wasn’t enough.  He had to look her full in the face.  She was dying to tease him.  It was the way she smiled.  She was holding back something.  It was sure to be something outrageous.  It was sure to make him laugh.  Everything tightly bundled up within lapsed and loosely dropped away.  The fear and anger went out with the tide.  She would always be more fun than anyone he would ever know.  This was certain.  He could never know such unsettled intensity with anyone else.  That’s how he felt now taking her all in, standing in front of him, barely stitched in her careless, skimpy clothes, one leg bent and crossed over in front of the other.  The window light brushed all the highlights.  She was a meal and a half.  He was now fully awake and she knew it.  He had pushed all the anger aside.  He would hate her again, only later.  Now she was time to eat.

Let’s just say the film in the projector in the theater broke at just this point.  The screen goes rude with white.  A chorus of groans is followed with a small commotion of management promises, and apologies waved off by people heading for the lobby and a chance to grab a smoke.  It’s a movie house and not one of those multiplex, stadium seating palaces found anchoring down one end of the mall.  The carpets are threadbare and the restroom smells of bleach.  If you’re lucky you come with someone that talks your talk.  Otherwise you come alone because this old dump on 5th Avenue is playing something you can’t afford to miss. 

Every life starts for real the first time you take up with someone you know full well is bound to end badly, but all that matters now is the chance to capture the present.  You might think you can spend a whole life capturing the present but it isn’t going to happen.  Life isn’t that generous.  Chances are the first heartbreak was your best.  After that, a bit of numbness begins to set in.  Love - when you find it again, it isn’t as full-blown as it once was and, when things invariably fall apart or dwindles away, raging despair is likely replaced by a dulled sense of disappointment. 

I hear you saying, “No.  That’s not how it works for me.”
Good.  Then you’ve got a different story to tell.  There’s plenty of room available for more than one.  But I can tell you one thing.  You’re not normal.  Your story isn’t normal.  Your life is an exaggerated narrative for just another unlikely book.  Either that or, plainly, you don’t exist.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013


1940 Battle of France

Even following the results of World War I Germany remained the nation with the greatest economic potential of all Western Europe.  Given its industrial and intellectual resources the German nation would have likely achieved its current standing among nations many decades ago without resorting to war.  This obviously was not apparent to the followers of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, whose ambitions were beyond any diplomatic solution.   Resorting to conventional military tactics to achieve Germany’s aims was not an option as the nation could not sustain a prolonged war of attrition.  Hitler employed a strategy of isolating one’s enemies, one at a time, then following up with a quick, decisive military victory.  This approach required a tactical doctrine that took advantage of the newest military technologies.

The world witnessed the devastating effect that Blitzkrieg had on Allied forces in 1940’s Battle of France.  Hitler’s armies held the initiative during the entire course of the battle, despite the fact that French and British forces were equivalent in strength to their German adversaries.  Allied commanders had no counter to Germany’s lightening warfare that combined a focused armored punch with breakout speed and mobility.

There are five essential elements to Blitzkrieg tactical doctrine.

1.            Surprise.  The idea is to limit one’s own loses by striking hard with a spearhead of tanks at a soft-point of the enemy.  In 1940 this involved the use of deception.  French and British Allied commanders expected Germany to sweep through the Low Countries of Belgium and Holland much as they did in 1914 prior to their invasion of northern France.  Germany encouraged this belief by moving a large army swiftly into the area, much as they had done at the start of World War I.  But this was not the real offensive.  It was only a feint to draw the Allied forces forward, leaving them vulnerable to the real attack that was coming through the Ardennes, several miles to their southeast.

2.            Air Control.  While the ground forces of the opposing armies were roughly equivalent in strength, the German Luftwaffe retained a significant advantage over the allied air forces in both quantity and quality of their aircraft.  German fighter aircraft were quickly able to dominate the skies, enabling German dive-bombers to coordinate their precision strikes in support of advancing German tanks.  The Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter had no equals over the skies of France save for a few, underrepresented, British Spitfires.  This enabled the Junkers Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber to act as airborne artillery, picking off enemy strong-points in support of German armor on the ground.  Attacks from the air were also instrumental in disrupting enemy attempts at supplying and reinforcing frontline troops.  Communications facilities were attacked, sowing further confusion.

3.            Breakthrough.  Blitzkrieg doctrine concentrated overwhelming force onto a narrow front of the enemy’s line in order to quickly breach the opposition’s defense and then rapidly pour its forces into the weakly defended backfield.  While the allied armies of the west generally distributed their tanks as support for their infantry, German tactics called for specialized panzer divisions.  In 1940 these divisions each had about 240 tanks along with assorted other support vehicles.  There were seven such panzer divisions that broke out of the Ardennes forest in May of that year.  They were quickly followed up by three mechanized infantry divisions whose role was to provide flank defense for the initial breach.  This armored surge was aided in its mission by Stuka aircraft that took out enemy strongpoints using accurate dive-bombing from overhead.

4.            Deep Strikes.  Germany’s military tactics were designed to achieve a quick victory while avoiding actual battle as much as possible.  Once their armored units had achieved a breakthrough they used their speed and mobility to disrupt enemy communications as well as suppress opposition efforts at resupply, reinforcement and any organized counterstrike.  The panzer divisions were capable of reaching thirty miles within a day while follow-up infantry units maneuvered to envelope and dismantle the opposing force.  This rapidity of movement created confusion among allied commanders in 1940.  The result was a paralysis of indecision.  How should they respond?  Where should they respond?  Was the enemy’s objective the Channel coast or was it Paris?  It’s important to military commanders to keep the enemy guessing so they cannot easily concentrate their defenses. 

Penetrating deep behind enemy lines is the phase of blitzkrieg with the greatest potential for the enemy’s destruction.  It is also the point of the attacking army’s greatest vulnerability.  To better appreciate the problems inherent in blitzkrieg let’s first quickly look at the technological advances that occurred following the First World War.  Certainly the most dramatic advances occurred in aircraft design and performance.  The military planes of 1940 were much faster, had greater range and payload and were considerably more rugged than the wood and canvas biplanes of 1918.  Tank performance also far exceeded the first tentative efforts in tank design made by the British near the close of World War I.  These first tanks proved of little value in actual battlefield conditions.  Their slow speed and unreliability made them incapable of exploiting a breakthrough of enemy lines. 

Most everyone appreciates the contribution tanks and planes made to blitzkrieg.  But there is a third contribution that proved fundamental to the success of ‘lightening warfare’ and is often overlooked.  Fast and mobile armored units stretched the range of the battlefield many times beyond what it had once been in more conventional conflicts.  Command and control of one’s own units wouldn’t have been possible under these circumstances twenty years previously.  Improvements in radio changed this and enabled ‘real time’ communications over vast areas.  Radios were now more powerful and more reliable in different terrains and under varied weather conditions.  Most important, though, was the fact that radios had become portable.  They fit in tanks and planes.  Commanders could interact with their units and coordinate their maneuvers.  Planes could better collaborate with the ground troops they were aiding.  Commanders were aware of their units’ status and disposition, enabling armored penetrations that would have been reckless had they been moving blind.

The fact that armored spearheads were able to quickly cover vast distances created another danger.  Their long, thin probes left their flanks vulnerable to an enemy counterattack.  While the German assault into northern France in 1940 had available to it three mechanized infantry divisions that were capable of keeping pace with the tanks, they were not enough.  The vast majority of Germany’s infantry still moved on foot.  At various times the tanks had to wait for foot soldiers to make up the ground.  Tanks were also limited logistically.  Much of the German army’s supply was the responsibility of horse-drawn wagons.  Despite these drawbacks the effect of blitzkrieg on the opposing force was both dramatic and devastating. 

5.            Follow-up.  A very small portion of the German army actually decided the issue in the Battle of France in 1940.  But once armor has achieved the battlefield advantage there is still the need for large numbers of troops to secure the ground recently won.  Without the follow-up of a mass army a tank assault is little more than a cavalry charge into vast stretches of land.  It’s an exhilarating sight but ultimately on no consequence.

Good Morning Jack...

Letter to my Son
Wednesday, 9 October


Happy Birthday Jack!

Sixteen is a milestone.  Enjoy the moment.  Make sure someone captures you in a photo.  At some point during this day sit down and make a journal entry.  Hold onto it like it is a time capsule.  It will make for an interesting reference point.  Buckle up.  Your life only speeds up from here.

It has been too many years since we last talked.  You were very young.  Now your life is mostly mystery to me.  But I still know you, in the intuitive way any Dad feels he knows his kids.  So let me say this - you were meant to express your thoughts in writing.  I don’t say this because I necessarily believe you’re destined to be an author of books.  That may well come to pass but it isn’t necessary.  As I well remember, you have wonderful ideas and you show a talent for expressing your thoughts with potent words and clear phrase.

The process of living is what occupies the writer with something particularly worthy to say.  One’s own personal experience is center-most to understanding the lives of those around you.  You can’t run from the joys and pains of love, for starts.  Reward yourself by experiencing all the human feelings granted to us in life.  It gives us our needed point of view.  There’s always conflict involved in finding one’s own perspective.  Examine all that it is you feel.  Carefully note your own difficulties and involuntary thoughts when lost in emotions of love, anger, loss, irritation, triumph.  You name it.  You’ll have plenty of opportunity to give all of it expression.  If you’re parched in the desert you can douse your thirst the first chance you get or you can first fumble with the canteen cap.  This detail of impatience better tells the reader what he needs to know.  If you depict experience with honesty you enable them to be in your place or that of your character.  They don’t want to read about a dead body being discovered.  They want to experience stumbling across the body themselves.  Often, while reading compelling prose, I find myself thinking, “God, I know how you feel.  Now what do you do?  Really!”  Either I relate to what happens next or I’m surprised, but hopefully not disbelieving.  You don’t want to remind me you’re concocting a story.

Sounds like fiction writing, doesn't it?  It doesn't have to be.  So long as you’re not authoring a legal contract you can let your reader know there is a human being behind these words, no matter the topic.  If you thoroughly understand your subject you can even weave the principles of chemistry into a compelling narrative.  That sounds like a stretch but the activities of people always has the potential for an interesting story.  So why aren't textbooks more fascinating?  This is a special case.  Textbooks aren't about being popular.  Their success requires not offending the greatest number of people in order to meet the approval of school boards from Kansas to Texas to California.  If you write something of interest it is bound to offend someone.  You might say the same thing about truth.  Truth will set you free or really set you off.  Schools have enough challenge teaching kids without having to deal with a raucous gathering of inflamed parents.  School book truth is safe truth or it doesn't see the light of day, if at all possible.  It takes real talent to be equally dull to everyone.

I considered taking up writing but it required something I spent too many years running from – life itself.  What is it one can write that is of interest to anyone while playing it safe?  OK, I’m sure there are a few stories that are both clever and innocuous but let’s say I’m interested in reaching an audience that’s lived a few years.  How do I hold the interest of people faced with the challenges of their own complicated lives?  I’d better know something of what I’m talking about.  Even a story wrapped in fantasy requires authenticity in the characters portrayed.  I can’t depict believable reactions involved in human conflict if I've carefully avoided stressful situations in my own life.  Living life fully is one that involves taking risks; and risk necessarily involves familiarity with failure and disappointment as well as celebrating the occasional reward.  We take on a full plate of experiences knowing that we’re going to have to consume it all as best we can.  If I’m at all finicky about this then I give up on writing and settle for witnessing the interesting lives others lead on TV.

So now you've turned sixteen.  The truly engrossing aspects of being human are just now being made available to you.  Keep yourself open to possibility.  Have fun.  Be brave… and have pen and paper at the ready.  Happy Birthday!


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Good Morning Justin...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 6 October

I've lost a step with age

Good Morning Justin…

When you’re young falling in love truly is as easy as falling off a log.  With experience and age, though, romantic love may involve all the scrutiny a loan application gets from the bank.  Sex is no longer the compelling lighthouse beacon that once drew me forward through the fog years of my youth.  I was a firefly chasing dancing lights in the night.  Too often that magic moment under the stars was all about the rule of biology and reason be damned.  That’s not love, though, is it?  No.  I’m comparing the crisp tart of an apple with the sweet juice of an orange.  Let me start again. 

Love could be as illusionary as standing amidst a bevy of reflections in a room of funhouse mirrors.  What’s real?  Sure, there was always the question of whether someone really loved me.  The more important question for me, though, was whether I truly loved the one I was going through all that trouble to chase.  Let’s give myself the benefit of the doubt and believe it’s true when I say, “I love you.”  Great, I’m not a jerk – yet.  Now here’s where the relationship goes dicey.  I’m head over heels in love with this wonderful woman and we’ll assume she feels the same for me.  This is real heaven.  I’m better than the man I ever thought I could be.  I think thoughts and have feelings I never thought I could express.  I amaze myself at the kindness I feel and how considerate I am for the person I love.  And it’s all so effortless.  This whole marvelous attitude even spills over to my feelings for people I don’t even know.  I smile and say, “Good Morning!” to the checkout lady even though I have been in line for twenty minutes.  I’m in love and the world’s beautiful.  This is all so amazing.  So what’s the problem?

Romance is like a drug high.  You eventually have to come down.  It’s as certain as gravity on earth.  We wouldn’t benefit from the civilization we have if we were all spending each and every day as though it was our honeymoon.  Life returns to normal and so does the one you love.  Most people hope and expect their most significant relationship in life is forever.  But if it isn’t we endure a hard fall, followed by a shattering break.  Then we spend the next couple of years picking up the pieces.  Woe is me.

We’re talking a marathon if the whole thing works.  It’s not like romance at the movies.  Boy gets girl.  Boy loses girl.  Boy gets girl in a crescendo finish.  They embrace in a swooning kiss.  The End.  You come out of the movie, hand in hand with the one you love.  The two of you get in the car, nudge out of the parking space, and drive home.  The two of you buy groceries.  Together you repair the house.  You pay bills as a team and adjust the budget.  You disagree and argue from time to time.  You’re together for breakfast and dinner day after day, through all the seasons, through all the years, and the many trials and all the tests to the relationship from outside interests.  There are surprises that are sometimes heart-warming or are, at times, heart-rending.  It’s all in the life of a marriage or, at least, a relationship that feels like a marriage.

I don’t know about you but I can’t sustain my best behavior for more than a couple of hours, at most.  Give me a week and I’ll show you my best impersonation of dull and rude.   Of course, we can always hop in bed and stir the coals when the daily grind doesn’t feel fresh and spritely.  I’ll even think to brush my teeth first.  Yeah, it’s OK.  But I have to admit I ran out of fireworks quite a while back.  I’m a creature of habit.  Was it good for you?  Great, now let’s turn on the TV and get out the crackers and cheese.

Chuckles was depressed because he didn’t like the way his ears flopped over and there was nothing he could do about it.  He starred at his reflection again.  He could clearly see that both ears bent near the middle and then drooped over onto themselves.  It wasn’t normal. 

Why is it we have premium cable and yet there is never anything on.  Why is that, Honey?  Oh, your feet are cold.  Stop that!  Alright you’re going to get it.  And I mean in the worst sort of way.

By the way, how’s things with you?


Friday, October 4, 2013

Objective: France 1940

Blitzkrieg from the Ardennes

German armor in the Ardennes

With the defeat of Poland in September 1939, Hitler turned immediately to the problem of his western border and hostilities with both Britain and France.  Hitler’s strategy had always been for Germany’s eventual expansion into the vast open spaces of the Soviet Union, particularly the grain and mineral rich region of the Ukraine.  Then, too, there was southern-most Russia, rich in oil, along the Caspian Sea.  All this treasure was out of reach so long as Germany feared having to do battle on two fronts – Russia in the east and the allied forces of Britain and France to the west.

Hitler needed a plan that would quickly eliminate England and France’s military threat before proceeding with an invasion of Russia.  In October 1939 the German Military High Command proposed an offensive that was much like the Schlieffen Plan Germany used in 1914.  Even if this assault through the low countries of Belgium and Holland and continuing into northern France proved successful, it would not provide the quick, decisive victory Hitler needed.  The Allied armies would be pushed back but not destroyed.  Germany simply did not have the resources available to it to successfully prosecute a prolonged war of attrition.  The take-over of Austria and Czechoslovakia had been bloodless.  Victory in Poland had been swift.  Hitler’s plan to dominate Europe involved first isolating one’s adversary from their natural allies before dispatching them in short order.  His non-aggression pact with Stalin allowed him to safely focus on the west, but now his generals were charged with the daunting challenge of designing an offensive that could quickly defeat an opponent of equal size and strength.

General Erich von Manstein brought Hitler a plan that intrigued him with its boldness.  There would once again be swift movement by German forces into both Belgium and Holland but it would be a feint, drawing the best of the British and French forces forward to prearranged defensive positions along the rivers Dyle and Meuse in Belgium.  The intended knockout punch would be delivered to the southeast, along a lightly defended line facing the dense Ardennes forest.  French commanders were convinced this region of wilderness and rugged terrain was a natural barrier that would block a large enemy assault.    

There was complacency in the disposition of troops in the area around the French town of Sedan.  They were mostly lightly armed infantry, often older in age, and not of the caliber a commander would rely upon for a critical mission.  When the freight train of panzer divisions broke suddenly from the Ardennes forest these soldiers held their ground but they barely slowed the irresistible force of massed tank attack coordinated with the precision bombing of German Stukas diving from above.  This was a new form of warfare.  It emphasized armor, speed and a narrow focus of attack. 

Despite having defensive positions along the Meuse River French lines were breached in multiple locations by the following morning.  German armor, led by Heinz Guderian, penetrated deep into the open countryside, enveloping the opposing forces, spreading confusion and causing a paralysis of indecision among the French high command.  The assault, spearheaded by seven German panzer divisions, would rapidly make their way west toward the French coast.  The allied military response was unable to blunt the drive.  Soon the finest of the French army, as well as the entire British Expeditionary Force, found themselves surrounded, cutoff from reinforcement and supplies. 

France would hold out a few more weeks but the issue had been resolved within the space of ten days.  Britain’s escape at Dunkirk would one day prove disastrous for the Third Reich in ways a triumphant Germany could not now imagine.  For the present there was only gloom in London and Washington.  Democracy had been extinguished in Europe.  The great western cities of Paris, Berlin, Rome, Prague and Vienna were all under the oppressive rule of fascist dictators – men having only contempt for the free exchange of thought.  At the time they seemed invincible.  But among the defeated there were those strong of heart that knew this had been only the opening round.

Related Topics:

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11 May 1940 - Flanders