Archive for the ‘Misc.’ Category

What do college students really think of the war in Gaza and the campus protests?

Wednesday, May 8th, 2024

They’re ambivalent.

College protests against Israel’s war in Gaza are dominating headlines. But only a sliver of students are participating or view it as a top issue, according to a new Generation Lab representative survey of 1,250 college students.

Generation Lab is a data intelligence company studying and measuring attitudes and views of American youth on current issues and policies, such as key social, political, economic, and health trends. The firm works with NBC News, the New York Times, and other leading media organizations.

In the survey released this week, the firm found that college students, on the whole, rank the war in Gaza low on a list of serious issues they care about, with only 13% saying the issue is important to them.

Digging deeper, the survey reveals only a small minority (8%) of them have participated in either side of the protests.

Moreover, three times as many college students blame Hamas for the current situation in Gaza than they do President Biden. Specifically, 34% blame Hamas, while 19% blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 12% blame the Israeli people, and 12% blame Biden.

The survey also found an overwhelming majority (81%) of students support holding protesters accountable, agreeing with the notion that those who destroyed property or vandalized or illegally occupied buildings should be held responsible by their university.

A majority (67%) of the surveyed students also say occupying campus buildings is unacceptable and 58% agree it’s unacceptable to refuse a university’s order to disperse.

The student demonstrations—which have included on-campus encampments and building takeovers—have been met with suspensions, expulsions, arrests, police force and canceled commencement ceremonies.

So far, Columbia University and the University of Southern California have cancelled graduation commencement exercises. A protester disrupted graduation ceremonies at Northeastern University, but the event went on, anyway.

This senior class is the same class that lost its high school graduation ceremonies due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, many will once again get their college diploma by mail, although Columbia plans on holding small ceremonies at each of its four undergraduate schools and 16 graduate schools.

CNN interviewed one of the protesters, a senior, at USC. She was asked about the commencement cancellation, and replied, “A cancelled commencement is a small price to pay for Palestinian freedom.” Given that the Generation Lab survey found the war in Gaza ranked 9th on a list of important issues to college students, this comment seems remarkably hubristic.

The Generation Lab survey has a margin of error is +/- 2.7 percentage points.

Presented without (much) comment

On NBC’s Meet The Press this past Sunday, host Kristen Welker tried seven times to get Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) to say if he would accept the results of the upcoming election if Donald Trump lost. Scott, who is believed to be doing all in his power to become Trump’s running mate and Chief Sycophant, refused to do so. I give Welker points for a good try.

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators nearly ended the war three months after it began. This is the story of their failure.

Friday, May 3rd, 2024

On 16 April, writing in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko detailed a series of talks between Ukrainian and Russian representatives that took place between early March and late May, 2022, aimed at creating an agreement to end the fighting that had begun with Russia’s unprecedented invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. The talks involved concessions on both sides.

The world watched what it thought were pro forma talks that were never going to go anywhere. What the world did not know was how close the negotiators came to a deal that would have ended the fighting.

Charap is Distinguished Chair in Russia and Eurasia Policy and a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. Radchenko is Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Europe. These are not lightweights.

Charap and Radchenko argue that a war Putin expected to be a cakewalk was in its first two months proving anything but, especially when its troops were routed on their way to Kyiv and were forced to beat a hasty withdrawal, a withdrawal that did not allow them time to cover up the atrocities they had committed in Bucha and Irpin. Nevertheless, even before that, in mid-March, Putin suddenly became open to talking. He appeared to have abandoned his initial idea of outright regime change in favor of taking whatever he could get through diplomatic negotiation.

At the beginning of the talks, Russia’s two major demands were, first, Ukraine must agree never to join NATO, and, second, it must significantly reduce the size and capability of its armed forces. According to the Ukrainian negotiators, in addition to not being able to defend itself, agreeing to the Russian demands amounted to nothing more than Ukrainian capitulation. For their part, the Ukrainian negotiators insisted on a Russian withdrawal to pre-invasion lines, but showed openness on many other key issues, such as, through negotiations over the next fifteen years resolving the problem of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

But things changed on 31 March when Ukrainian troops arrived in Bucha and found the  mutilated, tortured, raped, and executed bodies of about 450 civilians lying in streets and mass graves. President Zelenskyy went to see the carnage himself, the first time he had left Kyiv since the invasion. His revulsion and anger were palpable, and his position hardened.

But the two sides continued talking.

The authors write:

By the end of March 2022, a series of in-person meetings in Belarus and Turkey and virtual engagements over video conference had produced the so-called Istanbul Communiqué, which described a framework for a settlement. Ukrainian and Russian negotiators then began working on the text of a treaty, making substantial progress toward an agreement. But in May, the talks broke off. The war raged on and has since cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides.

The Istanbul Communiqué of 29 March 2022 included ten proposals that Charap and Radchenko write, “would have ended the war and provided Ukraine with multilateral security guarantees, paving the way to its permanent neutrality and, down the road, its membership in the EU.”

Why did the talks fail and, if they had not, what would have been the result?

Given the Ukrainian army’s success in forcing the Russian army’s retreat from around Kyiv and the horrid discoveries in Bucha and Irpin, it would be easy to lay the failure of negotiations there, and they certainly had a great deal to do with it. But it’s more complicated than that, as proven by the two sides continuing to talk for nearly another two months.

Charap and Radchenko list a number of reasons, all logical, for the collapse of the talks:

  1. Ukraine’s early battlefield victories in defeating the Russian Army’s attempt to capture Kyiv, which gave Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy hope for actually winning the war;
  2. The 31 March discovery of Russian atrocities, war crimes really, in Bucha and Irpin that further hardened Ukrainian resolve;
  3. A provision of the agreement requiring Russia to agree to Ukraine’s entrance into the European Union in exchange for Ukraine’s agreement to remain neutral and never join NATO, a provision which Ukraine’s western allies refused to agree to;
  4. The western allies commitment at the time to do all in their power to bring Russia down, both militarily on the battlefield and economically through increasingly onerous sanctions, a position they pressed on President Zelenskyy (who did not need a lot of pressing); and,
  5. The requirement that Ukraine’s western allies guarantee Ukraine’s permanent neutrality, which would have created new commitments for the U.S. and its allies to ensure Ukraine’s security in the event of another Russian attack sometime in the future.

It is that last point, the one about guaranteeing Ukraine’s permanent neutrality, that concerns me. This happened once before, and the guarantee led to and precipitated World War I.

Let me explain by taking you back to the Netherlands, to Belgium, to the 1831 Conference of London, to the 1839 Treaty of London, and, 75 years later, to August 1914.

The Netherlands controlled Belgium from 1815 to 1830. In July of 1830, the Belgians revolted and proclaimed their country an independent kingdom. Fighting, of course, ensued. In 1831 at the Conference of London the major Europeans countries recognized Belgium’s de facto independence. For the rest of the 1830s, the Netherlands and Belgium were sporadically at war.

In 1939, in the Treaty of London, the Five Great Powers — Austria, France, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom — officially recognized the independent Kingdom of Belgium and also pledged to guarantee Belgium’s permanent neutrality. This meant that if any country, including the five Treaty signers, violated Belgium neutrality, the other co-signatories would come to Belgium’s aid.

Despite the Treaty of London, Germany declared war on France and, taking the shortest route, invaded Belgium on 4 August 1914 on its way to Paris (which its armies never reached, just as Putin’s Blitzkrieg never reached Kyiv). That evening, Britain declared war on Germany, because it had pledged to do so 75 years earlier by signing the Treaty of London. Informed by the British ambassador that Britain would go to war with Germany over the latter’s violation of Belgian neutrality as guaranteed by the Treaty of London, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg said he could not believe Britain would do this over a mere “scrap of paper.” But that scrap of paper is what turned a German rematch of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, into World War I, a war which killed an estimated 70–85 million people, about 40 million of whom were civilians.

The pledge of “guaranteed neutrality” is a wickedly heavy responsibility. In this case it would elevate Ukraine to the same standing as NATO countries all governed by NATO’s Article 5, which states that an armed attack on one member state is considered an attack on all member states. Essentially, Ukraine, without being a member of NATO, would have the same protection as every NATO member, the same protection Belgium had in 1914.

Would that be in the best interests of the wider international community? I think it would, but would such a deal deter Putin from further aggression?

Western leaders didn’t seem to think it would. Yaroslav Trofimov, writing for the Wall Street Journal, reported that on 9 April 2022, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson turned up in Kyiv —the first foreign leader to visit after the Russian withdrawal from the capital. He reportedly told President Zelensky that he thought “any deal with Putin was going to be pretty sordid.” Any deal, he recalled saying, “would be some victory for him: if you give him anything, he’ll just keep it, bank it, and then prepare for his next assault.”

I also have a hard time imagining what would happen if, at some distant time, a future Russian leader even more rapacious and power hungry than Vladimir Putin — if that’s possible — were to come to power craving to wrestle Ukraine back into the bosom of mother Russia. In that case, the world might find itself thrown right back to 1914 all over again.

Meanwhile, President Zelensky’s position, which hasn’t changed since he walked through what he called the “genocide” in Bucha and Irpin, is to demand a full withdrawal of Russian troops from all Ukrainian lands conquered since 2014, including Crimea, and the prosecution of Russian officials suspected of war crimes.

Considering all of this complexity, when this war ends, and some day it will, if there is to be any negotiated settlement, the signatories would do well to remember the 1839 Treaty of London and its, at the time, unforeseen and tragic, consequences.

 

 

 

Twenty-three million Americans will lose internet access tomorrow unless the House acts today

Monday, April 29th, 2024

Do you doubt that reliable high-speed broadband is crucial for economic growth and improving productivity? Probably not.

A broadband connection gives firms access to a larger pool of resources, suppliers, and customers, enhancing business growth in both urban and rural regions. But building a nation of broadband connectivity requires having a wired system in place through which information travels, as well as convincing people that buying into the system enhances their economic prosperity to a point that makes the cost worth it.

And there’s the rub. Even now, millions of people, 23 million to be precise, can not afford the full monthly cost of a broadband connection. As a result, these people are disproportionately disadvantaged and, consequently, do not have an equal opportunity to succeed and thrive in America. Consider that less than 4% of citizens earning more than $70,000 annually do not have broadband, compared to 26% of those earning below $20,000 annually.

On November 21, 2021, President Biden signed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, one part of which attacked this problem.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law consists of three key approaches to expanding broadband coverage and adoption, including the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), and the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP). Currently, the FCC defines broadband as a connection with a download speed of more than 25 Mbps and an upload speed of more than 3 Mbps. However, the FCC recently recommended that the standard be increased to 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps for upload.

The BEAD program has so far resulted in thousands of miles of wired connectivity being laid throughout rural America. The Congressional Research Service concludes $42.45 billion in BEAD funding has gone to expanding broadband infrastructure.  But if people can’t afford to access it, what good is it? That’s where the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) comes in.

The ACP provides a subsidy for households to purchase broadband connections; eligible families can receive a discount of up to $30 per month, while those on tribal lands can receive up to $75 per month. The program allocates $14.2 billion for broadband investment and provides up to a $100 discount for a computer or tablet.

A February 2024 economics working paper by Matthew Sprintson and Edward Oughton examined the GDP effect of the the three cited programs within the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and concluded the total direct contribution to US GDP by those programs could be as high as $84.8 billion, $55.2 billion, and $5.99 billion for the BEAD program, ACP, and TBCP, respectively. Thus, overall, the broadband allocations could expand US GDP by $146 billion (0.13% of annual US GDP over the next five years). Consequently, for every dollar spent on the ACP, the nation’s GDP increases by $3.89.

Sound good? It’s a real win/win, isn’t it. Poor people get a chance to be part of the broadband revolution in America allowing them to have a better chance of pulling themselves out of poverty, and America gets a significant bump in GDP.

If only it were that simple. At this moment, it appears the BEAD, ACP, and TBCP have just hours to live.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act set the BEAD, ACP, and TBCP programs to run through April, 2024. The Biden Administration assumed (perhaps wrongly) Congress would reauthorize the programs once they proved themselves, which they have done. However, Speaker Mike Johnson, for some reason (he won’t say what it is), has thus far refused to bring a bipartisan reauthorization bill up for a vote. It is the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act, which would extend the program with $7 billion in funding. Failure to extend the funding runs the risk of consigning 23 million people to a broadband desert.

Although, as Judd Legum reported this morning in Popular Information, “The Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act has 225 co-sponsors which means that, if Johnson held a vote, it would pass,” there has been no movement advancing the issue as of this writing.

Although a majority in the House supports reauthorization, one reason Johnson has thus far not allowed the issue to advance may lie at the door of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a 179-member group Johnson chaired prior to becoming Speaker. This is a conservative group that has advanced its own budget proposal, which calls the ACP a “government handout that disincentivizes prosperity.” Given the Sprintson and Oughton paper, this kind of logic would have us believe rain falls up and not down.

Extending the ACP should not be controversial in Congress. As Legum reports, “The RSC’s position is not popular. A December 2023 poll found that 79% of voters support ‘continuing the ACP, including 62% of Republicans, 78% of Independents, and 96% of Democrats.'”

Regardless, if Congress does not act, and soon, many millions of Americans, our neighbors, will find themselves tomorrow in a dark wasteland of even greater economic inequality.

That should disturb all of us.

A correction, with apologies

Saturday, April 27th, 2024

Ever had a brain cramp? You know, a time when you mean to say or write one word, but a wildly different one comes out, and you never notice until it’s way too late? And embarrassing?

That’s me, today.

Yesterday, I not only renamed the always-a-Pulitzer-contender National Enquirer, I moved it from New York City to Philadelphia, calling it the Philadelphia Enquirer.

For the record, The Philadelphia Inquirer is a daily newspaper that serves the Philadelphia metro area, parts of New Jersey, Southern Pennsylvania and Delaware. It is the largest newspaper in the United States that operates as a public-benefit corporation and is owned by the non-profit Lenfest Institute. Founded on June 1, 1829, The Philadelphia Inquirer is the third-longest continuously operating daily newspaper in the country. And, unlike the predaceous National Enquirer, The Philadelphia Inquirer has won 20 Pulitzer Prizes. It never has and never would pay hush money to anyone.

I apologize for this grievous error, and extend thanks to the legion of readers who caught it and were kind enough to tell me.

For your weekend: Another busy day in the life of Donald Trump

Friday, April 26th, 2024

“President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office. He didn’t get away with anything, yet. We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.” —  Mitch McConnell, 13 February 2021, minutes after the Senate acquitted Donald Trump at his second impeachment trial.

Yesterday, when pressed by Kristen Welker, of NBC News, Senator McConnell (R-KY) said he stands by those words, but added, “I don’t make the rules. I don’t sit on the Supreme Court.”

Welker interviewed Senator McConnell as the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments into whether former president Trump should be immune from prosecution for acts committed while he was President.

Trump’s lawyer, D. John Sauer, said the only time a President could be held criminally liable for those acts was following impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate for high crimes and misdemeanors. Donald Trump was impeached, but not convicted. Therefore, he should have absolute immunity.

The three-hour Hearing was packed with “hypotheticals.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor borrowed a hypothetical from D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Florence Y. Pan and asked Sauer,  “Could a president order SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival?” Sauer’s response? It would depend on whether the ordered assassination was deemed to be an “official act,” which led to a deep dive into the difference between official and personal acts.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on the broad question of whether presidents have criminal immunity for their official actions, but it has held that presidents are absolutely immune from civil lawsuits related to their official acts (Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731 (1982)), in part to protect them against constant harassment and judicial scrutiny of their day-to-day decisions. The court has also held that presidents can be sued over their personal actions (Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681 (1997)).

Throughout the Hearing, covered by C-Span (audio, but no video), it became apparent the four Justices appointed by Democratic Presidents and the five appointed by Republicans were looking at this case through very different lenses. The Democratic appointees were interested in examining Trump’s claim for immunity. Presumably, that’s why they were all there. Republican appointees were interested in anything but that; they wanted to discuss what their decision would mean for history. Justice Neil Gorsuch called this a “decision for the ages,” and repeatedly said he did not want “to talk about this particular case,” because he was interested in what it would mean for imaginary presidents in the future. You know, the slippery slope argument.

But when they rule, the Justices will have to talk about this particular case.

Meanwhile, at the same moment the Justices were doing their best to count all the angels dancing on the head of a tiny pin, the man who had made the immunity claim was 231 miles to the north in a New York city courtroom listening to a former friend tell a jury about paying hush money to women with whom the immunity man had had sexual encounters.

David Pecker, the former friend and Philadelphia Enquirer publisher, testified at Trump’s trial in downtown Manhattan that the ex-president seemed unconcerned about how a story of his affair years earlier with Playboy model Karen McDougal would impact his family. Rather, it was all about how it would affect his campaign for president, which was why Pecker, instead of publishing a story about her time with Trump, agreed to pay the former girlfriend $150,000 to keep silent. And she did.

Then along came Stormy Daniels who wanted to sell a story about her very own Trump tryst to Pecker’s Philadelphia Enquirer. This time, Pecker balked at paying yet another woman for a bedroom story starring Donald Trump, so he told Trump’s “fixer,” Michael Cohen, Trump would have to make the payment himself, after which Pecker would kill the story. And that’s what happened. Cohen paid Daniels $130,000, and Trump reimbursed him. Then Trump and Cohen had to cover up the transaction with a pack of lies, which is what they did (nothing new there), and which is why candidate Donald Trump is currently off the campaign trail and forced to listen to people like David Pecker drag the one-time reality TV star’s disgusting baggage all over America.

The man who in the heat of the 2016 campaign boasted, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” is now betting that eight years later, nothing’s changed.

Personally, I would not take that bet.

Thanks to Mike Johnson and House Democrats, Ukraine gets the aid it desperately needs

Saturday, April 20th, 2024

 

“In life’s unforgiving arithmetic, we are the sum of our choices.” — George Will

And so, it has happened. Speaker Mike Johnson, transforming what had been a spine of jello into one of firmer stuff, aligned himself with willing Democrats waving Ukrainian flags, and today cajoled the House of Representatives into passing a $95 billion Supplemental package of aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, with $61 billion going to Ukraine. Eighty percent of the money for Ukraine will be spent in the U.S. with American workers in American manufacturing plants building the weapons and providing the ammunition Ukraine so dearly needs.

The Senate is expected to pass the legislation on Tuesday. President Biden has said he’ll sign it when it gets to his desk.

Ukraine has been in dire straights lately, principally because of its diminishing ammunition and weaponry. It has had to withdraw from positions it had retaken from the Russians, and it is now rationing ammunition. This is a recipe for disaster.

To get Ukraine what it needs immediately, the Pentagon will ship older weapons and ammo already in storage; the new armaments will replace those that will be heading to Ukraine next week. It’s a classic win/win. Ukraine, on its heels, gets what it needs immediately; the U.S. replenishes its aging armaments, an action that had been resisted mightily by many House Republicans.

The vote in the House was 311 to 112 in favor of the aid to Ukraine. The 112 who voted against the aid were all Republicans. One Republican, Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania, voted “present.”

Johnson, to his credit, is taking a huge political risk. Polling by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs shows 53% of Republicans continue to oppose further aid to Ukraine. But, overall, six in ten Americans favor providing both economic assistance to Ukraine and sending additional arms and military supplies to the Ukrainian government (58% each).

And Johnson’s recent trip to Mar-a-Lago to get Donald Trump’s blessing for his push for the Ukrainian aid was key to his moving forward. At the end of their meeting, Trump said, “I’m with Speaker Johnson.” That still didn’t sway the 112 who voted against the aid today, but 101 did press the “Yea” button. All 210 democrats present today voted for the aid.

Mike Johnson’s troubles are not over. In fact, they may be just beginning. The lunatic fringe, led by Rome Georgia’s Marjory Taylor Greene, a clever firebrand with a mind as deep as my late grandmother’s sewing thimble, may activate the Motion to Vacate she’s already filed. She now has two Kentuckian co-conspirators, Thomas Massey and James Comer. It’s not exactly a movement yet, but who knows what tomorrow may bring.

Personally, I don’t think they will actually call for a vote to oust Johnson. Why? Because it’s likely to fail, and that would bring embarrassment they don’t want. Most Republicans do not seem eager for another Speaker battle of the ilk that got Johnson his job. They seem to be tired of all the shenanigans.

Plus, it is entirely conceivable that House Democrats would help Johnson keep his hanging-by-a-thread job. They now know they can work with him.

Today’s bottom line is this: Ukraine will now get the means to defend itself and even send the Russians, who seem to be hanging their hopes on a war of attrition, back from whence they came.

This would not have happened had not Mike Johnson recognized the status quo was unsustainable and decided he could no longer support it.

Morally and politically, that was the right thing to do.

A long ago stranger than strange night and day in war torn Vietnam

Friday, April 19th, 2024

As I write this, there are wars all over the world. Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, Yemen to name a few. All are horrific and are ongoing for no good reason whatsoever, with untold death and destruction.

In the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri published his Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy. In the Inferno, Dante created the Circles of Hell. He created his Seventh Circle for warmongers who commit wanton brutality, like the ones who’ve started these current atrocities. The Seventh Circle is home to many.

War, with all its brutality and “collateral damage” is the most horrid man-made catastrophe in the history of humanity. And in every war, strange things happen, things which you could never believe possible. But they pop up and happen. I’m living proof.

This is a story in three parts, true in every particular, and it will show you what I mean.

So, sit back, and let me tell you a story.

Part One — The Night

It is Spring, 1970, and I am far north in South Vietnam, halfway between the city of Huế and the A Shau Valley, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The Valley is a feeder route from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, down which come thousands upon thousands of North Vietnamese Regulars determined to take back their country. Our job is to prevent that.

My team and I have just choppered in to Firebase Bastogne for what is supposed to be a few days off. We’ve been in the mountainous jungle for nearly a month and a half; we need a break.

Bastogne was built in 1968, used for a while, and then closed. In late 1969, seven months ago, the Army reopened it. When we get there, the 501st is expanding it.

The evening my team and I get there, three officer friends and I who haven’t seen each other in a while, commandeer an empty bunker and christen it the Firebase Bastogne Officers’ Club. It is small, perhaps 6 feet by 10 feet, and if you’re tall, standing up could be a problem. I have no problem.

Earlier, we had found a bucket and thrown as many beers in it as it would hold. It was warm beer, but we didn’t care.

The four of us were three Captains and one 1st Lieutenant, me, although I’d be promoted to Captain in a few months. Tom Higginbottom was the one with the wide smile; he was going home the next morning to what we called, “the world.” He’d been in Vietnam for nearly two years, two consecutive tours, which was unusual. After maybe his third beer, Tim Forest says to him, “What’s the second thing you’re going to do?” We all had an idea of what the first thing might be, which was one of the reasons for the man’s four-star smile. Danny French says, “I’d have a cigarette shortly after the first thing.”

Higginbottom reaches into his ammo can beside him and pulls out a picture. We all use ammo cans for the important personal stuff. If you get blown up, the ammo can might survive. Mine’s where I keep photos of my wife Marilyn and the baby girl I hope to get to know. Higginbottom shows us a picture of Chrissy, Mrs. Higginbottom, and we ooh and aah as we’re supposed to. And why not? The lady is gorgeous.

We spend another few minutes in the bunker, and then decide to turn in. So, we leave the bunker, walk up a little hill, turn to the right, and enter a pretty good-sized tent where cots have been set up for us, as well as for a few other Officers we don’t know. I don’t bother to check on my team. I know they want to be left on their own, just as I do.

It’s perhaps 2300 hours, that’s 11:00pm. Our mortar crew is firing out into the jungle on the off-chance some of our friends from the North might be there. All of us leave the tent to watch the show, when, suddenly, the ammo dump, which is below us, lights up like burning Rome. The mortar crew has fired a short round, which, instead of the jungle, has landed in the ammo dump and set the C-4 explosives on fire.

The fire is intense, and hot, and sits right beside all kinds of things that can go bang in the night.

Suddenly, into the ammo dump comes a huge bulldozer driven by one of the Army Engineers on Bastogne doing the expansion work.

The guy driving the bulldozer heads to the C-4. He’s going to put out the fire by smothering it. “Oh, Christ, don’t,” says Higginbottom, who’s standing beside me. Out of my mouth comes, “Oh, shit.” The four of us start screaming for him to stop, but he can’t hear us. He doesn’t know that C-4, on fire, will never explode, but if you smother the fire… And that is when the great big pile of fiery C-4 blows up in as loud an explosion as I ever heard. The bulldozer was pretty much on top of the C-4 when it blew, and now the bulldozer has been reduced to many pieces that are flying everywhere. We hit the ground instantly. Behind us, our tent suddenly resembles swiss cheese. If we’d been inside it, we’d all be dead, but not one of us has a scratch.

The ammo dump is soon crawling with soldiers trying to make things right, but this will never be right. We’re lucky nothing else, except the bulldozer, went up with the C-4.

We head down to the Command Post to see if there’s anything we can do, but there really isn’t. The bulldozer’s driver, a hero in the making, has been vaporized. We never find him. We later discover his name was Cameron Smith, Staff Sergeant Cameron Smith, whose name will eventually wind up on the Vietnam Wall at the end of the Mall in D.C.

We walk back up the hill, and, as we’re standing there, the strangest thing in a night of strange things occurs. Around a corner to our left, at the base of our hill, come two soldiers carrying a stretcher, on which a body lies under a white sheet. They pass beneath us. Tim Forest says, “Who is that and where did he come from?”

It isn’t until the next morning that we learn the soldier’s name is PFC Samuel Lavezolli, another name for the future Wall. He had been sleeping on the open ground far on the other side of the firebase when a chunk of the bulldozer, its flywheel, which had “flown” all the way from the ammo dump, landed on him, killing him instantly.

We four officers look at each other, realizing the explosion should have killed us all, but didn’t. We were untouched. However, PFC Lavezolli, a few hundred yards away, dies instantly, without ever knowing a thing about it.

We separate to check on our men, and then turn in for the night. It takes me a long time to get to sleep.

Part Two — The next morning

Early the next morning, we roll out of our cots, which had somehow mostly survived the prior night’s explosion. “Mostly,” because two of them now had a few new holes, but they worked.

The four of us stroll down to the rudimentary mess hall and head to the coffee. One thing the army is good at is mess hall coffee, and this stuff is much better than the instant crap the army sends us when we’re in the field.

We grab some scrambled eggs and well done bacon, find some stools to sit on, and eat. We, all four of us, are reticent this morning, what with the two strange deaths the night before. Tim Forest says, “How are we not dead?” Tom Higginbottom tells him, “Don’t think about it. There’s no way to explain it. We’re alive, and a couple of guys aren’t. I’ve seen it before. It’s what war does.”

I say to Higginbottom, “That’s fine for you to say. You’re out of here in about two hours. We’re not. We should hoist a few more for you before you shove out.” Higginbottom smiles the big smile again.

But we don’t hoist anything. Instead, we split up to check on our men.

After I do that, I head to the CP to see if there’s any radio traffic about last night we might have intercepted. But there isn’t.

So I decide to hang around for a bit, and then just see what the day brings.

I spend a few minutes with my friend John Crosby, a Major who’s Battalion Surgeon. Suddenly, there are explosions outside, two of them. Bang and then bang. We all duck, waiting for the next one. You always duck immediately after the thing that was meant to kill you misses and goes whizzing by. But there isn’t a next one. What there is is Tim Forest running into the CP wearing his steel pot helmet and looking awful.

“It got Higginbottom,” he says. “No hope. He’s dead.” All I can say is, “What the…?” He says, “He was walking down the street. Landed right beside him.”

Our Battalion Commander is with us, listening. Instantly, he takes charge and tells Forest to get back out there to see if anyone knows where the mortars came from. As Tim turns to leave, LTC Carter¹, says, “Get our mortars firing right away.” With that. Tim is gone.

Colonel Carter, callsign Bulldog, now turns to me and says, “Get your men and go find those guys. Now.” With one, “Yes, sir,” I’m out the door. Crosby is right behind me trying to find out who needs medical help and how much.

I run to where I know my guys will be. There are eight of them. I give our orders to Staff SGT Lucey, a firefighter when he’s home in California, and say, “We need to get our gear and head out ASAP.” Lucey takes charge of that, and we agree to meet back here in five minutes.

I run to where Tim Forest is talking to the guy in charge of artillery and mortars. There’s a lot of artillery on Bastogne, 105s, 155s, 175s, and more, but all we need now are the mortars. They agree the mortars that got Higginbottom came from about 170 degrees south. The artillery guy agrees to put some mortar rounds out beyond where we’re going to give us some cover. That’s all I need. I run back to meet Lucey and the men, and we head out.

Part three — The mortar that wasn’t

As we leave Bastogne I know we’re probably looking for only a couple of guys, one to hold the mortar, the other to load it. We’ve seen this kind of thing before. But that makes them nimble and quick.

PFC Sammy Gullett walks point for us. He had a huge chip on his shoulder when he came to us. Since then, he’s  lost the chip and has become a fine soldier, who will be killed walking point seven months later, when a new Lieutenant leads him and his platoon straight into an ambush that should never have happened.

Sergeant Ben Criegesberg, a Pennsylvania farmer, follows Gullett. Then comes Lucey, followed by me and the other guys. Criegesberg will be wounded and lose the use of his left arm in the ambush that kills Sammy.

We move carefully, but at a rapid pace. Tom Higginbottom is dead. He’ll still be going home today, but not in the manner any of us ever imagined for him. So, I make up my mind to do the very best we can for him by trying to find the guys who killed him. However, Lucey and I both know those guys are long gone. They will have unassed the area about ten seconds after firing their rounds. But still, we try.

Up far ahead, our guys are landing 81 mm mortar rounds. That should eliminate the possibility of a surprise we don’t need, like an ambush.

It is at that moment, when we’ve gone about 700 meters from Bastogne and are passing through a small clearing, that we hear the impossible to mistake swishing sound of “incoming.” Then there’s a deep thud. Frozen in time, we look to our right, and about 20 feet away we see an 81 mm mortar round sticking up out of the ground. Unexploded, it just sits there.

Lucey looks at me and says, “Ah, Lieutenant, don’t you think…?” “Yeah,” I say, and we all slowly and carefully move away.

I immediately get on the radio to the artillery guy to tell him what happened. I also tell him to stop firing before he kills us all.

In the end, we set a charge and blow the mortar in place. I call Bulldog to ask if we should continue the search. But he also knew the bad guys had boogied right after they fired, so, because so much time has gone by, he tells us to come back in. Which we did.

That night, Forest, French and I once again find ourselves in the brand new Firebase Bastogne Officers’ Club. We toast Tom Higginbottom and PFC Lavezolli, and Sergeant Smith, and then just sit there.

Then, we leave the Club, walk up the hill, turn to the right, and enter our swiss cheese tent to be with our own thoughts about the day and night before.

I don’t know what the others are thinking, but I cannot get out of my mind the lunacy of what we’ve all just gone through. Three men died. Three good people. Not one of them knew it was coming. All three of them felt relatively safe just before it happened.

Why had I been saved? The mortar that landed just feet away should have killed me and at least some of my men. But it didn’t. Why not?

There is no answer, and in all the years that follow there never will be.

Epilogue

Years later, I will visit the Wall and find the names Thomas Higginbottom, Cameron Smith, Samuel Lavezolli, Samuel Gullet, and a few more I had known. It still made no sense to me that I was standing there, and they weren’t. In addition to the mortar that wasn’t, I had been shot down in a Light Observational Helicopter—twice—and never suffered a scratch out of either.

Sherman said, “War is hell,” and it is. But war can also be stranger than strange.

Mine was.

_________________________

¹ LTC Carter, call sign “Bulldog,” is one about whom I have written before. Eight months after these events, he and I, along with my partner Buck Kernan, will mark the end of my time in Vietnam with a nightly observance, spanning 60 days, in which we will light a ceremonial candle, mark a big red X on a Playboy pinup’s body, and eat one Macadamia nut. The X will grow more lascivious as the days pass.

 

Here’s a story of triumph to go with the Shot Heard Round The World.

Monday, April 15th, 2024

Today is the 15th of April, and a lot is happening from sea to shining sea.

Here in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts, the sun is bright, and all’s right with the world. Except perhaps for you procrastinators who haven’t finished your taxes as the seconds tiptoe by with their index fingers wagging.

In other news, events are unfolding in New York City where a certain former President is…well, we don’t have to mention that today, because today is also the celebration of the anniversary of “the shot heard round the world,” an event of infinitely more importance than anything even remotely connected to he who shall not be named.

On a date four days from now in 1775, the American Revolutionary War began with battles in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Those two battles were the scene of the first American revolutionary casualties: 49 died, 39 were wounded, and five went missing. Consequently, we celebrate Patriots Day, a Massachusetts state holiday. It’s also a holiday in five other states: Connecticut, Florida, Maine, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Personally, I think the other 44 should join the party.

In Massachusetts, from 1897 until 1968, Patriots Day was celebrated on the actual date of the first battles, 19 April. Since then, it’s been observed on the 3rd Monday of April. The Town of Lexington holds a full-fledged reenactment first thing in the morning every Patriots Day. This morning was no different.

And, since 1897, Patriots Day has been the day runners from around the world compete in the Boston Marathon.

Marathon History

The first celebration of the modern Olympic Games took place in its ancient birthplace — Greece. The Games attracted athletes from 14 nations, with the largest delegations coming from Greece, Germany, France and Great Britain. America sent 14 competitors.

On 6 April 1896, the American James Connolly won the inaugural event, the triple jump, to become the first Olympic champion in more than 1,500 years. He also finished second in the high jump and third in the long jump.

Due to its historical significance, the Greek hosts wanted to win the marathon above all else. Spyridon Louis set off from the city of Marathon and took the lead four kilometers from the finish line and, to the joy of 100,000 spectators, won the race by more than seven minutes.

After the success of the Olympiad of 1896, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) decided to host a marathon competition in Boston the following year, 1897. And that was when the Boston Marathon was born, the first annual marathon in the world. John J. McDermott of New York, emerged from a 15-member starting field and won that first B.A.A. Marathon in 2 hours, 55 minutes, 10 seconds. With that win, McDermott secured his name in sports history.

That first Boston Marathon was 24.5 miles. In 1924, the course was lengthened to 26 miles, 385 yards to conform to the Olympic standard, and that’s the way it’s been ever since.

This morning, more than 30,000 runners took off from the Town of Hopkinton, all setting their sights on completing the ordeal and finishing on Boylston Street in downtown Boston. Some will be arriving well into the evening. Five groups competed at staggered starting times: Men’s and women’s wheelchair; Elite men and women runners; and everyone else who qualified (plus a few who didn’t, but jumped in to run it, anyway).

This morning, a record fell when Marcel Hug, of Switzerland, won the Men’s Wheelchair race in 1 hour, 15 minutes, 33 seconds. That’s less than three minutes per mile—up and down hills. One of the hills, 21 miles into the race, is aptly named “Heartbreak Hill.” It’s broken many a leader. It was the 7th Boston win for Hug. His record is even more impressive an achievement when one considers that in the middle of the race he crashed into a stone wall, tipped over, yet managed to somehow get his wheelchair upright again and continue on.

Great Britain’s Eden Rainbow Cooper won the women’s wheelchair division in her first Boston marathon. She did everything on her own with no sponsors or team to prepare her. Rainbow will likely have sponsors by tonight.

Sisay Lemma, of Ethiopia, set a blistering pace for the elite men and held on to win in 2 hours, 6 minutes, 17 seconds — the 10th fastest time in the race’s 128-year history.

Hellen Obiri  outsprinted fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi down Boylston Street to win by eight seconds. Obiri is the first woman to win back-to-back Boston marathons since 2005. She finished in 2 hours, 22 minutes and 37 seconds.

The passion and dedication of world class athletes is awesome to see. The sacrifices made to reach for perfection, and occasionally hold it in the palm of one’s hand, should inspire us all.

And on this Patriot’s Day, we should also remember with pride and gratitude the sacrifices made by America’s Founding Fathers, our original Patriots, each of whom knew if Great Britain won the war he’d be wearing a hangman’s noose.

This is why, rather than write anything today the first trial of Donald Trump, I choose to salute Hug and Cooper and Lemma and Obiri and the tens of thousands who ran after them, as well as the those in 1775 who, risking life and limb, stood up to the mightiest army in the world for the fundamental truths a Virginian would espouse the following year in what became our Declaration of Independence.

Bravo to all, then and now.

Update to yesterday’s Letter – Ukraine on the brink

Friday, April 12th, 2024

“They are now being outshot by the Russian side five to one. So the Russians fire five times as many artillery shells at the Ukrainians than the Ukrainians are able to fire back. That will immediately go to 10 to one in a matter of weeks. We’re not talking about months. We’re not talking hypothetically.”
Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, head of U.S. European Command

On Wednesday, General Cavoli and Celeste Wallander, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, testifying before the House Committee on Armed Services, urged lawmakers to approve the $95 billion supplemental defense bill passed by the Senate two months ago, but languishing since then in the House. The bill would provide $60 billion in funding for Ukraine armaments with the rest targeted for aid to Taiwan and Israel.

General Cavoli emphasized the need for 155mm artillery shells, saying, “The biggest killer on the battlefield is artillery. In most conflicts, but in this one definitely. And should Ukraine run out, they would run out because we stopped supplying — because we supply the lion’s share of that.”

Later in the day, U.S. Army leaders echoed the warnings to the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “The side that can’t shoot back, loses, and at this point Ukraine is really starting to be pressed to be able to shoot back. So I am very concerned,” said Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. “We saw Ukraine lose some territory a couple of months ago. And I think there is a real danger…that the Russians could have a breakthrough somewhere in the line.”

Air defense capacity is particularly urgent. To illustrate that point, consider that yesterday Russia fired 82 missiles and drones into the Kyiv region, a huge attack. Ukraine’s air force said it shot down 57 of them, leaving 25 that got through, including six hypersonic Kinzhal missiles.

The attack totally destroyed the Trypilska Thermal Power Plant (TPP), the largest supplier of electricity to Kyiv, Cherkasy and Zhytomyr regions, according to the plant’s owner, the energy company Centrenergo. The company has now lost 100% of its power generation across its three plants, which have all been destroyed or occupied by Russia.

Over more than two years of war, Russia has systematically targeted Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in an attempt to break the country’s power grid and, with it, the Ukrainian people’s spirit, by depriving them of electricity, heat, water and other essential services. I find it beyond inspirational that the morale of Ukraine’s citizens remains high. They remember what it was like being a Soviet Republic prior to 1992. They remember democracy and true independence taking root with the Orange Revolution of 2004. They remember and refuse to go back to subservience.

Following yesterday’s attack, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy accused the West of “turning a blind eye” to the air defense needs of his country.

The man certainly has a point. The House continues to seem willing to let Russia, with aid from Iran and North Korea, get nearer and nearer to breaking through Ukrainian defensive lines. And Speaker Johnson appears much more interested in keeping his job by kowtowing to the far right elements in the House. And then there’s Donald Trump to please.  Today, the Speaker was in Mar-a-Lago genuflecting and kissing the ring, a true love story in the making.

Meanwhile, an unescapable fact remains — Ukraine cannot win if it can’t shoot back.

 

The Congressional echo chamber continues to swallow any action on Ukraine aid

Thursday, April 11th, 2024

“If the Congress doesn’t help Ukraine, Ukraine will lose the war.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, 8 April 2024

That’s about as stark a statement as you’ll see. And he means it. Ukraine faces no bigger disaster than losing its war with Russia, a war it did not start. Russia invaded this sovereign, independent democracy in February, 2022, because its egomaniacal dictator hungered to resurrect Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, and capturing Ukraine was the first step in his plan.

Tens of thousands of innocent Ukrainians have died. And with the continued help of Iran and North Korea, Russian forces are now better armed than Ukraine’s troops, especially with respect to artillery shells. Everything Ukraine needs to repel the invaders is in short supply, and its soldiers are bone-tired. Russia’s success in taking the city of Avdiivka in February, along with its territorial gains since, have caused many to reassess the potential for Ukraine to prevail in this hellish war.

Of course, that reassessment might not be as dark as it appears to be if the U.S. House of Representatives would provide the $60 billion in Ukraine aid it has bottled up for two months. This failure to act is even more perplexing when one realizes most of the needed funds would be spent in the U.S., because American workers at American companies would be making the weapons so desperately needed.

None of this seems to matter to a few rabidly ambitious and self-centered members of the House who, on Donald Trump’s orders, have prevented a vote on the bill passed by the Senate in February. And Speaker Mike Johnson, a seemingly mild-mannered, deeply Christian, but very sly, backbencher, who woke up one day to find himself in the third highest position in government, is now trying to walk down the edge of a political razor blade while searching for some way to advance Ukraine funding without losing his new cushy job. He is not emerging as a “profile in courage.”

Meanwhile, back in Ukraine, it’s seat-squirming time, as losses mount despite the heroic  efforts of so many to save their land. As Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) puts it:

The IISS assesses that Russia can sustain its campaign for some time. Moscow has been able to bring on enough contract soldiers to sustain its force structure and should be able to replenish tank losses on the battlefield for two or more years. It also has put its economy in a war setting, with total military spending now representing one-third of its national budget and reaching about 7.5% of GDP. Supply of artillery ammunition, loitering munitions and ballistic missiles from Iran and North Korea also shifts the balance of firepower against Ukraine. That means that over the coming year Russia will probably be able to generate sufficient missiles and drones to maintain its recent level of pressure on Ukraine’s air defences, attack its defence industry and attempt to erode Ukrainian civilian and military moral.

Without American aid what this means is that, at best, Ukraine will be in a defensive posture for some time; at worst, it will need to withdraw and cede valuable territory to the aggressor. The dilemma for Ukraine’s army becomes choosing between a forward-defense posture to keep Russian forces from cities and towns at the cost of higher casualties, or pulling back to conserve troops. To prove that last point, President Zelenskyy said at the Munich Security Conference last month that the Avdiivka withdrawal was aimed at “preserving soldiers’ lives.”

And if that’s not enough, into this latest mess parachutes Donald Trump.

Last Sunday, Isaac Arnsdorf, Josh Dawsey, and Michael Birnbaum of the Washington Post reported that Trump has privately said that after winning the upcoming election he could end Russia’s war in Ukraine by pressuring Ukraine to give up some territory, according to people familiar with the plan. Trump’s proposal consists of pushing Ukraine to cede Crimea and the Donbas border region to Russia, according to people who discussed it with Trump or his advisers and spoke on the condition of anonymity. This plan may or may not be true, because in what passes for Donald Trump’s mind, pigs really can fly.

You will recall Mr. Trump and President Zelenskyy, three months into his new job, had an interesting phone call on 25 July 2019, during which Trump pressured Zelenskyy to open investigations that could damage former Vice President Joe Biden heading into the 2020 election. At that time, long before the current conflagration, all the former comedian and newly-elected Ukrainian president could do was smile.

A lot of flotsam has floated down the political river since then, but it seems to me if President Zelenskyy, who has grown to become Ukraine’s George Washington, was ever asked to respond to Trump’s brilliant diplomatic proposal, he might do so with no smile and two, well-chosen words, which Mr. Trump would have no trouble understanding.