March 31, 2011

Windroot Gets A New Look

I've been putting some time into updating my home page, www.windroot.com. It's all part of the process of building a seamless web presence to get my writing out there. I haven't hand-coded html in a while, so it's been fun. I think it came out pretty good, but you are welcome to stop by and see for yourself.

Along the way, I have tweaked this site a bit. Once I get more comfortable with blogger.com's design options, I may try to bring the two looks a bit closer together. But the thing I like most about blogger.com is that I can just write posts and they take care of all the rest, which leaves me more time to write the stuff of my dreams. So I don't want to screw that up.

Speaking of writing, I am going back to a short story I started some weeks ago and then put down in order to give it some percolation time.It has a great set-up and finish. Now I just need to grind out the story I have inside my head. Easier said than done.

China's Ghost Cities

If you are afraid of ghosts, then this will really scare you. Grist just posted an article by Sarah Goodyear entitled "China's ghost cities and the biggest property bubble of all time." The Chinese government, in an effort to keep their economy booming, is building huge cities and malls that are virtually empty: no residents; no customers.

The article describes a mall that is 99 percent vacant and cites one estimate that there are 64,000,000 vacant apartments in China. We are talking about the mother of all real estate bubbles here. Ghost cities. Truly scary stuff.

March 29, 2011

On Declaring War

The following excerpt from What Happened to the American Declaration of War? is republished with permission of STRATFOR.
A declaration of war, I am arguing, is an essential aspect of war fighting particularly for the republic when engaged in frequent wars. It achieves a number of things. First, it holds both Congress and the president equally responsible for the decision, and does so unambiguously. Second, it affirms to the people that their lives have now changed and that they will be bearing burdens. Third, it gives the president the political and moral authority he needs to wage war on their behalf and forces everyone to share in the moral responsibility of war. And finally, by submitting it to a political process, many wars might be avoided. When we look at some of our wars after World War II it is not clear they had to be fought in the national interest, nor is it clear that the presidents would not have been better remembered if they had been restrained. A declaration of war both frees and restrains the president, as it was meant to do.

Magpie's Secret in Paperback

Just a quick update to let folks know that the paperback version of "The Magpie's Secret" is now listed on Amazon.com. The crew at CreateSpace.com did a great job with the production. The quality of the paperback is really quite good, especially the paper used in printing. The cover reproduction is sharp and crisp, as is the text. The print is just big enough to make it easy for older eyes to follow along.

One of the reviewers made a private comment along the lines of "Anyone old enough to be reading this book .. ." I had to laugh. Still, there is some truth to it. Older readers will get more out of it, because the main characters are nearer to Social Security than they are to social networking  and much of the language and cultural allusions will make more sense to someone who lived through the 60s than to someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s. And like a lot of us, my characters are struggling to keep up with the times, which as always, are a changin'.

At any rate, with the publication of the paperback version, that wraps up work on Magpie. Oh yeah, except for the never-ending task of getting it out there among the viewing public. That never ends.

March 28, 2011

A Moment To Remember

It's funny how memory works. I have just finished a brief memoir about my time on the Army. I woke up this morning realizing that I had left an important story out. The events were . . . well, the story speaks for itself. the fact that I had buried this deeply in my subconscious speaks to the lingering difficulties of facing certain memories. Anyway, here it is as it will appear in an upcoming reissue of the book (to add an ISBN number).
"I went home for a month before reporting in to my next and final duty assignment, at Fort Myer, VA. There was one incident during that period that was deeply poignant. I had been home a week or two when word came that a hometown boy was killed in action. The wake was scheduled for later that week. When the day came, my father said he thought I should go, me being in the Army and all. It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do, but I knew I had to go, so I put on my uniform for the first time since I had gotten home and went to the wake. I stood in line with the other mourners. I didn’t really know the family that well, and the last thing I wanted to do was to talk about Vietnam with anyone, so I just shuffled along with all the rest of my fellow townspeople who had come to pay their respects. When I got to his mother, she saw my uniform and her face contorted in grief and she asked me why was I alive and her boy dead. I knew the answer, and I also knew she would never understand or accept it, so I just murmured something and moved on. Years later, at a re-reading of the names on the Vietnam Wall, I read his name, which gave me a little better feeling, knowing that someone from his hometown was there to remember. (I was among those who were the original readers of the names on the wall at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. The morning of the ceremony, I developed a case of laryngitis and could barely speak above a whisper. Maybe that was a clue that I had some still unresolved feelings about the war. You think?)"

March 27, 2011

SitRep Negative: A Year In Vietnam

I have just released my latest e-book, entitled "SitRep Negative: A Year In Vietnam." It began as a few pages for the kids and the grandkids, a quick summary of what little I could remember right off the top of my head. As I got into it and started pulling more half-forgotten tales and suppressed memories out of storage, the book grew into a fuller account of my time in the Army.

I had a job where I got to see how the gears in the war machine meshed together to support the troops in combat. When most people think of war, they visualize the warriors, and, of course, no one suffers more or plays a more vital role than they do. But there are other people working to make sure they have the best chance at surviving it all. In fact, most soldiers play a supporting role. I just happened to have a seat right on the 50 yard line, where I had a great view of all the action.

Here is an excerpt from "SitRep Negative:"

The worst was the place with no name. It was unbelievably hot, the area was infested with scorpions and centipedes, which are malignant-looking poisonous wormy things that seemed to come from some prehistoric era. I had a truly surreal encounter with a centipede one night in our field TOC, a hole in the ground scooped out by a Rome plow blade and covered with galvanized roofing. I was working at the radio table when I looked up at the wall of sandbags about three feet in front of me. I saw this prehistoric looking thing coiled up on top of a sand bag. I peered at it in the dim light and for the life of me all I could think was that a trilobite (an early form of horseshoe crab type thing) had somehow survived and was lying there before me.

While I was thinking all this, my supposed trilobite began to dissolve right in front of my eyes. Its shape shifted and my brain struggled to catch up as it lengthened into a centipede a good foot long. The creature ended up on the floor with three of us standing around looking at it, our M-16’s locked and loaded, none of us willing to get anywhere near the damn thing. Fortunately, a more practical-minded guy found a shovel and used it to dispatch the centipede. That, and the flying scorpion-like critters that infested our tent, which we would chase around while swinging baseball bats wildly in the air to shoo them away, made this place a true hell.

God knows how the locals laundered our fatigues; no doubt in a couple of inches of water in a mud puddle. My fatigues had a funky smell the entire time we were there. It was so hot even the Montagnards—a small wiry race of hill people looked down on by the Vietnamese—were having a tough time of it. I felt very bad for the cooks in the field kitchen. The heat inside their area had to be near 120 degrees. I was glad when I got out of there. Especially since right after I left there was a ground probe. Timing is everything, as they say.

Each location holds its own special memories. Taking a shower in the middle of the night at an NDP . . . now that was a trip. You stumble out in the pitch dark wearing only a towel and flip-flops, clutching soap in one hand and a flashlight that emitted a feeble red beam of light in the other, feeling very vulnerable. Your destination was a 2-foot hole in the ground over which was suspended a bucket filled with water, supported by a tripod that would tip over at the slightest nudge. To shower, you jumped or slid as best you could into the muddy hole, pulled a chain to release water, lathered up, pulled the chain again to rinse off, then did your best to get out of the muddy hole without getting filthier than when you started. All the while praying that nothing like incoming or a firefight happened while you were standing there alone . . . naked . . . in the pitch dark.

If you want more, check it out on Smashwords, where you can get a free preview or buy it for the just 99 cents.

March 22, 2011

Again With Libya

I subscribe to Statfor's FREE e-mail newsletter. If you have any interest at all in global strategy, this newsletter is a must-read. Here is an excerpt from their latest letter on Libya:
Whenever you intervene in a country, whatever your intentions, you are intervening on someone’s side. In this case, the United States, France and Britain are intervening in favor of a poorly defined group of mutually hostile and suspicious tribes and factions that have failed to coalesce, at least so far, into a meaningful military force. The intervention may well succeed. The question is whether the outcome will create a morally superior nation. It is said that there can’t be anything worse than Gadhafi. But Gadhafi did not rule for 42 years because he was simply a dictator using force against innocents, but rather because he speaks to a real and powerful dimension of Libya.

March 21, 2011

Libya

Maybe it is because I have spent several days immersed in Vietnam memories as I wrap up "SitRep Negative," a brief account of my year in Vietnam. Maybe it is just the caution that settles over you as you get older, a fog of doubt and remembered screw-ups that obscures the clarity of vision preferred by those who want to do something.

This current situation in Libya strikes me as a textbook example of how not to intervene in a foreign country. The rationale for intervention was to avoid a slaughter of civilians. Well, I don't want to be cold-hearted about this, but Libya is having a civil war, and casualties, civilian or otherwise, are a natural consequence of warfare. The Americans, British, and French have never objected to a little bloodshed when it suited their own purposes. Cynic that I am, I choose to believe that stopping the slaughter is a thinly veiled excuse to implement some other long-term strategy in the region. What that might be remains unclear.  

We are aiding a poorly structured group of rebels none of us had even heard of before last week, a rebel alliance that had zero chance of winning on their own. Most people (including the rebels) couldn't name the leadership of the rebel group if you put a gun to their heads. We are providing a limited level of air support, another one of those "hands off" military operations like we had in the Balkans designed to keep our boots off the ground. Problem is, to win, the rebels need a massive infusion of arms, which at this point we aren't willing to agree to do. We have no real sense of what it is we want to accomplish. Are we pushing Qaddafi out or not? Nobody wants to say.

Why can't we learn to just let events unfold for themselves? As of now, we are stuck with whatever unintended consequences devolve from our intervention. If we had stayed out and Qaddafi prevails, then we are no worse off than before. If the rebels win, Libya begins moving in a new direction, although where it will end up is a total unknown. What we have now is a situation where we have sided with the rebels but, as of the moment, we are unwilling to give them the military support it takes to actually win. That is bound to end up pissing everybody off.

What happens next is anybody's guess. Qaddafi may decide to wait us out. He may decide to take his lumps from the Western alliance and take out the rebels anyway. He may be gone in a month. Who the hell knows? And what do we get for our troubles? Again, who the hell knows? 

This is a mission in search of a strategy. I hope we know what we are doing. So far, I see no sign of any overarching plan here. And that's never good.

March 20, 2011

Memories Are Made Of This

In my dotage I have become seized with the notion of writing memoirs. I really don't feel I have lead a particularly interesting or even exemplary life, but you know how that writing thing goes. My two areas of focus are the year I spent in Vietnam and the memories of growing up in the fifties, a temps perdu if ever there was one.

I have just completed the first draft of my Vietnam memoirs, entitled "SitRep Negative." An earlier post provided the opening paragraphs. Here is the closing paragraph:
"One good thing that came out of the travails of the Vietnam soldier is a deeper understanding of the toll war takes on its warriors. Veterans of every other war suffered as much or more. But the public didn’t want to hear about it, and those earlier generations weren’t taught to express their feelings. We children of the sixtieswe few, we self-proclaiming few, we inheritors of Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawpwe were having none of that. We came back, and we made them listen. We made post traumatic stress syndrome a part of the national discussion. We made the country swallow the bitter pill of lessons learned from the futility of fighting a war where we had little or nothing at stake. For a long time, it worked. We stayed out of trouble, avoided even the prospect of war. Then came the troubles in the Balkans and the series of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and now Libya. The lessons of Vietnam had been forgotten by a new generation: war is never inevitable, rarely necessary, and almost certainly not worth it in terms of outcome versus expectation. History teaches us that lesson over and over, time and time again. Still, we don’t get it. Maybe we never will."

March 19, 2011

From The Archives: Dream On

For several years I maintained a blog called Every Man A Giant. This is from the archives:

Dreams are an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. We do not yet fully understand how dreams happen or what they mean. Hell, we don't even know why we sleep.

I dream every night, often more than once. I know that some dreams are my brain stowing away the flotsam and jetsam left floating around in my head from the events of the day. I have a couple of recurring dreams, old friends who stop by from time to time, the kind that when you hear them knocking on the door you don't answer right away in hopes that maybe they'll go away. And every once in a great while I will have a dream that foretells something about someone.

Most of my dreams are like watching a movie with lots of action. These dreams feature events and places utterly removed from anything I have experienced but with such detail that I feel like I am watching scenes from someone else's life playing out in my mind's eye. All of which makes me wonder what happens when I sleep, perchance to dream. Am I looking at a play written by myself, or am I using ghost writers?

"The term non-locality refers to the instantaneous transfer of a signal from one place to another through no known physical means. Non-locality at the quantum level has been subject to experimental proof but still remains a baffling mystery. Non-locality at the macro-level as cited in dreams has been supported by the experimental work in parapsychology and also remains a quite mysterious happening. Whether we are catching glimpses of one mystery or two different ones remains to be determined."
Montague Ullman, M.D.

March 18, 2011

Manning Overboard

A friend and I have been e-mailing back and forth over the plight--if that's what you want to call it--of PFC Bradley Manning, the soldier who smuggled out a passel of secret documents on a fake Lady GaGa CD and ultimately passed them on to WikiLeaks.

Her position is that he is being maltreated, a position supported by the abrupt resignation of State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley, who called Manning's treatment "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." He did say the Manning belonged in jail, but that he should be treated better.

Of course, I hadn't been following the story very closely so I quick read a piece I found on CBS News. One obvious fact that struck me with perhaps more force than it might for someone who was never in the military is that Manning is an active duty soldier subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 

The UCMJ is not and never has been the same system of justice that civilians experience. That doesn't mean it's worse or better; just different. Standards of treatment for prisoners, the kinds of trial they get, the rights they have, the procedures that are followed -- all these things vary significantly from the civilian world, as anyone who has watched "A Few Good Men" already knows. When the article says Manning is treated pretty much like other soldiers would be, there is likely some truth to that. Most people just aren't familiar with how or why the military operates the way it does.

This situation strikes me as: (a) the brig commander covering his ass against the possibility of a suicide on his watch, which would seriously fuck up his career; (b) punitive to the extent of using the rules to make Manning's life as miserable as possible, no doubt about it; (c) and maybe PFC Manning wasn't exactly a day at the beach when he first went into the system and needed a little attitude adjustment, not uncommon in prisons. 

The key thing to remember is that he is a soldier, a soldier who took this oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God. " I've taken that oath as a soldier and a civilian. It is not something lightly done; it has enormous historical and personal meaning, and it is backed up with some real teeth.

Beyond all that, the larger issue remains. Yes, PFC Manning should be treated without reference to his actions. But the fact is that he put a lot of lives at risk, and everybody knows it. There is zero doubt in my mind that people died as a result of his and Assange's actions. They will never pay the price for that, so if life is a little uncomfortable for PFC Manning as a result . . . well, tough shit. Reap what you sow, baby, reap what you sow.

March 14, 2011

The Writing Life

The good folks at AskCherlock.com just gave a very generous review of "The Mapie's Secret." In honor of the ocassion, I have set up a special coupon at Smashword, good until April 13, reducing the price from $2.99 to $0.99. When you submit the order, use this coupon code: YS92W

I have locked down Magpie, which will soon be coming out in a paperback version. More on that soon. Right now, I am working on a non-fiction piece, a brief memoir about my time in the Army, tentatively entitled "SitRep Negative." I began it mostly for the grandchildren, but  I think anyone who came of age as I did during the Vietnam Era would find parts of it interesting.

Here are the opening paragraphs. I'll post more from time to time.
Memories fade. Forty years is a lot of time, a lot of water under the bridge. So what I write is true in the totality, if not in the recall of every little detail. Everything recounted here happened, just maybe not in the exact sequence that I tell it. This admittedly casual memoir is for my children and their children, but it will give any interested reader some sense of what it was like to serve a tour of duty in Vietnam. Convicts have a saying to the effect that everyone does their own time. The same is true about a war. Every soldier does his own tour. What happened to me is what happened to me. The guy standing next to me would tell you a completely different story.
With that in mind, my story begins in April 1968, when I was drafted into the U.S. Army. The preceding years had been filled with turmoil, highlighted by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1963, right when I was beginning college, and Martin Luther King Jr., the same month I was to enter the Army. We were a country at war with ourselves and increasingly with a small country halfway around the world: Vietnam. I don’t recall ever thinking about Vietnam when I enrolled at Georgetown University in 1963. By 1968, it was all any of us could think about.

March 13, 2011

Spread Too Thin?

The passage below is from my novel, "The Magpie's Secret," but you can find stuff like this all over the internet wherever people discuss global warming:
Think about millions of people displaced by increasingly severe weather, rising sea levels and long-term shifts in food supplies due to drought and flood. Think about how we are going to pay for the social and economic costs of that displacement when we are already in debt up to our eyeballs. ... And who is going to save us? A bunch of politicians who have been bought and sold by industries that want to continue business as usual until it’s too late to do anything but damage control in a world literally drowning in problems beyond our control?”
The passage refers specifically to the issue of global warming, but it gains added relevance when you look at the cycle of natural disasters that has afflicted the globe over the last few years. Weather-related disasters (flooding, drought, increasingly severe weather) are exacerbated in some measure by global warming. Geological disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes) are the inevitable result of living on a restless earth.

An earthquake or erupting volcano is a shot out of the blue. The global warming crisis is a slow-motion catastrophe that gathers momentum until a tipping point is reached and then becomes unstoppable by any known technology. You recover from earthquakes and resume some semblance of normalcy. You adapt to global warming; or you die.

The quoted passage highlights two different aspects of the problem we face in the coming decades. First, the global political and financial system is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. We the people of planet Earth are for the most part in debt up to our eyeballs, leveraged to within an inch of our lives. Second, disasters are expensive to endure and expensive to recover from. Massive events, such as the recent earthquake that struck Japan in a highly populated area, are thankfully rare. But that one event could cost upwards of $10 billion over many months and years.

Of course, the dirty little secret is that governments solve the problem by making substantial and very public pledges of support and then fail to follow up with real money. Global warming is itself a very good example of this process, as is recovery efforts from the Haiti earthquake (yesterday's news). The other option is to ignore the problem. (Cue the Bangladeshi farmers.)

The system is broke. The system is broken. The planet is broken. Wish the news could be better, but we are about to pay the price for a century of global self-indulgence and negligence. The party's over. Fasten your seat belts, puppies. It's going to get turbulent.

March 11, 2011

Three Faces of Religion


In the course of my working career of over 30 years, I worked with a number of deeply religious people. The results were decidedly mixed.

My first boss was a devout Southern Baptist, a former Marine who ran a tight ship but who was a softie when it came right down to it. This was back right after I got out of the Army. I may have been a bit of a wild child then. At any rate, my boss called me into his office one day to tell me that he was praying for me. Okay. Truth be told, I wasn’t quite sure how to take that. On the one hand, I didn’t feel like I needed praying over; on the other hand I was touched by his concern. I thanked him kindly, and then returned to my apparently sinful ways.

A couple of decades later I had transitioned into the computer field. One of my duties was coaxing reports out of the complex and to me mysterious programming language we used to access our data. I had a mentor who was a guru in this sort of thing. He told me one day I made an ideal idiot tester. I had to mull that one over for a while. His idea of light reading at lunch was the Bible in the original Greek Aramaic. His version of Christianity was a kindler, gentler vision that really made me think about the nature of God and what it meant to be a truly moral being.

In my last job I got to know a wonderful fellow from Egypt. His personality was a solid veneer of mirth and good humor over a hardwood base of Old World sadness. He was a Coptic Christian, the ones with the rococo cross that bisects at the midpoint. We talked about the tensions that existed in Egypt between the majority Muslims and the minority Coptic Christians, tensions that have recently erupted in a new wave of violence sparked by a dispute in a small village south of Cairo over the planned marriage of a Muslim woman and a Christian man, tensions no doubt ratcheted up by the political drama that recently unfolded in Cairo.

Each of these men represented a face of religion. The stern but caring Baptist, the thoughtful believer who made God an almost attractive option, and the happy warrior who knew what it was to be on the front lines of the religious wars.

Each contributed to my homegrown belief system – a  Mulligan stew of  agnostic pantheism that reflects a bit of all my religious experiences, including what I got from these three men. I was and remain wary of Religion with a capital “R,” but I admire those who practice their religion with integrity and with an absence of malice.

March 8, 2011

Libya Versus Egypt

Do democratic institutions matter? Events in Libya and Egypt would seem to be producing a rough draft of an answer to that question. Both countries are caught up in the cycle of populist anger at long-time repressive regimes that is sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa. But events in Libya and Egypt have played out quite differently.

Egypt's Mubarak presided over a government that had the forms and the partial reality of a semi-working democracy. Libya's Gadhafi operated an old style dictatorship. Egypt developed political parties and conducted elections. Libya remained mostly a tribal nation.

When Egyptians took to the streets, they had a goal that everyone could easily understand: make the appearance of democracy a reality. The Egyptian Army sided with the protesters, partly out of self interest and partly out of pragmatism. When Libyans took to the street, their aim was simply to oust Gadhafi. The Libyan Army acted as Gadhafi's enforcers.

One country had a relatively peaceful transition to an uncertain political future. The other country is rapidly sliding into civil war. Do democratic institutions and processes matter, even if observed mostly in the breach? I think so. This isn't a defense of nation building. If anything, it teaches the importance of letting events play out as they will instead of sending armies in to force a transition to democracy.

There's an old song with the lyric "People everywhere just want to be free." Looks like they had it right.

March 5, 2011

Learning The Hard Way

Well, I have just completed a thorough review of my novel, "The Magpie's Secret." Several reviewers noted mistakes in grammar and punctuation. One was kind enough to provide me with an edited copy of my manuscript. I have gone through and made the needed changes, a long and tedious process.

So what lesson have I learned? If you are really serious about your novel, consider hiring a professional editor. That can mean some serious money, maybe upwards of $500, depending on the length. What you get is a much cleaner book to self-publish. Given that you are asking people to spend good money to read your book, I think it is only right that the buyer receive the best quality book possible, at least in terms of the craft. Whether they like the story . . . well, that's a different story, as it were.

Will I follow my own advice? An excellent question. I do feel I can produce a better quality draft, thanks to my recent lesson learned the hard way, but I also know that I will never see my own work as clearly as an editor will. Chances are I will at least make the effort to find a reasonably priced editor for the sequel. The forums are filled with offers from folks who provide such services.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I am a year or so away from that being a pressing concern. In the meantime, I just want to get out of the business of writing and get back to just plain writing.