March 26, 2013

Love and Marriage

After listening to a Catholic priest -- mind you, this is a man dedicated to living a celibate life -- expound on the virtues of marriage and procreation, I thought, well, who could be more authoritative than that?  He argued that marriage is all about having children, which is why only a man and a woman can meet the basic qualifications. That got me to thinking about a piece I wrote in 1999, about love and marriage and what that means to different people in different places in their lives. I thought I would reprint part of the original essay and let you decide for yourself how you would answer the question I raise at the end.

Marriage is one those areas where there are both civil and religious laws at work. Each Church has its own ideas on what constitutes a valid marriage, but they generally recognize marriages performed by other religions, kind a reciprocity agreement. Churches also recognize that the State has a role to play. You must have a marriage license issued by the State, although many States recognize common law marriages, which are just two people living together. A judge may perform a wedding that is as legal as a church wedding.

When a relationship ends, the same intermingling of religious and civil laws prevails. The Catholic Church does not permit divorce. The State and most of the other religions do. The churches generally don't involve themselves with the property aspects of a separation and divorce. The State does. Issues involving child custody in the wake of a divorce are resolved in the Courts. (All this of course is written in a Western context. Some countries have adopted religious law as their civil law.)

So there are major differences in how civil and religious laws treat marriage and divorce. That brings us back to the topic of gay marriage. How wrong would it be if the State was to accept a variation on marriage that is not accepted by most religious groups? This kind of disparity already exists in other areas, so the principle is not at issue. What is at issue is the specific idea of gay marriages. And at the root of this is the very idea of marriage.

Marriage is more than just having kids and raising a family. This Darwinian view of marriage focuses on ensuring the success of the next generation. There is more to it than that. Many marriages are childless. Many marriages have kids but then the kids move out, leaving the parents as empty-nesters. A spouse may die, and the remaining spouse may remarry. Are those marriages somehow diminished because procreation is no longer in the picture?

Marriages move and grow through time, because each person in the marriage is undergoing changes and movement through time. The older one gets, the more one appreciates the strength that comes from having a companion to share the ups and downs of life with. Those kind of issues are completely different from those facing couples who are just starting out or who are in the middle of raising families, the issues that are behind most of the laws set forth in the religious and civil arenas.

At some point, though, the simple human need to have a companion, someone to share life's ups and downs, someone to grow old with, that need has its own validity. Does sexual proclivity seem all that important then? If two people want to celebrate that relationship through a civil marriage, is it so wrong for the State to do that? Is it right to insist that the State disenfranchise that group of people solely on the basis of a religious belief, especially when the State already contravenes other religious beliefs concerning marriage?

Synchronicity

Synchronicity can perhaps be described as coincidence with a hidden agenda. The concept was more precisely defined by its originator, Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung, as "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." Synchronicity is when you are thinking about an old friend who haven't heard from in years and the next day you get a phone call from him. There is no direct connection between the two events, but it does seem damned odd, even meaningful, in some intangible way.

Most times we shrug these things off, but sometimes the intersection of events is too weird to just ignore. I long ago began a thought experiment of my own, to assume that there is no such thing as coincidence, so perhaps I am more attuned to these things than most, but I think what happened yesterday would get anybody's antennae twitching.

It started with research into my latest novella, which is set in 1885. Events begin in Boston and move to Berlin. The story opens with a meeting between the narrator, Thomas Stoddard, and an old friend. Both characters are being carried forward from an earlier work, Requiem for Ahab. Thomas Stoddard is the son of Captain Ahab of Moby Dick fame.This story is set twenty years or so after the events of Requiem. Stoddard has ended up as what would today be called a financial reporter, working for one of the big Boston dailies of the time, The Boston Herald.

So anyway, the meeting is to be held at Young's Hotel, a popular dining place back in 1885, located on Court Street near Boston's financial district. Being somewhat obsessive about layering on period detail, I thought I needed some more precise information about that area, so I searched the Internet for a Boston directory dated 1885. Sure enough, the good folks at Tufts University had digitized just the very thing I was looking for.

On a whim, I thought I would look to see if anyone named Thomas Stoddard was listed. I opened up the "S" listing and scrolled down the list until I did indeed find that surname of Stoddard. I clicked on the link and up popped a more detailed listing of names, occupations, and addresses.

My eye raced down the list and sure enough, there were actually two persons listed under Thomas Stoddard. What brought me up short was the street address for the first Thomas Stoddard: 47 Kilby Street. Anyone familiar with my family history will have just had a moment. Kilby Street -- the one in Hingham not Boston -- was where my mother was born and where many of my relatives continue to live.

So you tell me. What are the odds that an invented character of mine would share the name of someone who actually lived in 1885 on a street that turns out to be just a couple of blocks from a hotel I had randomly selected, a street with the same name as one I visited many times growing up, the street where my mother was born and raised?

Coincidence? Maybe. I can tell you that the whole thing left me feeling somehow reassured, like I was being given a little nudge telling me that I was on the right track. Maybe that's not so much in the grand scheme of things, but if, like me, you are always keeping half an eye peeled for some kind of sign that this all might actually mean something, well, it's as good a place to begin as any.

March 24, 2013

UFO's: Is Seeing Believing?

Okay, puppies, confession time. I am a believer in UFO's. Have been since I first came across the writings of George Adamski in the occult section of the Cohasset library.

This would be around 1960, back in the days when kids were not allowed to enter the "Adult" section until the librarian deemed them ready. Like many small-town libraries, ours was built around donated collections from local residents, one of whom had a passion for the occult.

So I would wander down to the basement of the Paul Pratt Library and immerse myself in Atlantis, the para-normal, and, of course, UFO's. The grainy black-and-white images of slightly out-of-focus disk-like objects floating above tree tops lit a fire in my imagination that has never quite gone out. Nowadays, YouTube provides a steady diet of images from around the world, images that are hard to refute, both in their quality and their volume.

Let's pretend that, like me, you accept the reality of UFO's. The obvious question is, "Where do they come from?" Most folks think they come from other places in the galaxy. We know they aren't from our own Solar System, but science is uncovering habitable planets by the thousands in neighboring solar systems, neighboring being a relative term.

Which raises still more questions. Are they coming from just one place or from two or more places? If so, are they working together or against each other? And why exactly are they coming here? Just to say hi? I don't think so. Two possibilities. Either they are peaceful and are content with observing us, just as anthropologists live among primitive tribes to learn their ways. Or maybe they want or need something we have, like the visitors in the movie "Signs."

My theory is that they come from here ... time travelers, coming back from some unimaginable future thousands of years from now to see ... what? Surely they wouldn't just pick any period at random. Think about it. If you could travel back in time, would you want to see just any old day in the life or would you want to see the pivot point, the era that jump-shifted mankind into a future that for one reason or another has an urgent need to know how it got that way, urgent enough to go to the trouble of figuring out a way to travel back in time and then building the machines to do it?

When you see the things science is leaping into without really looking too hard, you could see where we might have opened some Pandora's Box with consequences that resonated deep into the future. Just the other day, the folks at DARPA announced a four-year project aimed at building machines that could teach themselves to become better machines. SkyNet anyone?

Whatever is going on up there, it is hard not to think that something isn't out there. Too much evidence is piling up on sites like YouTube, videos from folks all over the world, showing aerial presences that no government claims as its own, that require technology not used in our everyday lives, built in facilities no one has seen by workers no one has ever met.

I'd like to think this is all good, but common sense says otherwise. If these things exist, they exist for a purpose. It would be nice to think these are future Carnival cruise ships, filled with rich people who are experiencing the ultimate journey back into one of many available pasts.

Yes, it would be nice to think that, but I wouldn't want to bet the ranch on it.  Until we understand what their purpose is, I'd say it's good to to hope for Captain Kirk but you'd better be worried about Darth Vader.




March 23, 2013

Where Did It All Go?

Last night, my wife and I watched a PBS fund-raiser on the happy convergence of folk singers and Greenwich Village during the the 1960s. It brought back memories of a time when we all found a way to light a candle against the darkness, be it through the songs we sang, or the clothes we wore, or the pictures we painted.

I remember a poster an old friend had pinned to the back of  a door. It showed a hippie wearing bell-bottomed jeans, standing tall against a setting sun, but instead of the usual long hair, it was flowers streaming out in a wild explosion of color. The caption on the poster read, "Where did it all go?" This was the late 80s, you see. The war was over, and so was the hippie moment. The child had grown, and the dream was gone.

Where did it all go? More importantly, why did we let it go? Was the fault in our stars or in us? Did we change the world, or did the world change us?

Into this metaphysical quandary rode the white knight of quantum physics to the rescue. Quantum physics is the business of coming up with weird answers to even weirder questions most of us don't even understand. One of the answers involves parallel universes.

To nutshell the un-nutshellable, some physicists think that every time you make a choice a new universe is created that reflects the outcome of each possible choice. So here, I do this; there, I do that. Multiverses ... that's what they call it, this idea that there could be an infinite number of possible universes somewhere ... out there ... in dimensions unseen.

So maybe out there in the multiverse is a paisley-colored sun shining on a planet where the hippies prevailed. A place where everyone sings their own song, loves one another, smokes a little dope, makes love--not war, where there are no men with guns saying beware, just people who go where they want to go and do what they want to do.

If such a parallel universe exists, a universe born directly from the dreams we let die on this one, then maybe my old friend can take some comfort in knowing that there is an answer to the question on the poster. Where did it all go? It went to a universe he helped to create during one of those moments when anything seemed possible if you just had enough love in your heart.

That only leaves one question. Why are we here and not there? Some questions have no real answers. Unlike quantum physics, these types of unanswerable questions are usually the simplest to ask. Why is there evil? Why do bad things happen to good people? All I can say is that it seems to be in the nature of things that light and dark co-exist at all times, in all places.

My theory is that we are never left behind, that we remain linked to the universes we create through the power of entanglement, another one of those answers that quantum physics gave us to a question we didn't even know we were asking. Entanglement says that particles can interact with each other across the entire universe once they are entangled.

So maybe we are forever entangled in those parts of the multiverse we help create. And maybe when we journey into the dreaming world we are just following the threads of entangled destinies we wove. And maybe our story is sill being spun out on the looms of entangled destinies throughout the multiverse. Anyway, it's a theory.

March 21, 2013

Ten Years After


Minutes trudge,
Hours run,
Years fly,
Decades stun.

Ten years ago we invaded Iraq in Operation Shock and Awe. Well, I think it's fair to say the shock was on us. With over 4,400 American soldiers killed and nearly 32,000 wounded out of the 1.5 million men and women who served in Iraq, not to mention well over 100,000 civilian casualties, and with original cost estimates of $50-60 billion compared to actual costs over $800 billion, yeah, you could say it's been a bit of a shock.

And the reward for all this effort? A government that hates our guts, blames us for everything that has gone wrong and will go wrong with Iraq, and is Iran's new best friend. But not to worry. They were democratically elected, so it's all good. Right?

Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously observed that democracy is messy. Well, wars are pretty damned messy, too. Of course if he had actually been in a war -- if any of the leading architects of the Iraq war had actually served in the military -- they might have looked a little longer and harder before they leaped.

And why did we get into all this in the first place? To eliminate Saddam's weapons of mass destruction? To get the oil? To end Saddam's despotic rule? To show Daddy who's the boss in this house? No one can really say for sure. The fog of politics. My guess, it's most likely all of the above.

Do any or all of these possible rationales seem worth the costs we have paid or the benefits we have gained? Not likely. Will we continue to make the same mistakes? Very likely.

I never thought I would hear myself saying this, but I have become one of those who believe we need to get back to some sort of mandatory conscription when the nation goes to war. I'm not advocating universal service, military or otherwise. We don't have the kind of money to do that.

What we can do is make it mandatory that when Congress authorizes large-scale military operations overseas, then -- and I'm picking a number out of the air -- 20,000 men and women must be randomly selected to be trained and deployed each year the war continues. This is doable in terms of the cost, and it is a big enough number to get people's attention.

If the war has wide support, there should be no problem is getting the consent of the governed. Think about an invasion of South Korea by North Korea. Most likely people would support doing whatever it took to defeat such a move. But something as sketchy as Iraq, would public approval have been so readily acquired if it was my kid who might have to go marching off to war? Maybe, maybe not.

As someone who was drafted and sent to a war zone, I understand the toll it takes on your life. But I also know that the draft was a leading reason why the American people eventually said, "Stop! No more." We were warned of the danger of having an all-volunteer army. Those fears have come true, at a terrible cost not only to the men and women in uniform and their families but to the tens of thousands of civilians who have had their lives devastated by wars fought in their backyards.

So, yeah, let's think about bringing back the draft. And then let's pray we never have to use it.

March 17, 2013

Gridlock

Okay, so what am I missing here? We have a group of Republicans in the House of Representatives who insist that the current level of federal debt is unsustainable. We have to live within our means. We have to quit borrowing so much money. We have to pay off our debt. Seems simple enough. But this is Washington we are talking about, where nothing is simple and nothing is as it seems.

It's not that these are unreasonable propositions. While the analogy between the federal budget and the household budget is flawed on many levels, it is true that there are basically two things you can do to alleviate debt if you are determined not to borrow any more money: spend less and/or earn more.

Now for most of us, this would not be an either/or choice. We would know we have to cut something out of our budget. And if things were really tight, we would get a second part-time job to get some more cash flow. But that's not what we are hearing out of Washington.

The Republicans say we can only take Door Number One: spend less. Okay, so one more time, let's look at where we spend our federal dollars.


Sixty percent of the budget goes to defense, Social Security, and  Medicare and Medicaid. There is a strong wing within the Republican party that will fight to the death to prevent any major changes in the defense budget. No one wants to tackle Social Security, both parties having passed the buck on that one many times.

As for healthcare reform, the latest Republican budget -- a Paul Ryan rehash of his own budget that was soundly rejected in the last election -- proposes repealing Obamacare, turning Medicaid into a block grant program for the states, and allowing new Medicare beneficiaries the option of buying private insurance with a government voucher or premium-subsidy payment. Anyone see hell freezing over in the latest forecast? Didn't think so.

The Democrats are willing to cut spending, but  their dollar level of spending cuts is lower because they throw in some revenue increases in the form of closing "tax loopholes." A loophole is defined as any tax break given to people or groups you don't like. In this case, most of the tax loopholes targeted by Democrats are aimed at the oil and gas industry and at foreign earnings by domestic corporations. To be fair, Republicans also favor closing tax loopholes, but have been unable thus far to specify which ones would be on the chopping block.

Not to belabor the point, but why should it be either/or? Why can't we cut spending and raise more revenues at the same time? Because the argument is not so much about how much to cut as it is about  what to cut. Both sides have a competing vision of what government should be doing. Each side is using the budget argument to entrench their respective vision of government into future budgets.

If the issue was simply cutting dollars out of the budget, we would have gotten there a long time ago. Independent commissions have produced several perfectly adequate and reasonable plans to achieve this. They are ignored for two fundamental reasons.

First, there is a hard core of congressmen on both sides of the aisle who refuse to compromise on their "principles." We hear mostly about Republicans, but there are plenty of Democrats who are equally adamant about protecting what they see as vital. Some of this is old school stubbornness born out of battles fought long and hard, but lately I see a new twist, the impact of a generation of politicians who drank the Kool-aid of talk radio and actually believed everything they heard.

Second, we have no one person in this country who has the moral authority of say, a Walter Cronkite, someone outside the system who is universally admired and trusted and who can say, "Enough of this bullshit. The American people want you to settle this now. Compromise. Get on with it and get over it."

God, please, yes, just get on with it and get over it. If you say the federal debt is a clear and present danger, then do whatever it takes to solve the problem. Cut spending and raise revenues, and keep doing it until the danger has passed. Any plan will do. Markets thrive on certainty. They don't care how we get there, just that we have agreed on a plan. Bill Clinton got it. So did the Democrats and Republicans then in office. It's about time this generation of politicians got it.


March 13, 2013

Pope Francis

So what do we know about where the College of Cardinals wants to take the Church? For the little it's worth, this is my very quick take on the selection of Pope Francis.
  • He old. That tells me the cardinals are still hedging their bets. They see this guy as the transitional guy who will set things up for the next several popes. But if he doesn't get it done, then he's a mistake they won't have to live with for too very long.
  • He is an outsider. Right now the mess inside the Vatican is the single most urgent problem to be dealt with. By picking an outsider, they are sending a message to the Old Guard: Time to go!
  • Francis. The name says it. By drawing on the legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, he is clearly choosing a name that reflects his own values. This is a guy who eschewed the fancy mansion, the chauffeur driven limo, who cooks his own meals and volunteers at the soup kitchen. He will no doubt be called the people's pope before too long.
  • Argentina. The big growth area for the Catholic Church is Latin America. This is all about marketing, rebranding the Church with its single largest constituency. Smart move.
  • Conservative without the ultra. From what I hear, Francis is doctrinally conservative. That probably is what got him enough votes to get the two-thirds majority. Obviously, he has two huge issues with a declining priesthood and antiquated views towards the role of women in the Church or anywhere else. Conservative thinking is what got them into the mess, so you have to think at least some of the reform-minded cardinals think Francis is amenable to moving the Church in a direction towards solving these two problems. Time will tell.
All in all, the choice of Francis leaves me feeling hopeful about the future of the Church. I am not a practicing Catholic, but I do feel that the world is a better place when it has pope reminding us of the moral issues that inform so many of the choices we make. The world is at yet another turning point--climate change, bio-genetic-robotic engineering, and the weakening of the nation-state franchise all threaten to fundamentally alter the world--and we can use all the help we can get to navigate us through the ethical quagmires that lie ahead. Habemus papam. It's a start.

March 12, 2013

Conclave

Like everyone else, I am caught up in the drama to elect a new pope. The stakes are high and the outcome uncertain. The first pope of the new century will have his hands full dealing with a Vatican scandal and the continuing aftershocks of the child molestation outrages, not to mention the still floundering efforts of the Church to deal with a dwindling priesthood and the role of women as either part of the problem or the solution, they can never seem to make up their minds which.

That's quite a full plate of problems, but for now the process has center stage. Conclave. The very word summons up the Middle Ages, a time when Latin still roamed the earth freely and the machinations of prelates and statesmen made today's crop of practitioners look like amateurs.

The idea of conclave was born out of frustration. In 1268, after watching the College of Cardinals deliberate for months, the residents of Viterbo locked the doors, hoping that would prompt them to make a choice. When that didn't work, they put the cardinals on a diet of bread and water. When that didn't work, they tore the roof off to expose them to the elements. (Am I the only one who wishes we could adopt some of these methods here in the good old U.S. of A? Forget the the fancy dinners. Lock them up, take away their cell phones, and starve them. We'll get a budget fix soon enough.)

They finally elected Pope Gregory X in 1271. Three years later, at the Second Council of Lyons, Gregory X made formal the idea of locking up the College of Cardinals, calling it cum clave, or with key. With a few modifications, the idea has persisted to modern times.

Tradition matters to Catholics, but you get an unmistakable sense that this is not a time for business as usual. Any new pope will have to deal with an apparently massive corruption scandal inside the Vatican. He will have to find a way to expand the flock and those who minister to the flock. He will have to walk a fine line between those who hunger for new approaches and those who think the old ways are still best. An institution used to moving at a glacial pace will have to accept change at warp speed if it is to stem the internal rot that is eating the church from the inside out.

I am not a practicing Catholic, but I do think the world can be a better place with a healthy and vibrant Catholic Church. The positive thing about institutions slow to change is that they can act as a counterbalance to the forces of progress that rush madly towards the next great thing without stopping to consider what we will do with it once we have it firmly in our grasp.

Science is playing with a new set of toys that will take mankind one giant step closer to assuming powers thought to be the province of the divine alone. As we plunge headlong into our brave new world, we will still carry within us the same old human weaknesses. Pride still goeth before the fall.

The Catholic Church perfected the idea of sin, original or otherwise. It gave us the memory of paradise lost. These are things we need to be reminded of from time to time. A new pope can give voice to the moral hazards of unrestrained human curiosity with an authority that few others can command. When he steps out onto that balcony, we will all be waiting to hear what he has to say. Let's hope he can bring old wisdom to new problems.

March 8, 2013

Deli Dilemma

I scan a few science blogs most mornings. What can I say? I'm just trying to keep up. Anyway one of the lead articles in Science Daily reported on a big study in Europe that looked at the health affects of eating processed meats. Their conclusion? "Anyone who eats over 40 grams a day of sausage products or other kinds of processed meat is asking for trouble: the risk of mortality increases by 18 percent for every 50 grams of processed meat per day." Uh-oh. Houston, we could have a problem.

I eat a ham and turkey sandwich most days at work. Of course, I had no clue how much 40 grams was in ounces. I'm of a generation that never took the metric system to heart. What little I know, I learned in the military. But we were more interested in distances and munitions than luncheon meats.

So I opened up a metric converter on my browser and punched in 40 grams, which ends up being 1.4 ounces and change. Next question: how many ounces are in that slice or two of ham I put in my sandwich each day? Hmm, let's see. I buy a half a pound or 8 ounces. There's anywhere from ten to fifteen slices in a half pound, depending on who's doing the slicing. A pint's a pound the world around. Shit!

Anyway, after tying my brain in knots trying to do the math, I concluded that I was safely below the threshold of lethality. That said, the study, which was conducted in ten European countries and involved almost half a million people, did have some interesting conclusions.

What they seemed to be saying is that people eating a lot of processed meat products generally had the diet lowest in fruits and vegetables and they also tended to be smokers, and well, maybe they drank too much on top of that. Well hell, you put all that together and sure, you're asking for trouble. As we used to say when I was working in food safety, "There is no such thing as bad food, just bad diets."

This study seems to confirm that point. One bad dietary choice often leads to another. I'm not saying anything, but a couple of days ago I was at the deli loading up on sliced ham and turkey. There were four other people waiting along with me. To be charitable, let's just say that I was the only person there with a body/mass index anywhere close to being in the same zip code as a healthy level. Yes, Virginia, you are what you eat.

There was some positive news buried in the report. Meat is a source of important vitamins, especially B vitamins, and minerals such as iron. "Therefore, the moderate consumption of up to 40 grams a day doesn't increase the mortality risk." Phew! I'd hate to have to find something else as simple to prepare as a sandwich when I eat at work. Honestly, I'll stack up my ham and turkey sandwich on homemade wheat bread against anything you have to microwave.

This story brought to mind an incident from my year in Vietnam. Mail and packages from home were always a highlight. My mother would often send me cookies and other food items, none of which traveled well under the gentle ministrations of the military postal service, not to mention sitting around a week or two in the tropical heat.

This combination took an especially heavy toll on a roll of salami my mother sent me. When her package arrived, I eagerly opened it, only to find this semi-melted salami. The heat had pretty much emulsified the fat, leaving kind of a mess. I decided now was a good time to be a hero, so I offered it to everyone in the hooch. Problem solved. I never did have the heart to tell mother what happened to the salami. Some things are best left buried in the past.

March 4, 2013

Old Wars Never Die

I woke up this morning still thinking about last night's 60 Minutes piece, "The life and death of Clay Hunt," a haunting profile of a young ex-soldier's suicide, a tragedy that has become all-too familiar. Too many deployments, too many close friends lost, too many sleepless nights, too little understanding ... too much to bear.

My mood didn't improve after I stumbled upon Nick Turse's book, Kill Anything That Moves, a fierce indictment of the conduct of the Vietnam War. He purports to show that atrocities were "pervasive and persistent" and were a direct result of "a military machine that made crimes in almost every major American combat unit all but inevitable."

To be fair, I have not read the book, but I did read all 84 reviews of the book. I found myself nodding in agreement with those who conceded that there were a lot of bad things that happened in Vietnam but argued that Turse failed to factor in the idea that sometimes actions were a reaction to what the enemy did. Nor did he apparently make much of an effort to compare the scale of such incidents to other wars, most notably World War II.

Dresden. If that word doesn't send a chill up and down your spine, then it's time to hit the history books. Allied bombers, for reasons that still remain murky, fire-bombed the center of the city in February 1945, reducing it to rubble and leaving an estimated 20,000 civilians dead. You still want to tell me that Vietnam somehow represented the ultimate heart of darkness, that the intentional targeting of civilians was somehow invented after 1965?

Every war takes a fearsome toll on its warriors and on those caught up in its wake. For soldiers, the worst of it often comes after they return home and have time to replay the horrors over and over in their heads. Alone with his or her thoughts, a soldier's memories can become as fatal as any roadside bombing or bullet. As I have come to see it, the war never stops trying to kill you.

Getting back to the topic of military suicides, as a veteran of the Vietnam War,  I found myself listening to the 60 Minutes report and thinking there were a couple of huge differences that made it a little easier for us to transition back to the world.

First and foremost was the idea of a single one-year tour of duty. Going in, you knew you were one and done, so to speak. It was understood that the single most important day was your DEROS: Date Eligible for Return From Overseas. The idea that everyone else you knew would be left to continue on until their DEROS arrived ... well, that came with the territory. Nobody begrudged the guy going home. Hell, we were all anxiously awaiting our own date with DEROS, carefully counting down to that day on our short-timer calendar.

I think another big factor was the controversial nature of the war right from the get-go. Add to that the fact that many soldiers, like myself, were draftees. That gave you a whole different mindset going in. Many of us had few illusions about the war. We knew it was a losing proposition. Oh sure, there were some who believed in the greater cause, but most of the people I knew were under no such grand illusion.

So you add it up and you get soldiers -- combatants and non-combatants alike -- who were stuck in a war they didn't believe in, putting in their time until they went home. Unlike the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, who went in with a mindset of protecting the homeland, Vietnam vets, by and large, saw their year as one to survive; nothing more, certainly nothing less. One thing we all shared in common was a return home to a largely indifferent welcome, unlike the soldiers in World War II who came home to a true hero's welcome, with apologies to the Korean War veterans who remain the most forgotten of all.

All of which brings me back to a point I arrived at in an earlier post. Maybe it's time to rethink the draft. It's obvious from the multiple redeployments that an all-volunteer army was simply not up to maintaining a two-front war on terror over many years. Eliminating those multiple redeployments ought to be Job One for the Pentagon.

Second, I would argue that an all-volunteer army has made it too easy to get into these wars. The average America family is largely unaffected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If there was a requirement that during any deployment of America forces overseas in a combat situation there would have to be an annual draft of say, 20,000 men and women, don't you think the American people might ask a few more questions before letting Congress write another blank check for a war?

We should have learned some hard lessons from Vietnam, and we did. But over time, we forgot the sting of war. Maddened by a direct attack on American soil, which I agree required a strong response, we began what has become a decade and more of constant warfare. Asked to do too much, soldiers and families have suffered enormously, some giving the ultimate sacrifice long after they had left the battle ground. Others bear wounds that will never heal. All have given more than can ever be repaid.

It may be too much to hope that we will never go to war again, but we don't have to make it so damned easy. A draft keeps everybody honest. I have yet to see a cause that is worth my grandchildren dying for. I doubt many of us have in our heart of hearts. If it was really possible for our children or grandchildren to be summoned to duty, I'm willing to bet there would be a whole lot more questions before rather than after.

March 2, 2013

Rats!

A Duke University Medical Center researcher, neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis, has linked two rat brains together and gotten them to communicate instructions to each other, both in the same lab and between two continents. Some see this as getting us a step closer to creating a working brain net, where interconnected brains work together to solve problems.  (Maybe we could set one up between Capitol Hill and the White House.)

Others see more ominous potential. The research is funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as part of a larger program of research on brain-machine interfaces. This leads some to see the specter of animal armies being led by animal generals doing our dirty work for us. You've already seem in this space how the research on creating robotic soldiers is progressing. Think what rats trained as spies could do or a platoon of warrior monkeys swarming through hostile terrain.

The way it works is one rat is trained to do choose between Door Number One and Door Number Two. If the rat makes the right choice, it gets a reward. Another rat's brain is wired to the first rat's brain. When the first rate, the encoder, makes the right choice, it sends an electrical burst to the other rat, which somehow decodes the signal and makes the right choice as well. The video below shows this in action.

The first thing that popped into my mind was not warfare but space exploration. First, think about a human-animal interface, where our human thoughts are translated by a neural link into actions by another species. Is that really so far-fetched or far off in the future, given the pace of research? Now, think about a small army of rats scurrying over the surface of a planet or an asteroid, taking their directions from human animal-drone pilots back on earth, via a link in the mother-ship.

I know, it's crazy, but it would make a heckuva story. Consider that the first space travel occurred not in a space ship but in the mind of a writer thinking about what it would be like to travel in space. Art allows us to experience places and spaces we can't experience directly. It gives us a chance to look before we leap, to consider the possibilities, both good and ill.

I have this theory that if we can imagine it, then it is possible. A corollary would be that we can't imagine anything that isn't possible, no matter how impossible it might seem at the moment. I guess this is just a round-about way of restating the old Chinese proverb: be careful what you wish for; it may come true.

I don't wish for mind-melding rats or brain nets, but others do. Before you know it, they will have imagined a whole new world into existence. Then what?