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Works and Days

A Few Good Men

October 29th, 2007 - 7:38 am


One Man Can Make …

Determinism since Marx has been the driving force in historical studies—whether class strife, technological innovation, geographical constraints, or environmental degradation. In contrast, the notion that individuals trump these larger sweeps of history, and can themselves alter history every bit as much as new mass cultural trends, a brilliant invention, the oppression of an entire people, or the salinity of a once fertile valley is sort of passé.

And yet, we see the ripples of single individuals daily. True, France was ready for someone to buck its statist trend. But Mr. Sarkozy, by sheer force of personality, has almost redefined French politics and the endangered French-American reliationship. Take that single individual away, and French government attitudes toward Iran, Israel, or the United States would return to that well known from the last 30 years of business as usual in Paris.

Ditto General Petraeus. He has been out of the news lately, as the daily violence lessens and the war is off the front pages. For the interview I had with him two weeks ago, I prepared by reading extensively on Iraq, talked to dozens of officers, had toured the country twice, and discussed the war with violent critics and adamant supporters, both American and Iraqi. And yet every time I raised a question, he easily went beyond it by providing extensive answers, often outside the parameters of the inquiry, anticipating criticisms, and outlining all sorts of variants to the problem. Fairly or not, he has embodied America’s collective hopes about saving Iraq.

My only worry about him is that he travels extensively, in helicopters and Humvees, in places recently secured and less so. Rarely has a war rested so much on the shoulders of one officer, and his safety, it seems to me, is critical to this nation’s effort. That may sound absurd in the modern age, where protocol and technology have supposedly relegated the human dimension to a secondary role. But it is true, nonetheless.

Indeed, it is difficult imagining a victory in Korea without Matthew Ridgeway. I don’t think Lincoln would have been reelected without Sherman in Atlanta. No other Union general could have replicated his march through Georgia and the Carolinas.

In truth, there are thousands of officers like a workmanlike Henry Halleck, George Meade, Mark Clark, Omar Bradley, or Courtney Hodges, but rarely a US Grant, Nathan Forrest, George Patton, or Curtis LeMay. The perception of Iraq, and I think it is earned, is that a single American officer set off a chain of events that have turned around an entire war. So let us hope that this irreplaceable officer keeps safe and healthy to finish the task at hand.

The World Upside Down

There is almost no way to anticipate the exact end of a war. 1780 with the British capture of Charleston was not a good year, and yet the war was mostly over in 1781 after Yorktown. The worst Union year was summer 1864; but by November of the same year, the fate of the Confederacy was sealed. Many thought the French army would break in March 1918, by October 1918 it could have gone into Berlin had it wished. Okinawa—50,000 American casualties—was not declared entirely secured until early July 1945—the end of the Pacific War followed less than six weeks later. November 1950 was horrific, with no dream that by summer 1951 Korea would be stabilized.

Unconventional wars, true, are very different. But nonetheless war is an accelerator of human behavior and its pulse can change the very way people think overnight.

The Agrarian Life

This week I’ve been speaking on the east coast, and unfortunately spending a lot of time in airports—watching the contorted faces of weary travelers, listening to harried businessmen on cell phones, and witnessing the exasperation of those with cancelled or late flights.

Stress of the modern workplace surely is the real killer of Americans. My maternal grandparents lived to be 86 and 91; their two professional daughters, my mother and aunt, died at 66 and 49 respectively. My paternal grandfather lived to be 81, his son, my father died at 75. The older generation lived pretty much in one place, rarely if ever traveled, and set their schedule by the natural year. They worked within sight on their farmhouses, ate much of what they grew, and were up at 4 and in bed at 9 or 10.

My parents, in contrast, entered the rat race and all that entailed, and toward the end of their lives understood the toll it took. I don’t want to romanticize farm life; I found it brutal and dangerous, but the wear is of a different sort.

The healthiest period of my own life was when farming. In one stretch I didn’t leave the 135 acres for nearly a month, and didn’t go into Fresno for six weeks. We forget how liberating an experience it is to have such a routine, as one’s world shrinks to a few acres. I wrote about it in depth in Fields Without Dreams and The Land Was Everything, this sense of near exhilaration of wearing what you want, not worried whether your hair is uncombed or your shirt unbuttoned or a shoe lace broken.

All that—physical work interspersed with contemplation while pruning or shoveling, complete responsibility for your own success or failure, constant attention to the weather—has some sort of healthy effect on the body. I confess I was always skeptical of New Age nostrums and non-traditional medical advice, but I also confess that something about farming made chronic conditions disappear over time.

Both my grandfathers, who were born and died in the same place, went to an American hospital a single time—a very short one-day stay before death, with nothing in between at all. And the only way we were able to get my Swedish grandfather into the hospital for a metastasized mouth tumor was to remind him that it would fester and smell and bother others (he lived alone so this was perhaps untrue) around him. He went in, got it cut out, and then shortly died.

My maternal grandfather complained that his driving test was too difficult (he was 86), had trouble getting up the next morning, and died that evening in the hospital. In contrast, their children had repeated ordeals with strokes, cancers, and assorted maladies, but also had pressure-filled jobs, little sleep, commutes, and chronic worries about debt, job security, and travel.

Carnage and Culture

I got a lot of emails about LTC Bateman’s remarks. As I said, from time to time I will simply respond to his promised serial critiques of the book, and hope they are professional and scholarly. Even if they aren’t, I’ll avoid invective. Whatever one’s politics are, I think everyone is sick and tired of things like “feces” or “pervert,” or the same old, same old name-calling on the national scene.


Iraq

No one quite knows why things are suddenly changing in Iraq. The causes offered are nearly limitless—weariness with the violence, the massive capital flowing into the country from $90 a barrel oil (as if Iraq’s prewar production of 2 million barrels-plus was suddenly 6 at the old $30 price), disgust with the barbarity of al Qaeda, realization both that the Americans were not prematurely leaving, and yet had no desire to be in Iraq one moment longer than was necessary to stabilize the country, the sheer number of terrorists and insurgents killed by Americans over the last four years, gradual decline in the Gulf States monies sent into Iraq for terrorism, new tactics by General Petraeus and the surge, etc.

But if the trend continues—and I think it will—there were be necessary political readjustments at home. Expect some who supported the removal of Saddam, and then bailed during the 2004 violence (in both parties), to come around again, perhaps suggesting that their vehement criticism of Sanchez, Casey, Rumsfeld, etc. brought the needed changes and won back their support.

Expect others to offer no explanation of the vitriol they once offered, but simply to revert to their 2003 optimism, albeit with qualifiers and slurs about Bush.

For Democratic candidates a certain dilemma may loom. They know their base is passionately opposed to Iraq—the Daily Kos, Moveon.org, Media Matters, the Howard Dean wing, etc.—and that such an anti-war position is necessary to navigate through the primaries. So two choices remain: one, a Hillary or Obama can express relief Iraq is finally working but carefully express remorse that it was still not worth the commensurate cost in blood and treasure; or, alternatively, they can simply claim credit that their anti-war fervor both changed policy at home (the demonization of Petraeus in September makes this difficult), and sent the right message to the Iraqis to shape up or else.

My sense is that the most centralist, Hillary Clinton, benefits, and will play down her prior opposition—until the Republicans raise it in the general election. Instead, she will just say something like “Iraq-ughh” and leave the audience to fill in the blanks about her general disgust with the word.

All this matters little in comparison to stabilizing the country. We often ask, “How does it all end?” With a whimper, not a bang most likely, as it devolves into something like the Balkans, which is neither violent nor yet has a stable political framework that would ensure quiet should Nato troops leave.

The huge influx of wealth into the Gulf, though, is starting to have an effect. Flying over the route from Anbar cities to Baghdad, one is struck by the countless big-rigs that are now coming into the province hourly, without escort and without being attacked, bringing millions of dollars in consumer goods into places like Fallujah and Ramadi. The very notion that this old nexus of petro-wealth and a bought massive arsenal in the hands of a psychopath is over with is hardly appreciated.

Rocky Times

Again I am thankful for all the advice sent in about recovering after surgery, and dealing with several stones. I’ve been operated on them before, but they were sporadic. This new serial deluge of several at once, coupled with constant gravel and sand, is a novel experience, and one Drs. don’t seem to know how to stop.

The last two months I’ve been trying to force liquids, drink lemonade, change diet, take a prescription drug called Urocit, and about everything else under the sun, to shock the body back to its metabolism of two months ago when these were a rare occurrence of only about every 3-5 years.

The old doctors’ orders of the past—go home, take pain medicine, and wait for them to pass—doesn’t work when one seems to be suddenly making new small ones or at least gravel as fast as they pass.

One observation that might help others: no matter how fatigued one gets from the pain or loss of sleep, walking or any sort of exercise has an almost magical effect to temporarily stop the pain. Sitting and sleeping in contrast seem to aggravate the colic and “grow” the stones.

I once lectured that I had some sympathy for the lackluster generalship of poor Nikias on Sicily. He apparently suffered from stones, and his poor judgments may well have reflected his incapacitation. When he surrendered his army, perhaps he was suffering renal colic, since his previous generalship in the war had been fairly energetic.

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